Last Standing by Victoria Bitter

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So small.

So very, very small to have accomplished such an amazing thing, to have created and destroyed so much beyond the reaches of even the greatest of beings. Your hands held all the world, and yet even at their widest span, those slim, nimble fingers would scarce fill a Man's palm.

Odd that I never before noticed how fragile we really are. Perhaps it is because we are accustomed to it. After all, Frodo, you are quite the fine and respectable height for a hobbit. In the world of our youth, in the safe confines of the Shire, everything was to our size, and while I'd seen enough of the likes of Men and wizards to know there were bigger folk out there, I'd never thought it to precisely mean we were small. It was more that they were abnormally large, like those spiders in Bilbo's tales of Mirkwood compared against the little creatures that frightened lasses and spun dewy webs to glitter in the rushes on the banks of the Brandywine.

Perhaps, however, my perception of things has changed because I have. Oh, Frodo, I'd have you open your eyes again just for that, just to see the look on your face when you saw how towering grand I've become! Near as tall as old Bullroarer himself! Yet the jerkin and trousers I wear were still made for a mere lad among the Rohirrim. So small.

I have grown, yet nature, it seems, seeks balance. I still cannot quite bring myself to believe how you and Sam have diminished, though the evidence stretches tight and hollow before me. How could the two of you have possibly found the strength to finish your task?

I scarce know you now, either of you. Sam, kindest and most loyal of hearts, I once thought you the strongest lad I'd ever known, just for the way those stout arms could tote great barrels of wet soil, the way that broad back could shoulder such a heavy pack so easily over miles that left me breathless. That sturdy frame is pared to a too-lean mockery of strength now, but they say you were carrying him in your arms when they found you. It would seem I was wrong all those years, even as I was right. Yours is still a great strength, but it has naught to do with the thick flesh now stripped away for your Master's love.

And Frodo...what of your strength? I wonder where you reached to claim that last endurance, because I see nothing left to seek from. I can wrap your wrist in finger and thumb, cup tears in the stark valleys between your ribs. You were always a wisp, my sweet, eccentric cousin, a slender creature of dusty books and poetry in secret tongues. Now you're a nothing, a fragment of nightmare barely clinging to enough flesh to trap it in this world.

Your heartbeat stutters faintly beneath my fingertips as I take your bandaged hand in my own, and I am forced to question how long your ravaged bodies can hold those vast hearts.

The healers tell me you will live, but they never quite meet my eyes when they say that. They make their platitudes to my nose, the point of my ear, the scar on my brow, but never directly to my eyes, and I know why. I don't fault them for it. They've only just snatched me back from the brink of my own black fate, and now they see me teetering on despair again, teetering on the faltering heartbeats of my cousin and my friend, teetering on the battered flesh of bodies so broken that weak as I still am, you are no more than whispers of burden in my arms.

You stir. Your brow, pale as ash, knits and clenches, and your fingers twitch and twist. Are you in pain? Can the burn of your wounds reach within the darkness of this strange, shivering sleep? Perhaps a fresh poultice would ease the sting? Here now, hush, love. I'll kiss your forehead, brush away the once-silky curls now dry as burnt wool as I see to your poor, poor hand.

The healers never say anything about that wound, now do they? No, for it betrays your darkest secret, the one that I swear never to speak of. One lass tried once to suggest that the Ring had somehow shrunken on your hand in a last effort to preserve itself, and that you had been brave enough to strike it off to save us all. I so dearly wish I could believe that, but Sam's body proves the lie.

Yes, Frodo, I see the finger-bruises at his neck and shoulders, the swollen gash on his head that darkened those sun-bright curls. I see the scrapes on his knuckles and yours, the bruises on your bodies where skin stretched too tight over bone and solid stone proved an unforgiving cushion. In the last moments of the Ring, you both fought fiercely, that much is plain, but worn ragged as you were, it could not have been even with the least and poorest of Orcs or dark creatures. You fought each other.

At first, I thought that Sam had perhaps gone mad at last with the pull of the Ring, but he bore a sword, and you wore naught but ill-fitting leather over your paper flesh. No, Frodo, it was you who went mad. Or at least, it was you who could not take that last step. Did you try to run, or did you simply refuse to throw it in? Did Sam try to force you, or did it take no more than words to bring your hands to his throat? Oh, Sam, how you must have wept to maim your own beloved Master! How hard it must have been to take your sword to...

No. Oh, no. No. It was your sword, Sam, wasn't it? It had to be. A swift blow, delivered with a sob of apology, saving everything at the cost of a single hobbit's finger. A hard price, but a fair one. You couldn't have...

But here, it seems... No. It can't be. Cover it up. Wrap that obscene bit of meat again and pretend that the white linen can hide the grotesque vision burned into the back of my eyes. It was so swollen at first. So angry at the vicious robbery that it offered little else. Now the swelling has faded nicely - it should be nicely, it should, it isn't festering, isn't putrefied - but the healing reveals a truth too sickkening to contemplate.

