My gratitude goes to Cara Loup and Frayach Ni Cuill for in-depth beta-reading, invaluably challenging feed-back,
and our long winter discussions. It's been so much fun, and it's been a bit of a pain, too.
But without it there would be no crayfish tails in hazelnut oil, no Anie Twofoot, and most of all,
I would not have seen the silver in the sky over Crickhollow. This is for you!

Schnoerkel Coming Home to Crickhollow

Madder

What Jack remembered and craved in a way
he could neither help nor understand
was the time that distant summer on Brokeback
when Ennis had come up behind him and pulled him close,
the silent embrace satisfying some shared and sexless hunger

from Annie Proulx' Brokeback Mountain


For how long he and Pippin knelt on that hill
Merry did not care to know, nor, in the years to come,
would he ever care to remember precisely.

from Victoria Bitter's Displaced


"Back home," Merry sighed.

With a screeching groan the iron bolt found its place in the latch, and Merry touched the wood of the door as if to make sure the night was kept out. The damage the Black Riders had done to lock and timbers had been repaired, but long cracks were still visible. Tiny green chips of paint that the frost had forced from the splintered wood stuck to Merry's fingertips. It had been an icy winter, almost as cold as the winter of 1394 when sheets of solid ice had been floating on the Brandywine for months and snow pressed upon the Hedge like a white giant about to trespass into Buckland.

"It does feel like home." Pippin turned to him with a wide smile, but Merry thought he heard a question in his cousin's voice.

He nodded and headed towards the darker passage that led to the back of the small Crickhollow house. Spring had been in the air all the long miles from Bag End, but the nights were still cold. They needed to get a fire going. As Merry passed, Pippin reached for his hand and turned it to the light. Merry started back, but Pippin's touch was so gentle, the concern in his eyes so visible that he forced himself to stand still. He watched as Pippin smoothed the flecks of paint away from his skin.

"We need to have the door re-painted once it's warming up," Merry said softly, waiting for Pippin to release his hand. An odd feeling surged in his breast, one that he knew far too well, almost as sharp as pain.

"Yes." Pippin looked into Merry's face with the same smile as before. A radiant smile, Merry suddenly thought, so full of merriment. But the unspoken question seemed to linger in Pippin's eyes. What is it you want, Peregrin Took?

With a short laugh Pippin clasped Merry's fingers in his own and thus, hand and hand, drew him into the kitchen.

*

They managed to cook a decent meal with what cutlery and crockery was left in Crickhollow. Potatoes, yellow winter beans that Sam had provided them with - from the Cotton larder, Merry supposed - and newly smoked bacon from the winter butchering in Brandy Hall. Pans and pots they'd grown quite attached to during the last months were gone, as well as all the sharp knives which belonged to the Baggins household.

"We should have kept at least one good kitchen knife." Pippin sat at the low table and struggled to get the beans out of their hard shells. He was using a short blade which bore the white tree of Gondor on its leather handle. "Frodo wouldn't have minded if we'd kept a few. Not that he would have noticed, anyways."

"I am quite sure he wouldn't have. It was always only silver spoons of which they kept a close record in Bag End. And I doubt, now that Aunt Lobelia is off living in Hardbottle, that even silver spoons matter much to Frodo."

Pippin did not answer, he kept working silently on the beans. The light from the hearth was shining on the side of his face, and Merry thought how much Pippin had changed. It was not only his height and the vigorous long curls - there was something about how his jaw would set that made Merry want to reach for him, something about his eyes that startled Merry whenever he found a moment to watch Pippin unnoticed.

A log slid from the fire and sparks struck at the blackened chimney walls. Pippin looked up and golden specks shone in his eyes. Merry forced himself away and went to search for their one remaining pan.

"Merry, what do you think ...?"

Pippin's voice was but a low mutter as it drifted into the dim shadows of the larder. The small, three-cornered room led off from the kitchen, and the warmth of the fire did not reach the rounded outer walls. It was cold in here. Merry felt his breath warm in the closed-in space before him. The wooden shelves were all but bare, there was no pan.

"Of Frodo ..."

"What of him?" In a corner Merry discovered a flour box he had not noticed before. Fatty must have stocked up on commons before he had left Crickhollow. Merry let the finely ground meal run through his fingers. Last year's rye, he thought, then remembered where he had put the pan.

Back in the kitchen he opened the heavy beechwood trunk where they stored their crockery until they found a replacement for the Baggins kitchen cupboard. He went through the odd assortment of pots and bowls many of which had at one time belonged to the kitchens of Brandy Hall. At the bottom of the trunk he discovered the heavy iron pan.

"Ah, you found it."

There was a satisfied laugh in Pippin's voice and Merry responded, equally pleased, "I did. But now ... where's the lard?"

"We're out of lard, I'm afraid. As of everything else." Pippin was chuckling over the beans.

"Then I'll use the butter my mother gave us. There will be fried bacon with the beans tonight, Pip. My word for it." Merry put the pan onto the iron grate and watched the pale dollops of butter melt into a shimmering tarn. "What were you saying about Frodo there?"

"I was wondering what you think matters to him still, after all that happened." Pippin got up and added the beans to the onions. "When it's no longer silver spoons, I mean."

For a few moments Merry stood quietly beside Pippin and stared into the fire. What did matter to Frodo indeed? "The welfare of the Shire, I should think. And not only because he's the Mayor. He loves the Shire with all of his heart. It's why he went on that wretched journey to begin with." Merry took a deep breath. "To have the Shire restored and bloom, to have his life in Bag End back, to finish his book. To know Bilbo and Sam and everyone he cares for are safe and sound. I'd say that's what matters to Frodo still, as it always has."

Merry placed the slices of bacon into the hot pan where they sizzled in the browning butter. "Why do you ask this?" He looked up to see that Pippin was watching him, the Gondor dagger still in his hand.

"Sam matters to Frodo. More than anyone else." There was a strange challenge in Pippin's voice and Merry waited for him to say more. But Pippin only gave a small shake of his head, and Merry couldn't tell whether it was just a shiver running through his cousin's body.

"Yes, of course, Sam matters to Frodo." He still held the cloth the bacon had been wrapped in, felt its rough weave and found his fingers were trembling. And what is this to you? Merry moved to the table and sat down heavily on the chair. "They went on the darkest and most dangerous paths together," he said. "Frodo owes his life to Sam."

"And Sam his to Frodo." Pippin's answer came as swift as an arrow. He raised his arm, then looked at the blade as if he'd forgotten it. Abruptly he turned to the hearth, touching the stones with the hand that held the weapon. "There's a thing about them ever since they came back from Mordor ... like when there's fresh snow on the firs above Pincup. The wind takes it and the air is full of it, like flour when the lasses are setting out for a good baking. We would run under the trees with snow whirling all around. But you can't hold it. It's like water ... like starlight." Pippin seemed to speak to the fire alone, Merry could barely hear the last halting words. For a moment he feared that the younger hobbit would lean too close and his curls might catch a spark. But then Pippin turned. "Do you understand?"

Merry stared at Pippin, locked to his gaze. He seemed to remember a black-haired child run towards him, the morning light on the snow so bright he had to shade his eyes.

