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The Oak and The Ash

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Bilbo Baggins was not the Shire’s most talented Guide. In fact, if one were to be particularly honest, he wasn’t the strongest, or the subtlest Guide in Hobbiton, or even in Bagshot Row (although his next door neighbor, Halfred Greenhand, was the best Guide and gardener any of them had ever seen, so that wasn’t a very fair comparison).

Bilbo knew he wasn’t gifted. If Bilbo had been a gambling sort of Hobbit (which he was not, thank you very much) he would’ve bet that every last Hobbit in the four Farthings and Bree knew that Bilbo Baggins was a pathetic excuse for a Guide.

His mother, Belladonna Took, had been a Sentinel so strong that she was very nearly dangerous. When the wolves came upon them in the Fell Winter, it had been Belladonna who’d led the Shire’s defense. She’d dragged out the most practical of her fellow Sentinels and taught them how to use senses that had been finely honed on gardening, to make traps instead. The defense had succeeded, the day had been saved, and Belladonna had been sure to go down in Hobbit legend.

At least, that had been the plan. Until spring came along, and Belladonna Took waltzed right up to Bungo Baggins and thrust out a lopsided bundle of bright blue forget-me-nots.

Under ordinary circumstances every Hobbit with the smallest bit of common sense knew the plain little flowers meant a declaration of true love (after all, it was right there in the name). Sentinel though she was, Belladonna was still a maid, which meant she received bouquets rather than gave them. (Not that anyone had ever been quite so bold as to offer her forget-me-nots. Usually they were lilacs, or laurels, or borages, or pansies. Things to signify someone’s regard, not their outright devotion.)

But here was the most beloved Hobbit in the Shire, flouting tradition to offer up a shabby bouquet to a member of, quite possibly, the only family who would disapprove of her actions.

Bungo had stood there, staring at the flowers with the same disbelief as everyone else the square. Under the long moments of silence Belladonna began to droop, and even the flowers started to wilt in embarrassment.

Eventually Bungo stretched out one soft, shaking hand and plucked the flowers out of her grip. Belladonna was too scared to smile and the whole town held its breath while Bungo tilted his head and examined every stem and petal in the bundle.

Then he started to rip it apart.

The watching Hobbits shrunk back in horror. Tooks and Bagginses weren’t the closest of families in the first place, and this was a blood feud in the making. One of Belladonna’s younger sisters started to weep, while the other puffed up and stormed over to sock Bungo on the nose, but was caught about the waist before she could get there. Belladonna didn’t look mortified, or enraged, but heartbroken. Like she’d actually believed a marriage between the most outrageous Took Sentinel and the most devoutly ordinary Baggins would ever work.

The gawking public liked to think that Belladonna stood there watching him tear apart her bouquet because she was paying him the respect of waiting for him to actually say no, but she looked so devastated she probably just couldn’t move.

Bungo ignored all the frantic whispers around him while he busily striped the flowers apart. The spectators saw the occasional leaf go flying, but he was hunched over the flowers at just the right angle that only Belladonna could see what he was doing, and she wasn’t looking.

Not nearly soon enough, Bungo uncurled and finally saw Belladonna’s expression. He flushed crimson and stretched out his surprisingly steady hands. Hands that cradled a halo of forget-me-nots. Bungo had taken apart the bouquet to put it back together again in just the way tradition dictated a proposal should go. Rather than let Bungo stumble over the appropriate words for the occasion, Belladonna seized him by his finely pressed lapels and dragged him forward into a kiss.

The story was one of the Shire’s favorites, but as spectacular as it was, that’s when things started to go downhill.

No one with a desire to remain attached to their good reputation (or their teeth) ever made the mistake of speaking ill of Belladonna or Bungo in front of their friends or family. But that didn’t mean that more than a few people weren’t wondering just what had possessed them both to marry someone who almost everyone else thought was their worst possible match.

When Bilbo came along, with the scantest, most useless trace of Guide in his gifts, the doubters crowed in triumph. There was even drunken talk of convincing Belladonna to have a fling with that Bracegirdle Guide who’d headed up the North Farthing’s defense from wolves. (Gentle Bungo had dragged that fellow out of the Green Dragon and proved to every Hobbit with sense that he could be just as terrifying as his spouse.)

