Thanks to Calanthe, Frayach, Eykar and Catherine for many helpful comments and discussion.

But the fit passed, and when Sam got back on the twenty-fifth, Frodo had recovered, and he said nothing about himself.
(ROTK VI.9: The Grey Havens)

The Dwindling Hour
by Cara J. Loup

The door of Bag End stood wide open to the morning. Frodo felt its chill in the fabric of his sleeves, a feather-light nip to the skin of his arms. He had been restless since daybreak lined his bedroom window with the softest grey.

At his fingertips lay the close grain of ancient oak, smooth as though it had been lodged long under water. With a quick knock to the latch, Frodo unfastened the lid of Bilbo's great chest that finally occupied its place in the hall once again. Long years had marked its memory on the wainscoting, a pale shadow of which only a slim tracing could now be seen. The chest must have stood there since the days of Bungo Baggins.

When Frodo raised the lid, stale and dry scents gave a nearer count of time. He had packed this pile of pottery and linens himself, late in summer of the year before last, and during his short stay in Crickhollow none of it had been needed or unwrapped. Scraps of lavender leaves tumbled from the cloth that covered the dishes when he shook it out. Sam had brought him a generous bunch of the dried leaves, but their fragrance had seemed feeble then, compared to the summer's fullness. Now it recalled so much more, an abundance like the myriad smells steaming from the meadows after a quick dousing of rain.

Frodo reached into the chest and lifted a stack of bowls. At the very bottom, he knew, lay several walking sticks, among them his favourite that bore fine carvings of running deer. It would be a while yet before he'd uncover those fleeing shapes, traced about the length of the staff.

At the touch of a breeze to the side of his face, Frodo paused, resting his hands on his thighs. Bag End's doorway opened to a mottled sky where the sun's first rays dipped past wind-chased clouds. It was early in the day, too early to know...

And yet, he had fallen asleep with a curious certainty, firm as a soothing hand on his forehead. Mere moments after waking, the thought sparked again, speeding through his blood like the last dart of a dream. Sam will come back today.

Frodo picked up the bowls, tucked the linen swathe under his arm, and carried everything into the parlour. From the pantries at the back of the smial, where Merry and Pippin busied themselves with sorting through their provisions, came diffuse noises. A clatter and a scrape, then the hum of a voice, rendered dim by the curving length of the corridor. Saradoc had dug deep into his cellars to add generous supplies to the carts that carried Frodo's belongings. What Saradoc called his 'last morsels' could easily provide for a feast though, and a feast they would have, in celebration of the hour that Frodo couldn't – wouldn't – dwell on. Not yet.

Three weeks to the day... He hadn't foreseen that Sam would stay away so long, and trying to guess at the reasons only stirred up troubled echoes. Restless and scattered as water running through hollows underground, all the shored-up conversations surrounded Frodo, the thoughts he had addressed to Sam as if Sam might catch them in the rain and wind that tousled the bare trees.

There is so much that I must tell you. Frodo clasped his hands together to stay his own impatience, and wandered back into the hall. If not today, then tomorrow.

The next item he drew from the chest was swaddled in an embroidered table-cloth. He unwound it carefully and set the large earthenware jug in his lap. Daylight stole deeper into the hall and touched the bulbous form, kindling the blue glaze that overlaid the brown of burnt clay. Bilbo had been very fond of this sturdy old jug, and to it clung the flavour of wines tasted years before.

The tart whiff brought back days when Bag End was a confounding source of excitements, with its pockets of untried silence and odd noises, with its tides of books and maps that Bilbo kept only in fleeting order. When Frodo glanced across to the dinner-table, he could see Bilbo there, the tapers' vivid lights shifting across his face, secrets seeming to dance at his fingertips. With a quick dip of the jug, Bilbo would pour the wine into his ornate beaker, but his glance would roam as if to challenge the evening lull. In a heartbeat, that glance could change from vague and distant to brightly alert, just as swiftly as Bilbo's moods swerved at times. Sliding his foot up and down the table leg, Frodo would wait to catch him with a question at just the right moment. If he did, Bilbo would lean back and unfold a tale that ran on into the evening and turned it to star-pricked night.

