At Arm's Length

It took hobbit ears to catch the soft sounds of hobbit feet on bare stone, in the pitch dark.

Sam was straining his head to the utmost, hardly breathing, while trying to look asleep. The movement of air, in the still cave, was clearer to his senses than the scraping of soles on stone. The feet stopped and there was rustling of clothes and bedroll behind his back. Then silence, for several heartbeats.

'Sam? Are you awake?'

It was the barest whisper. Sam didn't move, breathing as slowly and naturally as he could, and presently there was more rustling and settling and curling up, knees almost touching Sam's back. Sam had to restrain himself not to pull away.

Moria was not an easy place to get any rest in, but that night Sam found it harder than it should have been. Yes, I am awake, he thought forlornly. I am wide awake and so are you, Mr Frodo, wandering about. What can there be to do in the middle of the night, in the deepest dark of Moria? He didn't want to guess, even to himself.

In the morning - if it could be called that - he was tired and bad tempered. In the faint light from Gandalf's staff he watched Frodo's face, and saw to his irritation that he looked rested and at ease, even happy. When they started walking again, he tried to put Legolas between them, but it was by now expected that Frodo and Sam walked together and were generally inseparable, so he kept on ending up at Frodo's heels anyway somehow. Thankfully, he found the walking harder and harder as the hours wore on, and was prevented from thinking too much or feeling too much apart from stubbed toes and aching lungs. Strider brought up the rear as usual, so he was spared the sight of him, although this he was not grateful for, as he was sick with eagerness to search the Ranger's face.

They stopped to eat after some hours. Sam chewed his bread without looking up, as there was little to see anyway. Merry and Pippin was bickering about something, and the others were listening and laughing under their breaths. When the light flickered over the right way, Sam saw a smile soften Legolas's handsome face. He was sure that the corners of the wizards' mouth were curling under his beard as well, on the other side of the circle. But then the light shifted again, and in a split-second sliver of light falling over Gandalf's shoulder, Sam barely saw Frodo's face just beyond, smiling too, but his face was not turned towards Pippin or Merry, but to the side, and the smile was secretive, glowing, flushed. Sam's chest constricted so he could hardly swallow.

They were all anxious to get the dark walk over with, so they set off again, and this time Sam couldn't keep the thoughts away no matter how strenuous the work. He kept seeing Frodo's face before his eyes, wherever he looked in the dark, wishing he had never seen what he had seen. What made a person look like that? What could you possibly have to smile about in the dankest, foulest, most hopeless pit in Middle-Earth? Sam knew, he had a suspicion in his head that had almost grown into conviction, but his heart did not want to hear what his head had to say. The treachery was too great. When Gandalf announced, at last, that they had better stop for the night, Sam wanted nothing so much as to fall down and be unconscious as soon as possible.

But sleep eluded him. Against his will, his ears strained into the dark, hoping against hope that he would not hear anything. But a little while after all other sounds had gone out, he heard rustling again, and although he could not see the faintest movement in the inky blackness, he knew as surely as if it was himself moving, that Frodo was getting up. There were the slightest brushing sounds as he tiptoed, quickly, away beyond Sam's hearing. Sam's throat ached, as if he was trying to swallow an apple whole, and he pulled his blanket over his head and stuffed it into his ears.

When had this started? Never before the mines had Frodo been in the habit of wandering about at night, not even before they got to the mountains, when the journey had still been relatively easy. He and Frodo had slept next to each other since the first step out of the Shire, very close on cold nights, and Frodo had never been anything but affectionate and jolly. And honest, always honest, and as innocent as his own clear eyes. Sam had not been looking, but he couldn't believe that he would have been so blind as to overlook signs as obvious as these, which he couldn't miss even in the pitch dark of the mines.

He tried to go to sleep before the steps returned, and he managed it, with the blanket wrapped tightly around his head against any further hurt.

When he woke, he felt no better. His sleep had been full of suspicion and disturbances and had brought no rest. Frodo was shaking him, gently, by the arm.

'Sam. Sam! Come on, wake up. The others are already awake.'

Sam sat up. He could barely make out Frodo's face, the gleam of eyes. Getting up, Sam grabbed his bedroll and started sullenly to bundle it up as well as he could in the dark. He could hear Frodo getting up as well. The others were gathering around their packs in the light of Gandalf's staff, sharing food and talking in low voices.

'Shall I get you a piece of bread?' Frodo offered.

Sam grunted, unable to look in Frodo's direction. But as he heard Frodo walk away towards the others, he lowered his bundle and stared after his shadow in the gloom. Misery and loneliness settled on his shoulders, heavy as the haunted dark.

Having packed up and eaten, standing up, they set off again. Sam brooded, feeling a strange restlessness as well as the same pangs of jealousy that had soured the day before. He walked in the front this time, right behind Gandalf. As the day wore on, there were more stairs than before, and sometimes he had to use his hands and feet both to scramble up the tall steps, which were cracked and broken, covered in dust and rock splinters, and here and there sat rattling piles of debris that Sam did even want to guess at. Once he laid his hand on what he recognised as a hammer in the dark, with a great timber handle, too big for his hands by far, and a cold, dusty metal head. He shuddered and climbed on.

Suddenly he heard a gasp from Merry behind him. Gandalf heard it too and stopped, lowering his staff. Sam turned too, finding Merry examining a bleeding cut in his dirty palm. On the step below Sam's feet lay half an arrow, just visible in the gloom.

'Come here, my lad,' Gandalf said, brows knit. 'Let us take a look at that, and see if we can find something to bind it in.'

His staff grew a little brighter, and Merry climbed past Sam holding his right hand in his left. But Sam stood as riveted. Frodo had fallen behind during the past hours, behind Merry and Pippin, Boromir and Legolas, behind Gimli even. His eyes strained to the edge of Gandalf's bleak light. Frodo's hand was, as sure as he had eyes in his head, in the Rangers'. And on the man's lean and stubbly face was an unmistakably tender look as he helped Frodo up a broken step.

Sam turned away, helplessness and grief and jealousy bubbling up inside him like poison and making his mouth taste sour and sick, like something rotten. He wanted to run away, up the steep steps into the blackness, but Gandalf had not finished wrapping a clean rag from his bag around Merry's hand. Sam had to stand there, chest heaving and eyes stinging, until he was done, and he felt the wizard's grave eyes on him before he turned away and started up the steps again.

He managed to stay away from Frodo's immediate presence for the rest of the day. Towards evening, he started to become aware that the helplessness and loneliness that had churned all day in his belly had somehow turned into a hard knot of anger. Never in his life had he been separated from Frodo like this, never had he thought of anything but Frodo's well-being, his happiness, his safety. Wasn't it obvious? Couldn't everyone see it, that Frodo was his, by right, and that he was Frodo's and that nobody was ever meant to come between them? And here, hiding in the convenient dark, came that man, with his unshaven face and shifty eyes, out of nowhere, and thought he could... Sam's fists tightened. He had been as grateful as anyone to Strider in Rivendell, when it had become clear that if it wasn't for his swift decision to send Frodo ahead on the elf-horse, and for his healing herbs, and his hands on Frodo's wound pulling him back from the edge, Frodo would not have lived. He had looked at Strider across Frodo's bed early in the morning when Elrond told them that the fever had broken, and he hadn't known what to say, but Strider had reached out and put his hand over Sam's, which held Frodo's, and squeezed it with a little smile. Sam had been too relieved to hold any grudges.

He may know a lot, he thought, lying in the dark after Gandalf had let the light go out, Elven-lore and leech-craft and foreign tongues, but he doesn't know Mr Frodo, not at all. Who does he think he is? What had he told Frodo? How could he know what to say? He doesn't deserve him, he thought. I don't either but that's different. He turned over on the hard floor, sore and tense. That man didn't know Frodo as Sam did, didn't know his every little frown and smile and the way he walked from across the widest field. Sam didn't know much of the high and lofty stuff that Strider shone with among elves and Men and lords and ladies, but he could tell Frodo's breathing in the dark from that of a thousand other hobbits. Sam sniffed to himself under his blanket, too angry to cry.

He turned over again, unable to lie still. He was about to pull the blanket over his head again, but then he caught the sound of soft, regular breaths and realised that Frodo was still next to him, deep asleep for once. He felt a little better, but then he was angry again, and it hurt knowing that Frodo was sleeping so innocently only because he hadn't gotten enough sleep the two previous nights.

It made Sam's blood boil to think of it. And that scoundrel, that dirty great man over there, he was probably sitting waiting in his corner, thinking he could just have Mr Frodo for the asking. Just like that, when Sam had spent a lifetime, and all that soul-searching in Rivendell, and when he, that great noisy bumbling coarse-handed unshaven man didn't know the first thing about what Frodo really was, how lucky he really was. Pearls before swine, Sam thought, great tall trinket-wearing swine but swine all the same. Why, he had probably never set eyes on more than a half- dozen hobbits in his life, he probably didn't care, to him, one hobbit was probably just as good as...

Sam held his breath, and then a thought came into his head that he had never thought he would ever recognise if he saw it. He lay for several heartbeats, still as a rock. How dare he even think it? He, Samwise the gardener whose generous heart had so far in his life never played host to a dishonest thought. And there it was in his own head.

But the demon was in him, this was a night among a million, and although no more than a half-minute separated this moment from the previous, Sam suddenly didn't feel at all like himself.

Was the dark deep enough? Surely it was, there was none deeper in Middle- Earth. Gandalf had said that with any luck, they should be out tomorrow evening. Although he didn't quite know what he was doing, Sam drew his breath as silently as he could, folded back the blanket and got to his feet.

The cave was irregularly shaped, with many nooks and corners, and he could hear breathing from several of them. He stopped to orient himself: Legolas over there, hobbits to the far left, the wizard and the dwarf on either side. Boromir over by the wall.

He moved as quietly as he could. In his wretchedness earlier, he hadn't been able to stop himself from noticing in which corner Strider had sat down, and now he moved that way, silently as a shadow. He didn't really know what he intended to do, but his blood was up and he felt his fury course freely through his veins. He was convinced that nobody, not even the elf, could hear him even if he was awake - which he wasn't - and he moved fairly confidently. He would show that man. something, anyway. Show him how little he knew and how unworthy he was.

Suddenly, after what felt like only a few steps, he could smell leather faintly, and his toes touched cloth. A bedroll. Suddenly there was breathing, in the dark, closer than he had thought. Before he knew it or had time to collect his wits, Sam felt fingers brush the front of his clothes and then a hand confidently found his wrist in the dark and pulled. He nearly made a noise in surprise and panic.

Sam knew he must be quiet, and if possible not get too close, if he was to avoid being discovered. But he found himself drawn into arms, his face close to warm cloth. There was no creaking - the man must have taken the risk of slipping off his leather coat before sitting down. Sitting he was, Sam found, as he stumbled over a hard thigh and found his feet in the small space between legs much bigger than his own. Hands were on each of his upper arms, and breath was on his face as words were barely mouthed against his skin.

'Come here, you.'

He could feel the rough stubble a finely-split inch from his skin, and the warmth and the frisson of the not-quite touch together with the firmness of the large hands caused him to lose his purpose for a second. Then he felt lips on his throat, warm and smooth, and then on his mouth, and somehow his own opened at their touch.

A heartbeat later he drew back, remembering that he mustn't give the game away. He was far too close, his smell or the feel of his skin or clothes would give him away. Some game, he thought, not knowing whether to laugh or to cry. He pulled away, straightening up, his heart beating wildly. What should he do?

'Such a shy little one, aren't you.'

Sam could hear the smile on the lips as the words came to him on a barely audible breath. The hands slid down his arms to his wrists, pulling gently, until Sam had to fall onto his knees. Then one of them went to cup his face, the skin rough and dry and warm, like no hobbit hands Sam had ever known. His mouth went dry and he felt numb about the lips. He had to close his eyes as it slid down to his neck.

His neck! He couldn't let himself be touched anywhere around the neck - the man would find that the one thing that marked Frodo in any darkness was missing, and he would be found out. Sam tore away again, almost panicking.

This was impossible, why had he done this? What had got into him? What would he do now? His anger was as good as gone and instead of hot rushing blood making him brave there was just nerves, and he swallowed again as the large hands stroked his wrists, pushing the shirtsleeves up and down. He could feel the Ranger's body moving in the dark with every breath, could feel the large hands covering the pulse on the inside of this wrists. The hands moved to his waist, his back, his hips. He would never get away with this and he couldn't even begin to imagine the consequences of that without his toes curling up. It was impossible.

'If that's how you want it.'

And then it became truly impossible, because one of the large hands took his own and pulled it down, and Sam felt smooth leather and heat and a great hardness, and his ears began to tingle. He thought he would burst with nervousness.

'.we can stay at. arm's length.'

Sam sat as if petrified.


The voice was close to his ear now, no longer teasing, but low and throaty, the lips shaping the word in his hair. Sam's hands felt numb, but the fear of being found out was strong and he tried to imagine what he might have done if he had really been the one Strider expected. His cheeks blossomed in the dark. He moved his hand. The man's breath caught for a moment, almost imperceptibly, but Sam found what he was looking for, the end of a leather thong. He pulled his other wrist from the gentle grip and felt shakily for the lacings that he knew must be there.

As he slowly folded the soft leather to the sides and touched the hot skin with his fingertips, the otherworldly demon got into Sam for the second time that night, but this time the blood rushed in his ears with a different sound. May the devil take it all. He bent his hot head and closed his hands around what he found. There was no other way out now, he had been foolish but somehow he didn't care anymore. He felt as if he had a fever and couldn't think clearly.

The Ranger's hands came up again, seeking to wrap themselves around his neck and draw his face forwards, but Sam ducked away. His skin burned where the large fingers had brushed against it, and he was finding it hard to keep his breath down.

It was as large as the hammer shaft he had laid his hand on in the dark on the stairs, but more finely carved. The skin was soft, soft and hot and smooth as the liquid wax on a fresh-dipped candle. Every now and then his hands touched soft curly hair. Sam somehow couldn't get enough of the curious feeling, and found that his heart had slowed somewhat.

He could hear the man's breath grow a little less easy. When his fingers tightened or grew more gentle, when they traced the length, crept across the large head or tangled in the hair, the breaths grew shallower or deeper or caught as if in fear. He tightened his fists more, experimentally, and there was a sharp gasp. Sam was entranced.

He played with the Ranger, growing more secure without losing that tingling nerviness. He soon came to the end of his experience - gained mostly on himself - but was not deterred. He was discovering a sense of control, a wonderful sense that settled his nerves and made him feel taller, stronger, almost. cruel. His hands parted company and one crept down below, to gently weigh and caress what it found there, and the man's body shook. He went a little more reckless, a little faster. I truly have him, Sam thought in the back of his head, listen to that, I can do what I want with him... I said I would show him... If only he knew, the great big... thief. As his fingers found an unseen spot along the underside, he was grabbed, suddenly, and his backside was squeezed so hard it almost hurt. The Ranger's face was in Sam's unruly hobbit hair, he could feel the hot, near silent gasps against his skin.

Sam twisted out of the grasp and away from the hands. This was getting dangerous. However much he wanted to keep feeling that the big man was at his mercy, and ever better, that he was unaware what was really happening to him, that he was fooled, the haughty Ranger fooled by a little darkness, a little hobbit, he knew he had to end it. He felt the hands on him again, searching, urging, insisting, and from he knew not where it came to him that he might bend down and put his lips on what he was holding.

