Chapter 1: Prologue
It began with a party.
No, it began, truly began, long before that.
It began one winter, long ago. Pippin wasn’t sure how old he’d been at the time, perhaps ten or eleven. Young, at any rate. It had been just after Yule, and, as was traditional, he and his sisters had been cleaning out their closets of old clothes to hand-down to the poor of Tuckborough.
No, it began even before that, back to a time when Pippin was even younger… but, perhaps, it only really, truly began with the first dress he stole for himself.
It was winter, just after Yule, the days cold and bleak once Merry had gone back to Buckland. Pippin had been bored without him or anyone else for company.
He was meant to be going through his things as his mother had asked him, and he had dutifully sorted through the weskits and trousers that he’d outgrown for nearly an hour, but, as was liable to happen when one performs a dull task without needing to give it much attention, his mind began to wander.
In those days, his mind wandered to few places beyond his next meal, or how to create some diversion for himself. He would, of course, have wished for Merry, whose mind was so clever at both securing a little extra from the kitchens, and at making up games for them to play, even if they were stuck indoors; but in lieu of his cousin’s genius, Pippin had to content himself with his own wits and talents.
His primary amusement, when none other was to be had, was in harassing one or another of his sisters. Pearl, by that time, had been encouraged to think of him as training for her own children, and so had taken a very dull attitude to his mischief, merely administering a scold and then sending him packing. Pimpernel’s temper was such that she very often laughed at him rather than became angry, which was nice enough most of the time, but sometimes, Pippin liked to feel the risk of real fireworks.
This was, for whatever reason, one of those times.
Quiet as only a hobbit can be, he snuck down the hall to Pervinca’s room. He listened at the door. He heard no sound of her within. His face lit with a mischievous smile.
He turned the door handle. He had not any specific notion in mind, or at least never one that he could afterwards recall, but it didn’t take much to set her off. Back then, she worked herself into a fury if he even went near her door, never mind if she discovered him beyond its threshold.
Pervinca’s room was in disorder. Clearly, she’d be set to the same task as he, and, evidently, had found it just as dull and had needed an escape. Dresses, skirts, and blouses were strewn across her bed in piles. He glanced toward them casually, prepared to ignore them, but then a flash of green caught his eye.
Tentatively, he approached it, put his hand out to it. He knew the dress before he tugged it from the bottom of the pile. Pervinca hadn’t worn it in years, clearly she’d outgrown it long ago, but it was such a charming, beautiful green, of the sort that shimmered the way feathers sometimes do on birds, that it had left an impression in Pippin’s mind as being the most beautiful article of clothing that he’d ever seen.
He remembered picking it up, watching the light hit the shiny green fabric, remembered thinking that it was such a pretty thing. He remembered holding it against his body, looking in Pervinca’s mirror, and having just the barest thought that the dress would probably fit him.
Then, Pervinca had come into her room, and a dragon’s fury was unleashed upon him. “Get out of my room!” she’d bellowed and then come running for him. He’d dashed across her coverlet, knocked piles of clothes to the floor in his urgency to escape, while Pervinca continued to shriek and call him names. He leapt from her bed, landing with a heavy thump he felt all the way up in his thighbones and ran from her room laughing madly, hardly noticing that he still clutched the dress in his hands.
So, you see, it wasn’t really intentional, that he had ended up with it.
When he realized that he still had it, he shrugged, and, for some reason, put it in the back of his wardrobe rather than in the pile of his own things that were meant to be taken away.
He took it out a couple of times, just to look again. Once in daylight so he could hold it near his window and watch the shifting shimmer on the fabric, then again by candlelight so he could observe the effect in dimmer light. He remembered holding it up to himself once and then hastily putting it back.
He would go for days without thinking of the dress at all, and then suddenly, the siren call of it would come to him again and he’d take it out, perhaps only for a moment or two to admire it.
He could not say for how long he cherished the article in this way, but he had a notion that it was no more than a few months, perhaps just at the start of spring’s awakening, when he took it out with a new intention in mind.
It was one thing to hold it and admire it, quite another to put it on. Yet, he found himself more and more strongly tempted to do until, at last, he did it.
He never quite recalled what had finally made him do so, but he remembered the cool rustle of the fabric as it enveloped his legs, how smooth the material was, how much softer it was compared to the linen shirt he’d just taken off.
He remembered doing up the buttons, fully enveloping himself in the glimmering fortress of emerald.
The dress had been cut for a child, so it fitted Pippin’s lack of curves decently enough. He watched himself move in it, laughed at his ungainly, awkward gestures. He thought about how he’d seen Pearl move her arms, her feet. He softened his gestures, smoothed his gait. He put his hand on his hip and jutted it out to the side, “Oh, you rascal,” he said, lifting his other hand and waiving it dismissively, delicately, pretending…
He felt color blossoming in his cheeks, felt a stab of panic take him. He was suddenly stricken by the idea that he was doing something deeply wrong, deeply strange, and very, very dangerous. He took off the dress with such haste, that he plucked a button free, the sound of the popping thread making him nauseous. He shoved it down to the very bottom of his chest, underneath all of his spare blankets and summer clothes, and resolved never to put it on again.
But resolving to do something and doing it are quite different things.
It was the first time that year that Merry and Pippin had opened up the garden at Crookhollow for a party. Tulips turned their exquisitely colored heads this way and that as Hobbit feet walked near their beds. Lilacs were just beginning to bloom, their heady scent heavy in the darkening air. It was growing cooler now the sun was setting, but it was not cold; it was the first nice night of the year for a party.
Pippin was glad of it. It was through no small amount of effort that he and Merry had gathered a varied assortment of tables and chairs from all over the neighborhood, borrowed from friends and neighbors, with promises to return them within a day or two. It would be a project to do that, too, of course, but, as Merry had suggested it would, the collection looked charming, especially now in the torchlight as the party continued on into evening.
In addition to the eclectic furnishings, there was dancing and music, of course, as well as ale, pipe weed, and food. In short, everything necessary for an excellent time.
Fatty, Folco, Sam, Merry, and Pippin were all sitting at a table together, smoking and laughing as Fatty recounted the story of his recent engagement. He’d made a mess of it from the sound of things, which was unsurprising. Fatty had never been smooth, particularly with girls he liked. Not like Folco, or Merry.
“I took her out on a picnic,” Fatty said.
“Last Sunday?” asked Folco, “What, after all that rain we’d had?”
“Aye,” said Fatty, looking skyward as though thoroughly disappointed with his past self, “I wasn’t thinking of it, to confess the truth. So, there’s no place to set up the blanket that’s half dry, plus it’s sunny, so it starts getting hot. She’s hungry, and getting irritated since we can’t find a good place to set up, and I’m thinking to myself that I’d better find a place soon, otherwise she’s going to go back to her house, so I say, ‘ah, well this looks dry enough,’ and I put down the blanket in the shade of that elm tree, you know the one Sam, the one you planted just south of the party field? Anyway, I set up the blanket, she sits, and I start getting the food out. Meanwhile, the blanket gets plainly soaked through, the second I sit down, it looks like I’ve pissed myself the ground is so wet and so she says to me, ‘Freddy, this is a horrible start’ and I says, ‘start to what?’ and she says ‘to our engagement. You better make sure to do the marriage better,’ and so, that’s that. I didn’t even propose at all, she rather did.”
There was laughter all around and then Sam said, “Well, congratulations, all the same.”
“Any tips for him, Sam?” Merry asked, “You keep Rosie happy well enough.”
“Aye, and pregnant more than half the time,” said Folco with a wink, “what is this? Number four for you?”
Sam nodded proudly, “Yes. Rosie is delighted. She says every day how good it is to have Bag End full of the sounds of children.”
Fatty looked particularly pleased at this observation. Pippin barely stopped himself from making a face. He didn’t object to children as such, but the process of making them, well, the process of having them, or rather, the thought that he might be expected to consider such a thing, possibly rather soon, was a little daunting.
Folco turned to Merry, “And what about you, old man? Ready to tie the knot soon start making some sprats?”
Merry laughed him off, “I can’t think with whom I would,” he shared a glance with Pippin, “I think for now, I’m quite happy where I am.”
There were times when Pippin felt Merry could almost read his mind. Surely, Merry had done so just then. Neither of them were ready, it seemed, to settle down, to start families.
Pippin felt a strange glow in his breast as Merry continued to look at him. It was something that he’d never fully understood, Merry’s unique power to make him feel something… else. Something almost in addition to. He supposed that was the difference between a friend and a best friend. That Merry meant something more to him than Sam, or any of their other friends.
“Come now, Merry. I know between the two of us, we’ve sampled,” Folco said, hesitating meaningfully over his word choice while his face split in a knowing smile, “most of the girls in the Shire. There’s not one you’d take for a wife?”
“You’ve done more in the way of sampling than I,” Merry replied with a wry look in return, “and no. I’ve never yet met a girl I’ve thought I’d like to marry. Speak for yourself, anyway. You’ve never proposed to anyone yet.”
“True,” said Folco, “but nevertheless. I’m not an heir to one of the two most important houses in the Shire. Speaking of,” Folco said, shining a teasing glance toward Pippin, “you have your eye on any eligible lasses?”
“Me? Oh… no…” Pippin said.
Fatty jostled Pippin’s shoulder, “Pippin is more of a look-but-don’t-touch type, like myself.”
Pippin smiled at Fatty. It was true enough that he did like looking at girls quite a bit. They moved always so elegantly, so delicately. Their gestures were so refined and pretty. And their hair, always arranged so nicely with flowers and ribbons. “I suppose I’ll know the right girl when I meet her. I just haven’t done yet.” Pippin said eventually.
“Well, of course,” said Sam, gamely, “I always just knew with my Rosie. I never got a feeling for any other girl like I did for her, make no mistake.” Sam took a sip of his beer, a smile lighting his eyes.
“I suppose you just knew with your Eudora, eh, Fatty?” asked Merry.
“I suppose so, yes. Never a girl so beautiful as Eudora, leastways not to me.”
“Never a girl who cooked so well, you mean,” said Folco with a laugh, to which Fatty made a shrug of concession. “Well, there’s the difference then,” he continued, “I’ve never seen any great difference between one lass and another. Oh, I’ll grant you, some of them are a bit prettier than others, and some of them a little wittier, or something, but, for my part… well, any lady in a pinch, eh Merry?”
Merry rolled his eyes, “You make it sound like all I do is move from lass to lass like a bee amongst flowers.”
Folco gave Merry a silent look as though to imply just such a thing was true. Pippin forbore to say anything, but he thought the assessment was a rather just one as well. Merry often had one favorite or another at different times, lasses with whom he’d slip off at the end of parties to do… whatever he did with them. But he did not light upon one girl for long before he moved on to the next.
Merry snorted, “Alright, well, perhaps I’m a little… oh, fickle or something. I don’t know. But, honestly, I can’t imagine falling in love, keeping house with a girl. Moving back to Brandy Hall, settling down… she’d have to be an extremely rare lady to make me want to do any of that, and I can’t imagine the girl that would. No, give me a party and friends and dancing, and I think I should be quite happy my whole life.”
“Amen to that,” said Folco raising his cup.
It was later that night, or perhaps more fair to say, very early in the next morning that Pippin stood, wobbly from too much drink, and followed Merry around the garden, collecting up cups and plates. Sam was staying with them for the night, his presence, indeed, the catalyst for the whole party, and he’d offered his assistance at clearing up, but Merry had insisted that he go to bed rather than help, and Sam had been a bit too far into his cups to put up much of a fight.
Pippin might have liked to be afforded the same luxury, but he felt obligated to be useful so long as Merry meant to be.
Merry carried a tray, bussing tables as he made his way into the house. Pippin had not the coordination to manage a whole tray, but he did manage to put some dishes onto the tray and he carried a couple of mugs in his hands as they finally went into the house.
Merry held the door for him and Pippin ducked beneath Merry’s raised arm, “You’ve not had enough to drink if you can balance that tray on one hand like that,” Pippin said accusingly.
“I just hold my liquor better than you,” Merry said, shutting the door. He led the way into the kitchen, put the mugs into the sink, “It’s going to be a job cleaning up tomorrow.”
Pippin agreed. He placed his two mugs in the sink atop Merry’s pile. His hip bumped into Merry’s as they stood close to one another, “D’you want me to get a start on these?” Pippin asked him, hoping that Merry would say no.
Merry smiled down at him, shook his head, “No, that’s not necessary. I’ll get them in the morning.” He turned toward the kitchen window and shut it, the moonlight outlining the familiar profile of Merry’s face.
Pippin felt that strange fondness steal over him again. He tapped the edge of the sink thoughtfully, “Did you really mean what you said tonight? About never getting married, I mean?”
For a moment Merry said nothing, just continued to look out on their dark garden. Eventually, he shrugged, “I don’t know about never, but I wouldn’t, unless I was utterly in love with the girl in question.”
“Oh, aye, but me neither. I mean, what’s the sense of a marriage of convenience, really.” Pippin looked down at the dishes again, “But you’ve never been in love with a girl? Ever?”
“No,” Merry said, “If I had, I suppose I would be married by now after all.”
“It’s only you’ve been with a lot of girls,” Pippin said, unsure about his exact motivation for belaboring the point, when clearly Merry was a little irritated by the implication. He wasn’t a cad, not really, and, though they spoke about it little enough, Pippin knew Merry wasn’t the sort to bring girls home to spend the night, for he surely would have noticed.
“Not so very many,” Merry said. He sighed and turned from the window. He leaned back against the wall, “I feel she must be out there, somewhere. I suppose that’s it, why I keep…” he shook his head, “why I keep trying. There has to be a lass out there who could make me fall in love with her.”
Disquiet stirred in Pippin’s heart, a fluttering that felt a little like alarm, a little like sorrow. He liked his and Merry’s life together, as bachelors, and it saddened to think of a time when they would need to live in separate houses, start separate lives. Yet, it would need to be. He’d always known that it would, but he hadn’t realized that Merry chased girls because he was looking for one, just one, out of the many.
He realized then that he’d wanted to hear Merry say what was in Pippin’s mind. Namely that no girl would, or indeed, could come between them.
Thinking himself a little drunker than he’d realized, Pippin said goodnight to Merry and went to bed.
Or at least tried to go to bed. He was restless, unwilling to sleep, though he was tired, and drunk, and all of the things that should have made sleep a very desirable state. He threw back his covers, crept to his door and locked it. He drew the curtains and lit a candle.
The trunk at the foot of his bed was not the same one from his youth. It was larger, heavier, still packed with last season’s clothes and blankets, but this one also had something else.
The false bottom was easy to move if one knew how, and, of course, Pippin did, for he’d had it built himself. He pressed in the mechanism, lifted the bottom out and laid it on the floor.
Dresses. Some twenty, all told, bottle green, scarlet, cobalt, and grey. He ran his hands along the soft cotton, the delicate silk, the structured wool. All of them beautiful, all of them with stories and names attached to them that Pippin made up in his head. There was, too, an old wig that he’d snatched from an elderly aunt after she’d had a new one made, and a pot of rouge that could be applied to cheeks and lips if one wanted.
There was, too, the gem on his collection.
The corset had been especially difficult to come by, for all that it had been completely necessary.
His collection had started with a few cast offs that he took, much as he’d taken that first dress all those many years ago, and he’d not done it so much as someone might notice. At first, it was enough to take them, just to look at them, feel the fine fabrics with his fingers, but then, he remembered how it felt to wear Pervinca’s dress, how much fun it had been before the fear had hit him.
It took time, but eventually he rationalized it to himself. If no one ever knew what he was doing, if no one ever found out, what harm could there be in putting them on every once in a while? And weren’t dresses meant to be worn, in any case? So, he started wearing them, just when he needed to.
Then, the dresses he stole started being cut differently. Cut for curves that Pippin didn’t have. He thought, at first, that he would need to give up his hobby, but then he’d heard his sisters talking about corsets, and how terribly they pinched, and limited one’s breath, but oh, how they did help one’s shape look so enchanting.
It had been more difficult than thieving the dresses to even discover a corset, let alone steal one, but he’d managed it. And then it had hardly been worth it, at first, for the damned thing was near impossible to get on by himself until he realized he could put it on loose and then flip it around backward after he’d gotten it laced, and then tighten it.
He’d needed to augment the top of his figure too, but that was easy enough to do. A few scraps of old cloth wound into balls and tucked down his front and then tightened underneath the corset did quite well. There was hardly any perceivable difference between his figure and that of a real girl, especially when the dress he wore had a particularly voluminous skirt that was prone to spring away from his hips in any case.
The wig and the rouge had come later, when Pippin had begun to wonder if he might not also look like an exceedingly pretty girl if he ornamented himself in a way that was more than what nature had given him.
Then it had come down to having dresses new made, which wasn’t so difficult, really, when the seamstress was used to seeing you with your sisters and assumed that the dresses you were ordering were for them, especially when Pippin and Pervinca had the same waist and bust size when Pippin wore his corset.
Easy, all things considered.
Pippin took out the bright coral dress that he’d had made for his birthday a few years ago, slipped it on over his head. He put the wig on last of all, looked at himself in the candlelight.
He looked like nearly a different person, with his pinked cheeks, and rosy painted mouth. He’d not have known himself, especially with the long, red curls of the wig framing his face, if he had not performed the entire transformation himself.
He played with one of the curls, looked up demurely as though looking up at a lad. He was pretty, pretty enough for a boy to fall in love with, he was sure. He thought of how it might be if Merry saw him, and did not know him, at a Highday feast. He’d ask Pippin to dance, he’d spin with him, look down into Pippin’s eyes.
How funny, it would be, he thought, if he were to fool Merry. They’d laugh, surely, after Pippin revealed himself. It would never get so far, it would never be anything but a bit of fun, a bit of silliness. Just a trick. Just one night, or perhaps two.
If he was going to do it, not that he would, but if he was, he would need a new wig. The one he wore now had been old when he’d rescued it some years earlier, and if he were to replace it… if he could really make it look natural, he truly might be able to fool everyone.
Only once, and only Merry would know.
But of course, such a thing would be mad.
The Bolgers were Bucklanders. Their comfortable smial had been in their family for generations, the family itself noble in name and origin, though perhaps not so much as the name of Took or Brandybuck. Fatty and Estella were frequent guests at Crookhollow, being as they lived rather near at hand. They were nearly always available if Merry felt like making a nice supper, which he often did, and he was in just such a mood a night or two after Sam left. Merry sent an invitation to the pair of them and extended it to include Eudora as well.
The talk had turned to Fatty’s search for a new home now that he was to be married. The traditional thing, of course, would be to settle with his parents in the family smial, but Fatty was keen to find some place of his own. He had started his search in Buckland, not wishing to be too far from his family, but he seemed to be having difficulty in locating a suitable place.
It was a rather dull conversation to Pippin’s mind and he drifted in and out of it like a leaf caught in an eddy. He did attempt to take an interest, and he really did try to muster up enthusiasm for the number of rooms Fatty was determined to have and the proper size adequate for a drawing room, and other things that, it seemed, were important to house hunting, but it was noticeably forced, or, at least, it was noticeable to Merry. He snickered at Pippin’s effort at a salient question (“Ah, so how many sofas do you suppose you’d need for a room like that?”) when, it seemed, Fatty had moved on to discussing his requirements for kitchens.
It was a bit of a conversational mess, really, and Pippin decided that he was better suited to the sidelines.
Eudora, for all of Fatty’s obvious partiality toward her, was not especially pretty to Pippin’s eye. She did have a nice smile and a pleasant face, but very obviously no eye for fashion. She wore a wretched mauve dress that went poorly with her coloring and was so heavily trimmed in lace that she looked like a rather misused doily. She paled in comparison next to Estella, though so most girls would have done.
She sat next to Merry, on the other side of Eudora, looking as much like the Lady Arwen as a hobbit lass could hope to. Her hair was dark and curled, her eyes a particularly deep green that sparkled with laughter as Merry leaned close to her and whispered something in her ear. She was everything that Pippin admired in a girl, light and elegant, jolly and flirtatious.
It was plain to see that Merry liked her very much. Pippin had always thought that they looked well next to one another, Merry’s golden curls offset by the dark of Estella’s, Estella’s delicate prettiness becoming even more pure next to Merry’s rugged handsomeness.
If she was everything that Merry liked, Pippin couldn’t blame him. Estella was everything that Pippin emulated in his mirror when he pretended.
Fatty was sitting next to Pippin across from Eudora. There was a sweetly benevolent expression lighting his face as he looked across at his intended. He was clearly besotted. He’d scarcely spoken to anyone else that evening. Yet, as Estella suddenly cackled with scandalized delight, he broke off his staring to smile at his sister and Merry.
“Now, that would be a good thing, I think, eh, Pippin?” Fatty said to him, jerking his head toward Merry and Estella.
“Oh,” Pippin said, perhaps a little too surprised at the suggestion to be able to agree.
“Don’t go conspiring, over there, Fatty,” Merry said. “We can hear you, you know.”
“Why should he not conspire for your happiness?” Eudora asked. “I must say, for myself, I think you two would look very handsome with one another. Wouldn’t they, Freddy?”
“Yes, I think so,” Fatty said, leaning back in his chair and smiling.
Estella laughed again. She looked at Merry with a coy smile, “Well, there you have it Merry. Fatty and Eudora think we ought to end this long charade and declare our undying love for one another.”
“I will if you will,” Merry said. Gentle color crept into Estella’s cheeks and for a moment, Pippin thought that they were serious, but then Estella cackled again.
“Never. You’re too much of a scoundrel for me. You need a lass to teach you a lesson in heartbreak before you’ll make anyone a good husband.” She raised an eyebrow, “Fatty must have had his heart crushed some half-dozen times before he was made ready for Eudora.”
Fatty stammered, shooting Estella a look, “No, no, half-dozen! What nonsense you talk, sister.”
“Anyway,” Merry said, “Estella is off limits, I think, being your sister, Fatty. Which is a pity, since I think she’s just about the most beautiful girl in the Shire.”
“Yes, and you the most incorrigible flirt,” she said with a shake of her head. “Honestly, Merry, if you’d any partiality for me, I think you’d have capitalized upon mine for you by now.”
“Now who is flirting incorrigibly? I happen to know you think nothing more of me than you do a toad covered in pond scum. Pippin, I think, is more to your taste.”
Estella was giving Merry a very wry look that Pippin couldn’t interpret. She smiled at Pippin, “Would you have me, then, Pippin?”
Pippin felt his face heat a little at Estella’s possible double entendre, “You’re very beautiful, Estella, but I think perhaps a little too old for me.”
There was a beat of silence and then Merry burst out laughing. Estella slapped his shoulder, her playacted offense quickly dissolving into a fit of giggles.
“At least now we know why Pippin is single,” Merry said, wiping his eyes with his hand.
“Aye, not at all well done, Pippin, if I do say so myself,” said Fatty with a chuckle.
After supper, Fatty and Eudora went out for an evening stroll. Estella stayed behind while Merry brought out the shortbread biscuits he’d made that afternoon along with some tea. Without Eudora and Fatty, Pippin felt even more a third wheel than he had before.
Ever since Fatty had made his comment earlier that evening, Pippin could think of little other than Merry and Estella together. Logically, it made sense. They had known each other for a long time, both were from good families, and they were both clearly fond of one another. Plus, there was something in Merry’s eyes when he looked at Estella, a sort of warm playfulness that he did not seem to have with other girls.
Yet, something in Pippin’s heart rebelled at the idea of the match. He couldn’t explain it, but he did not feel that Estella was the right girl for Merry at all.
But, he reflected, perhaps it was only that Pippin had been happier these short few years at Crookhollow than he’d ever been back at home.
His childhood had not, perhaps, been the best, and living further from the disapproving eye of his father had increased his happiness greatly. Yet, it was not merely what he had left behind, but also what he had acquired that made him so happy. Namely, Merry’s constant company.
It was so nice to be with Merry all of the time, to know that Merry would be there when Pippin returned home if he went out walking alone, or that Merry would go down to the pub with him if he asked him, or that Merry probably had some new book that he would read to Pippin while they sat in the sitting room at night, until Pippin dropped off to sleep on the sofa.
And then Merry would lean over him and shake him gently awake and tease him for falling asleep before they both went to bed…
And, of course, Merry was there if Pippin had any dreams at night, of the war, there to make him tea and sit up with him for a while if he needed it, and Pippin was there to do the same for Merry in return. Of all their friends, only Sam could understand, now Frodo was gone. That was why, Pippin reminded himself, they’d started living together at all. Only because no one else really knew what it had been like.
Would Estella be able to do that for Merry as well as Pippin could? He supposed that Rosie must do for Sam, for though he’d never said; Pippin did not think that he could possibly have escaped more easily than they, what for all that he’d been through so much more.
But, regardless of Sam and Rosie, Pippin did not think that Estella could possibly have served as well as he. Would Sam not, at the end of the day, rather still have had Frodo to talk to if he had the choice? It was one thing, after all, to understand, quite another to have lived it.
So lost in these thoughts was he that he didn’t respond until the second time Merry said his name. He made Merry repeat his question, which, Pippin gathered, might have been asked of him more than once, but it was only some mundanity that Pimpernel had written of some two weeks earlier and then he was ignored again.
He tried to smile or laugh in the right places in Merry and Estella’s conversation, but he found himself with little to contribute and, at length, he found himself watching them again, as though he were merely an interloper.
He did not miss the way that Estella leaned toward Merry, how she found all sorts of little excuses to touch him, and even at one point invented something that might have been in his hair so that should could reach up and touch his golden curls. That Merry was obviously finding pleasure in her attentions was enough to make Pippin look away.
When they’d eaten their biscuits and their tea was drunk, Merry made to rise to clear the table, but Estella bade him sit, “I know you cooked everything tonight, let me get the dishes.”
“Oh, no, Estella,” Pippin said quickly, “You’re a guest; I’ll take care of them.”
Estella rolled her eyes, “Oh, nonsense. You and Merry must have us over every other night. I can wash up.”
Pippin looked from Estella to Merry, “No, please. Here, help me get everything into the kitchen and then you can come back out and maybe Merry can walk you home,” he suggested, perhaps without as much enthusiasm or even equanimity as such a statement might be made. He hoped his poorly concealed ill-humor might be attributed to distaste for the chore he’d volunteered for.
Merry looked slightly puzzled, but said nothing. Pippin stopped looking at him.
There, he thought to himself. As near as Pippin could ever get to giving his blessing.
He and Estella went into the kitchen. She put the dishes she bore down next to the already laden sink.
“Thanks,” Pippin said.
“You’re sure you don’t want me to get at least some of these? There are an awful lot of them,” Estella said.
“Of course I’m sure. Besides, even if I would let you, which I certainly wouldn’t, Merry would absolutely have my head if I let you touch a one of them.”
Estella laughed, “Alright. Thank you for a lovely evening, Pippin.” She gave him a peck on the cheek and then went back out to Merry.
He heard them talking for a moment or two and then Merry called to him, “Be back in a bit, Pip.”
And then Pippin was all alone in the house.
He could not explain at all the nervous twisting in his belly that felt very like a sort of grief.
The village of Bucklebury was a pleasant little place, neatly ordered around wide cobbled lanes that turned in gentle curves along the course if its hills and valleys. Here, more than in other parts of the Shire, were dwellings and businesses built in the fashion of Men, standing completely on their own and made of wood or stone with no proper hill atop them.
Most, however, did go low along the back and they generally were roofed with turf rather than thatch so that they looked of a piece with the rest of the Shire. Indeed, many had wildflower gardens growing atop them, and these, now that it was late spring, were beginning to come into their best bloom, so that Pippin saw blooms of Yarrow and Dogbane, Daisy and Lily of The Valley as he did his weekly shopping.
He had just left the cheese monger when he heard Estella call his name. He turned to see her walking toward him with a basket of vegetables in hand, “Hello, Pip,” she said with a wave. “My, but what a fine day this is, is it not? I’ve just been doing the shopping for my parents for the week. I can see that you must have been sent on the same errand,” she said with a nod in the direction of Pippin’s basket, which was laden with cheeses and vegetables.
