West of the Moon

A Tolkien Fanfiction Archive

 

 

Never and Always
Stages of a journey traced through memory of special places, Frodo and Sam.
Author: Cara Loup
Rating: PG-13

 

Revised version of a story that first appeared in the zine Inside A Song. I started out writing this series thinking about the many different places that became meaningful Sam and Frodo in the course of their travels, and wondered how these places would remember them. The result is not a continuous story but a series of independent vignettes, each focusing on a specific place and a moment in time. I do hope that all these fragments come together to make some sense of their own, but they also deliberately leave a lot of questions unanswered.
"Never and Always" and "The Wind's Tale" belong to the same continuum and should be read together.

 

"Oh, that won't do!" said Bilbo. "Books ought to have good endings. How would this do:
and they all settled down and lived together happily ever after?"
"It will do well, if it ever comes to that," said Frodo.
"Ah!" said Sam. "And where will they live? That's what I often wonder."
J.R.R. Tolkien - The Fellowship of the Ring: The Ring Goes South.
 

13th April 1418 S.R.

 

Window

This spring, the grass is so thick under Sam's feet as like it wants to swallow up all the sun for itself and leave none to the shrubs and flowers. It's a fine, clear day, but what with the rains this week it's no marvel that the lawn's grown wild as it has, spilling over the verge already.

Sam picks up his shears and turns his back on the open window. There was a south wind come with dawn, but it's died off again and now the air hangs over the garden thick and swollen with the early bees' buzzing. The sound is tangled with the voices like weeds, so he can't rightly hear what they're saying - but then he doesn't mean to. Sam kneels by the holly to start cutting the lawn in that spot, a good dozen yards from the window. It's a proper place to begin, right at the tip of the old oak's shadow, spanning the yards from here to the smial. He'll move along the lawn as that shadow shortens, like a hand telling time.

There's an odd paleness to the grass this spring, as if it's not got enough colour left for all its hurried growing. His fingers dig into the greensward and find the earth crumbly and dry, ready to yield up the roots at a tug. He rubs the grains between his thumb and forefinger, thoughtful of what the earth is telling.

From the flowerbeds near by the hedge, the scents of hyacinth, evermind and daffodil rise in a cloud. Sam watches a bee tumble about, dawdling from one blossom to the next in that drunk pattern as they have, and he can feel with the small thing that's caught out of its reckoning. The scents are so strong and heady, they take up all the air, and the grass Sam is cutting adds its own wet smell.

A sound flies from the study's window then. It's Mr. Frodo's voice, raised in a short exclaim, and Mr. Gandalf picks up next with a steadier tone that soon lowers to a murmur again. Sam looks at the patch he's cleared, every blade of grass so sharp before his eyes, he can't even blink against it. The shadow's shrunk back to his heels, baring the rest of him to sunlight, but there's a burn at the back of his neck that's not got aught to do with it. He doesn't mean to be listening, not now. He's not meaning to be hopeful, neither.

The grass falls in tufts left and right of his knees. Sam gets up and moves further down the lawn, seeing as how he's made quicker work of the verge than he knew. The curve of the flowerbed teems with lilies, unfurling their petals like tender flames. Some of them are so thin, the sun burns sheer through them, and they'll dance with the lightest breeze. Sam's fingers trace round a pale gold fringe, just shy of touching, before he pulls the boldly growing grass away from the lilies.

Since old Mr. Bilbo's leaving, he's done some planting about the garden as will make folk frown and stare, his Gaffer included. Mr. Bilbo liked his rare flowers beside the cabbage and taters, but Mr. Frodo will look at them bloom with strangeness in his eyes and a smile rich of thought.

Sam wipes at his neck and feels a bit of oddness flutter round his own stomach. It's been there a while, and mixed with it is the hardship of keeping a secret from Mr. Frodo. Much as he's agreed to Mr. Merry and Mr. Pippin's plans, they don't have to bear the knowing day in and out, and there's a deeper worry Sam couldn't speak of nohow. There've been times of late when the strain in his breast won't let a word out. But now, with Mr. Gandalf blowing in again after such a long run of years, mayhap the day's come sooner than Sam thought it might.

Maybe, he says to himself, and maybe not. Perhaps there'll be another summer like the last, when Mr. Frodo carries a book out into the garden and sits not too far from where he is working. He'll run his fingers through the grass in soft, distracted motions, and Sam is sure that his hands wander with the flow of the Elvish tongue, even when Mr. Frodo isn't reading aloud. It doesn't take the sound of his voice.

The rustlings of the pages and the grass and Mr. Frodo's clothes will follow Sam round the garden, and he doesn't need to look any more than he'd turn to be sure where the sun rises. The garden lies open like a green hand when they're out in the forenoon brightness, safe and whole while they're both thinking about Elves.

Sam looks over his shoulder at the shadow that's inched closer to the window from where Mr. Gandalf speaks, slow and grave. Sam runs his thumb along the shears' blades, wiping grass snips away that are starting to clump together. He's come a lot closer, but he's not following what's being said inside. It's one thing to keep his eyes on Mr. Frodo, and another listening to his converse with a guest when Mr. Frodo trusts him not to. Not as most his visitors do, without thinking, for some well-born folk will chatter over Sam's head like they would over a tea-pot. It's different with Mr. Frodo who'll nod to Sam, across the silence that they share between them.

Sam bends over his work again. Straight before him, a lively crop of dusty miller's inching forward, all the leaves covered in hoary white. Without his tending, this bunch would overrun the pansies, and the grass would tangle through it, and the glory vine that sprawls crimson in autumn will choke the tenderer shrubs. It won't take more than a season for the garden to grow wild, for the weeds to shoot up taller than the roses, and if Sam's not around to keep the greens to their own place, the sanded paths will be lost too, but all that can't be helped.

He's known a long time that an end will come, and all the Shire's sweetness can't mend it. It's a knowing that crept up on him slow as the seasons, and Sam can't rightly recall when it grew clear for a fact. But once it did, it settled in his bones like a coming change in the weather, full of what his mind can't get a true hold on. What lies out there, behind the Marish and the Brandywine River and those stranger places that mark the world's bounds. Mr. Frodo has a mind for it though, a mind that wonders and frets and seeks out the kind of beauty most folk won't never see. It shows enough times, when he reads a bit of verse to Sam or when he speaks of distant lands.

Sam starts up at a hard rattle and with the tail of his eye sees that Gandalf's pulling the shutters close. His fingers go very tight on the shears' grip. Words that he's not wanted to hear come lumbering through his head, and he's wishing very hard he could bat them away like the grass off his breeches. He keeps cutting and cutting. The grass falls left and right.

He hasn't tried to guess what Mr. Frodo might be thinking when he looks to the far horizon. Oh, it didn't take his Gaffer minding him that there's no bit of sense in trying. When those moments come, it's simply that he can't. When his whole chest feels hot and light with Mr. Frodo looking back to him and the ground's all but slipping under his feet, then his mind is wiped clear as this morning's sky. During those moments, he's stopped in such a place as he's never tread before. Perhaps Mr. Frodo's doesn't recognize it either. Sam can't quite make up his mind on the boldness in that notion, or why the fear that he carries is also a hope.

What he does know is that Mr. Frodo were never afraid of things uncommon to hobbits, and that he's wiser than the lot of them. Sam looks to the closed shutters, and his stomach's clutched up tight. There's a fire inside that he lit himself, for warm as the morning may be outdoors, Bag End's walls are thick and lie covered in shadow till noon. He's close enough for that shadow to settle on his shoulders and crawl down to his fingers that turn stiff and cold on the shears. He can't have heard right.

Sam pushes to his feet and takes himself further off. His back and arms swing through familiar movements as he trims the verge, and the flower-scents thicken about him, lying close as a haze. When he stops to look across the garden, it slopes away like a memory, and he needs another moment to find his breath. It's as like Mr. Frodo were already gone.

He swallows hard. His mind's long been screwed to the point. There's a road before him as clear as setting foot outside Bag End's gate, and no need for thinking any further than that first step. Sam heaves to his feet, telling himself to get a rake and set it to those scattered grass-mounds before he cuts any more.

With a creak, the shutters push open again. Sam ducks his head between his shoulders and whistles. This way he won't be hearing what Gandalf says, there by the window. In the box below blossoms a batch of mornstar that he's planted early, so they're what Mr. Frodo sees first when he sits down at his desk. Soon the garden will be at its most beautiful, but it won't matter no more, not in face of such things as Mr. Gandalf were speaking of. The mornstars' blue and gold run together, ghost-like in the shadow. Sam blinks to unblur his sight, but the words that rock about at the back of his head can't be shaken aside so easy.

He decides to forget about fetching a rake and walks back to where he's stuck his shears in the dry earth. He drops to his knees among the limp grass-clippings and can't think aught but -

"No!" It's Mr. Frodo by the window now, and that's his voice, tight and strange - "...whatever it may do to me."

Sam's fingers tremble too hard to move the shears back and forth as they should. This is not Mr. Frodo setting his gaze where the land runs into sky, his eyes full of silver daylight. There's fear in his voice, sharp as the shadow that lies in a short puddle about Sam, under the window.

"...and I suppose I must go alone."

This is the end of it then, and it's naught like he fancied. It's all about Elves and rings and fiery mountains, and that Mr. Bilbo's part of the tale don't make it any less fearful. The shadow's thick over him, holding Sam in his place, where he's been doomed to stay. He sways forward and his hands clutch at the grass that sends up such a wet, smothering smell. He can't hear nothing more, for his ears fill up with sound as if there's a storm rushing into the fields, into the grass.

Alone.

There's his one hope taken out of the fear and that's all as remains. His hands shake harder, as if the storm were inside him, and he grabs his shears fast as he can, like he might use them to stop it all. But he can't stay here, he can't even stand up on this ground no more that's asway as like to buck him off.

It takes Mr. Gandalf's grip to haul him upright, away from the sickly smell of the grass, and into the room. An anxious bit of mirth flickers in Mr. Frodo's face, and he's very pale when he meets Sam's eyes.

Perhaps we'll still be seeing Elves, is all Sam can think at that moment, for there has to be a hope in this, even just a spot that he can reach out to Mr. Frodo. Taking a step into that road might not end the tearing inside him, but that can't be helped neither.

Mr. Gandalf must have seen that he needs to go along, even if Frodo didn't. Sam's throat is too tight with tears to say more, but he looks at Mr. Frodo to promise him silence. A smile answers him, brief and shaky, and then Sam knows. They've both kept their silence a long while, and shared it too. Like a promise of its own.

* * *

25th September 1418 S.R.

Last Garden

 

The garden is smaller than the Bag End gardens, yet in the dark it is hard to guess where the hedge ends and shadows begin, both clustering equally thick. Aged plum trees stoop over the unshorn grass. Not a breath of wind stirs the leaves.

Frodo walks away from the house, both hands shoved firmly into his trouser pockets, until he has a glimpse of the fields beyond the spinney. They lie wide open in the dimness of new moon. As he looks across, Frodo's thoughts amble from the items in his travel pack to the journey ahead. Although his legs feel sore from the past days' running and scrambling, he's so awake with anticipation and bewilderment that not the softest down pillows could coax him to sleep.

He stops under the loose branches of a hazel tree and looks around. The flower beds show clumps of ladies mantle, periwinkle and toadflax that fend well on their own, and the lawn is reasonably well-kept. If Sam were to tend this garden as everyone back in Hobbiton believes he will, it would soon overflow with colour and variety, offering delight to the eye just as the vegetable patch would provide pleasures for the stomach. Frodo smells wild sage on the air and smiles. A riot of kitchen herbs would grow here as well, under Sam's care, weaving stronger scents through the flowers' sweetness.

Frodo lays a hand to the hazel's bark. He didn't realise that he is already missing his garden at Bag End, and it startles him that he can smell the memory, a midsummer blend of reckless, cheerful bloom and sun-drenched grass. He looks to the fields again that they will cross before dawn. The frothy shimmer of a mist hovers there.

Frodo hears the footsteps only when they've already come quite close, but he doesn't need to glance over his shoulder to know - "Sam."

