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Brandy Hall was the only home Frodo Baggins could remember. He and his parents had lived near Hobbiton when he was a very young hobbit, but even then they had spent a great deal of time visiting with his mother's family. Indeed, most of his earliest memories involved adventures with assorted Brandybuck cousins. His parents, he could hardly recall, and growing up surrounded by such a crowd of relations, he had not exactly felt alone. He had been cheerfully assimilated into a mob of young Brandybucks, and Brandybucks-by-marriage, and had been brought up with a great deal of indulgence and very little oversight, with no particular family taking responsibility for his care.

From time to time, there was talk of sending him to live with a Baggins cousin, or perhaps some other more distant relation, but the Hobbiton folk were generally a bit wary of Frodo. Generosity towards orphans was all well and good, but one had to be cautious around a hobbit who had managed to lose not one but both of his parents before the age of ten. Besides, the lad had a reputation as a bit of a troublemaker. And he hadn't any money of his own. Whoever took responsibility for him would have to foot the bill for his upkeep. Much better for him to stay in Buckland, even if they were a bit queer across the river.

Shortly before his twenty-first birthday, however, he was sent for by his uncle, old Rorimac Brandybuck. This wasn't in and of itself anything unusual. Several times a year, especially around Frodo's birthday, or the anniversary of his parents' death, Uncle Rory would suddenly remember his nephew's existence. Peering over the rim of a glass of wine, he would subject him to a round of questioning about his behavior, education, and general state of cleanliness without stopping to listen to the answers. Then, having honorably discharged his responsibilities as a guardian, the Master of Buckland would reminisce for a moment about his poor dear departed sister Primula, and wave his little nephew out of the room.

This summons turned out to be different. Frodo was informed that he was to leave Brandy Hall that very week, and go to live with his Cousin Bilbo.

"I'm not sure I want to leave Buckland," Frodo said, although he had always been very fond of Bilbo, who had wonderful stories (and equally wonderful presents) for all his young cousins. And it wasn't that Frodo didn't like adventure—he was forever off in the woods searching for elves (and mushrooms). But he wasn't sure how he felt about this kind of adventure. It seemed a lot more uncertain and a lot less likely to end in the death of a dragon or troll.

"You aren't understanding the situation," said Uncle Rory. "Bilbo Baggins has decided to adopt you. He's going to make you the heir to Bag End and his entire fortune. I haven't the slightest idea why, but nobody really understands why Mad Baggins does anything. So you see, you don't have any choice in the matter."

Catching Frodo's stunned expression, he set down his glass of wine and leaned forward in his great carved chair. "It's not that we want to be rid of you, my lad," he added, with uncharacteristic kindness and perception. "But this isn't an opportunity you can afford to turn down. Surely you don't want to be nothing but a dependent all your life? For the sake of your dear, departed mother…"

Frodo quickly stemmed the tides of reminiscence by agreeing to the adoption. Uncle Rory was right about one thing. He couldn't refuse. It wasn't the money–he was too young to really care about that. But in all of his short life, nobody had ever actually wanted him anywhere.

"Excellent!" said Uncle Rory. "That's settled then. And I dare say young Meriadoc and the others will be down to visit you often enough."

Frodo settled in quickly at Bag End. He had been worried about what Bilbo would expect from him. At Brandy Hall he had been left to his own devices most of the time, and he wasn't sure what it would be like having a particular relative responsible for his upbringing. But he needn't have worried. Bilbo, who had never had children of his own, had always tended to treat his young cousins respectfully, as if they were small adults. Towards Frodo, he was companionable but distant, requiring no great displays of affection or gratitude. Frodo, who was almost in his tweens, appreciated Bilbo's trust, and curbed some of the wild behavior that had characterized his time at Brandy Hall. He didn't want Bilbo to think better of his decision to bring him to Bag End.

Bilbo gave him a comfortable little room with a window, which he said had been his as a lad. The place was lavish, and far more spacious than he was used to, but it was also comfortable and cluttered, and filled with old maps and books and odds and ends, each of which had its own fascinating story. Frodo's education had been much neglected, in Bilbo's opinion, but surrounded by such mysteries he quickly took an interest in the wealth of information that Bilbo's library had to offer.

Frodo hardly dared to ask Bilbo why he had decided to adopt him. Bilbo had made some comment about the convenience of celebrating their birthdays together, and another about not wanting to leave everything to the Sackville-Bagginses, but otherwise seemed disinclined to discuss the matter. In fact, Frodo soon realized that Bilbo was a master of evasion. Ask him about something he didn't want to talk about, and he'd soon be telling a fascinating story about something completely unrelated.

