The Culinary Lesson
Disclaimer: Middle Earth belongs to Tolkien, I just visit from time to time

"The trick is in the seasoning, of course."

Pippin nodded his head and tried to look as though he was following Sam's instructions. Sam had started out with chicken but had since moved on to vegetables. He was deep into the best way to fry up taters now. Unfortunately, all this talk of well-cooked food was making Pippin hungry and he knew that fried taters wasn't going to be on the menu any time soon. He was going to be forced to eat something boring, like dried fruit and lembas. Stifling a yawn, Pippin forced his attention back to Sam, not wanting to offend his friend. It was his own fault, after all. He was the one that asked Sam what he was preparing for their breakfast/supper/morning meal. (Pippin was having a hard time getting around the topsy-turvy nature of their days and nights.)

A few feet away, Merry sat mending a frayed strap on his pack and listening with one ear to the culinary lesson. He, too, was getting hungry from all the talk of roasted chicken, sauteed carrots and crispy taters. Judging by how fidgety his cousin was getting, Pippin had long since lost interest but couldn't find a polite way of extricating himself. Well, Merry was almost done with the strap he was working on and then he would find some way of rescuing poor Pip.

Pippin, meanwhile, was growing desperate. Sam had delivered a thorough dissertation on the benefits of different herbs and had moved on to the proper care of pots and pans. Pippin couldn't honestly say he cared how the pots and pans were treated so long as they continued doing their job. He looked around the campsite pleadingly, trying to make eye contact with someone, anyone, who would be willing to intervene.

Merry finished repairing his pack just as Pippin sent him an imploring look. It was time to step in and help his cousin extricate himself. Scanning the camp in search of a suitable distraction, he spied Frodo, sitting on a rock, worrying away about something and looking utterly miserable. That would do nicely. Kill two birds with one stone, as it were. Save Pippin and distract Frodo from his brooding at the same time.

Walking purposefully, Merry approached the cooking lesson. "I'm sorry for interrupting, Sam, but I need Pippin for a moment."

Sam looked startled but immediately acceded to Merry's request. "Of course. I was just answering Mr. Pippin's question about dinner."

"Thank you, Sam," Pippin excused himself politely before hurriedly following Merry's beckoning hand.

"Thank you," he repeated much more sincerely to Merry. "Do you really need something or were you just making that up?"

"Look," Merry nodded in Frodo's direction. "He's been sitting like that for the past hour."

Pippin's brow furrowed. "Do you know what's bothering him?"

"Not specifically but he's been winding himself up tighter and tighter since we left Lothlorien. We are getting closer to . . . our goal . . and he's frightened." Merry paused for a moment. "Just go distract him for a bit, Pippin. Take his mind off whatever dark, unpleasant thoughts he is brooding on, at least for an hour or two."

"Very well, Master Brandybuck, I'm on the job. I'll make Frodo laugh, or die in the attempt!" So saying, Pippin strolled over and sat himself down on the roc, next to Frodo, placing his arm around his cousin and talking quietly.

Merry watched in amusement as Frodo tried to resist Pippin's blandishments. The silly Baggins ought to have known that no one could resist Peregrin Took when he turned on the charm like that. Within minutes some of the tension began leaving Frodo's face and body and in a few moments more, Pippin had coaxed a smile from his older cousin. It might not be a laugh, but it was a start.

Feeling satisfied that his cousins were taken care of, Merry ambled back to Sam. He was pretty sure something was bothering the other hobbit and was determined to get to the bottom of it here and now. He found Sam right where he'd left him, coiling and uncoiling a length of rope.

"May I speak with you a moment, Sam?" Merry asked as he approached.

Sam, caught deep in some private thought, looked blank for a moment before nodding his head.

"Good." Merry sat down. He was silent a moment, not sure how best to approach the situation, but finally decided that blunt straightforwardness was the best plan. "You don't seem quite yourself today. Is everything all right?"

Sam flushed bright red and looked down at his feet, mumbling that everything was fine. Merry was unconvinced. "You say that, and yet you, the quietest hobbit I know, just spent the past forty-five minutes extolling the virtues of rosemary to Pippin, when all he wanted to know was what we were having for supper. Something is bothering you."

Sam stared at his toes for such a long time that Merry was sure he wasn't going to answer. "'Fess up, Samwise Gamgee, or I shall have to fetch Frodo over here to get it out of you."

