this unexpected summer of the heart

part viii

A/N: So, it's been a few months. Um. I have no excuse. But if you celebrate Thanksgiving, this is my holiday present to you! And if you don't celebrate Thanksgiving, this is just one of those at-long-last updates for fics that everyone has probably forgotten about. A huge, huge thanks to everyone who has kept on reading and reviewing this fic, even though I haven't been giving it nearly the love you all deserve.

Whatever unhappy thoughts Frodo had been fretting over that morning, they were gone by the time the sun reached its zenith, and the birthday party began with good food and good cheer.

Hamfast and his sons, with the help of the two dwarven princes, had set up a handful of wooden picnic tables in the field that spread out below The Hill. An ancient tree with gnarled branches and a mess of green leaves towered overhead, offering cool quiet shade even in the heat of the day. When the first guests arrived, the tables were already laden with food and neatly-labeled presents, and Frodo was sitting on Bofur's shoulder, carefully affixing colorful ribbons to the lower branches of the tree.

"That's Pearl," Frodo said, pointing to the tiny hobbit lass bounding towards them from the road. A taller, more sedate figure followed close behind. "And there's her papa. He's the Thain's cousin, I think. So Pearl's almost like a princess. She's little but she's tough. She follows me and Hamson everywhere."

Bofur lifted Frodo down from his shoulder. "You go and say hello, there's a good lad. I'll finish prettifying the tree."

Frodo took off like an arrow. He returned several minutes later, Pearl clinging to him like a giggling limpet. The Gamgee children abandoned their parents to join the fun, and soon they were all chasing each other another round and round the tree, darting through the field and scrambling under tables. Rosie Bolger and her daughter Estella arrived soon after, Bullroarer the bloodhound trotting along beside them. He stood nearly as tall at the shoulder as Estella did, but disappointed all the children by curling up in the soft grass underneath the tree and promptly going to sleep.

"He's boring," Hamson Gamgee said, nudging the dog with one foot. "Can't he run around or fetch a stick or do anything neat?"

Estella glared. "He's not one bit boring. He's the cleverest dog from here to Buckland, and it's not his fault he sleeps a lot. He's just old, is all."

"Can I go pet him?" asked Pearl. "He's nice, isn't he?"

"Of course he is. He's doesn't bite anybody except for rude gardener boys," Estella said, and grabbed Pearl by the hand. "Come on. You can give him an apple and then he'll like you."

"I'm going to be a blacksmith, anyway," Hamson said as they left him behind. "Who cares about your stupid old dog?"

Paladin Took was hovering to one side, keeping an eye on his daughter and occasionally glancing at the dwarves; Bilbo took him aside for a quiet conversation. "They're not dangerous in the slightest," Bilbo assured him, out of earshot of the rest of the gathering. "Quite respectable, as dwarves go—"

Paladin waved him off. "Don't fret, cousin. Likely they're all troublemakers of the first order, but I don't doubt they're friendly enough. You wouldn't have them around little Frodo, otherwise. Who's the fellow with the frown and the fancy dark hair?"

"His name's Thorin. He's my—well." Bilbo glanced over his shoulder to see Thorin kneeling down in the grass, talking to a handful of hobbit children. Frodo was standing at his shoulder, arms folded, looking crossly at his friends—as if one of them might steal Thorin away, if he didn't keep a close enough eye on them.

Paladin whistled. "Not that foreign lord, surely? Adeline's husband told stories about Thorin Oakenshield, but the fellow he was talking about was a king."

"Yes, well," Bilbo said. "He's on holiday, as it were."

"And the two handsome lads gadding about with your gardener and his wife?"

"Thorin's nephews. Hamfast and Bell are quite taken with them." This was a lie. Bell thought that Fíli and Kíli were sweet and charming; Hamfast thought they were addlepated.

"Respectable, indeed!" said Paladin. "You've got a houseful of royalty, by the looks of it. I should've had Cousin Ferumbras stop by and play the dignitary—a formal welcome from the Tooks of the Shire, and all that."

