West of the Moon

A Tolkien Fanfiction Archive

 

 

Kindred Spirits
Merry doesn't like to share.
Author: Elanor Gardner
Rating: R

 

Merry Brandybuck desperately wanted to be Pearl Took. 

Not all of the time, of course -- he shuddered in disgust at that thought -- just right at this particular moment.

Because right at this particular moment, Pearl was pressed -- actually, was grinding herself far too enthusiastically -- against Frodo Baggins, shoulder to knee.

They were supposed to be dancing.  Merry knew what dancing was.  Frodo had taught him to dance.  And what Pearl and Frodo were doing was not dancing.

Watching them from the shadow of a post near the dance floor, Merry fumed -- clenching his fists and shifting uncomfortably.  Pearl was wearing that emerald green velvet bodice of hers laced tightly enough to make her look as if she had a figure, which she did not.  And she had that shiny striped blouse pulled about as low as decorum would allow, shoving what little she did have to offer right into Frodo's face.

To give Frodo credit, he appeared to be laughing delightedly at her -- no one would know, as Merry did, that Frodo was likely gritting his teeth at Pearl's behaviour and working hard to get them away from the wall and back onto the dance floor.  Merry worried briefly that his mother or one of the aunts was going to notice and swoop down on both of them, embarrassing not only Pearl, who certainly deserved it, but Frodo as well. 

Merry carefully scanned the clusters of relatives and friends around the various food tables and finally spotted his mother.  Esmeralda Brandybuck was quite preoccupied with admonishing one of the cooks, in a very dignified way of course, about the spiced cider punch on the tween table.  Merry grimaced.  The Brandy Hall tweens had once again managed to douse the Yule cider with something even more potent and some of them were already quite inebriated, including -- Merry suspected -- Pearl Took.  Glancing back at the dance floor, he was relieved to see that Frodo had somehow managed to whirl his indecorous partner back onto the dance floor.

Merry took a deep shaky breath then looked around for his Aunt Eglantine, wondering how Pearl was getting away with such behaviour.  His aunt would never have let Pearl out of their rooms dressed like that.  Then he remembered -- his Uncle Paladin had taken ill not long after they arrived.  Aunt Eglantine was likely in their rooms nursing him.  He wondered briefly if Pearl was the cause of her his Uncle's bouts of trouble with his gut.  Merry could believe it since, this particular Yuletide, Pearl had certainly managed to spoil Merry's appetite completely.  He scowled at her as she whirled past his hiding place.  She didn't see him, and neither did Frodo, but Merry scowled anyway, simply because -- somehow -- it made him feel better.  Unable to watch them any longer, he turned his back on the dance floor and casually surveyed the rest of the hall.

"--quite well actually.  He is translating a very long work at the moment which we are piecing together from a couple of sources.  We shall have quite a tale, I think, when we finish." It was his cousin Bilbo Baggins' voice, somewhere to his right. 

Merry sought out Bilbo in the group standing near the dessert table, spotting Bilbo's marvellous waistcoat of bright blue silk easily through the dull colours surrounding him.  Merry's fingers strayed across the brocaded silk of his own gold waistcoat and he grinned.  Quite aware that Bilbo was discussing Frodo, Merry kept one ear on the conversation behind him and turned back to watch the dance floor, tracking Frodo and Pearl as they whirled through the crowd.  Merry had already noticed that Frodo was wearing something dull, as usual, although the colour was good with his hair and skin.  This time it was a perfectly cut grey jacket with midnight blue pinstripes -- the blue so dark it was almost black, but the candlelight accented the blue sheen of the velvet trousers and waistcoat...and the blue of Frodo's eyes. 

"--Well, no.  I don't think it's a lass, but he does seem quite content, doesn't he?  Ask him yourself if you've a mind to." Bilbo's voice carried easily to Merry's ears, even over the music.  "I don't press him on matters of that sort, as long as he is happy."

"First you are late arriving, then the boy is put out when you even hint at staying later than usual.  Don't wave your hands at me Bilbo -- I saw his face.  Hmpf!  Something in that backwater hole of yours has turned his head.  Never seen the lad so eager to get back to Bag End." That was his Grandfather Rorimac's gruff voice.   

Merry sidestepped a bit closer, trying to spot that white head near Bilbo.  The group was gathered around Merry's grandfather, Rorimac Brandybuck, who was seated next to a table laden with sweets of every conceivable sort. 

"No more so now that before, I think," came Bilbo's mirth-tinged voice.

Merry heard his Uncle Merimac laugh in that familiar deep throaty tone and spotted him standing beside Bilbo.  "Well, yes, but I have never seen translations and mouldy old papers make Frodo so -- light-hearted."  His uncle's eyes flicked toward the dance floor.  "Come on, old son, something is up.  He is about the most content I have ever seen him.  He seems to have settled into his own skin somehow."

"Well, I say it is a change for the better." Merry recognized his Aunt Asphodel's voice.  "I was talking to Rosa about it, and she agrees that Frodo seems quite different -- more settled and mature.  Whatever you might think, Bilbo, we think your lad might be thinking of settling down with some sweetheart in Hobbiton--"

Merry turned completely around at that, focused intently on the conversation.

"Bah.  Bilbo has ruined the lad!  If he has a sweetheart, he is likely boring her to tears with those dusty old histories and ponderous verse." Merry recognized his father's voice easily and grimaced.  It was clear that Saradoc Brandybuck had already had a bit to drink, but then he always did at Yule, just as he always argued with Bilbo about something or other.

"Ruined the lad, my--" Bilbo glanced at the ladies around him and swallowed the expletive that Merry knew was on the tip of his tongue.  "Unlike some hobbits I know who have no idea about anything beyond their own fields, at least my lad has a balanced view of things" Bilbo said in a tone that Merry thought might slice through steel, were it not for the smile on the older hobbit's face.  "Frodo can read in three languages not his own, discuss the pros and cons of border patrols with the Mayor, dance the reel after drinking you under the table, and still beat some of your biggest lads at harvest time!" 

There were murmurs of agreement from the group and, for a moment, Merry thought his father's reddened face might be a harbinger of further argument, but Saradoc held his glass up briefly and drained it quickly, as if conceding the point.

Bilbo carried on, his hands moving expressively as his spoke.  "As for sweethearts, I myself say we should leave off burdening our tweens so soon with the duties and obligations of age.  Just when they begin to understand the vast and wonderful choices life has to offer," Bilbo flung his arms wide, embracing the whole of the world beyond the hall, "we snatch it all away and offer them one choice only.  It's a wonder there is any spirit or sense of adventure left in the lot of them."  Bilbo glanced toward the dance floor and Merry watched as the wrinkled face softened, "No, our Frodo will not settle for anything, I think."

Merry watched as his Aunt Asphodel's mouth took on that pinched look that signalled her disapproval, while his Uncle Merimac grinned and raised his glass in a sign of agreement.  Then Merry suddenly realized that his cousin Bilbo was looking past everyone else right at him -- a knowing expression in his eyes.   Merry felt his face grow hot and quickly glanced away.     

Sometimes it seemed that his cousin Bilbo could see through walls and read minds.  It was all well and good for Frodo to have someone like Bilbo to stand up for him, but no one was around to defend Merry.  His mother was on a single-minded quest to make him over into the Master of Brandy Hall before he had a chance to even sample any of those vast and wonderful choices Bilbo had been talking about.  If his mother had her way, Merry would never get that chance. 

As someone pressed Bilbo for his explanation of the more frequent sightings of elves crossing the Shire, Merry jerked at a loose thread on one of his waistcoat buttons, wondering if Frodo would just follow Bilbo off to see those very elves someday.  Or if Frodo really would settle down in Hobbiton with some lass -- if the aunts were right and he already had a sweetheart.  Flicking a glance at the dance floor and catching a quick glimpse of whirling emerald green and midnight blue, Merry thought angrily that he certainly wouldn't know.  The Bagginses had arrived so late last night that they had barely had time for a late supper and drinks in the parlour with the family before begging exhaustion and heading to their rooms.  And Merry, sternly ordered by his mother to act the gracious host until every guest had departed for bed, had finally escaped, desperately hoping to find Frodo still awake, perhaps sitting in his window or lying on the roof gazing at the stars as he had in the old days.  But instead he found that Frodo had given his bedroom to an unexpected Took visitor and was bunking on a couch in Bilbo's room.  Frodo had been asleep -- like some staid old gaffer!

And today Bilbo and Frodo had almost slept through second breakfast before getting up and proceeding to visit with nearly everyone in the Hall.  Frodo had even had tea with the aunts!  And at lunch Frodo had somehow managed to collect an entourage of faunts and teenies -- including that wretched Pippin Took -- a group which insisted on following Frodo around for the better part of the afternoon, begging him to tell them stories -- which he finally did.  Of course Frodo did tell them almost as well as Bilbo, but still, they were just a bunch of babies!

On top of all that, Merry knew that Frodo had been struggling all day to keep Pearl at a safe distance.  Frodo hadn't said anything, but Merry suspected that his Uncle Merimac had tipped Frodo off that Pearl was up to no good.  And Merry knew that Frodo was not interested in falling into that particular spider's web.  Luckily, after being forced to hold the Burrows twins while Frodo told a story, Pearl had stalked off, undoubtedly hoping to corner Frodo at tonight's festivities and drag him off to her lair. 

Merry frowned darkly, turning back to the dance floor to keep his eye on his poisonous Took cousin's machinations and realized that Pearl had been abandoned.  She was standing by the tweener table looking absolutely malevolent, watching the barrel of spiced cider being carted off by the kitchen lads.  And Frodo was heading for the adults at a fast clip.  Merry straightened alertly and followed his cousin's progress, his frown melting into a pleased smirk.

"Hoy! Well, speak of the young scamp and he comes to pay a call." Merry heard his father's voice raised above the rest as Frodo joined the crowd by the sweets table. 

Merry watched as his Uncle Merimac turned and started to ruffle Frodo's hair, as he had always done since Merry could remember.  But something stopped him, and the aborted motion ended with his uncle's hand on Frodo's shoulder.

"You cut a fine figure on the dance floor I must say," Merimac said quickly.

Frodo bowed with a flourish, kissing Aunt Asphodel's hand and smiling broadly up at Merimac.  "Thank you, kind sir!"

Merry heard his aunt laugh like a lass.  It was a noise that had not come out of Aunt Asphodel in quite a long time.

"It is hard to believe that you will be of age next year.  I remember when you were not inclined to dance with the lasses nor hobnob with the old fogies," Merimac went on, accompanied by an indignant noise from Bilbo.  "You have certainly turned into quite the gentlehobbit, Frodo."

"And I remember when you did not consider yourself an old fogey and only used that term behind their backs," Frodo retorted.  "How long ago was it, Old Uncle, that you were teaching me how best to spike the cider?"

