Actions

Work Header

Feasts, Feuds and Frolics

Work Text:

Feasts, Feuds and Frolics

Alassenya

 

Frolic the First

In which Pippin proves a quick study and Merry learns to be wary of mistletoe.

Brandy Hall, Buckland - Foreyule 1407

When, in later years, Merry looked back on the tumultuous year of 1408 (Shire Reckoning), it always seemed to him that the trouble had begun just before the New Year started, when the Tooks had arrived at Brandy Hall to spend the festive season with their Brandybuck relations. He blamed the mistletoe: mistletoe and tweens made a volatile mixture every year; mistletoe and Tooks made for mischief. When mistletoe was combined with an almost-tweenage Peregrin Took (precious, precocious Peregrin Took), it was hardly surprising that the result resembled spontaneous combustion. By the end of the second day of that Yule season Merry had made a mental note to forbid the hanging of mistletoe in Brandy Hall once he became Master - if he survived that long.

It was snowing heavily that day, 29 Foreyule, and all the teens and tweens were playing games in the back parlour or the corridors, while the adults held conversation in the Yellow Parlour. The whereabouts of the single spray of mistletoe permitted by the Master was currently unknown, and Merry was wary as he walked through the corridors, his thoughts turning towards Pippin.

When the Tooks had arrived the day before, Merry had been astonished to see how much Pippin had grown in the six months since they had seen each other last. As they hugged, he had found that Pippin was within an inch or so of his own height, and his shoulders were broader. The grin was still the same, though, and so was the wicked gleam in Pippin's eye as he gave Merry a smacking kiss on the lips - Merry had known then that it was going to be an interesting Yule.

Like most of the young hobbits, Pippin loved catching people under the mistletoe. Always affectionate, he had made a habit of it since he was a child, but over the last couple of years it seemed to Merry that Pippin had pursued him and one or two other favourite cousins more closely. Merry could certainly vouch for the fact that his kisses had become less innocent and more questioning - or was it just that his own responses were becoming stronger? Was he noticing Pippin's kisses more than the others? Pippin was growing up to be as handsome a young hobbit as the Shire had ever seen, and he was starting to attract looks that suggested he wouldn't lack for playmates once he reached his tweens.

Two years before, he remembered, someone (probably Pippin, though it might have been Mosco Burrows) had fixed the spray of mistletoe to the lintel of the back parlour, so that it couldn't be seen from the corridor, and those in the know had been waiting to pounce on unsuspecting entrants. Naturally, no one had told Merry, so the sudden onslaught of flying Took had caught him off guard. He had staggered with the impact, lost his balance, and fallen down, luckily landing on some cushions and a couple of Brandybuck cousins. Pippin had giggled and rolled Merry over the floor, stretching out full length on top of him before pressing his lips to Merry's, holding them there for as long as possible. The kiss had been long and sweet, and Merry had had to remind himself sternly of Pippin's age to stop himself from rolling them both over again and kissing him properly.

Treacherous memory: as Merry smiled to himself and closed his eyes briefly, he forgot to check for Tooks lying in wait. He turned the corner towards the back parlour and felt himself caught by a pair of strong arms and rolled against the wall. It was Pippin, of course, and Merry was reminded once more how just much Pippin had grown in the last year.

He looked up, wondering where Pippin had put the mistletoe - ah, there it was, attached to the lamp on the wall above his head.

Pippin smiled slyly. "Door lintels are too easy - everyone expects them now."

"Well, this was certainly unexpected." Merry smiled back. Pippin's eyes were almost level with his own. "I suppose you're hoping for a kiss."

"That was the general idea, yes."

"Who have you caught so far?"

"Only the ones I wanted." Pippin's voice was suddenly dark and husky, and there was nothing child-like about it at all.

Merry blinked and Pippin moved in for the kiss. Merry noted how the lips on his were more aware, more questioning, than they had been before, and they sought a response from him. It was a good kiss, Merry realised, one which sent warm tendrils down his belly and shivers down his spine. He was tempted to respond, but Pippin was still too young, and this was definitely no place to be caught by disapproving aunts.

He twisted away, trying to ignore his racing pulse and the sudden difficulty he had in breathing. "Enough! You're getting to be entirely too good at that, Pipsqueak."

"I need more practice."

Merry shivered at the thought. "No, not today."

"Why not?"

"New rule - only one mistletoe kiss allowed per day."

"That's not fair!"

"It doesn't have to be fair. It's my rule."

"Who said you could make up new rules?"

"I did."

"How come?"

"Well, firstly, this is Brandy Hall, which is my home, and, secondly, I'm older than you are."

"Does that mean that I get to make the rules at the Smials?"

"Not unless you can arrange to be older than me as well, Pipsqueak."

"That's not fair either!"

"No, it isn't. But that's how life is."

Further argument was avoided only because at that moment someone opened a door, and the draft that ran through the corridor carried the odour of baking.

"Ah! Gingerbread!" exclaimed Pippin. One glance at each other and they were racing for the kitchens, where Pippin, naturally, managed to cajole the cooks into giving them a gingerbread man each, which was more than Merry usually managed on his own.

Precocious Tooks did have their uses, after all.

* * *

It wasn't to be expected that one gingerbread man would have any appreciable effect on a young hobbit's appetite and they each ate a hearty afternoon tea, where plum cake and seed cake and scones and sandwiches and dainty biscuits all clamoured for attention.

Pippin was dragged away by Ilberic and Merry sat down with his Cousin Mentha, who had been unwell for most of the autumn and winter and was still weak. He liked her quiet ways and gentle smile, and he made a special effort to coax a giggle or two out of her. He caught sight of his mother's fond expression as she looked at them both, and smiled blandly back at her. It would be eight years until he came of age and longer still until he needed to look for a wife, and he wasn't going to let his mother or anyone else hurry him into marriage.

He turned his attention back to Mentha, but found himself increasingly distracted by the conversation taking place beyond her. Great-Aunt Asphodel (who was 95 and going deaf) and Cousin Hilda (who had been a Bracegirdle before she married, which explained a lot and excused nothing), were discussing the antecedents and characters of those hobbits who were present (and some who weren't), generally to their detriment. Such discussions were by no means uncommon, of course, in the densely-inhabited smial, but most hobbits had the sense, if not the courtesy, to hold them out of earshot of the Master's immediate family and in low, discreet, tones.

Concentrating as he was on his conversation with Cousin Mentha, Merry had missed their early comments. Even as he became aware of their speech he paid them little heed, since had heard most of it before. It was only when he heard Pearl's name mentioned that his ears pricked and he started to listen to what Cousin Hilda was saying.

"Married before she came of age and now she's expecting. Well! I wonder what excuse they'll have for a 'seven month' babe that looks full-grown."

"Now, that I don't know, Hilda. She was certainly slim enough at the wedding. And the engagement was announced last Solmath, on her birthday. You can't say that it was a hasty business."

"That's as maybe. But the whole family is careless. Tooks! If it's not running off to sea it's mixing with elves and wizards and goodness only knows. I thought when Paladin had the good sense to marry Eglantine that the Banks blood would have given them a bit more stability, but no, there's Pervinca flirting with Merimas. Shameless. And the boy is no better. Look at him!"

Merry turned and looked, and saw Pippin in an animated discussion with Ilberic and Minto that involved extravagant hand gestures and inordinate amounts of laughter. He sighed, and wondered if he ought to go over and tell them to settle down: that much activity was bound to have repercussions before long.

Great-Aunt Asphodel seemed to agree. "Young troublemaker. He needs lessons in behaving like a young gentlehobbit. He almost knocked me to the ground last summer, tearing around the corner like a whirlwind, and he broke my best walking stick. And when I would have given him what for, young Meriadoc comes along, bold as you please, and says he'll deal with it and I'm not to worry. Not to worry, indeed! In my young day youngsters knew how to defer to their elders, but now we're of no account at all."

Merry found he was gritting his teeth. He remembered that day. He had dealt with it, and Pippin had made a formal apology and had given her a new walking stick, but his great-aunt liked nothing better than to hold a grudge.

"There's always been wildness in the Tooks," she continued, "Paladin was headstrong enough as a lad, and Ferumbras before him. Why, I remember the summer I turned twenty -"

She broke off as the parlour door opened, and Berilac Brandybuck walked in, drawing heads as usual. He was tall for a hobbit and exceedingly handsome, with dark curls, blue eyes and a cheerful smile that made all of the women and a goodly proportion of the men follow him with their eyes. He greeted Esmeralda, who was sitting with Eglantine and a few other matrons, and then walked over to the tea trolley, past the sofa that held the two gossips.

Even Saradoc had been known to flinch, slightly, under the combined glares of Great-Aunt Asphodel and Cousin Hilda, but Berry smiled politely at them and moved on, apparently oblivious to their malevolence.

"And if ever there was a Brandybuck to match a Took for wildness, it's that one," Great-Aunt Asphodel continued, in what she mistakenly considered to be an undertone. "Not that I blame the Brandybuck side, of course, but Merimac was never one for a discerning choice. I told Rory he shouldn't have allowed Berilac back into Buckland. I wouldn't have let him past the threshold, especially with all these young ones here, but then my opinion counts for little these days. Mark my words, he’ll come to a bad end, and no more than he deserves."

Cousin Hilda snorted in agreement. "He's no better than he ought to be, and never has been. The things I've heard!"

For Merry, that was the last straw. Elderly relative or not, he had just drawn breath to tell her exactly what she could do with her insults and insinuations when there was a loud crash from the other side of the room, followed by a succession of smaller sounds: Minto, skylarking, had knocked over one of the tea trolleys. Crockery and cutlery were scattered all over the floor, and one saucer was spinning out of control, going faster and faster until, suddenly, it stopped and there was silence.

Nel, who had been pouring tea for her mother, calmly picked up a trivet and placed the teapot on one of the tables before going to Minto's assistance. Several others started to set the trolley to rights and pick up the pieces, while Cousin Hilda snorted in disgust at the hapless boy's clumsiness.

Esmeralda gave Minto a withering look and called out to her son. "Merry, take these children through to the back parlour."

Merry didn't argue - he was as keen to leave the room as Minto, who was now blushing in embarrassment. He shepherded all the youngsters into the corridor, giving Minto a semi-serious cuff on the ear for his foolishness.

"Idiot! What were you doing?"

"Ilberic said -"

"Never mind what Ilberic said. You know that when you're in the Yellow Parlour you behave yourself. It's not a playroom."

"I know, but-"

"But nothing. Just be thankful Mum isn't making you clean up all the mess or replace the broken plates. Some of it was the good stuff, too."

Minto looked thoroughly miserable, and Merry felt some remorse at having taken out his bad temper on the boy when he had been about to create a far worse scene by swearing at Great-Aunt Asphodel. He reached into his pocket and found a couple of toffees, still wrapped in waxed paper, and handed them to Minto. "Here, it wasn't so bad, at that. No one was hurt, and there were only a couple of sandwiches left anyway. Get along to the back parlour and sort things out with Ilberic there."

Minto smiled wanly and headed off, clutching the toffees.

Merry ran a hand through his hair and took a deep breath. He heard someone step up behind him and turned: it was Berilac.

"Oh, Berry, you didn't have to leave, you know, you hadn't even had a cup of tea yet."

Berry grimaced. "Merry, dearest coz. I was the only male under sixty left in the room and I could feel every single aunt's attention turning on me. I felt like a lone mouse surrounded by a dozen cats."

Merry giggled. "Well, when you put it like that, I can understand that even clumsy tweens might be preferable."

"Definitely preferable. Come on, I'm sure we can find a quiet corner to play cards or dice while the infants run around and exhaust themselves." He slipped an arm around Merry's waist and they walked down the corridor.

Merry called out to one of the serving maids in passing and asked her to bring a small tea tray to the back parlour for Berry. As she scurried away he said, "Great-Aunt Asphodel said some horrible things about you just then."

"Did she?" Berry was unconcerned. "She's never liked me."

"I was going to tell her to stop when Minto knocked the trolley over."

"It's probably just as well that you didn't; it only makes things worse. You'd be better to ignore her next time."

Merry sighed. "Why do you never care what people say about you?"

"Because... because I don't care. I know who I am, I know what I am, and it doesn't really matter what anyone else thinks of me. Spite and gossip don’t last for long - not unless someone tries to interfere. Leave it alone and it all dies away again."

"Until the next time."

"Well, you can't take away all their fun. They don't have much else to do but rake up old stories."

Merry shook his head. He liked Berry, very much, but he would never understand his total lack of concern for what was said about him, even if he recognised the wisdom of his advice.

They arrived at the back parlour and secured the necessary quiet corner by means of ordering the previous occupants to move. Merry's tone was cheerful but firm, and the youngsters gave way, though not without some comments on the abuse of rank and privilege. Berry laughed and agreed that it was a shocking thing to be sure, and they had better hurry up and move.

Pippin ran over when he saw them sitting down. "What are you going to do? Can I join in? Is Minto in heaps of trouble? Why did -"

Merry held up his hand to stop the flood of questions. "One at a time, Pip. Firstly, Cousin Berry and I are going to play cards. Secondly," he glanced at Berry, who nodded, "yes, you may join in, but you have to behave and play properly. Thirdly, it'll be up to Mum and Dad and Cousin Milo to deal with Minto."

Pippin, having caught the one piece of information he really wanted, sat down on the sofa with a bounce. "Of course, I'll behave. But you'll have to help me because I've forgotten some of the rules."

Merry sighed. He exchanged a rueful look with Berry, who smirked and said, "I'm sure Merry will help you. And I'll help Moro, because I know he's been wanting to learn, too." He called out to Moro, who had been berating his younger brother, and beckoned him over. Moro, of course, was delighted at the prospect of playing cards with Wicked Cousin Berry and sat down with a look of adoration that Berry ignored completely.

Pippin gave a snort of disgust at Moro's inclusion, while Berry and Merry, with difficulty, suppressed their amusement at the antics of the two youngsters. Berry took the pack of cards out of his pocket and began to deal.

* * *

After dinner Berry disappeared to write letters. Merry joined a group discussing the likelihood of the snow settling enough for them to go sledding or skating the next day. Pippin bemoaned the fact that he hadn't brought his sled with him to Buckland, since he was sure it was the fastest ever, but none of the Buckland hobbits would allow that, and there was plenty of good-natured jostling and ribbing as honour was defended. Merry smiled: some things never changed.

After supper had been served (hot soup and scones), he found himself drifting off to one end of the room with Pippin, talking of this and that, until they were perched on the back of a sofa, idly watching Merimas and his girlfriend wrapped around each other. Someone threw a handful of nuts at the kissing duo and they broke apart, laughing and indignant, before leaping up to wreak vengeance on their attacker.

Pippin laughed too, but it was clear to Merry that he had something on his mind. Sure enough, after a few minutes, he looked up, his eyes dark and serious.

"Merry?"

"Yes?"

"What does it feel like, being tumbled?"

Merry looked at him, momentarily surprised, and found that he felt a real reluctance to answer the question. Embarrassed, he masked his feelings with irritation. "Never you mind. You're too young for it, so there's no point in telling you."

"I'm not too young!"

"Yes, you are. Tweens tumble. You're not a tween yet."

"Am nearly."

"Pippin, you're 17! That's three years away."

"I'll be 18 come haymaking."

"Still too young."

"But I want to know."

"Well, I'm not going to tell you."

"Why not?"

"Because you're too young to know."

"I'm not!"

"Yes, you are."

Pippin was fast working himself up into a temper, and Merry was about to try and placate him with a promise of some information, if not everything, when Pippin jumped off the sofa and looked at him, green eyes blazing.

"Be like that then. I'll just ask someone else."

Merry's temper flared in response. "You do that. See if I care."

Pippin strode away, leaving Merry restless and uncomfortable, rather than relieved. It was only a few minutes later that he realised that Pippin had actually left the room. He considered trying to look for him, but he could just imagine Pippin's reaction to being checked on like a child. He talked to his cousins Vinca and Mentha for a few minutes, but declined an invitation to play spin-the-bottle with them and their friends. It was a game he enjoyed, usually, but he didn't feel like kissing anyone. Instead, he went up to his room and tried to read, but couldn't concentrate. His thoughts kept returning to Pippin. He hated it when Pippin was angry with him, or when he didn't know where Pippin was. It made him feel... well, lonely.

Lonely was an unusual feeling for Merry, for although he was an only child he had never felt like one. All his life he had been surrounded by cousins of varying degrees, who shared his lessons and his play and, sometimes, his punishments. There had always been a cousin to take him for a walk or a swim, to pick him up when he fell down a hill or out of a tree, or to hide the evidence of illicit excursions and adventures, such as his less-than-successful experiment in raising garter snakes in the airing cupboard ("because Uncle Bilbo said that they need warmth"). As he had grown older, he had been expected, in turn, to supervise the many younger cousins in permanent residence at the Hall, as well as any visiting children. Not least among these was Pippin, who seemed to require at least twice as much looking after as any other child.

Oddly enough, it was young Pippin who had often complained to Merry that he had no one to play with at home. He had three older sisters but no brothers and the nearest cousin in age was Ferdibrand, seven years his elder and rather serious. There were village children of his age in Tuckborough, of course, but Eglantine was always concerned in case he pick up illness or bad habits, and his contact with them was restricted to supervised play sessions at festivals, which of course prevented any real play at all.

Pippin had made no secret of the fact that he considered it the best of treats to come to Brandy Hall, where his aunt and uncle were very forgiving on the subject of muddy clothes, broken windows and the occasional angry farmer. He loved to play with Doderic and Ilberic, or Mosco and Moro Burrows, if they were there, and run wild through the corridors and along the riverbanks. Merry remembered, though, how often Pippin had chosen to find and follow him instead, shrugging off Merry's occasional reluctance. Truth to tell, Merry had enjoyed Pippin's company most of the time, even when he was young. The lad had a talent for finding trouble that bordered on genius, and he had to be watched more closely than milk on a stove, but he also had a quick wit and a sunny temper and he was rarely malicious or dishonest.

Together they had gone walking and riding and swimming and climbing, and Pippin had learned from him how to tell mushrooms from toadstools, how to set a snare for a rabbit and how to scrape out a bee sting with a knife blade. They also found talents that complemented each other: Merry had more book-learning, but Pippin was the better artist; Merry could identify almost any plant in the Shire, but Pippin could climb the highest branch of a tall elm and never bat an eyelid; Merry could pitch a stone to a target thirty yards away, while Pippin could talk his way out of trouble nine times out of ten.

It was a happy combination. Since Pippin liked Merry, he didn't run away as he did from most of his minders, and since Merry liked Pippin, he didn't try to avoid looking after him. When Pippin asked a question, Merry answered him, or told him where the answer would be found. When Pippin's escapades ended in disaster - as they often did - Merry would deal with the resultant chaos as best he could and never told tales. When Merry had a headache, or a hangover, Pippin would bring him treats and try to be less noisy, at least until he forgot. The end result was that, together, they were better behaved and less disruptive than each one was alone. Unfortunately, the few pranks they devised in collaboration tended to be more elaborate and more catastrophic than either could accomplish on his own. Eventually, it was accepted that when Merry and Pippin were in the same neighbourhood they would generally be found within a few yards of each other, and a wise hobbit would keep a weather eye out for trouble.

But now Pippin was growing up and changing, and Merry wasn't sure how to cope. It wasn't the same as dealing with Mosco and Doderic as they approached tweenhood. With them, it had been enough to shepherd them through their first ales (and their first hangovers), watch them steal kisses at festivals and give them some much-needed practical advice on the subject of physical intimacy. Pippin was different. The thought of seeing Pippin kissing others, whether girls or boys, was just as disturbing as the thought of kissing Pippin himself, while the idea that Pippin would be tumbling with his friends in a couple of years gave Merry an odd aching sensation in his chest.

Pippin was different.

He went to bed feeling slightly lost. His sleep was disturbed by vague and ominous dreams, and he woke up in the dark, sweating and sticky and heartsick.

* * *

The next morning Pippin caught Merry squarely (though not exactly fairly) by placing the sprig of mistletoe over the lintel of his bedroom door before he woke. When Merry stepped out, thinking only of breakfast, Pippin grinned triumphantly and pointed up.

Merry sighed, then resigned himself to the kiss. It was far too early in the day to start arguing, especially on an empty stomach, and besides, if he stuck to the new rule he had made up, he wouldn't have to worry for the rest of the day. He let Pippin push him back against the wall and hoped it wouldn't take too long - breakfast was waiting and he was hungry.

Green eyes gazed at him, brimming with laughter and mischief, but as Pippin drew closer Merry noticed that there was something new: a confidence, an expectation, that he hadn't seen before, not even yesterday. Not only that, but Pippin didn't rush straight in, as he usually did, to fasten their lips together. Instead, he raised one hand to Merry's jaw, his fingers splaying out to touch the soft skin of his neck, while his thumb brushed across Merry's cheek and mouth, stroking the full bottom lip - twice - three times. Green eyes, serious now, held Merry's gaze as gentle pressure pulled him forward, slowly, until their lips met.

Pippin's lips were soft yet firm, brushing slowly over Merry's, teasing them open, playing with each one in turn. There was a tingle to this kiss, a power that seemed to draw Merry in. When he felt Pippin's tongue sliding into his mouth, something twisted inside him, and instead of pulling back as he had intended, he paused, eyes shut, savouring the feel of Pippin's mouth, the scent of his skin, and the warmth from his body.

The kiss deepened and Merry started to lose himself. He didn't realise that his hands moved up to hold Pippin at the waist, drawing him closer, or that Pippin's body pressed against his from thigh to chest. His world had shrunk to encompass only the presence of Pippin, his dearest cousin Pippin, the one he loved, the one he wanted...

He was floating in a sea of sweet sensation, drifting on the tide of kisses that Pippin trailed along his neck, beneath his ear, and down to the hollow of the throat. The gentlest of bites was applied to his earlobe and a tingling flick of the tongue to the pulse point beneath his jaw. He was boneless, held up only by the pressure of Pippin's body against his and the strength of his arms. He heard ragged breathing and soft moans but never realised that they were his own.

As Pippin shifted position slightly, Merry felt a thrill of pleasure in his groin, and sudden heat ignited deep within him. He gasped and couldn't help pushing his hips forward slightly. When Pippin pushed back hard, deliberately, it triggered a reflex movement in Merry that ended with Pippin being slammed back against the wall and Merry grinding into his hips.

"Ow! Merry! I hit my head!"

Pippin started to struggle and this, with the cry, brought Merry to his senses. He released Pippin at once, backing away in disbelief at what he had done - and worse, what he had almost done. He wanted Pippin, wanted him badly. If Pippin hadn't called out...

"Don't ever do that again!" he snapped, ignoring Pippin's sudden contrition.

"Merry, I'm sorry -"

"Sorry isn't going to help you if you do that to the wrong person! Sorry isn't going to stop you getting hurt when it goes too far!" He was blazingly angry and thankful for it, because angry was better than frightened. He was angry at himself, at Pippin, at the sudden recognition of desire, at their age difference, at the dreams that had robbed him of a good night's sleep, at everything in the world that came between him and his cousin. He was even angry that Pippin wasn't as upset as he was over what had happened. His voice shook a little as he continued. "Now you know why I stopped you yesterday. It isn't safe to stir people up like that - it's too easy to lose control. I could have hurt you."

"But I liked it - well, until I hit my head. That bit wasn't good. But the rest of it I liked. I'd let you do it again, if you want. I'd let you tumble me. I - I love you, Merry."

His voice had softened and become child-like, and the innocent avowal was Merry's undoing. His anger vanished, leaving behind only remorse for what he had done and fear of what he might have done. He slumped against the opposite wall and slid down, resting his head on his knees, curls hiding his features. He was shaking with reaction, close to tears but not wanting Pippin to see him cry.

"Merry? Are you all right?" Pippin's voice was full of concern and he reached out to touch Merry's shoulder. When Merry didn't answer, Pippin knelt beside him and ran his fingers through the soft brown curls. Merry tried to shrug him off, but Pippin wrapped his arms around his shoulders as best he could and hugged him. Merry slid an arm around Pippin's waist and let Pippin hold him until the shaking subsided. He stayed there, almost motionless, feeling Pippin's arms around him, thinking how strange it was that Pippin should be comforting him instead of the other way around. It was some minutes before he was able to lift his head and give Pippin a reassuring pat on the arm.

"It's all right, Pippin, I'm fine now. How's your head?"

"Oh, I’ll live. I've hit it much worse before."

"Good." Merry took a deep breath and tilted his head back against the wall. He felt better, almost back in control of himself, ready to start the day once more. Just as long as Pippin didn't kiss him again. Which reminded him... "Where did you learn to kiss like that? It certainly wasn't from me."

Pippin suddenly smirked, his green eyes bright and sly, and his expression resembling that of a cat spying a saucer of cream. "I caught Cousin Berry under the mistletoe late last night. He was good. He taught me lots of things."

Merry stiffened. It was said (though Merry knew it to be an exaggeration) that there was scarcely a lad in the Shire between twenty and forty that Berry hadn't bedded or at least kissed. If Berry had harmed his Pip in any way, he would...

"What sort of things?"

"Things I asked him to teach me. Things I wanted to know and you wouldn't tell me."

Merry ignored the accusation in Pippin's voice and concentrated on the jealousy that raged through him. "Did you kiss him?"

"Of course I did! I told you, I caught him under the mistletoe."

"Did - did he kiss you?"

Pippin smiled. "Yes, he did. And it was lovely - he's a good kisser. Then I asked him to tell me what you liked and he did. He showed me, too."

Merry blanched and swallowed. He was not one of the few who had evaded Berry's charms; in fact, he had had a short but torrid affair with him three winters back, when heavy snow had kept most of them indoors and Pippin had been stuck in the Smials at the other end of the Shire. Though Berry had not been his first lover, he had certainly been the most experienced and imaginative: by the time they parted amicably some months later, Merry felt that he had learned enough to last him a lifetime. He swallowed again as he remembered warm winter evenings in Berry's room... The list of things that Berilac might have told Pippin was extensive and included several details that Merry would rather Pippin not know about for a long while yet.

"Um... Did he do anything else besides kiss you?"

"Well, he stroked my face with his fingers and it made me feel warm and tingly, and he showed me the best places to kiss on the neck. And he put his arms around my waist and on my hips and hugged me. Then he said that he'd shown me enough for one night and he thought that you would prefer to teach me the rest yourself."

Merry breathed out, relieved, and made a mental note to thank Berry before he left. Or punch his nose. He hadn't quite decided.

"He's right."

"Hah! I knew you wanted to." He grinned and threw his arms around his cousin, giving him another smacking kiss.

Merry groaned, realising what he'd just said.

* * *

Later that afternoon, he caught sight of Berilac with a group of older tweens and went over to talk to him. To his surprise, Berry pulled him to one side, a look of concern on his face.

"Merry, I need to talk to you. Pippin got me under the mistletoe last night and talked me into showing him a couple of things..."

"Yes, he told me, after a particularly scary demonstration of what he'd learned. What did you do to him?"

Berry bristled at the accusatory tone, but his answer sounded more exasperated than guilty. "Nothing he didn't ask me to do, and a damned sight less than he wanted."

"You shouldn't have touched him at all. He's just a child!"

"Not for much longer." Berry grasped him by the arms, looking decidedly grim, and pulled him into an alcove, slightly shielded form the main room. "Meriadoc, listen to me. This is important. Pippin is growing up. I know he's not a tween yet, but he's always been precocious and he has enough curiosity for ten Tooks. He came to me because he said you won't show him how to kiss and how to tumble."

"He's too young for it. I've told him."

"You may be right, but he doesn't think so. And you know what he's like - he's determined to find out, whether you show him or not. Telling him 'no' is not going to stop him, it's just going to make him find someone else to ask."

"But he's too young to know what he's asking for!"

"I know that. I'm not saying you should take him to bed right now. But he wants to know about kissing and holding and feeling loved. Can you give him that?"

Merry didn't answer, and Berry asked, "Do you love him?"

Merry looked uncomfortable for a few seconds, but nodded.

Berry persevered. "As a cousin or as a lover?"

Merry bit his lip, then whispered, "As a lover." He was sure that his face was blushing a deep red and stared determinedly at the wall behind Berry's shoulder.

Berry's voice softened. "Do you want to see him through his first time?"

Merry felt the thrill that ran through his body at the thought and nodded, unwilling to risk even a whisper.

"Well, if you want to keep him safe until then, you're going to have to give him enough so that he stays with you. If he goes begging kisses from half the Shire, he may end up with a lot more than he's ready for. You know how charming he can be just with a smile, let alone a kiss." He laughed, but there was a bitter note in it. "You have no idea how hard it was to send him away last night. He had no idea what he was doing to me. If he weren't so young, and if I didn't suspect that he really wants you, I might have..."

He drew a deep breath and ran a hand through his hair, then continued. "Well, I didn't, so we won't worry about that. But there are quite a few out there who wouldn't refuse what they think he's offering, and it won't matter who he is, or who he's related to. If he had teased one of the Goodbody lads last night instead of me, he'd be sore and bloody this morning and there wouldn't be a thing that you or I could do about it."

Merry gulped. Berry was right: Pippin's single-mindedness when in pursuit of anything - be it stolen fruit, the perfect prank or information on whatever topic had taken his fancy - blinded him to any sign of danger. Now it looked as if Merry's determination not to give into Pippin's demands and his own desires was actually increasing the risk that Pippin would end up hurt.

"You're right. He's never coped well with being told no." His shoulders drooped a little. "But what can I do? How much can I give him without going too far? This morning... he... I... I mean, I do know how hard it was to say no..." I didn't want to stop...

Berilac heard Merry's distress and drew him in, letting his hands slide around Merry's waist. He pressed a kiss into the soft curls and pulled him a little closer. "Don't fret, love. He caught you by surprise this morning, didn't he?"

"Yes, he did. I almost lost control. I had him up against the wall before I realised what I had done." His lips on mine, his tongue in my mouth, his hands... Merry gave a little shiver as his body remembered the kiss.

Berry's arms tightened around him for a moment. "But you stopped?"

"Yes. It wasn't easy, but I... I just didn't want to hurt him."

"Well, that's good. Perhaps you shouldn't let him kiss you like that again. At least, not until you're ready to take it further."

"I won't." Take it further... feel his body under mine, taste his skin, hear him cry out... He shuddered again. "I can't risk it."

"So, there you are. He won't catch you by surprise again. As long as you are in control, he stays safe."

Merry grunted. "You make it sound so easy." But I want him so much...

"I know it's easy to say and harder to do. I've had a close call or two myself, though not for several years. I try to avoid the young and virginal now." He smiled quizzically. "I'd advise you to do the same but I know you won’t."

"Do you have any more good advice, O ancient one?"

"Plenty, fauntling. Don't undo any buttons and don't close your eyes." He dropped a kiss on Merry's nose.

"Berry, you're impossible! I'd hate you if I didn't love you so much." I could never hate you.

"Well, what use is my vast experience if I can't help my cousins from time to time? I can't have the old tabbies saying I'm good for nothing, now, can I?" He grinned. "Seriously, pet, make sure Pippin knows how you feel, don't hide it from him. Give him enough that he can know it with his heart as well as his head. Hold him close and kiss him sweetly and tell him you love him... and maybe let your hands wander over him occasionally." Berry let a hand drop down over his cousin's nicely-rounded bottom to illustrate his words, before returning it to waist height.

Merry giggled. "Just like that?" You were always a tease...

"Just like that."

Merry sighed and leaned into the embrace. It was good to feel strong arms around him; good to feel protected and cherished and loved. He had enjoyed his time with Berry, and missed the comfort and support he got from his older cousin. He smiled, then rested his head against Berry's shoulder as another kiss was pressed to his forehead. "Mmm, this feels good." You were always so warm.

"It does, doesn't it."

"Teaching by example?"

"Don't I always?"

"You do." Merry snuggled for a few seconds longer. "I miss you, sometimes." I miss the touch of your skin in the night.

"I miss you, too, pet."

"I always feel safe in your arms." He thought about that for a moment. "I suppose I should try to make Pippin feel safe." Can I keep him close and keep him safe, too?

"You should."

"But..." ...I'm scared of losing Pippin, the way you lost... He hadn't said that out loud, had he?

Berry hugged him a little more tightly, as if he'd heard what Merry hadn't said, then drew back so that they could look at each other. "I don't doubt you, Merry, and you shouldn't doubt yourself, or Pippin either. Don’t lose him by making him wait until the day he turns twenty, because he won't. You will be lovers one day - sooner than you want, and later than he wants. But if it happens a little early - well, let it happen. He loves you and he trusts you. I envy you that." He smiled a little sadly, then brought his hand up to caress Merry's cheek before kissing him gently on the lips.

"Hey, you two! The mistletoe is over here!" Pimpernel's shout triggered a chorus of giggles and groans from the tweens as they looked over and saw the two of them in what looked to be an intimate embrace.

They broke apart, laughing, and didn't see Pippin's tempestuous exit.

* * *

Pippin sulked for a day and a half and refused to talk to Merry at all, even through intermediaries; that those two days were Yule only made it worse. Vinca and Nel weren't too concerned, but then they tended to view a silent Pippin as a welcome change. None of the grown-ups appeared to notice, since they rarely saw the tweens in all the confusion that surrounded the festivities anyway, but Merry caught Aunt Egg looking at him oddly once or twice, and he kept well away from her.

In the end, it was Berry who talked Pippin around.

Second Yule was a fine day, though the temperature was below freezing. Several hobbits, mainly the younger, more energetic ones, had decided to skate on the frozen duckpond and others were riding sleds down the snow-covered slopes of Buck Hill.

Merry had put his skates on, at Mentha's urging, and had even taken a turn around the pond with her, but when she went over to join Melilot he stayed behind and skated slowly around the perimeter by himself. His head was bowed in thought, and collisions were avoided only because he was moving so slowly that the others were able to skate around him.

"Hoy! Merry!" Berry's call startled him and he almost lost his balance as he spun around. Berry was standing on the snow beside the pond with Pippin beside him, both of them bundled up in warm coat and gloves. Merry cast a questioning look at Berry as he glided up to them.

"Pippin here has something to say to you," Berry said, giving Pippin's shoulder a comforting squeeze. "Lend me your skates so I can take a turn about the pond while you're talking. There must be some people here I haven't flirted with yet, and I'd hate to disappoint the aunts."

Merry grinned and took a couple of careful steps off the ice before undoing the buckles that held the skates onto his feet. In a trice, Berry had put them on his own feet and was pushing off confidently, the blades hissing as he built up speed.

Merry turned to Pippin and waited. Pippin was watching Berry as he weaved between the other skaters, perfectly balanced, every movement graceful. Only when he was lost to view behind the others did Pippin turn back to the cousin beside him and speak.

"I'm sorry I was angry with you."

"I'm sorry, too." Merry's voice was guarded.

"Berry said you were just upset."

"Yes, I was."

"He said you're not tumbling him."

"No, I'm not." Merry wasn't all that sure where this conversation was leading, but since he didn't want to upset Pippin any more he stayed silent.

They watched the skaters for a few more minutes, until Pippin asked, "Can we be friends again?"

"Yes, of course we can." Merry felt the weight of the world fall off him and gave a huge smile as Pippin's gloved hand crept into his. "Why don't we go back inside?" he continued. "I still have some Yule cake from yesterday." He started to walk off but, to his surprise, Pippin didn't move.

"I'm not a child, you know. You can't make everything better just by giving me sweets - or cake."

Merry stopped, confused by Pippin's outburst. He considered his words carefully before speaking. "I didn't mean it that way. I'm hungry, after all this skating, and it's hours until tea-time. I have cake in my room and I want to share it with you. That's all."

"Oh." Pippin considered it for a moment, then stepped forward, and they started off. "Cake would be nice. I'm hungry, too."

"You're always hungry, Pips-... Pippin."

Pippin glanced at him. "You were going to say 'Pipsqueak', weren't you?"

"Yes, I was. But I didn't."

"I'm glad you didn't. I'm not a pipsqueak any more, anyway. I'm almost as tall as you are."

"I know. And you're still growing."

"I might end up taller than you."

"You might, at that. It would take some getting used to, though." Privately, Merry hoped that Pippin would never be taller than him - it just wouldn't feel right.

"Oh, you'd get used to it. Then I could look after you for a change."

"You don't have to be taller than me to look after me, you know."

"I know," Pippin grinned, "but I like to think about it."

"Being taller than me, or looking after me?"

"Both!"

"Well, at least there's one thing I can be sure of," muttered Merry, "you'll always be eight years younger than me."

They reached the Hall and ran up the stairs to Merry's room, where he brought out the cake and divided it in two.

Fifteen seconds later Pippin, licking the last bit of stickiness from his fingers, asked, "Do you love Cousin Berry?"

Merry, fishing around in the tin for crumbs, looked up, startled. "No. Why?"

"You kissed him."

"So did you."

"He had his hand on your bottom."

There was an edge to Pippin's voice and Merry rolled his eyes in exasperation. "Oy, Pip. I didn't do any more with Berry than you did. Probably less."

"But you've lain with him."

"Years ago."

"You still want him."

"No, I don't."

"Liar."

Merry paused. If he were honest... "Well, yes, just a little. He was good to me when we were together, and he's still one of my best friends and favourite cousins. But I haven't lain with him for ages and I doubt I will again."

"Why not?"

"Because..." Merry's voice trailed off. How on earth could he explain something as complex as the history he shared with Berry? And even that wouldn't answer Pippin's question, because the real reason had nothing at all to do with Berry. He thought about it for a second or two, wondering if it was wise to go on, then remembered what Berry had said and reached for Pippin's hand. Pippin, of all people, needed to know the reason why. "Because I love you."

Pippin was as still as a statue, his eyes wide, as if he couldn't believe what he was hearing.

"Pip..." Merry pulled on Pippin's hand, drawing him closer. "I do love you. I've loved you for a long time, but I didn't know it until two days ago, when you kissed me. It was a bit of a shock."

"How can you love someone and not know it?" Pippin was genuinely curious.

"I don't know. I really don't. Maybe I didn't let myself know it, because it would have made me think about tumbling you, and it would been torment, wanting you and not being able to have you."

"You want to tumble me?" Pippin's half-anxious, half-eager question sent a thrill through Merry's body and he realised that this was the real crux of the matter. Two days before, Pippin had made his declaration and Merry had never answered him; Pippin had no way of knowing if Merry wanted him or not and yet had still made the offer to be friends again. That took courage. At the very least, he deserved to know that he was old enough to be desired, even if he was not yet old enough to be tumbled. He deserved to know how much Merry wanted him.

Merry reached over and pulled Pippin into his arms. "Pippin, my own." His face was buried in Pippin's hair and his voice was husky. "I love you. I want you. I think about you all the time. I dream about you and I wake up aching for you. I want to kiss you and touch you and lie with you, and I'm going to go mad in the next two years because I can't tumble you until you turn twenty."

Pippin shivered at Merry's words. "You could tumble me now," he whispered, inching forward and wrapping his arms around his cousin.

"No, I can't. Seriously, Pippin, I can't. I shouldn't even kiss you."

"Why not?"

"Because you don't know what you're asking for. You don't know how things change when you lie with someone." He straightened up, cupping Pippin's face between his hands.

Pippin looked at him. "How can things change that much?"

"They just do. It's as if the whole world turns upside down. Things that were important before don't matter and things that were trivial suddenly become important. You can quarrel over something as silly as which piece of cake to have first."

Pippin smiled. "But cake is important."

"Not as important as love and trust and honesty." He looked into Pippin's eyes, trying to tell him, without words, just how much love was waiting for him.

Pippin looked back. "You really love me?"

"I really love you." Merry knew he shouldn’t do anything more, but he couldn't help it: he slid a hand behind Pippin's head and kissed him, sweetly, softly, barely parting his lips. When he pulled away, Pippin tried to follow, almost losing his balance. "Pippin, love," Merry held him up and wrapped both arms around him. "You are the most beautiful lad in all the Shire, did you know that?"

Pippin looked down, embarrassed. Merry kissed the flushed cheek, then tilted Pippin's chin and kissed the perfect lips, first the upper, then the lower, then both.

"I'll lie with you when you're old enough, my sweet, and not before. But I will kiss you, and I'll hold you, and I'll tell you how much I love you, every day that we are together. And... I won't lie with anyone else while I'm waiting for you."

"Promise?"

"Promise."

Pippin eyes shone. "And I'll tell you how much I love you. Which is a lot."

"I'd like that."

They sat in silence for a while, arms around each other, until the light faded and they realised it was time for tea. Merry sent Pippin on ahead and stayed to close the shutters and light a small candle. He couldn't help smiling as he watched the tiny flame come to life.

Pippin was different; and now he knew why.

* * *

With anyone else, that conversation would have settled the issue, but not with Pippin: a Took could be as stubborn as a terrier after a rat when he wanted something, and Pippin was the very epitome of a Took.

Sure enough, the night before the he was due to leave, Pippin's goodnight kiss turned demanding and his eyes were dark as he drew back for air.

"I want to lie with you tonight."

Merry sighed again. This really wasn't getting any easier. "No. When you're old enough."

"But - "

"But nothing. I've told you. I love you and I will kiss you and hold you but I won't tumble you until you're old enough. Do you understand that?"

"No." Pippin's voice was still quiet, but the anger in it was clear. "Why aren't I old enough now? I know how it's done and I want to do it. I do lots of things that other hobbit-lads don't do until they're older. I help with the accounts, and I take messages around Tuckborough for Father, and I helped with the harvest last summer - with the hay, mind you, not just the fruit-picking. So why is this different?"

"Because it is." Merry sighed, trying to think of a way he could explain it. He took one of Pippin's hands and pressed a kiss into the palm. "Look Pip, as long as we've known each other, you've heard my mum and your mum tell me to look after you and not to get you into trouble. They trust me to look after you."

"And you do."

"And I do. Mostly. But don't you see - if I tumble you now, if people learn that we're lying together, they'll think that I've broken that trust. They'll say that I'm a bad influence and they'll separate us, perhaps forever."

Pippin looked alarmed. "They wouldn't!"

"They might." It had been done before, and from Brandy Hall, too, but Merry wasn't going to tell him that now.

