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I Always Know You  by Baylor

In which Merry learns what love really feels like

(Note: Set in the winter of 1404 SR, so Pippin is 14, Merry is 22, Frodo is 36, Fredegar and Berilac are 24, and Pearl is 29. Bilbo would have left the Shire three years earlier, but it is 14 years before Frodo leaves the Shire with the Ring.)

1404 SR, Brandy Hall

"I am telling you, Merry lad, the secret is to let them think you are dimwitted and incapable of devising any type of attempt upon their maidenhood. Then, the next thing you know, they are the ones begging for just another moment behind the barn," Fredegar boasted. I laughed, partly because he was puffed up so, and partly because I knew it was true, if the stories about Freddy's luck with the hobbit-lasses were even half reliable.

"So you say, cousin," Berilac countered as we trudged across the snow-covered field back to the Hall, "but while I know you may have had more than your fair lot of lasses behind the barn, I've yet to see you sneaking off to a bed with one of them."

"Or been caught in a haystack with one of them, either," I added, and earned a snowball to the back of the head from Berilac. I suppose I deserved it, since Robin had found Berilac and Petunia Boffin in a most unbecoming (but quite intriguing) position last summer in one of the hayfields, and he was quite sensitive about the topic.

Still -- I stooped to capture my own snowball, and turned to level it at his chest just as his second missile caught me on the side of the face. "Hoy!" I yelled, and all-out chaos erupted. By the time it was done, Berilac and I were both quite wet, and Freddy was quite a ways ahead of us, comfortably dry.

That didn't last long, despite poor Fredegar's pleas for mercy. Fortunately for him, it was too cold out for a sustained attack, and we released our quarry and trotted back toward the Hall, shivering from the cold, Freddy trailing behind us. This winter had been downright nasty, snow and ice and biting winds that continued even now, into early March. In general, it had been a long, bleak and miserable season, made even more so by a vicious strain of the Winter Sickness that had struck half of the Hall at one point or another.

The three of us had been so restless with being cooped up inside that we had eagerly taken my father up on the suggestion that we hike out to the Hedge and make sure no tree limbs had come down across it after the last ice storm. (I think Father's suggestion was in no small part prompted by a new game of our own devising that involved a mop, a roopie ball and Celandine's old toy duck on wooden wheels.) The day was cold, but the sun was shining and the crisp, clean air tasted wonderful after the moist, wooly smell of the Hall after a long winter. Our appointed task completed, our thoughts turned to luncheon and dry clothing as we picked up our pace.

Uncle Merimac was standing outside the northeast entrance, wrapped in a coat and scarf and smoking his pipe. He also was moving his feet in that repetitive forward-backward motion that meant bad news. My footsteps faltered. I could not say why, but I wanted to wait outside a bit more. Just a bit . . . I forced myself up to the entrance. I could feel Berilac giving me a funny look, but I did not meet his eyes.

Uncle Mac took his pipe out of his mouth. "Inside, lads, and get yourselves warmed up," he said, looking down at the pipe in his hands and not at us. "Merry, your mother wants to see you in her parlor."

Berilac gave my upper arm an encouraging squeeze as he brushed by me and disappeared into the Hall. I was not in trouble. I knew I was not in trouble. Something bad had happened. Someone was hurt or sick or . . . Uncle Mac put his hand on my shoulder and pushed me gently inside. "Go on, now," he said gruffly, but I caught a glimpse of his eyes, and they were filled with pity.

Barely inside the door, I scrambled out of my outerwear and tossed it aside, uncaring where it fell, then ran down to Mum's parlor. She was seated at her reading desk, a letter held tight in one hand, the other hand pressed to her mouth. She looked up when I came in, and I could see the worry lines marring her forehead and the corners of her mouth. Even this small deviation from her normal composure was enough to frighten me even more.

"Mum," I gasped, heart thudding in my ears, "what is it? Is Da . . ."

"Your father is getting the ponies ready," she said, and though strained, her voice was steady. "Merry," she began.

My heart stopped beating. "Pippin," I breathed. If it wasn't Da, it was Pippin. I was suddenly so very, very cold, and it wasn't from the weather.

Mum's face was grave. "'Tis the Winter Sickness again," she said, and for a moment I could not see the room through the grey veil that covered my eyes. I passed a hand in front of them, then reached out with it to steady myself on the back of the sofa. No, no, not now, not when he'd been so healthy for years. We were past all this, surely . . .

