~*~

Author's note - Thanks very much to all of you who have been reading this story and its predecessor. It's been wonderful to hear from you, and I hope you'll stay around for my next story, "A Harvest of Ashes". It's part of the Rushford Bramblethorn series, and for those of you who haven't met the villain, you can find him lurking in the chapters of "In Safekeeping" and "The Way of Vengeance". A word of caution, however. "Harvest" will be the darkest of the series to date. It will be rated R and with good reason. It contains violence and slash, some of it non - consensual, though nothing overtly graphic. (R being the highest rating allowed at ff.net, this was necessarily the case.) To those of you who are established Bramblefans, welcome back! If any of you choose not to read the new fic, I will understand. Peace!

-Marilyn Bradford

~*~

Amelia Rose - Happy place, indeed! In this final chapter, we'll establish what comes of Lotho and Frodo's relationship in the future.

Endymion2 - I don't think I'd be able to get along with Lotho either. This chapter has me pretty well decided on that!

Shirebound - Still a happy ending to come, but we'll have to get through a little more angst to get there.

Aratlithiel1 - Frodo is deserving of all the good things that come his way, especially when you consider all that is yet to come in his life.

Bookworm2000 - The Sackville - Bagginses will be quite displeased, as you'll see in this final chapter.

FrodoBaggins1982 - I agree that judging from the book, Farmer Maggot might have been an odd addition to the group gathered to witness the events in Buckland, but I couldn't resist. The opportunity for the barb about the mushrooms was just too tempting, especially given the role mushrooms have played in the story so far! I was also having a hard time digging up influential hobbits to sign that will! I will not be using the same 'storytelling' technique I used in "On the Banks of the Brandywine." This one is just straight up Once upon a time fic.

Anime Princess4 - I'm sure you'll find plenty of enjoyable Frodo fic once this one is finished, but I'm very glad you came by to read it!

Iorhael - Bilbo and Frodo are off to the start of something good, absolutely.

Pebbles - Wait no longer. You'll see what happens with Otho and Lobelia in this chapter. I'm sorry to see it end too, since I had such a good time with it.

Illyria - pffyffin - I think that Otho and Lobelia will always regard Bilbo with contempt, certainly. They wouldn't dare try to do anything untoward to him though. I think they're kind of intimidated by him on some levels.

Girlofring1 - Glad you came by and have enjoyed these stories. There is so much time that elapses in Frodo's life before the quest that there have to be some stories in there!

~*~ ~*~ ~*~ ~*~ ~*~

Chapter 22 - Confrontations and Resolutions

~*~ ~*~ ~*~ ~*~

~*~Bag End, evening~*~

Bilbo sighed and sank into his armchair contentedly. The trip home from Buckland had been a long walk for him and Frodo, but the lad seemed to enjoy every step, never once complaining of being weary or footsore. A true Baggins, if one ever lived, Bilbo surmised proudly.

Frodo was out in the garden telling Sam about the trip and enjoying the lovely evening, and Bilbo rose to look out the window at the two boys. He frowned as he considered the next task at hand, and whether he wanted Frodo to be present for it. The Sackville - Bagginses must be informed of Frodo's adoption and of the lad's status as Bilbo's heir. It would undoubtedly be an unpleasant scene, and would be excruciating for someone of Frodo's sensibilities to endure.

Bilbo found himself wishing that Frodo had some of Lotho's hardness in him at times. If the boy had just a pinch of mistrust or suspicion in his nature, he might be better able to deal with his nasty relatives. But perhaps Frodo did have something, not a hard or cold streak like Lotho's, but more of a natural resilience that would carry him through difficult situations. Even so, Bilbo decided he would spare Frodo the confrontation with the Sackville - Bagginses. It had been Bilbo's decision to make Frodo his sole heir, and Bilbo would deal with the consequences of that decision himself.

~*~The next morning~*~

"Frodo," Bilbo called, frowning slightly. Where had that boy gone to? "Frodo," he called again, this time leaning out the window and shouting the young hobbit's name.

