West of the Moon

A Tolkien Fanfiction Archive

 

 

Mischief and Malcontents
Pre-party silliness.
Author: Aratlithiel
Rating: PG
Category: Canon-Humor/Parody

 

~*~

A/N - Forgive me for this odd little mental hiccup.  Sincerest thanks to ConnieMarie for being my very patient sounding board.  Thanks also to Shadow for helping me *cough*making me*cough* fix it and for the beta.

~*~

"Good morning, Master Merry. Where are you off to, if you don't mind my asking?"

Merry smiled, adjusting the straps of the saddle. "Good morning to you Tom. I received an urgent message calling me to Bag End a few days earlier than expected.  Off to help cousin Frodo with whatever it is he's gotten himself into a twist over."

Tom frowned up at Merry as he mounted.  "Nothing dire, I hope?"

"Oh, I wouldn't think so, Tom but thank you for your concern."  Merry adjusted his weight in the saddle and gave the pony a quick scrub behind its ear.  "No, I'm sure old Bilbo's just got my poor cousin dizzy with errands for the big party and he's looking for another back to burden."

"Well, then," Tom replied with a sly smile as he handed the reins over, "don't rightly understand why you're headed to Hobbiton instead of the opposite direction.  That back of yours don't take too kindly to burdens, in my experience."

"That may be so, you old plonker," Merry returned with a wry twist of his mouth, "but Hobbiton just happens to be where all of the best ale in the Shire is headed at the moment and I intend to spend a great deal of time on this back of mine once a few barrels have been tapped."

Tom set forth a burst of hearty laughter and slapped Merry's knee.  "I've no doubt of that a'tall, young Master," he said.  "You have yourself a good trip, now and be sure to hook yourself up with a nice, strong lass who can help you to bed once the casks have been drained."  He gave Merry a sideways glance and added, "Or if a strong one's not to hand, at least get yourself one soft enough to rest your head upon.  And meadow-grass do make a fine bed with the proper lass as a pillow."

Merry flushed bright red and grinned.  "Why Tom," he snorted.  "I'm sure I don't know what you're implying."

"Oh, aye, Master Merry.  You're all innocence and light, you are."  Tom shook his head and laughed again.  "You have a fine time and don't let that cousin of yours work you too hard."

"Thank you, Tom," Merry returned as he steered the pony toward the lane.  "I'm sure it's naught more than I can handle."  With one last wave over his shoulder, Merry prodded his pony to a trot and headed for the road.

~*~

"You're more Took than I am and that makes him your problem."

Merry stared at his elder cousin, who held a wriggling mass of dirt and stickiness caught by the collar at the end of his extended arm.  He looked from the squirming heap of goop, back to Frodo's haggard face and said, "Ummm..."

"Frrood-do!" the goop complained.

"Hush, Pippin," Frodo chastened.  "Your Merry is here now and he's going to take care of you."

"He isn't my Merry," Pippin grumbled, lifting grimy hands to work at loosing his cousin's grip on his collar.  "He's no fun a'tall and much too bossy.  Lemmee go!"

Merry frowned in confusion.  He hadn't even made it past the threshold yet and already he'd been drafted to babysit and been insulted by a grimy, whiny little bundle of dirt-streaked curls and Tookish brogue.  Merry opened his mouth to protest but Frodo was already talking.

"Of course he's your Merry," Frodo insisted.  "You said so yourself."

"Did not," Pippin protested and began unbuttoning his shirt.  If Frodo was not going to loosen his hold on his collar, Pippin reasoned to himself, he would simply detach himself from it and have done.

"Yes, you did," Frodo returned as he batted Pippin's hands away from his buttons and moved his grip from Pippin's collar to the scruff of his neck.  "You said he's your very favorite cousin."

"Didn't," was Pippin's response.  "Ow!  You're squeezing too tight, Frodo!  And I said you're my very favorite cousin."

"No, no," Frodo assured him.  "You've changed your mind to Merry."

"Haven't."

"Yes, you have."

"No, I haven't."

"Yes, you have.  You told me so yourself."

"Didn't."

"Did."

"When did I say that?"

"Erm...  Just after lunch, I believe."

"I took a nap after lunch."

"Yes," Frodo agreed with a heavy sigh as he closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose.  "And it was so lovely and quiet."

"Then I couldn't have said it after lunch.  You're making things up."

"I believe you're right," Merry put in as he narrowed his eyes at Frodo.  "He's making things up."

"Both of you can believe what you like.  It won't change the fact that I am done in and it is now Merry's turn."  Frodo took Pippin by both his shoulders and thrust him toward Merry.

Merry juddered backward as if Frodo had just thrown a rabid, sticky squirrel at him.  He looked wild-eyed from Pippin, to Frodo and back to Pippin again then, without a word, adjusted his pack on his shoulder, turned and started down the walk.

