West of the Moon

A Tolkien Fanfiction Archive

 

 

High Spirits
Frodo spends a revealing Yule at Brandy Hall. (Sequel to Kindred Spirits.)
Author: Elanor Gardner
Rating: NC-17

 

High Spirits

sequel to Kindred Spirits

"I think (mumble mumble) No (mumble mumble) too cold (mumble mumble) Really? Well (mumble mumble)..." At that point, there was a loud succession of noises that sounded like someone had thrown a pail down the front steps to the road below.

Please, please, please just be QUIET! Frodo thought muzzily, trying desperately not to wake up completely. But someone must be standing right on the front stoop talking to Bilbo, and that someone had managed to summarily yank Frodo right out of his oh so lovely dream. How strange to hear voices raised in front of Bag End at this hour of the morning.

And it was evidently quite early -- Frodo knew that without even opening his eyes -- far too early for Bilbo to be up and about. Obviously the visitor, whoever they were, must not be familiar with the Baggins' sleeping habits. Frodo snuggled under the covers as the noise faded and he sank back toward sleep, so very glad that his lovely dream seemed to be returning, despite the disturbing interruption.

Undeterred by the noise outside, the insistent but somehow gentle hand ghosted up Frodo's back, stroking smoothly up around and down his side just to the curve of his buttock, then back up his spine, combing up into his hair, then down his neck, across his shoulder, and over his ribs again. Shivering at the absolutely delicious sensation, Frodo stretched and nearly purred, shifting his legs to encourage further exploration. The fingers obeyed, straying further down his hip before skating back up the front of his thigh, leaving shudders in their wake. Heavens, this was wonderful, and so real -- drifting in his warm cocoon with dream fingers stroking his skin. Sam's fingers -- Sam's hand sliding up his side, slowly tracing his hipbone, dipping in and hesitating just for a moment there, then sliding back up again.

Frodo squirmed blissfully, half-hard now and reaching for the dream, willing it to continue. Sam's fingers stroking into his hair, pushing it up off his neck. Sam's moist, warm breath at his nape. Sam in his bed -- still -- and it near morning. It was a wonderful fantasy this.

Warm lips touched his shoulder and he shivered as the fingers grew more daring, sliding beneath the curve of his hip and up, brushing sensitive flesh just enough to make Frodo thrust his hips back, aching for more. But the fingers slipped away and up.

Longing to turn and touch, but fearful the fantasy would drift away like wisps of fog in the morning light, Frodo sank his fingers into his pillow, clinging to the dream as the fingers explored now around his ribs to tease a peaked nipple, then trailed down his side to his hipbone and drifted, oh so close--

Frodo did groan then, the sound muffled in his pillow. He had had dreams like this before, but none quite so deliciously real. There was a sound from behind him and he felt those lips nibbling tantalizingly at his backbone. This Dream-Sam was much more aggressive than his own real Sam, but oh--

The breath was sucked from his lungs as fingertips grazed hardened flesh -- then lips and teeth and tongue skated down his hip. Frodo willed himself not to wake from this dream -- not to wake yet again to a cold empty bed. His hips bucked and he gasped as a daring thumb grazed across the slick tip and teeth nipped at his buttock, then at his hipbone. Then the bed suddenly shifted and he was on his back with those hands roughly cupped beneath his hips. Before he could think or even breathe, he was engulfed by that hot, slick mouth and thrusting mindlessly upward, his fingers clawing at the pillow uselessly, barely choking back a shout when he remembered whoever might be still standing on the front stoop. Dream or no--

Just as quickly, strong hands shifted to hold Frodo's hips still, and those teeth scraped carelessly, pulling away. Frodo growled and released the pillow, his fingers questing downwards just as a hot tongue darted out and playfully swiped sensitive flesh. Frodo threw back his head and bit back a yell, plunging his fingers under sheets and covers into coarse curly hair. The tongue swiped again, this time a longer, more circuitous route that had Frodo tugging at that hair.

"Oh Sam--" The words had only just left his mouth when he realized a few things in very rapid succession. First, Sam's hair was not coarse but silky. Second, Sam's fingers were not that long or that soft. Third, this was decidedly not Sam in bed with him. Fourth, this was not his bed at Bag End, but his cousin Merry's bed in Brandy Hall. Fifth, it was 2 Yule and last night's festivities had wrought significant changes in his relationship with his cousin. And sixth, he was decidedly not asleep, although now he certainly wished he had dreamed all this.

Frodo's eyes opened wide just as there was a muffled squawk of protest from between his legs and his "dream lover" rose up, tossing back the covers angrily.

"WHO?" Merry hissed. Indigo eyes snapped at Frodo from an angry countenance -- made even more terrifying by the lopsided appearance of the bruise that covered one entire side of Merry's face, from temple to cheek. Truth be told, only one eye was snapping, the other was nearly swollen shut. Merry, breathing hard, came down onto the bed heavily, his hands on either side of Frodo's hips. "Whose name did you just say?"

Frodo knew better than to answer. Merry's mouth was far too close to Frodo's rapidly dwindling arousal for comfort. Resisting a strong urge to put the pillow that he still had in his hands in front of his more tender parts, Frodo chose instead to lie as still as possible, hoping Merry would follow his usual temperamental behaviour and throw himself about the room, possibly breaking a few things, but nothing too vital to Frodo's health.

"The gardener's son?" Merry snarled, "You gave me all that trouble last night-- you chastised me, and you're tumbling the gardener's son? Of all the self-righteous--"

Frodo drew a breath carefully and very slowly. "Merry--"

Merry threw himself off the bed, casting about for his clothes. "No. I don't want to hear it. I don't want to know. Just don't!" He held up his hand warningly. "Don't bother!"

Frodo looked about for his own clothes and realized they were buried under Merry's, and decidedly in harm's way. But the borrowed robe was hanging on the bedpost near his head. When Merry finally found his breeches and was preoccupied with pulling them on, Frodo grabbed the robe and slid quickly out of the other side of the bed. The floor was quite cold. In point of fact, the room was cold and he was aching in places he shouldn't be aching -- even after last night. He shivered and suddenly, incongruously, longed for a hot cup of tea and a warm fire.

Loud voices rose from the courtyard below as Brandy Hall woke to the new year -- undoubtedly a bit later than usual after the festivities of the evening before. Frodo realized those were the noises that had awakened him -- Brandy Hall's staff stirring to life. There was work to be done, even on 2 Yule -- even with the after effects of too much food, too much drink, and far too much carousing into the wee hours.

Frodo wondered if he was just feeling his age as he circled the bed wearily -- his joints were aching and his head was starting to pound. Well, it had been a very late and rather energetic night. As soon as his temper cooled, Merry would undoubtedly be feeling the after effects both of his cousin Pearl's underhanded attack as well as his own rather vigorous pursuits with Frodo.

But, true to form, Merry was now throwing things about looking for his shirt, apparently unaware that he was in his own room and had a wardrobe full of shirts to choose from -- and that, if he found his, it was quite thoroughly bloodstained and likely ruined after last night.

Frodo briefly speculated whether he could manage to recover his clothes without any damage, then watched with dismay as his jacket went sailing past him -- wincing as his favourite book of verse slipped from the inside pocket and slammed into the wall. Curse Merry's foul temper anyway! He strode over and bent to retrieve it, inspecting the corners and the ancient pages with relief that no apparent damage had been done. When he turned, he saw his waistcoat fly by and got a face full of something silky. Frodo peeled the green and gold bloodstained scarf off his head and balled it into his fist, his own temper beginning to boil as he listened to Merry's muttered imprecations on his ancestry, his intelligence, his prowess in bed, his--

"Ow!" His own breeches had hit him in the face, and one of braces had snapped his ear. Something that had been on the night table next to the bed crashed to the floor. The sound splintered painfully through his aching head.

"Meriadoc Brandybuck!!" He said loudly. "Stop acting like a fauntling!"

Merry stood for a moment beside the bed, breathing hard, then he looked up, meeting Frodo's gaze, his eyes dark...and dangerous. Frodo stood his ground.

"Fauntling," Merry rolled the word on his tongue. "I'm acting like a fauntling." Merry turned and advanced on Frodo, flinging words like deadly projectiles. "You, of course, are a paragon of a mature gentlehobbit -- always so proper and virtuous."

Frodo did finally back up as Merry drew toe to toe with him, pushing Frodo up against the wall next to the door. Merry's finger was in his face, punctuating his sentences.

"So very sanctimonious -- my dear, dear cousin -- and all the while you have been Buggering. The. Help."

For a moment, Frodo stood in disbelief as the words rang painfully in his ears and the room lurched dizzily around Merry's smirking face. Then something jagged slid up his spine and lodged, frozen and furious, in his chest. Frodo shoved his hand hard into Merry's shoulder and Merry stumbled backward in surprise.

"If that is what you choose to believe, fine," Frodo hissed. "But tell me cousin, what are you doing then?"

Merry frowned at him and started to answer, but Frodo cut him off easily. "No. No. I'll tell you."

Frodo made a show of counting on his fingers as he thrust them into Merry's face. "Making promises you never intended to keep. Thinking only of yourself and what hangs between your legs. Insulting me and someone I love dearly in one breath." Frodo held the last finger up accusingly, "Because you are still, and always will be, a Selfish. Little. Brat."

"I can't believe I trusted you when you said you wouldn't be jealous or possessive," Frodo berated himself as he pushed past Merry, untying the robe as he bent to retrieve his breeches, but Merry grabbed his wrist tightly. Frodo turned, jerking at his arm angrily. His head was beginning to pound mercilessly.

"Let go of me, Merry," he gritted out. "Or I will break a promise I made a long time ago and blacken your other eye."

Merry's expression was unreadable. "Certainly, cousin. I would be glad to let go of you." Without any warning, Merry spun Frodo around, grabbing the collar of the robe and pulling it off with one motion, briefly trapping Frodo's arms in the robe.

"Bugger it all!" Frodo watched his book slam into the floor yet again, but before he could turn and defend himself, Merry opened the door, planted his foot in Frodo's backside, and shoved him unceremoniously into the hall.

Frodo just had enough time to notice the surprised expression on Pippin's face as he careened into his cousin and they both hit the floor, Pippin letting out a startled yelp as Frodo landed on top of him.

"Oh good, the Squeak can make sure you don't embarrass yourself too much whilst finding your own room, cousin." The door behind them slammed and the sound of the lock clicking home was very loud.

Pippin made a choked noise then coughed. "Frodo, you're heavy," came the muffled voice from beneath him. Frodo recovered his wits enough to try to get up, but couldn't get any leverage so he just rolled off, landing awkwardly on his bare backside.

Pippin sat up, breathing hard, and stared at his elder cousin for a moment before breaking into a broad grin. "Cousin Frodo, Merry tossed you into the hall naked."

Frodo would have found Pippin's matter-of-fact statement of the situation amusing in any other circumstance, but he gazed at the door in furious indignation then glanced up and down the hall quickly. "Yes, he did," he gritted out.

"He's still upset then?" Pippin asked as Frodo struggled to his feet and extended his hand to pull Pippin up as well.

Frodo was preoccupied with deciding if he should try to recover his clothes and his book now, or risk leaving them in there with a very out of control cousin. "Hmmm?"

"I said, is Merry still upset about last night then?"

"Oh. No. I mean-- well yes, he is still somewhat upset about last night, Pip," Frodo answered.

Those shining green eyes shifted to the door, from behind which some ominous-sounding noises were now emanating. "Seems odd for him to be mad at you about it, seeing as how you spent the night nursing him and all."

A vivid picture of what he had spent the night doing to Merry flitted through his mind and Frodo barely managed to turn a derisive snort into a cough, getting thoroughly choked in the process. He was bent over coughing with Pippin pounding on his back when he heard the sound of voices down the hall and straightened quickly.

"That's Aunt Esme!"

"I know, Pip," he said hoarsely.

Pippin's eyes flickered downward and back up, "You're naked, Frodo."

"I know, Pip." Frodo looked desperately around for an escape.

"Here," Pippin stripped off his own jacket and held it out. "Merry told me you both used to climb around the outside of the Hall a lot-- to get to the roof. There's a window down there," he nodded toward the end of the corridor, out of sight beyond the sweeping curve of the wall. His eyes were very wide and round, "and you will be mostly out of sight, but it is awfully cold out, Frodo."

"I remember that window," Frodo took the proffered jacked and wrapped it quickly around his waist. It left him extremely exposed in the back, but it would have to do. "I do owe you cousin, and if you can manage to distract Aunt Esme so she doesn't notice the draft when I open it, I will be deeply indebted to you." He gave Pippin a quick, but very firm hug, then pelted away down the hall, leaving his young cousin grinning in front of Merry's door.

***


"A...a....CHOO!" Frodo felt as if the top of his head did actually fly off with that one. "Blast Merry's blasted temp-- A...a...CHOO! BLAST it all!" Might as well just keep the handkerchief pressed to his nose at this point, but it was already getting sore.

Frodo leaned back against the pillows of Bilbo's bed. He still felt cold, despite the roaring blaze on the hearth, and his head had begun to pound with every sneeze. He tugged at the extra quilts that Bilbo had scrounged from the makeshift bed on the couch in the sitting room beyond and burrowed back into the warmth of the pillows as far as he could manage.

"I don't think you can blame Meriadoc for this, Frodo. It came on too quickly for your little-- excursion to have been the only cause. You must've already been--"

"I felt fine, until-- until-- A...a...CHOO! --until I ended up stuck on that ledge with frost on my nether re-- A....a... CHOO! --regions!" Frodo heard the croak in his own voice and winced. Wonderful! He really was ill. And they were supposed to be on the road for home tomorrow.

Bilbo looked suitably distressed, but Frodo could see the amused twinkle in his cousin's eyes. "You were quite a sight to behold, I must admit! I am glad you finally worked out which was my window, but--"

"Please don't Bilbo. Just don't. I will gladly pay whatever bribe you require, for the rest of by-- by life," Frodo winced when he realized his nose was so stuffed up he was beginning to talk like a fauntling. "To keeb that story frob being repeated."

"Well," Bilbo looked quite serious as he carefully mixed the concoction that the wonderful Izzy had just sent up to their rooms. "I don't know, my lad, it is just too great a temptation. There you were, nearly blue with cold. I imagine parts of you had just decided to head for warmer--"

"Bilbo!"

Bilbo grinned as he finished his work with a flourish and walked over to the bed to offer the rather large mug to Frodo. "As I recall, from my younger days, this tastes absolutely disgusting, but works quite well -- or at least aids you in forgetting how truly miserable you are."

Frodo gave the mug a jaundiced look. "To by way of dink--" Frodo grimaced as Bilbo stepped back with the promise of an impending sneeze. "--dink--" Frodo scrunched up his nose to stop the itch, "--dinking!" He sighed with relief. "You would get the sabe effect with a nice bottle of-- aCHOO! Ouch! BLAST it all!"

"Yes, yes, Izzy sent up a bit of the Hall's finest brandy for later, when you need to sleep. Here, drink up."

Frodo was mortified to find his hands still shaking as he reached for the mug. He closed his eyes in delight as the warmth of the mug seeped into his chilled fingers, taking a deep breath of the steam before he drank.

Nearly gagging at the taste, Frodo tried to think of it as somewhat of a reassurance. It was still as disgusting as he remembered it from his own childhood at the Hall, and hopefully as potent.

"And Izzy is sending up a nice light lunch to settle your stomach right down," Bilbo reassured him as he struggled to drink the awful brew. "Some of that lovely mushroom soup of hers, and that wonderful braided bread she makes this time of year, and..."

