Never More Than Dreaming
--Some pain is simply too great to be borne.--

~For Cara, who wished this beyond my own desiring, and thus saw it through to completion.~

It seemed to Sam that there had been no harsher sound in the world till that moment when Rosie placed Elanor in his arms and said gently, "That you are, and you've no reason to ever go leavin' again."

Elanor squirmed a bit and kicked, as if she had no recollection of her father's embrace, but no: Sam had only imagined it; his daughter's movements were but play, and her babble perhaps was first words, half-formed and jubilant. Sam tipped his head to one side, not quite a nod, and that seemed to suffice. Rosie smiled, turned away, and left him--back to readying her finished cooking for the table, he supposed. Elanor squirmed again, this time nigh turning about in Sam's lap.

"Da," she said clearly, her tiny fingers worming their way curiously under Sam's collar.

Sam grasped the Elanor's hand and kissed it, drawing a giggling squeal from somewhere in her belly, which now pulsed with hiccups. "Elanorellė," Sam whispered, recalling the sound of it on Frodo's tongue. He closed his eyes and buried his face in Elanor's pale, sweet curls.

Sam's warmest welcomes home were a baby's chatter and soft locks that mocked him with their color. Aside from Elanor's cheerful babble--Frodo's name still laced amidst the nonsense, here and there--dinner passed in complete silence, just as Sam's journey back to the Shire had. He wondered fleetingly if this were his fate, to feel alone for ever after, even in the presence of those he held dear. Sam took another mouthful of soup, but it trickled right back out as a shock of something too hot and bitter to be broth rose in his throat, and then higher, blinding him.

--You've no reason ever to go leavin' again.

--You will have to be one and whole for many years. You have so much to enjoy and to be, and to do.

Sam bit his tongue until the taste of blood joined the taste of bile. It was overwhelming, now, intolerable, worse than it had been on the shore, worse than watching the ship set sail, worse than the wordless journey back. But I thought that you were going to enjoy the Shire, too, for years and years and--

Your time will come, Sam.

Tears threatened to burn through his eyelids, lest he let them course freely. No one had heard it, that whisper slipped up from between the last brush of their mouths and tucked Safe in Sam's ear. No one--

"Sam?"

That sound again. Too grating on his ears for all its smoothness; too cutting to his nerves, for all its patience Sam opened his eyes, and despair spilled into the open, burning his cheeks instead. He didn't need to see clearly to know that Rosie was staring, and that Elanor's intent on his tears would like as not turn into a sympathetic batch of her own. Sam wiped his mouth and rose quickly.

"If you'd been there..."

But Sam's words were lost too quickly to a sob, and he swallowed it more easily than the soup as he turned and walked back the hall. Rosie would finish her supper soon enough and put Elanor to bed. And then, she would find him waiting, for it had already begun--

I count the hours, my love.

* * *

"He's in pain, Gandalf, and--"

"Yes," the wizard said. "I daresay he--"

"I wasn't finished," Frodo said quietly, and it seemed to Gandalf that even the sea-wind stilled in response to the Ring-bearer's tone of command. It was different, now, deeper, somehow more intrinsic. As if the first scarce league if their journey had wrought some transformation already, however slight. Frodo continued, "He's in pain, and moment by moment, my own dulls somewhat. As if it were no more than a dream. Please don't tell me--"

"He has not taken your burden, Frodo Baggins. Not this time. Once is more than enough for Master Samwise, wouldn't you agree?"

Frodo subsided against the planks he'd been leaning on, eyes quick and distant, fixed in the direction whence they'd come. When he turned back to Gandalf, they were filled not with continuing peace, but glazed with something fierce and distant and cold.

"I have seen it," Frodo whispered. "He will suffer beyond any...beyond any..." Frodo could not finish the thought. Tears spilled over in the stead of words, heated and sudden.

Gandalf closed his eyes; the vision remained, sharp and clear. I have seen it, too, my friend. And I would that I had not.

Frodo pushed his tears away with resolve enough, Gandalf was sure, to surprise even certain of the Valar. He met the wizard's eyes directly and levelly, with no pretense.

Beyond anything he has yet had to bear.

"It is so," Gandalf sighed, and turned his eyes to the West, for fear that he, too, might weep.

