Gandalf walked into the tent, holding the flaps open for Merry. As Merry walked inside, he took quick stock of the contents. His eyes roamed over a darkened interior, candles lit here and there. A small cot occupied the center of the tent, upon it an even smaller form. Merry's breath stopped as he took in the sight. Slowly he made his way to his still cousin. His small cousin's right arm was swathed in bandages, and underneath his shirt Merry could see still more bandages. His head had a roll of gauze wrapped completely around it at the forehead, apparently covering some sort of head injury.
Finally Merry was there by Pip's side. He gently took Pippin's good hand in his own, and clasped it to his heart. "Oh, Pippin," Merry breathed, full of pity and fear. With his other hand he stroked Pippin's curls back from his forehead. Pippin's breathing was ragged and uneven. Maybe it was his imagination, but as soon as Merry said Pip's name, the breathing seemed to even out just a bit, and sound less raspy. It has to be my imagination, Merry thought. My voice could not possibly have made that much of a difference. But I'm here now, and I will do what I can.
Gandalf had also noticed the difference, and was heartened by it. More than Merry, he knew what the sound of a voice or a touch could do. It could literally bring someone from the brink of death. He had seen it happen before, and he hoped that he was seeing it once again.
He didn't even hear the voice speak his name, he was so focused on the face before him. His voice was hoarse and raw from continuous talking, telling stories and singing songs so that Pippin would have some connection to the waking world. He had not eaten in two days, nor had he slept. He had wet his throat a few times, and only then because Aragorn or Gandalf forced it on him. He had helped Aragorn tend to Pippin's bandages, helped rub Pippin's muscles so that they wouldn't atrophy, had helped force moisture down Pippin's unresponsive throat. The only times he had left Pippin's side were when he went to visit Frodo and Sam, who were resting peacefully, and when he relieved himself. As overjoyed as he had been to see his friends alive, he knew that their complete recovery was not in doubt. It was Pippin who really needed him right now.
"Merry." The voice was gently persistent.
Merry struggled to tear his eyes away from Pippin's face. He turned to see Aragorn standing just inside the entrance to the tent. His face was gentle but stern. "Merry, you need to rest..."
"No!" Merry cried softly. "I can't leave him. What if I go to sleep, and when I wake, he's gone?" He almost choked on the last word, and bowed his head in misery.
"Merry, don't you believe me when I tell you that he has improved since you arrived? I know he looks weak and frail, but you have nothing to compare your impression to. You did not see him when he was first found, and thank Eru that you didn't. His breathing has eased considerably since your arrival, and the features of his face have relaxed dramatically. They are no longer pinched with pain and worry. He had heard your voice, and felt your hand within his; believe me. He has murmured somewhat in his dreams, whereas before no sound escaped his lips. If you don't sleep, you will collapse, and what will that do for Pippin?"
Merry knew Aragorn was right; he would be no good to Pippin if he collapsed from exhaustion, or had a relapse of his own sickness. As he thought this, he unconsciously rubbed his right arm. It felt chilled to the touch, and he shivered.
Aragorn frowned. "Merry, does your arm feel cold again?" Merry nodded miserably. "When were you going to tell me this?" Aragorn demanded sternly. "I can do something for it to relieve the discomfort."
"I thought you healed me of this in Minas Tirith?" Merry asked.
"I started you on a healing process, but I told you that you had to be careful in the near future. The shadow does not completely leave so easily. You have to continue to fight it, at least for a little while. Your fear and worry for Peregrin do not help; in fact, I think that's what has set it off again. If you allow yourself to sink into black thoughts, Merry, you could be claimed again, and this time I may not be able to help you." Merry's eyes reflected fear; he had not imagined that the shadow could take hold again.
"Let me use some athelas on it again tonight before you sleep. That will ease your discomfort immensely." Merry nodded in agreement.
"Strider?" Merry asked hopefully.
"Yes, my friend?"
"Can I at least sleep in here with Pippin? Please? I promise I will sleep through the night."
Aragorn smiled. "I think that might be arranged. And I will also see to your arm before you sleep. Agreed?"
"Agreed." Merry visibly relaxed for the first time since he had arrived.
Aragorn arranged to have a small cot brought in and placed next to Pippin's. Then he made Merry lie quietly while he crushed and steeped the athelas leaves until their fragrance filled the tent. He gently lathered the mixture onto Merry's arm and rubbed it from wrist to shoulder, letting the healing potion seep in. He made Merry inhale some of the plant's fragrance, insisting that this would help calm Merry's mind as well as lead to physical healing. Gradually Merry felt his exhaustion creep up on him, and it was all he could do to keep his eyes from slipping shut.
