West of the Moon

A Tolkien Fanfiction Archive

 

 

Rites of Passage: The Hall
RoP is a series fondly described by readers as 'The Forging of the RingBearer', which the first part/full-length novel, 'The Hall', begins. Deals with adult situations and 'coming of age' issues: i.e. sex will be involved somehow, somewhen. In varied 'modus operandi' and orientation.
Author: Willow-wode
Rating: to NC-17

 

Nothing had changed.

Aunt Eglantine and Uncle Paladin had returned to Tuckborough. Cousin Bilbo had left for Hobbiton. Uncle Merimac had gone back to the river. Yet Frodo was still at Brandy Hall, and it didn't look as if he was leaving any time soon. He didn't offer any information, and Merry didn't ask despite desperately wanting to. It made no sense. Not that he was complaining, mind. But after all the talk of uprooting Frodo from the Hall, after Uncle Mac telling Merry that he had to let Frodo go--for all of it to fall to naught? Merry had been certain that something would change.

He thought to ask his parents. But the vintage fortnight was almost upon them, and quite frankly all of the adults were entirely too busy to pay much attention to any questions not involving fruit and leaf and pressing. Steady sunshine had greeted each morning since that last violent storm, and everyone was hoping that it would hold for another week to finish ripening the grapes. Every hobbit allied to Brandy Hall by blood or tithe was preparing for what looked to be the biggest harvest in a decade. The pressing vats were filled with water to make the wood swell into liquid-tight readiness, the oak fermenting barrels were scoured, scrubbed and drained, the hobbit youth were put to keeping greedy birds from the grapes, and several adults were making sure those same youth did not pilfer more than a small share of the darkening fruit.

Mornings were purposefully sedate, by Merry's choice, all responsibilities catered to and grown-ups actively charmed into holding them above any suspicion. Such biddable meekness did not seem to totally sway Merry's mother, however. In fact there seemed to be, if possible, an even thicker line of tension drawn between Esmeralda and Frodo. She kept both Merry and his older cousin both busily occupied during the day--at separate tasks--and seemed even more determined than usual to keep them apart. The demands and days of impending harvest were long, unfortunately, and required every bit of her sharp attention. Within two days it was obvious that as long as they did their chores, showed up for meals and bedtime and worked where they were assigned, they could, with some care, manage to be free to do as they liked.

And Merry liked. Perhaps there was a mystery wrapped somewhere in Frodo's eventual fate, but Merry wasn't willing to question it too closely. The daily growing urgency of Brandy Hall vintage wound itself tighter and tighter--that had not changed. Their situation hadn't changed, not really.

But he wondered, sometimes, if Frodo had.

Merry realised that he'd expected some difference in Frodo. But he hadn't expected the change to be like this.

There was a flush to Frodo's cheeks, a wild light in his eyes, and for the first time in months he was fun... oh, so much fun to be about! Always contemplating some mad plan now, always laughing, always throwing himself into each new happening with furious abandon.

It had all started, really, after Frodo had gotten into that fight...

Not that Girry hadn't been asking for it. He'd been trying to take Lotho's place, no doubt, up to his old tricks of sneering and snide comments and meaningful shoves that he'd relinquished to Lotho when that one had arrived and established himself as alpha leader of the bullying pack. Whatever Girry had said the day after all the remaining visitors had left--Merry had only really heard part of it, something about Lotho and a book--had brought crimson into Frodo's face and ears, and he'd turned on Girry quicker than a duck snapping up a bug and lit into him.

Girry was a lot bigger than Frodo, but by the time he and Frodo had rolled on the ground for two minutes, the older lad had a bloody nose and was hollering like a stuck pig, and Frodo had backed off with nary a scratch on him and a cool, calculating light in his eyes. Saradoc had come in on the end of it and administered half-hearted discipline--despite Hall rules, everyone knew that the Master's take on fisticuffs was that 'lads would be lads'--sending the two combatants to their rooms without supper.

Not that such punishment had stopped Frodo from sneaking to Merry's room mid-night with his pockets full of feastables.

Then, after they'd scarfed all the snacks, Frodo had talked him into sneaking out to go joyriding on the broodmare. Merry had clung on behind Frodo, Frodo had clung to the mare, and they'd gone galloping over the hills into the darkness, the colt gamely keeping up, every now and then giving a nip at their dangling feet as if irritated that they should monopolize his mum's attention.

For three nights straight they'd done that. And every free chance they got during daylight hours, Frodo came up with something new.

First they'd strung that thin bit of rope and tripped old Peony coming from the henhouse with three dozen eggs--shells and yolks spattered all over the cobbles and Peony both, and they'd watched from the window of Merry's room, suppressing howls of laughter.

Then they had put a lot of grain starch and gelatin into the tubs at the males' bathhouse and sat innocently upon the benches to wait out the thickening reaction that had settled about cousin Theobold and cousin Sperrow like glue. Unfortunately Frodo had done that one before, and Esmeralda had angrily set them to cleaning out the entire bathhouse. In shifts, so they didn't even have the comfort of each others' presence. With three inch brushes

Merry still wasn't sure that particular lark had been worth it.

Next, in retaliation Frodo had filched his father's pipe from its place where Esmeralda had kept it ever since the last time Frodo had been caught smoking it. They'd retreated to the treehouse with pipe and a nicked bag of pipeweed. And Frodo, tan his hide, had laughed his head off as Merry had tried it, turned green and promptly threw up every scrap of his cherished breakfast into the Brandywine below.

Nevertheless Merry had gotten to smoke for the first time.

The very next day they'd tied a purloined Yule cracker to two stanchioned cows' tails and the resultant pop had caused the old bossies to bolt, upset several milk pans and run amuck through the courtyard right in the middle of wash day. Pippin had helped with that one, and they'd threatened the life out of him to keep his mouth shut--between giggles as the milch cows had finally run in a panicked frenzy back into the barn, one sporting a length of clothesline--including several frilly feminine underskirts and four pairs of Marina's oversized knickers--on its poll.

In fact they spent a lot of time outwitting and eluding the little Took who, with some innate instinct, realised that new game was afoot and thusly clung to them whenever possible, trying to get in on it.

Between Pippin and Esmeralda keeping a keen eye upon them, such times weren't easily gained, but the degree of difficulty just ratcheted up the level of satisfaction when they weren't caught. And the nights were all theirs. From that first night on it had become routine: they would be in bed peaceably enough for the rounds that Esmeralda would make after curfew, then once Pippin was sound asleep Frodo would crawl out of bed, get dressed, climb down from his window and sneak across the courtyard to tap a summons on Merry's rounded sill.

Merry wondered if Frodo ever slept. He must, sometime... probably in the wee hours when Merry also snuck back into his own room and dragged himself beneath his bedclothes, exhausted and glad to get a few hours in before the early mornings of harvest time. But sometimes in those wee hours Merry couldn't sleep, and he would lean out his window and see Frodo perched on his own sill, sometimes with quill and parchment, sometimes with a book, sometimes just sitting, awake and dreaming to meet the dawn.

Sleep or not--what did it matter to them? For it was 'them', once again--just himself and Frodo as it always had been and always would be, and never in his life had Merry experienced such rapacious pleasure. He'd learned more in the past se'n-night than he thought possible to know about the fine arts of thievery, mayhem and subtle chaos-wreaking. Merry had in truth all but forgotten that Frodo had these amazingly fun talents in his lexicon of actions, that before this past year he'd used his considerable solitary focus and imagination to become the most mischievous rascal in the Eastfarthing.

Nothing had changed. Nothing important, anyway.

For if now there was often an edge beneath Frodo's laughter... well, wasn't that just to be expected with all that had happened in the past months? And if sometimes when Frodo didn't think anyone was looking and Merry would catch an odd, almost trapped look in the large eyes... well, it must not be very important. For if Merry tried to question it--really, to question anything--Frodo's face would light up. He would smirk and tackle Merry, wrestle him to the ground and tickle him until he almost threw up from giggling so hard, or oh-so-innocently trip him so that he almost fell over the food tables, or dare him to yet some other outrageous thing.

It was as if Frodo was once again his childhood playmate--but with a riotous vengeance. He seemed disturbingly aware of what he wanted and moreso, how to go about getting it. It was just like old times...

Wasn't it?

* * * * * *

"I just don't get it." Merry held up the emptied pouches, rummaged further through the small trunks. All of their food, once again missing. Not even crumbs remained.

So much for plans of a nice, private and filling meal. Both the lads were grubby and tired from a full day doing prep work in the vineyards, and hungry enough to eat the tree itself. The discovery that the only food they had on hand was the admittedly-scant snacks they'd brought with them did not improve their outlook.

Frodo was disgustedly tossing aside the emptied pouches. Merry nimbly caught one just before it went sailing out the side opening of the treehouse platform. "D'you think squirrels have been at our stores?" Merry furthered.

"Pretty large squirrels, I'm thinking!" Frodo snorted. "Squirrels that can open our presses? Probably a squirrely hobbit named Pippin."

"But... he doesn't know where this is. We've been so careful..."

"Not enough, obviously." Brows quirking mightily, Frodo straightened up over the press and jammed his hands into his pockets. "You were saying several weeks back that you thought we were being followed..."

"But I really thought it was Lotho." Merry ducked a quick look at his cousin; Frodo merely peered back at him, seemingly unperturbed. "And when there was no sign of anyone once he left, I figured I was correct. I'd not seen anyone since--have you?"

"No."

"And nothing's gone missing since then, either. Until this week...!" He threw the emptied pouch to the floor in a fit of pique. "Bloody damn!"

Another strange difference. Frodo didn't even bother to fuss at him for swearing. But by this time Merry was grateful, because he was furious. Sometimes strong words helped a hobbit deal with his feelings--Granda Rory was right, there. "This makes three times in the past fortnight!" Merry complained. "And I'm hungry! Oh, I am so tired of this!"

"Well," Frodo considered, "at least we've some bread and cheese from our knapsacks that we brought today." He looked down into the press then grinned, bent over. "And, more proof that Pippin's our thief. This," he held up a mead sack, "is still here."

