Title: Reckoning

Author: Aratlithiel

Summary: Sam helps Merry and Pippin to understand

Category: Drama/Angst

Rating: PG

March 19, 2004

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A/N – Dedicated to ConnieMarie (my partner in Merry-angst crime) and Trust No One (to whom I have been promising this for months).

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RECKONING

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It has wound down only once, to Merry's recollection. But he doubts that, at that time, any but he had spared a thought to it. All his life he has known its face, watched it tick away the hours as seasons slid one into another and then into years and decades. 'Turtle o'clock,' was a very young Pippin's innocent appraisal that had subsequently become a very old and very inside joke.

"Are we ready, then?"

Pippin's voice, though subdued and not nearly its normal, bold volume, echoed through the small house, emptied and bared, now that the last of the things had been removed, wrapped and stowed in the cart that awaited them in the lane. Frodo's things, Merry thought and was a little surprised at the small, sharp pain that slid through his heart. All this time and still…

Merry turned to his cousin and couldn't help the small smile that crept to his face. Of age only a few years now, this singular Took, but mature far beyond reckoning long before that. Merry caught the fleeting echo of another in that angular face and his smile faded.

"Ready," he replied. He turned back to the mantle, retrieved the clock and wrapped it carefully. He tucked it under his arm and turned again to his cousin. Gaze traveling the empty room, he took a breath then tipped a decisive nod. "Off we go."

A birthday present from a father to his bright-eyed son, just learning to tell time. A turtle for the two, a thrush for the three, a frog for the four… And the little boy takes great delight in the old clock, purchased for him by one who has no reason to suspect that this particular mathom will be one of the very last he will give to his son. Nor does the father imagine that it has already begun ticking away the final seasons of his own life, beginning the reckoning the moment the tinker first turns its key.

Merry stood staring blankly at the rumpled canvas of old wool strapped over trunks and pictures, mathoms and keepsakes. He'd put this off far longer than he ought to have, with only himself to blame for it. Now the twinge of loss that moved through him at seeing the very last of what his cousin had left behind packed, stowed and shrouded, reminded him as to the reasons behind his dalliance. Here were the last remnants of Frodo's life in Buckland, reduced to one small cartload to be trundled away as if it had never been at all. As if a boy with merry eyes and an impish grin had not had his life and heart torn from him with the treacherous dip of wood to water. As if a youth with a smile full of mischief that cloaked a lonely heart had not wrapped that heart about the little pest of a cousin who shadowed his every step.

Merry smiled to himself. He could almost feel those cool, slender fingers wrap around his hand and he found himself squeezing the ghost of that hand before he'd had the chance to think better of it. His hand closed on emptiness and he frowned, tucked the clock more firmly under his arm.

Frodo must have loved the clock, Merry reasons, for he remembers it well, ticking away in Frodo's room, soft as a wisp of memory as Merry creeps from the clutches of nightmares and into the warm embrace of his elder cousin's arms in the watches of the night. Curling himself into comfort, soft breath in his hair and the steady murmur of the clock a lullaby that never falters, never winds down – Frodo won't allow it. He winds it faithfully, taking care to clean the dust from the cogs and wheels, oiling the pendulum. It is safety, comfort; its soft, steady rhythm a constant in a life that has already changed all too cruelly. And Merry takes his own bit of that comfort; presses his ear to his elder cousin's chest, listens to the thrumming within and the ticking without, burrows into warmth and the very embodiment of love and shelter that winds around him with a sigh and a soothing embrace.

And when that elder cousin leaves the Hall and takes Merry's safe-haven with him, the clock and its soft ticking go as well, leaving the room he'd once occupied cold and silent. Only once has Merry tip-toed into the room after Frodo has gone, lifting the quilts in the moon-streaked darkness, crawling between cold linens and burying his face in the pillow, searching for the scent of comfort that has always awaited him here. But the absence of the steady tick lays heavy in his ears as he watches the slats of silver drift achingly slowly across the floor. The chill of the room worms through his bones and the scent he seeks within the linen of the pillowcase is elusive; teasing at his nose then flitting away beneath the salt-scent of his own wretched tears.

"Are you coming, then?"

Merry looked up to find Pippin waiting on the board, reins in hand, regarding him with bemusement. The pony nickered restlessly and Pippin clicked his tongue.

"Yes, you impatient Took," Merry replied and climbed carefully to the seat beside Pippin, placing the clock in its wrappings between them. "You're as fretful as an old gammer waiting her turn for the privy."

"I'm not fretful," Pippin defended. "Only thinking ahead. If we travel wisely, we can have dinner and a bed at the Golden Perch tonight and then be on Sam's doorstep in time for afternoon tea tomorrow."

"Ah, I see," laughed Merry. "Trust a Took to schedule a trip according to his stomach."

"You say that as if there's a more reasonable way to do it," Pippin sniffed. "Besides, Rosie isn't leaving until after luncheon tomorrow and, as much as I love Sam's growing brood, I will confess that that's a bit of chaos I won't mind missing this trip."

"You're joking," Merry returned with a sly grin. "I thought you'd never tire of being climbed like a tree and begged for stories. Has your own impending marriage got you suddenly shy of youngsters?"

"No, it isn't anything like that," and Pippin paused, frowned. "It's only… I don't know, really. It's just… different this time, I suppose."