Outside on the garden bench, Frodo's head snapped up and his gaze left the page he had been reading. He closed the book and stood up, answering Bilbo's call. "I'm out here, Uncle."

Bilbo emerged from the smial and strode over to the bench. "Nothing like a good book and some sunshine after second breakfast, is there, my boy?" He said in his most cheerful voice. Frodo smiled and nodded. "I'm going out for a short while, and I just wanted you to know in case you should come looking for me. I've an errand or two to tend to."

"Would you like some company?" Frodo suggested. "I could go with you if you like."

Bilbo tried to keep from fidgeting. "No, no, lad. Don't allow me to interrupt what you're doing. You've better things to do today than traipse about Hobbiton with me on boring business."

Frodo eyed him suspiciously, but nodded. "If you'd rather I didn't - "

"Now, Frodo, don't give me that look, lad," Bilbo said, giving Frodo a pat on the back. "It's not that I don't want your company, but I'll not be gone long or be doing anything of interest to a tweenager. There's no reason for you to stop in the middle of a good book on a pleasant morning."



Bilbo spoke with sincerity, and Frodo let the matter drop. "Very well, Uncle. I'll read on then while you go about your 'boring' errand."

"I shall be back soon, Frodo," Bilbo said as he rose from the bench and made his way down the path.

Frodo watched him go with a puzzled look on his face. Bilbo was hiding something, Frodo was certain. A rueful smile came to the lad's face as he thought. Why not, he reasoned. Hadn't Frodo kept part of the truth to himself regarding the incident at Empty Row? If Frodo could keep his secrets, it was Bilbo's right to do so as well, and Frodo wouldn't take it personally. He resumed his seat on the bench and picked up the book again.

~*~

Bilbo rapped on the door smartly and waited. He wasn't entirely sure if he had been dreading this moment or looking forward to it with perverse glee. Part of him had been waiting impatiently for the chance to see the Sackville - Bagginses looking shocked and dismayed as they discovered that Bag End was not to be theirs after all. Another part of him disliked confrontation of any kind and disliked the notion that it was, in this case, necessary.

Otho opened the door and regarded Bilbo with a surprised look. "Bilbo! What brings you here?" he asked, his voice sounding pleasant, but guarded.

"I've a matter of some importance to discuss with all of you, and I ask your pardon for the intrusion," Bilbo said calmly as Otho admitted him.

"Please sit down, Bilbo." Otho offered his guest a chair as Lobelia entered the room. When she saw Bilbo, her face scrunched up with a look of disdain.

"Have you come to apologize for the beastly accusations you've made against my son?" she asked, standing with her hands on her hips.

"I have not," Bilbo responded simply. "But I do wish to speak to you. All of you," he elaborated, giving Lobelia a pointed look.

Lobelia opened her mouth to say something, but closed it again and turned from the room. She emerged into the parlor again a moment later with Lotho. "We are all here, Bilbo, so have your say," she said as she and Lotho seated themselves.

Bilbo rose to his feet and regarded his small audience. Might as well come to the point, he reasoned. Whether he sugar - coated it or not, what he had to say would be anything but well - received. "I am here to discuss with you the matter of my Will. I have made a decision that I wish everyone to be informed of in no uncertain terms."

All eyes were on the elderly hobbit as he paced back and forth. Niether Otho nor Lobelia saw their son's face drain of all color, as they were watching Bilbo closely.

This was it, Lotho thought dully. The announcement he had been dreading, the end to dreams of living in the finest smial in Hobbiton as a wealthy gentlehobbit.

"I have decided," Bilbo began as he eyed his relations, "that Bag End and all else I own will pass to Frodo when I am gone."

For the merest fraction of a moment, all sound and motion in the room was suspended. The silence was broken as Otho spoke disbelievingly. "What did you say?" He blinked and stared at Bilbo, hoping he had misheard him.

