West of the Moon

A Tolkien Fanfiction Archive



Cloves and Kisses
Sam is trapped by worse than wargs.
Author: Bill The Pony
Rating: PG


A/N:  This fic was written nearly a year ago for Fuzzicat, who deserves more smoochies than I have lately produced, and in fandoms unhairyfooted, to boot.  Thanks go out belatedly to ResQDog, Jennariathia, and Ninglor for support, encouragement, and critical feedback! All remaining screw-ups are my own.

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Fourteen-oh-three was a special year for Samwise Gamgee, and he determined right away that he meant to spend it in hiding. Oh, not that it was a bad thing, turning twenty, at least not on the surface of it. It meant he was officially a full tweenager, and that meant he could court a lass, and do any of the sorts of things courting couples did, and not be looked at askance for it neither, not unless he got some lass in trouble.

He left the breakfast table early and hastened towards the garden; the spring rains had left it well-disposed to grow weeds, and they sapped the vegetables if you left them.

He was pleasantly surprised that he wasn't alone when he neared the Road, but tried not to show it. "Morning, Mr. Frodo." Frodo wasn't usually out and about till well after Sam had started his day's work.

"Sam. Up early, I see." Frodo held a book in his hand, his finger holding his place between two pages, and his weskit pockets bulged with his pipe and his pouch of Old Toby. His smile lit up his face, and it brought one to Sam's lips, too.

"No earlier'n usual," Sam took his eyes off Frodo and looked back towards the smial; Marigold wasn't out yet, and while he liked chattering with the master, he wanted to get out of sight right quick. "Not like you, begging your pardon."

Frodo shook his head and leaned close to Sam with the air of someone about to impart a great secret. "It's too fine a morning to stay indoors, even in bed."

"That it is." Again Sam looked behind him. No sign of Marigold.

"Is something wrong?" Frodo looked concerned; he peered behind Sam towards Number Three.

"I'd like to be in the garden before my sister comes out," Sam admitted. "The neighborhood lasses have had her after me ever since the Party."

Frodo laughed, head tipping back with delight. "I heard about that. Is it true you slipped away and hid through the last dance, and none of the lasses could find you?"

"That it is." Sam shifted his feet. "That may be tradition, but I don't hold with all that foolishness, if you follow me."

"Oh, I do." Frodo's eyes sparkled with merriment. "I would have missed my own, if Bilbo hadn't dragged me by the ear."

Sam nodded vigorous agreement. "He'd have had to drag me by both of mine, and that's a fact." Having to promenade through a dance with every lass who wanted a chance at courting him, and then kissing each one when her turn down the row was done? He'd just as soon go without beer for a month.

"Still, you won't escape them that easily, Sam." Frodo's smile suited his face like the sun suited the sky, it was that bright and cheerful-- and it made Sam's heart flutter worse than spring fever, it did, in a way that made him linger even though Marigold couldn't be long now. "They'll be after you like a fox after a hare."

"I can try," Sam lifted his chin stout-like. "And I'd best be about it, or I'll fail."

"I'll let you be about it, then." Frodo waved to Sam as he wandered off down the Road, and Sam allowed himself only a single lingering look before he took off for the garden.

Once there, he surveyed his chances and decided that for all they itched and stung your neck, he'd be best off in the bean-patch. The Sun was still low, but her glow of warmth on Sam's cheek warned that she'd be a hot one, come midmorning and after. Sam tugged at his collar, loosening a few buttons with careless fingers, and crouched down in the shaded hollow between two rows of young bean vines, tugging at stubborn grass that had set in between the rows where his Gaffer's hoe couldn't find it.

The work wasn't so hard it kept his mind occupied, and as he crawled, his discussion with Frodo ran through his mind. His birthday party was not yet a week past, and Frodo was right about foxes and hares; that had started well before he cut out and missed that last dance. It wasn't fair that he had to live right next to the Twofoots; they had eight daughters and no fewer than four of them seemed to think they were near enough Sam's age for courting. And that was without thinking of Rose Cotton or Mary-bell Noakes, or none of the other two dozen hobbit lasses around Hobbiton or Bywater as thought Sam would make a fine catch someday.

Truth be told, he'd rather think on Frodo Baggins, if he had to set his mind at anyone, though there were a couple of the lasses he didn't mind so much-- especially Rosie Cotton, who had a way of looking at him that made Sam blush and feel hot all over. But Frodo... he weren't even a girl, and yet that sparkle in his eyes could fair turn a lass's head-- or a lad's.

And there was a puzzle. Why weren't more of the lasses chasing his coat-tails? He had all the money in the Shire, and what's more, he'd been out of his tweens for a brace of years now. Not that Sam minded Frodo's odd habits; he liked being able to go up to Bag End now and again to keep the master company. If Frodo went off and took up with some lass, she'd shriek the smial down before she let the gardener inside for a mug of beer, all dirt and sweat.

The Sun rose higher as Sam made slow progress up and down the rows. His neck itched and it got cruel hot in spite of the shade, but he kept right on as he was, stubbornly staining his fingers with dark, rich earth and leaving little tufts of grass roots-up in his wake. Better this than standing off somewhere in full sight of the Road, as he'd have to if he were up at Bag End working in Mr. Frodo's roses. That Marigold, now, she was up to mischief and it didn't take no brains to see it, the way she'd had her head together with Mary-bell and with Moll and Buttercup Twofoot every waking minute for the past day or so. A smart hobbit lad knew when to keep his head down.

"There you are, Sam!" Marigold's head poked into the end of the row, and Sam groaned to himself.

"I've not got time for foolishness, Mari."

"'Tisn't foolishness, Sam. Mary-bell's kitten's up a tree, and it won't come down again, and she's cried after it for the past hour."

Sam gazed warily through the fluttering bean leaves at her. "It must have gone out right early, if that's so. I reckon it'll still be there when I'm done working, then."

Marigold huffed and tossed a dirt clod at his head. "Gaffer says you can come fetch it down, and not come back, neither. You've been working like a cart-horse since the morning after your party, and that's a fact." Her voice sharpened and deepened in a precise imitation of their father's.

"You'd best hope he don't hear you talk like that," Sam warned. "You're not so old that he won't snatch up your skirt and give you a switching."

