Rating: PG-13 (language)
A/N: Follows the 'Ale' fics and precedes 'Indigestion' (And thank you, once again, to Shadow for making me fix this one too.)
In which Frodo finds that Men might not be as smart as they look
"Frodo," came the whisper and Frodo paused, looked about.
"What is it, lad?" Bilbo wanted to know. "Why have you stopped?"
Frodo frowned, shook his head. "I thought I heard someone calling my name. Did you hear anything?"
Louder this time. Frodo put the book down, gaze traveling the room from floor to ceiling then back to his cousin.
"Did you hear that?"
"Hear what, lad?" Bilbo followed Frodo's gaze in confusion. "I don't hear a thing but the crackle of the fire."
Frodo jumped from the chair, book falling from his lap to the floor. "There it is again! Someone is calling my name, I tell you."
"Hearing voices," Bilbo harrumphed. "Carrying on the Baggins reputation rather too well, don't you think?"
"Frodo, I'm sorry but you must wake up now."
And suddenly, Bag End was gone, the warmth of the fire and the smell of pipeweed only a shifting memory as Frodo became aware of crisp linen against his cheek and a hand rudely shaking his shoulder. He cracked an eye open.
"Ah, there you are." Aragorn's face swam into view as Frodo blinked the sleep from his eyes, adjusting his vision to the violet-indigo of early dawn.
Oh, bugger. He clamped his eyes shut again.
A pause, the clearing of a throat.
"I'm sleeping," Frodo pointed out.
"I'm sorry, Frodo, but I'm afraid I have an elixir for you. I hate to wake you, but..."
Frodo growled, sighed heavily. He ought to be used to this by now.
"I'm friend to the King, you know," he slurred. "If he finds out you're disturbing my rest, he may have to kick your arse for you."
Aragorn chuckled. "I'm afraid this comes directly from the King, himself, Frodo. Come now – drink this down so I can leave you in peace."
"Have you never heard the adage, 'let sleeping hobbits lie?' Very good advice, actually."
"I believe I've heard a different version," the King remarked wryly. "Nonetheless, I must insist that you take this now."
He really wasn't going to go away, was he? Bloody persistent Men, anyway.
Frodo sighed again. "What's this one for?" he wanted to know.
"To help you sleep," Aragorn answered.
"Well, it had better not--" Frodo's eyes popped open, blinked. "I'm sorry, would you mind repeating that?"
"It's to help you sleep, Frodo," Aragorn answered. "And it actually has a rather nice flavor to it." This last spoken with a touch of pride.
Nonetheless, Frodo was still having a bit of a problem believing his ears. "Are you joking?"
Aragorn frowned in confusion. "Of course not, Frodo," he replied. "Why would I joke about it? Your health is not a joking matter and I assure you that I take it quite seriously." He held out a small cup, swishing it back and forth expectantly.
Frodo only continued to blink at him for a moment then he sat, climbed down from the bed and began rummaging through the things Sam had brought him, stacked on a corner bureau. Obviously not finding what he wanted, he strode over to the bed, slipping his arms under the mattress and feeling about.
Aragorn's frown deepened. "Frodo, what in the--"
"Mr. Strider, sir, what are you doing here at this hour?"
Aragorn turned to see Sam stepping into the room. "I might ask you the same--"
"Mr. Frodo, are you looking for something?" Sam breezed past the King, ignoring him and turned his attention to his master.
"Yes, Sam," Frodo answered, abandoning his search of his bedding and moving to peer beneath the washstand. "I'm looking for Sting. You wouldn't happen to have brought it, would you? I know I gave it to you but I'll only be a moment with it."
"Well, it's yours, sir, whether you like it or not," Sam replied sternly. "But can I ask why you need it?"
"Certainly," Frodo replied absently, now stooping to peer beneath the bed. "I just need to run the King through. I'll give it right back. I'll even clean it."
Sam looked to Aragorn in alarm. "Has he been like this long, sir?"
Aragorn seemed just as surprised as Sam was himself. "I'm not sure," he answered. "I just came a moment ago to wake him for his sleeping elixir and it's been nothing but nonsense since."
Sam stopped, straightened, blinked at the King. "You woke him to give him a sleeping potion?"
Aragorn opened his mouth, closed it. Then again.
"Yes, Sam, he did," Frodo answered for him. "Now you see why I need Sting. Would you mind running along and fetching it for me? There's a good fellow."
"Mr. Frodo, sir, I can see why you might think that would be a good idea." Sam glared up at Aragorn, who reddened just a touch and made himself busy, peering intently into the cup. "But I think the people might have a bit of a problem with you running their new King through, if you see what I mean."
"Surely not after they've heard the reason behind it," Frodo protested reasonably.
"Aye, sir and a good reason it is." He again glared at the King but Aragorn was still enraptured with what was in the cup. "But Big People are a mite funny when it comes to people doing away with their kings. They might take on and such."
"Yes, they are a bit odd that way, aren't they?" Frodo sighed. "Well, all right, then. How do you suppose they'd feel about me taking a stick to his ears?" he asked hopefully.
Sam looked Aragorn up and down thoughtfully. "I don't suppose there'd be an awful lot of uproar over that one," he admitted. "But I doubt as you'd get him to kneel down so's you could reach his ears."
"Hmm..." Frodo eyed the King critically. "If the stick were long enough... But no, I suppose you're right. He isn't terribly cooperative in the first place. How about his knees?"
"Now, see here." Aragorn had apparently examined the cup as thoroughly as he possibly could. "It may seem a silly thing to you but--" He stopped, looked quickly to Frodo then turned back to Sam and plunged on. "He's much more manageable when he's asleep."
To Frodo's utter chagrin, Sam nodded. "I'm sure he is, sir but you can't keep a body sleeping just so's you don't have to pay him no mind."
Aragorn looked shocked. "I'd never, Sam! It's only that he's so much more compliant. He takes the draughts without too much bother and he's far less... well, ill-tempered, to put it bluntly."
"I can see your point there, sir," Sam agreed. "But you should ought to know not to go poking sticks at sleeping bears."
"Well, the point is rather to keep the bear sleeping, you see."
Sam laughed. "Aye, sir, I can see as how that might be a bit more pleasant and all but still--"
"You do realize that I can hear you?" Frodo put in.
"Not only pleasant, Sam but sometimes very necessary. He can be horribly uncooperative, you know. Why, just yesterday he actually swore at me for touching his head to check for fever."
"That's nothing, sir," Sam chortled. "You should have seen one time when he'd caught fever and Mr. Bilbo tried to get him to take off his shirt when Mrs. Smallburrow came to check on him."
"Mrs. Smallburrow is a healer?"
"Aye and a fair lovely one, at that. Mr. Frodo didn't take too kindly to the idea of lowering his defenses, so to speak."
"Hullooooo? Hearing this."
"I can fair imagine, Sam!" Aragorn laughed. "I've already gotten an earful from Ioreth about how he refuses to come out from beneath the quilts when she comes to tend him."
"Oh, aye. Can you just imagine the fit he'd've thrown if he'd been awake when the Lady Arwen tended him in Rivendell?"
All right. That was it. Frodo flushed bright red and glared fire at Sam and the King.
"Hoy, now!" he shouted, startling the other two into silence. "I'm so very glad that I provide you both with so much amusement and I do hate to interrupt this fascinating conversation but do you suppose we can get back to the wisdom of waking patients up to give them sleeping potions? Because, believe me, if you thought I was uncooperative before--"
"Now, now, Mr. Frodo, sir," Sam pacified. "You shouldn't go getting yourself all excited. It ain't good for you."
"Excited? Good for me? Now, see here--"
"Sam's right," the King put in. "A relapse now would only serve to keep you here longer."
"Oh, no you don't," Frodo seethed. "There is no such thing as a relapse of a hangover and if you think for one moment I'm going to be staying in this madhouse where people poke at a person for the fun of watching them drag themselves from a restful sleep--"
"Frodo, I realize that waking you for a sleeping draught may have been ill-considered but--"
"But I think it would be wiser for you to save that bit of goo for this evening," Sam interjected. "Don't you think? Sir?"
Aragorn looked from Sam to the cup and chanced a glance Frodo's way. He straightened, squared his shoulders, cleared his throat.
"Aye, I think that's the best idea, sir," Sam told him as he took Aragorn by the elbow. Turning him and steering him to the door was surprisingly easy. "Very wise of you to think of it."
"And maybe some breakfast for Mr. Frodo would be a right good idea, too."
"Aye, sir, you do think of everything."
"Well, it's only..."
Whatever the King was muttering was lost on the two hobbits as Sam quickly pushed him over the threshold and closed the door. He leaned against it for a moment, pressed his forehead to it and closed his eyes, trying desperately not to laugh. With a heavy sigh, he turned to face his master.
Frodo stood in the center of the room, arms crossed over his chest and thunder at his brow. He stared daggers at the door for a moment before turning to Sam. The black expression remained for only another second or two then was quickly replaced with muffled snickers. Sam let out his breath in relief.
"I'm sorry, sir. I got a little carried away."
"I'll say," Frodo agreed. "You can make it up to me by helping me escape the King's clutches."
"You are a caution, if you don't mind me saying, sir. You near scared 'im to death, I think."
"Serves him right," Frodo chuckled. "Can you imagine? Waking someone to give them a sleeping potion? Of all the... Sam, I need you to spring me loose from here. They're making me insane."
"Oh, now, Mr. Frodo, you know full well--"
"Sam, please, I'm quite serious. I've not been poked at so thoroughly since Rivendell and that was for a stab wound! This was just a hangover, for pity's sake and I am, as you well know, at least a little experienced in dealing with those."
Sam shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other. "Be that as it may, sir, what you're asking--"
"Is more than reasonable." Frodo stepped quickly over to Sam, took hold of his arms before Sam had the chance to scuttle back and out of reach. "Sam, if I don't get some real food and very soon, my stomach is likely to pack up and abandon me out of sheer frustration! You have to get me out of here!"
"Now, Mr. Frodo, I--"
Frodo clutched at Sam's arms. "Sam, please! I'm going completely off my nut and I assure you I am fine. This is all just a conspiracy between Aragorn and Gandalf to get back at me for the ale. Couple of old gammers, they are and--"
"Mr. Frodo, they don't seem the type to--"
"You don't know that old wizard as I do," Frodo insisted. "This would be just like him. I tell you, Sam, I'm fine. You have to help me get loose from here."
Sam winced as Frodo's thumbs dug into his biceps. He pried Frodo's fingers from their death-grip and took a step back.
"All right, Mr. Frodo," he said and Frodo sighed in relief. "But we'll start with breakfast, sir, and if that goes well, I'll see what I can do about the rest."
"Sam!" Frodo exclaimed and clasped him in a hug that knocked the breath from Sam quite thoroughly. "I knew I could count on you! You're a true friend, Sam, thank--"
"Save it all for later, sir," Sam wheezed, peeling Frodo off. "My help is on the condition that you have a good breakfast and that it stays where you put it after."
"Sausages?" Frodo asked hopefully.
"I'll see what I can do," Sam promised.
"Maybe some of those pastry things with the cream in them?"
"I'll see what I can do," Sam repeated, edging cautiously toward the door and thinking uneasily of sticks and bears.
"Not the ones with the jelly, mind," Frodo clarified.
"No, sir." He was feeling behind his back for the knob now.
"And not the white cream but the yellow."
"Certainly, sir." Ah, there it was. Sam grasped the knob and turned it, swung the door open.
"And some bacon, as well--"
"Aye, sir," Sam blurted then slipped out the door and slammed it shut behind him. He leaned back against it, heaved a sigh.
"And some nice, cold milk," came the muffled order from the other side of the door.
In which Frodo has several bones to pick (and, unfortunately, none are on his plate)
Well, now this is just... Well it's just bloody damned unfair, is what it is and wrong in more ways than I care to count.
He scowled down at the plate in his lap and poked at the toast points with rather more ire than they probably deserved. He eyed the two runny eggs in the center and curled his lip into a snarl.
The eggs were unmoved and only stared blandly back at him. Well, bland is rather the word of the day, now, isn't it? he thought with a fair measure of pique. Yes, he was being a bit of a pain and he really didn't bloody well care at the moment. If they were going to have the cheek to tell him what he could and couldn't eat, they could bloody well deal with the consequences, as far as he was concerned. What did they know about hobbits, anyway? And how dare they put him in a room downwind from the mess tent, of all places and then send him a plate like this! And where the blue blazes was Sam, anyway?
Sausages. That's what he wanted. And bacon. And potatoes, pan-fried in butter with those chopped green peppers and bits of onion and, if he was lucky and caught Maeglis at a lull in serving, he might even score some of that sharp, orange cheese grated on top and melted until the edges just began to brown. And there were griddlecakes as well – he could smell them. In fact, he could smell all of it. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, cataloguing each scent as it wafted into his nose and made a direct path to his stomach, causing it to grumble and complain and--
Hold on a moment...
His brow wrinkled and he sniffed more deeply, paused. His face pulled into a black scowl and his eyes popped open then looked to his breakfast accusingly.
"They have coffee!" he told his tea, fully expecting it to blush with shame for not being rich and black and sweetened with two sugars. "I cannot believe they have coffee and haven't sent me any! Have you any idea how long it's been since I've had coffee?" The tea only sat meekly enduring his tirade, not looking nearly as repentant as he thought it ought.