Grandfather Rorimac snorted with laughter at that one, and then everyone joined in, including Merimac. 

"My, my, the young pup has teeth and uses em, Bilbo.  Good job!" his grandfather proclaimed loudly.

Bilbo clapped Frodo on the back, "None of my doing.  He grew those himself."

Merry grinned.  He could remember a time when Frodo would do almost anything to get out of social occasions like this.  Now he had everyone in the room eating out of his hand, including the aunts.  But none of this surprised Merry.  He had always known Frodo was special.  Even before  Bilbo had recognized it, and carted Frodo off to Bag End for good, Merry had known that Frodo was about the best hobbit in the Shire, and certainly the very best cousin a young hobbitlad could have. 

Frodo had always made Merry feel extraordinary, as if Merry was the centre of the world.  And Frodo had taught him almost everything he knew - everything important anyway -- how to swim, how to catch frogs, how to fight, how to sling stones, how to steal the very best mushrooms, how to play the best pranks, how to sneak into the pantry and -- how to dance. 

Merry closed his eyes at that memory -- dancing.  It had been only last Yule.  Here in this very hall.  Frodo had patiently taught him the secrets to some of the more intricate adult steps, how not to tread on his partner during the tweener dances, and what it felt like to soar around the room as if you had wings.  Merry could still recall how the muscles of Frodo's back had rippled and bunched beneath his damp palms, how those dark silky curls had smelled of juniper and spice, and how sweet moist puffs of breath from Frodo's mouth had brushed his face as they moved.  But even then, he hadn't realized why it made him feel restless and strange -- why it made him ache.  

It was only much later, long after Frodo and Bilbo had departed, that Merry had understood -- after he had awakened one bright morning, still painfully aroused despite sticky sheets, and heard the echo of Frodo's name still ringing in the room.  Only then had Merry realized whose mouth caressed him in his dreams -- whose imagined touch stroked him awake.

Certainly Merry had done his share of clumsy kissing and groping with lasses and lads -- and gotten quite good at the kissing.  But he had never really attempted too much beyond that.  In his heated fantasies, Frodo was the one to show him how it was done, just as Frodo had taught him anything else of importance.  And he knew that Frodo was not inexperienced, although Frodo's behaviour while at the Hall was circumspect enough to satisfy even the fussiest of the aunts.  Merry's cousin Reginard had told Merry once, under the influence of a bit too much of the latest vintage, that Frodo was a talented and generous bed mate when he did choose to share his favours with someone.  And Merry had spent every day since last year's Yule dance trying to work up his courage to approach Frodo about it.  But somehow, between Frodo's frequent hikes with Bilbo or the dratted gardener's son and then the spring floods in Hobbiton and harvest problems at the Hall, Merry had barely managed to see Frodo long enough to exchange two words, much less -- well, really talk to him. 

"The time for Forfeits has come!"  Merry jumped as his mother's voice rang out authoritatively behind him. He turned to find a huge wine-coloured tarp fringed in gold and heaped with trinkets and toys being dragged ceremoniously to the middle of the dance floor and huge throne-like chairs at the back of the dais being pushed forward.  Titters of laughter and amused muttering reminded him that no one had forgotten what his father, as the Master of Forfeits, had required his cousin Seredic Brandybuck to do to get back his wife Hilda's hideous cloak last year.  Forfeits were great fun, especially if everyone was slightly tipsy. 

Frodo was nowhere to be seen when Merry turned back.  Everyone, including the youngsters, had circled in quickly around the pile of gifts, most holding a beribboned piece of kindling.  Merry looked around quickly, hoping that Frodo hadn't taken the opportunity to escape, yet again, from Pearl. 

"Found you!"  Came a familiar voice beside him.  Pippin Took's green eyes sparkled up at him.  He was surprised to find them nearly at his shoulder.  Pippin was getting taller.  "I've been practicing, you know!"

"Practicing what, Squeak?"

The bright face dimmed, but only for a moment.  "My singing, of course.  Uncle Sara always makes me sing for my forfeit, Merry -- you know that! 

"Indeed," Merry responded distractedly.

"Who're you looking for?"  Pippin craned his neck to follow Merry's gaze and someone jostled into them from behind, nearly shoving Merry's face into Pippin's copper-coloured curls.  Merry snorted and stood firm as the crowd on the other side of the tarp parted and he spotted his Grandfather Rorimac's white head clearly, then Frodo's unmistakable form beside the eldest Brandybuck.  It appeared that Frodo was attempting to keep Pearl at bay by helping Grandfather Rorimac to his place of honour at the Forfeits.  A flash of emerald green caught Merry's eye and he spotted Pearl lurking not far away from Frodo. Sadly, not much would stop Pearl once she had a bit too much of the cider in her.

Merry watched as his mother and father donned their garishly feathered and hooded capes and settled on their ceremonial 'thrones', draped with evergreen boughs and decorated with gold braid and velvet.  He could tell that his father was quite well into his cups and his mother would likely have to watch that the Forfeits did not get entirely too bawdy. 

Glancing back across the floor, Merry saw his Grandfather Rorimac smile delightedly as Frodo hunkered down beside him.  Even Merry could tell from where he stood that the two were so deep in conversation that they were oblivious to everything else, including the fact that Pearl was standing nearby -- glaring first at Frodo then at the pile of offered forfeits.  Knowing Pearl, she was scheming some way to get Frodo off to herself somehow -- even if it meant disrupting the ceremony. 

Merry eyed the pile thoughtfully.  Frodo was so very predictable -- always offering up the same book of verse and then reciting a different poem from it in exchange each time.  If he could somehow get to Frodo's forfeit first and keep it out of the ceremony entirely, he might frustrate any designs that Pearl had on Frodo's forfeit.  If not, at least he would be in a position to attempt to foil her plans, whatever they might be. 

His mind made up, Merry pushed past Pippin and made his way across the decorated tarp toward the dais, vaguely aware of a loud "Oy!" of annoyance from his teenaged cousin.

"Well, Meriadoc, what's this about?"  His mother leaned over and asked in a near whisper, smiling broadly for the sake of the surrounding crowd of relatives. 

"I want to help -- if I may?" 

He saw her eyes widen perceptibly, but she kept smiling.  Merry grimaced, remembering his very stormy -- and public -- refusal to participate in the ceremony a few years back, proclaiming rather loudly that it was a job for a fauntling.  That had resulted in a few fortnights of punishment and left him with a vague sense of unease about the whole event.

"Taking interest in your responsibilities as future Master of the Forfeits again, eh son?"  His father's voice was overly loud.

Merry winced inside, realizing that he was now irretrievably committed to this role for future Forfeits, but managed to smile just exactly like his mother and respond in a softer voice, "Precisely."  He turned to his mother.  "I can help Ruby and Fin, as I did when I was young."

As he watched the look on his mother's face soften a trifle, Merry remembered how happy he had been when he was much younger, pawing through the pile and selecting the most unusual forfeit he could find.  He had felt so important presenting the forfeits very solemnly to Ruby, then proudly carrying the Yule branches received in exchange to the ceremonial cart for Fin to pull, at the end of the Forfeits, out to the already built bonfire. 

"Of course," Esmeralda waved toward the pile of gifts, but Merry could still see the wariness in her eyes.  He could only hope that somehow he could avoid attracting his mother's ire tonight, whatever might happen. 

Bowing deeply to his mother and then to his father in respect, Merry bent and kissed Ruby's hand, just as he had seen Frodo do earlier with Aunt Asphodel.  Ruby's familiar features wrinkled in a smile as she curtsied to him and then giggled like a girl.  Merry was grinning in spite of himself as he strode to the pile of gifts.

"Shall we recite the verse little ones?" Came his mother's clear voice from behind him, directed to the youngsters in the crowd.  "With me now -- On this--" 

"-- very darkest day;"   Young voices quavered up from the crowd with the old and well-remembered verse.

"When cold shadows all have sway;
We must hold them all at bay;
And a forfeit we must pay.

Invariably, every year, the faunts got louder and louder as they went, practically shouting the last few lines, to the delight and dismay of the adults. 

"For the sunlight to return;
All forfeits must then burn;
Or each must take his turn;
An exchange to justly earn.
"

Merry quickly surveyed the offerings for this year -- the usual mixture of sacrifice and silliness.  He wondered at what point the ritual had become a game as he scanned the pile, desperately looking for Frodo's forfeit.  Amidst all the frippery and foolery, he worried that it would be hard to spot the sombre leather-clad volume which Frodo offered up and retrieved every year without fail.  Aware of the expectant pause in the proceedings and the muttering around him, he grabbed the nearest forfeit, a silky scarf of some kind, and went quickly to hand it to Ruby before hurrying back to his search.

It was risky, but he knew he could manage it.  He just needed to get Frodo through his usual solemn recitation for his forfeit, then rush him off under some pretext of illness from overindulging in the punch -- or something.  Get him away from here -- have him all to himself for the first time in months, and, as a bonus, grateful for the rescue from Pearl's conniving as well.

"Well, well.  What a pretty piece indeed -- a lovely silk scarf offered up tonight.  Some lovely lass will be wanting this, or I'll miss my guess," Merry dimly heard his father begin his spiel.  "We must assume that the lass in question has eyes to match this, eh?" 

There was a giggle from the crowd, one of the Tooks, Merry guessed, since the scarf had been shot through with green and gold.  He was busy sifting through the pile and his heart hammered quickly when he spied the familiar slim wine-coloured volume buried beneath Aunt Asphodel's silly hat.  He tugged it loose just as Pearl's voice rang out clearly.

"A gift to me from my cousin.  Please, Master of the Forfeits, I beg that he make an exchange for its return," she followed the ritual wording to the letter.

Merry spun around in time to see Frodo's head lift and a brief look of consternation cross his cousin's face.  He felt a bolt of fury -- at himself for being clumsy enough to select Pearl's forfeit in his rush, and at Pearl, simply for existing at all.

"Indeed?  Well, what cousin would that be, Miss Took?  For you certainly have them aplenty," his father responded.  There were a few giggles at that.

"Frodo Baggins, Master."

The giggling stopped.  Apparently Pearl's obsession had not escaped notice.  Merry knew that his mother would attempt to head off whatever Pearl had planned and watched as she leaned over and whispered something to his father, who frowned in response.

"Well, let me think of a likely forfeit for my dear cousin," Saradoc said slowly.

The titters in the crowd increased, and Pearl preened, her head held high and her hands clasped behind her, probably thinking she was showing off her assets in the best light by shoving them forward that way.  Merry groaned inwardly.  When a lass claimed this privilege, the usual forfeit was a kiss, and it was clear that his father was, in his tipsy state, fumbling to find some alternative and failing miserably.  Merry watched with dismay as Frodo, smiling tightly, got to his feet -- obviously he was planning to handle the whole thing with his usual grace.  Grandfather Rorimac, on the other hand, was glowering in obvious displeasure at having his conversation disrupted.

