Disclaimer: Characters, events, places, borrowed from the Tolkien estate and I promise to give them back. Honest.

Author's note: having read 'The Hobbit' prior to this would help. Everyone knows of the visit of Bilbo, twelve dwarves and one wizard to Rivendell on their way to the Lonely Mountain; and many people know that Aragorn was brought up in the same house – but had you realised that the friendship of Bilbo Baggins and Aragorn must date from the stay of Thorin and Company in the Last Homely House? At that time Aragorn was ten and known as Estel, and had not yet been told of his heritage. Here is my version of the meeting of the two friends, with associated events from the same period.

The bell sounded clear through the valley, and Estel awoke with a start from a strange dream of battles. He lay for a moment in his bed, looking out on the bright, sunny morning, and then threw back the covers and got up.

His mother was not in her room, and the boy went running towards the great hall, calling greetings to the Elves he passed as he ran. In the hall he found his mother, sitting alone nibbling bread and fruit, and he slid in next to her.

"Good morning, mother."

Gilraen turned and smiled at him, a little sadly. "Good morning, my son."

Estel pulled some bread towards him and began to eat. His mother watched him, silent.

"Will you come for a walk with me today?" Estel asked through a mouthful. Gilraen frowned at him. Estel finished the mouthful. "Please?"

"I think you'll find there are more interesting things here this morning," a grave voice said behind them. Estel turned. "Good morning, Estel," Elrond said, nodding at him. "We have guests. They arrived last night."

"Guests, my lord?" Gilraen said.

"A party from the Shire," Elrond replied. "They come seeking advice on dragon-slaying."

"The Shire?" Estel asked. "Where's that?"

"West of here along the East Road," Elrond said. "But I am the least- qualified person to tell you about it. You should ask others, Estel. They are doubtless still abed, for they arrived late, but I will send along the experts later on."

"Thank you!" said Estel. "Mother, can I leave the table?"

Gilraen nodded, and the boy ran out into the sunny gardens. Elrond watched him go. "Mithrandir came with the guests," he said, almost absently. "We will be in my rooms later on. It is time he was told you are here, my lady." She nodded silently, and Elrond looked at her with pity in his eyes. "I know this is not your choice, my lady. But one day I must tell him of his ancestry, and on that day Mithrandir could be a valuable guide."

"I know this, my lord," Gilraen said, "and, as ever, will bow to your judgement. But I will rue the day when my child becomes a man, for that day I will lose him, as I lost his father." She rose. "Tell Mithrandir what you will, Lord Elrond."

The day wore on, and outside in the garden Estel, practising sword-thrusts in the air, waited impatiently for a sign of the guests. High above him, Elrond was watching with affection in his eyes. He turned from the window.

"So you're meddling in other people's affairs, as usual?" he said to his guest.

Mithrandir, his tall hat laid aside, and a long pipe in his mouth, looked up. "What's that?"

Elrond smiled wryly. "I said, you're meddling in other people's affairs. What need have you of these dwarves? And the halfling?"

"Mr Baggins is quite possibly the best hobbit in the Shire," Mithrandir returned gruffly. "He may look like an overweight bumpkin, but I am sure he will grow on this journey. I am meddling, as you put it, Elrond, because Thorin asked me to. And surely you can see that getting rid of Smaug is a necessity? There is a Shadow in Mirkwood, you know that. Great events may soon come to pass. And one dragon less is a victory for us."

Elrond picked up a glass of wine and sipped it, regarding the wizard over the brim. "I see you are as decided over this as anything else, my friend. Well, it is your choice. But I have greater matters to discuss with you." He looked down on the garden, where Estel was sitting dangling his feet in a stream. "Come here."

Mithrandir stood up and came to join Elrond.

"He and his mother live here," Elrond said, gesturing downwards. Mithrandir gave him a shrewd, piercing look from under grey eyebrows. "He's the Heir of Isildur."

"How old is the lad?" asked Mithrandir.

"Ten. His name is Aragorn, though he does not know it yet. We call him Estel."

"Hope," said Mithrandir. "And do you?"