He tossed his fork onto the plate and shoved the tray aside. "Fat lot of help you are," he muttered morosely. "Sam!" he cried to the ceiling. "How could you?"
He wished they wouldn't all sound so merry out there, chattering away as they lined up for their breakfast. He would have liked to shout out of his window for them to all stop their cheerful chewing, thank you very much, couldn't they see there was a hobbit up here whose breakfast could just as easily be sucked through a straw and would someone mind hunting down the new king and throttling him very much, there's a good fellow, thank you ever so and would someone else please see what they could do about the wind blowing those luscious smells right through his window while they were at it and if anyone knows who might be responsible for depriving him of the coffee they were all busily slurping down he'd certainly appreciate that information and right quick and by the way--
Voices in the hall and coming his way and he stopped his mental tantrum to listen. One was grave, low yet resonating, reminding him of the King yet unlike. The other, deep and rumbling and oh, if that wizard thought Balrogs were irritable, he'd never seen a hobbit deprived of a decent breakfast!
Frodo sat up straight, narrowed his eyes. Gandalf was on his way in to make judgment on his health and by all the stars, Frodo was going to be ready for him.
"So, what, exactly, is wrong with Frodo?" Faramir walked beside Gandalf, his light strides easily matching those of the wizard. "And why do you have him confined in the Houses of Healing? Surely Sam would--"
"Samwise would do everything I instructed him to do and then promptly cast all instruction out the nearest window the first time his master either turned on the charm or pouted," Gandalf replied. "And we won't even go into what might happen should his cousins decide to 'assist' the situation."
"Yes, but Frodo is an adult, after all. It seems a bit..."
Gandalf stopped and fixed the Steward with a glare. "Yes?"
Faramir shuffled uncomfortably. "Well..." he began, not looking directly at the wizard but a bit over his shoulder. Not that he was avoiding Gandalf's gaze, of course. "It just seems a bit... Well, I don't know exactly what it seems, truth to tell but Frodo doesn't seem the type to appreciate it."
"Of course he doesn't appreciate it," Gandalf answered with a bit of a twinkle. He reached for the doorknob, rested his hand on it. "That's what makes things interesting."
Faramir frowned, peered at the wizard. Gandalf chuckled and turned the knob.
"This isn't even remotely funny anymore, Gandalf. I insist you call off your little game and allow me to leave here and right quick!"
Gandalf lifted an eyebrow and flashed a stern look to the hobbit. Frodo glared right back, his jaw set firmly. Gandalf was unimpressed.
"Game?" asked the wizard. "I assure you, dear Frodo, that your health is no game and just because you insist upon treating it as such--"
"Oh, balls!" countered Frodo. "We both know that I am being kept here against my will because wizards and kings apparently cannot accept that a hobbit can out-drink them. You could both take a lesson from Faramir, here-- Hullo Faramir--"
"-- and learn to lose gracefully." Frodo finished.
"--ning, Frodo." Faramir, caught in the reflexive gesture of a courteous bow, suddenly found himself the subject of a pointed glare from Gandalf. He straightened quickly, cleared his throat. "And, I never thought of it as losing, actu--"
"My good hobbit," Gandalf rumbled severely, "you have been ill and whether it was the result of your two days of drink and debauchery or lingering effects of your journey is still in question. You are being kept here merely--"
"Debauchery?" Frodo cried. "Drink, certainly but I have never engaged in debauchery in my life, I'll have you know and I do not appreciate the implication."
Gandalf leveled a stony gaze to the hobbit. Frodo stared back for a good few moments before beginning to squirm.
"I haven't," Frodo insisted then looked to Faramir. "Really, I haven't. I don't know what he's..." Faramir only gave a neutral shrug and Frodo looked back to Gandalf. "I haven't! I don't know what in the world you're-- That time in Buckland can't... well it doesn't count, is all. The circumstances were entirely... well, at any rate it wasn't as if... and I was only a tweener, after all and... Well, you try and say no to--" Frodo stopped, pounded both fists to the mattress. "It doesn't count, I tell you!"
Gandalf chuckled and Frodo glared furiously. Faramir, having already been witness to the wrath of this particular hobbit, wisely kept his snickers lodged in the back of his throat and prayed to all the Powers that his face wasn't nearly as red as he feared.
"Oh, certainly – laugh!" Frodo scowled. "You've no doubt had a very hardy breakfast, after all. There's no reason why you shouldn't be well and merry, is there, then?"
"Well and merry is exactly the point, Frodo and you can hardly pretend to be either," Gandalf pointed out.
"And you've had coffee," Frodo accused.
Gandalf's mouth closed and he looked away quickly.
"I knew it!" Frodo crossed his arms over his chest and glared. Oh, the treachery! His only comfort came from the fact that he was treated to the unique sight of a wizard and a steward shuffling uncomfortably, although, to give Faramir credit, he looked more bewildered than uncomfortable.
"Mithrandir," Faramir began then caught the wizard's look, shut his mouth quickly then cleared his throat and pressed on. "Surely we can arrange to have coffee sent up. It's been such a rare treat lately and if anyone deserves--"
"There is nothing I would like better than to indulge Frodo in his every whim," Gandalf assured the Steward in something very akin to a warning tone. "But it is only since last evening that he has been able to keep even broth down and coffee would not sit well on an already sensitive stomach."
"I had a hangover, Gandalf," Frodo put in. "One does tend to get over these things eventually."
"It was rather severe for a simple hangover, Frodo, as you well know. Neither the King, nor I, intend to allow you to take any further chances until we are quite certain that there is no additional reason for worry."
"Both you and the King are sore losers," Frodo growled.
"Think what you will but you are stuck here for at least another day."
"I am not staying here another day, I tell you, I'm--"
"Fine, yes, I know," the wizard said blandly. "We've heard. He's looking a little flushed, don't you think, Faramir? There may be fever. Perhaps two days."
Frodo's face turned red with wrath. "You cannot possibly--"
"Shall we go for three?"
Frodo's mouth snapped shut, teeth clenched and face contorted in a mighty scowl. Eyes narrowed, lip curled, the hobbit appeared to be on the verge of implosion. Then, suddenly, his countenance cleared, the frown left his face and his expression smoothed. A slight smile quirked at the corner of his mouth.
"All right, Gandalf," he said smoothly. "You are a dear friend to care for me so and I should not make things so difficult for you. Please accept my apologies."
Gandalf eyed him suspiciously, bushy brows drawn together in a bewildered frown. Faramir looked from the hobbit to the wizard and back again, suppressing the disobedient smile that kept wanting to spread across his face.
"What are you up to, hobbit?" Gandalf wanted to know.
Frodo blinked innocently. "Why, nothing, of course. What suspicious creatures wizards are!"
"With more than plenty reason," Gandalf defended. "You forget that I've known you since you were a lad, Frodo Baggins. And I assure you that my staff works just as nicely on hobbit shins as it always has."
"How do you like that, Faramir?" Frodo asked, turning to the Steward. "I apologize quite nicely and he threatens me with bodily harm!"
Faramir lifted an eyebrow. "It does seem a little bit rude," he admitted.
"And this after he just finished telling me how ill I am."
Gandalf glared mightily. Faramir pretended not to notice.
"Now, see here--"
Frodo interrupted the wizard with a wide, noisy yarn. "Oh, pardon me," he said. "I suppose I'm more tired than I'd realized. I hope you'll both excuse me so that I might take a bit of rest?" Frodo smiled sweetly and Faramir was hard-pressed not to laugh out loud.
"What are you up to, hobbit?" Gandalf repeated.
Frodo again blinked innocently. "I'm sure I don't know what you mean," he replied, feigning hurt. "I'm only wanting a bit of a lie-down. I say, Gandalf, you're quite the suspicious one. You must try and shake off this wartime attitude, now that peace has come. Why don't you think about taking a holiday?"
The wizard's eyes narrowed. Faramir had suspicions of his own but, unlike Gandalf, he was more than willing to play along.
"Gandalf, why don't we take our leave?" he said reasonably. "He does look weary and what could he possibly get up to from here?"
"You obviously have too little experience with hobbits," Gandalf remarked blandly.
"Enough to keep me on my toes," Faramir muttered.
Frodo continued to look innocently from one to the other but Faramir was sure he detected the ghost of a smirk at the corners of the hobbit's mouth and didn't that glint in his eye look a little familiar? Frodo yawned again, eyelids drooping.
"All right," agreed the wizard. "Not because I trust him, mind but you're right – as long as he's here, he can't undo his health in a fit of foolishness." He turned to Frodo, who blinked at him sleepily. "I expect to see pointed ears and a wooly mop in that bed the next time I come in to check on you," he told him. Frodo opened his mouth to protest but Gandalf would have none of it. "Not another word," he rumbled. He turned to Faramir. "Out," he commanded. "Sleep, he says he wants and sleep he shall have. Stars forbid we should get between Frodo Baggins and what he wants."
Frodo could have had some choice words to toss the wizard's way after that bit of pique but he chose instead to keep his silence. He was getting what he wanted, after all. Well, part of it, anyway. He watched the wizard and the Steward exit, the Steward with one last smirk Frodo's way. When the door was safely closed behind them, Frodo grinned.
Sam ducked against the wall as the wizard and the Steward made their exit. He held his breath, hoping against hope that the slight shadows in the hallway hid his presence sufficiently. He needn't have worried; Faramir and Gandalf seemed completely oblivious to everything but the muttered conversation they were holding between themselves on their way up the hall.
Sam caught snatches of '...most irritating, maddening creature I've ever...' and so Sam was fairly certain they were discussing his master. '...think you're being a little peevish...' followed soon after and Sam suppressed a chuckle. He mentally gave even more points to the Steward, who had just moved up a notch or two in Sam's regard. Not many dared to gainsay a wizard, after all and to call one peevish, of all things! Sam snorted, checked up and down the hallway then crept from his hiding place and slipped into Frodo's room.
To his surprise, he found his master smiling. Sam closed the door behind him, moved cautiously to Frodo's side.
"Everything all right, sir?"
"Oh, yes, just fine," Frodo assured him, though Sam had a moment's pause at the glint in his master's eye. "Though I have a bit of a bone to pick with you, my friend." Sam quirked his eyebrows and Frodo pointed to his pitiful excuse for a breakfast. "I was quite surprised to find this sad fare when I lifted the lid on my breakfast tray," he said. "I expected more from you."
Sam grinned, reaching into his pocket. "Then I'm glad not to be disappointing you, sir," he answered as he pulled out a large napkin and began unfolding it.
The scent hit Frodo's nose even before Sam had unwound the first layer. "You've brought sausages!" he exclaimed.
"Aye, sir, I have," Sam smirked. "And a pastry, too, though that might not have traveled terribly well."
"Bugger that, I'll lick it off the napkin, if I have to." Frodo fair bounced in his seat. "Give it here."
Sam handed over the napkin from his other pocket then continued the job of extracting the sausages from the first. The tip of one sausage had hardly peeked from the fabric before Frodo had snatched it up and taken an enormous bite. He jammed the remainder between his teeth so as to free his hands for the matter of loosing the pastry.
"Oh, Sham, ish ish mahweoush," he slurred, finally freeing the pastry – not quite as squashed as Sam had feared. Frodo chomped on the sausage, quickly reaching to catch the bit that was left before it landed in his lap. "Oh, my mouth is in shock, I think. This is brilliant!"
Sam watched his master with delight. It always did his heart good to bring his master even a joy so small as this. He was momentarily taken aback when Frodo dove at him and began ransacking his other pockets.
"Here, now!" Sam cried. "What in the name of all--"
"You promised me bacon," Frodo returned reasonably. He dug a hand into Sam's waistcoat pocket, wriggled it about.
Sam snorted. "That tickles, Mr. Frodo!" and he batted Frodo's hand away. "Stop that, now. I haven't any bacon."
"Coffee?" Frodo asked hopefully.
"In my pockets?" Sam returned.
Frodo was only momentarily disappointed before turning his attention back to the bounty before him. "No matter," he shrugged as he took another massive bite of the pastry.
Sam stood reluctantly. "I have to be going, Mr. Frodo," he said. "Mr. Merry and Master Pippin were making some noise about popping in to see you and I have to work out the rest of my plan to spring you."
"Oh, Sam, you really will?" Frodo asked around a mouthful of cream. "You'll help me escape?"
"Aye, sir, I mean to," Sam chortled. "I admit I had my doubts this morning but watching you dig in now... Well, you're well enough to suit me and bother with the rest of 'em."
"How are we going to do it?"
"Far as I can tell, all we really need to do is get you by all of the healers without anyone seeing you. I'll be the lookout and you can sorta walk behind both of your cousins, with their bulk blocking you from sight." Sam shrugged and smiled. "Easy."
"Oo ah ma berry mest fend," Frodo managed around a great chunk of pastry.
Sam laughed outright. "Aye, sir," he agreed. "As you're mine." He stood, went to the door and cautiously opened it, peering left then right. He turned back to Frodo. "Now you be sure to stash that, should any of the others pop in," he warned. "Wouldn't want anyone to get suspicious, would we?"
Frodo shook his head, eyes wide. He took another bite of a sausage.
"I'll be back as soon as I can," Sam said, as he stepped out the door. "Wait for me and whatever you do, don't try anything by yourself."
Frodo nodded enthusiastically in agreement. He smiled, mouth stuffed so full his cheeks looked ready to burst. He waved at Sam happily.