"I...I'm afraid my cousin is forgetful, Master."  Merry clutched Frodo's book in his hand and walked toward the dais wearing a confused expression.  "You see, I gave her that scarf," Merry lied outright, then turned to give Pearl his best innocent look.

Pearl's beatific smirk was replaced almost instantly with a stormy frown when she realized who had spoken.  There was absolutely no love lost between the two cousins since Merry had told his mother about Pearl's continued unwelcome attentions toward one of the Brandy Hall kitchen lads, and Pearl glared daggers at him now.  He was vaguely aware, in point of fact, that everyone's eyes were on him at this moment.

"Remember, dearest cousin?  It was my birthday this year.  I thought it matched your lovely bodice perfectly."  Merry was proud that his voice at least sounded calm and assured. 

Merry heard his father chuckle.  "Well, how like a lass to forget which of her many suitors gave her a lovely token!"  The tension eased as the crowd laughed in response.  "It appears that my son will pay your forfeit gladly, Pearl Took.  It pleases me, as Master this night, for you to make the exchange, Meriadoc Brandybuck."  The ritual words were spoken.  "A kiss for the lady."

Pearl stood there glowering for only a moment, and then a venomous smile replaced the frown.  Feeling rather vindicated as he smiled back at her, Merry strode up to take the scarf from his father's outstretched hand.  But when he turned, he found Pearl right on top of him.  He realized, too late, that both his hands were full as she grabbed his face and kissed him fiercely on the lips, her fingernails digging mercilessly into his neck.  He heard a gasp of dismay from somewhere and then only had a moment to think what a terrible kisser she was.  Just as suddenly, she was biting his lip, hard, and when he pulled away with a yelp, something cracked hard against his jaw. 

When he could see again through the stars, he realized that he was on his hands and knees staring at the wine-coloured floor, bleeding like a stuck pig.  He started to raise his hand to his mouth, which hurt like blazes, and saw that he still held Pearl's silk scarf in one hand and Frodo's book in the other.  What had Pearl hit him with?  He shook his head to clear it only to see droplets of blood spray onto his white sleeve and onto midnight-blue velvet -- or rather a knee clad in midnight-blue velvet.  He blinked at the knee, trying hard to remember where he had seen it before. 

"Whoa there.  Bad idea.  Take it from one who knows.  Don't shake your head again."  Merry felt strong hands grip his upper arms and ease him back into a sitting position.  He looked up to find Frodo gazing back at him in concern and saw that he was sitting on the floor just below the dais with Frodo kneeling beside him.  Ruby and Fin were hovering nervously behind Frodo, and Merry cringed when he glanced up and saw his mother standing above him.  He closed his eyes dizzily and heard cousin Bilbo's voice, soothing and cajoling -- apparently trying to calm everyone down and coax them away from where they might trample the pile of forfeits.  Merry chanced a quick glance up at his mother's face again and winced at her scowl, but it seemed to be directed at someone besides him this time.  Following her gaze, he managed to catch a blurry glimpse of his Uncle Merimac holding Pearl's elbow, rushing her off through the crowd. 

"Here, nothing for it but to put the dratted thing to good use."  Frodo's hand was on Merry's, guiding his fingers up to his own mouth.  Before Merry realized what was happening, Pearl's lovely silk scarf was being pressed gently, but firmly, against his bleeding lip. 

"Owwwww!" he protested.

"Sorry, love, but you are bleeding all over your lovely waistcoat and my breeches," Frodo's voice sounded a bit strained.  "Does it hurt terribly?"

Merry looked up again to find Frodo's face tight with worry above him.  Starting to shake his head, Merry felt a stab of pain then realized his mistake.  "Uh uh," he grunted into the silk.

Frodo smiled.  "Well, whether that was yes or no, the best thing would be to get some ice on it," Frodo looked up at Esmeralda.  "And perhaps something for the pain, if you approve of us taking our leave from the rest of the festivities tonight, Aunt Esme?" 

Esmeralda's response was calm, but Merry knew the precise look his mother had on her face from the tone of her voice.  "Of course.  Just ask for Izzy in the kitchens.  She has the keys to the herbal."

"I remember dear Izzy very well," Frodo responded with a fond smile.  He gestured toward the pile of gifts.  "My forfeit is --" 

Somehow Merry managed to shakily lift Frodo's book into view.  Frodo frowned quizzically at Merry before he reached out to grasp the book.  "My forfeit is here, so we only need worry about Merry's forfeit at this point."

"I know what Merry offered this year.  And I am sure the Master will agree that both of your forfeits are paid in full."  Esmeralda's voice was tinged with annoyance, but at least this time Merry was fairly certain it was not aimed at him.

Frodo nodded and slipped the slender volume into his jacket pocket and looked up at Saradoc on the dais.  "Please, Master of the Forfeits, I beg that you accept these exchanges in return for our forfeits," he said in a firm voice, loud enough for the room to hear. 

"It pleases me, as Master this night, for you to make these exchanges, Meriadoc Brandybuck and Frodo Baggins," Saradoc responded ritually, but Merry could hear the concern in his voice.  Merry attempted to look up, if only to reassure his father that he was all right, but everything above his mother's face was a blur.

Merry winced as Esmeralda leaned over to pick up the beribboned piece of kindling Pearl had apparently used to hit him.  Frodo handed over his piece as well, and Esmeralda gave both to Fin with a bow of her head, indicating that they were exchanged in full.  The old servitor trundled off to place the first two pieces of kindling for the Yule bonfire in the waiting cart with as much dignity as the situation allowed.

"Enough embarrassment from this, I would say, to pay many forfeits," Esmeralda whispered.  "You get into bed now, Meriadoc Brandybuck.  You will be nursing a sore head in the morn, I expect.  Do what your cousin tells you and you may escape without being much the worse for wear."

Merry blinked up at her, then nodded obediently as Frodo levered him onto his feet.  The floor dipped alarmingly, but Frodo slid his arm underneath both of Merry's to steady him, holding Merry's wrist firmly.

"Go find Peregrin's forfeit, Ruby.  It is that absolutely horrid scarf that he will not be parted from.  We need a song, I think," Esmeralda whispered as Frodo manoeuvred them carefully away from the dais. 

Merry was watching his feet through half-closed eyes, still waiting for his head to stop ringing.  He was only vaguely aware of the crowd parting around them, trusting Frodo to lead them right. 

"He'll be fine.  We're going to put some ice on it and get him to bed.  Go on and enjoy," Merry heard Frodo say to someone as they passed.  "I've got him."   

Merry felt a warm tingle in his belly at the protective tone in Frodo's voice.

"Someone should give that chit back as good as she gave.  She has been asking for it for months now.  That'd stop this nonsense, if you ask me," Merry heard his Grandfather Rorimac growling as they went by.

"Peregrin Took!" Aunt Asphodel suddenly shrieked in dismay from somewhere behind them.

"Oy!  Are you all right?  She really cracked you one." Merry winced at Pippin's unmistakeable and very loud voice at his elbow.  "Pearl can hit really hard when she's mad.  She's hit me often enough.  Are you all right, Merry?" 

"He'll be all right, Pip.  Lower your voice, though.  I suspect Merry's head is pounding a bit," Frodo whispered back.  "Mine certainly is."

"Can I help?  I can hold up his other side for you.  Can I get a towel or some water or bandages or something?"  Pippin babbled on.

"We have a lovely knitted scarf here that is going to be forfeit if a certain young Took doesn't pay attention!" Merry could hear the ragged edge in his mother's voice.  Pearl was in very deep trouble.

"Drat it all!"

"Hush Pip.  You don't want to forfeit your scarf now, do you?  And you don't want to miss the bonfire," Frodo soothed.  "Merry's just off to bed.  I'll get him there.  You go up and sing us out of the hall.  All right?" 

 "Well..."

"S..right Squ..k," muttered Merry through the silk.  He felt Pippin's small, hot hand on his arm, a quick reassuring squeeze, and then Pippin was gone.  They had finally gotten through the crowd and Merry heard the hum of whispered conversation recede behind them.

"Are you certain you don't want to let this thing burn this year, Peregrin?"  Merry heard his father's voice boom out.

"No, Master!" was the indignant response from Pippin.  "Please, Master of the Forfeits," came Pippin's voice clearly above the subsiding noise, "I beg to make an exchange for its return."

"It pleases me, as Master this night, for you to make the exchange, Peregrin Took.  By all means, give us a song!"

There was a pause and a hush in the hall.  Frodo slowed just as they reached the entry that led to the kitchens and Pippin's lovely young voice lifted up his offered forfeit in song--

"O! Wanderers in the shadowed land
despair not! For though dark they stand,
all woods there be must end at last,
and see the open sun go past..."

Merry sagged a bit against Frodo's comforting grip and closed his eyes, oddly relieved not to be the object of scrutiny any longer.  The sound of Pippin's sweet voice faded behind them as they passed under the arch and into the dark hallway beyond. 

"The setting sun, the rising sun,
the day's end, or the day begun.
For east or west all woods must fail..."

***

"Not much further, love," Frodo muttered.  As Esmeralda had promised, Izzy had assessed the damage and promised to send a kitchen lad ahead of them to Merry's room with the proper infusion, as well as chipped ice and towels.  At some point along the way to his room, Merry had realized that he could walk just fine on his own, but it felt so wonderful to have Frodo's arm tightly around him and that lean, muscled form pressed up so closely, that Merry stayed silent and allowed Frodo to guide him through the halls to his room.  Warm lamplight spilled into the corridor from the open door as Frodo manoeuvred them through.

A bowl of chipped ice sat on Merry's bedside table with towels, a full mug, and a brown jar that Merry recognized as the Brandy Hall ointment for cuts.  A little tray with a wine bottle, a glass, and a covered plate, sat beside it, and an ewer of steaming water waited on his washstand.  Merry suspected that Izzy, who had always adored Frodo, had sent her entire staff ahead of them, because the lamps had all been lit, a good fire had been set, and the bed had been turned back with extra pillows -- all in the time it took them to slowly navigate the halls.

"That Izzy is an absolute treasure."  Frodo declared.  "We have to remember to thank her properly tomorrow.  Now, sit."  Frodo sat down on the bed pulling Merry with him.  The motion, though gentle, nonetheless sent a stab of pain from Merry's jaw straight up through his forehead.  Merry groaned and closed his eyes.  Then cool fingers were sliding along his cheek gently and he opened his eyes to Frodo's anxious gaze.  "I'm so sorry, love.  I don't know what possessed you to do such a thing.  I can defend my own virtue, even against the wiles of Pearl Took!"