Now, that wasn’t to say Bilbo was completely incompetent. Not at all. He could grow a garden like any other Hobbit, he just couldn’t feel when the seeds were good, or the plants needed watering, like how other Guides could. And people came to him for mediation, it was because he had a level head and excellent scones, not because he could stretch out his gifts and keep everyone calm no matter the argument.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the Rangers knew full well that Bilbo was a lackluster Guide, but they still dropped by Bag End when they were injured. Most assumed it was just because Bilbo never looked at them like they were peculiar. But the Rangers claimed that having Bilbo check their bandages was the surest way to a quick healing. (Which no one, not even Bilbo, understood.)

No matter how odd Bilbo was, his deficient gifts wouldn’t have mattered if ever in his life he had been of use to a Sentinel who wasn’t his mother. Despite those Sentinels who were more than willing to take on such a strange little Guide, Bilbo wouldn’t accept a single one. (And always flitting at the back of their minds was that time when Lobelia Bracegirdle lost her temper and tried to make Bilbo react like a regular Guide. She said his mind was shuttered off like a greenhouse in winter. Hobbits were meant to be open and friendly creatures, their Guides even more so. The thought of a Guide with a closed off mind was unnatural.)

No, it was widely accepted that Bilbo was a terrible Guide, and an odd one at that. But all that certainty meant nothing when one morning an agony that wasn’t Bilbo’s ripped right through him, dropping him to his knees with a scream.

Bilbo could hear the echo of glottal and guttural words, a language he didn’t understand, but still somehow remembered. Wrapped up in the pain there was a presence. Someone fierce and determined, nestling himself in the blank space in Bilbo’s mind for the barest of moments before he slipped away. It was like fingertips brushing across the outside fringe of his soul, and Bilbo wanted it back. Wanted him back.

Every inch of Bilbo’s body ached afterwards, but he still managed to claw his way back to consciousness. All he really wanted to do was slip back to the silence and hope the presence would come again, but deep in his bones he knew it wasn’t going to be there. Bilbo could feel the lingering traces of that sickening pain, and he knew that whatever had given that presence the strength to reach out and touch him, had also ripped him open.

His whole life Bilbo had been told he was deficient. Their people had expected so much of him, and he couldn’t do them the service of at least being ordinary if he wasn’t going to be extraordinary. Though only the cruelest of Hobbits ever said it, Bilbo knew that not one of them believed he would ever have a Sentinel. Such a strange thing then, to wake up with a pounding headache, cradled in the arms of one of his favorite cousins, and be absolutely certain that his Sentinel had just called to him.

Bilbo opened his eyes to the frankly petrified face of Drogo Baggins looking down at him. Drogo gave a desperate sigh of relief then clutched Bilbo into a thankful hug before he screamed, “Halfred! Adalgrim! Bilbo’s awake!” Bilbo had about three seconds to mourn the loss of his hearing before he picked up frantic footfalls heading from his kitchen. Adalgrim Took darted through Bilbo’s bedroom door only to spill over his own two feet straight onto the floor, while Halfred Greenhand bounced over the fallen Hobbit with more grace than one would expect from a fellow of his age.

With gentle hands Halfred nudged aside Drogo and pressed his own bare palm to Bilbo’s cheek. Halfred was the most talented of the Shire’s Guides, though there were more than a few who denied it for the sake of their own pride. In his younger years Bilbo had followed Halfred around the garden, and the elderly Hobbit had just smiled and taught Bilbo everything he knew, despite Bilbo’s disadvantage. Even now, Halfred would drop by on Bilbo’s worst days and drag him out into the sunshine to force him through the same exercises that he’d done as a Hobbitling.

With eyes closed, Halfred slipped over the surface of Bilbo’s mind, seeking out the wound that had made him collapse. Bilbo touched two fingers to the back of Halfred’s hand and unfurled the shields around his own mind like flower petals turned to spring’s first warm light. Nestled at the root of his mind, safely guarded by all the tips and tricks Halfred had taught him—and Bilbo had never believed he would need to use—was a spark. It was shuddering in the aftershocks of pain, and was far dimmer than it would’ve been if Bilbo had his say about it, but it was there.

Halfred’s eyes flew open and he stared at Bilbo with unfettered joy. In wonder, he breathed, “You found your Sentinel.”

“Yes,” Bilbo let himself smile at the certainty in Halfred’s voice. “It seems I did.” There was a beat of silence while the two Guides grinned at one another, then Adalgrim sprang off the floor and dragged Drogo with him into a pile on Bilbo’s bed. In between Adalgrim’s backslapping congratulations and “I always knew you would’s,” Drogo managed sneak in a gentle handshake.

“Right then, who’s the lucky lass?” Adalgrim crooned. “I bet it’s a Brandybuck isn’t it? Prim’s sister came into her gifts a few weeks ago didn’t she?”