“Oh, aye,” Pippin said, “Merry is writing this afternoon and it’s better if I get out of the house for a bit when he’s doing that. I’m too likely to disturb him if I stay home. I was only heading over to the butcher now.”
“Well, that is where I am bound,” Estella said, “Shall we walk together?”
Pippin could not come up for an excuse to avoid doing so and then he couldn’t think why he should have wanted one. He acquiesced.
“What fun we all had last night,” Estella said, referring to their dinner the night before, “Why, I think Fatty must have said about twelve times this morning how good that soup of Merry’s was.”
Pippin hummed in agreement.
“The biscuits, too, were very good.”
“Yes, Merry does a good shortbread,” Pippin agreed, offering no further comment. They were passed by a pair of children who were holding hands and skipping, their mother chasing behind them and calling after them to wait for her, before she shook her head and dashed after them.
“You always wash the dishes, then, I gather?” Estella asked eventually.
“Most times, yes.”
They walked a few more paces in silence. Pippin could tell that he was being a bit short with Estella and knew that he was being somewhat unfair by doing so. She’d done nothing to him, but he could not quite make himself offer her more than the barest bones of conversation. He did like her well enough, even considered her a friend. Yet, something about her, as she walked next to him with her straw bonnet shadowing her lovely face was wearing on him.
“What a dress Eudora had on last night, I thought,” Estella said, making another desperate conversational sally, “Not quite her color is it, that mauve?”
“No, I should say not,” Pippin said, his nose wrinkling a little. He was prepared to say no more, but he did feel it necessary to vent his feelings upon the color of mauve at all opportunities he was presented, “Mauve is not really anyone’s color.”
“You don’t think?” asked Estella, perhaps a trifle hopefully.
“Oh, no, not at all. Very unbecoming almost always, I think. There is no color more designed to make one look pale and lifeless. Why, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a lady who looked well in mauve. Particularly not when it is so covered in crocheted lace that one looks like a tree after a wet snow.”
Estella snorted, “Well, I suppose it is a very good thing that Fatty does not seem to share your opinions on ladies’ fashion.” She looked at him with a teasing smile in her eyes, “You know, I did not suppose that most lads had opinions on what girls wore one way or the other, so long as our shapes were nicely set off.”
“Perhaps some feel that way, but I don’t.” Pippin quickly added, “I mean, it is nice to see a girl who is, I suppose you’d say, naturally pretty, but so much of a lady’s appearance is art. I’ve always thought that a beautiful dress worn well, even on a plain girl, is better than a beautiful girl wearing a sackcloth.”
Estella laughed, “I had no idea you were such a snob.”
“No, surely not,” Pippin said, smiling, “At least, I don’t mean it so. Personality, of course, is much more important than looks, anyway. But I do tend to think that dressing well can be an expression of one’s personality, and therefore is a little important.”
“So, you’re still a snob. Do you take this view of gentleman’s fashion, I wonder?”
Pippin shrugged, “It’s not at all the same for lads, is it? Just coats and weskits and trousers. The cut hardly ever changes. All one has to do is make sure the colors coordinate with one another and look good on one’s person and it’s off to the races.”
“Some lads, though, cannot even manage that,” Estella said.
“No, I suppose not.”
“Merry always does, though, doesn’t he?” she said quietly. She had a gentle, distant look in her eyes, as though she were remembering something particularly pleasant to her.
Pippin’s smile faltered. “I had not noticed,” he said, though that wasn’t true. He had often noted to himself how well Merry chose his clothes, though perhaps it was only that mostly anything could be persuaded to look good on him.
Estella seemed to recall herself, “No, I suppose you wouldn’t.” She sighed, “Pippin…” she looked down toward her basket of vegetables, rearranged the carrots she was carrying, before she said, “I do really hate to ask this, but does he ever… that is…” her hand halted and she set it back on the edge of the basket, “oh forget it.”
“Forget what?” Pippin asked.
“Well, you know… it’s rather stupid, and I don’t think I should really ask in any case.”
Pippin let the subject drop. He didn’t think he wanted to hear what Estella was going to say. They walked together the rest of the way to the butcher’s shop, not speaking very much at all.
Brandy Hall might have been lit up with every candle in the Shire. Every surface that could hold the reflection of candlelight was aglow, including, Pippin noticed, Merry’s eyes. They twinkled with laughter in addition to the candle flame. They sat next to one another upon a long bench, both of them leaning back with their elbows on the table behind them.
Normally, they’d have been outside for a party like this, but the weather had turned disagreeable after a string of nice days and so the party Merry’s parents were hosting had been moved indoors. It was a little tight, with everyone in attendance, but there was still adequate room for dancing in the large dining room now that the table had been pushed back from its place of primacy.
Merry was facing him, smiling, “So, your solution is what?”
“I have no solution,” Pippin said, taking a sip of his ale, “Indeed, to say I had a solution is to imply that I think that I have a problem.”
Merry’s face was a parody of shock, “But, Pippin, you are a young person of ample means, does it not follow that it is a problem for you to be single?”
The talk had turned once more to marriage, as seemed inevitable these days. Aunt Esme had a word or two for each of them in light of Fatty’s upcoming nuptials that had brought it up, but at least he was only talking to Merry now. “Speak for yourself,” said Pippin, “Anyway, there is no one even to talk of me attaching myself to, is there?”
Merry sniffed in amusement, “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“People do talk, Merry,” he said teasingly.
Merry seemed even more amused, “Oh, do tell me who it is that I am going to offer for now. I heard only a little while ago that I was going to offer for your sister, I suppose it must be someone else now.”
Pippin made a face, “Pervinca? Oh, but that’s a horrible thought. Whatever else, I beg you, not Pervinca.”
“I never would,” Merry said, “for multiple reasons. Is that the quality of the gossip you heard or is it something better?”
“I do not know if it’s better, for it isn’t gossip that I heard.”
“No?” Merry asked, his curiosity clearly piqued.
“No,” Pippin said, feeling a little more hesitant than he had only moments earlier in pursuing this line of conversation. He took another sip of ale and looked out at the dancefloor. Estella was dancing with Berilac Brandybuck, looking excessively lovely in a dress of lavender. Pippin leaned a little closer to Merry, “I suppose you could say that it is only something that has been remarked upon to me. Not really gossip.”
Merry had a tendency to look quite charmingly puckish whenever he was being teased, and he did so now. He took a sip of his ale, “Well, then, out with it.”
Merry’s eyes were on him like he was the only person in the room and Pippin hesitated under their gaze. He did not think it could have been more than a moment, but it seemed in that time the song had ended without him noticing. Merry was holding a glass of wine for Estella and she came directly to retrieve it before Pippin could say any more.
Estella took a sip of her wine, “Thank you,” she said to Merry. She was five times more beautiful now than she had been before the dance. The exercise heightened her color and caused some of her dark curls to escape the bun they’d been secured in so that they framed her lovely face. Plus, her dress really was exquisite.
There was beading along the bodice in delicate swirls like vines, but it was of a color with the fabric, so it was only really noticeable in the flashes of candlelight. She looked like a delicately twinkling field of fresh snow in the fading light of a quiet winter afternoon. Pippin wondered where she had gotten it.
Merry seemed to drink in every detail of her appearance as she stood before them, her chest heaving slightly from the exertion of the lively dance she’d just finished. He slid closer to Pippin, their thighs resting up against one another, to make room for her to sit next to him. A strange tingle traveled the length of Pippin’s thighbone and he scooted down the bench so that he and Merry were no longer touching.
“Here, Estella,” Merry said to her, “Pippin was just about to tell me who I’m supposed to marry.”
Estella’s eyebrows shot up, her eyes darted to Pippin, and then her expression settled back to being perfectly sanguine. “Oh, that’s too wonderful. I suppose it must be someone very unlikely?”
Merry laughed, “Anyone he could name would be very unlikely. I have no thought of marriage at all presently, as I tell anyone who’ll listen to me. I cannot think of a single lady who would possibly tempt me to even consider making a proposal.”
Estella blinked rapidly as Merry spoke. Other than that, her face remained composed.
Merry did not observe her distress; he was looking the other way, toward Fatty and Eudora, who were lining up for the next dance together. “Look at that,” he said with a nod of his head, “it seems Fatty loves Eudora enough to dance with her and here I am, unable to find a single lady I’d even consider taking to wife. At this point, I am beginning to doubt I ever will.”
There was a prolonged pause during which the three of them watched Fatty with Eudora wherein Pippin felt a dizzying relief wash over him, then a sort of remorse as he noticed Estella’s blank expression. She finished the last of her wine with a wooden, puppet-like composure.
“So, who’s it meant to be?” Merry asked Pippin at length.
Pippin stammered incoherently, “Oh, I think it was... er...” his eyes cast desperately about the room latching on to the first lady he saw, “Emilia Hardbottle.”
Merry laughed heartily, “Her?” he asked incredulously, “I thought it would at least have been Estella or someone plausible, but Emilia. Heavens!”
Estella smiled in a way that looked very forced when Merry glanced at her to gather her reaction and Pippin felt himself going red with embarrassment for Merry’s sake. It was obvious that he was completely oblivious to Estella’s discomfort as he continued to chuckle.
She gave the slightest shake of her head before she excused herself to refill her glass.
“You know, I think I could go for another, too,” Pippin said to Merry, “you?”
Merry nodded and Pippin took his empty mug with him over to the taps. Estella did not meet his eye as he walked toward her. He was unsure of what to say, but he could see that she was upset. He settled for the old useless standby, “Are you alright?”
He asked his question softly, so as they might not be overheard. Estella looked at him and, plainly, she was not alright. Still, she forced a smile, “Of course, I’m fine. Why should I not be?”
“Estella,” Pippin said, feeling for her a tenderness that had been completely absent even an hour before. Suddenly, it seemed, that she was not a rival for Merry’s affection, but rather someone who was on his side, the side of needing assurance.
Not, of course, that they might want the same type of affection from Merry, but they were both fond of him, and if Pippin hoped to keep his best friend as a roommate, he felt that he might understand a little of Estella’s pain if she had hoped to have him as a husband.
She shook her head, “Well, at least now I know that I was being stupid, don’t I?” she said. “I think I need some air,” she said and left him.
The walk to Estella’s wasn’t long but in that time, he’d talked himself into and out of pursuing this course of action perhaps a dozen times before he’d finally settled upon following though. He knocked upon her front door and waited on her step, shifting his weight from side to side like a nervous pony, thinking that it was not too late for him to do a runner. He was calculating how fast he’d have to come at the hedge to get up enough momentum to vault it when the door opened and Estella took him in with a look of surprise.
She had her hair tied back in a kerchief, her hands were dusted with flour. She hastily wiped them upon her apron, “Pippin,” she said, “this is a surprise. Fatty, I’m afraid, is out. He and Eudora went down to town this morning.”
“Always out and about these days, is he?” Pippin said, thinking that he could still back out if he pretended that he’d come to see Fatty, but then he overcame the temptation. He sighed, “Oh, but I didn’t come here for Fatty. Actually, I came here to see you.”
Estella was, if not quite shocked, then at least highly surprised. Her eyebrows slowly climbed down from their perch near her hairline. “Well, come in,” she said, holding open the door. “I’m in the middle of some bread, but if you’ll give me another ten minutes or so, perhaps we might take a walk?”
Breadmaking was aggressive work. He’d watched Merry manhandle more than one loaf in his time and Estella handled her dough no more gently. Pippin felt glad that he had never found himself on the wrong end of her temper.
He went into her parlor while he waited. The Bolgers kept a neat, tidy sitting room, for all that it was overfilled with mathoms and various furnishings. Estella also had a rather too large harpsichord in the room which Pippin had always admired. He sat down on the bench and played a little clumsily. He’d once been decent at it, but as with so many things, the learning of it had fallen by the wayside once his father had got wind of it.
When Estella was finished, she called to him. She wiped her hands again and then removed the apron and kerchief, “It’ll need an hour or so to prove, so we could walk toward the Old Forest if you like.”
They walked together down the lane, neither of them speaking for a good while. Pippin meant to be the one to broach his subject, but in the end, it was Estella who spoke first.
“Whatever brought you to visit me today?” Estella asked, “I can’t imagine you’ve come without a particular purpose.”
“Oh, I… well, I know this might be silly of me, but…” Pippin sighed, “Well, I suppose I came to… apologize?”
“Apologize?” Estella asked with a laugh, “What for?”
“Well, not for myself, you see,” Pippin said. Estella smiled tightly and then turned to look across the lane the other way. Pippin stopped, “You have to realize that Merry doesn’t think… that is, he does not know…”
Estella rolled her eyes and pursed her lips, “Yes, yes, I know,” she said, fisting her skirt in her hands and then releasing it in agitation. “He does not realize that I have been infatuated with him since I was sixteen years old. Of course, he’s missed all the signs. Why shouldn’t he? Or, perhaps I am merely not to his taste.”
“I’m sure he’s simply never noticed. I’m sure if he thought that you were… that is, well, I’m sure he would have done something, anyway.”
Estella laughed bitterly, “No, Pippin. No, he wouldn’t. You know, he’s never touched me, not in that way, and I’ve had to hear from this girl and that how he kissed them, petted them, what have you, and I used to tell myself, ‘well, he doesn’t do that to me, because he’s really fond of me, and when he does, it will mean something’ because I always thought that there was something on his side, that a time would come when I’d stop being just Fatty’s little sister to him, but...” Estella’s eyes were brimming with agitation. She wiped at them, shook her head, “Oh, how I wish that he would want someone that he could not have. That some girl would come and toy with his emotions.”
She stopped and walked over to the shade of the trees that lined the lane. She sat upon the little bank of grass and looked down at the road.
“He doesn’t do it on purpose,” Pippin said defensively.
“I don’t suppose he does. He wouldn’t be so coarse if he realized…” Estella closed her eyes and slowly opened them again, “Oh, Pippin, I just don’t know how he could have missed it.”
“Bless him, but he’s not as smart as he seems.”
Estella laughed, “No, I suppose he mustn’t be. It is perhaps horrible of me, then, to still wish that someone would break his heart for me?”
There was something small and lonesome that burrowed tighter to Pippin’s chest. “Merry hasn’t ever given his heart to anyone. You heard him.”
“Yes, I know.” Estella skimmed a hand across the grass at her side, “And, if he did, who is to say that she wouldn’t fall in love with him anyway?”
“He’s difficult to resist,” Pippin said, thinking of how easy it seemed for Merry to convince one girl or another to submit to his charms.
“He is,” Estella said. “I don’t suppose you’d know anyone that I could hire?” Estella asked with something like a return to her normal good humor.
Clearly, she had made the remark in jest, but nevertheless, the thought of his mad idea sprang into his mind like a grebe surfacing from below water. He quickly shook it out of his head, “No. I’m sorry.”
She seemed again to study something that was not there with them. “She’d have to be pretty, and clever… and something else, too, but what, I do not know.”
Pippin walked over and sat next to her, “She’d have to be a bold girl, I think. And she’d have to dance well, be well read, and hopefully talented in some way.”
“A girl who could make him laugh.” Estella pulled a weed from the ground with a thick rip of sound and cast it back over her shoulder deeper into the wood, “But what else is there?”
Pippin understood her question, for just as surely as Merry liked those things, only Estella seemed to possess all of them, and yet, somehow, it seemed, that was not enough either. Again, he felt something crazed and wild beating in his chest. He only realized belatedly that it was his heart.
He forced a laugh, tried to sound casual as he said, “You know, I have the maddest notion for a joke…”
When he’d first put the plan into words in front of Estella, she had responded with a convulsion of laughter that had left her without breath for fully ten minutes. She had, of course, insisted that it would never work, that no one would ever mistake Pippin for a girl, because he was such a… well, so obviously a boy. Pippin probably would have let it drop (for he certainly knew he should have) except that as she continued to decry how impossible it would be, something, his vanity, he supposed, had been offended and he had insisted to her that it would be quite possible, and, further, that he would prove it to her.
He had waited for a day when Merry was planning to be out and then invited Estella over. He had to pretend, of course, that he’d just obtained the dress. He thought about not wearing his corset but couldn’t bring himself to omit it and ended up concocting a story for her about stealing both articles off a laundry line.
He put them on. He felt fear prowling like a hungry cat. He did not let it pounce. He reminded himself that Estella was expecting to see him in the dress, that nothing bad would happen. He squared his shoulders and walked from his room.
Estella was turned away from him when he entered. He cleared his throat to gain her attention.
There was a laugh half-ready in her mouth but her mirth was extinguished the moment she saw him, was replaced by something thoughtful. Thoughtful and devious. “You know, with a wig and a little rouge,” she said hesitantly, “you really might…” she shook her head, “oh but, Pippin, Merry would never believe it!”
Pippin turned sharply and looked back over his shoulder at Estella in a perfect imitation of feminine allure, “Why not?”
Estella tilted her head, looked him up and down like a farmer appraising a cow he was thinking to purchase, “Well it would be absurd…” she conceded eventually. “I mean, I do wonder how you’d look, with a wig and,” she placed her hands on her own breasts illustratively. Pippin blushed slightly at the boldness of her gesture. She smirked at his discomfort, “Would you really want to?”
He had wondered that himself. It was one thing to have the idea, quite another to execute it. But he thought, he very much thought, that he could do it. And, yes, he rather wanted to. It would at least be amusing to try.
“I think that there would be only one way to find out.”
So, slowly, it had started.
It didn’t take Estella long to become quite excited by the whole project; indeed, she took to it with such enthusiasm, that Pippin found himself a little bewildered. Fatty’s house-hunting combined with all of the planning that needed doing for his wedding conspired to keep him from home most days, and Estella’s parents had decided to take a summer tour of the Shire, so Estella was frequently by herself. It was the perfect circumstance for their conspiracy.
She wrote lists of items of things they’d need for Pippin’s costume, some of which he already had, but which Estella insisted, in ignorance of that fact, that he’d need.
The most important of these was the new wig. Estella was convinced that there would be no point in attempting the subterfuge if Pippin’s hair couldn’t look right. There were wigmakers aplenty in the large towns of the Shire, but, in general, most wigs were rather obviously wigs, in spite of what an older person’s vanity might insist.
She took it upon herself to locate the right wigmaker for the job.
“Let it to me, Pippin,” she said to him as they sat across from one another at her kitchen table one afternoon. “It is not so very strange that a girl might want to do something unusual with her hair for an event and thus like a wig. Anyway, the less writing you do in Crookhollow of this project, the better I’d wager.”
“Merry’s not a snoop,” said Pippin with a laugh, “It’s not like he’d go through my private letters.”
“No, I’m not suggesting that, only... well, you do not have the reputation of one who can’t hold a secret, if you don’t mind my saying.”
“That’s a bit unjust,” Pippin said indignantly, realizing that Estella must think that there was a risk that he’d leave such a letter out where Merry would be unable to avoid looking at it in order to ascertain what it was, “Why, I never breathed a word of the ring or anything like that, and Merry informed me of it... well, I suppose only a few months beforehand. But, still. He did tell me, and I told no one who wasn’t supposed to know. Besides, perhaps I have more secrets than people realize.”
Estella raised her eyebrows at him, “Aye, and saying things like that is possibly the best way to have them discovered. No, you let me handle this bit anyway.” She tapped her chin with the back of her quill, made a few more notes. At last she said, “Dresses, of course. You’ll need some number of them.”
“Oh, well I thought...” Pippin began hesitantly, “Well, I suppose I thought that this would be, you know, something that maybe I’d do once...” Indeed, he did not know that he’d have the nerve to do it more than that. He was both thrilled and terrified in equal measure every time he thought of executing their plan.
When he’d been a small boy, he had performed once with his sisters in one of their music recitals. He likened the feeling to how he’d felt then. The anticipation of what would happen if all went well, the fear of what would happen if it didn’t, was very much the same as it had been when he’d needed to get up his nerve to sing in front of an audience.
Estella shook her head, “Once? Oh I am sure that would not do at all. I mean, think, how often is it that one goes to another part of the Shire for only a single day? Why, when Sam was here a couple of weeks ago, he stayed for, what? Six days? And It’s not that far to Hobbiton. If you were meant to be some visiting stranger, why, I think you’d be expected to be here for, well, a while anyway. And if we’re going to trick Merry, we aren’t going to do it by having you appear and then disappear the next day. It would be, I think, much remarked on.”
There was a feeling in Pippin’s belly that he imagined was akin to what it would be like if he swallowed a quantity of live eels. “But...”
Estella looked up from her list quizzically.
“Well, what am I meant to do with the dresses,” he said, though this was not his primary concern, “I mean, beforehand... and er... afterwards... How am I meant to keep them hidden?”
“I can keep those here too, if you like. Anyway, afterward we can donate them, perhaps, or something like that.”
“Donate them?” Pippin said, aghast.
Estella snorted, “Well, what do you propose we should do with them, then, when we’re done?”
“I hadn’t thought...” of course, he would want to keep them, if he ordered them. Down in the bottom of his trunk with the others that Estella didn’t know about, but he could scarcely offer that as a suggestion, “How many do you think I should need?”
Estella shrugged, “Well, I’m not sure. But, perhaps, we could go into town, look at some fabric, anyway.”
Pippin’s delight at the prospect of shopping for new dresses, and a convenient excuse for doing so, overwhelmed his nerves, “I suppose we should.”
He had to congratulate himself on his casually neutral delivery.
“I should get your measurements in the corset.”
“They’re-“ he checked himself from saying what he knew his measurements to be. He recovered awkwardly, “-not going to be so different, I’d imagine from what mine are now.”
Estella looked skyward, “Oh, please. That corset tightens your waist by a good two inches at least. We should put it on you and I’ll get my tape. And what do you think? I have gotten these for your breasts,” she said handing him a pair of convex pillows. He wondered if they would look more natural than the wadded cloth he normally used before he felt his face begin to heat.
Estella seemed absorbed in her list again, however and was not looking at him. In any case, she didn’t seem in any way discomfited in discussing false breasts with him, so Pippin thought he ought to endeavor to take the same air of nonchalance.
She wrote one last thing with a flourish of her quill, “Alright, then, let’s go get the measurements.”
Estella’s lack of embarrassment with the false breasts extended, apparently, to seeing Pippin in varying states of undress. He took off his coat and weskit and then waited for her to turn away, which she only did when he finally asked her to. In spite of the fact that he had done it before on his own, she offered him her assistance in fitting and tightening the corset with as little shyness as if Pippin had merely been another girl that she was helping to dress.
When he remarked on this to her, she said only, “Well, it’s not as though I haven’t seen lads with their shirts off before, I have been swimming, you know.”
“Of course,” Pippin said, letting the subject drop uncomfortably. Many lads in the Shire, after all, swam in an even greater state of undress than merely shirtless.
Estella had a full-length mirror in her room, and he watched her measuring him in its reflection, feeling strangely disconnected at the sight of the alluring feminine shape that blossomed just below his neck.
She caught him staring at himself and laughed, “A bit of a shock, eh?”
He laughed weakly, “Yes. I mean, I didn’t realize... before, quite what I looked like.”
“You mean at your house the other day?”
She smiled, slipped an arm around his corseted waist and leaned on his shoulder, “Well, rather nice, don’t you think?”
He smiled back at her, “I suppose so.”
Pippin felt like he’d wandered into a spectacular, if forbidden, garden. He walked through the bright silks next to Estella with the air of a dreamer in the greatest illusion of their imagining. The draper’s shop was empty but for Estella and Pippin, and the bored looking clerk who made a lukewarm offer of assistance and then resumed reading a book under the counter.
Ostensibly, they were shopping for her, so Estella held up different bolts of cloth at her neck and then held them surreptitiously up to Pippin’s face. She frequently consulted Pippin’s opinion and he tried to affect the disinterested air of a typical lad somehow bamboozled into shopping with a lady, even though his delight threatened to erupt at any moment.
It had been far too long since he’d gotten himself anything new, and the prospect of as many as five or six new dresses all at once had the effect of making him feel a little drunk with happiness.
It was difficult, of course, to hide his excitement but he did his best to repress it behind a wall of indifference. Even so, he called Estella over to view a particularly pretty bolt of blue cotton woven with a pattern of small swallows chasing across it.
“Nice, isn’t it?” he asked her, giving it a little wave to show how it would move.
She tilted her head considerately, “You like it?”
Pippin nodded, “Oh, yes, I think it’s very... that is... not for a fancy-dress party, or anything, but what if there was something during the day?”
Estella shrugged, “Alright. Well, a full dress, you think, or only a skirt?”
“Surely, there is no need for skirts,” Pippin said more softly.
“It probably wouldn’t hurt to have just one in case there is a picnic or something like that,” she said quietly in return. “Who knows what you’ll get up to?”
He nodded, “Alright, perhaps a skirt then. But maybe a dress in it too?”
“You like it that much?” Estella asked.
“Merry is rather partial to blue,” Pippin said, offhandedly.
“Merry never wears blue,” Estella said with a scoff.
“No, he doesn’t but he likes it quite a bit on other people. Or so he always says, at least.” He plucked subconsciously at the sleeve of his turquoise blue coat which Merry had said only that morning looked very well on him. He realized what he was doing and then stopped.
Estella seemed to be repressing a smile, “Well, the color suits you anyway,” she said. “Alright, so, we’ll need rather a lot of this one then... and then you liked those over there, too, so... let’s see. That’ll get us five dresses, plus a skirt. We should probably do a blouse too.”
When they had thoroughly exhausted the sample selection to the point that even Pippin’s enthusiasm was beginning to wane, they decided their choices. Pippin handed Estella his purse and she went up to pay. He was looking through the remnants when he saw a striking orange-red piece of cloth. It was a full bolt, heavily discounted, apparently the color too bold to be to much of anyone’s taste.
Pippin had a quick vision upon touching it of the fabric encasing his body, the red of it contrasting against the dark wig that Estella had ordered.
“Alright, we’re all set,” said Estella, snapping him from his reverie. He set it back where he’d found it, his fingers trailing just a little longingly, before he followed her.
In addition to all of the practical considerations, Estella seemed to feel that there were areas of study that Pippin ought to improve himself in as well. There were books that she loaned him about manners that Pippin read as dutifully as an anthropologist studying a new culture, though they were very dull things that he had to read while circling the room to keep from falling asleep while he did it.
There were also books of poetry, which weren’t so bad, books of dance steps, which were indecipherable, and novels, which were usually very sensational and silly, but Estella thought it would be useful to draw some inspiration from a fictional heroine for the character he was to play.
Taken altogether, there was scarcely a moment of his time that was not spent in some way forwarding his scheme, which, one might have thought, would have led to some examination of his goals for pursuing it so assiduously. Yet, this moment of self-reflection did not come, he merely focused on the details of learning dance steps, refreshing his skills upon the harpsichord (should he ever be called upon to play), and enjoying his newly flourishing friendship with Estella.
He thought, too, of Merry. Of how he might receive the revelation once it was made to him of their deception. He most usually thought that Merry would laugh over it, that they would all recall the incident as a fond memory once it was done.
He did not let himself think of what had happened the only other time he had worn a dress in front of other people.
Merry did not notice at first that Pippin was out of the house more than was usual. What he did notice was that he was suddenly getting a lot of work done on his book and finding himself with many more quiet hours than he once had. He did not notice, either, at first, how much more Pippin talked of Estella and how she had said this or that, or how he had seen her at one place or another.
But then Pippin had laughed for no reason at dinner one night and explained that he and Estella had been out with one another and she’d said the most outrageous thing… and then Merry realized that Estella had been saying a lot of things to Pippin lately, and once he’d noticed that first time, he couldn’t stop noticing.
He’d always wondered why Estella and Pippin didn’t get along better, but now that they were… Merry was happy. Of course, he was happy. They were both good friends of his, why should they not be good friends with one another?