"I do understand," he whispered. "Don't take me for a blind fool. But why ... Pippin, why are you so angry at me?"

"You ... you see no chance for them." Pippin's hands were clenched at his sides, the knife a silver glitter in the shadow.

Of course Pippin would know, he always saw things long before Merry understood them. There had been that moment when they took their farewells from Bag End. Frodo and Sam were standing beside the covered cart, not touching, not even close, the Master of the Hill and his gardener. The stairs of Bag End lay bared to the morning's brightness as if they, too, missed the ancient oak that for generations had stood upon the Hill. All through their visit Merry had felt a hushed anxiousness in Frodo, seen the sheer exhaustion in Sam's every move. But then they stood in front of the gate, Frodo in his white embroidered tunic and no jacket despite the morning's cold, gloves tucked underneath Sam's belt with spiky bits of weeds clinging to them. Yellow rays caught in their hair and on their hands as they waved them good-bye, the promise of dawn lining the horizon. There was such happiness, such hope ...

Merry had brought the barely moving cart to an abrupt halt. Even now he did not know what he meant to say to Frodo, just that he needed to talk sense into him. He had thrown the reins to Pippin, meaning to climb from the cart and finally tell Frodo what he had not found words for all week.

"Don't!" Pippin's voice was low and fierce as he snatched the reins with one hand, the other heavy on Merry's thigh. You have no business here. Pippin had not said these words aloud, but Merry had heard them clear enough in the sharp crack of the reins when his cousin signalled the mare to pull back into the path. They'd not spoken again until they had passed well out of Hobbiton.

Merry shook his head as if to banish the memory, have it undone somehow. "Frodo ..." He had to clear his throat and start again. "Frodo was raised without much of a family, he belonged to Brandy Hall like we all did. But the name he carries, he carries only for himself. Frodo's blood and heart are his alone to give, there's no worthy line of ancestors that he owes it to. There's always been a streak of that in the Bagginses." Merry strove for a cheerful tone, even tried a grin, but his voice faltered and he moved his hand with sudden impatience. He was telling Pippin what they both knew well enough. It was their family's history, he knew this without a memory of when he'd first understood, knew it like the smell of pine-wood in the mornings when it lingered sharp and sweet in the Great Hall.

"Sam's bound up in ties of family," Merry said slowly. "He cannot abandon them, he cannot just step out of this life and this world. He might as well stop being a Gamgee if he did."

How Frodo's face had lit up when Merry handed him the old fiddle they had brought back from Crickhollow. Even with his damaged hand he held the bow, plucked at the strings, and played his half-forgotten tunes. Frodo knew too little of such ties as Sam was bound to, of that Merry was certain. Frodo did not understand how they put an unyielding claim on heart and life. Merry had seen it in the way Frodo listened to the fiddle's music, how he searched in its song for the quiet Bag End life he'd had before. Merry had seen the wishing in his cousin's eyes, that he could start a new life within the familiar folds of the old, even when so much had changed.

Pippin stood unmoving before the fire, the crackling logs and the soft bubbling from the pot were the only sounds in the kitchen. Merry had to turn his eyes away, he could not bear the way the younger hobbit stared at him. How to explain all this to Peregrin Took, a mere three years before his coming of age, the only son of the Took and Master of the Great Smials, future Thain to the whole of the Shire? How to make Pippin understand what this all meant, how Merry's heart was ripped to shreds by it?

There had been more in Frodo's eyes which Merry had not understood, a strange tune in his fiddling that Merry had not heard before. Snow on the firs ... He touched a bean shell from the lose pile on the table. The pale green inside was lined with fine silvery hair which felt sticky, prickly even, like the beginning of thorns. A faint trace of moisture stuck to Merry's finger, and he quickly wiped it on his sleeve. He felt Pippin look at him still, waiting for what else Merry might say. It was a rare thing that Pippin did not speak for so long, and Merry could not help but wish for his cheerful companion from the days before who would interrupt his ramblings and moods and ask more, and stranger questions than any Brandybuck could think of.

"Pippin?" he whispered.

The younger hobbit stepped close and put the knife on the table. "Frodo's blood and heart are bound to Sam. And Sam's to Frodo. That must count for something."

Merry looked up into Pippin's face, and part of him wanted to scream 'No, it counts for naught', but he did not. There was an edge of desperation in Pippin's voice that Merry could not bear, not for a moment. He quickly turned towards the steaming pots over the flames. There was their supper to be seen to, and he could say nothing to the question in Pippin's eyes.

But Pippin stepped between him and the fire, arms folded before his chest, chin raised, a gesture so stubbornly, so familiarly Tookish, Merry could not help but smile.

"And what is there to laugh about, Meriadoc Brandybuck?" Pippin glowered at him, but Merry felt relief spread warm in his breast. This anger was so much easier to take than the grim determination he had seen in Pippin on the Pelennor, and later, in the Shire, when they stood in the middle of Bywater Road with nothing but their swords between them and the evil Men. Merry raised his open hand. "I am not laughing at anything you say, Pip. It's just ..." He shrugged softly. "Oh, we haven't had a row like this for ages. Remember that fight we had about who was first up the Causeway?"

Pippin did not move at all. His face was turned to Merry with an expression of - surprise, disbelief, Merry could not tell. Could it be that Pippin had forgotten the time they raced down Maggot's Lane, screaming at each other all the way?

"I don't want to fight with you," Pippin said softly.

Oh, he must remember. The Brandywine had been all bronze and mist as they stood on the Causeway and watched the lights of Brandy Hall go on one after the other. But never in these long-ago summers had there been such hurt in Pippin's voice. "I-I know," Merry stuttered. "I don't -"

Pippin put his hand on Merry's shoulder, stopping him mid-speech. "I am not saying these things to outdo you or have the better of you, Merry. I'm not a child anymore. What I say I mean, with all my heart ..." Pippin's voice broke, and he half turned aside but did not take his hand away.

Merry stared at him, unable to utter a word or make sense of the fearful knotted tangle that pushed up his throat.

In the silence, the sharp sizzling noise from the fire sounded as if a branch was split in half. They both jumped, and Merry bumped his knees into the table. Pippin caught him when he stumbled for balance.

"Our supper." Pippin sounded just a bit unsteady, considering there was smoke billowing from the pan and the smell of burned pork rapidly filled the kitchen. He pulled Merry tight, held him close even when Merry loosened his arms from Pippin's waist.

"There was going to be bacon on the table tonight. But you have to let me go. Or I shall be serving strips of coal that won't even tempt a starving orc." Merry felt laughter rise from Pippin's belly, but the younger hobbit would not loosen his hold. Instead he moved even closer, and his lips brushed softly across Merry's cheek. "I shall throw you in the duck pond when we next visit old Maggot," he whispered. "And then we'll see who's first at the Causeway."

With this he released Merry and quickly moved to the beechwood trunk. He rummaged around in it and came up with the long two-pointed fork that had been part of the Crickhollow kitchen ever since Merry could remember.

"This will do," Pippin said and with a grin went to save what was left of the bacon.

