Thrice Returned

by Nefertiti

Summary: After the Scouring of the Shire, Gandalf visits Bag End, has a very pleasant bath, and tells Frodo a bit about their future together.

Author's Note: Book-based. This, the final story in the "Thrice Returned" series, takes place in early February, 3020, three months after the Scouring of the Shire and Frodo's return to Bag End.

Disclaimer: I do not own any rights to these characters; this story is offered purely for the enjoyment of fans

This series takes its name from my sequel to Poncing Ponies' lovely story, "Twice Given." As always, my thanks to her for welcoming a sequel by another hand and being so encouraging. Many thanks also to Elanor for betaing, encouragement, wonderful suggestions, and engrossing wizard-slash discussions. Without her, this series would most likely never have developed past being a sequel.

Part 11: His Own Private Wizard

Frodo put another log onto the fire in the guest bedroom and looked around. Everything was prepared for Gandalf's visit, and he had been able to think of little else all day. In the three months since the four hobbits' return to the Shire and the death of Saruman right outside Bag End, Frodo had spent his days in supervising the restoration of the comfortable old hobbit hole. The work on that had long since ended for the day, and the place was quiet after the hammering and bustle that had earlier filled it. There was still much to be done, but the key rooms-the kitchen, sitting room, guest bathroom, and guest bedroom-were quite habitable by now. He had given the guest room priority over his own. The Man-sized bed was there, and once Gandalf arrived, they would share it. Even alone, Frodo had been sleeping in that bed while his own room was still under repair.

Throughout Bag End Frodo was trying his best to make the rooms look just as they had before. In some cases that simply was not possible-especially when it came to duplicating very old furniture that had been in the Baggins family for many years. But he had taken particular care with the guest room, matching the colors of paint and having an almost identical quilt made for the bed. Now, he thought happily, it looked almost exactly as it had that momentous day nearly eighteen and a half years ago, when he and Gandalf had become lovers. He smiled at his own sentimentality, but he even had put towels of the same colors and stacked in the same order by the pitcher and basin.

As he fussed about, arranging and rearranging everything, he thought many times back over that mid-September afternoon and evening over 18 years earlier. It had been so frightening to stay in the room after they shared that silly piece of lamb pie, especially when Gandalf said he wanted to rest after his trip. The wizard had even deliberately curled up on his side facing away from Frodo and the door. The hobbit had seized all his courage to make one last, blatant attempt to show Gandalf his love. He remembered that first kiss and his sudden exhilaration at the initial little reciprocating movement of the wizard's mouth against his. He paused, leaning against the bed, and savored the memory of that joyous moment, when all the fantasies that he had thought so ridiculous had started to come true. Frodo recalled how Gandalf had struggled to resist him even after their first kisses and smiled a bit smugly at the wizard's eventual surrender. Gandalf certainly had not held back after that moment. Frodo found himself hardening distinctly at the memory of Gandalf's eager mouth on his throat and chest, and he decided that he should try and think about something else. It might be hours before the wizard arrived and he could do anything to satisfy the hobbit's desires.

Ordinarily in the evenings he tried to put in at least a little time on his writing. His project to chronicle the Quest and the War of the Ring was still in its early stages, since he was still sorting the huge stacks of notes he had taken in Minas Tirith and Rivendell. His records of conversations with Gandalf, Aragorn, Galadriel, Celeborn, and Elrond were voluminous. With his own memories and those of the three other hobbits, he realized that he had the makings of a very large book indeed-probably more than one.

He wandered back into the kitchen, sniffing the delicious odors of the various dishes he had prepared. They were all things meant to be served cold or at room temperature, since he did not know exactly when Gandalf would arrive. His stomach was beginning to make little rumbling noises, and he wished that the wizard would hurry and appear. He could barely refrain from starting his own meal, so he took himself out of temptation's way and wandered out to open the great round door, freshly repainted green. The rain was pouring down, as it had been all afternoon. Frodo stood for a short while watching the heavy drops plop into the little stretch of gravel illuminated by the lamps in the hallway. There was a distinct chill in the air, and he shut the door and began to pick up a few scraps of wood and wallpaper that had been dropped in the hallway. Very soon, however, he heard the familiar tap on the study window and flew across the hall to throw the door open again. The wizard soon appeared and hastened to step into Bag End, bringing a gust of winter wind with him. Frodo hastened to push the door shut.

Gandalf stopped on the rug, soaking wet and dripping. He looked as bedraggled as a mighty White Wizard could look, and Frodo laughed quietly in mingled amusement and sympathy as Gandalf leaned his staff on the wall, lowered his bag to the floor, and removed his hat. The hobbit turned away, intending to fetch some towels. But Gandalf dropped to his knees, and his hand gripped Frodo's upper arm and spun him around. The hobbit found himself crushed against the wizard's sodden garments. "Frodo!" Gandalf murmured, and moved his hand to the back of his lover's neck, guiding his mouth to his own in a kiss that quickly became deep and devouring. When they finally moved reluctantly apart, they realized that Gandalf was kneeling in a spreading pool. Frodo was beginning to feel distinctly cold and damp, his own garments having absorbed water as efficiently as any towel. Gandalf smiled regretfully at the hobbit. "I'm afraid-"

"Yes, I know . . ."