"Merry!" Frodo called after him and Merry quickened his pace.  "Merry?"  This, sounding close to panic.  "Merry, please!" and Merry stopped, slumped his shoulders and sighed.  Hastening footsteps behind him accompanied by Ow!  Frodo, you're pulling my hair I haven't eaten in hours and hours stop walking so fast ooh look worms Mum won't like you pulling my hair you know where are we going ow that hurts is Merry leaving? and Merry sighed again.  Bowing his head in defeat, Merry braced himself and turned to face his cousins.

Frodo had said he was done in and Merry could now see that he hadn't exaggerated.  His elder cousin was normally impeccably groomed and Merry had often made him the brunt of merciless teasing, once asking Frodo if he had his nightshirts pressed as well, to which Frodo had flushed and muttered something about Gamgee laundresses and Bilbo's orders.  Now Merry regarded Frodo with an appraising eye and noted that he wasn't much better off than Pippin in the stickiness department and he was untucked in more places than he was tucked.  Buttons askew, hair sticking out in corkscrews, blotches of substances Merry didn't even want to guess the origin of spattered about the plush wool and fine linen of his clothing...  'Disheveled,' was putting it much too kindly.  Frodo, Merry decided, was a complete and utter wreck.

Merry gazed into his cousin's weary, pleading face and crumbled completely.  "How," he asked slowly, "did this happen?"

Pippin, still emitting a steady stream of commentary and questions, chose that moment to tug and twist, nearly succeeding in loosing Frodo's death grip on the nape of his neck, yanking Frodo almost off his feet as he dove to the side.  Frodo, apparently accustomed to such, not to mention quick and wiry, lurched after Pippin, caught him around the waist and lifted, turning his cousin upside-down, his legs bent at the knee and feet dangling over Frodo's shoulder.

Pippin howled outraged protest, limbs flailing, body twisting, to which Frodo merely tightened his grip, clamped his free hand to Pippin's mouth and cast a defeated gaze to Merry.  He shook his head, rolled his eyes and said, "Bilbo."

Merry really shouldn't have needed further explanation.  That single name, uttered in exasperation, had served as clarification enough on many former occasions.  This, however, was not one of them.

"What does that mean?" Merry asked.  "Bilbo, what?"

"Bilbo allowed the sway of Eglantine's hips and her emerald eyes to seduce him into inviting Pippin to stay at Bag End while she and Paladin went off to Bywater for the week," Frodo said with a disgusted twist of his mouth.  "You should have seen it, Merry.  It was bloody painful!  And Paladin just watched it all with a smirk while he cleared an exit to the door." 

Frodo adjusted his wriggling cousin.  "Pippin, I am not letting go until I am finished so you can just stop licking my hand right now.  It isn't nearly as disgusting as you think it is." 

He turned his weary gaze back to Merry.  "Please, Merry.  I simply cannot do it by myself anymore.  I've got party business to attend to and I'd have never believed that a single hobbitlad could be in three places all at once, wreaking destruction with every step, but this one manages it quite nicely.  I'd call it a talent if I weren't so bloody tired.  Ow!  Pippin, you little wretch, stop biting me or I'll hang you upside-down from a tree until your parents return!"

"Well, why do you have to watch him?" Merry wanted to know.  "Bilbo's the one who said he could stay.  Shouldn't he be babysitting?"

Frodo just stared at him, his lips a single, thin line on his face.  He blinked slowly at his cousin and lifted an eyebrow.

As if Frodo had contradicted him, Merry burst out with, "Oh, bugger that!  He's the one who did the inviting.  He should do the watching."

Frodo just continued to stare.

"Yes," Merry agreed after a moment.  "Right.  I see your point."  He ran a hand through his hair and sighed.  "All right, then.  I'll help.  But I'm not taking over, mind you," he warned, wagging his finger at Frodo's nose.  "I'm helping.  Helping implies that I am not in charge and assume no responsibility if things go wrong."  He shifted his gaze to the bundle of flailing limbs and grimaced.  "When things go wrong," he corrected.

Frodo let loose a great gust of air and slumped wearily.  So relieved, he looked, that Merry almost thought he might actually shed tears.

"Thank you, Merry," Frodo breathed.

He trudged the few paces to his cousin and Merry extended his arms, readied himself for a grateful embrace.  Instead, he found said arms suddenly full of twisting, squirming hobbitlad, whose face was now pressed into Merry's knee - a fact of which he was made immediately and painfully aware when sharp little teeth sank into the soft flesh just above his kneecap.

"Ah!" cried Merry.  "Let go, you grotty little polecat," and he dropped his cousin headfirst into the grass.

Pippin, as hobbitlads are wont to do, bounced then rolled and was on his feet and away like a jackrabbit before Merry had time to blink.  He turned to Frodo for sympathy but Frodo was already halfway back to the smial, moving at a pace just slightly more dignified than a panicked run.  Merry noted with not a little satisfaction that Pippin was right on his heels.