Sam waved back, rolled his eyes and took off down the hall.
In which one cannot choose one's family
"Hullo!" Merry called cheerfully. Gandalf and Faramir stopped, both looking rather aggravated. Merry frowned, turned to Pippin, who only looked back with apparently nothing useful to offer. Merry turned back to Gandalf. "Something wrong?"
"Nothing a hickory switch won't set to rights," Gandalf muttered.
"For me or for Frodo?" Faramir retorted.
"What would Frodo be needing with a hickory switch?" Pippin wanted to know.
"Don't think that's what he meant, Pip," Merry said under his breath then turned his attention to the other two. "Has something happened to Frodo?" he demanded.
Gandalf visibly reigned in his irritation, forced a smile for the hobbits. "No," he replied. "Your cousin is doing quite well and very nearly himself again."
"Ah," Merry said, understanding immediately the cause of the wizard's chagrin. "Demanding release and just generally being his cranky self, then?"
"In every way possible," the wizard mumbled and rubbed at his brow.
"We're on our way over there now," Pippin informed them with a smirk. "Shall I give him your love?"
Gandalf scowled. "Of all the cheeky little--"
"I believe your cousin has had all of the love from Gandalf that he can stand," Faramir put in. "But thank you for your very kind offer."
Merry took hold of Pippin's arm and began pulling him down the hall. "Come on, Pip, before you say something to make him angry."
"You mean he's not already?"
"Meriadoc," Gandalf called after them, "I shall be counting on you to make him stay put until I can get a guard on his door. And no wrestling matches!"
"Certainly, Gandalf," Merry returned, quickening his pace and dragging Pippin along. "You can count on us!" He flashed a smile over his shoulder then yanked Pippin around the corner and out of sight.
Faramir turned to Gandalf with a lift of an eyebrow. "A guard?"
"Trust me," Gandalf answered. "You have no idea what we're dealing with. Can you find two guards? One for the door and one to place below his window?"
"Window? Mithrandir, do you really think--"
"I know what I'm doing," was the sharp reply. "And make sure you choose men who are not easily swayed or intimidated. We are dealing with an individual who has never once, for as long as I've known him, taken 'no' for an answer."
Faramir shook his head in obvious disagreement then he stopped, smiled a little. "I believe I know of at least one man I can place on guard," he answered. He grinned at the wizard. "I'll see to it immediately."
Gandalf eyed him suspiciously for a moment then nodded slowly. Faramir bowed quickly then turned and strolled down the hall. Gandalf's eyes burning a hole in the back of his neck, Faramir kept his pace slow and casual. As soon as he turned the corner and was out of the wizard's sight, he grinned and then began to whistle.
Frodo only had a moment's warning to stuff the remainder of the sausages under the coverlet before Merry and Pippin came bursting through the door. He wasn't sure if Sam had approached them about his plans yet but, while he wasn't especially worried that they would inform on him, he certainly wasn't about to share.
"Good morning, Frodo!" Pippin bellowed as he crossed the room to Frodo's bed, Merry right behind him. "How are you feeling today?"
"Quite well, Pippin, thank you," Frodo replied, ready to fold himself protectively over his breakfast, should Pippin decide to leap.
"You look much better," Merry observed, pulling up beside the bed. "Rather more color to you than yesterday."
"Thank you, Merry, I'm really feeling very well."
"Still not putting on any weight, I see." Merry's gaze shifted downward, eyeing his cousin from head to toe. He stopped, eyes widening then he lifted an eyebrow, smirked. "Has the Queen been by?" he asked.
"No, why?" Frodo demanded in alarm. "You haven't heard she plans to visit, have you?" He couldn't imagine the embarrassment of the Queen dropping by to visit a hobbit with a hangover, of all things – and him in his nightshirt!
"The Lady Eowyn?" Merry went on. "Or maybe one of those pretty nurses came by to bring you breakfast?"
"Actually, the nurse who brought breakfast was almost as unappetizing as the breakfast itself," Frodo replied morosely. "Why? What is all this? Are all these people planning on coming by?"
"Not that I know of," Merry grinned with a pointed shift of his gaze. "But I can't imagine that's for me."
Frodo frowned, looked down then clamped his eyes shut and reddened to his roots. He hadn't really paid attention to exactly where he'd placed the sausages or how the coverlet had tented as he'd done so and now it appeared as if... well...
"Frodo!" Pippin exclaimed. "Galloping the lizard at this time of the day?"
Frodo groaned. Oh, bugger. Well, it was either endure the teasing that would surely result for the next hundred years or so or fess up and right quick. He glared up at his cousins, shifted his hand beneath the coverlet.
"Oh, I don't want to see it!" Pippin cried.
"Yes, Frodo, honestly," Merry put in. "Round up the tadpoles all you like but keep it to yourself, why don't you?"
"You two are the most-- I have no words for how disgusting you are. Are your minds always in the privy?" He pulled the handkerchief and what remained within out from beneath the covers.
"Oh, that's all right, then," Pippin said and snatched up a sausage.
"Pippin, that was in his lap!" Merry said with a grimace.
"What of it?" Pippin retorted. "I've seen you swallow grubs on a dare."
Merry blinked. "Hmph. Right, then," he replied and nabbed a sausage for himself.
"All right, then, both of you," Frodo groused. "I'll wager you've both already had a breakfast as big as this bed, so sod off and leave me to mine." He grabbed up the rest of the sausages and held them protectively to his chest.
"Oh, I like that," Pippin grumbled. "Steals my ale, won't admit I out-drank him and now he won't share. And this after I've gone out of my way to come visit him in his sickbed." Pippin lifted an eyebrow at his cousin. "Should you even be having those sausages, Frodo? They may be too heavy for your delicate stomach. Shall I go ask Gandalf? He was just down the hall a few moments ago and it will be no trouble at all to--"
"Pippin, if you breathe one word--"
"Pippin, be nice to cousin Frodo when he's being shirty, or he's likely to take your head clean off," Merry advised.
"I am not being--"
"Yes, I'm sure you're right, Merry. I've gotten rather used to having my head where it is."
"Did you two come to cheer me up or to drive me completely out of my mind?"
"Here, now, what's all this?" Sam demanded, stalking into the room and regarding Merry and Pippin with a dubious eye. "How did you two get past the guard?"
"Guard?" Frodo cried. "There's a guard on my door?"
"Aye, I'm afraid so, Mr. Frodo. And it's Gandalf's doing, or I'm no judge."
"Oh, that wizard! I swear, if I get my hands--"
"There wasn't any guard five minutes ago," Pippin put in. "And we just heard him speaking to Faramir about it not five minutes before that."
"Yes, well, apparently wizards work quickly," Merry offered.
"How will I ever get out of here now?" Frodo wanted to know. "I simply can't stay here another two days, Sam, or I'll be a bibbling idiot."
"And that would be new, how?" Pippin snorted.
Frodo glared fire at him then turned back to Sam. "Please tell me you have another plan."
"Aye, sir, I do but we'll have to do it now, before they remember about the window."
Merry frowned at Sam. "Window? Surely you're not thinking of tossing my cousin out of the window like a sack of laundry?"
"And why not?" Pippin asked. "We're not that high up, I don't think."
"How high is it, Sam, have you checked?"
"I have, Mr. Merry and it's eight foot if it's an inch."
Frodo grimaced. "I'm not sure I could make that drop."
"No, sir but if you give me a few minutes, I could maybe pile some things up and then one of your cousins could lower you down. That way, the drop won't be so high."
"I'm not sure I like this," Merry said, shaking his head. "Helping you escape the nefarious clutches of do-gooders is one thing, Frodo, but I don't think actually risking bodily harm is wise."
"Merry," Frodo said evenly and pointed at his tray, "take a look at the breakfast they served me."
Merry's eyes widened in horror. "Oh, Frodo!" he cried. "I had no idea! Of course we'll help. Pippin, get him his clothes."
"Sam, have you finished? Is everything stacked and secure?"
"Yes, Mr. Merry, sir," Sam's voice came floating up from below. "I've got a table and some chairs from the mess tent over yonder. As many as I could manage."
"How did you get them all the way over here? Aren't those tables awfully heavy?"
"Nice and sturdy," Sam agreed. "And some of the men were nice to enough to drag them for me, no questions asked."
"I'm not sure I like that," Merry said to Frodo suspiciously. "Surely someone will mention it to the King?"
"Very likely but we'll just have to make sure I'm away before he gets word," Frodo replied. He turned to the window. "How much of a drop is it, Sam?"
"With Mr. Merry lowering you and your height..." There was a thoughtful pause from below before Sam answered, "Maybe a foot but no more than two."
"That's not so bad, then," Frodo told himself, though he still hadn't chanced a look down. No sense in getting himself in a twist, or he might balk. And he had no intention of balking. He took a deep breath. "All right. I'm ready."
"Just go slow-like, sir and I'll guide your feet to the chair on top. Don't let go until I've got you!"
"I've got him, Sam," Merry called as he gripped Frodo by his forearms and steered him to the sill.
"Hold on just a minute," Frodo said uneasily, batting his cousin away. "Don't rush me, now." He took a deep breath, let it out slowly then nodded and allowed Merry to hoist him up onto the high sill. He closed his eyes for a moment, shook himself then opened his eyes and nodded again. "All right," he said, reaching out his arms. "I think I'm ready."
Merry renewed his grip. "Are you sure you want to do this?"
"Oh, yes," Frodo answered firmly. "Well, not especially this in particular but it's the only reasonable thing to do, considering the alternative."
"I'd hardly call it reasonable," Merry muttered. "Which way do you want to go?"
"I think I'd better face the wall," Frodo said after a moment's pause. "Don't think it's wise to take in the view, if you see what I mean." He eyed Merry then his own position on the sill. "Merry, your face is going to be pressed right up against the wall. Are you sure you'll be able to lower me?"
"Not by much," Merry admitted. "But it will give you a few more inches, at any rate and I'll have a hold on you, so you won't have to be hanging off the other side of the window with your weak hand. How is your shoulder, by the way? Are you sure you'll be able to manage this?"
"Oh, don't you start, now," Frodo groaned. "Honestly, Merry, if one more person--"
"Let's get this done," Pippin cut in. "I'm liking it less every moment."
"It'll be fine, Pip," Frodo told him. "You hold Merry around the waist and he'll have a good grip on my arms. And I think we all trust Sam to have arranged things below, eh?"
"Are you trying to convince us or yourself?" Pippin wanted to know.
"A little of both, I suppose," Frodo admitted. "Here we go." He got to his knees, Merry's grip firm on his arms and began edging backwards out the window.
"Here he comes, Sam!" Pippin shouted and suddenly Frodo's feet were dangling in empty air. All that held him above the ground was Merry's death-grip on his arms and his own on Merry's.
Come on, now, he told himself. You've scaled rocky crevices with longer drops than this. Of course, then he'd had the benefit of elven rope and he wondered suddenly why Sam hadn't thought of that. Or bed sheets, for pity's sake. What in the world had they all been thinking?
"Sam!" Merry was calling from above. "This is very awkward. Work fast, will you?"
Oh, dear. Merry wouldn't drop him, would he?
"Sam?" Merry hollered again.
Frodo's grip slipped a little and he jolted downward, caught at the wrists by Merry's death-grip. He clung with all his strength and swore under his breath. That was about when Frodo noticed that Sam wasn't answering. Oh, bugger.
"Um... Merry?" Frodo chanced.
"Sam!" Merry was sounding a little worried now.
"Can you see him?" Frodo wheezed. He pointed his toes, searching for something solid beneath them. Nothing.
"I can't move, Frodo, or I'm like to lose my grip."
"Where could he have gone?" Frodo heard Pippin ask.
"How the blue blazes should I know?" Merry cried angrily. "Frodo, I can't hold this pose much longer, or you're going to pull us both out the window."
"Well, pull me back up, then!"
"What part of 'I can't move or I'll lose my grip' did you not understand?"
Oh, this was getting worse by the second. He again stretched his legs down, toes seeking any firm surface to light upon. He was edging on panic now and worse, so were his cousins above him. Where on earth could Sam be and why in all the bloody--
"Hello, there, Frodo."
That voice was familiar. And it wasn't Sam.
In which Frodo just may have to reassess his opinion of Men
Frodo chanced a cautious glance down. "Um... Hello, Faramir."
"Lovely day, isn't it?"
"It's um... yes, I suppose... well, I wouldn't really know, actually. Haven't had the chance to notice yet."
"Who is that down there?" Merry shouted. "Is that Sam? Sam, you'd best not let me get hold of you when this is through. My arms are falling off and Pippin is breathing sausage-breath down my neck!"
"Well, where else would you like me to breathe? It isn't as if I've got a lot of choice here, is it, now?"
"Well, hold your breath, then. You've had onions this morning, too and I'm like to pass out just from the fumes."
"You're not exactly daisies and roses, yourself, you know. When's the last time you visited the baths, anyway?"
Faramir gazed up, eyebrow arched, smirk present and accounted for. "I see you're having a bit of difficulty," he observed.
Faced with the one of the most embarrassing situations in his entire life, Frodo did the only reasonable thing he could think of to do: he lied.
"Um... No, not really," he told the wall. "Just... you know... waiting for Sam. Don't suppose you've seen him?"
"I have," Faramir replied.
"You have." Frodo waited but no more information seemed to be forthcoming from the man. "Right. That's good, then. And um... Don't suppose you know where he might be?"