"But Bilbo, you can't be dink-- dink--" Frodo rubbed at his stuffed up nose futilely, "You can't be planning to eat up here? Aunt Esme will expect you to join the family at table."

"No, no, my lad. I won't have it," Bilbo said firmly. "They will see quite enough of me later. I'd like to be sure this is just a chill, as you insist. I would never hear the end of it from Esme if this was some pestilence brought from Hobbiton and it spreads through the Hall at Yuletide, of all times."

Frodo groaned and lay back on his pillows. "It's not a pestilence, Bilbo. I'll be fide. I just need to get warm." He looked around at Bilbo's things, scattered here and there haphazardly. "She will habe my hide for taking your bed--"

"Not a problem. I am moving into your room, which is quite fine and Cousin Grigory is moving to take Uncle Longo's smial. Uncle Longo-- Ahem, well. You and I both know that he doesn't really stay in his own room at Yule after all, now does he?" Bilbo's eyes twinkled merrily.

Frodo smiled in spite of his throbbing nose and leaned back into the pillows gratefully, closing his eyes. "Thank you, Uncle. I dink I, unlike Uncle Longo, shall stay right here for the rest of the visit."

Frodo felt Bilbo's soft hand touch his forehead. "My poor boy. You really are a bit on the warm side."

Frodo's eyes popped open. "Warm? I am freezing." He tugged the quilts up further. "Aren't you code?"

"Some nice hot tea will help with that, I--"

A quiet knock interrupted and Bilbo went to the door quickly. Two kitchen lads entered with overloaded trays and deposited them carefully on the desk. Bilbo went over and made delighted noises as he uncovered one after another of Izzy's offerings.

"Miz Izzy asked if you might be needing anything else, Mister Baggins, sir?" one of the lads asked nervously as the other ducked out.

"Indeed, this is all wonderful. Could you ask your lovely mistress to send us up tea mid-afternoon, then?" Bilbo said quickly. "And tell her that her remedy may be needed again later today? I am afraid young Mister Baggins has taken quite a chill and shall be staying in bed for the moment."

The lad nodded, glancing at Frodo quickly, then staring at the floor as he backed out the door.

Bilbo shook his head as he poured out two cups of tea from the steaming pot. "I will never get accustomed to the airs Esme puts on with her staff. They seem to be terrified most of the time."

Frodo smiled and started to shake his head, but decided the effort was too great. "You know it's not Aunt Esme they are terrified of, Bilbo. It's you." He watched Bilbo smirk a bit before his usual protest.

"Me? Whyever for?" Bilbo looked appropriately innocent as he approached the bed.

Frodo snorted, then instantly regretted it as his entire head protested. "You are a legend at the Hall, Bilbo. You have been for years, and you know it. You encourage it."

"Indeed? Well, I never!" Bilbo nodded toward the mug Frodo held in both hands, "Finish that, or Izzy will have your hide and mine as well."

Frodo took a breath and gulped the rest of the bitter mixture. "GAH! That is just -- disgusting!"

Bilbo held out a brimming cup of tea and Frodo gratefully exchanged his empty mug for the cup. He took swift gulps of the hot sweet liquid to wash the taste out of his mouth as Bilbo went off to deposit the empty mug and retrieved a tray table.

"That Izzy is such a treasure," Bilbo said as he walked over to the bed with his burden, tilting his head to take deep, appreciative whiffs of the food. "Just the thing for the way you feel, lad. Some nice mushroom soup, poached eggs, Izzy's lovely egg bread toasted up just for you, I imagine, with a bit of Esme's prized black currant jam, and egg custard for afters! She has outdone herself I think."

Frodo reluctantly accepted the tray table, scooting up into the pillows as he settled it over his legs. He couldn't find his appetite at all, even in the face of all the delicious food, so he rubbed at the edge of the warm, silky cherry wood tray, worn smooth by hundreds of fingers over the years, and wondered if he had eaten from this very one when he was bedridden by some childhood injury long ago. Or perhaps Merry had. Merry-- Frodo frowned at the memory of that lopsided face, shadowed and swollen with purple bruises, glowering at him this morning. Pearl had left the visible marks, but the words both of them had flung at each other might have done the irreparable damage.

Bilbo was humming happily to himself as he added all manner of food to his own tray and then carried it over, depositing it on the bedside table, and pulling his chair up close so he could eat fairly comfortably. He frowned at Frodo's tray as he picked up his fork.

"Tuck in, my boy, tuck in."

Frodo grimaced and picked up his spoon, dipping it into the mushroom soup and stirring listlessly. "I feel rather shiftless letting you wait on me like this. I could manage to get my own food, you know. All my limbs are intact."

"It was a near thing though," Bilbo remarked. "If it had been me, propriety would have been thrown to the wolves and I would have paraded the halls in my altogether rather than freeze my balls off."

Frodo shuddered. "You would have -- and likely made those fully dressed feel that they should disrobe as well. I don't think I could quite pull that off."

Bilbo chuckled and Frodo looked warily at the soup. It did smell quite wonderful. He took a quick sip. Oh! He could still taste just a bit. It was wonderfully earthy and soothing -- chock full of sautéed mushrooms in a rich flavourful broth -- heavenly. He managed the entire bowl and found himself sopping up the last of the broth with a triangle of egg bread to get every drop.

Bilbo looked up from his own bowl. "Well, let me get you some more of that." He quickly retrieved Frodo's empty bowl and went to fill it again. "Izzy sent up a whole tureen of it, she knows you quite well I think! I hope this appetite is a sign that you are not going to expire from some dread fever."

"It's not a fever, Bilbo. I just got a chill, that's all." Frodo watched as Bilbo carried a full bowl of the soup back to his tray. He wasn't sure he could manage it, although it was delicious. "We must take the recipe for this home with us this time."

"Yes, yes. I'll ask, but I doubt Izzy will be forthcoming unless you truly are deathly ill." Bilbo made gratified noises of his own over the rosemary chicken and creamed potatoes. For a while the room was quiet except for the sound of silverware on china and satisfied sighs -- and infrequent sniffles and coughs from the bed.

"I don't suppose you are going to enlighten me on exactly how you ended up clambering about the outside of the Hall in nothing but Pippin's rather diminutive jacket?" Bilbo got up to refill his plate. "I take it that it was some disagreement between you and Merry, but I was quite certain that Merry would not be up for such antics after our dear Pearl blindsided him last evening."

Frodo felt his face flush. Oh, but Merry had been up for much more than that.

"It was just Merry being Merry," Frodo said quietly.

There was a chuckle from Bilbo. "Well, I believe that loyalty amongst cousins is a fine, fine thing, and I am glad that prankstering at Brandy Hall is still an art form being practiced by the younger generation. Just a bit surprised to find that you were the subject of the prank and not Pearl."

"It wasn't a prank, really," Frodo blotted futilely at his dripping nose with the damp and abused handkerchief.

Bilbo left his plate behind and made his way to the clothespress to rummage about in one of the drawers. "I can think of a few cousins I would like to see displaying their bare bums on the side of the Hall," he said matter-of-factly as he pulled out a pile of handkerchiefs with a flourish. "Seemed a fine prank to me."

Frodo leaned back into the pillows and closed his eyes wearily, "Not fine at all. Rather more a -- misunderstanding."

"Well, rather a lot of dramatic misunderstandings going on around here this Yule, I would say."

"Drama is tiring," Frodo agreed. "Not to mention threatening to life and limb." He propped open one eye to find a pile of fine lawn handkerchiefs next to his elbow and Bilbo standing at the desk, opening a bottle.

"The lads brought up a bottle of that very fine '98 Girdley -- could you manage a glass? I don't think it would go too badly with the remedy or the food."

"Thank you, Bilbo. You are far too good to me," Frodo sighed, opening the other eye and discarding the bedraggled handkerchief on the tray in favour of a fresh one.

Bilbo poured two generous portions of the wine and deposited one on Frodo's tray, gazing at the untouched eggs meaningfully. He took Frodo's empty soup bowl and returned to the spread on the desk, coming back with a bowl of egg custard and a cupful of preserves, placing them on Frodo's tray with a flourish.

Frodo sighed and took a sip of the wine. It was a good vintage and he took another deeper drink, then he obediently dug in to the eggs, even though he really wanted to move on to the lovely looking custard while he could still taste it.

Bilbo resumed his chair and his own meal with a satisfied sigh. "Well, whatever the drama or the 'misunderstanding', I am sure that one of your cousins will be popping in soon to check on you."

Frodo didn't respond. Likely someone would come by, especially when the Bagginses did not make an appearance at the obligatory family luncheon after the Yule night festivities and Aunt Esme investigated and of course Izzy would tell her mistress all. He grimaced and took yet another drink of the wine, hoping the Yule celebrations and traditions would keep the number of visitors to a minimum. He imagined that Pippin would certainly make an appearance sooner than late, worried that something dreadful had happened to his elder cousin on the trek across the roof. But Merry--

"To cousins!"

Frodo managed a rueful smile and lifted his glass to join the enigmatic toast. "Cousins." He drank and realized his sense of smell and taste were fading fast. The rich fruity tang of the wine was suddenly dull on his tongue, for more reasons than one. Cousins indeed.

"Cousins are quite special creatures, you know," Bilbo went on. "They aren't your siblings, gifted to you by fate as boon or curse. They aren't your friends, who choose to cleave to you through thick and thin. They are some other thing -- something between gift and choice." He gave Frodo a meaningful look, tipping his goblet toward his cousin and heir. "And we Bagginses are gifted with an overabundance of these very special creatures in our life."

Frodo contemplated his wine before taking another quick drink. He realized that although he had been upset with Merry for the past few hours, he had been even more furious with himself. He was the one who had made the mistake and given in to Merry's rather persuasive -- rather seductive -- reasoning last night. Frodo should have known better. But, nonetheless, he really couldn't imagine life without his mercurial cousin -- or any of his cousins -- young Pippin, Freddy, Folco, Bilbo--

"And some of them are more special than others," Bilbo continued.

Frodo looked up questioningly and Bilbo smiled, raising a forkful of chicken. "Present company included."

Frodo raised his own spoonful of golden custard in acknowledgement, gazing at his cousin's smiling face and reminding himself once again what a special gift Bilbo Baggins was to him, and how Bilbo's own choice to take responsibility for a tweenaged cousin had changed his life -- had changed their lives. He managed a smile in return.

Bilbo returned his attention to his plate, and Frodo mixed a generous dollop of black currant jam with the last few bites of his custard.

"And some are very special indeed--" Bilbo stopped and gazed into his wine, then drank it thoughtfully.

Frodo looked at him questioningly, finishing off the custard.

Those grey-blue eyes gazed through him for a moment, then Bilbo dug into his meal once more and waved his spoon. "It is a long story," he said around a mouthful of custard.

Frodo drank the last of his wine and sat the empty goblet back on the tray, pushing back up onto the pillows wearily. Izzy's remedy must be working. His nose no longer throbbed with each beat of his heart and he felt decidedly mellow -- warm and full of good food. "Well, I'm not going anywhere," he said resignedly, "and you do seem inclined to join me in my isolation."

Bilbo smiled at him. "Indeed." He stood and took his own tray back to the desk, then returned to get Frodo's as well. Bilbo fished a cut crystal bottle from amongst all the comestibles and poured a small portion into a snifter, holding it up for Frodo to see. "Some of the Hall's finest -- your sleeping draught I believe?"

Frodo shook his head carefully. "I believe between Izzy's remedy and the wine I am already very nearly pie-eyed, thank you, Uncle. I will reserve it for later."

Bilbo grinned, "Well, nothing wrong with being pie-eyed at Yule, to my way of thinking." He carried the bottle and another snifter over to the clothespress and hid it neatly behind a stack of books. "No reason to let the lads take it back until we are finished with it," he winked and held a finger to his lips, "for medicinal purposes of course."

Frodo nodded seriously. "Of course."

Bilbo returned to his chair and sat down with a sigh, leaning back into the cushions and patting his stomach.

"Yes, cousins...special cousins," he said thoughtfully, swirling his brandy.

Frodo closed his eyes, wondering what story Bilbo might be about to tell. He was fairly certain he had heard them all--

"You asked me not long ago, I believe, if I had ever loved."

Frodo winced and glanced over at Bilbo apologetically. "I'm sorry, Uncle," he managed hoarsely. "That was rather forward of--"

Bilbo waved at him, "No, it is a quite understandable query of an old crusty bachelor like myself, and you were in need of some reassurance of my expertise at the time, I believe."

Frodo closed his eyes again, feeling his face heat. It seemed ages ago, but it had only been this past spring that he had sought out Bilbo's advice about his feelings for Sam.

"Well, of course I have loved, my lad," came Bilbo's soft voice.

Frodo opened his eyes and looked at his cousin's face. Bilbo had leaned back in the overstuffed chair and was gazing at the ceiling, his expression soft -- the wrinkles somehow smoothed out in the dim light seeping through the frosted windows.

"I was about your age at the time. A proper, respectable Baggins, sent off to learn all I could about the way my Uncle Gorbadoc ran the harvest here, to benefit the tenants on Baggins' holdings. I hadn't really had the benefits of fostering at the Hall before. My mother thought-- " Bilbo's eyes opened and his lips quirked as he met Frodo's gaze. "Well, it doesn't really matter what she thought. But I was sadly lacking in the more down-to-earth aspects of running a large holding."

"My father, as I recall, was quite thoroughly suspicious of my mother's intentions, of course, she being a Took and he being a Baggins, but when she persuaded him that I could learn something from Uncle about increasing the yield from our holdings, he agreed, and I was off to spend the entirety of the harvest season at Brandy Hall," Bilbo's eyes were dancing now. "And quite a season it was."

Bilbo took a careful sip of the brandy. "Are you certain you won't have some of this, Frodo? It is quite marvellous stuff."

"Per--" Frodo began rustily, then cleared his throat only to find what remained of his voice was a raspy sounding croak. "Perhaps later."

"Sounds to me as if you could use it now for that throat. Let me pour you some and just put it there by your hand, if you need it." Bilbo got up and retrieved the snifter and decanter, pouring Frodo a substantial amount and handing it to him before settling back into his chair.

"Now, where was I?"

"Here, at Brandy Hall," Frodo said, then coughed.

"Drink some of that, lad. It will clear out those pipes of yours."

Frodo dutifully took a sip of the ancient liquor and felt it burn its way to his stomach. He cleared his throat noisily in reaction.

"Better?" Bilbo queried.

Frodo nodded. His eyes were watering, but it felt good.

"Good. Well," Bilbo continued. "I had certainly been here before. For Yule and for special occasions, parties, even to help with various harvests at times when they were hard pressed, but never for an extended stay. Mother wanted me to shadow Uncle Gorbadoc every moment and learn everything and anything useful." Bilbo gazed at the frosted windows solemnly.

Frodo swirled the golden liquid in his glass, trying to visualize a barely-out-of-his-tweens Bilbo roaming the Hall.

"And so I did." Bilbo went on, "I applied myself rather seriously and studiously to the task, as I was wont to do in those days. For convenience, I was housed there right next to the family entrance to the Hall, just down from the Master's suite and his office. I spent many hours in that office, right beside your mother's nursery."

Frodo glanced up at that and caught an indulgent smile on Bilbo's face. "She was the most beautiful hobbit child, your mother."

Frodo remembered. He had known about the summer Bilbo had spent here at Brandy Hall. That was the source of all those stories Bilbo told him about the delightful copper-haired faunt who had a laugh like ringing bells and the mischievous disposition of a Took. He remembered vividly the tales Bilbo told of chasing Primula out from under his desk and listening to her loudly resist her afternoon nap until Bilbo relented and read her a story, and how Primula's attachment to him had made Bilbo wonder what it might be like to have a child of his own.