It did not follow that there was anything in it.
No, Merry thought, that could hardly be the case. For, while it was clear from everything he said that Pippin very much admired Estella, he’d never said anything that betrayed more than usual fondness. When Merry observed them together, Estella seemed to treat Pippin as a younger brother, a role that he slipped into seamlessly.
She fretted and fussed over him whenever she was near him and he responded to her with the sort of false irritation that indicated he didn’t entirely mind being made a fuss over, but there didn’t seem to be anything overly flirtatious in their conduct.
If Pippin seemed to enjoy the attention, it was only because Pippin always enjoyed attention, no matter who was bestowing it.
Yes, Merry was very happy that they were getting along, going for walks together, having suppers sometimes without Merry there. It was good. Merry was certainly getting a lot of work done on his book, now that Pippin was out and about so much. It was very nice. Very nice indeed.
Yet, it came to him, one afternoon, just as he was finishing the tail end of a chapter that he’d been getting so very much done that he might deserve a break.
Merry got up from his seat behind his desk and went out into the parlor.
Pippin was there, standing with his back to the window that looked out on the lane, reading some small blue book with a look of intense concentration, “What’s that?” Merry asked him.
Pippin’s head snapped up. He smiled, “Oh, nothing of consequence. Just something Estella loaned me.”
“Oh. She loans you books now, does she?” Merry hoped he sounded teasing rather than jealous. For, of course, he wasn’t jealous. He’d nothing to be jealous of. He’d never had feelings other than friendship for Estella.
“She only said that I might like it,” he said, “and I thought I’d give it a try.”
Merry wondered if it was only imagination that had him putting a look of fondness into Pippin’s eyes as he spoke. He dismissed the idea quickly.
“Do you? Like it that is?” Merry asked.
Pippin laughed. He shut it without marking his page, “It’s a little dull. I’m only reading it now because I know she’ll ask me if I’ve made a start when I see her next.”
Merry felt something like relief, “Well, in that case, I feel a bit stuck. On my book, that is. How do you fancy taking a walk with me?”
Pippin brightened and took half a step forward, but then he stopped, “Oh, I would, but I forgot…”
“Forgot?” Merry asked.
“Well, you see, I’m to meet Estella at two. And it’s just past one now, so…”
Merry smiled, “Ah, yes, well.” He plumped up a pillow on the sofa that had gone a little flat. When he turned to look at Pippin again, his cousin had a somewhat apprehensive expression on his face.
“Well, perhaps, if you’d like, I mean, you could walk with me there? It does feel an age since we’ve had any time alone together,” he suggested.
“I don’t want to impose.”
Pippin laughed, “Impose? Don’t be silly.”
Yet, there was something in Pippin’s voice that belied his words. He’d offered his company freely enough, but Merry did not think he truly wanted him to accept.
“Actually, you know, I think I should probably straighten up a little. Maybe that will provide the requisite inspiration. Boring tasks sometimes do.”
“Not so well as amusing ones, though?” Pippin asked, “I’d hate to think you thought a walk with me dull.”
“Not nearly as well as amusing ones,” Merry said with a gentle smile. “Here, you should probably get going if you aren’t to be late.”
“Oh, but, if you’re sure?”
“Very sure,” Merry said with finality.
Merry watched him leave some time later with a little parcel in his arms. Perhaps, Merry thought, a gift for Estella. Which was unusual, for Pippin anyway. He rarely thought ahead enough to actually make someone a proper present…
But, still, that was very nice, too.
Merry beat the rugs and swept the floors, he washed the cutains and the windows, and did all of the other highly undesirable housework that he normally left for the maid they had in once a week to clean for them, but his spirit would not settle.
Needless to say, he did not write another single word all that afternoon.
Pippin could barely contain his excitement as he walked up to Estella’s door. She had sent him a note that morning to tell him that the wig had come in. His dresses still weren’t ready, so Pippin had snuck over with another of his old ones. They were planning to try the full effect for the first time that night.
Pippin had considered that they might have been hasty in ordering the dresses before they’d seen the wig, since it was the item upon which the whole rest of the scheme hung, but he still couldn’t regret the commissioning of new dresses. They were all going to be beautiful pieces, none moreso than the one he’d gone back and commissioned on his own. That one was going into his collection at the very least, even if the others would need to be sent away to live lives with someone else.
Estella showed him in and fairly skipped down the hall to her room, “You’re going to love it! I mean, we’ll see how it looks on you, but I think it will do very well indeed. It looked well enough on me when I tried it on quickly this morning.”
She sat him down in the chair in front of her dresser, “What’s that?” she asked of the parcel in his arms.
“Oh, another... well, another dress. I... wrote down what you said my measurements were and I did a little shopping at the second hand shop. And I thought that it would be nice to try on the whole thing, you know, just to get a proper idea.” He turned the parcel in his hands as she began tucking his hair away under a cap.
“Well, close your eyes, then. I’ll put the wig on you and then we’ll see what you think, yes?”
He did as he was told and waited, a little impatiently, while Estella adjusted the wig and then applied touches of makeup.
She, naturally, added to his impatience to see himself by saying things such as, “ohh, this is wonderful!” and “You’re absolutely going to die!” at regular intervals.
He was tearing at the paper he’d wrapped his dress in, wondering if he’d ever be permitted to look at himself, when, finally, her busy hands stilled and she stepped away from him.
“Alright,” she said.
Pippin opened his eyes and looked upon a stranger. He grinned. “Alright, help me with the corset, then.”
He ushered her from the room before he unwrapped his dress, this one, the undoubted queen of his collection. It was deep sapphire, cut with darting up the sides that lent structure to the bodice. There was no other ornamentation to it, save for the natural sheen of the fabric. He looked at himself with some disbelief before he called Estella back in.
Estella’s mouth formed a little ‘o’ of wonder before she clapped her hands together. “It’s stunning! How are you coming by these cast-offs, Pippin?” she asked him, walking a circle around him, and brushing the fabric with her fingertips.
Pippin shrugged, “Oh, I don’t know. Just luck, I suppose.”
“You know, I think I should hardly know you. You look… well, I suppose the only word I can think of is gorgeous.”
“Oh, surely, not that nice,” Pippin said modestly, though he did have to admit he looked very well indeed. He couldn’t quite make himself stop looking at his reflection, so filled with delight was he at the full effect of the transformation.
Estella laughed, “Don’t play false with me, I know you can see as well as I that you are very beautiful.” She grinned, “I think that this really might work.”
If they had been dedicated before, they became obsessed now. They met every couple of days to discuss their plan. It was, of course, just a joke. One or the other of them were liable to bring that up every so often, Pippin out of a wish for reassurance, Estella out of an apparent desire to instill encouragement.
Anyone could see the humor in it. A beautiful girl shows up at a party, Merry falls for her, and then it is revealed to him that the lady in question is not, in fact, a girl, but his best friend having a bit of a laugh.
The thought certainly seemed to cheer Estella. She was completely dedicated to ensuring Pippin’s imitation was flawless. She also seemed to take particular delight in applying his makeup, even though he assured her he was capable of doing it himself. Still, she did have a clever hand with the powder and rouges. Pippin watched her in the mirror to better copy her technique.
The final detail to which she was particularly attentive was teaching him to dance. She insisted that Merry would ask him and, if he did, she wanted to be sure that Pippin was prepared.
Pippin was not hugely fond of dancing, feeling that he was about as well-adapted to elegant pirouetting as your average mountain troll.
Though the upper half of his body was able to easily mimic the elegant, fluid gestures of a lady in a dance, his lower half had never had, and still did not seem to feel any sense obligation to keep rhythm with the rest of his body.
He was proving this point again as Estella attempted to lead him around her garden in, what she claimed, was a simple set of steps.
“No, Pippin,” she said, “Here, watch.” She released him from the hold they’d been in and demonstrated the lady’s steps of the dance again, counting, “One, two, three, quick, two, three, one, two, three. There, easy!”
Pippin rolled his eyes, “Easy for you and every other lass in the Shire, but impossible for me.”
Estella placed a hand at the small of his back, took his other hand in her, “Don’t be negative. You won’t be able to do it if you say you can’t. Now, try again.”
She began guiding him. More or less immediately, it fell apart.
“Honestly, how do you know all these steps?” Pippin asked her, staring down at their feet as he desperately tried to avoid stumbling or stepping on her, or forgetting altogether what the pattern was.
“Look at my face, not my feet, Pippin. I know you can dance a little,” she said.
“Oh, aye, you’ve seen my dancing in evidence before, when I fell over that chair and almost pulled poor Adelade Longfellow down with me last Yule. Believe me, if I don’t look at our feet, I don’t know what they’re doing. I barely know what they’re doing even when I am looking at them,” he proved this last point by falling out of step again and nearly crushing Estella’s toes.
He sighed hugely and released her. He sat down on the grass and flopped down onto his back. “This is hopeless.” He cast his arm over his face, hiding his eyes in the crook of his elbow, “It is a situation without hope. We should pray to the beneficent forces of the world that he won’t even ask me to dance.”
Estella sat down next to him, her pale blue skirt flowing down around her lap like pooling water, “He will ask you, if he takes a fancy to you, you know. And you know how he is. A pretty girl that he hasn’t met before will certainly strike his fancy.”
“Might I not just feign an injury?” he begged of her, peeking from under his elbow.
Estella laughed, “Sprain your ankle on the way to the dance floor?”
“Aye, then he’d have to carry me to a chair. Lads like ladies in distress who need to depend on their strength.”
“Is that so?” Estella asked, idly plucking a clover flower and twisting it between her fingers, “Perhaps I should try that some time.”
“No, you’re too strong to pull off helpless,” Pippin said, “No one would believe it for a moment if you went all delicate.”
Estella leaned forward and dangled the clover flower over him, “I find that offensive. I am a dainty and delicate butterfly.”
“Aye, dainty and delicate as an ox, maybe.”
Estella grinned and shoved him roughly, “At least I can dance.”
“Ah,” Pippin said in his best imitation of severe pain. He clutched his arm as though gravely wounded, “This is what I mean! You’re a brute.” He rolled away and hopped to his feet before Estella could shove him again, “Is this how you teach people? Through abuse?”
Estella laughed and jumped up as Pippin began running from her. They were both breathless with laughter as Pippin bounded into the lane, Estella hard upon his heels.
He drew up short as soon as he saw the figure in the lane coming toward them, and Estella ran into his back, “I’ve got you!” she said, wrapping her arms around him, before she apprehended the figure as well.
He wore a hat and was carrying a bouquet of hydrangea, which, Pippin supposed, was why he didn’t immediately recognize him. It was, of course, Merry. Pippin and Estella shared a look, both of them, he fancied, wondering if they had put everything away before they’d gone outside to have their dance lesson.
Merry thought that Pippin and Estella looked very caught out as they stood together in the lane, Estella’s arms slowly falling off Pippin’s shoulders.
Pippin wore no jacket and his skin was flushed, probably from the heat of the day, Merry thought. Estella straightened her skirt and smiled at him, recovering herself. Pippin seemed in the greater shock. He looked apprehensively back at Estella’s house before he said, “Oh, hullo, Merry.”
“Hello,” Merry said. He laughed, “You two look like you were having fun.” He offered the hydrangea bouquet to Estella.
She took it from him, “I’d better put these in some water. I’ll be right back.” She dashed away.
“So,” Merry said once Estella had gone inside.
Pippin rubbed the back of his neck with his hand, he winced, “Er… I didn’t think you were free today.”
“Oh, well, I found myself in the area after my business in town concluded, so I thought I would drop in on Estella since she’s still home all alone. Though, I rather thought I might find you here too.”
Pippin threaded together some sounds that might have been deemed a laugh, “Oh, well, we were just… I was just having a visit.”
Merry nodded, “Yes, I see.”
Estella opened her door again, “What are you two doing standing out in the lane like that, anyway? I have some lemonade if you’d like it, Merry.”
“Thank you, I would like some,” Merry said.
He walked into the house, sensing, rather than seeing, that Pippin was following him. He saw Pippin’s jacket on the ground in Estella’s garden, the sight somehow suggestive of intimacy.
He was uncomfortably aware that he did not like seeing it there at all.
After their close call, Pippin and Estella decided that it would be best to leave off for a while. There would not be much point in continuing on until Pippin’s dresses came in any case. He promised Estella that he would practice his dance steps at home, but his words were empty. Privately, he thought he’d earned a break from the constant drilling.
Estella still came to dinner, once with and once without Fatty, at Crookhollow twice that following week. If Merry was suspicious of their conspiring against him, he did not come out and say so, and Pippin and Estella were hardly going to allude. They pretended only at discovering that they were very good friends for the first time, which was easy enough.
Pippin really did like Estella, he found, the more time he spent with her. She was funny and able to joke about with a chap without getting offended, and she did say some very clever things. Pippin liked her a good deal, indeed.
Merry was happy for their discovery, or so he said whenever Pippin mentioned it, and, if he seemed to Pippin a little agitated, it was only because, as Merry said, he was having difficulties with his book. The words, Merry told him, just wouldn’t come. So, he researched and read, for he could not write, and seemed to be in a fog of thought.
Indeed, the house was inordinately tidy and well ordered, and none of it was Pippin’s doing. That, alone, was enough to indicate to Pippin that something was bothering his cousin. Merry tended to become unusually active when he was distressed.
Pippin was sitting in the dining room, sipping tea and reading the morning paper, when he suddenly heard a deluge of cursing coming from the kitchen. Pippin leapt up in alarm, fearing that Merry had perhaps scalded himself, and was relieved to find his cousin standing over a scorched pan of eggs, waving away the smoke.
“I can’t bloody believe it!” Merry exclaimed. He looked at Pippin and gestured forcibly at the pan, “I haven’t burnt eggs in… I don’t think I’ve ever burnt eggs! What is wrong with me?”
Pippin laughed, “Is that what’s happened? I thought it was something serious.”
Merry threw the smoking pan into the sink in disgust, “Not serious for you, maybe. What bloody use am I if I can’t even cook eggs?” He turned away, shaking his head.
Pippin stifled a laugh at this rare exhibition of temper from his cousin, “There, now, it’s alright.” He laid a hand on Merry’s shoulder, “If we had to live by my culinary skills, the whole house would have been burnt down long ago. Anyway, they’re just eggs, it’s not the end of the world.” He squeezed a little, “Is the book really going so very poorly?"
Merry hesitated before he nodded, “I’m afraid so. I don’t know what happened, it was all flowing so smoothly and then… now… it’s like I’ve forgotten how to hold a quill. How to form a letter, never mind how to write a sentence,” he ran a hand agitatedly through his hair, the muscle of his shoulder bunching and cording under Pippin’s touch.
Pippin withdrew his hand, unsure of what to say. He looked down at the sparkling clean floor and reflected that he’d been rather neglecting Merry for the past few weeks, what with all of the work he’d been doing on his and Estella’s plot.
“How about we have a day, today?” he suggested, “Maybe we’ll go down to the river, swim or fish or boat or something like that. I’m sure you’ve been spending too much time indoors. Something to get you out and about a bit.”
Merry sighed, “Yes, I suppose.” He turned to face Pippin, smiled a little weakly, “Perhaps I have been spending too much time trying to… I don’t know, come to terms with…” he shook his head and sighed, “Do you ever feel that you know something, something for sure and then you find out that, maybe, you didn’t know as much as you thought?”
Merry was prone to alluding to things that Pippin frequently found were out of his depth, so he only laughed, “Oh, Merry, you can hardly think that I’d have that difficulty. There is no one in the whole of the Shire who is as aware as I am that they know absolutely nothing about anything.”
Merry smiled at him, Pippin’s jest seeming to draw him a little further out of his ill-humor. “I just wish that… I wish that I hadn’t been... oh, I don’t know. I suppose I’ve been foolish.”
“About what?” Pippin asked him, wondering what Merry could possibly mean.
Merry’s smile faltered just slightly before it renewed, “About the damned eggs, of course. I thought I could cook and here I have proved definitively that I cannot.”
Pippin cuffed Merry on the shoulder, “Ass,” he said.
In the end, they did all three of the things Pippin suggested when they got down to the riverside. First was the boating. Merry rowed them a little upriver to a more secluded spot on the edge of the Old Forest where the fishing was particularly good, then they caught a pair of nice, fat river trout before the heat of the day made it a pleasant idea to take a quick dip.
Of the pair of them, Merry had always been the less shy. He stripped down to his smallclothes and leapt into the cold river without a second thought. Pippin watched him swim for a few moments before he allowed Merry to goad him into joining him in the water.
Pippin was always a little self-conscious and was not much less so with Merry than he was with Estella for all that Merry was paying him very little mind as he swam across to the opposite bank and back again. Pippin hurriedly took off his shirt as Merry turned for the far shore and waded in just past his hips before he let himself fall backward with a splash into the water. He yelped at the cold around his neck and Merry laughed at him for it.
Pippin let himself float on his back and stared up at the drifting white clouds in the perfect blue sky. He had his ears underwater and enjoyed the strange way sound was both muffled and amplified, seemingly all at once. When he tipped himself back to his feet he saw Merry climbing out of the water, the sunlight and shade playing across his back.
Merry’s body had thickened in the years since the war. This was not to say that he had grown fat, but there had been a time, just after the ring had been destroyed that Merry had gone quite lean and most unhobbit-like.
Pippin was not, of course, in the habit of paying undue notice to Merry’s physique, but it would have been impossible for him to fail to notice the smooth planes of muscle that the months of walking and playing at swords had revealed in Merry, particularly when they’d been obliged to share a room for most of their stay in Gondor. Where Pippin had merely gotten skinny after the short rations and long miles, Merry had been something else entirely.
Pippin remembered seeing his cousin disrobe for a bath, the almost envious gasp that had escaped his lips, as Merry shrugged out of his shirt. His musculature had been so defined, so clearly marked and angular. Even the flat of his belly had turned into something that somewhat resembled an undulating set of gentle hills. Pippin had gone so far as to compare him to Aragorn and Merry had only laughed at him.
Now, Pippin noted, where Merry had been almost too clearly defined, a sweet softness eased his lines but the muscles of his belly were still there, like diminishing ripples after a rock had been thrown in a still pond. His chest, though, looked bigger than it had, even in the days of the war.
Pippin supposed that this was because Merry was primarily responsible for maintaining their garden. Apparently, the exercise was beneficial in more ways than one. He watched a fat drop of water fall from Merry’s curls and roll down his chest.
“Pippin!” Merry said, apparently not for the first time.
Pippin snapped out his ruminations and looked at Merry, “What?”
“Are you ready?”
Merry laughed, “To go home, plonker.” He sluiced some of the water out of his hair and shook his head, sending little droplets flying. Pippin could see the sheen of water still on his skin as he slipped his shirt back on. It clung to him slightly and Merry plucked the damp fabric away from his body.
“Oh...” he looked up at the sky, tried to gauge the time from the position of the sun. He was rather hungry at any rate, “Yes, let’s go.” Pippin climbed out of the river and put on his things again, “Do you suppose that we could stop for strawberries on the way home?”
“I don’t see why not,” Merry said, “We could walk through the center of town on our way back, if you’d like.”
“Then you can make us some of those cakes?” Pippin asked, thinking of the little round disks of cake that Merry sometimes sandwiched with strawberries and cream.
Merry rolled his eyes, “I suppose this is what had you so distracted. Honestly, you’ve never changed, since you’ve been old enough to talk, I don’t think.”
Pippin shrugged, “Well, you know exactly how to make them. And they’re very good.”
“And you know exactly how to ask to get me to comply. You’d think I’d be immune to your flattery by now, but it seems I have not yet learned to defend myself from your wheedling. Yes, I’ll make the cakes and we’ll get the strawberries,” Merry said, picking up his jacket from the ground. He tossed it into the waiting boat, “Anything else you require?”
Pippin took a moment while he slipped his weskit back on to consider before he shook his head, “No, I think that shall do for now.”
“Well, let me know if you need something else.”
“I shall,” Pippin said with a smile.
He arrived at Estella’s the next day feeling light and happy and Estella had caught his mood almost instantly. She led him back into her bedroom for another practice go at his transformation. She was getting quite good at, and quick about, getting Pippin’s face on, but she had wanted to be sure that he could do it himself if necessary. He, of course, was a surprisingly quick study about it, having had ample time to practice through the years on his own, but she said he should still practice more so that he could do it quickly if need be.
Pippin took of his coat and weskit and tossed them onto Estella’s bed and then sat down in the chair in front of her mirror, ready for another dry run of his transformation. She handed him the cap for his hair and he tucked it away while she talked to him.
“Alright, well, we need a date,” Estella said. Pippin looked at her searchingly, “For your debut,” Estella clarified. “And a plan. And a name.”
She handed Pippin the wig and he put it on, rearranged the curls slightly.
Pippin considered his reflection in the mirror. Even without makeup, the wig made a tremendous difference to his appearance.
Estella put her fingers through the curls, the sensation on his scalp muted by the cap and the wig itself. Lately, she’d been practicing styling it in different ways. Pippin was happy to let her, she knew much better than he how to do hair, given that his old wig had been in such sorry shape when he’d gotten it, that he’d been afraid to even do so much as comb it.
“Here now, what do you think?” She said, as she took a small bunch of flowers from a vase on her dresser and began breaking the stems apart, “I was trying to come up with how I should know you when Fatty would not and I thought, well, remember that trip I took with Pimpernel and Pervinca to the Westfarthing a couple years back?” she asked, weaving the first of the small flowers into the curls. Pippin watched her hands like she was a magician performing a trick. “What if we met a girl out there and I’ve been corresponding with her all these years and now she’s coming to visit for a while?”
“We’d have to make sure that my sisters are not to be present at this party,” he said.
Estella nodded, “Yes, we would. A Highday feast, then, here in Buckland? Nothing too special for them to make a trip for.”
“A party of no special significance. I think that would be best,” Pippin agreed. Estella played with the hair near his shoulder.
Pippin leaned forward and took up the rouge, applied just a little to his lips and cheeks.
“Now,” Estella said looking at him in the mirror, “have you been practicing your voice?”
“Yes,” Pippin said in a fair imitation of a lady’s voice. It was harder than he’d thought it would be, to create and maintain a false voice, even harder when he’d realized that he would not be able to use his own accent. He tried on a Michel Delving accent, “Does it sound believable?”
Estella tilted her head from side to side, “It’s passable, but I think you’ll need to make it better. You should speak to me, I think, always in that voice when we’re alone. It’ll let you get as much practice as possible.”
“Alright, that’s probably wise” Pippin said, stumbling a little over both the voice and the accent before he recovered them again, “I really could use all the practice I can get.”
“Yes,” Estella agreed, “You can. Have you thought up a name, yet?”
Pippin had been trying to come up with a name for the past week. He’d tried out several in his head, but nothing seemed to fit, yet. He could only shake his head, “No, not yet. I didn’t think that it would be so difficult. But, maybe, now we’ve decided that I’m to be from the Westfarthing, it’ll be easier.”
Estella made a face of amusement, “How does that make it easier?”
“Well, if I have some idea of who she is, this person who I’m meant to be, then it will be easier to find the name to fit her.”
“Should we make her up, then?” Estella asked excitedly, placing another set of flowers in the wig. “We must be careful, of course, not to make her too exciting, but she should be a little exciting, I think.”
“Interesting, at least. I hope. Maybe a little tragic?”
Estella laughed, “A little tragic? How?”
“I don’t know. Maybe… maybe she has a good family name, but she comes from impoverished circumstances.”
“Oh,” said Estella excitedly, “perhaps her mother spent the last of their fortune to outfit her in hopes of her coming to Buckland to make a good match.”
“Yes, she doesn’t want to be mercenary, but she is on a mission to hunt a lad with a good fortune,” Pippin clasped his hands delicately at his breast and looked back at Estella, “like that lass from Whispered Promises.”
“Trust you to like the tripe,” she said. “But, a lad with a good fortune is a nice goal for any marriageable lady.” Estella smirked, “And, ideally, a nice arse.”
Pippin looked up at her, scandalized, “Estella!”
She cackled, “What? It’s perfectly true. Merry is very fit, Pippin. Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but I promise you, he is not popular with ladies based on his personality alone.”
“His arse?” Pippin asked his voice as high and shocked as a disapproving maiden aunt’s.
Estella’s eyes crinkled with warmth, “Oh yes.”
“I thought ladies were not meant to care about such things.”
“Of course we care. We’re not insensible to the charms of the opposite sex, no matter what we’re supposed to feel or think or whatever. Remember, if you’re going to do this properly, you must make it seem as though you care as well. Not too much, of course. But, well, a little…” Estella smiled, “salivation doesn’t hurt. If I have one piece of advice, it’s this: boys like it when they think that you think that they’re violently good-looking.”
Pippin shook his head, “Oh, really. That’s nonsense,” he said falling back into his natural voice.
“It isn’t!” Estella insisted. “Here, stand up,” said to him, pulling him up.
She took his wig off and placed it on the stand she’d acquired for it and then put it away. She handed him a damp cloth and he wiped his face clean.
She stood across from him and looked him up and down, her gaze lingering for just a moment near his hip. “What are you doing?” Pippin asked with a chortle.
“Looking at you like you are what you are: namely, a very fit young lad.”
“Oh…” Pippin said, feeling his cheeks begin to pink.
Estella laughed, “You’re blushing. I can’t believe I’ve made you blush!”
“Well, I don’t know why your eyes paused just at my…” he snapped his mouth shut, feeling more intensely embarrassed than ever.
Estella’s eyes were alive with merriment and mischief. She advanced toward him slowly and very deliberately. She was so beautiful with her hair tumbled around her shoulders, so beautiful as she touched a hand to her collarbone. She was so very, very beautiful. If she kissed him… if she kissed him… he should want her to kiss him. He should want… Pippin felt panic beginning to stir, for surely, surely she’d not…
And then Estella was cackling again, “You should see the look on your face! My goodness, you’d think I was a complete troll!”
“Oh, no,” Pippin said very quickly, “You’re lovely, the prettiest girl in Buckland, certainly, maybe in the whole Shire, I think, and you’re so wonderful, really, and…” he trailed off.
Estella was very obviously confused, “And?” she asked.
The clock in the parlor began to ring, “Goodness, but it’s striking the hour. I told Merry I’d be home for supper. I must really be going,” he said hurriedly, as he grabbed his things off Estella’s bed. He was still slipping his weskit back on as he trotted away from her front door.
Pippin didn’t see Estella again until she next came to Crookhollow for dinner, once more in the company of her brother and Eudora.
“I think that we’ve found our house at last!” Fatty said excitedly. He took Eudora’s hand across the table, “It’s perhaps a little further from home that I’d have liked, but it was so very nice, and it is near to Sam at least, which will be convenient.”
“Hobbiton?” asked Estella, her voice raising an octave, “Fatty, what will mother and father say?”
“Well, actually,” Fatty said, looked again at Eudora, “They approve of it. It’s all settled, already. I signed the papers only this morning.”
“Well, congratulations,” Merry said, “That’s fantastic news.”
Estella did not look like she could have agreed less.
Fatty caught her look. “Yes, well, we chaps who are not to inherit massive estates must settle for ourselves somewhere,” he said defensively.
“Of course, you’re welcome to come with us, Estella,” Eudora added a moment later.
Estella laughed, “Whyever would I do that?”
Fatty looked to Eudora, apparently some silent communication passing between them before he said, “Well, I think that Mother and Father and thinking of… well, I think they might move with us.”
“Move…? To Hobbiton?” Estella asked incredulously, “Our parents?”
“They only seemed to like the short walk to town and all of the conveniences of living so close by everything.”
“And it really is much larger, our new smial, Estella.”
Fatty gave Eudora a soppy look of approval.
“But Buckland is our home,” Estella said strongly. Pippin could tell she was becoming properly cross. A line of irritation had appeared between her brows and her eyes had gone steely.
