Almost a year after Durin's Day, Bilbo Baggins found himself living back in his parents’ estate in the country, waking up in his childhood bedroom to the shrill ringing of a wind-up alarm clock.
His eyes snapped open, hand shooting out to curtly slap the alarm off with more force than was probably strictly necessary. As the heavy silence blanketing the old house was restored, his eyes quickly adjusted to the slivers of pale morning light that streamed between the slats of his boarded up, eastern-facing window. A part of him thought about rolling over and catching a few more hours of sleep, like he had done many a spring morning in his own bed in London, back before all the madness started.
He stared at the alarm clock, sighing loudly. Mickey Mouse gazed back dispassionately with a black-eyed stare, his contorted arms letting Bilbo know that it was just past six-thirty in the morning. There was no use in dawdling. Waking up just simply wasn't the slow affair it had been once upon a time. Nowadays when Bilbo woke up, he was unfortunately up. He liked to chalk it up to age, or the natural effect of growing up in the countryside, or really any reason other than the constant mobility he had until recently been forced to adopt in order to avoid the infected, cannibalistic hordes that now terrorized the countryside.
(On the bright side, that wasn’t so much of a problem now that he finally had returned to the family estate, and the restlessness certainly helped in motivating him to get things done around the house.)
Bilbo rolled out of bed with little difficulty, reaching out for the clock and thoughtfully re-winding it. He supposed that he really should shower and dress before heading downstairs, just so he could start the day as a productive member of what little society was left, but he decided a spot of breakfast could come before chores. He felt entitled to such liberties in these uncertain times. It was the apocalypse, after all.
Instead of dressing, he put on his father’s old slippers and wrapped his favorite patchwork dressing gown snugly around himself, loath to lose the cozy feeling of his warm bed to the draftiness that came with any old mansion. He then grabbed his mother's old elephant rifle, an antique Weatherby Mark V, from where it leaned reliably against the nightstand and hoisted it under his arm as one might do with the Sunday paper. He stepped out into the empty corridor, heading toward the stairwell.
The shuffle of his feet on the hardwood floor echoed eerily in the vast stillness of Bag End. Bilbo did his best not to wince when the soles of his slippers squeaked loudly on the hardwood. He didn't mind the silence, not really, but being the sole occupant making noise in this big of a house made all other sounds slightly more sinister. He knew it was silly, especially considering that he was the only occupant of the estate while his parents were out. As long as the doors remained locked and the windows boarded over, Bilbo could be reasonably certain that all spooky sounds were either caused inadvertently by him, or by the fact that Bag End was an old house prone to settling.
Still, he shamefully jumped every time the loose third stair creaked.
Suppressing a yawn, he shuffled into the kitchen, which in its former glory had been a bright, airy place with a large picture window and a skylight. His father could usually be found puttering around, baking this or whipping that, rolling out homemade pasta while stirring soup over the stove with a pinched expression borne of concentration. The kitchen had been the center of Bag End when Bilbo was young, receiving more guests and family than both the drawing room and parlor combined. Meals were rarely taken in the formal dining room except for either special occasions, or when they had so many dinner guests that there simply wasn’t enough room. Even with a tarp over the skylight and plywood over the windows, when Bilbo lit the kerosene lamp and the few candles littered about the room, he supposed the kitchen resembled a sort of homey cave. Of course, it wouldn’t have been quite up to Bungo’s standards, but then again very few things rarely were.
Bilbo shivered as he finally registered the spring morning chill that had settled into the house. He leaned his rifle against the wall in its customary corner (weapons never go on the table, Mum always said) and fumbled in his dressing gown pocket for his matchbook.
"Tea," he muttered to himself, striking a match and bending down to light the old wood stove, "Tea and porridge, to rid us of this cold."
He fiddled around for a bit as the stove warmed the room, filling the kettle and a small pot with water from the sink. He thanked the universe—though it was Mum who deserved most of the credit—for the umpteenth time for the on-property water well and the solar-powered pump.
