West of the Moon

A Tolkien Fanfiction Archive



Fos' Almir
Old and burdened by grief and the bitterness of loss, Sam sails for Valinor. Will he make his peace with Frodo-- and himself-- there?
Author: Bill The Pony
Rating: PG


At last there came light in my long night,
and I saw my hair hanging grey.
'Bent though I be, I must find the sea!
I have lost myself, and I know not the way,
but let me be gone!' Then I stumbled on;
like a hunting bat shadow was over me;
in my ears dinned a withering wind,
and with ragged briars I tried to cover me.

--J. R. R. Tolkien, "The Sea Bell," or "Frodos Dreme"

Mayor Gamgee kept himself a bit apart, sitting near the bow and watching the Elves as they tended the ship and sang and went about their business. It wasn't that they weren't kind; even them as didn't speak much had a smile for him. But he was troubled in his mind and he liked to sit off by himself and think. For the most part, they let him.

He listened to the deck creak faintly beneath him as they nosed into a wave. He didn't hold much with ships, not even such as was made by Elves. He liked his own feet tight on solid ground, but there wasn't none of that to be had, seemingly-- for all that the ocean lay about them, it didn't even seem none too solid neither when every breath of air seemed too scarce for his body and the dizzy sky soared 'round about the white sails.

He was old and set in his ways, and such didn't make a hobbit fit for adventuring. That was for the young folk, such as he'd once been, if he could credit it-- sometimes his memories seemed more than half a dream, and he'd have to turn back to the Red Book and read it, wondering at the familiar words like they happened to somebody else. He'd like to do that now and take his mind from the queasy feeling in his belly, except he'd given it to Elanor and come on without.

He wasn't Mayor no more by rights, he reminded himself. Nor master of Bag End, neither-- he'd never got used to that second title, no matter how long he held it. But by this time in his life, he expected a bit of indulgence; grandchildren by the fire and his youngers addressing him with proper respect. Mayor was what he'd been, and it was how he'd thought of himself for a long time now, though it looked like he'd have to stop. Mayor of Hobbiton, the Old Gardener, Samwise Gamgee, with earth under his fingers and friends in far places.

Like Frodo Baggins.

That name wasn't strange to him. He'd held that name on his tongue, just behind his lips, for a lifetime. It tasted bittersweet, of hope and rue.

The thought of that name made him clutch his fingers on the railing and peer ahead, like the veil of the waves would blow back and bring him the far green country he'd spent his lifetime imagining, whenever his business gave him a breath of space for it. He'd learned more Elvish just so he could peer at Mr. Bilbo's books, and the names were foreign, but they tasted lovely on his tongue. The land of Aman: Eldamar. Alqualondë. Tirion.

There was a map in one of Bilbo's books, dog-eared and brittle, tucked away secret-like. Sam would finger it now and again and trace a ghost's footsteps from the halls of Nienna to the Gardens of Lórien and the Woods of Oromë or the Pastures of Yavanna. He didn't like thinking of the Halls of Mandos. He had that map with him now, or a copy of it rather, traced in his own rough script, hidden away.

He wondered whereabouts Frodo might live, or if he lived at all. He wondered what might have befallen his old master over the Sea, and how he might have changed. Would he even know his Sam now, with Sam's face leathered and his hands gnarled and his back bent under a weight of years? Would he be old too, old and worn and tired like Sam? Would they find aught to talk about, or fall silent and sit awkward, with naught left in common?

His head was dizzy from the rush of the sea breeze and there was a tight lance of pain settling behind his eyes, so he lay down, softly whispering lines of poetry until sleep drowned him.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Sam was still sleeping when the ship drew in to harbor, and when one of the Elves touched his shoulder he sat up rubbing his eyes, slowly realizing that they weren't moving fast no more.

He took a deep breath, smelling the sea-- and a scent he knew as land, fresh green things growing, and flowers and all, and his breath surged with joy and terror. His heart told him they'd made it, then, past the sunken isle of Númenor, through the Enchanted Isles to Tol Eressëa, or beyond it to Aman, Valinor itself. If he looked past the gunwale of the ship, he'd see the Calacirya, the pass of light, and maybe there would be those as were waiting for him, or maybe there wouldn't, but if not then he'd tramp the length and breadth of this land for the rest of his days looking for them, see if he wouldn't, till someone came for him and dragged him off to face up to that Mandos. If he would die, now that he'd made it here. Sam didn't know. He didn't feel no different.

Maybe you had to set foot on the gleaming shore, with its sands made out of the dust of precious things, before it took proper.

He'd never been no coward, so he stood up to see what there was to see.

There were steep grey mountains that rose so tall he couldn't see the tops of them for clouds gathered about their summits, and a green land that sank at their feet, with a white city nestled between a cleft pass, and the Sun shining over all. The sands shimmered like he'd expected, circling round about the harbor in a gentle curve, and the quays were fair, made of white stone and pale translucent stuff that he hadn't never seen before. His eyes weren't the best no more, though he could see farther in this clear air than he'd seen in a long time. The sails were furled, and white swans drew them forth through a narrow cleft in the sea-stones, like in the tales he'd read. There were people on one of the quays, and squint as he might, he couldn't make them out, so he stood there waiting till he could. Sure enough, they weren't all tall; there was two of them his own size or thereabouts.

"If you grip the rail any more tightly, it will cry out," a tall Elf teased him gently. "Peace. Your friends are waiting."

Sam nodded with ill grace; he'd spent a lifetime without no peace-- just you try finding any with a house full of what turned into thirteen young ones, and a Shire full of hapless folk who didn't know the half of what they might let themselves in for with their foolishness! And the young ones worse than the old, as if there'd never be cause for worry-- but that was past him now, and the quay was near.

He squinted, but he couldn't see proper, like the light was clustered right where he most wanted to look-- light such as shone out of the Lady Galadriel, or Mr. Gandalf, when he took a mind. Only more so, like staring into a white star. Maybe they were both there, shining like the Sun.

Sam blinked and rubbed his eyes; he couldn't say if the wetness on his cheeks was from tears or dazzle. The ship drew nigh the quay and lines were cast, mooring them up tight. Hands reached in for him and he took them, let himself be pulled up and set onto solid ground that somehow didn't feel quite right, he was that used to the ship moving under him. The closer he got, the worse it was; he couldn't see nothing but vague shapes now, and he wouldn't care if he'd been struck blind, if only--

Something solid struck him, solid and alive, near knocking him off his feet. Strong arms wrapped around him, and he hung on tight, eyes closing. He didn't need his eyes to know that touch. Frodo. Frodo's cheek pressed against his, turning, and Sam ducked his head away, tucking his face tight against Frodo's shoulder, overwhelmed with too many feelings to make sense of them all at once, but strangely shy.

"Sam, Sam...." voices in his ears that he'd never thought to hear again, Frodo's, Bilbo's, that was Mr. Gandalf, and that had to be the Lady. Sam opened his eyes to greet them, and things swam into focus for the first time, smiling familiar faces and ones he did not know.

"Legolas could not come," Frodo whispered in his ear. "Gimli is busy; he is determined to learn all the craft of Aulë." Frodo's voice sounded of laughter near tears, and Sam's head swam; he needed a moment to breathe, but there wasn't none as Frodo let him go and the others surged about to take his hand.

