Wider The Dark Cover WiderTheDark

Motes of light skittered on the stairs and steadied again when Gandalf raised his staff. Frodo pulled himself up to the next ledge, his fingers sliding for a moment between grit and worn stone as he edged past a broken step. Behind him, Sam paused as if waiting to catch him in a stumble. How he managed the climb with such a heavy pack, Frodo couldn't begin to imagine.

He rubbed his palm against a trouser leg soaked with lake water. Down his calves, the moist chill tingled through sweat and dust. Gandalf seemed to have reached a landing of some sort, for his staff's glowing tip wavered from sight, leaving only a pale reflection that vanished into the lofty blackness above.

"Oh, I wish I could see the end of this stair!" Pippin moaned somewhere in the shadows ahead.

"Don't waste your breath on it," Merry's reply floated down. "Keep going, Pip!"

The sound kicked off a crunching noise that cascaded debris and grit over Frodo's hands. He breathed through his open mouth while the splintered dark rained past and didn't pull him down, didn't wrench him into the dizzy drop that yawed at their backs.

Sam was close behind now, his breathing heightened only a little. "If you'll be wanting a break, Mr. Frodo--"

"No, I can manage," he said quickly, "the sooner we put a good distance between ourselves and the gates, the happier I will be." He couldn't look over his shoulder where instead of Sam's face he would find only solid shadow. To think that mere minutes ago --

Another step, and another. The sticky coolness that itched down his spine had to be sweat, not water from the moon-slick lake. Frodo rubbed the back of his hand over his mouth. Now. Another step.

Nothing lunged from the dark to wrap around his ankle. It was merely a brush of cobwebs or rotting cloth. He bit his lip. If Sam hadn't pulled him from the water...

"Oh, finally!" Pippin's cry sailed down to where he was, tangling briefly with a sigh from Sam as it tumbled past.

Frodo felt mildly embarrassed when he hoisted himself onto the next ledge on his hands and knees, only to discover that they had reached level ground at last. The light from Gandalf's staff cleared uncluttered space in every direction. Beside the wizard, Merry and Pippin had dropped in a heap. Further to the left stood Legolas, a lean and vigilant shadow.

Frodo batted his hands together and straightened. In spite of the surrounding gloom, a sense of safety returned to him here, high above and far away from the lake, and it started a sudden squeeze of hunger in his stomach.

"Let us sit and rest and have something to eat," he suggested. The arched passage before him ran arrow-straight into the mines, but from it gusted a breath of warmer air. "Here on the landing," Frodo added, full of relief, "since we can't find a dining-room."

His suggestion was met by loud acclaim from Merry and Pippin and a chuckle from Sam. For a while the dimness filled with the comfortingly familiar sounds of hands groping through packs, unwrapping their provender and lifting the water bottles.

Gimli was the first to climb back to his feet, and when he set out to explore the reach of the passage, his firm tread was soon followed by near inaudible footfalls from Legolas.

Having finished his own ration, Frodo leaned his back against the wall. The mithril shirt chafed his damp skin and clung uncomfortably close with cooling sweat. Next to him, Sam sat hunched forward, his trousers still dark with wetness well above the knees, bearing witness to his reckless plunge into the lake. In the misty glow from Gandalf's propped staff, Frodo couldn't be quite sure, but he thought that Sam was shivering a little.

"What was that... thing in the water?" Frodo asked softly. "Could you see anything?"

Sam gave a small start, and when he turned, a clouding in his eyes seemed to give way, as if he'd been shaken out of a memory -- and not a pleasant one at that. "Nothing save giant snakes such as I've never known before." He pushed his fingers through his hair, and his expression changed to sorrow, clear as a winter morning. "Poor Bill! Scared him out of his wits, that did, or I swear he would have followed you right along, dark or no dark!"

Frodo shook his head and voiced the thought that lay foremost in his mind. "However that may be, I do wish you were as concerned for your own safety as you are for mine, or even Bill's."

Though the memory was ragged with the moment's fright and danger, he remembered Sam's angry shout clearly enough, and his furious haste as he splashed into the black water to hack at the snake arms with his small knife. Loyal and unfrightened and utterly forgetful of his own risk. Another fine chill threaded down Frodo's back, but like a shadow stretching into dusk, it had shifted hue.

Sam gave him a look of plain bewilderment. "How do you mean, Mr. Frodo?"

"Well, whatever the creature was," he answered, "it was far too dangerous to take on all by yourself. It could have pulled us both under."

His tone grew harsher than he'd intended, but other memories forced themselves into it, pushing their sharp details into his mind: Sam confronting Strider in the Prancing Pony, armed only with suspicion and his bare fists; or throwing himself in the path of a Ringwraith at Weathertop, gripped with a blind daring such as Frodo had never known in him before.