"Frodo where are you going what's a polecat don't leave me with Merry he's so boring!"

Frodo, dignity be damned, broke into a run, making it through the door only a hair's breadth before Pippin and slamming it shut.  Pippin stood blinking at the door for a moment before turning to Merry and flashing him a sunny grin.

"What shall we do now?"

~*~

Merry burst through the door of the study, red-faced and panting.  "Please tell me you've seen Pippin."

Frodo startled from his work.  He took in Merry's state, winced then dropped his head into his hand.  "Oh, Merry, you haven't lost him already?  You've only had him for twenty minutes!"

"Twenty minutes of the most intense torture I've ever been made to endure," Merry clarified.  "And no, I haven't lost him.  He lost me.  The child's quick as a fox and twice as sly."

Frodo wilted in the chair, head thrown back, eyes to the ceiling and arms dangling limply over the armrests.  "I suppose it's too much to hope that a family of badgers has taken him away and adopted him as their own."

"Badgers are much too tame for the likes of Peregrin Took.  And wise enough to run when they see him."

Frodo sighed and dragged himself up from the chair.  "All right, then.  You look 'round front and work your way down toward the Row.  I'll go 'round back and on toward the orchards."

"How am I to know if you've found him?" Merry asked.

"Oh," Frodo answered as he slouched toward the door, "you'll know."

Merry wanted to question further then thought better of it.  Instead, he made to follow Frodo, who stopped in the doorway.

"Be sure to look up in any trees you might pass."

"Right," Merry replied and Frodo took a step then stopped again.

"And if you should see any piles of leaves or dirt, be sure to poke a stick about."

"Of course," said Merry.

They got halfway down the hall this time before Frodo stopped again.  "And any large holes and such that--"

"I'll keep that in mind."

"But you must be careful not to poke too--"

"Oh, glory, Frodo, can we just get on with it?  I'd like to find the little sod before he manages to tear down someone's smial with his bare hands."

Frodo heaved a defeated sigh that Merry was beginning to become rather accustomed to.  He looked at Merry with dull, weary eyes.  "All right," and he plodded outside.

~*~

It didn't take very long.  All Frodo really had to do was follow the trail.  A half-built castle of sticks off to the side of the back walkway pointed him in the right direction, as did an abandoned bag of marbles several yards further along.  He was just stooping down to inspect a dissected anthill when...

"Oof!"  Face-first into the dirt with a bundle of gangly limbs wrapped around his waist and Frodo flipped himself over, hobbitlad and all.  "Ha!  I've got you now, you little wretch," Frodo crowed before calling for Merry over Pippin's indignant, muffled shouts.

Merry came tearing around the side of the Hill just in time to hear Frodo say, "Ugh!  What is that smell?" and leap off of Pippin.  "Pippin, what have you been rolling in?"

"I haven't been rolling in anything, Frodo," Pippin replied.  "I've been digging."

"Digging for what?" Merry wanted to know.

"For worms!" Pippin answered, rolling his eyes at his cousin as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

"Well, what do you need worms for?" Frodo asked.

With renewed enthusiasm and seemingly undaunted by his recent captivity, Pippin leapt to his feet and advanced on Frodo who backed away two steps for Pippin's every one.  "Well," Pippin said earnestly, "you keep saying how tired you are Frodo and I wanted to help you relax so I thought you could take me fishing down at the Water because fishing is ever so relaxing and you've been so tired oh please say you'll take me Merry can come too I suppose since he's boring and fishing's boring and--"

"Pippin!"  Frodo put one hand to Pippin's mouth while the other kneaded at his brow.  "Just...just stop for a moment, I beg you."  He closed his eyes, took a deep breath then scrubbed at his hair.  He got down on his haunches and removed his hand from his cousin's mouth.

"Now, Pippin.  Where were you digging for worms?"

Pippin rolled his eyes again then looked to Merry, shaking his head.  "Well, in the mud, of course," he said.

Frodo gave him a thin, strained smile.  "Yes, Pippin, I assumed it was in the mud but it hasn't rained for weeks, so I'm wondering where, exactly, you found this mud."

"Oh, there's a lovely big mound of it, Frodo.  Right 'round the bend."

"'Round the bend..." Frodo repeated, thinking then frowned.  "Do you mean behind the kitchen and toward the shed?"

Pippin's face lit into a bright smile.  "Yes!  That's the one."

Frodo's head dropped to his chest.  "Oh, Pippin!" he cried and fell to his back in the grass, arm flung across his eyes.

Pippin looked over to Merry, who just cast a bewildered gaze from Pippin to Frodo.  He inched his way over to his prone cousin and began poking at his ribs with his toe.  Frodo just lay there for a few moments, enduring the assault in silence before he peeked an eye out from behind his arm and looked at Merry.

