Thanks to Eykar, Calanthe, and Frayach for very helpful and inspiring discussions.

     In the Giving
      by Cara J. Loup

Bag End, Underhill. It had been the name of wonder for as long as he could recollect, and now it was again. Sam closed the garden gate behind himself and set his feet where the slats threw thin shadows across a bare patch of ground. Early light scattered across the side of the Hill and caught everything in its crisp brilliance, so pure that he lost his breath at the sight.

He had to pause and let his eyes take in all the small marvels among the shrubs and flowers sprouting cheerful where he'd planted them – and where he hadn't, too. Every hour of the day brought forth a fresh burst of delights. Only a few paces away, a new cluster of violets raised their faces into the strange, flawless weather, the hyacinths brushed their heavy heads together, and even the last clutch of hawthorn hedge bore blossoms in snow-clods, as it never had at this time of year.

I wouldn't believe it if I didn't see it. The light touched Sam's face with a soft chill seeming to pass through him as he took the first step. Bag End had a garden once again, and such a garden it was as none had ever seen before.

He'd tread softly from here, setting one foot in front of the other on the pale, flat stones that led up to the porch. Some he'd found buried in the mud, and others he'd carried up from the Water or the west side of the Bywater Pool. Each had laid a cool memory to the palm of his hand, and yet each step that he took up the path sent fine shivers through him, as if the ground underneath should unfasten in long waves.

When he raised his eyes away from the stones, Sam could see that the eastern window beside the front door stood open, and the curtain blew in a slight breeze.

Frodo. He's home. His heartbeat leapt as if to seize what he should know to the hollow of his bones. It had been nigh on a week after all. He's home. And I should be too.

Sam walked on slow, letting the breeze gust and falter and stir anew on his skin. He wouldn't miss a moment, nor a single sight. Bared of shade with its dapplings and long ribbons, the Hill's flank rose into the day like newly moulded dough. In the cool, sparkling air, every fresh scent glittered like the sand-grains on the path leading up to the kitchen garden. There was a hidden pulse in the midst of it all, a heartbeat that ran through the air and the soil and the flutter of young leaves.

Sam bent to plunge both hands into the grass that grew in a thick riot, as if he might touch and hold it there. The joy that bore him up like a bright wind soaring, and the pain that bloomed from it in the same sharp measure.

We're home. There shouldn't be such a weariness in him, as if he'd walked a hundred miles up from the Row, nor such a yearning, as if all the world still lay between him and this blessed spot of earth.

He took a step forward to tug a ruff of grass away from the hyacinths. Their speckled blossoms drizzled soft as ash against his fingers, but at the edge of his glance the curtain swayed and billowed. Like an invitation, he might think – if he let his thinking run so far – or a lonely remembrance. Sam turned aside near the steps below the front door and clapped his hands together with a soft smack. There was unfinished work awaiting him by the vegetable patch, and the day wouldn't grow longer for all his pondering.

We're home. Still it stung him with a want for knowing, and that wasn't going to stop.

Never in all the days of wrestling for a decision had he thought that he might wed Rose Cotton and live with Frodo in Bag End, too.

Never would he forget the sharp change in Frodo's face either, and the braced calm that followed. Until Frodo had laughed, a soft sound catching in his throat that might have been relief. But my dear Sam, how easy...

It wasn't, though, and no relief came from that hour. Sam walked across the clumps of coarse grass where the lawn used to be and felt the dew seep between his toes. He'd known from the moment when Frodo asked if he'd been riding all night – no, sooner than that, he'd known when he reached the Cotton farm only to find Frodo gone – that something was wrong. As if he'd taken a false turn in the road, and the daylight touched each landmark at a bewildered angle.

You believed that he knew what he didn't, Sam told himself, and never knew yourself how much he's willing to give. You had it all turned inside out.

The breeze ran cool over his shoulders and tangled in the stalky broom that'd grown back from the knot of sad, trampled sprigs he'd tended since autumn. Early buds peeked from the small leaves in yellow sprinkles. Truly it seemed as if all things were rushing to show themselves in the sun.

He could feel it in himself, and more, each time he glanced at the round windows, their panes so full of light they were blind with it, too. The need to rush where he ought to be, if only he could trace his steps right this time.

I knew, Sam thought, and I didn't. How could it be that both lived within him and never touched ends? But he lost the thought in another moment when he caught sight of the wattle-fence he'd started to put up round the vegetable beds only the day before. A row of stripped, sturdy poles it was, spaced apart a foot to the distance of the big toe, long rods woven back and forth between them in tight layers. He'd left the fence scarce knee-high when evening halted his work, but now the foremost part stood higher by a hand, if not two.