"If it weren't that I'm so very wet . . ."

"Yes, you'd be on top of me right now, stripping off my clothes and having your wonderfully wicked way with me, but . . ."

The wizard drew Frodo a bit closer, and he stared into the hobbit's happy, sparkling, mischievous eyes. He brushed his lips lightly against Frodo's, murmuring with a breathy little laugh, "Mmmm, I am tempted anyway. You excite me so much, my darling hobbit."

Frodo sucked gently on Gandalf's upper lip, content to let the wizard decide whether his passion could be delayed. It would not be very comfortable to be taken under these circumstances-the wet clothes, the cold floor-but he knew that Gandalf's body and mouth and hands would soon awaken fierce desire in him, and the discomfort would fade. He halfway hoped that the wizard would go ahead and take him. He could distinctly feel the heat of Gandalf's body through the wet clothes, and he pressed against his lover, offering himself if Gandalf wanted him right away.

The wizard finally sat back on his heels and said reluctantly, "No, I want our reunion to be warm and comfortable. Not some quick roll on a hard floor. We are not in Moria, thank goodness!" Gandalf gazed again into Frodo's eyes, then stood up.

The hobbit sighed and watched as Gandalf peeled his clingingly wet cloak off and hung it on a hook. "It's so good to see you! And the very evening when you said you would come-unlike that last dreadful time, when I expected you and you never appeared. I don't know how many times I went to the door that night, hoping to see you coming up the Hill."

"Yes, well, it took imprisonment by a powerful wizard to keep me away from you that time. Now I can be my usual punctual self. I must say, though, I could hardly find my way here. The whole area has changed, and the rain did not help. But as I traveled from the Old Forest, I saw many signs that the Shire is already beginning to recover from the dreadful things that Saruman and his pathetic army of thugs did to it. Bag End may bear the scars of all that, but with you in my arms, it remains the most splendid dwelling in Middle-earth."

"And it still can offer hospitality to a wandering wizard." Frodo looked him up and down. "Are you more hungry or tired? Apart from drying you off, what can I do for you?"

"Mostly I am cold, but hungry as well. I am not particularly tired, as I have made a gradual journey here, looking over what the poor Shire has suffered and talking with folk in the fields and inns along the way. My darling Frodo, you could see to both needs if you could begin by putting me in a hot bath and, luxury of luxuries, serve my meal to me right there as I soak in the tub. With a bit of wine, if possible, though I gather from what the innkeepers have told me that Saruman's men nearly decimated the Shire's supply of such pleasant things. And after I've eaten-well, who can tell what other hungers might need satisfying?"

"Oh, knowing you, I have a pretty fair idea. Yes, that sounds like a wonderful scheme. You run along and put your things in your room, and I'll fill the tub. Luckily that big one that Bilbo had made for you survived all the destruction and looting. The bathroom was a mess, of course, but it has been thoroughly cleaned now. Then you can warm yourself in it while I ply you with all sorts of food and drink-and keep you company. I suppose it was lucky in a way that Saruman chose Bag End for his own headquarters-the cellar was quite well supplied."

Gandalf's bathtub had survived in part because it was sunk right into the tile floor. An ingenious little metal conduit ran from the kitchen to the edge of the tub, and hot water from a tank by the kitchen fire could be released into it with the simple drawing of a plug. It was so hot, in fact, that jugs of water were stored in a corner of the bathroom to cool it down to a comfortable temperature. Frodo poured some of this into the steaming tub and watched as his lover came in and undressed.

"I'm glad to see that you have gained some more weight. I can no longer count your ribs-at least, not as easily."

"Well, you know Tom Bombadil's typical meals-plenty of honey, cream, bread, cheese, and the like. Three months there considerably filled me out."

"I don't know if 'considerably' is the word. You're in no danger of becoming fat, or even merely plump. But after all, I remember nearly a year ago, when you looked on the edge of starvation. Here, I think the water is perfect. Get in, and I shall cater to your every whim-beginning with dinner." He hurried away to the kitchen.

Gandalf settled into the large tub and slid down until he was up to his shoulders in hot water. The chill of the long, wet trip quickly faded away, and he was looking quite cheerful by the time Frodo returned, carrying a tray laden with food. He set it on the tiles beside the tub and poured some wine into two pottery mugs. "Not very elegant, but I don't want to risk breaking a glass by the tub," he said.

Gandalf sat up, surveying the tray, and laughed. "At last you serve me cold chicken and pickles! And eggs, and all sorts of good things." He began to eat, as did Frodo, sitting cross-legged on the floor on the opposite side of the tray.

"All right, tell me finally just what cold chicken and pickles have to do with anything. Can they really be the favorites of a great wizard who banquets with kings and Elven nobility?"