"Now, don't fret yourself into your own sickbed, Meriadoc," Mum said in a voice as strong and unflinching as oak, and I took a deep breath to help gain control of my rioting emotions. "Paddin says he is right sick, and has been asking for you, so you must go, and I'll not have you riding alone in this weather, so your father will go with you. I would go myself, as well, but the carriages cannot get through the roads, and there is simply too much to be seen to here, what with so many of the household ill or recovering. But you must not think the worst. Pippin has grown into a right strong lad these past years, and I am certain he will be clamoring to get out of bed in no time and you will have your hands full keeping him entertained. So get into some dry clothing and then get down to the kitchen -- Ruby has set aside a hot plate for you -- and you'll be off, with no fuss and bother."

She stood up and took my hands, squeezing them both, then leaned in to kiss my cheek. She smiled tightly at me when I just stood there, immobile with the deep dread that had come over me. I had not missed her slip in calling her brother "Paddin," the name she (and I after her) had called him in childhood, and it spoke volumes to me about the direness of the situation. "Mum," I said thickly, "what does Uncle Paladin write?"

Her mouth tightened. Mum cannot stand when folks will assume the worst, and she downplays bad news. She also thinks her brother has a tendency to exaggerate facts. True as that may be, he had sent a messenger through this bitter weather to send for me.

For a moment she did not speak, and the look in her eyes was one of a mother desperate to spare her only child great pain, at least as long as she had power to do so. I met those eyes squarely, needing to know, and saw her relent slightly. "He writes that you should come at once, without delay," she said in a low voice.

We looked silently into each other's eyes for a long minute, and I knew she would not tell me more of what was in that letter. It didn't matter, because suddenly all I could think of was getting to Pippin as quickly as I might. He needed me and wanted me and I was not there. I nodded to Mum and leaned in to kiss her cheek. She reached her arms up to embrace me.

"Go change your clothes, Merry, and eat that meal. I'll see to getting a pack together for you, and your father is taking care of everything else. You just get yourself to our lad and be what comfort you can to him," she said, and though she hugged me with despairing strength, her low voice was still even. I have never seen my mother cry, and this has troubled me at times, but at that moment, I was glad she did not cry. If she had started to cry, then I would have started to cry, and the whole scene would have delayed my departure.

As I scrambled to obey, tearing in and out of clothing and shoveling food in my mouth, all with shaking hands, I wondered if Mum would cry once we had left, or if she had simply laid off tears sometime in childhood, as we set aside old toys and games. But my mind soon skittered away from the reflection, as it seemed unable to light on any one thing for longer than a moment, and was forgotten by the time Father and I rode away toward the Bridge.


The door to Uncle Paladin's private quarters was closed. I stood numbly in front of it, for I could not remember ever seeing it shut before, and was at a loss as to what to do. Surely there was a simple answer, but I had not been able to properly function, it seemed, since I first saw Uncle Mac outside the northeast entrance, my whole being and attention taken up with one word, a prayer in and of itself, that repeated with my heartbeat: Pippin. Pippin. Pippin. Pippin.

Fortunately, I did not have to try to deduce how to conquer the closed door, for it opened of its own accord, and Pearl, pale and weary, greeted me.

"I thought I heard footsteps," she said, and her voice was as calm as always, but without the faintest hint of her usual merriment. "Come in, Merry, come in." She reached out and drew me inside by the elbow, and then embraced me. I managed to order my arms to return the gesture, but I already was looking down the corridor.

"Is he . . ." I stopped, not knowing what I asked. Is he asleep? Is he fretful? Is he in pain? Is he better? Is he worse? Is he . . .

Pearl pulled back and patted my arm. "He's struggling," she said, and now I could hear the strain beneath her composure. "The healers are doing their best to make him more comfortable so he can rest. Father is with him right now; Mamma and the lasses are resting, at Hortensia's insistence." She drew a deep, quivering breath, and now I could feel her small hand shaking a little where it still rested on my arm. "But he is fighting, Merry, oh so very hard."

I nodded. That's my brave lad, I thought with fierce pride, eyes focused down the hall to the entrance to Pippin's room, where a servant had just exited laden down with towels and cloths. "My father is seeing to the ponies and our things," I told Pearl absently, already drawing away and starting toward that door. "I need to . . ."

I felt her hand on my back. "Come on," she said quietly. "He's been asking for you."

