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 2

The bulked-up clouds in the east didn't merely promise another rainfall, they looked tall and twisted enough to carry an icestorm, sooner than not. Sam shut the window, pulled the curtains close and cast a long glance around the bedroom. A mite foolish, maybe, to come in here each day while Mr. Frodo were gone and let fresh air blow through, but it gave Sam a bit of space to breathe where his memories lay so close, and it widened the room as a dream would.

As he did every year, once All Souls was come and past, Mr. Frodo had travelled to Michel Delving to take stock of the season's tithe-collecting with the Mayor. All the heritors and landowners of the four Farthings would be gathered there now, to take counsel on the harvest and the next year's planting and settle such quarrels among the farmers as arose from time to time. There might be news from the borders too, perchance of Elves, Sam hoped in secret. Far west as Michel Delving lay, folk out there caught a glimpse of Elves passing to the Sea on occasion. Mr. Frodo always paid close heed to such tales, and if there were aught to be told, Sam would hear it when he got back.

A first smattering of ice drummed against the window, and Sam turned from it to attend to the bed. There weren't a way of telling how long the meeting might take, and the last week's rainfalls had made a morass of the roads. Most like, Mr. Frodo would be waiting out the weather in Tuckborough with the Thain's family and his many Took relations. With any luck, they'd spare Frodo a carriage to take him home dry.

Sam bent to place a new bundle of dried lavender between bedspread and covers to keep them smelling clean. As they had a habit of doing, his fingers followed their own purpose and slid softly over pillow and sheet, tracing sharp memories and greater longing. He'd not spent another night at Bag End since that row with his Gaffer, but he'd lain here with Mr. Frodo a few times, long past the hour of dusk. His skin warmed all over as he thought on it. There weren't a sight more glorious than that of Frodo's graceful limbs bathed in a fading day's shine, or the sparkling blue of early evening when not a cloud marred the sky. Or the long shadows shifting on his skin, and the first bit of starlight catching in Frodo's eyes when he --

A soft heat eased into Sam's belly, gathering to a slow, clenching pull. It didn't matter, seemingly, how much time they took learning the lay of each other's skin, for always at the end there were such a rush as if they'd not touched in a whole year, and always after, a yearning that only sang stronger.

Perhaps someday he might tell Frodo how his mind would tease him with fancies at full noon, so that the weak brush of grass to his calves could race shivers up his legs and the spill of autumn sun burn a white streak down his spine. On some days, going about his job was a sore trial of waiting out the hours. Frodo showed less of impatience, but there'd been a night or two when they missed supper for a different kind of hunger that pulled more sharply. And now...

Sam drew away from the bed with a tight breath. Mr. Frodo had been gone less than two weeks, though his foolish skin claimed it were closer on a month. The quiet of Bag End lay about him like a goosedown blanket, so soft and strange, and he should be going home. If Marigold were back, she might want help with their own supper.

Sam walked through the smials with a careful tread, so the quiet scarce wavered about him. It still felt as though he were wandering the course of a secret that stretched and stirred about in those airy spaces behind closed doors. And in every room he'd expect --

Not long now, he told himself as he stepped out on Bag End's porch and pulled up the hood of his cloak.

His face burned from the pelting of frozen rain by the time he entered their own hole. Marigold sat at the kitchen table, busy with needle and twine, and barely looked up in greeting.

"You're back early." Sam spread his cloak over the backs of two chairs to dry.

"Aye, Farmer Cotton saw the weather coming and said I might as well run on home and take the rest of the work with me." Beside her on the table, Sam noticed a lump of fresh bread, a nutcake and two jugs of cider that she'd brought back for the needlework this week. "They didn't let you carry this all yourself, did they?"

"Oh no, Tom came along and wouldn't let me carry nothing. He went back home straightaways though, seeing as Dad's not in." Marigold looked up and tossed him a crooked little smile. "You know Dad -- 't wouldn't be proper and the like, us being shut in here by ourselves."

Sam pulled up a chair for himself. "Where's Dad then?"

"Off for a smoke and a word with Daddy Twofoot, and on to the Ivy Bush after, I expect." Marigold fitted a patch across the knee of a brown pair of breeches. "Nibs tears 'em once a week," she said with a sigh. "Rosie could never get through all the mending alone, though she's quicker hands than I have. She'll make someone a good wife, come the time."

"Aye, she will," Sam agreed, idly stretching his feet toward the hearth.

When he glanced across the table again, Marigold watched him with clear curiosity. "You're not thinking on takin' a wife yet, are you?"

"There's no sense in rushin'--"

"Oh, spare me, I've heard that tune enough times!" Marigold pulled a face at him. "Go on and make us some tea, Sam."

With a good-natured grumble, Sam heaved from his chair and placed the kettle on the hook. "What's with you, d'you think you'll wed sooner if I do?" He chuckled, meaning a joke, but a backward glance showed a bit of colour flushing Marigold's cheeks.

"Maybe," she muttered, bent close over her stitches. "It's only been a season since May wed, but it gets right lonely, and you always up the Hill too."

"But--" Sam stepped over to brush a hand across her loosening braids. "It won't do, getting married for the company, Mari. And who'd you have for suitor besides?"

Marigold tucked her head down a bit lower, but Sam could see the blush spread to her ears.

"Tom?" he guessed. "Tom Cotton?"

"He promised to take me to the hay-dance before he wrenched his ankle in the stooking." Marigold paused to smooth Nibs' breeches out on the table. "I wouldn't pay it much mind, but Rosie says he's dead serious to start courtin'."

Thick puffs of steam called Sam's attention back to the kettle. He poured the boiling water on a handful of mint leaves and set out two cups before asking, "Well, do you like him?"

Marigold lowered her hands and met his eyes with a look full of questions. "Dad says 'tis the best match as starts in the cradle, so you grow up together as if you're family anyhow."

"Then you might as well marry Jolly or Nibs. Or Mat Greenholm."

"Tom's got nicer eyes though, and he'll take over the farm when his dad gets too old for the plough." Marigold wrapped the loose twine round her forefinger and cocked her head. "Oh, but that all shouldn't matter none, and I do think he's handsome. For all that he used to pull on my hair just to make me cry and stuff crickets in my shift and such." Her nose wrinkled at the memories.

"Well, courting don't mean you have to marry him," Sam answered. "It's supposed to let you see if you like him well enough."

"Yes, but how'd I know?" Marigold pulled one of her braids over her shoulder, brushing the end back and forth over her mouth as she thought about it. "You know that song, Sam -- the one with the lass wanting to soar as a lark over the hills? It's got me wondering what it is that does that..."

She trailed off, and Sam turned to watch the flames leap in the hearth, against a thick glazing of soot. "When you hold such love in your heart it could rip you asunder," he said softly, "and you don't mind it none."

"That don't sound very reasonable, Sam."

"Not much, it doesn't." He dragged his eyes away from the luring sight of those brazen, living colours. "And Dad would say there's not a worse cause for getting wed, sure enough."

When he glanced up, Marigold grinned at him, her eyes lit to a sparkle. "If I marry Tom, you could wed Rosie, and we'd still be livin' in the same family. Wouldn't that be nice?"

"We'll always be family, Mari." But he felt oddly unrestful now. With a quick pat to Marigold's shoulder, Sam crossed to the window and opened the shutter for a look at the weather. A chill gust drove in, but the hard fall had pattered off to a mizzle.

"Oh, shut that, Sam!" his sister complained. "It's freezing out."

"The clouds are clearing though. I think I'll go down to the Dragon for a sup."

"Aye, while Dad's off to the Bush." Marigold peered shrewdly at him. "What were you two snarling over that morning? He's still peevish for it."

Sam pulled up his shoulders. "He thinks I'm too quick setting my feet where they didn't ought to go, same as ever." Not another word on the matter had been lost between the Gaffer and himself since, but he'd often caught his father watching as if his youngest were like to grow a second pair of ears. Perhaps it just took more time to mend his worries. "And that I'm wasting hours in Bag End instead of doing my job proper."

"Well, it's a grand place to live in. It's got a fire in every room, glass windows, soft chairs and a bath withal. And them books that you're so fond of." Marigold moved closer to the hearth so she'd have enough light for her stitching. What with such a long winter ahead, as the Gaffer predicted, they had to save on the candles. A gentle glow lit the honey-brown of her curls. "If you took a wife, she'd see to having you home for lunch and supper, leastways. And she might want a word with Mr. Frodo for giving you work on Highdays."

Sam reached for his cloak that still showed damp spots all over. "Now don't you be startin' too!"

"Oh, any fool can see that you'd sooner wed Mr. Frodo hisself!" Marigold burst into a giggle and reached for her tea, and a good thing it was too, for she missed the crimson wave running up Sam's face. "Go on and have your ale, just don't be too long."

* * *

Tom Cotton, Sam decided after an hour in the Dragon, had had at least one ale too many. Not that he were starting to gabble yet, but his eyes had a glazed shine to them.

"Tellus, Sam," he slurred, leaning halfways across the table, "what's Marigold's fav'rite flowers?"

On the bench beside him, Jolly rolled his eyes to high heaven.

"Sunflowers," Sam answered, "but you won't find them blooming before summer."

For long moments, Tom stared down into the tankard that he cradled in both hands. "What about them li'l yellow ones as come out in spring?"

"Crocus?" Sam asked. "Or buttercup, maybe?" He shook his head with a soft snort. "You might as well give her dandelions then."

"Fine advice, Master gardner!" Robin Smallburrows joined with a chuckle, and Sam was glad of it. Since Robin's dad had died of the rickets, three weeks over, he'd worn such a face as barely showed a spark anymore.

Tom glanced back and forth between them with a suspecting look.

"Just you be sober enough to pick her something pretty, come spring." Jolly cuffed his brother's arm and grinned into the round. Across from him sat Will Furry and Mat Greenholm, shoulders leaned together as they spooned thick lentil soup out of the same bowl. Like as not, they were rubbing knees under the table too, Sam thought with a sudden smarting of envy.

"Listen to yer flowertalk!" Ted Sandyman sneered from a chair by the fire. "You'll prattle on 'broidery next."

Red-faced, Tom seemed to be screwing himself up for a retort when the door opened again and Farmer Greenholm strode in, followed by Old Sandyman. Mat sat up a bit straighter, though it didn't keep Will from slouching back against him in another moment.

"Now there's an ax that wants whetting," Ted muttered as the farmer headed over to the counter.

"What's that, Ted?" Tom grumbled.

"Haven't you heard about all the ruffle between the Greenholms and the Noakeses?" Robin asked.

"Aye, Dad swears by his finest brandy he'll not have another ale in the Bush," Mat added without much interest; his eyes were on Will all the while.

When the miller chased his son from the stuffed chair and Ted came over to their table uninvited, Sam made up his mind that he'd stayed long enough. "Supper's waiting," he said as he rose from his seat. "Good night, ye all."

He wended his way past the crowd near the entrance and wasn't much surprised when Tom followed him outdoors.

"It don't bother you, Sam, does it?" he asked, leaning close enough for Sam to smell more than beer on his breath. "That I'm -- oh, p'raps you could put in a word--"

"I'll not put in a word for you or against you," Sam stopped him. "Mari's got her own head, and a tender heart besides."

"Aye, 's why I like her." Tom threw an arm about his shoulders and shone him a wide grin.

"Daffodils would do," Sam told him. "They bloom early in spring."

While Tom still smiled like a loon into the cloudy evening, Sam set out at a brisk pace. Another hour of watching Mat and Will together, and he'd walk all the miles to Tuckborough in the middle of night, never mind if it rained ice. But the air had warmed a bit, Sam noticed as he left the inn's yard, and the sheeting of frost had near melted off the puddles again. As if the weather had just waited on him, a drizzle started up and by the time he passed the mill, it had quickened into a full drencher. Huddled into his cloak, he didn't spot his father striding uphill till he'd almost caught up.

"'Evening, Dad," Sam muttered and was rewarded with a shorter greeting out of the side of the Gaffer's mouth.

Together they turned into Bagshot Row, trudging a bit faster in the downpour. If that kept up, Sam thought, ducking his head deeper between his shoulders, they'd be out fixing the south bank again next week. And Mr. Frodo might not be leaving Tuckborough till --

"Hoy there!" Number Three lay a mere ten yards away, but the Gaffer squinted out into the rain, at a lonesome wanderer coming up from the other end of the Row. "Who's this trapessin' across the Master's ground?"

Between one breath and the next, Sam's heart started to pound out a shaky drumroll.

"It's only me, Mr. Gamgee."

"Mr. Frodo!" the Gaffer called. "A fine weather you've picked for travellin'."

"And on foot, too," Sam managed, once his annoyance grew bigger than the lump in his throat. Frodo stopped in front of them, rainwater dribbling down the rim of his sodden hood. "Don't the Tooks got a carriage to send you home in?"

"I didn't stop in Tuckborough again on the way back, Sam." Frodo turned to him with a slight smile, but his eyes held more of it, a promise shaped in the briefest of glints. "When I started out from Waymeet, I thought I would be faster than the rain."

"Well, we'd better get you indoors quick before you catch a fever," Sam answered without further thinking. His mind rallied when a cold pause stretched between them all, and he didn't chance so much as a sideways look at his father.

"Aye, son, go get the fires started for your master and help him settle back in," the Gaffer said curtly, turning towards the door of Number Three. "But don't 'spect us to keep yer supper warm."

"He shan't go without one," Frodo promised, in a tone both courteous and warm. "I'll be very grateful for his help, Mr. Gamgee."

Without turning round again, the Gaffer muttered, "Good night to you, Mr. Frodo."

Head tilted slightly, Frodo pulled up his shoulders. Rain glistened on his face and on his damp curls where the hood had slipped off. Sam curled his fingers against an urge to tuck it back up. And no small marvel it was, how Frodo's eyes could brighten as high summer in the dim and wet -- or reach out the same warmth, leastways, so clear that Sam could feel it down to his muddy toes. If it hadn't been raining so hard, he might have spent an hour or two just looking at Frodo. He pulled away with a murmured, "Best turn in fast now, Mr. Frodo."

The rain didn't lessen one bit as they headed up to Bag End, but just before they reached the gate, Frodo's fingers slid wet against his own, and their eyes met through the swimming dark.

"I wasn't expectin'--" Sam started, but the smile flashing his way near made him believe that Frodo were reading his very thoughts.

"I had no intentions of staying away any longer than the business in Michel Delving required," Frodo answered in a voice much calmer than Sam felt, "and shorter if I could manage. I'm afraid I grew rather restless towards the end."

Sam could well believe it, seeing how quick Frodo's fingers unlatched the gate and delved for the keys in his pocket while they walked up the path. All round them fell the sound of the rain, spattering on the grass and the thick rhododendron leaves and the turf walls, stitched through the tight beats of his heart. Then the door swung inward and dry air welcomed them, smelling gently of firwood and beeswax.

"Home again!" Frodo let a pleased breath go, but rather than taking off his damp cloak, he laid a hand on Sam's arm, drawing him in.

The rain-drowned twilight painted a grey shimmer between the hood and the shadowed side of Frodo's face. Sam raised a hand to wet skin, smoothing droplets beneath his thumb, and his heart went into such a rush as though it were trying to tumble out through his fingers.

"You're cold," he murmured.

"Am I?" A gleeful spark lay captured in Frodo's eyes, keen against the shadow of his smile, and everything seemed so new and strange again -- as if it had ever stopped to be! -- that Sam faltered into dumbstruck awe. "I trust that will be remedied soon."

Frodo's voice had fallen to a near-whisper, and the hidden offers in it found a quicker road to Sam's mind than all practical matters did. Close the door, you ninny! he scolded himself, for the wet chill still came pouring in. "If you'll go into the parlour, Mr. Frodo," he said between turning the key and settling the latch in place, "I'll have a fine blaze going in a minute."

