With much gratitude to Frayach and Calanthe for inspiring story discussions,
and to Tiriel and Notabluemaia for insightful beta comments.

by Cara J. Loup

The creaking of wheels and the clop of hoofs dwindled, sliding gently under the swell of morning mist that rolled down the slopes and gathered in the fields. Quiet crept across the floorboards that usually rustled and hummed with sound, through every hour of the waking day. Frodo stopped in the middle of dressing, the cooled wash-water still beading along his neck. As he listened, the sudden silence seemed like a slanted ray that he could trace along the floor, settling into the grain and the knotholes that patterned the beechwood. Frodo dried his face and breathed slowly, as if to take it into himself, together with the cool draft from the window and the chatter of magpies out on the fallow.

When he closed the bedroom door behind himself, cloak and scarf tucked over his arm, the farmhouse lay empty. In the kitchen, unwashed dishes piled precariously on the cluttered table, but even though a full bucket waited by the hearth, it would only discomfit the Cottons if he tried to clean anything in their absence. That duty would fall to Rose when she and her parents returned from the small hotch-pot market held in Frogmorton, never mind the hour.

Frodo picked up a bread-crust and shortcake, and stashed both in his pockets. He knew it bothered Sam that the Cottons insisted on a fixed appointment of duties around their household, which among other things meant that Rosie, not Sam, waited on him at mealtimes. It bothered Frodo far more that his own hands were kept idle. But he understood, or thought he did, why the family found it necessary to remind him of his place as a guest in their house. He patted his pockets, swung his cloak around his shoulders, and turned briskly.

Both front and back door stood open to the morning that cleared out hovering woodsmoke and greasy cooking smells with its fine chill, and traversed the floor in one grey sweep. Frodo had almost reached the back door when he heard faint whistling from the other side of the timber wall where the cattle were kept at nights. In a moment, the cheerful sound was cut off by a low thud and a clatter. Frodo retraced his steps and opened the door to the byre that already stood ajar.

It was darker within, and the air stale with cold smells that encrusted everything like dried clay. Only a stray beam from the outer door fell across dark posts, beaten earth and scattered snips of straw, but between the ploughshare and the stalls, someone struggled with a bulging sack. He'd tripped over the hoe and scythe that barred the narrow space, and an empty pail rolled at his feet.

"Can I help?" Frodo kept his voice low to avoid startling the lad.

"Oh... hullo, sir." When the boy turned towards him, awkwardly balancing the sack while groping around with his free hand to catch hold of the scythe, Frodo saw that it was Nibs, the Cottons' youngest son. "I din't watch where I went settin' me feet," Nibs explained, a puff of white breath rising before his mouth. "'Tis all me own fault."

From the back, the Cottons' sow grunted as if in agreement. Frodo stepped forward, hesitating a moment, then grabbed on anyway and lifted the scythe out of the lad's path.

Nibs didn't seem to mind his assistance. With a quick "thank'ee, sir," he let the sack slip off his shoulder, grasped it in both hands and carried it over to the pallets by the inner wall. Frodo returned pail, hoe and scythe to their proper place, if it could be called that, among the hoard of ropes, buckets, yokes, scuttles, hampers and sundry tools that must have been collected by generations of farmers.

"There now..." Nibs wiped his brow as he dropped his burden. Grey strands of fleece clung to the burlap, and Frodo could guess what he'd brought in.

"I've a habit of takin' my third step afore the first, Dad keeps tellin' me, and like as not he's right." Nibs patted his sack with a rueful half-smile. His cheeks, the tip of his nose, and his pert round chin had all been stung pink by the cold. There was something about his lively face that reminded Frodo of a younger Pippin, although Nibs was in fact several years older than his cousin. The lad bent again to arrange the sack on his pallet and drape the blanket across it.

I reckon he's been a mite lonely since Tom got wed, Sam had said when Frodo discovered where the youngest Cotton boy now spent the nights. He's happy as the day's long to be sleepin' near the cows with the other lads.

After entering the byre one evening, Frodo could well believe that. Once the cattle had been brought in, the room filled with the big animals' warmth, a living steam at the heart of which a single lantern would flicker. The smells of dung and musty straw lost their biting edge and were twined into a loose fabric of ease and companionship. On more than one night, Frodo had heard the voices of Nibs and the two farmhands filter through the door's slats, long after everyone else had retired, a lively murmur that played like rain on the senses' edge and softened the quiet of the house. He had wondered, too, what it would be like to hear Sam's voice woven into that gentle flow, and if he would catch in it the ring of a simple, thoughtless contentment.

The Cottons, he knew, would prefer it if Sam shared the farmhands' corner at nights, though they had never mentioned it. Not to my ears, Frodo reminded himself, with a twinge of disquiet. Surely they hadn't approached Sam? But then, it didn't take spoken words to trace the discomfort through the days, faint as the fissures that patterned the wall-plaster yet always within sight. Without ever mentioning it between themselves, Sam and he had made a habit of leaving and entering their shared bedroom separately.

"'T will make fine bedding, this," Nibs muttered. "Hep and Rob'll grow freckled with envy, see if they don't!"

Though he'd probably meant that comment for no ears but his own, Frodo made a concurring noise in his throat.

Nibs straightened at that, apparently surprised to find him still lingering. Behind him, the sow rubbed her bristled hide against the stall's boards, snorting as she scratched herself.

"If you be lookin' for Sam," Nibs said, "he's over at Tom and Jolly's house, for a cup o' tea with his Gaffer, I fancy."

"I know." Frodo suppressed a slight stir of irritation that took him by surprise. "I'm about to head there myself," he added. "Sam and I have business with Farmer Whitling, and that might take a while."

"Aye, it might." Nibs scratched at his dark curls that his mother had trimmed not long ago, and somewhat raggedly at that. "He's stubborn as a plough-mule, that one, or so Dad says. I've never had no words with old Whitling meself..." The lad trailed off, perhaps remembering who it was that he talked so freely to.

"I shall keep it in mind." With a quick smile, Frodo turned towards the door. He'd learned long ago that it was a mark of respect when farmers called each other stubborn or half-cracked, and he'd very likely hear the same about Farmer Cotton from old Whitling.

"A good day to you, sir," Nibs called after him.

"And to you," Frodo answered from the door, where the crisp morning air greeted him with whiffs of warm dough from the bakehouse. How many times had he caught such a scent as it wafted up from the Row to reach him, soothing as a promise that all was well, on Bag End's doorstep?

Frodo paused to retrieve a memory that seemed to hang on the edge of that smell like a star glimpsed by chance through a bramble thicket, but it slipped away into nothing. Behind the wattle-fence of the hencoop, a flurry of cackles went up and seemed to urge him not to waste any part of the morning.

All around, the mists had thinned to wisps that drifted across field and fallow like smoke after the stubble has been burned and the embers still crawl everywhere, restless as glow-worms, over the face of the earth. As the mist receded, it bared scattered dabs of frost on the weed-banks, a fine salting that looked feeble, as if the coming winter was in doubt of its promise.

Not a promise, a threat... As he walked along the fields' margin, Frodo turned his thoughts towards the grain they would need to buy in Bree-land or the north country, in addition to the stores that the Tooks and Brandybucks might spare them. Yet even if sufficient amounts could be purchased to last through the winter, there would hardly be enough left for the spring sowing. Calculations and concerns beset him, as they so often had in the past fortnight. He took a clearing breath and looked ahead.

On the other side of the fields, where the south lane swung out in a wide curve, a second cottage ducked against a cluster of rowan and whitethorn. Smoke puffed up from the chimney, winding into the young trees that stooped to windward. Unlike the trees farther up the lane, these rowans had escaped the axe, and some withered berries still clung to their lower branches.

As soon as Frodo entered the small yard, a dog's high, yipping bark rose in alarm. Straining on the limit of its rope, the mongrel danced with agitation and didn't quiet even when the door opened.

"Numps! There now, lad!" Tom Cotton's cheerful voice rang through the cold air, and the dog subsided into a snarl that rolled in its belly. "Good morning, Mr. Frodo! Shall I fetch Sam, or will you step inside a minute? We've a pot o' tea steaming on the table, if you fancy a cup."

"Yes, thank you." Frodo turned from the dog that still eyed him suspiciously. "I'll be glad to come in, if you don't mind."

"'Tis a pleasure, sir." Tom stood back and waved him on into the main room, where most of the light came from the stoked kitchen fire. The cottage was smaller than the farmhouse, yet both Tom and his brother Jolly lived there with their wives, and after the Bywater battle, Sam's Gaffer had moved his scarce belongings to their home. Frodo blinked in the sudden warmth and untied his scarf, if only to stop his eyes from searching for Sam's right away.

From the long table set near to the wall, Jolly Cotton rose to greet him, one hand resting on his wife's shoulder. Although the family gathered for a shared supper at the farm each Highday, Frodo had not met her before. Her braids were coiled into a tight bun at her nape which lent her face a peaked look.

"Good morning," Frodo said into the round.

While Marigold smiled openly at him, Jolly's wife cast her eyes down rather like Rose Cotton did when they all sat at table together. Her name was Ivy, Frodo remembered as she took his cloak and scarf and hurried off, her head bowed.

"Fetch us another cup, lass!" the Gaffer called after her.

"Over here, if you will." Tom pulled out a chair for Frodo and seated himself on the bench beside Marigold.

Sam was perched on the other end, next to his father, and when he met Frodo's eyes, his lips curved in a quick, private smile. Sharp and fleeting as a quiver in the bright mid-day air, Frodo felt the familiar leap under his breastbone. At such moments, a single glance could shut out every other presence, and something held in suspension between them, poised as an arrow to the tautened string.

With a polite murmur, Ivy leaned past Frodo to pour his tea. He thanked her and sat back with his cup, relieved when conversation resumed around him.

"I hope there's some salt to be had at market," Tom was saying as he lifted a spoonful of porridge to his mouth. "We're short on candles, too."

Jolly let out an audible sigh. "Ah, but I was hopin' for a good side o' lard!"

"There's another fresh loaf in the oven," Marigold returned, "if you're still hungry."

"Not this oven, mind." Tom patted her rounded belly, a hazy cheer in his eyes.

"Oh, you!" Marigold reached for her husband's chin and shook it lightly.

"I'll be out from under your eaves ere that wee one starts a-wailing," the Gaffer put in. "Won't I, Sam?"

"Aye, Dad." Sam didn't meet his father's eyes and gazed into the mug that he rolled between his palms.

Frodo watched him with a shapeless concern, seeming to stir up from his stomach. This past week, the labours to close the sand-and-gravel pit in the Hill's flank had begun, and when Sam returned late on the first evening, his curls were dusted grey, and his eyes reddened from the flying grit, if nothing worse...

I could come along tomorrow and help, Frodo had suggested as he watched Sam splash water over his face and neck, though he already knew what Sam's answer would be.

I still know how to handle a shovel, he'd insisted.

With quick and quiet steps, Sam had walked over to the bed and cupped his hands around Frodo's. I know that, me dear. A grey dribble ran from his hair as he bent his head to press a kiss to Frodo's knuckles. But don't come. Not now.

Did the Gaffer realise that Sam would wear himself down to the bone, if it meant that the Row could be restored before the frosts? Even as he watched the old gardener, Frodo noticed that he'd folded one hand over the other, as if to protect the memory of Sam's breath and lips on his skin.

"You'll still need to add a room or another to your house, Tom," the Gaffer continued. "'Tis getting mighty crowded as is."

"Don't be worried, Father Ham," Tom answered him, leaning past Marigold, his arm around her shoulders. "We've logs stacked aplenty, and the bairns won't be needin' much room for a while."

A thin sound sliced through their conversation. Frodo glanced to the side and saw that Ivy was grinding the bottom of her cup against the table. The fretful movement stopped when her husband clamped a hand over her wrist, yet her face had lost all colour.

"Shall we have more tea?" Jolly asked, without releasing his grip. "Though I can't be a-loitering longer, or the deadwood won't get chopped ere the week's out."

"Not for me, thank you," Frodo ventured, when no-one else answered the question. During the brief silence that followed, he could hear the rustle of mice in the thatched roof above, where the bags and baskets that were hung from the rafters cast formless shadows.

"Well, then." Jolly rose, nodding his head towards Frodo. "A good day and all."

The instant he made to leave, Ivy was on her feet as well, collecting the dishes, and Marigold pushed herself up from the bench. On either side of her, Tom and the Gaffer watched her with frank appreciation.

"I tell 'ee, Tom," the Gaffer said with a wink, "there's no better stock than what's bred by a Cotton-and-Gamgee match."

Tom lifted his mug. "We'll drink to that when the babe's born."

"I could help you with the house," Sam said suddenly, and Frodo noticed how his cheeks darkened when the other two turned towards him. "Seeing as how you won't be startin' to build before spring..."

"Now, Sam, there's no need." Tom leaned back, his arms folded. "You've got all the work strapped on as one pair o' shoulders can carry. And I bet you'll have more to worry after, come spring."

Sam muttered something against the rim of his own mug, either unaware of the Gaffer's sharp sidelong glance, or pretending not to notice. "Mr. Frodo and me ought to be going. It's a bit of a walk out to the Whitling farm, too."

He looked directly at Frodo, a silent urging in his eyes that caught like a spark.

"Yes, we should be on our way," Frodo agreed, unrest kindling in the pit of his stomach.

Among goodbyes from the remaining family, Marigold accompanied them to the back door where she fastened her brother's cloak. Sam kissed her cheek hurriedly, then followed Frodo out into the small croft. Like wistful trespassers, the rowans leaned over the fence, their branches weaving in a cold breeze, and from the other side of the cottage came the dry sounds of an axe-blade snapping wood. Beyond the thicket, a footpath ran up to the muffling haze that lay banked on the southwestern ridge. Sam set a determined pace towards it, and with every step the steam of his breaths clouded his expression.

Frodo didn't speak until they'd passed the boundary stone that marked the limit of the Cottons' fields. "Is something the matter?"

Before them, the ground dipped towards unclaimed grassland and brushwood, and they stopped by the brambles that crowned the ridge. Sam pushed both hands into his trouser pockets, his shoulders rising and settling on a long breath as he looked across the land. "No," he answered slowly, "all's set to return to how it's always been. And that's as it ought to be, I reckon."

Frodo heard the note of reassurance, meant for them both and mustered with an effort Sam might not be aware of, and he couldn't bring himself to pursue the question. "What about Jolly's wife though? She seemed... well, ill at ease."