Merry was lost the moment he saw the concerned look on Frodo's face.  A flash of desire went through him, prickling all the way to his fingertips and he knew he was blushing like some silly kitchen git. 

Frodo didn't seem to notice.  "Never mind.  For now, let's get you out of those fine clothes--" Merry felt another part of his anatomy react to that, quite forcefully in fact, and his face grew even more furiously hot under Frodo's careful touch. 

"On second thought, let's get some of this remedy into you and some ice on that lip first."  Frodo pulled his fingers away and stood quickly, leaning over to push all of the pillows on the bed up against the headboard.  "Here.  Just lie back against these."  Frodo plumped the pillows carefully and then took Merry's shoulders firmly and gently pushed him back into the pillows.   

For a while, Frodo busied himself at the bedside table and Merry closed his eyes, his stomach clenching with confusion.  This was what he wanted.  He wanted this.  Frodo in his bedroom, sitting on his bed.  He wanted this -- and he was fairly certain he was going to be sick.

"All right, let's see if it's stopped bleeding."  Frodo turned with the mug in one hand and a towel wrapped bundle in the other, leaning over as Merry slowly lowered the silk away from his mouth.  Whatever Frodo saw made his mouth turn down angrily.  "Izzy said you should try to drink half of this now and half again in a few hours.  It will be bitter, but it will take some of the edge off the hurt."  Frodo held out the mug and Merry dropped the scarf to take it. 

The bitter concoction made Merry's mouth sting and he winced as he gulped it down, watching Frodo scoop up the much-abused scarf and stuff it into his vest.  From the look on Frodo's face, Merry suspected he might be planning to shove it into Pearl's mouth at some point in the future.  The realization glowed warmly in the pit of Merry's stomach -- Frodo was furious because he was hurt.

Frodo took the mug when Merry had managed to down half of it and handed Merry the towel-covered bundle in exchange.  "Hold this here." He guided Merry's hand to put the towel gently up against the side of his face, covering both his lip and his jaw.  Merry jumped at the cold, but Frodo held his hand firmly in place.  "Keep it there until it goes numb, love.  It will feel much better, I promise.  And the infusion will help."

Merry gingerly pressed the icy pack to his jaw and Frodo released it.  Frodo turned and poured himself a very full glass from a bottle of one of the Hall's better vintages, raising it to Merry with an apologetic grimace.  "Pearl finally managed to give me a headache.  Not exactly what she had in mind, I'll wager."

Merry grinned and then grunted when his lip twinged painfully.

Frodo winced at Merry's expression. "And I shall give her more than a headache when next I see her." 

Setting down his empty glass, Frodo stood quickly.  "Now, let's get you out of those fancy dress clothes and into your nightshirt.  Nightshirts still in the same place?"  Pulling off his own jacket, Frodo swung it over the chair next to the bed. 

Frodo was going to help him get out of his clothes.  Merry felt his whole body tingle in reaction and was surprised when his hand didn't shake as he pointed toward his clothes press.  Frodo was in his bedroom and Frodo was going to help him out of his clothes.  For just a moment, Merry wanted to kiss Pearl Took -- but only for a moment. 

As Frodo sorted through his clothes, to Merry it seemed that the slender, ink stained fingers were stroking over his skin.  Goose bumps skated up his back and heat pooled in his groin as one of Frodo's own nightshirts -- old and soft from use -- was tugged by those skilful fingers from the jumble of small clothes.  Merry remembered wearing it when he had been very young and had missed his older cousin terribly -- then the nightshirt had been much too large.  But now he wore it for other reasons entirely.  Merry felt his face grow hot as he recalled some of the things he had done in that very nightshirt on this very bed.  Of course, his body recalled those things as well, and he moved his legs up onto the bed from the floor, shifting uncomfortably to hide the bulge in his breeches.   

"I can't believe you still have this old thing." Frodo had an odd melancholy smile on his face as he laid the nightshirt beside Merry on the bed.  "All right, here we go, one arm at a time."  Frodo managed to get Merry's arms out of his jacket, waistcoat and braces while Merry worked hard to hide the tremors coursing through him with each touch.  "That is an impressive waistcoat, Merry.  I hope they can get the stains out of it."  Frodo hung the jacket and waistcoat carefully, bloodstains and all, on the chair, brushing at the stains on the waistcoat futilely.  He then started nonchalantly unbuttoned his own cuffs and rolling up his shirtsleeves, his face flushed with exertion in the warm room. "I meant to tell you how very handsome you looked in it tonight."   

Merry felt an odd thrill at Frodo's compliment.  He was very relieved that Frodo was occupied with unbuttoning his waistcoat as he sat back down on the bed.  It was better if Frodo didn't look at him or he might be tempted to just grab that solemn face and show his cousin how well he had learned to kiss.

"All right, now," Frodo turned quickly and reached for the top button of Merry's shirt.  "Let's see if we can get the shirt off without too much damage."

As Frodo leaned into him, focusing on the button, Merry suddenly breathed in spice and juniper and felt as if he had been punched in the chest.  Managing a shaky breath, he glanced furtively down at himself.  He was so aroused that he was surprised the buttons on his breeches hadn't popped. 

Frodo's fingers had abandoned the stubborn shirt button and were suddenly pressed -- cool and dry -- against Merry's forehead.  "You are sweating.  I hope it's not a fever developing."  Merry felt Frodo's fingers cup his face gently and firmly.

"Look at me, Merry -- love?" 

Merry reluctantly met that burning blue gaze and felt something inside him flare and bubble and melt. 

"Well, your eyes look normal."

Normal.  Merry knew Frodo was very, very wrong.  He would never be normal again.  He would be scorched into ash.  Merry was surprised the ice pressed against his jaw hadn't turned to steam.

"Merry?"

"M'alright...all right."  Merry managed a mumbled response and closed his eyes to that worried gaze.

"Your stomach?"

"All right," he mumbled again.

"You'll have to say something besides 'All right' or I will believe she did manage to addle you."  Frodo responded, "You are not at all your normal lively self, Squirt." 

"Don't call me that!" Merry could just barely get his numb mouth around the words and it hurt.  But he could tell by the look on Frodo's face that the old nickname was a test to see if he really was his old self.  Merry scowled then groaned when that stung as well.

"Sorry, but I had to know," Frodo said quickly.  "You are nearly your normal self.  Now, let me wash this blood off of you and we'll finish this up and get you in bed." 

The exchange had somehow eased Merry's fear that he might explode at any moment -- until Frodo said the word 'bed'.  When Frodo turned and moved to the washstand, Merry quickly pressed his hand hard against his aching shaft, desperate for some kind of relief.  For a moment, as Frodo worked at the basin, Merry thought about shoving the ice pack into his throbbing groin. 

"Lift off the ice for me."  Frodo's words made Merry jump guiltily as Frodo returned to the bed.  "Just for a moment.  I promise I'll be gentle."

Merry shut his eyes, pulling the pack of ice away from his frozen jaw and leaning back into the pillows.  Every word Frodo said seemed to shiver through him.  He was going to die soon.  Just burst into flame in Frodo's hands.  And Frodo would never even know why.

There was a gentle touch at his cheek as Frodo dabbed carefully at the skin, wiping slowly down to his chin and then -- mercy -- under it and then onto his neck and under his ear.  Merry gave up at that moment, with his blood thrumming far too fast in his veins, his groin pulsing with every beat of his heart, and what felt like Frodo's tongue swiping slowly at his neck and down to his collarbone, under the collar of his shirt. 

"Does that hurt?  You certainly look like it does."

"N--no."

Frodo's fingers unbuttoned his second button then, and the warm, wet sensation returned, swiping down from his collarbone onto his chest.  "You always did bleed freely."

It wasn't the bleeding.  It was the fever -- this wild uncontrolled fever that made Merry's fingers shake and twitch until the ice pack finally slid away from him and bounced onto the bed.  He dug his fingers into the covers futilely, trying to still the shaking.  But everything spun and twisted around the overwhelming need until it all burst into uncontrolled flame.

"Mer--"

Merry heard Frodo's voice, anxious and worried, but he couldn't command his limbs any longer.  He could only grab and pull Frodo down to him, shoving his fingers into dark silky curls and ignoring the stinging ache from his lip as he plundered Frodo's mouth, still open in surprise. 

For a moment, it was as good as he imagined.  Frodo's mouth, hot and ripe and sweet against his -- pliant and tasting of sweet wine and cinnamon cakes.  Frodo moaning into his mouth, writhing in his arms.  Merry shifted desperately, trying to get more contact -- trying to press himself up against his cousin's slender form.

Then he realized Frodo wasn't moaning and writhing -- he was desperately trying to say Merry's name and pull himself free.  For a moment, Merry froze, unable to move, then he let go and Frodo was up and on his feet in an instant.  Merry gasped when he saw blood on Frodo's lips, then realized it was his own when his mouth throbbed painfully.  

"What--  I-- You--"  Frodo seemed unable to put words together into a coherent sentence and he was pale as new milk -- in stark contrast to the red blood on his lips.  Merry watched as Frodo touched the blood on his mouth and gazed at his fingers.  A moment before he had been laughing -- flushed and happy -- now he just looked sick.  Merry had kissed him -- only kissed him -- and he looked sick. 

It was obvious to Merry -- Frodo didn't want him.  Frodo wanted nothing to do with him.  From the look on Frodo's face, the thought was repugnant to him. 

Merry suddenly remembered the way that he had felt the day he watched Frodo drive away in Bilbo's pony cart with what little Frodo really owned piled in the back -- gone to live forever at Bag End.  Gone.  He swallowed against the sudden tightness in his throat.  This was so much worse.

"Merry?  Love?"  A bit of colour was back in Frodo's face again, but there was a troubled expression on his face.

"Just...leave!" Merry snapped out angrily, picking up the ice pack and shoving it back against his aching jaw, trying to ignore the tears prickling in his eyes.  He finally closed them.  "Just leave me alone!"

He heard the soft pad of footsteps toward the door, then a long pause and the quiet snick of the door latch.  The tears overwhelmed Merry then.  Frodo didn't want him at all.  He had been so stupid, thinking Frodo might actually want his inexperienced, awkward cousin when he could have anyone he wanted in the Shire -- lad or lass.  Merry swiped angrily at his nose with his sleeve. 

"Between bleeding all over it and wiping your nose on it, you are absolutely ruining that lovely shirt."

Merry's opened his eyes in disbelief to find Frodo standing beside the bed then glanced at the door.

"I locked it." Frodo said softly.  "I think we might need some privacy."

"For what?  Are you going to lecture me?"  Merry said angrily, the words slurring through numb lips.  "First, you push me away, then you lecture me?" 

"No," Frodo shook his head.  "Merry, I'm sorry."  His fingers reached out toward Merry's face.

