The Dragon's Breath

Author's note: This is the slash version of the fic. If this ain't your bag baby, you'd better hit that back button (and yes, I did use an Austin Powers line in my author's note.) However, I *highly* recommend this version, even if you aren't a fan of slash; it is far more complete, the end message is stronger, and it isn't *that* descriptive. Okay, much is alluded to, but still....

Many thanks to Violet Raven for beta-ing!

Dedicated with much love to Emily, a true Brandybuck with a scary Tookish streak. This one's for you!

Merry had never been more aware of blood. He was keenly aware that it was all around him, pounding within him, throbbing in his ears. He could feel it in the beating of Eowyn's heart where she pressed against his back. He could see it in the flush of the cheeks of the banner-bearers who rode beside them, faces young and determined. The huge horse beneath him jostled him, making him accidentally bite down on his lower lip, and he tasted the coppery flavor of his life's fluid. It unnerved him. It brought back unbidden memories of crimson leaking from the arrow wounds of Boromir, of the dark-stained cloak of Frodo that bunched as he writhed with the pain of a Morgul wound, of the black and steaming liquid that gushed forth from the orcs that Merry himself had felled. It forced him to think of blood slicked fields and bright red bandages and blades and axes and war and-

"We're almost there," Eowyn's voice whispered close to Merry's ear, making him jump involuntarily. "Look. There is smoke in the air."

Merry didn't want to look, he didn't want to see the gray clouds of ash and smoke rising, he didn't want to know or see where they were headed, but he decided that he must. He had to be prepared, at any rate, because whether he liked it or not he had wanted to fight and now he certainly was going to. He raised his eyes skyward. And blanched.

The land ahead was choked in darkness. Huge clouds of black smoke vomited forth from an unseen inferno. The land raised above him into a hill that the cavalry had not yet climbed so he could not see the furnace that fed the fire but he knew what it was. It was the white city of Minas Tirith, the city that Boromir had so often talked about but never reached, the city that Aragorn had decided against them going to so long ago at Amon Hen, the city that for so long had seemed nothing more than a dot on ancient maps. The city where Gandalf had taken Pippin. Merry's Pippin. And it was burning.

Merry felt his insides lurch and he was glad of Eowyn's slight but strong arm around his waist as he swayed in his seat, dizzy with shock and fear. "Its on fire," he heard himself state dully. "Pippin..."

Little, naive, brave, beautiful Pippin, trapped in a city of flame, alone. In a flash like a horrible dream Merry saw him, running blindly through burning streets, tripping over the dead, sprawling face forward onto hard stone, his bright green eyes tearing at the poisonous fumes. And if there were flames and torches there would be orcs, thousands of orcs, with their foul blades and their hateful eyes and Pippin was alone, all alone. What would they do to him, a tiny hobbit in a war that was too big for him?

*Blood...blood on the steps of the citadel...*

"Forth! Onward, up the hill!" From the head of the cavalry Theoden King lead the way up the hill, green and white banner blazing. Merry felt Eowyn's breath quicken, and her arm tightened almost painfully at his waist. Heart pounding, Merry stroked his hand over her gauntlet. It was more for his own comfort than hers; a panic was beginning to well up inside of him; his mind was screaming at him.

The clanging of swords and the dull thud of blade upon armor could be heard.

Merry swallowed hard. They were nearing the summit of the hill. Now flickers of orange light could be seen against the darkness. Meriadoc Brandybuck, aristocratic hobbit from the Shire, was heading into battle. He had wanted this, or rather, he had thought he did. At the time it had seemed that everyone was doing something to help and he was nothing, just dead weight and useless until someone found some errand or another for him to do. He wanted to help, wanted to make some sort of a difference. That was part of it, at any rate. Secretly he had always hoped that riding to Minas Tirith would allow him to find Pippin again. In his daydreams during the long ride to Gondor Merry often saw himself at the front of the Rohirrim, taking part in a charge that would save the city of Minas Tirith and change the tide of war. Then he would come upon Pippin on the city streets and take him by surprise, perhaps just walk up nonchalantly and say "Well, hullo Pip, fancy meeting you in a place like this." Pippin would be so surprised that for once he would have nothing to say, so Merry would simply kiss him on the cheek and pretend to walk away casually. But now...

The Rohirrim reached the top of the hill and any shred of hope that Merry had went flying into the wind that laughed in his face. The army at the bottom of the hill was massive, a sea of evil greater than one ignorant hobbit could have ever imagined. Merry wanted to scream; he wanted to shriek and cry and weep. How could his Pippin survive all of that? And even if he could, what was the chance that Merry would live to see him again? All at once death seemed an enormous probability.

