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Mr. and Mrs. Baggins

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 Bilbo Baggins hated Lobelia Bracegirdle long before he’d ever met her. And in turn, Lobelia Bracegirdle – being the ambitious and overachieving sort that she was – absolutely, totally, wouldn’t-have-spit-on-him-if-he-were-on-fire despised Bilbo Baggins long before she’d ever met him too.

 Why? Because there was a long, ancient, and most fervent feud between the Bracegirdles and the Bagginses that had started years and years before they were born. Bilbo Baggins and Lobelia Bracegirdle had been raised to this feud.

 Or perhaps the quarrel was more between the Tooks and the Boffins than between the Bagginses and the Bracegirdles – between Bilbo and Lobelia’s mothers’ families, rather than their fathers. Maybe it was between their maternal families that there was this burning, fiery hatred fueled by a damning history of crimes against one another.

 Actually… it could have been between the Bracegirdles and the Tooks, who were Lobelia’s father’s family and Bilbo’s mother’s family respectively. Come to think of it, there had always been something between those families since that horrible incident at the pie contest a few generations back.

 Just as, now that all these reminders were popping up, there had been something or other… a peculiarly shaped pumpkin, perhaps… that had sparked a terrible quarrel between the Bagginses and the Boffins as well. Or had it been a squash?

 Anyway, Bilbo and Lobelia’s parents had history. It was a history that their parents had inherited from their own parents, in the proud, long-held, hobbit traditions of the Shire. And, as it had been passed down to Bilbo and Lobelia’s parents, so it was passed down to Bilbo and Lobelia: the perfect and irrevocable understanding that they unconditionally loathed each other’s guts.

 If things had been different, maybe their families could have hated each other from a distance, rarely encountering one another, and they could have gone on hating each other without ever meeting. But… unfortunately or fortunately… they couldn’t do that.

 Because their families were, in horrible fact, actually the same family. This was a horror that was made possible by an unlikely and ridiculous handful of marriages between the four families for people who supposedly despised one another. Yes, somewhere along the line of cousins and aunts and uncles and more cousins, at least one Baggins had married a Boffin, at least one Boffin had married a Took, at least one Took had married a Bracegirdle, and at least one Bracegirdle had married a Baggins.

 “Distant” relations wasn’t a literal term here.

 It also didn’t help that they were neighbours. To completely ignore a neighbour would be – in the Shire, for some terrible and absurd reason – infinitely ruder than engaging in a generations-long feud with them.

 And if one supposed things were getting somewhat complicated now – in this mess of marriages, feuds, and relations – then that person would be absolutely devastated to know that there were also Bagginses feuding with Bagginses, Bracegirdles with grudges against Bracegirdles, and so on and so forth. The argument over whether in-family or inter-family feuds were worse had even managed to spark some grudges itself. It was a disaster.

 Bilbo often lost track of who he was supposed to hate, dislike, be upset with, and have rivalry with. He would much rather be home with a good cake, a good sofa, and a good book, and he tried to be that way as often as he could. When he couldn’t, he simply stayed perfectly polite to everyone, let his parents do the talking, inwardly disliked whomever he pleased, dreamed of his armchair and teacup and bed-stand book, and dreaded the day he became Head of Baggins Family.

 Lobelia, on the other hand, took to it all like a duck might to water. Whatever her honest opinions were, she was very, very good at politely bickering and respectably squabbling with all the right people, all while maintaining strangely impeccable manners.

 Lobelia had looked to her mother, Primrose Boffin-Bracegirdle, for hints and had gone from there, parroting witty remarks and paraphrasing subtle enmity through teatimes and dinner parties. Many had been of the opinion that Lobelia’s social grace only came from mimicking her mother, but when Lobelia found the confidence to strike out on her own in the social battlefield, they were swiftly and sharply proven wrong.

 Lobelia Bracegirdle was terrifying – all by herself, in more ways than one – and her mother was very proud. Lobelia liked making her mother proud very much. Although, secretly, Lobelia soon began to enjoy commanding all the attention of a room, being asked for her own, unique opinion on everything, and having her own nice things even more.

