The thing about summer camp is that it has the tendency to be fraught even when the circumstances surrounding its existence, and one’s participation in it, are normal.
Normal specifically referring to circumstances that do not include your Uncle maintaining cheerful friendship with half the staff. Or, conversely, circumstances that do include its management by a well-known community organization, as opposed to one gruff old man and seven probably-unpaid college students. Or, conversely , circumstances in which said Camp is not hosted in a converted campground in the Middle Of Nowhere, The Midwest, and in which its surrounding forestry is not currently being torn down by ten butt-ugly bulldozers.
Butt-ugly is a very important qualifier, as per the declaration of Eowyn, who handles the horses. Frodo doesn’t know much about Eowyn, other than the fact that she handles the horses. They have two of them. Uncle Bilbo who does Camp accounts remotely from his very comfortable apartment in the suburbs says horseback riding is an outdoor summer camp staple. This is something Frodo is sure has validity but applies more to summer camps that are actually recognized by a legal institution.
But anyway; the bulldozers. Fitting, somehow, that his last year of Camp before high school starts is setting out to be the most chaotic one yet.
“ Butt. Ugly ,” Eowyn, Who Handles The Horses, is saying. “Big and gruesome with a terrible white logo plastered all up the sides.” She scowls, which is very intimidating despite the fact that she stands at about five foot nothing and has paint smeared on her cheek from helping Gimli carry in the campers’ watercolour crafts. “And when I yelled at the guy in the nearest one the creep started leering at me.”
Beside her, her much larger older brother makes a faint growling noise. This does nothing to diminish Frodo’s impression of him as a somewhat humanish lion; he’s new this year, and as such Frodo doesn’t know his name or whether the growl was emitted ironically or unironically.
“Did you hit him?” asks Gimli, who does crafts workshop. “I’d’ve grabbed a big stick and hit him.”
Frodo makes a face at this. He looks over at the tall figure beside him, who it might be argued is the person responsible for getting everyone into this mess.
This mess being Camp in general, though Frodo is sure Uncle Bilbo’s awful cousin Lobelia would try to attribute any and all messes to Gandalf, who is, of course, the man in question.
Gandalf has been standing at the front of the room in a customary drapey grey t-shirt and flip flops all through Eowyn’s impassioned retelling, puffing wordlessly at his pipe. He continues to puff, now, as he regards Eowyn in somewhat ominous silence. Frodo wonders if he is allowed to smoke indoors, even in this time of crisis. Uncle Bilbo always takes his pipe outside when they’re back in the city. But then, Frodo (who is sitting beside Gandalf -- he was in the back phoning hullo to Uncle Bilbo before lunch was over, and on his way out got accidentally caught in the middle of this emergency meeting) suspects that a converted campground in the middle of the woods is not really a place that abides by any rules.
Another two puffs from Gandalf’s pipe. Camp’s going on for nearly a whole month still. Maligned bulldozers tearing Camp down is a terribly unproductive development.
“No,” says Eowyn finally, looking very much as thought she regrets not having grabbed -- as Gimli said -- a big stick and exacted violence on her foes. She chews a little on her bottom lip, which does nothing at all to diminish the steely quality of her frustration.
“They can’t just cut down the trees!” The protest comes from Arwen, perched on the cluttered desk in front of Gandalf. She seems to almost glow with her indignation, though of course, Arwen usually looks a little bit like she’s glowing. This can be attributed either to some ethereal quality that Frodo is yet to name, or the fact that the clean white t-shirts and pale jeans she favors appear much brighter when positioned beside the head counsellor Aragorn, who is usually covered in dirt. “This area is supposed to be protected by conservation laws!”
“Big companies don’t care about those things,” says Faramir, the evening activities coordinator, with a distinct note of moroseness. He’s sitting in the broken rolly chair by the desk and clutching a bit at his counsellor’s notepad, which Frodo knows he uses for both administrative purposes and the recording of fun campfire songs. His moppish hair looks particularly so today, and he’s still looking at Eowyn, his brow furrowed. To his right, Legolas makes a sound that would be a snort if he were to ever do anything so undignified as to snort, and Gimli grunts.
“We don’t actually know if they’re a big company,” points out Aragorn from his expected position beside Arwen, looking thoughtful. (He is, indeed, sporting dirt on his knees, hands, and cheekbone. Frodo wonders how he does it.) “They could be an independent contractor.”
“An outsourcing,” says Legolas knowledgeably.
“They’re still scumbags,” says Eowyn’s lionish older brother, crossing his arms over a well-worn Rohan United jersey.
“Maybe someone else could try talking to them,” says Arwen diplomatically, as she offers Eowyn a sympathetic look.
Everyone looks at Gandalf.
Gandalf puffs out another bit of smoke and then very slowly adjusts the floppy brim of his sunhat.
“Very well,” he says.
And so it goes, that their first attempt to thwart the unexpected foe is one of diplomacy.
“I said it would end badly,” Legolas is saying, having co-opted Arwen’s old perch on Gandalf’s desk as she is currently with most of their errant campers on the lake attempting to ensure that no one drowns via mismanaged canoe. “I told Aragorn, this will end badly .”
“Not now, Legolas,” the boy in reference mutters under his breath, dabbing with a surety Faramir wishes he could emulate at the large cut above Gandalf’s left eyebrow. A damp yet handy flower-patterned washcloth is held in his long brown fingers; he’s pushed back the ratty sleeves of the well-worn bomber he always wears and washed his hands for the very important task of administering medical attention. Faramir notes not without a small measure of resignation that the knees of his jeans are still heavily stained with streaks of grass, and his boots caked with about five layers of mud. Still, Legolas falls into a somewhat mullish silence at his desk perch upon request; somehow, despite looking like he spent all night in a jungle and not in the shared counsellors’ cabin to the left of the camper dorms, Aragorn still manages to be considered every inch The Person Who Should Probably Be In Charge.