He walked up quickly, a glad disbelief roiling with his breath and through all the colours in the garden, till he could lay his hand on the newly added wickers. They joined in faultless with his own work, and only then could he trust –


Blood rushed into his temples as he swung round. Mr. Frodo stood by his study's open window as though he'd been watching for a while.

"Mr. Frodo." It came out in a startled murmur. All of the Shire ought to see Frodo like this, the keen clarity to his gaze and the gentle will underneath. His eyes rested on Sam for a long moment. "Would you come in?"

As if he needed to ask that – but maybe he did – and between those thoughts Sam managed a quick nod.

As he walked round to the kitchen door, the sun grew hot on the back of his neck like a pressing errant that he carried into the smial's cooler airs. Inside lingered a whiff of candlesmoke, like a soft cloak spread across the edge of older burns. There wasn't a sound to be heard. Bag End seemed to lie in the same fold of quiet as wrapped itself ever more tightly about his own heart.

Sam cleaned his feet in a hurry and shook his head. The quiet was to be expected, now that Mr. Merry and Pippin were on their way to Buckland again, and no villager, farmer or visiting relative had tugged on the doorbell yet.

Mr. Frodo had been patience itself, these last few days, when a steady stream of visitors went up the Hill to deliver good wishes or make requests of the Mayor and Master. Curious they were, too, itching to find out how much Bag End had changed, or how much it hadn't. All the same, Sam had been glad they came to pay their respects, and Mr. Frodo had showed them every courtesy. All his visitors received a warm greeting, a cup of tea if they wished, and a patient ear.

Aye, but there was a quiet beneath his patience that Sam could feel as if he'd set his fingertips to the taut skin of a drum still throbbing at the end of a reel. It was in the thoughtful gaze Frodo bent on him across the parlour, in the cool weight of his hand on Sam's shoulder and every touch found and lost in the busy course of days. A long quiet that waited, that rose like meltwater through the sleeping ground till it could break the skin of the earth.

When he entered the study, Frodo stood by the open window, and so much light glanced off the glass, it made him a shadow, dark as the heart of a candleflame. Sam's breath faltered before he could shape a word. Too near, and too far.

"Do come in." Frodo shifted enough for the light to show his smile in a glimpse of white. He'd moved his desk closer to the window, Sam noticed, and he'd brought in another chair, perhaps to try out this or that spot where he might sit in comfort.

Sam crossed the room with slow, careful steps. At his back, all the sprawling space seemed to crowd together and watch over his shoulder. For all the months he'd spent working to restore Bag End, now he found himself in a place he'd never known before, and naught could hold him there save Frodo's steady gaze.

"I would like to give you something," Frodo said. "Something that I found when I was sorting through these books, last night." He must have missed part of his sleep over it, too. All the candles in the room were burnt down to stubs.

Sam moved nearer to his side, drawn by the need for a touch that seemed to hang between them like a feather caught up in the air.

"You will remember this..." From a stack of books on his chair, Frodo picked up the topmost. When he turned back towards Sam, the book fell open in his hands. Elvish letters ran verse after verse on the age-thinned paper, and a swirled vine enfolded them, opening to a single bell-shaped blossom in the upper right corner. A violet line had been traced inside the brown ink to lend it colour. Not a belladonna blossom, even if its shape was nigh the same, but this one bloomed in layers of petals, the outermost peeling back in a delicate fringe.

"I remember," Sam said hoarsely. And even now there was a tingling in his fingers, the same as when he'd first looked on this book, running his grubby thumb over lilies and roses, and Mr. Bilbo had laughed and said Careful with that! in a tone as unworried as you please. "'Tis the first book Mr. Bilbo let me read, seeing as how it's all about plants and seasons and the poetry in them."

"Yes, and he always called it 'Sam's favourite book'." Frodo placed it in his hands, a solid and familiar weight.

The fine leather told its own story as Sam cradled it, roughened a bit along the spine and worn smooth in the places where it had been held by Mr. Bilbo and Mr. Frodo and many other hands before. But just below his own thumb, his skin prickled and lay empty from the brush of Frodo's fingers. When Sam raised his eyes off the page, Frodo watched him with such a steeled calm, it closed Sam's throat like a fist.

"It should be yours, and – well, it is the kind of book you may wish to show to your children..." Frodo's voice slowed and dropped on the last words, and his hand flew up in a fretful gesture. "I am sorry."

"But there's naught for you to be sorry for!" Sam blurted and couldn't have stopped himself if he'd wanted to.

Frodo's glance fell at that, and trailed along the floor to the hearth, where a close-woven rug ought to cover the stones. "There is, and you must know it. So much that I can't even tell you how or why..."

