2. Coming Home to Crickhollow 2/3
The logs in the fire-place had burned out quietly, the last of the flames curled like bluish tongues around the smouldering wood. Merry lay huddled underneath the blankets and wondered what was keeping Pippin. Sometimes his cousin would go out by night, but he never stayed long, not in the freezing cold. Merry pushed the blankets off and listened. Crickhollow seemed wrapped in a dreamless sleep, not even mice were rustling in the straw of the walls. Merry was quite sure all of a sudden that earlier there'd been the sound of the heavy door scraping on the tiles in the hall, although he could not recall hearing the door when Pippin left. And now why would the Took leave through the front when it was the back door that led into the garden?
Merry got up with a sigh, stepped to the window and pushed the shutters open. The sky was the darkest of blues, the crooked row of trees bathed in the pale silver of a thousand stars. He sat on the window sill and let the icy chill of the night fill his lungs. The garden seemed frozen, the air smelled of snow and faintly of the mint which grew below the window. Shadows hid underneath the trees along the hedge, and the lawn gleamed softly as it stretched along the curving walls of the house. Crickhollow ...
The thought that Merry and Pippin move into Frodo's house had come up one evening in the Green Dragon, although afterwards nobody could quite remember who had first suggested it. In an odd, defiant way it seemed right to Merry that he and Pippin stuck to the plan they had made on the road from Rivendell. Had affairs in the Shire been right as they should have been, Frodo and Sam would have come here instead of them, for a while at least. And although he could not say why, Merry thought that things then would have turned out better than they had. For all that they had roused the hobbits and saved the Shire from Saruman and his ilk, Merry wondered if they'd come home too late after all, and the harm done had already gone deeper than the destruction of crops, villages, and smials would show. I won't abide it, he thought stubbornly as he stared into the bare branches of the trees, it's not what King Théoden died for, and it's not why all these brave people fought the evil of Sauron. Frodo will write his book, Sam plant his trees, and Pippin and I will have it seen to that there's a fine brew served in the inns again, and a good smoke, and that there's song and dancing as there has always been.
Not two weeks ago, they had celebrated Pippin's birthday, and cousins and friends from the entire Buckland, and from the Shire side of the Brandywine, too, had flocked to Crickhollow. In truth it was much too small a hole to host such a boisterous crowd, but nobody seemed offended that the dancing was going on in the hall, not as long as the beer was flowing freely from the tap. Doderic and Ilberic played the fiddle and pipe long into the wee hours of the night, and only their mother, the one Bracegirdle ever to wed a Brandybuck, regretted that the youths so quickly returned to their carefree ways. The Bucklanders were relieved to see someone take care of the house, the son of the Master of the Hall at that, and make good use of it.
Merry leaned out into the night and listened if maybe he could hear Pippin hum underneath the trees. But the garden lay in utter silence, not a breeze touched the grass, not a bird moved in the bushes. Surely Pippin was out front standing in the middle of the lane, watching the grey fields and meadows that fell softly towards the Brandywine. "The sky is so much bigger here," Pippin had said when Merry found him at the gate one of their first nights in Crickhollow, and together they had looked into the glittering sky which stretched from the Old Forest all the way to the Green Hills and beyond.
Merry slid from the sill, latched the shutters and closed the windows tightly. Only when he wrapped the blankets around himself did he notice that he was shivering. Nothing but a faint orange glow was left of the fire which no longer fended off the chill settling into the darkness of the room. The bed seemed too cold, too big somehow. All his life Merry had shared beds with cousins and friends as was custom in Brandy Hall. Only since his coming of age was he expected to sleep in his own bedroom, one that he still rarely used. He missed the warmth of another body, he told himself, then admitted that it was the warmth of Pippin's body that he missed. His touch ... If he could just keep his mind from wandering to the feel of Pippin's lips, to this unexpected strength when Pippin held him close in love-making ... Merry rolled onto his belly and sighed into the pillow. This was going nowhere.
Since they'd returned to the Shire, Pippin had not lain with him but once. In the rush of the first weeks home, when so much had to be set to order and prepared for winter, there had been no thought of such intimacies. Pippin lived with the Tooks until after Yule, and Merry came to stay with him in the Great Smials. Together they rode through the South-farthing, and folk started to call them Travellers and took courage just from looking at them in their burnished mail shirts and shields shining green and silver in the low winter sun. Whenever they were together, they slept in the same bed, sharing their bodies' warmth in deep contentment.
Pippin wanted to live in Crickhollow even more than Merry, and Merry had always thought he knew the reason why. The Great Smials were a close and stuffy place for those who had returned from the world and war. When they'd set out from Tookborough for Buckland, Paladin had held Pippin firmly by the shoulders, then stepped back to let Aunt Eglantine and the girls say their farewells. His eyes had met Merry's then, over the women's bustle and tears, and the unspoken reproach in his uncle's eyes had made Merry flinch and turn away. Grimly Saradoc had told him of the pains he had caused his family, and clearly the worst of his failings had been to lead a tweener into foreign wars where no sensible hobbit had any business of being in the first place.