“I am perfectly alright,” says Gandalf, in a tone that implies he is also perfectly content to sit here a few moments longer and let his summer hires fuss over him. Even after half a year of Faramir’s working under his haphazard authority over summers, Gandalf remains somewhat of a wild card. Certainly, Faramir’s father would not like him much, though this is a thought that makes Faramir grimace.
Perhaps things are just extra strange this year because Boromir got an actual summer job, which is related to his actual college degree, and so his older brother is not here with the rest of them corralling middle schoolers in the middle of the woods. Also perhaps, because an evil corporation is mowing down the forest and Gandalf just got into a fistfight with a scary old man in a suit.
Faramir isn’t sure.
“So they’re not going to leave then,” asks Frodo, who at just only thirteen is one of their older campers, and who has been hovering at Gandalf’s knobbly elbow from the moment the old man thundered back into the campground, bleeding from his very bushy eyebrow.
“Are they going to run the whole forest down?” asks another camper, curly-haired and pointy-nosed. Three of them have trickled in after Frodo and up until now been content to simply watch their head counsellor take on the complicated and skill-demanding task of washcloth dabbing in silence.
“They’d never do that,” says the sandy-haired kid -- Sam, Faramir remembers -- looking appalled. “Would they, Gandalf?”
“Haarmmmph,” replies Gandalf, which does not explain much of anything to anyone. But then he says, “they wouldn’t not.”
The room bursts into cries of outrage and despair. It is very dramatic for a Wednesday morning at Camp. The blustering is making him miss his brother.
From beside him, Eowyn says, “If they try anything else, I’ll knock them all down myself,” so vehemently that it makes Faramir blink a little without meaning to.
“I’d like to see that,” Faramir says. It comes out very sincerely, and is not heard by the kerfuffle of the rest of the room, but is heard by Eowyn, who looks a little surprised before grinning so hugely at him that all the breath gets knocked right out of his chest.
On the other side of the room, Gimli and Legolas are halfway into bickering about types of gym wear.
“We will get to the bottom of this somehow,” Gandalf says in a tone that neatly cuts through the chaos, and this is a statement perhaps more comforting to Faramir than it should be.
Strategies for how anyone is getting to anything’s bottom veer very rapidly away from reasonable, which really should have been expected.
Diplomacy is tossed out the window quite immediately; its replacement is not exactly clear, but does involve the terribly inconvenient poking of tree branches into one’s face.
“This, also, is a terrible idea,” says Legolas, only just stopping himself from spitting out a pine needle in what would have been a supremely undignified fashion.
“Don’t let him see you,” whispers Aragorn, ignoring his friend’s discomfort with a casual grace that Legolas only slightly resents. The older boy’s lanky limbs are wrapped around the slender branch to Legolas’s left, and he is carefully inching his way to higher and thinner tree for a better vantage point. Legolas isn’t too concerned; Aragorn usually knows what he’s doing, though it is sometimes hard not to remember him as they were when they were kids playing Mario Kart in Arwen’s basement and he’d always pick Toad and lose. “He’ll set security after us.”
Him , of course, is the tall, ghastly-looking man in the ridiculous white suit strutting around the construction sight beneath them. He stops at the edge of the clearing to talk to the brutish foreman, and Legolas wrinkles his nose. His hair is slicked-back and he looks like he stepped out of some kind of Evil Wizard Weekly magazine, which Legolas does not appreciate. Subtlety, in his humble opinion, is always an important quality to possess.
“You’re the least subtle person I know,” whispers Aragorn, when Legolas brings this up. He’s still following evil wizard man intently with his eyes. Legolas bristles; he is not above bringing up moments of acute video-game-related humiliation. He doesn’t get a chance to do this, however, as his attention is diverted by the third member of their impromptu scouting party.
“Terrible idea, climbing a tree,” says Gimli from underneath him, as he grunts and grips more tightly at his own, markedly thicker, tree branch. “Now if we were to have dug under them. I think that’ll have been genius.”
“ We don’t have the digging equipment,” Legolas points out. “That’s the problem, Gimli.”
“ Shhh ,” says Aragorn before Gimli can retort. He’s managed to climb higher on his branch, which is an impressive feat to achieve, Legolas must admit, when one’s shoelaces and uncombed hair are both un-tied. Legolas’s own hair is hanging in a nice braid down his back, for practical purposes only, despite the fact that Gimli insisted only that morning that Legolas does not believe in practicality. This is false. Legolas thinks practicality is a great thing to joke about at parties.
“We can’t let them hear us,” Aragorn is saying. “Gandalf will get in trouble.”
The Gandalf in question does not in fact know that they are here, which is not something that Legolas brings up. Technically, they are supposed to be heading morning activities, but it was easy enough to convince Boromir’s younger brother to take over -- poor kid -- and anyway, Gandalf probably won’t notice they’ve been gone. When they left he was in the middle of using his walking stick to ward off a big black bear that had wandered into Camp before it ate one of the children.
“ We will get in trouble,” says Legolas, though this does not particularly concern him. Camp can be awfully dull sometimes, when things are going more or less smoothly.
“ I will fall and break something,” says Gimli, which is pressing for about a half second, before Aragorn makes the unfortunate choice of glancing across the clearing at large birch directly facing them. Legolas is pretty sure that his friend’s face goes through all five stages of grief before settling into an expression that can only be described as aghast under his unkempt stubble.
“ Pippin ,” Aragorn hisses, somehow both quiet and loud enough to be heard all the way over there. “ Why are you in that tree .”
