Blossoming

Late May in the Shire. Clouds blow across the sky, but for the moment there's enough blue to make a Sackville's breeches, as they say here in Hobbiton. Bilbo Baggins stands just outside the front door of Bag End, sucking on his pipestem as he sorts through the mail. His pipe has gone out, but he doesn't notice. Letter, letter, letter -- oh, he doesn't like that last: he picks it out, glances both ways, then surreptitiously crumples it up and tosses it away behind the bushes. He goes back to looking through his letters with an air of satisfaction, but stops short as he sees the return address on this next one. He tucks the rest under his arm, and picks open the sealing-wax. A moment's reading to himself, his lips forming the words, and his eyes widen.

Bilbo ducks into Bag End, then emerges carrying only this one letter, and trots down the road. A few of the inhabitants of Bagshot Row are out and about, and they wave good-morning to him. He calls back cheerful greetings -- "Good morning, Gaffer!" "How d'you do, Widow!" -- but doesn't stop. Down Bagshot Row, down to the absolute edge of Baggins land. Here he stops.

At first it looks as though Bilbo's lost. Certainly he looks this way and that as if not certain where to go. Then he turns and looks up at the tree under which he stands, its branches veiled with green leaves. "Hoy!" he calls. "Come down here, Frodo-my-lad, you've an invitation!"

A momentary rustling from somewhere up in the tree. Bilbo sighs, and taps his foot. At last, a cautious voice, somewhere high in the tree. "From whom? If it's the S-B's again, I'm staying here."

"Of course it's not." Bilbo winces, and glances guiltily back up toward Bag End, as if thinking of the letter he crumpled and threw away. But he recovers himself with no more than a second's "It's from Saradoc Brandybuck, if you must know." He opens up the letter again to refresh his memory. "It seems his lady wife has requested your presence at her birthday party."

"A birthday party? At Brandy Hall?" A rustle of leaves, the tree shakes, and Frodo lands on the ground next to Bilbo. He has an enormous book tucked under his arm, with one finger holding his place. A little smile hovers about his mouth. "Will Merry be there?"

Bilbo makes a show of looking over the single page of writing again. "He doesn't say." He glances up at Frodo, over the letter. "Do you intend to make it a condition of your visit?"

Frodo cocks his head as if considering it, then shakes his head, the little smile blossoming to a rueful laugh. "I think Uncle Saradoc would be happier to have me if Merry isn't there."

"Ah, yes," Bilbo says in his best pompous-uncle tones. "I remember being told those stories -- especially just before you came here." He gives Frodo a Look, which his heir blithely ignores. Bilbo shakes his head and continues, "I presume you're going?"

"Of course," Frodo says, taking his finger out of the book and arranging it so he has a better grip. "You didn't doubt it?"

"I couldn't believe my luck," Bilbo assures him, a reassuring twinkle in his eye as he turns and leads the way back toward Bag End, across the dew-damp meadow toward the gardens. "An entire two weeks, without you racketing about? I shall have to take to inviting neighborhood children in to spill the sugar for me."

"I only did that the once," Frodo protests with another laugh.

They fall silent again as they walked up through the edges of Bag End's vast gardens. The flowers are just coming into bloom -- daffodils come and gone, a few lilies-of-the-valley with their small white bells, lilacs and roses budding. Most of the vegetables are no more than seeds in the ground as yet. Frodo looks around. "Where's the Gaffer?"

"The Gaffer and I had a talk yesterday," Bilbo says, keeping his eyes on the dirt beneath his feet.

Sure enough, Frodo levels an accusing look on him. "Uncle! Never say you--"

"I didn't let him go, Frodo-lad," Bilbo says, though he still doesn't look up. "He asked for the meeting, not I. He said he's getting on in years now, and can't keep up with the 'taters and beans as well as once he could." Now he does look up, a glance over at Frodo from the corner of his eyes. "So he asked my permission to take his son Sam as his apprentice, pass on the gardens to him."

Frodo doesn't notice the glance. "Getting on in years," he says indignantly. "He's younger than you are, and I've never known a hobbit more spry." Bilbo bows at the compliment as Frodo's tone gentles. "But it will be nice to see Sam more often."

Bilbo chuckles. "Well, not for the next few weeks -- you'll be in Buckland!" His step slows as they approach the back door: the errant crumpled letter lies neatly on the back stoop, smoothed out. Sam taking his job too seriously," Bilbo says. "Letters from the S-Bs are meant only for fertilizer or fire-starter, not for reading--"

Frodo's laughter lingers in the air as Bilbo closes the door behind them.