Bilbo left both of those on the stove to boil, pulling out his pipe and cursing the pitiful state of his good tobacco supply. At least that was one of the only things that were running out; his father had left a very stocked pantry of non-perishables and despite some neglect, Mother's greenhouse was still very productive. He lit his pipe with what was left of the Old Toby Father thoughtfully left for him, puffing silently and blowing smoke rings to amuse himself as he waited on the water.
Soon enough the kettle was whistling, and Bilbo ate his breakfast with gusto. He chased the cardboard taste of instant porridge with a mug of tea whose lack of milk was nothing short of tragic. He cleaned his dishes in the sink with practiced efficiency and then went back upstairs to take the cold shower he had avoided earlier.
He dressed in a comfortable pair of trousers and a tattered cardigan, and after some light cleaning and careful watering of his last surviving philodendron, he wandered back to the kitchen with a book picked from the limited portion of his library that remained at Bag End over the years. It was something fanciful from his childhood, a book about adventure and hardship and dragons, but it was leagues more entertaining than, say, the dusty, out-of-date computer manuals about coding in Unix or old Apple operating systems that had been irrelevant even back in 1996.
Settling into the comfortable armchair he had dragged in from the drawing room down the hall, Bilbo basked in the routine of it all. It was peaceful keeping house as he waited for his parents to return. Sure, it might be a bit quiet, and the utter solitude may smart sometimes (despite the fact that he had always been a bit of a loner), but in moments like these it almost felt like he was back in grade school, reading by the fire in the drawing room with Mum while Father played the piano in the parlor.
He didn't realize he was actually trying to listen for the soft notes of the piano until the sound of blood rushing in his ears had risen to a dull roar.
"No, you stop that right now, Bilbo Baggins," he scolded himself, once again taking out his pipe and stuffing it obstinately into the corner of his mouth. "You're a pudgy, bookish recluse on the wrong side of forty, and it won't do to be going off the deep end, especially when your grip on reality is the only redeeming quality you have in this world."
He tried his hardest not to get into the habit of talking to himself, as it certainly wasn’t very proper, but some things just needed a little bit of verbal reinforcement. Bilbo continued to grumble to himself for a few minutes, before lighting a match and taking a few angry puffs on his pipe until he finally settled into his book.
About two hours later, while Bilbo was busy in the middle of making a meager lunch out of a can of beans, there was a knock on the kitchen door that led out into the rear yard.
Like a startled rabbit who had just heard the screech of a nearby hawk, Bilbo froze mid-stir, eyes impossibly wide. He stood like that for a long moment, wondering if he had finally gone off the deep end.
The knocking sounded again, still somewhat polite. Bilbo continued to do nothing, utterly paralyzed. The beans boiled angrily.
"Bilbo Baggins! I know you're in there! Open up this confounded door before I resort to breaking it!" a gruff voice called from the outside.
The politeness quickly waned, and the knock turned into an impatient rapping that demanded to be answered, which brought with it a fresh surge of terror that suddenly jolted him into action. Bilbo grasped the elephant rifle (which until that point had been leaning in its usual nearby corner with all the docility of an umbrella) and brandished it in front of him, edging toward the door. He didn't think it could be an infected, since in Bilbo's experience they don't usually go politely knocking on doors when looking for an unlucky soul to devour, nor did they usually call him by name. The knocking only grew in volume and frequency until there was nothing Bilbo could do but try to peek out through a gap in the plywood slats he had nailed over the window.
What he saw on the other side of the door was not what he was expecting.
To be fair, he wasn't exactly sure who or what he was expecting to see, considering the last time he had encountered another coherent human who hadn't been determined to chew on him in some fashion was well over five months ago. However, Bilbo knew that if he had somehow been forced to bet on who was now open-palm rapping on the back door, he had a whole list of folks he would have put his money on before his mother's attorney, of all people.