Sam shook his head. He couldn't bear it, not with this book in his hands, and a weight like years wanting to crush all the air between them.

"But not for this," he said thickly.

The book was a token, he thought now, a mere piece of all Mr. Frodo meant to give, and he'd chosen it with great care so that Sam might begin to believe –

"I'd ought to be minding my manners–" Sam cleared his throat, "–and thank you for such a fine gift, Mr. Frodo, finer than aught I've ever owned."

"It's very little." Frodo swept his hand up and glanced across the piles of books and maps as if he might give away every single one. Sam closed the book in a rush, setting it on the desk.

"You've no reason to give me aught out of regret," he said before he could think on it.

"But, Sam–" The full light of day washed over Frodo's face and bared what he didn't say. A mere shadow of pain touched his mouth, slipping through his calm like a bird through high clouds, but it snapped through Sam as if he'd stepped on a scythe left careless in the grass. He fell back a step, floundering for words.

"Sam." Frodo caught his wrist in a firm grip.

A shiver spilled through him at the strength in those fingers, as if he'd no longer expected it.

"It wasn't intended as an apology," Frodo said in a steadier voice. "I merely tried to think of a good way to welcome you into your home."

"As've I," Sam murmured. The hard clutch in his breast eased a bit when Frodo's thumb stroked across the inside of his wrist.

"I know." Frodo's touch said the same, and more that slid up Sam's arm in a language as supple and secret as the verses in the book.

"Come out into the garden with me." Sam swallowed. "Now..." The quiet reached its thunder into his blood when Frodo's fingers loosened and slipped away. But then Frodo touched his heated face, light as a breeze, there and gone in a wink.

"Yes. I will."

It was a short enough walk to the back door where the daylight streamed in over the tiles. Frodo stopped just short of that bright arc, as if he needed to clear something from his mind ere leaving the smials' guard.

"Any arrangements you would like to make..." He gestured back into the corridor. "The rooms, the furnishings. I hope you do know that you don't have to ask my permission, Sam."

Sam lowered his eyes and ducked his head in an awkward nod. What could he say to that? When he'd told the Gaffer about Mr. Frodo's gift, his dad had first sputtered at the jest, then stared as though the world itself were gone mad. A Gamgee had no business living in the Master's home like a mere servant, not if he were a respectable tradesman, and less so with a snug hole of his own nearby. Sam knew his Gaffer's thoughts without needing to hear them spoken. Small worries they seemed now, trundling by like straws on a brook.

"I wouldn't want to settle aught without you," he said finally. "And I won't be needing–" But there he stopped, for his own foolish words flew back to him with Frodo's questioning glance that stung him hard as noonburn.

He'd settled on getting wed by himself after all, and though Mr. Frodo had eyes that saw to the quick of most every matter, he'd not known about Rosie. Sam couldn't fathom what he might be thinking, and if there was a question to unlock his silence, he'd not found it yet.

"There'll be time enough," he said haltingly, "to take care of such things. I still marvel to be here at all, you understand."

"I do." Frodo's face showed only shielding patience as he went forward. "For such a long time, I did not expect to live here again."

And it would be nowise forgotten, as much as Sam might wish it of a time. He followed Frodo through the door without another word. Their journey wasn't aught like Mr. Bilbo's had been, and once you'd believed in truth that you'd never make it back, returning home became a matter of picking each step, never certain what the next might bring.

Outside, the day's warmth had gathered so quick on the flagstones that Sam could feel it pour up through his soles. There'd once been a fine mesh of shade spun about this spot, from the crabapple tree to the hazel bushes growing a little higher up the slope. Leastways the nasturtians were scrambling up the new lattice and set to the turf walls on either side of the door. The garden was still a patchwork of raw spots and wayward growth between the tended beds, but the dazzling colours and the heady scents couldn't fail to lift the heart.

Frodo rubbed his hands along his sleeves as if to ease the softer airs through to his skin. "It seems that the blossoms have doubled over night."

"There's never been such a glad break in the weather before," Sam answered. "Not as I recollect, nor my Gaffer. We've seen no scrap of a cloud in almost a week." Together they started down the garden, towards the shrubs and saplings taking the space of the old hedge.

"A new time has come. A new age." Frodo tipped his head to the side as if harking to another voice, and one he didn't know he could trust, maybe.

"It's a gift," said Sam, "a gift to the Shire."

A huddle of sparrows sat in the gnarled hawthorn like thick, ruffled buds and fluttered up one by one as they neared. Amid thatches of clover that he'd no wish to weed out yet, yellow celandines dotted the ground.