A tiny gasp escaped Merry's lips and he clung to Eowyn's arm in terror, pressing back against her as if she was his mother and could somehow make the nightmare disappear. She held tightly to him, anchoring him to reality.

"Courage, Merry," she whispered. "Courage for our friends."

She squeezed his hand reassuredly. Courage. Yes. Courage. Merry had to be brave. He could not lose his wits now. He had to do this. For Pippin. For Frodo. For his home. He had to do this.

Nodding slightly, Merry took a deep breath and let his eyes close briefly. His heart still pounded in his chest but slowly, slowly the desire to run in horror began to leave him. The panic lessened as he listened to the war cries of the orcs on the battlefield below and was replaced with a great feeling of sadness. Death awaited him, and he had lived so short a time and accomplished so little. He would never again see the Brandywine River or take an ale at the Green Dragon or be scolded by Gandalf. He would never see another sunrise or swing from an apple tree or taste clean water. He would never be able to hold Pippin again or whisper to him little stories meant to elicit a smile. He would never see Frodo again, or Sam, or quiet Aragorn. There was so much Merry felt he hadn't done that he could have, and so much he would never get to do.

And yet...there was a feeling of peace inside him as well. He knew it was hopeless but some stubborn hobbit part of him kept thinking that perhaps the suicide ride of the Rohirrim would keep Minas Tirith from being over taken immediately. Perhaps Merry's death would help to save Pippin.

King Theoden rode out in front of his troops brandishing his spear. He shouted words as he rode back and forth, readying his men for their final ride. Merry felt Eowyn tremble and "Whatever happens," she said, "stay with me. I'll take care of you."

Merry felt a great surge of love for this disguised lady of Rohan who had shown him such kindness over such a short period of time. She would not die alone, at least, for Merry decided then that he would protect her to the last, if he could. She deserved that much, so fair and brave she was.

"Death!" A chant sprung up among the troops. "Death!"

*Goodbye to the Shire, and the fields ever-green...*

"Death!"

*Goodbye to the sky and the air free and clean...*

"Death!"

*Farewell Frodo....I hope you'll be proud...*

"Death!" Tears burning at the backs of his eyes, Merry took up the call, raising his sword like all the others.

*Goodbye my dearest Pippin....I love you...*

"Death!" Now Eowyn too took up the call.

*I have always loved you.....*

"Forth, Eorlingas!!!"

The cavalry charged on.

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What Pippin always remembered about the aftermath of the battle was the silence. As he followed Gandalf around the muddied and torn field he thought that there should be more noise, more groans and sighs, more signs that some still lived however many were injured. But there was only silence. The dead army even moved in silence, their feet and armor making no noise. Gandalf too was speechless; he walked deliberately, taking in everything.

"There's so much destruction...." Pippin muttered as he surveyed the broken bodies of soldiers of good and evil alike, the corpses of the giant Mumakil that lay like gray hills in the smoke, the ruins of the orc towers, and the fragments of destroyed buildings. "Is everyone dead then, Gandalf? Is their no one out here....who's.....who still..." He swallowed. It all seemed so pointless to him. Why did so many have to die? Why was there so much hate and suffering? Was there no other way to end this war? He didn't understand. Gandalf did not answer, and Pippin wondered if the wizard was thinking the same thing.

Heartsick, the hobbit wandered the battlefield, looking without hope into the dull eyes of the dead. Several soldiers walked here and there, mostly remnants of the valiant Rohirrim. They too scanned the bodies on the ground, occasionally breaking out into fits of rage or tears as they recognized one of the dead faces. Death was more a pain for the living than the deceased, it seemed.

Presently Pippin stumbled upon someone he vaguely recognized; the captain of the Rohirrim, Eomer his name was. He was gazing around as if lost, his eyes seeking something on the ground. Pippin watched him for a while, wondering if he should say something. The man looked towards the hobbit and for a split second it seemed that Eomer saw and took comfort in seeing the Halfling alive. Then his eye caught something amongst the deceased and all comfort and color fled from Eomer's face.

Pippin dared not look to see whom Eomer had lost. Instead he turned quickly and ran in the opposite direction. The stench of blood and smoke overwhelmed Pippin's senses. His head reeled and for a moment he was afraid that he would faint and be mistaken for one of the many dead. Suddenly his foot caught on a broken helm and he was sent sprawling onto his hands and knees, tearing the sensitive skin on his palms. The hobbit remained in that position for a moment, taking great shuddering breaths to calm himself. Gradually Pippin became aware that he was mumbling something over and over again, and he was only slightly surprised to realize it was "Merry, Merry..."

