Notes and disclaimers: This is my first Tolkien fic and is based on a theory I have on the Frodo – Bilbo relationship (non-slash). I intend to extend these ideas in a later fic.

All credits, dedications (and sincerest apologies) to Tolkien.

*The Road goes ever on and on

Down from the door where it began.

Now far ahead the Road has gone,

And I must follow, if I can,

Pursuing it with eager feet,

Until it joins some larger way

Where many paths and errands meet.

And whither then? I cannot say.*

He paused to look back, swallowing a lump of bitterness in his throat. Why couldn't he be at peace here anymore? He had never really been able to settle down since his great journey. Not really. Even as he had been so eager to get home on the journey back from Erebor so long ago, he was eager now to see it again. He wanted to see mountains (though 60 years ago the mere thought of them had made him quake with fear)! And dwarves (though 60 years ago he had thought them most disrespectful and uncouth)! He wanted to see Thorin's great halls returned to the glory of which the king had always so excitedly spoke. Poor old Thorin…

And there behind him was the very green door that Gandalf had scratched the mark in. The very doorstep through which the dwarves had tumbled. The garden where he had sat with his pipe on quiet summer evenings, watching smoke rings sail like ghosts on the warm breeze, his back leaned against a tree, Frodo curled at his side with his head on his shoulder listening to his stories and (unlike the other relatives who thought him mad) believing every word.

"Will you take me to see the elves, Bilbo?" he had begged one particularly starry night, where every jewel in the sky seemed to shine like the Arkenstone. "Please take me to see the Elves. I want to see your mountains, Bilbo. And the dwarves. Please take me there one day! Will you?"

Bilbo had smiled at him. "My dear boy, my time for adventures is gone," he had said. "You will have adventures of your own, I'm certain. But never go looking for them."

Frodo had stared up at the sky, deep in thought, the glimmer of the stars reflecting in his eyes. He'd just turned 28 and fine elven features were starting to break through the puppy fat of youth.

He'll be handsome, Bilbo had thought to himself proudly. Perhaps a little strange looking for a hobbit, but handsome nonetheless.

"Why should I not look for them?" he had asked then.

"Because they will find you, Frodo," Bilbo had replied. "Adventures do that. They creep up on you just as you're nice and comfy and settling into middle age. Most awkward things adventures are! A bit like Lobelia - never there when you want, and always creeping up being a nuisance when you don't!"

Middle age was now a very long way back, Bilbo thought to himself. His body was still young - well preserved, indeed! - but his heart felt very very old, scarred beyond recognition by horrors that after six decades still refused to heal, choosing rather to tighten and choke and stifle what was left of the old Bilbo Baggins in a smothering constraint, wanting to claim his soul for its own, and drain him of all that pure and hobbit-like and fill instead with terror and darkness.

He forced himself to turn away, and didn't even look at Gandalf, and he followed the dwarves along the path. The noise and bustle of the party still carried on the night air and Bilbo chuckled to himself, wondering how many of his relatives he had offended this time. If he'd only upset the S- Bs it would be worth it! Lobelia had never forgiven him for turning up alive and thwarting her plans to get her greedy hands on Bag End.

She would be cursing in the morning, he guessed, when the will was read out. He didn't envy Frodo but he knew the boy would be more than capable of giving her an answer. Just like he had the day Lotho had mangled the flowers in the garden and tried to lay the blame on the Gaffer's little son. Frodo had definitely given her an answer that day!

So many memories. It was hard to leave them all behind. And yet Bilbo felt that this was not the end, there was still much much more to come. Something told him, like a whispering in the night, in his darkest dreams and deepest thoughts. Some foreboding feeling he couldn't get sorted in his mind.

He went to put his hand into the pocket of his waistcoat, as always, to draw strength from the one thing that could provide it, but...

He laughed out loud, feeling lighter than he had in years. "Of course! It's not there anymore!"