"Look at this..." Sam bent towards a young shrub that'd shot up faster than he'd ever expected. Its leaves unfurled to fine points like holly, and from the heart of each spread a golden shade that ran to fiery red round the edges. Autumn colours, he thought; but who knew, this wanderer out of the Golden Wood might turn green in the fall of the year.

Frodo paused beside him, the softest memory seeming to brush across his face. "I don't think I have ever seen this grow here before."

"No more have I." Sam reached down to draw a leaf-spray into the sunlight. "But I saw it grow in Lórien, and I expect they've a name for it too, though we might never learn it."

"You could give it a new name," Frodo suggested. "An Elvish name would not last long among our neighbours anyway."

"Ah well, my Gaffer wouldn't take to it, and that's certain." A sudden grief ground Sam's voice down to a mutter before he could fend it off. He tried to picture these bright leaves dancing in a glade among the tall trees of Lórien, but he couldn't. The down that covered the twig he still held pricked his fingers like nettles.

This is what you wished for, he told himself. For the Shire to heal, and the fairest of everything to plant itself here. And wouldn't it be like a garden grown from memory, even though folk who'd never set foot outside the Shire couldn't know it? He tightened his grip on the twig, hard enough to rip it off.

"Sam?" Warm and close by his ear, Frodo's voice slid between him and those hapless thoughts.

Sam straightened, letting go of the shrub, but the remembrance seemed like a load holding him fast to the earth that showed in dry patches between turf and clover. Below these shining leaves, it looked like ash more than good Shire soil. Lost for words, he batted his hand against his breeches. He'd not known what he carried – and perhaps he didn't know what carried him forward now either.

"It promised me a garden," he whispered, his eyes too full of the rich hues playing on every side.

"It," Frodo repeated, the merest note of a question aflight on his breath. But to hear him say it –

"Oh, I'm sorry!" Sam turned about quick to face him, just quick enough to catch a flinching of worry in Frodo's eyes. "I shouldn't be dwelling on that, not with the Lady's blessings showing everywhere, and so glorious withal."

Frodo searched his face with a thoughtful glance, then he shook his head slowly. "Don't reproach yourself for knowing all that you do... and don't ever keep it from me, Sam."

His gentle tone held a plea that Sam couldn't refuse, that he wouldn't refuse, ever, for it spoke more clearly than the battering of his own heart. Still the words clambered out slow, as though a hidden wrong dragged them back. "A garden to cover the whole world, and countless other hands to do as I'd order..."

He'd not given it half a thought since the year before, but here the memory drove a black rent through the Shire's sweetness, one that broke in a dull throb beneath his breastbone. "I could see it all before me," he murmured, staring down at the changeling shrub, "and a beautiful sight it was, but not–"

"Not right. How could it be?"

He didn't see it when Frodo reached for him, and his touch fell so light on Sam's shoulder, it might have been a leaf dropping.

"You knew that, without a doubt."

I knew because I had to find you. For a moment the memory wouldn't let him breathe.

"Look around you," Frodo said. "Here is a garden for your hands only..." His voice softened with a tenderness that loosened Sam's breath. "And mine."

"You – you've been working on the fence."

"I have spent so much time over tea and polite conversation lately," Frodo said with the hint of a smile, "that my hands felt a need to busy themselves, I suppose." He lifted his hands and turned them over, palms up, without the least bit of awkwardness over the missing finger. Sam could see a reddened welt along the heel of his left hand, likely caused by a willow rod whipping free. He wanted to reach out and soothe the bruised spot, but Frodo was already turning towards the vegetable patch.

"What do you say," he asked, "shall we work on our fence for a while?"

"If you're willing, so am I, Mr. Frodo, and gladly." In truth he was more than glad, even if Frodo had thought of it for Sam's comfort more than his own.

The little breeze faltered and the sun beat through windless air as they climbed back up the slope. When Frodo paused and shaded his eyes against the light, it fell on his mouth and chin in a glowing ribbon seeming to plead for his smile. Sam stood beside him, watching as Frodo turned his eyes down into the dale, where the fields' raw-turned soil showed the first stipples of green.

Not a sound reached Sam's ears. Down in the village where he'd gone to see the blacksmith a good hour before, he'd moved through a bustle of swirling noises as every household prepared for the new season, but none of it rose to the Hill's bare flank. Beyond the Water, an ox-cart crawled along the road, wrapped in a dusty haze that spread out far into the south. It could have been a sight from the past, but the horizons held it in like a farmer's wife would gather the sheaves in both arms, to bind them tightly.

'Tis no wonder, now that we've seen the lands out over the horizon... Sam looked to Frodo again, his eyes seeming to seek more distant sights, and the notion balled itself up tight, thick as the silence wound about them.

