Title: Such Times As These

Pairing: M/P, F/S implied

Rating: PG-13

Warnings: Slash; unresolved ending.

Feedback: Oh, yes. Please.

Summary: Frodo was not the only one who bore scars from the Quest.

It's been a year.

For some, a year is a long, winding path to be enjoyed at an ambling pace; naught more than a leisurely stroll with the occasional stumbles over pebbles. For others, a year passes before them in a gust of wind, and they're left grasping at the air, wondering where it all went. But this must indicate that these others were much too occupied to notice time slipping past them. Thank goodness for small mercies such as this; it leaves little room for dwelling on "what-used-to-be"s and "what- might- have-been"s.

Then, there are those who are not so fortunate. For them, a year is a cold vice that squeezes excruciatingly slowly, so slowly that the pain and dread completely fill their minds until all they desire is for that blessed day when life is finally crushed from them. These are the ones who are haunted by memories, who are doomed to relive their horrors in such a way that a year may possibly be an eternity, after all.

It's been a year, but it might as well have been a lifetime.

*************************************************

"Well, it's been a year." Of course, they all knew that, but it had to be said. Merry couldn't think of anything else to say, at any rate.

"That it has, Mr. Merry," said Sam, looking through him, not at him. His eyes were hollow and very, very far away, and Merry wasn't entirely sure that his brain was registering words, either. He glanced at Pippin warily, who gazed back encouragingly. Talk to him, Merry. This had been Merry's idea, after all: to comfort and be with Sam on this day, which was hardest on him out of all of them. But how do you comfort someone when you need comfort, as well? Merry mentally reproached himself. Don't be a wet blanket, now. Sam needs us more than you need anyone right now. He made another stab at conversation.

"I can hardly believe how much has changed in a year!" he said cheerfully, albeit forced. "Look at how the Shire has blossomed; I don't think there's anywhere as beautiful in all of Middle Earth."

"Quite right," Pippin agreed. "And it's all thanks to you, Sam. That wonderful box of yours! It worked miracles, it did. I've never seen green things grow as fairly before." He waved an arm, indicating the vibrant garden surrounding them. Indeed, it was beautiful, but to Merry's eyes it seemed too bright, almost scalding.

"Aye," Sam said quietly, a sad smile on his face, which broke Merry's heart. "It does my heart good to see beautiful things growing again, after seeing so much ugliness…" he trailed off, his eyes growing dark. Pippin placed an arm on his, and Sam seemed to come back to himself.

"Don't think such thoughts," Pippin chided gently. "You've enough sadness upon you as it is."

"Begging your pardon, Mr. Pippin," Sam said, "but I don't see as I can help it. It seems awful to think of beautiful things when he's not here to enjoy them…" his voice broke, and he closed his eyes. "Nothing seems as beautiful without him here. He was all the fairness I needed." Sam looked about the same as Merry felt; Merry was sure he could hear Sam's heart cracking in two, as his was.

"Sam," Merry said, "we miss Frodo, too. He was my favorite cousin. Aside from you, of course," he added hastily to Pippin, whose eyebrow was raised. "It would be foolish to say that I loved him as much as you did, but I loved him, just the same.  And, Sam," he continued lowly, "you're not the only one who's hurting. I, too, have dark memories, which I'd rather forget." Merry shuddered. He couldn't let himself think of them now, not when Sam needed him.

There was a long pause. Finally, Sam said, in a choked voice, "How do you stand to live with them?" Merry was floored. Good question; he hadn't exactly figured that out himself. But he had to answer that desperate plea, somehow.

"I try to live in the moment, appreciate all that's around me," he advised. "And I remind myself that a year isn't as long as it seems." He felt horrible for lying, but it sounded so convincing that he almost believed it. He desperately wanted to, at least.

Sam's eyes were wide and full of tears. "It isn't?" He sounded so lost.  Merry felt like crying himself.

"No," he reassured. "It isn't."

Suddenly, Sam broke down. "Oh, Merry," he sobbed, "he promised- he said I'd see him again, but not for a long time. I don't know as I can bear to wait. Oh, I love him so, I do." Merry could only pull him into his arms and rock him, with Pippin stroking his hair, lest the pain he'd been suppressing burst out as well.

A year was longer than it seemed.