"No, though I like them quite well. You see, it's just that Bilbo had some of both in his larders that memorable day when I came with the dwarves to recruit him as the Burglar for the expedition to the Lonely Mountain. I arrived last, and I asked Bilbo to fetch them to the table. He was quite taken aback that I knew without being told that he had them ready to hand. Not only did I think that they would be a pleasant addition to the meal, but I wanted to show off to the dwarves a bit-to remind them that I was, after all, a wizard and that they would do well to take my advice. As they did in the end, though not without considerable further argument, as you know."

Frodo laughed quietly. "I loved hearing Bilbo tell that story when I was little-but he never included that detail. I'm glad I know it at last."

As they ate, Frodo told Gandalf a bit about the battle to regain the freedom of the Shire and the efforts at rebuilding that had followed. The wizard knew quite a bit about them already, since Tom Bombadil still maintained occasional contact with wandering Elves and with hobbits of the eastern Shire like Farmer Maggot. Gandalf had also heard many firsthand accounts during his journey. The wizard sighed when the hobbit described the death of Saruman, but he said nothing.

Finally Frodo asked the question that had been in the back of his mind since Gandalf arrived. "How long will you be staying with me? Do you have to leave at all, now that the Quest is over? Or if you do, maybe you could take me with you, and we could make love on a flet in Lórien. By the time we got there, perhaps it would be warm enough."

Gandalf paused and sat with a wistful, abstracted look on his face for a few moments. "That would be lovely, but I suspect that that fantasy will never come true. Despite the end of the Quest, I still have some duties, and for that matter, so do you. You are needed here, to help rebuild the Shire. Didn't I hear that you are now Deputy Mayor? And my last tasks, such as they are, will involve giving counsel to Aragorn as he struggles with the recovery of his kingdom. Of course, that kingdom includes much of the North-even the Shire. So you and he will be at work on the same thing-establishing the Fourth Age of Middle-earth in peace and safety. I'm afraid my trip to Gondor will take me away from you for a few months, my pet, but at least this time you will not have to worry about my safety. Once I have helped Aragorn all I can, my time will indeed be completely over, even as an advisor. Much has been lost or diminished during this dark time, but we have, I think, preserved as much as we could. For Men and Hobbits and Dwarves and other races, accomplishment should far outweigh regret. For the Elves it is otherwise, but their destiny has long been known. I shall go with them-and being able to take you with me, my darling hobbit, will make my only important fantasy come gloriously true."

Frodo half rose and leaned far over the tray to kiss the wizard. After he sat back again, they continued eating. Frodo sighed with a sad little smile. "That's another thing I wish I could do before I leave-go back and see Aragorn again."

"Yes, that is another reason I must go. As I told him, Aragorn has been like a son to me. Of all the people I leave behind-of all those I have known over my two millennia here-he is undoubtedly the one that I shall leave with the greatest regret. In that time I have seen many friends die, but his loss-through both my departure and his death-will grieve me forever."

"Do you wish you could take him with you as well?"

"No, for he belongs to Middle-earth in a way that you no longer do. He must guide it into the Fourth Age, the Age of Men. You saved Middle-earth, but he must preserve it. But I shall miss him. We spent so many hours by campfires, talking, far from inhabited areas, and we shared so many hopes. I have tried not to lose my heart entirely to those here in Middle-earth, for I always knew that I would leave eventually. Oddly, I succeeded for so long, only to lose it twice, to him and to you, at nearly the end of my stay. I am now convinced that when I fell in love with you, you were meant to go with me when I leave. But my parting with Aragorn will be wrenching for us both-though he has, I know, grown beyond needing me. And after all, it would be natural for a Man, a mortal, to lose his father--as Aragorn might have by now anyway, had his real father not been killed long ago."

They had finished eating by this point, and Frodo slid the tray out of their way along the floor toward the door. To cheer the wizard up, he asked, "Would you like me to wash your back?"

The wizard raised his eyebrows-an impressive sight, since they were now back to their former length. "Just my back? Ah, yes, I have missed that wicked little smile of yours."

Frodo moved behind him, soaping up a thick cloth and beginning slowly and gently to wash the wizard, massaging his neck and shoulders. Gandalf virtually purred with pleasure and shifted his body to give the hobbit access to various parts of his back. Then Frodo reached around his neck and slid the cloth under the wizard's beard, lathering his chest and lingering to rub each nipple tantalizingly with the nubby cloth. He flicked his tongue around the edge of Gandalf's ear, then dug it hard into the opening, wiggling it provocatively. Soon Gandalf was moaning and twisting his body slightly in the warm water. Frodo brushed aside the wizard's fluffy white hair at the back and ran his tongue over his neck, eventually scraping his teeth gently across the skin. Gandalf closed his eyes and hummed softly with arousal. Frodo could see his erection floating upward, swollen and purple, in the soapy water.

At last Gandalf murmured, "Do you know what this bath sorely lacks?"

"Possibly a naked hobbit pressing himself eagerly and lustfully against you?"

