Chapter 1: Loss
Sam wrested it from Frodo's hand and then slipped, fell, and disappeared. And suddenly there was nothing left for Frodo to struggle for or against. Nothing to do but stand still and wait for the end.
But somehow he wasn't strong enough even for that. He felt a lick of fire as molten rock splashed against his skin, and in panic he turned and fled, out of the mountain, away, as fast as he could run.
The raging heat followed him outside, and the rest of the world was falling away. In relief and agony, Frodo collapsed along with it.
Rosie was cutting carrots and chatting with Marigold when the sudden, intense heat came over her, and her knees gave out, and a few seconds later she was embarrassed to find herself collapsed on the floor of her own kitchen. She didn't notice the blood or the pain until after she'd heard Marigold screaming, watched her rush over to wrap Rosie's index finger in a dish towel. Marigold looked terrified and Rosie could only feel distant, different, vaguely sensing that a part of her was missing that had nothing to do with her hand. She had another reason to scream.
He was aware of pain before anything else, unable to place it. With no idea of where he himself was, he knew part of him was missing.
Not dead, was the first coherent thought to come to him. If he had died he would not be breathing, and he knew he must be breathing because the air was like fire in his lungs, even as something cool and wet was smoothed over his skin. There were voices, and probably movements nearby, and then words, suddenly close and clear. "It's all right, Frodo. Open your eyes now."
More fire then, the air a shock to his eyes, and the sight something not to be believed. Frodo closed his eyes again.
Not dead, not Gandalf either, he thought. It was not possible. Of all the impossible things Frodo had wished for in the past months, he'd never had any hope of seeing this face again, and yet here he was when Frodo dared to look for him again. And struggling wildly against the certain knowledge in his brain was a fierce hope that all the evil things he had seen might come undone, that those who had fallen into shadow might come back. Changed, of course, as Frodo himself was changed, but whole and healthy again, and near enough to touch and embrace.
Frightened as he was to voice his hope aloud, he took another burning breath and spoke a single word, "Sam," wondering vaguely if he meant it as a question, a plea, or perhaps as an explanation. An apology.
"I know little of what happened after the two of you left Faramir at Henneth Annûn" Gandalf said. "After the Ring was destroyed and as Sauron's dominion was falling around us, Gwaihir of the eagles carried me to Orodruin to see if we might find you and Samwise and bring you back before the mountain collapsed completely. I saw Gollum's body already half covered by the liquid rock, but with the stillness of death. And I saw you lying alone, on an island of rock soon to be consumed. We carried you away and you have been resting here in Ithilien since. Frodo, we have no knowledge of Sam."
Frodo knew he should not be surprised by this. He had seen Sam fall with his own eyes, after all. He knew Sam was dead and knew he, Frodo, was to blame, and yet Gandalf's simple, gentle speech brought the panic and the shock of it back in a rush. Frodo felt himself begin to tremble, and his eyes lost focus. He didn't want to lose consciousness again, and in an effort to stay present he tried to speak. "He – we got to the – I tried, Gandalf, I thought if I could just get…"
He felt Gandalf's hand on the side of his face, calm and soothing, before he heard the wizard's whisper, words in a language he did not clearly comprehend but that bid him wait, rest, be patient. And even as Frodo's mind rebelled at being hushed like a child, he felt relieved to fall silent again, let his head fall against the pillows, and trust his friend's quiet assurance that there would be time for such explanations later.
He must have slept, and perhaps been given medicine. He sensed an earthenware cup at his lips, a strong arm supporting his back, and a cold white cloud about the edges of his vision and consciousness. "Try to drink some of this, Frodo," said a voice. And he tried, sipped at the warm liquid, and even swallowed once, but choked when he tried again, and coughed up half of what he'd swallowed the first time. Frodo closed his eyes and willed the dizziness to stop.
The strong hands held him steady while a warm wet cloth wiped the spilled liquid from his chin and neck. Frodo felt embarrassed and when he could breathe again he gasped "I'm sorry, Strider," only then realizing he had recognized the man who held him.
He opened his eyes then and stared harder, trying to clear away the blurry edges of his sight, and he was able to make out a warm smile in a deeply lined and tired face. "Do not be," Aragorn said, "but see if you can try again. I want to help you get some of your strength back."
Frodo nodded, and concentrated on drinking slowly and steadily, making an effort not to think about who was helping him or the things he wanted to say. And certainly not to let his thoughts go back to what had brought him here. Frodo felt the heat of the drink slick down his throat and spread through his chest and belly. His vision cleared more, the world stopped spinning, and all of him felt a bit stronger as Aragorn set the cup down on the ground and gently lowered Frodo's head.
"Thank you, Aragorn," said Frodo. "I'm so happy to see you." Because something needed to be said, even if happy was not quite an accurate word, and Frodo chose not to ponder at the moment whether he'd ever really be happy again. Aragorn was good, and Aragorn was alive.
"And I am glad to see you," said the man, "awake and aware, finally, and on your way to recovery." Frodo looked at him quizzically. "It is nearly two weeks since you were brought here, Frodo. It pained us not to be able to give you any food after your long ordeal. And even before you were rescued, how long had it been since you'd eaten anything other than lembas bread?"
The question seemed absurd and irrelevant to him, and rather than try to answer it he shook his head. "The others," he said. "Merry and Pippin," and he tried to think of other names.
"Yes, they too are awake and aware, and eager to see you. Frodo, Faramir told you of Boromir's death?"
"Yes," Frodo said hollowly. He hadn't thought of Boromir in long weeks.
"The rest of our Company has survived to see the quest achieved."
Except for one, thought Frodo, and wondered how long it would be before he'd be able to speak of it.
"Your cousins both fought bravely in the battles against our enemy," Aragorn continued. "Pippin has been sleeping in the tent next to yours. He woke up yesterday, and Merry has been tending to him."
Frodo's heart was beating fast, full of relief to know his cousins were alive and curiosity, even distrust, a need to know the ill news Aragorn was trying to shield him from. "Pippin," was all his could articulate.
"Pippin was injured in the last battle. We expect him to make a full recovery, but he won't be able to move very much at first. You know if he could he'd be sneaking his head under the flap of this tent the moment he heard you were awake."
"Merry will want to stay with him," Frodo murmured.
"Everyone wants to be with you, Frodo. Gandalf and I have kept them away so far in order to give you more time to rest, but Merry and Pippin, and Legolas and Gimli, and Gandalf and I, we all love you very much, and we all want to be here to help you through this. Do you understand that?"
And Frodo felt like the most despicable creature on the earth, then, for Merry and Pippin and Legolas and Gimli and Gandalf and Aragorn all loved him, and even as he knew he didn't deserve that, it wasn't enough. Because everything Frodo loved was lost, and he would never get it – never get them – back.
"Yes," he said softly, forcing himself to smile and hoping the tears would look like gratitude. "Thank you, Aragorn."
He was able to sleep some more, and later in the day Merry and Pippin did come to see him. Pippin was walking but leaning heavily on his cousin. Both had cuts and bruises visible on their faces, though Merry's were mostly faded. Pippin breathed shallowly and Frodo gasped at the sight of him, the suffering evident in his face. Pippin in turn looked shocked at the sight of Frodo, and Frodo thought for the first time what a wreck he himself must look. He self-consciously touched one of the deeper cuts on his own face and wished to disappear. He watched Merry whisper something in Pippin's ear and Pippin smoothed his features, then smiled his own smile and, as quickly as he could without falling, knelt down by Frodo's side.
"Have you tried standing up yet?" Pippin asked encouragingly.
Frodo shook his head. "Had a hard enough time sitting up to drink Aragorn's medicine earlier," he said.
Pippin nodded with understanding. "The dizziness, yes?"
"But you're ready to try again?"
Frodo didn't really want to, and Merry looked hesitant, as if he wished Pippin hadn't spoken. But here was Pippin, clearly very badly injured himself and only having risen the day before, and he wanted it, expected it of the oldest cousin, the bravest, the leader.
So Frodo agreed. Merry came behind his head and helped push him up, then arranged the pillows to support him, while Frodo caught hold of Pippin. And Pippin held him, hugged him more tightly than he really needed, but it felt good. "We all have our own hurts to get over, Frodo," he said. "And we will get over them. We'll do it together."
"My dear cousins," said Frodo, still wrapped in Pippin's arms and feeling Merry close behind him, Merry's hand rubbing his back. "My dear friends, I cannot tell you how sorry I am for all you've suffered for having come on this journey with me."
"No regrets, Frodo," Merry said softly in his ear. "Having helped save the world feels good, I won't deny it, but we came along then because we wanted to help you, and all of it's worth it if it means we can help you today."
Frodo could not really believe that they had no regrets. He was sure he would never feel that way himself, at any rate. But he thanked them, and held them, and told them he loved them. It was good, all of it was. And they didn't talk about Sam, but Frodo felt there would be time for that later.
It was different from recovering at Rivendell, as of course it would have to be, for a thousand different reasons. With the lingering stink of battle, with Pippin hurt. Without Sam to hold his hand or to support him when he tried to rise. Without as much of a reason to try to get up, since he had trouble seeing what was meant to come after this.
Still, Merry and Pippin were dear and attentive and helped him as well as they could. They brought him soup and boiled fruit, and everything was much easier to swallow this time. Frodo still felt weak, but the dizziness was much less, and with both cousins' help he was able to stand for a short time and even to walk a few steps.
After just over an hour Gandalf insisted that they go, saying Pippin needed to rest and so did Frodo.
Pippin helped Frodo to sit back down on his pallet and asked, "Mightn't we rest here though? All in the same tent?" And Gandalf looked at Frodo, who closed his eyes so as not to have to answer.
"We will decide later tonight," Gandalf said, "after the festivities."
Pippin might have been ready to protest, but Merry nodded to Gandalf and guided his younger cousin away. Once they were gone, Gandalf sat down at Frodo's side, and Frodo asked guardedly, "What are the... festivities?"
"Now that you are awake, we wish to honor you, Frodo, and to honor Samwise and the others who have fallen. We wish to celebrate that the Quest has been achieved."
"But Sam..." Frodo was so shocked by the idea he could not even think to explain the wrongness of it. "We cannot possibly celebrate," he said.
Gandalf looked at him gravely. "Nearly all those who are gathered here fought in the last battle," he said. "Many of them have been injured. They have all watched men die and many have lost dear friends for this cause. Do not think that we plan an empty celebration that does not acknowledge this great sacrifice. We mean to tell everyone that their sacrifices were worthwhile." He paused. "This is a message that I want you to understand as well, Frodo."
But this was far too much to try understand or argue with now. Frodo shook his head. "I can't... I mean to say, I will not be able to feel joy in any of this, I am sorry. But if you say it must be done for the sake of these men, that it will bring peace to their hearts, then I will go." Gandalf's look said he was moved but still wanted more, and to keep him from saying anything more about peace or healing Frodo asked, "What will be expected of me, Gandalf? What must I do?"
"You need not make any grand speeches or even say a word if you would prefer not to. The people wish merely to see and to praise the Ring-bearer. The feast is a short distance away and I shall walk by your side; if you find it is too far I would be honored to carry you."
Still barely able to believe or comprehend any of this, Frodo asked, "And what shall I wear?"
"Those things which were taken from you, Frodo. Your traveling clothes, the mithril-coat and the elven-cloak, and the sword that Sam took from the Barrow-downs."
"But how can this be?" Frodo asked in confusion, near panic as memories came back to him. "They were taken, those things, I – We had to – "
"Hush, Frodo." Gandalf was close, an arm supporting him, his voice soothing in Frodo's ear. "They were... returned." Something told him that this was yet another part of the greater story that he would rather not hear or speak of today.
"Very well," he said, and took several more measured breaths before continuing, "I should love to wear the mithril shirt and the elven-cloak again, but I do not wish for any sword."
"Tonight at least you should wear one," said Gandalf.
Frodo hesitated for only a moment and then spoke firmly. "No," he said, "let those who had to carry arms in this fight carry them again tonight, and let them be honored for it, but this was not my part. I had to carry only the Ring," and failed even at that, he thought, as words suddenly abandoned him again.
"Only the Ring," Gandalf said softly, as if speaking to himself.
"All I mean to say, Gandalf, is that I did not use Sam's sword, or the other that was lost. I never struck a blow to man or orc, and even so I – Sam and I, that is, managed to carry out our task. I want this part of our tale to be known, that there are other weapons against evil than sword or bow or axe. That there are other ways of…" He stopped, and looked up at his old friend, who was nodding and smiling slightly but with a sadness in his face that Frodo found almost overwhelming. "But I don't have to work so hard to explain things to you, do I, Gandalf? You understand?"
"Yes, Frodo, I do."
Marigold was as lovely as ever, standing in the doorway, and Rosie wondered how she could take it, how she could stand living in the new house they'd moved her family to, how she could take care of her father and all his sadness over his lost home and his lost son, and still smile like that.
"Tom's not here, Mari." Rosie smiled apologetically. "He and Dad went to Hobbiton to try to see about getting some more supplies, he's..."
"And what makes you so sure I came here to see Tom?" said Marigold.
"What else do you ever come here for then?"
Mari darted to give her a kiss on the cheek, and Rosie overcame her surprise to return it lightly. "Rosie, don't be dense. Your brother's a dear and I suppose he's the love of my life…"
"Suppose?" Rosie repeated with feigned offense.
"…But surely you know you were always my favorite."
Mari kissed Rosie's other cheek and this time Rosie was too surprised to react before Mari passed by her and into the kitchen, reaching proprietarily for flour and sugar and mixing bowls and saying something about having to hide these strawberries under her skirts for fear they'd be confiscated and, she laughed, "shared."
Rosie followed slowly into the kitchen, her mind in several places at once, and touching absently at the bandage on her right hand. Marigold turned from the work she'd already begun and glanced at the bandage. "Ah, Rosie, I forgot to ask, is your finger feeling better then?"
"It's healing up fine, I'm lucky Daisy was there to tend to it right away."
Mari came over to stand by Rosie and made to touch it, but hesitated, probably realizing it was best left with the bandage on. "Lucky indeed," she said, "if it'd been me with my clumsy self to take care of you you'd most likely be doing without that finger today."
"Don't be too hard on yourself," said Rosie. "You're not the one who was clumsy enough to nearly slice off her own finger with a kitchen knife."
That had been two weeks previous. They'd been making stew with the vegetables Rosie'd brought up from their family's farm, since the Gamgees had lost their own plots. Mari had been sitting on a stool peeling taters and Rosie cutting up carrots at the table when it happened. Rosie hadn't figured out where that new emptiness came from until long afterwards. After Daisy had tended to the cut, which was fairly deep but looked like it would heal cleanly. After she'd watched Marigold clean up the mess in the kitchen while sipping pennyroyal tea. Only hours after she'd gone home and convinced her brothers it wasn't as bad as it looked and shut herself in her room to weep had she realized what she was weeping for.
She meant to tell Marigold what she now felt, but she couldn't think how to say it just yet. And eager not to think any more about her own injury, she thought back to the conversation at the door. "I was your favorite, after all, I'd forgotten that."
"Oh!" Mari laughed, turning back to her shortcake. "Always! Since we were wee lasses tagging along after our big brothers, and them thinking they were so impressive since they'd turned ten."
That would have been around the time master Frodo moved in with his Uncle Bilbo, Rosie thought, and the stab in her chest was light, almost comforting it was so familiar. Anyhow, Sam wasn't spending all that much time in the garden then. He had plenty of time for exploring the backways of Hobbiton, Bywater, and surroundings with his favorite cousin Tom Cotton. And he may have resented having to look after his little sister Marigold, but he never once complained about Tom bringing along his little sister Rosie or her twin Jolly. As they got older Sam and Tom had to spend more and more time with their fathers learning their respective professions, but in their free time they were always together. Jolly discovered he preferred being a big brother to Nick and Nibs rather than a little brother to Tom. So the four of them became a unit, Tom, Sam, Rosie, and Marigold, the best of friends and cousins all together… but Mari was right; that didn't keep them from having favorites. Just when, she pondered now, had Rosie decided Sam was the one she loved best of all?
"Do you remember when we first came up with the Plan, Mari?"
"What, to marry each other crossways? You with Sam and me with Tom? I can't say I remember when it was, but I remember you whispering it in my ear sure enough."
"We never did get around to telling the lads," said Rosie.
"Ah, they'll catch on when the time's right. Our Sam always was a little slow." Marigold's face wasn't visible as she was turned in the other direction, and Rosie wondered if she felt the same flare in her heart when she spoke her brother's name. She wondered if that pain would get softer as the years went by. "Leastways as far as putting those kinds of feelings into words."
"Or actions," Rosie was able to smile slightly as she said it.
"That's where we lasses have to take matters into our own hands sometimes, if you take my meaning."
"Been taking Tom into your hands much lately, Marigold?"
Mari turned around then, picked a strawberry from the bowl, and kept her eyes on Rosie as she put it in her mouth. She sucked hard enough to bring the juices out, but didn't bite it off the stem she kept in her fingers. Drawing it out again, she smiled sweetly. "Hands is for babies," she said.
And Rosie laughed, long and clear, as she seldom laughed these days. And walked over and bit the strawberry off the stem Mari still held. It had been overly ripe and bursting with juice and now it was wrung out but still full of flavor, and Rosie loved Mari dearly, and said so.
Time passed in measuring and stirring and mocking of Pimple Sackville-Baggins, and Rosie felt the danger around the name and worried for Tom and her father going to Hobbiton today, but Marigold somehow kept the conversation light and sweet as the whipped cream. When they pulled the shortcake out of the oven Rosie said they should call in Nick and Nibs, and Mari said they should have a taste for themselves first.
"You never know with those two," she added. "They might take all the goodies for themselves. Not so considerate as Tom and Sam. D'you remember when we did this last year, Rosie, how Sam sat there at the table with all this goodness on his plate, and he wouldn't touch it till you'd sat down and had the first bite yourself?"
Rosie remembered, though she hadn't thought of it, but she found she couldn't speak. She worked at arranging cream and strawberries on the cakes instead.
"Are you quite well, dear?" Mari said softly. "Have I upset you?"
Rosie shook her head. "It's nothing," she managed, feeling the lie on her tongue and the tears starting in her eyes.
"Look, Rosie, it's been six months he's been gone…"
"And sixteen days," Rosie snapped without thinking, without looking up, grateful that the anger was stronger than the sadness for the moment and stopped her from crying. Mari looked at her steadily.
"Since we saw him, yes, though a few days less since they disappeared altogether." So Rosie wasn't the only one counting the days. "We'll call it six and a half then."
Rosie set down the food and the spoons, met her friend's eyes and frowned. "This is to make me feel better, Mari?"
"How long was old Mr. Bilbo gone on his journey?"
"Mr. Bilbo? Since we were teens… 1401, wasn't it?"
"Nay, Rosie, I mean his first adventure, back before we were born, when he went off for so long everyone thought he was dead, and then he came back again with all that treasure."
"Can't say as I know or care, Mari, though certainly Sam could give you all the details," and she bit her lip before she could finish, if he were here. For she hadn't meant to say his name, she didn't ought to say his name any more than necessary, or think of him coming back or telling more stories of Elves and Men and Dwarves and Bagginses. And Rosie wanted this conversation over and done with, but Marigold smiled broadly.
"Aye, he always loved hearing Mr. Bilbo's stories, didn't he? And so proud he could remember every last detail, I bet he could tell us which day of the week he left on, and the names of all them Dwarves and even what color cloaks they were wearing when they first showed up at his door. All I'm saying, Rosie, is I've a notion it was a good many months, maybe near like a year, but then he came back and gave the Sackville-Bagginses what for. Well, that's what I expect Mr. Frodo to come back and do any day now."
Frodo. Rosie swallowed and opened her mouth to speak, although with no clear idea of what she meant to say, but Marigold blithely continued, "Or maybe next month, or maybe next year sometime. He and Mr. Bilbo ain't like other folk, you can't expect 'em to follow the same schedule as other folk do."
"You never know what to expect from a Baggins," Rosie agreed reluctantly.
"You never do!" Mari seemed delighted to think she was finally making some headway.
"But Sam," Rosie insisted. "He's got no call…"
"Ah, well, our Sam, he... He's got his own ideas of what it means to do what's right."
"He isn't coming back, Mari. Not next month and not next year either. He's left us."
Marigold shook her head. "But not for good."
"Do you even hear what I'm telling you, Mari? I feel this. I know this. Had my suspicions and my fears ever since he left, and before that even, but I know it now – "
"D'you think I don't miss him?" Mari interrupted. And she was still smiling, she'd never stopped, but suddenly Rosie saw a strain at the corners of her mouth. Tension, Rosie thought, from trying too hard to hide the worry. Mari looked away for the first time, and took a few breaths, then looked back into Rosie's eyes. "You're not the only one to worry about him, every day that passes, dear. But I say we give him a little more time. Give him the year folks should have given Mr. Bilbo, and see if he and Mr. Frodo don't come traipsing back to Crickhollow one fine day, or better yet right back up to the green door of Bag End, singing some silly song and who knows, carrying more treasure than old Mr. Bilbo even dreamt of. Won't that be nice then?" And Rosie had to smile, when Mari grinned at her like that. "And see if Sam ain't ready to marry you by then, with all the adventuring he talked about all those years out of his system for too uncomfortable and wet and too far away from you."
"And all the Baggins out of his system too?"
"He'll be completely fed up with Bagginses, Brandybucks, Tooks, and gentlehobbits of any kind, and ready to settle down with the lass he always knew he would. Mark my words, Rose Cotton. Just give him a year."
"Ah, Mari, I never could stand up to you."
"You never could."
"But if he's not standing on my doorstep on September the 23rd, I'm going to work on my brother for you, and you and me'll be sisters with or without Sam."
"He'll be there," Marigold said with conviction. "And if he hasn't figured out what he really wants by then, I'll be going to work on him too."
To his own great surprise, Frodo did not stumble along the way and needed no help to reach the King's table. Gandalf walked at his side and looked on him with pride. Legolas and Gimli greeted him warmly, and Aragorn and the other rulers knelt before him. Merry and Pippin looked noble and beautiful in their new uniforms. Frodo was grateful and humble before them all and smiled his best smile, thinking of all the sacrifices everyone had made and wanting to be strong and brave for them. And still he wished he had perished with Sam in the fire.
In the end Rosie gave in to Marigold. It wasn't that she believed a word of these bright, hopeful predictions. On the contrary, now that Rosie had said it out loud she was more certain than ever that she was right, that her heart knew, her Sam was gone. But she gave in because she loved giving in to Marigold, seeing that look of triumph in her dear friend's eyes. And who was Rosie Cotton to tell Marigold Gamgee that her brother was dead, with nothing more to go on than the emptiness inside her that took away her breath?
Chapter 2: Stop
Unwanted sexual contact in this chapter.
Crossing the river Frodo felt the pang in his shoulder, familiar enough, but sharper and colder than it had been in the long months since the spring.
"Is something wrong, Frodo?" Merry asked.
"No, it's nothing."
And if Sam were there he'd not have let it go at that. But Merry and Pippin only exchanged glances, silent, reluctant to push him too hard.
That night Gandalf told the hobbits to curl up together under the blankets with Frodo in the middle, for he needed to be kept warm. But Frodo felt he could only be making everyone miserable and cold.
Rosie knew Ted Sandyman well enough – as well as she needed to, anyhow. She knew that Sam had been on good enough terms to speak to him in the old days, knew he usually came away bothered after he did.
When Ted looked at her now it always felt like salt in an old wound.
He was a worse gossip than the old wives, and she knew that he knew that she'd been Sam's, and that Sam wasn't hers any longer.
The day the ruffians came to Bywater, Ted wrapped an arm around her shoulders and whispered, "Mine now, Rosie lass."
The inn at Bree looked a pleasant house to familiar eyes, as theirs were now. And after all the foreign lands and cities they'd seen, all of Bree looked rather homelike and almost hobbity. So it was a relief, after a wet and wild evening, to gaze on the sign of The Prancing Pony, and it was twice as pleasant again to sit and warm themselves by the fire while Butterbur, who paid attention to them this time, told them the strange news of the past year.
He still had a room set aside for four hobbits, and he only charged them for three. Gandalf took a room of his own, sensing that the hobbits cared for privacy more than protection and knowing there was no danger for them here. This time they were able to stay in their rooms for the whole night, and they did not bother joining the company in the common-room.
