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Like a Line Flung by a Fisherman

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He had been afraid at first that he might not remember the way. It had been a great many years. The lanes in the Shire were winding and to his eyes all looked the same. But his feet carried him surely to the right village – the right lane – the right hill – to the door.

Thorin stood for some time on the doorstep. He wondered if perhaps he might not knock. He had come so many miles to speak with Bilbo. To turn around and walk back without so much as knocking would be almost shameful. But it would be easier.

They had not parted on the best of terms. Unkind words had been exchanged on both sides. It had been some years before any news had come from Bilbo.

Other members of the company had had letters, sparse and infrequent. Those that Thorin had read ranged from politely affectionate to perfunctory. Over the years they had grown still less frequent, and tended more towards the perfunctory.

He had been astonished, when back in the autumn he had received a letter. It had been almost fifty years. He had long believed that Bilbo Baggins wanted nothing more to do with him, and endeavoured to put him out of his mind.

More and more I find myself wishing things had been different, Bilbo had written. In truth I’m not sorry for what I did but I’m sorry for the things I said to you and I’m sorry to have nursed a grudge for so many years.

Do you still think of me? I think of you quite often. Though I imagine you have more important things to think of than a silly old hobbit, being king under the mountain.

I hope you will write to me.

Why had he come? Bilbo’s letter had come to him like a line flung by a fisherman and it had reeled him in. It had come to him like a lamp in the darkness to a moth. It had opened in him a well of feelings he’d thought long forgotten. Feelings he’d buried, that he’d thought for so many years could not possibly be reciprocated.

I think of you quite often. He had signed the letter, Bilbo Baggins, your burglar.

Your burglar. Perhaps he hadn’t meant anything by it. Perhaps he had only meant to remind Thorin who he was, as if he truly thought he might be forgotten. Your burglar. Yours.

The door was green and though it seemed unchanged by the years he knew that for the paint to shine so it must have been re-painted, probably many times.

He knocked. Three solid, heavy knocks. He waited.

There was a long silence. No sound of footsteps from within; merely the solid clunk of a latch. Around the edge of the door peered a young hobbit.

He gazed up at Thorin, his eyes very large, patently as surprised to have a dwarf on his doorstep as Thorin was to have the door opened by anyone other than Bilbo.

Had the letter said Bag End? He didn’t remember. He hadn’t thought to check. It had never occurred to him that Bilbo might live anywhere else.

The hobbit opened the door more fully, and said, “good-morning.”

“Who are you?” said Thorin, forgetting his manners.

“Who am I?” said the hobbit, which Thorin supposed was fair, being as he himself was the stranger knocking on the hobbit’s door. “I’m Frodo Baggins,” he said, then remembering his own manners he nodded his head in a bow and said, “at your service. Can I help you?”

Baggins. Thorin’s mind whirled. It was not as he had first thought, that the hole had been sold to some other family. He studied the lad’s features. Did he have the look of Bilbo about him? Perhaps. Perhaps it was only that all hobbits looked alike. He didn’t have the slightest idea how old the lad was. He didn’t know how to tell, without any beard growth by which to judge.

It had never crossed his mind that Bilbo might have married. He saw now he’d been foolish. It had been a great many years and most hobbits married and had children; more did than did not, as he understood it. There was no reason Bilbo shouldn’t have taken a wife.

“Forgive me,” he said, collecting himself. “Good morning to you. Is your father here?”

“My father?” said Frodo Baggins, astonished. The reason for his astonishment became clear when he said, “I’m terribly sorry, but he’s dead.”

Every part of Thorin turned to ice. It couldn’t be, he thought though the numbness. He had come all this way. But of course it could be. Death did not wait.

His lips unfroze and gripped by sudden fury he said, “dead? When? By whose hand?”

“Um,” said Frodo, to all appearances taken aback by the ferocity of his reaction. “Ten years ago. It was an accident. I’m very sorry to be the bearer of bad news.”

But that truly couldn’t be. He had had a letter that past autumn, only a few months ago. There had been other letters. Aloud he said, “that can’t be. He cannot be dead.”

“I really am very sorry,” said Frodo. “He died ten years ago. I don’t know what to tell you. I didn’t know he knew any dwarves.”

