Thanks and bows to Selina and Elizabeth for beta-reading, and to Astra and Irene for thoughtful comments.

When Cover When

"Will he come?"

The quiet had lasted a long time, and now that it was broken, Frodo almost wished he could unsay the words.

Gandalf turned slowly from the volume he'd been studying and eyed him with the quizzical interest Frodo recognised. It meant that he would not receive a direct answer.

"Do you not know?"

Frodo raised one hand in a vague gesture. "There are times when I do not doubt it, and yet..." He paused, searching for a hold on the restless anxiety that wound in and out of his thoughts. From the room's shadowed corners, silence inched forward again and thickened about him.

"Yes, Frodo?" Brilliant sunlight streamed into the wizard's study, fractured through a mosaic of cut and tinted glass. Within the blue, red and golden shafts, dust specks held court in thin glitters, their swirling movement barely perceptible.

"How many years?" he whispered.

It was a question that verged on mutiny, one that the fortunate inhabitants of these lands never asked. Enclosed within time, they dwelled at its very core where it stilled to a state of being, a blessing that knew no decay but rippled ever outward, like the Sea. The weary plodding of years in the world of mortals was of no concern here.

Gandalf closed the book and smoothed his hand over the cracked leather binding. "You believe that time is of such importance? How does it seem to you?"

"Long..." Frodo glanced down at the flagstones where the light lay in stagnant ripples and acknowledged the flaw in his answer. The slow blossoming of days that lingered warm and untroubled under the mallorn trees had dispelled much of the darkness he'd brought with him.

"Long with waiting," Gandalf said gently. "Long with regrets. That is why you are holding on to the reckoning of years, is it not?"

Frodo's eyes flew up to him in startlement. He'd told no one, not even Bilbo. "Am I so obvious?"

"Only to those who know you."

For a moment Frodo heard a thin echo of other voices and distant laughter, the relief of secrets revealed before they could lock and chain him.

"I don't mean to sound ungrateful," he said, faster than memories could crystallize. "What I have found here was beyond all my wishes, and I shouldn't..." He stopped at the note of protest in his own voice.

Daylight glistened around Gandalf's frame as he rose, darting a blend of many colours over his robes and setting his hair afire for a brief moment.

"My dear Frodo, there is no wrong in harbouring dreams and hopes, even here." He approached Frodo where he stood in the doorway, a twinkling of the changeful light in his eyes. "Come, let us go outside."


A salty breeze skimmed low across the green bluffs that rose beyond the woodlands. When they stepped from the guardian trees, Gandalf raised his face into the sun, and pleasure creased the corners of his closed eyes. The wind tangled in his hair, streaming loose strands across his mouth.

"Tell me what is on your mind," he said, his eyes still closed.

"The time must have seemed so much longer..." Frodo realised he was holding his breath in, as if the mentioning of names could disturb a strained balance, " the Shire."

"Longer, and shorter," the wizard returned unaccountably. "Short, if it was fulfilled, yet rich and deep with gladness."

"I hope so."

"Do you really?"

Though Gandalf's tone held no reproach, a barbed feeling balled tight in Frodo's chest. "Yes," he said emphatically, "I wanted Sam to be happy. I wanted him to have everything -- everything that..."

"Everything that seemed lost to you?" Gandalf concluded when he trailed off into restless thoughts.

"Everything I couldn't give him," Frodo said softly.

"And that is why you think that he may have forgotten you?" Gandalf turned back to him, a keen spark in his eyes.

Frodo shook his head. "He would never forget, I know that. But... he has a family now. And many children, I should think. I wish I could have known them all, and listened, too, when Sam read our book to them."

"Perhaps you could have," the wizard mused, his tone unrevealing.

"But I had nothing left to give that would grow and blossom!" Frodo raked his fingers through his curls and started down the grass-grown trail that curved out towards the coastline.

Gandalf walked with him at a steady pace, till they reached the steeper slopes that seemed to ascend directly into the midday sky. Thin shadows clustered tight around their feet. The top of this ridge would give them a view of the Sea, a naked infinity that flared in silver and steel towards the horizon.

Frodo paused, filling his eyes with the blue blaze above. "I feel as if I should apologize for holding on to my regrets."