"Exactly. Now, you look adequately eager and adequately lustful but not nearly naked enough."

"Nothing could be more easily remedied," Frodo replied, quickly shedding his damp clothes. He paused, standing beside the tub, and looked down at Gandalf. The wizard's eyes were full of desire, and he breathed slowly and deeply as he surveyed Frodo's body, lingering on the rising cock and the little nipples. The hobbit stared back with undisguised need and let Gandalf's gaze caress him to full erection, then stepped down into the tub.

Frodo stood astride Gandalf's waist, his member pointing straight at the wizard's mouth. Gandalf smiled and stared at it in anticipation, his hands running up and down the outsides of Frodo's legs. They slid around to settle on the hobbit's buttocks, squeezing and kneading them, his fingers delving into the cleft and stroking the sensitive skin gently. Frodo continued to stand, though his knees felt weak and he was trembling with excitement. Gandalf's soapy finger tickled and pressed at his tiny opening, and he whimpered with pleasure as it slowly invaded him, circling and stretching, quickly finding his prostate and rubbing gently. As Frodo moaned and closed his eyes, Gandalf suddenly pulled his hips forward until the hobbit's thighs spread wide across his chest and the slender pink erection slid abruptly into his mouth. Frodo caught at the wizard's shoulders to steady himself. His gasp of surprise turned into a gurgle of delight as Gandalf's warm tongue lapped about him and his eager lips sucked hard and quickly.

"Mmmm, not so fast, not so fast," Frodo said, wanting to prolong the pleasure a bit, but he soon stopped urging Gandalf to slow down and begged, "Oh, Gandalf, yes, now, hard!" He thrust as gently as he could into the wizard's throat and arched his body backward, groaning as Gandalf took him deep and gulped his hot spurts. Frodo shuddered and gripped the wizard's head as his climax lingered, then stood panting, lightheaded with bliss.

At last Gandalf's hold on the hobbit's bottom relaxed, and he removed his finger as he allowed Frodo to slide down his chest and belly until the hobbit's cleft rested against the top of the wizard's very hard erection. Gandalf spread his fingers to grasp the hobbit's cheeks again and began to rock his hips and rub his smaller partner up and down his length. The motion set up waves as the water rolled back and forth along the tub, moving Gandalf's body rhythmically and lifting Frodo gently with each swell. Gandalf lay back, shifting his glance from Frodo's slack, blissful face down to his sweet, pink nipples, and up again.

"Oh, Frodo, I could lie against you like this for hours," he breathed.

Gradually Frodo recovered a bit and looked lovingly down into Gandalf's admiring eyes. He leaned forward and reached under the wizard's beard to find his nipples, still erect from the slight chafing of the rough cloth. Frodo pinched gently and Gandalf closed his eyes and moaned softly in ecstasy. "No, not hours," he whispered with a smile, rocking faster and pushing his chest up against Frodo's hands. Soon he rasped, "Harder," and Frodo twisted the little brown beads more sharply. Gandalf thrashed suddenly under him as he sent pearly jets high over the lower edge of the tub and onto the shiny tile. Frodo bobbed up and down as the water sloshed about them, his buttocks continuing to slide up and down the wizard's shaft as long as the spasms of ecstasy lasted. As Gandalf finally lay back in contentment, Frodo settled forward along his body, resting his head against the wizard's shoulder. Gandalf was soon dozing in the warm water, and for a few minutes Frodo lazily nuzzled under his beard.

Eventually Gandalf stirred and looked down at him with a delighted smile. "Now that is what I call a bath. Every tub should come equipped with a hobbit."

"Not just any hobbit, I hope. At least, not any tub you occupy."

"Of course not! I have been spoiled. Only the most wonderful hobbit in the world will do for me. I think, though, that we should vacate this particular tub for now. The water is turning tepid, and I feel in need of a comfortable bed and a long sleep after that exemplary welcome. And you?"

As they climbed out of the tub and picked up towels, Frodo replied, "Bed is definitely in order. You should get plenty of rest. I plan to wear you out thoroughly tomorrow, old fellow."

"Strange, I had the same plan for you, young fellow."

Once dry, the two hurried along the chilly hall to the warmth of the guest bedroom, lighting candles, banking the fire, and turning down the bed as they talked.

"By the way, you have no doubt learned that your scheme worked admirably. Entirely without your help, Sam and Merry and Pippin rose to the occasion and dealt most bravely and firmly with Saruman's forces."

"I had no doubt that they-and you-would."

"I quite understand why you had to let us do that on our own."

"Yes, Merry and especially Pippin had become a little too used to depending on me to protect them-though they hardly needed it. They had proved themselves to be courageous and capable fighters-and obviously you and Sam had been tested in ways that most great warriors could never dream of. I must say, early on in our journey-and for quite some time-I regretted having urged Elrond to make Pippin a member of the Fellowship. Quite the mischief-maker! Still, he pleasantly surprised me by maturing quickly when confronted with the realities of war. He and Merry, both. By the end, I was quite pleased to take credit for having been responsible for them being along on our Quest. Nevertheless, I naturally wanted very much to come and protect you against Saruman. I had to keep telling myself that four warrior-hobbits could deal with even such a serious problem as his occupation of the Shire. But I was very relieved indeed when news reached us that Saruman had finally been dealt with." He climbed into bed and settled into the pillows heaped against the headboard.