“Primula’s sister’s name is Asphodel and she manifested as a Guide,” Drogo scolded, like his cousins should have had the same level of fascination with Primula Brandybuck’s family as he did. “And Asphodel…” he petered out with a blush and a shrug to Bilbo.

“She doesn’t think too highly of me. No one in their particular branch of the family does.”

For the most part Adalgrim went about ignoring the people who thought poorly of Bilbo for his lack of skills. He considered them all fools and had long ago embraced the unofficial Brandybuck family motto to “Stay Away From Crazy People.” (Their official motto was something about friends, ale, and a warm hearth, but no one ever actually bothered trying to remember it.) In Adalgrim’s mind the people who didn’t appreciate Bilbo for precisely who he was weren’t worth a speck of his attention, so he rolled his eyes at that declaration and asked for the name of Bilbo’s Sentinel once again.

“Well,” Bilbo tried to straighten out his sleep-rumpled shirt with as much dignity as possible while sitting in bed. “It would appear, that I, well… don’t know.”

Drogo and Adalgrim shared a long, speaking look, each declaring that the other really ought to be the one to comment. Eventually Adalgrim caved (as he usually did), smacked his lips and declared, “Um, what?”

Drogo rolled his eyes at the ineloquence. “I believe what Adalgrim meant was: ‘how are you being affected by your Sentinel if you do you not know who your Sentinel is?”

“I know the answer to that,” Adalgrim interrupted.

Drogo pursed his lips and gave Adalgrim a glower that meant he was about ten seconds away from scolding the other Hobbit for raising his voice. Adalgrim hated it when Drogo pursed at him. It made him feel like he was child called in front of the knee of Grandmother Chubb, who was so obsessed with propriety that even Bagginses found it oppressive. “He didn’t have to exchange pleasantries to meet his Sentinel, you know. They might’ve seen one another across the market, or when she was on the road to Bree and Bilbo just didn’t get the chance to say hello.”

“You do recall that Sentinels have to actually touch their Guides to form a bond with them, don’t you?”

Adalgrim puffed out his chest. “Not Bilbo. That rule only applies to normal Guides, and Bilbo’s not normal.”

Blushing, Drogo glowered at his cousin for saying such a thing in front of Bilbo. As good a chap as Drogo was, the Baggins family really would’ve preferred if no one ever mentioned that Bilbo was a Guide at all. From the very beginning, their entire family line had gone unpolluted by such traits. Drogo did his best to skirt any mentions of Bilbo’s gifts, thoroughly uncomfortable with how he thought Bilbo was upset they weren’t stronger, and how his family loathed the thought of a gifted Baggins in the first place.

Adalgrim rolled his eyes and flopped back to the bed. “Bilbo’s always been stronger than you Bagginses give him credit for. And even if he weren’t, he’s Bilbo, and that’s all he needs to be gifted.”

Before this had the chance to devolve into another battle of Took v. Baggins: Round 364, Bilbo jumped in. “I haven’t met or seen my Sentinel, lads. Something went wrong on his end of things, and he reached for me.”

Drogo looked to Halfred for confirmation that such a thing was possible, while Adalgrim scooted closer. “But Bil, you collapsed.”

Halfred scolded Drogo with a raise of his bushy eyebrow before he turned to Adalgrim. “I do believe Mister Bilbo’s Sentinel is in rather unfortunate straits. And it certainly helps that Mister Bilbo’s got himself a right strong Sentinel, if you don’t mind my sayin’ so. Takes a fair bit of power for an unbonded Sentinel to contact a Guide at all, let alone from whatever distance his young lad reached for him. Although, I can’t imagine what sort of trouble he’s had that he felt the need to call you when he didn’t know whom you were. And for that spot in your mind to hurt quite so much.”

“Why does it hurt?” Adalgrim demanded, popping halfway off the bed like he was going to pick a fight with Bilbo’s Sentinel over the treatment.

“Now, now,” Halfred soothed, “the fellow didn’t mean to. Bilbo doesn’t have a bond with his Sentinel, so anytime their souls touch there’s going to be a bit of ache with the longing. But the fellow called out to Mister Bilbo across a distance he shouldn’t have been able to reach, to a Guide he shouldn’t have known was there. Part of that was strength, because if the lad wasn’t powerful to begin with then stretching himself out like that would’ve done him in, but the other part was the pain of whatever happened to make him look for Mister Bilbo.”

Bilbo shuddered and reached out to grab Halfred’s shoulder. “He’s not dead. He can’t be dead, can he?”

