G-rated, this is an AU story set in the year Frodo comes of age. Many thanks to Nienna for beta reading. Any errors or weirdness is the result of me ignoring her excellent advice.

Beyond by Laura Mason

Sam is crying as he helps Frodo pack his clothing. All his other possessions -- Bilbo's possessions -- are to be left for the Sackville-Bagginses. Although Frodo was legally adopted, and the intent of Bilbo's will was clear, Otho found judges willing to overturn both. The Sackville-Bagginses own Bag End at last, and Frodo is destitute and leaving Hobbiton.

"Don't, Sam." He pats his friend's shoulder gently. "I promise I'll visit." Frodo knows he seems very cool about the whole debacle, but it is a struggle to remain calm, and Sam's tears aren't helping.

Frodo was stunned speechless by the ruling when it was brought to his door by a triumphant Otho. Sam, who heard the gossip while lunching at the tavern, came running to Bag End to find Frodo already preparing to leave. He's been given one week to vacate the premises, but Frodo has decided to leave immediately.

He packs Bilbo's maps first, though it is stealing. But no Sackville-Baggins has ever traveled beyond Hobbiton into the other farthings of the Shire, much less into the Wild. They don't need these maps, but Frodo does. He packs every map Bilbo left behind, carefully folding them up inside his folded clothing to hide them. Frodo knows his luggage will be searched before he can leave, which is the only reason he's left Bilbo's books of lore and the volumes of Elvish stories on their shelves in the study. He fears Lobelia will burn them for warmth this coming winter.

"Sam, can you please pack some food for me? Apples and sausages -- and there's a tea cake cooling." Frodo made the teacake first thing, as soon as he closed the door on Otho.

Lotho is watching the packing now, and Lobelia can be heard in the parlor, already moving furniture around. As soon as Frodo announced he would leave immediately, this very afternoon, they'd all come running. Otho is holding court outside the front door, talking to neighbors and showing his ownership papers. None of them try to speak to Frodo, and no one helps him but loyal Sam.

Frodo hopes that having Sam pack the food will keep Otho from paying any special attention to those items. And he knows dear Sam, not being thick, won't mention the interesting weight of the teacake. Not that Frodo's baking is known for its lightness, anyway.

The cake conceals all the money he could lay his hands on. Of course that, too, rightfully belongs to Otho now, so Frodo is stealing. Frodo tells himself that Bilbo intended it for him. Still, his face burns with humiliation.

Another item is baked inside the teacake. Frodo couldn't get out the door with a gold ring, but he isn't leaving Bilbo's magic ring in Sackville-Baggins hands, even if Gandalf hadn't asked him to keep it safe. Frodo ties his pack closed with a determined tug, and puts on his coat. It's a cool afternoon, but he knows it will seem warmer once he's walking, so he's put on layers of clothing he can remove or replace.

Tears are silently rolling down Sam's face as they go to the door together. Frodo's person and his pack are searched, and though he doesn't protest aloud, his face tightens. He promises himself a good cry when he has time for it. They don't even look at the sack of food Sam is holding, which helps. Frodo manages to look defiant when they finish pawing him.

"I'm not taking the good silver, Lobelia, since so much of it was already missing," Frodo says, an old jibe, but his heart isn't in it. No matter how unpleasant she is, Frodo is the thief now.

"Murderer," she hisses at him. "No one knows what you and that wizard did to Bilbo, but when we find his body, you'll be going to jail."

Frodo is stunned at this new accusation. He stammers, "But Bilbo decided to go traveling. You saw the letters he left, the gifts --"

"Forged, no doubt. Get out, you damned Brandybuck, and never return. You aren't welcome among decent folk." is Otho's reply. Lotho laughs as Frodo and Sam leave, passing a cluster of nosy neighbors in the garden and enduring stares as they head down the path toward Bagshot Row.

"You'd be welcome to stay with us, Mr. Frodo," Sam says in a low voice. "Just for a few days, until you can write to your relations in Buckland."

"Thank you, Sam, but I ... I can't face anyone here, knowing what they're saying..." He looks around, then continues "I'm going to get off the road now, while there's no one about. Can you tie that on under my bedroll?" He stands calmly while Sam secures the food to his pack.

"I wish I could come with you, Mr. Frodo."

"Sam, I'm no longer your employer. I think you can just call me Frodo." He turns to look at Sam, who is fumbling with the supplies and looking down, avoiding his eyes. "If I had a job for you or any prospects for myself, I'd bring you with me."

Sam looks up at his words, and Frodo turns to face him.

"You're very dear to me, Sam. We've always been good friends."

"Yes, sir."

"Frodo. Not sir."

"Your teacake is at the very bottom, Frodo, in a towel." Sam smiles at Frodo and pats the sack of food.

"Thank you, Sam." Frodo reaches out and hugs Sam, hard. "I will see you again. Believe that, no matter what."

Sam's tears start again, and Frodo is on the verge, too. With a silent nod to each other, they clasp hands one final time, then turn and go their separate ways. Sam is headed home, no doubt to discuss the future with his Gaffer. Frodo thinks Sam can still have a job at Bag End if he wishes. Otho won't appreciate his loyalty to Frodo, but he knows Sam Gamgee, only a tweenager, is the best gardener in Hobbiton. Knowing Otho, he'll still try to gyp Sam on pay because he's so young. But Frodo has confidence that Sam and his Gaffer will handle the Sackville-Bagginses just fine.

Frodo is supposed to be headed for Buckland, but he is not. Instead he plans to stay well north of the road and head right out of the Shire, over the Brandywine Bridge onto the East Road. From the moment Otho brought the news, Frodo has felt compelled to follow Bilbo, find him, and get his help. Bilbo has been gone nearly a month already, so Frodo is anxious to move quickly. His best guess is that Bilbo might be headed for the Lonely Mountain, and Frodo hopes to find him on the road to Rivendell. Bilbo should be traveling at a leisurely pace, and Frodo can move more swiftly, being younger and on his own.

Once tears stop blinding his vision, at least.

***

The only problem with so much walking is that Frodo has too much time to think, and to realize all he's done wrong since Otho came back to Bag End.

First, he should have written letters for Sam and Aunt Esme. He could have had them ready to post just as he left the Shire. Instead, he's left without pen, ink or paper. Unless he cuts open the teacake for money, he has no way to get supplies of any kind. But Frodo doesn't want to be seen using any money in the Shire. Word would get back to Otho, giving Frodo the name of thief. Instead, he's been camping out and eating the supplies Sam packed, avoiding towns and smials.

But he imagines Esme hearing the gossip and waiting for him to arrive. He should have sent a letter so she wouldn't worry. And if she writes to Hobbiton, Sam might hear he never arrived in Buckland and be concerned. For that matter, Sam should know where Frodo is in case Gandalf arrives to see him. Perhaps a letter from Bree could make it to Hobbiton safely.

It's necessary to write to Sam at the very least, but Frodo doesn't imagine anything he can write will be terribly comforting. He composes letters in his head as he walks: Dear Aunt, have gone off into the Wild chasing Bilbo. Hope to return some day, your affectionate nephew. Hmm. Not reassuring at all. Dear Sam, have cracked in true Baggins style. Off for adventures, wish you were here, Frodo.

