The heat of a languorous mid summer day seeped in through the open study window and hung still and heavy on the air. A sweet aroma of primrose drifted in and mingled, improbably, with the scent of old books and candlewax, a heady fragrance. Dust motes danced in a shaft of golden sunlight, a sudden breeze whispering, a snatch of song. Sam was singing, and Frodo couldn't begin to concentrate.

The sound grew clearer, Sam coming around to work in the front flower beds. Frodo held his breath, listening, as he dropped his voice into the chorus, lower and lower, and lower still. Frodo found himself smiling. He'd been hitting it more and more often. Sam wasn't a lad anymore. He broke off the song and laughed suddenly, a bright happy laugh. Frodo could see him there kneeling among the flowers, discovering some little blossom probably that had been hiding in the greenery and was just peeking out.

Frodo put down his quill, absently rubbing at the cramp in his hand, and he got himself up and went to the window to lean out, just enough to see, Sam standing there with his feet planted wide on the dusty path, his sleeves rolled up high and his strong sunbrowned arms exposed, his ginger gold curls plastered to the back of his sturdy neck and dripping rivulets of sweat down into his collar. Frodo felt the sweat prickling his own skin. Sam wasn't a lad anymore. Ha. He was standing there holding a big fat toad up to his face, talking to it.

“You know you're right welcome to all the grubs and beetles you like, just you leave those worms be.”

Frodo pressed himself back into the window well, and watched with his heart beating too fast, Sam's thigh muscles flexing and straining at the rough fabric of his breeches as he crouched, balanced on the balls of his feet, to set the toad down on the grass. He smiled a big smile, his face all aglow in the sunshine.

“You take care, Mister Glumper, and if you've not yet paid a visit to Miss Plumpbottom round the corner... well, I'd think about it if I was you.”

Frodo dragged himself from the window. “What are you thinking?!” Stupid question. He knew perfectly well what he was thinking, he'd thought it before, but not about Sam. “Liar!” He had thought it about Sam, had begun to, and he'd been trying hard to pretend otherwise. He forgot the work he'd been doing, wandered out of the study and down the hall, and found himself in the kitchen, where there was no sun shining in. In fact, it was downright dark and dreary since he'd let the hearthfire dwindle. Sam was too young. And that wasn't even the worst of it.

He sank down to the bench at the table and put his head in his hands. “It wouldn't matter if he was of age and willing... you just can't...” He couldn't possibly. Sam loved him and trusted him, and Frodo would rather have his tongue ripped out than say anything, much less do anything, to hurt him. “You know what he would say if he knew. You know he would try to be whatever you want him to be. You know better... than to even think it.” Mercifully, the cool darkness slowly damped the fire inside him. He knew better.

* * * * * * *

Sam paused silently outside the study window, and finally leaned forward a bit to peek in, just to get a glimpse of Frodo at his desk, but he wasn't there. Sam glanced up at the sun in the clear blue sky. It wasn't even time for elevenses, not that Frodo would take a break for that, not unless it was set under his nose, and for sure not if he was deep into working on something, as he'd seemed to be the last time Sam peeked in. Which meant he'd been disturbed from it. It didn't take Sam much thinking to figure out whose fault that was, making like a lark as he'd been with no thought for anything but the beautiful day. He dragged up the tail of his shirt to wipe the sweat from his face, and took himself on around to the kitchen garden, and in the back door.

It was quiet inside, always too quiet since old Mister Bilbo left. Sam stopped there to wash and dry his feet and hands, then he took up an armload of kindling from the woodstack, and made his way down the long hall. Daylight spilled from every doorway that was open along front of the burrow, and he glanced into each room as he quietly passed. Frodo wasn't in any of them. Frodo was in the kitchen, sitting there in the shadows looking forlorn, with just a single lamp turned down low, the hearthfire burned to embers and the wood box empty, as expected.

Frodo jumped, looking up and finding Sam there, like he'd materialized from thin air in answer to a wish. Of course he hadn't. He'd come down the hall from the mudroom, without making a sound. Frodo fervently hoped he hadn't been talking to himself.

“Nice and cool in here, Mister Frodo.” A mite too cool. Frodo smiled at him back a little, but didn't say anything. He went ahead and filled the woodbox, wanting to ask what was wrong, but figuring he could probably guess. Frodo was either having trouble with some translation he was wanting to do, or he was missing Mister Bilbo. Sam dropped to his knees at the hearth and set to building up a fresh fire.

Frodo kicked himself into moving. “You don't have to do that, Sam.”

Sam glanced over one shoulder and waved him back. “There's no need you doing it when I'm right here, sir.”

Frodo sank back down and just sat there with his chin in his hands, helplessly watching Sam as he swept the grate and stacked it, and quickly had a blaze going, flickering warm and golden over his face and in his hair. It felt like he'd brought the sunshine in with him. Frodo wistfully found a smile. “I heard you trying to play matchmaker with the toads in the garden.”

Sam felt himself blush. He looked at Frodo, and tried to explain himself. “Aw, sir, I know they don't know what I say... but they like it... and a content toad is a toad that stays put... and toads are good for the garden, you know.” It sounded reasonable to him. It made Frodo laugh, and that was always a happy thing.

“I'm sure we must have the most contented toads in all the Shire, Sam.”