"They're not exactly here on official business," Bilbo said. He could only imagine what might have happened if the Thain's eldest son had dropped by Bag End that first night, while the dwarves were all busy drinking and raiding the pantry. Or that next morning, when everyone was still abed. How stuffy young Ferumbras would blush if he knew that a hobbit was dallying with the king of dwarves!

But Paladin wasn't nearly so old-fashioned as his cousin, and he was a good deal more perceptive than most of Bilbo's extended family. He grinned and clapped Bilbo on the shoulder. "Well, I'm jealous of your company, cousin. You'll be off on one of your adventures soon enough. Young Frodo too, I suppose?"

"Would you let your child go gadding off into the wilds?"

"If I had a likely lad around Frodo's age, I'd beg you to take him along," Paladin said. "Or Pearl, if she were old enough. It's good for children to see something of the world. I wish I'd had the chance when I was a boy."

"No chance of it, I'm afraid. Frodo isn't going anywhere. The Brandybucks would never have it."

"Nonsense. Old Rory'd be delighted."

"Delighted, yes. Right. Why not let his wife's favorite nephew run off into the blue with a mad old hobbit and a gang of dwarves? Can't imagine what could go wrong."

"Well now, when you put it that way, I can see where they might kick up a bit of a fuss," Paladin admitted. He was a Took, and listened to Bilbo's stories as eagerly as anyone in the Shire. But he was a father as well, and Frodo was still such a little lad. "Don't supposed they'd let you adopt him, under the circs?"

"I've tried. Not a chance."

Distantly, Bilbo heard a child shriek with laughter. More and more guests were arriving. All around them there was a flurry of hugs and friendly greetings. Paladin grinned and nodded in the direction of the party tree. "Look at your princes, bless them."

Bilbo turned to look. It seemed that the children, led by young Hamson, had decided to climb the party tree. The lowest branches were at least three feet out of reach, but that was no great obstacle, since Fíli and Kíli were boosting them into the tree one by one. The small children still waiting for their turn were crowding around impatiently, clamoring to be next, while a few of the tweens tried to scramble up the trunk on their own.

As they watched, Bofur hurried up to Bilbo, hat in hand. "Sorry to interrupt," he said, sketching a brief bow to Paladin. "Bofur of Erebor, at your service."

"Paladin son of Adalgrim at yours," Paladin said, cheerfully. "Interrupt away."

"Is it safe for the lads and lasses to be messing about up the tree?" he asked. "No one seems fussed, but it'd just about break my heart if anything was to happen."

"Hobbits don't fall out of trees," Bilbo said dismissively.

Bofur still looked unhappy. "You're certain?" he said. "They won't fall?" Dwarves were fiercely protective of children, and as a general rule they preferred to keep their feet firmly on the ground. Trees and forests made them deeply uncomfortable.

"I promise," Bilbo said. "Even I don't fall out of trees, and I'm quite possibly the clumsiest hobbit in the Shire when it comes to heights and climbing. Something to do with clinging to mountainsides and being dangled off battlements, I expect."

Bofur left, casting occasional anxious glances at the hobbit children scrambling around in the lower boughs.

"It's a shame about Rory and Gilda," Paladin said once Bofur was gone. "Your lad would come home with such tales to tell. Wearing velvet and ermine like a proper little princeling, if your king had his way."

Bilbo opened his mouth to protest—Thorin belonged to no one, after all!—but Paladin didn't let him get a word in edgewise.

"Well, I suppose it's none of my business. Why don't I go and see what sort of trouble my Pearl is getting herself into, eh?" He wandered off, whistling, and left Bilbo feeling distinctly wrong-footed. He had taken it for granted that his friends and neighbors would glower and mutter disapprovingly about the dwarves, and he had been entirely prepared to tell them all to go stuff themselves. Instead, with the likely exception of Mr. Burrows the blacksmith, it seemed as if all of Hobbiton was head over heels for them. It was too good to be true.