Perhaps, he reflects, it is just as well he hasn't tried to write.

***

Frodo takes a brief halt at midday for food. He's outside the Shire at last, and a little concerned about finding a safe place to sleep. From what he knows of the wide world -- very little, as told by Bilbo and Gandalf to a child -- it isn't safe to openly carry any valuables. Frodo pokes at the very stale, very heavy teacake in the now much lighter food bag.

After a moment's thought he opens his pack and finds the small mending kit Sam packed. He removes his coat and vest, then uses the tiny scissors to undo small bits of the hems. Then he crumbles the cake and carefully divides up the money to be sewn into different sections of the lining. He isn't very good at sewing, and he has to be careful so it won't be obvious what he's done. It takes much longer than he wishes.

He sews the ring inside his vest, thinking it will be safer out of sight. Bilbo found invisibility useful on his adventure, but Gandalf has told Frodo not to use the ring. Besides, Frodo trusts he'll be meeting up with Bilbo soon and not getting involved in any dangerous adventures.

Once the job is done Frodo re-dresses himself, feeling much easier. He's kept a few coins out and available, to buy food supplies in Bree. He may even get a room there, and sleep in a bed for one night. He tucks his mending supplies back inside his pack and heads toward the road. He resolves to keep walking after dark to make up the time.

***

Frodo thought he'd make Bree by nightfall, but it is already dusk and there's no sign of the village. He wonders if he is misreading Bilbo's maps -- but Bree is right on the East Road, he couldn't possibly miss it, could he? Frodo spends this walking time wishing he'd learned more about Middle Earth's geography from Bilbo and Gandalf.

Being outside the Shire, Frodo feels very small and inexperienced. He didn't sleep well last night after hearing animals in the brush near his camp which sounded much larger than the creatures of the Shire. He doesn't even know what kind of dangerous animals there might be in this area.

Now, as he trudges along the road, Frodo hears noises that are more frightening. Men -- several men, noisily tramping and speaking up ahead of him. A troop of some sort? Frodo is off the road almost immediately, aware that the noise is approaching him. There isn't much cover, but he hopes the growing darkness will help hide him. These men might be a perfectly innocent group of laborers returning home for their evening meal, but they could be ruffians or thieves.

Frodo crouches down and waits as the group comes abreast of him and quickly moves on, the men laughing and talking as they go. He is clutching the Ring where it rests inside his vest, wishing he could use it to vanish if anyone looks toward him. He stays motionless until they are out of sight, then returns to the road. Seeing them probably means Bree is close by.

But now Frodo doubts the wisdom of entering Bree at all. The big people intimidate him more than he thought they would; this incident has proven it. Frodo stands for a few minutes, thinking. He isn't sure how he'll fare in a town full of such big, loud men. He still needs supplies, but perhaps he should camp outdoors again tonight. He moves farther from the road, looking for a place to camp.

Half an hour later Frodo is back on the road, soaking wet, headed again toward Bree. The weather, though cool, has been clear for days -- until tonight. Everything is wet, including his bedroll, and Frodo's uneasiness around men isn't enough to make him endure such a miserable night when there is shelter nearby.

But as he stands facing the gatekeeper of Bree, Frodo feels less sure of his decision. Is a dry bed really worth any cost? He stands shivering, rain streaming down his face, answering the surly man's many questions about his business entering Bree after nightfall. Frodo is weary beyond belief when the man finally allows him to pass the gate.

"Excuse me, but is there an inn nearby?"

"Only one inn in Bree, The Prancing Pony. Straight down the main road to the crossroads."

Frodo stumbles through the muddy street, the buildings on either side very large and dark. Bree seems ugly compared to Hobbiton, but Frodo reminds himself that nothing looks its best in darkness and rain. He presses on, hoping he wouldn't miss the crossroad in this downpour and go right past the inn.

When he hears the noise of The Prancing Pony, he stops and sighs. The racket emanating from inside kept him from missing the inn in the darkness, but it doesn't sound very restful. As he pushes open the heavy door the din becomes almost overwhelming and Frodo briefly wishes he'd just gone to live with Aunt Esme and his cousins.

Still, he is out of the rain and nearer to a fire. Then a smiling hobbit walks past, carrying mugs of ale, and Frodo smiles. Bree isn't so very different; he'll manage somehow.

"Good evening little master," comes a booming voice. Frodo looks up at the barkeeper, who is smiling at him. "Do you wish a room this evening? We have a nice hobbit-size room on the ground floor, just as cozy as you like."

"That sounds fine. How much for the night?"

"Eight silver pennies."

Frodo nods. "That will do, thank you." The price is high, but he can manage it.

"Nob! Nob will show you to your room, and you can order food or come to the common room as you wish."

Frodo thanks the man and follows the young hobbit to a very homelike room. Nob bends to light the already-laid fire in the grate as Frodo empties his damp pack and sees his extra clothing is wet, leaving him nothing dry to change into. He begins to lay the items out to dry.

"Looks like you'll want some food brought here, sir," Nob says with a smile. "Terrible wet night."

"Yes, some soup and bread with cheese," Frodo orders, then pauses. "Nob, how much does that cost?"

"Five silver pennies, Mister...?"

"Bran..burry, Frodo Branburry." He almost said Brandybuck, but Buckland hobbits visit Bree. He doesn't want gossip to be carried to the Shire. "Five pennies. All right, that will be all, then."

"No ale, sir? Mr. Butterbur makes a fine brew here."

"No thank you." Nob leaves the room and Frodo quickly strips and dries himself, then wraps up in a blanket to wait for his meal beside the fire. This room and one small meal will use up all the money he has easily available. Things are more expensive in Bree than in the Shire.

Of course, Frodo can remove more money from his coat to buy supplies. But he is reluctant to spend recklessly. He's starting to understand how much luck he will need to find Bilbo quickly. Frodo may be traveling for months before he picks up the trail. And other places could be even more expensive than Bree.

When Nob returns with a tray generously loaded with food, Frodo sees it holds a mug of ale.

"But I didn't order..." he begins.

"On the house, Mr. Branburry," Nob smiles. "We want word to get back to the Shire about the Pony's ale, you see."

Frodo blushes at the kindness. "I'm afraid I'm going to be staying in Bree for a time."

"Even better, sir -- you'll come by often for a mug, then."

Frodo sits down and begins to stir the steaming, thick soup. "Nob, do you have a moment to answer a few questions?" At Nob's cheerful nod, Frodo continues "Do you live in Bree?"

"My family's from Archet, but I live here at the Pony now, sir. Been working here for five years."

"Are there many jobs for a hobbit here in Bree?"

"What type of work do you do, sir?" When Frodo remains silent, Nob nods gravely. "You seem a little too fine for a laborer, sir, and those hands haven't done any planting or ploughing."

"You're quite right, Nob, I'm not skilled. But I am healthy and ready to learn. I need a job."

"Do you cook?"

"Not very well, I'm afraid."

Nob looks a little scandalized, but after a moment of thought he nods encouragingly. "I'll ask Mr. Butterbur, sir. Maybe some of the big folk might know of a place for you."

"Thank you."