Pippin's room was so bright with lanterns and the fire that my first absurd thought was, 'Well, of course he can't get any rest with all of this commotion and light about.' Briony, the Took children's nurse, was putting nightshirts and linens into the chest of drawers -- restocking, it appeared. Hortensia, the chief healer at the Smials, was at Pippin's reading desk, now covered with vials and bottles and jars, sorting through them all. I noted that Pippin's books had been carefully stacked on a chair next to the desk. Uncle Paladin was seated in a straight-backed chair directly beside Pippin's head, and holding a wet cloth that he wiped gently across Pippin's face with a trembling hand.

I took all this in from the corners of my eyes, for as soon as I walked in the door, I could look at nothing but the small form in the bed. He had looked so big this past fall, I remembered, that I had told him he would soon be as tall as me, and he had pulled himself up even taller and puffed out a little to announce that he felt certain he would be taller than me by next summer. Now he looked like a small, frail, sick child, and there was little resemblance to the lad who had managed to dunk me in the River on Midsummer's Day. His face was as white as the snow falling once again outside, except for the bright red patches on his cheeks. The covers were flipped back and his chest was covered with cloths, apparently steeped in some type of medicine because they made my eyes water and my nose trickle. Beneath the cloths, his chest rose and fell in an unsteady rhythm. I could see the skin at his collarbone stretch with each inhalation from the effort it took to bring in air, and his breaths were so loud they seemed like rattling wagons to my ears. His mouth hung open, lips cracked and chapped, and I fancied I could see the air passing between them. His eyes were closed.

"Meriadoc." Hortensia startled me from my stupor when she touched my hand. I had not even been aware of her approach, but now she smiled kindly at me.

"How," my voice cracked, and I swallowed hard, "how is he?"

"He has the determination of a goat and the obstinance of a mule, and he went into this a strong lad," she said, and her words eased me slightly. "But you are old enough to know truths, and the truth is that it is bad. I do not know if he will live through this. He has been sick for a week, and seriously ill for four days, and day by day, the fight wears him down. If we are to win, it must be soon."

Her bluntness shocked me, and the words, "I do not know if he will live through this," wove themselves around my heart and squeezed so tightly I thought it might stop. Hortensia must have seen my distress on my face, because she patted my shoulder gently.

"Do not despair, though, young Master Brandybuck," she said quietly. "I will put forth all my skill, and he has fight in him yet. I am glad you are here -- he has asked for you, and I know you will lend whatever virtue and comfort you have to him."

'Lend it?' I thought. 'I will give him every attribute I possess if it will help,' but to Hortensia I only whispered, "I will do everything I may."

She nodded, satisfied, and guided me to Uncle Paladin's side. "Mr. Took," she said quietly, "let Master Meriadoc spell you for a while, and you can take some rest and see to your wife and daughters."

Uncle Paladin looked up as though dazed, and noticed me for the first time. "Merry," he said slowly. "Merry." He swallowed hard. "He's wanted you."

I nodded, and any measure of comfort Hortensia had brought me dwindled at the sight of my uncle's hollowed-out eyes and wan features. His voice was flat and without hope, and I was stunned out of my own grief and fear enough to feel sympathy for this kind uncle who had waited so long for this most precious son.

"Come now, Mr. Paladin," Hortensia was guiding him up, "let Mat take you to get a bite to eat and to see to Mistress Eglantine." I was even more befuddled than I thought, for Uncle Paladin's manservant had come into the room and right behind me without me taking note. It did not matter. Nothing mattered but the lad in the bed, waging his battle breath by breath, minute by minute. Dimly, I was aware of Mat leading my uncle away, and Hortensia guiding me into his chair. I sat and leaned forward until my face was inches from Pippin's.

"Pip," I said softly. "Pip." His eyelids fluttered, but did not open. I reached out and stroked his curls off his forehead with a shaking hand, noting the heat of his skin and how his hair was damp with sweat. "Pip, sweetheart."

His eyes opened oh so slowly, as though with great effort. His mouth closed a little, and his tongue moved out to dampen his parched lips. He swallowed and his breathing changed a bit. "Mer," he said, a breath, a gasp, a whisper. "Knew . . . you'd . . . come." The hand nearest me twitched, but apparently he did not have the strength to move it. I clasped it with one of my own and stroked gently with my thumb.

"Of course I came," I said softly. "Silly goose. Where else would I be?"

