Nothing of Note

by Primula

Chapter 52: Shifting

As the afternoon wore away into a summer evening, the sun slowly deepened toward golden and the berry wine slowly wore away the edges of Bilbo's worries. The bottle was nearly half-gone, mild and just sweet enough. He would have to remember to extend his compliments to Mrs. Goodbody, especially after he used up the second one back in Bag End.  Leaning on his elbows, he looked over at Frodo where he now lay in the soft clover near the table, picking at the leaves absently. 

Given time, their talk had wandered away from their present concerns about Lotho. It was always more pleasant having someone who fell so naturally into the same interests, thought Bilbo. Very pleasant. The comfortable silences were interspersed with the less comfortable but polite visiting with the various hobbits who took it upon themselves to come by their table. Not that any of the visitors had been prying - in fact, they had done little but offer their greetings, and some commentary on the weather and crops. There were just so many of them.... None had mentioned the Sackville-Bagginses, inquired about the Will, or even asked much about Frodo for the past couple of hours beyond acknowledging that he was there and giving occasional compliments.  Bilbo took this as a good sign: it meant the picnic was accomplishing what he had hoped. Word was getting around, and the 'mystery' lad from Buckland was no longer being regarded as a mystery.

Yes, it was good.  Given a little more time, the favor of the Hobbiton folk should shift well enough, assuming nothing unforeseen happened.  And in Hobbiton, it was rare for something unforeseen to happen at all that didn't directly involve his own instigation.

Through the shifting blue smoke of the small cookfires, he noticed Lobelia and Otho were packing up their basket and beginning to make their way out of the field. He was grateful to see it, and counted himself lucky to have avoided speaking with her entirely. Lobelia bunched her puffy yellow skirts up and awkwardly clambered through the low hedge on the opposite side, Otho following her lead. Anything to avoid coming closer to where Bilbo was sitting. 

Lotho wasn't with them, and Bilbo unobtrusively began scanning the green to find out where he had gone. When he finally did spot him, he was very surprised to note Ivy Goodbody walking slowly alongside him, talking with him. He couldn't help but wonder if the lass really did have some affection for Lotho aside from his supposed inheritance after all. For both of their sakes, he rather hoped she wasn't as fickle as she appeared to be.  He started to open his mouth to make a comment along these lines and thought better of it.  Frodo looked fairly relaxed, and there was no reason to remind him of her.

"What are you thinking about?" asked Frodo, twirling a clover blossom in his fingers.

"Eh. Nothing."

Frodo looked up at him. "I find that hard to believe."

"Why?"

"You almost said something just a moment ago, then you didn't. What was it?"

Bilbo's eyebrows went up.  He drew breath to speak but was interrupted by a fish.

Two fish, actually. Trout, dangling and glassy-eyed, their silver-red glossy flanks speckled with bits of dried leaves. Neatly speared on the white wood of a forked stick, they regarded him with a look of mute gaping surprise as they rapidly approached his face.

Bilbo gaped back at them uncomprehendingly for a split-second, his hands automatically coming up to ward them off before they could hit him. Nearby there were sudden exclamations of apology and dismay. The fish just as suddenly jerked away.

"Tom!" cried a horrified woman's voice. "Watch where you're going!" He turned to find Mrs.Cotton hurrying his way, young Rosie clutched and swinging on one hip, baby Nick jouncing on her shoulder and the rest of her family following in her wake.  Tom Cotton, for it had been his hand at the other end of the wayward stick, held the brace of trout close, his eyes almost at wide and glassy as theirs.

"I-I'm sorry! I'm sorry, Mr. Baggins! I .... they... "

"Tol-man Cot-ton!" said Mrs. Cotton in an unmistakable mother voice, reaching for his shoulder and pulling him further back. She gave him a little shake. "I told you to slow down and... oh, Mr. Baggins, I am so sorry... he didn't hit you with them, did he? I just knew that stick was going to be trouble, and Tom, how could you? Didn't you even notice where the end of that stick was? Can't you watch where you're going?" Another shake.

