Title:  Linden and Laurel

Author:  Aratlithiel and Ariel

Summary:  Sam deals with the illness and departure of Frodo

Category:  Angst/Drama

Rating:  G

July 03, 2003

~*~

A/N – Concept by Ariel, writing by Aratlithiel, beta by Ariel

~*~

LINDEN AND LAUREL

~*~

March (Rethe), 1420 S.R.

'But do not expect me to wish you health and long life.  You shall have neither.'

Sam grimaced and clenched his fists as he gazed at the linden leaning despondent and forlorn on the bank of the river.  Its withered, broken bows hung low enough they nearly caressed the sparkling surface of the Brandywine as it rushed busily along on its watery errand through Buckland.  He reached his hand to the gouges in the bark and dipped a blunted fingertip into a well of fragrant sap that had gathered in a particularly deep gash in the flesh of the tree.

'You shall have neither.'

Sam had seen his share of destruction in his long travels and even more when he finally reached the home he had yearned for during what had seemed an eternity of pain and heartache.  The vision that had come to him when he had gazed into the Lady's mirror had not prepared him for what greeted him when he had reached the end of his long, dark road.  The longer he spent on his new forestry duties the more devastation he encountered and every living thing that perished caused a new pain in his heart.

'…health and long life…'

It seemed that whenever his gardener's eyes fell upon a plant, bush or tree that was beyond hope, his mind worried at the spiteful words uttered in hatred and malice.  The sight of a living thing broken and hopeless ever turned Sam's thoughts to his master.

No.  Not hopeless. 

Sam stroked the slashes that covered the sapling's spindly trunk and rubbed a dollop of sap between his finger and thumb.  He knew what sort of weapons had made the marks, for he had seen them up close and dripping with black blood.  He cursed the wantonness of the creatures who would seek to end the life of something so fine simply because it was their nature to hate anything of beauty. 

He sniffed at his fingers and tested the texture of the tree's lifeblood.

Not hopeless.  If it can still weep it can still live.

He knew it would be smarter to cut it down and pile it with the other bracken to be hauled away and used for mulch and winter fuel.  He had spent his life caring for living things and he knew that sometimes it was necessary to pinch away dying buds so that new life could spring forth.  It had long ceased to pain him when necessity demanded that he end the life of something that would surely die anyway to make way for the birth of new growth.  Putting this sad little tree out of its misery was probably the best thing he could do for it.

His eyes followed the slash marks downward until they reached the ground.  The soil, having been eroded by the rush of the river, left the roots exposed and dried-out on the side toward the water.  Dried, withered fingers of ropy wood ever extended down and reached in a vain attempt to once again immerse itself in the rich loam that had given it birth only a short time ago.

Yes – better to cut it down, dig up the rest of the roots and make room for new life to take root and flourish in its place.  Sam turned and stepped over to where he had left his tools on the ground a few feet away and reached down for his hatchet.  Instead his hand lit on his shovel and grasping it, he walked the short distance back to the hopeless sapling.  He began digging carefully, tenderly freeing the rest of its fragile roots from the soil, wrapping them carefully in a large, coarse cloth and tying it off at the trunk.

Not hopeless.

He set it gently in his hand-wagon and returned to his inspection of the riverbank.

~*~

Sam had been touring the Southfarthing for nigh on a fortnight now, checking the progress of the Lady's magic and had been more than pleased with the results of his labors.  The Lady's blessing seemed to be working miracles all around him with very few exceptions and the flora was doing very well without his help so he thought it was about time to be starting back.  The restoration of Bag End should be complete by now and Merry and Pippin were expected from Crickhollow soon, hauling Frodo's belongings back to his home.  Sam didn't want to miss them and thought if he started back now, there was a chance he might catch up with them on the road and they might all travel the rest of it together.  More importantly, he missed his Rose.

He smiled to himself.  He had spent endless days agonizing over exactly how he would ask for her hand.  He had held imaginary conversations with her, trying to anticipate her every response so that he could be prepared for her arguments when they were broached.  Seeing as how Rose was almost as willful as she was fair, Sam was quite certain there would be arguments and he wanted to be primed and ready with counter-arguments of his own.  He was so nervous and jumpy for so long as he pondered the perfect words until finally he had just opened his mouth and blurted it out before he had a chance to stop himself.  He was both shocked and overjoyed when she said, "Well you've wasted a year, so why wait longer?"