The faintest hint of a smile tugged at Pippin's lips, and then his eyes slid shut and his features slackened again. I put my head down onto the bed at his side, dropping my hand from his forehead. I was afraid to touch him any further, least I cause pain or discomfort. I buried my face into the sheets for a moment, then turned my head so I could see his face again. His fingers, still cradled in mine, lay near my head, and I moved ever so slightly so that I could kiss his fingertips.

"Pippin," I whispered, and then I was crying quietly, not noticing or caring if anyone else were in the room to witness my tears. "Pippin. Pippin." At some point, I stopped murmuring his name, but my mind repeated it with each breath until I finally fell asleep, my head resting on the bed still beside his fingertips.


Later, I could never quite piece together the following three days into a coherent pattern. I woke at daybreak when Pippin stirred again, whispering in a hoarse, pathetic voice, "Merry, I'm bad sick."

"I know, sweetheart," I answered, trailing the ever-present cool cloth across his features. "I'm sorry." His eyes mutely begged me for relief and comfort before wearily closing again.

I blindly obeyed relatives and healers and servants, staying by Pippin's bedside when they allowed, moving when Uncle Paladin or Aunt Eglantine wanted to claim the spot. My father would grasp me firmly by the elbow and steer me to the kitchen or a bedroom, and I would eat what Hazel put in front of me, or lay down briefly to nap. I was always up within a few hours, checking to see if I could resume my post. When I could not stay right by Pip's head, I slunk to the back of the room and leaned against the mantelpiece, trying both to stay out of the way and be readily available. When Hortensia ordered me out of the room, I paced the floorboards in front of Pippin's doorway until I was readmitted.

Hortensia was intent on producing every concoction known to the healers, or so it seemed. She forced them down Pippin's throat, and rubbed them onto his chest. She brewed them in basins and then had us hold him upright to stoop him over them and breathe in the steam. She steeped cloths in them and spread them on his chest, or wrapped them round his neck. She poured them into the cool baths we eased Pippin into to lower the fever, and once she even tossed a handful of something into the hearth.

She also called in a master healer, who made an herbal steam with a vile-looking oily black substance and then flipped Pippin face-down over his arm and pounded on his back until he coughed up startling amounts of phlegm, a process that left him too weak to speak or move and with tears trailing down his scarlet cheeks.

Through this all, Pippin seemed near oblivious to the ministrations of the healers and the nurses. His whole attention was turned inward toward the battle, or so it seemed to me, and he would only fleetingly give note to those around him. Whenever his bleary eyes did open, they would turn toward the figure in the chair, and he would breathe a name -- Father, Mamma, Merry -- and sometimes try to reach out his hand to us. Then, apparently reassured by our presence, he would drift back to that grey world between sleep and awareness where his struggle took place.

When I had my turn at the watch, at first I whispered all of his favorite stories to him, from the fairy tales of our early childhood to Bilbo's adventures to the lengthy, ancient rhymes of adventure that were his current interest. When I ran out of those, I began to relate our own stories. "Pippin, do you remember when Frodo and I taught you to swim for the first time?" "Pippin, do you remember our trip to the North Farthing, when we saw the wolf?" "Pippin, do you remember when we ate Great-Aunt Tansy's birthday cake before the party and then tried to make her a new one so we wouldn't get into trouble?"

"Pippin, did you know I had an omen when you were born?"

"Pippin, do you remember when you made me a promise, the day you had that dreadful row with Rumby and then held the new kitten? Do you remember what you promised me? Do you?"

He never answered outright, but if I stopped talking, he grew uneasy and restless, sometimes mumbling fretful incoherencies, so I kept up the steady murmur, hoping that it brought him comfort, and reminded him of those waiting for him to return.


Finally came the darkest day. Pippin's face took on an ashen hue, and around his lips I could see the faintest tint of blue. He lay completely still and limp, not once opening his eyes or so much as twitching a finger, not even when Hortensia or a nurse would move him about to minister to him. The deep rattling of his breathing had passed, and in its place was a wretched sucking, scraping noise, like dragging heavy wooden furniture across a bare floor. I refused to acknowledge the cold fear growing in my heart, and kept up my whispered thoughts and memories and endearments to let my Pip know that I was still at his side, waiting for him to come back to me.

Sometime after noon, Hortensia touched my shoulder. "Let his mother sit with him," she murmured, and I retreated to my little spot near the hearth. Aunt Eglantine stroked her son's hair and sang soft lullabies to him, her weary face somehow peaceful. But Hortensia lead Uncle Paladin from the room and I could hear their voices, too sharp for the solemnity of the situation, a word or two sometimes discernible, and more than I wanted to hear -- "nothing more," "must be," "give up hope," "accept."

