Title: Nigh on September
Author: Aratlithiel and MBradford
Summary: Hobbits, a bar fight, ale and angst
May 19, 2003
A/N – Concept by Aratlithiel, writing by Aratlithiel and Mbradford. Inspired, in part, by Willow-wode's Rites of Passage and Rachel Stonebreaker's The Pub Series.
Nigh on September – Part 1 of the 'Seasons in the Shire' Trilogy
NIGH ON SEPTEMBER
Ordinarily, the Green Dragon was a bawdy, raucous place to be at the end of a workday. Hobbits coming and going, hailing each other with hearty greetings and exchanging noisy gossip over the clink and clatter of mugs of ale lifted to one another's health. Just at the moment, however, the only sounds to be heard in the unnatural hush were the panting breaths of Ted Sandyman who stood near the center of the room. His red face was pulled into a haughty sneer, his fists clenched and nose barely inches from that of Frodo Baggins. Frodo, his own fists straining in a firm grip at the other hobbit's collar, had Sandyman fixed with a glare of such intensity and clear disdain and fury that Merry felt the corners of his mouth turn up slightly. He suppressed a snort and rethought his former plan to jump to the aid of his elder cousin.
Merry had seen that look before. Most notably when it had been directed at Lotho Sackville-Baggins - after which their unpleasant cousin had made himself noticeably scarce whenever it was rumored that his former 'easy target' would be making an appearance at whatever gathering where he was currently causing trouble. Indeed, Merry himself had even been on the receiving end of that caged fury that seemed to seep from his cousin's pores and fill the already close room with the distinctly uncomfortable feel of contained lightning. Just once, mind you, but the end result of that particular conflict so long ago left no doubt in his mind what the end result of this one would be. Frodo might look slender and little more than half the size of the hobbit he now stood nose-to-nose with, but Merry could certainly lay testimony to the fact that – at least in the case of this particular hobbit – looks were tremendously deceiving. He rubbed the left side of his jaw in remembrance and tried very hard not to grin. He patted Pippin's knee under the table and they exchanged small, knowing smiles. They sat back, ales in hand to relax and watch the show.
It had started innocently enough. Pippin had arrived in Buckland just a week prior to travel with Merry for a visit with their cousin in Hobbiton. They had no doubt that Sam was keeping a very close eye on Frodo, but they hadn't had any news from him in some time, so decided a trip to Hobbiton was in order. Besides, a stay in Bag End with its generous and beloved host was always a pleasant distraction from the bustle of Brandy Hall and Great Smials. They had arrived the day before to the expected warm welcome and fine company of their favorite cousin. After a quiet evening of chatting over brandy and an endless stream of delectable snacks, had decided that what Frodo really needed was a night of rowdy fun – something of a specialty of his two younger cousins.
After reluctantly leaving behind Sam, who had promised his gaffer that he would repair some rotted timbers in the root cellar and so begged off, they bundled their cousin into his cloak, pushed him out the door and headed for Bywater. All were in good spirits when they arrived to the din and clamor of the inn and they immediately settled in and began to get pleasantly drunk. The ales flowed freely and often, Rose Cotton seeming to appear out of nowhere at the tableside, pitcher at the ready whenever a mug threatened to become empty.
The three of them sat at the wooden table, happily discussing family business and listening with half an ear to some of the more risqué tunes being sung horribly off-key by a group of particularly soused hobbits a few tables over. That was when Sandyman had made his less-than-grand entrance. Merry, who was facing the door, had spotted him immediately and noted the even more sour than usual look on the obnoxious hobbit who was peering around the inn, apparently deciding which unfortunate soul to focus his misery on for the evening. As Merry had expected, his eyes lit and fixed on Frodo.
Frodo had always been what bullies and gossips had considered fair game for one reason or another. It seemed to Merry that many of them lived for no other purpose than to make his cousin's life unpleasant. His gentle nature and penchant for forgiveness seemed to scream 'target' to anyone with a nose for that sort of thing. Frodo's life at Brandy Hall had been less than ideal, Merry remembered with a touch of sadness - the quiet, 'unusual,' orphan often being subjected to the cruel taunts and ignorant accusations that went along with the scandalous nature of his parents' deaths. More times than Merry cared to remember had he witnessed his cousin treading heavily away, hands stuffed in his pockets, blazing eyes cast down to the ground as shouts and jeers followed him. Did he pull her in after him, Frodo? or Was she off to meet those Elves of hers, then?
