Revised version of a story that first appeared in the zine Vilya (2003).
Hope Unquenchable is the sequel to Last Steps.

Hope Unquenchable
by Cara J. Loup

8th April 1419 S.R.

Many voices hovered around Frodo, low and animated amid muted clatters. Daylight seeped pale through the white canvas of the large pavilion. Frodo swallowed. A taste of – fish, yes, that was it – lay oily on his tongue, such a strange flavour... He raised his hand to still a short cough. Through the bandage wrapping his hand, he smelled a whiff of pungent herbs, and deep in his stomach roiled sudden protest. His throat was too dry. Perhaps he should stop trying to eat out of courtesy, and he certainly wouldn't drink any more wine.

"I'd like some–"

"Here you are, Mr. Frodo." On his left, Sam reached for a pitcher and a cup. The sound of water pouring into it rang abruptly loud, and a thin runnel down the pitcher's side glistened in harsh, fleeting silver.

Frodo blinked. "Thank you, Sam."

The water eased down his throat with a sweet coolness he remembered, remembered so sharply that his eyes stung. He turned toward Sam to say – he wasn't quite sure what, perhaps only to share this scrap of reminiscence – but the vague notion slipped and went under.

Sam wore a silver circlet in his hair, and a flash of gold from his mail-shirt played against his uncertain smile. A haze lay on every shape and outline, as if from a dream forbidding him to see clearly, yet Frodo couldn't recollect any dream like this, ever. From all directions reeled too much light, broken on the gleaming bowls and platters, the burnished armour and mail worn around the table. Frodo dropped his eyes to the plate in front of Sam that stood more than half-full, like his own.

"I don't think I can..."

Sam leaned a little closer. "We're not used to taking food yet, I expect," he said in a lowered voice. "But I don't think any one here will mind, Mr. Frodo."

"No," he agreed. "I suppose not."

Closing his eyes for a moment, he leaned back in his chair. He could choose what to do now. Whether to eat, or to move – it did not matter any more. The thought slipped in and out of his reach, but Sam's presence at his side seemed closer like this, and more familiar in the dim space behind his lids.

Frodo took a deep breath and straightened himself. A fading afternoon stretched away behind the pavilion's entrance, obscured by the shadow movement of liveried pages serving at the table. Joy and relief lay thick on the air, mingled through the steam rising from each new dish that was carried in.

Pippin... Frodo's eyes traced his cousin in silver and sable, the colours of Minas Tirith glittering proud on his strangely tall form. With deft moves, Pippin poured wine into several goblets, then slipped out again. A swift chill started between Frodo's shoulderblades and was gone before it could unriddle into sense. From the far end of the table, Aragorn smiled at him. King, Frodo thought again, he shall be king, and it means that there is an end to all – this –

"Here is a last hail ere the feast ends." Gandalf's voice rang high through the pavilion.

Murmurs sank into an instant hush as Gandalf rose, a white shadow on the edge of Frodo's sight. "For I name now those who shall not be forgotten and without whose valour nought else that was done would have availed; and I name before you all Frodo of the Shire and Samwise his servant."

There was a stirring in him to shake his head, but Frodo quenched it, and kept his eyes on the table before him. Golden platters. White cloth. Green leaves strewn between the dishes and ewers. He could see the tracing of their delicate veins, and a bright trembling of life in them that recalled the last moment before they'd been cut off the tree.

"The bards and the minstrels should give them new names," Gandalf continued, "Bronwe athan Harthad and Harthad Uluithiad, Endurance beyond Hope and Hope Unquenchable."

The names rolled smoothly off his tongue and echoed a distant, silver sound that Frodo could not trace to its source. But – servant – his mind hitched on the word, repeating it stubbornly. Gandalf, is this all that you know?

All around the table, lords in fine armour raised their goblets and drank to them in one unified movement of acclaim. Frodo bowed his head, the only gesture that seemed possible in this close silence.