Merry gave the sack a jaundiced look. "Joy."

"You only say that because you've not tried it. Too much is not good. But a bit is quite nice."

Merry wondered if his ears had visibly pricked. "Does that mean you're going to let me have some?"

Frodo angled a glance at him, one side of his mouth curling up in a tiny smile.

"Does it? You've never let me before."

In answer Frodo unstoppered the sack, took a swig, then handed it to Merry. "You drink ale all the time. Why not?"

Why not, indeed? Merry took the sack as if it were a holy relic, took a sip, and promptly choked.

It was a lot stronger than ale. He could feel it burn all the way down.

"Not so fast," Frodo told him. "And here, eat something, or I promise you will be sorry." Taking the sack from him, Frodo replaced it with a large hunk of bread. He retreated over to the other side of the treehouse, settled himself on his behind with adequate sustenance, then gave Merry a smile. "Come on."

Soon they were settled against the branch, spooned up together with Merry half in Frodo's lap, looking out over the river below. Merry curled his toes happily against Frodo's, chewed on goat-cheese and bread, and listened to the river run and his cousin breathe.

The mead was putting warmth into corners Merry hadn't realised were cold.

"We have to do something, Frodo," he insisted. "This is our place. Ours."

"Mm." Frodo shifted beneath him. "Well, what do you suggest? A big butterfly net? A snare?"

"We need to do something!" Merry retorted.

"I could try hanging him up on the wall hook again... but I don't think it will stop him for very long."

"You really think it's Pippin."

"Who else could it be, Merry? Who else has been dogging our steps every chance he gets? He's a canny little beggar, and we must've given it away somehow."

"Oh!" Merry's face furrowed with thought. "A snare..." He lurched up, twisted about to face Frodo, who was watching him with quirked brows. "Frodo?"

"Mm?"

"If it is Pippin... How badly do you want to teach him a lesson?"

"What do you mean?"

Merry reached for another drink; Frodo shook his head.

"Enough for you, my lad."

"But you're drinking still."

Frodo shrugged, capped the sack and tossed it towards the press. "Now I'm not." His frown was skeptical. "What do you mean, 'lesson'?"

"We could, you know." Merry smiled, leaned on Frodo's chest with both hands.

"Could what?" Frodo asked a bit curtly.

"We-ell..." Merry leaned closer, then rubbed noses with Frodo and smiled at him. Frodo stiffened slightly, grabbed Merry's hands and louvered him back. Merry resisted for a moment in puzzlement; at this Frodo actively pushed him away, wriggling out from under him.

Merry watched, frowning, as Frodo walked away and over to the edge of the platform. Back still to Merry, he propped himself against the branches there, looking out over the river. Merry's frown tightened--it seemed that lately the only line Frodo had drawn was this one, and it was one that Merry was quite unaccustomed to. Dark hair trailing across his face, Frodo closed his eyes and gave a tight shudder; his grip was so firm on those branches that his knuckles whitened, and he set his face into the breeze. Merry watched it all; the peculiar tension of it burrowing a hard, confusing knot into his gut.

"Could what, Merry?" Frodo asked again, and his voice was so softly normal that Merry blinked. He couldn't speak for a moment, and when Frodo turned back to him, the blue eyes were unclouded, normal. Frodo shifted to lean against one branch with such unconstrained ease that Merry wondered if he'd imagined that strange, tense moment.

Doggedly, the younger lad returned to his original tack. "We could teach him not to poke his little nose into our things."

At this Frodo crossed his arms, peering at his younger cousin. "You've that look in your eyes again." Skepticism was turning into approbation, and the latter firmly dispelling any strange, brief moments. "You're getting ready to come up with something brilliant, aren't you?"

The sly praise filled Merry giddy. "It was you gave me the idea, though. You said 'snare'."

"So I did." One side of Frodo's mouth curled into a slight smile.

"All right, then." Merry grinned. "It'll take some doing, but it'll work. I know it will."

"Even better than your trip-wire for old Peony?"

"Trust me. Even better."

"Oh, I trust you. What are you thinking, then?"

"We'll need a few things from the Hall. Tools... some wood... rope. And bait."

"Bait?"

Merry smirked. "I was thinking to salt our snare with a few mushrooms."

Frodo laughed openly at this, and the sound was wondrous. "Well?" Merry persisted, laughing. "What do you think?"

"Tonight," Frodo said decisively. "The moon's full and there's no clouds to be seen; it should be bright as day here come mid-night. After curfew we'll do a little raiding on the sheds. Then we'll come back out."

* * * * * *

The Brandywine was beginning its fall running, swiftly companioning the lads as they ran along its embankments. The moon was full and bright-white, its reflection tossed about in the current, the stars peeking through the tree cover. Laden with the effects from their 'raid' upon the Hall's tool- and woodsheds, Merry and Frodo also had donned well-worn, woolen jackets. The wind nipped chill at their faces, pulled mist from their breath, the clear night giving no doubt that autumn was arriving.

Their bare toes unerringly sought firm ground no matter whether darkness or moonbeams slatted along the woodland floor, and their eyes gleamed, quickly discerning their path through the gloom. It was only a matter of moments before they were at the little cove, descending the embankment path then stopping at the bottom for a quick breath.

The little cove was quieter, the river swirling into the depression that gave them such a deep and marvelous swimming hole, but still the river sang much more forcefully than normal, and Frodo found himself watching the eddies and currents with a small frown, the sound and smell of it rather uncomfortably impinging on his nerves.

"It's loud tonight!" Merry said beside him. "Snowfall must have started in the North already. Usually the river doesn't start to run like this until after your birthday, Frodo."

He nodded silently, still captivated by the silvered ribbon of tossing motion. For the first time since Merimac had left he felt something cast aside and willfully forgotten stir within his skull, a tremorling of discomfort and dread.

"So." Merry nudged him. "What are you getting me for your birthday?"

Frodo tore his gaze from the waterway, took a shallow breath and composed his face smooth before he turned to his cousin. "And who says you're getting anything, hm?"

Merry grinned broadly. "Because you always get me something. Usually something pretty nice."

Frodo chuckled.

"I just hope the last of the vintage is in by then. It probably will be. It'd be brilliant to have the harvest brought home on your birthday, don't you think? They say it's good luck, to have a lad or lass reach their tweens on the eve of harvest home..."

"Well, my birthday's not for nearly another month, and they're hoping for vintage within the week, and you and I, Merry-dear, have only a certain number of hours to get this project of yours underway. We'd better set to before the moon retreats, don't you think?"

It took them well into the night. Frodo watched his younger cousin flit back and forth, his own mind staggering at what he proposed. Merry used the tools with an ease that Frodo envied, and the quick order that he made out of the assorted paraphernalia he'd dragged from the hamper was astounding.

"This is a lot of trouble for one small thief." Frodo gave forth one minor complaint as he hung upside down from a limb, placing a hook exactly where his young cousin had directed. The thinner shoots of the willow's branches feathered in the breeze, fingering his collar and rustling against his hair as it swirled about his ears. "It would be much easier to just give him a hiding..."

"But Frodo, this will be good. Really good." Merry protested about his own wind-tossed locks, lacing intricate knots into the rope he held. "Much less boring."

"I'm sure it will." Frodo cranked at the hook, then dimpled. "And do you still want to lose a copper mark by betting who it is?"

"You're so sure. What if it's Girry?"

"He's too stupid. He couldn't track a buck blind with rut."

Merry giggled. "He's not likely to be following us anywhere after the pounding you gave him, any road!"

Frodo felt the odd mix of satisfaction and discomfort that accompanied the thought of besting Girry, covered it by shoving the hair behind his ears and concentrating harder on wielding the spanner with more skill. "I'm just about ready for that rope. Why do you not want our trespasser to be Pip?"

"It has nothing to do with what I want, Frodo--it has to do with proof. This way, we prove it. We can't just pin something like this on anyone without proof."

"Oh, can't you just," Frodo muttered to himself sourly, giving the hook a final twist.

"What?"

"Nothing."

They worked in silence, moonlight and the lantern more than adequately lighting their efforts. "Frodo?"

"Mm?"

"You never did tell me why you lit into Girry like that."

Frodo considered his answer. The real reason made little sense, even to him. Only that Girry had come up behind him, surrounded by several of his cronies, and made not only a remark that made it clear he thought to take up where Lotho had let off--in every aspect--but that Lotho had also told him where Frodo hid the key to his precious cabinet. The subconscious reaction of fear, acquiescence and humiliation that Lotho had indoctrinated Frodo into had re-surfaced, freezing him to the spot for seconds, then Girry had reached for his nape and fingered the thong that resided about his neck. Anxiety had twisted within him, that recumbent, feral dragon that curled within his heart had woke, uncoiled and struck. He'd literally exploded into furious action.

And it had felt good to answer the challenge, to just let loose and tear into Girry, show him and the rest of those bullying tweens that he was no longer fair and ignorant sport for whatever games any of them would think to play him in.

Now his heart lay soothed and quiet once again, sated. It had proved to Frodo that if he had to be here, it would be under different terms. He would protect what was his. Including Merry.

Whatever it cost.

"Girry... he just made me mad," Frodo ventured rather casually.

"That's all?"

He shrugged. "Isn't it enough?"

"But Frodo, you never--"

"You were the one who used to get so angry because I didn't take up for myself!" Frodo retorted. "And now I am, and you don't like that either?"

Merry stared at him. Frodo sat up on the branch and held out his hand for the rope. Merry didn't give it to him, still staring at him.

"What do you want, Merry?" Frodo finally asked. He wasn't prepared for the reply.

The younger lad's eyes, dulled into muted greys and blacks by the shade of their shelter, lowered. The long, brown fingers played, seemingly idly, with the rope. "I... just want... us. Together. Like it's always been." He snuck a glance from under his eyebrows at Frodo. "I want us to be here. I want you to be here."

"Merry needs me to stay."

"Merry needs you to be happy..."