Pippin was silent for a few minutes. The expression on his face showed that he had not thought of Merry's predicament in quite this way before. "I hadn't thought of any of that."

"That's because thinking about the consequences has always been my job. And maybe that's another reason for them to worry. You have to start thinking things through for yourself, not just acting on impulse, or relying on me to get you out of trouble. If you want to be treated like a tween you have to start behaving as a tween, not as a child."

Pippin looked mulish for a moment. Merry pulled him into another hug. Pippin resisted for a minute, but then wrapped his arms around Merry's waist.

"I love you, Merry." Pippin's voice held a smile and Merry relaxed.

"I love you too, Pip."

"I'll try to behave."

"Good."

"And I'll try to think ahead."

"That will make life easier for all of us."

"But that will all be very hard work and I'll need lots of encouragement." He was teasing now and Merry looked at him suspiciously.

"What sort of encouragement?"

Pippin beamed at him. "Kisses. Lots of kisses. And hugs. And letters, when we are apart."

"Hugs and kisses when we are together, letters when we are apart." Merry smiled fondly. "If you were a girl, people would say we were courting. Are you sure you don't want flowers? Ribbons for your hair? A new dress?"

Pippin scowled. "I'm not a girl and I was being serious."

"I'm sorry, love. I know you were. I'll write you a letter every chance I get. And you must write to me, too. It'll be good practice for you."

"I will." Pippin sighed. "Can I put pictures in mine?"

"Yes, of course you can, as long as you write a lot of words, too. A picture signed 'with love from Pippin' on it does not count as a letter."

"Not even if it's true?"

"No, not even then."

"Bully."

"Only for your own good."

"Why is it that only unpleasant things are done for your own good?"

"Only the unpleasant things have to be explained. I never have to convince you to eat for your own good, do I?"

"No." Pippin's stomach gave an impossibly well-timed grumble and Merry burst out laughing.

"Come on, then, Pipsqueak - sorry, Pippin-my-love - let's get you some supper."

* * *

The next day, as Merry watched the Took carriage start off on the two-day journey back to Tuckborough, he wondered what this year would bring to them all.

 

 

Frolic the Second: Vernal Equinox

In which Pippin, miraculously, restrains himself.

Brandy Hall, Buckland - Rethe 1408 SR

Rorimac Brandybuck, Master of Buckland for 45 years, died on Rethe 25th, three days before the vernal equinox. He was 102, a good age for a hobbit, and had been generally well-respected and well-liked, for his financial acumen, his good sense and his devotion to the land. As the riders were sent out, Brandy Hall turned to and prepared to give the Old Master as good a sending off as any that had been seen in the Shire.

At Great Smials, the news was received with consternation as well as grief, for it could not have come at a worse time. Thain Ferumbras III was still recovering from an attack of winter ague and, although the attack had been mild, it had left him weak and not yet fit to travel. Paladin was caught between the lambing, sowing and Quarter Day on 1st Astron, when rents were due. Eglantine and Pervinca were in Michel Delving with Pearl, who had miscarried a month after Yule and was still unwell. That left either Pimpernel, who was happy with her place as temporary Mistress of Tookland and did not want to go to Buckland, or Peregrin, who could hardly be considered a proper representative of the Thain for such a serious occasion.

Paladin was close to tearing his hair out when Cousin Adalgrim came to the rescue.

"Go to Buckland, Pal," Adalgrim said, clasping his cousin's shoulder. "You know Esme will want you there. Let me handle the rents and see to any problems. It's only for a week, and I'll have the youngsters to help."

Nel was pleased: she had been afraid that her father would make her go, and she didn't want to relinquish her new-found place a minute before it was necessary. Pippin, on the other hand, asked to go to Buckland with his father, saying, "You know Merry will be sad, too. I could cheer him up."

Paladin thought about it. The boys had always been close, and there was no doubt that if anyone could console Merry at this sad time it would be Peregrin. There was much to be said for cousins after all - he remembered how much he had been comforted by Adalgrim when his own father had died thirty years ago.

After some consideration, he consented. "Very well, Pippin, you may come. But mind you behave! This is no time to be tormenting Merry with any of your tricks."

Pippin promised, resolutely putting aside all thoughts of how much he wanted to tumble with Merry and concentrating instead on how best he could comfort his cousin in ways that did not involve deep kisses, hands roaming over smooth skin and inconvenient clothes left in piles on the floor. After a couple of hours he came to the conclusion that there weren't any such ways and retreated to privacy of the bathroom.

They set off early the next morning, and made a fast journey, just the two of them on ponies, travelling cross-country to the East Road and then halting at Whitfurrows for the night.

They arrived at Brandy Hall in the mid-afternoon of 28th Rethe and were greeted by Esme. Paladin hugged his sister closely, and then they were taken to Saradoc, who was in the Master's study with Meriadoc.

An onlooker would have found an interesting parallel in the way that Saradoc approached Paladin and Merry went straight to Pippin. After hugs and condolences had been exchanged, the two men settled down to serious talk about liquid assets, accounts due and accounts rendered. Merry looked tired and was obviously relieved to be given an excuse to leave the sombre atmosphere of the study to help Pippin unload the ponies and get them to the stables.

"Has it been absolutely awful?"

"Worse," said Merry. "My father has supposedly been helping grandfather with the management of Buckland for the last ten years, but it seems that there was a lot that he wasn't told, and now he's realising that Buckland isn't quite as well-off as he thought it was. But that's not a problem that should concern us today."

They caught up with the day-to-day news as they were carrying bags. Paladin had been allocated his usual room, since Saradoc had never doubted that he would come, but Pippin's usual room had been given to an elderly relative who had travelled down from Scary.

"It doesn't matter, I can sleep anywhere, even in the stables if you have nowhere else." Pippin was not concerned - it would be the ideal excuse for him to share Merry's bed.

"I could set up a pallet in my room if you like," offered Merry.

"A pallet?" That was not what Pippin had been expecting to hear. "Can't I share your bed like I did at Great Uncle Saradas's funeral last year?"

"It's different now, Pip," said Merry. "You know it is."

"I don't see why it should be."

"Don't you remember what happened at Yule?"

"Of course I remember. I simply said that I don't see why we shouldn't share a bed. But-" he hurried to forestall Merry's objections "- I know that you don't agree, and I promised Father that I wouldn't tease you or play tricks on you, so if you say that I have to sleep on a pallet, or in the servants' wing, or in the stable, then I won't complain. Well, not much."

Merry had to grin. "And I promise that I won't make you sleep in the stable. I'll have a pallet brought in here, and at least we can talk."

"If talking is all I'm allowed to do, then that's what I'll do. Though," Pippin added, "I won't be at all happy if I don't get at least one kiss a day."

"One kiss a day it is - but fully dressed and standing up."

"If you think that could stop me if I really wanted to..." Pippin's voice trailed off. "Oh, well, fully dressed and standing up. But it has to be a proper kiss, not just a touch on the lips."

"A proper kiss."

"And I want my first kiss right now."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes. All this talking about it..."

Merry laughed. "My poor cousin. Come here, then." He opened his arms and Pippin went into them willingly.

Their lips touched softly at first, then the kiss deepened as they both opened their mouths, allowing tongues to slip past lips and teeth, both of them still astonished at the breadth of the sensations that could be encompassed in each kiss.

Merry pulled back first, only to rest his head on Pippin's shoulder. Pippin's arms were wrapped tightly around him, keeping him close.

"I'm glad you're here, Pippin-love," he said softly.

"I'll always be here for you. I'll keep you safe." Pippin saw nothing amusing in what he had said and was startled and somewhat put out to see Merry smiling. "What is it?"

"Peregrin Took promising to keep me safe... Who was it who accidentally got us locked in the third cellar last spring? Who was it who suggested that we "sample" the prize peaches at the Mid-Year's Day show last summer? Who -?" His voice was muffled by Pippin's lips, firm and warm on his own. He couldn't help but allow the kiss, even if it did mean that Pippin had got the better of him yet again.

As he pulled away, reluctantly, he looked into Pippin's eyes - now almost at his own level - and sighed. "I can't believe you love me, sometimes. I don't know what I ever did to deserve it."

"Don't you? Oh, there are lots of things." Pippin laughed, his serious mood disappearing in an instant. "Let's see... you played with me when I was little, and you were never mean to me, even when it took me so long to learn to read, and you taught me to swim, and you helped me to ride again after Caramel threw me, and you never let Vinca or Nel hit me when you were there, and you stopped Gandalf turning me into a frog when I tried to steal his staff, and you always saved the last piece of pudding for me, and everything good in my life comes from you." Pippin raised his head and kissed Merry on the nose. "So there."

So that was it.

* * *

The next day was spent in more preparations and looking after the hobbits who had come from far and wide to pay their respects to the old Master. Brandybuck relatives were pouring in from all over the Shire, from Standelf and Newbury in Buckland, of course, and Rushey in the Marish, but also Scary and Oatbarton and Nobottle and even Michel Delving.

Frodo Baggins had sent word that he would attend, though he planned to stay at the inn at Stock with the more distant relatives, rather than at Brandy Hall as he was entitled to as Rorimac's nephew.

"...and if that doesn't stir up all the old gossip, I don't know what else will!" said Saradoc to Esme that night.

"Well, you can hardly blame him for harbouring some resentment. They both went through some bad years, and neither of them has settled.

"They hold good positions now. Surely they can't hold a grudge over something that happened nearly twenty years ago? They don't even like each other any more!"

Esmeralda looked at her husband. There were times when he could be quite oblivious to the emotional undercurrents that swirled through the hall. "That's precisely my point."

"I don't understand."

"Never mind, dear. I doubt that it will be important tomorrow."

Saradoc grunted, and got into bed.

* * *

Merimac, Rorimac's second son, arrived from Michel Delving very early on the morning of the funeral. To Pippin's disappointment, he said that he had left Berilac behind to finish a tricky piece of negotiation. He also brought condolences from the mayor and several other hobbits who were unable to make the long journey.

The interment proceeded without incident, all the proper words being spoken and the weather remaining appropriately sombre without raining. Afterwards, the family returned to the main hall, where a cold collation had been set out.

There must have been at least two hundred hobbits milling around, eating and drinking, talking in low voices and occasionally crying. Those who had come from the farther reaches of the Shire took the opportunity to catch up with old friends and acquaintances, and gradually the tone of the conversations grew warmer and more convivial.

Esmeralda greeted Frodo with a hug and a kiss. "Welcome back, dear."

Frodo looked discomfited. "I'm sorry, Esme," he muttered.

"Don't be sorry. You had your reasons and I don't blame you for staying away. I only hope that now he's gone you might visit once in a while."

"That might depend on Saradoc."

Esmeralda made a sound that, in anyone less beautiful and elegant, would have been described as a snort. "Saradoc will welcome you back, if he knows what's good for him. It's high time and more that this was all put behind us. You're a Brandybuck as well as a Baggins and you belong here."

Frodo smiled his thanks.

"But, Frodo..."

"Yes?"

"Merimac and Berilac belong here as well. Make your peace with them."

"I never had a quarrel with Berry, well, not precisely. But Merimac..." his voice trailed off.

"You know he didn't do it out of spite. He honestly believed he was doing it for the best."

Frodo's fists clenched and his voice grated as he said, "I can't forgive him, Esme, I just can't."

Esme sighed. "Well, dear, all I ask is that you don't make a scene. Not today."

Frodo nodded and forced his hands to relax. "I'll behave myself."

"Good lad," she chuckled, deliberately using the tone of voice Frodo remembered well from his first year at Brandy Hall.

Frodo laughed and hugged her. "I have missed you, Esme."

"And I've missed you too. Now, get along with you and let me see to Aunt Ermengilda - she's about to fall out of her chair again." She moved off, leaving Frodo to marvel at her efficiency.

He turned around and found himself face to face with Merimac. Bearing Esmeralda's words in mind, and making allowance for the fact that his cousin had just lost his father, Frodo summoned up all his self-control and greeted him politely.

"My condolences, Cousin Merimac."

"Aye." Merimac looked just as uncomfortable as Frodo felt, and he wondered briefly if Esme had given strict instructions to Merimac as well. He wouldn't put it past her.

"How are things in Michel Delving?"

"Getting on, getting on."

"How is Berry?"

"He's well. Doing fine with the business."

"I expected he would be here."

Merimac coloured slightly. "Aye, well, that is... couldn't spare him. Tricky bit of negotiation, you know. Wool."

Frodo raised an eyebrow. "Indeed? It's good to see such dedication. Let him know that I was asking after him."

Merimac looked even more uncomfortable, but said, "Aye, I'll do that." After a brief pause the two hobbits nodded at each other and turned away, and if either one heard the other's sigh of relief, he didn't let on.

While Saradoc and Merimac received the repeated condolences of their relatives and friends, Esme circled the room making sure that the older hobbits were being looked after and that everyone had enough to eat. Cold collation or not, there was every expectation that a good spread would be provided, and no hope at all that grief would diminish any true hobbit's appetite.

Merry alternated between standing with his father and circulating with his mother. Pippin stood by him for most of the time, when he wasn't standing with Paladin, and was impressed by the degree of self-control that Merry was exhibiting in the face of extremely trying remarks. If it wasn't one elderly relative saying that Merry was the spitting image of his father at the same age (which he wasn't), it was another predicting that he would soon be so immersed in Buckland work that his tweenage years should be considered over (which, Saradoc had assured his son, would not be the case).

Inevitably, though, it was Great-Aunt Asphodel who delivered the final blow, when she told him that he should be looking for a young hobbit-lass to court so that Esme could take her in hand and train her up as the mistress-in-waiting. Pippin was almost overcome with nausea at the prospect, and he could see that Merry was just as badly affected. He watched Merry make a visible effort to give a courteous reply, but wasn't surprised to see Merry making his excuses and hurrying out of the hall seconds later. After glaring at the old crone, Pippin wandered around the room for a few minutes until he judged he could make his own escape relatively unobserved.

He hurried up the stairs and into Merry's room. Merry was face down on the bed, crying. He didn't look up. Pippin closed the door behind him, saying "It's only me," and climbed up onto the bed. He sat beside the prone form, hoping that Merry wouldn't tell him to go away. He ran his fingers through the soft brown locks, remembering how his mother did this to him when he had been upset or ill. He had always found it soothing, and he hoped that it would be of some comfort to Merry.

It seemed to do the trick. After a few minutes, Merry sat up and Pippin looked at him, concern and love in his face. He opened his arms and Merry didn't hesitate, leaning forward and resting his head on Pippin's shoulder.

"I'm glad you're here. I wanted to be alone, but I'm glad you're here." Merry was crying again, and Pippin held him close, murmuring reassurances into his ear and rubbing his back soothingly, as one would a child, hoping that he could make Merry feel safe and warm and loved. He didn't care that tears were soaking into his jacket, or that he was sitting in a very uncomfortable position. Merry needed him, and Merry was all that mattered.

Some time later Merry felt sufficiently recovered to get up and wash his face in preparation for returning downstairs. Pippin followed, slowly, feeling unsettled. This was the second time this year that he had found himself giving comfort to Merry, instead of the other way around. He was glad that he was able to help his cousin, but it was a disturbance of the natural order of things that he had known all his life, and he wasn't sure how to cope with it, or how to adapt to the change. It made him realise that he was growing up. The problem was that he had always thought of being grown-up as something wonderful, when he would be able to do anything he wanted to do, and would not have to answer to anyone. Now that he was approaching adulthood - or, at least, tweenhood - he was beginning to see that the constraints on adults were just as binding, if not as visible, as those on children.

They reached the main hall and found Frodo about to leave, saying he had some business to transact in Bywater the next day. Saradoc had not looked pleased, but had not tried to stop him.

Esme looked sympathetic and gave him another big hug. "Remember what I said, Frodo. Come back soon."

Frodo nodded. "I will. I just need to get used to the idea again." He turned to Merry and Pippin and hugged them in turn before mounting the sturdy chestnut pony he had hired for the journey. He rode off towards the ferry, wrapping his cloak close around him as the rain started to fall.

* * *

The next day, the two cousins talked the cook into providing a picnic basket and took off for the hills to the east of Brandy Hall. They stopped at a rocky outcropping and climbed up to the very top. From there they could see the Hedge, stretching out like a dark green river in front of them, and the Old Forest beyond.

They reminisced about the time they had stolen the key to the gate and had become lost in the Forest, being rescued by Old Rory, Saradoc and a few others. That was a memory both painful and sweet, for though they had both been soundly thrashed, they had also been made to clean out some of the deepest burrows within the Hall, and that had been nearly as much of an adventure as their forest excursion had been. Not only had they found old furniture, clothes, and mathoms galore, they had also spent nearly a whole week in each other's company and it was then that Pippin had decided that he liked Merry more than he did all his other cousins put together.

Merry had told him stories as they worked: tales that had fascinated him and made the week pass far too quickly. Some of them were Bilbo's tales of far-off lands, with elves and dwarves and treasure. Others were Merry's own, tales of hobbits long gone, conjured up from the clothes and journals and odd little items that they found in their travails. Pippin had enjoyed them all, and had returned to that week in his memory time and time again.

They sat on the grass for a long time after they had finished eating, lying back and looking up at the clouds. The air was cool, but they were sheltered from the worst of the wind in the hollow, and their thick woollen cloaks kept them warm. Patches of blue sky appeared from time to time, but most of the sky remained ominously grey.

Pippin suddenly thought of a question that had been puzzling him since the day before. "Why doesn't Cousin Frodo like Uncle Merimac?"

There was no answer. Pippin looked over at Merry, to find that he had fallen asleep. He reached over to prod him awake, then hesitated. Merry looked so tired; Pippin wondered just how long it had been since Merry had had a good night's sleep. While awake, he had managed to disguise it to some extent by the vivacity of his expression, but here, in repose, he looked exhausted. The shadows under his eyes looked like bruises and Pippin frowned to see them. Merry looked so vulnerable, so fragile. It wasn't right: his Merry was made for laughing and singing, not for sorrow. He felt an odd surge of emotion within him: a desire to protect Merry, to keep him safe, to make sure that he had the chance to sing and dance and laugh again.

So, instead of prodding him awake, Pippin snuggled down beside him. Merry stirred, then rolled towards the warmth, and Pippin found himself with an armful of sleepy hobbit and no room to move. He sighed, wriggled one arm out so that he could wrap it around Merry, and decided that there were worse ways to spend an afternoon.

He woke perhaps an hour later to find Merry looking down at him. "Hello, love," he smiled up at his beloved's face. "Did you sleep well?"

Merry smiled back. "Yes, I did. I could ask the same of you."

"Oh, I slept as well as I was able, seeing as I had a great lump of a hobbit on my chest. Oof! Get off, you big oaf! No, no! Don't move!" Too late, Pippin realised that for one brief second Merry had been lying right on top of him.

Merry laughed and sat up again. "Missed your chance, Pipsqueak."

"Not fair." Pippin looked at Merry in disgust, then looked past him to the clouds rolling in. "Oh, dear. I think we'd better head back - it's going to be raining soon."

Merry turned his head, then nodded in agreement. He could see the rain falling from the clouds that were heading towards them, and it would take a good hour to get back to Brandy Hall.

"You're right - let's pack up and set off."

They almost made it, getting caught about ten minutes before they reached the Hall. The rain was heavy and was accompanied by a malevolent wind that made their cloaks all but useless: they were nearly soaked through by the time they got to the nearest door. Doffing their cloaks and leaving the baskets in the vestibule, they hurried into the main hall where there was a fire. Esmeralda scolded them for staying out in the rain, but bundled them off for a hot bath as soon as they had stopped dripping on the floor.

Most of the guests had departed, leaving only close family - Merimac, Paladin and a few others. The evening meal was quiet, but not too gloomy, and when the adults retired once more to the study, Pippin decided he couldn't be bothered fighting his yawns any more. He headed for Merry's room and started to pack his bags ready for the morning.

Merry came in a few minutes later. He stood beside his cousin until Pippin looked up, smiling, then gripped his shoulder. "Thank you for coming here, Pippin. I know I haven't been much company, but I'm really glad that you came."

Pippin put his arms around Merry's waist and smiled at him. "And I'm glad that I was able to help a little. I do love you, you know, and I hate seeing you unhappy." He kissed Merry softly on the lips, lingering there as he was reminded of the unique taste that Merry had.

Merry leaned on him, taking every ounce of comfort that Pippin offered. He pulled back after a minute, then hugged Pippin more closely.

"I love you, Pippin," he whispered.

"I love you, too," he heard.

They stood there for a very long time, until Pippin was convinced that Merry had fallen asleep standing up.

"Merry, are you asleep?"

"No." Merry smiled, releasing him, "but you felt very good."

"Hmm. That's the second time today you've used me for a pillow. I don't suppose..."

"No, I'm not making it three times. And it's about time you went to bed, to sleep. You have a long day tomorrow."

"Do I get a goodnight kiss?"

"You've just had a kiss."

"It wasn't a goodnight kiss though. I've been so good, Merry, don't I deserve a reward? Just one more kiss? I promise I won't tease. Just push me up against the wall here so I can feel you."

Merry considered it. "You have been good. And, Lady help me, I need to feel you, too."

Merry pushed Pippin gently up against the wall and placed himself squarely in front of the slim body. He pressed forward, chest, belly and groin making contact. He took his time, placing kisses on Pippin's eyes, cheeks, nose and chin before beginning a slow, sensuous exploration of his mouth. Pippin became aroused in seconds and his fists clutched convulsively behind Merry's back, but, true to his word, he didn't push forward or try to take control of the kiss, though it cost him an immense effort. Instead, he concentrated on enjoying everything that Merry was giving him. It wasn't quite what he wanted, but it was almost enough... for now.

The kiss lasted until Merry couldn't ignore the evidence of their arousal any longer. He pulled back at last, moving instead to touch their foreheads together.

"Two years..." Merry whispered.

"I can't wait two years," whispered Pippin.

"We have to."

Pippin didn't answer. He had no intention at all of waiting until he turned twenty, but it was useless trying to explain that to Merry now. And he had promised Merry and his father that he wouldn't tease. Instead, he tipped his head sideways and stole a third kiss from Merry's lips, not teasing, but tender and sweet.

"Love you, Pip."

"Love you, Merry."

"Go to bed."

"In a minute."

"Now."

"One more kiss?"

"There." Merry kissed him on the forehead. "One more kiss. And so to bed."

Pippin pouted for a moment, then removed his arms from Merry's waist and wandered over to the bed, undoing his shirt buttons... very slowly.

Merry grunted and turned away, reaching for his own nightshirt. Having changed, swiftly and pragmatically, he cast a quick glance back at Pippin. "Ready?"

Pippin was also in his nightshirt, folding his clothes.

"Yes! Always!" he exclaimed, but on seeing Merry's face, he sighed dramatically, saying, "But I suppose I'll have to go to sleep instead."

Merry groaned and Pippin laughed. Merry really had to start paying more attention to what he was saying.

 

 

Frolic the Third: Lithe

In which Pippin finds that restraining himself isn't half so much fun as restraining Merry.

Great Smials, Tookborough - 28 Forelithe 1408 SR

It was the week before Overlithe and a day before the Master of Buckland was due at the Smials with an assorted selection of family members. Pippin was sitting on a window-ledge, almost hidden by curtains and the high-backed chairs of the Green Parlour, partly dozing and partly listening to his sisters Pimpernel and Pearl chatting in a desultory fashion as they worked. Pearl was pregnant again and was busy creating a vast number of exquisitely-knitted baby garments, while Nel was occupied in the far more mundane task of hemming sheets.

Pippin stared out of the window at the iron-grey sky and wondered how far away Merry was now. With every hour that passed, the ache inside him grew more intense, and he longed for Merry's touch, for his kiss, for the smile that told him Merry loved him.

He sighed and tried again to concentrate on the book that he had been holding in his hand for the last hour, but it was no use, and his gaze drifted out to the green hills that surrounded his home. He hoped that the rain would stop soon. It had been a cool wet spring, good for the crops, but now they needed two or three weeks of dry weather to get the hay in.

In addition to that, a wet Overlithe would mean that the Tooks' Overlithe Party would have to be held inside, and that would not be nearly as good as a party held out on the Lawn (which was, in fact, the gently sloping hillside in front of the main burrow of The Smials). There was more room to move outside, more room for dancing and running around and playing hide-and-seek, and more opportunity for tweens and adults to slip away into the trees for a little privacy.

He was pulled away from his thoughts by the rush of footsteps. Pervinca came running into the room, almost helpless with laughter. "Oh, Nel, I just heard the most diverting thing! I had to come and tell you!"

"What's that?"

"Amaryllis Proudfoot is in love with Berry Brandybuck!"

Nel snorted. "More fool her. Doesn't she know?"

"Obviously not. She said she's determined to get a kiss from him at Overlithe."

"Berry? She'd have to tie him down first. I don't think he's kissed a girl in ten years."

"Maybe she meant Merry, not Berry." Pearl spoke almost absently, preoccupied with her knitting.

Nel and Vinca looked at each other. Pearl had been in Michel Delving with her husband's family the previous Yule and hadn't seen what had passed between Merry and Berry in the back parlour... or between Merry and Pippin in almost every other room when they had thought no one was looking.

"I don't think she did, Pearl," Vinca said slowly, and Nel frowned. "She was talking about how much she likes his dark curls." Nel relaxed.

"Well, he is indecently handsome. I daresay I'd kiss him myself, if he were tied down." Pearl smiled fondly, then started counting stitches again.

Nel and Vinca stared at Pearl, then at each other, then both burst out laughing. Nel threw her sewing to the floor and raced outside to torment poor Amaryllis. Vinca stayed only long enough to pick up the linen and deposit it on the chair, then ran outside as well. Pearl shook her head at their antics and continued knitting.

Pippin took the opportunity to slip out of the window unnoticed and went for a walk down to the river, ignoring the light drizzle that had started to fall. He was glad that Nel and Vinca hadn't given him away, but, more importantly, he was thinking about what they had said. It gave him food for thought.

Pippin was not happy with how little time he had been able to spend with Merry over the last six months. Apart from the week of Grandfather Rory's funeral, they had only had the odd market day or family birthday together. He had asked to spend the summer at Brandy Hall, but his father, who was taking on more and more of the Thain's responsibilities from Cousin Ferumbras, had decided to keep him in Tuckborough instead. Merry was busy too, accompanying his father on his visits around Buckland, learning land management and leadership in the same way that his father had before him.

The few times that he and Merry had been together had been very pleasant. True to his word, Merry had hugged and kissed Pippin, and had occasionally let him do a little more. Although what they did had felt wonderful, Pippin wanted to do more exploring, especially of warm bare skin, and Merry wasn't as cooperative about that. He was also very careful about not touching Pippin in places that he particularly wanted to be touched, which sometimes made him smile and sometimes made him sigh.

It just didn't make sense. He knew he loved Merry; he knew that Merry loved him. He knew that Merry desired him - the evidence was unmistakable at times - and he couldn't understand why Merry still said no. It was getting more and more difficult to stop when Merry told him to stop. He wanted more. He wanted it all.

He was tired of waiting.

He sighed. He was Peregrin Took, and Peregrin Took was not used to waiting. In his short life, he had found that there was very little that he couldn't obtain by asking, cajoling or outwitting. He could talk the cooks into giving him the choicest treats from the kitchen, or the dairymaids into giving him fresh milk from the cows before breakfast, or Vinca into stealing Nel's journal so they could read about the Nobottle lad she had fancied last summer (he'd also talked Vinca into sneaking it back into Nel's room, which was when she had got caught, of course). His charm and bright grin had enabled him to avoid punishment for some of the most outrageous tricks in his repertoire, though not, unfortunately, all of them.

If he could do all that, why could he not cajole Merry into lying with him? The problem had worried at him for the last few weeks, since his father had decided that this year there would be an Overlithe party. The Tooks' parties were renowned and none more so than Overlithe, when hobbits large and small, high and low, rich and poor, revelled in the day that belonged to no week or month and all the normal rules were seemingly forgotten. The Brandybucks would be there, he knew, and Burrows and Bolgers and Boffins and some of the less irritating Bracegirdles. Even his reclusive Cousin Frodo would be there.

Overlithe would be the ideal opportunity to convince Merry that it was the right time for them. And if Merry proved resistant to logical argument or to cajolery, that left him only one option - outwitting - and, thanks to his sisters, he now had an idea how to go about it.

He made his way back to his room and turned out all the drawers and cupboards, trying to find something that he could use. It had to be strong enough - but soft enough - and long enough - but not too long - not too thick - but not too thin either - and of course he really needed two of them.

Hmm... nothing at all suitable. He left the room and wandered through the Smials, taking care to avoid being seen by anyone who might give him some task to do. He searched high and low, but it was a couple of hours before he came across the very thing, in the laundry of all places: strips of linen torn from old, worn-out sheets and made into bandages. Of course: Nel had been hemming new sheets to replace them.

He took two of the bandages and hid them in his jacket, then sneaked back to this room. There was no point in setting up today - he would have to wait a day or two until he could be sure it was going to work. And, to be fair, he would give Merry another chance first.

* * *

The weather started to clear the next day and the sun was shining when Pippin saw the Buckland carriages draw up to The Smials, overflowing with Brandybucks large and small. As Merry jumped down from his pony and raised a hand to assist his mother, Pippin decided that he was right to make the most of this visit: the Master and his family were only here for a few days either side of the Lithe festival, and after that it would be several weeks, if not months, before they would see each other again. If fate was unkind, it might not be until Yule, and that would be far too long.

"Hello there, young Pip," the deep booming voice of his Uncle Saradoc carried across the courtyard with ease.

"Hello, Uncle," Pippin called out as he ran across to be enveloped in warm hugs. "Father's in the study and mother's -"

"Mother's right here." Eglantine Took came forward and hugged Esmeralda, then Saradoc. "Hello Esme, Sara. Ah, Marmadas, Althea," she added, with more hugs, "I was hoping that you would be able to join us as well. How did Mentha fare on the journey?"

"Quite well," Althea answered her, looking over to where her daughters were standing beside the second carriage, while Merimas, her son, was clambering up to the roof to untie the straps that secured the luggage. "She has improved a great deal these last two months."

"Excellent."

Pimpernel and Pervinca came hurrying out of the open door at that moment and made straight for the two Brandybuck girls. Eglantine looked at Pippin and Merry, who were hugging each other tightly and trying to see who could talk the fastest, and smiled. "Boys! You two can make yourselves useful by supervising the baggage while we grown-ups have a civilised chat. Pippin knows where everyone is staying." She led the other adults away and left the boys to carry on.

With all the tweens helping, it wasn't very long before baggage was sorted and deposited in the right rooms. The girls disappeared into Pimpernel's room to discuss important things like clothes and possible dance partners, while Merimas caught up with Folco Boffin, who had arrived with his family a couple of hours earlier.

Merry and Pippin ran with Merry's bag to the room along the corridor from Pippin's own. This room had been Merry's whenever he was at the Smials for as long as he could remember. Though smaller than Pippin's, it was well-appointed, with bed, desk and wardrobe, and had a round window with a ledge that was large enough for hobbit-lads to curl up in.

As the door shut behind them, Merry dropped his bag and wrapped his arms around Pippin, who lost no time in fastening his lips to Merry's and beginning a long deep kiss that tried to make up for all the days they had been apart. They pressed against each other as if that alone could join them.

It was many minutes before they could bear to move apart enough to speak, and even then their words were interspersed with kisses and soft touches of skin to skin.

"Hello, love," Merry whispered.

"Dearest Merry. I've missed you so much."

"I missed you too.

"I've been waiting for you all day."

"We set off late. I wanted to ride ahead, but father wouldn't let me. I knew you'd be waiting."

"You're here now. Don't waste time talking." So saying, Pippin returned to the task of re-acquainting himself with the inside of Merry's mouth.

Some time later, they were snuggling together on the window ledge, looking out at the rolling hills that glowed in the late afternoon sunshine. Pippin leaned his head back on Merry's shoulder and wrapped Merry's arms around him like a shawl. He felt as if they could stay there forever and life would be perfect. He lifted one of Merry's hands to his lips and kissed it, feeling Merry nuzzle against his neck in return.

"It's Overlithe next week," he murmured.

"I know, silly. That's why we're here."

"No, I mean it's Overlithe."

"You said that."

"Overlithe, Merry. No rules. You can do almost anything on Overlithe and not get into trouble for it."

"That's because most things that happen on Overlithe don't happen for another four years. I know what you're asking, Pip, and the answer's still no."

'But it's the ideal -"

"Pip." Merry straightened up and turned Pippin to face him. "Overlithe is for things that don't belong in day to day life. Yes, people do strange things at Overlithe, but it's all forgotten as soon as Afterlithe starts. People go back to what they were before."

"Not always."

"I'm not talking about the odd Rethe baby either." He took Pippin's face in his hands, looking directly into the green eyes. "Yes, I could tumble you at Overlithe and no one would say a word - as long as I go straight back to Buckland and don't see you for a year. If we are known to be lying together after that, it won't matter whether it started at Overlithe or not, we'll still have to face our families."

"Couldn't we just do it the once?"

Merry touched his forehead to Pippin's and ran his hands through soft curls. "I don't think I could. I don't think I could lie with you and then walk away, not to see you, not to hold you... It would break my heart and I couldn't survive that."

"My heart breaks every time you say no. I survive." Pippin pulled away and slid off the window ledge. "I don’t understand how breaking your heart is worse than breaking mine."

"Pippin -"

"You tell me no, and then you say it's because you can't face the hurt afterwards if we can't see each other. But it hurts me now, and you don't seem to care about that."

"It hurts me, too."

"Then why are we here, arguing about it again?"

"Because you brought it up. I don't want to argue about it, not when I've only just got here."

"But it doesn't make sense. If we both want to-"

"Pippin!" Merry's voice stopped Pippin in mid-sentence. Merry took a deep breath to calm himself and then tried once more. "Pippin, you just have to accept that life doesn't make sense a lot of the time. There's no rhyme or reason to it at all."

Pippin looked back at Merry for a moment. "If there's no reason to it, what's the point of following the rules?" he said quietly, then walked out of the room.

Merry looked up at the closed door and whispered, "No point at all."

* * *

By the time Merry got back down to the great hall, there were more arrivals. Frodo was there, looking a bit dishevelled, and Merry surmised that he had walked over from Hobbiton.

"Yes," Frodo confirmed, "and I'm more tired than I expected. I must be getting old. I think I'll ride next time."

"Nonsense, you're just out of practice. You should take a few more walks and see how you pull up."

"Maybe. For now, I am going to go to my room and tidy up. Sam should have unpacked by now. I'll come back down in time for tea."

There was a flurry of movement and laughter at the door and they turned to see Berilac walking in with Reginard Took. Berry had obviously ridden over from Michel Delving, since he was carrying saddlebags. He was bronzed and freckled and the sun had given his dark locks a hint of chestnut. He was laughing at something Reg had said, and altogether Merry thought that, Pippin apart, he was the most attractive-looking hobbit he had ever seen.

"Oh, wonderful!" he exclaimed. "I didn't know that Berry was coming! It'll be a fantastic Overlithe party now."

"I'm sure it will be," said Frodo, "though I'm not sure that the Tooks would appreciate your comment."

"Oh, Frodo, you know I didn't mean it like that. I just meant that Berry is fun to be with."

Having handed his bags over to one of the staff to be taken up to his room, Berry came over to say hello to them. Merry greeted him with a warm smile, a hug and a kiss on the cheek; Frodo with a polite smile and a handshake.

"Frodo thinks the Tooks will be insulted because I said that Overlithe will be better for you being here."

"Well, I doubt that Tooks need any assistance in throwing a party, whatever the time of year, but I'm always happy to lend my talents to the pursuit of pleasure... in its many forms." He turned to Frodo. "You're looking well, cousin," he said amicably.

"As are you. Now, if you will excuse me, I shall go upstairs to wash and change." He walked off, ignoring Merry's somewhat surprised look.

"Don't worry about him, Merry. He and I don't always get on, you know that."

"Yes, but he's not always that obvious about it."

"Well, maybe he has something else on his mind."

"Cousin Berry!" It was Pippin, shouting from the door and racing over to give him a hug. He beamed at both of them, then remembered that he wasn't speaking to Merry and flushed.

Merry looked uncomfortable and turned away. "I'll see you at tea, then, Berry," he muttered, heading for the front door.

Berry was puzzled. "What's wrong with everyone here?" he asked Pippin.

Pippin shrugged. He was saved from further interrogation by the arrival of a blushing Amaryllis Proudfoot. Pippin looked on in disgust as Amaryllis simpered and preened in front of Berry, drawing attention to her glossy chestnut locks with her fingers and tilting her head as she smiled. She was pretty and neatly turned out, but not endowed with much intelligence. Pippin couldn't understand why she would be after Berry, who had never made any secret of his preference for males.

After only two minutes Pippin had had enough. "Your mother's looking at you, Amaryllis," he said, "I think she wants to talk to you. And I have to show Cousin Berry to his room."

Amaryllis was obviously reluctant to leave, but Berry excused himself and walked with Pippin towards the stairs. As they ascended the first flight, Pippin snorted in disgust. "Girls! What makes them do that?"

Berry grimaced. "Unfortunately, I'm seen as a good catch." At Pippin's questioning look, he elaborated, "I'm of age, I'm the factor for Brandy Hall and, since grandfather died, I'm second in line for the Mastership. There are plenty of fond mamas who are willing to gamble that Merry might die or fail to produce an heir and that any wife of mine would end up as the Mistress of Buckland."

Pippin looked nauseated. "That's horrible."

"It is, but it's a fact of life," Berry sighed. "The Buckland aunts are just as bad, even the ones without daughters of their own. They seem convinced that my life will be immeasurably improved by the addition of a wife and a smial full of babies. The fact that I have absolutely no intention of marrying, ever, seems to make little difference to them."

"Have you told them that?"

"Repeatedly. But they don't listen. It seems to be something that happens to people as they get older - they're convinced that no child or tween can possibly know better than they do. I did hope that my coming of age last year might make a difference, but, if anything, it's become worse, at least with the aunts. Now they say that I may be of age, but I haven't 'settled down' enough to know my own mind. The trouble is that their definition of 'settling down' is getting married and producing a smial full of babies, so I can't win!"

They chuckled, and Berry continued, "And if you think that's bad, wait until Merry comes of age. They'll be stalking him like poachers after a rabbit."

Pippin lost all desire to laugh. "Merry..."

Berry looked repentant. "I'm sorry, Pippin. Bad choice of words." He put an arm around Pippin's shoulders and gave a friendly squeeze. "Don't worry about it too much - he has at least eight years before he needs to think about it and Aunt Esme will keep the worst of the gold-diggers away from him. She won't let him get caught by Amaryllis or anyone like her."

Pippin nodded, more out of politeness than agreement. He left Berry at the door to his room and went back downstairs, his heart filled with contempt for the entire female sex. He glared at a hapless cousin, made a lightning raid on the tea trolley that was waiting to be wheeled into the Green Parlour, and took himself off to his favourite oak tree to be alone with his thoughts.

* * *

Dinner was uncomfortable. It seemed to Merry that there were undercurrents around the whole room, only some of which he could identify.

Pippin sat with his parents and sisters for the meal, then circulated through the guests, playing the young host for all it was worth. He didn't ignore Merry, precisely, but treated him as any other guest. Perversely, Merry felt more hurt by that than if he had been thoroughly ignored.

He tried to talk to Berry, but found that his cousin was rather abstracted, his gaze often drifting across the room to where Reg was chatting to Frodo. Merry wondered if Berry and Reg were together at the moment or not - they had been lovers off and on for years. If they were, it would make life difficult for Reg, who had recently become engaged to Periwinkle Bolger, with the wedding planned for the autumn.

Talking to Frodo was no easier: though Frodo was too polite to let his attention wander, Merry had the distinct impression that Frodo wanted to be elsewhere.

To add to that, he found himself the object of attention from Amaryllis, which disconcerted him until he found out that she was actually interested in Berry. He was sorely tempted to tell her that she was wasting her time, but, in a moment of pure self-interest, decided that Berry was quite capable of looking after himself and if Amaryllis (and, of course, her mother) were concentrating on Berry, they wouldn't be pursuing him. He embarked on an account of Berry's virtues that would seriously have surprised the hobbit in question, not to mention all those who had had a hand in his bringing up, and finished by suggesting, subtly, that a gift of candied fruit might be just the thing to sway Berry's affections in her favour. After all, as he reasoned, Berry was bound to share them with his favourite cousins...

Once Amaryllis had moved on, he made one more attempt to talk to Pippin, but his cousin seemed to be as skilled in evading him as he had been previously in catching him.

After several minutes of fruitless pursuit, he gave up, pleading fatigue from the long ride and retiring to bed. He didn't sleep well.

* * *

The next morning was a little better. Pippin, who could never hold a grudge for long, greeted Merry in his usual cheerful fashion at breakfast, and they were soon chatting amicably. Merry felt relieved and happily fell in with Pippin's plans for the day.

Several of the tweens wanted to play cricket, and very soon there was a match arranged on the back lawn: East and North Farthings against South and West. Even though this placed Merry and Pippin in opposing teams, they both enjoyed the match. South and West emerged the victors by three wickets thanks to a sterling effort from Frodo Baggins, who wielded the willow with an elegance and skill that pleased the eye no matter where one's loyalties might be. Though he didn't quite make a century, he wore out four bowlers and was only vanquished by a deceptive leg-break from Fatty Bolger, who bowled a mean spinball in spite of - or, perhaps, because of - his bulk.

The game had had a number of keen spectators, including the smitten Amaryllis, and Merry noted with glee that she waylaid Berry as he was making his way from the field, forcing a small parcel into his hand.

There was time for an ale or two before they had to wash and change for dinner, and the teams were jovial and noisy as they dispersed to their smials. Pippin and Merry went up the stairs arm in arm and straight into Merry's room. As they came together for a kiss, Merry smelled the ale on Pippin's breath and saw his dilated pupils.

"How many ales did you have, Pip?" he asked, concerned.

"Only three." Pippin smiled brightly and hugged him.

Merry let his breath out in annoyance, then realised that it couldn't be helped. Pippin didn't seem too badly affected, and he would keep a closer eye on his cousin in the future. He hugged back, saying, "You've got sunburn on your nose."