There is a murmur in reply, an exhalation rather than sound, which amounts to a courteous 'Mr. Frodo' but holds traces of 'what a nice, quiet evening it is,' even now. How often they had stood like this on the Hill's slope, admiring a sunset or the graceful swoop of a hawk, or the snowy splendour of blossoming cherries in the orchard west of the Party Field. They would exchange occasional remarks or merely breathe the transparent air, gazing out in the same direction. Though when Sam pauses half a step behind him, as he so frequently does, Frodo can't know where his eyes linger, he merely wonders, and the hawk will have sailed from view when he catches himself at it.

"What do you think of the garden, Sam?" Frodo asks in a low voice. How achingly familiar this is. His shoulders tighten, and it's suddenly impossible to attempt a backward glance.

"It could do with some weeding, sir, and a pair of hands to till this bit of cledge proper." Sam's voice is clear and calm, as it would be on any other night. But for all that - or perhaps because of it - Frodo is brought up cold against the unwitting cruelty of his question.

Your hands, he thinks, and: I wish I could offer you this garden to work your marvels. Yet to speak his thoughts aloud would not amend his carelessness, and he's oddly sure that Sam knows anyway what lies so thickly on his tongue.

They're on the other side of the Shire's old boundaries, beyond any range that Sam has travelled before, and soon they shall venture past the borders of Frodo's own wanderings as well. This is the last garden they'll rest in for a long time, perhaps for -

"Won't you come indoors, Mr. Frodo?" Sam asks.

Across the fields, a light flits and winks out with will-o'-the-wisp swiftness. Perhaps a Crickhollow farmer is making his last round. "I should be tired, but..." Frodo pulls up his shoulders.

"We don't know what's lurkin' out there, sir." A little more urgency has crept into Sam's tone and roughens it with braced worry.

"No," Frodo agrees, "but... I don't think they have crossed the river yet." The words slip out easily, but listening to their quiet certainty is unsettling. How could he even guess where those Riders are hiding?

He turns quickly, as if for reassurance of some sort, and is startled to find Sam so near. As though he might block what follows them with his body and the squared strength of his shoulders. The air is so still that Frodo believes he can hear the Brandywine across the dark miles, and he thinks that somewhere in the short space between Sam and himself, their halting breaths must meet.

"Do you still want to come with me?" Frodo asks. They have had a similar conversation only the day before, when Gildor's company had departed, but the question has crept upon him more often than that.

Sam's glance darts to the side and drops to his toes. "I don't blame you for not trusting me no more, Mr. Frodo. And now that you've got Mr. Merry and Pippin to go with you..."

"Not trust you-?" Frodo breaks off and remembers with frigid clarity that those were his very own words. "The conspiracy."

"Yes, sir," Sam mutters and shuffles his feet.

"I was merely... startled," Frodo begins to answer, but his mind swarms again with the multitude of discoveries. That Sam has dutifully reported his steps and intentions for so long, that he must have met in secret with Merry and Pippin, that he has taken careful note of Frodo's regrets alongside his restless wishing. "I had no idea," Frodo adds, "and I feel rather... foolish."

In a single moment, he is looking back on their life in Hobbiton as if it were bathed in a summer glare. As if from the crisp shadows of trees emerged wistful shapes, aglitter in the sunlight, and the course of overgrown paths cleaved starkly through the meadows. Between one blink and another, everything stirs alive with hidden movement, and the fields themselves run over with impatient thoughts that Frodo has chased back to reason so many times.

"There's no call for it, sir," Sam objects, his eyes still downcast.

Frodo shakes his head and trails a glance across the dim garden. The journey from Hobbiton to Crickhollow alone should have taught him that he doesn't know everything about Sam Gamgee by far. There is no good reason either why that should disconcert him.

"I do trust you, Sam," he says, "more than I did before, in fact." When Sam's eyes rise to meet his, shadowed and watchful, Frodo hears what he never intended to say. Why is he constantly tripping over his own words tonight? "Oh, I didn't mean-"

"Not to worry..." Sam surprises him with a short chuckle. "I do take your meaning, Mr. Frodo."

"Yes. Well." Frodo runs a hand over his curls. "I confess I'm not sure I do."

Still oddly flustered, he looks over to the house. A light sways up in one of the windows as someone moves about with a candle. It occurs to him that Sam has not quite answered his question, but how can he repeat it now?

"Chief investigator..." Frodo muses, reaching for a lighthearted tone. "All this time, you were spying on me!"

"Aye, so I was," Sam admits with cautious humour.

"That ought to teach me a lesson!" Frodo continues, now chuckling himself. "I shall keep my eyes on you at all times, from now on."

When his glance returns to Sam's face, he's relieved to find the welcoming smile there, though Sam's eyes fill with something less familiar. Yet it's possible that Frodo has caught it before, on the edge of his vision, a wide-awake wondering quiet that needs no words. Is this how Sam has looked at him when they stood on the Hill of evenings, this past summer?

"Ah, but I've no cause to be spying now," Sam claims, and his gaze holds steady.

As frank an answer as that is, Frodo finds nothing to say and merely dips his head in a quick nod.

As if stirred by the same impulse, they start to stroll along the row of firethorn and broom, back up toward the plum trees. Sam's firm pace beside him should be enough of an answer to Frodo. Beyond doubt, Sam will follow him, as he promised. His choices are unlike Frodo's, they fall into place with simple necessity, instead of winding up from confounded meanderings. The only decision Frodo has made in recent years that took hold instantly was to carry the Ring and its dangers out of the Shire.

It rises into his chest then, with unexpected urgency, the notion that he should offer a promise of his own. Or if not that, then a proper reward. But Sam's reward has already presented itself, and his most fervent wish has come true. They have spent long hours among Elves, sheltered in the spell and lilt of their songs, and before Sam fell asleep - or pretended to fall asleep - his face was lit with such a joy...

Frodo lets go of the memory with no small regret. A tight ache in his chest wraps itself round the question he truly wants to ask. It tugs so sharply now that he feels it must have dogged him since April, if not longer, when Gandalf pulled Sam in through the window. When for all his quaking at Gandalf's glower, Sam faced them with a choice already made.

From Hobbiton to Bywater, people have clucked their tongues upon hearing that an honest lad like Sam would move out to Buckland. Frodo finds himself suddenly tangled in thoughts that belong to someone else - Sam's Gaffer, for instance - and through them, he fancies the life they're supposed to lead here. On warm evenings, they would sit in the garden together and enjoy a pipe, quietly talking, sheltered by the hedge and the distance from the village dwellings. But what was Sam thinking when he passed that tale to his father and his family?

Frodo breaks his stride and turns, almost ready to ask. Where they stand now, the starlight tips a faint glint into Sam's eyes, and they pierce Frodo without effort, with a gentleness that trails a soft pain in its wake.

Sam chooses that very moment to answer. "I still want to come, Mr. Frodo. More than I did before, you understand."

"Yes," Frodo murmurs and means no.

Sam would jump down a dragon's throat to save you, Pippin announced earlier, with a bright smile and a flash of his eyes, when they revealed their conspiracy. Frodo can still feel the heat that wanted to rush into his cheeks then. Perhaps because Pippin made light of something that Frodo himself didn't know, or because he can't stop wondering how it is that Pippin -

"I'm afraid..." It's out before Frodo knows it, and the truth seizes in his throat so that he has to clear it before he can go on. "I'm afraid I'm glad of it, Sam," he says, twisting what he nearly let slip, and wondering if he can fool Sam. The truth is a thrill spun from fright and gladness in equal measure.

Close to the gate, they've reached the grounds' highest point. Nightbirds rustle somewhere in the hedge that spreads weightless as a shadow, and the mild swells of the country around this garden cannot stop the slow unravelling -

"I suppose it's too late to say that, isn't it?"

Sam shakes his head. "It's never too late, as my Gaffer would say, not while there's a day as wants doin'."

As quickly as Frodo's regret has reared it's washed aside and gives way to a soft laugh. "Your Gaffer, as usual, is right."

Sam's smile is stronger in his eyes than it is on his mouth and deepens as Frodo looks at him. Possibilities blow about them like thistledown on a breeze, but the air is breathless and a little too warm for late September.

Perhaps we shall return, Frodo thinks. Somewhere in the house, a door rattles drily. He draws a deep breath and for the first time, it becomes scathingly clear. He doesn't mean to return any more than Bilbo did, and Sam has known it for months. Frodo feels something catch in his breast.

"We did ought to go in now." Sam's touch is gentle on his arm, and lingers just long enough to let the warmth seep through Frodo's sleeve. "'Tis only a few more hours till we're off again."

"Yes, Sam." Frodo feels his chest widen. He's breathing a strange salty smell that stings in his eyes and will follow him into his dreams. A single thought settles alongside, light as a feather.

They will never live here.
 

* * *

24th November 1418 S.R.

Waterfall

It's something about the falling water that draws Sam out on the gallery at night. Through four nights and three days, the sound's grown familiar, an odd sort of comfort even, but the sight is something else. From the gush of white leap droplets catching the starlight in hard splinters, each drop like the blink of an eye, so sharp and bright, and lost as quick in the falling, lost to the bottomless dark below. How is a hobbit to sleep nearby, even when he's scarce had a wink in four nights of a row?

Sam listens close for the music that always floats somewhere among these tall, stalky dwellings. Of nights, it seems as like the music alone holds them together, bound and wrapped into soft, shimmering lights. But the voices murmur low, almost drownded in the water's splashing, and Sam is careful not to look down. The water shines like snow in the dark, and there's a whiff of winter on the air he can smell, as sure as smoke from a bonfire. He can stand watch like this, with a watery breeze sliding round his ankles and his eyes wide open, though he doesn't have to. But if he sleeps, he'll only jolt from it like he did from his nap this afternoon, without a breath to call his own.

Sam walks up and down a few steps and calls himself a right fool. His watch won't do a single bit more of good than it did at Weathertop - and there's a fact for you, Sam Gamgee, take it or no.

It tears through the hole in his breast, like a cold wind blasting where there's none in this mellow air. The fear. It couldn't be gone now, couldn't be over no more than his watch, not after what he's seen. It's why the gallery and all the fine elven dwellings fall to shadow at his feet, and when he closes his eyes to recollect the Shire, it's dimmed away just like that.

The fear came with touching the ice that swelled through Mr. Frodo's arm and hand, and was made all the worse by the soft pulse battering there, right there, in the midst of that cold. Sam could feel it like the blades of Mr. Frodo's ribs, when he helped with changing the poultice, curving up against his hand. It's in Mr. Frodo's voice, too, rent with moans and gasps from someplace deep within where the dark and cold must be deeper, and there's nothing nothing nothing Sam can do to stop it.

It's wandered into him, that fearful cold, and if he could but keep it there, lock it away safe from touching aught but his own flesh, he would, but it's so much bigger than that.

I'm small, he thinks what's grown on him since Bree, since looking on the mountains and the old tower's ruins, and the snowy flanks of an elven horse. And Mr. Frodo, on that large bed, under a roof arching away like another sky.

Sam sets a hand to the railing that's carved so thin it seems like mere netting against the night and the waterfalls and the misty lights on the other side of the valley. From there murmurs the singing, and he should take heart from it, for all the high and wise folk were smiling today, the first smiles free of worry in four nights and three days.

There's naught to be worrying over now, those smiles said, what with Mr. Frodo out and about again and a start of fresh colour come back to his face, like all the morning's glory. Sam draws a hard breath at the sting of that joy, though it's gone too quick to believe. And here he's walking between aught but dark air and song, waiting -

"I should have known."

Sam steps back and turns so quick his shoulder bumps into the wood-carvings that part him from a long fall down. "Mr. Frodo?" His breath gathers into the words and makes them more of a gasp. "You did ought to be resting yourself!"

"So should you," Frodo replies. "More than I, in fact. I have just slept several days away."

As he comes nearer, Sam sees that his shirt's hanging loose over his breeches. Perhaps he threw it on quick when his slumber broke, or he's not been proper to bed yet.

"No more'n you needed, sir." Sam lowers his eyes, for he knows too well what lies under these clothes, and he could touch the scar blind through the shirt, high up left on Mr. Frodo's chest. The two wounds have left but one scar, as if it were the same when the Black Rider set his knife where Master Elrond cut later, to pull out that remaining splinter. Though fine linen's drawn over the spot now, Sam can see it before him, black and blood. It's a knowing of his master's skin he never wished to have, that he can't shut out now when Frodo stands so close to him, such a trembling under his breath as he can't stop.

