Thank you for all the reviews and alerts and all! I'm sorry I can't yet reply most of your reviews; but fear not, they are not inconsequencial in my mind and heart. In fact, they are part of why I update the fic at last now… :sheepish:
And applauds for Mabidiso, who several days ago nudged me to write – again! :ashamed" – via a PM!
It has been quite busy and stressful on this corner of the world, but I at last found the time and will and courage to retook the chapter from its dusty storage-room. And here is to the hope that I shall manage at least another chapter before real life swallows me whole again!
I have to warn you however that there are some undulating emotions here. Fortify yourself! (I feel guilty that I had to do that. But the fic refused to be written in any other way, if you know my meaning.) I hope my characterisation of the hobbits is not too far off the mark too. Please help me with it? Then again, I'd greatly welcome any crits from you, if spoken politely. :))
Next chapter: the Grey Havens and… well, let us just see then. ;)
And here it is, fresh from the oven!
The tangy scent of dew-bathed forest and grassland seeped into his nostrils, filling his lungs, rejuvenating him. His blood almost literally freshened up; he could sense it in himself, rushing to the furthest reaches of his being as if in haste; and with that, his muscles were also enlivened.
His breath quickened. His eyelids fluttered as his vision focused, leaving the trance-like quality it took in his sleep.
The sky overhead was yet dark, but he could tell that dawn was near. Most of the stars had vanished, and the moon had waned. The breeze caressing his face brought the underlying smells of little animals and newly-emerging mold and wild flowers, and he longed to play among them…
The bedding was too cosy to leave just yet, though. So, with a soft cooing sigh, Harry rolled to his side and curled up under the light blanket. He could sense that at least two of the adults were up on the edge of the clearing, but they did not bother him even though they must know he was awake by now. It was still strange, despite the weeks spent like this. His friends and relatives had always alternated waking him up just months ago (or, in the Dursleys' case, about two years ago). Voldemort had even had a part in it. One of the perks of being an Elfling…
Someone managed to come up on him without his notice and scooped him up into the other's arms. Harry started and opened his mouth, about to howl for help. But the person shushed him and hastily rocked his tiny frame. Gildor. Ah, one of the downsides of being in the body of a baby…
And so much for an undisturbed lie-in.
Harry glared up at his pseudo-kidnapper. Gildor chuckled. Perhaps, he thought peevishly, it was more a squint than a glare anyway. He was not quite a morning person, after all, despite the demanding life with the Dursleys; and now, despite his changed body – and, to an extent, mind. Whoever dumping him in this world and in this form—
"Breakfast, little one…" A sing-song voice, coupled with a sharp swooping dive which made Harry squeak.
He missed Wenlach's efficient, no-nonsense approach on almost everything, and the soft spot reserved just for him. Gildor was entirely too cheery and warm for his liking, especially early in the morning. (Or before dawn, as it was.) Sadly she had to return to her parents… (Oh how he had sulked for days after her announcement!) And now he was left in the perky care of Gildor and the rest of the crew (minus Eldamir, who accompanied Wenlach back to Greenwood.) He might be able to appreciate the good cheer later, he supposed; but not now!
`Umm. Am I whinging? Oops…`
He curled up in Gildor's lap, and dispassionately stared at the bowl of oatmeal and sweet berries before him. Elves were rather uncreative when it came to baby food, it seemed. But then again, he had not seen any oranges or bananas around.
"Do not fuss, little one," Gildor warned, chuckling. Harry pouted. A brief tickle on his side prompted him to open his mouth for the wooden spoon to enter. And half an hour later found him running and dancing around the clearing. The tideous chore was finished!
They were getting close to the Shire now, Harry knew. The air of sad expectation hanging thick around the small group of Elves was unmistakable. They were reluctant to part with him.
