To Hell and Back

Summary: Sam wonders what prompted him to follow Frodo to Mordor and to stick with him to the end

Rating: PG

Disclaimer: The characters mentioned here were created by the incomparable J R R Tolkien and brought to life in three dimensions (well, okay, so two) by Peter Jackson and a truly visionary team who are too many to name. I own nothing and turn no profit.

Author's Note: Many thanks to Lissa for Betaing :)

Feedback: More addictive than the One True Ring and not nearly as adverse to one's health or sanity. Always welcomed and much appreciated, good, bad, or ugly.

To Hell and Back

Samwise Gamgee, until only a few months ago a simple gardener and house-servant, stared at the enormous marble bathtub, hesitant. Once upon a time, before his entire world had changed, there had been nothing he enjoyed so much as a hot bath. Now the steam rising from the basin reminded him of little more than the thermal vents of Mordor: billowing, scorching clouds of sulfur that made a soul lightheaded and blistered the skin on contact.

Shivering at the memory and climbing into the tub, he retrieved a coarse-bristled scrub-brush. Sulfur, the smell of sulfur. Three weeks after the destruction of the One Ring, his skin still reeked of it in spite of twice-daily scrubbings. His skin was red and raw, but he scrubbed anyway, determined to rid himself of the abhorrent smell. The others had been kind enough not to mention it, but that did not change the fact that it hung over him and over Frodo.

He had given up on his clothes almost immediately. No amount of washing could have begun to remove the reek that permeated those: sweat and blood and sulfur. He never wanted to smell sulfur again. He had burned his clothes and supplies, along with Frodo's.

Frodo Baggins of the Shire, the man Sam had followed to Hell and back.

They had very nearly not made it back, but the Fates had intervened in the person of one Gandalf the White. Sam had been lying on a slab of rock, surrounded by an ocean of boiling rock, suffering from indescribably agony as the radiant heat of the lava scorched his skin, secure in the knowledge that he was about to die. Never in his life had he felt so completely at peace as he had in that moment, secure in the knowledge that the quest had succeeded, and at his friend's side exactly as he had been the entire way.

Which, he reflected as he scrubbed violently at his stinging back, begged the question.

He had followed that man to Hell and back. But why? That Frodo was his friend could not begin to adequately explain it. Not even the threat of being under a fate worse than death at Gandalf's hands could do that. The old wizard was fearsome, certainly, but gentle as well, at least where it mattered. He knew that now as he had in his heart since the beginning.

"Maybe you just let events carry you away," he sighed, dropping the brush.

Even if his skin hurt too badly to continue scrubbing, the pink tinge the water was taking on would have deterred him. He hated the sight of blood with a passion that no one who had not faced death and war would ever understand. Events were not the only things that could carry a soul away. Death and warfare were the same, carrying you away when you least expected them to.

He leaned back against the blessedly cool marble of the tub, sighing and closing his eyes. Maybe that really was all there was to it, maybe he had simply been swept up by the tide of events. Certainly, he had set off from the Shire intending to go no farther than Bree. And he had set off from Bree intending to go no farther than Rivendell. It had been there that the die had truly been cast, there that the decision had been taken. But had the choice to join the Fellowship ever really been his own?

"Sam?"

He sat up, startled. "Mister Frodo?"

"Arwen gave me this. It'll take the sting off and... help with the smell." Smiling wryly and setting a small glass bottle onto the edge of the tub, he added, "If you don't mind smelling like a female elf..."

Sam chuckled, shaking his head as he caught a decidedly floral whiff from Frodo's direction. "Mister Frodo, I would rather smell like a compost heap than spend another minute smelling like Mordor," he assured him gravely.

Frodo grinned in response. "I thought you'd say that." Turning to leave, he paused. "I thought I heard you talking to someone when I came in."

"Just thinking aloud," Sam answered, shrugging and picking up the bottle. He uncorked it and inhaled deeply, making a face. "Faugh! That compost heap is starting to sound better and better."

Laughing and shaking his head, Frodo left Sam to the embarrassing business of making himself smell like an elven lady.

Sam could not help but be grateful to Frodo for leaving him to it. It was one thing for him to sit up by Frodo's bed for a day or a week while he recovered from this or that injury or illness, quite another for Frodo to nursemaid him. He was not entirely sure why, but it was, all the same.

He was the one there for Frodo to lean on. It was almost as if his sole purpose in life had been to be there for that three months, to help ease the burden that it was Frodo's to carry. But where did that leave him now that the task was accomplished? What else could there be for him after everything he had been through? What else could there be for Frodo, who had suffered infinitely more? Could life ever be the same for the ring-bearer? Was quiet retirement back to Bag's End even an option for him?

Sam sighed again and quickly slathered the fragrant oil on himself, closing his eyes. It smelled like Rivendell at the end of summer, the blossoms on the trees and on the bushes, sprouting from the ivy climbing the walls, or poking their heads up through the grass and leaves on the ground. It was a beautiful smell, but hateful, too. He had first inhaled that scent as Frodo lay hovering between life and death in the house of Elrond.

He shook his head and toweled off quickly, wiping away as much of the scent as he could. The oil did ease the stinging of his skin, and it cleansed away that sulfurous smell. For those blessings, he could tolerate the teasings that Merry and Pippin would no doubt heap upon him for smelling like an elven lady. They did not understand, could not. They had not been there, had not seen.

