Disclaimer: Characters: Tolkien's; places: Tolkien's; quotes: Tolkien's; eyes: Elijah Wood's.

The Hands of a Healer

The twisted shadow of a figure slunk around the corner of the wall of the palace in Osgiliath, all but unnoticed in the rainy evening. Few were out and about, having sought shelter from the early autumn rain in the warmth of homes and taverns, and those that walked the streets were hurrying to similar shelter. Such people might have glanced at the misshapen creature, dismissed it as a trick the dim light and the distortion of the rain played on their eyes, and hurried on.

Huddled in the corner of the alcove that shaded the portcullis of the palace, the stooped figure hugged itself, perhaps trying to dry its soiled, ragged clothing with its own body heat, or perhaps wrapped in some distant dream. It muttered to itself with no passersby to regard it askance and no sentries, in this peaceful age, to wonder at it.

"I pity snails, and all that carry their homes on their backs," it said, its voice cracked and strained, but maintaining the remembrance of a high, melodious, cultured manner of speech.

A young page, going around to the servants' door, caught sight of the pathetic creature and heard its deranged mutterings. With both fear and pity in his heart, he hurried to the lady of the house – she feared nothing. She would know what to do.

The wooden gates were opened from the inside, the portcullis rose, and Éowyn, clad in white brocade, gazed out at the rain. Peering around the corner of the great doors, her eyes fell on the little refugee and instantly filled with pity for the cold, wet, emaciated, deformed thing.

It was roused from its stupor by the opening of the gates; its eyes met Éowyn's steadily, and seeing something else – another place, another time – and responding to words unspoken by an unseen companion, it declared, "I said so, because I purpose to enter Mordor, and I know no other way. Therefore I shall go this way. I do not ask anyone to go with me."

Éowyn carefully scrutinized it – him; it was a him, something in the voice or the eyes told her – the words echoing in her head, a surmise taking form in the tumult in her mind. She could see resoluteness, and something of a desperate hope in the creature's immeasurable blue eyes – the last thing about it that looked human – and it reminded her strongly of herself.

"Who are you?" she asked softly, gently, wonderingly, pityingly.

"I should like to save the Shire, if I could," the little creature said, by way of an answer. He was silent again, and gazed into space – resignedly, it seemed, with a trace of longing. Éowyn made to speak or move forward, though to what end she was unsure, when the strained voice continued: "But this would mean exile, a flight from danger into danger, drawing it after me. And I suppose I must go alone, if I am to do that and save the Shire. But I feel very small, and very uprooted, and well – desperate. The Enemy is so strong and terrible."

Éowyn's eyes widened as at last she was sure she understood. "You are the Ring-bearer," she said quietly. Suddenly, the steady, deep, pain-filled azure eyes turned wild and one twisted, discolored hand flew to grasp for something beneath the torn, filthy vest and shirt, both of which appeared to have once been of fine make and high-quality material. "Stand away! Don't touch me!" he cried hoarsely. "It is mine, I say. Be off!" Then his demeanor changed again, and the stooped, misshapen creature took on a stern presence, seeming a mockery of some fallen nobility. Still clutching an unseen pendant hanging on his breast, he warned, his voice stronger and remembering more of its old melody, "But it is more treacherous than you are. It may twist your words. Beware!"

Éowyn knew looking at his wasted frame that the once-hobbit would weigh no more than a two-year-old child, so bearing the touch of his scarred, rotted flesh with pity mixed with her disgust, she took him into her arms, half supported on her hip, half folded close to her chest. "I am all right. I can walk. Put me down!" he protested weakly. His skin, a mass of red, white, and grayish scar tissue, was burning hot with fever. As she walked hurriedly through the halls, the little halfling burning and muttering in her arms, Éowyn began to weep. The soft sound of her sobs, the sigh of her brocade slippers, and the Ring-bearer's half-conscious mumble of "But I am going to Mordor…It's the only way…" echoed hollowly in the stone corridor, causing Éowyn's tears to redouble at the emptiness and the unfairness of it all. She reached the small sitting room where her husband, the Prince of Ithilien, and their visitor, the King of Gondor and Arnor, were engaged in amiable conversation. The silver-adorned oak door was slightly ajar; she pushed it aside, stepped into the room, and announced her presence with an insistent, shaky-voiced "My lords."