It was the first time they'd slept in proper beds under a proper roof since Rivendell, three weeks back. The beds here were not as fine, but they were the right size, and Pippin snuggled into one as soon as they entered. The room, once Merry got the fire going, was warm and cozy.
It occurred to Frodo as he sat down in a chair that very soon they would be reaching a place where everything was, well, what he had once considered the "proper" size. His legs would not dangle above the floor when he sat at table; he would not need two hands to lift a mug of ale; Gandalf would part with them soon and Frodo would cease to encounter people who towered over him, unless he counted Merry and Pippin.
"What will that be like, then," he wondered aloud, "to be a hobbit among hobbits again?" What was it about the thought that he found so frightening? "No more excuses, I suppose. Everyone expects you to feel at ease once you're among your own people."
"I don't know about that," said Merry. "I expect the three of us will always feel a bit apart from the rest of them. Nothing wrong in that, nothing to make excuses for."
Frodo looked down at his hands. He ought not to have said anything out loud. No reason to expect the others to feel the same way he did.
"Anyway," Pippin added, "it's not as if you were ever a typical hobbit among hobbits."
"The Hobbiton folk always did think me queer," Frodo agreed.
"Course they did," said Pippin. "That's what they always said about Merry and me as well -- about all the extraordinary hobbits, actually. It's the ones who don't fit the old mold who end up doing great things."
It wasn't ever something they said of Sam, though.
"Three of a kind, they used to say about us," said Merry, coming to stand just behind Frodo's chair and beginning to massage his shoulders.
Frodo said nothing, for he could not keep from feeling Merry's words as an insult to Sam. Not three, he thought. Two.
Merry pulled the braces off Frodo's shoulders to let them hang from his waist, and he set about working his fingers deeper in Frodo's taut muscles. "You don't mind this, do you, cousin?"
Frodo shook his head. He barely trusted his voice to say so, but the sensation was good. The sharp pain in his shoulder had faded since the sixth, but there was still an ache there, stronger than it had been all through the summer in Minas Tirith. Frodo supposed it made him hunch forward, though the others didn't tell him so.
Merry's fingers were warm from working at the fire, and once he slipped them under Frodo's collar the touch on his skin was quite lovely. Frodo did his best to relax back into that touch, lowering his shoulder blades, letting Merry's fingers ease out the knots that seemed to work themselves tighter each day.
He tensed slightly again when Merry moved closer to the center, the join of his shoulders and neck. Merry lifted the chain from around Frodo's neck and handed the jewel to Frodo so it wouldn't get in the way. The scar from the other chain, the Ring's chain, had faded, but it was still just visible, and certainly, Frodo thought, as Merry's fingertips brushed against the sensitive tissue, Merry would feel it. Then for a fraction of a second Merry's left thumb touched the bite, a few inches below the base of his neck, and Frodo shuddered, but forced himself to breathe.
"Could you – a little further down, perhaps? More spread out, like you were doing before, the shoulders more than the neck?"
"Of course," said Merry, complying immediately. But then he added, "As long as it isn't because you think I mind touching this," and he bent slightly to lay a single, gentle kiss on the mark of the chain.
Frodo tried to keep his breathing steady and not to tense further. There was no real reason to object to it. "No," he said. "It's just... that's where I feel it more."
"Only makes sense you would," Merry agreed, pausing to undo the top two buttons of Frodo's shirt so as to give more room to his hands. "And it's only a question of saying what you want, you know. I could also..."
He was moving his hands then, sliding around both sides to meet at the old wound on his left side, and his touch still so warm across that always frozen flesh that Frodo almost wanted it, and couldn't help making a noise, and waited three full seconds before pulling away.
He stood up abruptly and turned around to face Merry, but then couldn't quite look at him or think what he'd meant to say. He shoved the gem and chain in his breeches pocket and busied himself refastening his buttons and braces instead.
"Or I could not," Merry said in his normal voice, without alarm, without judgment. "It's only a question of you being honest with us."
"What is that, Merry, have I lied?" said Frodo, not knowing what to do with his hands now that his clothing was all back in place.
"It isn't that," said Pippin, who'd somehow come to stand at his side and taken his hand, "Only that you don't say anything at all. Makes it difficult for us to know how to help."
"I'll be fine," said Frodo. "You two take care of each other and I'll take care of myself. I'm a grown lad now." Even though he felt like a sullen child for saying it.
Merry was standing only an arm's reach away, and he reached, laid three fingers very gently on Frodo's shirt, above the scar of the Morgul-blade, and Frodo didn't move away.
"I can't stand feeling so distant from you," said Merry. "Come now, just because Pippin and I survived some other trials together, apart from what you and Sam endured, it doesn't mean we can't help you. And it doesn't mean you can't trust us anymore."
"I trust you." The tremor in his voice must make it sound like a lie, but it was true; he trusted the two of them more than anyone else living.
"Right then, Frodo," said Pippin. "Enough tiptoeing around what needs to be done. It's a good, warm, cozy room, and we shall be merciless with you tonight. We shall not let up until we're satisfied, all three of us."
No more tiptoeing around the truth then. They would demand he tell them every detail of what had happened, never mind how painful it was for Frodo to speak of it. There was something of the feeling of an ambush. Frodo felt they must have discussed this ahead of time, must have made the decision to confront him here, in Bree, and make him talk. "Was this Gandalf's idea, then?" he asked with annoyance, "or did Elrond put you up to it? Part of the healing process or some such nonsense." He realized his words were harsh, but he was tired of being the object of everyone's concern. Maybe this kind of tantrum would be just the thing to get them to leave him alone for a bit.
Merry looked perplexed and amused, but not offended. "Elrond put us up to this? Ah, no, I don't think so, dear Frodo." He took a step closer to Frodo and kissed him briefly on the mouth. Then, once again, slowly and patiently, he slid the braces off Frodo's shoulders and set to work on his shirt buttons. "They're concerned about you, they want you to be well, but this was just a little idea hatched between cousins."
"It really isn't the kind of thing we discuss with the immortals," Pippin murmured in Frodo's ear, licked from lobe to tip, then wrapped his arms around the two of them and breathed calmly, his nose and mouth pressed into Frodo's hair.
Frodo froze in the embrace, then spoke, slowly and evenly, "What are you doing?"
"What we used to do, Frodo," said Pippin, pausing to kiss his jaw and then his neck. "It's been far too long."
Frodo worked very hard to keep still. He had never felt angrier at his cousins, in all the years that he'd loved them. He had never felt so betrayed. "Please stop," he said.
"Is it too much?" Pippin asked. "Should we go more slowly?"
"Please don't touch me."
Merry drew away first, nodding to Pippin, who quickly ceased with the kisses but still kept his arms wrapped around Frodo, his head resting on Frodo's shoulder.
Merry touched Pippin's arm, very gently beginning to ease him away. "We don't mean to pressure you, Frodo," he said. "It's something Pippin and I both want and we thought you did too. But we can go as slowly as you want or give it up all together. It's your choice."
Frodo, still not moving, practically hissed, "Pippin, let me go." And once he did Frodo ignored him, turning his the full force of his anger on Merry.
"I have had no choice," he said, biting off the words, "in any of this. I didn't choose for Bilbo to leave me alone or to leave me with... that thing. I did not choose to go on this journey or to be betrayed by my companions, or even to have Sam come with me to the end. I did what needed to be done. Do you understand that?"
Merry nodded solemnly. Pippin stared.
"And you two have the gall to come here and act like you care about me, and then suggest that all I need to make me feel better is sex? Is that what you think comfort is? Is this what you think it means to help out a friend who's dead inside? Shag him silly till he forgets that he's in pain?"
"It's not about making you forget anything, Frodo," Merry said quietly.
"Well what is it then?"
"It's to remind you there's some good left in the world. That the world was worth saving, that there can still be joy..."
"Oh, I understand now. It was all worth it. Fine for me to lose my mind and fine for me to kill Sam if it means that afterwards we can still go at it, we can all three of us come. That's lovely, Merry, thank you so much for enlightening me."
"Frodo, you know I didn't mean..."
"You never understood him." Frodo was shouting now; Gandalf would hear him in the next room. "Fine to let Pippin in on the game even when he wasn't even a tween, but not Sam. You never understood how I could care so much for someone so far beneath me, you jealous, arrogant brat."
Frodo didn't mean that, didn't understand where such hateful words were coming from, but he felt unable to hold them back.
Pippin was reaching for him again, probably trying for a simple embrace of comfort this time, but Frodo was having none of it. He actually slapped Pippin's hand away, and backed away from both of them toward the door.
"Not three of a kind. Not the three heirs to three great estates. And not a threesome in the sack for old times' sake, my absurd and most depraved hobbits. We are not a set anymore, do you understand? It's the two of you -- you're made for each other, if you hadn't noticed. And so were Sam and I. Two."
He got out the door then, somehow, slammed it, probably. And Gandalf was standing in the doorway of the next room, silent, waiting. Frodo went to him and hugged him, his anger melting away to pure, desperate sadness till soon he was weeping, face buried in the wizard's beard. Gandalf held him close and after some minutes shuffled back, eased him into the room and shut the door. Gandalf lifted him and helped him to sit down in the large armchair by the fire, and stayed with him for a long time, until he had no more tears left and his head began to ache, and he regretted breaking down. Stayed with him after that, and brought him a cup of water, then some tea (which Frodo supposed was probably a light sedative), and asked him no questions about what had happened.
There was a soft knock at the door and Gandalf only gave Frodo a questioning look. Frodo shook his head. "I can't talk to them," he said, "not tonight." Gandalf nodded, stood, went to the door and stepped out quickly rather than let the others in. He spoke in a low voice and so did the two hobbits in the hallway, and Frodo slumped down in the chair, then wearily crossed the room to the spare bed. It was large enough for three or four hobbits; Frodo felt small and awkward in it and didn't mind in the least.
When Gandalf came back inside Frodo was near sleep, but he roused himself enough to prop his head on one hand and say, "I don't know how I'll take it, back in the Shire. I've longed so much to return but I don't believe I could possibly..." And he relaxed, lying back down on the pillow, knowing that once again that Gandalf would understand.
"You will have your family and friends to support you," Gandalf said. "And if you are not happy there you need not stay. For the time at least, I believe it will be good for the three of you to see your home again, and that the other Shirelings will be pleased to have you back."
Frodo nodded, closing his eyes. And since he was lying on his side the skin of his cheek rubbed against the pillowcase in a way that was not entirely unpleasant.
"Your cousins wished to apologize for upsetting you."
"Yes," Frodo said sleepily. "We'll have apologies and forgiveness and probably tears later, tomorrow most likely. Right now my head just couldn't take it. They'll understand, I think."
Frodo was unsure of whether Gandalf answered anything out loud. But there was an answer in his gentle movements as he brought a warm blanket up around Frodo's shoulders and touched his brow before blowing out the candles and retiring to his own bed. And for the first time in weeks Frodo slept soundly and without pain.
Rosie's father said it was all very well for her to be traipsing about when she was only opposing the likes of Ted Sandyman and Pimple Sackville-Baggins, but once the Big Folk arrived that was serious business, and Rosie should keep out of it. And Marigold, if she knew what was good for her, would do the same.
Rosie laughed at the idea of Marigold following Rosie's example, and laughed harder at the thought of Marigold backing away from anything she'd set out to do. Still, she didn't like to disobey her father... directly. So in those days she still did her best to stay clear of the Men. She was as courteous to them as anyone could stand to be to people who had no notion of courtesy.
And so was Marigold, on the surface. After all, a young hobbit lass wouldn't save the Shire by standing up and challenging a great big ruffian to a fair fight. Nor could any hobbit do that on his own, she explained patiently, when Tom said he meant to go off and join Fatty and his rebels in the hills.
"What fighting we can do has to go on underground," said Marigold, "and by that I don't mean hiding in caves."
It was the kind of fighting one did by pretending to turn over the whole crop and then quietly carrying some food away under one's dress. By preparing food and mending clothes for the rebels who had run away from their homes. By running messages in codes and whispers when the Quick Post was outlawed. If you got caught, you said it was for your dear ailing cousin (which was usually pretty near true as well, what with almost everyone being one kind of cousin or other, and all the Shire being dear, and all the Shire being in grave danger).
With Marigold it got to be more than that. The Shirriffs stopped believing her, and the authorities got to know her name. Her sisters told her it had gone too far, that she should be thinking of her family. But Marigold said Sharkey was the one putting her family in danger, and she couldn't lie back and let that happen.
"I can't follow you there," Rosie had said.
"I'm not asking you to. You've got your own family to think of. And you've always looked out for my family as well. I don't think I could leave if I didn't know you'd still be taking care of them."
So Rosie listened to her father when he told her to stay in town, when he said not to take on risks she didn't need to. But she listened to Mari's father as well, since Mari wouldn't.
Rosie hadn't been up to anything too terribly risky that night, but then again, it was risky to go out with your friends for a drink nowadays. It was a great accomplishment to buy vegetables at the market. It was a breach of order to visit your cousin in the next town without permission, whether he was ailing or not.
Gaffer Gamgee was ailing in a drafty little shack at the edge of town. His health hadn't been the best before the Troubles started, but now he'd lost his home and his livelihood and his potato patches. His youngest son had been missing for more than a year, and his youngest daughter had been hiding for just over a week. And he just couldn't understand why any of this was happening.
"Do you know where our Marigold's gone to?" he asked Rosie when she came to see him.
"I can tell you she's safe, sir," safer than she would be here anyhow. "It's just not the best time for her to be at home," where they know where to find her, "with all the work she has to do these days."
"Do you see her, lass? Can you tell her to come home? Daisy takes good care of me, but I miss my little girl."
Daisy took care of him as well as she could. She knew a good deal about sickness and healing, and she knew and loved her father well, but with the Post cut off and with the Gamgees poor and now undesirable, it wasn't easy for her to get what she needed to cure him. The Cottons had escaped the Shirriffs' attention and the Men's, for the most part, so Rosie was able to carry some of the medicines Daisy asked her for, though food was scarce for everyone these days.
"Mari's got to keep out of sight for a little while," she said, "but if I see her I'll be sure to give her your message."
Rosie had done nothing wrong that night, as far as she was concerned, but she'd broken the Rules by sharing in a way that wasn't recommended, and she was breaking them again by walking home at this time of night. She took a slightly roundabout way, closer to the edge of the town, so that she wouldn't have to pass by the Shirriff's post on Middle Lane and perhaps be asked to explain herself.
It still wasn't very late, but the doors were shut and the lights in the houses had been put out. Rosie shivered in the chill of the night, and shivered more at the sounds of footsteps, the darting movements in shadows. She trusted her Bywater neighbors, but the folk in the New Homes by the Gamgees' were those who'd been turned out of their own smials in the last few months, and some of them were more than a little desperate. And if they could report someone else for breaking the Rules maybe they thought they could win some favor for themselves. So Rosie cursed her timing and cursed her luck and, silently, cursed her dear Marigold for leaving her father alone at a time like this.
"Walking all alone at night? Don't you fear for your safety?"
"I've nothing to fear from the good people of Bywater, Ted Sandyman," said Rosie, though in truth she knew very well that she did, and she couldn't deny that she'd nearly jumped out of her skin when first he'd spoken. Just her luck to run in to him, of all the hobbits she preferred not to meet on a dark night in a sunless year.
"Not safe for a helpless young thing like yourself," he scolded. "Seems to me you're only asking for trouble."
Or likely it was nothing at all to do with luck. She wouldn't be surprised if he'd followed her from home to the Gamgees' and back here, waiting till she was at her most vulnerable.
"All I'm asking for is a short walk home to my father's house in peace," she said, turning to go.
"Then I'd better walk with you." And he did, walked quickly to keep up with Rosie's nervous step, and reached out to slip his arm around her waist. Rosie moved away immediately and instinctively as soon as he touched her, noticing that she felt a chill up her spine and a faint sickness in her stomach, but determined to stay calm. She stepped off to the side, kept walking, speeding her pace even more. Ted matched it.
"Now, Rosie, no need to be so standoffish. I'm only trying to do you a favor."
"If I wanted your company I'd ask for it."
"Seems to me you are asking for it."
"Tell me what you're asking for, Ted. If you're looking for a sweetheart or for a quick tumble you'd best look elsewhere. You know very well I've been spoken for."
"That was a long time ago."
"Not so very long." Steady.
"It's been a year since last we heard from him." More than that. Marigold's deadline had passed without comment from either of them, though certainly Rosie had noted the date and mourned. "What, don't tell me you still believe he's coming back for you!"
"That's -- " true. And she had to stop walking then. She was getting short of breath and it was no use, as she knew she couldn't outrun him. Standing firm on two feet, facing him, she told him plainly, "That's no business of yours."
"What's that, then, Rosie? Did you think you'd stay the virgin princess of Bywater since your Sam went away and left you for the Brandybuck bastard?"
No use responding to that. Best stick to the issue at hand. "I thought I would decide who I wanted to kiss and who I wanted to lay with. That's something every hobbit decides for himself, Ted."
"Right you are. And I decided I was gonna have you, see? Wouldn't stand in my way once I made up my mind, would you, Rosie?"
And he was reaching for her again, and anticipating her attempt to escape this time. Then she was up against the wall of the Proudfoots' house, and she'd known Ted was stronger than she was, but she'd never known he could be so quick. "Are you going to give me what I want?" he said. And she'd never liked his voice very much, but she hadn't known it could sound so brutal, so hungry and at the same time so cold.
"Let me go," she whispered furiously, struggling against his hands at her waist and her shoulder, and then he pressed the rest of his body up close and she realized she had no reason to keep her voice down. "Let me go!" This time it was a shout, and Ted's hand clapped over her mouth and his breath hot and bitter at her neck.
"I don't think you want to be calling attention to yourself and your situation right now. You know Sam's not coming to rescue you. I don't think you're expecting any help from your neighbors either."
And he was probably right that they wouldn't come, even if she screamed. Just last week Sharkey's Men came to this very house and carried away the eldest of the boys. And while the Proudfoots kicked and fought and yelled, everyone else stayed in their own homes, not even daring to look out from behind their windows.
"I think we'd both have a much better time," said Ted, "if you'd just come along quietly with me. Are you ready to do that?"
When he took his hand off her mouth, Rosie spoke loudly and clearly, and her voice shook only a little. "Don't rape me, Ted Sandyman."
"Aw, now," – he frowned, almost sneered, and she couldn't tell if she'd helped herself by making it plain or just made things worse by making him angry – "why d'you want to go and call it that?"
"Why do you want to make it that?"
A few months ago, she never would have thought of using those words. But then, a lot of things had changed in the last few months.
"I'm not." Ted still kept his voice low, probably his idea of seductive. "You're the one what's making it that by putting up such a fight. Just come with me, why don't you, and it can be nice and gentle like. I know you, Rosie. You walked along the edge of town so it would be easy for us to slip away. Come on then, let's slip away. Nobody needs to know."
Ted was right about one thing, Rosie thought then. No one would be coming along to rescue her. No father, no brother, no neighbors, and certainly no Sam. Not even a friend like Marigold to tell her how she could be brave. So it was all up to Rosie, and that was as frightening again as anything that had happened this evening.
"Will you make it easy, Ted?" she said softly, hoping she sounded meek.
"You'll love it, Rosie."
"Let's get on with it then."
He smiled and slowly, almost tenderly, eased off, gave her just enough room. And she didn't think it would work, didn't think her luck or her strength were enough to make it work, but she brought her knee up sharp and it hit just where she needed it to, and he grunted, stunned, stumbling back, and she took her only chance to break away. She ran between two of the houses, back into the middle of town and the little shed where there was always one Shirriff or another on duty these days. It was a gamble, as all the rest of it had been. The Shirriff was as likely to take her to the Lockholes as to help her out. And Ted Sandyman had no official post but he was likely more powerful than any young hobbit with a feather in his cap.
Still, she had to try something.
Ted wasn't badly hurt, and he was following her, drawing closer. It would be quite hopeless to try to run all the way home, or to slip away into the woods alone. The Shirriff, whoever he was, was her only hope, and all she could do was keep running and hope this Shirriff would be on her side. A few more paces and she could make out a startled and, to her great relief, kind and familiar face.
"Robin!" she called out, then corrected herself quickly, "Shirriff Smallburrow, I need your help!"
"What's going on?" he called back, stepping out of the little shack, putting his cap in place as he strode toward them.
And as she came closer Rosie's relief started to give way to disappointment. For she liked Robin, thought he would do his best to help her, but she also thought that, for a rescuer, he was awfully small and meek looking, and might not manage to do much.
Ted had caught up to her by now, and Rosie, who had nowhere else to run to, stood still and tried to get her breath back, even as he took hold of her again and her breath went short and shallow with a new kind of panic.
"She's breaking the Rules," he said to Robin. "Shouldn't even be out at this time of night, and besides that she was visiting the Gamgees. Probably carrying contraband, or carrying secrets for the rebels."
"Or carrying medicine for an ailing old hobbit," Rosie replied, "but if that's what you stopped me for, then arrest me." She knew the words were reckless – hobbits who got arrested seldom came back, and when they did it seemed they'd been beaten in as horrific and colorful a way as possible, made into warnings for their families and neighbors. Even so. "Take me to the Lockholes, if I've done something wrong, but don't take me into the woods and rape me." Both Ted and Robin flinched as she said the word again, though of course for different reasons. And Rosie, apart from being terrified, was now also irritated, impatient.
"Ted?" Robin sounded frightened, bewildered and angry at once. "Explain this to me, will you?"
"She thinks she's better than us, Robin, just needs to be taught a lesson."
"But you wouldn't..."
"What does it matter? Listen to me. We can do whatever we want now, don't you see? We've got Sharkey and his Men on our side..."
"But what are you saying, Ted? What are you doing?" And Rosie felt Ted's grip on her loosen just a bit, as if he were still set on having his way but didn't want to appear to be getting it by force. Robin continued, "This is Rose Cotton, our neighbor! Her father's done business with your father since before we were born, and neither one ever tried to cheat the other out of a pound of wheat or a pound of flour just because he could."
"Aw, leave it alone, Cock-Robin."
Ted tried to walk away, still holding on to her, but Rosie stood her ground, and then Robin was trying to pry Ted's hands off her. Ted pushed back against him and swung out his fist, missing Robin's jaw and glancing off the side of his face. And Rosie, who'd been doing her best to pull away, lost her balance once he let go, and fell down on the ground.
"Hands off her!" Ted shouted when Robin moved to help Rosie stand up. "I'll beat you to a pulp and then I'll have you reported..."
But Robin, moving slowly, still keeping his eyes on Ted, took another step toward Rosie and held out his hand. She grabbed it and pulled herself to her feet.
"Thank you," she whispered, thinking she ought to try running again, but knowing she'd not get very far if Ted decided to chase after her. She stood at Robin's side and stared Ted Sandyman down. He was shaking with fury now.
"I'll have you – "
"You're stronger than I am," Robin said, interrupting. "If you come at me again I'll fight you, don't think I won't, and I daresay Rosie and I could take you down if we went at you together, but you could call in Sharkey's Men and have both or either of us beat and taken off to the Lockholes. And then you could have your way, as you put it. But I don't think that is your way, Ted. You're not a ruffian come from outside our borders, and you're not the kind of scoundrel to force a lass when she's said she doesn't want you. You're a hobbit, Ted, and you don't really mean to do this."
"You don't know the first thing about what I want."
"Maybe I don't know you at all then."
"You – "
"I remember you used to go to the Green Dragon, and you'd have more beer than was really good for you, but I didn't try to stop you, because I like a good beer, and I'm not one to get in the way of another hobbit's good time. That's not a Shirriff's job anyhow, or at least it never was."
"I think you have a lot to learn about what a Shirriff's job is," said Ted, but he said it without conviction, and Rosie noticed he looked tired, was slumped against the wall. And Robin ignored his words.
"I remember how you used to argue for fun, and other hobbits would argue with you because you were wrong. But at the end of the night, you'd shake hands with whoever it was, and you'd come back another night to argue all over again. You never tried to hit them, and you never stopped being friends. You never stopped being one more hobbit in a country full of hobbits. I don't want to think you've become something else now, Ted. Just because these other folks are here and they've got some new Rules, that doesn't mean that we stop being who we are."