As he cradled the jug, Frodo could almost touch the memory and hold it to his heart as easily as the light found the liquid blue between his splayed fingers. When was the last time that he'd experienced such a pleasure of ownership, and with it a sudden confidence that everything might still slip back into its accustomed place?

Stepping carefully past the the clutter of half-unpacked trunks, he carried the jug to the alcove by the parlour's largest window. From the corner of his eye, he caught the shadow of a movement, or thought he did, and within a blink he saw himself stumble, the jug shattered to a thousand pieces. One by one, he would collect the shards, pierced by such a loss...

Bilbo wouldn't mind, not now. Frodo found his hands not quite steady as he set down the jug, only a dull shape of clay after all. It meant nothing to own such a thing.

When he'd said goodbye to Bilbo in Rivendell, a brief smile had brushed across the tired old face. So very often, tiredness overwhelmed Bilbo, and the hours they spent together sank ever more swiftly into a gathering quiet.

Frodo straightened and looked out into the garden. The circle of tinted panes enclosed a stretch of treeless grass interrupted by muddy pools and a few small shrubs here and there. He leaned forward, wiping his sleeve across the glass, if only to push the clouding sadness aside. Yellow dots flecked the ground by the remnants of the hedge that carried a dappling of pale green. Frodo set his eyes on it for a long moment. If he had to fill the forlorn space before him with an effort of will, then he would.

Soon now, Sam would return, and so much remained to be done, so much that Frodo wanted to accomplish until he could imagine the look of joyful surprise on Sam's face. Bag End would belong to them both, and with it everything that meant home, that would become home in their own time.

Frodo turned on his heel to fetch the last armful of dishes from the chest. As he bent over it, he noticed that he had torn a button off his waistcoat. The bright twill was streaked with dust, and so were his cuffs. He had worn the same clothes for the past two days of hefting and arranging furniture.

"You shouldn't be doing this," Merry had said to him when chests, bookcases, chairs and shelves crowded the entrance hall. "Why don't you let us set everything to order and move in when we've made the old hole comfortable?"

Frodo had almost laughed at the suggestion, aware that with the next breath a sharp retort might have escaped him. He shook his head and found nothing to say to Merry's well-meaning offer, nothing at all, until his cousin ended the moment with an awkward shrug. Right then Merry looked younger than he had for some time, young and defenceless in his earnest efforts.

On their way through Hobbiton, he and Pippin had hired several village lads to help unloading the carts, while others simply trailed along – out of curiosity, Merry suspected, but he soon set them all to work. The ground outside the front door still bore the countless muddled imprints, turned into small pools by the last night's rain. Even from the back of the hall, Frodo could see the day's glimmers streak across those puddles, the strange, silent traces of busy footfalls.

Sam's Gaffer had joined them, too, his coat-tails flapping, and could not be kept from assisting, even though his knotty fingers fumbled for a grip on trunks and furniture, and every now and again the wind beat the formless hat off his grey curls. Once, Frodo had managed to pick it out of the mud before the old hobbit could stoop for it. With a gruff murmur, the Gaffer thanked him and, drawing the hat down hard about his ears, reached for a coffer that nearly matched his own weight. He worked with a tight-lipped determination Frodo recognised, his head ducked between his shoulders, and only the long glances that he passed around the hole before setting down his load revealed that he was secretly pleased.

When the carts were emptied and afternoon dwindled to a soft, yellow-tinted gloom, Frodo had invited old Gamgee to a cup of tea by the parlour hearth.

"Thank you, sir–" the Gaffer removed his hat again, "–but I'll take my tea down in the Row and call it a fine day well ended." He paused, and the crinkles around his eyes gave hint of a smile. "'Tis a day I've long been waiting for, Mr. Frodo, if I may make so bold."

"So have I, Mr. Gamgee." Frodo glanced down at the Gaffer's reddened fingers that were clamped about the hat's brim, trembling with exhaustion or the gout's searing pains. The sight stung him so that he barely stopped himself from seizing those hands, to cup and warm them in his own. "Thank you," he said quietly, and when he met the Gaffer's eyes again, he wished only that Sam's father might understand – "Thank you very much indeed."

But for him the day, the hour, had not yet come. Frodo turned from the ranks of crockery that gleamed in the parlour's half-light. The waiting strained through him, constant and aimless as the drizzle that scoured the past two days.

