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Perennial

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 per·en·ni·al

 

 

Lasting or existing for a long or apparently infinite time; enduring.


Bilbo brought Frodo into Bag End, and Frodo brought along a potted strawberry plant. There was not yet a promise of a colorful harvest, but perhaps it was too early in the spring to tell.

Bilbo was not a steady gardener in the same way that Hamfast Gamgee was, but he was a Hobbit through and through, and even he knew with one look at the little plant that its leaves were too pale and too few to last the season, and that it looked as if the little children in Brandy Hall must have punted the pot for sport several times.

It may save more time to discreetly empty the pot and replace it with a healthier bush. But Frodo hugged the potted strawberry plant to his chest when he quietly asked Bilbo where he could keep it where it wouldn’t get in Bilbo’s way. And so Bilbo decided that he ought to indulge this little Hobbit and his littler bush, at least for a couple of weeks.

“Why don’t you choose the window under which your little plant should grow?” said Bilbo. “After all, you’d want it to be in a place where you remember to water it.”

Frodo was taken by surprise by the choice presented to him. Brandy Hall had little room for options for the young Hobbit children, and rightly so as the many children would be too rowdy to accommodate to each request. But Bag End had many rooms, and more than enough plates and blankets and other assortments of belongings to spare for a comfortably solitary Hobbit. So--with just a little more goading from Bilbo--Frodo took off, ducking into each room to find a pool of sunlight that soaked through the windows, with Bilbo trotting behind.

“Could I put it here?” Frodo said.

He pointed to the window that illuminated Bilbo’s study. Bilbo hesitated. He had prepared each room for Frodo, cleaned the floor of the last speck of dust and wiped down the shelves (he was not a heathen , after all). The study, however, Bilbo had partially hoped would be his own, like a deserted island where he could maroon himself when he would inevitably waver in his journey of parenthood. It was the room that he never needed to open up to guests, and therefore cherished its papery disorder, parchment and books arranged in layers upon layers like the scales of a flammable dragon. The plant shall drop its drooping leaves all over Bilbo’s maps, or the child will clumsily spill water all over his papers whilst watering.

But Frodo was waiting too patiently for an answer, this fauntling and his strawberry plant that have too often occupied the least noticeable corner of a too-large smial.

“Hold on a moment,” Bilbo said.

He gathered the tower of books from the windowsill into his arms and haphazardly relocated them to a chair, shifted some of the parchment to the desk, and retired a small vase of dried flowers to occupy the top of the shelf. Frodo was a mature tween, but he still had to raise himself up onto his toes to reach the pot over Bilbo’s desk and onto the sill.

“There,” said Bilbo. “It’ll plumpen up well by summer.”

Frodo nodded, running a finger over the edges of the plant. It was a frail collection of ridged leaves, and it did not take up so much room after all like Bilbo feared. He was simply unaccustomed to making room.

-

Bilbo need not ask, but he suspected that it was because of Primula that Frodo guarded this strawberry plant so fiercely.

Bilbo had made it out to Buckland every once in a while to dote on his cousins. Primula had a little patch of the garden all to herself, right next to one of Brandy Hall’s grand three doors. She had a fondness for strawberries, as would any Hobbit with a pulse, but she often lacked the discipline to prune them properly. Out of laziness, no, but out of some strange sense of pity for shaping a strawberry plant with her own hands rather than letting it grow freely, yes. There were many times that when Bilbo came to call, he would have to battle hordes of tangling strawberry bushes to make it to the doorway as if his cousins lived right in the heart of Mirkwood. It even came with its own spiders, albeit far friendlier.

“If you wanted someone else to make you your jam, you simply need to go to the market,” Bilbo said at his visits, rubbing mashed strawberries from his leathery soles.

Frodo, who would have only been a toddling child during his visits, would hardly give Bilbo’s the space to clean the seeds from between his toes. He would dance around Bilbo’s knees, singing the songs of the elves and dwarves that Bilbo had taught him, and clamber onto Bilbo’s lap once Bilbo could catch his breath to scribble out drawings of fanciful oliphaunts.

“Or perhaps you should just watch your step,” Primula said.

She ladened the table with a generous afternoon tea, with tarts topped with the very strawberries that she proudly harvested. She urged Frodo to put the crayon down and take a bite, but Frodo was intently dedicated to showing Bilbo his rendition of Gandalf.

“I don’t even know where all of these plants came from,” said Bilbo, between the thoughtful hums of viewing Frodo’s art. “Only two summers ago I remember you had just one strawberry plant, and now you’ve got yourself an entire field. If I had not known better, I would say that you were becoming the Bracegirdle of fruit.”

“Bilbo!” Primula said, but not before snorting unceremoniously with mirth. “I’ll have you know that just like Mrs. Bracegirdle, a plentiful strawberry plant means a very healthy one.”

“I think that we are nearing the definition of invasive with your fields.”

“Well, I can’t very much help it, can I? My little bushes have sent out their runners.”

“What message are they sending, Mama?” said Frodo.

“What’s that, darling?” said Primula.

“You said--you said that they have runners,” Frodo said. He swung his little legs as he sat, which bounced off of Bilbo’s knees. “Have strawberries got messengers?”

Primula laughed and bent down to nuzzle her nose against Frodo’s.

“Oh, how can I ever keep my train of thought when I am around you?” she gushed. “No, my little flower. I do not mean messengers. Runners are like little vines that grow underneath the soil from the strawberry plant. When a strawberry plant is healthy, it will grow a little runner, which will grow its own roots and then bud its own fruit and become a second plant just like the first. And if that plant is healthy, it will send out a runner to grow another, and another.”

“But Papa said!” said Frodo. “Papa said--don’t fruit bushes have seeds?”

“Yes, clever one. Strawberries can do both. As long as a plant is healthy, it will give way to another.”

“And if it is sick?”

“Then it will grow nothing. Maybe not even its own fruit.”

“I like eating strawberries,” Frodo said, forgetting the botany lesson immediately, before returning to coloring in Gandalf’s dwarf-like beard. “And geraniums. Does this look like Gandalf, Uncle?”

Gandalf’s nose took up half of his body, and Frodo had run out of room halfway through drawing Gandalf’s hat that it curved dramatically.

“You are not far off at all, my boy,” Bilbo said.

“You could take some strawberry plants back to Bag End, if you’d like,” Primula offered Bilbo. “Your garden could use some new flowers.”

“I hardly keep track of what is in my garden as it is, Primula,” said Bilbo. “If it were not for Hamfast, I’m sure that my smial would have been long overtaken by weeds and I’d only half-notice.”

“Unbelievable. Drogo told me that Bag End would have the most luscious bounty of rhododendrons in Hobbiton.”

“And so we did. But since my spell in the mountains, I find that my hands know better what to do against cold rock than the soil.”

Primula smiled wryly.

“I’d like to see what would become of you should you set off to the sea with the elves, one of these days,” said Primula. “What sort of seafaring, saltwater Hobbit would you return to us as? The mountains would be but a faraway story to you then!”

“You make me out to be far more insatiable than I’d think myself to be,” said Bilbo, jostling Frodo on his knees a little. Frodo shrieked with laughter. “Though I’d be lying if I said I would not be curious as well.”

“Of course you are,” said Primula. “But until then, what have you been doing with yourself?”

Bilbo could not deny this. Being a very wealthy Hobbit, he need only to rent out land and invest in the businesses and artists around the Shire to contribute to society. He was a committed bachelor and only interacted with those brave enough to be spotted with him, and indeed, the Gamgees took care of his garden. His days were spent far too idyllically.

“I was thinking of writing a book,” Bilbo said slowly. “Perhaps put all those stories I tell the little ones into something that’ll encourage them to practice their letters.”

“That would be a grand idea,” said Primula. “I was thinking just now that I’d like to see you grow something here.”

“I’m not taking one of your monstrous fruits, Primula.”

