Coming of Age: Part One - by pippinsqueak

Part One

Late in the evening of September 22 of the Shire year 1421, while in the middle of giving a speech at his 111th birthday celebration Bilbo Baggins quite literally - and intentionally - vanished in front of 144 guests. He was never again seen in the Shire by any hobbit. The circumstances of his disappearance, though, and the oddities of his character were the stuff of gossip and then near legend for many years following. Until his disappearance Bilbo had lived for some 60 uninterrupted years at Bag End, his home in Hobbiton, and for the last twelve years had shared this hobbit hole with his young nephew (or, more properly, cousin) and adopted heir, Frodo Baggins. Uncle and nephew as well shared the same birthday and on the day of Bilbo's disappearance Frodo turned 33 - his coming of age. So it was that Frodo inherited Bag End and all that remained of Bilbo's fortune before even the first day of his majority closed.

Bilbo's disappearance did not take Frodo by surprise. Months earlier the old adventurer had begun to talk quietly to him of his plan to leave the Shire - a plan which seemed to have been brewing for many years. Ever since he had come to live with him Frodo had listened to Bilbo's tales of his adventures with trolls, elves and dragons and he had heard in the old hobbit's voice the wonder and longing he had never lost for the far off mountains and valleys and for the last homely house of elves. And for many years, since long before Frodo took up residence at Bag End, Bilbo had been writing, or trying to write, the stories of his adventures and the tales he had learned from the elves; but his efforts had never entirely satisfied him. Frodo watched Bilbo become increasingly more anxious to get the writing done, and less tolerant of the intrusion of the daily goings-on of the Shire into his life.

As the day of the great birthday party had approached, and Bilbo's resolve to leave had not faltered Frodo found himself forced to make a decision. When he was 12 years old his mother and father had drowned while they were all visiting relatives in Bucklebury. Orphaned and for all purposes homeless, with no one to care for him in Hobbiton, he had stayed on in Brandy Hall to be raised by those Brandybuck aunts and uncles who chose to take an interest in him. His adoption at 20 years of age by Bilbo and return to his beloved Hobbiton had restored to him both a family and his home. Now with his coming of age he was to lose one or the other.

Bilbo had been close to one hundred years old when he adopted Frodo, though he had looked half that age and was even younger in spirit and temperament. To Frodo he was guardian, mentor, friend and family. He could not imagine life at Bag End without Bilbo. Nor could he conceive of himself outside of Hobbiton. Those teenage years he had spent in Buckland between his parents' deaths and his adoption by Bilbo were a separate life and did not define him. Hobbiton was his home, chosen for him by his parents, restored to him by Bilbo. The West Farthing was his realm, and its paths and trails, its woods and vales and fields still promised him new delights and old pleasures through the coming rhythms of the years. He was Frodo Baggins, Bilbo's heir, of Hobbiton. No part of that could he gladly relinquish. But still in the week before the great party Frodo made his decision. He went to Bilbo and asked to go with him. But Bilbo had refused. The request had not surprised him and he gave his ready answer sadly, and as gently as he could, "No, Frodo, my dear lad, you belong here still, and Bag End will be yours and you should be your own master. I have old paths and countries to rediscover in my own time and my writing to do, which no one can help me with."

Frodo grieved. Bilbo had guided him through his tweens to his just realized adulthood and now he could follow him no further. Mingled with this sorrow was relief that he would not be leaving the Shire; and the relief made the sorrow keener.

Then, to aggravate his sorrow, Gandalf the wizard who had come to the Shire especially to celebrate Bilbo's birthday (and to attend to the far more important matter of ensuring Bilbo's magic ring did indeed pass into Frodo's possession), left almost immediately as well. Frodo had been counting on his assistance and support at least for the short while, and instead found himself relying solely on his young cousin Merry Brandybuck to keep him company at Bag End. Merry had traveled with his mother and father from Brandy Hall for Bilbo's birthday party. His parents were now stopping with friends in Hobbiton for a bit while Merry chose to stay with Frodo.

As best he could Frodo muddled through the first few days after the birthday party. He was constantly beset by both grasping relatives and the simply curious all looking to be first in line if rumours proved true that the contents of Bag End were being given away free. Merry skillfully (and with considerable pleasure) turned out and turned away everyone whom good manners did not require Frodo to see himself. And he propped Frodo up as best he knew how with his cheerful spirits and playful moods.

* * *

A few days after the party Merry left early one morning to visit for the day with his parents. For the first time since Bilbo's leaving Frodo was alone at Bag End. Restless and fretful he aimlessly wandered the old hobbit hole until he came to Bilbo's bedroom door. He hesitated, then went in. All was tidy and in order, though only a few clothes remained in the closet now and the books on their shelves tilted haphazardly into the spaces left by those that were missing. The room's slight mustiness from having been shut up since the day of the party could not mask the smell of Bilbo's pipe smoke and whatever else it was that made Bilbo's room smell like Bilbo. Frodo left the window shut.