It was then that he heard Pippin's voice fly somewhere in the garden, and the delight in his call leapt up like a reckless wind dashing over hedgerows and fences. Whether it was that hopeful sound, or the tension of waiting suddenly snapped, Frodo returned to the hall almost at a run and came to an abrupt halt on the doorstep where the day met him with a damp gust and patches of liquid silver in the clouds. Sam has come! He knew it before he'd quite looked, quicker than his eyes could recover from the smial's twilight.

Up the trampled path from the gate, Pippin strode with his hand on Sam's shoulder, chatting and smiling as though he were to present a special catch drawn from the Water. That he towered over Sam by nearly a head should no longer be a surprise, but as Frodo watched them approach, he noticed the loose vigour in Pippin's strides, while Sam's steps revealed a careful balance. His eyes had already found Frodo, and he quickened his paces, drawing away from Pippin's side.

Frodo could take only one step across the threshold. During those short moments, the flashes of daylight on the puddles and in Sam's eyes were all one, caught, it seemed to Frodo, in the mesh of his own impatience. Then his hands clasped Sam's shoulders, and Sam returned his embrace with sudden, crushing strength.

Shaken out of dazzlement, Frodo wanted to laugh, but Sam's arms locked so tightly around him that every sound was trapped in his breast. The solid warmth of Sam's body, held so close against him, struck him breathless, and the pounding of his heart spelled how long it had been, how long –

"Sam," he mouthed somewhere between wind-cooled collar and soft curls that brushed his cheek like wisps from a guarded dream. But they were not, they caressed him with the scents of rain and earth, with unspoken promise –

You're home. His jaw tingled at the warmth of Sam's breaths – short as his own and yet full – and Frodo had to force himself to lean back, so that he could look into Sam's face. Little by little, Sam eased his grip, and a smile formed in trembling starts, tightening the corners of his mouth.

"Sam, dear lad," Frodo murmured, his throat close on a slicing ache, or was it an edge to his joy he had somehow forgotten? "I was expecting you today."

"Were you?" A bewildered flicker passed through Sam's eyes, before they dropped, skimming without pause over every inch of Frodo's face.

"Yes." Frodo trailed his hands down the rough knit of Sam's coat-sleeves, and it seemed that he'd sooner trace every thread in the fabric than find words... A faint noise prickled somewhere at his back. Reluctantly, he turned about, one hand still resting on Sam's arm.

"Good morning, Sam." Merry had entered the hall, a dish-cloth flung hurriedly over one shoulder.

"Good morning, Mr. Merry," Sam answered with a short bow of his head. The hoarseness in his voice could not have escaped Merry who brightened his smile, a flush stealing over his face.

"You're just in time for tea. I put the kettle on a minute ago."

"Yes, let's see about second breakfast, shall we?" Pippin rubbed his hands together and mimicked a shudder. "Although I'd better start a fire in the parlour first. It is colder in here than it is outside. Back to the kitchen with you, Merry lad!" He swung his cloak off his shoulders so that it swirled like a banner.

"I thought you were at work in the pantries," Frodo said to him.

"I was, until Merry complained that all my fidgeting made him miscount your pickle jars." Pippin chuckled and spread his hands. "So I went out for a stroll, only I didn't get further than the top of the Row, which is where I ran into Sam." With that, he swept into the parlour.

In the quiet that followed, Frodo found his breath still uneven. "It's early in the day." He turned back to Sam and knew he was smiling blindly, overcome by disbelief. "Did you ride all night?"

Sam gave him a strange look that slipped quickly aside. "I got to the Cotton farm at dusk. I thought I'd find you there, Mr. Frodo, till Old Cotton told me..."

"I see." Frodo paused at the rush of entangled thoughts, from Why didn't you come straight away? to I knew, to I should have left a message. Of course Sam couldn't refuse the generous welcome that the Cottons must have offered, and he would have wanted to look in on his father, too...

"I had hoped–" What he meant to say faltered as he caught Sam's anxious expression. Frodo reached for his hand once more. "I expected you to arrive soon, but I had hoped to welcome you to a better ordered place than what you now see." He waved towards the back of the smials. "Still, we haven't been idle. Let me show you around."

Sam nodded and blinked at the shadowed corridor as if he had never set foot inside. Was there a glint of tears in his eyes? Frodo pressed his hand before he motioned Sam along, his mouth suddenly dry.