"So have you. You've got freckles, too."

"I've always had freckles."

"I've always liked them."

"That's good, love." Merry kissed Pippin lightly on the lips, then again a little more deeply, tasting the sweetness.

Pippin snuggled against Merry's shoulder, nuzzling his neck and nibbling at the delicate skin. "You taste like salt."

"I need a wash."

"It was a good day, today."

"It was, love."

"I wish you could be here for longer."

"I know, sweetheart, but we have to get back for the haymaking."

"I don't want you to go. I can't bear not being with you."

"Sshh. Enjoy the time we have here. Don't think about saying goodbye until we have to."

They kissed again, their bodies intertwining even more closely, until Merry realised that Pippin's hands were running over his hips and bottom and he could feel both their arousals. Reluctantly, he pulled back and took Pippin's hands in his, kissing them and holding them to his chest.

"I think we'd better stop there for a little."

"I don't want to stop." Pippin was flushed and breathless and his eyes glittered.

"Oh, Pippin, please..."

"I want you. You want me."

"You said you'd wait."

Pippin's expression turned sullen. "I don't see any reason why we should any more. I can't see how waiting is going to change anything except the fact that we'll both ache for longer."

"You know why. You aren't old enough."

"Much you know about it. I've been asking. I know of at least two hobbits who were tumbling at 18."

"Pippin, please don't make this any harder for me than it is already."

"But I want it to be as hard as possible." With a malicious grin he pushed his hips forward, whispering, "And I want it to be inside me."

Merry flinched and pushed Pippin away. "Get out of here!"

"What?" Pippin stumbled and fell back against the door, sliding to the ground as his legs gave way.

"I said get out of here. Leave. If you can't play fair, then go away and leave me alone."

Pippin stood up slowly, his face blank with shock. He had never seen Merry look like this, never heard his voice so harsh and bitter.

"Merry -"

"Go away, Pip."

"But -"

"Go!"

He went.

It was only after the door had closed that Merry allowed himself to think of what Pippin had done to him. Every nerve in his body had screamed at him. The image in his head and the pressure in his groin had overwhelmed him with want and need and guilt and pain. He had wanted to throw Pippin onto the bed and tumble him then and there, and the effort of not doing so had left him weak and trembling.

He hated Pippin for having done this to him.

He hated himself for having pushed Pippin away.

He hated everyone in the Shire who said that Pippin was too young, because it was their fault that he was here now, miserable and aching and alone.

He slumped down onto the bed, tears stinging his eyes, and buried his face in his pillow. It just wasn't fair. He lay there for a long time, until he had calmed down sufficiently to contemplate washing and changing.

Naturally, he was late for dinner, earning scowls from his father and Uncle Paladin and a concerned look from his mother. He wasn't able to sit anywhere close to Berry, Frodo, Pippin, or even Fatty Bolger, but instead was squashed between his third cousins Everard and Ferdibrand, neither of whom he found congenial company.

It was another uncomfortable evening.

* * *

First Lithe started badly: Merry had not slept well and missed first breakfast. At second breakfast, he was collared by Amaryllis again and suffered a few anxious moments as she leaned over him to reach the butter. She had doused herself in violet scent which was cloying and sickly-sweet. After only a few minutes, Merry felt ill and decided that, hungry or not, he had to get away.

He spotted Pippin talking with Aunt Eglantine in the main hall, by the ornate staircase. Pippin was obviously being chastised for something - his head was down and he was shuffling his feet. Merry contemplated going over and giving Pippin some moral support, but then Pippin looked up and his expression was anything but welcoming. Instead, Merry changed direction and headed down to the stables to take his pony out for a canter, but he found that one of the grooms had already exercised her that morning. After a few minutes' thought, he decided to go and find somewhere quiet to read until lunchtime. He grabbed an apple (one of last year's crop, slightly withered but perfectly sound) and ran back up to his room to fetch a book and a clean handkerchief. As he rounded the corner he bumped into Pippin, who gave a guilty start.

Merry's eyes narrowed. "What have you been doing?" he asked.

"Nothing!"

"Nothing, my Aunt Fanny. You're up to mischief again."

"No, I'm not."

"Yes, you are."

"Why do you always treat me like a child?"

"Why do you always behave like one?"

"I don't!"

Merry raised an eyebrow. Pippin pouted. Merry reached out an arm to grab him, but Pippin jerked away. Giving Merry a murderous look, he turned around and walked away without another word.

Merry watched him, puzzled, angry and frustrated. Why was Pippin being so impossible about things? Why could he not see that this was the only way? He shut his eyes and wished with all his heart that Pippin would stop tormenting him and accept that there were some things they simply couldn't do yet, no matter how much they wanted to.

His head ached.

* * *

Pippin avoided Merry for the rest of the day, not trusting himself to keep his temper. With every hour that passed, he became more and more convinced that something had to be done before Merry and he became estranged forever. Whatever happened, it couldn't possibly be worse than the expression on Merry's face as he had pushed him away the day before: that had hurt him more than any physical blow had ever done.

After dinner, he watched as Merry joined Berry, Saradoc and several other older tweens and adults who were discussing serious subjects to do with soils and yields and the approaching harvest. Merry was the quietest one, drinking his ale in silence, only speaking when asked a question.

Pippin observed him from where he sat, until he was happy that Merry was settled and not likely to move for an hour or two. Then he nodded to himself and headed up the stairs. It looked like tonight would be a good opportunity after all.

Merry's bed had a wooden frame, with posts at each corner and a sturdy headboard. He secured one end of each bandage to the headboard and tucked the free ends under Merry's pillow, where he would be able to reach them. Satisfied, he smoothed the coverlet over the pillow and made a stealthy exit.

Now all he could do was hope that Merry didn't get too drunk. He had to be able to wake him at some stage.

Merry was still sitting nursing another ale when he slipped back into the room. Pippin watched him for a while longer, running over various ways he could draw Merry away from the group, unaware that he himself was under scrutiny until his mother's voice beside him startled him from his reverie.

"What are you planning, son?"

"Nothing!" The response was automatic.

"I am not blind, Pippin. Nor am I stupid. If you are planning more mischief, I would like to know in advance so that I may avoid the worst of the fuss - or work out how to placate your father."

Pippin grinned, then sobered. If it all went wrong, there would be more than just "fuss", and he - or rather, Merry - would need someone to speak up for him. He took a deep breath. He was taking a risk, and he knew it, but his mother was very fond of her Brandybuck nephew, and if anyone could protect Merry from the wrath of his father, it would be she. "Mum, I need something from you."

Eglantine was intrigued and a little apprehensive.

"I am planning something, and it does affect Merry. I think that it will turn out well. But if it doesn't, he may get into trouble." He stopped. "Actually, even if it goes well, he may be in trouble. I need you to remember that it's my plan, and that he knows nothing about it. If it goes wrong, the blame is mine." He looked steadily into her eyes, his voice quiet but firm. "Mine alone."

Eglantine looked at her son, then glanced over at Merry, who was now staring at Pippin, oblivious to all else. His look of longing and misery explained a great deal that had puzzled her over the last few days. She lifted her hand to Pippin's face and looked at him for several seconds, as if memorising his features. This was a new Pippin, displaying a sense of purpose and a quiet determination that she had not seen before. "Pippin... are you sure about this? It is not what I would have chosen for you, even for a tweener pairing. And you are very young."

She saw the flash of temper cross Pippin's face, but to her surprise he controlled it and spoke calmly. "I know I'm young in years, but I am sure. More sure of this than of anything in my life."

She nodded, apparently satisfied. "I cannot give you my blessing. But you have my support if it is needed. And so does Merry."

"Thank you." He kissed her cheek and put his arms around her. Eglantine felt tears smarting in her eyes as she hugged her baby boy to her for the very last time.

They went to sit with Paladin, but Pippin still kept a covert eye on Merry, who looked more and more miserable with every minute that passed. Eventually Merry rose, a little unsteadily, and made his way back up to his bedchamber. Pippin gave him twenty minutes' start, then followed.

* * *

Merry was having an amazing dream. He was lying in a field, arms above his head, feeling the warmth of the sun on his skin. Pippin was with him, tickling his skin with a grass stem, running it lightly over his arms, thighs, hips and belly. He squirmed a little, but Pippin was soothing him, murmuring words of love into his ear, kissing him softly on the lips. It felt wonderful, being with Pippin, so happy and good and right. He was aroused, but that was good, too. No need to worry about hurting Pippin in his dreams; Pippin was never too young in his dreams...

Merry woke with a start and found that he had not imagined the touch of lips or hands. By the light of a single candle, he could see that Pippin was straddling his thighs, one hand resting lightly on his chest, the other around his - Oh Valar! Pippin was naked and aroused and Merry had never seen anything so beautiful in his life.

"Pippin -?" He had to find out if he was still dreaming. His dreams had never felt quite like this, but then neither had reality.

He tried to sit up, but his arms were above his head and he couldn't pull them down. He tilted his head back and caught sight of the restraints around each wrist. He couldn't believe it. He was tied to the bed!

He was definitely not dreaming.

"Pippin! What do you think you're you doing?"

"I'm making love to you." Pippin's tone was smug as he dropped another kiss onto Merry's chest.

"!?!" There was no way to describe the incredulous and indignant sound that escaped from Merry's lips. "Untie me now, Pip!"

Pippin removed his hand, straightened up and looked him in the eye. "No."

"Untie me! Let me go!"

"No."

"You are going to be in so much trouble for this, just wait till I get free." Merry struggled for a few more seconds. "Pippin! Untie me now!"

"No."

"This is not fair."

"Wasn't meant to be."

"Let me go."

"No."

"Don't make me yell for help, you miserable excuse for a cousin."

Pippin was alarmed. Yell for help? He couldn't allow that. He would have to gag Merry, and quickly, before he could raise any of the hobbits sleeping nearby. Bother! He had no more bandages. Frantically, he cast his eyes around the room and caught sight of Merry's discarded shirt on the chair. In three seconds, he had retrieved it, twisted it into a rope and placed it over Merry's still-open mouth. It was a shame, because he had imagined kissing Merry throughout their love-making... but if Merry cried out, there wouldn't be a love-making. One had to be practical about such things. He wrestled one end of the linen gag behind Merry's head and tied a fairly rough knot at the side. It wasn't pretty, but it was certainly effective. Merry's outraged cries were muffled into whimpers.

Pippin discovered that he rather liked hearing Merry whimper.

He sat back on his heels and looked at his cousin, waiting until he settled. It took a couple of minutes, but eventually Merry stopped struggling against the bindings and lay there, his chest heaving from his exertions, glaring at Pippin from stormy eyes, but making no further attempts to speak.

Pippin's voice was calm and matter-of-fact when he spoke. "I am 17 years old, Meriadoc Brandybuck, and I'll be 18 in a few weeks. I'm old enough to lie with you."

Merry glared at him, but Pippin took no notice.

"You know I've wanted this for months and months. You want it, too, I know you do. I've known that since Yule."

Merry closed his eyes and his erection twitched at the mention of that devastating kiss, but Pippin continued on with the speech he had spent all day preparing.

"I said I'd wait, and I've waited for six months. Doesn't that count for anything? I want you more now than I did then. Every time I see you, I want you more. Every time you say 'No', it hurts me more." He paused, letting his hands roam lightly over Merry's chest, feeling him shiver. "Do you know how many times you've said 'No' to me since Yule? I've lost count." Pippin leaned forward and placed his hands on either side of Merry's shoulders, so that he could look into his cousin's eyes. "I don't like 'No', Merry. I'm tired of hearing 'No'. I want 'Yes'." His voice dropped to a husky whisper as he rocked his body forward and brought his lips down to whisper in Merry's ear. "I'm not letting you go until you say 'Yes'." He dragged his lips over the gag and down to the sensitive skin of Merry's neck. He nuzzled and gave the area a few wet licks, feeling Merry squirm and enjoying the taste of him.

He worked his way slowly down Merry's body, kissing his chest, belly, hips, thighs, knees, and feet. He spent some time stroking the hair on Merry's feet, running his fingers over the toes and the hard, leathery soles, before starting to move up again. He gently caressed Merry's shins, circling the kneecaps with his fingertips, running quick feather-light strokes of his tongue over the thighs. Merry was making small uncoordinated movements of his legs and hips, trying to get closer to Pippin's mouth and hands.

As he reached the top of Merry's thighs, Pippin halted, placing his fingers around Merry's erection, feeling the softness of the skin, the firmness of the flesh underneath, the slight moisture at the tip. He stroked it up and down a few times, amazed by the effect that the movement had both on Merry and on himself. After another gentle squeeze, he let it go and moved up so that he was straddling Merry's hips again, bending forward and pressing himself full length against Merry's chest. He put his mouth close to Merry's ear, whispering, "You've been so strong, saying no to me all these months, and I love you for it. But I've been ready for this for a long time, Merry. I know you think it's too soon, but it's not. I'm ready for you. I want you to be ready for me."

It happened then, at that exact moment, and Pippin felt it: Merry stopped fighting and surrendered, letting go of all the tension that had held him for the past few months. He lay still for a few moments, then Pippin felt him start to shake. Concerned, he looked up but found that Merry was laughing. Pippin laughed, too, giddy with relief.

"I want to kiss you. If I take away the gag, will you yell?"

Silently, eyes still brimming with laughter, Merry shook his head.

Pippin undid the knot at the side and lifted the shirt slowly, kissing each new inch of skin that was revealed, smoothing away the redness with his fingertips. Merry turned to meet Pippin's lips, lifting his head slightly off the pillow. Pippin tilted his head and parted his lips, sucking gently on Merry's bottom lip, then taking it between his teeth and giving the gentlest of bites, following that with a soothing stroke of his tongue. He repeated this several times, alternating between the top and bottom lips. As Merry opened up to him, Pippin slid his tongue and started to move over the inside of each lip in a slow, undulating pattern that caused Merry to shudder and groan.

It was a long time before Pippin pulled back enough to let them breathe, and even then his mouth was nuzzling Merry's skin. Merry's breath was warm on his shoulder and carried one whispered word to his ear: "Yes".

A thrill went through Pippin's body as he looked into Merry's eyes, so dark in the candlelight, and saw, at last, that Merry was looking at him with undisguised need. No more lies, no more veiled truths to protect the child he had been. No more waiting. Merry's eyes met his in frank acknowledgment of his right to love and be loved.

He reached up to untie the restraints, kissing each wrist tenderly as the bandage was removed, then bringing the arms down slowly. He ran his hands over Merry's broad shoulders and chest, rubbing away the soreness, and smiled as Merry brought his arms up to enfold him. Merry's hands ran up and down his back, so lightly that the touch was somewhere between ice and flame, making him shiver.

As he leaned down to kiss Merry, Pippin thought that there could be no greater bliss than being here, where he had wanted to be for so long: naked and lying on top of the one he loved. A moment later, he realised that he was wrong when Merry rolled them both over until Pippin was the one underneath. Merry had one arm under his neck and shoulders, and the other cupping his jaw. Then Pippin began to feel rather giddy, because Merry looked into his eyes for a long minute without moving and whispered, "I love you, Pippin."

The kiss that followed exceeded anything that Pippin had ever known. Released from the constraint of hiding his feelings, Merry kissed him more deeply, more sensuously than he had ever done before. Merry's tongue invaded his mouth, probing deep inside, running over teeth and lips and palate, swirling around his own tongue and plunging deep again. There was a rhythm to its movement that excited Pippin beyond measure.

This felt right; this was right. However much Pippin had enjoyed the heady sensation of having complete control over Merry, he liked this more. The feeling of being wrapped in Merry's arms, of feeling his body aligned with his, Merry's lips trailing down to his ear -

"I love you, Pippin. I want you. I want to lie with you and tumble you and make love to you."

- of hearing Merry speak those words to him: all this was absolute bliss. Merry was going to make love to him and then -

"Merry..."

"Mmm?"

"Is this going to hurt?"

Merry took Pippin's chin and turned his head so that he could see the depth of love in Merry's eyes.

"No, love. Nothing will hurt tonight."

"It's just that I heard..."

"Sshh. Trust me. Nothing will hurt." Merry was kissing him again, on lips and eyes and nose and cheeks. "Some things do hurt at first, but we won't do them tonight. This is your first time, and for that there is only pleasure, and delight, and love."

- everything would be perfect.

Pippin relaxed and settled into Merry's embrace. He couldn't suppress small shivers as Merry's fingers trailed over his skin, stroking him gently, roving over chest, hip and thigh before venturing around his buttocks. Then the fingers dipped lightly into the crevice between, teasing him with the promise of delights to come. Pippin lifted his hips and opened his legs slightly, wanting more, but Merry withdrew, whispering, "Later, love."

Fingers drifted back around to his chest to rub across his nipples, first with the pads and then gently with the nails. Pippin gasped, then gasped again as the fingers rolled one nipple between them, producing wave after wave of sensation that thrilled him.

Finally, Merry's hand drifted down his belly, circling his navel and stroking his hips before halting at the inside of his thigh. Merry smiled teasingly at him, saying, "I've wanted to touch you here for a long, long time."

Pippin yelped and his eyes widened as Merry's hand cupped his balls and then closed around his shaft. He had expected it to feel the same as when he touched himself, but it didn't - it tingled and thrilled all the way through his body. He almost came then and there, whimpering as Merry's hand - Merry's wonderful, wonderful hand - moved up and down slowly, his thumb caressing the tip and spreading the clear fluid that was leaking there. Merry's grip tightened and he moved a little faster. Pippin felt a fluttering, rushing sensation building within him, growing and writhing and spreading and coiling around and -

"Merry - oh, Merry - oh - I - " he was gasping, but he couldn't breathe.

"Hush, love. Let it happen. It'll be all right. There will be more of this tonight. Just let it happen. Let me see you." Merry's voice was soft in his ear, soothing and safe, while his hand continued to move in just the right way.

- and Pippin's world changed forever as his body exploded into light and fireworks and heat and a long, low, roll of thunder. He couldn't hear, he couldn't see: all he could do was feel, but there was too much sensation all at once and he fell away into darkness.

He came to himself a minute later, looking up into Merry's eyes, which glittered with tears, and he couldn't understand that because Merry was smiling at him.

"I love you, Pippin."

Pippin opened his mouth but no sound came. He must have looked astonished, because Merry kissed him and held him close.

"Don't worry, love, it takes some people like this at first. You'll be better in a few minutes. Just relax."

Pippin was able to nod and even managed to raise his hand to touch Merry's face. He made another attempt to speak and was able to whisper, "Love you, Merry."

"Love you, too."

"Oh, that was..." But Pippin was unable to find the words he needed.

"I know." Merry was kissing him again, his hand making small kneading movements on Pippin's hip. They rested for a few minutes and Pippin felt his strength returning. He ran his own hand over Merry's chest, tracing the path of bone and muscle, form and power.

Pippin finally found his voice. "Why?"

"Why what?"

"Why did you...?"

"Why did I make you come so soon?"

"Mmm."

"Because no one ever lasts long the first time. Because I want your first night to be long and slow and sensuous, and you need to be relaxed for it. Because I wanted to watch you, to see your face as I made you come."

"What about you?"

"What about me?"

"Well, you didn't... I want to... umm, should I...?" Pippin couldn't believe it - he could feel his face burning red. Where was the confidence he had had half an hour ago? All he wanted to do was roll Merry onto his back and grind into him, and here he was blushing and stammering like an idiot. "Oh, Bullroarer's Balls!" he exclaimed, then took advantage of Merry's momentary astonishment to push him back into the bed and lie on top of him.

"Oof! You're heavy, Pip," Merry exclaimed as the breath was knocked out of him, but after a few moments, and a slight adjustment, he smiled and said, "No, you're not, you're just right."

"Of course I'm just right. I'm with you." Pippin wriggled up and put his arms on either side of Merry's head, then kissed him, hard and deep, exulting in the taste and the heat and the wetness. He moved his hips, slowly and carefully, and felt a thrill move through the body beneath him. He felt Merry's hands on his hips, lifting him up and adjusting his position slightly. "Mmm, just there...yes..."

This time, when he moved his hips, Pippin felt his nerves tingle and his breath catch. He looked at Merry, whose expression had changed from gentle to feral, and wondered briefly how Merry could ever have hidden this much desire from him. He felt Merry's hips roll in counterpoint to his own, and very soon they had established a rhythm that carried them up together, each pulse more intense than the last, until Pippin thought he would scream. Merry's legs had somehow worked themselves around his waist and were pulling him closer and tighter with every stroke. He could hear someone moaning, getting louder and higher in pitch, but didn't realise that it was himself until Merry pulled him into a messy, open-mouthed kiss. Merry reached his climax first and this time Pippin watched as Merry's face contorted and he gave a shuddering breath. The heat that bloomed on Pippin's belly was enough to send him over the edge and he felt his own release pour out.

They lay there, simply breathing, until Merry reached for the handkerchief that had already served once that night and proceeded to clean them both. Then they settled, with Pippin on his back and Merry covering him with arm and chest and leg.

Pippin's voice brought Merry out of half-slumber. "Merry?"

"Yes, love?"

"Why did you laugh?"

"When?"

"Before I untied you. You went still, and then you starting shaking, and I was afraid you were crying, but when I looked, you were laughing instead."

Merry smiled, his fingers drifting lazily over Pippin's collarbone. "I remembered something Berry said last Yule - that this would happen sooner than I wanted and later than you wanted, and that I should just let it happen. And then I suddenly realised how ridiculous I must look, tied to the bed, with you trying to make me agree to do something I desperately wanted to do anyway."

"Well, it was ridiculous. I wanted to do this months ago. You're the one who insisted on torturing yourself. Ow! Don't pinch, it isn't nice."

"I'm not nice."

"Yes, you are, lovely Merry."

"No, I'm not. Nice hobbits don't do this..."

Pippin gasped and arched up from the bed as Merry did something amazing with his tongue...

* * *

Some considerable time later, when heartbeats were returning to normal again and sweaty skin was starting to dry, Pippin suddenly chuckled. Merry threw him a questioning glance and Pippin started to explain. "Cousin Everard will be happy."

"Why is that?"

"Well, we were talking about the party next week."

Merry nodded, his hands running in lazy circles over Pippin's stomach.

"He was saying that we hadn't invited enough females and he was afraid he wasn't going to get any dances. I think he's sweet on Vinca and you know how she always wants to dance with you."

Merry did know, but had never paid it much mind. Pervinca danced very well and didn't drape herself all over him like some girls did, or sulk when he wanted to get another ale. But she wasn't the one he wanted. He let his hand drift over the chest of the one he did want, until it found a nipple and gave it a little pinch. Pippin reacted with a gasp and a slight lift of his torso, before grabbing the errant hand, kissing it, and placing it firmly on his stomach once more.

"Stop that. You're distracting me. Where was I?"

Merry's hand started circling once more. "Ev wants to dance with Vinca, who wants to dance with me. Why does that make him happy?"

"It doesn't, silly. He'll be happy because you'll be dancing with me and not with any of the girls, so there'll be more girls for him." His voice faltered for a moment. "You won't, will you?"

Merry sighed. "I'll have to dance with some of them, love. So will you. You know that."

"I don't want you to. I don't want to watch you dancing with girls."

"Would you rather I danced with boys?"

"No!"

"Thought not."

"I want you to dance with me."

Merry kissed him again while he thought about it. Sneaking off into the gardens with Pippin once everyone was tipsy was one thing; dancing with him where everyone could see them was quite another. "I think it's too much of a risk. Everyone will know exactly why we're dancing together. Don't forget that you're still very young for this and I... I'm still supposed to keep you out of trouble."

Pippin snorted. "As if you ever could! Not when I really wanted to do something. Anyway, it was your idea half the time."

Merry chuckled. "There is that." He kissed Pippin a few more times, just to keep in practice.

"But not this time. This time was my idea. I seduced you."

The simple pride in Pippin's voice was too much for Merry, who rolled over, helpless with laughter. "Oh, Pippin, I love you!"

"Well, that's good. I'd hate to think I had wasted time in seducing someone who hates me." Pippin grinned and leaned over to kiss Merry's chest before turning serious once more. "Are we really going to be in trouble?"

Merry paused. He was sure of it and he couldn't lie to Pippin, not tonight. "Some trouble, yes. You know we will. It's not as if we're just village lads. We both have positions and responsibilities, in the future if not right now. We'll both have to marry one day."

"I won't marry. They can't make me. I want to be with you forever."

"Pippin, sweetheart. If you are old enough to be my lover -" he couldn't suppress the shiver of delight that ran through him at the words, and nor could Pippin, whose face lit up in astonished realisation that he was, indeed, Merry's lover now "- you are old enough to understand that there is no point in upsetting both our families more than we must. If we are to have any chance of being together before we both come of age - and let me remind you that fifteen years is a very long time - we have to keep them convinced that this is just a tweener passion and that we'll be quite happy to marry and produce heirs when the time comes."

"I don't know if I can do that. I really don't feel anything for girls, you know. I never have."

"Well, you'll just have to pretend."

"I don't want to pretend," Pippin sighed. "We'll just have to distract them. Give them something else to think about."

"Like what?"

"We could spike the fruit cup."

"Too boring. Besides, someone tries that every year - they'll be expecting it."

"We could let the pigs out."

"Fatty and Folco did that last Lithe, and we did it ourselves three years ago."

"We could steal the fireworks and set them off early."

"Is Gandalf going to be here?"

"Oh. No, he isn't. So no fireworks to steal."

Merry sighed, then grinned and kissed Pippin's cheek. "The trouble with us, love, is that we've already done everything. There isn't anything new."

"There has to be something that no one's done before, or at least not for a long time."

"I suppose we could get Fatty drunk and put him into one of Cousin Rosamunda's dresses. That hasn't been done in a while."

"That's a good one! No, no, get Ev to wear a dress! He's the one complaining there aren't enough females. We could see how many people spot him."

"Ev? Too easy. That nose of his is unmistakable and besides, he'd make a very ugly girl. No, if you want to pass someone off as a girl, you have to start with better material." Merry paused and examined Pippin's face. "I think you'd make a very pretty lass," he teased.

"Meriadoc Brandybuck! I am not dressing up as a girl to dance with you at Overlithe!" Pippin's voice positively squeaked in indignation, and Merry had to make up for his tease with kisses and cuddles and murmurs of "No, I don't want you just because you're pretty", and then some more kisses, hard and deep, and a growly bite to the shoulder that made Pippin shudder.

It took a while before Pippin's wounded feelings were adequately soothed but then, with Tookish tenacity, his mind immediately returned to the topic at hand. "I'm still not wearing a dress. Anyway, there are others. Cousin Frodo's prettier than I am, for all he's so much older. Everybody says so, even your horrible Great-Aunt Asphodel."

There was a moment of silence, then Merry sat straight up and stared into space. "Frodo," he whispered. He looked at Pippin and Pippin looked back at him in awe. It was... perfect.

* * *

As daylight filtered through the shutters, Merry stirred. He remembered... for a moment, he wondered if it had all been a dream, but then he felt the warm body lying in his arms and realised that it had actually happened. Half-opening one eye, he saw Pippin's curls against his shoulder and smiled to himself. He tightened his arms reflexively and felt Pippin make a small movement in response.

It hadn't been a dream. Pippin was his lover. Oh, Lady bless them all, Pippin really was his lover now.

Merry pressed a kiss into the curls beside his cheek and dozed off again, thinking that of all the ways there were to wake up, this was by far the best.

* * *

When Merry woke again it was full daylight, and Pippin was gone. He was disappointed, but he realised that Pippin would have had to go back to his own room sooner or later to wash and dress. He got out of the bed and debated the relative merits of a brief wash in cold water then and there, or a somewhat risky trip to the baths for hot water. He sniffed. He could smell himself, as well as the musky scent that Pippin had left on his skin. A cold wash would be enough to get him to the bathroom without spilling the secret of his activities the night before, but he really needed a good long soak.

He was just buttoning up the breeches he had discarded so carelessly the night before when there was a brisk knock at the door. Before Merry could answer, the door opened and Pippin strode in, carrying a mug of tea. He winked at Merry before closing the door, then put the mug down and took Merry in his arms. "Good morning, love," he murmured.

"Good mor -" Merry's reply was cut short by Pippin's lips, sweet and warm on his own.

The kiss lasted until Merry said, "I need a bath, love."

Pippin sniffed, ostentatiously. "You don't smell too bad."

"That's because I just washed the worst of it off. But I still need a bath."

"Can I share it?"

"Not today." He started to let Pippin go, then stopped and pulled him close again. "I love you, you know. I'm not sorry about last night. I'm still worried about what might happen, but I'm not sorry about being your lover."

"I love you, too. And I'm glad you're not angry with me." Pippin looked down. "I did wonder, this morning, if you might change your mind."

"No, I haven't changed my mind." Merry took Pippin's face in his hands and looked steadily into his eyes. "You are still the most beautiful hobbit-lad in all the Shire, and you are the one I want in my arms and my bed." He drew Pippin in for another kiss, soft and sweet, before pulling back and turning serious. "The only thing that would make me happier is if we didn't have to hide this. You know we have to be careful, love. No kisses or hugs outside this room. No special looks or teasing remarks. We have to try and behave as we did before, try to pretend that nothing's changed."

"I know. But I don't like it."

"I don't like it either."

Pippin sighed. "Why do we keep on having to do things we don't like and not do the things we like?"

"Because we're not of age yet. Just be thankful that you can tumble when you're twenty. Imagine if you had to wait until you're thirty-three!"

Pippin looked appalled. "I'd die!"

Merry laughed. "I think I would, too." They hugged and kissed for a few minutes more, then Merry drained his tea and went off to the baths, whistling, while Pippin tackled breakfast.

* * *

After lunch, Pippin disappeared on an errand for his mother and Merry curled up in an armchair in the otherwise-deserted Green Parlour, ostensibly to read a book but seriously contemplating a nap. His thoughts drifted back over the events of the previous night and he smiled sleepily to himself. Pippin is my lover was the thought that played over and over in his head, soothing and exhilarating at the same time. Pippin is my lover...

Sudden footsteps and the sound of the parlour door woke him and he saw the face of his lover peering around the door, smiling in satisfaction.

"Ah, here you are. I thought we'd lost you." Pippin strode in, followed more slowly by Frodo.

Merry had almost forgotten their conversation of the night before and so didn't immediately understand when Pippin whispered "He'll do it" into his left ear. He looked up, startled, to see Pippin's face alive with mischief and Frodo, some distance behind him, looking rather uncomfortable.

"What did you do to him?"

Pippin grinned and dropped a lightning-quick kiss on Merry's nose. "You don't want to know." He straightened up, grinned again and said, "Must go - I have to see a girl about a dress." He was out of the door before Merry could react.

Frodo's face held an odd mixture of emotions: bemusement, chagrin, mortification and resignation, together with a suspicion of pleasant anticipation.

Merry tried again. "What did he do?"

Frodo shook his head. "None of your business, Merry-my-lad." He gathered himself together and sat down in the opposite armchair, swinging a leg over the arm and giving Merry a knowing smile. "I understand that Pippin finally persuaded you to tumble him."

Merry blushed fiery red. He didn't mind Frodo knowing about them, not really, but he wished that Pippin could at least try to be a little more discreet. "Well, yes, sort of," he managed to say.

"Sort of?" Frodo's voice reflected the sardonic amusement on his face.

Merry blushed even more and bit his lip. He knew he'd end up telling Frodo eventually, but right now he simply couldn't bear the embarrassment.

Frodo's smile grew wider and Merry prepared to defend himself from a severe bout of cousin-baiting. He'd plot his revenge on Pippin later.

* * *

Overlithe dawned cool but fair, with clear blue skies and a gentle southerly breeze. Merry woke first and was momentarily disorientated, until he remembered that this was Pippin's room. He gave a gentle nudge to the warm, sleeping figure draped over him.

"Wake up, sleepyhead."

'Mmm?" Pippin was slow to wake at the best of times, and they had spent long hours in exploring each other during the night. It took another couple of prods from Merry's finger before he opened his eyes.

"Come on, Pippin, wake up. People are going to be up and about rather soon. I'd better go."

Pippin clung to him with both arms. "Don't go. I'll get cold without you." The whisper was barely audible, but the pain in it was clear.

Merry held him tightly for another minute but then tried once more to move out of the bed.

"Pippin, love, please let me go. I don't want to leave either, but I need to get back to my own room before someone catches me.

"I know." Pippin gave an exaggerated sigh and let go, but his eyes followed Merry as his cousin got out of the bed and donned his nightgown. He couldn't suppress a groan as Merry bent over, displaying an enticingly-rounded bottom. "How many hours until tonight?"

"Too many, love." Merry smiled as his head appeared above the linen collar.

"Do you think we could have a nap after lunch?"

Merry felt the tingling response in his body and considered Pippin's suggestion. "We can try, but I'm not sure. Your mother will want us to help set up the tables."

"We'll just have to escape for an hour or two. Or three."

"And have your sisters up here looking for us?" Merry asked ruefully as he looked down at Pippin. His breath caught as he saw a hungry expression in those green eyes that had nothing to do with breakfast and everything to do with the way Pippin's body responded to his touch. He felt heat in his belly and a stirring between his legs.

"We'll lock the door," Pippin promised.

"Now that would be smart - both of us nowhere to be found and your door locked. Might as well put a sign up saying 'Merry and Pippin are Up to No Good'."

"Oh, I'm sure I could talk us out of any trouble with Nel and Vinca." Pippin smiled and reached up an arm to Merry, pulling him down for another kiss.

Merry was starting to think that it might be a good idea for him to stay a little longer, just to make sure that he would carry the taste of Pippin through the day, when they were startled by the sound of footsteps in the corridor. They remained stock still until the unknown walker passed them by and the sound faded. Merry let his breath out and stood up, wishing fervently for the time when they could lie in bed together without fear of discovery.

"Not today, love. But we'll be together again tonight, I promise."

Gathering up all his strength, Merry turned to the door and opened it a crack, peeking out to check that the coast was clear. It was and he slipped out noiselessly, leaving Pippin with only the warmth on the sheets and the lingering scent on his skin.

* * *

The Overlithe party of 1408 was one that remained green in the memory of all who attended. Many a cask was broached that night and many a troth was plighted in the groves that surrounded the party lawn. Some hearts were broken, yes, but none past repair, and there were no more babies the following Rethe than might have been expected.

For Merry and Pippin, it seemed as if the party was going to go on forever. They started out with their respective families, eating supper and drinking an ale or two (Pippin having been sternly warned by Merry that dire consequences would attend any overindulgence on his part). Once the dancing started, however, groups mingled and merged and blended, and by the end of the fifth dance it was easy for them to slip away without being noticed.

They didn't need to go far from the party lawn before the noise and light faded and they were left with the stars in the clear sky and the rustle of leaves. A gibbous moon had risen an hour before, but its pale silver light was drowned in the shadows cast by the trees and rocks.

Pippin led Merry to one of the smaller groves, dark and private, and ran over to the basket he had smuggled out earlier. Inside was a woollen blanket, a jug of ale, and several handkerchiefs. He set aside the jug and spread the blanket on the ground before looking back at Merry with a shy smile.

"My clever Pippin," murmured Merry with approval, and took Pippin into his arms. The hours since that morning had seemed interminable, but all frustration was forgotten as their lips met and their bodies moulded into each other. Merry's breath caught as Pippin's tongue slipped past his teeth and into his mouth, and he felt the surge of desire that still took him by surprise.

"I love you, Pippin."

"I love you, Merry, now stop wasting time and tumble me." Pippin's fingers were already busy with the buttons on Merry's waistcoat.

Merry laughed and let his hands drop to Pippin's hips. He nuzzled at a sensitive ear, and his voice dropped until it resembled a purr. "One of these days, love, I'm going to teach you the value of taking your time. I'm going to touch you, let you feel it, let you remember it and then make you wait, make you anticipate, make you wonder where I'll touch you again. I'll kiss every single inch of your skin, from your head to your toes. I'll make love to you slowly, so slowly that you'll feel every tiny movement, even my heartbeat. An hour... or two... until you finally reach your release, and you'll remember every second of it." He felt the shiver that ran through Pippin's body at his words and shivered himself as Pippin undid the last of his shirt buttons and slid his hands around Merry's flanks.

"Oh, Merry, Merry... not slow, not tonight."

Pippin's tone was anxious, which Merry didn't find at all surprising, not when he could feel Pippin's hardness pressing against his groin. "Not tonight, love." His fingers made quick work of Pippin's buttons and soon they were lying naked against each other. The air was cool and Merry was glad of the blanket that shielded them from the damp ground. He moved down to explore that particularly sweet-tasting patch of skin on Pippin's thigh he had discovered yesterday and had to place an arm over Pippin's hips to hold him still as he reacted to the touch. Pippin's arousal was already wet and gleaming at the tip and Merry grinned to himself, knowing that it was largely due to his teasing that Pippin was in such a state.

He took hold of the shaft, and Pippin yelped softly.

"Oh Merry, please..."

"Hush, love, I will." He bent his mouth to the tip and gave it a slow, gentle lick, letting the sharp-sweet-musky taste fill his mouth. Essence of Pippin, his mind's voice murmured. He opened his mouth and took the whole length, feeling it slide across his palate and into his throat. Pippin shuddered under him, and Merry pressed down with his free arm again. His mouth and hand moved slowly at first, but Pippin's urgent whimpers drove him on and soon he was rewarded with the rush of fluid into his mouth as Pippin arched up and gave a strangled cry. He swallowed, noting the slightly bitter aftertaste, and made sure that Pippin had relaxed before pulling away.

Pippin reached for him as he moved up. "I want to do that to you."

"You will." Merry kissed him, sweeping his tongue through Pippin's mouth and chuckling as Pippin registered the taste. "But it takes practice. I'll have to tell you and show you what to do at first, so maybe it would be better to leave it until we're back in bed. For now," Merry took hold of Pippin's hand and placed it on his stiff erection, "I want your hand, I want your touch."

"Oh, yes," Pippin breathed, and closed his fist around the hard shaft, pulling up firmly.

Merry groaned: Pippin's touch was right on the border between pleasure and pain. He rolled over onto his back and felt Pippin settling against him before resuming his actions. He could feel Pippin's hand as it ran up and down, the thumb rubbing the tip at the apex of each stroke and Pippin adding an occasional twist, until Merry was writhing and ready. A few more hard, quick strokes and he came over Pippin's hand, not crying out, just gasping, then sighing as his body relaxed.

He heard, rather than saw, Pippin grabbing a handkerchief to clean his hand and Merry's thigh. Merry smiled dreamily at him, his eyes not really focussing, then let his gaze drift up to the stars above them. He loved looking at the stars, watching them turn around the sky each night, seeing how their positions changed with the seasons. They were always the same, no matter what the year brought. They didn't change in flood or famine or bountiful harvest. They simply were: eternal, everlasting, unchanging. They made him feel at once secure and insignificant.

"Sometimes, when I look up at the sky, I think I can see into forever." His voice was soft and awed.

Pippin rolled over and looked up. "Where's the Swordsman?" he asked.

Merry felt a bubble of laughter welling up inside him. Eternal truths were not confined to the stars, after all: philosophy would never hold Pippin's attention, not if he lived longer than the Old Took. "It's already set. You only see it in the evening in summer. But the Butterfly is still there - look."

"Yes, I see it. Where's the Sickle?"

Merry pointed to the north, where the sky was still washed with indigo. "There. You can always see it, no matter what the season. The star at the end of the blade -"

"-is the Pole Star. I know that."

"Well, don't forget it. If you ever get lost at night, it will tell you where north is."

"If I spend all my nights with you, I won't ever get lost."

"We might get lost together."

"You'd find our way home, I know you would."

Merry wrapped his arms around Pippin, pleased beyond measure at Pippin's unswerving confidence. Maybe Pippin had something better than philosophy, after all.

They lay there for some minutes until they were alerted by the sound of footsteps and giggles as another couple passed by their glade.

"Come on, sweeting." Merry sat up. "Time to get dressed and go back to the party."

Pippin nodded and they dressed quickly and quietly. The blanket was shaken out and rolled up before being restowed in the basket. They hadn't even touched the ale, but Merry decided to leave it there for the time being. One more kiss, then Merry gave Pippin a push. "You go back now and I'll follow in a couple of minutes."

Pippin ran off and Merry finished tidying himself up before heading back through the trees towards the party lawn.

"Merry." The quiet voice stopped him in his tracks. He turned and saw Berilac leaning up against a tree, slightly tousled but more-or-less fully-dressed.

"Hello, Berry, I didn't see you there."

"I know. You also didn't see several other people who headed in this direction over the last half-hour." He pushed himself away from the tree and took a couple of steps in order to stand just in front of Merry. "I know that young Pippin can be very persuasive, but I think that you need to avoid outdoor activities until such time as your liaison has parental blessing."

Merry felt the chill of apprehension in his chest. "They didn't see us, did they?"

"No, I managed to divert them towards another glade. One that, coincidentally, gave them more than enough food for thought... and gossip." He smiled wickedly. "Dear Cousin Frodo was carried off, blue dress and all, by the impressively strong Samwise."

Merry was stunned for a moment, then burst out laughing. "Well, good for Sam!"

"Indeed, I imagine it was good for Frodo as well. I must admit, it came as a surprise to me - I had no idea he held such... umm... bucolic interests."

His voice held the hint of a sneer and Merry was quick to come to Sam's defence. "Don't be so mean - Sam's a good sort. Actually, I'm pleased. I know Frodo's lusted after him for years, but I always thought that Sam liked lasses."

"It appears that Sam has broadened his horizons. I can't say that I blame him, mind you - Frodo in blue is an enticing prospect."

Merry giggled and was about to make a teasing reply when they were diverted by the sound of a crash followed by a roar of laughter. Obviously, someone had upset a table or a barrel.

Berry looked towards the noise, but they couldn't see anything. "I think we'd better get back to the party. Care to walk with me?" He held out his hand.

Merry grinned - a little misdirection would be very useful. "Why not? Though if Pippin gets upset, I may need to beg your help again."

"Anytime, pet." Berry gave him a wink, and Merry was giggling again as they left the trees and rejoined the party. As chance would have it, Saradoc was looking in his direction as they came into view and Merry felt himself blushing as he realised that his father thought that he was returning from a tryst with Berry. Oh well, it was better than the truth.

