Dusk-the seventeenth day


I was sleeping. Been sleeping too much. You should've woken me, earlier. I'm tired, surely, but no need to sleep like *that*.

On the other hand, it's good to see *you* sleeping, Frodo. You're all curled up tight under the covers-are you cold, then? Here... no, your cheeks are warm, you're even sweating a little bit, so you're not cold. You just haven't been sleeping enough, I'll bet. I know you were up last night even after Merry and Pippin left, sitting up with Gandalf. I remember waking up at times and seeing the both of you there, silent as statues, and then I'd fall back asleep as if being dragged under a soft, warm cloud. I tried to stay awake, but just couldn't.

It's been mighty pleasant, though, just sleeping, eating, and sitting in the sun. Just like Shire summers, eh? The gardens here are beautiful, and while I'm not quite ready to start digging about in them, it's nice to see them there, just out the window. A bit of home.

I'm sure ready to see home again. I'll bet you are, too.

Here, now... you're shaking. Are you dreaming? Not seen you have any nightmares, not even in the black lands. You had enough bad dreams during the day to just empty your nights of them, didn't you? But it's all done now, all finished. Hush, now. Just sleep...

I sit gingerly on the bed next to you, put a hand to your back and it seems to quiet you a little. I don't worry about waking you-you know my touch better than your own. Hasn't woken you yet on this long road, has it? Not unless I wanted it to... I put my shoulders to the headboard, lean back and keep my palm to your spine. I shift a little closer, lift my legs up onto the bed and let the length of us run side by side; me all stretched out and you curled up against me. I close my eyes. Peace...


Wasn't too peaceful the other day, I'll tell you that. I'd barely woke up and there you were calling me 'sleepyhead' and smiling just like old times. All that was missing was the handful of cold water you'd occasionally dribble down my chest when I was sleeping really hard-you never did play fair, you know. But wasn't it fine? That enormous meadow between the trees that you could've put the whole of Bagshot Row in. All those Big People-you know, I never thought we were that small until I came out of the Shire. Just thought the Big People were the ones who were different. But it's us, isn't it? I'm no little fellow in our own home, but I'm small in this world. And all of them there, just to see us. It made me uncomfortable, just a bit.

I'm not so sure that you liked it, either.

Merry and Pippin liked it, though! Grown several hands in height and now I have to look up to *both* of them! And those too-tall bodies, clad in cloaks of soft finespun and mail that shimmered like a hazy sunrise.

I was so proud of them. They looked like something straight from one of old Bilbo's stories, didn't they?

The muscles of your back jump beneath my fingertips. You're taut as a fence rail and about as spare. I can set my fingers in the hollows between your ribs and count the bones in your spine even through your nightshirt. You want feeding up. Get you home, get some proper hobbit food in you, none of this fancy muck that men seem to go for. Like that feast t'other night. Peacocks, I ask you. No meat on them to speak of-all they're good for is screeching and using their tail feathers to tease kittens with!

What I wouldn't give for a good, thick mug of potato-leek soup about now. Two of 'em, one for each of us.

Well, the main thing is we're all together again.

Aren't we?

I don't know what Merry and Pippin thought they were hiding. It was the first time we'd all come together-when we were conscious, anyway-but it didn't take me all that long to figure that there was something not right. Maybe we were all awkward, like tweeners who've spent the winter apart and don't know what to do for the first five minutes they're back together. Maybe they both thought we were ragged enough hurt from our own journey and wanted to spare us. Maybe it was that we were all changed, and didn't quite know how to abide the changing.

I saw it in Pippin, first. He didn't bounce over and leap at me as he would have any other time. He walked carefully-Pippin careful!-and took me slowly and when I accidentally held him too tight-I didn't mean to, but I was that glad of him-he drew in his breath sharp over his teeth and then just leaned into me as if somehow he welcomed the pain. I felt the thickness of bandages under that shining mail and eased up. Sometimes I don't know my own strength, and it seemed little, unsquashable Pippin was no longer little, or unsquashable.

Merry grabbed me then, said brightly that Pippin was a bit tender, he'd been under the bad end of a troll. I saw nothing wrong with Merry, but heard it, in the forced cheer of his voice. Smelled it as well as we embraced, the flat, dull sweat of exertion too soon from sickness. He didn't flinch-held as hard to me as I to him-but there was a grey pallor behind the flushed cheeks as he pushed me back, looked at me. His mouth smiled, but his eyes didn't, and I was tempted to upbraid him for keeping this distance between us, for the lie within the smile. Then the smile faded as he turned to you.

