Thanks to MJ for beta-reading and encouragement (and more thanks for all her delightful stories :).

Ghost Cover Ghost

Sometimes she thought she heard footsteps, falling light and determined along the smial between study and kitchen. She had stopped turning at the sound and would merely gather the needlework to her, or her washing, an armful of damp sheets waiting for sunlight to steam them dry. The sound never followed her outside. And outside, where the sunlight crept kindly up her back, she could smile and shake her head at it.

She lifted the first piece of linen out of the basket, still coiled rope-like from a hard wringing. It unwound slowly, one heavy fold after the other, and flapped against her ankle.

The sound had been about a long time, but when the children were littler, she could always let it go under and pretend she'd heard wrong. The children's merry voices and the sauntering patter of their feet covered it up, leastways. It's nobut your own fancy, she would say to herself. And she'd oftly been told as a lass that her fancies ran a sight too wild.

She draped the sheet over the clothes-line, picked up the basket and moved further down the garden. Though the trees had started to gild weeks ago, it was a fine day, and a fresh southern wind cleaned out the first fallen leaves. By the vegetable patch, Frodo's blue shirt stood out brightly. The sun fair sparkled on his light brown curls. He'd collected the last tomatoes and now crouched in the hind corner of the kitchen garden, plucking out such spent herbs as wouldn't last through the frosts. Beside him on the grass, little Tom sat watching, his chin propped on his fists.

Not so little no more, she thought fondly. This last summer, he grew faster than he could eat. But if he was thin as a stick now, the winter would cure that with bread-baking, cherry dumplings and apple tarts, and learning his letters instead of tumbling about like a whirlwind.

Frodo now, he wasn't one for the letters and the books. He'd studied enough to keep his own planting lists, but he turned the gift of his hands to all living things what wanted care and tending and wouldn't tarry over story-telling. In years past, he'd grown all quiet to hear his own name repeated over and over in the Book and find himself so twined into his namesake's adventures. He'd had nightmares from it when he was a toddler, she knew, though they'd never breathed a word of it to Sam.

She scooped the last sheet out of the basket and pulled it down smartly over the line, batting away at the damp crinkles. A sudden wind plunged into the linen and billowed it out like a sail, slapping a wet chill against her bare arm. When she stepped back a pace, a sharp dash of sunlight flared off the study's window. She blinked to clear her sight.

A bit of spiderweb fluttered in the window's upper half. She put her hands on her hips, ready to give Miss Busy Longlegs a piece of her mind. She'd cleaned that window not two days ago, but the spiders were ever agait weaving their sticky traps when autumn came. Perhaps she should go inside, fetch a broom and dust off the furniture for good measure. A silk grey covering had long gathered on the top shelf, veiling the dried roses and odd-shaped stones that Mr. Frodo had picked up on his walks long ago. On the desk, the Red Book would be waiting next to the quills and ink, dark against the gleam of waxed maplewood.

She peeked at the Book now and then. The letters had never come easy to her, and she'd trail them with a finger and slow murmurs under her breath. Always aware of Sam's gentle eyes, and his smile reaching over to her whenever she faltered. "Just as I was, Rosie dear," he would say, "and bless Mr. Bilbo for putting out all his patience for the likes of me. Don't let it worry you none."

She'd never told him how much better she liked it sitting back as he read to her. Looking at Mr. Frodo's handwriting always sent her mind skittering this way and that. Sometimes it was from the way his letters grew thin and scratchy, crushed tightly together and hard to read. Most oftentimes, it was only the daunting swell of that tale, running through page after page. No hobbit had ever filled up such a huge book, and with such dark and strange tidings too.

Even though she'd heard the story many a time and had traced it herself through a chapter and another and the next, her mind kept poking at things as weren't set down in the Book. Perhaps they couldn't be put into writing once a body returned to the Shire's homely blessings, in which case they might be better forgot. The Big People had their own books, and so did the King. She had never quite understood why Mr. Frodo had made such a long story of it, longer than most folk would ever read, for certain.

On idle summer evenings and sodden winter days, she liked it much better when Sam read from Mr. Bilbo's writing, though more than half of it she knew by heart. With the book in his lap and his thumb cradling the edge of a page, Sam would let the rhymes flow into the room, gentle as ripples in a wheat field. Mr. Bilbo's collected songs and stories were all of the Shire, full of sweet summers, marvellous parties and crackling fires, and they all felt at home then. Even when the stories were borrowed from the Elves with a bit of magic scattered through them, they carried the mark of the Shire's simpler ways and brought no nightmares to the children.