"Ah, but you are hardly alone in that," Gandalf returned. "For many here, regrets are resolved into memory and acceptance, but not for all. The ways of the world are unpredictable, and that is part of its wonder." He threaded two long fingers through his beard. "I have regrets of my own, and those are not easily set aside either."

"You do?"

"I still regret that I failed to recognise how terribly Saruman would be tempted," Gandalf answered, "and that I did not understand his hunger for power nor the damage to his spirit before it was too late." His shoulders sank in the wake of a long breath. "His vengefulness caused great harm in the Shire."

"By now, most of it will have been undone," Frodo offered reassurance. "The new trees along Hobbiton Road must have grown almost as tall as the old ones were."

"And I imagine they grew more quickly under the hands of a gifted gardener."

"Yes," Frodo murmured. A stronger wind dashed its salty chill into his face. He breathed it in through his open mouth and let it make its scouring path through his body.

It brought back the force of winter blasts raking the Shire, wheeling across blighted fields and the stumps of trees. Under a swollen sky, bare branches reached up in scratches. Homecoming had been nothing at all like the completion of a dream, the winter air stifled with smoke and ash.

"I didn't think I would survive our journey, and if I did..." Frodo pushed the thought aside with a short gesture. "But Sam -- all I wished was to see him home safe and... whole." Immensely distant and polished as glass, the sky arched away above them. "It was my reward."

"I see." Gandalf's eyebrows rose in pointed astonishment. "Not many of us are given a chance of choosing our own rewards."

Frodo smiled thinly. "Yes, it was very presumptuous of me, Gandalf, I know that well. I saw it myself, while I still lived in the Shire." He set his jaw against a sharp surge of recollection. "I thought it would be enough for me."

Out of the slicing wind, Frodo turned to look inland. Right behind a gentle swell of hillocks lay the dell where he and Bilbo lived. By unspoken agreement, they'd made their home closer to the coast than anyone had expected. Apple trees grew on the south side of their garden; bristling weeds spotted with tiny white blossoms had crept out of their shadow. Frodo had been oddly glad to discover that weeds and ungainly plants had taken root in this exile, blown across, perhaps, from the world's western shores.

"Do you know," he started again, "I dreamed of a green land by the Sea, a long time ago. At the very beginning, when I had no idea where the Ring would take me." Out of a silky rain, all colours had brightened to a strange music, and that image suddenly seemed more alive than the sight before him. "Now I dream of Bag End and walking from room to room in the middle of the night. I can hear them breathe in their sleep, but they never see me."

"Well, here we are," Merry's voice rose out of his memory, unbidden and unwanted. "Just the four of us that started out together. We have left all the rest behind, one after another. It seems almost like a dream that has slowly faded."

"Not to me," he'd answered. "To me it feels more like falling asleep again."

And in ways he couldn't quite fathom, that was still true. Each day slid by with a seamless weave of songs and story-telling and walks on the unfading grass, so that change itself turned an endless circle.

"I think, Frodo, it is time for you to wake up," Gandalf's voice stole into his thoughts.

"And what then?" Frodo turned back sharply. "If I let go of the past, I will have nothing!"

What memories remained of the journey had been drawn to light one by one, gentled and set aside, till the nightmares ceased. Yet there were some he could share with no one, memories that he guarded with jealous insistence, even from himself. Untouched, they kept him safe from want.

He tipped his head towards the distant thunder of the Sea. "Yes, I've been cured, but I don't feel whole." A sudden anger crackled in his voice. Frodo bit his lip, but he couldn't halt the questions that pressed forward. "Why, Gandalf? When we left Rivendell, you told me that some wounds cannot be fully healed. Is that what you--"

"No, Frodo," the wizard stopped him. "Do not place such weight on my words. There is much that I can see, but even my insight cannot be the measure of your healing." Gandalf lowered himself so that their eyes could meet evenly. His features were shadowed against the sun and for a moment Frodo glimpsed a face far older and far younger, outlined in a slipping light.

"It is possible that my mind was fixed on the horizon of history more than its heart." In the depth of Gandalf's eyes kindled quiet concern. "You must find your own answers, and your own truth."

