A/N: This is a birthday gift for my sister, the lovely and talented Oceana, who likes Hobbits. It has been in the works for some time, but real life delayed its completion. In the best Hobbit tradition, therefore, I am posting it not on her birthday but on mine. Love you, dear.

Also, for those of you who are following This Present Darkness, fear not. The next chapter will be coming as soon as I can manage it. In the meanwhile, please enjoy this trip back to the Fellowship as it should be.

Disclaimer: The characters and setting seen here are the creation of J.R.R. Tolkien and the property of the Tolkien Estate, New Line Cinema, and just about everyone else in the world except me. So it goes.

The Importance of Being a Hobbit

"And two and three – guard up, guard up, that's it – and three and four…" Boromir's steady count was punctuated by the ring of steel. Breathing hard, Merry tried to match the captain's moves. Again and again he blocked Boromir's sword, until his arms felt leaden from the repeated shock of metal on metal. Two of his knuckles were scraped red, and the knee of his breeches was torn. His shirt stuck to his back, and the pale winter sunshine seemed unseasonably warm against his neck.

But he was doing well. Already he'd surpassed his score of yesterday and once, when he managed to get up under Boromir's guard, he actually put the tall Man on the defensive for a few strokes. The surprise in Boromir's eyes was worth any number of scraped knuckles, Merry thought.

A short while later the Man called a halt to their practice. Merry wiped the sweat from his forehead, trying not to breathe too heavily. He was a member of the Fellowship, just like Boromir, and it would not do to collapse in exhaustion when his sparring partner appeared barely winded. He returned Boromir's salute, raising his sword with hands that hardly shook at all, and made his way back across the clearing to where the rest of the Fellowship had made camp for the day.

"That was well done, Mr. Merry," Sam said appreciatively as he joined them.

"Thank you," Merry answered, lowering himself with as much dignity as he could manage onto the ground between Frodo and Pippin. His knees gave out about halfway down and he landed a bit harder than he had intended, but he did not collapse. No one could say he collapsed.

"Fancy taking on a full-grown Man," Frodo said thoughtfully. He handed Merry a water skin and shot a look at his short blade. "Those were good swords we got from the barrow, in any case. Yours isn't even notched."

Merry repressed a shiver at the thought of that dreadful place. "Maybe so," he said, lowering the water skin and wiping his mouth. "But I'd rather have an Elven blade, like Sting, if I were given the choice. I don't much care to be beholden to a Barrow-wight."

"A blade of Westernesse is not to be scorned, whatever its source," Gandalf said mildly. The wizard was seated on a fallen log a little apart from the others. His staff was propped against the tree at his back and his empty supper bowl lay on the ground beside him. Now he drew a small pouch from the folds of his robes and began unhurriedly to fill his pipe.

"Aye, and you ought not to put too much faith in Elvish weapons," Gimli added from his seat next to Boromir, at mid-point between the Hobbits and the Big Folk. The Dwarf cast a challenging look toward Legolas, who was seated cross-legged on the ground next to Aragorn, his archery supplies spread before him. He raised his voice slightly. "If I had access to my forge, Master Hobbit, I could craft you a sword finer than that in any Elf-king's hoard."

Legolas was carefully winding thread about a new arrow's fletching, and spoke without looking up. "That is a claim unlikely to be tested in the course of our journey. Curious that a Dwarf's boasts are always impossible to verify at the time, is it not?"

"Regardless of where the sword came from, it is a good one, and finely crafted," Aragorn broke in hastily, as Gimli glowered at the top of Legolas' bowed head. Mentally Merry tallied a point to the Elf. By his count Legolas was leading Gimli in this day's insults by 14 to 5.

"You handle it well, Meriadoc."

Merry glowed with pride at Aragorn's praise, forgetting the weariness of his muscles and the ache that was developing in his lower back.

"I wonder what it would be like, though, fighting for real," Frodo mused. "I know that Boromir holds back a little when we practice. I'm not sure I'd like it if he didn't."

Merry deflated a little, looking from Frodo to Boromir. He hadn't thought that the Man had held back so much. A cold weight seemed to creep into his stomach.

"You may get your chance, nonetheless," Legolas said quietly. He exchanged a look with Aragorn. "There are Orcs as large as Men, in the mountains."

"And worse than that, if you approach the dark lands," Boromir said grimly. He made a face, then, as the smoke from Gandalf's pipe drifted over them. Setting aside his supper bowl, he got to his feet. "Come, Master Took, it's your turn."

"Me?" Pippin looked up in alarm. "But I'm eating!"

"You've been eating ever since we stopped," Merry said with some annoyance. "Come on, Pip, this isn't a walking party."

He regretted it as soon as the words left his mouth, but it was too late to recall them. Pippin's green eyes widened in surprise and hurt, and then he stood, grabbing up his sword.