One fine and starry night not long after Frodo came to Bag End, they sat outside the front door until very late at night, while Bilbo smoked his pipe and told Frodo the story of his greatest adventure, from beginning to end. Of course, he had to leave out some parts, but it was the most complete retelling Frodo had ever heard.

"And after the Battle of Five Armies, Thorin was formally crowned as King Under the Mountain, and he and all his folk started the long work of rebuilding their home. I stayed on for a few months, and then made my way back here to the Shire."

"What was he like?" Frodo asked eagerly, having hardly dared to speak a word throughout the whole story. His dreams of elven wonders had momentarily been displaced by visions of stern dwarf warriors wielding mighty swords, and majestic halls carved deep into the earth.

"What was who like?"

"Thorin Oakenshield! I've never seen a king before. Other than you, I don't know anybody who has."

"Well…" Bilbo sucked on his pipe thoughtfully. "He's everything you would expect a king to be, really. Very serious, honorable, all that sort of thing. Not kind, nor generous with strangers, but loyal and protective of his own people."

"Was he brave?" It was all very interesting, but Frodo wanted to hear more about swords and battles and thrones, and that sort of thing.

"Oh, yes," Bilbo said. "Fearless. He had a complete disregard for his own safety, actually. He seemed nearly invincible. Except, of course," he added in a lower voice, "the times that he wasn't. Anyway, he thought nothing of taking on a dozen orcs, or a warg, or even a troll in single combat."

Frodo's eyes shone. "That sounds amazing."

Bilbo smiled wryly. "He could also be as stubborn as the Gaffer's old mule, and he had a temper like a firecracker. But his people really respected him. That's the thing with kings, Frodo. There are some that spend their entire lives on jeweled thrones, and everyone bows and scrapes and calls them "Highness", but nobody really cares a fig what they think about anything. And then there are the ones that earn their followers' respect, because they care so much and fight so hard that they inspire those around them to greater deeds. Those kings, you'd do anything for a word of praise from them."

"And he was that kind of king?"

"Oh yes, he was," Bilbo said. "Or is, I should say. He's still ruling in Erebor, as far as I know. I haven't had word from there in many years."

"I'd love to go there someday," Frodo exclaimed. "See the Lonely Mountain, and Dale, and all of that treasure!"

"It's a long way away, my boy," Bilbo said. "But stranger things have happened. Still, while I don't regret any of my adventures, I rather hope you'll have a quiet life."

It was a dark and stormy night. Actually, it was one of the worst storms to hit the Shire in recent memory. Bilbo and Frodo were sitting by the fire, toasting buttery slices of bread and watching the downpour.

"It feels like something dramatic should happen tonight," Frodo said, after one dramatic clap of thunder.

"Is that hail I hear?" Bilbo asked, handing Frodo the toasting fork and heading over to the window. "If so, something dramatic is going to happen tomorrow morning when the Gaffer catches sight of the carnage in our garden."

His casual use of the word "our" made Frodo feel a warm glow, quite apart from the warmth of the fire, but he was not to be distracted from his original point. "I really feel like we're sitting in one of the old stories right now, maybe on the eve of a battle, or something like that. I don't think I've ever heard such loud thunder."

"Is that so, my lad?" Bilbo leaned closer to the fire. "The truth is, exciting things very rarely happen when you expect them, and the weather almost never cooperates. Why, think of all the times it rains during weddings! And the eve of a battle is bound to be beautiful and sunny, likely as not. The same holds true of funerals, I believe…" he trailed off, his mind off in some faraway place that Frodo could neither imagine nor see any hint of in his clouded gaze. Frodo busied himself buttering another slice of bread.

"Now, there is one thunderstorm I do remember quite well. Well, actually, it was more of a thunder battle. Did I ever tell you–?" But he was cut off by a heavy knock at the door, so loud that it seemed the door might pop right off its hinges.

Both hobbits jumped up from their seats, and the slice of bread slid off the toasting fork into the fire with a disturbing thump and sizzle. Bilbo rescued its flaming remains with a muttered curse, and hurried to the door. Frodo followed him, somewhat more cautiously.

Bilbo carefully unlocked the door, which swung open with a creak. Standing behind him in the hallway, Frodo could only see that the shadowy figure that stood outside was heavily cloaked, completely drenched, and much too tall and wide to be a hobbit. Then, he noticed that Bilbo's entire body had frozen. Astonishment? Fear?

