Written in collaboration between Dana (userid=254831), and Lindelea (userid=347109). Very AU story, set just after Merry, Pippin, and Sam have seen Frodo off at the Havens. An ancient curse descends upon Merry, and his cousin Pippin is the only one who can save him... (Genre: Horror/Suspense) [Can you tell who wrote which part? All right, Elves, don't hide behind the excuse that you cannot tell one mortal from another. There's no green jewel in this one... Dana! We forgot the green jewel!]

1. Harvest Moon

(February: Wolf Moon)

The only sound in the clearing was the crackling of the fire, the occasional snap as hot pitch ignited explosively, the sighing of the wind in the treetops, and Merry's soft pleading.

'Pippin? Pippin, listen to me. It's all a mistake. Pippin?'

Pippin turned a deaf ear. Samwise had taken himself for a walk, leaving Sting lying upon the ground unsheathed. Firelight flickered off the bright blade.

Far off in the distance a wolf howl shivered the night. Pippin jerked upright. Merry did too, and Pippin could see him working uselessly at the bonds that held him firmly against the trunk of the tree. Merry caught his gaze, eyes terrified. 'Pippin!' he said again desperately, but his cousin just shook his head and turned away. At moonrise, there would be an end to this. At moonrise, Merry would die.


(The Previous October: Harvest Moon)

It had been a month since seeing Frodo off at the Havens, and Merry and Pippin had been a little at loose ends, not quite knowing what to do with themselves. Somehow the parties and jollity rang hollow.

They found themselves drawn back to Bag End, where Rosie and Sam welcomed them warmly, almost as if they were orphans seeking asylum.

'Come back anytime!' Sam said after their last visit. 'But harvest will be coming soon, so you might find me busy if you come back then!'

Pippin glanced up at the waxing moon and laughed. 'Well, you can be sure we won't be back until all the work's done!' he said.

Time passed, the golden days chasing each other in glorious drifts like the leaves that fell from the trees about the Shire. Though they would often be out and about, at times it felt as though there was no better place to be than Crickhollow at the end of a long day. When word came from Tuckburough that Pippin was needed at home, he made a great show of bustling about to get ready, but Merry noticed that all the bustle resulted in very little forward motion. Finally Pippin had done everything he could think of doing, some things twice, as a matter of fact, and he could not avoid the realization that he was all ready to depart.

'Perhaps I should ride all the way with you, Pip.'

'Well, at least to the Crowing Cockerel. I hear there's a new lass there, very pretty, and the brew is said to be quite as good as Barliman's in Bree.'

There was even a bit of laughter as they rode.

'We should make the best of this trip,' Pippin said. It was a clear day and the sky was impossibly wide and blue overhead. He slowed his pony to a slow trot and looked out over the fields. In the distance the green grew darker with the shadow of cool trees. 'After all, the summons was not urgent.'

Merry grinned but slowed his pony, too. 'Perhaps I should ride all the way with you, Pip.'

'I was expecting just that,' Pippin replied in a serious voice.

They shared a smile and road for a bit in companionable silence. Out of the blue, Pippin spoke. 'I think that we should race.' He pointed to a tree some ways behind them. 'Race you to that tree!' There were no complaints to be had and off they went with the wind.

By the time they reached Tuckburough the sun was sinking down to the western horizon. With their ponies safely seen to the stables they went up to the broad front doors. It was Eglantine Took who greeted them, giving her son and nephew a fierce hug.

'You came quicker than we thought you would, son,' she said to Pippin who grinned.

'Well, there was nothing more to do, Mum.'

Eglantine laughed. 'Here, come with me and have a bit of tea before your father steals you away after supper. You'll be staying, won't you Merry-lad?'

"Aye, Auntie, if you don't mind.'

Eglantine wore a reserved smile. 'Always, lad.'

