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Frodo had intended to greet his cousin with a hug, perhaps a quick peck on the cheek. Merry, being Merry, had taken the opportunity to kiss Frodo full on the lips. And once they were there (there, on the front porch of Bag End, in full view of anyone who might happen to pass by), Frodo found he liked the taste of salt and smoke and the Shire in spring so much that he had no desire to pull away. In the end it was Merry who broke the kiss, and Frodo felt content but a little stunned, and couldn't think to say anything other than what he'd been intending, a rather lame "Thank you for coming, Merry."

"You're welcome, Frodo. You're always welcome, of course, but I'm getting the feeling this will be a particularly enjoyable visit."

Well, Merry would think that, since Frodo hadn't said anything in his letter about his real reasons for requesting the visit. But more time to speak of that later. "You came on foot," Frodo remarked, surprised.

"That I did. I like to think I'm not such a doddering old weakling that I can't still walk across the Shire when I've got a notion to."

"You can't possibly have a tent in that little pack."

"Well, no, just a bedroll."

"And you slept on the ground?"

"I did. And I'm feeling quite young and strong and rugged for it." Even as he said so he shifted, and grimaced a bit with soreness, and Frodo laughed softly. "Anyway," said Merry, "brings back good memories."

Frodo smiled still but felt what was now a familiar bafflement, as whenever Merry or Pippin spoke of their quest as a grand adventure. He knew they did not take it all lightly, but they were able to speak of good times along the journey in a way Frodo was not. Frodo had not gone rambling since before they left. If he were to go out and sleep on the ground now, he didn't think it would bring back pleasant memories.

"Besides that," Merry continued blithely, "it's spring. I wanted to get out and enjoy it a bit, the warm days, the flowers blossoming..."

"The cold nights," Frodo supplied, feeling the chill of dusk in April even as he spoke, "the insects, the mud..."

"I'll wash my feet before I make tracks all over your smial then, if that's your concern."

"It's not." Frodo kissed Merry again briefly and made a point of looking into his eyes affectionately before looking down at his feet, which were indeed a sight, with much mud caked in the hair. "Though I don't mind washing your feet," he added thoughtfully. "That sounds quite nice, actually."

"Sounds even better for me, if I get your hands on me."

"And some things never change, do they?"

"What, me wanting your hands all over me?"

"I was going to say your turning every affectionate word or gesture into something sexual, but it's more or less the same, isn't it? Wait for me half a moment, Merry. The others are sleeping, but I'll fetch a dishpan and a towel..."

The inside of the smial was quiet. So they were indeed still sleeping. Frodo was glad for them. Last night had been something of a trial and they all needed the rest. Though Frodo had been happy enough to spend his afternoon sitting outside, getting a few things ready for the evening, but mostly resting and waiting for Merry. He'd enjoyed watching Merry walk up the hill. He enjoyed banter on the doorstep and looked forward to more by the well in the garden and at supper. Never mind that it was all stalling.

He met Merry at the well and made him sit down on the old bench, while Frodo drew water.

"Sam really is a marvel," said Merry, looking around at the blooming asters and azaleas.

"Of course he is," Frodo answered lightly. He filled the little basin with water and set it down by Merry's feet.

"All the gardens of the Shire to tend to and still he makes yours as lovely as anything in the wide world."

Frodo nodded, smiled, knelt down in front of Merry. "It'll be cold," he warned.

"Really, Frodo, I don't need you on your knees -- not for this, anyhow -- "

"Relax, cousin. I may not be up to hiking to Buckland and sleeping on the ground without a tent, but I can handle washing a traveler's feet."

The water was indeed cold, and Frodo shivered a little as he started the job, but the touch was good. Merry never made him feel self-conscious about his maimed right hand, and Frodo got pleasure out of working his fingers through knotted hair, working out the dirt, massaging the tough skin of the soles and working out all tension. And hearing the quiet, contented noises Merry made, there was pleasure in that too.

"How is Pippin?" Frodo asked, hoping the conversation could stay polite and not become too strained.

"He's well. He sends his best wishes to all of you, says he can't wait to meet young Elanor himself."

Frodo nodded. "Well, you know how it is. Things tend to get rather... festive when Pippin's around."

"It seems to me that the birth of Sam and Rosie's first is an appropriate occasion for festivities."

"That it is, Merry, you're quite correct, as usual." It had been a vain hope, of course. He made an effort not to press too hard, but Merry was clearly uncomfortable in his hands.

"Clean enough, I think." Merry lifted his feet out of the water, and Frodo quickly wrapped them in the dry cloth, not looking up. "I'm not angry, Frodo."

"I know you're not. I... I'll send for Pippin soon enough, and I'll be along to visit the two of you at Crickhollow again as well. It's just... just a few things I wanted to talk over with you." And he tried to smile as he met Merry's eyes again, but he faltered.

"What is it, Frodo?" Merry said gently. "What's wrong?"

And there hadn't been anything, nothing terribly wrong up to that point. But just the sound of kind words, the knowledge that Merry was concerned for him, somehow brought a tightness to Frodo's throat and a sting to his eyes.


But did he really look so terrible? Was it all quite obvious? Merry was kind and he wouldn't put it so bluntly, but surely he was thinking the same thing they all did: Too thin, too nervous. Feels sorry for himself, but what does he have to complain about? Frodo shook his head, unable to speak, and dried Merry's feet somewhat roughly. Fixated on the task so that Merry eventually had to lean forward and stop his hands, pull them and the towel away. Thankfully, he did not force Frodo to look at him.

Frodo sat back on the ground and breathed for some moments before trying to speak.

"Nothing," he said, knowing it wouldn't sound convincing. "Do I look...?"

"No," Merry said quickly, "it's only that you seem... tired. Worried, perhaps."

He sees it then, Frodo thought. Sees you're barely making it here. Sees that you don't belong here. But he couldn't confess all of that just yet. And anyway, he realized, today he actually did have an excuse for the appearance of his eyes. A very deep breath, and then, "Nothing for you to be concerned about, dear. Elanor's as good-natured as any babe I've known, but she has her sleepless nights, which means the rest of the household has them too." And speaking the excuse was good, good enough that he could almost believe it and could put the sadness aside for a while. "It's a good kind of tired, what I've got right now. You'll see soon enough, though I set up a guest room for you as far from their room as I could."