*

The front door of Brandy Hall -- near tall enough for a Man to enter, much less a hobbit. The road swings right up to it, rough with gravel, and then circles around to get back to the main thoroughfare. A few scattered saplings have taken root above, but nothing like the ancient tree that leans right over the entrance of Bag End. Brandy Hall is impressive for sheer size. The windows continue on down the side of the hill as far as the eye can see.

"Psst!"

A young hobbit -- not yet in her teens -- leans down over the door, skirts belling out below her. The not-much-older hobbit just emerging stops, looks around, then at last thinks to look up. "Daffodil! What are you doing? You'll fall!"

"I'm fine," Daffodil insists, waving that objection off with her free hand -- her other hand is holding her up with a desperate grip on one of the saplings. "Ger, Frodo Baggins is coming!"

"Frodo..." It takes Ger a few moments to make the connection, then his eyes widen. "The one Merry talks about? The one who stole Farmer Maggot's entire mushroom crop, three years running?"

Daffodil nods so emphatically she nearly loses her grip on the sapling.

Ger thinks about this for a minute or so, then his face falls. "Daff, he won't tell us--"

"It's worth asking," Daffodil insists. "If we don't ask him then Ruby will, you know she would!"

Ger looks around carefully, then scrambles around up onto the hill beside Daffodil. "When's he coming?"

"Today. By carriage."

"When?"

"Mid-day, Merry said."

Ger accepts this with a decisive nod. "Come on, then." He tugs Daffodil back up onto solid footing, and the two scamper off.

A matter of minutes later, the front door opens again, and two hobbit lasses -- one in telltale bright red that betrays the probability of her being the 'Ruby' Daffodil mentioned -- run off down the road. A few seconds later, a lad races down over the hill, leaps over the opening of a window, and hurries off in the same general direction. A little lass, hardly able to toddle, follows him, but can't make the leap. She glowers down at the space, then makes her way over to the slope near the door. She sits down on the grass, sets her rag doll in her lap, and pushes herself forward so she slides down onto the ground. She lands all in a heap, her pretty blue dress falling down over her face, but she picks herself and her dress and her doll up and toddles determinedly up toward the road.

Time passes. Sound of carriage wheels approaching over the graded gravel: a proper carriage, not an open barouche. The driver looks like he's trying not to laugh as he turns the ponies into Brandy Hall's open, it becomes obvious why. Daffodil and Ger, Ruby and her friend, the lad and the tiny hobbit lass, all come piling out, shouting and laughing and generally creating a cacophony to deafen the unwary. Esmeralda Brandybuck, who's come to the door to greet her guest, winces, then raises her voice. "Inside, inside -- let the poor lad down or else you won't be able to talk to him later! Daffodil, your mother wants you -- Lily, we need more mint for tonight -- Der, take Celandine and go fetch some wood!"

The young hobbits scatter, revealing Frodo just hopped down from the door of the carriage. He has Celandine's rag doll in one hand, a patchy thing with faded yellow dress and black yarn hair. Frodo comes forward and embraces his aunt. "Good afternoon, Aunt Esme. I see you still have Buckland wrapped around your little finger."

"I see you still have a clever tongue for a youngling," Esmeralda says, but she takes his arm and guides him toward the door, where Merry is lounging against the lintel and grinning. "How are you doing, out there at Bag End? Is Bilbo treating you well?"

"He's treating me perfectly well, Aunt Esme," Frodo says dutifully, but he gives Merry a look of 'help!'

Merry detaches himself from the doorway and takes Frodo's other arm, snatching the rag doll away before Frodo can object. "I'll show him where the bath is, Mother," he says cheerfully.

"Yes, yes, of course -- Frodo, tea is at four, dinner at eight. I'll see you then." Esme kisses Frodo on the cheek and hurries off into the Hall.

The two younger hobbits watch her go, then Frodo folds his arms over his chest and turns to face his cousin. "Who sent out that greeting party?"

"Greeting party?" Merry holds up the rag doll and makes it do a little dance. "I just mentioned my cousin Frodo was coming."

Frodo rolls his eyes, and snatches the rag doll away again. "What did you think you were proving?" He sounds more amused than exasperated.