I knew what they were saying, but I blocked it from my conscious mind. Pip would wake up soon, and be all better, because he must. I could not bear it to be otherwise. I listed to myself all of the ways I would keep Pippin amused and quiet while he recovered. I planned spring and summer excursions that would help him regain strength while not tiring him overmuch. I skipped ahead to his tween-aged years, and planned bigger trips for us, with Frodo too, perhaps all the way to Rivendell. In my mind, we found Bilbo, happy and full of tales of new and grand adventures. I stood Pippin his first half-pint, and teased him about his first endeavor with a lass. We celebrated my coming of age in great style, and, later, Pippin's in even greater style. We were the most dashing young hobbits in the Shire, sons of the Master and the Thain, and our elders looked upon us with pride and affection, while the lasses giggled as we walked by. We stood as witnesses for one another's weddings, and one day I held in my arms a disgruntled-looking lad-baby with a sharp little nose and rosebud mouth, and Pippin swelled up so in his pride that I thought his waistcoat buttons would pop off. We lounged back on a hill, pipes in our mouths, looking over Buckland to the River, and watched small hobbit bairns chase each other through the fields, squealing and shouting with the joy that is youth and good health.

While my mind wandered through things yet to come, the daylight faded. Uncle Paddin had returned to Pippin's room, and knelt on the floor with his head in Aunt Lala's lap. Hortensia, moving as silently and unobtrusively as a shadow, would periodically move to the bed and feel Pippin's pulse, or study his face, and then slip back to her own watch at the reading desk. It did not escape me that no one was forcing remedies upon Pippin anymore.

Nightfall came, and lamps were lit. My father came in briefly, and leaned down to ask if I would come have something to eat, but I shook my head silently, the first movement I had made in hours. Da put his hand atop my head, and then left without further attempts.

After many long hours at her post, with Pippin little changed for the passing of time, Aunt Lala seemed to crumple in upon herself, like a cake that has fallen in the oven, and Hortensia moved swiftly to call for her maid. Rose and Uncle Paddin stood on each side of my aunt and guided her out of the room, giving me the opportunity to claim the bedside post.

"Pippin," I whispered, and laid my head upon the linens and kissed his fingertips, as I had the night I first arrived. "Pip, sweetheart."

He did not respond, and the harsh sound of him pulling in air did not change. I lifted my head so I could look down at his face. "Please, please, sweetheart," I whispered, willing him to hear me. "I know you've tried so, so hard, and you're so tired, but please don't go . . ." I trailed off and fought back hot tears for a moment.

"There once was a small hobbit named Ferdinich Brownlock, but everyone just called him Nick," I began the tale Pippin had asked for over and over when he was very small. My voice was surprisingly calm, and I carefully told the story exactly right, hearing Pip's familiar giggles in my mind at all of the correct places, and I knew I was telling the story as much to comfort myself as Pippin. There was no sign of recognition or response, but I continued on through the grogoch Nick kept hidden in his room to the soiled linens and the uprooted lavender to the lost lamb that fell over the cliff.

"'Oh, Nick,' his mother said as she tucked him into bed, 'I just don't know what we are going to do with you.' But then she kissed him hard on the forehead and ruffled his hair and he knew that she loved him," I finished, then stood and leaned over my cousin to kiss his brow and ruffle his hair, as I always had when finishing the tale, so that Pippin would know I loved him. I hung over him for long minutes, eyes closed, feeling his presence with some unidentified sense, until I felt an arm about my shoulders that I knew was my father's.

"Come along, son, let Paladin sit with him for a bit," Da whispered, and I wondered how long the two of them had been standing there, listening. I let Da guide me away from the bed and crept back to my waiting spot. Uncle Paddin sank into the bedside chair, seeming old and tired. He picked up Pippin's hand, then sat still with lowered head.

It could have been hours or minutes when the change finally came, terrifying and swift. Abruptly, the sucking sound of Pippin breathing changed, and now it sounded like a creaking door thudding against the wall over and over -- desperate and unfulfilled. My heart lurched, but before I fully comprehended what was happening, Pip's whole tiny body shuddered and then stiffened, his fingers splaying out and his back arching. His grey face turned red, and as it did, I could see his lips no longer showed a faint tint of blue about their edges, but were blue.