*

The steam of the hot potatoes wound in hazy spirals towards the ceiling. Like smoke ... The smoke of pipe-weed after a good meal, Merry thought. Like the leaf we will be smoking after supper. Feet towards the fire-place in the parlour, maybe a glass of wine before sleep. But he could not help it, the thought of pipe-weed would always remind Merry of the polite old King. The memory of the Golden Hall came clear to his mind, as vivid as if he had sat at ThŽoden's side just yesterday. So different ThŽoden was from Saradoc. Master of their Hall and Land, both of them, but how unlike these two were: Man, liege-lord, an older and wiser friend until the very end the one, hobbit, father, and yet so stern and uncaring the other. Saradoc is my sire, and yet ThŽoden was as a father to me ...

"Merry?"

With a startled sound Merry moved his hands from the bowl as if the heated clay had burned him. Pippin stood at the table, bean pot in one hand, the ladle in the other. He was watching Merry intently. "Are you tired? The road's been long." Underneath the light tone there was a quaver in Pippin's voice. Merry looked up sharply, but Pippin had turned back towards the hearth.

"No, no. Come, serve the beans, Pip." He was not tired, quite the opposite, he felt awake as if he had just come in from the cold. "I was just thinking."

Pippin stepped next to him and ladled the beans onto the potatoes. "You must've done some heavy thinking then. You looked as if you were dreaming with waking eyes. Dreaming or ..." He halted, the ladle trembling in the air. Merry turned quickly, moved to steady Pippin's hand. "Or ... staring. Like the dead." Pippin's voice faltered, and in the silence the ladle clattered to the floor.

Merry was standing beside Pippin before he knew how he had got up. He took the pot out of his hand and hung it over the fire. Gently he held Pippin's face in his hands. "I was healed, Pip. The Black Shadow has no hold anymore, not over me nor anyone."

Pippin nodded through tears. He tried to smile but only managed a twist of his mouth.

"It's come to an end, Pippin. The evil is gone. It can no longer reach us." Hot tears on his fingers, Merry let his hands fall on Pippin's back and drew him into a close embrace.

The younger hobbit hugged him fiercely. "I did not think they'd come to the Shire," he sobbed. "I thought no matter how badly things were going, we would always have the Shire. To come home to this!"

Pippin was shaking in his arms, and for a moment Merry could not think of a word to comfort him. They had been back nearly five months and still ...

"Sam took me up on the Hill yesterday," Pippin whispered against Merry's neck. "He planted a new tree right beside the stump of the big oak. It will take scores of years before there will be a good-size tree on top of Bag End again."

"I would have liked to see the sapling. When did Sam show it to you?" Merry spoke as softly as Pippin, murmuring into his ear as if he was telling him a secret.

"You were with Frodo in the parlour. When you talked about the seed for spring planting in the Southfarthing. I should have stayed. It's the Tooks' land, for the most part." Pippin breathed deeply, forcing the tears to stop. How he has grown, Merry thought, more so than many a lad already of age. And how strange that being a soldier of Gondor had made Pippin so much more the true heir of the Took and Thain. So unlike myself.

"I was wondering where the two of you had gone." Merry loosened his hold on Pippin and only then noticed how hard he had clutched him to his body. Slowly he moved his hands up from the small of Pippin's back to his shoulder blades. As always he was struck with Pippin's wiry strength, this fierce energy the skin could hardly contain. When they had lain together for the first time, there had been no smooth layers of flesh which now softened Pippin's solid frame. Pippin had been lean and travel-worn, craving their love-making with a fury that his healing body had hardly had the strength for. Those first weeks in the White City ... To Merry they seemed unreal now, like a tale he was told as a child before the roaring fire in Brandy Hall. A nightmare it was at first when he'd lain sick in the dark fever, and then Pippin was brought back to him from the Great Battle all hurt and broken. But Spring claimed Gondor and they wandered through a dream of white stone and sunlit vistas and ate rich, strange foods. In the evenings, members of the Fellowship would gather in one of the quiet courtyards and tell their adventures again and again. And the nights brought the pleasures that he and Pippin shared in the dark of their room.

"Merry?"

He felt more than heard Pippin speak, a round of warmth at his throat. Just above my heart, Merry thought for no other reason than to calm the familiar sting which surged in his breast. Pippin was quiet, the shaking had stopped, he seemed wholly content just to be held in Merry's arms.

"Yes?" Merry moved his left arm so that he could hold Pippin by the shoulder.

The younger hobbit raised his head. "What were you thinking of?"

"Hmm?"

"When you were staring so? Just now? When I brought the beans?"

"Nothing much ..." The tightness leapt from Merry's chest into his throat and for a moment he could not breathe. He stepped back against the table, and Pippin clutched him in surprise, then lowered him gently to the chair.

"Look at me, cousin." Pippin was holding him firmly now, hurting him almost, digging through cloth into flesh. No longer a tweener, Merry thought, never mind his age and youthful looks. But then there was no reason why this should strike him now, when he'd had months to get to know this new Pippin. He sought Pippin's eyes and for an odd moment marvelled at the green glint within the brown, traces of Harfoot blood which showed in every other generation of Tooks. I'm as new to him as he is to me. The thought startled Merry, made him flinch from Pippin's gaze. Had he ever asked what he meant to Pippin now, after all that had happened? There were days when Merry hardly recognised himself, his voice dark like his father's, commanding ruffians and Shire-folk like this was who he was meant to be. His eyes burned as if with tears, but when Merry moved his hand across his face, he found it dry and hot.

Pippin crouched before him, there was no escaping his shining eyes. "I don't understand ... Merry, what is it?"

He could but shrug in reply. Pippin's hands lay heavy on his shoulders, although in a lighter grasp which steadied them both. He was thankful for the weight, it relieved his movement of its harshness and turned it into something soft and blunt like the regret he felt. But there were no words, and he could not trust himself to say things right.

"It is not about Sam and Frodo." There was no question in Pippin's voice, and Merry shook his head fiercely.

"No, no, I never meant ... I don't know what came over me, Pip. All this wretched week I wanted to talk to Frodo, about him, and Sam, and it never happened, and there was so much ado with unpacking all the gear and unloading the furniture and moving in and setting it all aright, and it seemed there never was time and I had to speak now or never. If not for you I would have caused more harm than anything, and I was so -" For every word that moments ago would not even form in his mind, another tumbled out of his mouth now without thought or reason. Merry saw the smile on Pippin's face, and it calmed him as he struggled to get a hold of himself. "I was ...", he started, then said: "I am truly sorry."

Pippin nodded and pressed his fingers on Merry's lips. The same firm touch, almost painful. "Then tell me what troubles you, Merry", he whispered. "Trust me."

And in this flicker of time Merry did, even though he did not know that he had not trusted Pippin nor why indeed he should not. He only knew Pippin's eyes and a flaring heat in his chest that almost scared him, it was so out of bounds, so wild -

I would gladly have given name and life for ThŽoden. This was the duty I chose. And who would know it but you? Merry took a deep breath. The sweet smell of onions drifted through the kitchen, and the sharper taste of the bacon. "I was thinking about King ThŽoden." Pippin nodded as if he understood. But he could not. Not if Merry did not tell him. "I was thinking about King ThŽoden and Saradoc."

