Air by VB Air

He could breathe again. In slow, deep lungfuls, while a rush of wingbeats faltered in his temples. Next came a trickle of light, the sway of leaves against early morning. Fractured glints brushed in and out of view as he lay on his back, and every sensation leavened through him, sank in, spread, and passed on. He felt light and hollow, as if he could lift up on a breeze. He turned his head slowly.

Beside him, one bare shoulder and a tousle of pale brown hair rose above the folds of a brocaded blanket. A rhythm of quiet breaths assured that Sam was fast asleep.

Alive. Safe. Impossible.

A dizzy tremor set in the moment Frodo moved. Blackness wavered on the edge of sight, subsiding only after several breaths. Cautioned now, he pushed up on his elbow, his hand already reaching when he noticed the bandage that wrapped it, a glaring white. The grotesque gap and stump where his finger had been.

A faint sting traced the wound as he curled the remaining fingers, and an obstinate throb endured where nothing should be.

It's gone.

From the thought sprang a wild heartbeat, then a strange blend of terror and joy that pushed hard through his chest. Frodo shut his eyes tightly, holding it in for a moment and another, till it leapt into relief, strong enough to take his breath.

This is a dream. A bed out under the open sky, and the wind that sifted through the trees, catching distant sounds. On it floated voices that rang out in smooth cadence and revealed the timbre of Gondor. In response to the sound, a scrap of memory edged forth, crisp and bright and centred on a small fire. Ithilien...

Yet between that moment and this unexpected start of waking stretched a gap that ran through the middle of his mind. Is it truly me? he thought strangely. What was it that made him feel so adrift between here and there, sleep and sunlight, breathing and --

Sam. The warmth and weight of his body on the mattress offered shelter, as always, and all the certainty he could ask for.

Frodo leaned down to brush his lips over Sam's shoulder, and the brief contact broke through him with a fine tremor. Underneath the skin, he could feel the line of bone and a pulse that flowed evenly, not so hurried and anxious as it had before.

Recollection seeped from emptiness and pooled around the moment when his breath first caught against Sam's mouth, while threads of smoke rose unwatched from their campfire by the fern-brake. And it could have proved our ruin, to be so distracted...

A smile took shape like newly learned words settling uncertainly on his mouth. Prepared to fight for their lives, they had found themselves surrounded not by enemies but Faramir's men.

Frodo closed his eyes on the memory that welled in sparkling detail, just as Sam had told him it would. When and where, he didn't know, but pressure roughened Sam's remembered voice -- and then it was lost again to a nebulous breach within his own mind. Sudden weakness threatened to spill and swamp him.

I won't think of it now. He inched forward until Sam's body warmth breathed against his chest. Only once had they lain like this, skin to skin, in a gentle dimness that smelled of stone and tinder. Frodo tugged the nearest pillow under his head to better cull up those fleeting scents, and from them, every sound and touch. They had been taken to a cavern after long conversation with Faramir, tired out from fear and tension when the truth had finally slipped. Sam was in the bed next to his, and both stood wide enough to hold three of them.

You're so far away, Sam... won't you come closer?

Yes, this he remembered, like a destination set down clear on his skin.

A single torch burned at the cavern entrance and slid bronze glimmers over Sam's hair. In the dimness, Frodo watched his face, every shading of hesitation and disbelief. So simple, to take Sam in his arms, and breathe him, feel him, hold him there, hoping they'd be left undisturbed, that the large blanket and the shadows nestled into this deep corner would protect them against discovery.

It was a long time that they remained like this, arms banded about each other, locked midway between contentment and anticipation. Both of it mingled and scurried in Frodo's limbs, heating his skin just so from inside.

Then came slow, faltering movements, a tightening of Sam's arms over his back, a quickly exhaled breath against his throat, and each place where they touched made itself known with liquid tingles, till he couldn't help wishing their shirts off, and every other bit of fabric besides. He brushed his fingers through Sam's hair, still unsure where to start, but Sam tipped his head back, and he found Sam's mouth so ready for him, lips warm and slightly parted, that it stopped him from thinking altogether. He held Sam's face between his hands so he couldn't move back an inch if he'd wanted to, though surely he didn't, not from the way he pressed back and answered with his lips and tongue while his hands curved gently against Frodo's sides. Breathing grew crowded between them, pushing their chests into each other, and this, too, lasted for a long time.

Remembrance tied small knots through his body. Is this how it was?

Close by his ear, Sam's voice cautioned softly, "Not to slight our blessings and all, but we oughtn't be doing this, it ain't safe..."

Yet nothing was ever safe, and these moments rose against the night like a cloud of fireflies at midsummer.

