West of the Moon

A Tolkien Fanfiction Archive

 

 

Rites of Passage: Bag End
An ongoing series fondly described by readers as 'The Forging of the RingBearer', which began at 'The Hall' and is now continued at 'Bag End'. RoP 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

 

7--Equivocation


Even late morning was crisp and cool, speaking to the coming of summer's end. The sun had cleared the easterly trees, but mist still lay in the valleys beyond the Hill, patches of transparent froth amidst the patchwork farmland. It was quite spectacular, this view from the front door of Bag End, yet Frodo stood unaware of it. Slumped sleepily against the doorway, nibbling earnestly at a fingernail and his other hand idly twitching along the emerald green sill, he was instead captivated by the figure at the end of the walk.

Bilbo had been there for some time. The attitude was one Frodo himself well recognised. Head slightly thrown back, attentive on nothing commonplace, Bilbo had his hands in his pockets. The right one in particular seemed to be fiddling aimlessly with something in that pocket. Bilbo appeared very small against the landscape of fields and hillocks and burrows, running off into the vast blue of the sky, but strangely enough it did not totally overwhelm him. He was not lost in the scenery, but an audacious presence within it.

There was a vibrancy about the old hobbit, even lost in reverie as he was. It would probably be very hard for Bilbo to become invisible.

Frodo's lips twitched in a small smile. His stomach was not so amused; well aware of the lateness of the hour and that it had not yet been fed, it growled fiercely. There was no way that Bilbo could have heard such a thing, but nevertheless he whirled as if stung. His face was quite fierce for a half-second, then relaxed into open relief and friendliness.

"So you finally decided to wake!" Quickly he strode up the walk; Frodo straightened and dropped his hand from his mouth, glad that he'd had a wash and change before appearing. Bilbo looked disgustingly bright and chipper, his clothes hanging on him as crisply as if they'd been ironed there; Frodo felt more than a bit unkempt next to his cousin's easy grace. "Did you get a good night's rest, then?"

Frodo nodded, hoping that suitable lavings of cold water had erased the bedsheet lines from his face. He had slept hard... harder and more easily than ever. No voices. No dreams. And woke up to find himself sprawled on the rug in the--his--study, one arm asleep from being pinned between floor and ribs, a soft coverlet tickling his cheek. Obviously Bilbo had simply covered him up and left him where he lay.

The old hobbit's next words proved that supposition. "I decided we could grace the Dragon with our presences another night--you were out cold, and I thought it best to let you just sleep it off." Just before gaining his side Bilbo halted, stuffing his hands back into his pockets and cocking his head sideways, peering at Frodo. "I know you've had some restless nights, being in a strange place and all, so it was..." he trailed off with a sudden frown, squinting over the gardens and to the east. Frodo followed his gaze curiously.

"Visitor," Bilbo said softly. "They're coming at a fair clip, too, up the East Road."

Frodo could see nothing. He squinted, wondering at how the old hobbit had such sharp eyes, or if he was just seeing things in the mists... wait. There. A moving shadow separating from the trees. Mounted, from the quick pace, but it was too far to tell anything else.

"Don't see many riders coming this time of day from the East," Bilbo mused.

"Are you expecting someone?" Frodo asked.

"Nay, lad. But," he shrugged, peering into the distance, "let's just say it's been a while since a friend of mine has visited, and by the itching of my palms, or so they say..."

Frodo looked at him quizzically, and Bilbo laughed.

"Never you mind, boy--no one can fox metaphor when they've an empty belly!" He put a hand on his shoulder, led him into the smial; Frodo found himself willingly submitting as his guardian further suggested, "It's nigh to elevensies--are you up to contemplating some cooking? No time like the present to see what you know."

Before Frodo could affirm or deny, Bilbo had released him and trotted on ahead into the kitchen. Frodo followed to find his cousin bent on mayhem, or so it would seem. There was, however, a method behind the madness, and as he opened cupboards Bilbo breathlessly demonstrated by action and running commentary exactly what, where and how things could be located. He sent Frodo down to the waterglass jar for eggs, along with a stoneware carafe for milk, and Frodo was soon left alone at the well-lit stove with a cast iron pan, a basket of eggs, a drippings tin and a nice, flat iron spatula.

With a grin--this much he could do, and he knew it!--Frodo scraped a dollop from the drippings, watched it melt into the heat, and determined to show Bilbo that he bloody well could cook.

As quietly as he had previous moments ago been a dynamo of action, Bilbo stood in a corner and watched. Efficiently Frodo wrapped the hot iron handle in a rag, broke several eggs into the pan, tossed the shells into a scrap pail, then waited. For a while the only sounds were those of the birds outside the window, the breeze through that loose pane, and the sizzle of cool egg in hot fat.

"Well, you know what you're doing, at--" A knock at the door made Bilbo frown. "I say, that had better not be any more nosy relatives. Keep on, lad; I'll go get rid of them, shall I?"

Frodo returned his attention to the pan. There was a distinct pleasure in showing Bilbo that he was competent at something domestic, particularly since Bilbo seemed so scornful of the ability of Brandy Hall, with its lack of private supervision, to see to any such learning. Odd, how he felt so defensive of the Hall when it was impugned--though it was a fact that he'd learned nothing of cooking there. Everything he knew he'd learned by trial and error and...

"There. Better. Try it again."


Tiny hands on the well-wrapped handle of the smallest pan they owned, and a quiet voice giving direction. "Again. It's all in your wrist, son."

Deep laughter and fierce giggles, and more eggs ending up on the ground for the sheepdogs than in the pan--and thus their bellies--that first time. Flipping eggs had become a game: he got to eat the successes, his father got the failures, the dogs got the ground-kill, and there had been one camping jaunt where his father had only gotten two eggs, and the remainder had gone into a very satisfied little boy's ever-empty belly...

Frodo uttered a tiny gasp. Stilling his shaking hand on the rag-wrapped handle, he frowned at the egg frying in the hot fat. With unthinking ease he jerked the pan, made a twist with his wrist. Obligingly the egg flipped over and settled back down into the pan with a gratifying sizzle. Frodo stared at it as if it had grown two heads and spoken to him.

"Hoy, that was brilliant!"

The voice pierced him to marrow; he froze. The pan dropped onto the stove, sloshing grease over its sides; Frodo managed to let go of it before he turned. The rag dropped from his limp fingers to the floor.

Merimac was there, covered with road dirt, his hair tangled from wind and falling like glints of darkened sun into his eyes. Bilbo stood behind him, frowning slightly, then gave a cry and darted forward.

A panicked look scrawling across his face, Merimac also lurched forward; Frodo twisted and saw the small fire on the stove. He grabbed for the pan, realised after he picked it up that he hadn't taken up another rag before doing so, dropped it with a yelp. More grease splattered and the fire puffed upward.

"Just move, Frodo!" Bilbo snapped at him; Merimac grabbed his shirt and dragged him backwards as Bilbo snatched up an enormous pot lid and slammed it down over the flames. Black smoke puffed out from about it. Bilbo heaved a sigh of relief then angled a wry gaze in Frodo's direction. "Lad, you'll be the death of me."

"I... I'm sorry," he stammered. Merimac's hand tightened in his shirt, and he leaned back into solidity, feeling his cousin's breath in his hair. For mad seconds he just wanted to turn and bury himself into that broad chest and hide.

"Bilbo, we startled him, for pity's sake!" Merimac chided. "Frodo, is your hand all right?"

Frodo unclenched his smarting palm--shiny spots were obvious where the hot iron had seared it.

"Oh, my goodness! I'm sorry, lad." Bilbo's annoyance dissolved itself as he stepped forward and peered at Frodo's hand. "That is going to blister, I'll warrant... here. I've a nice paste that the Widow gives me for such emergencies..." He turned away and went to the cupboards once more, rummaging. "And such a beautiful egg ruined, too! You've some skill with the stove despite the Hall!"

From behind Frodo, hands still on his arms, Merimac snorted. Frodo straightened, twisted slightly, angled his gaze sideways and upward.

"You're here," he murmured.

"I am indeed," Merimac replied. "But moreover, what are you doing here?"

"I..." his answer started out simple, but implied too many questions and he didn't want questions, now, save one. "Why are you here?"

Merimac smiled, pushed a lock of hair back from Frodo's forehead. "I'm here to see you. Why else?"

Slowly, Frodo leaned forward and buried his face into Merimac's shirt collar, squeezing his eyes shut, wrapping his arms about him. His cousin swept him into a fierce hug, and Frodo hung there. He felt as if he were underwater--it was that same strange feeling of half-desire, half-trepidation, the water buoying him, but snaring him as well.

Bilbo gave a sound from behind him, one somewhere between a mutter and a cough, then brushed past them to open the kitchen windows wider. "I think we'll have a cold meal, for now." He turned back to the other two hobbits, brandishing a small earthenware pot. "Give me your hand, Frodo, and let me put some of this on it."

