Old Winyards

Forks

Forks

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Chapter: Nineteen
Pairing: Sam/Frodo; Merry/Pippin
Authors: Catherine and Thuri
Rating: M (Language)
Warnings: Angst; h/c; Humour
Summary: Future plans are made and Frodo and Sam have dinner with Merry and Pippin, where all does not go well. Frodo's illness comes closer to being diagnosed.

A/N: This and the next few chapters were written with Thuri. While she is not writing this series anymore, I am constitutionally incapable of not giving credit where it is due, so she gets an author's credit wherever she has had something to do with the writing.


Sam stared into the fire that he had kindled half an hour before. He remembered when his father had taught him how to build a proper fire, grumbling about how in England, they'd have coal and the fire would last a good, long time and give off real heat. He remembered his mother laughing and adding, "Yes, if you sat in its lap!" The whole family would suppress a giggle as Bell Gamgee tweaked her husband's ear and the Gaffer grumbled back at her, a half smile on his face as he looked up at her, unable to hide his adoration.

On one such night, his father had slipped an arm around his shoulders and encouraged him to lay the fire as he had instructed, making sure that there were channels for air between the logs and that it was built so as not to fall forward as it burned. He had done it perfectly the first time, earning a 'Well done, lad!' and a squeeze from his Gaffer.

Sam’s brooding was interrupted when he heard soft footsteps padding towards him.

Frodo smiled. "Hullo, Sam."

Sam rose and embraced him, kissing him deeply.

Frodo kissed him back, soft and tender. "What's wrong?"

Sam sighed. "Just thinking of Mum and Dad, again." He turned away at a convenient snap from the fire and swiped hard at his eyes.

Frodo bit his lip and nodded. "I am sorry, Sam. I wish there was something I could do to help. Even a bit."

"You are helping, Frodo-love, more than I have any right to expect. You've given me a place to stay, at least while all this gets sorted, and– well...” He knelt by the fire and poked at it, eyes swimming.

"You have a place for more than now," Frodo offered. "I'd been meaning to ask... Do you want a room of your own? For a study, or a bedroom, or whatever?"

"A room of my own?" Sam swallowed and closed his eyes. "Then, you want me to..."

"I want you to move in with me," Frodo replied shyly.

"I'd love that," whispered Sam, his knees trembling enough that he sat back on the plush fur rug in front of the hearth.

Frodo curled closer to him. "Good. So would I. And I was thinking... You need a job title, love. What do you want to do?"

"I don't rightly know," said Sam, quietly. "I want to do whatever I can to help you, but...” He poked harder at the fire, eliciting a sulky pop and a shower of sparks.

Frodo nodded, watching him. "But that's hard to give a title."

"Yes, and..." He stabbed at an errant coal.

"And?"

Sam placed the poker back in the stand, trembling. "I love you, and I want to help, but I ain't made to do nought but paperwork. I hate it with a passion, always have. I'm willing to do it, and no mistake, but I want to have time outside, using me muscles and getting me hands dirty, and I can't be doing that, now. Not with me Gaffer not even willing to look at me..." He paused, collecting himself. "And I don't want to do nothing to make no-one think that you're paying me for... well, for being with you, like."

Frodo nodded. "You're not my kept man, I promise."

Sam whipped around to look at Frodo. "Oh, love, I know that, and I didn't mean to say otherwise." He took Frodo's hand in his own. "I just don't want to cause you any more trouble with Mr. Merry or his kin, is all. I- I don't think I want that sort of trouble for meself, either, if it comes to it," he said, lowering his eyes.

Frodo nodded again, squeezing his fingers. "I love you. I don't suppose you can be my partner? You know more about the business than I do."

"P- Partner?" Sam nearly choked. "I- I dreamed about being your partner in the other sense, but..." Sam squeezed Frodo's hand.

"I want that, too," Frodo said softly. "But Sam... I'm sick, and we still don't really know why or with what. I need help. And even if I wasn't... I don't know what I'm doing, here. I need help. I need a business partner."

Sam closed his eyes and kissed Frodo's hand, then turned it palm up and kissed it again, fervently. "If that's what will help you most, then that's what I'll do. And whatever you have, we'll find a way to make you well, or at least better," he said, looking into Frodo's eyes. “Not that you ain’t perfect now,” he added, losing himself a bit.

Frodo wound his arms around Sam, snuggling as close as he could. "God in heaven, I love you."

Sam smiled through his tears, hugging Frodo close and kissing him. As he looked into the fire through the halo of Frodo's curls, he knew that this memory would become the one that would come to him, now, whenever he looked into the flames.


Frodo reached for the phone, answering it in his sleep. "Hello?"

"Frodo? Did I wake you up?" Pippin frowned as he looked at the clock.

"No, had to get up to answer the phone," Frodo replied, wrinkling his face. "Pip?"

"You mean you had to wake up to answer the phone," laughed Pippin. "I thought you weren't supposed to drink when you had mono. And yes, it's Pip, you silly twit. Who did you think it was? Lotho?"

"Not drinking," Frodo replied, sighing. "And no, just making sure that grating voice on the other end was the one I thought it was." He smiled, settling back in bed and looking at the clock. After three again. He rubbed his eyes.