It had angered and bewildered Merry that Frodo so often walked away - that he refused to use the wiry strength Merry knew he had to shut those nasty mouths and stop them from flapping such cruel nonsense. Merry had not understood until the day those furious eyes had been directed at him that the reason Frodo would not defend himself against such talk was because Frodo sometimes almost half believed it himself. Being taken under the wing of Bilbo Baggins was the kindest, most merciful thing that could have happened to his elder cousin. As much as Merry had missed Frodo after he had left for Hobbiton, he often silently thanked the old hobbit for rescuing his beloved cousin before the light that sputtered and struggled within him during those trying years was finally doused forever.
It had always amazed Merry that someone who had lived the difficult life Frodo had could still maintain that inner-peace and tranquil nature that seemed to mystify and irritate those who would seek to persecute him for any number of imagined transgressions. 'Peculiar' and 'odd' were only some of the kinder names often assigned to his cousin and Merry still secretly wished that Frodo would use his fists more often.
Lotho in particular, a frequent visitor to Brandy Hall in their youth, had been unmerciful in his torments for years until that fateful day when Frodo had been pushed to his limit and decided that he had had enough! The utter shock on the bully's face as he lay flat on his back, staring stupidly at the sky with blood leaking from his nose and an eye that would be spectacularly bruised and swollen almost shut by the end of the night would be a sight that Merry would remember and treasure for the rest of his days. Frodo had walked away with nothing but bruised knuckles and self-inflicted guilt. None of them saw much of Lotho anymore – a blessing in itself by almost anyone's definition.
Sandyman, however, seemed to pick up right where Lotho had left off, never missing an opportunity for unflattering gossip spoken just loud enough to be heard by the subject of such talk or even a well-placed elbow when that failed to get the desired reaction. (Not surprising, really since Lotho and Ted had become so chummy lately. Like attracts like after all.) Many was the time when the miller's son had spoiled for a fight with the young Baggins who unfailingly won any battle of wits Sandyman might feebly attempt. It didn't look to Merry, however, that Sandyman would be relying on his wits – or lack, thereof – this evening. Merry was quite certain that Ted Sandyman was looking for real trouble tonight.
He sauntered over to the bar, continuing to scan the room - looking, Merry had no doubt, for enough support among the hobbits gathered should he and Pippin decide to enter the fray undoubtedly brewing in the storm cloud of Sandyman's head. Merry did the same, seeking out those who could be counted as friends of Ted and finding the Boffin boys in a far corner laughing uproariously with several other hobbits over what Merry was sure by the leers exchanged amongst the group was an exceptionally dirty joke. The Boffins had held Frodo in something very akin to contempt ever since the day after Bilbo's disappearance when he had caught them attempting to tunnel through Bag End in search of the fabled dragon treasure. Frodo had spoken very harshly to them and escorted (although Merry thought a more appropriate word might be threw) them off the premises. Neither of them had spoken kindly of the young Baggins since and both seemed to be rather talented at holding a grudge.
Support sought and found, Sandyman ordered himself an ale and set to, immediately making himself an annoyance and irritant to a very annoyed and irritated Rose behind the bar who wisely decided that now was a good time to make another round with her pitcher, filling mugs. Unfortunately, she wasn't fast enough to avoid Ted's roving hand which patted her rump as she passed. She gave a disgusted toss of her curls and made to the other end of the room.
Frodo and Pippin, meanwhile, their backs to the door and the intrigue unfolding behind them, were oblivious to the potential trouble that had settled itself across the room. Pippin was in the midst of relating a very racy anecdote he had heard from his sister Pearl and Frodo was flashing him a disbelieving grin, his cheeks filling with color.
"Peregrin Took," Frodo said, "that is the most unbelievable story I have ever heard! One could not possibly contort themselves in such a manner and I think your lovely sister was having one over on you."
"No, no, it's true!" Pippin said, in earnest. "She didn't just hear about it, Frodo, she saw it. Right out in the open they were, with nothing to hide them but their own skin. Papa was absolutely furious when it reached his ears, let me tell you! But neither of them denied it and I daresay we'll all be receiving wedding invitations within the month."
Frodo eyed him with a sidelong glance and took a pull on his tankard. He looked to Merry for evidence that he himself was not being had on and Merry shrugged confirmation. Frodo laughed and shook his head.
"Well, whatever the case," Frodo said, "if it's as you say, I believe I would opt for a very private wedding and a very long holiday afterwards. I doubt I'd want to show my face for quite some time lest I blush brighter than the bride."
"I don't know why you act as if you're so shocked, cousin," said Pippin with a wave of his hand. "It's not anything you haven't done before if the tales are to be believed."
