Summary: Gossip ran through the Shire that Bilbo Baggins harbored a great fortune in the depths of his home. A few villains attempt to obtain that fortune by kidnapping his beloved nephew and holding him for ransom.
Rating: R for later violence and cursing.
Disclaimer: Not mine, and a good thing indeed.
Notes: Just as a warning, if any of the characters seem thwarted in the first few chapters, Bilbo in particular, let me promise you now that I'm not trying to be mean or portray a character in a negative light. It is deliberate only for the sake of the plot and hopefully it will make the story seem more interesting. I always wondered about Bilbo being the sole millionaire in the Shire, and the threats there might have been in being so. Plus it seemed like a good angst story. So I hope everyone enjoys!
"He's the dark, curly haired one."
Pulling back the thick branch to peer out behind the tree, the man lifted a small telescope to his small, beady eye to observe the little hobbit more closely. The Halfling was engaged with another in a wrestling match on the hill outside Bag End. The other looked a little younger, with blonde curls and had a grin on his face as he continued to tickle the dark haired one under him. Focusing closer on the second hobbit, the man's eyes grew dark and threatening. That was the Halfling they were looking for.
"You see him now?" the shrill voice asked, impatiently.
"Aye, I do," he replied, putting his telescope back into his sack. "He's scrawny as a newborn hen."
"Indeed, he's a weakling and a burden to whomever is stuck with him, sir. He won't be missed much, they say his parents drowned at the sight of him and his relatives hated him at Brandy Hall –"
"I don't give a damn about the little imp's history, Halfling. Is that the Uncle who has all the riches?"
"It is. Bilbo Baggins is his name and he's mad, sheer mad. There's no doubt he harbors a fortune somewhere. But that lad's the only one he cares enough to pay for."
Bilbo Baggins laid his pen quill down for the thirteenth time that morning, his agitation doubling to realize he'd been concentrating on counting the number than working. He stared down at the unfinished sketch of Smaug with dismay; he had completed the head and the detailed structure of the dragon's body, but he had barely started the tail, the feet, and the surrounding treasure. He had hoped to have the sketch completely finished and copied by luncheon. Now it was nearing elevenses and he was nowhere near that point.
Sighing audibly, Bilbo got up from his desk to stretch, arching his neck backwards and letting out a long, frustrated yawn. Oh, how he wished the day wasn't so hot! Seated in his study, the coolest room in Bag End, the damp haze that hung in the air outside still managed to drift into the room, and the oppressive heat had followed. Perhaps it was the discomforting weather and the slight headache that was forming, which caused him to feel so inattentive to his work.
"Merry, grab the frog!"
"I can't, it's too slimy!"
"Look, there's another one, see? Here, use this net to catch it."
"Quick, hand it over, it's ready to hop into the pond again!"
"Oh, rats! It's under the water. I'm not going through that muck to get it!"
The lively, cheerful voices of his nephews, Frodo and Merry, carried through the open windows of Bag End, breaking the desired silence of the room.
Distracting me from my work, a part of him thought, bitterly.
Immediately Bilbo cursed himself for such a thought. How could he dare blame the lads for disturbing him, when they sounded like they were having so much fun, and he was sitting in a stuffy study alone, contemplating how many times he had lain his pen quill down instead of finishing his work. If nothing else, he should be outside right now serving them lemonade and cakes minding they didn't wrestled themselves into the pond instead of spending the day in his study. The idea of cool lemonade and smoking his pipe in the shade of his garden quickly became an enticing one, yet the reminder of his unfinished work quickly pulled his mind away from the thought of rest.
He didn't know exactly what it was, but he had become irritated and distracted from his book lately. There had been a time when the height of his day was the evenings when he sat and read, or wrote for hours on end. Closing his eyes, he could just capture the cracking of the burning wood in the fireplace, and himself seated in his desk scribbling madly away in recounting the adventures he had taken with Gandalf and the dwarves. It was the greatest of comforts to be able to re-live such memories, which had become dearer to him in the years after. His return home, while joyous in being by his hearth and amongst his friends once again, was accompanying by a plague of curious, suspicious neighbors. He knew there had been gossip running about him, which he did not give much care to, with the exception being loneliness. Relations and friends he still had, yet they were very few in number who looked to him without amusement. It had driven him to retreat to his book, where he could once again travel through the forests of Mirkwood and wander by the streams of Rivendell.
Gandalf visited him every so often, the two of them reminiscing the good times of the past so long before, and trading stories. Gandalf found the greatest amusement in recent happenings in the Shire, and Bilbo was ever curious of news from the world beyond. It was always a delight when he came calling. The old wizard was a lasting link to the days before. And as the years passed, several of his younger cousins grew very fond of him for his story-telling despite their parent's cautioning that he was merely mad.