Still the Tooks let Pippin go without hard words or struggle, and Merry sometimes wondered what his cousin had told the Thain. Pippin never spoke of it, and Merry never asked. For hours father and son had been locked in the dusty old place deep within the Great Smials. Merry found Pippin afterwards in their room, the tell-tale red around his eyes, and Pippin came into his arms and held on to him almost desperately. Then Pippin kissed him with such unexpected passion, and they came together even though it was in the middle of the day. And Merry had taken that kiss and that love-making for a promise of what their time in Crickhollow would be like.
But now it seemed such pleasures were no longer what Pippin desired. There were kisses, still, cousinly kisses, there was touch - reassuring, loving, as they'd always been with each other. And Merry could look at Pippin and feel desire stir as he had never known it before they had first lain together, and he wondered how it could be that Pippin no longer felt this way.
The dark was oddly quiet. Merry strained his ears to catch Crickhollow's usual night-time noises, but there was nothing. He turned on his back and stared at the ceiling, then sat up just to hear the bed creak, when suddenly there was the sharp groan of the front door. Relief spread from his stomach, and he could hear Pippin's quick steps in the passage. Before long, the door opened and a flickering candle was moving towards him. There was a soft whisper: "Merry?"
"I'm awake, Pippin. I was worried. Where've you been?" For a moment the light before Merry's face blotted out all other vision, and all he could see was the pattern of sharp-edged rings shining in the candleholder's brass. Slowly he could make out his cousin's shape behind the bright flame. Pippin seemed strangely out of breath, his face flushed, whether by a trick of the light or because of the cold outside.
"Just for a walk." Pippin set the candle on the low chest beside the bed. He crouched so he was level to Merry's face. "It is a beautiful night. All stars and moon."
There was such a spark in Pippin's eyes, his face so luminous, Merry could no longer hold back. He touched Pippin's shoulder, then drew him close and kissed him. A light kiss, but not a cousinly kiss by a long stretch, and Merry just wanted to melt into the softness of these lips. Then he realised Pippin did not move and at once pulled back. Pippin remained still, his eyes wide open. He swayed backwards, reached for Merry to steady himself. His fingers felt like ice through the cloth of Merry's nightshirt, and Merry took them into both his hands.
After a while Pippin nestled his other hand, too, in between the warmth of Merry's palms. "It's so clear, you can see for miles and miles", he said quietly.
"Yes, the cold drives the clouds away." Merry moved his thumbs from Pippin's wrists to fingertips, again and again, to get the blood moving.
"Next time you must come out with me."
Merry nodded and blew warm air on Pippin's skin.
"Then you can kiss me in the moon-light."
"Aw, Pip." Merry dropped Pippin's hands in exasperation and looked up to see the candle's light glint golden in his cousin's eyes. "You have no idea how sweet ..." He stopped before he was making an utter fool of himself and simply said: "I just can't stop thinking of you that way."
"You don't have to."
"I don't have to what?"
"Stop thinking of me that way." Pippin was smiling while his hands searched for the lacings of Merry's shirt, twirled them round his fingers, then he pulled Merry close.
"But ..." Merry stopped short. Pippin's hands were still cold as they moved up his throat, circled around his ears and dug into his curls, all the while drawing Merry closer until their faces almost touched. Pippin's mouth was warm and welcoming, and Merry felt he would cry just for how tenderly Pippin touched his lips and moved into him with the tip of his tongue. For an instant their breath mingled, and Merry tasted night chill and underneath the spicy sharpness of the wine they'd enjoyed after dinner. Then Pippin moved away and whispered: "Wait, my love."
"Will you not lie with me tonight? There's ..."
"Shh, Merry. Just wait."
Pippin's hands were gone, and the younger hobbit stepped into the shadows. Merry heard a light clink, as if glass struck wood, and the muted rustles of clothes. Then Pippin stood beside the bed again looking down at him with the queerest of smiles. Every swell and muscle of his body was outlined in an etching of shadow and gold, sparks seemed to have caught in the dark curls on his chest. His skin was glowing with a light that could not possibly be cast by the candle.
"Come." Merry could all but whisper.
Pippin crawled underneath the blankets, and Merry struggled to get out of his nightshirt, threw it carelessly to the side. For a moment they sat facing each other, then Pippin pushed him back onto the bed. Merry reached for Pippin, touched his shoulders, his upper arms, then he felt Pippin's palms on his thighs. They were pressing outward, moving up towards his need. Merry's head fell back on the pillow when his legs opened to Pippin's touch. Pippin moved onto him at once, threw kisses all over his chest and throat, then pressed his body hard against him. The sudden feel of skin to skin made Merry seek Pippin's mouth again, without thought, and he moaned as Pippin's teeth bit his lower lip, then his own tongue moved deeply into the warm softness that was all Pippin. There was something fresh and sweet below the lingering taste of the wine, the flavour of apples, Merry realised with surprise. "You picked up an apple from the garden?"