Merry and Frodo both nearly choked on the swallows of ale they had been in the middle of and Frodo banged his mug to the table. Frodo looked incredulously at the young Took while Merry recovered his breath and immediately set to keeping a guffaw in his throat where it belonged.
"I most certainly have not," Frodo said indignantly. "If I tried acrobatics like that I'd most assuredly end up with sprains and bruises in the most inconvenient of places." He made to take a drink and then stopped to fix Pippin with an intimidating glare. "What tales?" Frodo demanded.
Tooks, however, are not easily intimidated. "Oh, please, Frodo!" he laughed. "Don't play coy with me of all people."
Very interested, now, Merry eyed Frodo with considerable amusement and watched as the color crept past his ears and into his hairline. Merry was fairly certain where this was going and made a mental note to congratulate Pippin later.
"What does that mean?" Frodo asked warily. Frodo had a sneaking suspicion that he knew exactly what it meant but hoped against hope that he was wrong.
Pippin leaned in close, lowering his voice and exchanging an amused glance with Merry. "Well," he replied with a conspiratory wink and an impish grin, "let us just say that that wasn't the only tale Pearl has told me." He elbowed his cousin and took a swallow, keeping his eyes to the side so he could observe Frodo's reaction.
Pippin was not disappointed. The high color faded almost immediately and Merry wondered if he looked under the table if he would see it draining out through his toes. Frodo looked guiltily from one to the other, his eyes darting to each face attempting to judge just how much they had heard and whether he might be in for a bit of retribution from the brother of the lass in question.
"Pippin," Frodo stammered, still clinging to his innocent façade, "you of all people should know not to believe everything you hear where a Baggins is concerned."
"And I certainly don't, cousin," replied Pippin, very much enjoying the situation. It was not often his elder cousin was at his mercy and Pippin meant to savor every moment. "But this particular rumor has been confirmed – with great gusto and detail, I might add – by the other party concerned and it's not one I can simply ignore."
"Indeed," put in Merry. Frodo's head snapped across the table, a look of horrified betrayal on his face and Merry put all his effort into keeping his lips from curling into a telltale smile. "I've heard the very same and the lovely Miss Took's whereabouts were quite unaccounted for for three entire days." Frodo lifted his mug and took a long swallow as Merry continued. "Not something that fades easily into the realm of unbelievable rumor you understand, especially when the lass involved is less than…ahem…closed-mouthed."
Frodo choked again and actually spit his ale across the table, coughing and turning the most interesting shade of crimson Merry had ever witnessed. 'Oh, bless you, Pip,' Merry thought as he dodged the droplets of ale. This couldn't have been more perfect if they'd planned it.
"Indeed," said Pippin while Frodo choked and gagged beside him. "My sister never was one to keep her dalliances to herself." Now for the finishing touch… "I've even heard tell that it's reached the ears of our father. Perhaps there will be news of more than one wedding in our very near future."
"I…," spluttered Frodo, now a lovely shade of violet quickly turning to a deeper eggplant. "You don't…," and continued coughing and gasping for the air he knew was out there but couldn't quite manage to drag into his aching lungs. He looked from one cousin to the other and then over his shoulder to the door, trying to gauge whether he had enough wind left to make a run for it.
"Oh, yes," Pippin went on mercilessly, "it's quite the talk about Tuckburough, dear Frodo. And I'm sure Merry can tell you that it's reached as far as Buckland already. I'd have thought you knew better than to trust Pearl Took with a secret. I'm really quite disappointed in you, Frodo."
Frodo turned his head to Merry who nodded confirmation. "B-But I…," he stammered, "Pippin…Merry, I…"
"I'm rather surprised that you were unaware that this was common knowledge by now, cousin," Merry said with a lift of his eyebrow. "You didn't really think all those lasses were lined up at my birthday party just to dance with you, did you?"
Frodo looked from one to the other, his jaw slack and his eyes wide. Neither Merry nor Pippin had ever seen the normally dignified and well-spoken Baggins so utterly alarmed and flummoxed and, oh! but it was a sight to behold!
Pippin was the first to break. He simply could not contain the laughter bubbling in his chest any longer and he let it loose with a mighty peal and began thumping Frodo on the back, barely keeping from choking himself, his mirth was so profound. His obvious triumph over his hapless cousin was more satisfying than any prank or joke he could have thought up on his own.
Merry was not long in following. He let his own laughter flow from his belly and was soon breathless with delight at the predicament Frodo imagined himself in. His look of horrified bewilderment might just end up alongside the precious image of the defeated Lotho in Merry's memory.
