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Part IV: Friendly Cousins
While Lavender North-took thought Pippin Took too spirited for her, he was exactly right for her cousin Diamond. After her initial stab of jealousy fled - for once again she watched someone else find love - Lavender could not help but feel joy that Pippin and Diamond had found happiness in each other.
"Pip can talk for days and never touch on anything of importance," Lavender remarked to her dinning companion. She sat by Diamond, but her cousin's attention was on her new husband as was right and proper, but Lavender did not know many of the other guests near her at the high board. The nearest hobbit was pleasant-looking with a dazzling smile and the substantial padding of one who appreciates his meals. He looked familiar, but she could not quite place him.
He seemed to sense her difficulty. "Fredregar Bolger," he introduced himself. Even without the name, she knew he was from the northern part of the Eastfarthing by his accent alone. "We're third cousins through your father."
Lavender nodded. Now that she knew his identity, she recalled what the talk said of him. He was a friend of Pippin and Merry, a more sensible sort who elected to remain in the Shire instead of venturing to parts unknown. She'd heard of his heroism in leading a band of rebels against the ruffians. "And cousins again coming down from Isumbras III."
Fredregar leaned in close. "I hear Pip has a plan to escape unnoticed with Diamond," he informed her with a wink.
She raised an eyebrow. "Does he now?"
"Merry will make it difficult. Folco too. Not to mention all the lads whose sisters Pippin's ever 'caught'."
"It should he interesting to see what they have planned," Lavender drawled. She would bet her new wool cloak that Pippin and Diamond wouldn't make it from the room unscathed.
"It should," Fredregar agreed.
They continued to chat amicably, keeping one eye on the bridal couple, as the feast continued. Fredregar proved to be an interesting dinning companion, full of amusing anecdotes and jokes. Lavender found herself drawn to him and sensed it was mutual; neither felt much compunction to speak with the other diners - though Fredregar did occaisonally speak to a lovely lass seated beside him.
"My sister Estella," Fredregar said, gesturing to the hobbit lass seated on his other side. Lavender had been searching for some time for a tactful a means of asking if she was his wife or sweetheart. Part of her suspected Fredregar knew this and enjoyed teasing her a little. "Estella dear, this is Lavender, one of our North-took cousins."
"I believe we met years ago at Althea Boffin's wedding," Estella said as she studied Lavender. Her face held an evaluating expression Lavender recognized from her own siblings.
"Yes, we did."
"You're from Bindbale Woods." The question was almost a challenge.
While the Talk might rank the North-tooks as below the Bolgers; Lavender was one to disagree with the view that the North-tooks were merely an upstart branch of Took family. "My people have lived in the Northfarthing for over ninety years." Her tone also conveyed a reminder that the Northfarthing was a part of the Shire, not the Breeland.
Estella nodded and something in her manner indicated that she approved of Lavender.
Just then a loud cry made Lavender turn away from Estella, Fredregar, and the high board for just a moment.
A pair of teenagers burst into the room, a flushed girl and a boy carrying a frog. Lavender belatedly recognized them as Aster Took and Otis Barrows, a pair of cousins from the Tookbank who always seemed to be fighting with each other.
"He put a frog in my dress!" Aster pointed an accusing finger at both Otis and his frog.
"She started it! She insulted Ribbit," Otis hissed. He held the frog close to his chest. "I was just showing to her him and he hopped down her dress."
"You dropped him down my dress. On purpose."
Lavender well remembered similar pranks played on her by cousins, but something about Aster's demeanor struck her as odd. She seemed more excited than angry.
Just then one of the Bracegirdles' noted "The wreath is on the table!"
"But where are Peregrin and Diamond?" Estella wondered aloud.
The two youngsters were grinning at each other and the pieces clicked together in Lavender's mind. She was not one a great one for unraveling a prank or plot, but she didn't have to be to realize the children had been brought in as a diversion.
"I smell a plot," Merry said as he got to his feet. He gave Aster and Otis a look of mingled admiration and annoyance.
While Merry knelt to check under the table, other cousins completed a quick search of the room. There were enough people about that it would be possible to hide – for it was only unmarried who hunted the bride and groom. The married couples often offered them some aid.
"Not under the table?" Fredregar asked. It was a common joke that only a desperate or unimaginative couple concealed themselves under the table. It was the first place searched at a wedding.
Merry shook his head in the negative. No one really expected to find Pippin and Diamond there, but it was good to check.
"They aren't behind any of the chairs either," Folco said briskly as he peered behind a row of bemused aunts. "We might still catch them if we hurry."
"They can't have got very far... probably hiding in that storage closet..." Merry said as he hurried toward the door. The eligible hobbits followed him like a flock of migrating geese. Lavender found herself joining them. It would be amusing to claim a kiss of Diamond's Pippin.
But Diamond and Pippin were not in the hall storage closet, the linen cupboard, many of the narrow service passageways, or concealed within the larger trunks lining certain of the hallways.
Nor were they within their apartments. Bright green ribbon and flowers still encircled the round door. If the couple were within, the first thing they would do would be to remove the ribbon and flowers and lock the door securely behind them. Reassured by the sight of the door, most of the pursuers decided to backtrack or to concede defeat and return to the feast. Soon only Merry, Estella, Folco, Fredregar and Lavender were left standing outside the bridal apartments.
Folco gently pushed at the door. It moved a little. "The door isn't locked."
Merry shook his head. "They must be somewhere."
"Merry," Lavender laughed. "This is Pippin's family home. Surely he knows more hiding places than even you are aware of."
