Two weeks later...


“Samwise... time to be up!”

Sam jolted, half wakened by a pounding on the door, then brought to full alert by the Gaffer’s gruff voice on the other side of it. He caught a breath. “I’m up, sir!” He was, at that. He held the breath he’d caught until the Gaffer had gone on and there was no slightest sound from out in the hallway, then he threw an arm across his mouth and slid his hand under the sheets. A pretty dream lingered on his senses, and he let himself drift back into it, a little, let himself imagine pale soft bare skin against his own, his fingers buried in silky dark hair, warm breath, sweet lips... but he couldn’t linger over it too much, just did what had to be done, and it did have to be done or he’d have a rough morning of it for sure. He caught it in his hand as much as he could, with every good intention of not leaving any evidence, but the last of it shuddered through him and he clutched his pillow close and just lay there smiling into the darkness, imagining Frodo warm in his arms, pleasured and happy.

“Samwise!”

Sam nearly fell out of bed making sure his feet were on the floor before he said it again. “I’m up, sir!” A faintest glimmer of lamplight slipped in around the door, and he didn’t bother with lighting a candle, just stumbled his way across the cold floor in the dark to get washed, his face and hands, then the rest, still imagining, Frodo smiling for him, wanting him too. No doubting it, he was head over heels in love, and there wasn’t a thing that could bring him down from it. Having the Gaffer grumping at him first thing in the morning sure couldn’t, it being a regular thing.

Dressed and together, he left his room and walked down the dimly lit hallway out into the kitchen, smiling a big smile and humming a cheery tune to himself. Daisy and Goldy and May were all there bustling about getting the day started, and Daisy looked up at him with a face on.

“It’s too early, Sam.”

Sam laughed, and quick pecked her a kiss on the cheek before she could duck away, then turned and caught Goldy and May smiling back and forth at each other, like they thought they knew something. He went on smiling, not much caring if they did, and settled at the table to have the breakfast Daisy set before him. The window shutters were open to let in the warmth of a balmy mid summer night past, and a faint shimmer of beginning dawn, and he couldn’t help thinking what a pleasure it would be to sit up on top of the hill with Frodo and watch the sun rise. Regretfully, he knew it wasn’t a likely thing to happen, with Frodo always up half the night at his work and never awake before the sun. Of course that started him thinking about Frodo asleep, and what a sight that must be. And the sooner he got himself out and up to Bag End, the closer he’d be to that, whether he could see it or not. He finished his oatmeal, and gulped down the last of his tea, was pushing himself up from the table when the Gaffer came in from outside and gave him a looking at.

“Suppose you’ll be up at Bag End all day again.”

Sam sure hoped so. “I expect so, sir. I’ve been helping Mister Frodo inside... like I said... besides the gardens.” The Gaffer frowned at him.

“You think listening to you try to read is a help to Mister Baggins, do you?”

Sam dropped his eyes to the floor before his feet. “He asked me to, sir.”

The Gaffer mumbled under his breath, and went and sat down at the table. “Just see you mind your place, Samwise.”

Sam caught a kindly smile from Marigold. Daisy set a cup of tea on the table for the Gaffer, who gave him a last glance.

“Well, go on then.”

Sam didn’t waste any more time about it. Goldy brought him his lunch, and a fresh loaf of bread wrapped in a cloth, for Mister Frodo’s breakfast she said, and he headed off up to Bag End at a sprightly pace.

Things had changed since That Day, almost two weeks past it was, when he’d found out what was inside him for Frodo. Lying in bed wide awake that night he’d set himself goals, to take care of Frodo in the best way he could, and Frodo was letting him do it, for the most part. It wasn’t easy sometimes, having to hide things he couldn’t help feeling when they were together, but they were together more and more, and that was all he wanted for himself. When Frodo got tired of him hanging about, Frodo let him know it, and sent him home, but most of the time Frodo seemed just as pleased to be with him.

Dawn was breaking, a rosy glow over the gardens, colors beginning to pop. He let himself quietly in the back door, as he had permission now to do when he got there in the morning, to light the fires, and tidy up as he could, and wait on Frodo to wake for breakfast. He made his way silently down the hall, creeping past Frodo’s bedroom. The door was closed, but he wouldn’t have looked if it hadn’t been, so he told himself. What he thought and dreamed of couldn’t be helped and caused no harm. What he did was another matter.

* * * * * * *

Frodo woke from a fitful restless sleep, tangled in the bedcovers and acutely aroused. He kicked at the blankets to half free himself, then rolled to his stomach with a pathetic groan and buried his face in his pillow, trying to drive it away with the most unpleasant thoughts he could conjure up. It didn’t work. In the end all he could think about was Sam. It was too hot. He rolled back over and curled on his side, dragging the covers down from his face. Early morning light streamed in the open window. Sam would be there, in the kitchen making breakfast for him. He hadn’t meant for that to happen, hadn’t meant for any of it to happen, but it grew harder and harder to resist. Sam had taken over doing for him those things he should have been doing for himself. Sam was always nearby, always too available. And Lady help him, he couldn’t help himself. Since that day, his already shaky self esteem had steadily dwindled, and if it kept up where would that leave him? With nothing, since he couldn’t have Sam. That, at last, was enough to dampen arousal, and he finally managed to force himself from his bed.

It was how he started most mornings since that day, with longing, and self reproach, and anticipation, that too. Sam would be in the kitchen, waiting to shower him with caring attention. He dragged his rumpled nightshirt off and quickly dressed, took Uncle Bilbo’s ring from the night table drawer to slip into his pocket, and absently clipped its chain to his belt, wondering what Bilbo would say about all of it. “He would tell you to put your head on straight and stop thinking nonsense.” He didn’t know that really. Uncle Bilbo had never talked to him about such things, because he’d never asked, knowing even then he wasn’t normal. With maturity, he’d come to believe Bilbo might have understood quite well, but it was too late now. Uncle Bilbo was gone.

Drawn to the window by a titter of birdsong, he leaned there on the sill breathing deep, being calm and focusing his thoughts, preparing himself to deal with the day, preparing himself to deal with Sam. Before he reached the kitchen he could hear Sam cheerfully humming to himself, and found him there in the firelight, exuding gladness, happily washing up the pots Frodo had insisted they leave the night before. He turned such a smile on Frodo it lit up his heart, and left him feeling weak in the knees.

“Morning, Mister Frodo... you’re up early, sir.”

Frodo couldn’t meet that with anything but a smile in return. “It looked like another beautiful day dawning. I didn’t want to waste it.” In fact, he’d been unable to even think about working the night before, after the evening they’d spent reading poetry to each other, and he’d pretty quickly given it up and gone to bed after Sam went home. He pushed himself on, around the table to pick up a towel, but Sam took it from him before he could make use of it.

“There’s no need for you to be doing that, sir. You just settle in, and I’ll pour you a cup of tea and fix your breakfast.”

Frodo did as he was told and sat down at the table, and Sam brought him tea and asked him what he’d like. He couldn’t quite make himself think about it, and just said anything would be fine. “You can surprise me.”