But Sam no longer read out loud these days. When he wasn't writing, he'd read all quiet with his brow furrowed, and between the pages turning, his eyes would wander a little. Dip just sideways to the edge of the desk and from there to the window. Soft and thoughtful his eyes were, when they went off roaming into the story, and she loved that look on his face though it weren't for her.

Perhaps that's why, she thought now and again. It kept the memory of his leaving awake in her, and the sweet pang she'd felt seeing him ride up to her father's doorstep, all fierce and changed in his foreign garb. Some wives and husbands fell into such habits with each other, they wouldn't pay it no mind when a sudden patch of grey appeared at the temple or a lusty gleam in the eye. That could never happen to her.

Lately though, she'd taken to reading when Sam was out away on Mayor's business, because she turned quietly annoyed at herself, and then Sam would chuckle and pat her hand, as if it didn't mean nothing. Quick as she was with needles and songs and reckoning the market prices in her head, the letters defied her. But when she kept hearing the footsteps, even at bright mid-day, she'd turned to the Book for answers.

She had looked up the part where they walked through the mines, crossing under the mountains, no less. And there in the dark, Mr. Frodo had heard the sound of feet that shouldn't be there. It set a chill into her bosom. Soft secret steps trailing along and stopping whenever a body paused to listen. Halting a ways off, so as to pretend they weren't there. And just like Mr. Frodo in Moria, she could guess who it was. Bag End was his home after all.

Oh, she'd heard a lot of them wild tales about Mad Baggins counting out his gold and jools in the cellars, and she'd given a bright laugh to them all. Folk no longer saw such a difference between Mr. Bilbo and Mr. Frodo, and the tales just got spun around them both and grew more fanciful by the year.

Naught but moonshine, it was. Any hobbit with a bit of sense between his ears could tell that Mr. Frodo weren't coming back for the count of any treasures. And if he'd ever had a sight of Bag End these years, he'd find it brimful with happiness, she was sure of that. He'd loved little Elanor, he had, as if she were his very own.

Under the study's window, the snowdrops bloomed full white. She watched the blossoms shiver in the breeze and wondered if they had such flowers where Mr. Frodo was now, and if he ever missed his blackberries and the South Farthing pears, or even his trinkets and remembrances on the shelf. But if it were a better place, as Sam believed and repeated oftly, he had no reason for coming back. It's a place where the elven light never fades, Sam told the children when they asked. And there was a light on his face then, of the strange sights he had seen, and stranger tales untold.

Rose tucked the empty basket under her arm and walked back around to the front entrance. There were tales of ghosts walking the White Downs, but she'd never believed them neither, nor the ditties about dead folk rising lonely from their graves. And Mr. Frodo weren't dead, to be sure. He lived in the memories, in the Book, in the tidy rows of maps, books and parchments on the shelves, and the lay of flower beds that were never changed any.

A line of black ants scurried along the crack below the door stones, delving out their own tunnels under the Hill. Rose scuffed a bit of sand into the gaps. As she stepped inside, something soft bounced off her toes and skidded away, and she almost flinched. But a broad band of sunlight fell through the open door and settled on a rag doll. She picked it up and stroked her thumb across the grimy little face on which she'd sown glass beads for eyes. The curve of a smile she'd made with a few stitches of brown wool was long gone, but when she'd set to mending it, Ruby didn't want it changed no more and broke into howls over it till she gave it back.

Rose tucked the doll into her apron's pocket and steered directly to the kitchen. It was her home after all, the frilled yellow curtains swinging lightly before the open window, and the bottling jars ready on the table, beside a basket full of plums. In the meat platter's polished underside, she caught sight of herself, a blurred reflexion of blue cotton and sun-streaked curls.

She straightened her apron and smoothed a hand down from waist to hip. Her form had thickened out nicely through the years, full and soft where she ought to be, not an ounce starting to sag from childbearing. Her smooth round shoulders were the envy of Hobbiton, so Marigold often said, being such a sweet lass herself, and then Sam would smile and nod.

