For a Star and a Half by Cara J Loup
Summary: A tavern conversation leads to major changes in Sam and Frodo's lives.
Categories: FPS, FPS > Frodo/Sam, FPS > Sam/Frodo Characters: Frodo, Sam
Type: None
Warning: None
Challenges: None
Series: None
Chapters: 1 Completed: Yes Word count: 21967 Read: 3049 Published: December 20, 2011 Updated: December 20, 2011
Story Notes:
Timeline: 1413 SR

Thanks to everyone who commented and cheered me on when I posted this story as a WIP in my LJ. Grateful bows to Selina for beta-reading.

For Adrienne, with love.

1. Chapter 1 by Cara J Loup

Chapter 1 by Cara J Loup
Can you find me an acre of land
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Between the salt water and the sea sand?
Then you shall be a true lover of mine.


A dim glow filled the bedroom as Sam padded to the window on silent feet. Outdoors, birds twittered and the poplars down the Row muttered low in the breeze, but here the quiet held fast, full of slow breaths and a lingering whiff of candlewax. Sam turned to look at his master.

Above the bedding showed the graceful angle of a bare shoulder, one arm flung out careless across the covers. Mr. Frodo must have pulled off his nightshirt some time during his slumber; it lay crumpled on the floor. Sam picked it up to drape it careful over a chair, and paused to run his fingers through the fine folds. Right warm the past nights had been; the September rains were taking their time this season.

From where he stood, Sam could see the wayward tumble of Mr. Frodo's curls and the soft curve of his mouth, parted on easeful breaths. Sam drew the curtains aside, very slow-like, and watched the light crawl through, sneaking a thin ray up over the sheets where it curved against Mr. Frodo's arm. The broadening stripe of daylight moulded his neck and cheek, tickled his nose -- and there Frodo's eyes flew open. A bright hazy blue they were, unclouding slowly as they drifted about the room and fell on Sam at last.

Sam cleared his throat. "Good morning, sir. Time for Elevenses."

"Is it that late?" Wide awake in no time, Mr. Frodo sat up, the covers spilling about him, and gave a look of surprise to his bare chest. Sam remembered to turn his own eyes away before his master could notice.

"Aye," he muttered, and busied himself tying the curtains into their proper place. "A fine day it is, fresh and sunny as you please."

Behind him, the bedclothes rustled. "I was reading late," Frodo remarked round a hearty yawn.

"And you've burned down all the candles."

"How very wasteful of me," Frodo retorted cheerfully.

When both bows were tied, the curtains making handsome billows on either side of the window, Sam finally had to turn back around.

The scent of drying grass slipped in through the open window, and Mr. Frodo had swung his legs over the side of the bed. A ruffled edge of the sheet scarce covered him about the loins. Through wildly tousled curls, he blinked into the light. "A beautiful morning indeed, and a pity that I have missed so much of it."

Flung out after the comment, a smile spread on his lips, enough sparkle in it to outdo the radiant day. Sam took it in, its cheer seeming to seep all through him as Mr. Frodo stretched and sighed -- but before that last bit of sheet could slip away, Sam made a hurried departure from the room.

He had a sizzling rasher of bacon to tend to, and a mushroom omelette waiting to be sprinkled with fresh herbs, but his head at that moment was brimful of other, less practical notions.

Sam whistled softly as he walked back to the kitchen, every part of his mind wrapped fast round his good luck. Some mornings started off so well, they made him feel like the first green shoots peeking out after the winter storms, or a bright wind rushing him over the fields, or a song sliding mellow on the evening air -- or all of it put together. And on those mornings, he'd carry Mr. Frodo's smile to work with him, and it would seem to weave through the hours, part of everything as bloomed and flowered in the garden. He didn't need nothing else to make his life complete.

"Oi, Sam!" The shout flew across the common-room of the Ivy Bush. "Over here!"

Mug in hand, Sam peered about till he spotted a reddish head in the corner. Alone at a table sat Hob Sandheaver who used to run with the Cotton lads as a wee one. For a good five years now, he'd been serving with the Newbury Brandybucks, and Sam hadn't seen him since Yule.

Shielding his mug against accidental bustles from some rowdy young hobbits, Sam made his way across. "And what would you be doing this side of the Brandywine?"

Hob grinned all over his freckled face. "Where have you been? It's market day." He spread his hands and made room for Sam on the bench, though in truth there was plenty of room already. "My Master Roderic, he's got a sweet tooth for the Southfarthing pears, and his stock of Longbottom Leaf's running a whit low, too. He'll have none but the homegrown."

"Aye, there's none finer." Sam took a swig of his ale, savouring its tart smack with closed eyes. When he opened them again, Hob was sipping his own draught beer, dribbling a bit down his weskit. And a fine piece of garment it was, Sam couldn't help but notice, with daisies embroidered down the front and neatly stitched buttonholes.

Swiping the spilled drops away, Hob answered his curious glance with a wink. "A gift from Master Roddy."

Sam frowned, disapproving of the saucy look that went with the familiarity. At Yuletide, they'd not had a chance of chatting proper over a cup or two, and it seemed that Hob was fair bursting with news. Sam passed a long glance across such customers as had gathered in the inn.

The common-room was barely filling up, most Bywater folk choosing to sample their ale at Brewer Mugwort's market stand, seemingly, but a noisy group of local lads held up the counter near the door. Between their chatter and the clatter of mugs, they burst into loud guffaws every so often.

"Look at them jolly rascals..." Sam shook his head and raised his mug again. "What news from Buckland?"

While Hob launched into a merry round of gossip, Sam paid more mind to the taste of his ale than the latest to-do at Brandy Hall. Hob's master spent plenty of time there with his uncles and cousins, and there was always a ruffle or another, over births and weddings and folk moving from one mansion in the smials to the next as the family grew and branched. When the innkeeper, Erling Noakes, arrived with Hob's order for a bite, the young hobbit was in the middle of telling about a mix-up at a birthday party, involving a loose rabbit, a ruined hat and a furious aunt.

Hob's freckles seemed to want to pop off his face as he haw-hawed his way through the tale. He'd changed, Sam thought as he chuckled along, from being a shy duckling of a lad, always shuffling his feet as he trailed his master. By the time he reached his story's end, Hob had polished off several buttered slices of cornbread, and they were both nursing a second ale. A group of market vendors and farmers had claimed the long table opposite the counter, their voices burbling low and agreeable over steaming bowls of stew.

Hob wiped his hands off on his breeches and turned expectantly to Sam. "How are you faring these days? I hear you're in more than out of Bag End."

"Well, there's plenty about the place wanting upkeep, and only so much that Mr. Frodo can do by himself, you understand."

"Gardner, valet, cook and errand-boy, eh?"

Sam shrugged. Ever since Mr. Bilbo's disappearance, he'd started picking up such jobs as wanted doing round the household. Mr. Frodo could manage a decent bit of cooking by himself, but many a time he'd carry a book to the kitchen, or would wander away from the stove in search of one, and his mind would slip its hold on pots and pans. "Mr. Frodo's not the sort to chase folk about at a whim. I can't rightly say I've any complaints."

Hob looked as if he didn't believe they'd come to the short end of Sam's news. "You know what they say about your Mr. Frodo. He's treading fast in the footsteps of his cracked old uncle, keeping to his books as he does, and wandering about at nights to meet with Elves in the woods..."

"So what if he does?" Sam asked. "There's no harm in it." Though he'd taken some long hikes across country with Mr. Frodo, they'd never seen the mere wisp of an Elf -- much to Sam's regret -- but Hob most like wouldn't believe that if he said so. "Mr. Frodo's kind and forthright," Sam continued, "and he's got a good word for everyone, what's more." Unlike the Sackville-Bagginses and some others of his well-born kin that Sam might name, Mr. Frodo never looked down his nose at lesser folk, no more than old Mr. Bilbo had done. Still, among the Hobbiton folk he seemed like a firelily that took root on the verge of a field, fine long petals dazzling unexpected from an unshorn thatch of grass.

"There's not a body as got any reason to speak ill of him," Sam finished.

To his surprise, Hob smiled -- almost as if he'd hoped to jiggle this very answer out of Sam. "You like him well, I take it."

Sam turned his mug over and pondered an answer that should by all means roll easy off his tongue. But with Hob watching him like this, it came out thick and slow instead. "I reckon you could say that." Yet like was for nutbread and honeyed tea, or the pleasure of a warm bath, and the time spent round Mr. Frodo bore no likeness with any of that. "He's a delight to work for," Sam added, "and I couldn't wish for a better master, nowise."

Hob showed that odd little smile again, a gleam in his eye. "Do go on."

Sam shrugged. "That's all."

"Aw, don't be so dull, Sam." Hob inched a bit closer on the bench. "Let's hear some bedroom tales."

Sam looked at him as if he'd been and drowned his wits.

"You know what I mean." Perhaps it was the ale setting that glazed look in Hob's eyes, and perhaps the same spirit lit sudden understanding in the middle of Sam's mind when Hob added, "Don't you?"

A flush came from nowhere, flooding upward from Sam's neck, much against his own wish. Surely Hob couldn't mean -- "There's naught to tell about."

"Ah, you're a close one, aren't you, Sam?" Hob winked, his elbow flicking out to nudge Sam's ribs.

"I'm telling you, Hob--" Sam broke off, distraught at his sudden shortness of breath.

"You mean t' tell me you've never been invited to your master's bed?" Hob had lowered his voice to a secretive murmur, for which Sam was grateful enough. "How old are you, Sam?"

He'd come of age this spring, and there wasn't no call for Hob to ask about it, what with his own thirty-third birthday still years away.

"And you ain't courting, are you now?" Hob prodded, unrelenting.

Sam pulled up his shoulders and put forth his usual answer to that question. "I'm right busy at Bag End, and who'd do for Mr. Frodo if I were to wed?"

"You're a late bloomer, Samwise Gamgee, and no mistake." Hob wriggled his eyebrows and grinned.

"Well, as my Gaffer would say, there's no use in rushing what weren't born to run," Sam answered sharply. "Besides, you're no-one to talk at a mere twenty-eight."

"Well..." Hob dragged out the word, with as smug a look on his face as any Sam had ever seen, "I daresay I've known such happenings as to knock you straight out of your breeches." He studied Sam with a cockeyed smile. "You must've heard a few interesting stories, leastways, even holed up in so lonely a place like Bag End."

He had indeed, what with Mr. Bilbo writing down his tale of dwarves and elves and men, and thinking up some grand songs too, but Sam had a queer feeling that Hob meant none of that. "What if I have?" he asked cautiously.

Hob chuckled. "If you had, you wouldn't be blushing to the roots of your hair when you're asked about sharing the master's bed. And there's naught to be ashamed for, it's as common as tipplers at a fair."

"Not in Hobbiton, it's not," Sam protested. "Mayhap it's what folk get up to in Buckland, but round here--"

"That's because your Mr. Frodo's the only hobbit 'tween here and Overhill who's served and waited on," Hob pointed out, and Sam couldn't argue the fact.

"There's no sense in thinking the likes of you and me could be so familiar with a gentlehobbit," he said stubbornly, his voice tight so the crowd at the other table wouldn't hear.

"Sam." Hob gave him the kind of look one would wear when talking sense to a toddler. "We run their baths and sponge their backs when they ask it, and help them dress in the mornings after they've swilled the liquor a little too heartily. Surely that's quite familiar."

Sam huffed in his throat and ran a finger under his shirt's collar. He had never actually bathed Mr. Frodo, and as for getting him dressed --

"Them Brandybucks now..." Hob winked again, and it had grown right annoying, that habit of his. "Take it from me, Sam, it's only a short walk from the bath to the bed, and not much a difference either."

"You're pulling my leg," Sam said weakly.

Hob shook his head. "I've had many a chance to speak with the lads at Brandy Hall..." He snorted into his mug and put it down again without drinking. "Aye, and they've learned me a lesson or two from merry scuffles with their own masters."

Sam gazed into his own dwindling ale, thinking that Mr. Frodo had once lived in Brandy Hall with his Brandybuck kin, and if Hob's story were true, surely Mr. Frodo would know of such goings-on.

"Hal Cropper now, Master Merry's servant," Hob continued with a chuckle. "He's got a fine tale to tell, that lad does."

Across the room, Sam caught the eye of Erling Noakes behind the counter and waved an order for another beer. He felt very much in need of it at this moment.

Fresh ales arrived in due time, delivered with a broad smile from Noakes and a summary wipe of his dish cloth across the table that spilled Hob's bread crumbs to the floor. When the innkeeper had scurried off again, Sam breathed deep and made sure his voice didn't carry any farther than Hob's ear. "You're saying that Mr. Frodo -- that he'd expect me to up and -- and..."

"With a dry old bachelor like him, who can say?"

"He's neither," Sam flared, tipping his mug, "and you'd be wise to mind your tongue, Hob!" He drank deep, thankful of the cool ale that flowed down his throat. For years now, Hobbiton had been all aflutter of talk about Mr. Frodo's uncommonly youthful looks, and Sam was personal witness to his master's trim condition.

"Well, he's too old to be sleeping alone one season after another," Hob returned, reasonably enough. "The lads in Brandy Hall say he'll not have a one of them warm his sheets when he visits his cousins."