"You shall have to stop me then," Frodo murmured into Sam's shoulder, "because I can't. Unless it is that you don't wish to--"

"No." Strong fingers gripped his own where they lay over Sam's heart, where vivid beats drummed into the palm of his hand. Soft lips jotted over his face, from temple to jaw, and spelled his name on his skin. His breathing quickened when they covered his mouth again, briefly.

"...nothing you could do that I wouldn't wish for, Mr. Frodo, nothing..." The sound of Sam's lowered voice crept an odd little shiver down his chest. And a chill sparked off it when Sam's fingertips paused by the chain that carried the Ring. "But you've got yourself enough of a burden as it is, and I don't mean to be adding to it any, is all."

"You aren't." He wound his arms tightly about Sam's neck. "It's when you're near me that I see much more clearly... everything that is true, everything in me that isn't lost yet."

The fast hold of Sam's arms around him drove his breath out in a gasp that was met by a choked, half-desperate noise from Sam's throat. Oh, but I have longed for this. And though the thought had long hovered within reach, it took up a substance of its own now that coursed richly through him -- here and here and let it never stop -- thick as honey yet light as air. Until his mind no longer shaped any words, and the thought lost itself to fumbling touches, in a scatter of half-discarded clothing and racing heartbeats.

Sometimes footsteps sounded in the outer cavern. Sometimes a metallic rattle or a dim drift of voices skirted the limit of his senses that were too full to take heed. A bottomless want curled deep in his body, catching alight between soft sighs and moans that escaped until finally they crushed their mouths together to stifle every sound. Then there was only the pounding blood in his temples, and a fervent pulse that thickened wherever they touched.

There had been such a rush that night, such a burst of excitement through them both, it came and swept them in a surge of wild shudders and plastered them together, a tight, sweaty tangle of stunned happiness.

Frodo breathed deeply and opened his eyes to look at Sam. The slight bend of his neck and the loose strands that curled against it, tipped with dark gold in this light. The memory moved through him in slow waves of pleasure, so real and close he couldn't doubt the least of it, yet his eyes burned with a dry heat.

Was I wrong to do this? And what of your needs, Sam? You could never deny me a thing...

He blinked, and breathed, breathed hard against the blanket's dull weight. Faded marks stretched over Sam's shoulder blades, where the carrying straps had bitten deep and not enough flesh protected him against bruising. Frodo laid a hand on skin that clung too close to the bone. Cupping beneath it a hope for time, home and healing.

He shifted nearer, moulding himself against the strong back, the rhythm of Sam's even breaths. On the verge of resuming sleep, he dreamed up an evening by the hearth, Sam's head cradled against his shoulder, and the story-telling that ran out into untroubled silence.

But something captured him away from drowsiness, a small noise perhaps, or merely a sense of being watched. His eyes wandered over the range of the blanket and caught on a tall figure, still as a carven statue between the beeches and cedars that shielded the grove. Clad entirely in white, his head cocked just so --

Gandalf? Frodo barely kept himself from jolting upright. Each movement took its own time and effort, but he climbed off the bed and walked, wading through air currents that broke over his bare skin.

Gandalf held a cloak out to him, and when the wizard's hand settled warm on his shoulder, its weight rushed home into his body. "Gandalf... you're here."

"Indeed I am." A fathomless quiet lined Gandalf's face, and his gaze encompassed a world of change. "And so are you, Frodo Baggins, despite all my fears for you." Relief just short of laughter crinkled around his eyes. "I've waited long for this moment."

"I thought it would never come." Though the breeze was warm and soft, Frodo drew the cloak close about him. He glanced from the snow-folds of Gandalf's robes back to the bed. One of Sam's feet was sticking out from underneath the blanket, covered in thick white dressings.

"What--" Abrupt weakness spun through him and bore inward.

Gandalf caught him with a steadying hand. "Be easy on yourself. You were utterly exhausted and closer to death than living when the eagles found you on the slopes of Mount Doom."

"Mount Doom," Frodo murmured, but his eyes lingered on Sam, with a sudden dread of revelations. He looked so small in the sumptuous bed.

"He won't wake for a while," Gandalf said, in the familiar, decisive tone. "Come now, Frodo. I expect you have many questions."

A few paces outside the grove, they sat down on a grassy bank that sloped towards a thinning treeline. Frodo drew up his knees and searched backward through a welter of images. "The Balrog. Moria..."

He glanced down his legs. Like the marks of crows' feet, thin white scratches dipped from his shins to his ankles and scattered into tufts of dark hair. But his own feet were free of dressings.

"Yes," Gandalf answered on a long breath. "My time had not been fulfilled."

I don't remember. Frodo folded his fingers and dragged a knuckle across his teeth. Through the trees bit strips of colour that billowed idly. Tents and standards sprinkled with metal reflections. Voices clustered there, riding high and cheerful above the snorts of horses. He gathered up his own voice, and his questions.