* * *

Second Lithe was subdued. Most people had had too much to drink and too little sleep the night before to have the energy to do anything at all. Some of the guests had left already - Frodo and Sam among them - and the rest were snoozing or lazing around in armchairs, storing up strength for the busy season that was about to start.

The tweenage girls gathered in Pimpernel's room, going over every moment of the evening and exchanging secrets. Pimpernel had decamped early with her playmate and so was making earnest enquiries about everything that had happened after her departure. Pervinca and Melilot had danced almost every dance (the last couple with each other) and were curled up together on the sofa, exhausted but happy.

Amaryllis was torn between sulking and gloating: she had failed in her attempt to take a kiss from Berry (thus forfeiting a substantial portion of next quarter's allowance to Pervinca), or even Merry, her second choice, but had spent some pleasant hours with Ferdibrand Took. He had shown a proper appreciation of her charms and she had granted him a kiss after their third dance. Her mother had been pleased, too, since a respectable cousin of the Took and Thain (even if he was only a second cousin once removed and eight years off his majority) was preferable to the scandal-ridden nephew of the Master of Buckland.

Mentha, sitting quietly in a corner chair with her customary embroidery, listened to the chatter and smiled to herself. She had had three dances, two of them with Folco Boffin, and had sat talking with him afterwards. He was good company and had even kissed her goodnight - she had blushed, though he couldn't see it in the lamplight. She looked forward to seeing him again. The Yale wasn't too far for him to ride to Brandy Hall once a month or so, and there was always a birthday or a wedding to fill the gap between Lithe and Yule.

Vinca was sleepy and her eyes closed from time to time, but she managed to maintain an ear on the conversation which, in the manner of feminine conversation everywhere, ranged back and forth through a dozen topics in an intricately-webbed pattern. Naturally, the sudden and somewhat shocking liaison between Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee was one of the principal subjects. The Baggins line was fast becoming eccentric enough to rival the Tooks - that was no news at all - but the involvement of a heretofore respectable and stolid village hobbit was sufficiently unusual to titillate the most jaded of gossips. Ah well, thought Vinca, Cousin Frodo deserves a little fun from time to time. And it looks like no one but me noticed my idiotic little brother sneaking off with Merry, so that's all right.

* * *

Pippin, Merry and Berry took their ponies out after second breakfast (none of them having risen in time for the first) and spent a pleasant couple of hours riding over the hills that surrounded Tuckborough. To no one's surprise, Pippin had brought a pannier of food that was generous enough to serve them for both elevenses and lunch. They let the horses rest in a glade beside a pond, while they lay on the south face of the slope and soaked up the warm summer sun.

Pippin was soon asleep, but Merry sat up, chewing on a grass stem and running over the events of the past few days in his head.

Berry ran a hand down his back. "What's wrong, pet?"

"I keep worrying about things. About Pippin and me."

"That's understandable."

"I can't help thinking that they'll separate us if they find out. It frightens me. I love Pippin so much I honestly don't think I'd survive if we were separated, or if I had to leave Brandy Hall."

Berry sat up, looking concerned, but his voice remained non-committal. "It's surprising what you can live through, when there isn't any alternative."

Merry felt ashamed. Here he was, worrying about something that might never happen, when Berry had actually had to live through it. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to remind you..."

"Don't worry. It was all a very long time ago. I barely remember it myself."

"That's not true."

"Well, allow me to pretend it is." Berry grabbed a handful of grass stems and began twisting them into a plait. "Look, Merry, I don't think it'll turn out to be that bad. The situation isn't the same. Pippin's already older now than I was when I left the Hall, and every month will take him closer to twenty. You're both heirs to prominent positions, not anonymous cousins. And, most importantly, Grandpa Rory isn't the Master any more. I honestly don't think that you'd be sent away, either of you. But if it comes to that, let me know, and I'll do what I can for you. They'd listen to me. They owe me that."

"Thank you," Merry whispered, grateful that Berry had offered to help.

"Don't mention it." Berry hugged him, then lay back down and closed his eyes. "Wake me for supper."

"I think Pippin will wake us both."

"You're probably right." He yawned. "I think I'm getting too old for all-night parties."

"Poor old thing. I'll give you a walking stick for my birthday."

"Not unless you want one of Cousin Hilda's ghastly knitted things for Yule."

Merry laughed. "You wouldn't do that, you like me too much."

"You're probably right, but don't tempt me." Berry ran a hand up and down Merry's back a couple of times, then yawned again. He crooked an arm over his eyes and was asleep in a couple of minutes.

Merry stared at the horizon for some time, wondering what would happen to them all. He had no confidence whatsoever that his new relationship with Pippin would stay a secret for long. For one thing, too many people knew already, and for another, neither he nor Pippin could stop looking at each other. Someone was bound to notice.

He looked down at the lad beside him and felt the foolish, adoring smile that came over his face. He lay down on his side, head propped on his elbow, and touched Pippin's lips with his finger. Pippin stirred, but didn't wake. Merry smiled again, then rolled onto his back.

Ah, well. If Elbereth was inclined to help them - and the evidence so far was that she was - everything would turn out all right in the end. He closed his eyes and slept.

 

 

Frolic the Fourth: Harvest

In which Pippin gets a long-awaited birthday present and an old scandal is resurrected.

Great Smials, Tuckborough - 25 Halimath 1408 SR

Pippin was pacing up and down the main hall. He had expected the Buckland party hours ago, but they were still not here and he had run out of tasks to keep himself occupied. Even his mother had run out of tasks to keep him occupied, and that was quite an accomplishment. He caught sight of his father coming down the large staircase and tried to look innocent, but from the way his father was looking at him he suspected that he hadn't succeeded. At least everyone was used to him being eager to see Merry, since he had often ridden or walked out to meet the carriage on previous visits. He wondered what his father would say, though, if he knew what had happened between himself and Merry at Lithe, when - after years of growing affection and months of frustrated desire - they had finally become lovers. He still couldn't believe that they had managed to avoid an outcry so far. Merry had even kept his word to Pippin and had danced with him at the Overlithe party, but luckily, as both his parents and Pippin's parents had wandered off themselves by that stage, it had gone largely unnoticed.

Since his return to Brandy Hall, Merry had been busy with the harvest and helping his father sort out what remained of Old Rory's records. Though Saradoc had been increasingly involved in the business of the Mastership for quite a few years, there were, it appeared, several things that Rorimac had kept to himself that were only now coming to light, though Merry had been somewhat reticent about details. Between the harvest and the sorting out of records, Merry had been kept busy at Brandy Hall all summer, and Pippin hadn't seen him since the week after Overlithe. He could count on one hand the nights they had spent as lovers, and he was almost desperate to see him again, even if it would only be for a week.

This visit was a triple celebration, in a way. The wedding of Reginard Took and Periwinkle Bolger was to be held on 28th Halimath and would be marked by a large reception that would double as a harvest dance. Two days before that, though, was Merry's 26th birthday, for which there was to be a small family party. It had been Pippin's suggestion to invite the Brandy Hall guests early so that Merry didn't have to spend his birthday travelling, and his father had readily agreed. Then, since Great Smials was going to be crowded, he had suggested that Merry share his room. His mother had looked at him with suspicion, but he had smiled sweetly at her and pointed out, with impeccable logic, that as all the available guestrooms had been allocated for the wedding, and the children doubled and trebled into each other's rooms, there was really no other place for Merry to stay. His father had demurred, thnking it unsuitable for a hobbit who was now the heir to the Master of Buckland, but Pippin had assured him that Merry wouldn't mind, not for a week.

Finally, Pippin could hear the sound of hooves and wheels on the gravel and he raced out to see the Brandy Hall carriages swinging into view. Merry was riding beside them as usual, on his neat bay pony, and the smile he gave Pippin before he dismounted was enough to make the youngster feel dizzy.

The carriages stopped in front of the main entrance, and in no time at all there were dozens of people milling around, greeting each other and shouting directions about baggage to no one in particular. A couple of boys clambered up onto the carriage roofs to undo the straps, and then boxes and trunks were being lifted down and piled by the doors. Some of the younger children were already running in and out of the crowd, laughing and shrieking, happy to be able to move again after two days of forced inactivity. A stray curse or two floated on the air as the men hoisting the trunks tried to cope with the boddies that appeared unexpectedly in their way.

In all the confusion, no one was paying any attention to a couple of tweenagers and Pippin was able to give Merry a tight hug and a kiss on the cheek. "Did you miss me?" he asked.

"Every day. Every moment of every day." Merry's voice was low and intense and his face had a hungry look.

Pippin caught his breath. It wouldn't do to kiss Merry as a lover, not here in front of everyone, but the way that Merry looked at him told him that Lithe had not been forgotten, and he was relieved. He hadn't realised, until that moment, how he had been dreading the possibility that Merry might not want him anymore.

"I got Mother to agree to let you share my room - because of the wedding guests, you understand. I said you wouldn’t mind, if it was just for a few days."

"Clever lad! Though of course I shall say that it's terribly tiresome if anyone asks. Now, you'd better let me go before someone notices. I promise you can hold me all you want once we get into your room."

Pippin let his cousin go reluctantly and they turned to see how the rest of the guests were doing.

By then, the new Master was being greeted by Paladin and in a few minutes he was taken inside to greet the Thain. The rest of the party began to pick up smaller bags and squabble over rooms. Merry grabbed his own bag and followed Pippin indoors. His vision of a lengthy greeting kiss (or better) was, however, forestalled by Eglantine, who called out to them as they disappeared through the door. "Don't go far, you two, I shall want your help before tea." Pippin waved an acknowledgment and they continued into the Smial.

* * *

The moment that the door of Pippin's room closed behind them, Merry dropped his bag. It hadn't even hit the floor before Pippin was in his arms and they were kissing, embracing, pressing up against each other. Pippin pushed and Merry found his back to the wall, with Pippin grinding rather inexpertly against him in front. It felt heavenly, though, and he simply wasn't able to tell Pippin to stop. Instead, he turned them both around, lifted one of Pippin's legs so that it was wrapped around his thigh, and proceeded to show Pippin how it should be done. As aroused as they both were, it was only seconds before they came, though Merry held Pippin for at least as long again while they recovered their breath and nestled into each other's arms.

"Oh, my love," breathed Merry. "I missed you so much. I missed this."

"I missed you, too."

"Mmm, I'd forgotten how good you smell. I'd forgotten how good you taste." Merry ran his lips over Pippin's neck and jaw, feeling him shiver, then drew away. "Is there any water in your washstand? We'd better clean up a little before we go back downstairs."

"Yes, but it's cold. I could get some hot..."

"Not now, not with everyone running around. Cold will do for now. And tonight we'll have all the time in the world."

"I wish it were tonight already," Pippin whispered.

"Soon, love, soon."

Merry washed first and hurried back to the main hall, where he saw that his cousin Berilac had just arrived. If he remembered correctly, Berry had come up from Longbottom, where he had been handling some of the negotiations concerning Buckland's harvest. Merry was surprised to see him there for a Took-Bolger wedding, until he realised that he must be one of Reg's guests - the two of them had been lovers for years, off and on, until Reg's engagement to Periwinkle that spring. Frankly, Merry was glad that this particular liaison of Berry's would soon be over, as Reg was not one of his favourite relatives and he had never been able to work out what Berry saw in him. Or what Frodo had seen in him eight years ago, if it came to that. Mind you, he admired Berry's courage, if not his taste in hobbits: he wasn't sure that he could stand by and watch one of his own lovers - especially Pippin - marry someone else.

"Berry! What a surprise!" He gave his cousin a hug, then had a discomforting thought. "I didn't know you were going to be here - I left your birthday present in Buckland."

"Never mind, pet. I'll be home in a couple of weeks; you can give it to me then. In the meantime you can tell me all the Buckland gossip. How are the foals doing? How's Uncle Sara coping with his first harvest as Master? Has he finally decided how many new drains we're going to be digging this winter?"

Merry did his best to answer all the questions as they walked through the hallways to the Green Parlour, where afternoon tea was laid out. Most of the Tooks were already there, plus his parents and some of the earlier wedding guests. He caught sight of Pippin talking to Cousin Frodo, who had escorted the bride-to-be, Periwinkle Bolger, and her mother, Poppy Baggins-Bolger, down from Frogmorton. Though Frodo looked calm enough, the set of his jaw suggested that the journey had been less than pleasant.

Merry pitied Frodo for having been persuaded to act as Periwinkle's sponsor for the wedding, but accepted that Frodo had been given little choice. Periwinkle's father, Filibert, had moved away some years ago to parts unknown (and there were those who said that he had done well to escape his wife's incessant nagging this side of the grave). Odovacar, the senior remaining Bolger, was unwell and unable to travel and his son Fredegar was underage, so Odovacar had asked Frodo to act for him. It wasn't ideal, since Frodo was only Periwinkle's second cousin once removed, but the only other possibilities were relatives more distant still. The only one beside Odovacar bearing the Bolger name was Wilimar, Periwinkle's fourth cousin once removed, who had flatly refused to attend any function at which Poppy would be present. Frodo wasn't keen on spending time in the same smial as Poppy either, but he wasn't quite so blatant about saying so. When he had suggested Griffo Boffin, who was at least Periwinkle's first cousin once removed on the Boffin side, Odovacar had explained, with some reluctance, that Griffo had not been invited, having clashed with Poppy on a previous occasion. Eventually Frodo had accepted that there was no one else, and acquiesced to Odovacar's final argument - that being related to Periwinkle through Bolger, Boffin and Baggins lines was more than enough to make up for the different surname.

Merry hoped that Frodo would recover his spirits soon, but wasn't confident. Frodo had been a little unhappy for some weeks now, and Merry thought there might be more to it than just the impending wedding. He wondered how Sam's family had reacted to what had happened at Overlithe, and how Frodo was coping with the aftermath. Merry knew how his cousin hated to be talked about, and the sight of Frodo Baggins in a blue dress and being carried off to the woods in the strong arms of his gardener had made food for gossip the length and breadth of the Shire for several weeks. Still, it had been Overlithe, after all, and stranger things had happened in past years. Merry was trying to recall the details of an old scandal involving Hugo Bracegirdle, Rusty Noakes and a billy-goat when his attention was drawn back to his immediate surroundings by Pippin's return.

"Cousin Berry!" Pippin exclaimed as he ran over, throwing his arms around the new arrival and kissing him firmly on the cheek.

"How are you, young Pippin?"

"Very well, thank you, Cousin Berry, and all the better for seeing you."

"Cheeky brat!" Berry smiled, and pinched his chin. Then, giving Pippin a light kiss on the lips he added, in a lower voice, "Since you have joined those of us who dance in the garden of earthly delights, you may dispense with the 'Cousin' and just call me Berry. Otherwise I'll start to feel that you disapprove of me, like all the great-aunts."

Pippin looked at Merry, his face aglow. "Did you hear that? I 'dance in the garden of earthly delights'!" He went to put his arms around Merry, then remembered where they were and blushed profusely, hoping that he hadn't spoken too loudly. Merry slid an arm around him for a second, in reassurance, then gave him a teasing punch on the arm.

Frodo strolled over and greeted both his cousins - Merry warmly and Berry rather coolly. Berry's manner was polite, but he excused himself less than a minute later and went to change. Pippin made a note to ask Merry about it later - he had no idea why two such wonderful cousins didn't get on, and his previous attempts to glean information on the reason why had not been successful.

* * *

Merry hadn’t intended to stay so long after supper, but he had become involved in a discussion on translation with Frodo and a couple of others. Pippin, of course, had not been interested at all, and had flitted from group to group, like a bee sampling nectar, until he had finally whispered a request to Merry to wake him when he came up and gone to bed. It was another half an hour before Merry withdrew himself from the conversation, and even then it looked as if it would continue for several hours more. He hoped that he hadn’t been too obvious - usually he was one of the last to retire – but he wanted to be with Pippin.

He felt a little nervous as he ascended the stairs and made his way to their room. It was the first time that he and Pippin had actually shared a room since they became lovers, and he was worried that, if they had the misfortune to argue, there would be nowhere for either of them to escape. But then, he reasoned, most of their arguments in the previous year had been about tumbling, which was no longer an issue between them, so he should have nothing to fear.

When he entered the room, he found that Pippin had already fallen asleep and lay curled up in the bed, his face innocent of any mischief, looking even younger than his 18 years in the soft light of the candle. It was warm in the room and even in the dim candlelight Merry could see a faint blush on the boy’s rounded cheeks. He stood by the bed for several minutes, watching Pippin sleep, feeling his heart pound as he realised once more how much his cousin meant to him. He sent a hasty prayer to Elbereth to keep Pippin safe and help them stay together, then changed into his nightshirt, blew out the candle and climbed into the bed. Pippin stirred and rolled towards him, not waking, but seeking Merry's arms. Merry drifted off to sleep, one arm wrapped around the slim body and his chin tickled by soft curls.

* * *

Merry's birthday dawned with a light mist that dispersed as the sun rose over the hills. Pippin awoke first, still nestled against Merry's side, one arm flung over his chest. He smiled to himself as he felt Merry's arm around him, and remembered that this time there was no need to leave the warmth of Merry's bed for his own. His smile widened and he gave a cat-like stretch.

Merry stirred, and Pippin decided that he had had enough sleep. He pulled himself up the bed and leaned over to brush Merry's curls away from his face. Merry's eyes fluttered open and he gave a sleepy smile as he met Pippin's gaze.

Pippin kissed Merry's cheek. "Happy Birthday."

"Hello, sweeting. How are you?"

"All the better for waking up with you here and not having to get up and go back to my own room, or watch you go back to yours."

"I agree. There are much better things to do in the mornings."

Merry reached over and pulled Pippin towards him, but Pippin resisted. "Why didn't you wake me last night when you came in? We only have a few nights together - I don't want to waste any of them."

"Lovely Pippin, my sweet, you were fast asleep. I don't think you would have woken even if I had rolled you out of the bed!"

"Did you try?"

"Well, no. You looked so peaceful, and I thought you needed your sleep. You were so tired earlier."

"But you knew I wanted to tumble with you. You didn't ask me if I'd changed my mind."

Merry felt a flash of irritation, but then he realised that Pippin was right. They had agreed that Merry would wake him and he had not done so. "I'm sorry, I should have woken you. I won't do it again."

Pippin grinned. "You're forgiven... this time. But you have to make up for it." He leaned in for a kiss.

Merry responded eagerly and several minutes went by until he had the opportunity to ask his question. "I never got the chance to ask if you wanted something special for my birthday."

"Well, you could always ask me now."

"Dearest Pippin, my love, do you want something special for my birthday?"

"Yes, Merry, actually I do."

"And what would you like."

"You."

"Me?"

"You. I want you. I want us to… well…" Pippin faltered, and the grin faded from his face as he felt strangely embarrassed, because although he had demanded this for months it had always been with the knowledge that Merry would say no. Now, however, a yes was a real possibility and Pippin was suddenly aware that he couldn't joke about it any longer. He looked Merry in the eye and said, "I want you to give yourself to me, and... I want to give myself to you."

When Merry didn't answer at once, Pippin wondered if he was about to be refused again, and he couldn't bear to think of it. "You know what I mean," he continued, almost angry, "don't pretend that you don't."

Merry remained silent but took Pippin's hand and kissed it, then guided it down to his groin so that Pippin could feel his body's response. "I know what you mean."

Pippin ran his hand slowly up Merry's length, watching Merry's eyes turn dark. It still amazed him that he could cause such a change in his lover with a simple touch. "Well, as long as you don't mean to say no."

"I don't. I want you more than ever."

"You mean it?"

"I mean it. Tonight, after supper, here in this room. I want to feel us joined, as one, taking and giving and loving each other." Merry's hands had shifted to Pippin's erection while he spoke, and in a moment they were stroking each other, their eyes locked, their breaths becoming gasps. Pippin pushed Merry’s nightshirt up to his chin and, as Merry raised his shoulders, pulled the garment off and threw it on the floor. Merry lay back down, allowing Pippin full access to his body. Pippin began nuzzling the skin below Merry's navel, drifting off to the left to catch the sensitive areas of his groin. Merry squirmed - he was ticklish there - but Pippin held him firmly by the hips and kept on teasing him with kisses and flicks of the tongue and the gentlest of bites. Then, grasping Merry by the knees, he opened his legs wide, pressing a finger to the small opening, circling it, feeling the muscles twitch beneath the wrinkled skin as Merry drew a deep breath. He pressed a little more deeply and felt the muscles start to yield to his touch. He would have pressed deeper yet, but Merry grabbed his arm and stopped him.

"Not yet, love. Tonight. Wait for tonight."

Pippin almost pouted, but allowed Merry to pull him up into a fierce kiss. Merry then crawled down the bed himself, so that they were aligned head to crotch, and started to stroke Pippin's arousal. Pippin shivered but moved so that he could reach Merry's erection, pushing Merry's thigh up with one hand and guiding the hardening shaft into his mouth with the other. Merry gave Pippin's length a few more strokes then took it into his own mouth, and they started a gentle to-and-fro, each following the rhythm of the other. Gradually their movements became deeper, letting heat and sensation build in them and between them, but, as they approached the end, depth gave way to speed. Pippin climaxed first, throwing his head back as he bucked into Merry's mouth. He let himself take a couple of deep breaths, and then returned to his lover's shaft, using his hand as well as his mouth. It wasn't long before Merry came, hot and bitter-sweet-salt in his throat. He choked a little but swallowed bravely - it was only the third time he had done this and he was still getting used to it.

Merry turned himself around again and they snuggled together as they recovered their breath, then drifted off to sleep again. It was a couple of hours later before they woke again, and second breakfast was almost over by the time they had washed, dressed and emerged from the room. Pippin caught a questioning look from his mother but smiled brightly and headed for the food.

* * *

Afterwards, Pippin had no clear recollection of what they did that day between breakfast and supper. It was Merry's birthday, but he didn't even remember getting his present (a real, honest-to-goodness sea shell), let alone mundane things like meals, though he did have a vague recollection of a splendid dinner and a birthday cake with candles. His memories began again only as the door to his room was closed and locked, and Merry turned to him with a glow in his eyes and a smile on his lips.

Pippin felt nervous, and was embarrassed by his trembling. He had longed for this for months, but now that the hour had come, he felt unsure.

"Come lie down, love," Merry whispered. "It's not that frightening. We've spent nights together, we've made love, we've explored each other's bodies. This isn't very different, truly it isn't."

"I know. I don't know why I'm so nervous."

"Everybody is. It seems to be a law of nature. But you don't have to worry."

"It will hurt."

"I'll try to make it as painless as possible."

"But it won't be painless."

"No. Though if you've changed your mind we can do something else. There's always time to change your mind. Don't feel that you have to go on if you would rather not."

"But I do want to go on. I just don't want it to hurt."

"It won't hurt for long, and then it will feel wonderful."

"Promise?"

"Promise."

Pippin took a deep breath and started to unbutton his shirt with quick, nervous fingers. "Let's lie down then." He knew that Merry preferred to undress them slowly, with kisses and caresses, and usually that was wonderful, but tonight it would be torment. He was thankful to see Merry copying his lead and stripping his clothes off before getting onto the bed and pushing the covers back. As soon as Pippin was naked he stepped forward and took Merry's outstretched hand, climbing up into Merry's arms.

They were kneeling on the bed, face to face. Pippin was trembling slightly and he was grateful that Merry held him close, reassuring him with his warmth and his confidence. Merry tilted his face up and smiled at him, whispering "I love you" as if it were a a spell to soothe him. Oddly enough, it did soothe him, and he relaxed into the now-familiar embrace as Merry's lips gently touched his own. The kiss was neither invasive nor threatening, and after a few seconds he pushed forward, noting how sweet Merry tasted, how soft and warm his lips were, how delightful it felt to suck Merry' s tongue into his own mouth, how Merry responded with an inhalation and a tightening of arms around him. When Merry probed his own mouth it was only natural to tilt his head back and allow his lover to explore every surface, every crevice.

His hands moved over Merry's back, over the shoulders that seemed to grow broader and stronger with each season. He felt Merry's arms around him, the pressure firm but not threatening, while one hand moved in slow circles around his shoulder-blades. After a few minutes Pippin let his hands drift down to fondle Merry's hips and his wonderfully soft, round bottom, feeling Merry's response in the hitch of breath and the small forward movement of his hips. He felt Merry's hands curving around his hips and pulling him closer so that their erections were caught between their bellies, causing them both to gasp and move back. Pippin took advantage of the momentary separation to bring one hand around Merry's front, running his fingertips over collarbone, ribs, nipples and stomach. Merry gave a breathy moan of appreciation, and Pippin wriggled closer for another kiss. He felt Merry's hand slide between them to touch his stomach, just as he had done a few seconds before and he realised, with a jolt, that Merry wasn't doing anything that Pippin hadn't done. Every movement was the mirror of his own, allowing Pippin to determine action and pace.

He looked at Merry, overwhelmed by the love and gratitude and awe and adoration that washed through him. He couldn't speak but he could still use his mouth to tell Merry how much he loved him, and so he did, with a kiss that burned through them both. As Pippin opened his eyes again, after what seemed to have been an hour but might only have been a few seconds, he found that they had lain down, though he couldn't remember moving. Merry's fingers were drifting delightfully over Pippin's belly and hips and thighs, now and again just brushing the hairs between his legs then moving away again. He squirmed, trying to move his body so that fingers encountered more than hair, but Merry was too clever at this. Finally he grabbed the hand and placed it squarely on his erection, saying, "I want you to touch me here."

Merry laughed and complied, and his fingers began to stroke up and down the length. Again, the touch was light and teasing, and Pippin was soon begging for more.

"Please, Merry..."

"What do you want?"

"More."

"More what?"

"More... harder, faster."

Merry's hand closed into a fist and he commenced a smooth, regular action, gradually increasing the pace. Pippin couldn't suppress a squirm as he grew harder, and when he looked down he could see fluid appearing at the tip. Merry took one finger and smeared the fluid around the head, a glint of amusement in his eye as Pippin bit his lip in frustration. Merry touched the wet finger to Pippin's upper lip, coating it with the glistening fluid, then immediately licked it off, following that with a deep kiss that continued even as his hand returned to Pippin's shaft.

Pippin could feel the climax building and tried to hold it back. "Merry...I'm.."

"Sshh, it's all right. It'll relax you, make the next part easier."

Pippin acquiesced and allowed the sensations to engulf him. He needed only a few strokes more to reach his climax, and his cries were muffled by Merry's mouth.

As Pippin lay panting, he looked up at Merry's face and felt his heart almost bursting with love. He reached an arm up and pulled Merry down to him, not kissing but holding him close. Pippin let one hand slip between them and trailed a teasing finger up and down Merry’s length. After a couple of minutes of this, Merry pulled away and reached for the bottle of sweet almond oil that he had placed on the bedside table. Pippin watched as Merry took out the stopper and poured a little onto his hand. A few drops fell down onto Pippin's belly, causing him to twitch. This was it, then. Pippin opened his legs.

Merry sensed his nervousness. "You can still change your mind, love."

Pippin shook his head. "I want this."

Merry nodded, and pushed the legs open a little wider, exposing all the most intimate areas of Pippin's body. Pippin felt the oil being smoothed over the sensitive skin behind the scrotum, then Merry brought his hand forward to cup the balls and roll them in his palm. He poured a little more oil and directed the drops to fall on the tiny rosebud that guarded the entrance to Pippin's body.

Pippin watched Merry's fingers as they followed the oil down to his skin. He felt heat building up underneath their touch and wanted more Gentle, insistent pressure heralded the insertion of one finger, and Pippin registered the unusual sensation. It wasn't pain, it wasn't even really uncomfortable, it was just... odd. After a couple of minutes Merry added a second finger, bringing a slight discomfort, but it was soon forgotten in the swirling heat that centred in his groin. Merry's fingers were stretching and twisting, rolling around the opening, and it felt wonderful.

A third finger produced enough stretch to cause pain and Pippin winced. Merry's fingers slowed, and he spent a long time working the muscles open, until everything was as relaxed as it could be. Only when the three fingers were pushed right in, almost to the palm, did Merry allow them to curve forward. The first touch to the small gland in front caused a shiver to run through Pippin's body and his eyes to open.

"What's that?"

"That, my love, is spot I'm going to be aiming for with every stroke." Merry brushed it again, and Pippin's body started to vibrate in response. "I can keep doing this, if you want, and you will come just from my fingers. That won't hurt."

"No." Pippin regained enough control to place his own hand on Merry's shaft and give it a few firm strokes that caused Merry to shiver. "Want this."

Merry withdrew his fingers. "Remember what I said about making this as painless as possible?"

Pippin nodded.

"The best way - the most comfortable - is for you to be on your hands and knees."

Pippin was dismayed. He had imagined that Merry would enter him from in front, where he could see Merry's face and wrap his arms around him. He didn't want to be facing away on all fours, like a ewe being tupped.

Merry tried to reassure him. "It seems to make things more relaxed. It's the least painful position, honestly."

"But I want to see you."

"Please, Pippin. We will do it other ways in future, in ways when you can look at me. But tonight it's best to do it this way. Please, trust me in this, love."

Pippin looked at him for a second, then sat up and kissed him. "I do trust you. But next time I get to look at you."

"Promise."

Pippin rolled over and brought himself up on his hands and knees. He watched as Merry put a small towel under his belly, to catch his release and protect the sheets, then as he poured more oil over his hands and made sure that shaft and tip were richly coated with the warm liquid.

Pippin felt Merry reach around to give Pippin's reawakening erection a gentle caress before pushing forward and into him. He tensed as pain burned right through him, and Merry stopped immediately, but, oddly, that seemed to make it worse. "Keep moving," Pippin managed to gasp, and felt Merry obey him, withdrawing slightly, then pushing forward. Gradually, the burning pain was matched and overtaken by burning pleasure as Merry's gentle movements in and out of his body became deeper and deeper. When the tip of Merry's member touched the spot his fingers had found earlier, Pippin gasped again. It felt as though small bolts of lightning were being generated with each thrust, starting in his groin and spreading through his belly right up to his heart.

He found that everything was moving to the rhythm of Merry's thrusts -his heart, his breathing, the gentle rocking of his body. With every breath he was making noise, though Merry was telling him to keep quiet. He couldn't - he was so consumed by sensation that he had to cry out.

Merry stopped moving again, and Pippin cursed under his breath.

"Pippin, you have to be quiet. You'll wake the whole smial."

"Can't be quiet," he gasped. "Feels too good."

"Well you'll just have to bite on something then. I'm serious, Pip, or everyone on this corridor will know what we're doing."

Pippin grabbed a handkerchief from the bedside table, twisted it roughly into a spindle and thrust it between his jaws. Anger had made his body tense, and he felt Merry running one hand over his back and another around the front to his erection, soothing him, waiting until he relaxed before starting to move inside him again.

Pippin’s anger seemed to melt away as he felt Merry’s renewed thrusts, neither too hard nor too gentle, building a delicious heat deep in his body’s core. A slight change of angle caused him to shudder and gasp as Merry’s length brushed over that spot inside him and sent shooting stars through his groin. Gradually, Merry increased the speed and depth of his movements, keeping pace with Pippin's desire.

Pippin was floating, barely coherent, barely conscious. Merry was taking him to new heights of sensation with every thrust and he could feel his climax beginning to form, deep within him, deeper than he had ever felt it before. It was rotating in a spiral inside him, dragging with it every nerve-ending, every part of his body, every wisp of thought in his mind, until there was nothing but light and heat and stars and a rushing in his ears, and the sure knowledge that he was going to die.

Time stopped, and in an instant of clarity Pippin saw that here, at the still centre of the universe, there was himself and there was Merry, and they were joined forever in this place where Eternity and Now were the same. This was what he had craved, this was what he had been born for, and he thanked the Valar that they had allowed him to know this in the last, wondrous instant of his life.

His climax was an explosion that shattered him into shards of colour, white-hot and ice-cold, and the world disappeared as darkness took him yet again.

Awareness returned slowly. He could tell that Merry was no longer inside him and ached for the loss, but at least Merry was close beside him, holding him and whispering words of love. Towel and handkerchief had gone and Merry was moving him, using those strong arms to lift him and turn him and lay him down again as gently as if he had been made of thistledown. He met Merry's eyes with a sense of wonder. "I'm still alive?"

"Yes, love," Merry whispered. "It was only the little death. Some people call it that, you know."

"No, I didn't. But I know why, now." He touched Merry's cheek, smiling as Merry turned to kiss his fingers. "Thank you."

Merry didn't speak, but the blush on his cheek and the glow in his eyes told Pippin how much his words meant to his lover. Pippin wriggled a little to make himself more comfortable and murmured, "Mmm, I'm feeling very sleepy."

"Then go to sleep, and I'll watch over you." Merry sat up to blow out the candle. Dragging the bedclothes over them, he snuggled up against Pippin's chest. "I love you," he whispered.

"I love you, too," Pippin managed to reply before sleep claimed him.

* * *

Merry woke to the sensation of soft kisses on his neck and a hand gently drifting over his chest. Dim light was coming from the shutters as he turned and saw Pippin's bright face watching him.

"Morning, love."

"Morning, Merry-my-own," Pippin murmured in return, smiling down at him. "I love watching you wake up."

"Mmm, I love the way you wake me." Merry smiled sleepily and ran his hands through Pippin's curls and down his back. "It's always a good morning when you are with me."

"Then we shall have to try and find a way to wake up together every morning."

"One day..."

"We will. One day. I'm sure of it." Pippin's confidence was, as always, unshakeable.

"Are you sore?"

Pippin wriggled. "A little. Not much." He smiled. "You were very gentle. Can we do it again tonight?"

"Yes, we can, but I thought that tonight you would take me." Merry felt Pippin shiver at the thought. His own body was stirring and he pressed into Pippin's thigh.

Pippin's hands started to caress Merry's chest as he spoke. "I'd like that. But I still want to see your face."

"You will."

"Mmm... Do you think we have time for something before breakfast?"

"I think we might... oh, yes," he added as Pippin's hand drifted lower. "Yes, I'm certain we have time." He rolled over, pinning Pippin to the sheets, and pushed his knee between Pippin's legs, drawing it up slowly so that it brushed the whole length of his thigh on its way up to where Pippin suddenly caught his breath. Merry had just seized the opportunity to place a firm kiss on Pippin's open mouth when there was a hammering at the door.

They broke apart, panting. Merry grabbed a robe and unlocked the door. It was Vinca, tumbling through the doorway as soon as the door had started to open.

"What did you want to lock the door for?" she exclaimed.

"So nosy sisters like you don't come barging in!" countered Pippin instantly.

"Oh, go and play with a troll." She turned to Merry. "Have you heard what happened? It's a frightful scandal!"

They looked at each other concerned, but Vinca was already continuing.

"Apparently Cousin Rosamunda saw Reg with Berry in the conservatory last night. She told Periwinkle at breakfast, and now Periwinkle’s having hysterics and wants to call off the wedding. She wants Berry banished or imprisoned or something."

"Oh, no!" Merry hurried to grab clothing. He couldn't allow that. He owed a lot to Berry - not least of which was his help with Pippin - and he couldn't stand by and let his cousin be sent away in disgrace... not again.

He grabbed hold of Vinca's arm. "Where are they?"

"Ow, that hurts!"

"Where are they?"

"In the dining hall. Everyone is shouting so loud I'm surprised you can't hear it from here."

Merry turned to grab his breeches and shirt, throwing them on the bed and reaching for the tie on his robe. Vinca gave an exclamation of shock. "You're not going to get dressed in front of me?"

"I will if you don't leave." As she turned to go, though, he stopped her. "Vinca, does Frodo know?

"Frodo?"

"Yes, is Frodo down there? Does he know about this?"

"I don't think so. I haven't seen him this morning."

"Go and get him. Shout it through the door if you have to."

"Why?"

"He'll want to know. Trust me."

"Very well."

Vinca turned to go, but cast a quick glance back as she turned the handle of the door. Merry had stripped off the robe and was stepping into his breeches, not even bothering with his linens. She gave an appreciative wink to Pippin and stepped out, closing the door firnly behind her.

Pippin laughed and jumped out to get dressed himself. "What are you going to do?" he asked Merry.

"I have no idea."

* * *

Whatever it had been when Vinca left, the scene was chaos now. Merry could hear the shouts from two corridors back as he approached, a jumble of angry voices -Reg's, Periwinkle's, Poppy's, Saradoc's. Not Berry's voice though, not that he had expected to hear that. As he ran full tilt into the room and skidded to a stop, he could see that Berry was standing slightly apart from the others and was looking tired but otherwise expressionless. Merry tried to speak with him but he was silent, merely shaking his head. "Come on, Berry! You have to tell me if I'm going to be able to help you."

"I don't need your help."

"You need someone's help! You can't stand by and let Periwinkle destroy your life!"

Berry looked at him, distantly. "She can't. And don't you think you're a little young to be playing Master of the Hall?"

Merry opened his mouth to protest but then, from behind the mass of onlookers, came a voice – a quiet, calm, and utterly compelling voice – that cut through the noise like a blade of ice.

"Would someone please explain to me the cause of all this commotion?"

Merry turned, giddy with relief, as silence fell.

Frodo stepped through the crowd, which parted before him as if he had been the Thain himself, and faced the protagonists. He took in the situation at a glance: Berry, to one side, with Merry; Reg, Periwinkle, and Poppy on the other. Several others, with degrees of involvement that ranged from little to none at all, stood awaiting developments. No one spoke.

The silence stretched out, thinned, and eventually broke as Cousin Rosamunda, meddlesome Took that she was, summed up the situation with masterly understatement and self-righteous justification. "I saw Reg and Berry in an Intimate Embrace late last night in the conservatory. I felt it to be my duty to tell Periwinkle about it this morning when I saw her. She is a little upset."

"Yes, I have no doubt that she is." Frodo spoke coolly, as if it were a matter of indifference to him whether Periwinkle was upset or not. "Well, I am never at my best so early in the morning, particularly before breakfast, and I daresay that others aren't either. Perhaps a cup of tea might help us to view this matter a little more calmly and rationally."

"Calm? I don't want to be calm!!" Periwinkle's voice was shrill and her complexion, always high, was now mottled with patches of scarlet and puce, making her look rather like a turnip. "He's a lying bastard! He said it was all over between him and that trollop of a Brandybuck years ago, and now I find he's still tupping him behind my back! The wedding is off!"

"Well, of course, my dear, if you truly want to cancel the wedding, then that is what we shall do." Frodo paused, allowing Periwinkle to realise that she was standing with mouth open and eyes goggling. Slowly she subsided, and Frodo resumed talking. "But it would be foolish to take such a final step before examining all the facts and making sure that everything has been taken into consideration." He cast a thoughtful glance at the crowd, then turned to Eglantine, who had just entered. "Would the Green Parlour be available? Excellent. Reg, Berry, Periwinkle - into the parlour. Saradoc, Paladin - I believe that it would be best to have this... ah.. preliminary discussion... among the principal parties before bringing the Thain into it. Do you agree?"

Paladin nodded, but asked, "What about you?"

"Since I am standing as Periwinkle's father at the wedding, I believe that I have some interest in this matter."

Saradoc opened his mouth as if to say something, but subsided at a quelling look from Esme.

Paladin looked around and, seeing no real opposition, said, "Very well." He took Saradoc's arm and they went into the parlour.

Merry cleared his throat but Frodo gave a tiny shake of his head and followed Saradoc. The door closed behind them.

There was little that he could do for the moment, so Merry went back to his room, where he washed and changed into fresh clothes. Pippin had disappeared, but he had a fair idea where the young hobbit would be. He had a talent for stealth that was surprising in one so loud and he'd had at least a two-minute head start.

* * *

It was an hour later and Merry was looking out of the window, when he heard the door open and close and Pippin's soft footsteps approaching. A pair of strong arms slipped around his waist, a chin came to rest on his shoulder, and Pippin's voice rumbled in his ear.

"I knew you'd be waiting for me."

"Was it very bad?" Merry whispered.

"Ghastly." Pippin turned Merry to face him and rested his head on Merry's shoulder. "Thank heavens Frodo was there. The wedding is still on and he managed to stop your father banishing Berry forever, but it was a close-run thing. Bloody Reginard - I've never liked him. From what I gather, he was the one trying to have one last fling with Berry, and Berry was trying to say no. At least, that's the way it seemed to me, but Poppy and Periwinkle insisted that Berry was trying to seduce Reg against his will. And Berry wouldn't say a word in his own defence! If Frodo hadn't been there, he'd have been rolled up in a carpet and tossed in the Brandywine!"

"Berry's odd like that. It's as if he really doesn't care what people think about him, even when they're wrong." Merry's voice choked, and, to his embarrassment, he found that he was crying.

Pippin tightened his arms, saying, "It's more than just Berry, isn't it?"

Merry nodded. "I kept on looking at my father, in the dining hall, seeing how angry he was, thinking how much worse it would be if he were trying to take you away from me. I don't think that I could bear it."

Pippin held him close, rubbing his back in slow, soothing circles. "I won't let them separate us. If they try, I'll find a way for us to be together. Even if we have to run away to Bree."

"You're underage."

Pippin laughed. "Since when has that ever stopped me? So are you, if it comes to that. Mind you, I think we're safe for the moment. The only good part about all this is that it makes our little tumble look very uninteresting. I think we'd have to kiss in the middle of the Main Hall to get anyone to notice us today."

* * *

The rest of the day passed without much in the way of incident. Berry took himself off for a long walk as soon as he was released from the Green Parlour and didn't return until supper. Merry tried to talk to him after the meal, but Berry shrugged him off and went to bed early.

In fact, most of the guests decided to have an early night in preparation for the big day ahead. Merry and Pippin were able to steal away soon after supper was cleared and they ran up to Pippin's room where they lost no time in undressing.

As they washed, Pippin suddenly remembered something that he had meant to ask earlier. "Why did Uncle Saradoc not want Frodo to be there this morning? Is it because Frodo and Berry don't like each other?"

Merry shook his head. "It's old history, love, and not my story to tell." He threw his nightshirt over his head and reached an arm out to Pippin. "Come and kiss me instead and tell me you won't leave me, because I need to hear that tonight."

