2. Chapter One - Cordial
Sponging off with ice cold water was not the best thing for a headache. By the time he had dressed and tugged his sheets into some semblance of order, the pain behind Frodo's eyes had overwhelmed any remaining afterglow from the heated dream that had awakened him. He sat now hunkered down at the table, watching Bilbo bustle about the kitchen through half-open eyes.
“There you go -- an old Baggins recipe that never fails lad,” Bilbo plunked a mug of something in front of him, smiling. “You need to remember how to make it yourself so that you,” he hesitated for a moment. “So you can make it for your own young scamps when they are tweens.”
“I'm not a tween anymore Bilbo,” Frodo frowned at the drink, wondering what it did if you really didn't have a hangover at all. He sipped at it tentatively and remembered the taste immediately, bitter but not impossible to stomach. Perhaps it would help the headache at least.
“Yes, well, all the more reason you need to know how to throw that concoction together. Now, I imagine your stomach can't handle much beyond toast and tea. But perhaps some coddled eggs, eh?” Bilbo slapped his hands together cheerily. He bustled off to throw together the proper bland meal as Frodo shut his eyes against the ever-brightening sunlight in the kitchen and nursed the bitter remedy.
“I can't imagine having children of my own,” he said, half to himself, thinking about what Bilbo had just said.
“Why not lad?” Bilbo asked matter-of-factly.
Frodo pinched the bridge of his nose then took another sip. “I don't know. I just don't see them.” Deciding to forego the slow torture, he gulped the rest of the brew down quickly. He nearly choked and ended up sputtering and coughing.
Bilbo came over, pounded Frodo’s back good-naturedly and handed him a handkerchief. “See them? See them where?”
Frodo managed to clear his throat after a moment and Bilbo wandered back to his eggs and the toast crisping by the fire.
Frodo rasped out, “I don't know. In my life. In my future.” He wiped his streaming eyes with the handkerchief and coughed. “Not my own children anyway.”
Startled, he wondered where that thought had come from. He suddenly had vague memories of a dream -- something about Sam's children. It was just on the edges of his consciousness, flitting around him like the dust motes floating in the sun slanting through the windows.
He glanced toward the fire and realized Bilbo was watching him with an odd expression on his face.
“That Old Winyards must have gone bad or something, Bilbo. I don't know what made me say that. “ He lowered his face into his hands and wished he had a bottle sitting to hand right now. Things just could not get any worse.
“Lad, you know what a good count I keep of my cellars,” Bilbo's voice was soft. Frodo heard the sound of a knife slowly scraping butter over toast. “I'll bet my store of Longbottom that you don't have a hangover. Now, what is all this about?”
Frodo groaned. Things could get worse.
“Frodo?” came the gentle query. There was the sound of crockery on wood in front of him and the almost overwhelming smell of eggs and butter and toast and tea.
His stomach roiled. Even if he could bring himself to divulge anything to Bilbo, where to begin?
He heard a chair scrape across the floor and Bilbo's soft grunt as he settled into it across the table from him. “There’s only one thing I know of that can mimic the symptoms of a good Old Winyards hangover. Is it a lass, or a lad?”
Frodo lifted his head, “Sir?” he managed weakly, blinking in the sun.
“I suspect a lad, based on that comment about not seeing children in your life.”
“Sir?” Frodo sat up straight, gaping. He was now certain that Bilbo could see through walls and read minds, and who knew what else?
Bilbo blinked back at him, uncertain for a moment, then smiled knowingly. “A lad,” he stated and proceeded to spoon sugar into his tea.
Frodo started to say “Sir?” once more, then realized he was beginning to sound a trifle unbalanced and clamped his mouth shut.
Bilbo laughed. “A lad! And, my boy, by the look of things you are quite thoroughly besotted! Come now, confession is good for the head and the stomach.”
Bilbo looked delighted with himself. His cheeks were glowing and his eyes twinkling. Frodo realized yet again that his older cousin was indeed a quite handsome scamp and the picture of health for a hobbit half his age. And that reminded him of something else -- a nagging question that had been in amongst the various dragons grumbling in his skull of late. Bilbo had had no children of his own. They had never really talked about it, other than jokingly.
“ Bilbo, about children, how do you... I mean, how does it feel not to...” He shook his head, then regretted it at the sudden twinge behind his eyes. “I am asking this all wrong.”
Bilbo waved his spoon in the air. “We had this talk about babes and all, didn't we lad? I know we did. And as I recall, you were quite well versed on the topic and would have none of an old hobbit's advice.”
“No, I don't mean that. I mean.” Frodo stared dejectedly at his plate, unable even to blush over that old memory. “Oh, I don't know what I mean.”
Bilbo's smile faded as he tilted his head to study his cousin's downcast face, “Forgive me, my boy. I was being evasive. Not fair considering I started this, eh? I think I know what you mean after all. And we can start there as well as anywhere.”