"Ah, now that's quite unacceptable," said Merry. He was clearly not converted, but he was willing to leave it alone for the time being. He got up from the bench and then sat down next to Frodo on the ground, put an arm around his shoulders. "If I'm to leave Pippin at Crickhollow and walk halfway across the Shire just to see you then I should get to see you all the time I'm here, nights included. And to touch you, for that matter. I refuse to sleep alone, I tell you."

"I never could say no to you."

Merry leaned close to ask for a kiss, and Frodo obliged easily.

"Nonsense," Merry said then. "You've said no far too many times. It's just that I refuse to accept it. Come now, the sun's set. I thank you for the footbath but I'm freezing and famished. May we please go inside now?"

"Ungrateful wretch," Frodo commented lightly as Merry helped him to his feet.

"Inhospitable old bugger." And they walked together up the path, toward the light and warmth of home.

: :

He'd upset Frodo at the well, Merry knew, though he couldn't quite understand what he'd done wrong. Frodo teased him for having a one track mind, but if Merry tried to speak of more serious subjects then Frodo would withdraw, and he seemed to resent the attention. Was Merry meant to make light of everything then, even the fact that Pippin had been left out, apparently for too much making light of things? Merry had no idea of how Frodo wanted him to act.

But Frodo whispered in his ear, "You'll be amazed when you see her." And Sam was waiting for them at the green door, was smiling for both of them.

"Did I wake you, Sam, when I came in before?" Frodo asked with concern.

"Well, I reckon I woke up when you came in, but I'm not sorry for it. We've been looking forward to seeing you, Mr. Merry. You look well."

They hugged, and Sam patted Merry's back as they walked inside

"So do you, Sam. You've got the tired glow of a new parent to you." He meant it for Sam, but hoped Frodo might take that as an apology for what he'd said before. Frodo looked away, and Merry decided to let it go.

Sam though was pleased, proud. "You'll be wanting to get a look at our little girl."

"Of course," said Merry. "Are she and Rosie still sleeping then?"

"Rosie's awake, she'll be coming out any minute. But Elanor sleeps near all the time, 'cept when the rest of us would like to, of course. My gaffer says that's how it always is the first few weeks. Nothing to do but grab some extra sleep whenever we can, and make sure Rosie doesn't have to do any more work than necessary."

And there she was, coming in to the parlor with the world's most beautiful baby in her arms, smiling at her husband. "They do their best," she said to Merry, "but it's work, being a mother. I had no idea until it was me. Sometimes it's all I can do to hold her in my arms, I feel so tired."

"It's worth it, I think," said Merry, who like everyone else was staring at Elanor rather than the hobbits he was speaking to.

"Of course it is!" she laughed. "Oh, Mr. Merry, I've never been so happy." To Sam she said, "I'd better watch my tongue. Before I know it I'll have Mr. Merry here reporting to the Brandybucks that poor Mr. Frodo's stuck doing chores for Rosie Gamgee, who's got so stuck-up she's not even grateful to be a mother!"

And Sam looked embarrassed, but Frodo laughed, and leaned in to lay a gentle kiss on Rose's temple, careful not to disturb the baby in her arms. "We're all grateful to have Elanor," he said, "but I think I get the message. I'd better get supper ready so the mistress of the house doesn't have to wait any longer." And he started toward the kitchen.

"I'll come with you, Frodo," said Merry automatically.

"Don't be ridiculous, Merry. You can't take your eyes off her." Merry did so then, looked up at Frodo with a strange sense of guilt, but again Frodo only laughed. "Don't be embarrassed about it," he said. "It's only normal. It's what we all do. We're all very much in awe of her. But someone needs to make supper and I'm happy to do it."

Probably he needed some time away from the crowd and the attention, and there were times when Merry would argue and would try to follow, but really this was an hour with Frodo that he could afford to sacrifice. He allowed Frodo to withdraw into the kitchen and returned his attention to Rosie and Sam's little girl.

"Did you want to hold her, Mr. Merry?" said Rosie.

"It won't disturb her?"

"It might, but I'll need to wake her up soon for feeding anyhow. Here..." And she helped Merry take hold of the tiny hobbit, showed him how to support her head, and smiled to reassure him he was doing it right. "There you are," she said. "You'll make a fine father one day."

Elanor's face was round and smooth, not at all scrunched up like most of the babies Merry had known. Even in sleep, she appeared quite content.

"It's like she knows," Merry murmured.

"Knows what, Mr. Merry?" said Sam.

"That she's got three grown-ups to love and care for her instead of just two. Like she knows how much her dad and her uncle Frodo went through so that they could come back here and she could be born."

"That'd be an awful lot for her to understand at two weeks, if you don't mind my saying so," said Rosie, and again Sam gave her a pained look, but Merry laughed.

"I suppose so," he said. "Still, that's what the look on her face says to me."

Elanor did wake in Merry's arms and, once she'd had time to realize that he was not her mother, became a good deal less content. She was quiet as soon as Rosie held her again though, and Merry had more time to gaze at her. He turned his attention to Sam when Rosie started to feed the baby, but Rosie kept speaking to Merry in her normal voice, and he realized he felt ruder looking away than looking at the two of them.

"I'm so very happy for all of you," Merry said, and meant it.

There was no meat at the meal, by Rosie's preference, but Merry found he didn't mind, since so many good vegetables had appeared in the gardens and markets in the last month that it was a pleasure to see the new colors and taste the new flavors. Already back in January he and Pippin at Crickhollow had run out of interesting things to do with meat, potatoes, and turnips. Tonight they ate boiled new potatoes with green garlic and chives, and green peas, which Frodo had shelled out on the porch while waiting for Merry to arrive. The beets were cooked in a separate pot and served in a separate bowl, but they ended up staining the potatoes on everyone's plate deep red nonetheless, and no one minded in the least. Just before they sat down, Merry presented the fresh mushrooms that he'd paused to collect as he spotted them along his path from Buckland. They'd been eating pickled mushrooms through too many months, and the texture of these was quite perfect as they munched them raw.

For dessert there was rhubarb pie, a gift from Sam's sister Marigold, who'd moved back to number 3 Bagshot Row along with the Gaffer, although she planned to marry Rosie's sister Tom before Midyear's Day. The pie was good but a little tart, and they were happy to follow it with purely sweet strawberries and cream.

Everyone ate well, and everyone had good news to tell. Frodo, Sam, and Rosie shared and laughed together, teased and complimented each other. And if Frodo was somewhat more distant and reserved than the other two, that was to be expected. Merry sensed no tension, no envy or resentment between them. All four of the adults took turns away from table to hold and rock the baby, who fell in and out of sleep without surprise or complaint.