There had been spells of it since his first moment of waking, pits of absolute quiet that froze around him. He was glad when it ended, when the low mutter of noise resumed, and the air flowed again with soft conversations.

Harthad Uluithiad. Like running water. Frodo found a little smile at the thought, and noticed that Sam's face had flushed into high colour.

"Well, Sam, how do you like it?" he asked under his breath.

Still flustered, Sam hunched up his shoulders and murmured, "I don't know what my dad would think of the change. He was always against outlandish names."

When Frodo chuckled at this, Sam's expression brightened with a sliver of humour, and he went on to quote his father, "For plain folk something shorter wears better."

Gaffer Gamgee... Frodo could call on a memory there, a thick, pleasant burr brought alive in Sam's tone. The shadow of a face hovered not too far behind, but Frodo couldn't urge it forward and at the same time listen to Sam –

"But even if I could say the name, I think it don't suit. My hope got pretty low, Mr. Frodo, to be frank."

He'd lowered his voice further, but it carved through the veils of sound thickening the air, a whisper that turned its blade against Frodo's skin. He reached blindly for his drained cup.

Your hope–?

Quick to respond, Sam refilled the cup for him. Water pattered on clay and became a different sound – the rattle of Sam's breath, deep in his chest – and from it, more than sound. The trembling in Sam's shoulders under his weak grasp, the bite of smoke in his own throat.

Frodo felt his fingers clench on the cup as he met Sam's eyes. Dark, so dark under a clouding of concern, a pit falling away into night, into nothing.

No, Sam. But his protest ran brittle as his breath, and he could not lift the cup any more than he could have turned his eyes away, locked as he was to a terrible quiet.

You always always had hope
Sam –

And now he saw clearly for the first time. The hollows under Sam's eyes, marking a shadow trace of every aching mile, every fearful night. How tight his skin clung to the bones, a sharp angle through the flesh of his shoulders.

"Mr. Frodo?"

A soft touch on his hand broke the spell, and he dropped the cup to clutch on – water spilling across his trousers – to feel warmer skin pressed to his fingers – as the cup rolled on the ground.

"I'm here, Mr. Frodo."

And for Sam's sake, he smiled.

~ ~ ~

Behind the trees, the river was a pale ribbon, half-guessed but not heard. Though Merry and Pippin had left to find their beds a while ago, Frodo had taken only a few steps in the direction of the pavilions. Perhaps he wanted to listen to the water or the wind in the boughs that lined a greater emptiness with their distant stirrings. He felt as if all tiredness had gone out of him, and his mind shivered on the brink of a dream.

"What do you think, Sam–" he started to ask over his shoulder, and broke off, missing the quiet breath behind him before he'd quite seen –

A fear shrank through him, faster than thought. Unreasonable, he said to himself. Nothing could happen to them here, and if Sam had wandered off only to feel the grass under his feet – living grass – it meant nothing but a hope for healing.

On a short breath, Frodo turned to scan the dim slopes. Scattered among the treetops stretched a sky clear and full with stars. Their light lay in faint grey pools on the grass, small banks in the spread of night. Even the shadows were lighter here, nothing at all like the hollow black that crowded in and reeled him forward –

Frodo pressed a hand to his temple. One breath and another, then his sight cleared, and his mind tunneled back to the world around him. His eyes found a row of birches on his left, arrayed like bones in the dark. And a shadow among them, keeping perfectly still.

When Frodo reached the spot, Sam leaned against one of the trees, his hand following idle patterns across the flayed white bark.

"Are you tired?"

"No, Mr. Frodo. I feel more like–" He tilted his head at the sky, "–taking it all in, I suppose, and looking at every tree and bush and such." One shoulder lifted in a brief shrug. "It's odd, you might say, seeing as how we've walked for so long wishing only for a place to lie down and be at rest, but now..."