Pippin laid his head to the side, a gesture Merry had grown so used to, he caught himself doing it whenever he had a serious question on his mind. "What about your father?" Pippin asked. "We can go into Bucklebury tomorrow and see him."

Merry shook his head. "I do not want to see him. He called me in before we left for Hobbiton. When you were with my mother to see if there's something from Brandy Hall that should go to Bag End."

Pippin nodded again, waiting for Merry to say more.

"He told me it was time I remembered what I owe to home and family. 'Now that you're done helping out wizards in the South and hobnobbing with walking trees'. That's how he put it." The words echoed gaily in the kitchen, much like his father had meant them. Merry well knew that Saradoc could not know the pains he caused his son.

Not the trace of a smile appeared on Pippin's face, and Merry felt warmth spread slow and sure from his stomach. All this time he'd felt there was but one road he could go, but if Pippin understood, if he could trust him with this ...

"Father wants me to marry, take my place as heir to the Hall. As soon as possible." Merry's voice gave out and he cleared his throat, started again, all the while feeling Pippin's eyes on him.

"It's like we never were gone, like everything is the same. And sometimes I can think of nothing else but how much I wish things could be that way." Merry's chest hurt all of a sudden, a piercing ache. He moved towards Pippin, steadied by his gaze alone, until their foreheads touched. "I don't know what to do."

*

The logs in the fire-place had burned out quietly, the last of the flames curled like bluish tongues around the smouldering wood. Merry lay huddled underneath the blankets and wondered what was keeping Pippin. Sometimes his cousin would go out by night, but he never stayed long, not in the freezing cold. Merry pushed the blankets off and listened. Crickhollow seemed wrapped in a dreamless sleep, not even mice were rustling in the straw of the walls. Merry was quite sure all of a sudden that earlier there'd been the sound of the heavy door scraping on the tiles in the hall, although he could not recall hearing the door when Pippin left. And now why would the Took leave through the front when it was the back door that led into the garden?

Merry got up with a sigh, stepped to the window and pushed the shutters open. The sky was the darkest of blues, the crooked row of trees bathed in the pale silver of a thousand stars. He sat on the window sill and let the icy chill of the night fill his lungs. The garden seemed frozen, the air smelled of snow and faintly of the mint which grew below the window. Shadows hid underneath the trees along the hedge, and the lawn gleamed softly as it stretched along the curving walls of the house. Crickhollow ...

The thought that Merry and Pippin move into Frodo's house had come up one evening in the Green Dragon, although afterwards nobody could quite remember who had first suggested it. In an odd, defiant way it seemed right to Merry that he and Pippin stuck to the plan they had made on the road from Rivendell. Had affairs in the Shire been right as they should have been, Frodo and Sam would have come here instead of them, for a while at least. And although he could not say why, Merry thought that things then would have turned out better than they had. For all that they had roused the hobbits and saved the Shire from Saruman and his ilk, Merry wondered if they'd come home too late after all, and the harm done had already gone deeper than the destruction of crops, villages, and smials would show. I won't abide it, he thought stubbornly as he stared into the bare branches of the trees, it's not what King ThŽoden died for, and it's not why all these brave people fought the evil of Sauron. Frodo will write his book, Sam plant his trees, and Pippin and I will have it seen to that there's a fine brew served in the inns again, and a good smoke, and that there's song and dancing as there has always been.

Not two weeks ago, they had celebrated Pippin's birthday, and cousins and friends from the entire Buckland, and from the Shire side of the Brandywine, too, had flocked to Crickhollow. In truth it was much too small a hole to host such a boisterous crowd, but nobody seemed offended that the dancing was going on in the hall, not as long as the beer was flowing freely from the tap. Doderic and Ilberic played the fiddle and pipe long into the wee hours of the night, and only their mother, the one Bracegirdle ever to wed a Brandybuck, regretted that the youths so quickly returned to their carefree ways. The Bucklanders were relieved to see someone take care of the house, the son of the Master of the Hall at that, and make good use of it.

Merry leaned out into the night and listened if maybe he could hear Pippin hum underneath the trees. But the garden lay in utter silence, not a breeze touched the grass, not a bird moved in the bushes. Surely Pippin was out front standing in the middle of the lane, watching the grey fields and meadows that fell softly towards the Brandywine. "The sky is so much bigger here," Pippin had said when Merry found him at the gate one of their first nights in Crickhollow, and together they had looked into the glittering sky which stretched from the Old Forest all the way to the Green Hills and beyond.

Merry slid from the sill, latched the shutters and closed the windows tightly. Only when he wrapped the blankets around himself did he notice that he was shivering. Nothing but a faint orange glow was left of the fire which no longer fended off the chill settling into the darkness of the room. The bed seemed too cold, too big somehow. All his life Merry had shared beds with cousins and friends as was custom in Brandy Hall. Only since his coming of age was he expected to sleep in his own bedroom, one that he still rarely used. He missed the warmth of another body, he told himself, then admitted that it was the warmth of Pippin's body that he missed. His touch ... If he could just keep his mind from wandering to the feel of Pippin's lips, to this unexpected strength when Pippin held him close in love-making ... Merry rolled onto his belly and sighed into the pillow. This was going nowhere.

Since they'd returned to the Shire, Pippin had not lain with him but once. In the rush of the first weeks home, when so much had to be set to order and prepared for winter, there had been no thought of such intimacies. Pippin lived with the Tooks until after Yule, and Merry came to stay with him in the Great Smials. Together they rode through the South-farthing, and folk started to call them Travellers and took courage just from looking at them in their burnished mail shirts and shields shining green and silver in the low winter sun. Whenever they were together, they slept in the same bed, sharing their bodies' warmth in deep contentment.

Pippin wanted to live in Crickhollow even more than Merry, and Merry had always thought he knew the reason why. The Great Smials were a close and stuffy place for those who had returned from the world and war. When they'd set out from Tookborough for Buckland, Paladin had held Pippin firmly by the shoulders, then stepped back to let Aunt Eglantine and the girls say their farewells. His eyes had met Merry's then, over the women's bustle and tears, and the unspoken reproach in his uncle's eyes had made Merry flinch and turn away. Grimly Saradoc had told him of the pains he had caused his family, and clearly the worst of his failings had been to lead a tweener into foreign wars where no sensible hobbit had any business of being in the first place.

Still the Tooks let Pippin go without hard words or struggle, and Merry sometimes wondered what his cousin had told the Thain. Pippin never spoke of it, and Merry never asked. For hours father and son had been locked in the dusty old place deep within the Great Smials. Merry found Pippin afterwards in their room, the tell-tale red around his eyes, and Pippin came into his arms and held on to him almost desperately. Then Pippin kissed him with such unexpected passion, and they came together even though it was in the middle of the day. And Merry had taken that kiss and that love-making for a promise of what their time in Crickhollow would be like.

But now it seemed such pleasures were no longer what Pippin desired. There were kisses, still, cousinly kisses, there was touch - reassuring, loving, as they'd always been with each other. And Merry could look at Pippin and feel desire stir as he had never known it before they had first lain together, and he wondered how it could be that Pippin no longer felt this way.

