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I'll have to do reader replies later, I'm afraid. But thank you all for your comments! :-)
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Chapter 14 - Of Cousins and Kings
October, 1426 S.R.
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“Diamond has lovely handwriting.”
Pippin jumped so high that he nearly fell out of his seat. When he had composed himself, he said breathlessly and with a hint of annoyance, “How you can hover so quietly over someone’s shoulder like that is beyond me.”
Merry shrugged, wearing a smug smile. “You were just never very good at it, Pip. You breathe too loudly. Besides, if you don’t want people to see your important letters, you shouldn’t read them out here in the sitting room.”
Pippin sighed and nodded, folding the letter. The serious look on his face was disconcerting to Merry, and he sat down in the chair opposite his younger cousin, folding his arms and waiting patiently for Pippin to speak.
“I want to see her again,” said Pippin softly.
Merry nodded. “It’s been almost a month since you saw her last.”
Pippin looked past him anxiously, as though expecting to see someone in the doorway. “Are you... are you going to be needing me here?”
He shook his head. “We’ll be fine. Estella is not due ‘til the end of the month.”
“I know, but...” He shifted nervously. “Lily came early, didn’t she? This one could, too, and I don’t want to leave if you are going to need me here.”
Merry smirked. “So that we can panic together, like last time?”
Pippin crossed his arms over his chest, lifting his chin indignantly. “I think I provided a good emotional crutch for you while you spent the whole time panicking. How many times did I have to stop you from banging down the bedroom door that night?”
Chuckling, Merry replied, “Too many times.” His smile softened. “Yes, Pippin, I want you to be here. I’ll probably need you here, if only to help with Lily.” When he saw the unrest in Pippin’s eyes, he continued quickly, “But that doesn’t mean you can’t still visit Diamond! You would only be gone, what, four days at the most? And I don’t think Estella feels or looks like she will be having that child anytime soon.”
Pippin smiled gratefully, letting out a deep breath. “Very well, then. I shall write her back and ask her.”
This time it was Merry’s turn to take on the serious demeanor. “You will be careful, won’t you?”
Pippin blinked in surprise. “Of course, Merry. It’s not like I’ve never traveled through the Shire by myself, after all.”
“I don’t mean that,” replied Merry, and Pippin’s brows knitted together in puzzlement. “I mean when you get to Long Cleeve, will you be careful not to be seen?”
“Oh.” Pippin looked down at his hands, his voice becoming low and solemn. “Yes, of course.”
Merry shifted in his seat, looking awkward. “Pippin, I...” After a moment of searching for the suitable words, he gave a helpless sigh. “I’m happy for you, Pippin.” There was a note of sorrow in his soft voice.
“But you are also worried about me,” Pippin finished for him. He met Merry’s gaze steadily, wondering if his friend was about to crush his heart by saying that seeing Diamond was a bad idea.
“I just... I don’t want you to get into any serious trouble.”
Pippin gave him an incredulous look. “More serious than the time a troll fell on me, you mean?”
Merry laughed softly. “I know, I know, it does seem rather absurd, considering what we’ve gone through before. Here I am, a knight of the Mark, getting worked up about a knight of Gondor and his secret affair.”
“What would our kings say?” asked Pippin in a reproachful voice.
Merry leaned forward, his expression fervent and his tone disparaging. “I think our kings, not to mention your Steward, would say that you need to stop this ‘cheek’ nonsense and give that poor girl a real kiss!”
Pippin’s jaw dropped, and he made a noise of indignation. But while Merry was laughing at the expression on his face, Pippin leapt forward suddenly and tackled his cousin. He dragged Merry to the floor, hitting the older hobbit playfully.
“Oy!” Merry made a grab for Pippin’s neck, attempting a headlock.
“Fiendish Brandybuck!” gasped Pippin through his laughter and his friend’s grasp.
“Nasty Took!” cried Merry after Pippin had elbowed him in the ribs.
“What on earth are you two doing in here?”
The pair froze and slowly turned their gazes to the doorway where Estella now stood, looking quite astounded.
Pippin, who had been trying to pull Merry’s arm away from his neck, replied zealously, “I was defending my honor against your cold-hearted husband!”
“And I was defending my life against my bloodthirsty cousin!”
“Mmhm...” said Estella through pursed lips that seemed to be twitching with suppressed mirth. She turned away, shaking her head and smiling fondly.
* * *
Pippin left for Long Cleeve the following week, and the evening after his departure found Merry lingering in the stables of Crickhollow long after he had finished his chores there. He wandered slowly past each stall, murmuring soft greetings to the ponies as he passed them by and giving them each an affectionate pat. He stopped in front of Brytta, his personal steed and a gift from King Éomer.
“Why am I fretting over this?” he muttered, stroking Brytta’s muzzle. “He’s a grown hobbit, and he can take care of himself. I shouldn’t worry about him so much anymore.”
Brytta whinnied softly, nuzzling his hand.
“I suppose you’re right,” replied Merry. “He’ll always be my little cousin, and I can’t help but worry.” He let out a heavy sigh, running his fingers through the pony’s forelock. “I don’t know, Brytta. Have I become old and motherly?” Brytta snorted, and Merry gently flicked his ear, smiling.
