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(Un)Familiar Ground

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He goes to sleep in a lounging chair on the deck of an elven frigate with the lonesome cry of gulls and creaking timbers in his ears.

His sight has been failing for some time and so have his knees, but his hearing is better than it has any right to be. When all is fading away he can still listen, but the gulls seem distant now and indistinct. The hush-shush sound of the tide blends in with the tinkling bells that Elrond’s people have strung up to catch the wind and it all becomes a dull roar.

It reminds Bilbo of when he used to cover his ears as a child to listen to the vibrating tendons in his wrists. It’s that same echoing rumble.

He closes his eyes for a moment (just a moment) to rest them. He’s only ever resting them no matter what Frodo has to say on the matter. He’s never sleeping –until he is.

It’s hard to say how long he naps for, but it must have been a good long while because he awakes feeling better than he has in ages; surrounded by the warm and faintly humid summer air with the thick green scent of mowed grass in his nose… and a pipe in his hand?

Bilbo sits up on the hard bench… and when did he move off his chair? He can’t remember. It’s only, Elrond has set a minder on him -a sweet elvish lass who seems terribly young to be on a gray ship even though her eyes are somehow focused elsewhere, as if she is always looking towards some far off shore- and she is absolute murder about Bilbo leaving his chair to wander about, which is pure foolishness. He only fell the one time! There’s no need for everyone to keep carping on about it.

He shakes his head and squints out onto the de…

The Shire is spread out at Bilbo’s feet like a green duvet that stretches out as far as the eye can see. The air is full of birdsong and the indistinct murmur of a small town; conversation, laughter, and squabbling all blending together into a single cohesive whole.

Bilbo stands on young strong legs without thinking and takes three shaking steps away from the polished flagstone that makes up the front step of Bag End.

There is Farmer Maggot driving a herd of geese to market and there, there is Hamfast Gamgee tramping down Bagshot Row looking like a tween again with a flask of Gamgee rotgut poking out his back pocket. He is surrounded by faces and voices he knows, all of whom should be older and altered. Many of which should be dead.

Is this the undying land?’ Bilbo wonders and pinches himself. It feels real. It feels too real. If feels… familiar.

He gropes for his mailbox out of habit more than anything else and ends up scattering letters on the stoop so that he has to kneel down to pick them up. There’s an invitation to little Drogo’s tenth birthday party and a birth announcement for one Primula Brandybuck of Buckland. Bilbo mouth goes dry as he reads through the little stack of correspondence, invitations, and miscellany of life in Hobbiton and can recall every last letter to perfection.

“I…” He looks up and out beyond his front gate to the long and winding road that meanders its way up to his door and on it, still yet a fair distance away, is a tall figure dressed all in gray with a tall pointed hat and enormous bushy eyebrows that Bilbo can see from where he stands. It is a Gandalf in his old travel worn robes without Glamdring at his side or his old irritable mule to pull a cart of fireworks.

A sudden terror takes hold of Bilbo then and he drops his letters in a pile to scramble inside.

Bag End is wrong inside. It’s all wrong! There’s too many doilies and not enough books. His mother’s glory box is pristine and looks like it dwells in a world where no one would dare use it in lieu of a boot scraper for fear of Belladonna Took-Baggins coming back from Beyond to give them a piece of her mind. Frodo’s room is a stiff and fussy little guest room with bits of needlepoint on the walls instead of the little ink prints of leaves and fresh-caught fish that he and Frodo spent their first summer together making. Sting is gone and there are no orc swords stuffed into the bench chest in the hallway.

There is no ring on the mantelpiece nor even the little glass dome it used to sit under.

Bilbo is left standing alone and shaking when a thunderous knock on his front door echoes through the entire hole. The sound is echoing and resounds in his very bones. Bilbo finds himself very nearly moving to answer without his conscious input on the matter.

Gandalf knocks again, more softly this time –more gently.

