West of the Moon

A Tolkien Fanfiction Archive

 

 

A Spring After Winter
New love is never easy.
Author: Cassiopeia
Rating: NC-17

 

The evening ran violet and orange across the sky, chill but welcome, and the first twinkling stars began to prick at the mingling colours that forebode fine weather for the next day. Sam trotted towards the shed, shivering a bit, a shovel hanging loosely in his fingers and a twine of rope wrapped around his wrist. He paused to check on the herb garden, and, satisfied, walked into the shed. There he put the shovel and rope in their proper places, put some of the other tools that were strewn on the floor away, and leant on the wall to gather a breath, sucking in the fragrant air that set the hum of his heart at ease.

Frodo, Sam knew, would be in Bag End, preparing a supper of pumpkin pie and herbed mushrooms and fresh fruit for dessert. Frodo loved pumpkin almost as much as he loved mushrooms, and, he claimed, could eat it every night. Sam smoothed down his rumpled shirt and sighed.

The kitchen was warm and filled with wonderful scents as Sam entered. Frodo was bent at the oven, and a moment later he emerged with a pie dish swathed in a tea towel.

"Make way, Sam!" Frodo said. "Or you'll get burnt."

Sam obediently moved, and Frodo slid the hot dish onto the table. "Mmm, that smells delicious," murmured Sam, keenly aware of how hungry he was. "Is there aught you want me to do, Frodo?"

Hands on hips, Frodo blew a tuft of hair from his eye. "No, everything is almost done." He nodded toward the pan of sizzling mushrooms. "They will be ready in a few minutes." Frodo smiled at Sam. "Go sit down; you've been working in the garden all afternoon. I can take care of things."

Sam opened his mouth to protest, but Frodo looked at him sternly, so he clamped it shut. Sam sat heavily in a chair, grateful to ease his back. He followed Frodo's gentle movements around the kitchen: taking the platter of fruit and cream to the table, stirring the mushrooms, pouring the beer. Sam thought on the last few days, the most wonderful few days of his life. A blush rose on Sam's face. Finally they had the smial to themselves, and had had the time to love each other in the most intimate ways imaginable. It was something more wonderful than anything Sam could have imagined. Like licking warm chocolate from a spoon for the first time, or beholding a field of wildflowers at bloom after winter's cold breath.

But all things must pass, and tonight would be his last night with Frodo for the time being. The day after tomorrow Mr. Bilbo would be back from his visit to the elves, and Sam would have to sleep in his own bed. Oh, Sam didn't doubt he and Frodo would have the chance to make love again, as they had managed before, but it would just be more -- difficult.

Soon the food was ready, and Frodo cut Sam a piece of pie and spooned mushrooms on his plate. The ate in silence -- it was tricky for hobbits to eat and talk at the same time, for often they piled their mouths full of food -- but they gazed at each other lovingly, secure in the thought of what the night would close into.

They left the dishes till morning, for there were not many anyhow, and slipped into the parlour to read. Sam stoked the fire and picked a book from the many choices on the shelves, while Frodo made the tea in the kitchen, and they cuddled next to each other under a blanket on the couch.

Frodo nuzzled on Sam's neck for a bit. "This," he whispered, "is the perfect evening. A good book, a warm fire, and my love beside me."

"Aye," answered Sam, inhaling the spring-fresh smell of Frodo's hair. "My Frodo."

"And my Sam!" chuckled Frodo, opening the book. "Now, should I read, or do you want to?"

"You," said Sam automatically. "You -- you have a fairer voice."

"Don't be silly, Sam," chided Frodo, "your voice is wonderful. But I will read if you insist." Frodo began to read softly, his voice as melodious as a waterfall, as sweet as birdsong.

The evening deepened around them, spinning its web of silky shadows, and the fire crackled cheerfully, embers dancing to and fro. Sam laid his head on Frodo's shoulder, watching Frodo's graceful fingers enclose the tome, and the faint rise and fall of his chest, and the way the firelight hummed over his pale skin. Sam could do naught more than look at Frodo: dark, almost black curls framing creamy skin; and mellow, thoughtful eyes occasionally glancing at him tenderly. Heat stirred in Sam's belly, and once again he marvelled at the treasure he was pressed against. Sam put his mouth onto Frodo's, and felt a chuckle of exasperation from Frodo.

"Sam," said Frodo playfully, "I take it you've had enough of my reading."

"Never," mumbled Sam, "I just needed to kiss you -- begging your pardon."

"No need to beg my pardon." And Frodo closed the book and answered Sam with a kiss, as slow and lingering as treacle dripping off a spoon.

For a while they cuddled on the couch, talking about local gossip.

"Old Noakes says Mr. Bilbo's gone off to see the elves again," said Sam, frowning. "I wish they wouldn't gossip about him so."

"Oh, don't mind him," said Frodo, squeezing Sam's shoulder. "He's just an old busybody who lives only for gossip. Although Bilbo does seem to visit the elves often lately."

"I would love to meet some elves," said Sam dreamily. "And see their big ships, tall and proud, rocking on the sea. Just like in your stories."

"I could take you to see them, if you like."

"Really?" Sam sat up, grinning. "Oh, Frodo, I could -- I could--"

"Kiss me?"

"Aye." When the kiss ended, Sam felt tingles spread from his toes to the tips of his hair. Frodo was flushing brightly in the candlelight, twisting a bit of loose wool from the rug in his fingers.

"Come to bed," Frodo said softly, catching Sam's fingers. "I want you to love me."

Sam, who could barely speak as he watched the candlelight spray through Frodo's hair, reached out and unhurriedly brushed a lock of hair from Frodo's eyes. "I already do," he replied, and led Frodo to his bedroom, where they fell onto the feather mattress, kissing and touching and releasing clothes till they lay in quiet anticipation.

"Don't ever leave me, Sam," whispered Frodo. Shadows searched his face as he drew Sam close, only the moon's milky glow giving light. "Stay...forever."

"I'd never want to leave," said Sam, cupping Frodo's cheeks in his hands. "I love you."

"When I'm with you, Sam, it feels like I'm..." Frodo stopped for a moment, gliding his fingers through Sam's hair. "Like I'm inside a song, and nothing else matters but you and me and our love."

"Aye, me love," said Sam, kissing Frodo's nose.

Frodo's breath tickled Sam's neck. "I want you to join with me, Sam. I want to feel you inside me." Frodo's words faltered. "If you wish."

"I wish," said Sam, desire and love breaking his voice.

Frodo's breathless chuckle danced about the room. They shared a kiss, a slide of velvet tongues and slow-warming desire. Frodo licked Sam's lower lip and smiled. "Wait a moment, Sam-love. I have some oil warming in the kitchen."

Sam pinched Frodo's bottom playfully. "You knew I'd say yes?"

"I'd hoped." Want flickered in Frodo's eyes. "Very much."

"Go," said Sam, kissing Frodo's neck. "And hurry."

Frodo shuddered but said naught as he slipped out of bed, pale and beautiful in the grey light. Sam lay in Frodo's bed in silent anticipation, listening to Frodo's footsteps, stroking himself shamelessly as he waited upon Frodo's return.

A bit of light suddenly illuminated the doorway, burnishing the room in a pure yellow light. Frodo ducked his head and hurried across the room, bare skin as fluid as fresh milk. He set the candle down and opened his palm. Sam reached out and laid his fingers across Frodo's wrist. Frodo's pulse was as swift as a frothing river.

"Me too," murmured Sam.

Frodo blinked, and a smile settled on his mouth. "I know."

They made love clumsily and uncertainly, the oil hot and slippery over their skin, moans trapped in pillows and sheets, muffled kisses tracing out heated paths. And as Sam sank slowly into oil-slick flesh, Frodo's voice sighed low in his ear: "You have me, Sam. Always."

And when Sam eased himself out and wrapped his arms around Frodo's shuddering body, they spoke and smiled till somnolence caressed them into dreams.

*

"Don't go."

Sam stood in the kitchen, cap on his head, his pack slung over his shoulders. "I have to go," he pointed out rather unnecessarily. "Mr. Bilbo's coming back tomorrow -- it'd be best if I'm gone afore he arrives."

"But Bilbo knows how we feel about each other. He won't mind..."

Sam shook his head. Despite the plea in Frodo's eyes, he had to make his way home. "He hasn't exactly given us his blessing either," he said.

"I'll talk to him," said Frodo. "I'll sit him down and tell him exactly how much we love each other." Frodo lifted a hand to cup Sam's cheek. "I know you're scared he will--"

"Catch us," murmured Sam, and turned his head to press into Frodo's touch. Only one month ago he and Frodo had begun to lie together, and some two days after that Bilbo had caught them in Frodo's bedroom, startling the old hobbit and almost giving him a heart attack. Sam had never been more embarrassed in all of his life -- not even when he'd walked in on his ma and da when he was young. Since then, Bilbo had been a little cool towards Sam, and had hurriedly made arrangements to leave Bag End for a while. It had taken some time, for Bilbo was swamped under with business dealings, but he'd managed to leave Bag End for a few days to visit the Southfarthing. To visit the passing elves, of course.

"And my Gaffer," said Sam at last. "He won't be taking to us as well as Mr. Bilbo I reckon."

"You are right, Sam." Frodo took a step back and fussed with Sam's coat. "It's been so lovely, having you here. If only things were different, without all this unnecessary tiptoeing about like love sick tweens."

"We're both still tweeners, and love sick too," Sam remarked, earning a kiss on the mouth from Frodo.

They walked to the door, silent, just holding hands. It was dark out, and chilly, but soon the weather would be warming, for spring was approaching, and soon it would be warmer at night, and they wouldn't need coats. Frodo looked a little wistful.

"I wish you could live here, Sam." Shadows dipped over Frodo's cheeks as he moved his head, chasing away the light from the candle flickering uneasily in the hall.

"Now, Frodo," Sam frowned, cupping his hands around Frodo's cheeks. "Don't make this any harder than it is. Shouldn't we just be grateful to be together?"

"Oh, Sam." Frodo laid his hands atop Sam's. "You're right again. I would just love to wake up and feel you next to me and--" He broke off, grinning. "I should be grateful, just to hold and kiss you, amongst other things."

Sam blushed, but kissed Frodo frankly on the mouth. "And they're wonderful," he murmured.

"Go, Sam," whispered Frodo. "And don't forget I love you." Sam took Frodo's hand, kissed it gently, and quickly walked out the door, before his heart called him back to Bag End's treasures.

The stars were prickling the sky above, scattered haphazardly as if thrown up from a fountain of silver water. Sam often marvelled at the beauty of the sky at night, the setting sun revealing pale jewels as swung overhead, but never changed their places. Like me, thought Sam. Frodo loved him, treated him as a friend, but Sam would always be just a gardener to the other hobbits, below Frodo's station. Not that Sam wasn't well-respected, for it was known he was the best gardener in the Westfarthing, after his recently retired father, but not many hobbits would see his and Frodo's relationship as any more than master and servant. Sam stuffed his hands in his pockets, head bent to his breast. A wind whistled up the road, into his face, stirring swirls of gravel. The air chilled his face, stole his wits, but Sam had a lot of thinking to do. Mr. Bilbo would be coming back from his trip tomorrow and that meant Sam would have to be on his best behaviour under his master's watchful eye.

"Hoy, Sam!" Sam looked up, saw Daddy Twofoot, the Gamgees' next door neighbour and waved. Daddy Twofoot took a long draw of his pipe, and leant back in his rocking chair. "Has Mr. Frodo been keeping you up at Bag End late again, Sam? I a-heard Mr. Bilbo's gone away again, queer-like, just leaving young Mr. Frodo all alone in that hole. What has he been putting you through, Sam? Mr. Frodo ought to remember he's not master of the Hill just yet, and you're not his common servant."

"It's not like that," said Sam. "Aye, I do for him, cook his tea and such, but I don't mind doing it."

"Well, I hope he's paying you handsomely. He ought to know you've got family to look after as well." A sudden image arose in Sam's mind, of what Frodo had given him only a few hours ago. The wind was suddenly hot and prickly, stinging his skin as does a rash.

"Mr. Frodo pays me well, but that shouldn't be your concern. Goodnight, Mr. Twofoot." He nodded and strode away, hoping he'd placated the old hobbit's worries. Sam was relieved to find the Gaffer had gone to bed when he arrived at Number Three. May and Marigold were still up, mending clothes by the fire. Daisy had been courted by one of Halfred's friends while Sam and she had learnt a bit of ropemaking from their Uncle Andy, wedding only last spring, and removed to the Northfarthing. Sam greeted them cheerfully.

"Why," asked May to Marigold, threading a bit of cotton through a needle, "does Sam come home so late, with cheeks all red and glowing?" Marigold giggled.

"It's a brisk walk down the Hill," Sam retorted angrily, "and Mr. Frodo needs looking after, as Mr. Bilbo's gone away. You ought not to laugh, Mari, or I'll tell Dad that I saw you and Tom kissing last week." Seeing he had said his part well, Sam left his sisters to their idle gossip, and went to bed. He wrapped the blanket around him and breathed in the scent of crisp, fresh-washed linen. A warmness kindled in his heart, spread down to his belly, finally finding the tips of his toes and fingers. And he slipped gently into a cheery sleep.

*

Sam's heart near burst at the sight of Frodo, breathing gently, brown curls hiding cream skin, just nestled in the coverlet. Every moment since they had declared themselves, Sam wondered how this fair creature could be his. All Sam could see when he looked into the mirror was dull brown eyes and a round, jovial face -- nowt lovely or beautiful about it. But Frodo often called him beautiful, and Sam would call Frodo beautiful back in return. For he was, and no mistake. More like an elf than a plain hobbit, more like a fey creature in one of Mr. Bilbo's stories than a lad who conversed with all the other hobbits as if he were one of them -- as ordinary as a dandelion in springtime.

And yet Frodo loved him, loved him as if Sam weren't just a gardener, but one of the gentry, one who deserved the finest things in life. And Sam knew he had the finest thing of all, and he would never have better. Sam brushed at his eyes, knowing he could watch his love sleeping all day, and never be tired of it for a moment. But he had something do before Frodo awoke. Sam stripped off his shirt and weskit, and slid his breeches to the floor. He gently lifted up the coverlet, exposing an arc of pale skin, neck to back to foot. And soft as a feather, he lay on top of Frodo, sliding his legs over Frodo's thighs, bringing his nose to rest by Frodo's ear.