Sam smiled. “We've got the biggest, I'll warrant.” He went to the wash basin and pumped up a kettle of water to put over the fire. Frodo sat there still, doing nothing. “I can see what there is in the pantry for your luncheon, sir... if you'd like.”

Frodo supposed he had to put down his foot somewhere. “I can feed myself, Sam... honestly, I can.”

Sam was quick to answer that. “I never said you couldn't, Mister Frodo. I just thought since I'm here and on my feet, as it were...”

Frodo looked up at him, feeling a severe pang of regret. “I know, Sam. It's alright. But you do far too much for me already.”

Sam thought it, only thought it, that some things didn't seem to get done otherwise. And there was no fault on Frodo for that, not in his eyes. Frodo was meant for worthier things than tending the hearth and keeping house. He didn't make any move to get himself something to eat, but he'd pretty well told Sam not to, but Sam couldn't just leave him sitting there looking like that. “Begging pardon, Mister Frodo sir, but... why would you want to be sitting in here on such a fine day as this?”

Why indeed? Frodo shook his head. “I don't, Sam. I'm going to... fix myself a cup of tea... and go back to the study.” What else could he do? Sam didn't look like he wanted to go, and Frodo didn't want him to, but he finally said he needed to get back to work then, and went. His softly padding footsteps faded away into the silence, and Frodo went on sitting there, eyes closed, seeing his smiling face in the firelight. Having foolishly acknowledged the thing, there didn't seem to be any stopping it.

The water started hissing in the kettle at some point, and he finally forced himself up, and left the kitchen, wandered back down the hall to the study, and stood there in the open doorway. The sun was shining still through the window, and the fragrance of summertime filled his senses. He breathed it in, and let it out in a slow sad sigh. “I want him.” He didn't have any strength left to deny it. He wanted Sam, with a kind of want he'd only dreamed about. It was his burden to bear, and it wasn't going to touch Sam, on that his mind was made up, but he just couldn't fight it anymore.

Before he could change his mind, he turned from the study and went on down the hall to the mud room, and he pushed open the door and went outside. The sultry heat of the day struck him full in the face, and almost took his breath away. The air vibrated with a humming of cicadas, and butterflies flittered among the flowers, flowers of nearly every color that could be imagined, all tended to perfection. Frodo stood there deeply breathing it all in, giving himself one more small chance to be sensible, which he chose not to take.

Sam was out in the vegetables, working at raking soil up around the potato plants. He turned, and smiled, wrapping his hands around the handle of his hoe and leaning on it. Frodo forged on, carefully stepping between the rows of carrots and leeks, to stand before him at last, below him, on a slope as they were. Sam had been taller than he for years, a little, and he had growing still to do. He was only twenty three, just a lad, for all he looked the epitome of strapping fullgrown hobbithood. Sam's smile grew curious.

“Mister Frodo...”

Frodo gave himself over to it, looking up into those big warm velvet soft brown eyes. “May I help you, Sam?” Sam's smile widened into a glorious grin.

“Would you want to, sir?”

Frodo smiled at him back. “I feel like playing in the dirt with you. You can give me a gardening lesson.”

There was just about nothing that would have pleased Sam more. They'd used to do that, playing in the dirt as Frodo put it, back when they were both a lot younger, before old Mister Bilbo left and not since. He couldn't help wondering if Frodo was quite in his right mind. “You're not really dressed for it, sir.” The clothes he had on were as good as Sam's best, but Frodo just shrugged and laughed and said he didn't care.

“What should we do?”

Sam thought about that, glancing up at the sun. “Well... I've got to finish hilling these taters...then I've got some cuttings I've been meaning to put in the ground... but I was just about to have a break and something to eat. You can join me, sir.”

Frodo was prepared to do whatever Sam wanted. They walked up to the orchard and sat under an apple tree in the shade, and Sam brought out his lunch and insisted on sharing it. “Do you have enough, Sam?” Sam just smiled and said he had plenty. It was the best meal Frodo had had in longer than he could remember, just simple homey stuff, with Sam beside him smiling and laughing.

“Well, I can tell you, sir, it just wasn't meant to be. Daisy told him off right and proper, and said aye to Cal Hooper instead... so now we're going to have another wedding looks like. Course it won't be for a couple years yet, cause it's the Gaffer's rule we're not to marry til we're of age, and Daisy's not thirty one yet, but she's happier than she's been forever... except I caught her crying the other night, cleaning up from supper and dripping tears in the washwater, and I asked her why, and she said she was sorry Mum wouldn't be there to see her wed... so I told her what you told me, Mister Frodo, way back then... that Mum loved us so much she wouldn't have really left us... that she'd always be there walking close to be sure nothing bad happened... so she'd be there to see Daisy wed just as well... and Daisy kissed me.” He laughed. “Daisy's not ever been much of a one for kissing, not me anyways. Goldy now...” Sam almost bit his tongue, looking over at Frodo and seeing the strangest look on his face. “You can kick me, sir, if you'd rather I shut up.”

Frodo had no trouble finding a smile for him. “I would never kick you, Sam, nor want you to shut up.” Sam did anyway, for awhile, packing up his lunch leavings, which were pretty much nil. Frodo set to rolling his sleeves up past his elbows.

“Better turn up your pantlegs too, Mister Frodo, or you'll be kneeling on em and they'll be ruined for sure.”