"Aye." Sam lowered his glance to the short, wiry grass at his feet. "She lost the babe she carried last summer, that's why."

Before he'd quite finished, Frodo's heart beat faster with a sudden fear he couldn't comprehend. "Do you know... do you know what happened?"

Sam shook his head. "'T might have been the lack of wholesome food, or just the fear as the ruffians put into her."

"So that is why she won't join the family on Highdays."

"She's staying away for shame, poor lass..."

"Shame? But-" Frodo broke off when Sam looked at him, alert and, without doubt, angry to the last inch of his stiffened back.

"There's no cause for it." Sam turned back to the north and when he spoke again, his voice had grown tight and husky. "She didn't ought to be thinking that she failed the family. It ain't right."

"No, indeed." Frodo laid a hand on his arm, wishing the quiet view below would envelop them both, that it could rise up through his touch, like the beginning of a dream, perhaps.

Mist lay in thick swaths over the Bywater Pool, cloaking Hobbiton Road, and beneath its expanse the stumps of trees dwindled to dark blots that swam in the pearly grey. Along the seam of that veil, the village spread in a patchwork of pale sod and black earth, and Frodo longed, irrationally, to walk back towards it instead of heading in the opposite direction.

He set his eyes on the cottage roof that showed through the web of bare branches, and voiced the first question he could think of. "Why did the Cottons build a separate home for Tom and Jolly, instead of expanding the farmhouse?"

"Oh, 't was Long Hom that had the cottage built for himself," Sam answered, "the farmer's old dad, if you remember?" The glint of anger had disappeared from his eyes when he turned back to Frodo. "I was too young to know much of aught at the time, but my Gaffer says that old Hom Cotton took to bristling like a hedgehog in his later days, whenever the moods took him. And instead of growing weak, his hearing got better, if you can believe it."

"I can," Frodo said with a smile.

"It seems he couldn't put up with all the noise from the cattle and little 'uns back at the farm no more, so he set to have his own house built a good distance away. I daresay Farmer Cotton weren't too pleased with the business, but what could he do?" A sudden gust flicked the hem of Sam's cloak into the brambles, and he pulled it free with a quick motion. "Aye, we should be off now," he told wind or thorn as much as Frodo, and headed down into the southern dell.

"Sam..." Frodo didn't intend to say more, and the sound wavered, dipping like the breath before his mouth, but only to hear it, to see Sam turn around at once and feel it draw out between them like a caress was more than enough. The vivid change on Sam's face touched Frodo's senses as clearly as the mists that flickered about his feet and carried him down, half-skidding, over the frosted grass. He steadied himself with a quick clasp of Sam's shoulders.

"Give an old hobbit a chance to catch his breath!"

"Old! You..." Sam swallowed and wrapped both arms around Frodo's waist, holding him very close, as if they'd not separated for a moment since rising from their bed.

Wind pooled in the dell, between the ridge and a line of spare grey aspen. Frodo bent his head to Sam's shoulder, glad to let the air eddy about them, a slow circling that wound their breaths into one, and in their embrace he felt a gathering pull, as a tree might draw inward through autumn's chills, storing sap and strength beneath its scoured bark. Warmth rose up his chest and stayed there, spreading a fine layer between skin and linen, even as he prepared to let go.

"Now we can leave."

But the look in Sam's eyes held him motionless, open and alive with wonder through the vapour of their breaths. There is no end, Frodo thought, surprised anew, as he always would be. Not to this.

Sam touched his lips as if to stop him from revealing a secret and nodded, almost gravely, before he let his hand drop.

Frodo felt a flush crawl up his throat when a cold blast whipped against the side of his face. In reckless, tumbling flight, a hooded crow sailed past and landed on a tussock some yards away, its beak wide open. To Frodo it seemed as if the bird had fallen out of the trees on the other side of the dell, together with the foggy light that slanted through the boughs as the clouds shifted. For a moment, the same light hammered in his temples.

"Well, now." Sam tipped his head to the side for a glance at the crow. A white fold of skin slid rapidly back and forth over the bird's eye. "Here's another one wanting to catch a breath, it looks like."

"Yes..." Frodo paused until the chill that seized him had abated. "Exactly how far is it to the Whitling farm? I'd rather not arrive at mid-day, or they might feel obliged to invite us to lunch."

Sam slapped his own forehead at that. "Kick me, but I forgot to pack us a bite for the road!"

"Don't berate yourself, Sam." Frodo reached into his pocket and brought out the shortcake. "I took a piece of bread, too. It isn't much, but it should keep us on our feet until tea-time."

"And I ought to be grateful that you kept your wits about for the both of us," Sam replied, still looking aggrieved at his oversight. "At any rate, we'll see the farm well before noon. I've not gone there in years, but it's less than an hour's walk from the East Road."

"Right." Frodo smiled, a little shakily perhaps, but it eased Sam's frown aside. "Lead the way."

* * *

When they climbed down to the East Road, among the stalks of withered thistles and hemlock, a smell of rot thickened the air. Water ran low in the ditch that was choked with dead leaves and wood chippings.

"That'll be one fine job, come spring," Sam said through his teeth. "Clearing out all the ditches. But I reckon it'll have to wait till then."

"The meltwater might even do some of the work for us." Frodo took a wide step over the trench and held out a hand to Sam. It wasn't that Sam needed his assistance, but his jaw had been clenched long before the road came into view, stripped of the trees that had once attended its course. Now the road itself bore the look of another injury inflicted on the land, straight and ugly like the mark of a giant whip. Through the seamless cloud cover, a dull grey light spilled over dried mud and the wooden carcasses left by the wayside.

"Ah, 'tis the same everywhere!" Sam released his hand as soon as he'd gained the road and crossed it in long strides, although the hardened ruts and pits demanded some caution. "Who'd think that even orcs took the time to-" He interrupted himself with a terse, dismissive gesture.

"Not everywhere, Sam." Frodo caught up to him by the embankment on the south side, where they had to step around the lopped trunk of a chestnut.

"No... I know," Sam muttered, his head ducked between his shoulders. Under their feet crunched twigs and foliage that were hacked off before the season's turning could touch the roots.

In Rivendell, they had walked on a tapestry of rustling colours, lit by wandering beams that quickened their steps and drew fleeting paths among the trees. The memory surrounded Frodo like the falling leaves had, as they drifted on languid air currents, translucent to the light. Daily he had watched the gaps in the trees' crowns grow larger, and he'd often stopped beneath the huge elm that grew at the upper end of the valley, his neck craned at those bright pieces of autumn sky, thinking – no, he'd thought nothing, he'd merely stood there with his arms stretched wide, breathless anticipation straining through all his limbs. It was time to return to the Shire where the colours and scents would be sparkling as well, just like this, and yet so different in ways that he might have forgotten.

But his memories didn't falter, and now he could envision the trees as they would have been, each with a rich carpet sprawling at its feet. Red below the beech, brown around the oak, pale yellow under the willow, golden beneath birch and sycamore, and russet under the chestnut. He wanted to tell Sam to close his eyes and summon all those colours for him, until they could both imagine the lively swirls that the wind stirred here and there...

Something pricked his ankle, and Frodo stepped quickly aside. The chestnut's spiny cups were only half-grown, its leaves having shrivelled to a shade of ash, and the unripe nuts inside would still be as white as milk. How could I come here and not know? he thought, struck again by the smothering disbelief that so often folded about him, boundless and misleading as a fog, since the day of their arrival. How could I?

During the first week, they had taken long, rambling walks every morning, sometimes roaming as far as the woodlands that stretched at the Green Hills' feet. He had been restless then, driving Sam and himself towards some undiscovered brink that would give him a view of he knew not what. At times the soft shapes of bushes and orchard trees would catch his attention on the tail of a glance, apparently unchanged in the cloudy light of late autumn, but always when they drew nearer, the resemblance would be jarred aside and the scar of a new muddy track pressed forth, or a fence hammered together from rough planks, or bleached and broken wood glaring from tendrils of new moss. And yet he had needed to see it all, even this, even though it left him exhausted. Perhaps, Frodo thought now, he had merely craved relief, the relief of knowing the worst.

But I already knew, he thought with a sensation of pain like a thin cut along his chest where the skin lay closest to the bone. Nothing could be worse than the look on Sam's face when they had first caught sight of the Hill, dead and barren at its crown where the old oak used to grow. And dead below, where the Party Tree had been cut down.

"It sickens the heart, it does." Sam cast a final glance at the chestnut's twisted branches, his breath thick before his mouth, and shook his head. "My Gaffer used to tell me, 'Grief's like a weed, Sam, if you don't pull it out by the root, it'll choke other things wanting to grow.'"

Frodo needed a long moment until he could trust himself to speak. "But even so... it takes time."

"To be honest, Mr. Frodo..." Sam's eyes narrowed. "I'm not sure now as I'd wish to pull it out."

It was not the answer Frodo had expected, although perhaps he should have, and a startled sound caught in his throat.

Sam's glance flew back to him, expectant and so intent that it lit the change on his features in every minute detail. Frodo couldn't help but think how it must disturb his father, his sister, his friends, to see this in him - if they did - this sharp edge of knowing that should have been soothed in the Shire's trusted presence.

"I don't mean to forget," Sam said bluntly. "I never mean to."

"No," Frodo murmured, "no, of course not." That Sam should choose this - that he would root himself in grief if nothing else carried - brought his own desire to abrupt clarity. Through all their walks around the Westfarthing, he had yearned only to find a place where everything was at one, both familiar and unremembered, and then he would take Sam's hand and say, Here, this...

"When everything is in bloom again," Frodo started anew, but it seemed that something splayed his thoughts apart to reach out into the coming year. Neither hope nor anxiety, it simply stirred and passed through him. "Well," he said softly, "weeds bear their own kind of flowers, don't they."

"They do at that." The tight set of Sam's mouth loosened, curled with thought or half-formed hope. Then he pulled up his shoulders and pointed at an overgrown knoll that lay a little to the north. "If we cut across country here, we'll come up on the Greening Brook and a path running straight to the farm, if I remember rightly."

Frodo couldn't force his eyes away, even though he must have observed this a thousand times: how Sam would fill his gaze with a sight ahead, draw the air in deep and take the next step, whatever it required. At such a moment, all that Frodo could wish for was to close his eyes and let his fingers wander over the contours of Sam's face, over each treasured line, curve and angle, and ask him, What do you see? And then, every answer that he needed would be balanced at his fingertips.

"I marvel at you," he said quietly as they struck out towards the knoll.

"Oh, but I ought to know my steps round these parts," Sam answered, his voice low and bashful. Green swells began to rise on either side of them, and suddenly the air smelled of spruce and approaching rain.

* * *

"I met Farmer Whitling at the annual tithe gatherings and at the fairs, of course," Frodo said as the thickets lightened before them, "but he always seemed... withdrawn, I guess."

"Aye, he keeps to his own." Sam grabbed a handful of tangled twigs and held them out of the way, for Frodo to step through. They settled back with a soft crackle when he released them. "Folk say the family lived out here well before the mill was built in Hobbiton, and the first Mayor elected."

From behind them, Frodo could still hear the Greening Brook, burbling over brown stones as it swept a load of leaves and fine needles onwards to the open plain where it joined the Water. As Sam had predicted, a narrow footpath wound through the undergrowth, although the tumbled autumn drifts rendered it nearly invisible.

"No-one in Hobbiton or Bywater's had word as to how the Whitlings are faring," Sam continued. "This far off the trod roads, things might've been better, or they might've been worse."

"You mean no-one knows if all is well at their farm? I thought-" Frodo gestured sharply, exasperated at himself. What had he been thinking? During the past months, no messengers had travelled between the villages, and few would pass through this wooded easternmost corner of the Westfarthing, less than two miles from the Three-Farthing stone.

"'Tis ill news as travels the quickest," Sam returned with a steadfast look. "And there's places hereabouts where folk can hide from trouble and never be found."

"I hope you're right." For an instant, Frodo fought the images that wanted to rise in his mind, blackened by fires that had long burned out, but he pushed them aside like the curtain of ivy that fell from the alder branches before them. Beyond, a small clearing brimmed with grey daylight.

A fine drizzle sifted through the trees that grew wider apart now, and within another minute the woods opened onto a range of bare, untilled soil. Weeds stood knee-high in the crumbling furrows that must have been dug in spring. Sam whistled in dismay at the sight. Twigs and dead branches littered the strip of grass along those abandoned fields, but at least they'd clearly been swept off by a storm, not scornful hands.

Frodo stepped forward to a hunched little birch that still carried scatterings of dry leaves, curled up and yellowed like old parchment. As he leaned back to look into the boughs, he caught a distant, reedy note which at first sounded like the wind whistling in a tight cove of rocks, but another note followed and then another, until they strung themselves into a hesitant melody.

"Somebody's playing a pipe..."

Beside him, Sam was listening with close attention. "It's an ash whistle," he said under his breath. "You tap away at the wood till you can pull the bark off the branch, like a sheath." A smile took hold on his mouth, shaping slowly as a sun-spot on a shadowed pool. "They're right delicate things for making music."

"Yes, it's..." Frodo shook his head, lost for words at the sound. Soft as dust, the drizzle gathered on his face, and he stood following the tune that consisted of only three or four trailing notes, but the sounds floated high and separate as sparrowhawks in a windless sky, piercing the quiet with a dauntless joy that almost stopped his heart. The Shire was still full of things that struck him unexpectedly, of discoveries receding, reviving and returning, like unknown hopes, or memories that he might have had. Then the melody broke off with a pitched squeak that sounded strangely like laughter, and he smiled. Whoever blew the whistle was apparently still practising.

"Well, that was a fair welcome, and no mistake," Sam said with a low chuckle. "We've come up on the farmlands from the east. You'll see the house in another minute, it's up yonder." He waved in the direction from which the tune had sprung.

At a more vigorous pace, they rounded the wood's outflung limb, while the rain pattered with greater insistence across the rising grounds. Sheltered between a green hummock on one side and a pair of rugged pines on the other, the farmhouse crouched at the western end of the fields. Frodo breathed out in relief when he noticed the dark ribbon of smoke that hovered above the straw-thatched roof. On the gentle rise to the right grew apple trees in dense rows, and in the misting rain their leafless crowns covered the slope like a rare embroidery.

As they approached, Frodo could see a small figure on the roof of a low shed that leaned to the narrow side of the house. Wetness glistened on the wooden boards and the lad's bare arms and shins.