"I can imagine! By the way, I'm glad you told me at Bree that you intended to make that sudden departure from our merry band. I would have been quite hurt and confused otherwise-though I might have figured out your little ploy."

"Perhaps, given long enough."

"Oh, thank you very much!" The hobbit clambered onto the bed and leaned back against Gandalf. "I take it you enjoyed your visit with Tom Bombadil and Goldberry."

"Oh, yes. In some ways, Tom irritates me no end-his insularity and general indifference to the fate of the world at large hardly suit my own views. He could have used his power to aid us far more than he did. Still, he helped at exactly the right moments and saved my darling hobbit and his friends-twice!-so I should not complain. And he certainly is a font of information about trees and other living things. We took some wonderful rambles in the Forest. He showed me the infamous Old Man Willow-from a safe distance, of course. Tom also remembers an immense amount about the eras long before I arrived in Middle-earth, and he told me some marvelous tales. So that was very pleasant. And Goldberry's cooking, while simple, is delicious. Still, I think I learned all I can from Tom, and his domain is distressingly free of lovely, seductive hobbits. I was soon longing to visit you, though I forced myself to give all of you the three months we had agreed upon to see the Shire headed back towards its old self."

"A bit long, if you ask me. The two nights we spent at the Prancing Pony were, well, quite memorable. But since then I couldn't help but wonder if you had given up beautiful Elves and beautiful hobbits for. . . for . . . well, whatever Tom is."

Gandalf laughed loudly. "Hardly! Quite apart from the fact that I have not given up my beautiful hobbit-as you well know--I have never seduced nor allowed myself to be seduced by married people. Though Goldberry is quite attractive," he added thoughtfully.

Frodo was so taken aback that he failed to maintain the teasing exchange. "I had forgotten-you used to have female lovers as well. Did you like them as well as the male ones?"

"Well, why not? The end results are the same, and the methods of achieving them have delightful differences."

"Do you miss having women?"

Gandalf gazed at Frodo's naked torso. "When it comes to sex, I don't miss anything." He took Frodo in his arms, and the two slid down beneath the covers and quickly fell asleep.

The next morning the pair slept late, had a leisurely breakfast, and made love in the late morning. During the night it had stopped raining, and by the afternoon a thin, pale sun was shining through the mist-a sign of the early spring that would lead into the wonderfully warm and productive year to come. Soon the ground was firm enough for walking, and Frodo took the wizard on a tour of the area, pointing out the damage and the progress in repairs. By the time they returned to Bag End, the wind had picked up, and both were chilled. They sat in the kitchen by the fire, eating some little scones Frodo had just made. The hobbit drank tea, while Gandalf sipped some of the wine that Frodo had found squirreled away in the cellar for Saruman's personal use.

As their fingers played together across the table, Frodo asked, "Tell me, my sweet wizard, when you had recovered in Lórien but hadn't left yet, did any of those beautiful Elves try to drag you up onto a flet and tear your clothes off and have their way with you?"

Gandalf frowned and clicked his tongue. "Almost constantly."

"And what did you do to ward them off?"

"Well, Celeborn had carved my new staff by that time, so I used it to keep them off, like flies. But it was touch and go. They simply would not believe that there was a hobbit as beautiful as they and that I should be so devoted to him. Well, I should specify that the ones who had met you when you were in Lórien realized that you were indeed that beautiful, and they were all quite crestfallen and did not try to seduce me. But the others! So persistent! I finally had to ask Celeborn to assign me a bodyguard, and after that they left me alone-though they did keep casting rather reproachful looks at me. And the bodyguard himself seemed to think that the best way to protect me was to press himself most insistently against me."

Frodo had been laughing quietly during all this. "Those poor Elves!"

"You feel sorry for them? I thought you were jealous."

Frodo shrugged. "A little of both. But I can sympathize with their being so anxious to spend time with you. You are so attractive and very good in bed."

Gandalf stared at him with a skeptical smile. "You flatter me, Frodo. You see me through the eyes of a lover-fortunately! After all, during my entire time in Middle-earth I have been an old man, and not a strikingly handsome one at that. I would hardly be likely to attract beautiful Elves-or hobbits-for my looks. But as to what happened in bed, most Elves I have been with have been even older than I, so they have had plenty of experience. On the whole, yes, I think those Elves and I managed to have quite pleasant times-long ago, of course."

Frodo sighed. "And I'm so very young that all my experience has been with equally naïve hobbits and with a wizard who for a long time was hardly ever in my bed. Even now I must seem very clumsy and ignorant compared to those sophisticated Elves."