"Leave the tray outside the door when you've finished and I won't disturb you again tonight. Goodnight, Mr. Branburry."

Frodo finishes the warm soup, but sets aside the bread and cheese for the morning. He can't buy more food until he finds a job, so he needs to make this meal stretch. He remembers what it was like to be a poor Brandybuck relation, in the days after his parents died. After the first few months, no one took much notice of him. Though Brandy Hall never lacked for food, if Frodo missed a meal, he was on his own. He used to hide food in his pockets at meals, to stash in his room for later, though his hiding places were usually found by his roommate cousins. Tucking his food into a napkin takes him back to those times, and memories he hasn't thought about in years. He sits remembering until a log dropping in the fire rouses him.

The ale, which he's saved to help him sleep in this strange new place, is quite good. Frodo finishes it and climbs into the hobbit-sized bed with a sigh. It's nice to sleep in comfort after so many nights on the cold ground. The sheets smell of herbs and his legs are tired from the long march in the cold rain.

Frodo is asleep as soon as his eyes close.

***

Frodo pays Mr. Butterbur first thing the next morning, anxious to begin looking for a job.

"I hope you slept well."

"Very well, thank you. I wanted to ask if you remember a party coming through in the last two months, a hobbit named Baggins?"

"Ah, this isn't the Shire, Mr. Branburry. All types of strange folk come through every week. I don't remember this hobbit, but one thing drives out the other, as we say. Now Nob says you're looking for work in Bree-land."

"Yes, sir."

"I've heard of a place. However, it's not the easiest work for a hobbit." Nob, sweeping the steps behind Butterbur, looks somber.

"I'd appreciate any chance, sir," Frodo says, pulling on the hem of his vest until he realizes what he is doing and makes himself stop.

"Last spring a bout of fever went through Archet and Combe. They lost five and a dozen, big and little folk." Butterbur looks intently at Frodo again. "You seem polite and smart enough. Ever nursed anyone?"

"I've helped with young children," Frodo stammers, remembering just how clumsy he was with his younger cousins. Surely he can do better now. "That's about all."

"Well, old Doc Thistle is no child. He retired after his only son died of that fever. He's been wanting a companion since, someone to keep his house and give him company. He's aging fast now, so he may need nursing soon."

"Do you think he would consider a hobbit for this position?"

"Doc's been through five or six men already, never satisfied with any of them. The pay is good, I hear, but they usually only last a month."

Frodo considers this for a moment. A month of work should get him supplies for the next leg of his journey. Of course, he'll be farther behind Bilbo, and winter will be setting in by the time he leaves. But Bilbo might be staying in Rivendell until Spring, after all. The money will be useful.

"How do I find Mr. Thistle?"

***

Frodo climbs up to the table, carefully holding the steaming kettle, and pours water over the tea leaves. He covers the pot and sets it to steep while he steps down and returns to the stove. His duties these last few weeks aren't much different from his life at Bag End, except for getting used to a man-sized house instead of a comfortable hobbit-hole.

Years ago, when Bilbo first spoke of adopting him, Frodo's older cousin told him he was going to be Bilbo's servant. When Frodo moved into Bag End and Bilbo assigned chores to him, Frodo believed he'd told the truth. It was almost a year before the adoption was final and Bilbo spoke to Frodo about his will. Frodo's confusion that afternoon as he tried to understand his place in Bilbo's life became a source of amusement to Bilbo. His cousin often joked about it, laughingly saying that he'd have sacked any servant who forgot to scald and hang the dishcloth as often as Frodo.

He climbs back up the step stool he's moved next to the big kitchen table to slice and butter seedcake. So far Doc hasn't complained about fallen cakes or burnt toast. Frodo tries to make up for his deficiencies as a cook by remembering what Doc likes, but he doesn't expect to hold the job much longer. It is odd that fate has returned Frodo back to where he was before Bilbo took him in. He always knew he was lucky Bilbo adopted him, and if he hadn't known he had enough people reminding him how fortunate he was. Somehow, despite his present circumstances, Frodo still feels rather lucky.

He enjoys his quiet domestic life here in Combe. True, there is no hobbit-size furniture, not even in his sleeping room, and that isn't terribly comfortable. But Doc is scholarly, quiet and good natured. In fact, Frodo thinks that if Doc had been born a hobbit of the Shire, he and Bilbo would have been good friends.

Doc's kindly manner allows Frodo to forget his position in the house, but that isn't true once he crosses the doorstep. Whenever he does their marketing, all the merchants of Combe tell Frodo about Doc's temper and how quickly he fired his other companions. Frodo doesn't gossip about his employer; he knows that will get him dismissed. But he listens, and he senses that these smiling people enjoy making him squirm with tales of servants being beaten and sent away. Still, the big folk aren't as bad as he feared, and Frodo doesn't believe Doc's ever beaten a servant, no matter what gossips might say.

Frodo carefully carries the full tray into the living room, where Doc is sitting beside the fire. He sets the tray down on the footstool beside Doc's chair, pours a cup of tea with two sugars, and carefully slides it onto the higher tea table beside Doc. Then he puts the plate of seed cake beside it, rather proud that it isn't burned or flat today. Doc doesn't seem to notice him, but just as Frodo is about to clear his throat, he speaks.

"Get yourself a cup of tea and sit here with me, Frodo. I need you to read these notes to me again."

"Yes, sir." Frodo quickly takes the tray back to the kitchen, clearing the footstool since it is the best place for him to sit and read. He brings back a candle holder with a new taper.

As Frodo lights the candle and settles down with the papers, he ponders his new appreciation for Sam's position at Bag End. Frodo is Doc's employee, though the title "companion" makes it seem he is called upon to be something like a friend, too. He hasn't managed either very well. Certainly Sam handled his duties more gracefully than Frodo can seem to manage.

For the next hour he reads aloud to Doc, occasionally stumbling on a word he doesn't know. Doc was a healer before his son's death, and now he is writing a book on medicinal herbs for his successor. Much of it is based on the notes his son put together, being interested in plants and medicine. But Doc's eyesight is failing, and he can't read very much without getting a headache.

Frodo knows he was hired for his ability to read and write. The day he applied for the position, Doc seemed appalled at the idea of hiring him.

"Please, sir, I need a job very badly," Frodo had pleaded, and saw Doc's eyes soften.

"Well, from what I've heard I'll eat well if I hire a hobbit."

"Actually, sir, I'm not the most experienced cook."

Doc had looked him over, head to foot, once again. "Hmm, been used to having others do for you, eh? You'd better look elsewhere, young hobbit, I'm looking for someone who knows how to work." He turned to go back inside his house.

"But I'll learn!" Frodo cried, his hand twisting in the fabric of his vest as Doc turned back to look at him again. "I can still learn, I'm sure. After all, I didn't learn to read and write until I was in my tweens."

"You can read?"

"Yes, sir. And write a clear hand in the common tongue. I know a little Elvish, as well, though not as much as I'd like."

"Do all hobbits in the Shire have schooling, then?" Doc was skeptical, Frodo could see it in his face.

"No, sir. I was adopted by my cousin, who is a scholar. He taught me."

