Much thanks, as always, to Selina for a thorough beta-reading.

~ For Lorraine, one of the most generous souls I've ever known. Much love ~

Winnow & Rhyme Cover winnow

Part 1

The weather had changed within the short span of two days. Drizzling spray fogged the parlour's large window like the finest lace, muffling all the browns and greens in muddy silver. The hedge and the gooseberry bushes crouched in a long fuzzy bank, and against the lawn moved riddling blurs in dark gold, pale blue, wet brown...

Frodo wiped at the misting that his own breath had added on the glass, but Sam had already disappeared around the corner, trundling another barrow-load of windfall to the back entrance. Yesterday's rainfalls had been heavy enough to turn Bagshot Row into a muck-slide, and only now was the sky clearing to a paler blue. Autumn had set in so abruptly, it nearly seemed the wet season had tarried only to spare his birthday.

We would have been soaked through, out there by the field... Frodo breathed in sharply, holding himself motionless on the brink of memory. A moment longer, and all his senses would slide under, into the scent of warm grass and the taste of Hopsbury Blush, mixed with --

Suddenly sweat-damp, his fingers closed around the brass knob. If he opened the window, he might hear Sam hum below his breath -- a steady tune traced around the pace of his work -- though Freddy was bound to complain about the moist draft again.

"You're thinking too hard," Merry's voice startled him from mere inches behind. "It's throwing creases in your neck."

"Is it," Frodo murmured.

"Ask Pippin." Over his shoulder, Merry peered into the greyed greens of the garden.

Frodo turned around just as Sam wandered back into view, to distract Merry with a look of mocking amusement. "If observing me is all you can think of to pass the time, then you must be getting bored indeed." Yet the short twitch-and-fade of a smile on Merry's lips wasn't quite the effect Frodo had hoped for. "Shall we make plans for supper at the Green Dragon this evening?"

"You mean not to huddle up and brood over books that you aren't reading?" Merry's upper lip curled in clear exasperation. "As you have done for three nights in a row, if you--"

"Why else would I suggest a visit to the Dragon?" Frodo tried to keep a start of annoyance out of his voice. "If you've found me to be such disagreeable company, you might have said so earlier." The snappish tone was evident even to his own ears and brought an injured look to Merry's eyes.

"A visit to the Dragon would suit us fine, Frodo, and it isn't that we are bored, but..." His glance skipped briefly in Pippin's direction.

"But--?" Frodo leaned back against the window-sill, glancing from one to the other.

From his nesting place in a large armchair, Pippin looked at him with rounded starling-eyes. Merry took a long breath first, and in the course of it, his features settled. "Well, if you want the truth, you've been in a fey mood ever since we arrived, and you are not sleeping well either. Pippin heard you in the kitchen last night."

"While dear old Merry slept through everything, as usual," Pippin felt obliged to add. "You were singing something that sounded awfully glum."

Frodo shook his head, at a loss how to counter that whimsical reproach.

"You've not even tried mum's apricots yet," Freddy added from the parlour's door, solemn as if that particular failing confirmed a grave suspicion.

"Oh, stop it -- all three of you!" Frodo waved his hands, inexplicable laughter burbling up in his chest. Just barely, he managed to restrain it to a chuckle. "I'm perfectly all right -- in very truth, I feel better than I have for a long time."

"You don't look it though." Only Pippin could be so blunt and wrap it in Tookish charm with the mere tease of a smile. "One moment you are pale as a sheet, and the next you're all flushed... you might be running a fever."

"That must be the sudden weather change," Frodo dismissed it. "It was hot throughout September, and I suppose I'm not used to the chills yet."

"We are only concerned, Frodo," Merry said with a concurring nod from Pippin. "Ever since Bilbo left, you've increasingly locked yourself away from company, and you spend the best time of the year alone with your books and maps--"

"But I am not alone here," Frodo pointed out. "Sam comes round every day."

"Oh, we're all very grateful that he's taking such good care of you. He's an excellent fellow, but--" Merry gestured expansively, "--that's hardly the same as being among your own people."

Not the same at all... Torn between amusement and renewed stirrings of temper, Frodo shook his head. "Bilbo lived in this manner for years and managed well enough. Yes, it can be a little lonely at times, but walks, visits and parties are the best cure for that." He smiled into the round, the kind of smile that closed a topic smoothly but firmly. "Now, shall we go down to the Dragon later, or not?"

"I wouldn't mind a bite now," Pippin threw in. "It must be past time for luncheon."

"It is. Let's see if there is any of Sam's mushroom pie left."

Sam. He could barely speak the name and not feel a strange flutter pass through his breath, or a foolish smile form in its wake. Frodo shook his head at himself after a very agreeable meal, his hands in the dishwater and his mind rambling elsewhere. Somewhere near the vegetable patch, to be exact, as it was from that direction that the creak of Sam's wheelbarrow could now be heard. Frodo had opened the kitchen window, and the rain-softened air washed around him with hazy scents.

A short while ago, Sam had stopped by the open window, his hands full of pears and his eyes --

Frodo stared down blankly at the pot he was scrubbing. Oh, full as his own heart felt, if he could trust himself to read that look right, and more alive than the garden steaming moisture into the warmed air. And shaded, shaded with --

But Sam's lowered lashes took that precious glimpse from view before Frodo could name it, and so he had let his own eyes wander. From Sam's blue work-shirt and the stains left by rainwater splashed out of the trees, to the sweat-sheened skin inside his open collar; along the flushed line of Sam's cheek to the thick muss of curls across his forehead.

Neither of them had spoken a word as the pears dropped into the basket that Frodo held out, his fingers astray to brush Sam's for a space less than a breath. And the latter was lost to them both when their gazes met again, entangled between half a question and a sudden tenseness, until Freddy bustled into the kitchen and Sam turned away with a quick nod in his direction. It was...

Unsettling? Alarming? Frodo wiped a wet hand over his brow. Three days were too short a time to traverse the distance from hopeless, stifled fancies to the knowing -- but, what do you know?

Frodo lifted the pot out of the wash-basin and placed it back on the shelf. Only these quivers of impatience tightening all over him, as impossible to control as the speeding of his pulse. A sense of discovery and apprehension seemed to curl into every loose moment of his days. He could not recollect ever feeling so suspended and enthralled... save once, perhaps, a long time ago.

Reckless as a true-blooded Brandybuck, he had launched himself into the Brandywine's summer flood, thin arms and legs and desperate will. Sliding from the heat-shimmers of Forelithe into a sparkling cold that seized him with breathless shivers. The water had looked brown from the bank, but when he dived under, it was a dusty green like the thickest glass, shot through with specks of gold as the sand swirled up. Very calm and watchful it seemed, and not perilous at all. But the danger prickled up his legs and laced cold through his stomach. I am here, he thought. Now take --

A thrill of icy current enveloped him, yet neither threat nor answer came from the placid river. He had kept his eyes wide open as the ground dropped away beneath his feet, and he had found that moment of heart-pounding stillness when every movement thinned to a dreamlike wisp. Here. Wait.

A moment longer and another -- until his chest ached for want of breath and his hands were pale before him, like anxious fish, as he flailed back up to the surface, gasping, a heat-struck pulse in his loin.

The shiver that ran through Frodo was thin and near endless, and sharp like a warning. He had learned how to swim that day, and he supposed he could learn --

"Look," Merry said as he walked into the kitchen, "I've been thinking. Why don't you come and spend the winter with us in Brandy Hall?" He leaned against the wooden panelling, his eyes narrowed. "Winters must be so dreary here."

"Well, I can't say they've ever seemed that way," Frodo answered, frowning at the urgency in Merry's tone. He couldn't help but wonder if his cousin's keen wit divined a change in him; if he guessed --

But how could he? Frodo shifted, taking refuge with the bulwark of freshly dried crockery for a moment.

I would just like a bit of time to myself, he'd told Merry before slipping away from his own birthday party, when his cousin had waylaid him by the front door, arms folded, his brows lowered in a questioning frown.

Merry picked up one of the pears and bit into it, swiping the juice off his chin with the back of his hand. "Mmm. These are good."

"There are plenty this year."

"How about it, Frodo?"

"Well, I'm going to Budgeford in November, when Freddy's cousin Peony will be wed," Frodo stalled.

"The unexpected party, yes." Merry grinned around the chunks of pear he was munching. "It's not the marrying season by any means. Makes you wonder, that does." He shrugged. "But, see, we could head back to Buckland together after the wedding."

"I will think about it."

Surely Merry recognised his evasion, but he didn't insist further. Instead he spit the pear's pips out of the window and, after grabbing another fruit from the basket, stalked from the room. Frodo shook his head. And here Merry thought his mood odd... Admittedly, he had not paid much attention throughout the past days, but stopping by the Dragon tonight would give him a chance --

And what if Sam happened to be there too? Out of nowhere, the thought chased through Frodo like a thing made from sunlight and thunder. A vivid fancy sprang from it, of Sam sharing their supper and conversation without surprise or question from anyone -- of sitting before the hearth together and tracing the many shades of flame on Sam's face while Merry and Pippin bandied tales from Buckland about.

Quite impossible, Frodo knew. Getting familiar with one's servants in homely seclusion was one matter, but while appropriate company was on hand --

Frodo picked up a stack of plates in a flash of impatience. If Sam went for a beer in the Dragon tonight, they would exchange greetings and glances and sit at separate tables, Frodo with his cousins, Sam with his Gaffer and, quite likely, the Cotton lads.

Frodo shoved the plates into the cupboard where earthenware clattered indignantly against glass. In three long days since his birthday, he had not been alone with Sam for more than chance moments out in the garden. Hurrying his guests' departure from Bag End would be unspeakably rude, but there were hours when he wished --

A knock on the front door put an end to that thought. Frodo wiped his fingers on his weskit before running them back over his curls.

When he came into the parlour, the Gaffer had already been led there. Merry and Pippin were presently quizzing him about the Marchwort stock of taters and whether these stood a chance of taking kindly to Buckland soil.

"'Twould take a very handy gardner, Masters, meaning no disrespect to your own and all," the Gaffer cautioned, his eyes fixed on the cap in his hands.

"You wanted to see me?" Frodo asked.

"'Tis only a small matter, Mr. Frodo. It can wait till the morrow or after, and no bother to you and your friends, I should add."

"Not at all," Frodo assured him. "Shall we go outside?" He steered Ham Gamgee from the parlour and to the front stoop, hoping the Gaffer would speak more freely at a distance from the Shire's bestest, as he called them -- never mind that he'd pulled Pippin and Merry from ditch or mud-puddle by the bottom of their trousers more than once.

"Them Marchwort taters are a dainty sort," the Gaffer said with unexpected emphasis. "They do well and fair in their own soil, but plant 'em where they don't belong, and they'll grow bitter and small. You'd not advise that neither, Mr. Frodo, would you?"

Frodo blinked, surprised by the speech and the Gaffer's seeming agitation.

"No, of course not," he answered, meeting eyes that were much like Sam's, alert and thoughtful, a soft shade of hazel in this clouded light.

"And right you are, sir." The Gaffer's expression eased into an approving smile, then he pulled his cap over grey-streaked curls. "Now, I've come up to see about them road repairs, if you don't mind. The Row looks right pitiful after last night's downpour."

"Yes," Frodo agreed absently. The Gaffer's earlier words sank in like blunt-edged pebbles dropped into a pond. "We should get the Row newly sanded before the winter. I will see to it."

"That's as I told Daddy Twofoot this morning," the Gaffer said with a clear touch of triumph, "and thank'ee kindly, sir." He tipped his cap back. "The south bank needs fastening up too, but my Sam and Hal when he comes round next Highday can take care of the job. Good day to you, Mr. Frodo."

Whistling underbreath, he ambled towards the gate. As Frodo watched him leave, belated understanding rushed the blood to his head. He could guess now what the Gaffer must fear -- that he would trifle with Sam to suit his own fancy -- and if he were so inclined, there was nothing Hamfast Gamgee could do to stop it.

And what can I do to disprove that? Stalled between Merry's strange watchfulness, the Gaffer's cloaked concern, and the part of himself that ran wild with expectation, Frodo clenched his fists in helpless chagrin. Could it be the same for Sam? And did Sam know how he chafed at the waiting?

