Merry's nose was icy. He pulled his muffler tighter around his face. The trees around the pond were rimed in frost and icicles hung from the eaves of the little house.
Pippin skated past. "Watch this, Merry," he called and executed a perfect spin.
Merry's hands were cold. He balled them up inside his mittens and pushed them into his pockets. There was a fire inside the house and a cellar full of good wine. Pippin's father hadn't been down at the shack for five years, but he'd kept it well-stocked just the same.
Pippin stopped beside Merry, blades scraping on the ice. "You're just standing there."
Merry's feet were numb. "My feet are numb," he said. The straps of his skates were too tight and the soles had grown too small for him.
"If you would only start skating, you'd warm up. Anyway, it was your idea to come down here. 'We never have time to ourselves, Pippin, with your family all around.'"
Merry made a face. "This wasn't exactly what I had in mind."
"Come on, Merry." Pippin held out his hand.
"Are you sure the ice will hold?" Merry kept his hands inside his pockets.
"Of course," Pippin said. "It's always frozen over at this time of year." He took Merry's arm and worked his hand free. "Now, skate."
With Pippin pulling him, Merry didn't have much of a choice, so he gave in and skated. He was still cold, but after a few rounds of the pond, he began to enjoy the slide and glide across the ice.
The day was cold, but the sun was shining, glinting brightly off the snow that surrounded them. Merry had to squint and shade his eyes.
"There now," said Pippin, looking at Merry. "You're enjoying this."
Merry smiled, but didn't answer. Pippin turned gracefully and took Merry's other hand, skating backwards and whistling a cheerful dance tune as he led Merry around again.
Pippin's cheeks were red and so was his nose. He had on a green woolly cap with a long tassel and a matching muffler around his neck. He skated easily and Merry envied him his skill.
"Pippin, what if I fall through the ice?"
"I've told you, the ice will hold."
"And if it doesn't?"
"Then I'll pull you out. This pond isn't deep enough to drown in."
"And if you fall in?"
"Then you'll pull me out. I hope."
"And if we both fall in?"
Pippin laughed and his breath puffed out in clouds around him. "Then with our dying breaths, we'll clasp each other close and become a byword for tragical romance."
"More likely a watchword for young hobbits," said Merry, but he was laughing too. "'Now you stay away from that pond, boys. Remember Foolish Pippin and Merry the Unlucky.'"
"Oh, so I'm a fool and you're merely unlucky?" Pippin raised his eyebrows, trying, as always, to look hurt.
Merry knew he wasn't. "Unlucky and cold."
"Still cold?" Pippin let go Merry's hands and dropped back beside him, reaching inside his coat. "Take some of this." He handed Merry a flask.
Merry slowed and took a cautious sip. His mouth and throat burned. He could feel warmth starting to spread through his belly. He took another swallow before he handed back the flask.
"Dad's famous applejack." Pippin grinned and took a swig himself, then stowed the flask away. "The end of last year's. He's only just got started on the new batch."
"Does he know you have it?"
"Not so far, so we'd best destroy the evidence today." Pippin took Merry's hand again and they skated faster, until Merry worried he would take a tumble.
"We could do that now." Merry tried to slow down, but Pippin dragged him. "Go inside, build up the fire."
"Time for that later." Pippin let Merry go and skated off alone, turning again and again until Merry was dizzy watching him.
"I really am cold," Merry called. "I'm going now. Are you coming, Pippin?"
Pippin skated to the middle of the pond, near an old stump pushing through the ice. "I'm not going in yet." And the ice creaked and the ice cracked and Pippin went in.
Merry heard him shout and turned around. He'd not thought he could feel any colder, but suddenly everything stopped and the blood chilled in his veins and even the air around him was frozen solid.
Pippin was in the water up to his chest. He frowned and tried to scramble out onto the ice. No, Merry tried to call, but his tongue was stuck inside his mouth. When Pippin was halfway up, the ice cracked again and he splashed face-first into the pond. Pippin stood and shook his head, water spraying from his hair and sodden cap, and began to look very frightened.
At last Merry broke free. "Be still," he yelled. "I'm coming." But he couldn't -- the ice wouldn't hold. He tried to remember a story his mother told him the first time he went out to skate as a boy, to try to discourage him. About a hobbit who fell through the ice and had to be rescued...how?
There -- Merry skated to the side of the pond where he had left a bag and -- he grabbed his walking stick. "I'm coming, Pippin," he called again, and made his way back out onto the ice.
He had to be slow and careful, but that was hard when he could see Pippin shivering, hear his teeth clacking. When he'd skated as close as he dared, Merry lay down on the ice and stretched the stick in front of him. It didn't reach. He crawled forward. Pippin's lips were going blue.