"Mmmm..." Frodo murmured sleepily. "I hope that's not Bilbo."

"No," Sam nuzzled his ear. "Just your Sam."

"Even better." Frodo's face was half-mashed into the pillow. "I was just having a wonderful dream." Sam felt a thrill course through him.

"Tell me, love."

"It was hot...a hot day. I was lying in the grasses, looking up at the sky, naked--"

"Sounds good." Sam kissed the tip of Frodo's ear.

"Mmmm...and then you came running towards me, dripping with water -- you must have been swimming in the river -- and your..." Frodo broke off and laughed into the pillow.

"Yes?" Sam puzzled, wondering exactly what he had been doing in Frodo's dream.

"Well, your -- root it was...swaying as you run." Frodo buried his face into the pillow. Sam felt his cheeks heat.

"I'm sorry."

This made Frodo laugh more. "Don't be sorry, Sam. I quite enjoyed the view. And you came to lie beside me, and then we -- well I think you would know."

Sam took a lock of Frodo's hair in his teeth and tugged gently. "No," he said innocently.

"Should I show you instead?"

"Can't we just lie here peacefully?" asked Sam, regretful, knowing that soon he'd have to leave Frodo to start breakfast and prepare for Mr. Bilbo's return.

"You're a tease, Sam," laughed Frodo. "But this is nice, isn't it? I could lie here quietly all day." Sam held his tongue, doubting that. For Frodo's bottom was already rising a little to meet Sam's groin. Sam steeled himself, concentrating on covering the back of Frodo's neck in featherlight kisses. They lay for a while, blissfully, just enjoying each other's bare skin and warmth.

"Thank you, Sam-love," Frodo said, shifting a little.

"I knew you wanted to wake up with me next to you," whispered Sam.

"Not quite."

"Frodo?"

"I woke up with you on top of me."

"Next time I'll lie next to you."

Frodo chuckled. "No, I like feeling your bare chest tickling my back."

Sam pushed up on his hands and crawled off the bed. Frodo rolled over, one hand tucked behind his head, just watching Sam as he donned his clothes. Sam's heart thudded so at the sight, wishing he could forget all his duties and just crawl into Frodo's bed for the rest of his life. "I'll think I'll go have a bath," announced Frodo, slipping off the bed.

Sam made a move to make the bed, eyeing Frodo as he walked to the wardrobe. Suddenly Frodo yawned, closed his eyes, and leant against the wall, arching his back. Sam tucked the sheet under the mattress, swallowing. "See, Sam? I can tease as well," said Frodo, and he was gone.

Sam spent the next half an hour ignoring the fact that Frodo was soaking luxuriously in the tub and cooked breakfast.

The kettle was steaming prettily on the hearth, and the eggs were cooked firm but tender when Frodo returned, hair still damp and face heat-flushed. Sam noticed Frodo had put on his best weskit, made of brocade with tiny gold buttons; and his shirt was buttoned up all the way to his stiff collar. Frodo pulled up a chair and dumped a handful of papers on the table. Sam dutifully made a bit of honeyed tea, slid the eggs onto a plate and placed the loaded plate in front of Frodo.

"Thank you, Sam," Frodo acknowledged. He spooned a piece of egg in his mouth and continued to read.

Sam twisted a tea towel around his fingers. "Oh, Sam," said Frodo after a few moments, "come sit with me for a while. And make yourself some tea."

Sam made his tea and sat next to Frodo. "I'm reading some of Bilbo's documents -- tenant payments and the like," Frodo explained. "If I'm to be master of the Hill one day, I shall have to learn this."

"I thought you found this boring, begging your pardon," said Sam, taking a sup of tea.

Frodo's fingers trembled slightly as he laid the paper down and looked up into Sam's eyes. "It is dull and tedious, dear Sam. But I do have to learn this -- and I hope it will be a distraction." Sam felt the familiar shot of heat fly to his cheeks, and stared at the mind-numbing figures in front of Frodo.

"Do you think we'll ever be able to -- to look at each other and not want to...?"

Frodo smiled at the table. "I don't know, Sam. But we will have to learn to...control ourselves, won't we? Here, Sam, have some toast." Sam was about to protest, but Frodo kept smiling, so he took the toast and chewed. Frodo went back to reading; Sam dared to glance out the window. The sky was worried with tumbling grey clouds, not enough to cause more than a mizzle, perfect weather to get an early start on planting the pansies.

Sam pushed back his chair. "I ought to go fix up for Mr. Bilbo," he said. He had a mind to stoke the fire in Mr. Bilbo's study, for Sam was sure he'd want to do a bit of writing after his journey.

Frodo barely looked up. "Fine, Sam." Sam gave not quite a nod, steeled himself, picked up the empty plate and took his feet to the sink. He pumped water into the smooth, silver basin, giving half a thought to the luxury of pipes and drains. The Gamgees had no such service, and Sam would oft dream of getting some of his friends to put piping in at Number Three. But the Gaffer would have no such charity, and Sam knew he'd rather go without than ask.

"Uncle Bilbo!"

Sam caught the china plate before it fell to the water, and turned around. Mr. Bilbo was removing his pack to the table; Frodo rose and hugged the old hobbit, bear-like.

"I missed you, Bilbo!" cried Frodo, kissing Bilbo on the brow.

"My lad!" Bilbo laughed. "I missed you too. But I admit, I did not expect such a welcome." His grey eyes flickered to Sam; Sam dropped his gaze to the floor. "It's good to see you, Sam-lad. I hope Frodo didn't order you around much?"

"He did no such thing," murmured Sam. He looked up; Frodo was smiling encouragingly. "Would you like some tea, Mr. Bilbo?"

"Certainly, Sam, make it while I unpack." Bilbo ruffled Frodo's hair and left. Frodo came up to Sam, standing so close Sam could feel the tingle of heat shimmering off Frodo's skin.

"That wasn't so bad, was it?"

"No, Frodo," Sam unglued his tongue. "Just -- I mean knowing that he...knows what we--"

"Been doing?" asked Frodo softly. "Do you regret it?

"No!" said Sam, scandalised. "It's just--"

"I know," murmured Frodo, sealing his lips over Sam's. Sure fingers wound around the back of Sam's neck, tugging playfully at his earlobe.

"Mmmm, Sam, Bilbo's coming," smiled Frodo, taking a step back. "Better get him some tea to make sure he doesn't fall in a foul mood."

"Yes, sir."

"Oh, and Sam?" Frodo hovered at the door. "My room, lunchtime."

And he was gone. Sam managed to fill the kettle without spilling a drop of water.

*

Sam took a step into Bag End, heart in his mouth. He rubbed at the dirt smudge on his shirt, frowned, then buttoned up his weskit. All morning he'd been planting the pansies and, he noticed mournfully, had gotten black earth under his fingernails and on his clothes. It didn't seem right that his calloused, dirty hands would soon be touching skin finer than goose down, skin a shade paler than any hobbit he'd ever seen. But Frodo had told him that the calluses were a sign of a hard-working hobbit, and that they produced the most incredible sensations when Sam touched him just so. And Sam was apt to believe that, with the noises Frodo made and all. But now Mr. Bilbo was home.

"Sam!" Sam came to a halt. He spared a look at the closed door leading to Frodo's bedroom, and turned to face Bilbo. "Yes, sir?"

"Would you step inside my study for a few minutes?"

"Yes, sir." Sam closed the door behind him and faced Mr. Bilbo as proud as he could.

"Sam, my lad, I hope your time spent here was productive whilst I was away?" asked Bilbo, threading his fingers together and placing them on the desk. Sam lowered his eyes.

"Yes, sir," he answered softly, feeling Bilbo's eyes pierce him so.

"Sam..." Bilbo exhaled a puff of air. "I have something to tell you, a secret. But first you must promise me something. I know you love Frodo very much, and would fight an army of orcs for him. So you must promise me that you will never leave him -- that you will always look out for him. And not necessarily as a lover--" Sam felt a flush creep up his neck at this. "--Frodo's head is sometimes in the clouds, and he needs grounding. Do you promise me that, Sam?"

Little tears shimmered softly in Bilbo's eyes, and Sam knew his own eyes were blurred with tears as well. "Aye, I will, Mr. Bilbo. Naught would stop me -- loving him."

"Sam..." Bilbo took one of Sam's hands and held it between his own. "I shall be leaving the Shire. Not soon!" he added as Sam gasped. "Maybe not for years. And I shan't ever come back, I expect. But young Samwise, you must keep this a secret from everybody -- including Frodo. I will tell him soon, do not doubt. But I can see you have made him very happy, and I don't wish to shatter his joy with my news."

Solemnly Sam nodded. And a terrible thought arose in his mind. "He wouldn't go with you, would he, Mr. Bilbo?"

"No." Bilbo's smile was soft and sad, his eyes lost to the view out the window, steeped in memory. "He is still in love with the Shire. Perhaps if you, Sam, were not here, he might. Frodo loves you more than you shall ever know, more than the cities of Elves and Men and all the wonders of the Outside. He has found his place, and it's in the Shire. With you."

"I love him so," Sam said hoarsely.

"I know," Bilbo chuckled quietly. "Though I had doubts how much. Thankfully I was wrong. I was a fool, Sam, for what I may have said. Would you forgive me?"

Sam was in shock, that his master was asking for his forgiveness. He could almost hear the Gaffer's coarse voice telling him that he had nothing to forgive. But Sam had learnt something in the time he'd been with Frodo: that he was naught different from the gentry, except for the amount of money in his pocket. "I forgive you, Mr. Bilbo," he said, looking at the old hobbit square in the eye.

"Good, lad!" Bilbo's face slackened in relief.

"Begging your pardon, sir," said Sam shyly, "but what made you..."

"Change my mind?" Bilbo clucked his tongue softly. "Something the elves told me, Sam. They sang the Lay of Lúthien to the music of harps and flutes one night when the moon rose plump and golden above the mountains in the distance. And they told me how Beren risked all for Lúthien, and how his love for her was so strong he was not afraid to die for it. And I realised..." Bilbo paused. "I realised you and Frodo are risking a great deal... You must love each other very much." He turned to his desk and began riffling through a stack of papers. "Did I get any letters whilst I was away?" It took several spaces for Bilbo's question to connect in Sam's mind, so dizzy was he with what had just happened. Brows drawn, Bilbo looked at him, a puzzled smile catching on his lips, wrinkled fingers tapping lightly on the polished oak.

"Yes, yes, sir! I'll get them for you." Sam trotted out of the study, again casting a forlorn glance at Frodo's bedroom door. But, to his rue, his duties to his master and Bag End came before the heady delights of Frodo's moist kisses, and he took himself to the kitchen, retrieved the letters from under a stone paperweight, and took them back to the study.

Sam stood patient as Bilbo flicked through the envelopes. "Boring cousin...another boring cousin...ugh! Lobelia," Bilbo murmured. "Ah, one from Paladin." He ripped open the envelope, drew the letter out and began to read.

Sam cleared his throat. "Should I go, master?"

"No," replied Bilbo, distracted, the space between his brows crinkling. "Oh dear, oh dear." He sighed and tossed the letter onto the desk. "Paladin has written to remind me that Pippin will be coming to Bag End for his lessons."

Sam nodded, heart sinking. Pippin, Frodo's eleven-year-old cousin, came to Bag End twice a year to take lessons from Bilbo. The Tooks were more open-minded about elves and adventures than other hobbits, and Pippin's parents thought it was important that the future Thain learn such things. Pippin had a tendency to be -- lively, for want of a better term. Sam suspected the Tooks sent Pippin just to get the rascally bairn out of their hair once in a while. "He'll be coming tomorrow, sticklebacks!" said Bilbo. "And too late to cancel the visit, I'm afraid. Now I will have to prepare some lessons, and abandon the writing of my journey to see the elves." Bilbo thumped the desk, making Sam jump.

"Sorry, Sam." Again Bilbo looked guilty.

"Would you like me to prepare a room?" Sam ventured, timidly.

"Yes, thank you."

"Bilbo?" Sam whirled around.

Framed in the doorway was Frodo, forehead pinched with puzzlement. "What are you telling Sam?" asked Frodo, sweeping a look at Sam. Sam, in surprise at Frodo's seeming anger and awe at the light smoothing over Frodo's cheek, merely cast a gaze down to his furred feet.

"Pippin's coming to stay," said Bilbo quickly, handing Frodo the letter.

Frodo scanned the paper, then chuckled with relief. "Oh, is that all? I thought..." He hung his head, blushing. "I'm sorry, Bilbo, you must think me silly."

"Naught more than I perhaps deserve," said Bilbo, shaking his head. He stood up, and examined the rows of thick tomes in the bookcase. "I should start preparing Pippin's lessons." He snagged a book, blew a flurry of dust from its cover and flipped it open. "Go and take Sam for a picnic, Frodo. It's the least he deserves. And make the most of it -- this will be the last space of quiet in Bag End for the next week."

Frodo gazed at Bilbo in shock. "Bilbo, do you give us your--?"

"Blessing, yes my boy," said Bilbo. "I've learnt...some lessons from my visit to the elves." Was it Sam's imagination, or did Bilbo's eye glance broodingly at him for a moment? "Go on, Frodo. I want Sam back soon."

"Come, Sam." Frodo gave him a shy smile. "Let's make the lunch."

Pressing a hand into Sam's and linking their fingers, Frodo took a rather blushing but happy Sam to the kitchen.

*

They followed the curving path deep into the wood, snuffing the tender scents of shrubs and wild herbs growing in abundance along the skirts of the path. Sycamore trees led the way, their crowns empty, while the evergreen junipers let chips of light spill onto the path before them. Sam carried a picnic basket over the crook of his elbow, while Frodo's hands were full with a sea-blue rug, tasselled at its edges with deep blue threads.

Sam watched several thick grey clouds choke the sky above them, a warning of rain, but they passed overhead with not a drop of water shed, just cloaking the sky with a silver mist. It was a little cold with the sun hidden, and Sam pulled his weskit tighter around himself, chasing out the chill.

"Here, Sam!" Frodo stepped ahead to a bowl of short grass and nodding wildflowers. "This is perfect."

A short while later they were eating crusty bread and spiced eggs, and supping on clear water that Sam had taken from the little stream in the woods. The clouds were beginning to part, and often streams of sunshine fell upon them, warming backs and hands and faces. Birdsong and brilliant butterflies and herbscent filled the air, as if drawn by the same impulse as Sam and Frodo.

