We two have paddled in the burn

From morning sun till dine

[ . . .]

And here's a hand my trusted friend

And give a hand of thine

(Robbie Burns)

"I didn't say I would tell you everything. But maybe, if you asked me another question, I might be inclined . . ."

"Aye, then. What happened to Strider? I saw him looking so fearfully grave when I woke up ­ even more so than before. He always looked a bit too serious, if you ask me. I really should ask him to join Merry and me for a meal, that would cheer him up, don't you think?" A snort of laughter and some not overly nice comment followed that statement, but the boyish voice continued unintimidated: " . . . when can I see Frodo and Sam? Are they really doing better? Merry says that they are still sleeping. And is Merry really all right? I don't think he is Gandalf, though I know he's been very tired and worried lately. Maybe Strider will look at him later, just to make sure? Legolas looked well, but I haven't seen Gimli yet. Are you sure he is well? I have to thank him for finding me under that annoying, and may I add, quite heavy troll. Merry told me that Gimli and Legolas looked and looked for me . . .where is Merry do you think Gandalf? Why didn't we see him at the mess tent?"

Merry's heart stopped for one seemingly endless second, only to start beating again with such vigour, that he felt it would burst at any moment.

Hope flared, and he welcomed it. Finally, he let himself believe. He opened his eyes, and Gandalf was now near enough for Merry to see some brown wisps of curls brushing the wizards snow white beard.

"Peregrin Took." Gandalf stopped the torrent of questions from under his cloak with a mildly reproachful tone of voice. "I know that you have not spoken in quite a while, but do you really have to make up for all your lost nattering in one day?" Good-natured teasing mingled with the fatherly words.

To Merry, all the humour of the situation was lost. He raced up to Gandalf, sending droplets of mud spraying in the direction of the white robes, when he came to a halt, just a few steps away.

Gandalf smiled. "Well, here's the answer to one of your questions Peregrin." A face looked out from the shelter of Gandalf's cloak. A face Merry knew better than his own. Green, sparkling eyes, unruly curls, fae features, and a small angular mouth, that started to form an exuberant greeting, then stopped abruptly as the sparkling eyes now crinkled in concern.

Merry stared for a moment in shock, then managed to utter a choked: "Pip?"

Pippin looked at the distressed face of the other hobbit with growing concern then sudden understanding dawned. "Oh, Merry! I am so sorry. Gandalf had come soon after you left, then the healers came and wanted to change the bed, so Gandalf took me for a walk to look for you. You were gone so long, and I was missing you...." Pippin trailed off, upset that he'd thoughtlessly put his cousin through yet another ordeal. He hadn't had time to actually comprehend what he'd put Merry through these past days, but now he saw a shade of a larger gloom clouding his cousin's face. Laid bare in Merry's usually twinkling eyes was such dread and sorrow as Pippin had never known. From the expression on Merry's face, Pippin was obviously not the only one who was distressed at any separation from his favourite cousin right now.

Merry fought back tears when he realised the misunderstanding in the tent. Pippin was here. Hadn't left him after all. How weak he had been, to simply assume that the worst must have happened without even considering that there were other possibilities. He had let himself jump to conclusions and nearly let himself be overwhelmed by the Shadow that had taken advantage of the opportunity and his emotional turmoil and exhaustion. "Oh, Pip." was all he could manage.

Relief and worry, joy, pain and release clashed violently. Merry walked the last few steps, blinded by tears, until he stumbled, fell onto his knees and broke out in sobs that wracked his whole body.

He barely heard the horrified "Merry!" uttered by two voices.

Sightless with tears, he could only feel Gandalf lifting him up, then two small hands gathering him close.

Hesitantly, Merry returned the embrace, fighting the fear that this Pippin was just a vision who would suddenly disappear, leaving Merry bereft once more.

Out here, in the rain and the mud and the cold, the mere presence of Pippin flooded his spirit with warmth. A golden fire which caressed him, gave him warmth, but did not burn him. He started to feel whole again and the last of the icy tingle faded from his arm, and he felt a blackness leave him that had been buried so deep he had thought had thought it would forever be a part of him.

He had Pippin back. For good. And nothing would ever severe that link again.