"It's truly over? Sauron is gone?"

Gandalf nodded gravely, and his beard quivered against his chest. "He was vanquished, and the remains of his armies are scattered. Our victory was bought at great cost, but such grim tales can wait until later." He raised a hand, stalling Frodo's protest. "You will be glad to hear that all your friends are safe."

"Merry and Pippin--"

"They're in Minas Tirith, in the healers' care. Both have fought hard and suffered their own injuries but are by now fully recovered. You shall see them shortly."

Frodo's relief left no room for anything but a quickly exhaled breath. Then came gratitude, doubled in on itself and balling tight. He shielded his face with both hands. "How did all of this come to pass? I thought... Sam and I were--"

Dead. Rip of clouds, slate-grey and fire, overrunning his vision. The world shook with the hard squeeze of Sam's fingers around his own. Blood dripped and dripped and dripped from his hand.

"Frodo?" Gandalf's voice split the image in two, the sound of his name trapping all that he recognized.

In the gap between his fingers, the world dwindled to scraps of green and brown. Blades of grass bobbed in the morning breeze.

"I don't remember very much. There are... moments that I recollect, but I cannot tell when or where they took place, and in what order."

His own voice drifted away from him, feeble echoes threaded across a stony waste. The air massed slowly under his ribs, strained through smoke and ash.

"Some seem... like nightmares I never could have dreamed, and others too frightful to take shape within my thoughts. The Ring..."

A wheel of fire. Tight around his bones and wider than the sky. Spinning and spinning until his sight shrunk to pinpoints, broken rock and ashflakes, and further down to nothing --

"It beset you," Gandalf replied carefully. "The Ring's power grew when it came within reach of the mountain and its master, and yet you resisted."

"But I couldn't--" Frodo broke off, huddled around the weight that claimed his body from inside. "You shall have to ask Sam," he murmured. "Perhaps he will remember more than I do."

He listened to himself, to the muffled alarm in his voice. But that wasn't right. Nothing is, and never will be again. Had he said that?

"He's remarkable, your Samwise Gamgee." Gandalf's pale eyes strayed into the distance. "I was right..."

"About what?" Frodo lifted his head and glanced back to the grove.

"That where power of arms and wisdom failed, his love would be strong enough to see you through, to the very end of this dreadful journey." The wizard's beard bristled around a smile that seemed to lighten the air around them.

"And my love for him," Frodo answered without a thought. "It has kept me alive... here." His hand covered the spot where the Ring had been.

"I see."

But as he touched that empty place, he felt his own skin cold and impervious in the way of polished leather. He pressed harder against it. If recollection didn't live there, nothing would bring it back.

"I should know..."

Mount Doom, nothing but a name, a shadow on his breath -- I wonder what sort of tale we've fallen into. Sam's voice, guiding him down into sleep.

After that -- and then -- what?

A flagging pulse under his cheek. Breaths that laboured and heaved with effort. He fought to open his eyes, to the brown gloom that swallowed the world, all colours long drained. His head lolled against the straining muscles in Sam's neck and shoulder. Each step, each breath, a trickle on the stones, and the smell of blood.

"Gandalf, he carried me... he carried me halfway up Mount Doom!" Each word clawed up his throat. "What happened to his feet?"

He didn't hear the answer, if there was one. Though he flung himself upward, the ground veered towards him, and he clung shaking to the earth that rose and fell as if to throw him off. Someone sobbed in the distance -- "he'll heal, won't he, Gandalf, tell me--"

The shiny morning pressed in on him with too much air to breathe, so clear and burnished, it would burst him apart.

"Frodo," Gandalf's voice came again, as soothing as the fingers that clasped his shoulder. "Do not despair. A spirit as bright as his isn't easily crushed."

A salt-iron taste lay heavy on his tongue. He found himself cradled half in the wizard's lap and the earth quiet underneath them.

"Aragorn has tended you both ever since you were brought here," Gandalf continued, "and I have assisted where I could. But try to have patience, Frodo, and allow time to restore you fully."

Scattered silence slipped in and out of the reassuring words, like dust running through his fingers. Like this, Frodo thought, turning the damaged hand before his eyes. I wanted to bury myself and he stopped me, there was dirt on my hands. His voice faltered once, twice, before the question came.

"But will he ever be whole again? Sam would -- he would have died for me, and I don't even know what he did to himself during those last days--"

"And perhaps that is all to the good." A stern edge in Gandalf's tone stopped him. "Do not burden yourself with self-blame. It was Sam's choice to do as he did, while you had none. Did you not try to leave him behind, so that he'd be spared? Why do you think he followed you? And furthermore..." The wizard turned fully towards him, a gentler concern kindling in his eyes, "I believe that if we asked him, he would say that he drew the strength to walk as far and achieve as much from none other than yourself."