* * * * * *

Elevensies was a bit smoky, and definitely quiet. Even the loquacious chatter with which Bilbo usually accompanied mealtime was somewhat muted. It wasn't until Bilbo started asking questions of Merimac that the conversation started to increase. The talk turned to the River--how it was running this season, how much lading and freight Merimac's boat handled versus passengers, whether Merimac intended to work the big sea-faring ships this year. With this last, Bilbo's queries turned a bit more pointed.

"It's been over a year since you've been to the big waters, hasn't it?"

Merimac nodded. "I hadn't thought to go for a while," he said, his eyes glancing towards Frodo.

Bilbo shrugged. "If you miss it, my boy, you should go." There was still something pointed in his speech, some suggestion laid open but not explored. "Do you still have your own little sailing boat?"

"Yes. Knightfall."

"I remember. Lovely ketch." Bilbo suddenly chuckled. "You took us for a spin, the Harvest Home after you'd acquired her; one of the little boys got tangled in the rigging--stars above, it was you, Frodo!--and you had to cut him out."

"I never figured out how he got so snarled. Ruined a furlong of good rigging. But at least our lad was more adventurous than his da. Drogo absolutely refused to put so much as a toe on my vessel." Merimac snorted.

"And Paladin insisted that he was going, then spent the entire while hanging over the side, puking his guts out."

"Paladin always heaves like a bairn. You'd think he'd learn." Merimac grinned a bit wickedly. "Why do you think I called her Knightfall?"

Frodo didn't speak. Even the small bits of fascinating history being flung back and forth between the two older hobbits couldn't draw him out. He ate mechanically, he kept glancing at Merimac, but he couldn't hold to the clear gaze for longer than several seconds. Merimac had been to the Hall. He must know. He must. Shame prickled at his cheeks, heated them. How foolish, to hope that Merimac wouldn't find out about it. Bad enough that Bilbo knew of it, that Pippin had seen, that Merry had been prey to it...

"Frodo," Bilbo said firmly, and something about the way he voiced it suggested that it was not the first time he'd done so. "Would you like some more tea, lad?"

"Please." He held out his cup, realised in mortification that his hand was shaking. Within seconds Bilbo had rescued the cup, peering at him, and Merimac had reached across, taken Frodo's hand in his.

"What is it, lad?" Bilbo asked softly, and nearly at the same time Merimac spoke his name, his thumb running against his palm. Their attention, their concern viscerally wrapped about him, trailing up about his throat and choking him with nearness.

He jerked his hand back, shoved it under the table and between his knees. He didn't need to look up to see Merimac's startled eyes; he could all but feel them. Or Bilbo's troubled demeanour--he heard the old hobbit take in a sharp breath, let it out slowly.

"Oh no," Merimac started, "did I grab your burned hand...?"

"Merimac," Bilbo said suddenly, firmly, "perhaps you need to leave."

"No!" Frodo burst out. Merimac, who was obviously gathering a protest, went still. Bilbo blinked, frowned, then reached forward and took Frodo's cup, poured him more tea.

"Frodo," he said quietly, "would you come into the parlour with me for a moment, please?"

Shooting Merimac an almost-panicked look, Frodo obeyed. Merimac shrugged and stayed put, knowing full well that he was not part of the invitation.

In fact they went all the way to the hallway and Bilbo almost ran into the rack of cloaks before he turned and spoke to Frodo, urgent and low. "Do you want him here, or not?"

Frodo blinked at him.

"I asked you a question, lad. Do you want him here?"

"Why... why wouldn't I?"

"That's what I'm asking you. When you pull from him like he's going to bite your hand, what am I supposed to think?"

"I..." Why couldn't he speak? Why was he shaking, and stilled, and so utterly, utterly confused?

What was wrong with him? Why couldn't he act normal about anything?

Bilbo persisted, leaning closer. "Do you want him here, or no?"

Why should you care? And don't you understand, this is what I don't want. This. The questions, and the looks. The questions...

"Frodo, answer me."

"Yes." He said it to the floor. "He's... he... he was..."

Bilbo's fingers gripped his chin, tilted his face upwards, looked into his eyes with a directness that made Frodo squirm. His face softened. "I know what he was. I just wanted to know if he still... was."

Merimac was drinking his tea; he slid his eyes to Frodo's as he and Bilbo re-entered the kitchen. The glance was gently meant, and suggested nothing, but Frodo's strange confusion had to retreat into something, somewhere. Those grey eyes touched him with a frankness that seemed suddenly physical, and Frodo felt suddenly hung, not upon distant memory, but that of only a fortnight ago, and a sleepless night spent laughing and talking, touching and...

"Well," Bilbo suddenly ventured into the quiet. "I've an errand that I was going to ask Frodo to do for me. Perhaps I should do it myself."

"I'll go." Frodo turned to him, concerned, and Bilbo held up a hand.

"No, lad." His eyes darted to Merimac, whose face was carefully non-committal, then he reached out and patted Frodo on the arm. "I'll go, let you two have some time of your own."

Frodo watched him get up from the table, go to the door. He grabbed a small leather pack from the hallway, opened the door, shut it behind him. As Frodo heard Bilbo's feet depart, his gaze went back to Merimac's and held there.

Questions. Hundreds of questions, bubbling about them like hot water in a cauldron. The sound of the gate, opening and creaking shut. The bird singing beneath the window, the wind humming at the loose pane. And Merimac's eyes, clear and steady on him as one broad hand reached out and took hold of his unburned one.

Don't ask...

"You look dreadful, lad." It was quiet, and dear. Frodo's eyes pulled themselves to the broad hand holding his, to brown skin and the black dragon stitched on one forearm and the too-large joints from hoisting rope and hauling nets of freight.

Don't ask me...

How those fingers slid through his own, across calluses and pale, blue-veined wrist, stopping to dab at the sepia smudges which nearly matched the freckles on his forearm. How those fingers then ran lightly up his arm as if counting those freckles, one by one...

Don't...

"Frodo," the question came, all too reasonable and utterly inevitable, "what happened?"

Fingers clutching at that strong, vein-roped arm with a surprising strength of their own, Frodo lurched upward, bent forward across the table. With one hand he shifted his plate away, climbed on the worn wood, settled his knees there amongst the scattered plates and cups. And then there were bright-streaked strands tickling his nose, a pleasant, sharp scent of sweat and horse, and a startled mouth that opened beneath his seemingly without thought. Wind-chapped lips, and gentle teeth, and not-so-gentle tongue, and hands hard into the small of his back as all the questions drowned themselves in that kiss.

It was Frodo who finally broke away, gasping as if he'd run miles, crouching on the tabletop. Merimac had gained his feet, still holding to him, and cuddled him closer, whispered his name.

"I didn't think you were coming back." Frodo said into his neck.

"I told you I would." Fingers snarled in Frodo's hair, tried to tug his face upward.

"I... I didn't get to tell you goodbye. I had to leave Merry, and I thought you weren't coming back." He sidled closer to his cousin, his knees scraping on the table boards, fingers digging into skin and fabric. Pain flashed in his burned palm; Frodo gritted his teeth, leaned into it as if for solace.

"I gave you a promise, lad; I did not hold it lightly. And then I returned to the Hall, and you were gone, and not many answers from anyone there." Merimac finally succeeded in pulling Frodo's face up to meet his; grey eyes bored into blue. There was something in Merimac's eyes that Frodo had not seen there before. A knowing, an awareness. A questioning.

No. Don't ask me.

"Tell me what happened, love."

Frodo closed his eyes, aware that he was shaking. "Mac..."

"Please. Please, tell me. You can trust me. You know you can trust me."

"Nothing. Nothing happened. It was nothing. I just... remembered... things." He bit over the replies as they issued forth, trying to halt them, wincing as his own teeth dug, sharp and sour, into his lip. Not you, too. Please, not you too.

"Sink me, lad--d'you know what they're saying of you back there? They think you're mad."

"Mad..." A whisper--it was all he could voice. Mac knew this... what else did he know? His fingers kneaded harder, clenching into fabric so that it squeaked. Again his burned palm stung; it was not pain, suddenly, but one more sensation, one more raw feeling. Both his palms tingled, one throbbing in time with his heartbeat; he gripped tighter, it throbbed harder. He let out a small moan and angled upwards, brushed his lips over the spot where his cousin's collarbone and throat met.

Merimac's hands tightened on him. "I know you're not mad," he said, quite reasonably, as if not taking stock of what Frodo was doing. "What really happened? You can, you know. You can tell me."

Tell you... no. Please, no questions... all I have here are questions... "Have you come to take me with you?" Frodo wasn't quite sure what he was doing, only that he wanted to stop the examinations of why and how. He wanted to stop the swirling of possible answers in his head, and to lose them in emptiness wasn't possible, not right now, not with the fire that was runneling through his veins, thick as blood. He clenched his hands harder, opened his lips against the throat pulse that beat firmly against them.

"Frodo--"

"Have you?" he whispered. "Take me. I want to be with you. I want--"

"What do you want?" Merimac murmured in his ear. "Do you really even know?"

Frodo stiffened slightly.

"Do you really want me to take you away from here? I thought you wanted to be here."