Then Ted said, "You're wrong, Robin. Things have changed. There won't be no going back to how it was before." But he didn't hit him, and he didn't make another grab for Rosie. In fact, he didn't look at her again, only added to Robin, "Keep her for yourself for the night then. I'll get my own in time. And both of you will get what you deserve." There was a threat in the words still, but it was no longer there in his tone.
And he turned away, and walked back toward where he'd come upon Rosie. The houses around were all still dark, and soon enough Ted's form had disappeared into the darkness while they watched, and then Rosie became aware that she was leaning on Robin Smallburrow, that she was almost too exhausted to stand. "My family's expecting me," she murmured. "I was supposed to be back an hour ago."
"Are you hurt, Rosie? Would you like to sit here and rest for a little while?"
"No, thank you, Robin." And she realized she'd needed to say that. Looked him in the eyes, "Thank you, Robin. I don't know what I'd have done, and if it'd been anyone else on duty..."
"Oh, no need to worry yourself about that," though from the sound of his voice there were a host of other things he was worried about, and with good reason. "Just did what any hobbit would have done. And what I said was true, Rose. I don't think he wanted to do what he was threatening you with. I think you'd have been all right on your own, but if I could make it any easier for you then I'm glad of that."
Rosie didn't believe him, but she nodded her head in agreement and thanks.
"If you don't want to stay here any longer, would you let me walk you home?"
Rosie wanted to weep, and instead she only said, "You won't be in trouble for leaving your post?"
"Oh, perhaps," he said with a shrug, "but I'll be in enough trouble for everything else, I doubt that will make any difference."
He took a few moments to lock up his shed and hang up a sign on the little door, "Away on Official Business."
"Is escorting a frightened lass home at night official business then?" Rosie asked, relieved to know that she could still smile.
He smiled back. "Most worthwhile thing I've done since I took this job."
He carried a lantern in one hand and helped to hold her up with the other, and they walked the short path, and met no one else on their way.
When Gandalf left them and turned south toward the Barrow-downs, Frodo felt he had really been abandoned. But the hobbits kept riding, and as they tried to make sense of Gandalf's words, and of the strange talk they'd heard in Bree, and of the stranger things they saw along the road, Frodo remembered that he always had liked his cousins' company, Merry's way of trying to puzzle through a mystery, and Pippin's way of seeing hope ahead, no matter how dark the road got.
"I am glad you're with me," Frodo said. "I could never have made this journey alone."
A few days later they heard Robin Smallburrow had been sent to Frogmorton to join another troop of Shirriffs. There was no mention of Rosie's encounter with Ted Sandyman, but the official story said a Shirriff needed to respect the Chief and the Rules, and not concern himself with who was whose neighbor.
Rosie said they needed to protest, that he'd been sent away from his family just for helping her, and that made it Rosie's place to speak out.
"No," said her mother, "now's not the time. We'll not risk losing you, Rosie. There's been enough hobbits punished already."
Chapter 3: Homecoming
Frodo went to see Farmer Cotton, hoping he could help them rouse the Shire-hobbits for the fight.
"Rose," he said when she answered the door, "I need to speak to your father."
"You've come back."
Frodo feared she might faint.
"Yes, but we have more work to do right now," though he could have spared a few minutes to talk with her, if he'd had the words.
"Where's Sam?" she said, and wouldn't hear anything else. Her mother came to the door a few minutes later, called for her husband and led Rose away. He never gave her an answer.
Then after all those months of struggle and sacrifice, the women were left out of the final reckoning, hidden away in smials and cellars lest they be hurt. Rosie's father took her brothers and told Rosie and her mum not to come out until he came back for them himself.
Rosie held her mother in the dark and wondered how many months they'd be shut up, like the others in the Lockholes. Then suddenly it was over, and her dad pulled the trapdoor open, and the light poured down, and the Shire was free, and Frodo Baggins was a hero.
From the description Farmer Cotton had given him, Frodo expected New Homes outside Bywater to look something like the houses of Bree. "Not hobbit-like at all," he'd said, "all built up with straight walls and square doors and no comfort to be found outside or in." Frodo found now that he rather missed the order and care put into the buildings of Bree. The little houses here looked poor and ramshackle, the walls not so much straight as crooked, the roofs ready to fall in.
He stood outside the Gamgees' door for long minutes. There was no bell to ring and he knew he'd need to call out to get anyone's attention, but he felt he had no voice. There was a light on in one of the front windows and Frodo thought that, even if the building had been built with no love or happiness, the Gamgees would manage to make it warm on the inside. Then for a moment there was a young lady's face in the window, and a minute later the Gaffer opened the door, looking out cautiously.
"Ah, Mr. Frodo," he said with a smile of warmth and relief, "we've all been waiting so long for you to come back. Never knew what took you away so sudden like, and there were some folk said you'd gone and disappeared for good, but I always said, not the young Master, no sir. Probably he's got a job to do, and he'll take what time he needs to get it done. I never thought you was irresponsible as some liked to think. And I always taught my Sam to treat you with the respect you deserved. I hope he wasn't too much trouble to you on your journey. Didn't get you into no tight spots with his foolishness, did he, sir?"
Frodo thought he must be shaking, though he wasn't aware enough of his body to know for sure. He put out a hand and touched the wooden doorway, worried he might fall if he relied on his own legs to hold him.
"Steady there, Mr. Frodo." The Gaffer had a hand on Frodo's shoulder. And though he was old and lacked Sam's strength, he had that same quiet, courteous assurance in his touch. It made Frodo wanted to cry out, but still no sound would come. "Forgetting my manners, I was, making you stand out here in the doorway, and the weather as cold as it's been. Come into the kitchen then."
And he led Frodo inside, never letting go, never rushing his slow steps.
There was a light on in the kitchen and Sam's three sisters, Daisy, May, and Marigold, were seated around the table. They had been speaking in low tones but hushed when Frodo and the Gaffer entered the room.
"The Master and I have some talking to do, it seems," he announced.
The two older girls moved immediately to obey their father, and withdrew into a back room with eyes downcast, although they did shoot a few curious glances at Frodo. But Marigold stood in her place and gazed straight at him.
"We're happy to see you safe home again, sir," she said.
Frodo nodded and only then did Marigold leave, first nodding back in acknowledgment but standing straight and proud as she walked away. Frodo and the Gaffer sat down at the table.
"She's a tricky one," the Gaffer muttered. "Prouder'n Sam even, though she never spent so much time with the gentry as he came to do. But these past few months she's found herself a new station, you might say. People got to looking to her to know what to do, noticed how she never got scared, even around them ruffians. I s'pose that's how she's come to give herself such airs." There was disapproval there – in the words, certainly – but Frodo could tell from the old hobbit's voice that there was a grudging respect as well, that he loved her and was proud of her, as with all his children.
"She's lovely," Frodo murmured. He wondered if it might help, to start by speaking of something easy. But he could find nothing else to say even about young Marigold, who was healthy and beautiful as sunshine, even on a dreadful night like this one.
"She'd been away, you know," he continued. "Hiding away on some little farm near Whitwell, she tells us now, but we didn't have any idea. She's just come back this afternoon, not long after we had the news you and the others had come back. She says it was safest that way, her not telling us before she went."
"Was she gone for very long?"
"Near on a month. Not so long as some other hobbits were missing," nowhere near as long as they'd waited for Sam, "but it felt like a lot, with all the rumors going round, things that had happened to other hobbits' daughters and sons. Will you have some tea, sir?"
Frodo shook his head. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to stay long. I'm… the Cottons have offered to let me stay with them."
"Till Bag End's repaired, sure, Tom Cotton told me. That's for the best, I think. You know we'd offer to put you up if we still had Number Three, humble as it was, or if we had a little more room in this place. But it wouldn't be no good for your health, you know, all the banging and whatnot that'll need to go on at the old place, or how cramped it would be here."
"Of course," Frodo agreed readily, although it bothered him that the Gaffer should assume so easily that Frodo was some sort of invalid. It felt like he should say something about having just traveled across Middle-earth and then led a successful battle. But then he remembered that he'd nearly collapsed on the doorstep a few minutes ago. "Of course," he repeated.
Frodo waited some more minutes for words to come, and the Gaffer waited patiently with him. Then finally, laying a hand on top of Frodo's on the table, he said quietly, "You've come to tell me why Sam didn't come back with you. Is that right?"
Frodo nodded, feeling useless. He'd come to explain, and he couldn't get out more than two words at a time. And the Gaffer seemed to know everything anyway.
"Your kinsmen," the Gaffer continued, "the ones who traveled with you, made some announcements after the fighting. Can't say I understood too much of it, plenty of foreign names and places, and you know I never took no fancy to those tales like young Samwise did."
"Yes, sir," said Frodo.
"But I took it to mean this wasn't the first battle you young hobbits had seen, as it was for me."
"It was Merry and Pippin who fought the battles, sir. Sam and I... we took a different path."
"Mr. Merry said though, that it was you were held as the greatest hero of all of it, as far as the folk in that country were concerned."
Frodo nodded, surprised. He hadn't known there'd been any such speech. "Sam and I were, yes."
"Was he killed in a battle then? One of them... Orcs, is it? Or one of them black chaps as came by looking for you round the time you left?"
Frodo shook his head, wanting to tell the father of how bravely his son slew the Orc in the tower, of how many times Sam had saved his life, yet unable to put the words to any of it. "No sir," he said finally. "He... he fell."
The Gaffer took a very slow, deep breath, and Frodo tried to copy him, feeling he might panic if he could not get out of this kitchen soon. Suddenly the Gaffer took his hand off Frodo's and stood, and again Frodo followed him, unsure of what was going on, unable to think much beyond his effort not to break down. Then the old hobbit was standing by his side and had his arms around him, as he'd never done in all the years Frodo had lived just up the Hill. And Frodo finally broke, sobbing into his shoulder. "I'm so very sorry," he gasped. "I wish..."
"We've all got our wishes," the Gaffer said. "We've all got the things we don't know how to say. You'll tell me another day. And you'll have time, as we'll be neighbors. I do hope you're planning to move back to Bag End when you can. And the girls and me'll be back at Number Three."
"It can't be like it was," said Frodo.
"No, it can't ever be."
Frodo felt like pulling away. There was something terribly wrong with being held and comforted by a hobbit who'd lost his son. But when Frodo tried to let go he found the Gaffer held him tighter, would not let him go, and Frodo was not the only one who was crying. Perhaps the Gaffer was imagining holding Sam in his arms, or perhaps he simply wanted to be strong and helpful, and it was not Frodo's place to refuse to be held. They stayed that way for a long time, and Frodo said, "Thank you."
Rosie stood outside in the street and the gathering darkness. It was odd to hear how easily sound carried through the thin walls. She thought of the secrets she and Mari had shared in the old kitchen on Bagshot Row. Thought of the kisses and more that she and Sam had shared in most of the rooms in that smial. Her mother had told her that eavesdropping was wrong, and so was gossip, but she'd gained plenty of useful information in recent months by standing and sitting and crouching outside windows.
She thought of the evening Sam had come to her after eavesdropping at Bag End. He'd been in an indescribable mood, at once elated and guilty, secretive and candid. He'd been willing to tell her right away that he'd listened to Frodo and Gandalf talking, that his Mr. Frodo was going away and Sam was to go with him. And Rosie shouldn't say anything about it to anyone just yet, but he trusted her with the news. He said he'd come back and see her often, and at that time she believed him, even though Crickhollow was much farther away than Hobbiton, and even though it was obvious there was something else, something enormous that he wasn't telling her.
She didn't feel guilty for listening now. She'd been sent, after all. And she needed to know, since Frodo wouldn't tell her himself, and no one else had bothered to find out for her.
She listened as long as there were words, and when it was only sobbing (and Rosie did not break down, for she'd done her crying back in March, and a good deal more after that, and right now she had other work to do) she decided she'd had enough. It seemed it was safe to be in the streets at night now, but she'd still rather not let it get any later.
And she didn't like to listen to a grown hobbit – or two of them – sobbing like that.
She walked around to the front of the little house and called out, "Marigold Gamgee," then waited. Waited, shifting on her feet and making enough noise that she wouldn't have to listen to the sounds from inside. It was the Gaffer who opened the door, and she could see he'd dried his face. She looked down, ashamed.
"Good evening, Gaffer Gamgee, I hope I'm not calling too late."
"I hadn't seen you since..." the night Ted caught her on her way home, for she'd not dared to come back to them, though the rumor would have made its way. "I'm glad to know you're well."
"The same," said Rosie. "I'm glad to see you on your feet again. I was sure you'd feel better as soon as Marigold came home."
"Will you come in? Did you want to see her?"
"Just for a moment, if it's all right. My father sent me to fetch Mr. Frodo, but I can't pass up the chance to see my Mari."
The Gaffer smiled and nodded, and Rosie strode through the kitchen, easily avoiding Frodo's gaze. He seemed to be doing his best not to be looked at as well, and Rosie didn't mind cooperating.
Marigold was dry-eyed as Rosie in the doorway to the bedroom (the only one, shared by the three girls, while their father slept in the sitting room) and Rosie said, "Don't you ever do that to me again," and kissed her cheek.
"I won't, my dear Rosie," said Marigold. "Things will be better now."
"It seems to me they couldn't get much worse."
Rosie heard the bitterness in her own voice, felt the eyes and ears of Marigold's sisters and their father and even Mr. Frodo, and knew she couldn't say what she wanted to. She wanted explanations, and at some point she'd want a good cry, at least one more, but not in front of all these other mourners. "It's late," she said, "and I promised I'd bring Mr. Frodo home. Will you come and see us tomorrow?"
"Of course I will," said Marigold. "Now go home and sleep. It'll do us all more than a little good."
Rosie nodded, squeezed Marigold's hands, looked her in the eye and said, "We'll talk soon."
And she turned around to face Frodo for the first time since she'd stared at him dumbly on her own doorstep the day before. "My father told me to come and bring you back to ours," she said. He thought you'd be tired after... After this day. We haven't got our pony back from the Shirriffs yet, but I can walk with you. It's not far, as you know."
And it was Frodo's turn to stare, it seemed. Rosie knew for herself how difficult it would be for him to speak, even to know what to do, so she reached out for his hand and pulled him to the door and out onto the street. She said farewell to the Gaffer for both of them, and then took his arm and started back through town, walking along the main streets this time.
Rosie looked straight ahead and kept her pace slow so as not to rush him. Even so he stumbled, and she caught him with both hands. "Here," she said quietly, "you can lean on me."
"Thank you, Rose."
She could feel that at first he simply let her hold him around the waist, and he put an arm around her shoulders, but he did his best to carry his own weight. But as they walked it became more difficult for him, and he let her support him more.
"I hate this," he said after a few minutes, as they were passing the abandoned Shirriff's post.
"What is it that you hate, sir?"
"Leaning on you." She tensed, but did not take her support away. "It's a short walk," he continued. "I ought to be able to make it on my own."
"We all take help from each other sometimes," said Rosie, remembering walking home arm in arm with Robin Smallburrow. "Times have been hard. Most folks around here figure the hard times are over now, but I think you and I know they've just begun."
"But I never thought you were so proud as to think you didn't need anyone else."
Frodo shook his head, sighed, kept walking. "You've got enough cares already," he said, "and so do the Gamgees. You shouldn't have to bear my burdens as well."
In her mind she agreed with him. But what was he even doing here, she wondered, if that was how he felt? Why not stay in that far-off country where he'd left Sam, where the people thought he was wonderful? Why come back, if he knew he'd only cause the people here more pain?
"Not much to be done about that now," she said, for herself as much as for him. "I hate this too, all of it. But I don't much see what else we can do but keep on walking, and try to hold each other up. When I told you to lean on me I meant it. I've not been called on to do too much work lately. I'm sad and I'm angry, but I'm not tired."
They were silent for a time then, and they walked, and Rosie noticed that, although it was later than it had been that other night, there was more light in the streets, and more light from the windows of her neighbors' homes, and even smiling faces, loud conversations and laughter drifting out into the street. She remembered the darkness and the silence when she'd needed their help, and suddenly and intensely she hated them all. She kept walking.
"Here's my father's house," she said, when at last it came into view. "You know that he's honored to have you stay here, don't you?"
"It is very kind of you all," Frodo said. "I knew coming home wouldn't be easy, but I hadn't imagined I wouldn't even have a home to go back to."
"You'll have your home again, sir. That's just a question of time."
"I'm not so sure."
And perhaps he was right. Rosie stepped through the door and thought again, my father's house, for somehow, ever since he'd sent her to the cellar, and more so since he'd invited Frodo to stay, it didn't feel like hers anymore.
"Well, at least there's a warm fire and a warm bed," she said. "We can rest awhile here."
The bed was warm and so was the chamomile tea Mrs. Cotton gave him. Frodo fell asleep easily in his exhaustion, but in his dreams he walked alone in the scorching heat, and when he stumbled no one was there to catch him. He was falling into fire and in his thirst he had no voice to cry out. He woke gasping before the end, and since he hadn't called for help he woke alone. He lay awake until the morning, when Merry and Pippin came to fetch him and together they rode out to Michel Delving and the Lockholes.
The morning was cold as November, but the sun was shining, and Marigold with her bright lovely eyes showed up at the door as soon as the Travellers had left. Since Rosie didn't have a room to herself now and it didn't seem proper going into Frodo's, the two of them went out in the field where they'd shared many a secret and a summer's day. It was too cold to sit down on the ground, so they kept walking in circles until Mari had told all she had to tell, and they'd both cried a few angry hot tears.
Chapter 4: Yule
Merry told Frodo to come back with them to the house at Crickhollow. Frodo kindly thanked him and said he preferred to be closer to Bag End.
Really he meant that Merry and Pippin needed each other, and Frodo needed not to witness their happiness day in and day out. He needed solitude. And the Cottons, for all that they were a large and affectionate family in a modest home, knew how to give Frodo his space, knew not to press too hard when he withdrew. Only Rosie seemed dissatisfied, and Frodo had no words for her.
Winter set in.
The trees that had been cut down were not replanted.
After the Scouring people cheered, celebrated, made proclamations, then expected everything to go back to normal. December came and it was normal for everything to look so bleak. But Rosie didn't believe there could be Spring again after this. Once the sun came back the land would only go from frozen white to muddy brown and dead.
They tore apart shirriff-houses and dug up tunnels. Rosie helped clean and make repairs at Bag End. The smial itself might be rebuilt, but the garden was a ruin and always would be.
Rosie at the Yule Ball was loud and unguarded. She had never been timid, but she was usually polite and slightly deferent with Frodo; even these past months when Frodo had shared a crowded smial with Rosie and her family, she hadn't dropped the title from his name or the respect from her gaze. But she was leering at him now, even as she spoke to Sam's sister Marigold, and Marigold looked nervous and spoke quietly but urgently back at Rosie, who looked at once angry and amused.
Frodo hadn't wanted to come at all, but Farmer Cotton said the Shire-hobbits needed a good party, as they'd not even been allowed to gather together in far too long, nor had they had anything to celebrate.
Some celebration or other at Yule was older than anyone knew, though Tom and Lily could remember their childhoods when the hobbits of Bywater, Hobbiton and surroundings had started holding their ball at the Old Mill, which was now the Oldest Mill, since what had been the New Mill until this year was no longer such. The dance at the Old Mill was a tradition going back some eighty years, and if you'd been here two months ago, no one thought they would be dancing at the end of the year. They needed to know things were back to normal now, Tom said.
And it would mean ever so much to all of them, Lily Cotton added, if Frodo would at least make an appearance, if he would join in a dance or two, and perhaps make a toast.
Frodo thought that, after everything else he'd done for the hobbits of the Shire, it would be rather absurd to say that going to a party was too much of a sacrifice.
Frodo did not dance, but neither did many of the older hobbits in attendance, and for that reason he did not feel terribly out of place. His old neighbors and the new ones were as friendly and respectful as always. He heard conversations in low voices that dropped to nothing when he approached, saw eyes and smiles too bright, but he couldn't blame them for wanting their gossip.
It had been a hard year.
The Sandymans were not in attendance, but they had sent along an impressive array of cakes and breads. Some of the hobbits made faces and muttered things under their breath, but no one declined, and their faces tended to sweeten once they were eating.
After several hours of eating, dancing, drinking, eating, more dancing, and the like, as midnight and the New Year approached, the musicians went quiet and the hobbits filled up their glasses with apple brandy.
To his relief Frodo was not called upon to make a speech. Lobo Proudfoot said how happy he was to have his Lucho home from the Lockholes, and he honored all the hobbits who'd suffered at the ruffians' hands. Tom Cotton, the younger, said something about the strong women of the Shire who helped all of them survive their troubles, and his eyes were on his sweetheart Marigold, and her eyes were full of love and pride. His father made a toast to the Captains of the Battle of Bywater and to Frodo, who had made it a battle and not a massacre. He looked at Frodo, and Frodo held his gaze, feeling it would be disrespectful to hang his head with the shame he felt. Marigold was the one to speak up for her brother, who had not returned from his fateful journey but who would want hobbits to celebrate, on a night like tonight. A better year to come, something to make up for the suffering and loss of what they'd all lived through. She spared Frodo her gaze, and Frodo let his own go blank and distant, tried to make his mind do the same, as he held his glass aloft and said, "Hear, hear," with the chorus of reverent voices, then downed his bitter drink.
The band took to playing again, and Frodo thought he might slip away quietly now and get a good breath of cold fresh air as he walked back to the Cottons'.
But Rosie had swallowed her glass and more, like a tween allowed to taste ale for the first time. She said the brandy was all she needed to forget a bad year, and she wouldn't let anyone tell her that was enough.
"Will you drink another toast to him, Mr. Frodo?" she called, pulling away from Marigold's hold and striding across the room toward him.
"I've had all I want to drink tonight," Frodo said quietly.
"What's that, it wouldn't be proper for a great hobbit like Frodo Baggins to have more than his share of whisky? Come, now, sir, it's just a gesture! Surely you can stand to have another glass in Sam's memory?"
"Stop it, Rose."
"That's all we've got, you know," her voice was lower now, at least, for she was close to him, her mouth near his ear, "his memory. No cold body to lay in the ground, and no warm body for me to lay with in my bed, Mr. Frodo," and the name and title came out with a sarcasm he'd never heard in her voice before, "because that's what I was supposed to do once you brought him back. Did you know that part? He was supposed to be mine."
She was clutching at Frodo now, had her arms around him and bit the lobe of his ear sharply, and said, "If I can't have him and you can't have him, I guess we'd best make do with what's available." And then she was kissing him, her lips wide and her tongue probing at Frodo's firmly closed mouth. He recovered from the shock enough to grip her shoulders and pushed her away.
She pulled back forcefully to free herself from his hands, but then immediately dropped to her knees in front of him and grabbed at him again, this time reaching around his waist with one arm while the other hand fiddled with the buttons of his breeches, and Frodo froze, could only stare as she pressed and pulled, and whispered, so quiet this time that only he would hear her, "Is this what he used to do for you, Mr. Frodo? Did you like your servant's hands on your cock? Did you like to feel his mouth there? I could do that for you too, you know. One peasant's as good as another for folk like you, I expect. We're expendable, we're replaceable."
He caught her right hand then, stopped its activity on his front, where her drunken clumsiness had kept her from accomplishing very much. But without leverage Frodo could do no more than shift her hand slightly away, and still she grabbed at his hip, and tried to press at the fabric of his trousers with her tongue.
"Rosie, you're drunk," Frodo growled low, still hoping they might not become the focus of attention of the entire party. "Stop this, you don't know what you're doing."
"Don't know what I'm doing, is that it?" Rosie laughed, raising her head to gaze up at him openly, licking her lips. "You think I never sucked a hobbit off? Hmm?" She stood up but didn't move away, pressed even closer into him than before. She brought a hand back to his crotch and squeezed, at the same time leaning in and biting lightly at his right ear. She whispered, "Think I never had had your gardener in my mouth before? Think you were the only one he liked to touch?"
And Frodo was still in shock, and for all that he tried to push her away, or even to twist out of her grasp, she held on tight and close until stronger hands gripped her from behind. It was her twin brother Jolly, solid and strong as any hobbit Frodo had known, gripping her around the waist and shoulders while Marigold pried her hands off of Frodo's body.
"It's over, Rosie," Marigold said firmly. "This ends now. Jolly's going to take you home to bed, see? And I'll come by and check on you and your headache in the morning. But that's enough for tonight."