"Hullo there!" Frodo called, although the boy must have long noticed them.

He cradled the whistle to his chest, but when they stopped below the shed, a small carving knife flashed suddenly from his other fist. His arm stiff as a log, he held the knife before him like a charm that could make them disappear.

"There now, lad." Sam spread his hands and spoke in the most placating tones. "We don't look like robbers or ruffians, do we?"

Without releasing his weapon, the boy scooted closer to the edge of the roof until his legs dangled over the side, wary eyes fixed on them.

"We're here to see your father," Frodo added, since surely a child of this age couldn't have been employed as a farmhand. "Would you tell him that he has visitors who wish to speak to him?"

The lad ducked his head and with a short twist of his hips propelled himself off the roof. Mud splattered about his feet as he landed, but he dropped neither knife nor whistle and ran off helter-skelter, shouting "Dad! Dad!"

"Now they'll be right worried..." Sam shook his head, and they both hurried after the boy, around the byre to another outbuilding at the back.

The door had been thrown wide open, and the boy's shouts had indeed roused the family to instant alarm. An older lad had armed himself with a club, while Farmer Whitling clutched a long-handled hayfork in both fists. A step behind, the small boy danced from one foot to the other, his expression curious rather than anxious now.

"What's this, Timmi?" The farmer lowered his hayfork. "Can't tell wheat from chaff, eh? For shame. They're not come to rob us."

"No, we certainly haven't, Mr. Whitling." When Frodo took a step forward, he caught the smell of apples, breathing thick and sweet from the barn's shaded interior. The farmer's eyes searched him, seeming to examine every inch of his face. "Good day to you," Frodo added. "We're very sorry to have caused such a stir." For a moment he felt coldly certain that Whitling would not recognise him, but then the farmer gave a short nod.

"Why, 'tis Mr. Baggins of Hobbiton, if me eyes don't fool me," he said, only the barest note of welcome in his voice. "We weren't lookin' out to such a high visit, as ye can tell."

"We shan't keep you any longer than necessary," Frodo promised.

"Well, come inside."

"Thank you." Frodo ducked past the rainwater that sluiced in long skeins from the door-beam.

Within, another lad who might be Sam's age stood next to the large cider press that took up the barn's centre, one arm flung protectively across the dark, glistening wood. The scent of apples filled every corner, rich and sodden with a sour edge, and so heady that it was nearly overwhelming. Frodo could hear Sam breathe it in deeply as he stepped inside.

"My sons, Imling, Mart, and Tim," said Farmer Whitling with a quick tip of the head, but his eyes rested on Sam now, clearly questioning.

"It's Sam Gamgee," Sam responded before Frodo could speak. "You mightn't remember, Mr. Whitling, but I used to come here for your seed taters of a time."

"Ham Gamgee's youngest, is it? I thought I knew yer face, but..." The farmer shrugged and gestured around the barn. "We're sharp at work here, and late at it to worse."

Atop and around a high-wheeled haycart, crates and baskets full of apples were stacked up, and on the other side of the room casks and jugs were waiting to receive the cider. With a curt wave, the farmer indicated a low door into the main house. The youngest boy sauntered ahead, but the other two remained where they were, exchanging uneasy glances across the cider press.

Resinous smoke stung Frodo's eyes as he followed the farmer into the kitchen. There were no windows, and sparse light flickered from the open hearth where a grey-haired matron sat with her mending. From the pot over the fire wafted the smell of bean-porridge.

"My sister Tansy," Farmer Whitling introduced her, with a flick of the thumb. "And here's Mr. Baggins of Hobbiton that used to be Master o' the Hill."

"He's Master of the Hill now," Sam said tersely, "come back into his own."

Whitling passed him a dubious look before he turned back to Frodo. "Why, I can't say I'll be grieved if ye sent that Sackville-Baggins off runnin'. Meaning no harm, but that cousin o' yours ne'er did good if he snored in his sleep."

"Yes, so I have heard," Frodo answered, despite the tightness in his throat, "and I was indeed sorry to hear it."

"Mr. Lotho is dead." Annoyance sparked in Sam's eyes, barely held in check. "It wasn't a Baggins as did the worst harm hereabouts, Farmer Whitling."

The farmer cocked his head, eyes slitting with a quick temper of his own, but instead of arguing he shrugged one shoulder. "Well, speak no ill words o' the dead, 'tis said, and so rue me mine, Mr. Frodo." He gestured towards the table. "Sit yerselves down so we can have a talk."

He pulled up a stool for himself, and little Tim scuttled over to his aunt, squatting next to her on the hearth-stones. Although the dim, smoke-filled room seemed to close around them, Frodo took a seat on the bench and waited until Sam had settled next to him. One glance at the farmer's grieved expression told him that their own errand must wait. Over the past two weeks, he had paid similar visits to other farms, though none so secluded, and in one way or another their inhabitants were all in need to speak of the wrong they'd endured.

"I know that it has been a very difficult time for everyone," Frodo began, "and even though all strangers have been driven away, it will take many months to mend the damage. But tell me, how have you fared this last year, Mr. Whitling?"

"Ah, poorer'n some and better'n most, I 'spect." The farmer rubbed knotty fingers over his chin and glanced back furtively at his sister and his son. "'Tis a relief to hear of 'em madlings gone, and no use moanin' over old ills."

"There was a raid on your farm though, wasn't there?" Frodo asked, fairly sure of his guess after the quick defence they'd encountered.

"Aye, 'bout two months hence it was, and such a clear sunny day..." Whitling sat back and folded his arms. "They took our sow and would've took the ox, too, if the smart thing hadn't bolted as like he knew what were coming. 'Run after 'im,' I says to Mart, and he does, an' that's when I could hear 'em holler from the other side of the fields. Ruffians, a mort of 'em, making like they was all the lands' owner. It took a day and a night ere Mart was back with the ox." He slapped his palm down on the table. "Now what'll we eat 'tween Yule and spring? We've no ham or sausage to sell, only the cider. See, they took the old sow with her farrow, but they din't bother with the apple trees." He looked from Sam to Frodo, one hand flung open, as if it should seize an answer that put the harm in its place.

"Aye, there's no sense to robbin'," Sam grumbled, "there never is."

"Dumpy ran off, too," the little boy said. "She ne'er came back."

"Our pony," explained his father, "and they cut the dog's throat for naught but puttin' us to affright."

"I am very sorry," Frodo repeated, hollow as the words might ring to his own ears, "and amends shall be made in every manner possible, as soon as it can be managed."

The farmer nodded, but his expression didn't change at the reassurance. Frodo could see the memory on his face, naked and unsoothed, like an iron glint that edged every line, drawn with a fear that gathered to impassable blackness behind his eyes. A shiver stole up Frodo's chest - as if the farmer might be afraid of him - clouding every response he could think of. He cleared his throat and felt Sam's glance from the side, enfolding him with quiet concern.

"I have no claim on your land or your service, Mr. Whitling," he said as steadily as he could, "but I am here to ask for your help nonetheless. Many farmers have lost their stores, if they were able to carry on with the harvest at all, and very few provisions are left to us. We will try to make up for the lack with grain from Buckland and beyond, before winter sets in, but such amounts have never been transported within so short a time." He paused until Whitling met his eyes again. "If you have a cart or waggon that you could spare for the task, I should be very grateful."

Whitling chewed on his lower lip and shook his head, although with some regret, it seemed. "We can't do without ox nor waggon, Mr. Frodo, not longer'n a day, and that won't serve for naught. See, we'll be takin' our cider to market where we can, and hope to trade for the flour and such vittles as we'll need."

"I understand." Frodo hid a stir of disappointment and settled back. "Very well." Briefly, he thought about offering payment, but under the circumstances, Whitling had little chance of spending a penny and might take insult besides. His world was crowded with worry, and Frodo could almost feel it encroach on his breath, like the smoke that stifled the air. We should leave, he thought. We should leave now...

"Perhaps you could let us borrow your haycart though?" Sam asked. "With some boards added, it'll make a fair enough waggon." He didn't need to add that, without a pony to pull it, the second conveyance would be useless to the farmer.

"I'll see to it that your cart will be returned safely and quickly," Frodo put in when Farmer Whitling was slow to respond, "my word for that."

"Carl," the farmer's sister said softly.

"Fair said, Mr. Frodo..." Whitling coughed and scratched his chin. "If ye can bring a mare to pull it, you're welcome to the cart."

"I'll gladly take that offer." Without looking at Sam, Frodo could imagine how his brows were knotting as he took stock of the places where they might find a spare pony.

"So then..." Whitling glanced back towards the hearth where his sister was now stirring the porridge. "We're to have our lunch soon. If ye'll stay for a bite and sup..."

"Thank you, Mr. Whitling," Frodo replied firmly, "but we have other business to see to, and we've kept you from yours long enough."

"Ah, 'tis a deal of a walk back to Hobbiton." The farmer's eyes skipped to Sam who'd already risen to his feet, but he didn't repeat the invitation.

"My best to yer father, Sam," Whitling said as he saw them to the front door, "and same to Old Noakes if ye happen on 'im. He and his own are well, I trust?"

"As well as may be," Sam assured him. "I'll be glad to pass on your greetings."

Frodo turned about and breathed in the wash of daylight that spread its muddy silver across the puddles in the yard. The rain had lessened to a light patter, and brighter patches showed among the clouds.

"Timmi!" The farmer tipped his head back towards his youngest son. "Some apples for our visitors, to keep 'em on the road. Good ones, mind, and be quick about it!" As the boy dashed off, he added in a lowered voice, "He were cryin' in his sleep for weeks after the raid, and no soothing him 'xcept me playin' the whistle. But now matters'll turn back to rights, eh?"

"They will, within time," Frodo answered, and even as he said so, the words seemed to form a strange echo behind his own heartbeat. Time. And may it come soon. He shook hands with the farmer while Sam took the apples that Tim had brought, tucked into the tails of his shirt.

"Good lad, Timmi," Whitling muttered, reaching out to draw the boy close against his side.

Frodo smiled at the lad whose fingers were knotted into his father's long tunic. "You play the whistle very well yourself." Farmer Whitling gave a snort at that, but his son grinned cautiously.

As they walked away from the farm, in a northward direction, Frodo heard the lad's voice rise with excited questions, until the rain's tapping on the pools scattered the sound. At his side, Sam made a small motion that he stopped mid-way, as if he would have taken Frodo's hand, had they been unwatched. Their feet sank into damp soil as they stepped over the furrows that crossed the barren field in long, cresting waves, skimmed by the rivulets that gathered in the trenches.

Thistles tugged on their cloaks as they climbed towards the line of trees. Half within their shadow, Frodo reached under Sam's cloak and touched his elbow. "Thank you for coming here with me."

"There's no place else I'd rather be," Sam answered just as quietly, "though sure enough you didn't need my help with winning him over..." He shrugged lightly. "There's not a body in the Shire as could tell you no, Mr. Frodo."

"Oh, I don't know!" Frodo nearly laughed, and a quick welling in his chest answered the look Sam gave him. "I forgot the haycart, for one. And besides, I..." But there was too much to say it all, save I need you with me, and this Sam could read in his eyes, in the most fleeting of touches.

"I was simply being selfish," Frodo finished. Throughout the past week, he had consulted with one landholder after another, while Sam was kept busy by the restoration works in Hobbiton - but now it seemed as though the day's course had shifted, its countless small meanders joined to a single current that ran through the ground, the air and his blood, as clear and encompassing as the rain.

"No more than I," Sam murmured, his colour rising a bit as he gazed back over the field.

"That cart now," he said after a moment, "I was just remembering - they've got two ponies stabled at the Dragon that must've run off during the battle, and no-one's come to claim them yet. One of those could pull it. Or else, there's our Bill."

"Yes, although he'd no doubt dislike it very much to be parted from you." Frodo smiled, but the sight of old Whitling's face, drawn and doubtful, flickered through his thoughts again. "Farmer Whitling didn't ask us for news outright. I wonder how it must feel... to think that everything may have changed beyond these woods."

"He'll be worried a deal less about it now, I'm hoping," Sam answered. "When shall we send out the waggons to Buckland?"

"Next week, if at all possible." Frodo paused to consider the whirl of plans they had shaped, discarded and put together again. "I'm going to write to Saradoc... Merry is currently going over their stores, and messengers have been sent to Bree, too. We should have word from him soon." He turned towards the fringe of ruffled alders where bark and moss glowed in rain-washed brown and green, and his mind let go of everything but the present moment. "I'd like to take a different path back... if we can find one."

"We can cross the brook a bit further east, I expect, and make our way to the road from there." Sam offered him one of the small yellow apples that he'd stashed in the pouch at his hip.

"At our leisure," Frodo added, holding Sam's eyes as he bit into the apple and let the juice spill over his tongue, grateful beyond words that they had the remaining hours of the day to themselves. A gift of time. And it mattered not at all which path they took.

* * *

"'Tis like a gathering of grumpy old gaffers, this." Sam stopped for a closer look at the sturdy and weathered trunks that revealed their age with rough braids of bark and lichen clinging to the cracks.

"Yes, but..." Frodo lowered his voice and pressed Sam's fingers that were linked with his own, "be careful about insulting them."

"Ah, but they're asleep now, aren't they?" Sam murmured. They had strolled into a dell where oaks grew in an uneven round. Between the trees, damp air and the smell of wet earth hovered like a tenuous fog.

"I remember," Sam continued, "Mr. Bilbo saying to me, 'See all those gnarls and bumps and knots in the trees, lad? Don't they look just like faces, from their lumpy noses to their squinted eyes? Or that surly crack over there - why, it's a mouth just ready to open and talk. It'd spin us a grand tale, if we could but hear it.'"

The drizzle still whispered about them, and they'd both pulled up their hoods. Frodo had to turn his head fully to see Sam's face, lifted into the rain that raised a glow across his cheekbones.

"So of course I asked him, 'why can't we?', and he answers, 'I don't believe they ever start their conversation before the moon has set.'"

"Dear Bilbo..." Frodo followed Sam's gaze up into the oaks' twined crowns. Leafless, their curving limbs wove a graceful canopy, and several nests had become visible, tucked away into the higher branches. "It's no wonder, I guess, that the larger part of our family worried about the ideas he planted in their children's heads. His mind always seemed to overflow with them." For a time, he had asked himself if Bilbo's travels were the springsource of his restless imagination and curiosity, but now he thought he knew.