Merry's smile dimmed. He pulled his gaze away from the thoughtful face of his cousin and trained it to the rich umbers and golds that slowly wandered by them. Riots of color blurred into a blended shade of autumn in his suddenly burning eyes.

"Traveling this road so near an anniversary makes the whole thing a bit difficult," Pippin furthered quietly.

"Hmph," Merry responded, a little more bitterly than he'd planned and gave a wry chuckle. "Which? There are so many."

Pippin turned his head sharply and frowned at Merry. "It's his birthday tomorrow. Didn't you know?"

Merry sucked in a breath as if Pippin had just punched him in the stomach. He peered at his cousin, brows knit and felt his hands begin to tremble.

"No, I…" He turned his face away, clenched his hands together. "I suppose I haven't been keeping track of the days lately. It's been rather…"

He trailed off and Pippin turned back to the road. "Yes, I suppose it has," he said softly.

"Five years," Merry murmured, more to himself than to Pippin and he scrubbed his hand over his face, blew out a heavy breath before turning thoughtfully back to his cousin. "Do you ever…" and he stopped, studied Pippin's profile, seeing again the misty dream of another held within the set of the jaw, the contour of the chin. Always there but never quite clear enough to take hold of, just enough to stir an echo of mourning mixed somehow with soft comfort and then flit away again beneath clear eyes and dauntless spirit. Merry laid a hand to the silent clock between them. "Do you think about what might--"

"All of the time," Pippin said flatly and coaxed the pony into a trot.

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The song was good at the Perch and the ale even better but it was two subdued cousins who sat together silently that evening, watching the merriment unfold before them from their table in the corner. The remnants of dinner sat beside two half-drained mugs, pipes lit but forgotten in their hands as they turned to thoughts best left within their own heads. They left the common room early after a brief pretense of small talk and made to their beds and to dreams they would share with no one.

It was a mostly quiet ride to Hobbiton and they arrived at Bag End, as Pippin had predicted, just in time for afternoon tea. Merry exchanged casual pleasantries with Sam inside the door before making his way to the study and carefully unwrapping the clock, setting it in its old place on the mantle.

Bilbo makes a place for it in the main study – and there it sits proudly on the mantle, ticking away the seasons, watching time pass, helping it along and guarding it jealously. The clock watches him, Merry is sure and he watches it right back, warning it, although against what, he can't say. He strokes his fingertip lightly along the pendulum as it swings, a threat in his touch: 'I can stop you anytime I want, so just you'd better watch.'

Nonsense. Foolishness. But still he takes to touching the pendulum lightly every time he passes and it soon becomes a habit to him whenever he visits his cousin, an ingrained practice as thoughtless as breathing.

It is only after Bilbo's disappearance that he actually begins to hate it.

"Mr. Merry?"

Merry startled, whirled about to find Sam standing in the doorway of the study. He wondered how long Sam had been there, watching him. More to the point, he wondered how long he, himself, had been here, staring fixedly at an old timepiece that had ticked its last seven years and a lifetime ago.

He smiled sheepishly and chuckled. "Sam, how many times must I tell you to leave off the 'Mister' part, eh? You know it buggers me to no end."

Sam lifted an eyebrow and smirked in a way that caused Merry to suspect that Sam knew exactly how it buggered him and that it was precisely the reason he never seemed to remember to drop the title. "Sorry, Merry," he answered with not a little bit of cheek. "Old habits, you know."

Merry gave him a playful glare and, leaving it at that, turned back to the mantle. He slid his fingertip along the pendulum.

It stands sentinel almost half his life as he, in turn, stands sentinel over his cousin; listening for the smallest inflection of tone that will tell him the time is near, watching for a shift of the eye that isn't quite right, feeling for a hitch in breath where a laugh should be, eventually drawing others into his silent, secret vigil. And all the while, he feels the tick of the clock pulse along with the steady rhythm of his own heart; echoing, taunting, devouring the years, chewing up the seasons until the time when he will reach for his cousin and find his hands grasping only emptiness and memory.

"Do you remember this clock, Sam?"

"Very well," Sam replied, stepping across the room to stand beside Merry. "It came along with Mr. Frodo from Buckland, as I recall."

"Yes," agreed Merry absently. "A gift from his father. Did you know that?"

Sam slanted a quizzical glance to his companion, furrowed his brow. "No, I don't expect I did," he answered slowly. "I don't think as he ever mentioned where it come from."

"Mmm…" was Merry's soft response. "I don't suppose he would have."

Sam was beginning to wonder if he should worry at this strange mood Merry seemed to have arrived in. He turned his gaze to the clock. "I knew it seemed to mean an awful lot to him but I don't suppose I ever wondered why. It was just the way of things."

All the way back to Buckland, riding between he and Fatty on the board of the cart that contains Frodo's more beloved possessions, the clock chuckles to itself within the many layers of wool that carefully enfold it. Bumping along the road, Merry almost wishes for an exceptionally large gap, big enough to catch a wagon wheel and send the cart jostling, stilling that treacherous voice. And if he listens hard enough, lets his reason relax, even for a moment, he can almost hear its muffled whisper of 'I told you so.'

Carefully, he places it on the mantle in the front room of the little house and he frowns at himself, for his hands shake as he lifts it from its wrappings. 'What else have I in my hands? What have I taken on and what if it is too much? What if I cannot help him? What if we cannot save him?'

