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Frodo awoke the next morning with a thrumming headache, which seemed designed to be the perfect pairing for his guilty conscience. After forcing himself to eat far more at the family breakfast than he wanted to in order to conceal how he felt, he informed Eglantine that he needed to go lie back down.
“Are you quite sure that’s all you need, Frodo dear?” Eglantine asked in concern. Before Frodo could dodge away, she reached up and laid a hand on his forehead. “Maybe you’re running a fever. Perhaps you should drink some peppermint tea and take a dose of that willow bark concoction Lilac makes.”
Pearl saw her chance and snatched at it. “I’ll go fetch some from the stillroom, Mama,” she said, giving Frodo a look of open longing that left him blushing.
Eglantine shook her head; the measured glance she gave her eldest daughter took Pearl aback, for it was plain her mother would brook no disagreement. “No, I need to speak with you in my chamber. Pimmie, could you get everything for Frodo and take it to his room?”
“Yes, Mama,” Pimmie replied, with a neutral expression; Pearl had told her what had happened last night, with many a giggle, but now it appeared some kind of reckoning was due. Merry bit his lip in vexation; he had been counting on making his amends to Pearl immediately.
Frodo guessed his intentions and decided that Merry could deal with his other problem instead. “Merry-lad, why don’t you take Pip out to one of the garden pools to feed the fish?”
“That would be fun—come on, Merry, let’s go!” cried Pippin, with his usual irrepressible energy, and tugged Merry in the direction of the door. As they passed Frodo, he leaned towards Merry.
“Remember,” he hissed.
“I will,” Merry whispered. The departure of the two cousins signaled the general breakup of the meal, and everyone scattered. Pearl trailed after her mother, wondering if the interview with Eglantine would be as difficult as she feared. She smiled timidly at Esmeralda, and found her heart plummeting when her aunt would not return the greeting. She thought, Oh no, I am in trouble, aren’t I? Not fair, not fair—we didn’t do anything more than what lots of lads and lasses do all the time. I hate having to be respectable—
But almost as soon as they entered Eglantine’s chamber and she began speaking, it was clear to Pearl that she was hardly going to receive the severe dressing down she had anticipated. Such were Eglantine’s flutterings, qualifications, and hesitations that Pearl was left with the distinct impression that Eglantine was more concerned that her attempted seduction of her cousin had failed rather than the fact she had tried at all. Once Eglantine dismissed her, Pearl practically skipped to Lalia’s quarters as she plotted out the day’s schedule. See, I knew it, Mama won’t be that angry if I manage things right, I just have to find the perfect time again! The prospect of attacking Frodo’s virtue once more beguiled Pearl so much that she barely noticed Lalia’s acid tongue, which displayed itself over the quality of the food at elevenses. She raced through her quota of morning duties with a light heart, convinced she would be able to corner Frodo after lunch.
But luck was not with Pearl. Frodo announced at the lunch table that he would be leaving for Hobbiton promptly after he finished eating. Pearl, appalled, asked tremulously, “But I thought you planned to stay for another day or so—must you go?”
“Yes, Frodo, if you’re not feeling well, riding home will hardly help. Please do stay,” Eglantine said anxiously.
“It’s a very tempting offer, Cousin Tina, but I would feel better if I do go home. I’m beginning to worry about all the things we still need to do before the party—it’s only two more weeks. I hope you can forgive me, but responsibility calls.” Frodo smiled, ignoring the warring emotions written on Pearl’s rosy face. When he departed to pack his bags, he was startled to have Pearl trailing after him.
“Coming to help me pack up?” Frodo deliberately kept his tone light.
“Yes, and to talk, just a little.”
There was no polite way to shake her off, so he allowed her to follow him into the guest room. As soon as the door clicked shut, Pearl stood directly before Frodo and said, “You’re running away, you coward!” She sounded half amused and half exasperated, her eyes sparkling with challenge.
“Maybe I am,” he replied tersely. “But if you’re perfectly honest, I have cause. You are an impatient lass, my sweet.”
Pearl wrapped her arms around him and tipped her chin up, letting her mouth float near his once more. Frodo stayed passive within her embrace, but the tension in his body told her how much of an effort that passivity was costing him. She whispered, “You’re quite right, but I have cause too—have you looked in a mirror lately?”