"She's right," Estella said smartly. "It's just like Pip to have some special place he never told us about."
"Remember the time we placed hide-and-seek and we had to give up on finding Pippin?" Fredregar reminded them, a fond glint in his eye. "We never did learn where he'd hidden himself."
"Yes," Merry said softly. "We were having tea when he bounded in, upset that we'd stopped playing without finding him. Frodo finally convinced him that he'd outfoxed us. He preened for days."
The other hobbits grew quiet at the mention of Frodo Baggins. Lavender knew him only by reputation but she felt the deep love and respect the others had for him, it was as tangible as the oak floorboards under her feet.
"He's still here in our memories," Fredregar said, echoing the old belief that so long as a hobbit was remembered they were not entirely gone from this world. "Perhaps, in other ways too."
"I'm going to wait here," Merry said after a few seconds of comfortable silence. "They have to enter the apartments somehow."
"I'll wait with you," Folco offered. Estella echoed him a moment later, her eyes more on Merry than the corridors from which Pippin and Diamond could emerge. Though Merry failed to notice her interest, Fredregar did not. He smiled at Estella.
Fredregar shook his head. "I'm willing to concede victory to Cousin Pippin. I feel a need for some air; would you care to join me, Lavender?"
Lavender smiled and accepted his arm.
The landscape of the Westfarthing tended toward gently rolling hills, not the rockier terrain of the Northfarthing where Lavender and Diamond's family lived. With the sun beginning to dip below the horizon and crimson splashed across the sky, there was a softer edge to the light that allowed display of the flowers at their best.
Lavender could see why her brother so loved the area. The last time she had been here was to visit his grave, and everything seemed draped in a haze of pain that tainted her memories of the area.
"I've heard the gardens here are some of the finest in the shire," Lavender said as she admired the varied hues of the roses. She realized that the Tooks must employ an extensive ground staff, unlike her own family hole where her mother tended the herb and vegetable beds first and the ornamental plants with what spare time she could snatch.
"Bag End and my own dwelling in Scary are its only rivals," Fredregar said. It was not a boast, but a matter-of-fact statement.
Lavender was about to reply when she heard a rustling from the bushes. Fredregar raised a finger to his lips, then moved toward the hedge and fished a hand inside. He pulled out a laughing Peregrin Took by the collar of his fine tunic. A mirthful Diamond followed a moment latter, bits of twigs and leaves in her curls.
"Aren't you supposed two be celebrating your wedding night?" Fredregar asked the pair, taking the manner of a parent scolding a pair of truants.
"We knew Merry and Folco would try an ambush outside our apartments," Pippin answered, blushing furiously and not meeting his cousin's gaze.
"So you decided to try the hedge..."
"No," corrected Diamond as she tried to dislodge the shrubbery from her person. She indicated the window to the bridal suite with her chin. As Lavender looked closely, she noticed the window was slightly ajar. "The window."
"Our exit strategy," explained Pippin. "No one would expect us to go outside to get in."
"I see," Fredregar continued. Lavender could see that his mock-serious look was becoming strained as he fought back laughter.
"We didn't want to get 'caught'," Diamond protested. "It is undignified."
"And sneaking through the hedge is appropriate to your age and station?" Lavender asked dryly.
"We hid under the table first," Pippin pointed out. "A hedge is somewhat more dignified after that."
"Under the table..." Lavender remembered Merry looking under the table. "But Merry..."
"We were covered by my elf-cloak," Pippin explained. "It worked for Sam and Frodo in Mordor."
Pippin's comment was nonsensical to Lavender, but it must have made some variety of sense to Fredregar because he nodded in understanding.
"Well you are 'caught' now," Fredregar grinned mischievously. "I mean to collect a kiss your lovely bride, and Pippin, I believe you owe Miss Lavender a kiss."
To Pippin's annoyance, Fredregar insisted on giving Diamond a very long and through kiss. When at last it ended, Pippin stepped toward Lavender to pay his forfeit. To Lavender's delight, she caught a flash of jealousy on Fredregar's face.
She decided that Pippin was a good kisser, though Lavender wondered how Diamond could kiss him very often. He was so tall it would be easy to get neck strain.
With a last smile, the newlyweds made for the window and the sanctuary of their apartments. They might have been 'caught' but at least it was not by Merry or Folco.
Back in the hall, the party had picked up again and Merry and Estella were already well into the sweet wedding ale and discussing the bridal couple's disappearing act.
"Pippin just opened the door and pulled off the ribbon..." Estella shook her head. "Maybe they were hiding in their apartments all along, Pip's idea of a joke."
"But Uncle Paladin swears they were just hiding under the table. I checked under the table." Merry said, shaking his head as he finished off a pint. "I'd almost swear he used a ring."
"It was a cloak, actually," corrected Fredregar as he handed Lavender a mug of ale before pouring one for himself.
"A magic cloak?" a skeptical Folco querried.
"An elf cloak," explained Fredregar, shooting Merry an amused look. "Rather like yours, I believe."
"But," sputtered Merry, "that was to 'shield him from unfriendly eyes'."
"You're thoughts were rather unfriendly cousin," Fredregar quipped.
"No," corrected Lavender. "They were all too friendly."
They all shared a laugh at that.
"I never expected to be bested in this game by Pippin," Merry said. "A toast – to the new Mr. and Mrs. Took."
"A toast!" the others echoed as they raised their mugs.
As she drank, Lavender was certain that Pippin and Diamonds good fortune- and her own - had only just begun.
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