Frodo rolled the hems of his breeches a few turns, and pushed himself to his feet. “Where do we start then?” Sam gave him a big smile and led off to the shed to get him a hoe, and they finished 'hilling the taters' together.

“That's to keep the sun from the tubers, Mister Frodo, cause it makes em bitter. Then you make a ditch all round to hold the water, if you follow.”

Frodo followed every word Sam said, and did his best to learn what he was trying to teach, but his own efforts turned out less than perfect, when Sam made it look so easy. Sam smiled anyway and said it was fine. Frodo supposed he could come back later and fix it if it wasn't good enough, and as long as Sam was willing to humor him, he was more than willing to suffer the sweat dripping in his eyes and dirt under his fingernails. They carried water from the well to fill the moats around the plants, then they walked on down around the lower berm, and spent the rest of the afternoon transplanting a long and winding row of little holly saplings, kneeling in the grass below the old hedge, which was very old Sam said and would fail someday, but hopefully not before the new ones were big and strong enough to take over the job.

“Course I talked to the Gaffer about it, and he said he'd talked to Mister Bilbo about it, and it was high time it was done, so I've been raising these shoots a couple years now, cut from the best parts of that Old Hedge mind you, so it won't be like it's really gone. My Gaffer told me old Mister Bilbo's da planted these hollies for old Mister Bilbo's mum way back afore he was even born. It'll sure be sad to see em gone, but I'm thinking this Old Hedge might surprise the Gaffer and last another hundred years, then Bag End'd have a double hedge, that'd be something, wouldn't it, Mister Frodo?”

Frodo knelt there mesmerized, and Sam looked around with a glint of laughter in his eyes, and caught him at it, staring, yearning. He couldn't think of five words to put into a sentence that made any sense, and Sam looked at him with a puzzled little smile, and reached out and touched a finger to his cheek.

Sam quickly realized what he was doing, and took his hand back. The spot he'd touched glowed pale for a moment. That was Frodo's color. “You're looking a mite pink, Mister Frodo. May be you've had enough of this sun.”

Frodo nearly raised a hand to Sam's touch on his cheek. Somehow, he didn't. Somehow he put on a smile and managed to pretend he hadn't let Sam see him looking like that. “I can take another hour, Sam. The sun will be dropping below the hills soon.”

Sam wasn't sure he shouldn't try to insist, but Frodo turned away from him and went back to digging out the next hole. Sam dropped to his knees there. “Here, sir, you let me do the digging, and you can put in the last few.”

Frodo sat back on his heels and smeared his sweaty hair from his face, with his dirt caked hands, smart. He felt the sunburn then, but he wasn't ready to let the day go, watching Sam as he neatly cut through the turf and had the hole dug out in half the time it would have taken him, watching as he crumpled the soil between his big strong gentle hands, then tapped the mould from the roots of the tender sapling, and gave it to him.

“You remember how I said, Mister Frodo... you spread the roots out real careful to fill the hole, then you sprinkle the dirt back in around, and press it close a little, but not too much. Seems to take more hands than you've got, I know, but it comes with practice, not as if you'll be wanting to do this again, sir, but it's not as hard as it looks. You try.”

Frodo did his best, not easy under Sam's watchful eye, having to know that if he did it badly there could be a gap in Sam's hedge in years to come and it would be his fault, but Sam said it was fine, just fine, and picked up his trowel to go on ahead.

“You just finish filling it in then come along to the next, while I get the rest of these holes dug, and we'll have it done.” Once Sam set his mind to getting the job finished, the rest went quickly. In fact, he could have done all of it by himself in much less time, but he wasn't about to tell Frodo that. It was too seldom anymore that Frodo took time for simple down to earth pleasures, too seldom anymore they had the chance to be together like that, and for himself Sam wouldn't want it to end any sooner than it had to. Frodo though was looking more and more like he'd done enough and too much. Sam helped him put the last plant into the ground, helped him hold the roots spread and carefully shovel in the soil, and when it was done Frodo looked back along the row at the work they'd done, smiling and happy.

“It amazes me, Sam, the work you do... how much you accomplish... every day.” It made Frodo feel humble, and not a little bit useless in the scheme of things.

Sam looked out over his... Frodo's... lovingly tended gardens. “Just little things, Mister Frodo... but enough for the likes of me. I feel I've been true blessed in my life, sir.” Frodo turned those bright blue eyes on him, looking more keen and alive than he had since before old Mister Bilbo went away. Doubly and triply blessed Sam was, and he knew it. He felt it that day like he'd never thought of feeling it.

The lowering sun slanted long shadows across the landscape and made the sweat glisten on Sam's honey gold skin, and Frodo had to turn away again, feeling his heart beating, feeling a tingling along his nerves, every one of them. It was torture, but it was sweet torture, and he couldn't stop himself if he'd wanted to. They loaded the tools and the last of the empty pots into the barrow, and Sam wheeled it back up the lane to the shed. Frodo walked along beside him, feeling exhausted but deeply gratified, feeling the warmth and bliss that seemed to flow off of Sam into anything he came close to. Sam told him a joke as they unloaded and stacked the pots, a silly innocent joke concerning two farmers and a sack of onions, and he chortled like a fool, until Sam was laughing so hard he had tears in his eyes.

