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The Mediator

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"An adventure?" Billa Baggins, a respectable genteel hobbit of the Shire, shivered and tried to convince herself it was a shudder. "No, no thank you. I have responsibilities here, you see. I'm the Shire's official mediator, and there's a thorny situation with the Cottons and Proudfoots - excuse me, Proudfeet - that I really need to sort out before it comes to a head. But do feel free to come to tea if you like, and tell me all about your adventures. I'm sure it would be a grand tale."

Gathering her embroidery, Billa stood and curtseyed before fleeing into her house, leaning against the door after closing it firmly behind her. Part of her wanted to open the door again, to chase after Gandalf and to be her mother's daughter, but she couldn't, not without knowing herself to be a disappointment to her father. She'd disappointed him enough when he'd been alive.

"Silly girl," she whispered to herself. "Adventures are for people who don't have people to take care of." Pressing her hands over her face helped to gather up her badly tattered composure and she let out a deep breath before moving to her writing desk and starting on the stack of correspondence. The crop reports were coming in, and there were two disputes already on who was allowed to hire which hands and three over which wedding would be held on which day. Some days, it was enough to make her wish she'd let Lobelia win in the dispute over who would become the official mediator. Worse, she had the sneaking suspicion that Lobelia had won, and was laughing up her sleeve at having tricked Billa into taking on all the responsibility of official meddling without any of the fun that came from meddling solely where you wanted to.

The rest of the day passed as her days usually did, except that she couldn't stop thinking of the wizard and his offer. She set off on her morning rounds the next day with it still much on her mind, although she deflected questions about her visitor with automatic skill. The day Bungo Baggins's daughter was tripped up by gossip from a dizzy young Chubb girl would be the day they rolled her to her grave. A visit from an old friend of the family would never be less than respectable, no matter how eccentric the guest might be. The rules of hospitality were very clear about that.

People would still talk, of course, but that was the way of things. And if the rules were contradictory and sometimes it felt like she would be smothered under the weight of them, well, at least she knew them all and could usually find a way to work them to her advantage.

The scratch on her freshly painted door made her stamp her foot in irritation before going inside, but cooking herself a nice dinner helped make her feel calm again. Someone would've seen who did it, and she could start a nice long brangle about it if the perpetrator refused to fix it. Maybe this time she'd have it painted a deeper shade; she'd have to consider it at some length.

The knock on her door was an unpleasant surprise, and the dwarf that invaded her home was frankly terrifying, but by the third set of invaders her fear had given way wholly to indignation. Gandalf's arrival did not help, and then being called a grocer! It was outside of enough, but Gandalf inclined his head to the bookstand where the huge tome of rules was set up, to be actively consulted and added to as part of her mediator duties, and she knew she was beaten. However eccentric, her guests had to be catered to.

The next morning seemed again just like any other morning, except there was a sense of emptiness to her home that hadn't been there before. Or, she thought, looking up at the portrait of her parents together that she kept in her bedroom, it would probably be more accurate to say that she successfully avoided thinking of the emptiness that she filled with the cares and tribulations of all the hobbits in the Shire, and even they weren't enough.

"No sense borrowing trouble." It was one of her father's favorite sayings, and certainly a dragon was a lot of trouble to borrow. Sitting at her vanity table to fix her hair before going on her morning rounds, she was struck by the way she looked, almost a stranger to herself in some way she couldn't define. Her face, always round, looked somehow undefined, her eyes lost. The striped dress with its full skirts looked fussy rather than neat, and the braids she always wore looked clumsy, especially when compared to the ones some of the dwarves had sported.

Trying to shake off her strange mood, she touched the picture frame as she always did and packed her basket full of the treats and tonics she usually brought with her, since you could never tell what someone would need. Except that she could, because it was always the same in the Shire, always, except when her mother would take her out walking and her father would fret until his girls were safely home.

She stopped dead when she saw the contract, sitting plainly on her desk and directly in front of the portrait of her mother. A note was on top, folded into a pyramid, with a single line in spiky writing: You are exactly like the woman that your father loved.

"No, I'm not," she said, burying her face in her hands. She was losing the part of herself that was her mother, and that's what had bothered her when looking in the mirror. Her mother had always been full of scorn for the "old biddies with nothing better to think of than other people's business." When had she become one of them?

Quickly, before she could think twice about it, she pulled her father's coat and her mother's travel pack out of the front closet and pulled them on, hastily signing the contract and not even caring that she'd accidentally spilled ink all over the rule book. Her shawl was under her coat and half-dragging on the ground, pack bouncing against her back, basket in one hand and umbrella in the other as she ran frantically, calling out to old Gamgee to lock her door and look after the place while she was out.

By the time she'd caught up to them she was so out of breath that she had to bend over and rest her hands on her knees while she caught her breath, vaguely waving the contract in the air when someone started talking. She managed to look up when it was taken from her, and was still out of breath as the leader looked down on her, tall as the mountain they were going to from the seat on his pony. She wasn't sure what to think of the way he looked at her, but it made her straighten her back and look back with all the dignity and pride that a Baggins should.

"Get Mister Baggins a pony." With that she was dismissed, unworthy of even being addressed, and if she hadn't been panicking at the thought of being forced onto one of the nasty beasts, she thought she could have hated him at that moment. No one would listen to her and shortly she found herself jammed into a saddle, astride no less, with her skirts a disordered mess that exposed the frilly lace edges of her pantaloons despite her best efforts at modesty.

Finally she heaved a sigh and gave up fussing with the attempt to fix the situation. "What can't be cured must be endured."

"Your father was very wise," Gandalf said as he shifted his horse to ride beside her. "And he loved your mother very much. He'd never had the slightest interest in any of the other hobbit girls, just the wild daughter of Old Took."

The reminder made Billa feel a bit better, and she tried to work out a way to sit that didn't have the pony's head knocking into her nose or the cauldron tied on behind the saddle bumping into her back. "Gandalf, I know you said they don't distinguish--"

"Nori, pay up!" She turned to see a small pouch of money flying through the air, followed by several others. She noticed that their leader neither caught nor threw any money, but Gandalf caught a larger one than most as he explained why.

"Really? Gambling? Father was right, you are a reprobate." She sat up and then promptly sneezed, digging through her basket for a handkerchief. Not finding one, she was at the point of asking them to turn back when the friendly one with the hat looked back at her with twinkling eyes and she shut her mouth again. Surely they would have to stop soon for a meal, and she could ask discreetly then.