Many Aspects

Part Four by Gillian

January 1421 S.R.

Sam splashed water on his face, gasping at the cold sting against his sleep flushed cheeks.

"This isn't funny any more," Frodo said grumpily and Sam buried his face in a towel to hide his grin. Frodo had thrown the covers back and was staring down at the absolutely huge mound of his stomach. "I'm serious, Sam," he said in despair. "I just want this to be over, right now!"

Sam hastened around the bed and grabbed Frodo's hands, pulling until the hugely pregnant hobbit was sitting up, feet over the bed.

"Just a few more weeks, love," he said, turning his minds to practicalities. "What do you want to wear?"

"What fits me?" Frodo groused. "Pants that hang around my waist. I miss buttons, Sam. Pants with buttons."

Sam huffed a laugh. "All the things you could miss, m'dear, and pants with buttons is the best you can come up with?"

"You'd be amazed at the things I miss." Frodo surveyed the pants Sam was shaking out with a down turned mouth. "I miss being able to stand up on my own, Sam. I miss enjoying a drink without wondering how long it's going to be before I have to pee again. For that matter I miss an undisturbed night's sleep."

"Well, get used to that one," Sam said, bending to pull the pants over hairy feet. "With a new babe in the house..." He trailed off, lifting his hand and staring at it in dismay. It was smeared with blood.

"Sam?" Frodo reached down under his belly, instantly feeling the wet stickiness. His eyes opened wide in panic. "Is this it?" he panicked. "It's too soon, Sam!"

"I'll get Nestadren," Sam said shakily, pants still clutched in his hands. "Don't move," he ordered, running from the room. Legolas was walking towards their rooms and Sam ran to him in relief. "Frodo needs the healer!" he cried.

Legolas wasted no time. "Go back to Frodo," he said, turning and running swift footed down the path. Sam raced back to Frodo, finding him right where he'd left him, hands cradling his belly protectively.

"The healer's coming," Sam assured him, wrapping a strong arm around trembling shoulders. "It'll be all right. Do you have pain?"

"No." Frodo shook his head. "I feel fine. What's happening, Sam?"

"I don't know," Sam said helplessly. "Nestadren said there might be spots of blood, remember? As the slit formed."

"This is more than spots," Frodo said anxiously. "Oh, Sam, I know I said I want it to be over, but I want Fael to be born safe more." He closed his eyes and curled his face into Sam's neck. "Please let him be all right."

Nestadren arrived with Legolas and Sam reluctantly let Frodo go as the healer helped him lay back and lifted his night shirt. Legolas laid a warm hand on his shoulder and Sam leaned into it gratefully. It was good to have friends nearby them, good to have someone to turn to. It was so difficult sometimes, having to be brave and strong all the time, especially as Frodo got further along and more and more worried.

"It's all right," Nestadren pronounced, wiping carefully beneath Frodo's belly with a soft cloth. "His body is opening itself, preparing. I warned you there would be some blood and mucous."

"You said spots," Sam said accusingly. "That was more than spots."

Nestadren chuckled, pulling Frodo's nightshirt down and smoothing it over his swollen belly. "Our Frodo doesn't do anything by halves." He folded the stained rag and laid it aside. "All the same, things are moving more quickly than I expected. It might be best, Frodo, if you spent your remaining time in bed."

"The whole time?" Frodo exclaimed.

"Whatever you say," Sam said more loudly. "Whatever you think is best."

"Yes, of course," Frodo agreed meekly. "Whatever is best."

Nestadren pressed Frodo's stomach, hands gentle and assured. "He's in the right place," he said thoughtfully. "And he seems to be a good size."

"He's that all right," Frodo agreed fervently.

"Everything's as it should be, Frodo," the healer assured him. "Rest, save your energy. You'll need it when your Fael arrives! Legolas, make Frodo comfortable, will you? Sam, a moment?"

Sam followed the healer into the hall, aware of Frodo's anxious gaze following them.

"I want you to stay close to Frodo now, Sam," Nestadren said calmly. "When this happens it will all be very quick, do you understand? Maybe fifteen minutes from start to finish."

"That's good, isn't it? I was worried about him suffering too long."

"He must stay in bed, Sam, and absolutely no exertion, understand?" Sam nodded fervently. Nestadren laid a hand on his shoulder. "No love making," he smiled and Sam blushed and ducked his head.

"Of course not," he managed.

The healer hesitated. "Sam," he said slowly. "The birth is the most dangerous time, for both of them. Frodo's body is actually opening up to expel the babe, and there's a great deal of danger involved in this. I don't want to worry you..."

Sam nodded, his face pale. "We understand," he said softly. "We're ready."

Nestadren's hand tightened on his shoulder. "I'm moving into the next room," he said, nodding down the hall. "I want to be close night and day."

"Knowing our lad it will be the middle of the night," Sam joked, trying to smile. He had to put a smile on his face before he went back to face Frodo.

"I will be close by," Nestadren assured him.

Legolas was handing Frodo a cup of water when Sam came back in.

"What did he say?" Frodo said, pushing the cup away. "Why did he drag you out of here? This is happening to me, you know! I have a right to hear what he has to say!"

Legolas laid the cup on the bedside table and backed away, eyebrows raised. "I'll leave you to it," he said, and fled.

"Cowardly elf," Sam muttered. He picked the cup up and proffered it but Frodo was glowering at him. "Well? If you don't tell me I'll just worry about it."

"He said you're not to exert yourself," Sam said mildly, sipping the cool water himself.

"Oh, right, so scratch the plans to go out and hoe the garden this afternoon then," Frodo said sarcastically.

"He meant love making actually."

"Oh." Frodo's flush of temper faded a little.

"Probably didn't want to embarrass you in front of Legolas. He also said he was moving down the hall, which is a bit of a relief."

"Yes." Frodo twisted his fingers together, rubbing at the stump of his missing finger as he was in the habit of doing when worried. "Is that really all he said, Sam? You wouldn't keep anything from me, would you? Fael is all right?"

"You're both all right," Sam assured him, reaching for the nervous fingers, stilling them tenderly. "He said it would be very fast, Frodo. Fifteen minutes."

Frodo's face was pale. "And dangerous?"

"No more'n we already knew." Sam kissed him. "And nothin' to worry about. Before you know it we'll have our Fael here in our arms and all this will be a memory."

"Don't say we'll probably laugh about it one day," Frodo threatened, wiping his eyes.

"We probably will," Sam smiled. "Imagine the stories we'll have for our little lad! Forget about savin' the world! His Dad-Frodo carried a baby inside him! Much more impressive than magic rings and suchlike."

"Rubbish," Frodo exclaimed. "If he's anything like his Dad-Sam all he'll want to know about is elves and dragons and grand quests. Babies are boring next to all that."

Sam leaned his forehead on Frodo's and they closed their eyes for long moments, taking strength from each other beyond the easy words that lay on the surface. They both knew they were facing the most frightening challenge of their lives. But they also knew they were together, and there wasn't much the world held that frightened two determined hobbits if they had each other.

"Sam?" Frodo whispered.

"Hm?"

"I need to pee."

Sam chuckled, then leaned under the bed and pulled out an empty chamber pot. He surveyed Frodo sitting in the bed and shook his head. "Just as well I love you."

888

Having dear friends made all the difference to Frodo and Sam in the week that followed. Lord Elrond sent books, more than a hobbit could read in a year, Sam figured. Legolas bought a complicated game on a board which had intricate carved figures and incredibly complex rules. And Gimli produced a pack of cards that looked as if he had been carrying them through the entire quest, and proceeded to be thrashed soundly by Sam and Frodo every time they played. He usually accused them of cheating then loftily announced he was letting them win, them being newcomers to the game and all.