"Mrs. Cotton." said Bilbo.

"Too busy trying to run ahead of everyone... didn't you hear me calling you? I must have called you three times! Mr. Baggins, I do ask your forgiveness, these children are sometimes enough to drive any hobbit to distraction, I declare... but this wayward..."

"Mrs. Cotton," repeated Bilbo a bit louder, trying to be heard over her lecture, the children's voices and now Frodo's laughter. "It's all right. I'm not hurt."

"But, trout in your face, Mr. Baggins! I never..."

"It's all right!" he repeated, and tried to divert her. "Did you catch them yourself, Tom?"

Tom stood, still within the firm grasp of his mother's hands, looking a little shaken in more ways than one. "N...no sir. Mr. Baggins, sir. It was Uncle Will, sir."

Wilcome Cotton had come up after the rest, his arms full of blankets and clanking dishes wrapped up in a tablecloth, his other hand tugging young Jolly along. "What happened?" he asked.

"Tom hit Misser Baggins wif a fish!"  Rosie offered, wide-eyed.

"What? Hit him with a fish?" Will tried to peer over his mounded arms at his young niece and grinned. "That must have been somethin' to see. Where is he now?"

"Right here." said Bilbo drily. Seated on the bench, he had been hidden from Will's sight.

"Oop. Sorry Mr. Baggins, sir. No offense. And I meant Tom anyways... Are the trout all right?"

"Trout?" said Mrs. Cotton, rounding on him. "What about Mr. Baggins?"

This set Frodo off again.  Bilbo gave his laughing cousin a mock-glare then held up his hand. "No, Mrs. Cotton. It's all right. Sometimes these things happen. Go ahead and enjoy your picnic. No offense taken."

"Really, Mr. Baggins.... but if you're sure..."

"Yes, I'm sure. But Will,"

"Yes?"

"If you catch another one as fat as those are, I'd be glad to share it with you, eh?"

Wilcome Cotton shifted the blankets in his arms and smiled broadly. "Of course, Mr.Baggins - and Mr. Baggins also! I'll see if I can catch one for each of you."

Bilbo smiled, waving them on. "Then all is truly forgiven. Go on, now - lead the way, young Tom.  I'm sure your da has the coals all ready for those. No, no Mrs. Cotton. No more need be said. Yes, thank you."

As the entourage moved past them, Bilbo noted Will giving Frodo a friendly wink. Bilbo watched them go, then turned to him. "Well, I'd say that was quite an introduction from the Cotton family."

Frodo pushed himself up from the ground and dusted bits of clover blossom from his hands.  He looked at Bilbo.  "I wish I had some way to show you what you looked like just then," he began then went off into quiet laughter again.

Bilbo raised a brow at him. "Hmph. Quiet, you young rascal. You're going to deprive me of all my respectable dignity."

"You still have some?" Frodo wiped his eyes.

"Just for that, when Will brings us those trout I'll eat both of them myself. Bones and all."

"Very respectable, I'm sure. Besides, Will has offered to go fishing with me before, so I might just catch a few more for my own plate." Frodo smiled at him, then glanced past Bilbo and his smile faltered. "Oh. Not again." he groaned softly.

Bilbo looked back to find Ivy Goodbody coming their way, her brother following behind. There was no sign of Lotho.

Ivy's mood was considerably dampened from the last time they'd spoken with her; as she approached their table she looked troubled, and wouldn't meet their eyes. Both of the Goodbodys came to a stop. Her skirt swished slightly; she clutched a handful of it, as if thinking of taking a curtsy and then not.  Offal stopped slightly behind her and shifted his feet awkwardly in the brief silence.  Frodo seemed to be waiting for them to speak first.

"Good day," said Bilbo after a pause in which none of the younger ones said a word. "Can I help you with something?"

"Good day, Mr. Baggins," said Ivy in a low tone. "May I..." Offal nudged her slightly. "May we speak with Frodo for a moment?"