What was it that made Merry so sure, after all, that Frodo would be happier at Crickhollow than he was here? Merry and Pippin loved Frodo dearly, of course. But so did Sam, and so, in her own frank and fearless way, did Rosie. And the Gamgees wouldn't make love to Frodo, as Merry and Pippin gladly would, but they did share with him a home that was full of joy and love and, most importantly of all, new life.

And yet something, clearly, was wrong. For Frodo was not happy, though he pretended to be, and seemed to want to be, if only for their sakes. He hadn't wanted to talk about it when Merry arrived, and didn't want to talk about it now that they were all together, and Merry wondered, as the evening lengthened and the warm, lively conversation continued, wondered if he might spend a week here and never find out why he'd been sent for, or if there was anything he could do to help.

So he enjoyed the companionship, but he was also relieved when Sam said the Gamgees needed to go to bed, and Rosie said she'd leave the cousins to get up to whatever it was cousins liked to get up to. And Sam pulled her away, and Frodo and Merry both laughed softly, and shared a soft kiss, and then quietly went to work clearing away and washing the dishes.

Frodo, Merry thought, was beautiful while doing the washing up. He was beautiful with a child in his arms, beautiful sitting on his front porch at dusk. Beautiful all the time, really, but there was something about watching him work so silently and seriously at something so mundane, it made Merry want to shove him against a wall, make him forget about all his responsibilities, make him let loose with a scream.

Merry resisted.

"There's something I want to show you," Frodo said when they'd finished, "but we can't do it here."

So Merry started quietly making his way down the hallway toward the bedrooms, but Frodo stood in another doorway, tolerant and amused.

"Come into the study, will you, Merry?"

Merry would. Merry would go wherever Frodo asked him, though he really would prefer that that be one of the bedrooms.

"Got something interesting to show me, have you Frodo?"

And Frodo did not laugh this time, only withdrew inside. Merry followed.

Frodo sat at the desk, which was empty but for an oil lamp and a single stack of papers. He gestured to Merry to sit in the armchair a few feet away. The two hobbits sat in silence for several minutes, as if Frodo couldn't find the right words to start a conversation he wasn't sure he wanted to have. "I still mean to write it all down," he said finally, "everything we did."

And he held up the manuscript, not yet bound, the pages loose and some of them clearly written over several times, some of them unfinished. He thumbed through them quickly, allowing Merry to see their messiness and the fact that there were many more of them than there had been four months ago, on the cousins' last visit to Bag End, but not staying long enough to let him read anything.

Did you mean to show it to me or not? Merry thought. Aloud, he asked, "Is it almost finished then?"

Frodo didn't answer at first. "It's closer," he said. "There are still a few chapters left that I'm... that I'm rather reluctant even to begin."

"What's the difficulty, cousin?" Merry said gently, sensing that he already knew. Frodo's answer surprised him.

"Well, there were more than a few important events that I never even saw, weren't there?"

"Of course," Merry answered immediately. "I'd say the most important thing that happened was what you did -- "

"Well, and that's another concern."

" -- but it's true there are... Yes. I suppose you've got more than one difficult part to write."

"I hoped you could help me, Merry."

"Of course, Frodo. A bit of an interview, yes? I remember you talked to Aragorn and Legolas and Gimli before we came back, I remember you taking notes even then, when your hand was still healing."

Frodo tensed a bit at the mention of his injury, and made a move to hide that hand, as he hadn't done all evening, as he hadn't done since those first weeks, then seemed to catch himself and kept it in place on the pages, and answered, "Yes, for the times when none of us was with them."

Merry nodded, pretending not to notice the flinch. "And Pippin and I have told you some bits and pieces."

"Bits and pieces is all I have for a good part of it," Frodo said with a harsh chuckle. "Even... even parts where I was there and I should be able to tell it myself, I can't... When I try to think about the last part of it, those last days, after... Well, from the time we left Faramir, I suppose, whenever I try to write it or even to think about it, everything gets out of order. I can't think straight. It's as if everything terrible that ever happened to me or anyone I cared about, all of it comes on me at once. I can't make sense of what happened... what happened before the Orcs and what happened after, or what happened when I was a child, before you were even born, Merry. It's just everything at once."

Merry was dismayed, and he hated having even a few feet between them, but Frodo had put the distance there on purpose. Merry kept still. "Do you think about it often?" he asked.

"I have been lately. When I visited you two in February I'd already written most of the easy parts of the book -- the straightforward parts, you understand. And, well, I was doing some fiddling with what I had, talking to Sam, when Rosie could spare him for a few minutes, to find out what he saw and remembered of the journey so I could write about that too, but never touching on those last days. And then in March, just before Elanor was born, I was ill again." Frodo was not looking at Merry and so was not likely to notice his trembling. Frodo was calm. "And it wasn't... physically I don't think it's anything terribly serious. But these memories, the difficult ones, started crowding in on me then. For that one day I could scarcely think of anything else, and ever since then they've been present... haunting me I suppose."

Merry wondered just how much pain it would take for Frodo to consider his sickness to be serious, how much it would take to get him to ask for help. "On the 13th, you mean," he said, working to keep his voice and his features under control.


"And have you spoken to Sam of it?"

"Sam... Sam's had enough to worry about lately," said Frodo. "I did my best to hide it from him, and I believe I succeeded. He had enough to worry about with Rosie so close to term, you know. And it's not as if there's much he could have done. It seems those experiences, and the pain of them, are determined to overtake me, for these two times a year, at least. Considering how bad it got and how much I despaired toward the end, I suppose I should consider myself lucky that it's only those few days, that I'm able to go about the normal business of living the rest of the time." He glanced at Merry, who was clearly not doing as a good a job trying to hide his distress and anger as he'd hoped. "Don't look at me like that, dear. He's so happy right now, I can't stand getting in the way of that. I know I'll need to ask for his help later, if I want to get this thing written, but I don't want to be a burden right now. In any case there's really nothing he could have done."

"But that's not true, Frodo. He could have helped you, or I could have -- any of us, if you'd only let us know we were needed."

Frodo shook his head. "It will come regardless," he said. "I'm learning to accept that now. It passes quickly enough and in the meantime -- "

"In the meantime we could keep you warm and hold your hand and tell you we love you. Really, Frodo, you could have called me here a month earlier. I would gladly have come."

"I wouldn't have been much company, I'm afraid."