Merry pulled away from Frodo's touch angrily.  "Just leave!  You don't want to be here and I don't want you here." 

Frodo sank slowly to sit on the side of the bed and Merry shifted to lean against the headboard, watching Frodo warily.

"Oh, Merry," Frodo dropped his hand to rest on the counterpane and gazed at it for a long moment.  "I--  I was just surprised.  You were my baby cousin, not a moment ago."

Merry scowled.  Frodo sounded as if he wanted him to stay a bairn forever.  "I am not a baby!"

Merry watched as Frodo's eyes closed.  "I know that -- now.  I probably knew it long before now.  I just didn't want to see it.  I didn't want--" 

Merry waited impatiently, watching as Frodo dug his fingers into the bridge of his nose.   

"Didn't want what?"  Merry finally blurted out.  "Me?  Well, that is plain enough--"

Frodo looked up, his face suddenly pale once more.  "No, Merry!  Listen to me--"

"I am tired of listening to you.  I don't want more words.  You are full of words," Merry snapped.  "I'm surprised you don't eat parchment and bleed ink!"

Frodo flinched as if struck, and for a moment, Merry thought he saw a spark flare in those placid pools of blue, then Frodo looked away, his jaw working as if he was swallowing words.   Merry desperately wanted him to fight back -- do something, anything -- even exchanging blows would be better than this endless aching confusion. 

"I'm sorry," Frodo whispered, "but--"

"You keep saying that.  I don't need 'sorry'!" Merry said furiously, feeling something hot and hurting boiling up into his chest that threatened to spill into hot angry tears.  "And I don't need you!  Just go away!  Go back to that Hobbiton hick who has you so...so besotted!"  Merry saw Frodo stiffen in response. 

"That is beneath you, Meriadoc Brandybuck -- putting labels on someone you don't even know," Frodo admonished.  "He would not do the same to you."

Merry felt his face go hot with the rebuke.  "So it is a he and not a she then?  All the aunts have you married off with a brood of your own -- but you are really just playing tweener games still," he sneered. 

Frodo gazed at Merry's face for a long moment, then reached his hand out tentatively to cup Merry's cheek.  Merry was too surprised to move away as the cool fingers touched his heated skin. 

"It is not a game," Frodo said gently, "and neither is this--" his thumb swiped at the wetness on Merry's cheek.   "I think that is the point of this conversation."

Merry frowned.  It was hard to think clearly with the ache in his head and the overwhelming tightness in his chest.   "Just leave.  Why don't you just leave?"  He detested the whining note in his voice.

"I can't.  I won't leave you like this.  I couldn't bear--" the placid voice broke and Merry was surprised to find tears glimmering in Frodo's eyes as he gazed at him.  "I don't want hurt you, Merry.  Don't you see?  I'm afraid whatever I do will hurt you."

Merry squeezed his eyes shut and pushed the ice pack up into his aching jaw to stop the tears.  "Why?  Why can't you just kiss me?  Touch me?  T...teach me?  What about that will hurt me?"

But Merry did hurt.  His throat ached and his stomach churned.  He almost didn't notice Frodo's fingers laid over his on the ice pack.

"It has already hurt you," Frodo pointed out, still infuriatingly calm.  "You confronted Pearl because of it.  Just because you are who you are, and--"

"And your Hobbiton friend wouldn't like--"

"Meriadoc Brandybuck!" Frodo moved so quickly that Merry didn't have time to flinch, moving to slide his fingers over Merry's mouth -- carefully avoiding the injured lip.  "Still your tongue and listen with something besides that part of you that doesn't listen very well."

For a long moment there was no sound except the crackling of the fire in the grate.  Frodo's gaze was intense and his fingers did not move from where they pressed firmly over Merry's lips.  Merry let out a long shuddering sigh and closed his eyes.  Frodo's hand moved to grip Merry's shoulder.

"I love you, Merry.  I want you to remember that."

Merry's eyes opened at that.  He frowned, wondering where this was leading. 

"I love you as my dearest cousin, my brother, my confidant, my accomplice, my friend.  I will love you long after you have played your share of tweener games and broken your share of hearts." Frodo paused, gazing at Merry meaningfully.  "No doubt burning a few to cinders along the way.  And I will love you when you are old, and grey, and spend your time sitting in the sun, boasting about all those broken hearts, and complaining overly much of the gas you get from Izzy's pork rolls."

Merry snorted before he could stop himself -- and Frodo smiled. 

It was like the sun breaking the horizon after the Yule bonfire -- that smile.  Merry found himself basking in it before he realized what he was doing. 

"Because I love you, and I know you -- perhaps too well my dearest cousin -- I am quite aware of how very possessive and...territorial you can be."  The smile on Frodo's face had slid into something serious again. "And how passionate and rash and -- well, unreasonable you can get about...things." 

Merry scowled.  But this was Frodo -- words and words and words.  Merry's mouth twisted sullenly.

Frodo saw his expression and leaned back with a frown, shaking his head. "You are impossible!"  He stabbed a finger at Merry's chest accusingly.  "What I am trying to say is that you do not share well, my dear cousin."

"What does that have to do with anything?"  Merry retorted in frustration, looking down at the finger gouging his ribs and back up at his cousin.  Sometimes Frodo could be so...so thick! 

Frodo made a stifled, exasperated noise and spread his fingers until his hand rested, splayed out over Merry's chest.  "Just listen, Merry.  Please?"  Merry looked down at Frodo's hand, gently rising and falling with Merry's every breath. 

"I'm listening," Merry growled softly.

Merry gazed up again to find Frodo's head lowered, his eyes closed, as if he was connecting with something deep inside, beneath the beat of Merry's heart. 

"It is exciting, and pleasurable, and joyous, and unbelievable to hold another with your body.  But if you hold them in your heart as well, it is so much more that that."  Merry could feel his own heart throbbing, strong and hard, against Frodo's hand.  "You carry them around inside you.  You think about them when you see something they would enjoy.  You remember bits of conversations you want to repeat for them, just to see the look on their face as they listen."  Frodo paused for a long moment, opening his eyes to glance toward the fire, his gaze unfocused.  "But when you hold someone here," the fingers tightened only a fraction over Merry's heart, "there is frustration and pain as well."

Merry was certain that he knew all of this already -- at least he was quite aware of the frustration and pain part.  He didn't know what Frodo wanted, what would make him stay instead of walking out the door and leaving Merry with only words.

"You feel their sorrow, but you cannot ease it.  You understand their confusion, but you cannot enlighten it.  You see them grow -- sometimes it seems they are growing away from you -- and you cannot...you should not stop it."  Frodo sighed.  "You want to pull them so far into you that they become a part of you, to protect them, to keep safe, to hold them forever--" 

Merry shifted impatiently and Frodo stopped, looking straight into Merry's eyes.  "I know I am just full of words," Frodo went on, smiling gently.  "But these are important words, Merry.  You shape what you become by the way you hold those you love.  You cannot be possessive and jealous -- you cannot hold them so tightly that time or sorrow or change cannot touch them.  You cannot hold them so tightly that they can't be." 

Merry anxiously reviewed what Frodo had said, trying to make sense of it, trying to determine what it was that Frodo wanted him to say.  "So," he said carefully.  "You want to know if I will be jealous of you.  Is that it?" 

"Well, yes.  But that's only part of it--" Frodo answered tentatively.  "I'm not finding the right words, am I?  All these words and none of them are right--"

"You make it too hard.  It's about feelings.  You think too much, Frodo!"  Merry blurted out in annoyance.

Frodo blinked and gazed at him in dismay.  "But I--"

"So sharing...sharing is important.  I know.  I know, all right?" Merry managed, angry that everything hinged on words.  He had never been one for words.  But Frodo was smiling hopefully at him -- that was a good sign.  "This Hobbiton fellow -- do you think he will mind sharing you with me?"  

Frodo seemed taken aback for a moment, as if he was surprised that Merry would ask that particular question.  Then the quality of Frodo's smile changed somehow.  It warmed and gentled as he spoke.  "I do not doubt it for a moment.  He is one of the most generous and loving spirits I have ever known." 

Merry felt a sudden twinge of resentment at the obvious affection in Frodo's voice and the tender look on his face. 

"I think the more pertinent question is, can you share me with him?"  Frodo said softly.

Merry looked down at the fingers splayed on his chest.  That hand, those fingers, had been touching him since he could remember -- holding him, hugging him, shoving him, poking him, even slugging him once.  He didn't want to share -- not at all -- but he looked up at the hopeful expression on Frodo's face and put his hand over those cool fingers.  "I'll try."

Frodo's eyebrow went up in that odd way it had when he was a bit sceptical about something. 

"I will.  I will share," Merry said firmly, jutting out his chin.

Frodo stayed still for a long time, gazing into Merry's eyes, until Merry looked down at their hands, intertwined over his heart.  "I don't want to, but I will."

"Well, that is honest, at least."  Frodo replied thoughtfully.

Somehow, even in that gentle voice, those words stung deeper than anything Frodo could say.  All the frustration of the past few months -- of the past hour -- boiled up from inside Merry and overflowed into angry words.  "More honest than you!  At least I can admit I want you!"  He yanked Frodo's hand from his chest and shoved it furiously away from him.

Unbalanced by the sudden movement, Frodo gave a surprised yelp and slipped off the edge of the bed, landing hard on his backside.  Without even thinking, Merry followed him, flinging the ice pack down to shatter across the floor as Frodo lurched to his feet, gazing at Merry in disbelief. 

"Do you want me or not?" Merry demanded, then leaned on the bed as the room dipped and swung alarmingly.  When Frodo reacted with concern, Merry moved toward him relentlessly, holding up one finger warningly.   "Yes or no!  No. More. Words.  Just YES or NO." 

Frodo stumbled backward, his feet slipping on the ice shards, coming to a jarring stop against the bedpost, staring at Merry as if he had sprouted wings and flown off the bed.   

"Do. You. Want. Me?" Merry emphasized each word with a jab of his finger at Frodo's chest, until the last jab threw him off balance and he staggered forward suddenly.

Frodo grasped the outreached hand, anchoring Merry firmly on his feet and they stood there for a long moment, both of them breathing hard. 

"Do you want me, Frodo?  Not because I want you or because you care about me or...or because you can teach me things, but just...just because you want me?" Merry whispered.  

Frodo looked down for a long moment and Merry's heart plunged.  Well, that was an answer at least.  He tried to pull his hand loose just as Frodo lifted his eyes.

And Merry realized how mistaken he had been.  Until now, he had always thought of blue as a cool colour -- refreshing, soothing even.  That was before the heat in those eyes had scorched him.

"Yes," Frodo said hoarsely.