They stepped through patches of misty daylight that leaked from open doors, through the mingled smells of lather, chalk and tallow. Everything seemed astir now, shifting and blending about Sam's presence just as the half-recognised rooms within a dream may change their shape and angle at a mere breath.

"Your journey," Frodo started, gathering his thoughts that wanted to fly in too many directions at once, "did it go well? You must have found yourself with a dozen jobs at every fingertip."

"Leastways that's how it seemed of times, sure enough."

Frodo caught the glimpse of a rueful smile, before gliding shadows hid Sam's face from view again.

"I won't say 'twere done with no effort," Sam continued, "but we've pushed forward a fair deal, more than I'd hoped, to tell you the truth." He stole a glance at Frodo, and the colour in his cheeks seemed to deepen when Frodo met his eye.

"And now spring is come, and everything's sprouting and growing," Sam added softly. "The willows bear leaves so bright, they're gold more than green. It's a marvel to look on, and makes you wish for naught but to keep looking."

Rich and low, his voice carried a checked excitement, a spell to all the senses that kindled like a flush within Frodo's mind. A sudden memory enveloped him, of standing atop Buck Hill, poised to throw the ball that Aunt Esmeralda's maid had sewn for him from brightly hued patches of sturdy dowlas. The dyes had soon given way to the slop and the spring puddles, but Frodo remembered the motley colours trundling and spinning – blue, red and green – bounding past window ridges, down the slopes, and how he had waited for a strong easterly wind that would let him toss his ball the entire distance down to the river. He had never managed it, of course, and instead his ball got caught, more than once, among the herbs grown beside the kitchen porch. But its colours leapt over the hillside like spring itself, like laughter...

"Mr. Frodo?" Sam's voice slipped into his thoughts with the ease of a skirring wind that rose from the Brandywine.

"I just remembered..." Frodo shook his head, startled at how fully he had lost himself in the memory. "A sight I had forgotten for many years – and how the air used to smell late in March, when spring arrived in Buckland."

"It shows in your garden now too," Sam answered, leaning a little towards him. "Some of the old rose bushes are starting to bud, and I fancy you'll find the primroses abloom on the western side. Not everything that I planted for you were lost to life."

His expectant tone drew a smile from Frodo. "No... how could it be?"

"Still, it's all the more glorious after this long winter." Sam slowed to a halt beside an open door, his eyes resting on Frodo with frank amazement. "There'll be more soon, and the first blooms springing from the Lady's gift, I expect."

"I wonder what they will be like." Frodo felt a fine heat prickle at his fingertips, surging to lace with his heartbeats. Soon I shall see what you see...

"And I'll want to hear all your news – later," he added. They had stopped by Bilbo's old dining-room, and he should give Sam time for discovery now, a chance to see the familiar emerge once again, like the contours of a loved face, from the gloom of desolation.

With a quick shift of his shoulders, Sam turned sideways to gaze around the room that stood empty except for a chair and an old footstool. A short cone of daylight brightened the scrubbed brown tiles, the crescent patterns along their edges, and fell on one of the stool's slender legs.

Alert to the smallest detail, Sam absorbed everything there was to see, while Frodo watched only his face. The light that pooled on the tiles cast up the mere hint of a glow, but he saw it catch on Sam's features and knew it as though he had breathed and drunk it to slake every yearning with it. A light such as this must have danced among the skeins of willow leaves, to caress Sam's skin with the change of season. For a moment, Frodo could feel it himself, and the room seemed to recede in a spun mist, like the days of his strange fever, but then Sam turned from the doorway with a thoughtful nod.

"Those tiles," he said, tipping his head to the side, "they look all new now, as if they're still warm from the kiln. It seems a pity, almost, to cover them up in rugs."

"No, a single rug would certainly do." Frodo answered lightly. "Bilbo once told me that his father had the tiles for all the front rooms carted here from Deephallow... Another Baggins whimsey, it would seem."

A quick smile touched Sam's mouth. "I don't doubt that it set the tongues wagging for a week and a day, if not longer."