Rosie had been removed from Frodo by now and stopped resisting physically, draped around Jolly as if she wouldn't be able to stand on her own. "It's not enough," she wailed, "I didn't get enough of him."
And then Frodo was left standing there, against the wall, alone, as a few hobbits stared and more of them looked away, at the ground, at nothing. Not at each other, for just as Frodo could meet no one's gaze, it seemed that none of the others could look at each other either. The band had stopped playing again, and someone coughed.
"Perhaps we've had enough of dancing then," said Rosie's brother Tom. And though some of the younger hobbits (including Nick and Nibs) looked very disappointed, and a few of them (including Myrtle Burrows, who had been flirting with Nibs and having some success) looked almost outraged, most of the hobbits, including Sam's older sisters, were nodding quietly and moving toward the door.
"You don't need to call off the celebration on my account," Frodo said suddenly, realizing he was making his speech after all and that he didn't mind it. "Marigold was right, I think. Her brother would have wanted us to be joyful tonight, and that is what I want as well."
"That's all well and good," said May Gamgee, "but Sam's not here and I'm not joyful. And my father's tired and not well. It's time we went home to sleep."
"It's barely past midnight!" said Myrtle, but her mother hushed her.
"Tomorrow will be a better day," said Daisy.
"And a better year for all of us," said Lucho.
"Hear, hear," said a few other hobbits, and the bandleader called for one more tune as the partygoers gathered up their things and quietly left the hall.
Rosie's headache, intense and throbbing, was not the worst pain she'd ever experienced.
Rosie's humiliation, though, once she recovered the events of the night before, that was something severe. She couldn't think of any moment in her life when she'd felt so ashamed of herself. She couldn't think how it could be worse, until Frodo pushed open the door and came to stand by her bed.
"I've brought you this for the nausea," he said, holding out a glass of something brown.
"Is it the remedy my mother made? Because I won't drink that."
"I can't say if it's anything like the Cotton family remedies," Frodo answered with a chuckle. "I'm an old bachelor who spent his tweens in the care of a much older bachelor. I've had my share of hangovers and I don't believe there's a miracle cure, but this one's helped me."
She drank obediently, and it tasted burnt and heavy but it wasn't quite as horrible as the drink her mother sometimes brought her and her brothers with a quiet disapproval on bad mornings.
To Rosie's distress, Frodo had brought a chair to the side of the bed and sat down. "There's water here too," he said. "I think Tom must have set it by your bedside after he put you to bed."
"Thank you, Mr. Frodo."
He nodded. "Have you slept all right?"
"As far as I can remember, yes. Which is not to say I'll be ready to get out of bed anytime soon."
He smiled, did not move away. It took a little while for politeness to make its way to the front of her mind. "Did you sleep well, sir?"
"I can't say I did. I was up a long time thinking about... things you and I haven't said to each other."
He actually meant to discuss it then, and with her in such a state. Very well then. She took a breath. "Mr. Frodo, I can't tell you how sorry I am for the way I acted last night. It was horrible. And I don't...I don't want you to think that's how I really feel or that's the kind of girl I am. I..." Frodo was smiling that sad smile he wore so often since he'd come back, shaking his head, and she went quiet, not knowing what she'd intended to say after that anyway.
"Apology accepted," he said. "And I don't want you to worry about it anymore. Things happen, in a moment, in celebration. We drink too much and say and do things our normal selves would never do. Don't think I would hold it against you. It's a new day, and a new year...starting off with a long night when I thought about a lot of things. I'd like for things to be easier between us. More open. And to get things started off right, I don't want you to call me 'Mr. Frodo' anymore. It's absurd for me to be living in your house and treated like a member of your family, and have you call me 'sir,' and I won't stand for it anymore. Is that all right?"
Rosie took a sip of water, and for all that it had been sitting out all night it felt cool and clean and good. "It's fine, Frodo," she said in order to give it a try, and liked the feel of it, and smiled for the first time today. Frodo, for his part, looked slightly taken aback. "Well, did you mean it or not?" she teased.
"I did, of course, thank you, Rose," he answered quickly. "It's just…I told Sam that so many times, and he never listened to me. He always did stick to the title. Right up to the end, you know."
Rosie hadn't known. Her smile was lost and she marveled that it had ever been there in the first place.
"He didn't drop it, and he didn't…I mean to say, Sam and I never…"
Rosie's cheeks burned. How could she have dared to speak of such things? "Frodo, please. I told you I was sorry about last night. I'd no call bringing up such matters or…doing what I did."
"No, I don't hold it against you. I meant that. But I do want you to know so it doesn't hang over us as it has since I've come back. Sam and I kissed once, and that was all."
And Rosie looked down. She had thought she wanted to know, but the pain of knowing just this was sharper than all the other acts she'd imagined. She breathed a few moments, then spoke softly, "You didn't want to take it further than that, then?"
She shot a glance at Frodo and felt some sympathy mixed with satisfaction to see he now was clearly as embarrassed as she. She wished herself far away, and at the same time she longed to know everything he had to tell her. Did he love Sam the same way she did? Did he miss him as much? What, by all that was good in the world, what had happened to the two of them, to leave Frodo as broken as she saw him now, in glimpses?
"I wanted…" He swallowed, and Rosie looked away again. "Of course I wanted more. Surely you've realized that I loved him."
Realized it long before you did, she thought, swallowing on ache and nausea. And understood it even when he was still here with me and telling me he loved me, I knew even back then that he loved you more. Out loud, she said, "But you didn't realize it until after you left."
If Frodo was surprised by this insight he didn't show it. "You're right, it was on the quest that I came to understand how much I cared for him. And I trusted him with my life, yes, but I also finally realized how strong he was, and how beautiful." Frodo's voice caught on this last. "And once we were separated from the others, he was all I had. Do you understand that? He was the Shire, and he was my old life, and he was friendship and beauty and love all bound up together."
Rosie knew Frodo was fighting back tears now and her mother's voice in her head told her she should offer him a handkerchief, but she didn't move. She felt it necessary for her own composure that she stay absolutely still. After Frodo left the room she would cry, and she might scream, and then she would have time to think these revelations over. But for now all she could do was listen, and force out a few words in a low, controlled tone.
"And he loved you back," she said.
"I believe he did, then."
"And you kissed him, or he kissed you, and then you left each other alone?"
"We… It happened at a moment when we both felt safe, I think, but we knew that if we went any further on our journey it would be quite dangerous again. We knew we couldn't turn back, but we were afraid we should be killed, and without having carried out the task, without making it to the end. And just after that happened, Rose, it came very close to that."
"But that wasn't the end, not then."
Rosie felt somewhat lightheaded, drifting in the silences between his words.
"But things changed after that," Frodo said. "The journey became…more difficult, more desperate, and I was…"
When it seemed nothing would make him finish this thought, Rosie murmured, "You could have comforted each other along the journey."
Frodo did startle at that, and moved for the first time in minutes, brought his hand to his face to wipe away tears, and still Rosie didn't move to offer him a kerchief.
"But I was different after that, Rose, I wasn't myself. And I couldn't have taken comfort in anything, or given any either." He paused again. "It's difficult to explain, but…I said before that Sam was the Shire and friendship and beauty." And Rosie understood that at this point he could not repeat and love without breaking down completely. She nodded slowly. "But after this I didn't have that – I couldn't see or feel or imagine any of it. I knew Sam was with me, somehow, but there was no room in my mind for anything besides…besides what I'd set out to do."
This made no sense to Rosie, but she didn't feel it would be right or helpful for her to say so. Instead she said simply, "I'm sorry, Frodo."
She wanted to get up then and leave, let each of them be alone with their tears. But it was her room, after all, the one she shared with Jolly when he was home and had to herself when he was with Red in Waymeet. She was the one who was sick, at least for today, and she had a right to her own bed. Very slowly, she reached out and took his hand, and he held it lightly, not speaking or moving any closer.
He's the same as me, she thought. He's broken and he knows he'll never get better. But this too seemed a thought best kept to herself. Enough had been said for today. Rosie tried to feel compassion for Frodo, but her head was still aching and now so was her heart, and she couldn't resist feeling sorry for herself. She feared if she opened her mouth again she would say the same thing she had screamed last night: You took him away from me. So she kept quiet and took her hand back, settled down in her pillows and closed her eyes. She waited a long time for him to dry his tears and leave.
Frodo spent the rest of the day in his own room, writing. They did not have a proper desk, but he managed with a wooden chair and the bedside table. Certainly he'd known worse.
He'd meant, as always, to work on his book, to get the story down. But he found himself writing a long letter addressed to Crickhollow, asking his dear cousins if they'd ever known a hobbit as selfish, as oblivious to the cares of others, as Frodo Baggins of Bag End.
When he was finished he knelt by the fireplace and let the letter burn to cinders.
"For heaven's sake, lass, you can come to supper, at least."
"Just leave me alone, mother. I'm not hungry."
"He won't be at table either, if that's what you're worried about."
Then Rosie stood, walked to the door of her room. "I don't know that I can take much more of this."
"It's not a question of what you can take. It's a question of what you need to give. I thought you'd learned that much this year."
"I don't think I know very much at all."
She joined her family for their meal while Frodo stayed in his room.
Chapter 5: Hero
The winter was long, following a year when enough had been planted and too much had been taken away.
Frodo scraped a bit of butter over his bread one morning and thought of Bilbo at Rivendell, where Frodo had never seen fields or fieldworkers and yet food was always abundant. If he hadn't had responsibilities keeping him in the Shire, he'd like to go back there and find out how they did it. Or even just to spend some time with his cousin and have some rest.
He made plans to go to Michel Delving with his cousin Fredegar instead.
Rosie thought it silly that they'd made Frodo Deputy Mayor, though her own Dad had been one of the ones to call for the appointment. Old Will Whitfoot had agreed, saying he needed time to recover from his ordeal before he went back to work. What work? Rosie wondered. What was there to do, other than make a few speeches? And couldn't anyone else, even after months in the Lockholes, do a better job of that than Frodo, who'd gone so quiet and mournful since he'd been away?
"You can be my Mayor," she told Marigold, and they both laughed.
Budgeford had never been the home of a Mayor, nor had a Bolger ever held the office, though certainly they'd been held in high esteem for many generations, and all the more so since the Troubles, when people had started calling Fatty Bolger a hero, and then afterwards, when they'd had to start calling Freddy Bolger a hero instead. Frodo had the office and the title, but all he'd done with it was to make sure there was less government in the Shire than there had been before. He wondered what it felt like really to be considered a leader among hobbits, and in the cold quiet of the carriage ride from Bywater to Michel Delving, he asked.
"What do you mean? Surely you know they think you a hero as well."
"They think me...something different," said Frodo, and catching Freddy's look, not wanting an argument, "all right, fine, a hero, if of a different sort. But I'm not talking about that. I want to know how it feels for you to be...someone special, I suppose. Someone who knows what to do. Someone who can tell others what to do."
"You think I enjoy ordering other hobbits around?" Freddy asked with a grin, and Frodo too smiled, hung his head.
"No, I." Used to be able to speak with you, he could have said. Easily. Freddy was one of his young cousins and dear friends, but now Frodo felt a distance between them that hadn't been there before. But then again, he felt a distance from everyone else since he'd been back as well. "I'm not explaining myself well. I'm sorry."
A repeat of too many other conversations he'd had with old friends in the last few months. Frodo had been happy to see Freddy's smiling face in the Cottons' kitchen (for Lily had invited him in before even calling for Frodo) and only a little sad to think he'd needed official business, related to his provisional office, as an excuse to invite him there, that he couldn't just call him over as a friend.
He'd thought, good, for all that they had important business to see to, they might have a real talk on their way there. But now it seemed it would be as quiet and awkward an hour as any other in this borrowed, provisional life that fit him as well as an Orc's armor or a human child's nightshirt.
"I don't know that I can tell you how it feels," Freddy said at length. "I'm not much more settled in with this new life than you are. I do know I'm not the same hobbit you knew, but the difference isn't in what I do. I was always good at coming up with a plan, always good at convincing people to go along with it."
"So what's different now?" Frodo asked.
"Now? I'm different because I went into the Lockholes and I came out."
They were silent for the rest of the way to Michel Delving. Frodo knew they couldn't put off talking about the Lockholes forever because that was precisely where they were going. No one had gone inside the tunnels since that cold sunny day in November when Frodo had taken Freddy's hand and helped him stumble outside. There were rumors that some of the food the Shirelings had been forced to "share" was still being kept in the back of those old store holes, and they had need of it now, as provisions were growing scarce and spring was taking its own time to come back.
A round wooden door covered up the holes. Freddy had brought along two lanterns because there were no windows in the place.
"I remember coming here once with Bilbo, when I was quite young," said Frodo, "not long after I'd moved to Hobbiton. He wanted me to know all about the stores, how the Mayor needed to keep track of the food, in case there was a shortage."
"He must have known you'd be Mayor someday."
"Or friends with the Mayor, anyhow. It seemed quite marvelous at the time. Such abundance, and all of it ordered, all for the sake of making sure everyone had enough to eat through the winter."
Together they lifted the door. It was not locked anymore, despite the name, but Freddy told Frodo that the local hobbits had stayed away, despite the rumors that there was food stored inside, because there were also rumors of ghosts.
"But no one died inside," Freddy said. "They tell it that way, but no one's got names. I was there and hobbits were beaten, and some of us near starved in the months they had us there, but not one of them died."
They looked down the steps, both reluctant to start down. "Did they hurt you?" Frodo asked. "Did they beat you when they brought you here?"
"Oh, not... They did when they first got you, as a matter of course, to teach you a lesson. And when they got me they were excited and angry, because we'd held out against them for so long. But they didn't...that is, there was nothing else they needed to find out from me, so it didn't go on for too long, that kind of..." He stopped, and steadied himself. "I'm all right now," he declared. "Or I will be, once I get some more food in me. I've spent a lot of time talking about it with Estella, and Merry and Pippin have been a great help as well."
"I'm glad of that."
"I'm so glad to have them back, and not to terribly far from Budgeford either. We rode there together from here, and they've come to visit us often."
"I shall have to invite them to come back to Hobbiton, once I'm able to move back to Bag End."
"Oh, I hope you can see them sooner than that."
Frodo said nothing.
"They told me you were a prisoner as well, for a time."
Frodo looked down. "Only for a very little while," he said quickly. "And I don't remember much of it."
"That's a blessing," said Freddy.
"I'd like to forget a good deal of what I saw in there," he said, pointing with his chin, "and what I felt. Except, as I said, I'm the hobbit I am today because of what happened during those few months. And for that I'm glad I remember it all."
Then he took a deep breath and started down the stairs, holding his lantern high. Frodo followed behind him. The place stank terribly and they covered their faces with their sleeves to make it easier to breathe. To Frodo's surprise, Freddy moved through the tunnels without hesitation, even in the weak light, and he walked straight through the maze of it to where he said he'd seen the jailers go for food.
"They gave us black bread," he said, "and a little bit of soup that was so watery there was nothing much to it at all. But the Men were eating their fill."
It took some shoving to get the door to the last door open but when they did Freddy grinned wide to see the great piles of grain. "Just as I thought," he said. "Keeping it all to themselves, they were."
Some of the fruit and vegetables had rotted and would have to be burned once they brought the good food out of the tunnel.
"I wish we'd come sooner," said Frodo as they brought the first load outside. They sat down to rest and breath the fresh air again.
"That would have been better," Freddy agreed. "I'd expected the locals would have cleaned it out as soon as they brought us out, but it seems they're a superstitious lot."
"I wish... I wish I'd known about a lot of things," said Frodo. Freddy looked at him. "Perhaps if we'd...if Merry and Pippin and I had come sooner, it would have been different for all of you. I am sorry we stayed away for so long."
"Now, now." Freddy patted him on the back. "That's all right. You had other work to do. Don't think anyone here holds it against you."
"I can't help but think that. If I'd been the one stuck here waiting I don't know that I'd ever be able to forgive the ones who stayed away."
"Believe me, Frodo –"
"Oh, I believe you when you say you aren't angry. But I can't believe everyone feels the same way you do."
"I would think if anyone had reason to resent you it would be me, Frodo, and I don't, so perhaps you ought to leave it alone."
"You've got reason, but you also know me better than anyone else who didn't go along, so you've got more reasons than most to forgive me. But what about the Gamgees? What do you think Rose Cotton thinks of me now?"
"She probably thinks her home would be less crowded now if not for you..."
"She's got bigger concerns than that..."
"...Because her father and her brothers could well have died in the Battle of Bywater if you hadn't been there making sure as little blood was shed as was possible."
Frodo was stunned. "I'd not thought of that part of it before."
"And you do an awful lot of thinking, which tells me you must be spending far too much time dwelling on what you did wrong, and not nearly enough on what you did right, or how much worse it could have been. No regrets, Frodo. I wish I hadn't had to go into the Lockholes, but it was better for me than the alternative."
"Sam wanted to come back."
"He didn't want to leave me, of course, once she made him think of it that way, but he –"
"What are you talking about, Frodo?"
"Oh, it's." He looked in a basin of water and saw the smoke rising over Bywater. It wouldn't do much good to put it that way, would it? "Nothing. He had a feeling there was trouble back here. I should have listened to him."
"Well, no way of knowing how it might have gone." Freddy stood up. "Come on, lets see if we can get some help hauling this stuff out of the hole. You and I might be heroes but we're not the best weightlifters in the Shire."
Azalea Sandheaver, who lived nearby, had been one of the few girls who'd been with Freddy in the hills of Scary but who'd escaped when he'd been captured. She'd also been one of Gandalf's greatest admirers never to leave the Shire, and once she and her sisters and neighbors had brought everything salvageable up above ground, she helped them set up a fuse and a small explosion that they could safely light from outside. For an hour they sat together and watched the smoke billow out of the wide round hole. They'd banked the edge of that room with sand, and they had buckets of water ready in case the fire should get out of hand, but all went according to plan. Freddy and Azalea told stories of the rebel life and Frodo listened quietly. When the smoke had slowed Azalea said, "We'll wait a day or two and I'll go in with Ginny and start cleaning up."
"We can come back," said Frodo.
"It's no trouble. We've had a lot of that kind of work to do. I can't say it's as exciting as fighting the ruffians, but it's not as difficult or dangerous either." She smiled and invited them to dinner with her family, and Freddy accepted on their behalf.
Over the meal they talked of how the food could be fairly distributed to reach the hobbits who most needed it. A share would be left here and Freddy would carry some in his carriage back to Frogmorton and then Budgeford. (Hobbiton and Bywater had much less need, since they'd recovered most of what the Sackville-Bagginses and Sandymans had horded for themselves.) Afterwards they talked to other Delvers about how what was here could be kept safe, how much should be turned over to the leaders who came from other villages.
When they were riding home Frodo said, "How would you feel about taking over for me, come Midsummer?"
"As Mayor, yes. Will Whitfoot says he'll take over again if he must, but he'd rather I stay on. But you're wonderful, the way you talk to all those people, even the father who obviously hasn't forgiven you for putting Azalea in danger.
Freddy laughed. "Azalea's been putting herself in danger from the time she knew how to walk. Bob knows I tried to send her home, but I was completely powerless." He paused. "As for taking over the office, I hadn't thought of it. We all figured you'd keep on."
"The term is seven years."
"Well, I don't know that I –"
"You're not planning to leave us again, are you?"
"No," said Frodo, "not planning."
"Right then, tell me what's on your mind. Why so much introspection today, apart from the place where we've been. Why do you bring it up?"
"It's nothing, only that..."
"I had a letter from...one of the friends we made on the journey."
"And which friend would that be?"
"The one we met in Bree, the one called Strider who turned out to be –"
"And what did he have to say, the King of Gondor?"
Frodo smiled. He knew none of it sounded real to his friends from home, that it must sound as if he and Merry and Pippin were talking about characters from a storybook. Freddy went along with it all, but it was almost as if he were humoring a child who liked to go on about his imaginary friends in their imaginary kingdom. Freddy made more of an effort than the rest of them to learn the cast of characters, at least.
"He was full of good news," said Frodo. "He hoped we had arrived at home all right and he... And he said that the people there, in that country, remembered me and – " honored him, but that sounded far too grand for him to say it out loud in a pony-pulled carriage on a country road. "That I would be welcome back there, should I decide I'd done what work I needed to do in the Shire."
Freddy laughed for a long time and then went quiet, staring ahead at the road more intently than usual, looking into the distance as if he'd rather avoid Frodo's eyes.
"You're actually thinking about it, aren't you?" Freddy said. "I understood, when you went off the first time. That is, I don't think any of us truly understood it, but I knew there was something driving you out, and something you needed to get done, how it had to be taken outside our borders."
"And for Merry and Pippin and Sam, that was enough to mean they had to go with you. But Frodo, that's all over and done with now."
"It's not –"
"I mean to say, from what the three of you have told us, you did what you set out to do. You and Sam destroyed the Ring, and the others fought the battles, so what's left to... What's driving you out this time?"
"I'm not going," Frodo said, knowing that wasn't the answer Freddy wanted. "Not anytime soon, at least. I haven't finished the work I need to do here, I know that. I haven't come anywhere close."
Freddy said, "Well, we'll talk about it again when the time gets closer, but I'm honored that you think I could do the job."
"You're a natural leader, I think."
He shook his head and laughed again. "But don't you know, Frodo, all this time, I was only trying to think what you would do if you were here."
"Oh, Freddy." Frodo frowned and waved his hand. "You don't need to say such things."
"I'm not trying to flatter you, I'm telling you the truth. I never had your thirst for travel or adventure, you know. I was content to live a peaceful life in Budgeford or Bucklebury or wherever it needed to be, as long as I could be near my family and my friends, and have my ale and my pipe in the evening after a good day's work."
"I did want to travel," Frodo said, "but I never wanted –"
"No, that's just the thing. I know you never wanted to leave us the way you did, or for the reasons you did. And do you know, I had to keep that knowledge and those reasons secret all the time you were gone? And don't think Sharkey's men weren't keen to get it out of me."
Frodo shifted in his seat but said nothing.
"But I didn't mean to talk any more about that," Freddy went on quickly. "What I meant to say is, I never wanted to be the one to fight the ruffians. I didn't want to leave my family and go into the hills. I certainly didn't want to give up regular meals! But then I would think, 'Well, Frodo never asked for what he got either, did he?' But you didn't complain, at least not where I could hear it. You just took that thing and did what you needed to do with it. And the same thing for Sam, of course. He'd rather have stayed here and taken care of your garden and made a good husband for Rosie and a father for her children. But he had other work to do, so he did it. That was all I thought when I took Azalea and the others off to Scary. I wasn't trying to be the hero of the story, just to see to what needed to be done."
After a long time Frodo simply said, "Thank you."
"It's only the truth, but you're welcome."
"I wish I knew what needs to be done now."
"So do I. You said your work here isn't finished, and I think that's true. But then, there's always more work to do, isn't there?"
"Yes," said Frodo, "I fear that is so."
"Where's Mr. Frodo?" said Tom when he came in from the field for second breakfast.
"Went to Michel Delving with Fredegar Bolger."
"Did you see old Fatty then? Is he well?"
Rosie shrugged. "He didn't look it to me, but then I hadn't seen him since before he went off to Scary. Frodo seemed pleased, said he looked much better than when they brought him out of the Lockholes."
"That's not hard to believe. He couldn't have looked much worse."
Rosie nodded, got up and started picking up the plates the others had finished, just to have something to do.
"Are you annoyed I came in late?"
"Of course not," said Rosie. "You just have to eat cold bacon is all. Do you think Mr. Frodo looks better?"
"What, since he came back?"
"Well, it hasn't been very long, but yes. I think he looks...calmer."
"He was always good at looking calmer. He's gentry, they're good at that."
"What is it you want to know, Rosie?"
"Well, he ought to... We've been doing our best, you know. But he never seems to want to talk to any of us, and me least of all. Even since –" Yule, when he'd said he wanted things to be easier, though Tom didn't know about that, would only know about the things she'd said and done to make it harder.
"You weren't friends before he left."
"And nothing's happened to change that, so why are you worried?"
"Because he's living in our house, Tom! And because he won't be forever, and I think, if he's not eating and getting strong and opening up and talking while he's here with you and me and with Mother's cooking, what's it going to be like when he's on his own?"
Tom smiled. "I've never seen you as mother hen before."
"Oh, Tom, don't tease."
"Frodo's a grown hobbit and used to living on his own. He probably minds all the fussing around him more than anything else."
