A tuneful hum invaded Pippin's uneasy slumber, forcing him to wakefulness, along with a rhythmic thumping that shook the bed. He opened his eyes, expecting darkness, but the room was filled with a soft light. Merry was sitting on the bed, dangling his feet and striking the wooden bed frame with his heels. Was it morning already? Ah, Merry always was an early riser.
"Can't you ever let an old hobbit sleep in?" Pippin grumbled, still half asleep. He tugged at the bedclothes in a feeble attempt to pull the blanket over his head, and yawned. "I wonder what time it is?"
"It's early yet," Merry said, and smiled. His fine Rohirric livery was smudged with the dust of a long march, and his head was bare. "Hello, Pippin."
Pippin sat up and rubbed his eyes. He spent a moment or two gaping like a stranded fish, then said the first thing that came into his head. "Merry! What are you doing on my bed?"
"Waiting for you to wake up, you old crosspatch," Merry said, folding his arms across his chest. "Now is that any way to greet me, I ask you?"
"I'm sorry, Merry," Pippin said sincerely. "I didn't mean to bark at you. It's just that I wasn't expecting to see you quite so soon. "
"Oh, well, sorry to trouble you. I'll just go away for a bit longer," Merry said. He sighed, as if deeply hurt. "After all, you're not a very old hobbit yet, and you always did say you wanted to beat the Old Took, so I suppose I could try to come back in, oh, twenty or thirty years or so..."
"No!" Pippin cried, throwing off the blanket. "Wait!" He crawled to where Merry was sitting, then reached out slowly and touched his sleeve. He slid his hand down Merry's arm and grasped his hand, then let out his pent-up breath in a big gust. "Not a dream, then."
"No indeed," Merry said. "But shall I pinch you, just in case?"
"Don't you dare!" Pippin said, then threw his arms around him. "Oh Merry! Merry, it's so good to see you! I missed you so much. "
Merry returned the embrace. "Poor old Pippin! I'm ever so glad to see you, too. It was hard to leave you behind without a word of farewell, very hard, and I'm so sorry, but I had to go. Were you angry with me?"
"A little," Pippin admitted. Those first hours alone had been some of the darkest of his life. "Never thought I'd see the day when a Brandybuck could beat a Took for impulsiveness, but off you went." He uttered a shaky laugh. "You didn't even think to take along a handkerchief, you impatient old fool."
"Cousin Bilbo would've been so dreadfully disappointed in me!" Merry gave Pippin a final squeeze, then pulled away and wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. "Well, let's not talk about that! Here I am, still without my handkerchief, I'm afraid. Are you ready to go off adventuring with me?"
"Hmm, I don't know." Pippin paused and pretended to consider, though he had already made up his mind. "Our adventures have a way of not turning out so well. I seem to recall the first time, where I gained a sack of turnips and lost the seat of my new breeches to Maggot's dogs-"
"I can't believe you're still going on about that!" Merry groaned. He had spent the rest of that long ago summer spoiling his little cousin rotten as consolation for his fright.
"-And then there was that other quite memorable occasion, when I was generally biffed about and pummeled by Orcs, and dragged cross half of Rohan like an old potato sack-"
"Enough!" Merry said, exasperated, and pointed a stern elder-cousin finger. "You had plenty of chances to stay behind in Rivendell, so you have no one to blame for that but yourself, and I did attempt to fend them off, you know. Now, I've come quite a long way to fetch you-"
Pippin laughed and tucked his hand into the curve of Merry's arm. "There, there, Merry, don't be angry. I was just teasing and having a bit of fun. It's been so long since I've had another hobbit to jest with. I'm ready to follow wherever you lead me, you know that."
"You...you..." Merry started to splutter indignantly, but then he softened, and his shoulders slumped. Ah, he never had been able to stay angry at Pippin for long. He raised his fist and shook it gently and lovingly under Pippin's nose. "You rascally old Took."
"Cranky old Brandybuck," Pippin said fondly.