Sam was more than pleased to do so, and went all out, Goldy’s fresh baked bread with butter and jam to start on, while he set about frying bacon, and eggs, and taters with onions on the side, even came up with a slab of leftover peach cobbler from the pantry, which was looking a mite bare again since he’d been making good use of it.

Frodo was more dazed than surprised. “Sam... I can’t eat all this...” He couldn’t have if he was famished, and truthfully he didn’t feel like eating at all. “You’ll have to help.”

Sam didn’t attempt to argue with him, just brought another plate and at least made a show of it. “There’s not much of anything for your supper tonight, sir, so I’m thinking I could make a trip down to the market this morn.”

Frodo set his fork down on his still half full plate, and didn’t pick it up again. “No, Sam. I’ll do it.” He hadn’t been down the hill to town for longer than he could remember, had hardly been out of Bag End for weeks, hadn’t needed to with Sam taking care of everything. “I might go to Bywater actually... to the booksellers.” He’d had a letter from them saying they had something he might be interested in, and his favorite ink was running low, and he just plain needed to get out.

Sam held a breath as he asked, suggested, “I could go with you, Mister Frodo, to help carry things.”

Frodo had expected the offer, and couldn’t think for a moment that he wouldn’t enjoy Sam’s company on the walk, but it seemed like he’d been trying to make a point, that he could get by for a few hours on his own, whether he wanted to or not. “You must have better things to do, Sam.”

Sam gave him a big smile, but didn’t say it, that he couldn’t think of a better thing to do that had any possibility of happening. “There’ll be plenty of time for the garden come afternoon, sir. I’m glad to go along and help.”

Clearly, it was what he wanted, and Frodo couldn’t bring himself to say no, but Sam didn’t wait for him to say yes.

“If we’ll be going to Bywater, sir, we could stop at Bumble’s for some of those fresh sausages they make with sage and juniper, none better you’ll find without taking a hike out to Needlehole, and I heard the widow Muffet has got a bumper crop of currants, so I could take a sack of them beets I just pulled and maybe make a good trade, keeping the best for yourself of course, sir... Mister Frodo... aren’t you going to have the rest of your breakfast?”

Frodo looked down at his plate, and back up again, at Sam’s expression of heartfelt concern. The last thing he wanted was to hurt Sam’s feelings, but he couldn’t do it. “It’s very good, Sam, as always... but I’m just not hungry this morning.”

Nor most mornings, it would seem. Sam pushed himself up from the table and went about gathering the dishes. “Well, a good walk ought to cure that right nice, sir.” He’d find something enticing at the market, then fix up a proper luncheon when they got back. “I’ll just quick do the washing first.”

Frodo got himself up and made an effort to help, but Sam put him off.

“There’s no need, Mister Frodo. I’ll have this done in no time. You go ahead and get together what you’ll want to take.”

Truthfully, there wasn’t any need. Sam wanted to do it himself, and whatever made Sam happy, made Frodo happy, to a point. He didn’t fight it at any rate, there were enough harder battles to wage, every day, every moment he was near Sam. He allowed himself a last lingering glance at Sam bustling about with a smile on his face, then headed for the study.

Sam had Frodo’s unwanted breakfast himself rather than throw it out, and had the cleaning up done in a wink, then he went to the cold cellar to pick out a sack of beets to take, and added a couple of nice apples as well, so he’d have something to offer if Frodo got to looking like he wished he’d eaten his breakfast. He banked the hearthfire on the way back through, and found Frodo in the front hall, emptying out his walking pack, meaning to purchase some new books no doubt. Nothing better than that to brighten Frodo’s spirits. Sam gave him a happy smile. “I’ll carry that for you, sir.”

Frodo accepted the smile, gladly, but enough was enough. “I can carry it myself, Sam.”

Sam thought he saw impatience in Frodo’s look and didn’t offer again, not then, later when Frodo had packed it full and was looking at carrying it back up the hill, maybe, though he’d not like to see that look again. Frodo turned away from him with a kind of sigh, then turned back again and gave him a smile, one of the sort that made him feel all warm and fluttery inside.

“Come on, Sam. I need some fresh air.”

Sam smiled at him back. “Aye, Mister Frodo.”

They stepped out into the warm breezy morning, and headed down around the lane at a brisk walk. With the sun well risen over the eastern hills, the sky was a sweeping expanse of cloudless blue. Frodo took in a deep breath, shading his eyes to gaze out over the valley. Sam said something about it shaping up to be a hot one, with a suggestion perhaps that he might be overdressed for it. Frodo had to twist around and look over his shoulder. “Sam... I can’t see you back there... and I can’t half hear you either.”

Sam gave in to what seemed necessary and moved up alongside Frodo, but not too close, trying to keep to his place as he’d been told to time and again. Frodo might not care for such niceties when they were alone up at Bag End, but out in public was a different thing. “I just said I thought you might get a bit warm, sir.”

Frodo told Sam he was fine, but in fact it was less breezy down from the hill, and Sam was likely to be proved right by the time they’d been all the way to Bywater and back. There were folk about as they passed the mill coming into Hobbiton, and he displayed his politest demeanor, smiling at anyone who chanced to look his way. They smiled back, most of them, some even greeted him. ‘Good morning, Mister Baggins.’ ‘How do you do, Mister Baggins.’ Always Mister Baggins. Never Frodo, or even Mister Frodo, though he’d known them all long enough. Sam had fallen back to walk behind him again, and as always when he ventured into town he felt more than a little bit alone against the world.

Sam watched and listened, and caught the tail end here and there of what Frodo only imagined, since they were tactful enough to at least do it behind his back, looks and whispers passing to and fro. Sam put on a look of his own for any of them who’d take it, but no one paid him much heed. Frodo led on across the bridge, and he followed along, through the market street bustle and out of town again on Bywater Road at last, where he rather defiantly trotted up to walk beside Frodo again. “What a crowd, Mister Frodo. You ought to let me take care of the shopping when we come back through. You’ll be wanting to get back to Bag End by then I expect.”

Frodo glanced Sam a look but kept on walking and said nothing. It was quieter there with less traffic on the road, a soothing sound of the Water slipping by through the trees northward, but the sun had begun to beat down. As soon as they’d come under the shade of the great old chestnuts that lined the rest of the way, he stopped to take off his weskit and stuff it into his pack.

“It’ll wrinkle in there, sir. Let me carry it for you.”

Frodo took in a slow deep breath, and let it go. It was absurd the things he allowed under his skin. He wiped his sweating brow on the sleeve of his shirt, and fumbled open his top few buttons, then he took up his pack again, with a smile for Sam that he hoped was less tense. “I brought it, Sam. I’ll carry it. And we’ll do the shopping together, as planned.” Sam just stood there looking at him, with an expression on his face Frodo had never seen there before, a look that squeezed his already bruised heart.

Sam tore his eyes from Frodo’s, and forced himself back to walking, as Frodo did, staring straight ahead of him.

“Sam... are you angry?”