"I called for help, as you might've heard, Mr. Frodo," Sam returned, his hands wrapped around the water bottle. "But seeing how I was closest to you and the others already inside the gates..." He ducked his head and shrugged.

"Aragorn and Boromir would have been there in a heartbeat," Frodo insisted, "and with better chances of beating the creature back."

When Gandalf rose to join Aragorn in the mouth of the passage, the light from his staff wavered across Sam's face, casting stark shadows that tightened, then melted to black. "Yes, Mr. Frodo."

A hushed note had crept into his reply, and Frodo didn't like it any more than the nagging sense of things unsaid. "I'm merely worried, Sam."

"Well, that won't do at all." Embarrassment lay thick on Sam's lowered voice. "What with all else you'll be worried about, you've no use for one fool of a servant to make worse of it."

"That isn't how I mean it!" Frodo swept his hand up in a helpless gesture. Somehow, this conversation had run off its forthright course, and he tried to steer it back a turn with sober reasoning. "Every one in the company will watch over me for the sake of what I carry. But who'll look after you, hmm?"

In the darkness, he heard Sam exhale slowly and heavily. "Meaning no disrespect, Mr. Frodo, and I do wish it weren't so, but the danger's coming all for you."

The blunt weight of his reply settled uneasily. Frodo crossed his arms over his knees. There was no sense in dwelling on what could not be changed. "Sam... you've already done so much for me, more than I would ever have expected or asked for." He paused as a very awkward realisation took hold. "And I have never even thanked you for it, have I?"

On his right, a stirring of air currents revealed Sam's quick gesture. "There's no need, Mr. Frodo."

"I think there is." But he wished he could see Sam's face in all its gentle lines and planes, and the sentiments that lit there. The muted voice of Aragorn slid into the silence between them, then a trickle of pebbles and Pippin's soft snores, until Frodo asked, "Is there anything... not right with that?"

"Oh no, nothing, sir."

"Sam..." But when he reached out to touch Sam's arm, his hand fluttered through a dark gap, and he let it fall to his side again quickly. "Why can't I--"

A sharp stir of movement stopped him, then Sam heaved a fretful breath and through it muttered, almost too quiet to hear, "It's making a big thing small, begging your pardon, Mr. Frodo, but that's--" There his voice caught and dropped away into a choked silence.

But, Sam -- Frodo stopped the words before they could stumble into an answer he didn't have. Or worse. He wrapped his arms a little tighter about his legs, and when Gandalf returned a short while afterwards, Sam had bedded his head on his knees and his face was hidden.


Like everyone else in the company, Frodo was eager to hurry on, though tiredness pressed up behind his eyes. Three or four marches would take them to Dimrill Dale, by Gandalf's reckoning, and each would be completed without a hope for daylight. His vision failed to adapt to the gloom while Gandalf's staff swayed in and out of view, a dusty halo rising to draw unexpected arches from shadow, or expose flights of stairs that climbed steeply off the main passage. Over Gimli's shoulder, Frodo looked at broken carvings that ran up into the vaulted roof, and sometimes the dwarf turned back in mid-stride to share morsels from his people's guarded memories of Khazad-dûm.

As they trod through the long passage, Frodo edged Sting from its sheath, relieved to see no warning glimmer thread the blade. Sam had fallen in behind him and kept his place at Frodo's back even where the tunnel was wide enough to walk abreast. It sloped down without reprieve, and while he listened to the soft fall of Sam's steps, Frodo wondered if misgivings dragged at his pace, or any sort of regret, or wish-full thoughts for all that they'd left behind, west of the mountains.

Down by the gates, when they'd scarcely made it inside, Sam had clung to his arm, his voice battered with grief for the pony they'd abandoned to the wilderness. I had to choose, Mr. Frodo. I had to come with you.

Always these hard choices. And how many more would his own quest force on Sam? Sam -- who used to brush Bag End's garden spiders gently from their webs before scrubbing the treacly nuisance off the shutters -- now carried a sword of his own and had learned how to wield it.

Whenever Boromir called another fencing exercise, Merry and Pippin took to it with eager delight, steel and banter flashing in the crisp winter air. But Sam, when his turn came to cross blades with Aragorn, had been heavy with reluctance. Though he addressed himself earnestly to each lesson, only immediate danger could rile him to desperate attack.

Danger to me, not to himself. A prickling of fear touched the back of Frodo's neck. It was all that he had tried to express, crippled and wanting as his words seemed, but he'd succeeded only in troubling a quiet understanding. And now he could trace out a different silence that lingered about Sam, like a vague hollow in the greater dark, and yet more present, more alarming --

The thought faltered when Gandalf announced a halt to confer with Gimli at a fork in the path.