"Rest now, Merry," Aragorn said gently as he unrolled Merry's sleeve back over his arm. Merry's eyes fluttered shut. Aragorn patiently waited until Merry had fallen into a deep, restful sleep...all of five minutes...and then he quietly left the two cousins alone.
Merry came slightly awake about an hour later. He clasped Pippin's good hand in his, and with his other he leaned over to stroke Pippin's hair. He knew sleep would claim him again shortly, so he savored this moment. The tent was as dark as the night outside, and the air was cool and clean. Softly, Merry whispered, "Pippin. Please, come back to me. I need you, your laughter, your friendship, your cheerful voice talking me into doing anything that you want. I can't live without you, I just can't. You're the light of my life, Pippin." Leaning over, Merry placed a gentle kiss on Pippin's forehead. Sighing, he closed his eyes and drifted back off to sleep.
Many hours later, Merry felt himself being brought to the brink of wakefulness by the sound of his name. "Merry," the voice softly whispered, and he thought he could feel someone's fingers briefly stroking his hair and face. He heard other murmuring voices as well, and he wondered who else was in the tent with them. There seemed to be a lot of activity and conversation going on for being the middle of the night. He was so exhausted that he didn't give it much thought. He drifted off for awhile, and then suddenly felt himself come instantly awake. He sat up slightly, and noticed that there were now candles lit in the tent, driving away the darkness. He glanced at Pippin, and was startled to see open green eyes looking at him.
"Pippin?" he gasped, not believing what he was seeing. Merry instantly sat up all the way, and took Pippin's hand in both of his. "Pippin, how do you feel?" he asked. Pippin mouthed Merry's name, apparently not having the strength to say it out loud.
Pippin's eyes suddenly clouded with pain, and Merry's heart filled with icy fear. Pippin gasped with the struggle to breathe. Finally, he managed a whispered, "Merry, I'm scared, I'm so scared...please, hold me." Merry gently scooted closer to where both beds met, and tenderly hugged Pippin close to his chest, resting his chin on his head. Closing his eyes, he tried to quell the terror that threatened to overwhelm him. He gently rubbed Pippin's shoulders and neck in an effort to calm his young cousin.
Merry wondered if he should run and fetch Strider, but he thought Strider had probably done all he could by now, and that what Pippin needed the most was the comforting presence of his best friend. So Merry lay there, holding Pippin and listening to his labored breathing. Pippin felt warm with fever, and he was trembling with a slight chill. Merry quickly covered both of them with his blankets.
He didn't know how long he had lain there when he felt Pippin's breathing change. Concerned, he looked down into that beloved face, and saw that Pippin's eyes were searching his out; eyes that shone with tenderness and love. "Merry..." Pippin whispered. He reached up and stroked Merry's cheek. "I had to wait for you...so that I could be with you one last time." He closed his eyes as he tried to catch his breath and regain some strength. "I don't want to die Merry, but it hurts badly, and I'm just so tired. Please forgive me, Merry, but I just can't fight anymore." Tears welled in his eyes, and he whispered, "I love you like a brother, Merry. I'm sorry that I waited until now to tell you." Now the tears were streaming down Pippin's cheeks. "I'm sorry to be causing you so much pain. I know that if it were you lying here, that my heart would be ripped out of my chest. I never meant to be the cause of your misery."
Merry was now sobbing openly. "No, Pippin, no! If you go, I'll surely follow you. I won't be left behind; I won't! Please...please, don't leave me." His eyes pleaded with Pippin's as he brought Pippin's hand up and gently placed a kiss there.
Pippin could no longer reply; he didn't have the strength to say anything more. His breathing steadily became more labored with every breath. His eyes never left Merry's, as Merry continuously stroked his face and hair. Finally, Merry cupped Pippin's chin in his hand, leaned down and briefly touched his lips to Pippin's. Merry lifted his head to look into Pippin's eyes. "I love you," he whispered.
"Merry," Pippin whispered with his last exhalation, and then his breathing stilled. His eyes were still fixed on Merry's face, but those eyes which had once been bright green were now dull and unseeing.
Merry started trembling violently. "No," he whispered, embracing Pippin tighter, holding his small body as he buried his face in Pippin's shoulder. No longer concerned with avoiding Pippin's injuries and bruises, he crushed him to his chest. Overwhelmed with anguish and grief, he screamed, "NOOOOOOOOOOOO!!"