Thrice Returned, the AU version

by Nefertiti

Rating: NC-17

Pairing: Gandalf/Frodo

Summary: This story breaks off from the original Thrice Returned series and offers a different narrative in the second half. The story begins as Thrice Returned (and its prequel Twice Given) did, and remains the same until the end of Chapter 6, "Stealing Away in Moria." With the new Chapter 7, "Escape to the Golden Wood," it diverges into an alternate plot, based on one radical change of events: Gandalf is not killed in his fight with the Balrog.

Disclaimer: No rights, no income.

Author's note: Book-canon. The main action takes place from May 2 to mid-July, 3019 of the Third Age, covering most of the time that Frodo and Gandalf spent in Minas Tirith after the destruction of the Ring. The Epilogue takes place on the evening of September 29, 3021, the last day of the Third Age. Some of the events in the original Thrice Returned chapters "The White Tree" and "His Own Private Wizard" are here assumed to have happened offscreen. The discussion of the Blue Istari was inspired by a brief passage in one of Tolkien's letters (#211 in The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien).

Part 12AU: The Scouring of Minas Tirith

Saruman paced the length of his room in Minas Tirith. It was a beautiful room, large and luxuriously furnished-but no less a prison for that. For two days after the West's victory in the Battle of the Pelennor he had waited, growing increasingly impatient as no word came from the new Lord of the Ring. Get used to it, he had told himself bitterly. The chances of taking the Ring from Gandalf are miniscule. Even if you eventually become intimate with him, you can hardly expect more than a small fraction of his time. Despite the fact that he had spent much of his life in Middle-earth alone, Saruman was hardly one whose temperament easily bore being ignored in this way. He certainly expected subordinates to obey his orders quickly. Now, however, he was a subordinate himself, but he had forced himself to wait with seeming good grace. True, he had done good work in the Houses of Healing. He was not as gifted a healer as Gandalf or Aragorn, but he had once possessed some skills of that sort, and he remembered enough to help save several lives. That probably had enhanced his credibility considerably, since shortly after he was locked in his elegant room, Aragorn had sent word that he was to be allowed to wander in the gardens and courtyards of the palace area, and even out into the streets and ramparts of the City, always accompanied by a watchful guard. He had taken advantage of that favor. He had assumed that Gandalf was somewhere in this great complex of buildings, yet he saw nothing of the object of his obsession despite long walks in the area.

Then, on the third morning after the battle, he had gone out to survey the City and saw to his surprise that a large army was marching out, moving to the east, toward the Black Land. With his keen eyesight, he had attempted to find Gandalf in the forefront, but only Aragorn, Prince Imrahil, and a few other commanders rode there. He had stood still, watching until the entire column of soldiers had assembled from their camps on the fields and ridden off behind their leaders. As the last of the troops moved away, Saruman had been puzzled. It was a ridiculously small force to challenge the might of Mordor. That would make sense if Gandalf had ridden with them. With him wielding the Ring against Sauron, he would need only a small force. Gandalf, however, had not been with his troops. His absence had been baffling.

Saruman had moved to a nearby bench and sat thinking, looking after the column of troops, now tiny in the distance. Something was wrong here. He had miscalculated. Finally he had made an effort to think back through the events of the past year or so and to see them from Gandalf's vantage point. The other Istar had long known that the Ring was in the hands of a mere hobbit-yet he had never taken it. Saruman had not had any direct report of the Grey Istar's whereabouts since shortly after the Fellowship left Lórien. Saruman had reconsidered everything that Aragorn had said concerning Gandalf since he met the Man at Isengard, and he realized that it all had been equivocal. He might have been quite wrong in his assumptions. Yet he had still firmly believed that the events of recent days-his defeats at Helm's Deep and Isengard-bore the stamp of Gandalf's planning. Gandalf had never seemed to deviate from their mission in Middle-earth in the slightest way. What if he had not done so now? If he were still loyal to it ... then he would seek to destroy the Ring. And Gandalf knew as well as he did that that could only be done in one way. In the blink of an eye Gandalf's true strategy had become clear. He had gone to Mordor.

Saruman had leapt to his feet and begun to pace, frantic at the thought that the Ring might at any moment be destroyed. He had wanted it for so long! Now, to have it suddenly beyond his reach ... Gradually he had calmed down a bit. There was nothing to be done about that, obviously. What could he do-if anything? Only two things could happen. Gandalf would succeed in destroying the Ring, or, more likely, Sauron would find him and regain it. That second possibility had seemed promising. Sauron presumably still considered Saruman an ally. Saruman could claim that he was taken prisoner during the attack on Isengard-that Aragorn had seized the palantir with the help of the Ents and taken him by force to Minas Tirith.

Or, if Gandalf destroyed the Ring-unlikely, to be sure, but faintly possible-well, then they would be back to their old situation: Saruman the White and Gandalf the Grey. He could continue to be cooperative, repentant, and humble, and see where that got him. The thought crossed his mind that even if Gandalf succeeded in destroying the Ring, he might perish in the effort. He sighed and decided not to pursue that line of thought. In that way lay despair. With luck, Gandalf's inconvenient little hobbit lover would be the one to die. That would certainly make things easier.

As the days dragged on Saruman continued to be humble and quiet, taking his long, slow walks. He soon charmed the soldier sent regularly to guard him on these forays, and though the man never ceased to watch the Istar carefully, he became willing to do little favors for him and carry messages on his behalf.

Saruman had been astonished when the Ring was destroyed and rejoicing gradually spread through the City. Gandalf had done it! He would have expected to feel jealous that Gandalf had accomplished what he could not-yet his reaction was quite different. By now he was so accustomed to the idea of being subservient to Gandalf that he had simply felt something like a rush of pride that he should have fallen in love with the Istar who accomplished so much. Since then he had desired the Grey Wizard more than ever.

He had certainly not been surprised when the message came from Ithilien for his minders to cut back on his freedoms and again to confine him to his room under lock and key. Gandalf's doing, he had realized. It was worth losing some freedom to learn that the other Istar had apparently survived. He would just have to wait and try to persuade his fellow Istar of his repentance. Now, sinking into a comfortable chair in his locked room, Saruman contented himself with daydreams of one very pleasant way in which he could demonstrate how docile and cooperative he could be.

On the morning after the coronation, Gandalf took breakfast with the hobbits, but he was uncharacteristically quiet. The others did not notice, but Frodo naturally did. He lingered at the table to talk with the wizard. When he asked what was wrong, Gandalf replied, "There are a few dangling threads in the wake of the Ring's destruction. Theoden is one of those. Although Rohan has vitally participated in our great victory, its King still remains in a dire state, and I hope to make a short visit to its capital, Edoras, in the near future. Perhaps I can help to improve Theoden's condition. That same trip would, I hope, allow me to visit my dear friend Shadowfax, of whom I have told you so much. One dangling thread is very dangerous, however, and that is Saruman. I fear that I must now confront him. You know, don't you, that he is a prisoner here in the City? I thought that I heard Pippin and Merry telling you a bit about it."

Frodo nodded. "But is it such a worrisome visit? They told me that he gave up his staff and has been like a changed man since his defeat at Isengard. Merry is quite grateful for his help in the Houses of Healing."

"Yes, that seems to be the general impression-that he has reformed. Still, I find it impossible to believe that underneath he is anything but his treacherous self."

"Why, though? I know he locked you up, but surely now that the Ring has been destroyed, the reason for his treachery has disappeared. Might he not have gone back to being the way he was before-an ally of yours?"

Gandalf had never told Frodo what Saruman had done and threatened to do on the dreadful last night of his imprisonment at Orthanc. He took a deep breath and gave his lover an account of how Saruman had taunted him and forced kisses and caresses on him. He also spoke in far less explicit terms of the other Istar's threats against Frodo.

The hobbit listened to the account in growing horror, moving to sit on Gandalf's lap and stroke his beard and shoulders as the tale unfolded. Finally he persisted, "Still, mightn't it be the case that, now that the Ring's influence is gone, he could have reformed?"

Gandalf shook his head. "I cannot believe it, Frodo. Many years ago there began to be a slight tension between us, and it gradually grew into mutual distrust and a wary relationship in general. Besides, after what he said about you that night, I dare not trust him, even if he truly merits it."

"But you told me that one should have pity. Even Gollum deserved it, you said, and you were right. We spared Gollum's life, and he helped us get to Mordor and then to enter through the Black Gate. And if he had lived after the Ring was destroyed, maybe he could have been cured, as we hoped. If you thought there was a possibility of his being cured, wouldn't the same be true for Saruman? After all, Gollum did even worse things than Saruman-stealing babies from cradles to eat them, you once told me."

Gandalf stared for a long time into the serious blue eyes so close to his own. At last he said, "Frodo, my heart tells me that Saruman can never be cured."

"Is it your heart-or the memory of your fear at Orthanc?"

"I think that I am right, Frodo, but how could I truly be sure except by trusting Saruman in ways that could be dangerous for us both-and perhaps even to Middle-earth itself? If Saruman gains the trust of powerful people and then ultimately proves treacherous, who knows what damage he could do?" He sighed and gazed wistfully at the hobbit. "How I wish that my tasks were finished-as I would have expected that they would be by now! If they were, we could leave, you and I, and go back to Lórien or to the Shire-just be with each other for a long time! We cannot do that, though. Even now, Saruman has acquired a surprising amount of power through his dissembling ... all right, my dear hobbit, I mean through what I strongly suspect is his dissembling."