The words squeezed Frodo with almost physical pressure, bound him tight. "I'm here," he said softly.

"Are you? Are you, really?"

Those tip-tilted eyes turned to him once again, so full of earnest, hopeful things Frodo could scarcely begin to list them all. "You sprout!" he burst out, managed a smile. "Of course I am. Where else would I be?"

Merry worked at the rope. "You said you hated it here. In the library, you said--"

"Well, things have changed since the library, Merry-dear."

"Things." Merry's hands twisted tighter at the rope, betraying the agitation that his eyes refused to yield to. "I don't want them to change, Frodo. Not too much."

Frodo had to look away--it was entirely possible to lose any sense of self in that rapt, loving gaze. "Things always change, Merry. There's nothing we can do about that."

"Did it change... I mean..." His cousin swallowed hard. "Is it because... because of what Mum said in the library? About... the elves... and you?"

The words struck him like a blow; Frodo shook his head and held out his hand for the rope again. "I don't want to speak of this. It doesn't matter, not any more."

"But Frodo--"

"Leave it, Merry!"

Merry fell silent, still staring at him. Belatedly Frodo remembered that this was exactly what he had decided not to be for his cousin. His expression softening, he started to speak, but Merry beat him to it, with a dogged determination that suggested he'd been cogitating this for some time.

"Is the reason things have changed... is it because of what Lotho did?"

A small quiver ran through Frodo. "Merry," he said almost desperately.

"It wasn't until Lotho came about that you wanted to leave, Frodo."

Frodo started to speak in negation of this, realised that nothing he could say would be the right thing, lowered his head and bit at his lip.

"And..." he heard Merry swallow hard, "I thought you were leaving. I thought you would go away with cousin Bilbo, or Uncle Mac."

Frodo's eyes slid upward warily beneath his brows, took in Merry. The younger lad interpreted this as safe ground; he plunged ahead.

"I know that you like cousin Bilbo's stories, and he wants you to go visit. And Uncle Merimac..." At this Merry hesitated. His eyes glimmered. "It's only ever because he's been here before and you've never... you've never been this... I don't know... close to him before..."

"Perhaps," Frodo riposted lightly, leaning forward and taking the rope from Merry's palms, "it's just because you've not noticed before. I've always been glad to see your uncle."

"But it's different this time, somehow. Isn't it, Frodo?"

A purposeful smile, a loop of the rope, and inner coils of iridescent, shimmering fire strangling tight. "How so?"

"He wants you to go with him, just like cousin Bilbo. And Mum surely won't let you go to Bag End, will she? But maybe she'll let you go with Uncle Mac, and maybe he wants you... wants you to come with him, and maybe you want to be with him. Maybe you want to go with him. Maybe you want to leave the Hall, and me..."

With every word those coils clamped tighter, harder. Frodo shinnied on his knees closer to Merry and took his head in his hands; when Merry, silenced and miffed, tried to duck out of his hold Frodo didn't let go. He forced his cousin to look at him. "I'm not leaving you," he said quietly, firmly. "I won't, do you understand? If I am able to leave here, it won't be unless you can go with me. All right?"

Merry peered at him with uncertain eyes, then relented. Nodded.

"Now. We're very nearly ready with your bit of sweet revenge here," Frodo purposefully shaded his voice with a rather unconcerned tone, releasing the younger lad. "Fine and finished way ahead of schedule. Shall we continue?"

* * * * * *

Revenge, sweet or otherwise, had to be delayed. As if to make up for tardiness, the barley and corn seemed to burgeon overnight. And to further nudge the hard-working hobbits, the grapes grew heavier and darker on their vines. Even old Rory could only remember a few times where the two crops had ripened so closely together, and made dire predictions of short-handedness and foodstuffs left too long on the stalk. The entire Hall, gentry and commoner alike, was impressed into full service in the fields.

It was beginning to look as if the end of harvest, thought to be weeks away yet, would precede Frodo's birthday after all. And that the only way Frodo and Merry would be able to teach Pippin his lesson would be if they deliberately teased him into it and set it for just after dawn, before early breakfast and their subsequent shift in the vineyard rows.

The sun slatted across the river, glints of copper. The two hobbitlads had scaled and settled themselves into another tree across from the platform. It was an ancient oak, not as tall as their willow haven but much more concealing. It had the added bonus of several surrounding trees which added to the sense of camouflage, and was also on the very edge of the river. Unfortunately it also had a small spider population, which Frodo didn't appreciate.

"I hate spiders," he groaned, after picking the fifth one from his knee and flicking it into the rushing water below. He'd already buttoned his collar up to his chin and hunched his shoulders in defense. "They give me the shivers."

"At least these aren't poisonous," Merry offered helpfully.

"Oh, that's a comfort!"

"You're so grumpy this morning!"

"I really like having a nice, long breakfast. Sit down under a tree, read and eat and have several cups of tea." Frodo shrugged off another persistent arachnid with a small shudder. "Instead we get to hope against hope that our trespasser actually shows--"

"He'll show. You said that he was awake when we were talking in your room late last night about the new food stash in the treehouse, that he was listening and pretending to sleep--"

Frodo continued his sniping as if he'd not heard, "--so here we sit in this stupid tree, overrun by spiders, with nothing more than a few sticky buns in our bellies. I've gotten out of my stable duty, but there's more hours ahead than I care to think of looking forward to raking those bloody fields, and I've not even had a decent cuppa!--all of it to catch a thief whom we know full well the identity of and should just wallop so he can't sit down for a few days!"

"Well, bother, then!" Merry picked at the bark beneath his furry toes, his mouth angled sideways into a decided pout. "Maybe you should just take a nap or something until you're less cranky!"

Frodo gave it up and laid his head back against the tree trunk, closing his eyes with a resigned sigh. There was a long silence, then Merry said, a bit meekly, "Frodo?"

"What?"

Quiet. Then the younger lad held out a small flask. "It's probably gone cool. But I brought you some tea."

Frodo's eyes snapped open.

"I did it while you went to get your jacket. And I fixed it just as you like."

Staring at his cousin for a few staggered moments, Frodo burst into a sudden laugh. "Oh, you perfect Meriadoc, you!"

Merry grinned and held it out. "So? Take it!"

Frodo started to do so; abruptly Merry lurched forward and grabbed Frodo's shirt, nearly pulling him from his perch and dropping the flask. "Look!"

Frodo followed the younger hobbit's gesture towards the north approach.

A small figure appeared at the top of the cliffside path. He halted there, looking about seemingly aimlessly, then stretched his arms up to the sky and looked upwards. Hesitated. Upon seeing none about, purpose claimed him; he climbed agilely down the path, sprinting unhesitatingly the remainder of the direction towards the tree. A shaft of sunlight glinted cinnabar in tousled curls, betraying him quite obviously even if they didn't know him just by his size and frame.

Pippin.

 

"I told you!" Frodo hissed, leaning forward. "I told you. Let's get him!"

"No, wait! Let's see what he does next!"

If there had been any doubt that he knew where he was, that was also dispelled as he went over to the cave where they kept hidden a small ladder, pulled it out, then dragged it--it was small, but almost three quarters his height--and laid it against the willow. Climbing unerringly upwards, the child had to get to the very top rung to reach the climbing rope in its hiding place, and then only by standing rather precariously on his toes.

"Just look at him," Frodo murmured. "Little wanker. If he falls..."

"He'll bounce. He always does."

"Let's get him, then, before he topples over."

Merry put a hand on Frodo's chest and continued in a half whisper, "Aw, c'mon Frodo. Don't get all protective and squeamish on me now. We need the proof."

"I'm not squeamish." Frodo brushed another spider from his breeks, taking a sip from the flask and watching intently as the little fellow climbed the rope and gained the fort's platform. Nothing issued forth for long moments but the sound of their cousin's reedy voice warbling a breathless tune--the volume of his voice was always a key to how inordinately pleased with himself Pippin was--and they both leaned forward anticipatorily.

They'd attached thinly-twisted twine to the 'bait'--a full bag of mushrooms--knowing that as long as Pippin showed his normal heedlessness that he would snatch it up with hasty glee. From that bag, the rope ran to a contraption that was as simple in operation as it had been complex to set up: a net hung from the upper branches, set to release once the mushrooms were yanked up.

Merry grinned rather evilly. "This should be really good, you know?"

It was not only good, it was spectacular.

The rope which ran from bag to eye-hooks on the branches and then to the net above tripped. There was a schlump! of air, a thud, then a shriek as it fell. Merry whooped in triumph and shoved Frodo so hard he almost fell from their perch.

"See! What'd I tell you? That was brilliant, wasn't it? Brilliant!"

Frodo's eyes were wide with amazement. "It worked. It worked perfectly!" From inside the treehouse there were massive sounds of struggle and Pippin's voice raised in extreme frustration.

"You sound surprised," Merry protested. "Didn't you think I could pull it off?"

"You know I did." Frodo threw Merry a positively satisfied smirk. "Let's go get the little pest, shall we?"

Suddenly from the side opening of the platform, there was a scuffle and a growl: Pippin, tangled in the rope and all but shrieking furious complaints. Unfortunately, there was less platform than there was struggle. Pippin managed to wriggle almost fully from the net, but ran out of ground doing so and hurdled over the side. Frodo yelped as flung-aside net and tiny hobbitchild arced into the air, seemed to almost hang for seconds, then plummeted down, hitting the river below with a tremendous splash.

"Oh, for the love of..." Frodo moaned.

"Great!" Merry gritted. "Now I suppose we have to go fish the little fool out!"

"Perhaps we should make him fend for himself..." Frodo trailed off, still looking down at the water. "Wait. Merry? Pip does know how to swim, doesn't he?"

Merry frowned and craned his eyes after Frodo's, noting that save for the fading splash and the slow-sinking net, there was no other sign of their thieving victim anywhere in the water. His eyes went large and he raised his face to his companion's. "Uh... I... I don't know. I think he does."

"Merry!" Frodo's eyes were scanning the water almost in panic. "He's not coming up!"