Sam met their courtesies with all the grace he could muster, feeling old and weary and oddly let-down, quite out of his reckoning. He never lost the sense of Frodo at his elbow; he wanted to turn back and look at him, but somehow he didn't quite dare. Finally Mr. Bilbo shooed them all towards the shore, fussing. "Can't you see he's tired? We'd best be getting him back home."

Home? Sam drew inside himself, startled out of reason by the word. Home was Bag End, with all its memories-- not just of his family, neither, but of Frodo, even Frodo as he was after they came back from destroying the Ring, when he was ill. The times Sam had spent there with him were the dearest he'd ever counted, bar none. What sort of home would this fair land have to offer a simple hobbit?

"Sam?" Bilbo recalled him from his wool-gathering. Sam focused on him proper-like at last, and a thought struck him; Bilbo looked just as he'd remembered. "So I won't be getting no younger, then," he said foolishly, and Mr. Bilbo's eyes softened.

"No, Sam, for all that you've nearly reached my record." He looked past Sam for a moment, hesitating, and when his eyes came back to Sam's, they were kind and full of understanding. "But you won't be getting older, either. Not any more."

Sam looked towards Frodo without thinking, and then since he was already looking, he let himself gaze his fill. His eyes dazzled again for a moment, then settled. Frodo looked just the same as he'd been when he left-- not a hair of him but was the same, excepting his fine Elf-clothes... and except that he shone all full of light like the Lady's star-glass, and Sam remembered that he'd seen it before, shining out of him, when they were in the land of--. Shaking his head at the memory as though to clear it, he lifted his trembling hand and touched Frodo's smooth cheek. Somehow, it didn't burn him with all its bright beauty.

"Well, I'm here." He let his hand fall; his fingertips were rough and he almost feared they might snag on the silk of Frodo's face. He put his hands behind his back and lifted his chin.

Frodo smiled, eyes wet, and took Sam's arm, pulling forth his hand and tugging him forward. Their fingers twined, awkward, and after a moment Sam realized it was because Frodo's hand still bore its old wound-- healed now, the scar pale and smooth, but his finger was still missing.

"It's a long journey, Sam; we'll take it by stages." Frodo led him onto a wide flag-paved street with green-gold trees intertwined on the verge; it followed the curve of the harbor. The breeze from the harbor freshened as Sam looked at them, lifting the leaves; the flutter showed their silvery undersides. He stopped, distracted by the trees, wanting to know the ways of them; Bilbo touched his shoulder lightly and he moved on in response to Frodo's gentle tug.

Horses and sleek ponies waited; they were pretty, but none of them held a patch to Sam's poor old Bill. That was Mr. Gandalf's Shadowfax with them, though, or he was blinder than he thought. Sam let them show him towards his pony, smiling and not saying much, dizzily overwhelmed, for every glance of his eye showed him impossible things.

It couldn't be real; he must be lying aboard the ship dreaming-- or abandoned on the sands at the Havens in Middle Earth, struck by the Sun, or in his own bed, wrapped in a fever dream. Any moment now he'd feel Elanor's hand and a cool cloth laid on his brow.

Gandalf's hand on his shoulder helped him recover, and so did Bilbo's chatter. He looked at his own brown gnarled hand inside Frodo's smooth pale one-- impossible-- and wondered again when he would wake up.

He mounted his pony and looked over at Frodo to speak his thought, but the words in his throat died as he stared. Frodo weren't right, somehow. The living weight of him had felt so very good, and it was him, lost finger and all, his face somehow more familiar to Sam than his own, and yet... he was speaking with one of the Elves that had met the ship, and his voice was light, lilting in a language Sam didn't know. Sam frowned, trying to place his finger on what was troubling him. It was all in his head, that was what; he was just feeling the shock of seeing Frodo again after so long.

He turned away, gathering his reins. None but the hobbits' ponies had them, seemingly. When he looked back, Frodo had mounted and nudged his pony next to Gandalf's. "Olórin, Panthael. Indo ná harna," he said, and Gandalf nodded, solemn.

Sam caught his Elvish name amidst the nonsense and looked to Bilbo in confusion, but Bilbo just smiled. "We'll be riding through Tirion. See the city? The fountains and the flowers are lovely; you'll want to see them all."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

They rode through the gleaming city and into the Calacirya before Sam was nodding in his saddle; his old eyes wouldn't take in any more wonders or glory. When they stopped the Elves raised pavilions and spread blankets for the Hobbits on a smooth greensward with a brook trickling at its verge, and they sat there, listening to their escorts singing softly. Galadriel laid her hand on Sam's forehead and blessed him, and he blushed to see her smile-- some things wouldn't ever change, seemingly-- but after that he didn't feel sleepy no more.

He looked about; song had risen among the company arrayed merrily on the green. The Elves were breaking bread and there was white cheese and honeycomb; one brought the fare to him and Bilbo, generous helpings laid out upon a cloth, but Frodo remained in close talk with Gandalf, and somehow Sam didn't have the heart to seek him out.

"You were telling me about your days back home," Bilbo prompted, hungry for news. "And the town meeting where the Thain read Aragorn's edict that Men were no longer allowed to enter the Shire."

"That's right." Sam laughed softly in spite of himself. "Bungo Brockhouse was there from Tunnelly, and him cock of the walk, or so he fancied, though larger around his waist than inside his head, I'll warrant! He stood up right in the middle of Pippin reading the proclamation, and said he reckoned the new King was a fool and had naught to do with the Shire. Thain Peregrin took after him, yelling and smacking his shins with the flat of his blade, and chased him twice around Bywater. And him half Bungo's age, too."

Sam and Bilbo chuckled, heads together over the sweet bread and cheese. Sam felt Frodo look towards them, and ducked his eye, half-ashamed-- somehow Bilbo felt more comfortable to him than Frodo did now, more familiar. They were just two old hobbits all a-gossip, prattling foolish nonsense not fit for fine ears.

"There weren't anymore nonsense about the King's Decrees after that; folks as had sense knew the difference between them and Sharkey's Rules." Sam put his unease aside and tasted the words with pleasure; it was a favorite story, one he'd told many times. Bilbo hadn't never heard it before, neither, and that made its telling all the sweeter.

"It's good to hear your voice, Sam-- the sound of the Shire goes down well." Bilbo laughed and took a sip of his wine, a fruity red that made Old Winyards and even fourteen-twenty taste harsh by comparison, Sam judged.

"And it's a comfort to hear yours too, if I may make so bold, Mr. Bilbo. All the Elvish talk here makes my head ache," Sam admitted. "And it's words I don't understand, nohow. I learned the wrong parts of it, seemingly." He felt keenly conscious of the Shire on his tongue too, now that he was here. He knew his accent had only thickened with age, but after a while spent trying to talk fancy like Mr. Frodo once had, he'd realized there were so many foreign folk about that changing himself over and again to suit them all didn't make sense.

"That would be Sindarin." Bilbo nodded. "Most of the Elves here speak Quenya, to honor the Valar."

Sam squirmed. "We haven't seen none of them, and I have to say I'm surprised-- and a bit relieved, begging your pardon." He'd worried about that for a long time, how he'd speak to such a being as Manwë Súlimo; the likes of Sam Gamgee weren't fitting for an audience with that kind of glory.

Frodo had finished his talk with Gandalf and he drew near Bilbo and Sam again, walking quietly. He sat down on the green by their sides, making their cozy head-to-head into a circle. Sam bowed his head to Frodo and felt his fingers lace into one another, tightening nervous-like in his lap.

