This chapter references "Quarantined", chapters 3 and 19. Bilbo's poem is taken from FOTR.

Thank you for reading, my friends! And special thanks to Breon Briarwood, whose SOA review for Chapter 5 snuck an idea into my head… and into this chapter.

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FORCE OF NATURE

Chapter 15 -- Leavetaking

But all the while I sit and think of times there were before,
I listen for returning feet and voices at the door.
The Fellowship of the Ring, 'The Ring Goes South'

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"You're eager to be gone, aren't you?" Bilbo asked Aragorn. They worked side by side in the kitchen, Bilbo at the stove and Aragorn sitting at the table, making sandwiches.

"I do not wish to seem ungrateful for your hospitality," Aragorn admitted, "but you are correct, Bilbo. It is difficult for a Ranger to remain in one place for long."

"And yet, if your destiny is fulfilled, you will be a Ranger no more," Bilbo observed.

"Perhaps not," Aragorn mused, "but wherever my path leads, I will do my best."

"Where will you go from here?"

"Thalguron and I resume our patrol as soon as Halbarad has been safely taken to the village where his family lives. I would like us to leave tomorrow morning." Aragorn prepared a final sandwich, and surveyed the mountain he had created. "Is this enough?"

"It should be," Bilbo grinned. "You're learning, my friend!"

"Bilbo," Aragorn said quietly, "I have been wanting to tell you something. I am sorry Frodo became ill because of our visit... but am very proud of his willingness to assist us in locating Halbarad. Every time our paths cross, Frodo -- and you -- impress me more. Things might have gone ill for Halbarad had you, Frodo, and Merry not been here."

"Our fortunes certainly seem to be entwined in a peculiar way," Bilbo said. "You and Frodo bonded from the first day you met." He stirred the afternoon soup thoughtfully. "Estel, it was very difficult for Saradoc and Esmeralda to entrust Frodo into my care, but they were able to see that I had only the boy's best interests at heart... and that Frodo trusted me to look after him." He turned to face the Ranger. "You, also, have only Frodo's best interests at heart, and he trusts you. He always has."

"I wonder where his fate will lead him," Aragorn wondered.

"The influences in his life have been good ones. His parents, his relatives, me, you..." Bilbo smiled at the Ranger. "Whatever he chooses to do, I suspect that he will make choices that bring about the betterment of the Shire, and the safeguarding of those he loves – as your choices have done."

"I would be honored to be any part of that remarkable boy's future," Aragorn said, rising to his feet. He picked up the tray of sandwiches. "I'll take these to the parlor."

"This has been a perilous visit," Thalguron said, hungrily eyeing the tray his Captain set upon the parlor's largest table. "Already I fear my tunic is less easy to fasten than it was just days ago."

"Mother will be happy to see a bit of meat on us," Halbarad chuckled, patting his own -- rather lean, to the hobbits' eyes -- stomach. Frodo and Merry ran to get plates, bowls, spoons, and napkins, while Bilbo brought in a steaming pot of savory soup. Thalguron fetched juice for the boys, and mugs of ale for the adults, and soon the seven friends (Scamp's supper bowl had been filled as well) were enjoying a merry meal.

"Are you leaving the hobbits any books at all?" Thalguron asked Halbarad, motioning to the piles of books stacked on the floor around his brother. The parlor shelves looked nearly empty.

"Perhaps a few!" Halbarad laughed. "Frodo and Bilbo have been kind enough to offer me enough to read to keep me occupied for the coming weeks. Regretfully, I must choose between these excellent stories and verses; we can only take what will fit in Daeron's saddlebag."

"Very clever, Frodo," Aragorn said knowingly. "Not only do I need to bring back the clasp you found, but now Halbarad must return your books. Luring Rangers into your clutches again and again, I see."

"That's right," Frodo said smugly, finishing his second bowlful of soup. "This is wonderful, Bilbo. I still have so much to learn about proper cooking."

"It's all in the spices, my lad," Bilbo said proudly, "and giving things time to simmer and blend."

"You cook nearly as well as my mother, Cousin Bilbo." Merry declared, practically inhaling his soup.

"High praise indeed," Bilbo smiled. "Estel, did you speak with Merry's parents when you returned Pippin to his parents?"

"Indeed, I did. In fact, nearly the entire Hall turned out to welcome Pippin back," Aragorn replied. "I suspect that many of them feared they would never see him again... kidnapped by Rangers, no doubt." He chuckled, remembering. "Seeing the lad on such a large horse must have been quite an astonishing sight." He turned to Merry with a smile. "He wanted me to remind you that you 'pwomised' to teach him 'twacking'."

"Shall we?" Merry asked Thalguron, his eyes shining. "I would love to learn."

"Indeed we shall, my young friend," Thalguron smiled, getting to his feet. "Frodo, would you like to join us?"

