1. Respectable

Bilbo POV

In which Bilbo reflects on his female kin, asks about a rascal, and reacts to what no one wishes to say.

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Men are able to assist Fortune but not to thwart her. They can weave her designs but cannot destroy them. They ought, then never to give up as beaten, because, since they do not know her purpose and she goes through crooked and unknown roads, they can always hope, and hoping are not to give up.

Machiavelli, The Discourses, 2:29

Mid-afternoon, Brandy Hall, 8 Halimath, 1389

'Please, please, Esmeralda, do sit and don't fuss!' Bilbo cheerfully scolded his cousin as she served tea in a cozy and well-worn parlor of Brandy Hall. He had arrived but a scarce hour before, coming across the Bucklebury Ferry just past noon with three crates of chickens, a wagon of turnips, and two extremely exuberant children. It had been an interesting crossing, and he felt that he well deserved this tea for having survived it.

Bilbo did not refuse the large helping of rhubarb crisp she spooned onto his plate, nor the toasted slices of sweet bread she tucked along one side, nor the chunk of golden, nutty cheese that was slipped into the last remaining open spot the plate, but he did chuckle and admonish and tease until his lovely cousin filled her own plate and sat. For several minutes there was silence from Bilbo (a rare occurrence) until he had made enough of a dent in the meal to take the edge off his hunger. Only then did he lean back into the soft leather chair and give Esmie his full attention.

Great-granddaughter of the Old Took, more than a few said she was like all three of Gerontius' daughters come back to life in one person, with Belladonna's intelligence, Donnamira's beauty, and Mirabella's tenacity. Bilbo was not one of them.

He knew he always took exception to anyone claiming to be as smart as his mother, Bella; she had no match and few could approach her. Grandfather, Father, Gilda, Rum, Ta, certainly not Alder. Gandalf. Perhaps a few Elves. Maybe Balin. Bilbo knew he was just being stubborn, but it was a point of honor to insist on his mother's unparalleled brilliance. The most remarkable of the three. Even Gandalf spoke of her with respect, and the old conjuror never spoke politely of anyone save Master Elrond. His sense of fairness won out, and he admitted to himself that while Esmie might not be nearly as sharp as any in the august company, she was significantly more clever than most hobbits. Especially in this smial.

There was no doubting that Esmie was lovely. She had been the toast of the four farthings in her youth, with her light auburn curls, cinnamon-brown eyes and cheerful laugh. Having a figure that made men stop and stare had not hurt her at all, either – twenty years and two children had only filled out those enticing curves, adding dignity and stature. The men still stared. Her beautiful, broad feet finished the picture to perfection. He agreed that she was very nearly as pretty as Aunt Donna, and that there were few, if any, women alive who could match her. Bilbo had always privately thought his mother to be the most beautiful as well as the smartest of the three sisters, but knew this was simply his own bias. Even Mother said Aunt Donna was the prettiest.

He could not compare Esmie to Aunt Mira simply because there was no one who had ever been, could ever be, as strong and caring as his beloved aunt. Mira's was the heart that brought Buckland through the Fell Winter, who cared for so many left grieved and bereft after that time, even as she had her own sorrows to bear. How could anyone else have such a heart? If Esmie fell short of this remarkable daughter, well, so did everyone else, even his mother.

In the end, Bilbo had to admit that he really did not know this cousin very well, and that he probably should be more charitable towards her. You, of all people, Baggins, should know not to judge someone by rumors. Having disposed of his petty thoughts, Bilbo was ready to find out more about his other kin in Brandy Hall.

'I must apologize for not visiting more often, Esmie,' he twinkled at her, 'and not merely because I seem to be depriving myself of a well laid table.' Esmie laughed around a mouthful of crisp and shook an admonishing fork in his direction. 'I do need to keep track of things here in Buckland more carefully. It's been almost five years since I last paid a call. I wasn't aware of how ill Gilda has been,' he went on in a more serious tone. 'You should have told me about this earlier.'