Of all the--
"Well, Sam, of course!"
"Oh, yes, Sam. Wonderful fellow, you know."
"Yes, I am quite well aware of Sam's virtues, thank you."
"And what was your question?"
"Where is Sam?"
"You mean right now?"
Frodo gritted his teeth. "Yes! Right now. Where. Is. Sam. Right. Now?"
"He's been detained by a few friends of mine."
Well, that figured.
"Oh. I see. And, uh... will he be back shortly?"
"Oh, for the love of-- Sam! Will Sam be back shortly?"
Faramir frowned and shook his head. "I'm afraid not, Frodo. He'll most likely be needing several hours to... erm... relax."
"Ah, ha. Right, then."
Bloody pain-in-the-arse Men, anyway. He hoped Sam had gotten a few good, hard licks in before he'd been carted off.
"Frodo, what is going on? Sam, is that you?"
Faramir glanced up. "I'm afraid Sam's been called away. Anything I might help you with?"
A hissed conversation ensued above that, from what Frodo could hear, consisted mainly of 'bugger' and 'Faramir' and several words he couldn't quite catch. He thought he was probably better off for it.
"Um..." came from above and then some more hissing and then finally, "I say, Faramir," Pippin's voice. "We could might use a hand, here. If you wouldn't mind, of course."
Faramir smiled and looked at Frodo. Frodo closed his eyes tight and swore as he continued to dangle helplessly.
"Certainly," Faramir replied. "You had only to ask."
Large hands gripping his waist and the pressure on his strained arms suddenly eased. Frodo couldn't help but sigh in relief. Faramir was in a perfect position to make his life miserable, he knew but at this point, he honestly couldn't bring himself to care.
"I've got him," Faramir called. "You can let go now."
Merry did and the sighs of relief from his cousins above blended with Frodo's own. His arms felt as though they were going to float right off his body and the feel of solid wood beneath his feet was more welcome than he'd ever guessed possible.
"Thank you, Faramir," Merry yelled. "We'll just be off now."
"Wait!" Frodo bawled. "You're just going to leave me at his mercy?"
"Sorry, cousin." Pippin again. "Couldn't quite hear that. We'll catch up later. Bye, now!"
"Bloody wankers," Frodo muttered, glaring up at the now empty window. A low chuckle behind him and he turned slowly, back straight, shoulders stiff. He supposed a quick trip back up to his room would follow shortly but he was determined to scrape up the little dignity he had left and make things as difficult as he possibly could.
He darted his eyes quickly, scouting for a swift escape route but, seeing as how they were perched atop a table and a ladder-work of stacked chairs and that Faramir's limbs were decidedly longer than his own, the possibilities quickly ebbed into the realm of slim chances. Still... He'd come this far, after all.
"I thank you sincerely, Faramir," he said with a quick bow. "Now, if you don't mind, I'll just be off to--"
"Oh, not so fast," Faramir countered smugly. "You see, I've been ordered to guard this window, should any hobbits take it into their minds to climb out of it. Can you imagine the trouble I face, should I just simply allow you to wander off, ill as you are?"
Frodo clenched his teeth. "I am not ill," he said evenly. "And the very idea of being kept under guard is most--"
"Insulting in the extreme," Faramir chuckled. "I agree. Which is why I took this position myself, rather than entrusting it to another."
Frodo was confused. "You're not going to...?"
"What? Force the Saviour of the Free Peoples to endure the ministrations of a cranky wizard and doting king? No, I think not." Frodo sighed in relief. "Besides," Faramir went on, "how much fun do you suppose it would be for me to stand below your window all day with the very real possibility of you tossing a bedpan down on top of my head? Much better to enjoy the day together, don't you think?"
Frodo did. He grinned.
"The Brotherhood of Pranksters?"
"Oh, most definitely."
Faramir extended his hand. Frodo grinned wider, took it and allowed the Steward to help him climb down.
"So, where are we off to, Master Hobbit?" Faramir asked amiably.
Frodo, rubbing vigorously at his arms and wrists, looked to his companion curiously. "Well, I don't know, really. Sam was the one with the plan."
"I, for one, think we would do very well in pretending that the word 'plan' does not exist today. I think we've both had rather more planned for us than we'd like, yes?"
"Oh, yes," Frodo agreed.
"So, where would you like to go? We never did take that tour of the city I'd promised you."
"No," Frodo said. "But I'm not so sure that wandering the streets openly would be a very good idea right now."
"True, I suppose. And home would be even less wise, I think. Although..." Faramir paused, thought for a few moments. "Perhaps being out in the open would be more wise than hiding," he mused. Frodo frowned, shook his head but Faramir pressed on. "Think about it, Frodo. Where do you suppose they'll be looking for you?"
Frodo thought about it. "Well," he began, "once they find you're missing as well, they'll most likely start with your schoolroom. Then, perhaps, your private rooms. They'll eventually get to any of the spots I've used myself and--"
"Yes, exactly," Faramir agreed. "They'll be looking everywhere but right under their noses, so to speak. Do you see?"
Frodo did. He grinned broadly. "I knew there was something I liked about you," he told Faramir. "Do something about those feet and you could be a very tall Hobbit."
"I'm taking that as a compliment," Faramir answered with a smirk. "Now, let us decide where these feet should lead us. Have you any suggestions?"
"Well, um..." Frodo looked hopefully to Faramir. "Do you suppose they're still serving breakfast?"
In which Frodo learns the value Men place on chest hair
Oh, how Frodo had come to love the mess tent. Always busy with tall Men chattering, the thunk of metal utensils against wooden trays, the chink of crockery... But it was the smells that had captured his heart and invariably made his mouth water and this morning was no different. And this time, amid the salty tang of broiled meats and the buttery smells of eggs and cakes and potatoes, the rich, dark scent of coffee wafted thick into his nose and he inhaled deeply with a wide smile. He closed his mouth quickly, so as not to drool down his chin.
"Captain Faramir, sir!" someone exclaimed and suddenly, over a hundred men were standing at attention and looking directly at them. So much for going unnoticed.
"As you were, gentlemen," Faramir said and placed a hand on Frodo's shoulder, preventing him from bolting as he'd almost decided to do. We're um..." Faramir paused, looked to Frodo. "I have an idea," he whispered. "Trust me." He patted Frodo's shoulder.
"The Ring-bearer has been receiving more attention than he'd like, as of late." Faramir turned his gaze back to the men, his eyes traveling the whole of the tent, his mien stern. "It is his wish that his whereabouts be kept close, at least for this day. He turns to you, Men of Gondor, with this request because I have assured him that, once our word is given, our honour prevents us from betraying that word."
There were nods all around, soft mutters of, "Oh, aye," and, "Reasonable, to be sure," and Faramir held up a hand. Silence fell again.
"It is a simple request, really. We ask only that information on the Ring-bearer's whereabouts not be volunteered. We do not ask that you tell an untruth, only that, should you be asked, you give only the information asked of you. I think we owe at least this much to this most honourable Perian. Do you agree, Men of Gondor?"
A resounding "Aye!" and thumping applause echoed in Frodo's ears and he gazed around in awe. He looked up at Faramir with a dazed smile.
"I think that should do it," Faramir told him and Frodo could only laugh. He allowed the Steward to steer him to the front of the serving line as the men happily parted before them with conspiratory smiles.
"That was most unexpected, Faramir," Frodo murmured.
"I assume you approve, though?"
"Oh, most heartily," Frodo replied as they reached the start of the serving line and Faramir handed him a tray. "I don't think I've ever-- Maeglis!" Frodo seriously considered leaping the barrier of the serving troughs in order to embrace the Master Cook but quickly decided that a warm handshake would do. "Oh, you've no idea how I've missed you," he told the man.
"Missed my cooking, more like," Maeglis replied with a twinkle as he grasped Frodo's hand firmly. "Glad to see you're feeling better, Master Frodo."
"Thank you, Maeglis, I'm feeling wonderful, actually. And more than ready for some of your cooking, I assure you."
"Well, then, you're in luck." The man took up a plate that lay ready by his hand and transferred it to Frodo's tray. Heaped with a stack of griddlecakes, smothered in a thick blueberry sauce, a serving of bacon as big as Frodo's head, a mound of the potatoes he had daydreamed about only this morning and... could it be?
"You remembered the cheese!" Frodo cried happily.
"As if I could do anything less," the man returned. "I remember all the favorites of someone so enthusiastic about my cooking."
"Enthusiastic seems a bit of an understatement," Faramir observed wryly.
"You'd best watch how you speak of my friend, here, Captain," Maeglis warned with a wink. "I've quite a lot of porridge left, you know."
Faramir shuddered. "In that case, I shall be most careful, Master Cook, I assure you."
Frodo was shocked. "You don't like porridge?"
Faramir opened his mouth but Maeglis chuckled and answered for him. "He had quite his fill of it when he was a lad, I warrant." He leaned over the trough and gestured for Frodo to come closer. "His brother told him it would grow hair on his chest and he ate nothing else for breakfast from the time he was twelve summers until he wised up at around seventeen."
Frodo turned to Faramir with a frown. "Why would you want hair on your chest?" he wondered.
Faramir rolled his eyes and glared at the cook. "It was just silly boyhood--"
"I mean, on your feet I can understand but--"
"Men don't grow hair on their feet," Faramir pointed out.
"Well, that's probably because you have them stuffed in those boots all of the time," Frodo returned reasonably. "But I still don't see why hair on your chest--"
"It's just an oddity of Men, Frodo. Now, shouldn't we be moving along? We're holding up the line."
"Did it work?"
"Did what work?"
"Well, the porridge, of course."
"What do you mean, did it work?"
Frodo rolled his eyes. "Did you grow hair on your chest?"
"Well... a little. But shouldn't we--"
"Well, you ate it every day for the better part of five years. I'm just wondering if it was worth it."
"The porridge had nothing to do with it."
"Then why did you eat it?"
"Because I thought... well, Boromir said... Can we just go sit down now?"
"Do you have to comb it?"
"Comb...?" Faramir closed his eyes, gave his head a quick shake to clear it. "What?"
"Well, I'm just having trouble understanding the attraction. It would seem it would be just one more thing to comb in the morning."
"It doesn't-- This is the most ridiculous-- Men don't comb their chest hair."
Frodo lifted an eyebrow. "Hmph. So, not only do you have chest hair but it's unruly chest hair?"
"May I see it?"
"Your chest hair."
"Why would you want to see my chest hair?"
"I don't know. Morbid curiosity, I suppose."
Faramir growled. "Isn't your breakfast getting cold?"
Frodo turned his attention back to his tray, chest hair and the wisdom in wanting it quickly forgotten. There was another, more important matter that he needed to address.
"Maeglis, might I have some of that coffee you've been serving? The smell has been making my mouth water all morning."
Maeglis' bemused smile disappeared and his expression quickly turned to one of distress. "Oh, Master Frodo!" he cried. "I had no idea-- Oh, this is terrible! If only I'd known!"
"Calm down, man," Faramir cut in. "Known what? What are you talking about?"
"Well, it's only that we'd only received a portion of the allotment, you understand," the cook answered miserably. "And, as you can guess, since we've not had it in quite a long time, it..." He paused, wrung his hands. "Well, it went rather quickly, you see."
"Oh." It was all Frodo could do not to stomp his foot and throw something, just for the pleasure of hearing it shatter. That bloody wizard! If it hadn't been for him...
Well, just bugger! Just... just bugger!
With a mighty effort, Frodo controlled himself and mustered a smile for Maeglis. "No matter," he assured the man. "It isn't that important. Thank you anyway."
Bugger, bugger, bugger!
"I would have set some aside, had I known..."
"Honestly, Maeglis," Frodo insisted. "It isn't important. Some tea and a cup of cold milk would do just as well."
Like bloody hell, it would.
Maeglis rushed to retrieve the requested beverages, growling fiercely at anyone who dared get in his path along the way. He returned quickly and placed the tea and milk on Frodo's tray, with a mug of each for Faramir as well.
"Thank you, Maeglis," Frodo said with as cheerful a smile as he could manage. "You do take excellent care of me."
"I'm only sorry I couldn't get you everything you wanted," the man replied morosely.
"You've done more than enough," Faramir put in. "We shall both enjoy this very thoroughly, I assure you."
"Oh, yes," Frodo agreed. "It looks wonderful, as usual and I thank you most sincerely. Please stop worrying about the coffee. A passing fancy is all it was, really."
Maeglis accepted this with a frown of obvious disbelief but he nodded to them nonetheless. Frodo and Faramir nodded back with matching smiles then turned to find a seat.
"You know," Maeglis said behind them and they halted, turned back. "All of the inns will be getting allotments of coffee as well, probably starting with The Serving Wench, down on the sixth tier."
Frodo perked up at that. "Really? You think so?"
"Oh, aye," the man replied. "The carts always start up here and then work their way down. The Serving Wench is the first inn along its way. And," he said with a twinkle, "I'm quite certain that the Captain here knows the way."
Frodo turned to the Steward with a lift of an eyebrow. Faramir glared at the cook, cut a sullen glance to Frodo and cleared his throat. Frodo smirked.
"It would appear that you are correct, Maeglis," Frodo snickered.
"Just because I happen to know where a place is does not mean that... that..."
"I never said so," Maeglis returned, wide-eyed.
"Everyone knows where The Serving Wench is, after all," the Steward defended.