He sat on the bed and ran his hand thoughtfully over the coverlet, woven with a pattern of green and gold now almost imperceptible from years of use. It had belonged to Bilbo's parents and if he had stayed to the end of September Frodo knew he would have replaced it with a heavier one and stored it carefully away until springtime. He picked up the book Bilbo had left on the night table - much used, with pages stained here and there by drops of tea and greasy crumbs (Bilbo had never been able to deny himself the pleasure of reading while he ate). It was one of his uncle's favorites and leafing through the familiar pages Frodo wondered sadly if Bilbo had meant to leave it behind. Suddenly he put the book down and clasped his hands in his lap to stop their trembling. A deep breath did not ease the tightness in his chest and he exhaled in a sob. Into his head came unbidden Bilbo's voice, as if he were sitting beside him, "my dear lad, you belong here still, and Bag End will be yours and you should be your own master." The words did not comfort. Bilbo had chosen to go and had left without regret but Frodo could not stop himself from missing him or from wondering if his uncle's confidence that he would manage well without him wasn't mistakenly based on the old hobbit's desire for his own independence. Frodo felt the price of his inheritance was too dear and could not be grateful.

As he struggled with these thoughts he heard a voice, faint but growing closer, wistfully singing one of Bilbo's poems set to a melancholy old Shire tune. Sam Gamgee was arriving for a day's work in the garden. Frodo smiled through his sadness, Sam was never one to keep his own moods a secret. With some reproach he thought how the young hobbit - normally in and out of Bag End at least once a day - had not been by since the day before Bilbo's party. Nor had Frodo spoken to him since Bilbo's disappearance, though he knew Sam must be in a misery over it.

From the first day Frodo had come to live with his uncle he had watched (and helped) Bilbo give Sam lessons in reading and writing almost workday every morning and he knew it was Sam's fondness for Bilbo's poems and tales of adventure, and (he had come to realize) for the old hobbit and for himself, that had made Sam a fixture at Bag End. Now 21 years old Sam had entered his `tweens, a time when most hobbits ended their schooling, (if indeed they had had any in the first place), but since Sam had never expressed any desire to quit and Bilbo had continued to find Sam a welcome visitor the lessons had carried on almost to the day of his leaving. But not after. Frodo went out into the garden in search of his young gardener.

Heavy clouds blowing in on a north wind darkened the sky. Out in the vegetable garden Sam was quickly pulling the last of the cabbages before the rain began in earnest. At Frodo's approach he straightened and greeted him shyly.

"Hullo Mr. Frodo, I come up to try to put in a morning's work before the weather turned, but them clouds are going to burst any minute I think."

"I think you're right, Sam" said Frodo "why don't you finish up with the cabbages and then come in for a cup of tea, I haven't seen you for days."

By the time Sam came in from the garden Frodo had the tea steeping. Sam hung his cloak on its hook in the entrance hall, noting the absence of Bilbo's best cloak, and Merry's cloak as well, then went into the kitchen to wash up. "Is Master Merry gone then?" he asked Frodo.

"He's just down in Hobbiton visiting his parents for the day, but I don't think he'll be staying much longer." Frodo smiled, "he's done his best to keep my spirits up these past few days."

Sam nodded, surreptitiously noting his young master's pale and drawn face as he followed him into the dining room. From his seat at the table Sam looked solemnly around the room, taking in the absence of every knick-knack, piece of decorative crockery and picture that Bilbo had given away. They sat silently for a time, and finally Sam said softly, "Its that sad to think Mr. Bilbo might never sit with us at this table again." Frodo said nothing and Sam peered at him. "Begging your pardon, but I don't know how you can bear it, Mr. Frodo."

A rueful smile tightened Frodo's face "I think I'm holding up all right, and I expect it will get better as time goes on," but his eyes clouded as he gazed out the window and Sam was not convinced.

They again sat silently. Frodo stared out the window seemingly unaware of Sam, who remained quiet until he could contain himself no longer, "there's a part of me that can't believe Mr. Bilbo's gone away, even if all of Hobbiton and Bywater don't talk of nothing else. I didn't see him go, of course, but folks are saying he vanished quick as a blink, in a flash of light, and all, and that Gandalf was behind it." His quizzical look at Frodo held a hint of longing.

Frodo shook his head, "Gandalf wasn't behind his leaving, Sam, and I can't tell you whether he was behind the vanishing."

Sighing Sam rubbed the back of his sleeve across his eyes. "Do you think he'll ever come back?"

I don't think he means to," Frodo said still looking out the window.

Sam spoke to the ceiling, blinking back tears. "All these years he's helped me with my reading and writing, and told me his stories, and fed me and put up with my pestering, I'm sure, what with my talking and being under foot. And then he up and leaves, without giving me a chance to say how obliged I am to him and without him wanting to hear it, seemingly. Meaning no disrespect to Mr. Bilbo, but it just don't seem right."

Frodo looked at Sam, "Bilbo was never good at saying good-bye, Sam, and I'm sure he knew how you felt about him and all that he'd done for you. And you know he did all those things because he was fond of you."

Sam nodded, "I know that Mr. Frodo, but I never thought he'd really leave, even though he'd say the Shire was getting too small for him, and how he missed the mountains and all, still I thought that was just his talk, while he settled himself into his old age." He glanced at Frodo, "and I thought there was enough here to keep him happy."