 Strangely enough, Bilbo Baggins and Lobelia Bracegirdle had never directly spoken to one another until they were on the cusp of begin of age. By that time, Bilbo was well-known to be a perfectly respectable young gentlehobbit, with a talent for dodging unpleasant conversations, and Lobelia was gathering a fearsome reputation as a formidable young lady and general menace. All the mothers and matrons and old biddies from Buckland to West March had them down as people to watch, with Bilbo Baggins down as one of the best gentlehobbits on the market and Lobelia down as a society matron-in-the-making, and everyone absolutely knew that these two hated one another. Everyone expected terrible battles in the future between the two.

 And yet, despite all the dinner parties the two had both attended and all the garden luncheons gone wrong they’d both witnessed, Bilbo and Lobelia had somehow managed to avoid actually speaking to each other. They had never held a conversation. Not once.

 Bilbo Baggins and Lobelia Bracegirdle could have gone on this way.

 Bilbo could have remained the gentlehobbit-to-catch for many long years, until everyone realized with disappointment that he was one of those confirmed bachelors. (Everyone knew the ones.) And Lobelia could have gone on to marry Otho Sackville-Baggins, Bilbo’s despised first-cousin, as a young hobbit miss was expected to do, and then been continually jealous that Bilbo seemed to have the best their society had to offer when he didn’t seem to want it and didn’t even work for it.

 But they didn’t.

 Fate spontaneously decided – as it was wont to do – to go a different direction entirely. So, Bilbo Baggins’ first conversation with Lobelia Bracegirdle wasn’t a stiff “congratulations” at her and Otho’s wedding. Instead, their first conversation was at the Worst Party in the World, an affair that was by all appearances the direct result of Fate’s decision to just… mix things up a little bit.

 When one imagined a turning point for Fate, they usually imagined drama, pain, suffering, betrayal, regretful mistakes, and gruesome battles. Or perhaps they imagined a lone stranger walking down a forest path, who comes to a fork in the road and must choose a direction.

 The Worst Party in the World had all these things. Although, admittedly, probably not in the way that one would normally initially conceive of. There had been worse turning points.

 “The Worst Party in the World” was not what had been written on the invitations. It was simply how Bilbo Baggins and Lobelia Bracegirdle came to refer to the event, when they reminisced about the past. Their logic was that any party where a person put the Bagginses, the Bolgers, the Boffins, and the Bracegirdles, and a few other unfortunate souls, in the same room together for more than five minutes obviously deserved the title.

 They remembered every detail, as a good memory was necessary to maintain respectability as perfect as their own. Well… they remembered almost every detail. Oddly, neither of them could remember who had been naïve enough to host the unfortunate affair.

 But they didn’t really concern themselves with that particular detail, as they were both fairly certain that the poor hobbit was most likely pushing up daisies after an affair that disastrous. Lobelia swore – not on anything so important as her silverware, but on her good doilies at least – that she would have keeled over if that had been her dinner party.

 Bilbo’s response to this was usually to comment that it had likely not been a very good idea – read: it had been a terrible decision – to have seated Blanco Bracegirdle (Lobelia’s father) next to Fastolph Bolger (Bilbo’s great-uncle by marriage). It was probably not a sign of much sense, in Bilbo’s humble opinion, to have designed the seating plan this way, given that Blanco and Fastolph’s last prior interaction before this occasion had been a no-holds-barred fistfight.

 Lobelia often countered that it had surely been putting Ruby Bolger-Baggins (Bilbo’s first-cousin-once-removed’s wife) and Berylla Boffin-Baggins (Bilbo’s great-grandmother) next to each other that had been an even worse mistake. Any host worth their salt ought to have known better, she thought, especially after the previous autumn’s scandalous vegetable competition that had nearly ruined the entire Hobbiton Harvest Festival.

 The host also, in Lobelia’s opinion, should have known they were courting a repeat of the rabbits and ferrets incident with Brunco Bracegirdle (Lobelia’s elder brother) and Herugar Bolger (Bilbo’s first-cousin) both in attendance. How could anyone be ignorant of something so obvious?

 And the unsupervised table of refreshments was just the icing on this terrible cake.

 Both Bilbo and Lobelia agreed, however, that putting Belladonna Took-Baggins (Bilbo’s mother) and Primrose Boffin-Bracegirdle (Lobelia’s mother) in the same immediate vicinity had been the worst decision of the night. An impressive feat, honestly, though unsurprising. It had not actually been the first time that Belladonna and Primrose had been the main reason that Bungo Baggins (Bilbo’s father) and Bingo Baggins (Bilbo’s paternal uncle) had had to run for buckets of water.