Sam breathed out, oddly relieved. "Then perhaps he don't--"

"Or perhaps he reckons that he should find such comforts in his own home," Hob interrupted, not to be distracted for a moment. "I thought he did, if you want to know, when I heard about you following the house."

Sam shook his head, disbelieving, a faint ring in his ears. He'd drank up his ale without quite noticing, and it was high time for another. The other customers' voices seemed strangely dim, blurring together like threads of smoke. Noakes was back at their table like a wind at new moon, and off again in a blink.

"So your Mr. Frodo's never gave you no hint?" Hob cuffed Sam with a little smirk. "Though with a head as dense as yours, there's no telling what might've flown right by you."

"I'm no fool, Hob," Sam grumbled.

"No, but you're a gardner," Hob said in a gentler voice, "and I don't suppose your old dad ever learned you the whatswhere of being a body servant, now did he?"

There wasn't aught Sam could say to that, and it was trouble enough at the moment to keep all his thoughts locked in place.

"Let's see then..." Hob leaned back and studied his own hands. "He'll invite you to table, don't he?"

"Aye, he does that."

"And when you're done eating, does he send you home rightaways?"

"He'll read out of his books at times -- tales and poetry. He's got some mighty fine books, Mr. Frodo does."

"Poetry." Hob mulled the word round his mouth a if there were a peculiar taste to it. "Well, those Baggins' don't get their funny repute for nowt, I expect. Poetry and tales." He chuckled. "What kind of?"

"They're sad, you might say, but I like them. They tell of--" Sam waved his hand, snatching after the flow and feel of those magical words. He'd stored a good bit of poetry and song in his head over the years, but lately, with Mr. Frodo reading to him, not the tale so much as the sound and rhythm would get a hold of Sam's mind. Mr. Frodo's voice brought out a flawless measure in every verse, some of them stirring like eager flames, some mellow as the leas after rainfall. Sam could listen for hours, all alert to that fair voice, and more so when the verses were Elvish. Such times there were when he felt all of spellbound, a hollow place falling open within him to the music of those words.

"They're the loveliest I've ever known," he said finally.

Hob eyed him with a mischievous twinkle. "A lonesome bachelor goes reading you heartful rhymes, and that don't tell you nothing, my lad?"

"He'll read to Master Merry and Pippin too, when they visit." With some defiance, Sam added, "Not the Elvish though."

Hob raised his eyebrow in a meaningful manner. "So there you have it, Sam." He bent forward again. "If he should ask -- or suggest, would you...?"

Put so blunt, the question plunged straight for Sam's stomach that twisted most queerly, and he knew he was about to turn red as a carrot. An uncertain mutter was all he could manage for answer.

"Take heart, Sam, it's all plain enough," Hob advised. "Your Mr. Frodo's only waiting for you to take his meaning, I'll be bound. All it wants is giving him a sign or another. Like, take his hand and look him straight in the eye. He'll know what to do next."

All the same, Hob turned his mouth to Sam's ear and whispered such bawdy things as made Sam burst into a full blush. Some of the words Hob used he'd never heard before, but the rest of it left little doubt as to what they meant.

"Your Mr. Frodo's a decent fellow," Hob finished, sitting back. "He wouldn't make you do things as you don't--"

"That's enough now!" Sam downed his remaining ale in one gulp. "I didn't say as I would, and--" He prodded Hob's embroidered chest with his finger, leaning nearer so Hob would hear when his voice dropped low, "--he didn't say as he would. Mr. Frodo's a fine hobbit, and with those eyes on him, he could knock on any door if he wanted to, and not be turned away either."

Hob snorted. "Now don't you go getting ideas, Sam, and don't let him turn your head." He reached over to pat Sam's arm. "There's some favours to be had of it, mind. You'll be sleepin' in a bed finer than your own, you'll get your share of the master's vittles, and good clothes if you're in luck."

"Aye, and as big a mouth as yours, I'll warrant." Sam set his drained mug down with a dry thump. Right then, he craved nothing so much as a breath of fresh air. "I've got some hedges as want trimming tomorrow. Good night, Hob."

"'Night, Sam," Hob returned with a long, saucy look and a final wink.

When Sam stepped into the road, fat clouds rolled in the sky, and the air was heavy with the day's heat. It prickled at the back of his neck and down his spine, as if there were a storm gathering -- and perhaps there was.

He slung his coat over his shoulder and started walking, swatting at the midges that danced under the trees. A mild dizziness clogged behind his eyes as if he'd had one ale too many, though it had only been... Sam shook his head as he lost track of the count. He shouldn't have listened to Hob's chatter. As like as not, it was ten parts of soap water and a mere pinch of salt.

I could ask Mr. Frodo. Sam ducked his head at the witless bumble of his own thinking. He'd do no such thing, and embarrass himself in front of his master.

But the next moment, he was thinking of Mr. Frodo as he'd been this morning -- slender limbs and fluid motion burnished in the warm daylight -- and the memory made him feel as if he'd swallowed a gust of wind that whirled in his stomach. It can't be, Sam told himself as he strode up Hobbiton Road, and that's flat.

Of course he knew of lads taking their tumbles together -- who didn't? -- and all in good fun, too. But gentlehobbbits didn't go mixing about with the likes of Ropers, Diggers, Rumbles and Sandheavers -- or Gamgees, for that matter -- same as they wouldn't marry outside the good families.

Then again, who would know? Sam asked himself. If it were all done behind locked doors, folk as went poking their nose into other people's business would be none the wiser. Mr. Frodo now... Mr. Frodo never kept much company with the lasses, and it was common talk all over Hobbiton that he'd set his mind to remain bachelor like his wayward uncle. It didn't look as if he were planning to ever be wed, leastways.

Sam felt a start of sweat prick his brow as he quickened his pace. If Hob were right... Perhaps that was why he noticed things about Mr. Frodo – such things as he'd always thought he shouldn't be noticing.

And right you were, Sam Gamgee, he told himself. You shouldn't. Not now, nor any other day. Before him opened the green bowl of land that lay below the Hill, drenched in the friendly shades of dusk.

When he reached their hole, his father sat on the bench outside, comfortably smoking his pipe. Sam dropped down beside him, and for a spell they watched the weather, and the fringe of night rising fast from the east. The clouds thinned before they'd spent a drop though. In little time, Sam could see the Sickle swing clear in the sky.

"Dad," he began finally, after dragging a deep breath, "have you ever heard it said..."

"What, son?" His Gaffer turned sideways when he faltered.

"That those Sandheavers spin nobut mad tales," Sam finished, all his nerve blown off on the breeze. "Hob now, he's cracked to the root."

The Gaffer chuckled. "If you had a cup with 'im, that were too much ale talking, I'll wager." He raised his pipe, painting small hoops into the air with its stem. "'Less it be them Brandybucks, marking their queer ways on 'im."

"Either of the two, I expect," Sam muttered, and felt not the least bit reassured.

A short while later, he lay on his bed in the pitch dark, wishing to feel a good deal sleepier than he did. But the air inside was stuffy and his head crowded with thoughts of Hob's master, and Mr. Merry, and those young Brandybucks that he'd met at a time or another -- and how Mr. Frodo weren't at all alike them on the inside.

Oh, he had a spirit as bright and full of cheer as any of his cousins, but it oft lay hid in thoughtful quiet. And then he'd go wandering about as if roaming after a dream, as if he were out looking for some lost part of his life to come and find him again.

In a fret, Sam shifted and tugged on his blanket. There weren't no sense to any of this. But time and again, when such a lost, lonely look softened Mr. Frodo's face, it would pierce him just so... Like he'd cut himself and was watching, helpless, before the graze started to bleed.

Sam rolled over and buried a sigh in his straw-stuffed pillow.

It was no use, he knew three days later. Curse Hob Sandheaver as he might, the lad's forward talk kept poking round Sam's head, not about to be forgotten and distracting him at the worst times.

One such time arrived after the blueleaf trellis on the north side of the Hill had been snapped loose in a nightly storm, and Mr. Frodo came out to help him fix it back in place. While Sam untangled the long vines that had twisted themselves through the row of winter-beans and tomatoes, Frodo held the upper end of the trellis, feet planted apart in the grass that still shimmered with the morning's rainfall.

That bit of cloudburst had done both the flowers and the vegetable patch plenty of wholesome good, Sam noted with satisfaction, brief though it was. All about them, the garden gleamed in deeper greens and merry splashes of colour. But by now, the sun glared out of a cloudless sky again, drawing a sweat in no time, and Mr. Frodo's shirt clung to his chest and back in the most wanton manner. Sam could see it stretch and shift on his skin as he settled a loose peg back into the ground, at once wrestling the trellis closer toward it.

"Sam, I think we'll need a bit of twine too," he called, half turning. Straggling curls stuck to his face, and a light flush glowed in his cheeks. "This loop here is so frayed as to be almost worn through -- we're fortunate the wind didn't tear it any sooner."

"Yes, sir," Sam murmured, "I'll get it right away..." But he wasn't moving, and Frodo sent him a wide smile.

"No, let's set the trellis back in place first--" He tossed his head, shaking dark curls out of his face, "--and then see to it that it's properly fastened."

Sam nodded, a spot of embarrassed warmth already crawling up from his neck. Just where's your mind off to, Sam Gamgee? But he knew all too well what was addling his wits and grabbed the trellis somewhat harsh to escape this bout of distraction.

"A little more to the right," Frodo said over his shoulder. "There..."

He straightened, eyes still on his handiwork, and set his foot on a loose tuft below that quivered and gave way. Before Sam could call out a warning, Mr. Frodo was skidding downslope on the damp grass, milling his arms, his mouth open on a startled yelp. Sam caught him round the waist before his master could bowl them both over.

"Oh, I'm sorry, Sam!" Laughing, out of breath, Frodo gripped his shoulder to steady himself as they fell back a step in a stumbling shuffle. "The ground's more slippery than I'd thought."

For all that he tried, Sam couldn't bring his tongue to shape a reply. The scent of rosemary crept into his nose, and when he drew another breath it seemed to stream and sprawl all through him -- that fresh scent and Mr. Frodo's near warmth -- and his skin flushed awkward and hot with it. It took him another moment to notice that his arm was clamped too fast round Frodo's middle, and he dropped it quick.

"I'll get the twine now, Mr. Frodo." He breathed in fast, adding, "And don't you bother yourself helping out, 't won't be any trouble fixing it up proper now."

"Oh, I don't mind at all." Letting go of Sam's shoulder, Frodo sent a glance up the Hill. "Although I'm never quite sure how useful I can be." He chuckled quietly, curls flying in a sudden gust.

Oh, but you belong here, Sam thought, his mind awhirl of the lively greens in the garden, the sparkling red and gold of snap-dragon, dahlias and saffron. "'Tis a pleasure to have your help, Mr. Frodo," he said in the mannerly tones his Gaffer would use, "and don't you be thinking otherwise." But then he took himself off before his master could answer.

The cool damp of the grass tingled his feet and calves as he trudged over to the tool-shed, and it only seemed to sharpen the memory of Mr. Frodo clasped tight to him for the space of one breath. A quiver answered from a place below his chest. And there it stayed all through the sweltered mid-morning, while Sam tied a fast hitch round each wooden peg in turn, staunchly keeping his eyes off his master as much as he could.

You be more mindful from now on, Sam warned himself on going home that night, or no end of trouble will come of it. The evening had scarce begun shading into night, and a welcome breeze blew so fair that he was of no mind to turn indoors yet. At the lower end of Bagshot Row, he took the sandy path winding down to the Water.

The chant of crickets hovered lazy above the hedgerows, and Farmer Greenholm's boys were still busy carting pears by the barrow from his orchard on the western slope. Sam returned their greetings with a wave as he continued on down.

By the Water, only the slow lick and splash filled the cooler air. Sam paused beneath the ancient willow that trailed its thirsty boughs into a living curtain. A bit farther upstream, he spotted scraps of white trundling on the idle flow. Some lass was late at her washing, it seemed like. Sam heard the slap of linen being pulled out dripping and the trickles of a deft wringing. In a little while, the maid's voice rose soft into song to lighten her work.

"O sorrow me not ere break of day
When merry the lark is, and wind in the hay,
When gleesome we rise and cares cast away,
O sorrow me not ere break of day."

She had a sweet voice, and though the tune was one Sam recognised, he'd Not heard it sung with these words before.

"Don't leave me to bide by light of the moon,
When stormy clouds roll, I'll beg ye a boon,
In the lone of the night as I lay me doon,
Don't leave me to bide by light of the moon."

Sam stood very still under the willow's softly swaying branches. A fine chill in the verse had laid itself on his skin, and now the tune changed, shifting to a low, sad pitch that squeezed hard in Sam's chest, swelling with such yearning as he knew no words for.

"Lost all my will is, and long gone's the time, Longing my leed is, my moan and my rime. What will ye give me, ye young lads so fine? When lost all my hope is, and long gone's the time."

With that, the lass picked up her washing and strode off, still humming to herself. Sam stared at water now brighter than the sky, all aglitter with the bygone day. Breathing deep, he thought of Mr. Frodo on the slope this morning, and suddenly there didn't seem to be enough room left for air in his chest.