“Mister Frodo, sir... I sure hope you don't mind me saying... but you're a sight.”

Frodo smeared his face on his sleeve and ran his hands through his hair, but it was doubtful that helped. Sam smiled and motioned him to follow, around to the well, where he pumped a bucket full of water, then hauled it up and dumped it over his head. It plastered his hair to his face and neck, and soaked his shirt to his broad shoulders. He clunked the bucket down, laughing.

“It's a mite cool, sir, but it sure feels good.”

Frodo smiled and closed his eyes, and Sam pumped up a bucket to dump over him. The cold water should have shocked some sense into him, but it didn't. It took several more buckets full, dunking each other back and forth, and he let himself behave like a carefree tweener, let himself drink in the sight of Sam drenched and laughing in the last of the golden sunlight.

Sam hadn't had a happier day in memory, but it was about through, and that was all there was to it. He forced himself to think about practical matters, took up the brush he'd brought from the shed and handed it to Frodo, and pumped up a stream of water so he could scrub his hands and clean the dirt from under his fingernails, then Frodo pumped so he could get cleaned up proper.

“Let's go up the hill, Sam. We can sit and watch dusk fall, and let the breeze dry us out.”

Sam looked up at Frodo looking wishful, thinking they'd have to save his supper for him if he tarried til after dark, but he couldn't say nay, so they walked out through the orchards and up the twisting path to the top of the Hill, and they sat there on the grass and watched the sun slowly drop out of sight. Frodo rolled down his sleeves and his pantlegs, then tucked up his knees and hugged them, staring off Eastward. Sam stretched his legs across the grass, and struggled with himself getting it out. “Mister Frodo... do you think about it still... about wishing you'd gone with Mister Bilbo when he went...” It was a frightening thing for him to ask, always dreading the answer he'd get, but Frodo hadn't talked to him about it in a long while and he needed to know.

Frodo looked into Sam's big brown eyes. “Sometimes... I do still... but just at the moment there isn't any place I'd rather be than right here.” With you. Sam ducked his head, and plucked up a handful of clover out of the grass. The fragrance drifted over them as he closed it in his hand and bruised the leaves. Frodo understood his fear on the matter. “I'm not going anywhere, Sam.” A warm breeze passed through, riffling Sam's ginger curls as they dried, as the last sliver of sun sank below the hills in the west. Frodo wanted so badly to reach out a hand and touch his, it was almost painful. He hugged his knees that much tighter. “Sam... do you remember those fluffy eggs Uncle Bilbo used to make... with mushrooms and bacon...”

Sam smiled, meeting Frodo's gaze again. “Aye, sir, I do.”

Frodo knew he shouldn't, but... “I think I have eggs... and mushrooms... and bacon, surely... if you could help me figure out how to put them together.”

It was a constant concern of Sam's that Frodo didn't eat right, because Frodo in the kitchen wasn't a natural thing, and it was a fact plain to see that he'd lost any plumpness he might have gained when old Mister Bilbo was feeding him. It was beyond Sam's power to decline a chance to see he had a good meal for a change. “I think I remember how it goes, sir.”

“Your father won’t mind if you stay late?”

Sam gave him a smile and said, “Nay.” The Gaffer would want to know what he'd been up to, but he wasn't likely to object if it was for something Mister Baggins wanted.

They sat there still as the daylight slowly failed, until they were sufficiently dried out and the shadows were growing deep, then they walked back downhill in the twilight, through the orchard and the gardens, and in Bag End's back door at last. Sam had taken to keeping the lamps along the hallway filled and lit. Frodo had a sorry tendency to not remember such things until he found himself in the dark, so he had to be grateful. Sam took up an armload of kindling, and he crouched down to gather up a load for himself.

“You don't have to do that, Mister Frodo.”

Frodo did anyway, took up as much as he could carry, and followed Sam along the hall, dropping pieces as he went. “Oh bother.”

Sam smiled to himself a little. “I'll come back for em, sir.” The kitchen hearth was cold. He dropped the firewood into the box, and relieved Frodo of his, then turned up the lamp first thing, and lit another to hand to him. “You bring the things we'll need from the pantry, Mister Frodo, and I'll get the fires going.” Frodo went to the pantry, and Sam went to pick up the trail of kindling he'd left down the hall, then got a good blaze started in the hearth, and another in the cookstove, and Frodo still hadn't come back. Sam went to see what the problem was, and found him just standing there, with his eyes closed and a frown set deep between his dark brows, clutching a big bowl of eggs to his chest. “Mister Frodo...”

Frodo caught a breath and opened his eyes, shivering. The chill worked. It cleared his mind and made him think. “Sam... you don't have to stay... it isn't right of me to ask.”

Sam thought he had every right. “After all the time you've known me, sir, I'd not like to think you don't know I'm here for you when you need me.”

That little bit of Frodo's hard won resolve melted away. Sam came and took the bowl from him, and picked up the lamp from the floor where he'd set it down, smiling.

“Now then, sir, you said you've got mushrooms...” He looked around the shelves, which were three quarters empty at least, and located the basket of mushrooms he'd brought up himself a few days past. He'd brought the eggs as well, or he would have had to be leary of them. “You get those, Mister Frodo.”, indicating the mushrooms, “And we'll need bacon...” He went on through into the coldroom, buried back deep under the hill, and found a half slab of bacon that looked fresh enough. “...and milk.” There was a bottle there, but it was definitely iffy in Sam's eyes. He set down the eggs, and he took up the bottle and pried out the stopper to take a tentative sniff. It couldn't be fresh, but it smelled alright. He held up the lamp, with a smile at Frodo. “Looks like we've got what we need then.”