“Well, I don’t mean that. You go off, scattering yourself into the direction of the wind to carry you over hill and over dale, and forget to plant a wee something within the Shire’s very soil. I’d like for you to have something you would be proud of, after a long day.”

“Are you subtly hinting that I have nothing to be proud of? Because if so, that is the kindest way anyone would ever say such a thing.”

“Never!” Primula said. “But I mean--you could be very much proud of many things that you do and that you’ve seen. And you’ve done quite a good deal, I know. But to be proud of something else, that you’ve watered and pruned--”

“You’ve hardly done any pruning yourself, as I’ve already seen.”

“--that you’ve had to fight the birds off from, and the blight, and the early frost,” Primula continued. “And against all odds, or perhaps because of all the odds, step back and be glad of every bit of the way.”

“Or,” said Bilbo, “if I ever wanted a bite of a berry, I’ll just walk right out your front door.”

Primula laughed and shook her head, before standing up to fill the teapot back up. At that moment, Frodo leaned back against Bilbo’s chest and tilted his head up so that he looked up to his uncle. When Bilbo looked down to greet Frodo’s face, he was suddenly caught breathless at the sight of those blue eyes as round as coins stargazing towards him. Caught by what must have been some unnatural phenomenon, Bilbo gave in to the urge to kiss Frodo’s forehead, just underneath his curly hairline, and when Frodo blinked shyly as Bilbo came close Bilbo kissed Frodo’s brow again, and again, almost laughing at himself at how utterly stolen he felt at his nephew’s intent to gaze up at him.

“I’m afraid that an adventurer like myself could never be a gardener,” said Bilbo. “Gardening demands that you stay put, and grow roots yourself.”

“That is very much a pity then,” said Primula. “I think you’d bear such rare fruit if you did.” She poured him a porcelain cup of tea. “Now, indulge me and tell me that my tarts are better than Grandmother Adaldrida’s.”

-

Every now and then, if Bilbo thought on Primula and Drogo a little too long, his eyes would become as misty as the lonely mountain. So it was far easier to not dwell on them, to pretend that he was raising Frodo as a favor to them whilst they enjoyed a honeymoon rather than because Frodo had no one else to do the honors. It was perhaps not wise (if Nienna had anything to say about it), but it kept Bilbo dry-eyed, and after living a life as long as his a Hobbit would begin to miss the moments when his cheeks were not wet.

And as young a child as Frodo was, Frodo seemed to agree on the sentiment. He never made mention of his parents, and only spoke lightly about his cousin Merry if Bilbo asked about Buckland. The first several nights, at supper (and if Bilbo must be accurate, at elevenses, afternoon tea, and dinner as well), Frodo chewed slowly through the stews and the pies that Bilbo put in front of him. Bilbo tried to be a little forgiving--he could not compete with Mirabella’s cottage pie, he was sure--but when Frodo asked to be excused from the table before dessert, he could not let the matter slide.

“Really now, Frodo,” Bilbo said, “I know that you enjoy honey nut cakes. You would lick the plate clean of the crumbs each time.”

Frodo stared incredulously at Bilbo, as Frodo could have gotten away with it in Buckland when all of the adults had their own picky children to fuss over them at the large table. It occurred to Bilbo, as it often did in the moments both mundane and poignant, that his young cousin-nephew had not had someone look at him and hold him tight without it being an afterthought for a long while now. And his heart shuddered in some feverish manner, a grief mixed with a determination that he would not let it be so, even if he had not the slightest idea how.

“I do like them,” Frodo said. “But I don’t know if I can eat it today. Maybe tomorrow.”

“There may be no saving them for tomorrow,” said Bilbo. “They will grow stale, and some things you cannot save for later.”

“I used to hide biscuits under the rugs when the cousins tried to steal them from me,” said Frodo.

“And I’m sure they did not taste quite as crisp as they did at first,” said Bilbo.

Frodo shrugged. He only stared at the honey nut cake as if it would disappear, and give him leave.

“Does your stomach hurt?” said Bilbo.

“I don’t think so,” Frodo said. “It just feels hard.”

Besides the conventional ambition of any Hobbit guardian to thoroughly fatten their children, Bilbo was worried for the boy’s health. Some things were not totally within Bilbo’s control, but if the boy were to fall ill or grow too pale, what else to blame but Bilbo’s poor guardianship?

So he picked up the plate of his own honey nut cake and moved from across Frodo to right beside him, plopping himself onto the bench. He held up the honey nut cake to his eye level, as if it were a particularly interesting gem.

“Do you remember,” said Bilbo, “what happened when the dwarves with whom I was traveling were caught by the king of Mirkwood?”

Frodo did not answer, and he did not need to, because he already waited with bated breath for a story.

“Well,” said Bilbo, “Thorin and their baudy band were rounded up by the Mirkwood elves. So to the cave they dragged Thorin—not too gently, for the elves did not love dwarves, and thought he was an enemy.”

Frodo watched Bilbo unwavering as Bilbo recounted in sotto voce what he--admittedly--was too busy challenging Gollum and acquiring the Ring to have witnessed. But the dwarves had caught him up to speed after their escape in the barrels, and all the better that Bilbo could tell the story however he felt fit, rather than remember what were both pleasant and very, very sad memories.

“Consequently,” said Bilbo, “Thorin was angry at their treatment of him, when they took their spell off him and he came to his senses; and also he was determined that no word of gold or jewels should be dragged out of him. The king looked sternly on Thorin, when he was brought before him, and asked him many questions.

“‘Why did you and your folk three times try to attack my people at their merrymaking?’ asked the king.

“‘We did not attack them,’ answered Thorin; ‘we came to beg, because we were starving.’”

Bilbo put such an emphasis on ‘starving’ that Frodo snorted with a giggle, promptly clapping both hands over his mouth.

“‘Where are your friends now, and what are they doing?’ said the king.

“‘I don’t know, but I expect starving in the forest.’”

Bilbo gesticulated in the manner of an irate elvish king, nearly knocking the plate off of the table.

“‘What were you doing in the forest?’ the king bellowed.

“‘Looking for food and drink,’ said Thorin, ‘because we! Were! Starving !’”

Frodo laughed gleefully, and as Bilbo delved into the familiar tale of Mirkwood, of sneaking the prison keys from the drunk elves and hiding the dwarves in barrels, the knot in Frodo’s stomach gently unfolded and his absent-minded hands picked bites off of the honey nut cake. By the time Bilbo had reached Lake-Town, Frodo had managed to eat half of the honey nut cake, and that was enough for now.

-

Despite his clear blue eyes and fair cherubic face, Frodo was just as naughty as any other Hobbit his age. He had his own brand of mischief, which Bilbo must admit must have come from him, when Frodo would lead his friends onto some impromptu camping journey through Farmer Maggot’s crops and they snuck out with more than enough carrots. He was very keen on Gandalf’s fireworks, and had tried to keep several for himself under his jacket before Bilbo swatted them out of his hand.

Bilbo was very patient with these antics, which only strengthened the rumors of Mad Baggins even further. But Bilbo was not immune to disappointment. The first time he was upset with Frodo, Frodo had gone as young boys do and lied to Bilbo.

It was not a significantly terrible lie. When Frodo had his friends over to play, he had at one point accidentally shattered one of Belladonna Took’s prized china, the ones that Bilbo never used except for special occasion in memory of his mother. Frodo had hastily gathered the shards in a tea cozy and--in some fit of frenzy--decided for some reason to bury it in the garden, under the kitchen window. When Bilbo came to notice the missing piece and asked Frodo about it, Frodo first said that he did not know, and that he was going to go to the market now, good-bye. Despite Bilbo’s sharp mind, he blamed his own memory.

It wasn’t until Hamfast was working in the garden that he noticed a bit of doily still sticking out from the soil, and unearthed the shards. Bilbo had put two and two together immediately, but still called Frodo and asked again, while hiding the teacup shards behind his back, if Frodo had found his mother’s teacup yet.

“I looked everywhere,” Frodo said. “I do not know where it could be. Perhaps--perhaps someone had taken it.”