They had yet to let anyone other than Rose's parents in on their secret but Rose wanted a May wedding so he didn't imagine the news would be closely kept for much longer.  She was the best lass he knew and the fact that she seemed to have a tender spot for his master only made him love her more.  Sam knew not many people had much interest in his Mr. Frodo these days, unless it was to whisper behind their hands about how his journey had only made him even more odd.  The fact that Rose pointedly ignored such things and seemed to see some small part of what he saw in his master gave Sam a warmth and depth of feeling for her that he didn't think had been there before they'd left on their travels.

Now if only he could help Mr. Frodo find a nice lass for himself, maybe things would be all right again.  If ever there was a hobbit who deserved to be well-loved for a good, long time it was certainly Frodo Baggins.

'You shall have neither.'

Sam cringed and cursed himself for letting the filthy words sneak into his otherwise pleasant reverie.  It wasn't that Sam believed them, necessarily – Frodo himself had said that the corrupted wizard had lost all his powers and his words were only a feeble attempt to daunt and deceive.  But he still could not help the shudders that wracked his body whenever he allowed them to enter his thoughts.  As if once the words had been spoken aloud, it was only a matter of time before they became truth.

Sam tried to push the thoughts away.  His master was better now, wasn't he?  Sure, he'd not entirely gotten back to his old self yet, but that was to be expected after the horrors he'd been through.  The treacherous road and the filthy thing he'd been chained to for so long  would have been enough to sap the very life out of anyone else.  The fact that his master was still walking and breathing and not babbling or drooling like a halfwit was testimony to his strength and will.  Sam could not bring himself to lose faith in that will now…not after he'd seen it demonstrated in the worst of circumstances so many times.

Mr. Frodo would be fine.  He would.  It would just take some time was all.  As soon as Sam got him settled into Bag End and he could rest for awhile and let his Sam take care of him things would be better.  Of course they would.

He turned to check on the various plants and flowers he carted and his eye fell to the linden sapling.  Maybe he'd plant it in one of the gardens at Bag End where he could keep a careful eye on it.  He could nurse it back and make it grow again.  Of course he could.

~*~

May (Thrimidge), 1420 S.R.

Healing.  He stroked the marred bark with tender fingers, gently tracing over the hostile reminders of the wounds inflicted so ruthlessly.  They'd never heal completely, of course.  They'd always be there for anyone who looked close enough to see.  But he doubted anyone ever would – folks just didn't like reminders of bad times past and would much prefer to focus their attentions on the beauty exploding around them in this year of bounty and plenty.

He had carried the sapling here to Bag End all the way from Buckland and his father had taken one look and shaken his head at his son.  "Y've a good heart, son," the Gaffer had said, his face tender, yet hard and sad, "but not everythin' can be saved.  And mayhap somethings is best left ta their own misery.  Elsewise they're like ta break yer heart one day."

Sam had been just a little bit angry with his father – unaccountable to Sam because he knew the Gaffer was right.  Angrier still with himself because he couldn't rightly say what had possessed him to bring this tree home with him, battered and near-death as it was.  Something about it just seemed to speak to him and tug at his gut in a way that few things in his life did.  And Sam had learned through many trials and hard choices to always trust his gut.

Now, a few months later, Sam was heartened a little by the slow signs of healing in the little tree.  The gashes – once so stark and white against its brown flesh – had hardened and browned to blend more subtly with the unbroken bark.  The sap it had bled freely now coursed undisturbed through its branches and boughs, providing nourishment rather than flowing over its own wounds.

He stroked his hand along the spindly branches, his fingers seeking and finding tiny buds of freshest green poking through from beneath dead, brown nubs.  Not thriving – not yet anyway – but trying.  Not ready to give up its tenacious hold on the rich soil where its roots sought to dig deep and catch hold.  It was trying and Sam decided that as long as it tried, he would keep it safe and cared for and keep encouraging it, coaxing it back to life.  He would keep his faith.

~*~

August (Wedmath), 1420 S.R.

It stood melancholy and slight just a few feet away from his master's study window.  Sam had planted it there because the sunlight was just right and the Hill behind it gave it just the right amount of shelter from the harsh winds that whistled through the hills come autumn.  And truth be told, Sam liked to be able to look out at it any time he wanted – just to make sure it hadn't taken a turn or been blown down by a sudden gust.

It had shown signs of steady improvement all through the spring of that year.  It's limbs didn't seem to droop quite so low anymore and Sam had been overjoyed to see several new leaves spring forth on the day he married his sweet Rose.  As if the tree were trying to share its joy for him in the only way it knew how – by living and surviving and digging its roots deeper just as it knew he wanted it to.  And stars and glory if it wasn't still holding on and trying.  Trying.

~*~

November (Blotmath), 1420 S.R.

He sank down next to the tree – his tree he had come to think of it – snaking a protective arm about its slender trunk and absently stroking the rough bark.  It was a good place to sit and think and Sam found himself doing a lot of that lately.