Frodo looked at him doubtfully. "I suppose you're right, but somehow, listening to you talk about it, I ... I think you're not talking the way that I would expect you to. You seem not to be thinking the way that you usually do."

Gandalf stared at him and said with a touch of asperity, "Well, I expect that it would change you, too, if you were held captive for such a long time, then threatened with forced sex and had your lover threatened in even more vicious terms."

Frodo gulped softly. "I suppose you're right. But I worry that, if he really has repented, you might do him an injustice-something that you have never done to anyone, as far as I know."

Gandalf pressed his lips together and continued to stare at the hobbit. "Well, the best I can promise is that when I visit him, I shall try and seek for signs of true repentance. I hope that I would recognize them if they are there. Perhaps, though, I am incapable of judging him objectively, and if so, then I indeed risk doing him an injustice, as you say."

Frodo kissed his cheek. "I can't believe that my wizard is incapable of anything."

Gandalf grinned and hugged the hobbit tightly against his chest. "Well, I believe that you are prejudiced, my sweet Frodo, but I shall try and live up to your high opinion."

A short time later, Gandalf walked across a courtyard toward a porticoed wing of the palace. It contained many bedrooms, some of which were occupied by princes and nobility who had attended the coronation the day before. Saruman's room was near the end of the long hallway. Gandalf approached its door, thinking sourly that it was hard to think of a chamber in such a luxurious place as a prison. Still, he hoped that it was truly secure. Certainly a guard was sitting on a chair outside Saruman's room. That inspired some confidence. The man rose and unlocked the door for him.

Gandalf paused as he stood outside the entrance. Why should he be nervous about confronting the other wizard, he wondered fretfully to himself. After all, he had faced up to and conquered the Ring itself. The wizard realized that he was not really afraid of Saruman, but he felt a deep uncertainty. Perhaps Frodo was right. Perhaps he was pre-judging his fellow Istar. He took a deep breath and out of politeness knocked on the heavy, carved, wooden door. He heard Saruman's voice call out, inviting him to enter. He opened the door and went in with a confident gait. Saruman had been sitting in a chair, staring into the cold grate of the fireplace. The remains of a lavish breakfast were sitting on a tray on the polished table. The White Wizard did not rise. The two Istari looked at each other warily for a long time, though Saruman glanced only indirectly at Gandalf out of the corner of his eye.

Gandalf began to pace. "All right, Saruman, what is your game here? What can you hope to gain? It is all over. You cannot achieve power. Perhaps if I had died in destroying the Ring, you could have. You seem to have fooled Aragorn and the others with your show of repentance. I did not die, however, and none, not even Aragorn, has the power to overrule my decision that you will stay imprisoned. And now Frodo also knows what else you tried to do to me and threatened to do to him, that night at Orthanc."

Saruman winced, but he looked the other Istar directly in the eye at last. "Gandalf, my only hope now is to be completely honest with you and throw myself on your mercy. I have made so many miscalculations! I am afraid that you will laugh at me."

"Yes, Aragorn told me that you apparently jumped to the conclusion that I had seized the Ring for myself. Really, Saruman, you suffer a defeat in battle and then assume that that could only have happened because I had thrown the power of the Ring against you! You lost largely because I had cultivated good friends and allies who could come together at a time of crisis-while you had recruited and bred your army from the scum of the earth."

Saruman snorted bitterly. "All right, so you will not laugh at me but rather will gloat. It comes to much the same thing. Yes, I undoubtedly underestimated you when I thought that you had seized the Ring. You must agree, however, that the Ring's power made it almost inconceivable that someone-even you-could resist it enough to be able to destroy it."

"True, I suppose. But as I always say, those who are untrustworthy themselves find it difficult to believe in others."

"No doubt. Well, I confess to you freely that after my defeat I had every intention of coming here to Minas Tirith and exploiting the situation in any way that I could: to take the Ring from you if possible, to worm my way into the good graces of the new King, to seduce you-though not to force you, I assure you, Gandalf. Again, to be quite frank, I hoped that the Ring would lead you to want to seduce me."

"Well, the Ring was not here for you to take, and I was not here for you to seduce-and the latter is hardly likely to happen now."

Saruman lolled his head on the back of the chair dejectedly. "No, of course not, because everything has changed now. When the destruction of the Ring occurred, realization came to me like a painful blow to the heart: you had accomplished what we were sent to Middle-earth 2000 years ago to do. And I had failed-quite miserably failed."

He lapsed into silence for a long time, and Gandalf paced nervously, then forced himself to stand still and gaze out the window. Saruman's view, he noted, was quite superb-as had been the view from Orthanc, though this prison was far more comfortably furnished than that one had been. Finally he glanced at the White Istar, who was struggling to speak. Saruman looked up at him with a desolate expression in his dark eyes.

"Gandalf, with the temptation of the Ring gone at last, I could see my true feelings again-my own feelings. All I really wanted was you. I felt deeply ashamed, to my surprise, at having abandoned our goal-not an impossible goal, as you proved yourself. I have thought much about how all this came about, of course. Perhaps if I had sought your freely given love early on and you had accepted me, the idea of seizing the Ring would never have come to me. Indeed, I am almost certain that it would not."

He smiled sadly. "That time when I kissed you so aggressively, you said that the idea of my being in love with you was 'absurd.' That hurt me very much at the time, even though I realize that you were taken entirely by surprise and forced to defend yourself. I have pondered your words often since then. Would it have been so absurd at some point, early on, for us to have loved each other and then gone on loving each other? I like to think not.

"Yet I did not seek out your love early on. For one thing, I could never convince myself that you could love me. Or I should say, that I could ever hold your love if we did sleep together. If we had become lovers, I would have wanted you all to myself. Yet you seemed from early on to have lovers salted away all over Middle-earth. I never felt that I could give you what you would need to make you faithful to me alone. That was my downfall." He considered for a moment. "I admit that when I first began to be intrigued by the possibility of finding the Ring, one of its most appealing aspects was its ability to bestow enormous sexual prowess. If I had that, I thought, surely I would be able to hold you, to satisfy you. You would be entirely in my thrall and would come to love me." He paused and glanced at Gandalf with a tiny smile. "You see that I am being very frank with you."

Gandalf glared at him. "Do not dare to try and blame all of this on me! You seem to have resented the betrayal of someone you imagined as a lover but had never even approached in such a way! True, during our mission I took advantage of the joys that embodiment could afford us-not just physical love, but good food and drink, smoking, friendship and conviviality-things that were no threat whatsoever to our mission but that did an enormous amount to sustain me these 2000 years. You should not resent me for not giving you such pleasures. You should regret not having discovered them for yourself!" He paced again for a short while and calmed down. "As to being faithful, well, you exaggerate. I hardly had a lover in every city and town across Middle-earth. Still, not surprisingly, in the course of 2000 years, I have had quite a few! I think, though, that I have shown over the past 18 years and more that I can be quite faithful to the right lover."

Saruman turned his face away. There was a long pause. Gandalf finally asked almost wistfully, "I'm not sure when the lure of the Ring first snared you, but during these recent years, did you not remember our mission at all, Saruman?"

The other wizard did not look up but replied quietly, "Yes, I remembered. I always remembered. But it was not just the lure of the Ring, Gandalf. About 18 years ago, I first dared to look into the palantir that I had found in Orthanc when I settled there-"

"Yes, settling in one place-something that we were forbidden to do."

"I know, I know, and I regret it now, believe me! Certainly my choice of a home was most unfortunate. I never have liked camping. I don't see how you have put up with it all these years. At any rate, by using the stone, I came into Sauron's control, and at that point I was lost. I became a traitor to the White Council and deceived you all about the Ring-hoping to gain it for myself. Or, if I could not, at least to help Sauron regain it in exchange for the powers that he would then grant me. Yes, it was the palantir that corrupted me. It is a fiendishly seductive object, Gandalf. I suspect that even you would have been tempted to look into it. You could easily have been tainted, as I was."

Gandalf stared at him, then sighed. "You may be right. A palantir in the control of Sauron would be an overwhelming thing and very difficult to resist or escape. But you are definitely wrong, Saruman, when you say that looking into the palantir was the sole cause of your downfall. That was not when it began. While I was imprisoned in Orthanc, I thought back over the various meetings of the Council and the advice and information that you presented there. I realized that you must have begun to mislead us shortly after my second visit to Dol Guldur. You overrode my advice and my proposals for a policy to follow in regard to the Dark Lord-one which, had we implemented it, might well have spared us much effort and danger. That was over 150 years ago now, Saruman, so don't blame it all on the palantir or on my failure to live up to your secret fantasies about me. No, there was far more to it than that. Something happened to you during your travels in the distant eastern countries-places I have never visited. I noticed the change when you returned. You were more secretive and sly. You had never been exactly convivial, but you were less so after that."

A pained grimace tightened Saruman's face, and he avoided his fellow wizard's eyes. Gandalf gazed at him with concern and even some alarm. "What happened to the Blue Istari, Saruman?"

Saruman licked his lips. "There are powers that one can desire other than those conferred by rings-powers that seduce and corrupt."

Gandalf frowned and paused, reluctant to press the point but fascinated by the answer. "I ask again, what happened to them? Where are they now, those two?"

"Dead. And do not waste your grief on them! Believe me, the world is better off with them gone. And before you ask, I shall tell you that their Maiarime spirits are banished from Valinor and from the bounds of Arda. I suppose I can also tell you now that I was sent by the Valar into the east to depose them as Istari."