Frodo continued to warily eye each of them in turn, not quite sure if he should be running for the door, begging Pippin's forgiveness or rolling on the floor with laughter as his cousins were threatening to soon do. He decided that silence was probably his best option for now and closed his hanging jaw to focus his attention on the swirls and loops in the wooden surface of the table.
"Oh!… Oh, Frodo!…," Pippin managed between snorts and cackles. "If only you could see…could see…could see your face!…" Pippin doubled himself over on the bench, nearly hysterical and very nearly did end up rolling on the floor. Tears were streaming down his red face and he put a mighty effort into calming his convulsing chest and belly so he could pull in great gulps of air.
Merry wasn't helping Pippin's predicament since every time he succumbed to his own fits of glee, Pippin followed suit with new gales that set his head spinning. Frodo's own breath was coming a bit more easily now and his shading had settled into a warm scarlet that started below his collar and was lost under his hair. He still hadn't gathered the courage necessary to look at either of his cousins and continued his study of the wood grain of the table.
When both Merry and Pippin had settled down into irregular giggles and short bursts of chuckles, Frodo finally decided to risk a sidelong glance at the Took. Pippin held his gaze with as much gravity as he could muster, but the snickers and chortles were just below the surface and it was either release them or start choking on them. He saw the corners of Frodo's mouth begin to lift in a slow, discomfited smile and Pippin was off again, joined by both his cousins this time.
Frodo, however, recovered quickly and forced a stern expression onto his face. "This is really not a laughing matter," he said. "It would be unfortunate indeed if I were the cause of sullying a fine lass's reputation. Perhaps marriage should be considered."
It was Pippin's turn to look shocked. His head came up and his mouth dropped open as he stared at his cousin in disbelief. He looked at Merry and noted a similar expression and then both of them were doubling over again, laughing uncontrollably.
"Oh, Frodo, really!" Pippin managed to gasp. "Pearl? Marriage? You can't be serious!"
Frodo's brow furrowed and he looked to his young cousin in puzzlement. "Of course I'm serious," he said. "It's only proper. I wouldn't want to be the cause of rumors making things difficult for her. I know all too well how that can affect a person."
Pippin's laughter dried up a bit at that and he peered at his cousin in alarm. "Frodo!" he said. "You could not possibly be held accountable for sullying Pearl's reputation – in fact, it's quite possible that she has sullied yours." Frodo scowled at him but Pippin went on. "You know very well, my dear cousin that you are not my lovely sister's only…ahem… distraction, just as I well know that she was not yours. Our parents have quite given up on her and if they really had heard about your …er… rendezvous, I'm quite certain they would be relieved to know that she's at least giving gentlehobbits a chance for a change."
"Peregrin Took!" Frodo exclaimed. "How can you speak of your own sister in such a way? I'll have you know that your sister is one of the most kind, decent young lasses I've ever had the pleasure to know and I'll not have you speak of her as if she were a common trollop."
"Oh, balls, Frodo," said Pippin with a wave of his hand and he lifted his mug for a swallow. "I daresay I know my own sister and love her with all my heart even if, no especially if she's a little on the 'untamed' side. And I certainly wouldn't speak such things if I were in any other company than those present. I certainly am glad to hear you speak so fondly of her, however. I'd surely hate to have to take you to task over it since it's given myself and our fine Brandybuck here such a delightful distraction.
Merry snorted and was treated to a scowl from Frodo. He quickly avoided his cousin's glare and returned his attention to the miller's son who, unfortunately, Merry noted, was looking their way. Sandyman acknowledged his gaze with a returning sneer and made his way across the room to where the Boffins held court. It wasn't long before all three of them were staring at the back of Frodo's head with matching looks of derision.
Merry kept them in his peripheral vision and turned his attention back to the conversation at his own table.
"I certainly will not expound on it further," Frodo was saying to a rather disgruntled looking Pippin, "and for your sake, Master Took, I will pretend that you didn't ask."
"Oh, come now, Frodo," Pippin complained. "It's not like I haven't already –"
"PIPPIN!" exclaimed Frodo through clenched teeth.
"Oh, bother!" said Pippin and drained his mug. As usual, it took Rosie only a few seconds to bring her pitcher round and refill it and then top off the other two, striding away with a rustle of petticoats and a chorus of thank-yous.
