MEANING NO HARM - Of Gardens and Burnt Sausages

AUTHOR'S NOTE: In all the pre-Quest fanfics I have written I have attempted to present a coherent and consistent early history of the four Travellers. But with "Meaning No Harm" I have fallen short of that goal. This story takes place in the spring before Bilbo's eleventy-first birthday party. My story "Coming of Age," (which I wrote last July) takes place in the period immediately following Bilbo's eleventy-first birthday party and is inconsistent with this story in one significant way - the degree of Pippin's acquaintance with Sam. I am sorry for that, but "Coming of Age" was written before I had thought of "Meaning No Harm" (indeed, I had thought CofA was going to be my last fanfic), and in that story it was fun to get Pippin's response to a servant who is on much friendlier terms with the household than Pippin is used to.

I have been blessed with the assistance of four able betas in the editing of this story, and to them I extend my deepest thanks: Shadowfax, for encouraging me to get to know a certain dark haired hobbit a bit better; Marea, for pushing me to "fill in the corners" (I tried!); Rosie, for helping me to find the best title; and naias (last but not least!), for her unwavering support and encouragement.

Final thanks go, of course, to J.R.R. Tolkien and his Sam, for their inspiration. I have done my best to stay true.

PART ONE: Of Gardens and Burnt Sausages

Sam got back late from gardening up at Bag End on the last Friday in March of the year 1401 by the Shire Reckoning. His dad in his chair by the parlour fire was having a pipe and a mug, waiting for the dinner being held for his youngest son. In the kitchen, Sam's three sisters began to put the food quickly on the table when they heard their brother come in. For the sake of the Gaffer's mood they were relieved he was not any later.

The weather was continuing unusually cold through March, and though there really was enough work to keep more than one hobbit busy in the Baggins garden now that spring was here, only Sam had worked in it since the rains of the previous fall began. On and off over the winter his dad was sick with colds that settled in his chest, and fevers that kept him bundled grumpily in a blanket before the parlour fire for days on end. He was never so ill that his children feared for his recovery, but through the winter he had seldom left Number Three. Only in the past few weeks had he seemed to rally for good and now he was beginning to talk of getting back up to the garden at Bag End. But Sam insisted his Gaffer go out only into their own garden for a few hours during the warmest part of the day, when the chill wouldn't seep into his hands and feet and make them ache more than creeping old age already did. And he must still have been feeling poorly because he did what his son asked, spending many of those hours starting and nurturing seedlings in the cold frames to be transplanted later into the gardens at both Bag End and Number Three.

So Sam's day had been much longer than his dad's and lengthened as well at the end of it by his stopping in at Bag End to pick up his father's pay packet. Now he hung his cloak on its hook by the door and hurried to his father in the parlour, apologizing as he came. "I know I'm that late, dad, sorry, but there's visitors up at Bag End, and all. I stayed for a talk when I looked in for your packet." He held it out. His father took the envelope with an appreciative grunt and tucked it carefully in his pocket. Sam hesitated, then continued, "It's Master Merry and young Pippin. Brought just this afternoon by Mr. Paladin in a pony cart, to stop at least a fortnight, so they say. Mr. Bilbo looked none too happy, but then he's been expecting Gandalf every day for a while now, and he's not been himself of late, neither." The Gaffer frowned and Sam added quickly, "meaning no disrespect, and Mr. Bilbo, he knows it too, he says so hisself. Mr. Frodo's a different story though. He's always that pleased to see his cousins, Master Merry most of all, I'd say, and young Pippin too." Sam grinned as he knelt before the hearth to mend the fire. "That one's growing up now I suppose, though it's hard to tell, he'll not stop talking or stay still unless there's food at the table."

"All right, son!" The Gaffer stood stiffly up, "save the rest for later now there's food at our own table that's been kept waiting long enough for them that's hungry. Come on then, you must be one of them, too!" Sam followed his dad into the kitchen where his sisters already had their ample dinner laid out on the table, and he enthusiastically tucked in to their simple fare of roast potatoes, mashed turnips, and beef stew. With quiet satisfaction he watched his father eat with an appetite that had returned in only the past few weeks.