"Pippin," Merry began, "I didn't mean –"

But Pippin wasn't listening. Taking a gulp from his water skin, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and set it aside. "All right, Mr. Boromir," he said with forced cheerfulness. "A quick round before pudding, what do you say?"

"At your convenience, Master Took," Boromir said, smiling as he followed Pippin's small form across the clearing.

Merry picked absently at his food, watching as Pippin and Boromir moved into guard position. Pippin was holding his sword too close to the pommel, he thought. The weight of the blade was dragging it down, and when he brought it up to block Boromir's sword the shock of contact jarred it from his hand altogether.

Pippin laughed and ran to pick it up, and Merry saw Boromir bend down, adjusting the Hobbit's grip. Pippin took a few practice swings, then looked up and said something that made Boromir laugh in turn. On the second attempt Pippin managed to block three of Boromir's strikes before his blade clattered away again into the brush.

"Do you have a toothache?"

Merry blinked and looked around to find Sam watching him with some concern. He shook his head, not sure that he'd heard properly. "I'm sorry?"

Sam gestured to his rapidly cooling dinner. "You've hardly touched your food, Mr. Merry. And you're sitting there with your face all screwed up; I thought maybe your teeth were paining you. I've got some willow bark you could chew, if you like."

"Oh." Merry glanced down at the bowl in his hands. "No, I'm fine, Sam. Thank you. I suppose that I'm just not very hungry at the moment." Pippin was crawling out from under a gooseberry bush, sword in hand, complaining loudly about a new tear he'd acquired in his shirt. Small leaves and bits of twig had snagged in his hair.

"We've been walking all night!" Sam said. "Of course you're hungry! And you ought to enjoy something hot while you can get it, Mr. Merry. Strider says that the game won't last as we head up into the mountains, and Gandalf won't permit a fire when it's dark." This had been a point of some contention between Gandalf and the Hobbits.

"I know," Merry said. "I'll eat it, Sam. Later." Pippin was facing Boromir again, sword at the ready. This time it took only two strikes before he lost it again.

"You do that, Mr. Merry," Sam said firmly. "Only three days since we left Rivendell, and we've got a long ways to go. You need to keep up your strength."

On the other side of the clearing Pippin abandoned his sword entirely and charged Boromir, head down and legs pistoning. Startled, Boromir took a step back and stumbled over one of the fallen branches that littered the wood. As he teetered on the edge of balance Pippin hit him, and he went down with a lapful of Hobbit. The rest of the Fellowship laughed. Merry winced.

"What's he playing at?" Merry muttered.

Sam blinked, and followed his gaze across the clearing to where Pippin was now using his full weight to hold down one of Boromir's arms. Aragorn had risen to offer assistance to his fellow Man, but was laughing too hard to be of much use. Legolas kept his attention focused on his arrows, but a faint smile played over his lips as he worked. Gimli seemed to have forgotten their most recent squabble and was chuckling as he filled his pipe. Gandalf appeared to be lost in some wizard meditation, but his eyes were twinkling and there was a suspicious quirk to his lips as he drew on his pipe. Even Frodo was smiling, and that sight alone was enough to make Sam bless Pippin's antics.

"How do you mean, Mr. Merry?" Sam began to gather up the discarded supper bowls.

Merry gestured with his eating knife. "This is important, Sam. Sword training is important. We're out in the Wild now, and what's Pippin going to do if we're attacked by – by Orcs, or wolves or bears or something? Lose his sword and hope they laugh themselves to death?"

"Not much call for bears attacking people out here," Sam said thoughtfully. "Not according to Strider, anyway. And as for Orcs and the rest, well, that's why we set watches, isn't it? I don't reckon Gandalf'd let any creep up on us, and that's why Strider and Mr. Legolas do all those patrols, and we've got Mr. Gimli and Mr. Boromir too."

"Yes, but…" Merry sighed. "We ought not to depend on the Big Folk to protect us all the time, Sam. In Buckland we defended our own borders, and we didn't need anyone to help us."

"Well that's true enough," Sam conceded. "But…"

"But what?" Merry's eyes narrowed.

Sam looked faintly embarrassed. "It's just, at the Council meeting I thought Strider said something about them Rangers patrolling around the Shire. Keeping folk safe, like, even if they didn't know about it."

"What?" Merry nearly dropped his supper bowl. "You mean we – he – they –" he sputtered into silence, too outraged to speak.

Sam shrugged. "That's what I thought, anyway. Maybe he didn't mean over by Buckland, though. You'd have to ask him." He stood, carefully balancing the Fellowships' variously sized wooden bowls and cutlery. "Could you help me with the washing up, Mr. Merry?"

Merry was staring into space, his jaw clenched so hard that it hurt. He blinked at this sudden change in topic, though, and glanced up. "Me? But I did it last night!"