Sam unclenched his teeth, catching a startled breath. “Not at you, Mister Frodo, not ever!”

Frodo uneasily glanced aside at him. “At who then?”

Sam couldn’t not say. “At those as have no sense, is all!” He should have stopped there, but he didn’t. “If I ever come to know someone’s said something hurtful toward you, sir... I don’t like to think what I’d have to do.”

Frodo felt a chill up the back of his neck, and a thoroughly contradicting warmth elsewhere, all at once. The thought of Sam out there defending his good name touched him deeply, but he couldn’t possibly accept such a thing. “You told me I shouldn’t listen to them, Sam... and neither should you.”

Sam didn’t quite remember saying that, and wasn’t sure it was the right thing to have said if he had. “There’s folks who’ll believe everthing they hear, whether it’s the truth or nay... and they’ll turn right round and say it on.”

Frodo actually found a smile. “It doesn’t matter what those people think, Sam. And just so you know, it won’t be any different in Bywater.” But in Bywater he had a refuge, and he headed them straight for it. The sign hung over the shop read Tobias Puddleby, Stationer, and both Puddlebys were in, Tobias senior and Tobias junior, as well as a couple of Puddleby daughters, standing watch over the storefront with its shelves of parchments and envelopes, sealing wax and inkpots. Frodo greeted the youngers by first name, as Bilbo always had, and he graciously thanked the elder Tobias for writing him. Of course, even the elder Tobias Puddleby called him Mister Baggins, but out of respect, for Uncle Bilbo if not himself.

“Well, young Mister Baggins, I don’t suppose you’ve had any word from your dear uncle, sir?”

Frodo answered that with reasonable equanimity. “Not yet, I’m afraid, but of course I’ll let you know when I do. Uncle Bilbo was very fond of Puddleby’s, as am I... and I very much look forward to seeing this something special you mentioned.” The elder Tobias smiled enthusiastically, and swept a gesture toward the back room.

“I do think you’re going to like this, Mister Baggins.”

Sam stood rooted at the center of the floor until Frodo disappeared into the back, then he quickly found the wherewithal to follow, into a windowless but brightly lit chamber that smelled faintly of must and dust, with shelves of books lining the walls, and a table spread over with dark green velvet cloth and set all around with candles. The shopkeeper brought out a large and heavy looking book to lay on the table, and Frodo settled into a chair there to look at it, with the candlelight flickering in his wide blue eyes and a little smile just turning up the corners of his mouth. Sam stood there entranced.

It was beautiful, a volume of tales and poems from the days of the early kings of Gondor, gloriously illustrated, and bound in Minas Tirith said the elder Puddleby. Frodo asked him, “Do you know how it came here?”

“Well, sir, as you know these things often leave their history behind, and all I can say for certain is that my buyer in Bree got it from a pair of gentlemen travelling The Greenway... but it’s a lovely tome as I’m sure you can see, and very well kept.”

Frodo slowly turned the pages, taking it in, the fine parchment under his fingertips and the perfect flowing script, the lavish drawings washed in delicate colour, the binding tight and masterfully done. It was going to cost him a small fortune, but he had to have it.

“There’s another little something here I’ll include in the price, Mister Baggins, knowing how keen you are on elvish writings.”

Frodo looked up, as Puddleby set down a small battered book, not too close to the other, like he thought its decrepitude might be catching.

“I can’t tell you much about it, sir, except that it surely wasn’t made by the fair folk... copied I would guess... though where and when and by who is a mystery to me, as it’s all in elvish.”

Frodo picked it up, and opened it. The leaves were brittle, and he handled it with utmost care. If there had been a title page, it was missing, but it was indeed written in elvish, and not Sindarin but Quenya, a poem, one he’d never seen before. “Sam... look at this...”

Sam collected his wits as best he could. Frodo looked at him smiling, his whole face lit up, and beckoning, wanting to share what he’d found. It was all Sam could do walking over there, to look over Frodo’s shoulder at the book in his hands, the page he had open. Frodo had taught him a few words of elvish, for speaking, but the writing and reading of it still befuddled him for the most part, and he couldn’t even try to think about it then and there, like that. “I can’t read it, Mister Frodo sir.”

Frodo slowly shook his head. “No... I’ll have a hard time with it myself... it’s Quenya... a poem... something new.” Well, hardly that, but new to him, something they could puzzle out together. Puddleby stood there smiling, figuring he’d already made the deal, looking a bit smug in fact. Frodo closed the little book and set it back down on the table. He wanted that one as much as he wanted the other, but it was the other he’d have to pay for, and Puddleby appeared to be in a mood for haggling. This, at least, Bilbo had taught him well. He pushed himself up from the chair. “I’m going to be awhile yet, Sam. Why don’t you go ahead and see to what business you have... then we can meet at the Green Dragon for lunch.”

Sam opened his mouth, to say what? That he wasn’t sure they ought to be lunching together at the Green Dragon? The Gaffer wouldn’t think much of the notion, he was sure, but if it made Frodo happy, that was all there was to that. “Aye, sir.” He stepped back, and took himself off, as the shopkeeper was inviting Frodo to the parlour for tea. Sam didn’t imagine the buying of a book could take too awfully long, and he didn’t mean to waste the time.

Walking through the streets of Bywater on his own, it struck him, just how different it had been walking through Hobbiton at Frodo’s heels. Folk smiled and waved, and asked after the Gaffer and the sisters, real friendly just like always. He had a bit of a hard time being friendly in return, knowing at least a few of them would be whispering behind his back if he was Frodo.

If he was Frodo... now there was a strange thought, and one that he quickly dismissed. After seeing Frodo in that place full of books and learning looking like he’d been set aglow from inside, Sam couldn’t begin to think he understood what Frodo thought and felt. All he could do was just love everything Frodo was, and he did, with all his heart. His brain got stuck for awhile on seeing Frodo’s delicate fingers touching the elvish words on that page, and he found himself on the lane to the widow Muffet’s without knowing quite how he’d got there.

Setting aside everything from his mind but seeing Frodo happy had put him in right good spirits again, and he had a nice chat with the widow while they filled a sack full of currants from the bushes in her yard. As luck would have it, she was happy to make the trade, and he left her the apples as well, since they were going to have luncheon at the Green Dragon. When all was said and done, that felt like being a lad again and having someone hand him a sweet for no reason at all. If it didn’t trouble Frodo, he wasn’t going to let it trouble him. He wished the widow a happy day, then headed off for the Green Dragon at an eager jog.

* * * * * * *

The price finally settled on was a fair and reasonable one from either side, and though it cost Frodo plenty he didn’t begrudge it for a moment. He was sure Uncle Bilbo would have done the same. They wrapped the books in cloth for him to protect them, both of them, and he carefully stuffed them into his pack along with the ink he’d come for, and a sheaf of parchment, and several fresh quills, then he hoisted the pack to his back and thanked all the various Puddlebys gathered around, and he set out to meet Sam.

