"Good morning, Frodo. Where are you off to so early?" Bartimus Brockbank fell into step with his friend as they crossed the market square, where folk were still setting out their wares.

A light breeze carried with it the rich scent of yeast from Olin Baker's kitchens, so Frodo only had to follow his nose. "Bilbo has sent me to place the bakery order for our party."

"Ah, the party of parties. I hope we'll be eating more than bread."

"Don't worry. There will be a cake as well," Frodo replied with a grin. "A very big cake we hope. Mistress Gamgee usually bakes our birthday cake but this one will need to be so big that it won't fit in her oven."

Bartimus' face took on an expression of near ecstasy. "Aye. Daisy was only telling me last night about the cakes her Ma has made in past years. She says that sometimes the flour and butter came from outside the Shire, and made cakes so light they were ready to float away."

Frodo gave his friend's bicep a playful punch. "I rather think the lightness had as much to do with Mistress Gamgee's skill, as the ingredients. What brings you to Master Baker's door, anyway? I can't believe that Daisy has not baked this week."

"No indeed! Daisy's been fattening me up nicely." Bartimus patted his stomach, which certainly looked a little rounder than it had before his new wife had started feeding him. "Daisy wants some yeast so that she can bake extra bread today. Pennyfoil Grubb was out helping the midwife yesterday and hasn't had time to bake for her family."

By now they stood at the bakery door. The shop was closed so Frodo rang a bell, and the door was opened by one of Olin Baker's assistants. The lad was all over flour but gave a good-natured grin when he saw Frodo. "We ain't proper open yet but the Master said to send ye through to the bakehouse, Master Baggins."

He let Frodo slip by, but when Bartimus would have followed, he threw out an arm to block his way. Bartimus stumbled to a halt. "And what do ye want, Barti?"

"Just a half ounce of yeast, Bert. Daisy's a mind to do some baking and has run out."

"We've ten minutes yet, to openin'." Bert folded his arms but there was a twinkle in his eye. "I should keep ye waitin'."

Bartimus gave his most winning smile. "Awww, have a heart, Bert. You know what a temper Daisy can have if she's put out."

"I do. And mayhap I'd like seein' ye on the sharp end of her tongue, after ye ran out the Ivy Bush without buying me that half the other night."

Bartimus shrugged. "Well, it seems it's either the sharp edge of her tongue for being late home that night, or the sharp edge this morning for being late with the yeast." He slapped his chest dramatically. "I'm doomed."

"Looks like 'tis up to me to rescue ye, then. I'll fetch that yeast if ye promise me that half next time we're in the Ivy."

"Bert, I'll do you one better than that. If you get me that yeast, double quick, I'll leave two coppers behind the bar for you to have a half on me the next time you call in at the Ivy Bush."

Bert grinned. "Done."

Frodo loosened his waistcoat as soon as he stepped into the bakehouse. It was a hive of activity, with loaves being hauled out of the ovens at one end of the huge room and cakes and buns being filled and iced at the other. Olin spotted him at once and led Frodo into his small office. Once there, noting his customer's discomfort, he opened a window and offered him a glass of water and a seat.

"You've come with the final order, I take it, Master Baggins."

Frodo handed over a folded sheet of paper and Olin held it to the light of the window in order to read. "That's pretty much as I talked of with your uncle. Do you have the coin?" He spread his hands apologetically. "I'd usually take cash on delivery, but this is such a large order. I'll have to buy in extra flour and other ingredients."

"Oh yes. Uncle Bilbo has sent me with the money." Frodo reached into his breeches pocket and held out a small purse of coins. Olin's examination was only cursory, for Bilbo Baggins had never been known to short-change anyone.

"It's a pleasure doing business with you, Master Baggins. I shall be taking charge of the cake myself. It will be layered with buttercream and jam and dressed with a thick icing. I doubt Hobbiton will have seen its like before, especially once it gets all the candles atop."

Frodo stood. "I look forward to sampling it on the day."

"Of course, if you need us to do any other baking we'll do our best to accommodate."

"We wouldn't dream of imposing upon you further, Master Baker. Uncle Bilbo has the local ladies baking buns, pies and flans for the afternoon tea, and appointed Mistress Gamgee to marshal them all."

Olin chuckled. "I wish her joy of that. It'll be like herding cats." He escorted Frodo out himself, but not before pressing upon him two fat buns, filled with raspberries and whipped cream. "For your tea, with my compliments," he insisted.

Once outside, Frodo paused to refasten his waistcoat, groaning inwardly as he spotted Orton Sandyman sauntering toward him. Straightening, Frodo pasted on a polite smile. "Good morning, Orton. If you've come to buy bread I think Master Baker will be opening the shop in a moment."

Frodo was beginning to think that a sneer was Orton's normal resting face, for it was pinned in place even this early in the day. "I see you got served alright. Trust a Baggins to find the back door."

Taking a deep, supposedly cleansing, breath, Frodo replied firmly. "I had party business with Master Baker, and you will note that I went through the front door in order to conduct it."

"Party business, is it? If you're catering for so many, no doubt the baker will be needing extra supplies." Frodo could almost see the calculations being made in Orton Sandyman's eyes. Extra flour would be needed, and the nearest flour mill was that owned by the Sandyman family.

"I assume so. I'll leave that up to the baker. Good morning, Orton." Frodo strode away before Orton could prepare any more snide remarks.

Less than a week later, Frodo opened Bag End's large round door one evening, to find a no less round but florid and rather distressed-looking Olin, mopping his brow as he stood upon the step. Before either could speak Bilbo appeared from the kitchen.