"At the expense of your needs, Sam," Frodo says quietly. "According to Gandalf," he adds, in less of a serious tone, but Sam still can't answer. He looks out at the falling water, and it gives him a chill to the spine.

The sound of Mr. Frodo's voice did ought to steady him though, strong and gentle as it is with recovering. Sam has nursed him through a fever or two, with strong broth and herb-teas, but none of it ever left such a mark on his own skin. As if that Black Rider's shadow had caught him too, and he can't step from it no more.

"Sam?"

There's a touch of trouble to Mr. Frodo's voice now, and Sam can't abide that. It won't do neither, thinking of aught but shadows. "'Tis such a strange place," he says, waving his hand about, "and takes some getting used to, you understand, sleeping this high, like a bird in a tree."

Frodo stands beside him and peers through wood that's carved and pierced in shapes like wind-blown leaves. "If they had built their homes deeper in the valley, they would never see daylight... or starlight."

The starlight falls on his brow and turns it pale again, like a thin mist settling. Sam sinks his hands into the pockets of his breeches. "Aye, and they've made all those tall doors and windows for it, I expect."

In all the halls and chambers, there's not a single place like a snug, sturdy smial. There are gaps and openings everywhere, like eyes turned to the rocks, the water and the sky, and all the rooms are half outside.

"It rather feels like slipping from one dream to another, though this one is infinitely more pleasant than the last I remember." Frodo chuckles a little, and the carved leaf-shapes move over his face, enclosing his mouth, his eye.

Sam shakes his head. No dream he's ever had showed such fanciful things, fair and dreadful alike, and he wants to pull Frodo into the clear, touch his hand again to make sure - but he can't do that nowise when Mr. Frodo don't even recollect how it's been through all those days and nights -

"In truth, I remember very little. The water rising at the ford, and then... nothing." Frodo pulls up his shoulders. "Nothing I can be certain of." His eyes drift back till the star-glints are no longer caught there. "Did I call for you, Sam?"

"Yes, sir." And he adds, "that you did," for his croaked whisper won't carry against the water's rushing. "It didn't take you calling for me though, begging your pardon. Mr. Bilbo's like to tell you that they couldn't've-"

"I know." It's Mr. Frodo's left hand that he's raising to lay against Sam's cheek for just a moment, but it's warm, warm of blood and sunshine and all the good things that've leached from Sam's memory quicker than you'd believe. "Bilbo didn't have to tell me that."

Sam blinks his eyes against a burning that takes him by surprise. His tears were all dried up in the fear, all the time he sat next to Mr. Frodo, holding his hand. Warming it and feeling such warmth as bled from his own skin go under in the cold.

But then Frodo turns aside in a sharp motion. "What did you see, Sam?"

His voice is tight with worry, and soft all at once, wavering on a question he wouldn't ask no-one else. This much Sam knows, and it stoppers his throat like wax and pitch rolled together in a hot lump. If he had a comfort to offer, or a way of fetching hope to the words just by choosing them so as Mr. Gandalf can, he would, but -

"The worst," he murmurs, for he's only got the truth to hold out, such as he can see, "the worst I've ever known, and you fighting it, alone."

"Fighting?" Frodo tips his head, though he might be shaking it too, it's difficult to see where his curls blend away into shadow. "What did I ever do to fight it? I lost from the moment that I put on the Ring, as if it could hide me from them!"

"You mustn't say that, Mr. Frodo."

"I had no will, no voice, no other desire but to do... this." His hand scrabbles up his chest. "You were looking at me, and I knew - but I couldn't-"

"Mr. Frodo." Sam isn't sure if he would have grabbed Frodo's hand to stop it from touching the Ring, but his movement is enough. The hand lowers, Frodo's head bows. "Don't listen to me talking of things I don't understand," Sam goes on quick, and his breath flies with it, "listen to Mr. Gandalf. He wouldn't take the Ring himself now, would he? He were afeared of taking it and not lasting any longer than you did. Less'n you did, I'm thinking. And he's said plain to my face that few folk could've come as far as you, Mr. Frodo."

"And you believe that?"

"I didn't need him telling me so, if you don't mind," Sam says. "'Tis not a matter of believing."

But soon now Frodo will ask him why, and he's all out of answers there. What makes Mr. Frodo strong is the same as leaves him open to danger, it's all tangled up together. He can look at the stars as if they'll swallow him up in their brilliance, as if he's their very own, and he's so beautiful that Sam could cry, even with his face too peaked and the hollows still showing under his eyes.

"But you're afraid," Frodo says softly.

That Sam can't deny. If the fear is a poison, then he's been stung with it like Mr. Frodo himself. The falling water snaps out blades in the dark, but it runs no louder than the anxious drumming in his breast.

"Sam." The sound is close as a touch on his shoulder, drawing him back.

"I wish I weren't!" he blurts, and his eyes fall on the nasty glitter of a chain that carries the Ring now - though by morn that might be gone, Sam tells himself, or tries to, as he's tried ever since Mr. Frodo's waking.

They've not taken the Ring as Sam might have thought, once they reached Rivendell. Master Elrond's folk have taken it only to hang it on that chain, and what's the chain for, if not to say that Mr. Frodo did ought to finish what he started? Under the chain and its burden lies tender skin, rising falling breathing warmth that runs over into Sam's very own blood.

But will they let him go with Mr. Frodo? There'll be a council in the morning, and Sam has no place among all the wise and powerful folk.

"Only a fool would not be afraid." How Frodo can smile at him like this is a riddle and a marvel, filling the spaces between Sam's mithered thoughts. "A fool, or a creature without a heart."

"Oh, but I'm-"

"Neither."

Sam swallows and doesn't protest though he knows Mr. Frodo can see the fear that fills him up like dark water. But there's a need as comes with it, stronger than aught else that drove him on before, to protect Frodo - even when he can't, when it's useless and he's a lumpy piece of baggage in the venture, clumsier with a sword than he's ever been with a sling or his bare fists. But when they're a world away from home, Mr. Frodo's going to want such company as he can trust.

"I was meaning to keep a watch over you," Sam admits what he should have said right away. And if they don't let him... His glance slips to where the water's vanishing in the deep, and there's not a place in the world as will feel firm and true under his feet till -

"Don't look down then," Frodo says. "I'm here."

Though Sam turns to him, his cheeks run hot with the free welcome in Frodo's voice, for it burrows so deep that it stirs up the secret knowing, and how it felt to be touching Frodo like he never had a right to.

"Are you cold, Sam? You're shivering."

"Where shall we go now?" he asks, for suddenly all he can think is how Mr. Frodo's eyes have always held the biggest part of the sky - and he's falling, falling like a leaf on a breath of autumn, without a fear to catch him.

"If you would..." Frodo stops to tilt his head over towards his room. "That bed is as wide as the Brandywine, and perhaps we would both find it easier to rest, if... well."

Sam holds his breath. Most like, Mr. Frodo has to look sharp to see him nod. What fills him up runs lighter now, and it's bigger than aught his body can hold. It sings right down to his fingertips, in as warm a surge as the music from the other side of the valley. That's as much as he knows, and all the comfort he can offer. Surely Mr. Frodo can feel that when he takes Sam's hand.
 

* * *

9th January 1419 S.R.

On Watch
 

Daybreak is a mere shiver on the air. They have stopped where a holly thicket gives sparse shelter, and Frodo offers to take the first watch. He sits close to where Sam sleeps, as if the rest Sam takes were his own, a gentle, sinking weight through his body, while his mind stays alert.

Away in the south lies the mountain range that has brought such yearning to Gimli's eyes. Like clouds, these mountains glisten with a pale gleam of their own, yet at each forward step, they yield into the distance. Frodo links his hands over the hour's crawling frost.

Some steps away, on his right, the shapes of Merry and Pippin are a single huddle under the blankets, their curls tousled together as if a playful wind had sifted through them. In the dim, nothing divides darker from sun-sprinkled brown.

From somewhere beyond the thicket, the smoke of Aragorn's pipe blows over. A veil of it hangs on the air, twirled and twisting in delicate creases that fan the tart scent across - and there's an edge of sweetness to it that brings his murmured singing alive in Frodo's mind. On the other side of the hollies, Aragorn will set his watchful gaze against the silence that hangs so close about these lands. Silence that fills with a breath...

Sam's breaths are slow and even, easing their cadence into Frodo's wandering thoughts. Unrelenting, like the steady presence of Sam awake, an invisible shield at his side. Frodo sends his glance to the mountains, a jagged border that they have yet to cross. A red glint lit the tip of Caradhras when they first set eyes on it. And you thought we'd finally gained sight of the fiery mountain, Sam.

Maps mean nothing to him, nor the count of miles that Gandalf will offer from time to time. Yet time and again it startles Frodo that Sam can face their march like this: always expecting to see their journey's end at the close of a day; undaunted when another vastness of untrod land opens before them instead. He follows, no matter how long the road, the months, or how far the hope of returning home.

Frodo cups his hands around a shivery breath of his own. Many nights, they have lain close together, and here in the wild he has taken warmth from Sam's body that seeps into him and lingers, like a coal's core netted in a crumbling crust. Night after night, he follows the beat of Sam's heart into sleep, and he would know that rhythm anywhere, a strong, certain measure that seems to run through the earth itself. Frodo's breath slows to trace it inward, down to the bottom where there seems to be none.

Scattered on the ground are the twigs and the dry leaves of another season, tumbled into chance patterns that have long been undisturbed, save for the wind's fitful raking. Only spare tufts of grass grow in the dell, among the clustered trees. Frodo picks up a leaf and remembers what Legolas told them: that the rocks remember and mourn those who lived here, in a distant age. They sought the Havens long ago. A lament in the ground, walled in stone against the weight of silence. No birds sail this stretch of sky, even though the holly's berries peek red and inviting from the prickly foliage.

Frodo turns the leaf in his fingers. Most of what it once was has been worn away from the curled sides and spines, and its ribs shimmer in a pearly grey. Sam would know how long it must have lain here, bared to the soil and the weather, to wane into such a beautiful ghost of a leaf. Sam would read this at the tips of his fingers, and more.

A low drift of whispers slides across, sharpens Frodo's vigilance before he hears Aragorn's thoughtful tones. Perhaps he's conversing with Gandalf about the next day's march - but no, the faint steel jangle points to Boromir, seeking refuge from harried questions. Frodo looks down at his hands - twisted together in resistance, in mindless longing to hold - then his glance slips to the side. A weak breeze ruffles the curls against Sam's forehead, in a cradle of shadows.

What are the dreams that pass behind his brow? In Rivendell, there were nightmares, broken words and anguished movement snapping fear into Frodo's mind, and he would reach blindly across to draw Sam back. But since they set out, Sam's sleep has been quiet, as if it knew how to guard his secrets.

Unless your only fear was to be left behind. Frodo shakes his head. How could it be? Not long ago, a wisp of shadow tore across the moon, too high and swift to see clearly, yet the chill that fell into his heart was enough -

His thumb stirs along the chain at his throat with a rasp that runs too deep in the still air. His finger slips along the cool golden surface, deceitful in its tranquil waiting. It's underneath where the battle has begun, a constant rumour that errs through his chest, that flickers behind his thoughts, where its pressure is rising, rising... What do you want?

He snaps his hand away, and it sways, hovers, before he can let it settle against Sam's open palm that rests on a corner of the blanket.

Must I lead you into this? The questions will not cease, even if Frodo no longer lends them voice, and not a day passes without an answer from Sam, wordless as the query. A glance, a hummed swell of song, a touch to Frodo's elbow. Alive and aware, pitted against the dark so that he can be safe, if only for another hour, another breath. You'd give everything, Sam, and that is why. Under his hand lies the plane of Sam's palm, calm as homeland. Never holding, but almost -

But now, from the middle of his sleep, Sam will reach out in his turn, and his fingers describe a soft, stumbling pattern against Frodo's wrist that could be a caress before they settle into a loose clasp.

So many places, Sam. If there is a map Sam would recognise, it's drawn on his skin. Even if they never -

But we are... we are. Frodo's breath flees in startlement. A second claim has found room within, sharp and welcome, enmeshed with his fears.