Pippin relinquished the puzzle for the moment and took Merry in his arms. "I won't leave you, Merry. Not ever. I'll be with you every day that I can, every night that I can. And even if we are not in the same room, or in the same part of the Shire, I'll still be in your heart. I'll never leave you."

Merry looked into Pippin's eyes, astonished once more at his lover's new maturity. "When did you get to be so wise, love?"

Pippin brushed his lips against Merry's. "Not wise, just yours."

"Oh, yes, you're mine." Merry claimed Pippin's mouth with a deep, ravaging kiss and his hands gripped Pippin's body with a strength that thrilled them both.

Pippin pulled back from the kiss but when Merry opened his eyes to question why, he smiled in reassurance, saying, "Tonight, you're mine."

Merry caught his meaning at once, and anticipation lit in his eyes.

"Come to bed, Merry, my love." Pippin's hands descended over Merry's bottom and thighs and he started to pull up the cotton nightshirt. "I don't know why you bothered to put this on."

"So that I can feel you take it off, of course."

Pippin laughed and pushed Merry backwards so that he fell onto the bed. Climbing up over him, he dragged Merry's legs onto the bed.

Merry giggled and lay still. "What do you want me to do, love?" he asked.

Pippin tilted his head, considering, then gave an impish grin. "Don't move." He twisted around and began to run his hands lightly over Merry's skin, starting with belly and thighs, avoiding the erection that was rising with every second, and continuing down the legs. He played with Merry's toes and ran his fingers through the thick curls on each foot, enjoying the response that it caused in both of them.

Turning again, he started kissing his way back up the legs, paying particular attention to the knees and to the inner thighs. As he approached the groin he spread Merry's legs, kissing the thighs and running his fingers through hair and over skin. He took each one of the heavy globes into his mouth, running his tongue around them, squeezing them against his palate and letting his teeth scrape lightly over the skin as he released them. Once Merry had stopped twitching he ran his tongue over the whole scrotum and the sensitive perineum, grinning to himself as he felt Merry's body jerk and twist at the sensation.

"Pippin, please..." Merry sounded desperate and. How Pippin loved hearing Merry beg!

He sat back on his heels for a minute, until Merry opened his eyes, then leaned forward and kissed him. "Love you, Merry"

"I love you too, Pip, but if you don't get down there and finish what you started I'll have to consider hating you instead."

Pippin laughed, and giving only a preliminary flick of the tongue to the head, swallowed Merry's length as far as he could. Merry yelped and Pippin lifted his head, smirking. "Hush, we don't want to wake the whole smial. You'll have to bite on something if you can't keep quiet."

Merry poked his tongue out at Pippin, then put his hand to his mouth, trying to stifle his involuntary exclamations as Pippin resumed his actions.

Pippin's tongue was developing talents that Merry had never dreamed of. After a long slow stroke up the underside, it circled the head, tasting the fluid there, before Pippin closed his mouth over it. Pippin took a deep breath then, trying to relax as much as possible, he took the shaft as far back into his throat as he could. After holding it there for a few seconds, he withdrew, applying a gentle suction and letting his tongue sweep from side to side up the shaft. He repeated this a couple of times, gratified at the way he could reduce Merry to incoherent moans and wails.

Merry managed to regain enough control to say that he was close, whereupon Pippin started a rapid movement of mouth and hand. In only a few seconds Merry's release was spurting into his throat. This time he didn't choke, just swallowed, and he noted how the movements of his throat made Merry groan and pant even more.

When it was finished, he swallowed again and sat up. Merry was sprawled on the bed with one arm flung out to the side and the other above his head, sweaty and flushed, looking the very picture of debauchery. Pippin grabbed the oil and nudged Merry's legs apart. He poured some oil onto his hand, noting, with annoyance, that some of it spilled onto the sheets. He moved his hand over Merry's stomach and saw Merry squirm as the cool oil hit his skin. He hurriedly put the bottle back on the table and placed his fingers between Merry's legs, trying to push them apart further so that he could see where he wanted to be, but with little success. He was starting to get annoyed when Merry, obviously sensing his frustration, drew his knees up and let them drop to the sides, revealing everything.

Pippin's hand darted into touch Merry's opening, smoothing the oil over it, rubbing it, letting the fingers stroke back and forth. Merry's breathing changed, and Pippin saw that he was starting to become hard again. He gave the shaft a few lazy, oil-slicked strokes, feeling Merry push up into his hand. He drew his hand down over the firm, down-covered balls and the sensitive skin behind them before continuing on to the tiny, puckered area that promised so much pleasure. He saw that it had become flushed with blood, and rolled his fingers over it, causing Merry to murmur something incomprehensible. He poured a little more oil onto his hand and slowly inserted one finger, feeling how firm the ring of muscle was, how hot Merry's body was inside, how smooth the lining of the passage. Since one finger apparently caused no problem at all, he withdrew and then inserted two fingers. The tightness increased, and, as Merry instructed him, he spread his fingers, stretching the tissue and making sure that the oil was evenly distributed. He added more oil before inserting three fingers, and noted how this much stretch was causing Merry some discomfort, if not pain. But Merry told him to keep going, and he did, stretching and sliding and rolling his fingers around the inside of the passage. When Merry told him to push forward he did, and found the gland on the front wall, firm and smooth, with a central groove, like a tiny plum or apricot. He couldn't resist running his fingers up and down the groove and around the gland, fascinated by it, until Merry, gasping, begged him to stop.

He grabbed the bottle of oil for the last time and coated his erection. He was harder than he had ever been in his life and wasn't at all sure that he would last more than a few seconds once inside, so he gave Merry a few more strokes until Merry forcibly grabbed his wrist and pulled him away.

"Now, Pippin. I need you in me now!"

He didn't need any more encouragement. He placed himself at the opening and pushed in. Looking up, he saw his beloved's face contort in pain, and pulled back.

"No, no - keep going," Merry choked. "Keep going."

"But it's hurting you."

"It won't in a minute - just keep going."

He pushed in again, a little more tentatively this time, and felt the muscles press down around him so tightly that it was almost painful. He kept pushing in until he was almost fully sheathed, then pulled back halfway and pushed in again. As he started the third thrust he felt the muscles ease a little, and the expression on Merry's face changed subtly from pain to passion. He kept thrusting, trying to reach the gland he had felt with his fingers, but couldn't. He felt Merry's hands tapping his arms and looked up.

"Put my legs on your shoulders," Merry told him, and he did so, slipping out in the process. When he positioned himself and entered again, he felt the difference immediately. The tip of his member touched the spot he had been looking for and Merry almost convulsed. He started pushing in, slowly at first, trying to prolong the sensation of each thrust, but Merry cried "Harder" and he obeyed. After a few increasingly vigorous thrusts, with Merry grunting his encouragement, he felt his climax coming. He tried to slow down but Merry wouldn't allow it, and after a few more strokes he released into his lover's body. As he was still thrusting, he grabbed Merry's erection and brought Merry to his peak a few seconds later. Merry cried out and Pippin wondered if anyone had heard.

Reluctantly, he pulled out of his lover's body, bringing his legs down from his shoulders and laying them gently on the sheets. He crawled up Merry's body, kissing belly and chest and neck as he advanced. When he reached Merry's mouth he found that they were still too breathless for a proper kiss so he settled for a quick touch of the lips before settling his head on Merry's chest. He felt strong arms enfold him immediately and they lay there, their skin glowing in the candlelight, for several minutes.

Pippin let his hand roam over Merry's chest and abdomen, but almost immediately found the residue of Merry's release. He reached up for a cloth and wiped his lover clean, then himself, before leaning over for a kiss.

"You're really mine, now," he whispered.

Merry rolled them over and looked down into his eyes before covering his face with kisses. "Yes, I'm yours."

* * *

As nothing else untoward happened overnight, the wedding proceeded as planned the next day. At eleven o'clock precisely, Periwinkle Bolger became Periwinkle Bolger-Took (her mother being of a rather eccentric line, Chubb in origin, that insisted on retaining maiden names after marriage), and shortly thereafter the wedding breakfast began, set out under a large marquee on the lawn.

Much later, when Frodo had the leisure to examine the day's events, he considered it distinctly unfortunate that he had taken his duties as Periwinkle's sponsor seriously enough to supply several cases of Old Winyards for the wedding breakfast. It was a particularly good vintage and it had cost Frodo a pang to part with it, but he had told himself that his vehement dislike of Poppy, his indifference to Periwinkle and his rather less-than-satisfactory involvement with Reg several years previously were none of them reasons enough to stint on the provisions. As it turned out, it would have been better for all concerned if he had succumbed to his selfish wish to keep the good wine for himself and sent over six cases of whatever the Ivy Bush wanted to get rid of, for it can't be denied that Reginard would never have drunk as much cheap plonk as he did the good wine. Or, if he had, he would have been unconscious and thus harmless.

By two o'clock, it was evident to the bridal party that Reg was drunk; by three o'clock it was clear to everyone in the marquee. What was worse, he was drunk enough to reveal that he was not entirely happy with his new bride, and rather more than unhappy with his mother-in-law. The two women had started as they meant to go on and had laid out, for his edification, a list of all the changes they expected him to make to his work habits, clothes, hobbies and friends. As this left Reg very little to claim as his own, it was hardly surprising that his befuddled brain latched on to the one item that they had omitted to mention, which was lovers. To Reg, that meant only one hobbit: Berilac Brandybuck.

Berilac, for his part, had stood and watched the ceremony with an attitude of indifference that his friends and relatives found puzzling. Reg had never been popular with the group of cousins along the Merry-Pippin axis that connected Tuckborough and Buckland, and, to be frank, none of them could understand what attraction he held for Berry, who could have had almost any hobbit he wanted (and often did). But Berry gave no reply to impertinent questions and kept his reasons, odd though they were, to himself.

Even so, by three o'clock he had had enough of the crowd and slipped away, intending to go for a solitary ramble. Unfortunately, his departure, while discreet, was not unobserved. As he left his room a few minutes later, having changed his party clothes for something more comfortable, he saw Reg weaving up the corridor towards him. He muttered a curse under his breath but maintained a neutral expression.

"Berry!"

"What is it, Reg?"

"One last tumble?"

"No. We've already discussed this."

"Wan' a tumble."

"You have a wife now."

"But I don' love her!"

"Then why on earth did you just get married to her?"

"Don' know."

"Well, I suggest that you try to find out, fast, otherwise you're going to be miserable."

"You never loved me."

"No, Reg, I never loved you. I've told you that before."

"Then why? Why lie with me, Berry, if you don' love me?"

"You'll never know, and you wouldn't understand even if I told you. Just accept that it's over. You made your choice."

Berry looked over Reg's shoulder and saw Frodo coming up the stairs.

"What's the matter, Reg?" Frodo asked. "Shouldn't you be getting back to the party?" He put his arm on Reg's shoulder and attempted to turn him around, but Reg wasn't going to be distracted.

"No! Don' touch me." He staggered, bumping against the wall. "You tol' me to go 'way, too. I 'member. You said I had to move on. So I did. Moved to Berry. Now Berry don' wan' me either." He took a deep breath. "Bloody Brandybucks!"

"That's enough." Frodo let his exasperation show through. "You're drunk. If you can't be civil, then perhaps you should go and sleep it off."

Reg looked from one to the other, a puzzled look on his face, as if he were seeing double. In fact, the resemblance between the cousins was not particularly strong, when compared feature by feature, but in the dim light of the corridor the overall family likeness predominated, and to one whose vision was blurred by alcohol they might have passed for brothers, if not twins.

He gave a weak, sickly smile. "Tumbled you both. Tumble' you both, I did. Only hobbit in the Shire can say that, I bet."

"That is completely beside the point," snapped Frodo as Berry paled.

Reg saw it too and raised his voice, harsh with resentment. "Is tha' why? You tumble Frodo, Frodo tumbles me, I tumble you. Nice, neat li'l circle. Tha's all I was to you. Jus' Frodo."

Berry's face was mask-like, completely devoid of all expression. "No, it wasn't like that," he stated flatly.

The denial was useless: once Reg got an idea into his head, it was hard to dislodge it. "You only wanted me 'cause of Frodo. Not me, no' me."

Frodo caught sight of movement in the hall below: it was Merry, who saw the drama being played out above him and ran up the stairs.

"What's going on?" Merry asked as he reached the landing.

Frodo gestured for him to stay back, but it was too late. Reg blinked and stopped shouting as he realised that there was a third face in front of him. He took a step forward. "'Nother Brandybuck."

"Come on, Reg, let's get you back outside." Frodo reached to take Reg's arm, but was shrugged off.

"Maybe Merry wants a tumble. Wanna tumble, Merry?"

"No."

"See?" Reg turned back to Berry. "No one wan's a tumble. All your fault, Berry. Was happy with you."

"I've told you, Reg. It's over. Now get back outside."

"No. Poppy's ou'side. She hates me."

"That's hardly my fault,"

"Is your fault. All your fault." Reg's voce was turning from maudlin to bitter. He staggered towards Berry and pushed him, sending him a couple of feet closer to the stairs. "Wasn' good enough for you, was I? No one's ever good enough for you. You're so good you c'n have anyone, but no one's ever good enough for you."

"Reg, that's not true."

Reg clearly wasn't listening. He was pushing Berry again, and Berry was retreating, still trying to keep things calm, reluctant to get into a brawl.

Frodo's eye flickered to the main hall again. This time it was Pippin who had entered, with Brandy and Ev, followed by Paladin, Saradoc and Esme. Obviously the word had got out, and just in time, if he was any judge.

Berry's refusal to fight seemed, paradoxically, to irritate Reg further. He was becoming more aggressive, his pushes getting stronger. Frodo attempted to hold him back but Reg just shrugged him off and advanced on Berry, who retreated further. "All your fault!" he shouted once more, giving Berry a final shove. Berry staggered and his foot slipped over the top step...

Neither Pippin nor Frodo would ever forget the few seconds that followed. Time slowed down as Berry overbalanced, and began falling backwards, unable to right himself. Merry shouted "No!" and lunged forward, trying to catch him. His fingers reached out for Berry's arm, but missed by a scant inch, and momentum carried him over the edge as well. Pippin could see them, tumbling down the stairs, seemingly forever, until they reached the bottom.

"Merry!" Pippin yelled and while they were still falling he was racing across the floor, trying to reach the stairs in time to catch his lover. But the hall was large and the staircase steep, and by the time he reached them they were both lying, unmoving, on the floor.

Frodo had also tried to catch Berry, but had not fallen, though he teetered on the edge of the top stair for a few seconds and only saved himself by grabbing onto the bannister. He cast one murderous look at Reg, who was standing there, slack-jawed and witless, and ran down to Berry.

For one awful, mind-destroying moment, Pippin thought that Merry might be dead. He crouched over the still form, dragging him off Berry, crying, "Merry! Merry! Wake up! Are you all right?"

Merry stirred and opened his eyes, searching for something. "Pippin," he murmured. He would have said more, but Pippin was so relieved to see him still alive that he was covering his face with kisses, while words of desperation and relief poured out.

"Oh, Merry, I thought you were dead! I thought I'd never see you again. I couldn't bear it, I love you so much. I love you, I love you."

Merry managed to sit up and put his arms around Pippin, who burried his head in Merry's shoulder and started sobbing with relief.

"Shhh, Pippin, it's all right. I'm fine. I'm not dead. I love you too. Hush, now." He held Pippin close for a few more seconds, then released him.

"Tell me you're all right," Pippin pleaded.

"Well, I think I am. My head hurts, though, and my wrist. Can you help me up?"

Pippin nodded, and even managed a weak smile as he helped his cousin to get up, though he promptly fell into Merry's arms again and clung onto him as if he might float away otherwise.

Frodo, meanwhile, had made a rough examination of Berry and did not like what he saw. "Paladin!" he called. "Send for a healer. I think we'll need one. And I'll need something to use as a stretcher. I suggest that we get him into the music room for now - it's the closest."

Hearing no confirmation of his instructions, he looked up at Paladin, to find him staring at Merry and Pippin. "Paladin!" he called again, but it was Esme who answered.

"Everard. Make yourself useful and ride to Gammer Bellwether's. Tell her that Merry and Berry have fallen down the stairs and Berry is unconscious. We'll need her overnight at least, so make sure she brings a bag with her. Ferdibrand, you'll find a canvas stretcher in the stable. Run a pitchfork handle through each side and bring it here. Daffy, find Mistress Eglantine: we'll need willow-bark, arnica and kingsfoil from the stillroom. Then fetch me a basin and some towels. Paladin, I'll need a bottle of the good brandy."

During the latter part of her speech she had been approaching the group at the bottom of the stairs. On reaching them, she tapped Pippin on the shoulder. "Stop making a spectacle of yourself and help Merry into the music room." Without waiting to see if her instructions were obeyed, she turned and knelt down next to Frodo.

Berry was pasty white. He was breathing but he didn't move at all, even when Esme shook him and pinched his arm. Frodo showed her the lump at the back of his skull, but she reassured him that the skull appeared to be intact - not that such was always a good sign. Apart from the obviously broken right leg, the only other injury that was easily identifiable was his right forearm, which was swelling rapidly, and which Esme and Frodo thought might also be broken.

Ferdibrand returned and Frodo, Saradoc and Paladin all helped to lift Berry onto the stretcher and carry him into the music room.

Merry and Pippin were already there; Merry's shirt sleeve had been rolled back to bare the left arm. There was some swelling around the wrist, but, after a brief examination, Esme was satisfied that the wrist wasn't broken, only sprained. While the others were still arranging Berry on one of the long couches, she looked at Merry and quietly asked: "Is there something that I should know, Merry?"

Merry and Pippin looked at each other. Pippin was still obviously upset from the scare he had had, but Merry straightened up and looked his mother in the eye. "We are lovers."

"Since?"

"Since Lithe."

She pursed her lips, but said nothing for a moment as she looked at Pippin. At a nudge from Merry, he looked at her, half scared, half defiant.

"I love him," he said in a low voice, stealing his left hand into Merry's right, a movement that did not go unnoticed by Esme.

"Very well." was all she said. "I shall want to speak to you as soon as Berry is settled, Pippin. I don't doubt that your parents and Saradoc will want to discuss this matter before the end of the day."

"Yes, Aunt Esme," he managed to say.

"Now run along and help Daffy bring those things I asked her to get. I'll let you help me tend to Merry's wrist." She smiled at him, receiving a tentative smile in return, and watched him race off.

"I love him, too," Merry said, a little anxiously.

"I don't doubt that, son. I've seen it in your eyes this last year and more. I did wonder what happened at Lithe - you seemed to be having argument after argument."

Merry was about to answer her, when Brandy came up to tell her that Berry was stirring. Eglantine arrived as well, not best pleased to find that Esmeralda had been giving orders as if she were still living there.

As Berry regained consciousness, it was clear that he was in a great deal of pain. His right leg and arm had been placed on pillows, but they had not yet been splinted, and there was some discussion between Eglantine and Esmeralda on the relative merits of splinting now or waiting until after the healer had examined him. He also had pain in his right shoulder and in some of his ribs on the right side, and the lump at the back of his skull had grown to the size of an egg. Frodo wanted Eglantine to give him some poppy-juice, but neither of the women thought it was a good idea.

Pippin and Daffy arrived with armfuls of supplies, and there was a bustle of activity as cool damp cloths were placed gently over Berry's injuries. Meanwhile, Esme showed Pippin how to bind a sprained wrist and how to make a sling to support it. Pippin watched intently and insisted on tying the sling himself so that he could do it whenever Merry needed it.

It was nearly an hour before the healer arrived. Ellis Bellwether was a bustling, middle-aged woman, who had lived for a time in Bree and had picked up some strange but useful tricks there. She immediately threw out most of the onlookers, leaving only Eglantine, Esmeralda and, surprisingly, Frodo, who had offered to stay in case the patient had to be moved and who had exhibited a polite but total deafness when told that it wasn't necessary.

She examined Berry thoroughly, starting with his head and working her way down to his feet. She even insisted on looking at his back, though he had not complained of pain there. Sure enough, there were bruises there.

She spent little time on the arm, which she dismissed as a clean break through both bones and no problem at all as long as he didn't do anything silly. The ribs were possibly cracked, but intact, and would heal with strapping, while the shoulder was simply bruised from the impact. The leg, however, was a different matter. She spent a long time looking at it and then checking the ankle and foot before she allowed her hands anywhere near the fracture itself.

"Well, my dear," she spoke finally, "this is a nasty injury and no mistake. The bone is not broken clean across, but at an angle, and the pieces are sliding past each other. I'll do my best, but it is going to be a long time before you can walk on it, and the bone is likely to heal short."

Berry nodded but his face was a picture of misery. If the leg healed short he would limp for the rest of his life - if he could walk at all.

Frodo patted him on the shoulder and asked, "What do we do now?"

"Well, two things. Firstly, I'll need some bandages, some potter's clay - white clay, if he has it - two yards of fine wire, a square baking tray at least the length of this arm from fingertip to elbow, and something to use as padding - old sheets, an old sweater, something like that. After that, I'll need a splint for the leg until the carpenter can knock up a frame for whichever bed he ends up in." She looked at Eglantine. "I'd suggest a ground-floor room, mistress, as being much easier in the long run."

Eglantine considered for a moment. There were some ground-floor guest rooms, but they were all occupied by rather elderly hobbits who had difficulty climbing stairs. "I'll see to it, but he may have to remain here tonight."

"One night won't hurt much, though I'd like to get some weight on as soon as possible." At their bemused looks, she explained. "We have to fix a weight to the foot to draw the bone back into the right place. If not, even if we splint it, it will heal maybe two inches too short." She noted the dismay on their faces. "Aye, 'tis the nastiest of breaks. But the weight should pull it back, so with a little luck the shortening should be no more than an inch - maybe only a half.

Berry swallowed. "Will it hurt?"

Ellis nodded. "I won't lie to you, my dear. The weight will make your leg ache, especially around the knee and ankle. But there is no other way, if you want to keep the bones in the right position." She laughed. "After all, we can't just nail the pieces together like bits of wood!"

They smiled politely at her witticism, but privately Frodo thought it was in very bad taste.

Frodo offered to accompany Pippin down to the village for the clay. He blinked in astonishment as they left the smial and found that the party was still going, with the majority of guests dancing or still eating. It was unexpected, but then he could hardly expect everything to stop just because of an accident. He and Pippin managed to get to the road without being drawn into any dances or drinking games, and headed straight for the potter's.

They returned, an hour later, to find that Berry's leg had been splinted temporarily. He must have been given poppy-juice to help him through the procedure because he was quite drowsy and when he opened his eyes they could see that the pupils were very small. He was lying down, but the healer wanted him to sit up while she casted the arm. Frodo and Pippin lifted him up and Frodo moved to sit behind him, supporting his weight so that Berry could relax against his chest, while his right arm rested on more pillows in front of him.

They were allowed to watch as Ellis placed padding over injured limb, then laid a length of wire along each side. She took the clay and moulded a thin layer over the forearm, extending it a little over both the elbow and the hand. Then she applied a strip of muslin about three inches wide along each side of the arm and covered that with another layer of clay. When she was satisfied, she took the ends of the wire and drew them through the clay, splitting it into two lengthwise pieces. Slowly and very carefully she detached each half from the padding and placed them on the baking dish. Finally she applied a normal wooden splint to the arm.

"Now then, one of you should take that tray back to the potter's and get him to dry it overnight and fire it in the morning. Then we'll see about putting it back on. The full cast should be on for three weeks, and then only the bottom half for another three."

"It seems such a lot of work for a splint," Frodo pointed out.

"Aye, it is, but the results are worth it. Moulding the clay to the arm holds the bones together better than a splint. It will still be a bit fragile, though, so you mustn't knock it," she told the patient.

Berry was exhausted after all the movement and could barely nod. Frodo held up a glass of water for him to sip but made no effort to move otherwise, and Berry was soon asleep again.

After all the mess was cleaned up, Eglantine suggested that they have a late tea. Merry and Pippin went eagerly, but Frodo demurred, saying that he could have something later, when Berry was more comfortable. Eglantine shrugged and went to restore her stillroom to something resembling order, taking Gammer Bellwether with her.

Esme remained for a few minutes. "Are you sure you don’t need anything?" she asked.

Frodo smiled. "I'll be fine here, Esme. Though I'd be grateful if you could obtain a jug of water and a chamber pot. I doubt that our lad here will be up to using the privy for a while."

"Of course." She smiled down at them. "I remember watching you hold him like that when he was small, after he fell out of the oak tree."

"Yes, I remember, too."

Frodo sat completely still, remembering how he had held Berry in his arms that summer, so long ago. Berry's shoulder had hurt so much that he couldn't lie down comfortably, and couldn't sleep. He had gone from irritable to fractious to downright maddening, until Frodo had sat up on the bed with him and rested Berry against his chest, much like they were now, and the child had fallen asleep in seconds. They had slept like that for a week, though by the end of it Frodo had been the fractious one.

Esme's voice dragged him back to the present. "He looks so young still. I keep forgetting, because he's done so much, but he isn't very old."

"No," whispered Frodo, "he isn't." He brushed a lock of hair from Berry's forehead, his fingers barely touching the skin.

Esme looked at him shrewdly, and almost spoke, but decided against it. They were both of age, and whatever might have happened in the past, the now was theirs alone to work out.

"Esme?"

"Yes?"

Frodo looked up at her. "Don't let them separate Merry and Pippin. You saw what it did to us. Don't let it happen again."

"I'll do what I can."

"Thank you. That's all I ask."

She nodded, and left the room.

It wasn't long before Merry and Pippin returned, Merry bemoaning the discovery that he had broken his best pipe in the fall. "I mean, I'm glad it wasn't my arm, but my best pipe - honestly!" he exclaimed, as well as one can exclaim in a whisper.

They insisted on bringing Frodo something to eat, though he protested, not wanting to disturb Berry. But Berry soon woke up, and the three of them managed to pile a sufficiently large number of pillows behind him to keep him comfortable while Frodo ate.

It was only a few minutes later that the inevitable summons came: they were to present themselves to the Thain's study. Pippin headed out of the door, but Merry was delayed by Frodo.

"Merry, wait a moment," he said in a low voice, not wanting to wake Berry. "Don't go in there feeling guilty. Be confident."

"But -"

"You haven't hurt Pippin - in fact, knowing him, you've probably kept him from a rude awakening with some others who aren't nearly so scrupulous."

"Funny, that's what Berry said."

To Merry's surprise, his words seemed to upset Frodo, who looked to be on the verge of tears for a moment before collecting himself. "Never mind what Berry said. What is important now is that you stand up for yourself, and for Pippin. Be someone that Pippin can be proud of. Don't just accept their views - explain your own. Don't let them separate you without a fight. Don't let his last sight of you be one of despair and defeat. Fight them, Merry! If you won't fight for yourself, do it for Pippin. He's worth fighting for, isn't he?"

"Yes, yes, he is." Merry drew himself upright, bracing his shoulders and lifting his chin. He smiled at Frodo and walked confidently out of the room.

"Lady, help them, please," whispered Frodo, head bowed, before turning back to the sleeping form on the couch.

* * *

The Thain's study was a pleasant room, if poorly named, since it was rarely used for studying. There was a desk, to be sure, and some bookshelves, but there were also several armchairs and sofas as well, and the room had an atmosphere that was more akin to the private room of an inn rather than an office, which was probably the intent.

Thain Ferumbras III was seated in his armchair, with Paladin standing at his side.

"Meriadoc, Peregrin, sit down there," Paladin instructed, pointing to a small sofa opposite the Thain.

Pippin shivered. Since everyone agreed that Peregrin was a ridiculously grand name for a child, he only ever heard it when he was in trouble or when introduced for the first time. This was definitely trouble. He sat down as ordered, and Merry immediately joined him, giving him an encouraging smile.

Saradoc was obviously uncomfortable, and the expression on his face as he watched Esmeralda and Eglantine walk in suggested that he would just as soon have welcomed a couple of Big People. "Esme, Egg," he said truculently, "I think that it might be better if you leave this to us."

Paladin nodded but the women didn't agree. Eglantine sat down in one of the armchairs, saying, "This matter concerns my son and my nephew. I have every intention of staying."

Esmeralda was also insistent. "My son and my nephew as well," she said quietly, and settled herself down on the other sofa, adjusting her skirts. She beckoned to Saradoc, who sat down next to her.

Paladin looked at the Thain, then opened the discussion. He cleared his throat a couple of times and said: "Well, Meriadoc, Peregrin, it appears that you two have taken to tumbling."

"Yes, Uncle, we have." Merry was surprised at how calm and confident his voice sounded, and blessed Frodo for his advice.

"But Pippin is only 18!" Paladin still seemed stunned.

"I'm old enough!" Pippin interjected, but Merry put a hand on his arm and gave him a speaking look.

"Trust me," he breathed. "Yes, he is 18."

"Well!" said Paladin.

"Well, what, Uncle?"

"He's too young to be tumbling!"

"Pippin doesn't think so. Nor do I."

"Well, of course you wouldn't. How long has this been going on?"

"Since Lithe."

Saradoc shot a dagger-look at Paladin. "You and your damned Overlithe parties," he muttered.

"Actually, it was three days before the party," Pippin added helpfully, "and -"

"Hush," chided Merry.

"I was only going to say that it wasn't your fault."

Merry glared at him, and he subsided.

Saradoc had a further query to make. "I saw you leaving the trees hand in hand with Berilac at Overlithe. Were you tumbling Berry as well?"

Merry shook his head. "No, Father. Berry and I walked out hand in hand because it suited us both to mislead people. And before you ask, no, I don't know who Berry was with. He was alone when I met him."

Saradoc grunted and Paladin resumed the interrogation. "Meriadoc, you are the elder by eight years. You were expected to look after Pippin, not take advantage of him."

A wave of guilt, familiar from long hours debating the same argument with himself, washed over Merry, but he remembered Frodo's words and rallied. "I am eight years older, yes. And I have looked after Pippin for many years, whenever we have been together. Now Pippin looks after me, too. When grandfather Rory died, Pippin was the one who comforted me the most, just by holding me and telling me that he loved me."

"That is hardly the point," said Paladin, and would have continued, but he was interrupted by Saradoc.

"He's not even a tween yet! You of all people should have known better."

Merry bit his lip. He wasn't going to let them repeat history. "I thought I did. I know what happened before, and I didn't want it to happen to us. That's why I tried to ignore it – I tried to tell myself it didn't exist, that nothing had changed. And it worked, for a while - I almost forgot how I felt. It wasn't until Pippin kissed me at Yule that I realised he felt the same way, and even after that, I kept pushing him away, telling myself - and him - that it was for his own good. But it was the worst six months of my life. We kept on arguing about it and it was horrible. Then... well, at Lithe..." His voice trailed off, wondering how on earth he could describe what had happened without making things ten times worse.

"I think," put in Eglantine, "that perhaps we ought to allow Pippin to tell us what happened. After all, he is the supposedly injured party here."

The others looked at each other, then nodded. Saradoc sat back in his chair, while Esme gave Pippin and Merry an encouraging look.

"Go on, Peregrin," she said. "Tell us how this came to pass."

This time, the use of his full name had a rather different effect on Pippin. Before, it had made him feel nervous; now it made him feel grown-up, as if his mother wanted him to live up to the dignity of his name.

He took a deep breath and began. "I've always loved Merry, in one way or another. He was always my favourite cousin and my best friend. I suppose that my feelings towards him started to change about two summers ago. I wanted to be with him more and more, and I wanted to... well, hold him, and kiss him. But I never said anything because I didn't think that he liked me the same way and I didn't want to upset him. Then last Yule, at Brandy Hall, I kissed him under the mistletoe and I found that I loved him and he loved me." Pippin's hand stole into Merry's and he felt Merry squeeze it gently. "Umm... I asked him to lie with me and he wouldn't. He said I was too young. He kept on saying that for months and months. Then at Lithe..." he faltered, remembering the pain, "...I tried again and he pushed me away, and he was very angry." His grip on Merry's hand tightened.

Pippin looked up at his parents. "I was scared. It hurt so much. It was as if we weren't friends any more, and I was so afraid that I was going to lose Merry completely, that he wouldn't see me any more, and I couldn't bear the thought of that. It seemed so stupid - both of us wanting, both of us angry and frustrated. It didn't make sense to me, so - so I decided to do something about it." He stopped again.

"What did you do?" asked Eglantine, her voice kindly.

Pippin blushed and dropped his head, and Merry found his hand being gripped so tightly he thought his bones would be crushed, but he wasn't going to pull away, not now.

Pippin cleared his throat. "I - umm, well - that is - umm -" He stopped again and looked at Merry, who smiled reassuringly. Pippin took another deep breath, fixed his gaze firmly on the carpet and rattled out the words: "I tied him to the bed."

There was a strangled noise from Esme, who made valiant attempts to convert it into a cough, but from the disgusted look she was getting from Saradoc, it was apparent that she had not succeeded. What's more, after a second or two it was equally clear that everyone except Saradoc was struggling with the effort of not smiling.

Paladin harrumphed, but looked almost pleased, as if to say "Well, son, that's a very Tookish thing to do". The Thain's smile was more of a "That reminds me..." type, and Merry was assailed by the horrid thought that his grandfather might have had a more eventful life than he cared to contemplate. Eglantine was looking down at the ground, her hand pressed to her mouth, but she couldn't quite hide the smile that peeped out. Even Saradoc began to see the funny side after a few seconds and his shoulders relaxed a little as Esme took his hand.

Pippin regained control of himself and continued. "I know it wasn't the right thing to do - well, not by Shire rules, maybe. But it was the right thing for Merry and me, because it was wonderful -" his face lit up "- and now we are friends again as well as being lovers. He looks after me and I look after him, and we love each other, and I really don't see what all the fuss is about!"

There was silence for a few seconds. When put like that, there seemed to be very little that anyone could say.

"You realise that you both have to marry one day." Esme's tone was gentle, as if it could negate the doom implicit in her words.

This time Merry squeezed Pippin's hand, hoping that he would remember that long conversation they had had before Lithe. To his relief, Pippin did not burst out with protestations of endless devotion to Merry, nor did he point out the fact that Thain Ferumbras had never married. Instead, he said clearly (if not quite calmly), "I realise that we both have obligations to our families and to our positions in the Shire. We have discussed it, Merry and I, and we have no intention of making this any more difficult for you than is absolutely necessary. All we ask is that you give us the same freedom that you would to any other tween pairing and let us sort things out between us when the time comes."

"Well, that sounds reasonable," Esme said, leaning forward. "Tween pairings rarely last, after all, and it's silly to worry now about something that isn't going to happen for a decade or more." She looked pointedly at Saradoc, who realised that he was expected to say something.

"Well, dear, when you put it like that, I suppose it is," he agreed, and looked to Paladin, who nodded.

The Thain was smiling. "I've always said that there's no sense at all in worrying about things before their time. Good to know that at least one of my children listens to what I say!" He looked at Esme, who winked back at her father.

Merry gazed at his mother in awe. In the space of a few sentences, the argument had changed from "This must stop now" to "This can't go on forever". He was beginning to realise just how powerful an ally they had acquired in her.

"Well, then, that's that," said Saradoc, with the air of one who had successfully completed a journey without quite knowing how he had got there. "I think it's time for a nice cup of tea and a pipe of Old Toby."

And with that the ordeal was over.

* * *

Merry went straight back to Frodo and led him out to the conservatory. "Thank you for your advice today. It helped."

Frodo smiled, but Merry hadn't finished. "And thank you for coaching Pippin as well. I don't know when you found the time, but I'm grateful. That did more for us than anything I could say."

Frodo looked a trifle uncomfortable but nodded. "While we walked to the village. I thought he ought to be prepared for it so I gave him a couple of hints and some useful phrases. I gather he used them very well."

"Very well! Mum helped too - I don't quite know how she did it, but she diverted them completely. As long as we agree to get married eventually, we can be together now."

"I'm glad of that. I've always had a lot of time for Esme. She's been a good influence in Buckland, and now that Saradoc is the Master things will get even better. I only wish... ah, no, one cannot change the past, and one is foolish to try."

Merry put his good arm around Frodo and hugged him as tightly as he could.

* * *

Eglantine looked in on the patient before she went to bed. Berry had been dosed with poppy-juice again and was sleeping. She spotted Frodo on a chair beside him, reading, and stepped into the room.

"Are you going to sit there all night?" she asked.

"No, Esme will take over at about two." Frodo placed a bookmark carefully on the page he was reading and closed the book. "Merry wanted to, but he wouldn't be much use with his arm in a sling, and I don't think that Pippin could sit still for long enough."

"Oh, I don't know. Pippin's grown up a lot these last few months." Her eyes twinkled, and Frodo had a sudden suspicion....

"You knew already."

"I knew already. Though, blest be the Lady, I didn't know the details. Little scamp!"

Berry stirred at her exclamation, then settled. Eglantine nodded and turned to go, saying "Wake me if you need anything."

"I will. Thank you for all your help." Frodo smiled up at her.

"Don't mention it. Goodnight."

"Goodnight."

* * *

Pippin could be amazingly quiet when he wanted to be. As he sneaked down to the kitchens in search of a midnight snack, he passed the door of the music room, which stood open a little way. Through the gap he could see Berry, stretched out on the couch, asleep or unconscious. Frodo sat beside him, holding Berry's left hand to his cheek and stroking the pale brow gently. Pippin couldn't see the expression on Frodo's face, but the way he was leaning towards Berry spoke volumes.

Brisk footsteps sounded as the healer walked up from the kitchen, and Pippin melted into the shadows. The door closed behind her, but not before Pippin had seen Frodo straighten up and relinquish his hold on Berry's hand.

Pippin stood there for several minutes, thinking about what he had seen, before proceeding to the kitchen and finding several morsels suitable for a still-growing hobbit.

* * *

The next day saw Periwinkle and a chastened Reginard leave for Frogmorton, where they would be living. Poppy went with them, but Frodo stayed behind since, as he pointed out, they had Reginard to look after them now. Reg had been allowed to make a stumbling apology to Berry, but Frodo and Esme had stood guard and had hustled him out as soon as it became apparent that Berry wasn't going to say a word. If the question of calling in the Shirriff had ever been raised it had been allowed to drop without comment; no one doubted that Reg had sentenced himself to an existence far more miserable than any punishment the Shire could have devised for him.

Shortly after second breakfast, the carpenters arrived to begin work on the frame for the bed in the guest room that Eglantine had arranged for Berilac. After discussing the design with Gammer Bellwether and taking measurements of the bed, they went away, returning after lunch with several lengths of wood and a bag of tools. Throughout the afternoon, the smial was treated to the sound of saws, hammers and the occasional curse as the ungainly device was constructed.

Berry felt that the second day was worse than the first. He ached all over and there was nothing he could do about it. There was no position that was comfortable. The poppy-juice tasted vile and made him feel drowsy and unwell, and he refused to take it. He hated having to have assistance to sit up, to eat his food, or to use the chamber pot. He couldn't concentrate to read, or to talk, and found that the chatter of people in his room irritated him beyond measure.

Gammer Bellwether, Eglantine and Esmeralda combined to make his life more miserable by insisting that he eat breakfast and that he be washed. The latter tested him to the limits of his endurance, but finally it was over and he settled back into the pillows, trying to find a position that was comfortable for ribs, arm and leg.

Frodo appeared after elevenses and tried to cheer him up, but Berry was not in a mood to be cheered. He did, however, consent to let Frodo sit behind him, as he had done the previous day and, as before, Berry was asleep within minutes. The sighs of relief were almost loud enough to wake him again.

The cast was re-applied in the afternoon. It was heavy, but Berry realised within an hour that his arm was more comfortable than it had been with the wooden splint. After that, he was made ready for the move to the guestroom. He was offered poppy-juice but refused, initially. Eglantine and Esmeralda threatened to pour it down his throat, while the healer promised dire consequences if he should fail to sleep afterwards. Frodo had a quiet word with Pippin, who returned a few minutes later with a pot of jam and a large spoon.

Once Berry had been persuaded to take the poppy-juice, followed immediately by a spoonful of jam to take the taste away, he was lifted carefully onto a canvas stretcher. The trip through the smial took several minutes, with a couple of anxious moments as corners and doorways were negotiated, but eventually he was transferred to the guest bed, where the healer spent time adjusting his position and placing pillows under his leg to get him aligned with the frame. Then the splint was removed from his leg and she examined the position of the bones. As she had suspected, there had been some shortening overnight.

"I'm going to have to pull the leg again before the weights can be applied," she pronounced.

Berry nodded, though he was already in pain from the journey and the movement from bed to stretcher to bed. He struggled to sit up, the better to see what she was going to do, but he couldn't support his weight on the soft mattress. He felt Frodo slide an arm beneath his shoulders to help and then move to sit behind him as he had done for much of the day. Berry leaned back with a sigh, grateful that his cousin was there and hating the need to be grateful.

Ellis took up an odd-looking device - a stiff leather band, lined with sheepskin. Two stout leather straps about ten inches long had been doubled over and riveted to the collar, and in the loop of each strap there was a metal ring.

Berry watched as the healer attached the collar around his ankle, adjusting its position so that the straps ran down each side, extending beyond the foot. Next, she picked up a leather belt, to which was attached a large pouch containing the weights, and after threading it through the rings and securing the buckle she let it rest at the foot of the bed for the moment.

She nodded to Frodo, who was supporting Berry, and to Pippin, who held the knee, and pulled gently. Berry gritted his teeth and his left hand clutched at Frodo's arm as the bones shifted. Ellis continued to pull on the leg until she was satisfied that that bones were aligned as best as could be achieved, which took several minutes. At her direction, Paladin picked up the leather belt, ran it over the frame and damped the movement of the weight pouch as best he could. Once the weight had stopped moving, the healer released her hold on the ankle, and Berry felt the slightly lesser pull of the weights, changing from second to second. It wasn't painful, exactly, especially not in comparison with the way the bones had moved, but it was disconcerting.

Once Ellis was happy with the position of the weights and the way that the leather straps were aligned with the leg, she made a mark at the knee and a mark just above the ankle, then measured the distance between them. After that she replaced the splint, telling him that both would be needed for a while.