"Well, here's a surprise. Don't keep our guest standing on the doorstep Frodo. It's a long haul up the Hill from Hobbiton. Come in Olin." As he continued to speak, Bilbo led Olin toward the kitchen. "Frodo and I were just about to have a snack. You can sample someone else's baking for once. I've given my nephew the Baggins family fruit scone recipe. It's won prizes you know … a big family secret."

By this time Olin was being pressed into a chair and Frodo had set a cup of tea in front of him. "I thank you for the tea, Mister Baggins. It's a warm evening and a steep hill. But let me tell you why I've come before I accept more of your hospitality. I'm afraid I've got bad news."

"Oh dear. Whatever is the matter, Olin? And we've been friends for long enough for you to call me Bilbo, surely."

"I thank you for the honour but you may want to withdraw it when you hear what I've got to say." Olin fished in his jacket pocket and laid Bilbo's purse of coins on the kitchen table. "I'm afraid I can't bake your bread and party cake. I've not enough flour for the job."

Bilbo dropped into a seat opposite. "I thought you were going to purchase more?"

Olin threw up his plump white hands. "I was, but it's going to cost twice what I expected. Ted Sandyman says it's something to do with…now what was it? Ah, yes. It's to do with supply and demand. Seems the more people want something, the more it costs. I don't understand such flummery myself. If flour costs one silver penny a sack on Tuesday I don't see how the same sack can cost two silver pennies on Wednesday. The flour hasn't gone and done anything overnight now, has it?"

"Ahhhh." Bilbo calmly placed a scone on Olin's plate and pushed the butter dish toward him. "I should have guessed that Ted Sandyman would be behind it." Sensing Frodo seething at his side, Bilbo patted the lad's hand as he continued to address the worried baker. "Not to fret, my dear chap. I've ordered extra flour from Buckland for the other baking. I shall just send another letter to Old Rory and increase the order. If necessary, I'm sure that the Thain will be able to send some too. Most of his family are invited, after all." Bilbo pushed the coin purse back toward Orin. "There now. The problem is solved. Do tell me what you think of Frodo's scones. Speaking for myself, I think he added just a touch too much soda."

It was no surprise to either Baggins when, a few days later, they were accosted by Ted Sandyman. They were crossing the Market Square, having completed their grocery shopping, and had decided upon a half at the Ivy Bush before returning home for their lunch. They met Orton's father, coming out of the door of the establishment, and looking a little unsteady, despite the early hour.

Ted lurched forward, poking a finger into Bilbo's sternum. "You think you're so high and mighty, don't you? Well, you'll not put me out of business by buying your flour from away. The Sandyman mill has been going since the Shire was founded."

Frodo would have stepped forward to protect his older uncle but Bilbo laid a restraining hand on his arm, calmly standing his ground to meet Ted, toe to toe. "As someone who has made an extensive study of Shire history, I can tell you that your mill was actually constructed by your great, great grandfather, who was born long after the Shire was settled. As for your accusation…my actions were merely a matter of what I believe you coined, "supply and demand". I had a demand for flour, which you advised you could not supply at the price I wished to pay. I therefore approached other millers, who were happy to supply my needs at the price offered." Bilbo offered a thin smile to the now spluttering Ted Sandyman. "After all, I would not wish to impose upon your supplies by making unfair demands upon them."

Frodo had to turn away to hide his grin, as the inebriated Ted struggled to make sense of Bilbo's words. In the end, he gave up, and Bilbo stepped nimbly aside as Ted tried to push past him. "Bloody Baggins," was all Ted shouted as he wove his way, rather unsteadily, through the market crowds.

The two Bagginses exchanged a chuckle as they stepped into the crowded tap room of the Ivy Bush, to be greeted by a round of applause and cries of, "That told him!" and, "'bout time someone put the bugger in his place."

It was the very next week that two sturdy ponies drew a neatly appointed cart, bearing the crest of the Master of Buckland, up the Hill. A pair of tidily dressed hobbits jumped down outside the gate to Bag End, and one began stripping off the canvas while the other knocked on the door. It was Frodo who opened it, and his face beamed as he jumped forward to wrap the rather rotund lad in a strong hug, before leaning back to hold him at arm's length.

"Fredy! What are you doing here? If you've come for the party you're a bit early, although you're no less welcome!" He looked beyond his friend, to where the contents of the cart were being revealed. "Has Merry come with you?"

Fredy grinned. "No, that's Berilac. Shame on you! Have you been so long from the Hall that you don't recognise your cousins now? Never mind. I suppose we've all changed since we were running around, stealing mushrooms and dodging our tutors. I have brought a load of party acceptances with me, however, including one from Mister Saradoc, Mistress Esmeralda and young Merry." He trotted off down the garden path. "Come on, Frodo. Don't just stand there. All this flour needs to be under cover before nightfall. We don't want it getting damp."

Frodo ran after his childhood friend, and began helping Berilac and Fredegar with the disposition of flour, butter and an assortment of other comestibles. Bilbo directed from the hallway. "Will you be staying, lads? There's beds for you if you need them, and we can put up your ponies in Arty's barn at the bottom of the lane."

"Thank you, Mister Baggins, but Mister Saradoc said we were not to impose, and booked a room and stabling at the Green Dragon in Bywater," Berilac replied as he dumped a sack of flour in the large pantry.

Fredegar called out from the smaller, where he was making room for some butter and a large box of straw-packed eggs. "We met a sullen kind of chap in Bywater. He sent us completely the wrong way and we had to turn about to cross the stone bridge, or we'd have been here earlier."

Bilbo grimaced. "Did you ask at the Mill by any chance?"

"Yes. A scruffy looking fellow was leaning on the wall. He had a face as sour as three quarts of week-old milk." Fredy leaned out from the pantry, where he was struggling to stack the sacks neatly. "I hope he's not a friend of yours."