Frodo felt a bit chagrined to see Sam questioning the condition of his larder. “I suppose it's time I did some shopping.”

Sam had to think it wouldn't hurt. “I could do it for you, Mister Frodo. Don't have much pressing to do in the gardens tomorrow.” Frodo looked like he might be considering it. Sam handed him the milk and the bacon, and took up the bowl of eggs again. “I'd not mind a bit, sir.”

Frodo followed him out. “I don't know, Sam. I really should do it myself. Going down to market is about the only socializing I do anymore. I know what they're saying about me.” Sam tossed him an intent look over one shoulder.

“And what might that be, sir?”

Frodo clenched his jaw. “You know, Sam... the same things they said about Uncle Bilbo... that he was out of his mind, to put it gently.”

Sam set down the lamp on the table and the bowl beside it, and gave his full attention to the shadow that had come over Frodo's face. “Which wasn't ever the truth, was it, Mister Frodo? You oughtn't listen to what people say.” Frodo looked at him back, and seemed to let it go, smiling a little, but then Sam couldn't quite. He took the things Frodo was carrying to set on the table. “What was it you heard, sir... from who?”

It wasn't anything Frodo had heard actually, more what he saw and felt of their reactions to him, what he was afraid of hearing if he'd dared to walk invisible among them. He let out his breath in a sigh. “I don't know, Sam. I've just never been really accepted here, have I? I'm too much a Brandybuck at heart.”

Sam planted his hands on his hips. “The Gamgees have accepted you, sir, and anyone else who's bothered to see you for yourself, and if it's the Brandybuck in you that makes you want to learn everthing there is to learn, then I say it's a fine thing.” It was hardly the position held by most staid and centered Hobbiton hobbits, but Sam had been learning what was right and what was wrong at Frodo's and Mister Bilbo's knees since he was just a little lad, and it wasn't right to condemn a soul for being different. Frodo all of a sudden smiled, a big bright honest smile.

“Dear Sam... what would I do without you?”

Sam didn't like to think. “Well, then, let's see what we can do with these eggs here, Mister Frodo, before you waste away.” That was more than he should have said, but Frodo kindly didn't take it amiss. Sam suggested he should get comfortable and just watch, but he insisted he wanted to help, so Sam started him slicing the bacon, while he got out the bowls and utensils they'd need, and set a heavy skillet to heat, then started a pot of tea brewing. He turned from that at last in time to see Frodo barely miss slicing off his thumb. “Oh... Mister Frodo... let me do that, sir. Here, you clean these shrooms.”

Frodo gave up the knife, supposing it was just as well, since he was truly making a mess of the job. Sam handed him a brush, and cautioned him to be gentle, and he set to brushing the dirt off the mushrooms, and watching Sam, watching his hands as they deftly sliced the bacon and chopped it into bits. “How did you ever learn to do that, Sam?”

Sam scooped the bacon into the hot skillet. “My sisters taught me, sir.” Not only did Frodo not have a mum, he had no sisters either, so it wasn't to be much wondered at that he'd never learned such things, though it seemed old Mister Bilbo might have shown him a thing or two. The bacon sizzled and started smelling good, and Frodo uttered a muffled exclamation of praise for the aroma. Sam looked around, and caught him popping a mushroom into his mouth. At least he'd got a few of them cleaned, and quite well. Sam confiscated those and quickly had them sliced.

Frodo looked around him at the bacon in the pan. “Do you think that's enough?”

Sam glanced at the skillet. “How hungry are you, sir?”

“Hungry enough. How hungry are you, Sam?”

Sam looked up at him. “I'll have my supper at home, Mister Frodo.” Frodo looked shocked, maybe even hurt.

“You will not, Sam. I invited you to have supper with me.” He reached for the bacon and the knife, but Sam beat him to it.

“Fine then, sir, I'll stay if you want.” He shouldn't have, but if it meant as much to Frodo as seemed, then so be it. What was one more lecture by the Gaffer on keeping to his place? He'd grown up on it, hadn't he, with Mister Bilbo, and Frodo especially, making him feel like there wasn't any reason he couldn't aspire to be more than he was, then going home and having the Gaffer make clear to him otherwise. He threw another handful of bacon into the skillet and stirred it around, while Frodo finished cleaning the mushrooms, and eating half of them while he was at it. Sam could see him feeding himself like that, just grabbing whatever he could find when the need struck, with no one to do the cooking. At that rate, he wasn't ever going to keep any weight on. “Mister Frodo, sir... I'm not the best cook, you know, still learning as it were... but I'd be right glad to come in and fix you breakfast mornings.”

Frodo's breath caught, his mind going off on the notion of waking up to Sam in the kitchen cooking breakfast for him, and how wrong it felt. “Sam... it's kind of you to offer...”

Kind of him? Sam dropped his eyes. “Don't know I'd call it that, Mister Frodo.” To him, it felt almost selfish. “I worry about you up here in this big empty place on your own... and that's not to say I think you can't take care of yourself... I just feel better making sure, is all.”