Berry relaxed slightly as the pain eased. "It feels very strange."

"Aye, it will be odd, until you get used to it. Every time you move in bed, there will be some movement of the weights. That can't be helped."

"Couldn't you simply tie my leg to the frame?"

"No, for then you would move down the bed to relieve the pressure and the bones would shorten again."

"Oh."

"There now." She finished with the splint. "All set. I'll come and see you every day to start with, then we'll see how you get along." She collected her bag and strode off.

* * *

Frodo went to his room immediately after supper. After sitting with Berry for most of the day, he and Esme had arranged to split the night between them again, with Esme taking the first shift and Frodo the second. He had announced his intention of getting some sleep first, and so was surprised to get a knock on his door a few minutes later. He was even more surprised when he saw Pippin standing there.

"Yes, Pippin? Is anything wrong? Where's Merry?"

"Merry's sitting with Berry and Aunt Esme." Pippin hesitated. "Can I ask you something?"

"Of course." Frodo stepped back, inviting the boy in.

After entering the room, Pippin felt embarrassed at having disturbed his cousin, who looked very tired. But the question had to be asked and no one else, it appeared, would tell him the answer. "What happened to you and Berry? I've always known that something was wrong between you, and I keep hearing things about something that happened a long time ago, at Brandy Hall, only no one will tell me about it. But now I know it has something to do with Merry and me as well."

"How do you know that?"

"Because that's how it starts. The old tabbies have been talking about Merry and me all day, and then they say something like 'well, look at what happened at Brandy Hall' or 'they should have known better after what happened to the other lad', and then they look at you.

Frodo sighed. "I really don't want to start digging up old history, Pippin."

"But I need to know. I don't like it when everyone else knows something and I don't. I don't like people whispering about me - or you and Berry. It scares me. I - I keep thinking that Uncle Sara might change his mind and try to separate us again."

"What has Merry told you?"

"Nothing. Whenever I ask him, he just says that it was a long time ago, and it's not his story to tell."

Frodo considered it for a minute, then nodded, slowly. "You're right, Pip. It does concern you, now, and I know that half the Shire will be talking about it for the next few months. I think it's only fair that you should hear it from me rather than a garbled version from someone else. Go and get us a cup of cocoa each and I'll tell you."

"That bad?" Pippin's eyes widened. In the nursery, cocoa was the cure for all ills, and was always kept on hand when telling scary stories.

Frodo's eyes twinkled. "That bad."

Pippin was back in fifteen minutes, carefully carrying a tray on which rested two large mugs of cocoa and some plum cake, which he put on the bedside table.

"Well done, young Pip. Now, chairs or bed?"

"If it’s very scary, it had better be the bed."

"Bed it is." Frodo pushed the pillows up against the bed head and settled himself. Pippin climbed up next to him, then handed over the cocoa and some cake. They ate without speaking for a minute or two, then Frodo finished his cake, took a sip of cocoa and began.

"As you know, my parents died when I was twelve and I went to live at Brandy Hall with my mother's relatives. There weren't many people of my own age around. In some respects it might have been better if I had been fostered here at Tuckborough, but I ended up at the Hall. Berry was six and I was 12, and we became friends, in spite of the age difference between us. Everyone loved him, then. He was such a beautiful child, and so open and loving. He was the next heir, at that stage, after Saradoc, and they didn't know if Saradoc would ever have an heir of his own, as Cousin Esme had lost several babies by then. But Baby Merry was born a couple of years later and all the attention went to him, especially when he was sick, which was quite often, so we were left to amuse ourselves. They were glad to have me around to look after Berry and keep him out of everyone's way. I'd take him for some of his lessons, or we'd go for walks down the river, or we'd climb all the high trees in the park. He used to love listening to me read, so we'd take a book and a blanket and find a warm spot somewhere and I would read to him. Sometimes we'd make up our own stories too, about two hobbit-lads running off and having adventures.

"As we grew up, I became aware that I felt no attraction for lasses and found lads much more to my liking. I didn't know, then, that Berry was the same way - though it may explain why we became such good friends.

"I was twenty and Berry was only just turned fifteen when I kissed him for the first time. He was too young. I was young myself, but I was old enough to realise that. But he was so beautiful, so passionate about everything. I couldn't say no to him - well, not to kisses.

"It was a magical summer. We still went walking and climbed trees and did all the usual summer things, but we also found places we could sit and talk, and cuddle, and kiss.

"We were... well, we weren't very discreet. Berry was too young to realise that his affection for me could be viewed as anything other than innocent. He made no secret of his liking for me, nor of the change from a child's affection to... I can hardly call it an adult's, but certainly more than a child's... to desire.

"It was just after my twenty-first birthday, at the start of Winterfilth, that Merimac turned up. He saw at once the change in Berry and in me. He assumed - wrongly - that I had tumbled Berry. I hadn't. But Merimac spoke to Uncle Rory and within the week I was bundled off to Hobbiton."

"To Bilbo."

"Yes, to Bilbo."

"And Berry went to Michel Delving."

"No, that was later."

"Oh, but I thought -"

"Hush, Pip. Who's telling this story?"

"Sorry."

"Drink your cocoa."

"All right."

"So... I went to Bag End, and Bilbo was very good to me. I learned far more from him than I ever would have in the chaos at Brandy Hall and so in one sense, at least, it was a good decision. But Berry suffered a great deal after I left and I never forgave my uncle for that."

"Is that why you didn't stay at the Hall for the funeral? And why you left so early?"

"Yes, that's why."

Frodo was silent for a while and Pippin had to nudge him. "Go on."

"Well, I settled in at Bag End, but Berry had a hard time of it at the Hall. There was still no one of his own age and he was thrown in with Merry, though there were eight years separating them. Merry was in line to be Master of Buckland, and Berry had become just another Brandybuck cousin, so Merry got much more attention. The reason I was sent away was supposed to be a secret, but of course everyone knew within a few weeks. Merimac went off on his trading rounds again in the spring and thought that everything was fixed, leaving Berry to face the rumours and the whispers and the knowing looks. He stuck it out for a few months, but it became unbearable. So, he did what any enterprising Brandybuck lad would do - he ran away."

"To Hobbiton."

"Yes, he ran to Hobbiton. The first time, he only got as far as the bridge - that was on foot. They caught him and sent him back. The second time he cadged a lift in a carrier's cart and turned up at Bag End - about twenty minutes ahead of Saradoc." He stopped again and sat picking at his nails until Pippin prompted him.

"What did Saradoc do?"

"Ranted and raved for a couple of hours, then took him straight back to Buckland. I tried to get Bilbo to say that he could stay with us, even if it was just for a few days or weeks. Berry hadn't been able to say much but I could see that he was in a bad way. A few days with us - even if I didn't touch him - would have helped. But Bilbo sat me down and explained to me all the laws and the rules and the customs, all of which said that Merimac could do whatever he liked with his son, and Saradoc was acting as his agent, until, in the end, I watched Saradoc take Berry away and I never lifted a finger. He was crying for me and I just let them take him away. I heard later that they thrashed him and locked him up for a month. I shouldn't have let him go. I shouldn't have let them take him. I should have fought for him."

There were tears running down Frodo's face, and Pippin set his mug down so that he could hug him. Frodo rummaged for his handkerchief and blew his nose. After a couple of sniffles, he continued. "Anyway, after that, Merimac decided that he could keep a better eye on Berry if he kept him at his side, so he began to take him on his travels. As the Master's agent, he went all over the Shire, seeking buyers for Buckland produce, so in fact it was a good education for him. The only problem from Merimac's point of view was that Bywater, where he often stopped, was too close to Hobbiton, so he tried to time their journeys so that they stopped at Waymeet or Frogmorton instead. One day... one day, he had been delayed by something and they had to stop in Bywater. This was about eighteen months after I had left, so I was 22 and Berry had just turned 17."

For the third time, Frodo stopped, and Pippin was about to nudge him again when he restarted. "You have to understand, I had heard that Berry was travelling with Merimac, and was getting along pretty well. We weren't allowed to write to each other, so we only had third hand news at best. I thought he was happy. I thought, perhaps, that he might have... well, not forgotten me, but might not be in love with me any more.

"I was 22. I think I mentioned that. Well, there was a party that day in Hobbiton - one of the village boys had got married and everyone was there. We'd all had a fair bit to drink. I'd had a lot to drink - though it's no excuse." He looked up. "Is there any more cocoa?"

"I have some left." Pippin took his half-full cup from the table and swapped it for Frodo's empty one.

Frodo grimaced. "You never put enough sugar in."

"You always put too much in. Go on with the story."

"I don't like this bit."

"Does that mean it's the most important part?"

Frodo smiled ruefully. "Maybe. It's certainly the part that changed everything." He drained the last of the cocoa, shuddered, then visibly made the decision to go on. He took a deep breath. "Very well, then. To put it quite bluntly: Berry came to Hobbiton, looking for me. He asked where I was, was shown where I was, and found me in a barn, naked underneath my cousin Lotho."

The sheer unexpectedness of it stunned Pippin to the core. He sat silent and still for several seconds, until he found the breath to speak and even then all he could manage was, "Oh."

"Yes. Oh."

They sat in silence for a while longer until Pippin asked, "What did he say when he saw you?"

"Nothing. He never said a word. I never even knew he was there. Not until later, when Lotho told me. He... gloated. He said he must have been good if I didn't even notice my - my 'ripe little Brandybuck tart'." Frodo's knuckles were white and he was shaking. "My fucking Cousin Lotho!" He threw the mug across the room and it shattered on the wall.

Pippin was alarmed - he had never seen Frodo swear nor lose his temper in quite that fashion. He looked at the wall, where the dregs of cocoa were dribbling down the plaster, then at Frodo, who sat with head tilted back and eyes closed, hands apparently relaxed on his knee. Only the depth of his breathing gave any indication of the maelstrom that had erupted a few seconds before.

Frodo opened his eyes and said calmly, "It was after that that Berry moved to Michel Delving."

There was another minute's silence before Pippin said, "I thought you didn't like Lotho."

"I don't."

"Then why...?"

Frodo took one of Pippin's hands in his and squeezed it. "Pippin, lad, you don't know how lucky you are to have Merry. He'll look after you, he'll be there whenever you need him. It's not easy, being a tween, wanting desperately to tumble and not sure of what's good and what's bad. When you long for it, when - when you burn for it, and you don't have a playmate of your own... sometimes, anyone who wants you looks good." He shrugged.

"And Lotho wanted you."

"Lotho wanted the knowledge of having had me. That's all." At Pippin's puzzled look, he added, "I thought he wanted me - I thought he liked me, perhaps even loved me. Afterwards, I realised that he just wanted to be able to say he had tumbled me. He didn't really care about me at all. There are people like that, Pip, people who will lie to you to get something they want. And when you aren't thinking clearly because all your blood has gone to your groin, then it's very easy for those people to take advantage of you."

Pippin considered this. "Uncle Sara said that Merry was taking advantage of me."

"Did he? I can understand why." Frodo saw Pippin's face change and hurried to prevent that thought from taking hold. "It's not true. Anyone can see that Merry is desperately in love with you - he would cut off his own hand rather than hurt you. But, yes, I can understand why they were concerned."

"Why?"

"Because Merry is so much older than you and because you are used to him telling you what to do."

"Do they really think I would lie with him just because he told me to? That's silly."

"It's a little more complicated than that. In fact, it's a lot more complicated than that, and I'm not sure that I can explain it in a way you could understand."

"I'm not completely stupid, you know, even if I can't read as fast as you."

Frodo laughed. "That's not what I meant. I know you're not stupid. In fact, you're much wiser in some things than I ever was. No, what I meant was that I can't even explain it to myself properly, let alone to anyone else. It has something to do with age and authority and force of character and habit, but none of those things are enough on their own."

"Did Lotho have all that?"

"No, he didn't. He didn't have any of it. Well, not much. That piece of stupidity was almost entirely my own fault. I was drunk, and I wanted to know what it was like."

"Was that your first time?"

Frodo nodded, and Pippin couldn't help but think of the contrast with his own first time, at Lithe, and then of the time that Merry had finally claimed him, just three nights ago. He and Merry had shared themselves in love and affection and golden warmth. He couldn't imagine what it must have been like for Frodo: a hurried coupling in a cold barn with a cousin he didn't even like. He shuddered.

"Did Berry hate you after that?"

"I don't know."

"Why not? Didn't you ask him?"

"I've barely spoken to him since then, and never about that. I rarely went to Michel Delving, so it was two years before I saw him again, and he was with another lad, so I left without saying anything. The next time was about four years after that, and we just said hello. I avoided Buckland anyway, and since Berry moved back, five years ago, I don't think I've been there at all, apart from the funeral in March. We've become almost strangers." He sighed. "I think I've spent more time with Berry in the last two days than I had in the previous eighteen years."

"That's sad."

"Well, yes, it's sad, but it’s not the end of the world. We've both made our own lives, now, and they're very different. I have Bag End, and Berry has his position as the Hall's factor."

"And you have Sam, now."

Frodo's face inexplicably closed up. 'Yes," he said dully, "Yes, now I have Sam." He hauled himself off the bed. "Speaking of which, I'll be heading back to Hobbiton tomorrow afternoon, so as to be back for Quarter Day. And I'll need to get some sleep if I'm to take over the watch at two."

"Oh, of course. I'll take these down and make sure that Merry's coping."

Frodo nodded, his eyes still veiled. "Goodnight."

Pippin picked up the dirty crockery and the pottery shards and took them back down to the kitchen, where he discarded the broken mug and washed and dried the rest. He wandered back through the dimly-lit corridors to the invalid's room, to find Berry asleep and Merry sitting at a table, reading a book. Esme wasn't there.

"Merry..."

"Yes, love?"

"I need a hug."

Merry placed a marker in the book and closed it. He stood up and took Pippin in his good arm.

"What's wrong?"

"I asked Frodo what happened to him and Berry."

"Oh. Did he tell you?"

"Yes. It was horrible." Pippin shivered and Merry held him more closely, rubbing his back until Pippin eventually relaxed. "Thank you."

"Do you feel a little better now, love?"

Pippin nodded, then stood up straight and reached a hand up to touch Merry's cheek. "Thank you for making my first time so good, so special. I didn't know that it wasn't like that for everyone."

Merry's eyes filled with tears, and he flushed, embarrassed. "It had to be special for you - I love you so much I had to make it the best that it could possibly be."

"It was."

Pippin brought Merry's head down for a long, sweet, tender kiss. After another couple of minutes he asked, "Did Mum and Aunt Esme know about what happened to Frodo and Berry?"

"Yes, they did."

"Is that why they helped us? When Granpa and Father and Uncle Sara wanted to separate us?"

"It might be."

"If Frodo and Berry hadn't... well, if all that hadn't happened, do you think that they would have separated us?"

"I don't know, Pip." Merry's arm tightened, as if to ward off the very thought. "It's possible. Why do you ask?"

"Because it doesn't seem fair - that they were punished and we weren't. It makes me feel sad and not very comfortable."

"I know, sweetheart. I feel a bit guilty, too. But there isn't much that we can do about it now, except to be thankful that things went differently for us."

"But it's not fair."

"Life isn't fair, Pip, my love. Good things and bad things happen all the time and not always to the people who deserve them. We've been lucky this year - maybe something bad will happen to us next year or the year after, or ten years from now - who knows? All we can do is enjoy today."

"Do you think they'll ever fall in love again?"

Merry frowned. "I doubt it, love. It was too long ago. But I'd like to see them both happy again.

Esme came back into the room, carrying a clean chamber pot. She shooed the boys out and they climbed the stairs, hand in hand. Their lovemaking that night was tinged with sorrow and healing, and neither of them had to be reminded to keep quiet.

* * *

Frodo took his leave the next afternoon, telling Paladin and Eglantine that he would visit again soon. He gave Berry an awkward hug, trying not to lean on the injured arm. Berry was still in pain and his goodbye was terse.

The other farewells were much warmer. Esme and Merry were staying on for a while, since Merry wasn't really fit to travel either, and Eglantine had hinted that she could use a little extra help with the patient rather than place an unfair burden on her staff. Pippin was delighted, of course, and not even the proposal to move Merry to another room, for appearance's sake, was enough to dampen his spirits.

He and Merry stood at the door and watched Frodo ride off in the afternoon sun. They waved at him when he turned, just before heading over the hill, and then went back inside, closing the door behind them.

Pippin gave a huge sigh and wrapped his arms around Merry.

"What was that for, love?"

"Oh, I don't know. It just felt like... a new beginning."

"It does, at that."

Pippin's nose twitched as an unmistakable odour drifted through the air. "Aha! Raspberry tarts for tea! Come on!"

Merry laughed, and followed him into the smial.

 

 

Frolic the Fifth: Yule

In which Pippin learns that it's not always wise to get everything you want, and a long-delayed conversation brings about a happy ending.

Brandy Hall, Buckland - 29 Foreyule 1408 SR

It was Yule again, and Merry was watching his breath crystallise as he stood outside the main doors of Brandy Hall, waiting for the Tuckborough party to arrive. They should have been at Great Smials this year, but Saradoc had taken the occasion of his first Yule as Master of Buckland to insist that Brandy Hall be the venue once more for the Took-Brandybuck festivities.

It would be a very different Yule, though, this year. Firstly, his grandfather, Old Rory, had died in the spring, and the Yule festivities would not be punctuated his robust laughter and calls for more wine. Secondly, he and Pippin wouldn't have to hide their affection and desire, since his parents had accepted them as a tween pairing. And thirdly, there was Berry, who had only recently been well enough to travel back to Buckland. It would be a few more months yet before he was fully healed, and he would never again walk without a limp, but it could have been worse. If Berry had lost his leg, or had died... Merry shook his head and tried once more to direct his thoughts in more cheerful directions. For once it worked, but only because he heard the hooves of the pony coming up the drive and looked up, eager to catch the first glimpse of his love.

Merry's heart leapt as Pippin came into view a few seconds later. The shaggy chestnut pony rounded the bend in an easy canter and came to a halt only a few yards away from the doors. In a trice Pippin had jumped out of the saddle and run to Merry's arms, where he was spun around in an ecstatic embrace.

"Merry! We're here at last!" Pippin cried as he flung his arms around his cousin. "Did you think we got lost? Nel couldn't find her locket, only it turned out she'd packed it in one of Vinca's bags, and-" the rest of his sentence was lost as Merry kissed him fiercely, possessively, trying to make up for two months of deprivation in a few scant seconds.

"Oh… mmm…" Merry had had every intention of saying something coherent, but lack of air and a sudden flush of arousal had turned his brain to something resembling a bran mash, so he closed his eyes instead and buried his face in Pippin's hair, revelling in the scent that he inhaled with every breath and the warmth that he could feel through their clothing.

"Ah…" Pippin's response equalled his own in eloquence, but they didn't need words, anyway, not when they were in each other's arms.

A burst of teasing and laughter from behind made Merry aware that they had an audience. Without letting go of Pippin, he turned around and saw that several children - led by Moro Burrows, he noted, grimly - were gathered by the entrance and giggling at the embracing couple. Merry scowled at them, but it had little effect and he couldn't maintain a pretence of anger when he had his lover's arms around him.

Esme, looking on from the doorway, smiled to see them so openly affectionate. She had played her part in smoothing things over after the events at Great Smials, and although she still hoped that Merry would make a good marriage one day, she couldn't deny that he and Pippin were so happy together that they almost glowed.

"Shame on you, nephew!" she called, coming over to the pair. "Have you run poor Noggin into the ground in your haste to get here?"

Pippin laughed and ran to greet her. "Not at all, Aunt Esme." He gave her a hug and a smacking kiss on the cheek. "I only took him to a canter as we entered the drive. The carriage is barely a minute behind me."

It was true - they could hear the rumbling of the wheels on the gravel as the huge Great Smials carriage hove into view, led by a team of six fine Shire ponies. The wagon drew to a halt in front of the door and Pippin went over to help his family. Nel and Vinca tumbled out of the carriage and were greeted warmly by Esme and Merry while Paladin and Pippin helped the old Thain out. He was looking rather frail now, as if the death of Rorimac in the spring had taken some of Ferumbras' own energy. They moved slowly towards the smial, while Esme remained to supervise the unloading of the baggage.

Saradoc sauntered out of the main door to greet the Thain respectfully and Paladin affably. After chucking the girls under the chin and giving Pippin a clasp on the shoulder that made the youngster feel rather grown up, he took Pippin's place at the Thain's side, and the three men wandered back into the hall in search of a quiet corner where pipeweed and ale could be consumed in peace.

The girls raced off to tidy themselves up and to see which of their particular friends had arrived already, while Merry and Pippin were trying very hard not to fall into each other's arms again in front of all the servants.

"Who else is here, Aunt?" Pippin enquired politely.

"Well, the Boffins and Burrows were here yesterday, and the Bolgers are arriving tomorrow."

"Is Frodo coming?"

"He arrived this morning. He was talking with Berry in the Red Parlour last I saw."

"How is Berry?" Pip asked, anxious to hear the latest news about his cousin.

"Not too bad, considering. He's still very stiff in the mornings, or when it's damp, but he's recovered much more quickly than we expected him to do."

"I'm glad. I like Berry. I want him to get well."

"I do too. Now, young Pip, why don't you lend a hand with your bags while the servants are busy with your sisters' trunks - I swear they must have brought their entire wardrobes!" It was true that the mound of trunks and bags that was being unloaded from the wagon seemed to indicate that the Took girls were planning to stay for three months rather than a few days - or else they intended to change their outfits a dozen times a day, something that Pippin, for one, didn't put past them.

"They're impossible," he agreed. "Which room will be mine?"

Merry grinned and Esme's eyes twinkled. "Since the Hall is going to be rather crowded, I thought that you would be glad to help out by sharing Merry's room."

Pippin laughed and flung his arms around her again. "Best of aunts! Of course I'll share with Merry - but only because you asked me, of course! Ouch!" This last exclamation resulted from the force of Merry's thump to his back. "Bully!"

"Pipsqueak." Merry leaned over to whisper in his ear: "You can get me back later on."

Pip flashed him a bright smile and grabbed the nearest bag. "Come on then! Let's dump this in your room and go and say hello to Berry."

* * *

The Red Parlour was one of the warmest in the Hall, and not just because of its colour scheme. The proportions of the room and the position of the fireplace allowed the efficient spread of heat, and it was the room most commonly used to house invalids. It had been the natural choice for Berry's use on his return from Great Smials, and he also had the use of a guest room on the ground floor until such time as he could cope with the two flights of stairs that led to his former bedroom.

Berry was lying on a couch, wrapped in a blanket. He was still pale, and a bit thin, but he was definitely much better than when Pippin had last seen him, a month before. Though the Tuckborough healer had done her best to straighten his broken leg, using weights to provide traction, he had inevitably been left with a slight shortening of his left leg. He had been forbidden to take any weight on the leg for almost three months, with the result that he had also lost a lot of his strength.

He had returned to Buckland at the beginning of Foreyule, in the back of a well-sprung carriage, his leg still splinted and propped up on pillows. Henny Baggott, the Hall's healer, had muttered the usual imprecations on foreign healers when she saw him, but had had no real complaint about his treatment except that he hadn't been up on his feet because of the concurrent fracture in his arm, which had prevented him from using crutches until only a fortnight before his return. With a few pithy words that indicated that Ellis Bellwether was not the only healer in the Shire who had learned a thing or two from the Big People, she had sent for the blacksmith at once and had entered into a long and technical discussion concerning leg length, weight-bearing surfaces, pivot points, and the relative merits of calf and kid leathers. The end result had been delivered only ten days ago: a calliper that took Berry's weight through a pair of metal rods extending from knee to just below the foot, allowing him some mobility while not placing too much strain on the still-healing bone. Berry was still getting used to it, but his spirits had already improved with the increase in independence.

"Ho there, Berry!" called Pippin as they entered. Berry turned his head and gave a broad smile, throwing the blanket aside. Merry hurried in to help him to his feet. Pippin caught sight of the calliper on his leg and two stout ash walking sticks, one of which Berry used now to support his weight.

Pippin hugged him. "How are you?" he asked, looking at the blue eyes that seemed to him to be a little darker than they had been before.

"Oh, getting on famously, Pip." Berry said, in a warm voice. "My aches and pains are improving every week and I'm getting stronger. I am sure that I'll be back to normal come the spring."

"Oh, I hope so."

Merry, his arm still around Berry, said, "I was saying this morning that we'll have to take you on a couple of hikes to get you used to walking again, won't we, Frodo?"

"We will indeed." said Frodo, putting down his pipe and the book from which he had been reading and coming over to hug Pippin in his turn. "Just a gentle turn around the Hall to start with, then a few tramps through Buckland, then you can come over to Bywater and make sure that the ale at the Green Dragon hasn't deteriorated over the winter. By Lithe I'm sure that you'll be fit enough to walk to Michel Delving if you wish."

"I'm sure I will." Berry smiled again, but the shadow in the eyes did not go unnoticed.

"And I could walk over too," Pippin added "Maybe we could even go to Bree. Now that would be an adventure!" The horrified looks on three faces made him burst out in indignant laughter. "Well what's wrong with wanting to go to Bree? It's further than I've ever been before!"

"And further than you're ever likely to go, my sweet," said Merry. "There are Big People in Bree."

"I know! I want to see them!"

"Well, maybe they don't want to see you. Maybe I don't want them to see you. Maybe I'm afraid that they'll take one look at my sweet pippin and snatch you up to make an apple tart and I'll never see you again."

"Or maybe they'll want a Brandybuck trifle and take you instead!" Pippin snickered at his own joke and then turned to Frodo. "How long are you staying?"

"I'm not sure," said Frodo, with a frown. "Only a few days. I don't want to be away from Hobbiton too long at the moment."

"Oh." Pippin could understand why he might not want to be away, but why didn't he sound more happy about it? "How is... everyone?"

"Quite well, thank you for asking."

Frodo's response was a little terse, and Pippin teasingly whispered in his ear: "I'll give you a kiss under the mistletoe for Sam if you like."

"That won't be necessary."

Frodo gave him a quelling look and Pippin subsided. What on earth was wrong with Frodo? Had he quarrelled with Sam?

Berry had returned to the couch and Merry was wrapping the blanket around him again, the touch tender and loving. The thought crossed Pippin's mind fleetingly that Merry and Berry had no doubt spent much time together since Berry's return to the Hall, and there would have been every opportunity for them to resume the affair that had started four years ago. He couldn't really blame them if they had - Berry was still handsome, if pale, and Merry, of course, was irresistible. Merry would comfort him very well, and Pippin told himself that he shouldn't be selfish when Berry was so obviously in need of it. He didn't even feel angry about it, just a little scared, because Berry was so much more experienced, and Pippin sometimes wondered if Merry missed having his older cousin in his bed.

He had no idea that his thoughts could be read so clearly on his face until Berry looked at him and gave him a tiny shake of the head. The message was obvious and Pippin nodded in acknowledgment as he blinked back a tear. Although immensely relieved by Berry's denial, he also felt somehow sad that Berry had no one to call his own now. He himself had Merry, Frodo had Sam, and even Reg had Periwinkle, little though they deserved each other. Only Berry, it seemed, was left to sleep alone.

They remained with Berry for another hour, chatting and playing card games. Afternoon tea was served and Pippin observed that Berry's appetite had improved a little. Other hobbits drifted in and out and conversation became general. Nel and Vinca appeared briefly, in company with Melilot and a couple of girls he didn't recognise - from the looks the girls were giving Berry, Pippin guessed that they had been discussing him upstairs. They simpered and preened in front of the Shire's most eligible bachelors (none of whom cared at all for the honour), but eventually disappeared in a cloud of giggles to change.

* * *

After the long ride and the busy evening, Pippin was glad when Merry suggested that they retire early after dinner. They made their farewells to the Master and Aunt Esme and walked up the stairs, hand in hand.

Merry's room was cosy, with the shutters tightly closed, the hearthfire glowing and the large bed to one side, its comfortable mattress covered in thick blankets and soft quilts. While Pippin closed the door and locked it, Merry put the single candle on the bedside table, then turned back to Pippin and took him in his arms.

"How tired are you?" he asked.

Pippin grinned, his green eyes bright. "Not early as tired as I pretended to be!"

"That's good, because I have plans for this evening."

Pippin snuggled closer. "What sort of plans? he asked, his voice dropping to a purr.

"Plans that involve you, and me, and warm, bare skin, and a bottle of sweet oil."

"Oh, those sorts of plans," Pippin's voice deepened to a growl and he essayed a delicate bite to Merry's ear, noting the shiver it elicited.

"Mmm, more of that, please," murmured Merry, and Pippin was happy to oblige.

* * *

The next day was dull and grey, with a persistent mizzling rain that made everyone feel fractious. Berry felt the damp in his bones and curled up as best he could in the Red Parlour, sipping an infusion of willow-bark. He was on his own, for once, and trying hard to tell himself that he preferred it that way.

Frodo had spent most of the morning with him, but Berry found that Frodo's presence made him feel much more self-conscious than it had at Great Smials. He supposed it was because there he had been bed-ridden and helpless, and he had needed someone around to fetch things for him, to help him sit up and lie down and eat and wash and use the chamberpot. Since his return to Brandy Hall, and particularly since he had been given the calliper, he was able to do much more for himself, and consequently felt much better.

Frodo, on the other hand, seemed to be more attentive than he had been at the Smials, and once he had learnt that Berry had exhausted himself in walking too far, too soon, he had been fussing over him like a hen with one chick. Berry knew that Frodo felt partly responsible for his injury, but he also resented being made to feel more of an invalid than he was already. This morning, his temper had got the better of him and he had told Frodo flatly that he needn't stay, at which point Frodo had gathered up all his dignity and announced his intention of going for a walk.

Berry told himself that he would be happy when Frodo returned to Bag End - and Sam - and he could get on with his own life.

Less than half an hour later, though, Berry was feeling lonely and neglected. Esme and Saradoc rarely troubled him outside mealtimes, and Pippin and Merry had disappeared halfway through the morning - probably for a "nap". The fire was dying down and the effort it would require to go over and replenish the wood on it was a lot more than Berry could contemplate expending at the moment. By the time Gammer Baggott turned up, he had progressed to feeling very sorry for himself, convinced that he would be a cripple and an object of pity for the rest of his life, limping around like a ghost through the dark corridors of the Hall, pointed out to generations of hobbit children as an Awful Example of What Happens When You Don't Listen To Your Aunts.

He looked up as the healer strode into the room, unable to force his features into anything resembling a welcome.

The gammer gave him a withering look and nodded to herself. "Just as I thought, Master Berilac," she said in her brisk, no-nonsense voice. "Sitting here by yourself, brooding and moping and thinking yourself an invalid because you can't run as fast as Master Peregrin."

"Not only can I not run as fast as Pippin, I can't run at all, and well you know it." Berry sounded peevish, and he knew it.

"How are your bones feeling now?"

"The arm is fine, unless I use the sticks too much, but the leg is aching."

"When did you last go for a walk?"

"Outside? About three days ago. I walked around the kitchen gardens, but I think I overdid it. I got blisters under the knee."

"Yes, young Mister Baggins mentioned it to me when I met him in the grounds just now."

Berry grimaced at this new evidence of Frodo's interference, but held his tongue.

"Did you put the ointment on this morning?"

"Yes, and Im taking the calliper off whenever I'm lying down, but that just means more fuss when I do want to get up, and even with the sticks it feels awkward.

"It will feel awkward for months yet, and I have told you that time and time again."

She looked at the blisters and red areas under the knee joint, where the collar of the calliper rubbed against the skin. "I think that you need a lambskin lining until the skin here can toughen up. I'll speak to Mistress Esmeralda about it." She nodded to herself, then turned her attention to the shin. There was a large bony lump in the middle of the leg, where the break had been. The skin over it was stretched and slightly shiny, but not broken. "Are you still tender here?" she asked, pressing lightly.

"Not really. It's more of an ache."

"Hmm." She poked and prodded, checking the muscles, which were sadly wasted, and the skin under the right heel, which had broken down a fortnight after the accident and had taken a long time to heal. "You must get up and about, young Berry. These muscles aren't going to recover without exercise."

"I know." Berry didn't sound very enthusiastic.

"Are you sleeping?"

"More or less."

"How much poppy-juice do you have left?"

"Over half the bottle. I don't use it often."

"Good - but it is there to be used, not to be kept as a decoration. You should know your condition well enough by now that you can tell which nights you need it."

Berry nodded. "Still tastes awful."

"It's supposed to. I wouldn't want anyone to get to like it too much." She replaced the blankets and rose to her feet. "I'll see Mistress Esmeralda about that lambskin. I'll be back on 1st Afteryule to see how you are." She went in search of Esme and Berry was left alone with his thoughts. He eyed the lump on his leg distastefully. The healer had assured him that it would get smaller with time, but it looked unsightly, and Berry wondered if anyone would notice if he got his breeches cut a little longer to cover it.

* * *

Berry hadn't thought that he would be able to sleep, but he woke up (after an odd dream that he couldn't remember clearly) to find Frodo sitting on the floor beside the couch. Frodo was holding Berry's fingers in his right hand, pressing them against his cheek, while in his left there was the inevitable book. As Berry stirred, Frodo looked up.

"Oh, you're awake." He seemed a trifle embarrassed, and let go of Berry's hand. "Your hand was cold - your arm had fallen out from under the blanket."

Berry had an urge to press it back against Frodo's cheek, but controlled himself and tucked it under the blanket instead. It was only more of Frodo's fussing - it didn't mean anything. Still, it reminded him of how Frodo had sat with him when he was a child, when he was ill or hurt. He didn't want to think of that, so instead, he focussed on the book that Frodo still held. "What are you reading?"

"A history of the Great Plague."

"That's a bit morbid, isn't it?"

"It suited my mood."

Frodo's tone was decidedly cool, and Berry felt awkward. He tried another topic. "Did I miss any meals?"

Frodo smiled. "Only lunch. Esme brought you a plate of sandwiches," he indicated the covered dish on the nearby table, "and I can get you a pot of tea if you like."

"I would like, actually." He sat up and let Frodo put more pillows behind him. It felt odd, having him so close. For some reason he was more aware of Frodo's body heat than he had been the day before.

Frodo handed him the plate and hurried off to get tea. It wasn't many minutes at all before he was back with a tray, on which rested teapot, cups, milk, sugar and another plate, this one holding slices of buttered gingerbread. Frodo smiled at him, then said apologetically, "Esme thinks that we both need fattening up!"

Berry laughed and watched Frodo as he set the tray down and poured the tea, adding a little milk and one spoon of sugar... just as he always took it. Frodo handed it to him, saying "I hope I remembered it correctly."

"Yes, that's right." Was it his imagination or did Frodo's hand tremble slightly? Maybe it was just the effort of carrying the tray up from the kitchen. It didn't have to mean anything.

Frodo made his own tea, and Berry counted the sugars... one, two, three... yes, just the same. He tried not to stare, but he couldn't look away as Frodo stirred the sugar through his tea. How could he still look so young? Berry could remember when his cousin had seemed impossibly grown-up to him and now he looked younger than Merry; not only younger but fragile, even vulnerable.

Frodo looked up suddenly and caught his gaze. Berry felt self-conscious and blindly reached for a piece of gingerbread - only to have his hand collide with Frodo's on the same errand. They both laughed in a small, embarrassed way.

Berry spoke first. "It smells very good."

Frodo held up the plate for him. "It is good. I had a piece in the kitchen."

Berry took a slice and bit into it. It was soft and sweet and had lots of ginger, just as he liked it. He kept his eyes firmly fixed on the table while he ate, not willing to risk more embarrassment, then drank the rest of his tea. Try as he might, he couldn't think of anything to say.

"Would you like another cup?" Frodo asked politely.

"Yes, thank you," he replied, listening to himself with dismay. What had happened to him? Why was he apparently incapable of conducting an intelligent conversation?

He accepted the refilled cup from Frodo, noting that the saucer shook even more as it passed from Frodo's hand to his. He put it down carefully on his lap before raising the cup to his lips. "Oh!" he exclaimed, as he tasted it. "You forgot the sugar."

Frodo looked mortified and reached out to take the cup at the same time that Berry went to put it down. The result was inevitable: the cup dropped onto the saucer, the impact shattering them both, and hot tea spilled all over the blanket. Berry started up but by mischance his foot caught on a corner of the blanket and he overbalanced, landing heavily with his arm on the edge of the tray and dragging it off the table as he fell to the floor. Frodo snatched at the teapot before it could topple over onto Berry, but his hand slipped off the cosy to the hot surface of the china and with a yelp he dropped it onto his side of the table, whereupon it broke into several pieces. Frodo jumped to avoid the scalding tea, knocking his chair over, but the chair leg caught him behind the knee and he fell backwards in a tangle of limbs and splintered wood.

All was quiet for a moment, the two hobbits lying almost nose to nose on the floor. Frodo looked at Berry, and Berry looked at Frodo, and they both looked at the havoc that had arisen in the space of a few seconds. Berry felt a bubble of laughter welling up inside him and his face twitched. Within moments, he saw a matching expression in Frodo's face and before he knew it, they were laughing hysterically. It seemed to him that there had never been a funnier sight in all his life than the two of them rolling around on the floor, covered in milk and gingerbread and bits of wood.

He had no idea how they appeared to the astounded hobbits who hurried into the room a few seconds later, but he didn’t really care. He hadn't laughed with Frodo like this since they had been children together, and it was worth a little pain: after all, he had Gammer Baggott's poppy-juice to help him sleep. He was sorry about the ruined gingerbread, though.

* * *

1st Yule itself was a day of chaos and confusion. There was rain and wind, but no snow, and the children, kept indoors, were running off their energy in the corridors and up and down the stairs. Esme hurried from room to room, growing red in the face from her exertions, harrying the servants and bullying all the relatives she could find into helping with preparations for the Yule luncheon (which was fully expected to extend into afternoon tea and dinner as well). Presents were starting to pile up in the parlours and the main hall, and it looked set to be a very splendid Yule indeed.

Pippin and Merry had exchanged gifts in private that morning. Merry gave Pippin a wooden box with a lock, large enough to hold a book or two (not that Pippin would ever have a book so valuable that he would need to lock it up) or letters, or any number of small treasures. Pippin was well-pleased, since he had become increasingly worried that Vinca or Nel might find where he had hidden his letters from Merry and he knew that he could expect no mercy from either of them if they did.

Pippin gave Merry a pipe, a particularly well-made one in a delicate rosewood. Merry was delighted, as he had been using his second-best pipe since the accident.

"Thank you, love," he said, as he gave his lover a kiss. "I'll try and keep this one safe!"

"I have something else as well."

"Another present?"

"Well, yes, but not really. I can't give it to you as a real present because it's for both of us."

Merry raised an eyebrow. "That sounds interesting. Will I like it?"

"I think you will," Pippin grinned as he reached into his bag and brought out a small bundle, wrapped in bright fabric and tied with a ribbon. "Open it."

Merry untied the ribbon and folded back the fabric. It was a small glass bottle, very dark. When he held it up to the light the glass shone blue, like sapphire. "It's beautiful."

Pippin giggled. "It's what's in the bottle, silly. Open it."

Merry took out the stopper and sniffed. The scent was spicy, green, woody, with a hint of musk. He touched the liquid on the stopper and realised that it was oil; a very fine oil that felt silky on his fingers. He noted how the scent bloomed from the warmth of his skin. Merry smiled in wonder: Pippin had given him scented oil for Yule. "It is beautiful. Where did you get it?"

"A trader. He got it from Big People. It's from Harad - at least that's what the trader said. I thought we could use it for special occasions."

Merry replaced the stopper and set the bottle down carefully before taking his lover into his arms. "Every time I'm with you is a special occasion. Thank you."

"You're welcome. Now kiss me and promise me we'll use it tonight."

"I promise."

* * *

It wasn't turning out to be a good day for Berry, who found that, since his accident, he didn't tolerate noise and bustle as well as he used to. Children, in particular, were annoying, though he wasn't sure if it was their noisiness or the fear that one of them would knock him over in their haste. After rising late and finding that breakfast was being cleared away early in preparation for luncheon, he was making his way back to the Red Parlour, shuffling along the corridor with calliper and two sticks, refusing all offers of assistance and growing more crotchety by the minute.

When he finally reached the Red Parlour, he found it already occupied by several hobbits (several of whom he knew and didn't like), mostly those who lived close enough that they were only visiting for the day. He was furious with Esme for allowing them to use his room - he had occupied it every day since returning to the Hall, and she should have known that he would need it today. He made his way to the Yellow Parlour, only to discover, too late, that all his least favourite relatives were there. It took him an hour to extricate himself from their exclamations, protestations of sympathy, and overly inquisitive questions on the precise cause of his fall - as if they didn't know already, the gossip-mongers of Tuckborough being legendary within the Shire.

Following the corridor, he came to the back parlour, but there, as was usually the case, the tweens were holding court - literally and figuratively. Last year he had spent quite a bit of time with them, enjoying his status as Wicked Cousin Berry, the Rake of the Shire. This year their looks were pitying, rather than admiring, and he hurried on by - well, hobbled as fast as he could.

He reached the end of the corridor and wondered where to go next. His leg was starting to hurt - apart from the unfortunate expedition into the kitchen gardens, this was actually the longest distance he had travelled on foot in over three months - and he had no idea where to find Frodo or Merry or Pippin. Even Uncle Saradoc or his father would have been welcome company after the ministrations of Great-Aunt Asphodel.

"Oh, there you are, Berry!" He turned to see Pippin running towards him. "We've been looking all over for you. Merry found some ghastly types in your parlour and we had a terrible job moving them out. Frodo's holding them off for the moment, but if we don't get you back there he may be overrun. Come on."

Berry turned and walked back with Pippin, who continued to chatter throughout the long minutes that it took to reach the Red Parlour. The door was closed and wouldn't open to Pippin's hand. "Hoy! Frodo!" he shouted. "It's Pippin, and I've found Berry. Let us in!"

There was the sound of someone moving furniture and then the door opened to reveal a rather flushed Frodo. He stepped back and let them in, closing the door firmly again. Berry glanced at the table that had obviously been doing duty as a barricade. It looked quite heavy.