"Well, now, this day just keeps right on coming, doesn't it, cousin-mine?"

"What's going on?" Merry demanded.

Frodo peered up at him for a long moment, opened his mouth several times to speak then seemed to give up and snorted.  Then began to snicker.  It wasn't long before his arms were flung out to his sides in surrender and he was laughing maniacally to the sky.

Pippin, finally stunned to silence, looked to Merry, his grimy face pinched in worry.  Merry looked back in bewilderment before frowning at his younger cousin.

"Pippin, you little rotter.  I think you've sent him over the edge," which only made Frodo laugh harder.

"Oh, Merry," he gasped.  "It's...you won't...I can't even..." and he was off into more fits and snorts.  When he could breathe again, Frodo managed, "Pippin, love, I'm betting you found all kinds of lovely fat worms, didn't you?"

"Oh, yes, Frodo!" Pippin enthused.  "They were everywhere, dontcha know.  I only had to pick up a handful of mud and there were at least five of them flopping about."

Stifling more snorts, Frodo said, "Mmm hmm, yes and do you know why that is, little cousin?"

"Oh, worms love mud, Frodo.  They live in the stuff, you know.  Haven't you ever dug for worms, Frodo?"

Merry was becoming impatient on top of befuddled.  "Frodo, out with it.  What is your point?"

"My point, Merry dear, is that there is no lovely, big mound of mud 'round the bend, behind the kitchen and toward the shed.  What there is back there," he continued resignedly, "is a compost heap."

Merry stared dumbly at Frodo for a moment before his jaw dropped and he shot a glance to Pippin, face twisting in disgust.  "Oh, no!"

"Oh, yes," Frodo confirmed.  "Our little Took has been mucking about in rotting food scraps and manure."

"What's manure?" Pippin wanted to know.

"What's..."  Merry sputtered.  "You...I cannot even..."  He ran a hand through his hair and growled in frustration.  "What's manure!  Of all the...  It's dung, Pippin!  You've been playing in cow dung!"

"Pig dung."

"Pig dung," Merry corrected then shot a dubious glance back to Frodo and rolled his eyes.  "Oh, that's even better."

"Can we go fishing now?" Pippin wanted to know.

~*~

"Stars above, Peregrin Took, are you ever still?"

"But it's cold, Frodo!"

"Good.  If you're cold, you won't move so fast.  Turn around and let us get your back."

Pippin turned and let out a high-pitched yelp as Merry sloshed another bucketful of well water over his head.  They had lost track of just how many bucketsful had been put to use so far, but the water was at last beginning to run clear.  The lad's teeth were chattering now but Merry couldn't bring himself to have pity on the little sod.  He was, in fact, taking inordinate pleasure in his current chore and its effect on said little sod and was working hard at keeping the chuckles in his throat as he filled another bucket.

"Bloody hell, Merry!  Do you think you could hit Pippin with some of that or would you like me to just throw myself down the well and save you the trouble of drowning me yourself?"

Merry gave him a sheepish grin and shrugged.  "He's rather difficult to aim at," he explained innocently.  "Moving targets and all that."

Merry's smile must have looked a bit suspicious, for Frodo narrowed his eyes.  He looked Merry up and down for a moment then said, "Give me the bucket."

"Ummm..."

"Merry.  The bucket, if you please," and Frodo held out his hand, to which Merry backed up several paces and moved the bucket behind his back. 

"Frodo, I don't think you're in the right frame of--" 

But Frodo was on his feet and flying at Merry and Merry dropped the bucket and bolted.

~*~

Bilbo looked from the growing puddle gathering on the polished tile of the hallway to his younger cousins.  Seeing what Frodo held dangling from his right hand, Bilbo suppressed a grin and cleared his throat.

"Why," he asked, "have you brought along hobbitlad clothes with no hobbitlad in them?"  Merry seemed to be finding it difficult to meet his gaze, favoring instead the small lake of water he and Frodo were creating as they continued to drip onto the tile.  Frodo, however, fixed Bilbo with a sardonic glare and Bilbo had to work hard at not succumbing to the chuckles that were threatening to bubble up from his chest.  "What have you done with our young Peregrin?" he inquired blandly.

Frodo's lip gave a twitch and he narrowed his eyes.  "If I'd wrapped him in ribbon and gifted him to a dragon as a hot lunch, it would be no less than he deserved," he said through gritted teeth, then added, "And I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to find the dragon on the doorstep shortly thereafter, begging for mercy."

Merry snickered, nodding agreement and Bilbo finally loosed the chuckles he was choking on.  Merry shot a sideways glance to Frodo before snorting louder.  Frodo glared fire at him then Bilbo and crossed his arms over his chest.

"I don't understand, Frodo," Bilbo said as seriously as he could.  "I thought you would enjoy having a playmate about for a few days, but you're not seeming very pleased at all."

