Her last word was his name, spoken so gently that he could no longer hold back his tears. Then her breathing began to fade, until finally he could not hear it at all. When her eyes froze into stillness, he touched the tips of his fingers to their lids and slid them shut, knowing that it was over. Still, he did not know how to leave her, and he sat with her throughout the night, as her fevered hand in his grew cold.
When morning came, he bent and kissed her lips, stroking the last unruly strand of gold back from her face, into the mass of grey curls that covered her pillow. He could find no words to tell her goodbye, but outside in the apple tree a blackbird raised its voice in song.
The dirt fell on her coffin with a sound like the echo of drums in underground caverns that sometimes came to him in dreams, hollow and dry. It must have made him sway, because Merry touched his arm, steadying him.
"It's not really her in there," he said, and Sam nodded, willing his body to stay upright. She would never have to be alone in the dark.
Afterwards, as what might have been the whole of Hobbiton filed past to offer their condolences, that was the thought he clung to. He had never failed to keep her safe from the dark.
The rooms and halls of Bag End were heavy with the absence of her, empty without her warmth and her laughter. And within that emptiness there lurked another, one that Rosie and the children, and then Rosie alone, had kept at bay, but which had always been there, beneath a lifetime of busy days and happiness. A hole in his heart where something had once been uprooted and the soil had never settled into place.
The red book, as he took it from the shelf, was warm with late afternoon sunlight, the leather soft and smooth from years of use. Inside, the words stretched from paragraph to paragraph, reaching ever towards an unknown end: Mr. Bilbo's ornate script, his own simple fist, and between them, measured and thoughtful, the hand that drew his eye. Long into evening he sat with the book in his lap; not reading, but tracing the letters with fingers worn rough by time. The determination that stirred in his chest was fierce and familiar, and in the first starlight the black ink shimmered bright as mithril against the dull surface of the page.
Glimmer of morning just creeping into the sky, and the grass was wet with dew beneath his feet as he crossed the field behind Bag End. Only the birds were yet awake, the air crisp with their music, and he was alone with the Shire.
The mallorn that stood where the party tree had once been welcomed him with its own music as he came closer, a whisper of silver leaves in his ears. Its branches were the same grey colour as the elven cloak on his shoulders, and he reached out to touch the trunk. Skin to skin, as it were, and he could feel the life that ran through this tree, the strength it drew from the earth around it. They had gathered years together, the mallorn and he, adding ring to ring to who they were; but the tree was still young, even now, its smooth bark a sharp contrast to the lines and wrinkles of his hand. It would be there long after he had gone. Seed to sapling to this mighty tree under his eyes, and it would go on growing, new roots, new branches, new glittering leaves forming with each new spring. Remaining itself, it would never stop changing.
"It's time," he thought. "It's time I risked the final change myself, and that's a fact. I couldn't have gone before, not for the life of me, but now I'm as restless as though I'd left it too long. It's past time I set out, if I ever want to get there at all."
A gentle wind swept across the meadow, shaking silver leaves in a rustle of agreement.
His daughter's hair smelled of hay and late summer roses, and he hugged her tight before letting go. Meeting her eyes, he saw a sadness there he did not recognize, and an understanding he had not expected.
"I remember him, you know," she said. "I was so little when he went away, but I remember sitting on his lap and listening to stories. I couldn't say what they were about, of course, but I haven't forgotten the poetry in his voice or the way he would look up and smile when you came in the room. We'll all miss you if you go, dad, but I think perhaps you have missed him long enough."
He shook his head and smiled, overwhelmed by her as he had been from the day she was born.
"Why, Elanor Gamgee," he said, "how ever did you get to be so wise?"
There was teasing in his voice, but her answer was serious.
"I got it from you, of course. Everyone knows that."
And since there was nothing he could say to something like that, he wrapped her in his arms again and kissed her cheek.
When at last he rode away, he could see her standing there, watching him, until the road turned and the hills blocked her from view.
The boat was smaller than he would have liked and the sea beyond the Havens looked immensely vast, far wider than any water ought to be. But the boat-builder assured him that this was the largest vessel any hobbit would be able to pilot on his own and Sam had to take his word for it. Still, he eyed the thing with suspicion.