Nestadren was never more than a call away, and the friends had merry meals together with Frodo at the center, enthroned in his bed, and sternly kept there by Sam.

Bilbo visited in the mornings and together they came up with new chapters for Frodo's book of the quest. Somehow the stories seemed less dark and frightening here in their sunlit room, with the promise of a new future safe and snug with them.

But at night Sam would wake to find Frodo laying back staring at the ceiling, his hands on his belly, stroking the swell of the baby with loving fingers. Helpless, Sam could only hold him close.

888

One night Sam dreamed a strange, sad dream. He was standing in a place he didn't know and had never been. Around him was an ancient and decaying city, in front of him a harbor and blue water stretching into the distance.

White birds wheeled and cried in the sky above him and he looked up at them, tears blurring his eyes. They were the only sign of life in this sad, grey place.

He was alone.

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"Sam?"

Frodo was touching his cheek, stroking his tears away with gentle fingers.

"Bad dream, love?"

Sam blinked the moisture from his eyes, focusing on Frodo's dear face leaning over his. Their room was lit by a single soft lamp, its light casting pale shadows on the walls.

Sam's throat felt too thick and tight for words. He reached out and drew Frodo against him, curving his hands possessively around the sturdy back, feeling the beautiful firm bulge of their baby between them. The warmth and life of them seeped into his chilled body and drew him away from the ill dream.

"Just a dream," Sam confirmed, trying to convince himself.

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"So he ended up having to wear it all the time for nothing anyway!" Gandalf finished and Frodo laughed merrily.

Sam shook his head at the incorrigible old wizard. "Didn't that story have a different ending last time you told it?" he pointed out.

"Stories can have lots of endings, Sam," Gandalf said serenely. "Depending on who's telling them."

Frodo rubbed his tummy as he chuckled. "But surely there's only one real ending?"

"Oh, if all you're talking about is reality," Gandalf said scornfully. "Where's the fun in that?"

Sam shook his head again, pouring another cup of tea. "Another cake?" he offered and Frodo took one and licked the icing happily.

"It's not so bad," he announced placidly. "Sitting back in bed being fed and entertained. I could get used to it."

"And how is your Fael?" Gandalf asked, laying one large hand over the blanket covered mound of Frodo's belly. "Still kicking all night?"

"He's slowed down actually," Frodo said, hand on the side of his swell. "Nestadren said he's getting ready to come out, saving his energy."

"He's got plenty of that," Gandalf said thoughtfully, eyes narrowed as he stroked over the taut mound. He smiled and then chuckled heartily. "You have quite a handful there," he announced, lifting his hand away and straightening. "I'm not sure you have any idea what you lads have taken on."

"Can you see him, Gandalf?" Frodo asked eagerly.

"Just the light and life of him," Gandalf said. "And how much of the two of you are in him." He clapped Sam on the shoulder. "I'd make sure Nestadren is nearby tonight, Sam my lad. I'm pretty sure the long awaited Fael will be making his appearance before morning."

Sam gaped in surprise. "Really?"

"Do not question the wisdom of wizards," Gandalf said portentously, then grinned. "Really."

Frodo gazed at Sam in shock. "It's still a few weeks early," he said anxiously.

"Nevertheless, he's ready now, Frodo."

Sam looked down at his hands where he had been holding a cake. There was nothing left but sticky icing and crumbs in his hand and he grabbed a napkin and rubbed it clean, mind racing. "Um, I better tell Nestadren then," he stammered. "I suppose it's nice to have some warning, we can have everything all ready." He looked at Gandalf again. "Are you really sure?" he asked piteously.

Gandalf clapped him hard on the shoulder. "Bear up, young Samwise," the wizard said bracingly. "It's your son's birthday, or close to it! I'll go let the healer know, shall I? You stay with Frodo and make the most of your time as a couple. You'll be a family by morning."

"Family," Sam repeated numbly, reaching for Frodo's clutching hands with his own shaking ones.

"I really don't feel any different," Frodo insisted. "Maybe Gandalf's wrong? What does he know about babies, anyway?"

"I think he knows everything."

888

It was indeed the middle of the night before Frodo began to feel anything. He'd already napped once, while Sam and Nestadren laid out clean cloths and bowls of water and Legolas and Gimli and Bilbo paid visits and fussed around him. By midnight he just seemed bored with the whole thing and ready for it to be over. Finally, as Gimli nodded on Legolas' shoulder and the two elves were chatting quietly to each other Frodo gasped and put a hand on his side.

Sam straightened from his half doze next to him, alert at once.

"Frodo?"

Frodo frowned, hand stroking his belly. Then he gasped again, fingers tightening on his swell. "I feel it," he exclaimed. "Pressure, pushing." He moaned and arched back a little and Sam was behind him instantly, on his knees, bracing him. "Is this right?" Frodo beseeched the healer.

They all watched anxiously as Nestadren bared the hugely swollen belly and probed beneath it. "This is it," he announced. "Everyone out but Sam and Legolas."

"What's happening? Sam asked anxiously as Frodo's belly seemed to shiver with a life of its own. He barely noticed the others leaving the room.

"His stomach muscles are forcing Fael down, Sam, to the slit." Nestadren smiled reassuringly at Frodo. "Can you sit up, Frodo?"

"I want to kneel," Frodo panted, hands cradling his belly. "Can I kneel?"

"That might be best," Nestadren agreed, and Legolas and Sam helped Frodo onto his knees. Sam wrapped both arms around him from behind, covering Frodo's hand on the swell of their baby, feeling the incredible strength of his stomach muscles pushing the weight of the babe downwards.

"It hurts!" Frodo cried out, and Sam closed his eyes at the sight of the blood and mucous that began pouring onto the padding covering the mattress. Surely that was too much blood? Frodo's body was splitting open! How on earth could anyone survive this?

"The slit is opening, Frodo," Nestadren said calmly, dabbing with a padded cloth, strong hands supporting Frodo's belly and pressing gently.

"I knew it wasn't big enough!" Frodo gasped, squeezing Sam's fingers and arching back against his strong chest. "Sam!"

"I'm here," Sam managed through his terror. "Nearly there, love."

"I see his head!" the healer exclaimed. "Sam, lay your hands atop the swell and push, gently."

Sam's eyes flew open in disbelief but he hastened to obey and Frodo's hands were there first, finding the spot, trying to push. But he was already weakening and his hands could only grip Sam's as another shudder of pain swept through him.

"He's really hurtin'!" Sam said desperately as he pressed the spot. "Nestadren!"

"Just keep pressing, Sam," the healer said. "He's crowning, there's a head of curls here but I need you to help push him out. Frodo! Nearly there!"

"I'm all right," Frodo panted, tears on his face. "Is he all right?"

Suddenly he threw his head back onto Sam's shoulder with a cry, and then there was another thinner cry from beneath him. "His head's out," Nestadren cried gladly. "And he couldn't wait to let us know he's here!"

"Sam!" Frodo wept, body still shuddering. "Can you hear him?"

"I can, love," Sam said, hands still pressing, tears on his own face now. He kissed Frodo's wet cheek.

"The shoulders now, Frodo," Nestadren said over the mewling wails. "This is the hard part!"

Sam tried to peer down but regretted it instantly at the sight of the blood on the bed. His joy froze into fear again as pink fluid trickled down the healer's wrists and he pressed his head into Frodo's neck and pushed as hard as he dared at the swell.