There was a light touch Pippin's shoulder and a moment later the hobbit was hauled to his feet by Gandalf, who was smiling grimly. "Bravely now, Peregrin Took," said the old man softly. "There are many to be looked after."

"Gandalf," Pippin started, dashing a hand across his watery eyes. "It looks like everyone is... is dead. There's so many of them...."

"Yes," the wizard said, laying a gnarled hand to the hobbit's shoulder. "There are." Then his eyes caught sight of Eomer, and his eyes clouded over. Gandalf sighed. "And it looks as if Theoden, Lord of the Mark, is among them. You keep up hope, my lad. I must tend to the dead."

With that Gandalf strode away, leaving Pippin alone to master himself. He stood for a while blinking like an owl in the sunlight, watching as Gandalf bent to Eomer and then summoned soldiers to bear the bodies the Captain wept over: Theoden King, who looked peaceful even from where Pippin stood, and a young soldier with blood in his long flaxen hair. Then Pippin realized with a start that it was no mere soldier at all, it was a maiden, her face pale and drawn yet lovely still. Pippin felt staggered; had even the women of Rohan died for the aid of Gondor? He had no time to dwell on it, for Gandalf had turned and with a forehead creased with lines of worry and grief he beckoned to the hobbit and called "Come, my lad. We must return to the city."

With a final glance around him, the smallest guard of the citadel nodded and began to follow the grim procession. Suddenly he halted, and on a whim bent to the ground and removed the glove from his right hand. He let it fall and dug his naked fingers deep into the abused earth, pulling up a good handful. Then he stood and closed his eyes for a moment, letting the soil slip through his fingers.

"Like the gardens of the Shire," he whispered, surprised. "I hope they reach the white shores...." Pippin opened his eyes and tossed the remaining dirt into the air. It caught in the wind and scattered over the battle field; Pippin wondered why he had done it.

"Peregrin..." Gandalf was calling him again, more firmly this time. Pippin followed with downcast eyes.

He had not gone four steps when something caught his eye. To his right lay one of the huge Mumakil, and in the curve of its body was a pile of dead orcs. The ground about them was dark with their foul blood; broken shields and crudely made weapons lay scattered, the only tombstones the wretched monsters would likely get. But amidst the carnage of the scene a garment, grayish green and of fair make, had been cast aside like so much refuse. Pippin stared at it in wonder for a moment. An elvish cloak, one of the nine the elves had given the Fellowship when the left Lothlorien. How had it ended up here, hundreds of miles away from the golden wood? A sinking feeling of premonition washed over Pippin as he turned and started over to it. As he grew closer he could see plainly a gloved hand sticking out from beneath the pile of orcs. A hand as tiny as Pippin's own ungloved one.

Pippin broke into a run. He did not hear Gandalf call his name, this time impatient and irritated, nor feel when something sharp nicked his ankle. He saw only Merry, the one who had always been there to say something encouraging, who had always held his arms out in exasperated fondness whenever Pippin would wake in the middle of the night, who smiled so sadly and sweetly at his younger cousin who 'didn't understand the 'bigness' of the real world', who was so proud and strong and gentle all at the same time, trapped beneath a crushing pile of carrion foul.

"Merry!" Pippin cried, pulling frantically at the orcs. They were heavy but somehow Pippin managed to roll them off and away. "Merry!" Merry lay still, so very still; he did not move even when Pippin lifted him and cradled his cheek against Pippin's chest. He was pale, with black bruises under his eyes and bright blood at his mouth. Pippin's heart screamed out in pain.

"Merry! Its me!" The world seemed unreal, like a dream, no, like a horrible nightmare that Pippin longed to wake from but couldn't. "Wake up!" he pleaded. "Its Pippin!"

A heartbeat and then Merry's dark lashes stirred and his eyes opened painfully. "Pippin..." he murmured, his voice distant. Then his eyes focused on Pippin's face and he smiled ever so slightly. "I knew you'd find me....."

Tears of relief streamed down Pippin's face as he stroked his elder cousin's cheek. "Yes. I'm here now. Everything is going to be alright, Merry."

"Pip...." Merry's face suddenly contorted in pain and he jolted, writhing in Pippin's arms and gasping like a drowning man. "So cold.....can't feel my arm....I'm so cold..."