Bilbo’s heart sank at this. He knew that little children would oft cause headache, but Frodo was all in all a very good-natured and polite Hobbit, and Bilbo thought rather naively that parenting would not be too difficult.

“Do you think someone had stolen it?” said Bilbo. “It has been a while since I called anyone over for tea.”

“Perhaps,” Frodo mumbled.

Bilbo hummed.

“Although,” said Bilbo, “there was the one afternoon that your friends had come over. Perhaps one of them had taken it.”

This made Frodo very uncomfortable, and he showed it with the shuffling of his feet.

“Let’s see,” said Bilbo. “Pippin was here, wasn’t he? Do you think Pippin stole it?”

“Not Pippin,” Frodo said. “He’s got no eye for that sort of thing.”

“Then, what about Fatty Bolger? You invited him over, had you not?”

“I don’t know,” Frodo said. “I don’t think so.”

“Hmm,” Bilbo said. “Then perhaps Samwise. I will go and ask Hamfast about it. He would get to the bottom of this for me.”

At the mention of Sam, Frodo’s eyes widened.

“Not Sam!” said Frodo. “It would never have been Sam.”

“And you know this for certain?” said Bilbo. “How?”

Frodo did not answer. Bilbo sighed, and he revealed from behind his back the broken shards of the teacup. Frodo flinched at the sight of it.

“Frodo, did you break this cup?” Bilbo said.

Frodo let out the quietest ‘yes’ known to Hobbit.

“And had you buried it in the garden to hide it?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And had you knowingly lied to me when I asked you about the cup?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And had you knowingly lied to me just minutes earlier, when I asked you again?”

Frodo shrunk even more than a Hobbit would be known for.

“Yes, sir,” he said meekly.

Bilbo set the shards down on the kitchen table and pressed his lips into a thin line.

“Frodo, I am very disappointed in you,” said Bilbo. “If you had broken the cup but told me the truth, I would have been sad--yes, I would not deny it, very sad indeed--but I would not have been angry at you. I know that accidents happen, and although I would charge you to be more careful I would not be disappointed in you. But now, Frodo, I am cross that you had treated me like a fool and kept the truth from me two times.”

Frodo swallowed hard. He would not look Bilbo in the eye, and Bilbo could not help but feel a little proud of himself, despite the fact that he very much felt upset about the whole situation. For he did not want to scold Frodo, but at the very least Frodo had the right mind to look sheepish about it. It meant that for all it was worth, Bilbo’s scolding could at least be effective.

“There will be no playing after your studies and chores for a week,” said Bilbo. “Instead, you will stay home and polish every one of my silver spoons until I can see Elvish prophecies through them. And there will be no story time, either.”

“But--”

“Clearly spinning tales for you at a constant rate has been teaching you the wrong thing,” Bilbo said, not because he believed it because he would miss telling Frodo his tales, but because this would at least get it through Frodo’s skull.

“And I am hurt, you know, Frodo,” said Bilbo, “that you would lie to me. Hurt and angry, because I trust you.”

If Frodo had a shred of indignation and begrudgement, it dissipated in that instant, and he let his head hang low with such shame that he’d rival a weeping willow.

“I’m sorry, Uncle,” said Frodo quietly.

Bilbo sent Frodo to his chores, and spent the rest of that afternoon trying to paste his mother’s teacup back together. He was not as handy as the dwarves were, and when Bilbo finally stepped back from his work found that it was a rather horrendous rendition, almost shameful, to the point that Bilbo took a leaf from Frodo’s book and decided to give it a proper burial anyway.

The week of Frodo’s discipline came and went, with Frodo sullenly polishing all of the spoons in Bilbo’s repertoire (although no amount of polishing would ever wipe away Lobelia Sackville-Baggins’ grubby fingerprints all over them) and going straight to bed without a story at sundown. When the week concluded, however, Frodo seemed to creep about Bag End with hesitant tip-toes, and when Bilbo asked if Frodo would like to hear the tale about the Valar before bedtime, Frodo hesitated at first before traitorous curiosity overtook him.

Bilbo did not think too much of it, because Frodo was just an odd of a Hobbit as he was, and Bilbo reckoned that this was just one of Frodo’s moods and mannerisms that he would have to get used to. He did notice that his study was suddenly absent of Frodo’s strawberry plant, and when Bilbo poked his head into Frodo’s room one time, he found Frodo’s room to be unusually clean--and indeed, his clothing packed in his traveling chest instead of the wardrobe, with the strawberry plant sitting right on top of it. When Bilbo inquired Frodo of it, Frodo seemed just as confused about Bilbo asking as Bilbo did.

It was, of all Hobbits, Saradoc Brandybuck who seemed to have an answer, when he came knocking on the door of Bag End one Wednesday afternoon. Bilbo was very surprised and a little harried indeed to see Saradoc at his door, when he had no extra tea cakes ready.

“Only stopping for business in the Shire, you know,” said Saradoc. “Thought I’d drop by and say hullo.”

“I haven’t even gotten a pot of tea on the fire,” Bilbo lamented.

“I’ll be sure to properly call upon you in the future,” said Saradoc. “And I’ll bring Esmerelda and my Merry over as well.”

Bilbo had not intended for his protests to actually imply an invitation to tea, but now it was too late to retract it. Bilbo had no ill feelings towards Saradoc, or most Brandybucks for that matter, but he was hoping to get some writing done with Bag End now quiet.

“I don’t supposed that will be too soon though, will it?” said Bilbo. “You must be very busy with business, going back and forth from Buckland.”

“Well--I would think that would depend on you,” said Saradoc. “In case you were planning to come to Buckland soon.”

“How do you mean?” said Bilbo.

Saradoc cleared his throat. He looked over his shoulder, where several Proudfoots were crossing the pathway. They must have realized that this was a very furtive glance, because the Proudfoots immediately slowed their pace to listen further. Bilbo quickly invited Saradoc inside, and shut the door loudly.

“Well,” said Saradoc. “My Merry has let slip that Frodo mentioned to him in his letters that he thinks he might be returning to Brandy Hall.”

Bilbo gawked at Saradoc. Saradoc did not seem to take notice.

“Which I understand if it must be done,” said Saradoc. “But the Master of the Hall should probably find out first, if you were arranging to return Frodo back to Buckland--”

“Nonsense,” said Bilbo. “What on earth are you talking about? Frodo is not going anywhere. Why would he be telling Merry that?”

His ire was beginning to rise, to think that Frodo would be lying all over again after his punishment, when he suddenly remembered the relocated strawberry plant, the clothes packed tightly in the old chest that Frodo had arrived to Bag End with. Lie or not, Frodo clearly believed whatever it was he was telling Merry.

“Oh dear,” Bilbo said faintly. “Had I gone too hard on him?” 

And he proceeded to tell Saradoc what had happened. Saradoc could only nod in the right places with empathy, and when Bilbo had finished recounting the whole situation, Saradoc did not do so much as sigh with understanding and pat Bilbo on the shoulder, which never helped anybody. Bilbo would think that a proper parent such as Saradoc would point out every wrong move that Bilbo had made in disciplining Frodo to convince Frodo that he was being sent back to his Brandybuck relations, except Saradoc did nothing of the sort.

“I hadn’t realized that I was being so terribly cruel to the boy,” said Bilbo. “I was just remembering what my own mother would do to me whenever I was naughty, and thought it would work on him. Oh, I’ve gone and made a mess of things, haven’t I?”

“I would not say so,” said Saradoc. “I think you would have done to Frodo what many parents would to their own children.”

“How can you say that?” said Bilbo. “When he thinks I want to disinherit him?”

“My dear Bilbo,” said Saradoc. “I’m afraid that that has more to do with what the lad has been through rather than what you have done to discipline him. His parents have been gone for nearly half of his short life already, and his clearest memories would have been of him getting lost in the thicket of Brandy Hall. Of course, we all have done our best to take good care of Frodo. Esmerelda and I care deeply for the boy, and he is dear friends with Merry. But of all the relations in Brandy Hall, none of us were given true parenthood over him, and so with a whole village caring about him, no one had gone and taken the mantle of caring for him. Of which I do look back and have many regrets.

