Disclaimer: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Lord of the Rings belong to their respective creators, Joss Whedon and J.R.R. Tolkien.
Author's Warning: major AU. Absolutely non-canon.
When Bilbo Baggins came to visit at Brandy Hall, people said that it was only about time.
He was very polite, not at all unusual. Everyone said that Bilbo Baggins was an eccentric, too rich and too adventurous to be a normal hobbit. The story of how he had once disappeared and been presumed dead but then shown right back up with his bags of gold in the middle of the auction of all his things was a legend in the Shire, one that all the children liked to tell over and over again. He was supposed to have tunnels full of gold, Dwarf friends who visited at all days of the month, and was said to do all sorts of un-hobbitish things that made gossip for weeks at a time. The Buckland folk knew less about it than others did, since they lived farther away from Hobbiton than most, but they heard a lot of what went on.
Buttercup didn't know what to make of him. He sat at the table with her and Mommy and drank tea, and the grown-ups talked quietly about nothing much. She stared into her cup and hoped Mr. Baggins didn't say anything to Mommy about how she'd run away so rudely.
In the middle of the third cup and the second plate of cakes, Mr. Baggins looked at her and said, “I heard you were a rover, Buttercup.”
She fidgeted with the sleeve of her dress. Mommy said, “She's a woodsman, this one.”
“I saw you in Hobbiton,” said Mr. Baggins. “Do you go far often?”
Mommy looked at her, eyebrows raised. Buttercup flushed, but then said, “I've been to the Far Downs, to the Towers. And to the end of the Bindbale Woods, near the Dim Hills.”
Mr. Baggins's eyes widened. Mommy's mouth was open. “But, Buttercup,” she said, voice shaking, “you've never been away from home longer than the day.”
“Sometimes I go with one of the dogs,” she barreled on, figuring in for an egg, in for a chicken. “But they get tired too easy, so mostly I go alone.”
No one said anything. Mommy looked pale. Mr. Baggins was staring at her.
“Well,” said Mr. Baggins, trying to find the conversation again. “Well.”
Buttercup closed her mouth, realizing that she was talking because she was nervous. Her mouth was dry, and she was looking down at her hands. She wondered what Mr. Baggins wanted.
“Well,” repeated Mr. Baggins, “I didn't mean to pry that out of you, Buttercup. I—”
“I'm sorry,” blurted Buttercup.
Mr. Baggins's mouth was open. He closed it, and looked confused. “I don't—”
“I'm sorry,” cried Buttercup, and it all came out in a rush, like a flood. “I tried to pull him up, I really did, but he was so heavy and the water was so dark and I couldn't breathe and, and, and I tried to hurry, I tried, and I thought he was all right because there were still bubbles coming out of his mouth, but then they pulled us out and they said, they said he wasn't breathing—”
Her face felt hot. She couldn't see anything for how blurry everything had become. She struggled not to cry, though her throat felt stuffy and wet.
“I'm sorry,” she said, again, but it came out as a wail, a low, pitiful wail that she almost couldn't believe was coming from her. “I'm sorry, Mr. Baggins, I'm sorry Frodo died, I'm sorry I couldn't pull him up—”
She put her hands over her mouth to stop herself, and now she really was crying, she couldn't help it, and Mommy had rushed to her side and tried to take her in her arms, but Buttercup got off of her chair, knocking it over, and ran out of the room, down the hall, and out a door, and then there was the thick green grass under her feet.
Buttercup didn't know she was going to the Withywindle until she was already there, throwing herself down onto the high bank, and then she cried like she'd never cried before in her life, as if all the tears in the world were draining out through her. She put her head down onto her knees and her arms over her head, curling into herself as much as she could, and slowly, slowly, the pain seemed to grow less and less until she could bear it and the sobbing became whimpers and the whimpers became sniffling.
When she looked up, he was there.
She wasn't even surprised. It was as if she'd been expecting him to be there, in his dusty cloak and worn leather, his uncombed black hair and his stern gray eyes. He was sitting next to her, though she hadn't heard him come, and he was watching her, his expression nothing but a distant gentleness.
He looked so familiar. Had she seen him before?
For a brief, glittering moment, it was as if she remembered a river like a silver ribbon under a night sky, the stars and Moon glowing overhead, but then it was gone and all she knew was that he felt familiar, this Big Person, and she was, for no reason she could see, not at all afraid.
“Hey now, little one,” he said, and his voice was exactly how he looked, low and rough and kind. “This is a far way to come to cry.”
“Not if you don't want anybody to hear,” she said, and rubbed a sleeve over her face. She was probably a big mess.
She heard him move, heard something splish in the water. When she looked up, he was on a knee in front of her, a hand held out.
He held her chin in one hand as he wiped her face with the cloth in the other. The water was cool and pleasant, his touch soft and easy. She was hardly self-conscious at all, as if it were Daddy wiping away her tears instead of a strange Big Person.
When he sat down again, tucking the cloth into his belt, she asked him, “So, what's your name?”
He nodded. “Most call me Strider.”
“I'm Buttercup,” she said. “Mommy says I shouldn't talk to strangers, but you don't look like someone who eats little hobbits.”
His lips twitched. “No. I suppose I never acquired the taste.”
There was a little silence, as they both watched the water. Buttercup was aware of something moving in the back of her head, like something was trying to move a box that had grown simply too heavy to budge.
“Well, I know what I'm doing here,” said Buttercup, “but what're you here for? Everybody's been talking about the Big People in the woods, you know. If you were trying to be sneaky and stuff, it's not working.”
His mouth moved again like he wanted to smile, but instead he only said, “I am looking for someone.”
Buttercup blinked. “You came all the way here to look for someone?”
Now he looked at her, and there was nothing merry about him. “Why do you say that?”