Frodo took a deep and steadying breath. "It was because he was getting old that he left, Sam. He saw that he didn't have much time left to do the things he wanted to do."

"Well, I suppose Mr. Bilbo knew what's best for him, it's not for me to say I'm sure, but still it's that hard on them that's left, to have him go without a proper good-bye and all." He looked anxiously at Frodo.

"I knew he was going, though, Sam, but it was his secret and I think he enjoyed giving the Shire one last surprise and something to talk about." Frodo hesitated. Sam seated across the dining room table in his usual chair brought vividly to mind all the mornings when Bilbo had given the young hobbit his lessons. And he could see him now, bending over Sam, hand on his shoulder, to patiently explain or gently correct. Never had Bilbo used his quick wit and sharp tongue when teaching his young gardener. Now as he watched Sam sadly give his eyes another rub with the back of his sleeve Frodo impulsively told him what he had not told anyone else. "I offered to go with him, too, but he said I wasn't ready to leave the Shire and he wanted to go alone."

A sudden flush flowed over Sam's face and his brown eyes widened. "You almost went as well, Mr. Frodo?" he cried hoarsely.

"Bilbo wanted to go alone," he repeated quietly "and he wanted me to stay and be master of Bag End."

Sam's took a quick gulp of tea with a hand that shook. He couldn't speak and in his agitation got up and wandered about the room, finally stopping to stare at the downpour out the window and calm himself, if he could. Frodo said nothing; but he was surprised and strangely comforted by the depth of Sam's distress.

"Well, I'm that glad you knew" Sam finally said in a whisper, "and that you stayed," he added fervently glancing at Frodo, his words catching in his throat. Frodo went to stand next to him at the window and put a hand on his shoulder. Sam looked up at him, "both of you gone! It don't bear thinking about. Did you really mean to go, Mr. Frodo?"

"I wanted to be with Bilbo, and if that meant leaving the Shire with him, then I wanted to do that," he explained sadly.

Sam bent his head and nodded, rubbing his eyes too late to catch the tear that fell to the windowsill. "Course you did Mr. Frodo, and maybe I shouldn't be glad you stayed, but I am, and there it is, if its any comfort to you."

Frodo patted Sam's shoulder and a sob escaped from his young gardener. "Thank-you, Sam." He had no words to express how he felt or voice steady enough to say them. While Sam regained his composure he struggled with his own thoughts. He had feared when Bilbo left that the Shire's hold on him would weaken and his regret at not being able to follow would grow. But he was finding instead that he grieved the loss of Bilbo and that Bilbo had wanted to go alone. The Shire itself had become his greatest solace. After a time Frodo silently guided Sam back to his seat but the sorrow burst out of the young hobbit again. "There's the rain coming down so hard now, and what if its coming down on poor Mr. Bilbo wherever he is. I make me old dad stay inside on days like this, as best I can, and Mr. Bilbo's one-hundred-and-eleven, and all, even if he don't look it.

"All right, Sam" Frodo said suddenly weary, sitting him down and taking his own seat. Subdued, Sam looked at him mournfully.

"You won't tell anyone else what I've told you, will you, about my wanting to go with Bilbo. That's something only Gandalf and you know, and you need to keep it that way."

Sam nodded and squeezed his eyes shut tight. "I won't sir, and thank-you for listening to me. I try talking about Mr. Bilbo at home, but the Gaffer don't like it, he says it's bad enough me moping about without having me talk myself into crying. `Course I know he's that sad, too, but he don't talk much about it, he's just like-" Sam stopped short and glancing quickly at Frodo reconsidered. "He's just like he was when me mum died." He hurried on, "and I try to go out in the garden but that's no help. Before I know it I'll be thinking about putting in vegetables and flowers for Mr. Bilbo, wondering which of his favorites he'll want next year and all, and then I'll remember." He looked up at the ceiling, blinking and smiling sadly. "So now it's up to you Mr. Frodo, to tell Sam what to plant."

Frodo sighed. "I suppose it is, Sam, but for this year at least I'll just trust to your judgment and the Gaffer's more than anything else. Plant what you think Bilbo would have liked." He paused, considering "in fact, that is what I should like best, keep the garden the way Bilbo always wanted it kept." He thought of Bilbo, and how particular he had been about his garden, spending many afternoons consulting with the Gaffer, and many evenings explaining the intricacies of the plan to Frodo. Rubbing his eyes he quickly stood and took his mug into the kitchen.

Sam followed somberly behind with his own mug

* * *

The weather continued wet and cold. Heavy rain beat down through the still air from clouds so thick the days never seemed to dawn properly before passing into dusk. In other years Frodo had welcomed interludes of such weather, when he and Bilbo would closet themselves away from the rest of the Shire, and pass the hours quietly in front of the parlour fire, each in their own chair, chatting lazily, reading silently or aloud, writing long overdue letters and taking their tea with bread and crumpets toasted on pokers over the embers. But such retirement held little attraction for Merry and in the mid-afternoon of the day following Sam's visit he left Frodo alone by the fire and went to busy himself about the hobbit hole.