After tea, welcoming the feeling of the warm liquid fighting off the lingering chill of the evening, they were ushered off to supper. It was a full meal and Merry found himself amazed again at the boisterous nature of the Tooks. Even with the time he spent Pippin, it was easy to forget just what it was like to be completely surrounded by Tooks; lively and energetic, they could turn a simple meal into an adventure.

Eglantine had been right about Paladin. After dinner, with only a few words to his nephew, Paladin led Pippin away and Merry, once he had exhausted conversation in the dining hall, went to his appointed guestroom to sleep.

He rose early the next morning with a splitting headache.

'Good morning to you, Merry,' Pippin said jovially as he met Merry in the hall.

'What's so good about it?' Merry snapped, frowning. Pippin arched a brow in question as he gave his cousin a searching look. The frown seemed stuck to Merry's features as he rubbed the bridge of his nose. 'What's the look for, Pippin?'

'Well, you look like Merry, and you sound like Merry, but you're not acting like Merry at all. Did a double steal into my cousin's room and take him away during the night? Doesn't say much for our watch.'

'Now Pippin...'

"Don't you "now Pippin" me, Merry. Something is the matter and you should just tell me before it goes to your head.'

Unknowingly, he'd hit that pony shoe against the stake for a ringer, but Merry was not quite ready to tell him so. 'Pippin, I'm fine.'

Pippin's look read that he didn't believe. 'And your fine is about as fine as mine.'

Merry frowned. 'Now you're just trying to give me a headache,' he began, then stopped and laughed. 'Well, I've already got one. My head is killing me.'

'At least you've a head to kill you,' Pippin said thoughtfully. 'The Thain seems to think I've misplaced mine,' he added.

Merry found himself torn between a grin and a frown. 'Sometimes I think your father has a point,' he said and Pippin grinned.

'My father will be very gratified to have someone agree with him. As usual.' He eyed Merry with unusual concern. 'Hurry, let's see if Mum knows of anything that's good for head pains. With your luck, it'll probably be a particular foul tasting concoction, but hopefully you'll still be able to enjoy breakfast.' Pippin looked glad to not be in Merry's shoes (or lack thereof).

'She'll probably just say that I need a bit of rest,' Merry replied, rubbing the arch of his nose once again, sighing deeply. His headache seemed to be growing steadily worse.

They somehow managed to make their way through breakfast, and only then was there a chance for Merry to speak with his Aunt. 'The best cure for a bad headache is rest, Merry,' she told him. 'We'll start by getting you some tea.'

'See, I told you it would just take a bit of rest,' Pippin grinned.

Merry sighed deeply. 'Of course, Pippin.'

'I'm always right.'

Merry sighed again, grinning faintly. 'Of course, Pippin.'

'I like this side of you, cousin. You're quite accepting of the truth.'

Merry shook his head. 'Now Pippin...'

'Master Peregrin?' a servant interrupted politely. 'Your father is looking for you, sir.'

Pippin nodded and the servant departed. 'Well, that could only last so long. I knew he'd be calling for me again. Take care of yourself, you hear?'

'You're fussing like I'm an old man, Pippin. Go see to that father of yours before we find out if his bellows can bring down the Smials.'

With Pippin gone, Merry sat himself down in the lounge. His Aunt came with tea and sat with him. 'You don't mind a bit of company?"

'Not at all,' he replied, thinking it a bit too impolite to turn her out on her heel. This was her home, after all.

As he sipped his tea, Merry willed himself to relax. It didn't seem to be doing anything for his head, a steady pain above his brow, but he wasn't in any sort of hurry. At least, he didn't think he was.

'You look like something is on your mind, Meriadoc.'

Merry frowned. 'Yes, there's something wrong, but I just cannot put a finger on it.'

'Well, perhaps a bit of elevenses will help you capture the thought?'

Merry took it into consideration then shook his head. 'I've been here long enough as is,' he said, setting his cup down. 'And I've a long ride back to Buckland.' After a moment's consideration, he smiled to take the edge off of his words. 'Thank you for the invitation though, Auntie.'