Sam nodded. "Aye, and I did it the morning before. By rights it's Pippin's turn, but he's busy with Mr. Boromir, so I thought he could do double tonight, to make up. I wouldn't ask, but Gimli's on first watch today, and Strider'll be patrolling again before he sleeps, and Gandalf is . . . Gandalf." he finished.

And you cooked supper, Sam, but Legolas shot the rabbits, and you wouldn't dream of asking an Elf to do the washing up anyway, Merry added to himself. And Frodo . . . Frodo has enough to worry about without bothering about little things like who did the chores last.

He felt a pang of guilt at that last thought and stood up, helping Sam to carry the dishes and the heavy iron cooking pot down to the small stream that flowed past their campsite. He brushed off Sam's thanks and began to scrub the assorted crockery with sand from the streambed.

It's probably for the best, anyway, Merry thought bitterly as he worked. Frodo needs Sam, and he needs Gandalf's guidance and Strider's sword and Legolas' bow and Gimli and Boromir . . . but he doesn't need me or Pip. We can't fight, and we don't know how to get to Mordor, and we can't scout the trail or know much about medicines if someone gets hurt. We can't even hunt as well as Legolas can, or chop wood as well as Gimli or Boromir. The Ring-bearer is setting out to save Middle-earth, and all I can do is the dishes.

Merry slept fitfully that day. He still wasn't accustomed to the Fellowship's practice of traveling at night and resting during the day, and he couldn't forget the events of that morning. Had Boromir been holding back during their practice sessions? Were the Rangers keeping watch on Buckland? Despite his physical weariness it was a long time before he fell asleep, one arm thrown over his eyes to block the sunlight that filtered through the tree branches overhead.

He awoke in the late afternoon to find Aragorn bending over him. "Your watch, Master Meriadoc," the Ranger whispered, and Merry nodded.

Carefully he pulled himself up from where he had been curled between Frodo and Pippin. Merry tucked the corners of his abandoned blanket down as he left, to block the draft from creeping in where he had been. It did not make up for the loss of his body heat, though, and he smiled as Pippin muttered in his sleep and shifted closer to Frodo. Soon the three remaining Hobbits would be snuggled up as close as if he had never been there.

Merry shivered a little as he stood, looking around the clearing. The Big Folk didn't seem to feel the cold as much, or at least they wouldn't admit it. Each of the remaining Fellowship had laid his bedroll separate from the others in a clear demarcation of territory that made no sense to Merry.

Cold didn't bother Elves, or so Merry had heard, and Legolas' chief priority in choosing his sleeping place seemed to be that it was as far away from Gimli's as possible. The Elf had spent two of the Fellowship's three days thus far perched up in the tree branches overhead, although today he had remained on the ground.

The rest of the Fellowship had arranged themselves, as Merry studied it, so that they essentially surrounded the Hobbits' sleeping pile. Gimli was flat on his back on the opposite side of the clearing from Legolas, his raspy breathing clearly audible to Merry's ears. Boromir was a mound under his heavy fur cloak, buried so that only his nose was visible. Gandalf seemed almost to blend into the forest behind him, his grey cloak and beard distinguishable from a fallen log only when Merry squinted.

They're protecting Frodo, after all, Merry told himself, chafing his hands over his upper arms as he picked his way to the edge of the clearing. You wouldn't want him left alone on the outside, would you? But even though he could recognize the sense of the arrangement it still rankled, and he could not help completing the thought, you wouldn't want him left with no one but Hobbits to protect him.

Aragorn was seated on a broken tree stump at the edge of the clearing, and made no sign to leave as Merry joined him. Merry had expected him to go back to bed, now that his watch was concluded, but instead he drew his sword and began to sharpen it. It probably didn't need it, being an Elven blade and all, but Aragorn seemed to take satisfaction in the habit.

"Has anything happened?" Merry asked as he sat down beside the Man. If there were something – Orcs or wolves prowling near the Fellowship – that would explain why Strider hadn't returned to sleep. But the Man shook his head.

"No. It's been quiet. I would that the rest of our journey be likewise."

We made it all the way to Bree on our own, Merry thought. And we got through the Old Forest, and past the Barrow-wight, and the Ringwraiths. . . but a treacherous part of his mind added, Tom saved you from the Barrow-wight, and in the Forest too. And you wouldn't have escaped the Wraiths if it weren't for Strider and Glorfindel. . .

"Is it true that the Rangers keep watch on the Shire?" Merry hadn't meant to ask that question aloud, but there it was, and he couldn't take it back.

Aragorn went very still. "Where did you hear that?" he asked.

"Sam told me. At the Council meeting, you said that the Rangers kept the Shire safe."