Gandalf Greyhame—whom he hadn’t heard from in almost a decade, if Bilbo's recollection was correct—was standing on the back porch next to the slowly liquefying remains of an infected that Bilbo shot four days ago with the elephant gun from a second story window in a last ditch effort to keep it from breaking into the house. It had been what Mum would have proudly dubbed 'a beautiful shot,' but the evidence of it was now in a particularly juicy stage of decay that Bilbo tried his hardest not to think about, lest his stomach revolt. No, it was best not to think about neither that, nor the fact that the thing on the porch with nigh three-quarters of its head blown off had once been the gardener's boy, Hamfast.
If Gandalf was at all bothered by the putrefied corpse accompanying him on the porch he showed no sign of it. Instead, he only wore a painfully familiar expression of long-suffering impatience that, even with the decade-long hiatus in communication, prompted Bilbo to quickly unlock the door and open it.
The Weatherby was still under his arm, and Bilbo registered that he must look vaguely silly with his huge rifle and slippers. While the cardigan was certainly cozy, his current outfit was a far cry from his typical repertoire of put-together outfits, which were usually styled in luxe fabrics and just on the side of what many of his acquaintances would resort to calling 'dandyish.' Not that Gandalf looked exactly like he recalled either. The man nonchalantly standing next to the pulpy remains of poor Hamfast looked very different than the tall, composed solicitor posing next to his mother in the large photo on the mantle of the drawing room.
While he surprisingly didn't look much older (though he must have been pushing 70 by now), he had let his previously short-cropped gray beard and well-groomed eyebrows become unkempt and bushy, along with allowing his hair to grow long. Bilbo remembered Gandalf always calling on Bag End well groomed and dressed in a neatly pressed charcoal suit and tie. He had even worn one in the photo on the mantel, despite it having been taken in a wildlife park in Tanzania, where he stood demurely next to a freshly dispatched two ton cape buffalo and the triumphant Belladonna herself, who in contrast was dressed in sensible safari gear and carried the very rifle Bilbo currently clutched for dear life. A far cry from his solicitor’s kit, Gandalf now wore what could only be described as modified combat fatigues that had faded to the point of grayness, accompanied by a wide-brimmed felt sun hat that sat plopped haphazardly on his now shaggy head. He also held a gnarled walking stick in one hand, making the whole ensemble reminiscent of one of the mad wizards that populated Bilbo’s collection of childhood fantasy novels. But in Bilbo’s opinion, it was neither the fatigues, nor the hat, nor the lapse in grooming, nor even the walking stick that came even remotely close to being the most conspicuous part of Gandalf’s new, ridiculous apocalypse getup.
"Good afternoon," said Bilbo in dazed politeness, staring unabashedly at the very large broadsword now strapped to Gandalf’s hip. Bilbo squinted his eyes as the sword glinted in a way that was almost hard to look at, reflecting onto the once cheerful green paint of the kitchen door that was now peeling something dreadful. He stepped out into the blinding light of the midday sun of the back patio and tried not to gag on the cloying stench of rot.
Gandalf's bushy eyebrows rose.
"And what do you mean by that?" his replied, his impatient expression lightening somewhat into something more mischievous. "Do you wish me a good afternoon, or mean that it is a good afternoon whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this afternoon; or that it is an afternoon to be good on?"
"All… all of them at once, I suppose.”
The familiar strangeness of his mother's friend and the sheer experience of simply conversing left Bilbo feeling strangely winded, almost like he was stretching a muscle after a long period of disuse. Gandalf broke into a full smile, though the corner of his eyes still held a bit of impatient tension.
"My dear boy, are you going to invite me in for a drink, or are we going to keep young Hamfast company out here for a while longer?"
"O-oh yes of course!" Bilbo said in an overwhelmed rush, almost tripping over himself to invite his guest inside. "Please wipe your feet on the mat.”
“I see the spirit of Bungo Baggins is alive and well,” Gandalf muttered. He wiped his feet anyway.
In between closing the door and fussing to get the old solicitor situated and comfortable at the table, Bilbo somehow managed to make tea without noticing.
“My apologies, I’m afraid milk’s long since gone, and I’m saving the tins of the evaporated stuff for a special occasion,” Bilbo said, wringing his hands after pouring two cups of his favorite Darjeeling mix into his mother’s best china.