Shadows linger in the dell and cast their soft weave over Sam's face and chest. All of this, Frodo takes deep into his memory, for as long as he can hold it there: The holly's wind-stripped twigs like wrinkles in the twilight. The bristling clumps of leaves where the thicket defends its own. The glow of red berries in cold air, bolder than the dawn. Embedded in these minute sights is the dreaming warmth of Sam's hand, and deeper still the certainty that this touch will guide him. But where, Sam? Frodo closes his eyes, for there are answers that he cannot know.

Somewhere at his back, Bill snorts and plucks stubbornly at the wire-thin grasses. Morning has come, and it is Sam's turn to watch it rise while Frodo will take his place under the blanket. He leans over until his sight fills with the ruffled line of Sam's eyebrow, the thick bow of his lashes, bathed in a last lap of twilight. Frodo's breath skims across like an improbable wind, and Sam's lids twitch, crinkling at the corners. A quicker breath leaves his open lips and settles softly on Frodo's mouth.

"Sam..." he whispers, unable to move further or to urge sound into his voice. The air between them fills with a tender cloud of breath, with his name drifting vague and content on a sigh as Sam stirs. Their eyes meet - out of sleep, out of waking - then Sam's head lifts from the curl of shadows and Frodo shifts to the side. One motion, the rising, slipping brush of a wish, but not -

Past. He will lie where the imprint of Sam's body has left warmth and shelter for him. The blanket rustles from Sam's shoulders and settles around his own. A touch completes the movement, parting his thoughts soft as feathers, piercing with sweet, unbearable knowledge.

Almost.

* * *

Circling

Everything here moves in great, silent circles. The pattern of stars, though they seem frozen sharply in the distant winter-sky, and the golden leaves as they swirl from the height of ancient mallorn. Each tree stands like a wheel's axle, tall and straight, and between them Frodo wanders careless of direction. He can't see the sun, but he can feel it prick his brow. He leans into one of the broad trunks, pressing his head back and stretching his arms over his head until he feels nothing but smooth bark from heel to fingertip. It's as if he is waiting for some giant hand to tip the wheel, so that earth and sky, up and down will exchange their places. The thought alone should make him dizzy as he stares into the sway of gold and wind, but it doesn't.

The city of the Galadhrim, too, has grown in a circle, sheltered at the heart of Lórien. Beneath the music that hovers in windless heights lies a deep silence, and what seems so entire is whole only because -

It will be broken. Frodo follows that thought as if it were a thread of smoke from a far fire, moved by a force other than his own mind. In any other place, he knows, at any other time, it would unsettle him, but not here, where with every step not yet borders on no longer.

The winter air flows down through a long passage of branches and foliage, warmed and scented by layers of forest canopy, and when it reaches him so near the ground, it is mild with spring. A small and breathless laugh escapes him. There have been other moments like this through the days of their sojourn, when Frodo feels that he is leaving himself behind and what emerges -

Not the Ring, he thinks against the dull pressure at his temples. Even now he can feel it, ice-crystal sharp, high on his breast. But it is turned on itself, a wheel within a wheel. It will pound away according to its own designs and throw ripples like a millstone grinding deep under clear water. Yet those circles shiver and fall apart, again and again, and they've grown thin when they reach him.

Frodo sits down by one of the countless streams where fallen leaves sail and spin with the current. As they touch the water, the mallorn leaves curl up, raising golden tips like small banners. Some of them play about his fingers, where a reflection of his face might lie. He's crouched over the water's edge, recalling other streams, recalling dams built from sticks and stones, boats made from nutshells or wood shavings, and eddies dancing wildly about. He's bathing his hands in scattered gold, and the chill that runs up his arms clears like fresh air in his chest. It deepens his breathing, potent and strange before slipping out past his lips, but then he knows it well.

Here he can want.

Perhaps that is what he saw on Aragorn's face before they left Cerin Amroth. Every wish is given the place to dream itself, and to know its limit, under the trees' shelter. Whatever may become of it in the lands outside, it will not be lost.

For the Elves, Frodo supposes, it may be a double-faced gift, to live through ages in the presence of abandoned maybes. For him, who will not stay, it is a blessing. And yet more than that, for with it comes a curious knowing.

He lays a finger to the Ring. What I give away, I do not give to you.

His breath catches as the truth runs bone-deep. What is yet to come, and what is to be lost. He can't fool himself that it will be as simple or as swift as setting boat-leaves adrift on a brook, not even here. Frodo sits back and blinks at his own handprints in the mud that linger for a span of slow breathing. What I give away -

Surely the Ring cannot anticipate that, when It is set to seize and wrench, to wind each desire tighter within Its own circle of hunger. Yet Frodo in his turn cannot anticipate what he will have to yield first and what will be left for last. He can't ready himself for anything.

What is rent away will not leave scars; there won't be enough time to allow even such a small amount of healing. Every gash will be as raw as the loss of Gandalf still is. As he brushes the memory, he also feels the tearing that has gone on before and will continue for a length of time he cannot guess. Not long now, Frodo thinks more and more often, not long.

There's a kernel of relief in the thought, small and hard with the resistance that he has accustomed himself to. But is he deluding himself with this belief? That so long as it is his choice to yield, the Ring has not gained any ground? What if he gives too much, too quickly? When he has nothing left, the burden will become its own bearer.

He looks up into the trees. There will be no answer here where barely a breath fans the grasses, where winter resides at the heart of summer. The long quiet is passing over him, easing back from him who's not meant to stay.

Frodo gets to his feet, still surprised at the lightness in his own movements. He has taken a few thoughtless steps down the path on which he came when understanding rushes to meet him, swift and cutting. His answer waits where he is now heading. What I would give -

His hand closes over the Ring as if to blind It. He cannot trust himself to understand Its blindness any more than he can trust to know his own. He has placed that trust elsewhere, long before he understood. To take it back would mean to betray it, and both may yet be asked of him. But here he can want, he can wish that Sam will be last -

The first, or the last, lost to him? Frodo can never be sure, he only knows that it must be either of the two. Everything else would be unbearable.

Daylight slips through the forest from a steep height that might mean noon, but the hours have a way of billowing out like sails, in slow, graceful folds. Distances shrink by comparison. He hasn't wandered all that far from the glade where they spend the nights. If he listens closely, he may even hear the fountain, chattering among the stones. His fingers curl as if to trap the sound, or what draws him to it.

Sam will not have gone on without him, on a walk of his own, though he's curious about every lichen and herb in these woodlands. He learns by touch and smell, by the raw of his skin, Frodo thinks sometimes. And perhaps that is why, when Sam tries to speak of what he's learned, Frodo can feel it linger on his own skin, clear as the touch of Sam's hand.

Sam will have stayed close by, perhaps locked in a quarrel with his own habits. He has been assured that there is no cause for worry here, that he need not keep his eyes on Frodo's shadow among the trees, but not even the Elves can lay his worries to rest or command his eyes. When Frodo meets that watchful glance before it softens and lowers, he sees Sam's very own cast of resistance.

But does Sam know this too? That Frodo cannot come to him now - unless he already has - that he should not - unless Sam already knows.

Frodo leans back against a slighter tree, and for a moment the earth seems to sway gently under his feet. Left and right of him grow spindly shrubs with dark, arrowed leaves. Before him runs the narrow path that he longs to walk.

If only I had known sooner. But this is what he tells himself almost every step of the journey, as if his mind walked in his own footsteps. Perhaps here that heavy order is reversed, and his wishing is a knowledge of things yet to occur. When Frodo lets his head fall back, the sun is white on his lids.

Perhaps he sits in a grove somewhere with Sam, and their hands meet through the dappling of leaf and sunlight. It will be one of those ragged little clearings where a giant tree has fallen and the grass has grown long above its roots. Some of those roots may arch their shoulders through the ground; bleached by the sun, they'll look pale as rocks. Sam will run his fingers over the grain, wondering at the years of growth behind this buried strength, tracing furrows and whorls beneath his thumbs. As he watches, Frodo will kneel behind him and hold his breath, until Sam leans into him, closely balanced, as if he's still afraid to fall. Their hands will meet over Sam's chest, over the back of a root, where the air shimmers as it dallies with the grass. There'll be a wind then, ruffling Sam's curls, breathing with words they have already spoken. Words they will speak.

Frodo links their fingers and feels his breath go out, every small part of it, and his chest warms. The strength in Sam's hands isn't new to him, but he has never felt them tremble before. What he gives will be taken into those hands, and all that he takes for himself -

Will be taken away, too. How can he draw Sam into this? His heart pounds up against the Ring, heavier in his chest than the sun-warmed chain around his neck, and quickened with desire. Keep it safe. Keep it.

Something has almost slipped into the blessings of Lórien. Where nothing is lost, he thinks now, nothing can be truly won, not in the ways of the Shire, within the measure of their own lives. Even though there may not be another place, another time...

Even then? he asks himself. Is he trading a small part of always for a never? But it is simpler than that, and the choice isn't his alone. He hears himself laughing and feels the brush of Sam's breath against his cheek. So close, as if he could cup it in his hands. A wish, made of earth and skin, patiently waiting to take root.

Perhaps it will drown in the river that will speed them away from Lórien, perhaps it will be crushed to slag in Mordor. Perhaps it will be buried in Shire soil. But he will not leave this wish here. Before his eyes turns a tight circle of never-almost-always. He can't let it close and become a memory.

Perhaps what he knows now will be lost when they leave, but what he carries is alive. He will look into Sam's eyes, and before he finds himself there, he cannot know whether it is hope or fear.

What I give to you -

Frodo can feel it pound with his own blood, the run of time. He sets a foot on the path that will lead them out of Lothlórien.

 

* * *

29th February 1419 S.R.

Cradle

Dusk walks near on the stones when Sam wakes, and the low spill of shadow warns that he's slept longer than he ought. Frazzled as a cloud, his mind swims in Frodo's breathing, taking hold in each rise and fall as wells slowly up his chest. Folds of crushed and ruffled cloth lie between them, and nothing more, naught but -

Thunder to his ribs that must ring through the hollow where they lie. It unhooks a memory that tightens Sam's hand on Frodo's chest, scrabbling in the half-unbuttoned shirt. A muscle cramps in the movement, right where Frodo's head is still pillowed on his arm, and Sam's breathing stops for the sound of another -

No, peaceful and even yet, full of a slumber that Frodo wouldn't dare elsewhere, not even for a minute. What escapes Sam's lips is less of air and more of release, and such wildness aflight over and under his skin. He couldn't say if it's fear or gladness, they've grown welded one to the other, after so long a journey.

When Sam bows his head, Frodo's curls make a fine web before his sight, thinned to a mist and a sting in his eyes. Soon, now, they will have to leave.

Out beyond the mouth of their shelter lies the slant of a down-turned gorge, and dusk pours into it. Stone rubble piles high against one of those hard cliffs. There's not a scrap of sky to be seen, only the jumbled rocks with their broken edges and sharp flanks, but they make a picture Sam will carry to the ends of the earth. This grey view of rocks strewn about, and the stone cradle surrounding them on all other sides.

Inside the hollow, the stone is rounded and smooth, as if shaped by an agelong flow. As like a river passed through till all the rocks were poured together. Bent lines are traced along the wall, rougher seams running in waves where the stone's bulging out, and dusk plays a soft blue across them.

Lost, is what Sam thought at daybreak, after another long march through the Emyn Muil, but it's come to mean found. Here, where a bygone river has graved its shadows on the rock, like a memory of drowning.

Sam leans forward and buries a breath in Frodo's hair, stirring the fine down low against his neck. In this close, tight space that he's claimed lies only the taste of sleep and warm skin and remembering. But hard by there's the chain, dull as iron in the twilight, only an inch from Sam's mouth. Snug against the bent curve of Frodo's neck, as like it belonged there and had more of a right.

The barest sound, then, adrift in Frodo's breathing. Is it, I dreamed? Or why here? Or not words at all, an answer to the damp trembling of Sam's lips drawn away from his skin.

Sam slides his numbed arm back a bit so that he can lean up and over. All the hollow is flooded with a bluish grey, a soft misting that lingers on Frodo's face - pale and calm like he's not been in so long - and that will soon be gone. Frodo looks up at him with his first waking glance, and his heartbeats drop into Sam's palm, scattered as rain.

Sam falls quiet of breath and motion, though he doesn't mean to, but every part of his body's trying to become stone, to move not an inch away, and the air hangs caged in his chest. Till Frodo shifts, his hand rising into Sam's hair, first a confused brush through the straggles, then a fast tangled grip. The heat of his breath finds Sam's mouth, melting the stone.