Indeed, no sooner had he wandered off than Bilbo was mobbed by half a dozen of his relatives, all of them demanding to know about the dwarves—their names, and where they had come from, and how long they were staying, and was one of them really a king? Bilbo answered their questions as patiently as he could. Luckily, Frodo appeared before he lost his temper and shouted at the inquisitive Mrs. Goodbody, who was wheedling out which of the dwarves were married—precisely how wealthy they all were, and how respectable their families were accounted to be.

"Time for presents!" Frodo said, ducking between Mrs. Goodbody and old Prisca Bolger. "Come on, uncle. I've got one for you, too." He took Bilbo's hand, and they made good their escape by heading to the picnic tables. "Were they bothering you?" Frodo asked as they walked. "You had your Sackville-Baggins look."

"I didn't know I had a Sackville-Baggins look," Bilbo said.

Frodo stopped in his tracks, planting himself squarely in front of Bilbo. He crossed his arms in front of his chest and scowled. "It looks like that," he said. "Am I scary?"

"Terrifying," Bilbo assured him. "I have a newfound respect for Lobelia, if she's faced with that every time she catches me unawares."

Presents were opened, to universal delight. Bilbo had made sure that Frodo had plenty of money to buy his friends whatever he liked, and there were enough old mathoms in Bag End for a dozen such parties. Soon afterward the empty luncheon dishes were cleared from the tables, and the desserts brought out: one enormous blueberry pie, and a small mountain of pudding, and enough dozen blackcurrant scones to feed an army. When there was nothing left but crumbs, the adults drifted apart into groups of four and five, and the children returned to their games. The afternoon slipped by, warm and bright.

The dwarves, after making such an amiable first impression, had retreated to a table apart from the rest. Bilbo let them be. If they wanted to chat, they were perfectly capable of striking up conversations themselves—and he certainly couldn't blame them if they needed some peace and quiet. Bilbo didn't consider himself an unsociable hobbit, but he would be the first to admit that his relatives and neighbors could be trying at the best of times.

Bilbo made vague excuses to Prisca Bolger, who had caught him unawares while he was nibbling on a blackberry scone, and drifted over to where the dwarves were sitting. Thorin was deep in discussion with his nephews, probably about their plans to visit Dís in Ered Luin. The boys were leaving on the morrow, and Bofur would soon be heading in the opposite direction, back over to Bree to give Dwalin all the news. But Thorin broke off his discussion long enough to smile at Bilbo as he approached, and moved over so that he could settle down beside him.

Something about his easy smile struck Bilbo as entirely wonderful. He interrupted their debate with a few suggestions of his own, namely about road choices and the quickest routes to take out of the Shire, taking into account the newly-fired curiosity of every hobbit from Hobbiton to Little Delving, all of whom would be inclined to stop and chat. Soon enough, they were interrupted again, this time by no personage less than Ms. Estella Bolger herself, who stood imperiously at Fili's side and stared up at him, tugging on his tunic until he noticed her.

"We're playing orcs and wargs," she said. Her wild brown curls had been carefully tied back with a ribbon, but an hour of running and shrieking and climbing trees had ruined her mother's hard work. "But Bull is guarding the tree, so it's safe there. Do you want to play?"

Fíli shook his head. "I'm not very good at that game," he said, wryly. "I've gotten caught by wargs one too many times, I'm afraid."

The girl took notice of his scars for the first time. "Oh," she breathed. "Is that—?"

Fíli rubbed a hand along one side of his face. "Yes," he said.

"Did it hurt?"

"Well, yes," he said. "It did."

She promptly sat down at his feet, staring up at him with huge brown eyes. "Tell me the story," she said.

Fili opened his mouth, then closed it again. "Er," he said. "Wouldn't you rather I told you about something less—bloody?"

"No," she said, petulantly. "Wargs."

Rosamunda Bolger detached herself from her husband's family and hurried over. "Oh, please forgive Estella," she said, trying to tug her daughter back to her feet. "She's always causing trouble, and asking questions she shouldn't."

"What? Oh, I don't mind," Fili said. "It's a good story. I just don't want to scare her."

"Mama, let go," Estella said, pulling out of her mother's grasp. "I promise I won't get scared!"