"If, as you say," Elrond replied, "great things will come to pass, then I hope he can play his part well. I am fond of him."

"And his mother?" Mithrandir said.

Elrond sat down, idly playing with a quill lying on a table. "Gilraen misses her people. She stays from duty to her son. He needs her; there are few enough women in this house."

"Arwen?" asked Mithrandir.

"In Lórien with Galadriel," Elrond said, and sadness flickered across his features. "It is not a house for children, this."

Mithrandir tapped his pipe out on the sill and shook his head at Elrond. "You seem to have brought him up admirably, my old friend. Why are you telling me?"

"He will need friends and guides, later," Elrond said. "And he wants to know about the Shire, as indeed he should. The Dúnedain still protect those lands?"

"As well they can, yes," agreed Mithrandir. He sighed. "All right, I shall go and tell young Estel about the Shire. Where's Bilbo, anyway? Have any of them got up this morning?"

"I think you will find Thorin and his companions having a late breakfast," Elrond said with a laugh. "Or at least Mr Baggins, if I know anything about halflings."

Mithrandir tucked his pipe into his belt and nodded. "I'll be back later, Elrond."

The wizard made his way down the passages of the house and into the dining hall, where a group of dwarves and one small, plump figure were sitting having breakfast and discussing trolls.

"Good morning!" said Mithrandir cheerfully. "I trust you all slept well?"

"As well as we can in an Elf-house," the leader of the dwarves said gruffly.

"And is the food to your liking?" Mithrandir asked, directing his question at the smallest figure.

"Better!" said the figure, looking up with a mouthful. "Excellent. I wish we could stay here a while, Gandalf."

"You may yet," the wizard said. "A week or two, at least, I hope. Now, Mr Baggins, I am told there's someone who wishes to hear all about the Shire. Have you finished eating?"

Bilbo Baggins swallowed his mouthful of cake and washed it down with water. "Until elevenses, yes. Well, I'll see you fellows later on." He joined Mithrandir and followed him out of the hall and into the garden. "This is a nice sort of house," he commented, trotting just behind the wizard. "Perhaps a little too open for my liking, but there seems to be so much going on. And Elves everywhere! I am almost glad you brought me along, Gandalf."

"Are you indeed, Bilbo?" Mithrandir said. "I hope you may be quite glad by the end of the adventure." They came up to Estel, who had jumped up at the sound of their voices and was looking eagerly and interestedly at the pair. "So you're Estel," the wizard said, returning the examination. "Master Elrond informs me you want to know about the Shire."

Estel met the wizard's keen glance with his own grey eyes and nodded. "Yes, please," he said. "Are you Mithrandir? I've heard so much about you from the Elves."

"Have you? And what did they say?"

"That you're a great wizard," Estel said, "and that you know nearly as much as Elrond."

Mithrandir grunted something non-committal. Bilbo Baggins broke off from lighting up a pipe.

"Well, that's a new name for you, at any rate," he commented. "What does it mean?"

"It means, Grey Pilgrim," Estel said. "Why? What do you call him?"

"He knows me as Gandalf," Mithrandir said. "Mr Bilbo Baggins of the Shire, meet Estel. Now I am going to go and talk to Elrond again about far more important matters. Good day."

He smiled at them both and walked away, his grey robes rustling the grass. Estel and Bilbo regarded each other a little warily.

"You're not an Elf," Bilbo said after a pause, "nor a Dwarf, nor a Wizard, so I'm guessing you're a Man, though a young one."

"I'm ten," Estel said, drawing himself up to his full height, which turned out to be a few inches taller than Bilbo. "How old are you?"avHav

"I shall be fifty on my next birthday," Bilbo said.

"You don't look fifty." Estel sat down on the grass. "What are you? You're not a Dwarf, I've seen dwarves before, they have beards."

Bilbo settled himself against a rock and puffed out a smoke ring. "I'm a hobbit, my dear boy."

"A hobbit?" said Estel. "I've never heard of hobbits before."

