Written in 2005 for hobbit_ficathon, on LJ. We had to include these elements:

A pony
A book
A pear tree
A bottle of ale

Rated G; mostly fluff, with just the teensiest bit of angst.
Summary: Merry recalls his fifth birthday, and how Frodo helped him celebrate.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: In the flashback, Frodo is 18, and Merry is about to have his fifth birthday. (12 and 3 in Man-years)


Merry set Stybba loose to graze and wander about the orchard as he would. The Rohan pony would not stray out of his sight. He took the satchel he had removed from the saddlebag, and sat down beneath one of the old pear trees, and removed from it a sandwich, an apple, a bottle of ale-and a book.

He sat, his back against the tree, and for a few moments, just rubbed his hands lightly over the book, before he took a small drink from the bottle. He pulled his cloak up a little snugger-the Solmath wind was chill, even though the day was mild for the time of year. He took a bite of the sandwich Estella had made for him-sliced cold meat, mild white cheese, sliced pickle and spicy mustard, and opened the book.

It was a thin book, the lettering in it, large and bold and precise. There were only a few words on each page, dominated by large watercolor pictures at the top. He did not read it at first, but just sat and looked at it.

Bless Pippin for understanding his need to be alone, this day before his birthday, and for helping Estella to understand, and not be angry when he had told them of his plan. They had only been married a little over a year, and sometimes she would take it personally when he did not wish to be constantly in her company once in a while. But she had not argued after Pippin had explained to her.

For a moment, tears gathered in Merry's grey eyes, but he blinked them away. Today was not a day for sad memories of Frodo, but for sweet ones.

And when he had come across this book, among some of his old things from Brandy Hall, he had known what he had to do today…

Merry had bounced on Frodo's stomach enthusiastically. "Ugh! Merry-lad! You are getting too big to do that!" Frodo protested.

"Wake up, Fro! 'Member what day it is?"

Frodo rolled him off grinning, and started to tickle. Amid Merry's shrieks of laughter, he said "Of course I do! It's the day before your birthday-you'll be five tomorrow!"

Merry scooted towards the head of the bed, away from the wriggling fingers. "Presents! Presentspresentspresents! Real ones! I won't be a faunt no more!"

" 'Any' more!" Frodo corrected. "And yes-real presents for you today, and you will get to pick out real presents to give tomorrow! Not just flowers for your Mum."

As though she had been summoned by the mention of her name, there was a knock upon Frodo's bedroom door, and Esmeralda's voice-"Lads! You don't wish to be late for your breakfast today of all days! Merry-come along to the nursery, and let Dahlia get you dressed."

Merry shot from the bed, and turned to look at Frodo from the door. "Hurry up, Frodo!" he ordered imperiously.

Frodo laughed, "You hurry up yourself, sprout!" and then winced as the overexcited lad slammed the door going out. He could hear Aunt Esme's gentle admonition to her son about slamming doors as they walked away, and he jumped up and went to the washstand for his morning ablutions.

In the nursery, Dahlia was hard put to it to get the wriggling child into his clothes for the day. "Dahlia!" he kept saying "I'm not going to be a faunt no-I mean any more!"

"I know Master Merry. Now turn around and put your arm in the sleeve."

"I'm going to get you a present!"

"That's nice Master Merry, sit still while I do up your buttons."

"Do you want to guess what it is?"

"No, Master Merry, I'd rather be surprised. Now here, let me brush up your toes…"

Soon Dahlia brought Merry to the small private dining room in the apartments of the Son of the Hall. Saradoc, Esmeralda and Frodo were already seated. Dahlia put the little wooden seat, meant to raise Merry up to the height of the table in his chair, helped Merry into it, and took her own seat next to him.

"Thank you, Mistress," she said to Esmeralda, as she did every time she ate with the family. Dahlia was from Whitfurrows, and never expected to eat at the same table with gentry, but Brandybucks were nothing if not practical, and soon convinced her that it made sense to eat with them if Merry were doing so. Still, she felt as though she should show her gratitude, and Esmeralda had given up trying to get the nursemaid to think of herself as "family".

Merry's eyes grew wide at the sight of the small pile of packages on the table. He would be five years old, so he would get five presents on the day before his birthday. He might possibly receive a few more between now and noon tomorrow if any other relatives felt inclined to do so, but there would be no presents for him at his party-that was the time for him to give, and not receive. Esmeralda sincerely hoped Merry would not embarrass her the way young Berilac had embarassed his parents a couple of years before, when he had tried to keep all the presents.

Of course, presents were not to be thought of when the food had yet to be served, and soon Merry was deeply engrossed in his scones and jam and eggs and sausages and fried taters and warm milk sweetened with honey. But that did not keep him from casting frequent longing glances at the presents.

Finally, when all had finished eating, and the food was cleared from the table, he could open his gifts.

First was the gift from Grandda Rory and Grandmum Gilda. It was wrapped in a brightly colored handkerchief, and when Merry opened it he grinned. It was a mug, of heavy clear glass, just the right size for his little hands. It had two curved handles on each side, shaped like fish, and etched around the bottom was the scene of a riverbank, and young hobbits fishing or splashing in the shallows.

Merry grinned, and pointed to two indistinct little figures with fishing poles. "Look! There's me and Frodo! Oh, this is splendid! I shall always drink from this-it can go with my pony plate!"