He was worried.  Very worried.  He had been sure his master was recovering.  Slowly, yes, but steadily and surely or so Sam had convinced himself.  Frodo had been nothing less than overjoyed when Sam and Rose had exchanged their vows this past spring.  He had been first in line to kiss the bride and had shed tears of undiluted joy when he had next embraced Sam.  They had settled in comfortably together, Rose immediately taking charge of feeding him back to 'proper hobbit size' as she put it.  Sam took care of the gardens and his forestry duties, Rose took care of Bag End and they both took care of Mr. Frodo.

Took care as much as they could at any rate.  He was slipping away – Sam could feel it.  What's more, Rose felt it too and both of them felt helpless to coax him out of the melancholy and bone-deep sadness that radiated from his eyes so blindingly sometimes that you just had to look away or risk collapsing into sobs at his feet.

He had resigned his duties as Deputy Mayor and that had disturbed Sam.  He had hoped that the temporary office would draw his master out more, participating in the doings of the Shire he so loved.  Sam had thought that once folk spent some time with his master and began to see him – really see him – that the rumors and nasty comments that had followed him all his life would finally stop.  That they would see him for the noble hero that he was and people wouldn't have the heart to spread their bile anymore.

Instead, his master's travels only seemed to inflame the gossip and they pointedly ignored Sam's efforts to educate them on what his master had done for them.  How he had saved them all from a darkness so black they couldn't fathom it in their worst imaginings.  Nobody cared and nobody wanted to know.  When Frodo had relinquished his duties back to old Whitfoot at the Free Fair, most just shrugged and thought how like Frodo Baggins it was to avoid doing his part for the Shire.  Frodo just seemed to accept it with an amused resignation and quietly withdrew from Shire life to spend more and more time in his study.

Shortly after, Rose had given Sam the joyous news that he would be a father and Frodo had wept when Sam told him.  Sam had allowed himself to believe that the anticipation of childish laughter and scampering feet in the tunnels of Bag End would give his master the happiness he had been missing since his return.

Then October had arrived on whispers of gold and russet.  Fragrant wood smoke wafted in the air and the winds had not yet reached their autumn ire, satisfying themselves for a time with appling cheeks and pinking noses.  The harvest had been extraordinary and there was not a hobbit in all the Shire who would want for anything that fall.

Except maybe Samwise Gamgee.  Sam only wanted for one thing in that year of good fortune and plentiful bounty.  Sam wanted his master to be as whole and as happy as he was.  Sam wanted him healed.

Things had only gotten worse for his master since the summer had chilled and fall crept up on a silvery sigh.  He looked well enough at first glance, but if one looked closer and cared to notice, they might note the clothes that hung just a little too loose or the blue shadows underneath the depthless, too-wise eyes.  One might see the crooked smile, so familiar at first until you noticed that it rarely reached the eyes that gazed at you with horrible knowledge and endless sorrow.  Or the winces and small cringes on the handsome face when he got up too fast or walked too far.

All of these things were hidden and concealed with a desperation that spoke of boundless love for those he wished to protect from such things…but Sam saw.  Sam saw everything and Sam was afraid.

'…health and long life…'

Frodo spent far too much time locked away in his study, poring over the past and recording it for those who might wish to learn the tale of what had almost happened in years to come.  The few times Sam had flipped through the pages filled with his master's elegant script, he had been struck by how he had downplayed his own efforts and sufferings.  His agony during the seventeen days between Weathertop and Rivendell was barely mentioned and the horrors of Cirith Ungol were skipped almost altogether, except for the details of Sam's own acts in that accursed place.  To read the text his master had laid down one would think that he had simply awoken in Ithilien, strolled blithely to the pavilion and commenced to feasting.  No mentions were made of the multitude of thick bandages that covered his body or the nightmares that woke him screaming and sobbing until his voice left him and he lay limp and exhausted in Sam's arms.  Too painful for him to think about long enough to write down, Sam supposed.

He had found his master virtually collapsed over his writings in the clutches of a dark dream one evening in early October.  Sam had helped him to bed and Frodo had tried valiantly to appear well and hale the next day.  But Sam and Rose had both noticed the absence from the table at mealtimes and the locked bedroom door behind which you could hear soft moans and muffled screams if you pressed your ear to it.  They stayed away as much as they could and pretended not to see – it seemed important for Frodo to believe his pretense was successful and so they let him.  But always they kept an ear on the door and a surreptitious eye on his gait as he stumbled from the bedroom to the study.