Aragorn and Faramir both turned at once, eyebrows raised with concern. As they took in Éowyn's tear-stained face and crumpled burden, Aragorn's brow furrowed and Faramir's eyes widened.

Despite his changed features, Aragorn – perhaps from facial structure, or the hobbit's distinctive eyes – instantly recognized his former companion and his breath caught in his throat in horror. Faramir, not so familiar with the halfling that was, anxiously met his wife's tear-filled eyes and whispered, "Éowyn, what – ?" and then shook his head in wordless confusion. The creature huddled in her arms looked strangely familiar, but the association he made was not quite the same as Aragorn's.

Hearing for the first time in what seemed an eternity a voice he knew that came not from within his fevered brain, the twisted figure stirred in Éowyn's grasp. "We have come by long ways – out of Rivendell, or Imladris as some call it. Seven companions we had: one we lost at Moria…" Here his voice faltered, called somehow out of his broken, far-eyed recitation. He gazed at his company with clouded eyes, his brows creased in confusion. Éowyn sank to her knees before Aragorn's chair and set the small, twisted-limbed creature down, then stood and bowed her head, her face buried in her hands with a grief that she could not explain.

"The little Shire-dweller who bore the Bane of Men into Mordor, unwavering though not unafraid," Faramir said softly, understanding filling his voice with sorrow. "I wished that we might meet again, though I entertained no hope of it. Alas that I should live to see this friend once more, yet think him more alike to his wretched gangrel companion than to himself! Is this the fate the Valar in their endless wisdom give to one so noble?"

As he crouched there on the floor, the little halfling's eyes searched in confusion for Faramir's, but he could only look past the other with his sad, steady blue gaze. "Will you not put aside your doubt of me and let me go?" he said quietly, wearily, and with a sigh slumped to the ground to lie there crumpled and broken. The only sound to break the stillness of the room and confirm that the hobbit still lived was the torn edge of his breathing.

Then Aragorn slid from his chair to kneel before the halfling. He took the gaunt, fevered face gently in his hands and raised him up. With his thumbs he kindly stroked what remained of the hobbit's crop of dark, curly hair – sparser, now, lank and gone gray in but five years' time. He cupped the hobbit's cheeks lightly in his palms, and, his wise gray eyes alight with compassion and pain, looked steadily into the distant blue gaze of the other, desperately searching for recognition, for comprehension. His hushed voice laden with intensity and quiet urgency, he said – the first sound he uttered since Éowyn had entered the room – what none of them had yet dared say: "Frodo."

As though called from very far away, the halfling's eyes focused on Aragorn's with an expression of revelation. As their eyes met, something in the hobbit's shattered mind mended, and Frodo was looking out from behind those eyes again.

"Strider," he whispered, and Éowyn wondered if he had fallen into another memory; but "Strider," he said again, his rasping voice clearer this time. "Aragorn, see what has become of me," he said, his plea a quiet cry of hopelessness.

"How long?" he begged, his wide eyes full of desperate suffering. "How long has it been? It feels like an eternity, an eternity of nightmarish pain."

"The nightmare is over at last, Frodo," Aragorn said with earnest, fervent conviction, trying to reassure himself as much as the other. "You are awake, and never think of anything else."

Frodo shook his head, licking his dry, cracked lips and despairingly closing his eyes. "No; this is only a dream. I am asleep and will wake again to the torture of that dungeon." His eyes still closed, he whispered, "I would rather they let me die."

Tears coursing freely down his cheeks, Aragorn shook his head. "No, no, I am here," he insisted, choked and hoarse with sorrow. His palms, roughened by years in the wilderness and like a giant's as they cradled the little halfling's ruined face, gently but firmly caressed Frodo's sunken cheeks, his callused fingers skimming carefully over the smooth, raised old scars, the serrated ridges of newer, unhealed cuts. "Touch my hands, Frodo; I am here. In God's name, believe me!"