And he found himself just as reluctant to let go of their company. Bilbo, Frodo and their hobbit hole seemed an age away. Time had passed both so quickly and so slowly in Rivendell, amongst his own kin. – His own. – How swiftly had he welcomed them into his life… And now—
He curled into himself in Aros' arms and murmured fretfully. He did not care that he was speaking babytalk now, or that he had never been as clingy as this. He would do anything to—
To what? To abandon his staying with Frodo and his uncle until their joined birthday in autumn? He had never broken his word to anyone before, and a part of him – which was yet free from the influence of his current body and mentality refused to make this a first time.
"We shall be near," Aros crooned into one tiny pointed ear sticking out from the living cocoon. Harry uttered a soft mewl. The man rocked him soothingly.
He wiggled. He did not need empty comfort now, or so he reasoned to himself. What he needed – and wanted – was a way to release the nervous energy pooling inside of him. Bawling his lungs out was out of the option, as it could attract unwanted attention from anyone and anything nearby; and he did not wish to embarrass himself any further anyway.
Thankfully Aros – bless his perceptiveness – stopped trying to reassure him, and in fact put him on the ground. "Now play you, little fawn. Do not stray, and we shall let you play till you are tired."
Harry did just that. He streaked towards the back of the slowing procession and wove around the calves of his tall companions; back to front and back again. If he had learnt anything valuable during his stay in Rivendell, it was various ways to exercise his body in any time and situation. Living with Elladan and Elrohir always required outmost vigilance and agility.
Crap. Now he realised he missed them very, very much. They were like Gred and Forge Weasley: worming their way into one's heart and leaving a strong sense of loss when they went away. He had molded right into their midst as if a little brother… – No, he must not wish too much.
But they – and the Wandering Company – were so real and tangible; so… sincere. They would not trash or betray an Elf-baby… right?
He climbed up Gildor's body and settled on the man's shoulders. He would miss this. Yes, he would miss this; only this. Just for three months… Just three…
He hugged Gildor's head tighter and stared fixedly ahead. This was the best for everyone, yes…
"Ah – Harry dear!"
A middle-aged hobbit ran out the round door, just to skid to a forceful stop on the threshold. Gildor had rung the door bell before melting back into the surroundings, leaving Harry and his belongings on the doorstep. – On that proclamation, the man-child scuttled backwards and squeaked.
"Uncle – You frightened him!" a younger voice piped in from inside the tunnel. A moment after, a brightly-beaming Frodo emerged and stood beside Bilbo. "Hello, Harí. I'm glad you came back. I've miss you so much."
Now he knew what they were saying, as he had rigorously studied the common languages while in Rivendell – after persistently badgering many people to teach him.
Bright eyes. Brighter smiles. – Harry forwent his earlier reluctance and melancholy, and beamed back up at his two hobbit friends from his perch on the threshold.
"Were you the one ringing the bell, lad?" Bilbo asked while ruffling the mop of silk-soft raven hair atop Harry's head, a note of playful suspicion in his laughing voice. "I was waiting for Gandalf, you know. Where's he now?"
Frodo, while scooping the tiny form of the Elfling up into his arms, chuckled and retorted, "Uncle, do you think Harry could reach the door bell? And if Gandalf's here, he ought to be showing up now." Harry giggled on that, but neither of the two hobbits paid attention to him. Perhaps they thought he still could not understand their language?
Bilbo laughed out loud, sheepishly. "Good question." He beckoned his nephew in, and then picked up the pack containing the belongings of their little guest. Before slipping into the hole himself and closing the door, he looked around surreptitiously, searching for the ringer of the bell. It would be awesome if he could meet one or two Elves now!
But sadly, the wish was not going to be fulfilled… at least now. There was nobody out of the ordinary near Bag End that he could see.
Harry curled around his beloved pillow, deep in reverie. It was no longer odd to him, sleeping in this way, after about four months of adjustment; he still missed a full, oblivious sleep, though.
He hovered on the edge of consciousness, half-aware of himself and his surroundings, in a trance-like sort of way. – His heart beat steadily in a calm rhythm, matching his deep, slow breathing –
Bilbo snored lightly in the room next to his, while Frodo – quiet, mischievous Frodo – was totally silent in the chamber adjacent to his uncle's.
