The soft smile on Jack’s face brought warmth to Bitty’s cheeks as he accepted the pipe. “I don’t much go in for this usually,” Jack said, “but it seems the occasion for it.”
Bitty stood on tiptoe to lite the pipe for Jack, as Jack bent down a bit to meet him, willing his hands not to tremble too much. “It’s from a vanilla hybrid I’ve been cultivating in my garden,” he said. “It’s quite mellow, but still potent.”
“You’ve a green thumb then?”
But before Bitty could answer, a smooth, melodious voice spoke out, interrupting them.
“I wouldn’t believe it if I weren’t seeing it myself. Jack Zimmermann. At a revel. Smoking pipe-weed.”
Jack froze with the pipe halfway from his lips, eyes wider than Bitty had ever seen them and fixed upon the elf that stood before them. The elf seemed to pull all the light, though admittedly what little there remained of it in the lateness of the hour, to himself, a soft glow about him that washed out the hobbits and dwarves and men that had gathered to celebrate the return of Lardo from her quest on the other side of Middle-Earth.
Oh my gosh, Bitty thought, and might have said aloud. The elf was so beautiful. Of course, he had known that elves were beautiful from stories and photos, but he had never actually met one face-to-face, despite that his small homeland of Samwell had seen its share of diversity in recent years. Though this one was shorter than Bitty had expected, taller certainly than Bitty himself, but shorter even than Jack. Some men were blessed with height, Bitty supposed, as well as…but lord, this was not the time to go off in his mind about Jack’s many pleasant qualities.
The elf had long blond hair, a slightly upturned nose and strangely-colored eyes and yes, there, when he shifted a bit, Bitty could see his pointed ears. His mouth quirked up in a half-smile, and he held himself with a casual ease, as if he wasn’t the most beautiful and elegant thing for miles.
And Jack knew him intimately. Bitty could see it in the suddenness of Jack’s guard going up, the tension in his shoulders and the set line of his mouth. “Kent,” Jack said quietly.
“Hey Zimms,” the elf replied, slipping a hand into the pocket of his gray leggings. Gold glinted at his wrist, a delicate-looking band of elfin jewelry, finer than anything Bitty had ever seen up close. “Didja miss me?”
Jack said nothing in response at first, just held the pipe out for Bitty to take from him, which Bitty did unconsciously. The elf—Kent, Bitty supposed, though it wasn’t an Elvish-type name Bitty had ever heard before—showed no sign of distress at Jack’s less than effusive welcome, and merely waited with that same soft smile on his lips. But before Jack could even open his mouth, Bitty’s neighbors Ollie and Wicky broke through the pack of gathering onlookers to come to either side of Kent and practically dragged him back through the party towards the brewer’s tent, chattering merrily amongst themselves, as if they were old friends. The three of them gathered a trail of partygoers behind them as they went, and Bitty found himself nearly following along before he caught himself and turned back to Jack.
Except that Jack seemed to disappear without a trace right from underneath Bitty’s nose!
Bitty glanced around the yard, shocked at how quickly and quietly Jack had apparently made his exit, then looked down at the smoldering pipe in his hands. He wasn’t much of a smoker himself, saving it for parties and other special occasions, unlike his dwarf friends whom he supposed were somewhere around and would appreciate the offering if Jack no longer wanted it. So, putting the strange occurrence out of mind as best he could for the moment, Bitty pushed his way through the yard to try to find them.
Shitty was easiest to locate, having set himself up near the brewer’s tent with a drum of his personal recipe of ale, shouting for all and sundry to come and try his ‘tub juice’. Bitty, out of some sense of loyalty, did his best to keep his eyes from straying to where Kent was not far off holding court with some of the younger hobbits from Bitty’s village, though he wasn’t succeeding all that well.
“Do you know much about the elf?” he asked Shitty.
“Oh, some, to be sure,” Shitty responded, exhaling a long plume of sweet-smelling smoke. “I’ve met the lad a time or two before.” He stroked his mustache and chuckled a little, eyes twinkling with mirth. “’Course he’s also a bit famous in his own right—surprised you don’t recognize him.”
It was an old joke that for someone who had found his way from relative obscurity to a team of adventurers that had the likes of Jack Zimmermann on it, Bitty did not know much in the way of those who came and succeeded before him. Jack’s father, for example, a world-renowned ranger before he took his rightful place as a King of men, had been a complete mystery to Bitty until some of his fellows took pity on him and explained. Bitty frowned a bit at the tease until Shitty sighed and dipped his head in an apology. “So, I take it he is another of the complicated layers of Jack’s past?” Bitty said, indicating Kent again.
