Title: Treasures

Author: BellaMonte


Rating: PG-13

Feedback: Always welcome. :)

Disclaimer: I own merely the kidnappers and Val. All else belong to one J.R.R. Tolkien.

A/N: Greetings Everyone! Long time no see. A sea of excuses would flow if I started giving explanations for delay (sophomore year's turning out more hectic than freshman year, my laptop died on me twice, some crazy person made me editor in chief of the literary magazine. . . ) gah! There I go. Let's just say it was a busy quarter, and while it's been great sitting down to write 'Treasures' again, this chapter just wouldn't come out right for months.

(Sigh) No doubt everyone has now seen Return of the King. For my part, I cannot believe that the trilogy is finally over. It still feels like yesterday went and saw the first one, my little Gollum doll clutched in my hands, and chanting to myself "I'm never going to survive the wait for Return of the King!" My, does time fly by fast! Though I have to admit, while the movie was wonderful I think what helped alleviate my grief was that I had so many wonderful fanfiction stories to read and look forward to. For when it comes down it, this site and its authors have become just as dear to me as the actual series, and I hope that none of plan to stop writing anytime soon. :)

Here is an announcement to anyone who still holds an affinity for the ruffians Tony Chattin and Rob Strasser that had a pretty big part to play in earlier chapters (Ubiquitous Pitt, you'll love this :). My dear friend and fellow fanfiction writer, Obelia Medusa (author of the brilliant "The Making of a Ringbearer" series) surprised me not too long ago with a request to use those two baddies in a chapter or two of her story. While our stories are completely separate, she's implanted the two ruffians into her story and created a whole new plot where Frodo has the misfortune to run into them. Speaking for my part, her portrayal of Tony and Strasser freaked me out, I had no idea they could be so evil when you don't know what they're about to do next! (Cowers). Anyway, I strongly urge anyone that may be going through ruffian grief or loves a precious story about Frodo/Bilbo (with an actually comfortable, sweet relationship!) to read it, it's one of my greatest inspirations in my own story.

Brace yourself everyone, it's a loooooong one! Hopefully, it shall make up for lost time. Enjoy!

Shirebound: "I can never get enough of tender, cuddly scenes.": (Sigh). Shirebound, can't any of us. :)

Bookworm2000: "I like the little reference on how the Gamgees are expecting a baby. . . any guesses who? ::coughSamcough:: At least, I hope it's Sam. . .I haven't quite memorized his family tree yet. . . ": Teehee, Bookworm, neither have I! Thanks for the lovely review!

Kaewi: Thanks so much for the touching review, Kaewi! Am glad it didn't sound cheesy, that was actually a word I was desperately trying to avoid while writing it. "Perhaps that's something we may see again in a few chapters with Bilbo?": Frodo smiling again? Absolutely. It's actually going to be rather ironic what happens in the following chapters. Frodo, who has at long last been convinced that he was wrong (and seeing Bilbo again will only further prove this) begins to become the one who comforts Bilbo instead of the other way around. Or rather, they're going to comfort each other. But Frodo's now going to see what the last few weeks has done to his uncle, and the drive to get better is going to be fueled just as much by a desire to put it behind him as to ease some of the guilt off his uncle's back. I've just made Bilbo into a complete neurotic at this point. :)

Allyrien Chantel de Montreve: Your name sounds like some European monarch! I like it! And whatever happened to Val? Er, she's not going to pop up again, she was just a one-shot piece, but I'm thinking that she most likely came to her senses at her encounter with Frodo, and will find her way out of Bree.

Arwen Baggins: Hey Arwen! Thanks for the lovely review, glad you liked the little interlude. Couldn't get this chapter written for some reason, it was one of the harder chapters, so I just fit that one in instead. Glad it sufficed! How's Oma, btw?

Shlee Verde: Shlee! A joy to hear from you, as always! "More cute little scenes like this please": Will do! Over Christmas break I might end up going back and revising LOTS of this story, including making the opening chapter(s) less angsty, so we can have some more cute Bilbo/Frodo before everything goes to Hell. And you're right, I wonder myself why Bilbo Baggins waited so long to adopt Frodo, though it's never mentioned in the book. Hmm, perhaps they didn't know each other until after Frodo's parents died. It's fun to make up ideas, though. And the sequel. . . . (sigh) . . . I'm thinking up ideas. . . though this is most likely going to take me the rest of the year to finish at the rate I'm going. There's still sooo much I have to wrap up, it'll be another 10 chapters at least. More is to come. But I'll try and think of something! :)

Ailsa Joy: Hey Ailsa! Glad you liked the last chapter. "Oh, to be like that again would be wonderful:" Teehee. If all works well with my muse and I write it right, it will be. :)

Wanequelle: Thank you for the lovely review, Wanequelle. I'm sorry this took so long, I'll try to do better next time. :)

Endymion: Hey Endymion! Yess, 'Sophomore' is what I am. There's a bit more work involved than Freshman year, but ahh who of us isn't swamped with work nowadays (sigh). I'm glad the chapter wasn't too sweet or, as Kaewi phrased it above "cheesy" (shudder). If ever my story becomes something along the lines of trite and sentimental for the simple sake of sweetness, you let me know. (Thumbs up!)

Shire Hobbit: Thanks for the sweet review, Shire Hobbit! Your remark about "what their relationship is. . even if Bilbo lost sight of it momentarily. .' really actually helped me simplify it in a nutshell what the whole story's about, how just forgetting about the most important things even for a brief amount of time can really cause harm. Thanks for phrasing it so well, I tend to use tooo many words to say something articulated that clearly. :)

Ubiquitous Pitt: Gosh, I thought you'd left me! I thought the Tony Chattin grief was really getting to you. Glad I was mistaken. How be that latest piece, I might ask? (Sneaky grin) Ah! You've got a boyfriend (bows down, envious) I swear my college experience is wonderful with the exception that attending a virtually 'All Girls Catholic College' lacks the benefits of males that are so necessary. (Sigh). But anyway, glad things are going well, albeit busy! I hear ya on that one. And you're right, it was odd that Saradoc wanted to detain Frodo in Brandy Hall because of studies. True, Bilbo was the oddity because he read extensively, I was using it as more an excuse on Saradoc's part that he was reluctant to let Frodo leave for a few weeks. In his own way, he was looking out for the boy, thinking it wasn't a good idea to get too attached to a hobbit he knew liked to go off on his own (didn't want Frodo to become too attached, though it was already too late for that.) Glad to see you back, you were missed. And you're right about the last few chapters, they were rushes, which is why I'm intending to go back over EVERYTHING this Christmas break and fixing up a bunch of scenes, especially in the last few chapters, which I wrote out in a rush before college resumed. Take care!