"Must it be?" Frodo had stepped near. So near that Gandalf could feel the breath of his shadow, the burn of his gaze. Blazing he was, bright and alive; so soon, too soon for return--

Must it be, Gandalf? Is there nothing to be done?

"Samwise will bear it for a lifetime. If he survives."

Frodo's grief flared, coals and remnants made more of flame than smoke. "He must, but he cannot--not this, as well you know. I would not be here, if this were not so. My parting, Gandalf--"

Your parting, dear Frodo, has taken his life.

Frodo shifted where he stood, this time more heard than felt. "I made him a promise."

Gandalf turned, then, and only then. For this, he could afford to weep. Perhaps. Let the sea reclaim their tears, so that a land in which grieving had no place might not know them. Gandalf set a hand on Frodo's shoulder, bent down on one knee. He felt cold, almost tired--night was falling again, and the Sundering Seas knew no such mercy as withholding its chill.

"I have seen that, too."

Frodo's eyes widened sadly, like a child's. All malice was gone from the hobbit; he leaned into Gandalf's embrace. "Then, there must be a way. But I have not seen it, and that means--"

I will help you bear this burden, Frodo Baggins, for as long as it is yours to bear.

Frodo's sob was soft, something of a laugh to the right set of ears. "What must I do now?"

"Wait," Gandalf said gently, and briefly stroked curls to which he knew he had no right, nor desire beyond this comforting. "Wait..."

...enough for two. So say I, and so it shall be as never more than dreaming.

Frodo sighed in Gandalf's embrace. "He'll be comforted, then? Do you promise?"

"Yes, Frodo." Gandalf sighed and gazed once more out to sea. "I promise."

* * *

"You must be tired."

More'n you know, and you'll never. Sam leaned forward heavily against the windowsill, staring out into the dusk. How long had he been standing there? Hours? It seemed so. Hours since he'd left the table, hours since a whisper startled him from sobbing on the mattress and called him to the shutters. Sam had opened them, had whispered an answer. If he hadn't imagined it--and truth be told, he was sure he hadn't, not with this terrible lead in him, not with movement leaving him moment by moment--then his only reply had been the sea, soft and distant. It was like holding that shell of Mr. Pippin's to his ear all those years ago, some relic brought from the shore by a wandering Took ancestor. Faint, and perhaps no more than the echo of his own heart or breath--but there.

"That I am," Sam said softly, and could not turn his head. The wooden ledge was digging into him now, pleading. Don't go; I can reach you here. I've something to tell you. Please, Sam, don't--

"Then you ought to come to bed. The sheets are warm." A hint of sarcasm in Rosie's tone. It stung him.

"Thought you might appreciate it, Rose-love," Sam sighed. He turned--

Sam, don't--

"I appreciate what he's done. It needed doing," Rosie said, her gaze firm upon Sam's. She sat on the edge of the bed, hair already loose and down her shoulders. Such a pretty lass, and patient...

"He's done more'n you know. More than you'll ever." One stiff step after another. That was it. Beside her. Sit.

Rosie lowered her head, tucked her breath under with her chin. "That's not what I meant, Sam." Her hand at her belly, ghostlike, trembling. Oh, was this--

"His leavin'." Not a question, it couldn't be. Sam had no trouble turning his head, not then.

Rosie wasn't looking at him. "It wouldn't have done, havin' him here longer than...the way his health..."

Would have done him far more good than...than...

Rosie's hand covered Sam's, now, warm and gentle. "He left you," she whispered, and leaned to kiss her husband's cheek. "If he had--"

More'n you'll ever! He's done--

"Too close, Rose-love," Sam whispered, and set her hand aside. "Not tonight." Don't--

"Sam..."

--tell me--

"Soon. I can feel it," Rosie breathed. "I thought that for a welcome, that might--"

Not replace all I lost, not ever. But what Sam said was, "When--are you sure--"

"Soon. Not now, but soon. And there'll be another by his name here, if it'll give you rest."

Sam nodded; he had told her this. He ought to be doing something, something...

"Come to bed, love." Her whisper in his ear. Her hands on his buttons.

"I suppose so," Sam sighed, and let himself be undressed, and then...