"How far down have we come?" Frodo asked, the question directed at Sam, but Legolas' voice answered from a place further back in the tunnel.

"It would seem that we have reached the level whence we set out. The air has grown warm."

He did not mention the stifled throbs in that warmth, and Frodo wondered if the disquiet he heard in the mellow-toned voice was merely his own imagining. Ahead of them, Gandalf's light glanced off a bend in the lefthand tunnel and winked abruptly from sight.

Frodo squared his shoulders against the bracing heft of his pack. He could hear Sam's breathing while they waited, the faint stirring of cloth as Legolas shifted on his feet, and behind that, the rasp of a carrying strap on leather -- all those careless noises leaking into the many cracks and fissures, dwindling without hold into a deep stillness. His fingers clenched sweat-damp around the sword grip, but that didn't stop the shadows from closing on him, settling in clammy layers against his skin.

There is nothing here. Only the dark. Yet no comfort came from the thought. Frodo took a small step forward to set a hand against the nearest wall. Only the darkness that smelled of stone and dank, spiked at times with biting, sour whiffs. But he could sense the weight of the mountains above, and none of their long walks under the new moon had prepared him for this. Heavy snow, harsh crags and fathoms of stone sealed these shadows, holding them down in smothered waiting.

Frodo moved through an abrupt turn, away from the wall, and his shoulder caught on something softer, the impact jarring all through his body before he realised that he'd bumped into Sam.

"Oh, I'm--" Sorry, he meant to say, but Sam stood off fast as if the jostle had never been, and a pale luminescence streaked across the wall before him. For a moment, Frodo lost all sense of direction, till Aragorn's voice cut the resuming dark, from a place closer than he would have supposed, "There, our guide has returned."

From the lefthand tunnel, Gandalf beckoned to them, framed in a thin arch of light. Frodo set a brisk pace to escape this bewildering state of mind. The first weeks of their journey had been deceptively easy, but with their failed attempt to cross the Redhorn Pass, danger had thickened about them, and it was perhaps no wonder that groundless warnings overtook him in this place.

After a few minutes, the passage widened into a hall, and Gandalf slowed to a stop, raising his staff into its arching height. Everywhere along the walls bristled clusters and spines of raw crystal, sprinkling the air with glimmerpoint reflections.

"Look!" Gimli exclaimed, shooting Legolas a pointed glance. "Do you see how stone can breathe fire and beauty that shines stronger than starlight? And this is but a glimpse at the true marvel of Durin's kingdom."

Legolas tilted his head with arched eyebrows and the hint of a smile as Gandalf waved his staff about the chamber, unloosing snaps of lightning from the crystals that danced in Frodo's sight.

While Merry and Pippin wandered around, their excited voices trailing small echoes, Sam stood unmoving beside him. When Frodo turned his head a little, he could see Sam's face in snatches of stolen light. Against the fleeting gold that played in his hair showed a dark cast of watchfulness. A grieved set to his mouth, a tightening around his eyes that declared him ready for the next danger whenever it struck, and older than his thirty-eight years.

Changed, Frodo thought, so changed -- and the notion reached troubled starts through him. He breathed out at the smile that formed so hesitantly on Sam's mouth and lingered for a quiet spell.

But then Sam noticed him watching, his expression falling from wonder to that downcast, tongue-tied look. As Gandalf crossed to the cavern's far side and the light shattered over the countless outcrops, Frodo could feel again something broken between them.

This won't do. He chewed at his lower lip as Sam fell once more into step behind him, and they entered another tunnel that swerved round abrupt turns.

For so many years, he had thoughtlessly relied on Sam's presence. The memories were all twined together, a loose, bright mesh knit from a thousand little things that patterned the days. Like the sound of Sam's voice relieving a long quiet that dragged through the unused spaces of Bag End. Luscious scents wafting from the kitchen, or Sam humming a tune in the garden that brought Frodo out from his study. A quiet accord that sustained itself through the run of seasons.

As they followed the winding passage, Frodo turned their conversation over in his mind, prodding and twisting at the questions he might safely ask. Sam always seemed to know what he needed, without a word, but he couldn't claim similar intuition for himself.

...you're making a big thing small.

But lately all things had lost their measure and balance, and more so in the drowning dark of Moria. With every step, dimensions tipped and canted, and shadows leapt in jags before Gandalf's guiding light. Every minute spun out thin in the warren of confounded paths while they trailed along the threads of Gandalf's memories to the next crossing of tunnels.

The passage climbed again, across uneven ground, wider now and snarled with boulders and clefts as it carved at strange angles through the mountain. They moved through fractured shapes uncloaked in split moments, wrapped in the muffled sound of their own breaths and footsteps and a flurry of echoes when slivered stones clattered off into unseen spaces.