"Grating?” huffed Pippin. “I'll have you know that I've been called 'The Voice of the Wine Country' more than once. Grating, indeed!"

Frodo laughed aloud. "What's up?"

"Well, I was calling to invite you and Sam for dinner, but I'll be sure to tell Merry not to do pasta. We couldn't possibly serve anything with grated cheese, now could we?"

Frodo giggled. "Dork. And that sounds wonderful."

"Excellent! Tonight work for you? Tomorrow?"

"Tomorrow, I think," Frodo replied, stretching a little. "And pasta is fine, Pip. Or whatever you come up with. You're an excellent cook either way."

"Tomorrow it is, then. And who said I'd be doing the cooking?" Pippin added.

"The person who has to eat at your house," Frodo replied primly.

Pippin laughed. "Well, then, person who has to eat at my house, what time works best for you?"

"Whenever," Frodo replied. "Sam'll probably prefer early evening, but whatever’s best for you."

"Well you're the sickie at the moment, so you get the final say. Sam's a strapping young lad who can take good care of himself, after all."

"He certainly is..."

"Just tell me when you feel most like eating, Frodo, then you can get back to perving after your boy," smirked Pippin.

"Shoot for six?" Frodo asked, smiling to himself. "And we'll get there about five?"

"Most of our friends like to be fashionably late," quipped Pippin. "Five it is, then, and we'll be looking forward to seeing you both."

"Looking forward to seeing you, too."

"I've missed you, love. And I've been beating the tar out of Merry on a regular basis, since it's all his fault. I think I'm finally softening him up, though. Amazing what just the right set of handcuffs will do. Specially when you lose the key..."

Frodo laughed again. "Oh Pip! But yes, he seemed to be at least slightly reasonable, when he was here a week or so ago. I've missed you both, a lot."

"I'm glad he behaved himself a bit better. And if he doesn't come around soon, I'll start invading you, anyway. Oh, just a minute, Fro..." Pippin covered up the phone. "What?" he yelled, listening for Merry's muffled protests. "Oh, all right, I'm coming!" He uncovered the phone again. "Er, sorry, Frodo, but I've got to go. I have to find that key, now..."

Frodo giggled again. "Go ahead, Pip. I'll see you tomorrow."

"Bye-bye! Love you, babe!" Pippin smiled in satisfaction and hung up the phone, pulling a small key from underneath it and stalking purposefully toward the bedroom.

Frodo grinned, and curled back under the covers. Pippin was wonderful...

Sam had been poring over some of the thicker tomes of regulations that he needed to understand in his new position as Frodo's business partner. He had steadfastly refused to sign any legal paperwork before he understood what was involved and how best he could truly help Frodo. He had known too many people who'd found themselves in litigious scrapes and lost friendships over such arrangements when things had gone unsaid or undocumented, and he had no intention of allowing that to happen. He hadn't even chosen a room for himself to move his things into, and was still living out of a suitcase in the master bedroom.

After a day of scrutinizing the various forms of legal partnership arrangements available, his head was pounding and his eyes swimming in a blur of figures and legalese. Rising stiffly from the desk chair, he went to the bedroom, finding Frodo settling back in under the covers. "Mind if I join you?" he asked, wincing as he sat on the bed.

"Be upset if you didn't," Frodo replied, holding his arms out.

"Oh, just where I want to be," sighed Sam, pressing himself into Frodo's embrace and wrapping his arms around him. "You might even make me head stop hurting so much." He pressed a soft, fervent kiss to Frodo's collar bone.

Frodo touched his forehead lightly. "Oh Sam... Headaches again?"

Sam moaned at Frodo's touch and tried to relax into it.

Frodo massaged his forehead gently, trying to replicate what Sam had done so many times for him.

Sam brought Frodo's left hand to the back of his head. "Feel that groove, just at the base of my skull?" He guided Frodo's finger into the tiny, vertical dip.

"Mm, yes."

"Just move your finger up and down there, slowly. You can press fairly hard. And just let me rest me head on your other arm."

Frodo did as he said, smiling. "Love you, sweetheart."

Sam moaned at Frodo's touch and let his head drop softly onto Frodo's arm as he felt his neck muscles relax. "I love you, too. Ohh, that's good, love... Now if you could... ah! start working your fingers outward... Neck and oh! the back of me head... ohhhhhhh, yes..." Sam slumped against Frodo's chest.

"Sounds like you're enjoying yourself."

"'Hurts so good'," said Sam in a faint imitation of a girl band. He pressed a kiss just under Frodo's nipple.

Frodo giggled. "We're having dinner with Pippin and Merry tomorrow night."

Sam tensed immediately and winced in pain, his hand flying up to his temple as he hissed.

"And you don't want to?"

"It ain't that exactly," breathed Sam through a white haze of pain. "It were just a shock, is all. Me head weren't ready for it." He guided Frodo's finger back to the base of his skull.

Frodo kept quiet, until Sam had completely relaxed again.

"It's all right, love, you can talk to me about it. Just don't tell me that Mr. Merry's going to audit me, or anything. And I love your voice. It makes me feel better." He leaned heavily against Frodo's chest.

"Pippin invited us," Frodo said quietly. "And he's cooking."