“And then out you come--dear, clever, if not eccentric Uncle Bilbo, and dare I say incredibly well-to-do and important in your own right, sweeping in to adopt the boy. And it did not help that his own relations, particularly the Sackville-Baggins, protested loudly over it as if he should not belong to you. Frodo has got little memory now of what it’s like to be in a family unit without any doubt that he belonged in it. In the back of his mind, he must believe that this is not permanent, this adoption.”

Bilbo looked beseechingly to Saradoc, because all of these thoughts were hard enough to swallow simply hearing it, and his cousin-nephew was wrestling with it at such a young age. He had never meant to indicate to Frodo that his adoption of him to Bag End was anything like a test run, with conditional love. He despaired over what he could have done differently in the past several months--nay, several years--to have squelched those doubts in Frodo’s mind before they arose, but alas, not everything could be credited to him. Some fears took root by accident, the fluff of dandelions scattering without rhyme or reason in the fields, or the tomato plants dropping seeds and without warning breeding far too many than the gardener had expected.

After a hasty cup of tea, Saradoc had gone out to do his business, and Bilbo sought for Frodo. He would find Frodo along the Eastfarthing Woods, high in the trees where no other Hobbit children would dare to come near. It must have been the Fallohide in Frodo to have a penchant for heights, or perhaps he was looking for some safe place where no one could reach him, and therefore no one could push him away.

“Frodo,” Bilbo called out.

Frodo nearly dropped the book that he was reading, and it would have fallen right on Bilbo’s head if he did. Frodo looked cautiously downward.

“Hullo,” he said politely. “Do you need help to cook supper?”

“Not yet,” said Bilbo. “Do you mind if I climb up with you?”

“All right,” Frodo said.

Bilbo may have some Fallohide in him as well, although it did not show anywhere close to as much as it did in Frodo. But he had some experience in climbing mountains, so not too long after he pulled himself onto the same sturdy bough as Frodo.

“I haven’t climbed trees like this in quite some time,” said Bilbo. “You could see right over to the mill from here, can’t you?”

“Over there,” Frodo said, pointing towards the lazy river.

“Brilliant, brilliant,” said Bilbo. “And what about the Party Tree? You could see it from here too.”

Frodo carefully shifted so that his feet were under him on the branch. Bilbo immediately held Frodo’s sleeve.

“Don’t stand,” he said. “You’ll lose your balance.”

Frodo obliged, and stretched his neck to find the mighty oak that served as a festive landmark for the Shire.

“There,” said Frodo. “I see some picnics taking place.”

“A good day for that,” said Bilbo. He looked to Frodo, who only solemnly nodded. “You enjoy Hobbiton, don’t you?”

Frodo hesitated.

“Yes, sir,” he said.

Bilbo bit his lip. He should not be so nervous to affirm Frodo. But since Frodo had moved in with him, they had pleasant conversation and good fun romping about. He had thought that he could make Bag End a delight for Frodo, a special place to call home, and now it seemed to Bilbo he would have to remind Frodo of his own fears and sorrows by comforting them. But Frodo would have to carry them regardless of whether or not Bilbo did anything about it, and Bilbo would not have his cousin-nephew bear it alone.

“Your Uncle Saradoc had spoken to me earlier today,” said Bilbo.

“He’s here?” said Frodo. “In the Shire?”

“For the day, for business,” said Bilbo. “I’ve invited him over for supper, so that you could see him. He misses you very much.”

He waited for Frodo to respond, but Frodo did not.

“Saradoc told me that you believe you might be going back to Brandy Hall,” Bilbo said.

Frodo closed his eyes, as if he could wish this scene away as a bad dream.

“Where did he hear that?” Frodo said. “Merry?”

“I’m sure young Meriadoc was not trying to get you in trouble,” said Bilbo.

“Am I in trouble?” Frodo said.

“Heavens, no,” said Bilbo. “No, no, no. But I am worried. Could you tell me why you thought you might be going back to Buckland?”

Frodo looked as if he would rather be in trouble than to tell Bilbo what he was thinking. But with the past scolding for lying fresh in Frodo’s memory, Frodo could do nothing but drag the truth out of himself.

“I thought that you would be upset at me for lying,” said Frodo. “And that you wouldn’t want to have me live with you anymore.”

“For lying?” said Bilbo. Frodo nodded. “Now, Frodo, you listen to me. What you did was not right. And it was necessary to discipline you so that you would understand that you shouldn’t do it again, and that there are consequences to your choices. I know that you’ve learned well, and I have forgiven you for it. But at the same time, you’ve done what many young Hobbits have done, nothing more and nothing less. Is every child sent out of their home for lying? Would a father cast his son out for doing something naughty?”

“But you aren’t my father,” Frodo said.

It was the truth, and yet something ached in Bilbo. Perhaps it was because of the reminder that Bilbo was in fact not Frodo’s father, and when he adopted Frodo he very much would have assumed the role of a parent. But he did not want to erase Drogo and Primula from Frodo, not his gentle and loving cousins. Also, it ached because Frodo thought only his birth parents capable of loving him unconditionally, and Bilbo wanted to protest loudly ere his own heart broke. But he calmed himself; he remembered that the truth may take time to believe, and that did not make it any less the truth.

“Frodo,” said Bilbo. “Do you know what it meant when I had adopted you?”

Frodo looked down at the book in his hands.

“Yes, sir,” said Frodo.

“Well,” said Bilbo. “If you may indulge me, let me share with you what I know it to be. Look at me, my boy.”

Frodo raised his head to face Bilbo. There was trepidation in that little, pale face, as if to brace himself for the worst. Bilbo touched Frodo’s cheek gently.

“When I adopted you,” said Bilbo, “I adopted your smile, and your laughter, and your clever spirit. I also adopted your tears, and your mistakes. Your good days and your rotten days. Your generosity and also your stinginess. I’ve adopted your tongue, whether it praises or curses me. And I adopt you with your good works and your wrongdoings. When I call you my heir, I call every bit of you mine, and I do not leave even a single part of you in Brandy Hall.”

Even then, Bilbo felt as if he did not share the full extent of how much he cared for Frodo. Surely even those words were not enough, because when Bilbo looked at Frodo he could not resist the call to run to him, and say yes to every one of Frodo’s requests. Frodo looked up to Bilbo, and it was so like that wide-eyed, trusting, needing stare that he used to give Bilbo when he was very small. Hungry for more, and relieved for what he had all the same.

“How does that make you feel?” said Bilbo.

“Better,” whispered Frodo.

“I am glad,” Bilbo said, and his throat tightened just a little. He gave Frodo a gentle shake of the shoulder. “Very glad indeed.”

-

Frodo was keen to keep his strawberry plant well lit, watered, and well-accompanied; he insisted that it too could listen to Bilbo’s tales whenever Bilbo read them to Frodo. Roots can hear the sound of running water, Frodo insisted earnestly as he held the terracotta pot in his lap as he sat on Bilbo’s, and Bilbo would not question it a bit as he taught Frodo Elvish poems.

Which meant that, in fact, the study that Bilbo had tried to maintain as some sacred space for his work was now the throne room of a dwarfish but healthy bush. What was even odder was that Bilbo minded less and less--Frodo would practice his Elvish letters at Bilbo’s feet, and when Bilbo would reminisce aloud his adventures to Misty Mountains, Frodo would promptly put him in his place.

“But Uncle,” said Frodo, in the middle of Bilbo’s soliloquizing. “Last time you said Thorin had a golden tassel on his hood, and last time you said that it was Dwalin who knocked on your door first, but today you’ve just said that Thorin’s tassle was silver, and that it was Balin who came to your door first.”

Damn the boy, Bilbo thought fondly, before striding over to his desk and making a note.