'Gilda forbade me to say anything about it, Bilbo! She didn't want you worrying. You know how stubborn she can be,' Esmie protested.

Bilbo rolled his eyes and shook his head. 'Oh, yes, don't I know it! You needn't explain Gilda to me. But what of Rory? How is he taking this?'

'Not well, I fear, Bilbo,' Esmie gravely replied. 'He grieved so badly when we lost Prim, and I don't think he ever really recovered from that loss.'

Bilbo grimaced. 'I don't think any of us really have.' Another beautiful hobbit-lass, gone. It was not so bad, now, with families full and the little girls racing about, all curls and rumpled skirts and brown legs scratched from the berry vines. There were still enough left, though, who remembered the Fell Winter of 1311; how it ripped their girl-babes away from them in greater numbers than the boys; how many goodwives lay down in a birthing bed and did not rise up again; how many of the small forms, limp in their winding sheets, that were laid in the frozen earth had been sisters and daughters. His own sisters died in it, and Mother barely survived the stillbirth of his brother.

In the years immediately after, the mothers were weak, and children came slowly and often dead - the girl children more so than the boys. Many women never bore properly again. His mother never bore another child, nor did Donnamira, her next oldest sister. Her youngest sister, Mirabella, Rory's mother, had Asphodel almost at cost of her own life two years after the Winter, followed by another dead child three years after that.

Then, to the delight of all Buckland, Primula had come along; a great, chubby, happy, healthy girl-babe. Her birth marked an end to the mourning, and the girls no longer died so soon. Even so, the children were few in that time, and the mothers' arms were more empty than they wished.

There had been such scandalized talk when Drogo had married Prim, even if he was one of Rory's best friends. Done in a rush when she was only twenty-eight, Drogo almost half again her age, it was not considered a respectable match, not with so many fine lads her own age paying court to her. Uncle Gorbadoc had been furious and for years refused to acknowledge the marriage. At first, the whispers had been that those two had needed to marry and quickly, but no early child appeared. Then the whispers reversed and it was said that there was no child because of the scandalousness of the marriage. In the end, they had to leave Hobbiton and move back into Brandy Hall to get away from the merciless tongues of the old hens. Drogo and Prim had lived with Bilbo for several years in Bag End after they had first married, and he missed them terribly when they decided to leave.

Rory and Gilda, on the other hand, were overjoyed to welcome them back home to Brandy Hall. Bilbo had visited much in those times, especially after Gorbadoc died and Rory became Master, and would spend weeks with Drogo, Prim, Rory and Gilda. Anything to get out from under the inquisitive noses of the respectable folk back in Hobbiton. Prim and Drogo had set aside a small room in their quarters in the smial that was always ready for him, no matter when he came to visit. They all were so worried when Prim failed to have a child. Twenty years of barren marriage, and then Frodo's miraculous birth. The celebrations were bigger than when Prim herself had been born. Bilbo shook his head and sighed, and turned his attention back to Esmie, who had kept talking, not noting his distraction.

'Now, Rory having to watch Gilda deteriorate like this,' Esmie broke off, looking down at her plate while she got her own emotions under control, 'well, I worry. He's younger than you, Bilbo, yet he looks and acts several decades older.' She gave him a sly look. 'Though some would say that he merely looks as he should and you are the one who looks the wrong age.'

Bilbo shrugged. Even he was starting to wonder at his youthful appearance, though inside he felt age creeping up upon him, wearing him down. He always wondered what had been in the food the elves had served him in Rivendell. 'And how is Gilda?' he asked gently, turning attention back to the central reason for his visit.

Esmie sighed. 'Her wits are as sharp as ever, and she tries to stay in good spirits for Rory's sake. It helps that she's more stubborn than a Breeland pony and has the temper of your dragon. She won't let people feel sorry for her, and is ready with a solid whack of the cane for anyone who treats her like she's made of glass. But the trembling in her limbs grows worse, especially in the last two years, and she can't walk unassisted anymore. She's not going to get better, she knows it, and she is determined to spare us pain.' Esmie sighed again, but in a more exasperated tone. 'Of course, if that didn't mean that she insists on being such a pain, it might be easier.'