Eglantine smiled and sipped her tea. 'Well, finish your tea at least.'

And he smiled too, with a slight nod. 'I'll at least do that.'

They sat for a while in silence. After they were finished with their tea, Eglantine went off to see about some domestic matter or other and Pippin arrived. He flopped down into a large chair with an over-exaggerated sigh. When Pippin had been younger, and shorter, this had been the chair that he'd swing his legs and desperately wish that his feet could reach the floor. Now, after the Ent draught, those childish dreams had become reality. Merry raised an eyebrow and pushed his mind from those thoughts.

'Was it that bad?'

'It was worse,' Pippin sighed dramatically. 'But Regi saved me, though I doubt he knows he did.'

Merry grinned and rubbed the bridge of his nose. Pippin gave him a searching look. 'Well, you're here in time to see me off,' Merry said, rising.

'You're leaving?' Pippin gasped, follow Merry's lead.

Merry nodded shortly as he started from the room. 'It's Merimas' birthday, you know, and it'd be thoughtless of me to miss his birthday feast,' Merry explained.

Pippin frowned and jogged to catch up with him. 'Slow down, Merry! Just because we have these longer legs, we shouldn't try and run them off.'

Merry held back his retort, his temper feeling a bit frayed. 'You can't go -- your father would miss you.'

'Yes, but this seems so sudden,' Pippin said stubbornly. 'Are you so sure you have to leave?'

'It's not the end of the world, Pip. You'll see me again before you know it.'

'Yes, well,' and Pippin's reply faltered. 'This still seems so sudden.'

'Some farewells simply are,' Merry replied, shrugging.

Pippin frowned and then affected a grin. 'Well, you'll save me some of the cake, won't you?'

Merry chuckled. They were nearing the front of the Smials now, and Merry could almost reach out and touch the mere thought of fresh air and the wide open sky. Never in his life had it felt so unnatural to be cooped up under-ground. 'O, aye, if I don't get hungry and eat it before your return. Of course, I might have to put it out of its misery if you take too long.'

'Well, I'll be back before you know it,' Pippin laughed, remembering Merry's earlier words.

Merry smiled then frowned abruptly, stopping and putting a hand to his forehead. Pippin stopped, with a frown of his own. 'If you don't stop worrying me like this, Merry, I won't let you leave, even if you miss out on Merimas's birthday feast.'

Merry groaned; the pain was worse now, it was getting unbearable. 'I'll be all right, Pippin. Get back to Uncle Paladin, all right? And give your mum my regards.'

'You can't just leave like this,' Pippin said, frowning still, feeling like he was nine and not thirty-one.

Merry suppressed another groan, though he felt worse with every passing moment. If Pippin got the wind up, he'd not let him go. And Merry must needs go... and he must go now... or else... He wasn't sure what the "or else" was, but he knew that he did not want to find out. 'Pippin, you're acting like a child. Get back to your father!' And Merry turned and strode out the front doors.


(February: Wolf Moon)

It was very hard to believe that it had only been four months since that parting.

Pippin sat himself down beside the fire, reaching out to let the warmth of the flames caress his outstretched fingers. There was a chill in the air. The fire popped again, a crackle accompanied by a small shower of sparks. It would be a very long night.

Merry was silent now. Perhaps he would not speak again. Pippin knew that it would be easier if Merry would stay mute and not say a thing.

Pippin looked up at the sound of approaching footsteps. Sam stood in the shadows of the trees with only his face illuminated. He stepped forwards, looking towards Merry as he shoved his hands deep into his pockets. Merry was silent, yes, but his eyes spoke more than any words. Sam quickly looked away from him and went to crouch beside Pippin.

'How are you holding up, Pippin?'

Pippin let his fingers curl up against his palms and turned to look at Sam. 'We are doing the right thing, Sam.'