"Why Sam!" Bilbo sat back, amazed. "You have; you just don't know it. Gandalf now, you've known him since you were a lad. He's one; he's a Maia, like Melian. You remember the tales of Melian and Elwë, don't you? I thought you knew."

Sam blinked and felt a proper fool. "Well, I reckon that makes sense," he judged. "Seeing all the things he could do, and him rising up after he fell, and coming here on the ship and all. But I never thought of it that way, somehow."

"It does change your way of thinking," Bilbo agreed. "When I first winkled it out of him, after the Quest was done and everything was over, I felt terribly silly. To think of all the ridiculous things I'd ever said and done, and him being who he was all the while! Not but I think he'd forgotten a bit of it by the time I knew him, and then recalled it all later," his voice fell, "after Moria, as you say. He changed."

"Well, you're the same as ever, and that's something," Sam said stoutly. His eyes were drawn to Frodo even as he said it, and he pulled them away, but it was too late for politeness; Frodo had plainly heard the words he hadn't said. Frodo glanced between them, a trace of strain showing in his eyes. It cut Sam to the quick, but his throat closed and he couldn't say naught, just sit there staring at his own clumsy fingers and cursing himself for a ninnyhammer.

"We'll be needing our blankets," Frodo said quietly after a bit. "I'll see to the arrangements." He stood and slipped away.

Bilbo sat where he was, frowning at Sam, sorrowful-like but not without pity. Sam cleared his throat and avoided Bilbo's eye. "I ought to be doing that, not Mr. Frodo." He rubbed his thumb over a rough callus on his palm. "But I don't know how to talk to these high Elves, seemingly."

"Sam." Bilbo's voice was warm, and he reached out to touch Sam's shoulder. "You're all of a dither. What's wrong?"

"It's..." Sam felt a heavy knot in his throat, making his words come hard, but there weren't nothing for it but to speak the truth. "It's him, Mr. Bilbo. He's not altered a bit to look at, but somehow he's changed." It had troubled him since he set foot on the quay. "There's summat strange about him now, and I can't put my finger on it. A fine young hobbit he looks, and yet there's a funny feel to him. It's not wrong, though I'd not call it right. Like he's more Elvish than Elves. Something about his eyes, and I can't look at him proper no more; I have to catch him sideways just to see him."

"Fôs' Almir," Bilbo said, as though that should explain everything, and Sam frowned, annoyed by words going over his head like he wasn't there, especially after he'd just said as much.

"Are you saying me yes, or telling me I'm a fool?" He was tired enough to let a note of his impatience creep in.

Bilbo laughed, but not unkindly. "It's a place. I know you've heard of it. A pool filled with the dews of Laurelin."

Sam frowned, scrabbling through his memory, which had been none-too-reliable lately. "The pool where the sun maidens bathed, before they went up into the heavens to bear the Sun through the sky? Maiar as were fire spirits, and wouldn't be burned up by the fruit of the Tree."

"You do remember, though there are some differences in each version they have back home--" Bilbo hesitated for a moment. "At any rate, I know you've heard the tale of Túrin and Nienor. Do you remember it?"

Sam frowned. "Of course. Those were the brother and sister such as fell under the dragon's curse and got married, not knowing it and all. But what have they got to do with Frodo?"

"It wasn't in my books." Bilbo murmured suddenly. "Of course it wasn't; I learned it later in Imladris." He paused, as though thinking of the best way to go on. "Túrin and Nienor do not dwell in Mandos, nor have they passed beyond the circles of the world with the dead of Men," he finally said. "They were brought to Valinor and bathed in the pool. It washed away their sorrows and their wrong-doings; it healed their hearts, and they were made whole and clean. They took their places to shine with the Valar, and to fight the Enemy in the Last War."

But Sam wasn't listening; the past had him and wrung him in a fist of pain. Whole. His eyes closed, a memory whispering. "You cannot be always torn in two. You will have to be one and whole, for many years." All the while Frodo knowing that he himself wasn't whole, and didn't believe he could be, and so he left Middle Earth and left Sam, just like that.

"He went in it," Sam knew, as sudden and easy as breathing. "But he wasn't burnt up, just like those Sun maidens weren't. He come out again, with all of his hurts and sorrows and fears burnt away."

Bilbo nodded, watching Sam closely.

"But he's not just plain Frodo again, neither." Sam spoke decisively, knowing it like he could always feel a coming storm in the ache of his old bones. "Like Mr. Gandalf wasn't quite himself after he came back to us." He sneaked a look around and found Frodo again. He'd gone back to sit near Gandalf, speaking to him in Quenya-- he could tell that much, if naught else, about their conversation. Two tall Elves were approaching Sam and Bilbo, laden with blankets and cushions for sleeping.

The knot that had choked his throat swelled, threatening tears. A lifetime spent as the Mayor of the Shire, a lifetime as the Master of Bag End-- all for naught. He could hold his head up and say what he'd done, and how his family was Respectable now, and wealthy, and they had standing-- his own grandson was to be Thain, and none finer! But here he was, plain Samwise Gamgee... not good enough for Mr. Frodo again, not good enough at all. Old and withered and worn-out, and just a plain hobbit after all was said and done. What's more, Frodo was whole now, and Sam never had been. And never would be, seemingly. He smiled at Bilbo, feeling a bitter curl at the corners of his mouth.

"But then, he was never quite the same as the rest of us, was he?" He looked Bilbo straight in the eye. "And you knew it, and Mr. Gandalf knew it, and I knew it." He looked down at the bread and cheese he held, and at the glass of blood-red wine. And I always knew I wasn't good enough, and I never dared to speak. And then he went away, and all the things that had stood between us before, well, I worked hard, and they went away one by one, and I thought that maybe it would be enough, if I could just find him again, find him here....

But it hadn't worked out that way, and it was a fool who wept over a broken egg and wanted it mended.

"He's different. A cut above, and that's not changed, though everything else has." He set his wine and his food aside; he didn't have the stomach for them now.

"Sam." Bilbo started, his eyes full of pity. "That doesn't mean he--"

"I'll be resting now," Sam interrupted him quietly; grown bold by virtue of his long years as Mayor; Mr. Bilbo wasn't truly his elder no more, as he reckoned it, nor so much his better that he couldn't speak his mind. "I don't doubt but the Elves will be up at dawn, singing and ready to ride." He curled himself around a soft cushion; the grass felt as snug as a featherbed under him and the Elves sang quietly, and he could see the stars, jewel-bright and sharp overhead, like you could reach up to touch them and draw back a bleeding finger.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

When he woke the air didn't seem much cooler than it had when he lay down, even though the eastern sky was soft as pearl with the dawn. He trembled, aware there was someone warm nestled behind him, holding him-- someone hobbit-sized. He knew it couldn't be Bilbo, who lay snoring in front of his face, and given there was only one other hobbit in Valinor, that limited the options quite a bit, but somehow he didn't dare look. The stray thought struck him that Rosie had always slept curled inside his arms, and he'd known it wasn't her at his side even while he was sleeping. She was gone now, but mayhap if he ever went to see that Mandos he'd find her again and lie down next to her, where he belonged.

He'd never find Frodo there now, never sleep next to him in the Halls; Frodo wouldn't die. Sam reckoned that now he wouldn't die either, unless he wanted. It was cold comfort, but he'd heard tell in the old stories that you could, if you had a mind. You could just lie down in Lórien's garden and sleep without never waking up, or better, you could go to Mandos and ask to be let in to his Halls and do the same.