Softness. Those pillows he thought he'd never touch or rest upon. Arms around him, too different from the ones he always dreamed he'd lie in. And as much as those dreams had come true, they had come all wrong. Those pillows, he'd never touch or rest upon. Not with--

"Mr. Frodo's safe," Rosie whispered in his ear, and in a moment she was gone, and the candles put out. In the silence, before she slipped beneath the covers, Sam thought he heard--but, no, it couldn't really be, Don't...

...wake until I find you.

Rosie was asleep in moments, her breathing deep and even. Sam could let go, then, could loosen his arms and lie back. He could whisper to the darkness without her hearing, without her seeing the bitter tears that coursed down her cheeks, without her knowing his promise or his lost hope, and that the words he spoke would come to naught but silence:

I count the hours, me dear.

Though only sunlight would find him, though only Rosie would wake him, he answered.

* * *

"He's sleeping," Frodo whispered near nightfall.

Gandalf nodded in agreement, placed another pinch of Old Toby in his pipe.

Frodo shifted in his cot, eyes gleaming in the brief flame brought forth by the wizard's hand. He's like storm or thunder, Gandalf thought. So many clouds in those eyes of his, yet still so clear.

"How many nights shall I pass alone, when this is said and done?" Frodo's voice was soft, searching. Almost afraid.

Gandalf closed is eyes, released a long puff of the fine, rich smoke. "Many, dear Frodo. More than I care to count."

The trembling in Frodo's voice steeled itself. "And Sam?"

Gandalf rose with a heavy sigh and settled beside the hobbit's resting place. The sounds that drifted around them spoke for a few moments: the lap of waves from without, the snore of other sleepers from within. Bilbo's occasional utterings of nonsense as he dreamed in the next cot over. Gandalf's own slow drags of breath and sweet ash. He placed a hand on Frodo's forehead. Oh, but the chill--

"More than I care to count, but not so many as you."

"Let it be, then," Frodo sighed, and turned away, leaving the wizard's hand limp against Cirdan's best linen.

And so it will, dear hobbit.

* * *

Heaviness of sleep, thicker than nightshade poison, though Sam's Gaffer had made him right glad he'd never endured that, not like the little Proudfoot child who ate some berries at play back before...

The lad had been dead before dawn.

And sleep, Sam knew; he'd known enough of its many forms over time, both true and false. Light, uneasy dozing, but rest all the same. Deep, uneasy slumber, nonetheless kind on waking. Hollow, dreamless falls; darkness that comes because the body can go no further. Waking nightmares and delirium, half-cast in flame. And then--

Silence, peace. Sleep, deep and healing. Sweet and unending, almost ordinary.

And then--

"You'd best go in to her, now."

Sam looked up and met Anise Goodbody's look of concern. She hovered in the doorway as if her job weren't quite finished, even though Sam knew that it was. Not so different from the first time, this, only during Elanor's birthing, Frodo had been beside--

"She's resting?" Sam asked quietly, rising from his chair.

"Aye," Anise whispered. "She's a fine one for havin' them at nightfall, your Rose.

My Rose. Sam nodded and sighed, and saw Anise to the door. "Yes, she's a good sense for timing, and no mistake..."

Sam watched until Anise was gone, and he waited a few moments more before following a sound that drew him back, back, tearing him, always away from--

"Your son, Sam."

Rosie spoke before he'd even reached the bed, voice still strong despite hours of labor. She looked tired, though, and rightly so--and more than Sam had remembered. He took a seat carefully, and before he knew it, Rosie had held out her arms. Not empty; so very full. As full as his eyes, and that, that was more than before--

"Your Frodo-lad's here."

Sam nodded and held the infant close. Asleep already, tightly wrapped. Soft dark hair, this one, fine tiny hands. Tiny, perfect--

"He is," Sam sighed and wiped his tears on his sleeve, cradling the baby sure and strong with his other arm. "He's..."

...not...

Sam bundled his son closer, found solace in a child's warmth once more.

...you.

"I'll take him to the cradle, then," Sam whispered, rising. Weariness was the same in him, the same as it had been for some time. "Our Frodo-lad."

"Yes," Rosie whispered as Sam claimed a place beside her, having this time snuffed the candles. She found his hand under the crisp sheets; they had been changed with much difficulty, not long after the birth.