Frodo was surprisingly adept at keeping the plant alive, albeit a little on the short side. The strawberry plant had a tendency to lean over one direction, despite how Frodo would turn the pot for the sun to hit its other angle. Otherwise, as the days grew longer, little beads of green strawberries budded from its vines. Frodo would have been too young to have remembered any gardening tips from his mother, but Bilbo suspected that those afternoons of following Hamfast and his son Samwise around the garden had given Frodo much to learn.

“You’ll have to plant it out in the garden with all of the others soon,” Bilbo said as Frodo returned the pot to its perch atop Bilbo’s desk, its foliage starting to spill over the rim of the pot and onto Frodo’s curls. “It can’t stay inside all day, you know.”

“I like being able to carry it around,” Frodo said. “And taking it wherever I go.”

“And I’m sure the little plant likes the adventures that you take it on,” said Bilbo. “But strawberries aren’t for adventuring, even less so than Hobbits are. The very same, they are not meant to stay cooped up inside, with nowhere to grow.”

“But the birds might eat it,” said Frodo. “And if it should rain too hard in the seasons, it might--it might drown.”

Bilbo put a hand on Frodo’s shoulder, perhaps a little more tightly than he had intended.

“Yes, it might,” said Bilbo. “We never know what may happen outside our door. Dangerous business, sometimes. But this pot has no room for its roots. Soon it’ll grow too large and cramped, and that will do it more harm than good.”

Frodo bit his lip; as particular as he may be, he was too soft-hearted of a Hobbit to allow another living creature much discomfort for his own desires. And perhaps a bit of fear twinged in his young heart as well, because when Bilbo lifted the pot to take some papers out from underneath, Frodo automatically stretched his arms out for it, taking it off of Bilbo’s hands and petting the tender leaves and unripened berries as hard as pebbles. He would have been too young to remember any of Primula’s gardening advice, but he certainly carried Primula’s heart for it.

“It’ll do well outside,” said Bilbo. “And look--it will be right outside the kitchen window, so that you could look over it anytime you like. And when the strawberries plumpen and ripen, you will be able to lean out of the window and pick some for afternoon tea, fresh and clean. It’ll grow taller, and far more plentiful. Don’t you remember how they grew at Brandy Hall?”

Bilbo remembered it clear as day, warm and sticky between his toes. But Frodo had to pause and prick his fingers along the miniscule hairs on the vines to recall.

“And when it is outside,” said Bilbo, “it will have all the freedom to grow however way it would like. Sideways--”

“Sideways?” said Frodo.

“Yes,” said Bilbo. “It could stretch a runner one way--” He stretched one arm out to one side. “And then one more to the other--” He stretched both arms out. “--and shoot up high until it reaches your head.” He flapped his arms about, like a bird ready to take wing.

Frodo laughed. He was a shy, earnest Hobbit, but never humorless, with far more mischief up his sleeves than anyone would suspect, and yet each of his laughs brought upon Bilbo a wave of gratitude.

“It will not be able to send other runners out, stuck in that old pot,” said Bilbo. “Wouldn’t you want it to grow more?”

Frodo hummed. Bilbo half expected Frodo to ask what sort of messages his strawberry plant may be sending.

“Right outside the kitchen window?” Frodo said.

“Yes, lad,” said Bilbo. “Not too far that you cannot reach.”

Frodo let out a soft breath before nodding and hoisting the pot up so that he hugged it to his chest. The plant was such that it obscured his face, and Bilbo had to lead Frodo out of the door so that Frodo would not bump into any chests or walls.

“Why,” said Bilbo, “that plant has gotten far too big for you to carry.”

“It hasn’t,” Frodo said resolutely.

In the garden, Hamfast Gamgee was diligently pruning the flowering shrubs. His youngest, Samwise, was on his knees yanking weeds from the soil. Frodo’s hesitation of putting his strawberries outside seemed to significantly soften at the sight of his peer.

“Hullo, Bilbo!” Hamfast said, placing the shears aside. “Hullo, Frodo! Sam, where are your manners?”

Sam hastily climbed onto his feet and gave Bilbo and Frodo each a hasty nod in greeting.

“G’morning Mister Bilbo, Mister Frodo,” Sam said. “I’m just helping my old Gaffer in the garden today. Is that the strawberry plant that I see on the other side of the window? Not that I’ve been spying, of course. That’s bad form, very bad indeed .But I couldn’t help but notice it when I go around the house picking the weeds. It’s a fine looking plant, and I’m learning from my old Gaffer to know that for a fact.”

“Give yourself a breath, lad,” Hamfast said.

Frodo grinned. Sam, who had been blushing madly at his father’s comment, gave a breath of relief.

“We’re graduating Frodo’s strawberries to the garden now,” said Bilbo. “May we see the trowel for a little bit?”

Sam scrambled to fetch them the trowel. Frodo politely thanked him for it as he set the pot down by the steps, and went off to scope for a proper place for the plant to reside. Hamfast set the shears down and walked by Frodo, silently measuring the space with each broad step.

“Here will be a good spot, lad,” said Hamfast, confidently patting a patch of soil just underneath the window. “Big enough for any runners the strawberries may send.”

“Thank you,” Frodo said. He knelt, which made Sam gasp.

“Your clothes!” Sam said.

Frodo looked down at his finely pressed trousers and his cream-colored blouse. He looked to Bilbo, who could only laugh.

“Well, I’d be a hypocrite if I made a fuss about you getting some dirt on your clothes,” said Bilbo. “I had gone many days in the mountains without even changing my handkerchief, mind you. Which I had not even brought with me.”

Sam’s jaw dropped at this revelation. Frodo, well satisfied with the permission, dug the trowel into the dirt and made out a little hole. Hamfast helped to wriggle the plant free from the pot, and indeed its fine roots were a tightly packed jumble.

“And if the birds do come,” said Frodo, “and pluck the berries off, could I shoo it away?”

“You may,” said Hamfast. “But you needn’t be too worried. There will be plenty of fruit, and after all, the birds are only trying to fill their bellies. They are tiny little things, after all. Even what we grow is not fully ours, but Yavanna’s. And she is a generous soul.”

“Some birds are enormous,” said Frodo. “Like Uncle Bilbo’s eagles.”

Bilbo laughed heartily.

“Oh, my boy,” said Bilbo. “You will not be seeing any eagles on this side of Middle-Earth anytime soon. But if they do, then you have full permission to shoo them away, and instead promise that we could bake them some tarts for tea if they would give us at least a half an hour warning first.”

Frodo swept the dirt around the base of the strawberry plant until it was firmly in place, nestled into the rich soil and standing on its own, wavering only slightly in the breeze like a newly born foal. Frodo seemed a little nervous again at the notion of leaving it so unprotected, but Sam commented again how healthy and strong this little plant was, and raised Frodo’s spirits.

“See?” said Bilbo. “There is nothing to be so concerned of. Now, why don’t you and Sam play this afternoon?”

“With me?” Sam said incredulously. “Play with Mister Frodo? Oh--I couldn’t--I’d have so many weeds to pick, and my hands are quite dirty. Mister Frodo would rather--”

“Let’s play as if we were elvish scouts by the Party Tree, like the ones in Mirkwood,” Frodo said brightly. “If the Sackville-Baggins children are there, we could play warriors and dragons instead.”

“Now, Frodo,” Bilbo said. “You know what I’ve told you about playing with the Sackville-Baggins children.”

“Yes, Uncle Bilbo,” Frodo said solemnly. “Play hide-and-seek so that they cannot track me down and bully me out of my cuff links.”

“Good boy,” said Bilbo. “Now come on. Let’s get you over the fence. Hamfast is fixing the hinges of the gates for me.”

He reached to pick Frodo up to bring him over the fence, but Frodo jumped out of Bilbo’s grasp.

“I can jump over it myself!” Frodo said, with far more confidence than Bilbo would like.

“Is that so?” said Bilbo. “Then you must be quite bored of that by now.”

He lunged, managing to catch Frodo before Frodo could throw himself out of the way. He wrestled Frodo playfully before hoisting Frodo up under the arms.

