West of the Moon

A Tolkien Fanfiction Archive

 

 

Nexus
Merry is young, impulsive, and thoroughly done with waiting.
Author: Willow-wode
Rating: NC-17

 

It was raining pitchforks and hammer handles, as Sam's Gaffer would say, and coming down so hard that it was even audible through the thick roof of Bag End. In fact, it was so persistent that the skylights, normally waterproof, were dripping with the wet. Frodo had earlier heard the sound of dripping in his room; now a bucket resided not only beneath his own cherished skylight, but also in the four other places where such overhead louvers resided.

It was nearing midnight. Bilbo had, after padding about and directing Frodo as he'd placed leak catchers, declared he was going to bed. Frodo bid him goodnight and immediately returned to his study, the desk of which was strewn with various books and maps. He and Bilbo had returned from a small trip not a se'n-night previous, and Frodo was determined to layer it out on paper with not only words, but a small map.

Samhain was a true disappointment this year; the bleak and sullen weather had washed away any planned bonfires or gatherings for miles about. Truth be told, Frodo enjoyed a good dance as much as anyone, but he preferred to honour any ancestors or ghosts in the manner he was now employing--pen and ink and parchment. He wasn't at all sleepy, and it hadn't take him long to lose himself in his project. So intent was his focus that between the metallic wet ring of buckets, the thunder rumbling and the rain pelting the smial, Frodo didn't at first hear another low pounding against the thunder.

"Frodo?" A sleepy, irritated voice. Bilbo. "Frodo, what are you banging about?"

"I'm not!" he hollered back. "I'm in my study!"

The pounding once again commenced. Quickly screwing the cap on his ink bottle, Frodo tossed his quill into its tray and shimmied down from his high stool, trotting out into the hall. He met Bilbo there, belting a robe about his frame and muttering dwarvish curses not at all softly.

Thunder rolled over the smial, but after it had departed there was still a fierce banging. The front door. As one the Bagginses leapt for it; Frodo undid the latch, Bilbo swung it wide.

A hunched, bedraggled and very, very wet apparition stood on the slick flagstones of the porch. It looked at them with huge, tear-swollen eyes and sniffed. Loudly.

"I've left the Hall," it pronounced. "I'm not going back there. I'm staying here with you."

Frodo stared for an eternity of seconds. When he could speak, all that came out was the apparition's name. "Merry!"

His cousin was shaking so hard it was startling they couldn't hear bones rattle. Bilbo reacted firstly and sensibly.

"Get in here, lad. What on earth are you doing out in the storm--have you lost your senses?" He heaved the door shut behind Merry, who stood dripping and miserable on the entry tiling. "Surely you didn't walk all the way from Buckland."

"No." Another shudder and another huge sniff. "Bright is in the cowshed..."

Bilbo sighed and started peeling sopping layers from the younger lad. He elbowed Frodo, who had just been standing and staring blankly. "Go check on the pony," he muttered sourly. "Make sure he's seen to properly, that he's not bothering the cow or the nanny."

Frodo gave him a pained look.

"He came to see you," Bilbo said pointedly--and accurately. "I'm too old to be dealing with barely-tweenaged boys possessed of all bollocks and no brains."

Suppressing the fervent wish to ask Bilbo why he'd then bothered to adopt Frodo himself, Frodo scowled and slung his cloak about him, then slammed out into the night.

* * * * * *

Even the oiled wool fabric of his cloak didn't keep out the driving, cold power of the rain. Coming all the way from Buckland in this--had Merry lost his mind? Frodo stumbled down the hill lane and into the small cowshed and found two large forms at the hay manger. Frodo spoke softly, but only gained an ear twitch from both beasts--they had heard him come in. Sure enough, Merry's young stallion had bullied their milch cow from the best of the fodder. The goat had, true to her nature, obdurately refused to be so ousted and had bedded down in the manger right beneath the pony's nose. Otherwise the pony was well enough; Merry hadn't been so disturbed that he'd neglected to untack. Frodo reached down, captured a handful of straw and twisted it, using it to scour the pony's wet coat. Merry must have not ridden hard the last mile despite the rain--the pony was more wet with rain than sweat.

Giving up on currying, Frodo grasped the pony's halter and moved him to the other side of the barn. If the cow was off her milk in the morning, the old dame who came to milk and got a share as result would certainly short them, not herself. And with Merry here for at least the while, they'd need all she produced.

Frodo clipped the pony in the adjoining box, wondering what on earth had happened. Why was his cousin here? Now? Granted, the explosion was long overdue. Merry and Saradoc had been at odds for the past two seasons, one way or another. Most people seemed to think it a normal 'father/son' standoff, but Frodo, having absolutely no experience with such a thing, found it rather alarming. Obviously the Brandybuck sense of timing and temper was in play--sudden, and usually at its worst.

Frodo steeled himself and went back out into the storm.

* * * * * *

Wet clothes were heaped just inside the door, laying rivulets upon stone. Frodo's toes met the chill of them; he shrugged out of his sodden cloak, letting it fall to join with the rest. Shaking his wet head, he espied Merry by the fire, a very large blanket wrapped about him, hopping from one bare leg to the other. Bilbo was beside him, poking the fire into higher animation.

"Whatever possessed you, lad?" his uncle was saying. "The blackest, wettest, foulest night in over a month, and you go for a twenty league joyride!"

"I c-c-couldn't stay there o-o-one more m-m-moment!" Merry stammered, hardly able to get the words out between his chattering teeth.

Bilbo, done with the fire, grabbed up a steaming cup from the hearth. "Keep drinking this."

"All right." Merry drank noisily; obviously he'd already drained part of the cup. "W-what is it?" he asked. "It's very good."

"Get closer to the fire."

"But..."

"Just do as I say, lad, and give me no more arguments. You come here in a storm, a distance and temperature where you're bound to catch your death, thusly insuring your mother will have one more reason to detest me!" Bilbo snapped. "Bag End is not a flaming sickroom for the adolescent imbroglios of Brandy Hall!"

Frodo decided to intervene. Bilbo snatched from sleep was not a candidate for any reasonable debate, and when Merry was worked up, 'hard headed' was perhaps an understatement. It was mixing a perfect recipe for disaster right before his eyes.

And that 'adolescent imbroglios' had indeed been a low blow. Bilbo wouldn't have said it if he was thinking straight.

Frodo walked over, grabbed a towel from the pile that Bilbo had obviously brought from the hall press, and started rubbing quite fiercely at Merry's soaked curls. Merry almost spilled his drink; Bilbo rescued it just in time, took a sip of it himself. Probably warm milk and brandy--the old hobbit's favourite remedy for just about everything.

Including adolescent angst. Frodo grinned suddenly, wondering how many cups of that he'd drunk when he'd first arrived here.

"Owwww," Merry complained. "Frodo, you're t-t-taking my scalp off!"

"You're lucky I don't take hide off your behind with a birch rod!" Frodo answered, his sense of humour getting the best of him. It was, after all, a most ridiculous situation.

Merry swelled up like a toad. "I'd like to see you try it!" he shot back, whirling on his cousin with a vehemence that made Frodo angle back in surprise. "I am not a child any more, Frodo, no matter how you'd like to keep me one!" He was still trembling, the blanket had slipped down over one shoulder, and he was glaring at Frodo with a set to his jaw that resembled granite. Frodo felt strangely as if someone had sucker-punched him; he blinked and looked down at the floor, frowning uncertainly.