"Well, whatever my Gaffer might say about it, it didn't do me no harm," Sam replied instantly. "A wee lad I was at the time, but I'd lay awake of nights wishing I could go outside so's I might listen to the trees talking." He pursed his lips. "You don't suppose Mr. Bilbo knew about Ents all those years ago, do you?"

"If he did, he never mentioned them to me." Frodo took a last look around as they started to walk again. "Well, these oaks give me a distinctly sleepy impression, it's true, now that they have shed their burden." Strewn everywhere among the leaves, acorns rolled loosely under the soles of his feet.

Whenever they could, the Westfarthing villagers had stolen away into the woods to collect beechnuts, acorns or hazelnuts, and all the berries that grew wild. But in this glade remained acorns aplenty that neither squirrels, pigs nor hungry farmworkers had picked up.

"I used to string them together in a necklace for Mari," Sam said, stirring those overlooked riches with his toes, and Frodo could easily envision how he'd select the gleaming dark acorns for Marigold's throat while the smaller ones would lie closer to the nape of her neck.

"Do you think I could-" Frodo interrupted himself, considering the sudden notion that had swept him with a memory of Belladonna Took's glittering brooches, hair pins and necklaces, all jumbled together in a small casket Bilbo had left with him. "I should like to find a gift for Marigold. Since we missed her wedding."

He paused in his stride at the sudden pressure of Sam's fingers, but Sam's eyes were lowered to the leather-brown piles of oak leaves, his lashes dipping thin shadows against his cheeks. "You would..."

"I would what, Sam?"

Sam looked up and for a long moment didn't reply, then he reached out and touched Frodo's face. "Remember about a gift for Mari," he said, "and give her more than she'd ever wish for, too."

Although the day stretched dull and grey about them, his eyes held a brightness of their own, and the glide of his fingers on Frodo's wet skin traced it with a delicate heat like a first, half-glimpsed shiver of day.

"She's your sister," was all Frodo could say.

Hand in hand, they climbed the northern ridge. They had almost passed the sycamore that grew halfway up the slope when a sudden wind whipped their hoods back, and sunlight dashed across the slope, slanted rays skipping from scattered leaves to patches of grass and bare soil, even as the rain fell harder. As the wind ruffled the sycamore leaves, they were tugged up into the light like blossoms, or flames dancing over the dormant earth.

"Look, Sam," Frodo breathed, clutching Sam's hand. "Look..."

It struck him that he need never look elsewhere again, and everything was kept within this moment, rendered sheer to the light as it burst in a myriad beams, fine as silken threads, through the clouds. His eyes stung with it, and he noticed that he'd held his breath only when Sam's fingers moved against his own, easing the hard grip.

"Aye," Sam murmured, "there's such sights as can make you forget and remember all in one blink."

Frodo turned his head slowly. The same light sculpted Sam's face, but its touch made him seem more solid and real than the whole world around, placed at the heart of this moment.

Sam returned his gaze openly, willing to let himself be searched, to give answers that he might know nothing of. A startled smile sprang to his lips when Frodo laughed out loud.

"Oh, I'm - Sam, it's..." Such a rush went through his stomach that it felt as if he was slipping until his arms closed around Sam and thick strands tickled his mouth. "Only that we're here," he murmured against Sam's neck and the damp folds of wool. "I never imagined..."

Sam's fingers climbed from his shoulder blade to his hair, stroking unsteadily where the wind tangled, and a short breath hitched between their chests.

"I know."

"I couldn't have."

Those few words caught on each other, mingling, and Frodo released his breath into the warm crook of Sam's neck. The laughter was still within him, silent now and honed to humming tension beneath his ribs, waiting - for what? The gap in the clouds was already closing again, swallowing that brief flare, but he remembered just then what they'd been singing as they left the Shire.

Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate...

And it could be everywhere.

Another gust tossed rain against the side of his face in small, cold darts, but Sam's hand was instantly there, pulling the hood up again. Frodo turned his face quickly to brush his lips against Sam's fingertips. "Come on..."

He felt like running down the ridge on the other side, into the wind's outflung arms, but the rain was dissolving grass and loam into a morass, and they had to dig their heels in firmly. Below grew hazels in bushy clusters, and a moss-covered roof leaned back into the slope.

It belonged to a tottering old barn, its faded wall-boards crusted with green and frost-blackened mosses. The latch across the door had been broken and secured poorly with a string looped over rusty nails. Sam batted at the rain that splashed down from the roof's eaves and pulled at the door, as far as the string would allow. "We should go inside, till the weather's eased a bit."

As soon as they'd squeezed through the opening, an affronted cackle rose through the enclosure. Atop a ladder that led to the hayloft perched a brown hen, neck stretched as it cawed in alarm. Thin and dirty feathers quivered around its throat.

"Why, we've got company here!" Sam waved a hand at the hen. "Hush, you! We're just in from the rain to dry our feet a bit."

Seams of grey daylight lined the loosely fitted boards and crept over bare earth. The barn was empty except for a coil of rope tied to one of the posts that carried the loft, and a wooden bucket in a corner. Wind whistled through a broken board on one side, stirring up smells of hay and mould, and a bitter whiff of old dung.

"Whose barn is this?" Frodo asked. "Do you know?"

"There's the old way-station, about a furlong up the East Road - the wardens must've kept their goats here in winter, I'm thinking. It smells of goats, anyways." Sam stepped towards the ladder. "'Twill be more comfortable up there, with the hay and all." Although the hen had retreated from the crossbeam, it cackled anxiously as he started to climb. "We're not after your eggs," Sam grumbled, "if you've got any worth the taking, that is. Here, let me see."

"I'm not sure if she will find that very reassuring, Sam..." With an amused shake of the head, Frodo climbed up after him.

A step to the left, Sam was bent over an untidy nest that held two eggs. The hen clucked reproachfully, its head darting from side to side, and Frodo could see that it examined them with only one eye, while the other had disappeared among purple and swollen skin-folds.

"'Tis no wonder you're so frightened..." Sam looked back over his shoulder. "See, they keep one eye on the ground as they peck for grain, and the other up to the sky to watch for hawks." As he straightened, the hen stalked back quickly to its nest and settled over the eggs.

"We should sit down a safe distance away, I suppose." Frodo looked around the scant bales that covered only half the floor, and pointed vaguely to the right. Within this snug space, the faded smells blended into the stronger scent of wet moss, the roof so low over their heads that they were forced to stoop.

"Aye, there's room enough..." Sam unfastened his cloak and dropped into a crouch to spread it across the hay, with its dry side turned up, "...but you didn't ought to walk away looking like the lowliest stable-boy, neither."

"And you think that would bother me?" Frodo asked. From the side he could see Sam's lip quirk in amusement.

"No, Mr. Frodo, that's why." Sam set his pouch aside, too, and when he turned, sitting back on his heels, the floating hay-dust swirled about him, each speck clear as the raindrops that glittered on his jaw. From the cracks in the timber, the feeble daylight inched its fingers nearer, until it almost caught in the lines that shadowed Sam's deepest smiles, there at the corner of his eyes, seeking a fulfilment that it could not reach. There was no reason why the sight stopped Frodo's breath in his throat, and every reason he had ever known, all drawn together like a meeting of rivers within the short space that separated them.

Sam caught his glance - "Mr. Frodo, what...?" - but Frodo was already moving. He knelt down in front of Sam, skimming his fingers up to those tender lines, and leaned forward to press his mouth against Sam's forehead, catching fine spray on his lips.

"I'm always touching you," he said softly, "and you are always touching me, wherever we are..."

In one fierce movement, Sam flung an arm about his back and buried his face at Frodo's throat, where his breath rushed out in a thick, warm puff.

You know, Frodo thought, perhaps better than I do, and drew his fingers down along the sides of Sam's jaw, slowly lifting his chin.

"And still there are times," Frodo murmured, "when I need - when I can't..." It seemed there was no room left inside him for words or voice, only the breathless, unquestionable longing that drew them together and sealed the air about them.

He found Sam's mouth with the smallest dip of his head and sank into the soft pressure of their lips against each other, searching through the rain's lingering chill that was already melting aside. Inside this close-drawn quiet, every small movement and slip of breath bloomed and filled, suspended between Sam's hands, one curved around the back of Frodo's head and the other firm on his waist. Frodo slipped his tongue over the solid coolness of Sam's teeth, barely tasting a hint of rosehip-tea and the warmth beyond, before he pressed closer and they both lost their balance. Sam toppled sideways and with a winded chuckle caught himself on his elbows.

"I really seem to be too impatient..." Frodo steadied himself with a hand to the floor and smiled at Sam across his raised knees, meeting a gaze that held him, unerringly, at its centre and called a tingle to his skin, like dew brought forth in one slow wave at daybreak. The sensation skittered all over him as he lowered his eyes. Among the shreds of leaves and grass, bits of hay clung to Sam's ankles and the wet curls on his feet. Frodo raked his fingers through them. "And you... you're already starting to look like a stable-boy, I'm afraid." He slid his hand up the length of Sam's shin, until his fingers crept under the seam of Sam's breeches and curled into the crease behind his knee where pulse battered more gently than it did at Sam's throat, hidden beneath soft skin. He could feel the stillness, too, that came over Sam like a windless dusk, spreading and falling open to absorb his touch.

"I don't... mind that," Sam said, his reply snapped in two by a startled breath as Frodo's fingers stretched a little higher over the inside of his thigh. "Not one bit."

"I shall join you then..." Frodo unclasped his cloak, unwrapped his scarf and dropped both. When he moved around and placed a hand on Sam's chest to ease him back on the cloak, he touched a thump of heartbeat through layers of cloth. "Can I-?" Sam's jacket was damp across the shoulders and down the front where Frodo's fingers worked swiftly to undo the clasps.

"Tell me when you get cold..." He tugged Sam's shirt free of his waistband, smiling when Sam gave a short shake of the head.

"Not likely I will."

"Nor me," Frodo whispered, bending over him to pull more cloth aside and brush his mouth against the trail of dark hair below Sam's navel. His own skin had warmed rapidly, and the blood thrummed in his fingers as he dragged them up across Sam's belly, rumpling the shirt over the broad curve of his ribs.

It was one of Tom's winter shirts, borrowed until the clothes Sam had left in Crickhollow could be sent to the farm, and it still carried a faint scent that didn't belong to Sam. As Frodo pushed it out of the way, his breath quickened in a strange relief. He'd known all the while that Sam's skin would taste and smell differently in the Shire, but he'd had few chances yet of learning those countless new shades.

At nights they would lie in each other's arms, exchanging slow and careful touches that warmed their shelter between blanket and mattress, seeping through wool, fleece and straw, and from there passed out into the room to widen the shadows like the deep breaths they drew, until the room was wholly changed, hollow and secured like a vessel that carried them onward, into sleep.

When Frodo woke in the morning, it was always to the knowledge that Sam had roused before him - touched by the first grey shimmer that squeezed past the shutter, or less than that, a suspicion of the wind lifting before dawn - and that Sam watched him, though he held himself still. As morning began to leak in, Frodo would keep his eyes closed and burrow backward into Sam's embrace, or cup a hand over Sam's arm if it spanned his chest, staving off the moments that passed by them, together with the busy stirrings throughout the house. They were always listening. But there were times when Frodo didn't hear those slight noises, when all that he heard was the rush of his own blood hurrying too quickly towards waking, kept fast under Sam's arm, and it could become unbearable to lie there like this, Sam's lips at his neck, below his ear, holding and aware that they had to get up and draw apart within a minute or less, while the room dwindled into light.

But here, as the same yearning began to move within him, gathering and tightening, Frodo could let it rise and spread, from every unfinished thought to the pit of his chest to his fingertips. Every touch brought him closer, retrieving and releasing memories that were joined to Sam's skin until they fanned like the hay-dust settling about them, in a bright, open circle surrounding... this. He smiled into a slight rumble that stirred to a hum under his lips.

"You're hungry," he mouthed against the skin of Sam's stomach and felt a chuckle set in before it rose to Sam's throat.

"Not so hungry that eating can't wait..." Sam's chest filled, then released the air slowly as if reluctant to yield the slightest part of this moment.

Frodo stroked up along the centre of his chest until he could caress the gentle curves of Sam's breast, thumbs tracing outward with light pressure as he splayed his fingers there. Five on the left, four on the right. He had learned to look at his maimed hand like this: clasped to Sam's skin and his waiting breaths, acknowledged between them. When he glanced up again, he could see how the frank, vulnerable fervour that so often showed only in Sam's eyes overcame his entire face, swift like a spring-flood that swept along the Water, mingling sedge and earth-clots with wild dashes of foam until it cleared to a dark, translucent stillness.

His own heartbeats leapt into his throat as he dropped kisses all over Sam's chest and Sam's breath rushed into his circling fingertips. Like a crossing of many paths, the pleasure of touching, of coaxing shivers that swarmed with the same fleetness up and down his sides, opened and surrounded him. Frodo bent deeper to close his lips around a hardened nipple, his forehead cushioned on the shirt's bunched folds, and felt Sam start to move under him, his back tensing in a slight arch. From carding gently through Frodo's curls, his fingers moved to the side of Frodo's face, and he met the roughened skin with his lips, placing a kiss at the centre of Sam's palm. A tang of pine and tallow lay cupped there, and a memory of dandelion juice trickling out thickly as Sam severed the hollow stem with a deft twist of his fingers.

Frodo shifted again until he could let each of Sam's heartbeats fill his mouth, open to a gentle thrum where skin clung to the bone. He skimmed one hand down to Sam's thigh, over tightly strung muscles, and up to his hip, tracing the taut strength of Sam's body that was merely an extension of a stronger heart. All this could be released into joy, little by little, while he followed the rhythm at which Sam's muscles shifted and stretched, and memories flowed back at every point - the familiar cadence of mowing, of reaping or turning the earth - and each movement flashed through him like wind over the Hill, bending high grass into shimmering waves. But these discoveries had begun a long time ago, and he wanted to follow them to the root that twined their lives, though he might never reach it.

There had been a time when Sam's warmth along his back carried him to the edge of day and unclosed a clear path before him. When Sam slept beside him on the strange wide bed in Rivendell and Frodo woke to a moonless dark, he could sometimes hear Bag End's gate swing back and forth in a nocturnal wind, with such immediacy that he wondered why he'd left it unlatched.

