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Always  by Citrine

For Julie

Dearest, most beloved nephew Frodo,

It has been far too long since I have seen you, and I miss you very much. In another month or two it will be time for our birthdays, and the Party, as always. But before then, very soon, I will be coming to visit you in Buckland. I have an idea in my head that makes me very happy to think of it, and I very much hope that it will make you happy, too. So keep on the lookout for a rather eccentric hobbit arriving on the Bucklebury Ferry. He'll be smiling from ear to ear, his pockets stuffed with handkerchiefs and toffees, and his mad old heart filled to bursting with loving thoughts of one Frodo Baggins, and by that you will know him as yours truly, your affectionate uncle,

Bilbo

Frodo had been standing with Merry at the gatepost of Brandy Hall when the letter came. The postrider had said a hasty 'good morning, young fellow', dropped his usual sack on the ground with a heavy thump, then grunted as he lifted the slightly smaller bag of outgoing mail across his saddle. Both bags were heavy, since nearly every hobbit in residence at the Hall kept up a running correspondence with relatives flung hither and yon across the Shire, and some even to Bree. Among the parchments, packages, invitations, letters of love and letters of dismissal, Frodo had spied a very large letter stamped with entwined initials-BB set in red wax-and addressed to himself, so he scarcely noticed when the postrider tipped his hat and galloped away.

Frodo tore it open at once and began to read. Merry was dancing with impatience, for he too had seen the seal and knew it was from Cousin Bilbo. "What does it say, Frodo? What does it say? Is Bilbo coming for a visit?" Merry very much hoped so. Cousin Bilbo knew a lot of good stories, and he nearly always came with toys or sweets-sometimes even fireworks!-even if it wasn't his birthday.

"Yes, yes, he is coming very soon, I'm glad to say," Frodo said, smiling, but as he read on a little further, he frowned and a strange look came over his face. "And it seems as though he has a surprise in store as well." Frodo's heart was jumping strangely in his chest, and a secret, unspoken wish he had kept close to himself for a long time began to grow again. He felt like shouting, but his voice fell to a whisper. "I wonder..."

"Fireworks!" Merry crowed, tugging on Frodo's arm. "What else does it say?"

Frodo smiled again and held the letter high over his head, far out of Merry's reach. "He says, be good enough to put that bothersome Brandybuck imp into a sack and throw him down cellar before he arrives. And that you reek like a Marish cheese-"

"It doesn't say that!" Merry cried. "Oh, let me look!"

Frodo laughed, spinning in place to avoid Merry's searching hands, and thrust the slightly crumpled letter into his pocket. "You'll never know, and it serves you right, little Nob-nosy-lad! Now unhand me so I can get this sack into the Hall."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Frodo showed the letter to his Auntie Esmeralda when he brought in the post, and to Uncle Saradoc when he sat down for luncheon, then he tucked it away. But for the rest of that day Bilbo's letter burned in his pocket like a hot coal, and certain phrases seemed to hang before his eyes. I have an idea in my head that makes me very happy to think of it, and I very much hope that it will make you happy, too. It seemed to promise something much more wonderful and lasting than sweets or fireworks, and Frodo hoped, oh, how he hoped it meant-

Frodo was brought out of his daydream by the feel of Merry's elbow in his ribs. "Frodo? Frodo!"

They were walking in the orchard, where Uncle Saradoc had sent them to check on the progress of the summer apples. A number of brown cores marked their slow progress, and they could both say now for certain that even the earliest Tookland Pippins were far from ripe. The sun was high and bright, the sky was blue as a robin's egg, and their feet crunched on the windfalls. Insects flew up from the grass, and under the trees the ground was cool, and smelled damp and faintly sour, like the ghosts of generations of bygone autumn apples. Merry's frowning face was peering up at him, shadowed by the brim of his straw hat. "What is it, Merry?"

Merry pursed his lips and made a rude noise that implied that he had already asked the same question several times. "I said, what would happen if I pulled cousin 'Stella’s hair-ribbons?"

I very much hope that it will make you happy, too. Frodo gave himself a shake and tried to stick to the matter at hand. "I would think she would pinch you, and you'd deserve it."

Merry nodded sagely and clasped his hands behind his back, unconsciously imitating his older cousin's thoughtful posture. "Fatty says I ought to. He says it would serve her right since she rubbed mud in his hair."

Frodo tugged on the point of Merry's ear. "Well, you just let Fatty fight his own battles, my lad. She would certainly pinch a blister on you if you tried. Or worse."

"Worse?" Merry said. His seven year old mind could hardly imagine anything more humiliating than getting thrashed by a lass, a younger lass, on top of that. "What could be worse?"

Frodo smiled. "She might kiss you."

Merry's round face was such a picture of outraged horror that Frodo couldn't help but laugh out loud. "That's awful!" Merry said. "She wouldn't! Would she?"

"Oh yes, she might. She's sweet on you."

Merry set his jaw. "I would run."

"She would catch you."

"She wouldn't!" Merry cried, stamping his foot. "I'd run so fast, just like this!" He took off running, furry feet flying, in as much haste as if fifty dimpled Estella Bolgers were hot after him with marriage contracts clutched in their fists. He was within a hand's-grasp of the nearest tree and prepared to launch himself into the branches, but gave out a loud squawk instead and leaped back. "Hi! What's that!"