A sob escaped Pippin's lips and he clung to his companion, planting a kiss on his cousin's forehead. "Its alright, its alright!"

"...stabbed him, Pip.....Pippin....Pippin!" Merry flailed his left arm wildly; the right remained limp by his side, and his eyes took on a glassy sheen. "Pippin.....are you going to leave me?! Pip!"

"No, no!" Pippin cried, horribly frightened now. "I'm going to take care of you." His words sounded hollow even to his own ears; words he had heard spoken before to reassure the dying. Gently Pippin laid Merry down on the ground, taking care not to jostle his injured arm, then he snatched the elven cloak and spread it over his cousin's prone body. There were people approaching now, Gandalf, perhaps, and some others by the sound of the footsteps. Pippin wanted to shout at them to stay away. He had an irrational fear that if they came and took Merry away he would never see him alive again. Of course, there was a greater chance that Gandalf could help somehow, but at the moment Pippin could not think clearly. He desperately wanted his cousin to jump up and laugh and tease him for falling for 'his act' once again. But Merry's eyes had fallen closed and he did not stir again.

"Merry," Pippin whispered, resting his forehead on Merry's. It was cold and damp with sweat. "I love you." He placed a gentle kiss on chill unresponsive lips; he could taste blood on them. "You have to *wake up* so I know that you love me too. Merry......Merry, please."

Still nothing. There was a hand on Pippin's shoulder. He choked back another sob and raised his tear filled eyes to gaze into the face of an elf.

"Legolas..." The hobbit stated before letting his head drop down onto Merry's chest. They were going to take Merry away, they were going to take him away and bury him and he would be dead, dead! And sure enough strong hands were pulling Merry away from Pippin's clutching arms.

"No!" Pippin cried, leaping up and snatching wildly. "No, don't take him from me!"

It was Aragorn who cradled Merry in his arms, and he did nothing more but cast Pippin an undecipherable glance before striding away quickly towards the city. Pippin made to run after him but was stopped as Legolas stepped around to kneel in front of the small halfling.

"You must let him go," said the elf, putting his hands on Pippin's shoulders. "He can help him-"

"You can't take him from me! I told him I wouldn't leave him! I promised!" Pippin babbled." You'll bury him! You'll bury him!!"

Legolas stared at him. Behind him Gimli stood solemnly, tears shining in his eyes.

Gandalf, however, stood calmly."Peregrin Took!" He boomed. Pippin sobbed and shot the wizard a glare full of uncharacteristic anger. Legolas blinked, startled. He had never seen such a fire burning in the young Took's eyes. Surely Gandalf was being too harsh on him.

"We will do nothing of the sort!" Gandalf went on. "You must control yourself! You will not be allowed anywhere near Meriadoc as long as you are in this irrational mood! I bid you be calm! Aragorn can help, but only if you allow him the time and space he needs. Peace, my lad!"

For a moment the anger swelled in the hobbit's green eyes, but then all at once it faded and he dissolved into silent but bitter weeping. He let his arms hang limply at his sides and despite all the armor and the sword at his side he looked very much the emotionally drained tweenager he was. Legolas was overwhelmed with pity and he gathered Pippin into his arms, holding him as he cried and soothing him by brushing a hand over his curls. Gandalf let out a sigh.

"I see now that it was indeed wise to let them come on this journey," the wizard mumbled, "but at what cost to their own livelihood?"

"He is overwhelmed, Mithrandir," Legolas said. "His mind is confused by the pain in his heart."

"He is young," Gimli said pointedly.

"He is not young," Gandalf replied sharply. Then his tone softened a bit and he continued sadly, "Not anymore. And I fear I shall forever regret that it was my doing."

"No..." Pippin's soft voice said. He pulled away from Legolas, and he looked up at Gandalf dignifiedly. "Whatever made me grow up..." He swallowed and dared a glance to the east where a tongue of flame could be seen dancing in the sky. "It was not you, Gandalf." He took a deep breath. "I think that I'm alright now. I need to see Merry." Then a bit of the old Pippin snuck back as he looked back at Gandalf sheepishly and added "Please?"

Gandalf's lips curled into a small smile. "He will be in the Houses of Healing. I shall take you personally, Peregrin Took. I've business there as well."

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"Merry! Merry! Merry!" Pippin bounded down the stony streets, nearly knocking over the soldiers who guarded the doors to the House of Healing. He had manage to walk calmly enough alongside Gandalf for most of the time but once he laid eyes on the straw roof and smoking chimney he had bolted off on his own, running as fast as his feet could take him. Gandalf had sighed loudly, but otherwise hadn't protested much. Pippin was glad for that. Every moment of not knowing how or where Merry was seemed like an eternity.