"Yes, he would," Frodo whispered.

The wizard patted his arm. "You have carried a most grievous burden, my dear Frodo, one too great to be borne by a single pair of shoulders. Don't look to the past now, and things that cannot be changed. Look to the future."

Only words, too many of them, that pattered around him like rain on the grass. Dropping, unstilled, into the trampled ground. Frodo gathered himself to his feet. "I have to be with Sam when he wakes up."

He stretched out on the large bed and fell asleep again with the waiting, so that it was Sam's voice carving through a crowded dimness that brought him awake, with a wild, unfiltered joy.

"Is everything sad going to come untrue?" Sam asked of Gandalf. Close enough to sleep and wonder to believe that.

Frodo sat up to watch him. And then, for the second time that day, memories hurried warm and restless under his skin and drove out everything else.

* * *

"I wonder what happened to their oliphaunts," Sam said dreamily.

From the pavilions, wavery lights crept over the water and lay there, small silver breakers in the current. Frodo breathed in the loamy scent of wet soil. Their own shadows were stealthy things in the grass, like flotsam washed ashore by the same river that carried them out of Lórien, and the same moon poured itself into the seamless flood.

"We could go and look for them tomorrow," he suggested. He smiled at the weight of Sam's head against his shoulder and remembered Sam's excitement when those colossal beasts thundered out of the wilderness. Cities shouldered by living grey crags, much to Sam's delight, and for a spell of terrible glory and noise, he'd forgotten all else.

Across from them, Merry and Pippin lounged in the long grass, familiar and changed. Stray moonlight picked out the emblems of Rohan and Gondor on their surcoats, but their heads were sagging. Twice already, Gandalf and Gimli had urged them to find their beds after this long day of celebrations, reunions and stories flying thick in a hailstorm of unexpected disclosures.

"Tomorrow. After you've rested yourself," rumbled the dwarf.

"Yes, it is time, I expect." Merry rose to his full bewildering height and gave a hearty yawn. "Come on, Pippin. I don't suppose they'll let us sleep till second breakfast."

"Most likely, we shall have to prepare breakfast for everyone else." Pippin snorted, but bounced to his feet with a grin and shook frazzled curls back over his shoulder. "Part of the honour of serving the Steward's Household. If I had known that before--"

"You would have spared us your foolish heroic feats and much worry." Merry cuffed him affectionately. "Off with you, Pip."

Frodo took a moment longer to pluck his own weight from the comfortable hollow where they'd idled away the hours since dusk. Before he'd quite straightened, Sam's hand clasped his elbow, snatching him to safety from a dizzy moment. Always within reach, for a touch as light as the breeze off the water.

"It is past our bedtime." Frodo dashed a backward glance at Gimli and Gandalf. Somewhere close, Legolas' voice scaled the dark with a song of the Sea that blended softly into the river's hum.

Solemn trees stood guard above Anduin's banks, slicing ribbons from the shapes of tents and pavilions. Frodo blinked against misty halos thrown into canvas. Beside him, Sam walked with determined strides, as if the dressings on his feet had never been, and weariness could be escaped with purpose.

In another moment, canvas flapped behind them with a sharp rustle. Two beds stood left and right of the brazier that cradled hollowed coals, and a lantern painted out hazy shadows.

"Which bed, do you think?" Frodo asked, delighted to catch a flutter in Sam's glance that echoed the stirring in the pit of his stomach so very closely.

On one silken cover, his mithril coat and the mail-shirt Sam had been given lay pooled together, gold and silver glitters like shed skins, enmeshed in their own celebration.

Nothing seemed easier than to pull Sam towards him -- it was what he'd wanted to do all day -- till the distance between them ebbed to nothing.

Sam. The nearness jarred him with a thousand memories, of hunger and dread and scant broken sleep when he'd curved into Sam's body like this, embracing a faint hope to disappear in his shadow. The tent swung into a slow condemning circle around him -- brown gold sable and grey -- and resistance trembled in his muscles, in his legs, in the grip he kept on Sam's shoulders.

"You're cold," Sam muttered, both hands rubbing gentle circles over Frodo's back. "We didn't ought to have stayed out so long."

"No, it's only..." Frodo braced himself for the tilt of dimensions that must surely come, "...we're alive."

The revolving motion slowed. Between them, he could see their joined hands, locked in that last defiant hold.

"Aye. And a miracle it is."

Blunt fingertips cherished the side of his face, skimming wayward curls back from his temples, drawing clean lines out of darkness. Frodo shivered just to feel such a warm breath on his mouth, and the catching of it when he leaned closer.