“Aye,” Shitty replied, then took another toke of his pipe-weed. On another long exhale, he continued, “but it’s not really my place to share it all.” Bitty must have made a face because Shitty sighed again and leaned forward, beckoning Bitty to meet him halfway. “I can tell you that the last time the elf came to visit us was not long after the Desert Quest came to its very successful and prosperous end.”
“Aye,” he said again, grinning wide this time. “Kent came and while he could have unloaded tales of his heroic exploits on us, he was modest instead. Acknowledged the facts of the quest but never boasted.”
Bitty glanced back over, but Kent was no longer in the midst of the group. A quick look around showed that he was nowhere near anymore, but he was an elf, Bitty remembered, and elves were quick and stealthy all the time. “Oh.” Turning to Shitty again, Bitty made to push for more details, wanting desperately to know why Kent was seemingly such a disturbance to Jack, when Lardo approached carrying two empty tankards and dipped them into the open drum of tub juice.
“Challenged the elf to a shoot-off. Be ready in ten,” she said, smoothly, lifting one tankard to her lips and finishing it off before anyone could say anything. She belched openly and dipped the empty tankard back into the brew, then handed it off to Bitty. “Cheers, hobbit.”
Bitty had only met her that morning, but he knew he was going to like the dwarf woman very much already. “Thanks,” he grinned, accepting the drink easily.
“Mind the tub juice though. Shits’ version can be lethal,” she said, raising her tankard to him again before downing it like water. Her lips curved up into a smile, or at least Bitty thought they did—it was a bit difficult to tell beneath her beard—and then she turned her attention back to Shitty. “Elderberries?”
“Nothing but the best for your return, my lady,” Shitty confirmed with a wink.
“My favorite,” she said, dipping her tankard a third time and then turning to head off in the direction she’d come.
“What a woman,” Shitty said, a bit dreamily.
“She seems wonderful,” Bitty easily agreed.
A loud belch came from a short way’s away, and Shitty smiled wide again.
The party continued to pass in a blur of pipe-weed and ale and laughter. Lardo crushed Kent in their shooting contest, and Bitty had gone back and forth on whom to cheer for most. Both were excellent shots with their bows, but Lardo’s skill was particularly impressive given her short stature and the relative thickness of her fingers. Kent had conceded her victory with a deep bow and a smile, as well as a, perhaps playful, request to be on her team next time around. Bitty found himself tailing after Kent for a bit, hoping to speak with the elf one-on-one for a few moments, but when he’d turned for a moment to scold his young cousin Chowder for attempting to sneak away with a huge mugful of Shitty’s potent tub juice, the elf eluded him once again.
What was worse, though, was that Bitty found that he had completely lost track of Jack as well. In fact, he hadn’t seen Jack since he’d disappeared right after Kent had arrived at the party. He’d meant to go after Jack earlier as well, but he’d been so easily distracted by everything else, and Jack was quite good at hiding himself away when he wanted to.
(Much had changed in the last year or so since Jack had come to Samwell, but Bitty still remembered well how, well, fickle Jack could be in his feelings. Determined and encouraging one moment and disappointed and rude the next, Jack had taken some time to truly fit in to the slower, gentler lifestyle in Samwell.)
“Have you seen Jack Zimmermann anywhere?” Bitty asked a passing partygoer he half-recognized as one of Chadwick Longfoot’s brothers or maybe cousins.
“Dunno who he is,” said the brother or maybe-cousin, whose name, Bitty thought, might also have been Chadwick, “nor where he is then.”
“Thanks,” Bitty said, as Chadwick continued along his drunken path toward the brewer’s tent, “for nothing,” he added quietly, laughing to himself a little.
The night was winding down, however, and Bitty decided he might as well start heading home. His smial lay just down the road and through a short stretch of wood from where the party had been held in the town square. If he was lucky, maybe he’d pass Jack or possibly even Kent on the way, so that he could say his goodnights, but he and Jack had a training session scheduled before second breakfast tomorrow, so if Bitty did miss him tonight, he’d see him tomorrow at least.
He made his way down the road and started through the woods when he heard voices coming from a slightly more densely populated section of trees a little further into the woods. Curiosity got the better of Bitty, and he carefully picked his way along the scraggly path until he came to a slight clearing where the voices could be put to faces.
“You have no clue?”
