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The lunch hour was fading as the Took and Brandybuck carriages rolled over the stone bridge next to Sandyman’s Mill, the galloping ponies slowing to a trot, and climbed the lane leading to Bag End. The Tooks packed up the baskets they had been eating from and stuffed them under their seats. An overeager Pearl, who had eaten little for fear of damaging her appearance, dropped the window and prepared to lean out to look for Frodo. Her mother immediately forced her to sit back down.
“Really, Pearl, do try to act like you have a modicum of upbringing!” said Eglantine.
Pearl’s chin tightened into a stubborn line. “Aunt Lalia’s not here, Mama, so what are you fussed about?”
Paladin said stiffly, “Because your mother and I do care what some guests here think, and that includes Gandalf. I would prefer he not believe that all of the Old Took’s descendants are completely unmannerly. So, please . . .?”
Pearl sighed and wrinkled her nose. “Then I will behave for you, Daddy.”
The two carriages stopped in front of Bag End’s front door. The coachmen hopped down and lowered the stairs, extending helping hands to their disembarking passengers. Pearl managed to control her eagerness enough that she trailed after her parents obediently as everyone crossed the lane to the Party Field’s entrance. There, Bilbo stood at the new white gate beaming happily, while Gandalf loomed behind him. The wizard’s equally friendly smile did not dispel his imposing quality.
“Welcome, my dears, welcome!” Bilbo shook hands with Paladin, who greeted him warmly and deeply bowed with high formality to Gandalf. “I was becoming worried none of you would arrive in time to enjoy tea, much less lunch!”
“Never fear—our coachman did the trick and made up for the time we lost with my lovely daughters preparing themselves,” Paladin said cheerfully. “But you can see it was worth the wait, Bilbo!” He motioned Eglantine and his children forward with a proud grin.
Eglantine hugged Bilbo tightly as he kissed her in greeting. She turned to Gandalf and dropped her very best curtsey to him as she peered up through her eyelashes. She still regarded Gandalf with awe after many years despite Paladin’s constant admonitions that the wizard was the best of friends to all hobbits. “You do us all great honour with your presence, sir,” she murmured, her voice quivering.
“And you honour me with your welcome, Mistress Eglantine,” said Gandalf as he bowed over the tiny hobbit hand in his, wishing he could convince Eglantine that she need not fear him.
Both Pimmie and Pervinca emulated their mother’s actions exactly after Bilbo hugged them, while Pippin stared at Gandalf, wonder writ large on his face as he ran up from where Merry lingered with his parents. But Pearl looked up boldly at Gandalf, refusing to show any fear. To her, he was just another male she could subject to the full battery of her charm, and she gave him her most winsome smile as Bilbo released her.
Pearl extended her hand to the wizard. “I see the passing years have not dulled you, my good Master Gandalf; you are as wise and as handsome as ever!”
Gandalf bowed and chuckled at Pearl’s obvious flattery. “And you, my dear child, are even bonnier and blither than when I saw you last.” He studied her for a moment, reflecting that the promise of beauty he had noted in the little girl had reached full fruition. He wondered if she still was as infatuated with Frodo as before, but before he could discreetly pursue the issue, Frodo sprinted up to the group at the gate.
“Pearl!” Frodo spun her around as he embraced her, and turned to Gandalf. “Forgive me, but Pearl is the one relative I’ve been waiting on all afternoon, so I must steal her away.”
“Go right ahead, my boy,” Bilbo said genially. “In fact, why don’t all of you sit down and eat some lunch before it’s all gone? I’ll pass out your presents later—I daresay Frodo and Gandalf will lend me a hand or two.”
“Of course we will, Bilbo. Come on, Pearl, there’s a good spot over here, with lots of shade, I know you like that—” Frodo and Pearl, chattering happily, wandered away with the rest of the Tooks in tow. Gandalf watched them thoughtfully, his brow furrowed. “Well, that rather answers my question,” he murmured. Bilbo looked at him in surprise, but the Brandybucks began to greet both host and wizard and prevented any inquiry.
“Hello, Bilbo,” Esmeralda said as she hugged him affectionately. “Here we all are, for better or for worse, including Lilac—you know no birthday party of yours would be complete without her.”
“No indeed! Glad to see you made it, Lilac darling. I do hope it wasn’t too bumpy a journey.” Lilac smiled at Bilbo’s solicitous question, for she was one of the few older relatives Bilbo cared about deeply.