"You heard me, Otho," Bilbo countered evenly. "For years, you have kept in contact with me for the sole purpose of your own personal gain." He shot a sharp look at Lobelia who somehow managed to swallow whatever comment was attempting to burst from her mouth. "You have all, without exception, dreamed of little more than getting your hands on my home and whatever treasures you imagine to be hidden there. Never once have you paid a visit to me for any other reason than to discern whether or not I was on the verge of my death."

"That - that's not true!" Lobelia finally found her voice. "Why, years ago when you disappeared so suddenly - "

"When I took my unexpected journey, you and yours were crawling all over Bag End in the flutter of a moth's wing," Bilbo cut her off acerbically. "I returned to find my home being dismembered by my greedy relations, who, I might add, showed not a whit of gladness for my safe arrival."

Lobelia felt anger and indignation beginning to rise within her. Here was Bilbo Baggins, standing in her parlor and speaking so rudely to her and her family! It was not to be borne. And Frodo! How under the stars could the old hobbit leave all his property to that Bucklander? "I don't have to listen to this!" Lobelia screeched. "You've done it just to spite us! You're just being hateful, leaving everything to that scrawny Brandybuck - "

Bilbo was beyond any attempt to be pleasant. "His name," he growled, "is Baggins." He caught Lobelia's gaze and held it with his own. "Frodo Baggins, son of Drogo and Primula Baggins. Yes, he has the blood of the Brandybuck line flowing through his veins, and the Tooks as well. That alone should be enough to tell you something about him."

"I'll tell you something about him!" Lobelia was raging now, her temper entirely lost. Otho was still stunned by the news of Bilbo's choice of an heir, and Lotho sat back, watching the scene rather miserably. "He's a pathetic excuse for a hobbit of any sort, let alone a gentlehobbit!" Lobelia stood directly in front of Bilbo, striking out verbally at the absent heir to his fortune. "He may bear the name of Baggins by whatever accident fate allowed, but he's a useless little worm with an improper upbringing!"

Bilbo's face had reddened and his breath was coming in short gasps. If it had been a male hobbit standing before him speaking so of Frodo, Bilbo would have flattened the culprit in the space of a half second. "That is quite enough," he hissed through clenched teeth.

"It is not enough!" Lobelia shouted at him. "It will never be enough!" She drew back her hand and slapped Bilbo as hard as she could. Her anger spent in a single burst of speech and action, she swooned and crumpled. Lotho leapt up from his seat just in time to catch her.

"Please leave. Now." Otho spoke as if to the room at large, not looking at Bilbo but staring vacantly into nothing.

"As you wish," Bilbo answered, his face still stinging from the slap. "You must come to terms with the situation, Otho. It's of your own making." Bilbo turned to leave and a sudden smile lit his face. "I'm oft referred to about Hobbiton as 'Mad Baggins,' as I'm sure you're aware." He turned to look at each of his relations in turn as he spoke. "Perhaps it's a result of that supposed madness that brings such thoughts to my mind, but it strikes me as quite just and right that Frodo should inherit my wealth. You see," Bilbo explained, "he has never sought it. Not in the least. Frodo has sought only one sort of wealth, the riches of warmth, love and happiness. If he were to have nothing more in his life, he would be quite thoroughly pleased. All of you have ignored these good things and come grasping after the physical property of others. You have ignored the very things that make life worth living, journeys and risks worth taking. You have missed the truth that has stood plainly before you."

Bilbo turned away and opened the door. "Yes, I think it fitting that I should give my all to one who has never sought it. Better that than to those who have sought it to the exclusion of all else." He had said all he had come to say, and it was plain that nobody else had anything more to say to him at the moment. Silence and cold stares followed the elderly hobbit as he let himself out of the smial, closed the door behind him, and walked somberly down the path.

~*~

Frodo jumped as the door clicked in the latch. He had been in a state of growing anxiety since Bilbo's departure. It wasn't Bilbo's way to avoid Frodo's company, even for a short span of time. When Bilbo had insisted on going about his errands alone, Frodo had been unable to banish the feeling that something wasn't right. His fears were confirmed as Frodo saw Bilbo come into the parlor with an angry red mark on his face.