Bilbo snorted. "Oh, he's no friend of mine, although why he's taken so against me I'm sure I don't know. Everyone knows how polite I am."

Frodo hooted with laughter. "Uncle! You have the greatest gift for saying the most impolite things, politely, that I have ever encountered." He studied the ponies, who were dozing, legshot, in the lane. "Have you at least time for a cup of tea before you return to Bywater? Your ponies look content enough for the moment but I can ask Sam Gamgee to water and keep an eye on them for you, if you like."

"Alright. Some tea, and perhaps a bite?" Fredy asked hopefully.

"Good. You can sample my latest batch of scones. Bilbo says I've added too much fruit but I disagree."

"Lead on, my friend. I shall sample several and give you my expert opinion," Fredegar announced with mock sincerity.

As September arrived Frodo found himself in a strange state that hovered between excitement and dread. Bilbo had shown no inclination to change his mind about leaving, and yet Frodo still clung to some hope that his beloved uncle would change his mind at the last minute. Even the arrival of visitors at the end of the first week of September failed to stamp upon that hope.

The first that Frodo knew of said visitors was the sound of singing, in voices far too deep to come from a hobbit throat. Bilbo's head whipped up and he almost ran to the door and down the garden path. Frodo followed with a little more caution, for it was already dark. All down the lane and even below, in the village, he could see light spilling from open doors as the curious residents stepped into their gardens to watch the arrival of a cart, with four dwarven occupants.

Oh, Hobbiton had seen dwarves before. They traded regularly at markets throughout the Shire, but they had never arrived in the middle of the night and there was something different about these. Mail glinted openly in the moonlight and axes hung at their broad belts. The sides of the cart were hung with several strange shields and the cart itself was piled high with assorted packages.

When they reached the gate of Bag End the dwarves dismounted as one and bowed to Bilbo, with a chorus of, "At your service."

Bilbo bowed in return, replying with the traditional, "Bilbo Baggins at yours."

When all had straightened Bilbo came forward to embrace one with a white beard, plaited and so long that he had to tuck it into his belt. "My dear Lofar, welcome. I had not dared to hope you would come. It is good to see you again."

Lofar threw back his green hood, to reveal that he was balding, although not so much that what hair he had on his head could not be seen to match the beard. "How could I miss the opportunity to go travelling with my dear friend, before old age makes invalids of us both?" Even as he said the words his eyes narrowed as he took in Bilbo's robust appearance.

"Invalids? Nonsense." Bilbo cleared his throat, before turning to Lofar's companions. "I don't believe I recognise your friends?"

"Ack. My apologies. This is Nar, Anar, and Hannar. You did not meet them in Erebor but they have heard so many tales about Burglar Baggins that they wanted to meet you."

Bilbo gave his broadest grin. "And I am very pleased to meet you." Behind him, Frodo cleared his throat. "Oh dear. Now I am become remiss in my introductions." Bilbo threw an arm about his nephew. "Gentle sirs, this is my nephew and heir, Frodo Baggins. It is his coming of age that you are here to help celebrate." If he noticed his nephew's enquiring glance he did not acknowledge it. "Frodo, Lofar is a friend from my final days in Erebor. He ensured that Gandalf and I were safely escorted, at least to the borders of Mirkwood."

"Good evening to you, Master Baggins, and may I offer my early congratulations?"

Frodo smiled. "Thank you, sir, although this is a joint birthday. Would you like some help unloading your cart, then I can show you where to stable your ponies."

"Thank ye, laddie," Nar replied. "We can handle the unpacking, but I would appreciate an introduction to yer stable. I saw a cart track away at the bottom

of the hill."

"Yes. I'll take you down the lane and introduce you to Arty Sedgebury. He has been told to expect you."

"We'll only need stabling for the one night. I'll be driving the cart home tomorrow." As Frodo led Nar down the lane, the other dwarves began unpacking various boxes and bags, and by the time they started back up the hill they met the empty cart being drawn down.

Whilst dwarves were not as tall as men they were, on the whole, a good foot or more taller than most hobbits. Bag End had higher ceilings than many a cottage or smial but, it seemed to Frodo that they had shrunk considerably in the past hour. Lofar and Anar were already setting the dining table for supper and Bilbo was handing dishes of food to Hannar. Frodo stepped in to help, and by the time Nar returned, most of the food was on the table and several flagons of ale drawn from the keg in the lower cellar. As they began to seat themselves Bilbo clapped his hands for attention.

"My dear guests. Thank you very much for providing your help in the party preparations. We shall endeavour to make you comfortable in Bag End, but if there is anything missing in your accommodations please let me know."

Lofar looked about the cosy little dining room, with its laden table and fine china. "Mister Baggins, if you keep feeding us like this I think we'll be hard pressed to find any fault."

Bilbo chuckled. "I believe hobbits and dwarves share much in common when it comes to the pleasures of the table, and I made sure to lay in an extra keg of beer. Now, please help yourselves. You've had a long journey on travel rations."

Nar chuckled. "Now I see why hobbits go in fer round doors."

All laughed, and soon dishes and platters were being passed too and fro across the snowy linen tablecloth. Ale flowed freely, talk even more so, and Frodo found himself deep in conversation with Anar who, at forty years old, was the youngest of the guests. As every good guest should, all the dwarves helped with the clearing away afterwards and then everyone adjourned to the parlour. Pipes were lit and tales were spun into the wee small hours, and it was not until Frodo started nodding off in his chair that anyone considered taking to their beds.