His fingers curled and uncurled as if his hands could no longer tolerate being empty. Only a few yards' distance might lie between him and the spot where Sam trimmed the shrubs, but at times it seemed wide as the Marish. Frodo set his eyes on the blossoming bush next to the door, entirely too conscious of the clippers' sound and his raised heartbeat against his ribs. The delicate blossoms had been flayed by the wind and rain, and the slender petals tickled wet against his fingertips: another acquisition of Bilbo's that Sam had coaxed into copious bloom in years past.

Is anything mine that is not already yours? Frodo wondered on a strange twist of insight. But Sam, no doubt, would disagree. What they might share --

It must be your choice, Sam. Your choice alone.

* * *

A murky weather was broiling on the horizon and sapped the daylight early. When Sam straightened, leaning on his rake, he could see short stitches of lightning flicker above the Green Hills. Just in time for market day, he thought, giving the weather a scowl as it deserved. Mr. Frodo's visitors were all off to market, but Frodo himself had stayed behind to take care of his own business, seemingly.

Sam wasn't watching, he didn't need to. As he raked a drift of fallen leaves away from the turnip bed, a lithesome shadow passed behind the study's window; and when Sam walked over to the tool-shed, he heard water trickle and splash in the kitchen. His fingers fumbled stupidly with the door's latch, and he snorted through his nose. So it went each time the dreaming overran his work, as dandelions might bear on the gardenias and daffodils. Though it was worse of nights, when the memory of Mr. Frodo's birthday came pulling at him with the sweetest ache.

The door gave way with such a doleful squeal as begged for oiling today better than tomorrow. Sam stepped into the shed, breathing the smells of spongy wood and wetness, and set the rake down firmly. Here, in the half-shadows and the company of his shears, hoes and shovels, he could dare the smile and the sigh wanting to burn through his breast. The memory was always too quick to rouse, too full to breathe around. And he might still believe he'd stumbled right into a dream if it weren't for the soft tone Mr. Frodo used when he said him good morning, or the brief clasp of fingers twined through his own...

Aye, and if his Gaffer ever caught him idling about like this, he'd see worse for it than the ninnyhammer or the sharp warnings his father had strewn about the past days. Sam shook himself and rummaged for a stone pot on the shelf beside the door, where he kept a lump of thick grease for his tools.

He'd just smeared a bit of it round the creaky hinge when Bag End's front door opened, and he heard Mr. Frodo -- "Sam?"

"Here, sir." Dismayed, he stared at his own hands, smudged with mingled grease and dirt, like he'd never seen them in such a state before.


But then he was on his feet, a rag snatched up in a hurry, and he rounded the westward end of Bag End just in time.

"Would you come in for tea?" Frodo smiled at him. The strange weather seemed to fold about him, crimping his curls to wild disarray and setting a light flush to his cheeks.

Yes, sir, thank you, sir, was what Sam couldn't push past his teeth -- I'd better wash my hands first -- but then he breathed out and managed, "yes."

And he felt Frodo's eyes on him, too, as he made his way to the pump.

When he entered the kitchen, the smell of rose-hip tea spread warm over the pricklier scent of mint-leaves that he'd brought in this morning. But something finer wove through it all, sweet and unexpected... His glance fell to the centre of the table, where a jug full of white roses had been placed.

Mr. Frodo turned from the cupboard, and for one endless span of a moment they stood looking at each other like the kitchen were some wild and unknown place. Till Frodo cleared his throat, and waved at the table. "Sit down, Sam."

Sam walked over to his usual seat. With those fair scents hanging about him, it felt like coming home and the very opposite, too. A slow, immense happiness crept up to simmering just underneath his skin, and he couldn't have said a word for it.

As Frodo poured him the tea, his throat and cheek caught a bit of shine from the hearth, dipping gold on his pale skin, then he slipped into his own chair with a quick, graceful move. Not meaning to stare, Sam took to sipping his tea, but his glance got caught to those roses again.

Beautiful they were, their plush heads and layers of petals bent into the weak daylight. They'd not come out of Bag End's garden, this much he knew for certain; someone else must have given them to Mr. Frodo. It weren't his business, to be sure, but -- "These roses..."

"Oh. Yes." Frodo glanced down, a crooked little smile peeking out for a moment. "When we took a walk yesterday, I -- I climbed over the hedge of Lobelia's garden to cut them. Freddy thought it was very silly of me, even if Lobelia makes a nuisance of herself whenever she's given a chance..." He rubbed his thumb back and forth over the rim of his tea-cup.

"You stole them out of her garden?" Sam asked, near biting his tongue at the witless question. "Mr. Merry and Pippin cheered, I'll be bound."

"Yes, they did." The smile wore thin on Frodo's lips as he sat up straight. "They're for you. The roses."

A spot of colour spread high on his cheekbones, and then Sam couldn't look at him no more. He stared into his cup, a heat of tears sprung fresh to his eyes. That Frodo would do such a thing only to give him --

Oh, for shame, Sam chided himself. It wouldn't do to start piping his eye into Mr. Frodo's tea, nor shout for joy as he wanted to. "No-one's ever gave me flowers, sir. Not--"

But it seemed that he'd put off answering too long. Out of his chair in a moment, Mr. Frodo ran a hand uneven through his curls and paced over to the window. A restless wind pattered about the Hill, rattling the shutters.

"It was a foolish idea, I know that. You won't even be able to take them home with you." With arms crossed before his chest, he looked out at the gloomy weather, but his back were drawn so very straight, Sam could nigh feel the cold, taut stretch of it.

He didn't know what he'd done, but clearly he had done something to set the moment so on edge, as if it might topple and break. The sudden quiet lay heavy on his chest, and the short distance between them seemed frozen with it. "Mr. Frodo?" he murmured. "What's wrong?"

"I can't stop myself from thinking about it." Frodo turned his head a bit, not quite looking over his shoulder. "About -- well, about the night of my birthday."

"I can't neither..." What wanted to be a shout stumbled out in a near whisper. Sam took a deep breath, for there were more that he ought to say. "I'd be thinkin' on it night and day, if it weren't for my Gaffer and your garden minding me of my job." His voice had grown rough and thick, straining with the effort to learn what had gripped Mr. Frodo in such unrest -- though his shoulders sank now, seeming to ease a little.

"I wonder what it must mean for you, Sam. Perhaps I don't truly understand."

"Understand what, sir?" Sam rose from his chair in a wink and stopped a pace behind Frodo. Outside, the sky was in a fierce roil. White light licked round the clouds in the distance, traced out patterns on Frodo's embroidered weskit and seeped through the loose curls at his neck. Sam wished nothing so bad but that he could comfort with a touch, soft as the light that edged past, then maybe --

"I wouldn't want anything to go wrong. It's too important." Frodo bowed his head, the words skimming low against the windowpane.

"But what could be wrong?" Helpless, Sam shook his head. Strange chills dragged on his skin while a gale stormed the window as if it were reaching to pull Frodo out there. "Not the roses, surely. Not--"

A fierce gust lashed at the window and ripped it open. It missed Frodo by a hair as he jumped back, stumbling off balance, but Sam was there to catch him, arms flung about his middle just as Frodo clasped him tight in turn.

A muffled sound rushed from Sam's throat into the cloth of Frodo's weskit where he'd pressed his face. They held fast in bewilderment, tucked against each other as if for shelter.

"Sam..." Frodo turned his head, and his lips moved against Sam's hair, spilling hazy words in their wake, "I would very much like to see you happy, but I wonder... what I can do -- what I should do."

"There's aught you need to be doin', Mr. Frodo." Against his neck, Sam felt the chill draft, but a high warmth welled up inside him and spread so fast, it near made him dizzy. He raised his head. How to tell Frodo that no matter what he did -- "I don't know how to thank you proper for the roses."

"No, don't." Frodo's voice had grown tight. "Don't ever thank me, Sam, and don't think you should be grateful... for anything. Only--"

"They're so beautiful."

"--be with me, if you want to."

"If I..." Sam swallowed round the sheer surprise. It weren't his place to want, and to want so much --

"Yes?" Frodo murmured. His fingers paused on their way from Sam's shoulder up the side of his neck, and just the look in his eyes set such a crackle in the air as could take all of Sam's breath.

"Oh, but that would make it..." The nearness wound his voice down to a hoarse thread and sent his heartbeat stumbling, "...always."

Frodo pulled back a bit, snatching a breath besides, to look earnestly at Sam. "It's all... very confusing, isn't it?"

"It is at that." Like the world turning to mist around him, Sam thought at times. "It used to be so clear, you understand -- what to do and what not to do -- and now..."

"Tell me," Frodo whispered when he trailed off.

" if the ground might crack open if I take another step," Sam answered with the full truth, useless as it was to carry on so. Heat crept up right to the tips of his ears.

"Sam..." Frodo's fingers stroked gentle through his curls and circled at the nape of his neck. Sam could feel it to the base of his spine, the touch running soft ripples all through him. "I know it is my responsibility," Frodo went on, "and I wish I had considered... how difficult it would be for you." His face showed worry and frank awkwardness, and while Sam watched, a bit of a blush seemed to rise in his cheeks, too. "But it is -- well, I won't say it's exactly the same for me, but it is certainly very confusing."

"It is?" The surprise of it whirled about with a queer pleasure, and more so when a smile bent Frodo's mouth, almost bashful --

"Well, yes. I fear, Sam, I cannot be the one to... to decide for the both of us which road to take. Yet there is no one we could ask for advice."

And if that weren't all too like him, to grow so concerned and upset with pondering things over from every side. Sam drew himself up for a stalwart look. "Well, then... it seems we're in a bit of a fix."

"It would seem so." Frodo's smile leapt into sudden radiance, as a candleflame might, and the softness in his eyes was about to melt Sam's insides. "Riddles and stolen roses..." He chuckled drily. "We Bagginses are an odd sort indeed."

"If that's odd, then--" Sam started to object, but Frodo slid a finger over his lips.

"Do you trust me, Sam?"

"Oh, aye." And truly Mr. Frodo should know, but it wouldn't do no harm to remind him. "You could walk straightways into the Brandywine River, see if I didn't follow."

"I should hope that following my lead wouldn't turn out quite so dangerous!" More than amusement glittered in Frodo's eyes and settled slowly. "I trust you too, Sam, as I hope you know. I think that is all we have... to guide us."

Sam nodded, and while his mind still scrambled after the meaning of it all, a fierce joy pushed up in his chest. He'd never seen his master quite like this, not as he could remember. Mettlesome like a stray from the wild, and so free that Sam himself felt bold with it. He leaned forward, as if Frodo's smile were a warming glow on his face. And once there --

"Oh, I've waited..." Frodo's hand clasped his neck, and between them the mere tingling of breath became a close brush of lips. A jab of pure longing struck in the pit of Sam's stomach, tight and heated as a coal burst in the grate. Maybe he heard Frodo gasp in that short pause, but then their mouths found each other again, and all he knew was the surge of pulse in his own ears. Sam tightened his arm where it lay about Frodo's waist to pull him just a bit closer, and all else dissolved in the wondering how it could be...

How it could be that every bit of him wanted to melt against Frodo and pour itself out at him in flying breaths and ragged heartbeats, and when Frodo whispered something against his lips, caress more than words, all he wished was to stay just so.

But this weren't the place nor the time. Another wash of cold air gave him a fair warning, and the window creaked back and forth in the wind. "We'll have... a flood on the floor if we don't..." He hadn't the voice for more.

"Yes, Sam," Frodo murmured, drawing away at length, "how I wish..."

But what, he didn't say, and Sam had a mere nod for answer when his skin was all but bristling at the loss of Frodo's arms around him.

With a swift motion, Frodo closed the window. Early shadows had spilled into the kitchen, filling such corners where the glow from the hearth couldn't reach. They leapt over Frodo's face, dark umber on ruddy gold, when he took Sam's hand to place it against his cheek. "I suppose now we ought to... finish our tea..."

But then he turned his face, and Sam choked on a startled noise in his throat. Mr. Frodo's mouth pressed against his palm, quick and fervent, as though it were the most natural thing for the Master of Bag End --

"Sam, what is it?" In this strange light, Frodo's eyes took on the shade of storm-clouds lit from within, and Sam felt a breath steal over the ball of his thumb.

"Oh, naught but that you're -- you're..." He broke off at the soft laughter enfolding him, rich and low, the most beautiful sound.

"You are, too," Frodo said, with that same laughter still awhirl in his eyes, and it stopped Sam from protesting as surely as the stroking of Frodo's thumb over the back of his hand. Dimly, Sam took heed of the rain hissing against the window. Mr. Frodo's guests wouldn't stay out long in such a weather.