"Sorry about that." Frodo was apologetic as he helped Berry to the couch. "Someone tried to get through the connecting door from the dining room and I couldn't guard two doors at once."

"Where's Merry?" asked Pippin.

"Haven't a clue. Last seen being dragged away by Esme to do the pretty to some elderly relatives."

"Poor thing. I'd better go and rescue him. Don't forget to bar the door behind me - Fort Berilac must be held against all invaders!" Pippin winked at them and disappeared.

Frodo dutifully barricaded the door again and sat down by the couch. "Would you like that calliper removed? You must have been in it for ages." He reached forward but was pushed away by Berry.

"I can do it. My hands still work."

"Sorry. I was only trying to help."

"I don't need help." There was a rather loud silence for a few moments.

Frodo sat down. He opened his mouth, as if to say something, then obviously thought better of it, and instead looked determinedly at the fireplace.

Berry muttered an apology. "I'm sorry - I didn't mean to be rude. I only meant that I don't need help with this particular task. I find that I've become rather insistent on doing the few things that I can still do."

Frodo seemed relieved. "I understand. Well, I don't really, because I've never had a broken leg like you, in fact, I've never had a broken bone at all, and I've never had to rely on other people for everything. Well, not physically, that is, I'm not counting being orphaned and being taken in by Uncle Rory or Cousin Bilbo. But I can imagine it, and it must be awful." Frodo stopped suddenly, as if astonished at the uncharacteristic chatter. Berry continued to undo the buckles.

There was silence for a few minutes, punctuated by the creak of leather and the jangle of metal on metal as the calliper was removed and set down on the floor. Trying not to rub at the sore areas, Berry glanced at Frodo, who was now staring at the carpet on the floor. It was a rather pleasant design of roses and vines, but not something that would normally hold Frodo's attention for longer than it took to note that the pattern was, indeed, one of roses and vines, and furthermore, that it was growing threadbare in places. Berry wondered what he could be thinking.

After a few more seconds, Frodo spoke without looking up. "We looked for you. I was starting to get worried when we couldn't find you."

"I was trapped in the Yellow Parlour with some of the aunts for over an hour. That's probably when you were looking for me."

"An hour in the Yellow Parlour? That's more than any sane hobbit can bear."

"Well, I think I managed to escape with my sanity but my temper was certainly lost. I actually ended up telling them to mind their own business!"

"What were they asking about?" Too late, Frodo realised what a stupid question it had been and felt that he deserved the scathing look he received. "Sorry."

"I don't see why my private life has to involve everyone in the Shire."

Embarrassed he might be, but not even Frodo could let that opening go by. "From what I hear, Berry, your private life actually does involve everyone in the Shire!"

"Not quite everyone!"

It was lightly said and they both laughed, but as their eyes met, Berry saw that Frodo was looking at him in a rather odd, intense way and he realised that Frodo, of all hobbits, might well read more into his words than he intended... or he might take them at face value, and Berry honestly didn't know which would be worse.

He was saved from further introspection and probable embarrassment by the knock at the door. Pippin had rescued Merry from the elderly relatives and had forestalled Aunt Esme's attempt to have them both help with the children by sacrificing Berry's independence and insisting that they were needed to help him negotiate the crowds that would be at the luncheon.

There were tables set up in the dining room for close family, and in the main hall for everyone else, but Frodo suggested that the four of them would have a better time if they kept to the Red Parlour and saw to it that Berry had everything he needed without having to risk the crowds at all. Merry and Pippin concurred and proved to be very talented at waylaying the trays of food that made their way from the kitchens and appropriating the choicest morsels for their injured cousin.

Berry, for his part, acquiesced with as good a grace as he could muster, since after his experiences that morning he was grateful that he didn't have to negotiate the innumerable hobbits who were milling from room to room. Instead, he sat on the couch with his cousins around him, trying to ignore the ache in his leg and the residual clumsiness of his right arm, while he enjoyed the food that appeared in front of him.

The meal was astounding, as always. There was no smial or burrow in the Shire that could beat Brandy Hall for its hospitality (except, perhaps, Great Smials), and since this year was Saradoc's first Yule as Master, Esme had determined to make it a memorable one. As well as the roasted meats, there were meat pies and cold cuts and casseroles, along with potatoes and carrots and turnips and parsnips and cabbage, all to be smothered in rich brown gravy. To follow that, there were fruit pies and sweet pastries and jam roly-poly and trifles and luscious thick cream. For filling up the corners there was tea or hot chocolate or ale, with small jam tarts and iced cakes and sweet oatmeal biscuits. For those who had no sweet tooth (or who had over-indulged), there were nuts and savoury biscuits and sharp, crumbly cheeses.

Not even the most ill-tempered of hobbits could remain grumpy under the influence of such a feast, and Berry was by no means naturally ill-tempered. Once fed, and with the ache in his leg easing off, his good humour returned and before long he was laughing and joking with them all.

As the afternoon progressed, and various others decided that a little gentle exercise was required to help make room for the desserts that were appearing, a few of the more congenial cousins were admitted to the parlour, and by tea time Berry was holding court as Wicked Cousin Berry once more. He wasn't sure at what point Frodo had slipped away - he had been telling some scurrilous story and had looked to Frodo for confirmation, but Frodo wasn't there. He continued on with his tale, but somehow a little of the zest had gone.

Pippin and Merry came and went, still carrying food and drink, but at some stage they must also have been waylaid by parents or relatives (or decided to take another "nap") as the cosy group of cousins became a more boisterous group of tweens who seemed to view the Red Parlour as an annex to the back parlour that they usually occupied.

To make things worse, presents started appearing, making him feel uncomfortable since he had not prepared anything in return. He knew that no one really expected him to make or buy presents himself - after all, he had been in bed for over two months, and, since arriving back at Brandy Hall a month ago, he had had no opportunity (nor, to be truthful, the inclination) to visit a market. Still, the increasingly large pile beside his couch made him feel that he really should have made the effort.

As afternoon was replaced by evening, he felt exhausted and in desperate need of solitude. He reapplied his calliper, pleading the need to take a walk to the privy. He stood by the door for a while, chatting to Freddy and Estella, then slipped out.

On his way back from the privy, he narrowly avoided being knocked over by a pair of children who were playing some chasing game. Though he didn't fall, he was shaken for a moment, and this, combined with the invasion of his parlour and the prospect of receiving more unwanted presents, made him determined not to return there but to escape to his room.

He turned a corner and was surprised to see Frodo walking towards him.

"Stel said you'd taken a trip to the privy. I thought you might need someone to help fight off the orcs and goblins that seem to have taken over the corridors."

"I did have a narrow escape a couple of minutes ago. They just never seem to look where they're going."

"Well, I'll make sure you get back to the Red Parlour safely."

"That's not necessary." Berry knew he was bristling again, and was sorry for it, so when Frodo started to apologise, he cut him off. "Actually," he continued, in a milder tone, "I'd rather not go back there - it's been a long day and I'm tired. I was going to go back to my room but it means going by the back corridors if I'm to avoid the crowds, and I can't hold a candle and two sticks at the same time." He paused. "I would appreciate your help."

"Of course, cousin. Wait here and I'll fetch a candlestick." Frodo hurried off, returning in a couple of minutes with a candlestick and a new white candle. He lit the candle from one of the wall lamps and they proceeded through the deep corridors of Brandy Hall to the East Wing, where the guest rooms were.

It was a slow and mostly silent journey. They encountered no one except one of the Hall's cats (who passed them by in disdainful silence) and arrived at Berry's room without injury. Frodo opened the door wide and went in first, putting the candlestick on Berry's table while Berry made his way more slowly through the doorway.

Frodo turned back to face his cousin and paused, his hand slipping into his jacket pocket. "I'm glad that I was able to see you to your room. I have something for you."

"Not another present?" It was a sharp and bitter comment, and Frodo appeared disconcerted.

Berry realised he had spoken out loud and apologised. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that. It's just that everyone seems to have decided that Poor Cousin Berry is a Deserving Cause. I've had presents from people I haven't spoken to in five years or more. And to make it worse, I haven't anything to give back. I didn't even think of it until people started arriving a couple of days ago." He dug the tip of one walking stick into the floor to cover his embarrassment.

"Oh, I hadn't thought of that." Frodo hesitated, then dropped the package back into his pocket. "Well, then, not to worry, I won't embarrass you. Sleep well." He gave his cousin a quick kiss on the cheek and was gone before Berry had a chance to react.

Berry sat down on the bed, staring at the door. He wondered what Frodo would have given him and could have kicked himself for having spoken so bitterly; now he would never know. And why could he still feel the brush of Frodo's lips? He touched his cheek, then looked at his fingers as if he expected some visible evidence to remain.

"Idiot!" he told himself. "It was just goodnight."

He lifted his leg onto the bed and started to unbuckle the calliper.

* * *

The New Year dawned late and grey. It was quieter all over the smial: the adults were largely sleeping off the indulgences of the day before; the tweens found odd corners to tryst in, and the children kept mostly to the back rooms. There was no large gathering for lunch or dinner, as meals were always informal on 2nd Yule. There were leftovers, of course, and bread and cheese and pickles, but it had long been the custom to have no hot meal, so that the cooks could have a day's rest.

Frodo, Merry, Berry and Pippin went for a short walk through the park, which Berry tolerated better than he had expected, thanks largely to the new lambskin lining of the calliper. For most of the day, though, they stayed in the Red Parlour (which they continued to call "Fort Berilac", in reference to Frodo's heroic efforts of the day before), talking or playing card games and shooing out anyone else who had the temerity to enter.

Berry caught himself looking at Frodo once or twice, wondering what might have happened if he hadn't been so abrupt the night before. He tried to put it from his mind and concentrate on the games, but that was easier said than done. His thoughts kept drifting back over the last three months, recalling that they had played cards when Frodo had visited him while he was still bedridden at Great Smials. Frodo was a good card player, with a talent for remembering which cards had been played, and Berry had enjoyed their matches against each other. Even better had been the matches which paired them against Pippin and Vinca, or, once, against Eglantine and the Thain. They had made a good team, he and Frodo, and he had even caught himself wondering, if that might apply to other pursuits. But Frodo had only stayed two days before going home to Hobbiton, and in Hobbiton there was Sam, with his blond hair, his freckles, his rosy cheeks, and his sturdy frame. No, there was nothing more to Frodo's visit than a sense of guilt at his involvement in the accident. He was sure of that. It would be foolish to think that it might be any more than that.

His concentration lapsed, and he played badly. Merry, his partner this evening, forgave him readily, saying he was probably still tired from the day before, but Berry still felt guilty that he hadn't been able to play better. They spent the last hour just talking quietly, gossiping and talking of things they had seen on their travels, until Merry decided that Pippin, who had been dozing for the last twenty minutes, would be more comfortable in bed than curled up against his knees.

While Merry led a still-sleepy Pippin up the stairs, Frodo escorted Berry to his room, though this evening there were few enough children in the corridors to warrant it. To Berry's astonishment, Frodo again brought out the small package from his jacket pocket, but this time he put it down on the bedside table, beside the candlestick. "I was thinking," he said, rather diffidently, "that this isn't a Yule gift after all. It's a belated birthday present, so you needn't return the favour until Rethe - if you want to, that is. You don't have to." He seemed a little unsure of himself and stepped back towards the door.

Berry reached out a hand towards it. "Thank you."

"You don't have to open it now. It's not much, but I thought you might like it."

"Oh."

"Well, then. I'd better go. Do you need a hand with anything?"

"No, no, I can manage. Thank you."

"I'll say goodnight then." He turned to the door.

"Frodo -"

"Yes?"

Berry took a step forward, feeling indescribably awkward with his sticks, and kissed Frodo's cheek. "Goodnight, cousin. Umm... thank you for the present." He stepped back, nearly stumbling, blushing furiously.

Frodo didn't seem to notice, probably because he was looking at the floor. "You're welcome. Well, then. Er - Goodnight." He stepped through the door and was gone. Again.

Berry stood without moving for a few seconds. His breathing was laboured and his heart was racing so fast that he felt faint. He was mortified at his clumsiness - he, who was usually so cool and in control, had been blushing like a tweenager.

"I can't believe this!" he berated himself. "Berilac Brandybuck! What is wrong with you? You've tumbled every willing hobbit in the Four Farthings and you can't give your cousin a simple kiss without falling over your own two feet! Idiot!"

He leaned backwards onto the wall, staring at nothing, for several minutes, but came to no conclusions - at least, none that he wished to consider. After a few minutes more of non-productive mental effort, he dragged himself onto the bed and removed the calliper. As he reached for the ointment, he caught sight of the present on the table. He picked it up and turned it over in his hands. It looked very much like a book. After untying the ribbon, he unfolded the plain parchment wrapper and then stopped, astonished. Inside was a book, as he had suspected, but not just any book: this book was "Bilbo and the Dragon", the tale that Frodo had told him over and over when he was little. He flicked through the pages, admiring the neat, clear handwriting and the exquisite illustrations. He hadn't seen Frodo's hand in nearly twenty years, but it had to be his work: no one else knew the story well enough to write it down except Bilbo himself. He went back to the flyleaf and saw, in the same neat hand, Frodo's inscription: To my cousin Berry, in memory of the treasure-hunt, with love and affection, Frodo.

The treasure-hunt... how could he have forgotten that? He had been eight and Frodo fourteen. They had been sent to Bag End for some reason - he couldn't remember why, now, but it might have had something to do with baby Merry being ill again - and for the first time he had heard Bilbo tell the story.

It had been a wondrous tale, to be sure, but the best part about it had been trying to guess where Bilbo had hidden the treasure after he had returned to Bag End. That night he and Frodo had talked about it, going over and over the hints that Bilbo had made about where the treasure might be.

They had decided, between them, that the treasure was hidden behind one of the bookcases and had commenced an excavation the next day, while Bilbo was out. Bilbo had not looked at all pleased when he returned and found a hole a foot wide in the wall. He had muttered dire imprecations on curious hobbits who would undoubtedly come to a bad end, but, after all, the damage wasn't too serious, and a day's plastering and whitewash had restored the wall to its former state. The hardest part had been putting all the books back - "in their proper order" as Bilbo had insisted - which had taken two days. Frodo had been sure that Bilbo's "proper order" was not the same order they had been in before, but it hardly mattered.

Bilbo had fed them sticky buns and toffees when they had finished and had told them the story all over again, only differently, and this time they had decided that the treasure had to be in the cellar... They had waited two days in eager impatience for Bilbo's next trip to the market and had raced for the key the moment he was safely down the hill. Luckily for them, Frodo had caught on to Bilbo's stratagem as soon as he had seen the state of the cellar and had brought them back up the stairs, laughing fit to burst, and taken Berry hunting for caterpillars instead. They had been sitting in the kitchen drinking cocoa when Bilbo returned, and Berry still remembered the look of limpid innocence that Frodo had conjured up after Bilbo had been "to check the potato sacks". Bilbo hadn't been fooled, not for one moment, but he had always treated Frodo with a measure of respect after that.

Frodo had told and retold the tale to him many times after they had returned to Brandy Hall. Berry remembered how they would snuggle up in the cold winter evenings with cocoa or hot milk and Frodo would weave his magic with words, until Berry could actually see the dragon's lair and the heaps of shining gold and Bilbo the Brave, trading witty remarks with the Dreadful Smaug in his diamond waistcoat.

Berry ran a finger over the inscription: ...with love and affection... It was good of Frodo to think of something that would remind him of happier times. He wrapped the book up again in the parchment and put it carefully in the drawer. He would have to thank him properly in the morning.

He took the ointment and dressed all the raw areas, which were starting to heal at last, then got undressed and into bed. Tomorrow he would ask Frodo to walk with him, just a short walk. He would tell him how much he had enjoyed the book and they would start to talk about things they had done as children and then... well, then they would see.

He was smiling as he fell asleep.

* * *

Berry was up in good time for second breakfast and sat at the table, humming with anticipation, as he waited for Frodo to turn up. After an hour, he was starting to get a little annoyed and hoping that this wasn't going to be one of those days when Frodo didn't appear until elevenses - or lunch.

It wasn't until he commented on Frodo's absence that Merry broke the news to him. "Didn't you know? He left early this morning, with the Goolds - they have to be back in Michel Delving by the third. They had a spare place in their carriage and said they'd drop him off at Bywater." He grinned. "I think he wanted to get back to Sam."

Pippin frowned. "I'm not so sure."

"Why?"

"He hasn't mentioned Sam at all since he's been here, and when I asked after him, that first day I was here, he went all cold and polite. Frodo at his worst."

"Maybe he just thought you were being inquisitive - you know he's always hated people prying into his private life."

"Probably because most of the time he doesn't have one."

"Well, he does now."

"So you say."

There was a clatter of sticks as Berry tried to rise from the chair. In the confusion that resulted from three hobbits trying to retrieve two sticks from under one table no one noticed that his face was redder than usual or that his hands shook.

"I think I'll take a turn around the park."

"We'll come with you," Pippin said promptly, handing him the sticks.

"There's no need. I won't go far." He forced a smile. "Honestly, this calliper is very comfortable now and I need the exercise. I'll just walk to the oak tree and back. Once I can do that two or three times, I'll be ready for a longer trip."

Merry clapped him on the shoulder. "I'll make sure the parlour is warm and ready for you when you come back."

"Thank you." This smile was genuine, but faded the moment he was out of the room. It didn't take him long to throw on a coat, but there were still a few moments of awkwardness as he negotiated the heavy front door. Finally he was out into the open, but he was oblivious to the coolness of the air or the faint crunch of frost beneath his feet. He didn’t even notice how well he was moving or how quickly he reached the oak.

The news of Frodo's abrupt departure had shaken him badly. Frodo hadn't even mentioned leaving when he had said goodnight. Had he known, then? Or had the decision been made later, after Berry had kissed him? It was only on the cheek, but what if Frodo had thought that… thought that… ?

"Oh, bollocks!" said Berry out loud as he swung a walking stick against the tree trunk. Naturally the stick broke.

"Now, then, Master Berilac, you may be in a bad temper, and I wouldn't blame you if you were, but you needn't take it out on the trees!" Gammer Baggott strode across the grass towards him. "Though I suppose I should thank you for saving me the walk around the Hall. How's the leg doing? Looks like you are getting out and about a bit more. Does the lambskin make a difference?"

Berry controlled himself with an effort. "Yes, it does. Thank you. It's much more comfortable now."

"Good. You'll probably find that it aches a bit more in the evenings now, simply because you've been up more. Try and put the leg up in the afternoons if you can, to let the blood drain."

"I'll do that."

"Are the rubbed areas healing?"

"Yes, they are. I might need some more ointment though."

"I'll send some over this afternoon or tomorrow. What about poppy-juice?"

"No, I still have that half-bottle."

"Excellent." She bent over and picked up the pieces of the ruined walking stick and pressed them into his right hand. "Well, I'll leave you to your exercise and pop in to see Mistress Eglantine. I'll come over again in a few days and see how you are going... with just one stick. Left hand." Her eyes twinkled and she strode off.

Berry looked at the bits of splintered wood in his right hand and the sole remaining walking stick in his left. Slowly he made his way back to the Hall. It wasn't too bad with one stick, now that he could take about half his weight through the calliper. On impulse, he turned around and headed back for the tree, accomplishing another lap. Cheered, he headed back inside for elevenses.

* * *

That evening, it was the sheerest bad luck that Berry was making his way slowly back to the Yellow Parlour, where he had been chatting with Esme and Saradoc, only five minutes after Minto Burrows had fixed the mistletoe to the lintel. For the last 24 hours it had been over the main staircase, and no one had expected it to move until the early hours of the morning, but he was annoyed with himself for not having kept his guard up. After bestowing a suitably chaste kiss on a blushing Minto, he was adjusting his grip on his walking stick when Merry, his attention drawn back into the room by something his father was saying, tried to exit and bumped into him. Berry staggered but Merry grabbed an arm and steadied him.

Merry was alerted to the mistletoe by a high-pitched giggle from the side. "Oh, Minto, you little pest! You're fast becoming worse than Pippin was at your age! Now scarper before I decide to tell Mosco who actually wrote that note to Melilot." Minto promptly scarpered, having no desire to incur the wrath of both Merry and Mosco.

Merry closed the parlour door and turned back to Berry. "Was I ever that bad?"

"You were worse. Still, you turned out all right, in the end."

"I'm surprised you never strangled me."

"I was tempted, once or twice."

Merry smiled. "Oh, well, I suppose we'd better not risk the anger of Yavanna by ignoring the mistletoe." He tilted his chin up and gave Berry the mandatory kiss. Though it started out as a mere touch on the lips, it seemed that neither of them wanted to draw away immediately. Merry's hand stole up to Berry's shoulder, while Berry's free hand brushed over Merry's waist. They stood there, unmoving, for a few seconds before letting go.

Berry smiled broadly as the kiss ended, but kept holding onto Merry's waist. "Ah, Merry, sweetest of all my cousins, that was a fine kiss."

"I'm glad to hear it. And I do believe that's the first real smile you've given me all day."

"Well, it hasn't been a good day."

"No, I could tell you were out of sorts. I wondered if it was because Frodo left so suddenly."

"Not at all."

The answer was quick - too quick, decided Merry. "I only thought, because he's been spending a lot of time with you... I've been distracted by Pippin, you see, and I was glad that you weren't being left on your own."

"I can assure you that I am perfectly capable of getting around without Frodo. I don't need him, or his help, or his presents."

"Ah." Merry decided not to pursue the topic, but hugged Berry close for a few second more. He was starting to move out of the embrace when he felt someone tap him on the shoulder and turned, to find Pippin at his elbow. He felt a sudden pang of guilt but then realised that Pippin, far from being hurt or angry, looked happy to see them both. More than that - Pippin put his arms around both of them and joined the hug.

"You look very cosy together. Did I miss something?"

Berry smiled. "A mistletoe kiss." He pointed to the guilty foliage above the lintel. "I think Minto moved it."

Pippin protested loudly. "Don't I get one, too?"

Merry scolded him affectionately. "You get far too many kisses as it is. I've never known anyone with such a talent for being where the mistletoe is - even when you haven't moved it yourself!"

Pippin giggled and looked knowingly at Berry. "But it comes in useful sometimes. Mistletoe kisses can be very educational!" So saying, he snuggled up against Berry until he was approximately under the mistletoe and then tilted his chin up expectantly.

Berry smiled, but looked to Merry for permission before giving Pippin a sweet and gentle kiss on the lips. Pippin scowled in mock-insult. "Call that a kiss? I've had better from my sisters!"

"Oh, ho! Fighting words, young Took!" And with that, Berilac took Pippin's chin in his hand and proceeded to deliver a kiss that was neither sweet nor gentle, nor likely to end any time soon.

Merry grinned and stepped in close. "I would just like to remind you that Pippin is my lover, you know."

"And he's a credit to you, lad," Berry chuckled, pulling out of the kiss and trying to recover his breath. "He's a much better kisser than he was last Yule - and he wasn't bad then, either."

Pippin didn't speak but reached for Merry's mouth and kissed his lover as deeply as he had kissed Berry.

"You taste alike," he explained, when he finally came up for air, "but not the same. It's interesting."

Berry gave an odd little smile and kissed them each on the nose. "I'm going to sit down and rest my leg. And I think you two had better get upstairs before you start scandalising the household again."

Merry grinned. "An excellent idea, don't you think, Pippin?"

Pippin blinked, then said, "What?" as he tore his gaze away from Berry.

"Bedtime," whispered Merry.

Pippin gave a cheeky smile and butted his head on Merry's shoulder. "Here I am, all grown up, and you still think you can tell me when to go to bed!"

"Ah, but now you actually agree with me... which you never did when you were little."

"Well, bedtime is a lot more exciting now." Pippin sounded a touch distracted and Merry realised that he was watching Berry as he walked back into the parlour.

"What is it, love?"

Pippin lowered his voice. "I think Berry needs a good tumble. He looks very sad. He tasted sad."

"Well, you might be right." Now that Merry thought about it, Berilac probably hadn't lain with anyone since the accident. He wondered if any of Berry's past lovers were in the Hall at the moment, and if they might be interested. "Who do you suggest we talk to, sweetheart?"

Pippin blushed. "Actually... I thought that... perhaps... you and I..."

Merry raised an eyebrow. He couldn't possibly have heard aright. "You and I... and Berry?"

"Yes." Pippin's whisper was barely audible. "I know he wants you and you want him, and I know you would never do it, because you said you wouldn't. And... well, I want him too, but not like I want you, it's more that we have so much and he has been so good to us, and helped us both, and now he needs something that we have, and it seems so selfish not to share..."

Merry was astonished. Of all the things Pippin might have said, this was the least expected... except it wasn't, not really, because Pippin had always had a generous heart, and even as a child he had been happy to share his playthings and his friends. But how could he feel the same way about this? Did he know how Merry felt about this? Merry loved Pippin, but he had never lost his fondness for Berry and, while he would never have betrayed Pippin, he couldn't deny to himself that the idea of having both of them at once had been a secret and guilty fantasy of his for months. The thought that now it might become reality was intoxicating - overwhelming - and his body had responded instantly. Merry swallowed, fighting an insane urge to throw Pippin against the wall and ravish him until he couldn't walk.

"Are you sure?" he managed to say, his voice catching.

"I'm sure."

Merry pulled him into a kiss, pressing himself against Pippin's body, making sure that Pippin could feel his arousal. "I love you, Pip. You are so generous, lover-mine."

They broke apart as a group of tweens came through the hall, jeering and laughing as they saw the couple, jostling each other and giggling even more as the mistletoe was sighted.

Merry dragged Pippin down the main East Wing corridor until he was sure they could talk undisturbed.

"But what if he doesn't want to?"

Pippin gave him a pitying look. "I just kissed him. He wants me. And he always wants you."

"I meant, what if he doesn't agree? It doesn't matter if he actually desires us - he may simply not want to lie with us." And at the gleam in Pippin's eye he added hurriedly, "And no, you will not tie him up!"

Pippin challenged him. "No? It worked last time."

"No."

Pippin sighed, but conceded the point. "All right, no tying him up. Tickling?" He reached a hand under Merry's waistcoat in illustration.

"We'll just ask him, that's all." Merry grasped Pippin's hands firmly and pulled them to the front, out of mischief's way. "If he says yes, then we can work out when and where."

"It'll have to be his room. He'd never make it up the stairs."

"You're right. I wonder if he has supplies?"

"I doubt it. Whatever he has is probably in his old room upstairs, not down here. Wait here, I'll get what we need." He was out of Merry's arms and halfway up the corridor before Merry had a chance to draw breath, then ran back to ask, "Does he like honey?"

Merry pulled himself together and racked his brain. "Yes - yes, he does."

Pippin grinned. "Good. Go and get some." He was off again at breakneck speed. Merry shook his head and headed for the kitchen, where he managed to snare a pot of honey without embarrassing himself too much, though from the maid's knowing smile he guessed that she had a fair idea what he was going to use it for.

They met again at the foot of the stairs and, after lighting one of the candles that were laid out ready on the nearby table, they made their way quietly to the East Wing. At least the smial was not as crowded as it had been the week before, and Merry was fairly sure that the room beyond Berry's was now empty.

They knocked first, but after hearing no reply they opened the door and went in. The room was empty. Merry placed the candle and the pot of honey on the bedside table while Pippin emptied out his bundle onto the bed. Out tumbled the vial of sweet oil, some cloths, and a linen bandage. Merry raised an eyebrow at the last item and Pippin said hurriedly, "Only if he wants to. Or maybe you..."

"If anyone gets tied up tonight it will be you, pest, so don't push your luck." Merry picked the items up and placed them neatly with the others on the table. Then he hoisted himself onto the bed and beckoned to Pippin, who scrambled eagerly into his arms. "We'll wait for him here, and if he doesn't want to, we'll leave. Understood?"

"Yes. But he'll want to." Pippin's confidence was unshakeable. He gave Merry a kiss that tingled through them both, then settled into his cousin's arms and yawned. "Promise me you'll wake me if I fall asleep?"

"I promise."

Merry amused himself by counting the number of breaths it took for Pippin to fall asleep: it didn't take long, only seven breaths in all. Then he leaned back on the pillow and waited.

He must have dozed off himself, because he woke as the door opened. Berry took one step into the room before he caught sight of the pair on the bed, and in the instant before his face set, Merry could see how tired and strained he looked. Pippin had been right - Berry needed this.

He put a finger to his lips as Berry opened his mouth, no doubt to ask them exactly what they thought they were doing, and gestured to the lad sleeping soundly on his chest. Berry grimaced, but said nothing until he stood by the bed, by which time he had regained a little composure.

"Lose your way, did you? Or could you not wait to get upstairs?" The words were faintly mocking and Merry felt uncomfortable. Perhaps this wasn't such a good idea after all. He took a moment to consider his words.

"We were waiting for you."

"For me? How nice."

"Don't be so catty."

"Merry, I'm tired, my leg hurts, my back hurts, and all I want to do is lie down and sleep, though I doubt I'll be able to. I'm not in the mood for tweener games tonight." There was an edge to his voice that warned Merry he wasn't teasing.

Merry kept his tone light. "You don't have to be. I told Pippin we'd ask you, that's all. If you don't want to, we'll go." He added a touch of malice as he said, "But you have to tell Pippin you don't want him."

Berry looked at the cherubic face: the long eyelashes, the delicate upper lip, the soft brown curls... the boy was heartbreakingly beautiful. He bent and took a lock of hair between finger and thumb, noting the fine texture, then ran his finger over the ear and down the jaw. Pippin stirred but didn't wake. Berry's expression softened.

"It seems a shame to wake him." He made to go. "Old Cousin Hasrubel has gone back to Deephollow - I'll sleep next door."

Merry stopped him. "Berry, please. Even if you don't want to lie with us, let us at least make you feel a bit more comfortable. Gammer Baggott gave you some poppy-juice, didn't she?"

"Yes, but I hate the taste and I don't have any jam..." His eyes followed Merry's to the bedside table and he caught sight of the collected items there: oil, cloths, bandage, (bandage?) and... honey. They had brought honey. He started to laugh. Merry did, too, and the movement roused Pippin, who lifted his head, blindly seeking Merry's lips before he was even fully awake.

"Mmm?"

"Here, love." Merry gave him a quick kiss, then sat them both upright. "Berry's here."

Pippin opened his eyes and Berry couldn't help but be flattered at the look of delight that crossed Pippin's face and the way he was instantly enveloped in a warm hug. He brought his arms up to steady Pippin, who was wobbling on the soft mattress, and rested his head on Pippin's shoulder for a moment. It felt very comfortable.

Merry slid out of the bed and walked over to the washstand, where he found the poppy-juice was in a small dark bottle next to a medicine glass. He took out the stopper. "How much?"

"To the first mark. You can add it to water if you want, but it doesn't taste any better. I usually throw it down and then take a spoonful of honey or jam to get rid of the taste. If there is any." He sat down on the edge of the bed, Pippin still leaning against him.

Merry grinned. "Honey we have." He walked around the bed to Berry and poured out a measure of the oily-looking liquid. Handing it over, he reached for the honey and had a spoonful ready for him as soon as Berry had swallowed. Berry let the honey roll around his mouth, killing the bitterness, before swallowing. He gave Merry a grateful smile.

Pippin looked concerned. "Are you in a lot of pain?"

"Yes, he is," Merry answered for him. "And he isn't well enough for us, so we are going to leave him in peace."

Pippin's face dropped and Berry felt inexplicably guilty, especially when Pippin summoned up a bright smile and kissed him on the cheek. "Maybe tomorrow?"

Berry glanced up at Merry, who was no help at all, just standing with an "I told you so" look on his face. He looked back at Pippin and kissed him lightly on the lips. "I am in a fair bit of pain, love, and the medicine will make me sleepy. Maybe tomorrow."

"Would a back-rub help?"

Berry thought of the aches that consumed his body. "A back-rub would be wonderful."

Within seconds, he found himself lifted onto the bed, stripped to the waist and lying prone, feeling Pippin straddle his thighs and Merry unbuckle the straps that held the calliper onto his leg. The ankle was swollen again, as it usually was in the evenings. He told Merry where to find the ointment for the raw areas and then let himself relax as Pippin's hands started to knead aching muscles and ligaments. Merry's fingers soothed ointment into his knee and ankle, then began to massage his feet.

His last conscious thought was that he hadn't felt so comfortable in weeks.

* * *

Berry woke feeling warm and heavy and free of pain, which was unusual enough that he was momentarily disoriented. The chamber was pitch black and he could hear nothing except his own heartbeat and the soft susurration of breath on each side of him. He had no idea where he was, or what time it was, or who he was with. He couldn't remember anything.

He tried to sit up, but the weight of a warm body on each side of him made it impossible. The body on the left murmured "Merry" and the body on the right grunted and moved closer.

Memory poured back into him: Merry and Pippin, sharing kisses under the mistletoe; waiting for him; taking away his pain. He smiled fondly and closed his eyes again. They could wait a little longer.

* * *

He woke again with a hand exploring his chest and soft curls tickling his chin. The body on his left was wriggling its way upwards, allowing a warm wet tongue to move over his collarbone and neck. He shivered.

"Morning, Pippin," he whispered. "Do you have a kiss for your Merry?" he teased.

"I would if I could reach him," Pippin countered, not fooled at all. "But I'll have to make do with you instead." He wriggled up a little further and kissed his way up to Berry's mouth. "How are you? Do you have any pain? Do you need anything?"

Berry smiled. "I'm well, and no, and no." He started to stretch, but found it difficult with Merry a dead weight draped over his right side. "Actually, I need to move a little, but Merry's lying on my arm."

"Oh, that's easily fixed," said Pippin, reaching over and shaking Merry by the shoulder. "Hoy, Merry, wake up. Berry needs to move."

Merry shifted and raised his head. "Pippin?" he queried into the darkness, as if he could feel that the body next to his was not the one he was used to.

"I'm here, love," Pippin ran his hand through Merry's hair. "Berry is lying between us and he needs to move. You'd better light the candle so that we can see each other."

"Oh, Berry, that's right." There were scrabbling sounds as Merry sat up and started feeling around the bedside table for candle and flint.

Berry sat up as well, and stretched his back and arms, then his legs. Even his leg didn't hurt much this morning. Berry had a vague recollection of Merry running his fingers firmly over the swollen ankle the night before, moving from foot to knee, and he wondered if that had done the trick.

Merry finally got a spark from the flint and lit the candle. As the flame brightened, he squinted at the timepiece. "It's half-past five. Still hours before dawn." He yawned.

Pippin looked pleased. "Good." He started shifting some pillows, pushing them up against the bedhead. "No one will start looking for us before second breakfast. Gives us plenty of time."

"Mmm, I could do with a couple of hours more sleep," Merry gave another yawn and a stretch, and looked as though he was about to lie down again.

"No, no," Pippin interjected, grabbing the pillow that Merry had been about to use and adding it to the pile behind him. "No more sleep."

Merry raised an eyebrow. "No?"

Pippin gave Merry a sly, teasing grin. "Berry says he isn't in pain now."

"So?"

"So..." Pippin finshed plumping up the pillows and moved behind Berry, stretching out a leg on either side. He leaned back, pulling Berry with him.

Merry leaned past Berry and whispered into Pippin's ear, "Are you sure, love?"

Pippin put his hands around the back of Merry's head and drew him in for a tender kiss. "I'm sure," he whispered back. "I wouldn't want to do this without you, but I want it with you."

Merry nodded and sat back on his heels, watching as Pippin tilted his head and began a slow, wet assault on Berry's left ear, while his hand roamed over chest and belly.

Berry shared a speaking look with his cousin. "Does he always get his way?"

Merry shrugged. "Sooner or later." His pupils were dilating as he watched them and his breath caught in his throat. He glanced back at Berry. "As a cousin of mine once advised me: 'Let it happen.'"

Berry closed his eyes as Merry leaned forward and started to nibble and suck on his neck and throat. He wondered, idly, if he should send them away... if he could send them away. This felt so good, and it had been so long since he had felt so comfortable and warm and wanted. He felt a pang as he thought of Frodo, and how much he would have given to have felt Frodo's lips on his throat, Frodo's arms around his chest. But Berry hadn't survived this long without learning when to be pragmatic, and if he couldn't be with the one that he loved, he would enjoy being with the ones who wanted him. He gave a relaxed sort of wriggle as Merry found a particularly sensitive spot under his ear. Oh yes, it felt so good to be wanted again.

He reached for Merry's shirt and started pulling it up, running his hands underneath the linen to warm skin. Merry lifted his head just long enough to tug the shirt over his head, then returned his attentions to Berry's neck. Pippin's hands, meanwhile, were skating lower, to the waistband of Berry's breeches, and his fingers were teasing between fabric and skin. Berry shifted to allow him more room, but the fingers withdrew and instead he felt them move down over his breeches, tracing the outline of his erection, which was growing by the minute. He arched up and was rewarded by a gentle squeeze before the hands moved to undo the buttons.

"Merry, take his breeches off," Pippin commanded.

Merry pulled the breeches down and threw them over his shoulder, neither looking nor caring to see where they landed. His eyes were locked with Berry's as he moved in for a kiss, showing Berry the desire that was still there. The kiss was hot and wet and deep, their tongues caressing each other, moving back and forward from mouth to mouth. After they separated, for want of air, Merry rested his forehead on Berry's collarbone before moving further down to the chest, gently biting and soothing the nipples, and continuing down to the stomach.

Berry arched back as Merry's mouth moved lower on his torso. He remembered the touch of those lips, the scent of that body, and it took him back four years to the winter that they had spent as lovers. It seemed that Merry had not forgotten either, as fingertips trickled over his skin, adding a light counterpoint to the music that Merry was making with his mouth. And on top of that, there was Pippin pressing kisses and tongue-strokes to his neck and rolling his fingers over nipples that had become exquisitely sensitive. He was floating away, carried by a tide of sensation towards dangerous rapids and a thunderous fall, and he loved every moment, but he didn't want to reach the rapids, not just yet. With difficulty, he reached down to Merry and gently pulled him away.

"Too soon... It's too soon, pet. I want this to last just a little longer."

Merry sat up and looked fondly at him. "We could always do it again in a few minutes." His fingers were still idly stroking Berry's thigh, and Berry shivered as he took Merry's hand and lifted it away from his skin.

"I have no doubt that Pippin could come three times in an hour if he wanted to, and you probably twice, but I'm not that young anymore. And quality does count for something." Berry smiled to take the sting out of his words.

Pippin moved out from behind Berry. "I think he just insulted us, Merry."

"No, I didn't, I just pointed out that you are very young - yes, you are, so don't argue - and that speed is not necessarily the aim. Sometimes it's better to take your time."

Pippin gave a pout. "Just for that I think I should get to come first. It was all my idea, anyway." Throwing off his shirt, he crawled over to Merry, kissing him and then pushing him back onto the mattress. Merry's head almost hit the foot of the bedframe, but he smiled up at his suddenly-forceful lover.

Berry looked at the enticingly-filled breeches that were in front of him, and snaked his arms around Pippin's waist to undo the buttons. He looked at Merry, his eyes flickering to Pippin's arms, and saw Merry's flash of comprehension. Merry gripped Pippin's wrists and nodded, and in the space of a few seconds Pippin found himself naked, face up, and held by ankles and wrists.

"I think we can arrange that, young Pippin." Berry threw a leg over Pippin's knees and grabbed the bandage on the bedside table, unrolling it and making a couple of loops in the centre. He leaned full length over Pippin's body and secured his wrists to the frame, giving the bandage a couple of tugs to make sure it was going to hold.

Merry let go and moved down to join Berry, and Pippin was treated to the sight of two grinning Brandybucks, each holding an ankle. He struggled for a minute, just for appearance's sake, then opened his legs slightly, tilted his pelvis up and licked his lips. He saw their expressions change and marvelled at the way they seemed to move in unison: mouths opening, eyes widening, breath catching. He smiled sensuously, touched his tongue to his upper lip and whispered, "I'm waiting."

Merry made contact first, in spite of the fact that he had further to travel. His mouth covered Pippin's and his tongue was deep inside before either had a chance to draw breath. Berry, meanwhile, slithered down so that his weight was taken on his uninjured left side, and bent his head to Pippin's solid erection. He swirled his tongue around the tip a couple of times, then opened his mouth and took the whole length in. He laughed and withdrew as Pippin bucked and shrieked into Merry's mouth, then, licking a broad stroke down the shaft, continued on to the scrotum, taking each firm globe into his mouth and applying tiny teasing licks with the tip of his tongue.

Merry's body was sprawled full length over Pippin's left side as he plundered Pippin's mouth, and he started to move his hips, pressing in to increase the friction between them. Berry sat up and reached for the oil. After coating his fingers, he slid them between Pippin's buttocks and rubbed gently at the sensitive skin. Pippin groaned and opened his legs more widely, allowing Berry to insert one and then two fingers deep inside. Berry caught Merry looking at him a little oddly and mouthed "only my fingers". As Merry relaxed, Berry smiled to himself. Oh, yes, there was sharing and then there was sharing, and Merry obviously considered some parts of Pippin to be his own private property. And as much as he would have liked to have thrust up inside that sweetly-delectable body, Berry didn't think that Pippin really wanted anyone but Merry either.

He took Pippin back into his mouth, moving in time with his fingers and working up to a steady rhythm. A glance at Merry showed that he was watching Berry's rhythm and matching it with his tongue and with a hand on a nipple. Berry smirked - with all that going on, Pippin wouldn't last long at all. The lad was already twitching and moaning; very soon he was squirming, and Berry had to hold him down firmly over the hips with his free arm; and then he was crying out and bucking and releasing into Berry's mouth.

Merry reached up and untied the bandage at once, bringing Pippin's arms down over his chest. Berry grabbed a cloth and wiped them both clean, then moved up so that they lay one on each side of the boy.

"Good?" whispered Merry.

Pippin smiled without opening his eyes. "Very good."

Merry wriggled a little and Berry saw that he was still hard. He reached a hand over and took hold of his erection, stroking him, watching Merry as his head rolled back and his breathing grew ragged. It was easy to remember what Merry liked, so at just the right moment, he gave a little flick of the wrist and thumb and Merry came with a high-pitched yelp.