"Merry!" Pippin cried again as he entered the house. He quickly sobered, however, as he realized how many sick and injured there were. The front room was full of moaning soldiers and the busy women who tended them. There was blood on the floor (Pippin nearly slipped more than once) and every now and again a piercing shriek would come from some corner of the room. Pippin guiltily averted his eyes. He could do nothing to help them aside from giving them his pity.

In the next room he was happy to find Faramir, who was sitting up in bed dozing. He looked pale, but he was alive and when Pippin shut the door Faramir opened one eye and smiled at his rescuer before falling back asleep. At the opposite end of the room Eomer with his head bowed beside a bed where the blonde soldier-maid lay on her side. The lady's shoulders were shaking and as Pippin grew closer to her he saw that she was sobbing silently. One arm was thrown over her white face, but the other laid by her side, moving just a little. She did not look up as Pippin passed her, but Eomer raised his red-rimmed eyes to meet Pippin's. He nodded and then bowed his head once more.

The next room was very quiet. There were many beds arranged in two lines, one along either wall. Most of the figures in the bed were motionless; they seemed to be in a deep sleep. There were a few women in the room who bustled around like honey bees, tending to the sick. Pippin did not see Merry. The panic he had managed to chase away began to creep back. Why could he not find his Merry?

One of the women brushed past carrying an empty pitcher and Pippin called to her. "Excuse me-"

"No time to speak, master hobbit. The Black Shadow lies heavily on these poor souls. They need healing and we must tend them until the King is ready to work his magic. "

"The King?" Pippin asked, but the woman had already disappeared through the door. "The Black Shadow...Merry...."

"Peregrin!"

Pippin jumped. Gandalf had come in while he had been talking to the healing woman and now the wizard was at another door and motioning that Pippin should follow him. The hobbit hurried after the swift Istari, through the door and down a short hallway into another area of the House.

There was Aragorn, bent over a small figure who had been laid on a bed that seemed to engulf him. His skin was as pale as the sheets that covered him, but even as Pippin entered the room the figure stirred and groaned lowly.

"Merry!" Pippin cried, ready to leap onto the tiny figure in his joy. Gandalf stopped him with a gesture and Pippin fidgeted anxiously, impatient to see his companion again. Aragorn mumbled a few more words then touched Merry's forehead with his fingertips.

"Come back, Meriadoc of the Shire. Let darkness be gone and trouble you no more. Come back!" the ranger said in a commanding voice. Pippin watched him with wide eyes. Merry groaned again and his fingers twitched ever so slightly.

"Go to him, my lad, " Gandalf said, giving the young Took a push towards the bed. Pippin did not need to be told a second time. In a thrice he reached the bedside. Aragorn took his hand and set it over Merry's. Then he stepped aside.

"Call him, Pippin," Aragorn said with a reassuring smile.

Pippin nodded and bent low so that he was only a few inches away from his cousin's ear. "Merry! I'm here now, your Pippin's here. Wake up, Merry!"

A second passed. The bed creaked with the hobbits' weight. Gandalf's robes fluttered slightly as he shifted. Pippin's armor clinked cheerfully. The injured moaned nearby. Mount Doom rumbled miles away. Outside a bird crooned.

Merry's hand tightened gently on Pippin's. His eyes opened and he smiled.

"Hullo, Pip."

Pippin had never heard a more beautiful sound in all his life.

"Fancy meeting you in a place like this." Merry's eyes were like rain washed crystals of moonlight. Pippin knew that never in his life would he tire of looking into those eyes.

"Oh...." He breathed. "Oh, Mer...Merry-mine......" With a sound that was part giggle part sob Pippin flung his arms around his beloved and mumbled nonsense through relieved tears.

"Pip...." Merry's good hand rose to brush Pippin's tear stained cheek. "They said you were dead."

"What?"

"They said you were taken, gone. I-I saw you, on the battlefield and then the Shadow-" He shuddered and said no more. Aragorn cleared his throat.

"Think no more of it," he said. "Keep your mind from evil things. The battle is won. You need not look further than tomorrow. Peace be with you both." He smiled again then left to lend his healing hands to the other sick and wounded. Gandalf lingered for a moment, looking at the two hobbits on the too-big bed, both in armor they never should have had to don, both care-worn and exhausted, both enthralled with one another. Finally the wizard smiled.