Frodo slowly and hesitantly – for he wished to make this comforting dream last as long as possible – covered Aragorn's strong, skilled hands with his own small, gnarled, crushed ones. His breathing light and shallow with disbelief, he shakily reached out to finger the former Ranger's weather-beaten face, run his palms over the coarse bristles that shaded his jaw. Trembling, he withdrew his hands and brought them to cover his eyes. His breathing had grown slow and deep as he tried to still its quavering and hold back tears – of what, he was not sure. Relief, perhaps, or release; perhaps of simple misery for the ruins of his life. Or perhaps he wept because he did not know what to weep for.

Aragorn took his old friend into his arms and together they wept – for all that had been lost, for the too-high price that had been paid for victory – while Faramir and Éowyn looked on respectfully, in silent tears themselves. As he held the hobbit's shattered body to his breast, the dry, fevered, ravaged skin of Frodo's face pressed against his own cheek, Aragorn could hear, echoing, taunting him mercilessly inside his brain, the words of the Mouth of Sauron at the Black Gate: "And now he shall endure the slow torment of years, as long and slow as our arts in the Great Tower can contrive, and never be released, except maybe when he is changed and broken, so that he may come to you, and you shall see what you have done…"

"It was in my power to save you from this fate," Aragorn whispered through his tears. "How can I ever tell you 'I'm sorry'?"

"In return for what could you have saved me? For the surrender of Middle-earth?" Frodo asked softly, all his sorrow and pain and world-weariness shown raw and bare in his eyes. "Would that have been any less a betrayal of me and my struggle?"

Unable to answer, choked by his grief and inconsolable guilt, Aragorn simply ran his fingers with care through the hobbit's limp locks. Then, his throat constrained by the strength of the emotions that raged within him, he drew breath shakily and said, "I can never make right what I have done, or undo what you have suffered, but I swear to you that I will do all that is in my power to heal your wounds, and pledge all the skill and grace that I as King possess. I swear it by Elbereth the Star-kindler, by Lúthien the Fair, by my love undying for Arwen Evenstar, by the Star of Eärendil that illumines both morning and evening, by the word of the Father of All. As I brought Éowyn before you from the edge of death – that she would in turn bring you to me! – as I called you out of your tormented dreams – I swear that whatever I can do to mend this – "

"And what would you do, Aragorn?" Frodo interrupted, but not harshly or bitterly. "Would you break and reset every bone in my body? With what would you graft these scars? I have no wound that your athelas, or even your King's hands, could cure."

Aragorn fell silent, the hopelessness of these words filling his heart with emptiness, though he had never had hope that what Frodo said was untrue. "Then let me at least ease your pain in any way I can," he begged.

"I think that I am beyond pain now, Aragorn," was all the hobbit replied.

"Oh, God, would you render me helpless, Frodo?" Aragorn cried out, anguish tearing at his voice and heart. "Would you force me to watch your torment like this and do nothing?" Even as he uttered these words, Aragorn suddenly knew in his soul what Frodo had not yet said aloud but spoke with every sorrowful word, every pained and weary glance. And Frodo knew that Aragorn understood – perhaps from the despair and pity that filled his eyes, or from the hope of denial that had gone out of them.

"Do not ask me, Frodo," Aragorn choked out. "For the love of God, do not ask me to…"

"Then I do not ask you," Frodo said resolutely, his voice quiet but at last clear. "I invoke your oath by Elbereth and Lúthien the Fair, by Undómiel, Eärendil, and Ilúvatar. Heal me, Aragorn, in the only way that you can."

"I cannot – "

"I will feel no pain."

"I cannot murder you, Frodo," Aragorn said roughly.