Frodo's cried out again and his knees seemed to give out beneath him as his body arched and shuddered. Sam held him up, hands sliding to Frodo's side now, as with a gasping cry he felt through Frodo's body as the baby's shoulders passed through the slit and the rest of his body followed.

"I have him!" Nestadren cried out joyfully. "Legolas?" Their elf friend had a cloth ready and the healer laid the red squirming bundle in it, examining the pulsing cord that still attached him to Frodo.

"Sam," Frodo panted weakly, his head lolling back onto Sam's shoulder. "Can you see him? Is he all right?"

"He's fine, Frodo, Sam choked, his eyes drawn to the blood that covered the baby and his swaddling and the healer's hands. Sam shakily helped Frodo to lay back against him as the healer dealt with the cord.

"Sam!" Frodo cried again in alarm, back arching again.

"It's just the afterbirth," Nestadren assured him, dealing with it swiftly as Frodo relaxed back with a sigh of relief. He nodded at Legolas, who laid the baby on Frodo's chest, while Sam tearfully lifted his love's weak hands to hold him there. Sam wanted to watch the soft joy in Frodo's eyes as he peered at the squalling baby waving angry fists at them, but he was all too aware that Nestadren was still working busily below Frodo's belly, padded cloths pressed to his open wound, exchanging rapid words with Legolas in their own language.

"Sam," Frodo slurred. "Look, Sam, at what we made!"

Fear was wrapped around his heart, but Sam reached out and cradled the tiny head in his hand, taking in the screwed up red face and the wet curls on unbelievably small feet. "He's beautiful, Frodo," he said thickly.

"Fael," Frodo murmured, his voice fading, his hands going slack.

"Frodo!" Sam cried in alarm. "Nestadren!"

"It's all right, Sam," the healer reassured him, as Legolas lifted the baby up and away. "He's lost a lot of blood but the flow's stopping. The slit is already closing itself."

Sam's chest was tight with terror and he sniffed, trying to see through the tears that ran down his cheeks. "So much blood," he wept. "Please, Nestadren." He looked at Legolas who was gently wiping the squalling infant with a soft cloth. "Legolas?" he beseeched.

Legolas looked up and over at the healer and Sam closed his eyes in despair, holding Frodo as close as he could, willing all the strength from his own body into the pale one in his arms. "Please," he begged. "Please."

"Sam." He didn't know how many minutes passed before he felt Nestadren lay a hand on his shoulder and Sam unstuck his wet eyes, focusing on the elf's face, and then down at the hobbit in his arms. Frodo's face was pale but peaceful, he was breathing evenly, eye lashes quivering.

"Frodo?" Sam whispered.

"He's very weak, Sam," the healer said seriously. "But he's young and strong. He'll be fine."

"Are you sure? How is it all down there?" Sam said anxiously, nodding to the wide pad under Frodo's curiously soft looking belly.

"The slit has sealed itself and the bleeding has stopped."

"There was so much blood!" Sam shivered.

"I have a tonic he can take that will help restore his strength, but he will be confined to bed for a few days yet. Until I'm sure the slit is healing well."

Sam stroked Frodo's hair, gratified to feel the flush of warmth from his skin where before it had been icy cool. "I'm glad that was quick," he said whole heartedly. "And that he never has to go through it again. I tell you, if he was a wife and me his husband? I'd make sure there were no more babies ever!"

Nestadren chuckled, still busy cleaning Frodo and removing the soiled padding beneath him.

"You might feel differently once you hold your babe again, Sam," Legolas said gently behind him and Sam turned and focused on the soft chair where Legolas was sitting. Held against his chest was a swaddled form that looked impossibly small in his strong arms. Careful not to disturb his sleeping love, Sam laid another gentle kiss on Frodo's forehead before he climbed off the bed.

Sam's arms ached to gather that precious bundle to him, but he suddenly found himself faltering in his tracks, fear trickling through him. What did he know about babies? He'd never even picked one up before! Various relatives and friends had little ones, but Sam had always had too much work to do to worry about getting to know them. Besides, it was lasses that sat around and cuddled babies and talked about their mysteries.

"It's all right, Sam," Legolas murmured, and he leaned forward and deposited the bundle in his arms. Sam instinctively cradled his son in the crook of his arm, breath drawing in surprise at how light he seemed. With a trembling hand he stroked the soft cover away, revealing a damp downy cap of golden curls and pale pink skin. The baby wrinkled his nose and then opened his mouth in a yawn, and Sam felt his knees go weak at the rush of love to his heart "Fael," he choked, an unexpected tear running down his cheek and onto the sleeping face.

Legolas guided him to the chair and he sat back, unable to move his eyes from his son. He carefully touched the unbelievable softness of his cheek. "Oh, I wish Frodo were awake to see you," Sam murmured. "He loves you so much, Fael."

Nestadren was smoothing a clean nightshirt over Frodo's head and gently covering him back with clean blankets. "Why don't we leave you three alone?" he suggested as he straightened and Legolas agreed.

Sam looked up in panic. "Alone? But..." He looked at Frodo, sleeping peacefully on the bed.

"Frodo is fine, Sam," Nestadren assured him. "He'll sleep until dawn at least, and when he awakes give him a spoonful of the tonic." He nodded at the blue bottle on the table.

"But, the baby?" Sam said weakly. "What do I do now?"

Nestadren laid a comforting hand on his shoulder. "We're not abandoning you entirely, Sam. I'm still just down the hall. Fael and Frodo will both sleep, and neither will be ready to feed for a few hours yet. Why don't you lay down with your family and get some rest too?"

Still nervous Sam nodded. Legolas crouched down in front of him, smile radiant, eyes shining.

"Thank you for letting me be a part of this, Sam," he said huskily. He leaned over and laid a gentle kiss on Fael's forehead.

"Thank you," Sam said fervently. "Thank you both for everything!"

"Remember," Nestadren said. "I'll be just down the hall if you need me." He smiled at Sam and the baby, his eyes tender. "Congratulations, Sam."

The door closed behind him with a very final click and Sam sat anxiously for a moment, feeling very abandoned. But then the baby stirred in his arms, one tiny arm lifting out of the covers, impossibly small pink fingers flexing and he couldn't help the chuckle that bubbled out of him. He leaned over and kissed the soft pink fingers, then softly closed his lips on them, learning the taste and feel of them. "Fael," he murmured again, just for the pleasure of saying his son's name.

He carried Fael back to the bed and gently laid him down next to Frodo, then lay down on his side, one hand resting on the dozing babe. The only thing that could make this moment more perfect was to see Frodo's face, to share their son's first hours with his love. But Frodo needed his rest now, and Sam was content to lean his head on his hand and lay there as the night moved on and dawn approached, lighting the sky outside the window. It was a delight just watching the two people he loved most in the world sleeping. There was also a wild relief in the the knowledge that the worst was behind them now. Frodo had survived the birth.

Sam allowed himself a few grateful tears in those hours, but they dried up quickly enough. His heart was too full of joy for tears today.

Fael's birthday.

It was Fael waking that roused Frodo from his slumber, and as thin wails broke the quiet morning Frodo's long lashes stirred and his hands rose to his belly. He pressed the soft mass and snuffled and snorted awake, confusion in his eyes.

"Mornin'," Sam said huskily, and Frodo turned his head and met Sam's eyes, then dropped his gaze to the howling infant between them.

"Sam?" His shaking hand reached out and Sam lifted Fael and laid him on Frodo's chest again, so he wouldn't have to move. "Oh, Sam," Frodo said tearfully, his hand touching Fael's cheek. Instantly the baby's cries faded and he opened his eyes, peering up into the world.