The two hobbitlads once again peered at each other, shocked into stillness. Then Frodo lurched upward and gained his feet, shucked out of his thick jacket, took a huge gulp of air. He sailed headfirst into the river. Merry hesitated for several precious seconds.

"Ohhh..." Beneath him Frodo's head reappeared above the surface, next to the net, pawing through it frantically. He didn't look as if he was finding anything. Merry shifted, groaned, then yanked off his own jacket. He gave a blood-curdling yell and ran off the branch, leaping in feet-first after his cousin. The water was cold, yanking the breath from his lungs as he sluiced down into the water so far that for moments he feared he wouldn't come back up. The current tugged at his frame and pulled him deeper, then suddenly the water propped him, pushed him. Merry regained control of his momentary panic, kicking for the surface.

Air filled his lungs and Merry gasped it in gratefully, slinging the hair from his eyes and looking frantically about. Frodo was not too far away; they spent several silent moments swimming, looking, diving beneath the surface. The river was fairly clear and it was not too difficult to see underwater.

"Do you see him?" Frodo's voice rang out shrilly against the banks.

"No!" Merry cried back. His ears were singing; he could hardly hear above the water noises and the panicked thud of his own heart. "Pippin! Pippin, where are you?"

No answer. Frodo was flailing about downstream. Merry kept diving. And diving. And diving until he thought his lungs would burst but there was nothing.

He surfaced, gasping, found Frodo standing in front of him. "Merry!" His voice was high-pitched, his eyes huger and more stricken than Merry had ever seen them. "Merry, I don't see him anywhere!" It made Merry's own panic spiral tighter.

"What are we going to do, Frodo?"

"We have to find him, Merry. We have to... Pippin! PIPPIN!" Frodo twisted about and dove back into the water. Merry went the opposite way, fear clutching at his heart.

"Pippin!"

They dove until they were heaving and red-eyed, they screamed his name until their throats were raw, they pushed through the water until their limbs were shaking and cramping, and then, slowly, both of them crawled out onto the banks side by side. Merry crouched on trembling hands and knees, heaving air into his lungs; Frodo collapsed on his side, staring numbly at nothing and panting.

Merry's head dropped as he tried to catch his breath. The wind had picked up, chilling his sopping garments, but the outer cold could not compare to the inner frigidity that had him in its grip. His stomach gave a sudden, spasmodic jerk as he stared helplessly at his cousin where he lay beside him, sodden clothes plastered to him, wet sand and pebbles clinging to him, dark hair dripping into his face.

"Um... um... Frodo?" he said quaveringly. Frodo didn't seem to hear him, just lay there with his mouth slack, his expression blank, and Merry felt his gut clench tighter, forcing the air from his lungs and making his voice climb upwards. "Frodo?!"

The older lad started; his eyes focused, blinked, fastened on Merry. Still panting, Frodo louvered himself up on his hands and knelt there helplessly. He looked as if he was going to be sick. Merry writhed beneath the expression, held there by it and his own empty horror as surely as a bird charmed flightless by a snake's gaze. "Frodo," he whimpered, "what are we going to do?"

Frodo hung his head for a long span, didn't answer, then took a deep breath. "One of us has to go back to the Hall, Merry." His voice was toneless, wooden.

"I'll keep looking, then and..."

"No." Frodo raised his face to his cousin's. Shale clung to one pallid cheek. "Merry, no. I can't go back there and tell them... tell them this. I... I can't..." He closed his eyes and swallowed, then straightened, took Merry by the shoulders. A wail tried to rise in the younger boy's throat; it choked itself down with a huge shudder as Frodo stood, pulling Merry to his feet as well and giving him a small shake.

"Go, Merry. You go. I'll keep looking. Better I find..." he trailed off, swallowed hard. His face was startlingly, horribly empty. "You go on, now."

The younger boy stood as if paralysed.

"Go!"

Pulling from the tight grip, Merry fled. And ran. Ran...

He ran as if wolves were at his heels. His heart was choking him. His brain was afire.

Pippin.

His damp clothes stuck to him, fingers and toes muddy where he'd struggled and clawed and crawled up the embankment. His ears sang with the wind. He tasted salt, bitter and keen, where he'd tripped on a root and bitten his lip.

Frodo thought... Frodo thought Pippin was gone. Why else would he send him back? No, maybe he had sent him back to go for help. Maybe it wasn't too late. Maybe he could bring help and they could find Pippin.

He ran harder, gasping in air with tears and blood. That must be it. He had to bring help. There had to be help, for these kind of things just didn't happen. It was something you heard about, something that happened to other people. It didn't happen to your friends, it didn't happen to people you knew. Not like this. Things like this didn't happen...

Merry stumbled, toppled and hit the ground so hard it drove the air from him. He lay there, gasping uselessly, and it was as if memory and reason flooded in where air had gone absent.

Yes, they did happen. They did.

That was why Frodo had sent him back, why he hadn't wanted to come. Frodo didn't want to go to the Hall. He didn't want to tell them all what had happened. That his tiny cousin had drowned, just like... just like...

Just like his parents had drowned.

Air flooded to his lungs, intoxicating him with dizzy strength. Merry lurched up to his feet, swaying there, hung with indecision. He should go back. He had to. He shouldn't leave Frodo alone, not with this. For the first time he was suddenly, vitally aware of how much this thing--this one, inconceivable happening--would mean to Frodo in particular.

Or at least what he thought it should mean. For they'd never talked about it. All the things they'd shared, all the dreams and nightmares, but not this. Never this. Had Frodo seen his parents drown? Or had it been like Pippin, whom they couldn't find and who was probably being carried swiftly, river-wrack on the fall running, a broken doll tossed upon the Brandywine...

He was running again suddenly, running without knowing how he'd began running, back to the river and to Frodo, the breath stitching into his side as it jaggedly returned, feeling as if there were a knife thrusting through his ribs with every breath. Merry listed sideways, trying to gain air, trying to not contemplate what Frodo would find...

If he found anything. Merry halted, struck still.

"Pip..." It was a wail within his throat, crushed to sub-vocal before it ever reached his lips. And he knew suddenly that, no matter what, he couldn't go back there. He couldn't face it, couldn't face Frodo, couldn't face... Pippin...

Merry wheeled like a startled deer, back toward home, toward the Hall, towards the adults who could make it better. They would find Pippin. They would find him, and make it right somehow. Frodo couldn't do this; Frodo was unable to do this, he already thought Pippin was gone, but... Pippin couldn't be gone. He couldn't be... dead.

Merry had seen dead things before. But it was incomprehensible to connect that with Pippin. To imagine: the dancing green-gold eyes dulled, the compact, rapid frame impossibly stilled, the high-pitched voice strangled and no longer piping in his ears with lilting, cock-sure confidence, the sharp little face no longer scowling with outrage or filled with overindulged drama or grinning up at him all too cheekily, grubby and full of mischief...

"Oh, but wasn't it fun, Merry? Wasn't it?"

With a groan he hunched over, stumbling to his knees. There was a hole somewhere within him that he'd not been aware of until just now. A deep-vast space, now forever to remain emptied, roiling and churning beneath the knowledge of abandonment. He would never fill that space now, would never see it lit and shadows banished by the undeniable force of existence embodied in this smallest of his cousins...

Merry whimpered and huddled on the ground and for the first time in his young life wished he could just curl up and die.

You tried to get rid of him. Now you've got your wish. He won't follow you any more... won't ask too many questions... won't get between you and Frodo... won't pester you for some childish and unfathomable reason...

Won't sneak a treat to you when you're being punished in your room... won't skip at your side, looking up at you as if you were his entire world... won't make Frodo laugh... won't hug you so tightly that the breath flutters in your chest...

Because you've killed him.

"Nooo!" It was a growl from somewhere deep within his chest. The stitch in his side abruptly loosened, flooding air almost dizzily to his lungs and brain. He lurched upward, ran. And ran. And stumbled. And ran.

The Hall loomed before him.

* * * * * *

Frodo watched Merry disappear over the rise leading back to the Hall. Once his cousin was gone his knees threatened to buckle; he kept them straight. Behind him the Brandywine chuckled, curvetting about stone. His head pounded, throbbing in discordant time with the river's flirtatious disdain. Frodo clenched his fists and turned about, chin lifting, spine quivering into iron as he headed toward the water.

He stopped at the edge. The river caressed his toes.

It took every ounce of will he possessed to wade back in.

The water was cold against his calves, treacherously swift, stealing the breath from him. Frodo called Pippin's name, but it was as if he made no sound or as if the water swallowed him up, quieted and stilled him, tried to take him from the now. Enemy once again, the river, as remote and unreachable as he'd ever dreamed himself into being, except somehow and now all he could do was feel. As if that damnably ubiquitous key that Merimac had made mention of had turned once more in its lock, but now it was not outside sensation that buffeted him, but something from within, taking him down.

The morning is so silent, so still. He rises from his narrow bed, feeling anxious and not even knowing why. His feet pad quietly on the stone floor and his voice lifts in question against the wooden walls, unanswered save by the echo of his own small whisper. Silence. Then he hears something, a soft, almost plaintive murmur from outside...

He staggered as it rose from nowhere and treacherously struck against his breastbone. It was as if something had spoken sharply aloud, demanded that he turn to it, face it. Frodo took in a gulp of air, then shook his head. He couldn't stop right now. Couldn't stop, couldn't face anything other than what he was doing, here and now. He had to keep looking.

"Pippin!" He splashed through the water, fighting its drag, eyes frantically scanning the bank. "Pippin!"

He calls again, louder this time, but still the house reverberates emptily. Rubbing his eyes sleepily, he heads toward the sound from outside. Voices. He exits the side door and onto the porch. There are people there, a gathering about the water's edge, where he often wades up to his knees in the cool river beyond the yard perimeter. He walks down the front steps curiously, still in his nightshirt and wondering why all these people are here at River Run this early in the morning...