“Oh, aren’t you getting big now,” said Bilbo.

He made show of swinging Frodo. One--two--three--and up Frodo went over the fence. Frodo yelled with delight as he soared, landing on his feet (thankfully, for Bilbo wasn’t truly confident that Frodo would not come out of this unscathed). Sam had hurried to climb over the fence before anything could be expected of Bilbo, and the two Hobbits hurried off to the Party Field.

“Why, Master Bilbo,” said Hamfast. “With the way you were able to pick a tween like Frodo up and swing him like you did, I’d have thought you were a Hobbit half the age that you truly are!”

“That is true,” said Bilbo. “I’ve never considered myself a brawny sort, but perhaps I’ve still got some strength in me. More than I had thought.”

Sinew was not necessarily a Baggins trait, but Bilbo gave thanks to whatever it was. Frodo was growing more each day, after all.

-

Theft was not common in the Shire. Everyone knew everybody’s business too much for any crime to be done in secret. And if a fellow Hobbit was left desperate and starving, his neighbors would have long noticed and hurried to drag the Hobbit to join them for some pot roast well before they were tempted.

Nevertheless, at night Bilbo slept with the ring in his closed fist.

Bag End was already filled to the brim with treasures--family heirlooms, pricey coins, an entire suit of mithril--but Bilbo felt the need to guard the ring most closely. After all, he had gone through quite the scare to procure it, so naturally he would be keen to hold onto it.

It was one of the few treasures that Bilbo had that he was reluctant to share to even Frodo, with whom he shared everything. Of course Frodo knew of it, as Bilbo had to tell the story of how he escaped Gollum’s cave somehow. But when Frodo asked if he could see it, Bilbo would stammer out how he kept it in a very high shelf and it would take a very long time to get it down, and he would make a show of having to take the extra bedding out of the wardrobe and muttering to himself until the little Hobbit soon grew bored and asked if he could play with Merry. Little did Frodo know that the ring was in Bilbo’s waistcoat pocket this whole time, and when Frodo darted off to play with Merry and Pippin, Bilbo would slip his hand in his pocket and rub the ring between his thumb and finger to ease his racing heart.

Indeed, Bilbo took for granted the constant closeness of his ring, as he credited himself a very careful Hobbit. He sometimes took off his waistcoat and hung it on the back of his chair in his study without thinking, such as today, while it was a swelteringly hot day and he was scribbling away at the maps he was illustrating for the book that he promised himself he would start. And the warmth had made him drowsy, so he closed his eyes at the desk for a little, and not long after began to snore.

Frodo was completing his chores, and thought himself a rather grown-up Hobbit. He thought this because while cleaning out the hearth he had gotten his shirt sooty, and although Bilbo insisted that Frodo could leave the laundry to him, Frodo thought that perhaps he could take on the task. After all, the less burdensome he could be to his new guardian, the more secure Frodo felt in this tremulous time of his tweens. Washing the clothes all by himself without asking Bilbo for help seemed to him something that would astound Bilbo.

So Frodo hurried off to collect any clothes, dish towels, tea cozies, and sheets that he could carry to wash (first he stopped in the kitchen for a quick bite of Bilbo’s lavender honey muffins, as a pre-task reward). As he weaved through each room and collecting clothes in a basket, he noticed that Bilbo’s waistcoat was hanging on the chair, and how it had been a while since they had last washed it. So Frodo crept into the study, carefully unhooked the waistcoat from the back of the chair, and tossed it into the laundry basket. He carried it out to the mound atop their home where he often scrubbed the laundry, under the shade of the great tree while chatting with whoever may be passing on the road.

It was not until a while after did Bilbo stir, and realise that he had smeared ink all over one side of his cheek, which itched from the parchment. He slid off of his chair to stretch his arms and shoulders, and--out of habit--he reached to pat his waist for the ring.

But when his hand only met his trousers and his suspenders, he balked. He checked his trouser pockets. Nothing. He turned sharply to the chair, where he remembered putting his waistcoat, and found it empty.

Perhaps, he reasoned wildly to himself, he had placed the ring elsewhere. He knew this was impossible, as he was a habitual enough of a Hobbit to know that he always kept the ring in his pocket. And yet that did not stop him from overturning his study, emptying the bookshelves and the drawers of his desk--and nothing.

“Frodo!” Bilbo said.

It had to be that boy. Horror and fury rose in Bilbo’s spirit. The young Hobbit was nowhere to be seen or heard in Bag End, even when Bilbo stormed through the kitchen, to the boy’s room, leaving a trail of disarray behind him as he searched for his ring in every crack.

Nowhere to be found. Bilbo’s mouth became very dry, and he knew that if he did not find the ring soon enough then his heart would burst, and it would be better if a knife ran through it than to continue aching in fear and want. When he tore apart his own room in search and found nothing, Bilbo himself was torn between screaming and standing paralyzed in the middle of the room. And so he did--trembling and rooted like stone before his wardrobe thrown wide open, sheets tumbling out of it to no avail, and his pulse ready to rip through his skin.

But in that standing still was when he could make out the smallest of noises. In the midst of the silence of the smial, he could barely make out the sound of that boy’s whistling through a distant open window.

He sprinted out of the door, and looked up to see Frodo pinning up the clotheslines. The washboard and tub were soaked with suddy, greyish water, and in the basket was a mound of rumpled, damp clothing. Bilbo climbed up the mound in only three bold strokes.

“Uncle,” Frodo said brightly. He held up one of his shirts, revealing its freedom from soot. “I’ve gotten all of--”

Bilbo pushed Frodo aside and dug his hands into the basket of wet clothing. He threw each article out onto the grass in pursuit of his waistcoat, nearly tearing one of the blouses that he had inherited from his own father in the process.

“Where is my waistcoat?” said Bilbo. “What have you done with it?”

“I’ve washed it,” Frodo said, his voice high. “Uncle, don’t throw them like that. I’ve just washed them.”

“You foolish boy!” said Bilbo. “What have I told you about touching my things? Where have you put my coat? My ring?”

Frustrated, he dumped the entire basket out, scattering the clothes across the grass. There! His waistcoat was tangled amongst some nightgowns, and Bilbo’s hands shook when he ripped it from the pile. He dug his fingers into the waistcoat pocket, and for a moment his heart stopped when he felt nothing but wet lint, until he searched the other pocket and found the ring behind the silk.

Normally, upon putting a single finger on his ring, all other emotions would dissipate. But this time Bilbo could not readily forgive the terrible fright that he had, so when he turned to Frodo, his countenance was such that Frodo immediately paled at the sight of it.

“Have you any idea what a fright you had given me?” Bilbo said, as if Frodo had dangled fifty meters above the air, or had gotten in a fight with Lotho Sackville-Baggins, or if Frodo had not returned home until many hours past curfew. Instead, Bilbo clung hungrily to his ring, which had him wrapped around its metaphorical finger instead of the other way around. “You would repay me for all the good I’ve done for you like this, wouldn’t you!”

Frodo stuttered into a stung silence. Bilbo turned on his heel and marched right back into the smial, pressing the ring against his trembling lips in a kiss, and would have swallowed it whole if it would keep the ring closer to him at all times. He retreated past the clutter he had made out of his own home and sank back into his chair in the study, his breathing rate slowly returning to normal.

And then, like slowly recalling a dream that one had as they moved through the morning, Bilbo recalled the look of utter shock and hurt in Frodo’s stargazing eyes, and his own barbed words that still left a cut in his own throat. For a moment--perhaps for the first time that Bilbo could recall--the ring in his fingers felt far too little, and the gold too cold in his hand.

Bilbo had to fight for that sense of shame, for it burned tenderly. For immediately his fussier, selfish side tried to argue in favor of his outburst. This ring was a reminder of his dear dwarven companions, he reasoned. They were a memory of a grand adventure and of the time he shared with Thorin and Kili and Fili, who have now passed. Of course this ring was precious to him, and a heartbreak to lose.