Frodo tried to read for a time but his mind strayed uninvited to thoughts of Bilbo. The parlour was warm and lit only by the fire and the gray light from the window. Shutting his book on his finger, he slumped down in his old stuffed chair and closed his eyes to listen to all the quiet sounds - the low drumming of the rain swelling and receding as the clouds poured the water down in waves, a branch swaying under the torrent and tapping against the parlour window, the fire humming and crackling, and his own soft breathing. As he descended into a doze he imagined he could hear Bilbo in his chair beside him, quietly turning the pages of his book and whispering softly, almost inaudibly, as had been his wont when reading songs or poetry. It was a comforting sensation. The fire died down and evening came on. He held himself on the edge of sleep and sat with Bilbo.

After a time Merry came eagerly to the threshold of the parlour. He had rearranged the furniture in the rest of the hole to disguise the loss of those bits and pieces Bilbo had tagged as parting gifts to relatives and old friends. His efforts were ready for Frodo to critique, but he did not want to wake him if he was indeed asleep. Padding soundlessly up to his cousin Merry pondered his peaceful face lit only by the dim glow of the dying embers. "Frodo?" Though Merry had spoken softly Frodo started and looked quickly over at him standing by Bilbo's chair. Merry grinned, "come see what I've done."

"All right," Frodo replied weakly, "let's have a look". So Merry took him on a tour through the study, dining room, and kitchen to the entrance hall.

"You've done a splendid job, Merry," he said rewarding him with a smile that was eagerly awaited, "much better than I could ever have done I'm sure even if I'd had the heart for it."

"Well, Bilbo barely gave away a tithe of what he had, and very little of the best stuff of course, so it was only a matter of shifting things to fill in the gaps. You can hardly tell anything's gone, can you?" Merry was very pleased with his efforts.

"You've put it to rights, and it feels like Bag End again."

"And it's all yours now, Frodo! You've got Bag End to come and go from as you please and Bilbo's treasure, too, to do with as you like!" His eyes shone with delight at the idea. "I wish I could do what I wanted, and have what I wanted without worrying what anyone else thought."

Frodo gave a small smile "Well, I don't suppose we can ever have everything we want, can we?" he said looking at Bilbo's assortment of walking sticks in the stand, and his second best cloak abandoned on its peg. "And it will be some time before Bag End starts to feel like its mine, and not like it's waiting for Bilbo to come back."

Merry subdued his high spirits. "You think the old boy's definitely never coming back, then?"

"He told me he wasn't and he told Gandalf he didn't mean to, so there's no sense in my hoping he will," Frodo said quietly. He took Bilbo's cloak from the peg and walked down the hall to his uncle's bedroom.

Merry trotted behind. "And he's off doing what he's wanted to do for years and years, I suppose he was just waiting for you to come of age before he left, so you shouldn't be sad, should you Frodo? You should be happy for him, and grateful he's left you this splendid hole," he said encouragingly.

Frodo stopped and said softly, "I know I should." He went into Bilbo's room, closing the door behind him.

* * *

On the Thursday following Bilbo's birthday party the weather cleared and Merry began to make plans to leave the next day with his parents for Tuckborough where they would stop for a lengthy visit with their Took relatives before returning to Bucklebury.

Merry sat up late with Frodo on their last night together. They reminisced about their lives at Brandy Hall before Frodo had returned to Hobbiton. Frodo's parents had died two years before Merry's birth and by then Frodo was as recovered from their loss and as well settled into his new life at Brandy Hall as he would ever be. His cousin's birth had been a momentous occasion at Brandy Hall for old Rory Brandybuck, the patriarch of the clan, "Master of Buckland", to be blessed with a second grandson and moreover, the first son of his first son. Merry had been aware since he was a tiny child of the heritage and destiny bestowed upon him by the circumstance of his birth. Though his mother was a Took (and his first cousin Pippin - the son of his mother's brother - was in line to be the Thain of Tookland) yet Merry felt every inch a Brandybuck and reveled in the notoriety that attached to the clan that lived in the far reaches of the West Farthing on the wrong side of the Brandywine River.

Now as he sat talking with Frodo in front of the fire Merry perceived more clearly the contrasts in their situations. When he returned home it would be to apartments in Brandy Hall, a huge structure that housed over 200 relatives together in a perpetually noisy, usually cordial and determinedly tight-knit community. Though an only child he had cousins of all ages to provide companionship and conspire in whatever mischief they might wish to concoct together. When Frodo had left Brandy Hall to live with Bilbo he had not been much older than Merry was now, and Merry had often wondered at Frodo's desire to live in solitude with Bilbo. Now he was older he understood better Frodo's need to live as a Baggins. But with Bilbo's leaving he worried that Frodo's near solitude was being perfected. He saw no sign from his cousin that he would do other than resign himself to this, indeed, he appeared with each passing day to embrace it more fully. So Merry encouraged Frodo to return to Brandy Hall with him, not for good, but for a visit, until he recovered from the shock of Bilbo being gone, and was better able to cope with living alone.

"You cannot stay here all by yourself Frodo, where is the sense in that, when you have so many relations at Brandy Hall who would be glad to see you, and can keep your spirits up."