There was no lie in his eyes. What he spoke was the truth, as he believed it. But it could not have been an accident. Someone had written those letters, to make him believe Bilbo still lived. He could not imagine who might do such a thing, but he could imagine why. If he had known Bilbo had been slain he would have sought the one who killed him and made them pay.

“I am truly sorry to hear of his passing,” he said. Had Bilbo not spoken of him? In all the long years, to his family, his son, he had never spoken of the company?”

“Thank-you,” said Frodo.

“And your mother?” said Thorin.

“I’m afraid she died at the same time,” said Frodo. “Did you know her?”

“I did not.” Thorin studied Frodo’s face again. Was he a child? It was so hard to say. “How old are you?”

“How old am I?” said Frodo. “I’m twenty-two.”

Thorin tried to make sense of that. Hobbits were grown at thirty-three, or so he’d heard. He didn’t know what that meant, for a hobbit. “How old is that?”

“I don’t know,” said Frodo. “Twenty-two years.”

“Are you alone here?” said Thorin.

Frodo glanced over his shoulder into the house. He seemed to shrug, and said, “more or less.”

“I see,” said Thorin gravely.

A thought crossed his mind then, and he wondered if it was possible that Bilbo’s letters had simply taken a great many years to reach him. The dates upon them had been in the Shire-Reckoning, which none of his people understood. It could be that Bilbo had written to him ten years ago, and it had only found him that autumn.

Why, after all, would anyone write a letter so clearly meant to make him think of Bilbo – think of him again after so many years – if they did not want Thorin to learn of his death. And who might imitate Bilbo’s way of writing so well.

It could be that he was simply years too late. Everything had come too late.

He meant to ask then if he might come inside, to talk with the boy more, to learn more of his situation and see if he might offer any assistance, but before he could think how to ask Frodo said, to his amazement,

“if you’d like to see Bilbo Baggins, you just missed him.”

Thorin’s mind ground to a halt. He couldn’t make sense of his. The conversation made less and less sense with each thing the boy said. “Excuse me?”

“He went down to Bywater about an hour ago,” said Frodo, and then cheerily he added, “he’ll be back for lunch. Probably.”

“But you said that he had died,” said Thorin.

“I said what?” said Frodo. He stared up at Thorin and Thorin looked down at him, and it was clear that they were equally as puzzled. Then Frodo’s face lit up with understanding, though what he had understood Thorin couldn’t imagine. “Oh!” he exclaimed. “You thought that – so you asked – and then I said – oh, I see what happened.”

“I do not,” said Thorin.

“Bilbo isn’t my father,” said Frodo. “He’s my uncle.”

The whole conversation tilted on its axis. The tightness in his chest began to ease. Bilbo was not dead. He was alive. He was truly alive. “He is?”

“Well,” said Frodo. “Strictly speaking he’s my second cousin once removed on my father’s side and my first cousin once removed on my mother’s side. But I just call him my uncle. It’s quicker,” he added.

“I see,” said Thorin. He knew what that meant in terms of how much blood Frodo shared with Bilbo. What those relationships meant to a hobbit he couldn’t imagine. “Is he wed?”

Frodo looked askance, across the garden to the gate. “No,” he said.

The tightness in his chest eased more fully and it struck him then how close Bilbo was. He had not been able to believe it, after so many years, that Bilbo was nearby; and then for those few dreadful moments he had thought him dead. But he was alive, and only a short walk away. He might go looking for him.

He said, “might I come in and wait for him?”

Frodo glanced again over his shoulder. He drew the door more closed and said, “listen, I don’t mean to be rude, but I don’t have the slightest idea who you are or what you’re doing here.”

It was only then that Thorin realised he had never introduced himself. He’d been too distracted. He cursed himself inwardly. “Forgive me,” he said. “Thorin Oakenshield, at your service.”

The hobbit’s eyes, already large, grew even bigger. “Oh,” he said. “Oh my goodness. You’d better come in.” He opened the door fully.

Thorin stepped into the hall. The smell of the place hadn’t changed a bit. Old wood and varnish. Pipeweed, and a hint of earth. The coat hooks had moved. There was a faint scent of onions in the air.

“Sorry about the smell,” said Frodo. “We’re making soup.”