Merry looks from Frodo to the doll, then takes Frodo's arm again and begins tugging him toward the door. "You said I was better with children," he explains, eyes bright and innocently wide. "I wanted to give you a chance to prove that wrong."

"I said you could make Pippin Took mind, and I couldn't," Frodo protests, allowing himself to be tugged. He turns the doll over in his hands absently. "Now I shan't be able to get rid of them the entire time I'm here."

Merry tweaks the doll out of Frodo's hands again, upside down so her cloth bum is all exposed. "Since when do you mind younglings, Frodo Baggins?"

"Since their parents started watching me like hawks," Frodo retorts, though he lowers his voice as they enter the Hall, a grand affair of dark woods and polished brass. "They're afraid I'll lead them off onto some Bilbo-ish adventure."

"Not while carrying a rag doll, I hope," Merry says, handing it back again right-side-up.

"Be quiet, Meriadoc Brandybu to the lot of them." But Frodo's smiling again, and he tucks the rag doll safely into his pocket as he follows Merry down the corridor into the maze that is Brandy Hall.

*

"Escaped your admirers?"

"I hope so," Frodo says amiably, as he slides his braces down off his shoulders, and begins to unbutton his shirt. "Otherwise we'll hear it from Aunt Esme for pulling them away from their chores."

"She's just upset because she's too busy to come swimming herself," Merry says, lounging back against the bank of the Brandywine and allowing his legs to float free in the current, bobbing up and down. His elbows are submerged, and the water dampens the very bottom of his hair. Through the silt it can be seen he's wearing smallclothes, in deference to either his mother's sensibilities or the probability of Frodo's 'admirers' turning up. Merry tips his head back and watches with an appreciative smile as Frodo drops his shirt to the grass, and unbuttons his breeches. "What news from Hobbiton?"

"Not much," Frodo says, stepping out of his breeches and dropping them, braces and all, to the ground on top of his shirt. He's wearing linen smallclothes as well, which cling to him as he wades into the water. "No marriages, no deaths, no births, Bilbo's well -- oh, wait, Gaffer Gamgee says he wants to retire."

"Wore him out, did you?"

Frodo kicks water at Merry, who laughs and throws up an arm to protect himself as well as he can. "He didn't say why -- or if he did, Bilbo didn't tell me about it. At any rate, he's to spend the next few years training his son Sam to take over our garden."

"Is he!" Merry pushes off from the shore, paddling out into the river a bit. "Well, that will be convenient."

"Convenient!" Frodo stops around mid-thigh-height to give Merry a genuinely bewildered look. "What are you talking about?"

Merry bobs up and down, treading water. His eyes are wide and innocent, eyelashes spiky with water. "Sam's an attractive enough lad, that's all."

Frodo makes an annoyed pft sound, and kneels down so he's submerged up to his neck as well. "He doesn't care for lads that way, not that I've seen. And he's our gardener." He stands up again, shivering: the water's still spring-cold. "And far too young besides," he adds quickly. "He's no older than you are."

"I shall refrain from taking offense at that," Merry says grandly, raising his chin out of the water.

Frodo makes another pft sound, but he's smiling now. He wades toward shallower water. "Since when are you a match-maker?" he asks over his shoulder.

"Since last week," Merry says, getting to his feet again -- the water reaches about mid-chest. "Farmer Maggot caught me in his fields, and chased me out with his dogs." He winces in memory. "I can't go back for at least a fortnight more. Besides," he adds briskly, wading after Frodo, "conspiracies and trickery are always more interesting when there's someone else to conspire Frodo sits down in the shallows again.

"Pippin's not here. He's home." It doesn't come out quite as casually as Merry would like it to do, his smile a little too forced, tone a little too tense. He adds quickly, "He does go home every so often, Frodo."

"Does he?" Frodo says thoughtfully. "I'd forgotten. I see you two together so often -- like a matched set of ponies." His eyes glint with amusement. "Merry-and-Pippin."

"He's seven," Merry says sternly, sounding for a moment as if he were Bilbo's age. "His father wouldn't let him stay here that much." He wades over to stand over Frodo in the shallows: Frodo leans back on his hands and smiles up at him. "Now you and Sam," Merry says, drawing out the words, "I could see Frodo-and-Sam."