 With a breathy sigh of deep disappointment, Lobelia also often said that it was a shame that no one had actually managed to kill anyone. She insisted to Bilbo, in the teasing tone of an old joke, that she believed their family trees and abundant hordes of relations could do with some trimming. Just a couple of twigs here and there, she said, perhaps even a small branch or two.

 Bilbo gave Lobelia a wry look for the worn joke… or simply hummed in vague agreement. He never should have shared his childhood fantasies of rabbits dragging his cousin Otho off into the woods.

 But this story is getting ahead of itself.

 Honestly, this story doesn’t even know where it is in the slightest and needs to ask for directions, before it goes any further into a highly unpleasant, thoroughly ridiculous history of feuds, which goes too far back into the history of the Shire to cover in a reasonable amount of time. It would be entertaining, certainly, but there is actually a path to get back to – that one where a weary traveller is given two paths and must choose which one to go down.

 All a person really need know is that Bilbo Baggins and Lobelia Bracegirdle had too much family, all that family feuded far too much, and it put them on different sides of ancient conflicts which started long before they were born.

 At least, until they decided to remove themselves to another side entirely.

 The feuds were just brought up for context. The terrible dinner party, also known as the Worst Party in the World, was just brought up because that is where Mister Bilbo Baggins asked Miss Lobelia Bracegirdle to marry him.

 And it is also where she told him, “Yes.”

 Although… she technically asked him first.

 

~

 

 It happened almost in slow motion. Or, at least, it did in Bilbo’s memories, probably from the pure horror of witnessing it happen and being unable to do anything about it… or even look away from such a disaster.

 Not the proposal. No, that happened later.

 Basically, as one might expect from a dinner party fondly remembered as “the Worst Party in the World”, the party went completely to shit. It went completely to shit when two terrible things happened at exactly the same time, beginning a chain reaction of terrible that became steadily worse and ended in fire.

 The first thing was Blanco Bracegirdle finally saying something that caused Fastolph Bolger to snap and tackle him. The pair of them then knocked into Fosco Baggins, who accidentally elbowed his wife on the way to the floor, and his wife, Ruby Bolger-Baggins (who was also one of the local boxing champions), then reflexively (but accidentally) punched Berylla Boffin-Baggins in the face.

 Berylla toppled back into Bruno Bracegirdle, who was trying to show off his secret pet rabbits – which he had smuggled to the dinner party in his pockets – to his friend, Herugar Bolger. Herugar, an animal-lover himself, was in the possession of several ferrets, all of which were deathly, unnaturally, and inexplicably afraid of rabbits.

 When Bruno suddenly fell forward into Herugar, the rabbits and ferrets bolted, and Herugar tumbled back and sent an entire table’s worth of carefully-prepared dishes all over the sofa and curtains of the parlour. The rabbits and ferrets scattered over the hobbits on the floor as the fled and hid underneath the furniture. The hobbits all screamed and tried to get away, knocking over anyone in the nearby vicinity who was somehow still standing.

 The second thing that happened, simultaneous to the beginning of the action on the other side of the room, was that Primrose Boffin-Bracegirdle must have sensed the impending chaos or finally had enough. At the end of a heated argument with Belladonna Took-Baggins, Primrose stomped viciously on Belladonna’s skirt as Belladonna tried to walk away with her nose in the air.

 Belladonna, caught by surprise, stumbled forward into her sister, Donnamira Took-Boffin, who had seen the whole thing. Together, as they had done many times before, the sisters Belladonna and Donnamira launched themselves at Primrose. The three women knocked into Belba Baggins-Bolger and Linda Baggins-Prodfoot on the way down – one of whom accidentally smacked a burning candle and sent it flying through the air into the curtains, and the other of whom knocked into old Mungo Baggins, who dropped the pipe he’d been in the middle of lighting on the sofa.

 Soon enough, Bungo and Bingo Baggins were running for buckets of water.

 Later, everyone at the Worst Party in the World would agree never to publicly speak of the affair again, so they could stiffly pretend that Hobbiton’s high-society was perfectly and totally respectable. As was a long, hobbit Shire tradition, when such disasters inevitably came along.