Gandalf asked quietly, "What did they do?"

"You do not want to know, Gandalf. The answer to that question would haunt your dreams."

"And did you try and stop ... whatever it was that happened?"

"I'm not sure that I could have-two against one. Luckily, though, it was nearly over by the time that I arrived and carried through my assignment. Still, I suppose that I learned some things there-things that changed me for the worse. Certainly things that I still wish I did not know."

There was a long silence. Finally Saruman went on. "There are so many temptations in this Middle-earth. How is it that you have managed never to succumb to them?"

Gandalf gave a brief, mirthless chuckle. "I have succumbed-many times. There are temptations to do good, not just evil. I remember back in 2758, when the Long Winter caused a terrible famine in the Shire-as it did in other parts of Middle-earth. It was certainly not a part of my mission to aid the hobbits. I debated long, for there were other important matters elsewhere that I should have been dealing with. Yet I was tempted-strongly tempted-to stay in the Shire for awhile and lend my aid. It was then that I learned to admire hobbits, despite all their limitations-and that whole episode turned out very well in the long run! I suppose that, given the hobbits' role in the great events that ended the Third Age, I was meant to become involved with them, but at the time it seemed as if I was neglecting more crucial duties. I have certainly never regretted giving in to that temptation, and there were many other similar instances."

Saruman stared at him during this speech and then shook his head. "Is there nothing that you regret, Gandalf? No slip from your path, no little mistake? In two thousand years?"

The hint of a smile appeared about Gandalf's lips as he stared back. "Yes. I regret that I trusted you for so long. I certainly do not want to make that mistake again now!"

Saruman clenched his teeth and sighed. He spoke emphatically. "It would not be a mistake for you to do so now! How can I convince you of that?"

"Well, I don't see that after what happened at Orthanc you could possibly convince me."

Gandalf felt his anger at the White Wizard rising and decided that he should end the visit. He seemed to be getting nowhere with Saruman, and their conversation had given him no ideas about how to deal with the maddening situation. Indeed, he was more confused than ever. After a moment's thought, he realized that at some point in the not-too-distant future Elrond, Glorfindel, Celeborn, Galadriel, and others of the Wise would be arriving in Minas Tirith. Perhaps they could give counsel about how he could resolve his dilemma. "Saruman, I fear that you must stay locked up here until I can decide what to do with you. I ... I am sorry about this delay."

Saruman simply nodded and looked away. The Grey Istar went slowly out and paused to see the door safely locked behind him by the guard.

About a week later, Gandalf walked up the steps of Meduseld, recalling his humiliating departure the last time he had been there: scorned and ordered by the King to take a horse and leave the country as quickly as possible. Of course Theoden had been under the influence of Grima, and through him Saruman, when he treated the Grey Wizard in such a fashion. It had hardly been the King's fault. Still, the coming encounter might initially be quite unpleasant.

Gandalf had arrived in Edoras too late the night before to speak with the King then. In his weakened state, Theoden now spent a great deal of time in bed. A small troop of Rohirrim that had remained in Gondor had acted as escort to Eomer, Eowyn, and him. The wizard had decided that if he could not deal with Saruman for a time, he could at least try and solve the lingering problem created by the other Istar's machinations. Reluctantly he had left Frodo behind. The journey was long, and he hoped to make only a short stay in Edoras before returning. Frodo would presumably see the beauties of Rohan when they eventually traveled back toward the Shire, going at a more leisurely pace. Besides, he did not wish to expose his beloved hobbit to the unpleasantness that might arise during his visit to Theoden. Nevertheless, he had felt sad at parting from Frodo. Perhaps just as well, he told himself. Gandalf realized that after years of long stretches away from the hobbit, he had now been almost continuously in Frodo's presence for nearly eight months now. He would soon be able to live at Bag End with the hobbit, but they would still have to get used to being apart at intervals as he made his last journeys around Middle-earth, checking on various areas and offering counsel.

The wizard entered the Golden Hall alone. He and Eomer had agreed that Theoden might still be angry with his nephew and less likely to react well to whatever Gandalf could try and do for him. As he came into the large throne-room, the wizard saw that Eowyn had just helped her uncle to the carved chair on the dais and was settling him in, smoothing his clothes and speaking softly to him. She straightened up and looked hopefully at Gandalf as the wizard approached the throne. He was shocked at how much the King had deteriorated in less than a year. He was bent and wizened, as if he had aged greatly in that brief interval. Fortunately, though, his face held none of the animosity that Theoden had expressed toward him on the previous visit. Indeed, he smiled feebly at the wizard.

"Hail, Theoden King," the wizard said politely.

Theoden nodded at him and spoke with some difficulty, pausing often to draw a wheezing breath. "Well, Gandalf, I hear that you have succeeded in your mission and made possible our victory over the Enemy. Eowyn tells me that our other great foe has also been defeated and now languishes in prison in Minas Tirith."

"Not exactly a prison," Gandalf said with a wry smile, "but yes, he is locked safely away. I am glad, my Lord, to find you a bit more cordial toward me than when last we talked."

"Yes. I must apologize for that. I gather that Grima had considerably misrepresented your behavior to me. I realize now that I should have thanked you for all that you were trying to do for us." His face crinkled into a broader smile. "Oh! All except one thing. You seem to have stolen Shadowfax's heart from me. His behavior has entirely changed since you borrowed him." He shook his head in exasperation, but his smile remained.

Gandalf laughed. "Yes, so I have heard from King Elessar. I shall have to have a talk with that horse! But my Lord, I am sorry to find you in such a weakened state. Have you perhaps been ill?" The wizard knew full well why the old man had deteriorated so much, but he wanted to gauge how well Theoden understood what had caused his plight.

Theoden shrugged slightly. "Not illness, no. Just old age, I am afraid, catching up with me rather suddenly." Gandalf and Eowyn glanced at each other.

"Not simply old age," the wizard replied. "I believe that you were so convinced by the whisperings and sham pity of Grima Wormtongue that you continue to believe yourself incapable of greater action. I am delighted to see that the despair which he induced in you has disappeared, however, for without that you can begin to return to your former hale condition. You have lost much of your strength through needless inaction, and though it will take some time for you to regain it, I fancy that even now you are capable of far more than you realize. How long is it since you walked forth from the darkness of your hall and stood in the sunshine, breathing the free air?"

Theoden stared at him, then thought for awhile. "Longer than I can tell," he said at last. "Grima said that such things were bad for me, and though he proved treacherous, he was probably right about that. Truly, Gandalf, I am not fit for such things any more. I believe that the brisk winds of Edoras would knock me over!" Despite his words, the King stared with dawning hope into the dark, deep eyes of the wizard.

"Nonsense! Well, you can at least try standing up. Is that asking too much? .. . Good. Not as hard as you thought, was it? No, don't take up that cane. I don't believe that you need it for walking any more than I need my staff for that purpose. Well, perhaps I exaggerate, but still, give it a try. Don't worry! I'm sure Eowyn will catch you if you begin to topple over. If she is capable of slaying a Nazgul, surely she can do that."

Theoden chuckled and slowly straightened up. Eowyn stood ready to lend a hand, but the old man stood steadily. Clearly the effort of moving joints and muscles long idle was painful, but gradually the King's grimace disappeared, replaced by a small, surprised smile. Gandalf held out his hand and beckoned to Theoden, who hesitated and then took a very cautious step down off the dais. The wizard moved to his side, taking his arm lightly, more to urge him forward than to support him. The King's gait became more confident as they approached the door. After standing and surveying the beautiful mountains and the plains around the foot of the hill upon which the city stood, Theoden managed to walk slowly about for awhile.

"By the way, Gandalf," he asked, panting slightly from the unaccustomed exertion, "whatever happened to Grima?"

"I have wondered that myself, but no one seems to have heard anything about him since he left here. Possibly he arrived at Orthanc only after Saruman surrendered and decided to take himself off somewhere else. I like to think that he came to his senses and chose rather to escape Saruman's service while he had the chance. I doubt we shall ever know."

Finally Theoden sat on a stone bench near the head of the steps. "I have, as you said, lost much of my former strength, and I think that is enough for today. Still, I shall soon have regained it, for I promise you that I shall continue to walk diligently every day and eventually to ride out to survey the lands that have been saved. My goal will be to journey to Minas Tirith for the wedding of my dear Eowyn." The old man reached up to pat her hand, which was resting on his shoulder.

Eowyn smiled down at him. "I shall take that goal as my own, and I have no doubt that we shall travel there together." She cast a grateful look at the wizard.

Theoden looked again at Gandalf. "So much has been accomplished thanks to you, my dear friend."

Gandalf inclined his head. "I am certainly delighted if with my help you can return to your former regal state. Well, I shall go and rectify the only cause that you now have to resent me. I shall find Shadowfax and remind him of just who his true master is. I hope that our conversation will leave him a bit more tractable."

"Wait! I don't want you telling an untruth to Shadowfax. Tell him rather that he now has a new master-the one whom he obviously wants. No, don't try to refuse or to thank me, Gandalf! The gift is more than merited. Just go and give him the good news."

Slowly a delighted grin spread across Gandalf's face. He seemed about to speak, but looking into Theoden's eyes, he simply nodded once and hurried off down the steps.