"You say that now, but just wait until you go to bed. You'll sit up all night for fear of wolves prowling out in the garden, and I for one don't want to spend my morning with a grumpy little hobbit lass who hasn't gotten her sleep."

"Please, mama! I'll go to bed early and I won't be grumpy at all and I'll help you with the mending—"

Kíli joined in her pleading, pointedly ignoring Fíli kicking him under the table. United, Estella and Kili proved too much even for Rosamunda's heart—which was in fact about as soft as buttermilk, at least when it came to her Estella's love for stories. "Yes, yes, all right. That's quite enough." She sat down at a nearby table and let Estella clamber into her lap. "Tell your story, Master Dwarf. She'll give neither of us a moment's peace until you do."

Fíli conceded with good grace. He shared his brother's love of theatrics, though he indulged himself in songs and wild tales less often than Kili did. "It was a bleak evening," he began, "and the ponies had been restless ever since we left my cousin's home in the Iron Hills. I'd been sent to pay him a visit, but after six months Dain was sick of me and I was sick of Dain, so we parted ways and I made my way home to my uncle's kingdom. Early one night, when the moon was rising over the mountain, we heard howls in the distance—"

"Oh, are you telling a story?" Hamson Gamgee asked, breathlessly. He was the chief orc, but he'd given up on chasing Frodo and had returned to the tables in hopes of finding a piece of pie or an overlooked scone. "Is it a good one?"

"It's about wargs," Estella informed him, smugly. "Real ones."

That was even better than a blackberry scone. Hamson joined their little group, and Fíli obligingly started the story over again. Not for the last time; it took him a dozen false starts before the last of the children had gathered around. A fair number of their parents were lurking well within earshot, pretending that they weren't paying attention and failing miserably. Mrs. Goodbody, standing the farther away and straining to hear every word, shushed her husband every time he tried to speak.

"It's almost time for supper," he said, fiddling anxiously with the hem of his waistcoat. "Really, dear, we should start heading home—"

"I'm trying to listen," Mrs. Goodbody hissed. "Be quiet! The wargs have just killed the last of the guards—what dreadful creatures! And those silly ponies bolted with all the weapons and baggage, so it's looking quite hopeless."

Mr. Goodbody resigned himself to a late supper.

"—and so my brother got me back to the mountain and the healers patched me up, and I didn't even lose my eye," Fíli finished at long last. "And I've never had to visit my boring old cousin since, so all's well that ends well."

When it was clear that no further stories were forthcoming, the children immediately set to recreating the battle. A fierce argument broke out as to who would be the dwarves, but it was Frodo's birthday so of course he had to be Fíli, and he picked Estella to be Kíli because she had found a stick that looked like a sword and was waving it around with great aplomb.

It was, in short, the best birthday party any of the children had ever attended, and it lasted well into the evening. But eventually parents began to drag their yawning children home, despite the inevitable protests. The sun vanished below the horizon, shadows lengthening on the grass and the clouds glowing blue and purple, shot through with streaks of glowing orange. The fireflies came out, drifting lazily over the field like little sparks, and a few bats swooped overhead, small black shadows darting and fluttering in the fading light.

Still, a few stragglers remained. "It's no fair," one little boy said as his parents said their goodbyes to Bilbo and Frodo. "Frodo's caught three fireflies and I haven't caught any yet!"

Bell Gamgee met with similar resistance. "I'm not even tired yet," Hamson protested. "Daisy and May are just babies, but can't me and Hal stay for a little longer?"

"You can help your father with the tables. But mind you don't take advantage of Mister Baggins' hospitality! He's far too good to you as it is."

"Oh, they're no trouble," Bilbo said. He was carrying little May Gamgee in his arms; she had fallen asleep in the party tree, and Bofur had been the one to find her, curled up in the fork of two sturdy branches and snoring gently. The poor dwarf had almost fainted when he saw her, convinced that she was going to fall to her death any second. "No, no, don't worry—I can carry her. I mean, in your condition—"

"Mister Baggins, I'm pregnant," she said. "I'm not about to faint or have a fit. But it'd be a pity to wake her, and if you don't mind taking her back to our house, it would be a kindness."