"Yes, oh wise seer," Frodo says, and hits up a splash of water that catches Merry high on the legs. Merry yelps, drops down to his heels, and retaliates. By the time reinforcements -- in the form of Daffodil, Ger, and Celandine, who's carrying her rag doll again -- arrive, both Frodo and Merry are soaking wet and laughing, more serious conversation successfully avoided.

*

"Are you certain you don't want tea?"

"Yes, Aunt Amaranth," Frodo says loudly. "I'll have some when I return to Brandy Hall." He perches on the edge of a sofa, the sort that was momentarily in fashion nearly fifty years ago, before hobbits came back to their senses and resumed making chairs and sofas you could actually sit on without either breaking them or wishing you could break them. This particular specimen is covered in dull gray horsehair, scratchy and so slippery Frodo has to brace his feet to keep from sliding off onto the floor. The floor is also dull gray. In fact the entire room, including Aunt Amaranth, looks gray.

Aunt Amaranth putters around by the fire, where a kettle hangs over the coals. She wears three shawls (all faded beyond recognition of color or pattern) plus a kerchief over her silvered hair. She squints at what she's doing, which seems to involve spooning loose tea-leaves from one jar into another. "How's that cousin of yours doing?" she asks suddenly, in the overly loud voice of someone whose hearing is going.

Frodo blinks, at a loss for a moment, and then realizes who she must mean. "Bilbo?" he asks.

"Eh?"

Frodo sighs, and repeats more loudly, "Bilbo!"

"Yes, yes -- who did you think I meant?" Aunt Amaranth stands up and brushes herself off, and glares at Frodo. Frodo doesn't know quite how to react, not so much because Amaranth is annoyed (that happens at least twice every visit) as because of what he can see through the window beyond her. One of the young hobbits -- Der or Ger, hard to tell which through the thick glass and with the sunlight behind them -- is peering into the room, hands cupped around his eyes to see better. He spots Frodo, and his mouth rounds in an 'ah' of recognition. Then he bobs back down out realizing that Aunt Amaranth is still glowering at him. "Of course you -- Bilbo's in excellent health, Aunt Amaranth."

Her glare relaxes into a gentle smile, and she trots over to perch on a chair herself. "Oh, good. I remember when he was just a lad -- over here all the time, he was. My brothers followed him around, up hill and down dale, and they got into such mischief! But perhaps I shouldn't tell you that."

"Er -- don't worry, Aunt Amaranth, it's perfectly safe," Frodo assures her. But he's paying only a little bit of attention to her tales of Bilbo as a lad. Most of his attention is on that window.

First it's Ruby, peering around until she spots Aunt Amaranth. Then it's Daffodil, who's declared herself Ruby's arch-rival, anything Ruby can do Daffodil can do more and better. Daffodil holds up a marmalade-colored cat: Frodo isn't quite sure if she means to show it to him, or push it into the room, but fortunately the window's closed in either case. Aunt Amaranth breaks off her droning recital of Bilbo's pranks (which mostly seem to have consisted of roaming around the Shire at all hours, and not paying calls on his more boring relations) to stand up, and Daffodil vanishes, with cat, from the window. But Aunt Amaranth merely totters over to the fire, checks the kettle (which is only just beginning to steam), and pours the hot water into a tall blue mug. She puts the kettle back onto the firehook so slowly that Frodo holds his breath, watching her, sure she'll drop it. But she doesn't. Instead she picks up her mug and totters back to her chair, where she puts down the mug on a table next to her chair and looks at Frodo again. "Now, where was I?"

"Telling me about Bilbo Baggins, Aunt Amaranth."

"Ah, yes. Well. So that was Bilbo Baggins." Aunt Amaranth shakes her head and tchs her tongue. "Terrible young scamp. No more of him, if you please. What's the news from Hobbiton? My sister used to tell me -- not your mother, I mean, your aunt Asphodel -- what with her daughter having married a Baggins, but Asphodel's hands ache her and she doesn't write as often. What's the news?"

Frodo licks his lips, doing his best to keep his eyes away from the window, and begins to talk. Aunt Amaranth interrupts him every few seconds -- "Ah, so the Widow Tunnelly's moved back to Bagshot Row, has she? Has her eye on Mr. Brockhouse, I don't doubt," or, "Twins? That family hasn't had a twin birth since my mother's day. But there, I understand the lass's sister Crystal was a twin, only the other poor babe died before they could even name it." -- but otherwise listens closely as Frodo relates every item of gossip from the past three years and more.