Maybe someday he would, at that. Frodo wouldn't never sleep tucked up against him again once they got wherever they were going and went indoors out of the chill, after all.

He got up hastily and managed not to look, so he wouldn't have to let himself be completely aware of how Frodo had lain curled against him through the long night. He'd figured a thing or two out about Frodo while he was still in his tweens: the best way to keep a sore spot from healing was to pick at it, and the best way to torment yourself with what you couldn't have was to keep it close and pine over it.

The stars were dim in the grey, going out; Elves were stirring from the singing-circle to break camp. One took him where he needed to go, and when he came back the pavilions were being lowered and packed away in rolls for carrying, and the airy feather-filled cushions stuffed away in sacks where they dwindled to near nothing.

There'd be no need for light if there were clouds and the sky pitch dark, Sam thought wryly, with all the light a-shining from the Elves and Frodo and Gandalf and all, though it hadn't troubled him till he thought of it. He was getting used to it, seemingly, and it was more something you saw with the heart than with the eye.

"Sam." Frodo had risen, and came to greet him. His smile, so sweet, pierced Sam with a slow ache. "Did you sleep well?"

Sam nodded slowly, surprised to realize he had. No aches, no stiffness-- he might not turn into a lad again, but there was something about the air of this place that suited him, perhaps.

Frodo had pear-tree fruits in his hand, and offered one to Sam-- rich and sweet, it would have won the prize at all the fairs the Shire ever had, plus more. It melted on his tongue, and he realized he was famished. It was something else he hadn't expected about the Undying Lands, that there'd be food and drink here, and need of it, just like anywhere. Maybe he could find somewhat to do to make himself useful by tilling the soil.

"Bilbo," Frodo said, looking over Sam's shoulder, and naught else, but it seemed to be enough, for Bilbo nodded.

"Give me one of those, lad," he said, just as he might have when they were in the Shire years ago, and took one of the pears from Frodo, biting into it happily. "Let's go, Sam." He led Sam towards the horses.

They mounted up and rode forward; the mountain pass proved narrower than Sam expected, though the mountains towered so tall looking up at them from inside made him fair dizzy. The country spreading out behind them was even lovelier than the seaside: low-whispering glades and rippling brooks, with all sorts of birds and creatures flitting about; grass starred with white and golden flowers, and with blue and crimson and pink, too. His eyes hurt, the colors were so rich, and he closed them again, letting the pony sway forwards on its own. It wouldn't leave the others anyhow, he reckoned, and at any rate, all those Elves and wise folk wouldn't be letting him stray.

They turned west and south once they were through the pass, and when Sam made himself stop stealing glances at Frodo, he could glimpse cities to the west, Aulë's cities if his map told aright. Perhaps Gimli was there, and Legolas with him. Sam had already heard that Gimli sailed when Legolas did, so he hadn't been surprised to hear of them both being here. At the time it happened, the account of the Dwarf's passing across the Sea had given him badly-wanted hope.

They passed swiftly south and soon entered tree-lands. Sam liked the wood; it minded him of Pippin's tales of Fangorn Forest, only without decay. Unstained, like Lothlórien, but warm and gentle, the wood stood full of beeches, oak, pine, and elm, just like back home in the Shire, only taller and more grand. He thought he could climb off his pony and sleep on the loam, or just sit and listen to the growing things. He could feel the power of the place vibrating in the air, and he listened, half-dreaming, almost sure he could understand the trees if he tried.

Frodo was singing like he did understand them, in harmony with them like an Elf, his voice soft as summer breezes. He stayed close at Sam's left, quiet-like, but ready if he was wanted. Sam wasn't quite certain what he ought to be doing about that; whenever he started to say aught to Frodo, his throat closed up and left him stammering around the words he couldn't say: How could you go?

Bilbo rode at Sam's right; it was more of a relief than Sam liked to admit to turn to him and not to have to see the shine of Frodo right out of the corner of his eye, never fading. Bilbo was the sort of folk he was used to talking with, or near enough. He was just right, eager to chew over the old days and share stories-- not just Sam's. Bilbo took pride in telling stories about his younger days too, stories such as wouldn't have suited Sam when he was just a lad. Mayhap keeping Sam occupied with chatter was what Frodo had meant Bilbo to do when he spoke up that morning.

After a few miles Frodo heeled his pony ahead and spent a while riding between Galadriel and Gandalf, speaking with them earnest-like, and Sam couldn't quite keep from turning an ear to the syllables of their talk. It fell like a music of rain, as hard to fathom as the tree-speech.

At length Gandalf's keen eye turned back and fixed Sam's; he blushed, caught watching. Frodo turned back too, following Gandalf's gaze. He reined his pony and returned to Sam's side, smiling at him quiet and slow, as though he knew secrets untold. Sam supposed he did, at that.

Frodo talked just to him after that, about the woods and the Elves who traveled with them. He was just as glad Frodo didn't seem to expect him to say much; the matters he brought up didn't need much answer, seemingly. But after a while, Frodo seemed to take courage from Sam's quiet agreement and attention, moving from pleasantries to deeper things.

"We'd planned to go-- well, many places. But Gandalf says we should go to speak with Yavanna first." Frodo's eyes shone with pleasure. "You'll love her gardens, and when we're done there, we'll--" he interrupted himself, laughing. "We'll go wherever you like. There's all the time we'll ever need, Sam."

"It's beautiful, every bit." Sam answered him carefully. "I couldn't tire of looking at a thing I've seen." Much less of looking at you. He hid the twisting of his heart as well as he might. He'd never before understood what a burden it might be for there not to be no dying. Not till he thought of living alone amongst all these shining creatures, wanting his Frodo uselessly throughout all the long years, the leaf-falls, lasselanta-- now there was one word he knew in high-Elven, if no other: leaf-fall, or fading. He'd faded in Middle Earth while Frodo brightened here.

Frodo's eyes clouded, seeing through him, and Sam widened his smile a notch to try to turn them aside.

Frodo stayed even closer at his side after that, though he stayed mostly quiet for a time-- once pointing out a hare in a fern-brake, often humming a slow song; he seemed as happy as Sam had ever seen him, even when he was a hobbit-lad back in the Shire. He was peaceful, and it was plain to see he felt at home inside himself in a way he hadn't never done before, not in Sam's reckoning.

Sam wished he could say the same, but he couldn't. He yearned for the press of Rosie's hand. He hadn't felt so for months, but he did here, what with everything so quaint and strange and grand-- too high for the likes of a Gamgee, Mayor or no. He missed Elanor's knowing look and little Rose's ready smile. Then there was Merry and Pippin, gone away to Gondor the last he heard, and left their titles behind-- they'd gone away like him, it seemed, never to return.

"I've been living my life dreaming of such as I knew naught about," he whispered aloud.

Frodo looked at him keenly. "It takes a while to feel at home here, I'm afraid. Most of my memories of my first days are blurred. I wasn't well when I arrived."

"I know you weren't." Sam felt pride in this, at least-- that he could still make the attempt to comfort Frodo. "And nobody would blame you for it, I'll warrant." His own memories of that time were clear as diamond and sharp as a sword's blade. His mind could call up every day he'd spent looking about Bag End, half-expecting to catch Frodo from the tail of his eye, and being cut afresh every time he realized he wouldn't. He'd more than half-expected he'd never see his Frodo again... and he hadn't known how right he was, for this beautiful creature, so certain and serene-- this wasn't his Frodo. Not at all, somehow, for all that he was so terribly close to it.