Frodo lay back. "This place is beautiful," he murmured, eyes shuttered. "This is my favourite place."

Sam packed the rubbish into the picnic basket, rested back on his elbows and smiled fondly at the sable-haired hobbit. Frodo, as if he could sense Sam's loving gaze fold over him, fluttered his eyelashes like a swan's wing beating, dark against cream skin. Sam tried to swallow around the tight lump in his throat, and felt the familiar breeze of warmness winnow his skin, caused by neither wind gust nor sunray. Through squinted eyes, Sam chanced a glance at the sun through a haze of cloud. So perfect it was, yellow and plump, with nary a scratch or blemish on her surface.

"Would you tell me a story about the sun, Frodo?" asked Sam.

Frodo opened one eye lazily and threw an elbow over his eyes. "All right, Sam." He was silent for a length, gathering his thoughts. "After Melkor and Ungoliant destroyed the Two Trees of Valinor, Yavanna took the fruit from the dying trees, and they were put in vessels so their radiance would never diminish. The golden fruit of Laurelin was set by Varda into the sky to light the world. Arien was chosen by the Valar to guide the sun, and Tilion was chosen to guide Telperion's fruit, the moon. Arien's eyes were so bright the elves could not even gaze at her, and Tilion was drawn to her after she was put in the sky. The elves and Valar rejoiced, for although the loved the stars, they loved light as well."

"I would be drawn to the sun too, I reckon," murmured Sam. "'Tis beautiful, she is."

Frodo wriggled over to Sam and looked at him beneath his eyelashes. "I am drawn to you, Samwise Gamgee, and you're beautiful." And he pressed a frank kiss on Sam's lips, smoothing a breath from Sam's mouth.

Feeling rather startled, Sam said, "But isn't there more of that story?"

"Mmmm...but I don't feel like telling that right now." A pale hand snaked over Sam's weskit, burning shivers over the undulations of Sam's skin, reminding him of heated water catching onto him, tracing the dark fur down his chest.

"What do you want to do then?" Sam choked, feeling his heart flutter.

"This." Frodo clutched Sam's weskit and pulled him down on top of him, so they were pressed together, feet to hip to breast.

Sam felt Frodo's breath on his chin, moist and unafraid. "Might somebody see?"

"No," Frodo laughed. "I hope not." They kissed for a while, varying the speed: sometimes hot and slow, like heated honey; sometimes thirsty and quick, like dry plants after a drought. With the sun on his nape and the fresh breeze ruffling his hair, Sam could think of nothing more wonderful than these heart-thumping moments of hungry mouths and searching fingers and grinding hips, as if the world had closed in around them like a bubble, needing only the slightest thrust to--

But there was work as needed doing back at Bag End, with Mr. Bilbo back and Pippin arriving on the morrow. Sam gently lifted himself off Frodo.

"Sam?" asked Frodo, dismayed. "I thought we might--" He touched Sam on the cheek with his hand, thumbing the corner of Sam's mouth.

Sam felt a twinge of regret, for those blue eyes just gazed at him, turning dark-soft with desire.

"Should I tend to you, sir?" said Sam softly.

"Before Bag End?" asked Frodo in amusement. "But I wanted to tend to you Sam."

"But I see you need tending." Sam studied the oak tree's crown swinging in the breeze. Its green leaves spun and flittered to the earth, like fat drops of rain, catching sometimes in an updraught.

"Yes, I suppose." Frodo cast a forlorn look at his breeches. "Would you need a hoe or clippers? Or something else?"

"No clippers," said Sam gruffly, "and my hands'll do plenty fine." He reached over and opened Frodo's shirt buttons, parting the soft material to reveal a heaving chest and coin-shaped nipples, pert as the breeze thrummed over them. Sam bent down to taste those dark nubs, and they tasted mighty better than metal coins, to be sure. Like flushed rainwater, swirling with flower petals -- at least Sam reckoned.

"I though you said only hands," murmured Frodo, speaking to Sam as well as the sky.

"And mouth," answered Sam, now working on Frodo's breeches buttons. He pulled them past slim but muscled thighs, over neatly-combed feet, and folded them tidily to the side. Sam gazed, heart and mouth filled with love. "Aye, now that's a sight."

Frodo's lips curved upward. With a little noise, he turned over to his side, reached out his arm and plucked a bright yellow flower from the grass. "For my Sam," he said shyly, holding it out. "For tending me so well."

Sam took the flower, kissing it with reverence, then carefully folded it into his pocket. He leant over, brushing away the curls from Frodo's eyes. "You're...you are...you," he murmured, closing Frodo's eyes with his mouth, and tracing with his lips the curves of his love's face.

"I want to see," said Frodo, eyes opening beside Sam's cheek. "I want to see you touching me. I want to see your face."

Sam pressed his cheek to Frodo's breast; fine, almost invisible, hairs tickled his face, and Sam trapped a moan between pale skin and lips. With slow, easy steps he nuzzled down Frodo's breastbone, pausing at the hollow in Frodo's belly to explore it with a hot tongue. Skin prickled with goosebumps, either from the dipping wind or Sam's lovebites or both. Featherlight Sam pulled at springy curls with his teeth, teasing a moan to pass Frodo's lips.

And when Sam could take no more, he slid his fingers around Frodo's arousal, scarlet-tinged with heat and need. For moments he just felt, just tarried in the smooth skin and moist folds, letting it imprint on his mind like a lightning flash in a thunderstorm.

"Sam..."

Sam looked up and saw Frodo smiling at him, eyes drowsy and quiet. "You are--" whispered Frodo, voice breaking. "All that I want, wish--"

"Yes," breathed Sam, and began stroking Frodo, fingers flexing and skittering about damp skin, straying beneath to cradle loose sacs, pliant and warm.

"Sam! That feels...wonderful...but I'm afraid I'm going to--" Sam's lips enfolded over Frodo's moist length, drinking in the taste of musk and touch of wet skin. Bucking into Sam's mouth, Frodo pulled Sam's curls between his fingers, puling in the back of his throat. It was like a flower, growing at Sam's care -- quite literally. At last Frodo gave a sharp cry, and he thrust hard into Sam's mouth.

Sam didn't pull away, but held on, riding Frodo's quick bucks with ease. The air carried the sound of Frodo's soft, whimpering sighs, blending with the breeze as it ran through the nearby trees. In one final thrust Frodo gave himself to Sam, his voice shattering the air with an oh! Sam kept steady, holding on, holding on...

Frodo sank onto the rug, his mouth quivering, his breast pumping sharply as he breathed. Running his tongue delicately over his lips, Sam lifted a thumb to the corner of Frodo's mouth, smoothing away the trembles, lulling him to contentment. At last Frodo blinked, capturing Sam's thumb and kissing the tip gently. "Thank you, Sam-dear," he said. "That was lovely."

"I oughta be thanking you," Sam blushed. "For -- for letting me do that."

Frodo chuckled, and grabbed his breeches, pulling them up his legs and fastening his buttons. "In case anybody comes by," he said with a wink.

Shyly, in the knowledge of what he had just done out in the open where any hobbit could come walking by, Sam studied a ladybird crawling over the rug. He gave her a nudge with his finger. "Go on, pretty lady," he whispered. In a flutter of wings, the ladybird took off, buzzing into the hollow of trees. Sam looked up and found Frodo watching him, teeth worrying his lower lip.

"You take my breath away, Sam," he whispered, stroking Sam's arm. "Like no one else has before. And no one ever will again."

Sam gently placed a finger beneath Frodo's chin, drawing him close, and covered his mouth with his own. For long breaths naught existed but soft lips and sleek tongues, and the love that flowed between them like a thread of fine silk, but stronger, for it would never break.

"I love you, Sam."

"I love you too, Frodo."

The two hobbits picked up their belongings and walked back to Bag End. They held hands till they reached the wood's border, but strode close as they made their way up the Hill, the afternoon sun flushing warm across the land. Sam pushed the gate open for Frodo and both hobbits entered Bag End. As Sam prepared young Pippin's room, he hummed a song. No words did it have, just a cadence of joy and contentment and love.

*

The next morning washed bright and clear over Hobbiton. After breakfast, the clip-clop of a pony's footfalls sounded outside Bag End. Sam followed Frodo outside; Bilbo was in his study.

"Frodo!" Pippin jumped from the cart, bounded over to Frodo and gave him a fierce hug.

Frodo laughed, smoothing the boy's cinnamon-brown hair over his brow. "And hullo to you, Pippin Took!"

The lad who'd driven the cart from Tookland tipped his hat to Frodo, and retrieved a sack, placing it on the ground.

Sam picked up the sack, slinging it over his shoulder. The pony stamped her foot, whickered, and nuzzled Sam's hand. "Aye, you want a carrot, old girl," he whispered. From his pocket he fetched a carrot he'd taken from Number Three, and the pony pushed her soft nose into Sam's hand, crunching. When she was done she looked at Sam with mournful brown eyes. "Nowt more," Sam said, rubbing her sleek mane. "You'll get a bit of sugar lumps when you get back to Tookland, I'd wager."

"Would you like a drink?" Frodo called to the driver.

"No, thank'ee," he responded, tipped his hat again, and looked down. "Is there aught else you'd like, Master Peregrin?"

"No, you may go," answered Pippin with a flick of the wrist. "Tell me what you have been doing, cousin Frodo? Going to see the elves, ma says."

"No, but Bilbo has," said Frodo with a distracted smile, brushing a leaf off the lad's coat. "Perhaps you should talk to him about it."

"Ma says Uncle Bilbo has to teach me some lessons." Pippin made a face. "I'd have much more fun around here if I could run around with the other lads."

"Oh, yes, then you wouldn't get into any trouble." Frodo rolled his eyes. Sam fumbled with the pack's buckle, feeling like a weed among the roses. Even if I'm nowt different from Frodo, 'twill make nary a difference because he's got--

"Pippin, you remember Sam, don't you?" Frodo set his hands on Pippin's shoulder, turning him. "He's the head gardener now, since Master Hamfast retired."

"Hullo Sam!" Pippin's smile was wide and infectious. He looked around him in wonder. "Did you do all this yourself?"

"Some," Sam admitted proudly. "But the Gaffer's kept it looking pretty for many years. I hope I can follow in his footsteps, and mayhap Bag End'll bloom for long years to come." A touch on his arm, naught more than puffball floating in the air.

"It shall," said Frodo, dropping his hand. "I couldn't wish for more."

Sam cleared his throat. "Master Pippin, I reckon you'd be thirsty after your trip. Would you like some milk and a plate of oat biscuits?"

"Would I?" Pippin grinned. "I'm so hungry I could eat a pony." His gaze wandered down the Row, and caught the pony's departing rump swaying steadily as she sent up swirls of dust with heavy footfalls. "Maybe not Bella," he admitted. With boundless energy, Pippin followed Frodo and Sam into the smial. Sam caught Frodo staring at him, smiling, and for a moment his pulse bucked, then steadied to a trot.

All's the same, I wouldn't change a thing, not with him looking at me like that.

*

Sam watched the soup gurgle and bubble, and dipped a spoon into the saucepan. "It's nearly cooked," he said. "The tatars and carrots are nice 'n soft."

Frodo layered a slice of bread thickly with butter. "Mmm, it smells delightful."

"That's because we made it together," answered Sam, knocking the spoon against the saucepan's lip.

Frodo put the pile of bread on the table and slid up to Sam. "That's because it's made with love," he whispered, nibbling at the tip of Sam's ear.

"Mr. Bilbo and Master Pippin are in the sitting room!" Sam protested, giving Frodo a gentle pinch on the arm.

"They won't come till we call them," ground out Frodo, then began to busily suck at Sam's neck.

"Master Pippin gets hungry," whimpered Sam. "He'll be down..."

"A kiss," breathed Frodo, "kiss me Sam."

Dizzy, like drowning in warm treacle, was how it felt when Frodo's lips melted onto Sam's. A moan trembled from Sam, dimmed in Frodo's mouth, like a great secret only they would ever know. Shutting his eyes, Sam could feel Frodo. A ragged rise and fall of his breast, fingertips flitting over Sam's weskit, tongue eagerly petting the smooth secrets of Sam's mouth. A ripple of pulsebeats, humming under skin. Slowly unfolding, like a swan lifting its wings, a slow heat down Sam's limbs, alighting with a swift jolt in his nether regions...

"Frodo!" hissed Sam. "Any more and I won't be able to stop!"

"More's the pity," murmured Frodo, but tickled Sam's cheek. "But--"

"Frodo! Sam! I smell something good!" Pippin, as predicted, bounded into the room, followed by Bilbo. Sam turned back, flushed with heat, to stir the soup. Frodo, he could see out of the corner of his eye, was helping Pippin set the table, while Pippin related a story about chasing a scullery maid through the Great Smials with a grass snake in hand.

"Samwise?" Bilbo was standing behind him.

"Yes, sir?"

"Would you like to stay for supper? There's plenty for everyone."

Sam's eyes opened wide in surprise. He'd never been asked to stay at Bag End for supper. Lunch, sometimes, for it was a waste for him to walk all the way down to Number Three. And sometimes he'd serve Mr. Bilbo and Frodo and their guests if they had any. But Sam had an inkling this was different. But he said, anyway, "I could serve up the soup and--"

"No, Sam." Bilbo's eyes wrinkled as he gave a small smile. "Be our guest. We'll all help dish up."

Sam nodded, bewildered.

"Frodo," Bilbo directed, "please serve wine for three -- milk for young Peregrin." Pippin pouted. Frodo grinned at Sam, and went to the cellar to collect a bottle of wine. "Pippin, please fetch the trifle from the cooler outside."

"Yes, Bilbo." Pippin ran out.

"Don't eat it!" called Bilbo to the disappearing figure. "And I'll..." Bilbo looked around. He nodded towards the table. "I think I'll have a seat. Between teaching Pippin and jotting down notes of my story, I think I deserve a sit-down." Bilbo slumped into a chair with a sigh of relief.