And in Mordor Sam had given him the Shire, had been earth and sky for him as remembrance leached from his mind, his heart, always quicker than he could stopper the rents - even as he tried to absorb the smallest sights and the slightest sounds, which was always like scooping water into a cracked bucket. Or perhaps it had been more like floating beneath the surface of a frozen lake and straining to discern the blurred shape of a shoreline, of branches and clouds through the ice. As if he was a mere flicker of daylight, trapped by accident underneath it all.

But could he give the same to Sam? Now that the Shire had been so torn and drained, Sam needed... needed, as he himself had, when only scattered embers of will carried him forward.

"Frodo," Sam whispered, and he realised then that he was clutching too hard at Sam's hip, certain at a glance that there must be secret fears buried in Sam's breast he might cradle in his hands but did not know as clearly as he needed to. Under his fingers passed another breath, troubled and uneven.

"Sam, what - what is it?"

"Please..." Sam bit his lip, "Frodo... come here."

He moved up, braced on one elbow, his other arm flung over Sam's chest, and pressed himself close to Sam's side. "Sam, my dearest..."

"Oh, I couldn't be happier now." Sam turned into his embrace and kissed his throat, and yet Frodo felt the same question quiver there, in a leap of pulse between Sam's open lips.

"There is nothing that I would not give you," he said softly, his mouth stirring at the damp curls behind Sam's ear. "Nothing that you cannot ask of me." He couldn't imagine anything more painful than a sudden stop to the rising within him that wanted to surge and give, without consideration or end. "Can't you tell me?"

"Only... you." Sam's voice fell thick and hoarse against his neck.

Frodo took his hand and placed it over his chest. "You have me. Always."

Sam's answer was without words, only a soft sound that caught in his throat. His fingers curled in close about a button, and Frodo sat up to let him undo them all, until his shirt hung loose, swept open to Sam's touch. Every ounce of weight seemed to pass out of him when Sam stretched both hands across his chest, cradling the chill that flew up his ribs.

"Am I-?" Here. Whole. But the next word didn't come, drained away when he found Sam's eyes, full and deep, as if he'd drown in what he saw. "You look at me as if you see me anew every time, and you didn't expect..."

"I do. I don't." But Sam's lips curved, and something seemed to pass with the quick breath he exhaled, yielding gladly. "How could I?"

His fingers took light paths across Frodo's chest and drew liquid tingles to them that would all come together, merging at a time and place Frodo could never guess. But he didn't need to, either. It was enough for him to lean and sink into the surety of Sam's touch that never faltered, even when his hands were shaking - more than enough to feel the joy that flickered in the trails of pleasure, like water filling dry basins and hollows along a river's banks, to be warmed through with sunlight. He moulded himself against Sam, raising a hand to unlace the shirt's fastening at the collar and bury his mouth at the base of Sam's throat.

For months in Gondor, they had been engrossed in this unexpected marvel, expressing nothing but wonder with their mouths and hands as softness and strength returned to their bodies, and every day brought near-invisible changes that neither of them could bear to miss. Every inch of skin deserved the most tender attention, when only touching and tasting could truly waken it to life.

It was not the same flesh and skin anymore that clothed them now, Frodo thought, but it had regrown, hiding and protecting the bones that he knew as if he'd touched them, as if Sam had carved himself open to let him reach inside.

He lapped at Sam's throat, holding the pulse, the rough sound of Sam's groan on his tongue where both rolled like a first pungent sip of wine.

"You're all my wishing," Sam murmured and cupped a hand beneath Frodo's jaw to lift his face, until their mouths met, swift and hungry this time.

Their breaths tangled in this sudden rush, teeth catching briefly, and they broke apart only to cling in open surrender. Those kisses spoke in other words, shaped to suit the play between their tongues, sliding and flowing like smooth, high notes from taut strings. While he searched out the hidden tastes in Sam's mouth, Frodo stroked his fingers over Sam's chest and side, gathering under his hand a thousand sparks of life that crawled beneath Sam's skin, every touch steered by a need that recognised only Sam, and always would.

It ran along his spine, fine prickles of surprised heat settling here and there, swirling on his skin that tautened with expectation. Waiting, breathing... A bird might feel this way at a first ruffling of its wings, a crackling through the bones as something contracted and conceived the chance of flight. Sam's hand had crept under his jacket and shirt, squeezing up his spine to press beneath his shoulder blade, trapped under thick wool. A moan loosened in Frodo's throat at the thrust of Sam's tongue against his, desire rolling through him in soft, quickened pangs until only the movement was left, no longer restless but turned in a single direction.

"You..." he gasped against Sam's mouth, "guide me."

His breathing quick and ragged, Sam clasped his waist, and Frodo lifted on an elbow, sliding his thigh over Sam's to settle himself higher, so that their bared chests could touch. From squeezing Sam's thigh near the hip, his fingers stumbled inward, across the wrinkles in Sam's breeches, slipped between his legs and up with gentle pressure. He kissed a gasp off Sam's lips, taking it so deeply that it spun a whirl in his chest. As his fingertips touched the solid shape of Sam's arousal through warmed cloth, he could feel its heat and push within him, in a burst that clenched deep behind his groin and touched bright pinpoints up to his heart.

Frodo tugged on the fastenings of Sam's breeches, fumbling with the knotted strings until he could feel Sam, cupped and cradled under his hand, meeting him hard with need, and the sound that his touch drove from Sam's throat, crushed and breathless, told him to wait another moment, his own body taut around a piercing thrill.

The first time he had felt this raw flare of want, it had shocked him to stillness, folded about a bottomless, unknown range within himself. But what did I know of want? It claimed him now with a parched tension, quick as a torrid wash over baking stones when he lowered his head to suckle along the vein at Sam's throat. And if his skin pricked as though fine scars were opened again, this was how he could breathe, bleeding air because he must know -

Only Sam, his skin, his sighs, and the barely audible rustles of hay beneath the cloak. When he pressed down against Sam's thigh, a sweet, searing jolt rocked him forward - "oh!" he gasped, almost laughing - sagging into the clasp of Sam's arm over his back while his own fingers closed to a tighter circle, caressing in shaken strokes. His heart lurched in his chest at the slide of tender skin that sheathed a throbbing pulse, the brush of damp curls against his knuckles, and the stirs on Sam's face that flickered beneath his own flying breaths. There had never been anything more beautiful than the warmth set alight on Sam's cheeks, the trembling starts on his soft lower lip as Sam's moans wound themselves around his senses.

"Keep your eyes closed," Frodo breathed, brushing his mouth over Sam's lids, "don't look at me now, or I'll..."

"What?" Sam murmured, and beneath the quiver of his lashes Frodo could feel the skin crease in soundless laughter.

"No, you're right..." It didn't matter how long it lasted until the tight coil inside him sang and snapped. Every joining of their bodies was a beginning, a confirmation, released along endless threads, as vibrant in sound as in silence. Frodo rested his forehead against Sam's, panting.

With both hands, Sam reached for the waistband of his trousers, loosened and unfastened them with quick determination, until he'd shoved them out of the way. When he pulled Frodo against him, every muscle and sinew in his body strained, and they writhed together with a craving to touch everywhere. Their mouths moved over each other's face, trailing damp and heated claims, until Sam thrust his hips up, and his eyes flew open again - "Frodo..." - his voice cracking as if the sound had welled from a dry riverbed.

It flushed over Frodo, stinging hot as tears when Sam caught his hips, urging him up close, and he thrilled to the sudden force of that grip, the stab of hardness against his belly. He heard nothing but Sam's choking gasp, knew nothing but the joy running through a locked gaze while quick spurts spilled over his fingers - holding his breath trapped, only to see for another moment - and a tremor seized him, clutched inward first, then poured out. He shook with airless abandon, like a spark flung up from a fire.

When his breaths dropped into the hollow of Sam's throat, they carried the sound of his own voice back to him, and he sank against Sam's heaving chest. It seemed at that moment as if everything should be traced by an outline of fire, or shimmer with it, like a hand held over the flame, so that the blood casts its vivid pulse to the light.

He could not speak, but gradually the harsh sounds of his own breathing faded into a distant tapping, the low thunder of rain beating at earth, timber and moss. Time softened about them, like goosedown shaken out of a pillow, floating aimlessly to the ground.

"Sam... my Sam." Frodo cupped his hand to Sam's cheek, grazing a flutter of lashes with the tip of his thumb.

In Sam's eyes swam a bewildered expectation that waking from a protracted dream might bring, when the first glance of day bears the heartbeat to a brink between hope and fear.

"Do you know," Frodo whispered, "do you know where you are?"

Sam nodded just barely. "With you..." His eyes filled, and he blinked hard. "As near the Shire's heart as may be."

"With me." Frodo cradled Sam's head against the curve of his neck, combing unsteady fingers through his hair. Every touch followed the lingering tremors that ebbed inside him.

"For a trice there," Sam murmured, "I thought... we were back in Bag End. Though we've never..."

"But we will."

Frodo kissed him slowly, remembering how Sam had felt in his hand, stray flickers dancing through his blood, the skin of their bellies touching. It didn't matter where and how they were joined as they swayed together in close, sweat-damp comfort. With untiring tenderness, Sam's hands wandered from place to place, rubbing the small of Frodo's back, squeezing his shoulder, catching a handful of his curls and kneading them as if appraising combed wool just run off the wheel. His fingers came to rest under Frodo's ear, and a newly hastened pulse sprang up to meet him. From somewhere on the left, the brooding hen clucked irritably.

"I think..." Frodo paused to raise his voice above a distracted mumble. "I think we've disturbed our host again, Sam."

Sam gave him a startled look, but then it brimmed over into the beautiful smile Frodo had longed to see from the moment they settled here, free and whole. His breath was raw in his throat, and he could not turn his eyes away.

"Frodo," Sam said huskily, "You ought to see yourself..."

"And what would I see?" It was then that Sam's stomach rumbled again, and Frodo laughed softly. "Never mind that now." He rolled apart to straighten his jacket and found the shortcake crumbled in his pocket. "Well, Sam, it seems I have crushed our lunch." With a snort, he shook the remains into his palm. "I should have been more careful."

Sam watched him with a gleam in his eyes. "We've still got two apples, too."

"But this is too good to waste..." Frodo fed him the largest piece of shortcake and kissed Sam as he chewed. "Isn't it?"

The throaty hum under Sam's chewing spoke of pure contentment. Frodo placed his palm flat over Sam's stomach and with his free hand scooped the spiced morsels into his mouth. Then he moved down to lick at Sam's belly, gathering slick salt on his tongue, rubbing his cheek against the rasp of dark curls. Goosebumps stirred as he lapped the tender skin at the crease of Sam's thigh, feeding on his taste and scent until Sam caught his hands and pulled him back to his side.

"Let me look at you now," Sam murmured, brushing the curls back from Frodo's forehead.

"As long as you like."

"Then we'll be here all winter," Sam answered. He wrapped Frodo's cloak over them like a blanket and covered his bare skin with slow, thoughtful caresses.

* * *

In the distance beyond the East Road, only a rim of gold lined the hanging bulwark of clouds, its frosty shimmer as pale as dawn. They rounded the felled trees quickly and passed through a gap in the fence to cross directly towards the Cotton fields.

"We won't reach the farm before dusk," Frodo said, surprised at how far the sun had already lowered. "I didn't realise how much time had passed."

"'Tweren't a moment wasted."

"I didn't say that." When Frodo turned, he found Sam's expression lit with unyielding intent. He reached out and picked a thin hay-stalk from Sam's hair, twirling it between his fingers before he flicked it aside. "Nor did I mean to say that."

"I know you didn't, but there's others that would." Sam held his eyes as he wrapped an arm around Frodo's waist, bluntly pulling him towards a kiss that joined their mouths, open and breathing, and swallowed Frodo's reply. No-one else will know.

A swerving wind rushed in Frodo's ears and blew his curls against Sam's cheek. Within heartbeats of returning the kiss, of raising his hands to Sam's face, so many wishes tumbled through his chest that all he could do was breathe them out, entrust them to the warmth they cradled between them. When Sam drew back, brushing another quick kiss to the corner of Frodo's mouth, Frodo leaned their foreheads together, wordlessly squeezing Sam's shoulders before he stood back.

From here they would walk without touching, but as they continued on their way, he felt Sam's nearness through all his limbs, as clearly as the sunset's last darting rays edged the trees and hedges whose shadows patterned the grounds ahead of them. In the wintry quiet, a supple pulse travelled down through the soles of his feet and into the ground.

Everywhere among the trees, sips of water were cupped in the curled fallen leaves, and wind ran among the crowns with tireless rustles and a soft creaking of boughs. The sounds made Frodo think of Rivendell once again, of the water's gush swelling from the deep of the valley, and the broad-leaved elm standing guard above. By now it would have lost so many leaves that the remaining ones could be counted amidst the spread of graceful branches, and each would shiver independently in a patient wind. If they had stayed longer, he might have watched as the tree let go of its leaves, one by one. He thought of Bilbo, too, a blanket over his knees as he dozed before the hearth, sheltered against the passing of time. Perhaps when Bilbo awoke he would wonder if he had merely dreamed their visit, or he might think of it as part of a tale that his mind had unravelled into the future.

"Do you know, Sam," Frodo said, "I don't believe it was his age that kept Bilbo from writing his book as he'd planned. It really didn't matter to him anymore."

"Mayhap it's that he's living within Elvish time... and that's closer to songs than aught I know."

Frodo slowed his steps, startled as though he'd glimpsed a sudden movement at the corner of his eye. "I remember, in Lórien... you said we were inside a song." He sent Sam a sidelong glance. "That is not the same as being inside a tale, is it?"

"It isn't," Sam answered, "but I couldn't say why myself. Save maybe that songs go round and round, like the seasons, you might say... Elvish songs do, leastways. But the tales run on like a road."

"Or a river..." Frodo shook his head at a thought that couldn't possibly lead him to the answer he was seeking.

Bright and sharp among ragged clouds, the moon's sickle had risen in the east, and its light began to draw grey runnels amid the dark blue shadows. Ahead of them spread the Cotton fields, gently sloping away into nightfall.

A light glimmered by the farmhouse, Frodo saw as they drew nearer, and its glow swayed about the waggon's bulky shape. Still in harness, the pony swept its tail from side to side, breath streaming into the cold air. By the light of the lantern that Mrs. Cotton held, Jolly and Nibs were busy unloading their purchases.

"Hullo there!" Sam called.

