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Merry sat down beside Pippin and plunked his tankard on the table in front of him with a wide grin. The other hobbits raised their eyebrows. “What’s that?” Pippin inquired.
“This, my friend, is a pint,” Merry chortled.
“It comes in pints? I’m getting one!” Pippin scurried away ignoring the admonishment that he had a whole half already.
Merry settled in to sip his drink and rolled his eyes in his cousin’s direction and then back at Frodo and Sam. They could already hear him chattering away with some of the big folk at the bar. Merry shook his head in dismay. It was obvious his patience was starting to wear thin. “He needs to pipe down, wouldn’t you say?”
Sam frowned, following his master’s stare with his own eyes. “He’s talking too loudly.”
“You know Pippin tends to do that when he’s excited about something,” Merry said, adding with a smirk, “Which seems to be most of the time!”
All three of them swung around when they heard the uproarious laughter. In the far corner the mysterious Ranger known to them only as Strider also sat up straight and frowned in the direction of the story telling hobbit.
Frodo tipped a keen ear in Pippin’s direction and couldn’t help but smile. “Now he’s telling the story of the roof collapsing at the Town Hole in Michel Delving.”
Merry and Sam laughed in spite of themselves. That story was well known and Will Whitfoot, the rotund mayor, had been hard-pressed to live down the incident. The nickname ‘Flour Dumpling’ had followed him wherever he went ever since.
Frodo’s smile turned into a grimace as he continued listening. Someone was asking Pippin about the Underhill’s and where the family lived in the Shire. He shifted uneasily waiting to hear Pippin’s reply and raised his eyes to meet the stranger’s as he joined them at their table.
“I would stop your young friend from talking too much if I were you. There have been queer folk about and, well, this isn’t the Shire.” Strider turned his attention back to Pippin and his appreciative audience. The ridiculous young Took was now giving a rousing account of Bilbo’s farewell party and the part about his sudden disappearance was imminent. The name of Baggins would surely come to mind as some of the old timer’s recalled the rumours of Bilbo’s vanishing act from long ago.
“You had better do something Frodo,” hissed Merry. “Pippin is all wrapped up in the attention he’s getting and he isn’t paying a whit of thought to what he’s saying.”
“Aye, these here folks are sure to be inquiring about the name of Baggins any minute now what with all that talk about old Bilbo,” said Sam.
Frodo nodded and rose from the table thinking furiously of what he might say as he headed towards the bar. He needn’t have troubled himself because Pippin had already prattled on far too much. Frodo nearly tripped over his own feet trying to reach him when he heard the next words leave his cousin’s mouth.
“Baggins? Sure I know a Baggins! Frodo Baggins, he’s my second cousin, once removed on his mother’s side and twice removed on his father’s side-”
“Pippin!” Frodo made his way through the crowd frantically trying to reach the young Took before he said any more.
“What?” Pippin’s pint of ale tipped. “Steady on,” he cried as Frodo grabbed for him clumsily. He lost his grip on the younger hobbit’s arm as he fell backwards and crashed to the floor.
Time seemed to stand still in the tavern as the ring of gold flew up into the air and fell, slipping itself onto Frodo’s finger and causing him for all intents and purposes to vanish. Pippin whirled back around with a look of alarm and a belated understanding of his own mistake. The men at the bar gasped at the sudden disappearance and there followed a flurry of activity as they looked about for the missing hobbit. Frodo made his reappearance a short time later underneath the table where Strider sat.
“What did you do that for?” the Ranger whispered. “Worse than anything your friend could have said!”
“It was an accident. I slipped when I grabbed for Pippin.”
Frodo peered out from his vantage point and observed his other cousin, who was quite obviously incensed, scooping up the youngest and hastening him out of the room. It looked like Merry was about to give Pippin a huge piece of his mind.
Strider tapped him on the shoulder. “Come. While your cousins share a few words let’s have the quiet talk I mentioned earlier. What say you?”
Frodo nodded once and crawled out to follow the man. Strider waved Samwise back to his seat before heading up the stairs. Sam sighed and watched until they were out of sight then went back to sipping his ale. His ears perked up a moment later and he listened to Merry’s heated voice in the next room.
“How could you do something so foolish?” Merry gestured wildly with his hands as he paced about the small room while Pippin watched him. “You were told we must keep Frodo’s name a secret and here you are at the bar shooting your mouth off in every direction!”
Pippin stared at him open mouthed, shamefaced, saying nothing, both cheeks colouring slightly as Merry continued his rampage.
“We are in danger Pippin! You have to remember that, not go spouting off anything that comes into your head to perfect strangers!”
“I’m sorry,” Pippin said very quietly.
“You always say that. Of the many ill considered outrageous things you’ve ever done Pip, this one tops the list. After everything that’s already happened since we left home one might think you’d at least have the common sense to think before you speak!”
Pippin eyed his cousin warily as he paced the room then lowered his gaze to the floor and fidgeted with the fringe on his scarf. “I said I was sorry Merry. And I won’t do it again. What else can I say?”