Not that he'd have Frodo hang onto the past and its pain. Not a bit of it. But ah, Frodo had promised him, he had. He'd said Sam would be whole and one for many years to come, and for all of his vision, Frodo had spoken wrongly. Sam had lived a full life, and been happy; he'd had his wife and his children and his home. He'd had the Shire and his garden. But he'd never quite been whole, not completely. There was always a little part of him split off from himself, yearning... but Frodo had been here and been whole, and hadn't missed Sam one bit, not from the looks of it, and it was cruel hard to know he wasn't needed no more, even if he was welcome, and it was even harder to admit he resented Frodo's happiness.

"No one will blame you for needing to heal, either," Frodo's voice was very soft. "I hurt you badly, leaving as abruptly as I did."

Sam lifted his chin. "I won't say you didn't," he answered truthfully. "But I did all the things you said, and I had a good life."

Frodo's eyes softened with something Sam couldn't name. "I'm glad," he whispered. "I couldn't have given you that, not as I was."

Not the children, that's for certain. But Sam knew he'd never have missed that, and never have missed Rosie, not with Frodo in his bed.

Frodo in his bed. Sam shivered and looked away to hide a lifetime's misery and longing. He wouldn't have had that even if Frodo stayed, just as he couldn't have it now.

No. It wasn't right to be resentful and he didn't have it in him to hold on to anger, not if Frodo had truly been happy all these long years without him. It was best that he'd gone. And there were so many things Sam himself had done, he couldn't regret that he'd stayed, neither, but oh, if only....

"Sam?" There was worry in that gentle voice, and Sam pulled himself together right quick.

"It's nothing. I'm missing the little ones, is all." A half-truth, but it served better than none.

"I want you to tell me everything about them," Frodo whispered, so Sam started weaving his favorite memories into halting words, then finally relaxed in to the warm comfort of storytelling. It suited him; the point of the tale could be outside himself, and the part of him that had hurt for so long could curl up deep inside and lick its wounds.

And so he whiled away the day spinning tales for Frodo, till the shadows grew long and the fair evening creeping from below the feet of the far mountain peaks reached them. His voice was hoarse by then, and he was glad to drink the wine the Elves brought, and to eat the cakes and fruit they laid on the board. The wine was strong, and it went to his head; the Elves sang and made merry as the stars come out, but Sam cast longing eyes at the cushions and coverlets they had laid on the forest moss.

"Rest, if you need to." Frodo's voice touched him, soft and reassuring-- he was near Sam, at his elbow. He sounded as though he'd never been away, and it made Sam blink awake of a sudden. He had to sort himself out, putting past and present in their proper places until he remembered the rights of where he was. He looked over at the grass where Bilbo already lay, snoring comfortably, tucked up in a deep green coverlet with more cushions than he ought to need, by rights.

Sam flushed; he'd been woolgathering, waiting till Frodo took his own place so that Sam could lie a bit away: near enough to be polite, but far enough not to torment himself with Frodo's scent or his warmth.

"Go," Frodo murmured. "And I'll come lie with you."

Sam trembled, battling a surge of longing, and clutched his hands together tightly to hide it. "I'll just sit up a bit longer. You go ahead," he ventured, avoiding Frodo's eye, and Frodo looked at him reproachfully.

"All right, Sam." He got up and went away, leaving Sam to berate himself for his clumsiness and his lack of courtesy.

He decided he would sit for just a little while, long enough for Frodo to fall asleep-- if he did sleep now, and didn't just lie there with his eyes open, like an Elf. He told himself that he would let the company finish their song before he looked to see if Frodo slept, and so he settled in to listen, jerking his head up whenever he felt it start to nod.

The song flowed around him, lapping him like the wavelets on the ocean, and he might almost imagine that he was back aboard the white ship, sailing gently along the music. The thread of the tale made ghosts of meaning that washed over him, fleeting, like the shadows of gulls flitting past far overhead.

Presently he saw a slender Elf-lady walking amidst the gathering; she drew his eyes, reminding him somewhat of the Lady Galadriel-- slim and clad in flowing white, with long dark hair that neared her ankles and hung in soft smooth waves. He hadn't noticed her before, and he wondered at it, for such hair as she had would have hung off her horse, blowing gently in the breeze of their passing, and he would have watched it as they rode, worrying that it might snag on a branch or catch in the twigs of a bush along the wayside.

She walked towards Sam, not so much of a wonder as it might have been, for he sat at the tables where the flasks of wine stood. He watched her from the corner of his eye, looking forward to her grace as she reached to pour, but she passed the wine and moved around the tables towards him, her eyes fixed on his face.

He swallowed, feeling awkward, and bowed his head to her.

"You are the gardener Perhael. Samwise. Panthael." She smiled at him, and it was like Lady Galadriel all over again; he felt like he didn't have no clothes on, and his face went hot.

"I suppose I am." That Perhael must be the High-Elvish word as was his name, seemingly, and he knew the Sindarin word of Aragorn's well enough. Sam wasn't in the habit of letting folk rattle him; he'd seen too much in his long life for that foolishness, but she came the closest anyone had since the midwife made him come help lift Daisy out of Rose's body, since she didn't have no helper along with her.

The Elf-lady smiled at that; and he blushed, now quite certain she had the gift of seeing right into you, but he wouldn't drop his eyes.

"Walk with me." She glided away without waiting for his answer, and he slipped off the bench to obey; she didn't seem the sort of person he could say no to.

He was relieved to see that Frodo was sleeping, laid out on the soft blankets of the Elves with a cushion beneath his head-- but before he'd lain down, he'd put another right beside his, and a blanket with it, spread out soft and tempting, turned back like a bed in quiet invitation.

Sam's throat choked up thick, and his eyes filled; he couldn't see for the blur. He stumbled away after the lady, hoping he wouldn't trip on the hem of her gown, scrubbing furiously at his eyes with his sleeve.

When he could see again, she was still before him, walking slowly; her feet were bare on the green moss, and she trailed her fingers in the leaves. They seemed to rustle up and caress her fingertips.

"Begging your pardon," Sam said, still sounding a bit choked. "You know my name, or so it seems. I'd think it was an honor to know yours." And there he was, trying to speak fancy instead of plain like he'd made up his mind to, but something about her humbled him and made him want to please her.

She smiled at him over her shoulder, amusement and something that he hesitated to call mischief in her eyes-- it didn't seem respectful somehow to call it such, but he didn't know no other name for it.

"I am called Palúrien," she said, and the trees rustled, singing it after her almost, joyful in the stillness-- and the name tickled at him, like he'd heard it before, but he couldn't be sure of it; sometimes his memory was like a snatch of fading leaves. He wondered how the Elf-song had dwindled so quickly, but he could not take his eyes from her to look back towards the camp. There were vines woven through the trees here, hanging thick with pale yellow flowers, and they tumbled in a wild profusion, framing her when she turned to look at him. "Do you like my garden?"

He blinked and hesitated to answer; by his reckoning, they were in Oromë's woods, or near enough. Her smile deepened.

"I like this place," he made bold to say, and that didn't insult nobody.

"We have left the Woods," she said, "and we have come on to my lands. Look about you, if you will!"