"Uncle! What is it? What's happened?" Frodo looked at Bilbo with dismay.

"I have just broken the news of your adoption to the Sackville - Bagginses," Bilbo declared. "Lobelia was less than impressed by it," he added as he rubbed absently at his reddened cheek.

Frodo said nothing but dashed out past his guardian to the pump in the garden with a clean cloth in his hand. He soaked it with cold well water and brought it back inside, holding it up to Bilbo's face and dabbing gently. "She struck you!" he said disbelievingly.

"That she did, Frodo," Bilbo admitted. "And I may well have deserved it, for I must say I was not entirely pained at having to tell them. They deserve what they've received, and nothing more."

"This is my fault," Frodo said miserably. "If I hadn't come to Hobbiton none of this would have happened."

"If you hadn't come to Hobbiton, Frodo, I would be just a lonely, eccentric old hobbit with no one to care for him, and you would be in a place where you felt overlooked and unable to let the light within you shine as brightly as it deserves." Bilbo laid his hand over Frodo's. "The unpleasantness with the Sackville - Bagginses has been going on since before you were born, lad. You mustn't take on so about things you cannot change."

"I suppose not," Frodo answered, his eyes downcast.

~*~Evening~*~

Lotho ordered another ale. He had long since lost track of how many he had consumed, as his thoughts were occupied only by the events of the day and by the one who had surely been responsible for them. Frodo must have told Bilbo everything. How else could all of this be explained?

He could imagine the scene at Forelithe vividly. In his mind's eye, he could see Frodo smirking and telling Bilbo everything that Lotho had done to him over the past few months. The little rat had probably even made up a few stories to add fuel to the fire.

Lotho looked around the room, expecting to find all eyes on him, judging him a fool and his family unworthy. Let them look all they wanted, he thought angrily as he raised his tankard. They hadn't been there. They hadn't heard Bilbo's words or seen the expressions on Lotho's parents' faces.

Otho was still sitting at home, deeply depressed and staring at the same page of a book he'd been attempting to read for hours. Lobelia, once recovered from her swoon, had dosed herself with her sleeping powder and retired to her room. Lotho had been too angry to sit at home in a catatonic state or to seek the oblivion of sleep, so he had stalked out and made for the Ivy Bush, where he had spent the better part of the day drinking and brooding miserably.

Ale after ale he had taken to dull the pain he felt and to try to drive the image of Frodo from his mind. He tipped his tankard again, all the while wishing he'd never heard of Frodo Baggins.

~*~

Frodo walked down the path, kicking at a small stone. The emotional turmoil of the day had left him restless, and he had decided to walk off some of the effects. It was a pleasant evening, at least, and the scent of the flowers in the garden drifted by on a breeze to soothe him. He was so absorbed in the trajectory of the stone as it bounced off his foot, he didn't hear Sam calling to him from a short distance away.

"Mr. Frodo? Mr. Frodo, is something wrong?" Sam was slightly out of breath as he hurried to catch up with Frodo.

"Sam, I'm sorry. I wasn't paying attention," Frodo admitted, still eyeing the rock. "It's been a trying day."

"What happened?" Sam asked simply, doing his best to match his stride to Frodo's.

"Uncle Bilbo told Lotho and his family about my adoption and his decision that I should be his heir." Frodo spoke softly, glancing at Sam. "They didn't take the news very well, I'm afraid."

Sam's brow creased as he frowned. "I don't reckon they did, Mr. Frodo," he acknowledged. "I'm glad they won't get Bag End. They don't deserve to, noways."

"They would say the same of me, I'm afraid." Frodo sighed. "It's so frustrating, Sam. Bilbo has tried, and so have I. They're determined to hate us, and I suppose we can't change their minds."