****************************************

"Merry?" Merry startled a little, feeling an arm go about his shoulders. He and Pippin had been walking on the road for several hours, most of them spent in silence, causing Merry's mind to drift helplessly.

"What, Pip?" he replied, trying to keep his voice level. He really did not want to recall the memories that he'd been thinking about.

"Are you all right? You seem awfully quiet," Pippin said, his voice pitched high in concern. Merry felt crushed by the gravity and worry in Pippin's eyes; his eyes had always been laughing and full of light before, before…

"I'm fine," Merry managed, his own voice close to breaking. It was a blatant lie, but Merry couldn't stand the thought of bringing more pain to those dearly loved eyes. "Just a little tired, that's all. But other than that, I'm fine."

"You're not," Pippin corrected gently. "You miss Frodo, you said so yourself. I miss him too," he sighed. "I wish we could've done something for him, to keep him here." Merry was surprised at how old Pippin suddenly looked.

"It's not that," Merry said abruptly. "Well, not only that," he amended. "It's just that… do you ever feel guilty for being so carefree and light-hearted when you know there's so much evil and suffering in the world? It's true that the Shire's beautiful now, and life is good again, but I feel too- dark, obscene to take pleasure in it."

Pippin abruptly stopped walking and stood in front of Merry, looking directly into his eyes. "Merry, you sound like Frodo. You're frightening me. Tell me what's wrong, love."

Merry suddenly felt a stab of iciness run through his arm. He clutched at it unconsciously and winced. "I suppose it's old memories worrying at me, that's all. It's nothing to be bothered about, Pip. Except that they're so cold," he muttered, mostly to himself. "So cold, and so dark." His eyes misted over as he recalled scenes of terror: being held captive by the Orcs, not knowing if Pippin was safe; the Witch-King, something more terrible than his nightmares could conceive; seeing Pippin being brought to be healed, livid with bruises, looking all but dead already…

He felt arms shaking him. "Merry, Merry!" a voice called. His eyes cleared, and he could see Pippin peering back, his eyes wide and his face pale. "Come back to me, Meriadoc," he pleaded.

"I'm here, I'm all right," Merry gasped. "Oh, Pippin, why did you have to suffer so? Why did we have to grow up so painfully? Why did Frodo have to leave?" He felt tears leak down his face. "I hurt all over, Pippin. And it hurts me most to see you, so careworn and old. Pippin, it shouldn't be this way. You should still be a foolish lad without a care in the world." He continued to weep silently.

"That tears it, Meriadoc Brandybuck," Pippin said firmly, his thumbs gently smoothing away Merry's tears. "You're ailing, you need to stay with me, and that's final."

"But, Pippin," Merry said bemusedly, "you have duties to perform on the morrow. You'll never get to the city in time."

"If you think that I'm leaving you alone tonight, then you're mad," he said simply. "We'll stay at the Frogmorton. You need someone to take care of you."

Merry did not feel inclined to argue.

***************************************

"Pippin," Merry sighed, "I appreciate this, I really do, but you don't have to do this. You know that, don't you?"

Pippin walked across the room to where Merry was standing and wrapped his arms around him from behind. "Of course I have to, Merry, don't be daft. But I'm doing this also because I want to. You're my cousin and my friend and my dearest love. Daft Brandybuck," he added fondly for good measure, kissing the back of Merry's neck.

"And how long will that last?" Merry said without realizing it. He instantly regretted it.

"What do you mean, Merry?" Pippin asked, his lips very close to the tip of his ear.

Merry didn't have the heart to answer. There would come a time when they'd have to face this, but it was certainly not now, not as long as Merry had a say in it. "Nothing, Pip," he whispered instead, turning around in Pippin's embrace.  "Just thinking overmuch, as usual. Don't worry about it." He kissed Pippin's lips very softly, very chastely.

Pippin reclaimed Merry's mouth and deepened the kiss, sending heat throughout Merry's body. It was almost enough to dispel the chill in his arm. Almost. "Isn't nothing," Pippin murmured, "but I'll ignore it for now. I'd much rather heal… other ailments, if you will." Pippin kissed Merry again and slid his hands underneath Merry's shirt.

"Please," Merry groaned, hardly knowing what he was asking for; he just needed Pippin on him over him in him filling him. "Please, Pippin. Don't leave."