There was entirely too much coming and going on the streets for his comfort, but Frodo put on his smile and nodded amiably when it was called for, and was just glad it was a short way to the edge of town, where Sam was there outside the Green Dragon waiting, with his sleeves rolled down and his buttons done up, his shirt tail neatly tucked into his breeches, and the sun shining through his tousled ginger gold hair. Frodo found a genuine smile, raising a hand in greeting, and Sam came to meet him wearing a grin.

“That was a piece of good timing, Mister Frodo. I’ve just come up the lane myself. Hope you got what you were wanting, sir.” From the smile on his face, he surely had.

“I did, Sam... and you?”

Sam held up his sack. “Enough for Daisy to turn into jam for you, sir. Course I’ll have to pick up those sausages fore we leave town, since it won’t do for em to sit in this heat too long.”

Frodo just smiled and nodded, in no mind to think about shopping. “Let’s have lunch then.” He was of a mind to think about that, and since he wasn’t often the whim was best catered to when it struck. They went inside, where it was cooler, and darker, and Frodo led the way to a back table. The place was bustling, and he couldn’t doubt a few curious looks followed him, but he determinedly ignored all of that. He slid the pack from his back and gently lowered it to the floor, and settled himself at the table.

Sam sat down across from Frodo, put down his sack, and took up a strap of the pack to lift it a little, just testing. Frodo made a face at him, but smiled.

“Really, Sam, I may not have your shoulders, but I can certainly carry a couple of books from Bywater to Bag End.”

Sam wasn’t about to say he couldn’t, but... “That’s some heavy book, sir.”

Frodo laughed. “I paid some heavy price for it.”

Sam smiled at him back, for the laughter, but steered well clear of making jokes over what Frodo did with his money. When someone came by, they ordered onion soup and a loaf of fresh crusty bread for dipping, and Frodo requested an ale, then turned to him, looking like he wished he didn’t have to ask.

“Are you allowed, Sam?”

Sam smiled. “Oh aye, sir, seeing it’s for special... and past high sun, mind you.”

Frodo ordered an ale for Sam as well. It made him feel strange, but Sam put his elbows on the table and leaned over it a little, looking perfectly happy with the situation.

“Did I tell you, Mister Frodo, my Gaffer thinks we’ll have a real good season with the fruit trees, and he said those pears down along the wall weren’t blighted after all, it’s just cause it’s been dry. It’s a right wonder to me how he knows, but he’s saying we’ll have rain afore the week’s through, then things’ll freshen up I guess. Makes me think, it does... do you suppose I’d feel the rain coming too, sir, if I was to break my leg and got to lie abed for a month talking to the spiders like my Gaffer did?”

Frodo laughed. “I don’t know, Sam, but I hope you aren’t thinking of trying it. I’m sure the garden would suffer severely if you weren’t there to take care of it.” As he would.

Sam smiled and said it was just a thought he’d had come to him. Their lunch was brought, and two brimming mugs of ale, and before they were halfway through it, Sam was chattering away about whatever came into his head. As long as Frodo sat there smiling back at him, nothing else mattered.

Frodo was having a hard time not falling right into it, gazing into Sam’s eyes dark and glimmering in the lamplight. Sooner or later it had to occur to him, how it must look. Sam’s love for him might be as innocent as a newborn lamb, but his love for Sam wasn’t, not anymore, and maybe it showed more than he wanted to believe, especially with Sam looking at him like that. He finally forced his eyes down. “Sam...”

Sam cut himself short, dropped his gaze into his soup bowl, and gave his attention to finishing his lunch. He didn’t need to be told what he’d done. He’d forgot himself in the pleasure of it all, and he’d talked too much, and too easy, like he had a right to be talking to Frodo like that, which he didn’t. The Gaffer would have his hide to hear him at it. But he’d never have thought to see Frodo take it amiss.

Frodo’s nerves all tightened up. He couldn’t bring himself to look around, to see who might be watching and listening, but he also couldn’t leave Sam to think what he must be thinking. “Sam... I didn’t mean...” ...for you to stop, not forever, just long enough so he could think.

Sam quietly laid down his spoon on the table, and wrapped both hands around his nearly empty mug, but he couldn’t quite manage to look up. “I’m real sorry, Mister Frodo sir. My Gaffer always told me I’d talk my head off one day, and I’m guessing this might just be what he meant.” There was a splooshing clink of Frodo’s spoon settling into his bowl.

For an extremely unpleasant little while, Frodo wasn’t sure he was going to keep down what he’d eaten, but it passed, and he got his breath, and just wanted to get out of there. “Have you finished, Sam?”

Sam glanced up enough to see that Frodo hadn’t, and though it went against his grain to leave good food and drink go to waste, he nodded. “Aye, sir.”

With an effort of sheer will, Frodo put a decent face on it, focusing straight ahead as they walked out, and kept walking, out of town on Bywater Road, until there was no one in sight coming or going. Sam was keeping several paces behind him, silent, head down and eyes fixed on the road before his feet, and he stopped when Frodo did. Frodo laid a hand over his queasy stomach for a moment, then walked back there to stand in front of him. “Please don’t stop talking to me, Sam.”

Sam felt that, and looked up to meet his eyes, “I couldn’t, sir...” and looked down again. “But I know I went too far, Mister Frodo, and I’m real sorry I embarrassed you.”

Frodo couldn’t stop himself, reached out and gripped Sam’s shoulders, and insisted he look up. “I didn’t mean what you think I meant, Sam. We have every right to be together in public as friends. It wasn’t your fault in any way. Is that understood?”

Sam just dumbly nodded, but in truth he wasn’t sure it wasn’t all his fault, because sometimes what he was feeling for Frodo seeped out of him like rainwater through burlap, and he couldn’t stop it for anything. Frodo looked at him like he might just be doing it that very moment, then Frodo took back his hands, and turned away. Sam watched him shift his pack, trying to make it comfortable, and wanted badly to carry it for him, but didn’t say a word about it, and Frodo finally turned back, and smiled a little.

“Wasn’t there something you wanted to get before we left town?”

Sam nodded again. “Those sausages.” But they were well out of Bywater by then, and Bumble’s was all the way across town the other way. “It don’t matter, Mister Frodo, unless you had your heart set on em.”

Frodo didn’t particularly. They went on toward Hobbiton, and he deliberately walked at Sam’s side, whether Sam thought it was proper or not, and just did his damnedest to keep his thoughts and his feelings to himself. Thankfully, Sam quickly got over the whole thing, seemingly, and went back to being his Sam, if just a bit more subdued.

“You know, Mister Frodo, I was looking round the cellar up at Bag End the other day, and there’s a corner empty that’d be perfect for growing shrooms. We don’t have a cellar at home, but I’ve got a little patch tucked back into the pantry and they do alright even with all the coming and going, but down in your cellar would be a better place by leaps. Course it’d be a bit of mess getting set up, but then you’d have em whenever you wanted.”

Dear Sam, always thinking of him. “It’s a grand idea, Sam... but it sounds like a lot of work to me.”

Sam laughed. “I don’t mind the work, sir... if you don’t mind the mess.”