Presently Frodo and Pippin returned. Frodo poured the drinks, while Sam brought the soup over and Pippin passed the bread around. Soon they were sitting, talking, but mostly eating. Sam felt his heart blossom, and hid a smile as he dunked a bit of bread in his soup. Bilbo was telling Pippin of the time he'd rescued his dwarf friends from giant spiders, though, exciting as the story was, Sam could see Pippin was eyeing the trifle surreptitiously -- three layers of sponge cake, with thick custard, whipped cream and berries piled over the top. Pippin had an appetite, it seemed. Sam watched Frodo, staring fondly at his uncle and young cousin, occasionally helping Bilbo with a piece of information he'd forgotten. Frodo looked a gentlehobbit, with his fine clothes, tutored speech and they way he held his cutlery just right. And beautiful. Sam sighed softly. He couldn't help thinking of Frodo that way. The way Frodo's lips folded around the spoon, sipping the hot liquid gently; the flutter of his eyes as he tasted the delicious soup; the bobbing of his Adam's apple beneath his slender throat as the soup slid down...

Frodo suddenly looked up, catching Sam staring. Sam hurried looked down into his soup, concentrating on watching the bits of carrot swim through the broth. Then, barely perceptible, a flutter on his leg. 'Tis an ant.

Sam reached beneath the table and brushed at his leg. Frodo bit into a slice of bread. Another flutter, this time longer, down the length of his calf. Sam, almost losing his spoon in the soup, glanced at Frodo. Frodo smiled back innocently, and turned back to Bilbo. Sam felt his ears heat. He took a sup of soup, then another.

"You rescued Fili, first, not Kili, Uncle Bilbo," Frodo was saying. "You saw the tip of his nose, remember?"

"Ahh, yes, that's right," Bilbo murmured. "Had the longest nose I'd ever seen on a dwarf."

"Tell me more, Uncle!" said Pippin, excited, his soup momentarily forgotten. "Did the spiders come back?"

"Yes, yes, all right, young Peregrin. Well, first I had to rescue the others..." Sam let Bilbo's words flow over him like a warm wind from the east. He'd heard this story plenty of times before. And the other times he hadn't had Bilbo's heir trying to seduce him neither. And there, again, a toe running the length of Sam's lower leg. Sam tried to steady his breathing. He looked up, and this time Frodo's eyes weren't innocent at all; in fact they were dusky with desire.

Sam shivered. "Would you like me to dish up the trifle?" asked Sam, hoping his voice didn't tremble. Nearly all the soup was finished, except for a little puddle in Pippin's bowl; Sam suspected he was waiting for dessert anyway.

"Please, Sam!" said Pippin, pushing his bowl away.

"Yes." Frodo leaned forward, chin in his hand. "Dessert would be delicious."

Sam blushed the whole while he served up the trifle. Thankfully, perhaps, he managed to get through the rest of the meal without feeling something soft travel up his leg, and when they were done Sam and Frodo collected the dishes and piled them up in the sink. By this time Pippin's head was beginning to nod, and even Bilbo looked tired.

"Why don't you take Pippin to his room, Uncle Bilbo?" suggested Frodo. "Sam and I will wash the dishes."

Bilbo smothered a yawn with his hand. "I think you're right, Frodo," he said sleepily. "I don't think I can keep my eyes open much longer."

Frodo snagged a tea-towel and pumped water into the sink. "Goodnight, Uncle, Pippin," he said, heaping dishes in the sudsy water.

"I don't want to go to bed," complained Pippin, despite his bleary eyes and unfocussed gaze.

"Come on Peregrin." Bilbo wound an arm around Pippin's shoulders. "Let's go. Even your old Uncle's going to bed. Goodnight Frodo and Samwise."

"Goodnight," Sam murmured as Bilbo and Pippin left the kitchen. He quickly finished wiping the table and joined Frodo at the sink.

"You wash, I'll dry?" asked Frodo, eyebrow raised.

"Aye, that's right," answered Sam, relieved. He hated seeing those delicate fingers redden from the hot, soapy water. Sam grabbed the scrubber and began scouring the dried soup from the bottom of a bowl. First they washed and put away the spoons and bowls, then Frodo carried the saucepan from the stove, and dumped it into the water. Warm water sprayed up into Sam's face and chest, soaking his shirt through to the skin.

"Frodo!" cried Sam.

"Oh, dear me." Frodo's expression was a picture of mock innocence. He ran a finger over Sam's chest. "You'll have to take it off, I'm afraid."

"Frodo, not...not now," Sam whispered, full of regret. "I have to be heading home, and you know the noise you make..."

"What noise?" Frodo sidled up next to Sam, eyebrows raised. Lips became lost in Sam's hair.

"Groans," murmured Sam, dry-mouthed, "and cries, lots of cries of oh Sam!"

Frodo's legs were splayed to either side of Sam's hip, one arm wound about Sam's waist, the other hand between shirt buttons, fondling wet skin. Sam could feel Frodo hard on his leg, and then the slow movement of Frodo thrusting against him. And Frodo's lips dancing hot kisses down the span of his throat, and a tongue plunging into his collar to lick at his shoulder.

"Dear..." said Sam, or rather squeaked, "Mr. Bilbo..."

"I certainly hope you don't think Bilbo would do this to you," came the reply, and then Frodo's hand was rubbing and kneading there. Frodo alternately thrust and squeezed, resting his head on Sam's shoulder, sucking and leaving trails of moisture on Sam's neck. Sam knew it was coming, knew it would be soon, when he wouldn't think of naught else but pushing his hands down Frodo's breeches and stroking till sweet release. NowohFrodo!

"Frodo?"

The speed at which the two hobbits fell apart was akin to a flash of lightning, and Sam, instead of plunging his hands into the folds of Frodo's linens, instead found warm water nuzzling his elbows.

It was Pippin, mouth open in a yawn, hair pillow-skewed. "I couldn't sleep, Frodo," he said. "Can you come and read me a story?"

"All right, Peregrin." Frodo put down the tea towel he had hurriedly picked up. "Go to bed and I shall be there in a moment."

Sam splayed his hands on the bottom of the sink, breathing heavily. Shaking hands cupped his shoulders.

"I don't think he saw," whispered Frodo into Sam's ear. "It's probably best if you finish here and go home." A gap of silence. "It will be all right."

Sam nodded, feeling a shiver of cool air as Frodo left. Will it? he asked himself.

*

Sam didn't walk up to Bag End till after luncheon, for he spent the morning tending the Rumbles' garden, hoeing the soil and clipping the scraggly weeds around the path. The garden was a snarl of weeds after last week's downpour, and he hadn't finished pulling all the nasty plants out by lunch, so he promised to come back the next day to pull up the remaining stragglers. Mrs. Rumble had even been kind enough to give him a delicious lunch of cornbread and fried mushrooms and beer, in addition to the two silver pennies she pushed into his hand. Now he was heading up the Hill, and he whistled under his breath, and Frodo's face was never far from his thoughts. In the distance a figure was coming down the path, and soon it resolved itself into young Pippin.

"Sam!" Pippin laughed as he approached. "Frodo's been in his bedroom all morning, says he's feeling sick."

"Oh, is that right, Master Pippin?" Sam put his hands on his hips. "Then I'll have to make him feel better, won't I?"

Pippin's face broke into another laugh. "I know how you could!"

Sam immediately sobered. "How?"

"You could kiss him and hug him, I reckon." Pippin seemed slightly uncomfortable at Sam's tone.

"You mean like kiss him on the brow, as sisters and brothers do?" asked Sam, gripping the burlap sack packed with his tools tightly, feeling blood pool to his face.

"No, Sam." Pippin twisted his shirt in his fingers; a pale arc of skin was revealed beneath. "Like I saw you last night -- on the lips."

"You saw us?" Sam didn't mean to growl, but a slow, unfurling roar crawled up from his stomach and to his throat. Pippin's face fell, and he nipped the flesh of his lower lip. "Oh, sorry, Master Pippin." It would do no good to be on the bad side of the Tooks -- no matter what the Gaffer grumbled into the dregs of his ale. The Gaffer...

"I didn't do anything wrong did I?" Pippin said.

"No, but..." Sam shook his head. "Did you tell anybody, about me and Mr. Frodo?" Sam began to feel a little calmer, and his normal hobbit-sense returned. For who would Pippin tell, anyway? Mr. Bilbo already knew, so there was no problem there.

Pippin let his shirt untwine from his fingers. "See, some lads and I went down to the Water hunting for frogs, and one of the older lads was telling us about the last barn dance when he kissed a lass, full on the mouth and all. And all the other lads said they'd kissed lasses too, but I had never, so I said I...I saw you and Frodo kissing...but I didn't think there was anything wrong with that?" Pippin looked up with wide, brown-flecked eyes. "I didn't do anything wrong, did I?"

To Sam it felt like he'd been plunged into Bywater Pool in the grip of winter; from his fingers to his toes he was ice-cold, and slowly it spread to his heart, where not even the thought of Frodo could breathe away the chill. Briefly he wondered if mayhap the lads wouldn't rush off to tell their ma and pa, but no -- a servant cosy in his master's bed was a ripe bit of gossip. He tried to clear his head.

"Maybe," said Sam tonelessly, "but you weren't to know. I should -- should go and talk to my Gaffer. Master Pippin, could you run up the Hill and tell Mr. Frodo and Mr. Bilbo what you just told me?" He tried to smile, but his lips refused to do anything but remain in a firm line. "It's not your fault," he repeated. "Go on."

Pippin looked as if he was about to burst into tears, but he turned and ran up the Hill as fast as his furred feet could carry him. Sam watched him, for a while so stock-still that he almost expected birds to come roost on his shoulder. Slowly he regained his wits and began his own trek up to Bagshot Row.

*

Sam pushed open the door to Number Three, feeling a cold sickness pool low in his stomach. By some miracle he had been able to avoid everybody; he had only spotted two other hobbits on the way up the Hill, and he had managed to duck behind a tree in time and wait for them to pass.

"Samwise!" May's golden head floated in front of him. "It's not true, is it? What those lads are saying 'bout you and Mr. Frodo. You was only at Bag End the last few days to look after Mr. Frodo..." She blushed. "As -- as your duty."

Sam knew there was no point in avoiding the truth -- it would be found out sooner or later. Lying now would only make things worse. "Lass," he said quietly, "the lads ain't speaking lies."

"Oh!" May stepped back in shock. "But that's..." She took a breath. "Oh, Sam! How...? Why...?"

Sam grabbed her wrist. "Does the Gaffer know?"

May nodded. "Yes, he's in the kitchen."

Sam made his way to the kitchen, half expecting to see the Gaffer come out roaring like Mr. Bilbo's dragon, grabbing Sam's ear and hauling him for a beating, as he got whenever he was naughty. He remembered, many years ago, when the Gaffer caught him taking a biscuit from a tray lying on Mr. Bilbo's table. Sam'd got ten stiff blows with a walking stick for that, stealing from the gentry his Dad called it. The Gaffer was studying his gnarled hands, sitting hunched over on a chair. Sam couldn't see his eyes.

"Sir?" Sam whispered. When the Gaffer looked up, Sam could see his cloudy-grey eyes were shimmering.

"I hear tell you've been taking care o' Mr. Frodo," said Hamfast, splaying his hands on the rough table. Sam could see he'd been gardening, for black earth was lodged under his nails. Sam knew the gardening was something the Gaffer did to set his mind at ease now that he was retired. All his life the Gaffer had weeded and pruned and clipped, and that's what he loved best.

"Aye," answered Sam, and he raised his chin with determination, "I have."

The Gaffer sighed. "'Tis not that I hadn't expected it all these years -- not with that Mr. Frodo never taking with any pretty lass. Mr. Bilbo picked an heir that was just like him." He paused, considering. "But Sam, I never thought you'd be one to tumble with the lads; I always saw you dancing with young Rosie Cotton... But, aye, who says that ain't coming to be? Your coming of age is still twelve years away. You're just giving service to Mr. Frodo, ain't ye, Sam?" The Gaffer flashed a dark look at Sam. "'Cause if you're thinking above your station, well there's no knowing what might happen. I reckon you'll be up visiting Andy mighty quick."

Sam stared in shock. "Sir, are you saying--?"

"Yes, silly lad," the Gaffer murmured. "You can still garden up at Bag End. But if I find you shirking your work, I'll give Mr. Bilbo permission to use that walking stick of his on your rump!"

"Oh, I won't, sir."

"And I don't want to hear no tales of you and Mr. Frodo. Keep it private, and everyone'll be happy. Don't give me no reason to make trouble." The Gaffer settled back in his chair; apparently the discussion was over.

"What if," Sam whispered, "I'm the only one who's ever taken with Mr. Frodo."

"Don't be daft, Samwise," grunted the Gaffer. "Mr. Frodo's as fair as any. Don't think he ain't had others. Mark my words, boy: don't be thinking o' that too much, or it'll end in tears. Now go make me some tea."

*

Sam took the pan of hot milk from the Gamgees' hearth and poured it into a mug. He flicked in a few drops of firewater from his Dad's flask and sat in the parlour to sup. The Gaffer had gone down to The Green Dragon to try and settle things down, while his sisters had gone to tend to their washing duties. The liquid warmed his cold stomach, and soothed his nerves. He wanted so much to walk up to Bag End and see how Frodo was going, but Sam was frightened that Frodo would never want to see him again -- why would Frodo want to see somebody who'd messed up his life?

Suddenly Sam felt very tired, liked he'd tilled all of Farmer Cotton's crop on one spring afternoon. The effects of the liquor, the warm milk and worry made him sleepy, and Sam stretched his toes and shut his eyes.

A knock startled Sam from his somnolence. At the parlour window was Frodo, concern strewn all over his beautiful face. Sam wiped up the spilt milk with his sleeve and hurried to the window, heaving open the heavy pane with a gasp. "Oh, Sam!" Frodo's eyes were red, and wet streams marked his face. Sam felt his heart tear with utter wretchedness. "What are we to do?"

"Sir! Why -- why did you come to the window?" Sam rapidly blinked away his own tears, bracing himself for Frodo's anger.

"Your Gaffer--" Frodo curled his fingers around the sill and looked around the parlour. "What did he say?"

"Aye, he's not happy, but he thinks..." Sam lowered his voice. "He thinks I'm only doin' it 'cause I'm your servant...not 'cause I love you. He said if I fell in love with you he'd--" Sam bit his lip. "Send me away to Tighfield."

Frodo was silent, rubbing the sill with his thumb.

"I'll understand if you're angry," Sam said quietly.

"Sam!" Frodo shook his head. "I'm not angry, upset, very upset, but not angry."

"Oh." Sam sighed with relief, and he loosened his grip on his weskit.

"Did you think I was angry at you, Sam?" Frodo looked sad. "Then maybe you don't know me well; but, tell me, are we allowed to be together, now your Gaffer knows?"