Poor Frodo is doing his best, but he's badly distracted, because they're at the window again. First Daffodil, just a quick peek. Then Merry himself, and Frodo's heart sinks. Then Celandine's rag doll, doing a little jig. Frodo chokes back laughter, and tr audible even through the window. Aunt Amaranth doesn't turn around, just sips her tea and listens to Frodo's news.

"Well," she says at last. "I wish you luck with this new gardener at Bag End. I've often said, it's purely a matter of chance whether a hobbit can even coax a turnip up out of the ground, much less the sort of flowers your Bilbo keeps, so you'll need all the luck you can get, trying some new lad on -- what's that?"

Frodo, who has drawn breath to defend Sam, flinches. He recognizes the sound, like one of Gandalf's firecrackers. Fortunately Aunt Amaranth doesn't notice the flinch, having gathered her shawls around her and hurried over to the window to frown out at the sky. "It's probably nothing," Frodo says, though he rolls his eyes as he says it. "Perhaps some thunder."

"It has clouded over," Aunt Amaranth says, as if to herself, then nods decisively and turns back to Frodo. "You should head back to Brandy Hall, lad. You don't want to get caught in a storm."

Frodo bows to her politely, offering the usual polite solicitations for her health and so on, and makes his escape. He shuts her door behind him, and glares off to his right, where the entire lot of them -- Ger, Der, Merry, Ruby, Lily, Daffodil, and little Celandine -- are huddled under Aunt Amaranth's window. Thankfully, there is no sign of the marmalade cat. "Firecracker?" Frodo says.

Merry stands up, cautiously glancing toward the window to make certain he's not seen. "I only took a few," he protests. "And it was for a good cause."

"There are better ways of making the sound of thunder, Merry," Frodo says, still trying to look stern. "You're lucky she didn't think the sky was falling, and keep me in there all night."

"She wouldn't," Merry protests. "Amaranth's a canny old lass, just deaf." He cocks his head to one side. "Now what?"

Frodo looks around quickly. "Now -- now Celandine and I," (he takes the little one's hand as if she were a grand lady), "are going back to Brandy Hall for tea. If the rest of you care to, you may join us."

Celandine takes Frodo's arm, positively glowing (though she still holds her doll protectively close). When she and Frodo have gotten a few steps away from the others, she looks back over her shoulder and sticks out her tongue at them.

Merry laughs aloud, and the rest sneak away from the window to follow Frodo and Merry and Celandine to tea.

*

The field behind Brandy Hall. To one side, the hill into which the Hall is built slowly rises: to the other is the long hedge that separates Buckland from the Old Forest. The trees are close to the hedge today, peering over curiously at the collection of hobbits eating and drinking and dancing.

Today is Esmeralda Brandybuck's birthday, and she and her husband are celebrating it in grand style. Fiddlers down at one end of the green are playing the merry old dances, old biddies are clustering together to exchange the juiciest of gossi green stand two tables, half-filled with salads and meats and fresh fruit. Young folk bustle back and forth, from the table to the Hall, bearing new platters of food or taking back empty ones. Esmeralda stands near one end of this table, smiling and nodding and keeping an eye on her youthful conscripts.

Daffodil and Ruby pass under her eyes meekly. As soon as they've gotten around the turn of the hill and away from public view, they both start running as hard as they can toward the back door. Ruby beats, just barely, and in the process nearly collides with Ger, who's just emerging with a basket piled high with sweet tarts. Daffodil squeaks, but Ger and Ruby manage to duck around each other, and Ger heads on down toward the field, not without a rude noise of his own for Ruby.

The inside of the smial is even more busy than the outside. Half-a-dozen different cooks fill the kitchen with the smells of baking and broiling, this one chopping up parsley to be sprinkled atop a stew, that one filleting a fish to be fried up with good golden taters. Celandine sits under the table, playing with her doll, safely out from underfoot. A handsome young hobbit, carrying a roll of fabric, nods greeting to Ruby. She nods back, starry-eyed, and doesn't recover herself until Daffodil pushes past her.

On down the hall, past open doors showing yet more bustling and stirring and wielding of knives, then nipping in a door. This is the Second Best Parlor, and it's nearly as busy as the kitchen. At the center sits a table with a large glass bowl, half-full of wine-dark liquid. Frodo carefully stirs the concoction with a giant ladle, mindful of the lump of ice in the center. Three or four other lads sit on the floor with juicers, pressing grapes or new strawberries or old grainy apples into mash, or else picking through the mash for seeds before they press the mash again. Merry supervises, occasionally bringing Frodo another bowl of juice to be added to the punch.

