The journey just could not go fast enough for Merry. Seven days. Seven days in which to brood, and wonder. Had Pippin woken up by now? Had he ... no, he wouldn't let his thoughts continue in that vein. He closed his eyes, and forced the thought away. It would do him no good to make himself sick with worry, when the best possible news could have already happened. He would not do it to himself any longer.
Keeping his eyes closed, Merry tried to envision the best possible outcome. He would arrive, and Pippin would have been awake for days now, eating and laughing and walking around causing trouble. He would grin at the sight of Merry, come running to throw his arms around him in greeting, kissing his cheek. He would take Merry's hand and lead him to where Frodo and Sam lay in a healing sleep. Aragorn, Gandalf, Legolas and Gimli would all be there...the whole fellowship, save Boromir, together again. Not untouched, but at least together.
Merry smiled as peace washed over him. If only that could be true...Please, let it be true.
Shakily, Merry disembarked from the ship on wobbly legs. Being a Brandybuck, he was used to the water more than most hobbits, but the last part of this trip had left him quite uncomfortable. His sea legs refused to work on land, and he stumbled onto his knees. Cursing, he pushed himself back up again. He refused to show any sign of weakness right now. His arm was almost fully healed, and he almost felt like himself again.
He looked around with trepidation. Why was no one here to meet him, he thought impatiently. Then he saw the tall, stooped figure making his way toward Merry. He tried to read what was in those unfathomable eyes, but failed. Why did Gandalf have to be so good at hiding his thoughts? It drove Merry mad.
Gandalf strode over and placed a hand on Merry's shoulder. "Meriadoc, well met. It is good to see you again. Come this way." He walked off without waiting for the hobbit to follow. Irritated, Merry grabbed his pack and ran after the wizard.
"Gandalf..." he panted as he ran, and Gandalf held up a hand. "One moment, Merry, while we gain a bit of privacy." Merry's heart lurched. What did they need privacy for, unless...no. It could not be. Please, don't let it be.
Gandalf led Merry into an isolated copse of trees that was well away from the crowd that was arriving. Turning, Gandalf bent down with a hand on Merry's shoulder, and looked into his eyes. Finally, Merry thought he could read some of what Gandalf was going to say. He shuddered. Gandalf's eyes seemed to reflect unfathomable sorrow, and that did nothing to cheer Merry.
"Merry, young Pippin struggles. Strider thought that by now he should at least be coming around, but Pippin has yet to open his eyes." Merry's heart sank at these words. He tried desperately to grasp at some remaining hope, however faint it might be. "He is alive, then," Merry murmured.
Gandalf nodded. "And remember, Merry, that wherever there is life, there is hope. Never forget that."
"Tell me Gandalf, what are his injuries, exactly?"
"Young Peregrin had suffered two broken ribs, a broken arm, and many bruises, including a deep gash on his forehead. It seems that his lungs have been damaged while lying underneath the troll, and that accounts for his troubled breathing." Merry couldn't stop the sorrow from gripping his heart. He clutched at Gandalf's hand and collapsed to his knees. "There, there, my lad...do not give in! I must take you to your young cousin, and then he can feel your touch and hear your voice."
Merry nodded, thought fleeing from his mind as he let Gandalf help him to stand. He locked all thought from his mind, and numbly followed Gandalf. If he didn't think, maybe he wouldn't feel, and then he could cope with the situation. He had to struggle to keep up with Gandalf, and his wobbly legs weren't helping any.
"Merry!" he heard a gruff voice shout. Blankly, Merry turned to face Gimli, who ran over and gave the hobbit a strong hug. "It is so good to see you, Merry! Why, you..." He stopped at the sight of Merry's unseeing, glazed-over eyes. 'Poor lad is in shock' Gimli thought. "Now, Merry, you must not fret so about your cousin. I am the one who found him, and I thought him dead at first. But that stubborn Took will not give up, I tell you. He dare not, after all the pains he has cost me. You and him both," he added fondly.
"Thank you, Gimli, for looking after him for me," Merry said dully. Gimli, hurt and concerned, stepped away so that Merry could continue after Gandalf. He shook his head. "That Took better not die now, and leave Merry in this state. That would be most ungrateful of him." Grumbling, he stalked off in search of Legolas.
Merry paid no attention to his surroundings as Gandalf led him to Shadowfax. "Alright, lad, I will set you before me and we shall make haste straightway to Pippin's tent. It is not too far." Merry let himself be lifted up in front of Gandalf, and sat listlessly as Gandalf urged Shadowfax into a gallop. He shut out everything and everybody, and descended deep within himself as he let thoughts carry him away to images of Pippin in happier times...times that now seemed so far away.
Merry felt himself rousing. What was wrong with him? He hadn't even thought to ask about Frodo and Sam! Of all the ungrateful...
"Gandalf," he heard himself asking, as if he were listening to someone else's voice, "are Frodo and Sam going to be there too?"
"Yes, indeed," Gandalf replied, relieved to hear Merry's voice. "They will most likely sleep for another few days before awakening. Would you like to see them as well?"
"Of course I would," Merry replied. "It's just that...well, I know now that they will be alright. So I really need to see Pippin first."
"Of course, lad. I wouldn't have expected anything less."
Gandalf's heart went out to the young hobbit perched in front of him. He had always known that hobbit ties ran deep, especially between family members. Merry and Pippin had always been as close as two cousins could be. Only the bond between Bilbo and Frodo rivaled theirs.
And the friendship between Sam and Frodo was equally as strong. Friendship now forged with shared experiences and peril. They had always been close, but this quest had drawn them even closer. The same held true with the two younger hobbits. It would break Gandalf's heart to see that bond shattered by death.
On an impulse, Gandalf reached out to touch Merry's right arm. It seemed colder than it should be, even through the clothes. Heart sinking, Gandalf realized that Merry hadn't completely recovered; he was still vulnerable to the Shadow's touch. All of this worry for Pippin was leaving him open to dark thoughts, which could leave him open to the Black Shadow once again.
So now Pippin needed to recover not only for himself, but for his cousin as well. For if Pippin were to die, Merry would be sure to follow.
"Here we are, Merry," Gandalf said as Shadowfax came to a halt. Gandalf dismounted, and gently lifted Merry onto the ground. "Now, follow me and I'll take you to Peregrin."
"Gandalf..." Merry whispered. He looked up into Gandalf's eyes with pools of tears forming and threatening to spill over.
"Oh, lad," Gandalf said sympathetically, taking the young hobbit into his arms. Merry choked back a sob, and squeezed Gandalf tightly. He closed his eyes as he let Gandalf rock him back and forth, helping to prepare him for a sight he never should have had to see. Breath hitching, Merry finally stopped trembling, and Gandalf released him to look into his eyes. "I am so sorry Merry; it never should have come to this...not ever. I am sorry for that. But Pippin needs you right now, and he needs you to be strong. Alright?"
Merry nodded, wiping the tears from his cheeks. He took a deep breath. "I'm ready," he said.