“There may come a time when saying ‘sorry’ isn’t going to be enough and you’re going to get us all in a bad way. Maybe even get your fool self killed! This isn’t child’s play Pip, this is serious business!” Merry stopped pacing and paused in front of his little cousin scowling.
Pippin bristled and his face twisted into a scowl of his own. “Are you calling me a child?”
“Shouldn’t I? Because that’s exactly what you were acting like. A silly little lad who wanted to be the centre of attention at any cost.”
“Silly little-WHAT? I think you’re going a bit too far Merry. I may not have been thinking but-”
“You never think first Pip, you just act. And that kind of habit could get us all killed. I really don’t think you’ve quite grasped the seriousness of the situation this time.”
“Yes I have! How can you accuse me of such a thing? I quite understand, let me assure you. I saw those horrible creatures that were chasing us! I know there is more to this situation than Frodo has revealed.”
Merry shook a finger under Pippin’s nose. “Then how come you got up in front of all those people and answered a stranger’s questions about Frodo? Is there anything in there, lad?” Merry tapped Pippin firmly on the top of his head before he continued, “Or is it that you just got your foolish self carried away because you had an audience? They seemed quite interested in your tales.”
“Merry, someone asked me about Frodo and I was having a good time so I suppose I forgot for a moment that we weren’t back in the Shire and I let slip more than I should have, that’s all.”
“That’s all? You let it slip? Just like that!” Merry shook his head in utter disgust. “Well, you’d best not be forgetting again. You can’t just let things slip, this is too important for that. Maybe it would be better if you just kept your mouth closed in places like this from now on. Do you think you could do that?”
“Keep my mouth closed? As in, don’t speak at all?” Pippin snorted rudely. “I suppose you know more about what should be said then? Probably more than all the rest of us with that haughty Brandybuck attitude, isn’t that right? Perhaps you should speak on behalf of everyone from now on.”
“Well, I probably should when it comes to you at least. You’ve already shown that you can’t be trusted to keep quiet when you most need to.”
Pippin glowered at his cousin. “Are you quite finished scolding me like I’m no older than a faunt?”
“No, I don’t believe I have Peregrin.” Merry looked him up and down critically.
Pippin stared at him, dumbfounded. “Peregrin? Are you trying to sound like my father now?”
“Why shouldn’t I? It’s apparent someone has to keep you in line.”
“Oh, and so you’ve appointed yourself that person, aye? I don’t appreciate you reproaching me to this extent Merry. I think you’re getting a wee bit carried away. I understand why you were upset with me, but enough is enough and I won’t stand for any more of your reprimanding.” Pippin stepped closer and poked Merry hard in the chest.
Merry looked up in surprise both at his cousin’s declaration and the solid jab. He slapped Pippin’s hand away. “You will listen to everything I have to say because I’m speaking the truth and it’s not only for your own good but the rest of us as well. These are grave circumstances we find ourselves in and I’m not going to stand by and watch while you get your fool self killed and maybe do the same for the rest of us! Whether you like it or not!”
“Well, I don’t like it and I don’t like the way you’re talking to me either. And that’s the second time you’ve called me a fool. As a matter of fact I can’t believe the things you’re saying! Frodo isn’t going to like it and he just may have a thing or two to say to you!”
Merry gripped Pippin’s shoulders and shook him firmly. “You are not going to say one word to Frodo. Do you hear me? He’s got enough on his mind without being bothered by his youngest cousin’s temper tantrum.”
Pippin shrugged out of Merry’s grip and backed away. “Stop it! Look, I said I was sorry, what else do you want?”
“I want to feel like you’re really hearing me Pip. Like you are truly comprehending what we’re facing and not just dismissing our talk out of hand as if it doesn’t mean a thing. This kind of mistake simply cannot happen again.”
”I’m not dismissing what you’re saying! I do recognize that things are not as they should be. Why won’t you believe me?”
“Maybe it’s because of all the times you’ve said the same thing. You say you comprehend but then you go off and do the same thoughtless stuff all over again. Why wouldn’t I be concerned that you’re not getting it?”
“Perhaps you might try having a little faith in me?”
Merry sighed heavily. “I’ve tried that. And you still wind up doing things like you did tonight. Your problem Pip is that you like being the centre of attention at any cost.”
“That’s just a downright mean thing to say! And you don’t want to believe me so you’re not listening. I deserve a second chance.”
Merry snorted rudely. “How many?”
Pippin didn’t remember raising his hand to his older cousin but the next thing he realized Merry was sprawling on the floor staring up at him in utter astonishment. His fist ached where it had connected with his cousin’s jaw and he gaped at it as if it belonged to someone else. Merry sprang to his feet with a yell and thrust Pippin against the wall raising his hand to slap him. Pippin responded by kicking his cousin in the shins then ducking and dodging under his arm when Merry howled in surprise and grabbed at his leg.