From the waggon's bed Farmer Cotton turned towards them, a barrel balanced in his arms. "Hullo, Sam, and good evening, Mr. Frodo! We've some cheering news for you." Squinting against the gloom, he handed the barrel down to Sam and pulled a knapsack from the stack of goods. "There's this, for starts... From your cousin Mr. Meriadoc, sent by a messenger of his that we happened into. Saved him a bit o' travellin', that did."

"Thank you." Frodo took the bag, guessing by its weight that it contained books besides some of his clothing from Crickhollow. "But there is more to tell, I take it?"

"Folk up near Budgeford found tunnels stuffed to the roof with vittles." Cotton smiled broadly, as if the triumph were his very own, and climbed down from the waggon. "There was all sorts of goods as those thieving ruffians took. Grain and cheeses and ale, I hear, even pipeweed!"

"Very welcome news indeed." Frodo stepped out of the way as Nibs collected a keg and hustled it into the house.

"Now, lads..." Farmer Cotton shoved his cap out of his forehead, setting one hand on Jolly's shoulder and the other on Sam's, "see to the pony and the waggon, and Nibs can help Mother with this load in the kitchen.

"There weren't much on offer at market," he added in Frodo's direction, "but seeing as how we're short on most things, 'twas worth every mile just for the cabbage and pickles."

"And candles, and wool for the loom," Rose said from the farmhouse doorstep, sleeves rolled up to her elbows. She smiled at Sam who'd started to guide the pony from the traces, and swung a smaller sack off the waggon. "'Evening, sir," she murmured with a nod to Frodo.

"Good evening," Frodo returned. "I hope you weren't drenched by the rain on your way."

"Oh, that were just a wee mizzle..." Rosie bounced the sack up to her shoulder and threw him a cautious glance. She had strong arms and a strong chin, now reddened by the same flush that spread from her cheeks to the tip of her round nose. "'Tis one of the season's washdays, as we say."

Frodo entered the house after her and carried the bag that Merry had sent into the bedroom. As he unlaced the knapsack's strings, fine scents of pipeweed, old leather and dried lavender breathed from it. Wrapped in the bundle of clothes - among them a pair of Sam's shirts and breeches - Frodo found three of his favourite books. A letter stuck out from the first, written on sturdy parchment. Frodo unfolded it with a smile at the unmistakable tilt of Merry's handwriting. Through most of it, Merry had diligently listed the stores that Buckland's granaries held, with some added suggestions for distributing the surplus.

I shall be back in Hobbiton next week, he wrote near the end, where the lines ran closer together. For the mean-time, I am sending you some pipeweed, so that you can put your feet up in the evenings and enjoy a pleasant smoke. But mind that half of it is for Sam and his father, with my best regards.

Frodo pulled out two satchels, and the mellow scent of pipeleaf from Haysend enfolded him in the wish that he could set out to Buckland on the morrow. It was suddenly so easy to imagine the Brandywine on a Forelithe day, glints of sunlight and the shadows of willow branches dappling its flow near the eastern bank. Beyond the slope and the widely spaced fences, the broad outline of Brandy Hall would rise, surrounded by the usual bustle of carts and pony traps, threads of smoke weaving from the kitchen and bakehouse chimneys. And there was still the house in Crickhollow, with its deeply sheltered garden and its promise of an untried quiet... But the journey alone would take a day, if they travelled by cart, and Sam could not leave the Shire for so long, nor would he wish to.

A rattle from the outer door stirred Frodo from his musings. Among the creak of floorboards, he heard the Gaffer call a greeting and reached into the bag again. At the very bottom, carefully folded into several handkerchiefs, he found the ring with the Baggins seal that had been passed on from one family head to the next for many generations. On an impulse that he now suspected had been spite, he'd kept this ring to himself instead of handing it over to Lobelia and Lotho, together with the Mastership. Frodo rolled it in his palm before dropping it into his pocket, and shook out the crinkled clothes.

As he lifted one of Sam's shirts, it gave off a faint, lingering scent Frodo would have recognised anywhere. Pipeweed and soap and earth... He smoothed his palm across often-washed linen, recalling the smells of growth in the garden, after the rain, of tea steeping in the kitchen and oil-filled lamps in the corridor... We will have Bag End again. Frodo swallowed around the sudden ache constricting his throat and placed the shirt atop the stack. We will. Next spring...

When he closed the bedroom door behind himself, Mrs. Cotton was busy in the kitchen quarter of the main room, stirring the warmed pottage from the night before. While Rosie set out mugs that brimmed with ale, Sam was cutting bread into thick chunks. The Gaffer had already seated himself on the bench and chewed on a soaked piece of bread-crust.

Frodo breathed out quickly, releasing all regret, before he crossed the room and set the pipeweed satchel down on the table. "A present from Merry, with best regards to the Gamgees."

"Why, that's mighty kind of 'im!" The Gaffer cupped a hand around the satchel and squeezed it almost reverently. "A starved body mightn't miss a good smoke, I've always said, but it'll cure a dolesome mood right quick. My thanks to Mr. Merry."

Sam paused in his cutting, and across the Gaffer's head Frodo caught his glad smile as it leapt and stilled like a candleflame. "I'll make sure to tell Merry when he returns next week."

Frodo took his own seat at the end of the table, and Rose was there in another instant, placing a filled bowl before him. A hearty smell rose from the pottage that was thick with bran.

"'Tis nigh on a feast as we've got here," Rosie said to Sam as she settled across from him. "Ale and sweet-bread, and honey for our tea!"

Sam raised his mug and blew on the froth. "I've missed the ale, I have."

"Ah, so've I, and no mistakin' it," the Gaffer agreed. "But tell us, Rosie, what's a lassie miss the most?"

He winked at her, and Rosie laughed, fresh colour springing to her cheeks. "That I'll keep to myself, Father Ham, if you don't mind." A carefree lilt ran in her voice that Frodo had heard sometimes when she and her brothers were driving the cattle back from pasture, among shouts and bits of song.

The front door opened, admitting a chill draft as Farmer Cotton, Nibs and Jolly filed into the room.

"How's old Whitling then," the farmer asked, pulling out the chair next to Frodo, "and his family?"

"A band of ruffians plundered the farm late in the summer," Frodo answered. "They took the pigs and a pony, and - well, no-one in the family was injured, at least."

"And them without neighbours they could call to for help!" Farmer Cotton shook his head and dipped his spoon into the pottage. "Fair days and good health!" Murmurs around the table echoed the customary blessing that marked the beginning of every supper.

"'Twas our fortune that we've had so many hands about all year," the farmer continued. "We never lost worse than a few hens such as the thievers snatched up in passing. They wasn't so quick to take on folk in bigger numbers."

"Aye, they took their sport from making mischief when they could come on us worried and lonesome." With a grimace, the Gaffer ducked his head to the spoon. "That were their way and custom, and I'll never forget it." He looked old and fragile, his thinning neck bared as he leaned forward, his swollen finger-joints clasped to the bowl. Frodo's glance slipped from him to Sam, tracing the concern that hovered in Sam's eyes.

"Well, let's be thankful that all the harriment and trouble is past," Mrs. Cotton said firmly. "Eat, and warm your stomachs for the night."

For a time, contented quiet settled over the table, divided only by the clatter of spoons on earthenware, but as bowls and cups were refilled, the family returned to their conversations. They would sit here until the fire had burned down to gloaming embers, then seek their beds. Frodo leaned back in his chair, absorbing the voices that flowed around him at the pace of a slow brook, accompanied by the mid-summer chant of crickets, on its course towards night. Tomorrow would be a Highday, and while most of the current labours wouldn't cease, everyone might rise a little later than they did during the week. There would be a meeting with all the area's farmers and landholders, too, Frodo reminded himself, later in the day, for which he should prepare.

When Mrs. Cotton and Rosie finally gathered up the dishes, everyone else filled their pipes from Merry's satchel. The Gaffer's expression eased into pure delight as he took a first drag, and the sight touched Frodo with a strange little pang. He doubted that he could find the words to describe the meaning of this small gift to Merry, but then Merry must have known as much before he sent the pipeweed. Curls of smoke drifted through the room, idly fanning in every direction like the drowsiness that crawled through Frodo's limbs. With half an ear, he listened to Nibs' account of a prank played on one of the Bywater weavers after a Lithe Day carouse.

"...so there he was," Nibs finished, "astride the old ass with nary a stitch on him and no inkling how he got there!"

"No such talk now!" Although Farmer Cotton cuffed his son lightly and his wife clucked her tongue, amusement sparked in the brief glance they shared. "'Tain't a trick to be proud of."

"Nor a thing to chatter about among company," Mrs. Cotton added, with a pointed glance towards Frodo.

He found a smile for her, aware that Sam was watching him through lowered lashes, perhaps searching for signs of tiredness or discomfort.

"Your Bill's broke a shoe on the stones, Sam," said Farmer Cotton, blowing long ribbons of smoke through his nose. "You'll have to take him out to the blacksmith."

Sam dipped his head. "I'm thinking I'll take the cracked water-kettle, too, and have it fixed."

"Aye, there's no end of things as wants mending, large and little. The wife'll thank 'ee for it." Cotton scratched the back of his neck, nodding at Sam with a pleased look that he passed around the table.

He treats Sam like one of his own, Frodo thought - and what a comfort it must bring Sam, to be welcomed into this lively, long-familiar household. But underneath Frodo's breastbone, regrets uncoiled slowly, and stretched out to take root.

* * *

The room was choked with stale air that lay hard on his breath. Frodo pushed the blanket off himself and blinked, yet the dark cast a seamless circle about him, as complete as it had been in Moria.

I should open the window. Setting his feet on the floor, Frodo levered himself up with a hand on the bedpost. Under his fingers the carved wood felt strangely cold and rough, like newly split stone, and his own breaths clung thickly to his face. When his outstretched hand found the window-frame at last, he gasped in relief, almost clapping his free hand over his mouth as he fumbled with the shutter's latch, to trap the wild, rasping sounds that rose in his throat.

The shutter yielded into a windless cold that washed over him in one slow wave and chilled the sweat on his face, but the dark remained unbroken. Through the window he stared into a round pit of blackness. No clouds or stars, no outline of fence or hedge or field, there was nothing.

He swayed on his feet, dizzy with betrayal that clutched in the pit of his stomach. How could this happen, after a day so laced with promise as the last one had been? I am dreaming, he thought. I must be.

"Frodo...?" The whisper seemed harsh in his ears, but it pared away a first layer of the numbing confusion.

Had he staggered back? His fingers groped around the blanket's wool, and he found himself sitting on the edge of the bed, shivering in his nightshirt.

"Frodo." Sam's hand slid up his shoulder and settled there, questioning with the lightest pressure.

"Yes, I..." Frodo drew a fretful breath, but suddenly everything seemed too sharp to his senses, from the dry rustles of the bed to the slicing line of grey under the door. He set his eyes on it, willing his sight to linger, and his voice to steady. "It was dark and I couldn't see."

"Shall I fetch a light?" Closer by his ear, Sam's murmur carried a rough edge, dragged from the bottom of sleep. Frodo turned towards him until Sam's breath fell warm against his cheek.

"No, leave it." There would be greater relief, he felt, once his eyes recognised the dim slate-greys around the room. But when he filled his chest anew, he could smell the fear that clung to his own skin.

I must not let it touch him... With an abrupt twist, Frodo pushed to his feet, groping in haste for his jumbled clothes. "I think I should go outside..." His shirt slipped to the floor, but he'd found his trousers and pulled them on quickly.

"But surely the hour's past midnight!" Sam protested.

"Only for a walk... for a breath of fresh air. That will tire me enough to go back to sleep."

Under the mattress, straw crackled like a fire stirring through tangled underbrush. "Wait till I-"

"No, Sam, don't worry, I will be all right." Frodo reached back to stay Sam's movement, firmly clasping his shoulder. "And I shan't be gone for very long either."

When he closed his jacket over his nightshirt, a small measure of calm returned and he might even have managed a smile, had Sam been able to see it. "Try to sleep," he whispered from the door, "please try."

In the quiet of the house, his own heartbeats seemed to batter at the smoky air, the floorboards' echoes of his footsteps, and the scraping of the front door latch. But then an icy waft bathed his face, and he could feel its sting rise into his temples.

For long moments Frodo paused on the threshold, drinking in the dim sights before him, from the yard's trampled loam to the thatch of grass and nettles beyond the fence. The moon had long set, but the night was brighter than he'd expected, touched here and there by glimmers of stars that peered through gaps in the clouds.

As he left the yard, scattered leaves whispered at each of his steps, adrift on the lane that stretched before him like a dark river of earth. Without giving it any thought, Frodo turned off into the footpath skirting the barley field. On its margin he discovered a round black spot where the ploughmen and farmhands must have lit their fires. Twitchgrass grew in tufts around the stripped soil. There were moments that opened within his mind like this, the singed marks of dreams or memories just departed.

Frodo crouched to skim his fingertips across charred fragments of wood that remained after the ashes had been blown aside. Underneath, the earth glared raw and black, and he swayed giddily, trapped on the edge of a chill that he knew should stab through him - but it didn't come.

Before the waiting could become sickening, he forced himself to rise and pull away. Perhaps he was listening too closely to his own fear, stalking back and forth along its borders without reason. Perhaps he was entangled inside a dream, searching for its limit and the telltale seams that would glow with flame. But there was none of it here, only the scar of a homely fire long extinguished, that would disappear in time beneath the sward. Surely there must be more, a sight or sound that could guide him past this numb sense of betrayal...

With sharp strides, he walked on to the corner of the field where bent rowans clustered densely, as if they might spawn a forest. Though the cold urged him to quicken his steps, his pace slowed, and it did not matter if the frost bit through his jacket or stiffened his toes. When he let his head fall back, the rowans' delicately curving boughs traced their veins across the skin of the sky. Among them, the stars should hang clear and close, he thought, like lanterns suspended from these stark and beautiful branches. But where had he ever seen stars so brilliant? Stars that revealed everything in their pure, changeless light?

A gust shook the boughs into a mild rustle that faltered again quickly. The stars sprinkled among the tree-tops seemed hazy and small, as if mirrored on a muddy pond. There would be no answer, not now, whether he'd dreamed or not.

I had no reason to come here, Frodo thought as the night-air sank with the cold weight of stone into his chest. I should not have left Sam.