"Playmate?  Bilbo, I'm going to be thirty-three in two days."

"Yes, thirty-three.  Not eighty-three.  Come, lad - surely it hasn't been as bad as all that?"

"Bilbo," Frodo grated, "I am exhausted.  Between the never ending arrangements for the party and I haven't nearly gotten done with setting up the pavilion or finalizing with the caterers and checking the menu and that..."  Frodo waved his arms about, flapping dripping breeches and sending water raining down the hallway.  "...that Took getting into everything that drips, oozes or is covered in slime and have I mentioned how many bird skeletons and snake skins I've found in my bed the past few days and--"  A dull 'plop' and all three looked to the soggy clump of worms that fell from Pippin's breeches pocket onto the floor.  Frodo rolled his eyes to the ceiling and slumped his shoulders.  "Oh, lovely."

Bilbo grinned and it was all Frodo could do not to wrap the sopping breeches around his neck.  "So, you've had no fun, whatsoever."

Frodo blinked.  "Fun?  I'm supposed to be having fun?  Bilbo, have you any idea--"

"Frodo," Bilbo said soberly and he draped an arm across slender shoulders clad in sopping-wet linen.  "You're thinking too much. You always have.  I want you to stop it and admit that you've been having fun."

"Glory, Bilbo, is that what this is about?  You think that being run to the ground by that little--"

"Admit it, lad."  Bilbo tightened his grip and pulled his cousin closer.  "You've been having fun."

Frodo sagged, laid his head to Bilbo's shoulder.  "If that's what you want to believe," he sighed then closed his eyes and slumped into his cousin's embrace.

"It's what I want to know," Bilbo returned, so low that Merry could barely hear and suddenly had the distinct impression that his presence had been forgotten entirely.  "I want to know you'll remember how to laugh and your young cousins are the best ways to ensure that.  You're too young to be so serious.  I want you to keep that little Took and this young Brandybuck close to you and let them remind you every now and then that you're not nearly as stodgy as you pretend to be."

Eyes still closed and head still resting on his elder cousin's shoulder, Frodo said quietly, "All right, Bilbo.  I will."

Bilbo kissed the top of his head and asked, "Promise?"

And Frodo smiled, nodded slightly.  "Promise."

A knock at the door and Bilbo gave Frodo a last hearty squeeze then reluctantly broke the embrace to answer it.  He swung the door open, directed his gaze downward.

"Goodness, gracious, lad," he snorted.  "What in blue blazes are you doing running about Hobbiton in nothing but your underdrawers?"  Then, looking up, "Hullo, Hamfast.  Where did you find our fugitive and in what sort of predicament?"

"Evening, Mr. Bilbo," Hamfast began and loosed his hold on Pippin's shoulder.  Pippin moved immediately behind Frodo and wrapped his arms about his waist, peering out at the gardener from behind the safety of his cousin.  "'Tain't a question of where, sir, but more a question of what.  There were a trail, if you see what I mean."

Merry rolled his eyes and smirked at Frodo.  Frodo gave him a wry grin and picked Pippin up, held him close as Pippin wrapped his limbs around his torso.

"I don't, really," Bilbo was answering, "but I think I can guess.  What's the damage, Mr. Gamgee?"

"Well, sir, Mrs. Rumble's hens was all found and put back where they belong so no harm done there.  And the hole dug in the roof of the Putter's smial can be mended easily enough with the dirt already dug.  Seems the lad likes the diggin' so maybe he'll appreciate the fillin' in tomorrow."

Bilbo nodded and turned a grave look on Pippin.  The little Took responded by burying his face in Frodo's shoulder.  Frodo tightened his hold and Pippin sank into it gratefully.

Bilbo took hold of the door and made to close it.  "Well, thank you, Ham--"

"There's more, sir."

"Ah," and Bilbo chuckled.  "Of course, there would be."  He waved his hand at Hamfast, a silent request to resume the reckoning.

"Well, there was the honeycomb from Daisy's hive but she were goin' to gift you a jar of honey anyways for her birthday comin' up next month so we can just call that one even."  He smiled at Bilbo and Bilbo smiled back, nodded.  "And I don't think the cat jumpin' on Mrs. Overhill's head were entirely the lad's fault, seein' as how cats are such ornery and willful creatures in the first place.  I think if the lad were to agree to find her some more of them bluejay feathers to replace the ones from her hat that the cat et, she'd be willin' to let it be bygones.  So, besides that and tendin' to the hole in the Putter's roof, I believe the only things as need seein' to are the Bunce's stone wall and at least four bushels worth of apples from the Brownlock's orchard."

"Four bushels?"  Bilbo turned to regard Frodo with dazed wonder.  "Was the lad even gone an hour?"  Frodo just shook his head and rubbed at his brow.  "All right, Hamfast," Bilbo said, turning back to his gardener.  "I'll make sure this is all taken care of in the morning.  Thank you for seeing him home and I'll look for you after first breakfast in case there's anything else that needs settling."