They looked at each other for one long moment, then burst out laughing. Once he got his mirth under control, Bilbo said, 'Well, I'm told healers make the worst patients. Gilda's used to making things well, not being sick herself.'

Esmie nodded agreement. 'I think it would be better for everyone if she didn't know so much of herbs and healing. She keeps experimenting with different tonics and soaking potions and the like. I swear, sometimes I think she'll poison herself trying out new concoctions.' Bilbo shot her an alarmed look, and Esmie held up a reassuring hand. 'I am teasing, though she did make herself sick with something a few months ago. Gilda's not one to give up, ever, so you needn't worry on that count.'

Esmie applied herself to the remainder of her meal until the plate was empty, and Bilbo picked at what was left on his. It took a great deal to whet his appetite these days, and not very much to satisfy it. After they had both finished, Esmie took the used dishes to a sideboard. Bilbo prepared his pipe while she fussed a bit over the dirty plates and cutlery, getting them to stack just right on a tray, then turned to face him. Bilbo held her eyes and raised a meaningful eyebrow. She shook her head, then shrugged, returning to the couch.

'Sara and I, well… we are managing as we can. He is as upset as Rory, watching Gilda fail, and he probably drinks more than is wise. But he is a solace to his father, and they give each other strength.'

Bilbo knew Rory's eldest son too well to think he was much solace to his father, and the boy had always drunk more than was wise. Gilda's illness was the excuse, not the source. 'What of Mac?'

Esmie shook her head. 'It hurts him to see his mother like this, so he tends to stay away. Mac keeps an eye on north Buckland and helps Rory and Sara that way. He and Dilly have their hands too full with their own farm to be here very much, though they do come every Highday for evening table. You'll see them tomorrow.'

Well, at least one of the boys is making himself useful. Bilbo puffed on the pipe, waiting, but Esmie did not say anything more. 'And yourself?' he prompted. A smoke ring drifted upwards. Esmie sat for a long while staring at a painting on the far wall.

'I worry over the children.' Bilbo made a soothing, non-committal noise around the stem of his pipe, trying not to show his concern at her answer. 'Merle never fails to help with Merry. She has a sense that her Gammer is sick, and won't get well. Merry just knows she's sick. I sit with Gilda a great deal, and she tells me her stories and secrets.' Bilbo was a bit surprised to hear this as he had never known Gilda to be one to sit about telling stories, and any secrets she had would be related to her healing knowledge, not running a smial. 'We don't like it, but she's teaching me to run Brandy Hall without her. It is a more demanding responsibility than I had imagined. Gilda is one of the great Mistresses of the Hall. To be taking over her tasks is a bit intimidating. I don't begrudge them anything, but caring for her and for Rory as they age is… wearing.' Esmie lapsed back into her musing silence. Bilbo puffed on his pipe and considered what had, and had not, been said.

So, Sara is being useless, as usual. Bilbo reminded himself not to grind his teeth on the stem of the pipe. It was a gift from Balin and it would not do to break it. He went over to the fireplace to fiddle with his pipe and to keep his back to Esmie while he suppressed his disdain for her wastrel mate. The wonder to Bilbo was how a woman so smart could bear with a man so stupid. She could have picked any hobbit in the Shire and she chose Sara. Esmie would hear no harsh words said of the wretch, and he did not want to argue with her about the useless lout. Why Esmie settled for him…

It was regarded by most people as the most marvelous marriage in the Shire. The beautiful sister of the Thain-to-be wed to the handsome son of the Master. They married only a year after Sara came of age, and had she been less notable there probably would have been the usual ugly rumors about why an older woman had married the young heir of the Master. Bilbo knew there had been rumors that she was a bit… forward… where the young men were concerned, and it was no secret that Alder had shamelessly promoted all of his daughters to unwed gentlehobbits of good fortune, if only to gain support for his own ambitions. Bilbo was the only one Alder had not approached. He drew in a lungful of pipe smoke, then slowly released it. No use wondering why it happened. Truth be told, there probably was not a better choice to be had that her father would have accepted. Well, she might have set her eye on Sara because he'd be Master someday, but she truly dotes on him now.