"Yes." Barely a sound, yet enough to unlock the rift within himself. It spilled over with a speeding of pulse, small pangs of want and wonder when their lips met, found each other with the same sweet ease that startled a rush into his blood. Sam's mouth opened to him, fit against his lips with a sigh that welcomed him home, and it was odd how a boundless trembling grew from such gentle pressure. But the more Frodo clung to it, to the soft yielding urgency of that kiss, the less of a hold it gave. Between shared breaths and the dazed roving of their hands down each other's back, he felt that his skin could dissolve into longing. The air grew thick between them till he finally had to break away, flushed and unwilling, arrested by the sight of Sam's unsure smile.

Outside passed an armoured company with clattering steps, their torchlights fretting briefly through the taut canvas. Shadows unsettled, fled, and stilled again.

Frodo reached for the ribbon that laced the collar of Sam's shirt, and it rippled loose at a touch, baring skin and a dusting of coppered hair over the top of his breastbone. Frodo looked up in time to see shadows curl into the corners of Sam's mouth. His hand dropped.

"I'd like to see you, Sam."

A shadowed glance skidded sideways. "There's naught to look at on better days, begging your pardon."

"Oh, but I happen to disagree..." His tone made light of it, but failed to lift the stark discomfort off Sam's face. Frodo pressed his hands together as if the answer lodged between his palms. Better days?

Suddenly stiff and cold, his fingers went to the buttons on his own shirt and snapped them open, one after the other, and he flung the garment off before he could change his mind. "Will you look at me then, Sam? I'm almost as starved and ugly now as Gollum was--"

"Don't say that!" Sam's eyes flared instant denial. All reluctance forgotten, he moved fast, and his hands cradled Frodo's ribcage. "You're worn out from carrying that filthy Ring, but there ain't nothing ugly about it and could never be!"

"And why do you think that I should feel differently?" Frodo asked. "Sam... is that how you think of me?"

Ruddy reflections shifted over the curve of Sam's cheek and deepened the shadow-sickle under his eye. Frodo leaned forward, not touching, his voice lowered as though this could ease the truth past somehow. "You're always beautiful to me, always."

Sam turned his head to the side, a small motion that hid his eyes and brought his cheek close to Frodo's lips, and it pained him beyond endurance.

"Sam... I don't have to look, and I won't touch unless it brings you pleasure. But you will have to tell me."

Before he could lift a finger, Sam grabbed his wrist and held Frodo's hand fast against his side. A decision made on a choking breath, but words wouldn't come.

"It's a joy for me to touch you," Frodo said quietly, his mouth half-buried in Sam's hair. "To be close to you, just like this, and nothing more. It is all such a gift."

He'd not quite finished when Sam pushed away from him and shook his head. "Oh, but that's hard," he mumbled, a strange bitterness mounting in his eyes. "Not meaning any harm, Mr. Frodo, but look at you. I can see your ribs, each and all, and me -- there's as yet so much of me that I could've spared you!"

A deeper shadow fell over his face. One that should have no place here, settling a cool tip against Frodo's throat so that he barely found his voice. "And I am glad for that."

"But -- don't you see?" the question burst from Sam, thick with loathing, "I could've taken less for myself, 't wouldn't have done me no harm--"

"Sam, stop it!" Frodo reached for him, clasping an arm that was stiff with resentment. "You've starved yourself for me. You've suffered, struggled and breathed for me when I had nothing left. More of that, and it would have killed you! And tell me, how should I live with that?"

The more he spoke of it, the quicker his voice fell apart on the blades of past fear, sharp as the grief that glittered in Sam's eyes.

"Please," he whispered, not at all sure what he was asking, but when Sam's arms opened again for him, all the desperate wishing poured out fresh, freed up in a long jittering ripple that left his knees weak. He felt the tightness in Sam's chest, the slow surging breaths as he wrapped his arms fiercely about Frodo's middle, holding back as much as holding on. And perhaps that was right, perhaps it was the only way when too much of what had been threatened to drag them apart.

"Let's just lie down together," Frodo heard himself say, from a sleepwalking distance.

The covers settled around them in ponderous folds, cradled them shaken and exhausted at the centre of a wide mattress. The bed was soft like a dream and the sensation utterly unfamiliar, set against memories of compact soil and smarting cold in Frodo's neck and spine.

"Why is this so hard?" he asked, resting a hand on Sam's chest. "It shouldn't be." Weariness rushed back in and made an effort of every motion. Silence drifted in long swathes above them, spotted with faint crackles from the lantern.

"It's... all the hoping, is what," Sam's voice broke the quiet.

"It is?" Frodo wrestled his mind back from a brink of sleep and turned his face to look at him.

" a rock in a river that you cling to," Sam went on hazily, "and you don't never think how it can dash you to pieces too... if you follow me."