Shards of pain, like razored glass shredding into his vision; Frodo dug his palms into his eye sockets as if he could scrub the sudden rising away. Memory? Was it, then, memory? No, it couldn't be. Wouldn't be. He wouldn't acknowledge it. Instead he kept wading. Kept calling. The water tugged at his calves, nearly felling him. His voice seized and quavered on the little boy's name as it echoed against the river bend and back, mocking him, killing any hope that he would hear an answer.

"Pip...!!"

Pip! Pip...!

No, the next sight he would have of his little cousin would be a small, stiffened figure lying on the gravel bank, just like... just like...

"The boy...!"

They all turn to him, all familiar, all family and working folk--he knows them yet their faces are alien, wrong, filled with something he doesn't understand. A strange and undeniable knowledge breaks open within him. The river. Something about the river...

The river laved the backs of his knees with a darting, chill tongue. A sinuous presence was uncoiling within his heart, wakened by water's touch.

Here be dragons.

Here be sulphur, and steam, and the mists drawing aside...

"Frodo? Frodo, lad..."

A large form in front of him; he tries to run forward, circumnavigate the people who are suddenly all about him. Strong hands grip him and hold him back, but he sees it:

The boat, bobbling upended against the shore...

Conjecture from faulty memory, childish evocation of spirits lairding hearth and home and belonging--all of it piercing his vitals like a well-aimed arrow. Soundlessly Frodo sunk to his waist in the water. Seemingly gladly it received him, cushioning his fall, taking him in a slick embrace, his knees sinking into the bottom silt. He tried to lurch back upward but couldn't, downed beneath the weight of the water and his thoughts. Chill clamping about his ribcage, and dark, dusty curtains billowing open behind his eyes, and Frodo smacked clenched fists against his forehead, hoping that somehow it would still his mind. He didn't have time for this, couldn't stop and heed it now...

"Dad? Mumma?" he whispers. Pulls forward. But the hands will not let him go, and he is lifted, held uncompromisingly against a broad chest. A massive arm clamps about his ribs so that they nearly creak, forcing the air from his lungs. His face is shoved against a rough shirt the smell of which fills his mouth and nostrils, sour and sharp. He gags on it, squirms, tries to pull away, but strong fingers curl about his skull, holding him there and he struggles, tries to cry out but cannot, his lungs are aching and he cannot breathe, cannot draw in air past the sickly-sweet muslin and hard muscle beneath...

"Frodo?" The voice reverberates through his whole being and he's choking on it, closeted with nearness and cloying sweetness and panic. He can't breathe, he's smothering, he's dizzy and helpless against the strong, large hands that hold him trapped. They're taking him away from them... taking him away and his world rocks beneath him, for he should be with them, should be...

A whimpered sound escaped his lips and Frodo hunched over further, his forehead touching wet, the river splashing against his nose and cheeks, soft chuckles and caressing foam staking soft claim to him. Enemy. Friend. Neither.

Both.

"Frodo..."

His name, echoed and falling against the water, pulling him forward into a final, longing embrace...

"N...nooooo!" He twists, writhes, flails, "let me go! Let me GO!!!"

"Frodo?"

He twisted, writhed, flailed upward: forelock dripping, breath gagging in his throat, face sopping with tears and the cool touch of the river. And there he was, standing on the river bank, wet and bedraggled, huge-eyed and frightfully small.

For moments Frodo stared, unsure exactly of who was there on the shore, and how, and why. Then reality crashed back into him like a wave, and he realised that he was all but on his hands and knees, the Brandywine tugging at his hips and waist like a needful lover, and it was not some odd avatar of memory that stood on the banks, watching him slowly sink into the water; not little Frodo but...

"Frodo?" Pippin asked curiously, "what are you doing?"

"Pippin!" Frodo lunged to his feet and staggered from the river and to him, nearly falling down as he halted before him, picking him up and grabbing him close. The child squirmed with a protest that muffled against his cousin's chest and Frodo almost dropped him, letting him down but holding onto his shoulders. "Where have you been? Are you all right?"

"I saw you both looking for me, but the current caught me and took me downstream a ways. I had to swim out further down, but I could still see you, and then Merry left..."

"We thought you were..." The explanation, breathless as it was, niggled at Frodo and he stiffened. His grip tightened on the narrow shoulders. "Pippin. You know how to swim?"

"Oh, of course I do. But that current caught me, like I told you, which was not too good because I wanted to get to the shore and watch you look for me." The green eyes angled up, peered at his face searchingly. "You look like you've been crying, Frodo. Were you that worried about me?"

Cold reason flooded through him, twisting misery, sparking fire, quelling visions. "You... little... sod."

"Well, I thought it was only fair since you played that trick on me that I should get you back!" Pippin grinned. "You two were pretty funny, Frodo, splashing about in the water and screaming like that--OW!"

This as Frodo took his arms in a fierce, punishing grip and shook him. Hard. "Peregrin Took, are you out of your bloody mind? What do you mean scaring us both like that? Don't you realise we thought you were drowned?"

"But I'm not...!" Pippin whined. "Frodo, you're hurting me!"

"Hurting you? You're lucky I don't murder you here and now!" Frodo snarled at him. "You little fool, don't you realise what you have done? I should give you the whipping of your life!"

The last threat seemed to penetrate. "But I didn't do anything, cousin Frodo," he wheedled. "It was just a bit of fun."

"I," Frodo fastened eyes of bluestone granite on the boy, "did not think it was fun. Neither did Merry."

Pippin let out a strangled whimper and shrank back, rapidly temporizing, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry, Frodo. Please don't be angry with me! I didn't mean it... Um... hadn't we better go after Merry? When I saw that he'd gone to the Hall I figured I'd better come out so we could get him. Grownups make such a fuss over things like this and... yow!"

"Merry." Frodo's hands tightened on Pippin's shoulders even harder as another fearful thrill consumed him. "Merry will be there by now..."

"Please don't give me a beating, Frodo... I really like you and I know you're almost grown up and everything but I don't want you to have to whip me just to prove you're older and the boss and..."

"Shut up, Pippin!" Frodo snarled and grabbed his ear. "You come on, now! We have to get to the Hall before... before..." he yanked, pulled the child relentlessly behind him.

"Ooowww!" Pippin yowled, but followed. He had no choice.

* * * * * *

Frodo had dragged Pippin by his ear all the way from the treehouse river bend to the outer wall of the north orchards, and had just passed into the gates to set foot on the well-traveled path to the Hall when the search party met up with them. The small group of hobbits was grim, marching dutifully and quickly forward; there were about fifteen of them, all dressed in working clothes and carrying implements and ropes. In the lead were both Saradoc and Esmeralda, with Merry in tow. Both searchers and wayward searchees halted, staring at each other.

"Pippin!" Merry burst out, halting in his tracks, his pale face flooding with sudden color and his blue eyes bugging nearly from his face. "Pippin... glory! You're all right!" He lurched forward, but his mother's shocked hand stayed him.

Pippin was trying to move forward, alone of all the tableau's participants more than capable of action, indignantly squirming and red-faced. "I told, you, Frodo. I told you they'd come and..."

"Be quiet!" Frodo said, fingers twitching in their grip upon Pippin's ear. Pippin didn't wince--no doubt because his ear was by now numb--but under Frodo's tone he went quite silent.

"You... found him!" Saradoc slowly voiced. "Save us..."

"What happened?" Esmeralda had one hand at her throat, the other dropping, nerveless, from where it had grasped Merry's shoulder. Then she was running forward, picking up her skirts and dropping to her knees before Pippin, her hands going about his face. "What... oh, my... what happened?" she choked out.

"'M all right, Auntie!" Pippin told her earnestly. "They only thought I'd drowned. But I can swim pretty well for my age, don't you know."

Saradoc was behind Esmeralda almost immediately; the other hobbits advancing from behind him. Frodo's hand dropped from Pippin's ear and he took a small step backwards.

"Save us, child, you're sopping!" Esmeralda fussed. "And cold. All of you are soaking!" She pushed Pippin back, peering at him with a frown. Her eyes flickered up, over to Merry and back to Pippin. Then as if drawn, they angled back to Frodo's, held. Frodo quailed, looking away.

They'd finally been caught. With a vengeance. And it was his fault. Again. The plan had been Merry's, but he'd gone along, had allowed it, even encouraged it. He should have known better. Frodo stared at the ground, not seeing it. He should have known, should have...

You should have known then, as well.

A sinuous... something twined up from his chest and tickled at the back of his throat. It began to whisper in his ear, a singsong accompanied by the sounds of shore-wake against an empty, turned-over hull, of people gathered about and murmuring, of blood pounding in his ears...

"No." It was a whisper. Frodo shook his head as if to clear it, tucked his chin, looked sideways. Merry was peering at him worriedly.

Esmeralda rose from her crouched position and her face, which had been nearly bloodless and pale, became quite flushed. One hand still at Pippin's shoulder, she reiterated severely, "I said, what happened?"

Silence.

"Well--" Pippin began to speak up, shut his mouth abruptly as Esmeralda's hand tightened on him. She was still looking at Frodo, who refused to return her gaze.

Saradoc frowned at this. "Frodo?" he asked, turning to him. "What happened?"

Frodo started to speak, couldn't. The words literally would not come past his throat. Oddly enough, he was aware of what was happening about him: he could see Merry trying to catch his gaze to no avail, could see the small group of family and workers converging in a loose semicircle about their Master and his family, could see the uneasy mien to the entire group of gathered hobbits. And the eyes, following him, peering altogether too closely at him and telling him that he was behaving in a peculiar fashion. But he could no more stop it than he could speak; it was as if he himself was wrapped in quilt batting, or held underwater. He could even hear the water, a liquid singing just for him, only him, only him...

Smothering. Can't breathe. Can't cry out. Can't stop it...

Was this, then, what drowning was like? It was certainly what his mind had imagined, over and over again, only now there was no wet but nevertheless this odd feeling of being separated from his body, with echoes of sight and sound piercing the bizarre sheath that had set itself about him, halting outward action.

He could see Merry. Merry's eyes tried to hold his, alighted on Pippin. The youngest hobbit's brow furrowed as he returned Merry's gaze, then stepped forward again.