"Then why are you acting like one?" Bilbo inserted smoothly.

"I'm not!" Interestingly enough, Merry visibly deflated as he turned to Bilbo; out from under the intensity of that gaze, Frodo bent down and picked up the towel he'd dropped, glancing at Bilbo. His uncle's eyes were dancing more now with amusement and less with anger; Frodo took a solid breath and threw the towel over Merry's damp curls again. Merry tried to wriggle away; Frodo didn't let him.

"Be still," he censured, albeit in a meeker tone of voice that hopefully wouldn't offend his overwrought cousin. "Let me get you dry. Why did you pick an evening like this to leave the Hall?"

"I didn't pick it!" was the surly retort. Grievance was certainly steadying Merry's voice despite chills. "It just happened. It's all I am to him, you know. The bloody Heir!"

Frodo kept scrubbing at Merry's scalp, albeit less harshly than before. He knew it had just started.

He was right.

"It's not my fault he's not managed to produce another son!" Merry continued, as if undecided on the benefits of either righteous anger or self-pity.

"Stars above, Merry; you didn't actually say that to him, did you?"

"Well," Merry sniffed again. "No. But I did tell him he should adopt Rill as his Heir, and then his problem would be solved! Rill's much more fit for it than I am, it seems!"

Frodo sighed. Saradoc's younger brother Merimac had also produced only one son--if for somewhat different reasons. When Berilac had come to the Hall to be fostered, his biddable nature had made him rather the icon for good behaviour. And one couldn't even fault or resent him for it, again because of that very equanimity--though privately Frodo thought the lad a bit uninteresting. He gave up on Merry's hair, which was now considerably less dripping, and slung the towel over his neck, placing his hands comfortingly on Merry's shoulders. Abruptly he was surprised at how solidly broad those shoulders were under his palms, even slumped and quivering with emotion.

"They always want me to be something I'm not! They don't understand!" Merry was indeed winding himself up into a fine and foul snit. "I'm sick of it!"

The supply of italics was obviously inexhaustible. "Merry..."

His cousin turned to him, grabbed at his wrists. "How did you stand it for so long?"

"I didn't have a lot of choice then," Frodo said softly, meeting Bilbo's eyes. Bilbo frowned and lowered his gaze; Frodo realised he'd gained unintentional recompense for the cut about adolescents. His gaze towards Bilbo turned wryly apologetic.

"Well, I couldn't stand it another moment. I told him what he could do with his Hall and..." Merry trailed off, still holding to Frodo's wrists; Frodo turned his attention back to him, drawn both by how tight Merry's grip was, and that the broad frame was still shaking. Swollen indigo eyes raked over Frodo's hair, then his shirt. "Frodo, you're wet, too."

"I went to make sure Bright was all right."

"I take care of my pony! He's going to be the next foundation sire for the Hall!" Merry protested, and Frodo gave a small yip as fingers bit rather unmercifully into his forearm tendons. Merry loosed him immediately. "Oh. Frodo, I'm sorry."

"Take care, lad," Bilbo said wryly, "you Brandybucks don't know your own strength half the time."

"I thought you'd left the Hall," Frodo reminded him quietly, chafing one wrist with the other.

"I did. I have. I left." Another huge sniffle and Merry leaned forward, laid his head against Frodo's damp chest. "I'm not going back. There's nothing there for me, anyway. You're not there. Pippin's back home. Rill's on the river with his da. I wasn't allowed to go with Pip or to come here or even visit the river. I was told I have 'responsibilities'."

"How much brandy did you put in that toddy, Bilbo?" Frodo asked plaintively over his cousin's bent head.

"Not enough for this."

"I'm not drunk!" Merry protested against Frodo's chest. "I'm tired. I'm sick of life!"

"Merry..."

"I told him that the only responsibilities I have are to my friends. That's enough responsibility for anyone." Merry was shivering again, bleary-eyed, and Frodo wondered for fearful seconds if he had caught some fever. Pushing Merry closer to the fire, Frodo felt his forehead. It was warm, but not overtly so. "I'm still cold, Frodo," Merry said.

"I know you are. Here," Frodo said, matter-of-factly pushing him back and taking up the near-empty cup once more. "Drink this. It'll warm you up.... Whoa! Easy there!" This as Merry tossed it back with the practiced ease of a drunken fisherhobbit.

"We need to get him into some dry clothes," Bilbo said, then frowned at Merry. "There's no possibility of him fitting into one of your nightshirts, though... I swear, the boy's grown another half-hand since last I saw him--broad as well as tall."

Frodo eyed his cousin speculatively. There was no doubt that Merry had filled out quite a lot in the past year, leaving behind the awkward gangliness of adolescence for a compact power that his still-tingling wrists were but proof of. His gut curled oddly at the rather unlooked-for observation and he lifted his chin, dismissing the persistent oddness beneath practicality. Bilbo was right--there was no way any of the Bag End nightshirts would fit Merry any more. "There's that one of Sam's that May brought with the laundry by mistake," Frodo suggested. "I've meant to give it back for several days now. It should fit."

"Sam." Merry hunched his shoulders, drew the blanket tighter about him. "It's always Sam, isn't it?"

Bilbo suddenly had the oddest smirk on his face; Frodo shot him a curious look then said to Merry, patiently, "What are you talking about?"

"Well, you don't need me any more, you've got Sam," Merry groused into his fisted and blanket-filled hands.

"What does Sam have to do with any of this?"

"An' he's older than me and he practically lives on your back doorstep..." A sniffle.

"Merry--"

"It's all I hear from you, you know. Sam did this, Sam did that, Sam did some other damned thing--"

"Merry--"

"Yes, Frodo, believe it or not I'm old enough to swear now, too! If I can tell my father to sod off, I can--"

"Save me! I feel as though some ridiculous courtly romance is playing out before my very eyes," Bilbo groaned. "This is too much the melodrama for me, lads. It's late. I'm going to bed, and I suggest that you two do the same. We can sort this all out in the morning."

Frodo looked at the old hobbit in amazement. Merry was staggering and obviously slightly delirious with who-knew-what, standing here without leave of the Hall on a nicked pony and with his only clothes sopping wet, wrapped up shivering and naked in a blanket, and Bilbo was going back to bed?

At least Bilbo did go over and pick up the wet clothes from the foyer before he disappeared into his half of the smial.

Merry was still shivering. Frodo uttered a vehement, sub-vocal curse--in not only Elvish, but Dwarvish and the common tongue for better effect--then put a shoring arm about his cousin.

"You are entirely too big for me to be carrying you to bed anymore," he growled. "Walk, Meriadoc."

A sour mutter answered him. But Merry did as bidden.

* * * * * *

"I am not wearing Samwise Gamgee's nightshirt."

"Merry, it's all I have that will fit you."

"I'm not."

"Well, fine!" Frodo snapped and tossed the garment over on a chair. Leaving Merry sitting on the edge of the narrow bed that occupied one corner of his study, he stalked over to his desk and started putting away the work he'd started earlier. For long moments there was nothing but the sounds of rattling parchments and the slow tick of the little corner airtight stove as it expanded--Frodo had opened the dampers a bit to increase the room's heat. Mid-gesture of putting away a parchment, Frodo gave a shiver, twitching his shoulders beneath his damp shirt. It clung to him like a second, bothersome skin; he grimaced and started unfastening the buttons, angling out from under his braces and irritably yanking the muslin from his waistband.