Piling a neat stack of kindling and firewood in the grate helped steadying his fingers, so long as he didn't look too close at Frodo. He's dripping and shivering, and you'd better keep your mind on mending that before --

Quick flames sprouted through dry rushes and chopped fir-wood. Sam climbed back fast to his feet and collected a blanket from Mr. Bilbo's favourite armchair, shaking it out. "You did ought to take those wet clothes off and sit here a while to warm up, sir." Handing Frodo the blanket, Sam bent to light a pinespill. "Now, I'll get some hot water..." He'd shot out the door before he'd quite finished and hurried on to the kitchen.

Between heating water to wash and putting on another kettle for a pot of chamomile tea, he dashed back and forth between table, cupboard and larder, foraging through such commons as he might serve for supper. He ought to fix Mr. Frodo a proper bite once he'd warmed up, but his mind couldn't seem to stay on cookery. Instead, it swarmed with he's back he's back, and the happiness of it caroused through him in circles like a dance tune.

Sam cleaned his own feet and calves with a damp cloth before taking the wash basin to the parlour. When he returned the next time, carrying tea, honey and shortcakes in on a tray, Frodo had slipped from his seat to huddle on the hearthrug, wrapped from neck to ankle in the large woollen blanket.

And nothing else besides, Sam realised when Frodo took the mug he held out. The firelight skimmed amber ghosts across his bare arm and shoulder. Though Sam lowered the tray before him as careful as he could, spoons, pot and plate still rattled together. "Is there anything else you'd like, sir?"

Frodo glanced up across his steaming tea for a soft shake of the head, his eyes seeming to say aught but you, here.

"Well, then..." Between the wanton urge to just follow that invitation and guilty thoughts about supper, Sam needed a moment to pry himself away. With fumbling fingers, he gathered up Frodo's wet garments and spread them over the carved back of the bench. All of the parlour lay drenched in velvet shadows, save for the ragged half-circle the fire cast across the rug. The blanket had slipped down to the middle of Frodo's chest, and he sat still as a candleflame in the spreading shine.

Sam returned to his side then, for his feet clear refused to carry him anyplace else, and knelt to pour tea into his own mug.

"So, you did not expect me to hurry back, did you?" Frodo asked. His curls were almost dry, sprung into wild ringlets by the crisp heat. "I wonder what I ought to do, in order to convince you that--"

"Oh, I didn't mean -- I wouldn't've--" Sam stopped himself short, out of words when Frodo set down the mug and trailed two fingertips up his forearm.

"Or maybe," he mused with a secretive smile, "you should convince me that you at least wished me to hurry back."

Sam had long discovered how that smile left his tongue useless -- for shaping words, anyways -- so he didn't try. He sucked a breath as deep as it could go and leaned forward to brush his mouth against Frodo's lips. Hot and dry they felt, as they might in a fever, and for one awkward moment, he didn't know what else to do, as if strange and familiar had come to a point where both went flying up in sparks. But then Frodo's hand curled about his neck and the breath that he'd held fled in a single rush. Into the warmth of Frodo's open lips and the inside of his mouth, close about a first tasting of tongues.

"Mmmm..." Frodo's smile eased into that sound, soft and rich with a pleasure that traced instant answers in the pit of Sam's stomach. A grateful sigh caught low in his breast and became part of a kiss that just wouldn't end. While their mouths clung together in a long, deepening search that set Sam's breath racing, he couldn't keep his hands still no more. From grasping the blanket's hem as if to pull it back up, they swept out to stroke caresses over bare arms and shoulders -- and Sam couldn't dare to think of his master's nakedness underneath that loose cover, or his hands might run ahead of reason in their desperate wishing. The fire smouldered too hot against his side, but worse was the want rousing so fierce from within, drawn and stoked up by the play of Frodo's tongue against his own, though he shouldn't --

Sam pulled away with effort -- this weren't the bedroom neither -- and struggled for words round the heavy push of his breathing. "Oh, I -- Mr. Frodo, I did ought to... fetch you some dry clothes."

As he scrambled to his feet, he caught a shading like disappointment in Frodo's face and perhaps the beginnings of a frown. In his bedroom, Sam took a moment to start a fire and turn down the bed. When he tossed the dried lavender into the flames, a fine smell curled into the air, and even that were enough to bewitch him with dazzled fancies.

"I'll fix you a quick supper now," he said on entering the parlour again, still out of breath. "You've not had solid fare since breakfast, I'll be bound."

Frodo didn't reply and made no move to rise neither, so Sam had to crouch beside him again. A clouded glance shifted from the bundle of fresh clothes to his face.

"If I didn't know it any better," Frodo said slowly, "I might think that you're set on escaping me, Sam Gamgee." He took the shirt and let the trousers drop unheeded to the rug.

"I'm not! I just -- I'm--" Sam protested, but his thoughts had all slammed into a sudden blank.

"You're only concerned with my comfort," Frodo helped him out, his tone lighter than the purpose in his eyes, settling on Sam with a bewildering directness and such fire as seemed to reach far under his skin. "Well, I shall be very comfortable here, if you'll just refrain from dashing out again."

With a mute nod, Sam sat back on his heels, though every muscle in his body were strung tight as a hoistrope. Frodo unfolded the shirt with ponderous care, turning it over before he smoothed out the sleeves. The blanket slid down further and fell into thick folds about his waist. Breathless and all of spell-bound, Sam watched him tug at the well-washed linen, easing into the sleeves with a supple shift of his shoulders. The soft fabric swept a thin shadow across fire-tinged skin and rippled against Frodo's comfortable stretch.

He stopped again to meet Sam's eyes squarely. "Are you quite sure that you want me to put this on, Sam?"

He couldn't answer that, not with his mouth as dry as a haystack at harvest moon, and he didn't have to, seeing the tease darken to serious want in Frodo's eyes. The sound pushing up his throat were too close to a groan, but enough of an answer to Frodo, it seemed, for his hands sank aside, leaving the shirt to hang carelessly open. His gaze alone held Sam steady. That look, and Frodo's manner when he leaned back just a little so the shirt swung away from his chest, gave him the right --

To look on frankly and let his eyes dwell on every inch of bared skin, with a longing as forward as the touch that hovered at his fingertips. Sam shivered at the stings caging his breath, threatening to fill his eyes. If this were taken away again, it would be every bit like going blind.

"No," he whispered, hoarse as if the full weight of minutes stretched between question and answer were squeezing his voice.

The sheer delight in Frodo's eyes flushed him with a feeling keener than pleasure and finally freed him up to move forward and claim the kiss offered by sweetly parted lips. Frodo returned it without a moment's hesitation, his arms wound about Sam's chest. A dizzying joy surged into Sam's heart as he knelt between Frodo's legs, restless starts and fretful snatches all joined to a single pull that stretched deep in his body. His hand strayed through the blankets' folds, aiming for a corner to unwrap it but found a clear, jutting heat instead, straining at the wool to mingle with the fire's licks. A sharp quiver ran through Frodo at his touch, and a muffled moan burst against Sam's breath. It took nothing more to cover him in goosebumps and stir up a near-painful jolt inside his own breeches.

When he drew back a bit, Frodo smiled at him, the fresh shirt already rumpled and hitched down over one shoulder, framing soft curves and taut planes of skin. Sam let his fingers wander across those smooth lines from Frodo's chest down to his waist. Barely a slip of the blanket covered him about the loins as Frodo pulled up his knees on either side of Sam, urging him closer by the front of his shirt.

"I didn't think I could..." Frodo muttered and seemed to be losing his thought among the soft kisses he pressed down the line of Sam's throat, while his fingers began working the shirt buttons.

"Could what?" Though it were a mere whisper, Sam's question sounded too harsh to his own ears. A strange apprehension trembled somewhere behind his breath, against the need rising to such a heedless pitch.

"Miss what I never... missed in years, as if--"

"--the air's grown too thin to breathe, aye," Sam murmured, the thought sliding between them like Frodo's hands, "without--"

But Frodo's mouth cut him off, giving berth to Sam's gasp as his shirt fell open to searching, restless fingers. They felt so fine against his chest, swift as a breeze and lighter than sundust, so full of easy, knowing grace that Sam felt he'd been swept to another place entire. A haven of precious silk and down and feather-soft dreaming, and the liquid run of a silent music. His own fingers weren't a match for such riches, and Mr. Frodo deserved better than a tumble on the floor for --

"You," Frodo whispered into the merest parting of lips, "but you don't truly know that, do you?"

There weren't an inch left for answers, not in the tightness of his chest, and not when Frodo pressed so close against him that all Sam could do was stretch a hand down his back and tangle the other in the tousled spill of dark curls. Frodo tilted his head back and took the next kiss at a steeper angle that left them both stranded between quick, hard breaths. All along Sam's back, muscles trembled with the effort of bracing himself. If he leaned another inch forward he'd lose that last bit of balance for certain.

"I wish..." When Frodo looked up, his eyes swam, shining their own stormy light against the fire's leaps. "Less than two weeks, and you've all but forgotten..."

"No!" Sam swallowed against the rasp in his throat, "Not for a moment, I'd never--"

"Then show me."

Something in Frodo's voice rang troubled, of stifled and hopeless wondering, but what could he do? What was different now than it had been those other times? Trapped against his thigh, through blanket and flannel, burned a clearer call he couldn't leave unanswered. Sam wriggled his hand down, fingers astray in worn wool to reach finer skin and a push into his touch that filled out with hurried pulse. Chest arched, Frodo slumped back on his elbows, and Sam followed, kissing down his throat and back up to his mouth that welcomed him with unashamed hunger. Frodo's hand had crept to the waist of his breeches, snapping the clasps of his braces impatiently open, and tugged at the cloth to reach --

A short cry clogged in Sam's throat, and he caught hold of Frodo's shoulders with both hands, as if he could stop -- as if he could want to stop when Frodo's caress took the measure of all his taunting dreams -- every night, Frodo --

And then, abrupt as a thunderclap, it was gone and Frodo's hands were set on his hips instead, releasing all other hold. He let himself slide back on full purpose, and Sam was over him, pressed against him chest to groin, but for all that, he couldn't break the kiss, not when Frodo filled it with those tight, breathless sounds, speaking a need to him that passed in wanton flares under Sam's skin.

From the brink of each moment to the next, it grew harder to keep a hold, to quell the foolish voice that whispered mine and blend it back to yours -- when so much of himself were stumbling back and forth between Frodo's hands running wild on his skin and the places he was touching, tasting -- oh, he'd never owned less in the world, not when everything he was scattered into --

"Frodo..." In his voice rang a rough note of pleading, while he strained to hold what would always slip through his fingers, like the light itself and its shimmers in Frodo's eyes, clouding him into all that he wasn't. He blinked through a sudden blur, at smooth skin and fair limbs that held so many secrets while his own were just --

"Sam, don't -- you don't have to... wait for me to..." Hazy words, forced past sundering gasps and laid close to his ear, as if to ease the painful clenching in his belly. From it broke a fierce rhythm, urging him on -- his body heading one way and his better sense another -- tearing him open as he pressed himself against Frodo. The sheer pleasure of it burned chills all over his skin and rode up in one thick wave. Sam bit his lip. There were so much more he wanted to give, if he could find the right ways how, and this... this was too blunt, too quick... But if Frodo wanted it so, then he couldn't deny, couldn't hold a thought other than --

"Please, Sam..."

He tried to still his panting breaths, both hands cupped round Frodo's face as if they could shelter a living flame, and couldn't believe "--how?"

There was a moment's tense quiet, then a quiver of letting go as Frodo closed his eyes and his mouth softened with a thready breath. He shifted, pulling himself up and tighter against Sam, his hands gliding back to their hold on Sam's waist, leading him blind to some unknown place. And Sam couldn't do aught but let himself fall.

It got unbearable just as he knew it would, lying crushed together in such a tangle, Frodo's thighs clasping his hips, and he pressed down with a sob. He couldn't stop his hips from pushing no more -- short, uneven thrusts that drove those rushed moans from Frodo's throat -- and his own voice caught when Frodo bucked up under him, his head rolling back -- "Sam, I can't -- ahh!" -- and the firelight leapt jagged over his face, falling to pieces in his glazed eyes.

The sight of him wrenched the breath in splinters from Sam's chest, and he leaned deep, taking a kiss that filled up with Frodo's shaken cry. Like a quaking washed through his own body, he felt the tremor that seized Frodo in a sharp, writhing motion. The whimpers that he stilled with his mouth ran to fire in his veins, and then it took him too, a blinding stab that sprang from deep within to his fingertips and toes -- but it didn't stop there, it stretched out near endless, sweet and scalding, till he shook in release.

Sam found himself again staring down at Frodo's flushed face. His breath came in such hard gasps, it made him feel sick to his stomach, and he shifted away, fumbling, trying not to think what he'd --

"Sam..." His name burst on a harsh breath of Frodo's own, "stay..."

His voice was edged rough as if with pain, though Sam couldn't guess why. He nodded, for his arms and legs wouldn't obey nohow, as though they'd lost their proper place in the course of things, and the flames shone too bright in the hearth, flaring wild shapes on the walls and the rug.

"Frodo..." He let his head drop against Frodo's shoulder, and whispered, his mouth crushed to a shirt now damp with sweat, "Oh, I love you, I do."

* * *

Frodo had not expected to sleep at all. He drowsed fitfully as the night wore, slipping through hours of dreamy quiet, till unrest snapped him from it again. A soft chill crawled down his chest and dissipated as he stirred, into the warm weight resting against him.

Frodo squeezed his eyes tight shut and swallowed a grateful gasp. The moon had set and dawn couldn't be too far off, but Sam was still here -- and fast asleep, to judge by the even measure of his breathing. Frodo shifted cautiously so he could glance down at the ruffle of soft curls above Sam's temple, revealed between the whiteness of sheet and the pillow he'd made of Frodo's chest. Soft pinpricks tingled through Frodo's arm as he tried to lift a hand, his fingers cool and clumsy against Sam's skin. Every other part of his body was prompted to full waking, however, and his heartbeat followed with a restless saunter, not too far from Sam's cheek. Raw joy fluttered around his breath, almost anxiously, and leapt to soar with remembering --

Precious hours threaded together like beads in their dusky shimmer, lucid with slow touches and breathless discoveries until every part of his skin seemed to melt into wanting. But none quite so present as the flame-filled memory that tightened his pulse, and nothing compared to the sound --

Oh, I love you, I do.

The words alone sent sharp thrills through him. But when Sam breathed them like a secret, there had been such a desperation in his voice, in his tight grip, that all Frodo could whisper back was his name, over and over, as if to soothe and remind him.

And I have so much to say to you... A thick heat gathered in his throat, barring words and breath. How beautiful this is. Alive under his skin, on the outside of his thoughts, spread something that seemed to surge out of his dreams, wider and closer than he had ever expected. At the mere brush of it, everything he was seemed to simmer with waiting. If I lose myself, will you --

No, adrift in this vastness, Frodo was not at all certain that he would find the right words when the time came to speak them. But there would be time now, a free range of hours before full daylight at least, with Sam here beside him. Since their first night, Frodo had not asked him again to stay past daybreak, determined to disavow that wish even if Sam could surely read it in his eyes each time he rose and dressed to return to his family. This morning was a gift waiting to be savoured; for the moment, Frodo couldn't ponder what else it might mean.

He moved his hand again, now that the blood flow returned feeling to his fingers, and stroked them up along Sam's spine. He'd been so starved for Sam's touch, and in such a rush to depart from Michel Delving, that he almost blushed to recall it. But there was no cause for regret now, was there, when his palm moulded the soft thrums of a heartbeat under warm skin.

"Sam..." he whispered, before he could think better of it.

Sam shifted a little at that, a shorter breath gusting over Frodo's chest, and mumbled, "you're awake..."

"Indeed I am." Frodo smiled into the shadows. A stirring of lashes whispered down his skin as Sam blinked. "I have been for a while. I was waiting to--"

He faltered at the dab of Sam's mouth to his skin, a damp and hazy caress that wasn't quite a kiss and enfolded a murmur. Whether it meant good morning, or merely Frodo, sound and touch started a pleasant hum in Frodo's chest.

"I rarely have a chance of watching you sleep," he pointed out.