"His eyes are blue," Sam exclaimed.

Frodo stroked the soft cheek and Fael's mouth opened and searched for the finger, closing over the end and sucking a little.

"That's your son all right," Sam joked through his tears and Frodo smiled.

"Sorry, Fael," he murmured. "I gave you life but I have no milk to feed you with."

The baby didn't seem to mind, his eyes drifted closed and he nursed contentedly for a minute on the tip of Frodo's finger before falling back to sleep.

Sam reached out and parted the swaddling, touching his son's tiny hands with wonder. "Look, Frodo, look at his little nails."

"And his toes," Frodo agreed weakly. "Where did these golden curls come from?"

"Elf magic?" Sam suggested, touching the fine downy hair on his son's feet reverently.

Frodo's eyes drifted closed. "I'm so tired, Sam, but all I want to do is hold him."

"You'll be holding him for the rest of his life," Sam assured him. "And until you're well we'll not stir from your side, love." He lifted Fael from Frodo's arms and lay him on the bed, before fetching the bottle of tonic. "More elf magic," he said, pouring a spoonful with steady hands. Frodo obediently swallowed, and almost instantly his cheeks took on a little more color.

"That's good," he murmured, and now his arms had a little more strength as he held them out for their son. Sam laid him on Frodo's chest again, heart full to bursting as he watched Frodo's fingers stroking the soft skin, counting the fingers and toes, lifting one tiny foot and laying a kiss on the pink underside.

"I love you," Frodo whispered, and Sam wrapped his arms around his whole world and hugged them to his heart.

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Nestadren entered the room quietly, carrying a basket and smiling to see Frodo awake. "You look wonderful," he said gently. "Sam, can you take the baby for a moment, I just want to check all's healing as it should. You might want to take a look in the basket while I do."

Frodo kissed the baby tenderly and Sam lifted him away and hovered anxiously, his heart in his mouth.

Nestadren lifted the covers aside and drew the nightshirt up, careful fingers touching around the edges of the red seam. It looked sore, Sam thought, but not angry or infected. Mostly it looked sealed tight, almost as if it had never opened to let forth the bright new life he held in his arms. It was amazing.

"Perfect!" Nestadren pronounced. "Make sure you take a spoonful of the tonic every time you awake, it will help restore your strength."

"It already has," Frodo agreed, although his voice was still low and weary. He touched the elf's fine hand as it drew the covers to his chest. "Thank you," he murmured, and Sam swallowed at the joy in his tired eyes.

Nestadren squeezed his fingers for a moment, returning the smile.

"Now, what's in that basket, Sam?" Frodo asked, yawning. "I can feel myself falling asleep again, and I want my curiosity satisfied before I do."

Sam cradled Fael and drew back the cloth over the basket, revealing glass bottles and rubber teats. He picked up a green glass bottle and held it up. "For a hungry babe," he said to Frodo. "You'd think that elven spell would have thought of a way for you to feed him too, wouldn't you?"

"Bite your tongue," Frodo scolded, eye lashes fluttering. "Good elven glass bottles will do just as well," he slurred, and with a final twitch he dropped back to sleep.

"And milk," Nestadren supplied softly, indicating the ceramic bottle in the bottom of the basket. "It's still quite warm, which will be better for his stomach. Do you know what to do?"

"Well," Sam said thoughtfully. "Getting the milk into the bottle I can manage, and getting the teat on the bottle looks easy. But after that," he confessed. "I'm a bit lost." He shrugged. "I suppose we should have spent the last months finding out this kind of thing, shouldn't we?"

"That's why I'm here," Nestadren said comfortingly. "And you'll be amazed at how much of it is common sense." He sat Sam down and showed him how to measure the milk, and how to test it to make sure it was warm enough for baby but not too warm. Sam puffed out a breath as the filled bottle was pressed into his free hand.

"That's not so bad," he said gratefully. He tilted the bottle and pressed the teat to Fael's lips, stroking a smear of milk over them.

"Sometimes newborns can be fussy eaters," Nestadren warned him. "It can take a while before they..."

He broke off as Fael opened his mouth, engulfed the teat and began to suck lustily.

"Never mind," he finished.

Fael was undisturbed as his father chuckled, his chest shaking with joyful laughter. "That's my lad," he said proudly.

"Hobbits," Nestadren said, shaking his head fondly.

888

Frodo slept on and off, but each time he awoke he took another spoonful of tonic and his strength returned. Sam dozed himself now and then, curled up on the bed with the baby between them. By evening Frodo was ready to sit up a little, and after anxiously consulting Nestadren Sam helped shift him to rest against the carved headboard and a pile of pillows.

Then he lifted Fael back out of the makeshift cradle he had constructed out of the basket Nestadren had bought the milk in. "You'd think we hadn't had nearly nine months to prepare for his arrival," Sam said, as he shifted the precious bundle to Frodo's eager arms.

"He doesn't care where he sleeps," Frodo dismissed, eyes devouring the baby. "Oh, Sam, I never expected it to be like this! I can feel him, all the way to my heart. Do you feel this too?" He lifted entranced eyes to Sam's. "Is this the way you've always felt for him?"

"I didn't think I could love him any more than when he was inside you," Sam revealed huskily. "Then I held him in my arms..."

"Yes," Frodo agreed, gently lifting Fael up and holding him against his shoulder. The golden head snuffled into the skin of his neck for a moment and then he lay content against Frodo's heartbeat. "He's so small, Sam. It's almost frightening how small he is."

"He'll grow quick enough, the way he eats," Sam smirked, stroking the baby's back tenderly.

There was a trace of regret in Frodo's eyes as he cuddled Fael close. "Oh, I've missed his feeds."

"You needed the rest." Sam touched his hand apologetically. "But he'll be hungry again soon, according to what Nestadren was tellin' me, so you'll get a chance to see him eat. In fact you'll probably get tired of it right quick."

"Never," Frodo denied firmly. "I'll never get tired of what this little one does." He kissed a downy cheek and breathed in the new baby smell with pleasure. "All the things I was worried about," he said wonderingly. "All the things I thought so important. And now there's just him and you." He looked up at Sam, his heart in his eyes. "You two are all that matter."

Sam thought if he smiled any wider his cheeks might crease permanently. He leaned down and laid his forehead to his love's, and they closed their eyes and enjoyed the sweet precious moments together as a family.

888

"Any room for visitors in here?" Bilbo peeked around the door, supported on Gandalf's strong arm.

"Bilbo!" Frodo exclaimed joyfully.

"My dear boy," Bilbo said, tears in his eyes. "You're very pale, lad, but you look fine, just fine. You know you've worried your old uncle terribly."

"We knew you could do it, Frodo," Gandalf assured him with a twinkle, sitting Bilbo down by the bed.

The old hobbit reached out and laid a hand on Frodo's arm, gripping it lovingly. "We won't stay long," he said thickly. "But I just had to see with my own eyes that you were all right."

"I'm glad you came, uncle," Frodo said gladly. He looked up at Sam who nodded and gathered Fael up carefully. "Look, Bilbo. Look at our son."

Sam lowered him into trembling arms and Bilbo received him nervously, his eyes damp. "Oh my," he whispered. "There's a sight."

Frodo smiled proudly, reaching out a hand, which Sam grasped firmly and squeezed.

"That's a Baggins face and no mistake, eh, Gandalf?" Bilbo bragged, touching a soft hand with his finger. Fael grasped it and the old hobbit chuckled and sniffed. "Quite a grip on him too."

Gandalf reached over his friend's shoulder and touched gentle fingers to Fael's smooth brow. "He's fine, Bilbo," he agreed. "Quite the handsomest hobbit I've ever seen."