Over the next few days, Frodo took sole responsibility for opening party acceptances, while Bilbo and the three remaining dwarves locked themselves away in the study. Bilbo said that they were labelling mathoms and, from the raucous laughter, Frodo decided he was better off not knowing what, precisely, was being written on those labels. Bilbo had a keen sense of humour when allowed free rein and Frodo suspected the dwarves were inciting him to extend those reins daily.

On the thirteenth of the month Gandalf the Wizard arrived and all of Hobbiton was abuzz with the prospect of a firework display by the legendary artist of pyrotechnics.

On the evening of his arrival, Frodo and the three dwarves left Bilbo and Gandalf to get reacquainted. Much as Frodo wanted to find out what the wizard had been up to since their last meeting, he sensed that Bilbo wished to share a pipe with his old friend.

Breakfast the next day was a merry affair, however, with Bag End's kitchen filled almost to overflowing. Gandalf helped himself to a third slice of toast and Frodo marvelled anew at how small it looked in that large, calloused hand. "Well, Master Frodo, what have you been up to since our last meeting?"

Frodo grinned. "Not much. We live a very quiet life here, in the Shire. I would be more interested to hear what you have been doing…aside from making your excellent fireworks that is."

"Not much? I heard tell that, upon at least one occasion, you hared off after cattle thieves…and beyond your borders, too."

The dwarves fell silent, listening intently.

"How?" Frodo closed his mouth, which had dropped open in astonishment. "Oh. Bilbo told you. It was not very far beyond our borders after all. And whilst it is true to say that we chased them, we did not chase them off. That was done for us, although we had no opportunity to thank our benefactors. Beyond the fact that they appeared to be some of the Big Folk, we have no way of guessing just who they were or why they helped us."

"Oh, Bilbo told me nothing of it." The wizard fixed Bilbo with a keen gaze and the older hobbit squirmed a little uncomfortably. "But we wizards have ways of gathering news."

Lofar shook his head. "Bilbo told us that the Shire was a peaceful place. We thought that the world would grow brighter with the destruction of the Necromancer, but instead it seems to have grown darker of late. My people have taken to wearing mail when travelling, even this far north."

"Oh, the Necromancer was not destroyed. Only weakened for a while and banished." Gandalf smiled. "But that is not a topic of conversation suitable for this merry occasion. Frodo, are you looking forward to coming of age?"

Frodo chuckled. "I don't think it will make much difference to my life." Then he sobered. "Although I shall miss Bilbo very much."

Bilbo reached across to pat his hand. "You will do very well, lad. It's time you struck out on your own and I have no fears for you."

"But I'm not striking out on my own. You are. Are you really certain you want to be tramping about…out there?" He waved vaguely at the world beyond the kitchen window. "Especially in light of what Lofar just said."

"Frodo Baggins, you sound like some old mother hen. I shall be perfectly safe with Lofar and his friends."

"Aye, Master Frodo. There's few who would survive an encounter with three armed dwarves, even these strange men you tell of. Burglar Baggins could probably take care of himself, but he'll be safe enough with us. Don't you worry."

Bilbo sniffed. "I do wish you would stop calling me that, Lofar. It is not strictly burglary when one is simply taking back what was stolen from one."

Lofar's beard parted in a broad grin. "Now, now, Bilbo. You know well that I speak only in jest. Your name is held in high esteem in the Iron Hills and beyond."

Bilbo subsided, somewhat mollified. "Yes, well. The title has been bandied about in the Shire with a lot less esteem, I'm afraid. My little adventure has gained me a reputation for eccentricity, and eccentricity is rather frowned upon here."

Frodo chuckled. "Stop playing the martyr, Uncle. It's a trait you have played upon shamelessly. I believe you rather enjoy scandalising people."

Now Bilbo grinned. "It can be rather fun, pricking the pomposity of folk like the Sackville-Baggins'."

Folk in Hobbiton had hardly time to draw breath when more carts arrived, driven by yet more dwarves, and containing many large and unwieldy bundles. Both carts and dwarves did not stay once they had unloaded their packages, although it was common knowledge that at least three of the first party and one wizard were staying at Bag End.

The following morning, Bilbo sat at the scrubbed kitchen table of number three, Bagshot Row. "How are things going, Bell?"

Bell Gamgee pushed a newly poured mug of tea across to her guest. "I think me and Marigold have all settled. Ye've sorted lunch and the main dinner, so me and the ladies don't need to fret on those. And Master Baker has the birthday cake and the breads well in hand. So there's only cakes and sandwiches and the like to be done for afternoon tea."

"Will Orin be delivering the bread here?"

"Bless you, no. We've no room for such numbers in this little kitchen. We'd be trippin' over each other. I hope ye don't mind, but I sent Marigold to speak to one of yer dwarf guests, yesterday."

"Did you, indeed? She seemed rather wary of them when she called at the back door a few of days ago."

Bell sat down, placing a dish of butter beside the cheese scones already set out, and signalled for Bilbo to help himself. "Well, I don't want ye to take no offence, but dwarves is all well and good out in the open. In a smial there seems all together too much of them."

Bilbo frowned as he sliced a scone and spread butter. "There are only three of them, Bell. You've seen more than that at market over the years."

"'Tis not the numbers that gives pause, but the size. They look bigger indoors somehow, and they've altogether more hair than a body has a right to grow. 'Tis alright atop a head or foot, but all that stuff on their faces hides what they're thinkin', if ye take my meanin'." She winced. "I wouldn't want to get stood on by one of them boots neither."

Her neighbour chuckled. "Dwarves do take a great pride in their beards." He leaned in with a conspiratorial wink. "Even the ladies have them, you know."

As he knew she would be, Bell was scandalised. "The poor lasses! Have they no knives? I've heard tell that big folk use them to scrape hair off their faces."