"Oh, I remember his cooking at your birthday party. He's good, he is." Sam turned his head, seeking more of Frodo’s touch.

"He is," Frodo agreed, continuing the massage. "We're getting there at five or so tomorrow."

"All right, love," said Sam, kissing the nearest patch of skin to his mouth. "Just as long as you're feeling well enough.” He looked up, wincing at the new angle of his head.

"Do you want me to keep this up?" Frodo asked, raising an eyebrow.

"I'm sorry, I'll be good, Mum," muttered Sam, miserably.

"Shhh, love," Frodo murmured. "Just don't want you hurting yourself anymore."

"Blasted head. Blasted bloody books and rules!" Sam winced, again. "Guess I shouldn't be cursing, neither..."

"You should take a break, love."

"I am. I'm here with you."

Frodo smiled. "A longer break."

"Oh, well, in that case, what are you doing for the next, say, ten or twenty hours?" Sam groaned as Frodo's fingers found just the right spot behind his left ear.

"Sleeping, what else do I do?"

Sam pressed in, turning to kiss Frodo's breast. "You make me feel better, for one thing, and we shag each other blind as often as possible." He nipped gently at Frodo's nipple.

Frodo giggled, and nodded. "There is that..."

Sam leaned into Frodo's fingers as they worked over his scalp. "Just a little lighter now, love. And let me just lay me head in your lap. I can't hold meself up no longer, and I don't want to be so heavy on you."

"You're not," Frodo said, pressing Sam down. "I want to feel you against me. Please."

Sam sighed, wrapping his leg over Frodo's thighs and crawling further on top of him. He kissed Frodo right where he could feel his heart beating, lingering there. "I love you so much..."

"Not as much as I love you," Frodo murmured back.

"Oh," Sam whimpered, and buried his face in Frodo's arms and body, hugging him close.

"Sam?"

"Nobody ever said that to me before. Just caught me sudden, like," said Sam nuzzling into Frodo's skin.

Frodo rubbed his back softly. "Oh love... it's supposed to be a game. You say, ‘No, I love you more.’ And then we argue over and over, and kiss each other silly."

"Oh, well...” Sam blushed and smiled. “If you don't mind, can we skip to the kissing, this time? I don't think my head wants to argue, right now."

Frodo giggled, and pulled him closer. "Sleep, sweetheart. And then we're getting you an eye appointment. These headaches... I think you need reading glasses."

"Oh, wonderful. I can hear me sisters now. 'Oh, look! It's Samwise Four-eyes! Ooo, have a go at the Professor, then!'" Sam finished his falsetto with a groan.

Frodo laughed. “You could try contacts, you know.”

"Oh, well, there is that..."

"Mmhmm... Well. Either way, I don't want you hurting your eyes."

"I think it's more me trying to wrap me head around all of this. Stuff and nonsense is what it is, when all we want to do is find a way to run this place together. Too bad we ain't brothers. Life would be a lot easier, then."

"Aside from the fact that we'd be incestuous... I think you're right."

"If it were with you, I wouldn't care about incest," said Sam, curling his head up slowly to kiss Frodo's neck.

"Mmm... should've gotten Bilbo to adopt you, too, then..."

"Aye, should have, at that," said Sam around a huge yawn. "We could've shared a room."

"Mmm, yes." Frodo yawned in turn, and they both laughed. “Sleep?” Frodo stroked Sam’s shoulder.

“Yes, please,” said Sam, pulling the covers over them both.


"No, you may not use the mandoline tonight! Jesus, Mer, you're so wound up, if you don't kill Sam or Frodo, you'll end up slicing off a finger or something, and I'm damned if I'm going to let you do any of that!"

"I'm not wound up," Merry snapped.

Pippin sighed, put down his chef's knife and took Merry in his arms. "And the Pope's a pagan woman who believes in gay marriage," he said, gently. "Merry-mine, I know this has been hard for you, and I know you're worried about Fro, but the only way you're going to lose him is if you insist on being an asshole to Sam. Now if you want to do something useful for tonight, take this," he handed Merry a giant wooden mushroom, "and bash all ten of those poor, innocent garlic cloves on that cutting board, all right?"

Merry took a long sigh, and nodded, all but pulverizing the garlic.

Pippin rolled his eyes, wishing he'd opted for a side dish of garlic bread rather than the pasta for which Merry was now murdering the hapless cloves. "Good thing I didn't give you the tomatoes to prepare," he quipped. "You were very thorough, love. I don't even have to chop this up. Not even a little bit." He swept the garlic into a small bowl and set it aside, handing Merry a stainless steel bar.

Merry looked at it, and raised an eyebrow. "And this is for...?"

"Rub your hands on it under cool running water. It'll remove the smell of the garlic." Pippin kissed Merry's cheek as he moved past him to the oven to examine the quail. "Oh, good. This should be done just as they get here," he muttered to himself.

"Oh..." Merry blinked and did as he was told.

"It's like magic," grinned Pippin. He kissed Merry's fingers. "Not that I mind the smell of garlic on your fingers, of course," he added, sucking one lasciviously into his mouth. "But I know you have issues about such things."

Merry smiled, and kissed him tenderly. "Couldn't we cancel the dinner?"