For a few days after Gandalf's departure, Frodo debated with himself. Since the wizard had told him of Saruman's vicious behavior that night on top of Orthanc, he had been unable to shake a powerful curiosity about whether the White Wizard had really repented. He hated the thought that his lover could possibly do his old colleague an injustice. Frodo talked long with the other hobbits and with Gimli and Legolas, all of whom seemed convinced of Saruman's regret over his previous behavior. They recounted many anecdotes about episodes in which the Istar had been helpful or brave or pleasant. Could they all be wrong, Frodo wondered. This new behavior seemed to have gone on for a long time now, and no one recalled an incident in which Saruman had revealed a sign of his former opposition and treachery.

Naturally Frodo was disturbed by what Gandalf had hinted about Saruman's threats against him, but he knew that a guard was posted at all times outside the door. The wizard could hardly attack him without being stopped immediately. After considerable dithering, Frodo finally decided that he would have to visit Saruman. If he didn't, he would always wonder whether Gandalf had done the right thing. Summoning all his courage, he set out one afternoon to pay a call on the White Wizard.

As he walked slowly down the long corridor toward Saruman's door, Frodo began to breathe faster. For a moment he hesitated, thinking how upset Gandalf would be when he heard of this visit. Never mind, he told himself. You're doing this for him, to prevent him acting in a way that he might come greatly to regret one day. He greeted the guard. "You ... you won't go away or anything?" he asked with a nervous smile. The guard smiled in return and shook his head. "Can you hear through this door ... I mean, if anything ..."

The guard nodded. "I shall listen very carefully the whole time you are in there, Master Baggins. Really, though, the old fellow has caused no trouble at all. I wonder that they bother to keep him locked up." He rose and turned the key in the door.

Encouraged, the hobbit knocked, and the deep voice of the Istar invited him to enter.

Saruman had been pacing slowly around the room, and now he stopped and looked up with a puzzled expression that slowly gave way to consternation. "Am I ... am I right in assuming that you are the Ringbearer?" he faltered.

"Yes. You probably know that my name is Frodo Baggins. Forgive me if I stare, but you ... you look a good deal like Gandalf. More than I expected."

The Istar smiled very briefly, then hesitated long before asking, "Why have you come? I would hardly expect you to want to visit me at all, let alone without Gandalf to protect you. You don't seem as if you are here to gloat over my fallen state. Not that you would not have every reason and right to do that. I presume Gandalf has told you of what happened when he was my prisoner." When Frodo nodded, he resumed, "Believe me, I enormously regret that whole episode, particularly what I did to him on that last night. It makes me cringe to think what could have happened to him had the eagle not rescued him. I believe that I would have been quite capable of carrying out my threats against you-at least to the extent of having you kidnapped. I doubt that I would have needed to carry through with the rest of what I had threatened, for surely Gandalf would have saved you by doing what I demanded of him. All I can do now is to apologize to you most sincerely. I ... well, I had been in love with him for so long, and the Ring seemed my one chance of having him. I assure you, I now have no such designs upon you or him-though you may find that as hard to believe as he does."

Frodo blinked, trying hard to keep in mind what Gandalf had said about Saruman's voice and its unnaturally persuasive effects. It was indeed a melodious voice, and yet the Istar did not seem to be trying to convince him of anything. He simply seemed hopeless and sad.

Saruman came slightly closer to him, but not close enough to loom over him or make him feel in danger. The Istar stared at him and smiled again. "I suppose that I should congratulate you on the accomplishment of your Quest. Had I not been so misled by my absurd delusions of power, I hope that I would have been of considerable help to you and Gandalf in that mission. Now, seeing how small you are, I am all the more amazed that you were able to face such enormous dangers and come through alive and successful."

"Th-thank you. I could never have done it without Gandalf, of course-and my friend Sam."

"Perhaps not, but you deserve all the accolades that you have received ... Frodo. But where are my manners? Would you like to sit down? They are quite good about feeding me here. I could send for some tea and something to eat, if you like. I know quite a bit about hobbits, including the fact that they have considerable appetites."

Frodo was about to decline the offer, but the Istar's dark eyes held him. So like Gandalf's eyes, he thought, and yet different in some elusive way. "Thank you. I would enjoy that. I'm afraid I have to admit that what you have heard about hobbits is true."

Saruman knocked on the door and requested that the guard send for refreshments. While they waited, they sat on either side of a corner of the large, elegant table. Saruman asked about the trip to Mordor and the destruction of the Ring. His politeness and obvious interest led Frodo to say more than he might have to anyone else. The wizard praised his actions a few times, but not so much that his words seemed like flattery. Soon the tea and some cakes and scones arrived, and the conversation continued throughout the meal. As Frodo's tale ended, Saruman shook his head. "Much of this makes sense," he said, "but I do not understand why you continued to keep Gollum with you once you were inside Mordor. Clearly he had served his purpose and could only be a hindrance-and indeed a danger-to you thenceforth. I know Gandalf would be reluctant to kill him, but it would seem the obvious course to improve the chances of such an important Quest succeeding."

"Perhaps, but Gandalf has always told me that Gollum deserved our pity, and that he might possibly be cured someday. We'll never know, of course, but I think I saw signs of improvement in him after we captured him." Saruman shrugged slightly and nodded.

When they had finished the meal, Frodo realized that he should leave soon. They had not yet spoken of his relationship with Gandalf, however, and the hobbit suspected that he could not truly judge the White Wizard's attitudes without going into that. Frodo hesitated. "You have been very kind, but underneath I suppose that you must resent me very much-hate me, in fact. You must love Gandalf a great deal."

Saruman's polite smile faded. He stared away, toward the window.

Frodo continued, "Believe me, I know how attractive he is! I went through nine years of longing and doubt and hopelessness over him."

Saruman snorted softly.

Frodo went on, determined to probe the wizard further. "Yes, I know, nine years doesn't seem like much to you. But think. I was just 24 when I fell in love with him-and 33 when we declared our love. About a third of my young life. Can you say the same, ancient as you are?"

Saruman looked at him with a puzzled frown. "You are wiser than I would have expected. I must admit that I thought of Gandalf as simply being besotted by your beauty and by your skill in bed. I suppose I had to tell myself that if I was to go on hoping that he would tire of you, that I had a chance ultimately of having him myself. And I truly did think that he was incapable to being faithful to a single lover. I was deluding myself there as well, though it certainly took him a long time to find that single lover! Looking back now, with all my dreams in ruins and knowing him as I do, I am not surprised that you could catch his heart and keep it." He thought for a long time, and Frodo became quite uncomfortable and sought for something to say. Finally Saruman spoke again. "I must admit too that he is better off with you than he would be if he and I were lovers. I hope that for the rest of your life you can continue to bring him the happiness that he deserves."

Frodo felt tears come to his eyes. "I shall try," he whispered, and turned to go. As he walked back to the house, he pondered what had just happened. Surely the White Wizard would not say such a thing unless he were truly repentant. For the first time the hobbit began to wonder if Gandalf really was capable of doing his fellow Istar an injustice, blinded by his fearful memories and his deep distrust. More than ever he wished that his lover would hurry back from Rohan so that he could talk with him about Saruman.

"You what?!"

Frodo pressed his lips together. He had anticipated that Gandalf would be upset by his revelation, but that did not make the reality any easier to bear. He repeated falteringly, "I went to see Saruman while you were gone."

Gandalf was still staring at him in shock, worry, and what certainly appeared to be anger. The wizard began to pace around their bedroom. Frodo watched him unhappily from his seat on the bed and went on in a soft voice. "He didn't do anything to me. And there was a guard outside, listening for any sign of trouble. Really, Saruman was very nice. He gave me tea, and we just talked."

After walking about for awhile, Gandalf stopped and looked at Frodo with a frown and said in a sarcastic tone, "I must ask Sam not to visit Saruman. If he does, I shall probably lose the only ally I still have in my distrust of my treacherous colleague-though I must say even he seems to be halfway convinced by the others' claims." He sighed and continued reproachfully, "Really, Frodo, I am surprised that you of all people could be so taken in by his honeyed words! I had thought that your experiences would give you enough insight to avoid that. And to visit him behind my back ..." He shook his head.

Frodo glanced up at him miserably, then looked down again. "I ... I'm sorry I went to see Saruman without your permission, Gandalf."

Gandalf's frown slowly faded. He sighed. "You need not apologize, my darling hobbit. It is I who should ask your pardon. After all, you are an adult, and you can certainly use your own judgment in deciding what to do. It is not as if I asked you not to visit Saruman." He chuckled ruefully. "Indeed, it never occurred to me that you would consider such a thing! If I had, I surely would have asked you to promise not to do so. Did you tell any of the other Fellowship members what you were going to do?"

"No, not even Sam. Any doubts I might have seem like a private matter between you and me."

"Good." The wizard's face softened further. "Well, I realize that you were doing it in part for my sake, misguided though I think the attempt was."

"Well ... I just remember what the Ring did to me, and how everything changed when you threw it into the fire. Maybe it did for him, too."

"Frodo, I have realized since I first spoke to Aragorn about Saruman's surrender that he might possibly have indeed repented in the wake of the Ring's destruction. Still, I cannot take the enormous risk of trusting him when so much is at stake. If he is deceiving you all--and he is quite capable of it-it would be madness to give him any freedoms. But don't worry so about it! In a few weeks I shall be able to consult with others among the Wise, and perhaps together we can devise some just means of dealing with him. Surely that is not too long a wait when the potential danger is so great. Is it?" he added coaxingly, as Frodo continued to stare doubtfully at the quilt.

