XX 8 XX

I think-OW-I might have-OW-splinters in my-OW-feet-OW-FOR THE LOVE OF-! Tabitha sinks her teeth so deep into her tongue she tastes blood as she hobbles along after the hobbits. Ha, ha, ha: hobbling after hobbits. . . . She shakes her head, even if the amusing thoughts are a welcome distraction against her sore and aching feet. And the miserable rainy weather.

And everything else.

As soon as we get to Bree, I've got to find myself some damn shoes and decent traveling clothes!

"Come on, Miss Tabitha!" Sam urges from up ahead. "We're almost there."

And his words are heartening to hear as the girl looks up from the river of mud running over her toes. Teeth chattering, her entire body shaking uncontrollably. She's drenched through her thin clothing down into the very marrow of her bones, and she's attempting to hold in what little heat her icing veins can offer by hugging her arms around her middle.

Which isn't working.

Her glassy eyes notice of a great, looming gate taking form in the misting darkness. Two pale lanterns glimmer like faerie lights on either side, a welcoming sight indeed for the sopping wet and incredibly miserable girl.

Pippin doubles back from the group when they stop in front of that gate. He tugs his hood further over his face and holds out a hand for the struggling Tabitha.

"It'll be alright." He assures her, with a small smile.

She smiles back and gratefully takes his hand, which fits so warm and snugly in hers. "I hope so. I mean, I'll be lucky if my swollen feet can actually fit into shoes by the time we get dried off. . . . If I'm ever dry again. . . ."

They slip on the muddied ground up to the other three hobbits. As Frodo nears the door in the wide gate, he glances back over his shoulder and his eyes lock with Tabitha's. Curling ringlets are plastered to his pale, dripping face, and the lights of the lantern makes his blue gaze shine.

Like stars.

So pretty. . . . No, no, no! What are you thinking, Lee? You can't be getting attached to these hobbits now, can you? Because you have to search Bree for Cole without them. . . .

But what if Cole isn't here? Then what?

She doesn't want to think about it. If she goes any further with her new friends into the story. . . .she risks changing everything. And that isn't an option.

Tabitha forces a smile to, hopefully, dispel that concerned expression of Frodo's, but his smile back is timid. . . .scared. Or maybe anxious. It doesn't do much to assuage the girl's own desperate thoughts of how she's going to survive in Middle-earth alone, after the hobbits leave with Strider. . . .

Who am I kidding? I can't survive here alone! Oh man. . . . I might, MIGHT be screwed.

Frodo knocks on the wooden door. Collective breaths are held, and then a surly faced gatekeeper pokes his out with a scowl. "What do you want?" He sneers in a rough accent.

Pippin's hand tightens in Tabitha's, and she squeezes comfortingly back.

"We're headed for the Prancing Pony." Frodo says. His voice sounds so small amidst the noisy din of rain and wind and creaking hinges, as the door swings open. The gatekeeper extends a lantern out to better see the travelers, his scowl deepening into something of. . . .surprise?

"Hobbits! Four of them, and, in the company of. . . .a girl? How unusual is this! What business brings you all to Bree?"

Tabitha scowls right back at the old man, as she squints against the overbearing yellow spotlight. How 'bout you just shut the hell up and let us in? NOW WOULD BE NICE!

"We. . . .we wish to stay at the inn." Frodo tries to speak louder, but his efforts are lost in a sudden scream wind. "Our business is our own!"

"Alright, alright. . . . I meant no offense." The gatekeeper mumbles, and he moves out of the way so the four hobbits and Tabitha can gratefully hurry in to the safe confines of the village. "Can't be too careful these days. . . .there's talk of strange folk abroad."

Uh-huh. I'm sure.

As soon as they pass the gates, Tabitha moves to the front of their group. It's just impulsive. The hobbits are so small, and a sudden, fierce sense of protectiveness grips her heart.

If anyone wants to mess with them, HA! I'd like to see them fare against my ninja skills! She thinks, rubbing her hands together in preparation. . . .and mainly to keep them from going numb.

Sam looks up at her as they wander the beaten road. Passing what big folk still linger on corners and doorsteps, eyeing the hobbits with less than pleasant intentions. "It's a good thing we have you here, Miss Tabitha." He murmurs, then gazes around at the tall buildings with clear, mounting trepidation.