"Oh, they don't shave. A well turned-out beard is source of great pride to lady dwarves, and they decorate them with all manner of beads and ornament."

"Well, I never did." Bell took a deep swallow of fortifying tea.

"But we have become distracted. What was the purpose of young Marigold's visit?"

"Oh, aye. Well, ye said as how ye was goin' to have big tents put up, and it seemed to us that if ye could put one up a bit early, we could use that for all the sandwich makin' and the like. Marigold said she spoke to someone called Lofar, and he seemed happy enough to do it. He said all the tents would be up by the night afore anyhow, and we could choose whatever one we fancied, exceptin' the big one."

"Well, the party itself won't start until eleven in the morning, so you and the ladies will have plenty of time to prepare. Have you all the ingredients you need? I don't want anyone out of pocket."

"Bless ye, Mister Bilbo, we've more than enough. In fact, it pains me to say it, but I reckon one or two have taken more than they need." Bell's sniff declared her low opinion of anyone who would take such a liberty.

Bilbo only waved his hand dismissively. "No need to worry about that. There will be plenty, I am sure. And if someone gets to keep a few eggs or a pound of flour for their efforts I won't begrudge it."

Bell shook her head. "There's some in the Shire as call ye mean with yer treasure, Bilbo Baggins, but those of us who've had the pleasure of gettin' to know ye, know that's not nearly true. I reckon ye've, long ago, given away more than ye ever brought back from yer adventurin'."

Bilbo surprised her by blushing. "Wealth is no good sitting in a box. I'm no dragon, after all."

The final days before the big one became a blur to Frodo, and he would remember little of them. Relatives began arriving from all across the Shire. Some stayed with family, others at the local inns and yet others set up tents in one of Tom Cotton's pastures, loaned for the occasion.

On the sixteenth of September Bilbo called together all the children of Hobbiton, provided buckets and offered one farthing for every bucket of dung they collected from the Party Field. In truth, the youngsters would have done it for free, for it was a regular task whenever the field was appropriated for events. It was a fine arrangement. Tom had his pasture for most of the year and his sheep kept the grass cropped for any parties or events. As for the collected dung…well…that enriched many a compost heap.

Like the rest of Hobbiton Frodo went to bed on the seventeenth with no intimation that he would awaken the next morning, to discover that Lofar and his companions had marked out the Party Field, and already laid some of the ropes for the pavilions, recently delivered. By the evening of the eighteenth the pavilions were raised and a new entrance dug to the field, consisting of a white gate and several fine stone steps.

Along with all of Bagshot Row, most of the Hobbiton children, and several other interested parties, Frodo stood before the fine new entrance.

"'Tis a bit grand for a sheep pasture," Ham Gamgee declared with a frown.

Tom Cotton climbed the new steps to check the latch on the sturdy white gate, opening and closing it several times. "All I'm interested in is whether it will keep my sheep off the lane, and it looks to be more than fit for that."

Frodo laughed. "Your sheep will grow so proud of such a well appointed pasture that they'll refuse to go anywhere else, Farmer Cotton. I suspect you'll have more problems trying to get them to leave, than you will have keeping them in."

There was a chorus of chuckles as Frodo strolled back up the lane to Bag End. Sam dropped into step. "Will Mister Gandalf be setting off his fireworks at the start of the party, do you think?"

"Well, as we shall be starting at eleven in the morning, I don't think so. It would be too light to do them justice. I believe he and Bilbo were talking of having them after sunset, just before we sit down to supper."

"Oh. I hadn't thought of that. I'd like to thank you, Master Frodo, for inviting us Gamgees to sit in the big tent with your family. We wasn't expectin' such an honour."

Frodo clapped him on the back. "Dear Sam, we wanted friends with us, as well as family. And, anyway, I count you and all at Number Three as family. Bilbo and I had all of you at the top of our list."

"Thank you, sir." Sam began to whistle a merry tune as they parted ways outside the garden shed, and Frodo smiled. As Sam grew older he was becoming a good companion.

On the twentieth a huge fire-pit was dug at the north end of the field and a couple of spits set up. It was rumoured that they would be roasting not just a pig, but a whole cow. A pig was roasted for every Harvest Reel but nobody in Hobbiton had ever attempted a cow.

"It'll not be cooked through, even if they start this minute," Ted Sandyman declared. "We shall all die of the food poisoning."

Others were more optimistic and soon bets were being laid on how long it would take, and whether it would be cooked in time for the birthday dinner.

They would discover the next day, which dawned cloudy. A fire was lit and dwarves began taking turns at the spit handle whilst, around them, cooks from establishments across the Shire began to set up their own kitchens. The owners of the Ivy Bush were particularly busy, having all their bedrooms filled to capacity, as well as serving food to those folk who had not thought to provide their own, when camping in the nearby field. Some locals, noting the opportunity, set up tables in the market square, where they sold pastries, pies and other comestibles. None of the usual sellers took exception, for there was trade enough for all.

Bilbo and Frodo were kept busy, answering callers, who seemed to want to advise them in person that, yes, they would definitely be attending on the morrow, and at what time should they arrive? The notice Bilbo had Frodo tack to the gate had not slowed the stream one jot. Most were only hoping to get a glimpse of a dwarf or wizard. It was even rumoured that Mad Baggins had invited a troll or two, and Sam chased away several children caught trying to peep through the parlour window.

Frodo chuckled at the thought of accommodating trolls, for Bag End would surely burst at the seams with just one more guest. He could not begin to imagine how Bilbo had coped with thirteen dwarves and a wizard, even if only for one night. As it was, he kept tripping over stray boots, almost sitting upon assorted musical instruments and, on more than one occasion, had been hit upon the head when Gandalf's staff toppled out of the umbrella stand in the hall.