Budgielover: Hey Budgie! Thanks for the delectable review! I myself must apologize, I'm so far behind on giving reviews recently. Know I am, as always, following your wonderful stories. 'Out of All Knowledge' is going wonderful (I'll drop you an official review soon, I promise!) and I'm already eager for 'Dangerous Folk,' whenever you have the time to get to that one! I'm glad you liked the latest chapter, that was kind of the feeling I wanted for it, to just have a free space of remembering better times before moving on to more recovery. "I hope Bilbo spoils our lad absolutely rotten. ." From this remark of yours stemmed a whole bunch of new ideas for scenes. Don't worry, if nothing else Bilbo's not gonna be letting Frodo out of the house anytime soon, and the poor lad will grow frustrated at his uncle's attentiveness. Maybe. Not sure yet. But definitely I promise better times are ahead. This chapter's one example, though I'm still hesitant as to whether it turned out believable or not. You let me know, your judgement's highly valued. :)

Chloe Amethyst: Hey Chloe! Thanks for the awesome review. But yes (sigh) looking back on my chapters, especially the last few, I feel as though there's a lot missing, or just not expressed right. I'm thinking I might change the opening chapter and expanding on it, so not to make it so angst from the beginning, and yes I know there are typos everywhere. Hopefully they will be resolved when I do expansive editing. :)

Obelia Medusa: (blushes) Wow, I've reached a plane on the Bilbo/Frodo sweetness meter, declared so by the Queen herself? Yay! That means I'm NOT the most sadistic abuser of the bilbo/frodo relationship around! (Dances about happily) I'm still waiting for your 'you-know-what' chapter to come! BellaMonte's so excited! (Picture BellaMonte dancing about in another gay circle. Yay!) Have a great Thanksgiving break!

ClaudiaofBree: (Bows head, tearfully) Claudia darling, you're driving me more mad in anticipating for chapter 2 of 'The Shire Slave' than of Return of the King at this point, and that's a fact. Your last few drabbles were lovely, though, mark my words your writing skill goes nowhere but up. But (begs again) I do wish the muse for 'The Shire Slave' returns soon! Thank you for the wonderful reviews, it's always an honor to hear from you!

WildFire203: Wow, Wildfire, you really blew me away with your review. That was truly touching. I know how you feel, I'm at the mercy of ClaudiaofBree right now (as you can observe above) I'm on my knees waiting for her to update again, I so love her stories. I hope this chapter suffices, sorry it took so long!

MoonMist: Thanks for becoming my 700th reviewer! Love ya lots!

Iorhael: Thanks for the kind words, Iorhael! "I'm so glad the lad finally felt peaceful": (sigh) yes, it's about time isn't it?

It seemed to take an age for Frodo to wake. Vague, gentle sensations like a breath of air or the faint touch of a hand would brush by him in his slumber, yet none were enough to call him back. Not just yet, and for a long time Frodo remained in a calm, protective state of nothingness.

When he finally did awaken, days later it seemed, he felt. . . better.

The exhaustion that had burned his eyes was gone, and as he shifted slightly beneath the covers he was surprised to find that the dreadful aches and pains in his back and sides had significantly eased. They still hurt of course, but not nearly as badly as before, and only when he moved. For a moment Frodo lay trying to remember the events of the previous night, but found his mind was fuzzy and whatever had happened seemed to have been left behind in sleep.

Rolling onto his side, Frodo looked up and was met by an unexpected ray of sunlight. Squinting, he waited for a moment before peering out behind his hand to see a bright blue sky right outside his window. A single billow of white cloud hung just at the edge of his view through the window frame, and he could hear the sweet, familiar chirping of birds from nearby.

Frodo's breath caught in his chest.

Sensing a presence in the room, Frodo turned around and his eyes flew open in astonishment. Merry sat in a rocking chair pulled beside his bed, rocking lazily back and forth. The surprise of seeing his cousin and the reminder of their last cold encounter was forgotten, however, in the shock as he took in the black eye and ugly bruises that marred Merry's grinning face.

"Good morning!" his cousin greeted him, brightly. The cheerfulness of his expression contrasted sharply with the bruises that colored his face, yet he retained a stubborn smile Frodo knew all to well that mean he wasn't intending to leave now that his cousin was awake, even if Frodo demanded it again.

"W-what happened?" Frodo spluttered.

"What happened?" Merry inquired. Brows raised, he looked down at himself as though expecting to find a stain on his vest. "Oh, nothing," he replied, shrugging carelessly. The stubborn smile refused to leave his face.

Frodo made a noise of disbelief, his features contorting into a hard frown in an attempt to hide the amusement that threatened to erupt out of him. "I can hardly buy that. Well, what happened? I. . . did you run into the end of a table or something?"

"Good guess," Merry said, feigning seriousness. "But no." When Frodo continued to stare at him, his expression caught between horror and confusion, Merry finally broke into a playful smile again and he laughed, leaning forward so that his elbows rested on the edge of the bed. "It's nothing important, Frodo. There was just this rotten neighbor that came by a few days ago and tried to pick a fight by insulting the Baggins name. Which," he added, wrinkling his nose, "Is pretty stupid now that I think of it, considering he's a Baggins too. Well, sort of."

"What?" Frodo exclaimed. He still couldn't tear his bewildered gaze from his cousin's black eye, which was now fully closed shut. Gritting his teeth, Frodo moved to prop himself up on his elbows so he could see better, surprised when it didn't hurt as much as before to sit up.

"Yes," Merry replied. "He was a pretty nasty character. Oh, but don't worry Frodo, I won," he added, pressing a cloth-wrapped bag of ice to his hand. "You should've seen what he looked like when I was done with him. I got both his eyes, and probably would've gotten him good with Bilbo cane, if he had let me."

"Well. . . .who was it?" Frodo asked. His insides began to turn at the thought that his younger cousin had fought someone, and for his sake. Again, Frodo felt a great flush of embarrassment creep into his cheeks. He never should have been so angry with his cousin, who had done nothing but apologize to him when he'd come. . .

"Oh, just some scum named Lotho Sackville-Baggins," Merry said, off-handedly, his face souring as he said the name.

"Sackville-Baggins," Frodo repeated, the name sounding oddly familiar to his ears.

"Yes. He was a real piece of dung, if you ask me. Sam told me his parents have bad blood with Uncle Bilbo, or something, and that's why Lotho came around to stir up trouble, he's taking on his parent's job. They were actually the ones who were supposed to inherit Bag End and all his treasure, if he hadn't adopted you and made you his heir."

"Sackville-Baggins," Frodo said again, his heart beginning to skip beats as recollection pieced itself back together to that very day, the day that he had been kidnapped, the day that he'd been so upset over Bilbo's adamant refusal to let him meet his relatives. . .

"Yes," Merry replied, grimly. "Ugh, Frodo, if there's one pair of relations to avoid making an acquaintance with, it's them. I only met the son, and apparently the parents are worse, if that's possible. They're awful."

For a moment Frodo stared mutely at his cousin. Sackville Bagginses. . . yes, that had been the name. Instantly, memory steered Frodo back to that day when he'd first delighted at hearing the name, convinced that that he would make a good impression on them if his uncle would only let him stay for the visit. . . but his uncle hadn't. . . for reasons he had only been able to speculate at the time. And he'd left Bag End so upset and angry, thinking his uncle hadn't wanted him there. . . and that had been true, he hadn't. . . but . .

Frodo suddenly groaned, pitching his face into the pillow as a tumult of rough laughter took hold of him.

'Oh Elbereth. . . I am an idiot,' he thought, the truth never before bringing such joy to his heart.

"Frodo? What's wrong?" Merry cried. Breaking away from the chair, the younger hobbit scrambled onto the bed and peered down at the dark, curly head buried in the pillow. He wasn't sure whether his cousin's shoulders were shaking out of sobs, or laughter, or both. "Frodo, what is it? Are you all right?"

"Mmm-hmm," came a muffled reply.

A bewildered smile came into Merry's face, and he sank down on the bed. He didn't know what he'd just said that had startled his cousin so, but the shock of his cousin laughing for whatever reason was making him shake in relief. It had been so long since he'd heard Frodo laugh, and for so long he'd feared he would never heard it again.

He grinned, mercifully. "C'mon, what's so funny?" he demanded, giving his cousin a careful poke in his armpit, knowing it to be Frodo's most ticklish spot. "What is it?"