"No one will bother us with her around, that's for sure." Merry agrees, well, quite merrily. Despite the weather and the seedy inhabitants of Bree. "She seems to be taller than most everyone here!" He gathers confidently, and pulls his cloak tighter around him.

Tabitha grins, which is actually an impressive feat with her chattering teeth and splinter-infested feet. "You g-got that r-right!" She's on the verge of saying something else, but then there's a soft tugging on one of her blue hands. . . .

"You're going to fall ill if we don't find the inn soon." Frodo stares up at her intently, wide eyes brimming with worry. "I have some. . . ." He fishes around in one of his pockets, then pushes some glinting coins into Tabitha's palms. "Here. You need proper clothing."

Tabitha feels her heart swell so intensely in her chest it might just burst straight through her ribs. Tearing eyes gaze back at the Baggins with ever-growing fondness, and she shakes her head. "I can't take this, Frodo-"

"Please, I must insist. If you do not take them, you cannot come with us." He tells her sternly. But those blue orbs twinkle, and a lump of emotion sticks in Tabitha's throat as she nods.

It's all she can manage back in the ways of gratitude, but Frodo seems to understand her nonetheless. He tightens his hand around hers briefly before letting go.

"Look! There it is!" Pippin suddenly announces. He flings out an arm and points to an old wooden sign, swaying crooked in the breeze. And, yes, the sign has a faded image of a white horse on it.

"Go and get some clothes, Tabitha." Frodo tells the girl, and gently pushes her along. "We will save you chair, and Gandalf, I am sure, would like to meet you. He might even be able to help us find your brother! Just. . . .just don't be too long, alright?" He quickly adds.

Tabitha smiles. Oh, what the hell. It's too damn tempting and I don't care. She swiftly ruffles affectionate fingers through the Baggins's mop of curls, then gives the other three hobbit's a wave. "Don't worry," she chuckles at a panic-stricken Pippin. "I'll be back soon. I'm betting you won't even recognize me!"

"Do you swear?" Pippin shouts after her, as she turns and jogs down the lane.

"I swear it, young Master Took!" She yells back over a shoulder.

And the four hobbits reluctantly watch their new, strange friend disappear into the darkness. Then Merry kindly brings it to the attention of everyone in a two kilometer radius that Frodo is fighting back a blush. Which only makes the eldest hobbit flush deeper. "Come on, now." He says loudly, pretending not to hear Merry and Pippin bursting into laughter. "We mustn't keep Gandalf waiting!"

XXX

Maybe fifteen minutes and all of Frodo's money later (clothing is really expensive here, apparently), a very self conscious Tabitha smoothes down the front of her new, dark navy jerkin and steps inside the loud, dimly lit interior of the Prancing Pony. Smoke and alcohol fumes drift round what little spokes of light can filter through the haze, and it makes the girl more uneasy than she already is as she scans the nearby faces.

Or tries to scan them, at any rate. She doesn't want to get caught staring, but glancing from person to person to person does garner some suspicion she really, really doesn't need right now. So Tabitha sticks to the shadows as she wanders and searches. At least that isn't difficult to do, because the strongest point of illumination comes from a crackling log in a fireplace, in the very corner.

There are shadows everywhere to hide in.

Come on Cole, come on! She thinks, biting the inside of her mouth with creasing brows. You must have realized by now that we're stuck in Middle-earth, and the only way we're ever going to find each other is if we go to some place we both recognize! You're SMART, Cole, SO WHY AREN'T YOU HERE?!

Not that she hadn't checked every shop and house front, both on her way from the inn and then on her way back again for her brother as well. But those attempts proved useless. Of course.

Tabitha fights back the rising panic in her as best she can, but soon the smoke fumes are making her eyes sting and her lungs hurt and she's furiously blinking back tears. Hot, frustrated tears. Who the hell am I kidding, thinking Cole would be lucky enough to land here? Arda is a huge place. . . .he could be anywhere!

She scrubs viciously at her eyes and tries to keep her breathing slow and even. Okay. Don't panic. Panicking will get you nowhere, despite this horribly. . . .horribly overwhelming task you've got laying ahead of you, now. The girl draws in a gulping lungful of air, nearing the point of hyperventilation, when she hears it.

Lee! What's the matter with you? You're stronger than this!

