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Handkerchiefs and Mushroom Soup  by Baylor

"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 Pontoís 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 didnít 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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