"I'm not going anywhere," he said, making his way with Merry over to the bed, which was difficult to do, as they were both still so intertwined. He pushed Merry down onto the bed gently. "I promise you that, Merry. I don't intend to leave you." Merry thought he'd heard that somewhere before, but couldn't remember where. But they all leave in the end, don't they?

Merry stopped thinking when Pippin climbed on top of him and promptly began to unbutton Merry's clothing. "Now," he said hoarsely, "I'm going to show a certain hobbit that there is still beauty to be had in this world, including himself." He unceremoniously dropped Merry's now-unbuttoned shirt to the floor. He then brought his hands up to frame his face and trace Merry's eye sockets, dropping kisses on his lids when they fluttered shut. "These eyes are the loveliest that I've ever had the privilege of seeing."

Merry chuckled wearily. "Don't know about that, Pippin. Frodo might have begged to differ."

Pippin pulled his hair, grinning. "You know that Frodo would smack you if he heard you say such a thing. Now, lie back, and don't say another word. Humor me, will you?" Merry rested his head on the pillows and gazed up into Pippin's face, hovering inches from his own. Yes, Merry thought, Pippin was right when he said there's still beauty to be had. But I'm not beautiful enough for him. He deserves so much more than what I can offer. He closed his eyes and shuddered slightly.

"Merry?" Pippin's voice had lost its teasing quality. "Oh, love, I'm sorry. We don't have to do anything. I was only trying to cheer you up, but that's not going to help you, is it?" He seemed almost child-like, innocent and lost, but his eyes betrayed him: those days of childhood were a distant memory. "Merry, I don't know what to do," he whispered. "I hate to see you like this. You've always cared for me, but I don't know how to take care of you this time. I just… I want my Merry back. I want you to be happy again, I want to make you smile and laugh and scream, but there's nothing I can do. I'm just a bother." Tears slid down Pippin's cheeks as he took Merry's hand in his own. "I don't want you to leave me," he said, so softly that Merry could scarcely hear it. Perhaps Pippin had understood what Merry meant, after all.

"Come here," he choked, pulling Pippin down for a bruising kiss. "I need you. Please, love, I need you."

**********************************

How strange it was, their lovemaking. So silent, and so serious. A year (and a lifetime) ago, they had taken their time to learn each other thoroughly, laughing and teasing all the while until they could no longer stand to do so. But in such times as these, their lovemaking took on an air of frantic desperation, as if one thought that the other would evaporate at any moment. And when it was all over, both clung tightly to each other still, becoming one body, terrified of letting go.

*********************************

Merry awoke suddenly and saw that the room was still dark. He blinked his eyes in confusion, wondering what had woken him up, when he heard strange, guttural noises coming from beside him. "Pippin," he gasped. "Pippin, what's wrong?" But Pippin did not answer him; he continued to flail his arms weakly, his breathing ragged and shallow. Merry tried to hold his arms still. "Pippin!"

"Get it off of me," Pippin cried. "I can't breathe, it's crushing me!" Merry's eyes stung as he realized what Pippin must have been dreaming about.

"Pippin! Wake up! It's only a dream, wake up!" Merry shook him, hard, and Pippin sat up quickly, trembling. He threw his arms around Merry.

"Oh, Merry, it was so horrible," Pippin said, his voice quivering. "It was on top of me, and it was so heavy, I could feel my bones breaking…"

"Hush now," Merry murmured into his hair, trying to stave off his own tears. "It's all right, love. It was only a dream. It's all right, Pip, I'm here. I'm here." He pressed a kiss into Pippin's curls. For now, at least.

Pippin didn't answer for some time; he simply clutched on to Merry tighter. At length, Pippin raised his eyes to Merry's and whispered, "Merry…" In that single word, Merry could hear pain and dark acceptance, as if he were resigned to some terrible fate. It was worrying at Pippin's heart, then, too. Merry didn't think he could bear to think of it right then, though he knew it was inevitable. Promises don't account for much, do they? He can't stay with me all the time, nor can I with him. It seems that we'll all be split up in the end. 

"Go back to sleep, Pip," Merry said, his voice brittle as old leaves. "You need to rest." Pippin sighed and rolled over, his back to Merry. Merry tightened his arms around him, memorizing the feel of that body against his own.

Suddenly, a year seemed too short a time to him.