"Got it," Daffodil announces, closing the door behind her.

Merry looks up, his face lighting up with a triumphant smile. It fades a little as he looks behind her. "Where's Ruby?"

"Here," says Ruby, opening the door enough to slip in. She frowns at Daffodil, who ignores her. "I've got mine, too."

"Good! Hand 'em over--"

The two lasses produce, from the folds of their skirts, small bottles of dark liquid. Merry opens each and carefully sniffs it. One he tucks into his pocket, the other he brings over to Frodo, who takes it with a bemused look. "What's this?"

"Essence of blackberry," Merry pronounces, with an air of accomplishment.

Frodo gives him a skeptical look. "Merry, this is punch, not perfu--oh." He takes his first sniff of the stuff, and nearly staggers. He immediately caps it again, and blinks several times, shaking his head as if to clear it. "That sort of 'essence of blackberry'."

"Fermented, then frozen and the ice skimmed off," Ruby says, sounding nearly as smug as was her bottle that was chosen. "Father says it's even stronger than Uncle Saradoc's wine punch."

"Good thing it'll be diluted by the juice, then," Frodo says dryly. He holds the bottle out again at arm's length, opens it up, and pours the entire contents into the punch. Everyone in the room holds their breath, but no ominous bubbling, no hissing of mysterious steam. The punch merely darkens a shade or two as Frodo stirs it.

Before anything more can be said, the door bursts open again and Saradoc appears. "Is it ready?" he demands, then his eyes light on the punch bowl. "Ah, excellent! Far, you and Falco help me carry this out. Thon, Hol, take a rest -- we may need your help again, but I promise you, we'll let you go before things start in earnest."

After the three hobbits have carried out the bowl of punch, staggering under its weight, the remaining hobbits relax into various chairs and sofas. Merry cracks his knuckles, while Frodo flops back onto a convenient divan and the lasses curl up on the floor to talk quietly with the lads there, while the abandoned juicers drip unnoticed onto the carpet. After a minute or two, Frodo opens his eyes and asks, "What was in the other one?"

Merry blinks at him. "Hmm?"

Frodo waves his hand at Daffodil and Ruby. "Two lasses. D'you expect me to think there was only one bottle?"

"We both brought one," Daffodil pipes up, abandoning her conversation with the lads without a second thought. "Essence of blackberry, her Da's make and mine."

"Let me see?" Frodo asks, and Merry hands over the spare bottle.

Frodo sniffs curiously -- then, aware of an audience, pulls an exaggerated face. The younger hobbits giggle, then start clamoring: "Let me see! No, let me!" Frodo hands it off to the closest hobbit, who happens to be Daffodil herself. She takes a whiff, then, greatly daring, a sip. Her eyes immediately bug out as she fights the impulse to spit it back out again, and Frodo sits up, reaching out as if to pat her on the back. But she manages to get the swallow down. Her face flushes from the alcohol, but she holds out the bottle in silent challenge.

Frodo leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees, and watches as the bottle gets passed from hand to hand. Most of them just sniff at it, and try to make ever more outrageous faces. The last to take it, young Thon, hesitates over it -- then very, very slowly, raises it to his lips. Frodo rolls his eyes, and glances over at Merry, opening his mouth to say something.

Before he can get it out, the hobbits on the floor erupt into a cacophony of shouts. Frodo looks back, and Merry steps forward, but it's well and truly too late. Daffodil tries to hide her hand behind her back, while Thon sits and stares down at the mostly-empty bottle in his lap and his no-longer-yellow-with-red-polka-dots waistcoat. "You spilled it," he says stupidly. "You spilled it."

"Oh, no," Merry murmurs.

Frodo glances up at him, grimaces, then goes best one can loom while on one's knees) over Daffodil. She looks up at him miserably. Frodo sits back long enough to pick up -- a bowl of loose grapes, left over from the juicing. He begins humming a funereal march as he raises the bowl to over Daffodil's head. After a moment, the other hobbits join in. Daffodil sits up straight, and squeezes her eyes shut.