Frodo was sure that he would not sleep a wink on the evening of the twenty-first, but he was wrong. After Gandalf had wished him a goodnight he fell into bed, and did not stir until he smelled first breakfast.

Bell Gamgee arrived at the field directly after second breakfast and marvelled at the sight. There were tents and pavilions of various kinds. Some were just big enough to hold a few beer barrels and a makeshift plank bar. Others had been set with tables and benches for eating. The biggest was so huge that it enclosed the field's one tree, and many tables were arranged within. One stood beneath the lantern hung tree, with two high-backed, ribbon bedecked chairs, from Bag End's parlour. Indeed, one of the dwarves was just tying on the last ribbon when he spotted the lady. Finishing the bow, he swept off his cap and bowed low. "Good morning, Mistress. Would you like me to show you to the tent we've set aside for you and your ladies?"

A little flustered at such courtesy from a dwarf, Bell gave a quick bob in reply. "If ye please." She fell into step as Lofar shortened his own and led the way, weaving between guy ropes and tables. "Ye've done a grand job. I've not seen the like of this, even at the Lithe Fair in Michel Delvin'. And with just the three of ye I hear."

Lofar grinned. "Well, we may have had a bit of help from a wizard." When they reached the north corner, where kitchens were still being set up by inn keepers from far and wide, he drew aside the flap to a fair sized tent. "Here we are. I think this should be big enough, but we can lift the sides if not. There'll be no rain today."

Several scrubbed trestle tables had been arranged down the centre and Bell nodded approval. "'Twill do very well, thank ye. Did Mister Bilbo say where he wanted us to set out the food when we've finished?"

Lofar shrugged. "You could leave it here. I'll set Hannar to keep an eye on it, so you and your ladies can enjoy the party. When it's time for tea we'll just lift the sides of the tent for you."

Bell beamed. "That's good of ye, Mister Lofar." She wagged a finger. "Tell him to watch out fer the tweens. If they get in here they'll strip it faster than a score of rats in a barn. Ye've not seen eatin' 'till ye've seen hobbit tweens. I do swear they grow hollow legs."

Lofar laughed as he departed. "Don't you worry, Mistress Gamgee. In that, they've much in common with dwarves. Hannar will have their measure."

The occupants of Bag End had awoken very early that morning. A great many people called with presents, for it was not considered polite to do so in public. As Frodo was coming of age, there were many more than usual.

Bilbo handed over his gift before Frodo had even got out of bed, being a highly polished copy of the front door key. The first caller was Hamfast Gamgee, however, bringing a gift from the entire Gamgee household, and soon Frodo's new front door key was hanging from a sturdy silver chain, finished with a fob of polished amber. Frodo was touched, for it must have cost a large proportion of their combined incomes. Others had followed quickly and Bilbo smiled on fondly as he noted the number of folk who considered his nephew worthy of such fine tokens of their affection. It seemed a great many people were willing to see beyond the fact that Frodo was Mad Baggins' nephew after all.

Bilbo received his own presents, of course, although many were mathoms. He was not disappointed for he did not intend to take much with him upon the road, and the carved and brass-topped walking stave, a present from Frodo, was one of the few that would be going with him.

Once the flood of callers died down, Frodo and Bilbo retired to their respective bedrooms to prepare, and half an hour later Bilbo rapped smartly upon his nephew's bedroom door. "Are you decent, Frodo?"

When Frodo answered the door he had yet to don waistcoat and jacket and, from the comb in his hand, it was apparent he had been caught tidying his foot hair. "Did you need me for something, Uncle?"

"Just a word, if you don't mind, before things grow any more hectic." He stepped into the bedroom, closing the door behind him.

Unlike the rest of Bag End, Frodo's room was always tidy. Bilbo surmised it was a result of his upbringing in Brandy Hall, where space was at a premium. Jacket and waistcoat were spread upon the neatly made bed and the nightstand held only a glass and a small pile of books. It was a haven of peace, and Bilbo was suddenly aware of how untidy the rest of Bag End had become in recent years. Perhaps Frodo would clear things away after Bilbo left. Would Bag End once more look as it had before Bilbo went upon his first adventure? He hoped, for his nephew's sake, that it would not.

The youngster waved to a seat by the window and dropped down upon the edge of his bed to continue combing his feet. "Have you changed your mind about leaving after all?" Although he sounded nonchalant, his face was lowered so Bilbo could not see the hope written there.

"No, indeed. I shall be leaving directly after supper. It is the manner of my leaving that I came to discuss."

Frodo set his comb upon the washstand and took a moment to check his teeth in the mirror. "The manner?"

His uncle shifted a little uncomfortably. "There will be so many people there, you see."

Now Frodo grinned. "I'm afraid I don't see, Uncle. You were the one who invited them, after all."

"Yes. But when I announce my departure I know that everyone will want to know why I am going, where I'm going, how I am going, and who I am going with. If I stay to answer every question I shall still be here next week."

Frodo slipped on his fine silk waistcoat. "I expect they will, but I don't see any way around that, unless you don't announce your departure at all, and just slip away after the party."

Bilbo shook his head. "No. That would never do. There may be some unscrupulous folk who will say that you have done away with your poor elderly uncle, in order to get his money."

In the process of fastening fine silver buttons, his nephew froze. "Surely not! Nobody could believe that, could they?"

"I'm afraid they could. Otho will try to winkle you out of Bag End if he can find only half a reason, and others will back him up, just from a perverse need to create mischief. No. We must make it very clear to all that I intend to leave and I am doing so of my own accord."