"I think you have performed any and all necessary duties today, the both of you. I shall send someone to bring you more comfortable garments. Then pray you both, get some rest! The Valar only know you deserve it." The last was said with a chuckle as Gandalf shut the door behind him. Night came to Minas Tirith, and as the smoke above the city cleared, the star of Earendil shone brightly.

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Merry awoke with a gasp in the middle of the night. He sat bolt upright in bed, the remnants of a nightmare clinging to his memory. Instantly Pippin's arms were around him, running soothing fingers up and down Merry's back and shoulders. "Just a dream," Pippin was whispering. "Just a dream."

But it wasn't a dream. Theoden was dead. Frodo and Sam were still lost in Mordor somewhere, if they were alive at all. Evil still prowled. He had found Pippin again but who was to say how long they had before they were separated once again? The chill in Merry's arm had grown in the wake of his nightmare and he flexed the fingers gingerly, willing the harsh laughing voice from his dream to leave him in peace.

"Oh, Pippin," Merry whispered, trembling. "There's no escaping it."

"Escaping what?" Pippin whispered back.

"Anything. Everything."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean this whole war. Its all just so much. Who's to say when it will all end? *If* it will all end. What hope do we have that Frodo and Sam are alive or that they will make it to that...that...that place! Can you see it out there?" Merry shivered and put his good arm around his younger cousin, taking comfort in Pippin's warmth. "What chance does someone as small as us have against that huge beast? It's madness!"

Pippin was silent for a long time. When he did finally speak, it was so soft that Merry could scarcely hear him. "We've come this far, haven't we? Isn't that madness in itself, that we should live this long?"

Then to Merry's great surprise Pippin chuckled. "Fool of a Brandybuck," he said. "We have hope! Or I do, at any rate. A fool's hope, Gandalf said. And I'm more the fool, it seems. So as long as I remain well....foolish then there's hope. If I just keep getting into things too deep for me (and irritating Gandalf, of course), then we can't lose! If I'm understanding it correctly."

Merry sat back and stared at his companion. He had no idea what on Middle Earth Pippin was talking about. "Pip," Merry said slowly. "...Are you teasing me?"

"No! Well, not really." He laughed. "To tell the truth, I don't know. See. Foolish. Ha! Our hope just grew."

Merry turned to look directly at his cousin. The younger hobbit was grinning. He seemed quite amused at the bewildered look on his companion's face. "Pippin Took!" Merry cried indignantly." You are not going to use that as an excuse for your ignorance, are you?"

"For my what?"

"Pip!"

Pippin giggled. Not just laughed, giggled, a ridiculously amusing sound that rolled forth from his lips like music. And it was contagious. At first Merry just smiled, but then soon they were both shaking with barely controlled laughter, and Merry had no idea why. Perhaps it was the absurdness of Pippin's remarks, perhaps it was a lack of sleep, or perhaps it was just the relief that they were both alive and *could* laugh at nothing. Whatever it was, Merry felt his heart lighten as he hiccupped with laughter and the pain in his arm lessened. He said as much to Pippin, and the Took responded by asking "Does that mean that I can hit you with this pillow for revenge about that 'ignorance' remark?"

"If you'd like," retorted Merry, easing back down onto said pillow. "But I'd hit you back. Just because I'm a cripple doesn't mean I'm helpless."

Pippin's expression quickly grew serious. He laid down beside his companion. "You aren't serious, are you? About....about being a cripple? You'll get better, won't you?"

"'Course I will!" Merry stretched his right arm over his head to demonstrate. It was still slow and stiff, but the icy cold was leaving it and it did not hurt so much. Finally Merry lowered his arm and intertwined his fingers with Pippin's. "Nothing a good sleep won't fix, I'll bet."

"Does it hurt horribly?" Pippin asked in a small voice.

"Not hardly at all, Pip."

"I was so worried about you...." Pippin brought Merry's hand to his lips and placed a soft kiss on the back of his hand. "I was afraid I had..." Whatever Pippin had been afraid of he did not say. Instead he gently opened Merry's hand and kissed the open palm before laying it alongside his cheek. Merry gazed at him. There was indeed real fear in Pippin's bright eyes and any joking retort Merry had disappeared, leaving only serious compassion.

"Pippin..." Merry started. "I wanted to...there was something that I...I shouldn't have left you."

"I shouldn't have left you." Pippin let his eyes slide shut. He turned his face so that his lips met Merry's pulse point. "Do you remember what I told you on the battlefield?"