"In the name of any love you ever bore for me, do me this one mercy," Frodo cried, his voice breaking. "Put aside your doubt, Aragorn, and let me go." Faramir started as the hobbit echoed the words he had spoken to the Man, long ago, in what seemed another life. "I am weary, and full of grief…"

"…but no longer afraid?" Faramir asked in a muted tone. Frodo's tired, deeply wounded blue eyes – the one outward attribute that remained of the hobbit who once was – met Faramir's unwaveringly.

"I fear nothing for myself anymore."

Aragorn sighed with a grief and regret too great for words, even for tears. "Very well," he said, rising from where he knelt. He turned to draw Andúril from her scabbard at his side and glimpsed Éowyn still standing beside the table, silent sobs shaking in her and tears streaming down her face. Aragorn paused, frozen by the horror of what he had to do.

"What is the date, Aragorn, and the time?" Frodo asked lightly, perhaps trying to break the weighted silence.

"September the twenty-ninth, Third Age thirty twenty-four," Aragorn replied quietly.

"And it is sunset," Faramir added, glancing up at the skylight in the ceiling, where he could see the rain clouds beginning to part and the crimson glow of evening fading to violet dusk.

Frodo closed his eyes with a small smile, thinking of the Shire far away, where things like the date and the season and the time of day mattered, for life was lived in rhythm with earth and Sun. But then a frown of concern furrowed his brow, and without opening his eyes, he quietly pleaded, "You must promise me you won't tell Sam."

Aragorn did not need to ask why. "I will not. I promise."

Frodo put a hand to the breast of his filthy, ragged shirt and found his heart beneath it. His fingers parted where he felt its labored throb. His eyes still closed, he took in a small breath of anticipation.