"Stay here, Merry, stay warm. I'm going to get a dry shirt." Turning, Frodo trailed off mid-sentence, fingers tangling somewhere about the fourth button down his breastbone. Merry was staring at him, hair straggling across his forehead. He was still swathed in the blanket and he was still shivering, but there was a strange and sullen heat behind those tip-tilted eyes. A small voice in the back corner of Frodo's brain abruptly wondered if it was the sodden shirt that had made him twitchy, or the subconscious pressure of eyes fixed upon him, with a gaze that he'd never before noticed upon Merry's countenance.

He swallowed. The gaze dropped. Merry's cheeks were splotched with colour. "Are you coming back?" Merry asked plaintively.

Normalcy returned to the room with gratifying speed. Frodo heaved a sigh and went over to him. "Get under the covers, you nit," he said gently, "before you catch your death. Yes, I am coming back. I'm just going to change my shirt. It's damp and I'm getting chilly, too."

"I'm still cold, Frodo," Merry continued amidst chattering teeth, shaking so hard the narrow bed trembled in response. "I don't know why I'm so cold..."

"Oh, how could that be?" Frodo queried grimly, pulling back the bedclothes and tucking Merry, still wrapped in the blanket, beneath the layers of coverlet. "A twenty league ride in pouring rain, at a good clip, getting too warm and too cold and wet to the bone, perhaps?" He ensured that his cousin was settled, laid a hand to his forehead. Still normal. Perhaps he was just chilled and exhausted. But he was still violently shaking.

Dark blue eyes peered at him over the covers. "Don't go," Merry said. "I... I want you to stay."

"I tell you, I'm not going anywhere. Just for a dry shirt."

Merry kept looking at him. "Frodo, I'm so cold."

"Well, I know that, and I'm getting that way--"

"You used to cuddle me warm when I was smaller--"

"When you were smaller, yes."

"And I could warm you, too." Another look, sideways and almost shy.

"All right, all right." With a sigh, Frodo abandoned thoughts of a dry shirt, instead peeling from his damp one and tossing it to the floor. "Here. Scoot over." He slid in beside Merry, pulled the covers over them both and started to pull him close--gave a short gasp because what flesh adhered to his own felt like jumping into the river during spring melt. Steeling himself, Frodo spooned close behind Merry, wrapping both arms about him and a leg to boot.

Merry gave a contented sigh, snuggled in and laced icy fingers about Frodo's forearm, tucked his quivering chin over it. "You're quite warm."

"Only because you're bloody cold. Glory, Merry! Maybe I should pour some more warm milk and brandy down you after all."

"Milk and brandy's nice. This is nicer." Slowly, surely, chills began to lessen, and the fingers that had laced themselves tightly about Frodo's arm began to thaw out. They lay there silent and stilled, breath slowing to a tandem, soft rhythm. The blanket was scratchy against Frodo's bare chest; he shifted uncomfortably. Merry gave a small sound and wriggled back closer against Frodo in a fashion that cradled his rear end right between Frodo's hip bones. For wild seconds Frodo almost pushed back, in fact he must have, ever so slightly, because Merry had gone horribly still against him.

Frodo bit at his lip, long since being horrified at what inappropriate things his body would react to, but also determined that he wasn't going to involve his baby cousin in said reactions. It was an automatic response, well schooled and rehearsed time upon time; irritably he put an arch in his back and some proper distance between his indiscriminatory anatomy and Merry's unaware backside. Merry, however, was obviously determined to have a cuddle, and backed up against him again with an exasperated sound; Frodo grimaced, shifted, tucked said anatomy into a more appropriate and less telling place, then let his cousin curl tightly against him.

He started running his fingers through Merry's still-damp curls. "What happened?"

A small tremor went through Merry at the soft query; he burrowed closer to Frodo, if that were even possible, and let out a tiny groan.

"What happened?" Frodo persisted, still stroking the bright hair. "What did your father say to you this time that prompted you to do something this foolish, Merry-dear?"

Silence. Then, "Do you know how long it's been since you've called me that?"

"Obviously too long," Frodo replied very slowly, "if you feel the need to ask that." He shook Merry, gently. "Don't avoid the subject. What did he say?"

"It wasn't just Da, Frodo."

"I can't imagine Aunt Esme ranking on you, golden child," Frodo teased. "She saves that for me."

"I'm not a child anymore, Frodo!" It was vehement; Merry pulled away from him, hunching forward.

"All right," Frodo said meekly. "I'm sorry. But how is it not just about your da?"

"You wouldn't understand."

"Since when have I not understood?"

"Since you came here." Clutching his blanket to him still, Merry twisted about, pulled himself up to a seated position.

"Get back under the covers, you'll get cold again..."

"It's true, Frodo." His eyes were as dark now as they'd been bright earlier, and once again there was something within them that made a fingerling of unfathomable disquiet twist in Frodo's belly. "Since you came here you've changed."

"I needed to change, Merry," he said, low. "You know that. I was... drowning, there."

They both fell silent at the unfortunate reference, then Merry responded, slowly, "I'm drowning, now! Why should you get to go away and leave me behind? Why can't I go away, too?"

Frodo scooted closer, tried to pull the covers up about his cousin without much success. Merry shifted irritably, tucked his knees beneath his blanket, shoved himself back against the headboard. Frodo sighed. "What did he say, Merry?"

"A lot of things," was the muttered answer. "About my responsibility to the Hall. About what he expects me to be."

"That's nothing new, and certainly since Uncle Rory had that stroke last year, your father's been more aware that the Hall lineage is a bit sparse."

"He said I was mooning over things that would never be. Shirking my duties."

"Curse it, Merry, you're not even seventeen!" Frodo gritted between his teeth.

This, inexplicably, was not the right answer. "I might not be a tweenager like you, but I'm past my change over a year, now. That makes me old enough for quite a lot--or hadn't you noticed that, either?"

Frodo didn't answer, suddenly and vastly uncomfortable. Merry's eyes narrowed; Frodo rocked back slightly, lowered his own gaze and said determinedly, "It doesn't mean you're ready to be apprentice Master!"

"I..." Merry also looked away and shifted down against the headboard, his voice low. "I don't think that's what he meant."

"I should hope not." Frodo was surprised at how angry he was at the prospect. His cousin should be like the rest of the youngsters at Brandy Hall--work hard, yes, but play hard, too, and take from his teen and tween years all that he could. The Master and Mistress of the Hall had always kept Frodo on a leash so short he could still feel the jerk and snatch of it at the oddest moments; to see Merry under the same scrutiny made him want to combust on the spot. Particularly when Merry tried so hard to live up to standards that Frodo had found so impossible.

There was also a niggling realisation that, for some reason, he was glad to take refuge in that anger.

"Da said I was moping about like a tweener who'd lost his playmate, and that I wasn't a tweener yet." The words were rushed, as if bursting forth. "That he wasn't to have this kind of pining in his Hall, never again because the once had been enough and more than enough for him with your mum and mine, and that I needed to just accept it, realise that you weren't..." Merry shut his lips firmly over the words; once started, they had burst forth as if out of control.

Frodo stiffened. "That I wasn't what?" he whispered.