"I'm sorry, Mr. Frodo," Sam replied, pained at seeing Frodo so distressed. "But that's their trouble, if you follow me. 'Tisn't your fault or Mr. Bilbo's if they want to be nasty."

Frodo gave Sam a small smile. "I know, Sam. But knowing doesn't make it any easier. Family members should try to behave more kindly toward each other."

Frodo and Sam continued to make their way along the path, talking as they went. Sam changed the subject and asked about the Forelithe celebrations at Brandy Hall, and Frodo's mood brightened as he told of the dancing and the feast. Their steps took them past the Ivy Bush, just as none other than Lotho Sackville - Baggins stumbled through the heavy wooden doors and into the path ahead.

Frodo stopped in his tracks and Sam looked up to see Lotho, weaving unsteadily and fixing them with a gaze so cold it drove the warmth from the summer evening. There was no mistaking the anger and hatred in those eyes, and Sam looked from Lotho to Frodo anxiously.

Frodo steadied himself and spoke. "Good evening, Cousin."

"Good evening?" Lotho slurred. "No, I think not. Not for some of us at least." Lotho was staring at Frodo with narrowed eyes and a sneer on his face.

"Mr. Frodo, let's go," Sam whispered, grabbing Frodo's arm and trying to turn him back the way they had come.

Lotho may have been quite drunk, but he didn't miss the gesture. "Oh, no you don't," he growled as he stumbled toward the two younger hobbits. "C'mere!" Lotho reached out and grabbed Frodo's other arm in a painful grip.

"Let go!" Frodo exclaimed, looking his cousin in the eye.

Sam was near to losing his temper when he saw Lotho lay his hands on Frodo. He let go of Frodo's other arm and leapt forward, kicking Lotho squarely in the shin. "You leave him be!"

Frodo was surprised by the sudden change in Sam's demeanor. Gone was the shy, self - effacing young gardener, replaced by a stout - hearted, though young hobbit, determined to protect his best friend.

Lotho lost interest in Frodo momentarily as his attention refocused on Sam. "You little - " Lotho moved with a speed that was astonishing considering his condition. He grabbed the front of Sam's shirt and raised his hand, preparing to strike the young lad. "Just can't stay in your proper place, can you?"

Frodo inserted himself between the two and grabbed the hand that Lotho held poised over Sam. "I think you can't stay in yours, Cousin," Frodo said evenly. "Let go of Sam and go home. You're drunk."

"Of course I'm drunk, you little worm," Lotho snarled as he released Sam. "I had the privilege of hearing that Bilbo has indeed made you his heir. You, of all people." The tween laughed bitterly. "You showed up out of the blue and ruined everything for me and my family!" Lotho had taken hold of Frodo's arm again and dug his fingers in. "You told him, didn't you? You just couldn't keep it to yourself!"

Sam stepped forward again with a mixture of concern and confusion in his expression. "What're you talkin' about?" he shouted at Lotho.

"The future Master of Bag End here told Bilbo all about how I was trying to 'persuade' him to go back where he came from," Lotho said nastily.

"I told him nothing," Frodo said angrily as he tried to break Lotho's grip on his arm. "Do you think Uncle Bilbo is stupid? He suspected you long before anyone else thought to, and he cautioned me to stay away from you. I wish I'd listened to him!" Frodo's eyes flashed as he regarded his elder cousin.

Sam drew back his leg to kick Lotho again, but a look from Frodo stilled him. "No, Sam. I appreciate your wanting to help, but this isn't your problem."

"Can't fight your own battles, Frodo?" Lotho said, leering nastily. "Got to have your little half - grown servant protect you?"

"From you? Never!" Frodo put all his strength into a mighty shove that put Lotho off balance and nearly toppled him. The escalating confrontation had begun to attract the attention of a few passers by, and more hobbits began to drift out of the Ivy Bush to watch.

Lotho steadied himself with some difficulty and charged at Frodo, intending to thrash him soundly. "I couldn't get rid of you, but I'm going to knock you into the dirt, rat!" He swung at Frodo, and Frodo ducked the blow.