"Come with me." Doc led Frodo inside his house, to a comfortable parlor with a desk in one corner. He had a shelf full of books, and he pulled one down and gave it to Frodo. "Read to me, starting here." Doc pointed at a page and Frodo started reading.

Frodo was engaged shortly thereafter, and installed in Doc's house by nightfall.

Now Doc's house is less tidy -- Frodo isn't the best housekeeper and his height is a disadvantage -- but Doc's book is progressing. Most days Doc dictates to Frodo for hours at a time, and the pile of manuscript pages is steadily growing. Sometimes their meals are hours late because Frodo gets caught up in his work with Doc, and forgets all about cooking. One night they ended up walking to the Pony for a late meal, but Doc never punished Frodo for his forgetfulness.

He keeps reading until Doc interrupts him.

"You're getting hoarse, Frodo. Don't you have some water there? Run get yourself a drink."

"I'll be back in just a moment, sir."

"That's fine, I'm thinking about the kingsfoil..." Doc mutters to himself as Frodo runs to the kitchen. He started a stew before tea time, and now he draws cups of water for himself and Doc, then quickly pulls the pot out of the coals. It doesn't smell scorched as he stirs it, so he pours his own glass of water over the meat and vegetables, then adds a handful of herbs and re-covers the pot. He replaces it and gives the coals a quick stir. The stew should be done in another hour or so. He refills his water and carries both cups back, handing one up to Doc.

"Shall I continue?" Frodo gulps some water and picks up the papers from his stool.

"No, I need time to think." Doc stands and paces before the fire.

"Dinner won't be ready for some time, sir," Frodo mentions, standing beside his footstool. "Is there anything you need?" He hesitates before offering shyly, "I could sing for you, or tell a tale from the Shire."

Doc seems almost surprised to notice Frodo is still in the room. "Done with your chores?"

"Yes sir, unless there's something else you need done."

"No, I think that's all the work I'm good for today. But here, sit more comfortably." Doc moves to Frodo and picks him up, then sets him in one of the big chairs across from his own. "That was my Tol's favorite chair."

Frodo's heart aches for the old man missing his dear son. Despite all his babble about life in the Shire, Frodo has never told Doc about Bilbo. Now he wishes he had, so Doc would know Frodo understands how it is to miss someone you love. But that is foolish; Bilbo is still alive somewhere, though he's left Frodo. Doc's son is gone forever. Frodo feels a tear roll down his face, and Doc stops pacing and stares at him for a moment.

"Frodo, you're a good lad," Doc slowly says. "Lad I call you, though I know you're a full-grown hobbit. But compared to me you're just a sprout, you see." Frodo nods, too emotional from Doc's pain and his kindness to manage to speak. "I'm going to lie down until dinner. You rest here a bit. I'm afraid I work you too long some days."

Frodo stays in the chair, watching the fire as the light dies outside, imagining what it would be like to remain in Combe with Doc for the rest of his days. He is earning his own keep at last, and he isn't more than a few days' journey from the Shire. Frodo could make time to visit his aunt, his cousins and Sam. Would it be wrong to stay where he is comfortable and useful? Doc really seems to need him.

Frodo has no answer by the time he wakes Doc for his supper.

***

After three months with Doc, Frodo comes home from the market one very rainy afternoon to find a new chair, bought in Staddle, installed next to the fire with a low table beside it. Next to Doc's writing desk is another desk, hobbit-size, plain but looking quite wonderful to Frodo's homesick eyes.

"Doc?"

"Frodo, you're back. Come try this out, son." Doc isn't satisfied until Frodo, wet as he is, sits at the desk and examines the inkwell, drawer of parchment, and candle bracket. "We're going to make great progress now I wager." He looks down at Frodo's stunned face. "What do you think?"

"Thank you so much, Doc. This is so wonderful..." Frodo quickly stands. "I'd better put the food away," he chokes as he runs out of the room. He cries for the next half hour in the kitchen as he fills the cupboards and shelves with his purchases. Doc doesn't mention his red eyes when he brings in lunch, the small man-size lunch that Frodo took so long to get used to making in the correct amounts.

But he has learned now, and adapted himself to a man's eating schedule as well. And now Doc has bought these things to make his house more of a home for Frodo. His plan to try to find Bilbo and somehow regain Bag End seems petulant and childish. Why not stay here, and continue to help Doc with his important work?

They are up quite late that evening, with Frodo taking dictation from Doc at his new desk. Despite the long hours, he feels wonderful, and tells Doc so in halting words, trying to thank him again, before going to his bedroom.

Though he never makes a firm decision to stay, Frodo finds the days slipping past and he is still living in Combe with Doc Thistle.

***

Frodo wakes to a pounding on Doc's door. He quickly climbs out of bed, lights his candle, and is in the hall beside Doc as he unbolts the heavy door. Doc doesn't seem frightened, just concerned, as a tall man with another long body slung over his shoulder enters.

"Doc, I have a patient for you," he gasps.

"Bring him." Doc pushes Frodo ahead down the hall, lighting their way past the bedrooms and into a very plain room with an unusually high bed. "Frodo, get a clean sheet out of that cabinet and cover the bed. Then light the lanterns in here."

Once the bed is covered as Doc directs, the man carefully lays his burden down. "He fell into a ravine when the ground gave way. All the rain..."

"Has he been unconscious all this time?"

"Yes." Frodo is struggling to reach a hanging lantern, but the tall man reaches over him and hands it down to him, then re-hangs it once Frodo has lit it from his candle. The room is full of such lamps and they proceed to light them all while Doc examines the injured man. "Frodo, is it? I'm Halbarad."

"Pleased to meet you," Frodo bows.

"You're Doc's new assistant? It's unusual for a halfling to work with men, isn't it?"

"I've retired, Halbarad, as you Rangers would know if you ever came to town," Doc grouses.

"Retired? But who will tend to us now?"

"I suppose I still will, just as I'm doing right now," Doc snaps. "Though you'd think you could at least injure yourselves in the daylight, not in the wee hours, so an old man can rest."

"Alas, Estel was injured this afternoon. It took me too long to reach him and find a way to move him out of the ravine."

"So I see. He's quite chilled from the rain, in addition to this wound on his head." Doc grumbles a little more as he examines the man, removing all his wet, muddy clothing. "Frodo, carry these into the kitchen to be washed tomorrow. And bring me all the dry towels you can find. Halbarad, get out of those wet things yourself, and wrap up in a blanket from the cabinet. Unless you plan to join Estel in a sickbed."

Frodo hurries to the kitchen with his bundle, and brings back a pot of coals from the kitchen fireplace as well as the towels. He starts a fire in the sickroom while Doc dries the injured man -- Estel, Frodo thinks that is the name. Isn't that Elvish?

"His name is Hope?" he muses, and Halbarad looks sharply at him.

"You speak Elvish?"

"I know a little of their language. Am I correct?"

"Yes, Frodo, that is his name. Though in these parts he is usually called Strider."

"Isn't it unusual for a man to have an elvish name?"

"He was raised by the elves," Halbarad explains. "They gave him the name."

"Are you warmed?" Doc asks the man. "Come lie beside him and warm him with your body. Frodo, can you do the same? You understand, this is necessary. He is dangerously cold, and that is more serious than the injury."