Bilbo glanced at his heir to see what he really thought of this, but Frodo had already taken refuge behind a polite facade.

"Of course, Miss Goodbody." Bilbo said, and gestured for Frodo to follow after them. He ignored the brief almost pleading look that flashed in Frodo's eyes. The lad was old enough to care for himself and no dimwit. He didn't need sheltering from such as this. Besides, Bilbo wanted to know what was afoot, especially as it might have something to do with Lotho, and the only way to find out was to hear it through him

Frodo reluctantly followed the two tweens off to the side, but not far.  Bilbo pretended to be very interested in straightening the tablecloth and rummaging in the basket, all the while keeping an eye and ear on the threesome.

They started out speaking in low tones, Frodo listened to them but didn't offer much in the way of comment. They kept glancing over at Bilbo, then around the green and into the hedges, as it afraid of being overheard. As they continued Bilbo was surprised to find that he really could understand most of what was being said.  He lowered his eyes and sharpened his ears.

Ivy  had been saying something, he couldn't tell what... There was a short comment from Frodo in response, then she started up again but her brother overrode her, raising his voice just enough to bring it into Bilbo's hearing.

"If he's so nice, what about the other day when he shoved you into that (something...)" he gestured.

She gestured back. "Well, he didn't mean to, he was just upset that I wanted to spend time with that instead of him. I was just..."

"And what about him forbidding you to speak to Frodo, just now?"

"Well, he was just jealous. He didn't mean to use such strong words.  And see, here I am speaking to him anyway. Lotho isn't stopping me..."

Offal wasn't taking it. He shook a finger at her face. "But you're already worried, because you know he'll be angry. He might even hurt you. You shouldn't have to be worried." He looked to Frodo to agree with him, though Frodo just watched them. "Don't you see it?  He acts like you belong to him, Ivy.  It's not like you're betrothed or anything..."
 
Her voice rose up. "What do you mean? We're too young to be betrothed!"

"And it's a good thing too. He's mean to you, and you just keep making excuses for him! It's always 'he didn't mean to this and he was sorry that he that.'

"But he can't help it sometimes, he's just..."

"Like that! There you go again! Well, if he gets mean to you any more, even one more time, I'm talking to Ma and Da about it."

"Offal, no! Don't do that! They wouldn't understand..."

"And I'll tell 'em that you've been after Frodo here too. And he's not anywhere close to being of age. You're same age as me, aren't you Frodo? See? No where close!"

"But Ma said I could..."

"I don't think Ma knows how old he is. He acts way older. And you knew it too, but didn't tell her."

Ivy began to wail a protest, and was hushed by her brother. She held a hand to her mouth and glanced around, then continued. "But, they'll make me have a chaperone! I'll be the only lass on our lane who has to be followed around everywhere, like a babysitter! No one else on our lane has a chaperone..."

"What do you think I'm having to do already?" said Offal with disgust.

"What?"

"Not because they told me to, but because I don't trust him. And you keep doing stuff you shouldn't too. You need a chaperone, Ivy."

"Well, who made you the boss? I'm older than you. You're not Da, and Lotho and Frodo and me can do what we want. Right, Frodo?"  She appealed to Frodo, hands out in a sort of supplication, though he still kept his thoughts on the matter to himself, his arms lightly crossed. He just looked at her.  Bilbo suppressed a wince at having Lotho and Frodo lumped together in one sentence that way.
 
Offal's face was stern. "I'm talking to Da."

"Offal! No! No, don't!"

The lad turned and took a couple firm steps, but she ran past him, crying. He stopped and watched as she ran towards their mother in the distance, then turned back to where Frodo still stood.  The two of them exchanged a couple low words, then came walking back towards the table where Bilbo sat, fluffing the wilted flowers in the vase for something to do.

He looked up with a careful semblance of innocent interest. "Well, I hope what needed to be said is taken care of?"