He strokes at the pendulum, fingertips lightly brushing and for the first time in years, he does not have the urge to stop its voice. With his trembling hand, he turns the key and winds the clock. He lingers for a moment, listening to its baleful voice then shakes himself and sets about making all ready for Frodo's arrival.

"The way of things," Merry repeated and pulled his gaze from the mantle, turning it to Sam, piercing him with it. Sam almost wanted to step back beneath the weight of it.

"Sam, have you ever wondered at the way of things?"

Sam frowned, tilted his head. "I don't think I know what you mean, Merry."

"Haven't you ever thought about--"

"Hoy!" Pippin shouted from outside. "Have you all gone off on holiday or are you going to help me unload the cart?" and that seemed to break Merry from the oddness that had held him. He grinned at Sam.

"We'd best go and give him a hand or we'll be listening to him whinging about it all night." He clapped Sam on the shoulder and stepped lightly toward the door.

"Merry," Sam called and Merry stopped, turned. "Wouldn't you rather keep it yourself? If it meant that much to Mr. Frodo, it would seem a better thing--"

"No," and the sharpness in the voice startled Sam. His brow furrowed and Merry forced a small, thin laugh. "Thank you, Sam but… No. No, I don't think…" He trailed off, smiled self-consciously. "No," he said again and left the room.

Sam stared at the empty doorway, bewildered. He turned his gaze to the clock, eyeing the key that jutted from beneath its face, thinking about stepping over and winding it then deciding against it for reasons that would not seem to come to clarity. Cocking his head to the side, brows drawn together, he stuffed his hands in his pockets and wondered at Merry's queer humor.

"Sam! Are you coming?"

Sam shook his head, frowned again and went outside.

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Into the study was where Sam led them after supper. Merry almost thought to ask that they remove to the parlor instead but decided against it. Ridiculous that he should allow himself to be so distracted by so small a thing as a silent clock but there it was. Deciding that he was far too old to be allowing such silliness to encroach, he shook himself and followed. With pipes and mugs of cold ale, they settled in. But Merry found his gaze drawn time and again to the bits of brass and burled maple.

It is late and Merry lies watchful in his bed. It has been settled; they are to go together. But still his fear of waking and finding his cousin's bed empty, pack gone, footprints gathering dew and leading Away, keeps his heart from slowing to somnolence, his ears pricked, his body tense. It is with a sickening jolt that he hears the snick of the front door in the heavy silence and his heart runs apace as he bolts from his bed, blessing whatever Power has bestowed vigilance upon him this night.

His knees buckle in relief when he throws open the door and sees, not the trampled grass of empty footprints left in the wake of flight, but the solitary figure of Frodo. His cousin stands in the yard, ethereal light and soft shadow made solid in form, eyes tilted to the stars, arms loose at his sides in a posture Merry has seen many times. He wonders again what plays behind his cousin's eyes when this stillness comes upon him, wonders if he can hear the voices of the stars as they wheel and sing in their heavenly cradle of ebony and mist and decides that, if there is a mortal that walks beneath them who can hear their song, it is this cousin of his who has followed them all his life.

He lingers, eyes held to his cousin's form. Always just this side of hallowed, this one has been and Merry wants to take hold of the evanescent mist that swirls with the starlight caught in those ancient eyes, banish it from that far-flung gaze, take it in his hands and rend it 'til the fear of loss looses his heart. Selfish and foolish, he knows, for he loves these things just as well as the crooked smile and the biting wit. But he thinks that, perhaps, his cousin, solid, real and here, might be preferable to the entity of sanctified grace, who makes no promise of his continued presence. And he feels a sharp bite of pain in his heart with the thought, for he knows that the loss of either would be nothing less than a death shroud, draped cold and mournful over his soul. And the loss of both? Unbearable.

The dark head tilts to the side, pauses, turns and Merry is caught in the gaze that takes flight from those eyes and locks him, all too willing, within his cousin's soul. And suddenly, within the silence, Merry is aware of the steady tick that filters into the stillness. He shudders, thinks of seconds slipping into minutes into ages and away, gliding through his fingers, as intangible as a heartbeat, as insubstantial as a breath on an autumn wind. He is aware that his hands have closed into fists, as though a strong and steady grasp will hold this cousin to him, burn away the mist of the other and leave only solid bone, warm flesh, with no threat of slipping away and leaving him behind with nothing to hold to.

And then Frodo smiles and Merry feels his heart warm, his hands unfold, his trembling ebb. A solid arm around him, warm breath in his hair and Merry could weep with the relief of the here and real. But he stays himself, draws a deep breath, holds the warmth to his side and returns the smile.

"Merry!"

He jumped, looked to his companions. "Hmm?"

"Sam's called you twice, cousin. He's too polite to box your ears but if you wander off again, I might agree to step in for him."

A nervous smile twitched at Merry's mouth. "I'm sorry," he said to both Sam and Pippin. "I don't think I'm quite myself this evening."

"I should say not," Pippin returned. "Dare I ask?"

Merry frowned. "I'm not sure," he answered, eyes sliding irresistibly back to the mantle. "Anniversaries and such, I suppose," and mentally kicked himself in the arse for hushing the room and throttling good cheer so thoroughly.