"Oh, but I didn't mean to keep you up all night, Mr. Frodo." Sam lifted his head, unquestionably awake now. His eyes flickered with a hint of unease, but it disappeared again just as quickly, if it hadn't been mere shadowplay. "After the tramp you just took, you should be resting yourself."

Frodo eased him back down with a gentle tug. "Don't worry, I returned very well rested," he said lightly. "Will Whitfoot may be an early riser, but the Thain stands firm on his belief that no serious business should be tackled before second breakfast..."

"And you chose to miss the first, I'll warrant," Sam guessed accurately. He rubbed at his eyes. "It's a wonder you got done with it all so quick then."

Frodo chuckled and tried to shrug, a mere twitch of his shoulder under Sam's head. "There is some unresolved business though that I shall have to address soon, now that I am back."

His fingers swirled in aimless circles through Sam's curls, and his mind was starting to drift away from all public affairs when Sam raised his head to send him a quizzical look. "I hope that don't mean trouble with Sandyman's lot again."

"No, nothing of the kind." Frodo took a moment to gather his thoughts against the far more present impulse to pull Sam just a bit closer and taste the lingering sleepiness on his full lower lip. "There is a dispute between Farmer Greenholm and Old Noakes over the use of the pond behind the Grange."

Sam gave a soft snort. "Oh aye, the two've been on the outs since Forelithe and don't show no sign of wanting to shake hands, neither."

Frodo shook his head, and the quickening under his breath took on a stir of quiet laughter. "I should have guessed that you would know more about it. Perhaps you can help me settle this squabble then."

"I -- well, I'd surely try," Sam answered, though he didn't sound too certain.

Angling one arm behind himself to push his pillow against the headboard, Frodo sat up, drawing Sam along. "I don't know why Farmer Greenholm decided to take this matter to the Mayor rather than bring it before me," he said when he'd settled Sam against his side, one arm draped round his shoulders, "but he claims that Old Noakes fished the pond empty this year, to which he had no right in the first place."

"He took the trouts for his granddaughter Ruby's wedding!" Sam protested. "You know he's scrapin', and he's not got aught else to give the bride." When he turned his face a little, Frodo could feel a huff drift across his chest. "As for why Mr. Greenholm wouldn't take his grumbles to you -- he'll suspect you'd hold with the Noakeses, I'm thinking, seeing as how Mr. Bilbo used to like taking his ale in the Bush with them and all."

"Yes, Bilbo used to enjoy a good chat with the old fellow and your Gaffer." Frodo thought about it, drawing random patterns across Sam's shoulder with his forefinger. "But the problem remains. Will Whitfoot showed me the written privilege that confers the fishing rights onto the Greenholms. Bilbo signed it years ago. There must be a copy somewhere here..."

"That may be," Sam returned, a little disgruntled, "but the Noakeses have been taking fish from that pond so long as anyone recollects, and with Mr. Bilbo's approval, too. Even if it ain't written down."

"Well, perhaps I can find something in Bilbo's papers..." Frodo skimmed his hand from Sam's shoulder down to his elbow, resting his fingertips in the soft crook of his arm. "I will have to draft a new document in any case, to avoid future disagreements on this matter."

"That won't mend the strife though, Mr. Frodo."

"No, it won't." Frodo sighed and buried his mouth in Sam's curls. A whiff of rain and woodsmoke clung there, mingled with the warm scent of Sam himself. His fingers slid up the inside of Sam's arm to make an idle journey across the top of his chest. "What do you suggest I should do, Sam?"

"What I..." Sam expelled a breath, and his voice lowered. "It's hard to do any thinkin' proper, begging your pardon, while you're--" He linked his fingers through Frodo's, firmly capturing his hand, "--distracting me like this."

"Do you mind?"

"Mind?" Sam's head snapped up at that, and he pulled away, his eyes very dark against the early twilight that shimmered on his cheekbones. "Why'd I mind, Mr. Frodo?"

"Well, you didn't exactly throw yourself into my arms last night." Frodo wanted to bite his tongue for that, but the words were out, swept up by some ill-defined hurt he'd not even noticed before. "Oh, I'm sorry--"

"But my Gaffer--"

"Not in your father's presence, surely," Frodo broke in at once. "I shouldn't have said that, Sam, it's silly. I suppose I -- well, I spent quite an amount of time imagining this homecoming, and I'm afraid my fantasies have a habit of growing on me."

Sam sat up fully and bowed his head. "And then it weren't aught like you'd fancied, was it, Mr. Frodo?"

"How can you say that?"

His question sank into stunned silence. Sam's glance was lost somewhere among the folds of sheet and blanket, tracking thoughts that left Frodo bewildered. There had been moments like this during their late supper, a strange wavering in the mood that came and went. By the time they cleared away the dishes, he'd been half prepared for Sam to take his leave. But he hadn't.

Frodo breathed deeply, to break away from this odd state of apprehension. "Sam, I don't understand. It was..." He reached for Sam's hand again, and found his fingers clenched tightly. Renewed tension twisted Frodo's stomach, restless with the longing to share what he couldn't know. "Was there anything wrong with, well..."

Sam's shadowed profile revealed very little, but his eyes had come to rest on a spot just before him. "It's... that way you have of lookin' at me -- touching me, Mr. Frodo, and I know I didn't ought to -- but I just can't help it!"

His voice sounded rough as if a concession had been wrested from him, or perhaps another boldness to which Sam thought he had no right. "You shouldn't what?" Frodo asked softly. "You have never done anything that I didn't wish for. Sam, you're giving me so much..."

"I can't say as I've been given any less," Sam murmured.

"I should hope not!" Though he aimed for an easy tone, his own voice sounded strangely brittle. "But -- do you know, you never ask anything of me," Frodo continued. "You always wait for me to lead the way." Perhaps he shouldn't prod like this, perhaps he should simply wait for Sam to -- but would he ever? "If I was a farmer's son, Sam, would you hesitate to touch me, and take whatever I offered?"

"If you..." Sam sounded startled more than anything. "But it couldn't be the same, ever--" Though he broke off there, his fingers uncurled to squeeze Frodo's, clasping them as if for purchase in a mire.

"Sam, I have told you this before. I don't mean to push you into anything that you don't want."

A quick glance grazed and questioned him. "Mr. Frodo, if you don't mind... but you don't understand. It's the wanting that's--"

Wrong, Frodo thought, an icy lump under his breastbone, while the last night's memory strung him through and through with protest.

"It's so... so much," Sam whispered hoarsely, and Frodo's heartbeat burst in thunder through all that cold stillness. He closed his eyes.

"Yes. And I couldn't bear it without you, now." Even though his voice was far from steady, it relieved him to admit this much, to reject what he'd so long considered a necessity. "I could not lock myself away again and convince myself that I'm pursuing a dream that has no place in our lives."

A shadow of body-warmth fell gently on his skin, and he opened his eyes to look directly into Sam's, mere inches away.

"'Tisn't a dream, not now."

Sam's hand rose as if to prove it, framing the side of his face with rough tenderness. Relief coursed up faster than Frodo's heartbeat as Sam leaned over him, tipping his chin into a kiss that replaced half-shaped answers with joined breathing.

"Sam... can you stay?" Frodo murmured against his mouth. "It will be light soon, and I know your father doesn't approve, so if you'd rather--"

"No." Sam's gaze held as firm as his tone. "You're right about there being no place -- save now, here." He bent his head, placing a kiss against Frodo's jaw, as if to seal his choice. "I'm not leavin'."

Frodo smiled against his neck and pulled him close. "This is what I want to come home to..." And it spread all through him when Sam moved into his arms, skin to skin, thickening his voice. "It was more, Sam. More than I could have fancied."

Sam's halting question barely troubled the quiet. "But what if... what if I end up wanting too much?"

"What if I do?" Frodo whispered back.

Perhaps Sam didn't believe it was possible, but he could feel it in himself, a straining, breathless force that recognised no limits. Full of questions that only the future could answer. But there was no sense in worrying now, not when their closeness washed over him like a summer breeze lifting off the fields and meadows.

When they kissed again, he opened his mouth to the slow, tender strokes of Sam's tongue, and longed only to absorb everything into himself. The gentle pressure of Sam's body against him, and, a little while later, the first dapples of morning glow on Sam's shoulder and arm. Under his palms, he felt how deep and full Sam's breaths were, a sure and steady surge like water to shore that carried him along. Enfolding the need that uncoiled inside him, till every bit of it was answered and taken into the loving strength of Sam's hands. And then, for the longest time, there was no further need to speak nor indeed for anything but the yearning poured into every kiss, every touch, every breath.

* * *

The sound that broke into his slumber was an urgent rapping on the front door, followed by the bell's sharp jangle. Half-blind with sleep, Frodo stared around the bright room, felt Sam's arm snug about his waist, and thought, his father, it must be.

But Ham Gamgee never dragged on the doorbell quite like this. Whoever rang up such a storm seemed set on rousing everyone on the Hill.

"What's--" Sam started up at the next clang of the bell and muttered something that only vaguely resembled 'there's someone at the door,' interspersed with aggrieved noises.

"I'll go." Frodo untangled with a reluctant sigh and pushed the blanket off himself. Clearly, this most unwanted visitor would not have the grace to assume that no-one was home and take to the road again. Frodo swept up his robe, but his sleep-addled mind didn't aid the process of donning and belting it. He let his hands drop when he felt a deft touch on his shoulder, smoothing out the robe's collar.

"Perhaps," he murmured, turning slowly so that Sam's hands would not be dislodged, "I can persuade this nuisance to go away..."

Sam had only just pulled on his breeches, and the morning light streamed over his bare chest, fairly blazed on his hair, and caught to deep copper in his eyes. The sight stopped every thought and whisked Frodo's breath to a place of thoughtless delight. All he had to do was lean forward, and a warm mouth met his own, lingering through the wistful quiet. Another clanking of the bell drove them mercilessly apart.

"I'm coming!" Frodo called as he stepped into the corridor, combing unsteady fingers through his curls.

He opened the front door a mere crack, sure to wear his most unwelcoming expression -- and blinked at the unexpected visitor on his stoop.

"Merry!" Frodo cast a swift glance over his cousin's shoulder. "Just yourself, no Fredegar, no Pippin?"

"No Fatty, no Pip," Merry confirmed tersely. "Can I come in now?"

"Oh, of course." Frodo pulled the door wide open and said rather loudly, "Merry! Now this is a surprise." Without wasting another moment, he steered his cousin into the front parlour and busied himself with the fire.

"I was only just getting dressed. Sam is in the kitchen, preparing breakfast," he said with a backward glance, and reckoned that Sam had had enough time to make his statement true. The rumpled blanket still lay in a heap on the hearthrug. Frodo abandoned his efforts to start a fire and picked it up carefully, draping it across the nearest armchair. "What brings you here at this hour?"

"I arrived in Overhill very late last night," Merry answered, an edgy tiredness in his voice. "Too late to disturb you. But I didn't sleep very well, and I didn't want to bother the gouty old innkeeper with demands for an early breakfast."

"So you thought you'd bother me instead." Frodo chuckled and swept his cousin into a quick embrace, somewhat rueful at his less than cordial welcome. Merry seemed oddly glum, and the loss of sleep told in shadows beneath his eyes. "If you were thinking to travel to Budgeford with me, I'm afraid there has been a change of plans. I had a letter from the Bolgers the day before I set out to Michel Delving. The wedding has been delayed."

"They say it's the baby."

"The baby?" Frodo echoed. He could hear a faint rattle of pots from the kitchen.

"Peony's little lad," Merry explained. "He arrived early and will now attend a spring wedding, if there's anything to the gossip I heard."

Frodo sneezed and wiped quickly at his nose, wishing for a handkerchief. "The price of my own folly," he said by ways of apology. "I walked home in the rain yesterday."

"I didn't hear of it until I reached Bridgefields," Merry continued, his eyes roaming without pause over rugs, furniture and stacked firewood. "The family's in a bit of a fluster over the whole affair, if you can believe it, and I preferred not to get mixed up in that."

"Very wisely, no doubt." Frodo glanced at the unlit hearth again. "You're on your way to Tuckborough then?"

When he looked up, Merry eyed him strangely. "You might say that," he muttered. "Though I suppose they've heard about the delay by now, and Pippin won't..." He trailed off and rubbed his hands together, his expression easing as if by force of will. "Now then, what about breakfast?"

When they entered the kitchen, the kettle puffed over the fire, and Sam stood by the table, cutting thick slices of wheat-bread. While his shirt was neatly tucked into his trousers, his thick curls still revealed the traces of Frodo's tousling fingers.

"We have a guest, Sam," Frodo remembered to say. Memories uncurled leisurely and whispered through him, catching his mind in a warm glow.

"Aye," Sam cleared his throat and straightened. "Good morning, Mr. Merry."

If Merry found anything peculiar in Sam's behaviour, he did not show it for a moment. With a jaunty 'Morning, Sam! he dropped into a chair and began picking chunks of cheese from a platter.

Frodo stepped over to the window and swiped steam off the glass with the flat of his hand. The bright day was already clouding up again, fast enough to threaten fresh rainfalls.

"Sage tea, Mr. Merry?" he heard Sam ask, followed by an approving grunt from his cousin. Over the years, there must have been a thousand exchanges like this, all part and parcel of the customs that separated those who served from those who took it for granted. Frodo bit his lips together, admitting the sting along with the truths he could neither shut out nor undo. The change in the room settled against him like another skin, as real as the coolness wafting from the floor tiles and the window.

Frodo pulled his robe a little tighter around himself and turned. "I should get dressed."

* * *

Sam walked home early that day, so early that not even the swift November dusk could catch him up. There was still a lot of work to be done about Bag End's larders where the harvest's yield sat waiting to be prepared against winter, but all that could wait another day. And Mr. Frodo had made it plain enough that Sam was free to go on home whenever he pleased. Most like, he were near as troubled as Sam himself when it came to his staying away all night. Not that Frodo had said a word about it; what with Mr. Merry at his heels all day, he couldn't have.

Sam pushed his hands a little deeper into his coat's pockets. Odd now, how he were noticing Mr. Merry as he never had on sundry visits over the years. Frodo's cousin had come in looking drab as spoilt pudding this morning, but after second breakfast he'd lost that dolesome edge quick enough. While Sam went through the pantries, taking stock of their current supplies and gathering such vittles as this unexpected visit would require, he heard Mr. Merry's voice burbling from the parlour all along. Most of it Sam couldn't catch, even if he'd wanted to, but he supposed they were the latest tales from Buckland. At a time or two, he heard Frodo chime in with a laugh and a comment of his own.

During lunch, Sam had taken a quick walk down the Row, but only Marigold was puttering about their own hole, singing to herself. She couldn't tell what their dad might be up to that day, but her jolly mood was a relief. She didn't seem to notice either that Sam took an awful long time warming portions from the large pot of stew, and toasting bread to go with it. Whenever he let his eyes travel with the dancing shine from the cooking fire, he'd feel memories play warmer on his skin. With so much happiness still raw inside him, it took a while each time before he found his thoughts again.

When he came back to Bag End, Mr. Frodo and his cousin had withdrawn to the study, and there wasn't much to be heard of them in hours. At long last, Sam had stuck his head in to ask if they might be wanting aught for tea-time.

Mr. Frodo were looking through large stacks of papers, dust-flakes caught in the jumble of his curls, and a brilliant smile flashed forth when he glanced up. "No, nothing, Sam, I'd like to finish with this first, thank you!"

They'd lit some candles against the dull afternoon, and that wee bit of shine in Frodo's eyes sparkled too close to the night's recollections for Sam to look on long. So he looked at Mr. Merry instead, who'd sprawled himself among a heap of books and parchment scrolls on the rug. The nearest taper set a gloss to his fine brown hair and brocade weskit. Even then, with his sleeves dusty and his breeches still muck-spattered, Sam could see him put on all the grand ways as were proper for the next Master of Buckland.

Not for the first time in his life, Sam wondered why that was. How a hobbit could loll about on the floor as Mr. Merry was presently doing, show such disregard for the precious books he thumbed through, and still make it seem as like it should all be his by rights --

Sam shrugged the notion aside, for he knew well enough that there weren't an answer other than those his Gaffer had given all his life. There'd never been a call for such ponderings round Mr. Frodo, neither.