Suddenly Frodo realized -- he was nearly the same age as Bilbo was during that long ago summer at Brandy Hall. He had never really thought about Bilbo being that young before.

"Uncle was quite happy to find someone as interested in figures and ledgers as he was. Cousin Del was the one who eventually showed a real mind for the business, but she was just a faunt herself. All of them -- Amy, Sara, Dody, Dino -- they were all fairly young, just old enough to do their part in the fields and barns. All except Rory. And Rory. . . Rory was. . . is special." Bilbo stopped suddenly and gulped down the last of his brandy, leaning back and closing his eyes once more, the empty glass still in his hand.

"He was -- actually he still is -- a great deal like our Meriadoc," Bilbo lifted his head to meet Frodo's gaze. "Feisty and temperamental. Stubborn and opinionated about everything." He smiled. "Did I say temperamental?"

Frodo managed to smile, thinking of Merry's grandfather -- Rorimac Brandybuck, his mother's elder brother and the Master of Brandy Hall until recently. His perspective was coloured by having seen his Uncle Rory just last night -- his mind still sharp and facile but his traitorous body shrunken and feeble, struggling now to even walk without assistance where once he had stood tall and proud as the Master of the Hall. But Frodo remembered -- from the perspective of a very young cousin visiting at the Hall -- the broad-shouldered, sun-browned hobbit with Merry's strong chin and ready laugh. Everyone said Merry took after his grandfather, from the colour of his hair to his love of the ponies -- and his absolute hatred for keeping the accounts -- and apparently his temper as well.

"And such a touch he had with the ponies. He loves his horseflesh even now -- now when he can no longer ride, now when he can only watch."

A spasm of pain touched the dear, wrinkled face and Frodo knew, suddenly, who had captured Bilbo's heart all those years ago -- Merry's grandfather -- Frodo's Uncle Rory.

"So natural in the saddle. Practically lived in the stables." Bilbo leaned back against the chair, closing his eyes. "More a Took than a Brandybuck, that one. Always more of a Took."

Frodo felt something twist inside him. The look on Bilbo's face was so absorbed, so full of -- something. Longing? Yearning? He had seen that look on Bilbo's face before, but only when his cousin was talking about a new stretch of road beneath his feet or seeing the Misty Mountains again.

"It began that summer," Bilbo sighed, "and it began with a fight."

Frodo felt the sudden urge to cough again and took another sip of the brandy, clearing his throat painfully. "A fight?" It came out as a raspy whisper.

"Bagginses and Brandybucks -- if they're not fighting, they're--" Bilbo grinned and reached for the decanter to splash more brandy into his glass. "Tweening."

"You and Uncle Rory actually fought?" Frodo whispered. "Real fisticuffs?"

Bilbo looked up at him guiltily, "Well, actually, yes. A couple of blows were exchanged."

Frodo's remembered Merry's hand clenched around his arm. He looked down, surprised to find a darkening bruise on the inside of his wrist. "About?" he asked thoughtfully, rubbing at the abrasion.

Bilbo smiled, then laughed. "Ah, the question to ask is, what did we not fight about?" He took another slow sip. "Everything and nothing," Bilbo went on.

Bilbo's voice was quieter and softer now. "We had always avoided each other on previous visits somehow. He was younger than I was and we were opposites in so many ways. He wasn't at all interested in reading or bookish pursuits and I wasn't really that enamoured of the outdoors."

Frodo raised his eyebrows in disbelief.

"Remember, this was before Gandalf," Bilbo added by way of explanation, then cleared his throat. "I was already fairly staid and stodgy, even at that young age. And the Brandybuck had always been a bit of a sport, running wild through the Halls and more often through the hills." Bilbo's pipe stem stabbed in Frodo's direction, "You yourself know he was far too well acquainted with the Old Forest at quite a young age. Brags about it to this very day." Bilbo shook his head. "Certainly when he was barely in his tweens, he could have cared less about the business -- at least not the running of it, not the ledgers and accounts. But if it took him outdoors -- no matter what the season -- he was there. Brown as a nut, bleached by the sun, tall and broad-shouldered and strong. He was as determined not to darken the doorway of the Master's office as his father was to get him there." Bilbo placed his finished pipe carefully on the table. "And was equally determined to torment his Baggins cousin."

"Torment?"

Bilbo leaned back, glass in hand. "Think back on your relationship with our Meriadoc. It has never been -- uneventful, eh? From the very beginning, I imagine."

Frodo grimaced. Oh yes, from the very beginning--

"MERRY!!!! No! " Frodo had righted the inkbottle and saved a nearby stack of vellum from being splattered, but his own work had been ruined. "No -- no -- NO!!! Do you even UNDERSTAND what 'NO' means Meriadoc Brandybuck?" he had yelled as he blotted up the spilled ink, knowing his raised voice would do absolutely no good at all. Grimy fingers had grasped the edge of the table and a head of gold curls dusty with cobwebs had appeared, followed by those mischievous-looking blue eyes, squinting with obvious malicious delight.

"Tell Merry a story NOW!" came the demand, in a tone that did not brook refusal.

"NO!!!" Frodo had stood then, looming over the toddler menacingly. "You are supposed to stay where Lilac can watch you and play with Beri and Meli! I am too old to spend all my time with you, and I am BUSY!"

Frodo had quickly learned to dodge Merry's powerful kicks at his shins, but only after a few bruises to show for it. And Merry had just as quickly learned to feint and circle around to wallop Frodo in the calf, so that Frodo had eventually learned to take a fighting posture the moment his tiny cousin entered a room -- if he saw him coming. Merry had been a dirty fighter even as a faunt.

Not only was Merry temperamental -- he played favourites. And his favourite relative to torment was, of course, Frodo. Getting away from his nurse and his mother to chase after Frodo could keep Merry entertained for hours and leave Frodo bruised and twitching. Frodo had finally taken to volunteering for any task that would get him as far away from the family smials as possible -- becoming a willing pupil for whatever his Uncle Rory and his Uncle Saradoc wanted to teach, from estimating the yields on the autumn's harvests to hand lettering the labels for the very best of the vintage.

He had been secretly working on a new design for those very labels -- one with an intricate drawing of the front of the Hall, when a certain bratty cousin had ruined hours of work by spilling ink all over it.

And that had been the day that everything had changed. The day that he had finally just grabbed Merry and spanked him -- quite hard. The day that his Aunt Esme had finally forgotten that he was her beloved Prim's orphaned child. The day that he had been sent packing -- off to reside in a wing of the Hall far from the family, permeated with a damp mouldy smell and lit by the meagre light of a drafty, north-facing window. The day he had been put in his place for daring to raise a hand to the future Master of the Hall. And he had been as happy as it was possible to be considering his status -- out of sight and out of mind. Left alone, when he wasn't working in the fields or barns alongside everyone else, he was free to do pretty much as he pleased -- for a while.

Then had come the urgent summons back to the family wing --


"Somewhat like riding a barely broken Hall pony, as I recall." Bilbo's voice jerked Frodo back to the present. "Never dull."

Frodo blinked and shook off the memories of those days at the Hall.

Bilbo cleared his throat and Frodo looked up to meet his gaze. "A bit tempestuous, eh?"

Frodo could only nod. It had never really come to blows between he and Merry after that, but it had come close many times -- including this morning.

"Indeed," Bilbo's mouth quirked and Frodo remembered the often loud and boisterous 'discussions' between his guardian and his Uncle Rory. His Aunt Esme always referred to them as arguments, but Frodo had seen the undercurrent of true affection beneath the heated words. Besides, Aunt Esme had never stayed around long enough to listen to Bilbo and Uncle Rory become bawdy and sometimes sentimental in the deep hours of the night. Helped along, of course, by the precious supply of Old Winyards and Withywindle that Bilbo secreted in their baggage -- smuggled in to save the scion of the Hall the humiliation of being caught drinking a rival vintage in the shadows of his own vines.

"The Brandybuck taught me how to fight -- well, actually, how to fight dirty -- that summer -- a skill I had somehow failed to learn well over all those years," Bilbo shook his head. "There are things the Hall teaches you that-- well, you wouldn't learn quite the same way in Hobbiton, for example."

Frodo grimaced in agreement. Scrapping and scuffling, surviving in the barns and fields, earning respect and status with your muscle as well as your wit -- that was just a part of life in the Hall.

"And he taught me other things as well," Bilbo conceded with a hint of that soft, vulnerable expression.

Suddenly Frodo was reminded of the look on Merry's face last night -- 'Do you want me, Frodo?' It had taken everything Frodo could do to keep from just devouring Merry whole when he had gazed into those smouldering indigo eyes and realized that -- yes -- he not only wanted, he needed.

"Yes indeed."

Frodo looked up to find Bilbo's knowing gaze on him and felt a trickle of sweat slide slowly down his neck. Perhaps Bilbo was right -- he was getting feverish. "So you were--"

"Battling like old enemies one moment and acting like tweens crazy for each other the next. Yes. We were." Bilbo cradled the old brandy and took a long sip. The only sound in the room for a long moment was the crackle of the fire. "I imagine it was quite entertaining to watch, but I was oblivious. Completely--" Bilbo seemed to hesitate over the word for a moment, "smitten."

It was hard for Frodo to imagine Bilbo completely overthrown by emotion -- that steely wit softened and disarmed.

"Rory was past his change, and acting the full-fledged tween, and I was just a tad old for all of it." Bilbo gazed at the fire, his eyes distant and misty, sipping at the brandy. "Mother called me a 'late-bloomer'. Father--" he seemed to stumble over the memory, "Father called me other things."

Frodo closed his eyes and thought about the last time he had seen Bilbo and his Uncle Rory together -- Bilbo hunkered down beside Rory's chair, shoulder to shoulder, greying heads nearly touching, snorting over some bawdy joke Bilbo had told. Then suddenly, Frodo saw Merry -- gold hair threaded with silver, deep laugh lines around his mouth, those indigo eyes still bright -- still fiery. He wondered how they would act -- what they would talk about when their bodies were ravaged by time and the sharper edge of memory was dulled by the years.

***


The corridor was quiet, since everyone -- Pippin grinned to himself happily -- well, nearly everyone, was down filling up the corners with all those luscious afters. At least he had gotten his share by cutting through the kitchen. It was amazing what you could coax the kitchen lasses to give you if you just grinned at them and opened your eyes really wide and said "Yes'm" and "Mistress" a lot. He had learned that from Frodo.

Pippin had also learned to listen carefully to everything that was said and wasn't said -- by everyone. He had learned that from Bilbo. And he had learned all by himself how to make it seem a very good idea for him to be out from under foot looking for Pearl's missing hair ribbons and his missing jacket rather than back in the family dining room regaling the kinfolk with stories of what had gone on at the Great Smials when Uncle Longo came to visit last May. Although he really didn't understand why his mum had become so upset about the bathhouse story -- but his Uncle Merimac had laughed really hard and told Pippin he would understand soon enough.

And his mum didn't have to know that he already knew where Pearl's hair ribbons and his jacket were and that he was headed straight for the Baggins' smial. His mum had not specifically said not to go there. She had just said, 'Now I am sure my good lad knows better than to disturb Uncle Bilbo and Cousin Frodo when he knows that Cousin Frodo needs his rest' as she pushed him toward the door. And no one had ever accused Pippin Took of knowing better or knowing anything at all -- not really. Pippin was absolutely determined to find out what was really going on before the grownups sent him somewhere else where nothing was going on.

What had been clear from the scene in the family dining room was that Merry was still angry, and rightly so -- he had looked awful with his face all purple and puffy! And then Pippin's da and mum had forced Pearl to come to the family meal, when she was still smarting from the-- well, it had proved hard for her to sit quietly at the table as she should and her face had been all puffy too. But she certainly had deserved it! And poor Merry hadn't deserved the walloping she had given him at all. And then she and Merry had had to face each other right there in the close quarters of the dining room with the family standing about pretending not to watch as Pearl had apologized -- rather sullenly as far as Pippin could tell. And Pippin knew when Pearl was being truthful. She hadn't meant a word of it. And Merry had known too. Pippin had been able to tell from the look on Merry's face.

And then Merry had been upset and not eating at all -- just pushing food around on his plate. And Pearl had been sitting there and stuffing her face as if all was forgiven and forgotten! Easy for her -- she didn't look any different. And then Aunt Esmeralda had explained why Bilbo and Frodo weren't at table -- Frodo had taken ill. And then Merry had looked even more miserable and Pearl had looked even more smug.

Ugh. There were times when Pippin just detested his sister. Pippin shoved his fingers into his waistcoat pocket, remembering too late that they were coated with powdered sugar and cinnamon from that lovely slice of cake -- but reassuring himself that Pearl's precious hair ribbons were still safe, though they were also now coated with sticky sugar. He just needed to find out exactly how sick Cousin Frodo really was so Merry wouldn't be worried, and get his jacket, and then -- well then he would just see what he would do next.

Pippin made certain he was walking very softly as he approached the door to the Baggins' rooms and took a deep breath before leaning his ear up to the door. He didn't want to interrupt anything -- especially something important he needed to hear. But the room beyond was completely quiet. Leaning back and rubbing behind his ear, he gazed at the door thoughtfully for a moment. When he realized he now had powdered sugar and cinnamon in his hair, he proceeded to grumpily lick at his fingers and muse on his plans for the rest of the day. Then he heard the faint sound of glass clinking against glass inside the room and leaned in to listen again. Yes, there it was. Someone was awake in there and moving around. He tapped softly on the door and stepped back, looking down at himself to make sure he was presentable and noticing that he had powdered sugar all over his breeches and on his foot hair as well! He bent over and brushed at it futilely.

"Well, my very favourite Took cousin!" came a familiar voice from above his head -- in a very soft tone for his Uncle Bilbo.

Pippin stood up, nearly ploughing his head into Bilbo's stomach. But his Uncle Bilbo was apparently quite nimble, for being as ancient as he was, and he managed to step back quickly, smiling the entire time. "Whoa there, young fellow!"

"Sorry, Uncle," Pippin grinned back. "I came to see how Cousin Frodo was. Aunt Esme said he'd taken sick."

Bilbo looked over his shoulder at the door into his bedroom. "Well, yes, he is quite ill, I'm afraid, and has been asleep for some time," he said in a near whisper.

"I told him my jacket wasn't enough. It is really cold out there!" Pippin exclaimed unhappily, trying to keep his voice down. "Did he fall? Did he freeze something? Do you want me to go fetch the healer?"

He felt Bilbo's warm hand on his shoulder steering him into the room as the door closed behind him, "No, no. He didn't break anything and he didn't freeze anything. At least I don't believe he froze anything."

Pippin looked up and saw Bilbo's eyebrows waggle as he smiled down at him. "I don't think we need the healer quite yet. We shall see. But I could certainly use some company for a bit. Would you like some custard?"

Oh! They hadn't offered Pippin custard in the kitchen. He adored custard and nodded enthusiastically as Bilbo guided him to a chair next to the fire.

"I am expecting some tea when they come to clear away all this, but the custard is still quite good and will go down just fine without any, true?"

"Yessir," Pippin agreed happily, wiggling back into the chair and watching as his Uncle Bilbo went to the spread of food on the desk and retrieved a bowl, heaping it full of custard and carrying it to Pippin along with a big spoon.

Pippin dug in without hesitation and closed his eyes at the taste. Oh, he did so love custard. Actually, Pippin just loved good food. He thought longingly of all those afters queued up in the kitchen for the family dining room then heard his Uncle Bilbo clear his throat and realized he had been very impolite. His eyes popped open and he found his Uncle standing next to the fireplace gently tapping his pipe into his palm over the side of the fire.