Merry decided that a change of topic was in order and turned the conversation to less scandalous matters. He had just managed to engage Frodo in a lively tale of Pippin's latest misadventure in orchard-raiding when he very distinctly heard Ted Sandyman's voice speak the name, 'Baggins,' followed by 'queer,' and then a burst of derisive laughter from the group assembled at the table in the corner.
The change in Frodo was instantaneous and if Merry had not been witness to it on several other occasions he might not have known it had happened at all. Frodo's eyes were instantly alert and took on a wary haze as his shoulders tensed almost imperceptibly and his head came up straight on his neck. Merry could almost see his ears straining to listen to the conversation that was so obviously meant for them and his jaw clenched as tightly as his hands did around his mug. In seconds, Frodo had gone from relaxed and laughing to cagey and tensile, every nerve on edge and waiting.
Merry marveled. To the untrained eye, Frodo would most likely appear perfectly normal and serene, except maybe for his eyes, which would appear to be burning perhaps a little too brightly and just a tad unfocused – an effect that could easily be passed off as having had a bit too much ale and quickly overlooked. But of course, Merry's eyes were not untrained so he watched and he waited, feeling his own body begin to tense and his breath quicken.
'Cracked,' one of the Boffin boys was saying and more raucous laughter emerged from the little group. Ted looked over to their table and caught Merry's glare.
"Here, now," he called from the corner. "What you lookin' at?" Ted's eyes were narrowed and he held a posture of challenge.
"Me?" asked Merry. He remained where he sat, leaning back against the wall, one leg crossed over the other and tipped his mug to take a swallow. "I believe I am looking at a hobbit who doesn't know when to close his mouth so that his brains don't fall out of it."
Hoots and scathing laughter erupted from the assembled crowd and quickly died to a low murmur when Sandyman started across the room, both Boffins rising from their chairs to stand ready at the table.
"Merry," Frodo was saying in a low, warning voice, "let it go."
"He started it the second he walked through the door, cousin," replied Merry, keeping a steady gaze on the approaching hobbit. "Can't be helped now."
"What's this, Baggins?" Sandyman said as he came to a halt in the middle of the room. "No Gamgee to escort you this evenin' so ye had ta dredge the river for a Brandybuck to look after ye?" Snickers from the Boffins and Ted turned around to smile and accept their praises.
Merry cast his glance to Frodo who was giving him a dark stare, his fists clenched on the tabletop. Merry shrugged apologetically before kicking Pippin under the table and sending him a silent signal with his eyes to wait and keep quiet. Pippin gave a slight nod and returned his attention to Frodo.
Frodo closed his eyes and took a deep breath, unclenching his hands and forcing them to lay flat on the table. He turned slowly in his seat to look around at Sandyman who still stood in the center of the room, a mocking smile on his face.
"Greetings to you, Master Sandyman," Frodo said evenly. "I am enjoying a visit with my cousins this fine evening. I am quite certain that your intention was not to insult my family so I shall give you an opportunity to rephrase your very impolite question." His eyes blazed warning to the other hobbit but Sandyman was just a bit too stupid to see it for what it was and so continued with his chosen form of entertainment for the evening.
"Oy!" Ted called over his shoulder, "Did ye hear that, boys? I've insulted his family. If he ain't queer enough with the Baggins in 'im, he's got the Brandybuck and Took sides to make up for it!"
The Boffins nearly doubled over in mirth. Pippin's head snapped back to look at Merry and both of them made to get up.
"SIT DOWN," Frodo said in a low, commanding voice without even turning around. He clenched his jaw and spoke so low that no one else in the inn could hear. "I'll handle this with no interference from the two of you."
Knowing better than to argue with that tone of voice, Merry and Pippin relaxed back into their seats.
Frodo turned his attention back to Ted and fixed him with a glare that made even the dull-witted Sandyman rethink the wisdom of picking a fight with the hobbit in front of him that seemed to be all burning eyes that bored holes into him from across the floor. But, as has already been established, Ted Sandyman was not very bright and so did not take the opportunity to back down when it was presented.
"Whatsa' matter, Baggins?" he continued. "All that elf blood in you won't let you stand up and fight like a hobbit?"
Merry gasped in a sharp breath and fixed his eyes on Frodo's back. He knew where this bit of innuendo had come from and cursed Lotho under his breath. It was an old taunt of their cousin's, which he had used frequently as it never failed to get a reaction from Frodo. It was a cruel rumor Frodo had lived with all of his life and one that no amount of hot denial, cool rebuttal or angry confrontation could rid him of.
Merry watched Frodo's back go rigid and his whole body shook with rage. From his position behind his cousin, Merry watched the color creep up the back of his neck and rise to the points of his ears. Pippin threw a wide-eyed look at Merry and Merry shook his head almost imperceptibly.