Frodo chuckled, light-headed from the warmth that spread under his skin. "I'm not sure I understand, Sam, but I would follow you anywhere."

His reply brought sudden movement, and Sam bent over him. "All my wishes have come true," he murmured, a fingertip darting to the corner of Frodo's mouth, "...seeing you smile like this."

And the smile settled in firm at that, even as the look in Sam's eyes cut through him. But then some loose curls fell softly against his face, and he closed his eyes to the swift brush of Sam's lips, there and gone in a moment. ...I didn't know that I could.

He nestled his head against Sam's shoulder, safe in the curve of Sam's arm. Little by little, his mind began to skirr along the borders of sleep, coasting out of time on long rhythms of breath. Through the sound of his own heart burned a slow beating of wings that lifted him up. Up and up, into a cold roar of wind, until the air closed in a thin bubble around him.

Whatever returned him to full waking, he couldn't tell, or how much of the night had passed, but a kindly quiet stretched unbroken around them, and the coals still smouldered on their bed of ash. Frodo shifted a little and noticed that Sam had bundled up the elven-cloak for a pillow. From the lantern, a milky shimmer spilled over his cheekbone, casting the rest of his face in shadow.

"Sam?" Less than sound, and yet it roused an instant reaction.

There was no touch of sleep in Sam's eyes when he turned his head. A stray curl trailed down over his dark eyebrow and danced back, like a jot of living flame.

Lost to the sight, Frodo murmured "I didn't mean to--", but Sam shook his head wordless, and Frodo knew he was smiling again, just before that smile curved against Sam's lips and completed itself there. He didn't move at all, merely savoured the perfect shape and softness of Sam's mouth on his, until a hand stole through his hair, and a held breath soared into the kiss.

The heat of it wound slowly through his body, inched forward on the soft push of Sam's tongue against his own, captured in small, tantalizing circles. Half-draped across Sam's chest, Frodo angled his head for greater depth, riding faster breaths till drunken flintsparks took to spinning behind his lids. Sam's hands gained surety in long strokes down his back, and Frodo pressed himself closer, despite the awkward collision of bones that stood out too sharply.

When he drew back with a gasp, he found both his hands clenched into Sam's rumpled shirt that printed creases on his bare skin. He couldn't ask again and hope to persuade Sam where so much regret stood vigil, but there had to be other paths he could search out, so he started by dotting kisses between the white seam and the warm hollow of Sam's throat. A vibration of sound caught against his lips, partway answer and perhaps a plea in the making, and the waiting ended when Sam drew his hand inside his shirt. Abruptly still, as if the next touch could scald him.

Frodo splayed his fingers over tight muscle, the pitch and lock of uneven breaths. It won't hurt -- it shouldn't... But while he squeezed his eyes shut on that wish, he felt a gradual easing under his touch. His fingers made a cautious journey around the ribcage and back up, framing a damp sheen at the centre of Sam's chest. Taut skin gleamed through a narrow band of curls, uncovered in the brazier's guttering light. He met Sam's eyes once more, still clouded faintly in shame and doubt, but no longer shuttered against him. Relief shivered down his spine.

"Sam, try to believe..." Though his voice didn't hold steady, it couldn't stop him from trying. "I'm so grateful for every bit of you that you didn't have to spend for me. So grateful, I don't think I can show it other than through touching and kissing... and if I could give back what you've lost, even just a little..."

With sudden force, Sam's fingers dug into his shoulders and dragged him up close, words driven out on a hard breath. "Don't never think that -- ever -- I've lost nothing."

Not lost: given, and that was so much harder to accept.

Frodo lowered his head, burrowed into a fast hold that anchored him to the broad chest. Sam's shirt had fallen open to the pounding of his heart. Oh I wish... When they kissed again, a hazy heat uncurled from the centre of Frodo's stomach and flashed bright as he shifted his hips, pressing down until he felt the same arousal crushed up hard against his belly. From the sudden flare quickened a drowning pleasure.

Frodo blinked his eyes open. An abrupt chill overtook him at the sight of his maimed hand against Sam's breast, a misshapen thing that mocked all his clumsy efforts.

"Mr. Frodo?" Sam whispered, alert to the disturbance in his thoughts as if he'd spelled them out loud.

"It's nothing..." Goosebumps crawled under his fingers. He buried a kiss at the side of Sam's neck, determined that it shouldn't matter so long as Sam found pleasure in his touch.

And he could finally look his fill, past the limits of fear and survival, at a body no less beautiful for all the recent abuse. The loss of flesh cleared and revealed Sam's frame in so many stark and fragile lines, in the slender shadows that arched between his ribs. Frodo set his lips against the fanning breaths and a prickling of salt. Long weeks of desperation under his hands, tightened to cold knots of defense and defiance that only time and love could unriddle. There was little softness left on Sam's body, but he searched it out patiently, teasing up secrets he could keep and unloose between his fingertips.

