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Always  by Citrine

Never Fading

For Anso

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.

"This is for you," Frodo said, holding out folded piece of paper. He was standing in the bedroom, dressed for travel in his best cloak, the hair on his head and on his toes neatly brushed. Merry's low child's bed, looking very small in the big room by itself, was neatly made, and the room was quite a bit emptier and less cluttered than before. Most of Frodo's things, his trunk and his books and other things to heavy and awkward to carry away in the carriage, had been sent on ahead. He was going to Hobbiton with Bilbo. "I was going to leave it here, in my old writing desk, but I was afraid you wouldn't find it." Merry made no move to take the paper, so he laid it on the bed next to his hand. "Would you...would you like to read it now? It's quite all right if you want to read it later."

Merry had been picking at threads in the quilt and humming and kicking his feet against the bedframe, and before Frodo had quite finished his sentence he had given the letter a careless glance, then shoved it under his pillow. His chest felt horribly tight, as if a cord was drawn around his heart. Frodo was going off to Hobbiton to be Cousin Bilbo's boy, and he would never be Merry's make-believe brother anymore. "Do they have rivers in Hobbiton, Frodo?"

"Yes they do, goose," Frodo laughed and sat next to him on the bed, and the cord loosed a little. It had always made him feel better to hear Frodo laugh. "Though none so big as the Brandywine. There is a nice little river not too far from Bag End. When you come visit me there I'll take you fishing."

"I'd like that!" Merry said brightly. "May I come visit you right away?"

Frodo smiled sadly. "Perhaps not right away. But soon." He took a breath. "I'm leaving some things for you. Some books you may find useful in your lessons, and you may have my old writing desk if you want it, it's just about your size." He picked up the wooden box that sat between them on the bed and opened the lid. Inside were row on row of bird eggs resting on a layer of cotton, blue and green and soft brown, dusted with specks of gold and russet. "And these are yours, too. I know you've always admired them. If you want to add to the collection, that's all right, just don't rob the little birds entirely when you go nesting, and do make sure you pierce the eggshells with a pin and blow the yolk out like I showed you, or else you'll have a dreadful stink."

Merry wrinkled his button nose and made a terrible face. "Phew!"

Frodo laughed again. "Exactly. Only a hundred times worse."

They sat together for a little while longer, pressed shoulder to shoulder. Frodo lifted each delicate eggshell and let Merry cup the fragile roundness in his hands, then he closed the box and put it aside. A bundle of his things, mostly clothing, was sat by the door. Frodo smoothed down a few wayward curls on the crown of Merry's head, then got up. He picked up his bundle and held out his hand. "Walk me out, Merry-lad."

In the dooryard, in the dappled light under the trees, Bilbo was waiting with the carriage, and he didn't seem to be the least bit sad that he was taking Frodo away forever. Saradoc and Esmeralda were there, as were some hobbits-aunties and uncles, and cousins, big and little, who had been Frodo's particular friends at the Hall. The uncles and the big lads kept their faces straight and their backs were stiff as they shook Frodo's hand. The aunties and the little lads and lasses cried a bit and sniffled on Frodo's neck, and Merry made sure to look away from them. Some pressed parting gifts on Frodo, little cakes or flowers. All the while Merry held tight to Frodo's sleeve, until at the last Bilbo kissed Esmeralda and clapped Saradoc's shoulder. Frodo bent down quickly and clasped his hand around the back of Merry's head and pressed a brief, fierce kiss to his warm cheek. Saradoc came forward, tugged Merry's fingers loose and folded his small hand into his own, and Frodo stepped up into the carriage.

Bilbo clucked to the ponies and the carriage began to roll away. Some of the assembled hobbits drifted off, while a few stood still and began to sing a song about the worth of old friends and the blessing of finding new ones:

Make new friends, and cherish the old,

One is silver, the other is gold...

A few of the old aunties fluttered their handkerchiefs. Frodo turned and knelt on the seat, shouting to be heard over the rattle and squeak of the carriage. "I expect I'll see you all again soon at Uncle Bilbo's Party, but please do write to me, any and all of you!"

Esmeralda cried "We will, Frodo dear, and do write us as soon as you are settled!"

Merry could say nothing at all. His face felt frozen and his heart beat fast. He wanted to throw himself in the dust and bawl like a faunt, he wanted to run after them and drag Frodo out and make him promise to stay for always.

But instead he stood very quiet and still and watched Frodo get farther and farther away, going, going, gone, and the sound of the carriage wheels was like a sadder sort of song, growing ever fainter with distance: He'll never come back, never come back, never ever, never ever...

Merry spent the rest of that morning in the midst of every rough-and-tumble game of roll-the hoop, or tops, or ball, or hide and seek, shouting and laughing as loud as he could, his cheeks red and clothes askew, tearing through the long grass until the chaff flew up in clouds and his blood pounded in his ears. His mother had to send older kin and servants to track him down for meals, finding him once hurling rotten apples at trees in the orchard, and another time in the largest pantry with Great-Auntie Asphodel's fat little terrier under his arm, feeding it samples of jam. At Tea he led a game of chase in and out among the tables, until Saradoc gave an exasperated sigh, took hold of his ear and sat him firmly on his chair. Merry put on a repentant face, then used his spoon to flick biscuit crumbs at his tablemates.