"It might as well be summer," Frodo said. When he raised a hand to his open collar, a passing glint dashed across the fine silver chain round his neck. His fingers closed about the jewel beneath the cloth of his shirt, only for a heartbeat or two, but Sam felt the movement in a small jolt under his ribs.

The Lady Arwen's gift shouldn't remind him of that other chain and its cruel burden, and there was none of the harsh struggle in Frodo's reaching for it either. Still, Sam couldn't help but notice that he wore it day and night now, and often enough he'd seen Frodo finger it without thought.

"Sam?" Frodo's voice caught him out of his pondering, and Sam found him watching with sharp intent.

"Well, I was thinking–" Sam plunged a hard breath through the tightness rising in his throat. "Mrs. Cotton... she says you were ill, while I made my rounds up North. A spring fever before the spring, she says."

"Does she," Frodo returned softly, but in his eyes something flashed and was caught back, cloaked in thoughtful care. "She nursed me back to health within a very short time."

"Bless her for all her kindness," Sam murmured. His heartbeats were stumbling and racing, closing him in with tangled worries, but he couldn't stop asking now, couldn't stop trying. It was too long that he'd been unsure what he could reach and touch.

He held Frodo's eyes as he stepped forward and brushed the tip of his thumb along the chain where it lay against Frodo's neck. "And what's the meaning of this? You've been wearing it ever since, seemingly."

"I cannot say." Frodo met his eyes with a frankness that kept nothing back, but the words spun through Sam's head with sudden recollection – of Mr. Bilbo's verse about the road going on for ever, like a great river, and the day he'd heard Frodo speak it, out in the Woody End.

...and whither then? I cannot say.

"Were you thinking about the road then, Mr. Frodo?"

Frodo made no reply, naught but a small sound escaping on his rushed breath. In the slight stiffening of his back, Sam could see the rousing of his will, fiercer now than it ever had been in years agone.

"No, I wasn't," Frodo said at last. "But some thoughts are as strange to thinking as dreams are to waking."

And that might be as far as words could reach, but the shiver that crawled down Sam's spine urged him on. "Then... what was it?"

He laid his hand to the side of Frodo's face, where the morning breeze had cooled his skin. There was a wistful quiet here, tender as the warmth of Frodo's breath wavering against the ball of his thumb.

"I saw spring before spring. Like this, only..." Frodo paused, and with the slight shifting of his gaze, his face lay wide open, baring so much that it struck Sam like a blow to the chest. "All I wanted was to come to you. To come home."

A rough sound wrenched from Sam's throat ere he could swallow it, and his fingers shook. Frodo caught them in his own and pressed them.

"I am all right, Sam. And now – now we are here, both."

To see Frodo smile at such a moment left Sam nigh giddy with all the questions he couldn't piece together, and when Frodo gave his hand a little tug, pulling him towards the kitchen garden, he felt winded as though he'd never catch up. Frodo strode ahead with ease, and his glance ranged free in the rippling airs, never settling anywhere.

Beside the unfinished fence stood a wheelbarrow full of wickers and hazel switches. The sight beckoned with a plain, solid task, and Sam fixed his mind on it as best he could.

"If you mean to go on platting the fence, I'll cut these down to one length." He pulled his pruning knife from its sheath at his belt and drew out a bunch of the weavers. "They'll be hard on your hands without proper work-gloves, Mr. Frodo."

"Gloves leave me too clumsy at it," Frodo answered with a light shrug. He moved round the corner of the fence and rolled up his sleeves, to start on the south side that stood lower than the rest.

"I'm sure you remember the old little fence barring the gap in the hedge," he said, bending towards a scattering of trimmed rods that he must have left there earlier. "Bilbo and I put it up together with your Gaffer – although he tried to do it all by himself, at first."

"Aye, he would." Sam paused in his cutting. "Where was I then?"

"I think that was before your father brought you here daily to help him..." Frodo wound a rod in and out of the posts, tucking its thin tip under at the end. "Yes, I remember..." He wiped the back of his hand across his brow and reached for the next raddle. "A young bull jumped the Grange fence one night, trampled down part of the hedge and ruined our beans. It caused quite a stir."

"I remember hearing that tale from my Gaffer," Sam replied. And he could see the old fence, too, as if it stood where it always had, patched up with the stalks of asters and overgrown year by year as the hedge closed round it again. Light as dust, the memory hovered before him, flitting in the sun. Sam gathered his armful of wickers and walked round the cabbage bed to Frodo's side.

To look at him now, with that little smile dancing about his mouth and a lively colour rising in his skin, Frodo gave a fair picture of contentment. Were all the fond memories flocking to him at last, to wrap him up in their kindest welcome?