Merry and Pippin look so alarmed at being spotted that Legolas is sure for a moment they are both going to fall out of their tree and onto the foreman’s head below them.
“We’re not in any trees,” says Pippin. His whisper-shout is not quiet at all, but rather very easily heard. Even Gimli catches it.
“ Shhh ,” says Merry, before saying, “they have a mini-fridge down there!” as though that is any sort of explanation.
Aragorn continues to look aghast. Pippin looks mildly guilty. Gimli has gone red in the face, though whether out of concern or because his left foot is slipping, Legolas cannot tell. He shifts a little on his own perch, which is remarkably comfortable, and resists the urge to pluck his counsellor t-shirt out of the clutches of the tree’s brambly branches.
“Shall we go and get them out of the tree?” he asks the group, very reasonably.
“Don’t move,” Aragorn is mouthing across the clearing. “Stay right there --”
“We can’t get out the tree!” Pippin whisper-shouts back, and Legolas is just about to point out that with all their yelling, someone will certainly hear them, when the low branch Pippin is standing on snaps and he tumbles right to the ground.
“PIPPIN!” wails Merry.
“OI!” roars the foreman’s voice from the ground.
“Too late,” says Legolas, aloud. He is sure it is only because Gimli likes him so well that he doesn’t reach up and pinch him.
“I suppose we’d better go fetch them,” says Gimli, sadly, as chaos unfolds below.
“Valar help me,” mutters Aragorn, “that bear better be taking up Gandalf’s time.” And then he jumps down from the tree.
So that was that attempt unsuccessful, thinks Legolas, adjusting the hems of his pants and jumping after him.
Attempt the third involves Eowyn again, though this time somewhat less directly.
“A restraining order!” Arwen is saying, hotly. It’s perhaps the most aggressive and disdainful Eowyn has ever heard the older girl’s musical voice. “I can’t believe it! It’s that creep that should be restrained, Eowyn, and not your brother.”
This is, of course, true -- Grima was an awful sort of wormy fellow when Uncle Theoden hired him to fix their toilets last year and seems to have remained that way even in his new job as deputy manager of evil construction project -- but Eowyn can’t help but feel just a little bit bad for him. His black eye was truly spectacular. She reminds herself to give Eomer a proper hug and a kiss later, if only for the relish of witnessing that hilariously bruised face.
“It’s too bad Eomer didn’t do much talking, though,” says Eowyn, because that is also true. The point was to politely ask the evil corporation to go away. Eomer’s attempt was neither polite, nor did it involve much asking.
Retrospectively, Eowyn thinks, perhaps they ought not have sent Eomer.
“I’m sure you’d have done the same,” says Faramir, who is helping Arwen in the task of moving small plants from a large pot into planters, gently. Eowyn assumes these are to be used in a Calming Afternoon Activity for the campers, though past attempts at such an exercise would suggest its futility. Still, Arwen seems to be having a terribly good time. And it will certainly be funny to watch Gimli and Legolas get covered in dirt by middle schoolers. “As would the rest of us, Eowyn.”
He says this as sincerely as he says nearly everything to her, smiling up at her from the plants. There’s a smudge of fertilizer on his nose. Eowyn feels her face warm.
“Rightly so,” says Arwen, in a stout way that would make Eowyn snort were she not so concerned about her warm face; Arwen is in graduate school studying environmental justice and spends her free time at strictly non-violent rallies. She straightens another of her little plants and leans over to inspect it such that her long dark hair sweeps gracefully to the side. “But it’s passed, now, Eowyn, you needn’t worry anything about it -- mind the little leaves, Faramir,” she adds serenely, still intent on her own planter.
“Sorry,” says Faramir, fumbling a bit and turning back down to the plants, instead of to Eowyn, who begins to stare resolutely at the peonies on the table but is waylaid by the realization that Arwen is looking at her, rather knowingly.
“I wasn’t worrying about it,” Eowyn says, a bit helplessly. This is not wholly true; maggoty and deserving as Grima was (her own words, not Gimli’s), they’ve gone and botched another try at saving Camp, on her behalf.
Arwen’s expression softens just so in a way that Eowyn might have felt condescending from anyone else, but only feels comforting here. It’s nice, she feels suddenly, to be understood by someone who is not your well-meaning but sometimes clueless older brother -- nice in a way that is hard to find in the awkward interim between highschool and college, which Eowyn finds herself stuck in now.
Stuck being a very operative word. Even with the comfort of friendship, she still sometimes feels everyone considers her the baby of the group, to be protected more than anything. It’s a fate she’s not been able to escape nearly her whole life, given both Eomer and Theodred are older than her and she’d not had many friends her own age even in grade school.
Maybe that’s why she likes spending so much time with Merry. So that she can finally feel protective of someone else.
Pathetic, just a bit, that one of her closest friends is a twelve-year-old.
Eowyn looks up from the peonies as Faramir makes a funny snuffling noise, and she has to bite down on her lip to stop a snort of laughter from escaping -- he seems to be struggling with his plants where Arwen is treating them as extensions of her fingers, and looks rather distressed about it. He, like she and Eomer, never grew up surrounded by forest, but rather in the middle of a very concrete city. She and Eomer of course grew up on a farm, but there were still no forests or forest-like plants around. Eomer still complains that the trees give him allergies.
This was a viable complaint until Arwen declared that she always kept Claritin in the back pocket of Aragorn’s Handy Head Counsellor Fanny Pack, even though she personally had no allergies to speak of.
“For emergency purposes,” she said, very sincerely.