"Handsome?" Bilbo scoffed. "Of course he's handsome, that goes without saying. But look at the intelligence shining in those eyes, Gandalf!"

"Yes, he's very like Sam," Gandalf agreed thoughtfully.

"Sam?" Bilbo exclaimed, and then he caught himself and coughed. "Well, yes, now that you mention it."

Sam chuckled and Frodo raised his eyes indignantly. "I should say so," he huffed. "He's the image of Sam!"

"Well, I wouldn't say that," Sam protested through his laughter while Gandalf chuckled heartily.

"There's altogether too much merriment in here for my liking!" Nestadren said firmly, coming in through the door. "Frodo needs his rest, and that babe too."

"We only popped in for a moment," Bilbo protested, letting Sam lift the baby out of his arms.

"I'm fine," Frodo insisted.

"Lay down for an hour," the healer ordered sternly. "If you want to be awake to feed your son."

After that Frodo submitted meekly as Sam helped him back down, and within moments he was asleep again.

"I could do with a rest myself," Bilbo murmured as he leaned on Gandalf's arm. He stopped by Sam and patted him awkwardly on the shoulder. "You're a good lad, Samwise," he praised. "And I'm trusting you with my Frodo and his lad now." He smiled, his old eyes bright. "I think they're in good hands."

"Thank you," Sam stammered, taken a little by surprise. Gandalf winked at him on the way out and Sam raised his eyebrows back at him.

He couldn't wait to tell Frodo.

888

It was Gimli and Legolas who delivered more warm milk and they stayed to bend over the baby on Frodo's lap.

"Now that's a bonny babe," Gimli pronounced, his eyes moist.

"Worthy of his name," Legolas agreed, reaching out one long finger to stroke over Fael's cheek. Instantly the rosebud mouth pursed, sucking eagerly and the elf chuckled, shaking his head.

"Don't say it," Frodo warned, smiling joyfully, his skin still a shade pale.

"Well, he is a hobbit after all," Gimli allowed. He touched one blunt finger to the downy golden curls just visible on Fael's pink feet. The baby lay hobbit fashion, knees lifted to his chest, ankles crossed. His hands were together on his chest, fingers exploring each other curiously. Wide eyes opened and he peered up at Frodo.

"Will those eyes stay blue?" Legolas wondered.

"I hope so," Sam said from the table, holding the glass bottle to his skin. "We should try to feed him this while it's warm," he suggested and Legolas stood regretfully.

"Look who's the expert now!" Frodo said to Fael, who blinked wide unfocused eyes up at him.

"It's mostly just common sense," Sam dismissed airily.

"We'll leave you to it then," Legolas said.

Gimli looked disappointed but stood also. He murmured something in dwarvish and Legolas nodded and added something himself in elvish.

"What's that?" Sam asked curiously, bottle in one hand, towel in the other.

"Blessings," Frodo said respectfully. "Thank you." He inclined his head and the two friends returned the formal gesture, and then broke into smiles before they left.

"We're awful lucky," Sam said, sitting next to Frodo and handing him the bottle.

"In more ways than I can count," Frodo agreed, feeling the temperature of the bottle against his own skin curiously. "Is this right?"

"Nestadren said it should be blood hot," Sam confirmed. "Cold might give him a belly ache."

Frodo tilted the bottle and Sam hovered anxiously.

"Don't tip it too far,' he advised. "And give him a minute and then take it away so's he can catch his breath. And you might want to-"

Sam," Frodo said patiently. "I managed to carry him and give birth to him. I think I can figure out how to feed him."

Sam subsided, ears red and Frodo chuckled and patted his hand. "You're really enjoying this, aren't you? Now you've got two of us to look after."

"I been looking after two of you for months," Sam retorted, still blushing.

888

It was the middle of the night and Sam stirred awake at the baby's thin wail, unsticking tired eyes. Frodo stirred and Sam patted his back. "Go to sleep, love," he yawned, pulling back the cover and shivering in the cool night air. Nestadren was there laying out a bottle and the milk and Sam smiled gratefully at how well they were being taken care of.

He bent over and lifted Fael from his basket, crooning and kissing a pink cheek.

"What's all this fuss about then, my sunshine?" he said softly. "Hungry belly? You'll wake your Dad-Frodo with all that noise." He accepted the bottle and sat back, touching the teat to Fael's mouth and smiling as always at the eager way he took it, the pink flush that suffused his cheeks as he drank.

"You should get some sleep, Sam," Nestadren told him. "I can manage this feed."

"I wouldn't sleep while he's awake anyway." Sam pulled the teat back to give the baby a break, lifting him over one broad hand and rubbing his back gently. The small circle of the lamp's light made a quiet little well of peace in the still night.

"Nestadren? When will he be old enough for the journey home?"

"A few weeks, Sam, if he goes on the way he is now. He's strong enough, if you take the journey in easy stages." He reached out and stroked one downy foot and Fael kicked his legs robustly.

"And Frodo?"

They both looked at the peacefully sleeping figure on the bed.

"The same. He's healing well, Sam, truly. The two of you must be longing for home after all this time."

"Aye," Sam agreed, smiling down at Fael's intensely concentrated little face. "Don't get me wrong," he added hastily. "The folks here have been nothin' but kind to us, and it's a fine place to live I'm sure."

"But it's not home," Nestadren finished.

"No," Sam chuckled. "But you know it's more than missin' the Shire. I want to show it off to our lad, even though he's a long way from understandin' it's his home. And I want to show our lad off to the Shire, although it sounds odd to say it."

"No, it doesn't," Nestadren said, understanding in his eyes. "He's your son and you're proud of him. Why shouldn't you want to show him off to your friends and family?"

Sam smiled, feeling a bit shy. "Well, I'd like to put him in my old gaffer's arms," he confided. "Even though I can't really say much about where he's come from..."

"Tell him Fael is your son, Sam," Nestadren advised. "That's all he'll need to know to love him."

"D'you think?" Sam asked anxiously. His family had been much on his mind lately, especially his old dad.

"How could your father not love your son?"

Sam lifted the bottle away as Fael finished it, and again lifted him and rubbed his small back. "Did you never have children?" he asked curiously.

Nestadren shook his head. "I was never so blessed."

Sam studied the sober face and then sudden realization hit him. "That was it, wasn't it?" he blurted out. "That was the oath you had to take, the price you had to pay." He realized at once that he had gone too far, and he could have bitten his tongue when the saw how still the healer's face went. "I'm sorry!" he cried.

"It's all right, Sam." Nestadren smiled gently, his face pale. "Yes, that was the price. The bloodline of the elves seemed to concern them greatly. They seemed to think I would... taint it."

"I remember," Sam said with a shiver, lifting Fael and cuddling him close against his shoulder. Feeling the little warm body against his own the horror of the brothers intentions came washing back over him. "It was a wicked thing to ask of you." Tears pricked his eyes for his friend's sake.

"It was a long time ago, Sam," Nestadren reassured him. "It is an old pain now."

Sam buried his face in Fael's downy curls, his face still wet.

"Dear, Sam," Nestadren said tenderly. "Thank you for your tears on my behalf, but you and Frodo have already eased my pain. Helping you create that wonder you hold next to your heart has been the joy of my life. I almost feel as if..."

"He's as much yours as ours," Sam cried sincerely. "He wouldn't be here against my heart if not for you. Despite their wicked oaths and acts, those brothers have not won."