Rory's letters were always full of praise for his daughter-in-law, especially now. It was Rory who had warned Bilbo of Gilda's failing health, telling him a long visit would be in order, and he had spoken of Esmie's help in the Hall. What made Bilbo curious was that Gilda never said anything of note about Esmie. He knew she had been displeased at Sara's early marriage, having complained several times to Bilbo that Sara was too immature to be a husband and should wait until he was older and had some responsibilities. Gilda and Prim had jointly ruled Brandy Hall until Prim's death, as close to each other as he, Rory and Drogo had been, and Bilbo had never seen any sign that either woman had included Esmie in Hall business. Prim had never really cottoned to Esmie, despite the women's kinship.  He hoped Gilda's coolness was not making Esmie's caretaking tasks more difficult.

'Frodo is a dear. I don't know how I would manage the children without him.' Esmie's voice was stronger and happier. Bilbo smiled into the fireplace, then looked back over his shoulder at her. The melancholy on her face had subsided, though it was not wholly gone. 'I swear, sometimes I forget he isn't our own. Merle and Merry couldn't ask for a more loving big brother.'

'Yes, how's my lad doing? I love his letters, but I know he doesn't tell me about the scrapes he's getting into.' Bilbo came back to his chair and plumped down for a more cheerful discussion. He had not seen Frodo since the lad's sixteenth birthday, though they exchanged letters several times a month. Bilbo suppressed a twinge of guilt for not having visited Brandy Hall more often, for not keeping a better eye on Gilda and Frodo.

'Well, he's a tween now, which means he'll eat anything he finds in the kitchen that doesn't eat him first, he can be a touch sullen to the adults when they won't let him do as he pleases, he adores his little cousins, and he is in constant trouble.' Esmie relayed all of this with a merry grin, so Bilbo was not too concerned about the 'constant trouble' business. 'He takes after the Took side of the family in his height, the Brandybuck side with his stubbornness, and the Baggins side with his penchant for adventure.' Esmie sent a mock glare Bilbo's direction. He just grinned back around his pipe at her, wiggling his toes.

'So what has the rascal been up to?' Bilbo cheerily asked. Their birthday was in two weeks, and he intended to stay for it. He would be ninety-nine and Frodo would be twenty-one. Bilbo had been considering a rather unusual birthday present for his young cousin, and it sounded like the time was right.

'Farmer Maggot over in the Marish came by not too long ago with a basket of mushrooms. He said that perhaps if he kept us better supplied, Master Frodo wouldn't raid the mushroom beds so often,' she laughed, shaking her head, 'He also wanted me to know he'd given the boy a good hiding to remind him to respect other people's hard work.' Bilbo frowned at this news. Deserved or not, he did not hold with thrashing a child. He was also a bit concerned that no one had thought to tell him of this when it happened. 'But don't worry, Maggot wasn't angry. Indeed, he was rather impressed by our boy's intrepid pursuit of mushrooms. He just hoped that energy could be turned to more productive endeavors.

'Sara and I have really taken over looking after Frodo in the last two years, since Gilda has become so sick. Rory dotes on our boy and Gilda adores him, but he can be a handful, and they don't have the heart to tell him no. He never means to do anything wrong, aside from the usual tween silliness, but he needs more guidance than what they can provide. He and Sara don't always see eye to eye on things, I'm afraid, especially as Rory has let the lad pretty much run wild since …' Esmie's voice faded softly, not wanting to talk about the drownings.

Bilbo considered these words for a bit. 'Well, Esmie, you know that I think very highly of "our boy" as you call him. There's not much more formal learning he can do here in Buckland. If he's bored and raiding mushroom beds and not minding his manners towards Sara,' there, that was always a sore spot, 'then perhaps it's time for him to come to Hobbiton and have me look after him. It sounds like you have your hands full with Gilda and the children. Sara and Mac need to care for Rory and tend Buckland. You know there's nothing better I'd like to do. I'd like to have come home with me after Yule this year, or even now, after our birthday, if it's not too sudden.'