He remembered Frodo's face, his mouth open but words hanging unsaid, his large blue eyes, the same color and beauty of his mothers, widening in joy when Bilbo had offered him the chance to come live with him at his home.
A rush of guilt went through Bilbo in recalling how little attention he'd actually been paying the lad lately. There was no doubt in his mind that he loved Frodo. His little nephew had become dearer to him than any other hobbit he'd known. Yet bringing Frodo to live with him had hindered the completion of his book and left him with little time to himself, time he used to treasure so, while having to look after the lad and keep him entertain. He enjoyed Frodo's company always, yet occasionally missed the days when he had been alone. So many times he had considered leaving the Shire behind for another trip, but Frodo was there now, and no such plans could be taken. The nights when he would sit in front of the fire, lost in a book or penning away at the latest chapter of his book were disrupted often by Frodo's presence, even if he was silently reading himself or taking a nap on the couch.
It was the simple state of change that bothered him so, and Bilbo realized suddenly it was Frodo who unintentionally had torn him from his former state. More often than not, Bilbo's attention would wander from his work to take the lad on a fishing trip, or visiting Buckland, as they had a few weeks before. Even when he was not busy with the lad his thoughts would often stray to him, a habit that had sometimes grown annoying when he knew he had work to be done.
A cool feeling of guilt swept over him again, and he pressed a palm to his mildly aching head. Rising from his chair, Bilbo walked down the hall towards the front door. This was silly, there should be no tear within him on what duty was more important; documenting his journey or the hobbit he had vowed to take care of.
"Uncle Bilbo!" Frodo cried, his face brightening at the sight of his uncle coming outside.
"There you are, my lad," Bilbo said, smiling warmly as the lad raced over to him, throwing his arms around his uncle's broad chest.
"Where have you been all day?" he asked, looking up with bright, shining blue eyes.
"Oh, just sketching some," he replied, ruffling the boys hair.
"So what have you two been up to this afternoon?" he asked. Leading him down the hill towards the pond, he spotted Merry crouched down on the edge of the water, his face turned parallel to the edge, scanning the surface.
"Let it go, Merry," Frodo called in exasperation. "I'm sure the frog has already swum away by now, or he's hiding under another rock."
Merry groaned, lifting himself from the ground. It was then Bilbo noticed the net clutched in Merry's hands, determination fixed on his face. At seeing his uncle, he grinned.
"How goes it, Uncle? We're hunting for strange creatures from the south that might have wandered into the Shire."
Bilbo laughed, heartily. "I'm glad you two have been keeping yourselves busy. Have you got anything besides the old bullfrog that made its home here earlier than I did?"
"No, but we found this though!" Frodo said excitedly. Running over to a bag, he dug through it for a moment before pulling out a pouch.
"What's this?" the older hobbit inquired.
"Open it," Frodo encouraged, extending his hand. "Merry and I found it in the meadows this morning. I've never seen a butterfly like it before. Merry thinks it came from Mirkwood, perhaps."
Lifting the pouch open slightly, Bilbo frowned to see a small butterfly with green and midnight blue wings inside. It wasn't dead, though the delicate thing seemed to have been in the pouch most of the afternoon. As Bilbo lifted it on his finger before watching it fly away, he observed the awkwardness of its flapping wings, evidence of the mistreatment in which it had been handled.
Sighing a little harsher than intended, he fixed his nephew with a disappointed frown.
The boy's face contorted at the reprimand, and he lowered his head slightly. "I'm sorry uncle. We didn't mean to hurt it, we just wanted to show it to you before it got away. We would have shown you earlier, but you've been inside most of the morning -" The anxiousness in Frodo's tone and the shame that shone in the lad's eyes melted Bilbo's mild irritation immediately. He hadn't meant to scold the lad so, and quickly placed his hand on his shoulder to reassure him he wasn't mad.
"It's fine, Frodo, I didn't mean it harshly. It's just that such creatures are delicate. It's harmful to handle them. And look! It flies free, there's no harm done."
"So what about it, Uncle Bilbo?" Merry asked, approaching them with the net in his hands. "Is that a butterfly you recognize?"
Bilbo smiled, eager to change the subject. "Indeed it is, Meriadoc. It's a rare breed that enjoys an environment near water. The name's escaped me at the moment, but I'm sure that one did come from far away to take a stop at our pond. It's unlike to come so far as Mirkwood, though, I'd hardly think a butterfly could brave the Misty Mountains." "Was that a resting place in your adventure?" Merry asked with a suggestive grin.