"Thank you, Uncle Bilbo," he managed. Although, through the custard, it likely sounded a bit more like 'Tham ooh, Unca Milmo'.

Bilbo smiled warmly at him. "You are welcome, Peregrin Took." He pulled a pouch of pipe weed out of his waistcoat and dipped the pipe into it. "Now, what is this about your jacket?"

Pippin suddenly realized that he had spoken too soon. Frodo apparently had managed to get into his rooms without anyone, including his Uncle Bilbo, seeing him. And now Pippin had given it all away. Oooh, he wondered how much trouble Frodo would be in for running around the outside of the Hall in his altogether. Certainly, Pippin would be in a great deal of trouble, especially if he had gotten sick as a result, like Frodo apparently had. Pippin felt the tips of his ears burning, as they always would do when he did something foolish.

"No, no, lad," Bilbo waved his pipe about, smiling, "I know that Frodo was climbing around the roof with only your jacket for protection from the elements, what I want to know is precisely how he got himself into that situation."

Pippin looked guiltily toward the door behind which Frodo was apparently sleeping and looked back to find Bilbo pointing his pipe in that direction. "And your cousin hasn't really felt up to telling me the whole story. But I am sure he wouldn't mind you telling me," Bilbo pulled his tamper out of his waistcoat pocket and proceeded to gently tamp down the weed in his bowl. "I just want to be sure that there isn't anything else involved in this-- sudden illness of his."

Pippin looked back at the door, then up at Bilbo. Well, it certainly wouldn't hurt to have someone else watching out for his cousins, seeing as how they couldn't seem to watch out for themselves. And Bilbo was about the most un-grownup grownup he knew of. Certainly he had done a lot worse than climb around on the outside of the Hall in his day -- based on his own stories. Pippin took another huge bite of custard to fortify him, because it was a rather complicated story.

"I'm nob," he began then swallowed carefully, licking a stray smidgen of custard off his lip. "I am not sure exactly what, but I think it was something to do with what my bratty-- I mean, what Pearl did to Merry last night at the Forfeits because, after she went and walloped Merry one with the Yule branch, Frodo carried Merry to his rooms and took care of him and then Frodo stayed with him all night to make sure that he was all right, and when-- and this morning, when I went to check on him and I was-- uh, I was standing there at Merry's door to his room when I heard-- well, uh, they were loud in there and I could not help but hearing them, and they were-- well, I don't know what they were--" He stopped and took a breath. "Can I have another spoon of custard, Uncle Bilbo? This is a terrible long tale, and I will be hungry again before I reach the end of it all."

His Uncle Bilbo made a strange sound at that point. Something like a snorty cough, then dipped his pipe into the weed pouch again and took to tamping away at it. "Certainly, certainly."

Pippin took a nice generous spoonful of custard and sighed with happiness.

"I cub--" he swallowed. "I could not tell exactly what they were saying, but I did hear Cousin Frodo call Merry a 'fauntling', and then Merry said something about Frodo being a 'Peregrin of a gentlehobbit', which I did not understand at all, for whyever would they be talking about me in the middle of all this yelling, I thought, then Merry said that Frodo was 'always proper and virtuous', and 'very sancti--' something," Pippin looked up to find his uncle's face contorted strangely and he squinted.

"Are you quite all right, Uncle?"

"Ahem. Well," Bilbo coughed and blinked his watering eyes. "Yes, yes, I'm fine. Just a bit of leaf up my nose. Go on."

"Is 'sanc-tim-i-nous' a word?" Pippin asked.

"I believe he was saying 'sanctimonious', my lad."

"What does 'sancti-mon-i-ous' mean, Uncle Bilbo?" Pippin watched as Bilbo scooped one last layer of weed into the pipe.

"Hmmm, well, it means 'smug', in a 'I am better than you are' sort of way," Bilbo said thoughtfully.

Pippin smiled. "I can use that word on Pearl then. She acts like that all the time!"

Bilbo coughed again. "All right then, go on, my lad, but fortify yourself with some more custard first."

Dipping his spoon for a generous portion of the custard, Pippin wiggled around trying to get comfortable. He must've been sitting here forever because his bottom was itchy to be up off the chair. He swallowed and made sure this time the custard was well and thoroughly out of the way of his tongue.

"And then Merry said 'all this time you've been--' and he used a word that mum would not want me to say." Pippin closed his mouth firmly and looked up at his Uncle Bilbo.

Bilbo raised his eyebrows and stopped tamping the pipe weed. "All right then, what were the other words Merry used in addition to that one?"

"Well, he said that word, then he said 'the' and then 'help'. Just like that -- "The. Help."

Bilbo leaned over to light a piece of kindling and char his weed carefully. Pippin took the opportunity to scoop up another helping of custard, never taking his eyes off his cousin's thoughtful expression.

"You will have to pardon me, my lad. I certainly do not want your dear mother to be upset with me for using such language in front of you--"

Pippin giggled, "Oh, she says I should not say the words. But Uncle Bilbo, I hear them and much worse than them from my sisters and my cousins all the day!"

"I imagine you hear worse from your old uncles as well," Bilbo returned, smiling broadly.

Pippin grinned and nodded fiercely, "I know some wonderful words that I cannot say -- yet!"

"Then you won't mind telling me," Bilbo took a deep breath. "Was the word that Merry used 'buggering' by any chance?"

Pippin nodded.

"So Merry said something like 'All the while you've been buggering the help'?" Bilbo asked softly.

"He said it more like 'you've been BUGGERING. THE. HELP.' Like that." Then Pippin realized that he had said the word and covered his mouth, looking around the room -- certain that several aunts and all his sisters were going to pop up from behind the couch and quite thoroughly cuff his ears. He watched with dismay as his Uncle Bilbo coughed and snorted on the smoke from his pipe.

"You-- you won't tell mum I said that word, will you?" Pippin asked anxiously, feeling his ears grow hot yet again. It was a wonder sometimes that his whole head didn't just combust.

"No," Bilbo coughed. "No, certainly not." Bilbo coughed again and gently tamped the charred weed, bending over to light the pipe once more.

"Well, I don't know what they were talking about, but then Frodo got really quiet. I couldn't hear what he was saying until he said 'Selfish. Little. Brat.' Just like that, and I am sure he was talking about Pearl because she is certainly that. Then Frodo was talking about blackening Merry's other eye, although I don't really think that Pearl would be doing that now, with da being so very angry with her and all -- and then that's when the door opened and-- and Merry threw Frodo into the corridor right on top of me, and he had nothing on at all. And, well, I thought perhaps Merry was still upset about-- about what Pearl had done, and-- and-- well, you know Merry has a temper, and perhaps-- well, I didn't really understand why Merry was mad at Frodo, but sometimes he just is, and then Merry said something about me helping Frodo find his room and locked his door, and then I heard Aunt Esme coming down the corridor, and I knew Frodo had to hide or something because, well, he had nothing on at all, and I remembered that he and Merry used to climb in and out windows and up to the roof, and I-- and I gave Frodo my jacket to, well, to sort of cover-- well, parts of him-- you know." Pippin stopped, squirming because something was really hard about the chair he was sitting on.

His Uncle Bilbo wasn't frowning, so that was a good thing. He was sort of smiling as he puffed on his pipe, and at least the pipe hadn't been ruined by all that coughing and choking before. Pippin took a deep breath and another scoop of the custard.

"Well, that is helpful," Bilbo said softly.

There was a soft rap on the door and Bilbo moved to open it, making a shushing noise as two kitchen lads entered, one carrying a tray that looked decidedly like tea things to Pippin. Pippin watched as the two lads made quick work of the warming dishes on the desk. Then, thoughtfully, Pippin lifted the bowl of custard into his lap and held it carefully out of sight as the two quickly cleaned up the remains of lunch.

"The Mistress says to ask if young Mister Baggins is in need of the healer, sir?" one of them asked as they paused at the door with their heavily burdened trays.

Bilbo looked suddenly very solemn to Pippin. "Yes, I think so. And, could you tell your Mistress that the fewer visitors the better."

Pippin saw the young lad glance at the door into Frodo's bedroom. "Yessir!"

Pippin thought about it a moment as his Uncle Bilbo closed the door slowly and turned to face him.

"Is Cousin Frodo so very ill then?" he whispered.

***


"Master Merry is very ill," the lad said. "Mistress Gilda asked me to bring you back with me, Master Frodo."

Frodo grimaced at Merry's name and looked up from his book to find one of the kitchen lads standing halfway in the doorway, looking at him as if he might bolt.

"Really? Has he a tummy ache? Or is he just missing his favourite punch toy?"

"No, sir. He-- They say--"

Frodo gave up at last and placed his ribbon bookmark in place carefully. "I won't bite, no matter what you've heard. What do they say?"

"They say he got in the stall with Lightning, sir."

Lightning was a stud with a nasty temper -- a very nasty temper. Frodo felt a chill run through him as he sat up.

"I've heard he won't wake up, sir. And-- and Mistress Gilda told me to tell you to hurry, sir."

Frodo threw his book on the bed and pelted past the lad, running at top speed through the halls toward the family wing. His Aunt Gilda had never been prone to exaggeration or drama. Unlike some other family members, Aunt Gilda was as firmly planted in the bedrock as the Hall itself. Young Merry had to be -- his mind tripped past the word, unwilling to think it.

It was odd how the walls seemed to fade into grey before him and how the distance seemed shortened, as if there weren't quite enough steps or corridors between his tiny room and the family wing, and it was unbearably warm in the hall. It had never been quite this warm before, but he didn't stop to think about it. He just ran.

He hadn't meant for this to happen. No matter the horrid thoughts that he had had about the walking temper-tantrum that was his cousin, no matter how aggravating the little brat could be, he never wanted anything to really happen to him. Aunt Esme and Uncle Sara would never recover from this final blow, after all the lost bairns, the tiny graves in the Brandybuck Cemetery -- all the joy and happiness that they had found together in the golden-haired future Master of the Hall would be gone. Frodo's family -- what family he had left -- would disintegrate around him if anything happened to Merry. And the thought of those bright blue eyes dulled -- that mischievous mind stilled -- twisted at his heart. He had always had a grudging admiration for the little sod -- all that fire and feistiness at such a young age. If someone could just channel all that furious energy--

The faces that turned to him as he careened down the stairs and into the family wing were white, and looked oddly disembodied, as if they were floating in some grey murk. He could feel the sweat dripping off his hair onto his neck, his clothes sticking to him as he pushed through them -- insubstantial as fog -- and headed for the door they were all crowded around -- the nursery.

And then he saw his dear Aunt Gilda's face and his Uncle Sara standing, stricken at her side, and he knew what he would see when he looked at the bed where his Aunt Esme knelt, her head buried in her arms -- Merry, pale and limp and unresponsive, legs and arms awkwardly long, hanging off the too-small bed, the side of his face swollen and discoloured -- a full grown tween, not a faunt -- his lovely Merry -- those warm golden freckles faded into pale, pale skin, that blazing gold crown of hair dulled, those vibrant indigo eyes wide open and flat--

"No! MERRY! NO!!"


Frodo flung himself at the motionless figure on the bed, then realized suddenly that he was in the bed -- no, he was in a bed -- or it felt as if he was. He managed to pry open his eyes, which felt as if they had been glued shut. He was sitting in a muddle of sheets and coverlets and blankets on a rather over-large feather bed. His nightshirt was sticking to him, sweat was prickling on his neck, his heart was pounding wildly, and his head was whirling in a very disconcerting way. Flinging out his hand to steady himself on the soft mattress, he looked around the room.

This wasn't the Brandy Hall nursery. And Merry wasn't-- Merry had recovered all those years ago. Merry was very much alive -- and still driving him to complete distraction with his possessiveness and his dratted temper. Frodo took a deep shuddering breath and smiled with relief -- then started coughing.

The room door creaked and he watched as Bilbo entered quickly and Pippin's pale face appeared behind him in the opening, green eyes wide with concern.

Oh wonderful. He must've yelled out loud in his dream. Just wonderful. He managed a wave at Pippin as he sank back into the pillows, working on trying not to cough as his heart steadied back to a normal rhythm.

"Sorry," he croaked as Bilbo approached the bed. And his voice was nearly gone as well. He closed his eyes wearily. What else could go wrong?

"No worries, my boy," Bilbo's hand touched his forehead gently. "You are just a tad warm and likely having odd dreams--"

"I think I fell asleep in the middle of your story. I was dreaming of Brandy Hall--"

"Indeed, well, I can finish that story later. Would you like some water?"

"Yes, very much," Frodo finally gave up on his voice and just whispered.

"And the lads just brought tea, if you are up to a nice hot cup with honey, it might soothe your throat."

Frodo nodded.

"Young Pippin is quite worried about you." Bilbo handed him a cup of water poured from the pitcher on the bed table and Frodo drank it greedily.

"I'm sorry," Frodo whispered, leaning over to peer at his young cousin, who hovered in the doorway. "Why doesn't he come in?"

"I think he has a healthy respect for fevers and such, having seen what they have done at Great Smials."

"But, Bilbo, I don't have a fever. Not really. This isn't some contagion. I'll be better by morning."

"Convince him of that," Bilbo smiled over his shoulder at the young Took. "Best just leave him be. He'll realize you are fine soon enough... and you need your rest."

"But I don't want everyone thinking I am deathly ill or some such. It will ruin Aunt Esme's Yule." This whispering was getting very old. You couldn't get any real volume at all.

"Trust me, my lad. With everything else that has gone on, this will not ruin Yule," Bilbo was looking around the room distractedly. "I promise, I will make sure your sniffles don't ruin the holiday for anyone. Now, where is the young scamp's jacket? I believe he wishes it back."

"I think it is buried under the blankets on the couch," Frodo responded, gazing worriedly over at his young cousin's anxious expression. "Tell Pip I am fine, Bilbo. He looks upset."

"I will. I'll bring you back some nice hot tea with honey."

"Thank you, Uncle Bilbo," Frodo whispered in response. He pushed up on his elbows and smiled at Pippin, but the young Took still looked concerned as Bilbo shooed him out of the doorway and closed the door.

As Frodo fell back into the pillows, he thought perhaps next Yule he would just stay home at Bag End. It would be infinitely safer.

He half-dozed as he listened to the soft buzz of voices in the front room then the sound of the outer door shutting and feet pounding away down the hall. Pippin persisted in running through the halls like some wild pony, despite his parents, his sisters and all the aunts and cousins admonishing him to stop -- and despite an abundance of near-collisions. Frodo smiled, remembering when he and Merry had done exactly the same thing, with much the same result. Then he frowned, remembering just how close they had come to losing Merry.

The dream had left him feeling strangely suspended, as if he might close his eyes and be back in the nursery once more, standing there beside that small bed looking down at his cousin's pale face and limp form and promising, over and over, that if Merry did awaken, he would never, ever lift a hand to him again in anger. But Frodo also remembered sitting on the edge of that bed, holding Merry's hot, small hand and talking with every breath he had. Telling stories, talking about the funny things that had happened to him in the fields and barns, singing silly songs, making fun of the aunts -- cajoling Merry, even as he lay there unresponsive, to wake up -- then rejoicing with everyone when he finally did. It had been a close thing, and yet somehow, he was glad that the cousin he got back at the end of it all was unchanged and still just as fiery and feisty as he had ever been. Well, mostly. Somehow, despite the fact that he had been unconscious during most of it, Merry had remembered his cousin's voice and touch and he never kicked Frodo again -- although he did take swings at him now and then.

Frodo smiled and the door opened. He pushed himself up into the pillows once more as Bilbo entered with a tray, setting it quickly on the bedside table.