It wasn't until the illness seemed to have passed and Sam's worry receded that he realized the date on which it had begun.  Rose worked very hard that evening to pull him from his own dark thoughts of malevolent screeches in the black of night and evil blades that disintegrated with the first glint of rose-colored sunlight in the pre-dawn sky.  And the coppery-sweet smell of his master's blood coating his hands.

'You shall have neither.'

No.  It wasn't true.  It couldn't be true.  That his master should still suffer from the wounds inflicted upon him on his dark journey was the worst kind of injustice and Sam refused to believe that that sort of unfairness could exist.  He would not believe that the one who had endured such darkness to save all that was good and beautiful would be deprived of it in the end.  It was too unfair to be true.  It was too wrong.

His hand clenched around the slender trunk and his teeth ground in his mouth.  He gazed at the bare, pale branches, looking brittle now and old – as if one good wind would snap them and send them skittering across the bleak October grey. 

It looked dead. 

Tears crowded behind Sam's eyes as his gardener's voice told him that if it didn't look better in March, he would have to finally concede and let the little thing go.  Sometimes faith just wasn't enough.

~*~

February (Solmath), 1421 S.R.

Yule came and went and the good cheer of the season seemed to spread right through Afteryule and into Solmath.  The exuberance of the Shirefolk at the bounty and merriment simply could not be contained.  Their general good fortune after a year of oppressive rule and fear was cause for constant celebration and none of them felt the least bit decadent for indulging.

The cheer spread itself far and wide and Bag End was no exception.  Visits from Merry and Pippin only added to the ebullience that infused the very air of the spacious smial.  Plentiful dinners of Rosie's excellent fare and cozy nights spent in the comfort of a blazing fire and each other seemed to bring color to Frodo's pale face and life back to his eyes, recalling the sparkle of his youth.  Rose's belly grew full and round and Sam began to relax and allow himself to believe that the turning point had passed and his master's health would bloom with the rest of the splendor in the spring.  Sam let himself hope.

~*~

March roared in with the storms winter seemed to have forgotten about until it was almost too late.  Sam watched his tree through the study window, every gust of fierce wind seeming to bend it lower in supplication to the harsh world in which it struggled to survive.

Frodo was ill again mid-month and again thought to conceal it from his friends.  But Sam saw with great love in his heart that Rose kept a careful eye on him as if she had expected it and lent assistance as unobtrusively as she could without letting on that she was aware of his suffering.  Pots of tea or light soups when he was awake and extra blankets or cool cloths at his forehead when he was not was all she could really do but Sam loved her more than he could say for trying. 

Soon enough, Rosie's time came due and she gave birth to a lass as fair and beautiful as any who had ever before graced the Shire.  Sam had handed his daughter back to the midwife and wept in Frodo's arms for the joy of it.  The name Elanor was settled upon and for awhile, Sam forgot his worries about both his master and the sapling and simply existed in the elation his good fortune had provided him.

~*~

The little tree held on.  It had survived the cruel spring weather and had even managed to send forth new leaves – granted they were small and few, but their cool green gave way to warmer yellow as spring turned to summer and Sam once again had hope.

~*~

October (Winterfilth), 1421 S.R.

It had been several weeks since Sam had the heart to come out and visit his tree and now the sight of it just made his heart ache worse.  It had been declining steadily since August and now it seemed as though Sam's own bleak humor had been absorbed by it and it shared his grief at the loss of his master.

It was leafless and pitiful, it's rich russet bark bleached to a sickly grey – it's old wounds showing stark in the harsh October light.  Sam sank to the ground at its feet and wept, casting himself to the spindly trunk and embracing it as his tears rained down to moisten the hard, cold soil at its roots.

Tears of rage, sorrow and unfathomable grief fell from his burning eyes and scattered on the ground like an offering to a deity who neither knew him nor cared of his anguish.

'… I have been too deeply hurt…'

Yes, Frodo had been hurt – hurt more deeply than anyone who had ever walked the face of Middle earth.  But instead of being rewarded for his deeds and his love for all things living, instead of the life he had longed for spent alongside beloved friends in the home of his heart, Frodo had been given the harshest of choices – leave behind all that you love and perhaps live, or stay and force those you love to watch you die, for die you surely will. 

Had Sam been aware of the options Frodo had been presented with sooner, he could well have predicted which way his master would choose.  His Frodo had never been one to be the cause of pain to those he loved, not if he could help it.  He'd rather endure it himself, keep it locked within and spare his friends, no matter the cost to himself.  It was the reason his feet had led him out of the Shire to begin with three years ago and it was that same reason that led him to the agonizing decision to leave for the West.