Death, yes, they had all seen that in no small measure, but not hopelessness, not the way Sam had. They had not watched their friend's soul nearly devoured by the burden he carried. They would never know what it felt like to be hit by a blast of air from a volcanic vent, to be forced to rely on Gollum, to know that they were being lured to their deaths and having no choice but to follow, to have a best friend so poisoned by the burden that he carried that he had turned on his faithful friend and servant.

They were the lucky ones. They would never know, never understand. They had, all of them, seen things that no Hobbit should ever have to, but their horrors had been less than those that Sam had faced with Frodo.

He was grateful for that, as well, that his friends would never know, would never wake up on a stifling summer's night, sure that they were once more in Mordor, that all the peace since had been nothing more than a wistful dream. They would never sit too close to the fire and be unavoidably reminded of rivers of boiling rock, slowly rising, coming closer and closer.

"Sam, aren't you done yet? We'll be late for supper."

"Just getting dressed, Mister Frodo," Sam called, startled.

He had not expected Frodo to wait in his room as, obviously, his friend had been. Why he should expect less, he could not have said, only that it was a surprise. He could not have said why it should have been a surprise, anticipated or not. It went without saying, after all, that Frodo cared as much from him as he did for Frodo.

Perhaps he was still getting used to the old Frodo, again, the one whose soul was untainted by the ring. Yes, there was still a shadow over his eyes, but it was not like that which had existed while Frodo carried the ring, especially near the end. Sam suspected that a similar shadow hovered over him. It likely had less to do with the wasting powers of the ring than it did with the sheer magnitude of the foul horror which they had been forced to witness and endure.

He closed his eyes against those memories only to realize that they were stronger that way. Shaking his head, he quickly retrieved his clothes and returned to his bedchamber.

"There you are!" Frodo greeted him with forced cheerfulness, jumping up from the seat he had been occupying.

Sam smiled in return, nodding in understanding. Both were still forcing every show of cheer or happiness that was expected from them. Frodo's eyes held understanding as well as he regarded his friend sadly for a moment.

"Sam, I--"

"No, Mister Frodo." Sam shook his head quickly. "Let's just... try not to even think about it any more."

"Wouldn't it be beautiful if it were really that simple?"

Frodo sighed softly, turning and staring out the room's large window. The cityscape unfolded beneath him, gleaming. One might almost have been fooled into not believing that it had come close to destruction recently.

"Nothing's ever going to be the same again, Sam," he sighed, shaking his head.

"I know," Sam answered, resting his hand on the other Hobbit's shoulder. "Except for one thing."

Frodo turned, startled. "What, Sam?"

"I'll always be there for you."

Frodo smiled, his first genuine smile in ages, and squeezed Sam's shoulder, nodding. "Thank you."

"We should go or Merry and Pippin will have cleared the table and we won't be left with a bite."

Frodo laughed and nodded, slinging an arm around Sam's shoulder as the two walked from the hall.

.

Frodo found Sam later that evening, sitting in the courtyard next to a fountain, absently running its water through his fingers by the moonlight.

"Why, Sam?" he asked quietly.

"Why what, Mister Frodo?" Sam asked, glancing up at him in surprise.

"Sam, you followed me where... I don't know anyone else who would have done what you did."

"I made a promise," Sam pointed out, shrugging.

"Some promise. I don't know many who would have made it in the first place and fewer who would have kept it. So why?" he asked, sitting on the edge of the fountain and regarding his friend quizzically.

"You're my friend..."

"Is that really reason enough?" Frodo asked quietly, sighing. "There aren't many who would follow someone into that hell, friends or not. I don't think Merry or Pippin could have done it."

"Ay, maybe not," Sam agreed, shrugging. "Mister Frodo, I've spent some time thinking about why I did what I did, and I really don't know. Maybe I just... maybe I saw something that no one else could."

"What's that, Sam?"

"That you needed me," he whispered. "Going to the ends of the Earth... it's not a trip anyone should have to make alone, not under the best of circumstances."

Frodo smiled weakly, nodding and rising. "Well, Samwise Gamgee, why ever you did it, I am grateful. Thank you for everything."

"I'd do it all again," Sam assured him in a whisper long after he was gone.

"I know," a deep voice contributed from the shadows.

Sam jumped, spinning defensively in that direction and reaching for his absent sword. He relaxed as a white-clad figure emerged into the moonlight, smiling benignly.

"Gandalf..."

The old wizard smiled and bowed his head in acknowledgement. "I know," he repeated, approaching and dropping onto one knee in front of Sam. "I know that you would do anything for Frodo, anything to defend him. It's why I chose you, why I exacted that promise. Not from any common acquaintance or blood kin, but from the one man I knew could be trusted to bring Frodo safely to Hell and to bear him on and then back again when his own strength had failed. You are more than a friend to Frodo Baggins, Samwise Gamgee. You are more his brother than any of his own flesh ever could be." He smiled warmly and squeezed the Hobbit on the shoulder. "Do you understand now why you not abandon him?"

Sam did not hesitate before nodding. "Yes, Gandalf. Thank you."

"And thank you, Sam, for performing so admirably." Giving him a final warm smile and a final squeeze on the shoulder, the old wizard turned and once more vanished into the shadows.

The End