"Won't you come, Sam? It's the little grey tabby one." Butter wouldn't have melted in her mouth, and she smiled at him too prettily.

Sam sighed. "When I'm done with this row." He figured there was a good chance she and Mary-bell had stuck that cat up in the tree themselves, but that didn't mean it wouldn't want to be let down again.

He finished up slowly, taking his time about making sure he had every blade and every root, then stood up, dusting his hands. "You've got a leaf in your hair," he told her. "If I go and find that kitten in the same sort of tree, I've half a mind to leave that cat where it is and let you climb right back up to bring it down!"

"Well, we tried climbing after it already, Sam. The tree's too tall." She plucked the leaf out, and Sam caught sight of Mary-bell looking at him from the garden gate, wearing a winning smile. She didn't look like she'd shed a tear since the day last Halimath when Bob Brockhouse settled on his cousin Iris.

Sam sighed. Naught for it but to go and fetch that cat right quick, and hope for the best.

He set off down the Row with them, one on each side-- Mary-bell on the right, near to burst with beaming at him. Rosie caught them at the bottom of the Row, and Sam stifled a sigh as he tipped his head to her, but that was just the beginning-- they collected a dozen others walking through the field. Out waiting for them to pass, just as plain as day. A gaggle of Twofoots, Mary-bell's sister, one or two of Rosie's cousins... and a few girls Sam hardly knew, some of them a good deal older than he was and just a couple younger.

"Just where is this kitten of yours?!" Sam finally sputtered. There was fifteen girls now, or near enough, steering him off only the sky knew where.

"It's in the wood just over the ridge, there, where the winter primroses bloom every February."

Sam groaned out loud, certain now he'd been sold a pig in a sack. He had a good notion where this was going, but when he turned to head back, he couldn't-- they were in a ring right around him, all bright-eyed and smiling.

Sam ducked his head and followed Mari's tug. If they had a mind to fill their eyes with him climbing, there wasn't nothing he could do about it except refuse the next time.

They toiled up the ridge and down into the wood behind, where bracken was coming up thick and the leaf mould crunched under their feet. The trees were thick and the air was cool as they walked down into the green-dappled dell where Mari's finger led.

"Which tree?" Sam asked, resigned.

"This one." Marigold pointed.

As he'd suspected, it was climbable, and Marigold herself could have tackled it with ease-- it was an old dead tree with half-rotted branches, though, and it might not be safe. "Where's the kit?" He circled the trunk, peering up into the empty branches.

She frowned. "Maybe it climbed back down again. Or maybe it's behind that cluster of leaves." She pointed.

"Marigold Gamgee, you know trolls come for liars." Sam excused himself to Buttercup and Rose, moving past them to peer where she indicated. "I don't see--"

"Sam's under the kissing bough!" Lily Weaver pointed, bouncing up and down. "He's right under it!" The girls shrieked with glee.

Sam sputtered-- it was mistletoe he was looking up at, and a right nice cluster of it, too. He'd walked into their trap just as neat as you please.

"That only works at Yule-tide!"

"No, it doesn't." They pressed closer.

Sam glanced frantically about the circle; he was beginning to understand, after a lifetime of hearing the story, precisely how Bilbo Baggins felt on his adventure when he was surrounded by Wargs. There was quite literally nowhere to go but up the tree, and if he tried that, they'd probably burn him out. And no hope for rescue by eagles, neither-- that was one thing the likes of Sam Gamgee would never see!

"Sam, you run off from your party before the last dance." Rosie was at his elbow, across from Mary-bell, and somehow her being so near made him feel both better and worse. "Now, was that fair? I ask you."

Sam looked into her eyes and gulped. "I didn't think nobody would mind--"

"Well, you thought wrong." It seemed to be a general opinion, given the murmurs and nodding heads.

Sam's ears fair burned with embarrassment. "Well, are we going to have to dance right here, then?"

"No. We've no need for a dance. We've got you under the kissing bough, Sam Gamgee, and we mean to do something about it," Lily told him, all full of sauce.

Sam weighed his chances for escape by charging through a weak point in the circle, but there weren't one. "Now look," he blurted. "I can't be kissing on the lot of you when I've got so much work to be doing." Maybe one of them wouldn't be too bad, especially not Rosie if he could take her off somewhere quiet, or even Mary-bell, but not the whole lot. This was a disaster!

"Gaffer said you didn't have to work no more today," Mari reminded, and the circle tightened.

"That's as may be, but see here," Sam bleated, desperate. "Stand off a bit; I ain't had my say. What, am I supposed to kiss every girl here without playing no favorites? I won't have no part of your cat-fighting among yourselves, after."

"You've a mighty high opinion of yourself, Sam Gamgee." Lily's eyes were bright. "But still, you're right." Her eyes flashed at Rose Cotton, and Rose's flashed right back. "We don't want no favorites." Her smile at Rose had entirely too many teeth showing for Sam's comfort, and he groaned-- they hadn't even started in yet, and already they were that ready to claw each other!

"I won't do it unless I don't know who I'm kissing, and that's flat," he said hastily, trying to break things up before they got going, and then bit his lip-- had he just agreed to do it? Near enough, it seemed, for their faces brightened.

"Pansy, your kerchief," Mary-bell reached out right quick. "We'll bind up his eyes."

Pansy let her hair fall and handed it over; Sam eyed it with alarm. "I don't like this one bit," he said faintly. It wasn't true, quite; he was tingling just a bit, excited in spite of himself, and flattered for all his embarrassment.

"You will." Mary-bell advanced, rolling the kerchief with a flick of her wrists, and the last thing Sam saw was Lily's smile, stretching wide like a Warg's-- all she needed was to lick her chops. It didn't leave him feeling no better as the soft cloth, warm and smelling of Pansy's hair, closed in over his eyes. They tied the blindfold up right proper, making sure he couldn't see out underneath around his nose and all.

"Now, here's the rules," Mari said right up against his ear. "You're all over dirt, so don't go handling nobody, Sam. You'd spoil their frocks. Girls, don't talk none, or he'll know you. Just go up one by one and take your turns."

"Wait, wait." Sam threw up his hands. "One turn each."

They just laughed and hands pushed at him, moving him forward and nearly making him stumble over a root. He felt rough bark behind his back, and leaned against it.