Esmie gave him an odd look, the one he was quite used to receiving as an old bachelor of eccentric habits. He kept his face cheerful. Not you, too, Esmie. She shook her head a bit. 'Frodo's no burden to me, Bilbo; if anything, he's a great support. The children adore him and he is always patient and helpful where they are concerned. Gilda quite loves him, you know. Prim was like a little sister to her, and she holds the boy as dear to her as either of her grandchildren,' Bilbo watched her avert her eyes slightly, 'and all tween boys argue with their fathers, so it is not surprising that Frodo and Sara …'

'Sara isn't his father.' That came out more curtly than he had intended, so Bilbo backed up a bit and bathed his now-annoyed cousin in charm, 'and I am certain that if Sara weren't so concerned about Gilda,' or paid any attention to anything that isn't ale, 'he would have more attention to give to this rascally little cousin of his. If he weren't having to concern himself with making Frodo behave, then he could be more of a support to Rory. It's time he concentrated on learning the Master's tasks, just as you learn those of the Mistress.' That was about as generous as Bilbo was willing to be over Saradoc Brandybuck.

'Besides, Esmie,' now he gave her a reproachful look, 'while he may be a great help to you, it isn't fair to deny a lad as bright and inquisitive as Frodo a chance to learn more things than he can find out in Buckland, and to be brought to the attention of certain people in the Shire. I think our boy has a rather impressive future ahead of him, and he will need to be known as something besides the "Rascal of Buckland" if he is to fulfill this promise. He needs to move into the Shire where he can be seen and known.'

Esmie did not look convinced. 'He needs to be respectable, too, Bilbo, and being associated with you is not the swiftest route to that condition.' She shot him another meaningful stare. Bilbo studied his pipe for a moment, trying very hard not to allow himself to become annoyed with Esmie.

'Come now, Esmie,' he cajoled her when his indignation was under control, 'my reputation for being as mad as the day is long is quite exaggerated, as you well know.' He gave her his most ingratiating smile, 'And I haven't been on an adventure of note in almost fifty years! Why, the most daring thing I do nowadays is traipse across the Shire to see my Buckland relatives!' He smiled broadly and willed himself not to become angry with her. She did not look greatly placated. Time to change tactics. 'But enough of that - Frodo's future will wait. What is he up to now, besides causing trouble for poor Maggot? Who are his friends? Has he gone sweet on some red-cheeked lass yet?' He was not prepared for the look of consternation that crossed Esmie's face. 'Esmie, what's wrong?'

She stood and walked over to the parlor door, and checked to see who was in the hallway. Faintly, Bilbo could hear muffled voices, and a clink of dishes. Others were having mid-afternoon tea, too, and not many were walking about. She firmly closed the door, and began to slowly pace the room. She finally stopped near the fireplace, and turned to lean against the mantle and face him.

'Actually, I've been thinking of sending him to Pal. That will get him into the Shire, and will allow him to be known. Pal will see things are respectable. In fact, I think I should do this. Perhaps early next year.' She stared back at him with a challenging gaze.

Send him to Pal. I'll never be allowed to see Frodo, and she knows it. Pal might not be as detestable a person as his father, but that was faint praise. Bilbo had as little to do with Pal as he could manage, and Pal returned the favor. Pal was one of the mob of Bilbo's younger Took cousins, and he had paid little attention to the man until Alder had died and Pal was named Rum's heir, taking over his father's antagonism towards their notorious Thain with zeal. Bilbo did not envy Pal having to deal with Rum's outrageous behavior, having washed his own hands of that infuriating cousin fifteen years ago, well before Rum became Thain, but also thought that the two deserved each other.