"Leave off, Lotho! You're making a scene!" Frodo said as he backed away a few steps. "Go home and sleep it off before you do something you'll regret."

Sam struggled with his desire to jump in and pummel Lotho with all of his strength. He might be smaller than the tween, but Sam was quite sturdy for his age. But Frodo had forbidden him to enter the fray in no uncertain terms, and despite what Lotho had said, Sam knew his place. At least he had always thought he did. He should do as Mr. Frodo asked him, but how could he?

Sam made a decision. If Frodo wouldn't let him have a shot at Lotho, he would find another way to help. No one seemed to notice as he slipped away from the crowd and turned to run as fast as he could back toward Bag End. Frodo had told Sam not to interfere himself, but he'd said nothing about Sam telling Bilbo.

~*~

"Mr. Bilbo!" Sam shouted as he approached the hill at top speed. "Mr. Bilbo, come quick!"

Bilbo heard Sam's shouts through the window and opened the front door in answer. His graying head popped out and turned left, then right, and he spied Sam rushing toward him. "Samwise, has someone lit your breeches on fire?"

"No, sir," Sam stammered, out of breath and gasping. "That is, Mr. Lotho - Mr. Frodo - "

Bilbo placed his hands on Sam's shoulders to steady him. "What about Lotho and Frodo? Has that nasty whelp done something to my boy?" Bilbo's voice was filled with both fear and anger.

"He's tryin' to, sir!" Sam said plaintively. "Mr. Frodo wouldn't let me help him, an' he said it isn't my problem, but it is! Anythin' bad that's happenin' to Mr. Frodo is my problem 'cause he's my friend," Sam said obstinately.

"Where are they?" Bilbo asked as he stepped out the door and closed it behind him.

"In front of the Ivy Bush. Lotho's real drunk an' he's real mad," Sam informed Bilbo.

"Curse me, this is my fault," Bilbo berated himself as he hurried with Sam toward the site of the altercation. He told himself to remember how Frodo had handled the bullies back at Brandy Hall and that Frodo could stand up and take care of himself when he was put to it. Still, Bilbo wasn't about to sit back and leave Frodo to stand up against his older, larger cousin.

It wasn't long before Sam and Bilbo could hear the sound of a disturbance ahead. He could hear the occasional shout of encouragement from the observers, and he quickened his pace as he heard the combatants arguing.

"Lotho, if you don't stop this, you will be sorry, believe me," Frodo was saying as he dodged another of Lotho's attempts to punch him.

"The only thing I 'm sorry for is not having just pounded you in the first place," Lotho shouted back. He swung again and missed, but this time his fingers brushed the front of Frodo's shirt and he caught it and held on.

Frodo managed to block the next punch but not the one after. He reeled backward as Lotho's fist met his cheek. That was it for Frodo. Having been unable to talk his cousin into abandoning the fight, he now allowed himself the luxury of fury. The discussion was clearly over, and his eyes blazed with anger.

Frodo turned and aimed a return volley at Lotho, catching him squarely in the jaw. He had given Lotho the chance to back off and his cousin had ignored it at his own risk. Frodo hadn't much practice at brawling since it had been a forbidden activity at Brandy Hall, but he had the clear advantage of sobriety as he faced Lotho.

Lotho now pressed his only true advantage - his size. He bore down on Frodo, crashing into him and knocking him to the ground. Lotho held Frodo pinned beneath him and aimed a vicious backhand at Frodo's face. Frodo raised his hands to block it and squeezed his eyes shut, bracing himself.

Suddenly the pressure was gone, and when nothing struck him, Frodo opened his eyes to see Bilbo holding Lotho back with all his strength. The elderly hobbit had come up behind the tween and grabbed him in a bear hug, pinning his arms to his sides and dragging him backward and away from Frodo.

