Author's Notes: I will be posting answers to questions when I return, as I didn't quite have time yet and still wanted to get this up before leaving town. Back in a couple days, guys, and will update "Caradhras" and "Counterpane" then. :)

As always, thank you all SO VERY much for reading and reviewing!

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DISCLAIMER: The characters, places, and story of The Lord of the Rings are the property of J.R.R. Tolkien and consequently of the Tolkien Estate, with select rights by Tolkien Enterprises. This piece appears purely as fanfiction and is not intended to claim ownership of Tolkien's work in any way. Please e-mail me if you have concerns.


Chapter Eighteen: Overheard in the Kitchen

"You know, I don't believe any other creatures in Middle-earth spend half the time preparing things to be eaten as hobbits do. . .not even elves, though they come closest. However, they have several thousand years, while I daresay you spend half of your hundred or hundred and a half in the pursuit of perfect preparation."

Bilbo looked up from fussing with the finely fluted edges of a small apple pie, laughing as he glanced back down to check the position of several small dough-animals cleverly arranged around the top. Gandalf's humour was hardly lost on him. . .or perhaps it was his mood, which seemed to have improved considerably.

"Say what you like of it; it matters little enough to me! My boy's hungry - he told me what he wants for his supper, and he shall have it if I have to spend the rest of the day working at it. I thought perhaps a nice apple pie wouldn't hurt anything: he loves that, and it's just the thing to go with a plain supper like this, when the apples are cooked soft enough and one's careful not to overdo the cinnamon. . . ." He gestured to the rest of the bubbling and waiting dishes, mostly soft foods or liquids, as per doctor's orders: mashed potatoes, a bit of mashed pumpkin, a light mushroom soup made with milk instead of cream, and a poached egg carefully positioned on a toast circle, all in miniature servings, small enough to make most hobbits frown or blink, but just the right size for a recuperating tweenager with a delicate stomach.

Gandalf nodded, taking a seat on the stool facing Bilbo over the counter- top. Frodo had complied in drinking the broth earlier, then curled up into a small bundle to go back to sleep, allowing his elders to put him back to bed, tucking him in warmly with fresh hot water-bottles and a new compress to keep his temperature down. He had woken after a few hours of quiet slumber, calm once more and asking only for Bilbo, at which Gandalf ruffled the tweenager's hair and stepped into the parlor for a bit of smoking and reading alone while Bilbo tended his young ward.

"Bilbo. . .I happened to pass by while you were telling Frodo that story. Not eavesdropping, of course, but I did overhear enough to know that you were speaking of that ring you brought back."

Bilbo shrugged, pressing the last edges into shape. "And what of it? He's as much right to know as you, and more, and *you* certainly badgered me enough on the matter!"


Gandalf's voice was guarded, a sheen of wariness in his tone.

"And his nightmares came immediately after, I noticed."

"What of it?" snapped Bilbo, glaring at his old friend. "It happens; I am no bogey-spectre trying to scare a child! Frodo loves my stories. . . ."

He paused, softening a little.

"Though yes, this did. . .seem to trouble him. I can't understand what frightened him so; he's never been an overly skittish lad with tales. . . ."

Gandalf reached across the counter-top, putting one hand gently over Bilbo's.

"Consider it, my friend. Often there is more to the most powerful magic than meets the eye, just as there is with hobbits. Sometimes the effects we see are but the ripple upon the surface of their true impact."

He pressed the aging hobbit's hand tightly for a moment.

"Do be careful of it, Bilbo."

Bilbo's eyes met his. . .then quickly looked away, out at the quiet garden. Many minutes passed in heavy silence. . .save for a low murmur in the air that might easily have been the sound of autumn breezes against glass. At last Bilbo shook his head, forcing a bright, tight-lipped smile.

"Really, now, Gandalf, you do carry on over the least things! Of course I'm careful of my things, especially my most precious treasures. . .and speaking of that, stop trying to frighten *me* with your talk and help me get this tray ready. You have me half hearing things where there shouldn't be any. . .but it's only the wind, I'm sure, and an old hobbit's imagination. . . ."

Only the wind, indeed. . .neither of them noticed the soft sound of footsteps: outside the kitchen, Frodo turned away, pale and unsteady, abandoning his hope of surprising his guardian. Quietly unobtrusive as Bilbo himself, the lad slipped back into his room, returning to bed so carefully as to leave no trace that he had gotten up at all. A fresh shiver ran down his spine at the memory of the earlier nightmares. . .and Bilbo's strange tale of how he really obtained the ring of which he seemed so fond. . . . He settled back into his nest of covers, trying to forget the expression on his uncle's face when the elder hobbit spoke of his ring.

It was too reminiscent of his nightmares.

Anxiously the young hobbit curled up, trying to look as if he had not even moved. . .much less heard every word. No. . .he would not speak of it.

Better for them not to know.