There was a long pause as Merry stared at Frodo's mouth in disbelief.  He thought for a moment that he must not have heard correctly.  Then Frodo tugged on Merry's arm, pulling him forward before he could react, placing Merry's hand securely around the bedpost behind him.  "Yes," came the ragged whisper as Frodo slid his fingers around Merry's nape and tugged him forward.  Merry's eyes closed as he felt Frodo's mouth brush his and felt one last hoarse "Yes" whisper against his lips. 

For a moment, Merry couldn't breathe, it was so overwhelming -- then he didn't need to breathe anymore, Frodo was breathing for him.  Merry ploughed his fingers into thick dark hair and held on for dear life.  He could taste fruity wine and warm cinnamon as Frodo's mouth closed over his, but he could also taste the coppery tang of his own blood.  And Frodo pulled back, despite Merry's hands tugging insistently at his hair.  "Merry," Frodo gasped, "You're bleed--"

"Don't care.  Don't."  Merry muttered, opening his eyes and pushing forward to recapture lips tinged red with his own blood, feeling a bright splinter of pain as his mouth collided with Frodo's, but not caring about the twinge from his bleeding lip -- just wanting the heady thrill of Frodo's mouth on his. 

But Frodo's mouth slid away, a warm wet trail across his uninjured cheek, and Merry growled in protest, until those lips nipped at his ear then slid down to nuzzle under his hair, and the growl turned into a groan, his head tilting back as his eyes shut.  Oh, no one had done that before.  That was good.  And that spot there, below his ear where Frodo's mouth was teasing now -- that was even better. 

"What do you want, Merry?"  Frodo whispered into his ear, and Merry thought he might just die from the sensation of that whisper, sliding down his spine, connecting straight to parts of him that he really wanted Frodo to pay attention to -- right now.  "Do you want me to kiss your neck here?" 

Glory -- he couldn't think while Frodo's breath fluttered in his hair, and when he kissed the side of his neck that way -- no -- nibbled at the side of his neck.  Tiny little bites and licks -- he couldn't even remember what it was he had wanted to tell Frodo to do. 

"And here?"  He felt Frodo's fingers push aside his shirt collar and a warm moist breath puff against his shoulder, followed by a hot slick tongue sliding across his collarbone, and then Merry could feel Frodo unbuttoning his shirt, slowly, his fingers dancing across Merry's skin. 

Merry was only managing little panting breaths, unable to really breathe.  And he knew Frodo must feel his heart pounding as if it was going to come out of his chest as Frodo's fingers moved lower, working at the buttons of Merry's shirt.  Tingling ripples of sensation slid down Merry's spine from every part of him that Frodo touched. 

When soft linen brushed across his nipple, Merry stifled a moan and opened his eyes, letting go of the bedpost.  Frodo was tugging the fancy dress shirt up out of Merry's waistband -- his expression heavy-lidded and intent.  Merry shivered in anticipation, but Frodo was still in his waistcoat and shirt, tightly buttoned -- far too many layers of clothing.  Merry pulled his other hand out of Frodo's hair to get to those buttons, and when he did, he staggered, grabbing onto the fine linen of Frodo's shirt for support and watching in dismay as two pearly buttons popped off of the shirt and pinged onto the floor -- which was tilting in the very oddest way--  

"Whoa, love.  Here."  Frodo grabbed Merry's hands and turned him about so quickly that Merry scarcely realized what had happened until he was deposited on the bed and manoeuvred up onto the pillows once more -- and the spinning of the room had slowed.  Merry started to sit up in protest, then realized Frodo was on the bed as well, kneeling astraddle Merry's knees, tossing his waistcoat in the direction of the chair.  "I can manage this myself.  You just watch."

Just that husky voice alone was enough to make Merry feel a jolt that tingled all the way to his toes.  Then Frodo was slowly unbuttoning his shirt and Merry was spellbound watching those fingers making their way from button to button -- so skilful and agile and oh -- he wanted them on him, not wasting time on stupid buttons.  Then the shirt was off and Frodo tossed the balled-up garment to follow the waistcoat.  When Frodo turned back, that heated gaze met Merry's for only a moment, then slid away and down, following the line of Merry's throat and lingering at his chest.  Then Merry forgot to breathe as Frodo's fingers followed the path his eyes had traced, slowly pulling back the edges of Merry's dress shirt completely -- silky fabric whispering on Merry's skin, fingertips brushing lines of tingling flame along his ribs.  Merry heard a thunk and realized that his head had slipped back onto the pillow and he had managed to hit the headboard as well -- he blinked and suddenly Frodo's face was gazing down at him anxiously.

Heavens, you would think he was some fragile creature made of glass or something.  If this kept up they would never get anywhere, Merry would die of frustration, and then Frodo would really be upset.  Merry reached up and pulled Frodo's face to his forcibly, capturing Frodo's mouth once more as Frodo grunted in surprise.

Merry used every trick he had ever learned from Violet Banks -- and he really did know how to kiss, everyone told him so -- well, the few he had managed to kiss had told him so.  But Merry realized, as Frodo's mouth slanted firmly across his and his own tongue was captured quite thoroughly, that Frodo was very good at this.  And when Frodo sucked ever so slowly on his tongue, Merry was overwhelmed by the swirl of sensation that sizzled through him in response.  No one had ever taught him that.  As he squirmed on the bed, he realized that his wrists had been captured by strong fingers and were now pressed firmly in to the bed on either side of him.  He hissed in disappointment as Frodo pulled away and gazed down at him, breathing hard.

"Impatient Brandybuck -- are you certain this is your...first time at this?"  Frodo asked hoarsely.

Merry couldn't manage words at that point, so he nodded weakly as he stared hungrily at Frodo's mouth.  He wanted those lips back on his, or back on any part of him at all.  They were swollen and red, and Merry knew that he had done that -- he had made Frodo's lips look like that.  And he had made Frodo's voice sound like that.  It was a heady feeling. 

At that moment, Merry heard the unmistakeable sound of the Yule cart rolling slowly out of the Hall onto the cobblestones in the courtyard below his room and Frodo turned to look toward the shuttered window. Merry followed his gaze, listening as the sound of solemn singing, interspersed with irreverent laughter and chatter followed the cart into the night. 

"Time to burn the forfeits," Merry whispered.  When he turned back and saw the look on Frodo's face as he gazed down at him, Merry's mouth went dry. Frodo was looking at him as if he were some plate of Yule sweets that needed to be sampled and Frodo couldn't decide where to start.  Merry took a deep breath and slowly licked his lips.

"You are going to burn me to cinders," Frodo growled and Merry felt the last word as a puff of hot breath against his throat, then Frodo suckled softly at his collarbone.   Merry was fairly certain he would, at the very least, incinerate the bed as Frodo's mouth slid slowly across his chest to engulf a nipple and his entire body was suddenly aflame.  Merry's hips thrust futilely into the air.  Oh -- no one had taught him that either.

What Frodo was doing was so delicious that he couldn't think straight.  If this were all happening before his breeches were off, what would happen after?  He had a feeling that none of the fumbling he had done in the haystacks with Vi or Nat nor even his own explorations in the privacy of his own bed had prepared him for what would happen once Frodo Baggins unbuttoned his breeches.  At that thought, his entire body quivered in expectation.  

Merry realized his hands were free for only a moment before the sensation of Frodo's fingers sliding down his ribs sizzled to his brain.  Merry barely managed to clamp his mouth shut over a groan as Frodo flicked his tongue into the hollow at the base of his throat then licked his way down Merry's chest to the flat plane of his stomach, darted close to the edge of his waistband while Merry shivered in response.

Merry didn't know whether he was trying to stop Frodo or speed him along, but he wound his fingers firmly into those dark curls and held on, his skin quivering beneath Frodo's fingers as Frodo thumbed the buttons on Merry's breeches open one by one -- but far too slowly.  Merry started to loosen his grip on Frodo's hair to reach down and help things along, but at that moment Frodo's mouth traced a slick path back up to cover Merry's nipple, sucking hard.  Merry shut his eyes and tightened his fingers once more in Frodo's hair.  Frodo's lips nibbled, then his teeth scraped gently, then he sucked hard again, and for a long moment Merry's entire world swung around Frodo's mouth and the unbelievable sensations spiralling outward from that single point.  Now they were so far beyond anything that anyone had ever taught him that Merry gave up keeping track.

Merry felt the bed shift and sink and realized that his breeches and his small clothes were completely undone and Frodo had moved to kneel on the side of the bed.  Without even glancing up, Merry reached down to quickly move things along, lifting his hips and hurriedly squirming out of breeches and all, pushing them onto the floor with his feet.  Then he heard a sound from Frodo -- a sigh or a word, Merry couldn't tell.  When he looked up, he realized that if Frodo's eyes had been dark before, they were smouldering now. 

Frodo had seen him naked, many times, as they snapped towels at each other in the bathhouse or frolicked in the river like otters, but never like this -- never aroused and hot and needy.  Merry squirmed under that intense gaze, almost reaching down to hide himself, only to find Frodo's fingers grasping his, pushing them gently back into the pillows. 

"Just let me look," came the whispered plea.  And for a long moment, he did.  "You are beautiful, love," it was hardly more than a sigh.

Merry heard some strange noise come out of his own throat.  If it had been someone else, he would have thought it was a whimper.  But Merry had never whimpered in his life, so it couldn't have been that.  Nonetheless, it was a noise appropriate to the way he felt as he watched Frodo stand up beside the bed to slowly unbutton those lovely blue velvet breeches and then untie his small clothes and slide them down his legs. 

There were those who said Frodo Baggins was far too slender to be a healthy hobbit, but Merry knew it was all limber, lithe muscle -- muscle that slid and bunched beneath the ivory satin of Frodo's skin now as he bent to pull breeches and undergarments off each foot and toss them at the chair.  Merry stared entranced at Frodo's bared backside, turned toward him now.  There were dimples above each cheek that Merry had made fun of when he was younger, but which had come to haunt his fantasies as he grew to better appreciate those tantalizing curves and shadows.  Then Frodo turned toward him, and lamplight glimmered off the sheen of moisture on Frodo's skin, highlighting with gold the sparse tendrils of dark hair that arrowed down from the shadowy dip of Frodo's navel to--  Oh.

For a moment, Merry wasn't certain whether or not he had uttered that sound aloud -- then he didn't care.  His eyes caressed rigid flesh, arching flushed and gilded out of russet shadow into the firelight.  He didn't know how long he lay there staring, but when he finally did lift his eyes, he saw that Frodo was watching him.  And Merry was certain that he was going to combust and disintegrate into ash, with only Frodo's heated gaze touching him. 

And then Frodo was climbing onto the bed, like some feral beast stalking prey, crawling slowly up between Merry's legs.  And Merry was frozen there, clutching the pillows above his head with both hands, so sensitised to the slightest movement or touch that it was nearly painful when Frodo's knee brushed against the inside of his thigh.  Merry shut his eyes and threw out his hands instinctively.