Frodo looked up to the ridge that broke the wind and sent it down in ragged gusts. Despite the sunlight, chills pooled on his skin. "Very well" -- and it was the very opposite of what he'd expected to say. "Let us walk up there."

He climbed in long strides without pausing or looking back until he'd reached the top. Brazen light played in shards on the Sea, a sprawling borderline that lost itself to a haze in the distance. Frodo stopped breathless in the cold gusts and could feel the muscles quiver down his back and thighs, as if he'd staggered to a halt after a long race.

"What do you see?" he heard Gandalf's voice, or thought he heard, a mere suspicion on the tumbling winds.

What I always see. He tasted salt that burned his mouth dry. He never dared to touch the past beyond the moment of parting, but this one memory seethed to the brim with grief.

Grey towering sky and a mute gaze that bound him. Clasped hands colder than the autumn air. The desolation on Sam's face before it settled into acceptance -- for my sake, Frodo knew, because I asked it of him.

"He might have come with me, even then... Even when it would have torn him apart."

"And so you decided to take the choice away from him... is that not true?"

"I had to!"

But he'd not been able to look back, at the receding coast where Sam stood watching after him, alone in the fall of darkness.

"I had to," Frodo repeated. The wind plucked each word from him to toss it up high. He'd said too much and too little. Beside him, Gandalf squinted his eyes against the light and the rough gales.

The memory was so clear now, so present he could almost hear the ponies champ the hard grass. As if the Firth of Lune lay only miles away. Frodo scrubbed the ball of his hand across his forehead. "If you hadn't told Merry and Pippin about my plans, Sam would have been riding the long road home alone..." His voice shook with disbelief. "What was I thinking?"

"You made a very difficult decision," Gandalf pointed out calmly.

"My mind was so full of leaving that I couldn't see anything else..." Frodo shook his head. "Sam wanted me to stay. He tried to help me in every way he could."

Deep in his chest twitched a feeling that was all spikes and tearing loss. He could feel Sam's grip on him, that last, desperate embrace, Sam's face pressed to his neck and the breath that stained his skin, a warm wordless blessing he didn't deserve. "He must have thought that he'd failed me."

Frodo fixed his eyes on the white beacon of Tol EressŽa, a jagged mark against the water towards the east. From here, the mountainside seemed glazed in frost, and the Sea shone like a frozen lake in the distance.

"I was wrong, wasn't I?" His shadow began to lengthen before him, as if tugged out by the wind. Straight below, Frodo could see patches of salt-bitten earth in the grass-sward. "It was I who failed him, wasn't it."

"There are always limits to our knowledge and insight, Frodo."

"Oh, indeed!" he said with a sharp laugh. But Gandalf cast him a glance that tolerated no derision. "Worse than that..." Frodo took another breath. "I felt that I had been blinded. Everything grew so dim and dark, and those bright moments we had--" singed and pierced with unbearable life-heat. "No," he stopped himself as a hot shiver crept up on his skin. "There's no sense in dwelling on those memories. The Ring left me so broken. How could I let Sam see this in me? I grew afraid to look at him and find only pity and disgust--"

"Now, Frodo..." Gandalf interrupted, his tone startlingly close to alarm. "You cannot see yourself."

And I don't want to. I don't dare. The harsh light on the water sprinkled Frodo's vision with shadows. "Perhaps not. I had to come this far to know the Ring is truly gone. That it wasn't... me." The words hovered before him, only a start of truth, not its end or measure. "It taught me that I should not want. It was the only way to be safe."

His voice caught on too many promises that he hadn't given, hadn't kept. What did I want? A mere sketch of an outline trapped at the corner of his eye, kept carefully beyond his own reach. Safe.

"Is that why you deny yourself the consolation of memory?" Gandalf asked patiently.

Frodo held back his answer with a slow breath. Perhaps there were pieces of the past that he could place against the torment of waiting. Of time.

Fine spray prickled on his face and neck. He could feel in it the gentler drizzles of the Shire, washing a rich, deep green across the hills in spring. Such a fine rain, it fell without weight or sound when Sam showed him the mallorn sapling. The joy of watching all things grow again had heightened the colour in Sam's face and lifted the changes away one by one. Healed and strong, he'd been humming over his garden work.

apple, thorn, and nut and sloe...
sand and stone and pool and dell...