Fatty was, no doubt, about to say something else about his fine, large, new, centrally-located smial, but Merry interceded, “You saw Sam, I’m sure, while you were up that way?”
Fatty’s mouth worked a moment before he was able to redirect himself to Merry’s question. “Er… Yes, he and Rosie both. Little Elanor is so clever…” Fatty said.
Estella took this opportunity to clear the table. Pippin left Fatty to Merry and followed her into the kitchen. “Can you believe this?” she asked him, “Hobbiton! And to think that I would go too…”
“I’m sure you’ll talk your parents round again. There’s nowhere in the world better than Buckland, and I can say that now, having seen a fair bit of it.”
“I do hope so. Otherwise what will I do? I’ll have to beg some friend to come live with me so that I’m not all alone. And who would I have? All of my best friends are lads, anyway. I can hardly ask you or Merry to move in with me, can I?”
Pippin smiled at her, “You think I’m one of your best friends?”
She laughed, “Yes, now I do, I suppose.” She leaned back against the counter. She glanced quickly down at the floor and then back up at him, “Pippin, I did want to apologize for the other day, you know. I hope that I didn’t make things… awkward for you.”
“Oh… I…” Pippin stammered, “Well, I suppose I should apologize too.”
“For saying nice things about me?”
“No. Yes. No. I don’t know. I guess for running out like I did.”
“Listen, I know that you don’t fancy me. Pray, take no offense, but truthfully, I don’t fancy you either. I don’t want you to think that I am laboring under any misapprehension.”
Pippin was sure he should have felt affronted, or at least a trifle miffed at her bald statement, but he didn’t. He was relieved. “You really are the loveliest girl in Buckland, you know.”
Estella smirked, “Thank you.”
He looked toward the dining room. Fatty was talking about Sam’s vegetable patch rather rhapsodically, saying something about how he would take up the whole of his new southern lawn for just such a patch himself. Pippin leaned a little closer to Estella, “I’ve got a name.”
Her eyes lit with excitement, “Well?”
“I’ll come see you tomorrow morning, when Fatty is at Eudora’s parents, and I’ll introduce you.”
“I can’t wait,” Estella said with a grin.
Merry was sitting in the garden, watching as the sun slowly set. It always seemed to take an age on summer evenings, and this night was no different. The sky was like an upturned bowl of sherbet, rippled with swirls of bright raspberry jam, with blueberry tinted cream. Everything seemed especially pretty tonight. Inside, he heard Pippin washing up, singing softly as he did so. The Bolgers had all left quickly after supper, Estella apparently eager to discuss with Fatty his new living arrangement.
Pippin was in a very fine mood, it seemed. His voice rose and fell with the tune of a song that he’d picked up in Lothlorien or Rivendell, though he wasn’t singing the elvish that went with it. He’d apparently made up his own words. Merry caught little snatches of phrases through the open window when Pippin walked past it.
Somehow, there was something reassuring in the alarm that Estella had displayed when Fatty had suggested that their parents might want to remove to Hobbiton as well, even if Pippin had followed quick upon her heels into the kitchen. Even if when they’d come out with the biscuits and tea, Merry had been forcibly struck with how they looked like they were together, a pair, somehow.
“As fair as she might be,” Pippin sang from inside.
“Pip,” Merry called, “Pippin.”
Pippin leaned out the window, “Yes, what?”
“Come on, let’s go down to the pub tonight, what do you think?”
Pippin grinned, “Yes, let’s. That sounds wonderful.”
The walk to from town to Crookhollow was not terribly long, it took only about a half-hour, and, in pleasant weather, it seemed to take no time at all. The woodlands seemed to lean close about the road, but they did not loom, merely enfolded the hobbits in a protective embrace as they walked back home. From between the boughs, Merry saw the gleam of stars, the narrow crescent of the moon hanging above them like a grin.
Merry was drunk, happily so, his voice accompanying Pippin’s as they continued to sing pub songs, now as loudly as they wanted since they’d passed by the last smial on the lane before they’d reach Crookhollow itself.
Pippin tripped over something in the lane, his voice rising in a yelp, before Merry caught him, “Steady on,” he said, hauling Pippin upright. Pippin straightened slightly, but Merry kept an arm wrapped around Pippin’s waist, left Pippin’s arm looped around his shoulder the entire rest of the way home. Pippin didn’t complain. If anything, he leaned close to Merry as though glad of the support.
This felt right, Merry thought to himself, as he opened the door to their home. Pippin and him, he and Pippin. They were the ones meant to be a pair. Where one was found, so too, the other meant to be.
Merry deposited Pippin down on their couch, sat down next to him. Pippin attempted to sit upright but gave up with a laugh. He leaned against him and rested his head upon Merry’s shoulder, “I think you were right. That last mug was a mistake.”
“I told you.”
“I already said that you were right,” Pippin said reproachfully. He moaned a little, “I am going to be powerfully sorry about this in the morning.”
“I told you that, too.”
“Oh, you’re awful,” said Pippin, the hand he laid against Merry’s shoulder to shove him fluttered a for a moment before it came to rest against Merry’s chest.
Merry wrapped his arm around Pippin.
Pippin settled closer against him. “D’you remember… when we set out, how cold it got sometimes?”
Merry chuckled, “Yes, I remember. I don’t think that we properly appreciated what an inopportune time for traveling the fall and winter is.”
“This is like that, isn’t it?” Pippin asked him.
Merry supposed he must mean the way that they were leaning against one another, Merry holding Pippin close. It had been practical then, Merry thought, wondering what it was now.
“Yes,” he said.
“I used to sleep… it was so nice…” Pippin said, his voice soft and a little drowsy.
Merry remembered. He’d woken many times with Pippin snuggled into his side, his head on Merry’s shoulder, Merry’s arm around Pippin’s back.
In Fangorn, after the orcs and the terrible danger they’d been in, Merry remembered how they had clung to one another that first night, held onto one another almost like lovers. Merry had woken with Pippin’s head tucked under his chin, Pippin’s sleeping breath warming his neck. How loath he had been to wake him from his sleep.
Merry stroked Pippin’s hair, and Pippin made little sounds of pleasure as Merry petted him. Merry was drunk. Perhaps drunker than he’d realized.
“Do you remember…” Pippin asked, his voice gently trailing, “Fangorn… how we…” he yawned, “Mmm, Merry don’t stop.” Somehow, he seemed to melt even more into him.
“I won’t,” Merry said softly. Pippin’s hair was like silk running through his fingers. Why did it feel so much softer, so much finer, than hair had a right to feel?
Pippin’s breathing slowed until it was deep and somnolent. Merry was drunk, but not too drunk to lift Pippin and carry him to his bedroom. He laid Pippin down, fully dressed atop his plush featherbed.
Merry was drunk, too drunk to resist it when Pippin’s hand reached up and caught Merry’s sleeve, tugging him down to lie next to him.
“Merry,” Pippin said so softly that Merry could have mistaken it for a sigh. Merry brushed the hair from Pippin’s forehead and pressed a gentle kiss against his brow, the earth drifting beneath him as he laid back on Pippin’s bed. He closed his eyes and surrendered, too, to sleep.
Pippin was particularly bleary-eyed when he awoke the next morning. He remembered a little of when they’d gotten home the night before, a little of how he’d leaned drunkenly on Merry’s shoulder on the couch. He had a notion that Merry had put him to bed and had stayed with him, but he might have only dreamt that. Merry was not next to him now, certainly.
If Pippin had any guess at all, Merry had probably very sensibly gone to bed in his nightshirt just as usual, instead of fully dressed as Pippin had, and he was very likely making breakfast for them already, as opposed to sleeping late and rather wishing that the sun might go away for a bit.
Pippin felt a little embarrassed over his behavior the night before. What must Merry think of him? Pippin had never been exactly excellent at holding his liquor, as he proved time and again. What was he thinking, snuggling into Merry like they were children? It was only that it was so easy to forget, he supposed, that they weren’t children any longer, Merry no longer the elder brother he’d never had, who might be persuaded to tend to his hurts as gently as his own mother could do.
No longer the lad who would kiss it better when Pippin got a bruise.
Pippin shut his eyes and shook his head.
Everything was very bright, it seemed outside. Waiting in bed would not make it better. He rose, undressed himself and splashed water on his face before he put on fresh clothes. He saw that, at some point, Merry must have brought him a glass of water. It was so very like him to be carefully attentive to all that Pippin might need. Pippin drank down the water and then went out.
Merry was, indeed, in the kitchen. He hadn’t yet fully dressed, he only wore a shirt and suspenders with an apron draped across his front.
“Good morning,” Pippin said, stretching, “What are you making? This looks horrendously complicated…”
“It’s only crepes,” Merry said.
“Yes, you know, those thin little pancakes. With the fruit in? And the whipped cream and whatnot?”
Pippin tilted his head curiously. “Sweets for breakfast?” he asked in confusion, “Is there some special occasion today that I’ve forgotten?”
“No, nothing special.” Merry gave a shrug and a smile, “I don’t know, I just felt like crepes today.”
“I shan’t complain, then,” Pippin said. Pippin watched Merry work for a moment. On a sudden whim, he went out into the garden with cutting shears and clipped some flowers for their dining table. He arranged these while Merry finished preparing breakfast. Everything looked quite pretty and domestic once breakfast was served.
“Not bad for two bachelors,” Pippin said with a smile.
“You’re right, if I do say so myself. I imagine even my mum would approve of the flowers. They’re very nice.”
Pippin acknowledged the compliment with a nod of his head. “Well, this is delicious,” Pippin said, gesturing with his fork at the crepes. “Are these the raspberries from the back garden?”
“Of course,” Merry said.
Pippin huffed a laugh, “You know, it isn’t fair that you can be up and about so early after a night of carousing and no worse for wear.”
Merry smiled at him in response, “How is your head this morning, anyway?”
“A bit dodgy,” Pippin confessed, “though, not as bad as it might be, I suppose.”
“That’s good. So, what are you doing today? I was thinking of taking a walk down to the river again today. I fancied I might make a picnic, maybe we could fish again, catch another trout or two for dinner.”
Pippin took another bite of crepe, “Well, that sounds nice, but…”
Merry looked at him with a raised eyebrow, “Estella?”
Pippin shrugged apologetically, “Yes, I promised I’d call to see her this morning.”
“Ah, well, that’s too bad,” Merry said. He looked out of the window, “Perhaps I’ll go myself in any case. It looks like it’s going to be far too nice outside to spend the day indoors.”
He got up and took his plate into the kitchen.
Estella helped Pippin put his face on and then he chased her from the room, wishing to complete the transformation on his own so that she could have the maximum amount of surprise. He’d had the dress made especially for his debut out of the remnant that he hadn’t been able to forget back at the draper’s. He held it in his hands for a moment, smiling, before he slipped it on over his corset. It was low cut, for one of his dresses, anyway, but not so low that his obvious lack of cleavage was apparent.
He hadn’t tried it with the wig yet, but it was just as fetching as he’d supposed it would be, the dark, curled tresses caught a little of the color, looked almost lit from beneath with red.
He looked at himself in Estella’s mirror. He felt Pippin retreat as he looked at his reflection. He was looking at her reflection now, becoming someone new.
She walked from Estella’s room and stood at the threshold of Estella’s kitchen. She curtseyed while Estella grinned at her in wonderment. She held out her hand and Estella took it, “Poppy Dashfoot, pleased to meet you.”
Poppy quickly became her own person in Pippin’s head. After the first time, he spent more and more mental energy on letting her speak to him, guide him, particularly when he was with Estella, even when he was not transformed. It was easier to speak with her voice now that he’d seen her complete, easier to find her when he needed her.
He even let Poppy share his head when he was with Merry a couple of times, did his best to see Merry through her eyes. Pippin did not notice things like how Merry’s eyes were particularly charming when he smiled, but Poppy certainly did. She noticed, too, Merry’s hands, which were very well shaped and quite deft, particularly with a knife. Poppy also could not help but agree with Estella’s assessment of Merry’s arse. It looked round and strong, not at all bony like some lads were wont to have. Yes, it was nice and thick and rather firm looking.
Poppy’s thoughts upon Merry were quite shocking, sometimes, really, but, Pippin supposed, such was the price of carving out mental space for another person entirely. If she fancied Merry a little, well, Pippin supposed that it was necessary if the subterfuge was to work.
Two weeks after Pippin’s first full transformation into Poppy, Estella deemed that she was ready for her debut. They picked a Highday feast at the end of July for the event. Estella’s parents would still be away and Fatty was to spend a few weeks preparing his house in Hobbiton ahead of his wedding. Estella would introduce her at the party, her backstory, they wagered, sufficiently compelling to garner her some sympathy, if not total approval, from the matrons of Buckland.
Estella started promoting her friend’s visit as soon as they’d picked a date. She laid out a few bare facts in front of Emilia Hardbottle, which was just about as good as putting an advert in a broadsheet. Poppy was pretty, but impoverished, her family noble and proud, but her father had died some time ago and the cousin who had inherited the estate had refused to provide for his uncle’s widow and daughter. They, therefore, only had the money that had come from her mother’s dowry, and, of that, there was not much.
Emilia, naturally, spread the news far and wide, adding some detail of her own imagining.
Poppy was raised in the sort of impoverished gentility that inspired a romantic notion of a beautiful girl forced to sell herself to the highest bidder just to ensure the happiness of her family. Everyone was sympathetic to this, and, even if the ladies of the neighborhood did not exactly wish their sons to make such a match, most of them allowed that Poppy should be afforded every courtesy and every opportunity to be introduced to the best and brightest of Buckland.
With the campaign of gossip so successful, it was natural that Merry heard of her long before the date of the party.
Pippin was the fourth at a card table with Merry, Folco, and Berilac when the subject of Poppy came up.
“I’ve heard this girl is supposed to be uncommonly pretty,” Folco said, “but, then I’ve also heard that said about many girls before their introductions are made and then one finds that they are not so very pretty as all that.”
“But those,” said Berilac, tossing a card onto the table, “are usually the rich ones. This Poppy is supposed to be poor, isn’t she?” he asked, looking to Merry.
“To hear Estella tell it, they are not desperately poor, but her and her mother’s circumstances are strained.”
Folco shook his head, “A pity, that, of course. So, which of us do you think she’ll try for?” he asked in a bored and (to Pippin’s ear) rather arrogant fashion.
Berilac laughed, “You assume she’ll set her sights on one of us?”
“Of course. She’s poor, we’re all rich and eligible. Oh, no doubt one of us will be her goal. I, for one, do not mean to be taken in.”
Merry shook his head, “So, you are disposed to think that she’s going to be a fortune hunter?”
“Naturally,” said Folco.
“Maybe,” Pippin hazarded, “she’s just what Estella says, though.”
“What’s that?” asked Folco.
“Well, a girl from strained circumstances who wants to make a good match but isn’t, you know, mercenary.”
Folco laughed, “You haven’t the experience to know better, Pippin, but girls are never honest where their friends are concerned. If Estella tells us that this Poppy is pretty, well-mannered, and poor, you may bet that we shall only find one of those things to be true, and that, of course, the flaw.”
Merry laid down his cards, “This is a dismal view.”
“Tell me it’s untrue,” Folco said.
Merry didn’t say anything.
“See?” said Folco to Pippin. “If she is rumored to be so nearly perfect, you may bet that there will be something very wrong with her.”
Pippin felt increasingly nervous the closer they got to Poppy’s debut. He had a recurring dream of going to the party and finding himself unable to keep his dress on, no matter how he tried to secure it. The dress would slip from his shoulders, his bare chest exposed to a crowd that leered at him like the orcs had before they’d captured him for that long, perilous journey toward Isengard. Sometimes, they tore at him with grabbing fingers, sometimes they merely turned their backs on him and refused to look at him no matter how he called. Once, Merry had been in the crowd.
It was after that dream that he told Estella they should call it off.
She reassured him and reminded him that Poppy’s visit was as well publicized as the Free Fair at this point. There was no backing out now, even if they wanted to.
To assuage his nerves, she drilled him on his dance steps, even made him practice in his dress and corset so that he would be used to it. She drilled him in increasingly complex exercises upon the harpsichord. She made him say tongue twisters in Poppy’s voice, had him apply makeup only to wash it off and apply it again.
Preparation, she told him, was the best salve for nerves. He didn’t know if that was true.
The only time he really felt alright was when he was fully transformed. It was strange to him that the act that most reassured him was also the cause of his anxiety. He took to transforming himself at nights before bed just to calm himself. When he looked in the mirror and saw Poppy’s face looking back at him he felt calm. He could only attribute it to the very definitive demarcation in his mind, which held himself on one side and Poppy on the other.
She was not burdened by the idea of being found out, or of failing to make a sensation, or of Merry ignoring her all night. She was composed, hopeful but not desperate to be a hit. Still with the horrible dreams and the excess preparation combined, Pippin was exhausted by the night he was to debut as Poppy.
Merry did not fail to notice that he was not quite himself. Pippin played his nerves and fatigue off as illness, thinking to parlay it into an excuse to avoid the feast. By the time the night arrived, Pippin had been playing sick for three days in a row, so, when he emerged from his room in his dressing gown and nightshirt and went into the kitchen, ready to make his excuses, he was quite certain that Merry would believe that he truly wasn’t feeling well enough for a party.
“Are you sure?” Merry asked, him, clearly concerned.
“Oh, quite sure.” Pippin coughed pathetically, “I’m still not feeling myself.”
“I can stay home tonight. If you’re unwell, I don’t want to leave you alone with no one to keep you company.”
Pippin hadn’t considered that Merry might make such an offer, “Oh, no, that’s unnecessary. Really. You go, have a good time. I’m sure I’ll be better in a day or two. I’m just tired, and I think peace and quiet will do me some good.”
“You don’t have a fever?” Merry gently laid the back of his hand to Pippin’s forehead.
“No, Merry, of course not,” Pippin said pushing his hand away with a giggle, “It’s only a little summer cold. You fret worse than my mum.”
Merry withdrew and tucked his hands into his pockets, “Are you sure that you’ll be alright alone? I could make you some soup or-”
“Merry, honestly! Yes, yes, I’m quite sure,” Pippin said. Merry needed several more assurances and a pointed remark that Merry’s concern was only adding to Pippin’s distress before Merry relented and agreed, at last to go. Even so, Pippin practically had to shove him out of the door, “Go on, then. You’ll disappoint half the girls in Buckland if you don’t go to this feast.”
Merry turned to him one last time as he stood on the threshold. The sun was sinking toward the hills, the golden light danced in Merry’s hair as the breeze stirred it. He still looked concerned but he offered Pippin a weak smile, “Get some rest, then. I…” he sighed, “I’ll see you when I get home.”
“Have fun.” He coughed, then reassured Merry once more. He waved and shut the door on him, aware that Estella would be coming up the lane at any moment. He watched Merry walk away from the kitchen window.
Pippin rubbed his hands together and got his dress out of his trunk. He smiled at it, stroked the silken fabric once and then wrapped it up again.
Estella knocked on the door perhaps ten minutes after Merry had left. “Ready?” she asked excitedly.
And Pippin replied, in Poppy’s voice, “Yes, very ready.”
Poppy walked next to Estella toward the party field. They arrived just as the evening was turning dark, just as all of the lanterns were being lit, so that the field glowed with soft, warm light. Poppy and Estella maintained conversation as they walked, Estella making every attempt to be excessively diverting. She joked and Poppy laughed, and the small part of her that was still Pippin felt himself relax just a little. No one, as they walked, seemed to see Pippin in Poppy. For, if they looked at her, it was with admiration.
It was almost terrifying, how easy it seemed to be to fool everyone; the feeling that it was going almost too well nearly cracked the shell of his composure, but Pippin’s nerves held, because Poppy was there to hold them.
They walked past a cluster of lads who were standing at the lower part of the party field and Poppy caught the eye of one who stood a little straighter under her attention and then bowed. It was then that Poppy seemed to speak to Pippin, to say, ‘see? It’s fine.’ And Pippin believed her. He relaxed.
The party field was upon a small rise so that the girls came up the side of the hill from a bit of a blind, giving the effect of rising as though out of water. Several heads turned toward them, and then several more as Poppy was perceived.
Poppy did not bother to seek, or hold eye contact with, anyone in particular. She spoke to Estella and followed her through the crowd. There were dancers spinning in the field and lively music playing. Estella was already bobbing her head in time with the beat.
The part of Poppy that was Pippin looked longingly over at where the casks of ale were set and the cluster of tables that were arrayed about them. As she looked in that direction, she saw three very attentive faces peering back at her.
She first saw Folco, who was staring at her with a very frank admiration that she could not fail to understand. Berilac, too, was looking at her with a touch of surprise. And then, there, too, was Merry. He’d evidently been in the middle of taking a sip from his ale, but his arm had frozen halfway to his lips. His eyes locked with Poppy’s. The music seemed to go quiet and she felt an electric thrill run down her spine.
Then Merry sipped his drink and Poppy turned away.
Estella took her arm, “Come, Poppy, let me introduce you around.”
Merry did not know what Pippin was playing at. What, it seemed, Estella and Pippin were playing at. Estella was leading Pippin through the crowd, performing introductions. Pippin was responding very prettily, with a curtsey or a presented hand, all while looking like the most outrageously blushing girl that Merry had ever seen.
Merry would have known Pippin anywhere, and he was shocked to find that it was not so for his companions sitting at table with him. They, it seemed, were completely taken in.
“She’s extremely pretty,” Folco said, “I can scarcely believe it, but I think... I think Estella undersold her.”
Merry laughed and slapped him on the shoulder, “Seems Pippin was right, then, and you were wrong.”
“Yes, so it seems. Well,” he said, taking a long pull of his ale while his eyes combed across Pippin in a way that Merry didn’t entirely like. “I will have a dance with her, I daresay. At the very least.”
Berilac laughed, “Oh, yes, I think her dance card will be very full. Whenever do you suppose Estella will bring her over here?”
“She’s making her way,” Merry said. He couldn’t help smiling as he continued to watch Pippin weave through the crowd in the flaming red dress he wore. Poppy, indeed.
Lads were bowing to Pippin, ladies looking at him enviously. His smile could only be described as radiant as he basked in the attention he was receiving.
Merry fought the urge to fidget as Pippin came closer, wanted to laugh at the rush of joy he felt for finally understanding. This must be why, of course, he and Estella had been so much cloistered away with one another, this the reason that Merry had barely spent more than a few days together with his best friend in weeks. Finally, it all made sense, for it was clearly with no small amount of effort that such an elaborate illusion had been constructed.
Yet, even though he finally understood the question that had most troubled him recently, he didn’t understand why it was suddenly a challenge to keep himself still. For all that he was not taken in by the deception, Merry realized that he was staring at Pippin as much as anyone at the party. He couldn’t help it. Every time he looked away from him, his eyes would drift toward him again.
Pippin wasn’t having the same difficulty. Apart from the moment when their eyes had met when he’d first entered, the moment that Merry felt the shock of recognition hit him full in the face, Pippin had dedicated himself to looking at whoever he was speaking to.
He laughed prettily and played with the dark hair of his wig and otherwise made himself out to be precisely what he seemed as he walked arm-in-arm with Estella, their appearance together that of best friends who had come together after a long separation. He could not fail to observe the slight sway of Pippin’s hips, the light, trailing way his hands moved while he spoke.
Merry couldn’t fail to observe exactly what Pippin was doing, of course, because he could not stop himself from observing Pippin.
It seemed an age before Estella stood before them, an age before she said, “May I present to you Miss Poppy Dashfoot. Poppy, this is Folco Boffin, Berilac Brandybuck, and Meriadoc Brandybuck, but he goes by Merry.” She looked past Merry searchingly, “Where is Pippin?” Estella asked, her tone so convincingly puzzled that Merry almost believed that she didn’t know.
He wanted to laugh at the absurdity, to say, ‘right next to you,’ but he didn’t. If they wanted to play whatever peculiar game this was, Merry would play it. “He is at home, ill, I’m afraid.”
“Oh, that’s a pity,” said Estella, “I’ve been telling Poppy that she would like him when she met him.”
Merry smiled up at Pippin. Their eyes met again, “I can very much believe that.”
Pippin’s flush heightened and his eyes slipped demurely aside. If a lass had looked at him like that, Merry would have known what to do, but it was Pippin in that dress. Surely… but then again, if Pippin was pretending to be a girl, did it not follow that Merry should respond as though he were one? “Estella tells us that you are from the Westfarthing, but I’m not sure I ever heard whereabouts?”
“Oh, just outside Michel Delving,” said Pippin, his voice higher than normal, his accent clearer and crisper than his normal Tuckborough brogue.
“A lot to be said for that part of the country,” Folco said, inserting himself into the conversation. “I haven’t been myself, but I’ve heard there is a lot of very nice farmland that way.”
Pippin laughed lightly, “The same can be said for most of the Shire, I think. I was very anxious to see the woods and rivers of Buckland. Estella always writes with them of such fondness.”
“I hope you are not disappointed,” said Berilac, “That is, I hope you find it to your liking here.”
“So far, yes,” said Pippin. His eyes once more caressed across Merry and Merry felt something rise in himself. He was about to say something, but then Estella pointed to Emilia Hardbottle and pulled Pippin away.
“Do you think that was good?” Poppy asked Estella after they had made the obligatory rounds. “Do you think that he... noticed?”
Estella laughed, “I think that he noticed a pretty girl, certainly. He was definitely... looking at you, anyway.” She glanced toward where Merry still sat, “Indeed, I think he can hardly manage to tear his eyes away,” she added with a laugh.
Poppy followed Estella’s eyeline. Her eyes met Merry’s again, their eye contact somehow like the feel of silk against skin, like some indulgent caress. Poppy looked away again. It was oddly sensual, seeing Merry look at him like that. At Poppy like that, Pippin corrected.
Merry stood and walked toward them. Pippin felt his heartbeat quicken, “Oh dear, he’s coming over.”
Estella laughed, “Yes, as we planned. Now, remember, just let him lead you and you’ll be fine. Merry’s a better dancer than I am, he’ll make you look good.”
“Oh, but you think he means to dance?” Poppy asked in a tone that might have been more appropriate to immediate execution.
Estella gave her a look and then Merry was before them.
“Ladies,” Merry said, bowing.
Estella and Poppy curtseyed in unison. Merry smiled at Estella, “Care to dance?” he asked her.
Estella looked a little surprised but nodded, “Sure. I’ll be right back,” she said to Poppy, and then left, hand in hand with Merry, for the dance floor. Poppy watched Merry and Estella dance, the pair of them like circling butterflies as they spun and wove.
“Ahem,” said someone at Poppy’s elbow. Poppy turned to see Foclo holding out his hand for hers, “If you’d care to?” he asked her.
Pippin very much wanted to decline, but Poppy hadn’t learned to dance for nothing. She nodded her acceptance. Folco wasn’t as good a dancer as Merry, but he was decent, and he guided Poppy competently enough. They spun not too far distant from Merry and Estella. Poppy was aware of them like one might be of another person in a darkened room. She did not look, though, away from Folco. She smiled and gave him her complete attention.
When the dance was finished, Folco led her off the dancefloor. “You dance beautifully,” he said to her.
Poppy laughed, “Oh, I dance decently. Estella dances beautifully, I’m sure.”
“You won’t accept the compliment, then?” Folco asked her teasingly.
“I don’t accept compliments that I don’t deserve.”
“I’m sure you cannot fail to deserve a compliment,” Estella said. She drew Merry behind her, still holding onto his hand.
Poppy smiled, “Oh, Estella, really.”
Folco laid his hand on Poppy’s waist, clearly trying to draw her attention back to himself, “Can I get you anything? Wine?”
“Oh,” Poppy said, “Well, yes, that would be lovely.”
Folco bowed to her, “At your service. I’ll be right back.”
Estella snickered as he walked away.
“Don’t sport with him too much,” Merry said, “I don’t think he’s the lad for you.”