When Mr. Merry strolled into the kitchen not a long while later, wearing a peckish look after all, Sam already had the kettle on a boil and all else laid out on a tray.

"Ah, you know your master's needs better than he knows them himself, don't you, Sam?" Mr. Merry remarked, with a lusty eye for the freshly baked scones.

"Yes, sir," Sam answered, not minding what he'd said till Merry broke into a chuckle that kept shaking his shoulders as he leaned against the kitchen table. The more he laughed, the more Sam felt like a fence-post stuck in the ground with the wrong side up.

"There is a great irony in this, my friend," Mr. Merry told him finally, still grinning. "Now. Don't let me bother you. I'll take this."

When he grabbed the tray to carry it over to the study himself, Sam hadn't objected either, as he might have done on another day.

He paused a moment by the gate to Number Three to look out west where the sun struggled in a swaddling of heavy clouds. Dawn had been clearer than that, with a light so piercing it nigh burned the skin through the bedroom window. Within a heartbeat, he was wrapped fast in recollections, of waking up with Frodo this morning -- in his arms, no less -- and to find him watching with a look fiercer than the daybreak itself. Sam shivered, and not so much for the gust of biting wind.

As he opened the garden gate, he noticed a mud-caked walking stick leaning next to the door as hadn't been there at noon. His Gaffer must have been out rambling then, perhaps paying a visit to Hamson in Greenfields even, as he'd been meaning to since the rains started.

When Sam pushed past the length of rough burlap that covered the kitchen doorway, his father sat smoking by the fire. There weren't hide nor hair of Marigold to be seen this time, and Sam wondered briefly if the Gaffer had sent her out on purpose.

"Hullo, Dad," he muttered, casting his eye about the carrots and unpeeled taters on the table for something useful he might do. They were running low on firewood, he could see, the stack beside the grate having dwindled to an armful of dry branches.

His father said not a word, but he turned slowly, bringing his chair around with him. A puff of smoke hid his face. Sam drew a halting breath. For a strange moment, he felt as if he'd wandered into some other hobbit's hole, where not a scrap rightly belonged to him.

"You took your time comin' back to us, Sam," the Gaffer said at last, though his tone weren't as grim as Sam might've expected. "What's this make of you, I'd like to know."

"It don't make me aught else'n I've always been, Dad," Sam said hoarsely. What turned over in his breast, sharp as cloves and thick as honey, weren't his own any more than the beauty of Frodo's limbs and breath. Perhaps his dad could feel that too, and that was why.

"Aye, mayhap you're right," his father agreed in a tone far more worrisome than any yelling could have been.

Sam pulled up his shoulders and thought it best to go out again and start chopping up the deadwood they'd hauled from the copse below the Hill this last Highday. But when he made to excuse himself, the Gaffer waved him back.

"Stop a moment, Sam. I want a word with you." He dragged on his pipe again, mindful of starting a steady glow before he spoke again. "We've a good life here, son. 'Tis hard for me to say what it might be that you're missin', but I can see as ye do." He turned his head aside, and the gloaming from the fire deepened the lines on his face. "Many's the year as I've seen it, not wishin' to know where it's leading."

A dull ache gathered in Sam's throat at the defeated tone of his father's voice. "I don't miss nothing, Dad. Naught but what's so high and fair as I don't have words for..." He paused for breath. "I don't know why that is, but I must go the way as it lays afore me."

The Gaffer's eyes flew back to him at that, keen and troubled. "Watch out, son. When your pride's wound up so far, it be stickin' out where it breaks."

"'Tisn't no matter of pride, Dad." Sam moved back closer to the table and held his father's eyes, half pleading. "I could never forget that Mr. Frodo's far above the likes of me, and if he hadn't..." He thought it best to stop right there and not upset his father's sense of what was proper and what wasn't any more than he could help. To his surprise, the Gaffer chuckled, though it were a sound like dry sticks cracking in the fire.

"Aye, you've thought the world of him since you was old enough to work in the garden." He shook his head slowly, stabbing the air with his pipe. "You'll want to find a way back to the livin' you was born to, Sam. The longer this goes on, the more's the chance you won't, if it don't get you lost in the end."

"I know that," Sam whispered, for he didn't have more of a voice suddenly. "I'll not complain when it comes time, neither. But I wouldn't wish for a life not knowing..."

"If your plain sense don't do it, then your heart did ought to show you where your place is," his father grumbled. "With your family, and the lass you'll wed. Be sure you don't forget that!" But then he leaned back in his chair, watching after the smoke-ring he'd just blown. "Your sister asked about you stayin' out so long last night." A second smoke-ring followed, stretching as the first one faded. "'Marigold,' I says, 'Mr. Frodo's got need for Sam's help about the hole, as is only to be expected from a gentlehobbit his age. He's room aplenty for help to stay on at nights, what's more, and it's for him to do with as he'll please, night or noon.' That's as I told her, so don't you go telling her otherwise."

Sam nigh forgot to breathe at the permission in his father's words, even if it weren't acceptance and might never be. "No, Dad," he said shakily. He stepped back, but couldn't quite draw his eyes away yet. "I won't."

The Gaffer gazed down into the bowl of his pipe, tapped the weed with his thumb and drew several more puffs. "I saw how Mr. Frodo looked on you, and there never was a stranger thing. Like you was the dawn in the sky." He snorted, but the slight twitching at the corner of his mouth took the bite out of his mien. "Not but what you're a good lad, but I can't say as I follow that mind of his." Then he looked up again, his eyes narrowing a bit when he found Sam still staring. "Off with'ee now. You'll want to build this fire ere you start cookin'."

* * *

Frodo woke to a sunbeam teasing the tip of his nose. It had to be late in the morning, by the steep slant of rays groping through the curtains, and he felt well-rested. He turned over, wondering why his blanket was bunched down about his waist, leaving his skin cool under the nightshirt. The next he noticed was a lump beneath the covers, near the foot of his bed. While he still blinked in puzzlement, the lump stirred, and a ruff of light-brown curls rose into view.

"Merry..." The name came out slurred through a sudden yawn and though it prompted no response, at least Frodo's memory of the past evening pieced itself together again.

Merry had been bubbling with tales and gossip like a brook, after the second glass of Old Winyards, while Frodo struggled against the dragging weight of missed sleep. Despite his best efforts, he'd retired fairly early. He'd barely settled down, however, when Merry ambled into his bedroom, dressed in an old shift that was starting to stretch across the span of his shoulders. Without further ado, he'd seated himself on Frodo's bed. I don't think I can sleep yet. You don't mind, do you?

If you don't mind me being less than entertaining, he'd answered, drowsy and bemused. Merry's eager expression reminded him of nights in Brandy Hall, long years ago, when they'd huddled up in the dark together, spinning tales or plotting pranks. The last he saw before nodding off was his cousin nestled up against the footboard and watching the fire, a glint of embers in his eyes.

"Merry!" Frodo repeated, a little more urgently. He listened into the morning quiet, but no sound stirred from the smials or the garden other than the distant twitter of birds. Surely Sam must be about somewhere --

"Merry... get up, slowbones!" Frodo prodded his cousin with a foot, and a protesting noise issued from the knotted blanket.

While Merry grumbled his way towards full waking, Frodo dressed quickly and decided to forego washing in favour of an instant trip to the kitchen. Though it lay empty, the well-tended fire and a fresh loaf on the table, wrapped in a square of white cloth, told of Sam's presence.

The bread was still warm at the centre when Frodo cut it, pensively chewing on a piece of almond-sprinkled crust. He strolled to the window, wondering if Sam had taken advantage of the friendly weather to finish some task out in the garden, but the crisp sunshine fell on a bare stretch of lawn alone.

"'Morning!" Merry said around a yawn from the kitchen doorway. He was dressed too, though his array fell short of what was considered neat in Brandy Hall. No more than mine, Frodo thought, glancing down at his dangling shirt-tails. He nodded to his cousin and began preparing tea, leaving the eggs to Merry who whistled as he cracked them into a pan.

"What's got you in a buzz so early this morning, Frodo?" he asked finally, between salting the eggs and reaching to add chives. A delicious smell began to waft through the room.

"Oh, I have some... business to see to." Frodo began rummaging through jars of tea-leaves, and regretted his muddled planning. If his wits had been more alert, he would have simply slipped from the bedroom and spoken to Sam before waking Merry. Surely Sam's encounter with his Gaffer the evening before must have been less than pleasant...

"What business?"

"A quarrel between one of the local farmers and an old neighbour," Frodo answered absently. However much his empty stomach might approve the proposition of a hearty breakfast, unrest gnawed at him.

He was seated at the table, pouring tea, by the time Merry set generously filled plates down with a flourish and a half-stifled yawn. "Can you ask Sam to prepare the bath for me after breakfast?"

"No, I can't." Frodo noticed the snappishness in his tone only when Merry's eyes narrowed. "I can't because he's too busy today," he amended, though it did not ease his mood. "I'll help you with heating the water, if you like."

"No need, cousin, I can do it myself in a pinch." Merry grinned and tackled his breakfast with unbridled enthusiasm. "You know Dad's never been one to let his heir grow soft or idle."

Frodo nodded and eyed his own plate with a drooping appetite. He should go and find Sam, wherever he was presently occupied, and invite him in for breakfast, not least for a chance to divine any hints of trouble. But Sam wouldn't -- well, maybe he would, Frodo corrected himself, but when he envisioned Sam in the empty seat beside him, it was a picture ripe with discomfort. Merry might not comment, but his lively features had never bemasked his feelings well, and he wouldn't miss the slightest of private gestures or glances either.

Frodo watched his cousin over the rim of his tea-cup, wondering what Merry might say to the truth of the matter and whether he was ready himself to confront incredulous questions, or disdain at the worst. Merry might let his own whims pass with a chuckle, but how would he treat Sam, once he knew? And how to speak of it at all? Frodo twisted his fork on the plate, sifting through words that seemed stark and unwieldy, broken out of a common tongue that had never seemed more foreign.

He rose as soon as he'd finished eating and mumbled a vague excuse before he went out. A chill day arched in cloudless blue over the garden, and the grass shimmered white with an edge of rime. For a long moment, Frodo stood on the porch, listening for any noises that might reveal Sam's whereabouts, but only the Water's dim murmurs and the chatter of crows in the party field drifted up to him. As he stalked around the grounds, the cold air pricked his skin through his shirt-sleeves, reminding him that he'd rushed out without jacket or coat. Uneasiness began to wind itself tightly about his stomach. Surely Sam's Gaffer would not stop him from returning to Bag End altogether?

When Frodo caught a faint clinking of metal from the tool-shed, a quick, relieved breath hissed through his teeth. He tugged the door open with a little more force than needed. Threads of morning light squeezed through the cracks and revealed Sam among the ranks of barrow, rakes, shovels, and watering cans. Seated on an overturned bucket, he'd gathered his gardening tools for a thorough cleaning. His head lifted slowly. "Good morning, Mr. Frodo."

Though the cold air clenched his chest quite suddenly, Frodo returned a good morning as cheerful as he could muster. A thin, bright streak fell across Sam's curls, skimming his cheek and jaw. He did not seem to mind the chill either, for his sleeves were rolled up to avoid grease-staining, and his shirt's collar was hanging loose.

"It seems as if the constant rainfalls are finally behind us," was the only thing Frodo found to say.

"Aye, a nice fresh day it is." Sam bent to whisk a rag along the blade of a scythe.

They could have conducted this very conversation on any other morning, and the thought alone started a soft bristle under Frodo's breath. He wished only to take two more steps, pull Sam up and into his arms, but the barrow, the grease-pot and the long scythe assembled into a serious barricade between them. Yet less so than Sam's posture, at a closer glance. Something defensive showed in the set of his shoulders and his braced manner as he wiped the blade clean.

"Thank you for the bread," Frodo said uncertainly.

"Marigold got up to an early start at her bakin' and sends it with best regards." Sam pulled up his shoulders. When he glanced up again, the curved blade cast a strange glitter into his eyes.

"How is--" Frodo started and felt oddly disconcerted. "I don't mean to be nosy, Sam, but I can't quite help wondering... well, what your father might have said."

Another hunching of the broad shoulders seemed to be his only answer at first, but then Sam continued his work with long, sure swipes. "Me Dad's never been one to take quickly to new customs and such, but he'll not stand in the way of them neither, if they're to your liking."

"My--?" Puzzled, Frodo shook his head. "He... he doesn't mind it then?"

"Not to worry, Mr. Frodo." Sam sounded entirely calm, but the stiffness in his neck and the tight line of his mouth spoke their own truth.

Something is wrong... Frodo watched his hands move, while questions and comments ensnared themselves and clotted his mind. Had he overstepped again, without realising it? In the midst of Sam's tools, on Sam's own ground, he felt the presence of needs and necessities that he might unsettle at a touch. Frodo let out a quiet breath and chafed his hands against the cold. Later, he promised himself, though time and place might be hard to come by.

"I am going to visit Farmer Greenholm this morning," he said, banishing disappointment with an effort. "I went through all of Bilbo's papers yesterday, but I couldn't find anything concerning the pond and Old Noakes. It seems I will have to tell Greenholm that I intend to uphold all privileges that Bilbo granted by word or letter."

Sam rubbed at his chin and made a dubious noise in his throat.

"You don't believe that will settle the matter, do you?" Frodo asked.

"See, it's like this..." Sam tipped the scythe to study its polish. "Some farmers grow a mite tetchy over not owning the land as they till, you understand. I'd say Mr. Greenholm's one of them, and old Sandyman's done his best to encourage him, I shouldn't wonder. He'll take orders from you, sir, but Old Noakes won't see him smile for it, if you follow me."

"Then I had better not make it an order," Frodo concluded.

That earned him another look from Sam, and an approving one at that. "He'll like it a good deal better if he can think of himself being charitable toward poorer folk, I'll warrant."

"Yes, I see how he would..." Before caution and worry could interfere again, Frodo stepped around the barrow, crouched down and threaded his fingers where the morning brought out glinting gold in Sam's hair. "If we reach an agreement, I'll have you to thank for it, Sam."

For a moment their eyes held, and Frodo could feel it to the pit of his stomach where a fleeting warmth raised itself against the chill. He breathed out quickly. "I shall see you later, I hope."

* * *

It was late afternoon when Frodo trudged back up the Hill, a pleasant heaviness in his stomach from the drawn-out luncheon, the rich apple-tart and cider he'd been served at the Greenholm farm. Approaching the whole troublesome affair in a roundabout fashion had proved to be more time-consuming than he'd anticipated, but well worth it, Frodo thought, and not for Mrs. Greenholm's marvellous cooking alone.

As he shook out his cloak in the hall, he heard Merry's voice from the parlour, humming snatches of melody. A high fire blazed in the hearth, and Frodo walked over to it gratefully, stretching both hands into the heat. "What a cold day this is! Where's Sam?"

"Oh, hullo, Frodo!" Merry lay back comfortably in an armchair, one of his legs sticking out, a glass balanced on his other knee. "He went to fetch something from the village, some ingredient for the pickling he's so busy with, I think. He's been gone a while now."

"Mmm." Frodo let his head fall back as the cold seeped from his bones. And I hope he'll be back all the sooner.

"Why, that's a long face you're wearing," Merry said when he began lighting tapers around the room. "I hope that doesn't mean the stubborn farmer tossed a stick in your spokes."

Frodo stopped by the table where he'd left a plate heaped with slices of carrot-cake earlier. The plate was now empty, and a bottle of Old Winyards had been drained to the bottom. "No, no, I think that matter has been laid to rest." Merry had helped himself to the apricot brandy too, a Yule gift from the Bolgers, and a substantial amount was already missing. Frodo threw him a baleful glance over his shoulder. "I see you're intent on sacking my cellars and leaving me nothing of worth for the winter."

"Ever the generous host, Frodo!" Merry raised his glass, as unrepenting as Frodo had expected. "I'll drink to that."

