Thrice Returned

by Nefertiti

Summary: Frodo wakes after his rescue from Mt. Doom and discovers that Gandalf is alive.

Feedback: Definitely.

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

Author's note: Book-based. The action occurs in Vol. 3, "The Field of Cormallen," directly after the paragraph in which the eagles rescue Frodo and Sam.

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

Part 7: Waking in Ithilien

Frodo opened his eyes and initially found it difficult to focus on the shifting shapes above him. At last they resolved into leafy branches, moving in a gentle breeze. He lay still, enjoying the startling and unfamiliar luxury of a pillow under his head and a soft coverlet over his body. A faint stinging in his hand was the only physical reminder of his ordeal.

"Where am I, and what is the time?" His questions, uttered aloud when he had awoken in Rivendell so long ago, came into his mind unbidden. If he spoke them now, however, the same beloved voice would not respond, and he could not bear the thought of someone else answering them. There seemed to be no reason to speak or move at all.

Finally he reluctantly turned his gaze to the right, wishing desperately that he could see the wizard by his bed, as before. Frodo's heart skipped a beat as he found himself looking at an old man, clad all in white, with a broad-brimmed hat dipped down so that it entirely hid his head. He sat cross-legged, turned toward Frodo and leaning his elbow on the arm of the chair as he nodded and dozed. He reminded Frodo so much of Gandalf that the hobbit froze in joy and amazement. At once, however, he realized that it was impossible. The wizard was gone forever. This old man must just be a kind doctor, watching over his recovery. Frodo lay back hopelessly, looking upward again at the sunlight filtering through the leaves, barely wondering how he had come there. He would find out soon enough. It didn't matter anyway.

Frodo struggled to hold back his tears. He had cried so much over the loss of his lover already, but the escape from the hell of Mordor brought it back with shattering force. Why had he survived the Quest if Gandalf hadn't? The last thing he remembered was striving to keep his promise and do what Gandalf had died to help him achieve. It had been the only thing besides Sam's devoted support that had kept him going. And he had failed Gandalf, and Gandalf was gone, and all he wanted was oblivion. It occurred to him that soon everyone but he would be celebrating a great victory that someone else had accidentally accomplished.

He struggled to think what Gandalf would want him to do now. That had been his lodestar for years. If he could figure that out, it might be a tiny line to clutch in his vast sea of grief. But whenever they had talked about what might happen after the Ring was destroyed, it always had involved the two of them together. Gandalf's advice had always been to strive to go ahead, to do what he had to, to stay true to the Quest. But what if there was nothing left to strive for? He recalled Aragorn's words after Gandalf had fallen: "What hope have we without you? We must do without hope." Without hope. He had gone on for so long without hope, and he could not keep doing it now, for the rest of his life.

In the midst of his despair, Frodo was irresistibly drawn to look at the old man once more. Against all reason, he felt a curious excitement. He rose slightly from the pillow, leaning on his elbow and trying to get a glimpse of the face behind the hat-brim. As he leaned further and further, he accidentally put part of his weight on his bandaged hand, and the sudden pain made him draw in his breath with a hiss. At once the old man's head snapped upright. Frodo found himself gazing into Gandalf's face-so familiar and yet changed in some elusive way. The hobbit felt completely bewildered and dizzy. Was this another of his many dreams of Gandalf? Surely he would wake shortly and find himself back in Mordor. Then a tiny whiff of pipeweed tickled at Frodo's nose. It brought back those last few minutes with Gandalf in the dark in Moria so vividly that he nearly lapsed into unconsciousness again. He stared with dawning hope at the figure before him. Gandalf smiled as the initial shock left Frodo's face, and that smile finally made the hobbit realize that it was, it had to be his wizard, unthinkable though it seemed. The two stared at each other. Frodo was torn between tears and inexpressible joy, confusion and certainty. He opened his mouth to cry out his lover's name, but Gandalf quickly put his finger to his lips and pointed over to Frodo's other side. The hobbit turned and saw a second bed not far from his own, where Sam lay in a deep slumber.