Still, Merry couldn't contain his tears. It was almost as if his body needed to get all of those tears he had pushed back so often during the last days out in this one final burst of emotion.

Pippin and Gandalf seemed to understand, and both held him safely in their combined embrace till Merry's sobs slowed to small hiccups, then stopped at last. The wizard said, "I am sorry, too, Meriadoc. I had thought to have Pippin back before you returned. I thought a bit of fresh air would be to his good, but we should have waited for you to return rather than go searching for you. Pippin can be very persuasive though, as you know." Gandalf smiled down at him gently and gave Merry a look of sincere apology.

Merry sniffed a bit, then said in a quivering voice, "Fool of a wizard. And you, you Fool of a Took."

Two pairs of eyes smiled with him at his attempt to tease. Gandalf gave Merry an affectionate little shake. "Impudent lad. Undeniably the Took half," he chuckled as he began to walk with his double armful of hobbit on toward the tent. "Brandybucks wisely keep such cheek to themselves."

Merry lay back in the wizards secure embrace, safe and comfortable, then suddenly looked around in confusion. Gandalf did not just appear to be dry, he WAS dry, and the rain that had still been falling on him before Gandalf had scooped him up was falling on him no longer, yet it he could clearly see the drops spattering into the puddles on the soggy ground.

He looked at Pippin who of course knew what he wanted to know, and answered without him needing to ask. "It's magic, Merry," his cousin almost squealed in delight. "Can you imagine what Sam would say?"

Merry could scarcely think of what to say himself. He looked up at the wizard questioningly, and received an enigmatic grin for his troubles. "I do have skills other than making fireworks and arranging adventures for overly curious hobbits you know."

Merry opened his mouth for a question but Gandalf stopped it before he could ask.

"And no, as I was just trying to get through Peregrin's head before you came along, I cannot tell you how it works. You however are already rather wet and soggy, so I think we shall put an end to this demonstration and get you both snug and warm, shall we?" With that he strode into the sheltered warmth of the tent.

Dry garments were brought, new soup was served and Merry's bed was made up next to Pippin's. Then Gandalf left with a smile and the promise to come back after they had rested and answer more of Pippin's incessant questions.

They ate in silence. Merry barely took his eyes off his younger cousin and watched his every move. Pippin made no protest, and indeed was doing much the same to Merry, so comfortable just to be with him, and doing something so simple as sharing a meal, and knowing that they were safe and together. Knowing that the hard, fearful days were behind them, and they had - against all odds - weathered the storm.

Only once, Merry's gaze strayed to the candle next to Pippin's bed. It was alight again.

At that moment someone entered the tent, and a small draft swept through, just enough to make the now burning candle next to Pippin's bed sputter a little before leaping back up to burn with a steady flame. Merry blanched visibly.

"Merry?" Pippin asked in his piping, Tookish brogue. "What is wrong?"

Merry put down his bowl and gestured towards the candle with a shaking hand. "I failed you." He whispered. He couldn't look up, but felt Pippin gazing at him in confusion.

"What are you talking about, you silly hobbit? You saved my life, Merry. Gandalf told me what happened, and I know that it was you who called me back. No one else could have - I was too far away to have heard anyone but you. How then have you failed me Merry?"

"No." Merry insisted. "I failed you. The candle . . ."

Pippin raised a questioning eyebrow. "What about it? I'm trying to express to you my heartfelt gratitude for saving my life, and you are talking about a candle?"

"I did fail you." Merry insisted, not heeding the teasing tone in his cousin's words. "Before you left, you asked me not to let the light go out, to keep it safe, but I didn't. I didn't mean to, but I let the light die."

Merry looked up to meet his eyes and Pippin's brow crinkled in confusion. "You couldn't have. It was burning when I woke up, and I can see it burning now. "

Merry stared at him, bewildered. His cousin didn't seem to understand. Or was it he that did not understand? He looked over at the candle again, then at Pippin, unsure even how to articulate what he wanted to say, or rather ask.

Once again Pippin made his question unnecessary. "You thought I meant the candle, didn't you, Merry? Silly hobbit!" he laughed, shaking his head, "Just like a Brandybuck, to worry yourself frantic over something symbolic like a candle. My poor old Merry!"