Water was nearby, and greens too, and they sang to him a most sweet lullaby. The slumbering world floated him in its quiescent currents, rocking him soothingly. The span of time he had spent in the company of the Elves had somehow eroded his nightmares to a peaceable level, but he could still feel them impinging on his mind even now.
But soon the Sun would rise; he could sense that. He would rise together with the Sun and begin his first day here. He hoped *(1)she would accompany him for the whole day.
Because today, he would finally meet Frodo's friends in person, and they seemed to be all energetic youths. Darting around in the various meadows and gardens under the bright sunlight would be lovely. (And it was one habit of his the Elves had never succeeded to replace, so far.)
And with thoughts of running around outdoors in his mind, he could no longer bring his body and spirit to while away the remaining time of darkness in rest. Time to sneak around for breakfast…
Meriadoc ("Call me just Merry!") Brandybuck, Folco ("Anything they tell you, don't call me Fox – or Foxy!") Boffin, and Peregrin ("I'm Pippin! But you can call me Pip.") Took were just three hobbit lads with bright smiles and brighter eyes and round, guileless faces. But somehow Harry's mind interpreted the innocent portrayal as menacing. It did not help that Frodo was glaring warningly at the trio, who subsequently looked penitent. They reminded Harry too much of the Weasley twins and their Elven counterparts whom he had just left away in Rivendell. Danger alarms blared in his mind, accompanied by excitement. Perhaps they could replace Elladan and Elrohir for a time? Or better yet, Fred and George?
But Fred was dead, and Harry had no means to contact George, probably not until the world collapsed in on itself. – But the hobbit lads were here, and they were real; and perhaps, in time he would accept the notion that he would never return to the world he had once knew?
He was frog-marched between Merry and Folco. Behind him, Pippin chirped, "Off we go to the stream! Under the trees and the Sun's beam! And we'll go play, play—"
When Harry returned to Bag End near dusk, he was thoroughly drenched and filthy from mud and grass stains, and Frodo had been expecting the quartet with a scowl that threatened to curve into a smile on the porch of the lavished hobbit-hole.
It was quite an accident, really, when Harry met the other young frequenter of Bilbo's home. He had been wanting to enjoy the sun without disguises so badly that he did just that: going to the gardens without his hooded cloak, garbed only in the shift Wenlach had gifted him and the light leather shoes she had also given him. For the day, Frodo, having known nothing about braiding hair save to tug it when teasing the hobbit lasses, had simply gathered his hair and tied it with a short, thin leather thong. And then, when the hobbit's attention was elsewhere, Harry fled to the gardens surrounding Bag End.
He spent a long, long while dancing and running aimlessly among the flower-beds and trees and swaying grass blades. Sometimes he sang, sometimes he giggled, and most of the times he beamed goofily at his surroundings. The Sun's rays warmed him all over, and he could sense her gentle regard on this land he was currently staying in. He so, so loved her…
Sadly, his self-induced merry-making ended not on his own terms. In all his erratic play with the plantlife and small rodents, he had nearly bumped against someone hidden among the rhododendron bushes. His laughter turned into a startled and frightened squeak, and it was sheer bravado that rooted him to the spot.
It seemed that the same feelings were shared by the previously-hidden watcher, for the brown-eyed hobbit lad, who looked not much younger than Frodo, shrank deeper in between the tall, huge bushes. Their eyes met, and Harry could see awe and acute joy in the other's gaze, tempered with the recent terror of discovery and uncertainty of… what? Torment? But what could Harry do to the stranger, and why would he do that?
Hoping not to scare a potential friend away, Harry asked tentatively, "What is your name?" Meanwhile, he stepped back, hoping to lure the terrified hobbit out of the bushes.
At last, after a long and uncomfortable moment, the hobbit answered. "Sam. Samwise Gamgee. I'm here helping Old Garfer tending Master Bilbo's gardens." And as if to prove his point, he raised a pair of gardening scissors with a trembling hand. Then, when Harry kept his silence, he blurted, "Are you really an Elf like in the tales Master Bilbo told? But we never heard whiff of Elven children!"