Finally the hobbit looked up with a little smile. "I suppose not." He thought for a moment. "Perhaps it is partly because he looks so much like you, and yet he is so different. He seems so hopeless. You have always inspired such hope in everyone-especially me. Except for that one time when you despaired at seeing the Dark Tower and almost took the Ring from me, you have always retained at least a little hope, even in the worst moments. It makes me so sad to see someone who might once have been like you reduced to such a state."

Gandalf sat down beside the hobbit on the bed and put an arm around his shoulders. "Don't you think that I feel much the same way? I knew him before this corruption began to taint him. But Frodo, it was not just the Ring that caused his downfall." The wizard thought back to the look of regret and horror that had crossed Saruman's face as he hinted at the fate of the Blue Wizards. "No, it was more complex than that. Partly his warped love for me, partly experiences that he had during his travels-travels to places I never visited. I shall probably never understand completely what drove him away from our mission... but I know that it happened and that it is almost certainly irreversible."

After a pause, Frodo whispered, "Almost. You see, even now you cannot bring yourself to give up hope entirely." He looked up into the wizard's wise eyes.

"I suppose not. In Saruman's case, though, I wish I could give up all hope. It would make things so much easier."

The wizard gently pulled Frodo into his lap and enveloped him in his arms, rubbing his cheek against the curly head and wishing, as he often had in the past weeks, that they could simply go away by themselves and that for a little while he could forget this nagging problem.

On an afternoon in early July, Gandalf stood again outside Saruman's door. He had not visited the White Wizard since their first encounter two months earlier. Despite long discussions with Galadriel, Elrond, and some of the others who had recently arrived for the wedding of Aragorn and Arwen, he was no nearer to deciding what to do with Saruman. All of their suggestions related to actions that he had already considered himself. Ultimately he had realized that, for all their wisdom, none of them had the authority or experience to deal with a fallen Maia. He would have to come up with a solution on his own. He had explained all this to Frodo, and the hobbit promised to abide by his decision, whatever lingering doubts he might have.

It was the hottest time of the day, and Saruman was sitting by the open window, peering through its bars at the distant mountains to the east. He looked up and actually smiled wanly in welcome. Gandalf did not return the smile. "I regret to say, Saruman, that I still have not come to a decision as to what to do with you. You have had much time to reflect. Maybe you could suggest a solution. What do you envision as happening to you now that the Ring is gone and our mission is over?"

Saruman said quietly, "I have no illusions that I could try to return with you to Valinor and my previous status there. I hardly believe that the gods would overlook my role in the War-though, to be sure, they have apparently forgiven even Galadriel for her part in the rebellion so long ago. Perhaps, if I am patient and prove my sincere repentance, they could eventually forgive me as well and allow me to return. We might hope to meet again upon the other side, albeit ages from now."

Gandalf shook his head. "You need not profess yourself in such romantic words to me, Saruman. I know you far too well by now to be deceived by them. I certainly have not forgotten what you were capable of threatening."

The other Istar laughed bitterly. "Is this the pity that you learned of Nienna so long ago? From what Frodo told me, you even pitied Gollum after all that he had done. You held out hope for his reform, against all reason, and to some degree you helped to redeem him at the last. Yet you cannot extend that same pity to another victim of the Ring's lure."

Gandalf was deeply disturbed to learn that Frodo had spoken even of these secret confidences between them to Saruman, but he struggled to keep his mind attuned to the argument at hand. "A poor wretch, tempted long ago by a force which he had no way of understanding is hardly comparable to a great Istar who comprehended that force better than any other could. You know that perfectly well, Saruman. Let us not pursue that line of thought. Tell me instead, what would you hope to do in Middle-earth, if you cannot return to Valinor?" He wondered whether Saruman would give him anything close to a true description of his hopes and ambitions, but he felt he had to ask.

Saruman smiled. Trying to look at his fellow Istar objectively, as Frodo would have urged him to do, Gandalf had to admit that he did appear to be a benign and wise counselor, worthy of trust. Could Saruman possibly have genuinely repented and returned to his original admirable nature? Could the destruction of the Ring, which admittedly had changed the world profoundly, have lifted all of the delusional obsessions that had transformed Saruman into the taunting, vicious seducer whom he remembered so well? Gandalf had seen what the removal of the Ring's temptation had done for Boromir and Frodo. As for himself, he had conquered the Ring by other means, but certainly its destruction had brought him a peace that he had not known during his entire time in Middle-earth. Could he be doing Saruman an injustice, or were the wizard's wiles beginning to work on him as well? It would be unforgivable to push Saruman back from repentance through a stubborn distrust. He resumed pacing and struggled to assess what his heart told him, but for once it failed to enlighten him. He continued to be torn between his innate impulses toward pity and hope and his deep-seated skepticism.

The other wizard said, "I suppose the most influential position that I could initially hope to occupy would be as an advisor to King Elessar. Perhaps, once he sees that he can trust me, he could elevate me to some position of governing a portion of his lands, much as he has done by assigning the oversight of Ithilien to the Steward, Lord Boromir."

Gandalf felt all his efforts at objectivity slip away, and he wheeled about, his eyes flashing. "Do not expect it, Saruman! I have not worked all this time to create a Fourth Age in peace and safety only to see it jeopardized by you. I assure you, I shall extract solemn promises from Aragorn-King Elessar--that you will have no power in his government or in any other over which he has influence." He mastered his anger and paused, staring in puzzlement at his fellow Istar. Finally he asked softly, "Why are you so obsessed with me, Saruman? You have never seemed even to like me much."

Saruman smiled sadly and shook his head, staring into space. "I have been fascinated with you for so long, spied on you for so long. I thought at first that I simply envied you. You were so socially adept, so convivial! You could find sexual partners so easily, and finally you found a lasting love. At some point during these many long years I realized that I did not just envy you all this-I wanted you because of those qualities." He hesitated briefly. "I loved you. In some ways the seeds of that love may have been planted as early as the first time we met again after arriving in Middle-earth, embodied. I know you had occasionally embodied yourself in Eldamar, and so had I. Yet we never happened to meet when we were in physical form. I have sometimes wished that we could have traveled to Middle-earth together. Maybe then ... but no, I doubt it. We both knew so little of such things. It was only considerably later that I first experienced the pleasure of sex."

"Really? My first time was at the Grey Havens, a few days after I arrived. A very kind elf introduced me to that aspect of embodied life."

Saruman stared at him, then snorted gently and pressed his lips together. "Naturally. Well, at any rate, when we did finally encounter each other face to face, I was struck by how alike we are in appearance, despite some obvious differences. I think I conceived the idea that we were meant for each other as lovers-the same origins, the same lofty goals, and so on. I did not understand those feelings at the time, unfortunately."

"I don't see why our looking fairly alike would mean that we should be lovers. Naturally we were embodied as old men to give people faith in our advice. I have had lovers of all sorts, and often the ones who looked the least like me have been the most intriguing."

Saruman's smile seemed more like a smirk. "You seem to prefer youth and beauty, however, judging by some of your conquests-and your long-time lover."

"Well, why not? Who would not prefer them? I feel very lucky that I could occasionally attract such lovers. Still, I do not require such attributes. If you had ever bothered to try and attract me, I would not have held your elderly appearance against you. How could I, looking much the same myself? Let's stick to the point, though. I am sorry your love-life has been disappointing, but you can hardly blame me for that. One cannot just wait for lovers to come to one, after all, without taking some initiative oneself!"

"Yes, well, that sort of thing came naturally to you!"

"Not really. One must learn how to behave when one finds someone attractive." Gandalf stopped suddenly and clicked his tongue. "I am trying to talk about your future, not about your disappointments in love, let alone my amorous activities! What would you propose that I allow you to do, apart from gaining some influence with Aragorn or another leader in Middle-earth?"

Saruman was silent for a long time, then sighed. "I do not really care. I have nothing now. No home, no Ring, no army, no hope to return to Valinor. Nothing but you."

Gandalf clenched his teeth for a moment to contain another upsurge of anger. "Wait a moment! You don't have me either. Do not delude yourself on that account. Entirely apart from what you have done to me and hoped to do to me, I have Frodo."

Saruman stared at him with a glint in his eye. "You know what I mean!"

Gandalf frowned, feeling very uncomfortable. "No, I'm not sure that I do. If you mean your feelings for me-whatever they are--" He threw up his hands. "Fine! Keep them! If you mean that you still hope to win me over, I repeat, do not delude yourself any further."

Saruman's face suddenly betrayed his agitation. "Gandalf, I realize that you have promised yourself to Frodo and that you love him. Don't forget, though, that he is a mortal. You and I are of a kind. I would wait for you. Please, could I not at least hope that later ... much later, no doubt, but someday . .. ? I shall have to remain here in Middle-earth-but you could embody yourself in any way you wished. You could return here, and we could ... become close in a way that we should have early on."

Gandalf snorted in disbelief, then tried to speak calmly. "Saruman, I should tell you now that I recently decided to take Frodo with me when I leave Middle-earth."

For the first time Saruman seemed genuinely surprised and disturbed. "To the Undying Lands? A hobbit? How can you?"