Sam leaned against the willow's pitted trunk and closed his eyes. Near by, the Water hurried along as it always did, gurgling against the grass banks, but the song rolled with the sound, and so did the heartbeat trapped to it.

What shall I do? He shook himself, but it didn't help. The woeful tune had put him in a mood, and his thoughts were running over with memories of Mr. Frodo. Shivers crept in the wake of his fondest recollections, not for the first time -- but his mind paid more heed to the foolish ways of his skin these days, and there was a trembling in his legs as though he'd race back all the way to Bag End and knock on the door --

Aye, and startle Mr. Frodo from his reading. He would be sitting in his study now, close by the window, warm candle-light aglow on his face. All quiet-like, save for the drip of wax and the rustling of paper when he turned a page. And wouldn't he be surprised if Sam came barrelling in at this hour, and in such a state besides? Or worse yet, what if he were well on his road to the bed and out of his clothes? Sam pulled away from the tree and crouched down by the waterside to clear his head.

For a while now, he'd felt uneasy at staying round Mr. Frodo when he dressed or undressed -- not that his master ever made a show of himself, but there'd been a time or ten in past years, and back then Sam could look on without blinking, same as he would with his own brothers and sisters. Though Mr. Frodo was nothing like Ham or Hal, with his smooth skin and limbs like they'd been poured from honeywax. Sam swallowed. If he could touch...

Don't be thinking that, he told himself. Don't.

But what if Mr. Frodo truly expected him to? Him being among the most patient and polite hobbits Sam had ever met. And if it were so, Mr. Frodo might have been waiting for him to --

...take his hand and look him straight in the eye. And what then? Sam rubbed his hands together. He couldn't even think of it -- of lying down in that fine bed with Mr. Frodo -- he couldn't think of it and not feel such a fevered prickle on his skin as if he'd been sun-burned worse than he ever remembered.

Is that what I'm hoping on? He wished he could ask someone wiser than Hob, and less likely to shoot his mouth off, at any rate. Yet there were no-one to call on but his old dad, and Sam knew well what his answer would be, every inch to the yard.

Once, last winter, he'd come home from Bag End with a song he'd learned from Mr. Frodo, and he'd gone on telling his father about such words as could pierce a heart for sheer beauty, and how he wished he could think up true poesy himself.

His Gaffer had looked at him a long moment, and wagged his head with a forbearing smile. Oh aye, and next you'll be wantin' what's paid with a star and a half, if your purse will yield 'em.

The sky had gone all dark now, and the half-moon swam in a patch of clouds. Sam strolled along the Water, chasing thoughts round his own head. Surely there was no wrong in wishing when he couldn't help himself, when he knew full well it was aught but idle fancy. But what would you wish for? he questioned again.

Inside a heartbeat, he'd dreamed up a sight... of sitting together by the hearth, Mr. Frodo's shoulder leaned to his, and their hands clasped between them. Of his gentle voice speaking those Elvish words, but closer now, a murmur right by Sam's ear. There couldn't be no happier moment, he thought, and for a spell it lay sharp as a taste on his tongue.

But it can't be, his good hobbit-sense protested. Maybe, some other voice answered, and maybe not.

When Frodo returned to his kitchen, a hefty tome clamped under one arm, a bottle of blueberry wine in his free hand, Sam had already cleared the table. Frodo paused to unbutton his cuffs. The day had been as hot as the last one, and a damp quiet clogged outside, seeming to muffle every sound. Crockery bobbed in the basin with soft clatters, quickly doused and scooped out to be set next to the pile of freshly scrubbed pans.

Frodo shook his head. "Sam, you're a wizard."

Eyes fixed on his busy hands, Sam chuckled. "Aye, if a big family, a small kitchen, and never enough crocks make a wizard -- though I doubt Mr. Gandalf would agree."

"He might not, but then wizards of his sort won't bother with dirty pots and pans." Frodo snagged a dish cloth and the stack of plates before Sam could argue.

"Will you be wanting mushrooms for breakfast?" Sam asked, as he handed Frodo the dripping tureen. "We're a bit short on them right now, but I could run down to Farmer Greenholm's with daylight and stock up on supplies."

As he stood so near, Frodo could smell thyme and basil on him, and the faint, mingled scents of earth and lye soap. "That's too long a walk before breakfast," he said, watching Sam's hands dive swiftly under and whirl the cutlery about. "Your famous cheese omelette will certainly do."

"If you say so."

A small frown hovered within reach, and Frodo guessed, secretly amused, at Sam's unvoiced cause for disapproval. He seemed convinced that Frodo had a birthright to the best of each season, never mind that his master had hardly been spoiled with such favours in Brandy Hall.

"Thank you, Sam," Frodo said quietly.

Their eyes met, and a smile flickered on Sam's mouth, a little surprised, but his glance skipped aside again quickly.

A few minutes later, all dishes dried and stowed on the shelves, they sat down by the table. From the open window, a moth darted in on wafts of warm air and circled the nearest candleflame with drunken flutters. Sam waved it aside before picking up his glass.

"They're strange things, those," he said, with a sharp glance after the moth. "They come out only after dark, and then they'll dash for the fire till it burns them."

"They do at that..." Frodo pulled up his shoulders, only part of his mind in search for an answer as he studied Sam. He'd left his weskit slung over the chair, and his open collar revealed a soft ruff of copper at the top of his chest, gleaming above sun-browned skin. From his bright curls to his fingertips, he seemed aglow with daylight. "Perhaps they're simply drawn to the light that they miss," Frodo said, entirely lost in contemplation, "and therefore try to soak up as much of it as they can."

As I do, he thought, wishing now that he'd held his tongue.

"Still a mite foolish for a creature as should know better," Sam murmured and lowered his head.

I suppose it is... Frodo watched him sip his wine, content to let silence fill the room, to let it fill with Sam's presence. It was a pleasure over which he lingered as long as he dared, but finally, he opened the book that he'd brought.

"I've completed my translation today, The Lament of Morglin."

It was a long lay of many verses, and he'd spent several weeks puzzling over its staves and intricate rhythm. As many times before, Sam's ear for cadence and rhyme had been invaluable, and his quick attention to the tale's riddled windings more so. While Frodo settled to read from the beginning, Sam kept himself entirely still, the wine cup untouched before him. And yet, like the brush of a shadow, Frodo could feel Sam's glance shift across him from time to time. He cleared his throat as he approached the final verses.

"...and there at last alone to stand, where land is lost and sky is dim, where gulls will keen their mournful cry, his arrows fallen from his hand."

He stopped, noticing the slight crease between Sam's brows.

"Not meaning to interrupt, sir," Sam started, "but... what's a gull?"

"A large grey bird," Frodo answered. "They live by the Sea, and close to big waters, I'm told. Bilbo saw them hunt on the edges of Lake-Town and found them quite fierce to look at."

"Somewhat like a heron, maybe," Sam murmured.

His eyes wandered, soft with thought, and Frodo smiled. He could almost see how the picture took shape in Sam's mind, quite possibly clearer than his own idea of gulls. "Shall I continue?" he asked at length. "We've almost reached the end now."

"Oh, of course." Sam leaned back in his chair.

"There by the Sea does Morglin dwell, in mourn of heart and hope for sail, and cast out shall remain apart, until the line of princes fails."

A long silence spun itself out after the verse. Sam sat with his face leaned into one hand, caught to his own musings. While his head remained bent over the book, Frodo watched him covertly, till Sam twisted his fingers together and muttered, "Ah, it's come to a sad ending."

"It's a lament."

Sam nodded. "So you've told me, but -- oh, I reckon I couldn't help but wish those high and mighty folk would forgive poor old Morglin. Or that he'd build himself a ship, even."

"It seems that he accepted his banishment, but the wording isn't very clear. At least, it isn't to me." Closing the book, Frodo rose to replace a guttering candle. From the corner of his eye, he noticed that Sam was fidgeting a bit in his chair, and fiddling with his rolled-up sleeves. "I wonder how Bilbo would have translated those verses." The thought stilled his hands and slid into the gristling silence that beset Bag End entirely too often.

"And I wonder how that must feel," Sam said, "to be off leavin' without a hope you'll ever come home." A short slap followed, as if he'd struck his hand to the table. "Oh, lawks -- but I'm sorry, sir, I didn't mean to say that Mr. Bilbo--"

"But it is true, Bilbo doesn't intend to come back..." Frodo strained for a smile before he turned. "He no longer felt quite at home here."

Sam watched him with a troubled expression, glints from the candle shifting through his dark eyes. Dampening the mood like this wouldn't do at all, Frodo admonished himself.

"Well, what do you think of my translation?" he asked, resuming his seat.

"I like it well, Mr. Frodo. It's both fair and sad as it ought to be, and there's such a fine lilt to the measure."

Frodo poured fresh blueberry wine, but Sam seemed agitated now, almost anxious as he picked up his cup and rolled it in his fingers, only to set it back down on the table.

Perhaps he would rather be elsewhere, Frodo thought with a small pang. Perhaps Sam's Gaffer was waiting for him, or he might want to join one of the hay-dances, out on the farmlands. At Sam's age, most lads that were so inclined would start courting, and what better occasion --

Frodo stayed the thought halfway. "It is getting quite late," he said amicably, "and I suppose I shouldn't have kept you so long."

"Oh no, sir." Sam's cheeks reddened a bit. "It's only -- I was thinking, well, wondering, that is..." And there he ran into bashful silence.

"Out with it!" Frodo said with more cheer than he felt at the moment.

"If it weren't me..." Sam had folded his fingers so tight that it whitened his knuckles, "if it were some other lad tending your garden, would you be sitting with him like this?"

Startled by that abrupt turn of thought, Frodo shook his head. What was Sam asking? "I can't imagine any one else in your place," he began. "The garden is the envy of the entire Southfarthing only because you're taking care of it, and I..." He broke off as confoundment unraveled into stark and sinking notions. If Sam considered marriage, he might indeed wonder --

"I don't know how I would do without you," Frodo said before he could stop himself. "Ever since Bilbo left, you've been -- if you were to leave--" With a guilty start, he bit down on the last of it.

"Oh, Mr. Frodo, but I weren't thinking of that, nowise! I wouldn't, never..."

Out of words, Sam reached across the table and gripped Frodo's hand. Bewildered relief leapt through Frodo's pulse, stirring into that warm clasp. His breath faltered strangely when Sam held his eyes a long moment. What if--?

"Well, I'm..." Frodo paused to let the tightness in his voice clear out. "I am glad then, that you aren't leaving." He nearly winced at the wooden sound of this declaration.

Sam withdrew his hand hastily. "Not to be forward, Mr. Frodo, I didn't mean no harm."

"There's no need for apologies," Frodo replied at once, still uneasy with half-shaped apprehensions. "After all this time, I hope you know that I consider you a friend, Sam."

"But that can't be!" Sam burst out. "All your friends are gentlehobbits, begging your pardon, sir, just like yourself--"

"And surely you're the most gifted gardener the Shire has ever known," Frodo interrupted, half expecting to hear about Sam's venerated ancestor, Holman the Greenhanded, as he had on similar occasions. But tonight, Sam regarded him with a stunned and somewhat furtive look. "You're born into a family and cannot choose your relatives, much as you might like to at times," Frodo continued, with a stray thought for the Sackville connexions, "but you can choose your friends."

Sam's expression was no less uncertain, and it occurred to Frodo that Sam had every reason not to feel as free about such choices as he did. Annoyance at himself swept a fine heat up his neck. So many hours of his days were spent engrossed in the ring and compass of single words, the appropriate turn of a phrase. Why had he no words to express how much Sam's company meant to him?

"Friends... share," he tried again, riveting his glance on the book before him, but it seemed all his choices were stalled between the trite and the clumsy. "Friends share their time, their thoughts, their joys and worries -- as we do."

In answer, there was only the softest sound, and it might have been carried in on the evening breeze. When he looked again, a deep flush spread on Sam's face.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to embarrass you."

"Oh no, you didn't, not at all, Mr. Frodo." But the fierce colour in Sam's cheeks and the speed at which he bolted from his chair all testified against him.

Frodo watched in puzzled surrender. Then why are you running away?

"It's true though, I did ought to be on my way..." Sam reached for his weskit and nearly tangled himself up in his haste. He stopped, a fretful breath lifting his shoulders, and a smile broke, radiant after a shaky start. "Good night, sir."

"Good night, Sam," Frodo echoed with a moment's delay. Sam glanced back from the door, and that look seemed all of clear substance, as warm and compelling as the touch of his hand.

A long while after the front door had closed with a creak and a snick of the latch, Frodo sat unmoving, save for the fingers that toyed with spilled candlewax. His pulse had settled back to steady, but his thoughts were still scrambling this way and that. Sparkling with what might be and the restless suspicion that he'd missed the true mark of the matter -- though he didn't quite dare to guess.

Sam breathed deep of the smooth, fresh air. From where they stood, he could see the Water glisten dimly through the dale, and the twinkling of a light or two from Overhill on the other side. But none were so bright as the stars, a myriad fine glitters dusted into the night, or the moon rising plump and yellow over the low lands.