The result couldn't have been better. Sam almost smiled. Keeping his lips lightly pressed against the tip, he found that it took only a few swift, hard caresses to cause it, and the whole Ranger with it, to shake violently, and then he was roughly torn away from his task and kissed hard. His mouth filled with the man's ragged breathing. His fingers were wet.

He jerked away, getting to his feet shakily. Enough, time to get away. But just as he was turning, those hands that seemed to see in the dark found his arm and caught him, pulling him back against the clothes. The whisper was close again. Sam resisted, pushing against the hard chest.

'You hobbits have some unusual talents...'

Sam bit his lip, breathing hard.

'Unusual talents indeed... Sam.'

He thought he would fall down dead. Had he heard right? He sat as if frozen in the hard grip of the ranger's hands as long seconds passed. The man's voice was still very close.

'Did you truly think you could get away with this, Sam? That you could deceive me?'

Sam had lost his voice.

'You are a foolish hobbit indeed, Sam.' It was a stern and scornful whisper.

As if dazed, Sam raised his fist and slowly wiped his mouth with it.

Strider was silent. Sam's heart beat and beat in the tense darkness. What would happen now? What would the ranger do to him? Dear, sweet heaven, what had he *done*? And suddenly he felt cold all over: what if Frodo found out?

'You have done no good this night, Sam.' There was anger as well as scorn in the ranger's voice now, and being so accused sparked a flame in Sam. He leaned closer.

'And you? You've nothing to be proud of either, if you ask me, Strider or whatever your name is.' He took a deep breath. 'You've turned poor Mr Frodo's head so he doesn't know what he does or says, and then you go fooling around with me, to top it all. It makes me right angry to think of you treatin' him like that. You're a regular scoundrel, and a traitor to boot,' he whispered fiercely.

'Who fooled with whom, Sam?' The voice was like a whip. 'I did not ask you to come here and try your witless little games.'

'I was let to, and it wasn't right! You didn't say no. Seems to me you liked the little game well enough.'

Sam didn't know where he got the courage. There was a moment's hesitation before the answer came.

'When you challenge, you have to be prepared to see the battle through. Do not blame your opponent if your courage fails.'

Sam's anger leapt up again. He had noticed the hesitation, and that the man hadn't really answered his accusation, and felt triumphant, despite everything.

'Oh tell it like it is, why don't you,' he hissed. 'You didn't notice, did you, until I had you good and going. You thought it was -' and here Sam's voice failed for a second, but he picked up again bravely, '- you thought it was him, didn't you. I know you did.'

The ranger tightened his grip on Sam's arms, but said nothing. Sam felt exhausted suddenly.

'You don't know - ' Sam started, but he lost his nerve.

The ranger still said nothing.

'You've no right!' Sam spat under his breath.

The ranger was still silent. Sam wrung himself free and stood up, trembling with anger and emotion.

'You speak of things you know nothing of.' The ranger's voice was controlled.

'I know what I see,' Sam hissed furiously.

'You may see, but you do not understand. Do not, Sam, dare to speak on your master's part.'

Tears of frustration rose in Sam's eyes. Wrong, it was all wrong, and Strider had a point, although he didn't want to admit it: He had *not* helped, quite the reverse. He tried to collect himself and think for a moment. He made his voice as steady as he could and whispered,

'If you tell Mr Frodo about this...'

There was a silence.

'I do not think you are in a position to tell me what to do, Samwise.'

Sam couldn't stand it any longer. He turned around and stumbled back to his bedroll, in the pitch dark, his cheeks already wet.

The hours of sleep allotted them in the lightless cave were almost over, but Sam spent the remainder twisted into a knot of agony under his blanket. He kept turning everything that had happened, and his own stupidity, over and over in his mind. He had let his feelings run away with what little wit he had, and he saw no way to put things right. Every time his thoughts touched the possibility that Frodo might find out what he had done he felt cold all over.

Sam, you blockhead, you dim-witted dolt, he thought, what did you have to go and stuff it all up for? You should have remembered that you're not the sharpest tool in the box at the best of times. You should have kept to your place and stayed out of what's not your business anyway. You'll be lucky if Mr Frodo says a word to you ever again, after this.

He cursed himself. Only a few hours before he had, in his delusion, thought of Strider, and even Mr Frodo, as a traitor, but now it was painfully clear to him that what he had done was far more treacherous. He wanted to hit himself, crack his head on the rock floor, but more than anything else he wanted to wake Mr Frodo, straight away, and tell him everything so he could beg him for forgiveness.

But he knew that it was impossible; he had done enough damage for one night. And so he lay under his blanket, wishing he had never been born, and listening from time to time to Frodo's slow, steady breathing not far away. In his guilt, he almost relished what it did to his heart.

When Gandalf's staff lit up again for the last dark walk, its light fell on some grim and wary faces. Sam rose wearily, packing up slowly. He had not slept, and everything seemed like a confusing and terrible dream. When they set off again, he walked right behind Gandalf, with his back to the entire Company, because his heart felt so heavy and fragile that he could not summon up the courage to meet anyone's eye.


The day had not begun well, but before it met its bloodstained end, Sam had seen horrors beyond the blackest nightmares, orcs and death and demons, and his mind did not dwell on his own misfortunes for long periods at a time.

His heart went out to Frodo as they came out of the mines and he saw him fighting to stay upright, to keep moving. He had seen him screaming, screaming the wizard's name, as if it was being ripped from his insides, and he yearned and ached to comfort him. But something held him back - it was as if it wasn't his place to comfort anymore.

He found himself studying them, surreptitiously, and against his better knowledge. It did not make him feel better. All of the fellowship was sad and subdued, and apprehensive about entering the Elf land, but he saw Frodo give his rare but still-radiant smiles to the man. He saw him seeking out the ranger's company, while walking or resting. He was ashamed, but he took to spying, in a small way, among the first sparse trees of Lórien.

If Frodo got anything in return for his smiles, then it was beyond Sam's subtlety to see it. The ranger appeared preoccupied, and met Frodo, as far as Sam could tell, with the same closed face as he did the others. He didn't seem eager to talk to Frodo, nor did he stay long by his side when the hobbit came and walked next to him. His face was worried, stern, sad - so much so that Sam almost started to doubt that his face was capable of holding a sweet expression at all, and that he had seen it with his own eyes.

Once, only once, Sam saw the man's eyes rest on Frodo.

It was early in the morning, and Sam was tending the fire and the frying pan. Under a nearby tangle of saplings, most of the others were still asleep, Frodo among them, nose pressed into a bent elbow and hair over his forehead like a little terrier. Out of habit, Sam was keeping an eye on the ranger as well as on the bacon, and his heart skipped a beat when he stealthily followed the man's gaze and found Frodo. Quick as lightning he glanced back at the man, and saw no sign that the man was aware of anyone else in the world but the sleeping hobbit.

Sitting very still, Sam watched the man's face while the bacon crackled and snapped in the pan. Then Frodo moved, Sam saw him rolling over with his arm over his eyes, and then Sam's eyes met the rangers, in a flash, but before Sam even had time to register consternation, the ranger had got up and walked away. After a few paralysed seconds, Sam just saved the smoking slices from burning.

Thankfully, that was the only time. Sam took care not to meet the man's eyes in that way again, and as the days went by and he didn't see that look on his face again, he began to wonder if he could hope that it was all over.

But how could it be over, when Frodo's face still crumpled with such anxiety and disappointment whenever he thought nobody was watching? Sam was watching, and what he saw filled him with so many conflicting emotions that he thought he would break in two: one Sam who watched Frodo's longing with sympathy, who could barely restrain himself from taking Frodo's hand and press it into the man's, and who was angry with the inconsiderate and inscrutable ranger on Frodo's behalf. and another one.

This second Sam was filled with a vague longing of his own, unnamed but sometimes strong enough to block out all other feelings and make Sam unable to take his eyes off his master. In this trance, Frodo's most ordinary movement - the way he reached for his cup, shrugged off his pack, rubbed his eyes when he was tired- became so enthralling that it took the words out of Sam's mouth and blocked all sounds except Frodo's voice, laugh, breathing, the very rustle of his clothes, from Sam's ears. Everything stopped. Sam barely knew it, but deep down in him there lived a belief, despite everything, a belief that fed on the familiarity of every gesture, every expression, every move, and on the vivid memories of that face as it had been at ten, at nineteen, at thirty-four.

At such times, he felt as if there was no one else in the world besides the two of them (even if Frodo wasn't even aware that Sam was looking at him), and that this was as it should, and to be reminded of reality was painful. Frodo had eyes for no one other than the man, his smiles went to him and they went in vain. Sam, confused and torn between his different sympathies and emotions, knew that it wasn't over, not by a long shot, but he didn't know what to do about it.

On the sixth night since they entered the woods, they made camp under a huge, grey-barked tree. The spaces between the great roots made admirable, mossy beds, just the right size for a man, or for a few hobbits. He bedded down next to Frodo as usual, the lamps were put out one by one, and once Pippin and Merry had sleepily settled a difference of opinion, all grew still.

After some time, Sam heard the sounds he had both feared and waited for: Frodo was getting up and creeping away. Since the mines, Frodo had slept like the dead, knocked down by grief and exhaustion, and Sam didn't know whether he was glad or sorry that he seemed to have recovered somewhat.

He pulled his blanket over his head, miserable, but to his surprise, it was not very long before the stealthy steps returned. He heard Frodo lie down again, and for a long time, Sam listened to the sounds of his master turning and tossing in his bed.


Frodo's heart was, increasingly, torn between the depth of his sorrow over the wizard and another, more selfish uneasiness that shamed him with its insistence. But the ranger's closed and cold behaviour gave rise to so many panicky, heartsick questions that he could not forget it for even a second. Why didn't the man speak to him or smile at him the way he used to?

For days, Frodo had tried, as subtly as he knew how, to elicit an answer of some kind. He had used every approach he could think of - if he'd been a different kind of hobbit, he might have said he had tried every trick in the book. He had been careful, not wanting to be noticed (but then, the others were all preoccupied with the events of the last few days, and were not likely to pay attention, he told himself). The gentle words that had brought such confidences forth, the light and casual-but-deliberate touches that had had such arresting force, the smiles that had persuaded the man to let his feelings show on his usually so guarded face. In the span of their short alliance, Frodo had never had the chance to learn much about these new powers, but now that he lost them he felt no less frustrated for not quite knowing what they had been.

As they stopped to make camp at the end of the day, he couldn't keep these thoughts away, and it made him uneasy. Before, he had done such things without thinking, unable to stop himself, impulses from a heart utterly consumed, and now, in growing desperation and confusion, he had done them on purpose. He didn't quite understand why exactly that made him feel so bad, but it did.

He bit his lip, flushed and sidetracked by the thoughts of how it had been before. The sweetest, most rapturous days, heady as a rush of blood, unsettling as the deep vortexes in a rapid and powerful river.

As soon as he had felt the first pull in that unexpected direction, Frodo had known himself to be changed, to be not himself, but the sweetness of it had been irresistible. Giving up on his old self had been so easy, so effortless, like diving into clear water and being drowned, immersed, held up by it. Never in his life -


- had he been so enthralled by another person, so -


- so blinded and intoxicated by anyone's very nearness...

'Frodo!? Hi! Frodo! Dear me, you were miles away, weren't you?'

Merry was looking at him. Frodo found that he had stopped inexplicably in the middle of unstrapping his bedroll, and hurriedly continued undoing the buckles.


'You still have my flask.'

'Do I?'

Merry rolled his eyes impatiently.

Merry, you don't know, Frodo thought, as searched among the flaps and rings and buckles on his pack for the strap the flask hung from. You think you know who you are looking at, who borrowed your flask, but you are mistaken, you are all mistaken. But... his hands fell down. He might be mistaken himself; he might have hung all his hopes and all his longing on a mere whim. This triumphant new self might be no more than a delusion, thin as a shadow and misguided as a ghost. His heart tightened in his chest.

'It's around your neck, you ninny,' Merry said, with an exasperated and amused snort. Frodo looked down at the strap across his chest.

'Oh, sorry, I forgot...' he mumbled.

'What's eating you, anyway?' Merry asked, leaning forward to help Frodo untangle himself.

'...nothing. I'm just tired. I was asleep on my feet when you gave it to me.'

Merry laughed. He took his bottle, gave Frodo an affectionate little slap on the side of the head, and was gone.

Frodo closed his eyes. This was becoming too distracting, to the point of being unbearable. He *must* find out what was wrong.

They had a meal, cooked on a portable brazier of the Elves,' who were loath to make fires on the ground, or to cut turf. Hot flat breads, made with fine flour and some unknown herb, were accompanied by toasted nuts and dried fruits. There were flavoured oils, poured onto large, shallow leaves, to dip the bread in, and hot tea. Since entering the woods they had eaten better than they had for a long time, and they were grateful.

Frodo, who would normally have wanted to know what seed or fruit had yielded the oil, and what leaves and berries flavoured the tea, could not concentrate on any flavours or textures - he might as well have been eating hay. His undignified obsession revolted him, but it was like trying to hold a river back with your bare hands. His eyes begged at the ranger's feet, searched his face, sought to close the distance by sheer silent willpower.

But try as he might, he could not catch the ranger's eye even once. The man was away on the other side of the group, talking quietly with the elves in their own language. Everyone else was intent on the food.

Later, as he crept into his bedroll next to Sam, he stole a look at the other hobbit's face, already closed in sleep. Sam, always so sensible, always so dependable, with his simple wholesome outlook, taking everything in his stride. What an easy life.

He lay down, burrowing his head into the stuffing. But it was as if he was lying in an ants' nest. It seemed like hours before all the lamps had been put out and everyone had settled down.

Once there were no noises other than those of a fellowship at rest, Frodo pushed his blanket away and sat up. He knew there was an elf awake in the tree above him, but he did not think the sentry would make much of his getting up here in the safety of the forest. He got to his feet and tip toed around the roots of the tree and the sleeping bundles between them, right around to where the ranger had taken his place. With his night eyes (a gift Frodo didn't think it was right to be grateful for), Frodo saw that he was sitting with his back against the tree, wrapped in a blanket, his right hand resting on Anduril in its scabbard. He reached out to touch the man's leg, not wanting to startle him, but before he could make contact, the ranger lifted his head and looked straight at him.

'Frodo, is that you?' he whispered.


'Are you all right?'

The very sound of the man's whispering voice made Frodo forget how it felt to be all right, and all the anxiety and confusion and undiminished longing rose like a sob in his throat. He pressed it down, and reached out to rest a hand on the man's leg, just above the knee.

The ranger didn't move. Frodo could feel every muscle in his thigh tense, as if the touch was unwelcome.

'You have to talk to me, Aragorn. What is wrong? What have I done?' he whispered. The idea that this whole awful situation might be caused by something he had done - or not done right - had just struck him, and it was infinitely disturbing.

The man met his eyes for a long moment. Then he sighed and looked up at the sky, resting his head against the tree for a moment. Frodo drew back his hand. He felt cold all over.

'Not here. Come.'