"Sam, is this how..." But the question faltered unfinished, stopped by a soft, wondering glance.

There should be time now, and laughter in this, and time again to show Sam all the things held so dear with his lips and tongue and even his damaged hand.

Frodo trailed his fingers where the light caught on fine hair, bronze against a dark nipple. Where paler skin shaded into the brown halo, a tender boundary begged the gentlest touch. And he could trace it clearly when he brushed his lips across, the way it tightened up in a shiver under his tongue.

The questing warmth of Sam's hands on his neck, in his hair, washed longing across his own skin, but he couldn't allow its distractions. Not while he nurtured pleasure that was necessary as breathing, while his fingers sought to persuade as they could, caressing and shaping the strength rooted so deep in a boundless love of being. Pleading with bruised skin for the memories that ran beneath.

Memories of early light perching crisp on green slopes, of sun-soaked earth between the toes and apple trees, of things that would grow again and shine brighter for the knowledge of shadows. He thought that his hands weren't skilled, weren't tender enough to spell out all these promises on Sam's skin and turn them to music as they should, but he kept on trying.

His hands wandered among the countless changes, measured flat planes and hard angles instead of comfortable roundness. But the pattern of ridged muscles recalled carefree seasons out in the garden, their brusque tension soothed in a thin glow of sweat. Here, he could touch home, hear it in the sweet, roughened sound of Sam's voice as it caught on his name. And it filled him with an ache to be everything captured in the name when it escaped so breathlessly from Sam's lips. Frodo. He needed nothing else. He crept his fingers under the waist of Sam's trousers, tugging awkwardly until cloth gave way to skin. His own breath burned between the kisses he pressed to Sam's chest and stomach.

He thought how touching Sam had always been shelter and security, and now it lay open without bounds, unsafe and breath-stealing, a blind reading of hidden fears and pleasures that thrummed to his touch. Between the lightest shiver and unblinking shadows, he found desire that asked nothing. He traced it here, encountered it there, a quick start of tension below the range of Sam's ribs, and found it again in the hard velvet need that rose into his hand.

Sam moved against him and back away, a moan low in his throat struggling to break free. A deep flush sprawled through Frodo's body, and he rubbed his face against Sam's belly, catching his breath. His fingers encircled the softest skin, and a wild pulse that skipped out of rhythm. He dipped his nose into Sam's navel. A surprised start eased the locked muscles over Sam's stomach.

When he skimmed his breath, then his lips along the taut stretch of pulse and heated skin, the bowstring tension returned tenfold. A raw and broken sound from Sam made him look up in alarm.

"Frodo... you can't--"

"I can -- I will, if you'll let me." He reached up and linked their fingers, smiling through breathless, anxious waiting.

Did Sam see his own need, bared and trembling in the space between them? That it would be a blessing if he could liberate the sort of hunger that stretched trees skyward and dazzled with forgetting? The colour in Sam's face deepened when he squeezed Frodo's hand.

A patch of darker curls yielded under his fingers, surprisingly soft, and his mouth closed on the ripe earthy taste, so entirely Sam that his eyes stung. Sam's fingers tightened through his own, clutching his uninjured hand. In the fierce, frightened grip lodged the memory of nights out in the wilderness, and the only safeguard they knew.

Heat flooded up Frodo's belly and bristled all over his body, filled and drained him for those moments of straining, desperate closeness. Then Sam's hips rocked against the tight control strung through the muscles in his thighs, and Frodo bent deeper to shelter and release him.

A short cry stumbled out, catching with a bitter jolt at the back of his tongue. So much want spilled its urgent tremors all at once and rolled through him in long, shattering waves. He couldn't breathe, too near the highmost pitch and a long fall. He didn't want to let go, ever again.

It was need for air and the loosening of Sam's grip that urged him away at last. When he raised his head, he saw that the tears had been finally freed and glistened in long slides down Sam's cheeks.

Frodo moved up quickly and cupped his face. Bits of gold in Sam's eyes fractured in the dimming light, around the deepest forest green.

Sam -- Sam -- Sam... Warm and real in his arms, and finally safe. Salt on Frodo's lips mingled with a keener taste that seeped around the words he murmured. He held Sam's face pressed to his neck while the crying thickened to sobs that ebbed slowly. Until they'd left only glitters trapped in Sam's lashes, and his voice could scarce be heard.

" do love me."

"Oh, Sam..." Something stronger than grief seized him by the throat and shook him. How many times did I break your heart?

Frodo bowed his head, suddenly terrified of saying too much, of promises that would snap within himself. "More than you know."