Frodo sat down again. "So we are back to you making your announcement at the party. I'm afraid you may just have to put up with all the questions although, if you wish, I shall try to distract some of them for you."

Bilbo's hand strayed to his pocket and now he drew out his ring, holding it in his palm so that it glinted in the sunlight of the open window. "I have decided that I am going to use my ring," he announced. "I shall simply disappear. It will be one in the eye for all those who have doubted my story all these years."

"Is that wise? Gandalf once told you not to use it too much, and you said yourself that you did not feel comfortable doing so of late."

Bilbo shrugged, lifting the ring between finger and thumb to study the warm glow of the metal. "Well, it is my ring, after all. I won it fairly and I don't see that Gandalf has much say in how I use my own property. It will only be for a short while, anyway; just long enough to slip back here and collect my pack and my travelling companions."

Frodo shrugged. "Well, if you think it will be alright. You will find me to say goodbye, won't you? Before you make your little speech."

Bilbo slipped the ring back in his pocket. "Of course I will, lad. Come along, now. Put that jacket on. We must be at the gate to greet the first of our guests. Sam and his father will have carried all the presents down by now, and if we don't get there in time, people will start helping themselves."

Eyes narrowed, Frodo shrugged into his jacket. "No indeed. It would not do to hand out the wrong mathom."

"Mathom?" Bilbo slapped a hand over his heart. "You wound me, lad. No. I shall leave the distribution of mathoms to you, after I have gone."

"I was afraid of that," murmured Frodo as he closed the bedroom door.

As Bilbo had suspected, a line of guests had already formed at the new gate when the birthday celebrants arrived, and Bilbo paused to talk to one or two. Frodo ran ahead and, at his signal, dwarves unfurled the many flags. They ranged in size from the largest, which was more of a banner, strung between two poles outside the largest pavilion, and announcing, "Happy Birthday Bilbo and Frodo", down to long, slender pennants of fine green and yellow silk, which snapped and danced in the slightest breeze.

Snacks were set out under an awning, and the ale was flowing freely by noon. Children ran in and out of the many tents, their shrieks of excitement combined with the rattle of tin drums and discordant shrill of whistles. Frodo grinned, suspecting that many a mother was cursing Bilbo beneath her breath. Hobbiton and its environs were going to be a very noisy, until the novelty wore off or the instruments were discreetly confiscated.

In an attempt to channel all that excitement half a dozen tweens organised games and, for a while, musical instruments were set aside as children of all ages joined the egg and spoon, sack, or wheelbarrow races. Others had set up a football match in an empty corner of the field and several adults stood around, cheering on the mismatched teams. If some of the younger children forgot which team they were supposed to be in, nobody was too upset.

Only the act of sitting at table distinguished lunch from snacks, and many guests just browsed their way through the entire day. There were piles of cold pies and pasties, cold meats, wheels of ripe cheese, huge bowls overflowing with salads greens, and dishes filled with pickles of every imaginable type. Apple and blackberry tart, served almost floating in thick cream, finished off the meal. Of course, it was not really the finish, for there were still snacks to be found, along with apples, pears, blackberries, and nuts.

As the afternoon progressed the laughter grew louder, fuelled by the ever flowing cider and beer. Someone made a decision to slow the drinking by collecting a group of musicians, who began to play a merry jig. Little persuading was required and dancers, young and old, took to the large square of grass set aside for their use. Frodo grinned, as he watched a usually poised Esmeralda Brandybuck laugh wildly as she was thrown into a dizzy spin by Hobbiton's beefy blacksmith, Bert Fennelly. In another group Saradoc Brandybuck, the next in line to be Master of Buckland, expertly guided the dance steps of an outrageously flirting Ruby Brockbank, and Frodo chuckled at the wink exchanged between husband and wife, as they spun past each other.

Tea time was announced by the cessation of dancing and the lifting of the sides of one of the larger tents, revealing the hard work of all the ladies of Hobbiton and Bywater. Besides the previously arranged cakes and pastries, many poorer families had supplied sandwiches and other food stuffs, as their birthday present, so tables fairly groaned under the weight.

By the time Frodo came to fill his plate half the guests had already taken their turn, and yet there was hardly a dint made in the bounty. Bell Gamgee and several of Hobbiton's matrons presided, and they ensured that everyone's plate was piled high, even those who were returning for a second or third time.

"Here ye go, Mister Baggins," Bell announced, as she placed a large piece of a particularly fine cheese and bacon flan on Frodo's plate.

"Thank you Mistress Gamgee. I think it is going to take me some time to get used to being addressed as 'Mister'", Frodo replied with a grin, as Caly Berrydown added a thick ham sandwich to the already teetering pile on his plate.

"Aye," Bell replied. "We'll have to think on a way to mark the difference between ye and yer uncle."

Frodo's smile faltered but, fortunately, Bell and Caly had moved on to serve the next in line. Half an hour earlier Frodo had encountered Bilbo, perched upon a stool and surrounded by spellbound faunts, as he recounted his adventure with three trolls. He wondered if Burglar Baggins would soon be telling the same tale to a group of dwarflings. For several minutes Frodo had studied the shining fauntling faces. Did they know that this could be the last time they would hear the story from the old adventurer's very lips? Even if they did, Frodo doubted they could be any more attentive than they were already.

Now Bilbo appeared at his side and the two strolled back to the main pavilion together, fielding good wishes from everyone they met. Frodo spied Ted and Orton Sandyman propping up one of the bars, and wondered if either of them had eaten anything since their arrival. They certainly looked as though they had taken full advantage of the alcoholic beverages.

