"Why didn't you tell me your aunt is a teetotaler?" Merry wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. The day was hot and the road dusty.
"I didn't know." Pippin picked up a rock and threw it moodily. "She used to love her glass of stout."
"Three days of weak tea and water. Three days of cats underfoot. Three days of lectures about the irresponsibility of youth." Merry looked over at Pippin. "Remind me again why we went to visit."
"She's very rich."
"I see." They walked in silence for a few minutes. "And she's going to leave you her money?"
"She might. If I made a good impression." Pippin's eyes grew worried. "Did I make a good impression?"
"Let's see. You praised her cats, that's good. But you stepped on Mackerel."
"No, that was Snowball."
"Which one is Mackerel, then?"
"The white one with the black paw. I think." Pippin frowned. "Never mind that. What else?"
"You weeded her garden, that's good. But you took the last piece of pie at dinner. That's bad."
"She pursed her lips up when you did it, Pip. She was clearly thinking 'young glutton'."
"Are you sure?"
"She must have been, since I was thinking the exact same thing." Merry thumped Pippin on the shoulder. "You knew I was reaching for that pie." He thumped Pippin again. "Young glutton."
Pippin thumped him back. "She certainly seemed to like you."
"I'm not surprised."
"'Meriadoc is such a nice young hobbit.' 'Meriadoc has such lovely manners.' 'I've never seen Patchwork take to anyone like Meriadoc.'"
"Take to me? That cat scratched me twice!" Merry held out his arm. "Look how deep that is. He hated me."
"She, I think."
"If your aunt liked me, that's good."
"Maybe she'll leave all her money to you instead."
Merry laughed. "Right now I'd settle for a mug of beer."
"We're almost to the village. I'll stand you a round at the inn. To make up for the cats."
"And the pie."
"Just the cats, Merry." Pippin put his arm around Merry's shoulders. "Just the cats."
The sun was low in the sky when they reached the village. Entering the inn, they headed straight to the bar, where a young woman was polishing mugs. Merry chucked her under the chin.
"I'm back, Delph. Did you miss me?"
She giggled and Pippin jabbed Merry in the ribs. "Two halves, please Delphinium." She went to the end of the bar, to the keg, and Pippin turned on Merry. "If you must flirt with every living creature, would you at least wait until I'm not standing right here?"
"I only do it when you're standing right here, Pip." Merry caught Delphinium's eye and gave her a broad wink. Pippin kicked him sharply on the ankle. "Ow!"
Delphinium set the beer down on the bar. "There you go, gentlemen." Pippin reached for the mugs, but she pulled them back. "Money first, then beer."
"You can trust me, Delph." Pippin smiled winningly.
"No, I can't, Master Peregrin, and that's a fact." She smiled too, but much less sweetly. "You're just lucky Mr Appledore is out today, or he'd make you pay up your whole bill first."
Pippin turned to Merry. "You stand this and I'll get the next one."
"I haven't any money on me, I'm afraid." The look on Pippin's face almost made up for the disappointment. "Pippin, you just got your allowance two weeks ago. What happened to it?"
Pippin turned red and muttered something.
"I can't hear you, Pip."
Delphinium laughed. "Dicing, wasn't it, Master Peregrin? Or the cricket races?"
Pippin didn't quite look up as he spoke. "Some of the lads like to race crickets out on the lawn and have a bit of a flutter."
Merry rolled his eyes. "You're not safe to be allowed out alone, Pippin."
Delphinium put the mugs under the counter. "The well is in the center of town, gentlemen. I hear that water's not too bad, once you get used to it."
Pippin groaned. "No more water. There must be something we can do."
They turned and looked around the room. The taproom was half full and it seemed that everyone in it had been paying close attention to their exchange. At Pippin's expectant look, most of them turned back to their drinks and conversations.
"It's all right, Pippin--"
"No, wait, there's Boko Boffin. He'll help me out."
Before Merry could speak again, Pippin headed for a corner table where a well-fed young hobbit drank alone.
"Well, Pippin," Boko said, "you seem to be in a pickle."
"Just a small matter, Boko." Pippin sat at the table. "Perhaps you'd care to assist me, as one friend to another."
Merry came up and stood behind Pippin. "No, Pippin, let's go." Drops of condensation clung to Boko's mug and Merry could smell the beer.
Twisting, Pippin shot Merry an annoyed glance. "It's fine, Merry." Merry shrugged and sat down. Pippin turned back to Boko. "So, Boko, what do you say?"
"I wish I could lend you some money, I truly do." Boko spread his hands, as if to show they were empty. "But I'm a little short this month myself and you already..." He trailed off delicately and took a long pull at his mug.
"You know I'm good for it, Boko." Pippin ran his hand through his hair. Merry snorted and Pippin glared at him.
"I hate to see you like this, though," Boko said, "so I'll tell you what I'll do. I'm just getting ready to bring out Lilac, Violet, and Mabel."
"Your sisters?" Merry asked.
"My crickets." Boko laughed. "I'll stake you enough to get in on the action."
"Yes," said Pippin.
"No," said Merry.
"Merry!" said Pippin.
"Pippin..." said Merry.
Pippin sighed and got up from the table, waving at Boko as they walked away.
Merry took Pippin by the shoulder. "Let's go, Pip."
"I could recite. Someone's sure to buy a round then."
"No, you don't need to--"
"Or I could do something on a dare."
"Why don't you--"
"I know. You distract old Bingo there and I'll pinch his mug."
"Pippin!" Merry shook him until he paid attention. "I have beer at home."
"Well, why didn't you say so before?"
Merry set Pippin to cutting cheese and pickles while he went down cellar and drew a pitcher of beer. The air was cool down there and he took a few swallows of the dark brew before heading back up.
They sat side by side in arm chairs, feet propped on the same stool, and raised their tankards and drank. After the first draught had slipped down, they lingered over the second and looked forward to the third.
"Tell me, Pippin, what were you going to recite?"
"The tragical history of Rose Red and Sweet William. They were lovers who were cursed by a witch. Rose Red slept all the night and Sweet William all the day. They could only meet at dawn and twilight."
"Oh, so that's what you think of me, is it?" Pippin's eyes were almost glowing in the candlelight.
Merry reached out and wound his fingers in Pippin's hair. "No, it's not." Then he leaned over and bussed Pippin on the mouth. "I think you're such a nice young hobbit." Merry kissed him again, lingeringly. "You have such lovely manners."
"I can't say much of your manners, though." Pippin grinned. "You promise me beer, but won't let me drink it."
Merry tugged once on Pippin's hair, then released him. "Three days of 'No, Merry, what if she hears us?' Your aunt is deaf, Pip, it would have been all right."
"She just pretends to be deaf."
"You don't think she'd approve?"
Pippin choked. "My maiden aunt?"
"So, who were all those watercolours of?"
"Her friend Poppy. She died a few years back. They lived together all their...oh. Do you think?"
"I suppose it's a good thing she liked you then."
"And do you like me?"
"Now and then, Merry. Now and then."
"How about now, then?"
Pippin didn't answer, but he got up and joined Merry in his chair, straddling Merry's hips and putting his hands on Merry's chest. Merry wrapped his hands around the back of Pippin's neck and drew him close.
After a while, they slid to the floor. Merry's foot hooked the table and over it went.
"Merry, you've spilled the beer!"
"There's more down cellar."
But the candles were guttering before they went to get any.