Poppy looked at Merry mischievously, “No? Well, I’m a stranger here. I haven’t had time to form an opinion on anyone yet. And he did, after all, ask me to dance, and offer me a glass of wine.”
“Yes, he did.”
“You have done neither,” she said with a smile.
“No, I have not.”
“So, then, perhaps he is the lad for me. Why should he not be?”
Merry released Estella’s hand, stood a little closer to Poppy and said softly, “Because you’ve been looking at me all night.”
Poppy laughed, “I think you’re mistaken. I’m sure it’s the reverse that’s true.”
Merry’s eyes were so intent, they were almost electric. Poppy felt breathless from nothing more than looking back at him, a silent challenge, a wordless surrender passing between them.
“Dance with me the next?” Merry asked.
Merry danced with Pippin some seven times in total. He thought that he must have gone through a great deal of trouble to improve his skills. He was not as good as Estella, but he was better than most. And fun besides. The way Pippin’s eyes sparkled in the flashes of lantern light when he laughed made up for any missteps he made while in Merry’s arms.
When Merry lifted him at the end of the final reel, he let his hands run down the sides of Pippin’s body before he released him.
A proper girl might have taken umbrage with the familiar touch after only one night of acquaintance, but Pippin only tapped him on the shoulder lightly, “Mind your hands,” he said, slyly.
If Pippin wanted to flirt, Merry would oblige him. He placed a hand upon Pippin’s corseted waist, “I am minding my hands, believe me.”
Pippin looked up at him as though scandalized, but he did not move away from Merry in the slightest. Merry guided him to the side of the field, toward a quiet table. He pulled out a chair for Pippin and then leaned back against the table, still half-standing.
Again, Pippin looked over him in that quick, furtive way that it seemed he had been all night. They were almost alone, surely out of earshot of anyone if they spoke quietly, and Merry was about to ask him what, exactly, he was doing, but then Pippin spoke.
“I had not thought to find Buckland so very welcoming, even though Estella assured me that it would be.”
“Well, if your first night is any indication, I think that you will find your expectations will continue to be exceeded.”
Pippin smiled with gentle pleasure, “I had a lovely time.”
Suddenly, Merry felt that he did not want to ruin whatever game it was that Pippin was playing. Evidently, it made him happy to play it, and, if Merry was somehow a part of it… Merry didn’t want to ruin that either. Merry reached for Pippin’s hand, and squeezed it, “It has been lovely to meet you. Let’s find Estella, I fear that it is beginning to get rather late.”
It had been a bit of a job for Pippin, coming home. He’d set up the house before he’d left to make it look like he’d been there all night, did his best to make it seem as though he’d only just gone to bed before Merry had come home. But, of course, he’d had to sneak in once he was sure Merry had gone to bed, and that done in his skirts and corset. Next time, he told himself, he would put some trousers outside to change into before he had to sneak in. If Merry had seen him, who knows what conclusion he might have come to?
Once safely inside, Pippin couldn’t settle to sleep, though not on account of nerves. Rather, he couldn’t help but replay the evening again and again in his head, each tilt of Merry’s face toward him, each moment their eyes met, each time Merry touched him… Of course, by him he meant Poppy. Surely, it was the part of him that was Poppy that was taking so much pleasure in all of these things.
If that part of him seemed to induce other parts of him to require satisfaction, Pippin did not think that it was entirely surprising. Poppy was becoming as integral to Pippin as a limb, surely she deserved a reward for a job well done.
When at last he had satisfied himself, drowsiness stole over him. He slept better that night that he had in weeks.
Merry considered what his next move ought to be while he made breakfast the next morning.
He was confused, but not bewildered, or overly distressed, about how he had responded to Pippin dressed as Poppy the evening before. He was not so very different from a girl, after all, when put into all of the necessary accoutrement. Not so very different at all if the way that Berilac and Folco had acted was any indication. They were both wildly jealous of Merry’s success with Poppy.
And it had been success. Whatever else Merry was unsure of, he hoped that he was not stupid enough to fail to realize when someone was partial to him. Or, perhaps, Pippin was only playing a game. But, no, the way it had felt when their eyes met… Pippin had to have felt that too. He had to have felt the electric connection between them that snapped and sizzled like forks of lightning in a dark summer sky.
And, what did that mean?
Merry was not oblivious to rumors of lads who fancied other lads in the Shire, nor was he unaware of what the general consequences were for those who were found out.
He did, however, have the benefit of travel, and, as such, had learned that, in other places, there was not so much censure placed upon love. In fact, it had been in Lothlorien that he had observed what he’d later learned was a marriage ceremony between two ladies. Legolas had to explain it to him, since Frodo had turned scarlet and been unable to give Merry a proper translation for the words he’d heard.
When Merry had asked Legolas if such things were common in elvish lands, he’d said that they were, reasonably, at least. And, if elves did not consider such a thing unnatural or evil, Merry did not think it really could be, no matter what the common wisdom of the Shire held.
He knew, of course, that for there to be marriage, there would have to be marital relations. He’d not really considered how it would go between the two women he’d seen married, had devoted even less thought to how it would be between two lads, but now… well, he had never thought of himself as wanting that type of union. Indeed, he’d never had a problem being with girls, and enjoying them and their caresses, or giving them pleasure in turn. He liked girls very much indeed.
He could only suppose that was what was confusing him, then. That Pippin had seemed so genuinely a lass the night before, for all that Merry knew he wasn’t. He’d looked very pretty, certainly.
Yet, it was not Pippin dressed as Poppy that seemed to wind himself into Merry’s thoughts before Merry found sleep the night before. It was the Pippin of their day at the river, his pale skin wet as an otter’s fur, the muscle of his thighs bunching as he climbed the bank. It was the Pippin of their drunken night together, snuggled close to Merry’s side, his hand resting like a tremulous bird against Merry’s chest. It was the Pippin of a thousand other guises, each that Merry knew as intimately as he might know his own body, that seemed to be the inspiration for the tension that was at once pleasing and distressing him.
Merry heard the telltale scrape of Pippin’s bedroom door as it opened, heard the gentle padding of his bare feet coming down the hall toward the kitchen.
He was still wearing his nightshirt as he stifled a yawn behind his hand and delivered a bleary good morning to Merry. His hair, rather than the neat, orderly coils of the dark wig he’d worn the night before, was disordered and messy. Merry could glimpse Pippin’s pale skin where the shirt gaped at his throat. He started to look away, but then he stopped himself.
So much of his life, he’d spent looking away when, perhaps, he’d have been better served examining what he was looking away from.
Pippin’s throat was pale, even delicate; the line of bare skin traveled down to just above his chest. His shoulders were not wide, but they were well-shaped. The nightshirt clung a little to Pippin’s hip, suggested at the line of his body, before it flowed away again. It was very much a boy’s shape, with narrow hips and a smooth, flat expanse that ran from his belly up to his chest.
In the sun, the shirt was not so thick as to prevent two patches of darkness showing through where Pippin’s nipples were.
“Conquering your nemesis?” Pippin asked him.
Merry startled, “What’s that?”
Pippin looked down toward the bowl that stood in front of Merry’s hips, “Eggs,” he said, with a nod of his head, “your culinary bane, aren’t they?”
Merry laughed, “Oh, you know, when you fall off the pony, it’s best to get back on, I suppose.”
Not a terribly clever thing to say, but at least it did not betray the tightness that was building just below his navel.
Pippin smiled. Merry’s belly did a flip.
“How was the party last night?” Pippin asked, leaning against the counter. His nightshirt gaped further at the neck.
Merry turned his attention to the bowl of eggs in front of him. “Fun,” he said. “How are you feeling this morning? You look better.”
“I feel much better. I think a night of good sleep did the trick. I’m glad it was fun last night. Did I miss anything?”
Merry could not be sure, but he thought that there was something in Pippin’s tone that was a little anxious. “Only the charming Miss Poppy Dashfoot.”
“Oh, that’s right,” Pippin said, in a fair pantomime of forgetfulness, “How was she? I hope not as dire as Folco predicted.”
“No,” Merry said. “She was lovely.”
Pippin seemed a little crestfallen when Merry didn’t elaborate, though he covered it, “How was Estella?” he asked.
“Good. She asked after you.” Merry started removing the gills from some mushrooms. “There’s tea in the kettle, if you’d like.”
Pippin nodded and poured himself a cup. He took a sip, “Well, I’m glad it was a good party. I suppose I ought to get dressed if you’re doing omelets.”
“I am,” said Merry.
Pippin set down his teacup on the counter. He stood straight and stretched. As he lowered his arms, the neck of his nightshirt came crooked, exposing Pippin’s shoulder. He tugged it up as he turned, revealing a glimpse of his thigh as he walked away.
Merry tapped his finger against the counter, chewed at the inside of his lip, “Well, alright,” he said quietly to himself.
He continued preparing breakfast.
Now that Pippin had had a taste of playing Poppy, he wanted more. He and Estella had never really discussed how long Poppy’s visit ought to be, but where once Pippin had thought he could only tolerate the performance for a single night, he now found himself wishing that he could have twenty parties, a hundred parties, even, it had been so much fun.
He knew he could not hope for anywhere near so much time, but he was of the opinion that anything less than a month was likely to be unsatisfyingly short. He could not live without at least four more parties to enjoy all that Poppy had to offer him. There could be other invitations, too, in that time that might allow more opportunities, but Highday feasts were guaranteed events that every hobbit in the general locale was invited to.
Estella, however, was more prosaic, “Yes, but if you are Poppy for a month, where is Pippin meant to be while you’re gone? You can’t be sick every time.”
They passed under the shadow of an oak tree as they walked together down toward Bucklebury. It was their routine, now, to go into town together to do their shopping.
“I suppose not,” Pippin conceded, “But…”
“But?” Estella asked.
“Well, anything less than that doesn’t seem like enough time, does it?”
Estella laughed, “Enough time for what?”
“To…” Pippin halted again. Enough time for what indeed? “Well, to… I don’t know. It just seems like a month is the right amount of time.”
Estella was examining him with raised brows. She tilted her head and her dark curls tumbled across her shoulders, “I think you like being Poppy.”
Pippin felt the frenetic tattoo of anxiety beginning to beat against his ribcage. He swallowed, “I mean…”
Estella continued to look at him teasingly, “I don’t blame you, Pippin,” she said.
“You… don’t?” he asked.
“No. You’re good at it, for one. And you’re pretty as a lass. It seems like it’s fun, too. So, as far as I’m concerned, you are quite welcome to enjoy playing your role.”
Pippin felt his nerves settle. Estella smiled at him. She skipped a few steps ahead, turned and started walking backward, “Still, I think you have to consider what is practical. Merry will notice that you’re gone if you miss too many Highday feasts in a row. He’ll get suspicious, no matter how convincing Poppy is.”
“What if I, that is to say, Pippin, what if I had to go to Tuckborough for a spell?”
“Alright, but then where would you, that is to say, Pippin, stay?”
Estella laughed, “But what about when Fatty comes home? He’s due back week after next. Are you going to be Poppy the whole time?”
“I could…” Pippin said. “I’m sure I could, if I had to.”
“Pippin, that’s mad. You’d need… well, at least a score of dresses, first off. Then you’d have to pretend nearly all day, and then, just think about the letters that Merry would be sure to send to Tuckborough expecting a response. Your father would think he’d lost his mind.”
Pippin sighed, “I suppose that’s true.”
Estella stopped, drew even with him again, “I sympathize, Pippin, really, but once Fatty comes home, Poppy will have to be gone. He’ll know that there isn’t another girl staying in our house even if he does spend nearly every waking hour with Eudora.”
“Yes, yes. I suppose you’re right.”
“We have two weeks, Pip. Two more Highday feasts, anyway, and, who’s to say that Poppy won’t end up getting invited to a couple more parties as well? That’s enough time for…” she laughed and shrugged, “whatever this scheme is.”
Pippin agreed with her, for he could see that all of her logical objections were perfectly right, but he still felt that it might not be enough time.
He could not answer for himself, however, what he needed more time for.
As it so happened, Poppy was invited to another party the following day, though it was only a ladies’ high tea. It would have been odd for a girl in Poppy’s situation to refuse an invitation that would ingratiate her with the ladies of the neighborhood, so Pippin felt he had to accept.
Emilia Hardbottle was an unmarried lady just past her fortieth year. She was not quite yet an old maid, but she was approaching the status. She was pretty, though, and didn’t seem to want for company. She lived with and kept house for her elder brother.
“Well, of course, I sent Pic out today. Told him to go down to town for the day or go out to the river. He could go all the way to Hobbiton for all I care, I said to him, and what do you think he says? He says, ‘but I heard you have this young Poppy Dashfoot coming over and I’d like to see her,’ and I said to him that he is not the lad for you, dear, not at all, being as you can’t be much more than thirty yourself, and old Pic is near fifty, and not at all rich.”
Poppy looked around Emilia’s living room, which was quite comfortable and pretty. Not at all what, Pippin imagined, Poppy had at home. Emilia seemed to notice the look, “Oh, sorry, darling. I do not mean to draw attention to your circumstances, not at all. I was only saying that Pic is not at all eligible for you.”
“No, he’s not,” said Estella in agreement.
“I can’t believe I’d hear you say that Estella. Pic would be quite a good match for you, of course. He’s your equal in fortune, and in social standing, and really, he would make a good husband. He isn’t so very old, anyway. Plenty of gentlemen wait until their fiftieth year to marry, I’m sure.”
Estella and Poppy shared a look over the sudden reversal of Pic’s merits.
By the time tea was done, it was formed in the minds of all the ladies present that Poppy was a sweet, pretty girl, if from unfortunate circumstances, and that every sympathy should be allowed her. Still, once Estella and Poppy had left, and it was only Emilia and some of her closest friends, they all agreed, privately, that they would need to keep her from their unmarried brothers, or sons, for she was just the type of girl who could make a lad forget what he owed his family.
Pippin, for one, was glad the tea was over. “I’d no idea that ladies could be such... wolves.” Pippin said, still in Poppy’s voice as they walked back to Estella’s together.
Estella laughed at him, “You haven’t any idea what ladies are really like until you come amongst them, a sheep in wolf’s clothing.”
Pippin shuddered, “What was that abominable allusion that Tatty kept making to me? That nonsense about white roses and daisies and things? I do not suppose she meant to ask Poppy if she were a...” Pippin looked around them, he leaned closer to Estella and whispered, “virgin?”
“Of course that’s what she was asking.”
“Well, that is none of her business! I’d only just met her, for pity’s sake! Goodness, but... I don’t think I’d ever ask a lady that.”
“You as Poppy or you as Pippin?” Estella asked.
“Neither of us should want to know. Whyever would she ask that?”
Estella snorted, “It cannot have escaped your notice that pure girls are thought better of than sullied ones.”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t see the difference. I can’t tell that there is any advantage to being one or the other.”
“Are not lads very jealous creatures, though? Certainly, she’s hoping to catch you out so she can present some reason to Hasten and Landric as to why you need to be avoided.”
“Well, I’ve never heard a lad say he wouldn’t have a girl just because she’d been known by someone else.”
“No, they’ll have a girl like that, alright, but they won’t have her as a wife.”
“Why not?” Pippin said without thinking. “I don’t think it was ever impressed upon me that I ought to save myself for marriage,” he snorted, “In fact, my father made a point of encouraging me to do quite the opposite. Why should it be any different for a girl?”
“Because girls can get pregnant. That’s the difference. I’d either have to marry the lad who got me with child or I’d have to bear a bastard and be a disgrace to my family.”
“That seems stupid,” Pippin said.
“Stupid, maybe, but perfectly true.”
They walked a little further in silence before Pippin said, “Well, that would never happen to you, Estella, because if you were in a pinch, I’d marry you.”
Estella howled with laughter, “You?” she said, gasping a breath, “You’d marry me? Oh, but that’s fine. I suppose a very passionate union we’d have, too, you and I.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Pippin asked.
She looked at him sidelong, “Only that you don’t fancy me, dear. But, if you want me to indulge you in this purely hypothetical situation, wherein I have gotten myself into trouble, and you, out of some desperate and misplaced nobility, decide to offer for me, I’ll accept you. But you will have to raise a child that is not your own, you know.”
“As long as I get to choose his name, I don’t suppose I’d care if he was really mine or not.”
“So, my baby is meant to be a boy?”
“Our baby,” Pippin corrected, “but, it makes no difference. Her name, if you’d rather. Either way, if I got to choose that, the child would feel enough like it was mine.”
Estella rolled her eyes, “What nonsense you talk. What would your father say?”
“He’d never know,” Pippin said. “Leastways, I’d not tell him, nor anyone. Except maybe Merry. Anyway, Frodo was good enough to be Bilbo’s heir and theirs wasn’t so strong a blood tie as all that. You’ve got Took blood a few generations back, so quite good enough as far as I’m concerned.”
“Is this what comes of traveling? That you develop such shocking morals?”
Pippin shrugged, “Maybe. All I know is that the elves didn’t seem to mind anything.”
Estella looked at him as though she were going to ask him to elaborate, but then she grasped Pippin’s hand. He followed her eyes toward her house. Merry was sitting outside.
In a flash, Poppy slipped into place.
“Ladies,” Merry said with a bow.
Estella and Poppy curtseyed back at him.
“I had come this way in hopes of finding Pippin. I thought he might have meant to visit you today,” he said to Estella.
Pippin felt his nerves rising at the sound of his name, but fortunately Merry was only looking at Estella, and Poppy was there to quell his concern.
“Oh, well, we were just at Emilia’s,” said Estella smoothly, “perhaps he called while we were out and left. He doesn’t have your patience, I fear, to wait when one isn’t at home.”
Poppy smiled, “Do you suppose I’ve missed him again? This famous cousin of yours?” she asked Merry.
“Apparently so. Ah, well, if he is not here, perhaps I’ll console myself with your company.” He offered each of them an arm and led them back to Estella’s house.
It was infinitely more pleasant to play Poppy when Merry was near as opposed to a gaggle of harping old-women and nosy busybodies.
Estella, Merry, and Poppy found their way into Estella’s parlor, where Pippin sat behind the harpsichord and began to play. While Pippin could sing, Poppy did not dare to, fearing that her voice would not hold to close scrutiny if she needed to exercise it in song. Therefore, she accompanied Estella while she sang, played while Merry sat next to her and turned pages for her.
He sat close to her, smiling as her fingers trilled across the keys.
He was glad that Estella had put him through so much practice. Pippin had mostly forgotten how to play before she encouraged him to practice again. Harpsichord was a ladies’ instrument, but he’d learned a little alongside his sisters when they were small and he had always liked it. As he grew up, he’d taken to playing other instruments that were more fit for lads, but he’d continued to play the harpsichord whenever he wasn’t likely to be caught at it.
As it was, he’d never been very good at it, Poppy, though, could play, thanks to Estella. Indeed, she played better than Pippin ever could. Merry seemed delighted by her skill.
Estella left them together with the instrument as she went in to prepare lunch.
He sat on the bench next to her still, even though she’d ceased playing properly and was only occasionally stroking the keys to produce little musical phrases as they talked.
“You play well,” Merry said, listening to her play a quick variation on a song that had played at the Highday feast they’d been at together.
“Not so well; though, I confess, I do like to play.”
“You always seem ready to demur in the face of a compliment. Is there anything that you do well in your own estimation?”
Poppy considered this. “I suppose I do not concentrate on my level of skill, I prefer to do what I enjoy whether I do it well or not.”
Merry laughed, “That’s very sensible. Myself, I do not take pleasure from that in which I am not proficient.”
“You don’t like to try new things?” Poppy asked teasingly.
“I wouldn’t say that,” Merry’s eyes sparkled, “I think I enjoy trying new things when I am confident that I shall be good at them.”
Poppy snorted, “You make it sound as though that’s most things.”
“Oh, it is,” said Merry with playacted arrogance, “I’m excessively talented. You can ask anyone and they’ll say the same.”
She looked up at him with a challenge in her eyes, “Well, prove it then. Here, play for me.” She removed her hands from the keys and gestured toward the harpsichord.
Merry laughed, “Oh, no, I don’t think so.”
“You won’t try?”
“No, and you should thank me for it.”
“Come now,” said Poppy with a little pout. “You can’t talk yourself up all afternoon and then fail to deliver.”
He looked down at her sidelong, “I’ll have you know that I am in no way musical.”
Poppy arched an eyebrow at him, “Now, allow me to be the judge of that.”
“Alright,” he said, “but I will count this as your fault.”
He put his fingers to the keys. Pressed one experimentally. He looked over at her, “And please remember, you asked for this.”
Poppy grinned, “I shan’t forget.”
He focused on the keyboard with intense concentration and cracked his knuckles. Then, using only his index fingers, he played a three-chord pattern that Pippin was well familiar with. Poppy laughed.
“This is all I have, so if you want to…” Merry said with a nod in her direction.
Obligingly, she raised her hand and played the melody half of the song. She smiled, “Go on, then, sing it.”
Merry rolled his eyes, “This shall be worse. I don’t know who you’re intent on torturing with this exercise; myself, since I know how terrible my voice is, yourself, since you shall be in such close proximity to my croaking, or poor Estella, who shall have to listen to me without the victory of knowing that I am singing only as an acquiescence to her desire.”
“Stop putting it off and sing,” Poppy said firmly.
“Heart of gold,” Merry began, his raspy voice ill-suited as ever to carrying a tune, “hand to heart, never to part, love enfolds... I don’t know the next bit.”
“It’s alright, you can stop. You do sing poorly,” said Poppy.
“I told you so.”
“Yes, you did warn me,” she agreed.
Estella came in from the kitchen, “Lunch is ready you two.”
“Thank goodness,” Merry said. He reached for Poppy’s hand, helped her stand. “I’m sorry you were made to endure that performance, Estella. Your friend was intent in putting us all through torture, I fear.”
“Come now, your voice… it’s perhaps not beautiful, but… well, it’s very unique.”
“The polite way to say ‘awful’.”
Poppy laughed and leaned into Merry’s shoulder as they walked toward the kitchen together.
Estella shot a conspiratorial smile Poppy’s way when Merry wasn’t looking. Poppy grinned back at her before she schooled her expression again.
Merry found it decidedly odd to discuss with Pippin what he’d done and said with Poppy when, naturally, Pippin had been there himself and so knew perfectly well. Yet, it was clear that Pippin took no small delight in hearing Merry’s impression of his alter-ego.
When Pippin had come home in the early evening, he’d been in an excellent mood and armed with some contrived story about meeting Farmer Maggot in town and being persuaded to spend the day with him. He asked after Merry’s day and Merry had obligingly told him all about his afternoon with Estella and Poppy.
It was obvious that Pippin was hanging on Merry’s every word when he mentioned anything about Poppy, obvious that Pippin wanted Merry to like her, which Merry did, but he liked Pippin, so it was a little like reiterating a preference for something that he’d already told everyone he liked.
It was like telling someone that you liked Nantes carrots as well as Danvers carrots. There wasn’t any real difference, since they were both carrots, and orange, and tasty, so... yes, it was definitely odd to tell Pippin that Poppy had a good sense of humor when Poppy’s sense of humor couldn’t be too different from Pippin’s sense of humor and, surely, Pippin knew that Merry thought that he was funny.
And, surely, it was odd to say that Poppy was pretty and not include that Merry thought that Pippin... Pippin was...
He’d thought over it again and again, examining his feelings from all angles until he’d nearly made himself sick fretting over what it was, exactly, he felt he looked at Pippin.
He loved him, but he’d always known he’d loved him. One always loves their best friend, of course, but he’d not realized that there was also something else there. There had been something else there for perhaps a long time.
Pippin was handsome. How often had someone causally remarked that to Merry and Merry had been able to agree without any awkwardness? It was just a fact, but Pippin wasn’t just handsome...
He was handsome and Merry wanted him.
Merry had gone in search of Estella and Poppy in hopes that he would see if it was really different to see his cousin in a dress and with the artificial curves of a lady upon his body. He was forced to conclude it wasn’t. It made no difference in how Merry wanted to touch him, to feel Pippin’s heat pressed against him.
If it was different, surely such thoughts would have ceased to trouble Merry the moment Pippin had sat at their kitchen table and begun talking to him of his made up day, wearing his weskit and trousers like any proper lad. They’d have stopped when Pippin took up his pipe and began asking Merry question after question about what he’d done or said to Poppy. Surely, Merry would not want to seize Pippin’s lips to stop the silly falsehoods that were coming from them if his attraction were only about a change of clothes.
Surely, Merry’s thoughts would not be struggling to resist imagining what it would be like if Pippin were to be suddenly in his bed and he would not be wondering what it would feel like to run his hand down Pippin’s chest, down toward his thighs, down to where he might be hard for Merry. He wouldn’t be thinking of what he’d like to do next if he wasn’t honestly, thoroughly, and irrevocably attracted to him and not the fiction that Pippin had spun.
No, Merry was not in confusion any longer over his own wishes. Not in the least.
But he still could not decide if Pippin wanted him too. Pippin as Poppy seemed unable to speak to him without a flirtatious edge to everything he said. Merry, therefore, flirted back just as intensely. But to what end?
What did Pippin want from this? A disguise that would allow him to act freely upon what he himself wanted to do? Was he only toying with some part of Merry that he perhaps never anticipated being so allured? Was it all done just for a lark?
Merry didn’t know, and the only other person he might have considered posing the question to was Pippin’s co-conspirator. Merry truly didn’t know what to make of any of it, but he did know that he had little desire to maintain the charade without knowing its purpose. It was entirely too much to bear feeling so very strongly that one course of action must be right and not knowing at all if he should really proceed.
Because if Merry acted and he was wrong… he didn’t like to think of what could happen. If Pippin could, in no way, return the depth of feeling that Merry held for him, he did not know where that would leave him.
So, he resigned himself to flirting with Poppy and would keep all of his ideas about Pippin to himself. When the right time came to act, if there came a right time to act, he hoped he would realize it.
“We’ve had an invitation while we were out,” Merry said eventually, “Looks like Folco has persuaded his grandmother to open up her garden for a dance,” he handed Pippin a letter from their dining table.
Pippin read it through. “But this is for tomorrow. What sort of party can be got together in a little more than a day? With dancing, too,” Pippin shook his head in disapproval.
Merry cocked an eyebrow at him, “Yes, well, you haven’t heard Folco wax poetic about Poppy yet.” Merry grinned, “I think he envies me a fair bit, you know.”
Pippin’s breathing seemed to stutter for a moment before he asked, “Really? Why?”
Merry canted his head in a way that was not precisely unflirtatious, “I believe that I am quickly becoming her favorite.”
Pippin laughed, “After only two meetings with her?”
“It was an immediate preference, I think.”
“On her part or on yours?”
Merry considered this for longer than he really needed to, watched Pippin’s reaction as he let the moment stretch, tried to decide what emotion Pippin displayed as Merry said, “Both, I should think.”
“Is she really so pretty?” Pippin asked.
“She is, but it isn’t just that. I like her very much in addition to all of her physical charms.”
Pippin suddenly seemed a little lost for words, “Well. I do wish that I would be able to see her tomorrow, then.”
“But why can’t you?” asked Merry, valiantly trying to keep any hint of teasing from his voice.
“Oh, I haven’t told you, since we’ve both been so busy lately, but Ervold is passing through tomorrow and I promised him I’d meet him for dinner.”
“A pity, then,” Merry said, letting it go. “Here, could you wash these peppers for me? I’ve got some rather rough tomatoes that I got out of the garden today and I was thinking I’d make them into a sauce...”
Merry was going to be late to Folco’s party. It couldn’t be helped now.
He’d not wanted to dress until Pippin left for his supposed meeting with Ervold down at the inn, and then it had taken him a long time to decide what to wear in any case. He’d tried on no fewer than six different combinations of weskits and jackets before he’d ended up changing his trousers and settling into something that was, perhaps, a handsome outfit.
He was all on edge, not sure at all of what he was doing, and Merry had never much liked being unsure. He hadn’t often had to suffer with parsing through a tangle of thoughts that didn’t seem to be able to agree with one another.