All of a sudden, Sam blinked against a hot welling of tears. Though he busied himself with the stretch of fence next to Frodo, his eyes didn't follow his hands. From this spot he could see the smaller gate at the western end of the garden and the gangly blackthorn he'd planted on either side. It was the lonely bush, once sprouting where the Row joined the Lane, that he'd dug up and split in two, so that in time both might grow to an arch over the gate. They wore the tiny blossoms now that came with winter's end, but in a few weeks more, a richer bloom would follow. He pictured Frodo stepping through the fully grown arch, laden with flowering white that snowed down on his curls and his shoulders.

Home, Sam thought, home at last. Without me. The wand he'd been twisting between his fingers snapped free and lashed across the back of his hand. He muttered a curse.

Inside the same breath, Frodo reached for his hand and turned Sam towards him. "What have I done?"

"It's naught as you've done, Mr. Frodo, just me being clumsy."

"You never are," Frodo said with complete certainty. "Answer me, Sam, I need to know what's on your mind."

"What you said about coming home..." Sam stopped, his tongue grown heavy as a dipping-stone. "It had me thinking, and wondering why... why you don't wish for me to move in before I've gone and got married."

Frodo shook his head. "But that is not at all what I meant! You are free to come, to leave and to stay, whenever you are ready."

Surprise wavered in his voice, and now that the words were out between them, Sam had to wonder why he'd ever nursed such a doubt. "I thought," he started unhappily, "I thought it was to be your gift for the wedding."

"I was merely... waiting," Frodo said quietly, and his breath seemed to be running thin. "I was waiting for you to come to me."

"You didn't have to wait, not for a moment!" Sam burst out, a wild heat flashing in his chest for the wasted chances. For the things that Frodo wasn't telling him.

"Didn't I?" Frodo plucked at the wicker he'd just fastened. "I have been blind, Sam. That is my regret. I watch and I do not, I listen and I do not..."

"That's not true, and never was. Rosie–" Sam swallowed a flying breath and waved his hand about. "She and her family and my Gaffer, they're all rooted fast in a life of their own that they never left, like we did, and for all the troubles they've had to face, it goes on for them as it always did."

"And that is as it should be."

"Aye, but there wasn't aught for you to see that you didn't know in times before, or that needed knowing, if you follow me."

"But I did not," Frodo said sharply. "I knew your wish to join this life again, and yet I failed to understand."

Sam bit down on the hot protest that wouldn't shape the proper words from such a knotted tangle. What did it matter, when Frodo had seen the whole of it, just not each part? But an answer to that question came from the troubled hours, the days and nights since his return. From the aching loneliness in Frodo's eyes.

It's all my wishing that's failed. The truth of it pushed up hard under his breastbone, and he longed to keep it there, buried safe and deep.

"I reckon we've been away so long that we didn't think how it would be," he said slowly, and met Frodo's gaze with all the steadfast belief he could muster. "I didn't–"

"You did not expect to live here, with me. It must have been a difficult choice." A sudden frost had crept into Frodo's voice, and though he didn't mean it for a cruelty, it drove a chill through Sam's middle.

"I never meant to leave your side, not for a moment did I–"

"No, I know." Frodo gripped his shoulders. "Forgive me, Sam. You don't have to tell me, ever. I know." He breathed out hard and leaned over, brushing a kiss to Sam's eyebrow in a lopsided kind of blessing. Sam could feel his breath in his hair and against his temple, near as shaken as his own. His hands found a hold on Frodo's waist before he even knew he'd moved.

"Some things," Frodo said after a moment, turning his face to speak softly by Sam's ear, "some things are given once and for all time."

"Aye, that's so," he answered, though it came out in a husky whisper, "and always will be." He let his eyes close and leaned into the firm clasp of Frodo's hands, resting his face against Frodo's shoulder.

A difficult choice, he'd said, but it couldn't mean the same to one who'd been raised as Mr. Frodo was. All in an instant, Sam remembered how Mr. Bilbo had offered him the choice of learning how to read and write, an offer made as quick and easy as an invitation to tea. But his Gaffer had carried the question about for weeks like a sack of stones. It would be the same if he asked Rosie to choose her own room in Bag End, from those that still stood empty.

When Sam looked up, his eyes filled with the dazzled silver of the kitchen window, and the sun pulsed hot on his skin where Frodo's lips had touched. If a home could be made from so many pieces scattered all to the winds, then his wishing, too, should be at rest.

"If only I had known," Frodo said, but there wasn't a trace of bitterness in his voice, only a faint astonishment. "You must be proud of your bride," he added with a raw little smile that showed his effort and frank pleasure, both.