The dwarves were helping Hamfast Gamgee with the picnic tables. They were too heavy for even four sturdy hobbits to carry without much huffing and puffing, but Fíli and Kíli could easily lift one, and Thorin was strong enough that he and Hamfast could manage quite nicely on their own.

"What dear helpful fellows," Bell said. She'd grown quite fond of the dwarves, though her husband still muttered that they were mighty strange folk, and not at all respectable. "It must be a joy to have them as houseguests."

"Oh, yes," said Bilbo. "Clattering around in the kitchen in the mornings, and eating everything in sight, and dripping trails of water through the house after baths because they don't dry their hair properly—"

Bell laughed. "You don't fool me for one moment, Mister Baggins. Make sure May has her little toy rabbit when you put her to bed, will you? She'll fuss without it."

The evening deepened as Bilbo walked up the path, May still fast asleep in his arms, away from the last of the hustle and bustle.

"I don't actually like children, you know," he told her. She didn't stir. "Nuisances, the lot of you. Running around and shrieking. Fussing at all hours of the day and night. Waking up with nightmares, demanding tea and hugs. Getting sick, and getting lost, and getting tangled up in thorn bushes. It's a prodigious amount of bother."

The Gamgees' modest home—too small for a family of six, and Bilbo hadn't the slightest idea how they would fit in a seventh—was only two holes down from Bag End. Soon he had May settled in her little cot; lovingly carved wooden letters, painted and hung on the wall, read May Elisa Gamgee.

Bilbo found her old toy rabbit lying on the floor, though he wouldn't have known it was a rabbit if he hadn't been told; little bits of fluff and stuffing were all that remained of its ears, and half the stitches had ripped out of the thin, faded fabric. Bilbo tucked it beside May and quietly slipped away, trying not to wake her.

Bell appeared just as he was leaving, her eldest daughter clinging to her skirts as she unlatched the door. "Thank you," Bell said, "for the party. And for looking after May. You're a good sort, Mister Baggins, even if Hamfast is right, and you aren't particularly respectable."

He smiled a little at that, and was halfway out the door when she added: "And it was nice of Mister Rory and Mistress Menegilda to stop by, wasn't it? Only it's a shame they came so late in the evening."

Bilbo stopped in his tracks. "Rory and Gilda are here?" His voice was strained.

"Oh, I suppose you wouldn't have seen them, would you? You were helping with the tables, and saying goodbyes, and then you were looking after May. I suppose they came to say hello to Frodo."

"Yes," said Bilbo, an uncomfortable sinking feeling settling in his stomach. "I suppose they did."

He hurried down the road and back to the party field, but he had the nasty suspicion that he was too late. He was right. Raised voices tore through the empty field, and Bilbo could see a few very distinctive figures standing by the hedge that ran along the road. One was Thorin. The other was Menegilda Brandybuck. As he drew closer, he saw that a handful of bystanders were clustered nearby, watching the confrontation with interest.

"He's a Brandybuck," Menegilda was saying, "and he's only a little boy. He ought to be with his family, not gadding about with troublemakers and vagrants!"

"He has a family," Thorin said, stiffly. "Bilbo looks after him. Frodo is happy here."

"And how long will it be before he goes gadding off and leaves the poor boy to fend for himself? Mark my words, one day we'll wake up and Mister Baggins will be long gone. No note, no warning. Gone, just like last time! He'll wander off to visit elves or trolls, and like as not he'll get lost in the Old Forest and never be seen again."

Bilbo hurried up to stand beside Thorin. A small hand clutched at his, and he looked down to see Frodo huddled at Thorin's side.

"Now, Gilda, be reasonable," Bilbo said, trying to hide his irritation and not succeeding. "If you want to come inside and have a cup of tea, we can talk this over—"

Menegilda swelled with indignation. "You use that dwarf to bully me into giving up Frodo, and you tell me to be reasonable? You've got a lot of nerve, Bilbo Baggins!"

"I haven't the foggiest notion what you're talking about," Bilbo said. "Thorin is my guest. A very respectable dwarf—"

"Oh, and do you really expect me to trust a band of vagabond blacksmiths to look after my nephew?"