"Have him sit, so he can't tell how tall nobody is," Lily's voice, eager and too close. Sam nodded to himself; she was that short, and he'd have known her, if he was standing up.

They shuffled him about just a bit and sat him down on a gnarled burl of root, still with his back up against the tree-trunk, his feet on either side of the root.

"Mari, you stay right here," Sam begged. "If you go off, I'll tell the Gaffer you lied." It was the best threat he had to make, and it would have to do.

"The cat was up the tree, Sam," she responded. "But I ain't going nowhere." She patted Sam's shoulder. "Now, who's first?"

A babble of voices rose, and Mari raised her own. "No, not that way. Here. You first. Sam, get ready."

Sam's heart rose into his throat and his cheeks burned; he didn't know quite what "ready" was supposed to mean, so the girl caught him halfway through a nervous breath. She smelled of violets; her mouth was soft and dry and she didn't try nothing too frightening, just pressed her lips right up against his for a long second and then pulled them back without even making a smack. Still, that was Sam's first kiss, and it left him flushed and wanting a moment to breathe, so he could think about it proper.

He figured that if it didn't get no worse than that, he might live and still be able to hold his head up, after.

"Now get in the back of the line," Mari instructed. Line? Sam revised his cautious optimism and tried to sink right back into the tree, and couldn't nohow.

"Now you," Mari directed, and Sam felt soft curls against his cheek this time-- that had to mean Pansy, for all the other lasses had their hair pulled back in the summer heat. He blushed for knowing when Pansy's mouth touched his-- her kiss was not so dry, and she caught his lower lip with hers, which made him clench his hands as his nerves sparked a flicker of heat through him.

Another shy kiss next, barely a touch of lips with a soft giggle following it, but she put her hand on his cheek, and her fingertips trailed soft over the edge of his ear, and it gave him a right shiver.

Then there were two more, each not unlike the last three. Pleasant, each with some sweet touch on his face and a shy nuzzle against his mouth. They started to make him relax as much as could be expected, or at least he was beginning to enjoy himself-- each girl felt or tasted just a bit different, like peaches off different trees.

But then the next lass plopped herself right in his lap. "Hey," Sam yelped, startled, and her mouth muffled his cry-- and her mouth was wet and open, and he felt himself tense, drawing back with startled distaste. That would be Lily, or he was a rabbit. Aggressive and determined, her tongue tried to coax its way past Sam's teeth, and when he refused, she persisted for rather longer than was strictly polite.

Sam kept his jaw clenched and didn't let her any further in. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve when she got up and flounced off, her skirts brushing his face and chest.

Mari chuckled at him, and he made a face in her general direction.

"I'll just take my turn in a minute, Mari!" Rosie's voice, hot with anger. "Come here, you little--"

Sam sat miserably, hands clutching each other in his lap. "I knew this would happen," he muttered. "It's not my fault, it's not!"

Mari's hand patted his shoulder. "Li-- I mean to say, some girls are a bit too impertinent, is all. Rosie'll see to it she learns better." She wiped at his face. "You've got mud all over your face now. Be still."

Sam didn't care about no mud, and he was ready to quit, for all that the first few kisses had left him feeling pleasantly warm. He didn't want to get no warmer; he was already embarrassed enough. He didn't want a repeat of that last kiss, neither. That was a fact, but there wasn't no helping it-- he was stuck.

"Who's next? You. Why don't you show him how to do that proper-like?" Mary suggested, and met with a soft rustle of laughter.

Sam bit his lip and tried to breathe in spite of all his fretting; skirts settled over his knees, between him and a girl's legs, as she got in his lap just like Lily. Sam tensed, but she sat down easy and nestled into his lap in a way that probably would have made Rosie a lot angrier than watching Lily Weaver. Sam held his breath; he'd wager this was one of the older girls, just based on her confidence. She reached with a finger and tipped his chin up gentle-like.

"Mind her frock," Mari warned, and Sam kept his hands carefully to the sides as she settled in. The girl's mouth brushed his once, then again-- feather-light, but somehow it was done in a way that made Sam's skin come alive and crackle like summer lightning. Then her tongue touched his lip, sweeping along its curve, and it wasn't nasty at all, not like Lily's. It fair made him hum, or maybe she was humming, a little purr of pleasure that tasted fine.

He half-heard a sigh and murmur from the girls watching, but he couldn't bring himself to mind it; her hands were light on his shoulders and one of them slid down over his chest. He gasped at the touch and she pressed forward into his mouth, near as soft as a blooming flower, touching his tongue once with hers before pulling back to breathe another fiery little brush over his lip. She laughed then and was gone out of his lap so fast it almost hurt.

Sam shifted his legs hastily, trying to hide the evidence of her skill. He could hear Rosie giving Lily a tongue-lashing not far away, and was right glad she was distracted, though some part of him regretted losing the possibility that the kiss he still tasted might have been hers.

"You next," Mari directed, and Sam received a wet smacking kiss on the lips-- not as bad as Lily, but nothing to brag about, neither. He could still hear Rosie and Lily fussing in the background, their voices raised and angry, and he winced at it.

"All right, yes, you can." Mari made it sound like a royal favor, and Sam would have rolled his eyes, if he could. Another girl, this one smelling like lavender and taking little dainty sips at his mouth that teased-- that soft heat was growing in him again by the time she finished, making his cheeks red.

Rosie and Lily's argument faded with an abrupt squawk, and there was a prolonged stirring of feet, which probably meant Rosie had rejoined the line. Skirts rustled, and feet crackled in the leaves, and he felt a warm breeze lift his hair. The pause made Sam nervous. How many were left, a dozen? More? How long before they let him go? "How many more?" he asked Mari, anxious.

She hesitated. "Six or seven," she said brightly, and patted him again. "Maybe as many as ten. Don't fret, Sam. You're doing fine. Much better than May says Hal did." He could hear the laughter strangled in her voice.

"What?!" Sam glared in her general direction through the blindfold.

"Family tradition." She giggled, a bit too shrill. "Daisy told Hal we'd skin him if he warned you."

"You see if I ever rescue another kitten for you, Marigold Gamgee!"

"Hush and bide quiet, or I'll let them all go at you again when the line's done," Mari cuffed him lightly and ruffled his hair.