The news that Mr. Frodo's two young cousins were visiting gave the Gaffer a fresh topic on which to advise and direct Sam's conduct. After dinner he stirred his tea thoughtfully while the girls cleared the table and began the washing up. "That young Pippin - Master Peregrin to you now - he'll be the Thain one day, as you well know, so don't you go forgetting it. He's growing up to be a fine young gentlehobbit by all accounts, no less than Mr. Bilbo, or his own father, Mr. Paladin Took. Don't be treating him like some working lad from Bywater."

Sam liked children. He got on with them better than did most young hobbits in their 'tweens like him. But he was also well known for rewarding with sharp words those he caught in Mr. Bilbo's garden or fruit trees, or those who dallied in delivering packages or messages to Bag End.

Sam reddened and nodded, recalling two summers past when he'd come upon Pippin in Mr. Bilbo's pea patch, breaking down the vines as he strained to reach the highest pods, and eating every plump one he could lay his grasping hands on. Sam's angry shouts when he came upon him had sent Pippin scampering back to the hobbit hole before Sam had said even half of what he'd intended.

The Gaffer watched the flush slowly fade from his son's face. It felt to Sam like his mind was being read when his dad asked, "did you get them peas in today, then?"

"Yes, dad, the first planting, of bush and vine both. I'll do the next planting in a fortnight, like you said."

"No, leave that one, and I'll do it. It's time I was going up to Bag End again, whether it's cold or no." He eyed Sam appraisingly while he filled the bowl of his pipe. "You still need some training up and looking over, I daresay. There's things your old dad can teach you yet."

Sam smiled gently. "Of course there is dad, and always will be, and no mistake." His father was seventy-five years old now and though that was many years short of Mr. Bilbo's 110, the full force of a long working life spent out of doors in every season, and of the cares and worries of raising up his four youngest children on his own, could be seen in the Gaffer's face and bearing. But Mr. Bilbo was said to be as youthful still as the long ago day he returned from his adventures just in the nick of time to stop the auction at Bag End. Many times the Gaffer had told Sam the story - how he had been little more than a lad that day (and a sight younger than Sam's 21 years), newly apprenticed to his old cousin, Holman, Mr. Bilbo's gardener, and up at Bag End in the very midst of the auction trying to keep order. Few days stood clearer or fonder in Hamfast's memory than the day the hobbit who was to be his master returned. Most of the West Farthing might think Bilbo was cracked (and the Gaffer was generally one who minded what his neighbors thought), but when it came to Mr. Bilbo, the Gaffer knew they were simply wrong and no mistake. He carried his title of Master Gardener of Bag End proudly.

Sam knew his father wasn't ready yet to relinquish that title, nor did Sam want him to, but he hoped at least the Gaffer would let him make up his own mind about some of the work that needed to be done. So he added softly, "but you don't need to be working in the cold, do you? Come up some afternoon and tell me what wants doing. The ground's still frozen most mornings and stays cold all day. It's not fit for you to work in. I can manage on me own." At his father's sharp look he added hastily, "for now leastways."

"Aye, well, we'll see about that when I've had a look for myself. Perhaps you've been spending your whole morning inside Bag End, learning them letters still when there ain't no need, and pestering Mr. Bilbo and Mr. Frodo what's more, though they never seem to mind it."

This was an old worry. "I haven't dad, leastways, not the whole morning. And why shouldn't I know how to read and write? Mr. Bilbo thinks I should." Sam paused and his brown eyes grew wide and bright. "Some of the books Mr. Bilbo's collected, full of stories they are, of folks as have gone to Bree and beyond even." He gazed out the kitchen window to watch the rim of the sun in the red sky slip behind the faraway hills. "And they came back with tales of adventures - ones they say they've had themselves or they've heard told. And they've told them to those with a mind to write them down, or they wrote them down themselves, if they could. Of course, none of them stories hold a candle to Mr. Bilbo's own, but still, they're tales of beyond the Shire. I don't know, but some of them might be true." He grinned self-consciously at his father. "They might."