"Arwen conceived the idea and convinced me that it is quite just. For the great deeds that Frodo has accomplished and the hurts that he incurred in his Quest, he has earned a boon of healing in the Uttermost West. And I hope that I have earned the right to love him forever. I intend to ask Manwe and Varda to grant him the even greater boon of immortality, for both our sakes. Saruman, Frodo is not simply some pretty little fellow with whom I have dallied for my pleasure for a few years or the humble, brave person chosen to be the Ringbearer. He is my destined lover, and I am confident that he will remain so forever."

Saruman had blanched during this speech, and now he sat, seemingly crushed and without hope. Finally he murmured, "Then I have truly given up or lost everything."

Gandalf frowned impatiently. "If you are sincere, why don't you make an entirely new life for yourself? Maybe go to stay with Radagast for awhile? Learn how to live a simple, happy life without aspiring to power."

Saruman glanced sardonically at him. "Even assuming that I could bear the thought, you might note that I am locked up here. Would you really free me to go and visit Radagast ... and take lessons in humility and simplicity?" he added with a slight sneer.

Gandalf sighed. "No, I suppose not. It would be far too optimistic to suppose that you could or would do anything of the sort, and I could not risk having you wandering about."

"Then we seem to be at an impasse. You want me to change, but you could never believe that I had done so."

Both Istari retreated into their private thoughts for a long time. Saruman suddenly broke the silence. "Tell me, how did you fall in love with Frodo? Was it sudden, or did you go along for a time and finally realize how you felt about him? And what caused such an unlikely alliance?"

Gandalf frowned at him in surprise. "Do you really wish to know such things, Saruman? Why torment yourself by harping on this?"

"Yes, I really do wish to know. I am trying to figure out where I went wrong. I presume that I shall be here in Middle-earth for a very long time-quite possibly forever. Not living out in the forest with the birds and animals, like Radagast, though, I assure you! If I am ever permitted to leave this room, I would like to enjoy life here more, as you have from the beginning. I doubt that I shall succeed completely, but I can try." He chuckled softly. "Obviously I am not very good at falling in love."

Gandalf smiled grudgingly. "Well, I can't criticize your choice of a lover, only your methods of going about your courtship. Your timing could have been better, to be sure. Several hundred years earlier ..."

He sighed and fell silent. Despite his love for Frodo, despite his rooted distrust of Saruman, a pang went through him as he thought of what could have been. Would he ever have fallen in love with Saruman if the Istar had approached him in a conventional way? Things could have been so different and, he had to admit to himself, better for both Saruman and their huge tasks and duties. It was hard to imagine, and yet ... He shook himself slightly. If Saruman was merely acting the repentant wizard, he was doing an amazingly good job at it. He had almost lured Gandalf into regretting that they had never become lovers! Of course, Saruman was a consummate dissembler. Gandalf hesitated, then decided that there could be little harm in answering the Istar's question about Frodo. It might give him a chance to further probe Saruman's sincerity.

"Well, all right, you want to know how and why an Istar might fall in love .. . genuine love. As you said, I have had many ... what one might call 'love affairs'-though I suspect not nearly as many as you jealously believe. Until Frodo, none of these relationships was exclusive or intended to be permanent-though some of them lasted quite a long time. But casual love was all too easy in some ways." He smiled sadly as Saruman snorted in jealous annoyance. "Yes, easy. After all, we Istari were given gifts: the gift to persuade, the gift to inspire hope, the gift to heal and aid others. But these gifts can carry with them a danger. I have found that people sometimes become too dependent on me. I have tried to discourage that, for our purpose here has been precisely to help people to think and act for themselves. In some cases, however, the hope that I have inspired has turned into love, or at least the beginnings of what could become love. I very much have tried to discourage that! It was to avoid using my special powers to inspire love that I tended to seek relationships that were ... usually not particularly serious, not very long-term. I'm sure you thought of all this as terribly promiscuous on my part. Yet, just as we were forbidden to establish a home or accumulate possessions, I felt that taking a permanent lover, a mate, so to say, would be violating my mission.

"With Frodo, though, it was different. When I would go to the Shire, all these long years, I tried to put aside my gifts altogether-to approach its inhabitants without persuasion or inspiration. After all, I little thought at the time that they had any power or needed to be drawn into the great struggle that was my concern. I made no effort to be ingratiating or endearing or eloquent-nothing beyond the casual, amusing stories told in pubs or by family fireplaces. Going to the Shire was the closest I ever came to living what one might consider an ordinary life in Middle-earth. Even after the Quest of Erebor, I maintained that attitude, believing that Bilbo was just an exception. Yet Frodo fell in love with me anyway. Just with me, a simple traveling magician and storyteller, as he perceived me. To be sure, as he grew up we had fallen into a sort of teasing, bantering way of behaving with each other that was anything but seductive-or so I thought! Frodo ... well, he caught me off my guard, one might say.

"So I found myself in love with such an unlikely person: a young hobbit! And yet, from nearly the beginning, I have felt that it was right to love him, that it was meant to be. As things turned out, I am convinced that I was right. So you may choose to believe that you and I were somehow meant to love each other, but I cannot agree. You are amazed that I was able to destroy the Ring. I do not think that I could have done so without Frodo's love and help." He paused. "I am sorry to flaunt all this in your face, Saruman-my happiness with Frodo, my success in our mission-but you asked, and I have answered."

Saruman nodded slowly. He pulled a ring from his finger and stood up, walking over to Gandalf and handing it to him. It looked like the same one that Saruman had been wearing when he visited him at Orthanc. Saruman folded his arms and gazed at him sadly for a moment, then began to pace slowly. "I have used this to help me win the confidence of Aragorn and the others. Originally I intended to use it in an attempt to seduce you and take the Ring. Of course, you resisted my attempt at Orthanc, but I acted in a very foul way to you there-under the influence of my desire for the One Ring. When I first came to Minas Tirith, I thought that you had that Ring, and I hoped that as you became corrupt, you might want me-not as an equal to share the Ring, of course, but much as I had wanted you: as a plaything, a bewitched and willing assistant. Later, when I realized that you had instead destroyed it, I thought that if I was pleasant, behaving in ways that persuaded you that I had repented, my little ring might lure you to give in to me. Now, however, I yield it to you."

Gandalf stared at the gold band in his palm, so similar to the one he had thrown into the Cracks of Doom. "Why are you giving it to me? I should think that you would keep it in the hope of succeeding later-not with me, of course, but with others. I cannot believe that you have given up your scheming."

Saruman sank into the chair and again leaned his head on its back. "No, I assure you, I am not scheming now. Soon after I learned that you had successfully resisted the One Ring itself and even destroyed it, I realized that I had no hope. You would have no trouble resisting me and my little bauble. My ring might be quite effective on many-especially mortals-but it is nothing in comparison with the One Ring. And I now have no other use for it, no other desire left."

Despite the apparently genuine melancholy in the other Istar's tone and posture, Gandalf's skepticism remained. "What if you have another ring?" he asked coldly.

Saruman gazed at him, surprised. "Ah, yes, you know less of the ring-lore than I do. You can only pour such power into a great ring once. Why else would Sauron have made only the One Ring for himself? The power you put into a ring leaves you, and you have it only as long as you possess the ring, obviously. That I know from my studies."

Gandalf was almost amused, watching Saruman switch into this pedantic mode, but he tried to remain aware that the Istar might be lecturing him in order to deceive him.

The White Wizard went on, "Were I to make more rings, I would have to dilute my power and spread it among them. My little ring was not all that powerful to begin with. Wait, I know that you would ask, Why bother? Why not just use your own innate power? Well, for a start, it gives you the option of passing your power along to another-as Cirdan did when he gave you Narya upon your arrival in Middle-earth. Certainly you can see how advantageous his decision was in the long run, though I must say that the knowledge that he trusted you far more than me led me to envy you from early on. At any rate, because such a ring allows you to cede your power to someone who will have great influence in the future, making a ring is almost like having a child-something that neither you nor I could do, Gandalf. Besides, if you concentrate and work hard on making the ring, you can pour a great deal of your power into it-more than you could ordinarily summon at any one time. I think that I succeeded to some extent with that when I made that ring. And of course you can supplement your ring with whatever power you can summon within yourself at the times when you use it.

"Perhaps most importantly, at least for me, if you know how to do it, you can use your ring to contact other ringbearers-as you and Galadriel and Elrond did. I never learned the secret of that, though. I fear that it is lost. When I made my ring, I hoped that that power would be in it automatically, but it was not the case. That was my one great disappointment, for I believed that if my ring could contact yours, you would not be able to resist my seduction. Looking back, I think that I was deluded about that-but, as you said, love is certainly capable of deluding one!"

"Not real love."

Saruman snorted slightly in annoyance. "Not real love that is returned, perhaps. Your love for Frodo was never really tested by long years of thwarted, hopeless longing. Nine years, was it not, that you pined for each other? Oh, yes, I know that much about you, Gandalf. Indeed, I know so much about you. My spies really were quite good. In this case, though, it was your own lover who gave me that fact. Nine years. Well, for me it was centuries of disappointment and frustration. For some reason, I always believed that if I knew everything about you, I could finally gain your love." He shook his head in bitter amusement. "Yes, love can delude one quite effectively. But no more. I am tired of deluding myself about you." He gazed into Gandalf's eyes for a moment with a longing that shook the Grey Istar. As he struggled to formulate a reply, however, Saruman went on, "Since I have no hope left, you may as well destroy that ring."

Gandalf slipped the ring into his pocket, trying to speak in a business-like tone. "How do I go about destroying it?"