"Nothing," Frodo said, lifting his head from his pillow and wiping his eyes. Turning, he was met by his cousin's face, bright and smiling. As he regarded the ugly black eye and cut along his cheek, Frodo was reminded of what Mrs. Gamgee had told him about what the last days had been like for his cousin, how sick with worry he had been and how much he had missed him. Frodo could still remember the pain that had shot through him when Merry had hugged him with such intensity. Somewhere in the haze of pain, he could recall Merry telling him how sorry he was, and how glad he was that he was safe. . .

"I'm sorry about earlier," Frodo said, softly.

His cousin frowned in confusion. "Sorry about what?"

"About earlier. . . telling you to leave and all. . ." Frodo paused, his words of rebuke still stinging in his memory, as they most surely were in his cousin's as well. "I'm really sorry. I didn't mean it like – "

"What?" Merry bellowed, a wide grin in his face. "Stop. I deserved it. In fact," he added, and slid off the bed so that he was leaning off to the side. He drew his face closer, closing his good eye. "Hit me."

"What?" Frodo stammered, laughing despite himself.

"C'mon, I saved this eye for you. Go on," Merry replied. His cousin didn't comply. "Frodo please, just punch me," he persisted, his tone growing serious. "I've gone the last few weeks beating myself, and it would probably be better for everyone if you just did it."

"But why?" Frodo exclaimed. Though his cousin was being ridiculous, he was glad that his cousin's eyes remained closed, so he had time to wipe away the tears forming without notice.

"For everything," Merry ground out. "For snapping at you and then leaving. . .on that day, when I left and didn't tell Bilbo when you didn't come. . ." Voice trailing off, Merry snapped his eyes shut once more and flinched in preparation. "Go on. Hit me. I deserve it."

Frodo felt his face crumbling as he stared at his cousin. Not once had he ever seen such an unguarded display of guilt from Merry before. Usually he was more stubborn in his apologizes, and only he would ever know whether his cousin was laughing inside as he pled guilt for stealing extra rolls from dinner, or not. But the pain that leaked into his younger cousin's voice, even when Frodo could see he was trying to control it, and this silly attempt to earn Frodo's apology with another fist made him realize how deeply his cousin's guilt really went. His insides turned, and joy began to flood him without measure.

"Er. . . I think you've been thrashed enough," Frodo finally said, and gave his cousin a joking push.

Cautiously peeking his eye open, Merry saw the sincerity in his cousin's blue eyes and relief washed into his face. "So. . . we're all right now?" he asked, slowly.

Frodo smiled, hoping that was enough to convey to his cousin that he didn't really need to ask.. "I suppose," he answered.

Merry opened his mouth as though to say something, then paused, his brown eyes dancing with elation. "All right then. . . glad that's out of the way. Then.. . er, can I ask you a favor?"

"Depends, what is it?" Frodo asked, sitting himself up fully. His back strained a little in the effort, but quickly eased.

"Can I have a hug? I mean, without you telling me to leave the room?" Merry added quickly. His tone was comical, but his face brimmed with seriousness as he studied his cousin. "Please Frodo," he continued, before his older cousin even had the chance to answer. "I know you're still mad at me for what happened, and I understand. You should be, I don't blame you at all. But. . . please believe me when I say that I missed you so much. And for while I. . . we all thought that those bad men had killed you, and I – " Merry broke off to feel a tentative hand on his shoulder. Looking up from his ramble, he saw his cousin smiling and the answer was in his eyes.

Smiling gratefully, Merry moved forward and wrapped his arms around his dear cousin's frame. Frodo was relieved that he was a bit more gentle this time as he hugged him, but he could still feel the intensity of his cousin's hold. As soon as he was able to work his arms up from where Merry had them pinned to his sides, he returned the hug. Merry hugged him tighter, and Frodo felt ripples of relief continue to tumble through him. But there was guilt in his heart as well, in seeing how much grief his cousin had been put through. As the moments passed and Merry still didn't let go, Frodo truly began to understand how much his cousin really had suffered on his behalf.

After a while, Merry loosened his hold and pulled back, however reluctantly. Just like Frodo, he had never thought he would ever get the chance to say any of this to him, and he was so glad he had. As he studied his cousin, Merry was surprised to notice a sudden change in him. Little things that had been so different the last time he'd seen him, looking so out of place, were now gone. His frame was loose and relaxed, and there was a calmness in his eyes as though a great weigh had been removed from him, though Merry didn't know what. "I'm so glad you're back," he finally whispered.

Frodo smiled, wistfully, his blue eyes wandering a little. "So am I." A short silence passed. "So. . what have you been doing in these last. . ?" Frodo began, trailing off when he realized that he wasn't sure how long. . . .

"Two weeks," Merry provided, quietly.

"All right. . . well, what have you been doing in the last two weeks?" he asked, discreetly keeping the subject away from himself and all that he'd been up to. It probably wouldn't be so hard to tell a second time, but. . . well, he'd already talked about it. He didn't want to think about it right now.

"Not much," Merry said, with a shrug. Moving down from the bed, he collapsed back into the chair, propping his feet up on the bed. "We were looking for you just about the entire time."

"Yes. . . Mrs. Gamgee told me about the search." Frodo smiled wryly as he remembered something. "She said that half the Shire helped to look for me. . .is that true?"

"By the Shire, no, I think it was more than that!" Merry exclaimed. "Oh, it was, it was absolutely crazy around here," he said, nodding for emphasis at his cousin's look of disbelief. "There were so many hobbits searching, all coming and going from new places, and always trying to suggest new places to look. Would you believe it got so busy that Bilbo actually let me have the key to the pantry?" he asked, with a crooked grin.

Frodo choked in surprise, the idea of his uncle lending the biggest plunderer in Brandy Hall the key to his own pantry sounding too ridiculous for words. "Why did he do that?"

"Well, he didn't have much choice," Merry admitted. "There were so many hobbits coming and going, and Bilbo was busy helping with the search and tearing his hair out that he didn't have to time to prepare any meals. So he just let us dive in when we could."

Frodo nodded, not saying anything as he fidgeted with the bandage on his hand.

"Then I went back to Tuckborough for the last few days," Merry continued, eager as much as Frodo to avoid the painful details about finding the letter, Bilbo and the Gaffer coming back to Bag End the night of the first exchange without him. . . "Anyway, Tuckborough was much better than going home. Everyone there was really worried about you too. And I got to see Pippin again."

"Pippin?" Frodo asked, sitting up a little bit straighter, inwardly reveling at the lack of pain in his sides. "Isn't that our little cousin?" Merry nodded, mischievously. "We haven't seen him in a year or two, have we?"

"Mm-hmm. Uncle Paladin brought him last Yule when he was three, but he was being passed around by all our aunts at the time. I swear, Frodo, he's going to be better than both of us soon when it comes to sneaking about and stealing from Farmer Maggot's crops," Merry said, proudly. "I mean, you've got that devilishly innocent look and I had the clever tongue that got us out of difficult explanations, but he's so small and quiet, he literally moves through a room silent as a mouse. He'll be having us beat in no time!"

Frodo smiled, but his thoughts began to stray as he continued to listen to his cousin. Little things like this. . . his adventures sneaking about Buckland with Merry, complimenting each other on their particular strengths in the act of plundering. . . he had forgotten all these things. When he'd twisted around in his bonds that secured him to the chair, when he'd been dragged down the muddy street by Strasser, he hadn't been able to remember. He couldn't recall that triumphant day, not so long ago, when he and Merry had escaped from Farmer Maggot's dogs by climbing across a set of trees until they'd made it to the river. Hearing Merry speak of them now was helping to bring it all back, with the bittersweet reminder that it wasn't all that long ago they had done these things.