Bilbo takes a step back then another and then another until he’s almost to the back door. He can’t think, he’s too… he’s too…

He takes his pipe and a fat pouch of tobacco. He takes every handkerchief he can lay his hands on easily. He empties the contents of his little vault into a money pouch and hides it under his shirt. His map case is either gone or doesn’t exist yet along with his good walking stick, his waterproof bedroll, and oilskin hat. All of these will need to be bought either in Bree or the first market he finds. He shucks his yellow brocade vest in favor of the one he uses to garden in and puts on last year’s sturdy green coat, which resists the rain. He packs four suits of clothing, double that amount of unders, half the contents of his medicine chest, and three tins of tea.

There’s no one in the rear garden when he makes his escape and Bilbo is halfway to Buckleberry Ferry before his sanity catches up to him.

It’s coming on nightfall when Bilbo arrives at the Great Smials in Tuckborough, footsore as he hasn’t been in years and aching. His Uncle Fenumbras takes him in for the night, feeds him, and asks remarkably few questions save these:

“Have you a will, young Bilbo?” Fenumbras is roughly the same age as dirt, but Tooks age slowly and with dignity so his hands do not shake when he sits Bilbo down in front of a stationary set. “My advice is to give yourself a space of five years before the Mayor has to get involved. You should also leave those cousins of yours something big enough that they can’t fight to have the will overturned in court without looking like ingrates.”

Bilbo is all of a hundred and thirty-one, but he feels like a tween caught scrumping up an apple tree when his uncle gives him that knowing look. He writes out the will and leaves Lobelia all his silverware plus a small annuity for Otho to compensate for the fact that he’s chosen to leave the rest of his worldly possessions to Drogo with their mutual uncle or whoever else is Thain at the time to act as the executor of his estate and trustee for Drogo if need be.

“Generous enough and, I think, in keeping with what we all know of you.” His uncle nods approvingly and seals it up with his own signature as witness. “So few of my nephews and grandchildren think ahead. Now, I’ve maps for you. They’re a bit old, but the big landmarks and settlements don’t change. Be wary of seeking out any of the smaller communities I have marked out. They’re likely to have died off or moved.”

“I… uncle!” Bilbo squeaks as Fenumbras presses a handsome tube of tooled leather into his hands.

“No point in being restrained now.” The old hobbit chortles at him. “None of your cousins ever came to me before running off into the world for their rambles. I’ve advice and help to give that no one ever looks for. Don’t disappoint me by being the first and then get too embarrassed to accept it. I’ve a waterskin about here somewhere… ah! There it is.” He shoves a battered metal canteen into Bilbo’s lap and follows it up with a little folding skyglass with a tiny compass set into the handle. Fenumbras shoves that into Bilbo’s pocket. “That stays on you at all times along with the maps. Knapsacks can be stolen or lost. You’re never out of luck so long as you can find your way.”

“Y-yes, sir.” Bilbo fumbles the glass into his pocket and makes a mental note to buy a chain so that he can string it round his neck for added security.

Fenumbras loads him down with a folding wallet full of needles and little fish hooks, a folding knife, and a cache of sturdy twine. He quizzes Bilbo about how much money he has then loans him more, nods over Bilbo’s money belt with approval, and gives him two recipes for common salves that can be made from very little in a pinch.

“Now, where exactly are you going, young Baggins?” He asks at last. “And why are you going there?”

“To the west.” Bilbo says, not wishing to reveal too much. “There’s something there that I must look for.”

“I see.” Fenumbras puffs on his pipe and frowns. “You sounds like you hope it’s not there.”

“If providence is kind…” Bilbo sighs. “Then it won’t be.”

“Hmmm. I see.” He takes another puff. “I hope you know what you’re doing, Bilbo.” He harrumphs.

“Sorry to disappoint you, uncle, but I can guarantee to you that I don’t.” Bilbo sighs and drops his face into his hands.