"Oh, it is not nearly as difficult to do away with as one of the great rings would be. A large blacksmith's forge would manage it easily."

Gandalf nodded shortly. The surrender of the ring at last nearly convinced him that Saruman had truly repented-if only out of despair rather than true regret. Yet he could not help wondering if the little gold band really held the power that Saruman claimed it did. Might this just be an elaborate charade, another ruse to throw him off his guard and make him more susceptible to Saruman's innately persuasive voice? He felt almost dizzy from the convoluted hopes and doubts that the startling changes in the other Istar had placed in his mind.

His doubt must have been visible on his face, for Saruman sighed wearily. He hesitated, seeming to debate with himself, and finally spoke. "Might I just kiss you once, Gandalf? Just once? You could read the love that I bear you in that kiss. Not that I have any hope that you would ever return my love. Still, maybe that would finally convince you that I am sincere. No words seem capable of persuading you."

Gandalf stared at him stonily. "You have kissed me-indeed, twice. Don't think that I have forgotten those kisses! My mouth was sore for days afterwards. Your kisses were calculated to compel, not to seduce. I did not want them then, and I do not want them now."

Saruman's calm façade was beginning to crack, and he grimaced slightly. "Gandalf, the Ring is gone! My love for you is different now. Believe me, I still do love you. Not with the violent, jealous love that I felt before. No, I love you now sincerely ... even humbly, I think, in the face of what you have accomplished."

Gandalf frowned at him, his skepticism obvious in his face.

Saruman paled but forced himself to continue. "Gandalf, must I beg you so? I know that you have always had a taste for the low and ordinary, but really! A hobbit for all eternity, when you could have had a fellow Istar-nay, a fellow Maia! Do you not see the absurdity of it?"

Gandalf stared at him, then shook his head. "No, I do not. I was right, after all. You have not changed as much as you would have me believe-not nearly as much."

Saruman slumped slightly in the chair. "All right, then. You will never believe me. What do you intend to do with me?"

"I wish I knew! I cannot leave you here in Minas Tirith, imprisoned indefinitely. I think I could trust in Aragorn's promise not to free you, but his heirs might prove more compliant in a situation of peace and safety. I cannot let you wander about the lands for the same reason. You know I would not kill you-"

"Then let me kill myself! Give me the means, Gandalf."

Shocked, Gandalf said emphatically, "No! I can neither kill you nor knowingly allow you to kill yourself, for that would come to much the same thing. I realize now what I must do. I have been trying to judge you, but that is not for me to do. There is another way. I shall take it upon myself to decide thus far: you will remain imprisoned here for as long as I stay in Middle-earth-a year, two, three at most, I suspect. Believe me, I shall check at intervals that security has not grown lax for any reason. Then, when it comes time for me and others of the Wise-and Frodo and Bilbo-to take ship, you shall go with us. I don't know what fate the Valar might mete out in judgment. Perhaps banishment from the bounds of Arda, perhaps an indefinite time in the Halls of Mandos. Stay, I know that no Maia has ever gone there, but no other treacherous Maia has ever returned to Valinor. By surrendering yourself, you have created a novel and troubling situation. Just as I cannot judge you, I cannot foresee your fate."

Saruman stared at him for a long time. "I think it would be kinder of you to kill me."

Gandalf sighed, suddenly very tired. He dug the heels of his hands into his eyes briefly. "Perhaps, but this is not a matter of kindness. It is a matter of responsibility and authority. If you think about it carefully, you will know that I can do nothing else. Besides, if I killed you, Manwe and Varda would still have to decide what would happen to your Maiarime spirit. Their options would probably come to the same ones that I just mentioned. So, resign yourself to my plan, Saruman. I shall take some small measure of pity on you and allow you to request documents and books to be brought to you from the archives of Minas Tirith so that you can occupy yourself." He smiled grudgingly. "Do not get any ideas about learning new spells that you might use to your advantage. I have destroyed your staff, and you would not be able to use such spells."

Saruman seemed about to protest, then said quietly. "Thank you, Gandalf. I hope that you will at least come and see me between now and our departure over the Sea. It would be a kindness that would cost you nothing. Frustrating though I might find such visits, I would also treasure them."

"Naturally I would visit you when I am here. I wish to report your behavior to Manwe and Varda as fully as possible when I deliver you to their charge. And if you see such visits as a kindness, I suppose I can grant your request for that reason as well. I do, after all, remember what you were like before our relationship began to be so tense."

Saruman looked up at him with a trace of pleasure in his face, the first that he had displayed in the entire exchange. "I am glad of that. Not that we were ever particularly close. I suppose that it was my jealousy over your growing list of lovers and my increasing conviction that I could never compete with them successfully ... Do you know, as painful as our conversations here have been, I have enjoyed them in a way. You and I have spoken more freely together than ever before. I only wish that we could have been so candid in the past. Oh, I realize that it is largely my fault that we could not. Perhaps I am learning-far too late, to be sure-how to talk to you." He paused, and his faint smile faded. "That night on Orthanc, you threw in my face the claim that you had never even thought of us as potential lovers. Was that really true?"

Gandalf hesitated, but his scrupulous honesty asserted itself. "Not strictly, no. It was more a taunt flung in the hopes of shaming you into stopping your assault. I admit that in the early years, when we would meet, I occasionally considered the possibility. As you have said, it did seem rather logical at the time. You were always so guarded in expressing yourself, though. I never picked up any clues that you wanted me in that way, and eventually your behavior led me to think that, to the contrary, you simply disapproved of and disliked me ... Yes, you may be right-you simply did not know how to be candid with me ... Well, the decision is made. I shall come and see you again before we leave for the north, which will be less than a week from now. And yes, I shall remember my promise to visit you when I return. Farewell for now, Saruman." He hesitated as he began to turn toward the door. "Perhaps I have learned to have a little pity for you. Not that it would lead me to change my decision regarding what is to be done with you. But, yes, I can almost imagine enjoying talking with you, long ago, if things had happened differently. If not lovers, we could at least have been friends."

The other Istar did not reply, but Gandalf felt Saruman's eyes on him as he left the room.


Gandalf and Frodo stood side by side, leaning on the railing of the ship and gazing back at the continent that they had left a few hours before. It was barely a dark line of green on the horizon now, and the setting sun behind them threatened to deprive them of this last view of it. Gandalf, on his way to his true home after two millennia of longing for this moment, was surprised at the regret he felt at leaving Middle-earth. He had made so many friends and experienced the joys that it offered so deeply that it had gained a larger place in his heart than he had originally imagined possible. Still, he reflected, glancing at the beautiful face so close to his own, he was taking the greatest treasure that he had found on the continent back with him, and he felt immensely fortunate to be able to do so. His hand moved to cover the hobbit's.

Frodo had recently said good-bye to his dearest friends and to his home. Despite all that Gandalf had told him of Eldamar, he found it difficult to imagine the future. All he could think of now was that his old life and nearly everything that he knew well were slipping irrevocably into the distance. Everything except Bilbo, who was cosily ensconced in his little cabin below deck, and above all Gandalf. He moved to lean against his lover as he gazed at the darkening horizon to the east.

It was late September, and the sun now set before dinner. They moved down to the small dining area to join the elves who were traveling with them and partake of a simple meal. All were clearly reflecting upon the lives that they had just left behind: the places that they had grown to love and the struggles that they had undergone to preserve those places. There was some quiet conversation, but when they had finished eating they did not linger, instead dispersing to talk in small groups or singly to retire to their cabins. Saruman had not joined them, though all were aware of his presence, locked safely away below deck for the duration of the voyage. Despite his exemplary behavior during his imprisonment in Minas Tirith in the last two years, Gandalf still insisted upon complete security, denying his fellow Istar any freedoms that could possibly prove dangerous. "The Valar will judge him," he replied quietly if anyone questioned his policy, and all respected his decision.

When Gandalf and Frodo arrived in their cabin, they stood uncertainly, looking at each other with little smiles, suddenly aware that their relationship had changed somewhat. They were on their way to a new life, one vastly different from what the hobbit was used to-and although Gandalf was returning home, he would need to adjust his own habitual existence as a Maia to accommodate the fact of having a lover waiting eagerly for his visits. No amount of talk could prepare them fully for such changes. At last Gandalf crossed to the pitcher and basin on a small chest of drawers and began to undress and wash. Frodo leaned on the bed and watched him, feeling distinct stirrings of desire. He and the wizard had not been together for what seemed like a long time. Gandalf had left the Shire weeks earlier, occupying himself before their departure in overseeing the escort that brought Saruman on the last stage of the journey to the Grey Havens. By the time that the elven group and the two hobbits had arrived there, the White Wizard was safely locked away on board, and Gandalf was waiting, along with Shadowfax, on the quay.

When Gandalf had finished, he got into bed, and Frodo in turn stripped and washed quickly, wanting to join him as soon as possible. As he climbed in beside the wizard, he felt himself enveloped in strong arms and drawn against the thin body.

"So warm and soft," Gandalf murmured. "Despite my longing to return to my natural state and my home, now I find myself wanting to cling to the feelings that only a corporeal body can experience. Of course, I shall return to such a body at intervals-probably more often than I should, with such an enticing creature as you waiting for me!"

Frodo wriggled against the naked body, hoping to use some of his enticement to provoke the wizard to caress him more provocatively, but Gandalf seemed content to lie hugging him closely. At last Frodo pulled away slightly to gaze inquiringly at his lover.