The Gaffer had heard talk of this sort many times before. He looked wonderingly at this son of his who was turning out so different from his other two lads and spoke impatiently. "You keep your mind on things that matter - the garden and the weather - and don't go bothering yourself with stories you won't never be a part of, and that have nowt to do with what's important to Shirefolk, like you and yours. It's all right for Mr. Bilbo Baggins to read such books, but they're not for the likes of you, my lad, not now that you're almost grown. You'll come to a bad end filling your head with fanciful tales, looking for adventure and wanting to see elves. Elves want nowt to do with Gamgees and Gamgees want nowt to do with them. Elves!" He snorted and drank down his tea, eying Sam over the rim of the mug.

"Yes, dad." Sam ducked his head. The light in his eyes dimmed but did not go out. He finished his tea silently, then stood to take both their empty mugs over to Daisy. "I'll walk you to the Ivy Bush tonight."

The Gaffer spoke irritably. "I'm not so old that I can't find a pub on my own, son!"

"No dad, of course you're not." Sam cajoled him, turning from the sink. "Only I want to go on to the Cottons. I haven't seen Tom all week and I need to talk to Farmer Cotton about getting more manure, and borrowing a pony and wagon to haul it to Bag End."

"Who says you need more manure? You hauled plenty up last fall."

"I know dad, I just thought -"

The Gaffer took his pipe from his mouth and wagged it at Sam across the small room. "Don't you go making any plans with Farmer Cotton like that until I get a look at what you've been up to in Mr. Bilbo's garden."

"Yes, dad." There was no use in arguing.

The Gaffer walked stiffly out of the kitchen. Sam supposed his dad had chosen to go on without him, so he stayed to chat with Daisy and lend a hand with the drying. A shout came from the front door. "Come on now, son! Don't keep me waiting all evening, are you going to visit Tom or no?" Sam grinned as his oldest sister placed a quick kiss on his cheek and then he hurried off.

* * *

The inmates of Bag End were not yet sitting down to dinner when Sam and his father set out for the Ivy Bush. Pippin's assistance in the kitchen was causing considerable delay - the frying pan of sausages he insisted he knew how to cook had burnt under his high-spirited inattention. But it was no matter. Bilbo's testy spirits had been lifted by the bottle of Old Winyards he opened during the dinner preparation in honour of his young cousins' arrival. With relief Frodo saw him regain, at least for the moment, his ready wit and his pleasure at being in the company of well-loved relatives. So when Bilbo with a good-natured laugh pronounced Pippin a "ninnyhammer" for scorching the sausages, the small hobbit simply bowed deeply in mock repentance and capered off to the pantry to fetch replacements. Bilbo chuckled as he carried a mixing bowl over to the small scrubbed wood table in the middle of the kitchen, "that one's irrepressible, isn't he? Well, Merry, do your mother and his compare stories of your respective antics?"

Merry sat at one end of the table, peeling potatoes and cutting them thinly for a quick fry up. He rolled his eyes at Bilbo's question. "They do indeed. It's a fierce competition between them over which of us is the greater scamp. Unfortunately mother doesn't have all the information she could use to ensure I'm the winner." He exchanged glances with Frodo, standing at the stove, and turned away to stifle a laugh. Frodo paused in his scraping of the burnt bits from the bottom of the frying pan to chuckle at the recollection. Merry's mother was short at least one story (which the word "ninnyhammer" had brought to mind) that might tip the scales in her son's favor: his misadventures with Sam Gamgee of the summer before last when he was traveling with Sam and Frodo to a few weeks exile at Bag End (in penance for misdeeds with Pippin and other youngsters in Buckland). Since the consequences of Merry's actions had been sufficient punishment, Frodo hadn't bothered Merry's parents with the tale and his mother was none the wiser. Bilbo stood kneading biscuit dough across the table from Merry. He glanced up to catch the look passing between the cousins and then laughed in sudden recollection as well. He hadn't been part of the traveling troupe, but both Merry and Frodo had treated him to a full account of the antics.