Because there had been none for a long time, thought Harry, but he was reluctant to say so aloud. Instead, he gave Sam a small smile. He would let Sam draw his own conclusion.
But one thing that he had to secure now was Sam's silence on the matter, as much as a loose tongue could be trusted…
"Please tell nobody about me?"
He could not help it. His gaze hardened unwillingly. Old survival instincts surfaced in his being, causing him to tense and expect the worst.
But Sam's chocolate-warm orbs were uncharacteristically solemn, and Harry could see and sense his sincerity when he said at last, "Not a whiff, Master Elf!"
Ironically, three figures emerged from behind the bushes, then: Merry, Folco and Pippin.
Harry fled the gardens. It was too much. And now he was jeopardising his own happiness and safety, and also those of the kind Bilbo and Frodo… He had to tell them about this, at least, even though it rankled him to do so.
However, Harry ended up hiding in the cellar eating the ice cream from his *(2)never-ending ice cream supply, as Bilbo and Frodo were busy greeting their Dwarven guests in the parlour. Preparations for the oncoming huge birthday party had just begun, and Harry had decided to make himself scarce. He had not told the two Bagginses about his encounter with Sam while not under the protection of anonymity, and truth be told, he was reluctant to defy this current luck and seek them. It could wait…
He took his meals in the kitchen, where the Dwarves rarely visited, and sometimes Frodo was there to accompany him, reading him tales from a huge book the hobbit seemed to love so much. It was actually Frodo's journal, filled with his childhood adventures – and misadventures – around Buckland, a hobbit settlement on the other side of the river. Harry could not help giggling on many parts in the telling, and Frodo seemed to appreciate it in return. It was as if there were only the two of them in a world of their own, fenced from the harsh outside…
Well, but they had to part again at some point. Frodo still had his duties for the oncoming birthday party and his inheriting Bag End after Bilbo was gone – because he would indeed depart the land forever, the old hobbit himself claimed. And then Harry would be pulled back to his past, pulled across a yawning space of time and space, and he would seek sanctuary inside his *(3)home trunk. He knew that he had to forgo this fruitless yearning, but knowledge itself could not save him. It seemed that a clash between mind and heart indeed occurred to an Elf, just as it did to a Man…
When Gandalf at last came, days after the Dwarves, his heart was eased a little. Just a little, because he could then sense and see that the Wizard was greatly troubled over something. (He was quite similar to the deceased Headmaster Dumbledore sometimes that Harry was unnerved, and this brooding silence full of secret that he was currently exuding was part of it.) He clustered himself with Bilbo as soon as he came, and only sought Harry and Frodo some time later, giving the two of them (who had been playing with Harry's figureens) a forced jovial smile.
To say that Harry felt frustrated and pinned down by everything that had been happening would be an understatement. He was both grateful and embarrassed that Gandalf realised it, though. But he could no longer grudge the Wizard his insight when a surprise came to him one fine morning; the day before the birthday party, in fact.
The door-bell had rung early in the morning, and a frazzled and cautious Frodo (with Harry clinging fast on his back) had rushed to answer it. And Gildor was there, garbed in his travelling cloak and with his skin covered by a brownish substance that hid the glow of his form rather well. Just then, a thought touched the fringes of Harry's mind, `Well-met, little one.`
Harry would have jumped in joy, but he feared baffled inquiries from Frodo. Besides, he did not love the earth so much that he would gladly fall hard on it.
Had Bilbo known Gildor beforehand, though? Or was it Gandalf that had invited the Elf? And why the disguise? Gildor himself had advised him to be just who he was… That hypocrite, he thought peevishly.