Just as they're all humming the march together, Merry cuts them off, and Frodo ceremoniously dumps the grapes over Daffodil's head. She huddles down a bit under the downpour. When it's over, she opens first one eye, then the other. Ruby's giggling. Daffodil glares at her, picks up one of the grapes now in her lap, and throws it at her.

Before Frodo can so much as duck, it's become a free-for-all. Merry's no help: if anything, he's busy proving he has better aim than the rest of them. Grapes, squooshy bits of apple that stick to the target's face (or the wall, if they duck in time), gooseberries and blackberries and raspberries and boysenberries which weren't squooshy to begin with, but rapidly become so. And the bottle of essence. It becomes like tag: whoever's holding the bottle is the designated target. Keep-away! Not allowed to drop the bottle, whoever's closest has to go get it and dodge fruit at the same time. They're missing their targets, now, laughing too hard to throw properly.

From Hol to Ruby (who promptly gets showered with left-over mush: Thon is raiding his juicer). From Ruby to Merry. Merry falls backward, laughing, and hurls the bottle in Frodo's direction.

Frodo ducks. The bottle impacts on the wall, and shatters. Glass and leftover essence seep down the wall, as the hobbits stare.

Naturally, right at this moment, Esmeralda Brandybuck opens the door. Everyone looks down at the floor, or up at the ceiling, or anywhere rather than at the Lady of Buckland. Frodo has a raspberry tangled in his hair, and streaks of berry-juice down his face. Merry's even worse off, his mustard vest reddened with berry-mush. Daffodil, Ruby, Thon and Hol? Let's just say they're trying to sink through the floor.

The awful silence lasts a short eternity. Then Esmeralda speaks. "Daffodil, Ruby -- they need help in the kitchen. Thon, Hol, Saradoc wants you outside." She steps away from the door, and the four young hobbits troop out and down the hall. Merry and Frodo exchange nervous glances.

Esmeralda turns back from seeing the younger hobbits out, and merely looks at the remains of her Second Best Parlor. The silence stretches out again, and finally Frodo cracks. He clears his throat.
"Aunt Esme? I can explain."

"I don't need an explanation," Esmeralda says. "I can guess what happened." She fixes her eye on Frodo, who winces, and then on Merry. "Merry, take your cousin to his room, and both of you change -- you smell as though you've bathed in punch."

"And then come back here?" Frodo asks bravely.

Esmeralda graces him with a smile. "Oh, no. T joining the party." Her voice sharpens. "Tomorrow you are going to scrub until this parlor no longer smells -- and then you are painting." She glowers at the mark left by the bottle, then turns and marches back down the hall.

Merry and Frodo exchange another look, sigh, and head down the hall to change.

*

Day after the party, back in the second best parlor. The floor is bare of its carpets, which are outside being scrubbed by Daffodil and Ruby. Thon and Hol are just trudging out again with buckets full of dirty, soapy water, from having scrubbed every inch of the bare floor,. And Merry and Frodo, stripped down to old breeches and shirts, have finished their vain attempt to get the berry-stains off the wall, and are repainting.

"Remind me again why we're painting the whole wall?"

"Because a patch would show," Merry says. He doesn't sound any more convincing -- or convinced -- than he has the last half-dozen times Frodo's asked this question.

Frodo subsides into silence again, and they paint on for a little while longer. Then Merry says abruptly, "You mean you really haven't noticed Sam?"

Startled, Frodo glances over his shoulder. No, Sam's not there. In fact, no one's there. He looks back at Merry. "I haven't overlooked him, Merry. He's my friend."

"Not what I meant, Frodo."

Frodo sighs and turns his attention back to painting. "He's young."

"So am I," Merry points out, slapping on paint so energetically he's spattering himself with white droplets. "So's Pippin."

"Why are you so concerned about Pippin? Besides, you're young in different ways."

"Yes, he's eight years younger than I am."

Frodo sighs and lowers his brush, turning to face Merry. "I'm not talking about Pippin for the moment. I'm talking about Sam Gamgee. Sam is my friend," he says, enunciating the word carefully. "He's also Bag End's new gardener. Neither of those things make him all that likely to become my lover!"

He got a little loud with that last word, and both he and Merry glance nervously toward the door. Still no one. They go back to painting.

"He watches you," Merry says after a moment. "The last time I was there, remember, we ran into the Gaffer trimming the verge, and Sam weeding, remember? And you stopped to chat with the Gaffer about something, and Sam stopped weeding for a moment to look up at you." He hesitates, then closes his mouth. Frodo glances over with one eyebrow raised, but Merry keeps his eyes fixed on the wall.