 The young Bilbo Baggins, who had been lurking in the kitchen to avoid talking to anybody, witnessed all of this from the kitchen doorway. Bilbo was only here because his mother had threatened to take away his current book for the week to get him to get out more, and Bilbo immediately decided that he wasn’t going into that room again for anything.

 He recognized this as his opportunity to slip away into the freedom of the gardens and possibly sneak home, so he turned on his heel and slipped out the back door. If anyone asked, he planned to say that he had been admiring the flowers in the back garden the entire time. The flowers were, after all, so very beautiful this summer, so delightful with their complete lack of snide insults, hair-tearing, and being on fire.

 Ah, what sweet scents.

 Bilbo didn’t expect that someone else had had a very similar idea.

 Lobelia Bracegirdle had sneaked out as well, as her relationship with her mother had become rather strained recently, and she had had a feeling that something terrible was going to happen to that party sooner or late. Lobelia had a sense for these things.

 After Lobelia’s massive success on the social battlefield, Primrose Boffin-Bracegirdle believed that the obvious next step was for her daughter to find a suitable suitor. Lobelia’s mother was pushing for her to start a romantic relationship with the young gentlehobbit Otho Sackville-Baggins, whom Lobelia… liked… sort of. They were acquaintances. Lobelia thought she might have been able to manage friends… with time.

 But Otho seemed to want so much, so quickly, and Lobelia just… didn’t. Oh, the prestige and attention of landing a good catch was appealing to her, as was the status granted to a well-married woman, but Lobelia didn’t want to truly catch or be caught by anyone. Many of her friends sighed wistfully over the objects of their affections or giggled over kisses with their sweethearts, but Lobelia had always had to force herself… or to simply fake such… romantic inclinations.

 Lately, Lobelia had come to realize that things she had passed off as “inevitable parts of the future” had never come for her as she’d thought they would… and the future was now. She was soon supposed to be married… and she wasn’t in love… and she had little interest in being in love.

 So, Lobelia had come out here to think about what the future meant for a young hobbit miss. Mostly though, she was here to plot about how she could keep her status in Hobbiton’s high society – maybe even nab a higher one for herself, which she would very much like – without having to pretend to be in love with some… some… mouth-breathing clod… or even some tittering miss… who might have ideas of an adoring, loving wife and… kissing… and such things.

 Otho was nice enough, Lobelia supposed, but he was naïve and didn’t really know her. Was he nice enough to pretend to be in love with for the rest of her life? Was he nice enough to be nice about her pretending? Lobelia couldn’t trust that love would come in time. It seemed… unlikely.

 She wasn’t having much luck with ideas, unfortunately, and she was getting frustrated with the idea that her only other option might be to become a spinster. The lack of high society respect and the abundance of rumours attached to such a position didn’t appeal to her.

 Lobelia was working herself into quite a huff when Bilbo Baggins stepped outside. But, as Bilbo peered around the corner to see if the coast was clear, he missed her sitting on the bench behind the rosebush. Bilbo closed the door behind him and got only a few feet when Lobelia anger was too much for her to stay sitting any longer; she stood up suddenly and turned around. Bilbo and Lobelia were left not five feet from each other, staring in wide-eyed surprise.

 Lobelia got her eyes under control first – they narrowed.

 “You,” she near-snarled.

 Bilbo’s face became a study in abject misery.

 “Me,” he replied morosely.

 As soon as he had seen her, Bilbo had realized that his escape was ruined. Lobelia would almost certainly tell everyone about Bilbo Baggins oh-so-impolitely and disrespectfully running away from a dinner party. Bilbo immediately made to save face and gave her his nicest smile.

 “It’s a pleasure to see you again, Miss Lobelia.”

 Lobelia put her chin up and sniffed, telling him clearly that she could see right through his greeting to how displeased he was to see her. Lobelia was the sharpest hobbit miss in Hobbiton and her formidable eye couldn’t be fooled by his good manners, just as Bilbo never could have been fooled by hers had they spoken before now.

 Lobelia had always reminded Bilbo of a snake in the grass, if snakes had a bit of a temper and were very easily offended, always waiting for the opportune moment and position to strike. Her words, no matter her façade, had always seemed to have a venomous bite.