Sam's face closed instantly, his ruddy cheeks losing most of their color as the soft smile that seemed a permanent part of his face fell several notches. Pippin's face drew into a pained grimace and he looked into his mug.

"I'm sorry," Merry muttered again. He rose and circled the room restlessly before stopping in front of the hearth, propping his elbow to the stone of the mantle and leaning against it. He felt his other hand wanting to reach out, stroke the still pendulum and he shoved it into his pocket.

A long silence pressed its weight upon the room before Sam edged into it. "No need to be sorry, Merry. It ain't as if it isn't on all our minds."

Packed, ready and the first rays of dawn are only now beginning to push the darkness aside. A quiet bustle has its hold on the little house; packs double-checked, forgotten items stowed, things unnecessary to the journey ahead lain aside with small regret and the promise of return. Merry ignores it all, watches Frodo wind the clock one last time, fingertips stroking the smooth maple of the casement. His eyes are sad, Merry notes, but there is a soft, fond smile playing over his lips. He turns that smile upon Merry, lets it grow and Merry accepts and returns it. Frodo brushes his arm, squeezes his shoulder as he leaves the room, readies for the next step in what promises to be a very long journey and for a brief moment, Merry wants to take his cousin by the shoulders and beg him not to go. But he says nothing, only returns Frodo's soft smile and watches him walk out the door.

Merry stays for a moment longer, finds himself stepping across the room, reaching out to lay his fingers to the pendulum. But he stops, clutches at the mantle instead and whispers, 'Please'… though for what he asks, he couldn't possibly say.

"I just find myself, more and more, wondering how things might have been different. I wonder what I would do if I could take the hands of that clock and turn them back, prevent you two from going off alone, or perhaps, stop him from taking on the task in the first place, or even…" He paused. "Even ask him not to sail." Merry eyed the others warily, as if startled by his admission. "That is… I mean, do you? Ever?"

Smoke and the copper-tang of spilt blood and shattered bone blot out all but the pain that pounds through him. The sight and stench of death wind about him as a shroud. Bone-deep cold and blackness darker than anything his nightmares might have conjured. They become his world and he wanders it in the wake of a vague dream that he had once thought life, guided by the sickening-sweet oil scent of guttering torches. Even those abandon him to the black as he stumbles to his grave and then Pippin is there and light and 'Lean on me, Merry lad!' and the steady tick that he hasn't realized has been in his ears all these long months rises to the surface and pummels him, throbs through his veins and he wonders if Frodo heard the same as he was dying. It winds down, slow and deafening and finally stops and he lets go, weeping, and drifts into the black.

Another long, heavy silence, during which Sam narrowed his eyes, looked to each in turn. Pippin was the one to speak.

"Yes," he said softly, a slight quiver in his voice. "I wonder what I might have done differently, how I might have kept him from leaving."

"You couldn't've," Sam said firmly. "No one could've. Nor should they have wanted to."

"I don't know if that's entirely fair, Sam," Pippin countered. "Wanting him to stay and trying to keep him are two different things. I don't know that we can be blamed for missing him and wishing he'd not have left." He stopped, looked at Sam. "Or that the whole bloody thing had passed him by in the first place," he finished with a bit of a snarl on his lips.

"I understand missing him, right enough," Sam offered slowly. "I loved him-- love him with everything in my heart. But you can't know him and love him and wish that things had been different at the same time. Things were as he would have them and that ought to be enough."

"Oh, come now, Sam," Merry said sharply. "You loved him dear, I'll give you that but no more so than Pip or I and I resent the implication."

Sam narrowed his eyes a little, peered at Merry with a faint glimmer of surprise. "That ain't what I'm saying, Merry. I just mean that, knowing Mr. Frodo as I do, I know that things turned out the way he wished, for the most part."

"You cannot tell me that Frodo would have wished that torture upon himself, or you, for that matter and that a choice between leaving his home or dying was how he would have had it." Merry picked up the poker and began jabbing at the embered logs with a controlled ferocity.

"That weren't necessarily the whole of the choice as he saw it," Sam spoke slowly, carefully, "and I don't say he wished for none of it. Only that, things being as they were, he knew his job and he knew what would come of it and he accepted it. I don't think it would make him awfully happy to think that you haven't."

"You can't know that, Sam. No one could know the heart of another in such a way."

"I know."

"Then if he knew what would come of it, he ought to have known he would fail in the end and the Frodo I knew would not have taken on such a thing, knowing how it would end." Merry gave the fire one last fierce jab and tossed the poker to its stand with a clang.

Sam stared at him in open-mouthed disbelief. "You think he failed?"

"I…" Merry turned, raked a hand through his hair. "No… yes… that isn't what I meant!"

"Then what did you mean, Mr. Merry?" Sam asked and Merry wasn't so agitated that he didn't note the formal address.

He closed his eyes, pinched the bridge of his nose. "I know it was impossible, Sam." He scrubbed at his face, looked to Sam. "I know that. It isn't as if he had a choice, is it? I tried to tell him that myself, for pity's sake, so don't look at me as if I've just spit in your soup. I just…" He began a frantic pace across the room, raked his hand through his hair again and stopped at the mantle.

October the sixth and Merry watches the clouds move into his cousin's eyes, sees them blot out the starlight that has dulled and guttered within them. 'Where shall I find rest?' Frodo asks and Merry can hear the hopeless entreaty in the voice, the desperate wish for solace, the doomed plea for hope.