"It's a wonder no-one else would walk out here for such a sight," he said, his head leaned back so he could take in the sky from end to end --though there were no end but the ruffled shoulders of the Downs, and the sky running full and deep well beyond them.

"Well, few hobbits seem to enjoy watching the stars as you do." Beside him, Mr. Frodo stood with his walking stick tipped over one shoulder, and his coat dangling from the other. After supper, he'd invited Sam to come along on a walk before the weather changed, though it showed no sign of wanting to as yet.

"They put me in mind of Elvish things, I reckon," Sam answered. "I do wish I could learn all their Elvish names too."

At the corner of his eye, Frodo's smile swam like a silvered shadow, and then he moved a bit closer, pointing at a bright cluster high in the East.

"The Netted Stars," he said softly. "Remmirath."

"Remmirath," Sam repeated, but all along his side he could feel the warmth of Mr. Frodo standing so near. Captured in such a spell, his head was drained of everything save thin air and what Mr. Frodo had said about choosing him for a friend -- his heart seemed set on wayward leaps and stumbles whenever he thought of it. He swallowed, fixing his eyes on a star. "The reddish one out yonder would be Borgil."

"It is."

Even without looking, he knew Frodo's eyes were on him, not the far-off sky. The knowing stung fiercer than the white glints above -- and not for the first time, as it were. Since that evening, he'd caught Mr. Frodo watching him in such a thoughtful manner more than once, though his eyes would wander away quick, as if he'd been put off his guard. Each time, Sam felt a breathless hope rise up inside him, and the full sway of what was only a fond wish before.

"Come now." Frodo touched his arm. "Our beds are calling, and we've still a way to go."

"We do at that, but I wouldn't mind goin' a bit further, if you like."

"Another time." Frodo's voice was low, wound into some thought of his own, before he struck off downhill.

Sam couldn't have missed how his glance slipped out East and North as it often did, like he might trace the road his uncle had taken. But surely, Sam reasoned over and again, surely Mr. Frodo weren't of a mind to follow. Not yet, leastways.

Wrapped in a gentle quiet, they tramped back towards Hobbiton till the friendly hump of the Hill leaned up close before them. Under his breath, Sam hummed the washing maid's song and that keening last verse. A thin mist crawled over the fields and meadows, as if it would cover all the world in the fretwork of a dream -- and his mind were half-tangled in it already.

"What are you singing?" Frodo asked when he'd reached the end of it.

"Only a sweet rhyme I heard a bit of a while ago. I don't rightly know how it be sung in full."

"It sounds... sorrowful."

Sam turned sideways at the hint of concern in Frodo's voice. "It does at that, but -- well, there's such times when it does a heart good to go floating on it for a space, if you follow."

He veered mid-stride as the path sprang a gnarled shadow at him. A dry branch had fallen into the road, and he almost missed his step.

"Careful, Sam!" Frodo had caught his elbow and seemed almost unwilling to let go.

If only... Odd as it might seem, Sam felt a warm tingle in the spot where Frodo had gripped him. But what can I do?

For all of Hob's clever advice, it was plain as daylight that Mr. Frodo wouldn't take his meaning from a mere touch of his hand. The memory still brought a cold jangle to Sam's stomach. At first, he'd believed Hob's tale to be all twaddle and nonsense, and Mr. Frodo would never -- but then, with Frodo giving him such a soft look and kinder words, Sam thought that maybe he would after all. Perhaps, if he made himself clearer...

If you're going to, he thought, now's the time. What with Mr. Frodo's birthday a mere week away and visitors to start hanging on the bell soon, there'd not be another chance of taking such a walk together, nor space for the sort of plain speaking he wouldn't dare in the company of his master's friends. And if Mr. Frodo did want to, perhaps tonight he would -

An anxious squeeze grappled in Sam's chest. He hoped he'd fare well enough with the kissing, seeing as how he'd took some lessons from Ruby Fargrove and Rosie Cotton ere they'd reached their tweens, at which time the mothers were wont to keep a sharper eye on their daughters. But whatever else there might be...

He hadn't an inkling what to expect, but his mind swarmed with vast, shapeless notions, full to brimming as the night-sky. Then they turned the last bend, and the gate to Bag End stood out like a signpost against the dusky slope.

"Here we are." Frodo stopped by the gate and turned back as if to bid him goodnight, but then said nothing more.

It was a marvel how his eyes would seem so bright even in the darkness, Sam thought, and he could almost believe those dandelions dotting the ground were stars scattered at Frodo's feet. The sight moved through him and left him so empty with want as if everything wished only to wrap itself round it. He breathed in sharply.

"Mr. Frodo..." It slipped out too quick, like a fearful hare in a hunt, but now he didn't know what else to say, all other words seeming to have fled after the first.

"Yes, Sam?" Brows drawn together, Frodo leaned his walking stick against the gate. "If there is anything that troubles you--" and there he reached a hand to Sam's shoulder, "please tell me."

Some threads of moonlight touched the side of his face, his curls all atumble, and such a longing seized Sam from within, it was too much to be borne.

"Oh, it's -- Mr. Frodo, I'm not sure as I can say--" But when his glance dropped to the sweet bow of Frodo's lips, his thinking twisted into a hopeless muddle, and out came "--would you kiss me?"

In that frozen instant after, he could not believe he'd been so bold, but Frodo didn't look upset. He studied Sam with wide eyes, and it seemed in the dim that his face ran a higher colour than before.

"Would you wish me to?"

From one moment to another, everything moved so slow that even Sam's short nod took an age and a half, and there weren't a chance of finding words at this rate. All his sight filled with Mr. Frodo's face -- the dipping of his lashes graceful as a raven-wing, the silvery shine along his cheek --till it was more than sight, it was...

Soft breath skimming nearer than the breeze, grazing warm on his mouth, and Frodo's other hand rising to clasp -- but the sense of that drowned in the pressure of his lips, settling so gentle on his own.

Sam kept his breath in, leaning awkwardly to avoid bumping their noses together, but then Frodo's arms drew him closer, and they suddenly fit -- mouths covering each other with no room left for breath at all --and it was nothing like those wet, skittering kisses exchanged at the Bywater pool.

Warm and close, it spilled through him till he was humming in every limb, and then, when he didn't think he could stand it a moment more, Frodo's fingers cradled his jaw and his tongue swept living sparks into Sam's blood. A gasp parted his lips to this soft, fervent plea, to cautious strokes and closer tasting -- such a sweetness filling him that he thought he might be drowning, and if only it would never end.

But it seemed Mr. Frodo had no wish to stop nor do anything but kiss him, his tongue slipping through all the secret corners of Sam's mouth, his hands firm at Sam's waist and neck. Only after a time did Sam notice that his own fingers were clenching and unclenching in Frodo's weskit, and his breaths had grown so short as to be hitching. A flurried heat spun its shivers through him, scrabbling up his spine only to plunge deep and fierce into his belly, till he finally had to pull himself off a bit, for worry that Frodo would feel --

The want in him wound so tight it was almost fearsome. He took another moment to gather wits and breath. On the edge of his sight loomed the garden gate, reminding him where they were. His throat was close on the words that he barely pushed through. "What shall we do now, Mr. Frodo?"

"Now?" Frodo murmured, sounding most distracted. "I don't know..."

"But you're supposed to." Sam wasted no thought on what he was saying. His legs had gone weak, and Frodo's hand still lingered on the side of his face, his fingers stroking up into Sam's curls. And his smile... it was more beautiful than any of the smiles Sam had treasured and stowed in his memory over the years. It was for him now, tender as Frodo's touch --

"Supposed to?" A small frown crept onto Frodo's brow and took hold.

Sam lowered his eyes a bit, muttering, "I wouldn't know how things be done in Brandy Hall, you understand" -- but he couldn't look away for long.

And it was a horrible thing then, to see that smile slip away and fall to naught, like a blossom wilted by early snowfalls.

"Well, I do," Frodo said, very quiet now. "Is that what you heard, Sam?"

A numbing cold rushed all through him, and he nodded, slow with its weight.

"And you would just... let me take -- my pleasure from you..."

"If you want, Mr. Frodo."

"No." Frodo shook his head fiercely. "I--I am afraid I misunderstood, Sam. Now, please, leave me to myself. I have -- work to do."

"At this time of night, sir?" Sam blurted.

"Well, yes." Frodo clenched his jaw, showing the serious will Sam recognised. "What I did was most inappropriate, and I should like to apologise for it. Perhaps it would be best to forget--" He cut himself off with a sharp flick of one hand and pushed the garden gate open. "Good night, Sam."

Too soon, he'd been swallowed up in shadows, and the front door closed with a dry rattle that dashed Sam's hope all to pieces. He stared at the gate casting stark black bars across the moonlit grass and Mr. Frodo's walking stick where it had fallen.

He didn't remember walking down the Row afterwards. It seemed like a space of black air and misery, till he was brought up short where his feet knew their home.

Sam dropped heavy onto the bench by the door and buried his face in his hands. But while his eyes might burn, something too strong for tears were clamping in his chest. Those moments by the gate kept stalking through his head, and there seemed to be no stopping it. The dazed, joyful tremors when Frodo had kissed him -- not at all like he'd kiss his cousins, that much Sam knew -- and next the loss of it would jar open inside him like a bottomless pit... and if he moved at all, he'd fall straight through the centre of its blackness. I misunderstood.

Sam pressed an arm over the sharp pain in his breast. What was there to misunderstand? But then, how could he deem to know Mr. Frodo's mind? What if it were all for the friendship that he spoke of? With his own head so thick of fogs, Sam couldn't hope to see the sense of it.

A low scrape of wood on stone sprang at him like a thunderclap. In the open door stood his father, his unlit pipe in one hand, his shirt loose over his breeches.

Sam gaped at him a moment, before he found his voice. "I didn't wake you--"

"Not to worry, son." The Gaffer put a hand to the small of his back, and his mouth twisted. "It's them nagging old bones keepin' me up late. Though yours didn't ought to give you no trouble, or set you moonraking half through the night." He lowered himself on the bench with a sigh. "Speak up, Sam. You're all out of sorts, and plain as a turnpike it is."

"I feel... heartsick, Dad." Sam took in another gulp of air to make his voice more than a hoarse whisper. "Mr. Frodo--" But he couldn't go on when speaking his name stabbed like a fishbone in his throat.

His father blew out a long, troubled breath. "Aye, that's as I've worried ever since you took to them books and dawdling about the house with 'im, instead of workin' the garden." He set a hand on Sam's shoulder and rubbed it with a deft, soothing touch. "The garden's your place, son."

"Not to say that it's aught that he's done, you understand," Sam murmured. An awful frost crept over him.

"Ah, I've known young Mr. Frodo long enough, I have..." The Gaffer rubbed his chin and cast a pondering look about. "I know he don't mean no ill, but there's good will and then there's foolish, and that's as does all the harm, you mark me." He pointed the stem of his cold pipe at Sam and shook his head. "And you in such a taking. You don't grow roses on a holly tree, son. If you try, it's you that will fall and break an arm or a leg, not Mr. Frodo Baggins."

If only it were all solved and mended with a broken arm, Sam thought, a sick, empty feeling seeming to crush all that was inside him.

"What do I do now?" he whispered.

"Why, you'll be up doin' your job in the mornin' as you ought to." His Gaffer put forth a heartening smile. "You're a Gamgee, and them's the sort born with a back strong as the earth itself. And a heart no less so, as your ma used to add. She were right, son, you'll see." He got up and tucked his pipe into his pocket. "Come inside now, ere we rouse Marigold, and then she'll be wantin' the tale too."

Blankets lay thick about him, tangled and heavy as his dreams had been. When Frodo pushed them off his chest, brightness simmered through his lids. He'd not pulled the curtains last night, and glistening daylight swamped his bedroom. It had to be going on noon already. With a bleared glance around, Frodo rubbed at a vague ache in his temples. Why had Sam not come in to wake him?

But that small riddle unraveled a long thread of memory and pulled him to its short end in a moment. Blind, heated elation and blinder hope, blown apart in one blast of insight. His stomach churned.

If Sam hadn't spoken... Frodo shivered at what he might have done, witlessly trusting that Sam followed but his own choice, his own desire...

He threw the covers aside and fled the crowding warmth of his bed. Any other place stood a better chance of setting his thoughts to order. His crinkled clothes lay heaped on the chair where he'd dropped them, and he threw them on without another glance.

I should have known from the very beginning, ran through his head, if I'd spared but a moment to think. Sam had always put his master's welfare above all else -- certainly above his own needs. Frodo's fingers tripped on a resistant button, and a cutting irony twisted at his thoughts.

Oh, he supposed that Sam would have liked it well enough, if he'd pursued what was offered. Sam hadn't seemed to suffer through his master's attentions, at least. Empty as it was, Frodo's stomach turned again. I shan't think of it. I cannot...

There could be no thought of breakfast -- or luncheon, as the hour called for -- so he went directly to his study and latched the door behind himself. As if it could provide safety from recalling -- things are done in Brandy Hall. Yes, indeed, he did know. Frodo wandered around the room without purpose, fingers pressed to his throbbing temples. At least that memory was amusing by comparison.