Gandalf grumbled but did accept his offer of sugar while Bilbo's mind continued to reel. Gandalf sipped his tea, deeming it, "Passable, but I would really have appreciated a reintroduction to your father's collection of fine vintage reds."
"I'm dreadfully sorry," Bilbo replied, only having a vague idea what he was apologizing for.
"No, no, don't mind an old man's grousing. It's just been a long time since I've had a fine glass of wine," Gandalf said, his tone almost wistful. "Your father certainly knew his wine when he was alive. Your mother would drink any old swill that would pass under her nose, but that was Belladonna Took for you! Bungo on the other hand..."
Bilbo was suddenly struck with a memory of his parents and Gandalf sitting at the very table they were at. His father and Gandalf were sipping a deep red wine and laughing while Belladonna knitted and told all about her latest foray, something about flower arranging. The memory felt disconcertingly real; no longer was Bilbo forty years old and standing in his makeshift cave but
fourteen again, pretending to have his nose buried in a book—something about computers, or maybe travel—while he listened to the idle chatter of the adults in the room. A breeze passed through the open window out the screened in back door, the smell of fresh blackberry tarts permeating the room. Gandalf said something that made his mother laugh brazenly, eyes sparkling in the sunlight. Bungo smiled indulgently. The pages of the book felt warm in his hands. Apropos of nothing, the normally reserved Bungo ruffled his curls, his hand resting heavy and comforting on Bilbo’s head.
"...Bilbo? Are you feeling alright? You look pale," Gandalf said, snapping Bilbo back to reality. His eyes weren't so much concerned as they were assessing. It put Bilbo on edge.
"I'm fine," Bilbo said. He tried to smile, but it had been so long since he had last attempted it probably looked extremely pathetic. "It's just been a while since I've had company, is all."
"I have been wondering about that. When did you finally arrive at Bag End?"
"About a month now," Bilbo replied. In reality, it had been exactly 34 days since he had arrived back at the estate, but who’s counting? "It's been a pretty long road."
"I should think so," Gandalf said, sipping his tea thoughtfully. "Am I correct in assuming that you left your flat soon after Durin's Day?"
"The day after, actually. When all the reports started coming in about those that were infected."
“Good heavens! That’s quite a while ago, Bilbo. And you have only been here for a month?”
"Yeah,” murmured Bilbo, something sour tightening in his gut. “Mum called me... said that Dad had come down with the flu. I don't think she had heard what was going on in the cities yet, and even though Dad and I aren't on the best terms, I needed an excuse to get out of London."
"That was a wise decision on your part, Mister Baggins," Gandalf said.
"I closed up my shop and took a couple of my employees with me who also wanted to leave the city but didn't have anywhere to go. I mean, why not, right? Look at this place. It could use some life," Bilbo joked humorlessly. He tried to keep his tone as lighthearted and conversational as possible, but found himself failing miserably. He didn't know why he expected anything otherwise, hating the pitying look Gandalf shot him from over the rim of his teacup.
"You don't have to tell me any more, I quite understand," said Gandalf, setting his tea down and reaching out to gently steady the rattling tea set in Bilbo’s hands. Bilbo shook his head, because he found that once he started talking (to an actual person!), he didn’t exactly want to stop.
"It was mayhem trying to get out of London," Bilbo said, forcibly choking out words around the lump in his throat. "We made it two miles before somebody rear-ended our van. My employees and I got out in the middle of traffic to have it out with him. I’m glad we did, actually, because we saw the swarm of infected coming our way before anybody else. We ended up having to ditch the van in order to escape, but in the confusion, we lost all our luggage and supplies. And then we were on foot.” He sighed. “But you know how fast the infection spread. It was in the suburbs within days. There wasn't even any time for panic."
