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Handkerchiefs and Mushroom Soup  by Baylor

(Note: Set in the early spring of the year 1409 SR, so Pippin is 19, Merry is 27, Frodo is 41 and Sam is 29. Bilbo would have left the Shire eight years earlier, but it is nine years before Frodo leaves the Shire with the Ring.)

I could hear Sam talking to someone as soon as I entered Bag End, shivering from the cold, freezing rain that was splattering down and coating all of Hobbiton with a thin layer of ice. In hindsight, I wondered what had possessed me to run out to the marketplace in such weather, and over Sam's protestations, at that.

"Sam?" I called down the corridor, ready to admit my error.

He didn't answer and I frowned as I hung my cloak up and deposited the packages onto the corridor table. I followed Sam's voice to the study, glad to hear the crackle of a fire. I had opened my mouth to call to Sam again and ask who was here when I heard Pippin's distinct voice respond to something Sam had just said.

Sure enough, when I entered the study, there was Pippin sitting on the floor in a miserable heap in front of the fireplace, surrounded by wet clothing that Sam was helping him divest of. "Why, Pippin!" I said, somewhat surprised to see my young cousin at Bag End, apparently alone, this late in the day. "What are you doing here?"

Pippin didn't meet my eyes, concentrating instead on undoing the buttons on his coat, which appeared wet and dirty. "Can I stay here, Frodo?" he asked woefully.

"Of course," I answered, trying to puzzle out what circumstances might have caused Pippin to show up alone on my doorstep in such weather. Sam was giving me that funny Sam look he gets when something unpleasant but not terrible has happened. I raised my eyebrows inquiringly at him as he took Pippin's coat and piled it on top of the cloak and various other outerwear in his arms. Then he skirted the sofa and came over to me.

"I think he's had some type of row down at the Smials, and then somehow slipped coming up the Hill from the stables and got himself right wet and cold," Sam said low near my ear. "He showed up not long before you came in looking like a half-drowned cat and just as wretched."

"Is that so?" I said, not matching Sam's lowered voice. I moved around to stand in front of Pippin and surveyed him. He was still trembling from cold, despite the few minutes he had had beside the fire. His hair was wet, as were his trousers. His face was ruddy from the cold, and his nose was dripping. His bow-shaped mouth trembled with the effort to hold back tears, and he sniffled every minute or so.

"I'm just having a, a bad d-day," Pippin said in great, gulping breaths that were almost, but not quite, sobs. He was still looking down, now working on his waistcoat buttons.

"Oh, Pip," I said with tender exasperation. This little one had a knack for causing himself woe. Sam was about to bustle out of the room, and I turned to him. "Sam, would you be so kind as to draw Master Pippin a hot bath? I know he would appreciate it."

"Certainly, Mr. Frodo," Sam answered promptly. "Will you be wanting one as well?"

I waved his question off with a hand. "No, I'm fine, thank you, Sam. If you would just get his bath and then start fires in my room and Pippin's usual one before you go."

Sam nodded his head. "Yes, sir," he replied and trooped out with Pippin's pile of wet clothing.

"Thank you, Sam," Pippin echoed me with the automatic good manners of a well-bred child, but Sam was already gone and Pippin's voice was too thin to carry. I crouched down in front of him and gently touched a knee.

"Now, what's all this?" I asked kindly. "Are you here alone? Where's Merry or your father?"

He sniffled and wiped his nose on his shirt sleeve. "I lost my handkerchief," he mumbled in misery.

"Oh, I can fix that fairly easily," I answered, fishing through my pockets for the desired item. I located one in an inside coat pocket and handed it to my young cousin, who accepted it with a whispered, "Thank you," and proceeded to blow his nose. He then sat silently, his jerky breath making his shoulders hitch. I picked up a cold foot and rubbed it between my hands briskly.

"Now tell me what is wrong," I commanded as I continued to warm his foot.

He took a deep, shaky breath. "Nothing," he said dejectedly. "I mean, nothing really. It's silly and I'm just having a bad day and I slipped on the Hill and got simply soaking wet and it was already so cold and I haven't had any tea and everyone is mad at me so I thought I would come here and maybe you would let me stay but then it was so very rainy and icy and windy and I just wanted to be somewhere warm and dry so please can I stay here, Frodo?"

The recitation increased in speed and pitch as it continued, ending with very-near tears and Pippin lifting his head to look at me with wet green eyes. I knew all of Pippin's tricks, but this look wasn't his playing-for-sympathies one, this was true wet-cold-hungry child misery. He could have asked me to run back out into the cold night and find fresh mushrooms for his supper and I would have said yes in the thrall of that face.

"Oh, Pip!" I said again, smiling with sympathy and placing a hand on his cold cheek. "Of course you can stay here. But what do you mean everyone is mad at you? And you did tell someone you were coming here, didn't you?"

He sniffled and looked back down, mumbling something I couldn't hear. I felt a pang of anxiety. If he had run off from the Smials without word and failed to turn up at bedtime, there would be an uproar that we would be able to hear right here in the study at Bag End. "Pippin?" I said sternly.

He twisted his hands around. "I told Toby I was coming here," he said somewhat sullenly.

Well, those were not the best words he could have uttered, but they weren't the worst either. Toby the elderly coachman couldn't exactly give Pippin permission to come visiting in Hobbiton, but at least when his parents started hunting around for him, someone would be able to let them know where he was. I didn't know if Pippin had ever gone anywhere without his father's express permission before, and at 19, he really wasn't allowed to traipse about the Shire alone, at least not so far and in this kind of weather.

I sighed. "All right, then," I said, deciding to skip over the "everyone is mad at me" part for the moment. "Do you suppose Sam has that bath ready?"

Pip snuffled a little and shifted his legs as though they ached. "I hope so," he said faintly, and then accepted my hand as I stood up. I pulled him to his feet, and he leaned in toward me, still holding my hand. "Thank you, Frodo," he whispered.