Sam did, stepping forward to touch the vines, which nodded heavy with blossom; they smelled of sweet spices. The moon filtered through them, and flowers lay thick as stars in a meadow beyond; with a shy look at her he stepped forth from the eave of the wood and bent to touch a few of them, so he could look right up close-- roses the size of his two hands put together, and bluebells and peonies and dozens that he knew, with dozens more that he couldn't name, shy and silky and dew-wet to his fingertips. He scented herbs, pressing leaves between his fingertips, and touched twining ivy, then stepped through banks of irises and buttercup. They were set as if they were in a bed, laid out where they would grow and set each other off the most lovely, but they grew without shouldering for space and no need for mulch, for there were no weeds, neither.

"It's beautiful," he whispered; there was no end to it as far as he could see. It exalted him and humbled him all at once, like looking into Frodo's eyes. "I could work in a garden like this all my life. Though I can't see it as clear I once could."

She tilted her head and stepped forward. "Close your eyes."

Sam obeyed, his heart giving an odd, fierce thump of fear, and he felt her two fingertips touch them. Her nails were smooth but cool, making light crescents of pressure on his lids, and her fingertips were warm.

"Now open them and see, Samwise."

He did, and the world jumped into his mind so clear he nearly wept; he couldn't remember seeing this clearly even as a lad, colors separate and lovely even under the pale moon.

He sank to his knees. "Yavanna," the word breathed from him, and his memory cleared. "Yavanna Palúrien, Kementári."

"Rise, little gardener." Her voice was warm. "You may have this, if you wish it-- as Gimli the Dwarf has chosen to work with Aulë, you may work in the fields of Yavanna, tending flowers and bringing forth fruit. And I will show to you all there is to know of the ways of green and growing things, that wherever you may go, the world will blossom." She reached out her hand, and a tight-shut rosebud nosed towards it; it suddenly spread and blossomed-- flawless, shining white. Its petals curled back and it stretched itself softly for the sunshine of her smile. "Or you may choose to stay at his side."

Sam hesitated, his heart yearning suddenly for flowers in bud and bloom, and the orchards there must be-- the tall and spreading trees, and the cool meadow grasses. Fields of wheat and flax, and simple homely things like cabbages and taters too, all in their measure.

And set against it all, there was Frodo. He bent his head. Into his mind came the thought of Galadriel's box, and the whispering of the Ring-- he had thought then that he needed only one simple garden, not a garden swollen to a realm. But Galadriel had praised him for a gift shared. She'd given him her box and its riches, which he had not kept to himself, but given to all, freely-- and in the end, the Shire had been given to him for a time, his own realm blossoming and rich with fruit, as he tended it and cared for all that lived inside. The thoughts circled in his mind, clear and strong, and for the first time he understood his reward. For his forbearance, he had been freely given what the Ring had promised to steal for him.

Now he could have something like it again-- and all it would cost him, for a second time, was... Frodo.

He's gone where I can't follow. Sam hesitated, looking about himself, torn.

"I am cruel." She let her fingertips touch the rose. "I have showed you what you might have, only to make you choose."

"Then tell me which I should choose," his voice broke. "Because I don't know."

"You will choose the one you love most."

He looked at her, helpless. "I can't choose him. He isn't mine to have."

"Do you know where they were taking you before you turned to come to me?"

"No, my Lady." Sam bowed his head again.

"They were taking you to Fôs' Almir." Sam lifted his head to stare at her, courtesy forgotten in his surprise. "To follow Frodo. To be healed and made whole." She returned his gaze steadily. "Olórin and Frodo argued; Olórin insisted you would refuse to enter. I deemed he was right, and they turned you aside for me."

Mr. Gandalf was right. "I can't...." Sam whispered. "I'm not, I'm not like him."

"Are you not, Ringbearer?"

Sam shook his head, wretched. "Only for a little while, and a mistake it was, too!" He looked up at her, pleading.

"Who is to say what would have happened had you not taken it?" She looked up at the moon, and morning glories brushed her dress, twining about themselves, seeking her like a sunflower follows the Sun. "And though you took it, it did not take you." The wind caught her hair, turning raven to silver in the moonlight. "You proved yourself worthy of him in that moment, Samwise. When you took the Ring and bore it, and listened to its promises-- and rejected them. You returned it to him with open heart and hand." She shook her head, and the flowers of the field danced. "Do not tell yourself now that it was easy. Remember Sméagol, who slew his most beloved companion for it after only a few moments of its whispering."

Sam bowed his head, remembering the horror of Cirith Ungol. Frodo had never known the true depths of Sam's torment; Sam hadn't wanted him to-- the Red Book held only a tithe of it. But that didn't matter. When it come to hearts, whether you deserved someone or not didn't signify. "I can't. He... he wouldn't want me." Sam flushed to the roots of his hair, and tried not to think of all the things he wanted, so she'd not read them in him. "He's whole now, and me, I've withered." He lifted his hands, callused and rough, gnarled from long years of work.

"Your scars are honorable ones. But perhaps he may not." She did not grant him the assurance he so desperately craved, and Sam made a choked sound, struggling in torment. "That choice is his; it is not yours to know beforetimes."

She regarded him without visible emotion for a long moment, seeming to judge his struggle. "You are worthy, but you are wounded, just as your master was wounded when he came to us." Wind rustled the grasses about them, and the flowers danced under the moonlight. "You, who are named in Sindarin Panthael-- Full-wise, the bearer of unquenchable hope. You fear hope, and though you have spent your life cherishing it, now that it is within your grasp, you would crush it beneath your heel." Her voice grew cool. "See the fruit your pain would grow inside your heart, little gardener."

Sam froze, eyes locked open, heart hammering in his throat as the night turned wild; the vines writhed and choked one another, and the flowers withered; a single blossom shuddered in the night, stunted, and a shroud of thorns drew over it. She stood tall and terrible beside, moonlight caught in her hair, as the grasses grew rank and the leaves fell, and the thorns rattled, dry and dead, and inside their shield as they crumbled, there was naught left but bare earth where all had once blossomed.

His cheeks were wet, and he sobbed aloud, unashamed of the desperate sound; the vision held, bitter. "What will it do to me?" Sam finally spoke; his hands were dirty, fingers dug into the dry, empty soil. "The fire."

"You brought him through Mordor, and when he could walk no further, you carried him, accepting the consequences, hoping without reason for hope. You followed him through the very fires of Orodruin, and came out again. " She opened her hands, and the vision faded; sweet flowers bloomed again, brushing Sam's cheeks and growing wet with salt. "You do not fear the fire. It is hope that you now fear, but you must trust to it again, little gardener." There was pity on her face now, and her eyes were gentle.

"In the morning you must choose. Will you have them bring you to my gardens, or will you go to the pool of fire? Think on it, and make your decision with care." She reached out her hand, and the white rose fell into it, sweet and fresh, brushed with dew. Gracefully she stepped forward, her dress unstained by the green grasses at her feet, and twined the rose into his hair; it grew under her fingers and blossomed, a garland upon his head. She tipped his face up and kissed his brow.

"Return to your bed," her whisper faded, and Samwise opened his eyes. He had been taken from his seat at the table and laid next to Frodo, then covered warmly. Frodo's arm lay over his waist, and his breath felt like Yavanna's kiss where it touched Sam's cheek. The scent of roses drifted about them-- a trailing bush laden with fragrant white blossom had risen in the night to twine with the pole that held up the pavilion cloth over their heads. It was heavy with white flowers, nodding in the soft breeze and dropping silken petals on Sam's cheek.

And oh, but Sam wanted. Wanted Frodo's sweet warmth beside him, forever. Wanted to wake like this every morning, wanted Frodo's gentle arm around his waist and more-- wanted every piece of him to touch and to hold. But there wasn't no way he could have it, not ever-- he'd wanted it all his life, and never been granted it, not even when Frodo was whole and happy before the Ring dragged them out of the Shire and wounded Frodo beyond recall.