Gandalf chuckled. "Always fishing for compliments. Well, I shall oblige you. I assure you, my sweet hobbit, that you have considerable natural talents in that regard. You are as delightful to be in bed with as any Elf could be."

Frodo looked at him with a puzzled little frown. "What 'natural talents' do I have?"

"Well, you are marvelously responsive and joyously uninhibited and amazingly enthusiastic and spontaneous and generous and imaginative and direct and witty and . . . and in short, you're fun!"

During this speech Frodo had been a little taken aback by all the things that his lover saw in him. Then at the end, he smiled. "You remember that?"

"Of course. That was one of many things that made me love you: the joy you took in being with me, the fact that you would say that to me. I have always treasured it, and I want you to know that I feel the same way about you, that you're fun. And despite all that you have been through, you still have the qualities that I loved you for, that make me want to be in bed with you rather than any beautiful Elf there is or ever has been. To be sure, you have changed somewhat. These days you are occasionally more melancholy and thoughtful. You are less carefree than when we first declared our love-but much of the time your joy and enthusiasm and all the rest of it are still there." He paused and sighed. "But after all, in those happy days you were just on the cusp of adulthood. Despite the fact that you look nearly as youthful as you did then, you have matured greatly and become a kind, reflective, altogether admirable hobbit."

Frodo was silent for while, his eyes welling. "What you say almost makes me understand how you could love a silly little hobbit. I can't tell you how glad I am that I make you feel that way. But anyway, you have changed as well."

"Really? How?"

"It's hard to describe. Everything I loved about you is the same, only somehow more so. You . . . you puzzle me more than you used to. You don't seem to be the same wizard who smoked a casual pipe with me by the fire-though you still do, so I don't know why I think that. There are more things you say that I don't understand. But you're at least as fun to be with in bed." He moved around the table to sit on the bench by Gandalf, and they exchanged a quick kiss.

Gandalf smiled as he took another scone. As he reached across the table for the butter, his beard caught briefly at the salt cellar. Disentangling it, he remarked with mild annoyance, "I must say, I look forward to not having to be an old, bearded fellow any more. Only a few years now, perhaps less, until we depart."

Frodo stared at him in utter incomprehension. "What are you talking about?"

Gandalf paused thoughtfully. "Our departure over the Sea, when I return to Valinor and the Elves leave Middle-earth. It's true, I did not tell you about the changes that will occur in me as I give up being an Istar and become again what I truly am-a Maia. You see, Frodo, as I told you, when I was sent here, I was embodied as an old man. When I am again in my home, I shall not be embodied any longer, that is, not for much of the time, and happily not in this body."

Frodo's eyes widened in alarm. "You certainly didn't tell me that part! What do you mean, you won't have this body?" He stroked Gandalf's hand as if fearing that the wizard would fade into invisibility any moment.

"Well, I suppose now that our departure is not all that distant, I should explain a bit more, especially about our relationship. Once we are on the ship, Elrond and Galadriel can tell you and Bilbo more about life in general in Eldamar. Though Lórien gave you a little taste of what it will be like-oh, except that Eldamar lies along the shore of the Sea."

"Yes, fine, but let's get back to this business about you not having a body. I was assuming that . . . you'd have one and . . . all the parts that bodies usually have, and we could go on enjoying each other-well, in all ways."

"Oh, don't worry, Frodo! Of course I shall embody myself when I visit you-which will be quite frequently, I assure you, my dearest hobbit. We shall definitely still be together, and you will be able to see me and touch me, and we can do exactly the sorts of things we do now."

Frodo breathed a sigh of relief. "All right, good, we've got that straight. Now, about this body . . ."

Gandalf sighed. "How to explain?" He gestured to himself. "Well, this old man's body is only the form that I took on when I came to Middle-earth. When we reach the Uttermost West, I shall live in Valinor, where what you would call 'gods' live. You and Bilbo will live in Eldamar. But the two places are next to each other, just separated by a mountain range with a large pass running between them. I can move back and forth, and also embody myself as I wish. And as I say, I shall come and see you often-far more often that I did here in the Shire before the Quest began. Once I leave Middle-earth, however, the body that you know as Gandalf will disappear. When I am not with you, I shall be in a form that you cannot see or hear."

"If you can embody yourself, why don't you just do that and stay here with me forever?"

"Because when I am in a corporeal body, I am different. In becoming Gandalf, I lost much of my being, my knowledge, my . . . myself. And although you think of me as, well, a spirit or a god, I am not a terribly important one. I have duties and obligations to the gods. Without sounding too pretentious, I hope, I may say that I have a place in this Universe, and it is not one that I could ever abandon, even for love of you. I have told you that I was 'meant' to guide you in the Quest. I was meant to do a great many things here, and with the help of valiant people like yourself, I was able to do most of them. The Power that meant me to do these things is far greater than I am, Frodo, and I must serve it."

Frodo looked a bit dazed by all this, and he could think of no reply.