Esmeralda's father-in-law, Old Rory, dabbed at his mouth with his napkin, then leaned in to speak. "Our Merry-lad's quite a young rascal today! I've never seen him in such high spirits."

"High spirits indeed," Saradoc sighed, having overheard, and he pinched the bridge of his nose with his fingers-Merry had just trickled milk down the back of little Melilot Brandybuck's neck. "I'm fairly worn out just watching him on the run all day."

"Ah well," Rory chuckled. "I'm glad to see that he's not taking Frodo's leaving so hard. It's good that little lads can put aside their sorrows so easily, eh?"

"Yes," Esmeralda agreed, but she was frowning. "It's a blessing."

As the different courses of the meal came and went, Merry played with more food than he put in his mouth, his laugh was sharp, and his face was pale except for the spots of color high on each cheek. On the run, she thought worriedly. Like a hobbit with the flood lapping at his heels.

The sun sank and the Hall settled down for its evening rest, though it never was entirely quiet: There was always a babe crying somewhere, or a voice raised in quiet laughter or talk, or just the slow tread of someone walking the corridors on their way home from a long day out-of-doors. Maids and servants went up and down closing windows and shutters and doors, and making sure they were shut fast, for the Old Forest never slept, and it was said that the trees walked behind the High Hay at night.

It was the usual custom of the Master to settle down with his wife and son before the fire in their own rooms, to spend a pleasant hour or two reading or playing draughts before bed, but Merry was not in his usual place on the hearthrug with his toys. "Oh blast, have we lost track of the lad again?" Saradoc said as he came in. "Where on earth could he be now? Not in the pantries, I hope, or it's likely we'll all taste salt in our tea come morning."

Esmeralda was winding some yarn into a ball. "Don't fret yourself, he was in his room reading a book the last time I looked at him."

"No doubt a treatise on how to overthrow the Hall," Saradoc said grimly. "Today Buckland, tomorrow the Shire, and I'll be found in my study, pierced through the heart with a quill as revenge for all the times I've made him practice his spelling." Saradoc slumped into his armchair, hand clasped to his eyes. "Farewell, dear, save yourself."

"Gracious, is this a fortelling?" Esmeralda laughed and kissed his cheek. "I suppose I had better fetch him then, and thwart the uprising."

It was only a short walk to Merry's room. It was quiet so she looked in, thinking to find him asleep, but he was curled up on the bed with his face turned to the window. The room looked just as it had that morning, except that in the corner near the door lay Frodo's box of eggshells, tipped on its side with its contents spilled across the floor. More than a few were broken, and her feet crunched on the remains as she bent to look more closely. She felt a flash of hurt that Frodo's childhood treasures had been so casually ruined and discarded. "Meriadoc Brandybuck, you had better have some sort of explanation for this."

He made a sort of snuffling noise and rolled over on his back, and when she grasped his shoulder she saw that his face was blotchy and streaked with tears, as if he had been crying for a long, long time. "Frodo gave them to me," he whispered. "But I don't want them, Mam, I just want Frodo...I want him here with me." His face crumpled. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be so bad."

Esmeralda picked him up and held him tight, his face warm and wet against her breast, and she could feel him tremble though he barely made a sound. "Oh, my poor little love, it's all right, it's all right to cry out loud."

 Merry wept until he fell asleep in her arms. When it was time for bed Esmeralda sat him up and gently took off his shirt and his breeches, and pulled a soft nightshirt over his head. Saradoc gently brushed his hair, and washed and combed his feet, then lifted his son and laid him in the middle of Saradoc and Esmeralda's bed. They then dressed in their nightclothes and laid down on either side, just as they had done when Merry was a very little lad just out of his cradle. Esmeralda thought her heart would break as she looked at her small son, with his eyes swollen and face pinched with grief even in his sleep. "Our poor little lad!" She murmured, petting his hair. "To think all day he suffered so, and he never said a word."

"He's done a hero's work," Saradoc said, with mingled pride and sadness in his voice. "If he had cried or made any sort of fuss, Frodo might have been too torn to leave. Our boy has grown this day, Essie."

Esmeralda reached for her husband's hand across their sleeping son. "If I had truly known it would hurt him this much, I don't think I could ever have let Frodo go."

"Nor I, and Merry knew that, too." Saradoc squeezed her fingers. "My dear, that is why Merry kept silent."

Weeks later, a letter arrived at Bag End, addressed to Frodo Baggins, Hobbiton, Bag End under-the-Hill. It was stamped with the seal of the Master of Buckland, but the handwriting was a careful, childish scrawl, blotted here and there with damp spots, now long dried. When Frodo opened it his eyes stung with tears and his breath caught in his chest. He pressed it to his lips and smelled the scent of Buckland: Clean earth and fresh-cut hay, the cool freshness of the Brandywine, and under it all the warmer, sweeter smell of Merry, sunshine and green grass and dust.

Dear Frodo,

I love you.

I miss you.

I'm not angry anymore.

*******

The End.

 





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