Unnerved by the casualness with which he was about to do this terrible deed, Aragorn, for the sake of hollow ceremony, held his sword vertically before his eyes, the flat of the blade facing him. Dread weighting his heart, he leveled Andúril's point at the breast of the dearest of friends, now a twisted, deformed creature crouched brokenly at his feet. He plunged the blade down, and as though in a dream, he did not feel the impact of steel piercing flesh, did not see blood spilling from the open wound. He only saw that as the sword went through his heart, Frodo's face once more became his own, his skin moon-white, his face a perfect marble image, and his hair dark as rain-washed earth…but then he returned to the wasted, ruined, Gollum-like being he had become. That instant was only Aragorn's imagination, or so he thought, until Éowyn whispered through her weeping, "He was healed, then, at last…"

~~~~

"Frodo!" Aragorn cried hoarsely as he sat up abruptly in bed, his face wet with sweat and tears. Arwen was startled awake beside him, and propped herself up on her elbows. She scrutinized her husband with concern, her eyes bright in the gloom of their bedroom. "What's the matter?" she asked gently.

"Nothing," he said quietly, settling on his pillow again and staring at the ceiling. "It was only a dream." Of course it was only a dream, he berated himself. It wasn't logical anyway. If the Dark Tower had fallen, how could it have contrived any more arts of slow torment? If Frodo had been imprisoned all that time, how could the Ring have been destroyed at all? Or if Sam had gone on and destroyed it – and this is the most nonsensical of all – how could he have left without trying to rescue his master, even his master's body, if he thought Frodo was dead? But as much as he reassured himself that none of it made any sense, he was haunted by the images impressed into his sleeping mind.

Sensing that Aragorn was still disturbed by what had woken him, Arwen asked mildly, "Do you want to tell me about it?"

Aragorn at first tensed with doubt, but yielded to his heart's urgent desire to tell someone the awful things he had seen and that still plagued and tortured his mind. Arwen listened with silent sympathy, her kind, sorrowful understanding prompting Aragorn to spare no detail. When he finished, he was weeping again for the recollection of the dreadful scenario.

"Use your elvish wisdom, Elf-maid, and interpret my dream for me," Aragorn teased laughingly, trying to stop his tears.

Arwen did not laugh. "It is guilt, Aragorn," she said gently. "Guilt that still remains, these eighty years gone."

"Guilt?" Aragorn repeated skeptically. "For what? None of this came to pass. And at any rate, Gandalf never would have rejected the terms that Sauron's servant gave if he had not known that he was bluffing, and Frodo could not possibly have been in captivity, since the Dark Lord had not been reunited with his Ring."

"Guilt that for all your knowledge of elvish medicine, for all your wisdom and your King's healing hands that cured the touch of the Black Breath and called Faramir, Éowyn, and little Merry back from death, you could not heal a wound that you could not see." She gazed intently at him through the darkness; the moonlight slanting through the window fell between them and glittered in midnight-blue eyes. "And Frodo took the ship to Valinor in my place to seek healing of the second wound that you had not the skill to mend. Even the Elves' medicine could do nothing, and you knew it. But still you blamed yourself."

"I would have bathed in athelas the wound to his soul, if I could have," Aragorn vowed softly.

"Did you think that wound was just like the cut of a knife in his heart? He was twisted and broken with long torment, Aragorn; though his mind had been healed, his soul had been forever changed, and though he did not always feel pain in those scars, with what could they have been grafted?"

"Oh, Arwen," Aragorn sighed. "It seems that the fate of the Ring-bearer was never in my hands. Always the way to best serve him, and the only way to heal him, was still to let him go."

"But it was not his death, Aragorn. Be comforted that he could not be healed only by death."

"He is dead by now," Aragorn said simply.

"Yes, most likely."

"And Sam sailed west twenty years past to join him in the Undying Lands. Do you think they saw each other once more, before Frodo died? Do think he waited, knowing Sam would come?"

Arwen was silent a moment, her eyes glinting with reflected moonlight, then replied with quiet conviction, "I have no doubt that Frodo waited. Just as Sam always followed, Frodo always waited for him. He would never go where Sam could not follow." She paused, then asked softly, "Will you wait for me, Estel?"

"What?" Aragorn said with alarm, taken aback.

"Will you wait for me, when you go? I swear that I will follow."

"Then I will wait," Aragorn vowed tenderly, and pulled Arwen close. "I will wait. I promise."

Author's Note: Hee! Did I surprise you?

And here I am…yielding, once more, to my charactericidal tendencies. But that part in the chapter "The Black Gate Opens" (in Book V of The Return of the King) just tore at my heart when I first read it. I could feel the pain that Gandalf, Pippin, and Aragorn must have been going through, forced to choose between condemning Frodo to a lifetime of torture and condemning Middle-earth to an eternity of slavery. The worst part was that there was no doubt about what the choice had to be; it just hurt for them to feel responsible for their friend's suffering (though I knew that that wasn't going to happen). And when Gandalf took Frodo's belongings – I felt like I was going to cry – Sorry. Getting myself under control now.

So I wanted to explore the What if they had sentenced Frodo to what the Mouth of Sauron foretold? idea. Then I realized that there was no way in hell that would have logically worked. See above fic for details. But that terrible moment in which every possible end was a catch-22 – the "sadistic choice," as it was termed in "Spider-man" – must have haunted Aragorn for a long time, so why not make it a dream? Dreams aren't logical, but you certainly don't realize that at the time. The really odd thing about that solution is that it was inspired by an episode of "Gilmore Girls" that opened with a dream sequence in which Lorelai was married to Luke and pregnant with his twins…but the viewers didn't know it was a dream until Lorelai woke up, and I was horrified for the three minutes in which I thought I had missed something major. I got the idea for Aragorn asking Arwen to analyze his dream from Lorelai's frantic call to Rory. Rory's reply, by the way, was that the dream meant Lorelai was in love with Luke and wanted to have his twins. The "I reject that analysis" reaction was also inspired by said episode of "Gilmore Girls."

For those of you who don't watch "Gilmore Girls" and are now completely lost, here's something that you can all relate to: I need reviews. (Nice lead-in to my shameless self-advertising, eh?) So if you liked this fic, read my others! Lots and lots of angst! Though few equal this one in volume of angst, "A Different Valinor" and "'Samwise Gamgee and the Ring'" (read the Extended Edition – it's better – then read the second chapter of the original), my other two funfun Frodo-death fics, come close.