A/N: This won't be a very long story, just a few chapters, probably, but there *is* more to come. The first two sentences of the story are a direct quote from "The Two Towers," page 235 in the Del Rey paperback edition, chapter title 'The Palantír.' The rest of the story is my own work. The asterisks are used instead of italics to represent emphasis, since for some reason italics in Microsoft Word won't translate into italics in HTML when I post things on this site.

Disclaimer: Unfortunately, Gandalf, Merry and Pippin don't belong to me, and neither do any other people, places or things mentioned in this story. Luckily for them, they belong to the marvelous imagination of J.R.R. Tolkien and also to New Line Cinema.

"But anyway, my dear hobbit, don't put a lump of rock under my elbow again! Now, I will leave you two together for a while."

With a last appraising glance at Pippin, the wizard turned back toward the frightened company. Pippin sighed and dropped his head back onto his 'pillow.' "Well, there he goes, Merry," he said slowly, in the manner of a child who is puzzled by the lack of punishment for a misdeed. "I can't understand it. He didn't even seem *angry*."

"He wasn't angry, you dolt," said Merry sleepily. "He was *frightened*. You might have set the whole company of Barad-dûr crashing down on our camp. Just watch him. From now on he'll guard you as fiercely as that stone until the first chance he gets of ferrying you back to the Shire and chucking you in the Brandywine River."

"Frightened?" said Pippin tremulously, glazing lightly over the terror of being thrown in the river.

"Yes, of course, you young fool," Merry shot back, now exhausted enough to be losing patience with Pippin in spite of the fear he had felt himself for his cousin's life only a few minutes before. "What do you think?"

"Well," said Pippin philosophically, "I never considered that Gandalf could ever actually... be, well, afraid. Because if he were," he continued in a very low voice, "then I couldn't possibly hold out any hope, for Frodo or... for all of us."

Merry was so astonished at this directly serious answer from his cousin that he turned helplessly to sarcasm. "So you think, do you, that when Gandalf was hanging over the end of a bridge, telling us to fly because he was about to fall to his doom, he was saying to himself, 'Oh, I say, this *is* a bit of a pickle. Oh well, I'll soon catch up with them. I'll simply fall down this chasm, kill the fire demon, be reincarnated and meet them at Isengard in time for tea.'"

Pippin let out an outraged exclamation. "Don't exaggerate, Merry," he scolded. "I'm not *that* much of a fool. I just didn't want to think what Gandalf's fear might mean for all our hopes," he ended softly.

Merry nodded, seeing that appeasing his cousin was the only road to a peaceful sleep. "Yes, there is that," he said heavily. "But how about this: fear was the reason we ever met Gandalf at all, the fear of his kind, whatever he may be exactly, for Middle-earth. You know, it means we're in good hands."

"But he never seems to care for us in particular, only us in general," said Pippin. He was not ready to yield the argument yet. Something was still bothering him as much as before, but this time, he was fairly certain, it had very little, if anything, to do with the horrible stone.

"I do think that your vanity might wait until morning to cry out for justice," said Merry crossly, all the more so because he agreed with his cousin's complaint and did not want to discuss it.

"Vanity! You're a one to talk. Nothing pleased you better than when Gimli said you'd grown. And anyway," he continued quickly before Merry could do more than open his mouth in a round 'o' of protest, "whether he likes it or not, the next time I get Gandalf to myself he shall suffer a round of questioning so vicious I shall never hear the end of his blustering if I live to see the Cracks of Doom. But it's worth it. Imagine keeping such a secret from us, his companions! 'Oh, by the way, lads, you can see all the way to Mordor in this thing if you look closely.' My word! If he didn't have that staff I'd sock him!"

"No, you wouldn't," said Merry. "You'd drop dead of fear under those looming brows before your fist left your side. Besides, even if he had warned you, would that have stopped you?"

"I'd like to think it might have," said Pippin honestly. "To be such a fool as to follow a sneaky urge against the warnings of my own conscience, and even of my common sense, such as it is! No wonder he set me to the side like a child who's gone and spilled the last jug of cream on a baking day! I only wonder what stopped him from blasting me into a thousand fragments and shooting me up into the air like one of his fireworks. But I suppose I shall never know. That's one question I don't dare ask. I fear the answer, if I could even get one out of him. Close as ever, he is."

"Well, I wish you'd take a leaf out of his book," snapped Merry, feeling it his duty to defend Gandalf against this onslaught, but not knowing how. He too had been surprised by Gandalf's gentle handling of the errant hobbit. Knowing the wizard well, as he thought he did, he would also have thought that having measured the height of Pippin's utter foolishness against his tangible fragility after such a fright, the wizard would have let fear drive him to ferocity rather than pity.

He did not know that Gandalf had seen this and, in one long moment of vulnerability following Pippin's 'accident,' had felt a bitter regret, cringing inwardly at the expectant, frightened looks on the faces of both hobbits as he took them back to their camping spot. But not even the Wise could see all, and these hobbits, he was very thankful, had not been privy to the humbling of Gandalf the Grey. Yes, he had learned what it was to be made to feel small, a wrench in the machinations of greater beings. He had always understood that he was a servant, a representative of a greater power, not a power in his own right, and he had not wanted it otherwise. But he was, and knew himself to be, a useful tool, and being rendered no more than a fly in a net had, among other dismaying consequences, ruffled his feelings exceedingly, as he put it to himself.

But it was not until the confrontation with Saruman on the steps of Orthanc that he had seen the end of the matter. The scene had blatantly brought forth in his mind again the first sign of sacred trust broken, and his imprisonment in that same tower. He had conquered at this second meeting, but he had not felt victorious. Relieved, certainly, that one less evil threatened, but that was all; beyond his control he had lost something he had never thought to lose: a friend, an ally, and above all, an advisor. He admitted freely, although only to himself, that the Grey Pilgrim had been ever as desirous as Pippin could be of a guide, someone to ask for counsel when he was an inadequate judge, and it was in this spirit that he had made the disastrous mistake of leaving Frodo and had ridden away to Isengard, to his superior, and he had been cruelly disappointed.

Everything, in the simplest terms, had both faded and grown in his heart as he had returned in white to existence. The sting of betrayal had lessened, but its lesson lingered. Friendship had lost its distracting mortal taste and had become firmer and less wayward. Duty had lost its frustration and had become a thing of supreme honor and importance. And fear had grown more deadly, and less likely to strike at any inconvenient moment. Even now, as he hurried to collect Pippin and lifted him apparently out of some quarrel, judging by the hobbit's red face and plaintive expression, Gandalf felt less the dull gong of fear than the vague pressure of time running out.