There was much she could do for him, even now that they weren't having no more children, and more when the nightmares came with unrestful memories that drove him to the kitchen in the middle of night. She would walk in all quiet and reach him a glass of warm milk, or open the window so the mellow scent of midsummer daisies could slip inside, and gently pull his head to her breast. He thanked her for it with being the kindest father and husband anyone could wish for. She had naught to fret nor worry about.

From the bedrooms' side of the smials came a thin, drawn-out sound, the creaking of a door. Her fingers cramped tight around the jar, Rose stood stock-still for a moment and another. It was nobut the wind in the door, surely, and she scolded herself for thinking otherwise. The jars clinked together as she went back to her work. After a while, she began humming a little melody into the quiet.

Let the footsteps come, they weren't no serious bother. She wasn't about to turn and look over her shoulder neither, half expecting to see him there, with his pale blue eyes that saw too much and looked past her, filled up with a yearning that knew no rest. It was a thing of the past, and she would live with it, the same as she lived with Mr. Frodo's furniture and his memories all tucked into the corners of Bag End.

I know what you want, she thought at times, but did she truly? Mr. Frodo had left them the life that ought to have been his, he'd given them Bag End and the garden, he'd given them Sam.

Oh, for shame, Rose! She bit her lip for letting such a wrong thought creep nigh her. Sam weren't among Mr. Frodo Baggins' fine possessions to give away as he pleased, and had never been. And if Mr. Frodo held such regrets as would send him a'wandering round his old home, there wasn't aught to be done about that either.

From year's end to year's end, she had wondered if Sam heard the footsteps too, and if they were what broke him from sleep at nights. She'd never asked, but one time not long ago, she thought they might be.

She had wakened when he sat up rigid, his face covered and his breath dragging through his hands. It made her shiver through every limb to hear his voice in such a dry anguished whisper -- "What shall I do?"

She thought then that he'd been spun back to some black place in the story, perhaps even a place that the Book didn't tell of.

Rose paused at the memory, her hands clenched around the edge of the table. Against her palms she felt the fissures of years where the wood had cracked in fast changes from heat to cold. For a moment she could see the cluttered kitchen as it had been from Mr. Frodo's use, everything set back in its old place, even the soot-crusted old pans and worst-worn crockery.

But when she and Sam were wed, she'd made it her call to scrub what could be cleaned and replace what was beyond saving with fine new pieces from her dowry, till the kitchen was awash in warm gleams and fresh scents, and so pretty that Sam wouldn't argue with the changes. By the time Mr. Frodo left, all of the smials showed the touch of her deft hand, and he said himself that she'd made it more bright and fair than he ever could have dreamed.

I am glad that Sam has you to take care of him, he'd told her, standing right there in the kitchen door, with a tight little smile and his eyes flickering hither and yon again. You will make him happy.

That I will, she'd answered, as solemn as she could be. And then her eyes had caught his and the frost in them that made him stranger to her than he'd ever been.

I know.

She could recollect every word of it still, but not the sound of his voice. He'd been soft-spoken and gentle-mannered with his words, yet when she turned her mind to it, naught remained but a harsh whisper that weren't a hobbit's voice at all. Rose turned briskly to set the kettle on the hob.

It was only a week ago that Sam had bolted so wildly in the long hours, the first autumn winds blowing out of the west and the sky a cold black pricked with pinpoint stars. She'd never seen him in such a taking, mumbling about a wish, my one wish, and there was something of that in the Book though Rose couldn't remember as she lay there beside him. Moonlight came in through the window and made him a shadow, parted from her by a river of silver on the sheets.

In a little while, he'd grown still as snow, his back tense and his head tipped to one side, so that she couldn't help but think that he must be listening for the dreadful sound. And then he'd fallen back into the pillow, his eyes wide and staring hard to the ceiling.

With some minutes gone by, she had patted his arm, full worried that he might jump. But he didn't. He turned his head slowly to the side, far out of such dreams as had bothered him. The cold light creeping past the curtains caught a gleam of white in his eyes and between his lips.

He was smiling.

Rose put the jar down slowly and walked to the open window where she could hear the children's voices and the rattle of a cart down the New Bagshot Row. There wasn't no reason why his dreamy smile should frighten her so when the footsteps didn't.

She began humming the song again, a lullabye she'd sung to Elanor when Sam was gone again with Mr. Frodo, for how long she couldn't deem. Then the kettle whistled sharp into her song, and she whirled to take it off the hearth, breathing in softly to listen once more. But in all of Bag End, there was only silence.

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