Frodo looked around at all the dishes and bowls. "I'd love to," he sighed, "but---"

"Go on, little one," Aragorn told him. "I have no gifts for our parting tomorrow, as Thalguron has prepared, but I can at least gift you with a few hours away from chores. I promise to do a good job."

"You want to do the dishes?" Frodo asked, thunderstruck.

"If I can learn to cook, I can certainly learn to clean up!" Aragorn smiled.

"Thank you, Estel," Bilbo said gratefully. "I believe I will take a nap while these youngsters are out and about. Halbarad, will you be all right on your own..." Bilbo's voice trailed off and he smiled seeing that Halbarad had picked up a slim book of poetry, and was already engrossed in its contents. The young Ranger handed the book up to his brother and motioned for him to read from the open page.

"I sit beside the fire and think of how the world will be
when winter comes without a spring that I shall ever see.
For still there are so many things that I have never seen:
in every wood in every spring there is a different green."

Thalbarad read the verses out loud. "The Shire contains some very gifted poets," he said admiringly.

"It certainly does," Frodo said proudly, "and Bilbo is the best of them all. He wrote that."

"Bilbo, these verses are yours?" Aragorn asked curiously, taking the book and flipping through it. He smiled down at the old hobbit, and nodded approvingly. Perhaps the poem Bilbo planned to write about him would be of high value after all. "I look forward to hearing more of them someday."

"I'm sure you shall, Estel," Bilbo said with a twinkle in his eye. "I'm sure you shall."

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"See here?" Thalguron asked the boys crouching silently next to him. "You can see where the grass is flattened... and there, and there," he pointed ahead of them. "The rain has made it easier to spot the tracks," he continued, touching the grass still slightly damp from the night's rain. "Can you guess what came by here?"

"The tracks are far apart," Merry said, studying the grass. "Something large?"

"Or something fast," Frodo ventured. "A bounding rabbit?"

"Exactly," Thalguron smiled. "Was he alone? Can you see where he went?"

Thalguron spent the afternoon with the boys, who thoroughly enjoyed their lessons with the experienced and patient Ranger.

"Rangers notice details," Thalguron said during a quiet moment under a tree. "Look about you. What draws your attention? Is a branch bent strangely, a bit of ground disturbed, birds silent when they should be singing? There are messages everywhere."

"From the trees, as well," Frodo added, looking up into the leafy branches. "I never thought much about them, before."

"Nor I," Thalguron said thoughtfully. He smiled and patted the tree, then stood up. "Time to return home, my friends."

The little group returned to the house at sunset -- tired, grass stained, and hungry -- but laughing and singing. Frodo and Merry fell into bed right after supper, and both dreamed of forests -- green and silent -- where they walked together in wonder and delight.

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After breakfast the next morning, the Rangers prepared to depart. Thalguron planned to deliver Halbarad to their home village before rejoining Aragorn, whom he would meet in Bree.

Bilbo and Frodo insisted on packing hampers of food for each Ranger. When Aragorn tried to protest, Bilbo would have none of it.

"Nonsense," the old hobbit declared. "The more you take with you, the less we have to drag back to Brandy Hall. You don't want our wagon to be overloaded, do you?"

"Heavens, no," Thalguron said firmly, tying one of the hampers onto his saddle. "Are you trying to cause our friends more trouble, Captain?"

"Heavens, no," Aragorn assured him with a smile. "Bilbo," he continued, turning to the old hobbit, "we straightened the parlor and did what we could in the kitchen, but I hate the thought of leaving you and the boys to clean up the rest of the house by yourselves."

"Thank you, Estel," Bilbo smiled, "but we need only load the wagon with our clothes, some perishables, and a few supplies we brought with us. It is only three miles to Brandy Hall, as you know; Merry's father will send a small army out here to clean up, and prepare the house for its next guests."

"I am glad to hear it," Aragorn smiled. With that, he walked over to the woodpile next to the house and reached behind it, pulling out several long, canvas-wrapped bundles.

"I wondered where you had hidden your weapons," Frodo said, emerging from the house carrying several cloth-wrapped pies. "I'm glad Scamp didn't bury them in one of her holes." He looked around searchingly.

"She's here," Halbarad smiled, gazing down. Scamp lay next to him, nearly invisible in the long grass, chewing enthusiastically on a tangle of leather strips Halbarad had given to her.

"Crazy pup," Frodo said fondly.

"I have something to say," Merry said importantly, marching up to the three Rangers. "I understand that you were made an honorary Baggins, Estel."

"That is true," Aragorn replied, smiling at Bilbo.

"As the son of the Master of the Hall, and future Master of Buckland," Merry announced, "I would like to declare your companions, Thalguron and Halbarad, as honorary Brandybucks." With that, he bowed deeply before the Men.