Sam doesn't close his eyes. Not a dream, this, it's broken as the rocks - asking, sealing, battling - and breaking once more in a gasp torn off each other's lips.

"Sam..." Frodo's face is calm as a clear lake again, and he's waiting, held in the same memory that slides open like a hand. Here. Their breaths twine anew in a feather-light mingling between them. Mingling, rising and tasting - but then there's the sting of too much, too much! searing from the soft pressure of Frodo's mouth, a far-off sweetness stealing through - and not near enough, ever. But this, this is everything.

A rough sound wrings from Sam's throat, and all the knowing from the hours before slides up his belly like a silver blade. Frodo's fingers wind tighter into his hair and hold him against it. They're stitched together in this urgent reaching, raw even when it's gentle, not an inch left between them. Sam can feel the seams like heated wire pulled through his veins.

The last he sees in the falling shadows is a shimmer of white drowned in Frodo's lashes, and then Frodo says what he's thinking. "How can I let go?"

Between a rash You don't have to and I won't, Sam props himself so he can do up the buttons of Frodo's shirt, caressing every bit of skin as he does. He stops nigh too late, almost brushing a harder tie. The Ring lies thick and heavy on Frodo's chest before it slips sideways under the cloth with a dull gleam. Frodo's fingers leap after it, spurring the motion in near shamed haste, but when Sam turns his eyes away, the same hand catches his wrist.

"No." Frodo's voice holds a rush that drains all sound from it. "I am sure, Sam. What's asked of me, and what is mine to give, what is-" But he shakes his head as his words fall short, and he guides Sam's hand back to his chest. "Yours, now."

Sam bends his head and murmurs "always," though it means the same, and the word's too flighty on his tongue.

"I had to be sure." Frodo's hand cups his face another moment and turns so his knuckles glide down over Sam's cheek.

Pebbles trickle like water when they push to their feet, clumsy and uneven as they've never been before, their elbows tangling. To set the rest of their clothes to order, they have to step outside where there's neither water to wash nor shelter from the gales. One step, and then -

Though the mountains crawl with darkness, Sam squints his eyes as if he'd walked into a cutting light. His fingers are slow on cloth and buttons, and when he settles his pack on his shoulders at last, Frodo waits two paces up the gorge.

Sam wants to turn back so bad, he can scarce stand it, struck with an ache that cramps up round his middle. Only to look back at the small hollow, though it's bound to be buried in shadow now, and keep it for -

No, just to look, as if for a blessing where none's needed. But with every step now there will be such a tearing at his heels, and a remembering that flies ahead.

As he starts after Frodo, the wind slips near his skin like ice, like a fresh well-spring tumbling down the mountains, fallen from snow, out of the sky. The weather troubles Sam, for the cloud-front blotting out the stars East and South seems to be culling a storm. A hard rainfall could turn these clefts and gullies to streaming channels, and then where will they hide, how will they break the circle trapping their feet and find a path down?

Only a pace before him, Frodo stops between two boulders that stand guard over flat, wind-beaten rocks. The cold chatters like pebbles between his teeth. Sam reaches over and around his shoulders to fasten his cloak up proper. Between the gusts and the chilled weave, his fingers find the trembling of a harsh pulse at the side of Frodo's neck.

Frodo stills for a breath more, and when he steps back, his glance holds Sam closer, with such a spark as recollects a thousand smiles and Frodo's yielding strength. As if they're alone in the world, and free to go where they would. As if he'd dare and promise -

"We're not lost," Sam answers. "We can't be."

Frodo dips his head, and their eyes slip down along the stones together. In a dark wedge grows a flowering weed, raised on a stalk that's thin as wire.

They've come here before.
 

* * *

8th March 1419 S.R.

Precipice

Frodo lies awake in the grey ebb before morning. Behind the curtain move Faramir's men, wordless and alert, their shadows flickering about the torches that they carry. Stretched out on his back beside Sam, Frodo can feel the night wane on his skin, in one long chill after the other, until the small recess is choked with a stony quiet. Against this silence, he gathers the slightest sounds: Sam's breathing beside him, steady and collected, trailing into faint rustles of clothes and blanket. The men's busy footfalls through the outer cavern. Birds twitter beyond its confines, their high trills and warbles glancing back and forth among the steep rocks, before they drop into the cracks and crevices. When Frodo closes his eyes, he can fancy himself among them, perched on a precipice in the cold air. High above the cascades of water, stone and mist, the White Mountains of Gondor guard the horizon, distant as a seam of clouds. If he listens closely enough, he can distinguish the soft splatters at the mouth of the cavern, the fall of each single drop as it bursts on the stone.

Has he ever been this awake, every part of his senses, of his skin, swarming with restless knowledge? If there has been such a moment before, he cannot remember it now. Between all the feeble noises hangs the silence that will swallow him, that splays sounds and sights apart. When he stops threading them together, the blackness behind his eyes will be as deep as the mines of Moria.

Frodo stifles a moan in his chest, holding it there until his breath drains without a sound. Behind his lids, he summons the remembrance of this long night: The sheen of sweat and a small dancing flame on Sam's shoulder, the whispered sound of his own name, over and again, shading from grief to joy, from hope to surrender. The full measure of choice in Sam's eyes, and the promise that still lies like a first and familiar taste on his mouth.

The moon has been full, this night. There never was a moon like this, circling sharp as a sentry in the sky, fierce above the torrents that dash his mirrored white in the pool below. A dark force of water at their feet. Frodo pulls these memories close, seeking their utmost edge.

The cadence of Sam's breathing tells him that Sam lies equally far from sleep, wrapped in a different quiet. Loose and warm, or so Frodo would wish, a silence that leaves neither cut nor scar in its wake. His own silence knows less of mercy, it slides iron-grey beneath the skin to part here from there, and every moment from the next. Under Its spell he is pinned down and pared away, until nothing is left but the wildness of his heart, racing to flee a closing circle - aflight among the flutter of wings and the rocks and the ceaselessly tumbling water, only this - every sharp, isolate beat rising and rising -

Oh, no more. Fretful drumrolls climb faster in Frodo's throat and vie with his breath. He longs to stir against the heavy twilight, against the pounding that surrounds him as if to hammer the air into steel.

"Mr. Frodo?"

Sam's touch is quicker than his voice, his hand clasps Frodo's on the blanket between them, catching the tremor that breaks the silence even when Frodo can't speak. Firm and rough, Sam's palm covers the cool distance of his skin, a map of lines and ridges that unwinds in a prickle along Frodo's arm. There is safety here after all, behind the curtain of water, in the deeply cloven rock, behind the coarse fabric screening this last refuge, on a bed softer than any that he now recalls. The shadows that fold over him weave a protection, not -

"Frodo?" Out of the dimness, Sam leans up, jarring the weight against which he is trapped. "Oh, I thought you would be resting!"

Helpless as he is to master it, Frodo knows that the fear lies naked on his face, that it is his fixed stare waking such alarm in Sam's eyes, like a flash from coal.

"Frodo..." Sam's breath skims over his face in a warm gust, entreating his own. Quick, tender strokes hasten down the side of his face and scatter the shadows where his pulse escapes the chain, fly over his neck and down to his shoulder. And the movement eases into him, a strengthening ripple that stirs his breath out of captivity.

It wells from the bottom of his chest and his lips part to release it, his hand finds a way out of the blanket's ruffles to fumble on Sam's sleeve instead. "Sam, my-"

But if there was another word, it's answered by Sam's mournful gasp that stutters against his mouth as Sam gathers him close, so warm, still warm, and a small motion is enough to join their mouths. The rush of another gasp under Sam's ribs quickens on Frodo's skin as he meets the caress of Sam's lips and opens - oh, here - soft trembles searching, settling in a surety of their own while the air eddies softly around them. Between their mouths, in this glad, shaken welcome, nothing can be lost, and Frodo is free to reach out in his turn, to draw Sam down and quiet his own heartbeats against the shelter of Sam's chest.

Through this calming tangle, a lighter awareness returns to him - the comfort of their bed with its pelts and cushions, the gentle quiet that guards their secret among the stones. All of this, pouring from the warmth of Sam's body against him, drawn into shivers that slip loose and lace fast between them. His hand finds a hold on Sam's back, urging him nearer, but beneath his touch thrums a tight vigilance.

"Tell me, Sam..." He doesn't have to say more.

"I got to thinking as I didn't ought to," Sam mutters, and his breath runs heated through Frodo's hair, "not when I should have been watching. Oh, I deserve worse than hard names if I ever let you-"

"Sam..." The ragged anguish in Sam's voice spills raw into Frodo's chest, and he firms his grip to stop it there.

When Sam lifts his head, the twilight bares troubled marks of shame. "I - Mr. Frodo, I'm sorry."

"Sorry? But why?" The questions form slowly while his hand drifts through Sam's curls that reveal their softness like a dappling glow at his fingertips.

"About Gollum." A miserable look follows the name, as it so often does. "I shouldn't have wished him shot, the poor wretch," Sam continues, "seeing as how you promised to protect him, but... I can't trust him! He's up to no good, Captain Faramir said so too, and just to think what he could-"

"It cannot be helped, Sam." Frodo rests his hand on a strong shoulder, where the stark lines of muscle and bone spell more of change with each day that passes. Bound unwitting to your own harm, he recalls Faramir's words, and the irony stings him now, with the chill weight pressed to the bottom of his throat. Not so unwitting, no.

"I don't trust him either, but-" Suddenly Frodo struggles for breath again, to tell Sam what he must know. "There may soon come a time when I can no longer trust myself. Who am I to pass judgment?"

Sam bows his head, to hide what he can't. Yet even his grief gives a strange assurance when so very little of their known world remains. On the brink of morning, Frodo can trace the cold claim that slides between their skin. Rising in dull iron-grey, it will soon gleam in gold and break over him in long, glaring waves. A known presence, but never so clear before, never -

Against the centre of his palm Sam's lips shape a seal of stubborn heat.

"Sam, while I still-" No, he needn't say this, uncertain as the measure of time has grown. "Sméagol has been true to his word," Frodo tells him instead, "and I cannot break mine." But this, too, is a questionable truth, when cannot, will not have long fallen under a breaking law.

"Aye, you've a good heart." When Sam looks up again, his expression has changed so fully that Frodo's breath falters. "The kindest there ever was."

He has no answer for this, all he can do is watch the tenderness in Sam's eyes deepen as he shakes his head.

"Captain Faramir may think you've no need for soft words, but I can't say as I agree with him, begging your pardon."

His kiss falls lightly against Frodo's temple, and longing stirs in fine threads, through all the layers of wool, linen and mithril, weaving and twining closer where Sam lies against him. Folded in his warming shadow, Frodo closes his eyes, to sink below the chill that binds him. May you never know this, may it never touch you. Not through me and not for a moment.

"He's as wise as you could wish, Captain Faramir is," Sam murmurs, stroking gently down Frodo's back, "but not one for words as cheer the heart, if you take my meaning."

Frodo opens his eyes to a flicker of mirth that belies Sam's disapproving tone - and he startles himself with a gasped chuckle. "I do at that."

In the soft start of laughter they find a kiss that Frodo takes in deep. Perhaps what he gives is never more than a wish - I can, I will - but he can hold it here, for another moment, until they draw apart at a bird's piercing call.

"Is that a lark?" Frodo whispers, listening to the sound that climbs and climbs before it dives back into the dale.

"Aye, morning's come." Sam steadies his voice, out of a breathless reluctance that winds them into a tighter clasp. "They'll send us off with a full stomach, leastways, and we won't be scraping for food a while neither."

Frodo turns his face into the curve of Sam's neck, breathing, seeking the hum of a life that sings for him. The lark calls again, and as distant as it is, Frodo knows how it soars, the sharp rise of flight honed to one fearless moment.

"Yes, Sam." Between his murmur and Sam's skin, he can taste the shiver and the glow of dawn that stills where they lie.

 

* * *

24th March 1419 S.R.

Trough

The grass is limp and brown under his feet, and beneath it, the grey earth crumbles. Afore him sprawls a thicket of thorns, and it takes Sam a blink of his dry eyes till he knows that it's the whitehorn hedge, grown and dried out to a paling of spikes. Out of the cloudless sky, the heat batters down and roars in his ears.

