I couldn't make you laugh today.
It used to be so easy. I used to be so good at it. No, I must still be good at it, because the others of our company pay tribute to my ability.
I cannot laugh myself, for bound and cracked ribs aren't standing easy beneath the convulsions of laughter. 'Tis hard enough to walk, let alone to express mirth. But that does not stop me trying to gain it from others.
I couldn't make you laugh, Frodo, and this failure somehow haunts me more than any other counted and carried this past year. It used to come so readily to you, it did. Even when I was a child, and you a well meaning 'tweenager trying to somehow steer my erratic footsteps. Even when you were furious with me, more often than not I could diffuse your anger with a quick, well-chosen phrase. It would burst from your chest almost unwillingly, the laugh, and then you'd turn quickly away, growling and muttering because you'd lessened that stern face with a laugh that I, supposedly the one in trouble, had forced upon you.
But now the ready smile is gone and you stand by the window, a wraith-no! No, not a wraith, never that-but nonetheless a pale shadow of yourself, looking outward to the mountain where you and Sam were found, waiting to die and indeed more dead than alive. You don't even know I'm still here, watching you from the doorway. You seem so small, and lost. So *old*, with touches of winter in your dark hair and your eyes bleeding emptiness and your face sucked dry and hollow...
I wonder if you will ever laugh again.
Sam laughed today-that is, he did until he saw that you did not, and the sound drained from his chest and the expression slid from his face. He reached out to touch your hand, so worried by your lack of response that he didn't see how you flinched, ever so slightly. I'm glad he did not-t'would have hurt him, and I saw that you also realized this, for you controlled it so quickly that for moments I wondered if I had even seen it.
Sam. He sleeps now-the dead sleep of one pushed past endurance. For now that you're safe, cousin, he can. This room, this huge, tapestried, sumptuous suite fit for a King-or a Ringbearer-is now Sam's haven. He's barely left it save to go down to the gardens on still-shaky legs to sit in the sun. He can let down, give in; he can release, a little, the incredible endurance mustered to see you through. If I know him at all, he gave up what food there was to you, would have picked you up when you fell, would have carried you on his back if it proved necessary, and so now he must pay the harshest price in physical recovery. It breaks my heart to see him so weak. Sam was the strongest of all of us, most likely could have broken me in two with one hand and now that I think back, probably longed to more than once.
But your strength doesn't just lie in your frame, does it, Sam? I watch you sleeping so, and your face is slack, touched with peace. So sure. It's done, what you set out to do. Your heart never wavered, did it? Somehow you've come through this, if not whole, at least sound. Yes, there is a shadow in your clear eyes and what remains of your strength is a mockery of what it was, however you are still Samwise Gamgee and you always will be, no matter what. Always there, always shining through to the end. Diminished physically, but not within.
Both of you, grown smaller with starvation and a journey you can't even yet bear to speak fully of. Whilst Merry and I stand a full head above even Sam, and he is not short amongst hobbits.
See, Frodo? I've finally grown taller than you, courtesy of our Entish friends. You can no longer be calling me 'Pipsqueak', can you?
But I wish you would. I wish you'd stop looking out that damned window into the darkness and turn to me, look at me-truly *look* at me with that patent exasperation that I could turn so easily to a grin. You were putty in my hands, cousin, yet I knew even as a child that I hadn't the nerve to push it too far. Soft you were, but there was a tough, hard-learned self- possession beneath the kindness, an adamant core to you that few cared to witness. They saw only eccentric, dreamy-eyed Frodo, with his books and his ink-stained fingers and his seemingly uncharacteristic bursts of wildness and his penchant for strange things like lying out nights and gazing at stars.
I think, looking at the back of you now, that rigid center is all that kept you alive. That and Sam, with his strong back and his huge heart and his careful, pruning touch. And I wonder, suddenly, if that was a kindness...
Tears spring in my eyes; I dash them away and turn from the room, find escape in the nightfallen corridors of the King's tower. Closeted in style we are, yet here I slink, limping along the hallways like a thief. Like a fool.
And like a fool, my path is unchangeable. I stop before the room where he has sensibly gone to sleep. It too is appointed to fit its resident: a hero of Pellennor and a Knight of the Mark. Why they put us in separate rooms and Frodo and Sam in one is a puzzle I am not up to this night; but I have spent more nights in here than in my own room, anyway. I'm the one who wanders the halls despite my unhealed frame, torturing myself with not only the pain of my body, but also the pain of my dearest ones.
Oh, Merry. At least you can still laugh. But it has changed-oh, it has so changed...
You lie quietly captured in sleep, tousled and boyish, seemingly unhampered by all of what has happened. I limp over slowly, longing to touch you, to prove to myself that yes, you are still here. There was a time you know, not too long ago, when I feared you would not be here and I still walk in terror of it. Would that I could just curl up next to you and sleep the night away with your breathing as my lullaby, but my own injuries will not permit me crawling in next to you without some effort, and I would not rob you of sleep as well. I cringe as I set my knees to the stool at your side, shield my pain in the feel of your hair in my fingers where it lies curled along the bedclothes. You still sleep propped upon many pillows- your own injuries haven't quite healed despite what you'd have us all believe. I slide my hand down to your sword-arm, and yet again feel silent relief that it has warmth and feeling, that it does not lie silent and spellbindingly cold. I'm so close I can breathe your breath, smell the sweetness of the sleeping draught that the healers have succeeded in giving you and which I poured into the gutter outside when they thought to give one to me, and suddenly the tears that I was able to be holding back from Frodo, from Sam, come rising out of me, a great, bitter torrent. I curl about it, almost fall against you but push away just in time. I should have known. I've never been able to hide anything from you, Merry.