He sat down on the bench, still close enough for the fire to blow a prickling warmth against his feet, and waved Merry's toast aside with a grin. It wasn't his cousin's fault that his presence seemed like a disturbance, jouncing a barely found balance and chasing the last morning's happiness into the shelter of memory. Against the window lay a pale sheen of gold, already folding into dusk.

"You're quiet."

"And you're--" Frodo craned his neck as Merry padded across the room to refill his glass, "--you're set on drowning quite a bit of woe, it seems, and before supper at that."

He'd used the teasing tone that was fond custom between them, but when Merry turned back, Frodo's smile faltered into a frown. His cousin stared straight at the fire with an odd darkness in his eyes, but then his quick gaze shifted to the window.

"Rain may fall and wind may blow, and many miles be still to go," Merry quoted in a lowered voice. "Cheers!" He tipped the glass back for a long swallow and strolled over to sit beside Frodo on the bench.

"That did not sound altogether cheerful," Frodo said slowly. "Miles to where, Merry?"

Merry tossed up his hand with a rough chuckle. "It's only a silly old song."

The silence that inched up between them bore a chafing edge, and Frodo pursued it with a sidelong look. There was a storm brewing on his cousin's brow if he'd ever seen one, but Merry could be extremely stubborn about matters he wanted to keep to himself. "For all that you accuse me of brooding quite frequently," Frodo said at length, "you're rather good at it yourself."

Merry took another long sip from his glass. "I'm only... tired."

"Tired of what? You've spent all day plundering my kitchen and wallowing in the bath!" Frodo leaned to cuff him gently, but if the gesture drew the glimmer of a smile, it was quick to pass again.

"Of... well, life closing in around me with duties and obligations, I suppose. Do you ever feel that, Frodo?"

"I do." He rose to pour himself some of the famous Bolger brandy. "I'm not as idle as all that."

Merry eyed him doubtfully when he returned to the bench, firelight sparkling off his glass. "No insult to Bilbo and all the respectable Masters of Bag End before him, but being the heir to Buckland isn't quite what--"

"No," Frodo agreed at once, "and Bilbo didn't officially name me his heir until he left. He had his reasons to prefer life in such a quiet corner of the Shire, too."

"To good old Bilbo's wisdom!" A short grin lifted one corner of Merry's mouth. "Dad believes that a day not spent busy as a bee is a day wasted. The Master of Buckland needs to understand -- or better, command -- all the trades that provide our keep. Mashing the grapes may be fun, but sheep-shearing and mulching and draining cheese curd?" Merry wrinkled his nose and emptied his glass in a single swallow. "I'm supposed to be back in time for the boar hunt, no less. My coming of age is two years away, but he heaps on more every month."

"You used to get excited about joining the hunt," Frodo remarked, "and organising those splendid parties afterwards, if only to the end of causing the more mischief."

As ever, Merry seemed to grow through contradictions. Only the year before, Frodo had listened to his eager plans for improving Buckland's yield of crop; now the mention of his preoccupation would most probably cause him to bristle like a rebellious tween.

"S'pose I did," Merry muttered, and set his empty glass down on the rug.

"It will be easier when you're of age and free to choose your own responsibilities." Frodo set a hand to his shoulder, rubbing it lightly.

"Oh, but there are days when I want to get away from it all..." Merry sagged low and dropped across Frodo's lap with a soft snort. "I envy you, you know."

Frodo looked down at the curly head, his mood swaying somewhere between exasperation and concern. At this moment, Merry reminded him very much of the seven-year-old he had been when Frodo moved to Hobbiton; even then, he'd claimed cuddles when you least expected him to.

"Well, Saradoc doesn't keep you from tramping all over the Shire, at least, and spending entire months in Tookland." Frodo ruffled his cousin's curls, studying his expression from a canted angle. Merry loved his liberties nearly as much as Pippin did, but Frodo could not shake the thought that there was something else twisting and turning behind Merry's furrowed brow, clouding his eyes when he gazed across at the fire.

"I know Dad means well, and I don't mean to disappoint him either, but--" Merry snorted again, more annoyed this time. "If it wasn't for Mother, he would pick a wife for me too. I know he's already looking." He turned his face towards Frodo's thigh, rubbing his cheek against it. "Every lass from the old families that ever--"

It was the merest rustle of sound that snapped Frodo's glance to the open door. Sam stood with a stained sifting-cloth gripped tightly in both hands, an edge of fire-sheen touching his face. Sudden heat stung Frodo's face, and his breath dropped.

"Yes, Sam?" Merry lifted his head a bit, his tone brighter than before. "What can we do for you?"

"Nothing, sir, I was just--" Sam detached one hand from the cloth and left it dangling. "I'm done with the syrup, and I've set out all you'll be needing for supper. I'll be goin' home then."

"Regards to your father," Merry said jovially.

"I--" Whatever he might have said crumbled to a croak in Frodo's throat. For another moment he sat frozen, caught and stunned by the hurt in Sam's eyes that Merry could not see. Then he grabbed his cousin's shoulder, nudging him aside as he rose, but Sam had already disappeared into the smial. In his haste, Frodo almost stepped into his empty glass and sent it skidding and rolling on the rug.

"Frodo?" Merry had scrambled up as well, frowning at him while he rescued the glass. "What's this sudden fret?"

"I forgot--" Frodo gathered his breath and heard the front door fall to with a dull thud. "I have to talk to Sam. I'll -- never mind."

He was running before he'd reached the hall. The cold slammed into him the moment Frodo opened the door, but he couldn't waste time with putting on a coat, and his face seemed to burn all the more for it. Sam was trudging down the path where the shadows had grown deep enough to melt into each other.

"Sam, wait!" Frodo's breath gusted white in a thick puff, clouding his sight, so that he couldn't see if Sam turned to his call. The sand rasped cold under his feet as he skidded down the path.

"Sam... don't go." He breathed out again, and Sam had stopped to face him, but a throng of rushed questions seemed to clash into each other and all Frodo could say was, "I don't understand."

"I'm sorry, Mr. Frodo." Sam looked at the ground, not at him, and his tone was formal as it had not been in weeks.

"Don't be." His chest ached, and not from the cold air alone; a sudden, aimless anger shot through it. "Just -- just tell me what--" Frodo gestured helplessly, though Sam's eyes were still averted. His shoulders settled on another breath.

"I walked in this morning to see to your breakfast and I thought... I thought I'd go in and wake you, but then--" Sam paused, and when he spoke again a moment later, his voice had steadied. "I couldn't help but notice Mr. Merry's bedroom door standing wide open, begging your pardon, and he'd not been sleepin' there neither."

Aghast, Frodo stared at him. "You couldn't possibly think that Merry and I would -- that we would, well..."

"I wasn't thinking on it, Mr. Frodo. I tried hard not to." Sam's breath curled up, pale before his shadowed face. "Just... that he's every bit of what I'm not, you understand."

"No," Frodo said sharply, "no, I don't."

"Maybe not... but I could," Sam returned in that strangely restrained tone, confusing him further. "There's some as match and some as don't, or so my Gaffer might say."

"Sam!" Frodo shook his head and snatched a breath as if it might calm him. "If this means that I should look for a match among Brandybucks, I rather doubt that your Gaffer would agree." The note of humour he'd been groping for dried to dust in his mouth. "I thought," he tried again, "I thought we had left that behind us. Whether or not the whole Shire would object, my choice is my own. Nothing is so important as the choices we have both made."

Sam met his eyes then, for a long and thoughtful look. "Aye, but you've a world to choose from, and you've been born and raised to the choosing, what's more."

Frodo bit his lip against the sting he didn't wish to feel, against the hot protest that wanted to burst forth. Balance, he thought desperately. Am I only fooling myself?

He closed his eyes, but the ground still seemed to tilt slightly under his feet. "Yes, I know." He looked up out of thickening shadows, and there was Sam, standing his ground, though the hurt fairly blazed from his eyes. "If I can make it easier for you..." Frodo longed to reach out a hand, but a touch might be the very last Sam wanted at this moment. His expression was tightly drawn and distant in ways Frodo had never seen before.

"I don't know as you can." Sam walked a few steps as if pacing out his thoughts. "See, Mr. Merry's got the right to come by any time and sleep in your bed or put his head in your lap, and I don't." He turned back with a shrug. "Not but what I knew that right off, and I shouldn't mind it neither. If there's a hobbit deserving friends and kin as care the world for him, it's you. But they're your family, Mr. Frodo, and you're having to hide me from them... that's what I'm putting you through, though I never meant to."

"It's what I'm putting us through," Frodo disagreed with instant vehemence. "Even though I could guess that your father would not approve, I let you face him -- worse, I selfishly wanted you to, so that we could have more time together." He took a halting step forward. "And I said not a word to Merry myself."

Across the short distance, he could see a change take Sam's expression, softening it to sorrow or regret. "I don't rightly belong here," he said in a lowered voice. "It's so easy to forget when it's only you and me... but the more I fall into thinking I have a right to--" His eyes flickered aside for a moment, "--that I've a right to you, Mr. Frodo, the harder it'll be in the end."

"So, the more you claim, the more you stand to lose?" Frodo closed the remaining distance then, before it could become unbearable. "Do you ever think that I might be afraid of losing you, too?"

"But -- you couldn't!" Sam blurted, his eyes grown wide. "I'm... I'd never leave."

"Perhaps not, but I can't be more certain of that than you can be of me." At his back, Frodo heard the creak of the front door, grating on frozen hinges, but a multitude of thoughts were tumbling about his head right then, and none so important as reassuring Sam. "We can only trust--"

"Frodo?" Merry's muffled call floated down from the front porch.

"I did ought to be going," Sam said instantly, but Frodo grabbed on to his shoulder.

"Go back inside, Merry!" he called without looking. Perhaps they were hidden from view by the row of tall barberry shrubs and perhaps not, it didn't matter one bit. Frodo placed both hands on Sam's shoulders and took a hard breath to dispel the clutching anger at himself. "I want you to... presume, Sam. I want you to know that you have a right, a claim on me. What can I do?"

Sam shook his head softly, but the disbelief in his eyes faded into something brighter. Through the padding of his overcoat and jacket, Frodo felt what might have been a short tremor. "Oh, nothing," Sam murmured. "'Long as you look at me like this, I won't never ask another thing."

What quivered on his mouth didn't equal half a smile, Frodo supposed, but relief pierced him with white needles and nearly drained his breathing. "That won't do, Sam." His voice shook a bit too, not that he cared. "And even if you don't ask..."

Sam's hand had risen to his arm as if to steady him and slipped to the back of his shoulder when Frodo moved forward. The mist of their breathing mingled in the close span between them, a moment before their lips met, strange and clumsy with the biting cold. Hesitant warmth curled into it as Sam breathed out again on a quiet, startled sound. Through it, Frodo heard the front door rattle.

"You're getting awful cold!" Sam wrapped both arms around him, pulling him close against the warmth of his body.

"Not now." Frodo dropped his head against Sam's shoulder and smiled into the weather-roughened wool of his coat. "You're my love, Sam, you -- and no-one else. And I want you to know that I would never even look at another..."

He would have said more, but Sam's hand lifted his chin, a high gleam catching in his eyes.

"Oh, Frodo..."

He might have been prepared for the breath that poured out in a warm rush, but when Sam's mouth covered his own, Frodo found he wasn't in the least prepared for the deep fervour of Sam's kiss, or the surge of heat in his own chest. I didn't know how afraid I was. But that passed, or turned to longing as Sam took his face in both hands, and Frodo opened to the urgent pressure of his lips, returning breathless murmurs for the wanting that claimed him.

When they finally parted, he breathed it again, only to hear it and see the joyous, dark glow it brought to Sam's eyes. "I love you."


His heartbeat was yet less than steady as he closed the front door behind himself. Frodo rubbed his arms through chilled shirt-sleeves and could still see Sam vault lightly over the garden gate, to disappear into the drowning dimness of the Row.

"Frodo?" Merry stood by the fire when he strode back into a parlour, his grin wide with anticipation. "Back already?"

"Yes, I'm back," Frodo answered curtly, and his stomach pulled tight again.

Merry studied him from the side. "Well now, this is a surprise! You may not realise it, dear cousin, but you've gained quite a reputation for being the most aloof of bachelors there ever was. Or at least since Bilbo disappeared from competition."

Frodo picked up his glass and stalked over to the table. "For all the gossip that goes around, there is a lot that people do not see."

"Oh, I had noticed that you've grown awfully attached to Sam, but I never thought..."

The tone of barely contained amusement started a crawl of heat at the back of Frodo's neck. "You could have had the decency not to watch!"

"I was concerned, Frodo," Merry defended himself. "It looked as if you were having a little row there, and that seemed very odd to me. Sam never argues with you."

"He does, when I do something thoughtless or outright stupid." Frodo set his glass down hard and unstoppered the brandy bottle.

"Does he now?"

A chuckle burred out of Merry's chest, a low, provocative sound, and Frodo wheeled back, glaring at his cousin. "What are you laughing at?"

Merry spread his hands before him. "Don't be so flustered! You're not the only one who invites the help into the bedroom on occasion."

"No." Frodo's fingers tightened on the unfilled glass. "But that is not how it is with us." Against the fire's brightness, he could see the humour drain from Merry's face, overtaken by a start of puzzlement. "Even if Sam would not share my bed, I would wish to share as much of my life with him as I can. He means more to me than you can possibly know."

Merry stared at him with arched eyebrows, speechless for a longer time than Frodo had ever known him to be.

"But--" Merry's mouth stayed open as he groped for words, "Frodo, that's..."

"Oh, go on and say it!" Frodo returned sharply. "Ridiculous? Impossible?"

"It is one thing to bed a handsome lad like your Sam, and another to go on and pretend you'll be married."

"What do you know?" Frodo struggled to keep his tone level and failed, ripe anger flaring up inside him. Of course, by the yardstick of plain hobbit sense -- "I don't suppose I can explain it to you. This isn't Brandy Hall, and my life here--"

"Yes, I can see you're in need for company and why you would look to Sam," Merry cut in, his tone more scathing in turn. "He's sensible and smart enough, not to mention the reliable help you need to keep your household in any resemblance of order." His brows drew together over a troubled glint in his eyes. "Frodo... I don't think you know how you can be at times. Your mind wanders, and it departs on very long rambles occasionally. One moment you're paying attention to those around you, and the next... Translating from the Elvish and studying ancient history is all well and good, but there are times when I wish you'd put that mind of yours to work in the present."

"And who but Sam would put up with that," Frodo concluded, his voice low and tight. "That is what you are trying to tell me, isn't it?"

"You've known him since he was a wee lad toddling after his father, and he worships the ground you walk on. Sam is in no position to correct or to question you."

"That's where you're wrong." Frodo took a step forward, holding his cousin's stubborn gaze. "Sam has grown up and grown into his own mind and heart."

"He's your servant and--" Merry gestured impatiently, "--and a peasant, even if he learned how to read and write."

"Don't be such a lout!" Frodo snapped. "What is it to you anyway? I didn't ask for your approval."

"No, but I have been trying to talk to you," Merry said irately, "but somehow I never have your full attention!"

Tell me now, Frodo thought, though of course that was quite impossible, now that Merry wore such a look of angry distress. After staring hard at Frodo for another moment, he swung aside and dropped into the armchair with a mutter.

Oh, it's useless! Frodo heard. He glanced down at the glass he still held and decided to fill it after all. When was the last time they had shouted at each other like this? Frodo swirled the amber liquid with a bottomless giddy feeling. His anger faded into a murky tangle of disappointment and regret, twisting and uncoiling in the lonely crackling of the fire.

"Merry," he started, "it can't be all that strange to you. I thought you cared about your lad at Brandy Hall--"

"Hal," Merry threw in. "What about him?"

"I saw him enter your bedroom of evenings, and I overheard some talk among the kitchen staff."

Merry leaned his chin into his hand, his eyes wandering restlessly. "I know there's gossip, and I suppose our entire staff believes..." He pulled his feet up on the seat and wound his arms round his knees. "Oh, let them. Hal is a sweet lad, and it's a comfort to curl up together as Pippin and I used to. That's all there is to it."