Frodo smiled wanly, "I don't think I can stand having my spirits kept up, Merry. You've been a great help to me these past few days, I couldn't have managed without you, but one cheerful Brandybuck is about as much as I can bear at the moment." He sighed, "I have to get used to this being alone and without Bilbo, and running away to Brandy Hall won't help me with that."

* * *

The next morning Frodo woke early, and well before Merry. It was Friday, the last day of September and very likely payday for Sam and his father, Hamfast. Frodo thought regretfully that (as with many other aspects of running the household) Bilbo had never involved him in paying the Gamgees nor even discussed it with him before he went away. Matters of money or the household budget had never particularly interested Frodo or Bilbo for that matter. Bilbo had always given him spending money in generous amounts (though at somewhat unpredictable intervals) and he had never lacked for clothes, or books or any other items his uncle knew he needed or desired.

So Frodo had woken with a vague sense of anxiety at the prospect of assuming the first of many household tasks that had always been Bilbo's exclusive province. He lay in bed for some time and even tried to fall asleep again until the realization that it would be easier to get the job done while Merry still slept galvanized him. The hallway was chilly as he padded down it in his housecoat to the study. Thin sunlight, filtered by the morning mists, shone through the window. It was not as early as he thought; Merry was apparently having a lie-in after staying up unusually late on his last night with Frodo.

Anxiously Frodo rooted the account book out of the desk and tried to figure out from Bilbo's records the wages to be paid. But the books were not in good order and seemed incomplete. Hamfast's wages were recorded but not Sam's. He made up the senior Gamgee's pay packet for the month and without bothering to dress properly went out into the cold morning, crossing his arms to hold his cloak tight against the chill. There was a hint of frost on the grass. Sam in the vegetable garden was digging under the spent cabbage plants. Frodo greeted him and asked him where his father was.

"It's too cold for me old dad to be out in the garden at this time of the morning Mr. Frodo, what with his creaking joints and all, but like as not he'll be along in an hour or two when the sun's warmed things up a bit."

"All right, Sam. Come and have a cup of tea with me, I need you to help me sort something out."

Sam looked down at his muddy feet and breeches. The garden was mucky from the heavy rains. "Never mind," said Frodo, "you can clean up inside".

So Sam washed with cold water while Frodo belatedly built up the fire in the stove from the still glowing embers of the night before. When he disappeared into the study Sam got the tea things ready and sat patiently at the dining room table, silently and somberly making note of all the minor changes wrought by Merry's rearranging. By the time the tea was steeping Frodo had returned with the account book and Hamfast's pay packet. He handed the packet to Sam and sat down. "That's for your father; it's his wages for the month, as far as I can make out, and I hope I've got it right."

Quickly Sam handed the packet back. "Begging your pardon, Mr. Frodo, but Mr. Bilbo, he already paid me dad for all of September before he went away. My dad thought it queer, being paid early, if you understand, because Mr. Bilbo always paid him regular every Friday, but then we didn't know Mr. Bilbo would be going all of a-sudden like that, did we?"

Frodo shook his head, annoyed at himself for having gotten it wrong. "All right, Sam, but what about you? I couldn't see anything in Bilbo's books about how much you're paid and that's what I really wanted to talk to you about."

Sam looked surprised "Oh, I don't get paid separate, Mr. Frodo. The wages Mr. Bilbo gives me dad include mine as well, because we work together in his garden."

"But don't you get anything for yourself for all the work you do?" Frodo was rather shocked, both that Sam received nothing in his own pocket and that what seemed to him to be rather slim wages for the Gaffer also included Sam's.

"Well, I get food on the table and clothes on my back, and I don't want for anything I really need," he said quizzically.

Frodo tried a different tack. "I don't know much about wages Sam, but it doesn't seem enough somehow." He faltered in his confusion; Bilbo had always been generous, so he didn't know how that could be true, but he knew nothing about labourer's wages.

"Well, sir" said Sam slowly and earnestly "its enough to keep the five of us, and for me dad to tuck a bit away each month, for his old age he says, though he don't need to. He knows I'll always look after him and my brothers and sisters will too, if need be."

Frodo tried again, "but Sam, shouldn't you have some money of your own, to do what you like with, after all your hard work in the garden?"

Sam looked warily at Frodo. "I does get money from my dad, on special occasions mostly, and there's not much I need for myself anyway. And Mr. Bilbo, for his birthday present to me this year, he gave me a little leather purse near full of copper pennies, and that coat I wore to his party. I could never ask for a finer coat than that." He smiled sadly at the ceiling. "I should have known he was up to something, but then he always was that kind to me and it was his eleventy-first birthday and all."

Frodo persisted, he didn't know why really, but if he was going to be master of Bag End it seemed important that somehow he should exercise that new responsibility. "How about this, Sam, if I give you a rise, just a small one, and it goes straight to you; the Gaffer couldn't object to that, now, could he?"