When it had come to Frodo and the ring, it had been easy. Frodo was Merry’s friend, Frodo needed help, and Merry was as capable as anyone in the Shire of rendering aid, so he would go with him to danger. He’d felt fear, certainly, during the war and during the quest, but he’d never questioned going forward and seeing it through.
To him, there had only ever been one choice.
Now, though, there were a slew of choices ahead of him, none of which came without their own risk. If Merry acted on his feelings, he risked Pippin refusing him. If he did not, he risked a lifetime without knowing for certain what he might have had.
At least he knew what he wanted.
But what did Pippin want?
That, he still felt unsure of. Though, it did occur to him, as he walked toward Folco’s in the purpling dark, that there was one person who was uniquely qualified to know precisely what Pippin’s mind was.
A sign in front of Folco’s front gate directed partygoers to the rear of the house. Merry let himself in through the gate and followed the path of flat slate stones to the back.
The air was heavy with the scent of lilies, they bloomed in a profusion of colors at the edges of the lawn. Fireflies floated in the dark, quick pulses of light that flickered on and off like the enchanting, twinkling lights told of in fairy stories.
Folco had hired a five-piece band to play, flute and fiddle, drum and lute, and below them all the low drone of a hurdy gurdy. Merry searched the crowd for Pippin, feeling that he would likely be hard to miss. He had worn something more subdued when he’d been out with Estella during the day, but if Merry knew Pippin at all, he would be done to the nines for something like a garden party.
He wasn’t disappointed. Pippin wore green, lovely and dark as an emerald; the sort of lovely shimmering green that was akin to the shine of water on wet grass after a rain storm, the sort of green that spoke of petrichor, of dark summer nights, of promises made upon those dark, verdant fields.
Pippin had always loved shiny things, and his alter-ego, it seemed, was no different. As an ornament, he wore a chain of delicate gold around his neck. This caught the light and held it, the lambent reflection of flame looking almost liquid.
He was dancing with Folco, smiling happily enough. However, Merry noticed with satisfaction, Pippin seemed to lose a step in the dance just as he passed close to him. Their eyes briefly met and Merry felt, again, the twist of his belly before Pippin recovered himself.
Merry thought Folco must have caught it too. He looked perturbed as soon as he noticed Merry watching the dance.
Merry poured himself a cup of ale and waited.
The Boffins had rarely put on a better show in their well-groomed back garden. Someone, presumably Folco, had gone to the trouble of putting lanterns out all over the grounds so that there were little pools of light with gentle stretches of shadow between them. It was a romantic setting, almost elven in elegance, or perhaps, it was only Merry’s eyes on her that laced the air with magic.
Of course, it was Folco who gave her an extraordinary level of attention. He fetched her wine if she wished, selected for her the freshest fruits for her enjoyment, agreed with everything she said, and even went so far as to fan her when she confessed to being a trifle warm. She would have been quite out of patience with it had Merry not come to sit next to her, on her other side, whispering wicked comments to her at intervals.
And Merry’s eyes, those startling hazel eyes that changed color almost of their own will. How had Pippin not noticed before, how they looked blue at one moment, then green the next and then shifted to brown at other times?
They were brown now, in the warm lanternlight, like acorns fallen on a forest floor, or like leaves collected at the bottom of a clear pond.
Poppy could get lost in those eyes.
“I have to admit,” Merry said, taking a sip of ale, “You dance very well.”
She had danced more songs than she’d sat out, Folco and Berilac had taken her out three times each, and a few other lads beside them, but once he’d arrived, most of her evening was filled with Merry.
He showed her a level of preference that, even in her wildest dreams, Poppy could not have hoped for. It was only her or Estella, it seemed, that he would stand up with, and when the songs turned slow, most usually, it was Poppy he asked for.
He made her feel like she was floating, like she was gliding across water with the grace of a swan, like she was something worthy of being looked at, like she was beautiful. It was magic, that Poppy could feel these things in Merry’s arms, when all Pippin had ever felt on a dancefloor was dread and an acute desire for the song to stop so he could sit down.
That was how Pippin knew that Poppy really must be her own person. They could not each feel so differently about one activity without there being some division between them.
Poppy laughed, “I’m glad to hear you say so, my mother spared no expense on lessons for me. I am glad the money was not wasted.”
Poppy felt herself flush a little. Pippin had been the one to be drilled in dance steps by an expensive teacher before his sister Pimpernel had been married. Such an extravagance would have been almost unforgivable for Poppy. “Yes,” she said at length, “it was one of the few things that she thought I could not do without.”
“Well, it was money well spent. Other than Estella, I think you are the best dancer in the Shire.”
Both of them looked out to the dancefloor where Estella had pulled Folco into a dance. She even looked happy to be dancing with him.
Neither Pippin nor Poppy really deserved her.
“Estella is a force,” said Poppy.
“She is,” Merry agreed. Admiration sparked in Merry’s gaze as he watched Estella move.
Poppy felt a little pang of something like insecurity. “She’ll make someone a formidable wife someday.”
Merry made a noise of agreement. “I think she will.” He smiled, “You know, I used to think… well, I suppose, I always thought that I would… I don’t know. Find myself in love with her. Heavens knows she’d be worthy of it if I was.”
“Yes,” said Poppy, feeling as though the bottom of the world had dropped out from beneath her.
Then, Merry looked at her. His face was soft, his expression so open, somehow, like he was willing Pippin to read his thoughts, “But I never have.” Then, suddenly, his look changed, the openness shifted to amusement, “My cousin, I think, might be the lad for her, though.”
“Berilac?” Poppy asked in confusion.
“No,” said Merry with a laugh, “my other cousin. Pippin, the one you haven’t met.”
Poppy laughed unnaturally, “Oh, surely not.”
Merry shrugged, “I don’t see why not. He certainly seems to seek her out often enough. They get on well. And,” he shifted closer to her, spoke low, “I think that there must be some attraction there. I once came upon them in a… I won’t say compromising position, but certainly it was a little flirtatious.”
“I’m sure that cannot be so,” said Poppy, too definitively. She cleared her throat, “I mean, Estella has only ever mentioned him as a friend. Are you sure that your cousin is partial to her?”
“I only assumed he was. Perhaps I was mistaken.”
“I hope so,” said Poppy, “I’d hate to think of him having his heart broken.”
“So would I,” said Merry. He said nothing for a moment, “It is a pity you have not met him yet.”
“You’d like him.”
Poppy laughed, “Would I?”
“Yes. He’s kind, and funny, and charming. One of the best people I’ve ever known.”
Pippin felt something come aglow within him. Merry’s face looked so fond, so gentle when he spoke of him. His Merry. His best friend. He realized that the silence had begun to stretch again.
“Is he handsome?” asked Poppy.
Merry smirked, “Yes.”
“Then you should take care to keep him away from me. I might decide that I prefer him to you if he’s all you say he is.”
“Excellent point. I’d hate to sabotage myself simply by introducing you to someone better.”
“I doubt that there is anyone better than you, Meriadoc,” Poppy said with such depth of feeling, such tenderness, that Pippin felt quite surprised by it.
Evidently, Merry was too. He looked at her again with that openness, that tender keenness that Pippin had never thought he could possibly inspire in anyone, but then he remembered, he had not. Poppy had done it.
Poppy looked away.
Blessedly, the dance finished and Estella came over to them once more.
“Well, I have had a very delightful evening all in all, but I do think I may have danced my last,” she said, “How about you, Poppy? Do you have any more dancing in you?”
Poppy shook her head, glad that Estella seemed ready to leave, “No, I’m fresh out.”
“Shall we start our walk home, then?”
Poppy cast a quick glance at Merry, saw him still looking at her thoughtfully, as though she were a puzzle he wanted to work out, or perhaps as though she was a solution that he wanted to work toward. “Yes, let’s go.”
“Would you like me to walk with you?” Merry asked.
“No, thank you. It’s not exactly on your way, is it?” Estella said quickly, but not so quickly that it sounded suspicious, “I’m sure we’ll be alright. Come on then, Poppy.”
Poppy got up and Merry got up too. He took her hand, glanced down at it in his, “Goodnight,” he said.
“Goodnight,” Poppy replied. Merry pressed a kiss upon the back of her hand. It was Poppy, Pippin was sure, who felt that kiss as though it might be emblazoned on her skin for the rest of her life.
The night following Folco’s party, Merry persuaded Pippin to go down to the pub with him to meet Berilac and Folco for drinks.
The interior of the pub was clouded with the smoke of pipe weed, the crowd particularly thick that night. The four of them had gradually delved deeper into their cups as the night wore on.
Eventually, Folco fixed Pippin with an irritated look, “And you,” he said, “You’ve been nowhere to be seen at any party of significance for a damned fortnight. Why, don’t you know that I’m depending upon you?”
Pippin snorted, “Depending upon me? For what?”
“Why to distract that one,” Folco tossed his head in Merry’s direction, “from keeping all of the pretty girls quite to himself. Normally, you’re there, joking about with him, keeping him from the dance floor since you do not dance, holding his attention from seizing completely upon any one lass thus…”
“Thus nothing. It doesn’t suit you, this jealousy, Folco,” said Merry with a laugh.
Folco shook his head, “It’s most unfair. Most unfair indeed. Why, she hardly gave me a chance at all before she was so taken in by you that she won’t even spare me a second glance.”
“Sorry,” Merry said, not sounding in the least bit sorrowful.
“Who are we talking of?” Pippin asked, hoping he added the correct amount of confusion to his voice.
Berilac gave him a wry look, “Why, of Poppy Dashfoot, of course. Poor Folco, I think, is smitten.”
“I am not smitten,” Folco insisted.
“Then leave her be,” said Merry.
Folco leaned back, gave Merry a level stare, “Surely, you are not smitten either, Merry.”
Merry took a sip of his drink but said nothing.
Berilac laughed noisomely, “Well, now, if that isn’t just the thing. Really, cousin? I’ll grant you, she’s very pretty and quite a laugh, but… you’ve always protested so violently against-”
“I’m not saying I’m going to offer for her or anything,” Merry said, his eyes quickly flicking toward Pippin, “but she’s… different from any other girl I’ve met before.”
“This is how it starts,” said Berilac. “We’ll probably see you married before Yule at this rate.”
Merry laughed. Pippin laughed too, perhaps a trifle hysterically. No one seemed to notice.
Pippin didn’t know at all what to say. He had not considered that Merry might actually do something like ask for his hand. For Poppy’s hand. If he did… if he did, what would Pippin do? Surely, it would not come to that. Of course it wouldn’t. He took a gulp of his beer.
Folco shook his head, “Well, I, for one, don’t believe it. You’ll move on by next week.”
“Perhaps,” Merry said with a smile. He looked at Pippin again before he said, “Perhaps not.”
Pippin felt a definite need for more drink.
That night, Pippin dreamed. It was a tangle.
He was in Fangorn with Merry. The trees were hung thick with moss, the air close and stale, almost like a room that hadn’t been aired for too long. Merry was leaning back against a tree trunk, a knowing look in his eyes. He was counting.
Pippin realized that they were playing a game of hide and seek. He laughed and dashed off between the trees. He could hear Merry’s voice counting lower.
He squeezed himself into a crack in a massive oak and held still, waiting for Merry to find him.
“Here I come!” Merry shouted.
Pippin squeezed deeper and deeper, anticipation growing. Merry would find him soon.
But then he heard another sound. A snuffling, wheezing sniff.
A wraith. A wraith in Fangorn. Pippin had to warn Merry, but he couldn’t bring himself to leave his hiding place. Not when that sound was so close, not when almost surely, the wraith would find him.
And then he felt a strong hand pulling him by the collar, yanking him out of his hiding place.
“What’s this?” a booming voice asked him.
His father. His father as he was maybe thirty years ago, his face drawn harsh in disapproval and anger.
Pippin looked down, he was wearing one of his dresses. “I can explain,” he said, on the verge of tears. “I can…”
His father threw him to the ground, “Shameful boy.”
Paladin’s hands reached toward the dress and then there were hundreds of claw-like fingers scrabbling at the fabric, ripping it.
“No…” Pippin whimpered, “Please, it doesn’t mean…”
Shameful, shameful, shameful… cried a mouthless voice, over and over and over, echoing endlessly in the dark.
Pippin gasped a lungful of air, his whole body tense for a moment before he realized that it was only Merry who hovered over him in the dark.
Merry had his hand on Pippin’s shoulder. He’d shaken him awake.
“Are you alright?” he asked. “You were dreaming.”
Pippin shook his head, “Yes… I was… I…” Pippin could barely see Merry’s face in the darkness. He sat up, put a hand to his head. “It was…”
He felt tears starting in the corners of his eyes.
Merry sat down on the bed, pulled Pippin into his arms, “It’s over, Pip. Whatever it was, it’s over. I’m here now.”
Pippin rested his head on Merry’s shoulder, let the older hobbit hold him like he was only a child again. Merry rubbed a slow circle across his back. The tears in Pippin’s eyes fell, but the fear he’d felt in the dream grew duller, less painful to bear. Merry was there and nothing truly terrible had ever happened to him when Merry was with him.
“A bad one, eh?” Merry asked some moments later.
Pippin nodded. He withdrew out of his cousin’s arms a little.
Both of them occasionally had nightmares, even now, that were at least in some way inspired by what they’d been through. This one, though, had been something different. He told Merry of the wraith in Fangorn, but not of the rest of it. Not of his father finding him, what he’d been wearing.
“Do you want to sit up for a bit? I could put a kettle on, I’ve got some chamomile, if you’d like it.”
Pippin still had his hands on Merry’s shoulders, Merry too, seemed unwilling to let him go quite yet. His arms were wrapped around Pippin’s back.
“No,” Pippin said. “I think I’m alright. It was just a nightmare.”
Merry slowly released him. The darkness that crept between them felt unpleasantly cool against Pippin’s skin. He pulled his covers up toward his neck, drew his knees toward his chest.
Merry made as though to stand, but he hesitated, “Pippin, you know that you could tell me anything, don’t you?”
“Oh… of course… but, what is there to tell?” Pippin asked a little lamely. “I wasn’t saying anything, was I? In my dream?”
“No,” Merry said, “You were just crying, not… you just sounded upset.” Merry placed a hand on the back of his neck, ran his hand through his hair. “I meant in general. If there was anything that you ever wanted to tell me, you know that you could, right?”
Pippin sniffed a little laugh, “Yes, I know that.”
“Because, whatever else, Pip, I’ll always,” Merry searched for words for a moment, “be on your side.”
Merry nodded. He pushed off of Pippin’s bed.
“Merry,” Pippin said, softly. Merry turned to him. “Could you…” Pippin reached out for Merry’s hand but stopped himself. He looked down at his comforter. “Would you mind if I took you up on that tea after all?”
“Not at all,” Merry said. “Come on, I’ll put so much honey in it that it’ll be thick as molasses.”
“Just the way I like it,” said Pippin with a smile.
“I think I have to end it,” Pippin said to Estella. She was sitting next to him on the swing in her garden, the both of them lazily pushing at the ground with their feet, rocking themselves rather than swinging.
She laughed, “Last week you said you wanted more time, now you’ve changed your mind.”
“Yes, well. I thought, somehow, that it would be sillier. But… what if Merry really came to feel something… for Poppy.”
Estella rolled her eyes, apparently thinking the risk of that small, but then she caught the look that Pippin was giving her and her countenance sobered. “Do you think he is?”
“I don’t know,” Pippin said hesitantly, “I’m only wondering… what if he does? He can’t really have her, can he? She’s not real. Things will have to go back…”
Estella stopped pushing at the ground with her feet. Alongside her, Pippin stilled. “Well, if you want to stop, you’d know best. So, you’ll reveal yourself, then, tomorrow?”
Pippin nodded. “I suppose I must,” though the thought of confessing filled him with dread. Why hadn’t he realized before how difficult this bit, the revelation, was going to be for him? No one but Estella knew and even she didn’t know everything about Pippin and how he’d practiced on his own for years, about how he still had all of those other dresses back at home, dresses which would never be worn in front of anyone.
And Estella was a girl, and not the person that Pippin had been trying so hard to… trick, as it were. How would Merry feel when he found out that it was Pippin he’d spoken of being so enchanted by? Would he understand that Pippin and Poppy shared a body, and a bit of their mind, but they were not at all the same? That it wasn’t really Pippin who he’d flirted with, that it really had been a girl named Poppy.
That, even though she and Pippin were one, they were not the same.
They did not want the same things.
Could not want the same things.
“You don’t think he’ll be angry?” Estella asked him, apparently sensitive to the change in his attitude. “Surely he’ll understand that you were just having a joke.”
“I… I hope. I hope he won’t be.”
Estella took his hand. “Pippin, you haven’t done anything, have you? I mean, it’s not as though you’ve let Merry snog you without realizing that you’re a lad, is it? It’s just been some dancing and flirtation. I’m sure he’ll think it’s funny too, how you’ve fooled everyone. My goodness, think of what a goose Folco has been making of himself over you. He can hardly be upset when everyone was taken in as much as he.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” Pippin said, squeezing her hand.
“Then tomorrow night,” Estella said, lifting his hand and kicking off from the ground with Pippin’s help, “we’ll have the sapphire dress and you can knock them all dead. It’s a pity you won’t get to the others, but I do think that second hand piece should be your finale, your dragon firework, if you will, don’t you?” She grinned, “One more night of dancing and fun, and then Poppy Dashfoot will go back to the Westfarthing and obscurity.”
“Yes,” Pippin agreed. No matter how much he wished otherwise, to end it would be for the best.
“I’ll miss her, though,” Estella said.
More than he wished to admit, he would miss her.
Pippin and Estella prepared Poppy one last time. The process was as simple as breathing now. Pippin did Poppy’s makeup, Estella Poppy’s hair. The corset with his false breasts was next, then the dress. Always that crowning glory last, his body finally hidden in the soft, encasing drape of swishing fabric.
If Pippin was to say goodbye to Poppy, he was determined that it should be under the best possible circumstances. He had made his one last excuse to Merry, which Merry accepted readily enough, that Pippin was meeting his father in Hobbiton for a few days. Pippin would return the day after Highday, and then all would either be forgiven or…
No, there was no alternative. Merry would forgive him. Estella was right, they’d done nothing that was truly outrageous. Nothing that any lad and lass might not do in front of the whole Shire without fearing reprisal. Merry would not be angry over a little misplaced flirtation.
Pippin felt himself slip away as he looked in Estella’s mirror. Poppy deserved one last good night. He would let her have it. At the end of the feast and not before, that would be when he would tell Merry the truth.
Poppy looked back at him in the mirror. She smiled mischievously.
There was a part of Merry that wondered what Pippin would do if he showed up at Estella’s and found him there. There was no doubt in Merry’s mind that that was where he had gone, the whole ruse of Hobbiton as flimsy as a smial built of sand, but Merry didn’t go and find out. Part of him wanted to continue to use the excuse that he was letting Pippin have whatever fun he needed out of his little ploy, but the truth was that Poppy was useful to Merry too.
Because if Merry kissed Poppy, he was only kissing a pretty girl without knowing any better. If Pippin let him kiss him as Poppy, then Merry would know that Pippin wasn’t just having a joke. He’d know that Pippin wanted him the way that Merry wanted Pippin.
If Pippin refused him, well that was its own answer too.
Either way, Merry would know, and Merry had to know, because he couldn’t stand wondering any longer. Not when he was aching to tell Pippin how he felt, not when every second he refrained from touching him felt like a second gone to waste.
Merry had to know.
The summer heat was clinging on despite the sun’s retreat, the humid air just on the edge of oppressive. The musicians played one slow, languorous song after another in an attempt to encourage some dancing. It wasn’t working, or at least, working much. There were a few stalwart couples every dance that were willing to brave the heat, but the crowd on the edge of the dancefloor was much larger than the one on it.
Poppy did not see Merry either sitting near Folco and Berilac nor anywhere on the dancefloor and she felt a moment of concern that he’d perhaps decided to skip the event, but then she saw him and wondered how she’d missed him for so long.
Merry was one of the happy few, in Pippin’s estimation, who could truly have carried off any outfit. On anyone else, the dark gold coat he wore would not have suited, the dark burgundy weskit would have seemed too much of a contrast, but so help him, on Merry they worked and made him stand out from every other lad in the crowd like a red rose might stand out amongst white.
As soon as he saw them, he walked through the crowd toward Poppy and Estella.
Estella put a hand on Poppy’s arm, “There, now, don’t be nervous. Remember, it’s only Merry.”
In spite of Estella’s words, in spite of Merry’s presence, Pippin still felt anxiety. Poppy though… Poppy felt anticipation. Merry walked toward her like he was a fish connected to a line, as though he could not resist the strength of her pull.
Poppy’s satisfaction was so strong, so overwhelming that he almost had to remind himself to be nervous. He would reveal himself to Merry tonight. For good... or ill.
The music quieted just as Merry reached them. There was a tired smattering of applause.
“Not very lively tonight, is it?” Estella asked.
“Rather too hot to be lively,” said Merry. “I’m sorry, but you may find us all a little dull this evening.”
Poppy shrugged, “Well, if there is not much dancing to be had, surely other amusements may be found,” the lilt in her tone unmistakable, and perhaps a little wanton, but Pippin was too late to check her words, or her meaning.
Estella snorted. “Beg your pardon, but I do believe that Berilac is trying to get my attention. I’ll see you both later.”
As soon as she was out of earshot, Merry offered Poppy his arm. “Other amusements? Such as cards, I suppose?”
“Yes, cards, of course. Or that one with the little tiles, Match, I think it is.”
Merry considered this, “There are riddles to play,” he said, “if one cares for those. I have been working out an exceedingly puzzling riddle lately.”
“Is that so?”
The music began again, this song slower than even the last. “But perhaps, we should have at least one dance before we look for other things to do,” Merry said, his hand dropping to rest on Poppy’s waist. He looked toward the dancefloor. More couples had lined up for this one than the last. Pippin recalled the steps for it.
“Let’s,” he said with Poppy’s voice.
Merry walked Pippin out, took his hands, held them out in front of him. They started the dance.
The music crawled, plodding forward glacially, the drum pounding low and heavy. The steps were slow but elaborate, the dance an old one, but popular in spite of its age simply because it was, frankly, seductive.
It began with their arms held straight out in front of them. They stood that way, simply holding hands, for what seemed like a terrible long time, and then, as one, the assembled hobbits began to move. They walked, more than danced, in a circle, the flats of their palms lined up together, raised their arms, reversed the circle and lowered their arms having moved a step closer to one another. Again, they repeated the reversal, the step closer, their hands the only parts of them that were supposed to touch; their hands and their eyes.
And, oh, were Pippin’s eyes touching him. Almost palpably he felt their caress, their heat.
Merry was distantly aware of other things happening around him, but he barely sensed them. All he could see was Pippin, all he heard was the music flowing underneath them like a shared heartbeat. They raised their hands a final time, took another step closer, danced no more than an inch from one another as the music reached its nadir.
Merry’s heart was hammering in his chest. He could not believe that the look in Pippin’s eyes could be manufactured, for, surely it was desire that was there. Surely, Pippin must want him, because how could he look at Merry that way if he didn’t? Merry was half tempted to kiss him there in the middle of the dance.
Pippin may have been entertaining a similar thought. Merry felt he must be. Desperately hoped he was.
The dance continued. They raised their arms again, and slowly repeated the cycle from before but in reverse until they were standing once more with their arms in front of them.
The music stopped and applause broke out. Merry offered Pippin his arm and led him from the dancefloor, without speaking a word. Merry had meant to wait, to let Pippin have another long night of playing Poppy, but he couldn’t, not when he was so sure, not when he needed to know so very badly if he was right.
They kept walking past the edge of the crowd, off into the field, toward the woods.
Merry paused as they reached the edge of the woodland. The party was still nearby, but it was far enough to ensure a little privacy. Any girl would have known what Merry was intending, so he did not think it at all likely that Pippin could have failed to guess his purpose. He released Pippin’s hand and stepped past the boundary, looking back as he did so.
Pippin watched him, his expression difficult to read in the darkness.
If Merry was wrong and Pippin did not want this, all he had to do was walk away. He waited just beyond the edge of the trees for Pippin to make his choice.
Pippin stepped carefully past the trees, holding up the hem of his sapphire blue dress delicately. The dark hair of his wig made his skin look very pale in the moonlight.
Another lad might have really believed that he’d walked into the grove with a beautiful girl called Poppy from the Westfarthing, but Merry could never have been fooled. He knew it was Pippin in those fine clothes, Pippin who had moved with him like an extension of his own body in that dance, Pippin who followed him now and came to stand just at the edge of Merry’s personal space.
Pippin looked back toward the party field. He turned an apprehensive glance toward Merry. Merry could see some demure phrase forming on Pippin’s lips, but Merry didn’t allow his cousin to speak. He didn’t allow himself to think. He took a step toward Pippin, brushed the dark hair from his shoulder, let his fingertips trace Pippin’s neck.
Pippin’s skin was warm and soft. Merry could feel the thread of his pulse beating.
Pippin would stop him, or Pippin would not. Either way, this madness would be over.
Pippin was about to confess, was about to tell Merry everything, but then, Merry reached for him, and Pippin felt the words he’d been about to say stick in his throat.
It was as slow as the dance had been, slower, like he was watching Merry move through thick honey or molasses that was holding him back, as his outstretched hand reached for Poppy’s hair, swept it away from Pippin’s shoulders. His fingertips sent shivers of pleasure down Pippin’s spine as they glanced across his neck.
The moment stretched, and stretched, and unspooled before Pippin’s eyes like it was endless, like he would be living in it for the rest of his days. Blood was pounding in Pippin’s ears as he looked up into Merry’s eyes. He was looking at him so intently. No, he was looking at Poppy intently.
Yet, Pippin and Poppy were one, both of them frozen like deer on the edge of bolting, but somehow neither one of them wanted to move. Why didn’t Pippin want to move?
Merry took a step toward him, so that Pippin could feel the heat of Merry’s body. If he was going to speak, now was the time to do it…
Pippin’s bottom lip trembled, his whole body, it seemed, trembled as Merry stepped closer to him. Pippin’s eyes flicked down to Merry’s lips, back to Merry’s eyes. Everything in Merry shouted at him. Pippin would speak, Pippin would stop him.
He prayed that he would not.
There were inches between them, less than inches, and then their lips touched.
Merry’s lips were soft as any girl’s, but better somehow, for they sent sparks diving into Pippin’s belly, made him feel dizzy and breathless. And then Pippin felt Merry’s tongue opening his mouth, and Pippin yielded to him like a downy feather yielded to a gust of wind.
Kissing Merry was like an explosion of too long held laughter, like waking out of a grey dream to find the world shining and bright, like the warmth of fire upon ice-chilled hands, like being pulled under a strong current only to discover that the sensation of drowning was not frightening, but dazzling and better than breathing could ever hope to be.
Pippin’s arms wrapped tightly around the back of Merry’s neck, he squeezed him close, ran his fingers into Merry’s hair. It was ecstasy and desire that drove him to press as tightly to Merry as he could, his leg hitching up almost of its own accord to wrap around the back of Merry’s calf. Merry groaned.
He had a hand at Pippin’s waist, the other was cradling the back of Pippin’s neck. His hands felt hot, even through the fabric of Pippin’s dress, his touch like the warmth of sunlight on a cool spring morning. Pippin cursed the hard lines of the corset, which dulled the feeling of Merry’s body against his, wished that they could be closer still, and then a collection of thoughts began to catch up to him.
Merry felt like laughing, he was so happy. He was delirious with happiness, so giddy he could hardly tell what was happening. He was kissing Pippin, kissing him and kissing him, and he didn’t want it to stop, he never wanted it to stop. The instant their lips had touched, Merry had known that he was ruined for anyone else, for, surely, this is what kissing was meant to be like.
