(Written in 2006)

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Frodo is 21 and Merry is 8 (13 and 6 in Man-years).

A FAIR BEGINNING

30 Rethe S.R. 1390

Bilbo and Saradoc were enjoying an after tea pipe on the bench by Bag End's front door, occasionally talking, but mostly watching Frodo and Merry playing at Stones on the front step.* Esmeralda was taking a turn about the garden.

"You know," said Bilbo, "I was not bad at that myself, at one time." He gestured towards the lads. Merry was concentrating hard on catching every one of his stones, and Frodo was watching Merry proudly.

Merry tossed all six of his, and caught them easily on the back of his hand.

"Do you want to try eight?" asked Frodo. "I think you are good enough now."

Merry looked up at Frodo eagerly, "Do you really? I could try that!"

Just then, everyone's attention was caught by the sound of pony hooves, pounding up the road, and coming to a halt at Bag End's front gate.

It was a Quick Post rider. He swung down from his pony, as Bilbo and Saradoc stood; Esmeralda turned from her contemplation of the tulips, and Merry and Frodo lost interest in their game.

"Is Mr. Brandybuck here?" asked the rider. "I was told he might be!"

"I am Saradoc Brandybuck."

The rider came up the path, and handed Saradoc an envelope. "I'm to take a reply back if there is one," he said.

Saradoc looked at the envelope in surprise. It was addressed in his brother-in-law Paladin's hand—why, he and Esmeralda were headed to Whitwell on the morrow, after having delivered Merry for his spring visit to Frodo—what could be so urgent that it would not await their arrival?

Esmeralda came up behind him. "Is something wrong?"

"I don't know. It's from Paladin."

He placed his thumb under the seal to break it and opened the letter.

"Dear Saradoc and Esmeralda,

I know that you are on your way here to spend the time until Eglantine's confinement, but I must let you know that she has gone early into labour.

Mistress Poppy is doing all she can to delay things, yet we do fear that the child will be coming into the world a month and a half early. You know what that could mean. I know that you wished to visit Bilbo a few days first, but I ask that you please hurry along, just in case things take a turn for the worse. Please, let Bilbo know that his presence will be welcome as well.

I hope that this letter finds you in time.

Paladin"

Esmeralda made a little sound of distress, and turned into her husband's embrace.

"What is wrong?" asked Bilbo.

Saradoc handed him the letter. He gave it a quick perusal, and then turned to Frodo, who stood apprehensively, Merry's small hand gripped tightly in his own.

"Frodo, my lad, take Merry with you. Go down to Number Three, and tell the Gaffer that we have to leave suddenly on unexpected family business. Take him the key that hangs by the front door, and ask him to go to the stable and hitch up Mr. Brandybuck's carriage. Then come back and help Merry to pack up his travelling case, and pack your own as well. We are all going to Whitwell."

"Yes, sir, Uncle Bilbo. May we ask what is wrong?"

Bilbo nodded. "It looks like your new little cousin is a bit impatient to come into the world."

While Frodo did Bilbo's bidding, accompanied by an anxious young Merry, and Bilbo saw to his own packing, Esmeralda quickly fixed a hamper, so that they could eat supper as they rode. If they left immediately and took the post road, they could be at Whitwell before midnight.

It was beginning to get dark as they left, pounding along the post road, the carriage swaying. Merry was tucked tightly into Frodo's side, Frodo's arm around his little cousin, hugging him to him. The child was uncharacteristically solemn, worried by the tense atmosphere surrounding the adults, and though he had many questions, he knew better than to ask them now. He would wait until he was alone with Frodo.

Frodo, for his part, was worried as well. He was very fond of Cousin Paladin and Cousin Tina, and their trio of merry lasses. There had been much rejoicing at the news that a fourth child was due in Whitwell this spring—speculation that it might well be a longed-for lad was high.

The Took's home at Whitwell was a rambling place, half smial, half house, just up a lane from the post road, and as they approached shortly before the middle of the night, Frodo noticed that many of the lights were on.

Paladin greeted them, his face grey and weary.

"Tina's still in labour. Mistress Poppy does not think that she will be able to delay the birth for more than a few hours at most. Primrose is with Poppy helping Tina, and Peridot is staying with the lasses in their room.** Esme, you know where the guest rooms are—do you think—"

His sister interrupted "Of course I'll see to our rooms—you don't need to be worried by guests at a time like this." She glanced at Frodo, who carried the sleeping Merry in his arms. "Frodo, would you and Merry be all right on a pallet in the sitting room?" For there were only two guest rooms at Whitwell.

Frodo carried Merry into the sitting room—there were no lamps lit there, and the hearth was banked. He put Merry down on the settee, but when he did so, the child stirred and wakened, reaching for him. Frodo sat down next to him.