"That you weren't coming back," Merry finished miserably, still not looking at him, clutching his blanket so tightly to him that his knuckles showed yellow through skin.

Silence followed the words. Frodo felt as if every ounce of breath had been forcibly driven from him. He could almost hear his own heartbeat, stringing out the time-parts. One... two...

"Da said that I just needed to face up to it. That it didn't matter how much I wanted it, that you'd left us all behind and never looked back."

Seven... eight...

"That I was a fool and more than a fool, and that you certainly never noticed that I was no longer a child, even when you last came to visit."

Eleven...

"And you didn't notice, Frodo!" Merry shot at him angrily. "I wanted you to, and you never did, and..." he trailed off, continued forlornly, "And there was Sam. He was here when you were sick; even if he is just the gardener's son, he's more your age."

Fourteen...

"And you like him. Probably more than you like me. So it only makes sense that you would--"

Frodo reached out and grasped Merry's shoulders, pulled him sharply forward. They were almost nose to nose, Merry still clutching to his blanket almost defiantly. "No. Sam and I... no. He's my friend, but I've never thought of--"

Those indigo eyes met his, suddenly narrowed. "Never even thought of it, Frodo?"

Seventeen...

"No. No more than... than Pippin. No more than..."

"Than me?"

His heart skipped the twentieth beat. Frodo started to answer readily, found that he couldn't. Literally couldn't. The words clogged in his windpipe, hung there burning. He couldn't breathe.

"Have you?" Merry whispered, eyes riveted to his. They pierced Frodo like a knife thrust to the chest, left him suddenly hollow. "Have you never thought of me?"

Silence. But not silence, for there was sound: Frodo's own heartbeat racing too fast for count, banging suddenly in his temples and behind his ears, water dripping into buckets, the little iron stove hissing with forged and contained flame. His own breath, and Merry's.

Darkness. But hung with shadows, for there was sight: tip-tilted eyes gone dark, glistening like the wet coat of a blue-black pony, chaff-coloured hair hanging into those eyes, all rumpled and fuzzed with the damp, that jaw-line clenched tightly sideways in absolute demonstration of Merry's intensity of feeling, but the mouth slack above it, lips parted and quivering.

Need. But stoppered by necessity, for there was fierce, unrelenting control: impulses locked down and away so many times, within and without, any resonance to artless suggestion gently turned aside and channelled into other, safer avenues, the unwillingness in Frodo to do so much as bruise that eager innocence.

No matter how much they loved each other, Merry was a child, had been his baby cousin and could be nothing more.

"Have you never thought of me?"

What could be, and what could not. And how. And when. All of it choking him, necessity and waiting culminating in this moment, a subordinated fantasy of love and need.

How to say it? How to utter the words that he'd never allowed to ever, ever touch his consciousness?

Oh, yes. I've thought of you...

Eyes still locked to Frodo's, Merry loosened his fists, dropped his arms. The blanket runneled over his shoulders and down, to pool about his waist.

Frodo tried to speak, tried to move. Nothing would work. He felt as if he'd been whacked off at the knees. Everything in him was horrifically conflicted, the inchoate yearnings so long strangled into submission that they didn't begin to know how to break free. Frodo had kept such tight control over himself in regards to any of this that letting go was anathema, all but impossible, like some wrapped and woven spell over the possibility of desire.

The room was warm, too warm. The body he beheld was solid with muscle, golden brown from sun and wind. It was no longer that of a child. Those starlight eyes were no child's, either, smouldering in the dim light. Silence spun out between them, silken, quiescent, a beat measured against the pulse point that throbbed madly in Merry's throat. Frodo scarcely realised that he had ceased counting his own heart's race and was instead tallying Merry's.

Then Merry reached out, put a cool, broad hand on his inexplicably burning chest and immobility was no longer an option.

Frodo reached out, filled his hands with peppery-sweet, damp curls. Merry's hand trailed over his bare chest and down, fingering the waistband of his breeches; Frodo sucked in a shattered draught of air and his fingers tangled, abruptly fierce, in that wheaten hair so that Merry gave a small yip. It echoed into the silence, breaking the moment.

Ohhhh... what are we doing... what are we...?

Frodo tried to pull away. But he forgot to let go of Merry's hair and when Merry followed him, he tried to let go. Merry's hands went to his wrists, holding him there with a strangled "No..."

"Merry..." Frodo grated out.

"Frodo, please..."

"We... have to... stop."

"No!" Merry's face splotched with colour. "Don't stop. Not now. Not when all I've ever wanted is--"

And suddenly Frodo's lap was full of lanky, bare hobbitlad and Merry's mouth was on his, fierce and unrelenting, making small, desperate noises into his mouth and oh, glory but where had he learned to kiss like that, all pliant lips and agile tongue and nipping teeth? Frodo's hands tightened even harder in bright hair; he lurched forward. Merry gave a grunt as his back hit the headboard, then moaned and thrust up hard against him, wrapping about him with little finesse but quite clear and eager intent.

That sun-browned body was no longer cold, but slicked with sweat and burning like coal-fire against him, quaking with avid, awkward hunger. He wriggled between Frodo and the hard pine headboard as if all the pent-up heat was more than his skin could possibly contain. Frodo couldn't even begin to halt his own response; his hips rocking forward, mouth trailing down over Merry's chin and throat to fasten upon that pulse point throbbing beneath. It vibrated beneath his tongue like a rabbit caught in a trap and Merry let out a small whimper, twisting against him. The bedstead squealed protest and the susurrus of damp skin alternately fusing and sliding was maddening. Frodo's breeches were abominably tight, and he was painfully hard, and years of inculcated restraint were fragmenting in this space and this now, and all he wanted was to keep Merry held against that headboard and thrust against him until he screamed.

Too much. All of it entirely too much, and Merry was pleading with him and the sound of that penetrated, making Frodo push himself back, pull away, ease up. Merry gasped a protest; Frodo belatedly realised that his cousin's hoarse pleading had absolutely nothing to do with stopping anything and everything to do with begging for more. Merry's hands had clenched tight in Frodo's waistband; he opened his eyes and gave Frodo a wild, frustrated look, dove forward.

They landed near the bed's foot, Merry half atop him. One of Frodo's legs swung off the bed; he flung his arms outward barely in time to keep them both from sliding off, grabbed the post and footboard, hung on. Merry climbed him, lunging against him with a staggered uncertainty. Sidling his knees against solid hips, Frodo gripped hard, stilled him; when Merry growled at this further hindrance, Frodo reached down between their bodies. His cousin's frame jerked against Frodo's own as Frodo grasped him, showed him, shifted and worked him into another, smoother rhythm. Merry threw his head back, panted out his name, and in turn Frodo curled his feet about thighs and calves that had seemingly overnight sprang into muscle and sinew. He braced both arms against the footboard, demanded with husky voice and writhing frame:

More. Harder. Now.

It lasted perhaps another seven beats, then Merry was shuddering, groaning into his breast. Frodo felt him throbbing against his belly, spent into the warmth of commingled flesh; that and two more upward thrusts and Frodo was crying out, arching up one last time against Merry then collapsing back against the bed.

Silence once more, ringing itself about them in their cocoon of spent breath and hammering hearts and quavering limbs. Slowly, Frodo became aware of three distinct things.