Frodo stepped back, and sank down to the edge of the bench there with a sigh. “I really am hopeless.” Sam looked at him aghast.

“I never said such a thing, Mister Frodo!” He hadn't meant to, curse his tongue for not waiting on his brain to finish thinking a thing through. “See here, sir, if you ever think you've heard me say something wrong to you, you just put it from your mind, cause I never would.”

Frodo looked up at him, and found a fair enough smile. “Sam... I'm capable of acknowledging my shortcomings. I am hopeless at cooking. I am pathetic at keeping things tidy. I couldn't build a proper hearthfire if my life depended on it. If it weren't for the good Gamgees... if it weren't for you, Sam... I would probably be sitting in the middle of a rubbish heap wondering what ever happened to Uncle Bilbo's beloved Bag End.” With it said, it sounded worse than he'd imagined, but it wasn't much exaggerated. He could see Sam working up a passionate rebuttal, and decided enough was enough. “It's alright, Sam... really.” He'd wanted to see Sam smiling and happy, just for a couple of hours more. He pushed himself back up from the bench, and looked into his eyes with a roguish smile. “You aren't burning that, are you?”

Sam turned from Frodo to the stove, feeling mightily confused all of a sudden. The bacon was ready. He put in the mushrooms, and set to breaking eggs into a bowl. Frodo leaned on the board and watched him as he salted and seasoned and whipped the eggs, added milk, and whipped them some more.

“I remember Uncle Bilbo doing that.”

“That's what makes em fluffy, sir.”

Frodo rested his chin in one hand. It was tempting the situation terribly, but he finally couldn't resist. “Sing for me, Sam.”

Sam looked up into Frodo's clear blue eyes glittering with the firelight. “You've the better voice, sir.”

Frodo allowed himself a wistful smile. “I want to hear yours.”

Sam paused in his beating, and thought to stir the bacon and mushrooms. “I don't know anything fitting, Mister Frodo.” His voice wasn't meant for the lovely elvish ballads Frodo liked.

“Sing me the song you were singing in the garden this morning.”

Sam looked at him again. It was one thing singing to himself at his work, and it was quite another doing it with Frodo right there watching him, but he couldn't say nay to that look. “Alright, Mister Frodo... but why don't you set out the plates and forks and such while I'm about it.”

Frodo willingly agreed, and just listened as he quietly lifted plates down from the cupboard, to the sizzle of supper cooking, a crackling of the hearthfire, and nothing else. He looked back over his shoulder, and Sam was standing there making faces at the eggs. “Sam... you don't have to.”

Sam took a breath, and set down the bowl. “Just screwing myself up, sir.” He glanced a sidelong look Frodo's way, and resigned himself. He met Frodo's eyes smiling, and launched into it. Frodo grinned from ear to ear, not laughing at him, just happy, and that was more than enough to ease embarrassment. The song was one he'd picked up sitting beside his Gaffer at the Green Dragon, and it wasn't exactly respectable, but he'd already changed a few of the more scandalous words and phrases to his own, since he'd been singing it under Frodo's windows.

Frodo forced himself back to setting the table, and just listened, smiling, to Sam's rich earthy tones filling the room. The chorus came up, and he dropped his voice down low so it seemed to rumble up out of the depths of him, going for that deepest note. When he hit it, Frodo felt it in the pit of his stomach. A shiver ran all through him, exquisite torture. By the time he'd half recovered, Sam was off on the next verse, cheerfully belting it out, his reluctance thankfully forgotten. Frodo helplessly stood there and just watched him as he busied himself with working on supper.

The singing turned into a good thing, as it seemed to ease out the bit of tension that had come from who knew where. Sam gave the eggs a last good whipping, then stirred them into the skillet of bacon and mushrooms, and dropped his voice down low again for the chorus. Of course, it had to fail him when he least expected it to. He reached for that low note, and it sounded like someone scraping a shovel over rock. He broke it off, with a gulp of air, and a self conscious glance over his shoulder at Frodo, who was watching him as he'd known.

Frodo gave him a grateful smile. “That was wonderful, Sam, squeaks and all.”

Sam laughed a little. “It’s getting better though, sir, don’t you think?”

Frodo forced himself from his watching again, had to. “Indeed I do. You're going to have the best singing voice in all of Hobbiton and Bywater once it settles in.” Sam was still just a lad.

Sam laughed again, more heartily, feeling fine. He took up a towel to grasp the skillet handle, and jiggled it to be sure it was loose. “Look at this, Mister Frodo... I've been practicing.”

Frodo turned back, and Sam flicked his wrist and flipped the eggs up and over, and expertly caught them back into the pan. He grinned, pleased. Frodo smiled. “You are truly a marvel, Sam... and don't you dare think I'm joking, because I mean it.”

Sam just laughed. “If there's bread, sir, you can put that out... and butter... and don't forget the teacups.” The eggs puffed up beautifully, and when they were done he divided them in half and slid them out onto the two plates Frodo brought, and they settled across from each other at the table. It wasn't a feast, but it was likely a far sight better than Frodo was used to doing for himself. He gushed over the eggs, said they were the best he'd had in years, and Sam couldn't help feeling awfully pleased with himself.