 “Always nice to see you too, Mister Bilbo,” Lobelia answered perfectly, her smile sickly-sweet and her tone even worse, dripping in her regular high society self that Bilbo usually put his whole self into avoiding. “We never seem to have the chance to talk to each other much, which if, of course, such a shame.” She giggled; it grated. “You’re so… difficult to catch.”

 Then, clever play-on-words delivered, flirty enough to entertain but respectable enough to be proper, Lobelia tittered shrilly. As was basically required, in case the cleverness had gone over some of the watching hobbits’ (who were not now present) heads, to alert everyone as to the presence of the joke so they could notice it and titter or chortle as well.

 All of it made Bilbo want to scratch his ears out, as he knew Lobelia knew and revelled in.

 “I do apologize, Miss Lobelia,” Bilbo said, with his most charming expression plastered on to annoy her as much as possible. “I don’t try to be. It’s so odd, we attend so many of the same affairs. Perhaps I could try to be more available? I would hate for you to think that you were under the impression that it was your fault you couldn’t catch someone.”

 She would never be so crass as to do so openly, but by the look in her eyes, Bilbo could hear her metaphorical teeth grinding. It was difficult, but he managed to quash the urge to smile with relish at how she clearly (to him) wanted to reach over the rose bush and smash his face into it. If she wished to play this game, then, by all means, they could play this silly game.

 Laughter broke out from the house behind him, or maybe a shriek or scream of some kind, startling Bilbo and Lobelia both. Knocked out of conflict, Bilbo suddenly realized that he was standing alone, unchaperoned, in the dark, with Miss Lobelia Bracegirdle. They had a rose bush between them, complete with thorns, but it could potentially be taken as a Compromising Situation all the same.

 If someone realized that Bilbo Baggins and Lobelia Bracegirdle had both gone missing at the same time, and there was any sign they could have gone missing together, the consequences could be severe for the both of them. The best thing that could happen was a rumour that Bilbo Baggins and Lobelia Bracegirdle were sweet on each other. The worst thing…

 Well, there was no way to predict the reaction of Hobbiton high society might be. Given the dinner party Bilbo had just escaped from, he could only presume it would be terrible and that there would be a lot of screaming and hair-pulling.

 Looking at Lobelia, Bilbo could tell that she had come to the exact same conclusion.

 They stared at each for several seconds. The only way to avoid a disaster would be for one of them to go back inside immediately for the other to disappear entirely, or reappear inside at a different time and through a different door, with so sign that they’d interacted. Lobelia couldn’t disappear, because her mother would scream bloody murder if she vanished, and Bilbo couldn’t disappear without Lobelia bashing a serious blow to his respectable reputation. Which meant that one of them would have to volunteer to go back into the chaos of the party first.

 Looking at Lobelia, Bilbo could tell that she wanted to be that person about as much as he did.

 Bilbo stood taller, sending a message to Lobelia that he was going to hold his ground. Lobelia smoothed her curls in answer, sending a message right back that she wasn’t going anywhere either. The glare she gave him, before they had their expressions back under polite control, had him momentarily worried that someone would be screaming bloody murder by the end of the night.

 As if on cue, a strangled scream came from the terrible dinner party.

 They ignored it.

 “Oh, it would be so delightful if you made more of an effort to join us, Mister Bilbo,” Lobelia said sweetly, batting her eyelashes threateningly, as though there hadn’t been the slightest break in the conversation. “One might begin to wonder if… well.. you act as though you’re already a confirmed bachelor!”

 Then she tittered again, and Bilbo’s heart froze in his chest.

 Before the end of her sentence, he’d been all prepared to be extraordinarily clever remark meant to show her what-for and send her back into that disaster of a dinner party, but he hadn’t been expecting that end to the sentence. He hadn’t been prepared for it at all, and it cut a little too close to the chest. So close that, honestly, it was more accurate to say that it just about stabbed straight through, only about a hair off from the heart.

 Bilbo tried to get himself under control to pretend that the remark had slid off him like water, but his expression faltered and he wasn’t quite quick enough to fix it. Lobelia must have seen something in his face, because her sickly-sweet smile dropped and her eyes widened immediately.