"Sandyman," said Frodo through a thick haze of fury, "you will have one opportunity to apologize for your remarks to myself and my cousins." He stared fiercely at the other hobbit, body wound tight and fists clenched in his lap.
Sandyman seemed to consider this for a moment and then threw back his head and laughed. The Boffins, now looking considerably more uncomfortable than they had just a few moments ago, joined in with weak chortles which quickly quieted.
"So that's it, is it?" sneered Sandyman. "I heard tell that mother of yours was rather close with the elves. Intimate some even –"
He got no further as Frodo was up and across the room with Ted's shirt wrapped around his fists in less than the blink of an eye.
And so here they stood, face to face, burning eyes to mocking sneer.
All conversation and exchange of drink and payment had come to an abrupt halt as all gazes fixed on the pair in the center of the room. No one had yet seen Frodo Baggins pushed to the point of using his fists and none of them wanted to miss a second of it.
"Would you like a go, Sandyman?" Frodo snarled through his teeth.
Ted Sandyman looked down at the hands gripping his shirtfront, and then met Frodo's penetrating stare again, all mockery and bravado. "Your folks were just drownin' in shame I bet!" Sandyman spat nastily and shoved Frodo backward, hard enough to break his grip.
Having had enough discussion, Sandyman leapt forward and swung at Frodo, fully intending to lay him out flat. Imagine that orphaned half-elf getting up the gall to grab him like that!
Angered beyond conscious thought and running on pure adrenaline, Frodo ducked with lightning speed and Sandyman's fist passed harmlessly through the air above his head. In the same fluid motion, Frodo retaliated and his fist met Sandyman's jaw with a satisfying crack. As his enemy reeled backwards, Frodo stepped forward, eyes still ablaze.
Rubbing his jaw and looking both surprised and infuriated, Sandyman lowered his shoulder and plowed into Frodo's midsection, driving him back against the wall. The only indication that Frodo even noticed as his back slammed into the unyielding surface was a slight grunt as the breath he'd been holding left his lungs. As Sandyman made ready to return the punch, Frodo ground his heel into his assailant's instep as hard as he could.
As Sandyman howled in pain, Frodo clouted him again even harder than before, causing the larger hobbit's head to snap back as the blow connected sharply. Off balance and staggering, the next thing Sandyman felt was the weight of something slamming into him, driving him backwards to crash into a table. Crockery broke and scattered and ale slicked the floor.
Frodo bore down on his enemy, and the two combatants hit the floor with a heavy thud. They came to rest with Frodo on top, snarling down into the reddened, astonished face of Ted Sandyman. Frodo's left hand was again gripping Sandyman's shirt and his right was drawn back, poised to strike. Breathing hard and staring harder, Frodo looked his enemy in the eye as the haze of fury began to clear very slightly.
Across the room, Merry tensed as he watched his cousin struggling for control of his anger, fighting himself as much as the hateful creature looking up at him. In the same instant that Merry grabbed Pippin's arm and rose from the table, Frodo gritted his teeth and released his hold on his enemy, but not gently. He gave Sandyman a good slam against the floorboards as he did.
Backing up a step or two, Frodo stood, still breathing hard, with both fists clenched at his sides. As Merry and Pippin arrived beside him, he spun on his heel and strode from the room, bursting through the door like a battering ram.
Merry handed Pippin some coins to settle the bill as he followed Frodo outside. Frodo was leaning back against a nearby tree, his head tilted back and his eyes tightly closed. Merry didn't speak or move to touch him. He knew better.
Pippin emerged, having paid for their ales and voiced apologies to Rose for the disturbance. "Merry?" he said quietly as he reached his cousin's side. "Is Frodo – "
"He's fine, Pip," Merry responded quietly, still watching his older cousin. "Give him a moment." Pippin nodded. He wasn't about to gainsay Merry at this point.
Frodo's breathing began to slow at last and he sank down to sit with his back still to the trunk of the tree. He bowed his head and closed his eyes again, running his shaking hands through his hair. "Merry – " he gasped. "I'm sorry. I – "
"I think Ted Sandyman is a good deal sorrier," Merry responded. "Or at least he will be, when he can get up again."
Ted Sandyman found himself looking up into the faces of the Boffins, who looked no less astonished than he felt. It had all happened in the blink of an eye. He had been about to put that uppity Baggins in his right place hadn't he? He could taste something slightly coppery and when he touched his lip, his hand came away with blood on it.