And you, standing and staring at both of them, bandaged hand clenched against your belly and a thousand questions in your eyes. It was as if everything had gone silent, though I knew that folk were talking around us. 'Twas Merry that broke the odd strain; he took the last two steps and embraced you gently, so gently, as if he was afraid you would break. For a second I was afraid you might, you looked so small against his broadened frame. Then you turned your face away from me and leaned into him, that bandaged fist still lying along your stomach, and neither of you acknowledging it as if there was something, somehow, that it stirred between you. And Pippin next to me, suddenly angling against me as if he'd not the strength to hold himself up and I stood firm, steady against him as Merry held you, long and frantic, until you quivered and tried to pull back. Merry still wouldn't let go, gripping your shoulders and trying to get you to look at him, just for the moment.

Instead you laid your forehead and one fist against his chest, closing your eyes.

Then Pippin was edging into you both, drawing me along, drawing us all together. With an insistent, cheerful demand for attention from you he put his self-imposed hesitation into more a care for his weakened cousin than any worry about his own shakiness. If I'd not felt it myself-the creak of knitting bone, the quick wince away-I would have been fooled. You were. The weariness that had claimed your eyes lifted and warmed and you made some blithe comment about now having to look up to see whether Pippin was off to no good or not and you hugged him tightly and he didn't even wince- either because you just couldn't hold him tight enough to hurt him or he'd just made up his mind to bear it.

And I bless him over and over in my head, because just with that he's somehow taken us and made us pull together again. Let others call him awkward and foolish, but I know better. His heart knows what needs to be done. Just as mine used to.

Just as mine used to...

Oh, Frodo, we *are* all together again. Strider-he's the King, now. He'll be a right pleasant one, too. Dressed in silks and velvets now 'stead of leather and wool, but he's still plain for all that he's gussied up. Still Strider. Legolas and Gimli, tight as ticks side by side, both of them fair shining with grace and power. I missed Boromir fiercely yesterday. No matter what had passed, he had well earned the right to see how it ended. Gandalf...

I couldn't believe how incredible it was, to see him alive. To see him so changed. It came hard to me, for some reason. He wasn't the same...

Of course, none of us are.

Especially you. Gandalf said as much to me, pulled me aside and had a few words in my ears. Said I was to look to you very carefully. The warning light in his eyes scared me. Of course, he's always been able to turn my knees to water, but this was different. I could tell he was the one, this time, who feared. For you.

They were all set to put you and me in our own rooms, but Gandalf also told me that he let them know that we were to be kept together and there was a deeper meaning in those words as well. He doesn't want you to be alone, that's plain as plain.

And it's just as well, for look at you. You're still balled up under the covers against me, still trembling. I don't like this, not one bit, so I slide up underneath the blankets with you, lift you against me. You fight me for a moment, mutter, sling your head sideways; I just go with you, then angle your head against my chest. For moments it's like you're still not sure and I hope that I've not just dragged you from what sleep you can purchase, then you shudder into me, your poor ruined hand reaching up to tangle in my shirt. It's like I'm holding something made of wood instead of flesh, you're so tight, your back knotted against my belly, your jaw clenched.

You still shake. I run my hands up from your jaw line to temples, rake my fingers through your hair, then go back. Again. And yet again. Slowly, ever so slowly your shakes ease and the cords in your neck start to unclench. There's silver amongst the fire-singed dark locks that fall lankly through my palms, silver I don't ever recall seeing and you're too young anyway to have this happening...

And suddenly I'm clenching my fists tight in your hair, and hunching over you as from nowhere it descends and huffs the wind out of me as if someone had thrust a hard heel into my breastbone.

It's silent and treacherous. It hamstrings me as surely as any knife and I can't stop it. I don't want to wake you, but I can't stop it. It spills over, runs warm and silent over my cheeks and I just sit here, bent over you, felled like a tree bitten by the axe and a literal flood of tears dripping into your hair. Misery and fear... a dark, horrible fear claims me and drops the bottom out from under me and I gather you tighter to me, hang onto you because I don't know what else to do. It's all I *know* to do anymore.

Merry knew what to do, even if you were having none of it. Pippin knew what to do. But me... I don't know anymore! My heart's gone silent. It lies still-quiet within my breast, not telling me what I need to be doing here, not telling me how to help, what to do.

What can I do, Frodo? What else do I need to do?