"Well, he sounds like a natural born sneak," Frodo said, once Merry was finished. "Though," he added, giving his cousin a slightly accusing look, "It looks as though you've been helping him along the way."

"Oh, he is, and yes he's had a bit of help from unnamed benefactors," Merry added, with a boastful air. "But I can't remember everything you taught me, so we're going to have to take you to see him soon. I'll bet he'd love for you to show him how to slip rolls into your shirt and – "

Suddenly, Merry paused and the both of them turned to see Bilbo enter the room. Frodo's heart started to pound. His hands instinctively clutching the blankets, completely unprepared for the sudden arrival for his uncle. He still hadn't talked to him since. . . well, since the last time when he'd shouted for him to go away, and even now his mind was jumbled with scattered ideas of what he could possibly say or do to let his uncle known he was sorry and he didn't know what he'd been saying.

Luckily, Bilbo was carrying a great heap of laundry in his arms so that he failed to him right away, as he crossed the room and dumped his burden onto a chair with an exhausted huff.

"There you are, uncle!" Merry called out, abruptly.

Both hobbits were a bit stunned at how fast their uncle whirled around, nearly reeling on his heels. A tumult of reactions came into his face all at once, contorting his expression into a painful grimace between shock and joy as he observed Merry in the room and Frodo. . . awake and sitting up. It took the older hobbit a moment to regain himself.

"Merry, you didn't wake him, did you?" Bilbo said, casting his eyes at Frodo, worriedly.

"No, I waited for him to wake," Merry said, throwing his hands up, innocently. "Didn't I, Frodo?" When Frodo nodded, Merry swivelled his head around to face him. "He hasn't let anyone disturb you all morning, even though it's past elevensies," he whispered with a grin. Frodo tried to smile back, but found his gaze traveling upwards. His throat constricted a little when he saw that his uncle's eyes were already upon him, assessing him critically as though not knowing whether or not to believe his younger nephew.

"C'mon over, uncle," Merry suddenly beckoned with a wave. "We were just talking about Pippin."

There was a moment of hesitation. Frodo saw it in the faint tremor that stirred in his uncle's frame, though it was so slight that Frodo was sure Merry could not have seen it, nor did his younger cousin understand what it meant. But Frodo did, and the lump hardened in his throat as his uncle searched his face for an indication as to whether or not he should, the sting of Frodo's previous recoil obviously still a heavy burden in his heart.

Frodo tried to muster a smile, but his lips only worked form a meek smile at best. His eyes dropped for a moment in frustration, not knowing what else he could do or whether or not his uncle could even understand what he was trying to do. But raising his eyes again uneasily, Frodo saw the glimmer of surprise that had come into his uncle's face. Though it was faint, and vanished the moment his eyes met Frodo's to be replaced with silent confusion and concern, Frodo saw it. The tense muscles in his throat loosened a little.

Tentatively, Bilbo approached, stopping at the edge of the bed. "You mean Peregrin Took?" he asked, returning to Merry's previous words.

"Yes," Merry said in response. "As I was just telling Frodo, he's going to have us beat soon for the master in thievery in the Shire. He's just turned four, and he's already successfully plundered nearly half the pantries in the Smial."

Bilbo sniffed, humorously. "I'm sure that Paladin will love to hear that," he said, rubbing his forehead with a weary hand. "His heir is being taught such lessons in foolishness by the future master of Buckland."

"Yes, I was thinking the same, uncle," Merry said with a grin. "But I'm not nearly as good as Frodo, for anything I learned I got from him. And Pippin needs to be taught from the best. We'll have to take Frodo to see him soon!"

Panic erupted all to quickly in the old hobbit's face at this suggestion, and his eyes darted back to Frodo.

"Umm. . . we'll see," he said with a short laugh. "He's got some recovering to do still."

"I am feeling better," Frodo admitted. It barely hurt sitting up, except for the fresh bruises on his sides, but even they were well on their way to healing. In fact, he could probably stand now if he tried. . . removing the pile of blankets over him, he tried to swing his legs over the edge of the bed. If nothing else, he still felt weak from not moving at all, a condition easily remedied if he just walked around a little.

His uncle was not of the same opinion.

"No Frodo, don't!" Breaking away from the edge of the bed, Bilbo instantly forgot his previous promise to himself to stay in the background and give Frodo the distance he had earlier desired, and gently but firmly pressed the tweenager back against the covers."Doctor Boffin doesn't want you to get up yet," he said, pulling the sheets back up to Frodo's chest. "He said you still need your rest."

"Oh come now uncle, he's not that weak!" Merry exclaimed, just as shocked as Frodo by his uncle's insistence that he stay in bed, especially now when Frodo was truly on the mend.

"It's not the doctor's orders for you to exhaust yourself by walking about just yet," Bilbo murmured. His voice was soft with concern as he tucked the last of the covers up to Frodo's chin.

"But he's done nothing but sleep for days now, uncle!" Merry exclaimed. "Besides," he added, unable to hold back the obvious. "You're the one who looks like he could use some sleep."

Both pairs of eyes suddenly fixed on the older hobbit, who was in the process of hiding a yawn. As Frodo glimpsed his uncle in the bright sunlight that, he couldn't help but agree. Dark circled beneath his uncle's tired eyes, and his chestnut curls were peppered with fresh gray, as Mrs. Gamgee had told him.

A hard lump rose in Frodo's throat, seeing the stark changes in his uncle's appearance. He hadn't really noticed it before, always refusing to meet his uncle's gaze, but now there was no avoiding it, even as his uncle brushed his nephew's words aside.

"Well, I did sleep," Bilbo replied, continuing to arrange the sheets about the bed. "Mrs. Gamgee happened to slip some of that drink we gave Frodo into my own tea last night, so I had my own share of rest as well."

Both Frodo and Merry couldn't help breaking into stifles of laughter. Oh, that was too much! Samwise's mother dropping some of the sedative drink into their uncle's own evening tea? For a moment Frodo was truly lost in mirth and had to clutch hi side a little as the laughter caused a still tender bruise to throb. Looking up, Frodo was prepared to say something when he was caught by his uncle's look of surprise and relief. It was a look so tender, and his uncle's face was so close to his that Frodo had to force himself not to look away, the lump in his throat growing harder and more difficult to swallow down.

It seemed to surprise his uncle further when he didn't look away, and taking the initiative he settled himself on the bed. "You've slept a long while," he said, patting the sheets thoughtfully."Would you like something to eat?"

"Yes, you missed first and second breakfast, Frodo,. What would you like? How about some apple tarts, or ginger?" Merry suggested, rocking forward in the chair.

"No, now that's not a proper breakfast," Bilbo commanded. "And besides," he added, giving his mischievous nephew a critical look, "that ginger had been well locked up in the cupboard last I'd seen it."

"Err. . .not anymore, uncle," Merry replied, grinning. "I've been back a day or two now, you see."

"Well, Frodo isn't supposed to have that, I'm sure he'd have something more wholesome in his stomach, right?" Bilbo asked, giving Frodo a sideways glance.

"Oh, hang what the doctor said. I'm sure he didn't miss cabbage stew so much as he missed ginger." Leaning out of the chair, Merry leaned forward Frodo and whispered in conspiracy, "Hold on Frodo, I'll be right back."