But he was too fond of the said hypocrite to stay grumpy at him for too long. Gildor introduced himself, in a voice that Harry did not recognise as his, as "Mardyn from far lands." He acted as if he did not know who Harry was, but nonetheless sent a sense of amusement and apology into Harry's mind meanwhile. After a proper introduction and time had been endured, thus, Harry took leave of Frodo and dragged the mirthful Gildor into his cellar sanctuary.
Unfortunately, he had not counted the possibility that Gildor would not answer his inquiries; and it was what happened. The disguised Elf-man instead taught him about the lore of making miruvor, and, however reluctantly, Harry's mind was bent towards it.
Frodo did not harbour any suspicion on Gildor, still, even though Harry spent much time secluded away with him in hidden places that guests ought not tread upon. It seemed that the token remark that "I am Gandalf's friend" was quite sufficient for the hobbit… Or was there another reason? Being busy had never deterred Frodo from investigating something. (In fact, the hobbit, with profuse apology and a determined look on his face, had personally fished Harry out of one of the cellars a couple of days ago, after noting that he had not been able to see Harry around Bag End for a full day already.) What was going on in Frodo's mind now? Harry would give much to know that …
When Harry again found an alone time with Gildor, this time in the gardens, he asked the man just that. (Hopefully, there were no hidden watchers or eavesdroppers around now.)
But Gildor just raised an amused eyebrow. Harry crumpled his face in growing frustration and befuddlement. Then, seeming to pity him, the man at last said, "Can you not see it, child? He saw how quickly you welcomed me, and how you have never let go of me since then."
Harry could feel his eyes widening. "So rather, he trusts my judgement?" he squeaked in a low tone, feeling a dreadful burden falling on top of him.
Gildor shook his head, smiling comfortingly. "Nay, my green flame. Rather, he trusts the judgement of an Elf-child that stems from his purity of senses." Yet still, Harry shivered, no more comforted than before.
Frodo trusted him, implicitly it seemed. How if he erred one day? How if he was not there for the hobbit? The world was a cruel place, and deadly for those innocent of heart and mind…
In the span of the thought, Gildor had gathered him into the man's embrace and cradled him close to his chest. And now he whispered into one tiny leaf-shaped ear, "Being kind and good-hearted has a power on its own, little one, however foolish and dangerous it looks at first."
Harry clung fast to that hope.
Merry, Folco and Pippin, who had been avoiding Harry since the fateful afternoon, approached him eagerly instead on the dawn of the celebration. They were bedecked in festive clothes in honour of the joint birthday party of Bilbo and Frodo, just like Harry himself, and seemed to be in a merry-making mood already. (Gildor, claiming to the two bachelor Bagginses last night that he had gotten the order of party clothes for Harry from Gandalf himself, had provided the said victim with a set of miniscule silk robes in autumn colours. Furthermore, he had managed to acquire a fancy light hood to shadow Harry's face and cover his ears.)
And now Merry chirped, "We've got you your presents."
And then little Pippin added excitedly, "Old Bilbo loves you so! He got you a copy of every present available for you, he said!" to which Merry glared and Folco rolled his eyes. Before the little imp could continue divulging secrets, though, Merry had already dragged him out of the nook of Bag End Harry had wandered into, and Folco was now eyeing him uncertainly, somewhat fearful.
Harry tilted his head slightly, questioning. Then, seeming to break from a trance, Folco shrugged and hesitantly reached out a hand. "Let's go," he said, a little subdued. "They're waiting for us."
"Will there be trickle tarts there?" Harry asked on a whim, hating the awkwardness between them. And true to his hope, the distance between them vanished, and Folco chirruped about the various meals and dainties and drinks and games and presents and crackers and fireworks soon to be unleashed in the birthday party.
Trust the hobbits to be excited about food…
But Harry himself could not say that he was not enjoying the party. Gildor, when the hobbit lads were lured away by the promise of food and drink aplenty, had introduced him to the beige paste the Elf-man had used on his own skin. Now Harry looked almost like a hobbit lad himself save for his slender built, shod feet and straight hair. And with that notion in mind, he merged as boldly as he could among the throng of partying hobbits, partaking in nearly every activity they conducted. (He stopped eating and drinking when his stomach felt like bursting, though, unlike his hobbit peers. He just could not contain so much!) Dimly, he remembered experiencing a similar abandon joy once, although in another – darker – circumstance – entirely, but he did not care about it – for now.