"That's not the point, cousin." Merry realized he was starting to raise his voice, that Frodo was looking at him nervously, and he took a few deep breaths before going on. "That's not the point. It's not as if we only love you when you're cheerful. We want to be there for you when we're needed. But if you won't tell us..."

"Well, fine then, Merry," Frodo said with some annoyance. "I'll send for you next October. Pippin can come too and you'll all make a party of it. But right now we're getting away from the subject at hand."

"Which is." Merry had trouble thinking of what could be more important.

"I have a story to tell."

"Ah, yes, and the time has come to stop avoiding the difficult parts."

"Quite. I can't..." Frodo began, and tried again, "I haven't been able to think of any words strong enough for it. But I'm beginning to think it might be better that way because... because there are no words for it. Do you understand? That it couldn't... that this is where words fail. There's no way of making someone understand if they haven't experienced it for themselves."

Merry was unsure of what to say, uncertain of whether he was included in that select group or not. He hadn't been to Mordor, but he had been carried to the point of despair, and surely that was part of what Frodo meant.

"I thought I could ask Sam," Frodo continued. "Not right now, as I said, but before I... before I finish it, I could find out from him what he saw. We've done some of that already, of course, as I've done with you, found out what he thought of the Elves, what he thought of Strider, and so on."

"The easy parts."

"Yes. But I'll need to know how it was at the end, the parts I don't remember so well myself. And I thought I could just write it down like that, what Sam saw and how he felt about it. Because what I was feeling... Well, it just wouldn't make any sense, it would be impossible to read, I think."

"Perhaps it's not for your book, Frodo, but you could always tell us. We won't mind if things are a bit out of order, and we'd do our best to understand."

"I believe you would at that. You and Sam and Pippin. I wouldn't ever try to explain it to anyone else."

And that was what Merry had been waiting to hear, that Frodo really did trust him. Merry's heart was still aching, but it brought him some comfort to know that he might be able to give Frodo comfort in this, that Frodo would take it from him.

"But I'm not ready yet," said Frodo.

"You don't need to be. We have all the time in the world."

Frodo started at that. He said nothing, but there was uncertainty in his eyes, and was that guilt? Merry chose not to react.

"Anyway, you invited me here for a reason. And invited me here alone for a reason."

"Well, several reasons," said Frodo. A smile twitched at the corner of his mouth, and Merry felt the urge to kiss the smirk, but simply mirrored it instead.

"Of course," he agreed. Then added seriously, "You figure the parts that are difficult for me would make a logical stepping stone toward the parts that are difficult for you."

Frodo fidgeted. "It's not -- "

"I don't mind, Frodo -- "

"It's not that I think you suffered less -- "

"But it's true, Frodo, and I don't mind saying so. We all know you were the one who -- "

"Could you let me finish, Merry?" Frodo snapped.

Merry shut his mouth, waited.

"It's not that I think what you have to say will be easier to tell because it wasn't as bad. I don't believe it makes any sense to compare. I know you suffered and I know Pippin did, and I don't want to make light of that or make as if it's just a stepping stone and not important in itself. I only thought it might be more of a coherent tale than anything I can tell right now, because the two of you went through it together, and because, well... you must have talked it over since." Frodo, who had been looking at the pages on his desk through all this last speech, looked up and into Merry's eyes then. "You have talked about it, haven't you?"

Merry nodded slowly. "Only a few times," he said. "Very late at night, mostly. Which is a shame, because one would like to have light and warmth in order to talk about such things. Still, that's when nightmares come, isn't it?"

Frodo stared, surprised, speechless.

"My dear Frodo, surely you didn't think you were the only one?" Merry said gently, remembering waking up to Frodo's cries on chill nights on the journey home.

Frodo shook his head, swallowed. "The way Rosie looks at me some mornings," he said. "She's never reproached me, never demanded that I tell her what went on. But in the mornings, sometimes, I can tell she's upset, and she's wondering. So I know Sam has them too."

Merry nodded. "And Pippin and me both. Makes me glad we're not sleeping alone." Makes me outraged that you are. "Pippin remembers a good deal more than I do though. I had a blow to the head, you know."

Frodo continued to stare. "I didn't know."

"No? This scar on my forehead," Merry pointed but purposely did not touch it, "surely you've seen it."

"I had, yes. I didn't know that was where you had it from."

Merry nodded, laughed a little. "Yes, I suppose we were all so banged up by the end of it one couldn't tell which wounds came from which enemies. But I got that one when the Orcs took us. Pip got a blow to the head as well, but not so severe. He came back from it sooner."

"I see."

"So it was for us what I imagine it'll need to be for you and Sam. I've only got these... rather vague memories of it. I mean, ghastly, and vivid like nothing else from the whole journey, but at the same time so confused."

"Yes." Frodo knew.

"And I've had to have him explain it to me, fill in the names, the groups among them, the order of what happened." Merry paused, thinking about their conversations, with Pippin or himself usually still shaking from the terror of his dreams, the other one holding him close. He did not look forward to sharing the story with Frodo, particularly not here in the near dark. "It was awfully frightening for him, me knocked unconscious and him with no one else to turn to."

"It must have been dreadful," said Frodo in a small voice.

"But he's the one you ought to talk to. And he's only too willing to come, you know."

"I know, I know." Frodo touched his hand to his own forehead, looking fatigued. Merry knew his insistence was probably beginning to be irritating, but he did want Pippin to be with Frodo, wanted all of them to be together again.

"Frodo, love..." Merry said, finally making a decision, standing and taking a step towards him. "Let's not do this now."

"I've put it off long enough," Frodo said with determination. "I understand that you'd rather just -- "

"It's not that, dear." Merry stood by Frodo's chair and touched his shoulder. "I know this is important to you and I'm perfectly willing to do my part. I'd rather do it with the sun shining is all."

"You'd rather -- ?"

"It's springtime, Frodo. We may as well take advantage. Sit in the garden tomorrow and have it all out. And take advantage of the night for... more appropriate activities."

Frodo twisted to face him, frowned. "A lot of things happen in the spring, cousin, good things as well as bad."

"Of course. And you were all alone when you were ill last month, and if Sam knew he'd never forgive himself. But listen, here we both are, and we can talk about the bad tomorrow morning, and all week long if that's what it takes for you to learn enough to write your book and make your peace with it. However, I'll only talk about the dark times when the sun is shining."

"What are you on about, Merry?"

"Just that. Spring is finally here and we should take advantage. If we're going to be shedding light on old wounds then by gum we'll shed light on them, and not do it at night and provoke more nightmares. Meanwhile, while we're here in the smial in the dark, I want to do some celebrating."