Before either hobbit could protest, the younger hobbit darted out the chair and scrambled out of the room.

A stiff, awkward silence engulfed the room, stilling both hobbits in place. While Merry's playful bantering had been distracting, his cheerful, light presence had certainly helped to restore a familiarity and comfort in the room. With his presence now removed, the tension that had previously barred the two hobbits from speaking and had lessened a bit with Merry there as an anchor was now shed, and they were on their own again.

It felt like a lifetime before one of them spoke, both their tongues caught at not knowing what to say.. . . what to say first, what to say at all. . .

"Umm, yes, how about something real to eat?" Bilbo finally asked, continuing to slowly fold the sheets he'd brought in from the laundry. "We're got practically the entire market stored in the kitchen. I can get you anything you'd like. . . how about some soup for starters?" Nervousness was visible in the lines in his face, though Frodo could see that he was doing his best to hide them with a forced smile.

"Umm, sure," Frodo said, chewing on the insides of his cheeks. More silence.

"Can I get you anything else? We have plenty more. We've got sweet potatoes, mushroom soup, anything you'd like."

His uncle's cajoling voice rung in Frodo's ears, guiding him back to an earlier time when his uncle's coaxing had been a daily task. He had always been persuading him to eat more than his stomach desired, still thinking that it had been Brandy Hall's upbringing that had made him so thin instead of his own small appetite. It felt so strange, so comforting to hear again, but there was still a slight nervousness to his uncle's voice that made Frodo uneasy. Though he couldn't blame him . . he didn't really know what to say either.

"No, soup is fine. I'm still pretty stuffed from dinner last night," he said, glancing up for a second to meet his uncle's gaze. "Thank you," he added, softly.

For a few moments neither spoke. Bilbo continued to fold the sheets, and Frodo fiddled with the cloth bandage on his hand, looking up every once in a while to see his uncle slowly, hesitantly fold the fresh clothes.

"Did –"his uncle began, then paused shortly. Raising his eyes from his quilt, Frodo saw that his uncle's expression had suddenly turned grave, as though he could no longer continue with the small talk. "Did they feed you there?"

Frodo visibly tensed, unable to hide the shock that his uncle had actually asked him that. He knew that it would be coming eventually, and he could see it in his eyes, in everybody's. They were all horrified at how sick and awful he must look, and yet no one with the exception of Mrs. Gamgee and Merry had dared question him about it until now.

Frodo saw that Bilbo had stopped folding the sheets and was searching his face. Frodo could feel himself crumbling slightly under the look, and his eyes quickly fell back to tracing the lines of the patched quilt atop him. He knew he couldn't lie when the bandages on his hand and arm, and the looseness of his nightshirt on his frame, but he still didn't want to admit how frail he was.

"I. . .no, not really," he finally admitted, fiddling with the bandage on his hand. "Just. . . just bread and some other things." He sniffed, adding, "And I thought I'd never miss Aunt Pimpernel's stew."

That brought a slight smile to his uncle, and after a moment he slowly approached, sitting down beside him on the bed.

"How's the arm?" he asked, softly. Lifting a hand, he carefully traced the bandage that circled his upper arm.

"It's feeling better," Frodo answered, and this time no reassurance was needed. Earlier, he'd been able to prop himself up with minimal effort and now full feeling was back so that he could move it again. He flexed it in response. "It's still a little sore," he said, cringing slightly. "I have to get the stitches out, right?"

His uncle nodded. "Yes, tomorrow. And. . the doctor wanted me to ask. . . if you want to be put to sleep when we take the stitches out, he can do that. It's really not that painful having them removed, but you shouldn't have to suffer anymore. . . "

Frodo shrugged. "I guess it'll be all right. I mean, I've had stitches before."

"Oh yes, you were here," Bilbo said, recollection dawning on him. He laughed, grimly. "Yes, you tripped and fell down the steps of Bag End, and cut your knee. . . your parents didn't want to ever bring you back here again," he added, continuing to fold the sheets more times than were needed. Though the memory sparked a strange recrimination in his uncle's eyes, Frodo couldn't help but smile at the memory. After all, his parents had been joking when they'd said that, knowing it had been his fault when he went against his and uncle's warning not to leap down the front steps two at a time.

"But they did," Frodo said, sensing the need to remind his uncle.

"And the mess I made of it," he muttered.

Frodo started in alarm, sorrow leaking into his face as he saw just a glimmer of the heavy guilt his uncle carried. Mrs. Gamgee had warned him about it, but. . .

"Uncle – "

"I'm sorry, Frodo, I shouldn't have said that," Bilbo said quickly before Frodo could really get the word out. Expelling a heavy breath, he turned so that he was completely facing the tweenager, his face contorted with suppressed emotion. "But. . there's something I have to say. I know I already told you this but I have to say it again. I need you to heard it. . . to understand."

Frodo closed his eyes, a swift, lightheaded feeling suffusing his senses under the weight of weight of his uncle's words. He swayed slightly. Instantly, he felt Bilbo's warm hands supporting his shoulders, steadying him in place, and he tried to protest past the hard lump in his throat. After everything, he wasn't sure if he wanted to hear this or even deserved to. . .but he couldn't find the words to say it.

Bilbo waited a moment for Frodo to collect himself before speaking.

"I'm sorry, Frodo," Bilbo said, his voice just barely above a whisper. "I. . I can't say enough how sorry I am that this happened to you. . . that I let something like this happen to you." The hard lines in Bilbo's face contorted as his eyes traveled over the lad sadly. "You've already been through so much in your life, and I still can't understand what fate chose for you to have to go through this as well. . ."

"Bilbo," Frodo started, afraid to look up, "Please, I –"

"Frodo, please, let me say this." His uncle's voice was insistent, but gentle. "I know you're angry with me, Frodo. And you should be. This was my fault. . . in more ways than I can express. I can't say that I could have anticipated this happening. In adopting you, I had never dreamed that I would be putting you in danger such as I did. . .being kidnapped and taken away from home. . . I can't imagine what a terrible shock it must have been to you, or how. . . horrible those men were." Bilbo paused to clear his throat, also to muster control of his voice again, which had begun to leak with emotion. "Frodo, I can't tell you enough how much I blame myself for this, and how much I have to make up for, to you." In saying this, his hand lingered on the bandage that circled Frodo's arm. "I never. . . never should have let you go off alone that day," he said, shaking his head in painful recrimination. "In fact, not a single day should I have paid so little attention to you, not knowing what terrible thing might happen. And I know how much you love to explore and go off on your own. . . .and I let you do that. But I shouldn't have. In adopting you, it became my responsibility to keep you safe at all costs. It is my obligation to look after you. . .and . . ."

His uncle's hands suddenly moved to support his shoulders again, and only then did Frodo realize that he was shaking. He could feel the weight of his uncle's penetrating gaze, but he didn't dare lift his chin from where it lay buried in his chest, his face shielded by the bangs that fell in his face. His uncle didn't speak for a moment, no doubt wishing that he would look up and make some acknowledgment to what he was saying. But he couldn't help it. . . here were the words that he had never expected to hear from his great, proud uncle, and to hear them now after everything, he found his own words dissolving in the tears that he rapidly attempted to blink back.

"Well, in adopting you, Frodo, that was my duty and my honor to you," Bilbo resumed, his voice thick. "And I didn't. I didn't keep you safe, and I didn't look out for you as I should've. . that last day especially. But even before, I know I wasn't being the guardian that I was supposed to be, that I know you wanted me to be. And that. . .that put you in further danger, danger that might've been avoided." His voice cracked a little. "For that, I won't ever ask you to forgive me for this. . . for what I've put you through."