The ranger got up, soundlessly, and stole away from the camp, Frodo's unresisting hand in one of his and his sword in the other. As they walked, he let go and strapped the sword, hands moving automatically, to his hips.

Frodo didn't know where they might be going. He didn't care, as long as it was to a place where this drawn-out uncertainty might be brought to an end. He felt as if he had been holding his breath for a very long time.

Aragorn didn't go far. He stopped in a little clearing after maybe a quarter of an hour, well out of hearing distance of the camp. Frodo saw an empty quiver hanging on a tree nearby, still in the light of the half moon. It must be the place where the elves - and Aragorn, sometimes - practiced their shooting skills.

He looked back at the ranger, a tall dark outline against the night sky.


He wanted the man to kneel down and hold out his arms and take him and hold him close, where he belonged, pressed against that wide chest, far from danger and safe from sorrow. But the man neither spoke nor moved. Frodo could see from his profile that he was looking at the ground, and the tilt of his head and the line of his shoulders betrayed his tenseness.

'Frodo,' he said at last, in a low voice. 'It distresses me more than I can say to see you so upset.'

Frodo was taken aback by the formality of these words, but there was a tightness in the man's voice that told him that they were truly meant. Even so, the desperate pleas died on his tongue and he tried to respond with suitable restraint.

'It is nothing, really,' he said, carefully, not looking at the ranger. 'I... I suppose I was growing used to your attention. and now I feel... as if a cloud has come between me and the sun.'

The ranger knelt, and put a hand on Frodo's shoulder. It wasn't what Frodo wanted, the distance between them felt even greater with that polite touch, the arm's length like a mile of stony ground.

'No one can control the clouds,' the ranger said finally, in a low voice. 'If I could, heaven knows I would have tried for you, Frodo.'

'I hoped...' His voice trailed off, feeling suddenly foolish. What exactly had he hoped for? How could he say it? 'I had hoped to be in the sun a little longer.'

Another long, tortuous silence. Frodo could hardly breathe.

'You are dear to me, Frodo.' The voice was steady, but so low it was almost a whisper. The hand squeezed his shoulder. 'For many reasons.'

Frodo reached out for him, found and gripped a handful of clothes, knuckles whitening.

'Only one reason matters to me,' he whispered. He wanted this to be over, to find the right words to undo all the strangeness and make everything easy again.

'It is impossible, Frodo.'

Frodo stared at him, at the deep, unknowable darkness under his brows, impenetrable even to him. Suddenly it became too much, and he turned wildly away, needing to put some cool night air between himself and the man in order to think clearly.

'Careful!' Aragorn caught him by the shoulder before he was three steps away. 'There may be sharp things on the ground. Splinters, arrowheads -'

'Don't!' Frodo said desperately, pleadingly. 'You know I see well at night, Aragorn. I don't need to be told what's in front of me, like a silly child. I wish you would just...'

The moonlight was on the man's face now, and he looked as if he was about to say something, but after a long moment's hesitation he looked away from Frodo. Frodo waited, breathless, for him to compose himself.

'I know you are not a child, Frodo,' he said finally. 'But sometimes we all need to have the obvious pointed out to us, even in broad daylight. You are not the only one who sees well in the dark. And that's the very reason...' he stopped himself, and when he continued his voice was lower, more insistent.

'I have come to know that I overstepped the mark - many marks.'

'What marks or boundaries are there that we need to heed, you and I?'

Frodo's heart was shrinking with foreboding even as he spoke.

'I took a place which wasn't mine to hold.'

Frodo saw, briefly, the moon reflected in the man's eyes, before he abruptly got to his feet, letting go of Frodo's shoulder.

'Try to see... This was never...'

'Never what?' Frodo almost cried out. Their eyes met again.

'It was never true... never real.'

'I don't understand!'

And then, in two rapid steps, with a rough scraping of unguarded scabbard on the ground as he knelt, the ranger's face was suddenly close to his own, his arms being grasped violently enough to make him tremble with the withheld strength and emotion. He stared at the man's face, with confusion so overwhelming it was almost a horror.

'Neither did I,' Aragorn said between his teeth, 'and I never knew my blindness until I was shown! You do not see, you do not understand, but you must try, for there is something much more important than these little deaths of yours and mine, and it is lying right before you! That is the path for you, and I cannot lead you down any other and keep my honour. And if you cannot see it, I have to show you, by whatever means, lest *you* lead *me* astray!'

Frodo had lost his voice. The words echoed in his head, harsh and incomprehensible.

Deep and audible breaths, one after the other.

'I have no right. But you *are* dear to me, Frodo.'

And with that, the ranger pressed a quick, hard, trembling kiss on Frodo's mouth. A second later Frodo was alone in the clearing, unseeing and breathless.

When he could think again, Frodo realised that he had better get back before anyone began to wonder. Numbly, he set off, tramping dejectedly through bracken and fallen branches. The woods were unreal in the chilly moonlight, inky black shadows crossing his path like cracks and abysses.

The ranger was not there when he arrived back at the camp.

Frodo didn't know what to do other than lay himself down on his bed. Loneliness blended with the confusion until his face and throat began to ache, because he understood that although he hadn't really got an answer to his question of what it was that had gone wrong, it didn't really matter anymore. A tear stole down his cheek and was silently absorbed by the cloth under his cheek.

The more he tried to understand, the more it hurt. How could any of this ever be undone and put right? He felt more tears pool in the corner of his eye and steal down across his nose. Never ever had he felt so forsaken, so small, so bitterly alone and insignificant.

He turned many times on the hard ground before sleep gently rescued him, just on the other side of midnight.


Sam awoke as the first hint of daylight began to dilute the darkness. He lay for a moment in the gloom, wondering where he was and feeling like he had forgotten something important, looking up at the branches of the huge tree, black against the late night sky. They looked like a great tangled net. The moment he began to recall the events of the last few days it was as if he had never slept at all, and he sighed.

He turned his head to the side, and saw that Frodo was deep asleep, with his blanket pulled up to his chin. All Sam could make out in the late-night shadow under the tree was the contrast between the pale, almost luminous skin and the dark, feathery eyelashes, still as the wings of a sleeping moth. He was breathing slowly and steadily, oblivious to everything, to the sorrow past and the fear ahead and the coming morning. Sam felt as if he was a million miles away from him.

He sighed. He wanted everything to be as it had been before, with no suspicions and no secrets and no heartache. He wanted to be back in the Shire, safe and out of trouble. None of this would ever have happened if I had only stayed at home, Sam thought, turning his face towards the sky again.

But of course, he would have chosen to go with Mr Frodo - even if he had known what was coming. Wouldn't he? Yes. He couldn't blame anyone but himself for his current predicament. It was of his own making, after all.

'It is not as if anyone forced me. I went and put my foot in it all by myself,' he thought after a few minutes. 'If I had seen what I seen in the Shire, it wouldn't have made no difference. It's not the place that matters, it's what's on the inside.'

But his inside didn't feel all that different from how it had always been. He might be a little wiser in map-reading, and he had met the elves, and he was possibly a few pounds lighter, but at heart he was still the same.

'I suppose I was bound to do it, and to feel like that,' he pondered. 'After all, he is as he is, and I guess that means I am too, for better or for worse. Whatever I did I brought with me, as it were. All this way, it were just waiting to happen.'

Sam, he thought, you're walking around the matter like a cat around a pot of hot porridge.

He sighed again and closed his eyes. He knew what he had to do. There was really only one way, one chance, to set all this right, and who was he fooling? He shouldn't have any secrets, it wasn't right. He had known it ever since that first miserable night, when his first instinct had been to wake Frodo and beg for forgiveness right there and then.

That chance had to be taken. He must tell Frodo. If his master never spoke to him again, he would just have to bear it. His eyes prickled at the thought. Any road he didn't deserve any less, and unless he became rid of it, the secret would just grow and grow until there would be room for nothing else in Sam. And that wasn't why he had come on this journey.

He opened his eyes and looked up at the tree branches again. Now he could see the sky beyond them, gold and pink and pale blue as the dawn of Lórien broke.

Frodo was wise and kind, the best among masters and friends, he thought, and for a moment Sam knew once more the deep and unshakeable trust that had held up his entire life so far, but which had lately left him to his own devices.

He slowly turned his head and looked at Frodo again, and seeing that he was still asleep, Sam gently rolled over on his side, very quietly coming face to face with him.

In the pale unearthly light of dawn he could make out each beloved feature clearly. Frodo's fair skin was dewy, luminous as if no hand had ever touched it. The lips were slightly open, and the tip of an ear was visible among the dark curls.

The sight stirred a strange intensity in Sam. He's just so... he thought incoherently, so very...

So tenacious and determined, this dark-haired soft-spoken hobbit, but it was impossible to think of his strength without also thinking of his gentleness. Or, for Sam, who had seen it a thousand times; of his defencelessness in sleep, his face unguarded and open, his hand lying half uncurled on the ground not half a foot from Sam. The idea that anything would ever hurt or threaten Frodo was unbearable. If anyone ever so much as lays a finger on you, Mr Frodo, I'll be there, he thought, I'll shield you with my own arms and legs, I'll warm you if you're ever cold, I'll hold you... Sam was suddenly aware that he could feel his own heart beating.

He shook his head slightly, clearing it. This would not do at all.

And yet he could not take his eyes off Frodo's sleeping face. He listened to the quiet regular breathing, matching it, breathing in as Frodo breathed out, and gradually, his body relaxed and his heart felt like his own again.

Sam lay there looking at Frodo's closed eyelids and at the slight flush in his cheeks, aware of a sense of stillness and peace, until he heard the others stir and begin to rise, and he had to close his eyes and pretend to be asleep.

In the morning, he nursed a sense of determination, fending off nervousness and guilt. He felt a little better, but it was one thing making a decision, and quite another acting on it. How would he get Frodo on his own, so he could talk to him properly? He cast around for a plan, but Sam had spent his life's allowance of talent for clandestine operations in one reckless investment, and his imagination was not cooperating.

As the day wore on, his head felt heavy and he had no ideas. He looked at them all. Merry and Pippin were laying out a meal on a cloth in the grass, and making a grand joke of the whole thing - Merry was pouring teas, elegantly but facetiously, with his little finger sticking out, and Pippin was trying to stack fruits in impossibly tall arrangements. Gimli watched them both, shaking his head. A little bit away, Boromir was sharpening his sword. Frodo was sitting with his back against a tree, biting his nails and looking absent-minded, and Legolas was off somewhere - spending time with the Lórien elves in a tree somewhere, Sam supposed. Strider had not been seen since the morning.

Seeing nothing but obstacles, Sam suddenly felt sick. Surreptitiously he got up and stole away, snapping up a piece of a loaf stuffed with fruits and seeds as he left. He just wanted to be alone for a while, to gather his thoughts and his resolve.

But then he heard footsteps in the grass behind him, and when he turned around, to his surprise he saw Frodo coming running after him. His heart began to beat faster at once. Was it possible to be so undeservedly fortunate, just when you least expected it?

'Where are you going, Sam?'

Sam tried to keep his voice normal and to smile. 'I was just going for a little walk, Mr Frodo.'

'May I go with you?'

'Of course, Mr Frodo, why shouldn't you.'

They walked in silence for a minute. Sam was trying to think of a way to breach the subject, but found it suddenly an impossible thought. How was he supposed to go and blurt something like that when Mr Frodo was acting all normal and cheerful?

'This is a lovely place, so it is, Mr Frodo. Prettiest land I ever saw.' He felt sheepish. The gaffer would say you are good with the bloomin' obvious, Sam, he thought. 'Not that I haven't a soft spot for the old garden at home,' he added. Not much better. He bit his lip.

'It doesn't lift my spirits, Sam,' Frodo said after a moment's hesitation. 'Pretty though it is.'

Sam felt a lump in his throat and wasn't sure if it was nerves or sympathy that put it there.

'I know, Mr Frodo. We all miss Mr Gandalf and no mistake. It was a grievous blow and a hard piece of misfortune.' He looked at Frodo, who was looking at the grass, walking slowly. His brows were tight and there was an expression on his face that made Sam hurt just to look at it.

'I can't talk about it, Sam, not just now.'

''Tis all right, Mr Frodo, I understand,' Sam said quickly, reassuringly.

They shared some of the bread Sam had brought, but Frodo ate no more than a few bites, Sam noticed.

After a while walking in silence, Frodo spoke again.

'This was a fine idea, Sam.' He looked up at the canopy of branches above them.

Sam was reminded of how they had used to go for rambles in the woods around Hobbiton, on Sundays, after lunch. Sometimes Merry or Pippin or Fatty had come along, but sometimes it had been just him and Mr Frodo. How long ago was that?

'Remember that huge bramble on the way to Overhill, Mr Frodo? And how the dog roses used to bloom up there in June?'

'Yes... that was almost exactly what I was thinking. How did you know that?' He looked at Sam, smiling, but then he spotted something ahead. 'Look, think we're coming to a ravine or something. I don't remember anyone mentioning that there was one around here.'

The land had been rising for some time, becoming less lush and gentle, and the pines and other confers, some familiar and some strange, had gradually taken over from the more graceful deciduous trees of the camp site area. Between the straight trunks, Sam could see that Frodo was right - the trees came to a sudden stop, and beyond there was nothing but daylight.

It was not a very deep gorge, but it was wide, and there was a strange silence in it. Sam expected to see a grassy valley or stony tumble of boulders at the bottom, but instead there was a flat pebbly bareness between larger rocks and boulders, almost like a road.

'It's a river bed,' Frodo said. 'It looks as if there was a dam up there... the elves must have dammed the river for some reason, and then the dam broke.'

Sam followed his gaze and spotted something like a breached battlement, roughly tumbled rocks and remains of thick walls and buttresses.

'Yes... See over there,' Sam said, pointing below them, 'it looks like there was a dock, or something, there. Clean ripped off its moorings.'

The two hobbits stood for a minute looking over the edge. A quiet, cool breeze rose out of the gorge and into their faces, before continuing through the trees behind them, whispering and mumbling.

'Come, let's sit for a minute,' Frodo said. 'I don't want to go back just yet.'

He patted the ground next to him and Sam sat down too, five or six feet from the cliff edge. It was not unpleasant - the sun was warm, and the rock, under its thin cover of brown pine needles, was no harder than anywhere else. Sam made his back comfortable against a tree.

They sat in silence for a few minutes, looking over to the opposite bank.

'How do you like this place, Sam? Not this exact place, I mean, but this land.'

Sam hesitated for a moment.

'Like I said, it's as pretty as they come. Beautiful.'


'But it isn't home.'

Frodo nodded. They were silent for a bit. Eventually Frodo broke the silence with a sigh, and said:

'Won't you tell a story, Sam? Or sing a song? Something from home. It would cheer me up no end.'

Frodo looked at Sam and smiled a little, but it was a pale, drawn smile, nothing like the radiant, mischievous smiles Sam remembered from old times in the Shire. Sam would have liked nothing better than to do whatever it took to bring one of those smiles back, but he wasn't sure he had it in him. There was too much else in the way, and none of it was likely to make anyone smile. Cry, more likely, he thought grimly.

'I don't know if I could sing right now, Mr Frodo...'

'Then a story. Please?'