With an angry shout Merry whirled and dived on Pippin’s retreating ankles bringing him to the floor with a solid thump. Pippin scrambled to get away but his cousin’s larger size prevented it and Merry soon had the best of him. Merry flipped him over and swept his hand across Pippin’s face in a stinging slap. The rosy handprint he left caused the older lad to draw back in surprise. Tears sprang to Pippin’s eyes and then they narrowed and he lunged for Merry again with fists raised.
The room soon filled with curious onlookers anxious to see why the two former friends were now involved in all out fight. Sam ploughed his way through the wall of big folk and little to get to his companions.
“Here now, stop that both of you!” He reached down and attempted to pull Merry away. While Sam was holding Merry’s arms Pippin took advantage and landed a solid punch to his cousin’s midsection. Merry howled his dismay and pulled himself away from Sam’s grasp slamming himself into Pippin and sending the two of them flying across the small sofa. They slid to a landing together at the feet of a big man whom they didn’t recognize at first to be Strider. The Ranger reached down and pulled them apart and then hauled them to their feet.
“Let me go! I wasn’t finished with him yet!” Pippin yelled and struggled in Strider’s grip.
“Enough, little one. The battle is over,” the big man soothed then glanced about the room. “There is no more to be seen gentlemen. Please give us some privacy.” The small crowd grudgingly dispersed with several of the people tossing curious looks over their shoulders as they left.
Frodo entered the room behind the Ranger and waited quietly for the noise to settle down. “What is the meaning of this?”
Merry rubbed angrily at his stomach where Pippin’s punch had landed quite solidly. He was a bit surprised at the strength behind his little cousin’s blow.
To the Ranger’s left Pippin was holding his hand to the side of his face where Merry had slapped him. The pinkish glow was still apparent. Pippin was stunned now that he had a moment to think about it. Merry and he had wrestled and fought before but never had his cousin slapped him.
“I asked you both a question. I would like an answer now, not later.”
Merry and Pippin’s eyes met briefly and then Pippin lowered his to stare at the floor. Merry looked at Frodo rather guiltily.
“I suppose I may have got a little carried away with our conversation,” he muttered and winced at his cousin’s derisive snort of contempt. He shot a scowl in Pippin’s direction but the youngster continued to look downward.
“Just a little?” Frodo looked to Sam for an answer but his friend only shrugged helplessly. “I want to know what happened.”
“Yes, I think it would be wise for you both to explain yourselves,” Strider said. “Whatever the trouble is between the two of you it must be resolved. We have a long journey ahead of us and it will not do to have you at each other’s throats along the way.”
The youngest hobbits shifted uncomfortably and grudgingly looked at each other. Finally Merry sighed. “I only wanted Pip to understand that what he did was very dangerous as well as thoughtless. I don’t want him to get hurt and I don’t want anyone to get killed. I didn’t think he understood the significance of what he did tonight.”
Pippin bristled again at Merry’s words. “I told you I did.”
“Well, you certainly weren’t acting like it!”
“Well, I don’t know how many times I needed to say I was sorry! Or how to make you believe that I did realize my mistake right after I opened my big mouth at the bar.”
“What was your first clue Pip?”
The corner of Pippin’s mouth quirked in a little grin at Merry’s jest. “When Frodo came after me,” he admitted with embarrassment.
“See?” Merry turned to the others. “I was right!”
Everyone chuckled and Pippin shrugged. “I never said I don’t have a thick head sometimes but when the message gets through I generally listen to it.” He touched the bruise forming over his eye gingerly. “ Particularly when I have an older cousin who’s bigger than me and he’s thumping the stuffing out of my hide.”
“Well, it looks to me like you each thumped the other a fair amount.” Strider looked the miscreants up and down with a critical eye. “I have some medications for your cuts and bruises in my things. If you care to come along I will tend to you both.”
“Is this matter truly settled then?” Frodo eyed them sternly. His cousins nodded and Frodo’s expression softened. He placed a protective arm around each of them. “This is a dangerous path we are on and we cannot be too careful. Pippin, Merry is right. You do have to learn to mind your tongue.”
Pippin nodded, his face flushing again. “I know.”
“And Merry, I know you were only trying to help--”
“I was frightened!” He looked at his young cousin for a long moment before finishing. “I couldn’t bear it if something happened to you Pip, or to Frodo or Sam. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have reacted so strongly. And I am very sorry I slapped you.”
“And I’m sorry I punched you so hard Merry. And jabbed you and kicked you and bloodied your nose and--”
“All right Pippin! I get your meaning.” Merry shook his head and grinned ruefully. “I didn’t know you could hit so hard.”
Pippin snorted. “You didn’t do so bad yourself.” He pointed to his cheek. “I’m certain there’ll still be a reminder there in the morning from the feel of it.”
“Where’d you learn to punch like that, lad?”
Pippin stared at Merry incredulously. “I learned from the best,” he intoned.
“Um, I think he means you Merry,” Frodo nudged him.
Merry shook his head in disbelief. “I never knew I was such a good teacher." He turned to Pippin and grinned slightly. "Perhaps I'd better pay more attention to what I teach you!"
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