And now that he was here, outside time and place, together with Frodo again, Sam was a faded wreck of the hobbit he'd once been. Older than Mr. Bilbo he was, if you wanted the truth of it, because he'd borne the Ring only moments, and it hadn't never stopped him from ageing none. He bore the full weight of every minute of his living. He knew what time did all too well-- he'd lived with Rosie right up till her last breath, and seen her fade from a bouncing, bright-eyed lass to a withered old crone. And while it had hurt, he'd known he was fading too, and that helped; they fit each other.

He didn't fit Frodo at all; not Frodo, whose only apparent scar was the loss of his finger. Frodo still looked like he might be thirty-three or just a little more. To saddle him with such a withered old wreck for a lover, for all the unending days-- it would be laughable and more than a little cruel.

Not like there's anyone else here for him to love, Sam's mind whispered, a gadfly buzz. For all of what it's got, there's a sad lack of hobbit lasses in the Undying Lands. He squashed the voice firmly; he'd have Frodo choose him for love, not for lack of others-- and if Frodo wanted someone old, why, he had Bilbo.

But all this dithering wasn't getting Sam nowhere. He had some hard truths to face up to, and foremost among them was the choice in his future. All right, then, Samwise. Sit back and think a mite, before you jump one way or the other. Say you go to Her and work in Her fields, and learn everything She'd teach you. You already know how that is, don't you? You lived a lifetime of it, or near enough, once already. Would you choose it for all the never-ending days? Yearning for Mr. Frodo every spare minute, and grieving. How well do you think the garden will grow if you salt the soil with tears?

Sam bit his lip. He'd always felt guilty because there was a part of him as didn't belong to his family, or the Shire-- every time one of his lads or lasses was unhappy, he knew that some part of it was on his account. Take young Frodo-lad, now, who never liked hearing tales of his namesake. He'd always had a wild side to him, some part of him that didn't quite grow proper, some part of him that hurt deep inside where Sam couldn't do naught about it, for whenever he looked on the lad he saw Frodo Baggins in his mind's eye, and Frodo Gardner knew it.

Or Rosie, so patient with Sam when he'd get to pondering and spend days sitting by the fire, turning the leaves of the Red Book and staring into the flames. She'd have the children leave him be and they would look at him round-eyed when he finally roused and joined them at table, still for a moment before they set about laughing and smiling and tumbling to cheer him. But he could see them watching, knowing his bleak mood would come again-- their joy incomplete as they saw the breaking deep inside him and understood they weren't enough to make him whole.

It was done now, for better and worse, and he couldn't change it, but he could refuse to do such again.

He could see the rift inside him now; old and jagged in spots, deep, cut fresh in places with new pain, and for the first time he knew how vast and broad it had grown without his knowing. At last he thought maybe he knew why Frodo had left as he did for Valinor, for that gulf was so deep Sam understood he could throw all the Shire down in it, and everything he'd ever known or might know besides, and never fill it up again.

Yes, his choice was already made and there was no denying it; all his worrying was just the tangled briars closing in about that flower of hope he'd tended so stubbornly.

He opened his eyes, and found Frodo was looking at him; Frodo's bitten hand lay on Sam's breast, thumb stroking his collar, the soft little motion going straight to his heart. Frodo's eyes were gentle, and the sight of him wrung Sam with so much pain and longing and mingled joy that he nearly wept.

Sam took a deep breath; there was no other choice his heart could ever make.

"Take me to Fôs' Almir."

Frodo looked deep into his eyes for a long moment, and then nodded. "We will go."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The land of Valinor lay thick with all imaginable sorts of beauty, woods and fields, birds and beasts, gardens and fountains, grand cities and beautiful Elves-- Maiar and Valar, marvels and wonders and tall towers ringed with trees, but Sam had no eye for them as they traveled north; he had his map in his breast pocket and he fingered it from time to time. The crudely drawn trees, the lettering-- it read "the ring of doom," and that made him smile without humor as a shiver raced up his spine. That was where they were going, or he missed his guess: the heart of Valinor.

He kept his eyes on Frodo as they went, when he could do it without being caught. He slowed his pony to slip in behind Frodo as soon as he could, and then he rode at ease, his old master like a beacon to his eyes, giving him courage as they went on.

Whatever the fire did, Yavanna was right; that wasn't what worried him most. He judged he'd likely survive it somehow. Frodo had, and that was plain to see. But it wasn't precisely a comfortable thought, neither. Sam didn't know if it would burn him away, or remake him, or send him through a crucible of memory and sear the bad patches right to ash. Whatever it did, he'd make it out and then they'd see what happened next. But what if Frodo wouldn't have him, when all was said and done? No bath of fire would be enough to cure such a wound. It might as well burn him right up and save them all a bit of trouble. It terrified him that he might step out to find himself re-made into something that wouldn't need the love of Frodo Baggins. What would be left of Sam Gamgee then? It made no difference between living and dying.

Mr. Gandalf laid his hand on Shadowfax's neck. Sam caught the motion when the horse halted, and he knew Gandalf was waiting to fall in with him when he caught up, so he did.

"Samwise." Gandalf's voice was rich with quiet joy and deep with meaning. "Do not fear. You are not the same Hobbit you were when you rose this morning. To live is to die-- every moment is dying, and being born anew. Every thing that you see and hear and do, every thing that you think, all that passes changes you and makes you anew." He smiled down at Sam, eyes warm.

Sam nodded and firmed his chin; Gandalf was right, at that-- and he ought to know; he'd died once, hadn't he? Except there was one thing that worried Sam: Mr. Gandalf, he was a spirit of fire, now wasn't he, and mayhap walking through a bath of it wouldn't hurt him none. And what's more, Sam thought tartly, if he'd known that he'd be spending all of the unending days with people reading his mind every time he had a stray thought, he might have stayed home.

Gandalf tilted his head back and laughed, long and filled with rueful delight. "Your pardon, Samwise." He bowed his head deeply. "We are anxious for you, and we hover too closely. I will give you your privacy."

Gandalf withdrew, but Sam was comforted-- from his worries about the fire, if not from the simple and terrible fear that once he'd come out from it, Frodo would say him no, and his love and suffering would all be for naught.

They rode on, Frodo dropping back to ride at his side once more, and presently the cities gave way to rolling meadow and Sun-dappled glades full of birds; Sam looked about him, only now realizing that Yavanna's gift of clear sight had not left him with his dream. Before them lay a hill, and upon it the wasted boles of the Trees. Leafless and dark, branches broken and dead, they stretched far into the sky, the only scar that he could see upon the perfection of the land.

Like Frodo's missing finger, they were-- the single flaw, the necessary reminder of evil in the world.

Soon as they rode forth there were buildings about them again, of a different sort-- older and more beautiful, intricately decorated with filigreed wood and standing open to the breeze with silver and gold and tapestries woven of shining thread stirring on their pillared walls; high-ceilinged dwellings of Elves and Maiar. Song came from many of them, while others lay in reverent silence. Their path wound along through the buildings along a road of silvery pebbles, and gems glowed in the sun on the walls all about, flashing with fire.

Sam wished he dared reach out to clasp Frodo's hand, but he didn't. He could see a place up ahead, one of the white palaces. It glowed with its own heart of silver-gold light, standing at the foot of the hill beneath the dead Trees, where the dews of Laurelin and Silpion had once fallen and been collected, as he'd read about it back home.