And that was a relief. Such a relief to be free of it at last, free of the strangling tentacles that were starting to bind him. But at the same time, it was a terrible loss. Those strangling tentacles were like an embrace sometimes, and the gold so pretty in his hand…

"So pretty…"

And now it was gone. And he had attacked his closest friend because of it. Surely it was better to be rid of it!

"But… no." He felt like a piece of his soul had been torn out.

He'd miss the weight in his pocket, the feel of the cold metal that never seemed to tarnish, the comfort and security it seemed to offer him. He felt like nothing could take its place in his heart, nothing could rid the thoughts of it. And he wanted to run back and snatch it from the mantelpiece and take it with him. Far away, where no one could ever steal it from him. It had become so precious to him.

*"It has been called that before, but not by you."*

Bilbo drew himself up quickly. His hand had strayed to his pocket, even though it was empty and for a moment his heart stopped and a strange fire raged inside him.

*"My precious. My precious…. Losst it is!! My precious is lost!!"*

The voice still screeched at the back of his mind as clear as the day he'd heard it. He shivered as the feelings ebbed away, and he was once again Bilbo Baggins on the road with dwarves. But now he thought he understood some of the horror Gollum had felt losing Precious. He understood how the thing had twisted the poor creature's mind, just as it was doing to him.

No! It was better to be rid of it. He'd had enough. He wanted peace. Peace of mind from the constant nagging insistence that plagued him day after day. The watching feeling, like some great eye was searching him. Yes, he was glad the ring was gone. Frodo would take care of it! Frodo… now Frodo had the Ring. Perhaps he would have been better keeping it himself, if only to protect Frodo. But he knew he couldn't. Keeping it would have driven him madder than parting with it. Frodo would know what to do; he was a sensible boy. He was a Baggins, after all, like himself.

Too much like himself.

Bilbo sighed. Sometimes he wished he had never found out the secret that seemed to stretch for miles in an unbridgeable chasm of deceit between him and Frodo. The secret that made him feel proud and disgraced all at once. The secret that made him love Frodo more than ever, but at the same time terrified him, and even sickened him a little. The secret was etched in Frodo's face and it tortured him every day. A mistake, a drunken mistake at a silly party of those confounded Brandybucks at the New Year of 1368. He hadn't even wanted to go, he had been dragged along! And who'd ever seen Bilbo Baggins drunk? At the time Bilbo had only been embarrassed by cavorting around like he was in his tweens, and with his cousin's wife for goodness sake! He had scarcely believed it! He certainly didn't believe what he could remember of the night's later events. The memories had slowly begun to add up in his addled mind the next day and he was forced to believe it but he never dared to imagine to what they would result. It wasn't until twelve years later that his fears were awakened, at the funeral of his cousin Drogo where he had looked into the face of a little boy and seen himself staring back. And it wasn't until nine years after that his fears were confirmed. Esmerelda Brandybuck had carried the secret for years, but he doubted it weighed as heavy on her heart as it did on his. He could have run away then, but he didn't. Couldn't.

His boy. His dear boy. It pained him so much. It pained him that he'd forever be 'Uncle Bilbo' when he should have been so much more. How he wished he could tell him! But he couldn't. Frodo had already seen enough pain and betrayal in his short life, and Bilbo couldn't think of shaming his poor mother. He couldn't even dream of shaming Frodo. He couldn't think how he would find words to tell Frodo that the death of his parents had been partly his fault. And he couldn't bear the thought of Frodo hating him. He couldn't bear the thought of losing him forever. He was leaving him behind now, and that hurt, but the thought of Frodo hating him *forever* made him tremble ten times as hard as he had when he'd looked into the face of Smaug.

Sometimes Bilbo felt like he would burst, but he had to keep it all inside. Oh it did hurt! It burned like acid in his mind, twisted like blades of ice in his gut. But it was the price he had to pay.

A tear traced its path down the old hobbit's cheek as he turned the last bend in the road that would block Hobbiton from his sight. Perhaps there was one thing in his life that was more precious and binding than any magic ring. And it hurt him more than the ring would ever know how to.