 He opened his mouth to say something, anything to distract her, but it was too late and she cut him off before he could get a single word out.

 “You are!” she whisper-shouted, looking more scandalized that anyone might think that the fearsome Lobelia Bracegirdle ever could. “Oh my hills, you’re…”

 “No, I’m not,” Bilbo said quickly.

 “Yes, you are!” Lobelia countered immediately. “You’re a… a…” She searched desperately for a word, but she didn’t have one, so she had to make one up. “You’re a confirmed-bachelor-in-the-making!”

 “No, I’m not,” Bilbo repeated, but his tone belied him.

 Lobelia narrowed her eyes again. “If you’re not, then what are you exactly?”

 Bilbo opened his mouth and closed it a few times, and eventually settled on the truth.

 “I don’t know,” he said.

 He was a young hobbit – he was in the springtime of his life, according to all his unwanted-advice-giving, exaggerated-story-telling, extremely nostalgic relations – and now was his time to fall in love. He was supposed to be “girl-mad” or “boy-mad” or “mad” for whomever had caught his fancy, but… he wasn’t. He didn’t really want to be, either. Perhaps Lobelia was right… he was planning to be a confirmed bachelor… but his mother would probably worry terrible about him, blame it on his books, and push him at suitable suitors until something stuck.

 “I don’t… There’s not… I’ve not met anyone that I… I don’t know,” Bilbo said weakly.

 And, just as Bilbo began coming to terms with the fact that he was doomed – utterly and completely screwed, for admitting any secret to Lobelia Bracegirdle – he saw a miracle happen. Something in his words of “I’ve not met anyone that I…” managed to appeal to the formidable hobbit miss.

 Lobelia Bracegirdle’s glare softened, her tension melted away, and her expression turned into one that he had never seen on her before. He would guess it was sympathy or empathy or something along those lines. It looked uncomfortably new on her face.

 “Oh, thank the hills,” she said with a relieved sigh. “Someone else who gets it.”

 Bilbo stared.

 “I beg your pardon?” he said.

 Lobelia ignored this and gave him a considering once-over, the kind that was generally reserved for inspecting pieces of meat or livestock at the market. Bilbo didn’t even have to resist the urge to fidget under her scrutiny, he was so confused. She was basically holding his social future in her hands, but she had also just admitted to… He didn’t know.

 Something that didn’t fit with the expectations of their mothers, certainly.

 “I think that you and I could help each other a lot,” Lobelia announced in the darkness of the garden, having come to a decision, a terrifying smile growing on her face. “Yes, I think we could come to an agreement of sorts, Mister Baggins.”

 Bilbo could feel sweat starting to bead on his back.

 “Wh-”

 Lobelia nodded decidedly.

 “We should get married,” she said

 In her defence, she had been fairly young at the time.

 

~

 

 Bilbo had to give Lobelia the fact that, at the least, she had tried her best to make her suggestion sound like something besides the threat of “marry me or I’ll ruin you”. The threat had been the generally had been the general gist of the conversation nevertheless, but she’d at least taken a few moments to come up with benefits from his point of view and then logically present them to more kindly bring him around to her inspired plot.

 The fact of the matter was this: Lobelia didn’t want to get married. She had no interest in anyone, nor in romance, nor in anything but the social advantages of marriages, nor even really in children. What Lobelia wanted, she explained in no uncertain terms, was to have a smial as nice as Bag End, a Hobbiton high society that looked to her for all their opinions and trends, perhaps a few good friendships alongside her family, and well… that was that, essentially.

 As things currently stood, Lobelia would probably let herself be pushed into marriage with Otho Sackville-Baggins, so she could have a lot of those things. Except, she would like to not have to take advantage of Otho like that and put herself in such a precarious situation, if she didn’t have to.

 Which is where Bilbo came in.

 Having dragged him behind the rose bush with nails that threatened to puncture the skin of his kin, Lobelia had managed to all but throttle his (rather pathetic) story out of him. Which she had sensibly done before she’d told him anything about herself or her desire to be a respectable hobbit matron, with those sticky bits like… love… or children.

