The Great Smials of Tuckborough rang with song, laughter, and general cacophony and were filled with hobbits, most of whom were at least slightly tipsy. One never knew what was going to happen when Tooks and Brandybucks got together--and throw in a couple of Bagginses, and anything could happen.

It just so happened that it was Paladin Took's birthday, which was always an extravagant event, the Tooks being as wealthy as they were. Paladin's three daughters flirted with every handsome young Brandybuck they could find, and one Frodo Baggins.

This Frodo Baggins was, at the moment, sporting an appendage named Pearl Took, who had graciously been passed to him by his cousin Meriadoc Brandybuck. Said Brandybuck had then escaped and was now hiding behind a large chair with a couple of his friends and (Frodo suspected) a mug of ale. Frodo had spent the last twenty minutes attempting to dissuade Pearl from his company and sidling over to Meriadoc's hiding place. As a last resort, he tried the oldest trick in the book: "Er, Pearl, I think I hear your parents calling you."

The Took laughed. "Oh, don't be silly, Frodo! My parents are hardly in any state to care what I'm doing!"

This was true, Frodo had to admit. Paladin and Eglantine were looking quite inebriated. "Maybe it was one of your sisters," Frodo said weakly. With those words, he realized that finally, he'd surreptitiously reached the chair, and as Pearl launched into another tirade, he hissed, "Merry!"

A head popped up from behind the chair and smirked at Frodo's predicament. The expression quickly turned to horror, however, as Pearl squealed, "Meriadoc! There you are!"

"Here I am," Merry Brandybuck agreed with resignation in his tone. Suddenly, he brightened. "Frodo and I were just about to nip outside for a quick vomit--I'm afraid we've both drunk far too much. Come, Frodo!"

Before Pearl even had so much as a chance to be disgusted at this, Merry had leapt nimbly over the chair and pulled his cousin away.

Once safely out of her grasp, Merry demanded, "What were you trying to do? I'd only just escaped her lascivious clutches!"

"Aren't you over-dramatizing this just a bit?"

"A bit, yes," Merry admitted. "But honestly, if I hear one more word about her summer sewing project or precious little Peregrin, I think I may go mad."

"Peregrin?" Frodo asked suddenly. "Where is he, anyway?"

Shrugging, Merry replied, "I don't know. He probably slipped off somewhere with all the other babies."

"Babies? He's at least ten, I think."

Merry snorted and remarked, "There're far too many Tooks for me to possibly keep track of all their ages."

"I just think it's odd. He is Paladin's only son. You'd think he'd be right in the thick of things."

Fixing his older cousin with a knowing look, Merry questioned, "Frodo, are you trying to tell me something?"

"Trying, yes."

Throwing up his hands, Merry said, "Fine, fine, I'll go look for little Master Took. At least it'll be easier to stay away from his sisters. They claim to adore him, but I'm searching for him. Why doesn't that surprise me?"

"Nothing surprises you, Merry," Frodo said with a grin.

"You're right. When you're caught kissing Pearl tonight, I won't even blink," Merry smirked.

"Just look for your cousin."

For the next hour or so, Merry wandered the rooms and passages of the Great Smials. When no Peregrin Took was to be found, Merry began to wonder where the lad had gotten to himself. With the inside of Tuckborough searched, he let himself out a back door and began to walk the grassy area between the Smials and Tuckborough's woods.

Quite suddenly (and just as he was about to give up his search, if truth be told), he came upon a small, sobbing figure huddled on the ground. Recognizing the fair, curly hair, Merry knew it had to be his young cousin.

"Peregrin?" Merry asked hesitantly. Dealing with tearful children had never been his strong point. This would surely test what little skill he had, as the boy seemed to be likely to flood a small area with his tears.

The young hobbit mumbled something, and Merry cocked his head, asking, "What was that?"

"I said call me Pippin," he whimpered a little more clearly. "You're my cousin, you're supposed to."

"All right, Pippin, then." He sat down beside his cousin. "What's wrong?"

Peregrin--Pippin--sniffled loudly. "My family doesn't want me."

Merry smiled--only, of course, because Pippin couldn't see him. The Thain's only son, unwanted? Unlikely. "What do you mean, they don't want you?"

Accompanied by many more sniffles and a few hiccoughed sobs, Pippin explained, "My da said th-that I'm a nuisance, and all I do is cause t-trouble, and if I don't act like a proper Took then they'll send me to…to…"

"To?" Merry prompted him.