"I know," Frodo said, but his voice was so tight now, tight with a longing to reach out and touch –

Grass. Earth. Bark. His fingertips brushed a spot just above Sam's hand. Cool and rough, the tree's skin revealed nothing. Frodo turned aside. He should have known. At least for Sam –

"It's like going through a fog and wondering what's solid and what isn't, if you understand me." Sam took a step that brought him back to Frodo's side. "Would you like to walk for a bit? That did ought to tire us out enough."

Frodo nodded shortly. On a ridge overlooking the Anduin, he could discern the line of tents and pavilions, weightless shapes around the glow of torches floating inside. Their beds had been set up in one of them, each bed large enough to drown in. After the feast, they'd returned there briefly, to shed mail and mithril for the comfort of fresh linen.

Frodo headed them in the other direction, where thickets sprawled among the trees and overran the grass with creepers and flowering weeds. A grove opened before them, cedars reaching their bushy splays to the fans of cypress and fir. Starlight seeped everywhere through the loose crowns.

"It's beautiful here." Frodo slowed his step to look around.

"Such fine trees," Sam murmured, close beside him. "I don't suppose you could grow them in the Shire."

Frodo listened after the words and thought they should call up an echo, a quickening that meant home. But here, under these trees... He paused to inhale the scents that swam on the night air, and Sam's hand was caught in his at the same moment.

"This familiar."

Sam breathed deeply. "'Tis a marvel that we're back in Ithilien."

"Thyme and... marjoram," Frodo said softly. "What are these other herbs?"

"Sage of every kind you could wish for. And bayleaf, too." But Sam's voice had grown rough and thick of a sudden. When Frodo turned to look at him, a question at the tip of his tongue, Sam's eyes were wide with a stricken look. "You remember now, don't you, Mr. Frodo? How I cooked us the pair of coneys that Gol–" He cut himself off before the name could slip. "Oh, but you do remember!"

"Yes." A breath of relief swept Frodo's chest, and for the moment it did not matter when and how the memory had failed him. At some point, Sam must have asked – "I can almost taste it now. And the fire... it smelled like these trees do."

A smile grew swiftly on Sam's lips, dazzled in the silk sheen of night. "Aye, a fresh scent it is, even turned to smoke."

"Sam..." His free hand rose in a heartbeat, and under his fingertips curved the line of Sam's cheekbone, softer than the stark shadowplay would make it seem. But from his maimed hand flashed a ghastly white, and he dropped it quickly. He might have torn away entirely, if Sam hadn't pressed the hand he still held.

"Are you feeling ill, Mr. Frodo?"

For a long moment he stared at the bandage covering the gap between his fingers. The wound pulsed and throbbed, running hot with frantic life. "No, not ill," he said with an effort. "But perhaps we should sit down for a while."

"There's a nice spot of grass over there." Sam's tone betrayed nothing, but when Frodo looked at him again, his jaw was set against a fear that tightened the skin around his eyes.

I need to speak to you. I need to know. Pain welled in Frodo's chest as he forced himself to look on. At all the stealthy marks of struggle and despair that he'd missed – hours and days lost, while his mind walked naked in the fire – but how could he ask and prod where his own thoughts skipped fearfully aside?

Underneath the cedar, the air was very still, and full to brimming with the clean scent. Sam settled himself against the wide trunk, his knees pulled up and his hands stretched into the grass. Denser shadow pooled about him, but it eased into a soft grey as Frodo sat down to face him. To watch as Sam's expression grew clearer amid the riddling fretwork of leaf and bough. To absorb every line and shade, when he couldn't be sure how long his mind would hold on to them, or if they'd drain to nothing the moment he closed his eyes.

No taste of food, no feel of water, no sound of wind... Were those his own words, a confession or a plea? Frodo could not tell, but his thoughts scattered before the knowledge of what they had done, where they had been.

"If it's a miracle that we're here," he said, "then it's more than miracle that we crossed Gorgoroth." He shook his head. "I don't know if all of those memories will ever return to me."