"Frodo," he whimpered.  He would admit it now -- it was a whimper. 

"Sshhhh.  What, love?"  The smoky voice from somewhere above his knees sent tendrils of heat down his spine.  Merry's hands, waving around somewhere over his hips, were grasped gently.

"Don'ttouchme."

"Don't touch you, like this?"  Merry felt warm lips gently caressing his knuckles, then his hands were turned over and kisses pressed to the palms.  Merry let out a sighing breath and relaxed as his finger was guided slowly into Frodo's mouth.

"Don't--" Merry whispered, opening his eyes.

Frodo sucked and Merry felt a bolt of pleasure shoot from that finger all the way down his spine.  When Frodo slowly pulled the finger out of his mouth, Merry had trouble focusing.

"What?"  Frodo asked.

"D...don't--"

He heard the smile in Frodo's voice, "Merry, love, do you want to stop now?  We can stop, if you want."

"Don't...stop."  Merry managed. 

And Frodo's fingers slid up the backs of Merry's thighs, burning trails of sensation that made Merry dig his feet into the bed, connecting with Frodo's legs and bracing there.   Merry's hips quested into the air and Frodo's fingers followed, cupping Merry's buttocks and sliding up to the small of his back, holding him still.  Then Merry felt a whisper of breath on his stomach, and the wet heat of Frodo's tongue sliding across his belly and dipping into his navel.

Merry's fingers sank into Frodo's hair and he held on, trying desperately not to shout as Frodo's mouth teased at his hipbone and his tongue slid down the crease, then back across Merry's belly -- sliding so very slowly, tugging wetly at the sparse gold hair curling there, then moving on to the other hip to nuzzle and lick that sensitised skin.  Frodo seemed to be paying attention to every measure of skin, except one.  And Merry was so hard that it was beginning to hurt.  Frodo had to notice -- he had to realize that Merry was burning and trembling as if with a terrible fever -- delirious.  Frodo had to do something.

"Please. Frodo?"  Merry begged in a hoarse voice and felt something quiver beneath his hip in response to his words.  Merry nearly gasped when he realized that Frodo's own arousal -- pressed under the crease of Merry's hip -- had twitched in response to that plea.  Still, Merry's hardened flesh remained untouched and throbbing.  He was willing to beg once more, but the tormenting heat of Frodo's mouth slid further down into the crease of his thigh -- silky tendrils of hair brushing across aching, sensitive flesh.  Merry's back arched at that, hips straining upward, trying desperately for more contact -- his head was moving on the pillow, thrashing from side to side.

Frodo's thighs slid under his and his fingers held Merry's hips firmly.  Merry could feel himself vibrating, shivering in Frodo's hands.  Then a breath of hot moist air touched him there and he felt suddenly dizzy with relief.  "Yes!" He hissed.

Engulfed and overwhelmed -- at first it was only a tight, slick tunnel of sensation, like nothing he had ever imagined before -- then it was hot and wet and moving, Frodo's skilful tongue enclosing and dancing over his flesh.  And then Frodo was pulling away, then back down hard and fast, teeth scraping lightly over the skin.  Merry grunted, and that agile tongue circled and swept up again, soothing the sting.  Then suction, and air as Frodo pulled away once more, despite Merry thrusting his hips up in the air desperately, breathing hard. 

Strong fingers encircled him, and that maddening tongue danced.  At that, Merry let go of Frodo's head and dug his fingers into the bed on either side of his hips, using the leverage to push up hard.  Blessed wet heat engulfed him again and he closed his eyes when Frodo made some noise that vibrated all the way to his toes and left him quaking.  Merry's legs started to quiver and his hips slid back to the bed, the suction making him see stars.  For a moment, he thought the music he heard was only in his head, then he realized it was the sound of singing from the distant field. 

The sudden shift and dip of the bed wrung a whimper from Merry as his legs slid to the bed and Frodo's strong thighs settled on Merry's hips, just above aching flesh.  Merry would have touched himself if he could have, but he could only clench his hands and push at Frodo's thighs futilely.  Frodo leaned over him, breathing raggedly, and he could feel Frodo's own hardened length against his stomach. 

"They are singing...the lighting song," Frodo said shakily.  "Sunlight return...to you, my dearest...cousin."  The whispered words were moist puffs of air over Merry's lips -- almost a kiss.   

Merry opened his eyes and found Frodo's flushed face above him, eyes burning blue, moisture beading on his skin, kiss-stung lips a breath from his own, smiling that brilliant smile.  "And...to you," Merry managed, shakily.  "Now, p...please, just k...kiss me, t...touch me, anything F...Frodo.  P...please!"  

A warm smile rewarded Merry as those lips lowered to his, "What say we start a ...bonfire of our own?"  Merry twitched and squirmed with each puff of breath brushing his lips as Frodo whispered.  Then Frodo's mouth covered Merry's and his legs moved, his weight shifting.  Merry gasped and shut his eyes tightly as Frodo's tongue plumbed his mouth.  Sinewy arms pressed against his ribs and he groaned into Frodo's mouth at the sensation of his own rigid flesh sliding across that firm, furred belly, then against Frodo's arousal, slick and hot between them.  He felt Frodo lever onto his arms and begin to move, slowly -- far too slowly.  Merry's hands were on Frodo's hips, but Frodo's skin was slick and his fingers were slippery and he couldn't get any traction.  He heard himself whimper again.

"Harderfasterpleasepleaseplease," Merry writhed beneath Frodo.

Then Frodo's mouth was moving across his cheek to his ear again -- sucking and nibbling even as Frodo kept moving, so slowly.  "Touch me, Merry -- touch us," came the breathy whisper.

Merry was nearly undone by the words alone.  He opened his eyes to Frodo's, then, keeping his gaze locked on his cousin, he frantically slipped both hands between them as Frodo lifted his hips.  Merry slid his fingers across sweat-slickened skin and found Frodo's arousal trapped beside his own.  Encircling both with a groan, Merry thought how very different it felt to hold another's flesh -- but this he did know how to do.  He moved his hands in a familiar rhythm -- his own rhythm, fast and hard. 

Frodo shut his eyes and began to moan against Merry's mouth in time with each stroke, and Merry found himself quivering at the sound.   Another sound reached his ears from the field outside -- a loud cheer as the bonfire was lit.  Then Frodo growled deep in his throat and something flared to fiery life inside Merry -- it built from his toes and rolled up to his head then back again, like crackling flames, sizzling and building, up and up with the rhythm of his hand.  As it seared through him, Merry felt Frodo's body convulse above him and warmth spill between them as Frodo wailed and buried his face into Merry's hair.  And Merry closed his eyes as the fire inside him answered, roaring up, sending sparks shooting into the sky as he came, his hips jerking, screaming hoarsely until he felt Frodo's mouth close over his and he sank willingly into fiery darkness.

***

Merry woke to a loud yell and sat straight up, startled.  He blinked in the unaccustomed light in his bedroom as the shout was followed by laughter and a snatch of song, from beneath his window it seemed.  He fell back against the pillows, looking around in a daze.  Was it morning already?  His head ached a bit, so he must've over-indulged again.  He was in his own bed and under the covers.  That was good.  But he was clad only in a shirt, and by the feel of it, one of his dress shirts.  And his mouth hurt like the blazes -- his jaw too.  And his throat felt raw.  What had he done? 

Taking a deep shaky breath, Merry smelled juniper and spice -- on his pillows, on him, all around him.  Frodo!  Oh indeed yes, that was what he had done.  He closed his eyes and stretched luxuriously in the bed, feeling the protest of muscles well used, and the somewhat dissatisfied twitch of parts never used enough.  Frodo of the talented mouth and agile tongue and limber muscles and -- other parts.  Merry realized he was hard just at the thought. 

Where was Frodo?  Not in the bed, where, by rights, he should be, being he was -- well -- older and he should be -- well -- tired at least, after all that activity.  Heavens it was wondrous, that activity.  Glorious.  Just glorious.  He shivered at the memory, and grew harder still.  Where was Frodo anyway? 

Perhaps he had insulted Frodo, dozing off like that.  Perhaps that just wasn't done.  Merry sat up once more, leaning forward to gaze into the shadowy recess where his window looked out onto the courtyard.  Frodo wasn't curled up on the padded window seat, but he could tell the window was open -- the air in the room was chill.  Even though he couldn't see him from the bed, he hoped that was where Frodo was.  He looked around quickly for something to throw on and found his red velvet robe laying on the bed, ready for him.  He grinned, then winced when his lip complained.  Reaching up to gingerly explore the damage, he found the special ointment quite liberally applied.  He must've been deeply asleep if that hadn't awakened him.  Picturing those fingers gently touching his lip, Merry shivered at the thought. 

He heard a muffled sound from the window and threw back the covers, pulling on the robe as he trod across the chilled floor.  The fire needed stoking up.  But then, perhaps they could find other ways to heat up the cold night -- again.  Merry smiled contentedly. 

Frodo had put on one of Merry's old robes and was sitting out on the windowsill with his feet tucked under the window seat cushion for warmth.  He had the hood up and his hands tucked into the sleeves to ward off the cold.  Sitting on that very windowsill together and watching the courtyard and the distant fields, and even the activity on the river below, had been a much-loved pastime when they were younger.  Frodo turned when Merry clambered onto the window seat.  Merry could barely make out the pale oval of Frodo's face in the shadows.

"Frodo?"  Merry was surprised at the raw sound of his voice.  Then he remembered why it was raw, and blushed hotly, thankful for the darkness.

"I'm sorry, love.  Old Seth spotted me up here and set up a shout before I could shush him."  Frodo offered.  "And he woke you from your nap -- which you should get right back to."

Merry cleared his throat and followed Frodo's example, settling on the wide windowsill, leaving his feet tucked warmly inside under the cushion.  "You always were close with the help.  They all ask after you constantly."

Merry looked out toward the bonfire site, and saw the flickering glow through the trees.  He could just make out the tiny figures around it and wondered how long it was until the eagerly awaited dawn.

"At least put up your hood," Frodo said softly.  "With that hair of yours, your mother will likely spot you sitting here and have my hide." 

Turning back to watch the distant fire, Merry grudgingly flicked the hood up over his hair. 

"And you will go back to bed soon, you sound hoarse." 

Merry leaned back and they sat in silence, both of their faces hidden in the deep hoods of their robes -- their breath fogging in the cold air as they watched and listened to the revelry in the distance.  The Brandy Hall denizens and visitors around the bonfire were not so quiet.  They were singing joyously loud and they were probably quite drunk, most of them, but they were working hard to hold back the dark with light and lays and laughter. 