Sam looked at his master, who was smiling despite the sadness that still lingered on his face, and at the expectation in his eyes. Some story I could tell you, Mr Frodo, he thought, but he couldn't bring himself to heap such rocks on an already heavy burden, not with Mr Frodo looking at him like that. With an effort, he searched his mind for a cheerful story.

'All right, how about the one about the old hobbit who had a golden kettle?'

Frodo's smile grew broader. His whole face looked brighter all at once, and affection and guilt fought in Sam.

'All right. Once upon a time there was an old gaffer,' Sam began. 'He had a son, who was handsome, and three daughters, who were pretty, but no money at all.'

'A fortunate man. What were the children's names?' Frodo asked.

'Hmmm... They were called Primrose, Primula, Pretty-foot and Handfast. And they all lived with their father - whose name the story does not mention - in a hobbit-hole not far from Bywater.'

Frodo suddenly grabbed Sam's hand and squeezed it. Sam tried not to stare at him.

'Sam, you're the best.' Frodo smiled, before letting go and giving Sam an almost playful little prod with his hand instead. 'Go on.'

Sam couldn't remember when he had last seen such an easy smile on his master's face, and he felt a fresh pinch of blackest guilt.

'Did it have a garden? What was it like?' Frodo asked.

Sam stole a look at Frodo, touched and ashamed in equal measure. He was aware that Frodo knew of his fondness for descriptions of flowers and trees and shrubs, and that any story he told was likely to be overflowing with horticultural detail, but he couldn't concentrate. He had no business sitting here all a-peaceful like, as if he had nothing to be ashamed of in the world, with Mr Frodo smiling and squeezing his hand, just like that, as if he wouldn't run a mile from his touch if he really knew what Sam had done.

'Come on, I want to hear about the garden.' Frodo plucked a long grass stalk from somewhere behind him and started fiddling with it.

Sam took a deep breath and made an effort.

'Well, there were borders all about the house, with stock roses and zinnias and maiden's-blush, and big pink and yellow climbing roses near the...' he faltered.

'Near where?' Frodo prompted.

Sam looked away, feeling all cut up inside. He just couldn't see it, not like he usually could. All he could see was that easy, beautiful smile changing to disgust and loathing. He sighed.

'I'm sorry, Mr Frodo, my heart isn't in it. I can't.'

Frodo looked up, and frowned.

'What's the matter, Sam?'

'Oh, it's nothing, Mr Frodo. It's just... we're here, in this strange place, and all that seems so far away.'

'Are you sure that's all? You look all pale.'

Sam met his concerned eyes for a second but found he absolutely could not endure to hold the gaze.

'Homesickness gettin' to me, is all,' he said, trying to make the words ring light but true.

Frodo sat up.

'I know what you mean... The elves have a wonderful gift for making anyone feel at home in their dwellings - remember how it was at Rivendell? - but somehow it isn't working this time. Not for me, at least. Some things here are familiar enough, the grass and the sun and such things, but it's not enough to make me feel at home.'

He got up and walked to the cliff edge again.

'Take that tree down there, now. At a pinch I'd say it was some kind of willow, but it doesn't look quite right - I just don't know. It means nothing to me. That,' Frodo frowned. 'is not helpful. It makes me feel lost,' he said pensively.

Sam couldn't see his face.

'Of course,' Frodo continued, in a more practical tone, 'it's dead, so it's hard to tell, but I doubt that it's familiar to you either, dead or alive.'

Sam got up and joined him. He looked where Frodo was pointing and saw a twisted and broken tree trunk, on a shelf in the bank slightly off to the left. It was not visible from anywhere but the very edge of the cliff. His heart beat faster in incredulous recognition.

'Bless you, Mr Frodo,' he said, almost in a whisper. 'That is indeed familiar, but I've never seen it before.'

Frodo gave him a puzzled look.

'I've read about it, I mean. Oh, I can't believe it,' and he reached out to grab Frodo's arm in sheer delight. 'Can we climb down, Mr Frodo, just for a minute? I always wanted to see one.'

Frodo followed, somewhat baffled but curious, and they found a place where they could pick their way down to the outcrop on which the tree stood.

Sam reached it first, a bit breathless. He put his hand on the dry, cracked bark almost reverently.

'I wish I could remember the name,' he said, looking up and following the lines of the branches with his eyes. 'I never had a mind for foreign words, not even Elvish ones.'

'I'm afraid that my scant Elvish doesn't stretch to such things,' Frodo said. 'What is it? Why does it grow in such a strange place? It doesn't look as if the water ever came this high up - the high water mark is at least twelve feet below. Look.'

'Ah, see that's the thing, Mr Frodo.' He could not keep his excitement out of his voice. 'This tree only ever grows near rivers, and it only ever puts out leaves or flowers after a flood. Even if it's fifty years from one flood to another. And in between-times, it looks like this, like a dead thing. There's only a handful left in Middle-Earth.'

Sam let his hand caress the dry, cracked bark. When he closed his eyes briefly, he imagined he could feel the life in it, slow and deep, like a tingle in his fingertips. He looked at Frodo.

'I wish you had seen the book, Mr Frodo.'

Mr Bilbo's translation had been on loose sheets, but next to Sam as he read had been the original book, an Elven flora more than a foot tall, with creamy smooth pages filled with drawings of such delicacy and elegance it had made Sam's mouth fall open.

'I can't describe it like it should be, but I thought it was fair wonderful, and I still remember it,' he continued. 'The leaves were slender like willow leaves but not so dark green, and growing in bunches, almost like tassels, and the flowers, Mr Frodo, there were drawings of the flowers as well, and they must be a sight to see for real. The palest cream and pink, delicate little trumpets with deep yellow at the bottom. They're scented, too, sweet as can be.'

Frodo smiled at him.

'Seems your heart is back into it, Sam.'

'Well, that's what the book said,' Sam replied, embarrassed. It was true, though - this was a dream come true, and he wanted dearly to share his enthusiasm with his master, to lighten his heart, whether it was by means of a story or by means of botany.

Frodo met Sam's eyes with a little smile. Then he turned and looked up at the ruined dam again.

'Strange... usually one thinks of a flood as a disastrous thing,' Frodo said pensively, with his back to Sam. 'Like what it did to the landing stage over there. It's nice to think that it could have pleasant consequences as well as bad.'

Sam made a noise in agreement, his attention fixed on the tree.

'Sam...' There was a hesitance in Frodo's voice that made Sam look up. Frodo was peering at the other shore.

'You're not going to believe this. I may not have your expertise in these matters, but isn't that another one over there?'

Sam looked where he was pointing. His heart skipped a beat as he made out another dark, steeply leaning and lifeless-looking tree on the farther shore. This one grew, apparently, on top of a huge boulder that must once have sat a fair way into the water. It took him a second to find his voice.

'So it is,' he said wonderingly. 'Well, if that doesn't beat it all then I don't know. Not one, but two in the same place.' He turned to smile at Frodo, but in the very turn of his head his eye was caught again, by another unmistakable shape, further up the opposite bank, and he gasped.

Frodo followed his gaze and made a little noise of surprise. And as they both began to scan the shores eagerly, twisted, gnarled, cracked shapes became apparent everywhere, on both sides, on shelves and boulders and in crevices in the rocky, steep banks, one here, one there, everywhere.

Sam was speechless. He tried to count and came to two dozen for certain.

'Sam, the dam...' Frodo was again staring up at the once-blocked gorge. 'The trees must have been planted, by the elves. Long ago. They cultivated them, Sam.' Amazement was making Frodo's voice waver.

Sam looked at the dam, and at the gorge, and the magnitude of this glorious scheme dawned on him.

'They could flood this gorge whenever they wanted, with the dam,' Sam said, in awe. 'Oh, but that is mighty clever, like nothing I've ever heard of. Isn't it wonderful, Mr Frodo.'

'Wonderful indeed. Trust the elves to find a way to cultivate something so rare and beautiful and so demanding,' Frodo said, smiling.

'This valley... just picture it, Mr Frodo. It must have been a sight, with all these trees in bloom,' Sam said. 'Oh, how I wish I could see it.'

For a sweet half minute, Sam was absorbed in a vision of this harsh, grey, rocky place made gentle by pink and white blossom, all along the banks above the swirling, rushing water, leaves whispering, blooms falling and drifting and being carried away, scent and petals both floating away to other lands.

He was struck by a sudden thought.

'I wonder,' he said, taking out his pocket knife.

'What?' Frodo turned around.

'If I remember right, branches that break off in the flood can sometimes take root further downstream, after a good soaking. I reckon I could dunk it in water in the greenhouse at home and make it think there's been a flood.'

Sam chose a sturdy looking limb and cut, very gently against the pad of his thumb, four inches off the end.

'I know we've got far to go, Mr Frodo, and that I can't be dragging bits of wood with me, but wouldn't it be fair lovely if one of these would take root at home?'

Frodo smiled a little.

'It would. If anyone could make that happen, it would be you. You've astonished me before,' Frodo said.

Sam wasn't sure if he was teasing or not - there was a gentleness in his voice that said he was not. He felt his cheeks grow a little warmer. He pocketed the little twig and closed his knife.

'Well, at least you know what it is now, Mr Frodo,' he said. 'No need to feel lost.' He felt a bit foolish. 'I mean, if you ever meet one of these again, whether it's in a dark alleyway in Bree or at a fine dinner in Rivendell, you never need to be embarrassed.'

Frodo chuckled, putting his hand on Sam's shoulder.

'That's invaluable knowledge. Thank you, Sam. If you see any other plant life you think I should be introduced to, don't hesitate.'

They climbed back up the way they had come and started back. Frodo was in a good mood, he noticed gratefully, and they chatted lightly about strange things they saw - huge pine cones, an odd-looking vine with dark red berries that might or might not be a variety of honeysuckle, and once, a wonderful, large, silver-grey squirrel that looked very different from the little red squirrels in the Shire.

But as they neared camp again, Frodo grew quieter. Sam felt quite exhausted himself, and so they completed the last several minutes of the walk in silence.

It was dusk when they returned to the camp, and a meal was being prepared. Merry and Pippin didn't waste an opportunity to point out how Frodo had once again managed, in an almost uncanny way, to turn up just in time for a meal, and to expand noisily on their theories on what sixth sense might allow him to repeat this feat over and over again. Was it contagious, perchance? Sam had, after all, showed a similar fortunate timing more than once. The company was entertained, and Frodo smiled, reaching for a piece of bread, but said nothing.

After dinner, sitting with his back against the camp tree, smoking a pipe, Sam took out the little piece of wood and turned it in his fingers. He still couldn't believe his luck in getting to see not just one, but probably nearly every remaining flood tree in Middle-Earth. The journey had been worth it for that alone. He would set up a bulb glass in the greenhouse, perhaps with a cloche, keep it warm and ventilated, and then plant it out, some balmy spring morning... Perhaps Mr Frodo could make a sign, in his beautiful hand, explaining the wonder to the Hobbiton crowds that would surely gather... but what would it say? What was the name of the tree? Sam looked up, intending to ask Legolas what its proper Elvish name was.

But as he looked about, his eyes fell on Frodo, sitting near the cooling brazier, his nose a little red as if he was feeling cold. He looked as depressed and forlorn as Sam had ever seen him, as if he had never been happy in his life. And there was no way that Sam couldn't notice that Frodo's gaze was tied to someone else's face, like a desperately thin thread of pain and longing.

Sam felt the blood drain from his face. He didn't have to turn his head to guess whom Frodo was looking at in that way. And he understood anew that Frodo hadn't been so keen to walk with Sam as to just get away from someone else.

He had quite managed to forget about the awful triangle in which he made up one reluctant corner, but now the memory of what he had intended to accomplish on that walk hit him like a fist to the guts, and all ease and joy drained away at once. How could he have forgotten? Sam, you ninnyhammer, to let your head go all fogged up over a tree, faffing about with twigs and whatnot when Mr Frodo's so unhappy, and when everything is such an accursed mess. And when it's all your fault! Daft as a brush, that's what you are - you'd think you didn't have no more wit than a turnip.

Sam almost cursed out loud in frustration and regret and self-reproach when he realised what a precious chance to get this weight off his chest had been lost. He had been lucky to get Frodo on his own once, but when would such a chance present itself again? It might be days. Sam groaned inwardly.

He couldn't bear either to watch Frodo's silent distress or to think about his own wretched dilemma, and he went to bed very soon. Frodo soon followed, no doubt equally miserable, and Sam could hear him sigh as he settled down. He wondered what would happen - would Frodo stay in bed, where he belonged? Sam couldn't bear the thought that Frodo would go and put himself in harm's way again. He forced himself to stay awake, filling with dread every time there were sounds of movement, until he was certain that Frodo was deep asleep behind his back.

Frodo whimpered and grumbled in his sleep several times that night, and Sam woke up at each slight noise. Frodo was never a tidy sleeper, but rarely did he tie himself and his blanket in such knots as this.
In the morning, there were two cruel thumbprints of exhaustion and worry under Frodo's eyes and Sam felt bleary and irritable. After breakfast, he avoided Frodo, hoping it was not obvious. It just hurt too much, just to look at him hurting, and he felt farther than ever from finding a way to lay down the burden of the secret.

In the forenoon, they were required to attend a meeting in a library at Caras Galadhon, where Aragorn and Celeborn pored over maps and discussed the state of the border guards and the security of the surrounding lands. Merry and Pippin stood on stools and asked questions (most of them sensible) of Gimli. Sam found it hard to summon up such interest, and he noticed that Frodo seemed listless as well.

On the way back to camp, they were walking along a forest ride dappled with sunshine and shadow, and it was another beautiful day in Lothlórien, but Sam hardly noticed. Frodo was quiet, and Sam was beginning to realise that if the result of the alternative was this dispirited Frodo, whose unhappiness was like a cloud over Sam's head too, then he would almost rather that Frodo spent his entire nights with the ranger.

Oh, this whole business was making him heartsick, and sad, and the *guilt*... he might be willing to make himself an accessory to his master's liaison, if it made Frodo happy, but how could that ever happen when he himself was guilty of such treacherous interference?

Just then Frodo turned to him, and he quickly composed his face.

'Did you learn anything of use, Sam?'

'Aye, a thing or two,' Sam lied. 'But I hope others learned more, or we might never get out of here, if you take my meaning.' He managed a smile.

'Yes... although I doubt that there is anything Aragorn could learn about this land from a map. He is almost one of them - one of the Galadhrim.....'

Frodo glanced up at the others, some distance ahead, and Sam noticed that the ranger was no longer among them. He must have gone ahead, or else he had some separate errand to take care of.

'Aye,' Sam agreed, uncomfortably. It gave him an unexpected, lingering stab of pain to hear the man's name on Frodo's lips.

'Gandalf mentioned once that he used to live here... There must be many memories for him in these woods. That's why he has been spending so much time on his own, and so little with us.'

'You're probably right, Mr Frodo.'

'Although I don't think they are happy memories, somehow. He seems awfully. distant sometimes.'

Sam stole a look at Frodo's face - he was looking down at the path - and what he saw made him hurt inside.

'Of course, he is the leader now, and that is a great responsibility. He has many important decisions to make. He can't be expected to pay attention to every little thing...'

You are *not* a 'little thing,' Mr Frodo, never that, Sam thought, with a sting of anger and compassion, but out loud he said:

'I expect you're right, Mr Frodo.'

Frodo frowned, his pale face tense and unhappy.