I brushed wet, tangled curls from his forehead. "Of course, dearest," I said quietly. Then I briskly announced, "Bath time for you, I think, then supper for us both and then bed. How will that do?"

Pippin didn't answer, but nodded his head in agreement and headed out of the room. At the door, he let out a tremendous sneeze.

"Pippin!" I said, half laughing and half concerned. "Are you all right?"

He was, fortunately, still clutching my handkerchief, and he wiped his nose with it. "Yes," he said, "just all cold and wet still."

I gave him a little push into the corridor and down toward the bath room, now emitting promising-looking puffs of steam. "Well, then get in there and be all warm and wet, Master Peregrin. I'll see to our supper." Pippin steered himself into the bath room while I went to the kitchen, where I found the fire newly stoked and the tea kettle already on. The packages I had brought in had been directed to the proper places, and Sam was heaping firewood into the bin.

"All in order, Sam?" I asked, rummaging around for supper supplies.

"Yes, sir," he answered. "There should be enough wood to last you and Master Pippin the night, and there's a bit more in the bedrooms as well."

"Then you should run home before the weather turns even worse," I told him. "Mind yourself going down the Hill, and come back if it is too slick. You know that you can always stay here, and your folks will know where you are sure enough."

"Thank you, Mr. Frodo." Sam was already headed out the door. "You just let me know if you or Master Pippin need anything else, and I'll be back first thing in the morning."

"Thank you, Sam." I put extra emphasis on my words and looked at Sam to show I meant them, and he blushed, then quickly shut the door on the bitter night.

I pulled together thick potato soup, bread, stewed beets and carrots, some cold slices of salted pork, and the last two pieces of a pumpkin pie. I added tea for us both, an ale for me and a glass of buttermilk for Pippin, and we were set. Pippin came into the kitchen, clean, dry and in fresh clothing, just as I set the last of the dishes on the table, demonstrating that no matter how poor of a day he was having, his ability to determine when the next meal was being served had not suffered.

"Mmm." Pippin stood over the table and sniffed the pleasant aromas, looking much more content with his lot in life than he had when I first had come in. I pulled out his chair and then moved around the table to seat myself.

"Sit!" I ordered and he quickly complied. We filled the next half hour with clearing the table and there was very little talk, but finally even my cousin (and young hobbits do take a lot of feeding) seemed satisfied and pushed back his platter. I poured us both a fresh cup of tea and we sat for a while in familiar silence, a rare occurrence with Peregrin. I wondered if he was simply tired or if he was avoiding 'fessing up to whatever crimes had led him to my door.

"So," I finally said, "I am your last refuge, am I? Tell me what has led you to this sorry state of affairs."

He fiddled with his tea spoon and did not meet my eyes. "I was mean to Pervinca," he said after a long moment.

"How so?" I prodded. Pippin and his next-eldest sister had long been rivals for the attentions of both their parents and the children's nurse, and squabbles between the two were not uncommon, though they had dropped off significantly as they had aged.

Pippin squirmed in his chair and I frowned. I had once seen the lad tackle his sister at the top of a knoll, toppling the two of them down the hill until they landed in the mud, ruining poor Pervinca's new Litheday dress and pulling out a hunk of her hair in the process, and he had not looked so guilty at the end of that escapade as he did now.

The tips of his ears were furiously red, and he carefully studied the tabletop as he answered in a low voice, "I said she had a big mouth."

I squelched a smile. Pervinca was a rather exuberant young lass who often could be heard over a throng of other tween-agers. "That's all?" I asked, knowing full well it could not be.

Pippin's whole face was red now. "No. I said that with her big mouth, she would have to find a lad who was a good as deaf if she wanted to get married."

"Pippin!" I was truly astounded. Peregrin certainly has the Took capacity for getting himself into trouble, but never have I known him to be cruel or mean-spirited.

"I know," he said wretchedly. "I am terribly sorry, and I tried to tell her so, but she wouldn't even come out of her room to listen to me. And Father already scolded me horribly and said he was ashamed and that he should take a strap to me and I think Mamma cried because Pervinca cried so please don't scold me more, I really am so very sorry."

I swallowed back my words of reproach and drank some more of my tea instead of speaking my mind. When I spoke, my tone was serious, but I tried to keep any recrimination out of it.

"Do you know why you would say such a hurtful thing to your sister, Pippin? It is not like you to deliberately wound someone you love."

He sniffled, and although he was the picture of misery, he was not crying. "But I don't know, Frodo. My head hurt, and I had a horrid fight with Merry, and she was bothering me about every little thing that is going on in Buckland and asking me about this lad and that lad and did anyone ask after her while I was at the Hall. I said why would any lads be asking after her and I told her I wanted to be left alone and she said she could see why all the Brandybucks had sent me off, I was so unpleasant, and it just popped out before I knew I was going to say it."

"Hmm." I studied him hard and carefully reviewed the rambling confession in my head. "So that was when, last night? yesterday afternoon?"

He nodded and mumbled, "Afternoon."

"And then your father reprimanded you and you hid all evening and then set for Hobbiton first thing this morning?"

He nodded again.

"And when did you have a horrid fight with Merry?"

"Oh!" Pippin looked surprised and I knew that he had not meant to let that bit of information slip before. "Um, at the Hall."

"Yes, I know where," I said as patiently as I could. Normally one could not get this lad to stop talking, but clearly I was going to have to drag the story out of him. "Did Merry’s folks send you home because of it? When did all this happen and what was it about? You and Merry hardly ever quarrel."

Pippin chewed on his lower lip. "It wasn't a quarrel," he said in a low voice, "it was a fight. And Merry was mean and I think he meant it."

We sat in silence for several minutes, and I had begun to think he wasn't going to tell me at all when he finally began to speak.