Questions again... but these were different. Somehow. A hint of a frown tugged at his eyebrows; Frodo laid his forehead against Merimac's chest. "I--"

"Or do you just want me to lie with you?"

A shiver of need went through him at the low suggestion and he looked up. But there was no hint of willingness in his cousin's face. It might have been carved of stone.

"Are you doing this because you want me, or because you want to get around me?"

More questions. Yet they twisted within him, no submerged river of free-flowing blood and uncertainty, but damming up into pain. And anger. Frodo lurched back, still crouched on the table, still shaking--but now with fury.

"Which is it, Frodo?" Merimac took it all in; his eyes were brittle, almost mocking. "Do you want to slap me, or fuck me? I don't take kindly to being teased like this unless you really intend to follow through with it."

"Like you did with me?" he retorted hotly.

Anger flamed the broad cheekbones. "Now, wait. How did I ever...?"

"You left!" It burst from his chest, a cry. "You... gave me... this," Frodo pounded one fist against his breast, "and you... you just left me!"

"You knew that I was leaving. Believe me, cousin, you gave every impression that you were much happier with it that way."

"I didn't... I mean I was, but when you left I--"

"You what? Tell me!"

Frodo dropped his gaze to the table.

"How am I supposed to know anything when you never tell me?" Merimac demanded. "By magic?"

"If you had just taken me away, then none of it would have happened!"

"None of what, Frodo?"

"You know!" Frodo threw him a wild, thwarted look. "You cannot tell me that you went there and no one said a word, that you do not know what happened!"

"I know what I was told." Merimac leaned on the table, his face inches away from Frodo's. "It told me nothing."

"You do know what happened!"

"I know what your little cousins saw." Frodo flinched, closed his eyes. "They were scared. They didn't understand. I know what Sara and Esme saw. They've got you boxed up with your mother, as always; they truthfully don't understand any more than Merry and Pippin. Or than I do. And you want it that way, don't you? That's what I don't understand." Hands laid themselves upon Frodo, pulled him upright; he grabbed at Merimac's wrists, trying to loose them to no avail. "You want it that way."

"You don't understand--"

"Make me understand. Tell me what happened."

"If you had taken me from there, then it never would have happened!" Frodo raged at him.

"What was I supposed to do, bind and gag you?" Merimac retorted hotly. "You didn't want to go! You flat out refused. You ran from me. And then when I saw you next you were so bloody soused there was no way I was going to have any sort of coherent conversation from you--"

"Not that you were there very much longer!" Frodo snapped, still trying to wriggle free.

"I know when my presence is unwelcome. I also have a graceful lady floating at the Buckland dock who needs me, needs me more than it seems you do--"

"You said you couldn't take me right away. You left me there. You left me, just as... just as...!" He choked it all off; he couldn't believe what he was saying. Obviously neither could Merimac, for the granite-grey eyes had softened into storm clouds and his next question was entirely too shrewd.

"Just as what, Frodo? Or as whom?"

Frodo stilled like a coney in a snare, panting, fists clenched against his cousin's breast. And Merimac's hands upon him, those hands that had ripped control from him then given it back, given him power, and pleasure, and were now gathering him close, all warm comfort and care and his name whispered into his hair, soft and lulling. But it was not as intended, it was abruptly intrusive and frightening, as if Merimac was sounding him like cracked crystal and now... now he was losing control once again, all of it evading what restraint he so desperately needed.

"I don't want you here!!" Frodo spat at him, twisting wildly. "Why did you come?"

And when Merimac didn't immediately release him, he lashed out. There was a sound like the crack of a whip, and a harsh ripping sensation in his burned palm; Frodo hissed and pulled his hand back, clutched it to him then stared at it. As if it didn't belong to him.

Tiny blisters, some weeping, some still forming. Frodo raised his eyes to Merimac.

His cousin stood there, the oddest expression upon his face. Slowly Merimac raised a hand to his cheek, where a reddened patch was flaming into life.

"I guess," he said softly, "that is my answer to what you want."

Frodo couldn't move. He couldn't react. He was frozen in place by his own astonishment, unable to believe what he had done even when he had the proof of it before his eyes, within his hand. His eyes filled.

"Oh, bloody damn," Merimac swore, "now I've made you cry. Again." He started forward, but some last vestige of pride reared up within Frodo and he stiffened with a fierce glare.

Merimac halted in his tracks. His eyebrows twisted, then he sighed. "Fine. I'm going to the shed... oh," he amended, obviously seeing the slight motion of protest in Frodo's frame, "I'm not leaving, never fear. I have something in my bags for you. And this isn't settled yet, Frodo Baggins. Not by a long shot."

He spun on one foot and strode from the smial. Frodo watched him go, quivering all over, still holding to his burned hand.

* * * * * *

Merimac didn't come back--at least, not right away. Neither did Bilbo.

Frodo shifted in the windowsill of his borrowed room, unsure of whether he should be wary or worried. Instead he buried both into the small folio of parchments in his lap. One hand splayed across the leather binding of the writing folder; the other, burned one lay upended, blisters exposed to air. It stung. He was glad it stung. The pain was a grounding pole when he felt otherwise quite light-headed; Frodo had no doubts that he could just float away on the breeze coming in through his window if not for the ache holding him here and now.

Unfortunately, the hand was not only sore, but stiff. Holding a quill was out of the question--for he'd tried, oh, yes he'd tried--but it had proven a futile exercise. He was good as crippled in that hand for at least tonight, and the voices would yammer in the back of his mind without outlet.

Bag End was peeling him open like a grape in the orchard, and things were spilling from him that made no sense, that actively frightened him. He looked at the folio on his lap and contemplated burning it. The Hall thought him mad--if they read what was in these pages, they would be assured of it. All he had penned lately were strange, unwieldy things, darkling vision without form or shape save for the words.

With a shiver, Frodo drew his knees up and curled up deeper into the wool warmth of his coat. He rested his forehead against the folio and his knees. Maybe they were right. Maybe he was just like his mother. His uninjured hand crept to the pocket of his coat where her book resided; the touch, however brief and small, gave him some measure of fortitude. "No," he told the folio. "She was not mad. She was my mother, and she was not mad, and neither am I..."

Bastard, it said back. You don't belong here. You don't belong anywhere. And if Mac tells Bilbo any of it then he'll toss you back to the river where you belong...

Where you belong. On the river. In the river...

"Frodo?"

With a smothered gasp, Frodo sat upright. The front door closed, and he concluded he was sweating despite the cool air wafting in through the window. He had no idea how long he'd sat there, quivering and taken and stilled, but his body ached with tension. Pins and needles lanced through his calves.

It was approaching sunset outside, nigh to dark within. He'd lost track of time. Again.

"Frodo?" This in Merimac's wry baritone, echoing quiet and dark, then Bilbo's convivial tenor resounded again from the entry.

"Lad, we're back!"

"I'm..." His voice broke as if he were once again pubescent; he cleared it angrily and tried again. "I'm in here!"

"By the Valar, it's dark as pitch in here..." There was a pause then Bilbo came to the door, armed with a small lamp. Merimac was behind him, all shadows and silhouette in the half-light. Frodo watched, blinking as Bilbo used the lamp to light several candles, brightening the little smial.

"Ah, yes. Better now--can you really see to read in this murk?" It didn't seem to require an answer and Bilbo didn't wait for one. "Ah, well, I'm sorry I was gone so long, lad. I'd no intentions of being more than an hour, but then I ended up having to ride with Farmer Cotton to inspect some upland fields, and then I met your cousin here coming from the market--doing the odd portage deal, I'll warrant--and then, well, the time just ran away from us both." Bilbo shrugged. "No doubt your aunt would give me the rough side of her tongue, but you're a big lad and an day to yourself never hurt anyone."

Frodo felt abruptly foolish for his worry, hoping that it didn't show in his face.

"At any rate," Bilbo continued, "we were debating the Dragon for dinner and came back up Hill to fetch you. A good stretch of the legs and the best ale in the Eastfarthing... or mead, that's right, you prefer mead, don't you? Perhaps a pipe first. Hmm?"

Frodo laid his head against the sill, his eyes going to Merimac's. "Thank you, but I'm not hungry."

Bilbo hmphed impatiently, walked into the room a few strides. "Frodo. We had an agreement, if you remember. Just a few things, really, and one of them included eating properly. Speaking of which, did you have tea, at least?"

He thought he had. Frodo nodded, deciding that was the path of least resistance. "Really, Uncle Bilbo. I'm not hungry now." All the while he kept peering at Merimac, who was looming over Bilbo's shoulder with his brows all twisted and his eyes soft with regret.

Merimac was still here, and Frodo wasn't even sure he grasped the hows, let alone the whys of it. All Frodo did know was that Merimac was, somehow, the one haven that he had found... and yet he'd turned it away without understanding why he did that, either. Only that the safe harbour of Merimac's arms had grown strangely perilous, almost as chancy as the smial about him.

Frodo pulled his eyes away from Merimac to Bilbo--but that was in truth no more comfortable. Bilbo's eyes raked over him, taking note of too much: the papers in his lap, the way he was sitting, the hand that lay upended in his lap. "Is that hand bothering you, lad?"