Those jaded, misted eyes fix on the wizard and Merry can feel the plea in them echo in his own soul. For surely there is hope, surely this cannot be all there is left to the person who has shattered himself, left all of himself behind as carrion, willing sacrifice scattered as bread crumbs to rot upon the blasted earth of the Black Land. Surely this powerful wizard, risen from death, great and terrible and dazzling as sunlight on new snow, surely this mighty wizard has hope to offer.

But the wizard - stars pound and fates damn him – the wizard says nothing.

"I only meant that, had Frodo known how things would turn out, I cannot bring myself to believe that he would have stood up at the Council and taken that upon himself."

"Then you don't know my master," Sam grated.

Merry's hands clenched into fists. "Don't you presume to tell--"

"I think that's quite enough," Pippin interjected quietly, stilling them both to silence. "We miss him. All of us. It's as simple as that. And yes, I too wish that I could turn back time, fix it so that none of this ever happened to Frodo but it did and I will spend the rest of my days missing him, as will you both. And knowing what he did and what he stood against doesn't help when I see him in the crowded market and my heart leaps into my throat before I realize that it isn't him, couldn't be him because he's gone forever and his absence rakes my heart all over again.

"I love him for what he did and for fighting for us all. But I love him more for what he was." Pippin paused, trembling before going on in a quavering tone, "And stars bless and keep me but I can't help but think that Frodo keeping the Ring after all might have been better than living in a world without him in it."

Merry gave a small gasp but Sam's head snapped up and the blood drained from his face. "Don't you say that, don't you never say that!" He bolted from his chair and started across the room. Pippin looked up, startled and climbed slowly to his feet, squaring his shoulders and jutting his chin. It fell to Merry to step between them.

"He doesn't mean it, Sam, calm--"

"Don't you tell me to calm down!" Sam growled in his face. "This may have been Mr. Frodo's smial but it's my home now and I'll not have that sort of profanity spoken in it!"

"It isn't profanity if it's the truth," Pippin said evenly. "I hate to think on it, too, but putting it out of our heads and pretending it didn't happen won't make it so. He claimed It, Sam. I understand that he had no choice; I understand that he stood against It as long as he could and I understand that not a one of us could have equaled what he did. But the fact remains that if it hadn't been for Gollum, Frodo would have--"

"You shut your mouth!" Sam tried to shove Merry out of his way, to stop the words. "Don't you say it!" Merry gripped his arms, held him back.

"If it hadn't been for Gollum…" Pippin went on inexorably then stopped, unable to continue. He collapsed into his chair, pale and shaking. "Not to worry, Sam," he muttered thickly. "I won't say it. I don't know why I even said it in the first place, really. I'm sorry. I wouldn't wish that on anyone, let alone--"

Sam deflated, his knees almost buckling and Merry had to hold him up for a moment before he straightened, brushed Merry's hands away. He paced slowly over to his chair and threw himself into it. He emptied his mug in a single draught then dropped his head into his hands, clutched at his hair.

Strained silence until Pippin broke it with a crack of a fist to the arm of the chair. "It's just so bloody damned hard, missing him like this." His face was pale, voice low and filled with muted rage. "I don't know what I wish half the time! Only that he were here and sometimes I don't care how. Bugger the Ring and bugger the New Age and bugger wizards and bugger Gollum! They can all go sailing off the end of the world, for all I care, if it would only bring him back, whole and himself. And if I had to snog the slimy rotter in front of the Valar themselves, I'd have my arms open and my lips puckered before they could so much as say 'if you please' if it would only bring Frodo back!

"I know I ought to be thankful that he's gone where he can be whole again, for all they made certain that he couldn't be here, didn't they, then? And I know that if it hadn't been for Gollum--"

"You stop saying that," Sam interjected with quiet fury. "If it hadn't been for Gollum, Mr. Frodo would be dead and me along with him and that's all. There weren't never a chance that Mr. Frodo would've tried to keep that Ring and I won't listen to that sort of talk for one more minute."

Pippin closed his eyes, rubbed at his brow. "I'm sorry, Sam but he did try to keep It. I know you loved him and I'm sorry it hurts you to hear it but turning a blind eye, pretending he was more than he was isn't--"

"He didn't try to keep It. He wouldn't. It ain't wishful thinking, it's a plain fact."

Merry had resumed his place at the mantle and now he looked to Sam dubiously. "How can you know that?"

"Oh, Mr. Merry," and Sam lifted his head, shook it slowly and the look he threw to Merry was filled with such pity that Merry flushed and bent his head beneath it. "You traveled with a wizard just as long as I did and you never once questioned him on a matter so dear to your heart?"

"What was there to question?" Pippin asked woodenly. "We knew well enough what would happen should he put It on – we'd been told often enough. And put It on he did. As much as he tried to resist It and blameless as he was, there's no getting around that. We heard the tale, bore witness to our cousin's state. He told us what happened, Sam."

"And you just assumed that was all there was to the tale, eh?" Sam shook his head again. "You don't know nothing – including your own cousin's heart."

"Speaking anything less than the truth would never enter Frodo's mind, so what more did we need?"