"The Maggot lads were in with some deliveries to the Hall, and were waiting out the weather. We wanted to play roopie so we decided to play in that barn behind the west wing." (Roopie being a popular game with the hobbit tweens and teens involving two balls, four sticks, and seven players. I had been quite the player at one time.) "But you know how things go, and, well, we ended up smashing a new pen wall and frightening a bunch of sheep half to death. Several of them got out, a couple even outside the barn, and we had a time getting them back in, and the ones that got outside were soaking wet and freezing.

"Anyway, Merry had to help us all clean up the mess, even though he hadn't been playing, and then the farm hands had to fix the pen, and I think Uncle Saradoc was quite put out. But I don't think he yelled at Merry, because it wasn't his fault, and all he said to me was that I should start thinking about what could happen before doing things. But then Merry came and found me and was awfully mad."

Pippin's face was practically buried in his now-cold tea, but I still could see his lower lip trembling and I thought he was crying at this point. He took a quivering breath and continued.

"He said he was tired of having to clean up after me when I made a mess of things, and that those sheep could have been hurt or killed by a flying ball, and the ones that were so wet could get sick now. He said he was tired of me never thinking about the consequences of my actions, that I'm too old to be acting like a spoiled child. I told him I was sorry, but he just said I'm always sorry when something bad happens but I never care enough beforehand to act sensibly."

Pippin was crying now, his breath coming in hitching gulps and his nose running freely. "So I told him it sounded like he didn't even want me around and he said, he said that sometimes he, he thinks he doesn't. So I said fine, I would just leave then and Merry just stomped off. So I left and came home to the Smials, but everything was just as bad there, and I don't think Merry is my friend anymore, Frodo, and it's just too awful to stand." With this, Pippin burst into heartfelt sobs and put his head on the table.

I moved from across the table to the chair beside him and gently rubbed his back with one hand while I stroked his curls with the other. "Oh, Pippin, it's all right," I said. "Merry didn't mean it, I know he didn't. You must know how much he loves you."

Pippin shook his head fiercely. "No, I've just misbehaved too many times for him to put up with me anymore. He hardly ever wants to play anymore, and he's always talking about how this thing grows or that thing works at the Hall. He doesn't have time for me and I'm always mucking up his plans. Nothing is like it used to be and I don't think it's ever going to go back."

"Oh, Pip." I didn't know what to say to all this. Of course, Merry loved Pippin more than anything in Middle-earth, anyone who knew the two lads knew that, and these growing pains would not change that. But they had always had such an easy relationship, and Merry forgave any transgressions so readily, that I could see how this seemed the end of Pippin's little world.

I let him cry for a while, and eventually his sobs quieted to heaving breaths. I discovered another handkerchief and pressed it into his hand, making a mental note that Pippin's gift on my next birthday was going to be an entire box of handkerchiefs. He scrubbed at his face and blew his nose, then looked me in the face with mournful eyes. I pinched a cheek, a gesture he despised in elderly relations but sometimes tolerated from Merry or me.

"Bed?" I half-asked, half-ordered, and he nodded. I guided him down the corridor to his room, adjacent to mine, and saw him into a nightshirt and under the covers. Then I leaned over and brushed his hair off his hot face. "It will seem better tomorrow, Pippin," I promised. "Just remember that Merry will always love you, no matter how angry he may be with you." He looked doubtful, but he nodded dutifully. I sighed. "We'll talk about it tomorrow, all right? Go to sleep."

He was already curling into the little ball he sleeps in and burrowing under the blankets. I left the room quietly, leaving the door slightly ajar so I would hear if he woke distressed during the night. I cleared the supper table and went to bed.


****

I woke in the middle of the night knowing that something had disturbed my sleep but ignorant of what it was. Then the noise came again and I scrambled out of bed, my heart in my throat. I lit a candle as quickly as I could and dashed into the adjacent room.

Pippin was coughing a deep, wet cough that did not seem it could come from such a small hobbit. I found him struggling to sit up in bed, his body so wracked by the coughs that he could scarcely move. His face was bright red and his nightshirt was soaked with sweat.

"Pippin!" I cried in fear, and then realized that I most likely was just upsetting the lad even more. I took a deep breath, and from somewhere I summoned up the voice of Bilbo, adopting the tone and mannerism he would use when I was ill as a tween-ager.

"Here, here, Pippin," I said, placing the candle on the chest of drawers and sitting on the edge of the bed to help him sit upright. "Just try to take deep breaths and relax. It will stop."

He nodded shakily at me, the coughing not subsiding. I rubbed his back in soothing circles as we waited the fit out. It slowed to ragged pairs of coughs to individual hacks and then finally stopped. I looked at the chest of drawers and discovered that Sam had filled the bedside pitcher with fresh water when he had made the room ready, and I filled the cup for Pippin.

"Just little sips," I cautioned as I steadied his trembling hands. He carefully drank until he had emptied the mug, but shook his head no when I asked, "More?"

I set the mug aside and put the back of my hand on Pippin's forehead. He was hot and sweaty with fever, his cheeks and ears red with heat. He looked miserably at me.

"Frodo, I don't feel well," he said pathetically.

"I can see that," I said in a voice I hoped was matter-of-fact and calming. In truth, I was near panic. I had never cared for anyone who was ill before on my own, I realized. Bilbo had been uncommonly healthy, and when I lived at the Hall, there were nurses and a healer and dozens of motherly types to take care of anyone who wasn't feeling well. On top of that, Pippin had been taken severely ill with the Winter Sickness a number of times as a child, and had very nearly died of it when he was 14. His health had improved greatly since then, but what would be a minor cold for another child was cause for alarm with this one.

I took a deep breath and gave myself a firm mental upbraiding. 'Don't be daft,' I told myself. 'You were sick yourself with enough colds and coughs as a lad. You most certainly know what to do if you think about it. What did others do for you when you woke coughing and feverish in the night?'