“I see,” said Thorin. He made to set his axe down beside Bilbo’s collection of umbrellas, but the young hobbit leapt in and tried to take it from him.

“Let me,” he said.

“No – no,” said Thorin, prying his axe out of the boy’s persistently polite grip. “Tis very heavy.”

“Of course,” said Frodo. He put his hands behind his back. Thorin set down his axe with a heavy clunk. “It’s nice,” Frodo offered. “The axe.” Thorin grunted in agreement and began to take off his cloak. “Didn’t you used to have a sword?” Thorin gave him a questioning look. “In Bilbo’s stories you have a sword.”

He wanted very badly to ask what Bilbo had said of him, in those stories. He wanted to ask how Bilbo had told the ending. He should not ask, or at least not now. “Tis a very fine weapon,” he said. “Not for a simple journey such as this.”

“I see,” said Frodo. Though he struck Thorin as perhaps a touch disappointed, not to have seen Orcrist. Gesturing along the passage he said, “this way, sir.”

He took Thorin to a neat little room with a view of the garden and the green hills beyond. Bilbo’s elven dagger hung over the mantelpiece. Frodo indicated a chair near the window and Thorin sat.

“Would you like some tea?” said the hobbit.

“That would be most welcome,” said Thorin. “Thank you.” Frodo bobbed his head in another bow, and left him to his thoughts.

He looked out at the garden. It was all very much as he remembered, but for the dagger above the fireplace. Strange, to think that Bilbo had returned to a life so unchanged from the one he had left. He wondered what part the boy played in that life, if he was not a son.

Outside the door he heard a soft clinking of crockery, and a softer murmur of conversation. Frodo’s voice, and another barely audible. The door opened and Frodo came in with the tea tray. At his heel was an even younger hobbit, fair-haired and very round-faced, carrying a plate of hobbit-cakes. He gazed up at Thorin, awed.

Frodo put his tray on the table and silently urged the boy, whose eyes stayed fixed upon Thorin, to do the same.

“This is Sam,” said Frodo. “Say good morning, Sam.”

It was some relief, seeing the younger lad. Seeing him, one who was so clearly a hobbit-child, beside Frodo made his age more evident. Not a child, but not quite grown either. If he was a dwarf his beard would almost have grown in.

“G’morning,” said Sam in a tiny voice.

“Good morning,” Thorin said to him. He extended a hand, meaning to greet him like a hobbit. “Are you helping to make the soup?”

Sam shrank away. Then abruptly he threw his arms around Frodo and shot Thorin a murderous look as if to say I don’t care if you’re a dwarven king in full armour, I’ll fight you if you try anything.

“Oof!” said Frodo, laughing. “Sam, why don’t you go and check on the soup,” he said, unwinding Sam’s arms from his waist. Sam murmured an assent and fled the room.

Frodo poured Thorin’s tea. He perched upon a nearby stool. “I hope it’s alright,” he said. “I don’t really know what kind of tea dwarves drink.”

“It’s very good,” said Thorin.

“You haven’t drunk any yet,” said Frodo. Thorin drank some. It was very good. A soothing drink. “Listen, I’m very sorry for the misunderstanding.” Thorin looked at him. “For making you think Bilbo was dead, I mean.”

“It’s no matter,” said Thorin. “It was my fault. I should not have assumed you were his son.”

“It’s a fair assumption,” said Frodo.

“Do you live here in Bag End?” said Thorin.

“Yes – Bilbo adopted me,” said Frodo.

“After your parents passed?” asked Thorin.

“No, sir, just last year,” said Frodo. As recently as that. Thorin supposed that would be why Frodo hadn’t been mentioned in any letters. “We have the same birthday,” Frodo offered.

“You and Bilbo?” said Thorin.

“Yes,” said Frodo. “That’s why he adopted me.”

“Is this,” said Thorin, “a hobbit custom?”

“No,” said Frodo, shaking his head.

“I see,” said Thorin. He did not. “Is Sam also a cousin?”

“Oh, goodness, no,” said Frodo. “He lives down the hill. His father works for Bilbo.” He was pleasantly earnest, to all appearances oblivious to the loyalty he’d inspired in the younger boy. “He’s a sweet lad,” Frodo added.