Merry, no. No. Pippin, don't. Be quiet, be still, be...

"Auntie, Uncle, I almost did drown, you know," Pippin told them vehemently. Saradoc turned to him; Esmeralda half-turned, keeping Frodo in her line of vision but heeding Pippin as well. "The current was pretty strong. But, you know, I'm a pretty good swimmer, and I would have been all right except for this huge fish," he demonstrated with his hands, "that tried to snap me up! I just barely managed to drag myself out of the water and onto the bank before he got me!"

Esmeralda's gaze left Frodo; she looked down critically at her youngest nephew. Saradoc put a hand over his face. From somewhere in the small group of watchers, someone chuckled.

Merry took the given chance and was immediately beside Frodo, grasping his arm...

A hand on his arm, and a large form in front of him, and the river's laughter...

His limbs unfroze themselves but not to do his bidding; Frodo found himself jerking away and lurching sideways, bumping into one of the field workers who tried to steady him. Again he recoiled as if it were an adder's tooth and not concerned hands reaching for him. Again, he couldn't stop it.

He had to stop it. Right now.

"Frodo?" Merry whispered, but there was no reaction that Frodo could bring forth to give to him. Instead he stumbled, bumped into the periphery wall as if blinded, thrust out his hands and curled them against the red stones. Red as wine. Red as blood...

Be quiet... be still...

He was no longer directing it to Pippin, but to himself, the words spiraling inward in stern command. But the coils strangled voice, fiery breath riffled though mind and memory, wisped from his control.

Stop it. Now. Be silent... be still... be STILL...

The worker was staring at Frodo; he muttered to his surrounding companions. Merry stepped closer to his cousin's side, glared at them. They looked away uncomfortably.

Pippin sucked in a huge breath; he was obviously merely getting warmed to his audience. "I was too out of air and too far down the bank to let Merry and Frodo know that I was all right--not that they'd care because they tried to kill me!--" another breath, "and by the time I got back to where I'd fallen in Merry had already left and Frodo spent at least ten minutes screaming at me, and I tried to tell him that we needed to go after Merry and let him know I wasn't drowned... I tried, you know. I tried to tell him you'd be worried!"

"Peregrin," Saradoc said severely, "is that the truth?"

"Surely it is, Uncle Sara! Well, maybe the fish was only this big," he demonstrated a much smaller span with his hands.

This time the method of delivery of the tale stole a laugh from the surrounding hobbits. Pippin turned to grin at Merry. His smile congealed, for Merry was staring back at him, and the look was not at all pleasant. Relief at Pippin's seeming rescue was turning sour in Merry; shock and resultant reprieve from agony unwinding itself beneath the knowledge of exactly how Pippin had been snatched from seeming danger.

"You. You did it on purpose, didn't you?" he demanded of the little hobbit.

Pippin had the grace to flush and look down. Esmeralda's hand twitched on his collar. "On purpose?" she queried. "Meriadoc, what do you mean by that?"

Merry threw a panicked glance at Frodo. No help there. Frodo was still hunched against the wall and might have been immured in another world entirely--and quite frankly it was a bugger of a time for him to get lost in some ruddy dream! Then irritation waned quite suddenly, arresting Merry in place as he fully noted his cousin's vacant expression.

He was not the only one . The other hobbits--Merry could see a few relatives, but mostly workers in the group--had pressed in even tighter to hear Peregrin's story, but mirth had dulled. His father was frowning, and Esmeralda's eyes were narrowed warily. Pippin looked uncertain. All of them, peering at Frodo.

And Frodo just stood there with shuttered eyes and bowed head, lips quivering as if chanting silent verses, one hand holding tightly to the rocks and the other limp at his side.

Shooting a glance towards his father, Merry saw merely confusion. In his mother's expression, however, he saw what he had seen there many times before. Only now he had names for it, classifications to direct toward it:

Apprehension. Incomprehension. Horror...

And for the first time he understood, actually saw that fear and felt it himself in full, unassailable clarity--it was branded before him in his cousin's countenance and the reactions of those witness to it. All the rumors, all the insinuations, and the reason for them, the reality?

Fey, uncanny Frodo, despite being half Brandybuck irrevocably unlike to any Brandybuck known. Walking through the Hall like some high-mettled, fractious coursing hound surrounded by sturdy, tenacious mastiffs... Swimming wild in the river with the unthinking, quick grace of an otter... Perched atop the branches of the trees, filled with some unnatural, indescribable yearning for the void that cupped the earth of nights as if he wished to crown himself with stardust. A throwback to the Tookish faery wife--or to something closer and just as fantastic?--fair and darkling both, and deeply brilliant-hard as adamantine because... because...

Fear took Merry, sudden and unforgiving, a lance of ice down his spine. What if this was what had enforced the evasions, the passivity, the running?

What if they were right? What if Frodo truly didn't belong here after all?

Immediately Merry was angry and ashamed of himself. Swallowing hard, walked the few steps to his cousin's side, reached out, took his free hand. There was no return grip--he might have been holding a stone in his hands--but neither this time did Frodo pull away. Frodo was not even aware of him.

Something warm expanded within Merry's chest, took his little boy's heart and filled it almost to bursting with outrage and passion; it stiffened his spine and replaced apprehensive ice with righteous fire. Perhaps Frodo was different, but that didn't deny that his older cousin was a part of him, joined to him as surely as his own arms and hands... and it didn't deny either that Merry was abruptly and inexplicably terrified. It was worse, this new fear for Frodo. Somehow it was worse than being afraid of him.

Standing his ground, Merry stared down the adults who thought to disparage his older cousin. "What are all of you looking at?" Even to himself, Merry's voice grated as he demanded further, "Why are you staring?"

Silence. The peculiar look on his mother face, the pallor deepening beneath his father's tan. And Frodo's hand, twitching ever so slightly, within his own.

"Merry..." It was a whisper from behind him, faint and remote as if from a distance; Merry whirled at the soft protest. Vacancy drained itself forcibly into awareness as Frodo put a hand to his face, scrubbed against his brow as if trying to grind away disfocus. His eyes raised to Merry's, raked over the rest of the ones gathered then lowered. "Merry, don't. It's all right."

No it wasn't. No, he wasn't. Frodo was doing it again. Merry could all but see the ramparts being buttressed, could hear the lock tumblers clicking in place. Could feel Frodo gathering himself up, goaded by some outer instinct and internal fortitude to asylum. Merry laced his fingers tightly between his cousin's and shifted to stand before him as if in protection.

"Merry..." came the protest, soft and vehement.

"Frodo," he whispered back, "for once just shut up."

His further defiance of choice did not go unnoticed. His father's eyes narrowed. His mother's hand tightened on Pippin so that the little boy gave a small squeak. Esmeralda abruptly loosed her youngest charge and stood almost irresolutely for long moments, then took in a breath and turned to the surrounding hobbits. Her smile was remarkably pleasant, and it made Merry uneasy for no apparent reason. "Well. My thanks to you all. We won't keep any of you here any longer."

As Esmeralda had no doubt intended, the gathered hobbits turned their attention to her. Her voice was light, quick and strong. "There's quite a lot to do today and no sense in all of us being compromised by a childish prank, is there?"

Saradoc backed her dismissal with his own strong baritone, nodding firmly. "I'm glad of your help, and glad it was unnecessary. I'll join you as soon as I'm able."

There was an incredible sense of relief as then, not without some mutterings and glances back towards the two older boys, the workers all began to disperse and head back to the Hall in small groups, some more quickly than others. Pippin started to go with them eagerly; Saradoc's hand darted out and firmly grabbed his collar.

"But, Uncle!" Pippin protested. "I'm hungry!"

"And likely to be for a while, young hobbit," was the Master's reply. "Don't think I believe that you're entirely blameless, Peregrin Took. Despite your charming tale, this is not in the least bit humorous."

Pippin looked over at Merry as if for succor; Merry gave absolutely none, still clinging to Frodo's hand. He did, however, back a small step as his mother turned on them suddenly. Merry nudged into Frodo quite accidentally; however once he was there, he felt no wish to step away despite the fact his cousin's frame was taut as cold iron against his back.

"What," Esmeralda ventured to Merry softly, but he was uncertain whether her eyes were upon himself or Frodo, "did you mean by 'on purpose'?"

Frodo's breathing pumped, shallow and quick, against Merry's spine.

"Meriadoc!"

Esmeralda's tone wrung an answer from him. "I didn't mean anything! It doesn't matter!"

"Which is it, boy?" his father growled, also moving closer. "It was nothing, or it was something and it doesn't matter?"

"Uncle..." Frodo's voice sounded, hard and faint, next to Merry's right ear.

"I want an answer, Meriadoc. You come to the Hall, half-hysterical with panic, scare us all to death with some wild tale of Peregrin drowning--"

"It was no wild tale." Frodo again. Gathering strength, his voice was still soft, still laced with that oddly quivering and spare undertone.

"Wasn't it, then? Merry?"

Merry shook his head and shrunk back, felt Frodo shore up against him as if a buffering wall. The courage thrumming through his veins moments before had abandoned Merry; he had been prepared for his mother's ire, but had rarely seen his father this coldly furious.

"I was the one who told him to go to the Hall," Frodo said, desperation edging his tone. "You can't--"

"I believe," Saradoc barely glanced at Frodo, "that I was speaking to my son, Frodo Baggins. Nor do I need you telling me what I can or cannot do."

Frodo made a small, quick sound, his hand clenching in Merry's. Merry turned his face into Frodo's shirt.

"Meriadoc," his father demanded, "answer me."

Another hand laid itself upon Merry's arm, pulling him sideways and away from his older cousin. In pure surprised instinct he clung tightly to Frodo's hand; oddly enough Frodo did so as well, that formerly-unresponsive hand gripping with astonishing strength.

"Stop it!" It was Esmeralda. "Merry, let go of him! What is wrong with you?" Frodo's hand suddenly released and twisted itself from his; Merry tried to turn back but was swung about to face his mother.