"Aye, he spoke the truth but you never thought to look for the things he didn't say, did you? You heard what he spoke with his voice, what he wrote with his pen but never thought to listen for what his heart was shouting, never thought to understand the sacrifices he made for you, for me. You heard only what he'd tell you and never bothered to look for what he wouldn't."

"Now, you wait just a moment--" Merry started but Sam cut him off.

"You didn't. As much as it pains me to have to break your heart again, you didn't know him and you didn't trust him."

"Oh, and I suppose you did? I grew up with him, knew him all my life and loved him so hard my bones ache with his loss. Don't you tell me how it was between me and my own cousin!"

"Tell me, Mr. Merry," Sam said with a rigid, quiet calm, "when we were at Rauros, waiting for Mr. Frodo to decide which way to take, what was it that you wanted to do?"

Merry flinched, hung his head. Sam turned to Pippin.

"And you, Mr. Pippin? Didn't you both want to take the Ring from him, force him into what you thought to be the safer way? Would someone who knew him, trusted him, knew what was in his heart say yea to that sort of betrayal?"

"That isn't fair!" Pippin cried. "I only wanted to protect him, keep him safe!"

"But you didn't trust him enough to know that he knew what he had to do and would see it done," Sam insisted. "You didn't know him well enough to just trust him, to know that he would see it done, no matter the cost."

"And now we're back to the point, Sam," came Merry's stiff response. "The cost was far too dear and, in the end, he couldn't see it done, could he?"

"Ah, see – that's where you're wrong. He would have and very nearly did." He turned first to Merry then to Pippin. "Do you really think, I mean, really think that your Frodo would have, for one single moment, surrendered you, me – the world - to such evil?"

Merry scowled. "No, of course not. But the Ring--"

"The Ring did evil things to people, aye. Twisted their thoughts, blackened their hearts, all because of those vile things it whispered to a soul, showed them things It thought they wanted, lied to them and told them everything could be theirs. And I know because I've heard Its voice my own self.

"But what you don't seem to understand about Mr. Frodo is that he knew. He had more wisdom in that one finger that Gollum stole away than the three of us together and such goodness in his heart that sometimes the light shining from him burned my eyes. He knew it all for lies; knew that keeping It, using It weren't things a hobbit, graced though he was, could hope to do. That evil thing couldn't fool him and he weren't a one to go fooling himself.

"Sauron saw him when he put on the Ring and Mr. Frodo… he knew. And you can't believe for a second that with all that knowing, Mr. Frodo would have allowed that Ring to get back to Its real Master."

Pippin went still, clenched the arms of his chair until his fingers shone white. "What are you saying, Sam?" he choked. "I need you to be very clear, here. I begin to suspect that I have left things unthought of for far too long and I would know the truth – now, when I have the courage to hear it."

"I'm saying that I might owe that wretched Gollum a bit of gratitude for saving my master's life on the brim of that fire, but not a one of us owes him for more than that. My master wasn't standing at the edge of all that was evil, waiting for the Dark Lord to come and claim his filthy Ring and himself in the bargain. He was getting himself ready."

"Ready…" Merry breathed, his head light, body numb. Understanding moved through him in a heated wave and turned his limbs to water. "Oh, no… oh… Frodo," and his knees gave and he sank to the stone of the hearth.

"I don't understand," Pippin whispered. "He would have…"

Merry's head spun and the world seemed to dip and slide beneath him. All this time and he'd thought he knew, thought he'd understood. He'd had the cheek to think himself wise for counseling Frodo to forgive himself when all the while, there was nothing to forgive.

And now the puzzles that he'd pushed to the depths of his heart came into cruel focus and clicked into place with a clarity that burned his eyes. Frodo had castigated himself, yes, thought himself failed but it was never for what Merry had thought, never for the claiming that was inevitable since the evil thing was forged and the threads of its vile song woven into those of his cousin's own. Frodo hadn't failed at his task… he'd failed at dying.

"He would have jumped, Pip," Merry rasped.

o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o

The horror of the events that took place at the door of Bag End has faded into dismal shock. Merry watches Frodo walk slowly through the dim-lit smial, kicking torn scraps of paper and debris out of his path. His head is bent, his shoulders slumped as he wanders the halls, peers through doors and Merry wonders if he is searching for something, anything that has not been tainted by the stain of depravity that has left its mark so wantonly throughout this place of home and comfort. So Merry searches too, casts about for something he can point to, something to give to his cousin to cling to, something yet unspoiled and unchanged. There is nothing and Merry turns to find Frodo gone.

Moonlight struggles through the cloud cover and silvers about him as he wanders the grounds, picking his way through the squat, ugly huts, stumbling over piles of reeking refuse. He fists his hands, shakes with rage and then he turns, lifts his gaze and all of it drains from him, seeps away, leaves him breathless at the sight he beholds.

Frodo stands at the top of the Hill, face to the East, still and silent. He tilts his head, eyes skyward and Merry knows what he'll see if he keeps his gaze fixed, has dreaded it for years but cannot look away.

Stars and moon all turn their gaze upon Frodo and he is as ivory, carved from the ebony of night; a living statue in bleak memory of a soul unshattered, a heart unbroken. For once, Merry does not want to know what plays behind his cousin's eyes as the break in the clouds succumbs to the heavens and the stars that his cousin has followed all his life, finally abandon him. And Merry watches as Frodo, grim but without fear, broken and bone-weary, desolate and scraped raw, ceases his struggle with the grey and casts himself, at last, into the black that has sought to claim him since he set his feet upon the road.