Sam drew himself up and thought of Rosie, and how her cheeks had glowed that eve. Like every farmer's daughter, she'd wear a flax bracelet at the wedding, to ensure children and lack of want. "I am, Mr. Frodo. I couldn't ask for more, or better."

It was true, every last bit of it, and no cause for doubt there either.

"Good," Frodo said as he stood back, "very good," but perhaps he meant something else – the sparkle in his eyes surely didn't rouse from thinking about the wedding. And then he tipped his head back and laughed. The sound came from deep within, rising so fast and free that it sped Sam's pulse to a saunter.

Frodo pushed a hand through his curls, his laughter trailing out in a dry chuckle. "What was I afraid of?"

He shook his head and sat down with his back against the higher part of the fence. Hands rested on his knees, he just gazed about, from the cabbage bed to the bunch of paeonies under the kitchen window and up the curve of the Hill, his lips parted in a curious smile.

For a spell, Sam couldn't do aught but watch while the day's brightness spread within and without, rippling through all the colours, etching the grass, the clods of turned earth, and every row of weavers in the fence. He couldn't move till Frodo's eyes found him again.

"It is so beautiful here," Frodo said.

The look that he gave Sam struck him through with the force of living day.

"It's you."

One more step, and Sam knelt down beside him, among the wickers strewn across the ground, every motion seeming to be shaped of air, every thought blowing away like thin peels of bark from a birchtree. The nook behind the fence took them both in, like a secret fold that opened in the middle of the garden where naught else could reach. He saw only Frodo, as if he'd never known him otherwise, only Frodo and the light welling in every line of his face. Soft and changeful, it carved then eased the traces of laughter and hardship, cradling every year that he'd lived, played through the dip of Frodo's lashes and the curls caught atangle over his ear. And with all of it Frodo was reaching for him, never needing to move an inch.

"You didn't have to wait," Sam said again and brought his hand up slow, as if sifting grains or water between his fingers. No-one else in the Shire might ever see what he did, but here he could cup it in his palm when he touched Frodo's face.

Frodo didn't say a word as his fingers closed about Sam's, but in his eyes was a yes without questions. Shifting just a little, he drew his lips from the padding of Sam's thumb to his palm where handling the wickers had left the skin rough and heated. It took no more to send a shiver through them both, a thrill that swept Sam like thistledown blown over his skin. He traced his thumb across the gentle bow of Frodo's upper lip, splayed his fingers over Frodo's cheek to the corner of his eye, so that every point of touching shaped a waymark, sure as the glance of the winter sun in the reeds by the Water, where he'd collected stones for the garden path. Scents of warmed grass and earth filled his chest, the Shire's own breath washing over them.

"Frodo..." he murmured.

The taste of the name in his mouth was one with the soft darkening of Frodo's eyes. Sam leaned nearer as it drew through them both in a taut thread, lacing his breath with wonder. Their lips touched, halting and shaky at first, but the mere brush of Frodo's mouth at the corner of his own kindled in a heartbeat, quickened Sam's gasp ere he could lose it to that half-shaped kiss. As he sought Frodo's mouth again, he reached out with both hands, running his palms in a hurry down Frodo's side and up his chest, as though he might free the quiet gathered so long in his skin. Frodo pulled away only to kneel up quick, his arm catching hard about Sam's waist.

"Then I will not," Frodo said, low and intent, "I will not wait" – words trapped against Sam's lips and piercing him with the next breath, to surge again with the open pressure of their mouths. His long patience had frayed at the last, and it filled Sam with head-spinning relief. In a restless search of their own, Frodo's fingers followed the rim of Sam's ear and raked a twisting path into his curls.

Though Sam clung to him with an unbalanced clasp on his neck and elbow, there wasn't aught here that he might hold, only the finding, giving and releasing – naught but this, this – measured to the swift taps of blood in Frodo's throat. It danced at Sam's fingertips as he bent deeper into the kiss, mingling with the slip of Frodo's tongue past his teeth, and unlocked all the wanting from its hard shell. Fierce and swift it rose through him, as if a dark vein had been opened in the ground and was met in the middle by sunlight rushing in. Every movement of Frodo's lips and tongue gathered to pangs in his blood, till he could feel it in every limb – how the joy pulled him under and flung him up again, like a wild eddy in a river. This joy that could fly with one glance between them or the full joining of their bodies.

He pulled Frodo closer, into a moving, living match from chest to thigh that he knew in tunes of breathing, of tangled moans and laughter. Through the cloth of Frodo's shirt he felt the white jewel's edge, crushed against his own breast where his heartbeats parted about it, sundered one from the other, and for a moment Sam wanted it driven under his skin. He couldn't lose this touch, not for aught in the world.