"He said as long as we keep it private, and I continue to do for you and Mr. Bilbo to satisfaction, then he's not worried nowt," Sam answered, wishing he could brush that lick of hair off Frodo's brow and kiss him till they were both giddy and forgetful.

"Oh, that's -- that's wonderful, Sam!" Frodo gave a ghost of a smile. "But I suppose you sleeping at Bag End is not 'keeping it private', is it? Neither is staying at Bag End in the evening, I suppose. I should go now -- I think it's best if we're not seen together today. Soon the gossip should die I hope."

"I hope," Sam echoed. "Will you be all right?"

"I'll be fine, Sam." Frodo gave Sam a look that near made him a puddle of water. "But I would dearly like a kiss before I go."

Sam answered by closing his lips on Frodo's and locking their mouths together for long heartbeats. "Mmmm, I'll remember that...tonight." Frodo flushed and touched his cheek. "Goodbye, Sam."

"Goodbye," Sam answered, and watched Frodo leap over the fence and cross the field up to Bag End. He sat back on his chair, feeling strange. The entire conversation left him tired and afraid, but why he couldn't tell. It was not till he was serving up tea he realised Frodo's eyes had the same look he'd seen in his Gaffer's eyes when his ma had died -- like he'd lost the most precious thing in the world.

*

Sam straightened up with a groan. All morning he'd been tending the Rumbles' garden, bending over to pluck the prickly leaves, and now his back muscles were aching and stiff. Sam stuck his knuckles in his eyes to get rid of the sun's glare. It hadn't helped that he'd been awake half the night either, watching the wheel of stars turn from his bedroom window.

"Sam!" That wasn't the voice Sam had been expecting, but there he was: Frodo, wearing an uncertain smile, matching the rather drab brown coat he wore buttoned up all the way to the neck, despite the warm morning.

"Mr. Frodo," Sam greeted back. He stooped to pick up the bucket of weeds. "I'll be headin' up to Bag End soon, sir, to tend the garden."

Frodo dangled his arms over the Rumbles' white picket fence. "I was hoping you would walk up the Hill with me," he said. "I would like to speak with you."

Sam smelled something bitter and dark, and saw doubt in Frodo's eyes. "Yes, sir," answered Sam quickly. "I'll just put these weeds in the rubbish and tell Mrs. Rumble I've finished." Sam headed to the back of the smial, to the rubbish heap, and tipped the weeds in. Depositing the bucket in the shed, Sam knocked loudly on the back door and entered. He had arrived at the Rumbles' smial early, and, not wanting to disturb the elderly couple, had quietly gone about the weeding without even announcing his presence.

He found them sitting at the kitchen table for elevenses, eating cream and jam scones and drinking hot, fragrant tea. "Mr. Rumble, Mrs. Rumble," Sam said shyly, "I've finished the weeding."

Mr. Rumble looked at him sternly, and Sam paled as he held a spoon up at Sam. "Samwise Gamgee, I a-heard something yesterday I ain't liking. I hears you've been giving Mr. Frodo favours more than you ought."

"Now, Tim!" Mrs. Rumble eased Mr. Rumble's hand down to the table. "There's no need to talk to young Sam like that." She looked at Sam. "I'm not sayin' I agree with what you're doing, but we won't hold it against you. 'Tis none of our business."

"'Tis!" Mr. Rumble interjected. "Sam works here -- it oughta concern us."

"What Mr. Rumble is trying to say," Mrs. Rumble offered Sam a small smile, "is that we care 'bout you -- it's not right to be involved with the gentry. Don't you think Mr. Frodo will throw you away like a piece of stale bread when he's done?"

While this was going on, Sam stood rooted to the floor, feeling heat flush up his neck and to the roots of his curls. "Mr. Frodo's a proper gentlehobbit," he said at last. "And I won't have anybody saying aught else 'bout him."

"All right, Sam, but mind yourself. You may go." Mrs. Rumble pressed a scone into Sam's hand and shooed him outside.

Sam blinked in the sunshine, spotting Frodo waiting at the gate. He hurried down the path.

"You took a long time," Frodo observed as Sam opened the gate. They strode up the road, feet crunching the crushed rocks. Golden sunshine sprayed through the swaying trees' leaves, and soft clouds rode high in the sky. Sam crushed the scone in his hand and let the crumbs trickle onto the road for the birds to eat.

"I had some words with Mr. and Mrs. Rumble," said Sam uncomfortably.

"Oh Sam, they didn't ask you to--?"

"No." Sam kicked at a loose stone. "They said I oughta be careful."

Frodo was silent, wrapped in thought. "Yes, they're right," was all he said.

Soon they were passing the great field beneath Bag End, a tall tree waving at its centre. The folk they'd met on the road gave them puzzled glances, but nowt more, though Sam felt a blush rising to his skin.

"I shouldn't have met you at the Rumbles," murmured Frodo, eyes searching the path ahead. "But I wanted to speak with you as soon as I could."

"Aye, sir," said Sam, and was about to say more when he saw who was loitering about ahead. Under a tree were Porto and Panto, twin brothers, a few years older than Sam, known by the lads of Hobbiton as bullies, loud-mouthed and noisy. With the brothers were some other lads, most likely too scared to leave the gang for fear of walking into Porto's fist or meeting Panto's foot. They had never bothered Sam much before. Sam was a stout lad, a good fighter if he needed to be, and the brothers knew this. Porto and Panto were cowards; they mostly picked on the lads who were slighter and younger than they were, though they'd scuffle with anybody if they felt like it. Sam stuck his hands in his pockets and looked resolutely ahead as he and Frodo walked past the gang.

They had nearly passed when Sam stole a look at Panto. He was grinning widely and elbowing his brother. Sam worried his lip.

"Hoy, Frodo, goin' up to Bag End to get a bit o' pleasure?" called out Panto, laughing.

"Sam! Does he holler when you bugger 'im?" yelled Porto.

"Ignore them," murmured Frodo from the corner of his mouth. "They're not worth the trouble."

"Sam," shouted Porto, "does he make you clean him up afterward as well?"

Sam couldn't take no more. "Shut up, Porto, or I'll grind up your face like flour," he said angrily. He turned to Porto, stood with his feet parted and glared.

"No," chuckled Porto, wiping tears from his eyes, "I'd prefer you to do to me what you do to your master. How much do I have to pay you? A silver penny?"

By this time the whole gang were laughing, although some younger lads looked a little uneasy as Samwise began to walk towards them.

"Sam, no!" Frodo tried to grab his arm, but Sam shook him off and stood a step away from Porto's smirking face.

"I won't have you talkin' 'bout Mr. Frodo that way," Sam said softly, anger spilling into his voice.

Porto blanched, but aware that his friends were watching eagerly, said, "Why's that, Sam? Because he won't give you none o' the sweet stuff?"

Hot fury rode through Sam's limbs, and before he could control himself he and Porto were rolling around on the road, hands scrambling to find purchase on each other's throats. "Sam!" a voice shrieked from the crowd, but it was swamped by the lads' guffaws and shouts. Sam could taste blood in his mouth, but he didn't care. He took a chunk of Porto's hair and pulled as hard as he could. Porto let out a scream, and his fist connected with Sam's eye socket. Sam reeled from the blow, surprised, and the world rippled dizzyingly before him. He saw Porto smirk, brush dust off his breeches and get up, to the applause of his friends. A wrath like none other Sam had felt before thrummed in his head and he rushed at Porto, tackling Porto's ample waist, throwing him to the ground.

"Sam, please!"

Sam ignored the insistent voice, and pressed his nails to Porto's face, leaving red, crescent-shaped scores on Porto's cheeks.

Porto twisted his face and grabbed Sam's hair, wrenching his neck. "You're Frodo's little catamite, aren't you?" he said low and mockingly. "Does he share you with Bilbo as well?"

Sam made a sound like a wild animal hunting for its prey and laid hands on Porto's throat, squeezing hard. Porto's brown eyes bulged, his face visibly purpled, and he made a choking sound. A line of spittle bridged his swollen lips. Don't ever say that 'bout him... If you do I'll...

"Sam!" A hand wrapped itself around Sam's wrist and wrenched him back. Sam let out a growl as his grip on Porto was loosened, and the shaking hobbit scrambled away.

"Why did you do that?" Sam was panting heavily. On hands and knees he bent his head, watching droplets of blood spray onto the road.

"Because I love you," a voice said softly.

Sam gasped. "Frodo! I didn't -- didn't know--"

"Let's get you up to Bag End," said Frodo firmly, taking Sam's elbow and helping him to his feet. "You need to be cleaned up." He took a handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to Sam.

Sam pressed it to his brow, feeling it throb beneath his fingertips. Arm in arm Sam and Frodo walked up the Hill. His head began to pulse painfully, and his knuckles stung. From the corner of his eye Sam could see Porto nursing an injured fist, leering at him.

"What did I say?" called out Porto, looking at Sam. "Didn't I tell 'ee?"

Frodo's grip tightened around him, and Sam let the touch of Frodo fan at simmering flames. Blood dripped onto Frodo's shirt as Sam leant against Frodo's shoulder, unshed tears blinding his eyes.

*

"Sam! What on Middle-earth happened?" Bilbo had rushed from his study as he heard Frodo's shout, and came to a startled halt in the hallway. Pippin hurried after him, giving a cry as he saw Sam.

"Me and Porto got into a fight," muttered Sam, straightening his shirt. "I'm all right."

Bilbo shook his head. "Frodo, take Sam to the kitchen and give him a glass of water. I'll go get some cream for his wounds."

"What should I do?" piped up Pippin, looking shy.

"Get some washcloths from the bathroom, please." Bilbo looked harried. "It never rains, it pours," he murmured, and took off, followed by Pippin.

Frodo led Sam to the kitchen, setting him on a chair. Frodo was silent as he poured a glass of cool water for Sam. Sam took the handkerchief from his forehead to drink. "It's not too bad, is it?" he asked hopefully when he had finished.

Frodo's brow creased with concern. "No, if 'not too bad' is a split lip, a bruised cheek, a soon-to-be black eye and scraped knuckles," he said shortly.

"Oh." Sam slumped on his chair.

Presently Bilbo and Pippin came back armed with towels and a bottle of ointment. Bilbo dipped a corner of the towel in water and cleaned Sam's face and dirty knuckles. It seemed his hands had been skinned on the rough surface of the road. The ointment was fragrant and stung a little as Bilbo dabbed it on Sam's wounds, but soon the pain lessened and the blood stopped trickling from his cuts.

"There." Bilbo stood back and scrutinised Sam. "You'll have a black eye by tomorrow, and your lip will be swollen for a few days, but you will heal eventually." He absentmindedly toyed with the bottle of ointment. "Do you want to tell me what it was about? Or shall I guess?"

Neither Frodo nor Sam made a sound. Bilbo sighed. "Pippin, put these things away and read that book I left in my study."

"Uncle..."

"Go!" Bilbo said sharply. Pippin scowled but took the bloodied towel and ointment from the kitchen.

"Now..." Bilbo sat down on a chair across from Sam. Frodo hovered by the bench, looking pale and shaken; Sam frowned as Frodo looked at him with miserable eyes. "I suppose Porto said words to you or Frodo, Sam, and that is why you got into this mess, is that right?"

Sam nodded, now feeling embarrassed. "He said some mean things 'bout Mr. Frodo, and I wasn't goin' to let him get away with it!"

"So you thought you'd hit him?" asked Bilbo quietly.

"Aye." Sam heard the rustle of Frodo's breeches as he moved a little.

"I'm disappointed in you, Samwise," said Bilbo, producing a pipe and pinch of Old Toby from his pocket. He tamped down the weed into the bowl of the pipe and lit it with a match. Smoke threaded from the pipe like a fog; Bilbo blew a smoke ring and looked at Sam solemnly. "Very disappointed."

Sam looked down. "I'm sorry, sir, but I was defending Mr. Frodo."

"And that you should if he's being attacked by goblins or other fierce creatures! But not a silly hobbit who has nothing better to do than pick fights and cause trouble. Have you learnt anything from my tales? Do you not remember my tale about Gollum? I did not harm him because I pitied him: he was utterly wretched, and his misery moved my heart. It would be shameful of me to hurt a creature who had not laid a hand on me, nor threatened to harm me in any way."

"But Porto said..." Sam pleaded, glancing at Frodo. Frodo crossed his arms and stared resolutely at his Uncle.

"It does not matter what Porto said." Bilbo let a ring of smoke part from his lips. "I will not have my gardener getting into fights." Bilbo looked at Frodo first, then Sam. "I'm sure he said nasty things about Frodo -- I know what Porto and Panto are like -- but it is not worth getting cut and bruised over. If the people you care about know the truth, then why does it matter what others think?" Bilbo rose from his chair. "I am going to lie down for a while. If Pippin is hungry, tell him there's a carrot cake in the pantry. Goodbye."

When Bilbo left Frodo pulled up a chair and sat opposite Sam. Sam could see tears glimmering quietly in Frodo's deep blue eyes, and his lips were set in a tight line.

"That was a silly thing you did, Sam," Frodo said at last.

"'Twas," said Sam, "but I love you so much -- I couldn't let them say that 'bout you!"

Frodo rubbed his breeches with his palms, taking several breaths. "But Sam, you almost--" Frodo's voice dropped to a whisper. "Almost killed him." Sam stared at Frodo with horror. "Sam," Frodo whispered, "please tell me you wouldn't--"

"I can't rightly say I would or wouldn't have," said Sam unhappily. "I just felt so hot in my breast, I couldn't think..."

Frodo was looking outside the window, at the pale blue sky threaded with cords of fluffy clouds. Outside on the wavering apple tree landed a robin, its plumage rusty red, trilling noisily.

"He'll never become a da," said Sam softly, "see, he bobs crookedly on his legs. No lass'll mate with him."

Frodo turned to Sam, a lone tear tracking down his cheek. "Sam, promise you will believe me when I say I love you?"

"Now why would I--?"

"Say it!"

"I -- I promise," said Sam reluctantly.

"Good." Frodo took Sam's hand, slowly running his fingers over the curves of Sam's fingers and palm, as if trying to remember every last hair and callus. Their fingers intertwined, starry-white and earthy-brown, different, yet fitting together like a key and lock. "Because, Sam, I don't think we should do this anymore."

"Do what?" Sam ran his thumb over Frodo's forefinger, over the bow of his perfect nail.

"Be together."

"What?" Sam let go of Frodo's hand and stood up. "What do you mean, Frodo?"