Frodo did his best to get over it too. “I have created messes that would curl the hair on your toes, Sam... as you well know. I think one more won’t hurt.”

Sam smiled, immensely relieved to have it forgotten, if Frodo was willing to. But when they came into Hobbiton, there was still that to get through. Frodo drew himself up like he thought he was facing down a dragon, and put on that smile that wasn’t really his, the one he gave to unwanted company, which would be most anyone that came up to Bag End unasked. Sam couldn’t help thinking folk might take to him better if he could only be more himself with them, but then the folk of Hobbiton could have been more accepting of him when he was a lad, and maybe he wouldn’t ever have had to learn how to do that. It was a sad thing, but Sam didn’t know how to fix it. He quietly asked one more time if Frodo wouldn’t like to just go on home and let him do the shopping, but Frodo had set his mind to it and wouldn’t be deterred.

It was really one of Frodo’s least favorite things to do, dealing with the market, but by that token it was one of the few real challenges he still put himself to, and he stubbornly meant to see it through. At least he had Sam there to comment on what looked good and what didn’t, and remind him of anything he forgot, and to help him carry things, that too, because honestly he only had two hands.

Sam suggested as they were leaving town and heading back up the hill at last that it might be less of a job if he was to do the shopping more often, but Frodo didn’t look like he thought that a good idea at all. As for offering again to carry Frodo’s pack at that point, they were both thoroughly laden, and he’d taken as much more than his share as he could.

Frodo felt his load lighten as soon as they left the lane and passed through Bag End’s garden gate, home where there was no need to pretend, where he could smile at Sam, within reason, and not have to worry what all of Hobbiton and Bywater were thinking, and saying. They went in the back door, dusted and sweaty and needing to wash up before going inside. The bags and packages all got stacked in the hallway, then Sam helped him off with his pack.

“I could start the kettles heating in the bath, Mister Frodo, if you’d like to get cleaned up proper.”

It was tempting actually, to settle into a hot bath and forget everything for a time, but of course Frodo knew precisely where that would lead, the way he felt after spending all morning with Sam, and the thought of doing such a thing with Sam anywhere on the premises truly revolted him. He would have his bath after Sam left for the night, as always. “I might go out in the garden with you and get even sweatier... so there really wouldn’t be any point, Sam.”

Sam discouraged that without delay. “You’ve been out in the sun plenty for today, sir, don’t you think? You wouldn’t want to go through that again.” That being what he’d gone through after That Day, sick with the sunburn, so he’d said, hardly coming out of his room for days. Sam didn’t want to go through it again, that was a fact.

Frodo turned away, not liking to even think about it, about what he’d started that day. He pumped fresh cool water into the basin and splashed his face, that helped. Going back out into the sunshine with Sam wouldn’t, so Sam won that one. They cleaned up as well as they needed to there in the mud room, then they gathered up the groceries and carted everything down the hall to the kitchen and the pantries, and when it was all put away where it belonged, Sam built up the hearthfire and put on a kettle.

“Would you like some of those honey cakes, Mister Frodo? You left half your luncheon behind at the Green Dragon.”

Frodo didn’t want to think about that either. “No thank you, Sam, not right now... but tea would be nice. Do you have a lot to do in the garden?”

Sam took himself out to the garden in his mind, and had a look around. “Well, the watering has to be done, sir... and the compost needs turning... and there’s the weeding and deadheading that needs doing every day... not too awful much. I’ll fit it in right enough. You might as well go on ahead to the study, Mister Frodo, and I’ll bring you your tea when its ready.”

Frodo told himself he ought to be making his own damned tea, but Sam already had it well in hand and seemed to want it just that way, so there was nothing he could do but go on to the study. He took up his pack on the way in, and leaned it against the side of the desk before he sat down. There was plenty he needed to be doing himself, plenty he needed to be doing that he’d been putting off, and putting off, like answering his mail. He’d been owing cousin Merry a letter for way too long, and though he’d never lump writing to Merry in with the rest, he just didn’t know what to say to the lad lately.

Opening a drawer, he took out the stack of mail he was obliged to answer at some time or other. Merry’s latest letter was on top. The rest were from other relatives mostly, polite keeping in touch correspondence, and there were a couple from lasses who hadn’t yet given up on him completely, and several from Aunt Lobelia, shudders, wanting to know on the surface why he never came to visit. He almost put the whole stack of them back in the drawer to deal with later, almost. Sam came in with his tea about then, and glanced at his pack there on the floor.

“Thought you’d have your new books out, sir.” That was what he wanted to be doing, Sam was sure. Frodo looked up at him with a better face than the one he’d had on.

“I’ll wait for you to finish your work, Sam, then we can look at them together.”

Sam was touched to the heart, and couldn’t doubt it showed. “You don’t have to do that, Mister Frodo.”

Frodo smiled at him. “I want to, Sam.”

Sam smiled at him back. “I’ll not dilly dally then, sir.” He stood there a long moment more just the same, caught up in the two of them smiling back and forth like that, then had to just tear himself away.

Frodo listened to Sam walking out, to the back door opening and closing, and he heaved a great sigh, staring at Merry’s letter, Merry’s perky impetuous handwriting on the envelope. He wished Merry was there, someone he could touch, someone he could hug and be hugged by, just for warmth and caring, if that hadn’t changed as well. It had been a couple of months since they’d seen each other, and things did change, he could bear witness to that. He had a gulp of his tea, though it was too hot, then forced himself to take out a sheet of parchment and begin.

‘Dear cousin Merry, I’m sorry I haven’t written back sooner, but...’ “But what? But I’ve been too busy lusting after poor Sam to much think about anything else!” He dropped his quill and put a hand over his mouth, listening intently, but there was only the sound of the breeze whispering by outside, and a bee faintly buzzing among the flowers under the window. He wiped away the sweat beaded on his upper lip, and took up the quill again, dipped it, and concentrated. ‘...I’ve been working hard...’

The quill tip screeched, and a blob of ink spread over the parchment. He took in a calming breath, slid it aside to put out a fresh one, and tried again, but found himself just sitting there, his mind flashing back to Merry telling him that tale, of spying on two older lads lying together in a thicket of reeds down by the river, telling it to him in excruciating detail. Though Merry, at barely twelve, had seemed to take it for a lark, it had touched Frodo in ways that had disturbed him deeply, and that was pretty much all he’d ever heard of such things, because Merry had never mentioned anything of the kind ever again.

Frodo wished desperately that he’d had the nerve to ask Uncle Bilbo while he had the chance. He needed someone to talk to about it, and there wasn’t anyone. The plain truth was he hadn’t fit in at Brandy Hall then much better than he did in Hobbiton now, and he hadn’t grown up with close friends his own age, too shy and bookish for the wild ways his Brandybuck cousins mostly tended toward, and besides Bilbo the only father figure he’d really had in his life since he was a teen was Master Saradoc. He could only imagine what Merry’s father would say if he confessed to this terrible compulsion, or where it would go from there, to his being denied Merry’s friendship quite likely, and probably Pip’s as well. Feeling pitifully sorry for himself, he couldn’t help thinking that might be best, for their sakes.

