(Written in 2005 for the 20_rings community on LiveJournal)

Title: Playing at Stones
Theme: Set #1, Theme #2, "Stone"
Genre (s):Fluff
Pairing (s): N/A
Rating: G
Notes: Frodo is 22, Sam is not quite 11, Merry has just turned 9, and Pippin is not quite yet a year old. ( Ages 14, 7, 6 and about 8 months in Man Years.)
Summary: It's Pippin's very first visit ever to Bag End…

PLAYING AT STONES

When the pony-trap pulled up in front of Bag End that morning, Merry was down the path like a stone from a sling. "They're here! They're here!" he crowed, leaping through the gate to be first to greet the visitors. "Hullo, Aunt Tina and Uncle Paladin! Where's my baby?"

Eglantine laughed, and lowered the little bundle in her arms for his inspection. "Hullo, Pippin. I'm glad you're here. It's good to see you again. Come and look, Sam-it's my lad-cousin!"

Frodo and Sam had followed at a more leisurely pace. "Good day, Cousin Paladin and Cousin Tina. Hello, Pearl, Pimmie and Vinca."

The lasses, who had looked highly indignant over being completely ignored by Merry, thawed a bit at Frodo's greeting, especially as he handed them out of the trap like grown-ups.

Sam hung back a bit, slightly intimidated. These were Tooks, after all, but Frodo drew him forth and introduced him as Hamfast Gamgee's son, and a good friend, which made him blush and stammer.

Merry had taken possession of the baby. "Come see him Sam! Isn't he wonderful?"

Sam looked at the baby politely. He did not have Merry's enthusiasm for it. Babies were nothing remarkable to him. "He's very nice, Merry," he said, just to have something to say.

"I should say he is! He's my very own little lad-cousin, and I'm going to take care of him just like Frodo took care of me!"

Frodo grinned and ruffled Merry's curls. "Well, not quite, sprout. After all, I lived with you when you were a baby. It's a little bit different with wee Pippin here. You will only get to see him when he visits, or when you visit him."

"Well, we shall just have to visit a lot, then," said Merry with determination. He looked down at the baby filling his arms. "He's gone and grown a good deal since Yule. See how much bigger he is, Frodo?"

Just then they heard a call from the front doorstep. "Well, bless my buttons!" exclaimed Bilbo, "don't just stand about in the road. Come on up to the smial. It's very nearly time for luncheon. Samwise, be a good lad and ask your father to see to the pony."

"Yes, sir, Mr. Bilbo!" Sam darted off to the south side of the smial, where the Gaffer was working in the vegetable beds.

xxxxxxx

After luncheon, Merry had to relinquish little Pippin to his mother to be fed. The lasses sat in the front room, with their mother as she nursed, Pimmie and Vinca playing at cat's cradle, and Pearl reading a book. Frodo and Merry went to clean up the kitchen while Bilbo and Paladin had a smoke. Then the two lads went back outside. The Gaffer and Sam were just finishing up their own lunch of sandwiches and fruit.

Frodo looked at the Gaffer and caught his eye. "Gaffer?" he said.

Hamfast sighed, and glanced at his youngest son. Sammy was still too young to keep working by his side all the live-long day; even if he'd been so inclined, Mr. Bilbo would never have allowed it. Mr. Bilbo believed lads needed plenty of time to be lads, and the Gaffer couldn't say as he disagreed. And the understanding was there, that when Master Merry visited, Sam would spend time playing with him. That, he thought, was the rub. He couldn't say as he was comfortable with his lad playing about with the future heir to all Buckland. It weren't really proper. But, as Mr. Bilbo pointed out, there wasn't any gentlehobbits nearby with lads of that age. And they was still too young to have an understanding of why it weren't proper. He jerked his chin at his son. "Go on wi' ye now, Samwise, and mind you stay out of trouble."

Sam grinned at his father, and the three lads ran around to the front of the smial.

Frodo plopped himself down on the front step. "Let's play at 'Stones', shall we?"

The two younger lads agreed, and set about finding just the right pebbles to play with, sorting amongst the gravel in the front path. "You find mine for me, all right Merry?"

Merry agreed.

Frodo smiled. His little cousin would put far more diligence into finding nice stones for him than he would for his own. And Sam would help him.

Sure enough, in a few moments the two sandy heads were bent together, as they consulted which half-dozen of the little pebbles gathered were good enough to present to Frodo. Frodo watched with amused affection, as the springtime sun glinted golden off their curls. He felt, rather than heard, the door open behind him.

"They make a nice picture, don't they, Frodo?"

"Yes, Cousin Tina," he replied. He glanced back to where she stood, with little Pip cradled in her arms.

"I thought my own little lad might like a bit of sunshine." She stepped onto a patch of grass to the right of the front step, and lay the baby's blanket out. She plumped him down in the center, lying on his little tummy, and then went to sit on the bench by the door and took a bit of tatting from her pocket to work on.

Merry and Sam had finished their consultation over the pebbles, and turning, Merry caught sight of the baby. He went over immediately and knelt down next to the little one. "Hullo Pippin."

Eglantine shook her head, smiling. "Let Pippin nap, Merry. He has a full tummy right now. You go on with your game."

Merry sighed. "Yes, Aunt Tina." He went back to the step, and handed to Frodo the six lovely pebbles in his left hand.

"Those are splendid, Merry, thank you!"

In a few moments they began to get into the rhythm of play, as they tossed up the stones and caught them and Frodo tallied the score with a stick in the dirt by the step. Up would go the stones, and a small hand would flash out to catch-one, two, three, four, five, six-Merry was getting quite good at catching them all in his palm, but he was not quite ready yet to graduate to catching them on the back of his hand as Frodo could. He tried Sam's trick of leaving one on the ground to pick up before he caught the falling ones. One, two, three-the last two he missed…

"Hsst," said Frodo, "look." He flicked his eyes to baby Pippin, who had awakened. His big green eyes were following the motions of the stones.

Merry laughed. "I think you are still too small to play, Pippin." He tossed the stones up, one at a time. Pippin's gaze went up, and then down with each one. Even Sam found this fascinating. The lads abandoned the game altogether, in favor of a new one, as they crouched over the baby and held up a stone, tossing it and moving it in front of his face. The green eyes followed every little motion, no matter how fast, with bright curiosity.

Eglantine chuckled with amusement.

Merry leaned in a bit closely, and little Pippin waved a hand in his direction, grabbing more or less by accident his cousin's nose. Merry jerked back, sitting down hard on his bottom, and dropped one of the pebbles. More quickly than anyone would have thought possible, the baby picked it up in his fat little fist and started it towards his mouth.

Eglantine sat forward, alarmed, but Frodo was faster. "Oh, no you don't, you little Took! That's not for eating!" He retrieved it and gave it back to Merry.

"Did you see how fast he did that? He's going to be a very good Stones player when he gets bigger!" exclaimed Merry proudly, even as he rubbed his smarting nose.

"I think you are right, Merry," answered Frodo. "For a baby he has very nimble fingers!"