Frodo climbs onto the bed and lays beside Estel.

"No, Frodo, remove your nightshirt and climb under the blanket."

He blushes as he does what Doc instructs, wondering what Halbarad thinks of this. Still, once he is under the blanket he can feel how chilled Estel is. He puts his leg over him, and an arm, and tries to rub some warmth into the man.

"Good, that's the way." Frodo watches Doc clean the wound on Estel's head and carefully bandage it, using some of the herbs he writes about. Frodo is embarrassed at being naked in front of these tall, strong men; his body is small, too thin for a hobbit, and quite pale compared to them. But he wants to help Estel recover and he thinks it must be because, like Frodo, he is an orphan. Frodo wants to hear about being raised by the elves, and to know what a Ranger is and where they live.

Frodo is thinking up more questions when he falls asleep under the warm blankets, beside the two men.

***

Frodo wakes feeling very warm, almost too hot, and hearing low voices speaking Elvish beside him. He is plastered up against -- a naked body? He remembers everything from last night as he quickly sits up, moving away from the two men on the bed beside him.

"Umm. I..uh.."

"Good morning, Frodo," Halbarad laughs. "I'd like you to meet Estel. Estel, this is the hobbit who helped save your life last night."

Frodo looks into a pair of wise grey eyes in a beautiful face. He hadn't noticed last night, while the man was unconscious, but Estel is astonishingly beautiful. And there is something about him that seems different from the men of Bree, something that makes Frodo think not only has Estel been raised by elves, but he is somehow akin to them.

Estel doesn't speak, just looks back at him, and Frodo becomes aware that he is sitting here, clutching a blanket to his scrawny body, as Estel examines him and Halbarad rises and begins dressing himself.

"Thank you for your help, Frodo... that's not your full name, surely?"

"Frodo Ba.. Branburry at your service, sir." He half bows as he sits, then quickly stumbles off the bed and reaches for his discarded nightshirt, clutching it to him rather than trying to get it back on. "I'd better go stir up the fire and start some tea for Doc. I'm sure you'll want breakfast, too. Excuse me."

Frodo practically runs out the door, back to his room where he hastily dons breeches and a shirt. He has been almost rude to the two men, and certainly all his questions from last night fled in the face of Estel's gaze. Well, he'll do better once he isn't in such an awkward situation. Frodo buttons his vest and goes to the kitchen, where he feels enough at ease to hum as he prepares breakfast.

Estel will need some healthy food. They still have a nice store of apples, and he could slice them into the gruel and cook them soft. With some cinnamon. He'll have to ask Halbarad for help with serving, since Frodo can't help the invalid eat without climbing back in the bed beside him. That thought makes him blush again, which only worsens when Halbarad enters the kitchen.

"I have some herb tea steeping, and the gruel will be ready shortly."

"Fine, Frodo. Do we need to wake Doc?"

"I thought perhaps he should sleep, since he was working so late. But if you think Estel needs to be examined..."

"No, he says he feels fine, though he is still weak. The food should help." Without even being asked, Halbarad picks up the tray Frodo has prepared with two bowls of cereal and two tea cups. "You won't be joining us?"

"I ... have duties," he stammers, hoping he isn't being rude. "But when I'm finished, I'd love to hear more about the Rangers..."

"You'll need to ask Estel about that, Frodo. I shall be going back to my duties once I break my fast."

"But surely you need rest, too. You carried him all this way, and hardly slept--"

"A Ranger of the North knows how to carry on when he is weary, Frodo. We guard these lands from many evils, and our duties cannot be put aside lightly." Suddenly Halbarad, holding a tea tray, looks so stern and lordly Frodo is afraid of him. He realizes he is holding the ring inside his vest as he stares up at the tall man.

Then Halbarad leaves, and Frodo is actually relieved to be alone. He thought he'd grown used to men since coming to Combe, but these Rangers strip him of all composure.

Doc wakes, spends some time with Estel in the sickroom, and is in the kitchen sipping a fresh batch of tea when Halbarad returns, the emptied tray seeming incongruous in the hands of a man armed with a long sword and bow.

"How is Estel?" Frodo asks.

"He asked me to compliment the chef for the apple gruel," Halbarad smiles. Frodo marvels at the many faces this man wears, but he smiles shyly back. "I shall be leaving now. It was a pleasure to meet you Frodo."

Doc walks him to the door, and though Frodo can hear them speaking together for quite some time, he cannot make out the words as he splashes the dishes and tidies the kitchen.

"That was the best gruel you've ever made for me, Frodo," comes Doc's teasing voice. "It seems you were worried that a sick man wouldn't like scorched food."

"I suppose you're right," Frodo admits, a little abashed, looking down at the bowl of batter he's just started to mix. "I stayed there stirring it the whole time, instead of getting distracted like I usually do."

"Well, since I'm often the distraction, Frodo, I don't mind. But it's good to know you can cook if you put your mind to it. Might make it easier for you to catch a hobbit-lass and settle down, you know."

Frodo doesn't answer that, just blushes, and Doc laughs at him as he leaves the room, saying "I'll go check on my patient again. Estel will need to remain a few days, to make sure his wound isn't infected or more serious than I think."

Frodo will have a chance to speak to the man, then, and learn about his life. He smiles as he returns to his baking, planning his marketing for the day and wondering if Estel likes mushrooms.

***

Frodo managed to make himself a place with Doc, so he can't understand why he's failing with Estel. The Ranger simply doesn't like him. Frodo is polite, attentive -- well, perhaps he asks too many questions to be strictly polite, but Doc never minds his curiosity. Frodo tried to make Estel's favorite foods, just as he does for Doc, but Estel didn't even answer a simple question like 'do you prefer berries or apples?' He replied that a Ranger cannot be fussy, and that is all he said.

The three of them are sitting beside Doc's fire tonight, sipping ale. Doc sent Frodo to the Pony this morning to fetch it, saying the ale might do Estel good and help him regain the weight he's

lost during his illness. Frodo has a cup as well, but he's barely touched it. Somehow, he doesn't feel comfortable drinking with Estel.

To top Frodo's frustration, Estel has adopted Doc's attitude of treating Frodo as if he were a child, and Estel seems to think him a naughty child at that. Estel won't discuss the business of Rangers, or how Doc became their physician. He mutters some nonsense about it being best if simple folk remain so, which makes it sound like he thinks all hobbits are simpletons.

Yet Estel expects Frodo to answer all his questions. And truly, he asks just as many, or more, than Frodo does -- and his questions are less polite. Estel is never content with an evasive answer, either. Frequently Frodo responds with nothing but short 'yes' or 'no' answers, more out of spite than because of any need for secrecy. Still, there are questions he doesn't wish to answer about his past, and those are the very questions Estel keeps repeating.

Despite such annoyances, Frodo is sure the Ranger could be a lively and charming companion if he chose. Estel is learned and knows much Elvish lore, and can sing beautifully. When he does sing, he often closes his eyes -- which means Frodo can openly stare at him for a change, without fear that the man will be offended by his rudeness.

Yet while Estel won't discuss his childhood among the elves, and instead turns the subject to old tales from another Age, the frustrating man bristles if Frodo says he does not wish to discuss his previous life in the Shire.