Rows of bracken crackle round the gate that jars open with a dull rattle. Under the old beech, a brake of foxglove has shot up that rustles dry as paper about him. But the bell-shaped blossoms have withered only half-grown, and the leaves are flecked with a deadly white. In the still air, only Sam's breaths shiver through the rank grasses.

Come time, there'll be naught to harvest from the kitchen garden, no carrots, turnips or taters, only thin, black shrivels as will lie bitter on the tongue. The apple tree has shed fallow leaves on the lawn where the goosegrass has taken over in bristling tangles. Between the parched bushes cluster nettles, and stalky thistles have chased out all the annuals, but those too are dried to sticks.

Sam turns about to look at this ghost of a garden - his garden - run to seed and stung lifeless. The sun lies like a hard hand on his forehead, pressing inward. His steps slow further as he walks round the withered barberry shrubs, dread clutching his stomach before he's even taken a look at the patch under the turf wall.

Oh, the roses weren't that easily killed. A few of them must have come to bloom, fair and white as always, before the cruel heat took them. But now the few petals as remain bear sick brown stains, and the glossy green of stem and leaf has turned to black. At their feet, a drift of fallen petals piles up like ash-flakes.

Sam closes his fingers round a thick stem, but before he can feel a thorn's pricking, it's all crushed to cinder in his hand. A chill stings him through and through, and when he jolts forward, he doesn't know if it's on account of the dream or the black land, or the fact that he's slept at all.

His fingers twitch against Frodo's wrist and find a weak patter under the skin. Sam's heart hammers out of step in relief, and it takes him a while to slow his gasping breaths. In his sleep, he's slumped sideways down a jut of rock, and now he's half-curled over his master. Frodo's skin is pale as the dust in this gloom, and his dry mouth parted to a black gasp. Sam strokes shaking fingers across the dirty mass of Frodo's curls, but the chill keeps crawling over him, in restless spider-threads from his back down his legs to his ankles, as if the nettles of his dream were cleaving to his skin.

He drags his elbow under him to push up and lose the shivers. It were only a dream, not one of those fancies as will dance in his sight even awake, teasing him with bright, liquid shimmers. Still, a blur gathers in his eyes and pain clamps round his throat. Bag End's garden, he tells himself, the Party Field, the soft Downs beyond Overhill, and all four Farthings lie as green and growing as they ever did. He couldn't bear it otherwise. There has to be a place for Frodo to come home to, even if he can't remember it no more.

Sam shakes his head and squeezes his dry eyes shut. Such thoughts of returning do more harm now than good - and hasn't he struggled long enough to admit that there won't be no going home for either of them? But it seems he still needs to hold such a far-off green spot in his mind, a place where he can fancy them together.

It unrolls swift behind his lids, fair green and sun-drenched all to the horizon, and so glorious that it takes his breath. Bright fields and blossoming orchards and a swell of leas drowsing after the summer rains. But he's seen this before, a false promise grafted on his mind by the curse that burned at his throat. His empty stomach twists so hard that he's pitching forward again with a grating cough.

"Sam?"

His name is mashed on the heavy tongue, but a long, grateful sigh slips through Sam's chest at the sound. He slides a hand under Frodo's back to ease his rising till he's leaned against the stone.

"Only a moment," Frodo mutters, "I will-"

He breaks off, for his hand moves in a sudden flutter, and he stares down to it as if it's a bird thrashing about with broken bones. Sam doesn't stir. He's seen it before, how Frodo will strive with these fits, and how his eyes will clear when he's won the struggle yet again. Such a proud spark in them when he looks at Sam, out of his misery.

"We should go on," he whispers and grasps a hold of Sam's shoulders to heft himself upright.

It hurts to smile, but Sam can't be bothered by that when it brings even a vague flicker to Frodo's eyes, and for the moment he's between Frodo and the mountain. He's often wondered what the Ring promised Frodo, and when it stopped promising, to do aught but claim and take.

"You..." Frodo is breathing harsh through his mouth. "...when you... hold me."

Sam winds one arm quick about Frodo's waist, and wonders if he meant to say more, or if Frodo were trying to solve some riddle that will rouse only within his mind.

"Always," Sam murmurs, his own speech dragging as if each word were fastened to a millstone. And what a word this one is, seeing as how they've taken their rest so near the mountain's feet that it's starting to blot out most of the glowering sky and all else that might be seen of this land if the vapours didn't lie so thick and hot on it.

"Always... Frodo," Sam repeats, on the spur of defiance as keeps twisting inside him. But his eyes roam over Frodo's gaunt and pale face to search past his own anxious fretting for the beauty that's been burned to embers. He can find it in the smallest things, like the firming line of Frodo's jaw, or the arch of his eyebrow, beneath a thoughtful crease that's formed over years of reading and study.

"Then you know," Frodo mutters, leaning nearer, and mayhap that's another sign that his sight is fading deeper into shadows. "What I don't... what It... can't-"

But his voice scrapes so hoarse in his throat that Sam touches his face to stop him from trying to say more. He smoothes back a dusty tangle that's been plastered to Frodo's cheek. "I do know, Mr. Frodo."

A shudder runs through the stones and the hard ground, and Frodo gasps though Sam hasn't loosed his hold by an inch. He tightens it more when Frodo turns his face away from the East and rests his forehead on Sam's shoulder for another moment, ere he stumbles to his feet. Sam follows as soon as he can drag a breath through the grinding ache in his chest.

They stagger into a day that's parted from all light save a dust-filled gloom. The mountain spouts trails of smoke that leak down its broken flanks, cloaking them from view. And that might be better so, Sam thinks, Frodo's hand close in his, for that black threat won't bring naught but fear and thoughts of taking any road save the one leading straight to it.

Bright flickers dazzle his sight again, with a hope of streams and pools, and if so much water came pouring into this grey trough of land, it would turn into a sea. Sam blinks hard till the dazzles are gone, and only a gloaming from the height carves through the dim.

If he could, he'd tell Frodo about a garden tilled from these sorrowed stones, but the names of flowers and grass won't mean nothing to him now. Sam wraps his fingers a bit tighter around Frodo's as he thinks up a white rose blooming fierce from the barren soil. Only one such tender blossom, its soft petals blowing in a reckless breeze, and yet more of a marvel than aught as the Ring can give. He only has to take one look at Frodo's face, starved to the bones, to know that the Ring won't never grow any gardens. And even if it could -

Inside his mind, Sam sees the rose wane and the petals fall, one after the other. He moves his arm round Frodo's waist. There's not a promise in the world to prise them apart now, and when Frodo sags against him, he'll breathe what he's known ever since they escaped the tower.

"I'll never lose you again."

* * *

25th March 1419 S.R.

Hearth

Everything is fire.

A flare so bright, so perfectly shaped against the soaring stone, as if born and breathed from a single spark. Sheltered to its own sky, it sways and leaps, alone. A patter of steps runs through the passage - no, nothing but echo, blown about in the draught and the crackle - and from the heart of the mountain swells a welcome.

Stand here, rest here, on the hearthstones. But that place has been taken by another.

Before the fire waits a rugged Man in the black garb of war, his head unbent. His damp hair falls in limp and clotted strands to his shoulders.

Aragorn?
Where does this name spring from?
Isildur.

His dirty hands are clasped to his back, but if they loose, if they should reach and uncurl -

Quiet flames lap at his boots. Beside his heavy frame, heat gathers shape in the purest white. Breathed in and out by the fire, he is gone - a wraith (a wraith?) - in a hiss of gold. (Names do not matter, but remember. There was - only this: remember.)

There never was this anxious flutter. Never this thought that spills and drains out in shivers, for the very air is glutted with warmth. And there never was a blaze this bright, a glare that weaves as if bending into song. What marvel it is, to breathe with such constant and certain ease.

A song, then (upon the hearth the fire is red), carved in cracks across the rock, from thin scratchings to harsh, black strokes. It runs over into the welling hues, for the fire unfurls into colour, but at the centre it is white. It batters and breathes, and its voice is a great wind trapped beneath the rock, muted yet scalding to the soles. Stand here, where no shadow falls (but not yet weary are our feet), and hold the summons to the flame.

Hold.

The song of fire is captured in gold, round flawless gold embroidered in flame. This, then, is the beginning, the cause, and it weighs -

Nothing, for it is made of air, of bent and moulded rays, wrought to the measure of all. Here is rest, here is a gentle fall, soft as a feather, into the lull of flames. Every question has been answered, every call met to the full. Only the scattered sparks lick and teem, and rumour that there is -

remember
That there is -
another

Yellow eyes drained of this glory of light. (Pity, why pity?) Drained black to the bones, outside the circle of fire that moulds bright plumes over invisible heat. Mirrored in the gold is a trembling that speaks, searching for the place of its birth, for a storm to roar -

I have come.

For this light is light as laughter, and in the throat it is dry, dry as sand on the cracked bare stones, the hearthstone - light on my feet - where the colours shift from green to bright copper, and back into white. It is creation, undoing, in seasons of cinder, of bone and ash. But what is creation if not this binding, this blinding circle, undone and reshaped in the light.

For through it and in it, we -
For in it and through it, we -
never end

- seething tongues that whisper, housed in the rock (upon the hearth the fire is red), to the roll and lilt of a binding spell. What wonder to breathe so easy (but not yet weary), among the paths and the tongues of flame. Stand here, without need (and take the hidden paths that run), without a fear for the pattering steps in the passage, at the heart of a mountain. Remember.

It whispered names, it whispered -
Isildur!
whispered -
Elessar!
- but now it says, I - it says I -
I am the One.

From the hearth, the cradle, its chant spins round and round, and it captures the fire. Here is home. Here I begin.

At the centre it is white, a glorious sizzling white that spins out in threads, too bright for the hearth to hold. It says, I have come, but at the centre - nothing, a wisp of dark air - opens the secret (and take the hidden paths that run) for there is -

another
another
another

- on the doorstep. A wavering shadow in the heated air. A voice.

"Frodo. Master."

Turn.

Turn inside the hold, in this warmth lies a restless chill, this voice rising against the splendour of light, this tiny quailing voice, singed and startled to be here, to be.

Forever is a fire, Sam.

Over a vapoured breath, power blooms in the heat, flawless and smooth as its claim, stretched into endless life.

It says I, I have come - and the flames leap light as laughter around the golden voice.

"I have come. But I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed."

For the fire is everything.

* * *

5th November 1419 S.R.

Threshold

From one of the old western windows, Frodo looks across the muddy stretch that used to be his lawn and the sheds that huddle on the Hill's slope. Some have already been knocked down, shattered to a heap of tar-stained timber. A soft rain veils Hobbiton, and the wetness revives scattered patches of green, so that they glow gently against the raw earth.

Frodo forces himself to remain by the window, to trap this desolation in his sight. How long will it take, until he is accustomed to such a bleak overbearance of sky, instead of the walnuts, the poplars and sturdy oaks? How long until the gashes scabbing the landscape cease to jar recollections out of him?

He can still picture the broad crown of the party tree, the garlands of glory vine and nasturtians wreathed around the southern windows, shivering softly in a breeze. But when his glance drifts over splintered wood and muck-puddles, he is no longer certain if the bean-row stood to the right of the cabbage bed, or closer by the tomatoes. Frodo chews on his lip as he strains for an answer to this suddenly vexing riddle that Sam could easily solve for him. Surely every detail of the garden is mapped out in Sam's memory, and with every ounce of will and wish, he'll nurture those recollections to full bloom, as quick as he can. He works by the torn hedge now, untangling pieces of trash that he throws onto a wheelbarrow where the refuse already piles high.

Through the drizzle, Frodo watches him, the fluid stretch from hip to shoulder as Sam unbends and turns to the side. His curls hang limp and dark around his face, but spots of heat stain his cheekbones. Instead of reaching for the wheelbarrow, he stands for a moment and chafes his hands together, his shoulders set hard. Starting at dawn tomorrow, he will dig his shovel into the cleared patch by the hawthorn, his sleeves rolled up over his elbows, and turn the trampled soil for a winter-planting. He'll whistle defiantly as he works, and when he tells Frodo about his plans to expand the kitchen garden, he'll name every single herb and vegetable as if they were friends invited to a long-delayed gathering. But during those painful moments of stillness, when Sam looks across to the Water, defeat hangs about him, although his neck is unbent.