Halfred pulled Bilbo close with a tut. “You know he’s not Mister Bilbo. If he were you’d feel hollow. That little ache in the back of your heart means that he’s still breathing. Probably in plenty of pain, but alive.”

Bilbo took a shuddering breath in relief. Adalgrim crowded up against Bilbo’s side and tossed his arms around him, murmuring how he’d always known Bilbo would have a Sentinel someplace, and fate wouldn’t be so cruel as to take him away before Bilbo even got the chance to meet him. That comfort was nothing more than Bilbo expected from them, but the real surprise was a spare hand settling in to run soothing strokes through his curls. Bilbo took a moment to appreciate the comfort of being surrounded by his favorite Hobbits in the world, letting the sweet embrace of their emotions sink in to the ache in his chest that had always been there and had only blossomed under the first brush of his Sentinel.

Drogo dropped a kiss to the crown of Bilbo’s head and slid off the bed. “I suppose we best get packing then.” All three heads popped up to stare at Drogo in disbelief. “I think we ought to leave as soon as possible, hopefully before Grandmother Baggins figures out that Bilbo’s collapse was something more than just the heat.” He strode into the hall, still rambling plans to the three Hobbits who were all looking at one another in confusion.

They could hear shuffling in one of Bilbo’s hallway closets while Drogo searched. “Halfred and his boys ought to keep an eye on Bag End while we’re away. You know how every time Bilbo gets a cold Lobelia starts crooning about his death, and how inheritance laws ought to trump whatever Bilbo puts in his will. At least we can be sure that Halfred won’t plunder your silver cabinets while we’re away. And anyone with sense will listen to Halfred when he says that running off is what any Guide should do in this situation, and not just a foolhardy Took thing.” Drogo stepped back in the room with Bilbo’s favorite travelling pack slung over his shoulder. “Which might keep either the Tooks or the Bagginses from sending anyone after us.”

With wide eyes, Adalgrim turned to Bilbo. “What does he mean away? And what does he mean, us?”

Drogo dropped the pack down on the rumpled end of Bilbo’s bed and pulled open the closet doors. “Bilbo’s going after his Sentinel, and we’re going with him.” Drogo started rifling through Bilbo’s clothes, plucking out a few sturdy shirts intermingled with the ones that would make Bilbo look the most dapper when he got there. “I think Bilbo and I ought to pack and head off with you to Tuckborough, then we can get our supplies there while you pack, and we can be off this afternoon.”

Adalgrim always took a bit longer to catch up to his cousins, but when got there, he made up for the delay in spades. After a long moment he popped off the bed and declared, “Don’t forget his pipe, Dro.”

Drogo sniffed at the thought he could ever forget such a thing. (His fastidious nature had always made him quite the efficient packer for their various walking holidays.) Halfred rolled his eyes at the two younger Hobbits, and took it upon himself to nudge Bilbo out from under the sheets so he could make the bed, then moved about Bag End closing up windows and shutting the flues.

Bilbo stood open-mouthed while Adalgrim started grabbing things off shelves and tossing them to the bedspread, while Drogo tried to continue his methodical packing and put away the mess Adalgrim was making at the same time. (Drogo did concede to the value of parchment, spare ink, and handkerchiefs though.) Bilbo couldn’t seem to make himself move from his stupor until Adalgrim shoved a change of clothes into Bilbo’s hands and pushed him towards the bathroom. Bilbo dug in his heels and demanded, “What is going on here?”

“You’re going to find your Sentinel, and we’re going with you.”

“I hadn’t…”

Drogo quirked an eyebrow. “You honestly mean to tell us that the thought hadn’t even crossed your mind to go running off and find out what happened to him? To fix it?”

“And even if it hadn’t,” Adalgrim added, “it certainly would’ve if we’d left you alone to think for a few minutes.”

“And since you going to find your Sentinel is inevitable, it’s only right that we go with you to look for him. It wouldn’t be proper otherwise.”

Bilbo folded his arms with a huff. “I am perfectly capable of looking after myself, thank you very much.”

“It’s not a matter of looking after yourself,” Drogo consoled, while Adalgrim got straight to the point.

“We can’t very well let our unbounded cousin go running off to meet his Sentinel alone, now can we?”

Bilbo at least had the grace to flush at the implication. “Yes, well, point made.”

Adalgrim tossed his arm around Bilbo’s shoulder while Drogo handed him his pack, sparing Bilbo from having such a conversation. “Come on then lads. It’ll be an adventure!”

“There’s no need to be crass,” Drogo scolded, safely tucked into Bilbo’s other side. Bilbo gave Halfred an awkward waive goodbye and let himself be dragged out his door.