On a Yuletide visit, two years ago, there'd been a lad waiting on him, whose name Frodo did not now remember. At first he'd thought nothing of it when Seredic's valet offered to undress him one night. It took a few hushed words and a friendly touch gliding up his arm, to raise comprehension... and only a second to decline. Though the lad had been pleasant enough to look at, with his long russet curls and nicely rounded frame, Frodo had felt only a mild aversion at the thought of --

Well, whatever was commonly done on such occasions. He supposed the lad himself was wise enough to these matters, but he'd been of no mind to take instructions --

From a servant? Frodo paced to the desk stacked with books and papers, dust puffing up and swarming in a frenzy when he swept the foremost pile to the floor. From a stranger, he thought. From someone who would close his eyes and know nothing but my skin. The boy had been so very unlike Sam, who --

No. No, I shan't think of it. Frodo suspected that Merry would chuckle and roll his eyes skyward, if he told him. It was, after all, a very practical arrangement for any bachelor of his station. Whereas it was less than practical to brood over the high, star-spun loves burning from the books that seemed to be choking this room.

Frodo pulled up the old maplewood chair and dropped into it. His first few years at Bag End had been spent in the company of these books and cloudy, aimless dreams. But those distractions had drifted away from him eventually, and he'd believed them gone for good, until...

He leaned his elbows on the desk. Until he'd caught himself listening for Sam's voice in the garden, his sure steps through the smials. Until he'd heard the silence when those sounds were missing. And when Sam's smile kindled this feeling to such a sharp clarity, he missed far more. Late at nights, after Sam had gone home, he would sometimes dwell on shared moments and fold himself around their soft sting.

And I could have taken...

The thought slid a damp chill over his back while he stared at the cascade of papers overrunning his desk. All those sweet, weightless notions of touching and holding that swirled in his head like down on some days. All of this, entrammeled in duty and convenience.

It's entirely impossible. You knew that before the last night. Frodo picked up the nearest book and began drifting through the pages. They were filled with Bilbo's neat, round hand. Words flowed past, unattached names of mountains, roads and rivers. What would Bilbo say, if he was here now?

A clear memory shot into his mind, of a picnic with his uncle several years before he'd moved to Bag End. On a spring jaunt down the Brandywine, they'd somehow wound up in a conversation on matters of marriage and match-making. How old was I? Sixteen, seventeen? It had been none too serious, but then he'd asked, "And lads don't court each other?"

Bilbo had stared at him a full moment, his cheeks puffed out with stifled laughter till they were round as ripe apples. "Frodo, my boy, your head is certainly full of the most curious questions. And if you aren't taking after your mother in that regard..." Bilbo's abrupt amusement softened to a smile. "Ah well, don't mind your silly old uncle."

"Well, do they?" Frodo had insisted.

"Not that I ever heard." Bilbo looked across the river, apparently mulling over his answer. "You see, there is plenty of difference between the lads and the lasses -- yes, yes, you've noticed that for yourself, don't tell me! But when you're courting a lass--" he fluttered his hands, "it's a chance to see if the match works out, if you will." One corner of his mouth crinkled and twitched. Frodo supposed that his uncle doubted the effort's worth, or perhaps his own attempts had been less than promising. "I daresay you'd need none of that with another lad, see, because -- well, because you're alike."

The younger Frodo hadn't been entirely convinced though. Among his many cousins in Brandy Hall, he never felt truly alike.

And that still has not changed, he thought now. But if Bilbo had considered his question odd, then the idea of courting one's gardener --

Yes. Unreasonable. Unthinkable. And for quite a while, he had managed to convince himself that friendship and gratitude more than accounted for his desire to keep Sam near.

Sam's company stood between the restful solitude of Bag End and the sharper edge of loneliness. He could trust Sam with anything that concerned him. But gratitude did not explain his unsettling dreams, or the slow bursts of happiness when he could make Sam smile. Nor did it explain what he had felt last night.

Enough of this. Frodo reached across the desk to open the window. A grass-scented breeze wound in, relieving the dusty air -- and sliced past with the sharp sound of clippers. For several moments, Frodo stood frozen to the spot. Sam had come to work today...

Of course he had. Sam would never neglect the garden that thrived on his attention more than rain or sunlight. Leaning past the window-sill, Frodo angled a look around the profuse nasturtiums. His back turned to the smials, Sam was busy by the gooseberries, but there seemed to be a laboured slowness to his movements, a dull quiet hanging over him.

The sight sank like a stone into Frodo's mind. He offered so much, and I -- how could he understand? The memory shivered up his chest with a stirring power of its own. How Sam's mouth opened so sweetly against his, his own throat thick with a tremulous pulse while he'd kissed Sam like --

Well, he had never kissed anyone like this before. And if he'd thought previously that he would be content to share those quiet evenings in the kitchen -- that self-deception had shattered on the brink of one moment. I never thought he would want me, and then...

And how much longer will you stand here and pity yourself? With a brisk half-turn, Frodo removed himself from the window. This situation couldn't be brushed aside with bland courtesy and false colouring. He was responsible, and he would right things between them somehow. But first... first he would have to compose himself.

His chance came within the hour, when Sam started to trim the overflowing drakespur in the window-boxes by the front entrance.

"I've made tea." Frodo leaned around the open door, and yes, it was too early for tea, but the handiest excuse would have to serve now. "Would you like a cup?"

One hand still on the box, Sam sent only the briefest glance and a muffle-voiced 'thank you' in his direction. The hunch of his shoulders spelled how he would rather decline, but he followed Frodo inside after cleaning his hands on a rag.

Caught in a chafing discomfort, Frodo kept his mind on pouring the tea without splashing half of it past the cups. When he looked up, Sam hadn't moved an inch from the kitchen doorstep, his lively face very still and tight, so that nothing showed save for a flicker --

Was it desperation? And it might well be, Frodo told himself sternly. After his own ungracious behaviour the night before, Sam might fear for his job, and that worry had to be unrooted as quickly as possible.

"Why don't you take a seat?" Frodo bit his lip. Whatever he said now was bound to emerge feeble and stilted. I wish it hadn't happened, I wish I could...

Eyes downcast, Sam came forward and stopped by the table. "I'm sorry, Mr. Frodo, and I--I ought to've borne up and said so earlier, and for that I'm sorry too."

"Oh no, Sam, it's for me to apologize!" Frodo heard the wavering in his voice and paused for a quick breath. "I should have... expressed myself more clearly. This misunderstanding is not your fault at all." To keep his hands occupied, he went and returned the kettle to the hob. The stifled quiet had closed about them again in an instant. "Sam, might I ask... who put that notion into your head? That you should offer me such... favours."

"Hob Sandheaver, sir. He works for Mr. Roderic up in Newbury." Sam's head lifted slowly, and Frodo had never seen his eyes so listless, and dim with shame. "He says it's common enough, out away in Buckland."

"I see." If the words had fallen to dust in his mouth, they couldn't have grown any drier. Don't trouble yourself over such a small matter, he should say, it was nothing; but even now, Frodo could not force himself to such a glaring untruth.

"It weren't for -- I didn't mean--" Sam clasped his hands together, and a sharp unhappiness wrung his face. "Mr. Frodo, I don't need no fine clothes or a new weskit neither!" He swung around as if he would bolt but caught himself by the cupboard, his face averted.

Frodo's chest tightened to see him so distraught. "I know, Sam." He lowered his voice to keep it even. "And you are my friend. That hasn't changed."

He took a step forward and another till he was close enough, hands shaping the contour of Sam's shoulders in the air before they settled, with quiet inevitability, on sturdy cloth. And he could feel the solid muscle underneath, so tense --

"I don't know as I can be, sir."

Turn, please. Look at me. Frodo squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, over the unbearable tangle of last night's memory, of grief and querulous temper -- "Why not? Do you truly think you're less than any peat-headed Proudfoot or Bracegirdle, only because..."

Only because of sundry inarguable facts that he didn't need to set forth. Sam turned then, but he stepped back in the same motion so that Frodo's hands fell limp to his sides. Perhaps Sam would agree that such trifles as birth and property rightly accounted for all the difference --Frodo didn't think he could stand to hear it.

"Sam, you don't really believe that such a--" Whatever he might have said faded in his throat, quenched in denial and resentment. "That so very little is all you should hope for?"

"Oh, I--I'd wish it to be all flowers and songs," Sam said thickly, his glance swerving aside again, "and stars and trumpets..." The rough edge in his voice prickled on Frodo's skin as he waited, strangely breathless again. "But -- see, my Gaffer's right. Here I am, going on about things as aren't proper for a Gamgee--"

"But, Sam..." Frodo shook his head, uncertain why those words stung more than any other, or why such obstinacy surged in their wake, wild enough to be hope -- "You've always wished to know and to learn, even when it wasn't exactly... proper."

"Aye, so I have. But if I go on like this, I'll be losin' my place... and that means losing everything, I reckon." Sam straightened his back and held Frodo's eyes for the first time. "I'm sorry for not minding my place, Mr. Frodo, truly I am, and I promise you, it won't happen again."

Faced with that steady look, Frodo swallowed his rash protest. Sam had chosen his own responsibility, and to deny it would only add to the injury he'd already caused. "Yes," he said. "I understand. And I'm very sorry myself."

When Sam dipped his head, it was hard to tell if a small measure of relief accounted for his sagging shoulders. "Then, if you don't mind, I'll be back to--"

Before he could finish, the front door rumbled open and a riot of voices burst in.

"Frodo?" Merry's call rose above Fredegar's puffed halloo! and a pitched laugh that could only be Pippin's.

They stormed the kitchen in a flurry of shouts and laughter, all three of them laden with bags, parcels and baskets, their faces flushed from the tramp up the Hill.

"Frodo! What are you -- Here." Merry shoved a small sack in Sam's direction, grinning widely. "Hold, Sam. We've left more supplies outside the door that would be safer in the cellars."

"Yes, Mr. Merry." After brief inspection, Sam placed the sack beside the pannier full of roots and taters.

"Don't look so startled, Frodo!" Merry rubbed his hands. "It's less than a week until your birthday. We're expecting a fine party."

"And we thought we'd help with the preparations," Pippin added.

"Oh, of course." Frodo cleared his throat. "How thoughtful of you."

Merry flung an arm over his shoulders and Pippin planted a wet kiss on his cheek, and he couldn't help but be glad for their raucous, cheerful presence. When he turned, Sam had left the kitchen and could be heard at the front door, rummaging through what stores and provender had been left on the porch.

"Frodo's overjoyed to see us, Merry," Pippin said with a wink. "He'll jump up on the table in a second if we don't hold him down."

"Oh, stop teasing an old hobbit!" With a shaky laugh, Frodo grabbed Pippin's scarf and yanked. "You have grown again."

"And his mouth is growing bigger with every added inch," Freddy remarked, moving out of the cousins' shadow to plunk his knapsack on the table. "Hullo, Frodo. How are you keeping?"

"Oh, I shouldn't complain." And he managed to make it sound wry enough, apparently. Freddy chuckled as he slumped into the nearest chair.

"Ah, Bag End!" Merry stretched his arms above his head. "I don't know how you stand the constant quiet, Frodo, but every once in a while, it seems like the perfect place to be."

Not today. You wouldn't want to wear my skin. Frodo mustered the smile his friends and cousins deserved. "Now that you are here, I doubt there will be much quiet to speak of."

Instantly proving his point, Pippin launched into a vivid account of their journey, while Merry went out to help Sam, and Freddy unpacked two jars of pickled, brandy-soaked apricots, with best regards from Rosamunda Bolger. Frodo nearly dropped one as he set them on a shelf. He wanted to laugh at how wretched he felt.

Instead, he recalled Sam's pained confession, about all the things he thought he shouldn't want but wished for nonetheless. Flowers and stars.

Well, he would not accept them from me, Frodo thought with harsh conviction, not even if they were mine to give.

A few days later, Sam was coming up from the south end of Hobbiton where he'd fetched Bag End's washing from the Widow Bartle. Now that Mr. Frodo had visitors, his days were busy from sunup to nightfall, and Sam said private thanks for all the bustle and stir that kept his head blank of useless questions. He'd set his mind so there'd be no slip or oversight, and the days rolled past in a strange fog. And if he went from day to day like this, it proved his Gaffer had been right, as usual. Crying over broken crocks wouldn't see them mended.

As he passed the Old Grange, Sam gave a brief look to the band of clouds over the Downs, but surely the fair weather would hold till the birthday party. Not far ahead, he spotted Mr. Frodo and his two cousins ambling up the Hill behind a cart presently approaching the Row. A big one it was, near to a wain, laden with log-planks as were cut in the Bywater Woods. Farmer Thorney would be wanting those timbers, Sam supposed, to fix up his old barn north of the Hill.

As the cart turned the bend, Sam could see the brown pony strain into the harness, each toilsome step crunching in the grit of the road. Whoever was driving would do well to get off while they climbed, Sam thought, and lighten the load a bit for the poor beast.

He'd quickened his own trot and could hear Master Pippin's voice now, yelping out a funny story, it would seem, for Merry stopped and laughed, ruffling his cousin's curls. Mr. Frodo had stopped too, his hair tossed back in a sharp breeze, and looked out east. Next to him, Pippin bent to pick something off the ground.

"It was this small!" Sam heard him exclaim. "And not a sight bigger -- Frodo, will you look?"