Except Bilbo knew that, while his heart may ache in memory of the deaths of his friends as he looked at his mithril, or trill at the memory of the mountains as he carefully inked its pathways on his map, the ring gave him no nostalgia to treasure. The ring was simply his ring, and it was his.

But so is Frodo, a quiet voice murmured in the back of his mind.

Bilbo’s heart pricked.

He was not so strong that he could not first slip the ring deep into his trouser pocket, and pat it to assure himself it was still there. But then Bilbo went out the door again, stuttering over what he would say to his boy--what apologies or excuses would he even be able to choke out.

When he reached the top of the smial--slower, this time, with heavier feet--he half suspected Frodo to not even be there. To have run off in understandable tears and seek solace in one of his friends, who would never let Bilbo within ten feet of him afterward. But instead, Frodo was still on the top of the smial, hanging up the clothes that had not gotten too soiled after Bilbo had thrown them to the ground.

Bilbo stood for a moment, struck dumb. Frodo moved slowly, with his face hidden while he threw the sheets over the clothesline which he had hung up a little too tall for himself. Frodo was a keen Hobbit, however, and must have sensed Bilbo behind him, for he would not turn around to take up another shirt to hang else he would face Bilbo, and instead concerned himself greatly over straightening out the sheet from any folds or wrinkles.

Perhaps Frodo would rather that Bilbo left. Bilbo would not blame him. But something lay heavy on Bilbo’s heart, how Frodo would rather finish his chores than seek comfort from such a cruel outburst. Frodo living with Bilbo as his heir was still at times new and uncertain for the both of them--Bilbo having lived with too few others for most of his life and Frodo living with too many. They would stumble upon moments and wonder if they should be like cousin and cousin, or rather like father and son, or rather like uncle and nephew, and if those roles ought to have distinctions between them or if they should blend seamlessly if only Bilbo were a better guardian. No doubt Bilbo had just soiled what comfortable place in each other’s lives they had built up until now.

So Bilbo bent down to pick up one of Frodo’s nightgowns and pinned it to the clothesline. Just as Bilbo was reaching up to pin, Frodo would bend down to pick up a pillowcase. And as Bilbo reached for something in the basket, Frodo would stand on his toes to hang it high. In silence, they had gone through the basket quite quickly, when the both of them would rather that basket would have been fuller.

Left with nothing but properly hung sheets and shirts around them, Bilbo risked to turn to Frodo. Frodo’s eyes were red, but his cheeks were still dry. Frodo turned away to move the washboard, and to pour the tub out to the side, busying himself to keep from having to speak to Bilbo, or perhaps to keep from being disowned.

“Frodo,” said Bilbo. “May a foolish old Hobbit speak with you?”

Frodo paused. His small shoulders shrugged a little. Bilbo knelt down on the grass next to Frodo, waiting for Frodo to join him. His heart pounded more heavily than losing the ring could compare until Frodo too sat beside him.

“It was very wrong of me to speak to you like I did,” Bilbo said. “That ring--is very precious to me. It has been with me a very long time, and I am frightened to lose it. But that does not mean that I should have yelled at you. I’m very sorry, Frodo.”

Frodo jerked his head in an acknowledging nod. He still kept his head bowed, and Bilbo knew that he could not ask for more than that. He put a tentative hand on Frodo’s back, because he did not know what else to do, and what more responsible or wiser guardians would respond in such a situation, if a wise guardian would ever find themselves so sorry and wrongful.

“But I do hope you know,” said Bilbo, “ that I am very glad that you are here with me.”

Bilbo did not expect it. But before he had finished that breath, Frodo’s bottom lip trembled suddenly and he hid his face in his sleeve. Bilbo’s heart immediately ached.

“Oh, my dear Frodo,” he said.

Frodo tried to speak, but could only make out pitiful sounds. Bilbo leaned Frodo against his shoulder, rubbing Frodo’s arm while Frodo tried to stifle his own cries. What a terrible thorn Bilbo had unintentionally pulled from Frodo’s side! He was far too young to fear being unwanted.

Bilbo would never do it. That was the frightful power of the Ring--this corrupting, hungry thing that would break even the fairest soul. In fact, he would many years down the line do the exact opposite--by no fault of his own, he would pass this terrible burden to the one he loved most dearly, until Frodo would journey into Mordor and never come back, not really. But it was still a stand against the Ring, and a powerful one nonetheless, when in that moment Bilbo swore with such fierceness and desperation, that he would smash the ring into dust if it meant protecting Frodo.

-

Could you ever forgive me, Bilbo had said. Could you ever look at your old uncle again?

And Frodo--his merciful Frodo--put a smooth and small hand on Bilbo’s lined face. Uncle, he said. When you adopt me, I adopt you too. Every bit of you.

-

“I tried to attack my boy,” said Bilbo.

He did not confide this with Lord Elrond, his dear companion in Rivendell who had been so generous to Bilbo since he arrived. Elrond was a parent, and Bilbo felt sick with shame at the thought of sharing to another parent how he had tried to hurt his child. Instead, he shared this with Lady Arwen, while they sat quietly under the silver trees, wondering what cold stretch of ground the ones they loved were sleeping on at this very moment.

Arwen did not press further, but she did turn her crystal gaze to him, and waited patiently for the rest of his story. It was not one that he wanted to tell, but it weighed heavily on his heart until he thought it would drag him into the soil. If he did not speak it, if he feigned any semblance of a good and unconditional uncle, the guilt would only bury him.

“He was wearing my ring around his neck,” he said, and it did not escape him that he still called it his ring. “And the moment I saw it, I--”

Bilbo stopped himself. He looked down at his hands that were now varicose and spotted with sudden age. His throat caught, and Arwen reached out and took his hand in hers.

“You know what the ring’s true nature is,” Arwen said. “And you know what your nature is not.”

“Nature or not,” said Bilbo, “in that moment, I might have hurt Frodo just to get my ring back. I could have killed him. And what would it matter then, if it were the ring’s doing or not? I would have hurt my boy.”

A ring-bearer carries the crushing weight of torment and decay in his heart. And when the ring-bearer passes the ring on, by will or by accident, he inherits anguish and tortured shame in his soul. Frodo will bear it one day, when he returns to the Shire, or what is left of him. Bilbo bore it now, while he thought of his soft and beautiful nephew with the poisonous wound in his shoulder, and many cold and dangerous days ahead. He had already condemned Frodo with what he had thought was a gift--with what he thought was a sacrifice, he had forced Frodo to sacrifice himself.

“Why had I given it to him?” Bilbo cried out. “If I had only brought it with me on my journey, and to Lord Elrond, and volunteered myself to carry it to Mordor, then Frodo would be safe at home this very moment, without any clue that Sauron still sees.”

“You despair over all these things out of frightened love,” Arwen said. “Not because they could be true.”

“What does that mean?” said Bilbo.

Arwen smiled clandestinely.

“Only Mother Galadriel knows what is versus what could have been,” she said. “And yet even her eye cannot see Iluvatar’s reasons for permitting or preventing events. I am sorry, child, that you are worried. But I do not want you to waste your days with dread.”

“That is all very well,” said Bilbo. “But Frodo is all that I have now. Life is more fragile for us halflings than for your people. Middle-Earth could fall under shadow, but if anything were to happen to him--”

“Much has already happened to him,” Arwen said. “I do not say this to spite you,” she added when Bilbo’s face fell. “But he had chosen this. You had not pushed him to volunteer to take the Ring--”

“It is his nature, the foolish boy,” Bilbo said. “He might as well have not had a choice. He has always been too generous to others, too willing to make everyone feel better and he never liked bickering, he would have done anything to help--”

His eyes stung, and his heart ached out of guilt but also strongly out of missing. He had felt that dull pain when he had left the Shire, through the hills and fields and sleeping under the stars. Now it returned so strongly that he could hardly breathe.

“And I do know that life is fragile,” Arwen said. “My Aragorn goes with him. The sword could cut him just as deeply.”