Frodo put his face in his hands and wept. "Be lovers! Be intimate! Lie together! Whatever you like, Sam. Don't you see? You nearly killed another hobbit -- no hobbit has ever been killed deliberately in the Shire before! And over me! I would not be able to live if something like that happened."

"But Frodo," Sam put his hands either side of Frodo's face, easing his face upward, and kissed him gently on the lips, "I won't do it ever again, I promise."

"You said yourself -- it was like you couldn't control yourself. No, Sam, I cannot let it be."

"But everybody knows already -- it's too late!" Sam protested, desperately wanting to convince Frodo.

"It will die down, I do not doubt," answered Frodo, "but only if we are not seen together, if we are not together. Don't you see, Sam? They will ask you -- the gaffers at the pubs, your friends -- whether you are bedding your master. And you will not be able to lie. If we are not together, we can dismiss this as a silly childish prank of Pippin's. That is the only way," Frodo concluded flatly.

"Frodo," Sam begged, choking on the tears in his throat, "don't you want to kiss me, to touch me...?"

"Nothing would give me more pleasure than pressing my bare skin against yours," murmured Frodo, standing up and wrapping his arms around Sam. Sam could feel Frodo's heart pounding through his weskit. "But we can only be friends, that is all. I would never forgive myself if you were sent to Tighfield or some other place where your heart does not lie. It was folly of me to think this would ever work out, and for that I am truly sorry, dear Sam. For all the heartache I have caused, I am very sorry."

"But..." Sam growled, and pulled Frodo roughly in for kiss. For a moment it seemed that Frodo gave in, and his mouth parted slightly to let Sam enter, and Sam could taste something sharp. But then a shudder ran through Frodo's shaking body, and he pulled back, horrified.

"We can't do that, Sam!" he gasped. "It causes too much pain." Frodo sank against the table, breathless, his face pale.

"How can you say that...do this?" asked Sam. "For so long we've wanted each other, and now we're parting. Just because of a blockheaded hobbit?"

"It's not just Porto," said Frodo. "It's your Gaffer as well...I know he said that it's all right, but when you come of age, he'll marry you off to some lass. It's much easier if we part now."

"I won't be of age for another twelve years!" Sam bit his lip, tasting the tang of blood. "Is this what you were wanting to talk about before?"

Frodo dipped his eyes to the floor. "Nothing has changed; in fact my worries have been affirmed."

Sam winced, wiping away the blood from his lip. They had never spoken of what would happen if they were found out, but Sam had always thought they'd be together, no matter what anybody else said or thought.

"And you'll be wanting children, little tow-headed children to love and teach," continued Frodo softly, breaking Sam's thoughts. "I have money, Sam, but I cannot give you that gift."

"And I'll love you till I die, whether or no!" cried Sam, tears now running freely down his face, lacing with the bead of blood by the corner of his mouth. "And I'll want you desperately till I die. I'll want to kiss you and stroke you till you shout my name. I'd want to do that to you if I were married or no."

"You'll find a lass, Sam." Frodo's voice was strained. "I know you kissed Rosie Cotton last harvest party. She's a sweet lass. You should go home now and rest. I'm sure your head is throbbing."

"Not nearly as much as my heart, sir!" Sam retorted.

"Please, just leave," Frodo said softly. "Goodbye."

Sam looked uncertainly at Frodo. At any moment he expected a smile to crack over Frodo's face, and to be swept into his arms. But Frodo's eyes were flat, and he turned to the sink, shoulders hunched and trembling. Slowly, as if he had no control over himself, Frodo produced a glass and bottle of wine. It was half empty. Frodo poured the wine with a shaky hand and swirled the glass in his fingers.

"Tell me, Frodo," Sam begged softly. Light sank to the corners of Frodo's eyes and lips, hollow and golden as it sketched down his arm to his hand, clasping the glass with pale fingers.

"I've told it all, Sam." Frodo spoke woodenly. "Do you want me to lie and tell you I don't find you attractive anymore? Do you want me to say I don't love you? Would that be easier?"

Sam could find no answer. It would be easier if Frodo said that, for then it would be Frodo's choice and not--

The scarlet wine swished around the glass, coating its sides, dark as old blood. Frodo stoppered the bottle, thumb winding around the mouth to wipe a trace of wine. His thumb rose to his mouth, pushed inside and sucked, before being released, clean.

"I'm doing this for you, Sam. I could have you anytime I want, but I'm letting you go. Take what is yours. Leave me be." Frodo lifted the glass to his nose.

"Don't you remember what you said that night?" whispered Sam.

"No." Frodo put the glass to his lips and drank.

Sam looked away. "Good day, Mr. Frodo." And he left the chilled air of Bag End.

*

Days passed in a gloomy blur; Sam kept himself busy in Bag End's garden, only setting foot inside the smial if Mr. Bilbo or Mr. Frodo needed him to cook breakfast or some other chore as needed doing. Pippin had left after his week's visit, glum-faced at the unhappiness pervading Bag End. Sam's eye did indeed blacken, and his lips and knuckles stung, but Sam didn't mind the hurt: his heart ached harder. Sam had barely spoken to Frodo, and avoided those blue eyes that he once thought he'd look into till old age claimed him. Pain was written all over Frodo's face, as clear as words on parchment, yet whenever Sam opened his mouth to speak or raise a hand in a vain attempt to reach Frodo's heart, Frodo would mumble an excuse and quickly depart.

The nights were the worst. With no job to occupy his hands and mind, Sam was free to recall every tender moment he and Frodo had shared. Sometimes he could still taste Frodo's tang in his mouth, and sometimes Frodo's melodious oh my dear Sam! would echo dimly in his mind. Before, when darkness folded around him, Sam would hum softly through his lips, cupping his ache and stroking till he moaned Frodo's name to the pillow; but now his flesh was silent, desire snuffed like a candle in the wind. If being with Frodo was like a warm spring morning, now was like a cold winter night -- sad and lonely and seemingly dawnless.

The days were slowly crawling towards spring, and Sam knew soon the mornings would warm, and soon a dry wind would sweep over the Shire from the east. But despite the flittering butterflies and the scented flowers beginning to bud, Sam walked about heartsick and despondent. Sam could not control this wretchedness, but he kept up hope that his Gaffer's words would ring true one of these days: Time heals all wounds, Samwise. But neither his Gaffer nor sisters nor friends could cheer Sam up. They all assumed that Sam was a bit embarrassed for himself and Mr. Frodo, and didn't want no talk or laughter. At The Green Dragon Sam's mates were understanding; it hadn't been the first time this kind of thing had happened. They supported Sam's fight with Panto, for upholding your master's dignity was what was expected of a loyal servant. Sam would always slam his empty mug on the table, nod a curse goodbye and walk back up the Hill to Bagshot Row alone, hands stuffed in his pockets and head bent, as if to ward off the fingers of a chilly wind trying to scratch his bones.

One sunny afternoon several days after his fight with Porto, Sam was hauling up a bucket of water from the well behind the shed. The cool water made a splashing noise as it swished against the bucket's wooden surface. Sam was suddenly aware of a quite urgent need to empty his water; when the bucket was safely in his hands, Sam put it in the shade of a bush and trotted off to the privy around the other side of Bag End.

The Bag End privy was a luxury, no doubt about that. Mr. Bilbo had even installed pipes (earning a few grumbles here and there), so it contained a sink. Though Sam, when he was a lad, had once been sure a ghost hunted the privy's walls, he now hurriedly pushed open the door with a flat palm. And came to a complete standstill.

Frodo stopped washing his hands, and turned sharply towards Sam. "I'll be done in a moment," he said, irritated.

"Yessir."

Sam watched Frodo dry his hands on the towel in quick, efficient movements, as if he was trying to hurry, but trying make it look as if he weren't trying to hurry either.

Frodo had now finished cleaning himself. He looked past Sam's shoulder. "How is your Gaffer?" he said shortly.

"Good, Mr. Frodo."

Frodo nodded; still he didn't look at Sam. Shifting on his feet, Sam cleared his throat uncomfortably. It had been a while since he'd been this close to Frodo; close enough to smell him, and to bring back sharp memories, as painful as being smote in the gut with a hammer. Sam blinked back tears, and, ah, that smell of pipesmoke and ink was slicing his heart in two; and the way Frodo's collar brushed light against his chin was doing such--

"You're standing between me and the door," said Frodo, crossing his arms.

Sam must have stepped the wrong way, or Frodo did, but he'd never know, because all of a sudden Frodo was squeezing arms around Sam's shoulders, and kissing every part of his face.

"Sam...Sam...I missed you...oh please!"

Sam's mouth fitted to Frodo's, and they kissed eagerly, hungrily, tongues tasting, teeth clicking, and, oh, Sam had wanted this--

"Take me, Sam. Oh would you--?" Frodo's voice was breathless, and he reached between the buttonholes of Sam's shirt to tickle warm skin.

"Frodo...Frodo..."

"Hush!" Frodo teased out the shirttails from Sam's trousers, skilfully unbuttoning Sam's shirt at the same time. A hot mouth again locked onto Sam's, then fingers were fussing on Sam's trouser buttons; Sam rose to the touch, rubbing himself on Frodo's palm. Sam moaned as a hand wrapped around him, slick and sweet, and he thrust several times, hard, needing oh so bad to-- Gone, that wonderful hand fell away, and Sam near cried out, but fingers enclosed his wrist, guiding down, searching for -- ah there. Sam pressed his hand, feeling the outline of Frodo's arousal through soft cloth. He fumbled for the buttons.

"No!" Frodo gasped. "Just rub...oh quick!"

Sam chafed swiftly, and was rewarded when that hand returned to stroke him. Frodo nuzzled Sam's neck, nipping, sometimes a bit painfully, crushing Sam's rump against the privy door. Wood planks groaned in protest, but Sam paid no heed, catching his fingers in the back of Frodo's breeches as he sought to press fingers into the heat of a furred cleft. Squeezing the flesh of Sam's backside, Frodo ground their arousals together, cloth to skin, and as their mouths mated Sam drank the dark taste of Frodo, all wanton and aching. Sam was burning like a shooting star, kneading so much his fingers hurt, falling to a place where light was chased away, and--

All too soon Sam felt warmth flood Frodo's trousers, and he followed in turn, and they sank, chests heaving, to the privy floor.

It was a few moments before Sam realised Frodo was crying.

"Frodo?" he asked. "Is something wrong?"

"Yes, Sam, something is very wrong." Two tears slid down Frodo's cheeks in a race; the left tear won, plopping onto Frodo's chest, where it trickled from sight behind his shirt. "I can't do this anymore."

A feeling of joy bloomed in Sam's chest. "Do you mean--?"

Frodo stood up, adjusting his breeches and shirt. "No, I don't mean that. I have to go change."

Frodo left Sam staring in amazement, and as soon as the privy door swung shut Sam sobbed openly, for he was a fool.

*

The air was chill as Sam walked up the Hill, steaming in little puffs whenever he breathed out. And though the morning was clear and bright, and birds sang to the rising sun, Sam felt a brooding sadness swell in his heart. He stopped a moment before rounding the final corner to Bag End, in the pretence of checking his pack, just to steady himself. He couldn't avoid Frodo for the rest of his life, so he might as well do his duty proper.

After a minute he turned the corner, and was surprised to see a pony and cart waiting outside the cream front gate. Without thinking Sam ran down the road, his pack bumping painfully into his back. The driver was feeding the pony a lump of sugar, caressing the pony's hazelnut-coloured mane. Sam murmured a hello to the driver, who nodded back respectfully. Sam reached out to stroke the pony's withers and said quietly, "What's a-going on here? Has Mr. Bilbo gotten some visitors?"

"No." The driver fetched another sugar lump from his bundle, letting the pony nuzzle. "I've gotten orders that I've to take one of the masters to Brandy Hall."

"And who would--?"

"Time to go!" Frodo came bustling down the path, followed by a frowning Bilbo.

"Oh, hullo Sam." Frodo let the driver take several rather large packs and haul them into the cart. "I'm going--"

"Begging your pardon," interrupted the driver, "but if we don't get going now, we won't make it to The Golden Perch by dark."

"Of course," murmured Frodo. He quickly gave Bilbo a kiss, and put a furred foot on the step, jumping lightly into the cart. "Goodbye Bilbo, goodbye...Sam." With a nimble flick of wrists, the pony started forward, her hoofs clip-clopping on the gravel.

Soon the cart disappeared from sight, but before it was gone Sam shouted a mangled half-cry of Frodo! much to his embarrassment. Tears wet Sam's cheeks; he scrubbed them away with his shirt sleeve. Sam felt something heavy on his shoulder, and found himself pressed up against Bilbo. Bilbo, Sam could see, also had tears crowding his eyes.

"He thought it would be best, Sam-lad," said Bilbo, a catch in his voice. "It hurts too much."

"Will he come back?"

"I don't know, it's up to him. I hope so." Bilbo produced a handkerchief from his pocket, holding it out for Sam. Sam hesitated, but Bilbo's smile was gentle, so he took the handkerchief and wiped his eyes.

"Keep it," said Bilbo, with a soft chuckle. "Now why don't we go inside and have a bite of breakfast?"

"No, sir." Sam shook his head sadly. "I've lost my appetite. I might just go tie some o' those vines to the trellis. Been meaning to do it all week."

*

The morning passed slowly, and when lunchtime came Bilbo invited Sam inside to eat. Sam sat, slightly uncomfortable, at the table, nibbling on a corner of buttered bread. Across from him Bilbo slid a knife over his bread, spreading thickly the dark purple shireberry jam. Satisfied, Bilbo took a large bite, licking away the crumbs from the edge of his mouth.

"Frodo thought it would be best, Sam," said Bilbo, swallowing. "I don't know what brought it on... Did something happen, Sam?"

Sam blushed, staring at the tablecloth.

"I see," murmured Bilbo, half to himself, "yes, I think I see. He was terribly upset yesterday afternoon... But Sam--" Bilbo looked square at Sam; Sam squirmed under the gaze of those keen grey eyes. "Frodo loves you, but he has it in his mind you can't be together. I can't say I was unhappy at that revelation, but when I looked into Frodo's eyes, it broke my heart." Bilbo sighed and dropped the slice of bread on his plate, only one mouthful eaten. "I even told him that I'd bring in a new gardener, but he wouldn't hear of it -- he still loves you very much, I think."

Sam nodded, fumbling with his lunch. "If you told me to leave..." he began, but Bilbo cut him off.