The dark was oddly quiet. Merry strained his ears to catch Crickhollow's usual night-time noises, but there was nothing. He turned on his back and stared at the ceiling, then sat up just to hear the bed creak, when suddenly there was the sharp groan of the front door. Relief spread from his stomach, and he could hear Pippin's quick steps in the passage. Before long, the door opened and a flickering candle was moving towards him. There was a soft whisper: "Merry?"

"I'm awake, Pippin. I was worried. Where've you been?" For a moment the light before Merry's face blotted out all other vision, and all he could see was the pattern of sharp-edged rings shining in the candleholder's brass. Slowly he could make out his cousin's shape behind the bright flame. Pippin seemed strangely out of breath, his face flushed, whether by a trick of the light or because of the cold outside.

"Just for a walk." Pippin set the candle on the low chest beside the bed. He crouched so he was level to Merry's face. "It is a beautiful night. All stars and moon."

There was such a spark in Pippin's eyes, his face so luminous, Merry could no longer hold back. He touched Pippin's shoulder, then drew him close and kissed him. A light kiss, but not a cousinly kiss by a long stretch, and Merry just wanted to melt into the softness of these lips. Then he realised Pippin did not move and at once pulled back. Pippin remained still, his eyes wide open. He swayed backwards, reached for Merry to steady himself. His fingers felt like ice through the cloth of Merry's nightshirt, and Merry took them into both his hands.

After a while Pippin nestled his other hand, too, in between the warmth of Merry's palms. "It's so clear, you can see for miles and miles", he said quietly.

"Yes, the cold drives the clouds away." Merry moved his thumbs from Pippin's wrists to fingertips, again and again, to get the blood moving.

"Next time you must come out with me."

Merry nodded and blew warm air on Pippin's skin.

"Then you can kiss me in the moon-light."

"Aw, Pip." Merry dropped Pippin's hands in exasperation and looked up to see the candle's light glint golden in his cousin's eyes. "You have no idea how sweet ..." He stopped before he was making an utter fool of himself and simply said: "I just can't stop thinking of you that way."

"You don't have to."

"I don't have to what?"

"Stop thinking of me that way." Pippin was smiling while his hands searched for the lacings of Merry's shirt, twirled them round his fingers, then he pulled Merry close.

"But ..." Merry stopped short. Pippin's hands were still cold as they moved up his throat, circled around his ears and dug into his curls, all the while drawing Merry closer until their faces almost touched. Pippin's mouth was warm and welcoming, and Merry felt he would cry just for how tenderly Pippin touched his lips and moved into him with the tip of his tongue. For an instant their breath mingled, and Merry tasted night chill and underneath the spicy sharpness of the wine they'd enjoyed after dinner. Then Pippin moved away and whispered: "Wait, my love."

"Will you not lie with me tonight? There's ..."

"Shh, Merry. Just wait."

Pippin's hands were gone, and the younger hobbit stepped into the shadows. Merry heard a light clink, as if glass struck wood, and the muted rustles of clothes. Then Pippin stood beside the bed again looking down at him with the queerest of smiles. Every swell and muscle of his body was outlined in an etching of shadow and gold, sparks seemed to have caught in the dark curls on his chest. His skin was glowing with a light that could not possibly be cast by the candle.

"Come." Merry could all but whisper.

Pippin crawled underneath the blankets, and Merry struggled to get out of his nightshirt, threw it carelessly to the side. For a moment they sat facing each other, then Pippin pushed him back onto the bed. Merry reached for Pippin, touched his shoulders, his upper arms, then he felt Pippin's palms on his thighs. They were pressing outward, moving up towards his need. Merry's head fell back on the pillow when his legs opened to Pippin's touch. Pippin moved onto him at once, threw kisses all over his chest and throat, then pressed his body hard against him. The sudden feel of skin to skin made Merry seek Pippin's mouth again, without thought, and he moaned as Pippin's teeth bit his lower lip, then his own tongue moved deeply into the warm softness that was all Pippin. There was something fresh and sweet below the lingering taste of the wine, the flavour of apples, Merry realised with surprise. "You picked up an apple from the garden?"

Pippin kissed the tip of Merry's nose, then let his head fall to the side. His lips were almost touching Merry's ear, his chuckle a low rumble at Merry's side. "I did. A wrinkled red-cheek from last autumn. So what of it?"

"You taste like it."

"Do I taste good then?"

Merry nodded. "It's a taste of the Shire." All of a sudden the familiar pain stirred below his heart.

"Of Buckland, rather. There is a difference, I'll have you know." Pippin touched Merry's face with cautious fingertips, traced the slight rise of his cheek bones. "We're home," he whispered.

Then he took up where Merry had stopped, and Merry got lost in the apple-fresh sweetness of Pippin's kisses. His hands slid over sweaty skin, pushed deep into flesh and muscle and he pulled Pippin even closer. Their bodies moved in the easy way they had always known, a gentle shifting that guided them into sleep some nights, and in others would turn into a sure rhythm of want and desire they simply had to follow. Their hips touched, carefully at first, then with more force. They came together, skin pressed to skin, they came apart to seek each other hungrily at once. Pippin's arms were around Merry's shoulders, he whispered Merry's name again and again. A deep moan escaped Merry, then he reached between them. He felt Pippin's arms shake as he pressed into Merry's touch, and Merry moved his hand slowly, the tender skin like velvet on his fingertips. Just to feel him again. Like nothing else it was, to have Pippin take such pleasure from his hands. Pippin's head was turned slightly upwards, the soft line of his throat framed by curls which clung dark and moist to his skin. Merry smoothed away a strand of hair which had fallen over Pippin's closed eyes, and Pippin smiled, his lips full and open. When Merry's strokes became more eager, Pippin opened his eyes and looked at him.

"Not ..." he said softly and slowed his movements.

"What?"

"Not like this." Pippin slid backward, away from Merry's touch. The candle flickered and threw dark shadows on his face. Merry reached for him, his lips dry all of a sudden, his stomach hollow as if he had not eaten in days.

"Pippin?" Merry's voice was but a murmur. And then Pippin was with him again, holding Merry to him, his breathing fast and uneven. Merry moved a thumb over Pippin's brow, buried his fingers in Pippin's curls. "What is it you want, my Took?"

Pippin looked at him with a strange smile, then gathered the blankets they had pushed out of the way. He folded them into a soft cushion and, with that surprising strength of his, he lifted Merry's hips to put the cushion underneath him. He placed one hand on Merry's belly, barely touching the skin, then he reached behind himself and brought out a small bottle, his eyes fixed on Merry's face. He removed the cork, and at once a sweet scent filled the room - sticky and light as a puff of the catkins' dust when the wind ruffled the blooming hazel on the road to Crickhollow. Pippin poured the oily liquid into his hand, and in the candle's light it shone a pale gold. Even then his eyes were still on Merry.

"Where did you get this?" Merry croaked. The blanket under him felt cold, he was lying fully open - to danger, to harm, he thought, even though no other than Pippin was near. "In the middle of the night?"