Oh, everything, everyone has changed! Everyone save I. Oh yes, on the outside I am bigger, but on the inside ragged down, lessened with the battle. They say I nearly died, which is hard to fathom. I used to say as a child that I would live forever, and I think I somehow came to believe it. So much that I don't rightly remember how close I came to death. It simply didn't occur to me. Merry, the only way I knew that I was almost gone was the look in your eyes when I awoke and you were there!
I can only imagine what you felt. I know what I felt, when you lay stricken and near death, half of your body useless and your mind sucked into the deeps from your attack upon the Witch King. I remember finding you, wandering the hallways half-delirious, forgotten by everyone save me. I remember that you simply peered at me, and how those same lovely, devious eyes that had cajoled me both into and out of trouble were so strangely puzzled, turned inward. How the blue within your eyes was muted, half- swallowed by black, and you asked me quite reasonably if I had come to bury you.
How I watched in disbelief as that blackness swallowed your gaze and you collapsed. How my mind went blank and I too collapsed-I fell upon you there in the dark hallway and beat my fists against your breast and shrilled your name and demanded that you stay, just stay. We were somehow one in that moment and I could sense it all within you: the petrification and the pain and the overwhelming desire to just keep turning inward, to go within until there was nothing left and leave behind the knowledge of that horrific shadow that had eclipsed the light in your eyes...
I sensed it, somehow, that you were going to die. I sensed that you had chosen to die.
I stifle my sobs against my arms; bite down on fabric and my own flesh as I frantically try to halt the awareness I did not ask for. I turn away, even as I did then. My ribcage twists and knots with agony, yet it is nothing compared to the remembrance of what I felt when I thought you were dying. When I decided that I would not let you leave me, that you needed me to light your way into the halls of the dead. When I decided that if I were to bury anyone, it would be the both of us.
You were always there, you see. Merry, I truly cannot remember a time when you weren't. From my childhood until now we were apart only when the constraints of family and distance between our homes separated us. I cannot begin to comprehend life without you. And when I thought you dead, when I thought Frodo and Sam captured and in the black tower...
There was nothing left. There was nothing left of *me*.
I still writhe with it.
Imagine it, Merry. To realize that there is nothing to you but what you have been gifted by the presence of others. To realize that your life is so entwined with another's-indeed with three others-that you cannot exist without them.
I was like Frodo, for a matter of days. It terrifies me, Merry. I don't want to be like that. I don't want to walk through the rest of my life with empty eyes and a maimed heart. I don't want to be as lost as he. But I was. When that troll fell on me and all but crushed the life out of me I was quite accepting of it, Merry. I was *glad*.
But now we're alive and I cannot be but glad of that as well. We're all alive. But the fear still takes me, you see. The memory of the emptiness haunts me. I can't stop remembering it, can't stop reliving it. Merry, you and Sam, you've found yourselves, somehow. You've found your strength and will to go on. But when I thought you gone it was taken from me. Frodo's lost his soul, and I...
I've lost my self.
And I sit here and wonder if it was ever there.
We're alive. All of us. Against all odds, we have survived. And we'll return to the Shire-return home. You, Merry, will have the Mastery of Buckland waiting, and will no doubt marry that fine, fat wife you always wanted and have enough children to fill the Hall with japes and warmth and laughter. Sam will return to the land and be comforted by his never- ending, wondrous compulsion to take care of whatever needs caring for, be it flowers or trees or Frodo. Frodo will burrow away from the light he can no longer bear and disappear into either Crickhollow or Bag End and finish Bilbo's book and hopefully-though I doubt it-learn to laugh again. And I?
I'm not even of age in the Shire. I'm still an irresponsible 'tween-callow and fun loving and all those things youth is supposed to be and I manage to embody so well. But regardless of what's expected of me, I'm not that child anymore and the pretense grows weary and cold. The armor of Gondor, so heavy before, is now but a light burden compared to that I must wear once returning home. Far too much blood has been spilled-not only that which I've personally let, but my own and that of those who help make of me what small definition of self I have. The shining mail of youthful expectation no longer fits this changed body. This changed heart.
Life and joy-they betray me yet they are what I have left. Those two things... and you.
And as I lean against your place of slumber, crushing my bruised face into your bed and clutching your sheets in my hands, the stifled wail contorts and transforms and I laugh, because it is either laugh and bear the pain of crushed ribs, or cry and bear the pain that rises from that, the emptiness and wonder and bewilderment that shakes me with the thoughts of what road I must take from this moment forward.
'Tis such a little thing to change the heart: a smile, the laughter that follows.
And 'tis such a little thing to change so many lives: a Ring.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.