 Bilbo Baggins didn’t want to be married either. Unlike Lobelia, he wouldn’t be coerced into getting married by Hobbiton’s judgemental high society, but he wasn’t inclined to wander in that direction of his own accord. He didn’t know what he wanted of his life in the Shire yet, not having set goals and ambitions like Lobelia, but he did know he hadn’t found anyone he wanted to marry… or really do much of anything with. The closest he’d gotten was desiring to have a conversation with someone specific, which fell rather short in comparison with some of his most lovestruck cousins.

 So, he would probably be a confirmed bachelor.

 Which would probably upset his mother… and might lose him his books.

 Lobelia’s solution to both their problems – spoken with all the certainty of a headstrong young woman who’d suddenly come up with an idea in the back garden of a dinner party and was trying to convince someone else to go along with it while they both hid behind a rose bush – was for them to get married. It was – she claimed with an iron, sharp-nailed grip on Bilbo’s shirt sleeve that made him wary of moving – ideal for both of them. Perfect, even!

 Bilbo and Lobelia wouldn’t have to face any more pressure to get married, wouldn’t have to let themselves be pushed into marriages they weren’t sure they wanted, and would still get all the respect that came from being well-married hobbits. Lobelia would get to sit at the top of the Hobbiton food chain, as she so dearly wanted, and Bilbo would never have to plan social engagements or look after his social calendar ever again, because of course Lobelia would do that for them both.

 No one would look at a married couple of gentlehobbits like them and suspect a ruse. No one would ever try to court them – except when they’d obviously have to court each other, which would be easy enough for intelligent hobbits of their social skills to arrange to their fullest advantages – and if anyone tried, they could shut them down with excellent reason.

 It would be a marriage between… well, Lobelia hesitated to say friends. Allies, perhaps? It would be an alliance of two young hobbits who had to deal with being the only disinclined people in a Shire full of what seemed to be constantly lovestruck peers. They would be free of, as Lobelia freely and carelessly generalized all the wide and diverse possibilities of romance, “all that nonsense”.

 Lobelia wasn’t subtle about the fact that she would very much like to be the Lady of Bag End, almost as much as she seemed to suddenly adore the idea of marrying a confirmed-bachelor-in-the-making. Her mother, Primrose Boffin-Bracegirdle, had been after the Bagginses’ silver cutlery set for years now, and had passed that envy on to her daughter.

 “But you don’t want to the cutlery,” Bilbo had found himself protesting, as he felt the ned to try and make some points against Lobelia’s extremely tempting threat/offer. “It tarnishes, and it takes forever to polish properly. It’s an enormous bother.”

 Lobelia’s gleaming eyes told him that it was a bother she could live with. She had a wide grin on her face, clearly aware she was winning. The only thing Lobelia Bracegirdle would get from tending to fine things was the satisfaction and pride of having them and taking good care of them, and she would have plenty of those things if she had the Baggins silver cutlery set and more.

 The idea that she would soon have the spoons her mother had always wanted was very, very appealing to her. Lobelia could hear all the compliments of Hobbiton’s high society for her, the Lady of Bag End, already, and she wanted.

 Bilbo and Lobelia briefly discussed the problem of what would happen if they found themselves romantically or… in any other way… attracted to someone else. In that, Lobelia, in her ongoing rant, stumbled accidentally onto the topic while Bilbo was thinking, and the both of them say in stunned silence for a few minutes as they imagined that.

 “No? I don’t think so…” Bilbo said first.

 “Completely ridiculously concept,” Lobelia declared with a sniff.

 Bilbo – who had at least a shred of romance in his heart, if dedicated mostly to his books – was less inclined to completely dismiss the idea. He considered it highly unlikely that he would want to spend forever with anyone but himself. He certainly didn’t expect it to happen, but – if the disastrous party going on behind them was proof of anything – forever was a long time.

 “We can cross that bridge if we come to it?” Bilbo suggested.

 Lobelia just sniffed again, then moved on to the other intricacies and benefits of her – their – plot. She still made sure to put that edge of a threat in there, of course, but she wouldn’t have been Lobelia Bracegirdle if she hadn’t.

 Bilbo listened to her carefully, and thought about it even more carefully. He had never considered doing anything so wild and risky before. Bagginses were, by tradition, not adventurous people in any part of their lives, and Bilbo was a Bagginses through and true.

 But it was all very, very, very tempting.

 So, he agreed.

 “I’ll do it,” Bilbo told her.