A distracted smile curved Frodo's mouth, spilling into the soft afternoon as Pippin danced into his sight. "What was?"

Sam shifted the laundry basket under his arm and slowed, not quite wanting to catch up to them.

"Why, Aunt Dandula's mystery jewel!" What Pippin held up between his fingers had to be a pebble, and a tiny one at that. "I was just telling the story, weren't you listening?"

"No, I suppose not."

"That's our dear cousin Frodo." Merry chuckled, clapping Frodo's shoulder, and Pippin launched into a recount of his story when a harsh creaking noise rent the air.

Their heads whipped about in confusion, but Sam knew what only it could be, saw it in a flash of splintered wood and blurred movement -- that the pony was suddenly loping free, trailing its harness away from the broken shaft -- and the heavy cart came wheeling down, down --

He's too far out in the road. Sam dropped the basket and lunged forward. "Mr. Frodo!"

Dashing uphill, Sam couldn't be faster than the cart hurtling down, but he'd caught up closer, and it was all he could do to barrel into Frodo and shove him aside, one leap and another -- a burst of shouts all round and the grating screech of wheels on grit -- before the cart was on him with a strange whistle of air and a slam.

A sharp blow struck his ribs, and a hard knock thundered up his back, shooting dark specks all through his sight. Over the noise he heard --

"Sam!" Frodo's shout pierced the dust swirls and the cart's frantic escape.

What he tried for answer emerged in a sputtered cough, and the mild sky above took to spinning, so he closed his eyes.

"Sam." A hand on his shoulder, and the other groping for his fingers. "Are you all right?"

When he pried his eyes open again, Mr. Frodo was beside him in the dust. Somewhere in the road below, the dizzy shouting kept up, as if all of Hobbiton were hanging on to the runaway cart.

"Sam, please say something!" Wide-eyed, Frodo crouched over him, his fingers squeezing the blood out of Sam's.

"I'll be--" he started, but his breath still wheezed, and what else he'd been meaning to say got tangled up in Frodo's smile and the bit of wet shimmer in his eyes.

His fingers weren't too steady neither, when they crawled from Sam's hand up his side, touching gingerly where he'd been hit. Sam winced.

Frodo startled back, his own lips pressed tight. "Oh, I'm sorry--"

"Don't fuss, Frodo." Merry knelt in the road on Sam's other side, with Pippin peering worried over his shoulder. "Sam, does it hurt when you breathe?"

He sucked the air in deep and felt the bruised skin stretch hot over his ribs but naught worse than that. "No, Mr. Merry, it's--"

"Good, let's sit you up slowly." Merry put a hand to his shoulder, and Frodo moved around to prop his back -- and before Sam could argue with any of this, his head throbbed in a fierce smart.

"Slowly," Frodo echoed.

"It doesn't seem as if he broke any ribs," Merry said, "but we should take him home and make sure."

Their voices ran together in Sam's ears, and it was sore trouble enough to gain his feet.

"Here, lean on me." Frodo pulled Sam's arm across his shoulders, wrapping his own round Sam's back. "Do you think you can walk?"

"Oh, aye." Sam knuckled his eyes with his free hand till he noticed he was merely rubbing dirt into them.

"Here's the owner of the flying logs now," Pippin muttered.

Sam blinked. A sturdy hobbit he didn't recognise came puffing up the road, dust-covered, twisting a straw hat in his fingers. "Is yon lad there hurt bad?"

"We have yet to find out," Frodo snapped.

"Oh, it's naught to worry over," Sam mumbled, straightening himself, "I should've--"

But there Frodo shot him such a look as shut him up fast and good, a blue flash of anger flying at the cart driver. "The next time you take a shortcut over the Hill, I'll expect that you ask my permission."

"And see to it that you fasten your load up safely," Merry added, with a grim jut of his chin, "and that your cart is suited for its lading."

Sam could see now that one of those big planks had been hurled off the cart and slithered downhill.

"Aye, masters," the cart driver muttered, head bobbing. "And begging your pardon for the mishap, I should add."

There was no more to be said on the matter, and when Frodo shifted him closer, Sam felt a shaken breath on his cheek. "We'll get you home now, Sam."

He was glad to see the garden gate of Bag End, but not so delighted when he noticed the pony champing eagerly on his newly trimmed hedge. Then again, that poor mare might scarce find herself such a treat, and Sam's head ached too bad to send her off with a shout.

Mr. Frodo's arm was still clamped tight round his waist, hard as an iron band, and Mr. Merry was propping him from the other side when Fredegar opened the door. Neither let go before they'd reached the parlour where they lowered Sam down on the padded bench.

"There's no need for upset, Mr. Frodo," he tried again, bashful at all the worried looks as were crowding him.

"Much as I hope you're right, I would like to be sure." Though he'd gone back to such polite tones as he'd been using all week, Frodo set a gentle hand on his shoulder. "Lie back, Sam. Pippin and Freddy can make tea, and Merry will see about preparing a poultice, if it's necessary."

His visitors took off at once, in a shuffle of hurried footsteps. Sam breathed out slow and careful when Frodo didn't waste another moment and unbuttoned his shirt, pushing it off his shoulders together with his weskit.

"My... goodness, Sam." A hiss of breath fled through Frodo's teeth. Sam didn't need to look down to know the size of the bruised swelling he owed to none but his own foolishness.

"I hope this won't be too painful..." Frodo ran his fingers along each rib, giving it gentle prods, his jaw set so tight it looked near to clenching.

"No, 's not bad," Sam mumbled, "there's aught wrong with..." But when Frodo's fingers moved to his other side where he'd not been bruised at all, a tense little shiver ran after the touch, and Sam sucked his breath in deep.

With a frown and a swift glance to the door, Frodo sat back. "Does your head still hurt?"

Sam nodded and wished that he hadn't, what with his sight swimming as it did and the pounding picking up again full pelt. He blinked at a brighter blur louring over Frodo's shoulder till it cleared into Mr. Merry's face.

"We'll put some dipwort salve on the bruise, Sam, that should make it hurt less. And then you'd best remain in bed until your head has recovered from the knock it took."

"Yes," Frodo agreed, without taking his eyes off Sam. "You and Pippin can share a bedroom, can't you? I'll get fresh sheets--"

"Mr. Frodo, I can--"

A hand placed flat on his chest put a firm end to all arguing. "No. You'll not walk home, and if I have to lock you up, I will."

"See if he doesn't." With a short quirk of a grin, Merry headed back for the door. "I'll get the linen, Frodo. Pippin won't mind sharing with me, and I suppose I'll just have to suffer quietly through his abominable snoring."

"Yes," Frodo said drily. "I don't doubt I'll hear all about it in the morning."

And so Sam found himself afloat in the softest bed he'd ever lain on, all of five minutes later. Frodo had barely finished dabbing the salve along his side, and the muscles in his back were all knotted from keeping his breath in, when he remembered -- "Mr. Frodo, there's the laundry still out in the road--"

"Sam." Frodo's voice shook suddenly, and his fingers dug sharp into Sam's forearm. "Pippin went for it while we brought you here." Softer, he added, "You're not going to escape, so you'd best give in with good grace."

"I weren't thinkin' to..." Sam didn't bother tagging on the rest when he couldn't be all too sure anyway, and Mr. Frodo looked down at him with a smile made to brighten all the world.

"Good. There is nothing at all that you need to prove to me." But before Sam could unriddle the meaning in that, let alone reply, Frodo reached a hand to his head and his fingertips found the exact spot where all the ferocious throbbing were lodged in. "You've got a handsome lump there, my friend. No wonder it hurts. We should put a cold cloth on it."

"It's none bigger than the one that falling from the plum tree gave me last summer," Sam answered, as stalwart as he could. But he was strangely hoarse just from feeling Frodo's hand in his hair, and never mind the short flinch of pain through the back of his head.

"That cart would have hit me," Frodo said, his voice tight, "and worse than you, for I wasn't watching."

His fingers ran softly through Sam's curls, about to slip away, and right then Sam couldn't help it. He clasped Frodo's wrist, holding it there, that cool, soothing touch. "...and I weren't thinking."

"Sam..." Frodo bowed his head, but his eyes stayed fixed to Sam's face, alert and full of sheen even in the dim of drawn curtains. For a moment, his thumb moved light against Sam's temple, but then he pulled his hand away. "I'll go and talk to your Gaffer, to let him know you'll stay here for the night. He'll have heard the entire story by now, and he's bound to worry."

"Yes," Sam managed. "Thank you, sir."

It gave him an ache to the quick when Mr. Frodo stood up in a sharp twist of movement, and tears welled into his eyes as he watched the closing door. For why, he couldn't say, unless it were the harsh tension in Frodo's bearing.

He'd just about settled into an ominous mound of down-filled cushions when a soft trace of footsteps padded down the smial, and his heartbeat went into a flurry for it. Not long, and the door jarred open with a short creak, but it was Master Pippin that tipped his head into the room.

"That was a mighty fine thing to do, Sam." He beamed all over his peaked face. "You're Frodo's hero now."

"Oh, give our hero a rest, will you, Pip?" A hand grabbed Pippin's shoulder and hauled him back. Merry peered through the crack in the door, shining a jaunty smile. "He is right though, Sam. Sleep well, and you should be all the better for it in the morning."

Sleep. Sam pulled the blanket up over his shoulder, and looked at the wall where the window-curtain drew hovering shadows.

You'll be sleeping in a fine bed, Hob's words pattered up to mock him. Well, Hob hadn't foretold it would come about in this manner, sure enough. Sam shut his eyes tightly, but the memory proved stronger, as it had every night since --

You're a fool, Sam Gamgee. Though giving himself such names wouldn't help one bit. The memory of those moments by the gate was like a steep well in his mind, and falling down it no longer set his head aspin; it was giving in to a slow, aching pull through all his limbs. Beautiful, like light dancing on water and clear stars, for all that it hurt to touch it with even half a thought. The grip of Frodo's hand on his waist still tingled warm through the bruise, and the softness of his mouth --

Sam bit his lips together, over a breath that rushed up quick. He couldn't help but think that Frodo had wanted -- but not what he'd offered, seemingly -- and if only he might guess...

I'll be minding my place from now on. He'd told that to himself on getting up each morning, and as many times through the day as were necessary. But it hadn't helped setting his feet back where they belonged, firm on the Shire's soil. Instead he felt as though he were treading clouds that roiled and stirred about like his mind did. And he couldn't miss that the happiness were gone from Mr. Frodo's face when he came out into the garden -- and that hurt the worst of all. It seemed that he'd lost his place already.

The sound of lively voices spotted with starts of laughter brought Frodo to the kitchen where banter flew fast between Merry and Pippin. Considering the precarious manner in which they juggled pots, milk, eggs and various other items amid all that cheerful fencing, and the fact that both were used to the services of skilled cooks in Great Smials and Brandy Hall, they were surprisingly efficient at making breakfast. Fredegar was having apparent trouble to convince Sam of that, however, and it took Frodo's intervention to steer him to a seat.

Sam complied with a tight, lingering frown, either because he anticipated broken crockery, or because it embarrassed him to be served breakfast, or both. His head had cleared of all throbbing and pounding, he claimed, and the bruise wasn't no bother at all, but Frodo would have predicted such a reply anyway and found little reassurance in it.

He bit back a tearing yawn as he seated himself. His sleep had been less than restful, broken by confounded musings and, later, by one of the troubling dreams that left his skin burning and his heartbeat too tight and full. In the hovering grey sheen before dawn, he'd thrown off the warm covers and wrangled the nightshirt over his head, but slipping back into sleep had still proved impossible. Instead, he'd drifted between vague unease and disjointed thoughts that were all somehow twined round Sam's actions of the day before and the knowledge that Sam slept in the bedroom just across from his own.

"You're up very early," he said to Merry. "I was going to get up and prepare breakfast when I heard you."

"Pippin was hungry." Merry slid a plate heaped with fried bread across the table and sat down next to his cousin. "And his stomach grumbles so loudly, it's beginning to rival his snoring."

Between flicking bits of eggshell off his jacket sleeve and sprinkling his omelette with parsley and chives, Pippin presented his best look of complete innocence. Why he would wear his favourite blue jacket to the breakfast table ranged among the many Tookish mysteries that his older cousins had learned to accept without further questioning.

"...whereas you, my dear cousin, will squat, sprawl and pass out like a heat-struck toad," he countered gleefully.

Frodo smiled, glad for the distraction the two of them provided -- else he might have stared at Sam the entire time, watching for the smallest wince of pain or sign of dizziness. Or merely giving in to the temptation, when what he truly wanted was to look at Sam, after several days of stealing only the briefest glances and wrestling with a growing sense of absurdity.

"You'd sleep through a horncall," Pippin added, unimpressed by Merry's scowl. "I really don't see how my snoring can possibly bother you. In fact, I suspect you're making it up because it gives you an excuse for being such a grump in the morning."

Through the past two years, he had grown long-limbed enough as to seem almost lanky, Frodo noticed again. When Pippin leaned half across the table to grab a cream tart, his jacket sleeve hitched up to a point several inches above his wrist.