Gandalf laughed again. "It is odd to think of it, but in fact I did not want to come here. Yes, I was far from sure that I could deal with Sauron. Indeed, I was afraid of him-as well I might have been. Ironically, I thought that . . . well, that the being you knew as Saruman was better suited for that. He volunteered right away for the mission, quite confident that he could succeed. I was more-or-less told to go, and of course, I did so. But the point is, I may be a very powerful being in some ways-especially from your viewpoint-but I am not free to spend the rest of eternity dallying with my beautiful hobbit."

Frodo stared at him. "You did not want to come to Middle-earth? You have never hinted that you didn't love it and everything good in it."

"Well, I was leaving a place so wonderful that it is inconceivable to the mortal mind. In fact, I usually live in a place called Lorien, thought it is quite different from the Lorien you know here in Middle-earth. It is the most beautiful garden in the world. I have longed to return to it. Not a day went by when I did not. In particular I would watch the sun set and think of home. It is where I belong, despite everything that has happened to me here. But I won't say that I have not enjoyed Middle-earth a great deal, once I got here. After all, one can travel and love strange places and people and still want to go home afterward-as you and Bilbo both learned. Indeed, once I was in a human body and knew that I would have to remain in it for a long time, I determined that I would try to enjoy those things that I had never experienced-things that only a corporeal body can experience. And I must say, from the moment I saw the green shores of Middle-earth, I have been intrigued by its immense variety and beauty. How I loved discovering things like beer and good food and all the widely varying creatures that inhabit your continent. I adored it when I was introduced to pipeweed. Such a charmingly physical thing, drawing smoke into one's mouth! And of course there are very delightful sensations of a more intense sort that one can experience only in a body."

Frodo stared at him thoughtfully. "So when we get across the Sea, you'll be invisible much of the time?"

"To you and the Elves, yes."

Frodo's mouth dropped open in mock indignation and he narrowed his eyes. "Well, how do I know you aren't going around eyeing all those beautiful Elves lasciviously, or even seducing them when I can't see you doing it?"

Gandalf laughed hard at that. "Maiarime spirits do not seduce Elves or anyone else. We do not have sex. We were not born, we do not procreate-we do not need sex."

Frodo gaped at him. "Wait a minute. If you don't have sex, what is it that we've been doing together all this time? Because to me, it certainly felt like sex-and quite a bit of it at that."

"But, my dear silly hobbit, I've just been telling you, these activities were only possible because I came to Middle-earth as an old man-well, say, a Man, with a real body. Before that, I had known about sex, of course, but I had never experienced it. Needless to say, I was quite thrilled my first time-and yes, it was with a beautiful Elf, and no, I am not going to tell you who. After that, I must say I took full advantage of that particular new capability as often as I could. Why not? That and food and all those physical aspects of 'life' proved so wonderful, they almost offset the considerable limitations that embodiment imposed upon me.

"I feel enormously fortunate to have experienced that romantic, physical sort of love. Maiar often love things or people in the physical world, but not in that way. The only other Maia who ever had a similar experience embodied herself as a woman to marry a great Elven king with whom she had fallen in love. But she had to leave Middle-earth eventually, to resume her disembodied state as a Maia, separated forever from him and their daughter. To be able to take you with me and continue such a relationship once I return to my home and my natural state is a unique privilege. By the way, when I say that only this one other Maia and I have experienced romantic love, I am not forgetting Saruman-but I refuse to consider his obsession with me to be real love. I'm not quite sure what it was. Oddly enough, Saruman seemed not to enjoy the pleasures that Middle-earth offers-or at least he would not show it if he did, as when he secretly took up smoking in imitation of me. To be sure, he lived a life of luxury in Orthanc toward the end, in a selfish way. He had so many things. It always astonished me."

"And you had so little-though you seemed to love luxury as well."

"Oh, not luxury exactly, just comfort. When necessary I was willing to sleep out in all weathers and eat cram or lembas for weeks on end. I can't imagine Saruman ever doing that. Still, after a long stretch on the road, I had no objections to the pleasures of anything from a palace to a country inn--or a hobbit hole. Perhaps such things gave me an appreciation for what I was trying to save. Certainly Saruman lost that appreciation long ago-if he ever had it." He sighed.

"Well, I am certainly glad you enjoyed the Shire and what you found here." Frodo lifted his face for the wizard to kiss.

Gandalf moved his warm lips against Frodo's, then gazed down into his eyes. "Yes, you are far and away the best reason for embodiment that I have ever found. I must say, before I came to Middle-earth, I did not tend to take a bodily form all that often. I preferred to move among the physical beings I loved without their knowing it."

Frodo stared at him, struggling to imagine this.

"And I assure you, when I came to Middle-earth two thousand years ago, I did not choose to come as an old man. I was 'assigned' this form, as it were-for reasons that I may explain someday, though I suspect that I do not entirely know them myself."

"If you had had a choice, what form would you have taken when you came to Middle-earth?"