"I said one turn each," he grumbled, trying to count. One, two, Lily, then five others. Or was it six? And how many girls were there, anyway? Sam subsided, feeling a bit sullen and hard-used as he waited for the next lass.

"Next," came Mari's light warning, and Sam scented violet perfume again. The same one? He couldn't be quite sure as he tasted her kiss-- more daring than the first that had come along with this violet scent, it clung to his mouth, hot and moist and tugging at his lips a bit, which didn't help the condition of his lap none.

When she got up, everything was silent again, and Sam turned his head uselessly, trying to listen. "Mari? What's going on?"

"Just a moment, Sam." She patted him absently. "We've got to fix the line." Her voice was full of mischief.

"Well, hurry up then," he finally said, feeling both shy and cross. "I've got work to do up at Bag End and all." The girls laughed at that, high and nervous.

"Hush," Mari said, sharper, and the excited but half-wary sound of her voice made Sam go tense. Were Rosie and Lily still fighting? No, it was too quiet for that. He heard one low murmur, and the distant twitter of birds in the leaves. "We've got to decide who goes next." He could hear another low murmur of voices, but couldn't make out any words.

Sam fidgeted, not comfortable with literally being kept in the dark. But maybe it was Rosie, hanging back while she planned how to come at him. Anticipation warmed his veins like the dapple of sun that played on his left cheek; she'd want something special just to show up that Lily, if for no other reason. All right, then. If that was the case, he'd oblige her.

After a bit there was a distinct rustle of motion, both from beside him and in front. Skirts brushed his ankles, the only real warning he got, and slid over his legs. Sam lifted his face blindly, wanting Rosie's mouth and feeling his pulse pound in his throat, anticipating, but all he got was a quick little peck, almost a tease, and a ripple of nervous laughter as he settled back, flummoxed.

"It looks like you're starting to enjoy the game after all," Mari's voice had settled back to its original unruffled gaiety. "I think we'll go 'round a second time after all, Sam."

"Don't I get no say in that?" He frowned, not quite sure what was going on, not unless it was something with Rosie. Was she still about, or had that Lily run her off? He lifted his hand to the kerchief without thinking, wanting to see.

"Stop that, Sam!" Mari swatted his hand away quick. "Now you, come here."

Sam gave a sigh, greatly put-upon. There was violet perfume again, and the kiss proceeded in a familiar manner, soft warm lips tugging gently at his, but when she moved away he frowned. "Did somebody leave? Did somebody else turn up?"

A pause. "A few girls left, yes," Mari said briskly. "Mostly those who'd already had a turn."

Sam frowned. Was Rose gone? "I thought there were a lot left who hadn't had no kisses yet. We weren't to play favorites, and each lass was to have just one turn."

"You're the one for counting and letters, not me." Marigold checked his blindfold again. "How did you know we started over? Oh." He could hear her sniffing. "Of course-- you can still smell. That just won't do, Sam, and you know it." She hesitated. "Come to think of it, it won't do at all, and that's a fact." She reached and fumbled in his weskit. "Do you have-- yes, you do. This is just the thing."

He heard a rustle and then could smell the rich scent of pipeweed being passed under his nostrils-- pleasant, but pungent. It overwhelmed even the earth-scent of the woods-loam and the tang of pine needles under the sunlight. "There, that ought to do." She held it where it was. "All right, he's as ready as he'll ever be. Come ahead, if you mean to. Sam, here's someone who's had no kisses at all yet," she warned and giggled, that nervous mischief returned to her tone.

A pause ensued, and then Sam heard another titter just as he felt a light flick of cloth against his shin. It didn't come from quite the angle he expected, but it warned him just enough that he could brace himself before his face was taken between two hands. Rosie at last? Perhaps it was. Sam lifted his mouth, hopeful. Breath touched his lips, then a mouth-- feather soft and gentle, hesitant, settling in slowly. Oh, yes, that had to be Rose. Sam lifted his chin into the kiss and dared to open his mouth, encouraging her hesitant touch, wishing he could catch her scent over the harsh smell of pipeweed.

A warm tongue flickered in, stroking along the inside of his lower lip, and Sam opened to meet it, leading it in to his own. There was a taste of cloves and something elusive on the girl's tongue. Her kiss was like a sunrise, growing heat and bright pleasure in him, stealing his breath. He forgot himself and reached up, but Mari's hand pushed his wrist down to the ground again, and he murmured frustration, letting the other one fall with it.

Oh, this... not shy or impersonal, nor brazen and unwanted aggression like Lily, nor even the sultry summer storm of that one girl's mouth, the one Mari had told off to kiss him proper. This was perfect: sweet waxing heat, and light, and through it all a taste of cloves, and apples... and what? Sam couldn't quite tell; the pipeweed scent was that strong.

Before long he was trembling against that mouth, aching to lift his arms around the girl to cradle her against him-- but then it was over, and Sam sighed, shaken.

"Maybe I wouldn't mind to go around again, at that," he firmed his voice and spoke up right stout, trying to cover his embarrassment.

Another nervous titter ran 'round, and Marigold joined in the laughter. Sam fidgeted, hoping he hadn't been wrong in speaking up.

"All right," Marigold agreed. "That sounds fine. How about... you. Yes, you."

Again a swish of skirts touching Sam's thigh, and the sudden presence of a mouth against his-- he blinked; it was that same one again, if he was any judge. Sam might have chuckled at Mari's cunning if his mouth hadn't been busy, opening right up, eager for more. He sighed his pleasure. Favoritism aside, this was more like it. If it was Rose, of course. But it had to be, it felt that comfortable and that familiar, for all that he hadn't never kissed no one before-- and that good, the warm tongue swirling gently around his own, one soft hand resting lightly on the nape of Sam's neck.

Sam closed his eyes under the kerchief and followed that swift tongue-tip with his own, feeling his heart start pounding in his chest-- he chased her tongue in and out of her mouth, then felt her start to draw back and followed her, keeping his face lifted to hers, their lips clinging and urgent, prolonging the kiss as they slowly drew apart. He was in a state by the time she pulled away, and no mistake, so he shifted, again trying to hide his lap. There was a hushed murmur, wavering between shocked and titillated, and he crimsoned, figuring he hadn't had no success hiding.