Frodo had been afraid for awhile he'd let on to Sam what he was feeling, but Sam was smiling and chatty all through supper, so whatever it was had thankfully passed. The day was slipping away, and he'd begun to think it wasn't something he could bear making a habit of, so he had to treasure every laugh, every twinkle in Sam's eye, while he could. They did the cleaning up together, Sam washing while he dried, while he dreamed his dreams, hanging on Sam's every word.

“You see, Mister Frodo, I thought it was right peculiar myself, you might say, so I asked old Daddy Twofoot if he'd seen anything funny, cause I know he's not slept well since I was just a lad, and he sits out on his front stoop some nights until late, but It was cloudy that night said he and there's no sense looking for trouble in the dark unless that's what you're looking to find!, so that's about all the help I got from him, not saying I hold it against him any for being sharp with me, seeing he's had a hard time of it since Missus Twofoot passed on, but I think he saw something and just don't want to say, cause...” Sam felt his face flush. He was doing it again, talking Frodo's ear off, when he didn't have a thing to say that was worth listening to. But Frodo just smiled at him.

“What was it?”

Sam took up a towel to dry the last plate himself, shaking his head. “To tell you the truth, sir, I think it might've been a fox... though what a fox would be wanting with the Gaffer's string beans I can't figure.” Frodo laughed. He smiled. “Anyways, the Gaffer's not happy about it, I can tell you.”

Frodo could well imagine. Sam's father was a hobbit of honor and principle, but he had an unsmiling disposition, and he could be sterner than stone. Frodo suffered a fearful vision of the Gaffer marching up to Bag End to have a word with him concerning his intentions toward young Samwise, and he very nearly put his face in his hands in shame.

“Well that's that, sir.”

Frodo half turned away, trying to collect himself. Was it over then? He suddenly felt so wretched he just wanted to find a dark hole to crawl into, but Sam stepped up close to him to take the towel from his hands, and offered him a straw to grasp at.

“I'll bet it's a pretty night out, Mister Frodo. You could sit out front and have a smoke... and I could stay a while longer... if you'd want.”

Frodo managed somehow to smile and say that would be nice, and Sam said he would be right along then dashed off down the hall. It grew very still and quiet, and Frodo felt a weariness settle over him. He had to push himself into moving, to wander out to the parlour. It was dark, but he didn't feel like going back for a lamp, so he just groped his way to the table beside his chair, to get his pipe and pouch, and took it back to the kitchen to fill and light. It seemed an eternity before Sam came back to brighten the gloom again.

“I've started a fire for you in the bath, Mister Frodo, and filled the kettles... so you won't have to bother with it.”

Frodo was sincerely grateful, and couldn't deny it. “Thank you, Sam.” They went outside and sat on the front porch step, and it was indeed a pretty night, warm and breezy, the velvet black sky glittering with stars. Frodo set his pipe between his teeth and leaned back into the curve of the doorjamb. Sam sat forward with his arms across his knees, and said nothing for a time, then abruptly asked him if he was lonely, so it seemed to him.

“I'd guess it must feel lonesome up here sometimes.” Sam waited, but Frodo didn't say anything. That he was feeling lonesome couldn't be doubted, Sam didn't think, or else what was the day they'd just spent together all about? That Frodo had come to him for relief from it made his heart swell. He rested his chin on his arms and gazed out at the beautiful night sky.

Frodo took the pipe from his between his teeth. It had gone out anyway. He dropped his hand to lay on the cool flagstone, and took in a slow thoughtful breath. “Yes, Sam... it does get lonely... but Uncle Bilbo lived here like this for fifty years... and if he could do it, I suppose I can.” If Sam wondered that it didn't occur to him to take a wife, Sam didn't voice the thought, and he was glad of it. A breeze rippled through, and he felt a painfully intense desire just to touch his fingertips through the curls at the back of Sam's neck. Sam wouldn't think anything of it. Sam was so caring and innocent. Frodo crossed his arm over his chest and clasped his wayward hand to his shoulder to stop himself.

Sam glanced back at Frodo huddled into the shadow. “I sure wish Mister Bilbo hadn't gone away. I wish he was here still to keep you company.” He turned his face back to the stars. “I loved Mister Bilbo... and I love you, sir.”

Sam had a heart as big as all of Ea. Unable to resist, Frodo softly whispered back, “I love you too, Sam.”

Sam's heart nearly burst his chest. Frodo loved him. Of course he'd always known it, but Frodo had never said it to him out loud before, and it felt a whole lot different hearing it, a whole lot different. He twisted around to look into Frodo's shining eyes, and Frodo blinked, and pushed himself up against the door.

“You should be getting home, Sam... and I need to see about getting some work done.”

Sam slowly got to his feet, thinking things he'd never quite thought before. Frodo just stood there looking back at him, breathing, Sam could hear him breathing, and it made his heart thump.

Frodo stepped back against the door and it swung inward, offering escape, escape he didn't want but knew he had to take. He couldn't do that to Sam, and he shouldn't have let himself even pretend. “Sam... thank you for putting up with me... today... always. It must be trying for you.”

The most outrageous notion entered Sam's head, that he ought to just reach out and put his arms around Frodo, and hug him tight. He shoved his hands into his pantspockets, and just smiled. “It's not ever that, Mister Frodo. You can come out and play in the dirt with me whenever you feel like.”

It reached unbearable. Frodo stepped back into the cool dark of Bag End, letting it go. “Good night, Sam.”