A moment of silence elapsed before Frodo realized that his uncle was waiting for his response. Swallowing painfully, he slowly craned his head up and was met by soft, shining eyes.

"I know that you talked to Mrs. Gamgee a few nights ago," Bilbo said, gazing at him. "I don't know how much she told you about what happened when you were gone, but. . .there were a few days there where I'd thought that I'd lost you forever." The hold on Frodo's shoulder tightened. "And I can't let that happen again. . ." he paused, putting supreme effort into controlling his voice. "Which is why I thought it be easer, safer, if you went back to Brandy Hall."

Frodo's shoulder stiffened slightly at hearing this, and he knew his uncle must've seen it.

"Frodo, I think you've come to a misunderstanding about what I meant when I told you that," his uncle continued, quickly. "I didn't mean it as my not wanting you here with me. . .far from it, my boy. . .it was because I thought that you'd be safer there. After all, it was because of my adopting you that those bad men kidnapped you. They knew that you were dear enough to me that I would pay my entire estate to get you back. And also. . .you were so sick when we finally rescued you," he said, sorrow finally breaking through the firm, controlled tone that he'd managed to keep up until this point. "You didn't see the chaos about here, after I finally got you back. Everyone was so scared and confused, for themselves as well as far you, not knowing if this were to happen again, or if someone might try and steal you again. And I could never let that happen. I. . . do you understand what I mean?" he asked, anxiously, wanting desperately to explain to Frodo the reasons why he'd ever told him such a thing.

Frodo nodded.

"I hope," Bilbo added, giving his arm a careful squeeze, "You didn't think it was because I didn't want you here."

Frodo's breath hitched a little, and he hoped his uncle didn't notice it. Raising his eyes again, he saw that his uncle was searching his face. Frodo dropped his eyes again. The action seeming foolish at this point, but he feared that every moment he might do or say something that would give everything away. Oh, if his uncle only knew what he had thought. . ..

"I. . . I didn't know," he said, his voice thick from disuse. "I. . . I didn't want to leave."

Frodo cringed, regretting that confession immediately after saying it. He already knew what lengths his uncle had gone to make him safe, only to be burdened with more guilt now. . .

Bilbo's face peered down to meet his, the hold on his shoulder just firm enough to prevent him from looking away.

"And I don't want you to leave," Bilbo murmured, gazing at him in earnest. "Believe me Frodo, that's the last thing I want. I. ." Bilbo stopped and sighed shortly. As Frodo watched his uncle's brows knot in frustration, he realized with bewilderment that for one of the first times his uncle seemed unable to articulate what he was saying. Even as he resumed again, his words came out short and stagnant. "I can't. . . I can't tell you how hard it was. Not having you here, knowing what terrible danger you were in, what you might be suffering, . . .I don't want you to leave either, my boy. And besides," he added, looking up, light coming back into his eyes "I wasn't intending for it to be permanent. Your going back to Brandy Hall, I mean."

"Well then. . . .where?" Frodo asked, frowning uncertainly. Where else was there he could go?

"Well. . . I had considered taking to you to Rivendell, perhaps," his uncle replied. "Remember that place where I told you the elves lived?" The old hobbit's face brightened a little as he saw astonishment come into his nephew's great blue eyes. "There's no safer haven in Middle Earth than Rivendell. And that's where I intend to keep you, my boy, somewhere safe, where darkness can't get you again."

"Rivendell. . . really?" Frodo gasped, the memories of his uncle's tales still vivid in his mind. He recalled his uncle telling him on several occasions about the beautiful waterfalls that fell, and the tall, graceful elves that made their home there.

"Yes, I see you remember," Bilbo said, his mouth curving in a smile to see recollection brighten the lad's eyes. "That was where I became acquainted with Lord Elrond, the leader of the elves in our particular realm of Middle Earth. . . well, you remember, I've told you. That was one consideration I had to where to take you. But it's really not my decision, Frodo. It's up to you to decide where you want to stay, where you think you'd be safest," he said, absently smoothing the covers. "And really, don't even think about it right now. You're still weak, and it will be several weeks before you'll be going anywhere. But. . just know," he said, his eyes soft and sincere. "This is your home, Frodo. As my adopted heir, Bag End is just as much my home as yours, and I don't want you to leave me. But. ." for a moment he paused, and swallowed before continuing. "If you don't. . . I mean, if you don't feel safe here, after what happened. . . .whatever you decide, I'll understand."

Frodo nodded, quickly.

Bilbo forced a smile into his face, and decided that it was best to leave it at that, at least for now. He knew he'd made the lad more than a little uncomfortable with everything that he had said to him, yet he couldn't blame him for not wanting to speak himself just yet.

"Now, let me get you something to eat," he declared, his voice brightening a little. "I've got some freshly made pea soup in the kitchen, and I'm sure it's just cool enough now to eat. How about I bring you some of that and some toast?"

Frodo nodded in agreement. He had to admit that whatever was in the tea he'd drank the night before had not only helped him to sleep, but made him wake with a quickly growing hunger. In response, he heard his stomach make a loud, gurgling sound. His uncle sniffed, humorously.

"Good. . . well, then I'll go fix you some. Just stay here, and I'll be right back."

"W. . .wait," Frodo said, as his uncle began to stand.

Immediately the old hobbit stilled, sinking back down and staring at his nephew with assessing eyes. Frodo opened his mouth for a moment, then closed it, still trying to work through the tumult of emotions that were swimming in him so that he could utter something of an apology close to what his uncle had just given him. But he found that he couldn't say it, nor could he barely start to explain everything, let alone what had happened that finally made him realize how wrong he'd been. . . the whole time. . .

"I. . "he began, stopping shortly when he realized with a blow that this was NOT the time to say it anyway, not when his uncle was already so worried. He couldn't possibly tell him. . . .

"What is it, Frodo?" Bilbo asked. His voice was softer than before, and the concern in his voice was so deliberate and tender that the lump in Frodo's throat grew so thick that it closed off his speech. For a moment he had to stop, swallowing down the water his uncle offered him at seeing him struggling to speak before continuing.

"How. . . how did you do it?" he asked, latching onto the first question that came to him. "How did you. . .save me?"

His uncle stared at him in confusion, perhaps knowing that he wasn't intending to say that originally. Soon the lines of confusion in his face lifted in understanding. "I was just wondering. . . I how did you save me? No one seems to know. . . "

Bilbo looked away for a second, and one of his hands absently moved to the pocket of his vest.

"Um, care to hear a story lad?"

The corners of the tweenager's mouth lifted slightly. "Sure."

"Well. . . I know I've told you much of my adventures, Frodo. But much of it has been random, and rather out of order, wouldn't you say? I haven't ever told you the story. . . in full."

Frodo stared at his uncle, inquisitively.

"Well it's true," his uncle answered, smiling. "In your earliest years, you always insisted on being told the same tales. I remember the first I told you was about the trolls, and after that you would hear nothing else. Oh yes, it's true. I would say, "But wouldn't you care to hear about the dragon, my lad, or how I met Gandalf, the bothersome wizard who came knocking on my door to solicit me for this adventure?" as I bounced you on my lap. But no, you'd shake your head with a pout, and say "Trolls. Tell troll story," and that would be that."

Bilbo's face took on a faraway look as he fondly recalled taking the boy's small, pudgy hands in his as he bounced him on his lap, just a wee child he was then. Settling the lad on his shoulder once more, he would recount the tale again, always trying to think of fresh details to make the story a bit more exciting for Frodo to hear.