Well, to begin with, they did not leave me in my sweat-soaked nightshirt and sheets. And they washed my face and chest with cool cloths and then laid one on my forehead, but made sure my body got covered with warm, dry blankets. And they propped me up with pillows to make it easier to breathe and to discourage further coughing fits. And they gave me plenty of water, juice and lemony teas to drink.

So I stripped Pippin of his nightshirt and washed him down with cool water, then got him in a new nightshirt, bundled him in blankets and sent him to the easy chair while I put fresh, dry sheets on the bed. Then I tucked him back in and put a cool, wet cloth on his still-feverish brow and positioned him in a semi-reclining position with several pillows behind him.

All of this activity was making Pippin drowsy again, but I managed to get him to drink another mug of water. He shook his head at my offer of juice or tea, though, and soon was back to sleep, snoring softly through his congested nose.

I knew I would not be back to sleep that night, so I went back to my room and got dressed and then pulled several blankets off the bed. I went back to Pippin's room and dragged the easy chair beside him and tucked myself into it to wait out the night.


****

I had not intended to fall back asleep, but I must have because a fresh bout of Pippin's violent coughing jolted me suddenly upright. I struggled with the blanket that had somehow twisted itself around me before I could get out of the chair and cross the few feet separating me and my younger cousin. Pippin had curled onto his side, clutching his ribs tightly in a vain effort to still the wracking coughs that shook his little body from head to toe. Even in the dying candlelight, I could see his face was red, and I was shaking myself with fear.

"Easy, Pippin, easy," I said, rubbing his back, pleased that I sounded calm, at least. I did not know what else to do, at least not until the fit stopped. "Do you want to sit up?" I asked.

He managed to shake his head no and reached for my arm, gripping it for support and comfort as the coughs emanated from somewhere deep within him. His skin was hot and damp against me, and his fingers clenched me fiercely, and not for the first time in his life, I was amazed by the determination housed in that small body. I wrapped my free arm about his back to try and give him additional support and we rode it out together.

When the fit finally passed, Pippin was as limp as a ragdoll in my arms, his breath coming in wheezing heaves and his slight body trembling. I rubbed his back and stroked his wet curls, but could do nothing else but murmur soothing nonsense while I still held him. Slowly, his breathing grew less labored and he was able to hold himself up. He struggled weakly, limbs moving jerkily, and I helped him sit up and balanced him with an arm. This at least freed my other arm to refill the cup and press it to his lips. He drained the cup and then whispered, "Thank you."

I kissed the top of his head and his fever met my lips. His nightshirt and the bedding was soaked, and even my shirt was damp from holding him. Pippin hunched over, still breathing heavily and with ominous rattles coming from his chest that made my own breath catch in my throat.

'Foolish Baggins,' I berated myself silently. 'You have made a mess of this.' I saw clearly all of the now-glaring signs of Pippin's impending sickness that had been striving for my attention since he had arrived: his flushed features, the sneezing, the sniffling, his achy legs, his headache at the Smials, his hot face at bedtime. But I had trotted about obliviously and done nothing but wear him out with talk and ply him with food -- I mentally groaned when I remembered the thick, creamy potato soup and the buttermilk I had provided for Pip's dinner, both bad for a chest illness. And then, when the lad first woke up coughing, I neglected to send immediately for a healer, and finally, I fell asleep at my post. I leaned my forehead against the side of Pippin's bowed head. He still clutched his sides, but was holding himself upright now as his breathing eased somewhat.

"I am so sorry, Pippin," I said, remorse and pity striving within me. "There is no one else here -- will you be all right alone for a few moments while I run down to the Gamgees and get someone to fetch the healer?"

But Pippin was shaking his head. "Frodo, don't go out in the rain . . . and wake the Gamgees . . . in the middle of the night . . . just to send Sam out in the rain too," he said in a shaky voice punctuated by heavy breaths. "I'm not so sick that I need . . . a healer this very moment."

I lifted my head and frowned at him, not convinced. "Pippin, that cough is horrid, and your fever is back up. I know nothing of caring for someone who is ill. What if you suddenly become worse? I could not --" I halted, unable to say aloud that which I feared. "Pippin, I cannot let anything bad happen to you." I remembered Pippin's parents after the not-so-long-ago near-call, the grim set to Paladin's mouth that did not go away for months, how Eglantine could scarcely bear to let her youngest out of her sight. I thought of Merry, drinking in Pippin's every word, every smile, every gesture with the manner of one who had thought that dearest to him lost forever, but found it unexpectedly returned. I thought of myself, devising endless amusements for the recovering patient, and then lingering to watch him sleep, following each precious rise and fall of his chest.

But now Pippin was shaking his head at me. "No, Frodo, really, it's all right. It's not bad sick, just a nasty cough." He was speaking without gasping for air, though his voice was still rasping. "I can hear it raining. Don't go running around outside in this weather." He frowned back at me, looking remorseful. "I guess it was silly of me to go running around in it from home to here, wasn't it?"

I gave his shoulders a little squeeze. "Probably. I guess it was silly of me to not realize that you were taking ill and send you straight to bed, wasn't it?"

"Ung." Pippin was sniffling hugely, and I fumbled about the chest of drawers for another handkerchief. When I found one, he blew his nose (a wet and noisy process) and then moved to lie back down.

"No, not yet!" I cried urgently, not wanting Pippin to lie back on the sweat-soaked sheets, and he froze in place, but then began to giggle. The small, phlegmy coughs that interspersed his laughter rather ruined its joviality, but the fact that he was laughing eased my anxiety somewhat.

"Frodo, calm down," he gasped. "You sound as if you need someone to put you to bed and wash your brow."