"All right, yes, back in line. Breathe a bit, Sam." Mari sounded a little bit scandalized herself, he thought, but it was her fault he was here, and he wasn't going to let it shame him.

"That's it." Mari paused for a few moments as he composed himself. "Ready now, Sam?" Mari still sounded a little worried, and again a flicker of dismay surged in Sam's breast, so he didn't lift his face to meet the next girl. Her mouth was soft and sweet enough, demure, but he was starting to hate this cursed blindfold. There was that violet scent again, faint over the pipeweed. His mouth moved against hers-- her kisses were getting better; they were sweet enough, though without the devastating effect of the last girl's. Sam touched her lips with his tongue and startled a soft noise in her throat-- was that Mary-bell? Were they down to her and Rose, then? Why had the others gone, and when? Had there even been any others, after Lily?

Surely there must have, but he wasn't at all convinced there were others now.

"Next," Mari warned him, and there was another soft kiss, and then two more-- sweet, not stoking the heat in him any more than they should. That must mean there were more girls than just the two.

He was confused. "Mari, who's here?" he asked, uneasy.

"There's Rose and me and Mary-bell, and Moll and Buttercup. Lily's gone," Marigold hesitated. "And there's a few others, Sam, but a number went off with Lily."

"Well, all right," he murmured, not quite reassured, but at least Lily was gone, and he was enjoying what was left, in a shameful sort of way-- the lazy heat of their kisses waxing from sweet and shy as a springtime petal to warm as a summer dawn and waning again, kept him half-roused, his body near glowing with pleasure and an anticipation he'd rather not own up to. "But let's finish up."

Skirts draped over his legs briefly, and he leaned into another kiss-- fingers settled on his face, stroking, and again he recognized the delicate sweet-tasting tongue in his mouth. Again, it coaxed forth an undeniable surge of fire in him. Sam murmured into the kiss, almost distressed by his own eagerness to taste more of it-- he'd been able to tell each time this girl had been the one who kissed him. There was no mistaking her; there was all the difference between her mouth and the others that there was between night and day. Was it Rose? He wanted it to be, but he couldn't tell. One of them had to be... but which?

There was one way he could find out, though it was a bit of a sneak.

Sam tipped his head back, opening his mouth; the kiss slid sweetly deep. Her tongue touched the roof of his mouth, tickling, and she tilted her head, pressing deeper. He felt himself moan, unable to stop the rush of fire through his veins, almost so dizzy from it that he forgot his plan-- but he didn't; he brought his hands up quick and caught the girl's arms; they felt slim and lithe through the sleeves of her frock. He let his hands slide away and gave himself completely to the kiss, to distract her from what he was about. She didn't seem to notice, so after a bit he let go, then forced himself back and licked his lips, waiting.

That mud from his hands would tell it, as plain as day, and no mistake. But if it weren't Rose... well, if he'd mistaken them, he wouldn't never hear the end of it, and he wouldn't let himself, neither, if he'd hurt the lass he cared most about.

The thought sobered Sam; he laid his arm across his lap for concealment anyhow, wishing he hadn't never said they could keep going.

"Are we about done, Sam?" Rosie's voice, quiet and close. Something weren't quite right, and he could sense it in Rose's voice. His stomach flipflopped uneasily. Footsteps rustled again, back and forth about him.

"I'm ready to quit." Sam shifted, reaching for his blindfold again, but hands stopped him.

"One more," Mari sounded worried. "To be fair." She bustled around Sam, adjusting the edges of the blindfold and even tidying his shirt-collar.

Sam sighed. "Well, all right. One more, but just one. Just one." He'd been polite, but this was enough, and he had a mind to take charge-- he should've done it to start.

He sat through a pause that seemed to take forever-- heavy, almost pregnant with expectation, and deathly silent but for the crunching of feet in the leaves. Then one last mouth touched him, sweet and lingering, seeking-- soft tongue stealing into his mouth, a little clumsy against his. There was that scent of violets tickling Sam's nose again when he took a deep breath and pulled away.

"That's the lot, then," Sam took a breath and reached for his blindfold even as he pushed himself up, heart thumping quick with anticipation. He fumbled it away and his eyes went straight to Rose, blinked, then darted from girl to girl, looking for the prints of his own hands on their pale sleeves--

But there weren't any, though the rich dark dirt was thick and still damp on his fingers!

Sam blinked again, confused. He'd held on tight, he had, and his hands had run along the cloth as he let go, and that had to mean... the girl as he'd been kissing wasn't Rose, and what's more, she wasn't here. And Rosie... Rosie had a garland of violets threaded through her hair, which he'd not noticed earlier. She was the violet lass, and that was plain.

Sam swallowed hard; she'd come in second best, for all that she'd kissed him the most-- second best by a long shot, and he'd made no attempt to hide it. He bit his lip, feeling guilty. She didn't look none too happy, neither. A silence stretched between them all, heavy with discomfort.

"I've got to get back to work," he mumbled after a moment, avoiding her eyes, and all the rest of them, too. "Begging your pardon." He got up hastily and left the dell.

Flustered, Sam didn't slow down till he was across the ridgetop and back to the foot of the Hill, only a few ells from the Road. He hadn't meant to slow down till he struck Bag End, but he needed to think. He'd looked at all the lasses there, he had, checked every one! Buttercup and Moll and Rosie and Mary-bell, and the only one left had been Mari, and he hadn't thought to look to her. Sam blanched. Surely not his own little sister, not a chance of it! He stopped dead in his tracks, panicked.

Sam looked over his shoulder and found the girls trooping out of the forest in a tight little knot, whispering; Rosie took off towards her own house straight away and Sam stood still till Marigold came close enough in sight that he could check her arms.

He sighed in relief, nearly collapsing; there was not a smudge on her frock, thank goodness. As thoughtless as her little plot had been, that would have been more than he could stand.

Mari came walking up next to him, and he gave her a look. "You're never to go doing that again, Marigold." Sam said quietly. "There's those who was hurt today, and you know it."

"I'm sorry, Sam! We didn't figure on--" she bit her lip. "Things happening quite the way they did."

"Who was she?" Sam asked. "The one who left. You said there was a few more, but when I took that fool blindfold off-- it wasn't Pansy, was it?"

"No, not Pansy." Mari held up the kerchief, which Sam had dropped. "She went off not too long after Lily left; she'd had her turn."