"I think--" Frodo croaked, then gave up and turned to whispering once more, "I already feel much better."

"Excellent! You have always had fine powers of recuperation, lad." Bilbo held out a steaming mug. "I believe I made this to your specifications." He looked back at the tray, "And they have sent up some hot stewed fruit drizzled with honey as well as a nice wedge of that mild soft cheese that Rory favours -- and I believe you like as well."

"This is fine for now," Frodo whispered, sipping the hot sweet beverage with relief. It felt wonderful sliding down his throat. He cleared his throat. "You were telling me about you and Rory--" he managed in a raspy tone.

"When you very appropriately fell asleep!" Bilbo waved his hand. "I don't know what I was thinking. Why would you want to hear sentimental tales about two old fools when there are so many more exciting things to talk about?" He picked up his own tea, a chunk of cheese and a fine linen napkin and sat in the chair next to the bed.

"But I would," Frodo whispered. "You were talking about fighting with Uncle Rory. Fighting and--" Frodo coughed as his voice disintegrated again.

"Tweening." Bilbo smiled thoughtfully. "Yes indeed, I was, wasn't I?" He took a generous bite of the cheese. "I imagine it is a bit like your relationship with our Meriadoc, as I said. Although I didn't realize Merry had come early to his change until last night at the Forfeits. Of course, that is a Brandybuck trait--"

"At the forfeits?" Frodo croaked. "How--"

"Well, no, actually earlier. I was watching Meriadoc watching you dance," Bilbo said matter-of-factly. "Reminded me of myself, watching Rory at the mid-summer dance that year. Probably had that same fiery 'hands-off' look in my eye, I imagine."

"Hands-off?" Frodo whispered. Oh wonderful. And how many others had noticed what he had been unwilling to see?

"Oh yes. I--" Bilbo peered at him. "You two are tweening?"

Frodo took a deep drink of his tea and cleared his throat again. Whatever harm was done was likely already done and irreparable. "Not really," he said quietly. Looking up, he saw Bilbo's eyebrows rise sceptically. "Well, yes, but no. I-- I wasn't aware it was so -- obvious. And after this morning, I'm not certain it will continue -- or should."

"Indeed? And why is that?"

"Well, I-- Merry--" Frodo looked up. "Oh, no, Bilbo. We were talking about you and Uncle Rory--"

Bilbo snorted, "That is the Baggins in you coming out lad." He took a long sip of his tea and a bite of cheese as Frodo glowered at him. "And you look the very picture of your father right now," he smiled, pleased with himself at the observation.

Frodo stoically remained silent.

"All right. We shall talk about Rory and myself," Bilbo conceded, looking up to meet Frodo's gaze. " My story is -- short. Perhaps yours won't be." Frodo frowned at the vulnerable look that slid across Bilbo's countenance, then was just as quickly gone.

"As I think I said before my audience so rudely fell asleep," Bilbo smiled at him, "I was smitten. Rory was -- is to this day -- very special. He seemed to burn with his own fire -- like one of those shooting stars we sometimes see blazing off into the sea -- carrying his own heat and light about with him. When he walked into a room, the room changed -- as if someone had turned up all the lamps. Even if you didn't see him enter, you could tell by the way the conversation changed and grew more -- more excited -- and by the laughter."

Frodo held his breath at the look on Bilbo's face -- lit from within by something that had burned long ago. Uncle Rory did sound a great deal like Merry.

"Everyone loved him. Despite that wicked temper of his and that feisty, stubborn nature." Bilbo paused to take a long drink of his tea and stare at the fire.

Sipping quickly at his own tea, Frodo suppressed a sudden urge to cough.

"Or perhaps because of it," Bilbo said thoughtfully. "He charmed everyone without even trying and without even realizing he did so. Almost everyone he met -- and he seemed oblivious to it." Bilbo looked at the cheese in his hand as if he had forgotten he held it. "I was pretty much invisible anyway, but with him in the vicinity, I disappeared completely."

Frodo couldn't help himself at that point. "You? Invisible?" He smiled in disbelief.

But Bilbo didn't really smile when he met Frodo's gaze. "Well, yes. A Baggins trait I think. We can fade into the background when necessary."

Frodo blinked. He had often thought that he was able to do that, but he had never realized it was some kind of family talent--

"And Rory -- I think he was a bit bothered by it. As if I was skulking in the shadows or something of the sort," Bilbo went on. "He actually said that to me once when I was standing right beside him. 'Why do you hide like that? Get out here where you can be seen.' And there I was at his elbow!"

Frodo smiled. Merry had said something similar to him a while back -- something about seeming just another piece of furniture in the room.

"I have no idea, to this day, why he started paying attention to me -- shining that bright light of his my way. But he wouldn't leave me be. I would be in the office trying to concentrate on the ledgers or out in the vineyards taking notes on something one of the growers was trying with some of the vines, and there he would be, popping up all dishevelled and sweaty, smelling of-- well, whatever he happened to be into that day, be it hay or ponies or river water. It was the source of much amusement for him to see me attempt to ignore him and work, then finally lose all ability to focus when he started tossing grapes at me or nuts or whatever he happened to be eating -- and he was always eating."

Frodo grinned and leaned over to grab a chunk of cheese and a napkin off the tray.

"And then finally I lost my temper, which is a rarity in a Baggins. I was in the vineyards, taking notes on the progress of some new grafts, and he was tossing clods of dirt at me, trying to get me to leave off and go swimming, or some such. One of the clods hit my notes and ruined everything I had written as well as breaking one of my favourite quills." Bilbo finally smiled. "I chased him." He grinned and took a drink of his tea and a bite of cheese, then dusted his hand on the napkin. "Dropped everything and chased him right into the river, and I went right in after him, clothes and all."

Frodo watched, fascinated, as the look on Bilbo's face went dreamy and distant. "Nearly ruined my best pipe, that fight in the water. I gave as good as I got and we both had bruises and split lips to show for it." He realized Frodo was gaping at him and grinned broadly. "Quite a picture, isn't it? Your Uncle Rory and I exchanging fisticuffs in the Brandywine fully dressed? Of course, we also ended up doing a great deal more than fighting on the river bank that evening."

Bilbo's smile was melancholy as he took another drink of tea, setting the empty mug aside as he rose to walk over to the fire. He bent to poke and prod it back to life then stood to pull out his pipe and pouch. Frodo coughed at just the thought of a pipe, then willed himself quiet as Bilbo filled and tamped his.

"Like a moth to a flame. I was well and truly smitten, for the first time in my staid, rather boring life." Bilbo stood, gazing into the fire, his fingers tamping his pipe, his mind elsewhere. The silence stretched, filled only with the sound of the new logs crackling and popping as they were licked by flames and caught.

It was all Frodo could do not to cough.

"And the Brandybuck was teaching me things I never thought I needed to learn -- and things I'd never dreamed of. Things I don't think my father had in mind when he sent me off to the Hall. How to cheat at everything -- from cards to fisticuffs, how to drink the best vintage straight from the barrel -- and I don't want to tell you what a mistake that was -- how to ride an unbroken pony -- another mistake -- how to spy on the aunts while they are -- no, that one has nothing to recommend it. All manner of interesting things that I had already learned, but not quite the way that Rory taught it." There was a soft laugh and Bilbo finally turned, pipe in hand, and raised his eyes to Frodo's across the room.

"But the one thing he tried to teach me that I wasn't ready to learn was how to share," Bilbo said softly. "Actually, to be more precise, how to share him."

Frodo felt something warm bloom almost painfully in his chest -- Merry, just like Merry.

"Your expression tells me that you know the feeling, I think," Bilbo prodded gently.

Frodo nodded silently.

"I suspected as much, just watching our Meriadoc last night. Odd. I thought it was a Baggins trait, but you seem to have escaped it entirely." Bilbo tapped his chin with his pipe stem thoughtfully. "Well, Rory certainly wasn't the possessive type. Actually, he was quite taken aback by the very idea that I would want him to-- " Bilbo cleared his throat, "That I wanted him to love only me, to the exclusion of everyone else."

Frodo closed his eyes and heard a familiar voice.

"But I don't understand, why can't you stay here at the Hall with me?"

"Why do you have to go back so soon? What in Hobbiton could be that important?"

"Stay...stay...stay...mine...mine...mine..."


"Possessiveness about those you love is something rarely seen among hobbits," Bilbo's voice broke into Frodo's thoughts and Frodo opened his eyes.

"It seems unbearably selfish to most of us -- almost unnatural -- especially considering the way our tweens learn about love -- the way they learn to love." Bilbo took a long draw on his pipe and blew a ring in the air.

Frodo watched the smoky image waft slowly up, remaining oddly intact until it disintegrated upon the ceiling beam.

"You must remind me to tell you sometime about what I learned on my travels about the ways of love amongst men and elves and dwarves. Quite eye-opening -- the way they allow their young ones to learn about love."

Frodo knew his eyebrows had just risen dramatically by the bemused expression on Bilbo's face.

"Ah yes, I do believe I shocked more than a few dwarves talking about the ways of hobbits. And I must admit, the complexity of their customs around pairing, raising their young, and inheriting property would make you dizzy. And men -- well, as I said, we can explore that someday." Bilbo leaned forward, almost as if someone might overhear. "I never did manage to decipher the elves' approach to things of that sort," he whispered and smiled conspiratorially, "but I am working on it."

Bilbo looked at his pipe mournfully as it went out and he set it on the mantel to cool. Frodo leaned over and placed his mug on the tray as Bilbo walked back to stand next to the window.

"You see, my dear Frodo, one thing I learned on my travels was that we have to allow for differences -- between the various races inhabiting this earth." Bilbo rubbed futilely at the glass, trying to see through the frosted panes. "And between hobbits. Of course, that is the benefit of hindsight. All I knew then was that wanted to have Rory all to myself, and that he reacted -- well, not with revulsion, but certainly with misunderstanding."

Frodo thought about his own reaction to Merry this morning.

"And, of course, being Rory, he was angry," Bilbo said sadly.

Frodo knew the look on Bilbo's face -- in his eyes. He had seen it in Merry's -- beneath the temper -- beneath the anger. He felt suddenly sick. "I'm sorry, Bilbo," he managed to whisper. "It must have been--"

"Embarrassing -- confusing -- frustrating," Bilbo recited, his eyes closed. "Yes, all those things. But to have the one you love beyond all reason-- the one you want to have all to yourself--" he stopped, then opened his eyes. "You know, I believe this is really a conversation for brandy, not tea. At least I could use a glass." And he turned toward the clothespress and the hidden bottle.

Bilbo poured himself a glass and looked at Frodo, who shook his head.

"So, Rory and you--"

"Rory and I had a terrible row about it." Bilbo walked back to his chair and took a long sip of the brandy as he leaned back. "I was possessive -- jealous -- selfish." Bilbo smiled sadly. "Can you imagine trying to capture that spirit of his and keep it just for yourself? Why, it would be like trying to put the sun in a sack! And yet that is what I wanted."

"Do you still--" Frodo's voice vanished and he reached for his throat.

"You need that brandy, my boy." Bilbo reached for the glass of water and handed it to Frodo quickly. "Do I still love him -- want him to myself?"

Frodo nodded warily as he gulped the water.

"Oh, yes." Bilbo's voice was soft. "I am, you know, quite the queer hobbit, my lad. But, as I said, I learned how to get along in this world -- to really understand the way most hobbits think and feel about these things -- to manage." He smiled at Frodo warmly. "And I never told another soul -- till now."

Despite the warm thrill of knowing Bilbo trusted him with such intimate things, Frodo felt suddenly devastated. Bilbo had never married. Never spoken of very many loves in his life. Because there had always been only one-- "And Uncle Rory?" he whispered.

"Rory never really understood. He-- I don't know if it was ever any more than a tweener game to him. He was confused and angry, but he just moved on to other loves and other games. He didn't even bother to fight with me after that -- avoided me rather well."

"And now?" Frodo whispered.

"Ah, well. I doubt he even remembers it. My disappearance and my tales of adventure seemed to have erased that particular kind of queerness and replaced it with another." Bilbo leaned over and put his hand on Frodo's, which Frodo realized that he had clenched on the covers. "It's all right, my lad. He loves me as a dear, dear cousin and friend, and that is enough for me now."

"But, if Merry--" Frodo shook his head ruefully. "It's just impossible. He's impossible."

"Indeed," Bilbo agreed softly. "So, your Brandybuck wants you all to himself, eh?"

Frodo looked up at that understanding gaze. "He always has. And he's still behaving like that faunt who kicked and scratched to get whatever he wanted." Frodo coughed and took another drink of water. "He should have outgrown that by now, Bilbo. Tossing things about -- breaking things -- shoving and pushing and-- I actually threatened to black his other eye this morning. And I might have, had he not tossed me into the hall."

"In your altogether," Bilbo smiled. "At least you weren't in the Brandywine."

Frodo's smile was forced. "Well, that wasn't the worst of it. Merry said some spiteful things to me this morning -- about Sam."

Bilbo frowned thoughtfully. "Spiteful, eh? Yes. I remember some rather dreadful words that Rory and I said to each other." Bilbo leaned back and took another long drink. "I still remember those words to this day."

Frodo nodded. "Yes, and I lost my temper as well and said some equally terrible things in return, but -- well, I just don't want Sam to ever hear anything like that -- from anyone, but especially not from Merry." Frodo stared at the covers balled in his fingers. "I won't have him hurt like that."

Bilbo nodded, gazing at his glass. "And Merry, do you think he is hurting?"

Frodo looked up at the tentative expression on that familiar, dear face and realized how terrible Merry must feel -- if he truly was, like Bilbo, grappling with needs that were so different from everyone around him.
"Yes," he grated out. "Yes, I am sure he is. And last night undoubtedly made it worse, if this morning is any indication."

Frodo's throat ached in protest and he rubbed at it futilely. "I am a prize fool. I knew it was a mistake. I knew it! But Merry was so -- so needy -- and so -- well, once I got over the fact that he was-- he was--"

"Your baby cousin and tormentor?"

Frodo nodded furiously. "Oh, but he has grown up, Bilbo. He is-- beautiful. All golden heat and light and--" Frodo shifted uncomfortably as his body remembered -- rather vividly -- all of Merry's talents.

"Just like his grandfather," Bilbo smiled in agreement. "Yes, he is quite the lovely lad, our Merry."

"No matter. I was wrong. I should have said no."

"Do you think it would have made a difference? Saying no, I mean?' Bilbo asked softly. "Based on the look I saw on Merry's face last night, that might have just made things worse, not better."

"This couldn't be worse."

"So, you think if you walk away from him now, it will get better?"

Frodo could only groan and fall back into the pillows. "Perhaps-- perhaps I do want a bit of that brandy after all, Bilbo."

Bilbo laughed. "Brandy might not be such a good idea. You need what is left of your brain working at top speed to keep up with that cousin-- those cousins of yours."

"But-- what can I do, Bilbo? I can't change Merry -- his temper -- his possessiveness," Frodo whispered, pressing his hands into his eyes wearily. "You said you--"

"Rory turned away from me," Bilbo explained quietly. "I don't know what would have happened if he had not -- if he had been able to love me in spite of it all. Perhaps I could have devised a way to survive, watching him loving others, but knowing he did love me as well. I'll never know. But -- there were -- there still are -- times when I wished that he had helped me -- make it work. That he had loved me enough--" Frodo uncovered his eyes and looked at Bilbo, wishing with all his heart he could erase the hurt that he had never even known was there, and Bilbo raised his glass, acknowledging the unspoken sentiment, with another sip of brandy.