"I don't know where it is," Frodo put in.
Faramir scowled. "I'm quite surprised you don't," he retorted thinly, "since they do, after all, serve food."
Frodo turned to Maeglis. "Have I just been insulted?"
"Are you a hobbit?"
"Why, yes, in fact, I am."
"Then, I would say no."
"Come along, hobbit," Faramir put in. "You tend to get cranky when you're not fed properly."
Frodo laughed and addressed the cook once more. "I thank you again, good sir. For everything."
"Any time at all," Maeglis assured him. "And, the next allotment of coffee we receive, a good portion will be set aside for you. You have my word on that."
Frodo was sincerely touched. He bowed as low as his laden tray would allow then he and Faramir made their way to a table to enjoy their breakfasts.
Faramir had seen hobbits eat before and knew they could put away more than most would guess, but he'd never actually sat down across from any of them to share a meal before. Oh, there had been Henneth Annun, of course, where he had watched Frodo and Sam eagerly dig into third helpings with little sign of slowing down. But that had come at a time when they had long been rationing their meager supplies and Faramir never would have guessed that the display of enthusiastic consumption was the normal way of things with their kind. He knew better now.
Twice, Frodo had gone back to Maeglis for more and once, this last time, Faramir himself had insisted on going for him. The cook had winked and smiled knowingly at the Steward and refilled the plate without a word. Frodo expressed his thanks and dug in as Faramir returned to their table with the hobbit's plate. Faramir scanned the smiling faces around them as the rest of the men watched their Ring-bearer enjoy the least of the hospitality they could offer. He knew that each and every one of them would have handed over their own plate to Frodo without the smallest of hesitation, if the need ever arose.
Of course it wouldn't; the stores were refilling rapidly, now that the blockades were removed and Faramir had every confidence that Minas Tirith would once again be a place where one could find foods and wares from every corner of Middle earth in only a short time. But, until then, there were still shortages and Faramir made a mental note to speak with the distributors to ensure that the Halflings were first on the priority list when it came to doling out rations. Certainly, the King had already made provisions but somehow the issue of coffee had slipped by him, so Faramir didn't think it above himself to make sure that such a thing did not happen again.
"Oh, this is marvelous," Frodo sighed. Faramir glanced at him in mild surprise – it had been almost a full twenty minutes since Frodo had uttered anything other than muffled requests for condiments, after all. "I haven't eaten like this for days and days." Faramir smiled as Frodo mopped egg yolk from his plate with a soggy piece of toasted honey bread.
"I'm very glad you're enjoying yourself, Frodo," the Steward said. "Is there anything else you'd like? More pastries, perhaps? Some more fruit?"
Frodo seemed to consider this last for a moment before shaking his head. "Thank you but no. I believe that ought to do me for now." He looked about the tent and Faramir followed his gaze.
Most of the men had finished long before and had filed out to attend whatever duties awaited them. Only a few remained, some washing dishes and cleaning tables, others beginning the business of preparing the lunch the men would be expecting in only a few hours. There were still, however, several soldiers clustered by each entrance, seeming to be chatting idly amongst themselves at first glance. If one looked a little more carefully, however, one might note the sharp look in their eyes as they carefully scanned the surrounding areas before darting their glances back to Frodo and himself. Faramir noted Frodo eyeing them curiously.
"They're our lookout," he offered.
Frodo turned to him, frowning. "Lookout?"
"They're guarding us – or rather, you – after a fashion."
"Guarding?" Frodo's frown deepened. "Against what?"
"Against wizards and kings," Faramir replied with a mischievous grin. "They've taken our request very much to heart, it would appear. Those not on duty are staying behind to ensure that you are not disturbed whilst you break your fast."
"You're joking." Frodo looked to each entrance in turn; three in all with at least five men at each one. "I don't... Why would they..."
"Oh, come now, Frodo," Faramir chastised. "You can't really mean to say that you have no idea what you mean to the people of Gondor. Each of these men would hand you their firstborn, should you but ask and perhaps even if you didn't."
Frodo turned to Faramir, horrified. "That isn't funny."
Faramir just rolled his eyes. "Honestly, Frodo – lighten up, for pity's sake and learn to enjoy the good things offered. These men do the little they can to show you their respect and their thanks and it makes them happy to do so."
"But I don't --"
"I'll hear none of that 'don't deserve' nonsense," Faramir cut in sternly. "And I would advise you never to say such things in front of one of these men. Not only would they argue long and loud over it but you would dishonour them by refuting something in which they very firmly believe."
"You don't understand --"
"I understand quite well," Faramir insisted as Frodo crossed his arms over his chest and eyed Faramir with a lift of an eyebrow. "But I assure you that your deeds are more worthy of praise and respect than any other and they will be heartbroken, should you reject them in what they wish to offer in return. Take what they have to give, Frodo, for it makes them happy beyond measure to give it."
"Are you quite finished?" Frodo wanted to know.
"Well, that depends," Faramir answered. "If you're going to start telling me about how unworthy you are, I reserve the right to start again at the beginning."
"I only meant that I hoped I wouldn't be inundated with the firstborn of these many men," Frodo informed the Steward with a wry smirk. "It's been ages since I've changed a nappy and I didn't really care for it in the first place."
Faramir blinked. "Oh." He cleared his throat, shrugged. "Right, then."
"But I do appreciate your valuable lesson on honour and respect, my lord," Frodo chuckled. "It's so very nice to know that you hold me in such high regard."
"Well, I didn't say I did, you understand," Faramir groused. "I was only telling you how the men feel."
Frodo's smile fell and he looked down at the table. "Oh," he said, his voice small.
Faramir could have kicked himself. "Frodo," he said quickly, reaching to grasp his companion's shoulder. "I'm so very sorry – I was only joking! Of course I hold you in high regard – the very highest! It was thoughtless of me to--"
But Frodo was snickering and looking at Faramir in exasperation. "You're too bloody gullible sometimes, you gormless nit," he said.
Faramir stared open-mouthed for a moment, valiantly resisting the urge to push his companion's smirking face into the remainder of his porridge. "You know, one of these times--"
"I know he's in there, now stand aside and let me by or every one of you will be looking at the world from behind a pig's eyes!"
Frodo and Faramir turned to each other, eyes wide in alarm. "Gandalf!" they gasped then bolted for the other side of the tent, the protective barrier of the men at the flap quickly parting before them as they fled.
In which the author has watched one too many episodes of 'The Three Stooges'
"No, no, no! You cannot seat the ambassador from Umbar next to the ambassador from Far Harad! They'll be drawing swords on each other before the appetizers have been served."
Aragorn shoved the chart across the desk with a scowl. Three aides descended upon it like dogs to a bone and, as all three grabbed at it eagerly, he almost expected them to start snarling at one another in their haste to snatch it up.
"I have it!" one declared, batting the others away with a smug sneer. The others glared sullenly and Aragorn decided it might just be time to actually assign specific duties to his aides, rather than leaving them to figure it out for themselves... or hoping they might all just eventually go away. Left to their own devices, they just might end up dueling one another for the privilege of handing him his pen.
Aragorn suppressed a snicker at the image this brought to mind then half-heartedly chastised himself. But when he glanced up to see the triumphant aide clutching the chart protectively to his chest and eyeing the others warily, he couldn't help but picture a quick tackle and ensuing brawl and it was all he could do to cover his chuckles with a coughing bout... which turned out to be a horrible mistake, as all three made a sudden dash to pat him on the back and nearly upended each other in the process.
He bent over in his chair to hide his face and was dangerously close to breaking into full-out laughter and possibly ending up on the floor – whether from said laughter or the force of the hands pounding on his back – when he was rescued by the door bursting open and a red-faced Sergeant At Arms skidding into the room. Aragorn looked up, praying that the man had an urgent message that required the King's immediate attention... in say, Rohan perhaps, or on top of Caradhras, or maybe even the in Midgewater Marshes, for all he cared. He suddenly heard Sam's voice in his head, demonstrating the din of his Neekerbreekers and nearly lost the little control he'd gained. What the Sergeant had to say, however, dried up his mirth completely.
"It's the Halflings, Sire."
Aragorn was immediately on his feet, brushing off the aides and striding over to the Sergeant. The man was obviously agitated and that could not bode well.
Two questions leapt to mind: 'Has Frodo's condition worsened?' being the first, followed immediately by, 'What has Pippin done now?'
"Which Halflings? What's happened?" was what he actually chose to ask.
The Sergeant wrung his hands, shifted uncomfortably. "Well..." He shuffled his feet, took a deep breath. "It's rather... well, it's all of them, Sire."
Aragorn decided not to even begin to guess at all of the possibilities of what that might mean. He placed his hand on the Sergeant's shoulder.
"Calm yourself," he soothed. "And start at the beginning."
"Well, it's... you see... I'm not so certain that there is a beginning. It's all a bit confusing."
Aragorn resisted the urge to shake the man and instead forced a smile. He patted the man's arm.
"Yes, things tend to get that way where Hobbits are involved," he agreed and that seemed to put the Sergeant a little at ease. "Why don't you begin by telling me the whereabouts of all of them and their current states?"
"Well, that's just it, you see," the man said. "Three of them are missing and the one whose whereabouts are known is rather... well, he's in a bit of a, um... erm..."
Aragorn felt the beginnings of a record-breaking headache stirring behind his eyes. The last one could only be Frodo and he shuddered to think what the hobbit had done to put this man into such a state. Threw his breakfast tray at a nurse, perhaps? Taken someone to task for wanting to change his linens? Or... Oh, no! Sam wouldn't have actually brought him Sting, would he? He had a sudden mental image of Frodo, standing on top of his bed, in his nightshirt and brandishing a sword at Ioreth. He quickly shoved the image away – it was all too believable.
"I cannot very well assess the situation if you won't tell me what it is," he said sternly. "Now take a deep breath and tell me about the halfling who is not missing."
The man complied, inhaled deeply then slowly blew the breath out. He squared his shoulders, looked the King in the eye.
"Master Samwise has bitten three guards and blackened the eyes of two."
Aragorn blinked. Well, this was certainly not what he had been expecting.
"I said, Master Samwise has--"
"Yes, yes, I heard what you said. I'm not deaf, you know."
Aragorn released the man, ran a hand distractedly through his hair and just stared for a moment. The Sergeant began his nervous shifting again, this time with more vigour – so much so that Aragorn nearly asked him if he needed to step out and use the privy. He closed his eyes, pinched the bridge of his nose. He would have much preferred the Midgewater Marshes.
"Why was Master Samwise--"
Hold on just a moment. If Sam was the only one not missing, that would mean... Oh, bugger all!
"Wait, are you telling me that Masters Frodo, Meriadoc and Peregrin are all unaccounted for?"
"I'm afraid so, Sire."
Aragorn swallowed. "And are they..." oh, stars bless and keep us all, "...together?"
"We can't say for certain, Your Majesty, but the last we knew, they were not."
Aragorn breathed a small sigh of relief. All right, then. This was a little less daunting.
"Start at the beginning," he told the man then plopped heavily into the nearest chair.
"Well, you see, I happened to be instructing the guard at the Ring-bearer's door when--"
"Guard? Why is there a guard at the Ring-bearer's door?"
"It was Mithrandir's order, Sire. He said it was to--"
"Never mind," Aragorn sighed, not really wanting to know. Whatever had gone on between Frodo and Gandalf could not have been pretty and for it to result in a guard at Frodo's door... Aragorn rubbed at his temples. "Go on."
"I was instructing the guard at the Ring-bearer's door when Mithrandir came by. He went into the room and only seconds later he began shouting about ungrateful Bagginses and impertinent Tooks. My man and I went in to see what all of the bother was about. We entered to see Master Peregrin sitting on Master Frodo's bed and saying something to Mithrandir. We then--"
"What was he saying?"
"Well, it made no sense to either of us, Sire but he said something about Mithrandir's orders only specifying that the bed should contain pointed ears and a wooly mop and not whose pointed ears and wooly mop."
Aragorn blinked slowly at the man. There was absolutely no way in the world he was going to try and decode that bit of information. His head might explode. He waved his hand for the man to go on.
"Well, Master Peregrin bolted by us then and made off down the hall. Mithrandir went to the window and began calling for Captain Faramir."
"Faramir?" Aragorn lifted his head from where it was resting in his hand and regarded the Sergeant keenly.
"Yes, Sire. Mithrandir had requested a guard for the window as well and Captain Faramir took that duty to himself."
An involuntary smile twitched at the corner of the King's mouth. He knew the answer to his next question before he asked it.
"And did the Captain answer?"
"No, Sire. He was nowhere to be found. But..." The man paused, shifted. "This is where it gets even more strange."
He looked to Aragorn, as if to warn him that he would probably not like what he next heard. Aragorn had resigned himself to that the moment he heard the word 'Halfling' when the man had first arrived. He motioned again for him to go on.
"Mithrandir stalked away, instructing me to have my man remain posted at the door and to assign another to the window and that, if we were to espy any of the halflings, we were to detain them and send for him immediately. He went in the direction of the Master Healer and that's when we heard the scuffle coming from the other end of the hallway."
Oh, this part should be good. Aragorn cleared his throat and peered at the Sergeant from between his fingers.
"Master Samwise, Sire."
Ah, yes. Missing Frodo plus scuffle equals Samwise. Of course. Quite simple, really. Any good tutor worth his salt was teaching that eqation these days.