"Mmmm, lovely Merry," sighed Pippin. "No, we can't. You've been miserable with this distance between you and Frodo, and I really can't bear to let that go on. Besides, if it's any help at all, I'm sure Frodo and Sam are at least as nervous as you are.”

Merry pulled Pippin closer, and sighed. "I know, I just... don't want to do this, love. It's so hard to see Frodo like this..."

"I know, darling," said Pippin, kissing Merry and rubbing his back. "I’m worried, too. But isn't that all the more reason to start getting to know Sam a little better? To see how they are together? And to go on mending fences with Frodo? You love him so much, Mer. You don't want to lose him, right? Even if it does mean seeing him when he's so sick?"

"Stop being all logical at me, Pip," said Merry, with a soft smile.

"Oh, well if that's what you want, then let's just perform the Magic Squid test on Frodo and see if the tentacles turn turquoise when he faces east," said Pippin. He ruffled Merry's hair and kissed him. "Are you going to be all right, love?"

Merry sighed. "I suppose. Hit me if I start being an ass?"

Pippin hugged Merry, very tightly. "Of course I will, Merry, and with great pleasure. What else are partners for?" He pulled back and looked at Merry. "I love you, my darling twit," he said. "You’re such a wonderful man."

Merry blushed. "I love you, too, Pip."

At that precise moment, the timer buzzed and the doorbell rang. "Perfect timing!" exclaimed Pippin. "Can I call it, or what? You get the door, love, and I'll get the quail." He gave Merry a quick kiss.

"Couldn't we do it the other way?" Merry muttered, before heading off to meet his doom.

Pippin raised his eyes skyward. "Whoever is up there listening to our mortal drivel, please, please keep my Merry from harming himself and others. Please?" He pulled the tiny parcels out of the oven and grinned at their perfection.

Sam fidgeted at the door, biting back the urge to ask Frodo if he'd mind very much if he turned tail and ran away like a frightened rabbit. "Frodo-love?"

"Hmm?" Frodo asked, putting his hand firmly against the small of Sam's back.

Sam turned impulsively and hugged Frodo close, breathing him in. "Please hit me if I behave like a ninnyhammer."

Frodo laughed a bit. "I love you, Sam. And I'll hit you if you hit me."

"All right," said Sam, absently. He kissed Frodo, pulling away as he heard footsteps on the other side of the door. "Here we go," he said, his voice far less steady than he would have liked. He leaned surreptitiously into Frodo's hand on his back as the door opened.

"Sam, Frodo." Merry smiled. "Won't you come in? Pippin's in the kitchen, and he's banned me from it..."

"Damn fucking straight, I did!" came Pippin's voice from the kitchen before Frodo could open his mouth.

Frodo cracked up laughing.

Merry groaned.

Frodo laughed again. "Oh Mer... What'd you do this time."

"I may have over-bashed the garlic," he admitted, sheepishly. "It's good to see you, Fro," he said, hugging him, at last.

Sam couldn't help the smile that spread over his face as he watched Merry and Frodo.

Frodo hugged Merry back tightly. "It's good to see you, Mer."

"You know, if you two don't stop, I'm just going to have to take young Samwise here for my very own," said Pippin, right between Merry and Frodo. "Sam, welcome to our home. Since you are not otherwise occupied, you may have first choice of the hors d'oeuvres. Chips and dip, or quail Wellington?" He held out a plate.

"Oh, my! Could I try the quail, Mr. Pippin?" asked Sam.

Pippin laughed. "Good choice, Sam. And for heaven's sake, call me Pippin." He saw Merry stiffen in Frodo's arms, and flicked him lightly and secretly on the skull. "You are a guest in my house," he said, just pointedly enough that only Merry could really hear it, "and all guests over the age of puberty call me by my first name."

"Thank you, Mr.– Thank you, Pippin," said Sam, taking a slice of quail and looking away from Merry.

"The ones under the age of puberty call him Pippy Poo-Poo, " Frodo added.

"Chips and dip, Fwo-Fwo, or shaww we have Mewwy get you the Fwoot Woops?" asked Pippin.

Sam was busy choking quietly on his quail.

"Fuck off," said Frodo, cheerfully.

"Chips and dip it is, then. Cherry or Grape Kool-Aid with that?" asked Pippin.

Sam turned beet red.

Frodo rolled his eyes, taking a piece of quail.

"Sam, are you all right?" asked Pippin, casually flicking the back of Frodo's head as he passed.

Sam managed at last to swallow and pull himself together. "Yes, thank you, Mr.– Pippin, I'm fine. Just a bit of bacon went down the wrong way, is all. These are delicious, if you don't mind me saying so."

"Mind? Why, Sam, of course I don't mind."

"He'd stick his bottom lip all the out to the coast if you didn't tell him how good they were," quipped Merry.

Pippin beamed at Merry and blew him a secret kiss before telling him loudly to fuck off.

Frodo smiled, taking a seat on the couch. Everything seemed to be going well...

"Have some quail, Mer. I have to put the water on." Pippin sidled up to Merry. "Love you, dorkface," he said, with great affection.

Merry kissed him. "Love you, too. See, I can be human."