Sam stood up quickly to take his mug into the kitchen. "But I do, Mr. Frodo and so would me dad, too" he said softly, "meaning no disrespect and I hope you don't take none, but my dad and me work together in the garden, we share the work and sometimes, depending on the job or the weather or if one of us needs to be doing something somewheres else, why one of us'll work more here at Bag End than the other, if you take my meaning. But it don't make no difference, the work gets done, and the wages get paid without minding who did what. And my dad takes it and sees that the family's kept. And that suits me fine." His last words rang out louder than he had intended and he reddened, then turned towards the kitchen. "I best be getting back to the garden," he mumbled.

Before he left Sam came to the threshold of the dining room. "Thank-you Mr. Frodo, and I know you're trying to help and all, but you have to talk to the Gaffer about wages, not me." Frodo nodded silently.

Sam hesitated. "I've been thinking about what you said, about doing the garden up the way Mr. Bilbo always liked, and how would it be, Mr. Frodo, if l make up a list for fall and spring plantings, and we could go over it one morning, if you like. I'd like that, if we could plan the garden together, the way Mr. Bilbo used to do with me dad."

"All right, Sam, that sounds fine," Frodo said, suddenly weary.

After Sam left Frodo sat quietly for a few minutes trying to sort through how things had gone wrong. Finally he went into the study to return the account book, and found Merry there sitting in front of the fire. He looked at Frodo "I'm sorry, but I overheard some of that. Problems with your Sam, and all?" he asked lightheartedly.

"No, well yes, in a way," said Frodo, slightly annoyed "I thought I could help him by giving him a rise in his wages, but somehow I managed to hurt his feelings and insult his father. I didn't think paying my gardener could be so difficult."

"Well, Sam's still apprenticed so of course you don't deal directly with him about his wages, that would be between him and whoever he's apprenticed to." Merry replied matter of factly, looking at Frodo with surprise.

Frodo slumped into a chair. "You know that, Merry, but I don't, I don't know anything about running a household or keeping servants. I owe him an apology. And of course Sam's still feeling miserable about Bilbo having gone off, and I've hardly had him in all week." He looked at Merry, "Would you go invite him to have tea with us this afternoon." He closed his eyes. "I just need to sit quietly for a while."

"I'll invite him for tea if that's what you want but don't forget I'm leaving for Tuckborough early this afternoon with my parents."

Frodo groaned, "of course you are. How about inviting him for lunch then."

Merry fetched his cloak and returned to the study. "I'll make breakfast when I get back", he said, "what would you like".

"I don't want anything" Frodo said quietly "I'm not hungry."

When Merry returned Frodo had fallen asleep in front of the fire. He had himself a quick breakfast, left a note and went out again, returning an hour or so later to find Frodo still asleep. He didn't wake him until he had lunch ready. "Is Sam here?" Frodo asked. "No" Merry replied, "I invited him for tea after all."

Frodo frowned, he knew his spirits couldn't support him through another solitary meeting with Sam, "I thought we agreed on lunch. I'm no good as company right now, and I thought you and Sam got along well enough."

Merry smiled "Well, I've decide to stay and bother you a while longer. I went down to Hobbiton while you were sleeping and pestered my parents until they said I could.

"You don't want to stay with me, Merry, I really am a dreary old cousin right now. Go to Tuckborough and have some fun with our little Pippin."

"Oh, Pippin will see me soon enough. My folks will be staying on at least a month with Uncle Paladin so I promised they could fetch me in a fortnight, which will still give me a proper visit. Meanwhile I'll stay and prop you up so all of Hobbiton doesn't start gossiping about the decline you've gone into. Besides, if I don't stay to do the cooking and washing up it'll never get done.

Frodo smiled, "you are a splendid cousin, Merry."

* * *

So Merry stayed on to work Frodo into a routine and help him sort out the daily chores of cooking, cleaning and shopping. If Frodo sat up half the night brooding in front of the fire and then slept until mid-morning Merry tried not to be concerned. He got Frodo out the front door most days, sometimes going with him for long walks, other times leaving him to the solitude of lone hikes that Frodo seemed increasingly to prefer. Together they continued to counter all speculation that Bilbo's astonishing disappearance was proof of some nefarious magic on Gandalf's part (with or without Frodo's complicity). Frodo steadfastly asserted his conviction that Bilbo was alive and well and that he had planned his own disappearance. Gradually they convinced all but the most determinedly ill minded of Hobbiton.

* * *

The weather continued uncertain into October. The last of the leaves turned and were quickly stripped from the trees on the blustery days that brought showers of rain and brief bright interludes of sun through the cloud scudded sky. In mid-October the skies finally settled, with high white clouds carrying no threat of rain and breezes hardly strong enough to ruffle the curls from a hobbit child's brow.

In mid-morning of the third day of such fine weather Bag End's front door bell jangled persistently and enthusiastically. Sam laid down the book he had been studying and leaving Merry and Frodo to continue their quiet chat over a final mug of tea trotted down to the door, shaking his head as the jangling continued at uncertain intervals. He swung the door wide to deliver a few choice words to the cheeky hobbit lad he supposed would be on the porch with a package or message for Mr. Frodo, and checked himself just in time to spare eleven year old Peregrin Took. For his part Pippin was as surprised as Sam, but he recovered more quickly.