At times, when Gandalf disappeared into the bends of the tunnel, Frodo found the air before him dense with floating ribbons like shadows in a river. He was stepping through his own breaths and wished he could turn, even though he knew that Sam was still near him, only a short pace behind.

And suddenly he set his foot where nothing was, Gandalf's light flitting ahead high like a moth, and the crack in the ground breathed cold up around his legs. Frodo caught himself backwards, but his left foot skidded on loose stones, and with the next breath his own fall swam before him as certain as the dark.

"...I have you." Sam's arm circled his middle, tight enough to drive the fine mithril rings into his skin, "This way, here, Mr. Frodo."

He gasped against the hard grip even as he sagged back into Sam. A brief pang jabbed through his bruised ankle where the snake arm had trapped him.

"Frodo?" Aragorn's voice closed the distance of a man's long pace. But Sam's breath went against the side of his face, and even though he'd eased off his grip, Frodo could feel the tenseness in Sam's body, as solid as his own.

"Frodo, what is it?" With Aragorn's sharp concern came a hand that found his shoulder effortlessly.

"He lost his footing, Mr. Strider." Sam let go and stepped aside.

"We should keep closer together." Aragorn stared down the crack, his profile dimly visible in the nearing light from Gandalf's staff. "These parts are treacherous, and a single misstep can be fatal."

Frodo didn't look down. "Thank you, Sam," he murmured, but he couldn't be sure if Sam had heard.

Cold crept into the shadowed space between them as they moved back into single file. All tiredness had melted off Frodo's senses, and instead they strained under a knife-edge alarm. Between the others' footfalls, he sometimes heard a pattering of furtive steps, but the sound dropped away whenever they paused. Drained and scattered like weak echoes of his own steps, his unsettled heartbeats.

It's me, the thought stole up on him, running behind myself without a hope of ever catching up again.


After another long climb, they came up against a riddling of passages and a stone door. Gandalf didn't let them enter the chamber until he'd cast light into all corners and warned against the water-hole in the middle of the floor. Away on the right, a recess arched back above a raised platform, farthest from the chill that escaped the uncovered well. In all of the guard-room's unfurnished expanse, it was the closest to shelter and comfort. Sam headed over to it at once, and Frodo followed, already tugging at the taut straps of his pack.

When he shuffled it off his shoulders, Sam caught the weight, and Frodo almost jostled into him again -- whatever made him so unbearably clumsy? -- while Sam set the pack on the floor.

"There, Mr. Frodo, now let's get you a bite for supper." He was bent over the knapsack, his shoulders bunched up, while the rest of the company settled down along the far wall.

Gandalf had wedged his staff into a crack between the pillars next to the door, and when Sam turned round, its muted shine threaded on his hair and shoulders, crawling into the folds of his rumpled coat. He held out the wrapped ration without a word.

Frodo tried a smile, but even though the dimness clouded Sam's face, something told him just to wait. At his back rose the voices of Gandalf and Gimli, resonant enough to bury the soft rush of Sam's breath, but not the confession that poured out, "I didn't ought to have said what I did, Mr. Frodo--" and the shamed look that must be spreading on his face sprang into Frodo's mind, "--putting myself forward as I shouldn't, and for that I'm sorry."

"There is nothing to be sorry for!" Frodo said instantly, but the words dissolved in his mouth because they weren't the answer Sam needed, this much he knew. There was only one possible answer, even if his throat tightened a little in protest. "But if you wish it, I will forget what you said."

Sam nodded, a shadow dip that sank towards exhausted relief. Though his throat had gone dry, Frodo managed another smile and took the small parcel, clasping it in both hands. Anything more, and he would only ruin the moment's balance. Better that he should withdraw and leave Sam to put all worry and needless embarrassment behind himself.

Better. The thought needled him with irony, and each step dragged against the strain of pretence as he crossed the stone floor to join Gandalf. I still don't understand...

The sooty hat in his hands, Gandalf studied the runes carved under the door's arch. His staff shone like a steady torch, ringed in shivering dust. By that light, Frodo watched obliquely as Sam made beds for them in the recess. Going about it just as he would in Bag End, with deft, unhurried movements, and yet the sight touched Frodo with a strange anguish.

I wanted to salvage this and take it with me, a piece of home, a place to be. And Sam was doing everything in his power to bring about what he had wished. A sudden sting at the back of his eyes made Frodo look away.

When Gandalf wandered out into the passage, Frodo followed quickly. Through the half-open door, a pale streak angled across the ground, pointed at nothing.

"What is it that troubles you," Gandalf asked after a while, "when you should be resting?"