His hand felt hot, sticky. It was no lie to drop his eyes to it, to mumble, "Yes."

"Mm. It's hard to be hungry when you hurt. We'd best put some more ointment on that hand, and I'll make you some tea, then, also mixed from one of the Widow's concoctions. She says it has juniper, willow bark and fennel, but I suspect there are other things as well that she's not mentioning. And I shall dab some honey to sweeten it. You need to meet the Widow Rumble soon, lad. And her sons." Bilbo chuckled. "You've been introduced to just about everything else she produces."

Since it seemed expected of him, Frodo gave a tiny smile, his eyes once more going to Merimac.

"After I bring you some tea, maybe a sweet biscuit or two, do you mind if we go on? I've some business I need to discuss with your cousin. He'll be staying the night."

"Yes, sir."

"Well. All right, then." Bilbo stared at him for a few more moments, when Frodo stayed quiet, he shrugged and padded off.

Frodo dropped his gaze again. After a few more moments he heard a near silent, familiar tread; it gained his side and halted. Frodo felt himself tense, although all he truly wanted to do was throw down his papers and then throw himself into his cousin's arms.

"Do you punish anyone who gets too close to your secrets?" Merimac said softly. "Or is it just me?"

At this Frodo did turn to him, lips forming a reply even though he wasn't sure what he would say. But the envelope that Merimac held out gave him pause.

"Your cousins love you very much," Merimac said, then turned and padded out after Bilbo.

* * * * *

deer cosin frodo:

Several ink blotches later, he came to the rest of the sentence.

...do not like bad nibs  gud nibs are hard enof to yous  but i reely miss you. i dont want you to be mad at me and i hope yr not  i slep in merrys room las niet but aunti dosent no

i love you cosin frodo!!!

sinseerly--Peregrin Took

 

Closing his eyes and shaking his head, Frodo read it several times. It got funnier the more he read it. At least Pippin had remembered to punctuate the end.

Merry's, however, was not as funny. There were ink skitters and a few blotches, but the times Frodo had spent o' nights teaching him how to handle the pen and his letters both had obviously paid off. He angled it closer to the lit sconce on the wall, frowning. The breeze from the open window opened his shirt further and riffled at his hair; absently he shoved it behind his ears and kept reading. It was very formal. Painfully so.

My dearest Cousin,

I hope that you are better and that Uncle delivers this to you as he said he would.

Frodo's brows quirked at this last.

We have been very busy with harvest.  This is the first one we have not been together for, and the grapes are very good this year.  I know you shall miss them.  But maybe you are so busy that you don't have time to miss me, either.

 Just do not forget me while you're there.

Yours,

 Meriadoc

 

He read it several times. Unlike Pippin's missive, the more he read it the more sober he got. Frodo ran his fingers over the seal that was proudly affixed to the bottom of the parchment--he still remembered the day not too long ago when Merry had gotten his own marker inscribed with the Brandybuck signet. Not his father's, certainly, but a fitting accessory for the Heir to Brandy Hall.

A sharp breeze fluttered at his hair once more. The candle up above him guttered and sputtered into darkness. He grimaced up at it, reached up and wobbled the wax stem from its bottom spike, inspected it. With a sigh, he laid the letters on the windowsill and dug into his pants pocket. Finding the small folding knife he nearly always carried on his person--not unlike he did with the small sling resting on his dresser top--he trimmed away the top of the candle, clearing the wick. Then he laid the knife on the dresser next to the sling, holding the cleaned candle to the lit one seated there before he walked back over to the window and replaced it in its sconce.

Another breeze filled the window, this a cross breeze. Before Frodo could make a grab for them, the letters flitted upwards and away, out into the night. His burned hand hit the sill and he retreated, hissing with discomfort--Bilbo had fed him several cups of the Widow's tea, and it had certainly helped, but not against further injury.

The parchments fluttered over the grass and toward the pond.

"Balls!" he snarled and, hurt hand or no, leapt over the sill after them. He caught up to one before it skittered into the water, but a breeze caught the second one and wafted it. Frodo sprinted a few steps then uttered another choice curse as the paper evaded him and all but skipped into the pond.

Shoving the recaptured missive into the breast pocket of his coat, Frodo waded in after the second one.

The bottom was smooth gravel, giving to his feet. He took several large strides, sloshing through the shallow water to reach his prize and grabbed it up, hoping against hope that it had not been ruined. Frodo scanned it carefully; the moon was bright enough that he could almost read by its light. Merry's writing had smeared, but not much. He blotted it carefully dry, waved it in the breeze to further the process, then shoved it into his breast pocket alongside the other parchment.

It was quiet, almost too quiet. Wind riffled through the dry leaves, but the bird noises had ceased. Frodo stood there and closed his eyes. The water was cool on his feet and calves, stark contrast to the heat in his cheeks. If only the little pond was deeper... surely there was some place about to swim... perhaps that pool in Bywater on the way to the Dragon was a good place for swimming. Frodo bent over, cupped handsfuls, raised it to the moonlight. It spilled over his fingers, winking like silver molten from the forge, and he dipped his face into it. It was cold, not hot, but still it burned against his cheeks, stung lightly his hand, runneled down over his throat and breastbone, somehow soothing but somehow also not, and it was all... so... quiet...

Rustling branches, a sharp, plain entry into the quiet night. Frodo whirled, peered into the darkness. The rustle died. A slight frown marring his brow, he turned back about, but the moment he did so the rustling happened again.

Something brushed past his foot and he let out an oath, hopped sideways. His feet came down into the gravel hard; it shifted and one foot turned and he flailed for precious seconds then went sailing backwards, hitting the water with a solid splash.

Even seated, the water was barely up to his navel. Puffing and blowing from the chill, Frodo dug his fingers into the pool's bottom, winced as the rough gravel twinged in his hand and started to lunge back upward, then froze as something brushed his skin again, this time against his sore hand. About him the water steadied and cleared again, and his wide eyes beheld the 'monster' that had touched him.

A fish. Several, in fact, darting about his submerged fingers and toes. He smiled as one gave his pinky finger a nibble, then darted sideways as if unprepared for the funny taste of it. They seemed to find his feet in particular fascinating, diving their way through floating fur, obviously hoping to find some interesting foodstuff amongst this new addition to their home. They tickled.

He threw back his head and laughed softly, then the laughter died in his throat.

The sky. Oh, the sky...

A bowl of pitch, studded with twinkling gems as far as the eye could see. The tree atop the hill, black fingers into the clear, milky swath of star's flight. The Hill itself, swelling upward as if to touch light and darkness...

"You should see it at night."

It was quiet, so quiet as to be lost forever into the silent hum of darkness and light. Goosepimples rashed over his skin, but whether it was from the wet or from his dumbfounded awe at that sky, he wasn't sure. The fish darted between his fingers and toes, skittered away from fabric; Frodo shoved the wet bang from his eyes and stood up, shivering, hung on the vast-deep above.

Another, more profound chill shook him; he shifted uncomfortably then sloshed from the pond. From the waist down his coat was sopping; he briefly felt his breast pocket--the letters were still merely damp. With a sigh of relief, he started to shrug from his coat then felt the right side weighed down by other than water.

"Oh, no."

Frodo fumbled with his coat; the pocket, normally so loose and accessible from many such stowings of printed matter, clung wetly to the book. He worked silently, his face going scarlet, and when the pocket finally gave up its prize, dropped his coat to the ground. Damp, cool leather met his questing fingers and he groaned again, lurching towards the better-lit interior of his room. Halfway there he halted, came sprinting back, snatched up his coat and started back for his room.

Another rustle, this from nigh to his window. Frodo halted, staring at the east wall of Bag End. It arced up from the garden, shadows and silver dancing across the ivy-wrapped earth, but nothing more met his eye. Inside his window the candles danced madly, as if set loose by some random breeze. He inspected carefully the periphery of the garden, turning warily in a full circle.

Frowning, he stepped lightly over to the window, coat clutched in his arms, book held carefully away from the damp fabric. It was probably just some animal. But seconds later Frodo was wondering why it was indeed so oppressively quiet in the garden. Even with his presence the squirrels would usually caper about and the birds would chirp and sing--in fact, only yesterday a mother bird had fussed at him for settling his book too close to her nest...

"Hullo?" he called softly, looking about.

Nothing. Just silence, silver-threaded and heavy.

And the candles, ceasing their dance within the stillness of the room.

Frodo's shoulders twitched; hunched over his sodden coat and precious heirloom he reached the window, clearing it and entering the safety of his smial. Immediately he wondered why he'd even contemplated that... safety? How was it not safe? What could possibly happen to him in Bilbo's garden?

He was being ridiculous.