Bilbo had to laugh at the cunning of his other nephew. Merry was a sharp lad, just as Frodo was, but was far more audacious. He wondered whether the butterfly had been a deliberate attempt to get him to tell a story relating to it, and warmed at the cleverness of his two nephews. "Tell us some more," Merry pressed.
"Another time, Merry," Bilbo promised. As he glanced at Frodo, he was bothered to see a trace of distress in his face. In an attempt to relieve him he gave his curl hair a ruffle, glad to see the corners of his mouth perk up. "Besides, you've heard them all already, I'll likely bore you with another telling."
"But Merry hasn't heard it all the way through," Frodo pointed out, expectantly.
Bilbo sighed and realized he'd love more than anything to sit down with the two of them right now. He would seat them before him and engross them both with the tale Frodo loved so of when the eagles had saved he and the dwarves from certain death and flew them over forest and hills, the world spread like a carpet for Bilbo to see. But elevenses had to be prepared, and he felt a nagging tug to go back and finish up the sketch.
Promising them a story later that evening, he went inside and set back to work at his desk.
As Bilbo headed inside, Frodo and Merry stood for a moment in silence. "You think he's really mad still?" Merry asked, edgily. Frodo answered with a mild shrug.
"I don't think so. He didn't seem mad. Just disappointed, I guess."
Merry shrugged as well. "Oh well. He said don't hurt any animals. So I guess you'll have to entertain yourself by fighting me once more," he suggested, kicking his cousin's feet out from under him.
Frodo laughed, grabbing a hold of his attacker's ankle and yanking him down as well. Their laughter was heard at a faint distance by the pair of observers studying them intently. Eventually, the two hobbits grew tired of dragging each other down to the ground, and gave up. Catching their breath, they lay parallel to each other, watching the cloudy sky above them.
Merry yawned after a few moments. "I'm grown bored. Feeling the same, Frodo?"
"I suppose so." Frodo folded his arms behind his head and continued to stare up at the sky.
"Well, what's to be done then? We could always hunt that frog down once more. Bother what Bilbo says about it not being from Mirkwood. I'm sure elevenses will be ready soon too."
"You can, I'm not really hungry. I usually miss elevenses or second breakfast."
"You never did manage to swallow five meals a day," Merry teased.
When his cousin didn't answer, Merry rolled onto his stomach, propping himself on his elbows, and observed the visibly troubled look in Frodo's wandering gaze.
"What's wrong, cousin?"
Frodo glanced at him for a second, taking his eyes away from wandering at the clouds overhead. He quickly smiled and shook his head, a few curls falling into his face.
"No, really," Merry said, pressing. "What's wrong?"
"It's nothing Merry. You're getting curious over nothing."
Merry shook his head, unbelieving. "Oh come now Frodo, I've known you all my life, you can't keep something from me. It's just that bothered look you have now that you had when Aunt Peony gave me a pipe for a present and gave you an ugly scarf."
Frodo would have laughed if he knew it would've thrown Merry off the subject. Sighing, he rolled onto his stomach and began picking at little blades of grass, attempting instead to distract his cousin from pressing him.
"Is something wrong with Uncle Bilbo? You got really anxious when he told you not to grab at the butterfly."
"It's not that, Merry. Or . . .it's not only that," Frodo admitted, continuing to pick at the grass in front of him. "He's been . . .well, not yelling at me lately. But he seems bothered at whatever I do."
"It's better than the treatment of sitting in a corner for an hour at Brandy Hall, remember that?" Merry pointed out, jokingly. Frodo smiled, mildly.
Frodo shrugged, slowly. "Uncle Bilbo has been acting - well, not like himself either. At least not how I know him. Sometimes it feels like he's avoiding me, and I – I don't know what I did wrong. He just keeps to his study, with his books and his writing. It's as though," Frodo paused for a moment, swallowing tightly. When he spoke again, his voice was so quiet, it was barely audible. "It as though he doesn't want me around. At least not the way he did before he adopted me."
Merry listened intently his cousin's worries. "But Frodo," he said, lightly, "Bilbo's always been a rather odd hobbit, you know that. While some hobbits dedicate themselves to their work or the good times at the festivals, he's made it his life's work to write his book. Perhaps he's just been working extra hard so he'll have more to tell you later. I hardly think it's anything against you, he'd never have adopted you at all if he didn't mean to keep you!"
Frodo gnawed on his lip, his hands picking fretfully at the grass. "It just. . ." he stopped to expel a breath of sad frustration. "It just feels though – sometimes, only sometimes, not usually. It feels though that he just doesn't want me around at all. . .anymore," he admitted, quietly. "He gets really annoyed sometimes when I come into a room to sit with him. I try not to make too much noise when I know he's trying to concentrate. He won't say anything, but it'll almost feel like there's tension in the air. I'm afraid I'm making a nuisance of myself, like I was with everybody at Brandy Hall. Sometimes I think he doesn't want me here at all, and he might send me back there soon."