Pippin touched him with greased fingers, then stroked himself more vigorously and covered his whole length in sparkling oil. "The Goldworthy's smial is barely a mile up Newbury Road."

"You must have run all the way and back."

A broad grin appeared on Pippin's face. "It's quite worth the run. This is the best hazelnut oil to be had west of the Old Forest."

They had not done this before. And if Merry had ever imagined it, it had never been Pippin who ... Merry almost said it aloud, but at that moment Pippin reached underneath him, and his fingers slid slowly along Merry's bottom. His touch was so gentle, so thrilling in a way Merry had not foreseen, he could but moan and move into it.

Pippin laughed with pleasure and when Merry raised his head, Pippin kissed his belly while his fingers continued their caresses. Their eyes met for a long moment. For all the simple want that Pippin's hands were sending through him, Merry saw the question in Pippin's face that had been there all evening. Whatever you wish. He slid lower and wrapped his legs around Pippin's waist, then pushed his hips up firmly towards where Pippin pressed hot against him. Now, he thought, but he must have spoken aloud, for Pippin said his name softly.

The first thrust was like hot coal slicing through skin thin as paper. Merry jerked away from the pain, flung his head to the side. Crickhollow was awake all of a sudden, its walls throwing his strangled cry back into the dark where it spun from corner to corner just out of reach of the candle's light.

"This is not right," Pippin whispered, "I am hurting you." He held Merry's hand in a fierce grip, and Merry felt every tiny scar and callous, the lines in Pippin's palm even, as they pressed against his skin.

"No, no ... it's me. I ... I want ..." Merry's throat closed and he could not speak. He wanted to cry, he wanted to be with Pippin. He wanted this. Cold air swept over him, he felt wide open to whatever peril lurked in the corners of the room. He held on desperately to Pippin's hand, groped around the linen with his other, his good hand, for a hold in the dark.

"Come up," he rasped, and Pippin had him in his arms at once. Merry clung to his shoulders shaking with dry sobs. His bottom felt numb as if he had ridden for hours on a mountain path, but when he shifted there was little pain. Slowly the strange fear left him breathless but calm. Nothing else mattered when he lay in Pippin's arms and felt Pippin's soft breath in his hair.

Merry let his weight sink back fully on the bed, feeling every thread and knot of the blanket, and the finer knit of the linen that touched the back of his thighs. Merry's hardness slid along Pippin's belly, and the chance touch of heavy flesh was so arousing that Merry pressed into it with a whimpering moan. Pippin moved forward in response, but where before there had been solid want, only tender stirrings remained. Desire thwarted too soon, maybe, or because Pippin feared to hurt him again. In the past months Merry had often wondered whether Pippin would not rather lie with a lass, but no such doubt was in his mind tonight. Tonight Pippin wanted him with a fervour that equalled his own, he'd known this since that first kiss, and even earlier in the kitchen, when Pippin had held him and would not let go.

Without a word he pulled Pippin to him, felt his ragged breathing, the shivers running through his body. He is doing this for me. Before he fully understood the thought or knew what it could possibly mean, Merry reached towards Pippin, moved his hand over chest and muscle, over scars smooth like glazed bowls, searched for Pippin's belly button hidden deep within soft flesh until he found his failing need.

"If we go ... slower, maybe", Merry said. "It's my first time like this." He touched Pippin with sure strokes and felt him harden quickly.

"I'll try ..." There was relief in Pippin's voice, and he moaned as his thrusts became stronger. "I can't hold on very well, Merry," he whispered. "It's been so long."

The words went round in Merry's head once, then again. Something rose within him, he knew not whence, just that it felt strangely light and nippy, like ice water rushing from a hidden spring on the first day of summer. Pippin stopped moving, he seemed to wait and listen, unsure what was happening.

"You ... desired?" Merry asked, then chuckled at his own incredulous words. "And there I thought you had forsworn such thrills for the delights of Brandy Hall's kitchens and the beer taps of the Golden Perch."

Pippin relaxed towards Merry's chest and softly laughed. "Ah, but I have no intention to chose between these thrills and those delights. I wish to eat and drink to my heart's content and make merry with you whenever fancy strikes."

"But ... I waited so long for you. I thought maybe here in the Shire you no longer thought it right to lie with a lad. And a kinsman at that."

"Now, Merry", Pippin gave him one of those annoyed looks he had picked up from the guardsmen of the Citadel, "have you ever known me to show such qualms?"

"No." Merry shook his head. "Well, at least not in the White City. But Minas Tirith is a long ways from the Shire."

"Aye, it is ..." It seemed that Pippin wanted to say more but then he didn't and instead withdrew gently from Merry's hold, moved off him and settled at his side. He touched Merry's shoulder, and his fingers seemed to shake. Merry turned to see whether it was the candle's flickering light which made Pippin shiver so. But the candle shone calm like a beacon, and Merry saw Pippin clench his jaw, trying to steady himself. Merry wrapped his arm around his cousin, held him tight, and Pippin gave him a shy smile.

"Some nights ..." he started, then stopped to take a quavering breath, "some nights I miss you so."

To hear Pippin say this almost broke Merry's heart. "But you can be with me every night", he said, trying hard to keep the pain out of his voice. "I am right here all the time."

"No, you're not. And when you come to me, this stranger who never left the Shire, and wish for the lad I was before ... Merry, I cannot lie with you then." Pippin watched him through tears, and Merry felt the hand on his shoulder shake still, as if Pippin was afraid even now. And whatever else Pippin just said, there was no need for such fear, for Merry had been with him always. He could hardly remember a night when he had not fallen asleep with Pippin's fingers drawing sleepy, twitchy patterns on his stomach. All the strange places they had seen, all the roofs they had slept under, earth and root, timber and tapestry, branch, leaf, canvas and the high stone ceilings of the White City, he had been right there with Pippin.

"Long now they sleep under grass." From nowhere, it seemed, the slow tune of the Rohirrim's song appeared within Merry's mind. "In Gondor by the Great River, grey now as tears, gleaming silver ..." Gleaming bronze and red, from the fading light of dusk or from blood shed in war, Merry could never tell. Like a shimmering trail the river had looked from the hillock where he had found Pippin that one night in Ithilien. A soldier of Gondor with his long curls and the silver on his breast, standing still, hands on his back, the right a bit closer to the sword, ready for battle even when he watched the sun set over Anduin.

Merry gasped at the memory, felt something loosen inside. Why should this vision come back to him now, when for so long he had not thought of it, had not wanted to think of it? Just this evening he'd told Pippin that it had all ended, never to return, that it could no longer touch their lives. And how could he have said that when it was with them always, a living memory which touched everything, even the way they loved each other? He only had to look at Pippin to know that it would never end.

The soldier of Gondor did not sleep under the long grass near the river, much as Merry had wanted to bury him there. This was Pippin, the child running in a cloud of snow, his young lover with the passionate strength of a full-grown hobbit. But then, how could Merry live, always with the dark? This road was laid in stone before him, circling ever upwards to his tomb - golden wheels stamped into the candleholder's brass, rayed suns burned into Snowmane's reins, round mists of breath on the Prince's shining vambrace ... My King is dead, and where now shall I go?