As they walked on, a familiar calm brushed Frodo's senses, as if from somewhere deep inside Bag End stirred a breath of the years that followed Bilbo's departure. Before long, Sam's presence within his household had become a source of respite and pleasant recognition, until their daily movements were woven into a subtle pattern, steady as a slow dance. Without effort, it seemed, Sam had twined his own errands with the rhythms by which Frodo lived.

And shaped them, too, Frodo thought. Just as the past days of waiting had shaped his awareness of these rooms and corridors anew, whenever he let himself think of sharing it all with Sam...

He was drawing breath to speak when a muffled noise came from the kitchen that sounded very much like shattering crocks. Frodo exchanged a brief glance with Sam, and they fell into a quicker step as they headed down the passage.

In the kitchen billowed the delicious scents of mushrooms and onions simmering in a pan over the fire. Beside a small side-table that overflowed with stacked dishes, Merry knelt, picking up several blunt-edged pieces.

"I nearly toppled the whole pile," he said, glancing up briefly, and gestured at the plates and saucers that formed leaning little towers.

"What was it, one of Aunt Dora's old saucers?" Bending over, Frodo recognised the blue-white dots around the rim. "There are plenty of them – but we do need a new kitchen table." He had left the heavy oaken table to Lobelia, only to find it covered in filth that had seeped into every crack of the scarred board, at his return.

"Indeed." Merry rose and dropped the broken fragments into a pail, grimacing at the clatter it caused. "I'm sorry, Frodo."

"Would you be needing any help, Mr. Merry?" Sam asked from the door.

"If I keep my elbows close, I should be able to manage. Thank you." Merry turned towards his cooking and reached for the pan's handle. "Frodo, do you happen to remember where we put those ginger biscuits?

"Never mind," he added, quicker than Frodo could give his question any thought, "I'll ask Pippin. If he hasn't stored them all in his stomach, he'll know where to find them."

"I daresay." Frodo paused another moment, watching as Merry stirred the mushrooms briskly, before he turned aside. "Come," he said softly to Sam, although he didn't have to, but the sound gave a pleasure of its own, like a long-anticipated taste.

They turned into the snug little corridor that ran between the pantries and store-rooms, most of which were still unused. Two small lamps, set into holders on the wall, cast warm round splashes up to the ceiling and lit shimmers on newly wrought hinge and latch. When Frodo wrapped his fingers around a polished handle, he could hear faint rustles behind the door. Mice must be skittering about the barren pantries, or the large black beetles that burrowed into wood grown soft with rot. Only the day before, Pippin had disturbed an entire swarm of them when he threw out the mouldered remains of a keg.

The rustling faded again quickly though, and a hush rose like a cold current just beneath the surface of the Water. As he pressed down the handle, Frodo could already feel how the dark would enfold him and fall into his senses with the deep smell of earth, opening wide as the jaws of sleep. He would be alone where the past had left no memories.

A slight movement swept that notion aside. Without a thought, Frodo turned towards the warmth near his shoulder, and found himself looking directly into Sam's eyes, only a hand's breadth away. Bright as sun-traced clouds on a stormy day, they held him close in the silence, close to its very heart. Wordless, Sam raised one hand, the lightest of touches stirring Frodo's curls beside his temple.

Frodo let his eyes close for a moment, and when he opened them again, he saw everything and nothing, his chest so filled with a slow surge that it left no room for breath.

"There is almost nothing in here yet," he managed to say. "Everything is still... waiting."

"Aye," Sam murmured, "waiting, or dreaming, maybe." But then he let his hand drop and stepped aside. Against his calves, Frodo felt a cool draft that flowed from the back of the passage, squeezing out beneath the doors. Sam didn't speak again until they had walked back several paces.

"Many a day it was when I didn't think I'd ever see Bag End like this," he said slowly. "And now... 'tis all so changed, so–" He gestured, out of words, and trailed his fingers across the patched and cleaned wainscoting beside one of the doors. "Like I never thought it would be."

Fitful anticipation twisted suddenly in Frodo's stomach. "How did you think it would be?"

A pained look crossed Sam's face and was smoothed away so completely that Frodo could not be sure what he had seen. Was it a clutch of recollection, of all the long hours Sam had spent here alone, pitting himself against every loss and scab as though each was a personal enemy? And how should Sam answer him? Bag End would never again be the place it once was – they had both come to see this, through the winter that heaped soothing snows over the Hill and tucked all the rooms into a drowsy quiet – hadn't they?