"No, Samwise, that won't do. I'm sure if we did that Frodo wouldn't come home. Last night, when Frodo told me of his plans, I tried every way to think of to keep him here, but he wouldn't hear it. More stubborn than a wizard, that boy is." Bilbo pushed his plate aside. "Now I've lost my appetite, and I doubt it will come back till this mess is sorted out. Sam, will you tell me what Frodo said to you?"

Sam took a deep breath and told Bilbo all he could of what happened after he had fought with Porto. Of how Frodo thought the Gaffer would marry Sam off when he came of age, of how Frodo didn't want Sam to regret never having children, of the gossip that would follow them around. And of how Frodo was afraid Sam might hurt Porto again one day.

"But you already hurt -- oh!" Bilbo slumped in his chair, a frown teasing his brow. "Frodo has good points, but surely he would have thought on his feelings before he revealed them. I think we have a very mixed-up young lad on our hands, Sam. It's obvious he still cares for you, but he's got it in his head it's for the best if you aren't together. Why can't he see...?" Bilbo trailed off, deep in thought.

"Begging your pardon, Mr. Bilbo," said Sam, "but there's one more thing I haven't told you. My Gaffer said he didn't mind me and Mr. Frodo, but only if I -- I was his servant like. If we weren't in love, sir. But if he found out otherwise, he said he'd send me away to my brother up o'er to Tighfield."

"You told Frodo this?"

"Aye," said Sam unhappily.

Bilbo took a sip of his tea, looking weary. "I don't know what to think, Sam. I'm used to dealing with high tales of elvish wars and despair, not a hobbit who's confused and in love. We Bagginses seem to be unlucky in love; it took my father five years to catch the eye of my mother, and another five years of courting till she finally agreed to marry him. And then I..." Bilbo paused. "Oh, you don't want to hear me, Sam. Why don't you go home for the afternoon?"

"If it's all the same to you, sir, I'd rather keep my hands busy," replied Sam, rising to take his plate to the sink. His bread was uneaten, but he put it in his pocket. There was no point in wasting good food, but mayhap a bird will like the crumbs. He murmured a goodbye to Bilbo and went to potter around in Bag End's garden.

*

A month passed and a cold winter gave way to spring. It amazed Sam how much quieter -- more solemn -- Bag End was now that Frodo had left. Not that Mr. Bilbo wasn't fine enough company, but often he was in his study reading, or out on one of his business trips to visit the mayor or some other important hobbit, or just traipsing around the Shire for a few days, leaving Sam alone.

This was how Sam found himself now, all alone between Bag End's still walls. Sam opened Bilbo's bedroom window to let the air out, and took the pile of crumpled parchments in the wastepaper basket out to the rubbish dump. Grey clouds claimed the sky, and the air was hushed as if it were taking a deep breath. But Sam paid no heed. When he went back inside the hole he had intended to check the cellar's supply of mushrooms, but instead found that he had wandered into Frodo's bedroom.

Sam started -- ah, but there were memories here! It was painful, remembering, but Sam was assailed with feelings, threatening to overwhelm him. Kisses, as hot as a candle's flame; muted laughter as fingers groped clumsily for buttons; darkness, naught but jumping shadows; a mouth opening over him, a hollow of indescribable sweetness, gentle suction all over--

But then there were those long talks Sam and Frodo had, everything from elves to old Sandyman to the flowers blooming in the garden. And waking to feel an arm tight around Sam's waist, and then opening his eyes and just watching the morning sunshine march across Frodo's pale cheek. Glory, those times were sweet.

Sam sank to the floor, sniffling. Don't you give up hope, Samwise Gamgee, he told himself. You remember where Mr. Bilbo's gone!

Two days before, Bilbo had decided that he would go up to Brandy Hall to speak with Frodo. In one month Bilbo had received one letter from Frodo, only telling him that Frodo was fine, and that he was teaching his cousin Merry to swim in the Brandywine. Sam noticed the old hobbit seemed to age in that month, not much, as Bilbo didn't seem to get very old for some odd reason, but he grumbled more and slept more and couldn't concentrate on his writings, at least from what Sam could work out as he took piles of scrunched up parchments to the rubbish dump. Sam was about to tentatively suggest that maybe Bilbo ought to go visit Frodo, but before he could speak he found Bilbo packing, and before he knew it Bilbo was trotting down the road on a pony, off to the Eastfarthing.

"I have many things to speak to Frodo about," Bilbo had said, sitting atop his pony. The pony swished her tail and tugged at the reins impatiently. "I am dreadfully anxious about him. And I wish he would come back to Bag End where he belongs!"

"Aye, Mr. Bilbo," Sam said meekly, giving the pony a light pat.

Leaning forward at his waist, Bilbo laid a hand on Sam's shoulder. "It will be all right, lad," he murmured, offering Sam a humble smile. "It will be all right." And with that he clucked the pony forward, pressing a heel to her belly, and before long they had met the curve of the road and vanished.

Sam traced the curve of the carpet with his finger. He knew that enjoying Frodo's company was not the only reason why Bilbo wanted Frodo to come back to Bag End. If Frodo was not settled, did not feel that he was wanted, he might follow Bilbo to the Outside when he left. Sam couldn't bear the thought.

A gentle tapping sounded: rain falling against the window, slipping silently down the window in quickening streaks. In the distance thunder rumbled, low and threatening. A spring thunderstorm was about to soak Hobbiton, drenching the fields and sending hobbit-children inside screaming and laughing.

Sam wouldn't be able to work in the garden today; instead he would just--

Not think about him! Sam rose and looked around. He'd find something to do, even if it meant scrubbing the cellar floor with the smallest brush he could find. Or airing out each one of Mr. Bilbo's shirts, coats and breeches in the clothes room.

Sam rubbed the palms of his hands over his trousers and looked out the window. As if he didn't have enough to worry about, what with Frodo and his Gaffer's rumblings and the garden -- if Sam wasn't mistaken, something was up with Mr. Bilbo as well. Something that couldn't be explained away by his missing his younger cousin, surely. During the past two weeks there had been a steady trickle of dwarves passing through Bag End -- sometimes staying the night. And Bilbo took to muttering to himself and fumbling with his pocket when he thought Sam wasn't looking. Then, last week, Bilbo had disappeared for two nights, and when he came back he was carrying odd shaped parcels and a frown to match.

Sam turned from the window. He'd best be going to close Bilbo's bedroom window, and it wouldn't do no harm to hope Mr. Bilbo came back with Frodo in tow as well.

*

There came a time when he began to think that kissing and loving Frodo had only been a daydream, his memories slowly melting away as the weeks passed by.

Sam sucked on his pipe and looked across at his Gaffer, bent on his haunches as he weeded the garden bed. The sun was slipping down a break in the mountains to the west, fanning golden light across the land, and the first of the evening's cool breezes was brushing against Sam's cheek. Cows mooed softly in the fields down near the Water, while a flock of birds flew swiftly over the line of the horizon.

'Twill be nearing six weeks, Sam thought as he bent to pull a spiny bitterweed from between two flowering snapdragons. It had been a long, dark six weeks since Frodo had fled to Buckland and to his cousins. Six weeks of worry that he'd never see Frodo again, six weeks of wondering whether he'd ever feel those tight arms around his waist, six weeks of trying to recall the breathless sigh Frodo made when Sam kissed him dizzy. And spending every moment of that time missing Frodo with every bit of his body, with a longing that flushed over Sam's skin in tingling draughts. Sometimes he'd dream of making love to Frodo, but when he awoke he found relief could not be coaxed from his body, no matter how badly he ached.

"Strange, though, ain't it, Sam?" the Gaffer was saying.

Sam squinted and took the pipe from his mouth. "Sir?"

"Mr. Frodo up and leaving like that. 'Twas like when Mr. Bilbo left all them years ago." The Gaffer lifted his cap as he wiped a line of sweat from his brow.

Sam chewed the insides of his cheeks and looked quickly away. They'd spoken of this before, but the Gaffer never seemed to tire of it. "'Tis not like that -- he's only gone to Brandy Hall."

"Hmm." The Gaffer grunted. "You never know."

"Mr. Frodo would never go," Sam murmured, half to himself. "Maybe Mr. Bilbo." Sam drew a long seam in the soil with his toe. Could Mr. Bilbo disappear without even saying goodbye, Sam wondered. Would he be called to the Outside because there were too many troubles to bother him in the Shire? And-- Sam bit his lip. Would Bilbo take Frodo with him -- or would Frodo follow on his own?

"Ah, Mr. Bilbo might at that, Sam!" said the Gaffer thoughtfully, "if that Mr. Gandalf comes a-lurking again. Never did like the look of that wanderin' conjuror, with all them loud fireworks and fancy smoke rings. 'Tis an ill wind as blows in with him, I always said. But, no, Sam, I wouldn't be saying Mr. Bilbo will be going just yet. He wouldn't be leaving till he's settled all his business at Bag End -- and sold it for a pretty penny. Aye, I remember when he came back from his adventure. I was 'prenticed to Holman, keeping folk from trampling the garden. Went as white as a ghost when he found the Sackville-Bagginses traipsing 'round Bag End. Nay, he'll not let 'em get it a second time!"

Sam bit the stem of his pipe to mask his relief. Of course Mr. Bilbo wouldn't leave Bag End to the Sackville-Bagginses. Surely he'd not leave all his books for the S-B's to most probably toss into the fire. Sam dragged his toes through the grass. But maybe Bilbo would have no choice, or be in a hurry, and not be able to settle his affairs.

He'd go with him, you know he would. Sam sighed. With Frodo troubled and uneasy around Sam, he'd not likely pass up the opportunity to leave the Shire. Now that he and Sam weren't-- What had Mr. Bilbo said?

He is still in love with the Shire. Perhaps if you, Sam, were not here, he might. Frodo loves you more than you shall ever know, more than the cities of Elves and Men and all the wonders of the Outside. He has found his place, and it's in the Shire. With you.

Sam's head was beginning to hurt. He was still in the Shire, but Frodo wanted nothing to do with him. Wanted to not go anywhere near him, for fear of pain. Sometimes, when Frodo was talking about the elves and things outside the Shire, Sam caught a glimpse of something in Frodo's eyes, fleeing as swiftly as a falling star. Sam didn't know what it meant, but it worried him.

"Sam! Sam!" The Gaffer was trying to attract his attention. "Go tell May to start the supper." He lifted his chin to the woodpile. "And we'd be needing some logs for tonight."

Sam nodded. The Gaffer was piercing him with those dark, watchful eyes. "You troubled, Sam? 'Tis not like I ain't noticed you've been quiet since Mr. Frodo left. I hope you're not thinking--"

"No," Sam said quickly. "He just -- he was teaching me my letters with Mr. Bilbo, and now I reckon I won't learn 'em at all."

"Letters!" The Gaffer snorted. "Cabbages and potatoes are better for me and you. What about them ruffians? Ain't bothering ye?"

"No. I've been avoiding them, like." In the weeks since the fight he'd managed to avoid Panto and Porto for the most part. Sometimes they'd lend him a sneer or a rough word when they met at the Dragon or on the road, but Sam pushed his anger to the empty space in his heart and ignored them.

"Good on ye." The Gaffer nodded. "Go on, then! Supper ain't going to cook itself."

"Aye," said Sam softly, and went to find May.

*  

The morning's mail contained a letter to Bilbo from a Boffin cousin, a letter addressed to Frodo from Pippin, and a small envelope addressed to Sam. It was marked with Bilbo's sloping hand, thin and wiry, like trails of stretching honey. Sam stared at it for a long time, swallowing hard, then left the letter on the kitchen bench while he went to hoe the garden. As he shovelled the soil, all of Sam's thoughts chased and nipped at the envelope lying inside Bag End. The sun burned the back of Sam's neck like a brand. After Sam had stubbed his toe with the shovel for the third time, he gave up and walked slowly inside. His hands shook as he slit open the envelope and unfolded the letter.

*

Sam took a sip of ale and looked across the inn. Laughter spilled from a corner where raucous hobbits huddled, and Bob the bartender was quickening his steps as he crossed the room, balancing a flagon and a wheel of cheese precariously on a tray. A sudden crash in the kitchen, followed by a shriek, meant one of the serving maids had dropped her tray. Sam swirled the dregs of his ale. Though the innkeeper was a fair hobbit, Sam knew the maid would have to pay for the damage. 

Beside him Tom Cotton moved. "Had a hard day, Sam?"

Sam swallowed the remaining drops of his ale. "Not really," he admitted. "Since Mr. Bilbo's gone I've been working in the garden. Mostly I've been turning over the soil so's the cabbages and taters and carrots can be planted soon."

"How long's Mr. Bilbo been gone, Sam?" Tom asked, picking up a stick of cheese from the plate in front of him. "Do you know when he's coming back?"

"Three weeks now, Tom," murmured Sam to his glass. "And Mr. Bilbo sent me a letter yesterday tellin' he'd be back on Mersday."

"Two days," said Tom, taking a drink, wiping foam from his mouth with his sleeve. "Do you think he'll be bringing Mr. Frodo back with 'im?"

Sam shrugged. "I don't rightly know." He curled his fingers around his empty glass. "'Twould be up to him, though I reckon he ought to be here where he belongs."

Tom sent Sam a glance, sharp as a sliver of ice. "Would 'ee like that, Sam? Do you--?"

Sometimes a cold wind would dart in and swirl about the floor as the door opened and chatting hobbits piled inside, calling for a warm beer. Now a breeze brushed Sam's legs, making him look up and then nudge Tom sharply.

"We should go," said Tom, quiet-like. "Before they see--"

"Look who's here!" Porto, followed by Panto, swaggered up to Sam and Tom's table. Sam felt his muscles tighten.

"Leave us be," said Tom, putting a hand on Sam's arm where neither Porto nor Panto could see. "We just want a quiet ale after a day's work."

"And so do we," said Panto. "Mind if we sit down?"

Sam licked his lips with a dry tongue. "I don't--" he began, but Tom interrupted.

"Sam! Weren't we meant to meet Jolly at the stables tonight? To saddle his pony?" Tom gave Sam a meaningful stare.

"Aye." Sam caught on fast. "He'd be right angry if we're not there double quick."

Porto glowered, but allowed Tom and Sam to rise. Tom tipped his cap to the brothers. "Good evening to ye," he murmured and pressed a steady hand on Sam's back.