Hortensia was out of her seat immediately, calling for her assistant and barking at Uncle Paddin, "Sit him up! Sit him up! Get him over your arm!" My uncle had stiffened at the change in Pippin's breathing, but it took the healer's shout to snap him into moving with lightning reflexes to dangle Pippin's limp form face-down across his forearm.

The previously quiet room was suddenly overflowing with hobbits as Hortensia's assistant rushed in, followed by Briony and a nurse, while at the entrance Mat hovered. I was desperate to do something, anything, but I knew the best thing I could do was stay out of the way. There was a great flurry of activity, but my eyes were fixed on the form in Uncle Paddin's arms, and my ears strained for the now-absent sound of Pippin's laborious breathing as my heart thudded painfully in my chest. Hortensia began to pound on Pippin's back so hard I could see his feet jerking, as she issued orders in a voice no one would dare question. I could not make out her words, for the room suddenly seemed far away and the noises small and distant. I panicked for a moment as it seemed as though I, myself, could not draw in breath, and I tugged at my collar. A cold sweat broke out on my face, and my stomach lurched. I could not bear it, to see my own beloved lad handled so, to witness what was coming.

Before I knew what I was about, I was out of the room and stumbling through the corridors. A roaring like the River in spring sounded in my ears, and when Pearl, weeping in the hallway, called my name, I barely discerned it and gave her no notice. I groped unseeing until I reached a sofa, and then collapsed upon it face-first, and curled in upon myself.

I did not weep, but lay until the strange blackness that had been upon me passed. I opened my eyes and realized I was in the old playroom, now really a study given over for the use of the Thain's children. My sight wandered over the familiar items, noting the state of the room -- Pervinca's cloak was tossed over a chair that was burdened down with books, a map of the Tookland was rolled open on the low table and held down with Pippin's old wooden toy animals, an empty tea cup and dessert plate perched on the hearth. I moved to sit up, and as I let go of the pillow I had somehow clutched to my chest, my fingers brushed something wedged in between the cushions, and I pulled it out. It was Pippin's favorite scarf.

I touched it reverently, and pressed it to my face. It smelled of gingerbread and dried leaves and apples. One end of it was dirty with old mud. There was a hole from where Pippin had caught it on a hook in the cloakroom in his haste to go outside and play. There were some faded red stains from when he had once used it to wipe his face off after I scolded him for walking around with jam on his face.

I sank weakly back into the sofa, and then I started to cry. I found a wellspring within me the size of the Brandywine, and I wept and wept and wept, falling forward again onto the sofa. I wept for the future I had glimpsed just that very day. I wept for my Pippin. I wept for Uncle Paddin and Aunt Lala. I wept for Pearl and Pimmie and Vinca. I wept for Briony. I wept for Frodo. I wept for the imagined children of my future who would not have a Cousin Pippin to get them out of scrapes with a wink and a nod and a promise to never tell their da. And finally I wept for myself, deep, harsh sobs that tore at my throat and my heart.

When I began to climb out of that deep hole, I became aware of my father's hand rubbing my back, and his deep voice uttering soothing, meaningless phrases. "There, there, son, 'tis a bitter thing, I know," he said quietly, and reached up to stroke my curls. It eased my sobs to gulping breaths, and then finally I lay quiet. After long minutes, I found my voice, but it sounded foreign to my ears -- quavering and high and raw.

"Is he dead, then?" I asked.

Da sighed. "He was not just before I came looking for you. Pearl saw you come this way. But Paladin says that Hortensia does not expect him to see morning."

I nodded, once, jerkily, and slowly sat up. My body ached down to my very bones, and now I felt empty and laid open. I rubbed at my scalding, scratchy eyes and then forced them open to look at Da. His face was somber and concerned, but not despairing. He tipped his head down to get a good look at me, then settled back in the sofa beside me, putting an arm around my shoulder. I sniffled and snuffled as I leaned back against him. Da began fumbling in pockets for a handkerchief, but came up empty-handed. "Ah, I gave it to Briony earlier," he said ruefully, and then raised one eyebrow inquiringly at me. I shook my head.

"Vinca," I whispered.

"Ah, well," Da answered, "here, then," and he wiped my face off with his shirtsleeve. "Don't tell your mum," he muttered, and I nearly laughed, but it caught in my throat and became a garbled cry.

"Oh, Merry," Da said tenderly, and pulled me to him. I went willingly. I wanted to be small enough again for him to pick me up in his arms as he would do when I would suffer the childhood hurts of broken toys and scraped knees, and pat me gently on the back as he said in a half-laughing voice, "Oh, my Merry, there now, it will be better soon."