A little late in the afternoon, a rosy-cheeked Merry, with Pippin trailing along, came to where he had been dancing alone to the tunes of the impromptu orchestra of young hobbits. A handful of crackers Harry knew to be Gandalf's work were in his and Pippin's arms, and excited looks were on their faces.
"Let's try these!" Merry said, and little Pip chirped his agreement. They seemed to have forgotten Harry's nature entirely in the giddiness of the day-long festivity, and Harry embraced the chance most gratefully. They quickly threaded their way among the milling hobbits, until they found a corner occupied only by bins containing used and torn wrapping papers. There the two hobbit lads unburdened their arms, and shared an excited grin with Harry.
"The largest one first!" Pippin quickly requested. Merry obeyed indulgently, shifting through the pile for the largest package. Then, bowing, he handed it to Harry.
Harry bowed back, giggling. "My honour!" he said solemnly, then burst out laughing when Merry and Pippin stuck their tongues out at him. He opened the package, then, and stepping to a more open space pulled the trigger of the cracker roll.
Instead of a boom, a blast of fanfare trumpets deafened their ears, just as a cloud of buttercup-smelling, yellow-coloured fog blanketed the three of them. And soon, the estatic squealing of three young voices could be heard.
Harry had briefly thought they would either get a *(4)chess-set, six white mice, or a pointed hat though…
But he would not protest. A mini trumpet now lay amidst the remains of the cracker roll, soon claimed by the eager Pippin, and before long he was made to pull another cracker roll. (The smallest, this time, which filled their ears with the haunting yet happy trill of flutes and sent them into the midst of silver mists, and left a beautiful silver flute in its wake.) He was beginning to feel a bond of friendship growing between them, and he was glad of it. He would not pretend that they were Ron and Hermione; but this was enough, for now.
The trio of children returned to the heart of the party for tea-time, but afterwards they snuck more crackers and small fireworks to their own nook and entertained themselves with those little marvels. And Harry was most content with it. Gandalf grand fireworks later in the evening were a very, very, very welcome bonus, with all the glowing trees and birds and spears and butterflies – and the roaring dragon in the end.
His only regret was that Gildor fetched him before he could follow Merry and Pippin into the tent for the family dinner. He reasoned that Gandalf needed to speak with Harry, and the two hobbit lads let him go. Harry remained a little cranky when Gildor dragged him to Bag End, but said nothing.
His plummeting mood only worsened when the Wizard, waiting for them with Harry's baggage on the porch of the hobbit-hole, said that it was time to depart for the Grey Havens.
"But Frodo…" Harry began to protest but then trailed off, too upset to defend himself. Gandalf smiled sadly at him. Worse, Gildor seemed to have been conspiring with the Wizard and gave him a similar smile.
"What is it that you are hiding from me?" he demanded instead, as the thought flashed in his mind. The two men did not reply, although their silence acknowledged Harry's claim.
Trying to hold back tears, Harry rushed into the entrance hall of Bag End. Finding a set of small travelling clothes that seemed to be meant for him hung on the cloak pegs, he tore off his festive garments and donned them instead. His movements were jerky, and his hands trembled. He did not acknowledge Gandalf and Gildor when they entered, ducking through the low round door.
He departed Bag End buried in Gildor's arms, refusing to look back to either Gandalf or Bag End, and certainly not to the ongoing party on its yard. And when he realised that Gildor's pace never faltered from the path out of the hobbit-land, silent tears rolled down his cheeks.
*(1) Arien, the steerer of the Sun.
*(2) and *(3) Two of the gifts Harry had received back in his own world, days before he was transported to the front porch of Bag End for the first time.
*(4) A reference to the Christmas meal of Harry's first year at Hogwarts. I could not help myself… :)