In no good frame of mind for it, he gave up on Merry’s letter, and tried writing one to Aunt Lobelia instead. ‘Dear Aunt Lo...’ The quill tip caught, and blotched the page with ink stains. He clenched his teeth and held his breath, and forcibly stilled the trembling in his hand, then he took out another fresh sheet, and kept on trying.

*******

Sam spent what was left of the afternoon in an untypical rush, forcing the work he would normally have been half the day at into a couple of hours, to the benefit of the weeds he overlooked, just the tiniest ones hiding in the undergrowth where they couldn’t be seen, yet, but not his best effort by a long shot. He wasn’t too very proud of the work, but Frodo was waiting on him to finish. He turned the compost heaps, one onto the next, heaving great forkfuls with too little care for where they landed, and leaving them untidier than he was wont to do, though out beyond the orchard no one would see them but him, as long as the Gaffer didn’t choose that time to come up and check on his work, not likely since the Gaffer trusted him these days to do his best. That gave him pause, briefly, making him think he ought to go back and do it right, but he didn’t. Frodo was waiting.

Dripping with sweat, he made his way back down to the well to get washed. Since Frodo had taken to asking him in after hours, he’d taken to bringing along an extra clean shirt, not to be more offensive than he couldn’t help being, so he unslung his braces and stripped off the soppy one he was wearing, and cleaned up thoroughly, then he went among the flowers picking a big handful of the best blues and whites before he went in. Fresh sweat broke out on his brow before the chill in the mud room had a chance to cool him down. He pulled out his handkerchief to wipe it away, then put on his clean shirt and made himself presentable. He didn’t stop at the open study door, but glanced in as he very quietly passed by. Frodo had his penknife out, sharpening his nib, frowning at it like it had done him some harm. Sam wanted to just walk in there and hand him the flowers, and tell him not to worry about it, whatever it was, but that was surely going too far. He went on to the kitchen, to make a fresh pot of tea.

* * * * * * *

‘Dear cousin Merry, please forgive me for not answering your letter sooner. I’m afraid I have no excuse, unless it be laziness, but don’t want you to think I haven’t thought of you, I have, and wish I could get away to Buckland for a nice long visit...’ Scritch. The quill scattered droplets of ink every which way, and Frodo had no choice but to give it up. He’d managed the rest finally, had even gotten a letter written to Aunt Lobelia that was blotch free, though filled with apology and evasion, but this one continued to elude him, which was just what he deserved for trying to lie to Merry. The truth was he didn’t wish to be anywhere but at Bag End, with Sam.

“Mister Frodo...”

Frodo looked up and there Sam was, with a tray of tea and cakes, and flowers, a vase overflowing with lilies and petunias and clusters of forget me nots, and blooms that only Sam knew the names of. He smiled, and came to put the tray down, and set the vase onto the desktop looking a little bashful, not like Sam at all. Of course, it was hardly the first time he’d brought flowers inside to brighten the place up, but this didn’t feel like that, at all. Frodo found a grateful smile, he hoped. “How beautiful!”

A silly notion came into Sam’s head to tell Frodo they looked like weeds in his own beautiful presence, but that also was going too far, much as it was the pure truth. Frodo gave him a hopeful look.

“Are you finished working?”

Sam smiled and said, “Aye, sir.”, and Frodo told him to pull up a chair, and cleared his desk, and took out his new books, the big heavy one first. Sam poured their tea, and moved the plate of honey cakes to within Frodo’s easy reach, then settled down to look at the book with him. For all the handsome books on Frodo’s shelves, even the ones up top that were his and Mister Bilbo’s favorites, Sam had never seen a handsomer one, the pages all edged with gold and the text framed in vines and flowers, and swords and shields, text that looked penned by someone who’d never in his life had an o come out lumpy, and pictures, pictures Sam could have looked at for hours without seeing all they had to say.

“You can touch it, Sam.”

Sam thought not. “Oh nay, Mister Frodo, I wouldn’t want to do that.” Frodo just smiled a little, and went on slowly turning the pages, until they’d glanced over it once through, then he turned it back to the beginning, to a painting of a great city that grew out the side of a mountain it seemed, with tiers and spires and a broad river running at its feet, all soft and bright like it was washed with moonshine. Frodo’s eyes seemed to glow.

“Uncle Bilbo would have loved this. He always wanted to see Minas Tirith.”

“Bless me, sir… that’s a real place?”

Frodo smiled. “It is indeed. It’s where this book came from... and a good many of those as well.”, with a wave of his hand toward the shelves. Sam stared at the picture like he was trying to make it come to life.

“Is it a place of the Elves, Mister Frodo?”

Frodo solemnly shook his head. “No... it’s a city of men.”

That rather confounded Sam. “I never heard tell any place of the big folk looked like that.”

Frodo leaned his head on one hand, his focus shifted from the picture to Sam. “It’s very far away, Sam... in the south.” Sam looked at him, and looked at the picture again.

“Do you think old Mister Bilbo might have gone there, sir?”

Frodo considered that, not for the first time. “I think he may have.”

Sam felt his eyes go misty, and swallowed it down as best he could. “I would dearly love to know old Mister Bilbo had got himself to someplace special like that... though I can’t see Mister Bilbo hobnobbing with the big folk... if you know what I mean, sir.”

Frodo could, in a way. “I’ve never known anyone as brave as Uncle Bilbo. He wouldn’t have been afraid to go to the south.”

Sam wholeheartedly agreed with that. “Nay, sir, Mister Bilbo weren’t afraid of anything.” But Mister Bilbo was eleventy-three years old. “How far would that be, Mister Frodo?”

“To Minas Tirith... hundreds of leagues.” Frodo supposed that was a bit more than Sam could comprehend. His brown eyes grew wide.

“Hundreds...” The tears went right ahead and welled up. “I sure hope old Mister Bilbo had some company on such a walk as that.”

Frodo felt a painful twinge, and closed his eyes tight shut. “He should have.”

Sam kicked himself, hard, but there wasn’t any unsaying it.

Frodo breathed a sorrowful sigh, and opened his eyes, and Sam was staring at him with tears running down his face. In the emotion of the moment it was either pull him close and hold him, or turn away, quickly. Frodo turned away. If he’d gone with Uncle Bilbo as he should have, none of it would have happened. The Sackville-Bagginses would be in Bag End, and Sam would have nothing worse than Aunt Lobelia to deal with. Poor Sam wouldn’t thank him for that. He was abruptly seized by a fit of laughter that made his chest ache.

Sam couldn’t think what that might mean, but it didn’t feel like a good thing. He smeared his face on his shirtsleeves and ordered himself in his head to stop blubbering, in the Gaffer’s voice to be sure he took heed, and Frodo had stopped laughing by then, was sitting there with his head in his hand looking tired and sad. The sight pierced Sam’s heart. “Mister Frodo... I’m sorry... I reckon old Mister Bilbo has got all the elves and all the dwarves and all the wizards too looking out for him.”

