"That was my piece of wood, Merry!" Pippin glared and tried to snatch it back.
"Didn't see your name on it, Pip." Merry stepped out of the way and added the branch to his stack.
"It was right in front of me. I was picking it up when you stole it."
"There's lots of deadwood for both of us."
"Then why did you have to take mine?" Pippin's forehead was creasing in exasperation. Merry had seen that look a lot.
"Oh, I was bored." Merry grinned.
"If you're bored, why don't you ask someone to tell a story or sing a song?" Pippin grabbed another fallen branch. "Now this, Merry, is a highly superior branch. Much better than yours."
"Let me see."
Pippin hugged his bundle close. "You're not getting this wood."
"My branch is clearly better. Look at this bit of dried moss here." It was a ticklish business, teasing Pippin. Too little and he wouldn't play. Too much and he'd sulk. But Merry had had a lot of practice.
"Of course it's a good piece of wood. I spotted it!" There was a good-sized stick at Pippin's feet, but he was looking at Merry.
"But I have it." Merry moved closer, holding his bundle in one arm. "See here, where the bark is peeling off. That's good tinder, that is."
"Are you expecting Gandalf to give you a prize?"
In one swift grab, Merry scooped the stick from the ground, then dodged back. "Well, you never know."
Pippin's face reddened and his eyes blazed. "You're a thief, Meriadoc Brandybuck."
"And I taught you everything you know." Merry was pleased. Pippin was coming along nicely. "Why are you in such a hurry, anyhow?"
"I want to get back for dinner before Sam eats our share as well as his own."
"If you were a beaver, you could gnaw on a branch."
Pippin shot him another glare. "And if I were a dog, I could bite you, but I'm not."
Merry reached in his pocket and produced an apple. "You could gnaw on this."
"Where did you get that?"
"It's the last one. I've been saving it for days." Merry tossed the apple up and down a few times. "Not an easy task, I might add."
"Toss it over, then."
"The last apple and you want me to just toss it over? Come and take it from me." Merry threw his bundle down and held up the apple. "If you can."
Pippin's answer was to drop his wood and charge. Merry stepped aside, but not fast enough and Pippin tumbled them both to the ground. The apple rolled under a bush.
Laughing, Merry heaved Pippin off and scrambled to pin him to the ground. Pippin squirmed out of his grasp, though, and crawled towards the apple.
"Young eel!" Merry reached out and grabbed Pippin's ankle, pulling him back through the underbrush.
"Ow! That hurts!" Pippin turned and tackled Merry again. "See how you like being dragged over the ground." But he didn't drag Merry, just collapsed on top of him.
Pippin's warm weight held Merry to the earth. Merry's cheek stung where a branch had scatched him. Pippin's head rested on Merry's chest and there were leaves in his hair. Merry reached up and tried to brush them free. Between the branches of the tall trees, patches of darkening sky showed through.
"Yes?" Merry gave up on the leaves and put his arm around Pippin.
"Do you remember my mother's strawberry jam?"
"Yes, you ass. We had some the day we left." Merry thumped Pippin's back. "We haven't been away that long yet."
"It seems like it, though. Years, almost." Pippin moved a little, settling in closer to Merry.
"Do you remember the time we took the whole batch of jam and ate most of it right out of the pots?"
"And we gave the rest to the pigs." Pippin's shoulders shook as he laughed. "She was so angry."
"So we hid in the woods for a week while she cooled off." Merry chuckled. "I nearly froze."
"We both did. And starved."
"But we had fun, didn't we, Pip?"
Pippin turned to face Merry, resting his chin on Merry's chest. "We did. When we weren't starving or freezing. But you made me eat a spider. That wasn't very nice."
"That was years ago. Are you still angry?"
Perhaps he was. Pippin's eyes glinted and he took hold of Merry's shoulder. "It wasn't very nice."
And Merry judged the time was right. In one swift motion, he rolled both of them over so that he was on top and face to face with Pippin. "But I was nice to you in other ways." He licked the tip of Pippin's nose. "Wasn't I?"
Pippin wrinkled his nose, but he was smiling. "Maybe you were."
"I could be nice to you now." Merry shifted, pressing down with his chest, moving his hips side to side.
"But there's no time, Merry." Pippin didn't look too sure of that, however.
"That's not what you said when we were behind the haystack on your father's farm, as I recall."
"But that was--"
"The dinner bell rang and you still wouldn't let me go. I thought you'd pull my hair out by the roots."
Pippin blushed and Merry knew he'd won.
"We won't be long, Pip. Just relax." As he slid down to find the best position to be nice in, he saw Pippin reach out and pull the apple out from the brush. "Leave me half, Pippin," he said, and then he went to work, Pippin's hand on his shoulder and a tree root under his knee.
When he'd finished, Merry lay back down, head on Pippin's stomach, eyes closed as his friend stroked his hair. He held out a hand. "Give me a bite now." Something dropped into his palm and he closed his hand around it. Apple core. Merry sat up. "Pippin!"
Pippin stretched and stood. "Thank you, Merry, on several counts."
Ungrateful wretch! "You'll get what's coming to you, Pippin."
"I've already had it." Pippin grinned, then caught up both stacks of wood and ran back to camp.
Merry stared after him, then laughed until he was breathless.