* * * * * *

Sam sucked in a grateful, huge drought of the evening air. Behind him the voices of his sisters carried through the open front door, spilling out like the candlelight onto the stones of their front step--he'd escaped his normal twice-a-week kitchen duty by offering to light the lanterns that ran along the Hill's path. Normally such was his father's charge, but the Gaffer had returned from their job at Overhill down in his back; at this moment he was stretched face-down on the couch, Daisy applying a damp towel and hot flatiron. It was not usual for the Gaffer to be down like that, but Daisy had been muttering about expecting it more and more. Their father was passing from middle age into his elder years, and when a hobbit worked as hard for a living as they did, sometimes things just started to give out.

Sam was just glad that he was grown stout enough to help and start taking more of the work over. Long-handled punk in hand, he started up the lane. Coming to the first lantern, Sam reached up, uncovering the wick, lit it quickly then returned the glass cover to its place. Light splayed over the road. Quickly and calmly Samwise worked his way up the hill--fourteen lanterns in all, and all of them needing to be lit in actuality an hour ago, but his father had stubbornly insisted that he could do it, surely, just let him sit for a few moments.

Sam had known better. When the Gaffer got the lumbago and sat down, he usually didn't get back up so easily. Sam just hoped he'd feel better in the morning--his father had been quite looking forward to the Tithing, even if the Squire had chosen his regular queer place--not at the Grange proper, as Gaffer Gamgee kept saying had been done long ago, but on the banks of the Water.

His sister's voices faded, carrying up the Hill only so far. Sam lit another lantern, humming to himself. It seemed quite natural to him--for as long as he'd been alive the tithing parties had been held in the watershed dale--and there was a lot of fun to be had wading in that shallows pool just off old Sandyman's mill. He wondered briefly if Bilbo's nephew would be coming--another visitor had arrived to Bag End, too, according to the sharp-eyed May. While Sam and his father had been most of the day out of pocket, May had been doing the washing and watching up the Hill, no doubt hoping for a sight of the Brandybuck lad whom she still hadn't seen. Instead she'd seen "a tall hobbit walking with the Squire to town just before you and Dad came home, and he was too old to be master Frodo."

To town, probably the pub. And Bag End dark save for a few flickers in the windows--it didn't seem that anyone was home now. Probably it had been three, not two, travelling to the pub... but wait. Sam blinked as he saw something dart across the front, behind the front wicket gate. Then, again. But much slower, this time--a dark figure moving slowly in the moonlight. Sam felt his heart judder ever so slightly then, not a moment later, scolded himself for being so jittery. Must be something in the air tonight--moonlight madness, for the moon was so full and bright as to make the lanterns unnecessary. Or more likely, as his Gaffer would snort, too much attention to Bilbo's tales. Sam walked more quickly, peering up the Hill the entire time. He stopped at another lantern, lit it without really looking at it, watching as that figure skulked about the Squire's place... and it was skulking, no other word for it. It was also too large to be the Brandybuck lad.

Sam rounded the bend, lost sight of Bag End for precious seconds, revved up to a trot and came to the gate, peering about suspiciously. Nothing.

Had he been seeing things?

Perhaps it was mister Bilbo's visitor that May had mentioned.

Settling the lit punk in a holder put next to the front gate for just that purpose, Sam put a palm to the gate and gave a small push. It squeaked--curse the thing, anyway, it was almost impossible to keep it well-oiled!--and he moved forward on silent feet. Eyes wide, ears pricked for any hint of noise, he made his way to the front door. All was silent, and dark save for a few candles in the front window. Sam reached for the doorknob, then pondered for a few more moments. Mister Bilbo was not one to leave things lit up when he was gone, unless it was a well-shielded lamp. Those candles were in themselves suspicious. There were gipsies in the area, mostly camped in the Grange meadow, having come to ply their wares at the Tithing. Perhaps one of them had seen the supposed deserted air of the Bag End smial and decided to chance their luck.

Any other night Sam would have gone back to get his father--but his father wasn't going anywhere, and Sam knew that no matter his tender years, he was big and strong enough to take care of most trouble.

Taking a breath, he twisted the knob and tiptoed into Bag End.

* * * * * *

Thankfully the book was not wet through. The parchments were even less damp; Frodo took them from his pocket and laid them out on his tall clothes press as well, on a small towel that he'd snatched from the washstand to soak up some of the wet. He'd turned up the lamp upon his dresser and it, along with the other candles shining unwaveringly in the stillness of his smial, revealed that the cover of the little book was quite damp along the bottom. Once it dried he would oil it carefully and hope that the worst of his foolish handling of it would be a slight staining. Hopefully the book would lie flat if he wrapped it well in a dry place and a thirsty towel.

Even better, he should just lock the book away in the trunk beneath his bed until it did dry, considering how careless he'd been.

Unlike his papers, however, Frodo was wet through, and cold. Debating a small fire in his little hearth, instead he quickly stripped down to nothing but the thong about his neck. Just as quickly he towelled off and fairly leapt into dry breeches, thick-woven shirt and the woollen jumper that had been Merry's first attempt at knit-work a year previous--it wasn't very pretty, and one sleeve hung lower than the other, but it was quite warm. Carefully lifting the towel-wrapped book, he threaded the key from over his head and turned to his bed beneath which his trunk resided...

He halted with a sudden, soft noise.

There, laid on the pillow of his bed, lay his knife and sling. Key dangling form his fingers, book still in hand, Frodo walked slowly over. Once he reached the bedside he halted again and peered down at the small weapons with his brow furrowed. He reached out, touched them. As he did so, Frodo also realised that the covers were yanked back and thrown to one side, his pillow flung sideways.

The candle flame bounced like a fidgety child. Frodo thought he saw something out of the corner of his eye, whirled.

Nothing.

Frodo took a tiny step back from the bed. He had pulled the coverlet up. He had. And his sling, his knife? He'd not left them out like this. He'd swear to it.

The stillness was heavy once again, pressing against him like breath on the back of his neck. The candles had once again stilled, reaching upward straight as arrow shafts.

Shaking his head in a quick, fierce negation; Frodo knelt beside the bed, reached under and pulled his trunk forward with a small grunt. Eyes darting to first the window and then the doorway, he then sighed and threaded the brass key into the trunk's lock. It was old, but he'd kept it well-oiled and it clicked into the stillness, opening to his touch. Quickly he stowed the wrapped book within, shut the trunk, shoved it back beneath the bedstead.

Then he heard another sound. Not from within his room, but the front hallway.

Leather lanyard dangled from his fingertips; Frodo dropped it onto the rumpled sheets of his bed and gained his feet with silent quickness. In a matter of seconds he went from pliable concern to wary, unyielding attentiveness, like molten glass solidifying into purpose as it was drawn from hot forge to cooling air.

Listening.

Now that he was paying such close attention, he could identify the sound and its direction--a rattling sound of wood and metal coming from the front of Bag End. Then nothing. Then a small, nearly soundless creak.

It sounded as if the front door was being opened.

Frodo swallowed hard, remembering about four years ago, when a clutch of drunken riverhobbits had snuck into the Hall, bent on thievery. Such things were uncommon, but not unheard of, particularly on the river. Saradoc and cousin Marmadas had dispatched them armed with nothing but staffs.

But Frodo had no staff. He had... wait. In the study. The brass turnkey that Bilbo used to wick up the high lamps. Holding his breath, Frodo tiptoed across the hallway, praying that shadowy figure didn't see him, and disappeared into his study.

It had seen him. For when Frodo came out of the study, the cold brass clamped reassuringly in his fists, there the figure was. He froze.

It was his undoing. With a sharp cry, the figure leapt at him, knocked him up against the wall. Frodo hit the wall with a grunt, twisted, shoved back. It fouled his assailant's balance somehow; but the intruder had enough of a grip that when he fell, he dragged Frodo with him. They rolled on the hard wood of the floor for moments, and Frodo ended up beneath the lamp and on his back, with that dark figure looming over...

He panicked. Fierce and strong and black as pitch, it rose up within him and lent him strength he shouldn't have had, and with a growl bursting from his chest, Frodo broke the tight grip on his arms and lashed upwards with the turnkey.

"Master Frodo?!" A familiar voice, even younger with surprise. Frodo managed to pull back as he heard that voice, but the blow still made contact. Samwise Gamgee yowled and fell back onto his rear, muttering curses that surely a lad his age shouldn't know.

Frodo lurched up to a crouch. "Ohhhh... no. It's you. I... I thought... I didn't..." He tried again; he was making absolutely no sense. "Are you all right?"

The younger lad sat there in the dim light, peering at him rather reproachfully and holding his jaw. Tears glittered in his eyes.

Frodo dropped the brass and started for him. He wasn't sure he blamed the lad for his backwards flinch, but when Frodo, still crouched, kept looking at Sam, the broad face softened and he allowed Frodo to help him to his feet.

Moments later, Sam was seated at the kitchen table with a cloth sopped in cold well water along his jaw. Frodo was seated across from him, quite caught in a misery of guilt.

"I'm so sorry," Frodo stammered. "I heard someone, and I never thought it'd be you."

"Well, fair's fair," Sam mumbled into his collar, wiping his eyes with a shirtsleeve. "I was of a mind that you was one of those tinkers, messing about in mister Bilbo's house whilst all of you were at the pub."