So he dragged himself away and turned round to the table where the roses shone pale as a cloud. A long breath moved all the way through him, and he cupped his palm round one of the smaller blooms, folding the burn of Frodo's lips to the petals' velvet. Through the battering of his own heart, he couldn't dare to think what might be when the visitors took to the road again.

* * *

Pale copper seams lined the Hill's side against the sky. Frodo waited below the poplar whose leaves chattered in the lively evening wind. A hunched figure paused on the stoop of Number Three, squinting out west, then pulled the door shut with a short rattle. Only one more occupant remained in the small garden now, carefully strawing the beds along the south side where kitchen herbs were grown. After another moment, Frodo crossed the Row and walked up to lean over the fence.

"Good evening, Sam."

Head lifting slowly, Sam looked at him, sunlight slanting over the planes of his face. "'Evening, Mr. Frodo."

Steady and polite as his tone might be, his voice thickened ever so slightly and trickled rich as molasses on Frodo's skin. "When you have finished there, would you go for a stroll with me? Not for long..."

"I'm as good as done anyways." Sam's hands didn't pause in their work, but his smile cast its own brightness over his face, tangled with greater clarity into the sun's weakening spill. Frodo watched, wordless, as he climbed to his feet, batted dirt and dust off his trousers and swung his coat from a fence post.

They had taken walks together so often that Frodo had long lost count, but now his heart rose into the pleasant pace they set. The past week's confinement seemed to slide off him, weightless as the blue cloud-tatters over the horizon, and expectation filled all the empty spaces in between. It wasn't before they reached the end of the Row that he broke the quiet between them.

"Freddy, Pippin and Merry are packing," he said. "They're setting out tomorrow morning. At least they intend to... Merry's in the habit of scattering his belongings through every room, and it may take him till midday to collect everything, I shouldn't wonder." He threw Sam a quick sidelong glance. "I thought I ought to let you know that you won't have to provide for all four of us any more."

"The bit what I did weren't no bother at all," Sam said stoutly, while his eyes kept roaming the edge of the sky. Another cloud bank inched up under the fresh wind, and a riband of washed-out gold stretched where the sun had set. A flurry of anticipation made its way through Frodo's limbs.

"For my part, I have missed our quiet evenings," he answered in as light a tone as he could summon, adding quickly, "and I look forward to reading the books that I borrowed from Saradoc. Merry brought them along for me, but I have barely opened them yet." It wasn't quite what he'd been gathering the nerve to say, but --

Sam met his glance with a ponderous look of his own. "Mr. Merry seems in a bit of a mood these days, 'less it's the weather telling on him."

Jolted from his own line of thought, Frodo missed his stride. "Why do you think so?"

"Oh, he's come out in the garden once or twice and started asking about such herbs and pipeweeds as they'll grow in the Southfarthing, but he'd soon enough stop listening." Sam pulled up his shoulders. "That's as it seemed to me, leastways. Like he were looking to be distracted more than wishing to hear, I'm thinking."

"You're very likely right, but I can't quite tell what it is that troubles him." A short winge of guilt brought Frodo to a pause. Merry's affections and sensibilities were keener than most, and easily unsettled. "If any one knows, it would be Pippin."

"Aye, so I reckon." Sam scrubbed his knuckles over his chin, apparently mulling it over. Daylight had shrunken to embers; between the shadows and those splinters of gold, the softest glow lay across his cheeks. "Well, seeing as how they're off tomorrow," he said in another moment, "I'd best stack up the pantries and start preparing for all the curing and pickling that's to be done."

At this time of year, Sam attended a variety of tasks around the smials; soon enough the gardens would claim his attention less and less. When Frodo thought of the cold season, it seemed to extend before them in a string of slow, fire-lit evenings. "I'll help," he offered, "or I could read to you, while you're at it."

"I'd much rather have you reading," Sam admitted, "if you be willing."

In the swing of another step, Frodo let their hands brush and linked their fingers. His breath went still with delight when Sam grasped back. They'd struck down the path winding towards Overhill; the trees on either side joined their shadows in deep blue splays, and only the uppermost tips of birch and larch carried wicks of daylight.

"Very willing," Frodo murmured. That earned him a glad smile, and the sight left him short of speech, of breath, and grateful to listen as Sam pondered the gardens' needs before the frosts.

"The old whitehorn's gone now," he said. "I've yet to finish digging up all the roots, but you might be wanting to consider what to plant in its place."

"What do you suggest?" Frodo asked, his mind less on cultivation than the warm, comforting clasp of Sam's hand.

"It's a good spot for beetroot or cabbage, but if you'd prefer another batch of raspberries, they ought to do well enough. It's for you to say."

"Oh, I'm content to rely on your advice," Frodo returned with an easy smile of his own. "In fact, I've long thought of the garden as yours, Sam."

Sam's response to this wasn't at all what he might have expected. Dark in the tighter shadows, his eyes flickered with disquiet. "But, how could it..."

"Why, you must be acquainted with every single leaf and blade of grass," Frodo pointed out, bemused at Sam's utter bafflement. "Not a lot would grow there without you." But his reasoning foundered, he saw, of no avail against the proper order of things as Sam perceived it.

"I'm only doing the job as my Gaffer learned me," he said in low, awkward tones, "and old Holman before." His glance dipped aside, suddenly restless, and sought out the birch grove where they'd sometimes stopped for a picnic.

With a slight tug on Sam's hand, Frodo steered towards it. Moist grass quivered round his calves, and the frisson of a chill darted up his spine. "According to old law, a hobbit could claim any plot of land that he had cleared and tilled himself," he explained. "That always seemed like a sensible ruling to me."

"I suppose, sir," Sam muttered, but he still sounded doubtful as before.

"But don't you wish for a garden of your own?" Frodo asked.

"I wouldn't ask more than tending yours." Sam slowed to a stop under the nearest tree, his shoulders angled away and his eyes searching the webwork of pale branches. "You don't have to give me nothing, Mr. Frodo, or make me any presents." A slight roughness edged his voice, as though he were urging himself forward -- "And if you... if you want us being like, well, before... there's no need to send me away. Just you tell me--"

"Sam!" Caught cold with shock, Frodo swung him around to stare into his eyes and found no grievance in the lay of shadows, just defenceless honesty. We've barely begun, and you think of an ending? But Sam stood so much to lose, and he saw himself at the mercy --

"Do you believe I could do that? Send you away on a whim, even if..." Frodo swallowed fast against the tremor in his voice. "What kind of friend would I be?"

Even in the twilight, the shading blush told on Sam's face, and his glance fell to a spot between his feet. "I'm sorry, sir."

"No," Frodo breathed, a taut ache stealing up his throat while his mind chased after a single helpful thought. What could he promise, what kind of pledge could he offer that would seem binding enough to Sam's mind? "I would never take the garden away from you, Sam." Frodo raised a hand to his chin, lifting it so that their eyes could meet. "I could never hurt you in such a way. Never." A fretful pounding started in his chest. "Have faith in me."

"I do..." Sam's eyes returned to his with a telltale shimmer. "I didn't mean to say's you'd treat me wrong, Mr. Frodo, truly I didn't."

"But it's to be expected, isn't it?" Frodo stopped a mirthless laugh that nipped cold in his chest. "Those of us who own land and longfather trees that fill entire scrolls have the right to take and discard as we please..." His breath ran out there, faltered at the press of constrictions and sensible rules, each seeming to bare a fine edge of pain, no matter if they were kept or broken --

"But you've never done the like," Sam answered, "and there wasn't no call for me to go and make it seem as you would."

Frodo inhaled the fresh air, gathering calm to him. "I am glad you spoke of it nonetheless." He let his hand drop to Sam's shoulder, and the other drifted up his arm for an equally firm clasp. "How can we be... together like this, if you have to fear me?"

"Oh, I don't!" Under his hands, Sam's shoulders rose and fell on a fierce breath. "I don't," he repeated, his eyes squeezed shut for a moment, but then he raised a hand to fold his fingers about Frodo's upper arm, encouraging greater closeness with a faint tightening of his grasp.

"Sam..." Frodo breathed past a pang of want and rebellion, his whole body clenching so hard, it hurt below his breath. I could not lay a finger on you if you did.

"I did mean it when I said I trust you, Mr. Frodo," Sam insisted. By now, Frodo was close enough to see the tenderness in his eyes, the wordless yearning that quickened into his touch. Barely hidden before, it grew lambent when Frodo's fingers moved along the line of Sam's shoulder and crept over his collar.

"I didn't think it were possible," Sam murmured, "but you've always been a friend to me, more than any other I could name." His fingertips stroked haltingly over the crinkles in Frodo's jacket-sleeve. "Don't listen to me goin' on about foolish worries."

"They're not," Frodo answered softly, "and I wouldn't have you think so." His fingers strayed up into Sam's hair and picked some plumed seeds from it, flung out on the evening wind like the season's chaff. "Please remember that I'd always wish to know what is on your mind." From the cooling air, Sam's breath stirred against his face with a promise of the warmest welcome and trickled a shiver down the centre of his chest. "Sam, this is -- you don't know--"

Even though he'd stopped short of making sense, a strange brightness cleared in Sam's eyes, and it pulled at Frodo as if the ground had been cut from under him.

"We're all alone in this," he fumbled to explain, though he might as well snatch at a whirlwind for purchase. "And that means we're the same, you and I. Do you understand? We're--"

But whether he'd leaned or fallen forward, Sam's mouth was suddenly against his own, wind-cooled softness opening into a startling warmth of breath. For the short moment that it lasted, Frodo forgot all else, and when it ended, possibilities turned in his stomach like fine blades. This he could not bear longer than it took to fill his chest with frost-edged air and to capture Sam's mouth again. Thought spun away into sheer elation as Sam's lips parted to the curious sweep of his tongue, admitting him, meeting and entrancing him into a slow, tangled glide that warmed him through in less than seconds, and pooled such a glow round his middle, the sun herself might have been riding up through the ground and the soles of his feet.

When his eyes flickered open for no certain cause, he found himself pressed full-length against Sam, their mouths meeting over half-snatched breaths, and their hands seizing a hold where ever --

"...the same, Mr. Frodo?" Sam shaped the question on a rough gasp. "I don't know as we could ever be."

"Yes, but..." Frodo lost a vague objection to the compelling sight of thick lashes brushing downward, the darkest shade of copper against Sam's cheek. So close were they that he felt it fan against his own skin, a whisper that filled as if by magic with the sweetness of Sam's mouth and the tastes buried in its hidden corners, before he even knew they had found another kiss -- and when he breathed again a long while later, it was too late to find reason within the rebellious wish that shook him to the core. "I never knew..."

But he had not the words for the need that burned in his middle. A wild pulse welled through his loin, filling him till he was nearly afraid, straining against a limit never felt so keenly before. Yet here they could undo every inch of distance that good sense and convention had wedged between them; it seemed to melt and drain away into their close embrace, dissolved to bright warmth between stomach, hip and thigh, loosened to a music of soft sounds that hummed in Sam's throat. And those sounds urged him on just as Sam's hands did, circling and pressing at the small of his back, while Sam's lips clung to his own, fervent with generous offers and so hungry --

How that awareness could snap a thunderbolt into his own flesh was a mystery Frodo didn't care to solve. They had somehow moved backward against the birch; Sam was now caught tight between him and the smooth trunk. When Frodo shifted his hips forward, pure heat twisted through him and jarred free in a breathless moan. Sam's arms locked hard over his back in response, holding him to the pressure that built fever-taut between them and left room for no thought but here, now, what does it matter, oh just -- please --

No. Not yet. The wind tousled their hair together, tickling cool strands over Frodo's temple. He let his forehead drop to Sam's shoulder, breathing in deep gulps the scents of rain-washed foliage and grass, as heady as the Shire's finest vintage. His fingers clenched on Sam's shoulder, fighting the knowledge that he had to balance himself away lest he should burn out in mere breaths. Not like this. For such a long time, he'd not allowed himself more than furtive thoughts on the edge of sleep, scattered fancies that he committed to nighttime's secrecy, and now --

Now, he could barely stop himself, caught to an excitement so sharp, it pulled through him with an edge of pain, too savage to be pleasure, too joyous to control. He bit his lip.

"Please..." Sam's murmur was a caress against his cheek, both soft and brittle. "Please tell me what you'd wish for."