"Well…there's a sight I never thought I'd see again," Bilbo said softly, almost to himself. Then, more briskly, "Come inside, you're soaked through."

The shadowy figure stepped over the threshold, trailing mud and what appeared to be gallons of water. He flung back the hood of his cloak, and Frodo saw that he was in fact a dwarf, but a dwarf such as Frodo had never seen before, almost tall enough to be one of the Big Folk. He had a neat beard and a wild mane of dark hair streaked with silver, and his expression was grim and frightening.

Frodo thought he had never seen such a serious-looking person in his life. When those piercing eyes flickered his way, he shrank back a little further into the hallway. He wasn't usually a timid boy, but the intensity of the stranger's gaze made him want to hide. Did Bilbo know him? Was this one of the dwarves he had traveled with? There was something strange in Bilbo's eyes, a look he had never seen before. Not fear, but a kind of alertness. Almost a wildness. Surely Bilbo would not have invited someone dangerous into Bag End?

"Yours?" the stranger asked. This seemed to be addressed to Bilbo, although he was still staring hard at Frodo.

"Not…precisely," Bilbo said, still sounding quite shocked. "My nephew. Well, more properly, he's my first cousin once removed on his mother's side, and his father was my second cousin…"

He trailed off, as the dwarf slung a muddy travel pack from his shoulder to the floor, and unbuckled an intricately wrought silver belt from which hung an enormous curved sword. This he handed to Bilbo, who took it with an expression that might almost have been called tender, and set it carefully in a corner.

"Come," Bilbo said. "Sit down by the fire." He took the stranger's arm and guided him to where they had been sitting minutes before.

The dwarf's movements were stiff and labored, and marked by a heavy limp. Bilbo clearly noticed it.

"Are you well?" he asked hesitantly. "Not injured?"

"No," the dwarf said gruffly, and then, grudgingly and after a long pause, "Only the old injuries." He slumped back into the chair, looking exhausted.

Bilbo nodded. "I'm sure the weather and the travel affect such things. Nobody should be out in that storm. " Without being asked, he reached over to undo the silver clasp on his guest's travel cloak, and drew it off over his shoulders.

Bilbo shoved the cloak into Frodo's arms, with instructions to leave it out in the hallway with the pack. Frodo scurried off, and on the way back lingered just out of sight, hoping to eavesdrop. He peeked around the corner, and saw that Bilbo was now helping the dwarf off with his mud-encrusted boots. Strange things, boots. Imagine needing to wear something to protect your feet.

"Frodo! Get us a mug of ale from the pantry."

And so off Frodo went again, missing whatever conversation was occurring in his absence. When he returned, laden with mug, the boots were off and piled on the sitting room floor, along with an impressive collection of chain mail, leather bits, and small weapons. The dwarf was leaning back in Bilbo's armchair, his eyes half closed. Shyly, Frodo handed him the mug. He took it in big, square hands, acknowledging the young hobbit only with a curt nod, and then drank half of it in one long gulp.

"I never thought I'd be back here again," he said. His voice was deep and harsh, but not unpleasantly so. It reminded Frodo of sunless places beneath the earth, where nothing grew and no hobbit would ever dare to venture. "I never thought I'd see this land again, and yet here we are, and it all seems very much unchanged. Even you seem unchanged, and I was given to understand that your kind aged more quickly than my folk."

Bilbo only chuckled. "This is the Shire. Come back in a thousand years, I imagine it will look much the same. It's positively allergic to change of any kind. But as for this old place, you're right, I've hardly touched it since the Company was here. Although I did have to buy back most of the furniture once I got back from Erebor. I'll tell you about that another time, if you wish. It's late, and it seems you've had a long journey. Frodo, can you show Thorin to my parents' old room, you know the one? The bed in there should be of a size…"

Frodo heard the name, and gave Bilbo a disbelieving stare.

"Oh dear," he said. "How silly of me. I haven't even made proper introductions. Frodo, my boy, our noble guest here is Thorin Oakenshield, son of Thrain, son of Thror, King Under the Mountain."

Frodo froze. How did one address a king? Sire? Your Majesty?

"Pleased to meet you," he tried to say, but it came out as more of a squeak.

Thorin nodded at him gravely.

Desperately, he looked at Bilbo, silently pleading for help. And suddenly, he recognized the strange, wild look that had been blossoming in his cousin's eyes. It was a look of exultation.