See, now – it was things like this that kept people from wanting to be kings. No wonder he was the last of a dying line. Aragorn carefully considered just going back to bed and pretending he had never heard of hobbits.
"He was being held... well, I suppose you might say carried - by four of my men. One to each limb and two of them limping! And Master Samwise was shouting about getting his hands on Captain Faramir. It was all we could do to get him to calm himself enough for us to get him through the door of Master Frodo's room."
"And..." Aragorn paused to consider whether he really wanted to know the answer to his next question. "Did Master Samwise say why he wanted to get his hands on Captain Faramir?"
"Well, not in so many words, Sire, but from what I could understand from the other guards, Master Samwise had been in the process of building some sort of platform beneath the Ring-bearer's window when the Captain instructed them to help him build it and then take him into custody."
"And that's when..."
"Master Samwise attacked, yes, Sire."
Good for you, Sam! Aragorn hid a smile behind his hand. The Sergeant had gone quite silent and Aragorn glanced up, noted his surprised frown.
"I said that out loud, didn't I?"
"Yes, Your Majesty, I'm afraid you did."
Aragorn simply nodded. Then he reconsidered going back to bed... which was beginning to look like the most attractive option at the moment. Trolls, orcs and giant, disembodied Eyes he was prepared to deal with but this was another thing entirely. Plus, given the necessity of facing Sam – who, by the way, he could not be certain had not, at some point, gone and retrieved Sting after all - bed seemed the only really reasonable thing to do.
But, no. There was an irate gardener being held against his will in the Houses of Healing, three cousins loose in his city – who may or may not have already joined forces - and a Steward who appeared to have aided and abetted the entire situation. You're the King, for pity's sake, he told himself. Be a man, why don't you?
He stood slowly, drew himself up to his full height, squared his shoulders. "Let us go and see Master Samwise," he said.
"Yes, Sire," the Sergeant replied then turned and opened the door for his King. He looked to Aragorn expectantly.
Aragorn only stared at the door for a moment. King, King, I'm the King! He thought longingly of his bed, wondered briefly if it had already been made then sighed - King, King, King - and made his way out the door.
"Merry!" Pippin hissed, peering ahead then behind and then to each side. He had handily escaped Gandalf then hovered in the shadows of the hallway just long enough to determine that Faramir had not escorted Frodo back up to his room before heading to the alleyway to meet up with Merry.
"Blast it all, where is he?" He had been very specific on where they were to meet and was about ready to start spitting fire that his cousin appeared to be nowhere near. If they allowed Frodo to get too much of a head-start, they'd most likely miss out on all of the fun and Pippin had no intention of allowing that to happen again.
"Merry!" He stalked along the cobbled walk. If Merry had left without him... "He wouldn't dare," Pippin growled. "Mer-- oof!"
"Hullo, there, Pip." Merry grinned down at his cousin. "Looking for someone?"
Pippin clenched his teeth, growled again and picked himself up off the cobblestones. He glared at his cousin.
"And was there a point to tripping me or did you just get bored?"
Merry blinked innocently. "Did I trip you? Oh, I am so very sorry! How clumsy of me!"
Pippin narrowed his eyes. "You know very well that you tripped me and quite a-purpose. I demand a sincere apology." He reached over, shoved at Merry's shoulder.
Merry looked from his shoulder to Pippin. "I didn't and I won't." He shoved back.
"You will if you don't want your arse kicked so hard that your mother will hear bells." Pippin shoved Merry in the chest with both hands.
"And who's going to do that?" Merry wanted to know. "A poncy little scrot like you?" He reached over, flicked Pippin's ear.
Pippin stopped to consider the situation for a moment. Merry was obviously in one of his moods and cruising for a quick rumble. Normal people took several deep breaths and counted to ten when they were a little on edge; Merry, however, was not normal people and preferred picking fights. And blast it all but he was awfully good at it. Personally, Pippin blamed Gandalf for putting the idea of a wrestling match into Merry's head in the first place but assigning blame did not alter the fact that his cousin was now standing before him, eyebrow lifted and waiting for Pippin to make his move.
Pippin glanced quickly down to the cobbled walk they stood upon; his recent, unexpected meeting with it had proven that it was just as hard as it looked. He didn't fancy enduring the bruises and scrapes it would no doubt gift him with, should he sink to Merry's level and give him the fight he was looking for. Besides, how would it look for a Soldier of the Mark and a Guard of the Tower to be seen wrestling around in the streets? Someone had to be reasonable here.
Pippin decided. He'd never really considered himself a terribly reasonable person anyway: he drew back and clocked Merry square in the middle of his forehead.
Merry staggered back, caught himself against the wall. Pippin smirked, dusted off his hands.
"There. Maybe next time you'll--"
And that was as far as he got before Merry had him in a headlock. "Now, Pippin," Merry said reasonably, "when have you ever bested me?"
Truth be told, Pippin had never bested his cousin when it came to physical combat. Things, however, had changed. They didn't call Peregrin Took Troll Slayer for nothing, after all. In a flash, he brought his leg around behind both of Merry's and kicked his knees out from under him.
It may not have been a thing of beauty to behold but it certainly had the desired effect; Merry went arse over elbow and dropped like a stone to the cobbles, grunting with surprise. He peered up at his cousin, blinked then lifted an eyebrow. He grinned.
"All right, then. Let's have at it."
Pippin decided to give his cousin one more chance to be reasonable. He backed a step.
"Right here? Now? Shouldn't we be looking for Frodo?"
Merry's grin turned to a smirk. "Chicken?"
Pippin ground his teeth. He balled his hands into fists and glared. Well, no one could say he hadn't tried.
Merry stood slowly, his eyes never leaving Pippin's. Pippin took his stance, bending his knees, flexing his hands. Merry advanced a step, arms akimbo, tensed. They grinned wickedly at each other then--
"I know he's in there, now stand aside and let me by, or every one of you will be looking at the world from behind a pig's eyes!"
Both whirled toward the mess tent, eyes sprung wide. There was no mistaking that voice.
"Bugger, it's Gandalf!" Pippin muttered.
"Do you suppose Frodo's in there?" Merry wanted to know.
"If they're still serving food, he is, I've no doubt. Don't know why I didn't think of that before."
As if in answer, two indistinct blurs shot from the back of the tent and right by their place in the alleyway; one tall and moving fast and the other shorter but keeping up admirably. Merry and Pippin grinned at each other.
"I suppose we're off, then," Merry said.
"After you," Pippin replied.
In which things are sometimes exactly what they appear
Aragorn backed away until his backside was pressed firmly into the door. "Sam, I swear to you, I had nothing to do with this!"
"And why should I believe you?" Sam demanded, stalking toward the man and glaring for all he was worth.
"Because, um..." Oh, come, now – there must be some reason. Think, man! "Because I'm the King?"
"And Captain Faramir's the Steward and a prince!" Sam retorted. "That didn't stop him from having me carted away and making off with my master!"
"Sam, honestly – think about it. I sincerely doubt that Faramir could have gotten Frodo to go with him, had Frodo not wanted to go."
Sam's shoulders sagged a little and he frowned. "I suppose that's true enough," he admitted. "But that don't excuse--"
"No, of course it don't-- er... doesn't," Aragorn was quick to agree. "And, if I know your master, I suspect that Faramir will most likely end up regretting most of his decisions this morning."
Sam had to snicker at that one. "Aye, sir and I truly hope he does – for siccin' those men on me, if for nuthin' else."
"Well, I know for certain that several of the men sincerely regret following that particular order," Aragorn told him. He slanted a sly look to the hobbit. "You seem to have quite the left hook, Master Samwise."
Sam blushed and couldn't help smiling. "Well..."
"Oh, don't be modest, Sam. I hear tell you took on five men and each one of them has the marks to prove it. Very well done!"
Sam stubbed his toe into the stone floor. "Aw, sir. T'weren't nuthin' more'n surprise on their part, I expect. Don't think they figured someone half their size would put up much of a fight, if you see what I mean."
"Take your credit where it's due, Sam," Aragorn insisted. "You did splendidly and I only wish I'd been there to see it."
Sam flushed even deeper and dipped his head and Aragorn mentally patted himself on the back. This king business wasn't as hard as he'd thought, after all.
"Now, Sam," Aragorn went on, "shall we figure out how to find your master?"
Sam's gaze turned suspicious once more. "You mean the two of us, together?"
"So's you can cart him back here and make him drink your potions?"
"Sam, I can only honestly tell you that I have no desire whatsoever to cross your master again anytime soon. I only wish to make sure that he's well and, if he is, I shall leave him entirely to your care."
Sam eyed him guardedly. "You swear it?"
"My good hobbit, look at me. Do I look like I want to get in between Frodo and what he wants?"
Whatever Sam's critical gaze revealed to him about Aragorn's intentions must have convinced him; he grinned at the King and turned for the door.
"All right, sir," he said as he threw it open. "I think I know where we ought to start."
Frodo was just beginning to marvel that his legs were still pumping along smoothly and his lungs weren't threatening to seize when a large hand gripped his collar and he was lifted unceremoniously off his feet and shoved back against a stone wall. He opened his mouth to protest but then another hand clamped over it and he found himself nearly nose-to-nose with the Steward.
"Hush!" Faramir hissed. "We're being followed."
Frodo's eyes widened and he nodded then pushed Faramir's hand away from his mouth. He shot a questioning glance to the Steward and Faramir answered by silently pointing back and around the wall.
It wasn't even a second later that Merry and Pippin bolted by, neither sparing a glance sideways as they rushed after their cousin's trail. Frodo chuckled.
"Poor lads," he murmured. "I hope their legs fall off."
Faramir shot a querulous glance to his companion. Frodo shrugged.
"Well, they did leave me to your mercy."
"Yes, but it isn't as if you're the worse for it."
"Certainly not," Frodo agreed. "But they didn't know that, did they? They left me hanging off the side of a building, for pity's sake!"
Faramir couldn't argue with that. "All right," he said, as he peered around the corner and confirmed that the cousins were nowhere in sight. "So, what's next?"
"The Serving Wench," Frodo said immediately. "Maeglis said they might have coffee and it ought to be time for elevenses by now."
"Yes, I thought you might--" Faramir shook his head, frowned at Frodo. "Elevenses?"
Frodo rolled his eyes. "Men are hopeless," he lamented. "It comes after second breakfast and before lunch. Honestly, Faramir, has my cousin taught you nothing about Hobbits?"
"There seems a lot to learn," Faramir muttered.
"It's really quite simple; there's first breakfast then second breakfast then elevenses then lunch, followed by tea then supper then tea again and then afters."
Frodo waited for his companion to say something but, when Faramir just stared blankly at him, he went on, "I've only had second breakfast, so far."
Faramir opened his mouth, frowned, closed it. Frodo waited for a moment. Nothing.
"Well, to be exact, I was served first breakfast but I don't think anyone could blame me for refusing it."
Only a slight furrow in his brow marred Faramir's blank expression.
"It was really quite unappetizing."
"I didn't eat it."
Apparently not taking the hint, Faramir only gazed vacantly at the hobbit.
"So, I'm still rather hungry," Frodo prodded.
Frodo waited again. Faramir blinked.
"And I want coffee."
This seemed to get through to the Steward. He shook his head a little, cleared his throat.
"Yes, coffee," he agreed. "The Serving Wench, right." He nodded. "All right, Frodo. We'll go get your..."
"Elevenses and your coffee." Faramir paused shook his head again. "Elevenses," he repeated. "Right, then. Follow me."
"I knew it," Pippin whispered as he and Merry watched their cousin enter the inn. "Didn't I tell you?"
"Yes, you certainly did, Pip," Merry whispered back, allowing his admiration to show through. "I don't know how you guessed but good show!"
"It was no guess," Pippin asserted. "This is the nearest inn and it's almost time for elevenses. Simple, really – especially if you know Frodo."
Merry had to agree. His own stomach gave a small grumble. "You've been here before?"
"Oh, yes," Pippin said with what Merry could only define as an inexplicable leer. "As often as I'm able."
"Is the food good?"
"Does it matter?"
Merry thought about that one. "Well, sort of."
Pippin looked his cousin up and down. "Merry, have you noticed the name of the inn?"
Merry hadn't. He peered across the street and squinted at the sign. He turned back to Pippin who gave him a wolfish grin. Merry grinned back.
"I take it the name befits the staff?"
"In all possible ways," Pippin gloated.
Merry's eyebrows shot up into his hairline. "Peregrin Took, have you been--"
"Don't be such an ass," Pippin retorted. "They're twice our size, for pity's sake!"
"Well, then..." Merry furrowed his brow. "I don't understand."
"They're twice our size," Pippin repeated. "Twice our size." When Merry only continued to frown at him, Pippin rolled his eyes in exasperation. "Which means they're also twice as large as any of the lasses back home." Merry shook his head, still frowning. "Every part of them."
Merry stared blankly at him for a moment before realization dawned on him. His mouth dropped open before curling into a wide smile.
"You know what, cousin?" he said. "I tripped you a-purpose before and I heartily apologize for it now."
"Apology accepted, dear cousin," Pippin graciously returned. "Shall we?"
"Oh, most definitely."
The inn was everything Frodo had expected it to be, given its name. Still, he couldn't help but halt in the doorway and goggle. The women were... well, there were no words to describe them, actually; buxom hardly seemed to do them justice and when Frodo's gaze finally climbed a few inches to take in their faces, he found them all quite lovely as well. He thought he should probably attempt to wipe the dopey grin from his face but couldn't seem to manage to move anything but his eyes at the moment.