Bilbo noticed the direction of his gaze. "Don't worry, Frodo. They will not cause any trouble today. All the bar tenders are keeping at least one eye on them."

Frodo's frown did not fade, however. "Why do they hate us, Bilbo?"

"The Sandymans? It is a long story and not one for such a pleasant day. Suffice it to say that if Ted Sandyman landed in a barrel of gold coins, he would only complain that it was not soft enough. Now, come along. We have lots of friends and family who are more than willing to help us celebrate." Bilbo winked as he added, "And the majority of them are still relatively sober."

After tea there was more dancing, although it was not as enthusiastic, as everyone looked from the wizard to the lowering sun. Would there really be fireworks? Although several youngsters had noted the wizard's cart behind the main pavilion, Sam Gamgee and one or two other tweens had been standing guard in turns, so people could only guess at the nature of the strange shapes, shrouded beneath a thick cover.

At half past six Gandalf leaned in to whisper something to Bilbo and then slipped from the tent. Bilbo climbed onto his chair, lifting his arms to shout, but nothing could be heard above the general hubbub. Frodo snatched up a small trumpet, no doubt forgotten by one of the children, and blew a long, loud, toot at his uncle's side. It had the desired effect, and Bilbo grinned. "Dear friends, if you would all like to step outside, we are about to have a treat not seen in the Shire for many a year. The wizard, Gandalf, has kindly offered to give a display of his most excellent fireworks."

The guests did not need to be invited a second time and soon, as word travelled, all the tents and pavilions emptied. A large crowd of faunts gathered about Gandalf's cart and he handed out sparklers. These were no ordinary sparklers however, for they ignited at a word and burned with no perceptible heat. Not that this concerned the faunts at all, but several parents drew a relieved breath.

Gandalf appointed Sam Gamgee and the other guards as his official helpers and Frodo noted Sam standing particularly tall, as he ferried the larger

fireworks from cart to wizard. The sky was filled with light, matched equally by the light in upturned faces.

As each firework was handed to the wizard, he touched the fuse with the tip of his staff and it shot heavenward in a shower of sparks. Far above them, in the darkening sky, bloomed green trees whose golden blossoms dropped sweet perfume. Clouds of bright butterflies danced above the heads of excited faunts, pillars of fire turned into eagles so huge that some buried their faces in their mama's skirts, and a fleet of nine grand sailing ships dissolved into a phalanx of elegant swans. There was a loud crash of thunder and blood red clouds appeared, only to release sparkling golden rain, and a forest of silver spears exploded upward, to fall back to earth and land in the Water with a loud hiss.

Suddenly, the many lanterns strung from tent and tree were extinguished, and an expectant hush fell. It took two hobbit tweens to carry the last firework to Gandalf, who stuck it firmly into the ground. All eyes were drawn to the strange red shape as Gandalf's staff touched the dangling fuse. At first there was only a little wisp of pale smoke and, just when Frodo began to think that the flame had died, the fuse sprang to life with a fizz. In the next breath the rocket shot upward in a cloud of smoke, that shaped itself into a distant mountain. As everyone watched a faint glow grew about the summit, there was a gout of green and scarlet flame and out flew a huge red-gold dragon. So lifelike was it that many cried out in consternation. It bore down upon them with a mighty roar, flew three times around their heads and, finally, turned a somersault and burst over Bywater with a deafening crash.

Bilbo leapt onto one of the tables with an alacrity that belied his age, to announce, "That is the signal for supper!"

Supper was a very grand affair, which would be discussed by the worthies of the entire Shire for many a year. Even the Old Took had never given such a repast. There was pork or beef, roasted to perfection despite Ted Sandyman's dire predictions, vegetables dripping in butter or glazed in honey, potatoes mashed to such a creamy consistency that they melted in the mouth, and rich brown gravy to pour over all.

For desert there was the biggest birthday cake the Shire had ever seen and, had Gandalf not lent a hand, it was likely that all the candles would never have been lit at one time. As it was, it cost Frodo and Bilbo some considerable breath to blow them all out again. There was cake for all, even those beyond the one hundred and forty four friends and family in the main pavilion.

As Frodo swallowed the last crumbs of his piece, Bilbo laid a warm hand upon his and leaned in to whisper, "It is time, lad." He squeezed Frodo's suddenly chilled fingers. "You'll be alright." Then he climbed onto his chair, beneath the party tree. Lantern light fell softly upon his beaming face, winked on the golden buttons of his waistcoat and gleamed on the silk of his embroidered waistcoat. In common with many, Bilbo had discarded his jacket hours ago. "My dear people…"

Frodo hardly heard his uncle's words, instead concentrating upon memorising every inch of his Bilbo's dear face. He noted that he kept one hand in his pocket and wondered precisely when he would perform his vanishing trick. Even as focused as he was, when Bilbo finally did wink out of sight, he was as shocked as everyone else, particularly when the act was accompanied by a flash and a very loud bang. Frodo glanced at Gandalf, who winked before slipping away.

There was a moment of complete silence, during which Frodo felt invisible fingers brush across his back, then everyone started talking at once. Feeling more alone than he had been in many years, Bilbo Baggins' heir drained his wine in a silent toast to his health. He smiled, as the Sackville-Bagginses stormed out, then forced himself to pay attention as questions flew at him from all quarters. He had hoped to slip away and wave Bilbo on his way, but that was not to be.

Master Baggins was now Mister Baggins, of Bag End, with all the prestige, notoriety and responsibilities that entailed. Would he ever see Bilbo again? He drew a deep breath. It was time for Mister Frodo Baggins to hoist his sails and chart a course through adult life. Who knew where the wind would take him?

END

My thanks to Fallingleaves271 for undertaking to beta the later chapters of this fic.