Frodo heard the tremble in Sam’s voice, and forcibly got himself together. It was true enough. He needed Bilbo far more than Bilbo needed him. “It’s alright, Sam. I don’t want you to ever feel you have to be careful of what you say to me.”

Sam looked down from Frodo’s eyes. He always tried to be careful what he said, he just didn’t always catch himself in time. But Frodo made like it didn’t matter. He softly blew across the page, then closed the big book and put it aside, then he took out the one that was in elvish.

“Best for last.” Saddened to have lost Sam’s smile, Frodo went out of his way to get it back. He well knew what would make Sam happy. He carefully opened the shabby little book on the desktop, and started reading from it. He didn’t half understand what he was saying, because he’d been still learning high elvish when Bilbo left, but he translated what he could of it in his mind, and it began to come together, and if he’d understood none of it, it would have soothed his soul anyway, just feeling the words sweet and succulent on his tongue.

Sam sat there with his hands clasped in his lap, his heart purring. There wasn’t a lovelier thing to hear than Frodo speaking elvish, and it took him right away to moonlight falling on a quiet wood without his even having to close his eyes, which he couldn’t do anyway, not with Frodo looking like that, like the rare precious spirit inside him was shining through. Frodo was just too perfect and beautiful for words.

Looking up from the page as he turned to the next, Frodo’s gaze met Sam’s and his heartbeat stuttered. The room was too still and quiet all of a sudden, the air too hot and heavy to breathe, and they were far too close. The light of love in Sam’s eyes made him very afraid of what was in his own, and that fear made him push the book away and stumble to his feet. “Sam... I think you should go home.”

Sam felt like he’d been kicked in the stomach, but if it showed on his face at least Frodo had turned away and didn’t have to see it. He slowly stood. “I thought I’d be fixing your supper for you, Mister Frodo, like usual.” He had been for the past many nights, then they would sit in the parlour and read, or just talk. It was what he most looked forward to all day every day. But Frodo had had enough, always when it seemed like everything was just right.

“Sam...” Frodo managed to turn back, but didn’t dare look him in the face. “Please don’t be angry with me.”

Sam fixed his eyes on the floor. “I couldn’t be, sir.”

Frodo helplessly raised a hand to his head. “I have this pain... probably from writing Aunt Lobelia... I might just go to bed early.”

Sam glanced up, not sure he believed that, but wanting to. “I could fix you something for it, Mister Frodo...” Nay. Frodo just didn’t want him there, as was Frodo’s right after all.

“I’ll be fine, Sam. You shouldn’t have to sit up here with me night after night.”

Sam bit his tongue and said nothing to that. “What about your supper, sir?”

Frodo took in a breath. “I can do it. I’ve been watching you.”

More likely he’d just scrounge, but at least the pantry was stocked. Sam couldn’t see any way around it. “Alright, Mister Frodo. I’ll just take care of the fires for you.”

Frodo couldn’t stand for that. “No, Sam, you’ve done enough. Go home and spend some time with your family. Please.”

Sam finally couldn’t do anything else.

Powerless not to, Frodo watched him to the study door, and out, then hugged his arms across his middle, and called after him. “Goodnight, Sam.” Sam’s voice reached him back, faint and subdued.

“Goodnight, Mister Frodo.”

Frodo walked back to the desk, and sank down into his chair there. His head did ache, miserably, but it probably had little to do with Aunt Lobelia. He’d hurt Sam’s feelings, and his own heart was in tatters. It couldn’t go on, but he didn’t know how to stop it, short of going away. He shoved himself up again and went to the window, in time to see Sam going out the garden gate and heading down the lane, looking like someone had stomped all over his favorite roses. The urge to call him back was intense, to call him back and just tell him, and let the chips fall where they would, but Frodo knew just how it would fall if he were to do such a thing, on Sam pretending it was alright at the very least, wanting to do for him at the worst, with no regard for what Sam wanted or didn’t want himself.

Sam disappeared around the curve of the hill, and the day lost all its brightness. It wasn’t late, the sun barely touching the hilltops in the west, but inside the shadows deepened, and the silence as well. Frodo finally pushed himself from the window with a sigh, and spied a bit of faded red cloth on the floor half under the desk, Sam’s handkerchief. He walked over there, stooped down, and picked it up, and he raised it to his face and closed his eyes. It smelled of Sam, of the breath he got of Sam when he allowed himself that close, of earth and green growing things and the sweat of honest toil, only deeper and richer, Sam’s very essence.

Gripping the edge of the desktop to keep himself steady, he crouched there feeling the heat rise in him. He despised himself for it, but he clenched Sam’s handkerchief in his hand and kept it, dragging himself to his feet, pushing himself out and down the hall into the dark chill bath chamber. The fire wasn’t lit, because he’d told Sam he’d do it himself. He turned around and stalked back out, to the kitchen, to find a candle to light at the hearthfire there, which also needed attending to of course. He didn’t, just took himself back to the bath, and thankfully found the grate stacked and ready to be lit. Even that took some effort, but he got it going at last, and made sure the kettles were filled, then he went back to the kitchen, through the pantry and down the cellar steps, the candlelight flickering weird shadows on the walls and the ceiling and the floor.

It was cold enough in the cellar to make him shiver, but the fire inside him burned on. He didn’t linger there, just grabbed a bottle of Old Winyards from the rack, then went back to the kitchen to open it. His nerves grated unreasonably at being unable to find anything appropriate to put it in, and he finally took the bottle with him tucked into the crook of his arm, with Sam’s handkerchief clutched in one hand, and the candlestick precariously gripped in his other, to the dining room, where he located a proper wineglass in the fancy cabinet. He set down the candle and the bottle, took out the glass and filled it, and poured it down with a shudder, then filled it again.

The water in the kettles was barely simmering when he made it back to the bath, but he couldn’t wait any longer. He forced down the last of his third glass of wine, enough to fog thinking and help him forget just how much he didn’t want to do it. He pulled off his clothes and left them scattered as they landed, and sank down into the water at last with his heart beating slow and heavy, with Sam’s handkerchief still in his shaking hand. Even half inebriated, he knew how despicable it was, but he couldn’t stop it then. He wrapped one hand around the pounding ache and roughly gripped it, and he buried his face in the bittersweet smell of Sam and tortured himself one more time.

* * * * * * *

Sam had his bath in glum silence, too flustered to think quite straight, with Frodo telling him one thing, then telling him another, asking him to stay, then saying he should go, ‘Can’t you stay a little longer, Sam?’ then turning right around ‘I think it’s time you went home, Sam,’ and those eyes never looking any less like it was the staying he really wanted. Sam ground his fists into his watering eyes. It was enough to make his head spin round. But it wasn’t enough to make his love for Frodo shine any less brilliant.

“Samwise... if you’re coming for supper you’d best come now?”

The door came open, and May poked her head in. He slid himself down into the bathwater with a growl. “Hey...” She just laughed at him.

“Why aren’t you singing?”

Sam tossed her a half hearted frown and mumbled, “Don’t feel like it.” She looked at him like she was sorry, and backed out.