"Celebrate what, the warm weather?"

Frodo was having none of Merry's attempts at a shoulder rub, so Merry moved around to kneel in front of him, laid his hands in Frodo's lap. "Frodo, do you realize what day it is?"

Frodo thought for a moment. "The 8th," he said. And another moment, then, "Ah, well, yes, I suppose."

"Well, yes, I suppose?"

"Oh, really, Merry, a lot of significant things happened on various days of the year. It's not as if we need to rule our lives according to what happened then. I don't know about you, but for me part of the point of this book is to get it all written down and out of the way. I don't need to be remembering it all the time."

"Here's the way I see it," said Merry. "I think if you're forced to relive that pain and that terror on the days when you were wounded before, then you should get to relive the joy of waking up and finding out you'd succeeded and we'd all lived through it, every anniversary of when that happened.

"And if wishes were horses -- "

"Well, and if nature or your psyche or whatever it is hasn't been taking care of that for you, and bringing you spontaneous joy, then that's what friends and cousins are for, to help you out in a pinch."

"Every April the 8th?" said Frodo, a little taken aback but amused.

"Yes. And while we're at it, every October the 24th as well." He took hold of Frodo's hands.

Frodo stood up, lifted the hands to his mouth, kissed Merry's gently. "I love you, cousin, but you're quite absurd."

"Not that I would object to making you feel good on other days."

"Yes, yes, quite willing to make the sacrifice, aren't you? The other days are fine, Merry, I promise. But I'd rather not go on reliving the quest every day of every year, truth to tell. Anyway, it's a completely different kind of joy, isn't it? It wasn't like we woke up it Cormallen and immediately started shagging or anything."

"Well, no. But for me it was... I mean to say, there wasn't any sex those first few days, obviously, but when Pippin first opened his eyes after all those days I felt so wonderful it hurt, and I burst into tears, which is, you know..."

"Something you often do after sex."

"Yes. It was a good deal better than orgasm, that moment."

Frodo laughed. "Well, the person who was there to see me open my eyes was Gandalf, and I'd rather not think about his orgasms, thank you."

"Have I forever polluted a beautiful and sacred moment for you, Frodo?"

And Frodo punched him, very lightly, really a mockery of a punch on the shoulder, and slow enough that Merry easily caught his hands then and pulled him close, and kissed him, which only caused Frodo to laugh again.

"You're incorrigible, Merry," he said fondly.

"It's what you do to me," said Merry, not letting him go. "I'll not be corrected, or corriged, or whatever it is you mean, if it means I have to give this up."

"Fine then," Frodo agreed. "It's not as if I was ever intending to deny you. But we'll do things on your schedule, if you insist. You won't cure me or make me forget about it all just by making me come though."

"I do know, yes, Frodo."

"I still intend to conduct a thorough interview in the morning."

"And I shall be quite candid, and shall shock you with the many horrors of tortures endured at the hands of the Orcs. In the meantime, let's get these clothes off you."

Frodo sighed happily "Not in the study, you randy, impatient young thing you."

"You're the one who brought me in here in the first place. I was headed straight for the bedroom, if you remember."

"You were headed for Sam and Rosie's bedroom, which wouldn't have done at all."

"You finally convinced them to move into the master bedroom then?"

Frodo nodded, pulling away slightly. "When we found out she was with child, yes."

"I suppose as newlyweds they didn't mind the cramped quarters so much."

"Of course," Frodo confirmed with a laugh. "That narrow old bed practically forced them into each other's arms every night. And neither of them was about to complain about that. Once Elanor started growing though, Rosie realized she'd be needing more space and more rest. And of course sleep has become a good deal more precious to them in the last month."

There was still something about that word that sent a shiver down Merry's spine, and he couldn't help notice that Frodo unconsciously fingered the gem at his neck as he pronounced it. But he decided to let it pass. More could be said in the morning.

"And you finally got your old room back," Merry said, hoping the pause hadn't been too long or too awkward. "I'm glad, Frodo. I do think it would be a bit cramped for the three of them at this point, but for the two of us that narrow old bed will be just perfect."

"I did set up one of the guestrooms for you, you know."

"So you said, yes."

"We could both go there, I suppose," Frodo suggested, "and be farther away from the others."

Merry grabbed Frodo's hand and pulled. "I think not," he said, and gave Frodo only the briefest chance to grab the lamp before opening the door. He made a bit of a show of creeping very quietly down the hallway with Frodo in tow, pushing very carefully at the door of Frodo's old bedroom. "This room is special, wouldn't you say, Frodo?" he whispered once they were both inside.

"It brings back memories, of course," Frodo said, setting the lamp down by the bedside table, revealing a smile that was somehow at once leering and bashful.

"I should hope so," said Merry, returning a rather less shy grin. "One night in particular comes to my mind."

And it wasn't necessary to say it out loud. Merry's first time had been in this room, in this bed. It had been mere weeks before Bilbo's definitive departure, though Merry hadn't expected any such thing at the time. He'd thought Frodo's suggestion that they wait just a little while longer was part of the general view that Merry, at nineteen, was Too Young and ought to spend some more months or perhaps years contenting himself with self-love in the privacy of his own bedroom, under cover of darkness and bed sheets. Merry had made what he felt at the time were rather persuasive and sophisticated arguments against this opinion, though he realized later that other things he'd done with his tongue had been rather more effective in convincing Frodo that he was ready for sex. Later he'd also realized that Frodo had wanted to wait until after Bilbo left mainly so that they wouldn't need to worry about making too much noise.

"I think of that night often," said Frodo. "I think about how hard it was not to scream."

"My thoughts exactly. I imagine that might be a bit of a challenge tonight as well, for me anyway."


"Crickhollow's nice, of course. Rather set apart from the other houses, and Pippin and I can scream as loud as we want. Still, this room has its own charm. Clandestine, forbidden love and that."

Frodo nodded patiently, smoothed a hand through Merry's hair. "Everything's lovely at Crickhollow and you want me there. I get the message, thank you." And kissed the side of his face. "But I'm glad you want to give it a try here as well. Though I do think forbidden is taking it a bit far. It's not as if Bilbo didn't realize what was going on, and I don't think he really disapproved so much as... well, it was uncomfortable on both sides, wasn't it? And keeping it relatively quiet made it rather easier not to have to say anything at breakfast the next morning. Rosie and Sam know what we're up to as well. Sam's known for ages, of course, and I've never hidden a thing from Rosie either. But I do think they'd prefer it if we didn't wake the baby."