"I know, love." Pippin returned Merry's kiss, pulling away to go boil the pasta water.

"Can I help with anything?" asked Sam, shifting uncomfortably.

"No, Sam, that's all right," said Pippin. "You're our guest. Just relax and enjoy yourself."

Sam felt as if he'd been sentenced to death, and hoped that the execution would be quick.

Frodo tugged him down. "It's all right, Sam. You really can do nothing, and dinner will still turn out."

"Oh, I didn't mean that... I only... Oh stars!" Sam sat uncomfortably next to Frodo, wondering just how awful he must look to Merry.

Frodo touched his back again, soothing him. "Mer, how're your parents?"

"Oh, they're all right. Had to fire a couple of people who were stealing from them."

There was a loud cough from the kitchen.

"One of them was their chief accountant, who'd been embezzling."

The sound of Pippin clearing his throat was becoming very prominent.

"They trusted him for years, and it turned out he'd been robbing them blind all that time."

Pippin's throat was sounding very bad, indeed.

"Pip, are you all right, love?" asked Merry.

There was a loud clatter as a pot lid landed with great force on the floor.

Sam twisted his fingers hard and stared at his knees.

Frodo nodded. "Yes, your family always was less lucky than mine, in who worked for them. Lucky Bilbo only picked his friends."

Merry looked sharply at Frodo, Sam tried hard to sink into the floor and Pippin clattered ominously in the kitchen.

"It sounds like Pippin could use some help," Frodo offered.

Sam bolted from the couch and into the kitchen. "Could I please help you in here?" he asked Pippin.

Frodo sighed, watching. "I'd meant you..." he offered Merry.

"Christ," said Merry, slumping onto the couch. "Pip would kill me if I went in there, now. I just found out about my parents having to fire Bill, and I went crazy with worry. They trusted him for so long, Frodo. We don't know how much it’s going to cost them in the long run, and I just... I couldn't stand to see anything like that happen to you, too." Merry put his head in his hands.

Frodo stood, and joined him, rubbing his back. "It's not going to," he said simply. "No more than if... if Bill was Pip."

"I have to admit, Bill always struck me as a bad sort," said Merry. "I never could understand what Dad saw in him. Anyone who'd treat the people under him that way–" He winced. "I saw him backhand one of the migrants about five years ago. I never said anything, since he and Dad were thick as thieves. I wish I had, now.” Merry shook his head. “I have to say, I can't picture Sam doing that."

"He wouldn't," said Frodo. "He's a good man. Possibly the best I know."

"But what about me?" whined Merry, looking soulfully into Frodo's eyes and blinking like a doe.

Frodo laughed. "You're up there, kiddo."

Merry couldn't help laughing at that, and he tilted into Frodo, pulling him into a quick hug. "I guess I'd better go make good on my promise and give Sam a real chance."

"I'd appreciate it," Frodo said quietly. "The two of you... you're the two men who mean most to me, Merry. I don't want you at odds like this..."

Merry swallowed, hard. "Especially when you're so sick," he murmured. "I'm sorry, Frodo. I'll go try to make this work. That is, if Sam doesn't run away from me at his first available opportunity," he added, with a bit of rue. He kissed Frodo's cheek and went to the kitchen, where he found Pippin and Sam engrossed in the details of how to make chicken with forty cloves of garlic.

Pippin looked up, and his eyes narrowed a little. "Merry."

Merry shifted. "It, er, seems that I've been an ass. Which means that Pippin has to hit me, just so you know, Sam. After all, he promised me that he would..." He looked at Pippin.

Pippin nodded, and reached for the rolling pin.

"I said hit, not kill!" said Merry, shielding himself in alarm.

Sam stepped casually between the rolling pin and Merry.

"Sam, I'd..." Merry swallowed. "I'd like to apologize," he gritted out. "You are a guest in my house, and I've behaved abominably. But before I ask you to forgive me, I need to ask you something else." He looked straight into Sam's eyes. "What are your intentions toward my cousin?"

"He doesn't have any, so far as I know," Pippin replied, smiling slightly. "I think he just wants to eat my cooking."

Sam couldn’t stifle his snort in time.

Merry rolled his eyes. "Wrong cousin," he growled.

Sam returned Merry's gaze. "Mr. Merry, I love Frodo. I have for as long as I can remember, and I never thought that he would cast his eye on me, nor would I have expected him to. I want what I’ve always wanted: to help him as best I can, in whatever way he needs most. And if he tires of me, I won't stop wanting to help him, even if it means that the best thing would be t- to leave," he said, his voice steadier than he'd feared it would be.

Pippin smiled to himself as Merry visibly relaxed, and couldn't help mouthing, "I told you so" over Sam's shoulder.

Merry held out his hand to Sam. "Sam, I hope you'll accept my apology for the way I've behaved to you over the past few weeks," he said.

Sam took Merry's hand and shook it, warmly. "I do, Mr. Merry," he said, gravely.

"And please call me Merry. After all, as Frodo reminded me recently, this is California in the 21st Century."

"Oh, don't remind me," said Sam, dolefully. "If the Queen herself showed up here, everybody'd be calling her Lizzie, more'n likely."