"Tinkers?"

Sam peered at him from about the towel. "Don't they have tinkers in Buckland?"

"Well, yes, but--"

"There's tinkers here for the Tithing tomorrow." Sam's eyes narrowed as Frodo kept staring at him. "En't mister Bilbo told you about that yet?"

Something in Sam's tone made heat tingle into Frodo's cheeks. "He mentioned it. But not much more, really," he replied a bit defensively, going to the sink and grabbing the pump handle, dousing another rag with cool wet. "Should he have?"

"Well, it's a fair set-to in these parts. And you're his kin, here for the seasons' turning, so I'd've thought he'd choose..." the lad trailed off, his cheeks pinkening even more inexplicably. "'Tennyrate, the Tithing's great fun!" A small grin, then a wince as that grin pulled bruised tissue. "But then," he shrugged as Frodo came back over, handed him the fresh rag to replace the one warmed by exposure to skin, "you en't been here that long, young master, so likely he's just forgotten. To ask... to tell you, that is."

'Young master'. Those two words overshadowed any other confusing statements; Frodo blinked at Sam, feeling quite put into his place. They were both uncomfortably silent, not quite sure of what else to say. Finally, ingrained manners took over where spontaneity failed. "Would you like some tea?" Frodo offered.

"Oh, I thank you, but nossir." Sam rose to his feet, held out the cloth. "I'd best be getting back to the hole. They'll be worrying after me and no mistake."

"Won't they worry more when they see your jaw?" Frodo retrieved the compress, oddly relieved and disappointed all at once that the lad was leaving.

Sam shrugged. "I'll tell 'em what happened, 'twas just a bit of a hames."

"A hames?" Frodo gave Sam an odd look. "Me trouting you with that brass was like a piece of a pony's driving harness?"

Sam returned his odd look and then some. There was a longish pause, and when Sam did speak there was a patient tolerance underlying the explanation that riffled all of Frodo's already-shredded nerves. "It's... just a saying we have about here. Dunno where it comes from--probably mister Bilbo could tell you that, he likes to dote on where words come from. But hereabouts, folk say when they're in a bit of trouble, that it's a hames. A... confusion. A right mess."

Frodo turned away and tossed the rag back into the pan of water. "I like to know where words come from, as well. Which is why I asked you."

Sam fell silent again; when Frodo turned the younger lad was staring at him with a mix of wounded reproach and abject apology. It was so strongly directed that Frodo all but felt it himself. Abruptly he realised that Sam was not patronising him in any fashion--that he was just honestly surprised that a word so well known in Hobbiton would not be commonplace elsewhere. As for his own reaction--Frodo didn't care to inspect that too closely, he was tired and more than tired of the persons about him so questioning his own difference, even if it was something as innocent as this.

His hands anxious for something to do beneath that direct stare, Frodo picked up the wet cloth again and wrung it out, wondering if, despite Sam's obvious fascination for outland things, he'd ever been beyond the borders of his own bit of landscape. "You won't get in trouble, will you, for being involved in a... 'hames'?"

"Well. M' Gaffer might clout my ear for interfering, but then," Sam took the subtle offering of accord with a shrug and gingerly touched his jaw, "considering I've had my clout, he'll probably just give me the rough side of his tongue for not being more careful about how I went about it all."

"I'm sorry," Frodo muttered again, then, "Do you always keep an eye on the Hill like this?" Strange, the knowledge, and easy to take amiss. It was yet another dichotomy in a day fair filled with them. It might be reassuring to know there was a lower guard, but disconcerting that it meant yet more scrutiny.

"Aye, well," the young lad shrugged and lowered his head. For a moment in the half-light, he looked almost like Merry--broad shoulders and unruly gold hair and a round, snubbed nose that even longish curls couldn't hide. Frodo felt a pang, thrust it away, followed Sam to the still-open door.

Just outside, the gardener lad halted and turned to him. Teeth glinted in a lopsided smile, eyes sparking in the mix of candlelight from the doorway and moonlight from the sky. "You're a fair danger with that brass, master Frodo."

And then he was gone back down the Hill.

A grin teased at Frodo's lips as he retreated into Bag End and closed the door behind him.

* * * * * *

"So." Bilbo eased back in his chair, crossing one leg over the other and peering from narrowed eyes at his companion. They had ordered their meals and several healthy halves of ale apiece; they had spoken, purposefully light, of more and varied inconsequentials including the weather, the harvests--late in the East, already done in the Westfarthing--the river's early spate and the likelihood, given all those, of a particularly foul winter. It was now time to get down to cases. "Why are you here, cousin?"

Once the opening had been established, Merimac didn't give Bilbo the chance to continue any cross-examination. "He looks terrible, Bilbo."

The unspoken accusation smarted much more than it should have. "He came to me only a few days ago, looking like a picked chicken. Do you honestly think I would mis-use that lad?"

"Mis-use, no..." Merimac hesitated, then took a large quaff of his ale and gestured to the serving lass for more.

"And what do you--?" Bilbo broke off his heated reply as the lass arrived at their table with two refills. She gave Merimac a hopeful smile as he nodded thanks, then frowned in disappointment as he merely turned away.

Lack of flirting, even if it was with a female, bespoke Merimac's preoccupied state of mind. Bilbo took a sip of his own drink and peered at his younger companion sternly.

"I repeat. Why are you here, other than to upbraid me for something I had no control over?"

Merimac started to reply, fell silent as the brown-haired maid approached yet again, this time with their requested meal. She settled several well-heaped platters in the middle of the table: battered lamb cutlets and sliced potatoes, fried golden and plump, a sizeable loaf of rosemary bread sided by a moon-shaped round of butter, a bowl of sliced carrots and a small pitcher of cream gravy. Once again she tried to gain Merimac's attention, once again failed and, a fetching pout pulling at her lower lip, she answered a hail from another table.

"If you don't at least give Pansy a smile, she's going to burst," Bilbo told Merimac as he speared a cutlet onto his plate. "She quite fancies herself as the prettiest trick this side of the Bywater and moreso, she is."

"Hm?" Merimac asked absently into his mug, then shot a glance toward where Pansy was smiling several tables over. "Oh. Her. She is quite pretty, isn't she?"

"But not as pretty as my nephew."

Merimac nearly inhaled an entire mouthful of brew; he sputtered and choked, finally swallowed the errant mouthful and laboriously regained his breath, glaring at Bilbo through watering eyes. Bilbo merely raised his eyebrows and took a dainty bite of potato.

"Don't lie to me and say you've not noticed."

"Sod you, Bilbo Baggins, and the pony who'd deign to carry you. Of course I've noticed. I'm not some silly git of a lass, only seeing charm in a stout back and sunny curls and a stomach round enough to pillow her head upon!"

It was Bilbo's turn to splutter, but his was with laughter. "Yes, Frodo-lad is fair Tookish, isn't he?"

"Meaning?"

"Meaning that he's slighter than most, and fairer than most, and thus likely to catch your eye--I know your preferences quite well from having observed them in varying degrees of detail over the years." Merimac gave him a pointed and pained look; Bilbo ignored it. "Meaning that despite the fact he's old enough to make his own choices regarding proper lessonings in the pleasures of life, I nevertheless have a guardianship over him of sorts. Which in turn means I've full right and obligation to ask you your intentions towards my nephew, Merimac Brandybuck."

"Frodo is not by heritage your nephew, but your cousin," Merimac riposted, chewing away on his share of the cutlets, "and you aren't truly his guardian, either--unless you've taken over fosterage as stated by right of charter, which means that the lad must reside in your home as your ward for at least two seasons' time." Bilbo opened his mouth to reply; Merimac waved a lamb-laden fork at him, continuing on. "The lad's fosterage was officially given, under witness, to Paladin Took; for the remainder of this season Frodo was going to be staying with me on the River, under not only his legal guardians', but Paladin's consent and knowledge. That's the way things stood a bare fortnight ago, at any rate, it looks to me as if my brother, for some totally unfathomable reason, threw him to you as some sort of temporary fix--which in my opinion makes your intentions suspect, if you've no stated obligations to the lad."

"And what obligations do you claim?" Bilbo returned. "What rights do you think you have?"

Merimac stopped chewing; his eyes narrowed and glittered in a reminder to Bilbo that his seafaring cousin was no hobbit to trifle with. "I have," was the slow, considered answer, "the right to know that Frodo will be taken care of. He gave me his trust; I gave him my word I would hold it dear. And I am not at all pleased with what I see in him now."

"And you think I caused this?" Bilbo put his fork down, suddenly as furious as Merimac was. "Do you really think I would?"

"All I know is that I left him at the Hall, fully intending to return for him. And when I do return, he's been packed off to Bag End like furniture, and my brother saying that he chose to come here. But he looks like a good wind would blow him away--"

"I told your brother the same thing," Bilbo inserted, "because he arrived here in that state."

"--and from what I'm gathering, it sounds as though Frodo felt he truthfully had no other choice, and I want to know what's going on."

"And here I was hoping you might be able to tell me."

"Whyever did you hope that?"