I joined him in laughing at my reaction. "I am new to the nursing practice," I said. "Have some patience for an old hobbit. And do not lie back down -- I am going to wash you up again, and then get you into a fresh nightshirt and onto fresh sheets. If that is acceptable to you, oh Master Healer Peregrin." Then I sobered and looked at him seriously. "But I am sending Sam out for the healer as soon as he arrives in the morning, and I don't want an argument about it."

Pippin yawned and nodded at the same time. "No Nurse," he said. "No Mamma."

Oh, his parents. I did not tell him that I probably would have forgotten to write them in all my fluster if he had not just reminded me.

"Well," I answered, "I must write to them, but I will say that you are not seriously ill and may, of course, stay with me until you are fully recovered. Provided the healer tells me such." I tweaked an ear at the last, then added, "And, Pippin, you must tell me if you feel you need the healer during the night. I could not bear to write to your folks and tell them that you have taken dreadfully ill because I neglected you."

He nodded, but I decided it wasn't good enough. "Promise me," I said firmly.

"I promise, Frodo," he said, and I felt easier about the whole situation.

I repeated the earlier routine of washing him down with cool water, then drying him off, putting him in a clean nightshirt, wrapping him in blankets in the chair, remaking the bed, and then getting Pippin back into it. He fell soundly asleep in the chair, and although he stumbled the few steps to the bed when I prompted him, I do not think he was awake. I lit a fresh candle and resumed my watch. This time I did not sleep, but tracked the rise and fall of my young cousin's chest, remembering long nights during a grim winter spent doing the same.

"Hmm. Oh, well. Mm-hmm." Ponto Goodbody filled his examination of my young cousin with such punctuation, interspersed with extremely close-up eyeballing of Pippin's eyes, ears, tongue, nose and throat. I was not sure if this was because the healer was thorough, or if it was because he was now so old this was the only way he could see anything clearly.

Pippin was casting me a half-frightened, half-amused look. Old Goodbody was a far cry from cheery, practical Hortensia, the chief healer at the Smials, and Pippin did not know what to make of the old hobbit with the bushy eyebrows that periodically brushed his patient's skin when the healer stooped close to peer at him.

"Yes, yes," Ponto said, sucking his teeth as he looked at the skin on Pippin's arm. "Well, that's it, then."

I sincerely hoped that Ponto was not referring to Pippin in general by the comment. I could have sent for another healer, as Ponto really doesn't practice anymore, but he and Bilbo had been dear friends. ("One of the few folk about who can tell you anything about what lies beyond the Shire," he'd often say. I often suspected Bilbo's friendship with Ponto had more to do with a certain liquid concoction of peaches and grain that Ponto produced each year than with the old healer's knowledge of foreign lands.) At any rate, he had cared for me during every illness I had had since coming to Hobbiton, and I had always fared well in his hands.

"Well," I asked him now, "is he all right?"

"Of course, he's not all right, Frodo, you ninnyhammer," Ponto said, using both hands to raise himself from the bedside chair on stiff knees. He shuffled over to his bag on top of the chest of drawers, stooped at the permanent angle old age had bequeathed him. "He's sick."

I heard some type of noise from the hallway that let me know Sam was listening from some hidden post, but I could not discern if he was brimming with indignation over his master being addressed so, or if he was laughing.

"Yes, I managed to deduce that myself during the night, Ponto," I said. "But what is it? Is it serious?"

Ponto was mumbling to himself and pulling jars, vials and pouches out of his bag. He paused, fingering a tiny jar and holding it up for scrutiny in a manner that most certainly meant he was not sure what it contained. "Heh?" he said. "What is it? Cough, mostly. Here, where are you?" He looked up from the jar and squinted about the room until he identified me. "Come over here and pay attention."

I obediently moved across the room. Ponto began pointing at things and firing off instructions. "This" -- he pointed to a small pouch of pleasant-smelling herbs -- "you put with hot water in a small basin and have him breathe in the steam. You should remember doing that a few times yourself." I nodded, though Ponto was not looking directly at me, and I therefore felt certain he could not see me. "This" -- a vial of pale oil -- "is lavender for his bath at night. Help him sleep. And add a little cinnamon oil if you have it, for the congestion. Lots of drinks -- juice, tea and the like. Put some lemon in it. Honey if he wants. Light broths or soup -- chicken or mushroom. And this" -- a jar of mixed, dried substances -- "brew as tea before bed. Knock him right out so he can sleep through the night. Keep him warm and dry, but he can get up and lie on the sofa for a bit if he prefers. No excitement, though. Give him a cool bath if the fever goes back up. Send for me if it keeps going up. Got all that?" Ponto peered so closely at my face his eyebrows nearly touched my forehead, and I wondered how mirthful Pippin had been able to contain his giggles during the examination.

"Yes, thank you, Ponto. I truly appreciate it," I said, using an arm to begin steering him out of the room.

"Yes, yes," he muttered, scooping up some stray items and dumping them back in his bag before shuffling toward the door. "See that Frodo follows all those instructions, now, Master Took," he said to Pippin, patting his foot under the covers as he left the room.

"Thank you, Mr. Goodbody," Pippin said from the bed, where he was half-hidden by blankets.

"Hmph," Ponto said, meandering into the hall. "Samwise!" he roared with surprising vigor for such an old hobbit and he headed (unfortunately) not for the door but for the kitchen. I put out of my mind what he and Sam might be doing in there (as I was certain it had something to do with that brew Bilbo had been so fond of), and turned back to my patient.

Dawn had been much brighter than the night, despite the continued bad weather. Pippin had slept without more disturbances after the second coughing fit, and his fever did not rise again. His sleep had been uneasy, though, and he was clearly in discomfort. He woke as soon as Sam came tramping in the back, while a healthy Pippin could sleep through an entire troupe of dwarves passing directly outside his door.