"What you...."

"I told you that I loved you." Pippin took a deep breath and in a moment his sparkling green eyes met Merry's. "And that you needed to wake up...so that I knew you loved me...."

Merry's mouth moved wordlessly for a moment as he struggled to find coherent words. The irony! That they would come to this when they had little hope of a future happy together, when imminent death waited on the horizon. Or was it some kind twist of fate that had spared them both death so far so that they may speak these words to each other? Did it matter? If their fate was truly to die in this wretched war then at least Pippin should know.....

Merry's fingers were trembling as he brushed them over Pippin's cheek. "I love you."

The smile that Pippin broke into at those words made all the walking, all the fear, all the pain, all the suffering seem worthwhile. Merry felt that he would do anything to keep that smile right where it was.

"I love you," he said again. "I always have. And I should have told you well before now."

Relief flooded Pippin's face and he threw his arms around Merry, burying his face in Merry's shoulder. "We need not look farther than tomorrow....."

"Then tonight is all we need."

Merry felt Pippin's breath upon his lips and all he needed to do was lean forward just a tiny bit....Then their lips met timidly and softly. It could have been nothing more than a casual kiss between two (very) good friends. Then Pippin leaned even further into Merry and mouthed his name against the curve of Merry's mouth. Merry's hand slid down to the small of Pippin's back, pulling him closer, and his mouth opened to capture the gasp that escaped from the younger hobbit. Pippin was inexperienced, but he learned quickly, his clever lips and tongue finding the right notes to complete the song. The only problem was that he couldn't seem to get close enough, and he ran out of room when he ended up quite literally sitting in Merry's lap. When they parted to get their breath Pippin looked around as if confused about how he ended up where he was. He was breathing rather heavily, and his fingers were tangled in the fabric at the shoulder of Merry's nightshirt.

"I feel it, Merry," Pippin breathed between deep breaths. He smiled that beautiful smile again and tilted his face skyward like a man feeling the first free breeze after a long imprisonment. He looked exuberant, and Merry loved him for it.

"Feel what, dearheart?" Merry whispered, nuzzling at his love's smiling mouth and tracing his fingertips along the shivering pulse at Pippin's throat.

"The music of the world." Pippin said it with such sincerity and joy that Merry thought he would go mad with love and desire.

"Ah, my Pip!" Merry cried before Pippin's mouth frantically sought his. And oh! Merry felt it too, heard it in the sighs and gasps that emitted from his beloved; tasted it even, on Pippin's lips and on his skin that seemed to glow wherever Merry pressed hungry kisses. Finger tips, throat, and shoulders; they all seemed to demand the most meticulous of tending. Merry was hindered only by the lack of full mobility in his right arm. Pippin took special care of it, however, moving it gently wherever he thought it best it go. Now and again he would massage it with deft fingertips while his lips trailed deep kisses along Merry's throat and jaw. The heat of Pippin's love drove the chill away until it was nothing more than a dull numbness that would fade as the first rays of the sun peeped in through the window.

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The first gray of morning peeped in through the curtained window. Pippin sleepily opened one eye and smiled. His cheek was pillowed on Merry's nude chest, rocked by the steady rise and fall of his beloved's breath. One of Merry's arms, the stronger, left arm, was thrown across Pippin's bare back, cradling him closely, almost protectively. The other hand was caught within Pippin's, who massaged circles into its palm with limber fingers. With his free hand Pippin smoothed errayent curls from Merry's forehead. The air was a little cool. Most of the blankets lay on the floor in a haphazard pile; Merry (or had it been Pippin?) had kicked them there when they had proved a nuisance. Only the sheet remained in its proper place; it clung to the hobbits' waists the way the hobbits clung to each other. There were noises from other parts of the House, but Pippin barely heeded them. The steady throb of Merry's heartbeat thrummed like music in his ears, lulling him back to sleep. He let out a happy sigh and closed his eyes, confident that no black dream would disturb his sleep.

"There's a fairy in my bed."

Merry's low voice surprised Pippin, but did not startle him. He supposed that his dear cousin's way of saying "good morning" would always be some tease or another. Not that the younger hobbit minded. He would rather Merry wake him with a friendly dig than with the haunted eyes and guarded words that had become too common place for Pippin's tastes. The two of them had quite literally grown up together, but they had done more growing up in the few months that had passed since they left the Shire than they had in all the rest of their short years.

