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too late for you and your white horse

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Sometimes, when the light of the setting sun looks like the whole world will catch fire, Bilbo slips a hand into her pocket and runs her thumb along the stone she keeps there. At night she puts it into the drawer beside her bed, alongside an extra handkerchief and her reading spectacles, and it glows faintly in the way that freshly-fallen snow does.

It's a strange thing for a hobbit to have, perhaps, but Bilbo, well. She was never quite normal.

Her neighbors want the story from her, and Bilbo wants to be left alone. They compromise. She writes the story and publishes it in installments in the paper, and ignores everyone with a question.

She does try to be fair. She tells of her foolishness, her qualms. She describes the adventures as clearly as she can--editing, of course, those things which might be unfortunate, should someone not of Hobbiton read them.

She doesn't know who might, but she's learned to be cautious.

She tries to be as truthful as possible, because, of course, being truthful is the best way to conceal a lie.

She can remember the blade rasping along the embroidery of her jacket, the sharp sting of it against her jaw. She remembers the way that there'd been nothing of him left, there among the gold and the dragonfire.

"I know you have it," he'd said.

She had.

She still does.

Like hell she was going to give it to him.

Hobbiton isn't as warm a place as it first appears. Oh, it is if you're the right sort of person. If one is married, or too young to be, or widowed, or a bachelor, Hobbiton is quite cozy, but Bilbo was none of those things when she left, and she's even less those things now.

Indeed, when she returns with her riches she's not greeted fondly. Bilbo Baggins was always the strange spinster of Bag End, too wild, too proud--unsuitable for a wife. She had lived alone for some time before Gandalf's machinations had darkened her door, and she returns to live alone, no beau waiting for her.

And now, worse than all of that, she's the woman who had left with more than ten men. She's a scandal, tainted, loose.

When she begins to show, she has to grip Daisy Valethorn's gate she laughs so hard at the way the old women's faces go white. They resemble nothing so much as very alarmed geese.

She laughs, but it's all so quiet. She spends a long year with only her thoughts and the stirrings of the child within her. No company, and it startles her how much she misses it. How quickly one can grow accustomed to being surrounded by a company of dwarves, and how keenly one can feel their absence.

Her cousins visit her, when they realize how foolish all of Hobbiton is. Primula is a constant presence in Bag End, her own child growing beneath her breast.

"Really," she muses, eating Bilbo out of house and home, "I never thought you'd be the scandal between us."

Bilbo laughs, and she thinks it almost sounds genuine. "Neither did I."

The story Bilbo doesn't write is this: it was a love story. She'd thought one for the ages. She had never felt for anyone as she did for him, and she knows now she never will.

But she could hardly compete, in the end, with a kingdom and riches beyond knowing, and in the end she hadn't tried.

Small, perhaps, and cowardly, but she was only a burglar, and he'd hated her for it deep in the belly of the mountain.

And Bilbo has been many things, but something to be kept has never been one of them.

Callalily and Frodo Baggins are born the same day, which Primula thinks is hilarious, and Bilbo thinks means that poor Frodo is going to be forever tarred.

Callalily looks like a Took and a Baggins, and though Bilbo searches, she cannot find anything of him in her daughter's face. She sees, in point of fact, much of her mother.

Bilbo thinks that this is probably her penance.

Her daughter is beautiful and bright, and Bilbo laughs and is happier than she ever was. She thinks there is no adventure that could compare to this, no gold or jewel or kingdom that she would ever trade.

She doesn't think on him for years.

Their family history is that of children orphaned or with only one parent, and so Callalily doesn't notice anything amiss. She knows that her father is dead, and that Bilbo loved him, and for a child that is enough.

But in her tweens, just starting to be aware of the world around her, she asks about him. "You never say," she implores, and Bilbo's hand stills on her piece, the checkerboard swimming before her eyes.

She doesn't remember how she navigates it, only that in the morning when she opens bleary eyes Callalily is tucked in beside her.