It was only the shortness of breath that stopped an odd laugh high in Frodo's chest. Ever since afternoon tea, since his cousins' announcement that tomorrow would see them on the eastward road, he had weighed and shuffled the words in his mind, only to find that they still escaped him now. What would he say? Come and share my bed, Sam--?

"Would you have supper with me tomorrow evening?" he asked, and his voice sounded ridiculously thin, depleted of what he had left unsaid. But this silence, he realised, could easily spring the next snare. He straightened and drew away a bit to look at Sam.

A mistake, for the sight played havoc with his power of reason. A soft gleam lingered on Sam's lips, like the precursor of a smile, and the heat that kindled in his cheeks had lit a keen spark in his eyes. The shadows that lay about them were crisp with a frosting of moonrise.

"And if... if you wish," Frodo mumbled, too aware of the warmth coursing up his face, "I would be very glad to have you spend the night at Bag End, but whether it be tomorrow or the next week or the week after, you should know--"

"I do know."

They were still so close that he felt Sam's voice rumble low against his own chest, gentle as a purling brook, yet he couldn't seem to halt the words that rushed out. "I treasure you, Sam. And certainly I've waited -- oh, I merely meant to say, we have no cause for hurry, and you shouldn't think that there is anything at all that I expect you to--"

"Mr. Frodo." It was a rare occurence for Sam to interrupt him like this, and for the second time already. He raised both hands to Frodo's face, meeting his eyes with serious and complete calm. "Tomorrow night, then."

Raucous voices bounced through the corridors of Bag End when Frodo opened the front door. Calls from Merry and Pippin flew back and forth between rooms, peppered with occasional remarks from Freddy in the steady Bolger bass. Though Merry's tone carried an ill-tempered edge, Pippin seemed to take it for a lark that his cousin's best brocade weskit had apparently absconded without a trace.

Moving quietly, Frodo grabbed a glimmering spill from the parlour's hearth and took refuge in his study, to be alone with the evening's memories and the wishing that hummed so strongly through all his limbs. Full darkness lay over the gardens now, receding to black when he lit the two tapers on his desk.

For a while, Frodo shifted books and papers from desk to shelf and back again, creating a haphazard new arrangement which made a mess of the old. But his only thought right then was what he might read to Sam the coming evening, and that in turn led deep into the promise itself.

Tomorrow night, then. A delicious shiver slid down Frodo's back and crept fingers of frost around his waist that tingled below his ribcage. He remembered the steadfast decision in Sam's tone, and the relief that fired his own reply so it nearly hitched on a surge of laughter. If he slackened the reins on his self-command as he had a short hour before, he would have to rely on Sam to stop him from --

Now. Stop now, or you'll surely fail tomorrow. Frodo blinked against the hot blur of a candleflame, and longed only to retreat to the privacy of his bedroom. The noise in the smials had settled somewhat, and he could still see to his cousins' provender in the morning.

Ordering himself to relax, Frodo stretched his arms and back, though not the least bit of tiredness crawled in the movement's wake. No matter, that. He would tidy up his bedroom and set fresh linens aside and address himself to a few other needful tasks.

Frodo reached for the carved wooden box beside the ink-pot, then unfastened the silver chain from his belt and dropped Bilbo's ring inside, as he did every night. Bright gold caught the candlelight with a sullen glint before the lid snapped shut. A strange appeal surrounded the thing, although becoming invisible held no particular allure for Frodo. Indeed, it seemed peculiar that this ring had come into his hands, when for years in Brandy Hall he'd felt that he was easily overlooked -- and most of the time, that had suited him well. Bilbo's decision to name him heir to Bag End and the Mastership had put an end to that, certainly, but by then Frodo was old enough to understand what rendered him more noteworthy among others.

It was the privilege conferred on a bereft relative, his eventual wealth that brought raised attention, nothing else. Only his closest friends and cousins remained unimpressed, and in all of Hobbiton, it seemed that Sam alone ever saw -- ever looked at him with such a piercing directness that cared nothing for titles or holdings and instead appreciated his worth at the very core.

It was true, Frodo thought; as much as Sam followed his Gaffer's lessons about propriety and station, his eyes and heart found surprising shortcuts quite often.

Frodo smiled at the thought, flicked his thumb along a row of Bilbo's parchments on the shelf -- boastful, wax-clotted trappings that attached themselves to each Master of the Hill -- and licked his lips. The air was too dry, stifled with dust-puffs and candle-smoke. He opened the window with a quick wrench, and then, as the night-air flowed in, smooth with early mist, a sudden whimsey gripped him.

Without further ado, he swung his legs over the window-sill and dropped his feet into the thick grasses below, grinning as the blades teased his ankles. How long had it been, since he'd last climbed out of a window?

He'd taken no more than a dozen steps when he noticed a slim shadow perched on the hump of rock behind the tomato row, fidgeting in a way that was typically --

"Pippin! What are you doing out here?"

"Hullo, Frodo." His cousin sat up, eyes catching a gleam of moonshine. "Merry's still grumpy and he's not finished packing either. I thought I'd better stay out of his way." Pippin unfolded his legs and hopped up like a stalky young deer. "Is growing up always like that? Merry flies into the most crotchety tempers at times..." He pursed his lips, "...and you, you have been very distracted all along."

"I know," Frodo said ruefully and wrapped an arm about the lean shoulders. "I didn't mean to give you cause for concern, nor make you feel unwelcome."

"You haven't," Pippin assured him, snuggling closer for a moment, his head tucked against the curve of Frodo's neck. "And you worry too much. About everything."

"Well, there is a difference between worry and, ah, reflexion," Frodo said.

"You must have been reflecting on something especially morose then!" Pippin darted him a smile so full of play and charm that for a moment Frodo wished he could share the joyful excitement afloat under his skin.

"Oh no, not morose at all. I'm sorry if it appeared that way." Releasing Pippin, he tilted his head back and looked up into the great chestnut's crown. Moonlight splashed across the outer foliage, but in the shadowy spread below, winter seemed to have found secret lodging, spinning webbed threads of frost between slender twigs and paling leaves.

"Listen, Frodo," Pippin said at his back. "Tell me what this is..."

"Yes?" Frodo turned with a smile at the familiar opening. For as long as he could recollect, Pippin had adored riddles, and he'd become exceptionally adept at conceiving them in recent years. But instead of the smug little smile that usually introduced his latest contrivance, Pippin wore an inscrutable look. Shadows fell over his face as he rocked slowly back and forth, timing the riddle's cadence.

"Two asunder, tossed in a spot,
mix them with mischief, and shake up the lot,
halved in heart, doubled in wit,
a fine commixture, but it doesn't... fit."

For long moments, the words seemed to hang between them as exhaled breaths on a winter eve. The smile had grown terse on Frodo's mouth as he tried not to heed the nearmost conclusion. That Pippin had chosen this oblique manner to remark on his feelings for Sam, though by light of reason that was --

"I don't know," he said finally. "You win, Pippin. I don't know what it is."

With an odd little laugh, his cousin held out both hands. "I don't think I am winning!" Pippin cocked his head and tugged at unruly curls with wide-spread fingers. "I don't know it either, Frodo. I think maybe the answer hasn't been invented yet. Only the question. Do you think that's possible?"

"Yes." Frodo's reply flew well ahead of consideration, rapid with relief. "That's entirely possible."

Pippin's smile returned at that and broadened into the rascal's quick grin. "Well, since the question found me, I will have to uncover the answer, won't I?" He stuffed both hands into his trouser pockets. "I think I'll take a little walk while the moon is out."

He didn't seem to desire company either -- rather an oddity for this particular Took -- and Frodo wondered if he should prod for reasons or leave well alone. "All right," he said at length, "good night then, Pippin."

Only the slightest rasp of sand trailed his steps as Frodo started down the path, but his mind skipped ahead, to the victuals required for tomorrow's supper and his remaining stores of wax-candles. Oh, and he ought to air his bedroom again before sunset...


When he swung back, Pippin stood by the beanpoles, cast in stillness and moonlight. His smile was a dark sliver against it and for a moment looked strangely sad. "Nothing."

* * *

By the kitchen window, Sam took a good chestful of air. The dishes were all dried and stashed in their proper place, and Mr. Frodo had gone off to the parlour to light a fire. Sam stuck his hands back in the soapy water, fished for the brush and began scrubbing away at his own fingers once more. A thin black lining of earth clung to the skin surrounding his fingernails, and fretful little shivers were scrabbling up and down his spine. He set the brush back down and turned his coarse, reddened hands before his eyes. There weren't no way he'd ever hide that tending crop and soil was his job, not --

Idling time away, you are, Sam told himself, but his mind went adrift like a breeze, tumbling through the day's harvest of treasures. The look and the smile Mr. Frodo sent him when he strode back up the Hill after seeing his guests on the road. The feast of candles on the kitchen table, all ashimmer on the best plates and goblets, and Frodo whirling between his bowls and tureens. Above his forehead, his curls stood up in a thicket from running his fingers into them, and Sam had reached out to smooth them gently before he faltered. By all reckoning, he'd never touched his master quite like this, not without being invited to, surely. And Frodo had marked the moment too, with such a gleam in his eyes...

Even now, the recollection buzzed in Sam's blood like a tune wanting to leap free. While he dried his hands, he chewed some sorrel leaves that cleaned the mouth of unpleasant tastes, then closed the window. Lastly, he blew out the candles on the table.

A finger's breadth of moonshine lay in the window's curve, and the cooking fire bounced its ruddy sheen through the kitchen, snapping unfamiliar shapes from the shadows. Sam tugged on his weskit and stepped into the corridor that ran before him in the swimming glow of a single lamp. Walking the stretch from kitchen to front parlour never seemed to take so long neither.

For an odd spell, Sam thought of his Gaffer and Marigold in their own smaller kitchen -- and even in his mind it looked small now, a bright nook in a shadowed distance. Well, he'd be back there soon enough, before dawn, leastways, so they wouldn't --

"Come in!" Frodo said from the parlour. He'd pushed the bench up in front of the hearth where the fire had devoured all the sticks and bit cheerful into the logs by now. "I thought we might..." But instead of finishing, he dropped another cushion on the bench and waved Sam over. "Now, the glasses..."

He was sounding right breathless, and Sam felt the same flurry pitch in his chest as he took his seat on the bench. Less comfortable than Mr. Bilbo's stuffed chairs it was, but it let them sit side by side with naught in between save a space of air and firelight. Frodo lifted the glasses with a clink, and the jangling sound skittered up Sam's arms. He'd fumbled with the dishes all through fixing and eating supper, too, as if his hands had gone useless to touch aught but --

"Thank you, sir," Sam remembered to say and took but a short sip, so the wine wouldn't raise a fog to his head.

"Here it is..." Frodo settled beside him and flicked the book he'd taken in his lap open with two fingers of his free hand. "I spent hours looking for this..." A fond smile bent his mouth just before he began reading, every line of his face traced out in sheer bronze.

Sam had to close his eyes a moment, for the sight stirred him with a fast bright sting. Then he sat watching the bold leaps and jitters of flame over Frodo's hands, drenching them gold, seeming to sway with the rise and fall of his voice.

"It was the wind that spoke to thee, of mountains and of hills..."

As the fire built, the fierce gold played against Frodo's throat and on the curls spilling so richly down to his shoulders. In his fine cambric shirt and blue wool trousers, he looked every inch a prince -- or so Sam imagined, seeing as how there'd never been suchlike in the Shire.

"Where water falls in shining threads, and stars are wreathed in foam," Frodo read,
"there will the wand'rer pass the night, and walk in dreams, alone.
" you remember this, Sam?"

As if he'd ever -- "Oh yes, Mr. Frodo," Sam managed, surprised how his voice seemed to scratch in his throat. "It were those verses you were workin' on when Mr. Bilbo left, and later in the week you asked me to lend an ear and tell you what I liked."

Frodo looked up with raised brows. "You did far more, Sam. Some of the best rhymes here are yours."

"Oh, I wouldn't call them that," Sam answered, though it gladdened him that Frodo thought so. "I never should've thought of them if it weren't--" A sweep of his hand took over where words failed him, "you... and the books and all those grand tales is what put them in my head." He looked to the hearth so his wits would rally to order. "I remember earlier than that, when you first read me from an Elvish book..."

"And you took to it as if it was the loveliest music."

"Not that I could understand the least of it, but just thinkin' as I might, and what marvels those words could come to -- they sound fuller than aught that I know, they do." Sam fastened his eyes on the bright red glimmers wreathing a log like embroidery. "They're like... strange seeds that you set in the ground, all the time wondering what will grow and bloom, come spring, and they fill your mind of... hoping, as you might say."

