For a long while, Merry’s mind was occupied with the rebuilding of the Shire. He was glad to put dark days of the journey behind him, at least for the time being; he still planned to set down their tale in the records of the Men at some point. For some time though, there was much work to be done, especially in Hobbiton, and he was glad to help.
It allowed him to simply be in the presence of his relatives and friends, and somewhere he felt safe. It had been many seasons since he’d had that chance. His only reminder of home on their perilous travels had been the company of the other hobbits, and that had still been brief. He had lost Frodo and Sam early on, and then eventually Pippin too.
When they had been separated at last, much grief had overtaken his heart, more than he had ever thought it would. He’d longed to hear Pippin’s foolish laugh, or simply see that bright gaze staring back at him; any reminder of his best friend would have lessened his despair. Being reunited, Merry had felt such a joy as he had never experienced before. He was so overcome he hadn’t had the words to tell Pippin precisely how much he’d pined for him, which was unusual indeed for a hobbit.
When much of the rebuilding had been completed, Merry made his way back to Buckland, or Eastmarch as it was now being called. He still wasn’t sure he liked the new name, but he supposed Strider knew best, being king and all, and at least his home was officially now part of the Shire.
Strangely, upon arriving back home, he found his thoughts returning to Pippin. Even after they’d found one another again, he felt himself longing for Pip in a peculiar way most days, including those he actually spent with the hobbit. It took Merry some time to work out exactly why that was; with the two of them now safe and sound in the Shire like in years past, he should’ve felt altogether content with his best friend by his side.
But he didn’t. He knew their journey had changed them. Merry had felt them grow closer during those dark days, their bond so strong that they could not bear to be out of each other’s sight for long. And for Merry, that closeness had turned into an ache once they had returned, reminding him of all they’d shared and now meant to one another. He tried to convince himself it was the trauma and his overactive imagination, but the love he felt for Pippin was something that went right down into his bones – it was more than that of friendship or kin.
There had been hints of it, times during their journey when Merry had suspected they were sharing something deeper. When they’d slept side by side or shared a bed, Merry had noticed their boundaries growing smaller and smaller, until eventually spending most nights almost in each other’s embraces. In the dark of Moria, Pippin’s hand had often searched behind for Merry’s as they plodded single-file in the gloom; Merry had never found himself declining the contact, their fingers intertwining. And at Lothlorien, both overcome with grief, they’d held each other close for long hours beneath the trees, Pippin weeping openly against Merry’s neck.
But it was Fangorn that Merry remembered most. It was there that Pippin’s behaviour had indicated that perhaps it wasn’t all in his head, the connection he felt. Treebeard had taken them to his ent-house, where they’d refreshed themselves and talked much, before retiring for the evening. The hobbits had settled down to sleep on the bed of soft grass and fern, with the ent snoozing just outside the doorway, leaving the two of them alone. It was here Pippin had gazed at him for some time in silence, their hands clasped loosely together in the dark. Then he had moved, bringing his other hand to Merry’s jaw and leaning forward to press a kiss upon his lips. It had lingered, Merry remembered that very clearly, and how his heart had become loud in his ears immediately after. But Pippin had said nothing after, as though it was something they always did; or that it had never even happened at all.
Indeed, they spoke nothing of it the next day, nor for the rest of their time away in far-off lands. Sometimes Merry fancied he had simply imagined or dreamt it, or perhaps there had been something in the draughts Treebeard had given that had made them act that way. Though, upon returning to the Shire, with everything he felt, he knew that wasn’t the case. At least, not on his part. He wasn’t sure how Pippin felt.
Pippin was very pleasant, lively company, and didn’t have a spiteful bone in his body, but he was prone to foolish and impulsive behaviour. It was not hard for Merry to believe Pippin had kissed him only on instinct, in need of comfort and a reminder of home, peculiar as it may be. It was not prudent to assume Pip always made wise decisions, and his behaviour may have only been a reflection of his disturbed state in their difficult journey.
Merry sighed as all of these thoughts and emotions washed over him, sitting upon a hill near Brandy Hall in the fading light of the afternoon. He pulled out and stuffed his pipe, lighting it and puffing on it for several long minutes. Old Toby always calmed his spirits, and had been known to assist him with decisions in the past. In the very least, it relaxed him.
So much so, he didn’t notice Pippin making his way up the side of the hill until he’d sat himself down beside the Brandybuck. Pippin had hardly left his side since they’d come back to the Shire, and had insisted on following him to Brandy Hall, despite very little repair needing to be done.
“It’s not like you to be out all alone on a hillside of an evening,” Pippin observed. “Folks will start thinking you’re taking after Frodo and his queer ways.”
Merry gave him a small smile and took a few more puffs of his pipe before replying.
“Well, I suppose like Frodo used to, I do have a lot on my mind,” Merry explained. “I needed some time alone to sort through things.”
Pippin didn’t respond straight away; he took out his own pipe and lit it, sucking quickly at the mouthpiece. Merry found his eyes straying to Pippin's lips but quickly averted his gaze when the Took glanced back up at him. Pippin’s brow furrowed a little.
“Is it something I’ve done?” he asked. “I can’t think of what it would be, but I’ve found when someone is upset about something and I have no idea what it is, it usually turns out to be my fault.”