"Well..." Bilbo shifted uncomfortably. He truly was coming all too close to meddling.

"Well?" Merimac repeated, peering at him. Bilbo peered right back; Merimac backed down. "It's rather complicated, what has happened between Frodo and me," he finally said. "And I don't feel at liberty to share it with you, old hobbit."

"I'm not asking for lurid details, young hobbit," Bilbo retorted, taking another pull of his ale. "I don't really want to know, thank you very much. At my age it only frustrates or disappoints."

"Bilbo--"

"Nay, give me the chance to finish. I was truly hoping that you might have some pieces to the puzzle that I've been given."

"Damn it, old hobbit, this is not one of your riddles!"

"Isn't it?" Bilbo replied smoothly. "Everything's a riddle, my boy. Everything's a game." He raised his eyebrows over the rim of his tankard. "You know that as well as I."

"I'm beginning to think that this game has too high of stakes," Merimac muttered, his eyes chasing away. "I'm out of my league."

"Then why are you here, Merimac?" Bilbo leaned forward. "That's the riddle that at this moment concerns me the most."

"I told you. I returned to the Hall for him, merely to find that he's been removed to Bag End. No word was sent to me, and that despite it being agreed that he was to come with me until Tooks could take him in the winter."

"So you said. And Frodo agreed to all of this?"

Merimac hesitated. "Frodo was not of a mind to agree to anything just then."

"I... see." Bilbo chewed, speculating on how thoroughly and uncharacteristically discombobulated Merimac seemed. "What was he of a mind to do, then?"

"He was more concerned with Merry's wants than his own."

Bilbo frowned.

"My dear cousin, don't be obtuse. It doesn't suit you. You saw Frodo's attachment to me quickly enough; you'd have to have been stone deaf and blinded from birth to not see how close those two lads are. But to stay at the Hall and remain a child for Merry's sake--despite the obvious fact that Frodo has awakened to the reality of his body having some working attachments--was not fair to Frodo or to Merry." Merimac took a healthy draught of his ale. "So. I asked for some advice. Paladin and Eglantine have a lot more experience with young hobbits than I, you must agree, and getting advice from Sara and Esme regarding Frodo is pointless as bucketing an empty well. Pal and Lanna agreed with me that it would be best just to get Frodo away from the Hall, however the method, and give him some room to decide what he wanted."

"Hm. That doesn't seem a bad decision, considering the way things went awry at that dreadful Tea." Bilbo took a sip of his drink.

"And afterwards, from what I've heard," Merimac pointed out, busy with his plate. "Bilbo, what did they tell you?"

Bilbo shrugged. "Not much. I received a letter--by messenger if that tells you how urgent the matter must have seemed to them--"

Merimac frowned and his fork, well plied with greens and potatoes, halted midway to his mouth.

"Yes, that little expense was my first hint that things were not at all pleasant. In fact..." Bilbo put his eating utensils down, patted down his waistcoat. "Ah, splendid! I put this in my pocket earlier, hoping that you might be able to read between the lines easier than I." His broad, nimble fingers held out a small envelope, the Hall seal clearly broken along its seam.

Putting down his fork, Merimac wiped his hands and took the letter. The way his eyes gleamed, it was obvious he hoped to glean more from the missive than he eventually did. He was a much slower reader than Bilbo, but the letter still didn't take very long to peruse.

"The River," he mused. "Always, the River."

"Perhaps that is why they decided against sending him to you. Maybe it was the sole bit of empathy and clarity that Esme has ever had about Frodo."

"Bilbo, that makes no sense. He loves the water. He swims like a fish." Merimac handed the letter back to him. "I know his parents died there, but he seems to have found his own truce with it. I think Esme is more bound up by the Brandywine than Frodo ever will be."

"You're certain of that?"

"I'm certain of nothing where that lad is concerned, Bilbo, including my own heartbeat."

"Mm." Bilbo twiddled the letter in his fingers.

"I wasn't there, the night that Primula and Drogo drowned. I only heard the stories. I was out to sea that season. But I was at the Hall that following winter, socked in with the ice for over a fortnight. I don't ever rest easy on land, so I spent a lot of sleepless nights. I caught Frodo wandering the halls with great holes of eyes in a leached face, and his hair tangled as kelp. He couldn't sleep, either, and I'm not even sure he knew why. I heated us both some cinnamon cider, and we sat next to the fire in the common room, and he'd just stare at me with that fey and serious face. Sometimes we'd sit quiet, but mostly he'd ask me to tell him about the water. He wanted sailors' tales. Sailors' tales, Bilbo, and him only a season from seeing his mum and da laid out on the shore. A bairn fearing the water wouldn't be asking me to weave poetry about it now, would he?"

Bilbo tapped the envelope against his lips. "I wonder."

"Well, and you always have. But now I find myself. Wondering, that is."

"Wonder is a good thing, lad."

"Wonder gives you a griping in the belly," Merimac retorted. "Of one thing there is no doubt, or wonder, and that's the fact they wanted Frodo gone, and quickly, like some cat trying to cover its mistake on the decking... bloody damn!" He smashed his fist on the table; crockery rang and boards creaked and the patrons at the tables nigh to them sent alarmed glances their way. Bilbo smiled reassurance all around, meanwhile mopping at his waistcoat where an errant bit of ale had splashed.

"There's no doubt that lad gets his temper from the Brandybucks, is there?" he quipped. Merimac started to reply hotly, then grinned.

"No doubt." He leaned forward, propping his elbows on the table and staring intently at Bilbo. "Just as there's no doubt that my brother seems to think it's time you and the Bagginses took some responsibility for 'that lad'."

"Yes... well. Saradoc told me that as well, in no uncertain terms."

"This after they said you weren't fit to raise a dog." Bilbo frowned at him, startled, and Mac shrugged apology. "Forgive me, cousin, but that's what they have said."

"Thus enters Merimac Brandybuck. Who is seemingly not convinced that I'm fit to raise a dog, either."

"Sink me, Bilbo, according to the Hall standards I'm not fit to rear a pet rat!" Merimac expostulated, then shook his head. "Nay, 'tisn't that. But despite Brother giving me the oh-so-kind reassurance that Frodo chose to come here, I wasn't about to just leave him. And now, between seeing that letter and the haste with which all this was done--"

"Your brother assured me that the haste was due to the vintage."

A short bark of humourless laughter. "Now, why does that not surprise me? I'm sure he believes it to be true, even more. But it remains that Frodo hadn't time to even think upon what was happening before he was whisked here, will-he, nil-he. I'm not very sure he's happy."

"As he was happy at the Hall?" Bilbo said pointedly. "And do you really think he would be happier with you, on the Brandywine?"

"You do sound remarkably like Saradoc," Merimac gritted. "You both seem to think that I'm incapable of thinking with my brains instead of my balls. Frodo would not be the first I've walked away from for their own good. If I believed it was necessary, if I believed him happy, I'd leave tonight. I'd as lief be on the water anyway; I feel all a-stagger on dry land. But not five minutes after you left Bag End this afternoon, Frodo was begging me to take him away."

Bilbo went still. The statement hit him harder than he would have believed possible; for moments he had the impulse to look down and see if Merimac had by some means let blood. It certainly felt as if a keen blade had cut him.

"Why is that, Bilbo? Why would he want such a thing?"

"I..." Bilbo looked down at his plate. Suddenly he was not hungry. "I have no idea."

Silence. Bilbo let it waft over him, then sighed and looked up. Merimac was peering at him strangely.

"It bothers you, doesn't it?" Merimac said softly. "Is it possible that, after all, old mad Baggins has a heart? And that a lad quick and small as a mouse has scurried into the pantries of that heart?"

Bilbo toyed with his cup, glowering at his cousin and not even sure why.

"So," Merimac continued, just as quietly, "My first concern is answered. You do care. Which could answer why Frodo seems so torn as to whether he wants to leave or stay. But he still seems fretful." He frowned. "Has he found out that Lotho's here?"

"Lotho!" Bilbo snorted angrily. "Yes, Frodo knows. They came yesterday in all their glory, Lobelia and Otho with overgrown sonny boy in tow. But Frodo knows well enough that he trounced him into the ground, and...."

"And all of you think that settles it, eh?"

"Merimac, that's not what I--"

"Do you even know what really happened, Bilbo?"

Bilbo pressed his lips against a hot reply, took a drink of ale, then answered, too smoothly, "I know that Lotho tried to take advantage of Frodo."

"'Take advantage' isn't half of it. You weren't there for that part, were you? It was I came upon Lotho plying his rather-sick bit of trade upon Frodo, and do you know what I saw?" Bilbo sat back in his chair, silenced, ire draining away. He was unsure he'd ever seen such a look on his cousin's face. Merimac continued, his eyes filling but his voice holding a peculiar, oh-so-controlled strain. "Oh, and sure, nothing truly happened, but it might as well have done. There he was, pinned up against that tree, the kind of look in his eyes that you see when an animal's in a trap and has given up. He was just... waiting for it. Because he didn't think he had any other choice. So he was letting it pull him under, hoping he could come back up once it was all over. And so it went, his first 'playmate'--only there was no play or fun to it, and him broached and risen with nothing more to it than a sick bully's game."