Oh, everything's gone so wrong suddenly and I'm scared, do you hear me? I'm scared that we're really not all together again, that nothing can ever be the same again and that somehow the stakes have changed. Again.

I don't see it anymore, the light shining from you when you sleep. It's not there. It's like that cursed Ring took it from you. Ripped the brilliance from you like it's shaded the smile on your lips and muted the song in your heart and burnished hectic the softness behind your eyes and leached the russets from those silvered strands in your forelock.

No. It isn't fair. *No*. Hasn't it taken enough? It has to take this, too?

I've followed you into deep and dark places that I never would have gone through alone. I've held tight to your hand and waded through a vast sea of waking, endless nightmares. But I don't know how to follow you here. I can't follow you here. I don't know where you've gone. Only that it's cold. And dark...

I'm scared, Frodo. What if you don't need me, where you've gone? Is this the price I have to pay? Is this my punishment for... for...

Your hand twitches, clenched in my shirt. I put my own over it gently and hold it to my heart.

Merry asked me about this, you know. About your hand, how it got this way. I couldn't believe at first what he was asking me. His hesitation about you, his fear and doubt all clicked, sudden-like, and made horrible sense. I told him what had happened at Mount Doom; what that Ring had done to you, what that Slinker had done to you. His eyes changed. It was like a big weight lifted from him.

I couldn't tell him the truth of it. Of what I had nearly done. I was for a moment so angry that he'd even suggested I'd take my sword to your hand, that I'd try to take the Ring from you, but not because it was so impossible. Oh, no. Not impossible...

It was after Cirith Ungol. Those last days on the road. After I'd carried it. It tried to take me, you know? It tried to use me. Not just when I thought you dead in the spider's lair, but afterwards as well. There was one night I'd woken up still in the middle of a nightmare, my hands stuffing into my mouth the only thing that stopped me from screaming aloud. And when I could see again I saw you, lying so quiet and fair, that filthy Ring bruising and burning your throat. And it was as if it was talking to me, filling my mind with ugly things.

I bite my lip, teeth clenching down until pain spasms there and I taste blood upon my tongue. A tiny drop falls into your hair, sets itself like a ruby amongst the tears and darkness and silver.

I never, never laid a hand on you in anything other than kindness. It tried to convince me it would be a kindness, you see. It was as if you were speaking to me, pleading with me to take it from you. To take not only the Ring but the suffering from you. Mercy, it kept saying. T'would be a mercy, truly, to let you go. To help you to go...

Save us all, Frodo, I didn't mean it! I didn't! And I knew, the moment I thought it, where it had came from. Not from you, never from you, but from that cursed bit of gold you were chained to. I knew it for a lie as I leaned over you and put my hands to your throat, saw the radiance that always seemed to fill you as you slept. The peace and ease that freed you, the bright, soft place you'd somehow escape to when you shut your eyes. The light that filled you-the light that *was* you.

The light that's missing now.

I turned away, denied the fire. I still deny it. But I can't help thinking if it did that to me, me that'd only held it for the little while I did, what did it do to you?

And maybe it makes of me a coward, but I don't want to know. I just want to forget it, all of it. I want you to forget it.

You've eased up against me, no longer trembling in my arms, but still it's there. The wrongness. The tension. Wherever you've gone to now, it's a place that gives you no peace and no rest.

I want you to come back to me. Please, come back. I've never felt so helpless...

So I lay my cheek against your skull and rock you slowly, gently, closing my burning eyes. It's too dark here, in the shadow of that mountain. It's all too close. We need to get away from here and back to where we belong. We need to go home and never seen fiery mountains or dark caverns again. We need to be in our own place, our own land, where we can have a proper smoke when we want, get six meals a day should we choose them and never again walk farther than the town square unless we want to.

We just need to get you home, Frodo. That's what you need, what all of us need. We'll settle down in Crickhollow where you can hear the river run wild at night-or even better, return to Bag End where we both grew up and there's a proper garden with a bench that you can sit on and read in the sun, get some color back into your cheeks. Go climb the roof tree and watch the stars until dawn streaks the sky. Finish Bilbo's book for him. Listen to the old gammers telling tales about where we've been and what we've done-for that matter, I might even have a tale or two to add in there. Watch how Merry and Pippin will amaze everyone just as they've always done, but this time it will be because of their great height and their great skills and their even-greater hearts. Home is where we have to go, now.

And our lovely, lovely Shire will fill us all up again, fill you with light and hope and life.

Everything will be all right once I get you back home. It *will*...