Frodo sighed with relief at seeing Sam, alive and sleeping so peacefully. Immediately he turned back, laboring to breathe, and whispered, "Gandalf!" He leaned forward and reached out, and Gandalf murmured, "My dear hobbit!" and moved quickly to sit on the edge of the bed. The two embraced and sat for a long time. There seemed to be no words to express the immensity of their mutual achievement or the wonder of their reunion. Frodo kept passing his hands over Gandalf's shoulders, back, and neck, trying to convince himself that this was a real, living body, not a vision. At last he managed to blurt out, "Don't let me go, don't let me go! I want to stay this way forever. For days, at least." Gandalf hugged the hobbit as tightly as he dared, fighting tears as Frodo buried his face in the wizard's beard-as he had so often done playfully long ago.

Finally, pulling back to look at Gandalf, Frodo stammered, "It's really you ... isn't it? I-I thought you were dead." The wizard hesitated, gently tracing his fingertips up and down Frodo's arm, then replied with a trace of a sad smile, "I was." Frodo frowned at him doubtfully, waiting for an explanation that was clearly not forthcoming-at least not at that moment. Gandalf went on more lightly, "I assure you, my dearest Frodo, nothing less could have kept me from staying with you and aiding you in your task. Still, you and Sam managed wonderfully on your own."

Frodo glanced away, his face twisting in sudden anguish. "Sam, yes. But not I. I failed you, Gandalf."

The wizard betrayed no surprise but watched Frodo with grave sympathy. "You mean by claiming the Ring at the last, I assume."

Frodo was startled. "How did you know about that?"

Gandalf replied, "Since my return, I have been aware of each time you used the Ring. Not only was I able to see further, but clearly you were learning how to draw upon the Ring's power-especially after your conversations with Galadriel and your visions in her mirror. To say the least, that moment in Mount Doom astonished me. Just before that, I had been torn between doubt and despair. Sauron sent me evidence that you were his prisoner, and yet I was not entirely convinced that you were. After all, why would he have bothered to deal with us at all if he already had the Ring? When you put on the Ring, I realized that you were indeed still free and actually at the Cracks of Doom. But things became very confusing after that, and for a short time I frankly had no idea what was happening-until the Ring actually went into the fire. I gathered later from seeing your wound that someone took the Ring from you by force. I am not certain, but I strongly suspect that that someone was Gollum."

Frodo nodded, and Gandalf continued gently, "Did Sam push Gollum into the abyss?"

"No," said Frodo. "He fell in as he exulted over the Ring."

Gandalf nodded thoughtfully, then went on in a soft but emphatic tone. "Frodo, you did not fail me. I knew all along that there was a chance that you would not be able to destroy the Ring voluntarily. After all, you could not even will yourself to throw it into the fire that day at Bag End, and that was before you had borne it so long and through such hardships. But I have always hoped and indeed felt in my heart that if you managed to get the Ring to the Cracks of Doom, it would be destroyed-though I could not see clearly how. No, you did not fail me. As far as I am concerned, you succeeded at that moment in the Emyn Muil when, despite your fear, you took pity on Gollum and spared his life."

"But how did you know ... oh, never mind," Frodo trailed off. Gandalf smiled briefly.

"Your pity for Gollum allowed the Ring to be destroyed. Because of him, you ... failed to fail in the Quest, so to speak." Frodo looked doubtfully at Gandalf, who went on firmly, "The Ring is gone, Frodo, and it would not be so if you and Sam had not taken it to the brink, through great acts of heroism. I am very, very proud of and grateful to you both, more than I can say. Do not torment yourself about that last moment. The Quest was achieved!"