Bilbo sent a ring floating up towards the trees. "We don't like getting ourselves noticed, in general. But I am a hobbit and I'm very proud of being a hobbit." He began to tell Estel about the green lands of the Shire, adding anecdotes about the Tooks and describing his home to the boy. Estel asked questions and in return for the answers taught the hobbit a few words of Sindarin and Quenya and told him about life in Rivendell. The two were halfway through a lively riddle-game when four of the dwarves appeared, and Bilbo introduced Balin, Glóin, Fili and Kili.

The group spent the rest of that day and many others together, whilst in Elrond's study he and Mithrandir talked long hours. Bilbo was later to say that in Rivendell the best of every place could be found. But at last the time came for the dwarves and the hobbit to depart on their journey North to Erebor, and on the evening before Bilbo said goodbye to Estel. The boy watched his friend go sadly.

The months passed. For a while Estel felt lonely, and missed the companionship the hobbit had brought for a brief period. But then the sons of Elrond, Elladan and Elrohir, returned and began to teach the boy skills of life in the Wild. Spring was beginning to bloom, when one day Bilbo Baggins, accompanied by Mithrandir, a horse, and a pony laden with bags, reappeared. Estel greeted the hobbit enthusiastically.

"I've had a great adventure," Bilbo said, dropping the bags on the bed he had been given. "I met a dragon, you know, and there was a battle and a Man killed the dragon." He pulled out treasures and showed them to Estel. "Look at this! Gandalf says it's called mithril. A pretty thing, though I look silly in it." He held a mail coat up to the light where it twinkled. "And I got a sword, and money, and all sorts of things."

Estel felt the edge of the sword and looked at the Elven-runes engraved upon it. "I like this. It's old, but it's so sharp." He parried an invisible enemy. "Listen to it in the air." He gave it back to Bilbo with reverence. "I wish I were old enough to have a sword and go on adventures. Did you get anything else interesting?"

Bilbo, fiddling with something in his pocket, looked up sharply. "What's that? No, nothing else. Nothing else."

Mithrandir, sitting in Elrond's room the next day, knew more than Bilbo was telling Estel.

"The hobbit found a magic ring," he said, puffing on his pipe and absently sending a blue smoke ring sailing out of the window. "No markings."

"It could be nothing," Elrond said. "Then again, it could be something. Where did he find it?"

"Under the mountains. We were separated. Indeed, I almost gave him up for lost, but he came through. He came through several times."

"So you were proved right," said Elrond. "And Smaug is dead?"

"Smaug is dead, Laketown has a new leader, and Dáin will rule under the Mountain," Mithrandir said. "Many Orcs died in the battle. All in all I think it was a success. Thorin died content, I feel. Yet this ring bothers me."

"Many rings were made," said Elrond. "We know which ones it is not – the Three and the Nine are accounted for. What of the Seven?"

"Lost or taken," the wizard answered.

"The One was lost in the River," Elrond mused. "It will long ago have passed to the Sea. It is doubtless some Dwarven-ring made and forgotten about."

Mithrandir frowned, but nodded. "All the same I will keep an eye on Bilbo Baggins, just in case. I think I will not mention it to anyone just yet, not even Saruman." He met Elrond's eyes. "And what of the boy?"

Elrond sighed. "He grows. My sons are teaching him to fight. He shows talent, but it is too early to say for sure whether the blood flows true in his veins. Too early."

They fell silent.

Eventually the time came again for Bilbo to leave the Last Homely House, and he packed his bags and said another farewell to his friend.

"Here's a pipe of mine," he said, handing it over, "and a bag of gold. May come in useful, you know, one day. I daresay even the Elves can use gold now and again. Come for tea if you pass by the Shire, Estel."

Estel bent and hugged the hobbit. "I will. And come back here. One day?"

"One day." Bilbo climbed on his pony. "Well, there we are. Time to head home for a cup of tea by the fire. Goodbye, young Estel."

He shook the reins and the pony trotted off, the bags clinking gently as the animal climbed away from Rivendell. Estel waved until his arm was sore and he could see nothing but the trees, and then slowly turned and went back inside.