One was that he still had his breeches on. Two was that they were a mere hairbreadth away from sliding completely off the bed. Three was...

Three was that Merry was very heavy. He lay curled atop Frodo, panting and trembling, lips crushed against his breast, eyes open and starry and disbelieving. The sight drove any discomfort away from Frodo, touched a faint, fond smile to his lips. Unclamping one fist from the bedpost, Frodo flexed it gingerly then trailed gentle fingers across one wide cheekbone and spoke Merry's name.

Sensately-darkened eyes slid upward to meet his. "Frodo?"

"I'm here."

The reassurance--spoken since childhood when a dreamy, dark-haired boy would have to constantly reassure his little earth-bound cousin that he had returned from his habitation of invisible worlds--now made that same cousin, no longer little, smile. "Frodo," he murmured, "I don't think that I am. Here."

"Oh, you are," Frodo said with soft vehemence, still trying to regain his breath. "Believe me."

"But..."

"Mmm?"

"If I'm here, then why can't I move?"

"Well, I hope you can move eventually," Frodo said with a wry grin, "because you're very near to squashing me, if you must know." He kept stroking Merry's face. "Are you all right?"

"I... can't tell."

"A little numb?"

"You might... say that." He lay there, panting against Frodo's breast. "Um..."

"Yes, love?"

"We were pretty... um... loud. Will cousin Bilbo--?"

"He sleeps like the dead," Frodo answered. "And if he isn't sleeping, he'll pretend." Nuzzling his lips against Merry's temple, he said, "Are you at least warm, now?"

Merry did raise his head at this; when he saw the teasing look on Frodo's face he snorted, then dove his head back against his cousin's breast, hard.

"Oof!"

A giggle came from beneath the bright curls. "Um, yes. I'm warm. Quite warm, thank you very much."

"Then over you go, before we fall off the bed." Frodo gave a small shove, rolled Merry onto his back and propped himself up on one elbow beside him. Merry just lay there, staring up at the ceiling with a dumbfounded look that made another fond, quick smirk tease at Frodo's lips.

He remembered that feeling. And the soft echo of it in Merry's eyes did much to allay his own anxiety about exactly how hard and fast this first time had been for him. He pushed the curls back from Merry's eyes, ran his thumb along one eyebrow, asked again, "You're all right?" 

"All right?" was the answer, still uttered through spent breath.

"Was it nice?"

A scattered, bemused grin touched those lips, again answering any contrary fear, then Merry turned into his hand, nuzzling into his palm. "Oh, if you only knew how long."

"I... think I might." Those lips against his fingers were warm, and sweetly played havoc with his sensibilities.

"I don't think you do," was the insistence. "Frodo, if I told you how long I've wanted you to...' he trailed off, his cheek growing hot and flushed against Frodo's palm. "You'd laugh at me."

"You're so sure? Try me."

"What?" Merry's eyes met his, puzzled.

"Perhaps I want to hear you say it."

"Say it? Say that I've wanted you for as long as I could remember? Before I even knew what it meant?"

"Yes. That." Frodo smiled. "I know."

"If you knew, why did you make me wait?"

"Merry..." Brows drawing together, Frodo fell silent.

"Do you know how long I've waited for you to think of me? How long I've wanted you to look at me the way you looked at... well, the way you looked at Merimac? I wanted you to follow me with your eyes and give that strange, almost-not-there quiver when I touched you."

Frodo's breath deserted him once again. "How did you--?"

"Know?" Merry's eyes narrowed. "Did you think I was stupid, Frodo? Did you think I couldn't see? All Uncle Mac had to do was lay two fingers on you and you'd look at him as if he was your first meal in weeks. And that last time you were at the Hall, this summer when you and cousin Bilbo were staying the night on your way through to whatever strange place you were going? When I heard you were going to stay, I was so excited I could hardly see straight. I had it all planned out. I was going to let you stay in my room. I was hoping that I could... well, I was hoping that we could, and..." he flushed as Frodo smiled. "Well, I was. Do you remember, in the gathering room after dinner? We were sitting in front of the fireplace, and you were telling me about your friends here, and everything you were happy about in Bag End, and I was happy for you, but it hurt, too, and I figured that if we could at least share this..."

Regret clenched in his breast. "Oh, Merry," Frodo said softly, stroking his hair.

"And then he came blowing in, like some wild wind, and you jumped to your feet, tousled my hair and ran over to him. I wanted you to see me, see that I was old enough, that I was grown enough. But all you could see was him. I was just your 'baby' cousin."

"I..."

"And my room's right next to his, you know. I could hear you both. You weren't very quiet. Whatever he was doing, you certainly liked it well enough, the way you were howling--"

Frodo coloured, laid two fingers over Merry's lips. "All right. I think I get the picture."

Merry gripped his fingers, laid a fierce kiss against them. "I've had other lads ask me, you know," Merry said into Frodo's palm, and his downcast lashes were like smoky crescents over his cheeks, obscuring all but a tiny glint of eye. "They knew I was old enough."

"So that's where you learned those lovely kisses," was Frodo's response.

"But not much else." Indigo flashed defiance at him. "I thought about it. Lots of times. Because you had left and I truly thought I was going to die a virgin."

"Poor Merry-dear," Frodo started to grin, but the next words wiped the smile from his face and left a rather sizable hole in his composure.

"But I didn't want them. I wanted you."

Frodo bent over him, gripping his skull in both hands and giving him a fierce kiss. "You have me. You had me so hard I can hardly see straight, in fact. Mac's not the only one who's made me... 'howl', did you put it?"

A ghost of a grin appeared on Merry's lips, and he looked up from under his lashes at Frodo. "Really?"

"Really. I didn't even have a chance to get bare, you know."

Straight brows drew together and Merry looked down. "Frodo. You're still wearing your breeches."

"I just said that, yes." Frodo grinned and tapped Merry's nose. "You never gave me the chance to get them off."

The sly grin reappeared, this time full bore. "Perhaps we need to remedy that."

"Mm. There's no doubt I won't say no to shedding them now. I'm rather gummed up, if you want the truth."

The statement was as good as an invitation. Merry sat up, pushed Frodo down and started to unbutton his breeks. Midway through, Merry's stomach growled. Loudly.

"Frodo?" He looked up, a rueful smile on his face. "Can we eat, first?"

* * * * * *

They never made it to the kitchen.

Merry was totally unprepared for the devastating sight of his cousin bending over to take off his breeks. And he was even more unprepared for the sight of Frodo taking up a damp cloth and wrapping it about a certain portion of his anatomy. Ostensibly to clean up, he knew, but the sight of it just about convinced him of the possibility that twice in one hour was not impossible, although he'd heard it was.

Merry knew he was staring, but he could no more stop watching than fly up the skylight in Frodo's bedroom--although he'd tried to fly down it, once. And not surprising that particular memory had come to him, because suddenly, in a wash of prickly heat, he remembered what he'd been watching Frodo do that time, as well...