Berry brought his hand up to his mouth and tasted the fluid that had spilled over it, letting his tongue swirl slowly and lasciviously over the skin, well aware that he was watched by the other two and enjoying the knowledge that he could probably get them both hard again just by doing this. A covert glance at Pippin showed him he was right.

Pippin stretched and reached over to the bedside table, picking up the honey-pot. "Merry went all the way to the kitchens for this. We'd better use it or he'll feel unloved." Taking a spoonful of honey, he dripped a little onto Merry's chest, following it immediately with his mouth. Berry made a grab for the pot as Pippin's hold wavered and held the spoon so that it dripped honey onto Pippin's lower back and buttocks. Cool honey was followed by warm tongue, and Pippin shivered and groaned.

Merry opened his eyes to see what was causing Pippin to wriggle so much. When he saw what Berry was doing he slid out but told Pippin to stay just as he was, on all fours. He dipped a finger in the honey and traced a meandering design over Pippin's buttocks and thighs, which Berry followed just as avidly as he had his own earlier trail.

Pippin wriggled and squirmed, then rolled away from them, saying "We're supposed to be seeing to Berry, not me."

Merry grabbed a leg and finished chasing one final honey trail before straightening up. "You're right," he said, and looked speculatively at Berry. "Lie down, and we'll see who's sweeter - the honey or the Berry."

"Oh, I am, of course," Berry stated airily. Lying down, he watched as Merry pushed his legs apart and knelt between his thighs. A spoonful of honey was raised and allowed to drip its sticky yellow trail in a meandering pattern over Berry's chest, stomach and groin. Pippin started at the nipples, licking and sucking the sweetness, allowing his teeth to give the gentlest of bites, then soothing with tongue and lips.

Merry hurriedly put the pot down on the bedside table and returned to start at Berry's groin, licking honey out of the hollow at his left hip. Berry opened his legs more widely to allow Merry better access, inadvertently causing one of the trails to trickle down inside the thigh. Merry followed the trail down, then, on his way up, abandoned the honey to give a broad tongue-stroke to Berry's erection. Berry shivered as Merry's tongue reached the tip and ran around it, lapping delicately at the fluid that was beginning to appear there.

Merry pressed firm, open-mouthed kisses up and down the length before returning to the tip, enclosing it gently with his lips, caressing it with his tongue and then taking the whole length deep into his mouth. Berry felt the sensitive head scrape over Merry's palate to the back of his throat, and he gave a self-satisfied smile as he remembered that it had been he who had taught Merry to control his gag reflex. Merry was putting those lessons to good use now, holding Berry's erection as he swallowed, registering how Berry moved his hips in response. He repeated the swallow before withdrawing, applying suction as he dragged himself away.

"Merry..." Berry breathed.

"Yes?"

"I want you inside me."

"You'll have me."

Merry reached for the oil, and after pouring a generous amount over his right hand he inserted two fingers gently, waiting until Berry had relaxed around him before pushing up and adding the third. Berry twitched as Merry's fingers flexed, brushing the sweet spot, and his breathing quickened when Merry started a regular movement with his hand, stretching and teasing him. It felt heavenly but Berry wanted more, much more, and he growled at Merry to stop.

Merry withdrew his hand, and reached for the oil once more. "Roll over, love," he said, as he poured a little more oil onto his hand. "That way we both get to play with you."

Berry rolled to lie on his left side, with Merry behind him and Pippin in front. Pippin's hand gave him a few gentle strokes as Merry prepared himself and got into position. Merry entered him slowly, easing himself forward with tiny back-and-forth movements until he was completely inside. Berry sighed in pleasure, and dragged Pippin up for a kiss. Merry started moving again, still slowly, stretching out every tingling moment. He took Berry's hands and held them in front of his chest, using them as leverage to pull himself in and out.

Pippin wriggled down the bed and took Berry's erection in his hand. There was fluid at the tip once more and he licked it off, rolling the flavour around his mouth.

"You don't taste quite the same as Merry," he pronounced, "but it may just be that I can still taste the honey." He gave another slow lick, then a third, smiling as Berry groaned. "Mmm, still different."

"And I thought... that Merry... was a tease," Berry gasped.

"Oh no," Merry managed to say, "Pippin can be worse than I ever was."

"I like to tease," Pippin stated, simply. "But I always stop teasing in the end." At that he closed his mouth over the head and slid the length deep into his mouth. Berry moaned, Pippin chuckled, and Berry moaned again, more loudly.

Berry was caught up between them in a sensuous rhythm, Merry's slow thrusts pushing Berry further into Pippin's throat. Berry tried to make them go faster, harder, but Merry was in control, and he kept the rhythm slow and steady, with Pippin always following. As Berry's wordless cries began to increase in pitch and intensity he pressed back into Merry, who struggled to keep the rate even. Berry was panting and incoherent, his body starting to twitch.

Suddenly Merry ceased moving and called out: "Pippin, stop."

Pippin withdrew immediately. Berry was struggling to free his arms, but Merry held him close. Pippin put his hands on Berry's hips to stop him moving against Merry, and watched as Berry came back from the edge, pleading and begging.

"No, no - don't stop -please don't stop."

Merry shook his head. "It's too soon, love. We want to enjoy you for longer. And you know it will be even better when you do come. You wanted quality, remember?"

Berry panted. "I take it back. You are definitely worse."

"I learned from the master." Merry ran his tongue over Berry's ear. "I remember a day when you took me to the brink three times before you let me come. I'd have strangled you if I'd had my hands free."

"I never thought you could hold a grudge that long."

"Not a grudge. I'm just returning the favour, that's all." Merry waited until Berry had relaxed, then nodded to Pippin and they started moving again.

This time Merry held them to an excruciatingly slow pace, and Berry almost bit his lip through with the effort of holding still. He wanted to roll over and straddle Merry, to take control of it all, but with Merry's hands still firmly over his own, and Pippin's hands gripping his hips, he was effectively immobilised. He could do nothing but groan and curse as the smooth thrust of Merry's hips filled him and each movement of Pippin's mouth on his erection made him harder and more desperate. It wasn't enough, he needed more, and he almost sobbed with relief as Merry's movements became a little faster and more forceful. He felt Merry adjust his position, and at the next thrust he groaned as the hard flesh inside him scraped over his sweet spot, sending shooting stars of pleasure through his groin.

His moans were quickly becoming wails and Berry was praying that they wouldn't hold him back a second time; it would be too cruel and he didn't think he'd survive it. He looked down at Pippin, whose hand had joined his mouth on Berry's shaft, and felt his climax starting to form. Merry must have felt it too, and his thrusts became harder and deeper. Pippin was taking Berry deep into his throat and swallowing around him, and that was enough to finish him. Berry's wails suddenly ran up the scale to a shriek, startling Pippin into pulling back, and Berry came in torrents, spilling over Pippin's hand, while Merry shuddered and came inside him.

They were all still for a moment, then Berry slumped back into Merry's arms, saying, "Oh, that was good."

Merry patted his hand, presumably in agreement, then rolled back onto the bed, taking Berry with him, releasing his hands but wrapping his arms around Berry's chest instead.

Pippin wiped his hand on the sheet then sat up. He looked at them both and was entranced by the sight. "The beautiful Brandybuck boys," he murmured. "You have no idea how beautiful you are together." It was true - they were unbelievably alluring, with swollen lips, dark, lash-fringed eyes and damp, shimmering skin. Candlelight had darkened Merry's hair and given a golden tinge to Berry's skin, increasing their resemblance.

Merry smiled up at him. "Come here, love, let me finish you." He watched Pippin crawl up the bed until he was kneeling beside Berry's chest, then reached over with his hand and gently grasped Pippin's still-hard erection. Pippin hissed at the contact and pressed his hips forward, grabbing onto the bedhead for balance.

Berry was half-asleep but opened his eyes and gave an appreciative smile at the sight in front of him. He eased his hand underneath Merry's arm and between Pippin's legs and ran his fingers teasingly over his balls and between his buttocks. Pippin's skin was still slick and oiled from before, and Berry's fingers slid up and inside with little resistance until Pippin registered the penetration and clenched around him. It took only a few more strokes before Pippin jerked and his release was streaming out over them.

"Oy, Pip!" Merry exclaimed as his chest was covered with splashes of milky fluid.

Pippin took a couple of deep breaths but remained unrepentant. "Not my fault. You should have caught it."

Merry looked at the trail that led to the edge of the bed. "I think you got some on the floor. You ought to clean it up before Berry gets annoyed."

"Berry's not complaining," Pippin pointed out.

Berry gave a superior little smile. As close as he had been to Pippin, he'd hardly got any on him, and he didn't really care about the floor.

Merry snorted. "Well, I am. It's messy."

Pippin managed, with some difficulty, to crawl over them both. Grabbing the towel that was on the bedside table, he wiped Merry's chest and dabbed at the drops on the blankets. He cast a hasty look over the edge of the bed but couldn't see anything on the floor, and said as much. Throwing the towel down, he turned back to the pair who were still closely entwined.

Berry saw the look in Pippin's eye and pulled himself out of Merry's embrace. Sitting up, he reached for Pippin, saying, "Come lie between us, love. You'll get cold sitting up on your own like that."

Pippin eagerly snuggled down between them. Berry pulled up the blankets, which had been pushed down to the foot of the bed during their activities, and tucked it around them before lying down himself. Pippin had angled his body towards Merry, but he took hold of Berry's arm and wrapped it over himself. Berry yawned and nestled his head into the hollow of Pippin's neck as sleep overtook him.

* * *

Berry woke in the grey light of morning. He looked over at the two beside him, so closely intertwined that he couldn't see which limb belonged to which torso, and smiled to himself, envious of their bond. He slipped quietly out of the bed, buckled on the calliper and pulled on a robe. After gathering up his clothes and the remaining stick he headed for the bathrooms but paused at the door, allowing himself one last look at them before he left. He was immensely grateful that they had shared themselves with him, but sad with the knowledge that he would never be as closely joined to them as they were with each other.

He hoped that Merry and Pippin would avoid a serious rift after their night with him. He felt a heavy burden of guilt for having let them stay - he should have sent them away, or gone himself, he knew that. He knew they were too young, too newly-paired, and Pippin, in particular, had very little idea of the effects that lying with someone could have on the heart and mind. He was the eldest and the most experienced, it had been up to him to foresee the consequences and to forestall them. The fact that they had seduced him, more or less, with backrubs and poppy-juice, didn't really change matters. He should still have known better.

He wondered what he would say if they came to him again. He had to say no, he knew it, but they were so damnably attractive! And it had felt so good to be wanted again, when he was beginning to believe that his injury had made him repulsive.

He sighed. Maybe, in two or three years, it would be safe to tumble them again... He amused himself through his ablutions by thinking up ways to entice the youngsters into his bed three Yules hence, and had to deal with a resurgent part of his anatomy before he could finish dressing.

He ate a good breakfast and went for another walk in the park. It was a little more awkward with only one stick (and he only had himself to blame for that), but he managed two laps to the oak tree. He saw several carriages go past and was thankful that the Hall would be a little quieter today.

By the time the youngsters appeared, shortly after elevenses, Berry was snugly tucked up in the Red Parlour again, reading a book. Through some perverse impulse, he had chosen the book on the Great Plague that Frodo had been reading a few days earlier, and found it more interesting than he had supposed. He received kisses from both of them, though he wasn't sure if he had imagined a shadow in Pippin's eyes. He hoped it was his imagination.

They chatted and played cards for the remainder of the morning, then Berry felt brave enough to risk going to the dining room for luncheon. That afternoon Merry was required to help his father with some work for a couple of hours, and Pippin went for a ramble, so after another quick walk to the oak tree he returned to his book. It held some fascinating details on pre-and post-Plague Shire life, and he made a mental note to ask Frodo about a particular point, before remembering that Frodo had gone back to Hobbiton. Back to Sam.

He put the book down, and was trying to decide if he would be better off going back to Michel Delving in the spring, when Merry came in, carrying a tea tray. They had been chatting for about twenty minutes and were laughing quietly over an old escapade when Pippin walked in. One glance at Pippin's face was enough to tell Berry that the shadow he had seen before was not in his imagination. Pippin gave a good impression of vivacity, but it was clear that there was something wrong.

Berry let the conversation continue for a few minutes, then said, "Oh, Pippin, the tea has gone cold and I'd love one more cup. Would you be good enough to get another pot?"

"Of course." Pippin gave a bright false smile and hurried off.

Merry was looking at him rather oddly. "What was that all about?" he asked. "You hate asking for help. I've known you go for hours without tea rather than ask someone to get it for you."

"Merry, my sweet, I'm afraid that Pippin has had second thoughts about last night."

Merry looked puzzled. "I wondered if something was wrong, but he seems fine with me."

"With you he is fine, but he won't meet my eyes, and the expression when he came in and saw you and me together was clear enough. If he could have killed me with a look, he would have."

"Oh." Merry grimaced. "Oh, damn it all. I should have known this might happen."

"Did he...? Was last night...?" Berry tried to find the right way to ask the question. "Did he agree to last night just to please you?"

"No, it was his idea," Merry said. "Honestly, it was." He thought about what Pippin had said: I know he wants you and you want him. "But I think, perhaps, he offered it because he knew it was something I wanted. I know I shouldn't have... but he was so sure about it... and he's been right about so many things this year." He gave a heavy sigh, and dropped his head into his hands. "What do I do now?"

Berry didn't really have any idea. He shrugged. "I'm not sure. For now, I think, nothing. He may raise the subject with you, in which case you can discuss it with him. If he hasn't said anything in a couple of days, then maybe you should mention it."

"Fine."

"How do you feel about it?"

"Me?"

"Yes, you."

"Why should I have a problem with it?"

"Just because." Berry said no more.

Merry bristled defensively. "Look, it’s not as if I cheated on him."

"Who said anything about cheating? I just asked how you felt about last night."

"I had my two favourite cousins in the same bed - of course it felt good!"

Berry gave him a speaking look; Merry's tone was as false as Pippin's had been. "Merry, please. I'm not going to be angry or upset at what you say - as long as you tell me the truth. But you have to be honest with yourself, or you'll never make it right with Pippin."

Merry clenched and unclenched his fists as he battled with his conscience, but it wasn't enough, so he got up and strode over to the fireplace. Looking down into the flames he finally managed to bring the words out. "I - I loved being with you again. I really did. But... I'm not sure about... well, in fact..." His fist thumped against the mantlepiece. "I hated you being with Pippin."

"Ah."

"I felt so jealous when you touched him." Merry looked back at Berry. "You're such a good lover, and I was afraid that he'd want you instead of me, that I might lose him."

"I don't think you have to worry about that. It's me he wants to remove from the face of the earth, not you. He wants you back all to himself."

"I want him back too. All to myself. Umm..." his voice trailed off, and Berry could see that he was torn between conflicting emotions.

"Out with it, Merry. Tell me what's on your mind."

"Well, when... I mean..." He took a deep breath and looked at Berry. "I don't ever want you to touch Pippin again."

The suddenness of the statement, and the intensity in the stormy eyes, struck Berry like a physical blow. He hadn't expected it but he had to deal with it, and there was only one answer that he could possibly give if he wanted to keep his cousin's affection. "I won't. I promise." He held Merry's gaze until the intensity faded and Merry nodded.

"Thank you."

Berry let out a silent breath of relief. "You realise that I have to ask you something in return."

"What is it?"

"Don't touch me. Especially not in front of Pippin."

Merry nodded again. "That's only fair." He studied his fingers for a while, then said, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to hurt you."

"Don't be sorry. If you really love Pippin you have to know what you're prepared to give up in order to keep him, and if that means no more happy romps with Berry, then that's that. Though I'll be very sorry if it means no more friendship with Berry."

"So will I." Merry gave a rueful smile before dropping his gaze again.

"Well, let's hope we can stay friends."

Pippin returned at that moment with the refreshed tea pot, and looked pleased to see them on opposite sides of the room. He seemed aware that something had happened in his absence but didn't mention it, and after the tea was poured they kept up a semblance of civilised conversation until it was time to change for dinner. By unspoken agreement they went their separate ways after the meal: Berry abandoning the Red Parlour for an evening with Esme and Saradoc; Merry and Pippin wandering off on their own.

As Berry got into his bed that night, alone, he smelled the faint residual traces of honey and sex, and wondered if his cousins would be all right. He hoped so.

* * *

Merry dreamed of an earthquake, and woke to find Pippin sitting on the corner of the bed, curled up with chin on knees. He looked as if he had been crying. He was still shivering.

"What is it? Are you all right?"

"I think I m-made a mistake."

"What have you done?"

"With B-Berry."

"What?"

"I think that t-tumbling Berry was a m-mistake."

"Well it’s a bit late to decide that now." Oh Lady! Merry thought. What do I now? And how on earth did Berry know he'd do this?

"I know." He looked miserable. Merry reminded himself once more that Pippin was only 18 and sat up, reaching out with both arms.

"Come here, love, tell me what's wrong and we'll work it out together." Merry recoiled as Pippin moved into his embrace. "You're freezing! How long were you sitting there?"

"Not sure. M-maybe an hour."

Merry wriggled them both back down under the bedclothes and made sure that Pippin was properly covered. "There, that's better. I know you're unhappy, love, but I don't think that there is anything worth freezing to death for." He expected Pippin to snuggle up to him for warmth, but to his surprise and dismay Pippin rolled over to face the other way. He spooned up behind him and held him close, though Pippin tried to break free.

"Pippin, please. I'm can't listen to what you have to say if I'm worried about you catching a chill. Let me warm you, please."

Pippin stopped struggling. Merry's arms and one leg enfolded him and held him until the shivering stopped.

"Now, love, tell me what's worrying you."

Pippin was silent for a while and Merry tried to work out if he was thinking about his answer, refusing to answer, or just falling asleep.

"I didn't like sharing you with Berry."

Merry's heart sank. He had been so overwhelmed with desire the night before that he had buried all his reservations, but since his conversation with Berry that afternoon, he had been afraid that his lust might cost him Pippin's love, and that thought was like a dagger through his heart. Please, Lady, he thought, don't let him hate me for this.

He made his voice sound matter-of-fact. "If you didn't like it, we won't do it again."

"I don't like that we did it at all."

"Well, you can't change the past, love. It happened. We have to live with that."

"I know. But I don't like it."

There were aspects of it that Merry hadn't liked either, aspects that he had revealed to Berry but not to Pippin. Maybe he should have - maybe he should tell Pippin now how he had felt the night before. "Oh, Pippin-love, there were things I didn't like either."

He felt Pippin move slightly. "Really? What things?"

"Well..." he took a few moments to marshall his thoughts and put them into some sort of order. "I was afraid that you would think Berry a better lover than me. He's had so much more experience, he knows so much more."

Pippin was silent for a moment. "What else?"

Merry paused; he'd been hoping for reassurance, not another question. He closed his eyes, not that it made much difference in the darkness, but it seemed to give him a bit more courage. "I didn't like Berry touching you... touching you in places that only I've touched. You remember when Berry put his fingers inside you? I thought, for a minute, that he was preparing you, and I didn't like that. I didn't want to see him take you. But I think he knew that, because he told me he would only use his fingers."

"Oh." Pippin considered that for a minute, then asked, "What else didn't you like?"

"When he took you in his mouth, when he made you come... I know it felt good for you, and I'm glad of that, but I wanted to... I want to be the one who makes you look like that. I want to be the one you see and feel around you when you come. I want to be the only one you think about when you're so close to the edge that you can't think at all."

To Merry's astonishment, Pippin sighed and relaxed. "Yes, that's it. I knew you'd be able to explain it to me." He added, in a whisper, "I want to be your only one, too."

Merry's heart leapt. He doesn't hate me! He still wants me! He tightened his hold around the slim body and held him until he felt Pippin start to roll towards him.

He eased Pippin onto his back, then lifted himself over and down, so that he was lying full-length along his lover's body, weight supported on elbows and knees. Another small adjustment ensured that everything was perfectly aligned. Only then did Merry let himself kiss the sweet, full lips on the face beneath him, teasing him with gentle passion. Pippin's tongue touched his, and he opened his mouth wider to allow it full access, relishing the taste and the sensation.

He rocked his hips, feeling the pressure along his length, hearing Pippin inhale. They moved against each other in a slow, sinuous measure, taking their time, pleasuring each other with touch and tongue and teeth. Pippin lifted his legs and wrapped them around Merry's back. The change in angle was good for both of them, and the pace increased. Sweat prickled, breath became gasp, and rocking changed to thrusting, until all control was lost. They reached climax within a few seconds of each other, fluid spurting out between them, hot and wet and musky.

Merry held himself still for a minute while he recovered, his face pressed against Pippin's neck. "I love you," he whispered.

"I love you too."

Merry eased himself off Pippin's body and lay down at his side.

Pippin wriggled. "Sticky."

"Mmm."

"Cloth?"

"On the table."

"You're closer."

"You're stickier. Oof!" Merry gasped as he was thumped (lightly) in the ribs. "Oh, all right. The things I do for you." He reached over and grabbed the cloth to wipe them both down. When that was done he snuggled back under the bedclothes. He could just make out Pippin's face, and ran his fingers over lips, cheek, and hair. After another kiss or two he whispered, "I'm sorry, love. I was so selfish and it nearly ruined everything for us."

"Oh, no, Merry, I'm the selfish one. I wanted you and more than you. I thought that more would be better, only it wasn't, and I know you tried to warn me but I didn't listen."

"You weren't to know."

"I should have listened. You're my Merry and I love you."

"I don't deserve your love."

Pippin laughed. "Oh, yes, you do."

"How can you say that?

"Merry, you've always done so much for me. You looked after me when I was little. You helped me with all the things I had to learn to grow up. You worry about me, even when it isn't necessary, and more when it is. You kept me safe when all I wanted was to tumble and I was too young to know how dangerous it can be. You made my first time - both my first times - very special. You don't hate me for giving us away when Berry fell, and you didn't let our parents separate us. You don't hate me for wanting to tumble with Berry, and you don't hate me for being sorry about it. And everything good in my life still comes from you."

It was the most Pippinish speech he had heard in months, and yet it was so different from the one he had heard after their grandfather's funeral. The words, the tone, the very rhythm of Pippin's voice had changed, and Merry suddenly realised how much Pippin had grown up this last year. He guessed, with a pang of regret, that he would never again see the enchanting Pippin-child who had captured his heart. But in his place there was his Pippin-love, who would walk beside him, support him, argue with him, laugh with him and make love to him. He wouldn't swap that Pippin for anything in the world.

"I love you, only you, always and forever."

He never did work out which one of them had said it. It didn't matter.

* * *

It was another cold, grey morning, the fifth day of the new year. Berry had woken early again and decided to go for a walk while waiting for the others to leave their bed and join him. They had made their peace with each other and that was good, but it meant that he felt alone again, left out of their happy little world.

He felt restless as well. He still couldn't make up his mind what to do when the spring arrived. Being factor entailed a great deal of riding around, both in Buckland and around the Shire in general and so far he hadn't been able to get on a pony. Even if he drove a cart, he certainly wouldn't be able to get to Michel Delving or Longbottom as often as he had in the past. He needed a deputy, or at least an assistant, who could travel for him. Unfortunately, there was no one else with the necessary knowledge except his father, who was settled in his cozy burrow with his new wife, or Saradoc, who had far too much to occupy him at the Hall. Merry was a possibility, but he didn't yet have the experience to drive a hard bargain on Buckland's behalf.

It was a pity that Frodo wasn't here - his quiet authority and his talent for getting to the heart of a problem would have been invaluable. But Frodo had gone running back to Hobbiton, to Sam, and Berilac was left in the warrens of Brandy Hall, that held so many memories. Unsurprisingly, now that Frodo had gone, he recalled only the bad times, the year after Frodo's banishment to Hobbiton. It had been the worst year of his life... so far. He wondered, bitterly, if this year would prove to be worse. He wondered if he would ever walk normally again. He wondered if he would be able to ride. He wondered if he would ever be able to attract another lover, crippled as he was.

He caught sight of himself in a mirror as he limped through the main hall, and wondered when he had grown old.

* * *

When he was a boy Berry he had spent many an hour in the oak tree that marked the entrance to Brandy Hall. For the last few days he had used it as his marker for the progress he was making, managing three laps yesterday in the morning, and another two in the afternoon. He wasn't sure that he would accomplish the same today, since his leg was aching again, but he would do at least one.

As he walked through the grounds, deep in thought, his head was bowed and eyes were fixed on the ground. It was for this reason that the hobbit sitting at the foot of the oak tree did not come to his notice until he almost fell over him. He stumbled, spinning around and catching his breath. It was Frodo, wrapped up in a thick brown travelling cloak.

"What are you doing here? Merry said you went back to Bag End."

"I did."

Berry tried to calculate how many hours it would have taken Frodo to reach Bag End and return. "You didn't walk all night, did you?" he demanded.

Frodo shook his head. "No, I rode, and stopped at Stock." He paused. "As for what I'm doing here...well..." he trailed off, and tilted his head back against the tree trunk. "It's a bit awkward. I was hoping to have some time to work up the courage to walk the last hundred yards."

"Why do you need courage?"

"I need to talk to someone." Frodo looked at him, and Berry felt his heart start to pound from the expression in those blue eyes.

"What do you need to talk about?"

Frodo bit his lip. "Oh, things. Several things, actually. Or may be it's just the one. Would you believe that I prepared a speech?"

"A speech?"

"I wanted to be sure that I said everything I wanted to say, and the only way I could do that was to write it all out and then learn it. But I'm still not sure that I'll remember it all."

"Is it important?" Why was his heart pounding so?

"I think it might be the most important thing I ever say in my life."

"Maybe you need to practise it some more." And would it - could it - be what he thought it might be?

'Maybe." Frodo considered it for a moment. "Perhaps you could help."

"How?"

"You could sit here and listen to me go through my speech, and then you can tell me if I'm making a fool of myself or if I might have a chance."

"A chance at what?" It wasn't just Berry's heart pounding now; his whole body was trembling.

"Putting things right. Saying some things that should have been said years ago." Frodo looked up at him, and Berry knew, without a doubt, that Frodo was about to talk about what had remained unspoken between them for eighteen long years. Did he have the courage to stay and listen? Did he have the courage to leave?

He couldn't leave. He had to hear what Frodo had to say, even if... "Well, it wouldn't hurt to listen, I suppose," he said, easing himself slowly to the ground to sit beside Frodo.

There was silence for a couple of minutes, then Frodo laughed. "And after all that, I don't really know how to start."

"How did the speech start?"

"Well, I was going to say... am going to say... Hmm." Frodo halted, then cleared his throat, took a breath and commenced. "I discovered, recently, that the last twenty years or so of my life have all been wasted. A part of me was lost, then, and though I tried to carry on, it was as if there was a gap, an emptiness inside me, something that could never be filled."

Having started, he relaxed a little, and the speech that had begun so formally and awkwardly became more natural. "What's worse is that I know it's my own fault. I had what I wanted, in a way, though there were reasons why I couldn't... well, I was supposed to wait for it, and between cowardice and impatience, I lost it. I thought, at first, that I would be able to get it back, but time moved on, and when I was able to speak, I found that... that what I wanted didn't seem to want me any more. I had waited too long. So I pretended that I didn't really want it any more, and that seemed to work for a while, because it meant that I didn't have to see you - it - very often, and I was able to keep on going even though it felt as if I had no real purpose in life.

"Then, recently, I thought that - maybe - there was a chance, just a chance, that I could find it again. And I promised myself that if it is ever mine again I will treasure it and take care of it and make sure that I never lose it again." His voice trailed off into silence, and he sat with his eyes closed.

Berry considered Frodo's words for a while, then asked, "What was it that you lost?"

"Your love."

Berry made no answer, and after a minute Frodo opened his eyes, looking straight ahead. Berry could see that he was afraid, and for a moment he wondered what would happen if he got up and walked away, because he was afraid, too.

Frodo turned to look at him, saying, "I love you, Berry. I never really stopped, you know."

The intensity in the blue eyes caught Berry by surprise, and he stammered, "I... I thought you disliked me."

"Never. Though... though I probably tried to make you feel that I did. The first time I saw you - after that awful day at Bag End - was when I went to Michel Delving with Bilbo to see the Mayor. You were with a Nobottle lad, I think, and you looked so happy, until you caught sight of me, then your face closed up and I could see that you didn't want to talk to me. I thought you despised me. I didn't blame you - I despised myself. I remember I made some excuse to Bilbo and went outside. I felt awful. I had so hoped that we could have talked and maybe... well, anyway, when I saw that you didn't care for me any more, I didn't know what to do for a while."

Berry picked at a piece of lint on his breeches. "I remember that day. I saw you." His voice was barely louder than a whisper. "It was a shock - I wasn't expecting to see you. And I was a bit embarrassed that I was with Tick. I wanted to talk to you, but you left, the moment you saw me, and I thought that you didn't want me any more."

"I wanted you. I always wanted you. But in a way I hated you too, because I couldn't let you go. I had heard about your... your lovers, of course, and I thought that I understood. I had told myself that I wanted you to be happy, but it was so hard to see you happy with someone else. I wasn't prepared for how much it hurt. Every time I saw you I tried to tell myself that we were nothing more than relatives, that you didn't mean anything to me any more. I got into the habit of ignoring you, or speaking to you as if we hardly knew each other."

"I know. It hurt."

"It hurt me too. But I kept on doing it, and after a while I actually believed it, or thought I did. I sometimes wondered why I never found someone that I could settle down with, someone to share my life with. I never really understood. I thought that I had just developed the habit of being alone, like Bilbo had, and that I would no doubt adopt some nephew or cousin in the fullness of time as he did.

"Then... when I saw you fall... I thought you were dead, just for a few seconds, and I felt that my life was over too. I realised then that you were all I had ever wanted. It wasn't Bilbo or the books or Bag End... it was you. I wanted to kill Reg. I think, if you had died, I would have killed him." He shivered. "And then you weren't dead, and I couldn't keep away from you. I had to keep looking at you, touching you, to make sure that you were still alive. It was so easy to pretend that I was just being the older cousin again, looking after you as I did when you were young." He shook his head. "I'm amazed that no one caught me out... though I'm pretty sure that Esme realised.

"I didn't know how you felt, though. You didn't seem to hate me, but that was all, and of course you were in so much pain that you were bound to be irritable from time to time. Then, this Yule, it seemed that you weren't so indifferent to me. The other night, when you kissed me on the cheek, I thought - though I might have imagined it - that you might still have some warmer feelings for me. So I decided to tell you how I felt - how I feel, and let you make the decision. If you tell me to go away, I will, and we won't speak of this again.

"I don't deserve you, I know that. I didn't fight for you when your grandfather sent me away, or when Saradoc took you away from Bag End. I didn't tell you how much I loved you, then, even when I knew that you needed to hear it from me. I didn't do so many things that you needed me to do, and I did other things that hurt you. I'm sorry for all that.

"Oh, Berry, I'm sorry about so many things. I'm sorry that I wasn't the hero you wanted me to be. I'm sorry I didn't fight for you. I'm sorry for everything that you suffered. I'm sorry you saw me with Lotho. I'm sorry for that most of all. The other things - well, even if I had fought Merimac and Rorimac, I doubt the outcome would have been any different: they had far more power than I had. But Lotho was my own stupid fault and that did change things.

He took a deep shuddering breath. "The thing is... what I've been working up to... is that I love you. I want... I would like... to spend the rest of my life with you. But if you don't love me, if you don't want to be with me, I won't try to force you."

He stopped, finally, and looked at the ground, at the sky - anywhere except at Berry.

Berry sat with his back to the tree and looked at the grey sky. "It's hard to believe that this is the first time we've been able to sit down and talk about what happened. I've thought about it for so many years - what might have happened if I had run away again, if I hadn't gone to Hobbiton that night, if I had been able to forgive you sooner or to understand what you might be going through. But I was too young, Frodo, I was too young. They were right about that. I couldn't understand anything but my own feelings, and not even those. I wanted you, and only you, and I when I saw you with Lotho... I nearly lost my mind. I couldn't understand how you could say no to me and yes to him. I thought that if you were lying with him you had to love him, and that meant that you didn't love me any more. It hurt, Frodo, it hurt so much I couldn't bear it." There were tears on Berry's cheeks but he made no attempt to brush them away. "I almost threw myself into the lake that night."

Frodo caught his breath. "No... I had no idea you felt so badly about it. I'm glad you didn't - I couldn't have borne it... not after my parents. It would have destroyed me."

Berry shrugged. "I wanted to destroy you. I hated you for a while. I hated you for having hurt me so much. You had said so often that we had to wait, that you would wait for me, and then I found you... rutting with that cousin of yours... and I knew you didn't like him, and I couldn't understand how you could have changed so much. And I thought that if you could have changed enough to like him, then you could have changed enough not to like me any more."

Frodo grasped Berry's hands. "No, no, it wasn't like that. You were too young, and I was too ignorant. I didn't know how lust can be mistaken for love. I loved you still, but Lotho made me feel as if I was on fire. And I thought I wouldn't see you again for years, and he was there, telling me how much he wanted me, how much he loved me. I'm so sorry that I believed him. I'm so sorry that I let him tumble me. If I could change anything at all it would be that.

"I know that Rorimac was concerned because I was older than you and I remember Cousin Sara shouting at me, that day he came to fetch you back from Bag End. He kept saying that I was old enough to know better. But I wasn't, really - I was old enough to know it was wrong, but not old enough to know why. I wasn't old enough to know how love - passion - can distort everything, how it makes people so vulnerable. I wish - I wish that I had tumbled with others so that at least I knew what it felt like, then maybe it wouldn't have been so easy for Lotho to trick me. I even wished that I had lain with you, as Uncle Rory thought I had. I thought that if we had been lovers, really lovers, that it would have been harder for them to keep us apart - or easier for us to wait until we could be with each other again."

Berry squeezed Frodo's hand. "I think you're right. You know, it wasn't until I tumbled Merry that I realised just how young you must have been. Merry was 22 and seemed barely out of childhood, and yet you were younger than that when they separated us. And Merry had had a few lovers by then too, it wasn't as if I was his first. Though I've always wondered... were you?"

"Merry's first?" Frodo seemed confused by the sudden change of topic. "No... though I doubt I could have refused him if he'd asked. No, I think it was someone in Oatbarton - it was that summer he spent there, anyway, about five years ago. Why do you ask?"

"No real reason. Well, maybe I was a little jealous. I thought he might be someone else you said yes to."

"No, I've never lain with him. There aren't... there aren't very many that I said yes to." Frodo hesitated, embarrassed. "Though, while we are speaking of first times... I have wondered, sometimes, who yours was."

"I don't think you know him. One of the hobbits I made friends with in Michel Delving. He was quite a bit older than me, and he was very kind. And I thought... well, if I couldn't have you, then at least I could have someone who liked me. We had a few months together, then he went off on another trip. When he came back he was interested in someone else, but one of his friends was keen on me, and one thing led to another, and the next thing I knew I had bedded half the lads in Michel Delving before I was a tween myself. Somewhere along the way I gained a reputation for it, and then I had them lining up for me." He gave a bemused shake of his head. "It all seems a bit strange now. The odd thing is, I haven't actually had many lovers in the past ten years or so, but I'm still 'Wicked Cousin Berry'."

"And I'm fast becoming "Old Mad Baggins", though, to be truthful, I don't think I'm nearly as eccentric as Bilbo was. Reputation is a peculiar thing, you know. It seems to have an existence quite independent of reality."

"Speaking of reputation..." Berry was in a quandary - the words that Frodo had spoken were everything that he had ever wanted to hear. But first he had to know something, and that might ruin everything for them...

"Yes?"

"What about Sam?"

Frodo nodded, miserably. "That... oh, dear. I think I've made a complete fool of myself. Again." He swallowed, nervously. "I lusted after him for years, you know, ever since he was eighteen or so. I couldn't believe it at Overlithe when... well, when it happened. He was so strong, and it felt so good to be picked up and held tight. I thought that he would love me and I would love him, and we would overcome any difficulties and live happily ever after, just like one of Bilbo's stories." He gave a bitter laugh. "Life is never that simple. His family despises me now, they think I took advantage of him. The irony would amuse me if it didn't hurt so much."

His voice dropped. "The worst part of it is that almost immediately, I realised that I didn't really love him after all. He's a good lad, and I'm still fond of him, but he's not the hobbit I want to spend the rest of my life with. I should have told him straight away, but I didn't. I kept on tumbling with him, just because he was warm and solid and it was better than sleeping alone."

Berry put his hand over Frodo's. "I know how it can be."

"Then... there was the accident, and I knew that I loved you, even if you couldn't love me back. That made it worse, somehow, not better. I should have told him when I got back home, but he seemed so pleased to see me that I didn't have the courage. For the last three months I've been trying to find the right words to tell him, but I couldn't. I spent hours thinking about it. If ever there was a just punishment, it was that. All those years, longing for a dream, only to find a nightmare.

"Then, on second Yule, you kissed me. I wasn't sure - it was only on the cheek, but I thought, well, I thought that there might be a chance. That's why I left. I had to go back to Hobbiton to tell him, finally. I had to set him free, I set to set myself free, before - before coming back here."

"And are you free now?"

"Yes. Yes, I am."

"How did he take it?"

"He was upset, of course, but on the whole he took it better than I had expected. Quite well, actually. It seems that he had also been having second thoughts, but hadn't wanted to hurt my feelings. He wants to walk out with Rosie Cotton, one of the local farm girls, and get married, and have babies. That, I think, is the most humiliating thing of all - I've been thrown over for a village girl!"

Berry laughed. "He's mad!" He could see that Frodo was embarrassed and humiliated, and yet he couldn't help it. The thought of anyone preferring a village girl over Frodo was ridiculous. He laughed and laughed, and saw Frodo's face start to twitch, and smile, and then Frodo was laughing as well, only there was a hysterical touch to it, and they were leaning against each other, their sides hurting and tears pouring from their eyes as emotions long-buried came to the surface.

"I suppose it is pretty funny, when you come to think of it. Especially when you think that it only happened because I let Pippin talk me into wearing a dress."

They giggled again.

Then Berry leaned in and kissed him, tasting salt tears and cold skin, pressing him against the trunk as the kiss deepened. He had a vague sense-memory of kissing Frodo, years ago, but it had never been like this. They had been little more than children, both of them, eager in their affections but knowing almost nothing of love. Now they were adults. Each of them had felt passion and pain and loneliness and fear. Each had hurt the other, and each had tried to bury love deep inside. Now they had the chance to start again, to be with each other and to love each other as they had been destined to do from the first.

As the kiss ignited heat within him, he felt something unlock in his heart and he gasped. This was what he had been looking for, all his life. This was what he had craved and had never found. Suddenly all the pain, all the tears - all the hurt and the hatred that he had buried deep inside - all of it came spilling out, and he found himself sobbing, wrapped in Frodo's arms. Frodo was crying too, and they sat by the tree, rocking each other, holding each other, for a very long time.

Eventually, when their tears had dried, and they had wiped each other's cheeks and blown their own noses and kissed each other again, Frodo asked, "Berry, will you come and live with me at Bag End? You can still work for Saradoc if you want - though I have plenty of money for us both - and Hobbiton is a good central base if you're travelling. I'd like to be with you, but - but you don't have to move, if you don't want to, you can stay here or at Michel Delving and I'll visit you, if that's what you'd prefer."

"I'd like to live with you at Bag End." Berry's voice was muffled, as his face was tucked into Frodo's shoulder. "I always liked it - it felt so homely in comparison with the Hall. I think I could be happy living there." He smiled. "And, besides, I want to excavate for treasure, as we did when Bilbo was there."

Frodo's face fell. "Oh, love, there is no treasure. Bilbo gave it all away, you know. There's money from rents and business, but that's all. I'm not fabulously wealthy, as everyone thinks I am."

Berry hugged Frodo close. "Frodo, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to upset you. That's not what I meant at all. I don't want treasure, I just wanted the fun of looking for it. If I had to choose between Frodo Baggins and a hobbit-hole full of treasure, I'd choose Frodo, believe me."

"Would you really?"

"Yes, really. Now kiss me again before I freeze to death out here."

Frodo kissed him, willingly, but soon realised that Berry hadn't been joking. "Oh, you are cold. I shouldn't have kept you out here all this time. Let's get you back to the warm fire and I'll make sure you have some hot tea, and maybe a tisane of willow-bark."

He jumped up and helped Berry to his feet, picking up Berry's stick and then his own backpack.

"Where's your other stick?"

"It got broken. But don't worry, I don't need it any more."

"But are you sure that your leg will be all right with just one stick? What if you trip?"

"Frodo, love. Stop fussing."

Frodo actually blushed. "Yes, love."

Berry kissed the rosy cheek. "But you can lend me your arm for the walk back."

They walked back through the main hall and Berry realised that he was barely limping at all. Frodo was just the right height to support his right arm, and that, combined with the calliper on his leg and the stick in his left hand, meant that he could walk almost normally. It felt like a good omen.

* * *

As Berry and Frodo reached the door of the Red Parlour, a smothered giggle from behind the stairs alerted them. Frodo looked around and saw young Myrtle and Minto Burrows crouched there, their faces bright with mischief. He followed their gaze and caught sight of the mistletoe that had mysteriously appeared on the lintel.

Frodo opened the door and took half a step forward so that they were directly under it. He turned and put his arms around Berry's waist. They were both smiling foolishly, half-embarrassed, yet unwilling to ignore the tradition. Frodo looked up into Berry's eyes, remembering that when they had first kissed, he had been taller than Berry by two inches; now it was the other way around. He tilted his chin up and Berry tilted his head down, and their lips touched. After a few seconds, Frodo decided that he liked it this way.

* * *

Merry caught sight of the two hobbits embracing as he came down the stairs. He slowed, stopped, and then sat down, entranced by the beauty of the image. Pippin joined him a second later, flinging an arm around him and smiling delightedly as he saw Frodo and Berry together. Merry couldn't resist kissing him, just to let him know how happy he felt, and they sat with arms around each other until Frodo and Berry moved into the Red Parlour and closed the door behind them.

As they ran down the rest of the stairs, Merry decided that he loved Yule. He wouldn't change a thing when he became Master.

THE END