Frodo wonders if perhaps Estel is simply not a good patient, and chafes from inactivity. But, no, his attitude toward Frodo has not relaxed since he has been allowed to sit up and join them outside the sick room. Estel ran a fever the second night he was with them, and Doc insisted that he stay in bed for two full days. But by the time Halbarad came to check on him later in the week, Estel was recovered.

Frodo enjoys having him as a part of their household, or he would if Estel stopped asking so many questions. Of course, Frodo is cooking more food and needs to carefully follow Doc's instructions on proper foods for recovering invalids. But for the most part Estel blends as if he'd always been there, and their work routine on the book is unchanged.

Doc seems to be tiring more easily lately. Perhaps he simply isn't pushing himself, now that the end of their labors is in sight. Frodo's days are now spent on editing the book with Doc. Usually he reads to Doc in the mornings, taking down his changes and clarifications, then spends the afternoons alone, re-copying clean manuscript pages. It is slow, detailed work, and Frodo wonders how he watched Bilbo all those years without realizing just how complicated a task it is to write a book.

Doc empties his mug, then sets it down and rises, a candle in his hand. "I'm for bed, lads. Don't stay in here much longer, Estel. The fire is dying and you need your sleep."

Estel smiles up at the older man and Frodo misses their words because he's staring at him so intently. Estel never smiles at Frodo; he always seems sad and stern. But this smile lights his eyes and makes him look years younger. Beautiful. Then Frodo realizes Estel isn't smiling anymore, and looks away. Doc is no longer in the room, and Estel is looking at him sternly. How very rude Frodo must seem.

"I'm sorry," the hobbit stammers. "It was just-" There's nothing to say. "Sorry."

Estel watches him in silence as Frodo blushes and finally drinks some ale. "You are a mystery, Frodo Branburry. I do not care for mysteries."

"Why would you call me that?"

"You were destitute when you came to work for Doc, that's what you told him. Yet your clothing is of the highest quality. And you have an education that is not typical, not even in the Shire. You must come from a wealthy family."

"I'm an orphan, I told you that."

"Perhaps you are," Estel says softly, leaning forward in his chair, making Frodo shrink back in his own. "Perhaps that is merely a story told to make me sympathize with you, believing that we are alike."

Frodo stands with a gasp of anger, horrified at this man's words. "You believe I would make up such a terrible thing, just to gain your pity?"

"I don't know, Frodo. I do know that you've lied and evaded my questions. But what is worse, I sense something evil in this house that was not here in the past." Estel rises, too, and he looks very unhappy. "I care for Doc Thistle. He has been a friend for many years to me and all the Rangers."

"He's a good man." Frodo twists the hem of his vest, clutching until he can feel the ring inside. "Surely you don't think I would harm him, after all he's done for me."

"You try to disarm us, Frodo, by being small and pretty, and blushing while you try to wheedle us. But I swear if you've brought danger or trouble to his home, or mean to do evil-"

"But I don't! I haven't-" Frodo stops himself, knowing he can't deny that he's lied to Doc right from the start, giving a false name. Now he wishes he'd never done that.

Frodo wants to stay here with Doc for as long as Doc wants or needs him. Staring at Estel's hard, almost angry face, Frodo knows that isn't possible.

"If I've lied I have my reasons. Despite how you treat me, Estel, I am an adult and I do not ask for approval of my choices."

Estel nods, his eyes never leaving Frodo, almost as if he expects some attack. Frodo would laugh if he wasn't so upset.

"I do not give my friendship or trust lightly, Frodo Branburry. No matter what the reasons, deceitfulness is wrong."

Frodo's legs begin to shake, and he wants to be alone so he can cry. Estel keeps speaking, though, and he can't leave.

"I know more about hobbits that you might expect. You don't socialize with the hobbits here in Bree-land, and you don't speak of your family tree. Who are your cousins, the other families related to the Branburrys? Does such a line even exist?"

"I must go to bed now," Frodo gasps, pushing past Estel to the fire and fumbling to light a candle for himself.

"You are hiding here, Frodo. What have you done to be exiled and penniless? What crime keeps you out of the Shire? And what do you want from Doc?"

Frodo can't hold back his tears any longer, though his face burns with shame as they spill. Estel merely smiles and shakes his head.

"Tears won't have an effect on me, little one, no matter how well they work on Doc."

Now Frodo is truly angry, an anger that overcomes his embarrassment.

"I have been penniless since my parents died when I was twelve, Estel. That is the truth," Frodo manages to say as he stalks to the door, ignoring the mugs he should be cleaning up. "I have only survived on the charity of my relatives, until a whim of fate took that away from me." Tears are still rolling down his face, but he chokes out "I do not know what code Rangers live by, but it was not a crime for me to seek to support myself."

Frodo stops at the door and looks at Estel one last time. The man's face is just as stern as always. Frodo lifts his chin defiantly. "All I wanted from Doc was a job. What I found here was a new home. Do not judge me by your own low and corrupt standards, Ranger."

He stamps off to his room. Once the door closes, Frodo sinks to the floor. He is still shaking with anger -- and fear. A servant has no right to speak to his master's friend in such a manner. Frodo will no longer have a place here if Doc hears what he has done. And Frodo doesn't doubt Estel will gleefully tell Doc everything.

Though he doesn't want to leave, it is time to move on -- to resume his search for Bilbo or return to the Shire. Frodo wonders if Bilbo will be happy to see him. But no, Bilbo left him behind -- if he'd wanted Frodo in his life, he could have taken him along. There is no point in searching for his cousin.

Frodo moves to his bed, climbs up and cries into his pillow for a long time.

When he has no tears left, Frodo quietly begins packing his belongings, though he has no place to go. He doesn't understand the cause of Estel's hatred, just as he never understood the Sackville-Bagginses covetousness and hate. They had plenty of their own; they didn't need Bag End. If they'd made any overtures of peace, Bilbo would have been a generous cousin to them. And Frodo would have loved them if they had let him.

There must be something very wrong with Frodo, to inspire such hatred. He pulls out the money Doc gave him, his first month's wages. He'll need to leave half of it to pay for the food he's planning to take. He hopes the wages he's still owed will help offset the money Doc must have spent on his hobbit-sized furniture.

Frodo creeps to the kitchen and packs bread and fruit for himself, and a string of sausages. There's still plenty of food for Estel and Doc, until he can hire a new housekeeper to do his marketing. Then Frodo goes into the study, to his desk, and tries to write a note for Doc.

Frodo doesn't know why he's bothering with this -- surely Estel will explain why he is gone, and Doc won't be concerned. But Estel's accusations sting, and Frodo decides to be honest with Doc at last. He carefully begins writing in large, clear letters so Doc won't strain his eyes.

"Dear Doc, the time has come for me to continue my journey. I never planned to stay here very long, for I was told you never kept a servant more than a month. But you let me stay, and I grew too comfortable here. I no longer cared about recovering my inheritance from my cousin Bilbo because I was happy and useful. I apologize for lying to you -- I used a false name because I didn't want gossip about me in the Shire, but I know you would never break a confidence and I should have told you the truth immediately. Your book will be a great blessing to all the people of Bree-land, and I'm honored to have assisted a little. Yours, Frodo Baggins. P.S. The enclosed is payment for the food I took. FB."