"There are other things he minds more. I just wish he would tell us what he wants instead of all this...brooding."
"He's not the only one to get in a mood sometimes, you know. Mother and Mari have both asked me what they can do to make you cheer up again."
Rosie shouldn't have been surprised by that. Of course she knew they were unhappy with her unhappiness, but the thought of them discussing her when she wasn't around was a little unsettling.
"Well." Rosie wanted to say something sassy and clever. "Well, I." But for the life of her couldn't think what Tom or Mari or her mother could do to make her happy, so she just went quiet.
"There you are," said Tom, "you've got no reasons, and nobody's business but you're own if you don't care to talk about them. Thank you for breakfast."
He sat back and she thought he'd go back outside, but he sat thinking for a while, then said, "You know, I admire them for what they did. I was at the Battle and I don't think we would have risen up against them without Merry. And I don't think it would have gone near as smooth as it did without Frodo. Other hobbits were too excited after all those months of doing nothing, and there would have been a lot more dead on both sides if they didn't have Frodo telling them to calm down. I admire them, but that doesn't mean I admire the hobbits who stayed behind any less."
"You mean like the one you're getting ready to marry?"
Tom smiled. "Yes, or the ones in my family. Mari and I quarreled over it at first, did you know?"
"Oh, I know," said Rosie.
"I said we should go ahead and fight the ruffians any way we could, and of course I meant take what weapons we had and stand up to them. And she said we couldn't win it that way."
"She was right."
"I know. They were bigger and stronger and they had swords against our hoes and ploughshares."
"It would've been madness."
"But then again, once Mr. Frodo and them came back, it wasn't all that difficult."
"It was different then. They were so used to us being meek they had no reason to suspect it could be different."
"Maybe that was all we needed then, someone who hadn't lived through all we had, so they could surprise the ruffians."
"So they were rash and foolish."
"But it worked!" Tom laughed and Rosie felt foolish, like a child who didn't like that someone else could be more popular than she and her friends. But Tom seemed to understand. "Merry and Pippin are like nothing the Shire's ever seen, so of course they'll get a lot of attention. But people haven't forgotten about what Mari did, or about you and me. Why, I think of even Robin Smallburrow. He's had friends and family call him a traitor, but you and me know how much worse it would've been if we'd had worse hobbits among the Shirriffs, or if all the Shirriffs had quit and we'd had the Men coming in directly for whatever little task they wanted done."
"Fine then," said Rosie. "I can't argue with you, Tom, you talk too much sense."
He shrugged. "Marigold talked me out of a lot of the nonsense I used to believe in."
"How's this: I can't promise to be cheerful, but the next time you catch me sulking or snapping just because somebody said a good word about Frodo or Merry or Pippin, you tell me to snap out of it."
"All right," said Tom. "Yes, I can do that."
The Cottons' smial was dark and quiet by the time he got back, but quite warm after the carriage ride. After the others had gone to bed Frodo and Rosie up staring at the fire.
"We ought to have come back sooner," Frodo said. "From the South, I mean. Sam looked in a basin of water and saw smoke rising."
Rosie nodded. "That was a sign?"
"Do you think you could've kept the ruffians away had you turned around then?"
Frodo didn't know. "I think he would have lived."
"Then you're right," she said. "You should have come back."
If Tom were around, Rosie thought, he'd tell her not to speak to Frodo like that, and so soon after she'd promised not to. If her mother heard it she'd insist that Rosie apologize to their guest. Then again, something told her Frodo wouldn't have spoken the words in the first place if anyone else were there to hear. He didn't want false assurances, just to speak the truth as he understood it and have someone believe him.
As for smoke rising from a basin of water, it made no sense, but Rosie decided to leave it alone for now.
Chapter 6: Caught
There was very little warning. A darkening of his vision, a twinge that made him reach to the back of his neck, try to rub the pain away. But within minutes he was caught and could not even do that.
He couldn't move, couldn't see or feel or conceive of anything outside himself. Pain in his blood like ice frozen solid and eternal, beyond the reach of warmth or words, remedies or time. He couldn't understand the reasons for this deep feeling of failure and shame. He could not even hope for death, could not imagine anything other than this.
For hours he didn't move, and for moments his breath and even his heart stopped. Rosie stayed close and held his cold, limp hand through all of that. It was only when his eyes opened, wide and unseeing and full of terror, that Rosie too panicked. Frodo tried to shrink from them but didn't have the strength. And Rosie dropped his hand and ran away, ignoring her mother's order that she stay.
What could possibly have happened to Frodo and Sam, to make him this afraid of her now? And how could she possibly help him if she didn't know?
Consciousness and coherence did not return to him all at once. The first time he'd been poisoned, the first time he'd been paralyzed, Frodo had felt, as if through a thick cloth which nevertheless did not warm him, the pressure of Sam's embrace. He had heard, as if through a wall of rock or ice, how Sam begged him not to leave him alone. He could not give Sam any sign that he heard or longed to obey. He could not breathe or even struggle to breathe, and he slipped away from the pain into numbness and oblivion.
The first time, he'd awoken naked, aching and abandoned. He'd cursed his solitude and his weakness until he'd found out it could be still worse. Till he felt the lashes and the blows from the orcs, till he'd had their medicine poured down his throat. And if before he had felt his blood freezing, the orc draught might have been burning lead; it brought every nerve in him back to agonizing life. At first Frodo had wished to slip away again, to sink under the ice and the cold water, even if that meant death. It wasn't given to Frodo to decide, of course. Consciousness returned, the threats and the violence continued, and the pain increased.
But Frodo had not despaired completely then, not even when he realized he had lost the Ring. Because when he had last seen Sam, Sam had been alive. And that was enough; that was the hand that reached for him through the broken ice and brought him up to keep on fighting, even when reason told him he had lost everything. That was the sliver of hope: Sam would come for him, and after that, somehow, things would come out right.
Consciousness and coherence did not return at once, and it was difficult at times to distinguish the torment of his memory from the torment of his present, or to know which one was worse. The place was different, but the ache was the same, radiating from the wound in his neck but reaching every part of him. Frodo was insensible with pain, and when he felt a cup held to his mouth and liquid on his lips he fought. He still did not have much strength, but his thrashing managed to tip the cup out of the hand that offered it. Frodo felt the warm liquid seep through the cloth on his chest and braced himself for the blows of punishment. But instead of being beaten he was held with tenderness, and a voice like his mother's repeated his name and quiet assurances that all danger was passed.
A trick. Dark magic. Or a hallucination brought on by the poison. Frodo would not believe it. His mother was dead, and no one in the world had any reason to comfort him anymore.
Sam would not come.
The fact of Sam's death returned to him before the rest of reality. Before he could recognize Mrs. Cotton or Daisy Gamgee, who'd traveled across town in the middle of the night to see him. Before the two of them could convince him that this medicine really would make him feel better. Before he could recognize the familiar bed in the Cottons' safe, warm home, or understand that the sun was shining in the Shire, Frodo knew this: the Ring was gone forever, and so was Sam.
So the despair came first, and only later was it confused with some measure of comfort, and with shame. Frodo didn't recall everything he'd said and done in his sickness, but he knew he'd behaved badly, and caused even more worries for the family that had taken him in. He thought he might have struck Mrs. Cotton, but he couldn't bring himself to ask her or to apologize. And had Nick and Nibs seen him like that? And had Rosie?
Perhaps it was time, after all, to take Merry up on his offer, give up on this part of the Shire and move back to Buckland. He'd resisted before, saying Brandy Hall to him meant childhood. And much as he treasured the time spent there with young Merry, childhood to Frodo meant helplessness and grief. He had been happier at Bag End, as a tween with Bilbo and then as master of the smial himself. And Sam had lived just down the hill and worked for him. Frodo had seen him every day.
Foolishness to think he could come back to such a place and be happy. Aunt Esme had taken care of the little orphan so many years ago. Better for her to tend to the wreck, the invalid he'd become since he went away. It was absurd to lay such a burden on the Cottons, and them, Rosie, already having lost so much.
Frodo wished he might never have to face them again, and Rosie least of all. But he was powerless, too weak even to leave this bed, let alone pack off to Brandy Hall or leave the Shire altogether, as he felt he really must do.
And if Rosie came into the room now, and brought him tea, and wanted to talk to him, Frodo had no escape.
"Hello, Rose," he said shakily. "I'm sorry for what happened. I hope I didn't frighten you too badly."
"Ah, well, we Cottons don't scare so easily," Rosie said, and this was not really an honest answer to his question, but it was true in and of itself. Rosie had stood strong in the face of Lotho and Lobelia and even Ted Sandyman and the big men he thought were on his side. It took something truly terrible, like the fear in Frodo's eyes during his slow recovery in these last days, to have any real effect on her.
"No," said Frodo. "You are hobbits, after all."
"What do you mean by that?"
"Oh, nothing, just something Gandalf used to say."
He was always doing that kind of thing. He'd get that far-off look and say something that made no sense (because what did being hobbits have to do with anything?), and when she asked him to explain he said she wouldn't understand.
But she hadn't come here to argue.
"Are you feeling better today?" she asked, though the answer was rather obvious. He'd barely been able to speak yesterday.
"Much better, thank you."
"You know, I've felt scared from time to time in the last few days, but mostly I've just felt useless. Is there anything at all you'd like from us? Anything you think might help?"
"I do believe it's passed now, at least...for now. Perhaps next time we can be better prepared, but then again I expect I'll be off on my own at Bag End by then."
"Well then, perhaps I'll have to come and take care of you then – to make up for not having been helpful this time, you understand."
She smiled, and he smiled back at her and then sipped his tea. Rosie sat down in the chair by the table that had become his writing desk.
"I put all your papers away," she said. "In this stack here."
"I must have left a mess, and you must have needed to set out medicines."
"No, I... Well, yes, they did need the space. But I only meant to say that I didn't look at them. No one did."
As much as she'd been tempted to read before, in those months she wanted Frodo's past as far away from her as possible. She'd stacked everything together quickly and put in a corner with a plain-covered book on the top so there'd be nothing to see.
Frodo handed her the empty teacup and Rosie held it, unsure of what to do next. She had no more excuse to stay here, so she really ought to ask what she'd wanted, or else just leave.
"I wouldn't read it without your permission," she said, "but I was wondering if you planned on showing it to anyone, eventually. After it's done."
Frodo shifted in the bed, and Rosie how if she were in his position she'd be wishing desperately for the other person to leave. She stayed still.
"I'm not sure," he said. "I'd thought, perhaps, I'd show it to my cousins first, and they could help me decide what else to do with it."
Rosie nodded. "Well. If you ever wanted someone else, someone who wasn't there to look at it. or if...if you ever wanted to talk about what happened, I would listen."
"Thank you," he said again, and she knew he wouldn't give the idea any more thought unless she gave him a reason to.
"I know you think I wouldn't understand, and I wish you wouldn't just decide that." The last words came out sounding bitter and Rosie bit her tongue. Perhaps this wasn't the best way of showing what a kind and compassionate listener she could be. "You don't know me very well, still, but I understand more than you think."
Frodo looked confused. "Have I said something...?"
"Yes," she said quickly. "There's something my father told me, something you said while you were sick." She steadied her voice and held his gaze. "You said, 'It is gone forever, and now all is dark and empty'".
Frodo looked away for a moment but then met her eyes again. He made no move to speak, so Rosie continued, "Do you feel that way? Do you...? Because I feel that way, all the time, I… I can't see any reason to go on sometimes, now that he's gone." There, she had said it, and she breathed easier now, and waited patiently for Frodo to speak.
"I didn't remember saying that," he finally answered. "But I do. It's not… It's not quite all the time. There are minutes, whole hours sometimes when I forget, what I lost. I'm sorry, Rose, but I really don't think I can talk about this."
"But you can. You're always telling me that, that it's difficult to explain, that I wouldn't understand. But you know that I loved him, just as you loved him. I feel, I have a heart and a brain just as you do, so speak, try to explain at least, or I'll have nothing."
"I try." He sounded pained, and Rosie knew she was more cruel than kind to insist that he talk right now, but she couldn't let this go.
"You don't! You say 'something happened'. You say 'it was difficult'. Tell me what happened, I need to know, don't you see? Here I am, here we all are trying to take care of you, and trying to help you get better and here I am trying not to hate you because you stole my Sam away –"
She hadn't meant to say that, had never meant to say it out loud, but even as her voice broke and she fell silent she was glad she had. If she was demanding the most painful memories Frodo had, it was only right for her to lay her feelings bare as well. She caught her breath and continued, "and I can't understand, I can't help you if you won't tell me what happened, and why you couldn't move on Tuesday, and why you took so long to come back and why you didn't bring Sam back with you. Come Frodo, I need this."
She was surprised to see him smile then, a small, sad smile, the only kind she really saw from him now, and even these were rare. "It's not so simple," he said. "I could tell you I was attacked by a giant spider, and you'd picture something the size of your hand. I could say we were tired and hungry and you'd remember a long day you spent at the harvest with only one breakfast to keep you going. I could tell you Bilbo had a magic ring, and I had to take it away, but there's no way it can make sense to you that this task was important enough that I expected it to kill me and I went anyway." He paused, and looked less certain. "Or that even if I'd known then that it would kill Sam, I'd do it again."
Rosie had never expected him to say anything like this. His every action and expression since he'd returned seemed to convey pain and regret, so how could he say he would do it again, if given the choice and the knowledge of the outcome?
She was angry, she couldn't help being angry, but she was also grateful to him for saying so much, even if it was framed in the assertion that she would never understand. She reached for his hand then, and stroked it for a little while, letting her anger subside and deciding what to say next. "How big was the spider?" she asked.
He laughed then, or maybe it was more of a sob, and he drew his hand out of hers and crossed his arms over his chest, but he smiled slightly again. "Bigger than your hand," he said first, but she knew he was taking a moment to try to put it into words that would make sense to her. "You know your father's shed, not the cowshed, the smaller one behind it where he keeps the plough and the scythe and the hoes and those things?"
"Yes," said Rosie, trying hard to keep the incredulity off her face and out of her tone.
"I think she was slightly bigger than that," Frodo offered.
Rosie considered this, then asked, "Just the body? Or with the legs too?" as if one were more or less imaginable than the other.
"Well, bigger than that with the legs stretched out, smaller, I suppose, if she hadn't had any legs. It's diff… I mean to say, it was dark in this tunnel, and I was frightened. I don't remember everything very well."
Rosie nodded, and thought she would like to take his hand again, but both his hands were gripping his opposite arms now. He looked tense and she knew she would feel the touch as an intrusion, he was already so vulnerable when speaking about this.
"Do you believe me?" he asked in a small voice.
Rosie shook her head slightly. "I know you wouldn't lie to me, but you admit it was dark, and you were frightened…." She saw his distrust increasing, and she tried to say it another way, "I just don't see how you could have survived being attacked by a thing such as that."
Frodo nodded, and looked somewhat reassured, at least in terms of Rosie's attitude, but she saw that he was also disturbed, and struggling again to voice his answer. "It – she didn't mean to kill me right away, as I understand it. Gandalf and I talked about it later. Apparently her way was to paralyze the prey, then take it back to her den and…and suck the blood out slowly." He shivered slightly at this, and Rosie made to move the blanket up over his arms, but he shrunk back from her unconsciously, and she decided to leave him be. "For all that, the first sting nearly killed me," he continued, "but Sam fought it off, and killed it, it seems." He fell silent again for a time then. "We never really spoke of it, later. I can't imagine how he managed it. But then I can't understand how he did a lot of things, and we never had time –" Suddenly he looked at her keenly. "I shouldn't have lived through it, Rose. There were so many things that went wrong. I don't know how he kept us going through all of it."
You shouldn't have lived through it, Rosie thought, and Sam should have. She had thought it many times, but realized now for the first time that she no longer felt it. She couldn't blame Frodo when she knew Sam had followed him, had done everything he had done willingly. It would have been enough to have them both back, healthy and whole and happy with each other. She didn't need to have Sam for her own, if Frodo was the one he wanted. And someday she would tell Frodo all of this, but not now.
Instead she asked, "Was that when you kissed him? In the tunnel?"
Frodo stared at first, then nodded. "Just before the tunnel, actually. We'd had to climb a great set of stairs…and again, please don't think I'm belittling you but I have no way of making you comprehend, how huge, how difficult…"
"A great many stairs then," said Rosie. "Don't worry, you can try to explain it to me another time. So you were very tired then."
"Yes, and at the top of the stairs there was this tunnel that seemed to breathe danger and evil, and we neither one of us wanted to go in, but it seemed there was no other way to go on. But we stopped to rest, and Sam said he'd watch over me, and protect me. Somehow the exhaustion was stronger than the fear then, and I actually lay down and slept, right at the entrance to that horrible place. And when I woke up, that was…" he broke off, took a moment to breathe before going on. "That was when it happened. It didn't last long, and we knew, we knew we had to go in and I think we both realized that was where things would really begin to go wrong, as they did." He touched a finger lightly to the wound at the back of his neck, then brought both hands back to grab his arms again. "And I was more frightened than I'd ever been and at the same time so thrilled I couldn't believe it. I wished time could stop then, or the world disappear, and just leave the two of us there together, to enjoy each other."
"Of course you did," Rosie said softly, and she didn't begrudge it to him. She remembered her own first kiss with Sam, after the Lithe dance of her nineteenth year. Slow and quiet and not really thrilling at all, just comfortable and natural and right. She had never before felt so safe. "I'm sorry," she added, "sorry that was all you had."
Frodo shrugged and looked distant, and Rosie relented, she would stop interrogating him. "Would you like me to leave, Frodo?"
He hesitated but surprised her by saying "No, I don't mind." He let go of his arms and finally took her hand. "I know I resist your questions, but it does feel right to say it out loud. I know I said you wouldn't understand, but I want to thank you for listening and for trying."
Rosie squeezed his hand. "Of course," she said. And waited for some more moments, finally growing comfortable with these silences. "And after that things changed."
"I don't remember all of it well. I woke up some time later, and I was stiff and sore, as I was these last days." He shifted uncomfortably, then smiled at her. "But instead of being cared for by kind hobbits like you and your family, I was being held prisoner by…by orcs, in a tower."
Rosie shivered a little, despite having only the vaguest notion of what was meant by that word. One more strange name out of old Bilbo's tales. If Sam had lived with a picture of them in his mind all the years of listening and believing the master of Bag End, to Rosie the word meant only fear and filth, and she'd never let her mind dwell on those nasty details of the old hobbit's adventure. "Goblins?" she said, as if the question would help.
"Yes. Rosie, I think you've taken care of me in my illness, you probably saw the scar on my side and the ones on my back."
Rosie's mother had done more of the tending, removing the clothes soaked through with sweat, bathing Frodo with a wet cloth when he was paralyzed and unaware. But Rosie too had glimpsed those scars and others. She tried not to think to much on them but couldn't help wondering, speculating on what kind of trauma had put them there. "Was it a whip?" she asked.
"Yes. So you've seen the marks that are still there, a year later. That was the physical part, that and the thirst, and the sickness and the cold, but all that was nothing."
"Compared to the fear."
"Compared to the fear, yes. So I was wrong, you do understand some of what it was like."
"Because he wasn't with you anymore, and you didn't know if you'd see him again."
"Because I'd lost him. And I wanted to believe he would come back, but I couldn't be sure of anything then. I know you felt that way too, Rosie, when you were waiting for us to come back. And I know you mourn for him because you loved him, as I did. It was because of what we did you've lost him too, and I can't tell you how sorry I am for that –"
She shook her head. "No, we're not talking about me and my hurts now, I'm trying to find out what happened to you, to the two of you."
"But that's just the thing, Rosie. I'm trying to say that… that I know you understand, what it felt like to think I'd lost Sam, but there's more, much more that I don't think you possibly could, more that I can't think how to try to explain."
Rosie was no longer frustrated with Frodo or his reticence. He took his time in speaking, but she didn't mind now, as she needed time herself to think over everything he said. She smiled and observed him. He was still struggling for words but he was no longer tense, his arms were relaxed, and she was grateful to know that he trusted her, at least more than he had ever seemed to before. After a while she said, "I think you explain things very well, Frodo. And you are helping me by telling me this, I hope you can see that." He only nodded. She continued, cautiously, "You didn't say 'He is gone.'"
"My father heard you say, 'It is gone forever, and now all is dark and empty.' Not him, but It."
"Yes." His voice was tiny, and his body had tensed again, but rather than retreat this time Rosie moved closer and sat next to him on the bed. She put an arm around his shoulders and kept hold of both his hands in her other hand. She felt a slight tremor in his body and held tight and soothed, and waited for it to subside.
When he was still she spoke again. "I don't understand it now, Frodo, but I will try."
"Thank you," he breathed with another shudder.
"And I think that he understood, don't you?"
Frodo was silent.
"When you say you'd do it over again, I think he would have felt the same way. If you could go back, back to your days at Bag End, and know all that would happen, if you told him then that the quest would claim his life…he'd still go with you, I think, if it meant he could take care of you and bring you through it safe."
She was sorry she could no longer see his face, but she was glad to be holding him now. Even as he wept, she felt a new closeness between them and was glad she had not hesitated to speak of Sam's love for him. It no longer made her angry, because Sam's devotion to Frodo was so much a part of him, it couldn't make her stop caring about either one of them. She kissed his temple softly and felt him shake harder, then went back to rocking him. Rosie felt tears in her own eyes but let them flow silently and calmly as she held him through his sobbing. It was a long time, but she did not become uncomfortable or wish to leave.
When her own emotions calmed she continued to ride out his own, thinking to herself about what Sam had loved so much in his master. There was his kindness, yes, and it had taken Rosie a long time to appreciate that, since for a long time his politeness has seemed to her like putting on airs, adding more distance between him and everyone else, when there was far too much of that already. But he was kind, that wasn't just a show.
But more than anything he could do for her himself, Rosie liked the feeling of helping him. She liked knowing that he could trust her. It must have made Sam prouder than her could ever say, to know that he was the one who help Frodo, hold him, make him feel safe. It must have taken Sam a long time to understand that was his place.
And with that thought Rosie realized that the place wasn't hers, and she let him go, scooted back and sat up with her back against the wall. Frodo kept still, faced away from her.
"There was something else I wondered about, mis—Frodo, I'm sorry." Such a strange thing to apologize for after all the pain she'd put him through in the last hour. But she couldn't see why the mister had come to her lips after so many months of calling him by his name alone. Why should this question make her more nervous than the others? "I could ask you another time, when you're feeling better."
"You might as well ask now," he said, turning to face her with a small smile, sounding resigned but not unkind. "After all this I feel quite drained, but that's probably a good thing, nothing you can ask is likely to upset me now. If you wait a few days and bring up something painful you'll send me into another fit of hysterics."
It wasn't hysterics, she thought about saying, but she let it go. "I did see the welts on your back, Frodo, just briefly, and the scar on your shoulder, and this…" she reached out and fingered the bite mark below his neck. "And this…" and her fingers moved to the rough line around his neck, visible from time to time when his collar was open, so that she'd seen it fade some in the months since his return. He shifted but didn't move away. "And the smaller scratches, other scars on your face and your hands and feet that have faded, that I can barely see anymore. I won't ask you where they all came from, not now, though you can tell me whenever you'd like to and I'll listen. But I want to ask you if Sam had these. You said he was strong to the end and he helped you, and then he…he fell." She took a breath. "But I want to know, if he'd come back, would he be wounded the way you are? Do you think he'd be sick the way you have been? I don't know why it's so important for me to know this, but I just have to ask you, sir."
And where had the sir come from, and her with her hand still at his neck? She bit her tongue, but resisted apologizing again.
"At the very end of it," Frodo said slowly, "we'd both been hurt and we were both very...tired. But Sam was...still Sam."
"You were still yourself as well though."
"No, Rose. I was... Well, this creature I've been the last few days can start to give you an idea of what I'd become. That never happened to Sam. I think he'd have had grief over what happened, and he'd have had some scars. But it never took hold of him the way it did me. So it... There's no way of knowing, of course. But I don't believe it would have come back for him they way it has for me."
"Is that what you wanted to know?"
He was asking her to leave again, in his polite way, and she was ready to hear him now. "I think so," she said. "Thank you, Frodo. I'll let you rest now."
Once Frodo was able to get out of bed he wished at once to get back to work on making Bag End livable. But his strength wouldn't return all at once, and everyone, even those who hadn't seen him ill, told him to slow down.