Pippin trotted into the kitchen with reinforcements. "Can I try again, Bilbo? I promise to watch them better this time."

"Of course you can, my dear lad. And we will save the burnt ones to send along with Sam when he goes down to the Cotton's farm, for that great pig Farmer Cotton is fattening up." He turned from rolling out the dough to give Pippin a playful look. "He has promised me a few pounds of sausages from it when the time comes, so we can just turn these burnt ones into fresh ones, can't we, and no harm done." He winked at Frodo and took the pan his nephew had greased up for the biscuits.

Pippin's eyes widened and then he laughed at the strange thought. "All right, then! So they haven't gone to waste after all." He climbed up onto his stool by the stove and with great care placed the uncooked links into the now cooled and cleaned frying pan, pierced the casings with a fork and returned the pan to the stove. His brow furrowed thoughtfully. "Bilbo, what's a ninnyhammer? I haven't heard that word before."

Bilbo pulled a face and paused in cutting out the biscuits with an upside down mug. "Oh, it's just a nonsense word really, a name given to people who have acted foolishly or thoughtlessly, what you Tooks might call a 'nowtkenner', though perhaps the person who gives the name is the real culprit. I shouldn't have called you a name Pippin, especially not for an honest mistake. Remember, 'sticks and stones bruise only bones -'"

"-but names will ever haunt me," finished Frodo ruefully. He carried the first pan of biscuits over to the oven and ruffled Pippin's curly head. "You taught me that saying, Bilbo, when I came to live here, and I first heard 'ninnyhammer', or perhaps it was 'numbskull'".

Pippin turned from the sausages. "Did Bilbo call you names, too?" His innocent amazement brought a roar of laughter from uncle and nephew.

"No, no," explained Frodo, "I heard the Gaffer calling Sam that one day out in the garden. The Gaffer is a great one for saying what he thinks - usually without thinking - and especially when he is displeased and most especially to his kin." He thought about this for a moment, and then bent down to put the biscuits in the oven.

"Sam who was here this afternoon?" asked Pippin. "Then is he a ninnyhammer sometimes?"

Merry finally spoke up, as he hurried over to the stove, "no more than the rest of us are! Though I might leave you out of that qualification. Look out now, Pippin! You're going to burn those sausages again." And pulling the frying pan from the stove Merry gave it a deft shake to roll the blackening links.

* * *

When Pippin's bedtime came he refused to go to sleep unless Merry came to bed, too. He was only ten years old and on his first visit to Bag End without his parents and sisters. As the youngest of four, and the much adored and only son, he had been indulged and coddled by his sisters from the moment of his birth, and was so used to being looked after and looked out for that it seldom occurred to him that he might have more responsibility in the ordering of his daily life than making his wants known and having them met. His family visited Merry's often at Brandy Hall, and ever since he had begun to talk and was old enough to be out of a crib, Pippin had demanded Merry's willing attention and slept in his room at the Hall. So he wanted his much-adored cousin with him as he began his first night at Bag End in the large and now dark bedroom Frodo had made ready for them.

Merry was content to settle into a warm bed under a duck down quilt and read one of the many books Bilbo happily lent him. If Frodo and Bilbo thought this arrangement would give them their accustomed quiet hours together before the parlour fire, they were wrong. Squeals and laughter, thumping and banging, echoed down the hall from the Took/Brandybuck sleeping quarters leaving no doubt that the younger pair was in far too high spirits to sleep. Bilbo stalked down the hallway and pounded on their door three times before they gave up their pillow fight and contented themselves with chatting and joking loudly for at least another hour. The greater culprit was Merry, reviving the conversation whenever Pippin was quiet for more than a minute or two, until Pippin simply stopped answering, either because he was asleep or pretending to be.

Frodo and Bilbo now sat companionably in the deepening quiet, occasionally reading out loud to the other the most interesting passages from their books. Frodo stirred the fire and added more wood. It was a cold night and would get colder still: the stars had been bright in the clear evening sky when Pippin and Merry had brought in more wood after dinner. Frodo hoped Merry had built and banked the fire in the grate in their room well. When it got on to 10 o'clock he went down to his uncle's room to build up the fire there and chase the chill from the air.