The tightness in Frodo's chest becomes abruptly unbearable, and he turns away from the window. As he walks down the dim corridor, the sound of his own footsteps seems to chatter back from every wall, until he moves through a drift of echoes. The sound of Bilbo's voice reciting whimsical poetry floats along the scarred wainscoting, the Gaffer's grumbled remarks about coming changes in the weather guard the back door, and even Lobelia's shrill, indignant tones hang on the air like an ash-cloud beneath the flue. As Frodo looks into the former dining-room, his glance falls on a carved stool that's now missing a leg, and he remembers how Bilbo sat hunched on it one afternoon, surrounded by a throng of young Bolgers and Boffins, spinning a fanciful tale about a hobbit shrinking to the size of a mouse.

Frodo steps over a woven rug that has been left in a ruffle by the parlour door, its floral patterns riddled with careless trails of soot and dirt. Although the room glares stark and empty, it seems to have shrunk next to his memories. His imagination cannot squeeze in all the furniture, or the merrily jumbled hoard of books, maps, mathoms and remembrances there once was, and the thick, musty smell takes his breath away.

He quickens his pace as he walks on towards the entrance hall. Through the open door, a grey flood of daylight casts a half-circle over the tiles, like washwater, lending them a mild gloss. Someone has cleaned them, the day before, and not with a dash of water tossed from the bucket either. Someone must have scrubbed the stretch from here to the doorstones meticulously, to remove the tiniest dribble of blood, and the danger of a curse seeping into the very ground that enfolds the smials. Frodo stares down at the regular patterns of dark grooves that run between the tiles. He doesn't remember a single drop of blood welling from the wound as Saruman fell, his white hair spreading out into wisps of smoke.

His cure is beyond us. Frodo runs fretting fingers down his trouser seams. His own words have taken on a sting that finds its mark more easily than Saruman's malicious jab, but that isn't what nearly makes his head spin for a moment.

Was it Sam who returned during the bustle and turmoil of the past day to clean Bag End's stoop? The picture leaps too readily into Frodo's thoughts, etched sharp to the finest detail. He can see how the thin creases around Sam's knuckles smooth into white as he chafes the coarse brush back and forth across the stone. Frodo raises a hand to his mouth and bites the first knuckle to drive this unbidden image away. Against his own skin, his breath is harsh and strangely heated.

Beside the door, shadows encrust the corner where Bilbo used to lean his walking stick upon returning from one of his jaunts. A hum or a whistled tune would slip into the depth of the smials, and more often than not, that sound would suffice to fetch Frodo from his room or the window alcove in the parlour. He lets his head sag against the panelling and looks up at the row of wrought-iron pegs. On any given day during those years, the folds of woollen cloaks would surround him here, swing over him with a soft rustle and whiffs of pipeweed.

The faintest sound alerts him, and with a quick tug to his waistcoat, Frodo steps from his remembered refuge.

Sam stands on the doorstep, a shadow against the flat, grey daylight. "'Tis clearing now," he says with a tip of his head to the sky.

Frodo nods, and his glance dips to the washed tile again, but he can't bring himself to ask about it.

"Won't you come out with me, Mr. Frodo?" Sam's touch is light on his elbow. "A breath of fresh air will do you good."

The moment clasps Frodo in a memory of Sam shuffling his feet on the stoop, inviting the Master of Bag End to take a look at the butterfly bush or the lilies with a shy duck of the head.

"Oh, it certainly will," Frodo answers, the moist air brushing a chance welcome across his face. "In fact, I was just on my way out."

Together they step over bleached boards that litter the ground as if a raft had come apart on the sea of mud. Sam scuffs his toes against a wooden peg with a look of frank disgust. "I'd not even use that for firewood now, not that we're short of it."

When he stalked through the garden two days ago, his reddened eyes blazed with fury. Worse than Mordor, this is... But his anger couldn't disguise the pale misery clutching his face, or the desperate disbelief. Only his bristling will holds it at bay, and he's stretching himself thin between the need to restore Bag End, his Gaffer's advice and queries, and the Cottons' enveloping hospitality.

As they round the western corner, Sam casts another long look across the Water, a dull silver ribbon that weaves in and out of sight. His gaze swings to the fog-swathed outline of Bywater and the Green Hills beyond, to embrace the whole of the Shire.

"How long, I wonder?" he mutters, and the question seems to hold him captive.

"I don't know, but..." Frodo's half-formed reply falters midway. For a breathless moment, it is as if a sweep of light skimmed across the slopes and fields, painting them in rich green, raising slender trees to crown them with a mist of white blossoms. Translucent colours span the horizon and blow in a sliding wind. Frodo's chest hollows at the thought that he is watching across a distance of many years.

He blinks to find Sam study him with a worried expression and musters a smile. "It only takes time, Sam, nothing else. The Shire will be whole again."

And you, Sam... A familiar ache slips through Frodo's chest. But where -

"Ah, I wish..." Sam pulls up his shoulders and offers a tight little smile of his own. "'Tis patience as makes a gardener, as my Gaffer would say. And he'd give me a fine scolding for fretting so." His glance drops to his mud-spattered hands. "If you'll wait a moment..."

He walks over to the pump and briskly pushes the handle until water spurts in a white rush over his fingers. As the dirt is washed aside, Frodo notices a small cut across his knuckles and a bruise just below Sam's left thumb. Ever since their return, his capable hands have been without rest, to the point of careless, as Frodo has never known him to be.

"Now..." Sam wipes his fingers against his jacket, the skin reddened by the cold water. "Let me show you something that's good for a bit of cheer."

Small rents have appeared amid the clouds, and glints of afternoon dapple the hillside, glancing in bright darts off the puddles. Sam picks a careful path to the tapering rear of the garden where tough evergreens are tucked into unshorn pockets. By the turf wall, yellow wintersweet blossoms sway on the shrub's bare branches.

"Here's a fine spot of colour now..." Sam bends to cup a hanging flower in his hands. "They've opened to greet you home, Mr. Frodo."

They bloom only for you, Frodo wants to say, they always have. He leans closer, into the unexpected spell of a lush fragrance. When his glance slips to Sam's profile, a crinkling smile eases the harder lines at the corner of his eye, and stray sungleams brush across his drying hair. He catches Frodo's gaze as he straightens, and they stand facing each other, strangely shy, while the vivid scent draws a close circle around them.

"There's the holly bush, too..." A new warmth shades Sam's cheeks, and the husky tone of his voice lights clear as a touch on Frodo's skin. "'Tis bearing a sackfull of berries this year."

Where they stand now, they are in full view of the footpath that skirts the gaping sand-pit, but if a neighbour walked by, he would notice nothing unusual. A gentlehobbit and his gardener shaping sensible plans, both a little worse for the wear after the recent upheaval. But then, not a hobbit lives between here and Bywater who hasn't known hardship during the Occupation. The passing neighbour would nod at them and wish them a pleasant evening in spite of all that, and perhaps remind Sam that the first draught of ale will be served in the Green Dragon tonight.

A sudden tiredness seizes Frodo and sinks like a cloud into every fibre of his body. Since they have crossed the Shire's bounds, he seems to be straining against a constant pull of sleep.

"We should go back inside," he says without a clear reason.

Sam answers with a slow nod, and his fingers brush Frodo's as they walk back to the front entrance.

The door opens with a rattle before it jams against the tiles. Frodo pauses just inside. What has he imagined for this moment? Surely not this - not this wild impulse to turn on his heel, to take Sam's hand and walk down to the garden gate without a backward glance, until they're following a road that sweeps out in endless twists and turns.

"Mr. Frodo," Sam says softly and moves closer. "It can't feel like home now, but it will, I promise you." He smells of rain, of peat-smoke and pine. Of wet earth, when he opens his arms for Frodo.

Our home, Frodo repeats to himself, our life, and then he's clutching Sam to him, so hard that a startled breath huffs from the broad ribcage. The fingers of his maimed hand wind into Sam's curls, tracing the scattered paths of sunlight, and their lips meet over the waiting of hours. When Sam's mouth opens against his own, a desperate pulse leaps through Frodo's chest and sparks painfully bright in his temples. He's pressed against the length of Sam's body, so close that their heartbeats meet in a twining tangle between their chests. If he moves but an inch away, he will slide back into a long, empty drift from one moment to the next, he will forget that forever is -

"I'm not leaving," Sam breathes against his mouth, "and you ought to know that."

"Yes, I..." Startled, Frodo pulls away, but Sam's sure hands stroke up his back. His own fingers dig too hard into Sam's jacket, seizing the familiar weather-stained cloth. Everything, everything has changed and can change yet again.

"Frodo," Sam murmurs, "Frodo..." His fingers run gently over the sides of his face and stray into his hair while his thumbs trace slow circles at Frodo's temples. "You shouldn't come back here till it's all fixed and set to rights." His touch moulds Frodo's face with infinite tenderness, light as rain.

"You shouldn't have to do that for me," Frodo returns.

"Ah, but I want to."

There's nothing so beautiful as Sam's smile, even if it is borne up on a slight tremor. But the air around them is too stale to breathe, and impatience beats sharply against Frodo's ribs.

How can they live here?

* * *

11th November 1419 S.R.

First Frost

Early in the morning, they take a walk over the Cottons' fields, past the scrubby hedgerow and the line of bristling old hollies, till the land's stretched out in flat acres afore them and in every direction save the north where Bywater lies huddled in deep browns. Overnight, the first frost has come. It doesn't run deep yet, no deeper than the first layer of soil that feels crisp and grainy under Sam's feet. The sun's going to seethe a hole through the clouds, toward mid-day, and then the salt-white scatterings will melt off stone and earth as though they'd never been.

Sam blows into his cold hands. As a lad, he used to think it was dragon's breath, covering leaf and branch and blade of grass in such a fierce silver misting. He must have heard that in some tale or other that he doesn't now recollect.

It's naught that he's about to trouble Frodo with, but his own recollection seems as rutted as the land is, on some days. When he's grabbing on to the tail of a song or a scrap of rhyme, and it breaks off or cracks like a twig before he's quite grasped a hold. It's a small worry, nohow.

Winter, he tells himself, winter's as fine a season as any, and made for story-telling near the hearth. Such songs and tales as have bits broken out of them will return to him then, or he'll puzzle them back together. There'll be baked crab apples and the living warmth under the skin that prickles so after a good walk in the cold. The midwinter sun will bathe the Hill in that fine shade of gold, never mind that the Bag End gardens still look a dreadful sight.

A whiff of woodsmoke hangs on the air. The few crippled willows bent over the Water are fogged in this weather, but the air itself tastes as glass might, clean and smooth with a bit of iron stirred in. Sam rubs his eyes against a sudden sting that's got no right of being there. But Frodo's close beside him then and motions him along with a soft touch to his elbow.

They've walked nigh on a furlong when Frodo stops again on a bramble-grown ridge that sunders the fields from sheep pasture. A patch of lighter grey out east shows where the sun's crawling up, and below spreads a silence so deep as if all the grounds were covered thick in snow already.

"The coming spring, Sam," Frodo says quietly, "will be everything... everything it can be, and the most beautiful we've ever seen, you and I."

Sam doesn't say a word at first, he's so tangled up in watching Frodo's face. His eyes seem to show a constant changing, from a light grey that turns cloudy at times, to the colour of the Water in the year of the flood. A stormy shade seeming to seethe within, but so still at a closer look. Now Frodo is watching out west, and an intent look it is, piercing the breath that curls up from his mouth. Sam waits a while, but it goes on longer than he can stand.

"Mr. Frodo?" Softer, then - "Frodo?"

The pondering look swings back to him at that, holds him, near as fast as a touch.

"Where are we going?"

"I don't know..." Frodo clasps both hands before him and turns in a slow circle, as if to take in the width of the fields, horizon to horizon, the whole waiting world as it is, now. Wide and clear in the want for colour. "I don't know where I'm going, although I should."

There is something in the way he says that that's not right. Not right at all.

Sam slides a quick glance to Frodo's hands and sees them linked tight together, in such a manner as will hide a bit of trembling. His hands tell of his moods more than his eyes or his mouth do these days. Oftener than Sam would like, they're restless and wandering across things as like they're asking questions. Or making memories of them, if that's possible. But now they're grasping firmly against all manners of chills.