"It doesn't matter, Mama," she says. "I know you loved him. I didn't mean to make you sad."

They spend the day in bed, the two of them tucked beneath the covers, reading and sleeping and lazy, and when Bilbo can put her feet on the floor without feeling as though she's going to retch they go to the kitchen and eat whatever Callalily wants.

The thing that takes Bilbo by surprise is how much she misses what she never had.

Callalily never asks again, truly satisfied, but Frodo is not so easily persuaded. With both his parents gone, Bilbo takes him in. Well, Callalily does, and Bilbo can't figure out how to tell him that really, the Brandybucks would love to have him, and socially it might be better for him to spend more time with Merry.

Frodo loves her stories, reads the whole collected tale and then peppers her with questions about the world outside the Shire. She thinks that he's a bit too much like her. That now that she understands why Gandalf had thought she would come away. It's a look, not just a hunger, vivid and plain to see when you know what to look for. Someday, she fears, Gandalf will whisk him away, and this sweet boy before her will cease to be.

She could easily hate Gandalf for it.

"It's sad that King Thorin and his nephews died," Frodo says one day, tracing the cover of her book. "Were you very sad, Aunt?"

"Yes," she says, honest as she runs her thumb over the stone in her pocket. "I was very sad to see him laid low."

She thinks to write, once. Callalily is just out of her thirties, furious at the way she's looked at. Bilbo wants to tell her that it could be so much worse: Bilbo's adventure and wealth and last name afford them protection. The people of the Shire will never fully accept them, but the cold glances and disdainful sneers are a far cry from the outright shunning that the children of other unwed mothers receive.

Bilbo is used to it, but Callalily seems to notice every slight, and some nights cries herself to sleep.

Bilbo wants to smooth back her dark auburn hair and tell her that she is the daughter of a king. She fantasizes, listening to her daughter cry, that she could write to Thorin and that he would ride in, well and whole and proud, would claim their daughter and take them away to be royalty in Erebor.

But that's all it is, really. A fantasy.

And fantasies were what brought them to this place, so she thinks not. Putting her trust in Thorin was the act of a young, foolish girl, and she isn't that anymore.

Her hand never lifts a quill.

Sometimes, when the house is quiet, or when she's cooling her feet in the brook, she lets herself think about it. Remember how big his hands had been, how gentle. How his beard had scratched at her face, and how he'd held her as though she was something precious.

She wonders, in those moments, if the madness ever left him. If, after losing her, and the Arkenstone, Thorin Oakenshield came back to himself (she indulges herself to think that losing her would be an equal blow, though she knows full well it was not).

She hopes he did, though. His people had had no home for so long, and she would have liked to have been able to give that to them, with a king worthy of them.

And then she laughs to herself, because sometimes she's still the silly girl who fell in love with a king and expected it to end well.

Gandalf visits, more frequently now that Callalily is grown. Mostly, Bilbo thinks, because he likes to raid her stock of pipeweed and gossip.

Her daughter is laughing over the hill, and the terrible laughter of a Brandybuck mingles with it in the air. Bilbo expects any day to find young Meriadoc asking permission to formally court her daughter.

She supposes she'll have to say yes. He's a good enough lad, but Bilbo rather shudders to think what terrors her grandchildren will be.

"You never said who the father was," Gandalf muses when Callalily and Merry come into view, soaked to the skin with arms full of no-doubt purloined root vegetables.

"Miserable weather," Bilbo says, squinting at the clouds. "Yes, I quite agree."

Gandalf coughs on his exhale. "Hobbits."

Sometimes, when her daughter is asleep, Bilbo sits at her table. The Arkenstone is tucked into her bedside table, and Gollum's ring is somewhere in her trunk, and she has aches in her hips and a head of white.

But sometimes, sometimes if she closes her eyes late, late at night, she can hear faintly the sounds of singing dwarves and Thorin complaining about getting lost twice, and for a moment--just a moment--she's young, and everything still has the potential to be wonderful.