Bilbo closed his eyes, shaking his head.

"And then he tried to make some of his own choices. He wanted me to take that all from him, me. And what was I supposed to do, Bilbo? Say that yes, he's old enough to be taken, but not to be given to? Just refuse him this choice as well, humiliate him further, watch him cry because he's somehow convinced that no one wants him?"

"No. Of course not."

"It started out a mercy fuck, and I'll admit to that, but there's more now and no, I'm not just leaving Frodo to be passed off unwanted to anyone, even you."

Bilbo was silent, peering at Merimac, who gave him stare for stare. "I... believe you," he said.

Merimac speared another slice of lamb, chewed thoughtfully at it. Bilbo followed suit; they both ate in silence for a moment.

"They think he's mad, did you know that?" Merimac finally said.

His eyes narrowing, Bilbo watched his cousin spear another slice of lamb as if it were 'they'. "I take it you don't agree with this... assessment."

Surprisingly, there was no immediate or irate rebuttal, and Merimac's voice was soft, considering, when he finally did answer. "I have to admit I don't have the slightest idea what is whirling in that beautiful, mixed-up head of his. But that doesn't mean he's mad, just because I don't understand him. Or that I'm so bound up in the past that I can't look at a confused tween without seeing echoes of his mother's madness."

It was Bilbo's turn to commence stabbing at his repast. "The past..." he repeated.

"And you, old hobbit, are part of that past, aren't you?" Merimac said wonderingly, slowly. He leaned forward. "Tell me this. Could you be his father?"

It would have been all too easy to rail at the suggestion, as he'd done with Lobelia only the previous day. But Merimac's query even on the surface had less scurrilous purpose than Lobelia's. From the day Otho Baggins had wed the middle daughter of the few Bracegirdle and Sackville alliances, he had filled his wife's head with stories of how Bag-End was rightfully theirs once 'that crank Bilbo' was gone. Thusly Bilbo was not so lost to common sense to think that they saw Frodo as anything but a threat. Which was sadly laughable--a surly, tweenage orphan, threat to them? More than likely Bilbo himself would be long dead before the under-aged son of Drogo and Primula Baggins could think to try and lay claim to any property save that of his parents.

"If you only knew," Bilbo said softly, "you wouldn't be asking the question."

Merimac kept peering at him. "Father always said that he loved Drogo like a brother, but that he loved you as more. Even now it depends on the day of the week as to whether he wishes you had married Aunt Prim, or that you and she had never laid eyes on each other."

Bilbo kept peering into his ale mug.

"I'm sure you must know there are rumours about the two of you, not only before her marriage, but afterwards," Merimac continued slowly, obviously hesitant of his reception with this subject. "There are all sorts of stories about Primula's consorts and dalliances."

"All sorts, are there?" Bilbo said, still into his ale mug, with a voice that was deathly quiet. "And do you believe those... stories?"

"What I believe matters naught. If it comes to strict belief, then believe that I see very little purpose for demanding some standard of exclusivity and fidelity when we know our own instincts betray such. Some people are meant to have and hold to a one and only love, others are not, and if it comes to it, who am I to judge anyone?"

Bilbo shot him an odd look.

"Honestly, old hobbit, how can exclusive rights to another person be anything other than a choice? And to impress that choice on another who hasn't made it? I see no real reason, other than to insure one has sired one's offspring. And what male can truly know that?"

"No wonder they booted you from the Hall," Bilbo said slowly.

"I wasn't booted, I walked," Merimac said bluntly. "Of my own accord. And Buckland's not Hobbiton. You know perfectly well that there are all sorts of accepted mating arrangements over the Shire, from border to border. It wasn't that Auntie Prim flaunted 'nature'--it was that she denied traditional decorum and supposedly kept acting the tween, flaunted her lovers in her family's face. I say 'supposedly'," he added, "because I never saw a lick of honest proof that she shared any bed other than her husband's once she married. Of course," he shrugged, "I wasn't about much, and my family thinks I still act the tween, so I'm not the best to say."

"And this, erm, 'tradition of decorum' and unwillingness to leave behind your tweens is no doubt the reason why you aren't snuggled up in Tuckborough right this moment with the Thain--and perhaps his Lady as well?"

The tanned face paled. Bilbo had hit a nerve, and obviously so--but no less a one than Merimac was grazing too close to.

"Decorum be thrice damned," Merimac grated out, showing more self-control than Bilbo would have given him credit for. "That was a matter of choice, and necessity. Nor does it have any bearing on our discussion."

Bilbo shrugged. "I just supposed that since you felt my own youthful indiscretions were fair game, that I would remind you of yours."

"And that's the difference between us, old hobbit," Merimac retorted silkily, his fingers idly stroking the knife beside his plate. "I don't, nor have I ever, considered them 'indiscretions'."

"Neither do I, truth be told."

"Then stand firm with your choices and answer my question. Did you sire Frodo, or didn't you? Is there any possibility, however remote, that you could be his father?"

"No," Bilbo said softly, lowering his eyes to the table. "None."

Merimac was silent, and when Bilbo raised his gaze, he found those grey eyes leached of anger, instead filled with compassion. Merimac had always been capricious as the sky--even now, long past his youth.

"So, to answer the intent of your question, no," Bilbo continued in an all-too-pleasant voice. "I have been given fosterage--in writing--and I fully intend that Frodo should stay the full two seasons of such, but I've no real claim upon the lad, and no way to legally or permanently remove him from Brandy Hall--or your galley, if it comes to it. And rest assured I'm not so senile that I don't remember the rumours." The pleasant tone changed to a mocking whine. "'No Baggins sired that big-eyed bairn unless it was Bilbo, and more like than not some demon-eyed elf got himself a half-breed upon wild Prim Brandybuck'--which is preposterous," Bilbo added irritably. "While Drogo might have not trusted me about his wife and son, it wasn't because he suspected he was raising up some cuckoo's egg. It wasn't what Primula held between her thighs that truly fascinated me--that can be had at a much cheaper price than what Prim's affection finally cost all of us. Drogo knew that. What Drogo begrudged me most was his wife's mind, Merimac. He could give her stability, a grounding pole, he could be father to a beautiful son... but I? I could give her entry to a world he never, never understood." Bilbo took a long, breathless pull of his ale.

"Sara and Esme seem to be afraid that you'll give Frodo entry to that world, as well." Merimac continued after a short silence.

"Your brother and his dear wife have no concept of what they're talking about," Bilbo answered tersely. "Nor did Drogo, for all his love of the written word, and neither does your father. Merimac, understand this clearly. All too many of our kin have never understood the mystery of the world beyond, the magic of the peoples and lands outside our own. Your father--love him though I have and still do--is one of the worst. If Rory can't count it, carry it, touch it and smell it, it can't exist. And I was worse than he, once--even moreso. Any hint of my mother's Tookishness was buried so far beneath that if it hadn't been for the Adventure, I probably never would have let it out.

"But the truth remains that magic calls to magic. The world knows mystery; it sniffs out and hunts down its own kind. If we're kin to it, there's no hiding from that wild strain in our hearts--you know that, lad. Because it's in you as well."

Merimac stared at him, and the grey eyes held a wide marvel in them that oddly reminded Bilbo of the youth they'd left behind in Bag End, nursing both his mother's book and a bewildered yearning that seemed to set the stars a-tremble.

"Do you ever wonder, Mac, what exactly it was that broke your Da's mind? Sure, it was your mother dying of that fever, and sure it was his sister drowning on the river with her husband, but," he held up an index finger, pointed it at his puzzled companion, "it was something more. It was his own mystery that claimed him. If we don't give to it, it'll claim us, one way or another."

Merimac snorted. "You're talking riddles, again. There's certainly no mystery to Sara. Or Esme, Took though she be. Or the lot of your Baggins kin, come to think of it."

"Perhaps not. There are a lot of people with no mystery to them at all, and that's all to the good. Can't have the whole lot of us taken with moonstruck madness, can we? Who'd run the Hall?"

"Not I." Merimac smirked, picked up a cold potato, started gnawing on it. "This is all very interesting speculation, old hobbit, but again, what does it have to do with Frodo?"

"Use your brain, young hobbit. Isn't that boy quite the mystery, himself?"

Merimac halted mid-chew, gazing at Bilbo.

"It's drawn you. It's drawn and repelled others. There's something in that lad, Merimac, something that makes him bright as a shrouded lamp... and I say shrouded, because he's determined that his light won't shine. And why, I ask you? Why should a lad with such spirit be unwilling to loose that spirit?" Bilbo reached out, stole a potato from Merimac's plate and popped it into his mouth. "It almost seems he's afraid of what he is."

"You say that, as if you're so sure you know what he is," Merimac scoffed, and slapped Bilbo's hand when he reached for another potato.

"I don't know." Bilbo pointedly nursed his smacked hand, then raised his eyebrows. "But I do intend to find out."


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