'I would have thought that he would find some rest here, where it is safe, but he is closer and less merry than ever. I don't think I have seen him smile for days.' Frodo bit his lip.

'Oh, Mr Frodo,' Sam said, in a near-whisper, without being able to help himself. His heart contracted painfully with pity and love and grief and he came to a halt, unable to take his eyes off Frodo's face.

Frodo stopped and looked at him.


And Sam realised that the decision had been made, he must tell Frodo and he must tell him now and here, not because he had found unexpected courage or because the perfect opportunity had presented itself, but because *not* telling him was giving him more pain than he could bear. It was more than he was made for, to keep secrets from his master and to pretend that he couldn't see Frodo hurting.

'It's just that... I know, Mr Frodo.'

'What do you know?' Frodo looked disconcertingly normal as he said this, and Sam swallowed.

'I know why you're so upset. When we were in the mines... I heard you.'

'You heard what?' Frodo smiled a little, puzzled. Sam knew that he must know what Sam meant, but there was no sign of that, and it was almost enough to make the words on his tongue dissolve and disappear. He had never realised what a skilled dissembler his master was when he wanted to. He took a deep breath.

'I heard you getting up. In the middle of the night.'

Frodo looked blank, but Sam saw a glint of wary alertness in his eyes.


'And I know where you went, begging your pardon, Mr Frodo.' Sam cut his eyes away, cheeks burning.

Frodo's eyebrows went up.

'Indeed? And where did I go?' He wasn't smiling now, but he didn't sound very concerned. Sam searched his face.

' went to him,' he whispered.

Frodo looked indifferent, but Sam knew what that tension around the jaw meant. He stared at Sam, without saying anything, and Sam stared back, with bated breath, for several heartbeats until Frodo suddenly chuckled and turned away, walking on.

'Your imagination runs away with you, Sam. I don't know what you're talking about. Come on, let's catch up with the others.'

Sam hesitated a second, realising that if he wanted it, this was his chance to get out. But he wasn't going to let Frodo brush him and his secret off just like that, what good would that do? It had to be done, or there were no telling where either of them would wind up.

'I ain't imagining anything, Mr Frodo... I know. For sure.'

Frodo hesitated. Alarm passed across his face, but it was gone before he faced Sam fully.

'What are you talking about?'

'In the mines, the night before poor Mr Gandalf went down. I was angry, and whatnot, and you were sleeping, Mr Frodo, so I went to have a word with him...' Sam faltered.

'And?' Frodo insisted.


Sam's courage almost escaped him here, but he caught it by the tail.

'Only I didn't exactly talk to him, in the end, on account of, what with the darkness and all, he... he thought I was you, Mr Frodo. I'm sorry.'

He had Frodo's attention now. He was watching Sam warily.

'What do you mean, Sam?'

Sam couldn't meet his eyes anymore. He stared down at the grass without seeing, blood thundering in his ears, and somehow, with much hesitation and many pauses and creative evasions of plain speech, he got it out. The colour slowly drained from Frodo's face as he listened.


'I'm sorry, Mr Frodo, so sorry. I didn't mean to.'

Frodo shook his head, as if to clear it. His eyes were dark in his pale face.

'I'm not sure I can be hearing this... Why - He *touched* you? What do you mean?'

'Well, truth be told, it was more like t'other way around, if you take my meaning.' Sam cringed.

Frodo was squeezing his eyes shut. 'You... him? *How*?'

Sam couldn't stand it.

'Oh, you know what I mean, Mr Frodo, please don't make me say it! Please forgive me, please, Mr Frodo!' His eyes, his face, his whole body pleaded for forgiveness.

Several seconds passed while Frodo was staring at him in disbelief. The revealed secret lay there between them, and Sam felt sick, imagining how it must look to his master, what pictures must be passing through his mind.

'What on earth made you do something like that?' Frodo said faintly.

Sam shook his head.

'I don't know.'

'That's no answer.'

Sam could hear the warning in Frodo's voice. There was a glint in his kind master's eye that made Sam's tongue stumble.

'Mr Frodo, please, listen to me, sir. I didn't mean to cause any harm, I was confused, I didn't know what I was doing. I'm so sorry, Mr Frodo, and I wish I'd never done it.'

'What do you think this is, some kind of game?' Frodo's mouth was tense and white.

'No, no, sir. I didn't mean to cause any trouble. I wasn't trying to...'

'It was none of your business!' Frodo exclaimed.

'I know, I know!' Sam said unhappily. 'It was a mistake, I know it was, Mr Frodo.'

'A mistake? Is that what you call it?' Frodo said hotly. His cheeks had coloured. Sam almost took a step back.

'I don't know what to call it, Mr Frodo, but I know it was wrong! I'm so sorry!'

Frodo turned away, his mouth half open in disgusted amazement.

'Well, I can think of several other words for it,' he said in a low voice, throwing Sam a look that stung like a whiplash.

'I'm so sorry, Mr Frodo. Please forgive me.'

He walked a few hesitant steps towards Frodo, but right then his master spun around, turning on Sam with narrowed eyes.

'Sam, you...! Who gave you the right to.?'

Sam shook his head unhappily.

'How could you think that you... that you had the faintest idea what went on between me and Aragorn?'

'I'm sorry,' Sam whispered.

'So you should be! Oh, you have no idea what you have done.' Frodo looked away, and then back to Sam. 'And I trusted you!'

But that was too much for Sam. It wasn't right what he had done, but, he hadn't done it just for a lark - he had been hurt and lost and left out, and that was somehow why it had happened. But it was as if Frodo was not himself at all, as if he could only see Sam when he was telling silly Shire stories and not when he was feeling angry and forsaken and betrayed. It wasn't how it had been once. Sam felt a surge of anger.

'Begging your pardon, Mr Frodo, but I don't see that you did.'

Frodo stared at him.

'Well, if you trusted me so much, why'd you go sneaking off like that? And why'd you need to go running to him for? You know better than that, sir. Why didn't you...'

He lost his momentum briefly, words breaking through and wanting to be said. Why didn't you come to me? Don't you know I want nothing else than to take care of you and keep you safe? But he swallowed them and continued,

'He's a man, that one, he's not a hobbit, and -'

'I know what he is! What difference does it make? How would you know what Men are like?'

Words to the effect that he knew now, didn't he, formed themselves in Sam's heated head but he stopped himself in time. What came out instead was rather vague, and fitted the wordless instinct he tried to express like one of his jackets would fit a troll.

'No man will ever know what it's like to be a hobbit! It's not right, he doesn't understand, Mr Frodo -'

'Understand what?' Frodo spat, furious.

'Understand you, Mr Frodo,' Sam said falteringly.

Frodo's eyes narrowed.

'Really? And you do, I suppose?'

Sam just looked at him. He would never say it, but his anger was all of a sudden replaced by something else, and he hoped that Frodo could see it, and see his answer, too.

Frodo stared back, breathing heavily.

'You understand *nothing*, Sam, let me tell you that. Not the first thing.'

'I know. I wasn't trying to.'

'What *were* you trying to do, then?'

Sam couldn't find any words, and he couldn't look at Frodo, because the look in Frodo's eyes was too raw.

'You were jealous, weren't you, Sam,' Frodo said finally, in a voice that he could barely keep under control. 'I see. You were jealous because you couldn't have me to yourself anymore.'

Sam felt like wailing in despair, equally because Frodo didn't seem to see at all, and because Frodo had managed to hit so close to home. Was he that easy to read? He swallowed. It would have been handy to be able to deny that it was so without lying, but he couldn't. Sam had learned a thing or two about his own undreamed-of capacity for jealousy, and he wasn't proud of it.

'You were trying to make *me* jealous.'

Sam could only shake his head mutely.

'You did it deliberately, didn't you. You set out to ruin everything in the nastiest way you could think of.'

'No, that wasn't what it was like! It weren't right, Mr Frodo!' Sam cried desperately. 'You're not listening! You've got your head so twisted round you can't tell what's what anymore, and you can't see when you're being made a fool and a plaything of, and I won't have it!'

'I am not a child or a half-wit, I can look after myself!' Frodo was shaking.

'You don't see it, do you? He's not here for you, Mr Frodo, begging your pardon, he's here for the sake of that foul piece o'gold! And he's taking you for granted like that, and me having come all that way, and him not caring who he -'

'What do you know about it?' Frodo spat.

'Well I can tell you that one thing he didn't say was "no"!'

Frodo gaped. For a second Sam thought that he was about to hit him, or that he would burst into tears, and he immediately regretted his words.

'You don't know what you are talking about, you don't know the first thing!' Frodo cried. 'The very idea that you could have any idea what he thinks!'

'I *don't * know what he thinks,' Sam retorted desperately, with his last courage and his last anger, 'I don't know anything about this whole mess. But I know what I feel, and...Why can't you understand, see...'

'I see well enough, Sam. How dare you, you lying, treacherous...' he broke off with a sound in his throat almost like a sob.

Sam felt his eyes beginning to sting.

'I'm sorry, Mr Frodo. I did wrong.'

He wanted to say that Frodo didn't know what it had felt like to be him, to be Sam, and to be that lonely and angry and forlorn, but he knew it was no use. Frodo didn't seem to have any interest in what Sam felt anymore.

'You keep saying that, but you don't even know what you've done. I understand now, I see why he... How could you be so foolish and so hard- hearted, Sam?'

There was almost a pleading note to Frodo's anger now.

'I'm not, Mr Frodo!' It was his last slim chance to make an impression on Frodo, to persuade him that he was not as bad as he seemed, and he grabbed at it like one drowning. 'I know now, I'm not going to stand... I don't mind. Never mind me.' It was almost a whisper, because Sam had underestimated how hard those words would be to say.

Frodo glared at him.

'You don't *mind*?' he said.

Sam said nothing. Frodo's voice was low and malevolent, full of incredulous contempt, and Sam understood that he wasn't even trying to hear what Sam was saying. He felt exhausted, and sadder and guiltier than he had thought it possible to feel. He could see that there were tears in Frodo's eyes too, but somehow he knew that they had nothing to do with him.

'I wish you had never come, Sam,' he said.

With that, Frodo turned and began walking towards the camp. Sam stood there, staring at the path beneath his feet as it began to blur and shift in a watery haze.


After a few hundred yards, Frodo had to stop. Tears threatened to blind him, and he sat down on the silky needle-strewn ground between two huge, tangled yew trees, and wiped his eyes with his sleeve.

His mind was racing. He understood now, understood what it was that had come between him and Aragorn. He didn't know what he could possibly do or say to undo the damage, but at least now he understood.

He still could hardly fathom what Sam had said. What he had done. It was the last thing under the sun he would have expected from Sam. Sam had always been sensible and sturdy, mindful of what was appropriate. What had got into him? Had he lost his wits entirely?

That night - he could remember it, he realised with a chill. He had been so tired, it had been a long day, several long days, and before he had known it he had dropped off. And while he had been sleeping, all this had been going on. It made his stomach turn, but for a second he couldn't stop the images from passing through his head. It would have been dark, and Aragorn would have been awake, waiting... what would he have done when he sensed someone near? What would Sam have done...? For a brief, vertiginous moment he rushed headlong into that thought, a reluctant but strangely excited audience to his own imagination, and what his mind showed him, enveloped him in, was not Aragorn's eyes and hands, but Sam, Sam in the dark, hot breath, soft hair, sharp-sweet scent, smoothskinsurehandssilkenmouth, and with a shock, he squeezed his eyes shut and blocked it out. Sam? Where did that come from? This wasn't about Sam. Suddenly he felt sick.

Oh, Aragorn, Aragorn... he leaned his forehead on his knees and felt his heart crying out for the ranger's comforting and exciting presence. He squeezed his eyes shut and saw the lean and rugged face before him, the deep-set eyes. How thrilling it had been to see his smile and feel his favour. To see the sides of the stern and silent ranger than no one else ever saw. How could everything change so quickly? Surely it was not impossible to call back what had been there before...

Never in his life had he had reason to speak to Sam like that, to be angry with him at all, and it had felt strange and unreal, like an upside-down world. But Sam's revelation, and his words, had hurt - if only Sam didn't know him so well! - and it was all Sam's fault, wasn't it. Nobody had asked him to - how dared he...

Frodo closed his eyes and rested the back of his head against the yew. What was going on? How had it come to this? He felt small and powerless, like a pine cone floating down a powerful stream, thrown now this way and now that. He barely knew what was up or down anymore. In a world where *Sam*, of all people, could go behind his back and deliberately hurt him, how could he be expected to?

He sat up. He didn't want to think about Sam and his bottomless and incomprehensible treachery, it was too exhausting and confusing, and he had more important things to do. He took a deep breath and got up, rubbing the tear stains from his cheeks as he began to walk. He had to find Aragorn.

It was a long walk back to camp, and when he arrived there, he was sufficiently calm to be able to ask Legolas, who was the only person there, where Aragorn might be, and keep his demeanour casual. Legolas said Aragorn had gone to shoot at a target some little distance away. He offered to show Frodo where it was.

'I know the place,' Frodo said. 'I will find it.'

'Very well.' Legolas returned, without remark or further questions, to inspecting his arrows, and Frodo set off. He was fairly certain of the way, and he turned off from the clearing surrounding the camp tree, spotting two white-limbed saplings he recognised from the night when he had followed Aragorn.

What would he say? How would the man react when he knew that Frodo was aware of what had passed between him and Sam? As he walked, Frodo knew that he had to find the right words, the ones that would set everything to rights. But his head crowded with thoughts. Why had Aragorn not told him what had happened? Did that mean that it was important or that it was insignificant? But why had it happened at all? Did Aragorn make assumptions as to what there was between Sam and Frodo? Oh, how complicated and impossible it all was.

Frodo sat down on a fallen log and buried his face in his hands. For a long time he sat still, trying to empty his mind and regain some kind of equilibrium. He listened to his own breath until it became inaudible and he could hear the humming of insects and the sound of the wind in the trees again.

One thought nagged him like a biting fly. Why had Aragorn let Sam.? Surely he must have known, from the first moment. there was no darkness so deep it could obstruct the man's keen senses, and Frodo knew it. So why...? It stung, whatever the reason, it hurt like the treachery it was.

Aragorn, his own lovely Aragorn... and Sam.

Sam, steady reliable Sam, who had never been away from home before...and Aragorn.

It just didn't add up, and Frodo didn't know, in the brief moment before he stopped himself from brooding further on this particular and unpleasant reality, which end of that equation brought him the bitterest sting of jealousy and hurt.

Frodo got up and trudged on in long tangly grass and prickly undergrowth that he hadn't even noticed the night before. Now it was mid-afternoon, and it was warm and close in the forest. He continued in the general direction he told himself he remembered - it couldn't be far.

But half an hour later, he had to admit that he was lost. Either he was mistaken about the landmarks he thought he recognised, or he had been too deep in confused and frantic speculation, but however it had come about, he was nowhere near the archery clearing. There didn't seem to be any paths. He thought of calling, but decided that it would look foolish.

Frodo sighed dejectedly. Some night vision, and even daylight didn't seem to be of any help to such a feeble talent as his. "You know I see well in the dark", he had chided the ranger, and now he couldn't even find a clearing close by, in full daylight, and large enough to build a small house in.