Remembering grass sweet in his nostrils, and tickling his nose, he'd been all but asleep, lost in the sun on the Bag End roof when he'd heard the slight catch of sound from the earth. He'd frowned, and located the source of the noise, and shrugged over on belly and elbows and knees to the skylight. First he'd been stricken numb, then tender and afire at what lay below. Lying sprawled naked on his bed, all darkling-pale and copper-touched in the shafts of sunlight steaming in about Merry's curls, Frodo's eyes had been brilliant and flat. One forearm clamped firmly over his own mouth, the other hand nestled in the dark fur between his hipbones, fingers curled tight and working. The shudder, the muffled cry and clench, and Merry writhing in the grass, the sun beating on his back and heat tearing at his belly, finally wrenching away from fascination to lie on his back and blind himself with the sunlight. And when that hadn't worked and the sight was still burned behind his closed lids, Merry had stumbled to the privy and let the vision take him.

It had taken him three times, and the last almost painful, but less so than the memory and the wanting, and when he'd seen the small teeth-marks on Frodo's forearm he'd gone to bed early, pleading a headache but feeling it all the way to his furry toes.

And now?

No urgent, breathless cries to stifle least they betray, but still Frodo's lips parted and a sighing mutter sounded. It was no longer sunlight that caressed pale, sparse-freckled skin, but candles and the flickers in the fire's grate. Merry followed the shadows and coppery tongues of light running over skin and tensile sinew, over a hollow of rib, over the slight swell of belly, and down...

Merry clenched fists in the sheets, settled his teeth into his upper lip. Every bit of heat his body possessed was centring itself in his pelvis, and if Frodo didn't stop applying that cloth with such sudden absorption he was going to just explode, here and now.

Then Merry realized that said cloth hung threaded through Frodo's free hand but it was barely being put to use, and the slender fingers so busily intent upon towelling himself dry now smoothed and gripped roseate, stiffening flesh, and Frodo was watching him watch with eyes gone molten.

"Are you," Frodo asked quietly, "still hungry?"

Merry gulped in a huge breath, swallowed it, twisted his hands tighter in the coverlets, and thought it quite possible to die of longing.

"I've never seen you be unwilling to eat before," Frodo said, still quiet, with a hint of a smile on his lips.

He couldn't speak, he couldn't move, all he could do was watch those clever fingers move over Frodo's body and wish that they were his... and he hurt... oh, glory he hurt...

And he was petrified. Merry didn't understand it. He was absolutely rigid with not only passion but fear, and he didn't know why. After what they'd just done on this very bed where he sat unable to move, after he'd kissed and writhed and spent himself against Frodo, and all of it over too quickly, and now...

Memories again... that sultry, hazy-bright afternoon, a trembling goodbye on a river strand where once there'd been a treehouse, and even further back to the games of little boys, explorations that had stirred things not yet fully realised. The day so long past when it had all stopped all too suddenly, and Frodo had pushed him away and said he was too old to play baby games any more. And ever since then, it seemed, Merry was always trying to open a door Frodo had shut upon him.

"Don't push me away again," Merry suddenly said, his voice high and tight into the stillness. "Please."

Don't show me this next door only to run ahead and close it in my face... don't leave me behind again...

Frodo's hands had dropped to his sides. His face was half in shadow, half in copper filigree, and his eyes gleamed, startling luminosity in the darkness.

"Tell me you won't leave me behind, not again."

Frodo spoke, a soft tremor that separated itself into words. "Come here."

Somehow, he did. Somehow, Merry wasn't sure how, he had spooned himself behind Frodo, and the cool, wiry line of him, pressing from breastbone to hip, was intoxicating. Merry wrapped his arms fiercely about Frodo, buried his cheekbone into a freckled shoulder and hung there, drunk on the feel of that slighter frame against his.

His body, throbbing and quavering and pushing against Frodo's. His heart, hammering so that it felt ready to burst from his chest. His being, filled with relief and awe and fear and incredulity that he was here, at last, where he had all but resigned himself to never being...

"Frodo?" he gasped out, thoroughly disoriented, and was given comfort by a soft and familiar canto into thundering stillness.

"I'm here. I'm here, love."

"Stay here. Please, stay here."

"I'm not going anywhere." Frodo's fingers traced the veins on Merry's arms, the taut muscles that held so keenly, and Frodo's voice, so soft yet fierce. "What do you want, Merry-dear? Tell me what you want and I'll do it."

"I want to... touch you," was Merry's answer. "Just... touch you..."

Frodo's hands were slender and small against his--odd that he should just now be noticing this, reacting to this--but they were incredibly strong, loosening his tight hold quite easily. Fingers twined themselves into his, guided him. "Show me what you like." Frodo's voice hummed against his cheek, as much comfort as ever, but with a fine, tactile edge that made Merry quiver.

"But I don't know--"

"You sat there and watched me with your heart in your eyes," Frodo assured softly. "You know what you want, and you know what you like." Insistent, knowing fingers that trailed over his own, and sweet wanton suggestion not only in those fingers, but that voice. "I'm not going anywhere, I tell you, and we have all night. Show me. And I'll show you."

Dark tendrils tickled Merry's nose with rain and juniper, with a sharp, heady tang of sweat. A jagged breath escaped him, laid warm mist upon Frodo's shoulder blade. Merry could taste it, salt and dew, clinging to his lips as he closed his eyes tighter, lost himself in the feel of damp skin, of taut sinew and quivering muscle. This was different, oh so different from touching himself; Frodo was tensile and spare, yet gave to the pressure of his fingers like softened wax. Round belly, shallow dimple of navel, soft, fine fur that all but crackled beneath his fingers like dried grass in a lightning storm... and trailing down, down to rigid, silky heat.

So familiar, the weight nesting in his palms, but still so very different. Merry let out another hiss against Frodo's spine as he ran his fingers lightly over that powder-smooth, loose skin. His touch was rewarded by a tiny sound from Frodo and the feel of vital flesh lurching upward into the commingled pressure of his and Frodo's hands.

"Are you sure this is what you like?" Frodo's whisper, still teasing, still arousing past measure. "Because I certainly like it... mmm..."

Frodo's hands abandoned his, yet Merry refused to let go, gripped even harder. Frodo whispered his name, reached back. His hands trailed over Merry's flanks, kneaded his fingers there, pulling Merry closer, if such was even possible. Already Merry was dreadfully hard, as much as the throbbing entity enclosed within his fingers, and as he moved his fingers a light touch ran along his own body, and for wild moments he wondered if they were indeed separate beings and not just one breath, one mind, one touch.

"Frodo?" Almost panicked.

"I'm here."

"But I can't... see you... this way..." Merry whispered into his nape, one hand clutching upward at his cousin's breast, feeling it along his own. He wanted sight, wanted to know he was still himself, that Frodo was still Frodo, that he was indeed here, now, in this place and space. He needed to not just feel, but witness what he was creating. "I want to see."

"Then look up, love."

Merry did, and wondered how he had not realised where they were standing. The mirror was no polished brass surface but an actual looking glass, six hands high, and it was as if a moving, shifting portrait played before him. Frodo's face, tender and tense and flushed, his hair wild about his cheeks and forehead, and from behind the curve of his neck Merry's own eyes shone like gems within spring wheat curls, all tangled with that darkling russet. It was an expression Merry had never before seen on his own face, let alone Frodo's; it was all at once softened and pulled tight and made strange. Firelight drew his eyes downward, gave witness to new-made commingling of cinnamon-dusted ivory and new-churned butter-gold. Fingers splayed across one risen nipple, muscled forearm laid across quivering, pale belly, broad, tanned hand still tightly encircling that same pale and flushed tautness that mere moments before he'd seen in Frodo's touch. Merry moved his hand, and the hand in the looking glass moved, and turgid flesh strained against his grip and within his sight.