Merry was preparing to give his older cousin a comfort hug when he abruptly halted at hearing the last words. The dread in his voice was evident, and although Merry knew Frodo couldn't have meant those words in the light that he was beginning to take him, anger stirred within him inherent in his Brandybuck blood.
"I'm still there," Merry said, his voice chilly. "I know you like it here, Frodo, but would going back to Brandy Hall be so bad? I'm there, and so are Fulco and Fredegar and your other friends."
Frodo turned to his cousin to apologize, reassuring him that of course there were things about Brandy Hall he missed, but not before Merry caught the expression of grief and discomfort that swept across his face first. It hit Merry with a pang.
"Of course I miss you, and I'm so glad you came here from the Smials to visit," Frodo said, smiling truthfully. "It's just things haven't been right here in a few weeks. I'm sure it'll pass, as you said. And if they don't, well. . .well Brandy Hall was my home for so many years, I suppose it would be a comfort to go back." Frodo's last few words were spoken so softly that Merry almost laughed bitterly at how bad of a liar Frodo could be sometimes. He didn't want to admit how angry he suddenly felt that Frodo didn't desire returning, if only for the sake of his company.
"Right, Frodo. I understand," he muttered and ended it at that. A drop of rain suddenly fell from the sky, followed by a few more that landed upon them. "You know, I should be heading to the Smials," he said, pushing himself up from the ground.
Frodo looked startled at his sudden declaration, and began to get up himself. "But Merry, it's nearly supper time, and I thought you were staying here for the night!"
"I'd better not, if Bilbo's as mean as you say he's been," Merry said, trying to quell the bitterness that stood in his voice. "And if we're still going to explore Hobbiton together tomorrow, then I'd better get a good night's sleep tonight. This part of the Shire is bigger than I'd expected," he added with a quick smile, before starting down the path.
It was only after he'd gone that Frodo realized with an uncomfortable turn in his stomach that he'd offended Merry in what he'd said about fearing going back to Brandy Hall. By the time it came to him, however, Merry was already at the end of the path at the bottom of hill.
Frodo sighed as he felt more raindrops fall on his head. He suddenly felt very tired and he let his chin dip into his chest, closing his eyes. Foolish Baggins he said to himself. It was the nickname his Uncle Rorimac had given him when he'd moved to Brandy Hall. He had been such a frail, curious creature apparently, that Uncle Rorimac playfully suggested he would always be getting into trouble, just he wait and see. The name came back to him now as he listened to the rain beginning to patter on the back of his vest. As he turned to go inside, he hoped that the rain would not allow Bilbo to see the tears making similar tracks down his face, if Bilbo even greeted him at the door at all.
The two men and third pair of eyes continued to watch through the blinding rain as the little hobbit went inside.
"I still don't understand why we can't break in and ransack the place and be off with the gold that way," grumbled the dark haired man.
The hobbit shook his head vehemently back and forth. "No, no, sir. That's not a guarantee for fortune I'm afraid. You see, there are secret passageways all through Bag End, and Baggins carries a sword, he does, and he's apparently very good at using it too. He also has smaller holes in the Shire as well, so there's the chance, you see, that his treasure isn't buried there at all. The fool could have hid it anywhere."
The younger, light haired man turned and frowned suspiciously on the small figure that stood before him, wringing his hands. "You're a hobbit yourself," he stated, bitter irony in his voice. "Why turn against your own race, why gain assistance from men?"
The hobbit fidgeted and his wide eyes stared forward, as though attempting to work out something he could not understand or admit. Coward the man thought grimly. Not that he minded, he was pleased to get such an easy job, and with such a fortune as his compensation.
"Just do it soon," the hobbit said, fervently. He continued wringing his hands as though the action would rid him of his own part to play. "Hobbits get nervous when there's men sighted in the Shire."
"We'll wait till he's alone," replied the darker haired man. He continued smoking from a pipe clenched in his teeth, and from his bag he began winding up a heavy length of rope.
He continued to look down at the hobbit, the menace in his eyes never waning. "You say he's always taking walks alone in uninhabited areas. If that's true then it won't be hard to find him."
"And you're sure he'll pay?" threatened the other man, grasping the hobbit by the collar or his shirt.
"Yes, yes," the hobbit panted, struggling within the man's grasp. "I've heard Baggins praise the lad myself, even before he brought him to Bag End, and since then he treats him like his own son, a little prince. He'd pay his life for the little brat, so he'd definitely pay riches as well. "