 Because, all in all, it sounded like a rather good idea.

 As truly proper, respectable gentlehobbits never would have done, Bilbo and Lobelia shook hands on it. Hobbit misses were supposed to have their hands kissed, not shaken, but Bilbo stuck his hand out anyway. Lobelia was no ordinary hobbit miss, for one, and while he felt they had to do something to seal their agreement, he didn’t particularly want to kiss her, for two.

 She looked extremely pleased to be treated this way.

 And so the deal was struck.

 In Bilbo’s defense, he’d been fairly young at the time too.

 

~

 

 “We can’t walk back in there and announced that we’re engaged,” Bilbo Baggins said to his future wife, as they sat behind the rose bush and heard an oddly curdled shriek come out the window.

 “Obviously not!” Lobelia replied disdainfully. “One doesn’t simply walk into a dinner party and declare engagement! As this is an alliance to serve our best interests, every courtship angle will have to be planned to achieve the most benefits. Every aspect of our relationship must be tended to carefully to set us up as the most prominent couple in Hobbiton.”

 A crash, rather like a table being overturned, sounded next.

 “We’re going to have to be clever about this business,” she continued, unimpeded. “Especially given our families. This is going to require delicacy, which I have in spades, and a lot of subtlety, which I also have in spades, and some flawless acting ability. Which I, of course, have in spades, and that you’d better have in spades.”

 “If I can lie to my mother’s face, I can lie to anyone,” Bilbo answered, almost offended on behalf of his Tookish side.

 Lobelia raised her eyebrows. “Well? Can you?”

 “Of course!”

 “Good,” she answered, seemingly oblivious to his indignant offense. Her face took an extremely determined twist. “Between the two of us, this is going to be the best bloody courtship, engagement, and marriage that the whole Shire had ever seen! Or will ever see again!”

 Bilbo imagined all of the courtship rituals, engagement parities, and wedding affairs that awaited them, and thought most fondly and wistfully of his armchair and book. But he straightened his shoulders and told himself to be brave, telling himself that there were worse fates than to permanently ally oneself with Lobelia Bracegirdle. At the very least, now he was forever guaranteed to be on the winning side.

 “Besides,” Lobelia went on, as she was wont to do, “we’re not engaged yet. You still have to ask me to marry you. It’s traditional for you to do it.”

 “Do you want me to do it now?”

 Lobelia rolled her eyes. “No! Officially! In front of lots of people! Planned to the nth degree! Although hills know that you could probably use the practice, Mister Confirmed-Bachelor-In-The-Making.”

 “You’re going to have to keep that quiet, you know.”

 “Do I look like an idiot?”

 “And it’s not technically true anymore.”

 Lobelia looked like she wanted to growl. “Given that we’re not official engaged, it still could be,” she said dangerously, but Bilbo shrugged it off, secure in the knowledge that she wanted Bag End and its silver spoons badly enough for that to be an empty threat.

 He slid off the bench, going to one knee in front of the vicious socialite that he’d spent most of his list avoiding at all costs. He took her hands in his and stared up at her with his most adoring and loving of expressions. (The one he usually reserved for new bookshelves.)

 Lobelia raised her eyebrows at him, looking entirely unimpressed for an instant, and then turned her expression into one of hopeful surprise and barely repressed joy.

 Oh, she was good.

 “My darling pumpkin,” Bilbo said beseechingly. “Our time together may have been brief, but it has been the most wondrous of all my life. I am enlightened by your warmth, your brilliance, and your passion. No longer can I live my life without you by my side. So will you, Lobelia Primrose Bracegirdle, make me, Bilbo Bungo Baggins, the happiest hobbit alive… and marry me?”

 Lobelia gasped, the perfect picture of a stunned hobbit miss who had just had all her dreams come true. “Oh, heart-pie!” she squealed quietly, an impressive feat in itself. “Yes! Yes, I will!”

 Then she leaped into his outstretched arms and peppered the air above his face with kisses.

 Then she seemed to get tired of playacting and pulled back, wearing an extremely satisfied grin. Lobelia removed herself from Bilbo’s arms and straightened her dress, then straightened his slightly mussed clothing too. She patted him on his embroidered vest.

 “This is going to go swimmingly,” she said gleefully.

 And it somehow did.