"You should go back to sleep, sprout," he said, gently tucking a sandy curl behind one ear.

"I'm awake now, Frodo. Will everything be all right?" His grey eyes were anxious and distressed.

Frodo pulled him close. "I don't know, Merry-love. Sometimes—" he bit his lip, and drew a deep breath, "sometimes things *aren't* all right. Sometimes things go wrong, and there is nothing anyone can do. I can't make you a promise that things will be all right. But I do promise you that whether they go right or wrong, I will be here by your side."

Merry looked up at him solemnly. "Me, too. I mean, I promise the same thing to you. I love you, Frodo." He reached around and, though he was getting a bit big for it, clambered into Frodo's lap. Frodo held him tightly.

"I love you, too, sprout."

When Esmeralda entered the room a short time later, her arms laden with blankets, she found them both asleep. Gently she lifted Frodo's feet, and swung them up to the seat, and settling both lads into a slightly more comfortable position, she covered them up and gave them each a kiss on the brow.

Then she went to see if she could be of some use to her sister-in-law.

xxxxxxx

1 Astron S.R. 1390

Dawn; and the Sun was peeking into the window of the sitting room, when both lads wakened with full bladders. Frodo pushed the blankets away, and Merry slid down and stood up. Frodo sat up more slowly. His arm had gone to sleep from holding Merry all night. He shook it, and felt the pins and needles in it as it came back to life.

Together, they crept through the kitchen and out the back door to the privy. When they finished they had a quick wash at the well, and slipped back into the kitchen. Buttercup Tunnelly, the Took's cook already was there, making first breakfast.

"Good morning, Master Frodo and Master Merry. Sit down, have some toast and porridge. There's some stewed fruit, as well."

The two of them sat down gratefully. "Is there any news, Buttercup?" Frodo asked hesitantly.

"Not yet, Master Frodo. Miss Primrose spoke to me earlier. They don't expect it to be much longer, though."

"It has not been," came a soft voice. It was Paladin's older sister Peridot. "The child has been born. It's a little lad."

Merry turned to Frodo, grinning. "It's a lad, Frodo! Just like I wanted!"

"Yes, it is," said Peridot. But her voice remained cautious.

The two lads looked at her apprehensively. "Is Cousin Tina all right?" Frodo asked.

"She is, though she is very tired."

"What about the baby?"

"He lives," she said, "and he is breathing. But he is very tiny. And he is very weak from his long struggle to be born. We must wait and see."

A moment later, Pearl, Pimmie and Vinca came into the kitchen. They all looked tired, and rather disheveled. Pearl was carrying Pervinca who was clinging to her neck and whining. "I want Mama."

Vinca was only barely out of her faunthood, having turned five only a couple of weeks before, and it was clear that she was cranky and out of sorts.

" 'Mother' ", Pearl corrected automatically. Pervinca was old enough now to say 'mother', as was customary among the Tooks.

Pervinca squirmed out of her sister's embrace. "Mama!" she shouted. "Mama! Mama! Mama!" Her face was red, and screwed up to start crying.

Peridot took her firmly up, and sat her on the table. "Pervinca Took! You must stop this at once. You may see your mother in a little while. But not until you eat breakfast. And if you are behaving like this you will have to wait even longer, for your mother is not feeling well. You do not want to make her feel worse, do you?" Peridot asked this last gently.

Pervinca sniffed, and hung her head. "No, Auntie. I'm sorry." And then burst into tears anyway.

Frodo looked at Merry, who was watching in horrified fascination. The lads had finished eating, so Frodo got up quietly, and drew Merry out of the kitchen.

"Let's walk, shall we, Merry?"

Merry nodded, and the two walked out towards the little orchard that grew to the north of the smial.

"Frodo?"

"Yes, sprout?"

"It's very sad when someone dies, isn't it?" Merry was trying to think. Sometimes the older relatives at Brandy Hall had died, but Merry was considered still a bit too young for funerals, and he had not had much direct contact with grief, except for Frodo's own.

Frodo halted briefly, and bit his lip, before they walked on. "Yes, Merry, it's very sad, because we know that we will never see them any more. Ever."

"You are still sad about your Mum and Da, aren't you?"

"Yes, I am. I will always be sad about it, and I will always miss them."

"Forever?"

"Forever."

Merry was quiet, and the two sat down beneath a cherry tree. A few of the buds had begun to blossom.

"If the little baby dies, will Uncle Paladin and Aunt Tina and Pearl and Pimmie and Vinca be sad forever?"

Frodo put his arm around the child's shoulders and pulled him close. "I am quite sure that they will. But they will also be happy sometimes as well. Even though I miss my parents and I'm sad to think of them, I am happy when I think how much you love me. And I am glad that I can do things with you. And I like learning new things and spending time with Uncle Bilbo—I am always sad about them being gone, but I do not always feel sad. Can you understand that?"