"I could never fully picture it myself," Frodo answered his own question. They had reached the main corridor again, and he strove for a lighthearted tone as he crossed it. "The study is still in a frightful state..."

He nudged the door that stood ajar. Between shelves and opened trunks, stacks of books, ledgers and parchments littered every inch of space in rambling drifts. He had started his unpacking here, in an eager rush to restore his quiet retreat, but when he set the desk back in its old place, the grey oval slanting across its surface drew his eyes to the window. He already knew, of course, what he would see when he sat in his chair. How, even when he kept his eyes on his papers and quills, he would miss the fringe of nasturtians fluttering against the window-glass, and the shadow-pattern of laced boughs playing at the edge of a page.

Stirred by an absurd impulse to stomp into the room and toss the scattered papers into the air until they swirled and tumbled like down torn from a pillow, Frodo pressed his hands to his trouser-seams. "I'm sure I will never manage to return all those papers to the order that Bilbo kept them in."

"You may in time, Mr. Frodo." Sam's reply was hesitant and seemed to catch on a question that Frodo couldn't quite guess.

"I suppose so. No need to trouble with everything at once." His answer sounded dismissive, as if someone else had given it for him. Time. Encapsulating them both like a bead of blown glass. He stepped away from the door. Yours and mine...

"Quite a few things will have to be replaced." Frodo gestured towards the guest-rooms on the other side of the corridor. "We will have to have additional beds made, and a cabinet or two. Oh, and the new kitchen table, of course."

"Master Brownlock in Overhill will be right pleased to take such an order from you," Sam replied, his tone firm and assured once again.

"No doubt about it." Frodo turned his thoughts to the crowded little workshop that always smelled like a forest at winter's end, and smiled. "I thought you would recommend him. He has a reputation for being most reliable, and his son is a gifted carver, isn't he? Perhaps you'd like to make arrangements with him?"

Sam nodded. "As soon as you have a list ready, I'll take it to him."

"Maybe we can come up with such a list tomorrow. Together." Frodo paused, but Sam answered only with another dip of his head. Silence settled around and between them like dust stirred up for the briefest moment by careless footsteps. Ready to stifle, to conceal the shape of a wish Frodo knew like his own shadow and that waited, still, for a place to unfold. Soon. But not here... He touched Sam's shoulder, steering him back towards the front of Bag End. "We have a lot of planning to do..."

As Sam fell into step beside him, Frodo caught the spark of his glance through lowered lashes, and sudden longing opened inside him, like a moonless night that spun the hours on a thread.

Three weeks, to the day. Three weeks of bracing himself against slipping into pathless solitude when sleep should close around him, of seeking to lose himself in the days' own currents – or so it seemed now.

There wasn't a moment when I didn't miss your breath beside me. No other truth could pierce the beating heart of time – but why was it that, with each step, he felt that he was walking further out into uncertainty?

In the hall, a broader band of daylight crawled across the tiles, and from the parlour, the bellows were huffing with Pippin's efforts to speed the fire he'd kindled in the hearth. Frodo turned to the lefthand side where his bedroom door lay in the angle of morning shade.

Pausing before it, he ran his fingers over the carved vines that spread sweeping strands from the middle of the door. The wood had been carefully cleaned. Sam must have touched these grooves and curves many times when he came to work in Bag End, and perhaps with each touch he had imagined this day, this hour.

"I chose this room for the morning light," Frodo said softly, but his thoughts leapt to the casket that he kept beside his bed. Within, the starglass lay nestled into folds of fine cloth, hidden like a flawless memory. Not a day had passed since his illness when he didn't think of taking it out, and yet he never quite dared –

"I know, Mr. Frodo."

Sam's harsh whisper brought Frodo around again, but Sam was already retreating. His shoulders locked in hard restraint, he took two steps towards the open front door as if each required a decision.

"Sam." But the distance between them, short as it was, seemed unsafe as a rain-drenched slope. Frodo crossed it at once, to stand beside Sam where daylight lapped at their toes.

"What is it that troubles you?" he asked below his breath.

"I ought to have hurried back sooner, truly I should have." Sam bent his head, and though he might wear his poise like armour, Frodo could sense the turmoil underneath. "I meant for you to have everything... everything–" Sam stumbled to a halt, his face taut with effort.