Frodo unwrapped his supper only to pick through strips of dried fruit and cured meat. For the time being, his stomach wouldn't consider taking food. "I am... anxious, in ways I do not understand." But his reply came out so mumbled, so blurred, that he found himself near the ragged limits of patience. "What is wrong with me? Nothing seems familiar and... safe anymore. Nothing at all." And that, too, sounded absurd, trite patter thrown up against the pressing dark. "I should have expected that, of course."

Gandalf stood close enough for Frodo to feel the swing of his robes as the wizard turned. "Do not ask too much of yourself. Even the wisest among us do well not to rely too heavily on our own predictions."

Worry edged the slow-paced voice and vanished before Frodo could be sure of it. "I had expected dangers," he answered, "but not -- I had no way of knowing what it would mean to endanger everyone else."

"It isn't you, Frodo, as you well know," Gandalf returned. "That which endangers us all is a burden laid upon you, but we would help you bear it by sharing your danger."

Sound and sensible as that reasoning was, it ran past at a distance, pale as the memory of open sky. Frodo shook his head. "I don't know if I shall ever be able to accept that."

"But you must, Frodo, you must!" Gandalf said with abrupt emphasis. "If not for your own sake, then for that of us all." His tone leveled again when he continued, "Every one in the company chose to go with you of his own free will. If you take the weight of their choices upon you, it will wear you down."

But not... Sam, not him. Frodo closed his eyes, striving for a hold on the restless alarm that twisted his thoughts apart. It is all my fault. I shouldn't have let myself depend on him so --

But Gandalf waited for some assurance from him, and all that he could say was, "I will try."

Gandalf dropped a hand on his shoulder. "Come. It is time that we all took what rest we can find here."

When they turned back inside, Pippin was still gazing raptly down the well. Two steps behind, Aragorn sat talking to Legolas and Boromir, but through the sound of their lowered voices skimmed a soft hum. A thready note that rose into the arched roof and floated back down like a mist.

Frodo stopped to absorb what no one else seemed to hear, and it lowered against his skin before he understood that Sam was singing softly, wordlessly, under his breath. Even here.

The sound hovered still when Frodo walked across, and dissipated only as he clambered onto the platform. At that moment, he wanted only to put his arms around Sam, and just the day before, he might have done so without a thought. Now he was mired in the wishing and a sump of uncertainties, so instead he avoided Sam's eyes and stashed his uneaten ration next to his pack. Each of his movements felt stiff and uneven.

Behind him lay the fragments of hushed conversations, but before he'd finished bundling up his cloak, a distant clack ended every other noise, and a moment later, Gandalf growled at Pippin for tipping a small stone down the well.

For a time that seemed to coil in on itself, they all froze into breathless silence. At the back of Frodo's mind stirred mutinous thoughts -- a living presence, even that of enemies, would at least break the draining isolation of the mines. Sam sat completely still on his blanket, his head bowed.

When a sequence of dull knocks throbbed up from the well, Frodo flinched at the sound as if his own thoughts had tripped those hammers in the deep. He could feel Sam's eyes on him then, and the frank concern that reached out wordless support.

The sound subsided after a while, and on the other side of the chamber, their companions eased back into reluctant repose. A vexed quiet lingered in the room, but with every passing moment, Frodo could feel it fasten about and within him, far more personal than fear of unknown threats, and yet harder to grasp.

He glanced at Sam's knotted fingers and between a thousand useless apologies wished for a single word that would relieve this disquiet, but what came out was, "I'm sorry we had to leave Bill behind."

The memories were suddenly very present, a quick flow that played into his mind. Sam talking softly in the pony's ear, stroking Bill's flanks and nose with so much tenderness in his hands. All of it stripped away and surrendered to the fast strike of hazard, gone in a blink.

Sam pulled up his shoulders and let them sink again slowly. "Gandalf gave him his blessing, and he learned a thing or two in Rivendell, I'll warrant, so's he'll know how to keep himself from harm." Sam paused, throwing up a hand. "But he wouldn't be left behind, nowise!"

When Frodo clasped a hand around his shoulder, he felt the subtle strain in Sam's body again. Before he could think of an answer, a rumble grated low through the walls. Gandalf closed the stone door and reached towards his staff, folding its patient glow into darkness.

With a quick glance over, Sam pulled up his blanket and lay down, a final glint of the doused light captured in the motion.

Frodo curled his fingers around the broken touch. He shook out his own blanket and lay down next to Sam, apart from the others. Ever since leaving Rivendell, they'd slept close together, yet for the first time, Frodo felt awkward about stretching out next to Sam, not because of the nearness but because he'd never marked it so consciously before, and the distance that lay between them.

He could trace it now, an edge of cold air against his side and a rift in the silence that used to enclose him like shelter. Whatever Sam kept to himself locked him out, into the dark of the chamber and the lightless spaces beyond. Wide awake on his back, Frodo cupped a hand over the cool shape of the Ring and stared up into unbounded shadows.