I was feeling much better about the whole situation, between Ponto's lack of great concern and Pippin's early morning demand for breakfast. He had eaten only a portion of what he usually could put away, but Bilbo always took hunger as a sign of health in a hobbit, and I have taken my cue from him.

"Well," I said, pleased to have tasks at hand to attend to, "shall I bring you some tea? You can drink it while I write to your parents and then we can take care of that herbal steam."

Pippin nodded, wiping his nose with a nearby handkerchief. (Sam had brought in an immense stack that he had uncovered from some room I probably hadn't been in for years.) "Be careful what you write, Frodo, because you will have half of the family up here if you frighten them, and then you may as well write off the rainy season, for you know they won't leave for weeks."

I vowed to carefully word the letter, for my sake as much as Pippin's, and headed to the kitchen to get his tea. Ponto and Sam were conspicuously absent, but the door to the cellar was ajar. Ponto speaks rather loudly (but as he always had done so I didn't think it was related to old age) and his voice was drifting up to me.

"Now, the important thing is to use just the right amount of sugar, Master Samwise," I heard him say, but then I stoked up the fire and the crackle of the wood, the clatter of the tea pot, and clinking of the tray and dishes drowned out the rest of the lesson.


****

"Mmph." I could see nothing of Pippin's face beneath the blankets, but the tip of an ear was showing, and it twitched slightly. I wafted the steam from the soup toward the lump in the bed again, and a nose and two eyes, blearily blinking awake, appeared.

"Is that mushroom soup?" Pippin asked, his voice a bit raspy.

"It is," I answered, setting the bowl back down on the tray.

"Is it your mushroom soup?" he queried.

"But of course," I said. "And some tea and bread, and a smidgen of apple crumble."

"Mmm." Pippin tossed back the covers and sat up. His curls were sticking every which way, and his face was somewhat flushed, but he seemed to be feeling much better. I sat at the edge of the bed and put the back of my hand to his forehead. He was warm, but the fever was not high. His breathing was still heavy and punctuated by rattles from his chest, but he had slept soundly following that morning's prescriptions, without more coughing fits, for several hours. The herbal steam had resulted in wracking coughs that were painful to watch, but he had expelled quite a bit of nasty phlegm from his lungs and his breathing had improved after that.

I took my hand from his face and rubbed his upper arm a bit, to reassure myself as much as to comfort him. "Hungry?" I asked, and he nodded, looking at the food critically as if to determine if he was interested in anything other than the soup. I moved the tray to his lap, and then added a cup of water poured from the bedside pitcher. "Eat it all," I commanded and he obediently placed the first spoonful of mushroom soup in his mouth.

Pippin paused to hold the liquid on his tongue for a moment, blissfully closing his eyes as he savored the taste. He swallowed and looked up at me with a smile. "You do make the best mushroom soup, Frodo," he said, and I swelled a little. I thought so, and Bilbo always had, too, but it was good to know I had not lost my touch. I ruffled Pippin's curls affectionately and then set about tidying the room as he ate: bundling up the many used handkerchiefs and making sure there were plenty of fresh ones; checking that the fire was still hot enough, but not emitting much smoke; bringing in freshly laundered linens and some extra nightshirts; refilling the water pitcher. Pippin was nearly finished by the time I was done, leaning back on his pillows and sipping the tea. He had devoured all of the soup and the apple crumble, but had only taken a single bite of the bread. I decided that was good enough and took the tray from him to place on the chest of drawers, letting him hold the tea mug. I seated myself in the chair at his beside and propped my feet on the bed frame with a sigh. He looked curiously at me.

"You're a lot of work, you know," I told him, and he grinned somewhat shyly. I grinned back at him to let him know I didn't mind how much work he was.

"So, feeling better, then?" I asked, and he nodded.

"I'm all achy," he said. "But it doesn't hurt so much to breathe."

"Good," I said, glad I hadn't killed the lad by opting for Ponto after all. "I think another herbal steam in a bit, then some more sleep before supper. And you can have that lavender bath and herbal tea before bed."

"I'm in bed now," Pippin pointed out pertly. "And I'll smell like a lass if you make me take a lavender bath."

I grinned. "I won't tell anyone. Well, almost no one." He scowled at me. "Just Freddy. And Ferumbras. Maybe your sisters."

"Frodo!" he said, but he was giggling and I winked at him. We sat in silence for several moments before I decided he was well enough for me to resume last night's conversation. I moved one of my feet to nudge Pippin's leg with a toe.

"So," I said quietly, "are you feeling any better about what happened with Merry?"

Pippin wrinkled his nose and studied the contents of the tea mug intently. He scrunched his mouth up as though something tasted bad. "No," he said sadly.

"Well, what can we do about that?" I asked. I had plenty of thoughts on the topic myself, but wanted the lad to work it out on his own if he could.

Pippin did not meet my eyes, and his mouth trembled a little. "I will tell him again how sorry I am, Frodo, of course," he said, "but I've already said it, and meant it, and he didn't care, so I don't know if there is anything else I can do."

I looked down at my clasped hands, resting on my stomach. "Pippin," I said slowly, "you know, Merry is growing up. He'll come of age in six years, and then he will have much more responsibility at Brandy Hall. His father is preparing him for that. I know it is easy to forget when you are children, but Merry is going to be Master of Buckland, and he must be ready for that day. It is not a bad thing that he is laying aside some of the trappings of childhood."

Pippin sniffled. "I know," he said. "And I will be Thain. But, Frodo -- no one ever asked me if I wanted to be Thain someday, or Merry to be Master. I would rather we were just ordinary hobbits."

I laughed. "But that is not how the world works, Pippin. We do not get to choose what life we are born into. And, anyway, what if you were just two hobbit lads from working families? Do you not think Merry would have to grow up, or you either? In fact, most likely Merry would already be working for a living, with no time at all for play and leisure, and you would not be terribly far behind." I thought of Sam, not yet of age but doing a hobbit's work already.