"I do love Merry. I want him to be happy." Frodo said thoughtfully. "I just don't know if I-- if we can work it out so he will be." Frodo looked down at himself, thinking about his icy sojourn on the Hall roof. "And at this rate, with that temper of his, he might just manage to kill me in the process."

Bilbo laughed, "Indeed, he might, but you are a tough nut, Frodo my lad. I think you can manage to survive and outwit the Brandybuck. Don't you?" He leaned forward, the smile gone. "And you might just create something beautiful at the same time."

Frodo looked at Bilbo's face and saw once more a hint of that longing -- that yearning for something just out of reach. Something beautiful.

There was a loud rap on the outer door.

"Sounds like your dear Aunt's knock, if I am not mistaken." Bilbo stood up. "I imagine she's brought the healer."

Frodo cringed. "Are you sure I can't have some brandy?"

***


"I told you to leave off, Squeak!" Merry growled, without even bothering to look at him.

But Merry never really looked at him much, so that didn't bother Pippin. He had learned to dodge and duck a long time ago. That was necessary with Merry. As well as learning how to follow without being seen or heard, that was important too.

It had taken a bit of searching, but Pippin had found his cousin -- bundled up against the cold -- out visiting his pony Spark in the stable, feeding him carrots and bits of dried apple and talking softly to him.

Pippin was determined though. This was important. He climbed up on the stall and straddled it. Spark snuffled softly at Pippin when he stuck out his hand, then tried to nibble at his sticky fingers.

"I just thought you should know that Cousin Frodo is really sick," Pippin said matter-of-factly, pulling his fingers out of harm's way.

"I know. Mother told us all at luncheon. Now, go away."

"No, I mean that Frodo is very ill, Merry. Uncle Bilbo seems quite worried," Pippin said firmly -- that should work.

Merry turned to squint at him. Pippin managed not to flinch, but Merry's face looked a sight. At least the swelling was going down. That decided it for Pippin -- Pearl had not gotten what she deserved for what she had done last night at the Forfeits. Not at all.

"Really sick? I thought he was just-- What's wrong with him?" Merry was suddenly in Pippin's face and Pippin nearly overbalanced back into the stall.

"I dunno, but he looks awful!"

"You were up there?"

Pippin nodded enthusiastically. "I went to get my jacket--"

Merry frowned. "Your jacket?"

"Well, that was all I had to give him to wear this morning when you-- when I-- when he was climbing around on the roof!"

"On the roof? In your jacket?" Merry repeated.

Pippin nodded again. "Uncle Bilbo said Frodo had a fever and an awful cough and he got quite cold out there and he wasn't sure if he might have frozen something off, and he yelled your name in his sleep--"

"My name?"

Pippin kept nodding. "And when I looked in -- well, he looked awful -- all red and sweaty and wild-eyed, and he just kept talking to Bilbo, but there was no sound coming out at all, and then Uncle Bilbo finally got him to lie back down, but I think that is when he called the healer and he made me leave."

"He yelled my name?"

Pippin leaned forward and peered at his cousin's face. "Perhaps you are ill as well, Merry. You are repeating yourself quite a lot."

Merry grunted something at him and turned on his heel, stalking toward the stable door. Pippin looked around the stable quickly and noted that it was deserted. Everyone was likely still celebrating or recovering from the celebrating. He jumped down from the railing and ran to catch up with Merry at the entrance to the Hall, trailing behind him as he headed for the back stairs.

"I'm really sorry, on behalf of all the Tooks, for what my sister did last night, cousin," Pippin said breathlessly.

Merry looked around at him quizzically. "Twas none of your doing, Squeak."

"Well, but I am the future Thain you know. And I, for one, think the Tooks should formally apologize to you."

Merry stopped and looked Pippin over appraisingly. "You what?"

"I am the future Thain. And I, for one, think what my sister did was abomim-- abom-- horrid, and that the Tooks should formally apologize."

"Do you then?" Merry watched Pippin nod in response and smiled stiffly, then he continued up the stairs with Pippin following close behind. Pippin ploughed into Merry's backside when Merry halted suddenly on the landing. Before Pippin realized what was happening, Merry had shoved him around the corner and down the hall, holding his finger up to his mouth warningly.

Pippin listened carefully and heard his Aunt Esme's voice up the stairwell, but he couldn't hear what she was saying. There was someone with her, undoubtedly the healer.

"Quite odd, I must say," that was a male voice speaking clearly as they passed the landing and went on down the stairs.

"Well, I just hope this doesn't keep everyone away from the evening's festivities," he heard his Aunt Esme say in a concerned voice.

"Perhaps that would be for the best. I for one don't--" the rest was lost as they headed into the main corridor downstairs.

Pippin looked up at Merry and knew the worried look on his cousin's face mirrored his own. Without saying a word, they both swung out into the stairwell and went on up to the next floor.

Pippin reached the door first, and pressed his ear against it. Merry hesitated and watched Pippin's face closely.

Pippin could hear Frodo coughing -- an awful crouping sound that hurt his throat just to listen. Then he heard Bilbo's soothing tones. Then more coughing. He frowned up at Merry. "Frodo is coughing. He sounds horrible." He stepped back from the door. "We had a coughing sickness at Great Smials last year and it was dreadful -- we lost a stable hand -- Gorby, and Essie in the kitchen lost a bairn, and little Nambur, and two in Tuckborough--"

Merry's face went pale. "That's enough, Squeak."

Pippin was quiet for about as long as he could stand. "Are you going to knock then, Merry?"

"I'm thinking."

"Are you afraid of catching it, then?

"No."

"So, what're you thinking about?"

"Shut. Up. Squeak."

Pippin's feet started prickling from standing still for so long and he bounced anxiously. It would be time for supper soon, at this rate, and he had missed tea! He opened his mouth to point this out.

"If you say anything, Squeak, I swear, I will kick you down the stairs."

Pippin frowned. But Merry never had kicked him anywhere, despite many threats to do so, so he wasn't really worried about it. He was worried about missing supper. Just as Pippin had reached that point where worrying about Merry's temper was outweighed by worrying about missing supper, Merry lifted his hand and knocked.

Pippin heard Bilbo's voice as he yelled something, probably at Frodo, then the door opened and he appeared, shrugging into his jacket.

"Well, Meriadoc Brandybuck and Peregrin Took, come to visit our humble smial together. Come in, come in." Bilbo shooed them in and shut the door.

Pippin glanced quickly over at the connecting door to Frodo's bedroom and saw that it was standing open. An awful croaking sound was coming from inside, and Pippin -- reminded of the coughing he had heard in the corridors of his own home not long ago -- slid around to the other side of Merry, who was gazing at the door in concern.

"Don't worry, lads. The healer thinks he is not contagious. There is no fever to speak of."

"So, he is getting better then," Merry stated matter-of-factly, but Pippin noticed he was still staring at the door with a worried look on his face.

"But he sounds awful, Uncle," Pippin protested. "Just like that coughing sickness we had at Great Smials--"

"Well, the healer made him sit up and cough a great deal, and that seems to have set this off."

The noise in the bedroom sounded a bit like a honking goose to Pippin.

Bilbo looked worriedly in that direction. "I don't want to criticize the Hall's healer, but--"

"Everyone still goes to Izzy for the real remedies, Uncle. Crup is really only good for stitching things up and setting broken limbs." Merry confided, leaning in to whisper. "He has an over-inflated idea of his own abilities, according to Uncle Merimac."

Bilbo seemed relieved that he hadn't offended. "Well, that is good to know. I was going to go talk to Izzy about something for Frodo's throat anyway, and now it seems I need to get him something for his cough as well."

"I can go for you, Uncle," Pippin offered, thinking longingly of supper -- but also wanting to make sure that Frodo had whatever he needed to make him well again. He could grab something in the kitchen. And he still had other things he needed to do.

"Well, I really need to talk to our Izzy, Pippin. But you can accompany me and help me make sure they are planning a fine supper for our lad, eh?"

Pippin glanced at the door. "Yes sir. But, may I see Cousin Frodo later then?"

"Absolutely." Bilbo's put his hand on Pip's shoulder. "Merry, could you go in and get your cousin a glass of brandy to clear those pipes of his and make sure he doesn't cough up a lung?"

Pippin winced. That sounded terribly painful -- but it might be interesting to see--

For just a moment, it looked to Pippin as if Merry was going to say no.

"I suppose so. I-- I mean if you think that is best."

"I appreciate it, lad. The bottle is hidden in the clothes press." Bilbo winked at Merry then looked at Pippin expectantly. "Well, my boy, let's be off." He pushed Pippin out the door ahead of him and shut it firmly behind them. "So, have you had tea then, Peregrin? Ours was woefully inadequate."

Pippin grinned. That was why he loved Uncle Bilbo so much.

***


Frodo had heard the conversation -- enough of it to realize that Bilbo had abandoned Merry in the sitting room and lured Pippin away with a promise of food.

Now Frodo lay quietly in the bed trying desperately not to cough -- listening for a sound from beyond the door that would indicate what Merry was going to do -- hide in the sitting room or forge into the dragon's lair.

Frodo didn't realize that he had been holding his breath until he saw Merry peek through the door -- bruises still livid on his rather pale face. Then, without thinking, he took a relieved breath, which stirred everything up once more and then he just had to cough -- and cough again. Sitting up, he managed to keep his eyes on Merry as he desperately tried to stop the relentless hacking. He knew it must sound and look much worse than it felt when Merry stared at him, eyes wide, then practically ran across the room to the clothes press, grabbing the bottle of brandy and pouring a glass, his eyes on Frodo the entire time.

Merry strode to the bed, almost sloshing the golden liquid out of the glass in his haste. He held it out and Frodo grabbed for it, but found that coughing and trying to handle a glass were not compatible. After two tries and nearly sloshing the fine brandy onto the coverlet, Frodo waved at Merry in defeat and just planted his hands in the covers and coughed.

For a long moment, Merry stood there helplessly, holding the brandy, then he climbed onto the bed, slid over next to Frodo, and held the glass up where Frodo could reach it, tilting it just slightly toward him. Frodo managed to shakily grasp the glass over Merry's fingers and take a drink.

He closed his eyes in relief as the burning liquid slid down his throat, fully aware that tears were streaming down his cheeks. Heavens, coughing was tiring. And now his head was pounding from it all. He felt himself sag wearily, then remembered who he was sagging into, and propped himself up on one hand. Opening his eyes he found Merry's dark blue ones gazing worriedly at him.

"Take another drink of it while you can," Merry said softly, holding the glass up.

Frodo kept his eyes on Merry's as he took another drink and then relaxed. It felt absolutely wonderful going down.

Merry leaned over and put the glass on the bedside table, then grabbed one pillow after another, fluffed them up thoroughly, and shoved them all behind Frodo.

"Now, lean back."

Frodo eased back and found he was practically sitting up. He closed his eyes and sagged into the soft mound of pillows. His head hurt, his throat hurt, even his chest muscles hurt from all the coughing.

"Uncle Bilbo's gone to get something from Izzy for you. She never leaves that kitchen, but knowing him, he might even manage to get her up here to take a look at you."

Frodo nodded wearily, then jumped when he felt something soft touch his face. He opened his eyes to find Merry gently wiping his cheeks with one of Bilbo's handkerchiefs.

"You're all wet," Merry explained solemnly.

Frodo closed his eyes again and relaxed under Merry's ministrations.

"I suppose this is turnabout, after you tended me last night," Merry said softly, pushing Frodo's sweaty hair off his forehead.

For a long moment the room was quiet. Frodo hoped against hope the coughing had stopped once and for all. He was afraid to even clear his throat for fear it would start up again.

"Do you want me to stay?" Merry asked in a tentative voice. "Or are you still angry with me?"

Frodo nodded tiredly in response. Then he felt Merry move away from him on the bed, and realized that he had answered the wrong question. Flinging out his hand and opening his eyes, he nearly hit Merry in the side of the face as he tried to stop him from sliding off the bed. Merry grabbed his hand easily.

Frodo winced, watching a muscle twitch in Merry's jaw as he held on to Frodo's fingers tightly. This was impossible. He didn't know whether to nod or shake his head. How could he communicate? Frodo realized he was frowning darkly when Merry's face went pale and just as quickly flushed with colour.

"Then I'll-- I'll just sit in there until Uncle Bilbo comes back. I'll be out of your way," Merry said in a stilted voice, tugging at Frodo's hand and glancing toward the door.

Frodo tightened his grip, holding on to Merry's firmly, pulling Merry's hand to his lips and kissing Merry's fingers. When Merry looked at him in confusion, Frodo pointed to his throat and shook his head.

Merry frowned at him for a moment, then his expression cleared and his eyebrows rose in disbelief.

"You-- you lost your voice?"

Frodo nodded. Merry grew suddenly thoughtful.

"So-- so are you angry still?"

Frodo shook his head.

"But you were angry."

Frodo frowned reluctantly, then nodded.

"Well, you had every right to be angry. I was -- well I -- I wanted you to be --" he hesitated, then pointed to the glass of brandy. "Do you want some more?"

Frodo shook his head. No, I have already had far too much to keep my wits about me.

"Well, I -- I do."

It was almost a question, and Frodo squeezed Merry's hand reassuringly before Merry pulled free to reach for the glass.

Merry took a quick sip and cleared his throat, his eyebrows rising. "The Hall's very best -- Izzy really does like Uncle Bilbo." He leaned over and placed the glass on the bedside table.

"Do you need anything else? Shouldn't it be warmer in here for you?" Merry looked around and noticed the fire was waning. Before Frodo could stop him, he had slid out of the bed and gone to rebuild the fire.

"So, Pippin tells me that you were climbing about on the roof in nothing but his jacket," Merry said as he placed logs carefully over the dying flames.

Thanks to you, cousin. Frodo grimaced at Merry's back. And you can't avoid me by chattering like Pippin either.

"And that you froze off some rather important bits," Merry smirked at him over his shoulder, then turned back to poking and prodding the fire before Frodo could react.

I am going to do something nasty to your important bits, just give me a moment to get my energy back. Frodo leaned back into the pillows, closing his eyes. Ugh. The brandy really was kicking in. He heard Merry dust off his hands and stride back across the room, then nothing.

When he opened his eyes, Merry was standing beside the bed, solemnly gazing at him.

"I-- I don't want to lose you, Frodo."

Frodo brought his hand to his chest and shook his head. I'll be all right.

"No, I don't mean the sickness -- although you had me worried for a bit."

Frodo watched as Merry stood there, chewing on his lip, hands clasped behind him.

You don't have to say the words, Merry. You've never been comfortable with words. Frodo held out an arm invitingly.

"No, I-- I'm not good with words like you, but I know that you want words," Merry stared at his feet uncomfortably.

And sometimes I hide behind words, Merry. I use them to keep feelings away. To wrap around things that are too powerful until I can manage them -- until I can understand them.

"I feel things," Merry clenched his fist against his chest, still gazing at the floor. "So much that I think I will just explode. And words don't do what I need them to, and then I feel so-- I just can't control it." He sat on the edge of the bed.

Frodo moved so that he could still -- barely -- see Merry's face. That only means you feel things deeply.

"I have to do something so it is there, and real, and in front of me, and then it-- and I-- and then I can deal with it."

Frodo saw the sweat beading on Merry's lip, the way his fingers clenched and unclenched on his chest. This is so hard for you -- all these words.

Merry slumped. "It is easier to just do things. Not think about them and put words around them and then think some more." His hands gestured in front of him.

You need to be who you are, Merry -- impulsive and honest. But the easy things are not always the best.

Frodo watched Merry's ears turn red as he turned to gaze pointedly somewhere in the vicinity of Frodo's hand on the coverlet, unable to meet Frodo's eyes.

"I don't get the words right-- like-- like what I said about your gardener
-- I mean your-- I mean Sam."