Sam did not fault Frodo for his choice, but faulted those who had inflicted it upon him.  He was angry beyond words for what the Wise had put his gentle master through - the dark roads he had traveled, the wounds he had suffered, the steady erosion of his spirit by that filthy trinket that had been chained like a lodestone to his neck for so long, wearing away at his heart and stealing his soul.  All of those things he had suffered through because he had trusted those he thought wiser than himself – and they had said it must be done.

And he had done it – he had done what they had asked and all he had asked for in return was to go home.  The coffers of Gondor had been thrown open to him, offers of gold and parcels of land offered to him in open palms and he had wanted none of it – he had only wanted to go home.  Now even that small reward had been denied him and Sam wished there were someone he could lay hands on and throttle and scream 'Why?!  Why?!' until he got an answer that would satisfy him.  But Sam didn't think there was any answer that would ever satisfy him and so he clutched at his tree and he wept until his chest hitched and his eyes burned dry and harsh in their sockets.

And the worst part for Sam was that he couldn't be sure.  None of them had been able to assure either Frodo or himself that the West would heal him – that leaving all he loved was not an empty hope and he would not die anyway surrounded by strangers instead of his family and friends.  Sam no longer had trust or faith that Frodo would be healed just because that was what was fair – he had too much experience with unfair when it concerned his master and Sam's greatest fear was that Frodo would die bereft of kin and friend and far from home.  And there was no way to be sure.

He could still hope, but hope seemed to have fled with trust and faith and Sam had only his anger to warm his heart now.

He pulled away and looked up at the linden, his eyes marking every bruise, every gash, every scar.  It's branches hung lower now than they had when he had stumbled upon it last spring and as he had last year, Sam told himself he would give it one more winter and then let it go.

~*~

April (Astron), 1422 S.R.

The winter passed uneventfully and slowly.  Sam took undiluted joy in his wife and daughter but not much else.  Certainly there were moments of true happiness, but by and large, his thoughts throughout the cold season were filled with his master and he found himself frequently worrying over voices of the past.

'Where shall I find rest?'

'Alas!  There are some wounds that cannot be wholly cured.'

'But do not expect me to wish you health and long life.  You shall have neither.'

'…I have been too deeply hurt…'

If only Sam could be sure – if only he could know.  Maybe then he could be one and whole as Mr. Frodo had wanted him to be.  But until he was certain, until he could somehow know that his master had finally been rewarded the health and happiness he so richly deserved, Sam would remain torn in two and thus reluctantly defy his master's last wish for him.

Rose seemed to understand, bless her, and always seemed to know when a dark mood was coming upon him.  She would gently pry him from his morbid thoughts and coax him back into life at Bag End where the scent and feel of Frodo Baggins still lingered.  She missed him too, Sam knew, but somehow seemed more confident than he that Frodo had found what he sought in the West.  Rose never seemed to doubt that the last Baggins to dwell under the Hill had found the peace he had earned through blood and privation and so thoroughly merited.  Rose believed in justice and fairness and so could not imagine any other end for the noble Ringbearer.  Sam, however, had witnessed too many injustices perpetrated against his gallant master and so had not the faith in justice that his wife did.  Sam remained torn in two.

~*~ 

July (Afterlithe), 1422 S.R.

Spring rolled in more gently this year and to Sam's surprise, the little sapling took on a deeper, richer color and sprouted bright green buds too numerous to count on its wavering branches.  It no longer held the unhealthy cast of a thing on the verge of death, but the intense, vibrant glow of a thing newly reborn and rejoicing in its good fortune.  It grew amazingly fast and soon enough Sam lost count of the new branches it seemed to sprout overnight, each one laden with emerald buds of new life.  Sam thought it almost looked as if it were extending its boughs to the heavens in new-found joy and he couldn't help the smiles it brought to his face whenever he cast his glance to it.

Even the Gaffer had grudgingly admitted that the tree was thriving.  "Aye, I suppose it's found its place, then," he grumped with a twinkle in his eye and hobbled away whistling with a smirk for his son.  Sam laughed.

Summer eventually relieved spring and a haze settled over Hobbiton, keeping the heat of the sun close to the ground and most hobbits in the cooler recesses of their smials.  Sam had worked hard all morning and afternoon and the dampness in his shirt and the trickles of sweat coming from under his wooly pate told him it was time to give himself a bath and settle in for afternoon tea.

He had pulled some of the blossoms from the linden's heavily laden boughs a few weeks ago and decided that they would be dry enough now for the tea he had been looking forward to making from them.  He left the flowers steeping fragrantly in hot water from the kettle to check on his wife and daughter.  They were napping in a backroom with no windows that Mr. Frodo used to reserve for guests who did not happen to be in his highest favor.  Windows and open air had been a priority of his and it had seemed logical to him to deprive those whom he wished to stay no longer than necessary of it.  He had probably never even considered how pleasant it would be in the height of summer's heat.  Sam wondered idly how many guests had lingered past their welcome in the hottest months to the consternation of their reluctant host.  He chuckled to himself and made his way back to the kitchen to make his tea.