“It was a pleasant trip, thanks to Sarry’s excellent carriage and driver, and also the fact that Lalia’s, hmm, illness kept her at Great Smials.”
Everyone laughed, even Gandalf, for he had suffered through enough confrontations with a disapproving Lalia to know both her sharp tongue and her expanding bulk. Bilbo grinned at Lilac. “You never lose your gift for the apt phrase, Lilac dear.”
“And you never lose yours for being generous, which is why I’m eager to sample the luxurious spread laid out on the tables.” Lilac peered at another elderly hobbit waving at her. “Is that Rory, Sarry? I can’t see well.”
“Yes, it is. Do you want to join him?”
“Please, if you don’t mind lending me your arm.” Lilac bowed her head regally to Bilbo and Gandalf. “We shall enjoy the party together later, I hope?”
“But of course,” said Bilbo. He kissed Lilac’s hand gently.
“Forgive me, Sarry, but I want to speak further to Bilbo and Gandalf,” Esmeralda said. “I’ll be by directly.”
“Take your time, Esmie—I’ll make sure to save some mushrooms for you.” Sarry kissed his wife before he and Merry aided Lilac in hobbling across the field to the table where Rory Brandybuck was holding court. Esmeralda ignored them, turning her gaze instead to where Frodo and Pearl were eating together, their laughter ringing out as they flirted with one another. She became aware that Gandalf was studying the young couple as well, his sardonic expression giving nothing obvious away. When she returned her attention to the wizard, he bowed deeply and straightened up with a twinkle in his eye, for he had long regarded Esmeralda one of the finest hobbits in the Shire.
“I am pleased to see you looking so well, Mistress Brandybuck. How are you faring at Brandy Hall?”
“Very good, thanks in large part to your protection, Master Gandalf,” replied Esmeralda. Unlike most of the Shire’s inhabitants, she had been aware from youth as to just how much they all owed to Gandalf’s faithful vigilance. She hesitated, and then nodded towards Frodo and Pearl. “They do make a pretty pair, don’t they?”
“Yes, they do.” Gandalf’s voice was studiously neutral.
“But sometimes I wonder if their hearts truly understand each other,” Esmeralda murmured. Bilbo overheard her and bristled up.
“Oh, come now, Esmie, you’ve been fussing for years about Pearl not really being the right girl for Frodo. I think they’ll do fine, especially now that Frodo’s come of age. I don’t see any other lass in the Shire who suits my heir better, and I hope they settle down quickly and ignore Lalia’s idiotic opposition.” He smiled at his cousin. “And you may get a nice surprise tonight when you see what I’ve done for our dear boy.”
“Oh? So you have been busy, haven’t you?” Esmeralda’s pensiveness disappeared, and she was her usual brisk self again. “Well, perhaps you are right.”
“Is that what you wanted to speak to me about?” Bilbo asked.
“Yes it was, but it can wait until later—privacy would be better upon reflection.” She gave Bilbo another hug and squeezed Gandalf’s hand. “And now I shall rejoin my ever-turbulent clan, for it looks like Merry and Pippin are up to something.” She hurried off as Bilbo watched her.
“You know, my dear Bilbo, Esmeralda may be correct. You might want to encourage Frodo to court a few others before settling on Pearl Took, lovely and charming though she may be,” Gandalf said softly above Bilbo’s head.
“You question my judgment?” Bilbo demanded as he glared up at his old friend.
“No, but you seem a bit anxious to see Frodo married. I have a great deal of respect for Esmeralda’s intelligence; you ought to listen to her more often.”
“It doesn’t matter what she thinks. Frodo’s quite in love with Pearl, and she with him, so it’s entirely too late to change their minds.” Bilbo sighed, his belligerence vanishing. “And surely you can understand why I want Frodo happy here in Bag End with a wife. He will need someone to cling to, after tonight.” His voice was barely audible.
Gandalf sighed as well. “Perhaps. But I still wish you had told Esmeralda what you intend. She would have been very helpful, and sure to keep Frodo safe while you are gone.”
Bilbo shook his head and glanced around furtively. “Too late for that, too, and we ought not to talk about it.” He scooped up an armful of presents. “Care to pick up that batch over there?”
Gandalf nodded, and followed Bilbo to where the most recent arrivals were sitting, his arms equally laden with gifts as he pondered the uncertain future of his two favorite hobbits.
A/N: A thousand apologies to all of my loyal readers for taking so long to update this story. I hope to keep a far steadier schedule of updating this autumn, real life permitting. Again, thank you for being patient.
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