But I was much too big for my father to pick me up, and this would never be better soon.

Da settled us back on the sofa again and I leaned heavily against his shoulder, more weary than I had ever been in my life. Despite my exhaustion, I did not feel sleep ready to take me. My eyes were dry now and wide open, and I was as acutely aware of my body and surroundings and the beloved scarf clutched in my hands now as I had been oblivious to everything when fleeing Pippin's room. I was too weary to even be ashamed of my cowardly flight.

I breathed in Da's familiar scent of pipeweed and hay and let it slow my thudding heart and warm my chilled limbs. We sat silently awake for nearly half of an hour before Da spoke, his voice rumbling in his chest beneath my ear.

"No one warns you beforehand, do they, Merry lad, of what love really feels like?" he said quietly.

I pulled in a shaky breath, for I had just had this very thought. "No, sir," I answered, and though my voice was tremulous, it was my own again.

Da kissed the top of my head and said no more. I knew he spoke from harsh experience. Before I was born, there had been two other Brandybuck children, two little lasses, who had died when scarlet fever broke out one year in the Hall, taking 14 hobbits before it was done, eight of them children. Lilias hadn't seen her third summer, and Linnet had not seen her first. I had known this all my life, but it was a vague, hazy knowledge, the way I knew of ancestors who had died long ago. It wasn't until I was a teen-ager that I had fully comprehended that these two lasses would have been my big sisters, and that my parents had lost two children.

Now I wondered how they had borne it. How could someone feel pain this sharp, this slicing and bone-deep, and go on laughing and loving and building and planning?

A niggling notion about why I had never seen Mum cry teased at the edges of my thoughts, but sleep was finally laying claim to me, and I fell into blessed oblivion before I could piece it together.


When I woke sunlight was sneaking in around the pulled drapes. I was stretched out on the sofa with a blanket over me, so I guessed Da must have put me down and covered me up. The room was empty and the door still slightly ajar, but only the faintest muffled sounds came to my ears. I shivered in the early morning cold, and pulled the blanket around my shoulders as I shuffled out. The beloved scarf was still clutched in my hand, and I stowed it in my jacket pocket where it would be safe, and where I could finger it at will.

Once in the hallway, I could see Uncle Paddin and Aunt Lala in my aunt's parlor. Hortensia was with them, placing a glass of what looked like brandy between Aunt Lala's lips. Uncle Paddin leaned over her chair, speaking in a low voice. Pearl was asleep on the sofa, arranged with a blanket over her just as I had been moments before. I idly wondered if Da had seen to her, too.

After staring numbly at the scene in the parlor for several moments, I continued down the hallway. Briony was on the bench outside Pippin's room, face buried in her apron, sobbing nearly inaudibly. The door to Pippin's room was slightly ajar. Bright sunlight gleamed through it and illuminated a patch on the hall floor. The storm outside had stopped as the storm inside had died away as well. I felt numb and empty and full of grief, yet knew I must go forward and enter and face this dreadful new day, and my forever-changed life, however much I dreaded it. But not just yet. The future could wait just a moment or two longer, 'til I could find enough strength to make my way to Pippin's side and say goodbye.

I stood very still for long moments, but no tears came. I had shed every one that was inside of me last night. Suddenly, my mind made the connections it was too weary to last night, and I knew that my mother never cried because losing those two bairns took every tear given to her, for all time. And then I knew just as clearly that the night before was the last time I would ever cry, for how could I know a greater grief than this?

Rather than striking me down, this thought prompted my feet to begin moving and before I knew it, I stood in the doorway to Pippin's room.

The rising sun was pouring in through the open drapes, bathing the room in rich, luminous colors. A figure stooped over Pippin's bed, but I blinked stupidly in the too-bright room, unable to see whom it was. The snuffling, heavy sound of Briony's tearful breathing came to my ears. The little figure in the bed was covered with quilts and was still, save the rhythmic up-and-down movement of the covers . . . movement of the covers?

I blinked owlishly and swayed a little on my feet. I rubbed my eyes with a fist, but the quilts continued to move up and down. I took a few hesitant steps into the room, and realized suddenly that it was not Briony's heavy breathing I heard, but Pippin's.

Pippin was breathing.

And then I wasn't. In fact, I think my heart stopped beating. Then Frodo, for it was he, looked up from over Pippin's bed and said quietly, "There you are. I was going to wake you in a bit, but your father said you were horribly tired, so I wanted to let you sleep awhile longer." He moved his fingertips gently across Pippin's brow. "Resting gentle now," he said tenderly, looking back down at the lad in the bed.