Frodo looked up at the slight change of tone in Bilbo's voice to see Bilbo take a sip of tea and gaze out the window. Frodo couldn’t see the view out that window from his chair, but he didn't need to. He knew what his cousin was gazing at, winding away into the hills in the morning sun.
“You know, Frodo, I wonder myself. How the slow creep of years catches us up and spins us around and leaves us sitting by the side of the road, wondering about that fork back there we didn't take.”
Frodo didn't dare to breathe.
“And here you are standing at that fork yourself, wondering which road to take, knowing the choices are likely irrevocable; knowing no matter what you do, you give up something to gain something else, you sacrifice something, or someone -- some future that would have been.”
Bilbo took a sip of his tea, his eyes never leaving the road. “Every choice we make changes something that will never be the same again, moves us further from that crossroads.” Bilbo was quiet for a long moment. Frodo didn't move, afraid to break the fragile mood, whatever it was, wherever it was leading them.
“I never really thought about not having a family. I just never thought about having one.” Bilbo took another sip of tea. “You know, my boy, before Gandalf came and roused the Took in me and hied me off on my first adventure, I think I was asleep and dreaming for the most part. I didn't think of myself as the adventuresome sort at all, but I loved books and tales of adventures. And I often dreamed of things -- strange things -- things far beyond the borders of the Shire. All my reading and tramping about and studying maps was no more than that Took part of me, pulling at the traces of the respectable Baggins part.” Bilbo looked up and out the window once more, “I think I was always looking for something that was beyond those borders, but I never dared to step over them until Gandalf stirred things up.”
Frodo took a quiet sip of his own tea and waited.
“Despite all that respectability, I was still a Took. And, even more, I was a bit odd, what with these travelling feet of mine. I wasn't focused on the important things, the stewardship of the land or the breeding of livestock or the harvesting of the crops. And so, I was not the most eligible of bachelors in the eyes of many of the lasses. Not that there weren't a few who caught my eye. But a lady with a mind that interested me, wouldn't be interested in me,” Bilbo smiled grimly.
“I couldn't live with someone -- raise a family, love or even like someone -- who didn't have a mind, Frodo. A mind to love the things I loved, or at the least to understand them. How could I live with someone who wasn't the slightest bit interested in books, or languages, or lore? How could I do that to her? To myself?” He hesitated, then said softly, “How could I do that to our children?”
There was a long moment during which the only sound was Sam singing to himself as he worked somewhere on the hill, with a nameless bird keeping a ragged counterpoint. “At the least, boy, you have to have something in common with a lass you intend to create a family with. Even if there is no love, there needs to be -- something.”
“So, before I knew it, I was changed irrevocably and completely into someone not at all respectable with a passion for things far beyond the ken of most of my kind. And I wasn't a father and had no real prospects of being one, nor, truth be told, an overwhelming desire to be one.”
Frodo shut his eyes painfully, vaguely remembering Sam surrounded by toffee-haired children in a fading dream.
He suddenly felt fingers touch his where they were clasped over his cup and his eyes flew open to find Bilbo gazing at him.
“You know I have never endeavoured to be your father. I would never attempt that. We've talked about that before.”
Frodo lifted one hand and pressed it over Bilbo's. “No, it's not that, Bilbo. But, I wondered. How does it feel, not having children of your own? Do you think that someone would miss not having them...?”
“In his life? Underfoot? Climbing the trees and hanging off the roof? Creating loads of wash? Emptying the larder and his pockets? Making him laugh so hard that he can't imagine life without them?” Bilbo reached over and touched Frodo's face. “Making him hurt so deeply he thinks he will never love again?”
Frodo looked back down at his teacup and the cold eggs and toast. He felt as if a huge chasm had opened in his own chest and he was teetering on the edge of it.
Bilbo's chair scraped back and the plate suddenly disappeared. “I think I have just the thing for this discussion my boy, although I may regret it later. Now, to answer your question,” he bustled about, retrieving a bottle and two glasses. “No. And yes. And don't repeat that overused quote about asking the elves for counsel!”
“Yes, there are times when I have watched Paladin and Eglantine and their brood or even the Gamgees, and wished. Well, wished I could have that thing they have -- that great, warm chaotic thing that is a family in full bloom. But then there are times when I realize that was not my role, not the part I was to play in this world. That was the other road. I took this one.”
Bilbo went silent for a moment and Frodo tilted his head to catch the words that Sam was singing somewhere up on the hill. He heard two glasses hit the table and the sound of something being poured into them, but that voice had distracted him yet again. That voice sounded as if there were no choices that needed to be made on this glorious day. Nothing could, nothing would ever dampen Samwise Gamgee's outlook on life. Even confronted with the most impossible choice, Frodo knew that Sam would make it and never look back, assuming that everything would work out for the best.
He heard Bilbo sink into his chair again and looked at the rather large glass of ruby-coloured liquid in front of him. “Drink up lad. Not every day you get to sip on my special strawberry cordial before noon!”