Tabitha immediately whirls around, her heart stumbling over itself in shock. "Cole?" She chokes.

Come on, who else? Her brother laughs, sounding so warm, so close, but. . . .he's nowhere to be seen. Because she can only hear his voice in her head, but. . . .it's still him. So who cares if this likely means she's gone crazy?

"I don't know how I'm going to find you." The girl whispers brokenly, stumbling over her leather pleated boots into a cooler, quieter corner of the Pony. "Middle-earth is so big. . . .and I wouldn't even know where to start!"

Cole sighs. I know things seem pretty bad right now, but you've got to think about you, okay? I'm fine. You know that I'm fine. You can't let your friends down just because you're too busy worrying about me.

Tabitha bites her lip, and knocks her head gently back into the dark paneled wall. "Okay. Maybe you're right."

Maybe? I am right! Lee, Frodo and his friends need you. Fuck the story and go with them to Rivendell.

After a moment, she chuckles to herself. Good thing there's no one around to hear it. "This is really shaping up to be like some horrible 10th Walker fan fic story. You know that, don't you?"

Only it's not a story, idiot, Cole tells her affectionately. And who the hell cares? I mean, do you have a choice? You know that I would personally kill you if you abandoned Frodo to wander Middle-earth by yourself, right?

"Yeah. You would." Tabitha shakes her head. "No more angsting, no more worrying, and no wandering off alone. Got it."

Glad to hear it, kiddo. Love ya. And I think somebody's looking for you, by the way. . . .

Huh? "There is?" The girl wonders. She pushes away from the wall and braves another venture into open space, squinting through the haze.

There, at a small table off to one side of the Pony, sits four hobbits casting nervous glances around at the other boisterous, intimidating patrons. No Gandalf. But Tabitha already knew he wouldn't show up, which means. . . . As she walks closer to her friends, she gives a nonchalant glance into a different corner. Where a man, hooded and cloaked in shadow, smoking a pipe between his lips, is seated all by himself. Watching her friends. Watching her.

Oh Aragorn, don't be so dramatic, Tabitha smirks to herself. But, really, her heart gives a leap of excitement at the prospect of their meeting with Strider fast approaching. Maybe this won't be so bad, after all. Maybe.

She stops in front of the hobbits and sticks her hands on her hips, lifting her chin ridiculously high. "And what do you think you're doing at my table?" She demands in her best booming, Middle-earthen accent.

And it works. Merry's face pales and Pippin gives a jump in his chair, slopping ale down the front of his vest with shaking hands. Sam's hazel eyes grow wide with fear, but Frodo. . . . Initially, the Baggins is just as startled as his companions. Yet, as the seconds pass, his blue eyes narrow suspiciously at the girl in her navy jerkin, white tunic, and deep brown breeches. . . .and then they double in size when the recognition hits.

"Tabitha?" He gasps. "You. . . .you look so. . . ."

"Goodness, Miss Tabitha!" Sam grabs his chest, like his heart just might pound right out of it, and shakes his head. A relieved grin crosses his face. "You gave us quite a fright there."

"And don't you ever do it again!" Pippin cries, getting up from his chair to throw his arms around her midsection.

"I'd say. That was. . . .well, I didn't like it one bit!" Merry scowls, but when Tabitha finishes her hug with Pippin, she marches right over to the blonde hobbit and kneels down beside his chair.

"I'm so sorry." She grins, patting his shoulder. "But I just couldn't help it. Please forgive me, Master Meriadoc, for I promise on pain of death I will never do it again."

Merry snorts, but he can't resist grinning back. "It was kind of funny, actually. Pip, you spilled your ale on your vest."

"I did not! Most of it landed on the table!"

"You did too- I saw you-!"

It's. . . .odd. How the air of the hobbits can go from anxious and reserved to their normal, infectious cheer within moments of Tabitha's reappearance.

Have I really made that much of a difference in their lives already? She muses, pulling a chair up to sit next to Frodo. Hmm. . . .

Merry has gone up to the bar for more drinks, and Sam has reverted, somewhat, to glancing around them with worried brows.

"So. . . .Gandalf isn't here?" Tabitha looks at Frodo.

The Baggins shakes his head dismally. "Not yet."

"Well, I'm sure there's a real good reason for him not showing up, then." She shrugs. . . . Like he's locked in a life or death battle with that nutcase, Sauramon.