"I think so. I miss you awfully when I'm home and you're in Bag End, and it makes me sad a lot. But I still have fun with Berilac and some of the other cousins. And I like having lessons with Mum, and riding my pony with Da. But at least I can see you sometimes. If you died, I would never see you. It's not fair."

Frodo buried his face in the curly head, to hide his own distress. "It's not fair, no, Merry. It isn't fair at all. But many things happen that aren't fair."

He was surprised at Merry sitting up suddenly, indignant. "Well, they ought to be fair! If I was in charge, I would make things be fair, and just as they ought!"

Frodo chuckled at this change in mood. "Yes. Well. I wish that you were in charge, then, sprout. So, you would make things be 'just as they ought'?"

"Yes! First, I would make Bag End be much closer to Buckland! And there would be lots more mushrooms, too! And no one could cook cabbages."

At this Frodo had to laugh aloud. While Merry loved slaws and raw cabbage, he detested it cooked.

The two spent a companionable time playing in the orchard, and shortly afterward were sought out by Pearl and Pimpernel. Auntie Peridot was keeping Pervinca close.

They went in for elevenses, and afterward the lasses were called away, to meet their new baby brother.

Bilbo had come out, and they went back into the sitting room, where they passed the time listening to him telling tales of his Adventure. At one point, he asked Frodo to go to the kitchen, and fetch them a snack and something to drink.

As he did so, he passed his Uncle Sara and Aunt Esme in the passageway. They didn't notice him at first, being intent on their conversation.

"I don't know, Esme," Sara was saying. "If he never sees the babe at all, then if the worst happens, at least he will not grieve so, for a child he's never met."

"He *deserves* the chance to know his cousin, even if it is only for a short while. We cannot shield him from grief forever, dear. Please, it's only right that he see my brother's child, gets to at least meet little Peregrin." She stopped abruptly, suddenly aware of Frodo's presence.

Frodo blushed. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to eavesdrop."

Esmeralda shook her head. "Don't be sorry, lad. You know Merry. Maybe better than we do, in some ways. Would it be better for him if he never sees his little cousin, just in case…" Her voice trailed off sadly.

Frodo bit his lip, and remembered his earlier conversation with Merry. "I think, Aunt Esme, that if the baby dies, and Merry never even sees him, that he will find it very unfair. I think he might even be angry. And he will be sad and grieve anyway, just from knowing how everyone else is grieving. It won't keep him from it, just not seeing the baby. You said they named him 'Peregrin'?"

Esmeralda and Saradoc exchanged glances, and then Sara nodded. "After luncheon then," he said. "And—thank you, Frodo."

"I will be with him, Uncle Sara."

So it was, after luncheon, Merry, along with Frodo and Bilbo, were summoned to Aunt Tina's room. Together they came close to the bed. There was a tiny, blanket wrapped bundle in her arms. Uncle Paladin sat with her on the other side of the bed. The three of them came forward, and Aunt Tina moved away the edge of the blanket.

Merry's eyes grew wide. While he'd had much experience of baby cousins at Brandy Hall, he had never seen one so very tiny or so very red and wrinkled, like an apple at the end of winter.

"Bilbo, Frodo, Meriadoc, this is your new cousin Peregrin."

Merry gave a tiny gasp, and took a step forward, put forth a hesitant finger, but stopped short of touching the baby. "He's very new."

"Yes, he is," said Paladin.

Frodo stepped up and put his hand on Merry's shoulder. Merry leaned into Frodo's side, without taking his eyes off the baby.

"Thank you for letting me see him."

"You are welcome, Merry," said Eglantine, watching her nephew's face carefully.

"He's going to be all right," Merry said confidently. "He is." He looked once more at the baby, and said "You get stronger, Peregrin, and I will be a good older cousin to you."

Then they went out of the room, and Merry held his arms out, for Frodo to pick him up. Frodo took him up and held him tightly.

"Frodo?"

"Yes, sprout?"

"Do you think I will ever be as good a cousin as you?"

Frodo squeezed him tightly. "You are already as good a cousin as ever was, sprout, and I am sure that you will get along famously with little Peregrin."

xxxxxxx

* "Stones" is a hobbity game played in my Shire. Each player has between half a dozen to ten small pebbles, which they toss into the air and then catch. Small children begin by catching them in their palm, but then graduate to catching them on the back of the hand, or to doing tricks such as leaving one on the ground to pick up before catching the rest.

**Primrose and Peridot Took are Paladin's two older sisters (They are two of the three unnamed sisters on the Family Tree.)

Thanks to Gamgeefest for the title, "A Fair Beginning".