"You haven't the faintest idea what you're talking about—"

"What would his mother say, if she were alive?"

"—and who gave you permission to come stomping up to Hobbiton, anyway?"

"As if this whole mess wasn't Drogo Baggins' fault to begin with? Going boating on the Brandywine at night, what a ridiculous thing to do—"

"He only ever wanted to keep Prim happy, and if anyone's responsible for what happened, I daresay—"

"Enough!" said Thorin, in a voice like thunder. Everyone, from Bilbo to Menegilda to the whispering bystanders, immediately fell silent. "You're upsetting Frodo," he said, a little more quietly.

Menegilda recovered first. "Oh, my poor dear boy," she said, hurrying forward. "Come home with us, and I'll make you a nice cup of hot milk, and you can go straight to bed. You must be so tired."

Frodo clung to Bilbo's hand with sudden desperation, shaking his head.

"There, you see?" Bilbo said. "He doesn't want to leave."

The other three dwarves had arrayed themselves behind Thorin and Bilbo, and one or two of the hobbits were drifting in his direction, too. Even Rory was looking uncomfortable.

Menegilda was perfectly aware that she was outnumbered. But she only straightened her shoulders and said, with great dignity, "If you are trying to intimidate me, Mr. Baggins, I promise you disappointment. Brandybucks are made of sterner stuff than you seem to think. I'll march right down to the Mayor and have him call up the shirriffs, see if I don't!"

"You go right ahead and do that," Bilbo said, but he lacked conviction. It was clear that she had come to Hobbiton with the sole intention of reclaiming her nephew, and she wasn't one to leave a job unfinished. Even if Frodo didn't want to leave, Bilbo had no legal right to keep him; no doubt Menegilda had all the legal papers in perfect order, stamped and signed in red ink. She was at perfectly liberty to demand his return. There was nothing Bilbo could do to stop it. And did he even have a right to try? Perhaps Menegilda was right, and Frodo would be better off with his proper family.

Menegilda's voice gentled. "You must understand," she said. "I only want what's best for him. Isn't that what you want, too?"

Before Bilbo could think of a response to that, Frodo tugged on his hand.

"It's all right, uncle," he said. "I don't want to be a bother. I guess I could go with Aunt Menegilda for a little bit, if she wants me to."

Bilbo closed his eyes for a moment. "You're not a bother at all," he said. "And you'll always be welcome in Bag End, do you hear? Any day of the week, even if I'm not around. You know where the spare key is."

He hugged Frodo, pressed a kiss to his forehead, and didn't protest when Menegilda took Frodo gently by the hand and led him away.

"You can send his things to Brandy Hall," she said, and then she was gone, Rory and Frodo trailing in her wake.

Practically everyone had gone home. Bilbo, the dwarves, and a handful of hobbits remained. For a long, uncomfortable stretch, no one spoke.

Then Bilbo straightened up, and said "Well. That's that, I suppose. I'm dreadfully sorry for all the trouble, but I'm feeling rather tired. I suppose you all can see yourselves home?"

Paladin nodded. "Of course, cousin. I'll drop by and visit tomorrow, shall I? Good night, everyone."

There was a general chorus of "good nights", and Paladin took his leave, carrying Pearl securely in his arms. She was crying. Hamson Gamgee was hurried away by his father, who kept glancing back at Bilbo with a worried look on his open, honest face.

Rosa left soon after; she carried Estella, and Bullroarer padded along behind them. They were the last of the guests. She turned around just as she reached the road, and caught a glimpse of Bilbo as he leaned heavily into Thorin's embrace, the other dwarves crowding around. Bilbo's shoulders were shaking.

Paladin held the gate open for Rosa, and exchanged a long look with her as she passed. A certain understanding sparked between them, and she nodded tightly before turning away. Neither of them said a word.

It was full dark, so no one could see it, but Rosa's cheeks were flushed. Her teeth were gritted so hard that her jaw ached. She walked briskly, her skirts snapping, her hands clenching convulsively on the soft cotton of her daughter's dress.

She had never been so angry in her life.