He carried his mug outside to marvel at his tree and his eyes lovingly took in the riot of green and yellow leaves that whispered in the hot, laden breeze, the golden clusters of cup-shaped blossoms swinging like tiny bells.  He walked over to run his hand along the bark as he had so many times before and was again amazed at the magic that seemed to have been worked on this once pathetic and broken little tree.  Sam could still see the scars, but only because he knew they were there and was looking for them.  He didn't think anyone who didn't know the history of this particular tree would even notice that it had one.

He sat himself down with his back to the trunk, the bountiful leaves above his head providing ample shade against the harsh rays of the golden afternoon sun.  He sipped his tea and for a moment simply delighted in his surroundings.  The lush green of the Hill, the various gardens bursting with a rampage of colors.  He could be truly happy – if only his master were here to enjoy it.

A heavy branch, weighted with flowers smelling sweetly of honey, dipped down in the breeze and brushed his cheek.  Sam leaned his head back against the trunk and closed his eyes, allowing the caress at his face and the murmurs in his ear to lull him into a gentle sleep.

~*~

A shadow fell across his closed eyes and the scent of chamomile, ink and ale drifted into his nostrils.  He cracked his eyes open and a slender figure stood before him in black relief, blotting out the sun, its hands stuffed into its pockets.  A gentle chuckle emitted from the figure and Sam's eyes flew open in instant recognition.  An incredulous smile seized his slack jaw and tears obstructed his vision of the figure already hidden from clear view by the sun.  Sam dashed them away impatiently – this was a sight he would not be denied.

'Why, Sam," the figure laughed in a voice Sam would know in the darkest corners of his dreams, "aren't you going to invite an old hobbit to tea?"

Sam stared mute for a long moment.  His mouth worked soundlessly and he looked dazedly to the mug in his hand before he heard his voice respond in a trembling whisper, "I'm sorry, sir.  I've only brought the one cup."

Frodo threw his head back and laughed and Sam thought it sounded like clear bells and elves singing and a summer breeze blowing through lilies and roses all rolled into one.  He stepped aside and Sam saw him clearly for the first time.

This was not the Frodo who had tearfully left Sam behind at the Havens so many long months ago.  This was Frodo as Sam remembered him before the damnable Quest, before knife and sting had robbed him of his health and vitality, before tooth and Ring had stripped him of his vigor and spirit.

His dark hair was still shot with the silver strands that had cropped up so soon after he had become Frodo of the Nine Fingers and ceased being Frodo Baggins, but it was lustrous now and silken, a deep chestnut that shone with a corona of golden light in the afternoon sun.  His face had a more wholesome appearance, his cheeks full and rosy rather than the pale gauntness that had come to define his features in the months preceding his departure.  His frame was lithe and sinewy, his limbs strong and supple instead of wasted and trembling.  But his eyes were what caught Sam's breath and filled his heart.  His eyes no longer held a fathomless pain and terrible wisdom nor did they shine with the harsh light of tribulation that had so torn at Sam's heart.  Rather they held a softer light, one that glowed with the gentle radiance of true happiness and sparkled with mirth and merriment.  Just as they had back when Sam had believed his life would hold nothing more adventurous than convincing his master that turnips were a healthy staple to his diet – regardless of how they made him gag.

He sidled over to Sam and dropped beside him with a graceful, limber ease, no twinges or winces that made you imagine you could hear his bones rubbing together as he moved.  He drew up his knees, casually resting his arms across them and looked to Sam.  His eyes danced and when he flashed Sam a smile, Sam thought surely his heart would stop for the joy of it.  It was the most beautiful smile Sam had ever seen in his life, so dazzling it nearly blinded him with its brilliance.

This was his Mr. Frodo.  This was the hobbit Sam had been desperately seeking for over three years.  This was all Sam had ever wanted.

Sam let his own smile shine through his personal darkness and all the tears of sorrow and rage he'd kept locked behind his eyes for so long suddenly streaked down his cheeks as cleansing tears of pure and unadulterated happiness.  He stared, agog at the hobbit before him, all health and grace, rich sable on finest porcelain dusted with nutmeg.  For a long moment Sam had no words and then he seized upon the ones he'd spoken to Gandalf so very long ago…

"Is everything sad going to come untrue?"

Frodo laughed and reached his hand out for Sam's own.  Sam looked down to see it was his right hand and the finger was missing.  Real then.  He's real and he's here.