The letter is rambling and doesn't say half of what Frodo wishes to say, but he has no time to re-write it. He wants to leave before Doc or Estel wake, and Frodo is tired and slow himself. He seals the letter and addresses it to Doc, then leaves it on Doc's armchair.

Frodo dons his coat, his cloak, and his pack. With one last look around, he carefully leaves the house and heads east between the houses of Combe. He walks until he is stumbling with exhaustion, and then crawls under a thick bramble bush to rest, even though he has not gone very far outside Bree-land.

***

Frodo wakes cold and hungry, with the sun high overhead. He doesn't know where he is for a moment, and then he hears the voice singing. An Elvish song, about a tree and ships.

Then he recognizes the voice of the singer, and Frodo gasps "Estel!" The song breaks off.

"Ah, I thought I heard you stirring, Master Baggins. Would you mind joining me out here? Your shelter is too small for me."

Frodo pulls his pack behind him as he crawls out toward the Ranger's voice. He is no longer half asleep and confused, but he is frightened as he stares defiantly at the man -- who, oddly enough, is almost smiling at him for the first time. Estel's face seems much softer, somehow, though Frodo doesn't know why.

"You've been asking me about Rangers. Now you see why I never told you about our skills -- you didn't realize I could track you so easily."

"I never thought about it, truthfully. But I don't understand why you should wish to track me. Surely you are happy that I'm leaving Combe?" Frodo crosses his arms and tries to look stern, though he's afraid, from the amusement in Estel's eyes, that he just looks petulant.

"I apologize for all my harsh words and accusations, Frodo. I misjudged you, though you could have done more to help me see past your lie."

"I tried to be your friend," Frodo begins, then stops. "Are you well enough to be out here, walking this far tracking me? Shouldn't you still be resting?"

Estel laughs aloud. "You are a wonder, Frodo, and though I have heard tales of your cousin Bilbo I never knew hobbits were as unique as you've shown yourself." Estel rises and helps Frodo to his feet. "Doc is very concerned about your safety. Can I lead you back to his house?"

Frodo nods and follows without speaking for several minutes. "You were raised in Rivendell, weren't you?"

"Very clever, Frodo. Yes, I was brought to that haven as an infant and lived among the elves."

"Then you know Lord Elrond."

"Yes, and many other of the fair and wise folk."

Frodo has other questions, but what he says is, "I miss Bilbo." And then he blushes and feels like a fool for whining, just as Estel is beginning to be nice to him.

"I'm sorry, Frodo. It must have been difficult to lose your family again, though I honor you for letting Bilbo travel as he wished."

Frodo sinks to the ground and Estel turns to him in alarm. But Frodo isn't injured, he is merely crying, sobbing like a child. "I couldn't have stopped him. He didn't want me along."

"Oh, Frodo. Bilbo loves you very much, I'm sure of that. Just as Doc now cares for you."

But Frodo can only shake his head 'no,' over and over. They don't love him enough; no one ever has since... He finds himself being cradled in Estel's arms, crying all the tears he's held back for more than twenty years.

***

The walk back to Doc's house is silent, but when they arrive and Doc, who is crying, kneels and hugs Frodo, both the man and the hobbit begin babbling the story of where and how Estel found Frodo.

After a few minutes of chaos they move to the kitchen, and Frodo is quickly slicing cold meat while Doc brings the bread and Estel slices fruit for their lunch.

"I'm so very hungry," Frodo announces. "I didn't eat yet today."

"A true tragedy for a hobbit, I understand," Doc teases. They are mostly silent while all three put away enormous quantities of food. But once the meal is winding down, Doc leans back and speaks quite seriously.

"I do forgive you for giving me a false name, Frodo. But I don't understand why you wanted to leave me. Couldn't you just ask my pardon, and stay with me? Are you unhappy here?"

"No, Doc, I've been very happy with you. But I thought you would ask me to leave, once you knew the truth. And.." Frodo glances at Estel and blushes, but doesn't say any more.

"Frodo must have thought I would advise you to dismiss him," Estel says. "He didn't know that I would read his note to you, and that it would explain everything I needed to know."

Doc nods agreement, but Frodo is only more confused. "How did my note explain anything?"

"Once I knew your true name, Frodo, I realized many things. The first is that my people, the Rangers, have been vigilantly guarding the Shire -- in fact we doubled our guard -- while the reason for the guard has slipped away and is living in Combe."

Doc laughs, Frodo frowns, and Estel waves his hands in dismissal of Frodo's questions and continues speaking. "Gandalf came to me after your cousin Bilbo began his journey. He asked me to watch over you. But I thought you were still safely living at Bag End. I had no idea your relations had turned you out. Such gossip may be discussed freely in the Shire, but hobbits don't often socialize with Rangers, even here in Bree-land."

"I hate being the topic of gossip; that's the only reason I never told anyone here." Frodo looks at Doc beseechingly. "It wasn't that I don't trust you..."

"I told you it's forgiven, Frodo, and I meant that. You are very dear to me, my lad, whatever your name." Doc stirs his tea angrily, and continues "Those relations of yours should be horsewhipped, setting you adrift in the world with no money."

Frodo shakes his head. "No, that was my own fault. I could have gone to my Brandybuck or Took relations, but I was too proud to live on their charity again." Then he blushes deeply. "And I'm not penniless; I.. I stole money from Otho before I left Bag End. I baked it inside a teacake so he wouldn't know..."

The two men laugh, but Frodo is very serious. "No, it was quite wrong of me. The judge said Bilbo's home and possessions -- his money -- belonged to them. But I took it anyway."

"Was it stolen from you before you reached Bree?" Estel asks, suddenly becoming very serious. Frodo supposes as a Ranger he is concerned about thieves and brigands on the East Road.

"No, I have most of it still. It is sewn in the lining of my coat, and my vest."

Estel seems confused, but Doc nods his understanding. "You set it aside for emergencies, I think. That's why you came to Combe looking for a position."

"Yes, that's it exactly. I planned to continue East, to look for Bilbo." Frodo smiles at Doc. "But I was so comfortable here with you, and you need me a little. Bilbo doesn't, you know -- he's very happy wandering by himself, or with chance companions. So I decided to stay here instead."

Doc smiles back at Frodo. "I'm glad to hear that."

Estel watches them both and seems to make a decision.

"Frodo, do you mind if I speak openly in front of Doc about Bilbo's inheritance?"

Frodo has to think for a moment before understanding what Estel is asking. He finds he is feeling for the ring in his vest as he answers.

"Gandalf wishes this matter kept secret, but I think if Doc understands we cannot speak openly--"

"I do, Frodo."

"And I have known Doc for many years, Frodo, for I am older than I seem. I know his quality, and I know that he will do nothing to endanger you. Bilbo left Frodo all his belongings, including a memento from his adventures, Doc. I feel certain that an intelligent hobbit like Frodo did not leave such a gift in the hands of his relatives, particularly when Gandalf asked him to carefully guard it."

"No, it is here with me. Safe." His hand is on it, and it seems to calm him.