"Meriadoc, stop looking at Frodo and answer your father!"

"Mum... I don't...!"

"Merry!" Esmeralda shook him, looking into his face with something akin to dread. Such a look directed at himself loosed his tongue with sudden force.

"We were trying to teach Pippin a lesson!" Merry returned desperately. "That's all! He was sneaking after us and stealing the food from our tree!"

"Stealing from what tree?" Saradoc's query was quiet-seeming, but it didn't ease Merry's trepidation one whit. He knew what that voice meant, and so did not only Pippin, meekly quiet beneath his uncle's hand, but Frodo as well. Merry twisted in his mother's grip to glance at his cousin; Frodo was still backed against the stones of the periphery wall. He shot a quelling, almost-panicked look at Merry.

Esmeralda's hands tightened on her son. She straightened, her face smoothing itself into some semblance of control; her next words were furthered calmly, almost conversationally, "And how did you contrive to have food in a tree, or to teach your cousin a 'lesson' about it?"

"They've got this keen fort up in a willow tree, Auntie!" Pippin inserted.

"Pippin!" Merry hissed, and the little boy's eyes blazed suddenly. He stuck out his chin, pouting.

"You do! And Auntie Esme, they would never let me come with them, either! They're always dodging me..."

"Pippin, shut up!" Merry snarled at him, starting forward with the fervent wish to bodily smother the little tattletale. Esmeralda brought Merry to a rather forceful halt by tightening her grip. His mother's hands were fine-boned as any Took's, but years of service to the Hall had turned them into iron. It didn't matter that he could look her in the eye; she halted him easily.

His father also had a tight grip on Pippin's shoulder. "Go on, Peregrin."

Merry watched, agonized, recognizing the signs of capitulation in the child. His father was not generally a demanding presence, but when he was angry, there was no hope of escaping it. Esmeralda was looking at Pippin as well, her gaze uncompromisingly direct.

"Peregrin?" she prompted, still holding to Merry, "What about the tree?"

Pippin acquiesced. "It's quite brilliant, it is! They're always there--'tis only the past fortnight that I've been able to find it, they were so clever at hiding it from everyone!"

"Yes." Esme's voice was ice; her eyes sought those of her son then angled over to Frodo who quivered as if her eyes had physically struck him. "Very clever."

"Mum..." Merry squirmed. "It's not..."

Pippin hesitated at this, throwing a startled glance at the two older boys, obviously uncertain as to where his righteous ire had led him. Saradoc knelt down beside him. "What is this place like, Pippin?" The Master's tone was quite conversational, easing the little boy's uncertainty, but Merry could see the hardness in his father's blue-grey eyes. "And how did they try to teach you a lesson?"

"It is like a house in a tree, don't you know, and it hangs over the river... that's how I fell in. They set a trap for me and I fell off the side. Merry and Frodo are always swimming there; it's got a very deep sink, and Frodo likes to dive off the tree into it, you know? It's pretty high, but now that I've done it, I'd do it again. It was scary, but it was fun, too!"

Merry found that he was panting in quick, shallow breaths. He swallowed, clenched his fists, fastened his eyes to the path beneath his feet as his mother's gaze once more swept him, rather disbelieving.

"It is very nice--they put a lot of work into it, you see? It's very like to the elf platforms in Frodo's book--I'm quite sure that he must've planned it from them!"

Merry heard a slight sound from over near the rock boundary; he turned to see Frodo, who was once again staring at the ground fixedly, both hands now firmly gripping the stone wall at his back. Saradoc straightened, regained his feet and turned to his wife, his lips thinning. Esmeralda met his gaze for long moments, then spoke, her eyes slicing toward Frodo like sepia steel.

"A tree. With a platform. Like the elves." Her words were soft, deceptively so. She loosed Merry, her fists clenching. "I should have known this would have been your idea."

Merry watched, his stomach knotting as Frodo hunched further against the wall, still refusing to look at her, to look at anyone. "It was my idea too, Mum!' Merry suddenly burst out. "I designed it. We both built it!"

"I thought you didn't like to climb trees, Meriadoc," Saradoc inserted, and the deepening in his voice betrayed how furious his father also was, stilled him when he thought to go to Frodo once more. Nevertheless Merry turned desperately to his father, trying to diffuse the sudden tension.

"I'm not scared of them any more, Da. Frodo taught me..." he trailed off uncertainly at the flash in his father's eyes, whirled at his mother's next words. But they were not directed to him.

"You taught him. You taught him?" Still, the strange, heavy calm seemed to cover Esmeralda. Abruptly, it broke. "What is wrong with you? Are you out of your mind? What could have possibly possessed you, to do something like this?"

Frodo remained silent, gaze lowered. His hair all but veiled his eyes and those were blank, as if he didn't even register what she was saying. As if he didn't care.

"How could you let something like this happen? Worse yet, it didn't just happen, did it? You planned it. You made it happen. Sneaking about behind our backs a-purpose!"

Speak! Merry begged silently of his older cousin. Don't just... just... And he strangled the thought, not sure of how to finish it. For still Frodo stood mute. Merry could see his face twitch, could see his fingers digging pale into the rock at his back, yet he said nothing. Did nothing.

"How dare you defy me like this?" Esmeralda shot out. "How dare you stand there like you've done nothing wrong? You put them in this kind of danger, you've encouraged them to sneak about like this. I trusted you to look after them, despite the fact that I've been more and more uneasy about doing so, and you throw that trust back in my face, just as you always have!"

"I'd never!" It wrenched itself from Frodo's chest almost unwillingly; his eyes raised, clashed furiously with hers. "You know I'd never hurt them!"

"I know nothing about you!" Esmeralda snapped. "I don't think I ever have!"

"Auntie Esme!" Pippin suddenly cried. "No! Frodo's never tried to hurt me!"

"Be quiet, Peregrin," Saradoc told him. The little hobbit obeyed, eyes all but bugging from his face, shaking.

"Mum," Merry protested, "Pippin's right. Frodo's never..."
 

His mother rounded on him angrily. "Like the 'trap' Peregrin mentioned? Like teaching you to climb the big trees?" Then she turned back to Frodo, cold scorn in her voice. "Trees are dangerous. They're dangerous to hobbits, anyway!"

Frodo's glittering expression turned even more scathing, shut itself down. His mouth tightened insolently and he turned, started to walk away. Merry watched in a strange, dissolute disbelief as Saradoc let loose of Pippin and stepped over towards the gate. He was no closer, but simply by his presence there he cut off the route of escape. Frodo's gaze widened as he beheld this; stepping back, he hit the stone wall once more, brilliant, resentful eyes flickering back and forth.

"Don't turn away while your aunt is speaking, boy. You'll stand and listen. You'll answer her questions."

"I don't hear any questions!" Frodo retorted. "I just hear accusations. As always."

Esmeralda took an angry breath. "And what do you expect? Do you not realise what has almost happened here?

"Do you think I don't?"

"No. I don't think you do. You don't seem to understand any of it. If they see you leaping into the river, they'll follow. Because for some unknown reason they follow you, don't they? And you just let them do it!"

If Frodo could have bodily dissolved into the wall, Merry had no doubt that he would have. Instead he ruthlessly ground his cheek into it, clutched at it with his hands, kept his gaze stonily averted.

The negation only seemed to anger Esmeralda more. "Even now you turn away from me! You always turn away, run away. You willfully endanger your little cousins and all you can even muster up in reaction is arrogance!"

"That's a lie." Almost a whisper, it nevertheless penetrated.

"Frodo..." A warning from Saradoc.

"If you're going to call me a liar, at least have the grace to do it to my face," Esmeralda demanded. "Look at me, Frodo! Look at me!"

"I'll look at you." It didn't even sound like Frodo's voice, it was a hoarse growl. He raised his head and it was as if he threw his entire being into the simple clash of eyes. "I'll look at you... if you'll look at me as well. Can you, Aunt? Will you?"

Esmeralda grimly held both her ground and her nephew's glacial stare. Merry heard his father take in a harsh breath.

"Merry..." It was a small murmur from just behind him. He jumped, turned, beheld Pippin next to him, staring up at him with wounded green eyes. "Merry, what's happening?"

He didn't know. Neither did he know what to say.

"Well?" Esmeralda commanded.

Silence. Still the furious stare-down.

"How many more near-misses? How many more excuses? How many more times do the children have to be put in harm's way because you insist on gadding about with things that should not concern you?" Esmeralda's voice climbed with each question. "You're just like your mother, Frodo--you never think of consequences, or what they mean to others, let alone yourself!"

"I thought I was like my father." Frodo's voice lanced out, a quickly-thrown gauntlet of unspent passion and pain, venom and guilt that made Merry catch his breath with what Frodo was acknowledging in those words.

It had been a lie. The games, the japes, the pranks and the laughter, all of it. A lie. Why?

"You don't see me!" Frodo shot back, lip curling. "You never see me. You never have. You see her. Or him. Whoever he is."

"Frodo, what are you talking about?" Saradoc demanded.

Frodo shot Saradoc an indescribably filthy look, and Merry stared at his father uncomprehendingly. Didn't he know? How could he not know?

"Sara..." Esmeralda started quietly, but the Master had obviously had enough and more than enough.

"I know what I see when I look at you," Saradoc rumbled. "I see a belligerent tweenager who needs a trip behind the woodshed to teach him some sense! And the only liars I see here are you lads who have been sneaking about, and now your foolishness has caught up with you and we're cursed lucky that it didn't prove worse!"

"That's not... I..."

"Shut your mouth, Frodo, and mark me very carefully!" was the angry response. "Thanks to what you've been encouraging Merry with--understand, I know he's not totally innocent, but he's a child and it's more than plain you no longer are!--your wild schemes have endangered not only my son but my brother-in-law's son. We all thought Peregrin drowned today! Do you think that I relished the thought of riding to Tuckborough with the news that the Brandywine had taken another of my kin?"

Frodo was staring at him, face twitching.

"But Uncle," Pippin began, "I didn't..."