Quick to spot his chance for a tease, Merry fingered the patch over one elbow that dangled loose. "You're a scarecrow, Pip, do you know that? You grew out of this rag last summer, and I'm sure your ma's got a fine new one ready for you."

"So?" Pippin shrugged and settled back with his tart. "I like this one."

"If you grow another inch, these sleeves won't even cover your elbows." Merry kept tugging without pardon.

"I've stopped growing," Pippin claimed, munching happily.

Merry cocked his head, lips pursed. "The green in your eyes says you haven't stopped by far."

There was a subtle challenge in his tone, and Pippin had never been one to resist it. He turned to the side, peering at his cousin with one of his canny little smiles. "Is that so?" But before Merry could answer, Pippin grabbed his face and tugged it towards the window. "And the green in your eyes, my Merry, calls you a liar. Or you've not finished growing either. You decide."

For a moment, Frodo was sure he could see Merry melt into Pippin's touch, cream-smudged fingers notwithstanding, and something too private to watch seemed to unfold between one moment and the next.

"There's none," Merry grumbled, "not the slightest bit of green in my eyes. There never was." But instead of batting those hands away, he sat looking at Pippin, without guard, without question.

"Yes, there is." Pippin laughed softly. "Because I say so."

"Pippin Barnacle Took," Merry growled, "take your sticky fingers off me."

Freddy broke into snorts of laughter at that, and Frodo felt the same mirth take him by surprise. Still chuckling, he looked to the side --directly into Sam's eyes, as if the quiet pull he'd avoided all this time had caught hold the moment he stopped thinking to resist.

Though a smile had formed on Sam's mouth, his eyes showed something less simple -- seething as if through a layer of clouds, too raw to bear any single name -- and Frodo could feel a swift hurt strike home, jolting in his chest. It took another long moment before he could wrench himself away, pick up his fork and stop his fingers from clenching most unreasonably.

From across the table, Merry watched him with slightly raised brows while sipping on his sage tea. But the moment passed quickly, and conversation continued to flow steadily between Merry, Pippin and Freddy.

As soon as all plates were empty and all cups drained, Sam pushed back his chair and excused himself, since his offer to see to the dishes had been resolutely declined.

"I'll see you out." Frodo rose quickly, and if the others found such courtesy peculiar, well, that could not be helped.

A flawless morning washed through the garden and brimmed on the flagstones. Frodo breathed deeply of the crisp air that carried a first taste of autumn. "I'd like you to rest yourself, Sam," he said, "and I don't want to see you at work anytime before tomorrow, at the very earliest."

He'd spoken more sharply than he'd intended. Now he blinked against scathing light, and Sam's unhappy expression caught at him, caught and held --

"I'm merely worried," Frodo tried to explain. The guarded distance between them was becoming rapidly unbearable. "What you did yesterday -- oh, I should thank you for it, instead oof lecturing you."

Sam confronted him with a braced look. "There's no need, Mr. Frodo. I didn't do it for--"

"I know. But I would still like to..."

"--and I wasn't tryin' to prove--"

"Sam." Before he could think again, he had stepped forward and clasped Sam's hands in his own. And as quick as that, they were both gripped in sudden stillness.

Frodo wished for a single clear thought among the frosts that quickened on his skin. This close to Sam, he could feel a halting breath, and there had to be... something, something he could do. He leaned over to brush his lips to Sam's forehead, swift and light, but when he drew back, Sam had closed his eyes, and Frodo's own breath thinned to a thread. How could he hope to guess at the thoughts -- the feelings -- that tightened those feather creases at the corners of Sam's eyes? All the things he does for me -- and what if he didn't understand, had merely presumed to know? What if Sam--?

Frodo grappled for the support of a firm conviction. I would rather have nothing if I can't have --

He pressed Sam's hands gently and let go, before the moment could stretch into renewed awkwardness. Sam's face remained utterly quiet as he lifted his head and nodded. "I'll be back tomorrow then. Mr. Frodo."

Yes, Sam. Frodo watched him walk down to the gate and for the moment did not care if Sam noticed. He felt the silence inside himself in clear, solid shape, a barrier that wouldn't budge at the light push of mere intent. He'd learned in Brandy Hall that the most desperate wishing couldn't mend a loss, and for a certain kind of emptiness, there was no remedy. But those unsettled beats within his ribs stirred at the silence, troubling it with too many questions.

Throughout the past days, he'd thought only to bolt down what had been torn loose by a single kiss. Perhaps he'd not listened at all to Sam, in his desire to gain safe footing once more.

What if I only lack the courage? Frodo turned back inside, hoping that those spots of colour on his cheeks didn't glow quite so hot as they felt.

It was a fine night, just as Mr. Frodo deserved on his birthday, and the air stirred about softly, flush with the mixed scents that rose from sun-warmed grasses and loam. Sam was closing the gate to Bag End behind himself when he spotted a lonely figure walking up from the shadows by the Grange, atrot in a flutter of pale skirts. From behind him, a blurred strand of singing edged into the night, 'less it was his own fancy, still entrapped in the heated air and the jumble of voices in there. He wandered slowly away from the gate and didn't see it was Marigold, striding up to where the Row curved off, till she swung to a stop.

"Sam?" She pushed at her curls -- streaming and tousled they were, as if she'd crawled under a hedge or two -- and frowned at him. "The party's already over then?"

"Oh no..." Sam shifted from one foot to the other, "but I've had enough ale and wine besides to fog my head up solid, and that's best worked off with a stroll."

Marigold eyed him with a most dubious look. He'd be last to leave a party at Bag End, for a habit, seeing how someone had to tackle the cleaning up afterwards, and steer Mr. Frodo to his bedroom, if needs be. Sam pulled up his shoulders, but it seemed Marigold had other things on her mind than poking and prodding at his odd behaviour.

She sent a look up the Hill where the gold and green party-lights winked round the front entrance. "Is he still drinkin' Mr. Bilbo's health?"

"Aye, he does that every year on their birthday."

"That's so sad." Marigold twirled a lock round her finger. "Mr. Bilbo being eleventy-one when he left and all -- he could be dead for years, and Mr. Frodo wouldn't know it."

"Don't say that." Sam didn't want to think on it -- that someday Frodo might set out after his uncle and find him no more. "Folk wouldn't give Mr. Bilbo a day over sixty when he packed up and went. There's no cause for thinking he's not hale as a fresh wind."

"If you say so."

"I do." He tugged the ribbon that drooped lop-sided from her curls. "And what's this with you, running about on your own?"

"Same as you. Walkin'. Thinkin'." Marigold tossed her hair back, so the ribbon flew out of reach. "Are you coming home with me?"

Sam shook his head. "I'll be minding myself for a bit."

She reached a quick touch to his cheek and grinned. "Well, don't stroll too near any ditch. 'Night, Sam." And she was off with a saunter that set her skirts flying.

Hands buried in his pockets, Sam walked round the Hill to the north side where a smaller bump in the landscape overlooked Farmer Thorney's fields. The gentle slope beneath half a circle of tresslebush and stalky hemlocks was a spot he'd favoured a long time, when he had a mind for some quiet thinking or watching the stars come out.

Sam lowered himself in the long grass with barely a rustle. What he'd told Marigold weren't half a lie. Back behind his temples hovered a clouding buzz from the drink, but mostly from the noise and uproar. Several more Bolgers had blown in, then the younger Boffins and Baggins' from everywhere in the Westfarthing, and some Tooks, even, that burst out in a song each time they toasted Mr. Frodo.

The whole day had gone right like a race, what with preparing such a hail of meals, and Sam had been glad to stand guard over the sundry pots and baking trays as wanted looking after once the guests were flocking in.

He leaned back on his elbows, to look at all those stars sprawled out in the sky. When he turned his head a bit, he could see the softer lights of Overhill too, riddled glimmers that swayed from a thicket of trees. Dim they seemed, and farther away than they ought to be -- or maybe it was that he'd put himself in such a far spot where all things familiar looked suddenly small.

Mind your place, indeed. He pulled up his knees and hooked his arms over them. On the field's marge nodded the ghostly white of clustered yarrow blossoms, content where they'd nestled down. Seemed like this loon of a Gamgee couldn't stick to his place nohow -- whether it was asking Mr. Frodo for a kiss or getting himself run over by a cart. And that being so, perhaps some day he'd screw up his nerve to speak to Mr. Frodo, and tell him --

What? I can't breathe when you're near? Only this evening, when Frodo had come into the kitchen that flowed over with steams and crackling sizzles from the pans, he'd scarce managed to work his tongue round a good health on your birthday, Mr. Frodo. Not that he'd seemed much bothered... He'd just pressed a wine goblet into Sam's fingers and smiled over the rim of his own. All the cloudy blue of dusk had been pooled in his eyes -- and those ragged beats in Sam's chest just like the stumbling silence in between made it clear enough. He wouldn't say nothing.

But if he could speak... For a first, he'd wished they could bound back to the week before and be lodged once more in such peaceful company with each other -- but it weren't possible. He looked up at the stars in their lonesome glory and knew well enough that he didn't wish to be without the memory of that one kiss. It kept stirring and stretching inside, as if Frodo had breathed a change into him that grew in its own time.

Sam ran his fingers through the grass that lay so wan and grey in the night, and thought if he could never taste Frodo's mouth again, he'd just -- fade, like that -- so what else was there but to curl himself round that biding spark? If he could, he wouldn't ask aught but to stay, just for the wisp of a hope that maybe -- even if the day never came --

A sound fell soft into his thoughts and drained them flat in a second. Footsteps -- footsteps he knew as well as his own, even for padding so silent along the slope -- and by the time Mr. Frodo rounded the tressle-brake, every muscle in Sam's body was wound to spring him to his feet. But then, when Frodo stopped in front of him, the same confounded notions kept him locked in his place.

"Ah," Frodo said, looking down at Sam with such an expression as could mean a hundred bewildering things, though pleasure seemed to have no small part in it. "I was right, then."

And his mouth being already open, Sam asked, "How did you--?"

"Know where to look for you? I merely followed my best guess. I had noticed that you like it here." Frodo took a step closer and nodded at the spot beside Sam. "Do you mind if I--?"

"Oh no, why should--" But he'd already sat down, and Sam could use a moment to get some air into his clenching chest.

"Since you saw fit to sneak away from my birthday party," Frodo said, a trace of humour in his voice that glistened smooth as the Water at night, "I've decided to bring the party here." He pulled a stoppered flask from his coat's pocket. "Hopsbury Blush. Not much, but I couldn't have left with a whole bottle and not roused suspicions."

For all Mr. Frodo's easy grace, Sam found himself in such a fluster, starts of sorry and not-meaning-to knit themselves into a hopeless muddle -- but when Frodo laid a hand on his arm, it hushed him in a trice.

"No, don't be upset, Sam." Frodo pulled his hand away and drew up his knees. "If you'd told me that you were leaving, I wouldn't have had a chance of...moving the party, would I?"

Though Sam wasn't too sure what that might come to, it swept him up and down with skittering anticipation. He set his eyes on the field ahead. "But...what about your guests, begging your pardon?"

"I left them with six good bottles of Old Winyards to keep them company." Frodo chuckled drily. "They're quite content with the trade."

Sam clamped his mouth shut on witless protest -- though Mr. Frodo might be missed more than he deemed -- and remembered to count his own blessings instead.

When Frodo took a short sip from the flask and set it in the grass between them, Sam dared another sidelong glance. All things put together, Mr. Frodo seemed fair sober, not a wisp of haze in his eyes, and his thumbs were rubbing along the seams of his breeches as if tracking some errant thought.

Sam cleared his throat. "I -- well, I -- should thank you for coming, sir."

He helped himself to a swallow of Hopsbury's finest then, as though it could wash the hoarseness from his voice. It prickled fresh and pleasant on his tongue, leastways.

"It's a better place to celebrate than a crowded parlour, even if the company is agreeable." Frodo kept his quiet for a while and seemed to be enjoying the night and the breeze that ruffled some stray curls over his brow. "I've been thinking," he said finally, "about the things that you said... What it means to lose one's place, and that wishing alone won't amend that." He leaned forward, chin resting on his folded arms. "Every wish is like a leap, isn't it? And you never know if it will take you to high ground or land you in the middle of a bog."

"...though that don't stop the wishing itself from wanting to happen, I expect." Sam could have knocked himself flat for thinking aloud like this.

Frodo shook his head. "But it takes careful consideration, the wider the leap..."

Sam lowered his head to hide what gushed up cold as spring water and would likely mark itself on his face. All his wishing had roamed far past the range of Hob's tale, and if there were a note of warning in Mr. Frodo's voice now -- Oh, he knows, and he wouldn't want me to take a hard fall, bless him -- but the comfort in that didn't yield up a lot of warmth.

"It takes... courage too," Frodo added, and now his head were tipped aside, Sam noticed from the corner of his eye, though for what, he couldn't guess. But perhaps he'd reckoned it wrong, and if he might just ask --

"Then... seeing as how it's your birthday, what would you wish for?"

Frodo shook his head. "I should ask you that, but I already have, and--" It seemed that his breath had run out there, and he raised one hand for a vague gesture. "Perhaps I've never been as certain of my place as you are of yours. Perhaps that makes me less than reasonable about... these matters."