"That depends entirely upon what you mean by sad, Sam," Frodo said.  "If you mean that I was weary and ill, then yes, that has come untrue."

"I couln'ta wished for nothin' more, Mr. Frodo," Sam whispered.  "And you're here.  You're home."

Frodo's smile faltered a little.  "No, Sam.  Home is in my heart where you are, my dearest, most treasured friend.  Perhaps in many years, when you've lived your life and accomplished all the things I have seen for you, perhaps then we'll meet again and then I truly will be home."

"But you're here," Sam protested.  "I can see you…I can feel you.  You're here."

Frodo said nothing, but leaned over and took Sam in his arms. 

"Samwise Gamgee," Frodo whispered in his ear, "you are my truest friend and I miss you more than words can say.  I'll be waiting."

~*~

Sam awoke with a start, the feel of Frodo's arms around his shoulders still lingering on his skin.  He looked around quickly, hoping beyond hope that the dream had been real – that Frodo had come back…that he was home and well and happy.  Nothing.  There was nothing but the linden bough that had drooped heavily under its burden of leaf and flower to drape itself across his shoulders while he slept.

No.  Not a dream.  It couldn't have been.

Sam lifted his shirt to his nose and breathed in deep.  There – on the shoulder where Frodo's head had rested as they embraced.  Sam smelled ink there, overlaying the scent of the lye soap Rose used to wash with.  Ink and chamomile.

Here.  He was here.  Not a dream.

He was here.  And he was whole.

Sam leaned back against the tree and laughed.  He laughed more deeply and heartily than he could remember having done in his entire life.  His tears streamed unchecked down his red cheeks and he lifted his arms to the yellow and green above him.

"He's healed!," he told the tree.  "He's healed and he's well and oh! but I think my heart'll burst with the happiness fillin' it."

He lowered his arms and slapped his knee, shaking his head and smiling fit to split his face.  His tears still flowed and Sam just couldn't stop laughing.  His sides began to ache and his cheeks were sore from smiling but he didn't care.  It was an ache and soreness he would have paid in blood for and he meant to enjoy every second of it.

Sam didn't know how long he sat there grinning like an idiot and laughing and crying all at once.  It didn't matter.  None of it mattered anymore.  It was all right now.  Things were all right.  When his laughter finally died down, he leaned his head back against the tree and looked up to the leaves that had sheltered him in his slumber.

"Here," he said.  "Here and healed.  Just like you."

Realization dawned on him then and Sam's heart stopped in his chest.

The same?

The tree came to Hobbiton from Buckland.  It had been wounded beyond healing by the enemy.  It was sick and nearly hopeless in the spring and the fall and nothing Sam could do could make it well again.  And now…now somehow it bloomed and nearly burst with life.  It's scars were still there, still visible if you knew where to look, but not enough to trouble it anymore.  It was healed.  It was whole.

'The same,' Sam thought.  And then he laughed some more.  He turned and embraced the trunk of the tree, wrapped his arms around it in a mighty embrace and kept laughing. 

"I know who you are now," he whispered into the bark through breathless chuckles and then he kissed it.  "Thank you," he said.  "It's all come untrue."

~*~

May (Thrimigde),  1483 S.R.

Frodo Gardner strode through the gardens of New End, stopping here and there to check the progress of seedlings along the way and pulling the errant weed when he happened upon one.  As was usual in the past weeks, he eventually wandered over to the linden, standing tall and full outside the study window.

'Da's tree,' he had come to think of it over the years.  Everyone knew the tree was special to the old gardener, the fact that he cherished it above any other flower, plant or tree in his beloved gardens was easily apparent by the care and time he reverently lavished on it.  Frodo and the other children came quickly to learn that if you couldn't find Sam Gamgee when you were looking for him, chances were he was sitting under his beloved linden carrying on a conversation with no one.  'Frodo-lad, go look out by Da's tree and see if you can find him for me, eh?' was a request from his dear mother often enough.  And most times when she asked it, sure enough, he would find his father there, leaning back against the tree, his face washed in a glow of contentment and his deep, low voice speaking softly to the boughs overhead.

When his mother passed away on Mid-year's Day last year, his father had taken the very finest rosebush from the east garden and planted it on a small incline overlooking the linden.  Frodo had argued with him to wait until the spring – mid-year was hardly the time to be transplanting and surely the roots would not catch in time for the winter frost.  But Sam had been unswayed, a small, knowing smile on his face as his son shook his head and told him he wouldn't hold back on his 'I told you so's' when the time came.  Frodo now had to admit that the bush was flourishing just as well as the linden, early buds promising a hearty bloom in a month or so's time.