“Good night, Mister Frodo.” The door quietly closed, and latched. Sam pulled his hands from his pockets and wiped his sweating palms on his shirtfront, and finally turned away with his heart singing. He felt like shouting, like laughing out loud, like doing handsprings. He felt like tearing off his clothes and rolling in the grass naked! The laughter he couldn't contain, as he trotted down around the lane to Bagshot Row, and stopped there, staring out over the sleeping valley all awash in moonlight. It was late. He should have gone home and just faced it, because he sure had some explaining to do, but he didn't, yet.

The crickets chirping spurred him on, seeming to say to him why not. He left the lane and headed downslope, jumped the low hedge and ran out to the very middle of the party field, where he threw himself to his back on the cool damp green, with his heart wildly racing and one palm urgently pressed to his aching hardness. In the good few years he'd been feeling such things, he'd never felt it quite like that. He braced his heels in the slippery grass and pulled loose his breeches to take himself in hand, and that was just about all it took. He gasped and closed his eyes tight shut as it came, and saw Frodo's glowing pale face framed against the stars, Frodo's beautiful bright eyes filled with love for him.

Breathless and trembling, he rode the waves of it until there was nothing left but the joy. His heart was doing a jig in his breast. He had every kind of love there was for Frodo, and nothing could have made him happier. He sprawled there finally staring up at the gem spangled night sky. Frodo had taught him to love the stars. Frodo had taught him to love, after his mum dying had made him think he couldn't anymore. Frodo meant more to him than anything, more than the Gaffer, and Marigold, and all of his family put together, and he dearly cared for his family.

Feeling just a little bit wicked, he wiped his sticky hand on the grass and put himself to rights, then he rolled over to his stomach and gazed off up the hill toward Bag End. Frodo loved him. Frodo always had loved him. Nothing had changed, everything just seemed more clear of a sudden. A warm pulsing sensation of peace and contentment flowed through him. He loved Frodo in that extra special way, and if it had to be only in his dreams he was still more whole with it than without it.

* * * * * * *

Frodo stood in the bath chamber doorway, thinking he might not survive what he'd put himself through that day. “You knew better.” And he'd gone ahead and done it anyway. He told himself he couldn't possibly do it again, but he was already wishing away the night, wishing for morning, wishing for Sam to come and sing outside his window again. He breathed a deep heavy sigh, and pushed himself on into the room. He was so tired he could hardly move, but he wanted a bath, desperately.

Sam had made a fire for him in the hearth, and filled the kettles so he wouldn't have to do it. The bath was half drawn and ready to be heated. He poured in just enough boiling water to make it tolerable, then he poked at the fire a little in an attempt to keep it going a while longer. He felt a wreck, felt muscles beginning to stiffen that weren't used to being worked, felt the blisters on his hands and the cramping in his shoulders. He ran a shaking hand through his tangled hair. His face felt hot, tight and dry, and hot, like he had a fever.

He gave up on the fire and pushed himself to his feet, and pulled the ring from his breeches' pocket. For a moment it felt like a heartbeat against his palm, but it was his own pulse pounding. He unclasped its chain from his belt and hung it over a hook in the mantel, then unbuckled his belt and pulled it from the loops. His clothes were a mess, but Sam would gather them up in the morning with the rest of the laundry to take to his sisters, and they would come back looking like they'd never spent a gorgeous sundrenched day wallowing in the dirt. It was best to just blot it out, like he could.

He pulled the crumpled tail of his shirt out of his breeches, and unbuttoned it with his fingers trembling. “You knew better. He loves you like he loves his brothers. He loves you because you were there for him...” ...when those around him were too grieved themselves to see that he needed more than a pat on the head or a rub on the back, however caring. Frodo had been there, surrounded by well meaning grownups who thought a child who sat quietly doing nothing after losing both parents was a good thing.

He slid the shirt off and let it fall, fumbled open the buttons of his breeches and dropped them. He kicked them half heartedly into a corner, then went and picked them up, and draped them over the bench in front of the hearth. He'd sunburned his legs from above the knee down, in streaks and splotches, lovely. He pulled the tie on his drawers, slid them down, and stepped out, shivering. The fire caught for a moment and flickered long eerie shadows on the walls. He felt no warmth from it, and the water was little more than tepid by the time he stepped over the side of the tub and sank down into it.

Wearily, he leaned his head back and stared at the ring, glinting in the firelight as it slowly turned on the end of its chain. He closed his eyes, seeing a gold that was far more precious and beautiful, the gold of a perfect summer day and Sam. He took in a shaky breath and trailed fingers over his bare skin. How he ached to be touched, to have Sam's big strong gentle hands on him. He swallowed a painful lump in his throat. “Don't... ” It was too late. Not even the cold water could keep it down. He cursed his hateful body, but slid his hand under the water to grip and stroke it, too worn out to fight it any longer, after struggling with it all day.

It was too sordid a thing to attach to Sam in any way, but he just couldn't help himself, couldn't keep his mind from trying to imagine Sam lying there naked against him, and still it took forever, and what strength he had left as well. At the last he was groaning in desperation, and there was no pleasure in coming when he did, only release. He dragged himself up against the side of the tub when it was done, and just huddled there weakly hugging his knees, dripping tears into the bathwater.

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