Pippin was clutching at the back of Merry’s jacket, holding onto him like he was going to drift away, and Merry was aware that his own grip was no less desperate.
There would be no more games, now. Now, they could figure out what this was together. Even if it meant leaving the Shire, forfeiting his inheritance, it didn’t matter. Pippin would be his and Merry would be Pippin’s, and they would be together as it was meant to be from the beginning.
Merry slowly broke their kiss. He looked down into Pippin’s eyes, expecting to see something like what he felt reflected back at him. But he didn’t.
Pippin’s eyes were wide, shocked, terrified. He shoved Merry away and Merry stumbled back, nearly tripped over a log. Pippin was shaking, the rouge around his lips smudged. His face crumpled and then he ran, was gone before Merry could form the words to call him back.
Pippin ran, heedless of the damage he was doing to his skirt as it caught on the thorns of some wild roses.
What had he done?
It was late by the time Pippin found his way to Estella’s. She had likely gotten back hours earlier, but she’d gone to bed.
Pippin was glad of it.
Poppy’s wig was a mess, the beautiful sapphire dress torn in several places. He was afraid to look at himself in the mirror. He sat down on the bed and didn’t move for a long time.
He’d let Merry kiss him. The one thing he was not meant to allow to happen, he’d let happen. Why, why, why had he let it happen? It was never what he wanted.
Why did he still feel it? The thrill of Merry’s lips on his, the ecstasy of surrendering after all of his struggle against… against…
He closed his eyes.
Merry first thing in the morning, half-dressed and sleep-tousled; Merry working in their garden on a hot day in nothing more than a shirt and suspenders, sweat sticking the fabric to his skin; Merry swimming in the Brandywine river, water running in rivulets down his chest as he climbed the bank; Merry in Fangorn Forest, holding Pippin while he slept, Pippin’s leg draped over his hips.
They had never spoken of that night. Perhaps there was nothing to speak of. Merry might not have known, might have been so heavily asleep that he did not realize how his body had responded to Pippin being so close to him.
How Pippin’s body had responded in turn.
He’d blamed the danger, the thrill of their escape, the simple fact that he had to pee; he’d blamed everything and anything, because he hadn’t been able to admit the truth.
His father, it seemed, had been right about him all along.
Pippin had only been five or six. Young enough that Pervinca had been able to outmuscle him if she had needed to, but he remembered that she hadn’t.
It was winter. A dull day, somewhere in February with a cold sleet coming down, a grey sky that had kept them indoors for too long. Pippin was bored and his sister was bored. He didn’t remember how it had come about, the suggestion. Something about how Pervinca would have liked to have a little sister, or something about how she could make him pretty. Maybe both.
In any case, he had found himself in Pervinca’s room with her putting him into a dress. Pimpernel had heard them laughing and come in. She’d been the one to put the makeup on him for the first time, Pearl the one who had been laughing so much that she’d called their mother in to see him.
Eglantine hadn’t been angry, only amused, as Pippin awkwardly curtseyed at her, played at being a girl to make them all laugh.
It had been fun, just harmless fun, and every one of them had seen it, had understood that it meant nothing.
It was his father who had gotten angry.
It was his father who had demanded to know what he was thinking.
He didn’t listen as Pervinca had said it had been her idea, didn’t seem to hear his mother as she tried to calm him down.
“Paladin, it was only a joke!” his mother insisted. He remembered her words, but not where she went after them. Not where she had gone while his father’s strong hands steered him down the hall, swept him up like a piece of flotsam in a raging river. Not where she had been when the door to Paladin’s study had opened and then shut with a thunderous boom, trapping him within.
Pippin could remember Paladin’s hands on him, his grip tight and painful. He remembered the sound of his own pleas, though not what he’d said. He remembered the way his voice had contorted around the word ‘stop’, the word ‘sorry’, the word ‘please’.
Paladin was unmoved. He’d shoved Pippin to the floor. “Get up.”
Pippin had stood, his cheeks sticky from tears that he could not check. He’d been so small, standing before his father.
Paladin had grabbed the front of the dress and ripped it, he’d torn it like it was nothing but wet parchment. He’d spun Pippin around, pushed him so that he was bent over a chair. Pippin remembered the hiss of the leather strap as it swung through the air. He remembered the sound of the first smack, it had been like the crack of a drover's whip, but not the pain that must have accompanied the blow.
He knew that it had been more than one lash, that it had seemed a terrible long time that he’d been in that room with his father.
He remembered the hiss of the leather strap through the air.
He remembered slumping to the floor when it was done. He remembered his father’s reproof, “Never again, you understand? Shameful boy.”
“What did you do?” his mother had demanded as soon as Paladin opened the door.
He’d looked at her with ice in his stare, then looked at Pippin, his eyes full of such tightly controlled rage that Pippin had scrambled back from it. “No son of mine will grow up to be buggered by other boys,” he’d said.
Pippin hadn’t known what the words meant then, but he’d never forgotten them.
And now he knew… his father had seen it all along.
Pippin heard Estella up and about a little after sunrise. He’d taken the dress and the wig off. He’d laid them down on the bed and dressed again in his own clothes, but he hadn’t slept. He was something beyond tired, in another place where weariness could exist, but did not demand that he rest.
He listened for Estella to go out into her kitchen and then he got up and went out.
She startled when he came in behind her, “Pippin,” she said, raising a hand to her breast in surprise. She laughed, “Goodness, but you gave me a start, I thought you’d- are you alright?”
Pippin shook his head. He started to cry.
“Oh, no, Pippin, no.” She put down the whisk she’d just picked up and went to him, wrapped him in a hug, “No, no… You can’t mean to tell me he was angry…”
Pippin shook his head again, unable to force himself to speak, not yet. Agitation was burning hot in his throat, strangling his voice. Estella sat him down at her kitchen table, got him a glass of water. She sat across from him while he collected himself.
Pippin stared out of her front window. It looked like a grey day was beginning outside. Everything was cast with a pall, the daylilies with their orange petals looked muted and dull. He took a sip of water.
Estella was clearly concerned by his demeanor. She did not speak, merely waited while he collected himself.
When Pippin found himself able to speak at last, he was unable to do anything more that whisper. “I didn’t tell him.”
“You didn’t?” Estella asked, “But what…?”
Pippin looked at her. Comprehension seemed to dawn in her eyes. “What happened, Pippin?” she asked, calmly.
“He… he took me to the woods. I was going to… confess. Because, it was time. I knew… I knew that he…” he put a hand to his lips, felt his eyes welling again, “he kissed me, Estella.”
Estella’s face was blank, a mask free of expression.
“I should have stopped him. I meant to, but I didn’t.”
Pippin shook his head, took in a shuddering, crackling breath, “I ran. I just ran.”
“I wondered what had become of you last night. I assumed that you went home with Merry. I didn’t realize that you were even here.” When he did not speak, she sat back. “Well.”
“You can say it, if you like,” Pippin said, steeling himself against what he knew would come.
She looked at him in confusion, “Say what?”
“Say…” his words were choked off again by tears.
“Pippin, did he do something to you?” Estella asked, suddenly angry.
“Who? What, Merry? Goodness no. He’d never.” Pippin thought of how Merry had looked at him before he’d shoved him. How much love there had been in his eyes. Pippin had betrayed his best friend, had lied to him, all because he’d wanted what he couldn’t have. “Estella, he’d never. He just watched me go. He just stood there after I… I pushed him and… he didn’t do anything.”
“No, of course,” said Estella “He wouldn’t…” She relaxed visibly. She looked away from him, down at the floor, seemingly focused on nothing, “Are you alright?”
“Aren’t you…” Pippin groped for words, “Aren’t you going to… to…”
Estella cocked her head at him, “What?”
“You aren’t… disgusted? By me?”
Estella took his hand in hers and met his eye. “No,” she said flatly. “You’re still Pippin, the same Pippin I have had the pleasure of getting to know for the past three months. No matter who you kiss.” She hesitated, then said, “No matter who you want to kiss.”
“No ‘but’, Pippin. I… I’m, I confess… well, a little, I don’t know if I should say surprised, because I thought…” she bit her lip, “Well, I did suspect… but, did you not realize? You seem in shock.”
“I didn’t mean for it to happen,” Pippin said softly. “Truly, I didn’t.”
Estella sighed, “But it did.”
He nodded. “Will you think it’s crazy if I say… I didn’t think…” he struggled to find what he wanted to say, groped for the right words like a person trying to catch hold of a strong wind.
He hadn’t realized, in truth. He’d not known, and now, he saw, it had been there all the time.
He’d kissed girls before, not many, but more than one, and if he had thought it awkward and not altogether pleasant, he only thought it was because he might not like kissing, or perhaps the girls he’d kissed. If he had only rarely found the pleasure of himself, well, one wasn’t really supposed to do that sort of thing anyway.
And if the times he had… if during those times, it had been more often than not the thought of Merry with a girl, was there not at least a girl in the fantasy? Even if it was the thought of Merry’s pinkened and kiss bruised lips that brought him relief more often than not, wasn’t it the girl in the fantasy who had made him look so?
How often had he just thought that he might be like Bilbo, who remained unmarried because, it seemed, no lass could catch his fancy? Or Frodo, for that matter, who had never looked at a lass in his life, nor, so far as Pippin knew, any lads either.
It was not done to talk of these things, of what one wanted that way, and it seemed Pippin had neglected to go so far as to even have the conversation with himself.
“I really didn’t realize,” he said at last, in little more than a whisper. “How could I not?” Pippin could feel himself trembling, whether from nerves, or out of the deep, fearful shame he still felt over his actions, he wasn’t sure.
Estella still held his hand. She traced his knuckles with her fingertips, “It doesn’t really matter.”
“Of course it matters. Why, if anyone found out-”
A flash of irritation crossed Estella’s features, “You’re a damned hero, Pippin. You and Merry both. If anyone found out, I should hope that they would remember that there would be no Shire without you and take that into account when they tried to judge you for that which you cannot help.”
Pippin almost smiled at Estella’s fierceness. She looked ready to clock the first person who even did so much as suggest that there might be something wrong with Pippin. Merry often had that same set to his jaw, the same unshakable determination in his purpose when he felt something needed doing.
What would Merry look like if he ever found out? Would he still be able to love Pippin as his best friend? Would he still want to share a home with him?
“This is a bloody mess,” Pippin said.
Estella could only agree with him. They sat quiet for a long moment, during which Pippin observed that birds still sang outside, and the flowers were still visited by bees. Life was still moving around him, even though he wanted it to stop, or better yet, to go back.
At last, Estella spoke, “Well, what now, then?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” Pippin said. “I don’t know what to do.”
Estella pursed her lips, “You have to tell him, Pippin. I think you should tell him the whole thing.”
Pippin shook his head. He withdrew his hand from Estella’s, “I don’t think I can. He’d never understand. He’d…”
“How can you know? Pippin, give Merry a chance. I know that you’re frightened, and… well, I confess, it’s not as though your fears are unfounded, but, you said yourself… Merry would never cause you any harm.”
“No. I can’t. I just can’t.” He heard a phantom hiss in his ear. “It’s unforgivable, Estella. He’d never speak to me again, even if he didn’t… do anything else. I couldn’t bear to live if I knew that he couldn’t stand the sight of me. That I’d deserve it if he couldn’t.”
“You wouldn’t deserve it-“ she said leaping to his defense once more.
“Not for what I am… but for what I did. I… I lied. I made him… How could he forgive that?”
Estella looked deeply sad. She bowed her head, “Well, I obviously will never say a word. But, I do think that you ought to speak to him.”
There was a long pause where, it seemed, Estella was fighting a battle with herself. “Alright,” she said, begrudgingly. She sighed, “What are we going to do about Poppy?” she asked, turning once more to practical matters.
Pippin felt his stomach lurch, “Oh, I suppose we must do something.”
“She can’t just disappear,” agreed Estella.
Pippin dropped his forehead into his hands, “Of all the ideas I’ve ever had, this has to have been the worst.”
Estella laughed suddenly, “Really?”
Pippin looked up at her, “It’s not really funny.”
“Well, I’m only comparing it to the time that you got caught trying to sneak a shirt full of peaches from Farmer Maggot’s, and the nonsense with the firework when we were kids, or that time that you and Merry were talking about, from when you were away, that thing that you touched. What was it again?”
“The Palantir,” said Pippin.
“Yes, that could have killed you, couldn’t it?”
“Actually, I could have destroyed the whole world,” he said, a bubble of laughter breaking the surface, “If Sauron had asked the right questions, I’d have told him anything he wanted to know.”
Estella laughed harder, “The whole fate of the world, in your hands at that moment, and yet, this, this is the worst idea you’ve ever had?”
“Well, that was only the whole world as we know it,” Pippin said, now giggling uncontrollably. “This,” he said, feeling sobriety return to him, “this is Merry.”
Estella stopped laughing. “You love him?”
“I’m sorry, Pippin,” she said. She huffed a laugh, “I can’t believe I didn’t see everything before… I’m sorry. I should have…” she shook her head, did not finish saying what she should have done. “Listen, why don’t you take a day or two to think about all of this? We can decide what to do about Poppy later. It could be that she had to go home suddenly because her mother fell ill, or something like that. Nothing that would need you to… pretend again, if you don’t want.”
“Perhaps… perhaps that would be best,” he agreed softly.
Estella smiled at him. She stood up and went back to preparing breakfast.
Pippin watched her work, once more profoundly grateful for her friendship, for the lack of a rebuke, when hers might have hurt him most, but for perhaps one. “Estella?” he said, calling her attention to himself once more. “Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me, dear. Remember, you did not do this alone.”
Pippin smiled, “No, I didn’t. But at least now I know that… that I’m not alone. That I still have you, at least.”
“You do. You always will.”
Merry had not been able to sleep whatsoever the night before. He’d stayed awake with a fire burning and candles lit all night just in case Pippin came home. He was desperate to speak to him, to apologize, to tell him that Merry didn’t have to ever kiss him again, would never kiss him again, if that’s what he wanted.
He thought again of the look on Pippin’s face, just as soon as he’d broken away from him. The shock, the dismay… Merry had made him look that way. There was nothing on earth that was worth that look on Pippin’s face.
Merry had hurt him and he was breaking apart inside trying to think of a way to make it better.
Merry did the only thing he could think of to do. He baked.
He knew that it wouldn’t make up for what had happened, but he needed something to do other than sit and tear his hair out worrying about what had become of Pippin in the night.
He should have gone after him immediately, made sure that Pippin at least made it somewhere safely, but by the time Merry had recovered himself enough to move, he could find no sign of Pippin anywhere. He might have fallen in the dark, could have hurt himself. He might be in the woods even now with a broken leg, and it looked like rain… Merry was on the verge of starting a search of the countryside for him when he heard someone outside.
It was Pippin, strolling up the lane, looking carefree and whistling a jaunty tune with his pack slung over his shoulder. Merry looked at the clock.
It was a little before noon, just when Pippin had predicted that he’d return from his supposed trip to Hobbiton. Merry dashed out of the kitchen, nearly knocking over a tray of cakes in his haste.
Pippin opened the door. He looked surprised to see Merry standing in the vestibule with his arms covered up to the elbows in flour, but that was all.
He didn’t look upset, or accusing, or even bedraggled. Merry felt that he must be going mad, for surely… surely Pippin would carry some sign of what had happened between them last night, surely… but there was nothing.
He had been prepared to say a thousand things when he next saw Pippin. He had not been ready for this, though.
“Hullo, Merry,” he said. “What’s cooking? It smells good.”
“I’ve got bread going in the oven,” said Merry, “and I made some biscuits… and a few cakes.”
Pippin unslung the pack from his shoulder, set it down under the coatrack, “Are we having a party?”
“No,” Merry said, the word trailing as it fell from his lips.
Pippin walked past him. Merry followed him in disbelief through the dining room and into the kitchen, “Can I have one?” he asked, pointing to a honey cake.
“Yes, but hang on,” Merry said. He wiped his hands on the apron he wore, got out their pot of honey and drizzled some over the top of the cake.
Pippin smiled appreciatively, took the cake and ate it, licking the honey from his fingertips when he was done.
He was fine. Or, he was pretending to be fine. That, Merry guessed, was the more likely. Pippin looked tired, anyway, and under the veneer of normalcy, Merry sensed that something was upsetting him. He wasn’t prattling on at a hundred miles an hour, anyway, as he usually did when they’d been apart for more than a day.
“How was your trip?” Merry hazarded.
“Oh, fine. Nothing really earth-shattering to report. It all went quite well.”
“That’s good,” Merry said with a nod.
Pippin cleared his throat, “How was the party last night?”
“Alright,” Merry answered. “Actually…” he looked at Pippin sidelong. Pippin only looked at him with a sort of mildly interested anticipation. “You know, I guess it’s a little strange, but…” Merry hesitated, wondering if he should actually ask or not. Pippin was looking at him expectantly. It seemed Merry was already in for the penny. “Do you think I could sound you out about something?”
“What’s that?” Pippin asked, an expression of anxiety as quick as a hawk’s shadow passing across his features before it was gone.
“Well, something happened last night,” Merry said.
“Oh, aye? Nothing bad, I hope.”
“No, well, not… Well, something that I guess is confusing me.” He turned from Pippin and started making tea, for he could not continue to look at him pretending that he had no idea of what Merry was speaking while Merry knew perfectly well that Pippin had to be prepared for what he was about to say. “I know we don’t talk about these things much, but… I kissed Poppy Dashfoot last night.”
“Indeed?” Pippin asked, his voice going a little squeaky, “Well…”
“I kissed her and then she ran off,” Merry said in a rush. “I thought that she… that she knew what I was about. I thought that she wanted me to, you see. I’d never do anything to hurt her, but it seems like… perhaps, I did.”
Pippin didn’t say anything for a moment, and Merry had his back to him so he could not see his cousin’s expression, and, frankly, wasn’t sure that he would have wanted to.
“I’m sure you didn’t,” Pippin said at last. “But she ran? That is odd.”
“Yes,” said Merry, “I confess, I’ve never had a girl run from me like I was a wolf after I kissed her before. I’m at a bit of a loss for how to explain it.”
“Perhaps she was only… surprised.”
“Yes, shocked. Maybe. Girls, I think, are sometimes surprised by the… the things they feel. You know, Estella told me all about how girls are meant to keep themselves pure and things like that for marriage…”
“Why were you talking to Estella about that?” Merry asked, before he could stop himself.
“Oh, who knows how these things come up when one gets to talking,” Pippin said quickly. “Anyway, I’m sure it was something like that.”
Merry waited a heartbeat, tried to reconcile what Pippin had said with what he might be feeling. “You don’t think that it was because she didn’t want me to?”
“Well, I don’t suppose I’d know for sure, but… I don’t think so, I guess.”
Merry turned to him again. Pippin looked very tired, with his head in his hands, staring down at the counter and playing with a few crumbs of cake. Now Merry was looking at him properly, he wondered if Pippin had slept at all the night before.
Merry wanted to ask Pippin what was going on, to just tell him what he wanted, but he didn’t, he couldn’t speak. He could still see the look on Pippin’s face from the night before, could imagine Pippin’s face contorting into that awful shape again if Merry confronted him.
Merry nodded, “Perhaps that’s it, then. Perhaps it was her first kiss.”
“Or her first kiss like that,” said Pippin, his eyebrows raising just a hair as he continued to stare down at the table.
“What do you mean by that?”
Pippin’s head snapped up, “Oh… only, I thought you said… Didn’t you say that… it was…” he shook his head, “Sorry, I suppose I only imagined that it was, you know, passionate.”
“It was,” Merry said, allowing himself to think of the kiss again. He could not stop himself from adding, “It was possibly the best kiss of my life, anyway.”
There was just the faintest quirk to Pippin’s lips, before his expression settled into something almost somber. Merry returned to his baking. Pippin went into the living room to read.
Merry rinsed his hands free of flour and hung up his apron. A drizzle had started outside as he’d finished up the last of the bread and now everything outside was getting damp. Merry shut the kitchen window against the rain. He went into the dining room and quickly shut the windows there as well.
He strode into the living room, rushing toward the gaping window, “It’s started to rain, did you have any windows open in your…”
Pippin was fast asleep on the sofa, the book he’d gotten for himself propped open on his chest.
Merry watched the steady rise and fall of his breathing, listened to the quiet whisper of the rain outside. Merry crept closer to him, took the book off his chest and marked Pippin’s page before he set it down on the end table.
Merry shut the open window and left his cousin to sleep.
It was market day again. Pippin and Estella were walking toward town. The ground was still wet from the evening’s rain, the smell of wet earth thick upon the air.
Pippin had fallen asleep in the afternoon and hadn’t woken until late in the evening when Merry had gently shaken him awake and encouraged him to go to bed. He was more rested than he had been the day before, but he felt the worse off for it, somehow as though he’d slept too much and now found himself in a fog.
He still didn’t know what to do.
In his heart, he felt that Merry deserved a chance to say goodbye, at least, to Poppy. It was clear enough to Pippin that Merry had developed some type of feelings for her. He’d gone on a baking spree, for heaven’s sake, and Merry never did that unless he was truly agitated.
Possibly the best kiss of my life, anyway.
Pippin couldn’t help the feeling of joy that those words had sparked, even if that joy was followed by a heavy melancholy. It would all have been so easy if Pippin had just been a girl. Then he and Merry could just be together and Pippin wouldn’t have to have his heart broken and Merry wouldn’t have to be ignorant of who he’d really kissed.
But Pippin still felt one thing as adamantly as ever: Merry could never know the truth.
Someday, Pippin supposed, Merry might find a real girl who would chase all thought of Poppy from his mind… and then Pippin could have his comeuppance for what he’d done. When someone finally, truly took Merry away from him, Pippin would get the heartbreak that he deserved. Even if his heart seemed to be shattering into a thousand pieces already, it would be so much worse, then.
“You’re very quiet today,” said Estella.
Pippin looked at her, “Sorry. I suppose I am.”
“It’s alright. I don’t imagine it’s easy, deciding what to do about all of this.”
Pippin sighed, “It’s impossible. Especially when all I can do is wish that…”
Estella smiled at him kindly, “That things were different?”
He nodded. “But they’re not, are they? He’s going to find some girl to be with eventually and it won’t… It can’t…” Pippin closed his eyes.
Estella said nothing for a moment. A frog hopped off the road and into the shelter of some ferns, “I still think you should tell him, Pippin.”
“I told you I can’t.”
“I know what you said, but, look, I know that it’s easy for me to say, but… Don’t forget, I… Well, I know how you feel. A little, at least. Only… Oh, Pippin, Merry’s always loved you.”
“He’s always loved you, too.”
“No, you’re not listening to me, Pippin. He likes me, and yes, perhaps, as a friend he loves me, but… don’t you think he’s different with you?”
Pippin shook his head, “It’s only because we’ve been through so much. It’s not like he’s ever looked at me like he does at Poppy. I can tell you there’s a difference, because I’ve seen it. He loves me, just as he loves you, or Fatty, or Sam, or anyone that he considers a friend. That’s it. And if that’s all I’m to get from him, I’m just going to have to be happy about it. Heavens knows I’ve already stolen more than I should have done.”
He stopped and Estella stopped next to him. He felt a decision slide into place, a certainty that he did not like the shape of, even though he knew it was what he needed to do.
“I owe it to him, Estella. I have to… I have to pretend, if only one more time, because Poppy has to… She has to break his heart. I owe him that. That way, he’ll forget her quicker and he can move on. And I…” he felt tears threatening again, “I can lose him for good.”
Estella put her hands on his shoulders, “Pippin… dammit, I’ll do whatever you want, but please, please, please reconsider. Tell him the truth. Maybe Poppy… she doesn’t have a chance, Pippin, because she was never real, but you… you might.”
Pippin shook his head, “No, I don’t. I never have. All those times I pretended, and I never thought about why. I daresay I’d not have done it if I’d realized. Or maybe I would have because I would do anything, anything at all, for Merry, and I did. And it was wrong, and… even if he could have… which he couldn’t… because he likes girls, don’t forget,” Estella seemed to feel those words almost like he’d shaken her, “how could he forgive this lie? I made him fall in love with her, Estella. I know I did. How is that not the most severe betrayal?”
It was writ clear in every line of Estella’s face and body that she was unhappy with his decision, even that she still might disagree with him. But then, she softened and nodded, “If you’re sure.”
Pippin fell into Poppy one last time, putting her on like armor.
Estella prepared her wig with more than usual care. It was only combed and left down, not done up with flowers or anything like that, as plain and unadorned as Poppy’s hair had ever been, but for all that it was plain, Estella seemed loath to leave off her fussing over it. Poppy was to wear the blue dress with the swallow pattern on it, something simpler than the ruined sapphire dress that now sat at the very bottom of Pippin’s trunk back at Crookhollow.
If Pippin felt he could not do what needed to be done, he had to trust that Poppy would be able to, but as he slipped Poppy’s dress over his shoulders and watched his features covered by Estella’s careful hand with the makeup brush, he didn’t feel her come to him as easily as she once did. Poppy, it seemed, quailed too at what needed to be done.
Once she was ready, Estella stood for a moment behind her with her hands on Poppy’s shoulders.
Poppy looked at her through the mirror, “I don’t think I can do this, Estella.”
Estella squeezed her shoulders and smiled, but she said nothing. She left Poppy alone, staring at her reflection.
Merry came up Estella’s garden path. She’d invited him, apparently on Poppy’s behalf, writing a short note to express Poppy’s wish to speak to him. He did not need to ask why Poppy did not write for herself; Pippin’s hand would have been all too recognizable to him.
Merry did not know what to expect at all, had so little idea of what might happen, that he had not even formed a hope for himself. He would let himself be guided by Pippin’s wishes as completely as possible, that was his only resolution.
The air was thick with the scent of lilies, the sunlight filtered through a summer haze as cicadas whirred noisomely from high up in the trees. It was precisely the type of summer day that Merry had always most preferred, but the beauty of it was tainted by his ambivalence. He found no comfort in the soft green grass under his feet, nor the gentle breeze that tickled his ear.
Estella was nowhere to be seen. Merry wondered if she was merely in the house or if she had taken a walk in order to give them privacy.
Pippin was there though.
He sat on the swing at the back of Estella’s garden, looking down at the ground. The dark hair of his wig trailed down his shoulders in loose waves. He wore a simple dress of cotton in a patterned cornflower blue, the article as plain as any Merry had yet seen him wear as Poppy. He didn’t look up until Merry was only a few steps away from him and when he did, the sadness on his face halted Merry in his tracks.
Merry froze some distance away from her, almost like a startled rabbit. He did not speak, merely watched Poppy with a wary expression.
“You came,” said Poppy.
“I did. Estella said that you wanted to speak to me.”
Poppy nodded. “Yes, I did. I do... I...” she shook her head, “This is very difficult for me, you see.”
“I understand,” Merry said, he huffed a laugh, “I don’t think I’ve done anything more difficult than walk up that path in my life.”
Some horrible, wrenching emotion tugged violently inside of Pippin, objected so strongly to what he was meant to do that he could not speak.
The two of them stood frozen in a tableau, Merry looking at him in supplication, Pippin unable to break his gaze, it was so tender, so fraught. Had Poppy really done this so quickly, he wondered; for there was no longer a doubt in Pippin’s mind. Merry was in love with her.
“I hope you know… I hope… I’m so sorry...” said Poppy, stuttering over what she’d meant to deliver as quickly and painlessly as possible. “The other night. When you kissed me,” she looked up at Merry.
His face was cautiously blank, but his eyes… his eyes were alive with regret, or sorrow.
Poppy looked away, down at the ground, “When you kissed me, I think I realized that I had… I have… This is not easy for me to say, for it was not my intention, believe me, it was not. That you might come to feel…” she shook her head, Pippin’s words now tangling in with her own. Pippin was aware he was not saying what he’d wanted to say. Poppy had to pull them back on track, “I am spoken for.”
“What?” Merry asked, clearly surprised.