"Peregrin, be quiet!" Esmeralda hissed at him. The child gave a gasp, and Merry felt a small, cold hand twine itself about his.

"And when all's said and done, Frodo Baggins," Saradoc continued, taking the small amount of steps that brought him within arm's reach of his ward, "I should think that you of all the beings in the Shire should be able to understand exactly how dangerous the river can be!"

Frodo's cheeks had drained of any color, pinched as a faded sheet of parchment. Saradoc, on the other hand, was red-faced with choler. Merry took in a huge gulp of air at how largely his father loomed over Frodo's slight frame.

"But your aunt is right. You never think of anything outside yourself, do you? You'd rather shunt it aside, or run from it. I'm beginning to think that you're just too weak. You can't take it. You can't take what life really is."

Lies, more lies, because Frodo had taken it, had always taken it, had endured and set himself stonily and locked it all away, had proven himself a better pretender than Merry had ever imagined he could be. A small whimper sounded next to him, and two small hands clutched shakily at his waistband. He'd almost forgotten Pippin was there.

Several indefinable emotions played quickly upon Frodo's pale, set face; he blinked rapidly, looked as if he meant to reply but merely fell confusedly silent as Saradoc continued.

"You've always got your nose against some cursed parchment or your eyes up in the clouds. You're never here when we need you, and when we don't need your interference you're there in the middle of it all. I could understand if you'd started all this nonsense when your parents died. But you didn't, not really. Not anything that wasn't normal for a bairn grieving for his mum and da. You stayed away from me, yes, but you at least would go to your aunt. And then that stopped, too."

"I... I don't remember..."

"Don't?" Saradoc rumbled. "Or won't? I find your lack of memory very convenient, Frodo."

Silence. The overwrought communion thickened, darkened: Esmeralda with her fear and sudden immobility, Saradoc overpowered with emotions that had obviously been simmering far too long, Frodo with his terrible waiting and his back literally to the wall, his hair falling damply and hiding his eyes, head bowed as if baring his neck to the executioner's axe.

Don't do this, don't... please... Merry begged silently of Frodo, of his father, of his mother, of Pippin, of himself. Please, stop. Stop it.

"Merry?" Pippin whispered, curled tightly about him and Merry's hands tangled in Pippin's hair and shirt, seeking purchase as if he were the one now drowning. Incredibly, Pippin didn't quail beneath the suddenly tight grip but leaned into it, shoring up against him like the piers at the dock which steadied the ferry against the unpredictable river currents.

"You don't... understand..." Frodo's entire frame trembled. No more lies, not any more. The truth sat vividly before Merry now, shackled tightly in some desperate rationalization of pain, Frodo suddenly wavering on a knife's edge of control. "I... don't remember..."

"You're right, I don't understand," Saradoc retorted. "No doubt you've also 'forgotten' I've no parents myself--my mother dead, rest her, and my father madder than a hare in March... but I've honoured their memory. I've given back what life they gifted me with, I've fed the life-wheel with my own sweat and tears, I will give my heart's blood when my time comes. I remember them. I've not tossed away what they were as if they were nothing."

"But I can't remember!!" Frodo screamed at him.

"Rot!" Saradoc roared back, leaning forward until he was almost nose to nose with his nephew. "Look at you!" he furthered wrathfully as Frodo cowered back against the stones, silenced. "You allow no touch and touch no one and that only when it suits you. You refuse to honour your foster mother as you ought. You hide in your room with your books and your papers and make it quite plain that you have no interest in being part of anything that your family does."

Almost of themselves, Frodo's fingers twitched toward his pocket, reaching for something that was not there--his mother's book no doubt still lay tangled in the oak tree along with his jacket. Saradoc saw the motion and obviously recognised it, for his face twisted.

"That damned elvish book. Ever since you found that cursed thing you've clung to it like some sort of charm! But it's not enough, is it? It can't be enough. So when you do pull from fancy words and impossible fantasies, you look to my son. You'll turn to him, surely enough, hold to him... but now you're dragging him down with you!"

The slender frame jerked, tightening in denial; the dark head dipped lower, turning aside as blue eyes fastened glassily to the ground.

"Nay, you'll not turn away from this, lad." Saradoc reached out, laid hold of his nephew's arm. "For it stops now, do you understand? It stops, here and--!"

Frodo reacted as if a flaming brand had been laid to his skin; he jerked from the attempted grip so viciously that he stumbled, falling sideways. With a muttered deprecation Saradoc reached out again, grabbed hold of Frodo and pulled him forward.

It was as if lit tinder had been set to dwarvish powder. Frodo literally exploded in his uncle's grip, twisting and striking out; Saradoc stumbled to his knees, momentarily overpowered by stunned disbelief. The blows were wildly flailing, ill-considered, easily blocked, but it was not so easily done to stop them; Frodo writhed underneath him in an eerie, silent frenzy, scarlet-faced and blind. He didn't seem to acknowledge his uncle save as enemy and possible captor, didn't seem to be focusing on anything of outward vision.

What are you seeing? Merry agonized. Next to him, Pippin was shaking like a slender birch in winter gusts. All of them staring, rooted in place by what was happening, even Esmeralda.

"Stop it, Frodo. Stop it." Righteous anger overshadowed by the necessities of now, Saradoc relentlessly kept trying to still Frodo, to no avail. Finally he forcibly wrenched Frodo about, wrapping his arms about him, immobilizing the slight frame close against his own solid one. At this a cry escaped. Merry flinched, Pippin clung tighter--it sounded like a coney screaming in the wire of a trap.

"Frodo!" Saradoc shook him, tightened his grip...

"Frodo...!"

"Dad? Mumma?" he whispers. Pulls forward. But the hands will not let him go...

With a curse, Saradoc cupped his hand behind the dark head and twisted the struggling frame tighter against his chest. The small, keening sound cut off as if choked...

... and he is lifted, strong fingers curling about his skull and he struggles, tries to cry out and can't...

Saradoc tried to stand with him, was nearly brought down once again as Frodo struggled harder with a strength beyond his normal means, fists alternately pounding and clutching against his uncle's broad chest...

They're taking him away. He cries out, squirms, and sees:

The boat tarp, spread out across two long forms. And an arm extending from beneath the tarp, ghastly blue-white, wearing the bangle he'd given his mother for his twelfth birthday.

He's smothering, strangling, and a chasm, narrow and bottomless, opens before him, echoing back silent screams. He kicks, twists, trying to escape the cloying presence that would take him, that would fill his senses and make him remember when he longs for nothing more than blissful, numb abandon...

The smell of the past. Of panic, of loss, of absolute helplessness, of knowing...

In his uncle's arms Frodo choked, heaved, lurched forward and was violently, shatteringly ill.

Saradoc loosed him through pure shock, shot a horrified glance to his wife. For a scattered moment there was a bizarre and stilled tableau with no movement, no sound other than that of Frodo gagging and retching. Saradoc inhaled sharply, reached out to the youth suffering on hands and knees then stilled once again, almost afraid to go any further considering what his touch had already brought forth. Finally, when the spasms had subsided, Saradoc laid a hesitant hand on his nephew's sweated curls and spoke, very gently.

"Frodo."

For moments the lad was silent, shaking, hiccups and tiny heaves wobbling his unsteady frame. Then he angled onto one arm, wiped his mouth with the sleeve of the other, and looked up at his uncle. His eyes seemed cognizant once more, but his face was slack, numb. "It was you," he said huskily.

Saradoc frowned then said with guarded patience, "What was me, lad?"

"You took me from... from the river. From my... parents. It was you carried me away."

"Well, yes. It was. You knew that."

"No." Frodo closed his eyes and swallowed hard. "I didn't. I didn't... remember. But... when Pip... when I thought Pip was..." Frodo blinked, looked about, saw first his aunt then Merry and Pippin. His face twisted. His eyes remained on Merry; they kept blinking as if by doing so his vision would clear and betray that the two younger boys really weren't there.

But they were, white and clinging to each other and peering at him with the same gaze that his aunt had often given him. Discomfort. And fear.

His teeth worried at his lower lip, with an effort he rocked back on his haunches, putting his palm to his forehead and pressing there so that it whitened. He tottered; Saradoc reached out again, gripped his shoulder to steady him. But he didn't recoil. Instead he raised his eyes to his uncle's. Saradoc was no longer angry, no longer appalled; in fact his face was smoothed back into careful consideration. It was the same expression that he would give to old crazy Uncle Rory.

"I... remembered," Frodo said softly to his uncle. "It was your shirt. Your shirt smells... like the distillery. You always smell like the brewing..."

Saradoc barely caught him as he collapsed forward in a dead faint.

Merry, Pippin still firmly at his side, ran a few steps forward then stopped, unsure of what he would do once he gained his older cousin's side. The slight movement seemed to tear Esmeralda from her own trance; slowly she turned and came to them. Merry drew in an uneasy breath as she halted and knelt before them and cupped both their chins, raising their gazes to meet hers. Her eyes were clouded. "Merry," she said, barely audible. "Pippin..."

Pippin's eyes were huge. "Frodo?"

Esmeralda took a quick breath, let it out, tightened her jaw. She trailed her fingers to tangle in both boys' hair, tightened them for a moment, then turned to look at her husband who stood, hefting Frodo as easily as if he were someone half his age. Merry choked; next to him, so close that it almost seemed his own reactions and his own presence, Merry could feel Pippin trembling. He murmured softly, a wordless sound that seemed to ease them both, felt his mother's hand still on his head, cold and trembling, and it was right. Right that she should be this upset, right that his father should be holding Frodo at last, right that Pippin should be aligned with him, fitting against his skin as if he were somehow inside it, not separate. All of it right... save for how it had come about, and why.

"Merry," Pippin murmured, not letting go of his cousin even for one small second, "Frodo's sick, isn't he." It was not a question, but Merry felt compelled to answer, to reiterate what they both already knew. It was the only answer--and the ultimate answer for all of it.

"Yes, Pip," he whispered hoarsely. "I think Frodo's very sick."

* * * * * *

Back to Chapter Listing

Back to Slash Story Listing