"The same as your garden, Sam?" Frodo asked lightly.

He shook his head. "With the garden, it's my job to know right certain what grows from which seed, and how to nurse it proper even when there's not a green tip showing as yet. There ain't much of maybe to gardening, and shouldn't be neither."

"I understand," Frodo said softly. "When I lived in Brandy Hall, there were many days that I shut myself away in Uncle Saradoc's library. Each new book that I read seemed to fill the world with what might be..."

The picture sprang vivid into Sam's head, of Mr. Frodo as a slender lad, poring with heated cheeks over a book and living in his mind what no hobbit had ever seen. He glanced back at Frodo and his eyes were caught again to the firelight blowing its burnish over his face. The parlour seemed as a changed place this way, a refuge of wasteful things, beautiful things, veiled in that glow from the hearth.

"It's like a... music as can pierce the heart with wishing," he murmured.

"Yes." Frodo gave him the gentlest smile, and for a trice it made Sam nigh dizzy to think that he'd brought such joy to his eyes. But when he dropped his glance, he saw that Frodo's thumb worried the book's edges, and his fingers were clenched so tight as if he had to keep them from roving elsewhere.

Touch tickled as a warm fancy between Sam's fingers. Frodo bent over the book again to turn a page, his curls jumbling forward to brush his cheek, and nothing in the world could have stilled Sam's hand then. He reached to sweep those strands back from Frodo's face, catching high glints of flame between his fingers before he halfways knew. Frodo had opened his mouth to read the next verse, but he stayed silent, and Sam felt breathless just to look at him.

His touch sank through a rich thickness finer than the most sure-threaded wool, and softer than down, and on the inside of his wrist he felt Frodo's halting breath. His own had gone tight and slow somewhere between his chest and his lips for turning the wish into touch, for knowing himself richer than he ever thought he could be. His heart gave a quick thump as Frodo leaned nearer, his eyes still turned to the hearth. The starts of a smile hovered in the corner of his mouth.

Very softly, Sam combed the tangle of curls back from his temple and grazed his fingertips where the skin was so light against the bone, smooth as mist over the pulse that ran hurried as a brook. When he placed his lips there, the downsweep of Frodo's lashes fled wisp-like against his own skin, but Sam couldn't close his own eyes, noways.

The firelight laid a haze on Frodo's brow and cheek, drawing his colour into full bloom, and danced near-blazing white at the corner of Sam's eye. His mouth followed its fine threading over Frodo's face, from the ruffled arch of an eyebrow to the delicate curve of a lid, and further down beside his nose.

Frodo broke the stillness then, with a breath that flew into motion. Soft and quick, his head tilted so their mouths brushed, light as laughter, and his hand curved smoothly round Sam's neck. Prickles of heat started at Sam's toes and under his hair, creeping forth slowly as Frodo's lips nipped at his, sharing a quick breath that stole most of his own.

Still, Sam found it impossible to close his eyes when such beauty dazzled before them -- orange pooled against the dark wing of Frodo's lashes, white flaring on his cheekbone, dusky red below -- a wealth of shades moulded Frodo's fine features, and each soaked and burned itself into Sam, frazzled with all the light he'd drunk in. Till Frodo's eye opened straight in front of him, bright and clear of everything but --


The whisper teased his lips, and he breathed hard when its tempting warmth were lost a moment, then returned unexpected to brush his eyes close. With a gasp, Sam leaned into Frodo's hold while the fire kept bouncing and painting brilliant circles behind his lids. Frodo cupped his jaw to guide him, and he sank like a stone in clear water. Into the breath playing with his own till it opened his chest wide, into the tenderness Frodo was speaking against his mouth.

And it was its own kind of poetry, rich and fluent as before when he'd read to Sam, the rhyme and measure of it spilling off his lips and tongue. Sam could feel it ripple and shiver at a dash of Frodo's tongue -- and he could taste flame then, leaping up to spread wildfire through his limbs.

He didn't mean to, but he startled back and found himself staring at Frodo, whose cheeks were as flushed as his own felt. But there was a cant of determination also, a look Sam had seen before, meaning he'd bite his tongue off sooner than ask aught of Sam. Leaning close again, Sam gathered as much daring as he could find. "I'm -- Mr. Frodo... when you reckon the time's come to lay us down, just you tell me..."

Frodo breathed out with a soft hiss. "If you are quite sure..."

"Yes," Sam murmured into his hair, surprised he had the voice for it at all. Now... please.

When Frodo wove their fingers together and pulled Sam to his feet, it seemed for a moment that the room swayed about him, drunk of possibilities. The smial he'd walked so often not minding himself stretched long and strange before him -- and all just because Mr. Frodo were taking him to his bed...

Excitement stabbed in the hollow of Sam's chest like a hurt set free, and his stomach tightened in an anxious fit. Perhaps he should have listened more to Hob's advice as to what he might do, and how to go about it so he'd be pleasing Frodo. Now he could either ask forthright or trust in what his own hands might discover from naught but want and wishing.

Frodo let go of him to open the bedroom door. From the dark, airy space, a cooler whiff blew against Sam's face. How many times had he walked in here to wake Mr. Frodo or shake out his bedding? He faltered with his hand on the door latch, apprehensions dragging at him like a weight as he pulled the door shut. The hinges had been freshly oiled not long ago, and there were barely a sound, only a single groan of wood and then silence. It filled him from the inside out as he took a step into the room and another -- not looking at the bed and the pillows that shimmered so white -- and every form and shape seemed aswim without a hold.

A single flame spread its halo into the dark. Nobut a slim shadow among so many, Mr. Frodo bent over the next candle with the lit taper, but Sam had waded far enough through the dim to reach out then. At the first touch to his arm, Frodo swung round, so alert that he startled against the bit of light threading dark copper through his curls.


He could scarce say it. "The candles... Mr. Frodo, if you don't mind--"

"No candles?" Frodo looked at him a moment, but when Sam wouldn't add a word more reached backward to snuff the small flame between his fingers. Sam caught his breath -- it was like he could feel the quick scald on the padding of Frodo's fingertips, the short hiss and the crumble of burnt wick -- "As you wish," Frodo said quietly, without a question that he couldn't have answered.

And he was in Frodo's arms then, crushing him so hard to his breast as he shouldn't, but his hands wouldn't have it otherwise and grappled blind for a hold. His heartbeat doubled its pounding to a drum-rolling fury. He should be doing something else, and not squeeze the breath from Frodo's chest like this, but such a trembling were rooted in his spine that he'd lost all power to move. Frodo didn't pull away though, his arms were locked tight round Sam's middle and his breath went out soft over the back of his neck.


He buried his face at Frodo's neck and breathed the scent of rosemary, a fine waft rising from Frodo's open collar from being sprinkled in his bathwater. It eased the steel tightness in Sam's breast and arms, and his skin took in the pressure between them, learning and starting to believe that he was holding Frodo, holding him, here...

He raised his head to a tickle of soft curls against his mouth, and if Mr. Frodo would only turn his face a bit -- oh, there... A blurred trail of damp breath across his cheek to the corner of his mouth, then the brush of Frodo's lips, nuzzling for a spot but breathless as he was, and the small space between them was suddenly an ache needing to be filled. They shifted, lips already touching again, seeking, and it took only the need and a short tilt to find their match, sweet and full.

From parting hungry into the kiss, Sam's lips fit thmselves to the shape and pressure of Frodo's, as if they could be merged just for clinging so close. And there couldn't be a moment's pause for wanting this taste more than any other, and for the tremulous urging of Frodo's hands, cradling his neck, his chin, till he tipped his head back and opened --

A half-made sound hitched in Sam's throat when he felt the swift, heated flicker of Frodo's tongue pass along the inside of his upper lip, sliding deeper to find his, courting with sweet insistence till he answered back -- and it went on till every breath wound down to a ragged pull and draw. His hands sank from Frodo's middle to his waist and dipped under the weskit, astray with a curious searching of their own. Through the mist-spun fabric of Frodo's shirt, he followed the slant of tense muscles up his back, the smooth rise of a shoulder blade.

Every bit as unrestful, Frodo's fingers ran down his throat, drawing Sam's pulse into a taut line to the center of his chest where the first button gave way. A shiver circled sharp and cold under the brush of Frodo's knuckles on his bare skin.

"Sam, can I--?"

Sam's reply was a murmur at best, but he clasped those trembling fingers a moment, laying them firm to his chest. Frodo made a sound that could have been a choked laugh or a gasp while his fingers stumbled across the buttons.

"Here... but this is -- why can't I--"

"If you'll let me..."

"No, Sam, I should -- there, I..."

The rest drifted off in a kiss that claimed more than breath, and it was a long time till Sam could gather up enough purpose and set his own hands to the task of undoing Frodo's buttons in turn.

It was when his own shirt fell loose, pulled from his breeches with an impatient yank, that Sam felt the hard wood of the bed's footboard against his thighs, its edge biting into the small of his back -- and right thankful he was to be steadied like this, now that Frodo ran wondering fingertips over his bared chest. Sam could still see those slender fingers framing the book, dappled with living gold, and now that same liquid fireshade seemed to glance over and under his skin.

Frodo's touch rode up on his ragged breath, and Sam shivered with the soft tracing of Frodo's thumb high on his chest, marking a spot that snapped sharp needlepricks along his veins and came to a keen tug in his belly. Snatching for breath through the tender kisses Frodo laid against his mouth, Sam pressed into the fingers playing round his nipple then over it -- and for all the clouds in his head, and the jittering in his stomach, he still knew that he ought to be doing more himself and not let Frodo --

"You feel so... so wonderful that I don't think I can let go again," Frodo whispered between flying breaths.

His own faltered at that, but Sam set his jaw and counted the buttons he struggled with -- three, four -- and when he'd freed up the last, he gasped a grateful breath that grew thin in the space of a heartbeat.

Frodo's shirt rippled open, revealing skin soft as milk to his hands, sliding so easy and graceful from stomach to throat. Sam's fingers tingled to caress the fair skin, the pulse that skimmed his touch till he'd followed it to the very source, and his hand stilled there.

A strong heartbeat rose into his palm, and it seemed his hands had been left so raw by root, stone and grass that they burned, now, from daring to touch what cleared to silver-grey shimmers of moonrise. His own fingers were bathed in that secret glow and shook when he moved them again, from Frodo's chest to the midnight cloud of his curls and back to the bright sweep of his collarbones.

Sudden understanding pierced him and loosed Sam's breath with a gasp. In all his years of working the soil, of nursing roots, flowers, trees, his hands had never been so full.

"Frodo..." His throat hurt for the beauty of it.

"Yes," Frodo whispered, "yes, Sam..."

And that whisper eased into motion, a quick shift forward -- then Frodo was against him. The first brush of their bare chests brought on a sting and a flurry of goosebumps. A jolt caught up low in Sam's belly at the slide of Frodo's thighs against his own, like he'd tumbled from a height, a sharp heat rising against the tease, and if he moved but an inch closer, Frodo would know --

Sam gasped out rough at the firm clasp on his hips. Between Frodo's hands, all the want and the waiting circled close, wound up tight with wondering what he'd do if Frodo wasn't --

Oh, but he was -- he was, too, straining and eager, when he shifted to press himself up against Sam with such a sweet, urgent moan. "Sam... let me touch you, don't be afraid..."

Sam shook his head -- afraid wasn't the word -- but he thought, dazed, that somehow Frodo was, though he couldn't guess why. "Please, I--you'll have to show me... what to do..."

But Frodo's face lay heated against his neck, trailing damp breaths on his skin. "Sam, I don't--I've never..."

It can't be. The thought whirled Sam's breath about and pulled it from him in a rush, and the hollow below filled up with a surge of sweet, clenching darkness. His legs were trembling to think how much Frodo was giving him and what he might do to earn it, but all the rough fumbling, the near-desperate, uneven shifting unraveled to a new meaning. Everything in Sam's body wanted to surge and brim over into a boundless heatsparkle like a summer morning breaking fierce on the horizon. He braved it till the backs of his thighs were hurting, for he couldn't, he had to wait, had to --

"Hold me..." Frodo's fingers curved tight on his hip and dragged them together -- but then he pulled himself off with a brisk movement and set his hand where Sam ached the most.

It jarred all through him with unbearable sweetness that wanted to be a shout, and Sam barely caught it, crushed to a whimper in his throat. But he couldn't for dear life stop from rocking forward, into the touch that beset him with such tender and reckless urging.

