She's expected it, but the shock of the words still jolts her, still makes her blink hard. Carefully Mayfair looks at him and sees his earnest gaze, the nervous flick of his tongue across his bottom lip. "Yes? Then tell me why, Mister Baggins." Her tone is soft, serious; she isn't teasing or angry now. She wants to know why.
"Many reasons, many many reasons," Bilbo replies quickly. "First of all, we love each other. That's fact, that is. Established."
"True," Mayfair admits. "That's one."
"To my way of thinking it should be the only one, but there are others," Bilbo murmurs, still holding her close. "Another reason you should marry me is that we'll pine away of loneliness without each other. If I head back to Hobbiton without you, the two of us wouldn't last a week. At least, I know I wouldn't. I'd be worrying about how you were doing, and missing you terribly and wondering if you'd been locked up for assaulting the sheriff yet . . ."
She fights a giggle, and settles for making a face at Bilbo. "I would never!"
"You would," he replies firmly. "He had you by the hands for a reason, sweetheart."
Mayfair pouts a moment, and then concedes with a sigh. "Very likely. I may have mentioned that most folk know about my . . . temper."
"Yes, which is another good reason for marrying me," Bilbo points out. "I'm not afraid of you."
"Say that again," Mayfair challenges, looking serious for a moment. "You haven't seen me at my worst, love—I'm loud and rude and short-tempered; I sometimes . . . sometimes even . . . curse," she confesses, her face going hot now. It's true, and to anyone else she might brazenly shrug it off, but this is the hobbit she loves and he deserves to know the truth.
"I've traveled with dwarves," Bilbo counters, "and a wizard, who muttered some truly shocking things under his beard. I've heard orcs and trolls and goblins curse so I don't think there's anything you could say that would actually scandalize me at this point. In fact, I've even been known to let fly with a naughty word or two myself."
His sincerity makes her laugh, and Mayfair looks into Bilbo's face, finding herself caught up in his sweet gaze. "No!"
"Yes," he nods solemnly, but his eyes are twinkling. "I've got a bit of a reputation too, as you may have noticed."
"I don't care what anyone else thinks, you're wonderful!" Mayfair interjects, linking her arm with his and leading him out of the glade. "You're kind and smart and always know just what to say and do; you're ever so patient—"
"Yet more reasons to marry me," Bilbo nods, but his voice is light. "I won't tell you I'm perfect because I'm not, Mayfair. I'm particular about certain things and I have nightmares sometimes and most folk consider me that local eccentric, which I probably deserve, but I love you very much. I was fully prepared to ask your father for your hand once we got here. Since I can't very well do that, I'm asking you. I know it's quick, but more than that, I know it's right, love."
They head down the path back towards the village green, and Mayfair muses over his words as they do so.
"So this isn't a matter of you feeling sorry for me?" she asks, shooting him a sidelong glance. "Because that's the first thing folk will think, you understand. Might even be a few who'll try to talk you out of it."
"I have never felt sorry for you," Bilbo murmurs. "I've grieved for the losses you've suffered, sweetheart, but I've never pitied you, not even when you washed up outside my home and certainly not now. You're too strong to pity."
Mayfair takes a breath, whirls and kisses him quickly. "That settles it then. Yes. If you'll have me, I'll marry you, Bilbo Baggins."
Any doubts she harbors vanish when he scoops her into his arms, and lifting her, spins them both. A giddy moment made all the sweeter for the kiss it ends with and the look in Bilbo's eyes.
"And that is the answer I'd hoped for. Come on; let's get started!"
"Now, before you start listening to anyone else and get second thoughts," he tells her firmly. "I know the way a village works and so do you. It's barely after lunch so we should be able to find the sheriff and see about having him officiate. I've got enough coins left to host a nice supper for anyone you want to invite as well."
"Well!" Mayfair laughs, "When you decide a thing you don't stand idle, do you, Mister Baggins?"
"Times ago, it took me ages to decide a thing, and I learned that if I let too much time pass then the choice wouldn't be mine anymore," Bilbo tells her. "I've found I like making decisions for myself, Miss Lillyroot. Life—real life—is all about them."
Mayfair takes this in, savoring it for the sweet truth it is. She's faced a morning of decisions and while some of them were difficult, she's glad to have had the chance to choose what to save. Now comes the choice of who to say goodbye to, and that will also be both difficult and good.