A few cheers and mutters arose from the observers at this new development. Lotho recovered from his initial surprise and growled, "Let go of me, you doddering - "

"Close that insolent mouth of yours, lad and listen to me very carefully," Bilbo said, using the most menacing tone of which he was capable. "Up until now, I could not prove you were attempting to harm Frodo, but now I have proof and many witnesses to your actions. You will never lay a hand on your cousin again, or you shall deal with me. If you think for one moment that I will not slap that smirk off your face, you are sadly mistaken!"

Frodo was sitting up and staring at Bilbo with wide eyes. Bilbo's protectiveness had never been in any doubt, but Frodo had never seen Bilbo looking so angry. It was plain that Bilbo Baggins meant business.

"Mr. Frodo!" Sam was at Frodo's side, trying to pull him to his feet. "I'm sorry, Mr. Frodo. You wouldn't let me help you so I told Mr. Bilbo. Are you angry?"

"No, Sam, I'm not angry with you," Frodo said, still staring at his guardian and the tween in his grasp. "Thank you." Frodo looked up and accepted the hand Sam held out to him. He pulled himself up and dusted off his breeches.

Lotho was snarling and trying to break out of Bilbo's grip to no avail. As Frodo approached, Lotho favored him with a cold look. "You got off easy this time, rat, but someday, I swear - "

"Someday? Who knows, Lotho. Someday you might get the better of me, but not today. Not this way." Frodo had begun to calm himself now that he was no longer in immediate danger of a brutal thrashing.

Bilbo turned Lotho in the opposite direction and released him with a hard shove. "Off with you, boy. Get yourself home before I drag you there myself and give your parents an account of your actions." Bilbo smiled inwardly. It was an idle threat and completely unnecessary for him to tell Otho and Lobelia about the fight, since word would travel swiftly enough to them through those who had observed the entire occurrence.

Lotho stumbled a little, owing to the effects of the alcohol in his system and to the accuracy of Frodo's jab to his jaw. He turned and gave Frodo one last look of pure hatred, and ambled off toward home. Bilbo watched him go and shook his head sadly.

"All right, everyone. The show is over now, so back to your ale then," Bilbo told the hobbits who had gathered to watch the battle. Bilbo waved them off, and they dispersed slowly.

Frodo stood looking in the direction Lotho had taken. He cast a troubled gaze at Bilbo as the elder hobbit came to stand beside him. "I'm sorry, Uncle. I tried to avoid him, as you said."

"I'm sure you did, Frodo. I apologize for my interference, but I couldn't bear the thought of that young beast laying hands on you." Bilbo eyed Frodo seriously. "I know that a lad your age must fight his own battles from time to time, and I got into a scrape or two myself when I was your age."

"You did?" Frodo said incredulously, trying to imagine Bilbo brawling in a noisy pub or in the street. Why was it that Frodo could easily picture Bilbo facing down a giant spider in the forest of Mirkwood, but he couldn't see him trading punches with another hobbit?

Frodo's tone brought a smile to Bilbo's face. "Oh yes, lad. Not as a general rule, you understand," he said sternly, trying to impress upon Frodo that fighting was to be avoided if possible. "It usually had something to do with a pretty lass, if memory serves." The smile returned, accompanied by a wry chuckle.

It was Frodo's turn to smile, and he rubbed at his cheek ruefully. "Lotho may not be impressed with me, but I think he isn't up to defying you." It was true that not many hobbits of Bilbo's age still possessed the strength and forceful presence necessary to back down a young bully like Lotho.

"And he had better not, my boy," Bilbo said, puffing his chest out proudly. "For I meant it when I said I would slap the smirk off his face myself should he trouble you again. If he's big enough to start a fight, he's big enough to take the consequences." Bilbo draped one arm over Frodo's shoulders and the other over Sam's as they turned for home.

~*~

Several weeks passed before Frodo saw Lotho again. Word had indeed made its way about Hobbiton regarding the fight, and Lotho was subjected to no small amount of ridicule for having been backed down by old Bilbo Baggins. Frodo passed Lotho on the street one day, but nothing more did Lotho give his cousin besides a very dirty look.