Since his father had left last September, Frodo found himself out here often.  Sometimes he just looked at the tree, his gardener's eyes – a gift from his father – scanning the bark and leaves as if they were etched in secret runes and if he just looked long enough and hard enough, he would unravel their riddle and finally understand his father's need to travel to the West. 

Not that Frodo begrudged him his right as a Ringbearer, of course.  In fact he liked to think of his father living well past the lifespan he would have been allotted in Middle earth – maybe even outliving Frodo's own grandchildren there over the sea.  He just wasn't able to understand it was all. 

Frodo was very much like his father, his mother often referring to them as two peas in a pod when she was at her most exasperated with one or both of them.  And being so much like him and knowing his father's love for his home and family, Frodo found it very difficult to understand why he would leave them before his time was finished.

He knew his father had loved Mr. Frodo beyond measure – he had read the Red Book often enough and Sam often expanded on the stories it contained to detail the parts Mr. Frodo had left out of the account.  During such times, his father would get a far-away look in his eyes and his face would be filled with such love that Frodo and the rest of the children couldn't help but come to love the former master of Bag End who none of them had ever met.  Except, of course Elanor, but being six-months-old at the time of his departure hardly gave her any bragging rights – though one had to give her marks for trying.  The entire family shared a reverent love for Mr. Frodo but none of them came close to that which Sam Gamgee held in his heart for lo those many years.

Still, Frodo couldn't imagine any love surpassing hearth and home so he often came out to the tree – Da's tree – to try and make sense of it.  The truth was he missed his father terribly.  It didn't matter that Frodo was sixty years old with children of his own and well past the stage in his life where he should need his parents around…he missed his Da and his Ma as well.

Frodo knelt in the grass at the foot of the tree on the side opposite the rosebush and several feet further down.  He had spotted a seedling striving up through the soil only a few weeks ago and had immediately recognized it as a laurel.  He had no idea how it had traveled to this particular spot to settle in and take root.  Laurels did not commonly grow from out of nowhere, most often needing a slip from an already flourishing bush in order to take root and grow.  But Frodo had not planted a slip and would have noticed if his father had before his departure.  It was another mystery that would go unsolved while he stood here keeping the linden and roses company.

He stroked the umber bark as he had so often seen his father do, his keen eyes picking out the vague shadows of the scars acquired in the tree's youth.  He wondered if maybe his father had felt such an affinity for the tree because it had been so hurt and broken when he had found it.  That would be very much like his Da, to find something beyond repair and wish it back to health and life.  Much as he had with his beloved Mr. Frodo.  Only he hadn't been able to wish Mr. Frodo back to health as he had with the linden and Mr. Frodo had been forced to leave Sam behind when his choices left him no other options.  Frodo had always felt deep compassion for his father when he thought about him losing his best friend that way, but the linden had always seemed to comfort him and Frodo loved it for that if for no other reason.

He sighed and plopped down, his back leaning against the tree, head back and eyes closed.  If anyone had walked past at that moment, they may have thought they were seeing the ghost of Sam Gamgee resting in his favorite spot against his tree with the morning sun high in the clear blue of the early summer sky.

Frodo opened his eyes and looked at the little laurel.  He smiled.

"Miss you, Da," he said and closed his eyes, drifting into a light sleep with a gentle smile on his lips.

~*~

EPILOGUE  S.R. - ?

Many years passed and many generations of Gardner's came and went under the Hill.  The linden and the laurel grew and flourished together with the rosebush behind them, looking on and keeping watch.  The linden was no longer known as 'Da's tree' because there was no one left who remembered 'Da' except in books and legends – Sam Gamgee had become a line in the Longfather-Tree and an historic legend, but those who new him had long since passed the Circles of the World and with them any knowledge of his love for a particular tree or the reasons behind it went too.

The tree and the bush continued on, passing countless seasons surrounded by the gentle laughter of children and the occasional boisterous evening of dance and song in the field below them.  They grew old together, the linden's branches slowly drooping further each season and snapping off occasionally in a particularly high wind.  Its branches didn't leaf or flower as fully as they once did and the shower of green and gold that had wafted down over the laurel for so many seasons slowly grew less as time passed.  The laurel too had eventually ceased to flower in its age and the buds on its branches grew less with every passing year.

There eventually came a spring when neither linden nor laurel sprouted buds and their branches were bare and bereft of life.  As if seeing this, the rosebush gave forth one more season of the loveliest roses anyone had ever seen the like of and then quietly curled up its leaves and passed – as if only waiting for the linden and the laurel and then bursting with joy before letting go of its hold on the fertile soil of the Shire.

~*~ END ~*~