Pippin giggled. "Mmhmm. Dizzy Miss Lizzie, no doubt. And it's about time the two of you made up..."

A pair of groans greeted Pippin’s remark.

Sam blushed and Merry shifted. "Yes, well," they said, simultaneously. They looked at each other and laughed. "I should see to Frodo," said Sam. "He were that tired on the way here."

Pippin frowned. "Is he no better, then, Sam?"

Sam sighed. "No, he ain't really, M – Pippin," he said. "I mean, he ain't feverish no more, but he's so tired, and it never seems to go away, no matter what we do." Sam cast his eyes down.

Merry looked sharply at Sam. "Is he eating enough? He looks thin, to me."

Sam raised his eyes to Merry. "He's eating more than he was for a while, I've been seeing to that. But he don't always feel like it, and I don't want to make him sick."

Pippin frowned deeply. "I'm worried about him," he admitted, hugging himself. "A lot. Vinca had mono, and... this doesn't seem the same."

"No, it don't," agreed Sam. "Mr. Merry..." Sam swallowed. "Merry, I mean, do you remember aught about Frodo's mum being sick?"

Merry frowned a little, thinking. "She was... tired, I remember. I was very young when she died, but when she'd baby-sit, I always had to be very good. She always had a headache. And was confused, easily. Fro and I used to convince her she hadn't given us treats when she had."

Sam stifled a chuckle at this last piece of information, but quickly frowned. "It sounds a bit similar, though Frodo's not that easily confused. Did you ever hear anyone say what it might have been?"

"Hashimoto's disease?" Merry said with a shrug. "Though from what I remember, she didn't fit the symptoms.

Pippin spoke up. "Papa says it was CFS.

Merry snorted. "Pip, it'd have to be something that exists."

"CFS?" asked Sam.

"Chronic fatigue syndrome," Pippin explained, as Merry rolled his eyes. "We thought Vinca might have it, until the mono tests came back positive."

"Oh, I think I've heard about that. One of those things me Dad says is all made up by spoiled folk afraid to do a good day's work." Sam frowned.

Merry nodded, rolling his eyes, but Pippin shook his head.

"My dad says it's real," he said firmly. "And he's a doctor, he should know. There's a lot of research and stuff. It's just that there's no test that proves it, exactly."

Sam shook his head, unsure of what to believe. "Well, Frodo ain't afraid of work, and he ain't been skiving off any time since I've known him, so whatever he has is real," he said.

"I'm not saying it isn't," Merry said quickly. This new truce with Sam wasn't something he wanted to mess up. "Just... it's not CFS."

"And I ain't convinced it's CFS, neither," said Sam. "I ain't exactly been looking in the medical journals, meself, but seems to me there's more that could cause this than something as ain't been known for too long. I just know it don't seem like glandular fever to me. And I know that Frodo's worried about that, too," he added, heavily.

Pippin nodded, biting his lip. "Whatever it is... I hope he gets better soon."

Sam nodded in turn, his eyes to the floor. "So do I," he said, quietly. "I'd like to check on him, if it's all right with you. And... I think I might smell that chicken, Mr... Pippin."

Pippin smiled, and hugged Sam tight. "Go on. We'll be in soon."

Sam hesitated before returning Pippin's embrace. "Thank you, Pippin," he said, glad for the comfort of the wiry hug.

Sam found Frodo slumped on the couch where he had left him. "Oh, dear me, I hadn't meant to leave you so long," he said, sitting beside him squeezing his shoulder. "Frodo, you should probably wake up, love. Pippin's chicken's starting to get a bit crisp, and he'll be wanting to serve it soon." Sam kissed Frodo's brow.

Frodo mumbled something, snuggling in against Sam.

Sam pulled Frodo close. "Oh, love, come on, now. Wake up, me dear. You have to eat, sweetheart." He kissed Frodo's scalp, finding it hotter than he’d expected, and breathed against his ear.

Frodo's face tightened, and he pressed closer.

"Frodo, you're very hot. What's wrong, love? Please tell me."

But Frodo didn't wake.

Sam got off the couch and laid Frodo down on it, making sure he was safe before going to the kitchen. "I need a cool cloth, and Frodo needs a doctor," he said calmly, taking a dishcloth and wringing it out of cold water and hurrying back to Frodo.

"What?"

"He's burning up and I can't wake him." Sam was out the door and by Frodo's side in an instant, applying the cloth to Frodo's forehead and wrists.

Frodo stirred at the touch, eyes opening a little. "Sam? What are you doing? I'm just... just resting my eyes..." They slipped shut again.

Sam kissed Frodo's crown as he continued to cool him down. "Stay with me, Frodo-love,” he said, his tone gentle but firm. "Any luck on that doctor?" he asked, raising his voice and turning to find Merry right behind him.

Merry nodded. "Pal's on his way, if Fro's bad, he'll take him to the hospital. Fro... ?"

"I'm fine," Frodo protested. "Just a little warm..."

"You are not fine," said Sam. "You're giving me quite the fright, you are, love. But I'm glad you're awake, now." He kissed Frodo's temple, lingering far longer than he would normally dream of doing, under the circumstances.

Merry squeezed Sam's shoulder. "He'll be all right. He's an idiot, but he'll be all right."