Sam sighed deeply and squeezed his wife's hand, leaned over to kiss her lips briefly and soft in the darkness.

Ours, but not...

* * *

"Mine," Frodo whispered in a startled hiss, and his eyes flew open. "How can it be, Gandalf? How can he still consider himself that, after she's given--"

"You do not know what she's given," Gandalf said firmly, gazing at the path ahead as they walked, winding on and on into ageless minglings of mallorn and linden and birch. "Perhaps it's less than you think; perhaps more. In the end, what's been given is only what Sam will allow himself to receive."

Frodo looked down at his feet, at the leaf-strewn earth. "His children are beautiful. Both of them. How he might refuse such blessings, I can't imagine--he wouldn't--"

"You still hear him, Frodo, do you not?"

"Faintly," Frodo whispered, and this time, his eyes were fixed on a sliver of cool midday sky overhead. "It sounds...it feels as if..."

Gandalf stopped beside Frodo and knelt slowly. He turned the hobbit's chin slowly, until their eyes met. "As if what, my friend?"

"As if I haven't awakened, but it's a dream slower than ever I'd wish for. It pains me, Gandalf. I'm still..."

Stretched, and that one word threaded between their minds was enough.

* * *

Some second-times did not guarantee to be as private as others, though the one that Sam thought of was now well buried by a third, and a fourth, and a eigth just that spring. Already Goldilocks insisted that she ought to be in charge of holding Daisy when her mother couldn't, and apparently this included the duration of official proceedings. Elanor and Frodo-lad sat still and smiling, faces upturned not half so much to watch their Sam-dad be named as mayor yet again, as to pretend they couldn't see the fuss Goldie had raised over the baby's squirming, or the tussle that had broken out between Pippin and Hamfast over a tartlet that Merry had snuck along and dropped. Rosie was bent over the two year-old, anxiously holding onto Daisy around that pair of determined small hands. And though they were in the front row, this went largely unnoticed, because the cry had risen again over the brash and cheerful tones of the Thain of Tuckborough.

"Oh, so you'll have him, will you? A gardener over a warrior, yet again!"

And the Master of Buckland clapped him hard on the back through all of the applause, and murmured in Sam's ear as he had only a few years before, "Don't mind him. He thinks that now because he's Thain and Took to boot, he ought to be mayor as well!" Only, at the time, Peregrin hadn't been Thain yet, and Sam knew it was all in good humor, at any rate. A Took wanted no more responsibility than needs must, and it didn't take a Gamgee or a Brandybuck, or even a Baggins to...

Know it. Do you, Frodo dear? Can you see?

Sam had asked it those years before, and one answer remained: the sea.

* * *

Frodo sat back in his chair and bundled the blankets closer about himself. When Frodo opened his eyes, Bilbo was studying him over his book with a distinctly knowing look.

"Frodo-lad, don't you know that by now it'd be best if you just--"

"A second time," Frodo said softly. "They've elected him again. The whole Shire, Uncle Bilbo."

Bilbo nodded thoughtfully and waved his pipe at the delicate shadow of falling snow on the glass behind Frodo's chair. "They're no more than right, I assure you. They'd be in no better hands, if they hadn't.

Frodo shivered and closed his eyes again, felt weary, an early onset of sleep. "So many," he murmured. "Sam belongs--"

"You, my lad, belong in bed," Bilbo announced, rising from his chair with an energetic stretch that no longer seemed so oddly out of place. "And I am going home. Good night, Frodo."

"Good night, Uncle."

Even after Bilbo had gone, Frodo sat staring at the hearth for a very, very long time, and did not sleep.

* * *

"He's just as I remember him on the Brandywine," Elanor said, eyes dancing in the dimness of evening, and for an instant, on those last rays and before she turned, Sam saw Ecthelion's pale spire caught in that gleam. "Surely he's finer than the High King ever was, and wiser, too!"

"And never has this land seen a bride such as his Evenstar," Sam murmured by way of agreement, and kissed his daughter's hand. "Till you set foot here, mind you."

Elanor blushed and pulled her hand away playfully. "I'm not a bride...not yet, leastaways. Dad?"

"Elanorellė?"

"Fastred...he--"

Knew, and I've been told, as it were. "I can see it plain enough. He's asked for you, then, and gave your old Dad no say in the matter?"