Frodo held his breath.

Merry bit his lip, turned to gaze at the fire, then twisted around to look directly into Frodo's eyes. "That was the feeling. I--" he stared down at his hands, clenched on his lap. "I didn't know it until I said the words and I saw you hurt. I saw on your face, what I felt in here," Merry touched his chest and looked back up at Frodo, his voice a whisper. "I just wanted to stop hurting, but then I hurt you instead."

I wish I could take all that hurt away, but I can't, love. Not all of it.

"I'm so sorry, Frodo. I know-- I just-- I can't--" Merry seemed unable to find the words, tears glimmering in his eyes.

Frodo reached out with a wordless noise, but Merry easily grasped Frodo's shoulders and slid behind him in one smooth movement, pulling him back to rest against Merry's chest.

"Ssshhh," Merry tugged at the covers, pulling them up and running his hands up and down Frodo's arms soothingly. "I'm talking now. You just listen." Merry gave a hiccupy laugh. "Of course, now you can't do anything but listen."

Frodo swatted Merry's arm in protest.

"You know, I like this. You being quiet." Merry's voice lowered to a whisper. "You being in my arms."

Frodo felt Merry's breath feather through his hair and shivered. Merry's arms tightened around Frodo in response.

"I talked to Spark about it."

Frodo smiled at the picture of Merry in the stable talking to his beloved pony.

"I told him I'd lost you," Merry went on, "because I want you all to myself." Merry's breathing hitched and Frodo knew he was crying. "Because I don't want you leave the Hall or -- love someone else. And I know what I want is -- wrong somehow. And I hurt you because I want it, and you tried to stop me-- to tell me-- but I-- I don't-- I don't know how to stop wanting it."

Unable to listen any longer, Frodo twisted around in Merry's arms. "I can't give you what you want, love," he managed in a rough whisper, gazing into Merry's tear-filled eyes. "But I think I can give you something beautiful."

"Oh, Frodo," Merry cupped his hands around Frodo's face and just looked at him -- and Frodo knew there were tears in his eyes as well. He didn't move as Merry lowered his head to kiss him -- a rather messy and wet kiss altogether. And Frodo didn't even protest when Merry settled back into the pillows and turned Frodo back about as if he were a faunt, pulling the covers back up over him and patting them in place solicitously.

Frodo sank willingly back as Merry embraced him tightly and kissed the top of his head. "I love you," Merry whispered into his hair.

***


"Aiiiiiieeeeeeeeeeeeeee! No no no no no nooooooooooooooooooo!"

It was, as screams go, particularly delightful and juicy. And Pippin had heard some absolutely wonderful screams from his sisters. But this one...ah this one was likely the best. It eclipsed that one of Pervinca's after he had put catnip in her knitting basket when she had taken his very best conker -- her cat had completely tangled all her yarn and gotten itself tangled as well. And the one that--

"Peregrin Took!"

Pippin jumped at the sound of his mother's voice. He had clearly been spotted. And hiding behind the door with a grin on your face whilst your sister dances around the sitting room in her nightgown howling at the top of her lungs is not good. He tried to look surprised and distressed at the same time as he stepped out of hiding.

"Yes ma'am?"

"He did it! He did this to my hair! I hate him!" Pearl, red-faced and furious, turned at the sound of his voice and came at him with fire in her eyes.

But Pippin held his ground, planting his feet firmly and lifting his chin. Pearl hadn't scared him since he was eight and he had given her a black eye for trying to throw him down a flight of stairs when he refused to lie for her. She didn't scare him now at all. She looked ridiculous with her hair tangled up in the ribbons and sticking up every which way like that.

"Pearl! Come back here and leave him be. Your father will see to it that Pippin is punished," Eglantine said firmly. "Pearl! "

Pippin looked up to see his father standing in the doorway of his parents' room just as Pearl loomed up before him, holding her hand mirror as if she was going to smash it over his head.

Pippin was prepared to duck and shove his head into her stomach, when Paladin's hand grasped Pearl's wrist firmly.

"None of that, Pearl. Go and let your mother deal with your hair and I will deal with Peregrin."

For a moment Pearl's hand and the mirror shook as she resisted her father's grasp. "But he put glue on my ribbons and mum is going to have to cut my hair off because of this -- because of him. I am going to look frightful! I will have to hide forever."

"Go and let your mother deal with it. Perhaps she can do something to get the glue out."

Pippin saw his mother meet his father's glance and shake her head solemnly. Pippin fought not to smile in response.

"I will just have to stay in my room for weeks and weeks until it grows back," Pearl whined, and Pippin thought, just for a moment, that he saw his father's lips twitch. It would be a relief for all of them to have Pearl locked away in her room for a while.

Then Pearl whipped around, leaned over and hissed at Pippin. "I hate you. I have always hated you. You little--"

"Pearl Took! "

Pippin cringed. When his father wanted to, he could really rattle the windows with his voice.

"I have that birch rod handy and I am of a mind to use it on you again if you do not obey me now and go with your mother. Now, young lady."

Pippin saw the door of his sisters' room open just a bit and Pervinca's face appear in the gap. He knew that Pimpernel was likely standing just out of sight behind her.

But nothing got past Paladin Took. "And you two get back in your bed. Now."

The door was shut hurriedly and quietly.

Pearl stomped off toward her parent's bedroom, saying things under her breath to which Pippin suspected his father might object if he could hear them. Pippin watched as his mother exchanged one of those long-suffering looks with his father and his father grimaced.

Paladin looked down at Pippin with a resigned expression. "I don't suppose that you are going to deny that you did this to your sister, are you, Peregrin?"

"No sir. It was for Merry." Pippin was proud that his voice didn't shake at all. "And I won't apologize. Because I'm not sorry I did it."

Paladin gazed at him for a long moment then sighed. "You know what that means, son."

"Yes sir." His voice shook just a little bit, but not so anyone would really notice.

"So, lad, do we do the deed now, or do we wait until morning?"

Pippin was always glad when his father gave him a choice about whippings. It was awful to have a sore backside just before he had to spend a few hours in the saddle. It was much better to get whipped at night so you could just sleep on your stomach -- if you could manage to sleep.

"Tonight, sir, if you don't mind."

"Well, we had best go down to one of the common rooms then, so we don't disturb anyone -- at least anyone we haven't already disturbed."

Pippin winced, "Yes sir."

Pippin watched with a sinking feeling in his stomach as his father retrieved the birch rod from beside the fireplace and gestured for the door into the corridor. But as Pippin passed him and opened it, his father leaned over.

"And while we are near the kitchens, I think we can probably find something to eat and a bit of cordial to ease the sting, don't you think?" Paladin whispered.

Pippin grinned. And that was why he loved his da so much.

***


Something woke Frodo suddenly and he swam out of a warm cocoon of sleep to the warm thrumming sound of a heart beating steady and sure beneath his ear. No pails being tossed down steps -- no loud voices beneath the window -- just the rhythm of Merry's heart and the quiet breathing of the Hall.

It appeared that no one was stirring in the Hall or outside of it in the darkness. A lamp burned next to the bed, but he couldn't hear anything that would have awakened him. It was either very early or very late. Well, it was no wonder, considering that they had fallen asleep before supper.

Frodo vaguely remembered being prodded into awareness at some point during the evening by a very chipper Bilbo who had Izzy in tow -- Izzy smelling of cinnamon and yeast, her hair frizzed and her face still red from the cooking fires. She had squinted at Frodo and felt his forehead, then poked under his jaw and prodded his throat until he had yelped.

Merry had just tightened his grip on Frodo and remained sound asleep. Then Izzy had proceeded to press her ear to Frodo's chest and pronounce him well on his way to recovery, recommending that he go back to sleep -- which he had done with many grumbles that he had been asleep until they woke him up to tell him go to sleep.

The last thing Frodo remembered was Bilbo saying something about Aunt Esme being persuaded that Merry could miss the evening festivities because he was to spend the night in the Baggins' rooms tending his cousin -- at Bilbo's request. Frodo would have to ask later how Bilbo had managed that. Oddly, Frodo also remembered Pippin's face smiling happily at him from the foot of the bed.

He grinned at the memory. Then a low rumbling sound came from beneath him and he realized that what had awakened him was Merry's stomach growling -- rather loudly. But Merry continued to breathe deeply and steadily -- apparently needing sleep more than food at the moment.

Frodo realized he was still firmly held in Merry's arms, although at some point he had managed to turn sideways. And Merry was still fully dressed. That couldn't be comfortable, but he could see how impossible it would be to undress if your nearly unconscious cousin was using you as a pillow.

Reaching down, he gently unbuttoned one of Merry's braces, then stretched a tiny bit, and managed the other. There was no change in Merry's steady, gentle breathing, but Frodo lay quiet for a moment, just to be sure. Then he managed to manoeuvre himself around just a bit and reach the top buttons on Merry's breeches, thumbing them open slowly, one by one -- until his wrist was rather firmly gripped in Merry's fist.

"Are you trying to drive me insane?" Merry whispered fiercely, his voice rumbling under Frodo's ear.

"No, actually, I was trying to make you more comfortable," Frodo responded, and realized his voice was back, albeit a bit rough.

"You sound better. Are you better?" Merry asked softly.

Frodo took a deep breath and realized that indeed, he was. "Very much."

"Good."

Frodo should have been tipped off by the smirk in Merry's tone, but he was still surprised when he found himself on his back amidst the pillows with Merry straddling his hips, rapidly jerking off his own jacket and flinging it from the bed. Frodo hadn't even managed to catch his breath before Merry discarded his waistcoat as well and began unbuttoning his shirt.

Even in the dim light, the look on Merry's face sent tendrils of fire licking down Frodo's spine. Being the focus of that passionate regard was like having the sun sitting in your lap. Then Merry leaned over -- his hands still occupied with his own buttons -- and kissed Frodo -- hard and fierce and hot, nibbling and demanding then taking possession of Frodo's mouth -- all without his hands. Frodo sank his fingers deep into golden curls and Merry responded by sucking hard on Frodo's lower lip -- Frodo revised his previous assessment -- it was more like swallowing the sun.

But while Merry wrestled with stripping off his breeches, Frodo hung on, thoroughly plundering Merry's mouth. Merry smelled of frost and pine and pony, but he tasted of brandy and sunshine and heat -- and Frodo earned a strangled groan as he sucked Merry's tongue into his mouth --hard -- and bit down softly.

As the breeches joined the rest of his wardrobe on the floor, Merry pulled away from Frodo's grip and grabbed the edge of Frodo's nightshirt, yanking it up and over Frodo's chest. Frodo cooperatively raised his arms -- too late realizing that it was still buttoned up at the neck and the tails were being tied firmly around his wrists, thoroughly tangling his arms and his head in a linen sack.

"Merry!" Frodo struggled vainly trying to loosen the knot.

"Don't complain. I didn't tie you to the bed -- yet." Merry growled.

Frodo found himself painfully hard at just the thought -- and at the sheer desperate need in Merry's voice.

"But you might want to hang onto the bed -- cousin."

Frodo had no warning except the heated press of Merry's hands around his hips.

"Meriado--" the name ended in a yelp as he was thoroughly engulfed by the wet heat of Merry's mouth and helplessly snapped his hips upward, only to be held firmly still. His hands moved automatically toward Merry, but yanked futilely at the linen that -- in turn -- tugged at his head and neck. And he couldn't get the leverage to sit up against the soft pillows without his arms. And he couldn't really focus at the moment. "M-- Merry!"

Then Merry started to lick and tease with his tongue and Frodo nearly vibrated on the bed, his head arching back into the pillows -- completely incapable of forming a coherent word. "Ah! Ah! Oh m-- my st-- OH!"

And just as quickly, Merry stopped.

"Gah!" Frodo didn't know if he should protest or give thanks.

"And now that I have your attention."

"Merry," Frodo growled warningly.

In response, Merry crawled up Frodo's shuddering torso, slick skin dragging across hardened flesh.

"M-- m-- merry-- "

Merry ignored Frodo's stuttered plea for mercy and ran his hands up Frodo's arms to pin his wrists, in their linen prison, into the pillows.

"Yes, cousin?" Merry's words ruffled the fabric over Frodo's mouth, sending jolts of sensation all the way to his toes.

"Untie me."

"Why?"

"I-- I want to be untied?"

"Do you then?" Merry's mouth descended on Frodo's, the cloth texturing the kiss -- soft cotton moist in his mouth, wrapped around Merry' hot tongue -- and Frodo was lost in sensation as Merry traced through the fabric with soft fingers, outlining his jaw, his eyebrows, his ears -- the fabric tugging and pulling at suddenly sensitive skin and hair as Merry worked his way beneath Frodo's chin and unbuttoned one button, then another, leaving the soft thin fabric over Frodo's eyes for a moment and freeing his mouth to be claimed and explored without the soft linen barrier. Then his nose had to be released and kissed, earning an indignant snort from the owner. Then his eyes -- the eyelids kissed softly, then licked, which earned a shuddering sigh.

Then Merry's hands slid on down, charting Frodo's collarbone, raising gooseflesh on his ribs, dragging thumbs across his nipples, all the while kissing him -- outlining Frodo's mouth, flirting with his tongue while his fingers limned Frodo's flesh.

Frodo laid still under the assault only until Merry's fingers slid across his belly, then he levered his legs up, pinioning Merry's arms against his body at the same time that he trapped rigid flesh against muscle and bone. He was rewarded when Merry gasped into his mouth and pulled out of the kiss, fingers digging into Frodo's hips for balance.

Unable to pull himself upright, Merry leaned his forehead into Frodo's, panting. "F-- Frodo. I want--"

An urgent hunger twisted in Frodo's belly demanding heat -- demanding release. He writhed against Merry -- once -- twice -- watching as Merry groaned and shuddered, fighting for control. Then Frodo twisted and hooked one ankle, and was rewarded by a tentative thrust of heat and hardness into sensitive skin.

"Oh yes." Frodo clenched his calves tighter, desperate to lever Merry forward into his flesh. Frodo could feel Merry shaking with need as he pushed himself up on his hands and hung above Frodo -- sweat dropping from his face onto Frodo's chest. Frodo wondered why it didn't sizzle as it rolled slowly down his ribs.

"Frodo..." It was just a breath -- a plea.

Frodo closed his eyes, his entire body thrumming -- yesyesyes.

"I want you-- " Merry whispered.

Frodo stilled at the ragged edge in Merry's tone and opened his eyes with a shuddering breath -- nownownow. "You have me, love."

"Inside me."

The flash of heat knocked the breath out of Frodo's body and left him dizzy -- sparks dancing around the edge of his vision. "Wh-- what?"

Merry leaned forward and Frodo groaned in reaction as rigid flesh slipped tantalizing up and aside.

"Inside. Me. Now." Merry's mouth was hard against his lips -- abrading sensitized flesh with every breath -- every word.

"But you--"

"No. More. Words." Then Frodo's mouth was captured again -- possessed, taken, ravished until he felt raw and bruised.

And then Merry moved, awkwardly, but instinctively, pushing Frodo flat into the mattress, straddling him purposefully.

"Mm-- mm--" Frodo twisted sideways, freeing his mouth with a gasp. "Merry! Oil-- something-- anything--" Where would Bilbo keep--

"No. I don't want it." Merry leaned into him, breathing fast, his arms shaking.

"But-- " Frodo gazed into fevered indigo eyes. Why are you doing this? I couldn't bear to hurt you.

"I want you -- now. You showed me last night. But not just your fingers -- YOU."