"You hear that? Who am I to argue with Merry in his own house?" Sam smoothed the cloth over Frodo's forehead.

"I'm fine, really..." Frodo's eyes closed again. "It's just the flu..."

"No, it's not, Frodo. You just got over the flu, and you couldn't have been exposed to it again. You ain't been nowhere, and there haven’t been no sick people in the house." Sam cooled Frodo's wrists.

Merry shook his head, biting his lip with worry.

Frodo sighed, and pushed himself up. "You don't have to do that, Sam, really. I'm fine... was just tired."

Sam sat next to him and pulled him close. "You're a bit more than tired, I think. You have a fever, you do, or I'm no judge. Dr. Took's on his way." Sam kissed Frodo's brow, passing the cloth around the back of Frodo's neck. He looked up at Merry, a plea in his eyes.

Merry stared blankly for a minute, then started rattling on about the dinner his parents had thrown for the owners of the largest estates in Sonoma County when he was 13 and how he had gotten soused by tasting all of the offered vintages and forgetting to spit them out. When it had come to toasting the various suppliers for the feast, all local producers of gourmet fare, Merry had jumped onto the table and waxed rhapsodic about Farmer Mushroom’s Gourmet Maggots, lifting his glass high to a stunned silence before passing out onto a massive tray of morels.

The distraction worked, keeping Frodo conscious and everyone else amused until the doorbell rang.

Pippin answered the door, greeting his father with a hug before ushering him into the living room. He went to Merry and slipped his arm around his waist, kissing him softly as the examination began.

"Well, hello, Frodo. Long time, no see, eh? Just slip this under your tongue." Paladin Took slipped the digital thermometer into Frodo's mouth, then smiled and nodded at Sam, who blushed. "Well, well, Sam Gamgee, isn't it? Pippin's told me a lot about you. Want to tell me how long Frodo here's been sick?"



"Well, sir, he's been poorly since Mr. Bilbo went and left. Well, since before that, really. And then he had a bad case of the flu about three or four weeks ago, and he fainted and was unconscious for a day or so. He weren't getting no better, so Dr Peredhel took blood and told him it were mono, most like, only it don't seem like no mono I've ever seen, begging your pardon."

Dr. Took smiled. "And what about tonight?"



"Well, he seemed tired, but he were fine otherwise, until I left him alone for a few minutes and then came back to find him asleep and burning up, like, and I couldn't wake him."

Paladin took the thermometer from Frodo's mouth and nodded. "Hundred and one degrees, Frodo."

Frodo's eyes rose a little. "But... I just feel a little warm."

"Well, you're not hot enough for a trip to the emergency room, but you are more than a little warm, and considering how fast this came on, I'd have to say that it bears watching. How's your head, by the way?"

"Aches," Frodo admitted. "But that's nothing new."

"Really? How long have you been getting those?"

Frodo furrowed his brow. "Three, four months? Something like that."

"And you didn't tell anybody because...?"

"I told Dr. Peredhel," Frodo replied evenly.

"Ah," said Paladin, noncommittally. "Yes, right around the time you had your flu, no doubt. How often do you get them, Frodo?"

Frodo shrugged. "Only when I'm awake."

"They never go away?" said Sam, wincing. "Oh, love!"

"They come and go," Frodo replied. "But... there's usually something there."

Sam bit his tongue, hard.

Paladin frowned. "How much sleep are you getting, Frodo?"

"More than I need..."

"Could you be more specific?"

"Fourteen to fifteen hours, at least, a day."

"Sound sleep, or do you keep waking up?"

"Fairly sound, except for the nightmares. And the night sweats."

Sam squeezed Frodo's shoulders.

"How's your appetite?" asked Paladin.

"I don't have one."

"How's your concentration?" Paladin started checking Frodo's glands as he talked.

"I don't really have any," Frodo admitted. "I've lost track of conversations half-way through them."

"Any aches and pains anywhere else? In the joints, for instance?”

"Uh... yes," Frodo admitted, surprised. How did Paladin know? "Pretty much everywhere."

"Lie down for a second, Frodo," said Paladin.



Sam disentangled himself gently from Frodo and helped him to lie down.



"Unfasten your shirt, please," said Paladin.

Frodo raised an eyebrow, but did as he was told.

Paladin palpated Frodo's abdomen, paying particular attention to his liver. "That hurt?"

"No.”

"You can button up, now." Paladin took a moment to write down everything that had been said in his quick, illegible shorthand. He turned to his son. “Pip, get him a glass of water, would you?”

He pulled out a sample pack and handed Frodo two Tylenol tabs. "Take these. They’ll help reduce the fever. Frodo, I want you in the hospital for a battery of tests. You don't have to go tonight, of course, but I'm booking you in there within the next couple of days."

"What? Why?"

"Well," said Paladin, glancing at Merry and Pippin, "I want to check you out for chronic fatigue syndrome.”

Merry shook and bit his tongue; Pippin tightened his arm around his waist.

“The good news,” continued Paladin, “is that it's not considered life-threatening. The bad news is that you still have to go through a bunch of nasty tests, just to be sure you don’t have anything else."

"I... I don't think I've heard of it," Frodo said. "What is it? What do I do about it?"