Frodo smiled, and raised one hand to tangle in Merry's curls, and turned his head so that his lips brushed Merry's cheek. As if spellbound Merry watched his hands move, and watched Frodo's tongue dart to caress the corner of his own mouth. The other hand had snuck back between them--the touch that he had felt and been unable to classify earlier--and those clever fingers were mirroring every move Merry's hands made. Unbidden his hips rocked forth into that pressure that fisted itself about him, and Frodo made an urgent sound against Merry's jaw. One hand tightened against Merry's skull, and the other found a soft, responsive place that Merry hadn't been aware of having, took thorough advantage of it. Merry watched his own hand mirror the action, saw and felt the reaction that followed...

"Look up, Merry. Look at me."

Merry bit his lip, raised his eyes almost unwilling, and as their gazes met in the mirror Merry curled more tightly about his cousin and wondered how much longer he could stay on his feet and bear this.

He barely had time to wonder further, for Frodo twisted, soft and damp against him, and Merry found his hands free and groping empty air, the mirror no longer in his line of sight and his back against the smooth wood of the wall. Then Frodo was kissing him, but it wasn't like any kiss he'd ever felt--it was teasing nips, and breath, and the shape of his mouth traced with first fingers then lips and tongue tip. All the time Frodo's body was against his, pressing him into the wall, bare skin sliding against bare skin, his hands framing his face then trailing down his shoulders, his ribs, his hips. If the wall hadn't been behind him Merry was sure he would have fallen, and those hands tracing soft tickles up and down his sides were making him shiver.

"You like that, don't you?" Frodo whispered against his mouth. "You want some teasing, I'm thinking."

"N-no," Merry gasped out--he didn't want teasing, or he didn't think he did--all he knew was that he wanted to... wanted to...

Touch you... touch me... ohhh please... I want you so much I can't breathe... please...

"No?" Frodo asked against his throat--and how was it that he knew the exact spot upon which to lightly close his teeth, when Merry didn't even know that such could do the things to his heartbeat that it was doing? "Are you sure?"

Merry whimpered, pushing up against Frodo, his hands spasming on Frodo's ribs and his neck wilting to one side as that tongue delicately travelled up the cords of his neck. He wasn't sure of anything--other than he had no idea how he was still functioning.

Please...

Merry protested with a groan as Frodo pushed slightly back from him, but the groan truncated itself into a gasp as Frodo's hands traced lightly over his chest, and the gasp became a moan as Frodo's lips followed his fingers. Frodo slowly worked his way from breastbone to belly, suckling at spots so tender Merry felt he'd combust on the spot then backing away just before he did combust. He didn't think it was possible to hang this far over the edge and not topple over it. In some manner Frodo kept him just this side of release: first all that sensation, then nothing, punctuated only by Merry's whimpers of breath and Frodo's hands holding him quiet, head pillowed against his hip, then once again, still maddeningly and wonderfully slow. Frodo looked up at him, lips smoothing over every inch of skin possible save the several that Merry was desperate for him to.

"Do you know what you're doing to me?" Merry husked out, after the third time his knees nearly gave on him.

An upwards smile, as soft and deliberate as midnight. "I only hope that it's half of what you're doing to me."

But he wasn't doing anything--all he could do was bury his hands in Frodo's dark curls so tightly that his knuckles whitened, frantically try to keep upright, desperately attempt to direct that amazing mouth to cover him. "Frodo!"

"I'm here."

"Show me," he implored. "Please."

By the time Frodo did take him in his mouth, Merry wasn't sure if he cried out with relief or incredulity. What he was sure of was that warm envelope of friction and suction and breath was the most amazing sensation he'd ever had. Frodo's hands were firm against his hipbones, holding him there--a good thing, too--and the sensation of that head in his hands, a gentle back-and-forth motion that echoed the agile tongue curling around him, moved in rhythm with the small whimpers escaping him...

Suddenly it stopped, and Merry let out another groan. Before he could venture another protest Frodo was up against him, nose to nose and belly to belly, and breathing his name like an invocation through half-parted lips.

"Look at me, Merry," was the breath into his mouth, against his cheeks. "Look at me."

Merry couldn't not look at him, those rainwater eyes gone all clouded and sounding his own, as deeply disorienting as echoes underwater. And the feel of that sweat-slicked, fire-kissed body up against his, hard and hot and no longer slow, no longer teasing. And the sound of his own voice, lost beneath the sudden fierceness of Frodo's cries as Frodo thrust up against him, as Frodo reached down and gripped his thigh, pulled it upward. The feel of his leg curling about bare hip and haunch; the new, more intense friction it gave made Merry writhe against the wall, beg for more, and even more, and faster.

"Ohplease..." he panted into Frodo's open mouth. "N--now... don't... don'don'stop..."

Unable to look away, either of them, eyes meeting eyes. Pulling Frodo so close that he almost had no room to thrust, Merry's leg nevertheless wrapping tighter, unable to release. His back against the wall, and his teeth gritted over his tongue, and his grip so tight in Frodo's hair that his fingers were numb. Frodo's gaze flickering within his with something akin to pain--suddenly that gaze dropped and Frodo rammed him into the wall, hard, his voice breaking into a wail against Merry's shoulder.

Warmth spilling against his belly, and that cry ringing about him, and suddenly Frodo's eyes were fastening to his once more, frighteningly intense. An insistent hand wrestled itself between them, and fingers settled firm; Frodo lurched upon him, jerked his hand hard once, then twice. Merry arched back as lightning flared behind his eyes and down through his chest, as he writhed, cried out, and came.

He was falling, falling... no, Frodo was catching him, pulling him down to the floor, rolling atop him and onto the soft rug that was splayed out before the wood stove. They sprawled, tangled there for a seeming eternity, sharing gasping breaths, damp and gleaming in the half-light, too warm to lie together but too unwilling to separate.

Slowly Merry became aware of fingers tracing a gentle, meandering trace along his sternum, and lips against his temple, breath in his hair. Frodo kept murmuring his name as if tasting it only to then share it with Merry's own skin. Merry nuzzled closer with a small, contented sound. He didn't think anything could possibly be better than first realising that Frodo wanted him, nothing better than that first kiss, that first coupling. Certainly he'd never dreamed that just lying here, made sated and drained and knowing that he had done same to Frodo, could compare.

But it did. And the next moment shook him even harder.

"You're beautiful," Frodo whispered into his hair. "My lovely Merry."

Hot tears sprang to his eyes, leaked out and down his temples. Frodo didn't say anything, but his lips parted, tongue tip catching the damp and caressing Merry's cheekbone. It had rather the opposite effect than Frodo was no doubt intending; more tears starting leaking, and faster, and a small sob hiccupped at Merry's chest.

"Here, now," Frodo said, cuddling closer. "You're quite aware of how gorgeous you are, you cunning thing."

"I didn't know you thought I was," he choked out.

In answer Frodo tightened his grip harshly--sweet pain, and Merry dove into it like water. Frodo rolled further atop him, took Merry's face in his hands, and kissed him, hard. Breath stolen, then given, then withdrawn and those cobalt eyes glinting almost dauntingly, and kiss-stung lips shaping his name again even as Frodo's grip relaxed.