"I judged that was Pansy's hair on my face right near the first." Sam nodded, remembering he hadn't felt it again after. "Now who was that one, the one who was next to last?" His face flushed. "I see now why you waited so long before you let Rose finish the game."

Mari sighed. "You cheated, Sam. What lass would stay, what with those great muddy handprints all over, to tell you which was who?" She lifted her chin, eyes flashing disapproval at him.

Sam sighed, flushing with embarrassment and more than a little annoyance at his sister. "I want to know."

"So you can go courting? Well, you won't court this one." Mari's eyes sparked. "And a good thing, too, Sam Gamgee!"

"And why's that?" His temper flared, and he let it, trying to cover his own hurt. "So you and she can have a laugh about it later?"

"No, I don't think we will," Mari said thoughtfully. "I'm not telling, and you'll find none of the other lasses will, either. Now you be off, Sam, and do your pruning."

Sam sputtered with indignance, watching her turn towards home. Vowing to catch up with her after finishing work, he stumped on up the hill to Bag End, muttering to himself.

Mr. Frodo was back, and he sat on the bench by the door with his pipe in his hand and his book by his side, sending a soft grey plume into the air. "Good afternoon, Sam."

"Afternoon, Mr. Frodo," Sam responded, aware that his tone was a little short. Frodo looked at him quietly, pipe-stem pressed into his lower lip.

"Bad day, Sam?"

"Begging your pardon, Mr. Frodo, but you should thank the Powers you never had no sisters."

Frodo didn't laugh, looking at him thoughtfully. "Come sit down, Sam, and have a pipe. You look like you need it, and the trimming can wait."

Sam looked towards the shed, then back at Frodo. "I don't mind if I do," he sighed. "That's just what I need."

He sat down and reached for his pouch, then sighed, defeated-- he didn't have none; he'd bet Mari still had it, along with Pansy's kerchief.

"I've left my pipeweed behind," he mumbled, dismayed.

"Have some of mine." Frodo produced a pouch and Sam took it; it smelled sweeter than his own, some expensive blend that tickled his nostrils, but he filled the bowl of his pipe anyhow and then lit his pipe out of the bowl of Frodo's using a bit of straw.

He drew on the pipe, closing his eyes to savor the taste-- and his eyes flew open wide.

"Mr. Frodo, what's in this, if you don't mind me asking?" Sam asked carefully.

"It's cured with apple slices, I think. And mixed with a pinch of clove." Frodo exhaled a comfortable cloud, and Sam sat very still. Clove was common enough, and so was apple, but both? "Don't you like it?"

He took another draw, rolling the smoke on his tongue, staring down at his pipe so he wouldn't have to look at Mr. Frodo. "It tastes fine," he managed, but his tongue felt thick in his mouth. "Like apple pie, almost, or mulled cider." Or a kiss....

Frodo made a soft hum of agreement and leaned back to blow a smoke ring while Sam sat stiffly, staring into the bowl of his pipe and thinking hard. He leaned back slowly, till Frodo was visible out of the corner of his eye. Snowy white, that shirt, as Frodo's shirts always were from collar to hem, and it hung in crisp creases like it was fresh out of the--

Sam frowned and pulled his eyes away, green grass and pink flowers forgotten in front of his gaze as he smoked. How long did it take a lad to change his shirt and come out on to the stoop with a pipe? How long had he waited for Mari in the field, and how long had they argued there by the Road? Oh, but this was madness, and no mistake!

Sam sat there beside Frodo, so many things filling his mind that he completely forgot his tongue. Frodo. He'd never said nothing to nobody about wanting to kiss Frodo.

Sam sucked in a long draw of sweet smoke, brooding. He could long for Rosie Cotton or Mary-bell Noakes, if he wanted, to kiss and hold and maybe settle down with in a nice snug little hobbit-hole for the rest of his days. He'd known for a long time, just from looking about him, that he'd be spending his life with a lass once he came of age-- it was only a matter of which one. Mayhap that was one reason they frightened him a bit, with their bright, eager eyes and the way they all wanted kisses.

But Frodo? Frodo had always been a dream that he could let himself indulge simply because it was a dream: something as was safe to long for because he knew he couldn't never have it.

Or could he?

No, that was a fool's thinking; a kiss or two in a game meant naught-- naught but to stir his blood, anyway... but he had to know, now, even more than before.

Finally his pipe burned down, bestirring him to remember himself. "I'd best be about my pruning." Sam sat up slowly and tapped the dottle out of his pipe, then ground it under his heel. "Thank you, Mr. Frodo. That bit of smoke went down right well." How would he test his guess? That would be easy enough indeed. Nothing to it, as it were.

The Sun crept sluggishly through the sky as Sam worked first at pruning the hedge, then the roses, calmly clipping just this branch or just that leaf. He stayed placid as a cow chewing her cud on the outside, but inside he was a ragged mess-- half curiosity, half fear and wanting. Those kisses... Frodo's? Sam closed his eyes, just containing his memories, shivering anew to think of the heat of them, the pure delicacy of lip and tongue... the way they set him afire. His body still ached just remembering them....

Finally he was done, so he trundled his barrow back to the heap of coarse compost in the back garden and tipped it in. The back door stood open, letting a breeze into the hole. Making up his mind to act, Sam stepped up to the Hill, peering inside with caution.

There was no sign of Frodo, but Sam knew his own business well enough, and he wasn't outside it, neither. Not a bit of it. He was just a day or two early, that was all.

Banishing the flutter in his stomach, he walked quietly inside like he would any day. Mr. Frodo's door stood open, and he could see inside the room to where his hamper sat in its place against the wall. Sam's very fingers itched to open it, but he made himself walk up to the pantry where the laundry basket hung first. He took down the basket and went back through the house, collecting hand-towels from the kitchen, then gathering a few bits of things from the washing-room and the coat-tree by the front door before he let himself slip down the hall and go in to Frodo's room.

There were a few stray garments lying about, so he picked those up and tossed them into the basket, then forced himself to strip the bed and re-make it before going to the hamper.

He didn't look inside, stolidly pouring its contents into the basket-- time enough for that when he was safely out.