Frodo stepped to the hearth and picked up the poker to stir at a log's smouldering remains. A sense of isolation descended on him that he'd not known for many years, and it stung harder than he would have anticipated. He ought to make another effort, Frodo told himself. Surely Merry would at least understand --

"What would you do if Pippin happened to be your gardener?"

Merry stared at him a moment, cheeks already darkening, before he glanced aside. "Then he probably wouldn't be Pippin, would he? He wouldn't be the same person."

Frodo let out a long breath, as if he could release his frustration with it. There was obviously no sense in pursuing this line of argument, but Merry's face revealed such a measure of unease that a fresh flock of questions sprang to mind.

Frodo lowered himself on the bench, leaning his shoulder against the backrest so that he could observe Merry's response. "Why are you here? Or perhaps I should ask, why aren't you on your way to Tuckborough? It has been a long time since either of you visited me by himself."

Merry flung out a hand. "Times change, Frodo."

But only a thin veneer of careless dispassion remained; beneath it he seemed close to desperation. When nothing more was forthcoming, Frodo took a sip of brandy in the hope that it would settle his voice. "Do you know what it is that you are looking for?"

"Perhaps not."

Silence lingered as Merry gazed into the fire, his fingers fretting at his trouser seams. After a while, Frodo held out his brandy glass and his cousin took it, raising it for a quick swallow.

"There are days when I wish only that I could forget and be myself again. And others when--" Merry's jaw strained as if to hold the words in. "He breaks my heart. It's... oh, he owns me, and he knows it."

"Nobody owns another, Merry, unless you want him to."

For a moment his cousin looked ready to protest, then he rubbed the ball of his thumb over his forehead, fingers raking with rough impatience into his curls. "Pip's too young to make such a choice," he said finally.

"What kind of choice?"

"He won't come of age for another ten years!" Merry continued as if he hadn't heard. "There are good reasons why we're not supposed to make certain commitments before that time -- though watching Dad, you wouldn't know it." He thumped his fist against the padded arm rest. "He's twenty-three, Frodo. At that age, I had no idea." His voice tightened to a hoarse whisper. "I couldn't stand it..."

"But--" Frodo waved a hand as he searched for the right words. "The two of you have always been so close. What if Pippin understands better than you think?" His mind flashed to an evening in early October and the riddle for which Pippin had known no answer.

Merry shook his head. "Oh, I know Pippin has his wits all tucked into the right places, even if he doesn't always show it. But whatever he may or may not understand, he has to discover it in his own time. I won't stand in the way of that."

Frodo watched him closely, but the stubborn tilt of Merry's chin was all too telling. "Then you shall simply have to wait," he said finally. "I know how difficult that can be, but there are times when it's worth it."

Merry slanted him an uncomfortable sidelong glance. "You mean, you... you waited for Sam?"

"Not quite like this, no. I never permitted myself to think that we would--"

"But you could have just asked him!"

"And like a good and loyal servant, he would never have denied me. That, dear Merry, is my point." A bitter note had edged into his voice, and Frodo tried to soothe it with a straightforward question. "What is it that bothers you so?"

Merry pursed his lips and held Frodo's eyes evenly, though a little heat began to show along his cheeks. "If you put your mind to it, and your charm -- yes, Frodo, you have a considerable amount of it, so don't look at me like this! -- well, you'd never lack agreeable company. I could name a few who still mourn that you've sworn yourself to a bachelor's life. But instead--"

"I did not settle on Sam because no-one else would have me," Frodo interrupted. "But if you are saying that I'm too good for him, then I'm afraid he would agree. More than that, he's in a far more precarious position than I am."

"Is he?" Merry threw him a blank look, as if he'd been jolted from the middle of his thoughts.

"He heard worse about it from his father than I did from you, I'm sure," Frodo said soberly. "Why, what were you thinking? That Sam would take advantage of me?"

Merry shook his head mutely and tugged at the ruffled curls that fell into his forehead. "I hadn't really -- well, Sam always knew where his place is."

"His place is with me now." Frodo clenched his fingers around the edge of the bench; it seemed they were moving in circles, and renewed irritation stirred against his forced calm. "I have no intentions of announcing my private affairs to everyone in the Shire, nor indeed to everyone in the family. But you -- you and Pippin are my closest friends, and if you can't respect my choice, then--"

"Give me a moment, Frodo!" Merry flung a hand up, waving it weakly. "You've just... caught me by surprise." He stretched his legs and slumped a bit in his seat, but the furrows on his brow didn't ease by half.

The fire was flickering low in the grate, and Frodo decided to let it burn out. Merry needed more than a moment, clearly enough, and the benefits of daylight to untwine his own confusion. When Frodo took the glass and claimed the last swallow that Merry had left, his cousin surprised him with a crooked grin.

"Well, they say the Bagginses are the maddest bunch--"

"--and the Brandybucks the most willful," Frodo retorted, attempting a wry smile. "But this Brandybuck sleeps in his own bed tonight. Let no-one say that I provide less than comfort for my guests."

Merry glanced to the ceiling and muttered something full of exasperation, but his expression grew serious again in another moment. "You know, Frodo, you aren't as lonely as you may think."

"I will gladly take your word for that." Frodo rose, reaching for a taper that would light the way to his bed. For a few more breaths they looked at each other across unfamiliar and uncertain grounds, then Frodo nodded. "Sleep well, Merry."

The silence of the smial lay thick about him as he returned to the familiar emptiness of his bed. Frodo picked a book from the stack he kept close at hand, considering distraction from trying thoughts and memories alike. But other memories found him as soon as he slipped under the cover. From his pillows breathed a fading scent that stirred him where neither caution nor guard remained. Frodo turned his face into the soft linen. Sleep would not come for a while yet.

* * *

A bright sickle of dawn had gathered the lower curve of the kitchen window, playing up against the strong line of Sam's shoulder. Frodo paused in the doorway to let the picture sink in fully, until it sprawled at leisure through drowsiness and unthreading dreams.

Sam stood with his back to the door, his attention bent on a batter that would be turned to griddle-cakes or omelettes. Entwined with the rhythmic clatter of metal on earthenware was a low hum that hovered somewhere between song and content breathing. It filled the room with well-being, effortless and entire to itself. But, by the slightest angling of Sam's head, Frodo knew that his presence had not gone unnoticed.

"Good morning," he said when he had moved close enough to catch the whiff of winter air that still clung to Sam's clothes and the warmth of Sam's body eased along his chest.

"Aye, 'tis that, as clear and bright as you could wish for," Sam answered, but the smile he slipped over his shoulder put the fine weather to shame. "Did you sleep well, Mr. Frodo? You're about a bit early."

"Because I missed you," Frodo said frankly, and the busy clattering broke with a jangle. "Does that surprise you?"

"Oh, I..." A low, breathless laugh broke into Sam's answer, and he shook his head. "That did ought to teach me!"

"Should it?" When Frodo shifted forward, he could feel Sam's breath move strongly through his chest.

"Well, if you're in a mood for plain speaking, sir," he murmured, "I miss you so bad of times it's all over my skin, and I'm all the worse for it when you're but a step away. But I never would've said..." He passed a glance backwards, between one blink and the next. "Not to say that it's nobut my skin what's--"

"I know, Sam." Frodo raised both hands to his shoulders and slowly glided them down across Sam's chest, until a rushed heartbeat stormed his fingertips. His smile was half-buried in the thick curls that spilled over Sam's shirt collar, and he closed his eyes. Morning leavened in radiant copper through his lids, though steeped as it was in Sam's breath and warmth, that glow belonged to him more than --

"'Tis all of me, Mr. Frodo." Sam turned smoothly and caught him in a firm hold around the waist. "And seeing as you're set on distracting me, you might as well--"

"Do it properly," Frodo murmured, though the words blurred against Sam's mouth and went under in a jumble of quick breathing. A second waking stole through him, filling with the taste of berries on Sam's lips and fennel-tea on his tongue, with the slow flush Sam's hands dragged down his back and the closer merging of uneven heartbeats. When Sam ended the kiss on a wistful murmur, Frodo felt as if the morning had poured through him with all the fervour and frost of early sunlight. Surely his smile held as much of regret as it did of gladness.

"Never leave a job half-done..." He breathed out slowly. "I have learned that much from you, Sam. But I'm afraid we will have to put this off..."

"I can wait," Sam claimed stoutly, though his eyes revealed less patient hopes, and Frodo could but agree.

"Would you stay for breakfast?" he asked.

"If--if you like."

"I would indeed," Frodo said, quick to notice the little crease forming between Sam's brows. "But you should know that I did have a word with Merry last night. If you'd rather--"

"Oh, but how could--" Sam's arms tightened about his waist, and his startled eyes flew back down to Frodo's mouth. "You told him?"

"It was about time that I did." Frodo intercepted quick protest with a finger across Sam's lips. "So... will you?"

"Aye." It was little more than a breath, warm against Frodo's face, and he would have leaned in for another kiss if he hadn't heard the sound of a door from the back of the smials. His hands made a reluctant journey down Sam's chest before they fell away.

"'Tis neck or nothing now, I reckon," Sam muttered to himself as he reached for the stirring bowl, most probably quoting from his Gaffer's endless trove of bywords.

Frodo cocked an eye at the most tempting line of Sam's neck and smiled when his lingering attention brought a gentle shade of red to Sam's cheeks.

By the time Merry entered the kitchen, they were working side by side, and the first stack of griddle-cakes steamed among assorted jams, scones and a platter of crisply browned bacon.

"Mmm." Merry breathed the floating scents and swept an unsteady glance around the kitchen. "It seems I've arrived in time to help with the finishing touches." He turned expectantly to Frodo.

"I'm not the one giving orders here," Frodo said cheerfully.

Sam set the next pile of griddle-cakes down on the table and wiped his hands against his weskit. "You could toast the bread, Mr. Merry, if you don't mind."

"Oh. Yes." In a whirl of motion, Merry swept the waiting slices from the cutting board and towards the butter churn.

For a while, sounds of sizzling fat, clacking dishes and the fire breathing in the hearth took over, thickening the air. Frodo looked up from soaking tea-leaves in time to catch Merry's sidelong scrutiny of Sam who was presently turning the griddle-cakes with practised flicks of the wrist.

"The weather is finally clearing," Frodo remarked. "We might go for a walk later, and perhaps pay a little visit to Farmer Thorney's pipeweed barns."

"The leaf did ought to do well this year," Sam put in, "seeing as how we've had such a fair summer and all."

"Yes." Merry shuffled the bread onto a plate and surveyed the table. "That reminds me... I should stop in Longbottom on my way home and add another sack to our winter supplies."

"Tea's ready." Frodo slid into his usual seat and captured Sam's gaze long enough to steer him to the chair on his right. "It's a point of honour for the Master of Buckland to outdo the Southfarthing, as you must know."

As Sam sat down, only a hint of tenseness lingered across his shoulders. "I've not had a chance of trying the Buckland weed, so I can't rightly say how it stands up to ours, Mr. Frodo."

"Whether Dad will admit it or not, we've not yet grown a leaf to surpass Southern Star." Merry shrugged. "But we've very humid soil to take into account, and it may be a matter of devising a way to properly drain our fields." Between bites of jam-topped griddle-cake, he continued to describe the Bucklanders' efforts to match the Southfarthing's claim to excellence.

Frodo hid a relieved smile by blowing across his tea. Though Merry and Sam avoided meeting each other's eyes as best they could, no chance observer would have noticed anything out of the ordinary. Sunlight crawled in broad swathes over table and dishes, filling out the lengthening pauses as they all set to tackling their breakfast.

"Ah, this should hold me up for an hour or two..." With a satisfied sigh, Merry dabbed a piece of bread into the remaining sprinkles of blueberry jam on his plate and cast an idle glance towards the window. "But all this talk about pipeweed calls for a good smoke, doesn't it? Now where have I left my--?"

"In the parlour, Mr. Merry." Sam was already out of his seat. "I saw it lyin' on the table when I swept the grate earlier. I'll just--"

"You don't have to," Frodo cut in, a little too quickly, he knew.

"'Tis no trouble at all." Sam caught his eye for reassurance before he turned into the smial.

Merry leaned across the table. "Don't fuss, Frodo," he said in a lowered voice. "I'm not about to order Sam around, but if he offers..."

You don't understand. Frodo bit his lip. Perhaps he was too easily unsettled, too impatient in this matter, and it was but a willful sprite of inherited Brandybuck temper that wanted to glare at his cousin. Within moments, Sam was back and set the missing item firmly in front of Merry.

"Thank you, Sam." Merry pulled a small pouch from his pocket and began filling his pipe. "Dad has some grand plans for the leaf-planting, come spring," he resumed his earlier topic. "He talks about setting aside the entire south slope below the Hall for growing pipeweed. Those grounds have only ever served for pasture until now." His questing glance fell on Sam who'd just sat down again to finish his tea. "What do you think of that idea?"

Sam lowered his cup with ponderous care. "I wouldn't know, Mr. Merry, I've never had no business with the planting on such a large plot of land."

"Why, that's hardly your fault." Merry gestured encouragingly. "Make a guess."

"Not for an undertaking this bold, no honest gardener would," Sam answered gravely. "But if it were me, I'd not turn over all the pasture in one year. If the leaf don't take, you'll want to keep such harm as it's done within limits."

"Interesting advice, Master Gamgee." A first gleam of challenge sparkled in Merry's eyes. "I thought perhaps you'd grown a little more reckless than that."

He leaned back and studied Sam with a look that crawled hot to the roots of Frodo's hair. At the tip of his tongue trembled an instant rebuke that he swallowed with difficulty. Beside him, Sam stiffened noticeably, and Frodo's hand crept sideways on the table as if to wrap itself around Sam's. He barely caught the movement as their fingers brushed together.

"Well, there's reckless, and then there's foolish, Mr. Merry, if you take my meaning." Sam's voice might sound a little strained, but his hand settled over Frodo's within the same breath.

Though he knew Merry was watching them, Frodo could not take his eyes off Sam for a long moment. The morning skimmed pale golden threads across the frank lines of his face, and Frodo could almost feel a tingle where restless worry was melting under the clasp of Sam's hand.

"I do at that." Merry's reply trailed over into a short chuckle, and he reached across the back of his chair to strike a spark for his pipe. It was then that the doorbell sounded a bright jingle.

"Now who might that be?" Frodo turned his hand to give Sam's a short squeeze, then pushed from his chair. The breath he drew washed through him in a long, easing ripple. "I seem to attract surprise visits this month!"

Sam followed him down the smial, out of the same relief or curiosity or merely because --

Their hands met again over the latch, and Frodo paused to smile at Sam before he opened the door. A wave of freezing air rolled in.

"Pippin." His tone betrayed such a complete lack of surprise that his new guest stopped hopping from one foot to the other and merely blinked at him. "Do come in."

"Now that's a welcome!" A smile spread against Pippin's reddened cheeks. "Hullo, Frodo. I smell breakfast."

"We had actually just finished, but I am sure we can--" Frodo broke off to grapple with an armful of chilled young Took.

"I'd expect no less!" Pippin pushed away again and studied him with a pensive smile. "You look... why, as if you're up to some mischief. Doesn't he, Sam?"

"Well, I..." Sam glanced down at the friendly hand that Pippin had placed on his arm. "I wouldn't rightly call it that."

"Wouldn't you?" Pippin swept his cloak off his shoulders and chuckled. But then his glance fell past them, and his expression grew thunderous much faster than Frodo would have thought possible. "So here's where you have been hiding out, Meriadoc Brandybuck!"

"Hiding? Why ever would I?"

Perhaps there was a touch of hoarseness in Merry's voice, unless it sprang from his own imagination. Frodo decided to step out of the way in any case.

"We've been expecting you for two days," Pippin declared. "You didn't think I'd come out all the way to Budgeford to pick you up, did you?"

He'd marched up close enough to Merry to brush noses, but maybe that kept him from noticing the brisk rise of colour in his cousin's cheeks.

"What if I did?" Merry folded his arms.

"Then, Merry mine, I'd have to cure you of a delusion or two." An edge of laughter lightened Pippin's voice as he tipped his head back. "Or teach you how to ask so nicely that I'd even want to take such a long and useless journey!"