But Eowyn’s grown quite fond of the forest, in the summer and a half she’s spent here. Perhaps this is the lingering influence of some of her charming but at times barmy co-workers, who like the forest more than is probably healthy. Certainly, most of Eowyn’s old high school friends were not so fond of camping; Legolas is too good at climbing trees for it to be normal, Arwen spends her time looking like a nymph that sprung out the ground, and she’s fairly sure sometimes that Aragorn would just sleep in the woods if they let him.
None of these observations are improving Eowyn’s mood, so instead she says,
“I just wish I could be of more help,” a little awkwardly.
Arwen smiles brilliantly at this.
“Great,” she says. “You can help Faramir with these last few daisies.”
This, too, is accompanied by a slightly knowing smile, as Arwen gathers half the little pots in her arms and sweeps out of the room. Twenty-six seems to be an awfully perceptive age.
Eowyn steps forward, closer to the table Faramir’s stationed himself at, and leans over to watch what he’s doing. He seems very focused; the sleeves of his nicely ironed jumper, which he’s always wearing over top of his camp t-shirt, have been rolled up, and he keeps blowing a wayward strand of brownish hair out of his face. Abruptly, Eowyn remembers that she is not the only youngest around anymore -- he’s also starting college in the fall, and his closest friend is also his older brother.
“I think you’re supposed to put the soil in first,” she says, rubbing impulsively at her arm through the plaid sleeve of her shirt, though she really doesn’t know much about plants either.
“Oh,” says Faramir, removing his hand and rubbing at his nose. This only makes the fertilizer smudge worst. Eowyn bites her lip and tries not to grin.
“Don’t worry. We can leave them all to Sam for evening activities, he’ll take care of them.”
Faramir grins, too, at that, from under his fringe of hair. “He is very good with flowers.”
They stand for another couple moments, smiling at each other fondly under the alleged appreciation of thirteen-year-old Sam’s gardening ability.
“Do you like poetry?” asks Faramir, suddenly, and then goes a little pink. “I mean -- I’ve found some poetry, and it made me think of you --”
“I don’t really read poetry,” says Eowyn truthfully, “I like soccer and things more.” But then she panics as his face falls. “I’d like to see your poetry, though!”
This comes out in a bit of a yell; it just cannot be helped. Faramir blinks rapidly before flushing anew.
“Oh -- okay. Great. That’s great. I’d love to show it to you.”
“Okay,” says Eowyn, who also seems to be flushing. “That’s -- great then.”
Blessedly, they grin at each other again, though this time not because of Sam’s gardening.
“I need those other flowers!” calls Arwen’s lovely voice from outside. Eowyn is abruptly reminded of her previous concerns.
Somehow, she’s feeling a lot more hopeful about things than she did before.
This hope sticks around rather stubbornly, as anything involving Eowyn is wont to be, but attempt four makes a grand effort to squash it.
Attempt four, of course, being not so much an attempt as a dooming realization that they must be attempting a bit harder.
“Go on -- no , just say it again. I wanna see how quickly he throws the apple.”
“You think he’s got the apples on him again? Oh, they were good ones.”
“Two bucks says he has, Pip -- go on, then.”
Sam’s gotten used to summer camp by now, though he was awful wary of it last year. He’d never been away from home before for longer than a night and that was only ever to visit Granny across town; camping out in the woods was something he’d never thought he’d be doing. How Mr. Bilbo convinced his Gaffer to let him come along with Frodo was anyone’s guess.
Still, Sam wishes Camp didn’t involve so much hiking.
“I’m hungry,” says Pippin, for the fourth time since they set out that morning. Beside him, Merry does a fantastic job as schooling his face into one of perfect innocence.
“You’re always hungry, Pippin,” says Merry, quite sincerely sympathetic.
“Well we’ve been walking for hours , practically,” says Pippin. His voice quavers by only a small margin. Had Sam and Frodo not been listening to their heated whispering for half of the hike, Sam would think he really was distressed.
Well -- it’s a reasonable assessment either way, Sam decides, even though Strider doesn’t seem to make much of it by his unimpressed expression. Sam knows by now, of course, that that’s not Aragorn’s real name, but nicknames have always tended to stick for an awful long time amongst Sam’s family. And this is a pretty apt one, considering how long the older boy’s legs are, and how much he seems to enjoy walking.
He’s paused and turned around where he stands, now, only a few steps ahead of them on the trail, to cross his arms over his chest.
“Pippin,” says Aragorn, very patiently by what Sam can judge, “you had breakfast an hour ago.”
“Well, yes,” says Pippin, as though there’s no further explanation to be offered.
“He wants a second breakfast,” offers Merry helpfully. From beside Sam, Frodo muffles his laughter at Aragorn’s slowly raised eyebrows. Aragorn turns wordlessly and continues along their hiking trail.
“Well, it was worth a try,” says Merry.
Hiking builds character , Gandalf had said this morning. Especially important for you, Mister Peregrin . Pippin hadn’t seemed to take much offense at that, though Sam still isn’t sure if that was because of his stubbornly good nature or because he didn’t fully take Gandalf’s meaning. At any rate, Sam wishes he could’ve just stayed back at the campground and helped Arwen with the little garden under the Main Cabin’s front porch. They were tending it just that morning, and he so enjoyed it. Something tells him Aragorn wouldn’t have minded hanging around Arwen and her garden, either, but Gandalf was quite forceful about the value of hikes. As if the universe has decided to have a go at him, Sam stumbles a bit on a root.
It’s been a bit of a long morning for most everyone, it has.
“Anyhow,” Pippin’s saying, “did Legolas and Gimli really wedge stones in all the construction trucks last night, Aragorn?”