Most news Bilbo received from the Tooklands, both from kin and from others, was of the contest between these two. Pal conducted himself as though he was already Thain, not just Rum's heir, and the family was deeply divided on who to listen to, just as they were divided on whether to associate with Bilbo. Pal was as dour and humorless as Rum was scandalous and shocking, though he did seem to be responsible in a way Alder had never managed. He did not care for anything odd or strange, and that meant Bilbo as much as it did Rum. Until now, Bilbo had not minded Pal's declaration that he was no longer welcome in the Great Smials, especially as it put him in good company. Unlike most who were (or would be) Thain, Pal disliked Gandalf, and had ordered the wizard to not darken the door of the Great Smials again when the wizard had tried to pay a call during Yule in 1386. Gandalf complained about it for the entire time he spent at Bag End that season. Rum had never seen fit to countermand his heir's rude decrees.

Bilbo also suspected that Pal would not mind laying a claim to Frodo's loyalties, even if he did not care much for the boy himself. He had a reputation in the farthing for being more greedy than was seemly, much like Alder had been. Drogo had been a moderately well-off gentlehobbit (Bilbo had seen to that), and Prim had some small share of inheritance from her mother. In Brandy Hall, Rory and Gilda stood guard over Frodo's legacy. Pal would like having control of that wealth pass to his hands while the lad was in his minority.

All of which simply pointed out how wrong it would be to send Frodo to Pal. Pal would not like Frodo's curiosity and inventiveness, and would forbid the lad any contact with himself, or any other interesting person. Frodo would only ever see his tedious Took cousins and the unadventurous farmers of Southfarthing. Even were he capable of appreciating Frodo's qualities, Pal could not do much with the lad, not with performing Thain duties and overseeing his extensive plantation in Whitwell, east of Tuckborough, and Eglantine would have her hands full with their own children, just as Esmie was burdened here. It was not exactly news that more children would arrive until they had a son. The Great Smials would be no better than Brandy Hall, as Esmie was well aware. She grew up there herself and knew what a warren it was. Worst, Rum was certain to make Frodo's presence a bone of contention between him and Pal. Or an opportunity for sport. He tried not to shudder at that thought.

Bilbo allowed some of his growing ire to show. 'And why, pray tell, would you send him off to a bigger warren of relatives where he will be just another face in a pack of poorly supervised tweens running about and causing trouble? Pal and Eglantine have no time for him. This does not sound like a very good situation for Frodo.' He would not drop her eyes. 'Am I really such a… corrupting… influence?'

'I don't want to encourage him.'

Bilbo could see where this conversation was going, and his ire was rapidly turning into something like Smaug's rage over a certain missing piece of treasure. 'And would you care to explain, in plain terms, what it is I would be encouraging?' he asked in a soft, dangerous tone, the one he had heard Gandalf use on a few occasions.

Esmie at least had the decency to blush and look embarrassed. 'Frodo's just a boy still, and impressionable. He needs to be around respectable folks, and learn to be a respectable gentlehobbit himself. He's not sweet on any girl at all,' she finally said, staring down at the carpet, refusing to meet his eyes, 'and he spends too much time with, with…' she finished lamely, '… other boys. The wrong kind of boys. Sara and I agree that he likes the company of these boys a bit too much.'

In a rush she went on, still staring at the carpet, 'He needs some examples set for him, respectable examples, not a place with strangers and queer folk tramping in and out at all times. A place with a proper husband and wife and no… temptations. I thought that it would be good for him to be around Pal and respectable relatives, and to get to know some other young folks, some new young ladies that he might like better than the ones here in Buck…' Her words were cut off abruptly by Bilbo's grasp on her chin, forcing her face up to look into his forbidding expression.

'Let us use plain terms, cousin. Your presumption that you know what kind of person I do or do not share my bed with leaves me angry, and your intimation that I would lay a lustful hand on any child leaves me ill,' he said in a voice scarcely above a whisper. 'What is most offensive, what leaves me disgusted, is that you care so little for "our boy." Because I am not respectable, you would throw Frodo into the Great Smials and leave him to fend for himself? Is respectability so important to you that you would deny him all that I can offer?'

Bilbo turned on his heel, and left the parlor.

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