Frodo quickly rushed over, fearing that Merry had trod on a nest of bees, or a snake, but he was crouching down over a little hollow in the long grass. "Something's alive here, Frodo!"

"I do hope you didn't step on it," Frodo said. He bent down to see better and spied the tips of several long ears, soft as pussy-willow, barely concealed by a mat of dry grass. Merry made to clear it away, but Frodo stopped his hands. "No, Merry, leave it be, they're just little rabbits."

"Out here in the orchard? Where is their Mam?"

"No doubt she is very close by," Frodo said. "I imagine she came here for the fallen apples, and in the evening she'll come back to the nest and nurse the kittens. Even though we can't see her, she's watching over them. She'll come back."

Merry was frowning. He was a Brandybuck through and through, Frodo’s Merry, clever with his hands and good at sums, and filled up to his crown with solid hobbit-sense, but he had a kind heart and a tender spot for little things. "Always?"

"Always." Frodo said. He put his hand on Merry's arm. "Come away now. They really are quite safe as long as we let them alone."

They went on. Merry’s frown lingered, and he kept looking back over his shoulder. He wished very much that he might catch a quick glimpse of the mother-rabbit rushing back to tend her offspring, just to ease his mind, but the grass was too tall and he was getting a twinge in his neck. Before long he had wrapped an arm around Frodo’s waist and was humming and kicking at the thistles. Soon it would be time for Tea. “I’m glad I’m not a little rabbit,” he said.

~~~~~~~~~~

It rained that night, and Merry came to Frodo and crawled into his bed, something he hadn't done for a long time. "Do you think the little rabbits are all right?"

Frodo tucked another pillow under his head and pulled up the quilt. "I'm sure of it. The doe is with them now and they are all warm and snug. She's covering them like a soft, furry blanket, and the rain is bending the grass down over them all, like a little thatched roof. Now, sleep."

And Merry did, but Frodo lay awake and tried to read by candlelight. After a time he put the book across his chest and looked at Merry instead. He felt a little pain near his heart. Merry's thumb was perilously close to his pursed lips, but his eyelashes shadowed a cheek that was rapidly losing the roundness of babyhood. Childhood was falling away from his Merry. If he went away, how much more might he change before Frodo saw him again?

Frodo sighed, pushed back the blanket and slid out of bed. His writing desk had belonged to his mother, and it was wonderfully full of secret cubbyholes and clever drawers for paper and quills. It was also a small, dainty thing quite unsuited for Frodo's longer legs; it clipped his knees if he rose from it too quickly, and gave him an ache in his back if he sat too long. But he loved it because he had loved her, and so all through his boyhood he had kept it and stuffed it full of all his treasures, from hollowed bird-eggs and stolen hair-ribbons to books of Elvish tales. Now Frodo sat down at the desk with his candle, pulled out paper, pen and ink, and after a bit of thought he began to write.

Dearest Merry,

If you are reading this, it is quite likely that I have gone away to live with Bilbo, something I've wanted and hoped for very much for a long time. I reckon that you are very hurt, and for that I am terribly sorry. It wasn't anything you have done, and I am not angry with you...though I suppose you are quite angry with me.

I expect that I will not get any letters from you for quite some time, but when you do, write long letters, and often, for I will certainly be homesick for you. Oh Merry, I will miss you so, but we will see each other again, in time. This was not a quick decision on my part, or an easy one. It is the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, to leave you behind. I would take you with me to Bag End if I could, but your place is here in the Hall. I must find my place now, Merry-lad. Please understand.

Dear, dear, most beloved Merry, believe me when I say that you are the one I love best in all the world. You are the brother of my heart, and when this hurt is past us I hope that you can think of me and be happy, and remember the good times we've had together. I hope that in the years to come we may become great, good friends again. But if we cannot, you must know that my deep affection for you will never fade, though ever so many miles and years may lie between us. I will always be your loving cousin,

Frodo.

Frodo blew on the ink to dry it and folded the page. He took a deep breath, then quickly scribbled For Merry, on the outside, then tucked it into the seam of a book and pressed it closed. It would be safe enough there until Bilbo came and...and something was decided, for better or ill. If Bilbo merely came and went, well, then he could throw it away and things would go on as they always had.

Thunder rumbled outside, and in the bed Merry stirred and rolled over. "Frodo?"

"It's only a little storm, Merry-lad," Frodo said. "Go back to sleep."

Merry sat up and rubbed his eyes. "The rain is too loud."

Frodo cupped his hand around the candle flame and blew it out. Then he pushed away from the desk and walked quickly to the window, drawing the curtains to muffle the patter of the rain against the glass. "There, that's better." He got in the bed and tugged the quilt up to Merry's chin. "Now, head down and close your eyes."

"Had a dream," Merry mumbled, sounding very sleepy and small. "Little rabbits down a hole, and you left me. I looked and looked, but I couldn't find you. It was dark." He snuggled close to Frodo and put an arm over him. Frodo felt the quick beat of Merry's heart against his side. "But even though I couldn’t see you, you were with me, weren't you, Frodo?"

"Always," Frodo said. But Merry was already asleep.

********

tbc...





        

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