"We'll see who's teaching who, Pip," Merry growled, though his expression eased into the start of a smile.

"But not before Pippin has had a decent breakfast," Frodo said resolutely. "Off to the kitchen with you."

* * *

Afternoon tea had stretched pleasantly into cloudless twilight when Pippin finally whisked Merry off to Hobbiton where he'd kept the Thain's carriage waiting. A generous blend of wholesome food, teas and tales had layered the mood with lightness, and by the time they wrapped themselves in their cloaks and scarves, Merry seemed almost as eager as his cousin to be gone. Frodo said his goodbyes with a curious mixture of relief and regret, though he tried not to show too much of either.

On the porch, Merry grabbed him in a brief hug. "I don't suppose you'll visit this Yule, will you?"

"No, but I'll be sure not to miss the spring wedding."

"We will see you in Budgeford then." Merry broke a serious stare to wink at him, his mood changeful as quicksilver. "Both of you, I expect." He turned to clap Sam's shoulder in an awkward manner and strode off after Pippin. A swirl of cloak and a tuneless whistle trailed him down the path.

"And the best of blessings till then," Frodo mouthed after him, though neither Merry nor Pippin would hear it.

The sun had already set behind the Downs, but a watery blue filled the sky, dipping its gleam across the tops of trees and hedges. From the doorstep, Frodo watched and breathed the wintry dusk, as crisp in his lungs as the feel of Sam's presence was warm against his side. The scent of burnt stubble on the fields mingled with the closer odours of baked apples and mulled cider, all of it seeming to sparkle in the air over Hobbiton and the Hill. Close to whistling himself, Frodo followed Sam back into the kitchen.

As they put away the last of the dishes, Sam hummed a song that Pippin had intoned when they went for a stroll after luncheon, never quite making it to Farmer Thorney's barns. Leaning against the cupboard, Frodo watched him move with sure efficiency, replacing pots and pans on their hooks. Sam's humming took him back to the morning's spell of brightness, surrounded him in a dreamy lull. He sank into it, deeper to the bottom of something long nameless, but soft and welcoming as the riverbed under the Brandywine's flow, and he breathed out to say --

"Odd, how bare rhymes so well with fair, when you stop to think on it, Mr. Frodo," Sam remarked while he straightened the dish-cloth and draped it over the back of a chair, "the two being as different as may be."

Home, Frodo thought, a wisp of a name for something that poured so full and potent into his senses. His mind took another moment to run after Sam's comment and catch up to Pippin's playful song. "Not necessarily," he replied, but Sam must have heard the bemusement in his voice.

"'Twas bare trees and fields and such as I had in mind," he clarified after a short pause.

"Of course."

Around them settled undisturbed quiet that extended in every direction, giving room to a subtle, unmeasured change, and Frodo breathed with it a sudden expectation that bound him light-headed to the spot. Of all the things he might have said, a plain and practical question bobbed to the surface.

"Will you go to the wedding party with me in spring?"

Sam raised a hand to rub at his lower lip, and it looked as if he'd stalled an instant yes for the sake of considering custom and manners, finally settling on a cautious, "I've not been invited, Mr. Frodo."

"I daresay the Bolgers will be pleased enough if I invite you as my guest."

"If you say so."

"Though I could certainly ask--"

But Sam stood so very close to him, giving answers with the simple shift of his poise. "I couldn't leave in the middle of planting, but -- I'd be glad to go with you."

No if I may attached itself to that statement. Frodo took his hand, and the words he'd been reaching for were suddenly not needed at all. Sam's fingers linked tightly through his own, and in a blink between them, a decision was made.

"It's dark enough to be--"

"--night already, aye."

"That's one of the season's blessings, I suppose," Frodo offered, running quickly out of breath, "for those who'll--"

"If you've a mind to reave it, so've I, Mr. Frodo." And right then, Sam's voice was pitched darker than the evening's velvet.

Gently flitting sparks danced about Frodo's stomach when they walked down the smial, when Sam all but led him into the bedroom where a fire already burned.

"The last nights have been entirely too long." Frodo looked at his bed as he said this, wondering why the familiar array of plump pillows, cover and bedspread seemed so remote, a pale and clouded picture that belonged to the past.

Whether it was his imagination or the faintest whiff lingering on the air, he could smell lavender, hovering stale above unused beds and dusty linen. The scent raised a distant chill, escaping from carefully sequestered memories. Pockets of silence drawn about his mother's singing, Bilbo's mutters and hums as he pottered about the smial -- "I didn't know how lonely it could be," Frodo said haltingly. "I'd quite forgotten that. Yet now, when you are not here..."

"But I'm always..." Sam's voice lowered with a hint of worry. "Mr. Frodo, I never meant for you to--"

"No, of course not." Frodo shook his head, determined to keep those memories in their appointed place. "And it's not important, merely a matter of getting accustomed... to this."

A soft movement of Sam's hand against his own, untangling to ease their fingertips together, drew his eyes back to a patient gaze. Held, cradled in it, Frodo let relief spread through him with the fire-warmth of the room. With a smile, he reached for Sam's other hand. It did not matter what they would or wouldn't do, only that nothing lay between them now save unfilled time, waiting --

"Do you remember, Sam..." The space between their bodies narrowed as if draining of its own accord, yielding to the clasp of their hands. "How you asked me to kiss you, down by the gate. I would never have..."

Dared? Was that it? Because in all the strayings of his fancy, he couldn't have known --

"Nor me, Mr. Frodo." Sam's glance drifted to his mouth as it had that very night, though with an infinite shading of boldness now. "And I shouldn't have, but for thinkin' you were wanting me to."

"I did. More than even I knew." For all that the memory scurried in Frodo's pulse, his throat seemed to close on it. "Do you see, Sam, it was more..."

Because it had to be unknown, this restless current at the heart of his own wishing, that opened to everything Sam was, unexpected, and only if they could both --

"Always is, for the askin', and not the answers so much." Sam paused, staring off to the side. "Or that's as it seems to me, leastways."

"Yes, Sam. If you would..."

Frodo bent his head, his mouth almost grazing curls that glittered with firelight at the tips, but he stopped there, on the edge of a closeness that wasn't his to command. Near enough then, for Sam's breath to brush a warm path against his cheek, along his ear, barely lifting words -- "Then... take your shirt off."

Frodo shivered with the rough whisper as if the same loss of voice tightened his own chest. He took a step backwards, and although his fingers neither fumbled with his braces nor caught on the buttons, he felt a stiff awkwardness slow them. About to reveal what he couldn't anticipate, his pulse fluttered in the wake of his own hands, and a slow flush travelled all over his chest, as if kindling to Sam's glance.

Frodo kept his eyes on the cloth that fell free from his trousers, tickling his stomach when he raised a hand to brush the shirt off one shoulder, and when it rustled down his arms, his head wanted to snap up, sharp like a question, but he closed his eyes instead.

In the dimness, he could hear Sam breathe, and it was then that he felt the air locked and trapped inside his own chest, for a spell that pounded upwards and quickened with near-inaudible movement. A first touch lit below his ribcage, coaxing the stifled breath to trail with it, to the base of his throat, till it unwound in a thready gasp. Sam's other hand joined where he'd least predicted, flat against his belly, as if something right there demanded shelter. The roughness of Sam's thumb prickled at his navel, and he breathed under the slow touch, into a bewildering hollow that burgeoned and pulled taut.

When Sam's hand cupped his chin, he leaned into the kiss he'd awaited, though it didn't relieve, only drew out further what rose and thinned like an upcast note in a song. It curled against the shape of Sam's mouth, flickered with the tracing of his tongue against Frodo's lower lip, the first probing push that joined their breaths. Frodo wound his fingers into the curls at Sam's nape, aware of his own heartbeats like distant patters of rain driven against a window. Breathing became haphazard, out of turn with the tender swirls Sam's fingers sketched over his chest and side. The hand on Frodo's chin tightened, tipped him back slightly, and a moan spun upward like a flash run through the arch of his spine. Inside one second, so much want had been startled open, and the soft noise that came from Sam's throat answered instantly, losing itself into the lingering kiss.

What he was taking in, through a long ripple of moments, found the oddest places for lodging. Amidst the tightness in his throat, the goosebumps over his ribs, and the quivers circling at the back of his knees, he lost account of all else -- but suddenly his eyes were open again and his breath fanned fast and shallow against Sam's face.

"I--" Frodo made another effort to retrieve his voice. "I shall have to lie down before I..."

Sam didn't say a word -- perhaps he couldn't -- but his eyes followed with full intent when Frodo stretched out on the bed that stood a short step away, cloudy cool under his bare back. Half-settled, he raised a hand to pull Sam along, but his fingers closed on air, missing swift movement just as he missed a breath --

The bed dipped under him as Sam straddled his thighs and with the most serious look leaned over to continue what he'd begun. Guiding the cadence of a breath that grew ragged as his fingers rose and travelled with it. Solid against that edge of breathing, Frodo felt the weight that pinned his legs to the mattress, and the small shivers that crawled in his thighs, spinning a loose pattern to meet with Sam's caress at his waist, to join the stiffening heat where no touch had yet settled.

A soft sway of firelight filled the air and seemed to gather about him, but Frodo didn't close his eyes again. A gasp fled sharply when the rough pads of Sam's thumbs stroked across his nipples and his skin took to the touch in flintsparks, flying in one swift leap to the pit of his stomach and deeper still. His eyes pursued the course of Sam's fingers, into countless memories of watching him lost to his work, whether sun, wind or rain poured about him. Such a tender awe in his hands, guarding each season's loveliness as if unaware of their own part in making it grow, of their simple strength. And to deliver himself into those hands --

"What shall I do with you?" Half a murmur, and a flutter of restless light trailed the breaths heaving through Sam's broad chest, the tensing of muscles under his shirt, as if there was a hidden force shackled behind the careful touches he was giving Frodo.

"Sam..."

Mostly hiss and no sound, it escaped through his teeth, then Sam leaned deep, his mouth catching Frodo's breaths where they welled in broken starts. Frodo blinked against a jab of flame over Sam's shoulder, hopelessly dazzled while his hand scrabbled down and landed on one of Sam's knees, snug beside his hip. Blunt fingertips skimmed along the waistline of his trousers, only to brace a mindless motion with a firm press against his hips.

"...nothing. Everything." Frodo's chest hollowed with the rush of another gasp. This was how Sam had meant to touch him all along, and he hadn't endured it. Every moment, every brush to his skin did not pass but added its fire, massing and simmering till he was filled with waiting to the edges of his skin. Holding still became an effort, laboured in his breathing, and every touch equaled a bright guidemark, weaving his pleasure through the longing that thrummed in Sam's fingers, given, taken, in one endlessly gentle sweep. As he watched the light run and leap over Sam's shadowed form, Frodo wished he'd brought a candle to shed its clarity on Sam's face.

"Better if I can..." He summoned clumsy movement to push up, balancing on one elbow to pluck the braces off Sam's shoulders. "Please, let me see you."

Sam took his hand and kissed it to make much quicker work of his own shirt buttons. A slip of flame crept into the homespun that unfurled, swung out from Sam's shoulder and dropped.

"You are..." Frodo's eyes found the soft dip of a smile, the edge of a lowering glance, "far lovelier than I can ever tell you."

What Sam gave in answer was no longer protest or doubt, but breathless and joyful when he dashed a kiss to Frodo's chin and eased him back, twining them into a closer hold.

"Here..." Nestled against him, Frodo slipped a kiss to the firm jut of a collarbone, but his fingers swept up, blind to everything but the curve of Sam's mouth, the smile that bloomed so readily. He had to reach now, shelter the raw wonder entrusted to his hands, answer it -- "Here... and--" That Sam should still tremble to his touch was a beautiful mystery by itself, riddling its threads down to the pit of his belly. "But even all of it put together, Sam... it doesn't explain..."

Poor as his scattered words might be, the taste of Sam's lips on his opened and melted them into stinging pleasure. His fingers skimmed down Sam's back, and perhaps his hands would yet learn to speak better of -- no, to the living marvel of tremors sliding beneath the skin, of pure, giving warmth that he couldn't match for a lifetime's trying.

Under his rapid heartbeats clenched a small, strange hurt, awaiting its chance to burst open. Frodo pulled a breath in to the limits, as he had on his first day of learning to swim. His arms tightened over Sam's back and around his neck, and the same tautness strained clear through his body, drawn as a blade --

"Mr. Frodo, what--?"

He fought for breath, for sense to say, "Must you call me that, even now?"

"Oh, truly, it ain't like--"

So near him, Frodo could feel the storm of a heartbeat awhirl in Sam's chest.

"What you said about choosing... See, if I'd ever wanted to, I could've gone and..." Sam breathed out, his voice slow to lose its husky tinge. "The Bracegirdles from Overhill told my Gaffer more'n once they'd take me on straightaway, but I wouldn't have it."

"They did?" Vague thoughts scrambled after the family that Bilbo considered dull beyond reason, but Frodo couldn't summon a grudge against the caress raked with firm purpose along the length of his back.

Sam dipped his head, his breath falling in a tender drift against the crook of Frodo's neck. "I chose you, long ago, to be my Mr. Frodo... whether or no I had a right to it."

A twinge of regret stung Frodo's cheeks, only to disperse in the lighter tingle of Sam's lips at his earlobe. "You did. You do."

Between watered shadow and heartbeats that pounded in fierce isolation, his voice carried only to the hollow of Sam's throat.

"...and it's a frightful thing, that is," Sam murmured, "the choosing and the holding more so."

"Is it?" But he didn't need to ask that, when only the night before --

"Like chasing for a rainbow in a hailstorm." Sam's arm wrapped a little more tightly around his waist. "And worth all the trouble in the world."

"I shall certainly try--"

"You don't need to." A thick, hazy murmur filled the space between them.

Over his back played the warm draught from the hearth, though it seemed feeble against the closer warmth of Sam's skin, steady as a sun lit only to shine on him. Frodo's breath caught when he looked into Sam's eyes, clear as the deepest part of night, holding him there, taking him in. "But I would still -- let me show you how..."

A choked sound leapt into his throat, but his hands were quicker than that, certain now to find all the places that beckoned to him, to discover anew the small shocks of pleasure that startled these shivers over Sam's chest. His fingers wandered with stray shimmers that laid a copper mist across the down on Sam's forearm, and before they'd reached his shoulder again, the need to capture Sam's mouth with his own grew too fervent to deny.

A rough gasp answered the sweeps of his tongue, and his own followed quickly when Sam's grip eased into a slow glide down the back of his thigh, wrapping him more tightly into their uneven tangle. Frodo held in a cry, but his hands wanted to fly everywhere at once, from the stretch of Sam's thigh to the delightful padding of his belly, to the loose curls looped about his ear. If his touch could convey how this felt, how wonderful and suffusing only to hold, to know... Sam's breaths rose tighter against his chest and left just enough room between their mouths to whisper, "There, do you see?"

"I do, more than--"

So breathless, Sam's voice, demanding a kiss far hungrier than the last. Frodo shifted forward until -- ah, there -- yearning heat brushed hard and full against his thigh. A swift pang went through him when Sam moaned softly, a fragment of his name lost to the fervour that swelled and stretched into every unclaimed space. How would I bear it to be alone again? Everything in his skin burned to be in touch with Sam's, but to discard the rest of their clothes would mean to move away -- and the thought scrambled when Sam's hand crept on, pressing a slow path down from the small of his back to cup and squeeze, when Sam's thigh slid between his legs, and the crinkling of his trousers sent a prickle higher than the teasing friction.

Frodo gasped with the trembling pressure that thickened, rose -- up and up, surging to meet, to breach -- but it faltered and stumbled where no bounds remained. Only desire and a weightless, sauntering joy, his own sewn and woven into Sam's, one and the same. Then there was a moment when Sam clasped his hand to his breast, only to look at him.

"I don't--" Sam breathed shakily, pushing the words out against blind wonder.

"Believe?" And if he had guessed right, then surely he should -- "That I love you, that I--"

"That this -- oh, you're the most beautiful..."