"Master Samwise," the man said, "do you even know how to sail?"
"Ain't no cause for a decent hobbit to go traipsing about on the water, or so my Gaffer always told me. But life has shown me cause to do a great deal of things I never imagined, and this here looks to be one of them. I might be old, but I reckon I've still got it in me to learn a few new tricks before the end. Show me."
The boat-builder nodded, and the amusement in his gaze dissolved into something resembling respect. Out above the water, a seagull soared on the wind, the light of the descending sun setting its wings on fire, a flash of gold against the greyness of the clouds.
Night time, and the sea was vast indeed, a dark abyss stretching in every direction, but he was not alone. Stars shone all around him, a million gleaming pinpricks through the fabric of the sky, and he was grateful for their company.
"I wasn't made for travelling," he thought, "no more than the tree is that clutches to the ground. But this will be the last time, and not all trees stay where you put them. I suppose all living things must follow where their heart has gone, there's just no other way for it. It certainly feels more simple than you'd think."
And as the light breeze took him westward, towards the one star that burnt brighter than the rest, he began to sing to himself and to the ocean, a melancholy, yet somehow hopeful melody mingling with the surge of water against the hull.
"The road goes ever on and on…"
Water in his face, from above or from below, he could not tell, rain and sea mingling in a chaos that threatened to tear his boat apart, to wash him away with every new gust of wind. Creaking of timber, crashing of waves, and fear sat like a sharp-edged lump in the pit of his stomach, deadly and cold.
But this was not, could not be, the end. Not a watery death alone and unmourned, still so far from where he ought to be. With a strength he thought that age had taken from him, he clung to the tiller and held on, letting go only when the salt water had finally dried on his lips.
White mist surrounding him, no stirring of wind nor of water. Blind stillness without sense of time or direction, the sail hanging limp from its mast. In the air, he could feel a faint scent of earth and flowers, but if land was near, he did not know how to get there.
"Well, Sam Gamgee," he said at last, "this is it, then. He did say as you would be able to join him one day, but then he always thought better of you than you deserved, bless his heart. The stories tell of finer folk than you who never got farther than this, and you had no business thinking you'd manage to find your way where kings and heroes couldn't. The only thing to hope for now is that you'll somehow make it back, though that seems difficult enough. There's no use crying over what wasn't meant to be. But," he added, "by the light of Elbereth, I would have liked to look upon his face again one last time before my eyes close for good. I would have liked that above all things."
He bent his head, burying his face in his hands, and for a long time he sat in the stern of his boat, immobile as the charmed air around him. Until something ruffled the curls at the nape of his neck, and he looked up to see wind filling the sail, breaking the calm.
As the mists slowly parted unto a world of light, relief took him, and he began to laugh.
Everything was light. The water of the ocean, the birds in the sky, the white cliffs of the coastline he followed - all seemed to shine from within, vibrant with life and clarity. Like Rivendell or Lórien, but undimmed, bright as morning sunlight, yet gentle on the eyes.
There was a harbour before him, many fair ships lying at rest, and beyond them a city that sparkled in the sun. Land at last, and he made for it eagerly, heart pounding in his throat.
Shouts of surprise, of welcome, as he was sighted from the wharf, and there were elves who tied his boat up, who helped him ashore, but he did not see them. He had eyes only for the one who stood waiting on the quay.
He was not unchanged, you could not say that, but nor did he look as old as years ought to have made him. Ageless was the word for it, more like one of immortal kind than ever in his youth, and his beauty made Sam's chest tighten with joy. Wide, silver eyes wet with tears as when he last had seen them, but these were good tears, a smile spreading across his face as his hand came up to brush Sam's cheek.
"Dear Sam," he said, gentle as only he had ever been, and if more words were meant to follow, it seemed his voice would not carry them. But that was as it should be, because Sam too was speechless, and he knew that there was no room for words when every space in your heart was filled to the brim and overflowing.
In the silence between them, Frodo leaned forward and captured Sam's lips in a kiss.