'Aye, Pippin, but that's not what I asked you.'

A sad parody of a smile fitted itself on Pippin's lips. 'You're quite right, Sam. Quite rude of me, I fear. I am doing well, of course. I am doing the right thing.'

'Now, Pippin...'

Pippin rose, moving to where his and Sam's packs sat against the trunk of a tall tree. He crouched and brought out a water bottle, taking a long swig and then recapping the bottle. 'Did you bring a bit of anything strong, Sam?' he asked, putting the bottle away.

'Now, Pippin,' Sam began again, 'you need to think clearly.'

'You're right, Sam.' Pippin rose and wiped his hands off on his trousers. He looked to the horizon--not quite moonrise yet--and frowned. 'Aragorn has yet to show himself. He should be here, Sam.'

'He'll come, Pippin. Sit yourself down.'

'Yes, yes.' There was a very determined look in Pippin's eyes as he went back to the fire. He looked to Merry only once before he instead turned his gaze to the fire. His cousin's features twisted in anguish and Pippin quickly looked away. Merry's tired pleading began to blend with the wind.

It was very hard to believe that it had only been four months.


(The Previous October: Harvest Moon) (continued)

After Merry departed, Pippin could not avoid spending much time in his father's company, going over dusty old records of harvest numbers going back decades, for what purpose, he had no idea. He was interested in what was growing now, why should he care what Thain Isumbras IV had harvested?

He sat in the study, valiantly suppressing a sneeze. It must have been a very determined sneeze, for it kept coming back at unexpected times. He knew if he were to let it out, he would be subjected to unspeakable herbal concoctions aimed at warding off incipient pneumonia. There was really nothing wrong with him that a good dusting, or perhaps a thorough fire, or failing that, a nice shattering earthquake wouldn't cure.

He finally escaped his father's clutches only to be snared by his mother as he walked, all unsuspecting, down to the great room for late supper.

'I would like you to sit with Cousin Adelard tonight. He's been asking after you, and he's feeling too poorly to come to the great room for supper.'

Pippin's heart sank. His ancient cousin was always trying to corner him, to whisper incomprehensible warnings into his ear, spraying him with spittle when he got excited about whatever it was he was trying, ineffectually, to say. He nodded dutifully to his mother and turned his steps back into the depths of the Smials, where spiders and snakes and ancient cousins lurked.

Adelard was pathetically happy to greet the young Took, and Pippin felt ashamed of himself for his uncharitable thoughts. He settled down in the chair next to his cousin and answered many questions about his doings the past few days. The questions started out with vague generalities but gradually became sharper, and he became uncomfortably aware that the faded eyes were regarding him intently.

'Went off suddenly to Buckland, eh?' the old hobbit said thoughtfully. 'And had a bad headache before he left?' He shook his head, the stark white curls surrounding his bald pate bobbing gently. 'I don't like the sound of that.'

'D'you think something might happen?' Pippin said, vaguely alarmed in spite of himself. 'Perhaps he should have rested, started off in the morning instead.'

The old hobbit shuddered. 'Nay, laddie,' he said slowly. 'We're well shut of him, I'd say.'

Pippin let it pass. Old Adelard was full of odd fancies, and had a particular disliking for the Brandybucks. He could not ignore it, however, when the old hobbit sat forward abruptly, seizing his wrist.

The old hobbit's eyes bored into Pippin's. 'It's starting up again, laddie. 'Tis, aye, 'tis. It's up to Tooks to stop it. You're to be the next Thain. It's up to you, laddie.'

'What's starting up again?' Pippin asked, bewildered.

'The bane of the Brandybucks, lad,' Adelard said ominously.

Just then a cheerful voice interrupted. 'Och, are ye scaring the lad with your ghost stories again, Delly? Well, that'll be enough of that! Young Pip has enough troubles, with his da looking for 'im, without you stuffing his head full of nonsense and blather.'