No one cut your finger off, Frodo, did they? No. The wound is too ragged, too torn for the razored edge of a Barrow-blade. Someone bit it off.

Bit it off. Teeth tearing with maddened strength into flesh, rending muscle and tendon. Mouth filling with a burst of blood, hot and salt-sweet. Rip and pull and clench down viciously to sever the delicate joint, ends of bone crunching hard...

Ai, Elbereth! What are you? What kind of monsters did you become in those last moments? What did the Ring do to your hearts in its death throes? Gentle, dear Sam, how could you have ever...

An image fills my mind, treacherous sweet, hideously tempting, and I feel my stomach clench, my vision swimming in the pure red flush of horror as my feet carry me in a stumbling wail of grief from the room.

I run.

I run in madness, in indirection flushed with impossibility and pain, but my steps betray me. They refuse to take me to shelter, only to another coven of tears. To the deepest cut of all, to the hurt that curls like a taloned fist around my heart, that crouches and keens in the back of my mind no matter how I try not to think of it. Pippin. Why must my bitter path bring me from their bedside to yours? Is there no room for relief from this?

No, I mustn't ask that question of myself, because I know the answer.

There can't be relief, not for Meriadoc Brandybuck, not for the hero. Not for the survivor. There can't be, because I am the last standing of our little band. For a while, I lay among the noble fallen, but now I am healed, weakened but safe, healed to stand and watch as those I love dance on the edge of the grave, circling life and death between each reluctant heartbeat. Each shivering breath could be the last, each somnolent murmur a final goodbye, and then I would be alone.

Oh, Pippin, Pippin, my mind is coming to pieces without you. I don't know my own thoughts, darker and stranger and thicker and more frightening than anything my nightmares had ever imagined.

I don't know what to do. Frodo and Sam are hurt horribly, probably dying, and if they don't die, I'm not even sure I'll know them. That I'll even want to know them. They've been places both within their hearts and with their bodies that are too horrible to contemplate, and I think they've, no, I can't even say it. You don't need to be burdened with it. If by some miracle, you can hear me, you don't need to know what I've seen.

I need you, dearest Peregrin.

Were there any justice to this world, I should be able to turn to you now, see that smile that made you light up like a summer sunrise, hear your sweet little Tuckborough burr dance brightly across words of kindhearted bravado. I need to wonder what kind of trouble you'll get yourself into if I turn my back, and I need to see that impish glint in your eyes that hints that should you not have enough naughty ideas of your own, I'd be welcome to offer a few. I need to feel you in my arms, your tweenaged body just beginning to soften and round into adulthood but still whipcord strong and agile as an eel. I need to stroke my fingers through your hair when you're frightened and tell you it's all right and have you believe me. I need your lips to waver scarce an inch from mine when we embrace, your eyes offering bold invitation to warmth and softness and that mouth that I always just knew could have been so perfectly sweet...

That's what I was afraid of, you know, don't you, Pip? I was afraid that if I ever gave into that last inch, if I let myself kiss you once, I could never let go. You're so vibrant, Pip, so beautifully alive, so blissfully present that you act on me like wine.

For the last few years, I have struggled with my heart over it, but since we've embarked on this insanity, it's been almost impossible. You've blossomed, Pip, become brave and sure and strong, and I've had to struggle desperately to remember that you're still just a tween, an irresponsible, giddy-hearted tween who could too easily hurt himself with a silly crush on an older cousin and fond friend. Even if that cousin loved him more than anything.

I thought I could wait. I thought that I could reason my way through the days and dream through the nights and you'd be of age before I knew it and then we could...

But life doesn't work so fairly, does it, Pip? I've waited too long. It's too late. You're dying. Dying! Oh, it's wrong! My breath shudders deep in my chest, heaving my shoulders with thick, wailing sobs too hard for tears, but I don't care. It's wrong.

You're far too young for might have been.

My hands falter on the sheets, stretching towards you and drawing back again. I need to touch you, feel the warm pulse of blood still flowing in your veins, but I can't bear to hurt you. My foolishness has done that once already, but you forgive me, Pip, don't you?

I'd thought you already lost to me. When Legolas had come for me in Minas Tirith, he said you were missing in the aftermath of battle. He offered little more, but bade me come, and I understood. They sought another hobbit to identify your body should it be found. By the time I arrived, I had settled myself into the surety of your death, but since Legolas had been dispatched for me, Gimli, bless him, had found you, not dead, but alive!

When I saw you laid out there, I was overcome with joy, you must understand. I didn't mean to hurt you, didn't even see the bandages on your hand. It was only a cry of your name and a rush of tears and then the feel of broken bones grating harsh beneath my grasp, your body bucked tight in agony, and that terrible scream wrenched from your throat. Oh, Pippin, I never meant it! I didn't know then, I didn't know how bad it was. I would touch you now, but not if it would cause you pain.