"Yessir, Mr. Baggins." said Offal formally. He cleared his throat and pulled back his shoulders into a more formal stance. "Sir, I thought you ought to know that my sister, Ivy has been... well, she's been spending time with Lotho for a while, and they've had a bit of a falling out so she thought she'd try to get Frodo here to replace him. As a beau, sir. She didn't tell our Ma how young he was, and I just wanted you to know that she won't be bothering him anymore. It wasn't my Ma's doing, sir. She gave permission for Ivy to be talking with him because she didn't know. I just wanted to apologize for my family, to you, and to Frodo here too."

Bilbo nodded. "Apology accepted. You are growing up to be a very well-spoken young lad and I appreciate your telling me. That took courage."

Offal relaxed slightly and pink tinged his cheeks and ears. "Also, sir, I wanted to let you know that Lotho's been telling her tales about... well, about you sir, and I don't think they were true ones. I just thought you ought to know."

"And I thank you again, though I am well-aware of such tales. It doesn't surprise me. Will your sister be all right? She looked a little... distressed when she left just now."

"Oh yes. She gets like that. Thank you for inquiring." He shifted his feet, glancing back at where his sister and mother were talking, then looked at the vase of flowers that Bilbo had fluffed, seeking a more comfortable topic. He touched one of the drooping purple petals. "Huh. Good thing Lotho didn't want to come over here with her. He's allergic to primulas. Did you know that? Makes him turn all bright red wherever he touched it. His mother has a salve she puts on it, but oh, you should smell it. Or rather, you wouldn't want to. Ivy pulled up all the primulas from our flowerbeds and Ma was pretty mad. I heard that they make an oil or something from it, for the healers. Can't imagine for what... " He suddenly stopped, aware he was doing all the talking. "Anyway. I'll be on my way, then."

Bilbo nodded. "Very well. Yes, I see you have other matters you need to tend to. Have a good afternoon...or what's left of it. I suppose it will be evening before too much longer. We'll have to have you over for tea sometime soon, so you and Frodo might have some time to talk uninterrupted, if you would like that."

"Yessir. Thank you, sir. I would!" He suddenly smiled, gave Frodo a nod and a grin and paced off towards his family.

"Now there's a good lad." said Bilbo. "I think I may have misjudged him. Better words than I ever expected to hear from his like. Quite a row he had there with his sister, but his intentions are good ones. Interesting how her loyalties shift to and from Lotho."

"You heard it? I wondered. It sounds like he's doing the right thing, though I can see it must be strange, with him being the younger one and all."  Frodo reached out and ran a finger along the wilted primula petals, then looked at his hand as if expecting something to happen.  "Did you bring these flowers on purpose then?"

"What? No, I expect Daisy cut them this morning, from whatever seemed brightest. But I'll have to keep it in mind. Don't you think they'd look nice filling my windowboxes, or better yet, along the front walkway?"

Frodo grinned at him. "And you called me a rascal. While you're at it, how about a wreath of them on the front door?"

"I wonder what they use that oil for. I've heard of it."

"What would you do with it if you had it?"

"I have no idea! Perhaps something will come to me." he chuckled. "And speaking of something coming, it's getting on towards sunset. Should we shift over to someone's fire to join in on while there's still good seats available?  I still have the rest of this bread, and cheese, and there's a little spongecake in here..." He lifted the basket back up to the table.  "Hm. not enough to share. We'll have to finish it off."  He pulled the cake into two pieces and handed one to Frodo.

While he chewed his own piece, he looked around at the handful of fires that were gathering hobbits around them. "There. How about that one? Where the Cottons are?  That one looks like a good group." He took up the last of the spongecake and bit into it.

Frodo's was already gone. "They won't think you're only there for their fish?"

"Mmf." he said, then swallowed and laughed. "No, I'll tell them that you are. You're the greedy tween, not poor old me. Here, help me with this basket, I'll carry the bottles." He stuffed the last bit of cake into his mouth. "Off fvwe go."