"Mr. Frodo?" He went into the hall and called down towards the parlour, ready to make his escape. He was proud that his voice didn't quiver. "I'm through with the hedges, and I thought I'd carry the laundry down for May to start in the morning."

There was a scrape and skitter, a sound of Frodo rising in haste, his feet pattering on the tile. "No, that's all right, Sam, you don't have to--"

Was that alarm in Frodo's voice, or was it his imagination? "May would look on it right kindly," Sam felt his fingers start to shake, and he clutched the basket tight to still them. "It's a long way for her to haul everything down to the kettle, especially when all the bed-linens are in the basket."

Sam scurried out the back without waiting for his answer, quite fully aware of Frodo's feet pattering along the hall in his wake. And oh, for Frodo to follow after must mean it was true; it had to! Sam didn't let himself look back, plowing ahead doggedly, but he'd hardly cleared the door when he run straight into Marigold and nearly knocked her down.

"Sam! What are you about?" She blinked at him, then down at the basket. "Oh, that's fine. I'll just take that on down the Hill for you--"

Sam hung on, stubborn. "That's too heavy a load for you, Marigold, and you know it."

Frodo caught up to Sam at that exact moment, and he hovered in the door, eyes fixed on the basket-- he was anxious, or Sam was Thain of the Shire.

Sam glowered at his sister and she flushed, looking guilty. "It is not. I come up to gather up the laundry myself, so you let me take care of it and go help the Gaffer with--"

"The Gaffer said I didn't have to do no more work for him today," Sam reminded her pleasantly, entertaining a tempting thought of wringing her neck. "So I thought I'd be a help to Mr. Frodo and May both. This basket's going to be too heavy for the likes of you, Marigold Gamgee!" He eyed her as she tugged on it.

"Marigold," Frodo said softly, and that stopped her. "Samwise."

Sam looked back, defiant; his heart was racing and he only had hold of his temper by a thread. "What's the matter, Mr. Frodo?" He lifted himself to his full height. His voice was starting to lose its calm and fail him.

Frodo sighed and tipped his head back, looking up towards the sky, where a few fat, puffy clouds lazed in the clear blue. "Marigold, leave it and go back home."

She hesitated until his chin tilted back down and his eyes narrowed, then she ran as hard as she could, feet thumping on the grass.

Frodo calmly reached out and took back his laundry basket. Sam's heart pounded and his stomach quivered like he'd stayed out too long in the hot sun, then drunk too much cold spring-water all at once. Oh, but he hadn't wanted Frodo to know for certain that he knew; not like this, not--

"Let's go in," Frodo said calmly. He led the way to his room, pausing to drop the basket on the floor before going to his dressing table and picking up a wine bottle. He had a few glasses standing on a shelf. Reaching, he took one down and poured a measure of the wine into it, and then a bit less into another.

He handed Sam the full glass, then sat on the edge of his bed with the half-filled glass in his own hand and gestured Sam towards the seat of his dressing table. "Sit down." Sam obeyed as Frodo sipped at his wine, looking thoughtfully at the laundry basket. "I don't suppose I have to ask what that little scene was about." He kicked his foot idly through a sunbeam, not looking up at Sam's face.

Sam sighed. "Me and Mari, we haven't had the best day for getting along, Mr. Frodo."

"So I gather." Frodo caught the edge of the basket with his foot and tipped it out, linens and clothing spilling onto the floor. "Well?" He lifted his glass and sipped his wine. "Go ahead."

Sam sat still, not touching his glass nor moving towards the basket, neither.

Frodo glanced up at him, eyes keen. "You've already solved the riddle, Sam." His voice was soft. "Isn't this what you were looking for?" He bent, and when he rose he held up his mud-stained shirt by one sleeve.

Sam's stomach lurched, a queer hot flutter, and his face burned even as it prickled cold. "I reckon it is." All his temper and his curiosity had fled, and what was left inside him fair quivered.

"I was reading in the woods when I overheard the girls arguing." Frodo crumpled the shirt between his hands, staring down at it as though he had never seen it before. "I went to see what the commotion was about, and found you all down in the dell. It didn't take long to understand what was going on." He swirled the wine, looking into it intently.

Sam touched his own wine to his lips to be polite, but didn't taste it.

Frodo sighed and continued. "Rosie and Lily saw me, of course, and that stopped their argument. Then Marigold saw, and she shushed the other girls when they would have greeted me." He shrugged slightly. "Marigold beckoned me down and put me in the line for a joke; I went along with it. By the time I realized Rose was upset, it was too late."

"You're right that Rosie Cotton ain't laughin'," Sam said steadily. "And I'm not neither." His stomach churned with confusion and embarrassment-- and that strange, hot flutter. "If I get my way, that sister of mine won't live to see the sundown, Mr. Frodo. She had no right!"

Frodo's eyes closed. "I'm sorry, Sam." He set his wine aside on his bedtable and tossed the shirt back down into the basket.

Sam took a deep breath. "I thought you was Rosie, you see." He shook his head. "What with skirts brushing over my ankles every time you'd lean close and all...!"

"That was Marigold's frock," Frodo commented dryly. "She's a clever one."

"You'd been smoking while you read," Sam guessed. "So when she thought of me smelling it on you, she pulled out my own pouch to cover the scent, seemingly."

"It worked well enough," Frodo admitted. "I forgot you might have tasted the pipeweed in my mouth."

"I couldn't figure out what it was, at the time." Sam's voice was suddenly husky, remembering: Frodo's sweet mouth, the fire it kindled in him, and how it felt like home....

Frodo turned his face towards Sam again, and light from the window caught in his lashes. "I'll apologize to Rose, if you like."

"No, Mr. Frodo. That's for Marigold to do." Sam shook his head and looked down at his dirty fingers on the delicate crystal glass. "I'd rather know why you got in line, begging your pardon." His fingers tightened and he took a sip of wine to cover his blush.

Frodo looked at him for a long moment, then turned his head to look out the window. "Because I wanted a kiss," he picked up his glass and swallowed the last mouthful of wine.

Sam hesitated, looking down into his own glass. "Oh," he said a bit faintly.

"I should never have taken what wasn't given freely." Frodo's cheeks flushed pink and he raised his leg onto the bed, propping his chin on his knee. "I'm sorry, Sam."

"Don't go saying that," Sam protested. "I reckon you could tell..." his own cheeks turned hot. "...I didn't mind much."