"They lost long ago, Sam, if ever this was a battle. But now is not the time to speak of the past, not when you hold the future in your arms. I will make a new oath to you now, Sam, and repeat it to Frodo when he awakens. No matter what happens, Fael will always have a friend in me. So long as I live, he will never be alone in this world."

Sam couldn't speak for the joy and pride in his heart, even if he had been able to find words. Nestadren seemed to understand, he touched his shoulder lightly and left the room.

"Yes, my boy," Sam whispered huskily to Fael's contented face. "We're awful lucky."

888

Frodo's strength returned, and for Sam, looking back later, those days were a haze of sleep and joyful awakenings. Of learning their son together, delighting in his every aspect. Friends came and went, Legolas and Gimli often delivering the four hourly feeds and stopping to visit. One of Sam's cherished memories was of the often taciturn Gimli, cooing in delight over Fael's strength as the baby hobbit grabbed his finger and would not let go.

Sam also knew he would forever remember the sight of the Lord of Rivendell lifting Fael up to his great height and gazing into his wide eyes. Needless to say none of them would ever forget one of the greatest of all elves gravely studying the baby sick down the front of his shirt.

A week after the birth Frodo was ready to stand, and Sam and Nestadren were there on each side of him to grip his arms and help him up. His legs were weak after so long in bed and he closed his eyes as he stood swaying.

"The world's spinning!" he exclaimed.

"That's enough for the moment" Nestadren ordered and they sat him back on the bed.

"I wanted to walk," Frodo said, disappointment on his face.

"Give yourself a minute to catch your breath," the healer counseled.

"I hate feeling so feeble!" Frodo exclaimed frustratedly. "I want to walk outside, and take Fael into the sunshine!"

"He's enjoying the sunshine by the window just fine," Sam pointed out firmly. "Give yourself a little time."

"Let me try again," Frodo insisted, and this time he managed to stay up without swaying dizzily. After a moment he took a step, barely supported by Sam and Nestadren. Then he took another and grinned triumphantly.

"Enough," the healer decreed again, but Frodo seemed satisfied and let them tuck him back up.

"I'll be up and about in no time," he said smugly.

"Stubborn hobbit,' Sam chided fondly.

"I just want to sit with Fael in the sunshine," Frodo insisted.

Legolas stood and walked over with the baby cradled against his chest. "The sun would do him good," he agreed. "And it's not too cold out today. Nestad? Couldn't I carry Frodo out?"

Frodo looked hopeful. "Could you?"

Legolas handed Fael to Sam. "As easily as I carry your son," he said simply. "Nestad?"

The healer considered for a few moments. "If they're wrapped up warmly," he finally conceded and Frodo grinned widely.

So the day became an outing, but it was not so simple as gathering up their pair of bundles and carrying them outside. Nestadren insisted they find a sheltered area not too far away and he rushed off to prepare just such a spot. Then Sam started packing a basket with everything they would need for a few hours outside, and this took longer than he thought. By the time all was in place Frodo was almost vibrating with impatience.

But it was all worth it when they stepped out into the wintry sunlight. Legolas carried Frodo easily in his strong arms. Gimli carried the basket, complaining and wondering loudly how such a small baby could need so many things. Sam carried Fael, holding him high on his chest so Frodo could see his first taste of the wintry sunshine.

Fael's wide eyes blinked and he thrust his fists out of the blankets, squirming and kicking in his father's hold.

"I knew he'd love it," Frodo chuckled, peering over Sam's arms.

Nestadren had a place in the sun all picked out, with a warm blanket laid on the grass. Legolas sat Frodo down and he reached up for his son.

"I've missed being outside!" he exclaimed. He smiled down at Fael, who was waving his fists excitedly. "How do you like it, my lad?"

"It is nice to feel the breeze on my face again," Sam said blissfully. "Is Fael wrapped warmly enough d'you think?"

"He's fine," Frodo said patiently. "Why don't you stretch your legs, Sam? You've been cooped up in that room the same as us."

"I feel like a walk amongst the trees," Legolas said invitingly. "Gimli?"

"I'll keep Frodo company, if it's all the same to you," Gimli yawned. "These four hour feedings really take it out of a dwarf."

"Sorry to be working you so hard!" Frodo winked at Sam with a grin. "Go on, Sam, take advantage of it while you can!"

"I could fancy a walk," Sam mused. "We won't go too far."

"Go as far as you like," Frodo said generously. "When we get tired we'll nap here, won't we, sunshine?" Fael expressed his agreement by blowing milky bubbles onto his chin.

"I think Frodo was glad to be rid of me." Sam gently touched the thin branches as he and Legolas walked down the path.

"He's just happy to have that baby all to himself for a while," Legolas disagreed.

"He has missed a few things while he's been getting his strength back." They reached a break in the path and Sam looked out over the gorge with pleasure, shivering a little at the cold mist of spray on his face. "We'll be leaving soon."

"Yes, Gimli and I have business elsewhere too." Legolas glanced down at Sam. "Shall we send your best wishes to Aragorn and Arwen?"

Sam laughed aloud. "I wish I could be a fly on the wall when you tell them our news!"

"Yes, I'm rather looking forward to that myself," Legolas said mischievously. "I've no doubt the King of Gondor will be sending you a new invitation by swift messenger, Sam, when he hears about Fael."

"Oh, no!" Sam said swiftly. "Once we get home nothin' and no one will be draggin' us out of the Shire again."

Legolas clapped him on the shoulder. "We'll see, Sam. We'll see."

888

Sam stayed away an hour, but couldn't bear to be parted from Frodo and Fael for any longer. When he got back to the sunny patch he smiled tenderly to see Frodo curled up around the baby's basket, fast asleep. His smile faded when he saw Frodo's damp cheeks and swollen eyes.

"Bilbo was here," Gimli said softly, standing and patting Sam awkwardly on the back. "I think Frodo will want you nearby when he wakes up, laddie."

"What happened?"

"He asked Bilbo to come back to the Shire. I don't think he was expecting the answer he got."

"Thank you, Gimli," Sam said sadly, understanding what the answer must have been.

Sam sat down by Frodo and laid a comforting hand on his back, rubbing gently.

Frodo stirred, wiping at his cheeks. "Did you enjoy your walk?"

"I'd have enjoyed it more with you," Sam said huskily.

With a wince Frodo turned and let Sam gather him into his lap. "Oh, Sam."

"I'm sorry, love." Sam kissed his soft hair.

"I just thought we could be a family for a while, back at Bag End."

"I know, I thought the same."

"But he said that when he left the Shire he meant never to return. When he makes that journey again, he said, it will be to the Grey Havens."

Sam's throat felt thick. The one nightmare he never told Frodo about was of that sad and lonely place by the sea.

"You know, Bilbo was already old when he took me in. I suppose I should just be grateful that we had as much time together as we did." Frodo sniffed and wiped at his cheeks again. "And at least I get to say good-bye to him this time."

"And this time you won't be alone." Sam stroked his face tenderly. "You'll never be alone again," he vowed.

Frodo tried to smile, but his eyes were still sad when Legolas returned to carry him back.

888

"Sam! Sam, where's the baby? Where's Fael?"

Sam jerked awake at the rough shake to his shoulder. "What?" he muttered thickly, trying to blink the sleep out of his eyes. It was dark in the room and he groped for the lamp and turned the wick up.

"Where's Fael?" Frodo said wildly, both hands on Sam's arm.

"He's here," Sam said hurriedly, reaching for the baby's basket and lifting it from the bedside table. "He's here, sleeping safe."

Frodo reached carefully under Fael's arms and gathered him up, curving him against his chest. He closed his eyes, sighing out in relief. One hand cupped the baby's tiny head tenderly, fingers shaking.