I must have made some sound that alerted him, for Frodo somehow caught me before I could fall, easing me into an armchair by the hearth. "All right, easy now, Merry lad," he murmured. "I've got you, just breathe deep." He half-embraced me, chin on my head to keep it down, one hand rubbing circles on my back while the other rested on my knee. "Steady now," he said quietly, and I dragged in great gulps of air.

I finally lifted my head, now more fearful than I had been in the hallway when I was certain Pippin was gone. "He's not dead?" I asked Frodo stupidly, but Frodo was kissing my hair and pulling me to him even as he said, "He's much better, Merry, much better. I thought someone in the hallway must have told you. He's been sleeping more comfortably for about two hours now, and really sleeping, not like before."

I swallowed hard and dug my fingers into Frodo so deep I must have left bruises. "I saw . . . I thought . . . Hortensia was giving Aunt Lala brandy in the parlor," I said stupidly. It was as though I was afraid to let myself believe what Frodo, and my sight of the lad in the bed, were telling me.

Frodo rocked me a little and let out a small chuckle. "It's been a hard night, my lad. I think you could use a dollop of brandy yourself. But he's much easier. The fever broke before dawn, but even then, they thought for a while . . . Well, he didn't improve for several hours. But now he sleeps, and his breathing is less labored."

"He's getting better." I knew I was making blindingly obvious statements, but I could not help myself, nor could I help looking up into Frodo's face for confirmation.

He nodded and smiled gently. "He's getting better," he said in a firm voice.

I was weak-kneed and bewildered and overjoyed and thunderstruck, so I did the only thing possible -- I burst into tears, but they were tears of relief and joy, and then I was even more overwhelmed by the fact that I was able to cry again, after all, so I just buried my face in Frodo's shirtfront until it was sopping wet. Fortunately, good old Frodo always has a handkerchief, so at least I didn't have to wipe my nose on him when I was finished.

"When did you get here?" I asked as I handed him the moist handkerchief back. He took it prissily between two fingers and looked at it distastefully before stretching to drop it on the chest of drawers.

"Just after you'd fallen asleep, apparently," he said. "The first messenger couldn't get through the snow to Hobbiton, so I never received word that he was this ill, or I would have come sooner. Your father thought to try to send for me yesterday." His voice trailed a little at the end, and I knew that Da sent for him so that he could be there for me, not for Pippin, once it was over.

This thought drove me to my feet, and I peered down at Pippin's face in fear and awe and love. But he was just a sleeping child today, like any sleeping child, with tousled curls and slack mouth and eyelashes like delicate half-wings on his pale cheeks. I reached out with a shaking, tentative hand, but his hair was the same baby-fine texture it always had been, and his smooth cheek was warm and alive and made my hand tingle.

"Pippin," I whispered. "Pip, sweetheart." He slept on, peaceful and unaware, but his face turned toward me almost imperceptibly and his mouth scrunched up a little for a moment. I heard Frodo behind me softly murmur, "Ve lisse lótse surië melda Anar," and recognized it as something from Bilbo had once said about Pip and I, an Elvish phrase about a flower seeking the sun. I knew that Frodo saw me as the sun and Pippin as the seeking flower, but after facing the prospect of a world without Pippin last night, I knew also that Frodo had it backwards.

Frodo moved to my side, hands in his pockets, head cocked to one side as we watched our cousin sleep. "Hortensia says he'll not be out of bed until summertime," he said quietly, and then added, "Well, at least Hortensia says he should not be out of bed until summertime."

I laughed, but it made me cry a little again, and Frodo hugged me. "Come on, now, he's all right," he said. "Here, sit down, and I'll go get you that dollop of brandy, and I'll find your father. Both will do you good, you big soaking heap." He patted my back, and then paused before leaving the room to touch Pippin's brow with his fingertips one more time, and I noticed that my eyes were not the only ones full of tears.

I sat down in the straight-backed chair, still in its place by Pippin's head. Never in my life had I gone with so little food or sleep, but I felt the need for neither right then. I picked up Pippin's hand and kissed it, before leaning forward to kiss his forehead.

I had everything I needed.

(Note: The Elvish phrase Frodo murmurs is in Quenya and translates literally as "As a sweet, small flower seeks the beloved sun." Thanks to Marigold for the phrase and the translation.)

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