Aragorn pauses again on the trail and turns back to them, looking faintly uncomfortable. Sam supposes that camp counsellors ought not be setting bad examples for the campers, all things considered -- in matters of criminal activity, especially, if not in matters of shining your boots. Aragorn’s boots look like they’ve not been shined in an age. Gaffer would call it a disgrace.
They watch as their head counsellor scratches a little at his scruffy beard, and opens and closes his mouth a couple times.
“I, erm. Wasn’t there to see it.”
Sam’s not been around very long, but for all his easy grace and an outdoorsy skillset that Frodo claims he’s not sure most political science students have (Frodo knows a lot about many sorts of things), Aragorn’s always a terrible liar.
“Don’t go asking him that, Pippin,” says Merry seriously. “He can’t tell us, he’s supposed to set a good example .”
“Oh, right,” says Pippin. “Sorry Aragorn. But what about --”
“No one will be wedging rocks in anything,” says Aragorn firmly, having recovered his composure. The fact that he’s pulled a soft knitted beanie over his mop of hair for the purpose of this hike -- it was just a bit cool this morning when they set out -- does nothing to diminish the authoritative quality of this statement.
“Will Gandalf be making that a new rule?” asks Pippin, as they continue their walk. “On account of Gimli and Legolas, I mean. Just like the strictly platonic activities in the breakroom only, rule, from our first week --”
“Pippin, I am begging you to stop talking,” says Aragorn through his teeth, forging ahead through the underbrush. The back of his brown neck has a distinctly pink tint to it.
Sam sighs and tugs at the straps of his backpack.
“You don’t think there’ll be no Camp next year, do you Frodo?” he asks, falling behind a bit as the chatter of the others continues.
Frodo, who is awful knowledgeable about Camp things because of his Uncle Bilbo, says, “of course not, Sam,” with great conviction. This is somewhat comforting.
“Oh, well, that’s good,” says Sam, as they plod along. “I’ve come to like Camp a lot, I have. With you and Merry and Pippin -- and of course, Mr. Gandalf and everyone. It’s real fun to do over the summers. Even if they haven’t got any good potatoes in the lunches.”
“Oh, Sam,” says Frodo, though Sam knows they are both very seriously in agreement regarding the value of a good potato.
Sam hopes that they will continue to agree on things like that next year, when they’ve moved schools and everything. He thinks Frodo’s a bit scared about it all, even though he doesn’t see why; Sam’s going to be sticking with him every step of the way, thanks very much.
“-- breakfast,” Pippin is saying, “it’d only take a moment to go back --”
There is a collective yell -- Sam isn’t sure who made the sound, and so dubs it collective -- as a small lumpy looking apple whizzes past his head and thumps lightly into Pippin’s chest.
“Aha!” hollers Merry. “Success, Pippin! Cough up!”
Terrible at lying, but with a killer throwing arm, Sam thinks, sighing yet again.
“The aim was bad,” Pippin argues, rubbing at his chest and looking put out, “last time he threw it right in my hands --”
“He was aiming for your head, clearly --”
“Well exactly Merry --”
Sam stumbles a bit as Frodo, who is ahead of him, walks right into a pillar of lanky person and falls back against Sam.
“Ouch!” says Merry, walking into Sam.
“Oohf!” says Pippin, walking into Merry.
“Aragorn,” says Frodo, as it was him who Frodo walked into. “Is everything alright?”
Aragorn does not answer. In fact, he’s not really making any noise at all, but has gone quite suddenly and ominously silent, staring at something over the ridge they’ve paused at.
“Get your heads on, you two,” Sam is saying to Merry and Pippin, not really minding the particular reasons for which Aragorn has stopped. He’s a quiet sort of fellow, all things considered. And, also, sometimes he just likes stopping and looking at the trees. Sam makes a humphing noise and helps straighten Pippin’s t-shirt as Merry starts brushing himself off. “No clue what you’re going on about half the time, are you -- what?” he asks, belated, because Merry and Pippin are looking wide-eyed at whatever it was that stopped Aragorn.
“Oh, no,” breathes out Frodo, stepping carefully to Aragorn’s side.
Sam steps out, too. The ridge goes off a bit and turns into rubble, leading down a caved-in hill that shows off a whole field of torn down trees. It’s like someone’s scorched a fat ugly hole into the earth, blackened with construction and grey because of the mulching. There are a half-dozen unmoving bulldozers scattered about, and they’ve got that terrible white logo all over them.
Merry and Frodo look stricken. Aragorn looks faintly as though he might be sick.
“Well,” says Pippin, with a sad air of finality, “butt-ugly really was it, wasn’t it.”
It’ll be a long hike back to tell Gandalf they’re doomed, is all Sam can think, even as his very backpack seems to droop.
Attempt five is one that everyone has steadfast belief in, if only for the fact that it’s nothing at all like attempts one two and three.
“Faramir will make them see sense,” says Gandalf with confidence, handing out their weekly schedules in the break room. “I have utmost faith in him. He can cite the regional environmental law book from heart like a scholar.”
“At least they probably won’t place a restraining order against him,” offers Gimli, looking at Eomer, who looks only a little bit repentant. Aragorn does his very best to smother a rather inappropriate grin behind his hand.
“Don’t look so pleased,” says Gandalf, reaching the end of the line and rapping Aragorn’s knuckles sharply with the edge of his clipboard before handing him his head counsellor’s schedule. “They could have arrested him.”
“Wormtongue’s gonna have that black eye for a month,” says Legolas happily.
“Slimy little bastard,” adds Gimli.
“Ow,” mutters Aragorn under his breath without any particular feeling, rubbing at his fingers.