"What is it? Frodo?"

"Just a dream," Frodo breathed out, as if trying to convince himself. "A bad dream."

Understanding ran through him and Sam breathed out his own sigh of relief. He wrapped an arm around Frodo, cuddling him close. "You're still upset about today."

"He was crying and I couldn't find him," Frodo said shakily, lips to Fael's fine golden hair. "I was lost in the dark and looking for him, Sam, lost in the dark with those shadows on our trail."

Sam nodded against Frodo's cheek. He'd had a few nightmares himself since they'd faced the brothers hatred. "They're gone, Frodo. Dead and gone. No more shadows in the night."

"The world is full of shadows and evil, Sam. We should know, we've faced most of them."

"And survived all of them," Sam reminded him firmly.

"He's so small, Sam," Frodo whispered. "I couldn't bear it if anything happened to him. I couldn't bear it."

"Nothin' will." Sam shaped his hand around Frodo's and together they lay Fael back in their arms. He slept deeply, belly still full, rosebud lips pursing and sucking. "Look at him, love. Elven magic and golden curls aside, he's a hobbit babe, fine and strong. And he'll grow up that way, just as we did, back in the finest place in the world."

"Home," Frodo said longingly.

Sam hugged him close again, their hands still connected, still cradling their son. "He's going to have the best time! Running with his friends in the fields! Ruining his clothes and scabbing his knees."

Frodo huffed a quiet chuckle.

"Wading in the little streams, bringing home buckets of tadpoles and mud," Sam continued, smiling at memories from long ago.

"Climbing trees and hunting mushrooms."

"Learning to tell the weeds from the seedlings, pulling them from the earth with his little hands."

"Your big hands over his, guiding them." Frodo stroked Sam's fingers and lifted Fael to his chest again. "Yes, Sam, you're right. Remember what you said once, about what we were holding onto? The hope that there's some good left in this world?"

"Aye," Sam smiled, wondering a little at how even that painful memory seemed bearable now.

"This is our hope, Sam, this is our future." Frodo looked down at their son and then back up at Sam, his heart in his eyes. "This is what we fought for."

"Aye," Sam said again.

888

"Ah, Sam. I was wondering if I'd see you today." Bilbo greeted him from his chair. He was alone in the warm pavilion, a cozy blanket tucked around his lap.

"Was you?" Sam clenched his fingers in front of him, trying to gather the words together in his head.

"How's Frodo?"

"I left him sleeping," Sam said, knowing this wasn't what the old hobbit meant.

"I know he was disappointed that I'm not coming back to Bag End-"

"I want you to change your mind," Sam interrupted. He flushed a little at the quizzical look Bilbo sent him, but continued on doggedly. "I mean I'm askin' that you change your mind, and come back with us."

"Sam," Bilbo sighed. "When I left the Shire I meant never to return. I'm sticking to that."

"Why?" Sam said fiercely. "It's your home too, isn't it? Why's it too much to ask that you spend some time back there before you sail away forever?"

"It's not my home any more," Bilbo said quietly but firmly. "It's your home now, yours and your family's. There's no place for an old hobbit in the middle of that."

Sam gathered his courage and asked something that had been on his mind for some time. "Is it because of me? Because of Frodo and me bein' together?"

Bilbo looked down at his hands in his lap, old fingers smoothing the fine wool absently. "And if I said it was?"

"That's fair enough," Sam managed, his throat tight. "I can't be exactly what you had in mind for your heir. Nor my child being his heir for that matter."

Bilbo looked up now, meeting his gaze evenly. "As it happens, Sam, that's not what's on my mind. Seeing Frodo happy, seeing him with his son... Well how could I not be grateful to whoever and whatever brought that about? It's more than I hoped for in this world, after all he's been through."

"It's what he's been through that's on my mind, Mr. Bilbo!" Sam said urgently. "His body's healed, yes, but you don't know what it was like for him, no one knows really, not even me. Not all of it. His heart still hurts him at times, sir, his heart gets so sad. And he worries about things, he worries for Fael and me and.. and.. shadows in the night."

"Yes," Bilbo said, his eyes lost for a moment. "I suppose he must."

"So what I'm gettin' at here is that he wants his family around him. All his family. And I want for him to have what he wants and needs." Sam bit his lip nervously but plunged ahead. "And I reckon you owe him."

Bilbo's stared at him, arrested. "You do, do you?"

"I reckon," Sam continued staunchly. "You left him once, to do what you wanted, and left him a pretty pickle as it happens. I don't think it's too much to ask now that you don't leave him again."

"Well, well, whoever would have thought it," Bilbo mused to himself. "That I would be taken to task by old Ham Gamgee's lad?"

Sam pulled his shoulders back and lifted his chin. "I am Ham Gamgee's lad," he said proudly. "I reckon I always will be, no matter how old I get. But I have a lad of my own now, and I know my responsibility to him. I'll be there for him for the rest of his life. Frodo's your lad, isn't he?"

Bilbo just stared at him for long moments, but Sam did not look away.

"I'm old, Samwise," Bilbo finally said. "I was never old in the Shire. Eleventy-one years old and I still walked two miles a day and I could hold my ale! I didn't want to go back now so feeble and worn."

Sam relaxed just a little and dropped down into a chair opposite. "You're not some old gaffer what has to be led around, Mr. Bilbo!" he exclaimed. "You've earned every one of them grey hairs and every line. And just think how it will be for folks to see you again. Why, they've had you dead and buried for years! Think on their faces when Bilbo Baggins returns to Bag End!"

Bilbo reflected on this for a moment, then chuckled maliciously. "That could be fun." His gaze sharpened on Sam. "You're a clever one," he said archly. "And don't think I don't know I'm being played like a fish."

Sam tried to look innocent.

"But if you think there's room in your cozy little nest for an old badger like me, well then, I suppose I could travel on to the Shire with you when you go."

Sam grinned happily.

"But for the record it's more of a visit! On my way to the Havens, so to speak."

"Thank you," Sam said gratefully.

"I'll tell Frodo." Bilbo let Sam help him to his feet and steadied himself for a moment, looking shrewdly into Sam's face. "A Gamgee and a Baggins, eh?" he mused. "Maybe it isn't what I had in mind, if I'd thought about it. But it's not such a bad combination, is it?"

"We've done all right so far," Sam said, a little smugly.

888

Sam waited outside, wanting the cousins to have some private time together. When he heard Frodo's happy laughter from within he finally relaxed completely and peered in the door.

"Sounds like a party in here!"

"Sam!" Frodo cried joyfully. "Bilbo's changed his mind! He's coming back to Bag End with us!"

"That's if there's room for me there, Samwise," Bilbo said innocently.

"Always room for one more," Sam said generously, standing behind Frodo in his seat by the window and laying a fond hand on his shoulder. Frodo reached up and pressed it, his eyes sparkling.

Frodo touched Fael's pointed little chin with a loving finger. "Hear that, Fael? Your Great Uncle is coming home with us."

"For a visit," Bilbo reminded him firmly. "On my way to the Havens."

"I'm just glad you changed your mind," Frodo said sincerely. "I was dreading saying our final good byes to everyone at once."

"Not final," Sam protested. "We'll see Legolas and Gimli and Nestadren again, and Gandalf too, I'm sure."

"This world is full of surprises," Bilbo agreed. Then he yawned. "Oh dear, I've worn myself out with all this emotion. Sam, see an old hobbit back to his room?"

Sam helped him up and lead him to the door, pausing while Bilbo fussed with his shawl.