"Buckland!" Pippin wailed. "Forever!"

"Well, there's naught wrong with Buckland. That's where I live."

Pippin cried harder at these words.

The young Brandybuck winced at the fast-approaching hysterical sobs and patted Pippin's back comfortingly, if rather awkwardly. "It's all right, Pippin. Your family isn't going to send you away to Buckland. I'm sure your dad didn't mean what he said."

For the first time, Pippin looked at him. Even in the dark, the hobbit's face looked red and blotchy. His eyes, however, were gleaming with a child-like hope. "You're sure? I'm not going to be sent away?"

"I'm positive," Merry assured him. "I'll even talk to your dad. Make him see reason--that sort of thing."

Pippin looked astounded. "You'll talk to him?" he whispered in an awed voice. Unexpectedly, he wrapped his arms around Merry's stomach and clung tightly, mumbling, "Thank you, Merry, thank you!"

Merry uncomfortably returned the hug and allowed it to go on a good deal longer than may have really been necessary. Eventually, he asked, "Don't you want to go back inside?"

"No," Pippin responded promptly.

"Well, maybe you could…loosen your hold a bit, then? I'm starting to feel a little sick."

With a squeak, Pippin pulled away and gave him a terrified look. "Sorry!"

Smiling at him, Merry said, "It's all right. Why don't you sit beside me?"

Pippin snuggled up next to him and looked at him adoringly. "How come you're helping me?"

It was difficult to explain to a hobbit of ten that people didn't always mean what they said, particularly family members. And he hated to tell his little cousin that his father was only trying to scare him, and that really Merry didn't need to do anything at all.

"Just because," he finally answered. "Wouldn't you do the same for me?"

Pippin nodded fervently and became silent, and surprisingly, Merry found that he didn't mind the little hobbit at all. The warmth at his side was comforting, in a way.

"Merry?" Pippin suddenly piped up.

"Hm?"

"You're not just doing this now because there's no one else here and you'll feel bad if you don't, are you?"

"Er, no." He meant it, too.

"Are you going to be my friend?"

Unsure of how to answer that, Merry began, "Well, Pippin…you're much younger than me."

"Not that much."

"Not in twenty years or so, I suppose, but it's a lot now."

"We can't be friends for twenty years?"

Merry laughed. "I didn't say that." After a moment, he added, "We are friends, aren't we? At least, now we are."

Pippin nodded, satisfied, and the two of them sat there until the party inside began to wane and hobbits began to depart, and finally, until Pippin fell asleep.

~

Merry didn't expect Pippin to show up at Brandy Hall at least once a week for years, or to make appearances when he was with his friends, but soon enough, Pippin Took had wormed his way into everyone's affections.

And it was a good ten years later, on another of Paladin's birthdays, that the two of them sat in an apple tree, alternately eating and lobbing the fruit at unsuspecting partygoers.

"Oops." Pippin leaned out over a bough, and Merry pulled him back as he began to tip too far.

"Oops, what?"

"I think I just hit Sam."

"Where?"

Pippin grinned. "Right in the forehead."

"Fifty points!"

As casualties rose, the terrestrial hobbits started to drift inside, where apples did not come falling out of the sky, followed by the disembodied laughter of Merry Brandybuck and Pippin Took. Pickings became slim, and the two of them soon fell to talking, though occasionally they were able to pick off a straggler.

"Merry," Pippin said thoughtfully, "do you remember that other birthday?"

"Of course I do. I got a great present, you know."

Pippin looked rather confused at this. "What?"

Rolling his eyes good-naturedly, Merry answered, "Don't make me answer that, Pip."

This answer satisfied Pippin. It was one of those confusing things that Merry had a habit of saying, but he'd figure it out eventually. "Well, anyway, I've been thinking about it. You were about my age then, but you put up with me chasing you around everywhere, and…" Pippin paused to think of the right wording and then finished, "…and you're the greatest friend anyone could ask for."

Merry stared at him, bemused. "You're sentimental tonight, aren't you?"

"It happens."

Smiling, Merry said, "Well, let me return the compliment." He hugged his friend tightly for a moment. "You don't do yourself enough justice, Pip."

"I don't have to. You think highly enough of me."

There was a brief, companionable lull in the conversation, and then Merry asked, "Want an apple?"

Pippin glanced at the ground and grinned wickedly, catching the fruit that Merry tossed him.

A furious howl and delighted laughter shortly testified that Merry and Pippin had struck again.