Sam stepped around Panto's bulk. "Next time," whispered a hot breath in his ear. Sam's jaw clenched, but Tom hooked an arm through his and led him out.

The night air blew chill on Sam's face. Stars crowded the night sky, and the moon's light limned the trees in soft, milky light. Tom pulled Sam to a ditch skirting the road; Sam allowed himself to be taken there reluctantly. His heart was clinched with anger, and he glanced longingly at the inn's door, wanting to go inside and dash the smirk off Panto's ugly face. Blood pumped hot through his veins.

Tom touched Sam's shoulder. "Don't worry about them. I know Mr. Frodo's a gentlehobbit, and Mr. Bilbo too. My da told everybody that Mr. Frodo would never pay for that, nor would Mr. Bilbo. He says Panto and Porto would do anything for a scuffle."

Sam combed a stalk of grass with his toes. "Aye, you're right there, Tom." He offered no more.

Tom shot a wary glance at the inn's shadow. "We ought to go now. We don't want Porto or his brother stepping out to catch us."

Sam hummed softly in agreement and walked with Tom for a bit. Soon they came to a fork in the road, and Tom parted with a wave and a puzzled smile. Sam watched Tom's shape melt into the darkness, then picked up his thoughts and hurried up to Number Three. He could think of nothing better than to be wrapped up in warm blankets and be in a dreamless sleep.

*

The darkness weighed heavily on Sam's shoulders as he walked down the Hill. Soft moonlight fell onto the path ahead of him, giving him a bit of light to see by. Sycamore trees guided the road on its journey down to Hobbiton; sometimes birch trees squeezed their way through, like interlopers trying to gain a space. Sam'd been up at Bag End for most of the day, doing the odd job of cleaning and preparing for Mr. Bilbo's return, or just sitting quietly in Frodo's room.

Bilbo hadn't arrived for supper, so Sam had shut Bag End's curtains and lit a lamp in the hall in case Bilbo arrived sometime in the night. He'd had a mind to go to The Green Dragon for an ale or two, for he didn't think he'd get a wink of sleep that night. Wondering how many bodies would be in Bag End when he arrived in the morning would occupy his thoughts, as like as not.

A crack of a branch alerted Sam to a presence ahead, and from the darkness appeared Panto and Porto, probably cutting through the field from The Green Dragon to their smial.

Porto spotted Sam. "Hey look here! It's Sam Gamgee." He gave Panto a sharp elbow to the ribs.

A smile darted over Panto's lips. "Hoy, Sam! How ye doin'?"

Sam stuck his hands into his pockets, trying to smother the feelings that bit at his skin. "'Twill be fine once I'm somewhere warm," he said, soft and quick as a rabbit fleeing from its prey.

"Goin' to Dragon are ye? We thought you might," said Panto, his bulk all but blocking the way ahead of Sam.

Sam quickened his pace, edging towards the sycamore trees, so that he might avoid Panto's ugly stare. But Panto stumbled to path's fringe, his eyes heavy-slitted and mouth curling. A sudden gust came up, catching Sam's coat and whipping it on his cheek. With nimble fingers Sam smoothed it down, raising a hand to his face where it felt like he'd been slapped.

"Aye, but that's none o' your business," said Sam in a clipped tone, sharing with Panto a surly gaze.

"Now, Sam," Porto swaggered over, and the two lads loomed heavy before Sam, like an old oak's gnarled roots, waiting to trip an unwary traveller, "there's no need to get angry."

"I'd like to be nursing an ale by the fire," said Sam, searching for a space to escape. "And my stomach's grumbling for a hot soup."

"Oh?" Porto's grey eyes searched Sam's face. "You're missing your master already?"

No answer would suffice, so Sam stood in silent defiance, folding his arms at his breast, tapping the road softly with his foot.

Panto laughed. "I'm guessing you miss that warm bed of his -- and more?"

"That's not your worry," murmured Sam, and was now desperate to escape. The two brothers formed a triangle with him; Sam couldn't move forward without bumping into them and he couldn't move back neither, else they might grab his arms at the sudden rush and that most likely would lead to a fight.

Panto laughed again, leaning close to Sam. With the pipeweed on Panto's breath also mingled bitter ale, tangy and full, lingering in the night air. "More," grinned Panto, "like you miss your master's body pressing on you. Does he like to be on top or beneath?"

"Shut your mouth, Panto Haystock, or I'll--"

"Run to your master?" finished Panto in a challenging tone.

"No," said Sam, confused, "he's gone to visit the Brandybucks."

"Is he now?" Panto's thick tongue ran across his lips, leaving a moist trail. "Well, there's a body as looks close to your master's at the Dragon now, taking his supper."

"F-Frodo's back?" Sam stuttered, searching Panto's face for a lie.

Panto wagged a finger. "That's Mister Frodo to you, Samwise. Maybe you ought to toddle back to Bag End after we're done here and wait for your master. I'm sure he'll be hungry for it -- 'less he paid some serving boy at Buckland to tup him every night."

Peals of laughter sang to the silent sycamore trees; Sam blushed, not from shame but rage, hot and unfiltered as it steamed through his blood. "Don't you say that," he said in measured tones. "Mr. Frodo's always been a proper gentlehobbit, and if you--" Sam stopped, biting the words from his tongue. Stars glittered past the trees' leaves, like the sun slanting on morning dew, bright and alive with knowledge. And Sam knew -- he had learnt -- that fighting, bandying words, would do no good. So he looked slowly from one brother to the other, piercing them with an unflinching gaze, and if Panto's smile stammered for a moment, or Porto's eyes faltered, then maybe Sam had done his part.

"I'm not going to fight you," said Sam quietly. "I've learnt nothing good'll come from it, so why don't you two go on home to where your ma's waitin'?"

A low grumble rippled up Porto's throat, and he looked at Panto. "C'mon," he said gruffly. "Let's not waste time on him." Porto put in as much loathing into the word as Sam had ever heard. "Let's go home. Didn't ma say she was making custard tonight?"

Panto watched Sam's face, bending his thought this way and that. "All right," he said finally, "we shouldn't be wasting our valuable time with naught but a common servant."

Hooking their elbows together, the brothers crossed the road, slipping into the trees as they hummed a song beneath their breaths. Sam released a pent-up sigh; it misted a bit in the frigid air before gently diffusing into insubstantial pieces, vanishing between heartbeats. A shiver stole down Sam's body, and he wrapped him arms around himself, pushing his nose into his collar. The pockets of the trees were full of twisting shadows, diving and shifting across the boughs. Tears brimmed in Sam's eyes, and when he looked up at the stars they were splintered and cracked like a smashed mirror.

"Sam?"

Sam whipped around, half expecting Porto or Panto, but leaning against the bark of a sycamore tree was a shadow of pale and dark that he thought he'd never see again.

"Frodo!" Sam crossed the road in two breaths, stumbling to a stop a step before his master. "You ought not to be out here on such a cold night," he said, instantly regretful and worried.

"I have a coat." Frodo tipped his chin at Sam. "Like yourself."

Sam wiped his eyes with the edge of his coat sleeve. Moonlight traced the contours of Frodo's face: the slight cleft of his chin, the flaring of his nostrils as he breathed, the arches of his eyebrows as he gazed steady at Sam. The coat Frodo wore was dusted in bits of leaves and his hair was mussed from being caught by wind and branch.

"You should be goin' home," Sam said at last. "I was just headin'--"

"I followed Porto and Panto from The Green Dragon," Frodo interrupted. "I wanted to speak with them about you. I didn't want them to hurt you anymore. But then I heard voices and I..." Frodo trailed off.

Fingers brushed lightly on Sam's arm, hesitant. "I wish to speak with you." Light fingers lifted Sam's chin, forcing him to look deep into troubled blue eyes, swirling with a storm of concern. "I've been a fool, Sam. How can you ever forgive me?"

Sam took a pace back, swallowing around the heavy lump trapped in his throat.

Frodo sighed wearily, placing his hand by his side. "Maybe you can't," he said, "maybe never. Will you do me the favour of listening?"

Sam trusted his voice to speak. "Aye," he murmured thickly.

"Bilbo and I arrived back only an hour ago. We stopped at The Green Dragon for supper first," Frodo began, alternately looking at the grey loam below and the speckled canopy above. "At Brandy Hall he told me he was planning to leave the Shire soon." Frodo's gaze hung about Sam's eyes. "He told me you knew of this."

"Yes, Mr. Bilbo told me," said Sam, scuffing his foot on the ground. "But he told me not to tell you... He didn't want to make you unhappy."

"I understand." Frodo's smile was gentle, but tinged with sadness. "I am sorry for leaving you, Sam. I just couldn't--"

"I understand misself, sir," Sam interrupted. "I will stop gardening at Bag End, if that's your wish, Mr. Frodo. The Goodbodies are--"

"No." Sure fingers smoothed Sam's shoulders; Frodo's breath warmed Sam's lips. "I wish for us to be together again, Sam. If you want to."

Sam looked deeply at Frodo's face, open and willing, but fraught with a thin film of anxiety. "What about...Porto?"

Frodo's thumb wiped away the tear spilling down Sam's cheek. "I saw your conversation with Porto and Panto before," whispered Frodo. "I trust you will take the right action now."

"But I'm not of age... What if my Gaffer wants to marry me off? What about my children?"

Frodo's thumb slipped across Sam's cheek, hovering about the corner of his mouth. "We have twelve years, Sam. Even if you are to wed one day, we will treasure the days we are together. And, when the time comes, it's not my choice to make. I took your choice away, Sam, and I shouldn't have. If you wish to take a wife and have children, you may, and if you don't want to, you don't have to. But, in the time between...I don't want to regret not being able to love you." A leaf flittered from a tree above, landing on Sam's head. Frodo picked it off with his other hand, turning it in his fingers for a trice before tossing it into the shadows. "When Bilbo told me he will be leaving soon, Sam, I -- I couldn't... I offered to go with him, but he wouldn't let me. He doesn't think I really want to, yet. And I don't, because..." Frodo paused. "Oh, Sam! I ached for you every day at Brandy Hall. So many times I wrote you a letter, telling you how much I needed you, how each day felt empty and bitter without your smile and touch, only to toss it into the bin."

Frodo faltered. "I thought I could manage without you," he said quietly. "I'm not as weak as some of my cousins would think, but you make everything--" Frodo stretched his hands out. "Right. I came back because I wondered if you would still...want me. Will you, Sam? Will you forgive me? Will you love me?"

Sam pulled Frodo into the shadows, and his promise was gently sealed when his lips closed over Frodo's, stemming the gasp that rose in Frodo's throat. A rush of longing dispersed over Sam's skin, pricking deep into every crevice, till he was warmed by thought alone, the sure knowledge he would be able to love Frodo again.

"Maybe," said Sam huskily as he dabbed kisses over Frodo's mouth, "maybe--"

"Forever," finished Frodo, opening his mouth to Sam's.

Frodo's hands fell to Sam's hips, pulling him close; the heat flowed through Frodo as well, urgent on Sam's thigh. Their tongues tangled for a space, seeking for surety, asking for reassurance. A hand splayed at the back of Sam's head drew him in deeper, while a thumb circled lazily the small of Sam's back. And when Frodo hooked his leg over Sam's thigh, grinding their swelling arousals together, Sam knew he was coming undone, piecemeal.

Frodo broke the kiss, cupping Sam's cheeks. "I was a fool, Sam. I am sorry I hurt you so much."

"You was hurtin' too," said Sam, smiling past his tears. "And I reckon we're better 'cause of it."

"Yes." Frodo's brows knitted together. "You're right, Sam. We'll need to be strong, for it won't be easy. The rumours..."

"They've died down," said Sam, kissing away Frodo's tears. "And I think Porto and Panto won't be botherin' us anymore."

"You're a marvel, Sam-dear," laughed Frodo. "Surely it was impossible to think I could stop loving you."

"And I couldn't stop loving you, me dear," said Sam. "Not even when my Gaffer..."

Frodo's hand paused in its gentle stroking of Sam's arm. "Sam?"

"My Gaffer thinks I only...touch you because I'm your servant. He said he'd send me away if we..." Sam buried his face in the hollow of Frodo's neck, filled with the scent of pipeweed and woodsmoke and Frodo. "Do you think we could--?"

"Yes," Frodo breathed out, mouth threading over Sam's hair. "You could pretend to just take care of me, if that's what it will take."

Sam raised his head; the stars spun about Frodo's head like a jewelled crown, but there were stars in Frodo's eyes, and they drew Sam in, forever and ever. A smile tugged at the corner of Frodo's mouth, and Sam joined him, laughing softly in the darkness as the moon crept steadily to crest the trees. Sam took Frodo's hand, rubbing the pliant skin between his fingers, flushing as Frodo's gaze seemed to strike right to his bones.

"Would you like to come to Bag End for a while?" asked Frodo. "Bilbo will be at The Green Dragon for a while yet, and I shall be alone in the dark hole." The unspoken invitation pulsed between them, as if a sudden hot wind had traced through the trees from the Hill.

Sam nodded, and relief flew over Frodo's face. Frodo made to take Sam's hand, but Sam drew back. "Yes," Frodo inclined his head and his voice fell a mite, "it's not allowed."

They walked up the Hill, sometimes touching fingers for no more than a moment, knowing that a little patience was all as was needed. Frodo pushed open the gate, leading Sam down the stone path, and at last they were standing on Bag End's doorstep, gazing at the view spreading around them.

Frodo laid his head on Sam's shoulder, silent as violet clouds crept across the moon and crickets hummed to the night air. The lights of inns and smials blinked below, warm and friendly, brimming with wives steeping tea on the hearths, fathers laying their children to bed and old gaffers supping on thick brew between tales of gossip and goings-on.

Frodo's breath was steady by Sam's ear, at peace for a time, and an arm wound around Sam's waist, hooking fingers into Sam's trousers.

Maybe Sam would feel the need for a brood of children blossom within his breast one day, and maybe he'd settle down with a pretty lass in a comfortable smial, telling stories to his family around the fire each night. Oh, but I have him today, thought Sam, closing his eyes to the world below, knowing it would always be there, sure in the thought he'd never regret his choice.

Frodo stirred, stroking at the gap of skin on Sam's belly.

Sam didn't know what would happen tomorrow, or the next day, or the next. But he knew, whatever happened, that he and Frodo would--

"Yes," breathed Frodo. "I think so"

Warm fingers twined through Sam's, and Frodo tugged his hand, and they walked towards the golden light of Bag End.

~ end ~

 

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