Saradoc smiled. "You must be sure to thank Grandda and Grandmum, then, Meriadoc!"

"I will!"

Next came the box, tied with a yellow ribbon, from his mother and father. He pulled the bow loose with one tug, and as it fell away, he lifted the lid. "Oh! Oh, Mum! Oh, Da!" He took out a carved wooden boat, as long as his forearm, and realistically detailed in every way. It was painted green, with yellow details. There were even little oars and oarlocks.

"It really floats, Merry," said his father, grinning nearly as much as his son.

"Merry," said his mother seriously, "you may take it in your bath at any time. But you are not to float it outside in the River, or even the stream or ponds unless an older person is with you!"

"Does it have to be a grown-up, Mum?" he asked, flicking his eyes to Frodo.

She smiled. "Yes, unless it is Frodo. Otherwise it does have to be a grown-up."

"Well, that's all right then."

The third parcel came from Whitwell, and was from all his Took relations. He pulled off the string, and tore open the parcel to find a beautiful leather ball, just the right size for playing catch or kick-the-ball. His eyes shone as he thought of all the fun that would be.

The fourth parcel came from Hobbiton, from Cousin Bilbo. "What do those words say, Da?" he asked.

" 'Open Carefully'," said Saradoc. Merry's eyes grew serious, and he held the package to his nursemaid, who untied the string, and helped to unfold the brown paper. Inside were two boxes-one had a large stack of inexpensive rag paper. The smaller box held a dozen brightly colored chalks.

Merry laughed. "Look, Frodo! Now I can make pictures the way you do, and write stories, too!"

Frodo chuckled. "Well, I think perhaps Uncle Bilbo is hinting to me that it's time for me to start teaching a young Brandybuck his letters!"

Saradoc glanced over at his ward. "Frodo, Merry is still a bit young for that." For most young gentlehobbits began to learn their letters between the ages of six to eight.

Frodo shook his head. "Merry's smart enough for that, though. He's much smarter than most of the other cousins his age."

Esmeralda looked at Frodo seriously. "It's a big responsibility, Frodo, and a lot of work. Take it slow."

"I will, Aunt Esme. But I'm rather like his brother, you know, so it should be my job." Frodo blushed when he said it, but it was quite clear that this was something he had looked forward to for a long time.

"Very well, dear. But if he tires of it, we shall put it aside until later."

"Now I'll open the best one!" said Merry, who had been quiet during this exchange. He wanted very much to make Frodo proud of him by learning his letters. Why, even Berilac had just started to learn his-and he had to learn from his mum, as he had no big brother or sister. But Merry had Frodo and that was even better.

Frodo laughed. "You don't know what it is, Merry!"

"But it's from you, so it has to be the best!" he exclaimed. He took the largish, flat parcel, wrapped in a bit of muslin, and tied with a green ribbon. He untied the bow, and pulled the cloth aside. It was a book. He grinned and opened the front cover. "You made this for me?" he asked Frodo with shining eyes.

"Yes I did, sprout," said Frodo, feeling relieved that Merry was not disappointed.

Merry looked at the large picture which filled the first page, of two hobbits, one with dark curls, a bit larger, and a smaller one with sandy curls. They stood, hand in hand, on bright green grass, against a vivid blue sky with one puffy cloud. There were three words beneath it.

"What does it say?" he asked, though he thought he already knew.

"It says 'Merry and Frodo'," was the quiet response.

Saradoc and Esmeralda found themselves blinking away tears, and Dahlia openly used her napkin to wipe her own.

Merry just scrambled down from his chair to give Frodo a fierce hug. "I knew your present would be best!"

After breakfast, Frodo bundled Merry up, and they fetched a picnic from the main kitchen, and they took his new ball, and the book, and they took a walk down to the old pear orchard. They could stay until luncheon, after which Frodo had to go to Uncle Dinodas for his own lessons, and Merry's mum would take him to the mathom rooms to pick out the presents he would be giving out on the morrow.

The cousins played catch for a while, and ate their picnic, and then Frodo sat down beneath the pear tree, with Merry in his lap, and opened up the book, and began to read:

"Once there were best cousins, and their names were Merry and Frodo, and they lived in a lovely great hole with Merry's mum and da. One day Merry and Frodo went for a walk and had a great adventure…"

Merry read the story, looking at the lovingly painted illustrations, telling of the improbable meetings with a Wizard and Dwarves, and a Dragon which the cousins tricked, and a great treasure found, all in an easy afternoon's stroll from home…

For several years, the day before Merry's birthday, Frodo would take him to the pear orchard and read the book to him, though long before his sixth birthday he had learned to read it himself. Even after moving to Bag End, Frodo had usually come back for Merry's birthday most years. But the year Merry turned fourteen, they had a very busy little faunt to accompany them, and Pippin at that age was not one to sit still for story books. And then, somehow that year, the book had got misplaced, and the next year Frodo could not make it, and the custom fell into abeyance.

How different their real adventure had been, thought Merry, how frightening and painful and yet glorious as well. But however much he wished things would have turned out differently for Frodo, however much he wished that the Ring had never been, for himself he would not have changed a thing.

"We stuck with you, cousin, as much as ever we could," he whispered.

He turned the page, and cleared his throat. "Once there were best cousins…"