"No. Don't bother Mr. Frodo. It ain't nothing to worry any of you with." Sam sighed and looked up. Merry was shocked to see the sadness in his friend's eyes.

"What is it, Sam?" he asked gently. "Tell me what's wrong."

Sam nodded reluctantly. "Mr. Frodo and me was doing a bit of reckoning up last night, with some help from Strider. I lost track of the time while we was in Lothlorien," he explained.

Merry nodded at him to continue, having overheard that conversation while sitting in the boats the previous night.

"Well, we realized a whole month had gone by while we were there, in Lothlorien. I didn't think about it then, but it hit me this morning. That makes today February 24th. My mum died a year ago today."

Merry felt like a complete ass. He should have remembered that. Bell Gamgee had fallen while walking in to the Hobbiton market one day. She had hit her head on a rock and never woke up. She didn't linger long, not much more than a day. Sam had been down at the heels for weeks afterward, naturally enough. He didn't perk up until Gandalf came around with his talk of elves and whatnot, and the task he had laid upon Sam to help Frodo.

Before Merry could find the right words, Sam continued, "She shouldn't ought to've gone off by herself, she had a bad hip and her leg gave out on her sometimes. But there weren't nobody else home and she wouldn't wait. She hated having to let us do for her. A bit like Mr. Frodo. You remember how hard it was to make him rest and let us help him, that first week or so in Rivendell, after he was up and about." He was picking at the end of the slender rope as if unweaving the rope would unweave the parts of his life he didn't like.

"The thing is, it was my fault in a way. I wasn't there." Now that he had started, the words seemed to flow out of Sam in an unstoppable torrent. "If I'd been there, I might've been able to help her, done something so that she wouldn't've fallen. I failed her, but I won't ever let that happen again, Mr. Merry." Sam spoke with iron determination. "Not if I can help it. I said I'd look after him and I will, even to the end, if that's what it takes."

Merry looked at his friend in sympathy. It didn't take a genius to figure out who 'he' was and Merry admired Sam's dedication even while his heart ached for the other's pain.

"You didn't fail her, Sam," he haltingly attempted to console, "You could not have stayed by your mother's side at all times. If she was as proud and independent as you say, she would have hated that. As far at the rest goes, my dear cousin couldn't have a more loyal, trustworthy and dependable help-mate than you at his side. Do you think we would have chosen you to be part of our conspiracy if we didn't trust you with Frodo's life and well-being? " Sam ducked his head, embarrassed, but Merry continued in a lighter tone, "Now, if you really want to prove yourself, go rescue Frodo from the clutches of Pippin, before he's forced to do something desperate. He's getting that look in his eyes."

True to Merry's word, Frodo was looking a bit wild. Pippin had apparently been trying to get his eldest cousin to climb a small tree near the steep, sandy bank. His reason for this action was rather vague, but his enthusiasm for the subject was very strong.

"Come on, Frodo. If Bilbo could climb a tree, so can you." Pippin was encouraging him.

Sam grinned. "You're right. Mr. Frodo looks sorely beset. I'd best get over there and sort this out." He turned to Merry. "Thank'ee kindly for hearing me out, Mr. Merry. I was that upset, but I feel a mite better now. It always does help to talk things out, somehow." So saying, he hurried off to save his master from certain disaster at the hands of a young hobbit with too much Tookish blood for his own good.

Sam had barely managed to convince Pippin why it wasn't necessary to climb the tree when Aragorn and Legolas returned from their scouting trip with the good news that the old portage route was not far away. Soon everyone was busy unloading the boats and lugging them and the packs up the bank and across the rocky, uneven ground to the road. No one had breath to spare for much conversation and Merry was glad for that. He had far too much to think about. His new understanding of Sam's dedication to his master for one thing, and worrying about that master, himself, for another thing. Although Pippin's distraction seemed to have lightened his mood somewhat, Frodo still looked far too worried and unhappy to suit Merry. His beloved cousin was once again plotting something and Merry determined to watch the sneaky hobbit closely. He, too, would do whatever it took to help Frodo succeed in his quest. They all would, the three conspirators who had started this journey with him many months and long leagues ago, in a life that felt more like a sweet, peaceful dream than reality, now. None of them would fail their dear friend.