"What did you mean then, Pippin, if not the light of the . . ?" asked Merry, still confused.

"You keep talking about that silly candle, Merry. Let it go." Pippin reached out and put a hand over Merry's, and looked at him with compassion. "You and Frodo ­ just like two apples on the same tree ­ always dwelling on such glum thoughts." A boyish smile flickered over his face, but his eyes were solemn in a way Merry had seen them only once before ­ that night in Minas Tirith.

"I wasn't talking about wax and burning wicks. I meant the light that burns in you, Merry. The Shadow was still so near, and . . . I feared for you." Pippin laced his fingers with Merry's. "I am glad to see that you never lost the light."

Tentatively, Merry closed his eyes and searched for an answer inside him. Could it be true? Had he really misunderstood his cousin? But how could this light be in him? He was nothing but a hobbit. Then, as he asked himself that question, he recalled Legolas in the rain, shining bright for all with eyes to see. Surely Pippin could not mean that Merry had THAT kind of light in him?

Could Pippin see him in that way? And, he realized, did he not recognize a similar light in Pippin himself?

For a few moments, nothing happened. But then he saw the flickering of a candle on the insides of his eyelids, burning clear and strong, giving a warm light that flooded his soul.

With a start, he opened his eyes again and stared at Pippin, who was slurping away at his soup again, giving Merry quick, worried glances between bites.

Merry thought about how he would reach out to Pippin with his eyes or his ears or his hands, all of his senses turning to Pippin like a compass turning to north, never lost when he had that touchstone. Is that what he was to Pippin, a light that he could turn to and know who and what and where and why he was, at any time?

And did it not work the other way as well?

Pippin quickly finished his soup and began eyeing Merry's bowl with a coveting glance.

If he needed anything to assure him that Pippin was indeed alright, then Merry had found it in this one glance. The restored, unbridled appetite of Peregrin Took was the most accurate proof for well-being he could think of.

After a second, and actually, a third helping of soup and then, of the creamy dessert, they retired, full, warm and content.

Their beds were close, and after a while of watching the weightless dance of the candle's flame in the utter darkness, Merry reached out a hand for Pippin.

His cousin's small hand warmed his cool one quickly, and Merry smiled in the semi-darkness, thinking about how good it would feel to sleep with the reassuring presence of his cousin nearby.

After a while, Pippin moved to sit up one last time, ready to extinguish the candle.

"Don't!" Merry cried and closed his finger's tighter around Pippin's. "Leave it burning. Just one more night."

"It's just a candle, Merry, don't be so melodramatic," Pippin said with twinkling eyes and mock exasperation in his voice. "It won't explain the night to you."

Then, unexpectedly, he became solemn, and looked into Merry's still vaguely haunted eyes. Acutely aware of his actions he carefully moved forward, never breaking eye-contact with his cousin, and blew out the candle with a soft breath.

The golden gleam vanished and the very last glowing of the wick reflected in Pippin's irises. The small hand tightened around Merry's and the words drifted easily through the darkness. "The light is in you." Pippin repeated his statement from before. "It always was. Don't ever doubt that."

The warmth of the palm that held his hand was nothing next to the warmth of the words.

As he allowed that comfort to wash over and envelope him, Merry thought about all that had happened to him during the course of this day. It was then that he perceived a soft snoring from the bed next to him.

A smile spread over Merry's features. Finally, he understood the truth. The flame inside him flared up, making the gloom retreat, and the haunting shadow left his heart for good.

Even though he was hundreds of leagues away from the Shire, he was home.


A/N: Now, finally, the tale has found an ending. It never would have without these wonderful ladies:

Murron (who, in case it confuses anyone, is Kati-Wan :o) ), MarigoldG, Baylor and sincerity who gave suggestions, made the story deeper and more powerful and last but definitely not least: Quiller, who helped to tighten the whole thing and make it readable.

Ladies, I wouldn't know what I would have done without you. Probably would have run screaming, chased by hobbits, wizards and kings . . . There were times when I thought I wouldn't finish it. But you always helped me up with kind words or a smack in the head. Both was necessary, and I want to tell you one thing: I really do love you all. *comfy sigh* It's great to have a couple of such talented women around me, and I feel honoured to know you and call you my friends.