But Bilbo showed no signs of going to bed. With a thump he closed his book and let out a great sigh. "Oh, I do wish Gandalf would come. What the devil can be keeping him!'

Frodo put aside his own book. "He said only that he would be here in the spring if he could manage it, didn't he?"

"Yes, yes! And here it is spring now, even if it is as cold as winter. And Gandalf hasn't come!" Bilbo got up and distractedly paced in front of the fire.

"He'll come if he can Bilbo, I'm sure, and that is all he promised to do, after all." Frodo watched Bilbo pensively. His uncle had been acting most oddly about Gandalf's coming to help him plan his eleventy-first birthday celebration for September. One day he anticipated the party enthusiastically and the next was in great irritation and low spirits if it was even mentioned. His wait for Gandalf's arrival was the same. When he was in the midst of planning his party he looked forward to it, and then dreaded it when the gloom was upon him.

"I know you are worried, but I don't know why," Frodo ventured. Anxiously he watched his uncle fidget with what he had in his pocket. "You have months and months still to make the arrangements. And there are others besides Gandalf who can help you."

"Not with arranging for the sending of certain items from Dale!" Bilbo replied irritably. "I need Gandalf to help me with that, and it will take some time." He stopped and stared fixedly into the fire.

"I thought the dwarves were getting those things for you?"

"Well, yes, they are, if I make up my mind to order them at all. But I'm not sure I even want to. That is what I need Gandalf for. This big party seems so unnecessary." He glanced at Frodo. "I don't see why I should have to give away masses of gifts just because I'm turning eleventy-one. Most of Hobbiton and Bywater are already convinced I'm quite mad, I needn't put on a special celebration to prove it." Again he paced up and down. "I do wish Gandalf was here. This party is his idea as much as mine, and he would help me to make up my mind once and for all!"

"He'll come Bilbo," Frodo said quietly, "Gandalf will come," and he watched his normally patient and unflappable uncle carry their empty mugs into the kitchen in a great irritation. There was more to the party than Bilbo was telling him, Frodo knew that without any doubt, and knew just as certainly that it was no good asking him what. More than once Bilbo had said to him 'no secrets between us, my boy' but Frodo had learned that policy only went so far with the old hobbit, who had lived too long alone to completely abandon his private ways. Often many months of dithering preceded his making up his mind to do something, or to share some private worry with Frodo. Once his mind was made up he could act quickly, but getting it made up, that was the trick. Thoughtfully Frodo banked the fire and went to bid Bilbo goodnight.

* * *

Dawn brought a pale sun rising into a faint blue sky, and scant warmth to the fields, paths and gardens twinkling under a layer of hoar frost. It was Saturday and nominally, at least, a day of rest for the Gamgees. But the Gaffer ignored the calendar and the cold, and insisted he and Sam go up to the Bag End garden when their early breakfast was done.

A long and minute examination of Sam's work there only confirmed his diligence in preparing the earth and plants for the coming spring. The first planting of peas was indeed in, the potatoes and turnips were hilled and weeded, the raspberries thinned and the fruit trees pruned. The Gaffer stood in the middle of the vegetable garden, his hands tucked inside his coat against the cold, and grudgingly said, "all right, son, so far so good. You can bring up a wagonload or two of manure if you must, but mind it's well aged or you'll burn the seedlings."

"I know that well enough, dad!" Sam said testily. Then, instantly regretting his tone, he asked, "I've done all right, then?"

"Aye, from what I can see you have," he looked around the garden and still saw nothing amiss, "but time will tell, time will tell."

Sam nodded, satisfied, and hugged his coat tighter. He needed the heavy work of digging, pruning, and hauling to keep him warm on a morning such as this. Standing idle in the thin early sun filtered through the rising mists froze him to the bones. His dad looked even colder. They turned to go and caught sight of Pippin trotting up The Hill, enthusiastically swinging a small wicker basket. Pippin had already spotted them; he came through the garden gate and ran up.