Gandalf's earnest praise nearly banished Frodo's feelings of guilt, and he managed a small, shaky smile. At once, however, the pent-up memories of the journey crushed down upon him, and he began to weep, quietly but with an aching intensity. Quickly Gandalf leaned forward and again put his arms around Frodo, drawing him close. Within the wide sleeves of his cloak, the hobbit was nearly hidden but for his head resting against the wizard's shoulder as he sobbed. Gandalf waited in patience and sadness as Frodo poured out his accumulated grief and weariness. After long minutes the sobs gradually diminished, and Frodo felt a great peace and joy slowly filling him. He was with Gandalf. Nothing else seemed important.

"What an amazing change!" he whispered.

"What is?"

"For weeks I have gone into dangers I could never have imagined, until I seemed to be facing death. I did not expect ever to feel safe again. And now, here with you, I feel as safe as I could hope to be." He closed his eyes and sat for a time with his head still pressed against Gandalf's shoulder, but now in contentment.

Finally Frodo sat back with a puzzled expression. "But where are we? And how did I get here? Surely Sam did not have the strength to carry or drag me all the way out of Mordor?"

"Gwaihir and the eagles found you and carried you up and out of the ruin of Gorgoroth. They brought you here to Ithilien."

"But how did they know where to look? How did they know to look at all?" Frodo persisted.

"I told them and came with them as they searched."

Frodo stared at him in surprise and adoration. "You went into the chaos of Mordor for me?"

The wizard smiled and shrugged, looking down. He tried to speak steadily, but his voice shook noticeably. "After all, I was largely responsible for sending you there. And apart from everything else, I wanted you back! We have both been through a great deal, but I'm still quite fond of you, you know. And brave, beautiful, clever, thoroughly delightful hobbits are hard to come by." Gandalf took Frodo's hands in his own and went on more cheerfully, "The ride was certainly spectacular! I got an aerial view of the whole of Gorgoroth in its destruction. I had never been beyond the edges of Mordor, of course, nor seen the Dark Tower. It was still in the last stages of its collapse as I glimpsed it through the smokes and vapors. Even in its ruin, it was an overwhelming sight-more formidable than even I had imagined. I am rather glad that I had not seen it until then. Otherwise I might never have believed that we could defeat such a foe. I might have been more inclined to acknowledge that those who accused me of being a fool for sending a hobbit into Mordor with the Ring might well be right. I am very grateful to you for giving me irrefutable proof that I am not a fool!" He laughed quietly, and Frodo smiled fondly, wondering vaguely who could possibly have had the nerve to call Gandalf a fool.

On common impulse they glanced over to make sure that Sam was still sleeping soundly, then leaned in and pressed their lips together. As far as Frodo was concerned, that soft kiss could go on forever. It pushed all the memory of the terrors of Mordor to the back of his mind, remote and now veiled with immeasurable joy. At last he withdrew slightly, not because he wanted to, but because he was beginning to feel a bit woozy.

Gandalf saw that Frodo was becoming weary. He whispered, "You should sleep again. There will be much time later for talk."

Frodo began to lie back on the pillow but stopped, leaning on his elbow, and stared at his lover. "What if I wake up and find that you are gone again-that this was a dream?" His face bore a slight, melancholy smile, but Gandalf sensed the genuine terror lurking behind the hobbit's question. The wizard considered for a moment, then slipped his hand into Frodo's. "Perhaps I should not tell you this, but on the other hand, now that the Ring is gone, I shouldn't think that it matters. You see, my dear Frodo, the same Power that chose you to be the Ringbearer also sent me back to continue helping in the struggle against Sauron. I do not exist now only in your dreams, Frodo, and I shall be here when you awake, I promise you."

Frodo lay back, but he continued to grip the wizard's hand. "I'm just making sure," he whispered with a wobbly little grin, and he quickly drifted off to sleep-though his tight hold on Gandalf did not relax. Carefully the wizard pulled his chair closer and slid back into it, without taking his hand out of Frodo's. He sat sadly contemplating the sleeping hobbit and watching for signs of Sam's awakening.

TBC in "Thrice Returned #8: Lamb Pie"

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