He slowed down. Something that was lurking in the back of his mind had been visible in a flash when he remembered those words, but now it was gone again. What had Aragorn said in response again? "You are not the only one who sees well in the dark", something like that. Their meeting two nights ago had been both unpleasant and puzzling, and Frodo hadn't had the strength to go over their conversation in detail - he had distracted himself by going walking with Sam - but now these words came back to him very clearly. What did that remind him of?

He frowned, trying to put his finger on it. Something Sam had said. "What with the dark and all, he thought I was you." Frodo suddenly had a vague and uneasy sense of some unlooked-for and perhaps sinister convergence. Aragorn had definitely not been talking about himself - he must have been aware of his mistake.

Who then? Sam, instigator of that benighted tryst? Forger of dark and deliberate plots? What, exactly, had Aragorn felt that Sam had seen so clearly? Himself, Aragorn? No, it didn't make sense. Something or someone else.

"...sometimes we all need to have the obvious pointed out to us..." Frodo closed his eyes hard, trying to remember. Who needed? 'I didn't understand until I was shown.'

Shown what? By whom? By Sam? He stopped, sensing that this was somehow important, was the heart of the whole matter. Aragorn had said that there was something "right in front of him," something very important. Something that Sam knew? Was it - no, it *had* to be - the same thing that Aragorn himself had been shown.

Frodo walked on, aimlessly, unseeing, the archery place forgotten. He couldn't understand why he felt nervous, suddenly.

If Aragorn had indeed been referring to Sam as the one who saw well in the dark, and who had shown him something that he himself had been too blind to see, then what was it? Was it an actual thing or idea or discovery - or was it in the very doing?

Frodo's heart beat faster suddenly. Had Sam done what he had done in order to show Aragorn something? The meaning of Sam's seemingly irrational and senseless act had to be in his motivation. What had made Sam do it?

That question, Frodo realised, was the true heart of the matter. Sam had protested that it was not out of jealousy, and Frodo felt certain, having seen Sam's face, that it had not been out of lust. Then what?

Frodo swiped restlessly at some tall grasses. How had he not seen, when he had been talking to Sam - no, *yelling* at Sam - that the important thing was not *what* he had done but *why*? He hadn't really thought to ask, except in the most shallow and heedless way; he had been too upset. Now that anger, which had seemed so justified, seemed suddenly very misguided. This was a knot that couldn't be untangled in anger, its threads were too fine for that. And yet it needed to be untangled.

He walked faster. He had to find... not Aragorn, he brushed aside the image, something more important. Sam. Had to find Sam. It was suddenly crucial that he talked to Sam and got this whole mess sorted out, before it drove him mad. Then, perhaps, it would be time to talk to Aragorn. However much it tested his patience, that was how it must happen. He frowned and turned back, walking faster.

"It wasn't like that, Mr Frodo... It wasn't right..." Words ran through Frodo's head as he beat the lush, grasping leaves and vines out of his way. "He's a man, he doesn't understand. me having come all this way...he's not here for you, he's here for the sake of the Ring..." Surely Sam had not been suggesting that Aragorn's mind had been affected by the Ring? Or had he? Odd way to demonstrate it. And Sam, Frodo reminded himself, was most definitely aware that Frodo suspected that Boromir felt the presence of the Ring, they had even talked of it - why Aragorn and not Boromir, if it had been his intention to demonstrate that either man was not accountable? No, it made no sense.

Perhaps Sam meant that Aragorn really only cared about the quest, in the end. Frodo had to admit that that touched a nerve.

Truly, the task before them weighed heavily on Aragorn's mind, all the responsibility, often showed in his face, lately. But weren't they all thus preoccupied? And why would that be so close to Sam's heart, that it made him do something so out of character? They had all had this burden laid on them at the same time - in a sense, of course, they were all here for the sake of the Ring, himself most of all.

All except... Frodo frowned. Sam had come along all the way from the Shire, not really knowing much about the Ring, and certainly not aware of the true danger of the journey. And when he had learned of it, he had still wanted to come. He had not been chosen by the council; he had just refused to be left behind. Not, Frodo thought with growing amazement, because he thought he had some part to play in the destruction of the ring, not because he was eager for adventure or possessed by an idle wish to explore foreign countries. Because... Why had Frodo not seen this before?

Oh, Sam, Frodo thought suddenly, stopping dead among the ferns. I was cruel to you, wasn't I?

It was as if Sam had been invisible up until today, until this moment, even. But Sam had finally reached out, in his unerring way, and forced Frodo to see him, to take notice. And with a strange throb inside, Frodo finally dared to follow his thought to its end, and see that the truth of this strange matter was, had to be, that if it, in Sam's opinion, wasn't right for Frodo to become attached to Aragorn because Aragorn was there for the sake of the Ring, then it wasn't right for him to be attached to anyone, except...

And standing there, Frodo sensed something that had lain asleep very near his heart for a long time awakening, slowly, and as he listened, breathless, for its presence, it began to ache like a starved thing. He sensed its name - *oh, I know you *- even as it was taking shape...

... and he stopped trying to think, and started running, crashing through the tangled undergrowth. He noticed, glancing up between the trees, that the sun had moved considerably since he left the camp, and that it was already late afternoon. He must have been gone for hours. Where might Sam be? What would he have done when Frodo had thrown out that last remark - oh, how horrible that remark had been, how could he have been so blind? - and walked off. Where was he now?


Sam felt as if all his bones had been taken out of him, and he fell to his knees, as Frodo's footsteps disappeared. He closed his eyes.

His worst fears had come true. Frodo hadn't had one ounce of understanding or forgiveness - quite the opposite. Oh, how he must loathe Sam.

All his hard-to-find courage had been for nothing.

He thought of Frodo's face, unrecognisable, his eyes cold like the eyes of a furious and frightening stranger. He'd never thought he'd live to see such a look on his master's face. But he had, and he was still alive, unfortunately. Being alive suddenly didn't seem worth a rotten raspberry.

It wasn't the first time Sam cried, by any means, but he could not remember it ever hurting quite so before. Whereas before he had cried with his eyes, now his whole body seemed to join in.

It was a long time before he was able to straighten up. He pulled his sleeve down over his hand and slowly rubbed his eyes and cheeks dry. Enough was enough, he decided shakily. This was not like him, and it wouldn't do. He had to pull himself together.

What would he do? The idea of going back to camp and meeting either Aragorn or Frodo was not appealing, but in the end it didn't matter, there wasn't enough of anything left in him to care. But beyond that - because he would have to go back sooner or later - what should he do? What would it be like, from this moment on? How could he go on?

But he had to, he knew he had to. He hadn't come all this way just to give up. But he felt farther away from home than ever before on this journey, more bitterly abandoned, and not just because his conversation with Frodo the day before had reminded him of just how foreign this place was to him.

With a stab of pain, he recalled Frodo's last words: I wish you had never come. Mere words, and yet it had been like a whiplash - it still smarted. Sam would have preferred it if Frodo had hit him. He found himself in an unimagined quandary - would he serve Mr Frodo better, be a truer friend, by staying, or by leaving?

Well, sitting there like a lump wasn't going to solve anything. With a sigh, Sam got to his feet and started walking in the direction of the camp, undoing his cotton neck-kerchief to wipe his eyes properly. Sam's heart was nothing if not resilient, and it was his best counsel in the solving of any problem, if only he had known it. But as he trudged back to the camp he couldn't for the life of him see what he ought to do.

As he walked into the shadow of the camp tree, he drew a sigh of relief - no one was there.

His pack, his bedroll, his cloak. And next to them, nearly identical to look at but so very, very different to Sam, Frodo's pack, heartbreakingly untidy - straps done up unevenly, things hanging out every which way - and his mussed bedroll. Sam could almost read the shape and movement of his body in the bunching and wrinkling of the fabric. The gentle impression of his head in the meagre stuffing.

He fell to his knees and brought his face close to the fabric right there, a little warily and breathlessly, as if Frodo was still there and might wake up if he got too close. And there, just there, in the rough green wool, was the scent of Frodo, his skin and hair, the slight peppery milkiness of the back of his pale neck, and as if in a trance Sam took a deep helpless breath, forgetting to be careful, closing his eyes. It filled him with such a disturbing sweetness that he didn't know what to do with himself, he needed more of it, closer, and the pulse in his stomach grew suddenly deeper making him shiver all over. He rifled around, and under the bedroll he found a shirt, and he brought it to his face, pressing the familiar scent to his skin. He remained on his knees, fingers clenching in the soft linen fabric, for some long moments.

When he finally got up, like a drunk, after tucking the shirt back where he had found it, he could see nothing but how very few inches separated that bedroll with its secret, untouchable scent-ghost from his own. Impossible. There was no way he could survive that proximity after the day's events. He bent quickly and grabbed his things, as if they were too close to the fire, and walking around the tree he found a narrow niche next to Pippin's that seemed unoccupied. Pippin would certainly wonder - perhaps he could say that he had a cold and didn't want Frodo to catch it.

But... he stood there with his blankets and bags in his hands. What was the point? Close or less close, it was only a matter of degree, and he knew suddenly that his heart would be in no less pain just because he put a few more yards between Frodo and himself. Accessory or jealous watcher-from- afar, it would be unbearable, either way. Frodo's intoxicating and unattainable scent still infused his senses, lingered as a deep pulse in his body, and suddenly all the conflicting and inseparable emotions and the tension and helplessness flooded his heart and he wanted nothing so much as to just run away. Hadn't Frodo himself said that he didn't want Sam there? What could he possibly hope to accomplish by remaining here, every minute a torture to himself and his very presence a burden to his master? It would hardly be the essence of good service - or of friendship.

Sam spun around and began walking, holding back yet more tears, and with a strange desperate tightness in his chest that could have been either relief or regret or both. He slung his pack over his shoulder and started bundling up the bedroll as he walked quickly in the general direction from which they had all arrived the previous day.


Frodo arrived in the camp, winded and with pine needles in his hair, when the sun was beginning to chase longer shadows from the trees. He had gotten lost, or rather even more lost, on the way back, and wandered frantically along a brook lined with ferns that grew taller than he was. Luckily, these soon grew sparser, allowing him to get his bearings, and soon after he stumbled into the clearing, looking desperately around for Sam.

There was nobody there at all, but as Frodo's breath settled somewhat he could hear voices in the distance. Looking up he could see three distant figures, dark against the bright sunshine - it had to be Merry and Pippin and Legolas, judging from their relative heights - walking towards him.

He ran to meet them, not caring what they might think of his unkempt appearance and his lost composure.

'Hello, Frodo, where have you been?' Pippin's bright voice, from ten yards away. 'We haven't seen you all day, almost.'

'You missed a great tea, Frodo,' Merry added cheerily as he came up to them. 'It was in a tree, and there were these little cakes with honey in them and strawberries, Frodo, wild strawberries -

'Have you seen Sam?' Frodo interrupted.

Merry and Pippin looked at each other.

'We thought he was with you,' Pippin said.

'He wasn't. Do you know where he could be? Have you seen him?'

Merry frowned, looking concerned - Frodo knew his wild desire to find Sam showed on his face, but he didn't care, he just wished he would hurry up and tell him what he knew - if anything.

'No, we haven't seen him at all since midday, when we last saw *you*, come to think of it. Where have you been? What's the matter?'

Frodo just shook his head. By now they had walked back to the great camp tree. Merry and Pippin settled down on their beds for a smoke and some quiet time but Pippin refused to give Merry back the flint, and Merry tickled him, drawing loud yells and hoots and much verbal abuse.

Frodo stood on the grass, biting his lip. What should he do? His eyes went to his own bedroll, and then his heart nearly stopped.

It was alone. There was nothing next to it. Sam's bedroll and pack were gone, and there was an empty patch of flattened grass next to where he himself would sleep that night.

'Oh, no,' he said out loud, feeling a cold hand grab his stomach. What had Sam done? Where had he gone? Oh, it was all his fault, how could he have said that vicious thing, when the truth, if only he had known it, was that he wanted nobody close by him on this journey so much as Sam? He cursed, causing Merry to look up briefly, in surprise and appreciation.

'Dear me,' Merry said in pretended shock.

'Frodo, where'd you learn a word like that? I thought you were a well- brought up hobbit,' Pippin chirped.

Frodo started to walk quickly around the clearing, searching for signs of which way Sam might have gone.

'Ach, leave him alone.'

How long ago could it have been? Oh, hours, possibly - or minutes. He scanned the ground eagerly.

'I'm a poorly brought up hobbit myself,' Pippin said, conversationally.

'Don't I know it!'

'Shut up, you.'

'Shut up yourself. *Stop* it... Pippin, NO!'

Frodo felt so frantic and frustrated he could have cried. There were no clear tracks anywhere, too many people walked here all the time and Frodo was no great reader of footprints anyway. But then, something in the grass some yards away caught his eye, and he hurried over and picked it up with his heart in his throat.

Sam's neck-kerchief.

It was curled where the knot had been for so long, worn cotton, the check pattern almost washed out, and it was dirty and damp and stained, and it was definitely Sam's. He looked up, trying to determine how it might have ended up there, and realised that the faint path that began at the edge of the grass, not fifteen feet from where the kerchief had lain, was the very one hat had brought them there two days ago. Oh, sweet Lady, Frodo thought in despair, he really he means to go home! Oh, I have to find him!

Frodo started running, bunching the kerchief tightly in his fist. The path was not wide, and from time to time it almost disappeared among bushes and saplings and tall grass, but it was easy enough to follow. How far could Sam have gone?

After a bit he couldn't run anymore and slowed to a walk. His lungs were aching. What if Sam had left the path? Frodo knew that Sam preferred to take shortcuts where he could, and he guessed that he would not want to be discovered on the path (a painful thought - he imagined Sam trudging along between these trees, alone, with his pack and his old grey cloak and no neck-kerchief, and his heart felt like breaking) but then, this land was strange to him, he wouldn't know anything beyond the path itself. Chances were Sam would have stuck to the path.

He went further and further, and there was no sign or sound of Sam. He started to feel genuinely worried at being so far away from camp and the others, but none of those worries seemed as important as finding Sam. Oh, if Sam didn't, if Sam was lost. he had no idea, no word for these tangled feelings, for this sense of dread and hope all mixed up, but it made him start running again.

How could he have been so blind? Next to Sam's unblinking, unassuming courage in leaving all he had ever known behind and following Frodo, simply because he cared about him, his own and Aragorn's brief and sudden alliance seemed like the reckless foolishness of spoilt and irresponsible youths. How could you not see the difference between crazed, heedless infatuation and lifelong steadfastness that asked so little for itself but gave so generously? And how deluded did you have to be not to know which one was the one that mattered?

The sun was almost straight ahead of him now; already between the trees, and with the sun in his eyes he couldn't see much ahead of him, only enough to keep following the path. He couldn't run anymore, but the thought of turning back without Sam, leaving him to go away, and perhaps never seeing him again, was too awful, and he kept walking, refusing to lose hope.

No Sam - it was unthinkable. It would hurt less to lose an eye.

Frodo realised that he had hardly lived a day of his life, for years and years and years - practically since he first came to live at Bag End - without Sam, and that he would literally not know what to do with himself without his sensible and affectionate presence. Sam was the background to his every picture, the soil in which his life grew, the path that kept him walking straight. Without him, how would he walk? Talk? Raise a mug to drink? Even these simple actions seemed somehow to depend, for their very form and meaning, on Sam.