"I see." Aragorn said nothing further for a long moment, and then sighed. "My people patrol much of the northern territory, which was once a great kingdom. The Shire is a part of those lands."

"Oh." Merry didn't know how to respond to that. It seemed somehow ungracious to resent the help of Men who were, after all, only doing what they thought best. He looked down, chewing his lip as he studied the tops of his feet.

They sat in silence for a time, broken only by the twitter of birds overhead and the slow scrape of Aragorn's whetstone. Merry rubbed one foot over the other, trying to dislodge some of the dried bits of mud that had tangled in his hair. He would have to wash properly before they set out tonight, and best make sure that Pippin washed as well. He didn't think the lad had taken a bath since they left Rivendell – an unconscionably long time for a respectable Hobbit.

"Is there something wrong, Meriadoc?" Better borrow a brush from Sam, too, Merry was thinking. I didn't remember mine, we were in such a hurry, but I'll bet Sam has one in his pack. He concentrated fiercely on these trivialities, trying to ignore the sick feeling in his stomach.

"Merry?" Aragorn laid a hand on his shoulder. Merry could feel it, warm through the fabric of his shirt. Aragorn's hands were rough and calloused and covered in small nicks and scratches, and the nails were black with dirt. For all the gentleness of the Man's touch, Merry could not help but be aware that he was a warrior, used to battle and bloodshed. Aragorn's hand felt hard and strong and capable and above all very big, so large that it spanned Merry's whole upper arm.

He swallowed. "I didn't know." His voice sounded very small to his ears. "I thought that the Bounders… I didn't know."

Aragorn squeezed his shoulder gently and then released him. "I have never doubted the valor of Hobbits, Mr. Brandybuck," he said. "We kept watch on the Shire, and we counted ourselves fortunate to play a role in keeping it safe. But never think that the Hobbits could not defend themselves as well. Indeed, all of Middle-earth has reason to be grateful for the courage of Hobbits."

He means the Ring, Merry thought. But that was Frodo's burden, not his. What about all the ordinary Hobbits who never even knew that the Ring existed? He thought of all the stories he had heard about Hobbit valor – the archers who went to fight for Gondor, and the Hobbits who beat back the white wolves during the Fell Winter, and the Bullroarer who had once led the force that defeated a band of Orcs.

Great and thrilling tales they had seemed in his youth, but somehow they paled next to the battle-hardened Man at his side. Aragorn could probably take on a whole pack of Orcs by himself – what did it matter to him if the greatest Hobbit in history was tall enough to ride a horse?

Would Aragorn have stayed awake if it were Boromir on watch now, instead of Merry? He talked of Hobbits defending themselves, but apparently they could not do so without some Big Person looking over them, ready to step in if they got into trouble.

Aragorn turned his attention back to his sword, now rubbing a polishing cloth over the blade. Watching him, Merry was suddenly aware of a horrible feeling of lightness at his hip. He reached down, fumbling at his belt, but his sword was not there. He looked around guiltily, and spotted a gleam of metal by his pack.

Stupid, he thought, making his way back across the clearing to retrieve it. How could he expect to be treated as a warrior in the Fellowship if he didn't even have the sense to take his sword when he was on watch? He fished between the piled bags, trying to withdraw it without disturbing the nearby sleeping Hobbits. None of the Big Folk seemed to go anywhere without being fully armed at all times. Aragorn practically slept with his sword, and Merry had never seen Gimli or Boromir without some weapon at hand. He was fairly sure that Legolas even took a knife with him when he bathed. The only members of the Fellowship without a warrior's instinctive connection to their weapons were the Hobbits.

Well that's going to change, Merry thought as he pulled the blade free with a grunt. Hobbits might not be great warriors, or even particularly good ones, but they could learn.

He was just getting to his feet when Legolas arose. Merry didn't know if it was the noise he had made getting his sword or something else that had awakened him, but the Elf seemed perfectly alert. He nodded to Merry as he buckled on his quiver and then picked up his bow. He looked at Aragorn then, and without a word the Man stood and sheathed his sword.

"We'll return shortly," Aragorn said quietly, patting Merry's shoulder as he passed. "Stay on guard."

Merry nodded. They were going to scout ahead, of course, as they always did before the Fellowship set out in the evening. And doubtless they would be listening the whole time, in case there was trouble back in camp.

Aragorn joined Legolas, and Merry's sharp ears caught his whispered greeting. "About time. I thought you were going to sleep the whole day away."

"There was little chance of that," Legolas returned, leading the way between the trees. "You make as much noise as a wounded múmak, scraping stones about. You'll wear that sword so thin that it's useless, if you keep sharpening it every time you have watch."

They vanished into the forest. Merry sat down again on the tree stump, gripping his sword tightly in one hand. Stay on guard, Aragorn had said. And he would. He'd keep close watch over the Fellowship, even if he wasn't needed.