"Hello Sam! What are you doing here? Isn't it Saturday? Bilbo said I wouldn't see you today because it's Saturday."

"Aye, it is." Sam grinned at Pippin's pleased surprise. "But my Gaffer here wanted to have a look at the garden."

Pippin's eyes widened as he looked up at Hamfast Gamgee, who smiled benignly down, and said, "good morning to you, Master Pippin."

"Good morning," Pippin politely replied. He looked from Sam to his father as if expecting the Gaffer to add another word to the short list Pippin had learned the night before.

"And where is it you've been to this early?" asked Sam.

Pippin brandished the covered basket. His high piping voice in the cold air startled the juncos from the fruit trees. "Bilbo sent me down to Hobbiton to buy some sticky buns. Merry and I ate them all up last night and there are none left for our breakfast." Suddenly he remembered something. "Are you coming in for a lesson with Bilbo this morning, Sam? Bilbo says he taught you to read and write long ago, and you come almost every morning still to read his books and hear his stories again and again." Pippin was hopping now from one foot to another, trying to stay warm. "He says you're the first Gamgee to know your letters, and he says he hopes you're not the last, and he doesn't think you will be because now that you can read he can't get you to stop. So he's sure you'll be teaching your own children when they're just small." The Gaffer snorted and looked away. Pippin paused to gaze at him expectantly, then trembled suddenly with a huge body-shaking shiver. He laughed. He had run hard all the way from Hobbiton, wanting to impress Merry with how fast he could be, and now the sweat chilled him. "Come inside, please!" He grabbed Sam's hand, just as he would take Merry's, and Sam let himself be tugged towards Bag End. The Gaffer willingly followed. Around the front they came upon Frodo latching the garden gate behind him.

"Look Frodo! I'm back already!" called Pippin. "Sam and his Gaffer were out in the garden. They're coming in for a visit."

Frodo smiled at Pippin as he walked up. "I wondered what all the commotion was coming through the kitchen window, and it was you!" He nodded to the Gaffer. "Good morning, Master Hamfast. It's been too long since I have seen you. Sam said you were over the ague that has been plaguing you most of the winter, so we have been looking for you everyday, though not, I admit, on this Saturday."

"Aye, I'm well enough now, Mr. Frodo, and no mistake. I've come for a look at Mr. Bilbo's garden, to see for meself if my Sam's kept it proper, and all."

Frodo smiled at the apprentice standing quietly behind his father. "Sam's been working hard, I think. Every morning when he comes in for a visit he first plans with Bilbo what's to be done in the garden. And Bilbo is out there with him almost every day, though I'm sure Sam doesn't need any overseeing, not when it comes to keeping a garden, at least."

To Frodo's surprise a look of annoyance flickered over the Gaffer's face at this last remark, so quickly he added, "come in out of the cold and have a breakfast visit with Bilbo. He will be very glad to see you and hear the results of your inspection."

* * *

Bilbo was indeed pleased to see his Master Gardener, and he sat with him at the dining room table while Merry and Frodo brought tea, milk and sugar, toast and muffins, pots of jam, honey and butter, rashers of bacon and dishes of eggs. Pippin proudly carried in the sticky buns on a plate. Sam couldn't bear to be waited on at Bag End, so he busied himself with building up the fire and making sure his dad was warming up.

When all was ready everyone sat at the long oak table. With amusement and some growing concern, Frodo listened to Bilbo and Hamfast. In response to the Gaffer's increasing gloom and pessimism over his son's ability to care for the Baggins' garden without his supervision, Bilbo gave progressively more positive and encouraging reports of all Sam's hard and well done work. Sam fidgeted with his mug of tea. Pippin perched expectantly on the edge of his seat, watching the Gaffer intently.

Finally Frodo said, "we will benefit from your knowledge and skill in the garden for many years more, won't we Gaffer, while you get Sam 'trained up proper' for us as you say. Bilbo is very pleased with how well you're bringing Sam along, aren't you, uncle?"

Bilbo smiled in sudden understanding. "Yes, indeed, I don't know what we would do without our Gaffer!"