Shaped from grainy light and splashing green, Frodo could see the flowering gooseberry bush outside the kitchen window. He felt the dull thud of heartbeats against his ribs, and the slow, aching pull of the Sea as he traced his thoughts around the garden and ran invisible fingers through supple leaves and twigs.

"What did Sam see in me? I don't know anymore." Fear clung to each word, with a tearing life of its own, and it hollowed him out.

"I cannot tell you, for his vision is not mine." A strange glint of mirth passed through Gandalf's voice, but it had faded when he spoke again. "I think you know what he saw, but perhaps you didn't want to believe it. He loved you."

"Loved. Yes. A long time ago." Each word came out chipped, in grudging isolation, and Frodo tried again to make amends. "It has been a very long time, out there..."

"And has it diminished what you feel? Or perhaps you do not allow yourself to feel it, for fear that you will find it crippled and broken as well?"

Of a sudden, Frodo resented the questions that pooled with such relentless patience around him. They urged his mind backwards, from the Havens into the soft shadows of late summer, and from there to the thoughtful look on Sam's face. To the quiet trust that lived unbroken for a few more hours.

"Is that why you doubt him?" Gandalf asked.

But I don't! How could I? Looking to the past would only carry him back into a drained future. How could he love me when I'd lost... everything.

He thought of their last night by the campfire, alone, a ragged gauze of light drawn up between them. For moments, there'd been Sam's eyes watching him steadily, searching for his purpose though he never asked a question, and then there had been only the wind-shredded flames.

I'm sorry, Sam. I should have told you I was leaving. Frodo curled his fingers tight, surprised to find them so cold. "I miss him so very badly. But I could not blame him if--" His throat almost closed there, but he forced the rest up and out, "--and then I think of all the time ahead of me, without him, and it's... I don't know how I shall bear it!"

He gasped on the words that unlocked memories he hadn't dared to touch since the day he stepped off the ship. So much want, and so much fear. In his ears rolled the noise of the Sea like time rushing back to its source. What he tasted on his mouth was the salt essence of a first and a last kiss, and everything in between gathered up into the space of a breath, the moment he saw such raw wonder in Sam's eyes, falling on his skin with the soft, selfless urging of daylight. It was in his eyes, in every touch of his hands and lips, in every sweet scalding line they drew on Frodo's skin. A passion for the life that burned in him, still burned to the love in Sam's hands. Look at me. This is who I am -- who I've always been -- who I could be --

The loss reeled hard through him but didn't fracture; it moved in swift flickers that mapped and stirred him from inside. I was only too frightened to see it. A sob scraped in his throat. Rebellion. Regret. Life. Reaching far across the blank stretch that sundered him from himself.

Out of the Sea's turmoil, a murmur welled into his mind and unraveled slowly into words. Sam's voice, repeating one of their old walking songs against the wind.

And there are many paths to tread
through shadows to the edge of night
until the stars are all alight
then world behind and home ahead --

Frodo's mouth filled from the back with the biting pressure of tears. On his closed eyelids dazzled sunlight, even though the sun had dropped far into the west.

He'll come. It consumed him head to foot, and he wrapped his arms about himself, holding on as if the next gust of wind could lift him off his feet.

"I shall tell you this," Gandalf said. "His journey, too, has been long, less desperate than yours perhaps, and full of meanders like the course of a wandering river. But since the day of your leaving, he has travelled forward on the road that will bring him here."

"Thank you, Gandalf," Frodo managed to reply, his eyes shut tight. If he looked now, all that lay before him would be the blurring light on the water. Not the white frame of a ship, breaking the mist that cloaked the horizon. Every second of waiting would take his breath, and he couldn't stop it. "If only it could be... soon."

"You forget, Frodo, that time does not govern you here. And while you cannot command it any more than you can change the Sea's flow, it is yours to fill." Frodo could not be sure, but a rare joy seemed to float in Gandalf's voice. "Do not deny yourself healing by thinking that it must be earned through sacrifice."

Frodo breathed again, and the ground dipped under his feet as if he were back on the ship.

"When?" he whispered.

A gentle hand lit on his shoulder, to steady or release him. "As soon as you truly wish it. All you have to do is open your eyes."

* * * * *

* next in this series: The Calling *

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