"Well, it's a syndrome in which you’re tired all the time, your concentration is crap and you have aches and pains, especially in the joints. It can also affect the liver and the spleen, and it can cause fevers and fainting, as you've experienced. A lot of people think that it doesn't really exist, but the Centers for Disease Control list it as a real condition, and there's quite a bit of research happening.

“As for what to do about it, that's more up in the air. But we can talk about all that when and if this turns out to be correct.” Paladin glanced up at the gritted, worried faces looking down at him. “The main thing is, you have a good support system and enough money to pursue the new stuff that's coming out about it."

"Chronic fatigue syndrome," Frodo murmured, nodding.

“I think so," said Paladin. "Anyway, just go cuddle up with Sam and take it easy until we get you into the hospital.”

"I... all right. Thank you, Dr. Took..."

"Hey, whatever happened to Uncle Pal?"

Frodo blushed a little. "Sorry. Thanks, Uncle Pal. It means a lot."

Paladin smiled and squeezed Frodo’s shoulder. “You’re welcome, son.” He looked up. "Sam, take Frodo home now, and put him to bed. No strenuous activity at all until I say otherwise, and certainly none before the tests. I'll call you as soon as I have everything set up at the hospital. And I'll set you up in a private room, and make sure that Sam can stay with you, Frodo, if he wants to.”

He rose and turned to Merry and Pippin. "Sorry to spoil your party, boys," he said, hugging each of them. "Pip, whatever that is smells delicious. Maybe you could send some of it home with Frodo and Sam?"

Frodo curled up on the couch, feeling cold and sick to his stomach. He barely heard Paladin taking his leave, and had more than half-fallen asleep in defense, by the time Sam was ready.

"I'm sorry about this," said Sam to Merry and Pippin. "It were right nice of you both to invite us, an' all. I know Frodo were looking forward to it from the start."

Pippin nodded, scared. "I know, Sam. Take him home and look after him for us?"

"That I will. Goodnight, then..." he held out his hand to Pippin.

Pippin pulled him into a tight hug, and after a moment, Merry joined them.

Sam stood in the group embrace, overwhelmed. "Frodo's right lucky in his cousins," he said, thickly. "And I'd best be getting him home," he added, pulling away carefully.

"We love him, too, Sam," said Merry. "Take care of him for us?"

"I will," said Sam. He backed away and went to Frodo. "Want a hand up, love?"

Frodo pulled himself up, sleepily, not saying anything.

Sam drew his arm around Frodo, offering support and comfort. "Lean on me, love, I've got you."

Frodo did, not really waking up the entire way home. He fell asleep the moment he was in bed, hiding from life in his dreams.


Merry slammed the dishwasher closed. "It can't be CFS. That doesn't exist!"

Pippin winced at the sound of the glasses crashing together and stopped Merry from turning the appliance on. "I know, I know, love, and the world's flat as a pancake, too."

"Pip, there's no cure. Nothing... nothing that can be done. It can't be that. It has to be mono..."

"Ah, now we're getting somewhere," said Pippin. He put his hands on Merry's shoulders, massaging firmly. "Merry, love, isn't it better that Frodo and Sam know what they're up against, rather than chasing red herrings?"

"He won't get any better..."

"He might not," acknowledged Pippin. "But then again, there's lots of research being done, and Papa isn't exactly unknown, or shy and retiring, so they might come up with something. And even if he doesn't get better," Pippin turned Merry to face him, "we won’t leave him to face it alone."

Merry shook his head, tears in his eyes. "I just... don't want him to have to do this, Pip."

"I know, darling," said Pippin, taking Merry into his arms. "I don't either." He kissed Merry's cheek and held him, rubbing his back, softly. "But you'll give him all the very best support you can, because you're my Merry, and you're strong and determined, and you'll break as many dishes and kitchen appliances as you need to to make sure that Frodo's well cared for, and I love you for it, so much."

Merry blushed a little. "It just... it can't be that. Even if your dad asked him all those questions and he was... It can't be."

Pippin sighed. "Merry, love, you and Sam and I will all pull for Frodo, and if that means that he has some disease that half the world doesn't believe in, then we'll find the way to cure him, or halt its progress, and give him a better future." He rubbed his forehead against Merry's. "Right, my love?"

"Right," Merry agreed, the fight going out of him. "I... I won't say a word to him, no matter what."

“Are you going to be all right?" Pippin pulled back to cradle Merry's face in his hand.

Merry shrugged. "I don't know."

Pippin kissed him. "Yes, you will," he said. "At least you will in front of Frodo. Then you’ll come home and fall apart on me all you like, and I'll put you back together."

Merry nodded. "Of course. I'll be strong for him, for you... I can be. I just..." He bit his lip. "Fro's supposed to be the one with it all together, you know?"

"I’m sorry, love. It's not easy to see this happening to him.” Pippin nuzzled Merry, gently.

“No,” said Merry on a dry sob.

Pippin held him close. “Frodo's strong in some very deep way, and I think he'll pull it together once he knows what's happening and how to deal with it. And now that he has you back, he can only be the stronger for it."

Merry let himself be comforted. But that night, he lay awake for a long time, weeping in silence as Pippin slept.
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