“Better hurry, little brother. Da’s just got back from Overhill and he’s looking hungry.”

She closed the door, and he dragged himself out to get dried and dressed, then quick got himself to the supper table. The Gaffer looked at him, and didn’t say a word, and he didn’t have anything to say himself, so he just sat there staring at his plate while they put the food on the table. Goldy set a big dish of braised carrots with celery right in front of him, like she was trying to butter him up. He glanced her a cautious look, and she gave him a sweet smile back, just being kind. He tried to feel better, tried to listen to their talk and just pretend his day hadn’t been eventful enough to comment on, but he couldn’t manage to much more than chase things around his plate as far as eating went, and he was glad enough when it was over. He pushed himself up to help clear the dishes, but the Gaffer stopped him.

“The girls’ll do that, Samwise... I want a word with you.”

A lump came up in Sam’s throat, but he didn’t so much as open his mouth, just stood by the front door waiting while the Gaffer took down his pipe from the mantle, then went outside with him. The sun had dropped and dusk was gathering. Sam moved to sink down to the bench below the window, where the Gaffer did most of his after supper talking to.

“We’re going to walk, lad.”

Sam stopped himself in mid sit, with that lump in his throat just about to choke him. Walking and talking to was a sight more serious than sitting and talking to, and that calm easy tone didn’t bode well either. The Gaffer took out his pouch, then took out a pipe from his pocket, a new one, and handed it to him. He stood there holding it in his hand, with all kinds of thoughts racing around in his head, like getting a few puffs from the Gaffer’s pipe when they had that particular talk, and if this meant they were going to have another of those talks, why did it feel like such a bad thing? Because it likely meant the Gaffer knew, and the Gaffer could forbid him to go back up to Bag End ever again. His stomach twisted into knots.

“How old are you, Samwise?”

Sam futilely swallowed at the lump. “I’m twenty-three, sir.” The Gaffer offered his pouch, and Sam filled his first pipe for the first time, with his hands shaking so bad it was all he could do not spilling it all over the ground. The Gaffer bent down then and struck a match against the last stone in their walk, and they lit their pipes from it. Thankfully, Sam had had enough unofficial experience not to choke on it. The Gaffer started walking down Bagshot Row, and he couldn’t do anything but follow.

“I heard tell you went to town with Mister Baggins today. And never you mind who said so, it was said for your own good.”

Sam attempted to wipe the look of shock from his face. “I did, sir... to market. I went along to carry for him.” The Gaffer glanced him a sidelong look, and kept on walking.

“I heard tell too you were dragging on Mister Baggins’ tail like a moonstruck calf.”

Sam clenched his teeth so tight it felt like sparks shot through his brain.

“That’s how it was told to me, though there’s others won’t say it so nice.”

They just strolled, for what felt like forever, and Sam’s new pipe dangled from his hand forgotten. They came to the stables and turned to walk back, then he got it in full.

“If you think I’ve not seen the way you’ve been acting, Samwise, then you’re twice the fool, strutting round up at Bag End like a young banty cock. You’re old enough to have no excuse for not seeing the effect that sort of thing can have on the one it’s aimed at.”

That was a blow, because Sam hadn’t thought of it that way. The Gaffer breathed out a puff of smoke, and seemed to sigh.

“I’ve tried all your life to keep your feet on the ground where they belong, and truth be told the Bagginses haven’t ever made that easy for me. Young Mister Frodo takes right after his uncle, he does, and more, not wanting to see where the line ought to be drawn. But it’s not up to the Bagginses to keep you in your place, Samwise Gamgee, it’s up to you to keep yourself there. Taking tea with your betters and reading books aren’t what you were made for, and it’s a lesson it’s time you learned.”

The Gaffer stopped walking, and Sam hung his head and just stood there trembling all over.

“Nothing to say, lad?”

Nothing. The Gaffer chuckled.

“Well, there’s a new one.”

Sam wanted to go home to bed, wanted to go to sleep and dream of Frodo and never wake up again. But the Gaffer wasn’t finished with him, stood staring up at the sky for a little while, then crossed his arms and dropped his voice down low and quiet.

“Alright then, here tis... it’s all well and good to be young and to do what lads do, but there’ll come a day you’ll have to grow up, sooner than you think, and placing your affections where they don’t belong will get you a whole lot of heartache and not much else. Remember, Samwise, it’s you who’ll be dragging yourself up that hill every day for the rest of your life, at least til you’ve got a lad of your own to take it over, and if you’ve got to grit your teeth and swallow a bitter pill every day to do it, you’ll have no life worth living.”

Sam couldn’t get a breath into his lungs, and the Gaffer put a hand on his shoulder and looked him straight in the eye.

“I know what I’m speaking of.”

That was the shocker to beat all, no mistake. Sam stared back into his father’s eyes in the failing twilight, and understood what he was saying, but the Gaffer didn’t give him any chance to ask further.

“I’ll be taking another turn or two. You can go on inside. And don’t you lose that pipe first thing.”

Sam found enough of his voice to promise he wouldn’t, then took himself on home and left the Gaffer standing there in the lane looking up at the stars. He went in and headed straight for his room, leaving the sisters paused in their chit chat staring after him, because he had some hard thinking to do. Not that thinking was going to change anything. Maybe he was doomed like the Gaffer said to spend his life wishing for things he wasn’t ever going to get, but it couldn’t be undone if he’d wanted. He loved Frodo.

The bed creaked and groaned as he flopped himself down onto it, and lay there staring into the blackness. He intently caressed his fingers over the smooth polished wood of his new pipe, wishing he’d hugged his father while there was a chance that seemed right for it. The Gaffer would have frowned and shooed him off, but Sam didn’t think he would have really minded.

* * * * * * *

Frodo sank down at Uncle Bilbo’s desk in the study feeling drained and numb, with no heart whatsoever for the work he’d been doing. There were the new books, but if he’d thought they might offer some distraction from Sam, he’d been sadly mistaken, because he wanted Sam there to share them with. He moved them well out of the way, had enough sense still to do that, before he poured himself another glass of Old Winyards, and tipped it up. The shutters were open at the window, a night breeze rustling through the garden. He’d dressed, thinking he might go out for a long walk and try to clear his head. But he didn’t have the energy to try, and didn’t particularly want his head clear for that matter. He sat there and just stared at the flowers Sam had brought him. He’d discussed it with himself at length, the notion of going away, of just packing up and going off in search of Bilbo, but the awful truth was he didn’t have the courage for it, simply couldn’t bear to leave Sam, much as it hurt sometimes being near him. He fumbled out a parchment finally, reached for his quill and clumsily dipped it, and wrote at the top ‘Dearest Sam...’ He blinked at it, not focusing well. That was no way to start a letter to Merry, but since he’d gone that far, he went ahead with it. ‘How I love you and yearn for you dear Sam and how it breaks my heart to see your pure unsullied love for me and know how unworthy I am...’ He filled the whole page with such nonsense, fully intending to rip it up into tiny pieces when he was finished.


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