"Why don't you write some more of your book," said Jolly. "Leave the deep digging and the heavy lifting to us."
Later Rosie said, "That's what they used to tell me too, only I was supposed to see to my needlework. Tom and Mari and I are going to Hobbiton today. Come walk with us."
Rosie and Frodo talked more after that, not only about Sam and not only when one of them was bedridden and miserable. But when anyone else was around they both went very quiet and kept each other company that way. It was good to walk with Tom and Marigold because they'd hold up the cheerful conversation all by themselves.
So there were four of them on familiar road again: Rosie, Mari, Tom...and the thought of Frodo walking in Sam's place made Rosie laugh out loud, but she wouldn't say why, for fear speaking it out loud would make her cry.
Chapter 7: Released
They rode from Crickhollow to help with the move, as they put it, though what possessions Frodo had in the Cottons' home he could carry on his own back easily. But they would not let him carry a thing, and rode with him in the carriage. Pippin threatened to carry him over the threshold, and Frodo got out of it by reminding Merry about Pippin's injured back.
They asked if he minded their company and Frodo felt a great fool. They asked him permission for everything now.
"I am so very glad you've come," he said, and he meant it.
It had been Rosie's room before he came, and she'd have it back now. Mother sent her in to clean, but Frodo had left it perfectly empty, and there was nothing more to do. Rosie sat at the writing table feeling dirty, out of place, alone.
They'd move the table back to her parents' bedroom after the wedding. Frodo had left ink, a few quills, and some blank paper behind, neatly stacked. Rosie picked up a quill and then set it down again. If she wrote a letter she'd have nowhere to send it, no one to send it to.
"It's good of you to stay on for the wedding," Frodo said.
"Good of you to tolerate us for a few more weeks," said Pippin, "not to mention letting us share your food."
Frodo smiled faintly. "It's no hardship for me." But it was true he'd been nervous – he hadn't thought he'd be able to take so much cheer. He hadn't spent more than a day in their company between their return to the Shire and his move to Bag End, and he feared three whole weeks might be trying, but he also knew they'd be leaving after the wedding, and so if ever he grew tired of their company he could remind himself that their stay had a fixed end date.
But he found he seldom did tire of them, at times even wished they weren't set to leave so soon, though of course he wouldn't ask them to stay any longer than they'd proposed. They gave him all the privacy he asked for and often were canny enough to know to leave him alone, even if he said nothing. When Merry and Pippin were both present Frodo found it easy to go quiet and let them entertain each other, as with Tom and Marigold. Other times one or another of them would go out, as now, when Merry had gone to Hobbiton to purchase some more food and left Pippin and Frodo behind to consume more of it.
The smial was large, and after all that time in a borrowed room Frodo wasn't accustomed to occupying so much space. Pippin helped by moving around a lot at times, by stretching expansively across furniture at others. He also helped by baking.
"I do like having you here," Frodo said. "And besides that, I do seem to eat quite well when you're around."
"If you starve to death after we leave, Merry will never forgive you."
"I'll keep that in mind. I don't think I'm in too much danger though – I did live here on my own for seventeen years, if you remember."
"That was different," in more ways than they could name. "You used to let us visit more often in those days."
"Yes, and I taught you how to cook. So don't act as if I don't know how to feed myself."
The seedcakes had been consumed and Pippin, too lazy to go back to the kitchen for more, licked his fingers and then used them to pick up the poppy seeds left on his plate, cracking them with his front teeth and tasting them one by one.
"You were good students though," Frodo acknowledged, and Pippin grinned. "If I didn't invite you over before, it was...well, it wasn't really my place to be inviting guests when I was a guest there myself. Anyway, I'm glad you're staying. It will mean a good deal to Tom and Marigold, having the Captains of Bywater there. That is, they care for you personally was well, but it's –"
"Not a great hardship for us either," Pippin finished for him, though that wasn't what Frodo had meant to say. "I never say no to a party."
Frodo smiled. He was rather dreading it all himself, and had attended other celebrations this year only out of a great sense of obligation, but he wouldn't say so. "More tea?" he said instead.
Pippin nodded. "Marigold's a fine girl, besides that. I always was fond of her."
"You and Marigold?" Frodo looked up from pouring the tea in surprise. "But when did you ever... That is, you don't mean..."
Pippin's smile, always the same, for everything else that had changed, Pippin's impish smile. "No, Frodo dear, not that. Which is not to say I wouldn't have liked it. Even asked for it once or twice."
Frodo told himself he shouldn't be so shocked, but he couldn't help staring. "Here at Bag End?"
"Yes. Or, off down the road a bit, while you and Merry were all wrapped up in each other and not willing to let me in."
"You were only a lad then."
"Yes, well. She was only a few years older. And I always did go for the older ones, as you know."
"And what did Marigold Gamgee, future leader of the Shire's secret opposition to Saruman and his men, say to you when your cousins shut you out and you asked her for it outright?"
"That I needed to be patient."
Frodo smiled, remembering how many times he'd told young Pippin the same thing in those days. He poured himself another cup. "And was that helpful?"
"Not especially. I liked the part where she let me kiss her though."
"No wonder you were so good at that when you started with us."
"I was, rather, wasn't I? Still am, if you'd care to –"
"Tell me more about Marigold, Pip."
Pippin laughed, relented. "No, once she gave me that I was a little more willing to listen to her."
"Yes, and about letting your loved ones enjoy one another. 'They'll come around soon enough,' she said. And she was right, of course."
"I suppose so."
"She didn't warn me that after that you'd give us both up for Sam though."
Pippin meant well. He was trying to help, most likely, make it more normal for Frodo to say and hear the name without grieving. It wasn't working. "I don't think she could have known that," said Frodo.
"Maybe not, but don't think she wasn't paying attention. And don't think it was simple for her either."
"I don't know. It seems to me they had everything pretty well worked out, if I hadn't interfered. It was going to be a double wedding, did you know?"
"With Rosie and Sam?"
"Yes, Rosie told me that a few weeks ago. They'd had it planned that way since they were children."
"So even if you'd brought him back you'd still be miserable right now."
Frodo bit his lip, made himself wait a moment so as not to speak in anger. "Please don't joke about that."
"I'm not, Frodo."
"All right, so maybe I was and I apologize, but I had a point, and one worth making."
Pippin swallowed, set down his tea. "And now I've built up your expectations, and it ought to be something very profound."
"Get on with it, Pippin. I'll forgive you if what you say in the next five minutes doesn't transform my life."
"What I mean to say is that there's no way all this could have worked out all right for all of us."
"All this," Frodo echoed, trying for patience.
"All this...this business of falling in love, of pairing off, it's never simple. It wasn't for the Gamgees and the Cottons, even leaving the Master on the Hill out of the picture. It looked simple, but it wasn't, at least for Marigold."
Frodo wasn't sure what was behind all that, and he decided not to press it. Pippin went on, "And it wasn't simple for you and Merry, or for you and Merry and me. Not even in the old days."
"Frodo, when we were in Bree you said –"
"A lot of things I shouldn't have. I've already –"
"Apologized, I know, but you had a right to say them after we..." He shook his head. "But we've been through all that already. Just hear me out for a moment. In Bree you said that Merry and I were made for each other, and so were you and Sam, and I don't believe that's true."
Frodo felt bile in his throat but Pippin held out his hand, went on, "And don't you dare say I think that because I'm prejudiced against gardeners or Gamgees. Keep in mind I had my –"
"It's all right. Go on with what you were going to say."
"Right." He took a moment to gather his thoughts again. "Merry and I, we're very happy now. Being together feels right for us. And I think it could have been the same for you and Sam, if he'd lived. But that's not because we were made for each other. There were choices we made, all of us. And yes, choices that got made for us, and sometimes dumb luck, and bad luck. But I don't believe that it was fate."
"No?" Gandalf rather seemed to, when he spoke of the destruction of the Ring at least.
"Not the fact that Merry and I are in Crickhollow now. Not the fact that we lost Sam. Surely that wasn't meant to happen."
"No, that part was my fault."
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't keep saying things like that."
"Well, you should tell me the truth, whatever it is you feel, but I hope you don't still feel that way. It wasn't anyone's fault."
Frodo couldn't think of anything to say that wouldn't be bitter or false, so he stayed quiet, tried to concentrate. And Pippin, whose cup was empty again and whose plate was now completely clean of crumbs and poppy seeds, stood up and walked around the table, pulled out a chair and sat next to Frodo so he could put an arm around his shoulders. He did not squeeze tight, did not make Frodo turn around to face him, just sat there with him for a long time, letting Frodo know that it was all right, that he didn't need to say anything.
"Did you really think we hated Sam?" Pippin said at last. "Could you ever think that, dear, when we knew how much he cared for you? Do you think we would have let an army of Orcs stop us from following you to Mordor if we didn't trust you were in good hands?"
Frodo thought about that. "Perhaps if you hadn't trusted him so well he'd still be alive."
"Or none of us would be. There's no way of knowing."
Then Pippin let go of him and patted him lightly on the back. "Right then, has what I've said in the last five minutes transformed your life?"
Frodo chuckled. "I can't say. I suppose I'll need some time to think it through."
"It's not very satisfying, is it? Doesn't tie up a lot of knots."
"You haven't made sense of this whole tangle of our lives, no."
"I don't think there is very much sense to it, is the thing. We do our best to help each other through it, as all."
"I'm glad you've been here to help me, Pippin."
"There's nothing I'd rather do."
"But you know you can't do it all. You know you can't make things better."
"I can do my best."
"And what you do is...great, and it does help, but I don't want you to feel as if you've failed when you see that it isn't enough."
Pippin nodded, hugged him again. "Just let me keep trying, all right? Send for us when you need us. Don't close yourself off. Don't keep us away for too long."
"I won't," said Frodo
With eight days left before the wedding, Marigold was charmingly tense and sharp, ordering around not only Tom but all their brothers and sisters and parents as well. The Gamgees had only just moved back to Number Three, and Mari wasn't giving anyone extra time to settle. Rosie had raised her eyebrows at some of her harsher phrases, and Tom himself seemed nervous and much less certain of himself than usual, but their father laughed and said that was all in the rights of a bride.
"And the rights of a wife, for that matter," said their mother. "You'll be wanting to do as she says, Tom. It'll get easier with time."
Rosie had little trouble following orders. She hadn't felt the urge to get much done on her own, or the direction to know what it was that needed to be done. So she listened, moved, thought she was being very obedient and helpful until Marigold said, "And if you intend to wear that glum face for the happiest day of my life, I'm dismissing you right now and making May my bridesmaid, though I like your company much better."
"Beg your pardon?" said Rosie, who really thought she must have misheard something.
"I'm saying, Rosie, I want you to cheer up."
"Oh." So did everybody. They'd been telling her that ever since Sam went away, but Marigold hadn't been one to join in it, at least not in so blunt a way. "It's not as if I've not tried, you know. It's not as easy as –"
"I'm not saying it's easy," said Marigold. "I'm saying I want my bridesmaid to be able to smile. And I'm the bride, so I'll have my way, you see? Here, give it a try."
Rosie pulled back the corners of her mouth and showed her teeth.
"Not good enough," Mari sentenced. "I don't want you disheartening the guests, but I don't want you frightening them either."
Rosie stuck out her tongue briefly and then gave her friend a smaller, tighter, but more genuine smile.
"All right, I'm keeping you for now, but I've told May to be prepared to take over."
"My dress won't fit her. She's much taller –"
"And her chest is flatter, but she's an excellent seamstress."
"I'll do my best then," Rosie said solemnly. "I wouldn't want to lose my chance to stand up in front of all those people looking happy."
"Well, good then, see that you make more of an effort."
But on the day of the wedding Marigold asked to inspect her smile again and Rosie found she couldn't give it. That was all she could think to say at first, "I can't, I can't."
"I know it's not easy," Marigold said, hugging her at once. "No one knows it better than me. And I don't want you to hide your broken heart away if it's still paining you, but I can't stand to see you go on for the rest of your life like this either. We're young things yet, with happiness ahead of us. You're not a widow, you know."
"But I am, Mari."
"You're not. You've suffered a loss that nearly laid you low, but that's not the end of your life."
"Sam and me –"
"Loved each other. I know that, Rosie. It was beautiful, what you two had. But that doesn't mean you can't ever love again. I used to think you were my one and only, did you know?"
And Rosie stopped still, then pulled away, with her jaw hanging open, and wondered how she'd ever been such a fool as not to realize it.
"I said I always remembered the day you whispered the plan in my ear, Rosie, how I was to marry Tom and you was to marry Sam. I remember that because you broke my heart that day, dearest."
"Marigold," was all Rosie could manage to say.
"Because I thought you were mine, didn't I? Mine to keep and hold on to forever, even." Mari grinned even as she wiped a tear from her eye, then lowered her hand to fiddle with a loose thread on the front of her dress. "But you were always more clever than me, as those things go. You kenned long before I did that it don't work that way, that lasses with lasses is just playing around." She lifted her hand to her face again but this time she covered her eyes for a moment and grimaced.
"Mari, I didn't realize –"
"Now, don't you –" Mari began to scold, dropping her hand to her side again, making a fist, but her words broke off.
"It wasn't just playing around, and it needn't be. There's plenty of hobbits that never marry, and some as make a home with the one they love, male or female. Why, there's, look at Mr. Merry and Mr. Pippin, and –"
"That ain't the point, either," Marigold almost snapped, and Rosie was taken aback. Marigold relaxed again and laughed quietly. "Look at me now, then, crying over my young girl's heart while I'm getting ready to marry the hobbit I love." She clasped Rosie's hand. "And I do love him, Rosie, I don't want you to doubt that. I'm crying because it hurt so much then, but I am happy now."
"I'm so sorry, Mari." Rosie lips and tongue felt swollen and useless, her words stupid, but she couldn't think of anything else to say.
"No, now, are you even paying attention, Rosie? I just told you I'm happy now. Here's what I mean to tell you. I know you hurt now. I know it hurts you that Sam's gone, and I know it hurts you to know that he was in love with Mr. Frodo. Hurts so much maybe you can't see the other end of it now. But I believe you can be happy again. It'll take time, course it will, and it'll still be enough to make you break down and cry years and years from now. But you'll find someone else, Rosie, and you'll be happy with them. I know this."
"I just can't..." said Rosie. "All my life when I imagined my wedding day, it was to be with him. I can't picture myself saying 'I do" to anyone else."
"What are you thinking about weddings for?" Marigold asked, and then laughed at herself. Rosie still couldn't. "All right, that part's my fault. But put it out of your mind, after tonight, anyhow. You don't need to be thinking of saying 'I do', just think about telling someone 'Good morning'.
"I already do that every day."
"Then think about saying, 'Would you like some strawberries?' or 'You've got a very pretty mouth.'"
Rosie thought about this and decided she liked that Mari had given her different levels of difficulty to work with. It made things seem more manageable somehow. "All right," she said. "Maybe, some day, I'll offer another hobbit some strawberries, though I'd rather just share them with you."
Mari grinned at her.
"And for now I'll just have to keep thinking about your wedding."
Frodo thought once he had all this space and even a little time to himself, it would be easy to set pen to parchment and get the burden of his story off his back once and for all. He had Bilbo's papers and Bilbo's old study, if not most of the books.
But his memories were a mess, and he didn't like being shut up alone with them, especially now, when he could sit with his cousins instead. He didn't feel any great hurry to finish the book. Unlike Bilbo, he didn't have anyone begging to hear about his adventures.
Rosie practiced her smile in the looking-glass. "Good morning," she said to her reflection. "Would you like some strawberries?" And then, giving up on the smile, "Will you please tell me how Sam died?"
She had an idea that if she could find out all the details then she could stop wondering about it, stop imagining one painful death after another through her sleepless nights. Maybe she'd even find sleep herself, if she could know he'd found his peace in the end. But it didn't seem likely. And imagining what Frodo might answer was no help to her at all.
Chapter 8: Joining
Mayor Baggins officiated more than one wedding that spring. This was the most joyful and the most painful at once, and Frodo only made it though by looking to Rosie. She was broken and angry as he was but managed to smile for Tom and Mari's sake.
He didn't think the speech went over very well. The guests had come to celebrate, and no one wanted to hear about loss, grief, or sacrifice. But Marigold, like Frodo and Rosie, was still grieving, and she seemed grateful for his words.
He found he still couldn't quite look Marigold in the eye.
Rosie turned her back and walked away with a sure step as Marigold laughed and tossed out the bouquet. There were dozens of hobbit lasses trying to catch it. Fools all of them, Rosie thought, to think love and marriage would bring them happiness.
Rosie knew now that she had broken Mari's heart, and didn't deserve even her friendship, let alone the honor of taking part in her wedding. And yet they'd both grinned like their beautiful old selves through the whole torturous farce of it. Mari and Tom, fated to be together.
Keep your flowers, girls. None for me.
The light was fading and the shadows were deep where Frodo found Rosie, sitting alone on the stump of the Party Tree by the burnt edge of the Field. From here they could hear the music but they could also hear each other talk.
They'd all done their best to make the area presentable for the wedding. And indeed, the gathering was meant to celebrate not only Tom and Marigold's marriage, but the restoration of the homes of New Row, and all of Hobbiton. Frodo wondered how it made Marigold feel to see her childhood home almost back to normal, just now as she was moving definitively to Tom's new place outside Bywater. Still, back to normal it never would be. There were still scars like this all over Shire: trees felled, houses burned down, flowerbeds and potato patches destroyed so other treasures could be brought up from the ground.
Frodo had noticed that Rosie tended to seek out places like this, to dwell in them. He thought he understood why. It reminded him of his own stubborn urge to pick at his scars, to tear at his stubby fingernails, the unstoppable movement of his hand to the jewel at his neck when he needed reassurance.
He cleared his throat and was relieved to see that Rosie did not startle, only looked around to see who had made a noise. She seemed pleased that it was Frodo, if she did not quite smile.
"Please don't tell me I'm needed back at the dance," she said quietly.
"Not if you'd rather be here. Do you mind if I sit with you for a bit, or would you rather be alone?"
She shook her head, made room for him beside her on the tree stump. "I do miss our talks, Frodo, since you moved back here. Of course I don't mind sitting with you. I just – It's too much celebration, I think. I don't handle it well, but you know all about that."
He'd told her enough times to forget about what happened at Yule. But he supposed forgetting wasn't as easy as all that; life would be much easier if it were, something that could be accomplished through force of will. Still, he decided to ignore the reference.
"I don't handle it so well myself," he said. "Toasts to the happy couple are lovely –" Rosie winced a little, and Frodo, confused, again ignored her. "But whenever there's wine and a large number of people, Merry and Pippin eventually start telling tales of their heroic deeds, and I can only take so much of that. That's why I left."
This was half true. Frodo had also gone out to look for Rosie and make sure she was all right, but he sensed saying so would not help her feel better.
"You'll need to get used to that," she said evenly.
"To hearing the tales?"
"To telling them, I should think. If you want people to know the truth. Not that your cousins would lie, but they'll only tell the part they know. I for one get tired of hearing about the battles those two fought. I'd rather hear about you and Sam, and I'd like to hear it from you."
"I've been trying to write it down," said Frodo.
"Ah, those papers you never want any of us to look at. The ones you might show your cousins someday?" Frodo was taken aback. Rosie laughed aloud, but without any real happiness. "It's just that, of course. Writing it means a story for gentlefolk to enjoy. Is it that again? You think what happened is too complicated for simple hobbits like Tom and Mari and me to understand?"
"It isn't that at all. And you know I wouldn't… Hang it all, Sam was with me, wasn't he? Haven't I said he was the only one who ever could understand it?"
Rosie shook her head. "Sam wasn't rich, but he was trying to be like you ever since he met you. Even before that, when he was a boy and Bilbo started teaching him his letters. That's when he started forgetting his place, the Gaffer always said…"
"The Gaffer was wrong about that. Sam's place was with me." Rosie looked away. "No, I know you don't like to hear me say it, but I'm sure of that. If I hadn't gone and if he hadn't been with me it would all have been lost."
Rosie nodded slowly without turning to face him.
"And that's why I want to write it down," he continued more quietly. "I want people to know, and not just the gentlehobbits but everyone who misses Sam needs to know how important it was, the sacrifice he made."
"So tell them yourself," said Rosie.
"I will." It sounded overly defensive and also untrue. "I mean," he amended, "that I'm writing it, and rewriting, trying to find the best words to explain it all. And I think after I get all of it worked out on paper it will be easier to speak of it as well. But it's not only that, it's… I want it to be set down somewhere, the whole thing, like a document. If it's just something I tell people and they tell each other then they each tell their own version, what they remember, what they care about most, and it stops being true. It stops being history and it's nothing but a legend."
"Poor Mr. Frodo, the hero of nothing more than legends."
"What is it with you tonight, Rosie?" said Frodo, smiling. "You won't allow me even my usual arrogance."
"You just need to know how you sound, Frodo."
"I know," Rosie said quietly.
"All I mean to say is that it's not some fairy tale. All the talk of elves and wizards and talking trees, kings and princes in far-off lands, and, yes, a great quest… I'm afraid hobbits are likely to think it's all made up, that it doesn't have anything to do with them. I want to set it all down, to sign it and swear to it, and not let anyone deny that it happened, all of it. And that it needed to happen."
"People can still deny it, if that's their way of seeing things. You can't keep everyone else from having their own opinions." Rosie paused for a moment to think. "Anyway, you're not making sense. You say you want hobbits to realize this story is important, that it has something to do with us and the way we live now… but you only want there to be one version of it? That's all wrong. It's got to be what you said before, that each person retells the part they care about. That's the way to make it mean something to them, and it won't be the same something for everyone. You know, your relatives will want to hear about you and Merry and Pippin, and how brave you were. But Marigold and her sisters will be waiting for the parts about Sam. My cousin Barney, now, he loves to look at maps. He'll memorize the name of every place you passed through and be able to point it out to anyone who cares to know. And my little brothers could listen to your cousins go on for hours about the battles they fought, the weapons and the maneuvers and the bodies piling up on each side. That's exciting to them, but it makes me want to cover my ears."
Rosie was silent and Frodo realized eventually that something was missing from her speech. "And what will you be waiting for?" he asked her. "What's the part you want to hear?"
She smiled and frowned a few times before speaking, as if trying to find the right words for something delicate. "I want to know more about what you just said, Frodo, about how Sam helped you on the way, how you couldn't have made it to Mordor without him, how he gave his life for you and the quest in the end. I need to know all the reasons it had to happen, so I know I didn't have to lose him for nothing."
"Don't ever think that, Rosie."
"And I want… I want to understand how much he loved you, and to know what that kiss was like, outside the tunnel."
Frodo shifted where he was sitting, resisting the urge to move away, even to stand up and walk back to the others, or back to his home. Rosie put her hand on his and Frodo made himself stay still rather than draw his hand away. "I wouldn't think you would want to hear about that," he said finally.
Rosie laughed. "I know. It's strange, I suppose. I used to hate the thought of the two of you together. Before you came back and before I came to know you well, I used to be so jealous. But it's different now. I loved him, I still love him, and I want to think there were some happy moments for him along the way. And I want to think there were happy moments for you, because I care for you too, now."
Rosie seemed close to saying something more than this. Frodo knew he could press it if he wished, could make her say more, but there was something frightening in the thought. He waited.
Eventually Rosie cleared her throat. "Please," she said, "I'd like it if you'd tell me about the time you kissed him."
Frodo said, "It wasn't... There were good times along the way, happy times, especially early on, when we were traveling with Merry and Pippin and the others. But it had got so much harder, after we broke apart. So I wouldn't say this was a happy moment. But then, it was bad enough by then we could be grateful for very small things. A chance to sit and rest while the sun was shining, that was a great thing."
"Yes," said Rosie, "I know how that is." She squeezed his hand.
"And that was what we had that day. We'd had to climb up a stairway that was..." And he felt at a loss for words again. It was like trying to say that the spider was large. "We were very tired. And all this time, we'd been tired but it hadn't seemed safe to rest because of all the other dangers around us. We'd never quite come to trust Sméagol and just before that we'd been found by a group of Men – captured, really, and that turned out all right in the end but there were plenty of others around who wouldn't have been as kind…" It really was difficult to tell any piece of it without going into everything else. "But we were alone for a little while then, and we had a bit to eat and a moment to talk and laugh, and even to sleep. I must have looked a fright because Sam said I should go to sleep, and he'd stay up and keep watch."