Frodo shivered and shut his eyes. Last night. Merry, flushed and sweating, gazing back at him from under damp tendrils of gold as Frodo opened the ointment jar -- Merry shuddering as Frodo slowly coated his fingers -- Merry leaning into the headboard and writhing, growling, pushing back at him -- Merry asking for more, deeper, harder-- Harder. Frodo bit down on his lip, grappling for control.

"But I-- I want--" Frodo tried to breathe, tried to think. I want to make you beg-- "I want to watch you open yourself up," he said hoarsely. "For me."

"Oh." It was just a whisper of sound. Then Merry shut his eyes and seemed to stop breathing completely. Frodo thought for just a moment that he had -- until Merry slowly licked his lips, took a shuddering breath, and opened his eyes. "Where?"

"Where?" Frodo repeated, licking his own swollen lips and quivering at the sensation. Here. Now.

"Oil."

Oil. Oil. Bilbo used lavender oil in his bath. Frodo hated the stuff, but in a pinch--

"In the press. Brown square bottle."

Cold air washed across Frodo's skin and he shivered as Merry threw himself off the bed and ran to the press, opening the door and peering in. Frodo heard the clink of glass, then Merry returned, bottle in hand.

Frodo's mouth went dry as he watched Merry stride across the room -- golden -- like some dragon's hoard magicked to life. Pale gold dusted with bronze, gilded with liquid silver -- something to be plundered -- and treasured.

Merry halted beside the bed, his expression intense as Frodo's eyes followed every plane and curve of proud flesh. He set the bottle on the bedside table and moved to undo the makeshift ties of Frodo's cloth prison.

"No." Frodo pulled his wrists out of reach. "I don't--" he took a long shaky breath, "I don't think I can keep from touching you if you untie me." Frodo saw Merry shudder in response to those words. And tie me to the bed as well, love, or I will plunge myself into you so deep you will never find me again.

Merry grabbed the bottle and un-stoppered it, tipping it to pour a generous amount into his palm, then setting it back on the table -- his eyes locked on Frodo's the entire time. Without releasing Frodo from that searing gaze, Merry leaned over, and, with no warning, cupped his hand and drizzled the oil slowly onto Frodo's arousal, then encircled it with his fist.

Frodo's thought for a moment that his eyes must've rolled back in his head and he was watching the inside of his skull from that perspective -- everything went dim and then spangled with odd red shooting lights. His hips snapped up and he groped desperately above his head with his cloth bound arms, searching for the headboard, nearly crying out with relief when Merry finished his task just as Frodo's fingers closed around the spindles.

The bed moved and shifted beneath him and Frodo managed to pry open his eyes. Merry was kneeling over him, straddling Frodo's thighs and gazing at the body spread out before him with an odd expression of awe and trepidation -- and desire. He had apparently poured more oil into his hand and he held it cupped in front of him. Frodo would have thought he was uncertain, had he not known his cousin so well.

"Tell me," Merry's voice sounded liquid and heavy as he poised there, levelling that hot gaze at Frodo, sweat beading on his face, his heart pounding so hard that Frodo could feel it shaking the bed beneath him.

Frodo wondered, briefly, if he and the ancient bed would survive this night. He took a deep breath. "One foot flat, next to my hip," he whispered.

Merry looked up at him and blinked, his eyes dark and unreadable -- then one leg moved jerkily and he planted his foot next to Frodo's hip.

Frodo swallowed hard as Merry waited, quietly. "One finger."

Merry shivered, then dipped his fingers into the oil, coating them thoroughly. Frodo felt warm droplets splash across his belly and tried not to moan as Merry's hand slid down his own ribs, cupped his hip, and disappeared beneath his thigh.

"Slowly." Frodo watched Merry's face and he had to bite down on his lip hard as he watched Merry's expression change, ever so subtly.

Warm drops of oil spilt on Frodo's skin. He could feel each one sinking into him and swirling, hot and molten in his belly. Frodo watched Merry's eyes narrow and his mouth open -- ever so slightly -- and Frodo gripped the headboard harder, trying to think of his icy stay on the window ledge -- of bits and pieces of him frosting over and dropping off from the cold. It didn't work.

"Two," Frodo managed.

There was the barest hint of a feral-looking smile and Merry bent his head over Frodo's chest, intent and focused. He was enjoying the effect this was having on Frodo -- the brat.

The thought helped Frodo regain some modicum of control. "Twist them -- slowly -- and keep your eyes on me."

Merry's head snapped up and his mouth opened. Then he grimaced, bent his head -- kept his eyes on Frodo's -- and twisted.

There was the slightest sound from Merry, but Frodo was sure that Merry was barely aware he was making it. Just as Frodo knew that he too was likely moaning under his breath, like a teakettle on a low flame.

"Three." Frodo congratulated himself that he didn't whimper.

For a moment, there was no change, then Merry shuddered and his eyelids drooped, but he kept his eyes locked on Frodo's face all the while. He was breathing hard and sweat was beading his face, warm drops falling onto Frodo's chest.

Frodo was trying to focus on what Merry was feeling and thinking. But it wasn't working. At this point nothing would work but a quick dip in the Brandywine -- the very icy Brandywine. He bit his lip hard enough to draw blood.

"Tell me," Merry hissed.

"Pull--" Frodo had to swallow. "Pull them out, twisting and slow."

Merry looked somehow disappointed, but he obeyed and Frodo watched his face carefully, then took a deep breath, steeling himself to keep his hips on the bed -- somehow. "Guide me into you."

He felt Merry's fingers wrap around him shakily. Just that tiny hint of Merry's state of mind kept Frodo from flying apart with the touch of Merry's fingers. But he had to close his eyes. If he watched Merry's face, he would come undone.

There was a quick intake of breath above him. And Frodo stiffened as he felt the give and shift of hot, slippery flesh. He thought desperately about the lavender oil -- the incongruous juxtaposition of Bilbo, emerging from the bath at Bag End, damp and smelling of lavender, and Aunt Dora, who practically doused herself with the stuff, serving tea and scones in her parlour, buttoned up in lace and corsets -- not the impossibly tight, slick feel of Merry -- no, not that.

"T-- tell me," Merry's voice was quivering now. "Tell me, Frodo."

"You--" Frodo realized he was panting. He knew Merry was poised there, like some glowing piece of the sun, melting and reforming above him -- prepared to consume him-- "What-- whatever you want, Merry," he whispered.

Frodo nearly whimpered when Merry's muscles tightened around him in reaction to those words. Merciful stars, what was he thinking? He was tied up, helpless, with Merry sitting on him. He must be insane.

"Watch me," came the hissed demand.

It was impossible, but Frodo hardened further at just the tone of Merry's voice. Struggling, he managed to open his eyes to meet Merry's dark gaze -- Merry's face slick and wet and fierce above him.

He was lost.

Merry lifted his head -- arched his neck -- and shuddered as he sank down and took Frodo in completely.

Frodo managed to twist his head and bite into his upper arm -- hard enough to leave teeth marks -- otherwise he would have shrieked loud enough to wake up Bilbo and everyone else in this end of the hall. Shivering uncontrollably and making some keening noise in his throat, Frodo clung to the headboard and tried to think of Lobelia Sackville-Baggins in her smallclothes.

Merry was quiet -- his head bent forward, his face hidden behind damp ringlets of gold.

For a long moment there was no sound in the room except the hiss of the lamp, then Frodo let out a long shaky breath, releasing the grip of his teeth on his arm.

"Bugger me," Merry whispered in a disbelieving tone, the barest hint of breathless sound.

"I-- I think I just did," Frodo answered, panting.

Merry snorted softly, then he leaned forward and kissed Frodo. "Have I told you I love you, cousin?"

"Not often enough," Frodo replied.

"Well, I do," Merry responded -- and then he began to move.

Frodo closed his eyes and thought of Aunt Dora in her smallclothes, but that didn't help either. Then he tried to think of Lobelia and Aunt Dora in their smallclothes together -- that worked for a bit. If he could only block out the sounds that Merry was making -- savage, joyous noises that were sometimes words -- often Frodo's name.

Finally Frodo opened his eyes and watched, enthralled, as Merry rode him as he would Spark -- head thrown back, skin gleaming in the lamplight, eyes closed, hoarsely chanting his furious litany, golden and wet and beautiful. Stars -- at that moment, Merry was the most gorgeous thing on this earth.

The ancient bed complained and groaned beneath them both, but above it all Frodo heard his own voice, whimpering Merry's name over and over and he realized at some point he had closed his eyes again in desperation. He would not endure to the finish of this particular race.

Pulling his hands free of the headboard, he frantically pulled the nightshirt forward over his head, ripping through the fragile fabric and tearing loose the knots at his wrists, but Merry was oblivious to it all until Frodo's hand closed firmly on him -- until Frodo's fingers moved once, then again -- and twisted. Then Merry froze and his eyes flew open wildly.

Merry's body clenched fiercely around Frodo and Merry threw himself forward, grabbing Frodo's face roughly in his hands and screaming his release into Frodo's mouth, wringing a hoarse answering wail from Frodo as Frodo clung with both hands to scorching hot gold and shattered into thousands of pieces -- sizzling and melting.

***


"You smell strange." Pippin wrinkled his nose in disgust and circled around in front of Merry, who stood leaning against a hitching post, chewing on an apple and watching the main doors to the Hall. "Like old Aunt Ada."

Merry ignored him, as usual, and Pippin followed Merry's gaze as he turned to watch old Seth make sure the last knot on the canvas covering the luggage and packages in the back of Bilbo's pony cart was secure. The old servitor clambered carefully and slowly down, his breath fogging in the cold air.

"I noticed Frodo smelled that way too, this morning at breakfast and I thought it was something to do with sleeping in Uncle Bilbo's bed because Uncle Bilbo douses himself in that stuff. I don't really like that smell, because that is the way that Aunt Ada smells, but you and Frodo are up to one of your pranks, aren't you?" Pippin decided, fairly bouncing in place at the idea. "Something to do with lavender oil. Can I help?"

Merry levelled one of those looks at him, and Pippin firmly shut his mouth as Merry opened his, likely to say something scathing. Then Merry straightened and the expression on his face cleared -- Pippin thought for a moment that the sun had broken through the constant overcast above them, but then he heard Frodo's laugh and turned to see his cousin emerge from the Hall with his Uncle Bilbo close behind, followed by several members of the family, including Pippin's mother and father, all of them bundled up against the cold. Even Uncle Rory was there, leaning on his cane, with Aunt Esme fussing over his scarf until he shooed her away -- undoubtedly growling at her as he often did.

Pippin watched as there were many kisses and hugs exchanged, along with Yule greetings, before his mother turned and spotted him in the courtyard. She pointed to her own scarf and he realized that he had forgotten to tie his securely around his neck after he had climbed that tree early this morning. The ends of the scarf were thoroughly wet from the frost, and a bit muddy as well. He shrugged and tied it as his mother watched from a distance, then saw her smile and wrap her arms about herself -- her usual signal for 'Don't get chilled, Peregrin Took'. He grinned as his father, apparently thinking that his mother was really cold, wrapped his arm around her and pulled her in close to his body, then turned her about, as she laughed and coloured quite prettily, and escorted her back into the Hall.

"And where were you at breakfast, cousin?"

Pippin realized that Frodo had broken away from the group and walked over to where he and Merry stood. Frodo was looking quite healthy with his reddened cheeks and sparkling eyes -- as if he had never been ill at all. He was gazing at Merry and didn't seem to notice Pippin standing there.

"On an errand of mercy. Rescuing something precious before you could leave it behind," Merry reached into his jacket, pulling out Frodo's treasured book.

"Oh!" Frodo reached anxiously for the old volume, examining the corners and the spine anxiously.

"I think it is none the worse for wear, but I-- I'm sorry if it was damaged," Merry said. "Your clothes are fine as well. I had Clemmie press them and put them in your trunk for you."

Frodo opened his jacket and slid the book into the inside pocket, smiling. "Thank you, love." Frodo pulled Merry into his arms and Pippin watched as they embraced. He heard Merry say something under his breath about Frodo 'smelling like an old gammer'. Then Frodo whispered something in Merry's ear that Pippin didn't catch. Merry snorted in response and Frodo smacked Merry's backside as he pulled away.

"Ouch! Blast it, Frodo!" Merry yelped.

Pippin giggled, and they both turned to look at him in surprise. He put on his best innocent face, opening his eyes wide and smiling without showing any teeth at all. It worked on everyone -- except Frodo.

"Don't give me that look, cousin. I heard about your exploits this morning and saw the results as well," Frodo said.

Before Pippin could move, Frodo had pulled him into his arms tightly, whispering fiercely into his ear -- "Thank you, love." But then Frodo finished by smacking Pippin's behind as well, and Pippin squeaked in protest.

Merry was watching with a confused expression when Frodo turned back to him.

"Pippin didn't tell you?" Frodo asked.

"Tell me what?" Merry looked from Frodo to Pippin then back.

Frodo turned to give Pippin an assessing look and then answered Merry softly.

"Our brave cousin here put some pretty powerful glue on his eldest sister's hair ribbons yesterday, for some reason I can't fathom. Dear Pearl looked -- and acted -- a bit like a shorn sheep this morning at breakfast -- a very weepy and ragged-looking shorn sheep. I got the feeling that Aunt Eg and Uncle Pal were rather pleased with the whole effect, although they said differently." Frodo paused and grinned at Pippin. "And I thought the look suited her quite well myself."

Pippin felt his face heat as Merry turned to look at him in disbelief.

"However, I hear our brave lad received a painful reward from the Thain last night, and now I have proof that was true," Frodo continued in a sad tone, but Pippin glanced at him and saw the twinkle in his eye.

Pippin looked from Merry to Frodo and back, then watched as Merry's expression changed from disbelief to absolute delight, then lit up like the Yule bonfire. Pippin grinned back.

"Is that true, Sq-- Pippin?" Merry asked. "Did you do that to Pearl?"

Pippin nodded, clasping his hands behind him and hoping no one else took swipes at his backside in all the excitement. "It was easy really. Pearl is so vain about her hair, you know, and she loves to have Pervinca or Pimpernel put it up for her, and they really hate to, but they are afraid of her, and of course I'm not, and they were happy for me to help her put in her ribbons yesterday afternoon when she was getting all dressed up for supper, and I had this glue pot that I borrowed from the stab--"

Merry grabbed Pippin's shoulders firmly, those dark eyes peering into his intently. "And did Uncle Pal whip you for it?"

Pippin nodded. "But it wasn't bad, Merry. I've had worse. And then we had leftover cobbler and cordial in the kitchen, and da told me a story about he and Uncle Mac and the whipping that he got from his da once and--"

Merry pulled him into a fierce hug. "You're not a bad sort for a Took, Pippin." Merry pulled back, then suddenly, he grabbed Pippin's ears, leaned forward, and kissed him on the forehead. "Thank you."

Pippin grimaced. That was almost as bad as being smacked on the bum.

"Well, look at that," Pippin heard a tone of disbelief in Frodo's whispered comment as Merry turned and they both followed Frodo's gaze to the group beside the door.

Only Uncle Bilbo and Uncle Rory were left now, standing in the shadow of the Hall. Uncle Bilbo had his hand on the back of Uncle Rory's head, his fingers ruffling the silver curls, and he was saying something, although Pippin couldn't even hear the sound. And Pippin couldn't remember Uncle Rory's cheeks ever being that colour. Then Uncle Bilbo put his fingers under Uncle Rory's chin, lifted it up, and leaned in to kiss him, and it was a longer kiss than Pippin expected between two Uncles like that -- well, except for Uncle Longo, who kissed everyone like that -- and then there was Uncle Mac--

"Now, what's that all about?" Merry asked in disbelief.

"Something beautiful," Frodo answered, smiling.

*****


FINIS

 

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