The minutes passed in silence as Merry idly smoothed out Brytta’s mane, lost in thought. He wondered if Pippin had reached the North-took smials and was with Diamond again, possibly even taking Merry’s advice regarding kisses. Or perhaps the young couple had been caught, and a small disaster was about to strike.
So wrapped up was he in these thoughts that he was not aware that he had been joined, not until he felt a pair of slender arms wrap around him, and a round belly press against his side.
He put one arm around his wife. “Did you put Lily to bed?”
“Yes. I came out here to see if you wanted to tuck her in.”
“I will in a few minutes.”
Estella rested her head on his shoulder. “What important matter are you thinking about, then?”
“Who says I’m thinking about an important matter?”
She lifted her face and smiled up at him. “Why else do you stay out here for so long but to seek counsel from the ponies?”
Merry returned her smile, lightly running the back of his fingers down Brytta’s nose. His smile faded as he spoke, “I’m just worried about Pippin.”
“Nothing new about that.” When he didn’t respond, Estella kissed his shoulder and spoke again. “Pippin’s a smart lad, deep down. He knows not to get caught.”
“It’s not just that.” She looked up at him curiously, and cringing slightly, he continued: “This Diamond lass...” He let out a sigh of frustration, shaking his head. “I simply don’t want Pippin getting hurt, that’s all.”
Estella raised a brow, frowning. “You think this girl is going to hurt him?”
“We don’t even know her, Stella,” he said, his eyes wide in response to her skepticism.
“But the way he talks about her, she seems like such a sweet girl--”
“And how do we know that isn’t just an act?”
Estella stared at him for a moment. “An act.”
“An act!” He turned to face her fully, putting his hands on her shoulders. “He is the future Thain, after all, and I’m sure there are many girls who would love to... well, get their hands on him, as it were!”
Her face revealed the slightest hint of a repressed smirk. “And you are the future Master of Buckland. Surely there were plenty of girls who wanted to get their hands on you at one point, using ‘an act.’”
“There were!” he insisted.
She leaned closer to him, wrapping her arms around his neck. She lowered her voice to a gentle tone. “And did you ever for a moment fall for any of those acts?”
Merry opened his mouth to respond, then closed it suddenly, his brows furrowing. “No, I didn’t,” he said softly. He let out a deep sigh and rested his cheek on top of Estella’s head. “You’re right, of course. I suppose I am just being paranoid.”
She twirled a lock of his hair between her fingers. “Maybe you just don’t want to see your Pippin growing up.”
It took him a moment to respond to this; when he did, his voice was low and sad. “He is grown up.”
Estella pulled away, taking his hands and smiling gently. “Come on. It’s getting late, and you know Lily can’t sleep if her daddy hasn’t kissed her good night.”
He smiled back at her and squeezed her hands gratefully, letting her lead him back to the house.
* * *
“Hmph. ‘Real kiss’ indeed,” Pippin muttered. “Is it so bad that I don’t want to rush things? And besides, kisses aren’t all that important in a relationship!”
After a moment he thought, Oh, but it’d be nice...
He lay stretched out on the grass, staring up at the cluster of leaves between which were dotted several brightly shining stars. He had settled himself in for a few hours of sleep, but the memory of his conversation with Merry the previous day was keeping his mind occupied, and keeping him awake. Also, the fact that he would soon be seeing Diamond again was not a very sleep-inducing thought.
A surge of giddiness swept through him as he remembered what it had been like to feel the press of her soft lips against his cheek. He had been overcome at that moment to take her in his arms and kiss her until he ran out of breath; only a good deal of self-restraint had prevented him from doing so.
Pippin rolled over onto his side, but immediately rolled back when he felt something sharp dig into his leg. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the culprit - a small rock. A smile touched his lips as he remembered Lily presenting him with this.
“Present,” she had said, holding the rock up to her cousin. It was a white, almost crystalline rock that she must have mistaken for a quartz of some type; either that or she simply thought it was pretty, as she was wont to do with the strangest things lately.
“A gift for me?” Pippin had asked, taking the rock curiously.
Lily had laughed and shook her head. “No! For Diamond!”
“Oh, of course! How silly of me!” He had then knelt down to give the girl a kiss. “I shall present this to Diamond as soon as I see her. I’m sure she will love it.”
“I know,” had been her proud reply.
Pippin laughed softly at this memory; his little cousin had some bizarre quirks, and he loved the girl all the more for them. He often wondered if his own children would have similar quirks, and he would sometimes imagine a group of little Tooks playing and causing mischief with their Brandybuck cousins.
His smile faded then, and guilt and sorrow settled heavily on his heart. How could he think about such things when he knew it was all too likely that those things would not come to be if he were to stay with Diamond?
He shook his head, and stuffing the rock back into his pocket shoved the thought aside, determined not to linger on it. But that determination did not stretch to his dreams, and could not prevent the images of grinning children with his light brown hair and Diamond’s bright blue eyes from entering his mind as he slept.
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