Pippin twisted the mug in his hands, thinking this over. "Still," he said somewhat sullenly, "what I did was not so awful, and I was sorry about the mess. Uncle Saradoc did not even scold me much. I don't think Merry was angry so much about the sheep as he was angry with me for the way I am all the time."

He looked so miserable, and had hit the nail so squarely on the head while still failing to see the whole point, that I got up and sat down beside him in the bed, encircling his slim shoulders with my arms. "Oh, Pip, my dearest," I said, kissing his curls. "You are right, of course, it was not really the sheep that Merry was angry about, but you do not see that just because Merry was angry with you does not mean that he does not love you still. If he did not, what would the point of his anger be? He simply would not care how you acted. And has it not occurred to you that maybe having to grow up before you do is just as difficult for Merry as it is for you? It must be hard for him to have to go on ahead of you, especially when he sees you still having fun with the other lads."

Pippin snuggled into my embrace and was still as he pondered all of this. "Well," he said finally, "I suppose it isn't much fun to see me off playing while he is learning to be Master. But I don't think I will believe that Merry really still loves me and will still put up with me until I hear him say it. But I will tell him I am sorry again, Frodo, and I will try to start thinking about what could happen before I do something."

I jostled him a little. "Like riding off from Buckland in wretched weather, followed by riding off from Tuckborough in still more awful weather?" I said, half-teasing and half-serious.

"Oh." The tips of his ears were turning red. "Yes, that wasn't a good way to start thinking things over, was it?"

"Probably not," I said dryly. "But I hope this drives the lesson home, with nothing worse than a few days in bed as the price."

"Yes, this should help me remember," he agreed. Then he sniffled a bit, and I reached out for a handkerchief to press into his hand. After he had blown his nose (and handed me the damp, soiled handkerchief), he said wistfully, "Things are not turning out as I thought they would. I thought Merry and I would always do everything together and never quarrel."

I squeezed him. "Just because things do not turn out exactly as we thought they would does not mean they are for the worse," I told him. "Look at my life. I thought for a long time as a child that I would never be happy again, and look what happened. Bilbo adopted me, and was the best friend I could ever have imagined, and now I am my own hobbit and master of Bag End, and nearly as happy as anyone could ever hope to be. We cannot always see the end, Pippin, but life will take us where we are supposed to be."

He didn't answer, but nuzzled into my shoulder, the tension slowly draining out of his body. I took the tea mug from his loosening hands and set it aside, then leaned back and stroked his hair until he drifted off to sleep. I lay there for a while longer, watching the fire and thinking about how life guides us down paths we could not have pictured on our own.

****

For the second night in a row, I woke knowing that something had disturbed my sleep but ignorant of what it was. After a moment, I identified the sound as someone knocking -- rather frantically -- at the front door. I stumbled out of bed and into some clothing, but by the time I had lit a candle and fumbled into the hallway, Sam, staying over in case Pippin took worse and we needed Ponto, had the door open and was pulling in a shivering figure in a cloak. It was Merry.

"Is he here?" he asked in a shaking voice. Even in the warm light of the candles, his face was ashen.

"Pippin?" I asked. "Yes, he is. But, Merry, what are you doing here? And at this hour in this condition?" Merry was more soaked to the skin than Pippin had been the day before, but did not seem to notice that he was dripping water on my rug and shivering, so I reached out and began to remove his cloak.

Sam was wrapping himself in his own cloak. "I'll just run Mr. Merry's pony down to the stables, sir," he said. Then he looked Merry up and down critically, trying to assess his condition. "Unless you think I should go out for the healer again."

Merry went even paler, and his shaking increased. He opened his mouth, but no words came out. He was not helping me remove his cloak, but he was not stopping me either, so I forcibly maneuvered him out of it.

"No," I said to Sam, "let me see what is the matter first. Just run the pony down and hurry back. And be careful coming back up the Hill."

Sam darted out the door into the wet night and I took Merry by the shoulders. "Now what are you about, Meriadoc?" I asked in a firm voice, trying to get him focused on me.

"I-I, I didn't know he had left," Merry stammered. "I never would have let him go in this weather, and I didn't know he was getting sick, and I came as quick as I could from the Smials, but, I just, they said -- Where is he, Frodo?" Merry was holding onto my forearms tightly, and his voice was high and tight with strain and exhaustion.

"Merry, it's all right," I said softly, still confused but getting the idea that he had learned Pippin was ill and had worried himself into a state over it. "He's asleep in his room."

Merry shook his head vigorously and clenched his eyes shut at my words. "No, Frodo, no, you shouldn't have him in his room, you should have put him in my room, on the hill side. His room has the window and can get a draft when it's windy like this, and then you have to stoke the fire up too much and it might get smoky, and you know that's not good for him, even when he's not ill . . ."

During this jumbled recitation, Pippin's bedroom door had opened and the cousin in question had shuffled out, wrapped in a blanket, rubbing his eyes, curls sticking nearly straight up from his head. Merry's back was to the hallway, and he didn't notice even when Pippin was nearly right behind him.

"I can't believe -- I just -- he said he was leaving but it never occurred to me that he would do so alone, and I can't believe he came all the way here by himself, and when he didn't show up at supper I thought he was just sulking somewhere alone. But then I noticed his cloak was missing, and no one had seen him and finally Berilac said he had gone, actually left Buckland alone, and he thought I knew. I could just pull my hair out for taking so long to get here, but no one sent word that he was ill, or that he was here, so I went to the Smials first but he wasn't there --"

I was beginning to understand. Pippin was watching me with worried, questioning eyes over Merry's shoulder, but didn't say anything. I wondered if the poor lad thought this was an extremely odd dream brought about by Ponto’s herbal tea.

"Merry, listen to me, lad," I said gently, but Merry was shaking his head in what seemed a combination of self-recrimination, disbelief and fear.