Frodo, on the other hand, found that he was accorded a little more respect than he had been previously. The lads who had shouted suggestive insults at him a few months earlier near the mill pond bridge were silent as he passed them now, and he was getting to know more of the tweens about town. By September, Hobbiton and Bag End seemed as if they had always been home to Frodo.

~*~September 22, 1390 S.R.~*~

"Good morning, Frodo, lad, and happy birthday!" Bilbo enthused as he flung the shutters of Frodo's room wide to admit the cheerful sunshine.

"And happy birthday to you also, Uncle," Frodo said rather sleepily as he rolled over and placed a hand over his eyes to shield them from the sudden brightness.

"Well, are you going to lie abed all day or get ready for our birthday party?" Bilbo prodded the tween with a wink. "We've final preparations to make, my boy."

"Yes Uncle," Frodo said and sat up. "I suppose we do at that." Frodo leaned over and pulled a small wrapped object out from under the bed. "This is for you, Uncle. I didn't want to wait until the party to give it you," Frodo said with a smile. "I hope you like it."

Bilbo smiled and accepted the gift, at the same time producing something he had been holding behind his back all the while and handing it to Frodo. "And this is for you, lad."

Frodo turned the item over in his hands. It was plainly a book of some sort, from its size and weight. Upon carefully removing the paper, he discovered that it was a book of historical tales of the Shire, one that Bilbo had owned for many years and that Frodo had thought looked very interesting. Its pages were yellowed with age, although the book itself was in otherwise perfect condition. On the inside was a faded inscription that read, 'To Bilbo Baggins, from Rorimac Brandybuck, 1320 S.R.'

"Uncle Rory gave you this?" Frodo questioned, turning the book over in his hands gently.

"Yes, my boy. On his eighteenth birthday. There are wonderful tales inside, and they are all true," Bilbo said, pointing at the book. "A fine history the Shire has, Frodo. The deeds of some of your ancestors are recorded here, among others."

Frodo paused in his inspection of the book and gestured toward the gift he had given Bilbo. "Open it Uncle," he urged.

Bilbo did so, removing the wrapping with care. He held a framed page of fine parchment with Frodo's most careful writing inscribed upon it. Frodo had written out one of Bilbo's favorite poems and had framed it so Bilbo could hang it on the wall of his study to enjoy whenever he pleased. Tears welled in the old hobbit's eyes as he read the words again.

"Thank you so much, Frodo," he said softly. "It's a beautiful gift and I will treasure it always." He mussed Frodo's curls fondly. "Come now, lad, on your feet," Bilbo ordered cheerfully. "This evening we will celebrate out birthday together as we'd planned, eh?"

"Yes, Uncle, we shall," Frodo said happily as he stood and stretched. "Are there many guests coming?"

"Bag End shall be full of hobbits by teatime," Bilbo confirmed. "And no, the Sackville - Bagginses are not attending."

Frodo gave Bilbo an odd look. "Did you invite them, Uncle?"

"No, Frodo," Bilbo responded with a raised eyebrow. "I did not!" A wide grin appeared on the old hobbit's face, accompanied by a ringing laugh. Frodo tried to hold back his own mirth and failed completely, bursting into gales of laughter with Bilbo.

Out in the garden, Sam stopped raking and looked up at the sound. "What do you suppose is so funny, Da?" he asked, regarding the Gaffer with a quizzical expression.

"I wouldn't know, as I'm mindin' my own affairs," the Gaffer said, poking Sam lightly with the handle of his rake. "As you should be."

Sam smiled at the Gaffer and resumed raking. "Yes sir," he said simply, grinning down at the pile of leaves on the ground. Whatever Mr. Frodo and Mr. Bilbo found amusing, Sam was glad to hear them laughing. He looked forward to hearing sounds of merriment through the windows of Bag End in the future and prayed that there would be many more such warm September days to enjoy.

~End~