“I still don’t understand,” says Arwen, cutting effortlessly through Legolas and Gimli’s snickering. “What’s their purpose in all this? Surely they’re not just cutting down trees for the sake of it,” which is, at present, what it looks like they’re doing, Aragorn thinks -- “though that is,” continues Arwen with a distinctly disparaging note in her voice, “at present, what it looks like they’re doing.”
He doesn’t bother hiding his smile this time. Gandalf shoots him another disapproving scowl.
Right. Leadership. Serious business. Aragorn clears his throat and schools his face into something more leader-like.
“If Faramir can at least start us off on a better foot, then we’ll be able to open conversation enough to ask them,” he says, in as even a tone as possible; Gimli is still snorting a little bit, the arse. Eowyn looks a bit more at ease, though, and seems to have stopped picking a hole in the hem of her t-shirt, which has never done anything to warrant its targeting by Eowyn’s not insignificant amounts of misplaced aggression. She’s a good kid, even if she does tend to project her emotions onto her sleeve, in this case just a little bit too literally.
Aragorn spares one last grimace for the growing hole in the t-shirt hem before looking back up in time for Gimli to say,
“But now see here -- they might not be very honest with us, even if we do get ‘em to talk.”
“Gimli’s saying this from his many experiences conducting business with the elites,” says Legolas, without a note of sarcasm -- “Ow!”
“The only reason you’re getting any degree is because your daddy faked your admission scores,” mutters Gimli, as Legolas rubs his arm. Aragorn wonders at what point they their mutually agreed upon expression of badly faked antagonism degenerated to pinching each other in awkward places.
“At least I’m not studying industrial design,” says Legolas, which surely would have incited retaliation in some other, less dire times, but before Gimli can open his mouth Gandalf says,
“Do shut up, please.”
Aragorn can only interpret this to mean that Camp activities are starting in ten minutes and none of them have actually had breakfast yet.
Sighing, he turns to the bowl of grocery-store-brand granola bars at the center of the breakroom table and tries not to begin contemplating his purpose in life. Specifically, in and around his current occupation as summer camp counsellor. It’s quite fulfilling, most of the time -- Aragorn maintains -- for someone who has yet to figure out what to do with his actual degree.
He never brings up this second part when Arwen’s dad asks him why he doesn’t have a real job yet. He has a feeling it won’t do him any favours even if it is infinitely less convoluted than the more fleshed out truth -- which is probably a lot less complicated in real life than it is in his head -- related to his grandfather’s failed legacy of non-profit organizations and the awkwardness of trying to start up something that’ll actually exact real social change in the current economic and political climate. Specifically, Aragorn doesn’t think he has it in him to do any good with it.
At least Arwen always seems to believe in him, he thinks with slightly less miserey than usual, swallowing a dry bite of granola. She’s still perched on the table across from him, and has seemingly produced a cup of vanilla flavoured yogurt out of thin air. She dips her granola bar into it with elegance and gives him a private little smile and wave. Aragorn smiles foolishly back, thinking that perhaps everything will be alright after all.
“Uh oh,” says Legolas, staring at the doorway. “Everything does not seem to be alright.”
“Faramir!” cries Eowyn, for that is who it is, standing at the entrance to the breakroom. “What in Behma’s name happened!”
Faramir is drenched from head to toe in something that is hopefully only water. He looks somehow more miserable than Aragorn feels whenever he thinks about his career options. Faramir says,
“They’d had a bad business deal with my father.” He sniffs, with a valiant air of barely-kept-together dignity. “So they decided to dunk me in the river.”
Everyone is silent for a moment.
Gandalf’s mouth has inopportunely dropped open a little bit; Aragorn watches him close it, very slowly.
“So recitation of the regional environmental law book didn’t work, then,” offers Legolas helpfully.
Gimli hits him. On Gimli’s other side, Arwen has an odd, determined expression on her face, which she now turns to Aragorn, and Aragorn, as is the way of things, is abruptly filled with a resigned sense of foreboding.
“Estel -- Estel.” Arwen shakes the boney shoulder under her hand again, thinking that it is very annoying how her boyfriend is the lightest sleeper in the world when roused by anything that is not her. “ Aragorn .”
There’s a dull thud where the top of his unruly head smacks against the underneath of the upper bunk.
“ Arwen ,” he says, sounding a funny mixture between distressed and resigned. Most of his hair has flopped forward to hang in his eyes.
“It’s not my fault you just shot straight up,” she protests.
“I thought I was dreaming,” he mumbles, which perhaps if they were not in a crisis would be a point to come back to and label either excellent material for teasing or sweetly romantic. But they are in a crisis, so Arwen has time for neither of those things.
“I have an idea,” says Arwen, still in a whisper. “So get dressed and come on .”
Despite Aragorn’s knocked head and perhaps because of the belligerent snoring of their coworkers -- how is it that Gimli never wakes himself -- it does not take them very long to sneak out of the shared counsellors’ cabin and start off through the woods. They’ve both been around Camp for so long, since before Arwen finished high school, really, and the trees and ferns and dirt of the area are by this point stoutly considered close friends. Legolas tells her that she is being deliberately romantical putting it like that, but Arwen does not often take her cousin’s comments seriously. Even when he’s sort of right. There is a thrill, Arwen maintains, in over-sentimentality, when it comes to the shrubbery.
Which brings them back to their midnight trek. Arwen isn’t wearing any shoes -- whoever has the time? -- and Aragorn’s always been quite nimble even in his clunky boots, so they’ve skirted the overturned rocks and the rotting tree stump that looks like a gnome and the crackling, noisy underbrush, and emerged among the eerily silent bulldozers in record time. There are four of them altogether, rusted in the corners, grey in the darkness save for the ugly white logos plastered to their sides. Behind the largest one is a makeshift office hut, likely built up only recently. Arwen thinks it looks somewhat like an overlarge porta-potty. She should remember to tell Eowyn; vindictive humour, and all that.