"Almost certainly that of an Elf. I have always been particularly fond of Elves among all forms of life, and I feel the most affinity with them. Long ago, on those occasions when I did embody myself, it was usually as an Elf. Here in Middle-earth, people have often taken me to be an Elf, since I lived among them and did not age visibly. But 'Gand-alf' even has a form of the word in it. It's a sort of nickname, really, meaning roughly 'the Elf with the staff.'"

Frodo thought this over and suddenly laughed. "So if all those years ago you had had your choice, I could have been making love with a beautiful Elf myself!"

Gandalf grinned. "Would you have liked that?"

Frodo's smile faded in confusion. "No, it was just a joke. I didn't mean that I'd rather have an Elf than you."

"But once we reach the Uttermost West and I need to embody myself to visit you, I could come to you as a beautiful Elf. When we've made love, haven't you ever thought about how nice it would be if I weren't quite so old-if I were sprier, livelier . . ."

Frodo sniffed. "No! And I've never noticed you having any trouble keeping up with me . . . old fellow," he added falteringly. That familiar, teasing endearment had suddenly taken on a more serious overtone. How could he face never calling his lover that again?

"That's very sweet of you, young fellow, but I mean it. I could come to you in any form you want. Well, any male form, I should specify. The Valar and Maiar are all either male or female in their fundamental natures, and they cannot switch when embodying themselves. But even with that limitation, I would have a huge range of choices. I could visit you as a lovely hobbit like yourself, for example, or a young, handsome Man-Gandalf as he would have looked if he had ever been young . . . and handsome," he added.

By this point Frodo was looking quite worried, and Gandalf assured him, "Maiar take on different forms all the time. Really, Frodo, it's quite simple. You'll see, you'll get used to it once you have been there for a while."

"No! I want you! Maybe you Maiar are used to each other looking different all the time, but we mere mortals have to relate to each other by physical means. It would be very nice to be able to recognize the man I love when he deigns to come and see me."

"But, Frodo, it would be I, and you would know that. Truly. This body is not at all the real I."

"It is to me. Gandalf looks like you! I mean, I love you as you are now. That's all I know, and that's all I want!" He frowned anxiously.

Gandalf smiled mischievously at him. "Just think, though. I could come in different beautiful forms-you could have a whole bevy of lovers of all sorts."

"I don't want them! Or you as them, or whatever it would be! I . . . want . . .YOU! Is that plain enough?"

"Frodo, really. You've not gotten over this childish behavior, after all this time?"

"Well, you're enough to drive me to it!"

Gandalf's face assumed an expression of bemused perplexity-a look quite unlike any Frodo had ever seen there. For once he seemed at a loss for words. Finally a reluctant little smile appeared. "So you really haven't minded making love with an old greybeard all this time?"

"What are you talking about? Did I seem to mind it? It never occurred to me. All I know is, I wanted you so much and for so long, and when I got you, I was thrilled, and I've never stopped being thrilled. And here I've been thinking that I could have you forever-and you're telling me that I can't?"

Gandalf stared at him for a long while, then finally said softly, "My dear hobbit, I have always rather assumed that you loved me despite my being an old man. For some reason, I find it wonderful to learn that it made no difference to you."

"Of course it didn't. After all, would you want me suddenly to turn into a beautiful Elf?!"

"Hardly-but you are already as beautiful as an Elf, so that is irrelevant."

"But if I weren't-if I were just an ordinary-looking hobbit, would you want me as a beautiful Elf?"

Gandalf frowned incredulously. "Of course!"

Frodo gave an exasperated snort. "Gandalf!"

"No, naturally I would not, my darling hobbit. But after all, you have only one shape-always had, always will. I have any number of them, potentially, and no one of them is my 'real' shape. And, as I say, I could be quite beautiful. Why not take advantage of that?"

Frodo pouted stubbornly, then stared into the wizard's eyes. "I don't want to. How many times do I have to tell you? Just because you would find it a little inconvenient when you occasionally embody yourself this way, you want to take away my wizard. Gandalf, I could not bear not to feel your beard tickling me as you kiss me, or not to watch those amazing eyebrows when you talk or make love to me, or not to see your eyes crinkle up when you laugh! I could never, never bear not to hear your voice again-your voice, exactly as it is now. Please, Gandalf!"

Gandalf returned his stare, then looked down at the table. "I suddenly realize that, after all this time in Middle-earth, I have never quite understood mortals-even you. All right, I shall embody myself again in this inconvenient, aged form when I come to you. Maybe some day, when you have become accustomed to your new life and the way things are there-we could just try an experiment with another form-"

"No!" Frodo's lip trembled and tears stood in his wide blue eyes. "Promise me you'll always be Gandalf, at least for me!"

Gandalf sighed and smiled tenderly at him, pulling Frodo up to hug him tightly and speak softly into his ear. "Once again you prove that I cannot resist you. If that's what you want, my sweet, silly hobbit . . . then I promise. For you, I shall always be Gandalf."


This series is dedicated to my dear muse, beta, and fellow wizard-slash devotee, Elanor.

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