If this was a dream, then Merry desperately wanted to wake from it, wake in Pippin's arms and forget it all. But what he tried so hard to hold on to broke off, was swept away with his breath, was urged out through his very eyes. He squeezed them shut and searched for some hold, but then his own heart tried to push through his skin and leave him in wounded darkness. He found Pippin's shoulder, then he felt Pippin's hand on his chest. My heart ... He could feel it pound against Pippin like a stick against a drum, and for a moment Merry was sure his heart would simply stop if it wasn't for Pippin's touch.

His breathing became quieter and he sought Pippin's face, touching him blindly. "You remind me of Beregond sometimes," he whispered into the red dark. "I'm afraid of it. I'm afraid of you. Of us. What we've become, what we shall be, what we can ..." The words came before Merry knew he was saying them, and he stopped with an effort. They had both changed so much, beyond anything he had thought possible. No-one in the Shire had ever heard of Ent-draughts, and when Pippin and he stood before a crowd, tall as only the Bullroarer himself, Merry saw his own fear mirrored in the other hobbits' faces.

He opened his eyes, and there was Pippin, all hobbit-lad, his youth so obvious in the full softness of his face, the smooth skin around the eyes. He was utterly still, barely seemed to breathe. He caressed Merry's chest, traced his throat and shoulder, slowly, as if he was learning their shape for the first time.

"You are so beautiful, Merry", he whispered. "That will never change. And we'll just be whatever we'll be."

A startled thrill washed through Merry's breast - because of Pippin's immeasurable trust in him, or perhaps because of the simple, unfailing hope that Pippin held for their future.

The Shire will love him as no Thain was loved before. And a strangely comforting thought it was, that one day Merry would speak the customary oath which for generations each Master of Buckland had pledged to renew the union with the Thain. Merry could almost see himself, standing in the middle of the Great Place like his father had, the heads of the families around him, the cups raised in their hands. The silver tree was glimmering on Pippin's breast, and he himself was clad in leather and green and white cloth. He could even see the twinkle in Pippin's eyes, as they smiled at each other while they drank to the Shire's good fortunes. They had sealed this bond so long ago.

"Pippin, I ..." - "Merry, will you ..."

They both stopped, and when Pippin started to chuckle, Merry couldn't help but join in laughing. Pippin rolled on his back, chuckling still. He brought his face close to Merry's, and they both gazed at the ceiling. The candle's light made the rafters seem dark and crooked like the roots in an old smial. The wind whistled softly in the chimney, and in the garden an early bird chirped sleepily at the approaching dawn. After a while Pippin said: "We don't have to do this, you know."

Merry turned his head. "No?"

Pippin leaned unto his elbows and kissed him. "What I mean is," he murmured through a tangle of warm lips and tongues, "there are other ways to make good use of that hazelnut oil."

"Oh, I can think of a few right now." Merry moved his fingers along Pippin's need pressing hard against his thigh, and Pippin responded immediately with a rough moan Merry had been eager to hear. It made his legs tremble, as did the urgency with which Pippin pushed into his hand. Merry felt himself tighten as he tried to quiet his own laboured breathing. "Your body has a mind of its own, Pip. It does not want the Goldworthy's oil wasted on crayfish tails and hazelnut biscuits."

"Crayfish and biscuits are not what I have in mind." There was a grin on Pippin's face but his voice was hoarse, and he held on to Merry's hip so hard it hurt.

Pippin's desire was always like this, strong and demanding, a thing Merry had not known of Pippin until he'd lain with him. It reached into Merry like madder into bare earth, and there was nothing he could do but let it swirl and surge within him, dark red like the madder's dye. "Come, love ..." He reached for Pippin with a sudden, impatient need and tried to pull him on top of himself. "Come."

But Pippin would not move. "I don't want to hurt you", he said so softly that Merry could barely hear him.

"You're not hurting me." Merry drew Pippin as close as he could and burrowed his face against Pippin's breast. "It's me. It's me who won't let go."

The curls on Pippin's chest felt soft and sweaty on Merry's cheek, and he suddenly remembered a morning long ago in Brandy Hall when he and Pippin had spent the night after the Midyear Feast in a spare room near the servants' quarters. There had been the sound of rain, and Pippin half-dressed and very close to him, his warmth all around. Merry remembered clearly how something had felt different that morning, something that made Pippin glow in a sudden clear light. It must have been the sun which had found a crack in the rain-clouded sky and shone into the small low window just above the bed. But the sight of Pippin asleep in that light had cut through Merry like a knife. He had known nothing then but to clutch Pippin to him so hard that he had woken the lad, and he had greeted Merry with a drowsy kiss tasting of too much ale and not nearly enough sleep.

"I shan't be a stranger to you," Merry whispered.

Pippin grabbed Merry's hair, pulled him away from his chest and looked into his eyes. And then, with one swift movement, he had them both rolled over. Merry found himself on the folded blankets again, and Pippin over him. There was no fear, just a bit of awkward moving around until they had their bodies thoroughly entangled. Pippin felt so good in his arms, Merry wanted to crush Pippin's ribs between his raised knees whenever Pippin's belly rubbed against his need. The hazelnut oil between his buttocks was slick and warm, and Pippin's fingers spread it more, sliding along the crack, kneading oil into flesh.

Merry's skin was tingling with a giddy heat, when Pippin pushed hard against him. And even though he moved more slowly this time, Merry still felt his insides cramp, expecting the scorching burn. For a moment his body tensed, but then Pippin reached for him and touched him with strong, slippery fingers. Merry thrust into Pippin's grip with an unruly need that heeded not pain nor fear. He felt Pippin pierce him, and he felt himself give way to a quick searing, and then a fullness which spread towards an aching place deep within. He drew Pippin close, moved his thighs even higher, so Pippin would push deeper and touch, please touch ... but instead Pippin pulled back, so fast it made Merry gasp.

Pippin's breath was harsh with want, his face flushed, sweat shimmering in the soft creases of his throat. His eyes asked if all was right, and Merry kissed the sweaty skin, bit into it, he wanted Pippin so much. A taste like hay, and salt, like the high wind only, and always, always the scent of wild parsley that grew in no other place than the Green Hills. Merry was reeling with it, spicy-sweet and rich, and for a moment he felt he would break if he could not burst in Pippin's hand right now.

Pippin tightened his grip around Merry's need, unbearably raw and so full that Merry jerked against Pippin, his arms around his neck, holding on to him because if he let go he would fall, would drown ...

And they were running down the Causeway again, skin to skin, droplets of sweat flying from hair and face, Pippin a toe's length behind him, panting sharp and fast, the river all bronze and mist at their side. Merry turned, never breaking their run, the storm ripping at his hair. He reached out for Pippin, screaming into the wind, and Pippin took his hand and they raced high above while the sunset flamed the water red like blood.

Pippin thrust into him, more forcefully than before, and his eyes went wide and dark, he stuttered Merry's name. The candle's flame caught in the circles of brass, and light spilled in ripples like rain on the Brandywine. Pippin was in him and around him, touching him within and without, and Merry could no longer hold back, he was swept off the Causeway, sent tumbling towards the flaming river. He fell, and Pippin caught him, held him in shaking arms, when the light on the water broke into rushing, blinding silver, flung high and bright into the sky over Crickhollow.