I used to think you could hardly feel pain. You fell out of trees and tumbled down hills and slipped off of fence rails with such dependability! Yet every time, you'd be up on your feet again within moments, laughing freely at your own clumsiness or glaring at the object of your misfortune in a way I could never help smiling secretly at. For all the minor disasters we found ourselves embroiled in, I don't think I ever remember you taking anything worse than a scraped knee or cut finger.

You've certainly taken worse now. I can't even recognize you any more, Pippin. Your sharp little Took's nose is grotesquely misshapen, your eyes blackened and so swollen that even if you were to awake, you would find yourself blind. The edges of your helm sliced the skin at your cheek, your lips livid purple and black-scabbed where your own teeth snapped shut on flesh. Your body is a mishmash of ugly colour, the pattern of mail stamped harshly into the skin, your sword hand broken, your ribs crackling red froth between your lips if any breath dares deeper than the shallowest gasp.

Even in this strange sleep the healers have placed you in, I know you feel pain. You whimper and writhe at their gentlest touches, and I've seen the tears that leak between closed lashes when they change the linen. I don't know what to do when you're like that, Pip. I want so badly to help you, I'd give anything...but what can I do when I can't even touch you without making it worse?

They swear to me that it's not as bad as it seems, that despite it all you shall most likely live. I cannot believe them, for they also told me what happened to you. You were crushed. I know what that is, and no matter how many convoluted ways they wish to say that it was a flat sort of crushing, young Meriadoc, not a rolling sort of crushing, and that really does make such the matter how many fancy games they wish to play, I know the truth. You were crushed, just like Theoden, and just like Theoden, you will die.

Ah, but that old King had it the luckier, didn't he? A bit of red upon his lips, a pallor to his cheek, and with barely a moan of pain, he slipped away. Bare minutes. Snowmane, perhaps, did him the fortune of killing him quickly. A last, black loyalty, perhaps?

That Troll took no such kindness with you. You die by gasps and moments, just like Sam and Frodo. Sometimes I almost....

No. My thoughts turn in on themselves, and I stand, pulling away from your bedside as if I will contaminate you with my horrible flights of fancy. Fisting my hands, I feel something slick on the back of one knuckle, and I look down in numb curiosity.

Red. Shining and moist.

I stare at it for a long moment before I realize what it is, and then the bile rises in my throat. Frodo's blood. I came by it innocently enough, I know, merely in seeing to his wound, but after what I thought...

My hands plunge into the cold water of the basin by your bed, tears falling to disappear into the churning water as I scrub violently at the little smear of crimson. Eyes squeezed closed, I keep wringing my hands together long after I know the blood is gone, long after I feel my ragged nails scrape my skin, then tear it in a dozen tiny places, long after the little cuts burn with soap, long after they stop burning. My breath is coming in short, panting gasps, my body trembling as my mind chases itself in search of some thin atonement.

I didn't mean it, Frodo...I'd was just a fleeting despair, I promise easy, just a moment with the'd feel no pain...dying one would know...I'd never have to know. Never have to know. What kind of monster you have become to make him do such a thing. What kind of monster Sam has become to do it. What kind of monster I have become to think of murdering my own cousin, even if only to spare him, even if only for a moment. Only a moment. Only a heartbeat. The time it takes an arrow to leave a bow. The time it takes for a knife to pierce flesh. The time it takes to scar a spirit or mind or body forever. Only a moment, and I'm twice the monster you'll ever be.

The water is still now, my hands wrinkled and ghostly-looking beneath the faintly stained liquid. Little trails of pink still mist from the cuts and fade into the water, and I watch them, the way they shimmer when my tears fall to ripple the surface.

Bloodied and pale, they are whole. Not dark and shattered like Pippin's. Not ripped raw and bruised and cracked like Sam's. Not mutilated like Frodo's. Whole.

Because I am whole, at least in body. I will live. I will return to the Shire, marry, sire a half dozen squirming, giggling, innocent little ones, and eventually, I will inherit the Mastery of Buckland and the Thain besides, becoming the most titled hobbit in history at little more price than the life of my dearest. Perhaps, if Frodo was generous in his will, I may even have Crickhollow to add to that lot.

The old wound in my arm may bother me now and again, but everyone will tell me how lucky I am, how I should count my blessings and live every day with joy and smiles. After all, I survived!

I was the last standing. Not kind, strong, gentle Sam, so faithful through so much. Not wise, beautiful, loving Frodo, so brave and so burdened. Not even sweet, courageous, innocent Pippin, so unspeakably young. Me. Why should I live of all of us? What am I that is so special, so deserving of preservation? What am I but the ungrateful recipient of blind fortune?

The bowl shatters against the far wall in a dull clatter of bone-white pottery and bloody red water. I fall to my knees, my forehead against the cool linen of your bedside, Pip, my hands fisting little stains in the sheets.

My own voice sounds strange to me, the splintered rasp of a creature I cannot know and do not wish to. "Don't leave me. If you love me, if you ever thought you could love me, please don't leave me. I don't want to be alone. I don't want to survive. Please, Pip, please...I want to live."
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