And apparently she doesn't come off as indifferent as she hoped. Frodo studies her carefully with those searching blue eyes, and she finds it a little more than difficult to hold his stare.

"When you mentioned earlier. . . .about our world existing in a book, in your world. . . ." He begins slowly. "What, exactly, did you mean by that?"

Oh boy. I'm surprised this didn't come up sooner. Tabitha sighs, rubbing the back of her neck. Then again, Frodo is an incredibly sharp hobbit. . . . But she thinks she's saved from replying for a moment when Merry comes back with a tall, frothing drink and claims the table's attention.

"What is that?" Pippin gawks at the mug.

Merry grins broadly. "A pint, my friend. This is a pint."

"It comes in pints? I'm getting one!" The youngest hobbit so declares, and hurries up to the bar.

Sam and Tabitha catch each other's eye, then quickly look away, fighting back chuckles. Though the laughter in Tabitha's face dwindles away when she looks back to Frodo.

He's frowning at her. "What kinds of books are they?" He nonetheless presses. "You don't have to explain everything. . . .but, I told you the truth about how I knew you." He says quietly And the beautiful innocence in those blue orbs cuts Tabitha's heart in half. She falters and opens her mouth, only to shut it again with shame coloring her face.

"I would always tell you the truth, Frodo." She mumbles, and drops her gaze to her lap. Painfully aware of how hollow the sentence sounds, no matter how badly she means it. They haven't quite known one another long enough for there to be a whole lot of. . . .trust, between them.

Maybe some. But nowhere near enough for him to believe what she just said.

"My books. . . .they're just stories." Tabitha tries to convince him. More like she's trying to convince herself. Or her hands, because that's what she's staring at in her lap. "They aren't real like this is, right now. I mean. . . ." She stops and shakes her head miserably.

I can't do this. I can't tell him. It's not fair. . . . Oh, he's going to be so disappointed, isn't he?

"I'm sorry."

Frodo doesn't reply right away. And when the minutes keep ticking by, and the silence keep stretching, Tabitha feels her face burn. She squeezes her eyes shut, only to open them up in surprise when she suddenly feels a warm resting over hers.

The girl looks up, and Frodo is smiling this small, fluttering wisp of a smile at her.

"Please, don't apologize. And maybe I wouldn't understand even if you were able to tell me. But. . . .all that truly matters to me is that you're here now. I mean, just the fact that you're real is. . ." His smile widens into something of an embarrassed grin, and he draws his hand back to his own lap. A faint blush deepens in his pale cheeks.

"Hey, I'm glad I'm here, too. Getting chased by Black Riders and almost dying aside." Tabitha jokes, pleased when she actually manages to make him laugh. Well, that could have gotten really awkward.

After another ten minutes of random, light conversation, Sam clears his throat.

"Mr. Frodo. . . ." The Gamgee taps his friend on the shoulder with wariness glinting in his eye. "That fellow over there has done nothing but stare at you the whole night."

Frodo frowns and he, Sam, Merry, and Tabitha all (very obviously) look over at the man hooded in darkness at his corner table.

And then, they hear this from the bar area:

". . . .a Baggins? Sure I know a Baggins- Frodo Baggins! Here's right over there-!" Pippin is announcing brightly. For the whole entire world to listen in on.

The color drains from Frodo's face as he jumps up. Tabitha follows suit, but her eyes stray towards Strider, who has magically gone and vanished from his own table.

"Wait, Mr. Frodo!" Sam calls in panic. "Where are you going?"

But he's already gone and pushed himself through the crowd to get to Pippin. And Tabitha, burning to do something but agonizingly knowing that she shouldn't, only stays rooted to the floor when one of the rowdy regulars knocks Frodo to the ground.

Oh man. This SUCKS! And what can I do? NOTHING, at least, not without messing up the plot! Dammit. . . !

There's a glint of gold in the air. Poor Frodo, who's eyes grow so wide in terror as he reaches up for the ring, before anyone can notice it. . . .

And then, it's touching the tip of his finger, before he's completely gone.

XXX

I have no idea what I'm going to be doing about this story. I was hoping I wouldn't get tired of writing it so fast, but. . . .it's just taking me forever to update and when I do, frankly, they aren't very good. So the future of this story is kind of up in the air at the moment.