It was as if he truly saw Sam for the first time in his life, and oh how it made him long to see him again, for real, not just in his mind's eye. His warm eyes, his mop of sun-bleached curls, his strong hands. The forearms that Frodo had so often watched when Sam was working in the garden with his shirtsleeves rolled up, his hands deep in mulch - lean wrists, long narrow muscles under sunburned skin. He had often watched, but he had never seen. He couldn't remember how it felt to touch Sam, although he had done it daily for years. Done it and never known it. Now he knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that if he got the chance to touch Sam again, just to lay a hand on his shoulder, he would not be so oblivious. It seemed his hands had been running with gold and he had not had the sense to pay attention.

If he would have to live the rest of his life without Sam - it would be like a different hobbit existing instead of him, one that had not been so fortunate as to have Sam near all his life. A whole world, it seemed, would disappear, the door would close on years and years of unquestioned closeness, and Frodo would be alone in a way he could not even imagine. If he lost Sam, he realised with an agonised shiver, he would lose himself, too. Perhaps he already had.

Suddenly there was an opening in the trees ahead, and Frodo was so tired, so heartsick and so full of unresolved woe and unnamed longing, that he walked into it almost without noticing.

When he lifted his head, a meadow opened up in front of him, green and golden in the slanting sunlight. Beyond was a stream, a river almost, and on the other side dark woods. The late sun poured molten gold on the surface of the pond where the stream collected in deep, slow stillness. The rushes and reeds along the edges burned with colour, and gave off a dry, papyrusy smell that mixed with the sweeter scent of the sun-baked turf.

Frodo stood for a moment, head swimming with the drowsy, sun-drenched stillness. After the shade under the trees, it was as warm and comforting as an afternoon in the Shire - just a stream, some rocks, some grassy banks, at the end of the day. It was magical, but it was a magic that felt like home. To one far from home, it was both comforting and sad.

Suddenly a splash broke the oily golden surface.

Frodo's heart nearly missed a beat, and he looked around, as rings slowly spread on the water.

And with a surge of relief and a little shiver deep inside, he recognised the outline of the little figure perched on a rock just at the water's edge. Against the golden sunshine, no detail was discernible, but to Frodo the angle of the head, the shoulders, the very slump was as familiar as the shape of his own hands.

He started to run, Sam's name already in his mouth - Sam, where have you been? How could you even think to leave me? - but hesitated, and came to a stop after a few steps. What might Sam think on seeing him there? Heaven knew he would have reason to be unforgiving, Frodo reminded himself uncomfortably, his elation subdued at once. He deserved nothing but the harshest words from Sam.

Finding Sam, Frodo realised, was not the same as being within sight of him. Sam had strayed far from home, and rather than helping, Frodo had only added to the distance between them.

His heart went out to the slouched, sad-looking little silhouette, and he bit his lip. You know me better than I do myself, he thought, realising with wonder and gratitude that it was true. What can I possibly do in return for that?

He wanted to talk, to explain, to make words an offer of forgiveness, but if he was right about Sam's feelings, he saw now that he was the one that needed to be forgiven. He had been blind, deluded, crazy, and he had been guilty of the cruellest unfairness to Sam's loyalty and love. Whatever Sam did, he did for Frodo's sake, and that had not changed, whatever some might say. Frodo needed not to talk, but to listen, listen as if his life depended on it.

He collected himself with deep breaths to still the trembling in his stomach.

Then he walked slowly towards Sam, and the tall, whispering grasses were cool and silky against his legs.


Sam felt cold, despite the melting golden sunshine drenching the landscape. The rock was rough under his hand. He stared at the water without seeing it.

He had hurried away from the camp, brushing a few insistent tears away with the heel of his hand, and only stopped after a few minutes to strap his rolled-up bed to his pack. He had walked and walked and walked, his head empty, only knowing that he somehow seemed to have taken a decision and that this was it. He tried not to think of Frodo, tried not to imagine what he might think when he found Sam gone. Would he be relieved? Would he heave a secret sigh and move his bedroll to the ranger's side that very night, Sam already forgotten?

He blinked and walked. Naught to be done about it now, he told himself. He had been told to remove himself and he had. So why did every step hurt as if the path was covered in broken glass?

The next time he raised his eyes from the road he was almost surprised - how long after? - to find himself on a riverbank. He looked about. They had not crossed any rivers other than the Nimrodel on their way into the forest, and this was definitely not the icy, rapid Nimrodel. This was a slow, deep, gently swirling forest stream, no more than ten or twelve spans of clear brown water, Sam reckoned.

What now?

He walked upstream for a perhaps half a mile, looking for shallower sections where there might be stepping stones. Nothing - just grassy gently sloping banks, reeds and the sound of the wind in the trees on the other side.

He sighed and turned and started walking down stream instead. The banks widened into a gently ruffling meadow, just where the stream became a quiet pool. Sam climbed a rock and saw that not far below, the river went over a little rocky ledge, like a natural weir, and grew faster before bubbling and rippling contentedly away into the forest again. There were no shallow places, no stones and not a single handy fallen tree.

Sam slumped down on the rock and let his pack slide off his back. It fell into the grass below with a thump. He didn't know how to swim. Below the rock the water was shallow enough for him to see the pebbles on the bottom, but further out it deepened into murky mystery. He picked up a rock and threw it into the water.

He could walk upstream, or downstream, he supposed, but who knew where that might lead? Lost in thought, Sam sat for a while looking at the gently undulating surface of the pond. As the afternoon breeze lay down, the warm air gathered and shimmered over the meadow and the rocks, heavy with scents melted out of trees and greenery by the sun. Insects hovered and ringed the smooth surface.

The sun sank lower, the light turning to a golden blessing on the water and the rocks and even on Sam's curly, downcast head.

Where was he going, anyway? Home? Sam suddenly felt as if there had been a huge mistake, that he didn't actually have a home anymore. The Shire would still be there, but there were other kinds of homes apart from villages and houses, other places where your heart might rest.

It had been no more than an inarticulate hope, a remote possibility, no more real than the diamonds of sunshine on the bottom of this pond. Nevertheless it had soothed his heart and brought him courage and comfort to think about it, imagine it to be true, from time to time when he couldn't sleep, or when he felt small and far away from home. It was at such times that it was worth more than gold to be able to turn your head and look at someone and remember that you *were* home, really, somehow.

Lost in the swirling, shimmering patterns down in the water, he didn't at first distinguish the little noises among the humming and buzzing and rustling of animals and insects. He didn't lift his head until he became aware of the still shape in the corner of his eye.

Frodo was not looking at him. He was sitting close, but not too close, looking at his hands and fidgeting a little. There was a hint of a sad wrinkle between his brows, and his cheeks were blotchy, as if he had been crying.

How could this be?

Several seconds passed. Frodo didn't say anything, and Sam, still speechless, didn't know what to do. He couldn't tell if Frodo was angry still, or sad, or how and why he came to be there at all.

Eventually, Frodo spoke.

'Tell me, Sam. Tell me truly why you did it.' Frodo's voice was so low it could not possibly have been heard by anyone farther away than Sam.

'I didn't mean no harm, sir, I swear and promise I didn't,' Sam said after a moment's hesitation.

Frodo nodded, still looking at his hands.

Sam didn't know what to make of it, of the difference between the hissing, furious Frodo from earlier and this quiet hobbit sitting next to him and listening so intently Sam didn't know what to say. He couldn't remember Frodo giving him such complete attention, ever, and for a second he was afraid that such openness would just swallow him up and he would be undone.

But he knew a second chance when he saw one, and suddenly there was no bitter anger, no resentment. Frodo was there. Sam pulled his courage close.

'Well, I don't rightly know what came over me, sir, to tell the truth.' He drew a deep breath. 'I was just so angry, and I felt so lonely, if you don't mind, sir. And then when I saw yous.. well, holdin' hands and that, it just made me...'

Their eyes met, briefly as a dragonfly's wingbeat. Sam felt somehow reassured, as if a hand holding his heart had suddenly loosened its grip.

'And I guess I was a bit jealous, too, just as you said. You were right enough I reckon.' He smiled a little, and Frodo gave a tight uncertain smile back. 'Except that I wasn't out to ruin anything, I wasn't jealous like that... I didn't know what I meant to do, only that I... and I went over there, and...' His voice failed. He couldn't look up. 'One thing led... It wasn't my meaning to...' He sighed. 'It's the sort of thing, if you've said A, you've got to say B, if you get my drift.' He blushed. 'He would've known it wasn't yourself, sir, otherwise... course, he did anyway. More fool Gamgee.' He managed a skewed smile, but this time Frodo didn't smile back. Sam swallowed.

Frodo didn't say anything.

'Guess I've never really felt that way before, angry, like that, if you know what I mean,' Sam tried to clarify, nervously.

'With me... or with him?' Frodo was still looking at his hands.

'Him, of course!' Sam cleared his throat. 'Never been angry with you yet, Mr Frodo,' he mumbled. 'Exceptin' this afternoon, and I didn't really mean that.'

There was a long, fragile silence. Sam could hear Frodo draw breath to speak, and hesitate for a long moment. He knew he should stay quiet and let Frodo speak, but nerves got to him, and he spoke just as Frodo did too.

'It wasn't -'

'Did you - '

Frodo stopped and made a vague encouraging gesture. Sam blushed.


'No, you go ahead, Sam.'

'I just wanted to say - it wasn't for a lark. I didn't... you know... it wasn't... It wasn't fun, if you take my meaning.'

Frodo nodded once, briskly, looking away briefly before speaking again.

'Why then?' He flashed Sam a look that was both eager and uncomfortable. 'This is awful, Sam, but I am sure that if you think about it. you understand why I have to ask.'

'That's all right, sir,' Sam said, gently. How wonderful this was, he suddenly thought, irrationally. He took a deep breath and thought hard. Then he started over, with Frodo's eyes in his.

'It was to teach him a lesson, sir.' Sam blushed. 'I know I ought'n't to say such things, but that's the truth. I just wanted to show him that he didn't know what he was doing, that he wasn't the right one...'

Sam hesitated, finding the right words.

'He had no right, Mr Frodo,' he said at last. 'No right.'

He thought a strange look passed over Frodo's face then, as if he had lost a fraction of his attention for a second or two to a distraction or a sudden remembrance. But then his gaze came back to Sam's, and he nodded.

'I think... I think I see,' Frodo said. And ever so warily, after hovering a long time between them, his hand settled over Sam's on the rock next to him. Sam got a strange feeling in his stomach as he looked down.

'I didn't mean a single thing I said, Sam,' Frodo said, frowning, one word at a time. 'You must believe me.'

'I do, course I do.'

'I don't know how to unsay it. I *can't* unsay it, so it's up to you, Sam, but I beg you... I behaved like an oaf, Sam. I was lost, I couldn't see... Oh, I've been such an idiot.'

'It's all right. Don't say that, sir. It's all right, I believe you.'

Frodo looked out over the still, golden water. He drew a deep breath. Neither of them spoke for a minute. Sam stole a look at the hand resting in Frodo's lap, and saw for the first time what it was that Frodo had been fiddling with. His, Sam's, old neck-kerchief. For some reason, seeing that in Frodo's hand made him feel strangely upset, as if something inside him was clamouring to be let out.

'This river, it reminds me. It's like the Brandywine at home, isn't it. Except smaller.'

Sam nodded, a bit surprised at the abrupt change of subject. But there was a look on Frodo's face that made him stay quiet and listen.

'That tree we saw yesterday... do you really think it might grow at home?'

'Don't know, but I'm going to try, if I ever get to go back.'

Frodo hesitated a moment. He frowned down at the neck-kerchief in his hands.

'Do you remember, Sam - you would have been very little, but anyway - do you remember that the Brandywine rose very high once, many years ago? The weather had been very strange, and then there was a season of rains, downpours like nobody had ever seen, and the water rose and the river broke its banks. The water went everywhere, flooding the roads and the fields and even into people's houses and smials and barns. Fences were broken down and there was mud everywhere.'

Frodo met Sam's eyes.

'It was quite frightening - that quiet river, suddenly uncontrollable, breaking and ruining things. But eventually, after a week or so, the waters found their way back to the river bed and everything was put in order again.'

Sam nodded. He didn't remember any of this, but he sensed that it did not matter.

'And the Brandywine becomes a great river once it leaves the Shire, and it flows all the way to the sea, along its foretold course.

'I think,' Frodo said slowly, eyes on Sam's, 'that the river was looking for something. And it found it right where it had come from, in its own old banks, where it belonged.'

Sam nodded.

'There was damage, but nothing that could not be mended or rebuilt,' Frodo said quietly, his eye's on Sam's, stilling Sam into breathless listening. 'And perhaps not all the consequences were bad.'

Sam's throat felt thick. Somehow he knew was Frodo was talking about, and in a flash he remembered the broken dam, the drawing of the flowers, but it was too much, he didn't have words for the right answer. If Frodo was a river, then he would ask no better than to be its banks, whether the waters were untamed or still, but that was not the sort of thing Sam could bring himself to say out loud. An insistent little voice inside him said that a simple way to deal with the entire thing would be to just wrap his arms around Frodo and not let him go for a long time, and to block it out he said:

'I guess I was well out of order, too, Mr Frodo. It's just that... I couldn't have borne seeing you ending up broken-hearted, and that's just how it is.'

Frodo looked away. Sam felt suddenly afraid he had said too much, or not enough, or too feebly, too something, and he held his breath for several heartbeats.

'How come you bother with my heart at all, Sam,' Frodo said at last, in the smallest voice.

'Oh, now, Mr Frodo, I mean... course I...' He blushed. 'That is to say, you know I do, Mr Frodo.'

'Do I?' Frodo whispered, eyes never leaving Sam's.

And then Sam couldn't hold himself, he didn't know who moved first, but they met halfway and then they were in each other's arms, Frodo was melting into him and one of Sam's hands went up to Frodo's hair. His face was in Sam's collar, buried, breathing there, and his arms were holding Sam hard and close. Sam forgot everything else. He felt every breath with such intensity that he was almost dizzy.

After long moments in which Sam's hands did their best to memorise the texture of Frodo's hair and clothes, the feeling of firm flesh under loose clothing, the warmth of the embrace, Sam looked at his master, reluctantly breaking the closeness. Frodo's face was flushed now and glowing in the warm evening light.

Frodo looked back at him, squinting a little between shiny, dark brown lashes. He smiled, both shy and relieved, and Sam somehow knew that the home he had dreamt of was not lost. The possibility no longer seemed remote, and the hope... that never-spoken hope was no longer inarticulate, somehow without Sam noticing, in the space of a simple hug, it had become fluent... eloquent. Before he had come to the end of the thought, his lips were touching the corner of Frodo's mouth.

Frodo's lips opened a little, half in surprise and half in wordless acquiescence, and Sam's hand, which was still at the back of Frodo's neck, brought him home ever so gently. He felt pliable, soft as butter, to Sam's hands, but just as his body was beginning to mould itself against Sam's, he gasped into Sam's mouth and pulled back.

'Sam. Samwise.' His breathing deep. The shadow of a question there, and Sam's heart nearly stopped.