Sam sighed with relief.

* * *

When the last of the food was gone and the older hobbits each had a final mug of tea before them, Merry got up to clear the table, looking pointedly at Pippin, who reluctantly began to help. He wanted to hear more of the Gaffer's talk. Sam fetched a tray from the kitchen and loaded it with the breakfast things. Together the three young hobbits began the washing up: Sam at the sink, Merry drying and Pippin putting away.

Frodo soon sought refuge with them. He handed Sam his empty mug, leaned against the counter and cocked his head at the animated discussion coming from the dining room. "Family trees!" he laughed, and made a face. "They are having an argument over whether Bungo Baggins is Gilly Brownlock's third cousin twice removed, or second cousin thrice removed. It's more than I can bear."

Pippin giggled. "Oh, they're always doing that at home and making a game of it and trying to figure out how the next generation would all be related supposing 'so and so' married 'so and so'."

"Oh yes," chortled Merry with a glint in his eye, "all the wee lasses in Tuckborough spend their idle hours dreaming of you, Pippin! 'Married to the Thain' they think to themselves, 'wouldn't life be grand!' I'll wager your mum and dad are looking out likely prospects for you already."

Pippin was indignant. "They are not, Merry! Don't you say that! I'm never getting married, not if I can help it. Girls don't know how to have any fun at all!" Pippin had spent far too much time watching his three sisters do all those things lasses do when they get to a certain age - fuss over their hair, worry about their clothes, and roam in giggling packs through the Great Smials sharing hilarious jokes (which he was sure were mainly directed at him) - to want to associate with them any more closely.

Merry smirked down at Pippin and handed him a dry plate to put away. Pippin went on the offensive. "Well, you're going to be Master of Buckland, aren't you? That's almost as good as Thain." He puffed out his little chest. "Almost! And you're older than me, so your mum and dad are probably thinking about a wife for you all the time, aren't they?"

To Pippin's surprise Merry blushed. "Oh, what do you know?" he said half-heartedly. Though the lasses didn't much interest Merry, he did feel rather oddly pleasant when he was around some of them. And just this past week he had overheard his parents discussing the attractions of some of his more distant female cousins.

Before Pippin could continue his teasing Merry turned on Frodo, who was lounging against the worktop supervising them. "What about you, Frodo? You'll be of age soon. Hasn't Bilbo been inviting in any young Bolger or Boffin lasses for tea and a look-over by you yet?"

Frodo laughed easily and did not blush. "Bilbo! Who never gave a thought to a wife for himself? No, I don't think it has ever really occurred to him that I might marry one day, or at least that it would happen in his lifetime." He shrugged. "At any rate even if I did want a wife - and I don't, not right now of course, and I don't know if I ever will - but even if I did, I wouldn't bring a wife to live at Bag End, not even if Bilbo said he didn't mind. Because I know he would, really. It would be too much for him. No, it's just me and Bilbo for as long as Bilbo is at Bag End." He smiled at them; they both looked rather somberly back. Sam stood at the sink, distractedly washing the same mug over and over.

Frodo surveyed his subdued companions, then grinned wickedly. "But I suppose if I wait too long to start looking for a wife you two will be all grown up, and I won't have a chance! How am I to compete with the Thain!" He grabbed Pippin under the arms and twirled him up and around in the air so fast his legs swung out. Pippin's high-pitched belly laugh had both Frodo and Merry laughing, too. Frodo set Pippin down; he dizzily staggered into Merry and was caught up for another swing.

"Oh, who'd marry you, Pip, when the Master of Buckland is about!" shouted Merry gleefully. "Almost as good as the Thain you said, and you'll have to take it back if you want to keep your breakfast!" Faster and faster he spun him. Pippin squealed with laughter. "Take it back!" shouted Merry.

"Better!" squeaked Pippin.

"Who's better?" Merry demanded, knowing Pippin's tricky ways.

"The Master of Buckland!" Pippin laughed and gasped for air. "Oh, stop Merry, put me down."