"I always like that one," Frodo said, wryly.

Bilbo laughed. "Indeed you did. I think you were seven when you finally began asking about some of my other stories, and at your command I told you about Rivendell, my first being dragged by Gandalf and the dwarves and many others. You've heard many of them. But. . . many of the other parts actually have gone unmentioned." In saying this, Bilbo was thinking of the spiders, one particular story that he had deliberately not mentioned, for he had not wanted to frighten the lad. Even parts of his tale with Smaug, and the war that followed it, he'd saved for later. And some stories, including his account with Gollum and the ring had never been told. Only once or twice had Frodo ever asked to be told the adventure from beginning till end. Yet even with the lad's attention span, Bilbo had never made to the part with the goblins, and the riddles in the dark before the lad had fallen asleep or something had interrupted the tale.

Taking a breath, Bilbo went into it. He began with the goblin attack (a tale that had been referenced to before but next explained in full) and then continued with his flopping up and down on Dori's back, right until he was accidentally thrown off, bumped his head on a rock, and knew nothing more.

"I know not how long I lay there in the dark, but when I came to myself I found it to be quiet, and all my companions were gone. Naturally, I was frightened, and imagined myself never finding my way out of there again. But it's strange. . . while I lay, fumbling on the ground in that tight spot, I happened to come across a certain trinket that truly changed my fortune in the course of my tale.. . .and it also aided me in saving you."

His nephew staring at him inquisitively, Bilbo fumbled in his vest pocket and pulled out his ring. Holding it in the palm of his hand, he held it out for Frodo to see.

"A ring?" Frodo asked, uncertainly.

Bilbo smiled, humorously. "Yes, my lad. It doesn't look like much, does it?" Frodo nodded. "Well, that is what I assumed when I picked it up. And yet I dropped it in my pocket, and continued on. In my wandering and stumbling in the dark, I eventually came upon a strange creature named Gollum. . ."

Again, Bilbo dove into his encounter with Gollum. . . the absurd riddle asking . . .Gollum's strange, hissing voice and his habit of speaking to himself. . .the sneaky creature weeping over losing his 'precious'. . . Bilbo's placing the ring on his own finger, and understanding its great power of invisibility.

"But. . . how is that possible?" Frodo breath, his blue eyes wide with astonishment, darting from Bilbo to the ring still resting in his hand. "I never knew such magic existed. . .or that you had it!"

Bilbo smiled, placing the ring back in his pocket. "Indeed, Frodo, it is truly a thing of wonder."

"But who made it? Where did it come from?"

"I cannot say, my boy, for I know not. Nor did the dwarves, when it came time to tell them."

"But how come you never told me about it before?" Frodo asked, curiously. "Why, you could've used it for so many useful things! Slipping away from the Boffins, or – "

"Oh, I assure you my boy I've hid from many unpleasantries thanks to this ring.," Bilbo replied. "But more importantly than any narrow escapes I've made from pesky neighbors, it helped me to save you."

"How?" Frodo asked, becoming conscious of the fact that he was clutching the sheets with both hands and his heart was racing at the suspense of the tale.

"Well, just a few days ago, your second letter came," Bilbo said, pensively. He paused, peering into his nephew's face for recollection.

"Oh. . yes," Frodo said, chewing on his lip.

"I still have it," Bilbo said, fumbling in his pocket and unfolding the envelope.

Frodo's eyes widened painfully, and he paled as his eyes fell upon a piece of paper he'd never expected to see again. It looked different. It was marred by filth from the journey, and there were smudges on it, as though it had been held repeatedly. His writing was scarcely his own.

As he continued to look at it, Frodo felt his insides twist violently, and he felt himself taken back to that very moment. He remember the hot anger that had been burning in him as he'd written it, Tony's cold knife at his throat the entire time. . .

Bilbo saw the storm of emotion in his nephew's face, and he quickly resumed, folding the letter back up. He hadn't meant to upset the lad by showing him the letter, but he realized now that it was probably not something he wanted to see.

"Well, at receiving this I knew there was no way to work out an amiable agreement with those foes. Yet I knew I had to find some way to get you back. And then I remembered my ring. The very ring that had helped me to escape Gollum, and so many other monsters in the past. I realized what necessity there was in using it now. And so that night I went to the forest where they had instructed, and I waited in the brush for them to come. And come they did."

"And. . . and you put on the ring and got me away?" Frodo anticipated, wringing the edge of the blanket in his hands.

His uncle raised his hand, giving him a knowing smile. "Not so fast, lad. It wasn't as simple as that. For one, the two

ruffians seemed to be in a dispute of some kind, for as I approached I found them engaged in a fight. I know not what was fueling their anger, but their furies rose to such a point that they eventually turned on each other. A great chance of luck it was for me, really. As they began to fight, they dropped out of sight for a moment and that gave me the time to gather you up and make a mad dash down the hill."

As he listened, Frodo was only partially aware of how large his eyes had widened into saucers, his mouth slightly open. His mind was spinning as he took in his uncle's story, digesting all that had been happening when he had been gone, all that he had not known. Not just about Bilbo, but Tony and Strasser as well. All too clearly he could remember their arguing, over him especially. To know now that they had actually turned on each other. . . and his uncle had been there to witness it. . . and his uncle had saved him. . .

"Well, what happened?" Frodo asked, desperate to hear the rest. "Did they follow?"

"They did," Bilbo admitted, his voice turning grave. "And despite the power my ring holds, it only shrouds one in invisibility. I was still invisible as I dashed down the hill with you in my arms. . . but you were not. And there was no time to hide, or to make any decision save one, really. Once I got to the bottom of the hill, I laid you down under some brush so that I would be able to find you. . .and I put the ring on your own finger."

"But uncle. . . what?" he stammered, staring at his uncle in disbelief. "What if you'd been hurt?"

Dizziness assailed Frodo as he watched his uncle press a hand to his own arm, wincing slightly. Oh no. . . his uncle had shrouded him, while leaving himself to those two terrible men? Frodo swallowed back bile, just thinking what could've happened. . .if his uncle had been hurt. All this time when he'd thought back on waking up in the forest with Bilbo, he hadn't considered what his uncle had faced in getting him back.

Frodo felt his head fall with the weight of his uncle's sacrifice. "But uncle, you could've. . ."

"It was a risk worth taking," his uncle replied, clearing his throat. "And you were safe from them, which was the most important thing."

"Did you have to fight them?" Frodo whispered.

"One of them. It happened that the two of them fought so much, that one of them ended up killing the other."

Blood drained from Frodo's face, and he lifted his head in disbelief. For a moment he just stared at his uncle. "Which one?" he asked, quietly.

"I. . I knew not their names, lad. The one that was taller, and had hair all about his face. He killed the other."

Tony. Frodo nodded, his eyes clouding in the bewilderment of all he had not known.

"And the other one has been captured, my boy," Bilbo said, quickly. "Both are gone. Forever. In a twist I myself did not expect, rangers from Bree who had been helping to look for you arrived, and captured the other. He was overtaken by them, and has since been removed from the Shire to be punished according to the laws of men, which is no doubt harsher than anything we hobbit folk inflict. And it was then, after they took him away that I was finally free to go to you. And that's when you woke, and we took you home."

"I. ." Frodo was at a loss for words. He was overwhelmed by all that had happened in his absence, all that he had not known before. "I . . . I didn't know," he said, his eyes tracing his bed sheets in frustration. "I don't remember any of that happening. ."