“I mean, it could be Rohan, it could be Gondor. Okay? I don’t know.”
Kent stepped forward a little from off the tree he’d been leaning against, and Jack met him halfway, Jack’s hands coming up to rest on Kent’s hips. “What about Rivendell?” Kent asked, voice dipping down but not enough for Bitty not to be able to hear it clearly from where he had hidden himself behind a fallen over tree.
“I…I don’t know, okay?” Jack sighed heavily, but he also dipped forward to rest his forehead on Kent’s shoulder. Bitty watched as Kent raised a hand that trembled just a little before he placed it steadily on Jack’s back at the nape of his neck.
They stood there together like that for so long a moment that Bitty began to feel awkward for witnessing what clearly was meant to be a private affair, when Jack lifted his head and met Kent’s eyes again. The color seemed different now than when Bitty had first met him several hours ago, a dark gray instead of the strange sort of green he thought they were before, although Bitty supposed that might have been the gathering shadows and the big, full moon rising overhead. Kent smiled in a way that seemed so…sad to Bitty, before he leaned his face forward, and then they were kissing.
Bitty, despite knowing better, pressed himself as close to the fallen tree as he could, straining to see. Jack’s hands gripped Kent’s hips tightly and pulled him in closer, gently grinding, from what Bitty could tell, and Kent let out a moan as his hand came around to cup Jack’s face.
Jack pulled back a moment and started to say, “Pars—” but he cut himself off with a low growl and leaned in to kiss Kent again, slower this time, more gentle.
Bitty watched as he slipped a thigh between Kent’s legs and urged Kent to grind down, kissing him all the while. They kissed and kissed, as Bitty continued to watch, eyes wide with disbelief and also, somewhat ashamedly, desire.
Jack backed Kent up until they were pressed against the tree, and Kent pulled back just enough to look Jack in the eyes for a long moment. He leaned in then, but this time, Jack stopped him. Kent cocked his head, clearly confused—as was Bitty, still watching, still wondering—and opened his mouth as if to ask, when Jack raised a finger to Kent’s lips. “Kenny, I can’t do this,” he said, almost too softly for Bitty to hear.
Kent looked utterly dumbfounded when Jack stepped back and away, walking back towards the little path. “Jack, come on,” he called, stopping Jack just before he pushed his way out of the little clearing.
“No, I—uh.” Clearly using his elfin speed, Kent leaped in front of Jack and pressed a hand to his chest, halting him. Jack frowned and snapped, “Kenny!”
“Zimms, just stop thinking for once and listen to me. I’ll tell my brothers that you’re ready to join us in combat and they’ll happily find you a place. Then you can be done with these halflings. You and me—”
Jack spat the interruption with such vehemence that Bitty gasped aloud and ducked down behind the tree in the hope that he wouldn’t be caught spying, though he needn’t have worried much from the eruption of anger that came from man and elf. They started yelling over each other to quickly for Bitty to make most of it out until Kent cried out, “What do you want me to say? That I miss you? I miss you, ok?”
There was silence and then quieter, “I miss you.”
Another long, silent moment passed, except for the rustling of clothes. Bitty held his breath and peeked over the log again to see Jack with his arms around Kent in a hug. Kent’s face was pressed into Jack’s chest and he clutched, seemingly desperately, to Jack’s tunic. The expression on Jack’s face, though, was complicated as he replied, just as quiet, “…you always say that.”
Kent shoved back then, and while Bitty could no longer see his face, he could imagine the anger and sadness that must have been there as Kent starting speaking quickly in Elvish. Whatever he said, Bitty didn’t know the language, must have been hurtful because Jack’s expression cleared into obvious anger and he responded in that beautiful Elvish tongue, though what he said too must have been painful to hear because Kent spat back just as harshly.
When he quickly turned around, Bitty could see tears in his eyes.
“Oh!” Bitty covered his mouth and ducked down, but the damage was done.
Kent looked down at him and seemed to visibly tighten up and disappear underneath a veneer of bland beauty. He straightened his tunic and tossed off over his shoulder as he started to leave, “Well, if you change your mind, you know how to reach me. But good luck with Numenor…I’m sure that will make your father proud.”
Bitty gasped again and turned to look at Jack, who stood tall and stoic, except for the tremors of anger Bitty could practically see radiating around him. “J—” Bitty began, reaching out to, he wasn’t sure what exactly, but Jack turned and disappeared into the woods before he could finish. Bitty turned again to watch after Kent, but Kent was gone too.