As it is, Arwen pulls a face and peeks out from behind two particularly large ferns, narrowing her eyes at the deserted outpost. They’re either terribly foolish for thinking the Campers no threat at all, Arwen thinks, or terribly sure of themselves. Of course, there is always the possibility that there’s some sort of watchman on duty around the other edge of the grove. Perhaps he’s gone to visit the actual porta-potty. Arwen scrunches her nose elegantly against the fern she’s hiding behind and pushes her long hair behind one ear. The night air isn’t particularly cold, and so she’s knelt quite comfortably in his thin t-shirt and shorts. She feels Aragorn’s warm, rough hand slip over hers above the dirt.
“You still haven’t told me what we’re doing here,” he whispers, also peeking out from behind the fern. Arwen says,
“You did come along quite willingly.”
“Arwen,” he says, in a Tone. Of course she does take his meaning; he trusts her, quite a bit. Which is really very good, as she trusts him just as much. Spending one’s childhood playing Mario Kart together in one’s basement allows for such bonds of trust to develop. And now, in adulthood, sneaking into deserted evil construction sites might take up that facilitative role.
Also, several years of comfortably dating, and the associated intimacy, and the confiding of hopes and dreams in one another -- there’s really quite a list she’s got going in the back of her mind.
“I’ll tell you in a moment, dear. You don’t think anyone’s still around, do you?”
“I can’t hear anyone,” says Aragorn slowly, pressing two fingers to the ground. “Can you see anything?”
Aragorn grins, which is about the exact emotion Arwen herself is feeling.
In moments, they’ve slunk behind the largest bulldozer and positioned themselves at the locked door of the foreman’s office. Aragorn is quite deftly handling a bobby pin he’s already pulled out from his back pocket, and Arwen thinks it’s terribly romantic of him to carry around lock-picking equipment in his pajamas, just for her.
“I realized,” she says, feeling that it’s only fair she clue him in, “when Faramir was talking about business deals -- surely they’ve a record of this independent contractor business. You know --”
“Our original theory,” says Aragorn grimly, even as he continues grinning; the lock has clicked open.
“Exactly,” Arwen says, letting him push the door open to peer inside. It’s empty, which is excellent news, so Arwen slips under Aragorn’s raised arm and glides into the room, making a beeline for the desk. Aragorn hangs back, eyes carefully tracing the cramped office for what Arwen is sure must be easy getaway routes. It’s not exactly that they’ve done this sort of thing before, but wilderness living does sometimes demand a conscientiousness regarding one’s environment, and they have attended quite a few non-violent protests ... Arwen shuffles efficiently through the desk drawers -- two unlocked and carrying a hunting magazine and an old round of salami, which is frankly disgusting -- and one locked. Her father would have a fit if he knew what they were up to, Arwen thinks, contemplating the locked drawer.
A warm hand squeezes her side, over the thin fabric of her cropped shirt, and she looks up to see a key hovering in front of her face.
“You know, your father would have a fit if he knew what we were up to,” says Aragorn’s low voice in her ear. Arwen plucks the key from his hand and turns around to smile brilliantly at him.
“Oh, he wouldn’t mind. He really does like you, you know.”
Aragorn makes a funny sound that goes something like “hnnnmm.” She realizes that despite the terrible importance of their clandestine adventure -- both thrilling and grave -- the tone of the evening might have just fallen in a mild slump. Oh, bother. Now key-less, Aragon has slumped into a resigned position that makes him look especially lanky, and while she’s partial to thinking most looks become him -- even when he’s wearing ratty pajama pants and a too-large shirt that features a cartoon bumblebee and reads bee an environmentalist -- Arwen cannot help but sigh and roll her eyes. She waves their stolen key for emphasis and says,
“It’s just this career business that has him worried. I don’t care either way; I’d marry you tomorrow.”
“Well, so would I,” says Aragorn, rather mulishly, crossing his arms over his chest. “That’s not the problem, is it.”
“There is no problem,” says Arwen, whose fingers have closed over something that feels distinctly like a USB drive. She pulls it out and waves it aloft with a flourish. “I told you three years ago that you’re making this all far too complicated and I’ll tell you again now.”
“Arwen,” he says, sounding terribly resigned. He can really say so much with just the two syllables of her name, she thinks. Quite an impressive skill. “It’s easy for you to say, already doing your master’s and knowing what you’re meant for in life. It’s just not going to work . Anyone involved in non-profit work is either useless or corrupt.”
Arwen purses her lips. “That doesn’t mean you’ll automatically be useless or corrupt, Estel.”
“You can’t know that,” he insists. Then rubs a little at his elbow. “Are you sure we know what we’re looking for, here?”
She huffs, because of course he’s gone and changed the subject, but decides to allow him this, just for the moment, as she is currently busy inserting the USB drive into the computer at the desk. The blue light of the screen makes the whole experience feel a little bit thrilling; Arwen clicks on the third folder in the drive.
Aragorn’s eyes widen as he looks over her shoulder at the screen. Arwen’s momentary jubilation is leaking out of her, into the awful little porta-potty office that smells like salami.
“Oh, Valar,” says her boyfriend. “This is bad.”
“We’ve got to take this back to Camp,” Arwen whispers fiercely. “Or the whole forest --”
“I know --”
“And don’t think we’re done talking about the other thing,” says Arwen, “because I believe in you, even if you’re being a little goose about it --”
“Oi!” comes a distinctly ugly and male voice from outside the cabin. “Who’s in there?!”
“Back window,” says Aragorn immediately, and despite it all, Arwen cannot help but grin as she pulls the drive out of the computer and follows him.