Hamfast smiled and nodded then turned and made for home.  Bilbo closed the door and let loose a long, slow breath.  "You look fair knackered, lad," he said to Frodo.  "Why don't young Merry and I take care of the bath while you go tuck yourself in, eh?"

Pippin's arms tightened around Frodo's chest but he kept his face buried in his older cousin's shoulder.  Frodo smiled and gave Pippin a squeeze.  "Actually, Bilbo, I think I might use a bath myself.  I'll take care of it." 

Frodo turned to Merry.  "You've been a help today, cousin and I thank you - not only for coming but for staying."  He gave Merry a quick hug with his free arm.  "Why don't you and Bilbo go take your pipes in the parlour and I'll join you in a while." 

"But, Frodo," Merry started and Frodo waved him off.

"Thank you, Merry, but really.  I'll take care of it."  He turned back to Bilbo and grinned.  "It'll be fun."

~*~

Fresh and bright as a new spring bud and smelling just as sweet, the lad sat at Bilbo's feet, gazing up in awe and rapt wonder as Bilbo spun him a tale of faeries and ogres, maidens and monsters.  The hearth crackled merrily and Pippin dug his toes into the thick rug he sat upon.  Only the occasional yawn gave evidence to the fact that he'd been nothing more than a copper-tinged, vaguely hobbit-shaped blur of activity only hours before.

Bilbo smirked inwardly, mentally patting himself on the back for his way with the young ones.  No climbing into compost heaps and frightening neighbor's cats for this lad - not on Bilbo's watch.  Bilbo knew how to handle the children, yes indeed.

Poor Frodo, he thought and his mental smirk deepened, even as his mouth continued to create faerie worlds and the perils within for the sleepy lad on the rug.  He had sent both Frodo and Merry to their beds with thanks and pats on the back, assuring them that he had things entirely within his control.  The lift of Frodo's eyebrow and the disbelieving twist of his mouth had reeked of challenge and Bilbo congratulated himself for rising to it, as he'd known he would.    He'd dealt with Frodo himself, after all, and quite well, if he did say so - how much trouble could one little Took really be when all was said and done?

"And that, my lad," Bilbo wound up the tale, "is the story of the Lord and Lady of the Enchanted Lake and they live there still, ruling over the faeries in their realm with love and kindness."  He sighed in satisfaction, placed his pipe in the stand next to his chair then made to rise and send the lad off to his bed and to dreams.

"But..."  Pippin frowned and Bilbo stopped, waited.

"Yes, lad," he prodded.  "But, what?"

"Well," Pippin began, "why didn't the maiden just run tell her mum and the ogres in Frodo's stories always have yellow eyes but yours had red eyes and how did the Faerie Lord take his sword to the monster in the lake when everyone knows that faeries are very small and monsters are always very large and you never did tell me what their castle looked like and--"

"Lad, lad," Bilbo interjected, his head fair spinning.  "Let's take these one at a time, shall we?  I'm afraid I've quite lost track.  What is your first question, then?"

Pippin sat up straight and cleared his throat, thought about it.  "Well, if I had seen a monster in a lake, I would run tell Mum.  Why didn't the maiden tell her mum?"

"Well..." Bilbo began and paused.  All right, so perhaps he should have been a little more careful about plot holes, considering his audience.  "Perhaps her mum was busy with the laundry and whatnot."

Pippin shot him a dubious glance.  "Well, she's not much of a mum if she wouldn't stop washing clothes to save her daughter from a lake monster, is she?  Besides, you didn't say she was washing clothes.  You might have mentioned that, you know."

Bilbo was nonplussed.  "I say, lad, how many stories have you told?  I've been telling them since before you were a gleam in your father's eye, you know.  I believe I know what I'm doing."  No, Bilbo assured himself, he most certainly was not, not, not arguing the merits of his own storytelling with a cheeky Took.  He was a full century older than the little rotter...er, lad, for pity's sake.  Surely he knew better than to--

"Oh, mum says I'm just full of tales, dontcha know.  But I don't tell them nearly as well as Frodo does.  He's the very best, if you want to know the truth.  His are always very good and mums don't ever do the wash in them."

Stars and glory but the lad could rattle on!  No wonder Frodo was exhausted.  Well, at least he was pausing for proper punctuation now.  Bilbo decided to take the small victory.

"Well, then, my lad.  I think it's well past your bedtime and tale time, such as it was, is now at an end.  Can you find your way or shall I escort you?"  This last, spoken in a tone that he hoped left no room for argument.  He was able to cling to that hope for all of a second and a half.