He turned on his heel, almost driven to a run across the distance that he'd wandered. Back to the farmhouse that formed a lightless slab at the fields' end. Back to Sam, alone in their bed and the narrow room, daubed with memories that belonged to neither of them.

Through the white flares of his own breath, Frodo saw that the first bedroom's shutter was firmly drawn. His own steps drummed in his ears and seemed to raise the shadows that sprang up as he crossed the yard, and he could scarcely muster the patience to open and shut doors quietly, heedful of the sleepers. His breaths were racing when he entered the bedroom that seemed warm enough to be stifling.

"Sam..." He wavered between drawing air and fumbling for words, for a question that should hover at the tip of his tongue. "Did you close the window, Sam?"

His only answer was a muffled sound that caught at his own throat. Frodo shed his jacket, not caring where it dropped, but he'd barely set his knee on the bed when Sam pulled him close. With enough strength to bruise, his arm locked around Frodo's middle, pressing hard below his ribcage.

While the mattress dipped away under them, Frodo caught hold of Sam's shoulder, half straddling his thighs. "I'm sorry." But the words almost drowned in the rush of his breath. Braced against Sam's chest, he pressed his face to sleep-ruffled hair. "Sam, forgive me."

"Take me with you." A desperate strain tightened Sam's voice to a near-whisper.

"Sam! Please don't, don't think..." Fear stabbed through Frodo again, all but blinding this time. "I should have known..."

A muted sound escaped against the skin of his neck, a moan or a sob draining from Sam's throat, and each heartbeat struck hard in Frodo's chest, for every moment that Sam had spent alone. There had been too many times when he couldn't answer Sam, locked into a struggle that left him sightless, senseless, lost to Sam's efforts of comforting him, to Sam's pleas and his rending hopes. Hadn't he promised himself that there should never be another moment like it?

He reached out with both hands, blindly groping along the collar of Sam's nightshirt, and knotted his fingers into Sam's curls. The tight clasp around his middle eased by fits and starts, and they dropped back against the bedding in an uneven, gasping tangle, as if they'd barely reached scant shelter.

"Sam..." Frodo could feel him tremble, deep starts rising from his chest through his shoulders and arms, and when Frodo turned his face, his mouth brushed the wetness on Sam's cheek. "My heart..." He kissed away the tears, suddenly shaking with shivers that wouldn't be stopped, as if his body had at last caught the chill taken out of doors. Now it must be leaching through his clothes, through Sam's nightshirt, spreading on Sam's skin like frost over a still pool.

"It all came back, didn't it?" Sam asked in a hoarse whisper. "It seemed like you were back-back with-"

"No..." Frodo breathed, unaware of his answer until he had voiced it.

"What did you dream then?"

"It was... nothing." Frodo shook his head. "I never dream of it, Sam. It is gone forever, as though... like a thing that never was." He held his breath against a jagged sob that threatened to twist free. "But is that possible?"

"Maybe..." Sam shifted, his arms encircling Frodo in a gentler embrace, so that their faces rested against the pillow, in the current of each other's breath. "It never couldn't be more than such things as it took."

That Sam should think about it, even now, striving for answers from the thick of his own fears, pulled another tremor through Frodo's limbs. Abrupt tears squeezed from his eyes with painful heat.

"Frodo," Sam wrapped a hand around his jaw, "now don't you start..."

"Have I not betrayed you?"

"How can you be askin' that?" Sam gripped his upper arm strongly, but his voice was soft with conviction. "'Twas never you that did any betraying, and you know it."

"But that was then," Frodo said heatedly, "and now-"

"Now we're together, love." Sam brushed his lips against Frodo's temple, releasing a warm and ragged breath that blew a shiver along the side of Frodo's neck, barely enough to carry words - "You came back to me."

"But can you believe me?" Frodo asked, because he had to. "There is nothing that I desire as much as your happiness. Your joy."

"You needn't ask that, neither." Sam pulled up their nightshirts and wrenched them out of the way until they lay skin to skin. In his arms, Frodo shuddered violently, seized by a slow burst of pulse that swept and filled him and left him breathless.

"You're my joy," Sam murmured, and held him closer, "whether or no."

The sound of his voice, passing lightly through bone, skin and blood eased the taut tremors aside. Frodo pressed his lips to the crook of Sam's neck, shaping a caress where words could not reach. Clasped to Sam's breast, he sank into the kind, shadowed space they could claim as their own. It spread around him like a calm lake, a dark bowl of earth blending water with dashes of untimely light. He could let himself slide under the surface and down to the bottom, where nothing existed save the fervent heartbeats that surrounded his own.

* * *

It was afternoon as they set out from the farm. The sun lent a pale golden tint to the scudding clouds, her rays lighting sharply on the frost that glittered from the grass banks along the south lane. To Frodo's eyes, everything had the look of an etching on glass, revealing itself, then dissolving again with the clouds' restless movement across the sun. The constant changes from light to shadow drove out every thought about their winter stores, the numbers and reckonings with which he'd busied himself all morning. But he'd prepared well enough for the meeting and carried some written notes in his knapsack, tucked into one of the books that Merry had sent him.

Since the ruts in the lane didn't allow for three to walk comfortably abreast, Sam and Farmer Cotton had fallen a step behind and conversed in lowered voices about the crop yield in the Northfarthing. At times their footsteps stirred faint crackles from the ice that covered the last day's rain puddles.

"I'll be turning off here," Farmer Cotton announced as they approached Tom and Jolly's cottage. "'T might be that your Gaffer will want to come along, Sam, and I've some yarn to fetch that Mrs. Longholt will be wanting." His glance lingered on Sam with an unspoken invitation to accompany him, but Sam merely nodded.

"We shall see you at the Dragon then," Frodo returned, and watched with some relief as the farmer crossed towards the cottage yard, leaving him and Sam to walk the rest of the way by themselves. As they strolled on, Frodo searched Sam's profile from the side and noticed the pensive gaze that didn't quite meet his own. Was it the memory of the last night that flickered behind the dip of Sam's lashes, the same grateful relief for a moment's privacy, or some other thought entirely?

"Well, Sam," Frodo said in deliberately lighthearted tones, "this will be an occasion to celebrate, now that the Dragon is officially open and serving again."

"Aye, and we'll see the whole village turn up, I'll warrant," Sam answered evenly, "as soon as the meeting's finished."

In his sidelong glance flashed a keen expectation that couldn't have been kindled by the prospect of a friendly gathering alone. From the cast of his jaw to the set of his shoulders, everything about Sam's frame spelled alertness, if not outright tension, and Frodo wondered about it with a creeping disquiet. How could he forgive himself for running away, as he had the night before? And after this, what promise could he offer? Can you trust me not to fail you, Sam?

Between the hushed sounds of their footfalls ran a persistent quiet that grew heavier where the rowans guarded the cottage. Underneath these trees, Frodo felt as though he'd moved into a great stillness that lay tense around his breast, and if he breathed too deeply, it might leave him sore. The silence he'd grown accustomed to hear shifted around him, like great floes of ice.

Only when Sam moved closer to his side did he realise that he'd stopped walking, tense with anticipation, and the past two weeks seemed to crest in this sudden stillness where something was waiting for him - if only he could allow it inside. Beneath the trees, the sun kindled autumn gold from leaves raked up against the slender trunks. The bared patch of soil beyond was black and smooth, and Frodo thought of the frost sinking down to the roots, numbing and lulling them. Despite the soft winter haze, everything was crisp and present, as if it could remain unchanged forever.

He stirred when Sam raised a hand to reach out past him, his sleeve brushing Frodo's shoulder. "This... this is winter," he said slowly, uncertain why it should matter. "It is already here."

Sam nodded as he ran his fingers across the glittering crust on one of the lower branches, rubbing ice grains against the pad of his thumb. "'Tis a lucky thing though that the frosts are late this year," he said, "and not reaching all that deep yet. We might have a chance of sanding up the Row and digging out new holes ere the ground's froze up hard."

"Your Gaffer seems eager to return there."

"As eager as ever I've seen him."

"Then he isn't comfortable with Marigold and Tom?" Frodo asked, imagining the modest smial at Number Three as it must have been once, with six small children crowded into a single bedroom.

"It's not that," Sam answered, his eyes wandering from the trees to the cottage. "The Gaffer's grown so used to living below the Hill, he says it gives him a queer feeling to step out the door of a morn and look on flat grounds, instead of down into the dale." He wiped his hand on his cloak and pulled up his shoulders. "He's got his roots dug into that spot of soil, and there's no planting him elsewhere."

"I can well understand it," Frodo said softly while a memory of daybreak in Bag End stole through him, the first timid gleams crawling over the tiles in the front parlour where the fire was yet unlit. Stronger and brighter, this grey start of dawn would find him on the porch, and a long, languid shiver rippled from his neck to his toes. But where was Sam in this memory?

"Well, seeing as how the work's goin', we'll have him back by his own fire not long after Yule." Sam passed a long glance over his shoulder, in the direction of the Hill. "But if I could make a wish, I'd wish for Bag End to be mended as quick, if not sooner."

"So do I," Frodo said before he could think about it. "We will just have to be patient."

Sam met his eyes with a searching directness that took Frodo back to the first glimpse of morning. They had both woken late, and even though the noises of an already started breakfast should have rushed them from their bed, Sam held on to him with a fierce urgency. For long moments, he leaned over Frodo, gazing into his eyes through the wispy twilight while his fingers moved restlessly along the side of Frodo's face and through his curls. With a pang below his breath Frodo remembered how he'd been caught to that look, how he'd longed to raise his head the one inch needed to crush their mouths together, and could not dare it. But from that unfinished moment and the night's fears welled a question, begging an answer that he owed Sam, that he longed to give if only he could find it.

"When spring comes-" he started, and suddenly he could see it as if framed by one of Bag End's round windows, a distant sweep of green fringed by a cloud of white blossoms. So lucent that he almost felt the gentler airs on his face, yet entirely out of reach. We can hold out through this winter, he thought. I can.

"Yes, Mr. Frodo?" Sam asked in a subdued tone, but his gaze lost none of its watchful intent.

A fretting little breeze blew cold past Frodo's ankles and up his calves, and wound into the trees until the boughs crackled. Near Sam's shoulder dangled a clutch of shrivelled berries, yellowed by the cold but still bright as waxed orchard apples. Frodo breathed in quietly. Within his memories he might wander past the windows of Bag End and observe the slow turning of days and seasons, but had anything ever seemed as clear and vivid as this strip of twig and berry against the thinning light? Perhaps this was all there was to know, and all he needed was to look fully at one sight in so many and grasp in it the whole of a life that he missed.

"The waiting may not be easy," Frodo said haltingly, "yet it seems right somehow to return to the Hill in spring. Think about it, Sam... What better time for a new beginning?" He could tell by Sam's startled smile that a genuine hope must be revealed on his own face.

"None better," Sam replied after a moment, "'tis true. And right you are to remind me that spring will come, as sure as anything."

"Do you ever doubt it?" Frodo smiled openly at him. "In that case, I shall keep reminding you." He might not have given the one answer he'd been looking for, but to see the curbed tension ease from Sam's stance, to watch him give the rowan twigs a brief, affectionate tousle was enough for the moment.

They wandered towards the village at a light pace, and soon the first chimneys rose into view, spewing smoke against the pale sky. Behind the smithy, a white dog was running in great, excited circles across the withered meadow. The blacksmith's wife called a greeting from the croft, her arms filled with rushes, and even as Frodo returned it, he noticed the slight changes in Sam's bearing. His eyes roamed from one side of the village to the other, and he carried himself with a quiet vigilance.

At the top of the south lane, the remains of the desolate sheds and houses that had cluttered the Pool Side not long ago lay piled in heaps of splintered boards and poles. A strong gusting wind came at them from the direction of Hobbiton, moving patches of sunlight and shadow across the road, and raked up echoing voices.

On the southern end of the Bywater Pool, among crippled and broken trees, the village maids and matrons were busy with mounts of laundry, some dragging garments back and forth through the water, others slapping sheets, wrung and twisted into thick ropes, against the flat stones. Their hands were red and swollen from the cold water. One of them began to sing, and the others fell in at their own pace, until their voices sauntered back and forth. In the yellowing daylight, Frodo could see the willows and wych elms that had once surrounded the pool and lent shade to the road, and the song seemed to leap from one treetop to the other until it rang like laughter, like the bleating of sheep driven in a hurry towards the fold, like the rhythmic clatter of chimbels.

He turned sideways, perhaps to share these impressions with Sam, but Sam's eyes were averted, and for once he didn't notice Frodo's glance. Quite likely he was reliving a fond remembrance of his own, and if so, Frodo wished that he'd draw hope from it. At a pony's impatient whinny from the western end of the village Sam's head snapped up.

"That were Mr. Boffin's old mare, if I've ever heard her in a temper."

"I suppose we should hurry," Frodo replied, "or there'll be no seats left for us in the Dragon."

Sam gave him a look so full of disdain that he almost laughed. "They'll always keep a seat for you, Mr. Frodo, 'less they've lost all manners in the scufflings, along with their wits."

When they stepped through the Dragon's open gate and wended their way past the carts and pony traps crowding the muddy yard, shouts and greetings flew from every direction. The inn's door might still show the traces of hasty repairs, but over the threshold streamed the familiar blend of firelight and burbling voices.

Frodo pushed his cloak back over his shoulders as he entered, dazed for a moment by the heated wafts of woodsmoke and cooking smells. Most of the local farmers were already present and had taken their seats at the long table towards the back of the common room. He nodded to Farmer Highgrove, Longholt, Hayward, Marsh and Greenholm in turn, before shaking the outstretched hand of his cousin Milo Burrows who'd pushed into his path.

Out of the corner of his eye, he caught the glances that skipped from him to Sam and back again. They were both wearing their Elven cloaks and the leaf-shaped brooches, an attire of which their assembled neighbours probably didn't approve. It marked them both as Travellers, alike to the community's eyes in this one way, if in no other.

One hand at Frodo's elbow, Milo ushered him towards a large round table already occupied by Olo Proudfoot and Otto Boffin from Overhill, and several others that Frodo had not expected to see, among them Odovacar Bolger, Aldo Brockhouse from Waymeet, Pit Hornblower from Michel Delving and, next to him, Will Whitfoot's eldest son Franklin.

"Frodo!" Without effort, Pippin's shout pierced the din, and Frodo turned back to see him approach from the ale casks, hefting a pair of filled tankards. "Over here!"