Gandalf gazed back solemnly at him. "Do you suppose that I can get aroused with Saruman here on board this ship with us?"

Frodo stared at him in some consternation and rose to kneel beside him. "Well, I hope you can forget about him for now. I don't know how many days this journey will take, but I certainly want us to pleasure each other during it. Really, we don't have to see him at all during the voyage if we don't want to." He leaned over and nuzzled his lips against the wizard's cheek. "And we certainly don't want to. The only one I want to see now is you, hard and eager for me."

Gandalf looked doubtfully up at him, and Frodo assumed a very determined expression, moving to straddle the wizard's belly and place his hands on his lover's shoulders. Abruptly he leaned forward and fastened his lips on Gandalf's, moving them eagerly and forcing his tongue deeply inside. His own cock began to swell quickly, and he wrapped his arms around the wizard's neck and pulled himself into an eager, open kiss that he knew would arouse his lover as much as himself. Yet Gandalf merely opened passively to it, gently caressing his back as the hobbit's tongue thrust into him insistently. Soon Frodo's lips were moving wetly across his cheeks to his neck, and the hobbit began to push his erect member against the firm muscles of Gandalf's belly. The wizard slid his long fingers over Frodo's buttocks, pulling him slightly against himself.

Soon Frodo was gasping with excitement, and he pressed his body against the wizard and stretched up to tongue one ear wetly. He knew that Gandalf adored such stimulation, and yet he felt little response from the wizard. Was his lover really that bothered by the fact that Saruman was on the same ship with them? The hobbit was panting and flushed with desire, and he writhed against the larger body beneath him, frustrated and needy. He brushed the bushy beard to one side and slipped downward to suck at one of the large brown nipples. As he did so, however, his bottom came to rest against a very hard erection. He glanced back over his shoulder and suddenly pushed his upper body away from the wizard's chest.

"You tricked me! You just wanted to lie there luxuriously and have me do everything for you."

Gandalf laughed breathily. "Yes, and it worked beautifully, you gullible little thing. It is very pleasant to have such a lovely hobbit atop you, desperately eager to excite you. I should try it more often."

Frodo rocked his hips so that his cock slid along the wizard's skin. "So you're not really bothered at all by having Saruman locked up just down the corridor."

"No, not really. I would rather he were here under different circumstances, but after all, I made my decision over two years ago, and I have no doubts in sticking by it. He is no threat to us, and I don't have to worry about what to do with him. I'm much more interested in you and all the wonderful things you're doing to me. As you've discovered, you've made me quite ready."

The wizard grasped Frodo's waist and tried to lower him onto his back. The hobbit struggled briefly in his arms and resumed his position sitting astride Gandalf's waist, grinning. "You wanted me to make love to you, so just lie there and let me do this as well. Do you realize that in all our years together, I've never been on top when you went inside me? Why don't we try it now? After all, if we're to be together forever, we'll need some variety in our lovemaking."

"Well, I think we have had quite a bit of variety already, but I certainly won't object if you want to stay on top. Of course, a little fellow like you will probably have to stand up to get himself onto my erection." He grinned teasingly.

"Oh, really!? That's big talk. I'm not that short, Master Wizard, and despite your considerable endowment, you are not quite that long, either."

Despite this claim, Frodo found it rather difficult to get himself into a convenient position where he could maneuver his small opening to rest above the rampant penis. He spread his hands on the wizard's bent knees and crouched over it, then clumsily reached down to grasp Gandalf's erection. He waited a few seconds, then asked, "Well? Are you going to say your little spell or not?"

The wizard was gazing at his chest but quickly glanced into his face. "Oh, yes, of course. Sorry. I was just enjoying the fascinating view from this vantage point." He reached up and gently pinched Frodo's nipples as he whispered the spell. The hobbit sighed as he felt himself relax. The ripples of pleasure caused by the wizard's fingers were sending his cock even higher. He eased gently down against the smooth head of the large erection below him and felt it slip inside him. Very slowly he bent his own legs further, impaling himself on the hard rod until he flinched and gasped upon feeling the head of it press against his hidden pleasure-point. His hips moved in little circles and he began to whimper. After a little while, the hobbit swayed as his legs began to grow tired of his crouching position.

Gandalf grasped his body and guided him to lean forward until he could rest his hands on the wizard's chest and his knees on either side of his waist. Thus supported he could ride the cock more firmly and confidently, though he forced himself to go slowly. He was all too eager in the wake of their recent separation, but he loved this new position and wanted to enjoy it for as long as he could bear. Gandalf resumed rolling and stretching the pink nipples, watching as Frodo's rapt face reflected every little jolt of pleasure that passed through his body. As the hot, tight sheath gripped and pulled at the wizard, he gritted his teeth and drew in long, hissing breaths, determined not to thrust upward--much though he longed to.

At last Gandalf was desperate for release. "Faster, Frodo!" he said in a strangled voice, grasping the hobbit's shaft and pumping it. Frodo gasped and began to move more quickly, pushing himself slightly further onto the wizard's length and groaning with mounting excitement. Suddenly he grimaced, and his come splashed hotly onto Gandalf's chest. The wizard pulled the small body tightly against himself and thrust upward several times, finally spilling into him with soft, blissful moans of satisfaction.

Once a contented silence had fallen, Frodo remarked, "This position is very handy. Here I am, all limp and pressed against you without either of us having to move. It's lovely to lie this way, with you still in me." The wizard nodded lazily, already drifting into a brief nap. Frodo pressed his ear against Gandalf's damp chest and listened as his heartbeat slowed to normal. Forever, he thought. If Arwen was right, he would hear that wonderful sound forever.

After a few minutes, Gandalf opened his eyes. He sighed and stretched, then reached for a cloth to clean them both as Frodo slipped off his flaccid cock and eased himself down to lie on his back beside his lover. Gandalf ran his fingertips through the curly hair. "Two thousand years ago I certainly could not have predicted that I would be returning home on board this ship taking with me a clever, brave, stunningly beautiful, furry-footed hobbit."

Frodo rolled and rose slightly to drape himself over the wizard's chest. "Thinking of all those beautiful elves waiting in Eldamar, you don't regret you choice, I hope."

"Not at all. At least-not yet! How could I, after what just happened?" They laughed softly, and Frodo nuzzled contentedly into the beard.

Suddenly he had a thought. "Will your wonderful little spell work in Eldamar, Gandalf?"

"I hadn't thought about it. I certainly hope so! Yes, I expect it will. On the other hand, such spells only work when I have my staff. I wonder if that will even be functional in Eldamar. Hmm. It would be rather embarrassing to explain to Manwe and Varda exactly why I want to keep it. I certainly can't imagine that I'd have any other use for it. Still, I'm sure I shall find a way to allow us to go on just as we always have."

"And when will you stop being embodied as you are now? The minute you set foot on the shore? I don't think I'd like to see you just disappear or fade away, even knowing that you would return."

Gandalf chuckled. "In that case I shall be discreet about it. Of course I shall wait and see you settled in and welcomed by the elves. Just as at the Havens, there is a large quay and house where you and the others can spend some time until you work out your long-term living arrangements. Then I shall take myself off somewhere else to do my disappearing."

"Good. And where will Bilbo and I live?"

"I expect that you would want a hobbit hole, as before. The existing dwellings are all built on too large a scale for you, of course. It should not be too difficult to replicate Bag End, if you like. Certainly I would love to continue to visit you in that wonderful, familiar home-as long as there is a guest room with man-sized furniture. I know, though, that you have come to share the elves' love of the sea, so we could arrange that the new Bag End would look out onto the shore instead of just fields."

"I assume we shall have neighbors, as before."

"Oh, yes, all beautiful elves, naturally. Indeed, now it will be my turn to worry about you, surrounded by all those attractive people, perhaps succumbing to their charms and forgetting about your wizard."

"Why would a beautiful elf want me? They've all got each other."

"Well, they will know that I took all the trouble to bring you back with me, when by rights no mortals should be there. They would have to suspect that there is something extremely special about you. And after all, you are very beautiful yourself."

"So I can't even be friends with them?"

"Of course you can! Many of them are my friends as well-though some of them have never seen me. I'm sure I shall have to endure a bit of teasing when I show up as an old fellow. Still, we shall all have wonderful times together. I shall just have to make sure that I keep you happy and satisfied enough that you won't look at anyone else-not in that way."

"I don't imagine that you will have any trouble doing that. You never have-at least when you haven't been away on your travels. As long as you don't forget to visit me very regularly. Just remember your promise. You will always be Gandalf for me, and look just as you do now-every time you come to see me. I don't want you showing up on the doorstep of the new Bag End without this beard!"

Gandalf shook his head in amused exasperation. "Yes, yes, I am hardly likely to forget that promise. You certainly made enough of a fuss about the whole thing!" His amusement faded to a slight smile. "I think you finally made me understand how you mortals see things like that. Of course, now you are going to have to learn-I hope and trust!-how immortals think. Maybe that will change your mind and someday you will allow me to come to you in some beautiful embodiment."

"No! You promised! I'll never change my mind about that, no matter what I learn. Gandalf! Don't start all that again."

The wizard gazed tenderly into Frodo's blue eyes and murmured softly. "I'm just teasing you, you silly hobbit! I shall keep my promise. As you told poor Gollum, I always keep my promises to you."

The End

This AU version of Thrice Returned is dedicated to Kristina Johannson.

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