"Merry," Frodo told him, fiercely adamant, still stroking his hair, "I do. Oh, I do."

The tender touches gentled him, the ardent reassurance gave surety. Merry lay content, eyes half-lidded as his cousin caressed him, feeling much as a cat must feel when settled before the fire in a favourite lap.

Then, rather loudly, his stomach growled.

Frodo giggled. Merry gave him an injured look--certainly such an important moment was not to be spoiled by his impatient appetite or Frodo's sly and often irreverent sense of humour. Worse luck, Frodo seemed to read his indignation for exactly what it was, and chuckled again.

"Yes, I love you and yes, I will feed you and yes, we will no doubt take the opportunity to laugh our heads off when we're having a tumble, o serious Meriadoc." Frodo had sobered, but the light in his eyes and the dimple in one cheek gave away his true intent. "You know," he posed, quite thoughtfully, "this could prove a handicap, this tendency for your appetites to wage war so rampantly."

"Frodo..."

"Several avenues of satiation. Hm. Quite the choice, that." The dark head cocked, obviously considering. "Which will it be? Dinner?" Frodo's voice turned into a warming purr and he ran his tongue along Merry's ear, "or dessert?"

"You do not," Merry protested breathlessly, "play fair."

"I don't?" Frodo hummed in his ear. "You were the one who didn't want to play by the rules, love."

Merry's stomach growled again. Much louder.

Frodo laughed and sprang up. He looked tousled and tangled, his skin gleaming like a harvest moon. Merry's heart flipped over in his breast, twisted tight. He spoke around it.

"You're beautiful. You are."

The teasing grin turned solemn, soft, and the dark brows twisted with sudden emotion. "Come on, Merry-love," Frodo said, very quietly. "Let's get you fed."

* * * * * *

Accompanied by Bilbo's snoring which carried even into the kitchen, the two lads raided the pantries with remarkably silent effectiveness. They brought a literal feast back to the study; a large tray laden with grapes and goat's cheese, walnuts, sliced ham and apples, with two small crocks of honey and butter to smooth over bread that Frodo had baked fresh the previous day.

They ate before the fire. Frodo was wearing a robe that had once been his father's and was thusly too big, and Merry was wearing Frodo's robe which was slightly too small, but he would have never suggested Frodo trade--no, not for the world. They set the food tray down on the rug, propping upon cushions cadged from several rooms. Merry snuggled back against his cousin, giggling as Frodo tore into a hunk of bread, dusting crumbs over him, and proceeded to feed him grapes five at a time. Sometimes the method of feeding was very orthodox, most times it was not, and Merry was all but collapsing with fits of giggles when Frodo started dipping his bread in the honey pot and dabbling Merry's nose with it.

"Mother would kill you if we were home, getting crumbs in the honey jar," Merry managed between chuckles, trying unsuccessfully to dab the sticky stuff from his nose.

"Ah, but I'm home here, my lad," Frodo said pointedly, "and this is my very own pot, given to me by Marigold Gamgee for her birthday."

The underlying and somewhat-disturbing message of this was forgotten as Frodo leaned over and licked the honey from Merry's nose. Frodo then grinned and dabbled a bit on Merry's mouth, bending over to clean up this mess as well. For long seconds Merry wasn't sure which was sweeter, Frodo's mouth or the honey, decided it was a draw as Frodo ran his tongue over his upper lip, smearing then suckling away the stickiness.

Then he leaned back, took a bite of his bread and gave a meaningful, teasing glance toward his cousin. Merry rolled over.

"More," he stated.

"More honey?" Frodo asked, all innocence.

Enough was enough. Merry pulled himself upright. "Maybe I should just cover you with honey," Merry said slyly, wriggling himself into Frodo's lap and pushing his robe away from his chest.

"And lick me clean?" Frodo said, sucking a droplet of honey from his thumb without once taking his eyes from Merry's. Merry squirmed.

"Reciprocity," Merry informed him, taking that thumb from Frodo's lips and taking it into his own. Frodo drew in a staggered breath.

"Not," he said firmly, pulling his hand from Merry's lips, "until you've eaten some more. And until I do. I have a feeling, the way you're going, that we'll need every bit of strength to last the night and still get up in the morning to see to the Hall."

Merry sat back. He felt as though Frodo had given him a mild slap.

"What is it, love?" Frodo reached out, traced the back of his hand along Merry's cheek.

"Frodo, I can't go back. Not now."

Frodo's eyes slid up beneath his brows, grave and gentle. "Yes, you can."

"Frodo..."

"You can."

That underlying reality rose up again--that Frodo no longer considered Buckland home, had in fact been glad to leave, and what all of that meant when measured against what had happened just this night.

"Not without you," Merry said passionately.

Those blue eyes were still grave upon him, still studying him. "What," Frodo said finally, "do you want, Merry?"

"What do you think?" he shot back. "I want to be with you! Don't you..." he swallowed, then determinedly continued, "I thought, after... well... I thought you would want to be with me, as well."

"Oh, my dearest." Flecks of light, sparking pain in the storm of those eyes. "I do."

"Then why do you want to send me away?"

Hands framed his face, gripped tightly. "You're not listening. I only said that you have to see to the Hall. You have to let them know you're safe, and here."

"Oh." The huge knot of acidic worry that had began burning in his chest eased somewhat.

"You're old enough to take a playmate, then you also have to take the consequences of it as well," Frodo continued softly, and there was anger tracing beneath his words, barbed and quick. "First, don't ever--ever!--think that I took this lightly, or meant to just discard you after. Do you really think that I would do that? That I would let you go after I was finally able to take hold of you?"

Merry stared at his cousin, adrift on what he was hearing, lowered his eyes. "I... It's just..." he swallowed hard. "Frodo, you've let me go so many times before."

"I had to, Merry. You were a child, and I wasn't. It wasn't our time. But," Frodo's fingers were stern, unyielding, pulling his gaze up to meet his once again, "now, it is. Your time's caught mine up, and the waiting is done. Yes?"

Nodding, Merry swallowed again. Frodo's face softened, and he kissed his cheek.

"You have to send a message to the Hall tomorrow. You have to let them know you're here, and safe. And that, if you like, you will be staying for a while. Bilbo's always happy to have you here; he's always grousing that you don't get to stay enough."

"Mum doesn't like me to be here."

"Your mum will just have to learn to accept what is," his cousin retorted hotly, and the way his cheeks were flaring into colour Merry knew that Frodo was remembering his own tangles with Esmeralda's rather stiff takes on reality.

And, somehow, the words gave Merry a delicious sense of freedom. He had spent the past year moping, cooped up in Buckland and dutifully trying to be what everyone else wanted him to be. Yet he was old enough to take a lover, and old enough to make a choice as to where, and how...

"The Hall can send clothes for you, and you can stay until you're sick of me. But Merry," Frodo's hands tightened on his skull again. "You will have to go back. Eventually. You said it yourself. Buckland is home. It's not my home and it never has been, but it is yours. You're the son of the Hall Master, and you know it. Moreso, you want it."

"No. I don't. I don't want it anymore."

"And when the time comes, you'll go back, and we'll still be together," Frodo continued inexorably. "No matter where we are." Frodo released him, sat back. "I won't run away from you, I won't shut any doors. The last door has been opened, love, and there are no more to close.

"It's no ending, Merry. For the first time, it's just beginning."

* * * * * *

 

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