When Frodo leaned over the dark wedge between them, when his lips captured Sam's with a soft moan, it spilled through him like it were his own, drawn backwards in sharp yearning. Frodo's other hand tugged on his braces and his shirt, ruffling both off Sam's shoulder to trace short kisses there. And lower down, his fingers --

Oh, a whirlwind couldn't have teased any worse, dancing and probing, and all of Sam's pulse raced where those fingers sought and shaped his need with a heat of their own. Between the caressing and the dapples of silver before his eyes, the moonlight seemed to pour itself damp and rich over his skin. He pressed ragged kisses to Frodo's face and neck, his chest tight on the sounds that scrambled up his throat quicker than his breathing. And how would he stop himself when -- "I can't -- please... or I'll--"

"Yes." Frodo's voice was the softest rasp by his ear, twined with a halting breath.

When he backed away a bit, the sight gave Sam such a chill as if it might turn his very blood to silver. Eyes wide, stricken in a moment of trembling quiet, Frodo's lips were parted on a wild smile. The dark swam before Sam's eyes, but he couldn't look away, he stared, panting, till it closed on him instead. Rushing and narrowed to a single point, to the press of Frodo's hand stroking up --

To a crest where it took him like a single strike of lightning. Spun up through a well that rang of his own thunderous heartbeats, he burst from it to such a shattering as would never mend and didn't feel the pleasure till afterwards, when it came rolling in hard, shuddering waves. In one blink and another, he'd lost all hold, save for Frodo's mouth on his own, drinking his breath, his groan, till it fell apart into long sobbing gasps.

The first that he knew for certain was the faint salt at Frodo's throat, the taste prickling where his voice had been. It had been mere minutes, he was oddly sure of that, but he'd fallen into them like he'd never clamber back out. With both hands, Sam grasped at the footboard just so he'd stay on his feet while every breath still shook through him. They'd not made it onto the bed nor finished undressing -- all these things coursed about his head, spinning it further -- and through it, he heard Frodo repeat his name, a soft, winded call.

I'm sorry, he meant to say, but it stumbled out in a weak stammer against Frodo's neck. Under Sam's grip ran wood-carved blossoms and twirled leaves, printing themselves on his fingers like he'd never forget, till he finally prised them open and sagged into Frodo's embrace.

For a dim space he felt only the hands passing warm, soothing strokes up and down his arms, his shoulders and back, and didn't quite know how he'd come to be out of his clothes till Frodo motioned him to step from his breeches and sit on the bed. He sank into the woven spread and the down-filled covers, and the room seemed asway again for that unfamiliar softness and the cool tickling of air where Frodo's touch had lain before.

"Wait, I'll--" He'd stepped back apace to pour water from the stout iron kettle into the foot basin and dipped a cloth in that he wrung out deftly. "Here, I hope this is still warm enough?"

When he dabbed the cloth at Sam's lower belly, Sam flinched, but not for the wetness seeming so cool to his fevered skin. He couldn't look as Frodo set to cleaning him with quick swipes, a sudden blur rising to his eyes.

"Sam, what is this, why do you cry?" Frodo touched a fingertip to the slow trickle of a tear, his hand shaking a bit. "What have I--?"

"Oh no -- not you, it's not..." Sam's voice caught on the fast sear in his chest till Frodo kissed him lightly on the lips, and speaking grew easier then. "You didn't ought to... do as much for me when I've not -- when I couldn't even--"

"Don't say that, Sam!" Quiet as Frodo's tone was, an edge of upset rang clear in it. "I merely want to take care of you for once... Will you let me?"

Though his neck felt stiff, Sam managed a nod. He closed his eyes and fresh warmth rose through him, sprawling loose and glad till it washed off the last bit of shame.

He looked again when Frodo dropped the cloth and glanced down his own bare chest as if he didn't rightly recall why his fine shirt would hang open in crushed rumples as it did, but then he shrugged it off his shoulders and let it fall where Sam's own clothes must have dropped.

Inside a second, he crawled up on the bed beside Sam and motioned him to lie back. "I should apologize," he said softly. "I promised twice that I would not rush you, and look what I have--"

"You've done aught to apologize for!" Sam near bolted upright again. "It was me that--"

"What?" Frodo stayed him with a touch to his shoulder. "What, Sam?" Gentle as a breeze, his hand curved against the side of Sam's face. "Please don't say you're sorry, I don't want you to be sorry, ever, because -- because you desire me."

But he looked so doubtful and his voice fell to a whisper when he said that, it squeezed Sam's heart -- oh, he couldn't believe that Frodo had never --

"Can I... can I take those off you?" He gestured at Frodo's breeches, thinking it might be of help to see to such practical matters first.

"Well -- yes, I suppose..." Frodo pressed his lips together on an unsure smile.

Sam reached his hands to the waistband, and now that he'd calmed some, his fingers no longer met such resistance from the buttons neither. But Frodo slipped aside as soon as the last fastening came apart and rolled to kick his breeches off swiftly. His arms wrapped round Sam before the bed's daunting softness closed about them with a wobble.

Sam fought off a pillow that wanted to spill over his face. "How do you sleep on this? It's so soft as to be alivin', seeing how it yields on every side."

"You do get used to it." Frodo chuckled, twisting round so he could draw the bedspread aside and stretch on the white cover that pooled the moonshine round his limbs. "I rather hope that you will too, Sam."

And he was a sight, to be sure, more than enough to start a flush crawling up Sam's chest. He couldn't stop his eyes from darting up and down Frodo's body, just once, though it served to remind him that he'd neglected --

"I'd be less than sorry if..." He nestled himself a bit closer against Frodo's side, "if I had a chance of getting used to this first." When he reached a hand to his chest, Frodo's breath hollowed out under his touch. At his fingertips, Sam traced the bow of ribs that lay so close to the skin.

He was just starting to lose all orderly thought to his hand's curious wandering when Frodo caught it on the way down. "Not now."

"But you've not--"

"I'll wait." He raised Sam's fingers to his lips, brushing a kiss to them before setting his hand aside. "I'll gladly wait till you can enjoy it as much as I shall."

Sam shook his head, mute for a moment and another, and had to trail his eyes off sideways ere he could speak. "It's not like that at all, Mr. Frodo. It's that I want to." Through the window-glass peeked a few isolate stars, cradled in snatches of cloud and the curtain's outer fold. "Touching you pleases me as much as you touching me."

Only Frodo's breaths ruffled the silence, still hitching a bit. "Sam... did you like--?" His voice thickened on the last, and his hand fluttered up impatiently, stirring the air against the side of Sam's face.

"I can't say--"

"Oh, and what a ridiculous question, too!" Frodo muttered.

"--as I've got words to tell you, but, well..." Sam shrugged, "it being over so quick was all as I didn't like, if you follow me."

Frodo turned his face to nuzzle behind his jaw. "I do follow," he murmured. "In fact, I almost did..."

"I'm not sure I -- oh." Sam broke off flushed with belated understanding, and the notion eased a witching ripple all through him. "If you'll give me a bit of time, maybe I can... be even with you."

"I'll give you all night and more..." Frodo raised his head to bend a serious look on him. "And I want us to be even, Sam, in everything. At least here, when we're together like this. Your pleasure -- your wish means as much as mine does."

"Then... I would wish to learn you." The boldness of it set Sam's breath aflutter. He'd grown so used to Frodo teaching and explaining him things, save what concerned the garden --

"It seems we both have quite a bit of learning to look forward to."

Frodo's fingers sifted through his curls, and it was more than wonder to lie naked together, in naught but the shared warmth of their skin and the goosebumps skittering here and there. Sam ducked his head to jot kisses down the strong line of Frodo's throat where a soft sound of pleasure hummed against his lips. Frodo arched his shoulders, and the mingled moon and starlight washed a pale magic across his skin, running slender threads and soft ribbons over his chest and stomach and places where Sam didn't quite dare to look closely yet. Just thinking he'd be free to touch, taste and linger as he pleased set his hands shaking all over again.

"Oh, but this is worse!" he groaned.

"Worse?" When Frodo reached for his shoulder, a small furrow between his brows, Sam hastened to add, "Because you're -- just lookin' at you..." His voice squeezed to a rough whisper. "I don't reckon I can say what that does to me."

"So that was why?" A smile dissolved all trace of worry, and Frodo tucked him closer, back into the plump pillow. "No candles... and I thought perhaps you didn't wish to be looked at. I can't imagine what--"

"You can't see as I do, beggin' your pardon."

A soft laugh answered him, full of delight. "Well, I think I understand nonetheless."

As if making a point, Frodo ran gentle fingertips through the spattering of hair on Sam's upper chest. "I must confess that I've long wondered how this would feel to the touch..." His fingers wove a spiral pattern through the sparse curls and followed their narrowing trail down Sam's breastbone.

"My Gaffer says there's more'n a bit of Stoor blood running in our family," Sam muttered, growing uncertain at Frodo's close study of him, and decidedly breathless too.

"While the Bagginses are mostly Fallohide..." Frodo's voice had a dreamy slur to it, but his fingers didn't stop their investigating.

"Aye, and fairer, too."

"Well, I would argue--"

But Sam dared to stop that with a kiss. There'd be time for arguing later -- though he'd lay the blame on himself then, if Frodo still saw any need. Leaning over him, Sam poured all his sureness and conviction into the kiss till a low moan rose up against it. When he paused for breath, a ripe glow lay on Frodo's cheeks, as if he'd been out running at noontide.

Sam grazed his mouth across that inviting warmth and trailed down the side of Frodo's jaw. If Frodo were a garden, he could be the sunlight and the mild breezes playing over it, just as those silvered glimmers were doing now. But every spot on Frodo's body were as deserving of his attention, and now he had the time to discover how the inside of his arm would taste and what manner of response he might draw when he lapped and nibbled there.

The wistful mmmm that drifted over sounded as if he were off to a good start. Sam nuzzled upward till he'd reached the soft crease below the shoulder where a tuft of dark hair tickled his nose. A small feather had escaped the pillow and stuck to the sweat-sheen on Frodo's collarbone. When Sam blew on it, another silent chuckle stirred Frodo's chest, though that faltered and became a gasp when Sam traced the slender ridge with his tongue.

He felt light as air himself -- not so clumsy any more, leastways -- and more than ready to tend those quick starts of pleasure like the finest blossoms ashiver in a frost. His hand started a slow journey down Frodo's side, then curved over his belly that stretched flatter than his own. Beneath the skin tensed muscles with a keen, wiry strength. Sam rubbed gently, recalling Frodo's caress on his chest and how it made him feel and lowered his mouth to the dark halo of a nipple, slowly circling his tongue about. A high tremble rose to meet him, and his kissing stiffened the tender skin till it perked like a small pebble between his lips. Frodo's fingers raked through his curls with small confounded motions, and Sam could feel the chills catch on his own skin, right where he was touching Frodo, like ripples run through a looking glass. Alive to every moment of it, he tasted salt like tears in the shadowed hollows, spicing the sweetness where the moon's shimmers rode Frodo's hastened breaths. His hand made a halting path down the length of Frodo's thigh, running after a quiver that he followed back up and over, to a stretch of skin so soft as you wouldn't believe. Frodo writhed enough at that to dislodge his hand.

"Don't be fretting so," Sam murmured against his chest.

"Sam..." Frodo swallowed and tugged his head up. "I would have you know that this is not the time to -- oh!"

Sam planted a kiss in the hollow of his throat and pursued the course his fingers had taken with greater intent. He might've wondered if it would feel like touching himself, but the flow of swift beats and fine skin compared to nothing at all, save maybe --

A heart bared and lying naked to his caress. His fingers weren't nigh as steady as they ought to be and quavered as he strove to run them light as feathers across the taut skin, but Frodo breathed in shallow gasps and strained into his touch till Sam closed his fingers to a firm circle. Above his head flowed hazy words that broke on a pitched moan. The sound chased a clear jolt where Sam was starting to swell with new fervour.

Shivers raked him afresh, and he laid his mouth to Frodo's for a taste of those husky sounds, taking them into himself while his hand met the pleas of Frodo's eager movements. In a very short while, he grew so restless that Sam gave up on getting his full measure this time, much as he longed to taste and learn Frodo all over. His own body were catching up fast in the race, filling of quick and fervent stirs, all seeming to seep from Frodo's skin into himself. And those sparks came to a flare when Frodo gripped him tighter round the waist so Sam was crushed up hard against his hip. He groaned ere he could swallow it. Frodo made a satisfied noise that sounded something like ah! and shifted to catch Sam in such a close spot as left him no space to belie his own state.