"But you thought I was Rose," Frodo pointed out, looking into his empty glass like he wished he'd poured himself some more.

Well, that was true, and it made Sam wonder how much he might have liked Frodo's kisses if he hadn't. Sam cleared his throat and fidgeted over the idea. "I reckon I'd know you weren't Rose now," he realized he'd spoken the thought aloud, and then bit his lip, his face burning and his stomach twisting itself into a knot.

Frodo stared at him, eyes wide. "You...?"

Sam took a gulp of wine, feeling wretched. His toes curled up on the cold tile, and he covered one foot with the other.

"Sam." Frodo hesitated. "Would you like...?" He put the glass down very carefully. "To kiss me again, knowing it's not Rose?"

Sam trembled, knuckles white on his glass. "Yes, sir," he breathed. "Just to... just to clear my mind, like." That wasn't all of it, not by far, but it was all he could say.

Frodo looked troubled, searching Sam's eyes, but he looked sad too, a little wistful. "All right," he said at last. "Come here, then."

Here? Sam stared at the "here" Frodo meant-- his bed.

"I can't," he whispered, panic bubbling in his breast. "Not right there, sir."

"Wh--? Oh." Frodo looked amused, but a little rueful. "Very well." He rose and stepped over to Sam. "Put down the glass," he whispered. His eyes were dark.

Sam swallowed thickly and put the glass on the dressing table, his hands trembling so badly it chattered on the smooth rosewood. Frodo considered him for a moment and then quite simply slipped into his lap and made himself at home there, feet hanging down with only his toes touching the floor, one arm curled around Sam's neck to steady himself.

Sam heard his breath escape him in a tiny whimper. The chair wasn't really large enough for two and it was a precarious perch for Frodo, so Sam steadied him, arms sliding around his waist.

Frodo sighed and turned his face, hovering close to Sam's mouth, and brought his hand up to touch Sam's cheek. His thumb tilted Sam's jaw and he leaned in, warm breath caressing Sam's mouth. He hesitated, waiting until Sam whimpered with frustration and closed the distance himself, bumping noses with Frodo awkwardly.

Frodo's mouth was waiting, open for him and so delicate and soft it was no wonder he'd thought it a girl's. Sam groaned as Frodo shifted for a better angle; Frodo's weight was heavy in his lap, and it pressed right where he ached. All the harder and the fiercer for Frodo's kiss-- he'd been holding back in the wood, Sam was sure of it.

Frodo's hands held Sam's head firmly, and his tongue dove deep, pressing an insistent rhythm over Sam's-- a rhythm Sam's own hips had followed on many a night. He shivered, giving himself up for the plundering, hands wandering restlessly over Frodo's back, from narrow shoulders to waist. Frodo wasn't soft, but he was alive and moving like an eel, pressing Sam's head back, biting at his lips and sucking at his tongue.

"Sam," Frodo drew back with a husky whisper; his eyes were so close Sam couldn't focus, and he made a soft little moan of protest. "Only this morning you were hiding to keep from being kissed...."

"Only this morning, it wasn't you as meant to kiss me." Sam's own voice came out in a low, rough tone, and he blushed hard, dropping his eyes.

Frodo's fingertips moved on Sam's face, stroked across his cheek, and he nestled close to Sam again sliding his arm around Sam's back and tucking his face against Sam's throat. There was amusement in his voice, and something warmer. "Has your mind cleared?"

"Clear as the air," Sam answered truthfully-- what he wanted was very clear indeed for the moment, but he part of him knew it wouldn't stay that way, not once Mr. Frodo got up again.

Frodo laughed again, a tickle against Sam's skin. "Well, then, what do you think?"

"The best of the lasses is fifty ells back, running second to you," Sam spoke up pert, then blushed. "Sir."

Again Frodo's laughter, but this time mingled with rue. "A fine compliment." He tightened his embrace around Sam gently, then wriggled off Sam's lap and onto his feet.

"Well," he said, perhaps too brightly. "Marigold will be wondering if I've skinned you and roasted you for the table. You'd best trot off home before she tells your Gaffer."

"That's a fact," Sam winced. Just as he'd figured: his mind was all of a fog again now that Mr. Frodo wasn't on his lap any more. He blinked up at his master, unable to put his finger on any one of the worries niggling at his brain, until--

"Here now," he murmured, dismayed. "I've ruined another of your shirts."

Frodo twisted to look over his shoulder; sure enough, Sam's hands had left dark smudges on the white linen. Frodo laughed softly and looked up into Sam's eyes. He looked lazy and content, quite a bit calmer than he had a right to. "Tell May to let Marigold wash it," he murmured decisively. "And the other, too." He shouldered out of it, letting it drop into the basket, and stepped over to the wardrobe for another.

"I will," Sam whispered, shy, and rose to his feet, picking up the laundry basket and refilling it. His heart felt strangely heavy, and there was a lump in his throat. Was that all, then? He reckoned it was; Mr. Frodo didn't have time for the likes of him.

It had been just a game; that was all there was to it.

Leaving Mr. Frodo to do up his buttons, Sam squared his shoulders and set off down the hall with the basket determined to make a show of good cheer, but inside he felt his heart twist near to breaking. This was how Rosie Cotton must have felt, setting out over the fields to go home by herself, thinking of how Sam liked Mr. Frodo best and knowing that she'd set her heart, but grieving because Sam didn't care for her like she wanted.

Sudden tears clouded his eyes, and he blinked at them, resolving not to let them show. He followed the blurry dazzle of the Sun's light to the door, shoulders straight.

"Sam...." Mr. Frodo's voice caught him on the threshold.

"Yes, sir?"

"I haven't any kittens to put up a tree," Mr. Frodo's voice was low, a little uncertain, but still warm. "But maybe... we won't need them?"

Sam's whole world flipflopped, and suddenly the dazzle wasn't from sorrow any longer. "Likely not," he agreed, with a little quiver in his voice that he couldn't control. His fingers curled shyly around the wicker rim of the basket. "You don't need a kitten, nor a blindfold neither, not when both of us is willing."

"No," Mr. Frodo agreed, and the worry smoothed right out of his tone just like that, taking Sam's fears with it. "We won't be needing those things at all."

-The end-


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