Without further ado, the Boffins reached down and hauled Sandyman up from the floor, and back to their table. Rose Cotton reminded herself to breathe again and slowly set the pitcher she had been holding in a white-knuckled grip back on the bar. A smile slowly crossed her face as she gazed in wonder at the door.
"That was quite a punch, cousin," Pippin complimented Frodo as they began their short journey back to Bag End.
Frodo didn't answer. He kept his eyes fixed on some point in the distance up ahead, and walked with his hands in his pockets and his jaw set grimly. It had been many years since fury had so overwhelmed him, and he now remembered why. He took a deep breath to settle himself as he attempted to speak.
"I couldn't help it, Pippin," Frodo said, the words tasting bitter to him. "It was too much, what he said about – " Frodo frowned and clamped his mouth shut on the rest of the thought. He was trying to calm down, not get his temper up again.
"He deserved it, Frodo." Merry counseled. "You know he did."
The three walked the rest of the way to Bag End in silence, each lost in his own thoughts.
Sam stepped quietly into the kitchen and opened the shutters to let the morning sun light up the room. He saw them in the same instant that their groans reached his ears. Merry and Pippin were sitting across from each other at the table, a steaming cup of tea sitting untouched before each of them. Pippin had slumped over with his head resting on his folded arms, eyes closed against the light. Merry leaned back in his chair and covered his face with both hands.
"Uh, good morning, Mr. Merry, Mr. Pippin," Sam said uncertainly.
"Oy, but that sun's bright, Samwise," Pippin mumbled groggily.
"No brighter than it's ever been," Sam replied, looking at Frodo's cousins and assessing their condition. "You two are in a right state, and no mistake," he observed, shaking his head slightly. His tone changed slightly as he continued, "Where's Mr. Frodo?"
"Still asleep," Merry answered. "We didn't want to wake him, did we Pip?"
Pippin stirred and bravely raised his head from the pillow of his forearms. "No, we didn't. He needs his rest after the busy night he's had."
Sam looked at Pippin as if he'd grown an extra leg. "What have you done to him?" Sam asked, his brow deeply furrowed. "If you've got him into somethin' – "
"We haven't gotten him into anything, Sam," Merry countered, the memory reviving him somewhat. "He got himself in – and back out again, and quite handily, I might add." His hangover notwithstanding, Merry's face bore a triumphant smirk as he spoke.
Sam sat down at the end of the table and regarded Frodo's cousins expectantly. "All right. Out with it. What shenanigans have you been getting up to while me back's been turned?"
"None at all, for our own parts," Pippin said lightly, causing Sam to look at him sidelong. That would be the day!
Seeing the look on Sam's face, Merry explained, "Frodo gave Ted Sandyman some very good reasons to keep a civil tongue in that otherwise empty head of his." Merry wanted to frame the look on Sam's face and keep it for posterity.
"He WHAT? You let him – " Sam was on his feet, ready to race down the hall to Frodo's room and wake him just to make sure no damage had been done. He'd tear strips off Ted Sandyman if Frodo had a scratch on him!
"Easy, Sam. Frodo's fine. You should have seen it," Merry said, a mischievous glint coming into his eyes. He told Sam what Sandyman had said, watching as Sam's face became almost as red as Frodo's had the night before. "He said THAT to Mr. Frodo?" Sam's expression was one of open astonishment. "Well I can't blame Mr. Frodo for none of it," he said with a shake of his head. "Ted Sandyman can't reckon his arse from his elbow, if you take my meaning. He ought not to be sayin' anything against Mr. Frodo!"
"Agreed," Pippin said, nodding. "Oh, and Merry," he continued, addressing his cousin, "you owe me an ale, you know."
"I guess I do at that," Merry conceded, "although you're in no condition to be asking for it now."
Sam's jaw dropped and he stared at Merry incredulously. "You bet against Mr. Frodo?"
"Not at all, Sam," Merry said evenly. "I merely bet Pip that Sandyman would be out before he hit the floorboards."
"And I bet Merry that it would take a minute or so for the notion of passing out to reach his brain," Pippin countered.
Sam looked from one to the other for a moment, and then spoke. "What brain is that, Mr. Pippin?"
Three teacups rose in unison in salute above the table.
Sam set the tray down on the bedside table and opened the curtains in Frodo's room. It was late morning now, almost time for elevenses. Sam had indeed allowed Frodo to sleep late after hearing Merry and Pippin's extraordinary tale of the previous night's events. As the light fell across the bed, Frodo rolled over and mumbled, one eye opening slowly to the sight of Sam looking down at him with a disapproving frown.