And it seemed he was falling into this place by Frodo's side, pressed close and pulled at the same time, a pull so strong it reeled through every limb and rose giddy into his head. Frodo moved again so they lay chest to chest, such a look on his face... Less than a smile, his lips yielded to sheer wonder as if to say, this is right --

"Frodo?" Barely a breath, pulled from him by the dark glint in Frodo's eyes. Sam shivered with a waiting so keen it fanned and sparkled within, as if he'd breathed too deep and every inch of his skin were skimmed with light. "What can I--"

"Oh, nothing," Frodo's whisper shook with a turmoil that could mean laughter or tears or neither, "nothing... just you, Sam..." The quick bursts of his breathing caressed Sam's face, "Oh, I want--"

And a moment later, he had them thoroughly entangled, one of his legs hooked over Sam's and his arm flung about Sam's neck. All but breathless, Frodo joined their mouths again, and his tongue stirred up the want between them till Sam's breath pitched in his chest.

In their rush for a closer fit, they were shifting this way and that, tumbling like windfall on the yielding mattress. When Frodo gave an abrupt tug, Sam near wound up sprawled all over him and caught himself on an elbow at the last moment. He pulled back quick, drawing Frodo along. Oh, there had to be --

"Why do you stop?" Frodo rolled them over, his hands braced on Sam's shoulders, and locked a searching gaze to his face.

"I... didn't mean to," Sam murmured, very much distracted by the brush of Frodo's thigh sliding over and easing his own apart. He smoothed his hands down the small of Frodo's back, encouraging more. "I just -- oh, here..."

"Like this?" Frodo bent to steal a kiss. "Oh yes, I -- this will do... very nicely."

It took but another small tilt in the balance. Sam sprawled his legs and released a sigh when Frodo slid between them, pressed against him in a long glide of damp skin and fever tautness. With a murmur of delight, Frodo tilted his hips forward, matching heat to a fierce pleasure that washed deep, bearing down hard on Sam's breath. But then Frodo shifted higher against his belly and in the same movement closed his legs to trap Sam in between, and if their mouths hadn't been melded together, he might've cried out loud.

"More than that," Frodo broke away to whisper, his mouth teasing softly at the hard gasps that wrung from Sam's throat. "This is--"

Perfect, he might have agreed, if it weren't for the closer pressure of Frodo's thighs, sending such a jab through him that it left room only for a tight whimper. Against his lips flickered the twitch of Frodo's smile, tangled in a gasp that spilled the yearning right through to his bones. Sam arched his back, only to find himself tucked fast between Frodo's thighs that pulled moans from him when they stretched and tightened in a slow rhythm. His fingers stroked up the curve of Frodo's spine, and his mouth touched a wild heartbeat where sweat glistened silver on Frodo's chest. Between fits and starts of breath, Sam strove to push up from the hollow of the mattress, cradled in the dreamlike softness as they swayed back and forth.

Shared want settled its measure between them, to a steady rocking and sliding, so full and liquid it ran like a river. Sam could feel it loose under Frodo's skin, a weaving that joined hands, lips, and fervent wishing to no end, and there weren't a part of him that didn't belong to this, to Frodo --

Oh, but if it could go on longer, this sweet ache for a joining that grew slower and tighter with each stretch and pull. Struggling with groans of his own, Frodo held him clasped between his thighs where strong muscles rubbed and squeezed him, and he couldn't last, couldn't --

"Close... we're so close..." Frodo leaned low, scattering gasps and kisses from Sam's brow to temple and cheek. His curls fell forward in a soft veil round Sam's face, folding him in a spell of raw breathing.

For endless moments, they were both trembling at the highest pitch of a silent song that rose and welled, breaths thrust out in the close space between moonshine, skin and shadow, till Frodo tossed his head with a sharp cry as a bird's, then --


And to hear his name like that was more than he could bear, sound, touch and sight sinking their brightest points into his heart, tearing it with tenderness. In the midst of it, he felt the slickness on his belly melt want into joy, and with the same beat, all the blinding light that crawled under his skin before spread out and took him whole. He clutched Frodo close as he could, face tucked to Frodo's shoulder where his own gasps and sobs were spent.

Part of his wits finally quickened again to soft whispers, the sound of his name tangled through words that took their meaning from the hushed sound alone. Frodo was still over him and cupped his face, sweaty forehead leaned to his, and Sam felt tears on his cheeks that weren't his own, though they might as well be.

What he could answer were gasps and stammers short of words, set loose into a slow easing of their embrace.

"If I could ever..." Frodo breathed a kiss to his mouth, "ever tell you how--" He broke off again, blinking hard. "Sam... I want you to know."

"I do," he murmured back, though he couldn't have said what, just that it cleared inside him like daybreak. It was in the lightness of his limbs, in Frodo's wandering hands that couldn't seem to stop touching any more than he could. They untangled only to find a different fit side by side, where their tense breathing settled slowly. Sam moulded himself to the curve of Frodo's body, so close not a storm could pry him away. Dawn would, sure enough, but till then --

"I reckon we ought to... clean us up," he made an effort to say.

"Not now," Frodo mumbled through a stretch of drowsy pleasure, "stay with me, Sam, stay here, like this..." He buried his face at Sam's neck, his hand rubbing aimless circles between Sam's shoulder blades ere it came to rest low on his back.

Sam laid his cheek against the mussed curls, cradling sleepiness that barely teased at his senses. If a body could burst for happiness and gratitude, he'd be all in pieces now. And the slow battering of his heart promised he'd never still the longing that burned in his fingertips and filled his eyes. He watched his own fingers slide on Frodo's shoulder and arm, slow and easy with his lengthened breaths, and wanted to lie awake all night just so that he could look his fill and let those tears fall as they wished. No matter if it were moon or fire playing on Frodo's skin, there'd never been aught more beautiful -- so beautiful a life wouldn't do to measure it all.

Though he didn't mean to, between one blink and another, he fell asleep.

* * *

Sam woke to the chill before dawn as he did every morning, snug though he was under the softest covers and such a sweet weight nestled into his arms that his breath stopped only half-drawn. As his eyes grew used to the moonless twilight, he took in the smooth lines of sprawled limbs, one arm flung with abandon over his side. Frodo.

The night's memories surged back so fast, they sent his heart racing for sheer gladness. He wished nothing but to stay abed and watch the morning brighten with the loveliness of Frodo's sleep-flushed face, listen to the breaths moving quietly against his chest. But if he lingered much longer, he might as well go on and shout to the world --

More's the fool for wishing. Sam bent his head to brush a kiss into Frodo's curls, then pulled away slow and careful so he wouldn't wake.

Cooler air rippled over his chest, strange and soft against the stirrings of memory as he moved about, wearing his own skin like a gift. It don't matter if I stay or leave, he thought as he scooped up his clothes where they'd fallen, all of me that's worth half a thought will be with him nohow. He'd just fastened his braces when a crisp rustle from the bed brought him round.

"Where are you going, Sam?" Frodo sat up, the line of his bare shoulders terse against the white bedding.

"Home," Sam said awkwardly, "and I'm sorry for wakin' you, I tried not to."

"Well, I'm glad you did wake me," Frodo returned in a sharper voice that bore a sting of hurt. "I cannot believe that you were planning to sneak away like this and leave me to wonder where you had gone."

Sam shook his head. "But... where else could I be goin'?"

"I suppose it hadn't occurred to me that you would be going anywhere," Frodo answered in that same steely tone.

Sam moved nearer to the bed again, a painful clenching of worry in his belly. "Not for long," he muttered, "just to change my clothes and see to breakfast, if you don't mind, and I'll be back here to fix up yours in no time."

"Breakfast was not my concern..." Frodo let out a breath that was half a sigh. "I merely hoped to wake up with you still beside me. Sam... must you go now?"

The worry climbed from his stomach up his throat, squeezing it hard. "My Gaffer--" Sam broke off with a helpless gesture. "He'll give me whatfor over less, you understand, and he won't approve of me making free like this, nowise."

Frodo looked at him for long moments that steeped Sam in a draining tension. "Yes, I know that," he said finally. "Perhaps I could talk to him and explain that my intentions--"

"Oh, no!" Sam burst out, "meaning no harm, Mr. Frodo, but you can't do that -- 't would only make matters worse, that would."

"Worse? But..." Frodo leaned forward, reaching out a hand.

Sam curled his fingers tight, everything in him straining so hard to take it, he could barely breathe. Though it weren't visible from the bedroom window, he knew in his bones that a fine grey seam were stealing over the east horizon, and it trickled ice into his veins. "Please, sir -- I can't stay to talk it all out, and you should be sleepin' some more." The words climbed edgewise in his throat, but he made himself carry on. "I'll be back when you wake again, I promise."

"All right." Frodo sat back, a tight breath lifting his shoulders. Even in the near shadows, the smile that he showed looked thin and empty. "Don't let me keep you then."

"I'm sorry." Sam grabbed up his weskit and didn't understand why the look on Frodo's face could scald him so when there'd not been another sharp word spoken.

He left the room without another glance over his shoulder, or he wouldn't be leaving at all. A cool draught wound through the smials, and when he entered the kitchen, he paused to build up the fire first. With clammy hands, he poured water into the basin. It felt no colder than his skin when he splashed it on his face and neck and cleaned himself as best he could.

His breath steamed from running the entire way when he let himself into Number Three, stepping as quiet as he could. The kitchen smelled of cooled pipesmoke and cabbage, plunged in darkness save for the faintest ember glow. Sam tiptoed over to stack kindling atop ashes and smouldering peat, sitting back on his haunches as he blew into the flames. He watched them duck and bounce when a warning prickle touched the nape of his neck.

All in a flush, he shot to his feet and swiveled round. His Gaffer sat by the table, and the fire's rousing shine showed the same look as he'd worn when it came to Mr. Bilbo teaching Sam his letters.

"Good morning, Dad," Sam muttered, reaching out blindly for a pot. There was no reply when he poured water from the jug and began rummaging for the oatmeal.

The chair's soft creak chased him another start of misgivings. "What's this, you'll be servin' us breakfast?"

When Sam turned back, his spine felt stiff through every joint. "Why shouldn't I?"

"I don't know, son. But them that sleep in feather beds don't bother with fixin' the porridge." The Gaffer pushed his chin forward and eyed him sharply. "Mayhap they're wont to such mischief in Buckland, and Mr. Frodo being half Brandybuck hisself--"

"And half Baggins, as you're telling folk each time they start wagging their tongues." Sam clutched the pot's handle a little harder. "Look, Dad, it's not like -- Mr. Frodo's not having me for--"

"For the ninny you are!" his father cut in sharp. "If ye work hard enough, lad, there be no room for such nonsense. Them wellborn folk can waste time on squeezing the heart for song and chirpin' like birds in the trees, but the likes of us..." Instead of finishing, he slapped his hand flat on the table.

Sam ruffled shaky fingers through his hair. "The likes of us aren't born without a heart neither, and if you'll think on your living with Mum now--"

"You leave my Bell out of this, if you please, Samwise!" The Gaffer pushed hard from his chair, almost toppling it backward. "Honest wedlife's naught like what you're up to!"

Sam lowered his eyes and for the moment found nothing to say but, "There's no harm in it."

"There is, and the harm's worse to you! I know you, Sam. Another lad would grab a boon and be off, but you -- you set your heart on such fancies." The Gaffer jabbed a finger at his chest. "If you'd asked my advice afore shamin' your good name and his--"

"Dad!" Sam broke in, protest rising hot in his throat. "'Tis not a cause for shame."

That much outright contradiction brought his father up short in a hard take. "Ah, you see how it's all goin' to your head? Now you're off thinking there's nowt shameful to it if only you says so."

"I know what I am and what I'll never be, but--"

"You're too full of buts, Sam." The Gaffer grabbed his arm, but his look were one of sorrow. "What if he tires of you, son, what then? What if he gets up and marries after all? He'll be wanting an heir for the Mastership, come the time, and you'll be servin' breakfast to the Mistress."

It weren't a thought Sam could hold in his mind, not on this morning, with the night's fullness so alive under his skin. He closed his eyes a moment, hauling air past the sting in his breast. "If he's glad of it, there's aught else that matters."