She pursed her lips and focused her gaze on Bilbo’s hand again, her hands ageless and yet her touch was ancient like the ever-flowing streams.

“But we cannot despair, my friend,” Arwen said, with a breath of determination. “Else we lose hope when we ought to have gained it. The darkness could be driven out once and for all. Thanks to the ones who we love.”

Bilbo did not speak. He could only think of the evil he had passed on to Frodo, of the evil that had coursed through his heart in just a moment when he had given Frodo the mithril to try. How infective Sauron’s darkness was, and how it followed him still, and for so long, and return with such vengeance even though Bilbo had parted with the ring months ago.

“My people may not always understand the fragility of life,” said Arwen, “but after so many years of life, we understand the durability of this world. My father told me that you had given Frodo the Ring! No one knew what the Ring was, and you knew it only as your most precious and beautiful possession. The Ring drives people to murder and insanity, squeezing greed out of every being until they choke. And you gave it to Frodo as a gift. And Frodo, who is courageous and gentle, took the Ring not out of desire but willingly set out to destroy it rather than keep it. All of Middle-Earth will be saved because you, Bilbo Baggins, love Frodo more than the Ring of power.”

Bilbo quieted. It was a strange battle within him, for he felt grateful for Arwen’s gentleness, fierce love for Frodo, a sliver of love for the Ring even now, shame for what evil he carried, and fear for what would come. He was proud of Frodo for all he had done and will do, and yet he could not bring himself to be at peace that he may lose his nephew for the sake of saving the entire world.

“Frodo is strong. And young,” Bilbo said. “But I fear the evil in the west. What they may do--”

Bilbo let out a sigh. He felt sorry for rejecting Arwen’s encouragements. Especially since she was so wise and has carried so many years under her gilded belt.

“I am afraid too,” said Arwen, as if she could read Bilbo’s thoughts on his face (and perhaps he could; elves had a knack for that sort of thing). “Even in my years that are longer than yours, they do not necessarily numb me from fear. Instead, they gave me truth to fight against that fear.”

“Truth?” said Bilbo. “When has truth ever been a good thing now?”

“Bilbo,” Arwen said patiently. “Remind me how old you are.”

“Eleventy-one years old,” said Bilbo. “And still I look more spry than the old master of Brandy Hall who I still remember as a babe.”

“Is that very old in Hobbit years?” said Arwen.

“Very much so, yes,” said Bilbo. “Although I suppose that that is just coming of age for you elves. I must have been one hundred or so when Frodo came to live with me.”

“It must be no mistake, then,” said Arwen, “that you had the ring.”

“Come again?” said Bilbo.

“Were it not for the ring,” said Arwen, “you would not have been alive or able to adopt Frodo.”

The thought sent a strange tremor through Bilbo’s bones. He could try to imagine his life without the Ring, but he could not imagine his life without Frodo. He could not imagine his young nephew growing up alone in the rambunctious crowd of Brandy Hall, without a guardian who would put his life before all else. His brave, frightened nephew who set out on a journey that would claim his life.

“The Ring is evil,” said Arwen. “There is no doubt. But evil is not the most powerful thing in this world. For what the Ring had meant for evil by affecting your life, Iluvatar and Iluvatar alone has used for good.”

Bilbo swallowed hard, his throat swelling until he suppressed a cough. He squeezed Arwen’s hand gently, grateful for this small connection with another being, even if it would take him a little longer than tonight to have hope, and longer to forgive his part in this. So they sat in the hum of the crickets, in the furlough before the end.

“My age truly is getting to me,” Bilbo said. “I don’t remember if I packed him a handkerchief.”

Somehow, this was what makes his voice wobble. Arwen let out a small laugh.

“Now, Bilbo,” she said. “Do you think that any of his companions who swore to protect him with their lives would let him stay sick and cold without one?”

Bilbo cracked a smile, and he leaned his head back. When his heart ached for Frodo, it ached with the urgency of watching an athlete finish the good race. Come back to me, he said to Frodo with the beating of his heart, with the warmth of his hands and his eyes that looked to the sun rather than the shadow. Come back to your uncle who loves you.

-

At the gates of Mordor, when man, elf, dwarf, and hobbit set their lives on the line for Frodo and Sam to reach the tip of Mount Doom, Mordor ended with a bang.

In the halls of Rivendell, now faded in the browning autumn colors, while Bilbo spent the days with the last of the elves, Mordor ended with a whisper.

There must have been a change in the air, when the boughs shook until the last of the snow fell to the soil, the sun shining just a bit brighter, the weight of the air just a bit lighter. But for Bilbo, the end of Mordor began at almost the same time as the end of himself. For in that moment, his hair grew thinner, his sight blurred, and the joints in his hands ached until he could not hold his quill any longer. The curse of the Ring was gone, and it freed Bilbo--it loosened the tethers that held him to Middle-Earth.

When Frodo returned, he looked like moonlight. There was simply not enough of him. Even when he rushed forward to Bilbo and wrapped him in such a hug that Bilbo felt the warmth finally return to him, there was not enough. And for as long as Frodo remained in Middle-Earth there never would be.

“Were you frightened?” Bilbo said. “Had you seen many terrible things?”

He did not know why he asked, for he knew the answer was inevitable. Gone were the days when Bilbo could carry Frodo to his bed after Frodo shook awake from a nightmare--nowadays, Bilbo could hardly sit up on his own. Gone were the days when Frodo used to cry out for his uncle when he got hurt in the woods, or thought a monster was in his wardrobe, and Bilbo could come running for him.

But Frodo only took Bilbo’s hands--which were now even more lined and brittle than before, and Frodo’s too was shaking and permanently broken, and the most priceless thing Bilbo ever held.

“Uncle,” said Frodo. His blue eyes were tired now, and yet they shone. “I got to see an oliphaunt.”

At first, other than the courageous strength of Samwise, it was all that Frodo would tell him. He let Bilbo hold him the first night that he and his friends returned to Rivendell, on the way to the Shire. The other Hobbits joined the elves’ singing and dancing, but Frodo retreated to Bilbo’s quarters, and they sat in the light of the hearth, the crackling of kindling intertwined with the faraway songs reminding them of an old sort of peace.

“It’s a good thing it isn’t as cold at night anymore,” Bilbo said. “Although even if we had the windows closed, I am sure we could still hear Pippin all the way from here.”

“It’s nearly spring, isn’t it?” said Frodo. “That is what Sam had said.”

Bilbo looked out the window; it was nighttime, but the soft breeze that melted from winter to warmth was evident even now. The trees were beginning to bud, and the night was growing softer in the stars.

“It is,” said Bilbo. “It will be the first spring in a long time that I am not at Bag End, swept up in spring cleaning.”

“And here I thought I might rest a bit when I get home,” Frodo said.

He was smiling nonetheless, and Bilbo tugged his ear in jest.

“My strawberries,” said Frodo. “Do you think they would have start growing now?”

Bilbo laughed.

“Why,” said Bilbo. “I’m certain that they never stopped during the winter. On and on, they grow.”

Frodo smiled wryly. He hid his face in Bilbo’s shoulder, and for a moment, it seemed as if he would be whole again.

“What a strange thing to remember,” Frodo said quietly. “That after all this, they still can.”

He did not cry that night, or for many nights afterward, but he hid his face in Bilbo’s shoulder, and he shook without realizing it. Bilbo wrapped him tightly with blankets, and he ached strangely in his chest. Frodo was with him, and yet Bilbo missed him still.

“Will you read from your book to me?” said Frodo.

Bilbo was taken by surprise. He immediately reached for the red book on his nightstand, and opened it on his lap. Frodo closed his eyes.

“Where shall I begin?” said Bilbo.

“At the beginning,” said Frodo. “Let me know if you’ve chosen a golden tassle or a silver one, finally.”

“You relentless boy,” said Bilbo. He held the pages with one hand, and with the other drew Frodo close, the roots of his heart reaching deep to his child. “All right then. ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit...’”