"But you would have missed the sight of the willows growing their first leaves," Frodo said gently. The cool gust that touched his face seemed to rouse a remembered sound, the faint whispers of golden leaf-sprays that he might have heard in a dream. "That I didn't wait for your return doesn't mean–"

He interrupted himself, unsure how to grasp what Sam could not say. A quick twist of wind whipped into the hall and rattled a door somewhere at their backs.

"Sam, I wanted to surprise you."

"That you have, Mr. Frodo."

Sam's voice sounded strangely flat, and with every moment that passed, Frodo felt as if the solid earthen walls on either side of them were built from mere rushes and twigs, and all of Bag End only a hutch through which the wind swerved.

"We'd ought to take a look round your garden, too." Sam was watching him now, with keen and searching attention. "Let me show you..."

Soft clatters approached from the main corridor. Moments later, Merry hurried across the hall with a heaped tray that he carried into the parlour. They were not alone, and wouldn't be until –

"Won't you come outside with me?" Sam asked with a new note of urgency.

Frodo glanced out through the door where daylight swam on the countless puddles and turned the glistening flagstones into a jagged brink. Don't go. As if he might lose Sam with that step across the threshold.

"I will, later." He knew only that he must stay here, or lose every chance of finding what he sought. For both of us.

"When are you going to move in and join me, Sam?" he asked.

The quiet that came over Sam's expression seized him with a numbing chill. Out of the parlour drifted Merry and Pippin's voices, strangely clear and present despite the distance.

"There is no need to come yet, if you don't want to," Frodo said, collecting himself. "But you know the Gaffer is close at hand, and he will be very well looked after by Widow Rumble."

Heat flooded Sam's face. "It's not that, Mr. Frodo..."

"Well, what is it?" Frodo asked, but the light tone he'd mustered couldn't seem to reach Sam. His glance fled aside and skipped along the narrow space between the front door and its newly painted frame.

"It's Rosie, Rose Cotton." Sam took a breath and clasped his hands behind his back. "It seems she didn't like my going abroad at all, poor lass; but as I hadn't spoken, she couldn't say so. And I didn't speak, because I had a job to do first." As haltingly as he'd started out, the words now strung themselves together, as if taking their shape from his Gaffer's unyielding tones. "But now I have spoken, and she says: 'Well, you've wasted a year, so why wait longer?' 'Wasted?' I says. 'I wouldn't call it that.'"

Sam straightened his back until it was nearly rigid and met Frodo's eyes again, with a desperate resolve Frodo knew too well. "Still I see what she means," he finished, lowering his voice. "I feel torn in two, as you might say."

"I see..." Frodo murmured, yet it was more than that, it tore through him with blinding clarity – only for a moment, then his thoughts gathered up, like dried husks driven from the fields after harvest. "You want to get married, and yet you want to live with me in Bag End, too?"

The laughter that had struggled to escape before wavered on his breath now, faint with relief, and incredulous with an edge that stung his eyes.

"But my dear Sam, how easy!" His voice rose too quickly, yet he knew that every muscle in Sam's body was strung tight, felt it by the pressure that clenched beneath his own ribs. Only what he could offer would bring release. "Get married as soon as you can, and then move in with Rosie. There's room enough in Bag End for as big a family as you could wish for."

How could I not know? His head spun as he watched Sam close his eyes, the taut set of his mouth relaxing a little. Torn in two. The words seemed to wheel round and about, like echoes inside a well. Since the day of the Battle, every thought of returning to Bag End had been bound to Sam's presence beside him, and he had always assumed –

"Breakfast is about ready, if you want to come." Pippin's voice edged into his thoughts only after a moment.

Sam turned his face aside, dashing a hand up to his cheek. "Frodo..."

He made barely a sound, and Frodo moved towards him instinctively, as if to shelter Sam against being seen.

"Yes," he said over his shoulder, without taking his eyes off Sam's face, "thank you, Pippin."

When he touched Sam's arm, he could feel the tension unlace in a shudder – was it relief, or was this the fear he had failed to recognise before, finally laid bare and surrendered?

We don't have to... But Sam leaned into his touch and gave a little nod, both shaky and determined. Frodo bowed his head, mindlessly pressing his lips to the wool that covered Sam's shoulder. It tasted of damp straw. A faint breath of sound brushed his neck, like a sob long choked, and that was enough.