Merry heard Frodo begin humming the tune softly -- an old, old ballad, that one.  Merry wondered how they ever managed to remember the words to all those songs every year.  It was a treasured memory of his younger days, standing around the huge fire, eating roasted nuts and sweets and drinking hot cider, and singing at the top of his lungs.  Frodo had always said what Merry lacked in pitch he made up in volume.  Well, not everyone could sound like Pippin -- or Frodo for that matter -- although he rarely heard Frodo sing these days.

And Bilbo and Frodo would be going back to Hobbiton far too soon.  Merry gazed back at his bed and a tingling rush went through him at the memory of what they had done there.  How could he endure having Frodo so far away?  He wanted him again right now -- his whole being ached with the need.  When he glanced back, Frodo was watching him -- Merry could barely see the gleam of his eyes.

"What we--" he began, then looked down at his hands in his lap and tried again, "It was--"

Frodo had stopped humming, listening expectantly, it seemed, as Merry contrived to fall over his own tongue. 

"It was glorious," he said gruffly.  "I never-- I-- You--" 

Merry heard a stifled cough, or a snort, he couldn't tell.

"Don't laugh at me, Frodo."

"I'm not laughing," came Frodo's calm voice.  "Do I appear to be laughing to you?"

Merry looked back down.  "It was so much more than I ever dreamed, what we did.  I never imagined it would be...like that."  Merry managed. 

"Yes."  Frodo answered quickly, "It was glorious, Merry.  You were magnificent."

It was Merry's turn to snort then.  Suddenly, pale cool hands cupped gently around his face, careful to avoid the swollen lip, pulling him forward as Frodo leaned into the light himself, face half lost in darkness, half burnished in gold.  "You.  Are.  Magnificent.  Meriadoc Brandybuck," he said firmly.  "You have always been so, and always will be."  The hands slid down to grasp his hands. "You shine so very brightly that I imagine Aunt Esme could very well see you from out there.  You could hold back the dark all by yourself, I think -- so dazzling -- so fierce."  The hands dropped then, slipping back into the shadows.  "Don't let anyone or anything dim that light," came the whisper from the dark.

Merry could still feel those hands around his face, burning for all their coolness.  He touched his cheek thoughtfully.   "Sometimes I think you are the only one who sees me -- really sees me," he whispered. 

"I'm sure that's not true," came Frodo's soft voice. 

"It is true.  You aren't here.  You don't see the way mum treats me.  And everyone else follows her lead.  I don't want to be the Master of Brandy Hall if it means I have to give up being...well, being me." 

There was a long silence, and the music from the distant celebration segued into something fast-paced, and by the sound of it, quite jolly. 

But Merry was far from jolly.  "I feel...smothered here.  Like I can't breathe."

"You are welcome to come visit us any time, Merry, and stay as long as you like.  Aunt Esme cannot argue with that, surely?"

"Oh yes, she can," Merry growled.  "I would have to practically steal a pony and sneak away to get loose from here."

There was a sound from Frodo, but Merry couldn't decipher it. 

"Why do you have to go back so soon?  What in Hobbiton could be that important?"  Merry winced when he heard the whine in his voice

For a long moment there was no response, then Frodo reached up and flipped back the hood of his robe. 

"Because my life is in Hobbiton now, Merry.  It is not here.  I love you and I miss you when I am not here, but Hobbiton is where I live now," he said earnestly. 

"Hobbiton is where he is.  That's what you mean."  Merry snapped.

Frodo looked back out toward the distant fire.  "Hobbiton is my home, Merry." 

Merry felt a brief flash of resentment for the faceless hobbit blessed to live in Hobbiton, while Merry cooled his heels on the banks of the Brandywine. 

"But I am here.  At Yule.  With you."

The calm statement sank in and made Merry feel suddenly guilty for his lack of generosity.  He had promised that he would share.  He felt something tighten painfully in his chest at the thought.  He just didn't realize how very hard it would be.

"I...I'm sorry, Frodo."  Merry cursed the break in his voice.  He didn't want Frodo to think of him as his baby cousin any more.  "I guess I...I've never been very good at sharing."

Frodo looked back at him solemnly.  "No, you never really were good at sharing your things."

Merry closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the windowsill; equal parts of embarrassment and anger making him blush furiously.  If only he were older and somehow didn't have to live through being a tweenager.  If only Frodo had never left Brandy Hall.  If only he weren't so...so temperamental!  Then he felt a cool finger stroke his hot cheek and opened his eyes with a jerk.

Frodo had moved closer -- sitting sideways on the sill now only a breath away.  Merry pulled away before he realized what he was doing, but Frodo leaned forward intently.  "Love is not a 'thing', Merry.  Just because I love him doesn't mean there is less love for me to give to you.  There is more, not less." 

When Frodo's fingers touched Merry's face again he found himself leaning into that hand and closing his eyes, putting his own fingers over Frodo's.   

"I don't know," came Frodo's whisper in the quiet.  Merry opened his eyes to find Frodo gazing out at the fire.  "But it seems to me that when you love someone, it becomes something bigger than both of you -- something that you can share over and over and it never diminishes -- like one of our Yule branches."  Frodo turned to look at him.  "Not much of a fire with one small branch, but all together..."  They both looked out at the huge blaze.  For a long time there was no sound except the distant singing.

Merry remembered so many times sitting here, just like this, on soft summer nights or cold winter ones, curled together telling stories, planning pranks -- sharing joys and hurts -- sharing.  He slid down onto the window seat and leaned onto Frodo's thigh, just as he had done long ago, gingerly resting his tender chin on his folded arms and gazing at the sparks crackling up into the blackness.  Merry could smell the smoke on the crisp air and he shivered as Frodo's fingers pushed back the hood of his robe, then stroked gently through Merry's hair, again and again.

Merry closed his eyes and realized he was almost purring, like one of the Hall cats -- boneless and relaxed under Frodo's fingers.  "We need to get you back into that warm bed..."  Frodo whispered. 

"No, let's stay like this," Merry mumbled.  If they remained here, then Frodo would never leave -- tomorrow would never come.  "Stay," he whispered fiercely into the folds of Frodo's robe. 

Merry felt Frodo shift and slide down to the seat beside him and before he could stop himself, he was in Frodo's arms, burying his face in Frodo's chest like some faunt, his eyes welling up with tears.  Frodo enfolded him tightly, hands firm against his back, chin resting on Merry's head.  "What is it?  Merry?" 

"Sometimes...sometimes I just wish it would last forever, moments like this -- being like this -- you and me, this night, this room, the music, all of it -- just last for always," Merry managed brokenly.

Frodo let him stay there for a long while, then pulled back and held Merry's face carefully in his hands.  "But Merry, love, then the glow of dawn would never replace the glow of the flames -- the dark would win." 

Merry looked up and blinked as the tears in his eyes made the lamplight dance and shimmer around that beloved face.  Frodo smiled at him warmly.  "And all those forfeits would be for naught.  And all the songs and revelries and..." Frodo's expression slid into something slightly wicked, "...all the heat and light we've made this night would be wasted." 

Merry managed a watery smile, but something frozen and painful was still coiled tightly in his chest. 

"I love you, Meriadoc," came the fierce whisper, and then cool lips brushed Merry's just before those fingers grasped his chin. 

"But--"

The fingers covered his lips gently.  "No buts.  Melithon le anuir, Meriadoc.  You can't escape me, nor I you."  Frodo's face was lost in shadow, facing away from the light in the room.  All Merry could see was the reflection of the distant fire in Frodo's eyes.  "Melithon le anuir," Frodo whispered once more, and slid his hand around Merry's nape to pull him into a gentle kiss.  Even though Merry couldn't understand them, something about those syllables, the way Frodo spoke them so intensely, made Merry's throat constrict painfully.  Frodo loved him.  Frodo would always love him.  No matter what happened, Merry could always be sure of that. 

Merry felt something within his chest loosen and melt in the dark sweetness of Frodo's kiss, but before he could wrap his arms around Frodo, Frodo pulled away and stood.  "I think the rest of that infusion is in order, then into bed and back to sleep for you cousin."

Merry was startled for only a moment, then stood quickly.  "Oh no."  He turned to pull in the shutters and secure them.  "No."  Then shut the window quickly.  "No."  The distant music, now sweet and slow, was muted.

Merry turned and pulled off his robe and the shirt under it in one motion, tossing them at the overburdened chair beside the bed. 

Frodo stared in disbelief at Merry as he stood there wearing nothing but a rather cocky grin, "What are you--"

"What was it you said -- 'break my share of hearts and burn a few to cinders along the way'?  If I am to manage all that, I am thinking that there are a few more things my dear cousin needs to teach me," Merry said firmly.  "I don't have time for sleep."

Frodo's face was a study for a moment as he struggled to analyse what Merry had just said, then comprehension dawned and the solemn expression dissolved into a smile, quickly replaced by a sceptical look. 

Frodo folded his arms, his eyes raking Merry from head to furry toes, lingering much longer than necessary at certain parts -- parts that were decidedly enthused about the attention.  "Despite what all your tweener friends may brag behind the stables, it is not possible to keep at this all night long -- at least not without more sustenance than a glass or two of the Hall's best."

Merry frowned and thought about that for a moment, then he grinned broadly.  "Well, they are all out there and will be for a while -- and the kitchens are quite unguarded with all that food leftover from the feast," he offered.  "We can make a basket and bring it back up here, or at least get some hot cider and roasted nuts and some of those lovely apples--"

"All right, all right!" Frodo rubbed his stomach hungrily, grinning broadly.  "We do need to get some more ice for that jaw of yours.  We might as well get some food, as well.  It would be a shame to let all that wonderful cooking go to waste -- especially that lovely plum cake."  Frodo looked at him appreciatively.  "But at least put your robe back on, love, or you will be breaking hearts all the way to the kitchens."

Merry grinned and ran to scoop up the robe and pull it on, then stopped suddenly to gaze at Frodo who was waiting patiently for him at the door.

"What?  Did we forget something?"  Frodo looked down at himself, straightening his robe.  "Is something untoward hanging out?"  He was wearing a smirk when he looked back up, but it faded as he caught sight of Merry's face.  "What's wrong, Merry?"

"I love you, Frodo Baggins."  Merry said quietly. 

The concerned look changed into something that shone beautiful and brilliant on Frodo's face.  "And I love you, Meriadoc Brandybuck."  Frodo returned softly.

"Now," Frodo finally said, opening the door.  "Do you plan on standing here until dawn?"

"No!" Merry said over his shoulder as he went quickly through the door.  "I plan to create a great deal of heat and light myself before the sun comes up!" 

Frodo's delighted laugh and Merry's answering whoop rang loudly through the corridors of the Hall and sang out joyfully into the night, harmonizing with the sound of merriment and voices and music rising into the sky with the dancing light of the bonfire -- bravely holding back the dark.

*******

 

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