"And perhaps that's all for the better, Mr. Frodo, if I may say so." Sam leaned forward, his tone set with unfaltering intent. "Those were dark days, and empty, and naught to them but the fire and stench from that mountain and ourselves, what with wearing those orc-rags and no water to clean us and all, begging your pardon." He bent his head to the crisp linen covering his shoulder and breathed in. "Oh, but it feels good to be clean again."

He was doing it on purpose, Frodo knew, easing the mood for the sake of his comfort. Sam, you forget that I know you too well. "But you... you remember every moment." His voice strained against the grip of terror and grew harsh with it. "Isn't that the truth? And they will always be with you, each and every–" His throat nearly closed on the words, permitting only a thin mutter. "For the rest of your life."

"Mr. Frodo." Sam reached for his hand. "I've carried you and that filthy Ring. I can carry the memories too."

"But you should not have to endure this!" Frodo said violently. For me. He clasped his fingers around Sam's wrist, where pulse ran faintly and became –

This, he thought, this touch held me, this heartbeat. An answering ripple shook through him, keen and unexpected, and yet familiar. He looked at Sam in the drizzling light that fell through the cedar's branches. Some of it was caught to Sam's hair and the side of his face, in dim silver. And perhaps he could only see it now when Sam’s skin and pulse cradled his own, so strong and clear it set all his senses on edge. The thought of sleeping yards apart, in those deep, soft beds, seemed suddenly unbearable.

Frodo shifted onto his knees before he knew why, only that he longed to find –

"It's such a small thing." Sam lifted his arm, and as Frodo crawled forward, settled it gently around his shoulders.

"Not to me." He closed his eyes for a moment, to let the touch sink through him, the known and precious warmth of a place that belonged to him alone.

"Some things I do remember. Not sound or sight, but–" Pure feeling, clenched tight in his chest, a kernel buried at the bottom of vast numbness. It quickened now, stretching hesitant tendrils. "–You."

Sam leaned nearer and murmured, "Frodo..."

He could feel it brush through his curls, breath and warmth, and a tenderness in Sam's voice that wavered as if he couldn't dare it. Yes, like this. Adrift between the desire to understand and a craving to surrender every thought to the closeness, Frodo shivered, undecided. But the silence crept nearer again, taunting –

Can you tell me? Can I tell you?

And if they couldn't, every moment of sharing would be a pretence, the beginning of a lie.

"Gandalf was wrong," he whispered. "I did not... endure. Not when we reached the Cracks." He let his head fall back. Stars winked like fireflies in the tree.

"Oh no." With abrupt fervor, Sam reached around to clasp his shoulder and pull him forward. "Don't be thinking that, Mr. Frodo, don't." His breath heaved harshly, and his sickened look struck Frodo with a bone-deep chill. "Please, I..."

Frodo raised his hand to lay it against the side of Sam's face. To soothe. But as soon as his fingers met skin, his purpose shifted, unravelled into longing, a fine tremor that slipped beneath the snarl of questions.

What happened to you?

"I'm sorry, Sam." Such a small word, yet it hooked in deep, and grief broke free in his chest, burst up on a shaking breath. He noticed then that he'd moved so close, Sam had to feel it on his own mouth, and he could feel –

Generous warmth, softer and more stirring than breath, infinitely welcoming as he leaned in to taste it. A trembling in Sam's lower lip traced itself against his own mouth, and this, only this stopped him. A confused sound fled before thought set in again, but Sam's hand slipped from his shoulder to his neck, sheltered him near without weight or pressure, and Frodo didn't pull away.

His chest burned with waiting, with a searching, unsteady force that loosened into shivers when the rough warmth of Sam's palm cupped his face.

There was only enough space left between them to whisper, "Sam." Then he could taste –

Apples. A memory flashed and filled out: Springdell apples from the Southfarthing that ripened long before any other, smooth skin giving way to his teeth, the first drops of juice prickling his tongue. Sour and sweet, it seeped through his mouth until he tingled, softening as more was set free. He kissed it off Sam's lips, the startled breath joined to his own, quickened and deepening.