"Frodo, you don't understand, I was so horribly harsh with him, and when I finally went to apologize, to find out he had left, alone and in this weather, and the last words I said to him -- Frodo, I have never spoken to Pippin thus, and now he is ill again and if this time --"

"Merry," Pippin said quietly from behind him, and Merry spun 'round as quick as a hobbit can.

"Oh, Pip. Oh," Merry gasped, and then sat right down on the hallway floor and buried his face in his hands, trembling from the shock and relief.

"Merry, it's all right. I'm all right," Pippin said, and then knelt down beside our cousin and wrapped his arms around him. Merry clung onto him as though Pippin's small body were the only thing keeping him afloat in a treacherous current, burying his face in Pippin's shoulder.

"I'm so sorry, Pippin, I'm so sorry," Merry said several times, and Pippin responded by kissing Merry's honey-brown curls and rocking him slightly. "I am too, Merry," he said. "But it's all right now, and I'm not bad sick." I watched in wonderment as the sick, cranky child in need of comfort effortlessly became the comforter.

Merry took several great, heaving breaths, and the shaking in his body began to subside. "I thought you were," he said, his voice still trembling. "I thought you were bad sick and I had let you run off in the cold and the rain, and the last thing I had said to you was that sometimes I didn't want you around anymore, and I didn’t mean it truly, Pip, and I thought it would like to kill me if anything happened to you after that, I really did."

Pippin kissed his hair again. "Silly hobbit. Why would you think I was bad sick?"

Merry pulled his face from the security of Pippin's shoulder to look up at us. "When I went to the Smials, they said Pippin was here and that he was ill."

Pippin scowled at me. "Frodo, what did you write in that letter? I told you to be careful."

I held up my hands in self-defense. "I told them you had a cold! I said they shouldn't worry, and I would send word if it turned into anything worse, but the healer said you would be fine! Merry, whoever did you talk to?"

Merry face was bewildered, but slowing turning to embarrassed. "Hazel," he said.

"Hazel?" Pippin and I chorused. Pippin groaned. "Merry, you know she always thinks the worst. Don't you remember when there was that tiny little fire in the kitchen that got put out in less than a minute, and from what she said, the whole Smials was very nearly aflame and she and the rest of the kitchen staff were lucky to be alive."

Now Merry looked both defensive and embarrassed. "But no one was there!" he cried. "I mean, none of your folk or even your sisters, Pippin. All I could find were servants and children, and Hazel stopped to ask if I was looking for you, and then she said you had gone to Bag End in this weather, and your father had received word just hours before that you had fallen ill, and she didn't know what my folks had been thinking in the first place to let you go about in this freezing rain and whatever would become of the Tookland if it lost the only heir to the Thainship, so I thought your parents must have come here to be with you, and, Pip, all I could think was of those words I hurled at you and I was so afraid I wouldn't get here in, in time, and I am so, so sorry."

And then I had the second hobbit lad in two days burst into tears in my home. "Oh, Merry," Pippin said, and he was half-laughing, but I could see tears in his eyes. "Don't you know it's Wednesday? It's Tuckborough Quilting Circle for Mamma and the lasses, and every other female in Tuckborough, and you know that as soon as they're gone Father and his mates sneak out to the inn."

Merry's mouth worked soundlessly for a second and then, still sobbing, he said, "Wednesday? Is it? I didn't, I mean --" He suddenly began to laugh through his tears. "Well, of course it is, if I would stop to think about it. And I know full well where your father and his company go on Wednesdays, of course, Pippin, but I had no idea you knew where they went. Uncle Paladin thinks he's very clever and secretive." He pried his face from Pippin's shoulder, and from his expression I could tell he had suddenly realized that Pippin was kneeling on the cold floor and that Merry himself was dripping cold water all over Pip.

"Oh, look at you," he said. "Get up! What am I doing? You are a little sick, at least, and I won't have it become bad sick because you were kneeling in a puddle of ice in the middle of the night."

Pippin laughed, but he stood up and offered Merry his hand, which the older hobbit used to pull himself up. Merry looked greatly improved, but I noticed a little shiver as he stood, and his cheeks were rosy.

"Go on, then, lads, get yourselves into Pippin's room. Sam and I have been keeping the fire warm in there," I directed. "Master Meriadoc, go get out of those wet things and into a nightshirt, and Peregrin, make sure he's wrapped up in blankets. Then you," I tapped the end of Pippin's nose, "get back into bed. Merry can wait in the chair until his room is ready. I'm going to make tea for the lot of us, and that means poor old Samwise, too." I began pushing them both by their shoulders down the hallway.

"Don't bother Sam with making up my room, Frodo," Merry said. "I would rather stay with Pippin tonight, if he'll have me."

Pippin's face was beaming as he put his arm around Merry. "When would I ever not have you, Merry?" he asked, and Merry hugged him back, kissing his tousled curls.

As I put the kettle on, I heard Merry give a tremendous sneeze.

"Frodo," Pippin called, "I don't suppose you have some more handkerchiefs, do you?"

I groaned, leaning against the mantle, and decided that both lads were getting full boxes of handkerchiefs for my birthday, if I could get Sam to tell me where they were hidden away. "I'll find some," I called back to Pippin.

"Really, Merry, running off from the Smials at nightfall in this weather." Pippin's voice, still a little hoarse, carried to me. "You should think these things over before you just do them, or who knows what kind of trouble they will lead to."

"I know, Pippin, I know," Merry answered, and then Sam came in the back with a great gust of wind that drowned out the rest of what they said.

As the kettle began to whistle, Sam sneezed, just as Merry began to cough. I sighed, thinking there had better be an entire room filled with handkerchiefs somewhere at Bag End.

"Pippin," I heard Merry say as I searched for lemon and honey for the tea, "why do you smell like lavender?"

THE END





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