"That sounds like something he'd say," Rosie said fondly. "And then he'd fall asleep anyway."
Frodo smiled, nodded. "Yes, actually, I think he did that time too. But before that he touched my face, and I don't think he meant to do anything more than that, but I wasn't sleeping as soundly as he thought, and I opened my eyes and looked at him, as he was staring at me, and it… I think we'd been waiting, until then, for some kind of…acknowledgment, or permission, or… But it seemed at that moment we didn't need it. We didn't say anything, just moved at the same time, he kissed me and I kissed him."
"On the mouth."
"You are very forward, Rosie. Yes, on the mouth. It was almost nothing, though, a few moments, and then it ended and we went back to pretending that I was sleeping and he was watching over me."
"And then you were both sleeping. He probably needed it to be that way, so that if it turned out wrong he could pretend it was just a dream."
"But I know it wasn't."
"Oh, I know. I believe you." They were both quiet for a time after that. Rosie hugged her knees and sighed. "I never thought I'd say this, but I can't help wishing there'd been more."
Frodo could only nod.
"It wasn't as if you did need anyone's permission," Rosie said.
"Not even yours?"
It didn't seem quite right to shrug, but she had to anyway. "I never gave my permission for him to leave in the first place. Once you were out in the wild like that, who was going to stop you? It wasn't like being here in the Shire with the gossips watching your every move."
"There were much more dangerous eyes watching us."
"All right," Rosie said quickly, having heard just a bit of danger in his voice then. She really shouldn't go and assume things about what it was like out there, when she'd never been more than a few miles from Hobbiton and Bywater. "Was there anything before that?" she asked, "back in the Shire? Before you left?"
Frodo took some time to answer. "Nothing like that, no. No kiss, and nothing that ever got spoken out loud."
"He loved you though."
"Did he ever say anything to you?"
"Never in so many words, but I knew it."
"I only knew I was in love with him."
"You could have used my help, I think. Both of you far too shy and polite for your own good." She thought for a moment about how strange all of these words sounded in her own mouth, and added, "Not that I would have been willing to help you at the time."
"And I never wanted to hurt you then either, or hurt him. That was one of the reasons I never said anything. It wasn't just that I was tongue-tied!"
"Right," said Rosie, "and you weren't, I mean to say..." What was it she meant to say, exactly? "By the time you left, you'd realized you were in love with him, but before that, there was..."
"Rosie, are you asking me if I'm a virgin?" Frodo laughed.
"I think I am," she admitted, pleased that he would be unlikely to see her blush in the dark.
"I am fifty-one, you know."
"Ah, well, that doesn't need to mean anything on it's own," she said, unsure why she was feeling so defensive. "Old Mimsy Fallows, our neighbor next door, lived to ninety-seven and never did, told me once she just wasn't interested." She thought of her desperate words to Marigold earlier in the day, just look at Merry and Pippin. For some reason, it caused her to laugh now.
"What are you thinking of now, then?" Frodo inquired. "Finally beginning to doubt the old lady's words?"
"Ah, no, it isn't that," said Rosie, still giggling. "I was just thinking of your cousins."
"I suppose we could have been more discreet than we were."
"Mr. Merry first, yes?"
"Well, he wasn't the first, no. Merry's quite a bit younger, you know. But that was the connection that lasted the longest, probably the one that meant the most, apart from Sam."
"Did you ever think Merry was the one for you? That you'd be together for always, like..." do not say like you and Sam, Rosie, "like Mari and Tom?"
Frodo nodded slowly. "There was a time."
"Then Pippin came along."
"Indeed he did, but he didn't get in our way, if that's what you mean."
Rosie smiled. So that old rumor had been true as well. "What about lasses, then?" Rosie noted with some amusement that her shame was completely absent. She was not drunk, but probably all the other emotions of the day had been enough to make embarrassment seem a waste of energy.
"I have a lot of cousins," Frodo allowed with a smirk.
"So you do," she agreed, thinking of dozens of attractive young Tooks and Boffins, Burrowses and Brandybucks. "So really, if I'd gone through with what I was groping for at Yule, it wouldn't have been your first time with a lass at all, just your first time with a peasant."
She had gone too far this time, she knew before he answered, even before she saw the reaction on his face. Frodo always liked to pretend the incident at the Yule celebration had never happened, just as he liked to pretend that social class didn't exist. Probably easier for him that way to imagine he could have made a life with Sam. Most of his friends went along with it for politeness' sake. That is, they all kept their place in the scheme of things, but they didn't use words like gentlehobbit and peasant in his presence. Funny that this should offend him, when he'd offered up so much a few minutes ago, and his youthful sexual exploits appeared to be fair game.
"You know I don't think of you that way," he said, sounding quite serious and almost cold. "And I never thought of Sam that way either. Or his sisters or your brothers. You're my friends and neighbors, Rosie; you're the hobbits I love."
That word. They hadn't used that word for each other yet, though Rosie had come close, and Frodo probably realized it. Never mind that he was declaring his love for Tom and Mari as much as for Rosie. It meant something.
Rosie couldn't help herself, she kissed him on the cheek. Chaste and friendly enough, but it was something else that had never passed between them before.
And to make sure she didn't come across as too soft, she then said, "No need to take that tone of voice with me, Mr. Frodo. You talk as if I'd offended you when you're the one who's being pigheaded. You can say all you like that you don't think of me as lower class than you, but that's what I am. If you deny that then you're not seeing the whole person I am, see? If you loved Sam then you loved a gardener and a gardener's son. And if you love the whole me than you've got to know that I'm a farmer's daughter and proud of it, just as I've got to realize I love the master of Bag End. Nothing wrong with either one, but it's foolish to pretend there's not a difference there."
She'd said it then, she'd taken it that step further than he had and then a step further still, and she felt all right. Her heart was beating fast but she didn't regret her words. There was nothing untrue in them and nothing to be ashamed of. And if that wasn't the way he felt, he could say so.
But he didn't say anything then, only stared, and after a few moments Rosie's resolve started to fade. "I didn't mean –" she started to say, but then he kissed her, his mouth soft and open, hers snapped shut from the surprise. It lasted all of two seconds, and only when he pulled away did Rosie realize he could take her stillness for resistance. Frodo still looked at her through his lashes and licked his lips unconsciously, and she dove at him, took his lips back for herself. It was the last thing she'd expected to happen tonight, but it felt right, for the moment at least.
The taste of her was shocking sweet and appealing, and so was Rosie's expression when finally they pulled apart, and she looked up into his eyes and said, "Do we go into the tunnel next?"
"I'll not say I'm not frightened. But I don't think we should turn back."
"I don't want this to be the end."
"I don't want to lose you."
"Oh, no, don't worry. I wouldn't let you."
"I think you're stronger than I am."
"I think you're stronger with me than alone."
"Yes...perhaps that was what I meant. May I kiss you again?"
He kissed Sam! she said to herself. These lips kissed Sam. And so did these lips. I kissed Sam! If Marigold wanted her to forget about the past and move on this sure wasn't the way to go about it. But no, forgetting about Sam was impossible and Marigold didn't want anything of the kind.
It came to Rosie then that she could truthfully say, "You've got a very pretty mouth" to the hobbit standing in front of her, but she kept it to herself, along with the thought that Marigold must have seen this coming miles and miles ago.
Chapter 9: Trying
Anything that kept you awake for a whole night and sleeping through the day, Frodo thought as he breakfasted the next afternoon, was something out of time, not part of the regular run of hours and days, causes and effects. This year's Yule celebration, for example, might as well not have happened, and the following day's conversation, inescapable as it had seemed at the time, was now like a room boarded off in his mind.
Last night they'd opened a door. Sipping his tea in solitude, he had no idea whether there was still a room there to go inside.
"Wake up, Rosie-lass! Just because your brother's married doesn't mean there's no chores to do!"
"Yes it does," Rosie muttered to herself, but dragged herself out of bed anyhow. Seeing as they hadn't been home all day yesterday and hadn't slept all night, the house was quite clean, and she wished for a moment to be the mistress of a grand smial, free to simply declare that today she would sleep in.
But the chickens wouldn't feed themselves, her mother always said, and dust didn't care that you were tired. Back to real life, and out to face the world.
When Rosie showed up at his door a few days later, she looked more nervous than she had in months. Since those first months after he'd been back, when she treated him like a stranger and a usurper, and, well, never quite like murderer, but perhaps like a thief.
"I hope you're not looking for a housekeeper," she announced, still standing on the doorstep, "because I'm not disposed. I have work to do at my father's house."
Frodo frowned, shook his head. "Of course not, Rosie. I invited you here for your company. Please come inside."
She did so, wiping her feet on the mat, shrugging a little and dropping some of her severity. "Just as well. I'm really no good at keeping house anyhow."
"No one seems to believe I can take care of myself," he said, remembering Merry and Pippin's plans and suggestions.
"Well, that's most likely because you can't."
"May Gamgee's still doing your washing, isn't she?"
"Well, all right. But I tell you –"
"And your garden is a disaster," she snapped, and stopped herself, looked up at him, her eyes wide. "I don't know why I said that, Frodo. I'm so sorry."
"You... " Frodo felt panicked, really had no idea how to respond. "Don't apologize. It's –"
"I shouldn't have come. I thought I was in a better mood today than I am. I'll just –"
"Please don't leave. We'll have some tea at least."
"I'm no good at this, Frodo, and I'm not in the mood for tea."
"Well, we'll have some brandy then."
Rosie froze, then burst out laughing. "I think I could do with that."
"Look at me, readying to drink myself silly in the middle of the day."
"Well, better that than do it in the evening and have to stumble home before you've had a chance to recover."
"There is that."
"People who tell you when not to drink aren't being practical at all, if you ask me. Merry said I shouldn't be drinking alone, but I live alone, so I don't have much choice..."
"You're practically forced to invite the Cotton girl over so you won't feel pathetic and old drinking alone."
As often seemed to happen with Rosie, Frodo felt touched and grieved, and all he could think to do was laugh. And she laughed with him, and they gulped their little glasses down at once.
"You know, when my cousins were here I told them I needed some time to myself, but since I've been here alone in the smial, I'm not so sure."
"I think your cousins make better company than I do."
"I love them dearly."
Rosie looked away and Frodo wondered why he had to be such a fool. He still hadn't said he loved her, and he couldn't bring himself to say it now either, though of course she'd be wondering.
"I suppose I think they make better company for each other," he added awkwardly.
Rosie nodded to show she didn't mind. "You'd rather not get in the way."
"I feel the same way."
"That must be why we get on so well," he said, hoping there wasn't too much bitterness in his smile. "We're both so miserable we're not afraid of bringing each other down."
"Are you quite miserable, Frodo?"
"Not quite all the time."
"I thought I would be, at first."
"Sometimes I wonder that I'm not."
Frodo nodded. "I doubt Sam would want us to go on mourning for the rest of our lives. Still, once in a while I catch myself laughing at something Pippin says, or smiling when I'm with you and Marigold, and I wonder how I dare feel all right."
"Even for a moment." Rosie went quiet and Frodo, not knowing what to say, looked away, but found that she did not, that she kept staring, and that when he looked back at her she kissed him. And her mouth was sour with the drink and his probably was too, and as soon as their tongues touched they drew away from each other again.
"And now I think I'll have some tea," she said, standing up and turning away from him to go to the stove.
Frodo licked his lips and stayed seated while Rosie put the kettle on. "Warm day for it, though," she said. "The walk from Bywater seems longer now than it ever did when I was a lass, even though my legs are a bit longer now." She laughed. "I suppose it's because the trees are gone, no shade anymore, plus I don't always have Tom walking beside me and talking his nonsense to pass the time."
She seemed to be talking mostly to fill the time herself, and Frodo let her go on, contributing a few polite ahs and questions about her family and friends, and all the while he imagined Rosie standing just where she was, but as the mistress of her own home. For of course they'd have moved in and made the place their own once they married. And Sam's eccentric old master would be there, but mostly he'd keep to himself, working on his book, and would only come out of his study for meals and the odd cup of tea.
Then the water boiled and Rosie said, "I think sometime, though, we'll need to stop asking ourselves what Sam would think or what he'd say. The question doesn't really make sense, if you think about it. If he were here then we wouldn't be doing this, would we?"
He waited until she brought the tea to the table and said "If he were here he'd be married to you."
The cups clinked as Rosie spilled her tea. Frodo reached quickly for a dishtowel. "Are you all right?"
"Oh, I'm fine, I'm just a butterfingers. But you knew that already." She took the towel and wiped off her hands. Frodo used another to dry off the table. "Let me get that."
"It's no trouble, Rosie."
"I told you I couldn't keep your house clean."
"I said it's no trouble." He hung up the towels and poured her another cup. "Sam used to do that, you know."
"What, try to do two things at once and end up spilling the tea?"
"Well," Frodo said, smiling, "yes, occasionally. But I was thinking of the way he would beat himself up for saying the wrong thing, feeling the wrong thing."
"And it did no good telling him he'd done right."
"No, no matter how many times you said it. I used to ask him what good all that guilt did him. He said it wasn't a question of good, but a question of right."
"Yes," said Rosie. "I – I'm not so sure you're right about the other thing. About him marrying me."
"That was always the plan, wasn't it?"
"Yes, I've told you that. But by my plan and Mari's we'd all have married a year ago. We didn't expect him to go off."
The words with you hung unspoken in the air, and Frodo didn't think it would be right to ignore them. "Rosie, I." But he couldn't quite say them either. Luckily she understood.
"I don't blame you for what happened," she said. "I hope you don't think that."
He shook his head. "I figured you wouldn't have been able to treat me as well as you have, if you blamed me. But I... I don't quite know how you can stand it."
"Stand what exactly?"
He blinked, thought about it. "Looking at me, I suppose."
"You're not hard to look at, you know."
A smile played at her lips as she said it, and that surprised him, but he said, "You know that's not what I mean."
"I do know. Listen, Frodo, I'll not pretend it wasn't hard at first. I never even used to like to say your name, let alone make conversation or drink tea or brandy with you. But that was when..."
"When we didn't have a thing in common, or at least it didn't seem we did. Though I understand you better now, I think. I know you weren't quite whole even before all of this started."
"Well." She would be meaning something about his parents, but then that wasn't a thing they had in common either. Anyhow, "It's difficult to say exactly what all this is or when it started – "
"Or when it ended," she agreed.
"Or whether it ever will."
She asked him for a tour of the smial, since she'd never seen all the rooms before. She'd been inside as a lass but had never seen the study, for instance, or the master bedroom. Frodo talked mostly of changes they'd made since coming back, standing in each doorway and gesturing at the rooms. But as he was apologizing for some untidiness or other in his bedroom she she laid a hand on his shoulder and, hoping she wasn't pushing too hard, stepped inside. He walked with her.
"I told my mother that you'd kissed me after the wedding," she said.
"And what did she say to that?"
"She said it was about time."
Frodo laughed, and Rosie grinned, though she'd been nervous bringing it up that morning and again bringing it up again now. "She thought it might have happened back in March."
"When we first got into bed together."
She laughed, with some sadness, and he took her hand and kissed her cheek. They sat down on the bed, and it really was softer than a normal bed, she noted to herself. So that wasn't all just talk.
"It must have been obvious to everyone but us for some time," said Frodo.
"Oh, I don't know about that. Maybe just the very sensitive ones. Mother says she'll still need some time to explain it to Father."
"I always thought he liked me well enough."
"For a gentlehobbit, sure."
"Merry and Pippin must have been laughing behind my back while they were staying here."
"Mm," Rosie agreed, "that and laughing in your face."
"Yes, there was certainly some of that."
She kissed his mouth, carefully this time, purposefully, and then drew back and said, "Let's not talk about our relations for a bit. Let's concentrate on us. I've been looking forward to kissing you again, not to making fun."
Frodo nodded, looking serious again, and very nearly afraid. His hands even seemed to shake at first, but they steadied when they settled to the practical problem of unlacing Rosie's bodice. He was gentle and courteous and entirely too slow, so that soon she lost patience and helped him along.
That was good, letting the fabric hang loose, and they could pull it away easily enough when they saw fit. But when she went to reciprocate, Frodo stopped her hands on his buttons, and drew away.
"Don't you – " She stopped. "I thought you wanted –"
"I do," he said quickly. "I don't know why I –"
"I didn't think we were rushing too much."
"No, of course. And it's not that I'm not ready for..." He stopped, as if remembering he needed to breathe as well. "You really are lovely, Rosie."
Rosie remembered that people used to tell her this often. When she was young she'd had no trouble believing them. She sat back, shrugged her dress off her shoulders and pulled it back off her arms so the material gathered about her waist where she sat on the bed.
It took her a few more moments to understand.
"I've seen all your scars already, Frodo."
"When I was ill."
"It's rather a different situation, don't you think?
She didn't answer at first, just held his gaze, and then went back to his shirt buttons. She could feel his body growing tense, his breath going short, as she said, "Not so very different, perhaps."
"If my heart stops again you'll be sorry."
"I'll need to pay close attention then." She pulled his shirt open and pressed him to lie back. Then she laid her head against his bare chest, listening to his heart, and laid her hand gently over the wound in his shoulder. Frodo tensed even more and Rosie had to fight not to draw her hand away, the cold of the wound surprised her so. But she listened to the quick, steady pulse of his warm heart and said only, "It feels fine to me."
He huffed rather than laughing outright. "It feels... too much."
She felt too much as well, compassion, anger, longing, and grief, but none of that could be relieved in a single afternoon. Some of her other feelings were. She turned her head and pressed her lips to Frodo's nipple, causing him to gasp.
"You're awfully impatient for a hobbit well out of her tweens!"
"I'm half naked in your bedroom and you're awfully reticent for a fifty-two-year-old who's screwed half the Shire."
"I knew I should never have…confided in you," he said somewhat brokenly as she went on kissing his chest.
"Are you still nervous about your first commoner?" Rosie sat up, half straddling him now, allowing him to look his fill at her bare chest. "See? We farmers' daughters are really no different from your fine ladies and cousins once you get our clothes off."
"Hold on half a minute." Frodo sat up as well, smoothed his hands from the side of her breasts down to her hips, and kept tugging down at her dress. She lifted herself from the bed so he could pull it all down to her ankles, and he moved her to sit down at the edge of the bed again as he knelt down before her.
"Frodo, what are you doing?"
"I have a brilliant plan," spoken against the hollow above her hip bone, and his breath tickling her hair, "to get you to quit this talk of the master and his servant girl once and for all."
"I think I have an idea of what your plan might be, and I agree it's very clever indeed, although it won't be a question of once and for all so much as – Oh."
For it suddenly became a lot harder to be clever or or casual or cruel, what with Frodo, and Frodo's lips on Rosie's other lips, and Frodo's tongue between them.
"If you – " She'd been meaning to say something about how he'd have to repeat this plan periodically in order to keep her from bringing up their respective social statuses. "Want – " she murmured, and then repeated, "want," but this time it was more of a moan.
"Frodo," pushing her legs farther apart, and she pushed forward, so she balanced at the very edge of the bed and "Frodo," her feet came up off the ground and she lost all leverage but he was pushing back, ah, pushing in and up with that tongue of his, and then his hands were on her thighs, and all Rosie had to do was stay still and firm and open, and all that was easy, because she wanted this, had never known just how much she wanted it until she felt that smooth rough pressure on her sex.
It happened rather more quickly than she'd thought it could, nothing drawn out, just a little ache and a pulling pushing breaking through, a sharp and painful little piece of joy. And Rosie had no words for it, but she made a sound that seemed to tear from her throat, and then felt some piece of her blink out of existence, and she was very glad to see it go.
Tears were stinging in her eyes but didn't spill out. And Rosie had not felt this way in such a very, very long time.
In fact, she thought to tell Frodo – who was still kneeling in front of her, if she cared to notice – in fact, "I didn't think I'd ever feel that again," and she hadn't been quite ready either. And Frodo nodded, understanding, but said nothing, only helped her move to lie on her back, and came up to lie warm and close beside her. And it was some time before Rosie, herself quite content to lie in his arms on that very soft bed for the remainder of the afternoon, realized that Frodo still hadn't felt it. Not only that, "You've still got your clothes on!"
Frodo chuckled, kissed her jaw. "I catch chills easily, you know."
"None of that, Frodo. I'll keep you warm. Undress."
"I knew you'd take well to ordering me around."
"Take off your clothes," she said, thinking he was quite right, though she wished he'd quit teasing. "You've ravished me –"
"Now, Rosie, I hardly think it's f –"
"You've ravished me and left me useless, but I'll be ready for more in a little while, and I want to see your famous Baggins cock now."
Frodo laughed long and loud, and then he did as he was told.
It was frightening, yes, but not like walking into a dark tunnel – more like falling into bright lit day. Terrifying to shine light on this battered body, to let another see, as he hadn't done since before he'd been broken. Worse still to expose a broken soul. It felt like offering himself up for another beating.
And then it felt all right, like falling and then being caught, held, supported. Loved. Frodo thought Rosie might be as generous as Sam, if not as humble. She let him know she was saving him, and Frodo let her know he was grateful.
You're not a widow, she'd whisper to herself every time she knocked on the green door. It took some repeating. Some days Frodo opened the door and his smile filled her with joy. Other days when she looked at him she felt like weeping again.
"I don't think we'll ever get better," she told him. "I don't think we'll ever be the hobbits we were before."
"No," said Frodo. "But I don't think I'd want to go back, for myself."
With everything that had gone wrong, Rosie couldn't quite explain to herself why that made sense, or why she agreed.
Chapter 10: Turning
Gandalf and Bilbo came in September of the following year, and Frodo tried to ride off with them alone, but Rosie insisted on coming along. Merry and Pippin met them along the way, and so did the Elves. And that look of wonder on Rosie's face when she heard their voices raised in song was beautiful enough – familiar enough – to make Frodo weep.
"This is why he left," she murmured. "He wanted to be with you, but he wanted to meet the Elves as well, and this is why."
Yes, Rosie, and you're the reason he wanted to come home.
The moon and the Evenstar rose before the sun had yet set, and all three poured their light into that tiny jewel as Frodo lifted the chain from his neck and passed it to his dear old cousin. Or perhaps it was only the tears in Rosie's eyes that made it seem so. Frodo kissed Bilbo's forehead and held him close, and they exchanged some words Rosie couldn't hear.
He clutched her hand tightly as they watched the ship sail. "I didn't think I could let go," he said.
Rosie squeezed his hand. "You'll never need to let me go."
They parted with Merry and Pippin at the turn off the road to Bywater, but Rosie went on to Bag End with Frodo and stayed on, rather than stop at her father's home. He'd overheard some hushed conversations between her and his cousins, along their way there and back again, and he knew she'd brought back a considerable supply of athelas leaves and the determination not to let him suffer through his October illness alone.
"We'll seal up the windows and crush enough kingsfoil to make you drunk on the smell," she'd said. "But you know how Frodo is about his privacy. He'd rather not have all of Hobbiton, Bywater and Buckland fussing around him."
His privacy had been important enough that the year before he'd made sure Rosie would be in Bywater and his cousins at Crickhollow when the anniversary of Weathertop came. As bad as it was, he'd thought he could just keep reminding himself that he'd been through it before, that it would pass in time.
Terror didn't work like that, of course. In the moment of it, there was no future and no past, only the absolute solitude and certainty of suffering. He'd known March would be even worse and had swallowed…well, most of his pride. He'd gone to stay at Crickhollow, allowing Merry and Pippin to care for him while still keeping Rosie away.
But they were as good as married now (for all that they hadn't seen fit to go through with a great party) and he realized it was foolish to keep this part of himself from her, when they'd shared everything else.
He even had some small hope that he wouldn't need help this time. Now that he'd sent the dream of escape away with Bilbo across the sea, perhaps his illness would be gone as well, and he could live in the world like any other hobbit. But he wasn't surprised in the least to find himself wincing as he reached up to take the plates from the cupboard, or shivering as he sat in front of the fire those first few nights in October.
"I put up a brave front for your cousins," Rosie confessed, as she cuddled next to him on the sofa, "but the truth is I've never been much for taking care of sick ones. The first time I saw it happen to you, back in my father's house? I had to run away I was so scared."
"You couldn't have been as scared as I was," he said as lightly as he could, then squeezed her shoulders and added, "I don't remember it all, but I know you helped care for me then. It must have been hard, when you barely knew me."