Pippin kissed the tip of Merry's nose, then let his head fall to the side. His lips were almost touching Merry's ear, his chuckle a low rumble at Merry's side. "I did. A wrinkled red-cheek from last autumn. So what of it?"
"You taste like it."
"Do I taste good then?"
Merry nodded. "It's a taste of the Shire." All of a sudden the familiar pain stirred below his heart.
"Of Buckland, rather. There is a difference, I'll have you know." Pippin touched Merry's face with cautious fingertips, traced the slight rise of his cheek bones. "We're home," he whispered.
Then he took up where Merry had stopped, and Merry got lost in the apple-fresh sweetness of Pippin's kisses. His hands slid over sweaty skin, pushed deep into flesh and muscle and he pulled Pippin even closer. Their bodies moved in the easy way they had always known, a gentle shifting that guided them into sleep some nights, and in others would turn into a sure rhythm of want and desire they simply had to follow. Their hips touched, carefully at first, then with more force. They came together, skin pressed to skin, they came apart to seek each other hungrily at once. Pippin's arms were around Merry's shoulders, he whispered Merry's name again and again. A deep moan escaped Merry, then he reached between them. He felt Pippin's arms shake as he pressed into Merry's touch, and Merry moved his hand slowly, the tender skin like velvet on his fingertips. Just to feel him again. Like nothing else it was, to have Pippin take such pleasure from his hands. Pippin's head was turned slightly upwards, the soft line of his throat framed by curls which clung dark and moist to his skin. Merry smoothed away a strand of hair which had fallen over Pippin's closed eyes, and Pippin smiled, his lips full and open. When Merry's strokes became more eager, Pippin opened his eyes and looked at him.
"Not ..." he said softly and slowed his movements.
"Not like this." Pippin slid backward, away from Merry's touch. The candle flickered and threw dark shadows on his face. Merry reached for him, his lips dry all of a sudden, his stomach hollow as if he had not eaten in days.
"Pippin?" Merry's voice was but a murmur. And then Pippin was with him again, holding Merry to him, his breathing fast and uneven. Merry moved a thumb over Pippin's brow, buried his fingers in Pippin's curls. "What is it you want, my Took?"
Pippin looked at him with a strange smile, then gathered the blankets they had pushed out of the way. He folded them into a soft cushion and, with that surprising strength of his, he lifted Merry's hips to put the cushion underneath him. He placed one hand on Merry's belly, barely touching the skin, then he reached behind himself and brought out a small bottle, his eyes fixed on Merry's face. He removed the cork, and at once a sweet scent filled the room - sticky and light as a puff of the catkins' dust when the wind ruffled the blooming hazel on the road to Crickhollow. Pippin poured the oily liquid into his hand, and in the candle's light it shone a pale gold. Even then his eyes were still on Merry.
"Where did you get this?" Merry croaked. The blanket under him felt cold, he was lying fully open - to danger, to harm, he thought, even though no other than Pippin was near. "In the middle of the night?"
Pippin touched him with greased fingers, then stroked himself more vigorously and covered his whole length in sparkling oil. "The Goldworthy's smial is barely a mile up Newbury Road."
"You must have run all the way and back."
A broad grin appeared on Pippin's face. "It's quite worth the run. This is the best hazelnut oil to be had west of the Old Forest."
They had not done this before. And if Merry had ever imagined it, it had never been Pippin who ... Merry almost said it aloud, but at that moment Pippin reached underneath him, and his fingers slid slowly along Merry's bottom. His touch was so gentle, so thrilling in a way Merry had not foreseen, he could but moan and move into it.
Pippin laughed with pleasure and when Merry raised his head, Pippin kissed his belly while his fingers continued their caresses. Their eyes met for a long moment. For all the simple want that Pippin's hands were sending through him, Merry saw the question in Pippin's face that had been there all evening. Whatever you wish. He slid lower and wrapped his legs around Pippin's waist, then pushed his hips up firmly towards where Pippin pressed hot against him. Now, he thought, but he must have spoken aloud, for Pippin said his name softly.
The first thrust was like hot coal slicing through skin thin as paper. Merry jerked away from the pain, flung his head to the side. Crickhollow was awake all of a sudden, its walls throwing his strangled cry back into the dark where it spun from corner to corner just out of reach of the candle's light.
"This is not right," Pippin whispered, "I am hurting you." He held Merry's hand in a fierce grip, and Merry felt every tiny scar and callous, the lines in Pippin's palm even, as they pressed against his skin.
"No, no ... it's me. I ... I want ..." Merry's throat closed and he could not speak. He wanted to cry, he wanted to be with Pippin. He wanted this. Cold air swept over him, he felt wide open to whatever peril lurked in the corners of the room. He held on desperately to Pippin's hand, groped around the linen with his other, his good hand, for a hold in the dark.
"Come up," he rasped, and Pippin had him in his arms at once. Merry clung to his shoulders shaking with dry sobs. His bottom felt numb as if he had ridden for hours on a mountain path, but when he shifted there was little pain. Slowly the strange fear left him breathless but calm. Nothing else mattered when he lay in Pippin's arms and felt Pippin's soft breath in his hair.