*

The first thing Merry knew after the stillness released him was Pippin's heavy breathing and his curls damp on Merry's skin. Then he realised the younger hobbit was still cradling his flesh, now limp and spent, between their bodies.

"You ..." Merry barely recognised the husky sound coming from his lips.

Pippin raised his head and at the same time let go of Merry. He smiled, then concern crept into his eyes. "Did I hurt you much?"

Merry shook his head. His body was tingling, he felt as if he had lain in a field of thistles as they bloomed purple up near Scary. He could not tell hurt from pleasure, not now, not yet. All he wanted was Pippin here, in his arms. He moved his hips and rolled Pippin to his side, to where the candle shone on the linen. The younger hobbit laughed, then closed his eyes. Merry lifted Pippin's head gently, and it seemed light as the pillow Merry propped underneath his neck. Cautiously he traced Pippin's throat, touched his chin and lips.

"Pippin?"

Pippin opened his eyes slowly.

"What in all the Shire put it in your head to lie with me like this?"

Pippin chuckled. "It was Reginard, if you must know."

"Reginard?!" Merry tried to imagine Reginard Took in his musty coats explaining the finer uses of hazelnut oil to a much younger Pippin. It was quite impossible. "It's not Cousin Reggie you are talking about, is it?"

The disbelief in Merry's voice must have shown plainly, for Pippin laughed out loud. "Aye, old Cousin Reggie. Well, Cousin Reggie and Anie Twofoot, I should say. Ah, and what a sight that was." He shut his eyes again, waiting for Merry to ask for more.

"You're getting as close as Gandalf, Pip. Out with the story," Merry said, letting just the right amount of irritation show in his voice.

"Not so hasty, Merry lad." Pippin opened his eyes with a big, deliberate sigh. "I saw them once in one of the guest-rooms of the Great Smials. I must have been in my teens still, Anie Twofoot was working in the kitchen then. At least that's as much as I recall. She's always been a quiet lass. Seems the two found a liking for each other, and when I stumbled into that bed-room, they were kissing under the blankets."

Merry laid his head on Pippin's shoulder, and Pippin's arm quickly found its place around Merry's waist and pulled him close. "I remember Anie", Merry said. "As pretty a lass as they come. Hobbiton-bred, too. Why would she lie with a Took?"

"I don't know. But Reggie thought the world of her. He called her Anemone, which was her real name, only no-one ever called her that. I heard them talk in the bed-room, and he said that he did not want to get her with child. 'A lass thus shamed can't expect much from life,' he said. And that he wanted her to be always as happy as the sparrows in the birches. Then he explained to her about the oil and things. That's when I made sure they did not see me and I could hear some more."

"And that's when you learned about the Goldworthy's hazelnut oil, too?"

"No, that was my own thinking." Pippin squeezed him gently and kissed Merry's curls. "They used plain sunflower oil which I would have brought to bed, too, if there was any left in the kitchen. We do have to go into Bucklebury tomorrow and stock up the larder."

Merry nodded slowly. He thought of Anie Twofoot while he traced circles in the smudges of oil on Pippin's belly. "Well, I could never see Reggie as anything but a bachelor. Do you think it's on account of Anie that he never married?"

There was no answer, and Merry raised his head. He felt Pippin's hand move slowly up and down his side, Pippin's hips shifted to meet his touch. Desire returned without warning, a prickling like thorns all over Merry's skin. Pippin looked so young, so much like the lad he had known all his life. It would be so easy to forget all that had happened.

"I think Anie loved him very much," Pippin said softly.

Merry put his hand flat on Pippin's stomach, making him stop the movement of his hips. "Anie's no longer in the service of the Tooks. She left, didn't she?"

"Aye, she went to live someplace else. I don't know where. But I never saw her with any of the young lads. I keep thinking she might have left to not make things worse for her and Reggie. She said a thing that day ..." Pippin halted as if he was trying to recall Anie's words.

"What was it, Pip? What did she say?"

"Oh ... " Pippin gave him a quick, uncertain smile. "She said that even though there were no promises she could make Reggie with roses in her hair, it was still true that he was forever in her heart, and if she could, she'd be with him always."

Merry felt Pippin's eyes on him, the question in them clear as a song, and a need there which had nothing to do with the way their bodies had come together just now. For once tonight Merry knew what to say, and he knew the answer to his words, too. But he was shaking so with a fear that had come from nowhere to fill his chest and throat and leave hardly room for a breath. "This is what you want?" he whispered.

Pippin softly touched Merry's cheek. "This is all I wish for, since Minas Tirith, since we've come home."

Had he ever doubted it? Felt it in his own heart and let it run free so there was no stopping it? What do you see? he had meant to ask the soldier of Gondor who looked with such hopeless wishing towards the Anduin, and Pippin had asked then in his stead: "Where do we go?" The question had filled Merry with such anguish - and such happiness - but his only answer, even then, had been what it still was today: I do not know, but always with you.

Tears burned behind Merry's eyes and he nodded, for he could not trust his voice. One day he would speak aloud, would tell Pippin what his heart was pushing through his blood in steady beats, a wordless joy which seemed to have been with him all his life and yet felt so new and raw, it startled him.

"It will not always be easy, little Took," Merry whispered so softly he could not be sure Pippin heard.

But Pippin's hand moved to his chest and found its place over Merry's heart. It took Merry's breath away, as small a gesture as it was, and like before he felt his heart would falter if Pippin's hand was gone for just a second.

He leaned into Pippin's touch, heavier than he had intended, brought his lips to Pippin's throat and burrowed his face in Pippin's neck, so close that all he felt was Pippin. Pippin kept his hand firmly over Merry's heart until Merry himself took it with trembling fingers. Pippin's hand was warm and sticky. Slowly Merry turned it and with his lips touched the soft skin. Then he saw the blood, and it took him long moments before he understood that it was his own blood that painted Pippin's hand red.

"Blood and heart, you see? It must count for something." There were tears on Pippin's cheeks even though he smiled.

A new life within the old. A life that had no name but all the promise of the taste of apples and the certainty of blood rushing through a great and gentle heart. Yes, their love would count for this - whether Merry's heart burst now, or if on some far-off day his last heartbeat would be held safe in Pippin's hand.


Schnoerkel



Map

Sketch of Crickhollow



STORY NOTES:

(1) Merry's haunting vision of Pippin in Gondorian armour standing on a hillock in Ithilien overlooking the river Anduin recounts a crucial moment in Victoria Bitter's outstanding M/P fanfic Displaced.

(2) The lines "Long now they sleep
under grass in Gondor by the Great River.
Grey now as tears, gleaming silver, ..."
are quoted from the Rohirrim's song of the Mounds of Mundburg honouring the fallen of the Great Battle on the Pelennor Fields, J.R.R. Tolkien, Return of the King, Ch. 6 "Many Partings". The intermingling imagery of the red of sunset and of the red of blood colouring the river takes up the lines of the song which immediately follow the ones I quoted:
"red then it rolled, roaring water:
foam dyed with blood flamed at sunset ..."