When he opened his eyes again, he shook with a surge from the bottom of his chest that filled every silence, every hollow. His fingers were adrift in Sam's curls and savoured their rich, soft spill instead of dirt-clotted straggles. His fingers kept a memory of their own, it seemed, memories that slid up his arms and joined over his chest, till they layered through his pulse and the lush scents of the grove. Half-lit moments, scattered and gathering into a fragile new pattern – Sam's voice and touch lacing the dark – pitched to overflow on his skin. He could see it reflected on Sam's face, caught in a breathless, beautiful smile. Shaped from disbelieving joy, and so –

"I'm–" Alive. He couldn't speak it, not when his heart pounded up into his throat, and Sam's arms wound round his back, to hold him at the centre of all these stumbling discoveries. His glance dropped to the lips shaping his name, soundless.

Deliberate this time, they met each other halfway, but then Sam fell to utter stillness, his mouth pliant against Frodo's, shaken breaths escaping into a clumsy kiss.

"Sam." He did not draw away to say it, and the brush of muffled sound parted Sam's lips to him, moved his hands that stroked slow and searching tenderness along Frodo's back. He could inch forward then, merge and meld them, sure with it as if he'd dreamed it long before the Ring set fire to his mind. The known scent of Sam's skin blended into the new taste of a stifled gasp, and the shy caress of Sam's tongue to his own sent a ripple and another down his chest that sped out into every limb. Something that wasn't loss opened wide inside him, and thrummed to the touch of Sam's hands.

It was a long time before he opened his eyes again, short of breath and heart skipping, to notice they'd sagged between the cedar's roots, arms wrapped around each other in a glad, graceless tangle.

Rustles spread in the grass as Frodo pressed himself closer. He felt awake with every part of himself, his body straining with so many bewildered feelings that hungered for release. But when he set his hand on Sam's chest, the stark ridge of bone snapped a different truth through him, and he clenched his teeth against a sob, his face buried hard at Sam's shoulder.

"When we were in Mordor..." He paused again, to let a long chill subside, "did I ever ask – did I?"

"What, Mr. Frodo?"

Frodo raised his head to read the answer on Sam's face. "How you – how you managed," he whispered, biting hard at his lip for that poor, paltry word.

Sam didn't answer at once, but the suspicion that flared through Frodo backed away at the look in his eyes. "When you stopped askin', it were because you hadn't a breath to waste." He made no effort to cover the trembling in his voice. "And I – I hid such things from you as would worry you, too."

Frodo ran his fingertips gently down the side of Sam's face. "That you went without food or water half of the time? I noticed that, Sam."

"Meaning no harm, Mr. Frodo, but you needed it more than I did."

Suspicion reared afresh, needling with insidious heat in his chest. "Is that why – why we're here now? Because it is what I need?"

Sam closed his eyes briefly, a tight quiver at their corners. "Frodo."

He could hear it all in that thready sound, an answer half-torn with unsparing honesty, and so much more, a rising hope that might span a lifetime’s wishing. Forgive me. But where words would never reach, perhaps his mouth and hand could, and his fingers worked at the buttons of Sam's shirt so his lips could follow. Down from the narrow dip between Sam's collarbones to the place where his heart beat the strongest, where all padding of flesh had been pared away. And he was still frightened.

"I wish you would tell me, Sam." He'd spoken before he could think, and apologies would not mend that now. "How you... lost your hope." Grief clutched anew in his throat as he looked up.

"Oh, it–" Sam's breath flew ragged between the words, and he stopped a moment, to settle one unsteady hand on Frodo's shoulder. "You kept tellin' me not to worry over food nor water for the walk back, if you remember, and I didn't want to hear it. Not till the last lap, as you might say. I wouldn't let the thought into my head, that we might not want neither, once the Ring was gone."

Frodo trailed his fingers around the angle of Sam's jaw, as if to encourage the voice that muted a little more with each word. "Please. Tell me."

"I didn't lose it, it was... another thing to leave behind when there weren't use for it no more, if – if you follow."