Bilbo remembered the surreal feeling of walking in an empty neighborhood on a crisp autumn afternoon, freshly fallen leaves crunching merrily underneath his and his companions’ feet as they kept to the sidewalks for no reason other than habit; there hadn’t been a single car on the road, other than the few that were parked at haphazard angles along the curbs, most of their windows already busted out. The sun had glinted pleasantly off the unboarded windows of the cozy brick cottages they passed. Birds chirped merrily as they fluttered from branch to branch, and the occasional cat could be seen darting from behind the trimmed hedges. There had been no real signs of mayhem or disorder—other than the thick, acrid smoke that had begun to rise ominously from the horizon at approximately the location of the city center, where his flat and business used to be. In the immediate vicinity however, there was a surprising lack of burning cars or people rioting in the streets.
It had been as if every living soul had just vanished, softly sweeping out of the world and onto better things. But even then, Bilbo had known better. If anyone was still alive and lucid, they had either barricaded themselves in their houses or had moved on to the countryside. The infected tended to not make any movements until nightfall.
Gandalf sat with incredible patience as Bilbo silently recalled all this, sipping his tea. Bilbo sucked in a few ragged breaths, composing himself.
"The supermarkets were cleaned out, though. We did what was necessary, we were constantly on the move, always keeping our heads down. We didn't know what the bloody hell we were doing, though. We didn't know how to steal cars when there was still petrol, or loot someone's house, or even defend ourselves properly. Whenever we saw infected people, we ran. And after the first couple of times, after those men... whenever we saw people-people , we ran. We barely covered any distance each day. And then it started getting colder, yeah? And food was getting harder to come by. We realized we had to find a place to winter, because we couldn't go on and we hoped that the cold would kill whatever was controlling the infected. Ha! What fools we were,” said Bilbo sardonically. “Eventually I made it here."
"And now you are alone in Bag End," Gandalf said.
"Yes. To be honest, I was hoping my parents were still going to be here, but it seems they’ve moved on for the time being. I’m hoping they’ve just gone to Primula and Drogo’s down in Buckland and got stuck."
Gandalf's eyebrows rocketed to his hairline. "Bilbo, surely you must know—"
"Bag End is far enough in the country and well supplied enough that I thought they would be able to camp out until this whole mess blew over," said Bilbo, tone carefully blithe.
"Bilbo," said Gandalf gently.
"But, after seeing poor Hamfast, I suppose it was only logical that Mum and Dad—”
“—temporarily took their leave—"
"They might have gone over to the Old Took's place," Bilbo continued, ignoring Gandalf, "or perhaps to the Sackville-Bagginses', but I doubt Lobelia would have took them in without their good silverware in hand—"
"Bilbo Baggins! I will not have you take me—or yourself, for that matter—for a fool! " Gandalf roared, the scrape of his chair echoing in the cavernous acoustics of the kitchen as he launched out of his seat.
Bilbo let out an ungraceful squeak, shocked into silence. He retreated further back into his chair as Gandalf loomed menacingly over the table, which was quite a feat for a man who looked for the most part like an itinerant vagrant in a sunhat. Taking in Bilbo's frightened expression, Gandalf sighed and ran a hand over his unruly beard.
"You can't expect me to believe that you don't have an idea of what happened to Belladonna and Bungo," he said, his tone a shade gentler.
Silence was Bilbo's only response. Gandalf breathed heavily through his nose.
"You cannot stay alone in this house forever, Mister Baggins. But what are you going to do when the infected inevitably find you are here, and they come in numbers and completely overwhelm you? Sit here with your manners and respectability and waste away, or God forbid, get eaten, as you wait for loved ones that you know will never return?"
"There is no guarantee they will never return," said Bilbo softly, staring into his teacup. "I didn't find any bodies."
Gandalf threw up his hands in disgust.
"Curse the stubbornness of Tooks! I thought I knew you, Bilbo! You were never one to just sit idly by. Come now, and to think I was just about to tempt you with a proposition!"
"What, did you think I came all this way to discuss Belladonna’s estate?” Gandalf sniped, grumpiness coloring his tone. “Yes, a proposition! One that may result in doing some good in this world, because Lord knows it needs it.”