"Sam?" Frodo said quietly. Sam tilted his head. "Thank you," Frodo mouthed silently, and Sam dropped a wink and saw the old hobbit home.

888

Their parting from Rivendell was bitter sweet. Elves whose names they didn't even know dropped by to give them good wishes, and shyly generous, showered upon the hobbits many fine gifts. Some, Gandalf told them quietly, were heirlooms, owned by elven babies far back in time. Sam and Frodo received them solemnly and gratefully, saddened by the idea that for many of the elves, there were no more babies.

"I'm sorry we didn't get to know more of them better now," Sam said regretfully, touching the precious gifts respectfully.

"We were just so wrapped up in our own world," Frodo agreed.

"And the folk of Imladris knew this was a difficult time for you," Gandalf confided. "They were keeping their distance."

"Not a difficult time, Gandalf," Frodo denied. "It wasn't that at all."

"What would you call it then?" the old wizard wondered. "I might not have been here for all of it, but I've heard enough from our friends to know things weren't always easy for you." He raised a white brow. "Either of you."

Sam and Frodo exchanged glances, wondering how to put it into words. Yes, there had been difficult times, if they were honest. It could never be an easy thing, giving up a part of yourself to someone else, even if it was someone you loved more than your own life. But looking back now Sam knew there was nothing about their time together he would change, not one thing.

And looking into Frodo's eyes he saw exactly the same thing.

"Well, maybe that knife to the throat," he allowed, raising a hand to the thin pink scar.

"And possibly I would have eaten fewer buttered scones," Frodo added, touching his own hand ruefully to his still soft belly.

Gandalf shook with laughter. "And that's it?" he demanded. "No other regrets? Nothing you would change?"

The hobbits exchanged another glance, then looked at Gandalf and shrugged.

"I think it's like giving birth," Frodo said thoughtfully. "I quite dreaded it, and going through it was not something I'd care to repeat."

Sam nodded fervently.

"But once it was over, once they put him in my arms, well, all the bad bits didn't matter any more."

"It was all worth it."

888

February 1421 S.R.

Legolas and Gimli rode east on the tenth day of the month, promising to deliver their messages and letters to all their friends on the way. It was with lighter spirits than the last time that Sam and Frodo saw them off. The world seemed much smaller than it did, in a way, and they knew in their hearts that they would all meet again.

Nestadren rode with the dwarf and the elf, heading back to his eastern home himself.

"He's grown so much in just these short weeks," the healer observed wistfully, holding the baby close as they said their goodbyes. "I wonder how much he'll grow before I see him again?"

"You know you've always a welcome at Bag End," Sam reminded him tearfully.

"And a home too, if you want it." Frodo touched Nestadren's hand and the healer crouched low, letting the hobbit wrap his arms around him. He curved his free arm around Frodo's back and returned the hug, his old-young face flushed with pleasure.

Then he handed the baby to Sam and laid a warm hand on his shoulder.

"Thank you, my friends," he said softly. And then they were away.

On the twelfth day they gathered by the gates of Rivendell, a party of elves and four hobbits. Many goodbyes were being said, as the elves they were traveling with were continuing on, into the west. Sam studied the faces around him curiously. There were no tears, indeed, many of the elves who were staying behind had wistful expressions on their faces, as if they too longed to set out on that long road.

"Well, my friends," Gandalf said, smiling at them tenderly. "So it's another goodbye. But not for long this time, we'll see each other again in September when I call in to pick up your uncle."

"Perhaps we'll ride to the Havens with you then, and see you off," Frodo suggested.

Gandalf shot Sam a quick look and smiled reassuringly. "Perhaps."

Sam kept his mouth shut. If he had his way they wouldn't be going anywhere near that sad grey place.

Gandalf saw them onto the cart that would carry three of the hobbits on the journey and waved his hand. "Blessings be upon you!" he cried, and Sam and Frodo and Bilbo all raised their hands and waved, as the carts and the horses moved slowly away, a soft poignant song of the elves beginning. Pennants fluttered in the breeze and from behind them they could hear another song floating back to them, also poignant, but still somewhat hopeful.

Sam rode his pony close to the cart, glad to see that Frodo wasn't weeping at the goodbye. Bilbo was leaning comfortably back on his wide cushion and Fael's basket was between them, the baby fast asleep. Frodo checked that they were both fine, gave a smile to Sam, and then turned and looked west.

Towards home.

888

March 1421 S.R.

They were only days from the Shire, and Sam felt as if he could smell home in the air. When they made camp he almost complained at how early it was. Surely they could ride another few hours? Get that much closer to home?

But Frodo's face as he climbed down from the cart was drawn and weary, and Sam bit back his impatience. They had waited this long, they could wait a few days more. They left Bilbo asleep in the cart while they set up their camp.

"Don't stretch up like that," Sam warned as Frodo reached for the basket.

"I'm quite capable of lifting it, Sam," he said in exasperation. "Remember what Nestadren said? I'm all healed."

"All the same," Sam said, lifting the makeshift cradle and depositing it between them. "No need to take any chances. You've got the rest of your life to fetch and carry." He stood with his back to the fire, enjoying the long stretch, and being on his feet after the day's riding. Frodo leaned over and jiggled the basket a little, chuckling as small hands waved their delight.

"He's taking the whole journey in stride," Frodo observed.

"So long as his milk shows up on time, he wouldn't care where he was," Sam scoffed.

There was a call from the edge of camp and Frodo and Sam peered out into the sunset, hands shading their eyes.

There ahead of them were two figures on ponies, hands raised in joyful greeting.

"Frodo! Sam!" They called and Sam grinned in delight to see Merry and Pippin cantering towards them.

"What are you two doing out here?" Frodo exclaimed as they jumped from their ponies and rushed to embrace him. Merry slapped him on the back and Pippin grabbed Sam's hand and wrung it joyfully.

"Oh, you wicked hobbits," he chided, tears of joy in his eyes. "How could you stay away for so long? Merry and I were about to ride off and find you, when the letter from Gandalf arrived."

"A letter?" Sam said curiously, still winded from Merry's enthusiastic greeting. "What letter?"

"Telling us to ride out and meet you here on the road back to the Shire," Pip informed them, tethering their ponies loosely, patting his on its soft noise.

"Delivered by an elf, if you please," Merry exclaimed, taking in their camp with its airy tents being set up, its wide cooking fires being stoked. "Not surprising when I see how cozy you've become with elfkind. You look right at home!"

"We should," Sam informed him. "Since that's where we've been all this time."

"Well, it seems to have done you good," Pippin said joyfully, considering their flushed and rosy faces. "You look so well!"

"And I hope you're back for good this time," Merry said severely. "We never expected you to be gone for a whole year! Honestly." He shook his head in exasperation. "And they call us the Travelers!"

A small cooing sound distracted them all and Pippin leaned over the basket and then started back in surprise. "Merry!" he exclaimed. "There's a baby in here! A hobbit baby!"

Merry rushed over and peered into the basket, surprise on his face. Sam could hear the cooing bubbles being blown and knew Fael would be making big blue eyes at his admirers as he always did.

"A babe!" Merry repeated. He looked up and stared at his two friends. "Where on earth did it come from?"

And Sam and Frodo sat Merry and Pippin down to explain to their friends where hobbit babies come from. Or at least where their particular hobbit baby had come from.

Sam wisely bought ale.

888

On March 13th they rode back over the Brandywine bridge and into the Shire. They were so happy they quite forgot it was an anniversary of sorts. When they remembered later they just smiled and agreed that some anniversaries should be forgotten.

The Traveler family had returned to Bag End.

They were home.

The End.