The trembling pressure of Sam's mouth on his started a warning prick of tears. He lifted his weight off Sam's chest and slipped to the side, too aware of the denial that throbbed deep and hungry inside him.

When Sam reached for him, Frodo caught his hand and brought it up to his lips, planting small, breathless kisses on his knuckles. "No, no... it's enough."

More of this, and it would hurt; any more, and he would break.

He looked down at his wrong hand, the wound still glaring even from the clutch of his fist. Gone, over and done, gone now forever...

Tumbling ashes ripped over the flanks of Mount Doom and the air shimmered with renewal, about to splinter like glass when he breathed it in.

"Your poor hand." Sam cradled it between both his own, but there was so much joy in this moment, it grew blinding, and he couldn't answer. The day collapsed into pinpoint darkness that burst open again on the harsh upcast of wings. For a moment, he saw the missing finger, wreathed in pulsing gold.

I chose to keep it. Instead of ending it, It ended me. Freedom trickled out of him in slow, bright drops, sticky between their joined hands.

He looked up, at Sam's bare-faced concern, traced with piercing copper in the half-light. Such a brightness in him, and still waiting to be delivered.

"Where did you go just now?" Sam's fingers caged his crippled hand, but his eyes said that he knew well enough.

"Such a small price to pay for... everything," Frodo whispered. And so little left of me.

Tears were already leaking when Sam kissed his brow, then his lips, and fell faster when another embrace crushed the breath from his chest.

He cried shaking in Sam's arms until horror and grief leveled away into a vast, scoured blank. They were both spent to the limits as they curled up together in the dip of the mattress.

Over time, Frodo's mind fell in with the pace of slowed breathing and pursued a long grey float down the hours, the lantern's shine adrift overhead until it finally flickered out. Sleep had stolen away from him and left him uprooted among vague shadows. Even the sore, strained feeling in his body had ceased. His skin was dry salt, stretched cool and grey before him. Except for a spot high on his chest where memory turned fevered circles.

From it, a soft dread crept outward. He felt hollowed, fractured around endless want. He longed to wake Sam and knew with instant conviction that he shouldn't.

On a carefully indrawn breath, Frodo broke the skin contact and edged toward the cool side of the mattress. A small hitch in Sam's breathing marked his escape. His clammy fingers fumbled with the shirt that had been lying on the ground for hours.

Outside, the mingled rush of wind and water wrapped around him. He walked away from the line of pavilions, into the blended greys that opened towards the river. Anduin still followed the same smooth pace, and its voice almost covered the rustling steps in the grass.

"You should be asleep," Gandalf said from behind, a gentle admonishment that didn't sound quite right.

"I should be," Frodo agreed and met unrelieved sadness in the wizard's eyes. He had to ask now, or he would never dare it. "Gandalf, tell me the truth... it will never entirely go away, will it? The shadow of the Ring will always be on me."

Gandalf didn't answer at once. "You bear deep scars, Frodo, and there are some wounds that never heal completely..." He lowered his head for a moment, but the tension across his shoulders spoke clearly. "I cannot predict how it will be for you." His smile came slowly this time, as if rising to summons. "Indeed, I dare not, for it is all too likely that I shall be proved wrong. You hobbits are more resilient than I ever would have dreamed."

Frodo swallowed several times before he could trust his voice. "Thank you, Gandalf. For being honest with me. I know I shall never be the same as I was... I can feel it. And I don't wish to add lies to loss."

It would be worse if he tried to hold on too hard. He sat down on the grass, relieved to feel it dip and tickle across his feet. Beside him, Gandalf seemed to watch the patterned dimness between the trees. "With the shadow's passing, a great change has come into the world," he said. "Loss and growth are bound within it, as they must be. A simple truth, Frodo, but in it lies a measure of comfort."

Perhaps he would have said more, but a slight noise came from somewhere at their backs. Dressed in his shirt and breeches, Sam approached quickly from the trees and fixed a wary glance on Gandalf.

"Samwise." The wizard's tone warmed a shade. "Perhaps you will be able to persuade your master that he needs to rest himself. I shall leave him in your care."

"That you may," Sam returned, a stubborn jut to his chin. He couldn't have overheard their conversation.

"Good night, Gandalf," Frodo sent after the wizard.

Without another word, Sam lowered himself into the grass beside Frodo. From damp earth rose a sleepy chill that kept morning at a distance.

Frodo tilted his head at the sky where stars reveled in jagged glints, their light at once whole and broken. Perhaps the difference did not matter. His fingers found Sam's while his eyes were still full of this light, its fine splinters turning inside him. Turned to wishing, where all else failed. They sat there for a long time, their hands clasped and their shoulders leaned together.

Whatever I have left, Frodo thought, I will give you...

He breathed the fresh, bitter air of Gondor and hoped that it could be enough.

* * * * *

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