He still remembered very well how overwhelmed and restless he had felt when he'd first slept outdoors, long ago, beneath a sky that was watchful with stars. Some of it returned under this stony vault, a sky stretched tense with its own weight. Beyond his own breaths and Sam's, beyond the tiny rustles of movement on the other side of the room, roamed a vast silence. He listened into it, tracking it through the cavern outside, down the criss-crossing tunnels, into the myriad cracks that fissured the mountains' foundations, where every memory of daylight faltered and turned to lonely secrets. And the more he listened, the more he felt that he could float and drift within these lost spaces, lost himself --

For a moment his fingers clenched hard about the Ring, then he forced them open and aside, splayed flat against his chest. Go to sleep. But he couldn't stop the stumbling run of his thoughts. Couldn't even control his breaths or his heart beating in harsh bursts.

Frodo shut his eyes to listen more closely. The quiet patterns of Sam's breathing gave nothing away, though they didn't sound like sleep quite yet.

There were so many things that he had not known about Sam. Many times along the road, he'd been taken unawares when Sam recited poetry and remembered bits of song, or gave voice to perceptions that shot through him with laughter or sheer amazement. And more than worry had left him unsettled that Sam could change like this, in front of his eyes.

Did you know? he wondered, turning his face towards Sam. His own words flitted through his mind -- he'll end up by becoming a wizard, or a warrior -- followed swiftly by Sam's flustered reply. I hope not. I don't want to be neither.

Words dropped like pebbles down a steep silence, stirring echoes that chased each other. Don't change, stay with me, never change.

He had promised himself not to look too far ahead, not to let his fancy cast demons into the future. And he'd sealed it with the certainty that Sam would always be at his side. I'm going with him, if he climbs the moon, in Sam's own words.

The thought crawled through Frodo in shivers -- that there was nothing Sam wouldn't do for him -- and from it, a strange thrill unwound about his heart. How could I possibly accept that?

And yet, how could he not? Gandalf's advice came back to him, aswarm with what he hadn't wanted to hear, hadn't wanted to feel, not with these jagged echoes that it pried loose in his chest, striking sharply into regret -- and from regret into a rootless longing that he couldn't control either.

His hand crept into the space between Sam and himself, and he stopped it there, braced midway over a ruffle in the blanket.

"Sam," he whispered through clenched teeth, a miserable rasp of sound, and if it was a question, he didn't know what he was asking.

"I'm here, Mr. Frodo."

A warm hand covered his, and the shaky unrest inside him came to a pause, eased somehow by the knowledge that Sam hadn't been the least bit of asleep.

He turned his hand and linked his fingers with Sam's, so their palms lay against each other. He felt his pulse beat softly against Sam's hand, warm and rough and real -- and steady as it was, the touch opened something, as if a curtain of dark air had swung aside. With his eyes falling closed, it felt almost as if his senses were all snugged about that point of contact, searching through it for a clear confine.

But instead, the seeping warmth loosened his breaths, and it widened the dark, safe and familiar and slipping at the same time. Frodo's fingers gripped tighter in thoughtless reaction. Suppose he should never get another chance -- what then? -- though now he feared to touch what he'd already startled away. When he rolled onto his shoulder, a chill draft nipped at his exposed neck.

"Are you cold, Sam?"

In return he caught something of an abashed mutter that could mean anything and guessed that the answer depended entirely on him.

"I am." And he felt shameless at this little maneuver, even if the cold was a fact, the way he counted on Sam to drop all reserve for the sake of his comfort. In one motion, Frodo shook his own cover off and crawled under the blanket Sam held up for him, tucking himself beneath Sam's arm. Close against his ribcage, he felt a subdued start of breath.

"I can't forget what you said," Frodo whispered, needing a breath himself before he could go on, and there Sam murmured, "Oh, but I'm such a fool for--"

"No," Frodo cut in fast. "If it makes you a fool, then I'm twice the fool for it." His pulse quickened as he fumbled through the ripped threads of his own reasoning. "But how can I help being afraid for you too? You'll have to allow me this."

He felt Sam's halting breath against the top of his forehead -- "Allow you, Mr. Frodo?"

Even their hushed voices were caught up in the vault above, turned harsh against the stone, and in truth he was running out of words, out of explanations. Frodo raised a hand without clear intent -- "Yes."

It was more of a request than he had realised, and the silence raked him with gentle apprehension.

"I've only... ever..." Sam's voice trailed off again, lost to confusion.

"Don't be sorry," Frodo whispered, "don't be."

