A/N: Written for Marigold's Challenge 25. Thank you to Pipwise for the beta!
It was a cold and blustery day in the middle of March when Esmeralda bundled herself in a cloak and scarf and set out just after breakfast for Crickhollow, clutching a basket packed with fresh milk and eggs. She had not seen nor heard from her lads in two days now, which was not all that uncommon, but when she had seen them last Pippin had been battling a terrible cold. He had sneezed and coughed his way through supper, hardly eating a thing, and Esmeralda had watched with a sad little smile, thinking of days long gone as Merry fussed over his cousin, trying to coax him to eat something, anything, even if it was just dessert. And though Pippin had insisted that he was fine, he had excused himself before the meal was over and they found him later in the sitting room, fast asleep in a chair. He had not protested when Merry cut their visit short and brought him home.
Esmeralda was certain that if Pippin had taken a turn for the worse Merry would have found some way to notify the Hall, but a feeling that something was not right had gnawed at her a little more each day, and so she decided to look in on them herself this morning. Patting her pocket, Esmeralda felt for the bottle of tonic she had thought to bring, and shook her head. Never mind that they had spent over a year abroad, and had seen and done more than she could ever imagine – how could she not worry about them?
It was not long before the little house came into view. Esmeralda slipped through the narrow gate in the hedge and made her way up the path, taking a moment to peer into the dark windows before she let herself in.
Hanging her cloak and scarf on a peg by the door, Esmeralda made her way through the hallway, peeking into the dark, empty sitting room before entering the kitchen. A fire burned low in the hearth, and on the table were the remnants of a hurried meal – the end of a crusty loaf, smeared with butter, and a bit of meat and cheese on a plate, forgotten.
Esmeralda set the bread aside and washed and dried the plate. It felt good to keep her hands busy; she was strangely reluctant to continue her search with the house so eerily silent. She was reminded of those horrible days just after they had vanished – her three lads, Merry and Pippin and Frodo – and everything had seemed too quiet and still, with too many pieces that had been left behind. Her memories were more disturbing now that she was in this quiet house; if it had happened once, it could happen again, and ever since Merry and Pippin had come back she had seen a strange restlessness in their eyes that had not been there before.
A soft noise sounded in another room, breaking the silence, and Esmeralda was more relieved than she thought she should be. She walked toward the sound, and had not gone halfway down the hall when she heard the noise again, louder this time.
The door to Merry's room opened and Pippin stepped out, a handkerchief pressed firmly to his nose as he sneezed again. "Hullo, Aunt Esmie," he said, shutting the door behind him before noisily blowing his nose. "What are you doing here?" he asked when he was finished.
"What are you doing out of bed?" she asked, clucking her tongue as she peered closely at her nephew’s face. Along with a red nose and dark circles under his eyes, Pippin was terribly pale and looked exhausted. Esmeralda reached up to check for a fever, and was relieved to find there was none.
"Oh, it's just a cold, nothing serious. I don't need to stay in bed," Pippin replied. With a glance back at the closed door he took his aunt by the arm and led her toward the kitchen. "I would have sent for you but you know how Merry hates it when people fuss over him – he always wants to be the one doing the fussing. But you're here now and I… I'd like to tell you more about it."
Esmeralda frowned but held her tongue as she walked with Pippin to the kitchen, allowing him to put another log on the fire but ordering him to sit down at the table as she made tea.
"Now," she said, when they each had a steaming cup in hand, "what is wrong with Merry?"
"It's nothing too terrible," Pippin said, noting Esmeralda's worried expression. "One of his old injuries from the war is acting up. It happens sometimes, and he always gets better in a few days."
"Is it his arm?" Esmeralda asked. She knew what had happened but did not understand it, not like her son and nephew did, these things they spoke of. Kings and goblins and trolls and wraiths – these were characters out of campfire tales come to life, but the scars they bore were there to see, and she had seen those, both the physical hurts and the emotional ones, as much as Merry and Pippin allowed, which Esmeralda suspected was not much at all.
Pippin nodded and took a long sip of his tea before blowing his nose again, and if Esmeralda did not know her nephew so well she would have assumed he was stalling. But Pippin was never one to mince his words, and as soon as the handkerchief was tucked away in his pocket once more he spoke again.
"Every so often his arm goes numb and icy cold from his shoulder to his fingers," he said. "But that's easy enough to bear, and Merry does it well. But sometimes it puts him in a strange and gloomy mood, and he starts thinking too much. That's where the trouble lies."
"That doesn’t sound like Merry," Esmeralda said quietly. "Isn't there any way to stop it?"
"Not that I or anyone else knows of," Pippin replied. His heavy sigh turned into a cough. "The only thing we may do for Merry is to help him through it when it happens. I know the signs now, and I might have spoken to Merry about it if I hadn't been so sick the other night – well, that was part of the problem. It might have happened anyway – it was one year ago yesterday that he hurt his arm, you see."
"Ah," Esmeralda said. Memories were something she could understand.
Pippin nodded again, then sneezed loudly. "Merry didn't say so, but I think that since he was already remembering what had happened last year, he got to thinking about when I had been so hurt. So it made matters worse that I was feeling so wretched when we came back from the Hall the other night. I told Merry it was just a cold, but he was so worried I would fall terribly ill that he insisted that we sit up together.
"That's when I should have guessed that something was bothering him too, but I was so drowsy that I fell asleep. Merry must have too, because he had the worst nightmare. It shook me out of my sleep quickly enough, and it was all I could do calm him down. I thought it would be best to bring Merry to his own bed, and to sit up with him. And I have, since it happened."
Esmeralda smiled. She did not understand everything, and she knew that she never would, but she did understand what was most important. "I'm glad you were there to look after Merry," she said, gathering Pippin close and ignoring his surprised squeak and his warnings that she would catch his cold.
Finally he quieted and wrapped his arms around his aunt, patting her shoulders gently. "Merry will be all right," he said quietly. "He's already resting easier today."
"And so will you," Esmeralda said firmly. "Into bed and under the covers with you, Peregrin. You are to do nothing but rest until that cold is gone."
"But Merry-" Pippin protested.
"It's my turn to look after him now," Esmeralda replied, "and after you. I am going to prepare a nice stew for supper, and then I'll sit with my Merry for the rest of the afternoon. You, my dear, are wearing yourself out with looking after your cousin and neglecting yourself in the process. And you know that Merry would not be happy about that if he were in any shape to realize it. Sleep now, while your Aunt Esmie is here to look after her two best lads."
Pippin grinned; he knew better than to argue with his aunt when she took that tone of voice. "All right," he said, yawning as he crossed the room. Pausing by the door, he added, "You're my favorite aunt, you know."
"On, go on," Esmeralda said, scolding him lightly as she bustled around the kitchen, setting out carrots and potatoes for their meal. In hardly any time at all the stew was bubbling over the fire, and Esmeralda was walking down the hallway again. She looked in on Pippin and was glad to see him asleep at last before she crept into Merry's room and sat beside his bed.
Esmeralda watched her son, his brow furrowed with some unseen worry, and took the hand that troubled him with her own. His skin was chilled, but not with the icy cold that Pippin had described. She stroked his hand, trying to bring it warmth, and Merry finally stirred from his deep sleep.
"Mum?" he mumbled, his eyes fluttering open. "What is it? Is something wrong?"
"Nothing so terrible, my dear. I want you to rest now," Esmeralda replied with a gentle smile. For a moment Merry looked uncertain, his brow furrowed deeply in thought, but at last he smiled and allowed his eyes to slip shut once more.
Esmeralda smiled again. "Rest now, and let me take care of you."