“Blatant flattery again, my pearly queen, and it won’t work.” Frodo’s voice echoed harshly in his own ears as he fought down the impulse to yield to their mutual desire. He suspected flinging Pearl’s skirts up and pinning her against the wall, or tossing her onto the bed, was hardly the way to say farewell to his Took relatives.
She kissed him then, letting her tongue slide recklessly between his lips. “You win this time,” she whispered, her voice dripping with a sultriness that made the hair stand up on the back of Frodo’s neck. “But I give you fair warning—all bets are off in two weeks at Uncle Bilbo’s party. Are you ready for that?”
“Do have a choice?”
“No, not at all,” she said impudently.
“Very well, then—I will be ready, and I might surprise you,’ he said with a dry chuckle. Satisfied, Pearl released him and stepped back; he grabbed at the chance to guide matters into a safer harbour. “Please, come help me gather up my things, and I promise to share a fair amount of party gossip I haven’t told anyone else this visit—but you have to swear to keep it to yourself.”
“Yes, really—there are dwarves coming, not just Gandalf . . .”
The two of them kept themselves busy for the next ten minutes with talk and packing, though Frodo had a struggle at one point to convince Pearl that stuffing all of Merry’s clothes into Frodo’s bags was not the best way to vent her anger over the previous night. When they were done, Frodo looked around the room thoughtfully.
“You know, I forgot to bring up that small pile of books I sorted out this morning to borrow. Do you mind going downstairs to fetch them?”
“Of course not. I’ll meet you at the Great Door.”
She carried the smallest bag with her as she walked with him to the library entrance. As she went inside, he continued down the hall and out through the massive, round Great Door. There he discovered his pony, already saddled and tacked, standing at the foot of the stairs. The rest of the family, including the three Brandybucks, Paladin and Eglantine, and all of Pearl’s siblings, were gathered about the pony to say their goodbyes.
“Bye-bye, Frodo,” chirped Pippin as he hugged Frodo’s legs. “Will you save me some of the good crackers if we’re late to the party?”
Frodo knelt down and picked him up. “Pip, not only will I save you the very best crackers to pull, but I’ll make sure you get the very best of the toys—they’ve come clear from Dale, and are real dwarf-make. Is that good enough?”
“Thank you, Frodo!” Pippin hugged him again, this time around the neck; Frodo set him back on his feet and turned to embrace Merry. “Well?” he whispered.
“I talked to him—he won’t say anything, I’m sure of it,” Merry replied softly.
“Good—and talk to Pearl, you nearly lost your clothes a little while ago.”
Merry’s eyes widened at this murmured comment. Frodo kissed Eglantine and Esmeralda, tousled the curls of both Pimmie and Pervinca, and thought his ribs would crack as Paladin pounded his back while subjecting him to a bone-crushing embrace.
“Always wonderful to see you, Frodo-lad. Tell Bilbo we’ll all be coming to the party.”
Sarry, as ever more sedate, hugged Frodo gently, his expression unexpectedly wistful as he spoke to his former fosterling. “Take care, my boy. I know we will be seeing you again soon, but we still miss you at Brandy Hall, so it never is soon enough for us.”
“I know, Uncle Sarry, and I will take care, promise,” Frodo said with a smile. Just then, Eglantine glanced around in surprise.
“I’m right here, Mama—I’ve got the books Frodo wants to borrow . . .”
“Is that all right with you, Cousin Tina?” asked Frodo.
“Oh, that’s fine, dear, and don’t worry about rushing them back to us . . .”
“Goodbye, Frodo,” Pearl murmured. She kissed his forehead, deciding to be discreet in front of the rest of her family, but she could not resist a parting shot. “Remember what I told you!”
“And you as well,” he retorted as he crammed the bag of books into a saddlebag. He mounted his pony gracefully and urged it down the front drive, heading for the eastbound road to Tuckborough. He turned and waved; the rest waved back while calling out their farewells. When Frodo turned and faced the road, everyone left except for Pearl and Pimpernel. Pearl continued to watch Frodo as he and the pony became a distant blur, while Pimmie eyed her sister with curiosity. When Frodo disappeared below the horizon, Pimmie finally spoke.
“Sister dear, aren’t you being rather sentimental? You will see him again soon.”
“I know that, but it feels like forever already!”
“Don’t be silly,” said Pimmie, practical to a fault. “There’s lots to do between now and then, including finishing the sewing on our party outfits. You just wait, it won’t feel like two weeks, but two days. Now let’s go see if Cousin Lilac has made that new perfume she promised you.”
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