Frodo straightened quickly and squeezed Sam's arm before he let go. "That's settled then," he murmured. It had not been the moment he'd imagined, that he'd believed he was waiting for, but perhaps he should trust himself to chance above all. Hadn't he learned to release all plans and expectations?

When they entered the parlour, side by side, Merry was pouring tea into one cup after another with fixed attention. Warm smells filled the air, mingling sage with onion and burning pine.

"There you are," said Pippin. "What do you think of the new window, Sam? Frodo tells me that you gave very specific orders for the stained glass. It will be quite lovely when the sun comes out."

Sam cleared his throat. "It's lovely now..."

He walked around the table and paused to pick up a spoon that had slipped off a saucer, returning it to its proper place. The gesture was so thoughtless, such a mirror image of the years before, that Frodo tensed as he watched across the room. Maybe they had stepped back into their former places, balanced awkwardly as if on wet stones in the middle of a wide river where eddies churn the water against dark rocks. Perhaps finding those footholds was a necessity, but his heart beat sharply in a fleeting swell of anger.

Instead of seating himself, he followed Sam to the large round window which had been the pride of each Master of Bag End in turn, when jewelled fire glanced from the panes into every corner of the room. He stopped a yard away, while Sam traced the leading with his thumb. Blue, red and green.

How had Sam come to this choice? Frodo thought he could see its shape, like a wash of time lapping and fretting at the familiar lines and curves of Sam's face. As if they had been apart much longer than he knew, or in a manner he had never anticipated. Shame crawled through him like a low fire after a walk out in the frosts.

How can it be that I know so little of your wishes, Sam? But that wasn't true either. For months, he had seen Sam struggle – to mend, to heal, to reach – but he had not known how those wishes felt. Where they led.

It was all before him now, a picture raked together from a thousand memories, from chance conversations and words he had spoken himself, oblivious, as though his mind had wandered only through the gaps between. Sam would marry Rose Cotton and have his own family. On the other side of that thought, Frodo saw himself as he would be, Master of Bag End once again, an image afloat on a shifting, dwindling surface.

He watched it with the leaden calm of sinking through water, and felt once again, as he had so often on their journey, that everything depended on knowing the difference between truth and desire. A chair scraped against the tiles behind them, and Pippin said something about the state that the kitchen was in.

For a moment, Frodo tried to picture Rosie Cotton at his dinner table, where Merry and Pippin now sat, but he could not. Not yet. It would grow easier when he willed it so.

He took a step and another that brought him to Sam's side. "Do you know where we were a year ago?"

Dim spots of red, green and blue shifted softly over Sam's face as he turned his head. "Asleep, Mr. Frodo, or perhaps..."

"Yes?" Frodo whispered, barely a question.

"...still carried through the air, though we didn't know it."

Over the mountains, out of Mordor, above the forests, below the clouds.

A stillness came over him, like the quiet of the first cool autumn days when all living things seem to draw inward. When a hush falls with a mist that no eye can see, and yet it imbues the air and every sight.

But within that stillness, countless tiny movements weave and stir. On the ground, shadows ripple like water. And beneath one of the trees whose boughs spread in graceful golden fans, falls a glittering rain, washed from the leaves by a gentle wind.

The image rose and passed in a wink as Frodo looked out across the garden. It belonged to his dream of the night before, but the tree had not been a willow. Almost he could trace the wet bark beneath his fingertips, and the mild scent of earth that the breeze wrapped around him.

Against the back of his hand he felt the brush of Sam's knuckles, and when he stretched his fingers towards the slight contact, Sam gripped them hard and laced his own through them. Frodo returned the pressure until it snapped sparks of pain through his knuckles, but Sam didn't pull back. He never would.

Turning sideways, Frodo watched the play of unrestrained feelings on Sam's face, blending with the colours that touched his brow, his temple and cheekbone. Red, blue, and green, blue... and from the middle of that slow eddy, the tenderness in Sam's gaze that sought and clasped him.

Was it hope that he read on Sam's face now? A light had returned to his eyes, like a silver lake glimpsed through endless trees. Beautiful, and yet unknowable. Uncertain.

* * * * *

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