Elanor's blush deepened. "He meant to, but now that we've come here...and if we stay long--"

Sam embraced Elanor and kissed her forehead softly, brushed her hair back against the fair evening breeze, so fine it near blended in. "Write to your lad, Elanorellė. Send for him, seeing as you love this place so well, mayhap--"

"Hush, Dad," Elanor whispered. "Don't go get me hopin', he might not say--"

Yes, and there will be none so fair and beloved as those that come after in this land.

"He'll come, Elanor-love. And as I was sayin', mayhap you'll stay. Elessar's a kind lord and kinder man, and you can trust your old Dad on that, lass, sooner'n--"

Elanor threw her arms around her father and laughed. "Oh, Sam-dad, you're not..."

...yet.

Just then, Rosie came back up the hill to greet them, her arms full of strange blossoms and hair full of new silver.

* * *

"Elanorellė," Frodo murmured, turning the blossom over and over in his hands. Surely I never said it with such beauty.

You might have, the Lady responded, and just beyond the garden gate, there she stood watching.

These visits no longer startled Frodo. He looked up calmly and met the fathomless blue of her eyes, mirrors in and of themselves. Do you remember a time? Did you see me? Hear me?

Never so clearly as he sees and hears you.

Frodo lowered his eyes and let go of the blossom. He watched the breeze catch it, sway it lazily back into place, a tiny sunburst against the lush grass.

You do not answer. She had drawn very close, now, leaned low, as near as she could possibly come.

If Frodo had but reached, he might have touched the gold of her hair. Leave me in peace, Lady, if you have not come to offer it.

Galadriel laughed aloud. "Ring-bearer, no. I come with a message that will perhaps mean comfort. That is for you to decide."

Frodo looked up, feeling almost defiant. He stood, still refusing to speak aloud. And if I cannot?

Then I cannot give it.

And though the Lady of Lorien left him with sorrow in her eyes, there was something more in her step, and though it was not comfort, the blossoms that sprung in her wake murmured something of hope.

The time draws near.

* * *

"Samwise, the post!"

Oh, yes: letters. Something that Sam hadn't thought about, not in weeks at least. The last news from Buckland had been, if anything, dull; the most recent word from the Tookland had obviously been trumped up by its source, and Sam hadn't much mind to make heads or tails of whether or not young Faramir's capers were to be believed. They smacked mostly of things he'd heard before--long before--and besides, he'd seen the lad face to face times enough to know he wasn't quite the trollop his Pip-dad had been. It made the lad laugh to hear Sam say that, though Sam was sure he never used it to address the Thain.

Sam rose from his weeding with an effort; it was summer again, and dreadful hot. He wondered that anything had stayed green at all, and without Frodo-lad and Merry and Pippin about to help, well, it might have been a lost cause altogether. But the weeding invariably fell to their old Dad, by whatever injustice or bit of amusement such as to make him smile. Sam had never been overly fond of weeding in his own youth, but just knowing he'd done it for--

"Frodo!" Rosie's call drifted out through an open window. "Would you be a good lad and fetch the post? Your father's off in his daydreams again; if he's got a book of that Elvish on hand, you ought to fetch it, too, lest those dandelions get the better of him!" It's grown harder for Rosie to move about herself, poor lass. Those legs of hers ached so often.

Sam pushed the well-worn volume of poems deep under a clump of hydrangeas. Frodo-lad came striding down the walk, then, past Sam and to the gate. A small stack of envelopes and a bit of rolled parchment lay waiting. Frodo opened the latter first and broke out in a broad grin.

"News from Elanor?"

"Yes," Frodo replied, still grinning. "Elfstan's walking now, and an unholy terror while he's at it. Upsets his Dad's pipes and papers when he can reach. Stole Elli's hairpin. Hides things."

Sam closed his eyes and smiled wistfully. This report, unlike others, was to be wholly believed, no matter that the sea still called by night and the whispers seldom changed. Or perhaps he'd gotten hard of hearing after all.

* * *

"What news, Frodo?" Gandalf bit into his scone, eyes wide and expectant. He hoped that it hid his alarm, hid what he did not want the hobbit to see. And that, of course, was himself.