Faramir smirked at him. "All right, then?"
Frodo nodded absently, still grinning. "Mmm..."
"Shall we find a table?"
Frodo's gaze traveled the room and he thought how very lovely it was that everything was almost precisely at eye-level. "Mmm..." he repeated.
Faramir chuckled and laid a hand to his shoulder. "Come. I see an empty table against the other wall."
"Mmm..." Frodo said again as Faramir steered him across the room. He vaguely heard surprised murmurs of 'Ring-bearer,' and 'Frodo of the Nine Fingers,' but couldn't bring himself to actually care much. There were other things that deserved his attention at the moment and by the stars he meant to give it.
One particularly attractive serving girl – Frodo couldn't bring himself to actually think of them as wenches – gave him a sultry smile then dropped him a wink and headed toward their table. Frodo forced his eyes to remain on her face as she sauntered across the room and put forth all of his will in an effort to refrain from licking his lips. He sat up straight.
"Hoy, there, Captain Faramir," she greeted, eyes still locked on Frodo's and that knowing smile teasing at the corner of her full lips. "Who's your friend?"
"It's Prince Faramir now," piped a voice from behind Frodo and Frodo clamped his eyes shut and growled.
"Mister Peregrin!" the girl beamed. "I've not seen you in several days. Where've you been hiding yourself?"
Pippin sighed dramatically. "I'm afraid my elder cousin here has been ill, Lila. I couldn't very well leave his side, could I, then?" He leaned up and gestured for her to lean down. "The older ones tend to get a little confused when they don't have their kin about to keep their heads on straight for them."
"There are quite a few things I could think of to do to your head at the moment, Peregrin Took," Frodo grated into Pippin's ear. "Sod off, why don't you?"
Pippin smiled sweetly at him, patted his cheek. "You sod off," he hissed through clenched teeth. "I saw her first." He turned back to the girl, innocent smile remarkably undisturbed.
"Lila, have you met my cousin yet? Lila, this is my elder cousin, Frodo. Frodo, I'd like you to meet the lovely Lila."
Frodo stood and extended his right hand before he'd had a chance to think better of it. He made to jerk it back and offer the left instead but Lila had already snatched it up in both of her own.
"Frodo of the Nine Fingers," she murmured with a smile as she held his hand in the palm of one of her own and stroked the backs of his fingers with the other. "It's a true honour to meet you, good sir." She glanced down at the hand in hers then gazed at him through half-lidded eyes. "And my but what... long fingers you have."
Frodo flushed bright red and, while he was busy stammering out a greeting and fumbling through a clumsy bow, Pippin stepped in yet again.
"Sorry, Lila," he said as he extracted Frodo's hand from the girl's. "I'm afraid cousin Frodo's a little old for you."
"Peregrin Took," Frodo seethed through clenched teeth. "If you don't bugger off and right now, I will pound you so hard, you'll have to reach up to button your trousers!"
Pippin only smiled and patted his cheek again. He shook his head at Lila.
"You see? Confused. He keeps going on about some Quest or some such, as well, poor thing. Something about climbing mountains and defeating Dark Lords and whatnot." Pippin shook his head sadly. "I do what I can but I think he's quite gone wonky."
"Pippin, I swear if you don't--"
"All right, Pippin," Faramir cut in. "I think you've had enough fun at Frodo's expense for now." He turned to Lila. "I'm afraid our coin will only cover food and drink this day, my good lady."
"Oh, I wouldn't have thought otherwise, Captain," Lila countered earnestly, albeit with a quick glance of promise Frodo's way. "Your coin's no good here anyway."
Frodo ducked his head and shot a glare to Pippin. Pippin choked down a snort, which only made Frodo glare still harder.
"Nonetheless," Faramir went on, "we've come for a meal and a drink and that will do."
"That would be elevenses?" Lila asked.
Faramir shot a wry look to Pippin. "My goodness, you do come here often, don't you?"
Pippin grinned and shrugged.
Frodo's gaze, meanwhile, had been drawn to a woman who could only be politely described as... well, large. And, unfortunately, she seemed to have her gaze fixed in their direction. He could almost feel the floorboards tremble beneath her tread and she was glaring through her small, squinty eyes at the back of Lila's head. Frodo felt he really ought to warn the poor girl but found his tongue stuck quite firmly to the roof of his mouth as the woman loomed over him, eclipsing all light and dropping him into sudden shadow.
"Oh, bugger," Pippin muttered.
"Here, now!" the woman rumbled. "Stealing my tables, are ya, Lila?"
Oh, this couldn't be good; not only was she very large but she also appeared to be very mean. Frodo glanced across to Faramir and was dismayed to see even the man cowering against the back of his seat. Pippin had ducked his head, his gaze nailed firmly to the tabletop. Lila was the only one who seemed unaffected.
"This is my table, Olive and you bloody well know it."
"I've got seniority," Olive countered, "and if I want to wait on the Ring-bearer, I get to wait on the Ring-bearer."
"Cor, Olive! Hasn't the poor sod been through enough already? Spare him your tender care, why don't you?"
Frodo thought he really ought to say something, divert attention with a bit of charm, perhaps. He stood, cleared his throat and flashed his most brilliant smile.
"Really, ladies, I don't--"
"Who asked you?" Olive wanted to know.
Frodo's mouth went dry. He shut it and sat down slowly. Pippin patted his hand.
"Oh, aye," Lila laughed. "You're wanting to wait on the Ring-bearer and that's how you speak to him?"
"Well, he was interruptin' me!"
Frodo stood again, sans charming smile. "Honestly, Lila, Olive..." He gave a quick bow. "How do you do, Miss Olive?" He straightened. "It really isn't--"
"There he goes again!" Olive remarked with a nod of her enormous head, sending chins jostling. "And that's Mrs. Olive to the likes of you. I don't take no extra coin, if ye know what I mean, so don't go getting' yerself excited."
Frodo's mouth dropped open. "I assure you, Madame, I have no--"
"And what would he be wanting with you?" Lila wanted to know. "You could smother the poor fellow in your underlinens!"
Whatever Olive answered was lost on Frodo, as Pippin wondering, "Why don't they ever fight over me?" had him utterly stupefied for a good thirty seconds. The entire inn heard Lila's retort, however, as she drew herself up to her full height, took a deep breath, put her face right in front of Olive's and, at the top of her voice, shouted:
"Sod off, ye stroppy, fat cow!"
One could hear Olive's knuckles crack in the ensuing silence. Frodo had just begun to think that he hadn't seen two females in an actual fight since Pippin's sisters, Pearl and Pimpernel, had duked it out over a ribbon he'd thoughtlessly wrapped a Yule package in – never considering that a ribbon for each of his three female cousins should have been provided – when Merry magically appeared between the two women.
"Where's he been?" Frodo whispered.
"I'll tell you later," Pippin whispered back.
"Hullo, Olive. Meriadoc Brandybuck, at your service and your family's." He sketched a quick bow then pointed across the room. "The barkeep's looking for you."
Olive tore her gaze from Lila's, looked toward the bar then glared at Merry. Merry smiled up at her.
"I've a table to care for," Olive growled.
"Yes, that," Merry said and he took Olive's hand, patted it and shook his head. "I'm truly sorry, dear girl. You seem a lovely woman and we would all have been truly honoured to have been served by one of such obvious gentility and beauty. But you see," he drew Olive closer, rubbed his thumb over the back of her hand, "we've already given our order to this poor slip of a girl and... well, a woman of your intelligence can certainly understand the position we'd put ourselves in, should we turn her away now."
Olive's beady eyes had gone quite soft. "Position?"
Frodo could only look on in wonder. He turned to Pippin.
"How does he do that?"
Pippin only shook his head in admiration.
"Of course!" Merry went on. "Here we are, ambassadors, so to speak, of our land, far away and to have it get 'round that we've insulted a member of a serving staff..." Merry shook his head, widened his eyes in horror. "Of course, you're aware that our people hold any member of any serving staff in the highest reverence."
"Absolutely! Why, just consider the songs being sung about Frodo's gardener. Surely you've heard of Master Samwise? Now, honestly – are you going to tell me you didn't know how we Shirefolk feel about our servers?"
"Um... no, of course not," Olive said. "I knew that."
"See? I knew you would understand." Merry beckoned Olive closer. She bent to him obediently. "Now, this poor thing obviously hasn't got your intelligence and we wouldn't want her spreading nasty rumors around the city and causing an incident between our lands, now that peace has finally come, would we?"
They both turned and eyed Lila – Olive with a sneer and Merry with a quick grin and a waggle of his eyebrows. Olive shook her head as she shifted her dewy gaze back to Merry, who instantly trained his expression back into its former guise of sympathetic understanding.
"Of course not, Olive. My but you're easy to talk to! Now, why don't we just muddle through with Lila this time and we'll be sure to ask for you specifically the very next time we cross this threshold, eh?"
Merry began steering Olive over to the bar, murmuring softly and patting her hand. Olive followed like a puppy on a leash.
"I don't know about the two of you," Faramir said as they all watched Merry bow again. Olive answered with a lift of her voluminous skirts and dipped slowly into what they could only guess to be an attempt at a curtsey. They all shook their heads in wonder as she beamed at Merry and actually batted her eyelashes at him. "But I can't remember the last time I was so impressed."
Merry began walking slowly back over to the table, every patron in the inn following his progress in stunned silence. Olive disappeared into a back room in a flurry of skirts and petticoats. Merry reached the table, grabbed hold and leaned on the edge.
"Is she gone?"
Faramir, Frodo and Pippin all nodded slowly, eyes wide. Merry let out a sigh of relief and sagged against the table.
"How about you keep your charms to yourself next time, cousin?" Merry muttered at Frodo.
"I didn't do anything, Merry, I swear."
Merry rolled his eyes, shook his head. He opened his mouth and was silenced by the eruption of applause. Every patron in the inn, plus the entire wait staff was rocking in ovation. Merry looked around, smiled and took a bow.
In which Frodo learns that size sometimes does matter
Sam and Aragorn arrived at the mess tent in time to witness the last of the men scattering like rats from a sinking ship. None of them were running, exactly but their paces clearly reflected their desire to escape the company of a certain wizard while they still held human form.
Gandalf swept out onto the street shortly after and headed toward the Citadel, thunder at his brow and everything on two legs quickly used those legs to get out of his path. The hobbit and the king stood stock-still, hoping that the wizard's fiery glance did not turn their way. Aragorn warily followed his progress as he moved up the street.
"Should we, um..."
"You do as you like, sir. But I ain't going nowhere near a wizard in a bad mood."
"Well, he isn't angry with us. Yet."
"That's true, sir and you go on ahead, if you like. I'll be sure and keep you in a nice box and catch you plenty of flies, once he's through with you."
Aragorn nodded, straightened. "Yes, well..." He rubbed at his temples. "All right, then. What about the mess tent? Should we see what we can find out?"
Sam shook his head. "If Mr. Frodo were there – and I'm fair positive he was – he's long gone by now."
"So, what now?"
"Easy. We just walk until we find the next place to eat. You must have inns."
"I'm betting that we'll find him in the first one along our path."
Aragorn smiled and shook his head. "I respect your reasoning, Sam but I highly doubt we'll find him in the first one."
Sam lifted an eyebrow in question. Aragorn couldn't help chuckling.
"The first along our path is called The Serving Wench, Sam. Somehow, I don't see your master stepping into a place like that."
Sam grinned. "Care to wager on that?"
"What took you so long?" Pippin wanted to know as Merry took his seat. "Poor Frodo nearly fainted."
"I did not!"
"There, there, cousin," Pippin soothed and reached to pat Frodo's cheek again. "Mustn't get ourselves all in a dither."
Frodo batted his hand away. "Pippin, I swear, if you pat my cheek one more time, you'll lose that hand!"
Pippin turned to Lila, who still hovered by Faramir. "The elderly, you know," he said with a knowing nod. "They get a little cranky when they don't get a nap."
"Peregrin Took," Frodo growled, "I am not elderly and I'll thank you to stop acting as if I'm soft in the head. What is wrong with you, anyway?"
"Ooh!" Merry raised his hand, waved it about. "I know this one! Pick me!"
"You should shut your gob, Brandybuck," Pippin retorted. "I'm sure cousin Frodo would love to hear what you were doing over there by the door for so long."
Frodo turned his full attention to Merry. "What were you doing?"
Merry flushed crimson. "Nothing," he muttered, flashing a sharp glare to Pippin. "Just taking in the scenery, is all."
"You were letting all of the ladies pat you on the head," Faramir snickered.
Frodo looked to Pippin and Faramir, both of whom sported matching grins – then to Merry, who squirmed, reddened still more, and looked thoroughly uncomfortable. Frodo frowned, bewildered.
"He's not getting it," Pippin said to Faramir. "Shall we explain?"
"I say we let Lila explain it for us, if she's willing," Faramir returned. He looked to the woman, who stood smirking beside him. "Lila?"
Lila's smile turned absolutely wicked. She moved over to Frodo with a sinuous sway of her hips, took his hand and beckoned him to stand. Frodo did and then Lila bent, ran slender fingers through his hair, smiling that crafty smile. Frodo gazed into her eyes, his own helplessly traveling down to her full, red lips then over the length of her long, graceful throat, skittering over the lace at her low bodice and...