"Doing some good," Bilbo parroted, thinking about the broken world outside Bag End and the hilariously pathetic idea that someone like him could do anything to fix it. "And what would that entail, exactly? Because I'm quite... small, to put it mildly."
"Small?" repeated Gandalf. "Well, yes, I do suppose you're a bit on the short side, but I am not sure how—"
"In the grand scheme of things, I meant!" Bilbo interjected, flushing in annoyance. "And I will have you know that 5' 6" is a perfectly respectable height!"
"Now that is the Bilbo Baggins I know!" Gandalf crowed cheerfully, face lighting up in a smile.
Bilbo ran a ragged hand through is curls, letting out a deep breath. “Oh, just get on with it, Gandalf.”
"Ah yes, about this proposition. As far as it goes, all it really entails is a bit of adventuring and surviving, along with some of that cybersecurity expertise that MI-5 and Cambridge were so fond of. All things I'm sure you're quite familiar with."
Bilbo’s heart plummeted.
"No," barked Bilbo immediately and without embellishment, his tone as firm as he could make it. Gandalf’s expression immediately shuttered, leaving his face a craggy landscape of frustration.
"Bilbo. I urge you to give this even a moment’s consideration,” he said.
"No. No adventures. Nasty, disturbing things. I'm quite done with all that! They make you late for breakfast, to put it mildly," said Bilbo. He thought about the days they had gone without food, half-starved and in constant fear of always being prey. He suppressed a shudder at the memory. "And as for surviving, I'm doing quite well on my own, actually. I have a full pantry and a productive greenhouse and my armchair and plenty of books. Really, the only thing I really have to complain about is my dwindling tobacco supply! Also, may I remind you that I’m retired from all that hacking business! If anything, I'm a bookshop owner. And seeing as how it's the apocalypse right now, I would consider my skills from both of my former professions to have been rendered pretty obsolete.
“Plus,” he added, curling his small hands into fists and staring resolutely at the table, “who will keep the house in order until my parents return? I can’t go running off while there’s a chance Mum will come back and box my ears if the greenhouse is left to run amok and Hamfast is still on our back porch. And Dad..." He trailed off into a pregnant pause.
After a moment, Gandalf said, "I'm sorry to hear that, Bilbo."
"I'm not," he replied with no shortage of bitterness.
Gandalf stood from the table and gulped the last of his now lukewarm tea. "Then I'm afraid this is where I will have to take my leave. I have some associates waiting for me that I must report back to. May I ask for one last favor, though?"
Bilbo was childishly tempted to cross his arms and refuse, but looking at Gandalf so sorely reminded him of his mother that it was nigh on impossible.
"I suppose," he said, puffing his cheeks in frustration.
"My companions and I have been travelling for several weeks, and we've been spending the past few nights in, shall we say, less than stellar accommodations. Seeing as how you have this whole grand house at your disposal, I humbly ask that we use Bag End as a place to rest our heads for a couple of days in order to recuperate. I do hope you understand," said Gandalf apologetically, though his face was decidedly less so.
If he was being honest with himself, the thought of more people in his house after such a long period without human interaction completely terrified Bilbo. But then he thought of how his mother would often invite the neighbors or the old Gaffer Gamgee, the gardener, and his large brood of children for dinner, and how Bag End seemed to glow with the addition of more life within its walls. Saying yes… it’s what Mum would have done.
That thought alone gave Bilbo courage.
"O-of course,” he found himself saying. “What kind of Baggins would I be to refuse guests in need of lodging?"
"Splendid!" said Gandalf, hopping up from his seat and strapping that absurd sword back on his hip. He was suddenly much more cheerful than before, and Bilbo's mind reeled at the quick change in demeanor. Bilbo automatically grabbed his rifle and followed Gandalf to the door.
"We shall most likely be arriving early tomorrow morning, given that everything goes well. Please do expect us!"
And with that he opened the door and set out down the path into the back garden without another word, neatly sidestepping the gory remains of Hamfast as Bilbo looked on, so stricken dumb that he forgot to say goodbye.