“Well.” Fenumbras turns to the window and nods. “I’m glad to hear that. Most of your cousins don’t figure that lesson out until the adventure is over. I’ve better hopes now of you coming back from this ramble alive.”

Funny. Bilbo doesn’t share his optimism.

Fenumbras kicks him out of bed well before dawn and drags him to the early market in Tuckborough where he’s at least able to buy a decent hat and a voluminous rain slicker. Fenumbras gives him a bedroll that’s made of oilskin on the outside and lambswool on the inside along with two good blankets that roll up thin. Then the miserable old fart takes him to buy a pony.

“What do you mean you’ve sold out?”

Edinraf Proudfoot shrugs and taps his pipe out using his heel as Fenumbras blusters at him. “Dwarf came through. Big ‘un with twin axes long as I am tall.” Sounds like Dwalin. “Bought the lot. I’m just holding them until he comes to collect later.” He holds up a hand when Fenumbras goes for his wallet. “Sorry, Fen. Not even if you make a better offer. T’was made clear what would happen if I tried to sell one out from under him. I’ve a hinnie left though, if you’re interested. Sturdy little beast and sweet tempered too. Will walk all day if she only smells oats on occasion. For you, I’ll sell her for a sovereign and a cask of that wine your brother makes.”

The hinnie is named Apple and makes for a less intimidating travelling companion than one of Edrinraf’s ponies, which usually sell to Big Folk and dwarves apparently. For one, Bilbo can mount her without help or use of a block and she’s a placid incurious sort of beast who barely flicks an ear at the worst noise that the dawn market has to offer. Frankly, she’s a bit dull but dull is desirable in a Hobbit’s mount.

Bilbo is well out of town by the time a familiar figure in a tattered gray robe makes his way up to the Great Smials and perhaps that is for the best…for now.

Gandalf arrives last to the Green Dragon, which would be an embarrassment if he were anyone other than who he is. Fortunately he is himself and thus quite immune to the annoyed glare he receives from the Inn’s barkeep (a Boffin, unless Gandalf’s missed his guess) when he orders a human-sized glass of wine and the matching one he gets from Thorin Oakenshield as he sits down –more specifically when he sits down alone.

“I was given to believe that you were fetching our burglar.” He says as he sets down his wooden spoon next to the bowl of stew before him. The others are quiet all around him, which is an effect that only Thorin seems to be able to inspire in them. They look at him out the corner of their eyes and perhaps to these lost and lonely vagabonds, he represents something more than merely himself.

“I’m afraid I missed him.” Gandalf apologizes. “He has business in the west, but I think we will catch him on the road. Our goals are similar after all. Until then, I will make the fourteenth member of your company. Balin need not fear.”

“Your burglar seems like a busy sort.” Thorin snorts.

“He is.” Gandalf agrees and it’s not particularly a lie. The Bilbo Baggins he remembers was always going somewhere, doing something, even when kept firmly at his mother’s knee his eyes would be roaming for something to do. “You asked me to find you the best.”

“I did.” Thorin turns to his men. “What say you? Do we continue on and hope to find the wizard’s pet thief or do we try our luck in Bree?”

“Hiring a thief in Bree will get you exactly that, although I doubt anyone you bought there would wait until the end of the journey to get their payday.” Gandalf points out mildly. “You require a specific individual and there is only one such in these parts. Hire another if you like, but if you do then you’ll go without my aide. Bilbo Baggins is the thief you seek and I will work with no other.”

The barkeep slams down Gandalf’s wine just then and points a finger at him. “I’ll not have any talk like that in my inn.” He blusters. “Your dwarves have already emptied out my larders, which should have lasted me the week! Baggins is a respected name in these parts and you’ll keep your slander to yourself or find another place to bed down for the night. Thief indeed!” He grumbles as he marches off.

“What sort of thief isn’t even known for his craft?” Thorin cocks a mocking eyebrow at Gandalf.

“A very good one.” Gandalf replies tartly and leans to one side to dodge the damp cloth the barkeep flings at his head.