"'Morning, Sam. Elbereth! What time is it?"
"Time you should be waking up like the rest of us," Sam replied sternly. "But I suppose you're a bit wore out for your exercise last night," he continued, his gaze not leaving Frodo's.
"They told you then," Frodo said, looking a bit abashed. "Really, Sam, I'm sorry about the whole incident. I don't know what came over me. I – "
"No, Mr. Frodo," Sam said, trying hard to maintain the façade of disapproval. "I'm the one who's sorry." A smile started growing at the corners of Sam's mouth and quickly became a grin as he said, "I'm sorry that I missed it!"
Sam turned to the bedside table and grasped the tray, upon which steamed a hot breakfast of a delicious, fluffy mushroom omelet, fresh fruit and fragrant herbal tea. His smile working its way up into his eyes, he placed the tray before a thoroughly astonished Frodo and ordered, "As punishment for your outrageous behavior, Mr. Merry, Mr. Pippin and I demand that you eat every crumb of this breakfast. When you're done with that, I'll be havin' a look at your hand to make sure Ted Sandyman's face hasn't done it no harm."
Frodo tried valiantly to maintain a straight face and failed completely. "Oh, Sam! You're priceless," he said, digging into his breakfast hungrily.
Merry sat in the large chair next to the cold fireplace in Frodo's study, his feet propped on the footstool and his chin resting heavily in his hand. Pippin had just gone back to bed to nurse his aching head and Sam had just gone to take breakfast for Frodo and so had not yet lit the fire in here. The shadows played at the corners of the room as Merry gazed into the ash and dead wood in the hearth before him, his thoughts going back to the night before.
Frodo had not wanted to fight. Merry knew that. Knew that had he and Pippin not been there, Frodo most likely would have gotten up and left, treading heavily away, hands stuffed in his pockets, blazing eyes cast down to the ground as shouts and jeers followed him. Only now it wasn't the taunts of children – now it was the adults that turned on his cousin, turned on him and refused to see the most gentle, kind and courageous hobbit Merry had ever known. And Merry would never understand how anyone could look at Frodo and not realize that they were looking at the best person they would ever meet in their lives – could not understand how they could look right at him and still not see him.
Frodo had not wanted to fight but Merry had pushed him and for that Merry was sorry…but not really regretful. Merry knew that Frodo had not wanted to fight because in his own way, he thought he was protecting him and Pippin. As if by taking it all and keeping it within himself he could protect them all somehow – protect them all from his own pain, protect them all with his silence. Just as he was now trying to protect them with his plans to leave in stealth and secrecy with the Ring and enter into danger alone. And Merry knew that if they were going to be of any help to Frodo at all, Frodo needed to stop protecting them and start trusting them to protect him. Maybe last night didn't go very far in showing Frodo that he could trust his younger cousins, but maybe it showed him that they wouldn't break and shatter if he didn't break himself by protecting them. Maybe he could understand a little better that they loved him and no longer needed him to suffer through his pain alone in order to shelter them. Maybe he could understand now that they were old enough and strong enough to shelter him. They had been there when the worst had happened, had been there when the worst was spoken, and they were still here – not injured, not weeping, not shocked – they were still here and still loving him. Maybe he would let them stay – let them follow.
Maybe he would understand that it would be more painful for them to let him leave without them than it would be for them to die protecting him along the way. Not for what was chained to his pocket, not for adventure - but for him. For Frodo. For Frodo, he and Pippin would walk through fire, battle trolls and slay dragons – how could they do any less for the hobbit who had loved and protected them for so many years at such a cost to himself – who was still trying to protect them by leaving them behind…for the hobbit who loved them more than he did himself? How could they not follow?
He heard Frodo's clear laughter from down the hall and Sam voicing a good-natured admonishment as he padded toward the kitchen. Sam's footsteps stopped outside the study and Merry turned his head to see him standing in the doorway with Frodo's breakfast tray balanced in his hand and looking at him hesitantly.
"Frodo doing well, then?" he asked.
"Aye," said Sam. "His head'll be achin' for a while and his hand'll be achin' for a might longer but nothin' time and cold compresses won't cure."
"Good," said Merry absently as he turned his attention back to the dead hearth. "That's good, Sam."
Sam stood for a moment longer, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.
"Gettin' nigh on September, Mister Merry," he said quietly.
"Aye," said Merry, his gaze not leaving the ash and cinder. "Aye. That it is."
~*~ END ~*~
A/N – The next tale in the trilogy is 'Autumn's Requiem'