"Cast aside is not quenched," Frodo said softly, but he could feel Sam shiver against him and knew there was more, a rough, cold tension climbing through him.

"If I hadn't a hope left, there was still–" Sam stopped, his breathing laboured. "A wish. I couldn't have a'borne it not to be with you at the end. Even if you didn't–"

"Sam..." Frodo leaned over to answer quenched pain with gentle kisses, to hold Sam in a close embrace. Far down in his chest, a cold sear mourned the loneliness of that moment, sealed and suffered through in the daylong dusk, that he would never know, never take away. But perhaps he could lighten its shadow, touch it here, on Sam's skin, and soothe it with all the love he could find in himself.

You remembered for me then, you'll remember for me now. What can I give you?

He didn't know, couldn't measure how much emptiness remained within him, gashes ripped at the Ring's destruction, but –

"I'm here now, Sam. With you."

He moaned softly when Sam pulled him back down, claiming his kiss with a sharp breath. Sam’s fingers hurried over the buttons on Frodo's shirt, and his palm sheltered bare skin before the night air could touch it. A thin breeze ran up Frodo's back as he shifted to tangle their legs, and somewhere in the dim distance, the trees stirred to that breath of wind. Mere shadows, gliding their vague shapes over the long shudders that filled his senses – as if these trees might go up in smoke, scatter to ash, leaving only the heated prick of stars, and the breath he was drinking, feeding with his own. Hold me, Sam. Open my eyes.

He didn't know there were tears on his cheeks until Sam caught them with a fingertip first, then with his lips, as though treasuring what must never be lost.

"Do you – do you remember Gollum catching up to us when we crawled up that mountain?" Sam asked, still slow to force single words through. "You spoke to him in such a voice... It weren't you, Mr. Frodo, and you weren’t in it. Not then, and not by the fire, neither."

"How – how did you know? Where do you think I was?" Frodo held his breath, wondering if those were reckless questions or merely foolish, and if the silence would fall on him now, and crush –

"I don't suppose as you'll remember, but near the end, on our way up the mountain... you said ‘Help me, Sam, hold my hand.’"

"Oh, Sam..." He found nothing more to say, but at the very limit of his mind something held suspended that might be half memory, half wish, so bright and open. He took Sam's hand and pressed a kiss to the back, the soft valley between his knuckles, the lined skin over the joints. Breathing with the tremors that broke past fear, past question.

And if everything else has been taken from me, I still know you – you...

He burrowed into Sam's arms. Pressing their bodies close, skin on skin, was the only answer. Buried longings spilled free, to capture between them the finest ripple, as if of light.

"You... you came back to me." Sam's voice broke on a hard whisper, and his tears fell then, whether for grief or joy or the keenest blend of both.

Frodo held on with both hands, the sting and throb of his wound somehow a necessary part, while Sam's breathing slowed and eased. A long stillness surrounded them, and if they whispered each other's names, there was a deeper sound yet, rolling against the coasts of breath and skin, pulling and licking with strong tides. In it, Frodo could sense a vast gulf that stretched away on every side. How close they had come to losing – and how close, this –

Sam reached for his maimed hand and cupped it between his own. "I think Mr. Gandalf chose you the right name."

It wasn't until Sam's eyes sparked a reflection that Frodo realised he'd found a smile of his own. He could feel tiredness now, a distant grey flood in his limbs like the pull of forgetting. But against it, every small touch burned, every flutter against his ribs raised a stronger pulse. "As he did for you."

Harthad Uluithiad, he remembered. And an echo to it that ran out into the far distance. Nimrodel, running water, the voices woven in ceaseless murmurs through Lórien. A heartbeat pouring strength through his own skin, clear as the broken light of the starglass.

And now, when he met Sam's want with his own, all of it gathered into sharp clarity between them, shaped anew from reaching and holding. Frodo closed his eyes, cradling the one truth of the journey that was utterly his, that reached into the future, unquestioned and entire.

I have no hope but you.

* * * * *

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