An unusual hobbit, Thorin thought. Many in the Shire turned their faces away when they saw him in the lane, as if by ignoring a stranger in their midst they could make him disappear. This one had asked about Orcrist.

He wanted to ask Frodo what tales Bilbo had told of him. He wanted to ask what Bilbo had been doing in the long years since returning to the Shire, and how he had come to bring Frodo into his home. He wanted to ask what Bilbo was like, how the years had changed him.

He had the sensation, too, that Frodo was burning to ask questions of his own. But this was not the time. They should wait for Bilbo.

“So,” said Frodo. “How is your mountain?”

“The mountain is,” said Thorin. “Very well.”

“How are the dwarves?” said Frodo.

“They are well,” said Thorin. “Is Bilbo… well?”

“Yes,” said Frodo, as if it had only that moment occurred to him to consider the matter. “I suppose so.” He nudged the plate of cakes a touch closer. “Do have a scone.” He took his hand away from the plate. “Do you like scones?”

Thorin indicated the plate. “Is that what these are?”

“Yes,” said Frodo, nodding. “Do you mind if I have one?”

“Go ahead,” said Thorin. Frodo took a scone and stuffed it whole into his mouth. “Does he ever speak of me?”

“Mm.” Frodo chewed, and swallowed. “Well. He tells a lot of stories about his journey.”

“Am I in them?” said Thorin.

“Well, naturally,” said Frodo. He cocked his head. “You’re different than I thought you’d be.”

“Different?” said Thorin. “Different how?”

“Just different.” By his tone Thorin did not think it was a bad difference, but what the hobbit meant he couldn’t imagine. “Are you sure you won’t have a scone? They’re very nice.”

“No – thank you,” said Thorin.

They sat for a moment in silence. He looked out again at the garden, which was a vibrant green, like all the Shire, and gently rustling in the breeze.

“I was wondering,” said Frodo. “What brings you here now?” Thorin turned to face him. “It’s just been such a long time.”

“Bilbo wrote me a letter,” said Thorin.

“Oh,” said Frodo. “Oh, I see.”

“He did not tell you?” said Thorin.

“No,” said Frodo. “He doesn’t tell me most of what he does.”

Outside, in the hall, there was the distinct rattling of a latch. Frodo leapt to his feet, sending the stool skittering on the floorboards, and then remembering himself said to Thorin, “I’ll let him know you’re here,” and dashed out of the room.

Thorin sat, holding a teacup that was not quite large enough for his hand, and muffled through the thick walls of Bag End he heard, for the first time in more than forty years, Bilbo’s voice.

He knew he should not. It was very impolite. But he set his teacup down upon its saucer, and rising went to the door to listen more closely.

“I don’t know,” he heard Frodo say, his voice hushed, but not hushed enough. “He just turned up. I put him in the parlour. I didn’t know what else to do. I thought you invited him?”

“Invited him?” said Bilbo. “Good gracious, no.”

“He said you sent him a letter,” said Frodo. “What did you say to him?”

“None of your business,” said Bilbo. “When did he arrive?”

“Just a few minutes ago,” said Frodo. “You never said he was so handsome.”

“Frodo!” said Bilbo, his voice squeaking, and Thorin smiled, to hear that squeak again. “You keep your tongue in your head. Cheeky boy.”

“Well, he is!” said Frodo. “I consider it most remiss of you. Anyway you’d really better come and talk to him. He’s impossible to make conversation with.”

“I will if you get out of the way,” said Bilbo.

He was coming. Thorin stepped back so hurriedly he jostled the tea table, and as he turned to keep the cups from falling the door opened.

And there he was, Bilbo Baggins. In the sunlight streaming through the parlour window his hair had a golden tinge. He was still holding his hat in his hands. For a long moment he said nothing. The look on his face was very much as Thorin felt; afraid and joyful all at once.

The moment was so precarious. They had parted so ill.

“Good morning,” said Thorin.

“Good morning,” said Bilbo, his voice warm, as if he truly meant it.

“You look well,” said Thorin. In truth he looked just as Thorin remembered him. It might have been only days, since they had parted for what he’d thought would be the last time.

“You look just the same,” said Bilbo. Then he cleared his throat and said, “how is everyone?”

“They are well,” said Thorin. “I got your letter.”