The path he took across the floor, his dark head bobbing easily above the milling crowd, directed Frodo's eyes to a table by the great hearth. The Thain himself rose from the single stuffed chair that remained in the tavern, straw spilling from rents in the padding.

"Frodo, my boy..."

"Good evening, Uncle Paladin. This is a surprise..." To Frodo's ears, they both sounded as if they were repeating a conversation from memory, with an altered, uneasy awareness running its course underneath. His uncle smiled staunchly as he looked him up and down, but then his eyes found Frodo's right hand and darted away quickly.

I don't mind if you look at it, Frodo almost said, but that would probably cause his uncle greater embarrassment than letting it pass without comment. Paladin's expression was steadfast when he raised both arms, and Frodo stepped forward to let himself be folded in an embrace more circumspect than any he'd ever received from his boisterous uncle.

"Heavens above, but it's good to see you," the Thain muttered, holding him by his shoulders for another moment. "I only wish it could have been sooner." The Occupation hadn't diminished his girth by much, but the hard glint in his eye suggested a less apparent change. "The lot of you have been through strange weathers, indeed. Come and sit with us, Frodo. Pippin will fetch you another-"

"He can have mine." Pippin set the tankards down with a gallant bow and a wink for Frodo. "I'll be back in just a bit."

When Frodo cast a swift glance over his shoulder, Sam had been joined by Farmer Cotton who steered him to the long table on the other side of the room. Only family heads were called to attend this meeting, and Frodo thought he saw some farmers raise their eyebrows on sight of Sam. Lips pressed tightly together, Frodo drew up a chair next to Paladin's and draped his cloak over the backrest.

"I am glad to see you here, but this is a much larger gathering than I had expected."

"Is it now?" Amusement quirked Paladin's mouth and disappeared just as quickly in lavish froth as he took a swig from his tankard. Pippin dropped into the chair next to Frodo's, nearly spattering himself with the fresh ale that he'd brought.

"Well, then..." The Thain set his own ale aside and drew out his penknife to tap it against the tankard. "Let us begin before everyone has gone to the bottom of their mugs, shall we?"

"Certainly." Somewhat puzzled, Frodo watched his uncle approach their business with an uncommon amount of ceremony.

It took some time for the general noise to fade, and longer until everyone in the room had found a seat, but Pippin ignored Frodo's questioning look in favour of tasting his ale. Finally, Paladin walked to the middle of the floor where a small open space remained.

"Esteemed friends and neighbours, my dear hobbits," he said, spreading both arms wide, "we have many pressing questions to discuss, but before we talk about grain and shelter, there is one important matter to be decided." He paused to unfasten his jacket, its glass buttons flashing in the firelight. "As you all know, Will Whitfoot, our good mayor of many years, has suffered sorely from his imprisonment. He must be spared all duties until he has regained full health - and may he mend quickly."

Sympathetic mutters rose at this, and Frodo could see many eyes turn towards Franklin Whitfoot.

"We shall have to appoint a deputy for the time Will needs to recover," Paladin continued, "and that is why I was asked to attend this meeting. Indeed, those who approached me have also suggested the most suitable hobbit to fill the gap, and I am in full agreement with their choice. But it is for this gathering to decide upon the proper deputy, and for the hobbit in question to accept this appointment, of course."

Again there was a refrain of murmurs, thickening the air with a mixture of approval and curiosity. Though anticipation crept over him as well, Frodo took a sip of his ale and bent to retrieve his notes from the knapsack.

"Let Farmer Hayward have a say," Farmer Cotton requested from the back of the room. "He's the eldest among us and can speak for us all."

"Of course," Paladin agreed pleasantly.

Farmer Hayward pushed up from the bench. "Those were words well spoken, sir, and if I might say, we've given the matter a thought among us, too." He wet his lips and glanced back along the table. "'T should be the Master of Bag End taking up the Mayorship for this while, now that he's back and all. If we're to have more dealings with outsiders, he'll know what's best for us to do."

Frodo let the notes drift back into his knapsack and straightened in his chair. It was only too expectable that the local farmers would vote for someone they'd had dealings with for many years, yet their trust touched him with a sudden tightness in his chest.

"I am not about to argue with you," Paladin said cheerfully while Hayward sat down again, "not at all. In truth and fact, Frodo Baggins is the very hobbit I was going to propose to you, on behalf of several family heads from the West and Eastfarthing. Without our Travellers' courageous deeds, we would still chafe under Sharkey's rule." He hooked his thumbs into his belt and sent Frodo a jovial smile. "Besides it would not be fair, now would it, if only Hobbiton and Bywater were to profit from your return, Frodo."

"I-" Frodo shook his head, aware of Pippin's glance from the side. "I don't know what to say." His answer emerged so low, it went under in a fresh surge of rustles and murmurs. With a gesture, Paladin motioned him to stand.

Countless inquisitive faces seemed to swim among drifting smoke and the light fanning from the hearth, but Frodo could tell that not everyone in the room was as content with the Thain's choice as Farmer Hayward and his neighbours. Olo Proudfoot for one picked at the embroidery on his cuff with a scowl. Glancing around, Frodo felt as giddy and overwhelmed as he had after Bilbo's abrupt departure, his mind grappling with a hundred newly acquired duties, and his heart full of doubt. Yet those eighteen years ago there'd been none of the clouding disquiet that enveloped him now.

"You honour me," he said, "but if there is another that anyone here would like to see appointed, do speak up." No-one responded to his appeal, but his eyes finally found Sam, seated on a stool at the end of the long table. His expression was quietly expectant, without a trace of surprise, and his glance slipped briefly towards Pippin. When Frodo turned sideways, he saw that a smile played in the corners of Pippin's mouth, the kind that he considered secretive.

"You've ever been a good and kindly master, Mr. Frodo," Farmer Cotton said loudly, "and you've done your bit in putting an end to the mischief. We trust you to see us through the coming winter, hard as it may be."

"What's needed is someone with a sensible head on his shoulders," Odovacar Bolger stated, his upper lip curling in a suppressed smile. "From what I hear, my dear Frodo, you've kept your head together through all your travelling." Someone from the table behind him snorted softly, but Odovacar paid no attention to it. "What's more, now that we're in need of help from outside, your knowledge of foreign parts may do us some good."

At the dubious glance Olo Proudfoot exchanged with his Brockhouse connexion, Frodo guessed that there must have been an argument on this subject, but no-one objected now, and it seemed that no other candidate would be put forward.

"I thank you," he answered, though he couldn't keep the hoarseness out of his voice. Every pair of eyes in the room was set on him, and he wondered who it was that they saw, and if they were looking at a memory - of him in former years, or of Bilbo, perhaps, with his grand and whimsical ways. I should want this, he thought, I should be grateful.

"Very well." Frodo cleared his throat. "I will tell you my thoughts, and you can then decide if you'll have me in Mayor Whitfoot's place." He stopped at a clatter of earthenware that was quickly hushed. "I wish for peace. I know that many of you carry scars from what you have suffered, and those scars, seen and unseen, may not disappear in a lifetime. They might not even heal..." He sought Sam's eyes again and found sharp comprehension in them as he groped for the right words. "But do not carry grievance alongside, do not burden yourself with bitterness over your losses. I cannot give you hope if you can't find it within yourselves..."

Some uneasy coughs and shuffling noises skittered about the room as Frodo paused. He should find words to give them confidence, he knew, even if it carried no farther than the bounds of this evening. But he thought of the fear that lodged hard as black slag in Farmer Whitling's eyes, of the irate disbelief tearing at the Gaffer's voice when he spoke of losing his home. He thought of Sam's stunned grief when he'd touched the bark of the dead Party Tree, and the weariness that so often bent Sam's shoulders. Among them all, Frodo realised with a start, he alone was unburdened by the grief they dragged through each day like cut and dangling roots. He felt light as air for a moment, enclosed within his own shallow breathing, when another disconcerted whisper stirred nearby.

He'd let the silence last too long, and some of the landholders were watching him with troubled frowns. Without looking at Sam again, Frodo could feel his steady gaze and knew that with every ounce of his will Sam wished him to continue, to accept -

"For the Shire," Frodo said, releasing with a breath everything that had dimmed the truth inside him, "I will do everything that I can. If there is one certainty I have, it is that we'll see the Shire flourish again... because we all love this land, and this love is stronger than all the forces that would see it destroyed." His voice dropped towards the end, but Sam looked at him with brimming eyes.

For you, Frodo added silently, and thought with a bewildered calm that he'd come to this moment to find a decision within it, like the sweet flesh of a chestnut cracked open in a bonfire.

After a short pause, the farmers smacked their palms on the table in jumbled thumps of acclaim, and many hands from the nearer side of the room followed suit.

"No-one could ask more of you, Frodo. These are difficult times for us all." Paladin laid a hand against his shoulder blade where only Pippin could see it. "Are we decided then?" he asked, raising his voice.

"I say we are." Odovacar was first to rise and deliver a formal bow that was duplicated by one landholder after another. When they had all expressed their consent, Paladin turned towards the farmers' side of the room to request their decision as well. A response came in murmurs at first, but they were soon overtaken by good-humoured calls that rose to loud cheers like a river swelling with thaw from the mountains.

While the noise washed around him as if to sweep him over the doorstep and out into the road, all that Frodo could see clearly was the glow of pride and happiness in Sam's eyes. This was the moment Sam must have been waiting for all day. Frodo smiled at him and at the same time braced himself for the shoulder-claps and handshakes that would follow.

* * *

Dusk was pouring watery shades of blue across Bywater when Frodo stepped into the Dragon's yard. After many toasts and a prolonged, meandering discussion, the meeting was concluded. From the yard's rear rose thick compost smells, and greasy billows steamed through the kitchen wicket. Frodo walked across to the gate that faced out west, breathing deeply to clear his head and his chest.

Once the Dragon's doors and windows had been thrown open, more villagers crowded in to learn the news and enjoy their first cup of ale in months, until the crush of bodies made it difficult to breathe. He'd escaped the bustle as soon as he could without drawing attention. Perhaps the many months of travelling under open sky, and the time spent in the lofty halls and courtyards of Minas Tirith, had left him unused to the cramped and close spaces of Shire dwellings.

Across the road, alongside the ditch, lay a fallen chestnut, its trunk wreathed in pale skeins of ivy that gleamed in the twilight. It must have been cut down some time ago, for weeds and thistles formed a matted tangle beside and beneath the trunk, the kind where dormice or hedgehogs would take shelter during the cold season. Many miles beyond, behind a ragged line of trees in the west, the last of sunset gathered in burning orange. As he watched those dwindling flares, Frodo fingered the chain around his neck to which the white jewel was clasped. Every outline and shadow was sharply cut in this receding light, and the wind-swept sky formed a glassy dome containing it all. Clear as a dream, he thought. But I am not here. Am I?

Neither sound nor movement told him that he was no longer alone. Rather it seemed as if the knowledge slid through him like one of the bright rays that narrowed to threads across the road's frozen tracks. When he turned, Sam stood by the Bolgers' covered waggon, splinters of bronze sunlight in his eyes, yet he didn't blink.

"You knew," Frodo said softly. "You and Pippin..."

Before Sam could answer, a quiet rustle came from the back of the yard. "I know what you're thinking, cousin." Pippin stepped around the bulky conveyance to stand beside Sam, "but there was no conspiracy this time. Only... well, I guess you might call it a private understanding of sorts."

"It weren't just us neither," Sam added.

Frodo raised an eyebrow. "No, it rather seems as if everyone shared this understanding, except me," he said lightly. "Not everyone approves, you know."

"Oh, there's always an old badger or another with secret-" Pippin gestured airily, "-ambitions. They'll stir up trouble only to make more of their own importance. And there are those who'd fill their own pouch and pantry first. Which reminds me..." He sank one hand into his jacket's pocket and with a sheepish look produced half a carrot. "I've pinched this to feed our pony, but don't tell on me, Frodo. Everyone knows we Tooks are terribly wasteful." His rueful grin flashed and dimmed in the space of a breath. "You'll be here when I come back, won't you?"

"Of course I will be," Frodo answered. "I think I have at least another dozen uncles, cousins and nephews waiting for a word with me."

"Not to mention a drink and a toast." With a satisfied nod, Pippin turned and headed towards the stables. "You owe me one, too," he flung over his shoulder, "and don't you forget it."

As he disappeared among the lengthened shadows, Sam crossed the short distance to the gate and took his place at Frodo's side as if he'd never left it. Watching him, Frodo found the same relieved gladness in Sam's eyes that he'd met there before, even though the responsibility of replacing Will Whitfoot and handling business in Michel Delving would surely limit their scant time together.

"Why didn't you tell me about it?" Frodo asked. Was there something guarded in Sam's expression now, or was it regret?

"Mr. Pippin... he asked me not to."

"Were you afraid that I would say no?"

Sam lowered his eyes. "I didn't know aught about it till this morning when I ran across Mr. Pippin in the village." When he looked up again, all trace of hesitation had vanished. "Mr. Frodo... you've no cause to doubt yourself."

Frodo shook his head. "I can't help wondering who it is that they see."

"If only they knew..." Sam's fingers curled into a fist atop the gate-post. "All that you've done, all that you've put yourself through to keep the Shire safe."

"And you, Sam. But I didn't mean to sound sorry for myself. I'm not. I do know that I can trust..." Frodo raised a hand as if to cup Sam's, barely stopping the motion to offer a smile instead. "Trust what you see in me."

Sam's hand loosened and dropped to his side. "That's more'n I'll ever have words for," he murmured thickly, holding Frodo in a glance so intimate that Frodo couldn't return it long - not here, where caution must keep them apart.

When he forced his eyes aside, towards the brimming sky, a sparrowhawk sailed above the fields west of Bywater. For long moments, Frodo watched its flight, the jagged upward wingbeats that eased into a graceful glide, only to start again unexpectedly as the bird was lifted from one air-stream to another. He knew that Sam was watching too, as they stood by the gate together, and this knowledge seemed to release the gentle brush of Sam's fingers against his own, like a calm breath flowing, before it became a firm handclasp between them.

Frodo smiled and felt something lift within him as though a haze had been blown off his senses. It was the first time since their return that Sam had touched him in this manner, in a place where they risked being seen. It was close and real, unquestionable as the quiet joy in Sam's eyes.

This is all that I have, Frodo thought, enclosed in a deep stillness that he need not fear, and all that I need to guide me.

* * * * *

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