"What about your people?" she asks when they reach the green. Hawthorne and his goats are under the big tree, all of them snoring. "Surely you've got family you'd want to invite."
The face he pulls makes her laugh. "Oh I think not. This is one of the happiest days of my life; no need to ruin it by bringing them into it. Time enough to deal with cousin Lobelia and her brood later, once we're back home."
Mayfair looks at him doubtfully, but Bilbo takes her hands and gives her a warm smile. "Trust me on this, love. I was alone before you came along, and the only person I truly want at my wedding is you."
"Thank you," she responds, still a little dazed, and bursts into giggles.
Fortunately Bilbo seems to understand her giddiness and squeezes her fingers.
Tobias Bolger agrees to marry them, not bothering to hide the relief in his expression when they make their request. He asks Bilbo a few questions for the look of the thing, carefully listening to family names and firm answers, nodding all the while. When matters are laid out to his satisfaction, he asks for a moment alone with Mayfair.
She's been expecting this, and while Bilbo goes off to the inn to make arrangements, she looks at Bolger, fighting hard to keep her expression neutral. For his part, he cocks his heavy head and eyes her from head to toe.
"He loves you, that's easy to see, Mayfair. Anyone with half an eye can tell that," Bolger begins. "But he's a stranger too, and you're one of our own, lass. Tell me the truth; do you love him as well?"
"Yes." It comes with no hesitation at all, and Mayfair feels surprise that it's so easy and natural to admit it aloud to someone else.
"I thought so, but I wanted to be sure," Bolger nods. "Still, no er, need to rush, is there?"
It's on the tip of her tongue to snap at the sheriff, to give into her temper and tell him off the way she might have a few weeks ago, but Mayfair catches herself, suppressing a sigh. She's changed, she realizes. What mattered then doesn't matter nearly as much now.
"No, Mister Bolger, there isn't a hurry, but since he and I will be leaving for Hobbiton soon, we thought it would be nice to have the wedding here so I could say my goodbyes to everyone. I know the Water flows all through the shire, but I am a Needlehole girl, sir, and I shan't forget it."
The sheriff gives a murmur of approval and looks in the direction of the river; Mayfair can see how grey his hair is, and how deeply carved the lines are at the corners of his eyes. "That you are and no mistake, lass. I know your father, rest his soul would be proud to hear you say that. All right then, we'll bind you to your sweetheart mid-afternoon then, eh?"
News of the wedding becomes common knowledge within an hour and Bilbo is congratulated, patted on the shoulder, cheered and taken aside every few minutes. It would be disorienting to anyone else, but he's learned the hard way about keeping his wits about him, and in any case he knows perfectly well about the social niceties of a small community. He accepts the congratulations and listens carefully to the advice, but when it comes to the warnings he shakes his head ruefully.
"No, no, I understand you mean well, but Mayfair's the girl for me," he tells the pinch-faced woman in the hideous green and orange dress. "I know she's a bit of a handful and has a temper, but my heart's made its choice and that's all there is to it."
"Are you absolutely sure? She hasn't a ha'penny to her name, and everyone knows that Lillyroots are . . . well . . . pushy," the woman counters, pursing her lips. "You'd be better off marrying one of the Diggles, young man. Good hips for babies and heads clear of any fanciful notions. My niece Petal would be such a darling match—" the woman persists, looking around furtively as they stand at the bar of the inn.
"I'm sure she would, but not for me," Bilbo sighs. "I'm promised to my Mayfair. Still, I hope you'll come to the picnic."
The woman looks torn as well she might; thwarted matchmaking versus what promises to be an excellent spread play out in her shifting expressions. Bilbo tips the scale by adding, "And I'm having both wine and ale served up in memory of Mr. Lillyroot and the Hartsdale lads."
She nods, giving him a sharp look. "A kind gesture, lad, and one I approve of. Well, if you know your own mind, I suppose I can be there to witness and wish you two well."
Needlehole bustles, and Bilbo feels a sense of lightness in the air. These folk need this, he realizes. A celebration will help them move forward, and give them a chance to bid farewell not only to Mayfair, but to the dead as well. It might seem macabre to some, but on the whole Hobbits can blend the sentimental with the practical and often do.