Merry was as dizzy as Pippin by now and nearly dropped him as he stopped. Barely keeping to his feet Pippin staggered about the kitchen, enjoying the dizziness and the lurching world.

All through this discussion of lasses and marriage Sam had remained studiously quiet. With the lull in the conversation the task of dishwashing seemed now to command his full attention. But Pippin turned on him at last. He was exhilarated by the great fun of teasing and being teased by these two marvelous cousins. When Sam went to get another tray of dirty crockery off the worktop, Pippin cornered him. "What about you, Sam! Do any of the lasses fancy you?"

Sam blushed brilliantly. Merry and Pippin burst into laughter. Bowing his burning face, Sam turned back to the sink, shaking his head, not saying a word. Pippin darted in front. "Look at you, Sam! You've gone red as a beet-root! There is a lass you fancy! Who is it? We promise not to tell, don't we Merry!"

Merry leaned with folded arms against the cupboard and chuckled knowingly. He remembered a time almost two years ago when he had gone by Number Three. The Cotton youngsters had been visiting with the Gamgees in the front garden. He had some idea of which lass was making Sam so uncomfortable and rather slyly he said, "well, I'd say you've gone as red as a rose, Sam, haven't you? I wonder why?"

Sam shook his head again. "There ain't no lass who fancies me that I can tell of. You just caught me off guard is all. And me dad says a lad don't never joke about his lass, does he?" Too late he realized his mistake and stammered, "if'n he has one."

Merry and Pippin hooted. A brilliant flush spread over Sam's face once again.

"Oh, that won't do, Sam!" Merry chortled, "So there is someone! You had better tell us, or I'll have to start guessing and I bet I guess right!"

Fiercely Sam washed the honey and jam off a plate with the soapy dishcloth. He shook his head, obstinate and silent.

Finally Frodo spoke. "Well done Sam! You teach them some manners, and about being respectful to the maidens. Hobbiton's ways are much more courteous than those of Buckland and Tuckborough, aren't they, if this is how their young ones are being brought up." Frodo's tone was lighthearted but the look of warning in his eyes made Merry and Pippin stifle their laughter.

Sam glanced gratefully at Frodo as he put the last clean dish in the dish rack. An awkward silence followed. He picked up a tea towel to help Merry, who stood idly by the dripping dishes, still smiling to himself. Frodo took up another towel and they soon had Pippin run off his feet trying to put away as fast as they dried.

"What shall we do today, Frodo?" Pippin asked.

"Well, it's Saturday - market day - so we will go down to Hobbiton and do the shopping." He looked down at Pippin and smiled affectionately. "We seem to be out of sticky buns again, for one thing."

"Yes, and honey! I ate all Bilbo's honey up on my toast!" Pippin said proudly. His face was still rather sticky. "That was the best honey!"

"That's clover honey from the Cotton's farm," said Sam. "I'm going down there today, I can get Mr. Bilbo some more if he'd like."

Frodo nodded. With a sudden exclamation Pippin scampered off to the larder. Back he came with a clumsily wrapped brown paper package and thrust it into Sam's surprised hands.

"What's this then?"

"That's for the great pig Bilbo says Farmer Cotton has. They're the sausages I burnt last night." Pippin's eyes sparkled mischievously. "Sam, do you know what Bilbo said when I burned the sausages? He said-"

But Frodo standing behind him suddenly clapped his hand over Pippin's mouth and warned evenly, "now Pippin, remember, think before you speak!" Cautiously he took his hand away.

Pippin looked indignantly up at him. "Oh, I won't say that, Frodo! I was going to tell what Bilbo said about the pig."

Frodo raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Go on, then."

Pippin looked up at Sam. "Bilbo said I should give these burnt ones to you, and you could give them to Farmer Cotton for his pig, and that way they'll be turned back to sausages again. Wasn't that funny?"

Sam's puzzled look turned to a smile. "All right, Master Pippin. That pig never said no to a meal, and never stopped eating until it was done. It's the biggest pig in all of Bywater and Hobbiton and that's a fact! I'll go put them with my coat. And I should get my Gaffer home soon or my sisters will think we've frozen in the garden."

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