"Meriadoc," Halbarad said gravely, "Speaking for my brother and myself, we are honored."

Thalbarad crouched in front of Merry. "Thank you, Merry. To mark this occasion, let me distribute the rest of my gifts." He smiled and handed the boy an intricately carved leaf.

"Thank you!" Merry enthused. "It's beautiful."

"Frodo, this is for you," Thalguron said with a sly grin, and presented the tween with a tiny replica of Scamp, complete with long ears and mischievous look.

"This is wonderful," Frodo said, giving Thalguron a hug. "Thank you so much."

"These small tokens are little enough for what you have all done for us," the Ranger said. "And I have not forgotten our host..." With a smile, he handed Bilbo the last item he held – a small, beautiful star, similar in design to those on the Rangers' cloaks. "My friend, we will safeguard your lands as attentively as you have safeguarded your grateful guests." He rose to his feet, and the three Rangers – Halbarad somewhat awkwardly -- bowed to Bilbo, and then the two boys, who all bowed solemnly in return. Formalities at an end, Aragorn knelt and opened his arms, into which Frodo flew for a farewell hug.

"You wanted an Adventure, Merry my lad," Bilbo said, putting his arm around the boy. "You got your wish."

"It was wonderful," Merry said happily. "When can we do it again?"

END

Ainu Laire: Thank you! I enjoy giving everyone (especially Halbarad) a peaceful, fluffy, well-fed adventure.

Amy: It's been a fun slumber party, hasn't it? I doubt those Rangers will ever be able to think of their 'vacation' without smiling.

Anargil: Sorry, no more TBC's! Thank you so much for your enthusiasm, and I'm sure we'll revisit this universe when the next fluffy idea strikes me.

Andrea: I think that Bilbo, at his age and after all he's gone through, would be very straightforward... and yet diplomatic. It's fun to imagine what he and Frodo would talk about.

Anso the Hobbit: I'm sure Merry would be a very good student, no matter what he studied. What a shame the films didn't really show his competence and many abilities like the books did.

aprilkat: Thank you for all the reviews! What fun. It's interesting to imagine how Aragorn's men saw and thought about their Captain, and this was my first chance to explore it. And "cross-cultural understanding" is more or less the underlying theme of this whole 'universe'. Thank you for letting me know it's coming across.

Auntiemeesh: I didn't know what Pippin would be drawing until he started! I'm glad Halbarad is as sweet natured as he is.

Baggins Babe: Oh dear, a fluff-stuffed computer! I hope you were able to clean it out (in time for the next relentless barrage of fluff).

cuthalion: I find it very revealing that Bilbo kept no secrets from Frodo – including his greatest secret of all, the Ring. I like to see him encouraging Frodo to confide in him, as well, and not keep everything bottled up inside.

Dreamflower: I do imagine Frodo as being unusually perceptive, especially given his unusual life and the dreams Tolkien writes him experiencing. It was interesting to bring it out in his conversation with Bilbo.

EllyBaggins: I don't seem to be able to stay away from this universe for long, even when I think I've written everything I can possibly think of! Thank you for letting me know that you're enjoying it so much.

Elven Kitten: Thank you. :D

Elwen: I wanted to get Frodo and Bilbo's conversation "just right", even though it was short. I'm very glad you liked it.

Endaewen: I don't seem to be able to write really long stories... just lots of them!

harrowcat: Maybe you're right -- I should start labeling my stories with more accurate ratings of L ("less fluff than usual"), N ("normal amounts of fluff"), and U ("unbelievable mountains of fluff").

Larner: Pippin is just wriggling with joy that you love his ducks!

Lily: There can never be enough ducks and fwogs and tadpoles. Our wee hobbits deserve all the fun they can get.

lindahoyland: Thank you so much. I'm glad you thought I handled Frodo and Bilbo's difficult talk well.

Pearl Took: I'm so happy to hear that (Knitted)Pippin still enjoys drawing ducks. And I hope your birthday was lovely, dear one!

SlightlyTookish: Who could resist so much Pippin-ness! Those Men were very lucky to meet such sweet hobbit lads.

smalldiver: Oh, I love the idea of Halbarad keeping his decorated crutches even after he doesn't need them anymore. I do tend to return to this 'universe' whenever things get too angsty... if I think of another story line, you can be sure I'll write more. Thank you so much for your enthusiasm and support.

The Hobbit Waffle: There is a lot of abandonment in Frodo's life, isn't there? How wonderful he must have felt when his cousins and Sam insisted on accompanying him to Rivendell... and far, far beyond.

Tigger: You sweetie, thank you. Believe me, I'll miss this story as much as anyone. They're all like my children, and I'm so happy folks enjoy them.

westwindschild: Calling this a "restful, healing story" is such a compliment. Thank you.

Whispering Darkness: Yes, I have to admit that wee!Pip is definitely cute!