Merry closes his eyes, fights hot, bitter tears and when he opens them again, Frodo has turned and now faces west. Head thrown back, eyes closed, arms angled at his sides with palms turned out. In supplication or surrender, Merry cannot tell. He is both beautiful and terrible and Merry trembles at the harsh light of tribulation that spills from his cousin, thunders through his own soul as he watches Frodo yield his self, forfeit his heart and become other.

Starlight breaks from the clouds, cradles the figure on the Hill in a gentle, silver embrace. Shadows resist, battle for purchase, finally reach reluctant truce with the soft radiance that plays beneath Frodo's skin and Merry wants to howl his rage and terror, beat his fists against the earth, deny what his eyes tell him. But he knows in his heart that what he has feared for these many long years has finally come to pass: his cousin has gone, estranged and dispossessed, abandoned and wounded beyond healing and has slipped into grace.

No longer a creature of the earth, no longer a being bound to substance. He has ceded and the battle, in the end, was bloodless.

Merry jams his fist into his mouth, bites down against the wails that want to roil from his chest and lets blood trickle hot and bitter onto his tongue. His knees weaken and loss howls through him and he has to lean against the rough wood of the hut to keep his feet. Finally, finally, he tears his eyes from the figure on the Hill and he looks to the stars, cold and traitorous in their black, velvet cradle and he feels small, insignificant as tears on a river. He closes his eyes and he can't breathe and his hand claws at the splintered wood and, as he falls to his knees among the rubble and refuse, his ears are filled with the slow, steady tick of a pendulum that moves in cadence to the song of faithless stars.

o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o

Morning and after a near-silent and very awkward breakfast, Sam stood, laid a hand to each of their shoulders, gave them a smile. "We all love him, never doubt it," and Pippin stood, wrapped his arms around Sam and wept long and hard on his shoulder.

Merry slipped away quietly and made his way back to the study. Sam found him some time later, slumped in an armchair, gaze fixed to the clock on the mantle. He made himself comfortable in the chair opposite and simply waited. It was several long moments before Merry finally spoke.

"He was so sad on the way home, do you remember?" Sam nodded slowly but Merry didn't turn. "I had thought that seeing Bilbo again in Rivendell would help. He'd always tell Bilbo things that he wouldn't dream of speaking to anyone else." A small chuckle, a watery sigh. "But Bilbo was…" He slid his gaze to his hands, picked at the fabric of his trousers. "Well…" he breathed with a nervous chuff. "Bilbo wasn't much help by then, was he?"

Another long pause. Sam waited.

Merry took several deep breaths, clenched his hands into fists. "You said that sailing or dying was not the choice as Frodo saw it." He closed his eyes, furrowed his brow. "And now that I know what…" He lifted his eyes to Sam's. "I want to know what the choice was. As he saw it."

Sam looked at him steadily, kindly. "Dying weren't the question, Merry. That was a fair given and mayhap quite a bit sooner than any of us would have guessed." He paused, drew a breath. "I believe that Mr. Frodo sailed because he wouldn't have us watch him die."

Merry nodded slowly, gaze drifting, staring past Sam. Tears gathered again in his eyes and he blinked them back.

"I thought as much." It was quiet, hollow.

Sam shifted in his chair. Silence wound its way around them but neither felt the weight of it pressing upon them as it had the night before.

"I saw it happen, you know." Merry peered at Sam cautiously, as if surprised to hear his own voice. "I didn't know what it meant at the time but I stood witness to the moment that he slipped away from us, for good and all."

Sam cocked his head and Merry gave a bitter chuckle. "I don't suppose I'm making much sense." Sam lifted an eyebrow, offered a small smirk and Merry let out a real, if sad laugh. "You are too polite to box my ears, aren't you? Even when I deserve it."

Sam remained silent. Merry's smile faded and his eyes grew distant again.

"I can't be sure, of course but… somehow, I am. I saw him make his choice. I watched him make that last sacrifice and I didn't understand. I thought…" He stopped, swallowed. "I thought he was giving up." A small, rueful laugh. "As if he would."

He turned his face to Sam and added quickly, "I didn't blame him, of course – how could I? All that he'd done, all that he'd given away and then to come back to a shadow of the evil he'd lost himself in fighting – I thought he'd just lost hope and how could anyone blame him for that?

"It's never been far from my mind. I think I eventually almost felt glad that he had finally done something for himself, gave himself a chance without putting others before him. I didn't realize that it was just the last bit of his heart and he was handing it to me, to anyone, if I'd only had the courage to step from the shadows and take it and I just… I didn't see it. I watched him slip away and I didn't think… didn't do--"

Merry covered his face with shaking hands and suddenly he was weeping, a shattered, broken sound that pierced Sam's heart. Sam only waited and Merry gave himself over to the sorrow that lingered at the edges of his heart. It was some time before he stirred, cleared his throat.

"How could I not have--"

"It weren't your fault. How could you know?"

"How did you know?"