"There," Frodo pointed, and Sam swallowed hard, giving him a nod. Their company had swelled, groups of singing Elves walking with them, and the ponies clopped slowly forward, as though weighted by Sam's reluctance. But in time the palace grew near, and they circled its bright walls to the foot of the hill, where a wide gate swung open.

A woman stood there, eclipsed by golden light; it poured around her and through her. Sam squinted to look through it; he thought she must be a Maia. Another figure stood beside her, a somber man, lit through with a dreamlike white light that was nearly washed away by her golden sheen, but it was his face that caught Sam's eye, sober and unsmiling.

"We are come, Vána." Gandalf rode forth to greet her by name, but his bow was for the other. "We have brought him." The woman smiled and bowed her head, then straightened, her clear eyes sweeping them all. At her side the man stood silent, eyes never leaving Sam's. Sam felt a chill shiver its way down his spine-- as though he had opened a door unexpectedly onto a morning of snow and clear ice, dazzling in the winter Sun.

"Send forth the Ringbearer." The two stood aside, and Sam looked to Mr. Frodo quickly, but he hung back. Sam hesitated, then looked to Gandalf to be sure it was him as was meant. Gandalf nodded and moved to let Sam pass, lifting his staff and ushering him forward with it; Sam took a deep breath and got off his pony to walk through the gates, stubbornly not letting himself look back for a final glimpse of Frodo. Bilbo alone caught his eye and gave him an encouraging nod; Sam returned it and stepped forward.

Vána took his hand and drew him forth, for he was all but blinded once more as he passed the gate's shadow. The waters shone so brightly he could not look away. Only the gentle rippling and dancing of the light moved through his vision, and he could feel the cool clasp of her hand drawing him forth-- and the heat of the light beating its potency upon his brow. He knew not if any of the company followed them, his ears filled with the rustle and lap of the waters, like the crackle and hiss of flame. Her hand fell away and Sam's feet stilled.

The man spoke, his voice low, murmuring low like a rustle of water in the hills, but piercing deep into Sam, engraving itself upon his mind with quiet certainty. "This is the pool of Fôs' Almir. It will remake you; it will burn away your grief and your ill-deeds. It may destroy you utterly-- or leave you whole."

Sam squinted at the pool, which dazzled his eyes and made tears run down his heat-taut cheeks. "What choice do I have?"

"You may choose instead to go with me and lie down next to your Rose within my halls, where you will follow her and pass beyond the circle of the world, as Eru has decreed. None know what happens to mortals when they pass beyond the world." His voice was toneless and even, holding neither grief nor rancor. "Just as none know what may come to pass if they remain within it for the long ages until the world is done."

A shiver ran up Sam's spine again in spite of the baking heat-- longing for Rose and fear of the words mingling in him, twining through him like choking creeper. To lie down next to his Rose and pass beyond the world with her... to be free, at last, of the burden of and grief... he wrung his hands, agonized with indecision. Frodo....

A bird called from beyond the wall, and Sam lifted his eyes, vision seared in dancing waves of blue-green by the radiance of the pool. He could see nothing. He had taken no last look at his master; he had read no messages in Frodo's eyes that could guide him now.

The lapping of the pool against the tiles filled his ears like the lapping of the ocean against a grey stone quay; as before he could see nothing, the last glimmer of light vanished from his eyes, and he remembered the agony of the long road home.

He had never been whole.

He would not return to Rose again an empty husk without even himself to give. He would have Frodo, or he would have nothing.

"I won't go with you." He opened his eyes, and sight crept back in to his mind, objects barely visible as outlines filled with light.

"As you wish." Mandos stepped away.

Vána's hand fell on Sam's shoulder, and she led him to the edge of the pool, and he felt the soft grass give way to a slick and smooth surface, a made thing. Sam could feel the sweat trickling down his back and the skin on his face tightening like a bad burn from the Sun. White tile gleamed with a fractured sheen like opals under his feet, a flicker at the edge of his vision.

"Will you go in?"

"I will," Sam answered her stubbornly, for all that he feared he would be consumed. Elbereth, let me go quick. Such a stubborn ass he'd been, not to look his fill at Frodo before he went forth, or even touch his hand.

"Then walk forward until the waters cover you, and when you are clean, return as you came." She drew back, and he stood alone before the scouring light, seeking the courage to enter it.

"It's a fool's hope, Mr. Frodo," Sam whispered, closing his eyes and thinking with brief wistfulness of the gardens of Yavanna. "And it always was, me loving you, but it's my lot, seemingly."

Let it be done, then.

He thrust his foot forward into the fiery light, his fists knotted and his teeth clenched tight.

Flame curled and licked around him, burning away his breeches, and the water boiled around his feet. Sam whimpered, choking on the smoke of the burning-- Mordor; it must be. The fiery mountain belched up flame and reeking ash, pouring in about him. The Eagles hadn't come, and he was drowning in a river of fire, but where was Frodo? Ripped from him, gone and dead. There was naught for Sam to do but walk forward into death to be with him again, so he did, walking even as the flesh crisped from his bones and his bones blackened and fell to ash, and the molten fire closed over his head and rolled him away, until at last, there was no more pain....

....He gasped, chest hitching with sudden life, light flooding into him, and he flailed, rising-- rising through a golden flood; rising to the Sun. His head broke water and he choked, half-drownded; he was naked and lost, flailing in a clear pool no deeper than his shoulders, so radiant it shone through him and inside him and all about him with no shadow or stain.

There were people about, tall Elves solemn and smiling, ranged standing on the verge of the waters where he had risen, and he thought that he might know some of them if he tried to think, but his head was whirling. Where had the Eagles taken him? But they had not come; Frodo was gone and Sam had perished in flame. He faltered, feeling the ache of his loss sharper than the fires that had devoured him.

"Sam?" So soft, that voice, and it jerked him right about. He stepped forward, eyes locking to a sight he could hardly credit: Frodo. Alive and here, and all the veils that had stood between them burnt away now. His Frodo.

As when Frodo cast the Ring into the fires of Mount Doom and found its madness fallen from him, leaving him once more the master Sam had known and loved, Sam felt his burden of fear and loss sliding from him, one which had come upon him so slowly and weighed upon his shoulders for so long, he had hardly known he bore it. Rising from the waters felt like coming to himself again, finding something he had long misplaced.

There were slippery tiles under his feet. He stumbled and nearly fell on the tall steps rising from the water; then he was running naked on to the grass, not caring about nobody seeing him, memory rushing back in as the liquid light came pouring off him in floods, beaded in his lashes, but there he was, there was Frodo, his arms open and his eyes bright and shining with all the love and longing a body could ever wish for-- shining with the promise of home.

Sam knew then he truly had been a fool all the days of his life, but that was done.

He sobbed and flung himself into Frodo's arms, and Frodo's mouth was open to him, his kiss welcoming Sam. This, at last, was true flame. Glory and devouring, clean and pure-- and his. He fell into it, dizzy golden wonder pouring through him, through them, as Frodo's arms came around him and Frodo's mouth joyfully promised him the only gift he'd ever wanted.

In that moment, Sam knew himself as whole.

"Frodo." Sam whispered against his love's soft lips, salt-wet and tasting of flame. "Me dear." He kissed Frodo again, feeling the soft radiance of light streaming off him in the warm, clean air. "I'm home at last."

-The end-


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