"Of course not," his uncle murmured. His voice was suddenly very soft and gentle again, and Frodo felt the uneasiness return as he became aware of his uncle's worried eyes traveling over the bruises he knew were still visible on his face. "You were so sick when I found you. And . . .for my part, I am glad that you were spared those last hours. That you don't remember anything. I . . I can't imagine how horrible it must've been," he said, his hand cupping Frodo's bandaged hand. "I hope that in time you'll tell me. . . but you don't need to now, not if you're not ready. Know that right now, all we want is for you to get better."

Frodo nodded in understanding.

Bilbo sighed. "Well, I'm sure you're practically starving at this point. Is there anything I can get you before I head into the kitchen."

Frodo paused for a moment as he pondered something, then looked up with a small smile. "Um. . yes. Can. . can I see?" he asked, gesturing to the pocket where he had seen Bilbo place the ring. "Can I see what happens when you put it on?"

Bilbo fished out the ring from his pocket with a grin. "Well, it doesn't work in any special way," he replied, standing up and walking to the other end of the room. "You just put it on, as you would any other ring," he said. In saying this, Bilbo held out the ring for imitation and then placed it on his finger before Frodo. . . then vanished.

Frodo gasped, blinking in astonishment to see the side wall and chair, which had just been blocked from sight by his uncle's shape. By the Shire, his uncle's ring really could turn him invisible! But how was that possible, how could such a magical thing exist? It was unbelievable. . . and to think his uncle, whom he was sure had already told him his greatest of adventures, had kept it in his pocket all along. . .

"Uncle, what? Are you still there?" he called out, not sure whether his uncle could come back when he chose, or whether he gradually grew visible again. For a moment his eyes darted about the room, and then he smiled when he saw a book lifted slightly from his table, as though it were suspended in air.

Suddenly, he heard the light sounds of footsteps. Looking warily in the direction of the corner, he quickly resumed a feigned expression of sullenness just as his cousin ran back into the room.

"There you go, Frodo, there's all that's left of the stash," Merry said, panting. "Our sneaky uncle, he must've hidden it in a new spot after all. But don't worry, I'll go find more," he said. Turning to leave, he paused and traced the room with a frown. "Where did Bilbo go?"

Frodo fought to suppress a grin as his eyes instinctively darted to the corner. "Um, he's about Merry. He said he'd be back soon."

"Oh. Well, then he won't see this part of the stash," Merry said, with a bright grin. "I'll just stash it in the bookcase here and go look for the rest. I know that there was more than this still left in the pantry last I'd seen."

His cousin darted back out of the room just in time before Frodo burst into laughter. Soon after, Bilbo re-appeared again, and without a word dropped the ring in his pocket and went about taking the ginger from its supposed hiding spot. "How about we get you the soup and then you can have some of this?" he asked, suggestively. Frodo nodded, his face still bright and flushed from the effort of keeping his laughter contained when Merry burst in. Warmth spread into the older hobbit's face, the relief at seeing his nephew like that more wonderful than he could express. "You stay here and rest," he said, and passed out of the room.

Frodo watched him go, and as he was left alone he became aware of the amazing lightness he felt. It was so strange, after all the confusion and pain that had consumed him, now he and Merry were all right and again. And his uncle Bilbo. . .

The sudden sounds of chirping caught Frodo's attention, and he turned to see a little blue bird just on the inside of his window. It rested a moment, flittering its pointed beak this way and that in a quick motion before flying out into the morning air.

Frodo smiled as he watched it go, but the view of the blue sky felt limited now. Throwing his blankets aside, Frodo worked his legs up and crawled over to the edge of the bed, where he could see the Shire from outside his window.

It was beautiful. As it always had been. The sky was shining brightly over the green, sweeping hills, and the trees were swaying slightly in the breeze.

Frodo sighed, silently. He remembered the joy he had felt when he had first awoken in the Shire again before the first exchange. No matter what had happened to him, he couldn't forget that the Shire was still here, unchanged, just as beautiful and peaceful as it had always been. Now that he was back, he felt his heart slowly settling back into that warm reminder. He was home. His uncle had saved him, and he wanted him to stay.

Voices suddenly echoed down the hall. Turning towards the door, Frodo felt a sudden twinge of restlessness, fueled further from looking out at the Shire activity. As much comfort as his room gave him, he had been in here for days, and the desire seized him to see the rest of the hole again.

Chewing on his lip, Frodo began to contemplate what might be happening in the kitchen with his uncle and Merry. Soon he was disregarding his "should I take a peek down the hall?" with "could I?"

Edging to the end of the bed, Frodo dropped his feet and let his legs dangle over the side. Crawling to the end of the bed had made him realize that he wasn't as healed as he'd thought just sitting up. His hand still stung when he put pressure on it, and his arm was sore now that he was trying to use it again. But the bruises had definitely faded and pained much less, which gave him the hope that he wouldn't fall over if he tried to stand.

Tentatively, his feet met the wooden floor. It was cold. The familiarity encouraged him to put his weight down. Yet as he finally moved away from the bed a spell of weakness came over him and he quickly grabbed for the doorframe before stumbling.

It wasn't the best start, but he kept going. Keeping his hands close to the wall, Frodo was able to drag one tired leg in front of the other as he made his way down the hall. Emotion wracked him as he made his journey into the kitchen. By the Shire, it had been so long. As he peered into each room, he could see that things were much changed. Papers, books and other items were disheveled all about the hall (not just Bilbo's study, as was often the case). But it was still Bag End.

Passing down the hall, Frodo found that walking became a bit easier so that he didn't even need to hold onto something half way to the kitchen. He was certain that the weakness in his legs was more due to lack of movement than bruises, though they were there.

At long last, Frodo slowly made his way to the kitchen where he could hear the clatter of dishes and the voices of his uncle and Merry. Gripping onto the frame of the door, Frodo poked his head in and smiled. His uncle Saradoc and Doctor Boffin, recently arrived, were sitting at the table smoking while Bilbo attempted to block Merry from getting by, a new stash of ginger in his hands.

"Just a piece uncle, it won't hurt him!" Merry protested.

"No, Merry," Bilbo and the doctor both commanded at once.

"Gracious, Bilbo, why did you give him the key?" Saradoc admonished, taking a puff of smoke.

"Just a piece. .. Frodo!" Merry suddenly exclaimed. In his attempt to dart away , he caught sight of his pale, feeble cousin leaning against the wall, watching the struggle with obvious amusement.

"Frodo!" In an instant, Bilbo swept past Merry and steadied the young tweenager. "What are you doing?" he stammered, panic erupting in his face. "You're not supposed to be up, you could hurt yourself!"

"No, no please uncle I just wanted to – " Frodo halted in his protest, his uncle already steadying him and leading him slowly back to his room.

"You shouldn't be up and about, you're still weak."

"No, no, I'm all right uncle, really," he insisted, "I just wanted something to drink!"


Phew! That was looooong! No wonder it took so long! (Sorry everyone, I just couldn't come up with a suitable break for it to split into two chapters).

Last Christmas I recall posting "The Exchange part II" which didn't have a very pleasant ending, so hopefully this chapter makes up for it. :)

Next chapter should be posted within a week! Thank the Heavens for Christmas break, otherwise I'd never get genuine time to get writing in. And as always, (though it may not look like it considering the space between updates :) your kind words always help to fuel the fire of motivation!

Merry Christmas everyone! Thank you all for your kind words, they've made a wonderful Christmas present.