"Hello, Sam Gamgee!" he cried, "what are you doing here? Father and I have come to get cousin Merry!" His face was flushed and damp brown curls clung to his forehead. Sam looked down the lane to see Paladin Took driving up in a pony cart and Pippin turned as well. "Here he comes now." He raised his voice "Look how quick I was, dad!" Paladin waved and Pippin looked up at Sam. "He let me out at the bottom of the hill and I raced him all the way up. Excuse me!" With a laugh Pippin slipped by and trotted down the hall towards the dining room and parlour calling "Merry, we've come to fetch you back to Tuckborough" and then only slightly more quietly "Hullo Frodo! Am I too late for elevenses, then?"

Smiling and shaking his head Sam waited for Paladin to tie a feed bag to the pony and climb the steps. The elder Took looked appraisingly at Sam as he approached and then his eyes relaxed in recognition. "Its Samwise, isn't it?" he asked. Sam closed the door behind them and nodded saying "Good morning, Mr. Paladin, sir." He followed him down to the dining room. There they saw Pippin, knees on a padded chair, elbows on the table leaning forward to excitedly tell his cousins how he and his father had managed to arrive so early in the morning all the way from Tuckborough. Amused looks passed between Merry and Frodo. "Didn't we get here quick, Merry! Father said if the weather was clear today he would bring me to come and collect you so I got up before dawn, before some of the servants even, and as soon as the sun was up, and Old Slocum the gardener said it would be a fine day, I made Father get up and we had such an early breakfast and came on as fast as we could, though I didn't use the whip on the pony, not even a tickle for a reminder."

Paladin ruffled Pippin's hair with an indulgent smile and clapped both Frodo and Merry on the shoulder before joining them at the table. "Hello to both of you. And how is the new Master of Bag End getting on?"

"Very well with the able assistance of young Merry here, but I see I am to be robbed of him and left to my own devices now!" Frodo replied as airily as he could.

A lighthearted exchange of all the news of Hobbiton and Tuckborough followed. Sam quietly cleared the plates and mugs from the table and went into the kitchen to put the kettle on and tidy up. After a few minutes he heard Pippin shout his name, and then came Frodo's voice, somewhat louder than usual "Into the kitchen with you young Pippin and get your own drink of water. You know very well where to find the mugs and the tap!" Pippin trotted in with a grin on his face and took from Sam the mug he had reached down from the cupboard for him. He filled it and drank in one long draught, watching Sam curiously as he turned back to the washing up in the sink.

I know who you are, you're the Gaffer's son," declared Pippin. Sam confirmed this.

"Then aren't you a gardener, too?" he demanded. Sam said he was.

"What are you doing inside then, answering the door and washing the crockery?"

Sam looked down at Pippin and smiled. There was only innocent curiosity behind the impertinence. "I come by most mornings, to have a read and a talk with Mr. Frodo - and Mr. Merry too - before I go out in the garden. I used to do that with Mr. Bilbo before he went away, and he taught me my letters and all."

Pippin's round eyes widened disbelievingly; he had never heard of their gardener ever sharing a pot of tea with his parents and none of their servants could read or write as far as he knew. "Well, but why are you doing the washing up when you should be in the garden?"

"Because I help to dirty the crockery so I always helps with the washing up afterwards. Mr. Frodo's visiting with you and your father today so I'm just doing it by myself. I'll go out to the garden soon, it's a fine day and I've a lot to do."

Pippin laughed, "I remember you told me off for getting into Mr. Bilbo's peas once, years and years ago!"

Sam smiled again. "That was only the summer before last and you should remember I told you off for breaking down Mr. Bilbo's vines and for taking more than your share and leaving nowt for Mr. Bilbo's dinner. You're always welcome to help yourself in the garden, so long as you do it proper."

Pippin laughed again "was that it? Well then I am sorry now, even if I wasn't then!" He handed Sam his mug and trotted back to the dining room. Frodo came in to fetch the teapot and Paladin followed to ask Sam to take the cart around the back and unhitch the pony. When Sam had finished the washing up and gone out to the garden Frodo and Merry made lunch for their guests. Then the four of them went for a hike down to Hobbiton and through the fields and woods. Paladin wanted Frodo to come back to Tuckborough for a visit and he broached the subject when Pippin raced down the path to harry a small animal darting between the trees.

"You haven't been since last spring when you came with Bilbo for what you both said would be a fortnight and stayed not more than a week!"

Frodo chuckled,"it certainly wasn't because your company was wanting Paladin, but there's a certain Aunt Lalia who makes a visit seem longer than it really is. Perhaps after the Yule, I'll probably go to Brandy Hall then, and I can come back by way of Tuckborough."

"We'll certainly see you at the Yule then because we will be going to Brandy Hall as well." Paladin looked at him keenly. "But Eglantine and I can't bear to think of you all alone at Bag End. Why Bilbo chose to go away at this time of his life I'll never understand. He could have done all his adventuring before he brought you to live with him. Goodness knows he had more than enough time living all alone here almost fifty years before you joined him."