"That he was leaving?" Sam shook his head slowly, dropped his eyes. "I didn't. I think I was the only one surprised by it. And I didn't see the signs myself until well after he'd sailed so don't birch yourself too hard for that one. I was here, lived right in the same smial and still hadn't even a hint." Sam paused, shook his head again. "When I think of all the arrangements he had to have made – the will, the witnesses… And I didn't see a blessed thing 'til we had to turn to the Havens and he couldn't hide it no more."

"I'm sorry, Sam. I know it was very difficult for you."

"It was that," Sam said with a sad little chuckle. "For all of us. But I've made my peace and I hope you'll be able to make yours now. He's better, Merry. Please believe that."

"I do, Sam," Merry whispered. "Thank you."

They sat quietly for a few moments before Merry composed himself, asked, "What about the end, Sam? When Frodo put on the Ring. How can you know so much about that? Knowing Frodo, I find it hard to believe that he would have been so forthcoming about the matter."

Sam thought about that for a moment. "Some of it, I got from Mr. Gandalf. He were a bit more willing to speak on things afterwards, if you caught him in the right mood. Mr. Frodo beat hisself up long and hard for not being able to let It go in the end but Mr. Gandalf and Strider set him to rights… on that bit, at least. I managed to wheedle that much, firsthand, from Gandalf. But I think he thought it were important for me to make my own way through most of the things I wanted to know and, though he answered some of the questions I thought to ask, I still had to puzzle out some of his riddles my own self."

He paused, looked steadily at Merry. "But most of it I just know, though I didn't see it myself until time had smoothed the raw edges, so to speak. And it weren't because I loved him any better than you, nor that it were something you should ought to have just known. I walked those same dark paths with him, Merry, and there are some things I just know and there ain't no way around that, nor do I want to keep it from you to spare your feelings. I knew and you didn't and it couldn't have been any other way." Sam stood, placed himself in front of Merry's chair and squatted down to face him, took his hand. "But now…"

Merry smiled sadly, squeezed Sam's hand. "Now… Now I know as well, don't I?" He turned his head, propped his chin on his fist. "I suppose it ought to make me feel better but…"

"It will," Sam said.

Merry turned back to Sam, his smile still lingering in the corners of his mouth. "You think?"

And Sam smiled back. "I know."

He clapped Merry on the shoulder and rose, made for the door.

"Sam?"

Sam stopped, turned in the doorway.

"I think…" Merry paused, wiped the remainder of his tears from his cheeks with his sleeve. "I think I should like to take the clock with me after all. If you don't mind, that is."

"No, Merry," Sam smiled. "I don't mind."

o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o

It has only wound down only once, to Merry's recollection. But he will see to it that it won't happen again. Wheels, cogs and springs are splayed on the flannel before him and he dips each into the solvent then carefully brushes away the dusty build-up before wiping it dry and laying it on the flannel behind him. A meticulous business but he finds it soothing.

Reconstructing the clock from the bits of brass and copper is a more daunting matter but he had taken careful note as he disassembled it and so it is not so very long before everything is in its place. The weights are a consideration but he will take it to the tinker to be recalibrated only if it proves necessary.

The maple casement has held up well, considering and only needs an oily rag and a bit of work to restore it to its gloss. The carved characters on its face are a different matter and he'll be buggered if he knows a better way to rid them of the dust in their crevices than careful scraping with a cloth-covered pin. This little chore almost does him in but he is a stubborn Brandybuck, after all and crossed eyes or no, he'll see every last mote of dust pried from its home before night's end.

The pendulum he saves for last and when its mechanism is oiled and it is polished to a high sheen, he hangs it from its hook and steps back, key in hand. He eyes the clock carefully, reaches over to swipe away a smudge on the minute hand then steps back again, satisfied.

He looks to the key in his palm, turns it over several times then steps forward, inserts it into the keyhole. He is rewarded with an easy, loose clicking as he turns it, careful not to go too fast or wind overmuch.

Done and he examines everything thoroughly once more then nods to himself. He picks it up carefully, gazes at the face for another long moment then smiles. He makes his way to his study.

He has already made a place for it on his own mantle and now he places it there, eyes it appraisingly. He adjusts its placement several times with the tip of his finger before he realizes what he's doing, curses himself for a persnickety, old gammer and gives himself a rueful chuckle. He is stalling and he knows it.

Without allowing himself any more time to think, he reaches out his hand, strokes the pendulum with a fingertip then taps it into motion. It wobbles on its hook a little with his awkward touch then catches its rhythm, finds its voice and wakes to new life, seemingly content in its new home.

Merry makes his way to his chair, relaxes into it, follows the steady back and forth of the pendulum for a while before he closes his eyes. The ticking in his ear is as the voice of a loved one, lost then found, and, as he drifts into a light doze, he can feel the soft press of warmth and breath against his cheek, can hear the thrum of a familiar heartbeat in his ears. Merry sinks further into slumber, dreams of white sands and waves pounding in harmony to clear, musical laughter, thinks of comfort and shelter and healing, the feel of cool, green grass beneath his feet.

The clock ticks in cadence with the roar of the Sea, stands sentinel as Merry dreams. Merry is greeted by a soft, crooked smile and his sleeping face lifts into one of its own.

o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o

"Frodo too would then probably, if not attacked, have had to take the same way: cast himself with the Ring into the abyss."

J.R.R. Tolkien on what would have happened at the Cracks of Doom had Gollum not attacked Frodo.

Letters (#246)

o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o

END