Frodo had touched neither his tea, nor his elevenses. He looked paler than he had been of late. Thinner, somehow, and those grey eyes ever clearer. "Does it matter?"

Gandalf swallowed the bite and nodded thoughtfully. "I think that it does. That you do not--"

"I didn't say that," Frodo said softly, and there was danger in his tone, something as seldom seen and even more seldom desired than his pallor. "What I mean is, simply--you promised me he'd be comforted. He has been. So, what does it matter, what I see? You can see it. You always have."

Gandalf set the scone down and brushed his hands off before he rose to leave. Frodo sat forward, startled. "But you haven't--"

I haven't.

Oh. Frodo watched the door close, felt a terrible guilt well up in his eyes, and for the first time realized what the Istari, the had given up, that his Sam might live. That his Sam might...

Sam. Oh, my Sam. Can you--

* * *

--"hear me? Sam!"

Sam blinked and rolled over with a start, squinted into the darkness. He'd turned in early; Rose had been through one of her worst days, and she took comfort in his presence more than any medicine. But there, beside him in the dark, it wasn't...

"Frodo," Sam whispered, and reached through the inky blackness, and knew that he ought not realize so easily that he was dreaming.

Frodo lay on his side, head tucked into the pillow, features smooth and pale. Lady, but he looked young, so fragile. So different than when Sam had last seen him, and Sam wondered... He reached through the softness of sheets, sought until Frodo's hand met with his own, as if it had been seeking, too. There was no...

"Pain's gone," Frodo said softly. "It hasn't ached for years, but--"

"Years," Sam said, and his voice caught. "Oh, Frodo, I--you promised--"

"I did," Frodo whispered, and in a breath he was there against Sam, so close. And nothing covered the warmth of his skin, save for the memory of many a dream.

Sam could only cry out, and gather Frodo helplessly close, and realize that there was nothing between them, nothing at all. And there was a long silence, and longer holding, but Frodo's mouth had found Sam's before all was said and done, though little was said, and much was done.

"It's time," Frodo whispered, and his breath in Sam's ear was a stir so strange against the heat of their bodies, and dawn--

Sam blinked against the harsh light, and cursed inwardly for leaving the curtains drawn before he'd gone to bed. But he hadn't had a mind to remember, had he, and his slumber had been filled with so many--so many--

Sam closed his eyes as the grief washed over once more, this time enough that he wondered if he might ever find the strength to rise. He did not wish to. Not with that light searing through his eyelids, not when Frodo had come to him in the dark, in dreams too soon for his liking. And the visions that had come before it, oh...so many years and years, had he truly to endure such as he had--

"Rosie, I dreamt such strange...well, I think I ought to tell you," Sam murmured without opening his eyes. She was often one to lie there awake, he knew, savoring the quiet before Elanor woke. "I dreamed we had more than just Frodo-lad, next off. There was Rose, little Rose, imagine that--Merry and Pippin, too, and Goldie and Hamfast...and I want you to know, Daisy-lass came next, and she was..."

Sam let his breath die down, fade to quiet. Rosie hadn't stirred or answered; perhaps she was asleep after all, and she'd always had a fair liking for her Sam's fanciful dreaming. Well, he couldn't go not telling, not when all he could think of otherwise was...

Sam reached through the bedclothes as he had mere hours before, never mind that it hadn't been real. He had another hand to find, and once he did, he'd wake Rosie, and tell her that dream, and maybe her touch would chase the exhaustion and pain and despair right from him; it had to--

"Rosie-love," Sam whispered. He found the planes of her back, somehow softer, more delicate than usual under her nightshift. He rubbed gently, found no answer. "Rose, please, you've got to let me tell--"

Sam opened his eyes and saw before he knew. Saw the tumble of silver and white against Rosie's pillow, caught in sunlight a touch too bright and early for fall. Saw that her side didn't rise and fall with quiet breaths. Felt that her hand was cold and still when he sought it, and at last saw his own twined with it, weathered and beaten and old. Saw before he knew--

It's time.

Sam swallowed a cry, something indeterminate, something not all joyous, nor entirely made of grief.

Till you found me--

* * *

I counted the hours, my love.


Notes: A few lines were pulled from the ending of ROTK. Considering how well most of you know the books, I don't think you should have any trouble recognizing them.

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