Merry’s expression softened and he smiled a little more.
“No, Pip. You haven’t done anything wrong,” he said.
He took a few more puffs from his pipe and then looked out over the rolling hills and the Brandywine River. He sighed.
“Though, it is to do with you,” he added, his voice soft.
Pippin turned at this.
“It is? How is it to do with me then, if I haven’t done anything wrong? What else is there? I suppose it could be about our journey… er, quest, because we were together for a lot of that, and I know I –”
“Pip!” Merry interrupted. “Would you just be quiet a moment and let me finish?”
Pippin smiled sheepishly and settled back.
“Right. Yes, sorry. Carry on.”
Merry turned to face him now.
“I was going to say… that is…” he stumbled. “I wanted to know…”
He found now he had Pip’s full attention, he couldn’t quite put together what he wanted to say, what he felt in his heart. Not when Pippin was staring at him with such sincerity, so unwittingly. He sighed again, rubbing a hand over his eyes.
He supposed he should try to start with the crux of the problem.
“When we were in Fangorn, in Treebeard’s house, you kissed me.”
He hadn’t meant it to come out quite so bluntly. But at least it got the point across in a way Pippin would certainly understand. Merry looked up to find Pippin both surprised and abashed.
“Oh, yes. That.” His pipe sank from his mouth to between his hands, and he stared down at them. “You’re not too cross about that, are you?”
“Cross?” Merry asked. “No, of course not. I’m just…” He paused, grasping for the right word. “…confused. I don’t know that I understand what it was for.”
“I don’t think it was for anything,” Pip replied. “Only that I wanted to do it. So I did it.”
Merry felt his heart sink a little.
“Okay,” he said slowly. “So that was it? Simply that you wanted to, so you did. Nothing more to it than that?”
Pippin furrowed his brow again, fidgeting.
“Well, I suppose not.”
Merry stood up abruptly and made his way over the ridge of the hill, sucking on his pipe as he watched the sun beginning to set. He tried to concentrate on the hues of pink and yellow across the sky, and the shadows that were beginning to grow long from the trees at the base of the hill. He sensed Pip come up to stand beside him. He glanced over to see the Took staring down at his feet now.
“You seem more cross with me now than you did before, only I’m not sure why,” Pippin said tentatively. “I can only assume you didn’t like my explanation.”
He lifted his head now, and Merry felt his stomach twist at the sad expression upon his face.
“Oh Pip,” he sighed. “I’m not angry with you. I’m sorry if I sounded it. It’s not your fault – it’s mine. I’d been hoping for a different answer.” He turned to look back down the hill, unable to look Pippin in the face as he continued. “I’d been hoping you’d say you kissed me, not only because you wanted to but because you’ve always wanted to; because you feel things for me that you don’t feel for anyone else; and that not a day goes by that you don’t long to declare it to me and to the world.” He took a breath and composed himself, his gaze drawing up to the horizon. “I’d hoped for the things I feel for you. But it was unfair to expect it of you because there’s no reason to. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have started all this.”
Pippin was quiet for some time, which Merry found worrying.
“I’m not sure that I know what you mean, Merry,” he said finally. “At least, I don’t think I know but then again I might do, and just think that I don’t know because you think I don’t. Know, that is.”
By the time he’d finished, even Pippin looked puzzled. Merry turned and lowered his pipe, taking Pippin’s free hand with his own.
“What I meant was, I’m disappointed you don’t feel the same way about me that I do about you,” he explained. “But that’s okay. You don’t have to. I’m just glad to call you a dear friend.”
Pippin emptied his pipe and stowed it in his pocket, then looked back up at Merry with a sincere gaze.
“But I do.”
“You do what?”
“Feel the same about you.”
Merry watched him carefully, not convinced Pip knew what either of them had been talking about.
“I don’t think you do, Pip.”
Pippin flashed him a wide, if slightly dim, smile.
“Oh, but I do. I know what you feel and I feel it too.”
He prodded Merry in the chest to emphasise his point. Merry gave him a wary look.
“And what is it I feel then?” he asked.
“Love,” Pippin announced, as though he’d worked out something very clever.
“Yes, of course, love. We’re best friends after all.”
Pippin shook his head.
“Not only that though,” he said knowingly.
“Well, yes, I suppose we’re kin as well,” Merry replied. “My cousins are dear to me.”
Pippin shook his head again, his smile now a broad grin.
“No, no, not that, Merry. I know that’s not what you meant,” he said. “It’s something else, something bigger. Here, let me show you.”
He took Merry’s head between his hands and pulled him close to kiss his mouth, soft and lingering as it had been in Fangorn.
Merry dropped his pipe. When Pippin pulled away, Merry stood in a daze for a moment.
“Um, yes. That is what I meant,” he murmured, breathless.
Pippin beamed, looking very pleased with himself.
“See? And they say Tooks are foolish. I know what’s going on, don’t I?”
He tapped the side of his head with his finger. Recovering, Merry now threw him a mirthful smile.
“I wouldn’t go that far,” he teased.
Pippin opened his mouth to protest, but Merry grabbed him by the shirt and pulled him in for another kiss. The teasing and all of Merry’s worries were soon forgotten as they became lost in the taste of each other, and tumbled down on the grass together in the soft light of dusk.