"Quite reasonable, that. And I'm always up for a challenge."

"That you are," Frodo agreed, with a not-so-subtle glance at the part of Merry that was already rising to the challenge.

"Now let's quit this talk of Bilbo and babies and see to getting you naked," said Merry, already getting started on that task. "And do let me keep my fantasy of clandestine, forbidden love, will you? It gets me all hot and bothered."

"Everything about me gets you hot and bothered, dear."

"Well, and that's quite true as well."

And for all the teasing, all the smiles and all the confidence, Merry could see that Frodo was hesitating, stalling. He was still awkward letting Merry see his scars, see the way his ribs stood out on his chest. Merry had removed the chain and the white jewel first of all, for it was mysterious and unpleasant to him, even if it did seem bring Frodo some comfort; he was now working slowly at the buttons of Frodo's shirt, and he had to catch Frodo's wrist to stop him reaching to put out the light.

"Do you think I ever get tired of looking at you, cousin?"

"There isn't so much to look at these days," said Frodo.

It wasn't quite anger that moved Merry then, or perhaps it was, but the anger was directed at a host of other enemies and friends and not at Frodo himself. Still, it was Frodo who got dragged away from the lamp and shoved almost violently, if not unpleasantly, against the inner wall of the smial. Frodo moved easily and without protest, but Merry pushed a hard kiss against Frodo's mouth to keep him speaking any more such foolishness.

"You infuriate me when you talk like that, you know," he said afterwards.

Frodo shrugged. "One more thing to get you hot and bothered."

Merry wrapped his arms around Frodo then and stood there for some moments, just holding him close, feeling him.

"You make me feel so small when you do that," said Frodo, a little breathless.

"I make you feel small by standing next to you, cousin. It's not really something I can help at this point."

"No, I don't mind it. I didn't mean it as a complaint. I mean to say, Merry, you're strong, you're beautiful. You make me feel so happy, so lucky to be with you."

"You are the most beautiful creature I've ever laid eyes on, Frodo. And that's saying a lot, considering the contact we've all had with Elves and the fact that I share a home and a bed with Peregrin Took."

Frodo nodded and smiled indulgently, in the manner of one who's heard such praises before and will not bother to argue, even though he doesn't really believe them.

"And if you think your scars make you less beautiful you're a fool," Merry added, laying a long, gentle kiss on the line of ice that had never disappeared from Frodo's left shoulder. Frodo wriggled a bit, pinned between Merry and the wall; he gasped in surprise and something like alarm, but then gradually relaxed and brought his hands around to move through Merry's hair, to hold him there. Merry tongued the scar, wishing he could warm it.

"You're a little morbid, I think, Merry."

"Nonsense. These are the reminders of how brave you are, Frodo, and how strong."

"Your attempts at flattery and reassurance are endearing. But unnecessary, really. I'm hardly the blushing violet, you know. I was the one who taught you how to do this."

"Mmm," Merry agreed, moving on to Frodo's left nipple, letting his teeth brush against it oh so slightly as he sucked. He let go and looked up at Frodo to add, "And a fine job you did."

Then Frodo reached out and brushed the hair away from Merry's forehead to touch the scar there. It still stung, and Merry felt a little weak and took the opportunity to drop to his knees, which he'd intended to do anyway. He pulled Frodo's open shirt down and off as he went, and let it drop to the floor. Merry now had Frodo's groin at eye level, Frodo's cock half hard under his trousers, and Merry pressed his face against the cloth to feel the shape of it, and wished he could devote all his attention to Frodo, and Frodo's body, and Frodo's pleasure.

But Frodo hadn't taken his hand away, and Merry remembered, as always when he touched it, when Pippin touched it, when the air or the water touched it, not the blow itself, not the initial injury, but the searing pain when the Orc (Uglúk, Pippin had filled in the name for him later) had laid the medicine on it. He'd cried out then and struggled wildly, though he'd tried to contain the scream for Pippin's sake, so as not to frighten him more than he was frightened already. But he'd never felt such pain. Such was the Orcs' way of healing. And then there had been the whips, and then there had been the running. He shook his head to chase away the thought; "I told you," he said, pulling away a few inches and looking up at Frodo's face, "we'll talk about that in the morning."

"You get to feel my scars." And was Frodo actually pouting? And was he ever so beautiful and irresistible as when he was pouting?

"Fine," said Merry, "you can feel it all you want. But no talk about trauma."


"Just realize you've got a warrior for a lover."

"Exactly, that's all I mean by it."

"And that he's on his knees for you."

"I won't complain about that, no."

Then four hands reached for the buttons of Frodo's trousers at the same time, and they both laughed as their fingers tangled and accomplished nothing.

"Let me do it, Frodo."

And he did it, undid the buttons and pulled the clothes and smallclothes down just far enough that he could touch his hands to the skin of Frodo's hips and around under his arse, and he could touch his lips, and then his tongue, to the tip of Frodo's cock. Frodo didn't seem to know what to do with his hands then, moved them fitfully to the wall, to fists at his sides, to Merry's hair, where thankfully he chose not to grip. He had both hands on top of Merry's shoulders when Merry actually opened his mouth and took him in, and he squeezed hard enough to hurt, and Merry thought that felt wonderful. Though not quite as wonderful as Frodo's swelling cock filling his mouth, not as wonderful as the taste just beginning to leak onto his tongue. Frodo's hips jerked in Merry's hands, and Frodo mouth alternated Merry's name with curses, all in a jumble of harsh whispers.

Merry was really feeling very pleased with himself and the reactions he was eliciting, so it came as a bit of a shock when the hands gripping his shoulders actually pushed him back, and he sucked hard for a last taste as he reluctantly pulled away. He started to nuzzle back in, wanted closeness any way he could have it, but Frodo cupped his jaw and pulled up his face so they looked in each other's eyes, and Merry saw that Frodo's were dark with lust, thin rings of blue around enormous pupils; his lips were trembling. His voice was thick but still surprisingly quiet and controlled as he ordered, "Get on the bed, Merry." And Merry moved immediately to obey, before Frodo had time to add, "On your back." And then, as Merry was arranging himself, "Your schedule, my rules, yes? So no more trying to stop me if I want to have my way with you in the dark." And Frodo put out the light, and Merry, on his back, in the dark, silently nodded.