He would have drawn back if Sam's arm hadn't tightened about his back, and when he bent his head to Frodo's shoulder, relief swept Frodo in one jarring wave. He could touch then, though his hand landed where he hadn't meant it to, his fingers in Sam's hair and his thumb at the corner of his eye, where a faint dampness lingered.

"Sam..." Whatever swirled in his bloodstream wasn't relief anymore, but his fingers moved ahead of his thoughts and searched those fine skin creases for a shadow of the smile that brought them. Memory of it rose through him bright as Sam's body warmth -- the wide open smile that he'd missed all too often lately -- and now it tugged at his own mouth. What am I doing?

But Sam lifted his head slightly towards the touch, and Frodo felt at his fingertips the soft bristle of an eyebrow, the delicate skin of a lid closed tight as if in concentration. Every thought held in suspension as he traced the lines of Sam's face from the dark -- the padded curve of his cheekbone and the dip of skin below -- as familiar as it was unknown. And so absorbing that he didn't pause until he'd reached the corner of Sam's mouth, where a quiver cut deep, and a sudden flush of awareness stopped him cold.

"I--I shouldn't have..." he stuttered in half-meant apology, too bewildered at his own actions to let go. Perhaps he'd thought he could unmake the change with his hands, or discover something in it that would still seem safe. Perhaps he'd hoped to map regrets or the shape of dreams that Sam would commit only to the dark.

"...now don't you be sorry neither," Sam murmured, his voice tight and close to rasping.

When Frodo let his breath escape, he noticed how Sam kept a firm hold on him, and with his own thumb still resting against Sam's chin, he could feel the curt motion when Sam swallowed.

"I've only... been wanting to keep you safe."

"I know," Frodo whispered back. "And I wish we both could..." Yet all the wishing would very likely burn up in the journey ahead of them. A soft ache glistened across his senses, overturning conclusions wherever it lit. Could what?

No longer what he had thought, but an answer lay suddenly within reach, and it made him shiver when Sam's hand moved slowly up his arm and settled on his shoulder, squeezing as if to make sure of him. Safe. But the careful pressure reached through his bones and stalked down his spine.

"Sam?" He tipped his head, and perhaps Sam felt his breath on the back of his hand. His grip dropped away in an instant.

Frodo bit his lips together, keeping the disappointment sealed and his breath inside, till it rushed out at a touch that trailed carefully down from his temple along his jaw to his chin. When Sam cupped his face in both hands, a fine heat threaded into Frodo's chest that stung like grief but wasn't.

The dark didn't change when he closed his eyes, but it delivered him to the searching movement of fingertips wandering over his face, to the roughened skin of Sam's palms, into the hands he had watched so often. The touch raised those memories, a slide through weaving summer grass and up along the curved stems of spring shoots, dipping through sun-flecked leaves -- but there was a trembling in those sure hands now that flushed his chest with goosebumps, hot and cold -- and from it skipped a dazzled understanding that spread over and under his skin, that brimmed over and out like a radiance.

"Sam..." he breathed close to Sam's ear, "is it..." What?

What had always been there, drawn about him like a mantle, with the same unassuming warmth, invisible and boundless as the air that he breathed. And so present now he could fill his hands with it, feel it spill over and through him, till his pulse jumped high into his throat. More than enough to fill these great dark gulfs.

so much

Frodo's breath caught as comprehension cleared a slow, scalding trail that ran all the way through him. All he could do was reach out again to bury his fingers in Sam's hair, brushing soft curls from his forehead that he imagined bright in full daylight. All this time he had been looking for a limit, a hold, but there was none save for the small waymarks he'd learned at his fingertips. The sudden understanding their shallow breaths sketched into the darkness.

Words clogged somewhere at the back of his throat, all tangled up in dazed wonder and the forgiveness of Sam's slow caresses against his face. But with every moment his heart beat faster, and now his finger followed the lower curve of Sam's mouth, retracing words or breath along that vulnerable line. Those lips, forming his name without a sound.

"I wish I'd known... why didn't I?" Frodo burrowed close and held fast, while his thoughts staggered round in a circle.

"Shhh..." Sam whispered, stroking a tremor down his back, yet there was nothing steady for the moment, and Frodo could feel his lashes catch against Sam's cheek. "But, Sam, I understand now... and it's -- I'm--"

He faltered there, because it couldn't be made to fit inside a single word. A smile pushed in the way of trying, and when Sam turned his face their lips met over a small gap of surprise and unknown intent, and if it was the mere breath of a kiss, it still caused a small burst in Frodo's chest and lingered on his mouth like a slowly blooming taste. It was a while before he realised that neither of them had been at all startled.