"And that, Frodo, is what Halbarad and I sensed, here in Doc's home. This item's power disturbed us, though we saw only a friendly hobbit. We had to mistrust our instincts, or mistrust you."

"I suppose," Frodo muses, "that Rangers depend on their instincts for survival in the Wild."

"Indeed."

"I am very sorry for all the trouble I've been," Frodo begins, but they cut him off, speaking together.

"Nonsense!"

"You haven't--" Estel continues, his face flushed. "Frodo, you are not to blame. You have been a dear companion to Doc and I myself have known only kindness from you during my time here. Even today, after I drove you away, when I found you the first thing you did was show concern for my welfare."

"But I said such horrible things to you last night," Frodo protests, blushing in return. Doc is closely watching him, which makes the burn on his face glow even brighter.

"It is forgotten. Can we be friends?" Estel holds out his hand to Frodo, who nods and grasps the man's large, graceful fingers. Estel changes the grip so they are clasping forearms, as best Frodo can at least. Doc clears his throat when they seem lost in each other's eyes, holding the moment far too long.

"Estel, I think it would be best if you have a rest before dinner. You are still recovering, stubborn man."

"Fine, Doc. I am a little weary." Once he stands Estel no longer looks at Frodo, who is still staring at him in a daze. Even as the Ranger walks away, Frodo's eyes follow him.

"Tolbert is the one who first brought the Rangers to my door," Doc says quietly. "My son loved roaming in the Chetwood and the Wild, and it was there he met Estel while gathering herbs. They became friends, and Tol learned much about such plants from Estel."

"Really? Estel is very learned for a warrior, isn't he?" Frodo asks, then adds, "Of course, I do not have experience with any other warriors."

Doc smiles and pats Frodo's hand. "No, but I believe Estel is unique, Frodo. He is superior to the others of his people I've met, fine men like Halbarad. Which makes Estel far above the likes of us, my lad."

Frodo nods sadly. "Yes, I can see that. Even if I were still master of Bag End... Yet he is so kind, Doc. He behaves as if there is no difference in station."

"It's my understanding," Doc begins, then stops. He reaches to turn Frodo's face to him, and looking the hobbit straight in the eyes he continues softly. "Well, I've heard rumors. They say Estel is betrothed, pledged to a woman."

"Oh." Frodo's sad little gasp escapes before he can stop it.

"I hope you don't mind my observing that you have feelings for Estel, Frodo. I thought perhaps you should know he's not free."

"I don't," he begins, but Frodo stops to correct himself. "I cannot help loving him, Doc. He is so fine and noble. But I know he could never feel the same, even if he weren't pledged. Why, he didn't even like me until today."

Doc doesn't answer that, just pours another cup of tea for them both. "You're a clever hobbit, Frodo. But even in the smartest person, the heart and the brain might not agree. Don't break your heart over someone from another world."

"Oh, Doc." Frodo moves to embrace the older man with a smile. "What my heart feels for Estel only makes me appreciate the high, beautiful things of Middle Earth -- like with the elves, I think. Even what we don't really understand we can admire."

Doc looks at Frodo when their hug ends. "I don't want to see you hurt."

"Whatever my family and friends believe, I do have some hobbit-sense. That should be enough to keep my feet on the ground."

"I hope so, Frodo." Doc stands and stretches. "I think I'll take a walk before I go back to work."

***

Epilogue -- Eight years later

"Gandalf!" Frodo throws himself into the wizard's arms, laughing. "I'm so glad you're here. I didn't know how to get word to you that I'm moving back to the Shire."

"There's nothing else being discussed at the Prancing Pony, Frodo Baggins. That's all I heard when I arrived today." Gandalf follows Frodo into the house, passing crates of familiar-looking books piled to one side.

"Ah, but in a month or two no one will remember. After all, Gandalf..."

"One thing drives out another!" they say together, laughing at Butterbur's favorite, oft-used phrase.

"I see you're packing Bilbo's books. And most of Doc's, it seems," he continues with a glance at the bare shelves.

"Yes, I wanted to keep those -- you know we read many of them together these last few years. And after the trouble I had purchasing Bilbo's books from the Sackville-Bagginses over the years, well, those are coming on the very same waggon with me!"

"So you've sold Doc's house?"

"Yes, and my aunt found me a nice house in Buckland, at Crickhollow. Sam will be coming to live there and work for me." Frodo pours Gandalf a glass of raspberry wine, stepping up and down to the table effortlessly. Gandalf wonders if Frodo will have trouble adjusting to hobbit-sized quarters after all these years. "I still can't believe how generously Doc has provided for me."

"You were like his son, Frodo. Particularly in the last years, when his health failed."

"I miss him. I still miss Bilbo, for that matter." Frodo laughs again, but this time it is a sad little sound.

"Well, I can tell you that he is well."

Frodo offers the wizard a plate of cakes. "I'm glad to hear that."

"But Bilbo will not be coming back to the Shire."

Frodo merely nods, and Gandalf decides to change the subject.

"It seems you're eating more hobbit-style now. Though you still look too lean for a hobbit." Gandalf is looking intently at Frodo, observing the set of his mouth and the sadness in his eyes. But Frodo has always had an air of sadness behind his smiles, for as long as Gandalf has known him. The smiles are less frequent right now, but it's merely his mourning for Doc. Nothing more sinister. Gandalf sits back with a relieved smile, reassured all is well with Frodo. He came today to see that with his own eyes, before he and Aragorn begin their hunt for Gollum.

"Once I'm permanently back in the Shire, with Sam cooking for me, I expect that I'll be round and rosy. Oh, and Aunt Esme has already invited me for Yule dinner, which means about three days of non-stop eating. Every time I visit she wails about how thin I am, so I think there will be baskets coming to Crickhollow regularly, too. I'm looking forward to getting to know my cousins again, they've grown up so much while I've been gone."

Gandalf smiles as he listens to Frodo's chatter and sips his wine, watching the hobbit move around the kitchen, packing food and a few mementos. Most of Doc's kitchen goods, like his furniture, are too big for Frodo and will be left here.

"Will you miss Bree-land?"

"A little, I think, though Doc was my closest friend here. It hasn't been the same since he died." A pause, and Frodo continues "I fear I won't see Estel very often once I go; it doesn't sound like his duties bring him west as far as the Shire." Frodo still blushes when saying his name, Gandalf notes. Perhaps it was wrong to ask Aragorn to make regular visits all these years.

Aragorn never protested Gandalf's request that he keep an eye on Frodo. And despite his wisdom and insight, Aragorn has never commented on Frodo's near-constant melancholy, either. Gandalf thinks Frodo must be a very different hobbit when "Estel" visits him.

"Actually, Frodo, Estel has offered to help me with a task and we will be traveling far from these lands. Do not expect me to visit for at least a few years. But when we return we will find you, in Buckland or anywhere else you roam."

"Oh, I've no plans to roam, Gandalf!" Frodo laughs. "I've proven to myself at least that I'm nothing like Bilbo. I'm a homebody, and I will be warming a chair at Crickhollow whenever you are tired of wandering."

Gandalf smiles at Frodo, and once again the wizard hopes his fears are misplaced and Frodo will be able to remain comfortably in the Shire for the rest of his days.

 

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