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Sam slipped his arms through Merry and Pippin’s and drew them back, pulling the door tightly shut. There was no need really; as soon as the hobbits had seen that Frodo was asleep, they had begun to retreat. Pippin looked down at his arms, laden with puddings and custards and sweets collected from supper near spilling over, and sighed gustily.
“Fine time to go back to sleep. What shall we do with all this?”
“Ridiculous question, Cousin. Hand over that strawberry trifle.”
“I’ll have four or five of them apple tarts. Thank you.”
The fire had been lit in their absence, filling the room with warmth and casting the corners into shadow. Pippin spread out a cloth and doled out the remaining confections while keeping firm possession of his favourite, little balls of fried dough rolled in a white powdery sugar. Probably, Pippin reflected as he popped one in his mouth and a fine cloud of sugar wafted into the air, it hadn’t been the best idea to stuff every available pocket full of the sugary balls.
“He must really be tired,” Merry commented with a jerk of his head toward Frodo’s bedroom. “Frodo can usually smell food right through a closed door. From the other end of the smial. Right through the Hill, if Bilbo was baking frosted sticky-buns.”
“Takes it out of you, having stitches removed,” Sam replied, licking crumbs off his fingers. “Then that business with the pipe-weed. Nasty, rotten trick, that was.”
“Maybe I’d best check on him,” Pippin murmured, suddenly anxious. Wiping white-dusted fingers on his jacket, the tweenager cracked the bedroom door and peeked in. Moonlight striped the huge bed, creeping in through the shutters and lending the quiet room an unreal air. Frodo lay on his back, his face turned towards the door, dark hair straggling into his closed eyes. His hands lay upon his breast, rising and falling almost imperceptivity with each breath. As Pippin watched, Frodo sighed in his sleep, licking his lips before his face relaxed again into untroubled slumber.
Leaning against the jamb, Pippin looked past Frodo to the darkening night. The clouds were thickening and there seemed a heaviness in the air. It would rain tonight. He shivered, rubbing his arms through his jacket.
Behind him, Merry and Sam exchanged a significant look. Merry set aside his napkin, reaching towards his cousin. “He’s fine, Pip. He’s just sleeping. Come sit down.”
Closing the door, Pippin drifted back to them. “Don’t you think it odd that he sleeps so much?” he whispered, a note of worry in his voice.
“Well, he didn’t get much rest on the way here,” Merry replied logically as Pippin wandered past him, too restless to sit. “Being unconscious or half-aware isn’t rest, I suppose.”
“And he’s had a hard day,” Sam put in. He paused, thinking over Pippin’s words. “But he does seem to sleep a lot…”
“And,” another voice put in, “it is better so.”
Hobbits pride themselves much on their ability to move unseen and unheard (when they choose), but we have nothing on Rangers, Merry thought with a grimace, swiping at the half-eaten strawberry he had just dropped on his lovely yellow waistcoat. Really, Big People that light-footed shouldn’t be allowed.
“Sit, gentlemen,” Aragorn said, motioning them to retain their seats as Pippin escorted him in. “I merely wish to check on our patient. I assume he is sleeping?”
“Soundly,” replied Pippin. “We brought him afters from supper, but he was asleep.”
“Did you?” Aragorn asked, looking around the room then back at Pippin. Somehow a puff of sugar had settled on one of his eyebrows, giving him a surprised look.
“Well, we couldn’t let them just sit.” Pippin patted at his pockets, looking for an overlooked sugar ball to display as evidence. Sugar rose into the air and drifted back down on him.
“Why do you assume that Frodo is sleeping?” Merry asked as Aragorn crossed the room to Frodo’s door and looked in.
The Ranger glanced back at them, pulling the door shut before he spoke. “Have you not wondered,” he said as he took a seat, “why Frodo is being provided only soup for his supper?”
“Well,” Merry began slowly, glancing at the others, “a heavy dinner might not sit very well before bed. Frodo has very odd dreams, sometimes. And the soup here is wonderful… and the gaffers and grammers all say soup is very good for you when you’ve been ill…”
“Yes,” said Aragorn, taking a chair, “and though I have known Frodo but a short time, it has come clear to me in that short time that by withholding solid food from him, he will be all the more eager for it when he is well enough to have it.”
“That seems rather underhanded,” Merry argued half-heartedly.
“We pressed Frodo to eat to recover his strength,” Aragorn said, raising a finger in emphasis, “with the result that he refused almost everything set before him. I have since,” he continued, “learned more of hobbits, or should I say, Bagginses. Therefore, I shall reverse our strategy and withhold food from him. If he cannot have the food, then he will want it. And he will eat.”
“Cousin Frodo has a contrary streak,” Pippin agreed with a nod. “It’s his Brandybuck blood. We Tooks are much more sweet-natured.”
Sam choked, mumbling something about a “wee bit of apple” caught in his throat when Pippin looked at him inquiringly. Merry, however, was concentrating on Aragorn. “So,” he said slowly, “you’ve been … priming his appetite? Pushing soup on him because of its restorative qualities was a blind, then?”
“Not at all,” Aragorn told him, leaning back and crossing his long legs before him. “Soup is very nutritious. It is gentle on the stomach … more importantly for Frodo, all sorts of liquids can be disguised by its flavour.”
“All sorts of—” Sam began, but interrupted himself. “You aren’t!”
“I might point out that you, Master Samwise, seemed to feel quite differently when you poured him a cup of tea this afternoon.” Sam scowled, a flush spreading over his face as he glared at the floor.
“What are you two talking about?” demanded Pippin, looking from Sam to Aragorn in perplexity.
Aragorn merely raised an eyebrow. “Frodo needs to rest. His evening meal ensures that.”
“You are giving him things in the soup!”
“Tonics and soporifics,” agreed Aragorn in a matter-of-fact voice. “Mr. Baggins is so much easier to deal with when he is in no condition to complain, protest, or threaten his caregivers.”
“Now that’s not fair!” Merry exploded, lowering his voice hurriedly with a glance at the door.
“He threw the leather ball Elrond had made for him at me today,” Aragorn commented, drawing out his pipe.
“Good for him,” Merry replied, glaring at the pipe, the memory of the un-openable pipe-weed jar looming before him. “Though he obviously wasn’t aiming at you. If he had been aiming at you, he would have hit you.”
“Yes,” agreed Aragorn with infuriating calm. “As much as I wish to encourage Frodo in exercising that arm, I think sword-practice would be of more benefit. Or bow-work, or some other practice with a weapon so that he will not be so defenseless on our journey. We will be beset by many dangers, and you hobbits will have to defend yourselves if your guardians cannot.”
“Guardians?” Merry repeated blankly.
“Myself, of course,” Aragorn explained. “And Legolas and Gandalf and Boromir and Gimli. We will see you come to no harm.” Aragorn returned the pipe to his pocket, having evidently decided against a smoke. He stood and stretched, misinterpreting the looks of horror upon the hobbits’ faces.
“Don’t worry, my friends,” Aragorn said, pausing by the door to give a startled Pippin a pat on the head. “We will not let anything hurt you. We will take care of you.”
The hobbits stared at the closed door. “Did he just pat me on the head?” Pippin asked in disbelief.
“That arrogant … that arrogant … Man,” Merry said through clenched teeth. “He will ‘take care’ of us, will he?” He drew in a deep breath and let it out in a hiss. “Still having qualms about teaching Aragorn a lesson, Sam?”
“Get him,” said Sam.
* TBC *
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