They jumped off the bed together, their feet hitting the floor with a solid thump. Pippin took a good look around at the big room, with its heavy velvet curtains and walls of cool stone. It had been his home in Minas Tirith for many years, and he and Merry had enjoyed many a happy hour there before the fire, with friends both new and old. It had felt colder and emptier after Merry left him, as if whatever had made it homelike had departed forever, but it never quite lost the faint and comfortable hobbit smells of wool and pipeweed. Pippin's armchair-the only hobbit sized furnishing-was still pulled up close to the hearth, and his favorite scarf, threadbare with age and use, was draped over the arm. A tall stool sat next to Merry's old writing desk, and his quill and inkbottle sat next to a batch of letters Pippin had meant to post home. He couldn't help but feel a little pang of regret as he glanced at the messy sheaf of pages, written in his usual hasty scribble, and here and there blotted with ink. Correspondence had never been Pippin's strong suit. He hoped that Aragorn would see that they were tidied up and sent off to the Shire. He had tried to continue Merry's journal as well, but many times his hand had trembled so when he reached for the quill, and his heart had often felt so heavy with loneliness and longing that he hadn't kept it up as he should. He had got very far behind, and it still sat open on the desk.
Merry, as always, seemed to read his thoughts. "Time to close the book, cousin."
Pippin smiled ruefully. "Ah well, a hobbit can't finish everything, I suppose."
He could hear the soft talk of the maids as they started their morning rounds. He usually took first breakfast with Aragorn and the Queen, and someone would be in soon to draw his morning bath, to open the curtains and to lay out his clothes. It would be a dreadful blow for them all to find him gone. It made him sad to imagine them grieving, and he hoped they would not mourn him too much or too long. "We had better go now, I think. There's sure to be a fuss, and 'least said, soonest mended', as Sam always used to say. Dear old Sam! And Frodo, and Old Bilbo, too, if he is still alive. I wonder what they're all doing now, over there in Master Elrond's country?"
Merry chuckled. "Probably tucking into a good meal, or enjoying a pipe or two while they look out over the sea."
"I've missed them for such a long time," Pippin said. "Still, I do hope they enjoy a good many more feasts and pipes together before we see them again."
"I hope so, too," Merry agreed. "But whenever they come to the end of their road, the kettle is already on the hearth, and their places are made ready at the table."
"And we'll be there to greet them," Pippin said. "It does my heart good to think so."
They had been walking close together across the room, but now Pippin paused. Though autumn lay over the White City, the light that spilled through the doorway was the bright, molten gold of late summer, and instead of a long hallway of cold stone, he saw before him a dirt road, stretching far, far away under a kindly blue sky. The path was well worn by many generations of hobbit feet, and shaded with tall trees that dropped their leaves in the sweet-smelling dust. It seemed to rise in a gentle swell toward a line of green hills on the horizon, and if he strained his eyes, Pippin fancied that beyond them he could almost see the sun sparkling on the sea.
Pippin felt suddenly small and unsure. He wasn't the same young hobbit-lad who had marched away into the unknown all those long years ago, with a song on his lips and nary a dark thought in his head. He was old now, and the worse for wear; what if he tired, what if he strayed and became lost? "Is the road very long, Merry?"
"Yes," Merry said truthfully. "And it does wind uphill a bit. But at the end-."
Pippin thought he knew what lay at the end: Cool sunlight and green grass, white shores behind a veil of silver rain, and loving arms held out in welcome. But...
Merry had walked this path himself, not so long ago, and he knew what Pippin was feeling. It was a scary thing, stepping out on to the road, no matter who kept you company along the way. "Come along, Pip," he said gently. "The hardest part is just getting started." He smiled. "Foot by foot, you know."
"I know, but," Pippin gulped. "Keep close to me, Merry."
"I always have."
"Will you hold my hand?"
Merry's fingers curled around his own, solid and warm. "All the way, my dear Pippin. All the way."
"All right then," Pippin said, drawing a deep breath. "Let's go home."
And he took the first step.
'...but each had great comfort in his friends on the long grey road.'
The Return of the King, The Grey Havens
Author's note: Yet another little story written for Marigold's Story Challenge, the 9th Challenge at her website. The sharp-eyed reader will see I've made some small changes, and I'll probably make a few more as I post it elsewhere. As always, if you like this story (or even if you don't) please do buzz on over and give the other challenge stories a look. The link can be found in my bio, and all the past Challenge Stories are still available to read and review. Thanks for reading this one:o)