“That I have come a long way.”
She rolled her eyes. “Because no offense, but you look like you could use some good food, a hot bath, and a week of sleep. And nobody gets that kind of hair from sleeping indoors or often.”
Now he did laugh, a short, sudden burst of low, startled laughter, as if she'd surprised it out of him. Buttercup smiled shyly.
“No, little one,” he said then. “You are right. I have come a very long way, but I did not know I would still be here, looking for someone, when I came.”
“Who?” asked Buttercup.
His face did a strange thing. It was as if a door closed somewhere, or maybe a key turned in a lock, and then there was nothing to see but a serious grown-up, no feelings at all. Buttercup had noticed that adults did that a lot, or at least often, but she'd never seen it done so well before.
“Someone,” he said, and his voice was just like his face, as if it were empty, “that I am not sure even exists.”
She waited, but that was all he was going to say. “Well, I live here. Maybe if you tell me about them, I can tell you where to look.”
He still didn't say anything, and she was about to give up and tell him he would probably have more luck asking at the Green Dragon or in Bree rather than wandering in the Old Forest when he said, “A woman, one of my own race, though she is very...small. She has...golden hair, much like yours. I saw her here, once before, swimming in this river.”
Buttercup was charmed. “Is she your sweetheart?”
Now his brows went up. “No.”
Buttercup blinked. “Do you have a sweetheart?”
He smiled tiredly. “You are a bold child, Buttercup.”
“No, I'm just nosy,” she assured him. “Well, do you?”
He looked off again, at the Withywindle, and she thought he might not answer, but then he said, “No. No, I do not. I once thought...I once thought that I did, but such is the ardor of youth.”
Then he frowned, and, glancing at her, said, “I should not be speaking of such things to you.”
“Not your fault I asked,” said Buttercup. “All right! So you don't have a sweetheart but you saw this girl in the woods and now you can't think of anything else and you've spent more time than you'd wanted to here just because you're trying to find her. I understand.”
He was staring at her, and she could tell he was consternated. “That is not—”
“—what it is at all, I get it,” said Buttercup, patting his arm. “Don't worry, Mr. Strider I won't tell anyone. No one will ever know that under this dusty, muddy outside is a soft and mushy inside.”
Buttercup looked away then and tried to think. She didn't know of any Big People around the Shire except for the ones in the woods. The nearest place that had any was Bree, and she'd never been to Bree. She'd seen a few Big People, mostly from the a distance in or from the woods, but she'd never seen or heard of a Big People girl wandering through the trees. There was no way she wouldn't have noticed that!
“I'm sorry, Mr. Strider,” she said eventually, looking at him again. “I can't think of any Big Person in the Shire, especially not a girl. Are you sure she's not from Bree?”
“I have already—” He checked himself, looked at Buttercup, sighed quietly, and finished, “I have already been there.”
“Don't worry, Mr. Strider,” she said, patting his arm again. “If you really do love her and you don't give up, I'm sure you'll find her sooner or later. Maybe she's even looking for you, too.”
“Buttercup, that is not—” But then he hesitated, they looked at each other, and he only shook his head, sort of half-smiling. “Ah. I will know better than to talk to hobbit strangers from now on.”
That reminded Buttercup of exactly what she had waiting for her at home, and she blushed as she stood, brushing off her dress. “I think I should go. Mommy's going to be really worried.”
He stood up, too, and Buttercup was abruptly intimidated to find that she barely came above his knee. He only smiled, though, and held out his hand. When she put hers in it, it looked very, very small.
He walked with her, in the direction of the Hedge.
“I do not think we will see each other again for a long time,” he said, “so do not go rushing through the woods in tears again, little one. There are things in here that I would not want to find you in my place.”
“A long time?” asked Buttercup. “Are you going away?”
“Yes,” said Strider, “for a while. Perhaps more.” He seemed to think about something for a minute. “I would count it a favor, Buttercup, if you would not speak of our meeting, to anyone.”
They stayed quiet for a while, the two of them moving noiselessly through the trees and the brush. Buttercup thought as hard as she could about this Mannish girl with golden hair, but the only girl she knew of who had been wandering the woods at all was herself. Was it possible that she hadn't seen the girl? Perhaps she just hadn't been looking hard enough.
After a while, they came to a space in the trees that Buttercup knew. The High Hedge was only a few miles away, the Hall not far after that, and she felt that familiar weight begin to settle on her again, the weight of being good and quiet and not caring what people said about her.
She stopped, pulling him to a halt with her. When he looked down, she squeezed his hand with both of hers.
“Don't worry, Mr. Strider,” she said again. “I'll watch for her from now on, and the minute I see her I'll go and catch her and tell her that you're looking for her. Don't give up! I promise I'll find her for you! And I won't tell anyone, I swear!”
She slipped his hands from his, then, and ran ahead into the trees, and she heard him call after her, his voice seeming to hang in the branches and the leaves, and she tried not to think of how some part of her seemed to grow smaller and dimmer in her head, like something old and forgotten being shoved into a dark corner, a memory of a river and a hand on her arm.
When she emerged from the Hedge and approached Brandy Hall, she saw someone sitting on the little hill of blue flowers, waiting. When she got closer, she saw that it was Mr. Baggins.
He stood up as she came near, and when she was in front of him, wringing the front of her dress with her hands, trying to get the apology out of her mouth, he put his hands on her shoulders and made her look at him.
“It was not your fault,” Mr. Baggins said quietly. “Whatever you think, whatever anyone says, anyone at all, it was not your fault, Buttercup.”
And like a baby, her eyes filled with tears again. Her jaw quivered and she hiccuped.
She cried again, but more quietly, and he held her like Daddy would have held her.
He told her, in a kind, soft voice, “You were very brave.”