Sam was earnestly leaning over the bar, ale forgotten at his elbow as he beamed into Rosie Cotton's fair face. Frodo was sitting back in his seat, slowly working through his own drink and watching the gardener with a fond, amused smile on his own face, the possibility of a thoughtful frown ever lurking. All around them other patrons of the pub danced, sang, laughed, shouted at each other, having a grand old time.
Merry looked at the trio of his friends and grinned in something that felt like a strange combination of relief and grief.
And then the grin faded as he turned away to hunt for his younger Took cousin among the many patrons of the Green Dragon. There was Pippin, somehow contriving a spot by himself in a far dark corner of the pub, drinking a large flagon of ale with determination. Merry eyed his young cousin worriedly—rarely did that look mean anything good for whoever or whatever it was directed at, and he could see no obvious cause for it now, which only made the possibilities that much worse.
But perhaps Pippin was only enjoying his ale, his first night back at their most favourite pub in all of Middle-Earth. Perhaps he was only savouring his favourite brew, enjoying being back among other hobbits, Shire folk of his own ilk and sensibilities.
Merry glanced back at his other friends, Sam still chattering animatedly with Rosie at the bar, Frodo now lost in some deep thought of his own, brow furrowed thankfully only slightly. Merry wondered wryly if he could actually divide his worry between his cousins or if he would have to worry about each of them one at a time, but he already knew his answer to that.
He was ill-used to seeing Peregrin Took so hesitant over a drink, and yet he could perfectly understand that hesitation earlier this evening—they'd all felt it, all felt that strange, unsettling uncertainty upon coming back to the Shire and finding everything so—normal, while they were so changed. But this was Pippin, and things always had to be different with Pippin, and Pippin ever hesitating over ale was wrong on the order of—well. Perhaps not something quite so large as the trials they had faced recently. But still decidedly out of character.
Merry turned back to his cousin just in time to see Pippin wipe his mouth with his sleeve (really, he should have known better by now not to do that), set his mug down, and climb onto his table. Actually staggered; it seemed by this point he'd quite gotten over his hesitation about drinking.
"Oh no," Merry breathed involuntarily, eyes widening, and felt Frodo shift next to him.
"What is it, Merry?" Frodo asked and turned to follow his cousin's gaze. His own blue eyes widened, but there was more amusement than worry in his face. "Oh dear," he sighed, affectionate and resigned. "It appears we've come to that part of the evening."
Pippin opened his mouth. Merry quickly shut his eyes.
The song Pippin chose to regale his fellow pub-goers with that evening was not quite the most vulgar song he knew. Not quite. It was certainly one none of the other Shire folk had ever heard before, taught as it had been to the young Took by a certain warrior of Gondor and involving a lad, a lass, and an embarrassingly complicated encounter with a horse and the lad's mother, but nonetheless the other hobbits quite seemed to enjoy it. It helped that Pippin was particularly involved in his performance this evening, moving feet and arms with especial emphasis, voice thick but articulate and clear, green eyes lit with a determined, almost frighteningly focused, fire.
Frodo was sitting up next to Merry, laughing and clapping his hands and stomping his bare feet along with most of the other hobbits in the room, and when Merry twisted back to look he could see Sam had finally turned away from Rosie to enjoy the spectacle as well and cheer Pippin on in his now not-so-dark-and-far-away corner. Sam's face was lit up, ale was sloshing over the sides of his still-forgotten mug, and Rosie's hand was lightly touching his sleeve as she herself laughed in exuberant delight from the other side of the bar counter.
Merry looked again at Frodo, saw his cousin's skin flushed with excitement, a tiny brilliant fire in his own blue eyes as he sang along with Pippin and shouted reminders for the verses when Pippin stalled or clean forgot, adding to the general enjoyment and laughter of the other revellers. The ever-lurking frown had, for the moment at least, disappeared entirely. Merry's eyes strayed for a moment to Frodo's hand but he quickly pushed his gaze away again, not wishing for Frodo to happen to glance at him and know what he'd been looking at. He turned back to Pip.
Pip, Pip, dancing on the table for all he was worth, his beautiful lilting voice now only breathy, just barely managing to shout out the slurred, now at times incomprehensible words in what really couldn't be called a melody. Pippin, not-so-little Pippin, his movements wild and frenetic and with none of an Elf's grace, his face shining with sweat and red with ale and exertion, and green eyes dancing with a fire as bright as that in its place at the side of the room.
Sweet Pippin, riding into battle in the silver and black armour of Gondor; Pip, screaming as the Eye caught him looking into the palantir and refused to let him go; Pippin, quietly and gently afraid as Merry's own frustration grated along his nerves and snapped out at Pippin during the Entmoot.
Pippin, dancing on tables Middle-Earth over. Pippin, holding his older cousin together with a word, a smile, a deliberate gleam in his eye that usually brought on Gandalf's muttered "Fool of a Took."
Frodo was leaning right over the table, gasping out laughter. Merry knew that if he turned round Sam would be grinning ecstatically into fair Rosie Cotton's face.
And Pippin was looking at him with a fool's wisdom in his fire-bright eyes, dancing and singing to hold his friends together, dancing and singing to hold the Shire together, perhaps even to hold Middle-Earth itself together, even now when the pervasive evil had been evicted and hope made the air as fresh as a spring rain shower. Merry was reminded of the green flame he'd glimpsed flickering in Treebeard's eyes, but this, this was nothing like that, this was all Pippin's own fire. He was older now, Merry knew; they were all older and changed and one didn't even have to look at Frodo's four-fingered hand to realise that. And little Pip's voice was rougher than it would have been thirteen months ago, and his movements a little angrier, a little stronger than they would have been thirteen months ago, but that fire in his eyes seemed to be burning all the brighter now, and that brilliant grin might even have been a touch wilder and more reckless than it had been thirteen months ago.
And Merry leapt up to join his friend on that table and dance.