Frodo took a sip and coughed. It was probably a good thing that he had already taken the hangover recipe.
“So. You are worried that you may never marry and have a family because the one you love is a he and not a she, eh?”
Frodo was certainly glad he had already swallowed. He eyed Bilbo warily and quickly took another very large gulp before he sat down the glass. The cordial burned its way down his throat and created a pleasant warmth in his stomach.
“No, that's not it.” Bilbo went on after peering at Frodo's face. “Is it, lad?”
“Some people just,” Frodo paused, unable to find the words. “It just seems as if they wouldn't be complete without a family,” he managed. His voice sounded rusty to his ears.
“Some people. Not you.”
Frodo shook his head slowly. The cordial seemed to have done its work and taken the edge off the dull pain behind his eyes.
“You don't see children in your future, but you see them in his,” Bilbo stated.
Frodo was beyond being amazed at Bilbo's perceptiveness, but he wasn't beyond gaping at him.
“Take another sip, Frodo lad. And no, I don't read minds. See through walls, yes. Read minds, no,” Bilbo laughed. “However, this is all very familiar territory for me.”
Frodo was very aware that the melodious song had moved down the hill and was now nearby, somewhere in the kitchen garden. Something tingling and unbearable made itself known under his breastbone in counterpoint to the warm glow of the cordial in his gut. His hand clenched on the table and he bent his head over that aching warmth.
“Did you ever love someone Bilbo?” he whispered.
There was no response. He lifted his eyes and found Bilbo gazing at him. He had never seen quite that look on the old hobbit's face before.
“Yes,” Bilbo said softly. “I believe you could say I loved, Frodo. Actually more than one 'someone', as you put it.”
“I mean love...not...not...”
“Heavens, lad! What you must think of your old cousin! I hope you know that I have had a passionate tumble with many more than that.”
Frodo felt heat rise into his face at the picture of Bilbo that suddenly rose into his head. He hid it in another gulp of the cordial. Bilbo's mouth quirked with a smile.
“And you. You have had, if my eyes and ears don't deceive me, a few tumbles of your own.” Bilbo raised his hand to stifle the protest that rose to Frodo's lips. “I know you have never brought any one to Bag End. I suspect, knowing you, that would say something about the relationship that you haven't been ready to say, yet. Something about bringing them under your own roof into your own bed that makes it different. Eh, lad?”
Frodo gazed into his nearly empty glass, feeling suddenly totally exposed.
“But they were all just friendly romps, or adolescent explorations. This one, this one is different. This one you haven't tumbled. This one.” Bilbo’s face took on a distant look. “You are afraid if you even breathe wrong, you will lose this one. You are afraid you already have. And you fear that the demands of kith and kin will keep you apart.”
Bilbo was quiet for a long moment, as if remembering. “You fear that he doesn't love you in return.” Frodo looked up to see Bilbo take a substantial swig of his own cordial, “And you fear that he does.”
Suddenly painfully aware, Frodo wondered just who was the lad in the distant past that caused that unbearably tender look on Bilbo's face.
“You must love him a great deal if you are worried that you might take away his chance to have his own brood to ride on his shoulders and fill his pipe someday.” Bilbo refilled Frodo's glass and topped off his own.
“Yes,” Frodo whispered, closing his eyes. He realized it was the first time he had affirmed it aloud. The first time he had affirmed it at all. And he took another gulp of the cordial, feeling something suddenly spiral to life within him -- something dazzling and overwhelming.
“It is complicated if it is a lad, I can't deny that. There are the demands of family. The demand for more babes to inherit that land and more hands to care for that livestock and pick those crops.” Bilbo went on, “As true a love as you may ever hold for a lad, only a lass can create a legacy for you.”
Frodo was having trouble focusing, between the effect of the cordial on an empty stomach, and the sudden whispered litany in his head: 'you love him -- you love him -- you love him'.
“And it is even more complicated if it is someone the world perceives as beneath your station,” Bilbo said matter-of-factly.
Frodo nearly dropped his glass and some ruby liquid did slosh out of it as it thumped unceremoniously to the table.
For a moment there was no sound in the kitchen but that softly crooned song that was moving away from the window and heading in the direction of the garden shed. Frodo's eyes widened, but Bilbo wasn’t smiling. The look there was one of sympathy and understanding without a trace of humour.
Frodo took a quick gulp, ignoring the sticky liquid on his fingers until Bilbo handed him a napkin.
“Slow down just a tad there, my boy. I do want you to remember this conversation.” Bilbo did smile this time. “Even though I seem to be doing all the talking.”
Frodo knew that he was gaping at Bilbo numbly.
“I don't hold with drinking spirits this early in the morning, but I will donate a whole bottle to the cause if it chases the shadows from your eyes,” Bilbo went on, gazing into Frodo's face intently.
“Although I think the only person who can really chase the shadows from your eyes is out there planting strawberries at the moment.”