“You came all this way because of my letter?” said Bilbo. “I wasn’t altogether sure you’d read it.”

“Of course I read it,” said Thorin. And Bilbo beamed at him, his face lighting up. The sun shone through the windows. In the garden a bird was singing.

From the door, the soft clearing of a throat. “Excuse me,” said Frodo. “Should I leave you two alone?”

Bilbo’s head jerked around to face him, and Thorin had no doubt he had quite forgotten his adolescent nephew was in the room, just as he had himself. “Frodo!” Bilbo exclaimed. “Get away and help Sam with the lunch, there’s a good lad.”

“Yes, uncle,” said Frodo sweetly. He touched Bilbo lightly on the shoulder as he left and said something soft that Thorin didn’t catch. Bilbo shrugged him off, muttering an admonishment. The door closed.

“I hope he hasn’t been bothering you,” said Bilbo.

“Not at all,” said Thorin. “He’s been very polite.”

“Oh, he’ll fool you.” Bilbo rubbed his nose. “He’s a terror, honestly. No – no, I shouldn’t say that. He’s a good boy.”

Which, if Thorin remembered Bilbo’s peculiar way of expressing himself correctly, meant that he loved Frodo dearly; loved him, perhaps, the way Thorin loved Fili and Kili, like a sister-son.

“Listen,” said Bilbo, his tone suddenly grave. He turned his hand in his hands. “I, er. That is to say. It’s good to see you again.”

“Yes,” said Thorin. “Tis good to see you, too.”

There were things he had been going to say. He’d spent the journey thinking of it, what he would say. Things he’d say about what had passed between them. He’d been going to say that he’d come to understand what Bilbo had done, even if he did not agree. That he would forgive it.

But now that he was there, looking Bilbo in the eye, he didn’t want to say any of it. It did not seem to matter. It had been so many years. None of it mattered, and he found himself wondering why it ever had.

“I was so happy to receive your letter,” he said.

“I’m glad,” said Bilbo. “I, I. Didn’t know what to say. I should have written sooner.”

“As should I,” said Thorin. “I am. Truly sorry, to have driven you away for so long.”

“Come now, don’t say that,” said Bilbo. “You know me. I’m as stubborn as a donkey. I left because I wanted to.” He rubbed his ear in thought. “I was very angry – for such a long time.”

“As was I,” said Thorin.

“Doesn’t seem to matter now,” said Bilbo. “Things have been – different, these past few years.”

“You have him now,” said Thorin, nodding at the door.

Bilbo laughed a little. “I’d say he’s got me,” he said.

“I understand you adopted him because you have the same birthday?” said Thorin.

“It’s as good a reason as any,” said Bilbo. “And someone has to inherit this old pile – when I’m gone.”

“You never thought of marrying?” said Thorin.

“No – never,” said Bilbo. “There was never anyone – well, there was never anyone here in the Shire,” he said, and cleared his throat. “Are you – married?”

“I am not,” said Thorin. “There was never anyone, in Erebor.”

“I’m glad,” said Bilbo, and Thorin knew just what he meant, for he was glad too. He knew he oughtn’t wish it on Bilbo and Bilbo oughtn’t wish it on him, all those years alone, but nonetheless he was glad.

“I should have come to see you sooner,” said Thorin.

“You were busy being king,” said Bilbo. “I’m surprised you haven’t forgotten all about me.”

“I could never forget you,” said Thorin.

“Oh,” said Bilbo. And then in a few quick strides he had crossed the room, he was there. “Oh, Thorin,” he said, and then to Thorin’s amazement Bilbo took his hand, and held it in both of his smaller ones. “I should have written to you sooner. I was just so terribly embarrassed.”

“Embarrassed?” said Thorin.

“At how I acted,” said Bilbo. “And – and at staying angry with you, for so long. I fear I’ve made an ass of myself.”

“Not at all,” said Thorin.

“I thought about coming back,” said Bilbo. “But I was afraid I wouldn’t be welcome.”

“You would be very welcome,” said Thorin. “If you would like to see the mountain again.”

And once again Bilbo’s face lit up, as if the sun had come out from behind a cloud. “I’d like that very much,” he said. “Would you. Like to stay for lunch?”

Thorin said, “I would love to.”