"Oh, but cousin Bilbo," Pippin pouted.  "Mum always warms milk for me at bedtime and Frodo even adds a bit of that brown stuff you keep in the back of the pantry that warms my tummy ever so nicely and sometimes Frodo even takes a big drink of it himself while he's fixing mine and I just don't think I can sleep properly without the milk and then he rubs my back until--"

"Brown stuff, you say?" and Bilbo frowned.  Dosing the child at bedtime was certainly understandable, to his mind, but if Frodo was using his good brandy to do it...  Hmph.  The least he could do is use the stuff Bilbo served Lobelia when she came to call.

Bilbo stood and ruffled Pippin's hair.  "Not to worry, young hobbit.  Why don't you curl up in my chair and I'll see to warming the milk, eh?" 

Pippin obediently scampered up into Bilbo's chair and gifted him with a beaming grin.  Bilbo smiled back and made his way to the kitchen.  The way the boy's eyes were drooping, he almost expected him to be asleep in the chair by the time he returned but he filled a pot with milk nonetheless and put it on the grate to warm.  Turning, he went to the pantry for the brandy and, sure enough, his good, crystal decanter was well on its way to being empty.  Bilbo scowled.

"Fine, expensive brandy wasted on an urchin of a Took, of all people," he muttered to himself.  He pulled down the bottle he kept for Lobelia instead and proceeded to mix the concoction then pour it into a small tin cup.  Satisfied, he started back to the study and, reaching the door...

Face intent and eyes directed upward, Pippin was completely oblivious to his cousin's approach as he grunted his way up the bookshelf like a wily, nightshirt-clad weasel intent on robbing a nest.  A smile adorned his face and grew broader the nearer he got to the top.

"Sweet stars above, Peregrin Took, what in blazes are you doing?"

Having every confidence in his abilities at stealth and certainly not believing for one moment that his task would not be accomplished before Bilbo returned, Pippin turned in surprise and tottered, losing his precarious foothold on the fifth shelf as a result.  Bilbo watched in horror as the lad grasped, scrabbled and finally plummeted to the floor, bringing all manner of books, mathoms and who knew what else down with him.

Bilbo stood immobile with shock for a long breath before hurriedly dropping the cup to the table and rushing over to the heap of destruction that contained, at its center, one Peregrin Took.  He arrived to observe said Took blinking up at him owlishly, clutching a book in one hand and a pewter figurine in the other.  The lad's mouth opened and shut several times but, for once, no sound escaped it.  Bilbo knelt and began an attempt to release him from the mound that currently held him captive.

"What on earth...?" Frodo said from the doorway and Bilbo turned to see both he and Merry, sleep-addled eyes sprung wide, mouths agape, regarding the scene in amazement.  "What's happened?  Pippin, are you hurt?" and Frodo rushed over to his cousins.

Pippin, his stunned silence apparently at an end, took one look at Frodo and began to cry.  Very, very loudly.  Frodo gathered him up, patting his back and whispering soothing words into his ear. 

"Bilbo, what happened?" Frodo demanded.

Bilbo turned his gaze from Pippin's weeping face to Frodo's formidable glare.  "Well, don't look at me like that, young hobbit," he said defensively.  "It isn't as if I pushed the child or something.  Now stop gawping and help me with this mess."

"Bilbo, I didn't mean--"

"Yes, of course not.  Now, if you would...  Ah, young Meriadoc is here," he observed, looking over Frodo's shoulder.  "He can help with this.  You take the lad and have a sit-down.  See if you can't get some of that milk into him."  He pointed to the cup he had abandoned at the doorway and waved Frodo in that direction.

Merry tromped over to join Bilbo on the floor and, grumbling, began sorting.  "Bloody little twit," he was heard to mutter and Bilbo found himself in complete, if silent, agreement.

Frodo settled himself in the chair and cuddled Pippin to his chest, stroking his hair and shushing his sobs.  "Are you going to tell me what happened, or not?" he asked Bilbo impatiently.

"Well, I'm sure I don't quite know myself," Bilbo answered with not a little chagrin.  "I came into the room to find him ferreting his way up the bookshelf and next thing I knew, there was a great, loud crash and a cloud of dust."

"Came into...well, weren't you watching him?" Frodo censured as he put the cup to Pippin's lips and urged him to take a gulp.  Pippin, however, was far too engrossed in the drama currently unfolding.

"Well, of course I was watching him," Bilbo defended.  "I only left the room for a moment to heat him up some milk and--"

"You left the room?" Frodo exclaimed.  "And left him alone?  Whatever possessed you to do that?"

"Oh, please, Frodo.  Surely the boy ought to be old enough to be left in a room by himself for five minutes."

Frodo regarded his elder cousin for a moment in silence, then, "I'm sorry, cousin, I thought for certain you knew with whom you were dealing.  Bilbo, I'd like you to meet Pippin.  Pippin, this is your cousin Bilbo."

Bilbo rolled his eyes and growled.  Pippin wisely remained silent, looking wide-eyed from one to the other, then meekly accepted a drink from the cup.