Oh, sweet stars in the heavens above and mother may I but the view from this angle was nothing less than purely, bloody spectacular! Frodo choked on his own tongue and wondered where those traitorous knees of his had suddenly gotten off to. He thought he really oughtn't be staring – it was rather rude, after all, invitation or no. But... well, they were right there, for pity's sake! And they had to be at least the size of his head! Each! How could he possibly be expected to not stare? And, oh, good heavens but he hoped he wasn't drooling.
Creamy and smooth and oh, but full didn't even begin to do them justice. Straining against the linen of her bodice with a teasing promise of spilling over if she just... leaned... a little... more and would someone please tell him that his hand wasn't really inching upward, palm sweated, fingers flexing...
The sound of Faramir and his cousins laughing uproariously at his expense brought him back to himself a little but he honestly couldn't bring himself to care even the tiniest whit. It was only when Lila straightened and took away the view that Frodo came back to earth, somewhat. His jaw hung slack, he blinked owlishly. It was only dimly that he felt Pippin tugging on his wrist and pulling him back into his chair. He landed with a plop.
"Oh... Oh... my," was all he could force out of his mouth and the others fell upon the table, beating at it with their fists. Lila really did pat his head, then.
"You all came for elevenses," she reminded them with a cheeky grin. "How about you let me bring you something special, eh?"
Frodo could only nod dumbly. He watched the swish of her skirts as she made her way across the floor then turned to the others with the same dopey grin he'd come in with.
"Merry," he said in all sincerity, "I heartily apologize for any time I might have ever insulted your intelligence."
Well, Aragorn had certainly heard the expression, 'You could knock me over with a feather,' before but he'd never thought to actually experience the sensation. But now, standing here and seeing Frodo of the Nine Fingers with his face in the bosom of a buxom serving girl, he had to admit that, should a person decide to wield a feather at him, he would most likely end up on his arse, blinking stupidly up from his seat on the floor. Of course, that was a fine distinction from his current position of blinking stupidly on his own two feet but it was a distinction nonetheless and he clung to it with both hands.
Not that he should have really been surprised; they had all been months without female companionship, after all. But... but...
"Mr. Strider, sir?"
But this was Frodo! The person who'd faced down the Witch King. The person who'd actually walked through the door of the Sammath Naur. He was a hero, for pity's sake and heroes simply didn't... well, they don't... well, they were above things like that! Weren't they?
"Sir, are you all right?"
He certainly wasn't naïve, by any means – he was eighty-eight years old and quite thoroughly married, after all and it wasn't as if these sorts of... things were foreign to him. It was just... well, it was almost like imagining your parents doing... things. An involuntary shudder worked its way up his spine. Images suddenly flooded his mind; Beren and Luthien, Elwing and Eärendil and oh, no, please don't do this to me but yes, blast! there was Galadriel and Celeborn and the most coherent thing his mind would form was, 'Ew, ew, ew!'
"Sir, you look like you need to sit down."
Yes, he definitely needed to sit down. Better yet, he needed to lie down. And he needed to see his wife. Yes, that's what he needed; cool fingertips at his brow and a nice, soft pillow.
Not that suddenly seeing Frodo in this new light wasn't pleasing. In fact, he found himself actually thrilled that the Ring-bearer, whom he'd always held in a sort of reverence, was actually somewhat more down-to-earth than he'd ever imagined. And seeing the vacant grin on Frodo's face actually warmed Aragorn's heart. It was just a little... different, was all. The size difference alone was enough to give one pause and oh, nonono stop it stopitrightnow oh bugger! Too late – the damage was done and he almost had to pound his fist to his own temple to get that particular mental picture to go away.
He was going to need a few minutes to wrap his mind around this whole thing, that was all. Or, you know... maybe a little longer. Ten years or so should do it.
Aragorn turned slowly to Sam, reached into his tunic and withdrew a gold coin. He handed it to Sam.
"You win," he said. "I need to go back to bed," and he turned around and started for the door.
"But I thought... Sir, don't you want to check on Mr. Frodo?"
Aragorn stopped, turned back to Sam. "Somehow I get the feeling I'll be seeing him tomorrow. I'll just start mixing the headache powders after I've had a lie-down." He peered at Sam for a moment longer, opened his mouth, closed it then shook his head slowly and wandered out the door.
Sam just shook his head and rolled his eyes. Men could be so odd.
Faramir had just taken a pull from the ale that Lila had dropped off before she hurried off again, when a hush fell over his companions. He looked up from his mug and beamed.
He gazed into the stony countenance before him, remembered the circumstances that had led them all here and his smile fell. Uh, oh. He regarded the hobbit, his gaze traveling stem to stern and pausing on the fork clenched in the white-knuckled fist. Oh, damn.
Sam's lip twitched. Faramir rose from his seat, placing his chair strategically between himself and the fork.
"Now, Sam, let's not--"
"I've a bit of a grievance to discuss with you. Sir."
Faramir backed a step, dragging the chair with him. "Yes, I can certainly understand--" And now Merry was directly behind him, blocking further retreat. Bloody traitor.
"You must'a thought it awful funny, having me carted off as you did and leaving my master hanging with his arse in the wind, so to speak."
Well, yes, he had, actually. Now he wasn't so sure. Faramir looked to Frodo. Frodo smiled sweetly and folded his hands on top of the table. Another new lesson on Hobbits: it seemed they were vengeful little things. He made a note to remember that in the future.
With Sam and his fork in front of him and Merry behind him, there was really no other place for Faramir to go but sideways. He took a step to the side, only to find Pippin grinning up at him. Well, just bloody damn!
"Sam, honestly, it was only supposed to be--"
"Here we are!" Lila sang as she began laying monstrous plates on the table. "Beef-kidney pie – a specialty of the house. You must be Master Samwise."
"Yes, ma'am." He dragged his eyes from the Steward and turned them to... Sam's eyes popped wide, his jaw fell slack. The fork dropped from boneless fingers and clattered to the floor. "Pleased to... um..."
Lila tousled his hair and straightened, chuckling and threw a wink to Faramir. All of their heads turned as she swayed away. Faramir wondered if she and the twins might be persuaded to consider a position on the diplomatic staff.
Deciding there would never be a better time to try and make amends, he looked down to Sam, placed his hand over his heart.
"Sam, I am truly sorry for playing such a trick on you. I have no defense, save that my mischief got the better of me and I promise you, I would never have allowed harm to come to your master. Please, I beg you, please forgive me."
Sam's gaze was still lingering across the room. "Sure, Mr. Faramir. Whatever you say, sir." He blinked, shifted his regard to the table. "Did she say beef-kidney pie?"
"How many helpings of veal is that you've had, Frodo?" Faramir asked.
Frodo looked up from his plate, took a long draught from his mug. "I'm not sure, actually. I'm beginning to lose count, to be perfectly honest."
"It's very important, Frodo. Think!"
Frodo did. "Three, I think." He turned to Pippin. "Three?"
"Yes, three," Pippin confirmed. He eyed the Steward suspiciously. "Why do you want to know?"
"Oh, no reason," Faramir returned, cutting a sideways glance to a few of the patrons seated at the bar. "Just curious."
"But you said it was important," Merry pressed. "Is there something we should know?"
Faramir turned an innocent gaze to the hobbits. "Like what?"
"That does it for me," Sam put in. "He's up to something."
"I'm not! It's only--"
"Sam," Pippin said, "get your fork."
"Oh, all right!" Faramir growled. He rolled his eyes, harrumphed then gestured for the hobbits to lean in. "The men at the bar have placed a wager with me on how much Frodo can eat. There. Now you know."
Faramir sat back, arms crossed over his chest. The hobbits looked to each other, Frodo with a chunk of veal skewered on his fork and dripping with cream. Merry looked at the man, indignation scrawled across his face.
"Do you mean to say that you've been placing wagers on my cousin? Without his consent?"
Faramir reddened, squirmed uncomfortably. "Well..."
"That's hardly sporting," Pippin put in. "A little underhanded, even."
"Honestly, Mr. Faramir," Sam admonished. "You might have let us all in on the action, you know."
"Yes, really," Merry agreed. "Rather selfish of you. What are the odds, anyway?"
Faramir blinked, sat up straight. "Erm... Well, the men have been watching us all evening and have seen what Frodo has already put away. They are quite impressed, actually. And they are betting that your cousin will not be able to finish the veal that is on his plate and then have another."
Sam reached into his pocket and withdrew the gold piece Aragorn had given him. "Let's just add this to the kitty, shall we, then?" He slanted a smirk to the bar. "My master will show them whatfor."
Merry and Pippin dove into their own pockets, coins raining onto the tabletop. "Take all of this and add it in," Merry told Faramir. He turned to Frodo, his fork still halted in its path to his mouth. "Well, come on, then! Eat that up. We haven't all night, you know!"
"Now, just hold on a moment, here." Frodo scowled at his companions, all of whom fell silent as he dropped his fork to his plate with a clatter. He glared around the table, pinning each in their turn with his fiery gaze until, one by one, they frowned and looked away. "What's the matter with all of you, anyway?" he wanted to know. "Placing bets on me? Wagering on your own cousin? What sort of a thing is that, I ask you? What makes you think you've the right?"
"Well, we certainly didn't mean to..." Merry trailed off, looked away, red-faced.
"Sorry, Mr. Frodo," Sam muttered to his lap and shot Faramir an accusing glare.
"We're sorry, Frodo," Pippin offered, abashed. "You're right. It was awfully unkind of us. We simply weren't thinking."
"I should say not," Frodo returned, reaching into his pocket and tossing his own coins onto the table. He grinned. "You don't bet on a person without at last asking them if they'd like to add to the kitty. Where did you all learn your manners, anyway?"
Faramir looked to the hobbits, scooped up the coins and stood. "What are you waiting for, then?" he wanted to know. He flashed a smile to Frodo. "Eat!" He turned and waved down Lila. "Another serving of veal for the Ring-bearer!" he called.
"And some of those potato skins!" Frodo added.
Night had fallen by the time they stumbled up the cobbled street to the house they shared with Gandalf. The streets were relatively quiet and the sounds of their laughter reverberated against the stone buildings as they made their way up the walk. Wide smiles graced each face and there was not a waistcoat button among them that had survived the evening still fastened. They tumbled into the house, snickering and clouting each other as one tottered into another.
Silence fell suddenly when they observed the wizard, sitting by the fire, quietly puffing on his pipe. He looked up as they entered, grey eyes glittering in the firelight. He gave them all a small, brief smile then turned back to the fire.
The hobbits looked to each other, feeling a little abashed. It was Frodo who eventually spoke up.
"Go on to bed, lads," he said quietly. "It's been a long day. Thank you all for sharing it with me."
"Are you certain, Frodo?" Merry asked. "We could--"
"Really, Merry. I'll be up shortly. Goodnight, then."
Merry nodded then bussed his cousin on the cheek. "It was wonderful to see you laugh," he whispered before prodding the others up the stairs.
Frodo smiled, chuckled a little and shook his head. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath then made his way into the parlor and took the chair across from Gandalf. He dug out his pipe, packed it and took a punk from the hearth to light it.
"I believe I owe you an apology," Gandalf said softly.
Frodo stopped, the punk hovering over the bowl of his pipe. He gazed long at his friend then, remembering what he had been in the middle of, dipped the flame to his bowl and pulled 'til the weed caught. He tossed the stick into the fire and sat back, regarding the wizard.
"Why would you say that?"
Gandalf shrugged. "I have been treating you as though you haven't a mind of your own."
The fire crackled merrily and Frodo sank gratefully into the chair, stretching his toes toward the warmth of the hearth. Gandalf blew a lazy smoke-ring and Frodo matched it with one of his own.
"Sometimes I haven't," he replied at length.
A rumbling chuckle rose from Gandalf's chest. "Yes, well..." He shifted in his chair, blew another smoke-ring that Frodo, again, matched. "Nonetheless, I find I sometimes treat you as the lad I met so many years ago, though I know it must be maddening for you."
"A little irritating at times," Frodo admitted, his eyes on the rings of smoke that drifted lazily toward the ceiling. "But I know you do so out of love."
"Yes," Gandalf agreed. He was silent for long while, gazing into the flames then said, "It is difficult for me not to see the boy who blazed his way into my heart so many years ago when I look upon you – even though that boy's hair is now streaked with silver."
Frodo smiled a little, knocked at his bowl. He looked kindly at the wizard.
"I'm afraid that boy is long gone, my friend."
Gandalf held his gaze, pierced Frodo with his own. "Is he, then?"
Frodo looked down but said nothing.
"Nonetheless," Gandalf went on, this time with a wry smile, "I have come to realize there are better ways to hold to the boy my heart keeps so dear. Perhaps the next time, you wouldn't mind a very old and very chastened partner in crime." Frodo gasped in delighted surprise then laughed outright but, before he could respond, Gandalf furthered, "And if there is anything I can do to make it up to you--"
"My friend, there is certainly no need--"
"If there is anything I can do to make it up to you," Gandalf insisted, "I shall trust you to let me know."
Frodo fidgeted. Gandalf patted his shoulder softly then sighed and started for the door.
Frodo cleared his throat. "Um... Well..."
Gandalf stopped, turned. Frodo regarded the wizard out of the corner of his eye. Gandalf lifted a bushy brow.
Frodo grinned mischievously. "I never did get that coffee," he said.