Frodo gave Paladin a wan smile. "Bilbo was never one to abide by other people's opinions of what he should do. And if he was content to live fifty years all alone at Bag End then I see no reason why I shouldn't be as well."

Pippin came racing back down the lane, "I saw a squirrel, still gathering nuts. I wish I could climb trees like that and jump from branch to branch like I was flying. So are you coming back to Tuckborough with us, Frodo? Dad says you must, and I think so too, just for a while, we'll have such a good time! Mum's always complaining there's never any peace or quiet, but that's what I like about it." He said all this in a rush, facing the three older hobbits and trotting backwards down the lane as they advanced on him.

Frodo grabbed Pippin under the arms and swung him into the air, as he had used to do with all his little cousins at Brandy Hall before he left. "I'll see you at Yuletime, Master Peregrin, for now you must let me get used to being my own master at Bag End."

A good three hours of hiking saw them all making their way wearily up the Hill to Bag End, Frodo weighed down by Pippin on his back, who insisted he was too tired to go another step. He had put in at least twice the distance of the others with his constant straying onto side paths, and running to and fro between his slower elders and the innumerable curiosities of the woods and fields . It was growing dark but Paladin resisted Frodo's invitation to spend the night.

Pippin protested, "why shouldn't we, though, I would like to."

Paladin smiled at his son "We left early to be sure to have enough time to visit and still get back today, everyone is expecting us with Merry, most especially his mother, and we must not disappoint or worry them".

"But what about, dinner, I'm hungry, and by the time we eat won't it be too late to go back?"

Paladin shook his head "I'm sure Frodo will put up a dinner for us for the road. The moon will be almost full tonight and the sky is clear, we will have the adventure of a lovely moonlit ride through the woods and fields."

This delighted Pippin and he stopped his pestering.

When they reached the gate Pippin caught sight of Sam still in the garden. He slipped down from Frodo's back and raced off towards the young gardener. "Hi" called Frodo "I thought you were too tired to walk even!"

"Thank-you for the rest, cousin" called Pippin "I think I'm all better now!"

"You see," said Merry "I told you he was just having you on. You must trust me in such things, Frodo."

"Pippin!" called Paladin, "have Sam hitch up the pony, please."

Sam was at the back of the garden, spreading manure on the potato field.

"Hullo Sam" declared Pippin, racing up "why aren't you going home for dinner?"

"I'm just finishing up," he said mildly. Dusk was coming and Sam was enjoying the last of the soft sunset on this clear day. He would walk home in the deepening twilight under the pale moon and faint stars, and his sisters would have dinner ready when he got there.

Pippin looked up at the apple trees at the end of the potato field. "How come you haven't picked those apples" he asked pointing to the ones left at the very top of the tallest tree.

"Well now, I save them `til we've had a good frost - that sweetens them up and makes him crisp. But you're right, its time they was picked. I'll get a little lad up from Hobbiton to pick them for me tomorrow."

Pippin began to clamber up the tree. "I'll pick them for you now, Sam!"

Sam looked up at him and laughed to hide his anxiety. "Well, if you ain't the little squirrel, and no mistake. But careful, now, them old branches ain't as strong as you'd think and it'd be quite a fall." He got some burlap sacks from the garden shed.

"Throw me a sack, Sam!" called Pippin.

"No, Master Pippin" said Sam, "toss the apples down to me and I'll put them in the sack. You can't pick them and hold on safe to the tree and to a sack all at the same time."

Darkness was closing in by the time the apples were all picked. Pippin climbed nimbly down, laughing as he came and taking a great jump from one of the lower branches. "I've got to go, Sam, dad says we're driving back tonight."

"Does he want the pony hitched up now I wonder?" asked Sam in some surprise.

Pippin stopped "yes, straightaway I think, he asked me to tell you."

Sam looked sternly at Pippin and the small hobbit's face fell. "I'm sorry, Sam, I forgot and I wanted to pick the apples. Well, good-bye!" and he began to trot away.

"Hold up, Master Pippin!" called Sam. He quickly filled a small sack with apples. "There you are, for your ride home, and all, the finest apples of the Shire from Mr. Bilbo's own garden."

"Frodo's garden, you mean!" laughed Pippin running back to take them. "Thank-you, Sam!"

* * *

Paladin was waiting for his son on the porch. "Come inside and wash up or your mother will never let me take you anywhere again. You have leaves in your hair," he said affectionately, picking them out. "Where is Sam with the cart, what a slow coach he is."

"Oh!" said Pippin, "I only just remembered to tell him you wanted it. Look at this!" He brandished the bag of apples. "For dessert and for the pony, I picked them for Sam."

By the time Sam brought the pony cart around, Frodo had the travelers' supper packed, and Merry was ready with his clothing and other possessions haphazardly bundled into his pack. Night had come on. The gibbous moon hung low and bright over the hills beyond Hobbiton and a bright sprinkling of stars glittered down. They said their good-byes quickly in the yellow light of the open door and then Frodo waved them on their way, watching the cart make its slow journey down the winding road until the light of its swinging lamp could no longer be seen. He stood for a few moments more, gazing at the golden glows from the round windows of the homes of Hobbiton below, then turned and went inside to have his own dinner

*

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