It was frightening, all that had happened, so much so that it forced Pippin to realize that moments like the one of perpetual bliss he was in at the moment were to be cherished while they lasted. So rather than come up with a half-hearted retort, Pippin just lay where he was, breathing in the morning air deeply and concentrating on the sensation of his dear one's warmth all around him. Soon Merry's steady stroking of his back began to lull him asleep and he only vaguely heard the soft whisper that lingered in the air.

"You are beautiful, my Pippin."

There was a sadness in that voice and for all his naivety Pippin knew why. They had found each other during the night, and as much as they may have pretended or wanted to believe otherwise, this passionate moment was only a blessed calm in the middle of a torrential storm. They could cling to each other in this room and swear never to let go but whether they willed it or no the time would come where they would be separated once again. With a mind that lingered on the very edge of sleep Pippin cursed the unfairness of it all. Merry had been right; there was no escaping what fate had apparently ordained for them. There would be no victory without loss or sacrifice. There was still war at hand.

And yet, for all the evil that was and would be, Pippin knew now that all was not hopeless. His mind and body might walk the path into battle but his heart would forever remain in the little room in the Houses of Healing with Merry in his arms. In the same way that Lothlorien was a place untouched and sacred so would this memory be, and if Pippin lived only a few more hours or a hundred more years he knew that the love he felt for the hobbit beside him would be as the elves were, never changing only growing wiser and stronger with the passing years. And it was reciprocated, there was no doubt; Pippin felt his love returned in every rising and falling of the chest beneath his cheek. It was beautiful; Merry was beautiful.

There was a sigh, and the hand roaming Pippin's back left to play with the auburn curls at the nape of his neck. Pippin echoed the sigh with one of his own and he cuddled closer, slipping his arm possessively around Merry's waist.

"They'll be coming in here soon, to check on us," Merry stated wistfully. Pippin just hummed and turned his face slightly to press a sleepy kiss against Merry's chest. He did not care, frankly, if Gandalf were to storm in with half of the city of Gondor parading behind him. Sleep beckoned and before long Pippin gave himself up to it. Merry followed him soon after. In their dreams, they lay together still in the apple orchards of the Shire counting the leaves of the fruit trees under a summer sun, or on a balcony under the stars in secluded Rivendell talking in hushed tones about every day things that for some reason seemed so secret under elvish moonlight. Only once did a dark shadow stand just out of sight in some corner of Merry's dream. It remained still and cold for a moment before passing away into mist, for the light and beauty of the two souls it maliciously stalked was forever beyond its reach.

End

(And a few notes to end on. The music that Pippin speaks of is derived from the first part of the Silmarillion, which describes the beginning of creation. In short it says that Eru (the One) and the Valar created Middle Earth through song and music. It's an idea that has always intrigued me because if you listen essentially anywhere you can hear music. The fact that Pippin "feels" it rather than hears it is important because he feels it through Merry. In short, their "inner music", the songs that make them who they are coinciding. They complete one another.

When Merry says "there's a fairy in my bed" he is teasing Pippin about the story in the Shire that says one of the Tooks took a fairy bride at some point.

How did they manage do be uninterrupted the entire night when Merry had been grievously ill? Well, I have your answer for you! But not in this fic, no precious, not this one. Hee! ^_^ I wrote a companion piece to this fic, and it stars good ol' Legolas. Watching Return of the King restored some more positive feelings for the blonde one (which The Two Towers had killed.....stupid idiotic such and such...). I saw more book-Legolas in RotK and less Orlando-Legolas. It made me happy. So he gets his own fic at last.

Finally, if this isn't up to your smut-factor I have yet *another* version that is rated R on Libraryofmoria.com. There's a lot more description, a lot longer love scene, and even more exposition. I can't take complete credit for it, though. Why? Because I am not male, I had a dear friend of mine write the scene (because I am a perfectionist freak and *everything* has to be correct and realistic or I take tantrums ^_^) I had to tone it down from what he had written, if that's anything to anybody. That boy has one active mind, I tell ye. *And* he is the only guy I have ever met that likes slash. And he's mine! Mine I tell you! Mwahahahahahahaha! So if you'd like to take a peek at my dear Kearen's work, head on over to libraryofmoria.com and look for "Faded Pictures". It should be there in a few days.

Also.....all the lovely F/S fans out there, the next chapter of Simple and Clean should be up before too long, as well as several one shots and some poetry based on the Grey Havens (which was the greatest cinematic scene I have ever seen in my life....okay, okay, done gushing...)

Comments, inane shrieking, criticism, your first born son all are welcome and much appreciated!)