On his back, on his belly, on his hands and knees, anything Frodo wanted would be fine, really. But on his back was lovely while he lay there, tense with anticipation, unseeing as his eyes tried to adjust to the dark. It was lovelier still when Frodo joined him on the bed and, rather than issue any more orders, quietly and efficiently peeled off Merry's clothes and then took hold of his feet to push them up and open.

Merry lay with his feet flat on the bed, up by his hips, as Frodo straddled him, bent down to kiss his mouth, then his neck, then his chest, his belly, and downward.

The talking had dropped off by then, as it had to eventually. Because teasing and praising were all very well and good, while they were kissing and stripping, but they'd neither of them ever been much for talking during the act itself. (With Pippin, of course, it was another matter.) And besides that, the lower Frodo moved with his mouth, the less coherent were Merry's thoughts, and the less feasible it would have been to try to turn them into words. And by the time Frodo had wrapped his arms round Merry's thighs and begun working on him in earnest, any sound Merry let out was likely to turn into a scream. It was a great effort to contain his feelings in a whimper, as Frodo sucked and swallowed, and even more difficult to keep things under control when Frodo, with no warning at all, released him and pulled away. Frodo moved up then and silenced him with a deep kiss, and there was just a hint of Merry's own taste on Frodo's tongue. Merry was grateful for the kiss and the taste but impatient, teased, and couldn't keep from bucking against the body above him, rubbing against the leg Frodo now pressed between Merry's own.

"Not yet," Frodo murmured, removing even that pressure and breaking the kiss, and Merry gasped again and whined. "Shhhh." And Frodo's breath brushed against Merry's face, over his eyes. Frodo's tongue moved away from Merry's mouth, and brushed along his jaw to his ear, where he paused to lick lightly. Frodo's cock was hard, as it had been already in Merry's mouth and ever since, and it poked briefly against Merry's hip, but then Frodo shifted away. And every part of Merry wanted every part of Frodo to press harder and found only a feather-light touch. Frodo had always (well, always in all the years they'd been lovers) been a little smaller, and of course Merry had grown; but was it really possible for Frodo to be on top of him and still feel so light that Merry was afraid he might blow away on a breath of air?

"Can't wait," Merry panted. "Please, Frodo, now..."

Frodo took hold of Merry's feet once again (not strange, thinking back, that Merry should have so enjoyed the footbath on his arrival, for it was a prelude to this, the whole evening was), and pushed still further up, further open, till Merry's knees were near his own armpits, his body folded in half and spread, and waiting. And Merry didn't need to be told to grab his own feet to hold the position, for they'd done it this way a few times before, if not as many as Merry would have liked.

It was going to be that then. Stars, not like that first time at all, when Merry had come in Frodo's mouth and, when they'd switched places, Merry had not quite managed to swallow everything he was given, but Frodo had told him he'd done well. It was over a year later the first time they'd tried this, and Frodo had been just as patient then, had moved carefully, caressed every inch of him inside and out, coaxed him open with fingers so slow and smooth and sure that his cock, when he finally moved in, brought no pain but only fulfillment.

He'd learned, in later years, that Merry could take his cock with a good deal less preparation than that, and still thoroughly enjoy it.

So, tonight, Frodo did not bother spending to much time getting him ready. A pair of slick fingers barely touched Merry's cock before sliding behind, around, between, in, the touch not a real massage so much as a brief warning. And Frodo, who always was one to think of others before himself, was kind enough to cover Merry's mouth with his right hand while with the left he pushed those two oiled fingers deep inside.

And where, some distant, practical, and thoroughly impressed part of Merry wondered, where had this oil come from? Was Frodo really one of the fair folk after all, that he could make these things happen so smoothly, and without bottles clinking or bodies withdrawn? Why had Merry, in so many years of lovemaking, with Frodo and with others, never learned how to make it happen this way?

Meanwhile, a good deal more of Merry's mind and being was taken up with thoughts more along the lines of In! and There! and More, Frodo, please! His mouth moaned against one of Frodo's hands, while his arse jerked down, wanting more penetration from the other.

Frodo chuckled, twisted, pulled two fingers out and came back with three, and somehow, again, with more oil. And Merry, for all that he wanted it, and wanted more, grunted in surprise at the thickness, as Frodo shifted the shape of his fingers, and then -- would he -- that spot --

"Nnnnnnnnnngh!" Merry exclaimed against Frodo's hand, and Frodo hummed in serene agreement, then pulled out, took a moment to spread a bit of the oil from his hand onto his erection, and then plunged back in. And it was smooth, for all that it was fast and for all that it tore Merry open, slick sliding all the way in on a single stroke, until Merry felt all of Frodo's length inside him and, yes, finally, all Frodo's weight on top of him, so that Merry's thighs were pressed up even closer than before, and his shins went over Frodo's shoulders. And Merry, who no longer needed to or even could hold his legs in place, let go, reached over his head and grabbed on to the bedposts for dear life. And the bed was narrow and old but it was sturdy and soundless, and did not betray them in rocking or squeaking, even as Frodo rocked in him, thrust in and out, and neither hobbit could keep as quiet as the furniture. Still, all the while, Frodo kept the hand on Merry's mouth, and sometimes a finger would slip in, and Merry would suck, and would bite him lightly, and would move his whole body in rhythm with Frodo's to make each thrust go deeper. And the hand that Frodo had used to open Merry up reached in between them and took hold of Merry's cock and squeezed, and stroked, and pulled the pleasure into and out of and through.

It happened that Frodo had two fingers inside Merry's mouth (and the stub of the third teasing at his lips) when Merry lost control completely, and he bit down hard enough that it was Frodo who cried out. And Merry had no idea if it was the bite, or the way his muscles clenched in spasms around Frodo's cock, or the way he pulsed and spilled in Frodo's hand, what it was that tipped Frodo over the edge. For Merry was barely aware of anything at that point, but he did feel the break in the rhythm they'd been moving in for so long and knew it wasn't only himself, and he did feel, yes, that was Frodo losing control, Frodo coming inside him, Frodo collapsing on top of him. And finally, finally, Frodo took his hand away from Merry's mouth and kissed him, then freed his mouth, though Merry still could not breathe for the weight on top of him, until Frodo slowly pulled out and rolled off to lie on his back. And Merry felt his legs falling down, still open, and the two of them lay there side by side for some time, panting, drifting, and Merry's blood was heavy and slow enough to drown him, and his mind was nothing at all.

And the first thought to come to him, all fully formed, all on its own, like a bubble of pure oxygen risen up through the mire, was one he would never speak aloud: How could Sam possibly not want this for himself?