Inch by inch, Merry crept towards Pippin. Then he gripped the stick in both hands and held it out. "Gently, Pippin, spread your weight out."
Pippin took the end of the stick and pulled himself hand over hand. Slowly, he got his shoulders, then his chest onto the ice. His hands slipped on the stick and Merry caught his breath. But Pippin caught himself and managed not to slide back into the water.
Merry began to pull. Hips -- knees -- feet -- Pippin was on the ice, breathing hard and shaking. "Crawl," Merry said. "Carefully." Pippin crawled, agonizingly slow. Merry moved backwards, always holding out the stick in case.
A crack began to spider out from the hole. It was almost under Pippin's foot, his skate would catch it. "Faster," Merry said, "faster." He could hear the sharpness in his voice.
Pippin crawled faster, digging his fingernails into the ice. The crack stopped. Pippin was coming nearer. "Hold on," Merry said. "I'll drag you."
Steady, he thought, slow and steady. It seemed to take an hour, but at last he'd drawn Pippin to where the ice was safe. "Thank you," Pippin said. Merry didn't answer. He hauled Pippin up and over his shoulder. He'd forgotten he was on skates and they almost went over. But Merry caught his balance and skated off to the edge of the pond as fast as he could go.
"I can walk," Pippin said and beat on Merry's back, but without much enthusiasm. The water from his clothes soaked through into Merry's coat. Off the ice, Merry made straight for the little house nearby, skate blades sinking through the snow.
He didn't take them off when he got inside either. "The floor," Pippin murmured, but Merry ignored the scores his blades left in the wooden boards and set Pippin down in front of the fire.
Too many things to do -- for a moment Merry didn't know whether to build up the fire or get blankets or strip Pippin out of his wet things first. Pippin's face was white with cold and water was pooling on the floor beneath him.
Merry managed to get everything done and swiftly. Only when the fire was blazing and the kettle on and Pippin dry and well wrapped on a stack of cushions did he sit and unbuckle the skates from his feet.
"Ch-change," Pippin managed. He was shivering violently and his teeth chattered.
"You." Pippin twisted his mouth into a grin.
Merry finally noticed that his own clothes were clinging wetly to him and he was none too warm himself. He found himself a pair of soft trousers and a big sweater that one of Pippin's sisters had knitted for him. It was bright blue and made him itch.
The kettle boiled and Merry made a pot of tea. He poured a mug and added milk and sugar, then sat down beside Pippin. "Drink."
Tea sloshed over the side of the mug as Pippin took it from him. Pippin sipped and made a face. "Could use that flask." Merry just gave him a look and Pippin drank more deeply.
"It wasn't in your pocket," Merry said. "It must be at the bottom of the pond." He ran his fingers under his collar and scratched at the back of his neck.
Pippin swore into his tea. "Maybe we can fish it out later." He was shivering less now. "Get some rope and a hook or bucket..."
Merry stared. Something seemed to come loose inside of him and he leapt to his feet. "Have you no sense, Pippin?" he said. "No, and you don't, or you'd not be wet to the skin and half frozen." He put his hand to his head for a moment. "And I'd not be scared half to death, not knowing what I'd say to your mother..." He looked at Pippin. "Your dad would thrash me."
Pippin shrank into his blankets and lowered his head under Merry's gaze. His voice was subdued. "Not if you brought back the flask."
Not if...did Pippin think this was funny? Merry would give him not if. He opened his mouth but the words wouldn't come. Then the anger faded away, leaving Merry with weak knees and a rueful smile on his face. He sank to the floor and took Pippin's face in his hands. "Foolish Pippin," he said, and kissed him, just once. Then he crawled under the blankets and wrapped his arms around Pippin. "I was scared half to death," he said, mouth in Pippin's damp hair.
"So was I," Pippin said. "Thank you." He wasn't shaking now and his face was flushed in the firelight.
"I don't know what you'd do without me around to save you."
"When was the last time you had to save me from something?"
"There was the time you licked that pump handle at midwinter."
"Twelve years ago! And anyway, you didn't save me. You ripped all the skin off my tongue."
Merry laughed and gave Pippin a squeeze. "Well, you'd have been stuck, else."
"You could have done something. Melted it off somehow."
"But then you would have done it again, wouldn't you?"
Pippin wriggled. "Your sweater is itchy."
"I know," Merry said and rubbed the sleeve along Pippin's neck.
"You could take it off."
"But I must do my duty by your family."
Pippin didn't comment and they sat in silence for a while. The fire hissed and popped.
"I'd be quite happy to save you sometime, you know, if only you'd do something foolish."
"I thought I already had," Merry said, and kissed Pippin again.