His eyes burned when Frodo let out a ragged gasp and drew back a bit, his cheeks flushed. What his mouth tried to shape weren't words yet nor a smile, but a mixed stirring of both. "Is this the place – Sam, do you–"

He scarce managed a "yes" and a whispered, "it is," all the words of loving and wanting too small for the truth of the whole.

They were kneeling on the trampled ground together, just about hidden from the world by a half-made fence, and Frodo's arms were wound round his chest as if to keep him fast in a storm. His breaths passed through their circle in tight, leaping bursts.

"Here," Sam murmured. In Frodo's eyes he found a deep and restless knowing that opened wide to embrace him and every part of this moment, and a light that no-one else could know, just as none would know the true name for the golden-leaved bush. So pure that its passing could leave only rock and cinders.

"Sam – Sam..." Frodo breathed sharply – "it's you" – giving his own words back to make them one with a fierce kiss. Sam ran his hands down Frodo's back, pressing paths through weskit, shirt and breeches till their clothes couldn't stop him from feeling the skin underneath, the clear flow and strain of desire that called to him, and always would.

~ ~ ~

It wasn't the same garden, Sam thought as they walked round to Bag End's front door, or else he'd lost all his recollections of the years before, even of the sights this morning. With Frodo walking beside him, so near that the motion of each step grazed his own, the space around them seemed fuller than before, and stretched out wide into a shimmering haze.

They'd almost reached the porch, but Sam slowed his pace and looked down at the sanded path, as though it took fixing his mind on just one spot to even out the flurry in his senses. A company of ants were busy dragging scraps of leaves many times their size towards the green fringe. Nearby, a cluster of harebells were perking up and opened dangling blossoms a month before their usual time.

"Wait a moment..." Sam bent to pluck a single blue flower from the bunch, thinking how it was and yet wasn't alike to the drawing in book. Without looking, he could tell Frodo's eyes were on him, could feel it in the quicker welling of his blood. He straightened and held the flower out to Frodo, speaking words he recalled in many voices, from many seasons past. "In the giving..."

"...lies a wish," Frodo continued the old rhyme with a quirk of his lip.

"...and the wishing bears a seed..."

"...that may grow to be a tree."

"Aye, and given time it will," Sam answered.

With a swift smile, Frodo tucked the flower into one of his weskit's buttonholes, but his gaze wasn't as weightless as that, it closed round Sam as if he were all the world worth looking at, tight like the circle of his arms.

"You do have a tree, you know," Frodo said, "down in the Party Field. It will flower soon."

Sam felt another flush crawl up his neck, and it took him a moment to catch the meaning in Frodo's words. "I wouldn't rightly call it mine."

"But everyone else will, I'm sure." Frodo turned aside then to open the front door, and it swung out soundless over the flagstones. Unclosing the guarded space where they could lie alone in each other's arms.

The thought pulled at Sam with a clenching need, and yet for a spell he was stalled between wanting to follow Frodo inside and drawing him back out, for a walk over the meadows, through the village and across the hills, only to show him –

When Frodo reached a hand to him, Sam clasped it, and the cool shadow of the hall enveloping them put an end to the notion.

"Your Rosie – will she like it here?" Frodo asked, catching Sam by surprise once more.

"'Twill take her some time getting used to it, I expect," Sam answered after a short pause. "Oh, but she will." And he hoped for it with a new fervor as he said so.

He glanced about, from the parlour door to the smial slanting deep into quiet shade. Times were when his mind had overflowed with all the things he might do to restore life and comfort to Bag End, but there was none of that now. On the other side of the hall, the door to Frodo's bedroom stood open just like the window where the curtain played in the faintest breeze. The corner of a white sheet peeked out from beneath the bedcovers, and of a sudden Sam smelled rosemary as he had every night, alone in his room in the Row. Mrs. Rumble had given him the rosemary sprigs at his homecoming, and their slow-fading scent guided him to rest, coursed through his dreams and was there when he woke, alone in his bed with a wildly beating heart, on a hard brink between having and missing.

And how had Frodo felt, waking up before dawn crept in, filling the small window that dreamed of a vaster sky? Sam's insides cramped as he thought on it. He wouldn't let Frodo sleep alone again, not a single night.

"I am ready." He took both of Frodo's hands in his own, but what his grip said was something else again, nearer to you've come home truly, or will it be enough?

After a moment, Frodo lowered his glance from Sam's face. "Take your time, the time you need." And he linked their fingers firmly, to a wish that had no words.

* * * * *

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