Sam takes Frodo's hands and chafes warmth into them. He always had greater warmth of blood in himself and used to do this on many winter days of the years before, when Mr. Frodo's fingers were just about to turn blue from a forgetful stroll round the Green Hills. Now the bones push clearer through the skin than they used to, but they're stronger hands too, for all that he's lost a finger.

"Are you tired, Sam? If you would like to turn back..." Frodo holds his eyes with a gaze that's gone very still.

"Oh, not yet!" Sam smiles and takes his next breath in deep.

They'd been riding near the entire way home, and now the season's not in favour of long tramps. Truth be told, Sam isn't sure how many miles he could cover at need, though the scars on his feet no longer give him any pain.

Frodo slips one hand free of Sam's grasp and lifts it to Sam's face, drawing him just a bit forward, a thrumming warmth in his fingertips. When he speaks Sam's name, it's like a frost melting off his voice.

The kiss tastes winter-cloudy, clumsy with the cold before it dissolves in the breath that steams between their mouths. White puffs swirl out like a veil though there's no-one to spy on them for miles around.

Frodo leans their foreheads together, and his fingers waver down through Sam's curls to his collar, before his hands drop away. His touch is often like this, now. Brief and thoughtful, as if he's taking in a year's worth at a moment.

It's staying at the farm, Sam tells himself; the small room that they share and the patter of footsteps, the Cottons' muffled voices through their door. The press of other lives so close about them, pieced out from the Shire's ruin and woven back together in the long-familiar ways. Like the weirs that some farmers use further down the Water's course, and these strange thoughts that he's having are minnows slipping through the meshes.

But no - no, he knows it's not that, it's the deep stillness, the waiting that hangs about Frodo and stirs anxious flutters in his own breast, days and nights. Frodo sleeps so little, and his dreams are so vivid, as if they touch him closer than his waking time does. It's one of the reasons why Sam couldn't let them put him in another bedroom.

"But you, Sam," Frodo says as if he's carrying on with a conversation Sam hasn't heard. "You'll have more planting to do in the spring, and much work to set things to rights." He holds his face up into the watered sunshine, and its silver falls into his eyes.

"Aye, that I do." Sam's throat is close on the words, and the cold air sinks like a weight on his shoulders. He can't think of the planting without thinking of the dead stumps and beaten soil, without feeling that prickle of time wanting at the back of his neck.

Surprise runs through him when Frodo's arm slides round his shoulders and he's pulled back into the bit of warmth as they can capture between them.

"Everything will grow again," Frodo murmurs, his mouth near brushing Sam's ear. "There will be fine young trees in all your favourite spots. They cannot take the place of the old, but when you watch them bloom, you'll find that they guard the memory of those that were lost... like their own shadows."

Sam moves his head in an unsure nod, his cheek crushed to the wool of Frodo's cloak, but the ache in his chest only winds up tighter. It were such a blow to ride up Hobbiton Road and find the ash-blackness of Mordor stare out from where home used to be.

"'T won't be the same," he whispers, and his mouth fills suddenly with the harsh salt taste of cured mutton that's marked all his winters in the Shire. He burrows into Frodo's embrace, clutching wind-pierced wool for a hold, the only hold that there is between black furrowed earth and seamless sky. He's near expecting the pain that's inside him to burst open like a chestnut in a bonfire.

He has to pull away then and tips his head at the sky. A high wind has bitten the edge off a cloud, and a scrap of blue shines through, deeper and clearer than he might have expected. Oddly, it puts him in mind of Tom Bombadil's blue coat. His blue eyes. Is it winter where Bombadil lives? Now that he's seen Lórien, Sam wonders about that. Surely winter sets to the Old Forest as it does every place else, but perhaps it's kinder there.

He remembers Tom laughing as bright gold spun on his finger, innocent as a strand of sunshine. Sam didn't know then what he knows now, but the remembrance sprawls out and for a moment sets him free... of everything.

"Frodo..." Sam turns and finds a startling in his eyes. A wild notion's pressing up inside him, and he's breathless with it. Mayhap that's for the best, too, for it stops the words in his throat, and he can think on them another moment.

"What is it, Sam?"

Could they go, without stopping, till they've reached that secret place? Or would they lose their way in the snow, and does Old Man Willow still hum his cruel charms, so deep they run in shivers underground? Perhaps Bombadil and his Goldberry drowse the winter away as the trees do. Moss-gatherer, old Gandalf called Tom, before he took to his own road. And Mr. Frodo said then that he'd like to visit Tom, too.

All at once, Sam is thinking of the many roads they've come, all the crossings and waymeets that have brought them back here, where the moment spins and wheels dizzy about him. But if they'd taken only one step down a different path, then maybe -

"I'm thinking how long our roads have been," he murmurs.

Frodo sets a hand on his shoulder and slides it up till his fingers tangle gently in Sam's curls. "Our journey's not at an end yet. Trust me, Sam... even if it takes many years."

It's not what Sam might have wanted to hear, but the sound of Frodo's voice lends a strange comfort that trickles through him, slow and sure, and the hurt seeps away like meltwater. Sam looks at the ground between his feet, his head still awhirl. Is there aught that Tom could do for Mr. Frodo, for both of them, or will he stay out of their business just as Gandalf's staying out of it now? Or is it just your own fancy running away with you? Sam asks himself. Maybe it's him wanting to run off, and what a queer thought that is, now that they're finally home.

"The road goes ever on and on," Frodo speaks that verse from Mr. Bilbo's song so softly that Sam strains to hear. What used to worry him with foreboding sounds like a promise, of a sudden. When he meets Frodo's eyes again, the stillness settles into him too, all wrapped about one single question. "How many years, then?"

But Frodo doesn't answer that. He leans over to kiss Sam's brow lightly.


 

The day's halfways gone when they reach the farm again. Rosie is out in the front yard, scattering a thin handful of grain to the hens, her face alight as if spring had set a toe on the doorstep already. Frodo smiles at her and bows his head. Sam meets her glance only for a moment.

It's Highday, and not just his Gaffer will be here for supper; all of Rosie's brothers with their wives will be visiting too. They'll speak of the good year to come. They'll seat Frodo at the long table's end that's Farmer Cotton's usual place. Sam will be sitting between his Gaffer and Rosie, and through the merry clatter of forks and spoons he'll still hear the silence that's out here and the dreamy murmur of Frodo's voice.

He'll think of that scrap of blue and the hope in it that he thought were nobut his own wishing. It's the colour that's been missing from Frodo's eyes, so very clear when he said trust me.

And Sam does.

* * *

23rd September 1421 S.R.

Dawn

The light carving through the trees never looked aught like this before. A pale gold breaking on black, and all the trees and the ragged hills in the distance are its teeth. Sam looks down at his feet. He's standing on the very edge of the morning that will swallow him, whether he takes another step or no. But close on the ground grow clumps of heath; they've caught a bit of colour to them, a brown shade of rose, and that's a comfort for the moment.

There won't be another morning such as those he knew. Dawn will always be this cold paleness, this - waiting. And it's never seemed so far neither, that biting edge of the sky. If he does take another step forward, he'll fall, for he can't keep his eyes on the breathless gold and his feet at the same time. He'll have to stay in his place then, frozen to the ground that's warmer than aught inside him. There's not a choice no more.

The frost of it crawls up his legs, and it can't breathe out of the soil, not at this time in the year. And not after such a glory of late summer and early gold, as if the mallorn sapling had reached a spell across all four Farthings and the season entire. Ofttimes when he stood underneath those fine boughs and leaves, it seemed to Sam that he could look across the land with different eyes. As if a haze were blown aside by a sharp wind, leaving everything bright and rare as glass. But it also made him feel a stranger again, setting his feet tense and awkward where the soil were raked with hatred out of the Black Land. As if that followed in his footsteps and overtook him on the road home.

His hands are in fists. How can he give up now, when he didn't through all the hard months? Always sure that this stretch of earth wanted him back, even if he might not see it again. These days, he'll look over his shoulder to be sure, and never is. Just not now, not now.

At his back lies only the drowsy forest, cut in ribbons by the longer shadows. It's still easier to look afore him than to think on going back by the same road, though by the time he does -

The chill in him breaks a moment, and he feels its teeth inside, just below his breath. Right in the middle where he'll be sundered, but it's not done yet, and it's enough thinking on the steps he'll take, one after the other. There and back again.

They've not even crossed the Shire's borders, but those old borders have all changed their place, seemingly. And this light that's blown over the horizon changes the season, freezing the trees winter-black, and the leaves and grass too. They're the colour of his sleep now, if he could fall into it.

Sam hasn't tried. He lay down when the company stopped for a short rest, with eyes closed while there were still movement and voices round him, soft as mere sighs of wind. They did him a kindness when no-one asked if he wanted a bite or another blanket, and he's grateful for all such mercies. He still doesn't know what will come when he has to speak again. The silence and the dark were a comfort, thin and hard as the forest ground on the slopes. He didn't open his eyes again till the moon was blotted out, for in the pitch black he couldn't guess at the small, endless space between himself and -

Frodo. Sam knew he'd come, just as the morning will rise bit by bit. But just as this morning won't warm him, the slight rustle of Frodo's steps can't be coming towards him now. And so he's still startled when they falter nearby.

It wasn't Mordor, he wants to say, this is the end of all things, here.

"I was wrong." Frodo's voice slips out of those shadows into the nearing light, as if he's there and not there at the same time, and Sam can't turn. "I have seen so many things, and few of them clearly. Not as clearly as I wished, not until..."

He stands so close that Sam can feel Frodo's breath against the nape of his neck, warmer than his own skin. It must curl up like a shining mist before it scatters.

"Sam..." So soft, his voice, and it wraps round Sam, drawn about in a close circle. "This is as hard and as perilous a step as any that we took when I had no hope left. I trusted you to guide me then. Now, will you trust me?"

His breath trembles, and it loosens Sam's own into a hard, choking gasp. The horizon's swimming, running over with the tears he'll be crying later and in that dreadful moment he knows -

"I am not leaving you." Frodo's voice is quieter still, but straining as if everything's gathered into it, all the things Sam can't see, every breath drawn over many months. Frodo looks over his shoulder with those clear eyes, and just to know -

"There must be a place..." A whisper that could belong to either of them. For a heartbeat and another, Sam isn't sure, for his eyes are closed, and the space between them is mere shadow filling with Frodo's warmth behind him. Then it's everywhere, as if it's passed through him, and Frodo's hand lies on his shoulder.

"In Rivendell," he says more steadily, "they reopened my wound, and not even Elrond could predict if I would live."

I was there, Sam thinks, and the hand on his shoulder moves as if cradling the thought. And I didn't stop them neither, for there weren't a choice.

"It has to be that way for both of us." A strange clarity lies in Frodo's tone, sharp with choosing as it was when he took up the Ring in Rivendell, and soft with hoping as it never was since that day. "You cannot leave behind what you haven't quite found again. Your life, Sam-"

But there his voice breaks hard. His fingers grip into Sam's jacket, trembling and seeking, and Sam's heartbeat stumbles up to meet that touch. The world is a blur before him, brighter now, and with each breath it runs deeper in his chest. The sudden heat in those colours. And if that's what Frodo sees -

"I will be there. Every morning that comes. Sam, look..."

There's enough movement in him now to dip his head a bit, and he feels in Frodo's breath a thin measure of relief. They've made do with less though, and now he understands why Frodo didn't speak sooner. They had to come here first.

The silence folding about them is a kindness too. It keeps them alone in the world, together, though Elrond's company can't be too far. Somewhere under the forest eaves, they're watching over a moment that must be a mere blink to them, but for Sam it's wider than the Sea, and stretched out into brimming gold.

The Ring-bearers should go together. It's what Frodo said the day before, when they'd turned from the Woody End, but Sam takes a different meaning from it now. More than one, many as the paths they've wandered and those that they haven't - but his mind stops there, and he's left with the feel of earth between his toes and Frodo's breath close to his skin.

"I've so often gone before you, and I shall, again. But here, will you not-?"

Sam knows now what he's asking, and how hard it will be, and he's answering what wasn't said, too.

"Aye." His voice is rough as if he'd not spoken much longer than a day and a night. It drops into a silence as will last longer still, but now it holds a promise like a seed buried deep in frozen ground.

He takes a step, and without looking, he knows that Frodo is beside him, walking in that same light.

Always.

* * * * *

 

 

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