But the look on his dad's face had changed and he breathed deep, sucking the air through his nose. A fierce heat rushed Sam as he thought what his father might be smelling on him --

"Come the day, all your loose talk and wanton ways will rue ye," the Gaffer growled. "I'll not have it, Sam. 'Tis to your own good that--"

"I've been of age since spring, Dad."

"Aye, but you ain't done aught to show for it!" The Gaffer's mouth set in a bitter line.

Sam braced himself with a long breath. "After breakfast, I'll go on up to Bag End to do my job right as you've taught me. I'll rake the leaves, weed the winter-beans, and stock up the larders. And when I'm done with it all good and proper, the after-hours are no-one's business save his and mine."

"Some business!" his father snapped.

"Don't speak of it like that, Dad, please."

"That shall be the day when I take orders from my own son, and in my own hole, no less!" His hand balled tight, and for a moment Sam thought his father would strike him, though he wasn't supposed to no more.

"I'm only asking you."

The Gaffer leaned in close, such clouds whirling in his eyes, Sam knew he were thinking on the years ahead, and the bruising he'd take of it sooner or later. "Why, you could have had me for a fool."

"I don't mean to," Sam started, "but--" A soft rustle stopped him short.

Marigold stood in the door, knuckling drowsy eyes with one hand and pushing her long curls out of her face with the other. "And what would you two be yellin' about? Has the porridge got burned?"

"It ain't on the fire yet, for all our gobbing," the Gaffer said tersely, snatching the pot from Sam's fingers. "Fetch us some firewood, lass, we're short up as is. And you--"

"I'll see to it," Sam offered, but Marigold had already swept out.

"Sit down, Sam." His father's voice was hoarse and tight as he'd never heard it before, and his face had turned right pale. "I don't know how to speak with'ee no more."

* * *

Sleep was an impossibility after Sam left, and Frodo didn't even bother to try. He splayed his fingers over the cooling sheet beside him and turned his face into the pillow, to capture dwindling warmth and fainter scent. While he longed only to burrow into memory, a sharp sense of loss coiled tightly in the pit of his stomach. Don't be ridiculous, he reasoned with himself. Sam will be back in an hour or two...

Frodo rolled over to stretch out flat on his back and caught himself chafing at the smials' dull silence that was fringed with distant birdsong. What he'd so often praised as blissful quiet only reminded him today... of waking in Brandy Hall, on those first strange mornings. Sleep-dazed and uneasy, he would listen to a buzz of voices outside the door and notice only the absence of his mother's singing. His stomach clutched fretfully.

Enough of this. Frodo swung his legs off the bed, narrowly missed the foot basin, and kicked his shed clothing out of the way. Draped atop his unused nightshirt, his dressing gown came easily to hand. He wrapped himself in it, repressing a small shiver as the fabric's slick coolness settled against his skin.

Once he'd washed and dressed himself, he returned to the bedroom and opened the window to a crisp breeze. A golden pallor lay on the cloudless horizon by now, and dawn wasn't far off. Frodo emptied the foot basin and picked up his rumpled clothes, but when he turned to tidy up the bed at last, he stood before the ruffled covers, studying a pattern of rucks and creases pressed into the sheet.

Every single trace spelled a memory against his skin and brought back the wild pleasure that surged to Sam's caress. Oh, and the sight of Sam was instantly vivid before his inner vision -- Sam's hands, eyes, lips, unruly curls plastered to damp skin -- the surety of his touch loosing rough sounds that started so deep in Frodo's chest, his breath drained around them. He tried to conjure a picture of himself and couldn't help but wonder if he'd seemed as much a stranger to Sam as he had to himself. Frodo shook his head, but the sudden flurry in his breast wanted to bubble into delighted laughter.

The wind blew unpleasantly chill, finally urging him away from the bed, but the memory clung fast as he wandered off to his study. For long moments, he gazed at the candle's soft halo before he thought to light the second. Then he sank into his chair and could not bring himself to stir a finger, breathing in shallow, incredulous starts. Wayward tingles hovered everywhere on his skin, circling the need to close even the smallest remaining gap between Sam and himself -- so close still that he all but ached with it. And it traced jagged edges all along the memory, as if... as if something had broken open and would never seal again, not in the manner that it had before. The thought trailed an odd ripple through him. Frodo combed a hand through his hair. Perhaps it was merely his overreaching fancy, fired by lack of sleep, that spawned these notions.

Well, since you're up early, put the time to good use, he commanded himself. He opened the diary he kept to record his travels and visits, collecting news and tales that he hoped to share with Bilbo at some nebulous point in the future. With a quick dip of the quill he wrote, 6th October -- and paused again. Everything else he might put down today would hardly be suited for Bilbo's reading. Frodo eased back, smiling at the white space below the date, and resolved to leave it unfilled. He couldn't imagine that he would ever need words to remind himself --

Keep it safe, and keep it secret, Gandalf's warning flitted strangely through his mind. Frodo's smile became a wry grin as he thought of his old friend and wondered what Gandalf would make of his dream-befuddled state. He stretched his arms with a yawn. The sky had brightened considerably, the birds' early trills giving way to warbles and busy flutters along the hedge. Frodo blew out the candles and grabbed a book at random.

He'd barely skimmed a page, thoughts weaving lazily back and forth between the words, when a short squeal from the wheelbarrow startled him out of it. Sam had returned, evidently, and Frodo grasped his chair's armrests to stop himself from darting out at once. Although he listened for minutes, there was no sound at the front door. He caught himself gnawing on the side of his thumb, a bothersome habit that had grown on him as a skittish lad. Instead of waiting and wondering, he might as well --

Frodo rose and strode briskly to the back entrance. The scent of moist grass surrounded him when he opened the door, and the air was already warming to a broad slant of sunlight. Beyond the turnip patch gaped the hole where Sam had dug out the old whitehorn. A shovel had been thrust into the ground beside it, but Sam himself wasn't in sight at the moment.

Frodo strolled over to look down into the hole, scuffing his toe at the rim. Thanks to Bilbo's generosity, he owned a significant portion of Shire soil -- yet how absurd, that the land itself could push between Sam and himself like a mountain range. On a stray impulse, he knelt down and buried both hands in the black earth heaped on the side. A wet, heavy smell tingled his nostrils, and he smiled at the slow trickle through his fingers.

A shuffle and a creak at his back caught him unprepared. Frodo climbed quickly to his feet, swaying for balance a moment. Two paces away, Sam had put down a wheelbarrow laden with mulch. "Mr. Frodo, what are you..."

"I only--" Frodo batted his dirty hands against his trousers. "I was curious how it felt. The ground that you tend... I don't think I've ever -- well."

His cheeks warmed at an astonishing rate. A similar awkwardness coloured Sam's face, but his eyes had grown soft. "It's different with every season, and there's some as can tell how the crop will grow next spring just from the feel of it."

"You said you would come in and wake me."

Sam's glance dropped to the wheelbarrow at that. "Aye, but you were up and about, and I..." His head snapped up again in another moment. "You've not had breakfast yet, I'll warrant. I did ought to have--"

"Oh, I told you, Sam, I can take care of that myself."

Sam shook his head fiercely. "It won't do for me to go slack on my duties, Mr. Frodo."

His tone touched Frodo with an edgy disquiet, and he stepped closer as if to meet a challenge. "You called me by my name last night. Just... Frodo."

"But not here..." Sam bit down on his lip, perhaps regretting his own forwardness, but he continued nonetheless, "not when we're outdoors where folk can see us and hear us, sir."

"But look around you! There is no-one about, and--" Frodo paused at the impatient ring of his voice. "Sam, what is it that worries you?"

"'Twould put you to shame, and I won't abide that, nowise."

Though he should have anticipated such a reply, loss ran cold in him. "I see no shame in this, Sam."

"Aye, but others will, beggin' your pardon." A vague tightness lingered around Sam's eyes and mouth that bespoke trouble.

Your Gaffer? Frodo wondered and barely held his tongue in check. Sam didn't want him to interfere with family matters, and pressing for answers might only double the grief. He would have to wait until Sam --

"This is what I am, Mr. Frodo." Sam held up his hands. "And it's all that I have to earn me a life."

There wasn't any way that Frodo could have stopped himself from reaching out then. "Your hands, Sam--"

When he caught them in his own, he felt the speeding of Sam's breath as clearly as his own, but Sam's eyes were shaded with a wary hesitation. A bit of dirt rubbed between their fingers as Frodo gripped tighter. The warmth of work-roughened skin stirred up the longing to simply pull Sam close and show him --

How easy it would be. Sam never denied him anything. "You're right, I shouldn't..." Frodo let his fingers slide away, slow with regret. "Don't ever let me do anything that isn't to your liking, Sam, whatever it may be. Promise me that."

"I promise, Mr. Frodo."

Sam's answer came so fast, Frodo guessed easily what he was thinking -- that he couldn't do such a thing anyhow -- but instead of questioning, he stepped back and summoned a lighter tone. "If your duties allow, Sam, perhaps you'll join me for tea this afternoon."

"I'll be glad to, sir," Sam murmured.

Frodo returned to the kitchen at a ponderous pace, caught among thoughts that dragged in opposite directions. If a mountain of possession and privilege lay between him and Sam, then he had done his best to throw a similar barrier between Sam and his family, his friends among the sons of farmers, brewers and joiners. No-one would bat a lash at a servant warming his master's sheets, but it wasn't supposed to start any ruffles in the fabric of their community. Frodo rubbed his hands together and put the kettle over the fire. He had known this before, and that discretion alone could protect something that ran against the grain of common hobbit-sense. It was about time he acted on that insight instead of lamenting what would not be changed.

He had just started to pour water into the teapot when the back door rattled. Relief leapt in Frodo's chest, and he set down the kettle before he could splash the boiling water over his fingers.

Sam stood by the kitchen door, eyes clear and steady. "My hands are rough."

His expression stung abrupt heat into Frodo's eyes. He crossed the room fast and broke the motion just within reach of touching. "I must seem like a rare flower to you," he said quietly, "the sort that can't endure on its own in harsh weather." He glanced down at Sam's fingers that still kept the summer's tan. "Your hands are beautiful, Sam."

Their eyes met again, and Frodo let a held breath go. Brighter relief welled through him when Sam's hand rose to his face, cradling his cheek.

"I'm not made for handling fine things," Sam murmured, "I don't have the manners for it, nor the words."

"I haven't always been rich. Before Bilbo adopted me, I was only another ward among a whole straggle of unimportant relatives." Frodo leaned into the touch, and the hazel of Sam's eyes seemed to flash darkly. "If Bilbo hadn't brought me here..."

"Then I wouldn't be here neither. Not like..." The words trailed into a slow breath that eased its promise against Frodo's lips. Then Sam's mouth covered his own and stopped every thought with a fierce tenderness.

"There is that," Frodo whispered when he could finally breathe out, his arms wrapped securely around Sam.

A soft chuckle brushed the side of his face, and Sam's smile unraveled a tense knot in his chest -- seared it open without effort. "I thought I -- I'm not sure what I thought, but when you left..."

Sam looked at him with frank apology. "I don't know as I can explain it to you proper, but I hadn't a choice."

"I'm sorry I made it so difficult for you. It shan't happen again." Frodo pulled up his shoulders with a rueful smile, "I only wish..."

"Your wishing's everything to me." Close as they were, Frodo could feel how Sam's breath wavered a bit. "Frodo... you don't have to hold fast to keep me."

Several replies to that rushed up sharply, but the words burned in Frodo's throat and a mere sigh wound past when Sam's lips moved softly across his cheek to the corner of his mouth, just shy of another kiss.

"If you're a flower..." Sam's fingers threaded into his curls, "...then you're the firelily that'll take root most everywhere and blooms the brightest where you're least looking. You do more than well on your own."

"With your help, Sam," Frodo returned. "Whether you knew it or not."

Across the distance of less than an inch, Sam studied him with keen attention, a laughing glitter in his eyes. "Aye, you're more of a whole garden anyways, and that does want a bit of--"

"Weeding? Raking?" Frodo suggested, lowering his voice, "Planting?"

"Oh, you..." Another helpless chuckle rumbled in Sam's throat. "It's learning the qualities of the ground that any gardner worth his salt ought to start with."

"That sounds... reasonable." Frodo smiled. "And then?"

Before he could ask another question, he discovered that Sam had much more to add with his lips and tongue. Between kisses trembled breathless starts of laughter, and he found answer enough in both.

* * * continued in part 2 * * *

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