Through the near dark, it was stunningly easy to find Sam's mouth with his own again and envelop a half-formed "oh" in a delayed surge of amazement. Cautious pressure dissolved into slow, soft movement, Sam's breath warm on his upper lip, and filtered through him one impression at a time. Swift flickers of pleasure stretched as far as his fingers and toes, warming all the places that had grown tense with waiting.

It wasn't what he had intended, it wasn't anything expected, and while all that it wasn't skittered about his head, he breathed in deep, and Sam's lips parted against his and clung with the same want that had very little to do with need for air. And then it was as simple and beautiful as breathing sunlight, and more than answer enough.

Frodo shifted up on an elbow, his hand still stretched against Sam's jaw, as if everything might fall away into darkness if he lost this touch, and the kissing deepened for all the time that it hadn't happened. Silence sifted around them, swayed to the rough cadence of mingled breathing, and when a soft sound escaped between them Frodo could feel the taut muscles in Sam's arm over his back, goosebumps running up and down to meet between his own shoulderblades. With a gasp catching in Sam's throat and a sigh breathed back into him, they pushed closer together, their tongues tangling and their fingers still reading each other's face, treasuring a small fortune of unimagined discoveries.

Between his splayed fingers, Frodo cradled pulsebeats that stumbled, paused and ran high just like his own. There was no certain course to what he wanted, but it rose out of him and spread into the dark, setting all those airy spaces astir. And now he was dropping kisses over every inch of Sam's face and pressed into Sam's hands wherever they touched. Everything he felt rushed out on the surface of his skin to shiver against the sudden strength in Sam's grip, and Sam kissed his throat with open lips, as breathless as he was.

His fingers were clenched into the front of Sam's weskit, Frodo realised, and he wanted to touch with an urgency that rippled strangely through him. As if he were back on the stairs with the hollow deep sharp on his heels, though now it opened within himself. A swift thrill like fear hurried through him, his next breath ripping at his throat, too loud in the silken silence.

There had been fear at the beginning of this, but not at the root, this much he knew now, even though ends and beginnings swam in the dark, and the fear would certainly stay. Yet no sense of falling struck because he'd already been caught. And perhaps Sam needed to hold on to him as much as he needed --

A distant sound strained through his vague efforts to piece thoughts together from all this drifting. Measured footsteps, then Gandalf's low tones and Pippin's whispered reply.

Frodo pressed his face against the side of Sam's neck and couldn't quite tell anymore how they'd come to lie in such a close embrace, so tight he felt the contours of Sam's body through layers of cloth, set down in fevered lines on his own skin. The buttons of his shirt printing themselves on his chest, a solid pattern against the flying heat that made his stomach clench and stopped nowhere.

Stop, he told himself. But his eyes pricked hot when he touched the warmth that lay like a glow on Sam's skin, the start of a smile moving against his touch, and he could easily see it all with his fingers. He could stop himself and seal off a corner within the greater silence, but that was all, and he could not stop himself from knowing. The last kiss still weightless and joyful on his lips, and he missed it already. Still too big for words -- but Frodo knew he should try anyway.

"This is why," he murmured over Gandalf and Pippin's exchange and the shuffle that followed, into the damp breathy warmth between them, "...why I can't bear it when you put yourself in danger for me. You'll have to promise me to be very careful..." And there was much more that he wanted to say, but a raw hurt crept up his throat and shook in his voice, so he reached for Sam's hand and folded their fingers tight.

There was a pause and a small noise when Sam cleared his throat. "...I promise you."

Quick tripping sparks gave him a glimpse of Sam's face -- ruffled hair and soft shadows and the wide open tenderness in his eyes -- and only when those glimmers had long faded did Frodo realise that it had been Gandalf lighting his pipe. Across the chamber stirred a ruddy gleam, puffs of Longbottom Leaf trailing a rare scent of home.

Frodo glanced at the clasped hands held between their chests and could see them outlined; so faint it was impossible to tell them apart. The merest sketch of knuckles and fingers, connecting the jumble of heartbeats between them.

"It must be late." Sam's voice sounded hoarse when he added, "we should be sleeping while we can."

"I could sleep now," Frodo answered, sleep on the edge of his senses, even if the wild notions that spun so much closer would have none of it. He had no reason, and every reason to feel so light-headed, here of all places. Could Sam guess that he was smiling?

Frodo leaned forward to ensure that Sam knew. Their lips brushed softly together, but he couldn't let it last too long, or there would be no sleeping at all. "Good night, Sam."

Before restless thought could set in again, Frodo craned his neck to locate the comforting glow of Gandalf's pipe, a red twinkle from the shadows assuring him that there was for now nothing to fear.

So long as Gandalf watched over them, he could dream himself far into this safety, drift deeper into endless warmth and gentle breathing that filled him to the limits of his skin. So long as Sam was beside him.

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* next in this series: The Wind in the Wish *

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