And with a tug on Sam's jacket he was back, his hands in Sam's hair, his eyes softly closed, and it was hot like the sun on Sam's back, slow as the lazy golden stream, and the sweet savour of his master's mouth was like the perfect intoxication he had waited for all his life. Sam couldn't get enough. It had all been worth it, now that it came to it, for this was redemption and redress not just for a few days, but for a whole lifetime, more generous and more overpowering than he had ever dared to hope.

He moved to hold Frodo even closer, but slipped and slid down the side of the rock, and between kisses, with Frodo's hands locked on his jacket collar, he ended up standing in the water to his knees, with Frodo still sitting on the rock, leaning slightly over him. He wrapped his arms around Sam's neck and Sam tilted his face up to let his master take what he would, learning about Frodo's cat's kisses, little flicks of his tongue on Sam's lips. Frodo was making faint, eager noises with each breath and soon Sam's open mouth found the vibrating throat and made Frodo's head fall back. Sam's tongue dipped into the hollow between the smooth collarbones, tasting salty, sharp, slightly sweaty skin and savouring that same scent that had nearly made him lose his sense earlier, but this time close, carried on the heat of Frodo's living skin.

Then Frodo sat up again and grasped Sam's collar, looking down at him from arm's length. Frodo's mouth was open, the lips awakened to vibrant, trembling life. Sam had never in his life seen anyone look so maddeningly beautiful. He'd renounce food, drink, the very air he breathed, for the right to kiss that mouth again, touch that skin, if he didn't already have that right as surely as he had a name.

'I don't ever again want to be farther away from you than this, ever, in my life,' Frodo said between breaths. 'I want to be able to reach out for you wherever, whenever.'

Sam wrapped his arms around Frodo's waist and held him, hard, with his cheek pressed against his chest. Frodo was murmuring, like one possessed, with his arms around Sam's head, and the words reverberated through them both, escaping the cage of Frodo's ribs and vibrating straight through every clenched muscle in Sam's body.

'If the day comes when you aren't there I won't know what to do with myself, Sam, I swear, I didn't know, Sam, I didn't see, don't ever ever ever...'

Sam half lifted, half pulled Frodo off the rock and into the water.

'Be with me, Sam, don't ever let me leave,' Frodo murmured, and Sam answered soundlessly, I am here, with his lips against Frodo's cheek, and they were kissing again, Frodo's leg coming up to wrap around Sam's as if to bring him even closer.

Sam lowered his arms to Frodo's hips and lifted him, and carried him to the riverbank. Frodo's hands moved from his shoulders then, and no bone or muscle of Sam's resisted as he was pulled down into the grass.

Once there, Frodo squirmed and hooked his leg over Sam's, as if he was seeking to keep him there, keep him as close as could be. Looking *down* at Frodo's face was just as heartstopping as Sam had thought it would be. And now that they were there, and there was no turning back, Sam took all his courage and put some careful deliberation into the next kiss, touching Frodo's mouth as lightly as the sun, until Frodo couldn't keep a strangled little sound from escaping him, and lifted his head to chase Sam's elusive mouth with his own. It wasn't far away, and Frodo grabbed the back of Sam's neck and closed his eyes with an appreciative murmur, and his mouth on Sam's became slow, luxuriant, hinting at a messy, voluptuous greediness that Sam had never imagined him capable of and that took his breath away.

'Frodo,' he said, low down, near the skin, and just because he could.

'Oh, Samwise,' Frodo said when Sam pulled back to look at him. 'You are...' and he pulled his head down with his fingers in Sam's hair.

'I don't know where I have been without you,' he murmured between kisses. 'How could I not see? How did I live so long without. Oh, come here, you.'

He caught Sam's face between his hands.

'Without *you*, there would be no me either, do you understand that, Sam? Don't you ever, ever leave me again.'

'I love you,' Sam said.
For a time Sam didn't think of any other part of his master than his mouth, so irresistible was it, and so easily was kiss laid to kiss laid to kiss. How quick it was, getting used to the feel of that body in his arms, finding its dips and angles with his own. How easy, to disrupt that familiar breathing, make it catch, make it break. So many ways to touch, to hold, to taste, how easy to mislay your own composure in the middle of it all...

There was the thinnest of boundaries, thinner than Frodo's most transparent skin, between the familiar and the un-dreamed of, and his fingers were laying everything bare. These silent, open-mouthed gasps, the sudden depth to the eyes; so much waiting under the surface to be touched. Dark eyelashes lusciously closing, trembling, in acceptance and abandonment - Sam could only witness in silence and give thanks by way of kisses. That this beautiful white throat should bare itself so desperately to him, Sam, was almost too much to be endured.

Oh, Sam had dreamt this so many times, in glimpses, hardly admitting the wishes to himself, but now, in the making, the discoveries were all new. Nobody could have dreamt up the richness of this reality. Frodo had skin that satisfied his palms like nothing he had ever touched before, the sensation soaking into him like hot milk into sweet bread. There were treasures to be discovered one by one, in the most unexpected places (the taut curve of the hip bone, the slope below it where his thumb could sink into the soft supple skin, the hard twin sinews gliding under his fingers at the back of the knee). And Frodo's hands. his hands could cup to overflowing with such tenderness, and then spread on Sam, open palm smoothing gold onto his skin, making it shine, flicker, sparkle, and Sam felt perfect, felt so beautiful he had to gasp and close his eyes, as Frodo's fingers made him whole bit by bit.

However, in his imagination he had never lain helpless on his back, knocked out by sensations. He had to grab his master, roll him over with the gentlest violence he was capable of; this would not do, there was only supposed to be one upper hand here - Sam's.

He found however that unless he physically held Frodo down, it was hard to keep his mind on his purpose, on account of those hands of his. Even so, the helpless, ravished sounds that grew so insistent (Sam's mouth travelled up Frodo's warm, snowy, tense side to the almost untouchable place high up under the arm and Frodo's elbow locked around his neck as he gasped somewhere between too much and not enough), the twisting, the arching, the irregular breaths and the inadvertent contacts, these were distracting, and once or twice Sam found that he lost his way into those hands again, that mouth, giving himself up to the smell of fresh sweat and crushed grass and sun-baked skin, and to the utter sweetness of knowing whom those hands belonged to.

His name was a searing, breathless whisper on Frodo's open mouth.

'I'm here,' he managed in a choked sigh, 'I'm here, Frodo... '

Frodo's leg tensed, braced against his side, and he smiled breathlessly, teasingly.

'Where?' he whispered.

'Here,' Sam said, moving with great daring.

'Oh...*harder*,' Frodo whispered then, and his voice was both shy and heated, and Sam thought his heart might stop right there and then. He ground Frodo's grappling hand into the grass as he heard him ask again.

Finally he had Frodo where he wanted him, and he was deaf and blind to everything else. Even now Frodo would not be denied, he reached, seeking to be allowed to undo Sam, even as his very life lay in Sam's hands. Sam was gentle, and then not so gentle, and the lovely curve under Frodo's ribcage rose beneath his taut skin like the back of a sleek fish diving deep in silky water. His fingers closed on Sam's arms until the knuckles whitened.

So strong. Sam often forgot what reserves of tenacious and sinewy power was framed in Frodo's quiet, polite posture, but he was reminded now, because certain caresses, it seemed, made Frodo forget all restraint. It took everything Sam had to ride those waves; Frodo took all he had, of strength and tenderness both.

Sam bit his lip and glanced at Frodo's face, watching pleasure drip and glide down his cheeks, like heavy syrup. Frodo's eyes were closed, his head thrown to the side. Sam felt afraid for a second, despite everything.

'Oi, you,' he whispered gently into Frodo's hair. 'Frodo... Stay with me. Don't leave me now.'

Frodo's eyes found Sam's at once. He lifted his mouth to Sam's.

'I'm not going anywhere,' he breathed. 'Not without you. But please, Sam, I can't bear...'

And Sam knew that it was all right, and he pressed his forehead to Frodo's and with Frodo's arms around his neck, he put all his tender strength, all his hot urgency and all the restraint he had left towards his purpose. Frodo soon cried out, in gorgeous, desperate want, and that strength again, against him, with him, and Sam couldn't breathe, in a sudden airless elevation to a level where there was nothing but his pulse in his ears, and Frodo's against his chest and mouth, and velvety heat spreading through each bursting vein.

When his ears cleared he heard Frodo panting underneath his slick stomach, breathy begging, and he moved again, before his breath had time to slow, and again, until Frodo's body began to struggle convulsively under his weight, and Frodo cried out, hoarsely, raggedly, burying his face in the hot angle between Sam's neck and shoulder, lost, loved, and bereft of will and sight for what seemed like many minutes.



Sam lifted his head lazily and looked down at Frodo. There was a deep flush to his normally so pale skin that Sam had never seen before, and at some point, something had left a wet streak on his cheekbone. It glinted in the warm, somnolent light.

'Sam, I never knew...'

Sam kissed his bruised mouth.

'Oh me. Oh heavens.' Frodo sounded distracted, wriggling a little under Sam.

Sam lifted himself on his arms, but Frodo pulled him back down again, lazy warm arm around his neck.

'Samwise.' Frodo lifted his head a fraction, so that he could hold his mouth on Sam's and trail a slow lick along his lower lip. Sam was sure that Frodo felt how his stomach muscles tensed, and they both laughed, against each other's mouths.

'I can't believe I can do that,' Frodo whispered, smiling. 'You. Me. Here, like this. That's not what I expected to happen to me today.' He pressed the slowest, gentlest kiss just in front of Sam's ear. When he lay back again, Sam had the opportunity to observe something new in his eyes, in the way his arm was flung on the grass, something loose and easy and open. Some barrier inside him, some reserve, had been broken down, and something had been released. It meant, among other things, that there was no need for Sam to ask whether it had been a pleasant surprise, for all that it had been unexpected.

As for Sam himself, although the Frodo that had lived in that dim parlour of his imagination had been alluring, it was nothing compared to the meltingly erotic hold that this real, live, languid creature had over him. Sam was utterly, utterly taken over, body, soul and mind, from this day onward, and he knew it.

'Oh, you are something, you are,' Sam whispered.

'Likewise...' Frodo laughed a little. 'I feel so dense, Sam.'

'Don't be silly.'

'No.' Frodo cleared his throat. 'There is something I could say here, Sam, involving "best ever" and "never before" and "anyone else", but it would be a bit crude, under the circumstances.'

'Crude? You, sir? Never.'

Sam kissed him again, on the forehead and cheeks and chin. He knew what Frodo was trying to say, and he was strangely touched. As far as he was concerned, it didn't need saying, or perhaps it had already been said, somehow.

'Given your - '

'Shhh.' Sam smiled, and instead of saying anything, shifted his weight a little.

They looked at each other for a few seconds. Frodo's hand came to Sam's cheek, very gently.

'All right, then,' he whispered, exhaling, and Sam couldn't not kiss him for that, for understanding so effortlessly. He hid his face at Frodo's shoulder, letting his fingers trace little circles on Frodo's skin to fill the silence that followed.

Frodo was quiet for so long that Sam wondered if he had fallen asleep, but when he lifted his head to check Frodo met his eyes. He smiled.

'What a day, eh.' He let his fingers drift through Sam's hair from ear to nape.

'All's well that ends well,' Sam said. 'Speaking of which, I suppose we ought to be getting back, Mr Frodo. The sun doesn't have far to go.'

Sam would have moved, but Frodo closed his hand on his arm and looked at him.

'Do you know, you've been calling me that all my life, and suddenly it sounds completely different. Like an endearment.'

They washed quickly in the stream, handfuls of water, cool against still- hot skin. Sam's eyes lingered on Frodo, lifting cupped hands to his face, the very last sunshine glittering on his forearms and thighs, and the world seemed to slow down, as if to allow him time to memorise the endless fall of each clear glinting drop, how it caught the light, how the rings spread.

Back in their clothes, they were first a little awkward. Sam hoisted his pack onto his shoulders and nearly got his arm stuck in the straps, feeling as if he had never performed that particular gesture in front of Frodo before.



But they walked side by side, and the path was narrow, and soon their hands were touching.

Sam could still not quite grasp the change in his master; that elusive smoulder and sparkle that he had never seen before yet knew like his own palm. Only the day before, Frodo had been as distant as the stars, and here he was, not two feet away and looking for all the world the same as he had always done, and yet, and *yet*, Sam now knew differently. Oh, the things he knew.

Impulsively, he reached out and grabbed Frodo's hand and gave it a squeeze. Frodo turned his head and smiled.


'Frodo.' Sam smiled, blushing at the very sound of their voices.

Frodo smiled back, and he tugged on Sam's hand until Sam stopped.

'Samwise, why are you blushing?'

Sam blushed even worse, but he knew what he knew now, and nothing was ever going to be the same again. He rested a hand on Frodo's waist and leaned in close to Frodo's ear.

'You know why, sir.'

'Oh, Sam, don't say "sir" like that,' Frodo said in a low, delighted, ashamed voice, and just as Sam had intended, his cheeks grew pink.

After that, the walk was frequently interrupted by kisses, and by sudden recollections prompted by how their clothes stuck to them in certain places, and how their hands still smelled, and how their bodies glowed, some such memories private and some shared across a kiss, and by the time they saw the firelight from the camp brazier it was as if they had been sharing that sort of hot whispers and intimate touches all their lives.

Frodo grabbed Sam's hand and pulled him behind the last substantial tree, yanking him close.


'Oh, you.'

They shared one last urgent kiss, and one more, and again, Frodo's hand slipping down low behind Sam, before they rejoined the path and entered the clearing.

The gloaming had long since turned into dusky blue darkness. Sam fell into step behind Frodo as they approached the little circle of their chatting, eating companions. The firelight danced across their faces, making the surrounding night seem even deeper. Sam looked at them as if he had not seen them for months.

When he looked up, eyes met his from under a dark brow, and Sam's heart jumped. Strider, never missing a thing. Sam stopped.

'Hello, Frodo, you've been gone awfully long,' he heard Pippin say with his mouth full.

'Close your mouth while you chew, Pip,' Merry chided.

'Who are you, my mum?'

'Shut up. Where's Sam?'

Sam, in the dark outside the fire-lit circle, met the ranger's gaze steadily. He waited for his cheeks to warm under that expressionless gaze that hid so much. But it was as if his ability to blush had been taken away from him, and he stood still, as the seconds passed, one by one.

The man's eyes flicked over to Frodo, already sitting down near the fire and reaching for the bread, unaware, and back to Sam, who returned the gaze with a strange calm.

Then the man nodded, almost imperceptibly, and without knowing how, across the fire, Sam returned the nod. He felt somehow relieved, then, as if a responsibility, or a debt, had been lifted from his shoulders.

Walking past the fire, Sam found his sleeping place. I must remember to ask Legolas what the name of that tree is in Elvish, he thought to himself. He took his pack off and undid the straps around his bedroll, and very carefully, he shook it out and spread it next to the mussed one that was already there. Home again, he thought. Or was it, home at last?

Sam stood for a moment with his back to the firelight, looking down at the two bedrolls, before joining the others.


A/N: Behind every flushed novice writer proudly presenting an overly long and overly ambitious piece of fanfiction stands an overworked beta reader. In this case it is the wonderful, wise and witty Teasel - one in a million. For what It's worth, this story wouldn't be here without her. Thank you!