"Not a dream, Sam, you said so yourself." Half through his reply, Sam's fingers strayed past all the obstructing crinkles to the front of Frodo's trousers and the words lost their shape in his mouth. The simple touch, down and up again in a flicker of fingertips, seared through him and reached so far past pleasure that he bucked and clutched at Sam's shoulder. "Now, you'd better not..."

"Oh, and I thought you were wishin' to prove..." Whatever Sam might have added broke off into laughter, thick and rich like honey, made heady by the sound of his voice. And Frodo's joined freely, though short of air and reason, hitching above the gentle weight of Sam's palm against his stomach.

"That I am... entirely unable to resist?" Though Sam's fingers had retreated apace, fretful echoes clenched in his belly, and Frodo remembered how it had seemed like a distraction he couldn't afford, that first night. "Oh, I -- Sam..."

If there is anything left to prove. He bit his lip and listened into a moment's stillness.

Sam watched him, alert in an instant. "Tell me."

Afraid. A waning chill, released to Sam's touch, the strength of his arms, the gentleness in his eyes.

"I was afraid last night," Frodo admitted, "that I could still lose--"

"Never," Sam breathed, "don't never think that, I--"

"--promise," Frodo whispered back.

If he'd expected something dark, fearful and lonely to crawl out of hiding after all, to claim Sam against chance and change, only boundless surprise remained. What he'd longed to see lay here, open and bared to his fingertips, measured in wild heartbeats, running like a dark river through the circle of his arms.

He needed only to feel it, loud in the battering of Sam's heart to the wall of his chest, alive in every stretch and easing of muscle, in his low moans when Frodo's fingers teased a path through the sweat-damp curls on his chest and Frodo's mouth fastened over a tripping pulse at Sam's neck. A steady surging against him, around him, cradling the small, breathless sounds he made when Sam's hand brushed down past his waistline and settled into firmer strokes. Frodo arched his back, and long moments unraveled into wordless pleading. Reluctant awareness returned to the tug of Sam's fingers on a button. But when Sam leaned up and away to divest him properly, it wasn't important enough to lose --

"No," he gasped, stopping the motion with a kiss to the corner of Sam's mouth, "no, don't let go."

In a grappling of hands and stubborn intent, they managed to strip the confounded cloth out of the way after all, enough for Frodo to kick the tangle down over his feet. Though his own fingers weren't possessed of enough sense to unfasten Sam's breeches in turn and clenched helplessly on his hip instead, they startled another sweet gasp from Sam. And for all the want of air, Frodo couldn't seem to let go of his mouth either. Between gentle thrusts of the hip and the coaxing of Sam's hand -- oh, like this -- he moved into a rhythm that welled from his middle in urgent, aching flares. Sam's tongue traced slow heat through his mouth, and he was breathing as hard into the kiss. Only to be with you, to be...

Change had grown fast within him, sprung up like the wild and free joy he'd known only as a child -- on a race through a wheat-field with the crops swaying a good ell above his head, wayward stings of sunlight falling through his curls and his arms flailing -- and the image was blinked aside as fast as it had risen, to leave only Sam and the faint scent of earth that always lingered about him. Always. A leap of heartbeat like a distant memory of pain.

In a mingled rush of gasping breaths and broken words, he dropped kisses all over Sam's face, from his eyebrow to the dip between his lower lip and chin.

"You... you're--" Frodo let himself fall back, and drew Sam down against him, "It had to be you."

The last of it fractured on a sharp moan when Sam moved into his open arms, stretched out over him and pressed close between his thighs. Heat to begging heat, muted only by the uncomfortable rub of cloth between them. Frodo wormed a hand down to attempt what he should have considered before, buttons yielding finally when Sam lifted up to yank his breeches down just enough --

A sob wrenched from his throat or Sam's, joined and loosened into a simple rhythm. With a purpose of their own, Frodo's fingers slid down again, over the pulse straining through silken skin, dark and vivid as the love in Sam's eyes. He could have laughed or cried with the sheer freedom that rose inside him, that opened wider each time Sam met his stroking with thrusts of his own. So fierce and consuming that -- "I can't -- I need..."

"Oh, but you can." So soft a whisper, it seemed to skim between his own thoughts, prising them apart to make room for --

"Hold me, keep me..."

"Aye, love."

Less than sound, a secret guarded between their mouths, till a groan escaped Sam and scoured a path from Frodo's chest to his groin to the very centre. And to feel what his hands could do, that every touch he gave drew ragged sobs from Sam, his eyes squeezed tightly shut --

"Frodo... do you know how--"

Perhaps he didn't, but it poured through him, closer than thought, in the writhe and push of Sam's hips, brought to a blooming, aching crest that sharpened for a near-unbearable span. Everything you want, what ever you need...

Frodo's head fell back and his mouth opened on a single, harsh breath that refused to come till Sam's hand cradled his face.

"Sam... I love you more every--"

"Every day--" voices merging between parted lips, "--every moment."

A higher colour rose into Sam's cheeks. "Oh, I know... and too long's the time I didn't."

Frodo held his eyes, his senses full with the trembling of Sam's hand against his face, the sliver of fireglow that fell through Sam's curls against his cheekbone, traced on his sight like a lodestar. "But now -- now we can..."

"...together." Radiant joy, awash on Sam's face -- had he truly brought it there? -- and it struck into him with the same beautiful lightning, caught and rooted to his name -- "Frodo... Frodo..."

And to be there -- in one driving movement when Sam's mouth closed over his own and gasped a desperate breath into him -- nothing in me that isn't you -- released and releasing. Frodo trembled with the burst he'd been bracing for and hadn't the least shred of voice left when it came, in deep, riveting silence that turned his skin to water, to overflow. Flooding all there was, save --

Here, Sam. The pulse between his fingers rolled and tore through him, dimming the sound of Sam's breathless cry, but he could taste it on his own mouth, pure like joy, wet on his hand, between their bellies.

A soft stillness opened up around him, and he breathed the warm scent of Sam's skin like its very beginning.

He'd been whispering something, Frodo thought hazily, though perhaps there were no words in it, just gladness as raw as the aftermath, when they lay panting together, surrounded in a hovering mist that cooled slowly on their skin. He turned his head, breath trailing damp kisses, without caring where they fell.

"Frodo..." Sam leaned their foreheads together, struggling with the catch in his breath to shape another word.

"...with you, love." Frodo stroked his back, too unsteady a caress to be more than a clumsy attempt.

Though Sam's chest heaved as hard as his own, he levered up in a moment, his weight suspended shakily on his elbows. Still uncertain of his voice, Frodo tugged on his shoulders, to cover himself with Sam and shelter the warmth that still shivered and pulsed through him.

"This can't be... comfortable," Sam murmured after a while, through the gaps in his breathing, "me crushing you... like this. I'm heavier'n you, too."

"Mmm." Frodo blew a content sigh against the side of his neck. "I rather... enjoy that." He waited until Sam met his eyes. "Don't you?"

The cloudy glance held an answer that Frodo no longer needed. "But... why?"

"I don't know." Frodo traced a fingertip along the reddened lower lip. "I've never -- it's as if... I'm closer to you than to myself."

Though Sam's answer stumbled over a gasp deep in his breast, he found a way of winding an arm around Frodo's middle and rolling them to the side. His arms locked over Frodo's back, and he buried his face at Frodo's shoulder.

"Sam?" It wasn't half a question when a similar shudder tore at his own breath, shared through skin in the rise and fall of their chests.

"Just... let me..." Muffled against his neck, Sam's voice raised a tingle and a thrill, aimed at his heart without knowing -- "...a moment."

"An hour," Frodo whispered into his curls, "a month, a year, or -- if you will--" But it could go without saying, it had to, when his breath faltered and his fingers could speak far more clearly to the damp curve of Sam's cheek.

Not long, and a smile stirred under his caress, the gust of a sigh sliding through his fingers. "You're a blessing, you are."

"If I am, then..." Frodo paused to slip a kiss to his forehead, "only for you, Sam, and only because of you." A shapeless murmur grazed his throat, protest stirring through drowsiness. "Don't argue now." Soft laughter pricked in Frodo's chest, and his hand stilled against Sam's cheek, moulding another long, quieting sigh.

When he closed his eyes, the contours of Sam's body settled an effortless calm into his senses. Always there, holding, trusting. Complete. Thought eased aside, into languid drifting, until a strange glow swam against his inner eyelids.

Frodo blinked. Like a mist, the shadowed wall, the window and its curtains melted away, and a breezeful of summer slipped in. Unfurling in crisp, bright colours along the slope of the garden, with an impossible spray of starlight in the grass. A breathless feeling stole over him, as if the wind that rose from the grass might carry him off.

Sam? Dizzy at the return of sinking shadows, he twisted with abrupt unease, but it scattered at a touch to his shoulder.

"I'm here."

Frodo opened his eyes to the waning glow from the fire and Sam leaning over him. Only a few moments could have passed.

"I think I... dreamed." Already fading, the remnants spread through Frodo with a pleasant, unravelling warmth.

"Bare and fair," Sam murmured, weaving his fingers down from the damp tangle of Frodo's curls to the side of his throat, surprisingly awake again. "You were right about that too, seemingly."

"About--?" Thoughts too idle to gather meaning floated through his head. Frodo turned his face another inch, which was all it took to brush their lips together. And then, with a delay of hours, he understood what Sam had been telling him earlier, in the kitchen, while his own mind strayed through meanders and byways.

"Oh, I see, yes..." He laughed out loud, and reached with both hands to gather Sam close. "We rhyme, Sam."

* * * * *

Foreyule was barely started and the stack of logs in the parlour down to a scrimp already. Sam blew into his hands and said secret thanks for this winter's blighting cold. It called for a lot of wood-chopping and carrying to keep the smials of Bag End warm, but it kept him tucked away indoors for long hours besides.

He set the short ax next to the pile of cut lumber, breathing the resinous smell as he cast a look about. A ragged snow cover turned the gardens into a patchwork of white and dark brown, spotted with evergreens and the blue afternoon shadows. Among the squawks of crows and magpies, snow-clods plopped to the ground as they slipped off bent branches. Oddly enough the sound mixed well with the slow lilt of Elvish at the back of Sam's head. Frodo had read him a long poem after luncheon, and the pleasure of it still hummed under Sam's breath.

He'd just gathered up the first armful of logs when the garden gate let out an irksome creak. Sam turned to see his Gaffer come striding up the path. Reddened as his nose and cheeks were, he must have been walking a longer distance than the sling-shot up the Row.

Sam hastened to lug the firewood towards the back door, and right enough that was where his dad headed, too. He tipped his head in a wordless greeting that Sam returned a bit stiff in the neck. The Gaffer hadn't come up to Bag End once since --

"Right busy, ain't you, son?" His dad gave him an approving look and tugged on his scarf. "Don't let me keep you off your job. I'm here for a word with your Mr. Frodo, if it suits."

-- and few were the nights he'd spent away from Number Three, fewer than he'd like, at any rate.

"I don't see how it shouldn't." Sam nudged the door open with his shoulder. "He was in the parlour reading when I last looked."

But it turned out that Mr. Frodo had taken himself to the kitchen, brewing rose-hip tea. When he caught sight of them, he called out a greeting and waved for the Gaffer to join him. Sam ducked into the parlour, such a pricking at his eartips like they were straining after the slightest whisper. Well, his dad hadn't said it were personal business not meant for his ears, but he didn't ought to be listening nohow.

'Less I can't help it, Sam amended, when Mr. Frodo's voice rang clear through the open door, inquiring after the state of things down the Row. What he said next wasn't quite so easy to catch, but it sounded like an invitation to tea.

"Oh, 'twouldn't do to bother you, sir," the Gaffer said in his most crisp and courteous tone.

Nowise, you wouldn't. With a sigh, Sam set a fresh log in the grate where only broken remnants smouldered now, and reached for the poker. It wasn't as if the Gaffer had ever taken his tea with Mr. Bilbo, putting his feet under the Master's table, as he called it. That he wouldn't change his custom now didn't mean --

"...I can do for you?" Frodo asked.

"Oh no, sir, you've done enough, you have."

Sam couldn't help flinching at that. If his dad truly thought to berate Mr. Frodo for --

"...thanks be given where thanks is due," the Gaffer finished.

From the kitchen came a soft clink, perhaps a cup set down in its saucer, that swallowed most of Frodo's reply.

"I've heard the tale from Old Noakes, you see," the Gaffer explained. "He says you've gone and stood Farmer Greenholm back in his place, as was well and fair done, Mr. Frodo, if I may say so."

Sam breathed out long and slow. It took another moment till he noticed that the fire was building nicely again. Now that his worries had all gone up in fog, he ought to stack the rest of the fuel where it belonged.

While he kept himself busy, the conversation ran on agreeable in the kitchen; the Gaffer insisting that Mr. Frodo had proved himself to be every inch a worthy heir to his uncle, and Mr. Frodo saying that he didn't deserve praise for what were only his duty.

"Besides," Sam heard him, somewhat closer by the door now, "your Sam gave me some very valuable advice in this whole affair."

The Gaffer mumbled something like That so, sir? -- followed by a pause that stilled Sam's hands again and chased a fretful prickle up his arms. He could hear a shuffling of feet, another clink of crocks and Mr. Frodo clearing his throat.

"Mr. Bilbo was a fine hobbit," the Gaffer said unexpectedly, his voice sounding a bit high, "a fine hobbit and handsome with his good fortune. He never did mind mingling about with lesser folk, neither. You must be missing him somewhat sore."

"I do," Frodo answered, in as soft a tone as should barely carry, but it crept over Sam and sent a small ache scudding through him. "I do indeed."

"Well then, sir, that being so," the Gaffer said slowly, stepping careful with each word, "I'm pleased if my Sam's been a help to ease your lonesomeness, meaning no harm..." He trailed off with an awkward cough.

"I don't mean any either." Frodo's voice had gone a bit tight too. "I never intended to cause your family any unhappiness or distress."

Sam got to his feet, breath scattering on a burst of relief. His dad chuckled a little roughly. "A Gamgee's not born to go running after happiness, Mr. Frodo, but I 'preciate your meaning. You can't say fairer than that."

They were leaving the kitchen when Sam walked down the smial to fetch the next load of firewood.

"Old Noakes would be glad payin' you his respects," the Gaffer was just saying, "save he don't think it proper to come up here hisself. He's still in the habit of taking a cup in the Bush though, if you're in a mind for ale and some company."

"It has been an awfully long time since I've tasted the good brew in the Bush," Frodo answered pleasantly. "Perhaps, if you and Sam would care to join me this evening--?"

As light a tone as he'd managed, it fell into a ringing silence. Sam well nigh held his breath.

"Thank'ee kindly, sir, but..." The Gaffer coughed again. "It's been Marigold's washday, poor lass, and I've supper to see to, so she gets herself warmed up proper. Might come another time though, you never know."

"I should hope so," Frodo returned.

"Aye, well." As if he'd said more than twice enough, the Gaffer nodded and marched off straight to the door.

Frodo went after him, but behind the Gaffer's back he gave Sam a smile as warm and gladsome as his arms round Sam's waist, and a look as loud as any song.

At the back door, he stayed Sam with a light touch to his arm. They watched the Gaffer shuffle down the path, but Sam's eyes took to wandering in a moment. The setting sun were just fetching a sparkle from the snow that danced up and cast a fine glow over Frodo's face, midwinter fair in all the season's stillness. Sam couldn't have looked away for aught in the world.

"If you do that much longer, I shall blush," Frodo murmured without meeting his eyes.

Sam shifted a little closer. His breath steamed in a thick puff against Frodo's ear and slipped along the soft curve of his smile. "Oh, but it suits you."

For answer, Frodo's hand brushed down his arm till their fingers were laced in an easy clasp. They stood like that, just breathing, surrounded all about by the deep wintry silence. Wound through it was the patter of a rhythm like distant laughter or song or maybe just jittering heartbeats. Too much of air and light for words, but when Frodo's smile grew deeper in the quiet, Sam was sure that he could hear it too.


* * * * *

the end (for now)




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