"A look, Merry?" Frodo says at last.

"Yes, but you didn't see the look," Merry argues.

Frodo sighs, and bends to dip his brush in the white-wash again. "I think you're overestimating things. Sam likes me well enough, but even if he prefers lads, I doubt he wants me to go... sweep him off his feet, like something out of one of Bilbo's tales."

"I'm not saying go back and seduce him," Merry r know. Just... something to think about."

"So is Pippin young."

"We're not talking about Pippin."

"We're through talking about Sam, we're talking about Pippin -- no, don't protest," as Merry flicks his brush at Frodo, "if you're to pick apart my life then I'm entitled to do the same to yours. What has your trousers in a twist about Peregrin Took? And don't try to tell me nothing. You've been dodging around the subject of Pippin since I arrived."

Merry sputters a bit, and attacks the wall. Frodo waits, patiently painting his own section. At last Merry sighs. "He said he loves me."

"Oh." Frodo considers this for a moment. "And?"

"Loves me," Merry emphasizes. "He said -- he said he wants to marry me. That's why Father sent him home: he said Pippin had been here too long if he was falling in love."

"So?" Frodo sets his brush down in the whitewash again, so he can look direct at Merry. "Celandine's been telling me every day that she means to marry me when she grows up."

"Pip's a little older than Celandine, Frodo."

"Not much." Frodo studies Merry for a moment longer, then sighs and retrieves his brush. "He'll forget, Merry. Or he'll decide he prefers lasses."

"You're not helping, you know."

"I didn't find your suggestions about Sam to be all that helpful either," Frodo says, as dryly as possible.

They paint in silence for a moment more. Then Merry says, far too cheerfully, "So what new Elf words had Bilbo taught you now?"

Frodo gives him an odd look. "Merry--"

"Look," Merry says quickly, "we won't settle it all now. By the time we worked out the question of -- of Pippin and of Sam, we'd have the whole wall painted."

"We're nearly done now," Frodo observes after a quick glance up and down.

"Well then," says Merry. "See what I mean?" He meets Frodo's gaze at last.

A long pause. Frodo looks from wall to Merry, then down at his brush hanging idle at his side. The sound of footsteps along the hall startle them into motion again.

"Elvish," Frodo says thoughtfully, and Merry's shoulders sag in a silent sigh of relief. "Well, Bilbo refuses to teach me to curse in it -- he says Elves don't curse."

"They probably don't drop hammers on their toes," Merry agrees gravely. Esmeralda, peering in, shakes her head at their nonsense and moves on.

*

Early June. Frodo trudges up the back path to Bag End. He carries his bag slung over his shoulders, and he looks a bit tired, but he's smiling at whatever thoughts pass through his mind. No sign of the horse and carriage: from the dust on Frodo's feet, he left them behind in Buckland.

His steps slow as he reaches the gardens proper. They're riotous with color. Neither Sam nor the Gaffer have ever held with the notion of strict separation of kitchen gardens from flower gardens, so there are pansies next to the potatoes, and lavender beside the green beans. And by the onions, there are roses.

Frodo stops next to one bush, which blooms a bright, cheerful red. Most of the buds are still tightly furled, but one has burst out, at just the right height to tickle Frodo's chin. He reaches out, takes the stem in a firm grip, and tries to tug the bloom free of the bush. The stem won't break. After a moment of exasperation, Frodo's expression softens. He turns his hand so he cups the rose in his palm.

"Mr. Frodo?"

Sam's come up behind him without Frodo noticing. Frodo guiltily lets go of the rose and turns to nod hello. Sam's smiling, and Frodo can't help but smile back, even as his hand self-consciously goes to his pack-strap. There are shadows in Frodo's eyes, a certain awkwardness resulting as much from his conversation with Merry as from being caught mucking around with the roses.

Sam nods to Frodo politely, then steps around him to the red-bloomed bush. A soft snip of shears Frodo hadn't noticed Sam carrying, and then Sam turns back. The desired rose lies in his hand. He offers it to Frodo. Frodo looks from rose to Sam's face -- then reaches out and takes it. Frodo's smile has faded, but it's settled behind his eyes now, a soft glow of quieter happiness. He meets Sam's gaze thoughtfully.

"Welcome home, sir," Sam says.

end

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