Like a wandering sungleam on the side of his face, Sam felt his glance, quiet and searching, tugging all that he was to it like a lodestone would pull on iron filings. And when he raised his eyes to meet that lingering glance --

He could feel the ground shift under him, just a bit, but it shot a live tremor into his spine. Where's my place now? There was only one answer to that, and he'd given it himself many times over, even if it scarce took words. Where could it ever be but here, beside him? Though the truth of that hadn't changed, it didn't stop those quavers in the ground neither. don't need to be, was what he couldn't say, but mayhap some part of it showed on his face that Frodo could unravel better than he.

A tight smile settled on his mouth. "Now... Sam, I'm here because --well, it's my birthday, and I haven't given you anything yet."

"There'll be time for that tomorrow, I expect, Mr. Frodo." As near as Sam could tell, he wasn't carrying anything more about his person, and he'd far rather stay here than turn back into Bag End. "Not meaning to--"

"I don't think it can wait that long," Frodo said softly.

And if that didn't send his thoughts whirling like dandelion puffs on a breeze -- not for the words on their own but the tense quiver behind them. Frodo straightened his shoulders a bit, and then Sam couldn't look on any longer, his whole body taut as a plucked string that sang nothing but now -- now --

"Well, I--I fear my voice wouldn't do justice to any song right now," Frodo started, "and cutting the very flowers you've grown for me would hardly seem appropriate. The trumpets, now..."

At that moment, Sam would have sworn he heard the smile in Frodo's voice, and something else besides, something that eased into the night like ripples and chased a shiver round his stomach.

"Trumpets would raise an awful lot of alarm at this hour," Frodo went on. "That leaves me with very little to give you..."

Sam wanted to protest, but every word stopped dead in his throat when the lightest touch fell on his shoulder -- and dropped away again, almost anxious.

"All I have is..." Frodo broke off, his voice faltering a little. "Look up, Sam. Can you see the Sickle?"

Struck mute like a stone, Sam nodded. His glance followed Mr. Frodo's Raised hand and the line he drew with his finger, tracing out from the bright arc to a smaller, twinkling light that shone all by itself.

"If I could, I would give you this star, Sam. This is the one I look at when I think of you..."

Sam's mouth fell open on a lost breath. His own words whirled about him -- given back plentiful and alight with proomise -- and all he could do was look at Frodo. A high colour bloomed in his cheeks, and no mistaking it, even in this half-light. "Then... I--I did ought to give you them all," he murmured, "there's not a one..."

He had to stop there, he was so choked up, but he didn't have to go on when Frodo's smile grew soft out of the dimness. His hand reached across, his fingers found Sam's wrist and slid up slow from there, crawling across the crinkles in his sleeve -- and his own arm lifted into the motion.

"It wasn't only..." Frodo started to ask, in a voice gone husky, like a curl of smoke on the air. Sam shook his head, every thought blown clear from it.

"--what you heard about--"

"Oh no, not but--" And he found another start of breath to stammer, "Only I couldn't -- I could never say..."

"You don't have to, Sam." Frodo leaned nearer by an inch or two. "We... we'll find out..."

Where it's all leading, Sam thought. There was a clear path now where there'd been only silence before, his hand on Frodo's arm, and Frodo's on his shoulder, clasped tight.

Sam closed his eyes, his breath aflutter as he waited, and it seemed all the stars had dropped out of the sky to crawl and dazzle under his skin.

His senses were sharpened to such a pitch that it raised every fine hair on his arms. A rustle in the grass. A breath on his face, wavering, caught, just as his own was. And from the darkness, then, like a warm shadow scarce daring -- Frodo's mouth on his, as if the distance had never been.

And the dark was so deep now, so quiet, filled only with that bit of trembling pressure, of sweet moving warmth, filling him to his fingertips and his toes. His lips parted into Frodo's, settled into a sigh that faltered first, then flowed forward -- and he tasted wine, the mere tease of it on his lower lip, a sweep and a lick, taken in with a gasp, till the full taste burst suddenly on his tongue, spiced and heated, and trickled all the way to his stomach. Frodo's tongue had slipped inside, seeking his own, and he answered back slow and dazed, he knew, too clumsy for aught but the smallest caress as their mouths shifted, clung -- his hands on Frodo's shoulders, clutching too hard, he knew, but pulling him forward all the same.

It was a soft fall, half-noticed, as he sank deep into the silence and the warmth of spent grass. Frodo's breath startled in the shifting, broke away and tingled Sam's cheek a moment before their mouths meshed again. Stronger now, the wine's tart edge and sweet fullness spread into his blood-current. Grass dipped round his face as Frodo moved, pressing closer to his side, one hand curled under Sam's neck to hold him fast against that breathless kiss.

He gasped, and thought he was melting into the deepest part of night, into the silky glide of Frodo's lips and tongue, into his thick, loose curls where he'd wound his fingers. Drunk and shaking with the tender swirls of Frodo's tongue against his own, through his mouth, burned by the fingertips that sought his skin, past the confounded obstruction of his shirt-buttons. Sam shivered, a thrill racing ahead of the touch and the circling of Frodo's fingers through the sparse curls at the top of his chest. Arcing low, that silver-quick jolt met with the quivers running up the back of his thighs, and somewhere in between clutched restless want in a tense knot.

A muffled sound drifted past his lips, but it came from Frodo, humming soft and entrancing as the drums in the pit of his stomach. And he couldn't move, couldn't but gasp and tighten his fingers in Frodo's hair when Frodo pressed inward on a breath that stormed him, for a kiss that set a flaming light in each far corner of his heart.

He breathed the night air in thick gulps when Frodo raised his head, fingers still busy at Sam's uppermost shirt buttons that finally gave way.

"Sam, please..."

He opened his eyes, and Frodo bent over him, his breathing short.

"...touch me."

There were stars in his hair. Skidding and skating as Frodo dipped his head, his mouth scattering heat down Sam's throat. Sam clenched his teeth on rough breaths and such a keen longing as he had to hold inside, running wild through the pulse at his throat, and sharper in the pit of his belly till he ached with it. And it flared even worse when Frodo moved so his hips were pressed hard to Sam's thigh, with a solid heat as seemed to sear right through the cloth of his breeches. And just this --

A helpless sound wrenched out of Sam's throat, such a sound as didn't resemble his own voice no more. Each heartbeat rocked through his chest with a fearsome power, and too much wishing and wanting poured out over his skin. His fingers were clutched to a fist on Frodo's shoulder.

But then the soft lips on his neck were gone, and Frodo pushed himself up on an elbow.

"Don't--don't leave..."

"No..." Frodo leaned his forehead beneath Sam's collar, his breath coming in sharp gusts that stirred their warmth through his shirt. "I'm sorry for--" He set a hand to the bone over Sam's heart where savage beats wanted to slam out of his chest. "It can wait. I didn't mean to rush -- and not here, where any one could walk up..."

"Oh, but -- Mr. Frodo." Sam unclenched his fingers and his hand made a shaky path over Frodo's back. "It's not that I--"

"Don't want?" Frodo guessed softly. "I -- Sam, I want..." From less than steady, his voice slipped again, " much more than this." He shifted, settling himself beside Sam, mouth brushing through the curls at his temple. Close by his ear, Sam heard "but we have time now, don't we?" -- and a happiness in it that untied a hundred knots in his chest, and just a few more.

"I do want to... touch you," he whispered, his fingers quicker than his mind, slipping under the cloudy weight of Frodo's curls to caress damp, heated skin at the back of his neck, and follow the cooler line of his throat.

He turned his face and brushed his lips where ever he could reach --the line of Frodo's jaw, the corner of his mouth, seeming to twitch slightly -- and though all those jotted kisses might be ill-aimed, Frodo breathed out ragged, and the smile that Sam's lips found finally, when they settled where they ought to, startled a shiver of pure joy into his breast.

To bring them closer again, Sam rolled onto his side. The fading bruise twinged with a jab down his ribs, but it went under and out in less than a breath. Then there wasn't aught to feel but the clasp of Frodo's arm round his middle, tugging him into a firm hold. A jolt of sheer heat spread and fanned out fast when their chests touched, and Frodo's heartbeat skimmed a lighter echo to his own. A startled sound whispered out on Sam's breath, more than oh and less than Frodo. He bent to touch his lips to the soft hollow of Frodo's throat where his fingers had caressed a moment before.

There weren't the words -- not even in poetry, less it be the secret flow slipping so deep underneath -- for the rhythm running against his mouth. He nestled closer, to feel it thrum and skip as if on swift wings, to take it inside himself with open lips till Frodo's breath roused in a soft rush --


He lifted his head, stunned once more by the glow of Frodo's smile, and to discover that its taste still lingered on his mouth.

"If you go on -- I might--" Frodo shook his head. "Oh, never mind..."

While he might have said that he did mind a great deal, Sam found himself locked in a smile of his own that seemed to well out of his chest and burned on the edges of his breath.

"Sam, before we -- I would like to say..." Frodo paused for another intake of air, and let it out again carefully. "The only place that I can offer you is... here." He drew Sam's hand over his heart. "If you--"

Yes. And the want of it flew like arrows, so fierce and bright as to plunge him in a moment of boundless silence. But he could lay his answer to Frodo's mouth now, breathing it quick before the sound hummed low into a kiss that went on to set their heartbeats pounding. Another deep flush started up through Sam's limbs, and a touch of boldness sprang from it. He pulled away for less than an inch to add, "There's aught in the world that I could want more."

Frodo's eyes flickered up from his lips to his eyes, then dipped aside, shadowed with a disbelief he were trying to hide. "Well, I--I can't say that I--"

But to make him understand, Sam could do nothing but kiss him again, his hands cupped round Frodo's face, and through the long of it, he could feel Frodo go still, then surge towards him with a choked gasp.

"You and your garden..." Sam murmured finally.

"I knew it." A glint of mischief sparked from hazy eyes. "I have a dangerous rival then." Sam's instant protest was swept away by the warm insistence of Frodo's mouth and his answer that slipped through a kiss and another -- "I shall do my best... to bloom for you..."

He tipped his head back, and if Sam had thought that the heat in his face couldn't flare any higher, then he'd just been caught in the wrong.

"You--" But he'd come to his wits' end again, and Frodo laughed softly.

"No, don't reassure me till I've had a chance to try..." He bent his head, resting his face at the side of Sam's neck.

Sam squeezed his eyes shut, and it was more than marvel to lie like this, to breathe the night scents woven loose and sweet about them -- and at the heart of it was Frodo, close in his arms. If any time ran by, he didn't feel it, but a tear or two trickled out over his cheek, and somehow that eased and unwound him, till the world returned in small scraps, soft and distant. Stray rustlings in the undergrowth here and there, then a short flap of wings. A dog barking in sudden alarm on the other side of the fields.

Frodo stirred at the sound and leaned up. "I do wish we could spend the night here, but..." His fingers played through the curls behind Sam's ear, as if an answer might be hid there, "...well, I should be at home when my guests leave, to bid them good night at least... it would be terribly rude not to..."

Distracted as he seemed, Sam roused himself to say, "That it would be, Mr. Frodo" -- then, as he sat up, "and you might catch a chill out here with the morning mists."

"That isn't very likely, I haven't felt this warm--" Chuckling, Frodo pushed up from the grass, and brushed a quick touch to Sam's shoulder. "But, yes. Yes, we should go. If you'll let me hope that..."

When he wouldn't finish, Sam reached for his shoulder in turn, in a hopeless scramble for words. He could easily guess now, and didn't Frodo know -- "if I--if there weren't a hope--"

"I couldn't stand it," Frodo whispered fiercely, his arm flung about Sam's neck. He leaned their foreheads together and breathed out slow.

Sam swallowed hard, chancing a kiss before he tugged himself back and up on his feet. They took a moment to straighten dishevelled clothing, batting bits of grass off each other's coat and weskit before starting back towards the Hill.

And it felt like walking through the trail of a dream to Sam. As if they'd wandered someplace far off, their fingers linked between them, slipping like shadows past all the places where folk led their quiet, comfortable lives.

He thought of the next day and returning to work while Mr. Frodo's friends would keep him company with their winsome manners and smart conversation -- while his own hands would be full of earth and what weeds were marching up fresh against the roses. Oh, but it wouldn't be the same at all. For a moment, with the fancied sight of earth running through his fingers, Sam thought it would be like touching him, every arching stem and velvet petal a remembrance and a promise --

He felt that softness of clouds under his tread again, and such a light-headed bewilderment as made him grip Frodo's hand a bit tighter.

"Sam?" He stopped, drawing Sam around to face him.

"Oh, it's nothing, Mr. Frodo." Nowt but that I could fly off on a breeze if you didn't keep me... "Or maybe -- the whole of it, I should say."

Though now he'd gone and stood his own words on their head, Frodo looked at him as if he understood perfectly, with a shimmer of starlight in his eyes. And like as not, if anyone could see them now, folk would hold it for proof that the Bagginses of Bag End were all cracked beyond cure, and the Gamgees set to catch up running. But they wouldn't know, Sam thought, they couldn't --

All the riches he could call his own, and what it meant to feel a secret weave under his skin, like the sheen and chill of daybreak.

"Yes." Frodo breathed in sharply and smiled. "I know."
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