He considers a ring. Thoughts of the One back at Bag End trouble him for a moment, but Bilbo shakes them off. That One will stay hidden, he decides. The magic in it is . . . troubling, and although it's been useful at times, there's no love within its gleam, no compassion reflected on its gold surface.
A ring like that would poison a person if worn full-time, Bilbo thinks.
Still, when he mentions his dilemma, the innkeeper offers a solution.
"Years back a customer paid me with a silver fish hook," he tells Bilbo. "Pretty thing, too valuable to actually use in the water. I'll sell it to you for half its worth and Enoch over at the stable can hammer it into a ring for you. I daresay Mayfair might even appreciate having a little reminder of her years on the river."
It's an excellent suggestion and Bilbo takes the man up on his offer, feeling almost smug about it, pocketing the finished product later. Already the village green has tables and chairs out, and bunches of wildflowers everywhere. It's surprising how much is getting done for so little currency, he thinks, but then again, Needlehole is a small place.
By the time the hour has come, Bilbo is ready; mentally settled into this lovely change-to-be of his life. He's in his second-best shirt and a jacket borrowed from someone, and although he's given his hair a good brushing it still has a tousled look not helped by a cheery breeze coming from the direction of the Water. Deep in one pocket is the ring, its hook looped through its eye and welded shut. Bilbo promises himself he'll have something nice put into the curve of the closure—maybe an agate or a bit of pearl—once they get back home.
Home. Never has the word sounded so dear, he thinks, and goes to stand under the tree on the green.
Soon Mayfair comes out from the Inn, flowers in her dark hair and all through her borrowed blue dress. Bilbo shifts a little at the sight of her, fighting the urge to bounce over before she's properly headed his way, and he knows he's grinning broadly. She looks beautiful and scared, so Bilbo keeps his gaze on her as he nods, his chest tight. People gather, making a lane and following behind Mayfair as she moves towards him, and when she finally reaches him, a cheer goes up.
The whole village—all thirty folk, dogs and babies included—are gathered around them. Bilbo barely sees them. Keeping his voice low he murmurs, "You look a treat, sweetheart."
"They're all here," Mayfair splutters back. "All of them, even the Diggles!"
"Support," he offers, and she shoots back a saucy look that's much more like the Mayfair he knows and loves.
"Proof, more like. Still . . ." she smiles and takes the hand he holds out to her, and her fingers are warm around his.
Tobias Bolger is there, looking tidier himself, and when he clears his throat in a loud, authoritative rumble everyone quiets down immediately. Bilbo turns to him, as does Mayfair, and it's time.
Afterwards they both sign their names on the village records scroll, and Bolger has Hawthorne make a copy for them to carry back with them. Mayfair keeps touching her ring, her eyes damp. Bilbo feels a little shaky himself, but it's because he feels so full of joy and relief. Strangers keep hugging him, and he doesn't let go of his wife's hand—his wife!—as they talk to everyone who comes up to congratulate them.
Someone starts playing something lively on a fiddle and then there's dancing on the green; dancing which includes the dogs and goats and babies apparently. Ale flows, food comes out from kitchens to be set on the tables and devoured by everyone, and in the middle of it all Bilbo stands with Mayfair, amused, happy and just a little bit apart from the bustle. She slips an arm around his back and leans against him to whisper. "I didn't know how good this would be for them."
Bilbo nods, whispering back. "Yes, I can see it. And you do feel good making them happy, sweetheart. Giving them a reason to look forward after the storm."
"Yes," she confesses, face pink. "For all the pettiness and grief and irritations, this village has a lot of heart too. Sometimes I forget that."
This makes him swallow hard, and Bilbo thinks of his own home and all the folk there who have made it dear to him over the years. He presses a kiss to Mayfair's temple and tells her, "We can always come back to visit, you know."
She blinks at him, smiling. "Thank you."
They sit at one of the tables and accept toasts. It seems nearly everyone in Needlehole has a story to tell about Parson or Mayfair, most of them funny, and when the sweet blue twilight stretches over the sky, Bilbo knows he and his beloved have done right by this little village. They help to clean up (and are lovingly scolded for it by some of the matriarchs) and then make their way to the inn to collect their belongings.
And that is how their first night of matrimony ends up spent in a bedroll alongside a small campfire along the banks of the Water.