The second one he spoke, in a low, tender voice, once he had the breath for it: "Come to Crickhollow."

"I will."

Merry hadn't expected any answer, and the words seemed to surprise even Frodo himself. Merry was elated and sated at once, and while he floated, searching for something more to say, some thanks, some expression of the rightness of it, Frodo spoke again.

"I'll come to Crickhollow, Merry, but I can't stay. You know that, yes?"

"I know." Merry answered before he'd had time to think. But of course he knew. Frodo didn't intend to stay with him. There would be a week here, a week or two at Crickhollow. Conversation and companionship, good food and drink and a few more nights of passion. Some more months in the Shire if they were lucky, but not another winter, Merry understood abruptly and completely. Not another spring.

Merry knew this feeling well enough. Frodo would be leaving him again.

Merry had recovered not only thought and speech and anguish by then but some control of his limbs, and he turned to lie on his side, closer to Frodo, and turned Frodo to lie in his arms. "Stay with me here, for now, will you, love?"

Frodo nodded, and hummed his assent, and snuggled closer. Merry was stricken and stunned, and yet the feeling of holding Frodo like this was too good for him to hold on to the grief. The feeling of holding Frodo was nothing but good. And in sadness, completion, and exhaustion, the two of them drifted to sleep.

: :

Frodo woke up cradled and comfortable in Merry's arms. The sun was shining bright that morning, and it was as warm as any morning had been since last September. Once they ventured outside the bedroom, they found out that Sam had told Rosie to sleep in and prepared a simple breakfast. Sam had eaten already and left Frodo and Merry alone, while he took Elanor outside to enjoy the sunshine. After breakfast, Frodo had wanted a talk in the study so that he might take notes, but Merry had insisted that they join father and daughter and flowers and sun. The four of them sat on the grass in the garden of Bag End, Elanor in Sam's arms, Merry and Frodo a few feet away and holding hands; and the baby cooed while Merry spoke softly, and all three of the grown-ups munched absently on crisp biscuits and soft cheese.

Merry was candid, as he had promised, though it was clear that his memories of his and Pippin's time among the Orcs were, like Frodo's, unordered and incomplete. But Frodo found that Merry's story gave some sense to what he himself remembered. There was the medicine that had burned both their throats, for instance. There was the way the Orcs would grab a prisoner by the hair, even if he was not struggling.

"There was..." said Merry, "there was violence, of course. They struck us, and they whipped us -- they didn't hesitate to do it, and of course it hurt... But I think what was worse than the pain itself was the fear. They were always telling us, 'This is nothing. Just wait till the wizard gets his hands on you.' And we believed the threats -- or I did, anyway. It just didn't seem possible that we'd be able to escape."

To all the horrors that Merry recounted Frodo listened, and nodded, and did not interrupt. There would be time later for Frodo to ask questions, later still for Frodo to think and talk through his own experience. But when Merry spoke of the fighting between three different factions of Orcs, the insults and curses they flung at each other, the greediness of each to have the Ring and the glory for himself, it was Sam who spoke up.

"That's how it was at the Tower too," he said. "Orcs from Minas Morgul, where we'd been already, and other ones from deeper inside Mordor, if I understand it rightly. If they hadn't hated each other and quarreled so much amongst themselves, we might not ever have got away."

And Frodo, in the two years he had spent with Sam since those horrible, horrible days, had not heard this before, had not known. "I think I remember something of that too," he said. "I didn't know where they were from, but the two big ones who... Will you tell me about them, Sam? Will you tell me what happened? It doesn't need to be right now..."

And after all that time it really was that easy to ask him for it. There wasn't anything frightening or shameful about it, only asking a dear friend for a favor.

And Sam didn't jump at the chance, but he didn't take offense either. "Don't know how much good it'll do to keep talking about it," he said judiciously, "but I don't think much harm will come of it either. If knowing the whole story is what you want, then I'll do my part. Though just now we were listening to Mr. Merry's part, and perhaps I shouldn't have cut in. Begging your pardon, sirs."

"It's all right, Sam," Frodo and Merry said together, and Frodo squeezed Merry's hand. "It might be we don't need to separate it all out," Frodo continued. "Your part and my part and Merry's and Pippin's. It's all the same story, after all. But it doesn't have to be now. We can just listen, if you like."

Merry didn't have much more to tell after that, and what he said was somewhat familiar, if still frightening. Frodo had once heard a slightly more heroic and glamorous version from Pippin of how the two of them had outwitted Grishnákh. "Well," said Merry when he'd finished, "Pippin was very clever, but there was a good deal of dumb luck to it too. Or fate, I suppose. It's not for me to say."

It wasn't, Frodo reflected, for any of them to say. And he felt the knowledge like another burden lifted from him. He could tell the story of what had happened, what he and his friends had seen and a bit of what they'd felt. But the meaning of it all he could leave for others to interpret. And that, along with the new promise of Sam's help, made the task of finishing it seem much more manageable than it ever had before.

Not everything between Frodo and his friends was perfect; not everything was understood. Merry, for example, probably had no idea of the panic he'd caused Frodo last night by biting his fingers in his ecstasy; he'd be horrified if Frodo explained it to him, just as Sam would be if he found out he'd missed taking care of Frodo in his illness. And Pippin, dear Pippin, whom Frodo hadn't invited to come visit, Pippin would hate to know that Frodo felt it easier to talk to Merry when Pippin wasn't there trying to make their adventures seem any more bearable than they were.

But they'd have it out at Crickhollow, as Merry kept insisting. And Frodo couldn't blame Pippin for trying to keep the most frightening truths from him, for here Frodo was doing the same with Merry and Sam. He didn't want them to worry, but then again, if the truth did come out, Frodo knew it would be all right. They only made a fuss because they cared for him. And it felt good, Frodo realized, even if it made him cry sometimes, it felt good to know how much they cared.

Not everything was perfect, then, but Frodo felt he had the best friends -- and the best families, both of them -- that any hobbit could ask for. He fingered the jewel at his neck and thought of the other dear friends who had gifted it to him, and of the promise that it signified. Sam and Merry and Pippin didn't know yet, and they mustn't. But he felt that when the time came to tell them, well, perhaps they would not be happy, but in the end they would understand.

He squeezed Merry's hand and reached out to take Sam's and felt that, somehow, Pippin was with them as well; for Merry couldn't exist without Pippin anymore, and neither, really, could Frodo. He could not do without any of these friends.

"My dear and most beloved hobbits," he said quietly, and knew that he need not say more.