"Well, the child insisted on the milk and what was I to do?" Bilbo scolded.  "And speaking of such, young hobbit, you and I will have words on your choice of nighttime beverages for sleepless little cousins when all is said and done.  Why you'd use the good brandy is entirely--"

But choking sounds from Pippin and renewed sobs interrupted that line of reprimand.  "You made it all wrong!" Pippin accused, coughing.  "You didn't make it like Frodo makes it!"

Frodo lifted an eyebrow at Bilbo.  "That," he said smugly over Pippin's wails, "is why I use the good brandy."  He patted Pippin's back and rocked him back and forth.  "Hush, love.  I'll make you some more in a moment."

Bilbo glowered at him, casting about desperately for two wits to rub together.  Not willing to allow Frodo the victory quite so easily, he sputtered indignantly until finally coming up with, "Be that as it may, I'm quite certain that his mother would not like to hear that the child's been indulging in such vices while a guest at Bag End."

"Who," Frodo returned, "do you think gave me the idea?"

"Ah."  Well, now.  That closed that subject well and good, didn't it?

Game.  Set.  Match.

Bugger!

"Come, Pip," Frodo said, rising and adjusting his cousin on his hip.  "Let's make you some new milk and get you off to bed.  You've had a very busy day."  He stopped in the doorway and turned to give Bilbo one last smirk.  "I think cousin Bilbo's had enough fun for one day," and he scuttled out of the room, muffling snorts.

Bilbo scowled after him for a moment then directed his gaze to Merry, whose face was a bit red and whose eyes seemed purposely nailed to the pile on the floor.  "Something you wish to say, young hobbit?" Bilbo challenged.

No answer but a choked snort and a quick shake of the head.  Bilbo glared then he and Merry set-to, returning books and mathoms alike to their proper places on the shelves.  They worked in silence for a while, Merry replacing items to the higher shelves and Bilbo working on the lower ones. 

"Bilbo," Merry asked when they were nearly done and the sniffles and whimpers from the kitchen had dwindled to the odd giggle, "what was Pippin looking for anyway?"  He shifted his gaze to the top shelf of the bookcase.  "Surely he wasn't just practicing his climbing skills?"

Bilbo peered intently at Merry for a long moment before lifting the corner of his mouth into a cheeky smirk and raising an eyebrow.  He put a finger to his lips, looked over his shoulder then tiptoed to the door, shutting it softly.  He made his way quietly back across the room and, to Merry's amused surprise, began climbing the bookshelf.  Reaching the top, he grasped a small earthen bowl that was perched there and made his way down as swiftly as he'd climbed.  He looked again to the door, cocked his head, listening and, satisfied, flashed a grin to his younger cousin.

"Don't quite know how he knew they were there," he told Merry, reaching into the bowl, "but I think the lad would make a good little burglar someday, should he wish to put his mind to it and you'd do very well to keep that in mind, for your own well-being."  He drew his hand from the bowl and dropped one of its contents into Merry's palm.  "Toffees," he said impishly and beamed.  "A gift from my wizard friend."

Merry gazed at the candy in his hand then looked up to Bilbo.  Bilbo's grin broadened and he popped his own candy into his mouth.  Merry couldn't help but smile back and do the same.

"I think I'll move these to a new spot.  Just for safety's sake," Bilbo said as he walked to the desk and placed the bowl into the bottom drawer.  "You'll be sure to tell Frodo where they are, won't you?"

"I'd be happy to, Bilbo," Merry responded.  "But I'm sure you'll have more opportunity to do that than I."

"Yes, I'm sure," Bilbo said and he patted Merry's arm.  "But just in case.  I'm sure you'll take care of things, won't you?"  He smiled warmly at his younger cousin.

Merry smiled back.  "Certainly, Bilbo."

~*~

Well, how all three managed to end up in Frodo's bed was more than Bilbo had the energy or inclination to guess.  He moved over to the bed and straightened the coverlet, brushed unruly curls back from brows smoothed in sleep.

What a telling arrangement of bodies and limbs, this.  Frodo in the middle, arms wrapped around the shoulders of each cousin.  Pippin curled against his right side, thumb in his mouth.  Merry draped across his left, arm thrown across his chest and his hand resting in Pippin's curls.

"Naught more'n I c'n han'le," Merry mumbled thickly then snuffled and burrowed closer to his cousin.

Bilbo chuckled to himself and reached for the candle.  He'd take over the rest of the party duties himself - Frodo would do better with what these two had to offer right now, instead of the busy-work of a party Bilbo knew he dreaded more than looked forward to.  He sighed, leaned over to touch a kiss to Frodo's temple.

"No worries, my lad," he whispered.  "I'm leaving you in very good company."

Bilbo smiled softly and blew out the candle.

~*~

END

~*~

* - The bookshelf idea was a gift from Ariel.  Either that or she was just trying to get me to quit whining.

 

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