“All of them -- you mean this whole forest West of the highway?!”
“What are we going to do?”
“Eat the rich!”
“ You eat the rich!”
“What are we going to do ?!”
“The whole forest !”
“They are contracted hires,” Aragorn confirms grimly, over the sheer chaos that has taken over the break room. “Part of a much larger conglomerate that has plans to buy up and cut down forested land for miles around. They’ve cut a deal with the state government and are set to start the full project in August.”
“But the conservation laws!” says Legolas.
“The ecosystems!” cries Faramir.
“The bloody Campgrounds!” growls Gimli.
“The brutes !” yells Eowyn.
Frodo feels Sam clutch his arm where they are standing behind Gandalf, who has not yet changed out of his pajamas; Aragorn and Arwen corralled everyone in the breakroom with great urgency at the most unreasonable hour, before the sun was even up, and Frodo is only here because he heard a commotion and had to investigate. Retrospectively, he wishes he had ignored this unfortunately Tookish urge stayed in bed -- a glowering Gandalf towering over a room full of chaos dressed in nothing but an old t-shirt and baggy boxer shorts is a rather discomfiting vision.
“Maybe we’re still dreaming,” Sam whispers to him miserably, when Frodo voices this opinion.
Frodo has to acknowledge this a possibility, but there is something terrifyingly real about this all. Camp can’t really be on the verge of destruction, along with acres upon acres of should-be protected natural beauty -- can it? In front of him, Eowyn has taken to pacing up and down the length of the cramped break room, her whole person seemingly in frizzed disarray; Gimli keeps sitting down and getting back up again, with some difficulty and much blustering rage; Legolas has perched himself atop a cabinet and is making odd faces, likely because his usually impeccable hair is in a tangle; Eomer has snapped a pencil into fourteen little splintered pieces with his bare hands; Faramir looks on the verge of tears and is worrying a hole in the sleeve of his jumper; and Arwen, clutching the pilfered USB stick in hand, is pale with a livid rage that Frodo has never before seen on her usually serene features.
“Hang on -- everyone hang on !” says Arwen, standing on a chair. There is dirt on her knees, and some smudged on her cheek, and a tear in the hem of her floral pajama shorts -- but her eyes are blazing with determination. “There is a way to fix this! Their contract says that they can start their evil plans in August -- but they’ve already started cutting down the forest. They’ve broken contract! If we can get this USB to the headquarters of the environmental protection agency before August, then we can have them seriously investigated!”
“August is two days away!” says Faramir, with some desperation in his voice. “And we’ve no photographic proof that they’re already zoning --”
“And that useless agency is all the way across the state,” inserts Eomer mutinously.
“We’ve got Gandalf’s truck, and our brains!” says Gimli at top volume.
“And I suppose you’ll be driving us? You got your license revoked two months ago,” says Legolas.
“You never even got your license, pretty boy!”
“ I’ll take it --”
“Why isn’t Aragorn saying anything? He’s head counsellor --”
“And we’re all in this together . It’s across the state --”
“Eat the rich!”
“He doesn’t know anything about computers --”
“We have no proof --!”
“Oh!” says Sam, whispered but insistent, from beside Frodo -- who trying very hard not to cover his ears. “Merry and Pippin have pictures of the zoning. They took ‘em the other day when they tried to get at the mini fridge. Would those be useful?”
Frodo feels his eyes widen. The chaos of the break room seems to all make sense, suddenly, as what awful cousin Lobelia would definitely call the Tookish urge overtakes him again.
“I’ll take it!”
There is a rather comical fizzling out of all the yelling.
“What?” says Aragorn, a little dumbly.
Forod steps forward, somewhat awkwardly, to stand in front of Gandalf’s bare and knobbly leg.
“I’ll take the evidence to the EPA,” he says. “Though I -- don’t know the way. Or have a driver’s license. But I do have pictures of the crime. They’re on Merry’s phone, though.”
The room is dead silent. The table that Eowyn and Gimli have taken to standing on wobbles, just a bit.
Finally, Aragorn says,
“I can drive you.” It’s sudden, and somewhat ungainly, but sincere and confident in a way that Frodo is unused to seeing from Aragorn. The older boy takes several steps forward to stand in front of Frodo, hole-ridden pajama pants and all, and looks down at him solemnly. Behind him Arwen is beaming. “You have me as your chaperone.”
“And you have my technological know-how!” says Gimli, jumping down from the table with a thump .
“And my taste in music!” says Legolas.
“And he’s got me!” cries Sam suddenly, pushing forward to stand by Frodo. “He’s not going nowhere without me!”
“Well, we’ll all go,” says Eowyn stoutly. “Won’t we? That’s the only way to do this right.”
Frodo looks at Sam -- who seems a little bewildered, but is looking at him encouragingly like the dear Sam he is -- and then at Aragorn, who has a funny sort of steady grin on his face under his mop of hair, and back at Gandalf. Gandalf’s expression is oddly gentle, despite his knobbly knees and uncombed beard.
“Oh, you dear boy,” is all he says.
He’ll really have a lot to explain to Uncle Bilbo, Frodo thinks, when he gets back home at the end of the summer. It all feels a bit sudden and quite a lot scary; Gandalf’s old van is terribly unreliable. But saving Camp and the entirety of the Midwestern forest seems the best way to kick off a new era in his life. And to do it in fellowship with all his friends, when summer is at its peak -- it seems like an awfully big adventure.
“Oh,” Frodo realizes suddenly. “We’ll have to bring Merry and Pippin along. It’s their photographic evidence, after all.”
And for whatever reason, Gandalf pinches the bridge of his nose and groans.