“I have been engaged. I am engaged. That is, before I left the Westfarthing, I was offered for and I didn’t… say… because… I only meant it to be a bit of… of fun, between us. I mean, he’s so very much older than me, my husband to be, but he’s wealthy and he will give me a secure… home.”
Merry said nothing. Poppy hazarded another look at his face. He was shocked, stunned. He didn’t look like he could have spoken if his life depended upon it.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have let it happen.”
Merry shook his head, waved his hand in the air, “But… what is your own inclination?”
“My… oh,” now it was Poppy who could not speak as Merry’s face settled into something like resolution.
“I will not bestow my affection upon you if it is unwanted, but… I have to know, is it unwanted?”
Pippin’s mouth worked, though no sound issued from it. Yes, he tried to make himself say, because it was all too clear that if he said no… if he said no, Merry would fight for Poppy. And that was impossible. It would have been so much easier if he meant it, if it really was his heart that forbade the idea of the match instead of his head, which knew it could never work.
Poppy nodded, “Yes.”
Merry’s face fell, his hand rose up to his lip. He looked searchingly toward the trees that bordered Estella’s lawn, “Then I am… forgive me,” he said, his voice breaking.
Pippin leapt up from the swing, sending it forcibly back as he quickly walked to Merry, “No, no... Please no.”
He placed a hand on the side of Merry’s face, well aware that he was doing exactly the opposite of what he’d promised himself he would do, knowing that he was doing the most witless, insensible thing he’d ever done in his life as he guided Merry’s face to look at him once more, “Please, please, don’t. You just… you have to understand, it’s not you. I wish…”
Merry looked so lost, so confused. He looked helpless.
Pippin was reminded of when they were kidnapped by orcs and Merry had been injured because he’d fought to protect Pippin from them for as long as he could, of when Merry was stricken with the Black Breath because he had risked everything to get to Pippin. Merry never felt helpless or hopeless and Pippin had made him feel both and he hated what he had done to him so much.
Merry was brave, he was strong, and he was good. And Pippin loved him.
It was that last thought that Pippin held in his mind as he leaned forward and kissed Merry upon the lips.
Merry did nothing for a moment, only stood motionless, too shocked to even react, but then, slowly, he raised a hand to Pippin’s waist, enfolded Pippin in his arms. The gentle press of Pippin’s body against his, the tender softness of his lips, made Merry feel like he was flying.
Merry held Pippin against him, utterly refused to let him go.
It was ephemeral and yet solid, something spiritual and still natural, the way that the feel of Pippin’s warmth, the scent of his skin, the taste of his lips, spread throughout Merry’s body, made him restless and content at once.
Never, never, never, some part of Merry chanted, some distant, persistent voice that urged him to find some other feeling to compare it to, how it felt to hold Pippin in his arms. Never had he felt anything so strongly, or completely. Never had he been so sure that something needed to be.
He loved him. Merry loved him. There was nothing else.
Pippin pulled kiss after kiss from Merry’s lips, clearly as reluctant as Merry was to stop. He placed one final chaste kiss on Merry’s lips. Merry brushed the hair away from Pippin’s face.
“Don’t run away, now,” Merry said softly.
Pippin shook his head, he smiled softly, “I won’t.”
Merry slowly released him but maintained a hold on Pippin’s hand. He stroked Pippin’s fingers, twined them into his.
“Pippin, I love you. You are my heart, my everything. Please say you love me too, or that you could. I’ll wait as long as you need me to. I love you.”
Pippin blinked rapidly at him, he didn’t seem to have heard what Merry had said. “Wha- I...” He said, still in Poppy’s voice. “I... oh, heavens, but I can’t!”
Pippin’s color had gone high, the pleasure of a moment before turning before Merry’s eyes like souring milk, “Oh, you don’t know what you’re doing, you… I’m so, so, sorry, Merry, but I can’t. I… Oh!” he exclaimed again, pulling his hand free from Merry’s. He covered his face with his hands, turned as though he were going to run again.
“Pippin,” Merry said.
Pippin was nearly crying, had taken half a step to flee, but then he realized. Merry had not called him Poppy. He’d called him Pippin. Pippin was too shocked to move.
“Pippin,” Merry said again. He placed a hand on Pippin’s shoulder. Pippin turned toward him.
“What...?” Pippin asked, Poppy’s voice faltering, “What did you call me?”
“Pippin. Pip, I know it’s you.”
Waves of heat and shame clawed through Pippin’s chest, he felt himself panicking, watched almost from somewhere else as he knelt on the ground. He leaned forward on his hands, clutched at his side. His own voice seemed curiously far away, “oh, I can’t... I can’t... I can’t breathe...”
Estella’s garden lurched crazily around him, the scent of lilies suddenly gone too thick, cloying and overwhelming. Had he really once thought it pleasant? The air was hot, he was sweating, he could feel his heart beating like it was trying to escape his chest. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move.
He could barely hear Merry’s voice. He was saying something. He knelt next to him, laid a hand on his back. Pippin recoiled from him, unreasonable fear flooding him. “It’s alright, Pip,” Merry said, his words coming as though from somewhere far distant, “It’s alright,” he said again. “Your corset, I just want to loosen it so that you can breathe better.”
Pippin nodded, unable to speak. Merry’s fingers were steady and sure as he undid the buttons at his back, as he loosened the stays. As soon as he’d finished, he withdrew.
Everything was ruined now. Merry knew, knew everything, and now he’d never want anything to do with Pippin again. Pippin had deceived him, and now Merry would never touch him again. He’d leave him, it’d be lucky if they could even still be friends after this. Merry would hate him now.
“No, no… Why would I hate you? I could never,” Merry said softly.
Pippin hadn’t realized that he’d been speaking aloud. His eyes were so hazy with tears, his throat still so thick with fear, that he couldn’t breathe properly.
“I’ll get you water,” Merry said, getting up to go.
“No,” Pippin heard himself say, “please.”
Merry stayed where he was.
It seemed to take forever for Pippin’s emotions to calm, for the terror that had taken him to recede enough for him to regain the power of coherent thought. When it did, his heart was still hammering, “I’m sorry, I’m so, so sorry, Merry. I shouldn’t have let things get so far.”
“I knew, Pippin. It’s alright, really. I should… I should be the one to apologize. If anyone should be…”
Pippin could only imagine that Merry meant for the things he’d said. I love you… “How long have you known?” Pippin asked him.
“The moment I saw you at that first party, I knew. I knew the whole time,” Merry said.
Pippin’s head snapped up in shock, “The whole- but Merry, why would you kiss me? If you knew...”
Merry sniffed a laugh, “Why would you let me?”
At first, Pippin took Merry’s question for an accusation, he felt the stinging justice of it if it was one, but then he realized that Merry meant the question as an answer. Why would Pippin let Merry kiss him? Because he’d wanted him to. Why would Merry kiss him? Because he’d wanted to.
Pippin’s eyes fluttered closed. When he opened them again, Merry was still there, still sitting near him in the dirt, still looking at him like he was something that he didn’t want to lose.
Pippin suddenly laughed, though it hurt his chest to do so, “You said you loved me, you ass.”
Merry smiled at him, “I did.”
“Well, you can’t... You don’t, do you?”
“Pippin,” Merry said, “Pippin, of course I do.”
“You…?” Pippin asked, but then shook his head, “But… Merry, you realize that… you must see…” Pippin bit his bottom lip, he sat up. “You want me?” Poppy’s dress was still hanging off his shoulders, still draped across his lap. He looked down at himself, “As a lad? Not just in the dresses?”
“You like the dresses?” Merry asked cautiously.
“Yes,” Pippin admitted, “but I don’t feel... I’m not me when I wear them, not really. I mean, I am. I’m still there, anyway, but… I’m letting myself be someone else too. That’s the best I think I can explain it.”
Merry didn’t say anything, he only seemed to consider what Pippin had said. Pippin had a terrifying moment where he felt that Merry might have fallen in love with him as a girl, but then Merry leaned forward and took Pippin’s hand, “I want you any way you’d like to be. I think I’ve wanted you as a lad for a while, but I don’t care what you wear, or how you look. All I see, when I look at you, Pippin, is you.”
“You’re really in love with me?” Pippin asked, staring in disbelief at Merry’s hand in his, still unable to meet Merry’s eyes.
“Yes,” Merry said.
Pippin had once seen Treebeard rip a stone the size of a house from the earth with no more effort than Pippin might pick up a pebble. It was such an impossible thing, done so easily. So it was as he looked at Merry again at last and felt his fear and anxiety dissolve away.
He crawled closer to him. Merry traced the outline of Pippin’s jaw with his fingers and kissed him.
Pippin told Merry everything. He told him, first, about his father, the time he’d beaten him for wearing a dress. Merry had looked very dark at that, but had said nothing. Pippin told him too, of all the other dresses, of how he’d stolen his corset and how he’d secretly had dresses made up, of how he’d playacted just for himself for years because it had been fun, and secret. About how he and Estella had come together.
That seemed to be the part of all that Pippin said that Merry received with he most shock, that Estella had been or, indeed, perhaps still was, in love with him. Pippin tried to reassure him, to tell him that he did not think that Estella could have possibly been such a good friend to him if she still had that depth of feeling for him, but Merry’s conscience did not seem likely to be relieved so easily, “I was abominable,” he said of himself, “The things I said to her! How does she not despise me?”
“To be fair, she may have done. She did, after all, help me with all of this,” Pippin said, gesturing to the dress he still wore. “You aren’t angry, truly, over…”
“No,” Merry said, “If anyone should be angry, it’s you. I let you suffer because I was too much a coward to tell you what I felt. I should have done it from the first, as soon as I knew.”
“No, no. How could you? It wasn’t as though I really thought… as though I realized what I was doing until…”
“Until?” Merry prompted.
“Until you kissed me.” Pippin smiled, “It was mine too, you know.”
“The best kiss of my life. Though, I think that may just be the rule for all of your kisses.”
Merry laughed, “You’re perfect.”
“Because I flatter you?”
“Yes, obviously. Why else?”
“Estella said that boys like…”
At the mention of Estella, Merry looked troubled again. “What can I do? For her, you think, Pip? I just can’t believe…”
“You can do exactly what you are doing,” called a voice from near the house.
Pippin turned and saw Estella smiling radiantly, looking so happy she was fit to burst. She ran toward them, “Please tell me I did hear correctly. That things… have worked out?”
Pippin smiled a little guiltily, “You said they would.”
“And I have never been more pleased to be right,” she said. She threw her arms around them, “I am so happy for you, both of you.”
“Thank you,” said Merry, “but I still owe you an apology…”
“Consider it made and accepted.”
“Estella-“ Merry began.
“Hush, Merry! I am over you, fully and completely. I confess, there was a time I thought I should die from the want of you, but that’s over now.” She seemed to notice Merry’s incredulous expression, “I swear! You’re not that irresistible, in spite of what Pippin might lead you to believe.”
“Still,” Merry said, “I am sorry.”
“Yes, yes, that’s all very well. Now, should we go inside? I, for one, am fairly starving. I had to walk down to the ferry and back to make sure I gave you enough time to work things out, which, I think, was very generous of me. I happen to have everything you’d need to do us a chicken pie, if you’d like, Merry, and I think that would go a long way toward making up for everything…”
In the end, it was decided between the three of them that Poppy had indeed been called home by a sudden illness on the part of her mother. Estella broke the news some weeks later that Poppy had been offered for by a Westfarthing hobbit of no small means. Everyone seemed happy enough with that.
Or, at least, it should be said, they were satisfied. Folco, for one, seemed a bit annoyed over the whole affair, for he’d not gotten to make a proper attempt at her, but his annoyance was tempered by a compassion for Merry, who very convincingly acted heartbroken.
Folco even took to consoling him, saying once, “There, there, old chap, it isn’t like she’s the only girl in the Shire, I’m sure.”
Fatty had his wedding at the end of August, the dancing and feasting lasted long into the night. If there was one thing that Pippin missed from his days as Poppy, it was the ability to dance with Merry openly. He’d looked almost with longing toward the dancefloor, before Estella had pulled him into a dance and proven, once and for all, that it was Poppy who was the dancer and not Pippin.
They’d almost ended up inside a barrel of ale, somehow, Estella bent double with laughter over his ineptitude.
The best news was that Estella’s parents decided not to move to Hobbiton after all. They returned home and seemed to realize what a project a move would be and asserted that they would be quite happy to stay in Buckland all the rest of their days. That Estella had at length and with great determination convinced them of this was something that she considered a personal victory.
Pippin and Estella continued their habit of walking to town on market days, their friendship now stronger than ever before. He tried, at first, to avoid talking overmuch about Merry, since he was still sensitive to what she had once felt, but eventually, she ran out of patience with him.
“Pippin, this will not do. Please do not pretend to me that you and Merry are merely roommates. My goodness, at least tell me…” she looked from side to side, “I don’t like to assume what you’ve gotten up to, but… I suppose, surely you must have touched,” she patted her behind.
Pippin felt himself go completely red, “Well. If you must know, we’re taking it slow. But… I did… I mean, we have… that is…” he sighed, perhaps a little bit wistfully, “Well, it’s very nice. Quite… erm… I mean, rather how you’d expect, I suppose.”
If Pippin missed his ability to dance with Merry at parties, it was somewhat made up for by his ability to kiss him whenever he liked when they were at home.
Now that everything was clear between them, life at Crookhollow returned to a very satisfactory state indeed. The house was somewhat messier, and there were fewer cakes and pies coming from the kitchen, and Merry was writing as furiously as he once had, but nights belonged to the two of them.
Merry and Pippin had agreed to take things slowly, since neither had the benefit of experience with another lad, and what, for Pippin, had at first been a relief (he was worried that his inexperience would show the greater since he’d not even been with a lass) began to become a frustration.
They were on their sofa at the end of an early September evening, Merry kissing along Pippin’s neck, his mouth pulling sweet moans from Pippin’s lips, his hands playing across Pippin’s front like he was plucking notes from a harp, when Merry, as he had done every time they had started in this way stopped.
“We should…” Merry began breathily, “that is, I-”
“Merry, I’m ready.”
“You’re,” Merry’s eyes glanced down to Pippin lips, “ready?”
“Yes,” Pippin said, “You?”
Merry only smiled wickedly and took his lips again. “Whose room?” he asked.
“Yours, I suppose. I did want it for mine when we moved in but you gave me that ridiculous line about how your trunk had already been brought in and-” Merry cut him off with another kiss. Pippin’s hands tangled themselves into Merry’s hair as Merry pushed him to lie flat on the sofa. Merry was over him, his body settling between Pippin’s thighs, the unmistakable feel of his arousal pressing just next to Pippin’s own.
Merry made a low sound in his throat in response. Pippin began pushing at Merry’s jacket and Merry shrugged out of it. Pippin’s fingers assailed the buttons of Merry’s weskit clumsily, got two of them undone, before Merry drove his hips down against him.
Pippin gasped against Merry’s lips. He left off the buttons and instead grabbed a handful of Merry’s arse and drove him down again. Merry broke their kiss, almost keened as he followed Pippin’s urging hand again and again.
Beneath him, Pippin was beginning to grow frantic. The heat, the chills, the sensation that Merry was driving into him was building, too quickly, and Pippin wanted it to last, even as he wanted to finish. “Merry,” he said warningly, and Merry stopped.
“Bed?” he asked.
Merry was far stronger than Pippin had realized. He slipped his arms under Pippin and then lifted him to his feet in a single smooth motion. Pippin’s arms coiled around Merry’s neck, his legs wrapped of their own accord around Merry’s waist, and Pippin’s tongue teased apart Merry’s lips, the pleasure of exploring the lovely, wet heat of Merry’s mouth never diminished no matter how many times Pippin plundered it.
Merry carried him into his room, stopping once to press him back against a wall for a few moments, and stopping again just at the threshold to open the door, while Pippin did his best to distract him from his purpose, for no better reason than that he could.
Merry did not so much put Pippin down as control his fall onto Merry’s bed. Pippin’s legs were still wrapped around Merry’s hips, so Merry went down with him and atop him.
Pippin’s hips were bucking up against him the moment his back hit the mattress. The way his firm length thrusted against Merry was more anticipatory than satisfying, but the plain instinct, the sheer animal want in the motion was intoxicating.
Tingles were already reaching out from the base of Merry’s spine, their greedy caresses across his skin urging him to rush forward into the breach, to let himself slip over his edge, but he fought against it. Yet, Pippin was under him, writhing and panting, beautiful and flushed, and so desperate for him, that the argument with his own body was a very close thing. Merry vented his frustration with a rather rough sounding noise that seemed to come from his chest rather than his throat.
He had promised himself to take it slow with Pippin, but Pippin was making that rather difficult to do. Merry desperately needed space. He pushed himself up onto his elbows, tried to roll off to Pippin’s side, but Pippin clutched at him and tried to pull him down again.
“Wait, wait,” Merry said, “Heavens, have some patience, would you?”
“Merry,” Pippin whined.
“Wait,” Merry said again, more firmly. He shifted off to one side of Pippin, slid down the bed slightly and draped a leg across Pippin’s thighs so that his hardness was pressed close between them. Merry looked down Pippin’s body, down to where he could see Pippin’s arousal straining his trousers tight. A thrill of desire gripped him. He reached for Pippin’s hardness, palmed it through the fabric that hid it from his sight.
Pippin moved restlessly.
“This is alright?” Merry asked him.
Pippin snorted, “Yes, yes it’s fine.”
He let his hands feel their way down Pippin’s front, let his fingers seek the round of Pippin’s buttons, let the slide of each golden disk whisper a promise of what was to come.
Merry slipped the first of the buttons at Pippin’s waist free, then the next. His hand dipped under the waistband of Pippin’s trousers. He stroked up Pippin’s arousal through his smallclothes. Pippin writhed against the touch.
Merry stopped, “May I undress you? The rest of the way?”
“You want me naked?” Pippin asked.
“Yes, love. If you-”
“Please, yes, Merry.”
He lowered his head to take Pippin’s lips again. Pippin’s heart beat like a drum as Merry pushed his unbuttoned shirt aside, his smooth, warm skin electrifying under Merry’s hands. Merry gently brushed against the flat ring of Pippin’s areola and was pleased to feel the roll of Pippin’s hips against his thigh.
“Good?” Merry asked him.
“Yes,” Pippin moaned, “Oh, don’t stop.”
Merry smiled. He pulled Pippin’s shirt so that the nipple closer to Merry was exposed to him and took it in his mouth.
“Merry, don’t stop,” Pippin said, his voice trailing off into a wordless moan.
Merry had absolutely no intention of doing any such thing, particularly if Pippin was going to sing so prettily for him. He pushed at Pippin’s trousers and Pippin lifted his hips off the bed so that Merry could get them off and then Merry reached down for Pippin’s balls, cupping them gently and pushing them toward the base of Pippin’s cock.
Merry looked down again, this time at Pippin’s naked hardness, and licked his lips. He shifted himself as he kissed down Pippin’s belly, dipping his tongue quickly into the irresistible dip of Pippin’s bellybutton, before he continued down once more.
Merry braced his hands against Pippin’s hips, traced the pale, smooth skin that stretched against the gently jutting V of bone there, glanced up to steal a look at Pippin’s face before he lowered his lips and placed the gentlest, softest possible kiss just beside Pippin’s cock. Merry’s breath ghosted across the slick looking length as he moved his face to the other side to place a kiss against the opposite hip. Pippin’s cock jolted so that it brushed against Merry’s cheek, the skin of it so soft and hot that Merry could resist no longer.
Merry covered his teeth with his lips and slid down to the base of Pippin’s cock, cupped Pippin’s balls with his hand, sucked as he slid his mouth back up.
Pippin was a mess of babbling incoherence, words mixing with noises, his hands fluttering uncertainly against Merry’s back as though he had not the full command of his coordination as Merry sucked him. Pippin was slick in his mouth, his seed beginning to mix with Merry’s saliva, so that when Merry brought his hand up to follow the motion of his mouth, it felt like he was sliding his hand on something almost oleaginous.
Every cut of Pippin’s voice was slicing Merry to confetti. He thrust his hips against nothing just to have the satisfaction of moving them, so desperate for Pippin that he feared he would go over his edge untouched and with his trousers still on.
Pippin’s cries reached a crescendo and Merry pulled his mouth away just in time to watch Pippin’s seed as it shot across his belly in several pulses, watched with a deep, almost predatory satisfaction as the remainder drizzled onto his fingers.
Pippin looked completely spent, and thoroughly lovely, with his half-lidded eyes looking up at Merry dazedly. Merry didn’t bother fighting the impulse that led him to suck clean his own fingers and then lower his face to Pippin’s belly and lick a line up his torso, claiming that seed for himself.
Oversensitive from his orgasm, Pippin laughed at the feeling of Merry’s tongue licking up his body, before he swore. Merry leaned over him, stroked the hair back from his forehead. “Alright?” Merry asked.
He kissed Merry on the lips, “Very.”
Pippin could feel that Merry was still hard, his cock was pressed against Pippin’s hip, a gentle but insistent presence that made Pippin’s palms itch. “Take off your clothes?” Pippin asked.
Merry cocked his head, looked at him curiously. “You want me to undress myself? While you watch?”
Pippin bit his bottom lip and nodded.
Merry smiled in that wretchedly alluring way of his, the way that suggested he had planned everything out six steps ahead of anyone else and knew exactly how things would turn out. It was the same way he smiled when they had brainstormed a particularly brilliant scheme as tweens, the same way he’d smiled while they’d planned the Battle of Bywater.
It was the smile of someone who had the situation well in hand. In this case, quite literally.
Merry cupped himself through his trousers and Pippin felt his lips part, just slightly before he dragged his eyes back up to Merry’s face.
If possible, Merry’s eyes were even darker than they had been before.
He knelt and then stood at the edge of the bed. He took Pippin’s hand, encouraged him into a sitting position so that Pippin’s feet hung over the edge, his toes just brushing the floor.
He undid the buttons of his weskit first, moving neither slowly nor quickly, but efficiently and purposefully. He let it fall off his shoulders onto the floor. He slipped one suspender and then the other away, then tugged his shirt out of his trousers, unbuttoned the buttons at his neck and then grabbed the bottom of the shirt, pulled it up and over his head in in a single, graceful flourish of movement. He held it for a second in his hand before he let that, too, fall to the floor.
Pippin was aware that he was staring, but he was full well allowed to stare now, so he saw no point in stopping himself. Merry’s body, as beautiful, thick and strong as any in the Shire, was Pippin’s. All for him, that sweetly soft-gold skin that curved around the edge of smooth muscle.
Merry’s hands hooked at the edge of his trousers, his cock delineated against the fabric sharply, as Merry pulled the waistband tight and slipped the first of his buttons free.
“Come here,” Pippin said.
Merry licked his lips and walked forward. Pippin looked up Merry’s body, remembered how it had felt when Merry took his nipple in his mouth.
Pippin reached a hand up Merry’s side, felt for the nub of Merry’s nipple, while he pressed his face against Merry’s stomach and began licking the taut muscle of his belly. Merry hissed as Pippin’s fingers grazed his nipple, moaned as Pippin’s other hand pressed against his arousal while he freed the last of Merry’s buttons.
Merry’s trousers slid from his hips, pooled around his ankles along with his small clothes.
Merry, when aroused, was very large indeed. Pippin grabbed Merry’s arse again, pulled him closer still, took his red, swollen cock into his mouth and sucked.
Merry did not move his hips while Pippin worked him with his mouth. Merry was big, the tip of his cock easily coming near the back of Pippin’s throat every time he drove toward its base, and Pippin nearly gagged on it a pair of times before he found a rhythm. He decided he ought to do as Merry had done and used his fist to pump Merry too.
Merry groaned, placed a hand on Pippin’s shoulder, “Pip, I’m going to… I’m…”
Pippin understood perfectly well what Merry was telling him, but he was just as eager to drink Merry down as Merry had been for him. He took Merry down one more time and then felt the hot, thick spray of his seed fill his mouth.
Pippin had nothing to compare it to, either for flavor or texture, and possibly would not have described it as pleasant, but for that it was Merry’s, intimately his, and Pippin wanted everything of him that he could get. He swallowed.
Merry tangled his hands into Pippin’s hair, leaned over and kissed him.
They were still in Merry’s bed, naked and tangled together, half asleep, as the soft light of the moon slipped past Merry’s window and left the room fully dark. Merry was stroking the hair at the back of Pippin’s neck, while Pippin traced along Merry’s belly, just at the faint line of hair that started just about his bellybutton.
Merry tugged the covers up around Pippin’s shoulders. “I love you,” he whispered.
“I love you, too.”
Merry’s hands stilled, “You know… you know, I don’t think I ever told you about Lothlórien.”
Pippin laughed, “You don’t need to, I was there, remember?”
There was a smile in Merry’s voice, “Wait, was that you?”
“Yes,” Pippin said. “I suppose this is what comes of being with an older man, your memory will go bad before mine. It’ll be a sad day, when we have to depend on my wits to guide us because you can’t remember what you’ve done with your keys.”
Merry laughed. He stroked down Pippin’s shoulder. “If you’re quite through being rude, I do have something I’d like to tell you.”
“Which is…” Merry shifted a little so that he was looking at him, “I once saw a pair of ladies who… they got married, in Lórien.”
Pippin blinked, “Really?”
“Yes. Legolas told me… he said that it wasn’t so strange among the elves.”
“Goodness, they really don’t mind anything, do they?”
Merry laughed, “I suppose they don’t.” Merry kissed him, gently, lazily, the way Pippin had always thought kisses could be: full of silent meaning and wordless understanding. He ran his fingers through Pippin’s hair. “We could…” Merry cleared his throat, “That is, if you wanted… In Rivendell…”
“Are you trying to ask me something?” Pippin asked, unable to resist teasing, even through his heart was suddenly both skipping and stuttering all at once.
“Yes, dammit, I am.”
Pippin rolled onto his stomach, “Well?”
“Peregrin Took…” Merry’s grin went crooked, “Will you marry me?”
“You mean it?”
“No, Pip, I’ve only asked you the most terrifying question a person can ask another because I felt like having a laugh at your expense.”
“I mean, you’d really… you’d really want to… that is, we could never be that here,” Pippin said, suddenly turning serious.
“No. I know. But I don’t want anyone else. And I know that, probably, it’s selfish of me to ask you and all that, and I’d understand, if you didn’t want to because I know how much you love home and the Shire and… I’ll do whatever you want, you know. If you want to pretend that we’re nothing more than friends, I’ll pretend it. If you want to live out our days as funny old bachelors together, here in this house, I’ll do that. If you want to go back to Tookland and take up the Thainship…”
“No,” said Pippin quickly. “No, I don’t want that. I think I’d rather do… well, I think I ought to have just said ‘yes’ a moment ago and let you kiss me, if you were so inclined, and had done with it. My home, Merry, is with you. Here or otherwise.”
“So,” Pippin said, smiling, “I suppose then…”
Pippin nodded, “Yes. I suppose.”
Merry, as it turned out, did feel like kissing him after all.
Chapter 22: Epilogue
It was a happy ending, then, that they came to.
Merry and Pippin were married in the following spring, in Rivendell, their union secret from all but a few intimate friends. They lived at Crookhollow for as many years as they could before the urge to travel set upon them again and they wandered away from home for the last time.
Estella found her own happy ending eventually, too, though, as she often said to anyone who would listen, Berliac had taken his sweet time in proposing to her.
Folco did not marry until he was well into his sixties, and, as Emilia Hardbottle liked to say, so far out of his prime that taking him had been an act of charity more than anything else.
Poppy Dashfoot did disappear to the Westfathing, but, on very rare occasions, she returned to Buckland for a week or two while Merry was still there, and though she was a married lady, and Merry a confirmed bachelor, anyone who watched them dance together had no doubt that they had found in one another love of a sort that burned all the brighter for being unfulfilled.
Which goes to show what people know.