"I had already offered to suck your cock."
"Right, but you hadn't done it yet.
Rosie laughed and squeezed him back. "I just don't want you to think I'm a born healer or something, just because I'm a girl. Are you sure you don't want me to send for anyone else?"
"Call for help if you need it, but I trust you."
Daisy didn't have much to recommend besides keeping him warm, so Rosie put as much energy into that task as she could. On the afternoon of the sixth of October she had fires blazing in every hearth in the smial, even though Frodo wouldn't be leaving his own bedroom. She warmed the blankets at the fire before piling them on top of him, and she had him swallow so many cups of broth and tea that he had to tell her to stop if she didn't want him wetting the bed in his illness.
"Elves!" she exclaimed, crushing the leaves and breathing in the steam with delight. Frodo had felt his breathing go slightly shallow, but it became easier and more pleasant to breathe that clean, sweet scent. "The Elves and your Strider knew what they were doing! And to think, if you hadn't insisted on keeping these problems a secret for so long, we'd have known about this much earlier."
"I'm not upset with you, Frodo. I'm glad we've got it now." She sat on the side of the bed and he realized there were bags under her eyes. Between all the work and the worry she must be exhausted, but she hadn't complained. She leaned over and kissed him gently. Frodo tried to shift himself up rather than lie there passively, but she drew away after a moment.
"Let's see how this works then," she said hesitantly. Then she peeled back the layers of blankets and pulled his shirt open. She held the warm wet cloth between her right hand and his left, where he could only just feel it. She moved it slowly up, along and around his wrist, his arm up to the elbow. She stopped to wet the cloth in the warm water again and came back.
Frodo was glad of it, though it didn't feel like much, a slight warming for the skin while he still felt the chill in his bones – he'd rather have gone on with the kissing, truth to tell. But when finally she touched the cloth to the scar at his shoulder it was entirely different. The wound had closed years ago, of course, but the healing and the warmth somehow seemed to reach though the skin there, to bring relief to the ache and the chill he felt inside.
"Oh," Frodo gasped, and she pulled it away. "No, please – "
"Is it all right?"
"Bring it back, please."
She did, held it there, covered it with her hand and pressed down, and Frodo truly could breathe deeply then, and was very nearly content for a time.
In the evening the air grew colder, and even after so many preparations, and under so many warm blankets, Frodo found he was still shaking. His fear added to the chill, and he thought to himself, This will never, never get easier.
But he said only, "Come and lie with me, will you, Rose?"
"As if I hadn't other work to do," she said, but she made room for herself at his side. She needed an effort to move under the blankets that had been wrapped tight around him, but as soon as she was lying next to him, the chill was less and so was the fear.
"Is this all right?" she asked, and she slipped a warm hand under his shirt, felt for the knotted cold slit, and settled to rest.
The relief Frodo felt in her touch was so strong he clenched his eyes and his teeth shut so as not to cry out, and it took him some minutes, during which she moved not at all, to bring out the words, "Yes, Rosie." And several more to say, "It's good."
"Good," she said sleepily, breath hot at his neck. "We'll stay like this then."
And she did, not moving again as Frodo slowly relaxed his jaw, his neck, his shoulders tight like a bow. He remembered that his right arm was still of use, and he brought his hand to rest on hers, to hold it there and keep the split in his skin from splitting open and spilling out the frozen heart inside. Somehow, once he had her hand in his own and protecting his heart, the rest was easy.
"We'll stay like this until it passes," he amended, "and then we'll get up and get on with our lives."
"Well, yes." Tired, impatient to stop talking and fall asleep. So Frodo stopped talking and Rosie slept as she held herself close to him.
"And there's nothing to fear in sleep," Frodo told himself softly, and he let himself go, let himself follow.
Rosie woke up in the middle of the night cold everywhere he was touching her, and remembered how she'd always thought herself a terrible, terrible nurse. She moved to get up and tend to the fire, but Frodo's grip on her arm was fierce and solid as ice.
"Frodo," she whispered, and he did not stir.
"Frodo, you need to let me go."
He didn't speak, seemed as distant as before, but somehow he seemed to hear her. He shook his head and held on tighter.
"Only for a little while, love. Just let me go to the fire." She moved her fingers as much as she could, hoping the friction would bring them both some warmth and perhaps even bring him to his senses, but he wouldn't let go.
She could fight him, and perhaps that would be best – probably what Daisy would do. But Daisy wasn't in love with him, and Rosie thought she'd better play to her strengths. As frightened as she was, she lay with him and told him not to be afraid. "I won't leave you," she said, letting him feel the warmth of her breath and the movement of her lips on his skin. "I know it hurts now, but you've been through worse than this before. You are strong, Frodo, and you will get better." Reassuring herself as much as she was him, when she wasn't even sure he could understand her words. "You've been through worse before, and now you have me. I'll stay with you until it passes, and then I'll still be here, because I love you, Frodo. And Sam loved you. We all love you so much and we will not let you go."
She went on like that until her voice was nothing but a croak, and kept talking. And Frodo still wouldn't let her get up, but perhaps that was all right, and going to the fire wasn't as important as being here with him.
She didn't remember going quiet, but she woke up again in the morning with Frodo lying next to her, breathing peacefully, his hold on her hand light enough that she was able to get up. She warmed the room first, then went to the kitchen to heat more water.
When she came back Frodo was awake as well, and looking quite anxious until he saw her in the doorway again.
"You weren't supposed to leave," he complained, his voice sounding weak.
"Ah, well," and her voice was hoarse, "you weren't supposed to wake up. Have some porridge, will you?" He grimaced. "What, I put maple sugar in it!"
He shut his eyes, breathed for a few moments, then said, "It's good, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to frown."
He was still in pain then, and still trying to hide it. "Maybe just some hot tea for now?" she asked, and he nodded. She fixed a bowl of porridge for herself and arranged the things as well as she could, with the bed piled high with blankets.
"I thought it was only for the one night," she said softly.
"Yes. That was the worst of it. I…Thank you."
"Don't mention it," she said, though she knew he always would, would thank her politely for every kind thing she did, as if that weren't part of choosing to spend your life with someone. "It wasn't so bad. And now I've got a better idea of what to expect next time."
"Yes. Er, did I hold you hostage last night?"
"You did. It was the most excitement we've had in bed in some months, though I wouldn't say it was the most fun."
It wasn't a very good joke. He didn't laugh and she didn't mind.
"I'm sorry," he said "This was the first time I didn't have jewel and it…it seems I need something to hold on to."
"You know you needn't have given it away."
Rosie knew that Frodo could have gone away to the Elven country with Bilbo if he'd wanted to. He'd been given that chance along with the King and Queen's other gifts. So he gave both the gifts away at once, he said, and it saddened Rosie, who thought he should have kept at least one, even though she was selfishly very glad he hadn't left her.
"It was beautiful," she said. "All the Elves' things are beautiful, and it brought you so much comfort over the years, even when you weren't sick."
"It was a weakness," he said. "Clutching at that thing all the time, as if it…" he trailed off.
"As if you could hold on to something you lost?"
Frodo said nothing.
"Well, I wish you still had it, but I'll not complain about you holding me through the night."
"I'm sorry," he said again.
"Don't be, Frodo!" She gripped his shoulders and kissed him. Frodo pushed her away in surprise. "You talk about these illnesses as your moments of weakness. You don't want me to see you at your worst. I went into last night expecting the worst, and what I found was a hobbit who's stronger than me or any of my brothers! You hold on to what's important so tightly, Frodo! That's what Sam was like too. And that strength is how you made it through everything you did, with his help. I'm sorry it hurts you, but it makes me admire you more than ever. Do you understand that?"
Frodo only raised his eyebrow at her for a very long moment, and then he burst out laughing. And it was a rather weak little laugh, Rosie had to admit. She joined him in it.
"You're very sexy, I mean that," she insisted. "Though I am glad it's only twice a year."
Frodo laughed harder.
"I've seen you at your worst now and you're not all weak. And I bet you're not cold all over either, or I know less about lads than I thought." Rosie reached under the blankets. The movement was somewhere between a comforting embrace and a grope, and was very familiar to Frodo.
"Do I ever get to stop being a 'lad', do you think?" he said, reaching for the swell of her hip.
"Why don't you show me then, if you're such a big man as all that."
And in his quiet, gentle way, he showed her.
They stayed under the covers at first, Rosie covering his body with hers as she peeled off her own nightclothes and then his. Rosie's flesh was warm, her body round and whole and full of life.
There was a time when looking at her made him feel ugly, twisted and wrecked like Sméagol, like an Orc. But by now he'd learned to feel special when she looked at him: a treasure saved from the rubbish heap, all the more valuable because she'd been the one to rescue him. In Gondor everyone praised the Ring-bearer. In the Shire, Rosie loved Frodo.
Frodo's skin was colder than on a normal morning, but that was only fitting on the morning she welcomed him back from a dark journey.
The skin of his neck was no longer visibly scarred, angry and red as it had once been, but it was a slightly softer, newer skin than on most of his body, warmer to the touch of Rosie's lips.
His fingers had the small, pronounced calluses that came from holding a pen, not the rough ones that came from working a hoe.
Frodo's skin was perfect when it was touching Rosie's, everywhere they could reach.
Chapter 11: Passing
March was hard, but not as hard as the year before. When Frodo felt he couldn't breathe, Rosie's breath saved him. He remembered he did intend to go on living after all.
That spring they knelt together and planted seeds, and Frodo wondered whether one day he'd learn to count the years joyfully, by seasons of budding flowers or falling leaves, not by the illnesses that came with them. He felt health and love returning like sun on his face and dirt under his fingernails, and he remembered the warm blush of his first true love, there, in the garden.
They let another year pass before the wedding, and Rosie decided not to throw a bouquet, though she carried one. She said young ladies needn't spend their days dreaming of marrying. They had better things to do with their time.
Frodo told her she was beautiful and she told him he was a sentimental fool. He kissed her and took the flowers from her hands, tossing them behind his back without a second glance. When Rosie looked up she saw that Faramir, Pippin and Diamond's boy, was delighted to have caught them. She laughed, and kissed her husband again.
Sam Baggins (No, he'd say, not Samwise, though it's true they named me for him, but it's plain Sam Baggins, if you please), like so many other hobbits of his generation, grew up hearing his parents' stories of the Troubles. He was one of only nine hobbits of the Shire who also grew up hearing their fathers' stories of the Quest. When he compared his version and his sister's with that of Faramir Took or the Brandybuck cousins, he always found that the others had darker tales of the ruffians in the Shire, the hobbits in the Lockholes, the hunger and fear. But Sam was the one who thought of the Journey as a trial much worse than that.
"What about the time when the Orcs took them?" said Sam, who'd heard about it from his father but never heard Uncle Merry or Uncle Pippin speak of it themselves. "Didn't they despair then? Weren't they in terrible pain?"
"That part only lasted for a few days," said Faramir, "and they were together the whole time, so my dad says he always knew Merry would figure out something."
Éowyn Brandybuck was slower to answer, but when she did she agreed with her cousin: "There were times that were very bad, but if my dad ever gave up hope, he didn't see fit to tell us about it."
"Why don't you ask him?" said Sam.
"What, say 'Didn't you think you'd all fail and be killed?'" said Faramir.
"Well, yes. That's what they must have thought."
"I don't think so," said Éowyn. "They never stopped being hobbits, did they?"
"But what does that even mean?" Sam complained. And could he be so sure that his dad had been himself through it all? "Sméagol stopped being a hobbit, you know. It does happen."
"Seems like it'll happen to you if you don't lighten your mind a little," said Faramir. "Leave it alone, Sam. They've told us what they want us to know. The rest of it they've decided to put away and keep to themselves."
"And that's their right," Éowyn added.
"So you won't even ask them?"
"No," she said, "I won't ask my dad for anything he hasn't seen fit to tell me already."
That evening Sam was sitting on his own practicing his Elvish letters while his little sister sat on their father's lap and pretended to read a poem aloud from the Red Book. Sam glared at his copybook, made a few grumbling comments to himself, and finally snapped, "You don't even know what you're saying, Goldberry! You're just a baby and a fool, you don't even know how to read!"
"I do too!" she shouted back, before their parents could intervene. "You're just jealous because you want to be the only one who knows anything."
"But I am," said Sam. "Nobody else understands."
"No, Sam," his mother said quietly. "It only seems that way because you're fifteen and she's eight. You'll see. Frodo..."
"Yes," he said, because Sam's parents could communicate like that, without words. Sam thought it was uncanny and, in truth, it did make him a little jealous. It wasn't like that at all with him and Faramir or him and Éowyn. Frodo laid a kiss on Goldberry's forehead and said, "You are doing a marvelous job, my darling. Why don't you go show your mother how much you've learned while I go talk with Sam."
Goldberry stuck out her tongue at Sam as she carried her book across the room, and Frodo held out his hand as he walked toward the study. Sam followed silently, took the hand in his, but he didn't want to have this kind of Talk right now. So he fairly stomped into the study and, rather than sit on his dad's lap like a repentant child, he crossed his arms over his chest, set his feet squarely apart, and stood in front of the chair where Frodo sat.
"You're going to say I should apologize," he said, "and I don't want to."
"I can see that," said Frodo. "Sometimes, though, it's not so much about what we want as about what's the best for everybody."
"But this isn't even important!" said Sam, who could understand the need for sacrifice and selflessness when the times called for it but still thought his little sister was a brat.
"If it's not important, then why be so unkind to Goldberry?"
"It's not being mean," said Sam, "it's just telling the truth. She isn't reading, she's just saying poems and songs she knows by heart already from hearing them so many times."
"Of course she is," said Frodo.
"But that's not fair! You shouldn't tell her she's doing a good job and she's so smart when all she's doing is singing nursery rhymes! You shouldn't lie to her!"
"It's true Goldberry's not reading for herself yet, but she needs to believe that she can, just as you needed that when you were her age."
"I learned how to read faster than she did."
"Well, all right, and she's got a better singing voice. That doesn't mean you should call her a fool."
Sam didn't know what to say to that, so he changed the subject. "It's the same with everybody. They sing those songs or they tell that story like they know what it means, and they don't."
There was a weird silence, and then his father let out a breath and said, "Ah. That's what this is about then. Come on, Sam, why don't you sit down?" Instead of patting his own lap he moved another chair, and Sam accepted what seemed like a good compromise.
"I used to worry about the same thing, back when the story was fresh for me. When it wasn't a book or… even a story yet. It was real life, and it was so real and it hurt so much that I didn't even think I could put it into words. I thought if I made it into a book it wouldn't be as real. And I'll tell you honestly, son, I wasn't sure whether I wanted that or not. I wanted people to know the truth, but I didn't want it to be as real as it was for me then."
"They sing the songs at parties," said Sam. "They get drunk and someone says, 'Now let's hear about the Scouring of the Shire.' Like it was fun."
"I know. That's why I stay away from parties when I can," said Frodo with a small smile.
"They should be more respectful."
"They give their respect in their own way. But part of respecting other people is knowing we can't force them to think the same way we do, don't you think? Merry and Pippin and I got to live our stories and then we got to tell them – me in the book, and them when they tell them out loud – and that's our part. We don't get to decide what those stories mean to anyone else. And the thing your mother taught me, the harder part to learn, is that we shouldn't be able to."
Sam had learned by now that sometimes his father said things that didn't make sense, or didn't seem to at the time. You could argue with him, and get frustrated because he smiled at you and refused to argue back, or you could just take his words back with you and think on them for a time. What he did know now was that if anyone had the right to be angry about all this it was Frodo. And if Frodo wasn't, well then…
"Goldberry is still a brat. She doesn't understand anything."
"She doesn't understand much from looking at letters yet. That will come with time and practice. But Goldberry is a wonderful listener. She's got a knack for remembering she's heard and being able to call it back. That's something to be proud of now."
Sam didn't think being able to repeat other people's speech was any kind of special talent. It certainly wasn't something he was going to work at. And if Goldberry had to have a talent that other people thought was special he wished it could be something quieter and less distracting.
"She's my sister," Sam said eventually.
"And family are the people we love even when they keep us from learning Elvish."
"If I apologize can I go work in my room for tonight?"
"That sounds like a wonderful plan."
"All right," said Sam, standing up and trying to think of the graceful apologies Éowyn was so good at making, but also thinking such fine talk was probably wasted on Goldberry. He sighed to himself.
"And Sam?" said Frodo, hesitant and serious as he hadn't been through this talk.
"I'm glad you want to understand the words from my book. I'm glad you care what they mean to me."
Sam nodded, and thought for a few moments about what to say next, because with Frodo it did matter. "I won't try to make people think the same thing I do. I know there's no use in that, but…but I'll always tell them, if they ask. I'll always tell them what you and Samwise did and what it meant."
"Thank you for that, Sam." Frodo's smile then was not tolerant, sad, or amused. Sam had made his father happy, and that, he knew, truly was something to be proud of.
Goldberry Baggins (who insisted on her full name and would not be called just Berry or Goldie) was her father's daughter, and when he died in her nineteenth year it was a blow such as she'd never known, and she didn't see how she could ever feel right again. And Goldberry, though she loved her mother well, had never felt as close to her as she did that spring, when they were brought together by their grief.
"My Goldberry," said Rosie, all but crushing her with her hugs, her hot tears on Goldberry's neck. "He loved you so much, my dear. I was always afraid he'd go. But I did think he'd stay to see you come of age."
"So did I," said Goldberry, for how could she have thought anything else?
Uncle Merry spoke before they put him in the ground. He held himself stiff and stubbornly together until he saw Pippin crying, and then he broke down himself, and could not finish his speech. Estella went to him and hushed him, and Merry sobbed aloud. And Freddy Bolger thanked them all for coming, and that was the end. Rosie's brothers helped Freddy lower the coffin into the ground, and the others turned away.
Rosie walked between her two children as they left the burial grounds, and Goldberry saw very little, but she heard other hobbits crying and she marveled at how many grieved for him. In the selfishness of childhood and adolescence, Goldberry had never given much thought to the notion that anyone else could love her father as much as she did.
"It wasn't that he had a weak heart," her mother said.
"I know," said Goldberry.
"Your Uncle Will, now, he had a weak heart and that was why he died young. But your father had the strongest heart of any hobbit that ever lived, and that was why he lived as long as he did."
"I know, mother."
And she did know it. Thirty-one years since he went into Mordor meant thirty-one times his heart stopped, and every single time, except for that last one, it had started up again. He was that strong.
Her father's illnesses were always frightening, but the fear had lessened year by year. Goldberry and Sam were kept away when they were small, but once they were old enough to know why it happened, and experienced enough not to think it was the end, they would help their mother take care of him. Sometimes all that meant was sitting with him and holding his hand while Rosie prepared his medicine or while she slept. Frodo was insensible during the worst of it, but he always said afterwards he was grateful for their presence, that he was glad to know his loved ones were with him. He learned within a few years not to fear the hobbits who cared for him during those days. He was always confused at first, but each year he had more memories of gentle care saved away, and his memories of the Tower grew more remote, and Goldberry was very glad of that.
Rosie had consulted with Daisy and other healers over the years, and by the time Goldberry was old enough to boil water for tea they had worked out the proportions of the herbs as well as they could. In the fall they made a pain medicine strong enough to let him sleep through most of it, and Rosie, though it was often difficult for her to sleep, lay in bed next to him to help keep him warm.
The paralysis that came in the spring was terrifying, but with his muscles strengthened by the right foods and herbs and then massaged by Rosie's strong hands, there was much less pain than their had been in the early years.
Frodo always spent more or less the same amount of time recovering, but each time he told them that the pain had been less than the year before. It was only after he was gone that Goldberry thought to question the truth of his words. What if he'd only said it so they would think their efforts meant something?
It was always frightening and it was always hard, but somehow they'd all got used to the routine of it. And then this year while Sam was out bringing water from the well and Goldberry was in the kitchen with Aunt Marigold, they heard Rosie screaming from the bedroom.
"He was strong and he wanted to live," Rosie said now. "And that's why you're here, you and your brother. And that's why I'm here and alive and I'm happy" – she said it with a wild kind of determination – "I'm happy for my children and the life I've had. If I hadn't had him I'd have walked into the Water and drowned in my grief back when I lost my Sam."
"But Sam's right here," Goldberry said softly, and then bit her tongue. Her Sam was lost all those years ago. "I'm so sorry, Mother."
And they held each other for a long time. Wept, and dried their tears, and whenever they set to talking they'd start weeping again. Sam finally left the room, as if he couldn't stand it anymore, and Goldberry could barely stand it either, but she'd rather stay here than follow him.
"I never knew," Goldberry said, much later that night, "about Samwise Gamgee."
"What about him, dear?"
"Well, I meant about how you felt when you lost him, but I suppose I mean... everything, really. You never did tell me much about him.
"I didn't need to. You read in your father's book about the great things he did."
"I know, of course, but if it were only for what I'd read in the book I'd never have known that the two of you loved each other."
"Oh, well. That's hardly the proper subject for a book of history, is it?"
"I don't know," said Goldberry, "but I think it's all right, as a subject for a mother and her daughter to talk about. Or... well. Let's forget about what mothers and daughters ought to do, and I'll just tell you I want to know, in case you care to tell me. I want to know what it was like for you when you were my age. What you did and what you dreamed about. Tell me about the Shire in the old days, Mother."
Rosie said she couldn't talk about it then, but the next day Marigold was there to visit, and Goldberry asked about Samwise again. At first she was nervous, thought Marigold wouldn't like to speak of her brother long gone, but she said, "Ah, how I wish we'd had a proper burial for him. How I wish we'd had a chance to say goodbye to him and tell each other our stories."
"Why don't you tell them to me now then?" said Goldberry.
Marigold raised her eyebrow. "Now that's a lovely thing to hear. I can't remember the last time one of my boys asked to hear his old mother talk about the old days. It's always, 'What's going to happen next?'"
"So tell me about what happened before. Start with… Oh, I don't know. Start with being a little sister with a big brother! That's something the three of us have in common."
"Tell me, Goldberry," said Marigold, laughing, "does your Sam ever tell you to be quiet because you're embarrassing the family? That's what our Sam always said to me, especially if I dared to open my mouth while Mr. Bilbo or Mr. Frodo was around."
"Did you really talk that way? About Mr. Bilbo and Mr. Frodo, even when you were all children?"
"Sure we did, from the day he moved in. It took me until years after him and Rosie were married to call him plain old Frodo to his face."
"We was a lot older than us anyway," Rosie reminded them. "It's not like we were playing in the flower beds together, the way we did with Tom and Sam. Oh, Mari, but do you remember how beautiful and mysterious we thought him back then?"
"I tell you, I remember how beautiful and mysterious Sam thought he was. I think the day Mr. Frodo came to live at Bag End was the day I stopped being a cute baby in my brother's eyes and started being an embarrassment."
"He was proud of you though," said Rosie softly. "Pleased as anything when he found out Tom had spoken for you."
"Yes, he was happy with the Plan by the end."
"And he would have been so proud of everything you did for Shire after he went away. I don't think he'd be a bit surprised, but just bursting with pride for his little sister who never gave in to them Ruffians. All the reasons I wished he could've come back, most of them were selfish. But I did always want to see the look on his face when we told him how brave you'd been."
Marigold was smiling with tears in her eyes, and after a few moments of silence Goldberry asked, "What would you have told him?"
They'd all been talking for more than an hour when Aunt Daisy came by to say hello, and then they talked for another three. The next day it was just Goldberry and her mum, and a week after that they went to see Robin Smallburrow in Frogmorton, where he'd stayed to live with another of the Shirriffs he met in the last weeks of the Troubles.
Everything got told out of order, and everybody remembered things a little differently – the men and the women, the common folk and the gentlehobbits. There was a time when Goldberry felt out of place in the Shire, never quite fitting in with her father's relations or her mothers; but now she was glad to be that special kind, half and half, and felt she could talk to just about anybody.
The easiest thing, though, was to talk to Sam, and that was what she did every night. He drew up timelines, put each story down on paper and showed her how to put them together, where to go next if she wanted to fill in the gaps. Sometimes he even came with her to hear the old hobbits talk, but he would sometimes get annoyed and tell them their stories didn't make sense, whereas Goldberry was content to listen, and wait to try to make sense of it all later.
So the year she lost her father was the year she got to know her mother, her aunts and uncles, and eventually the whole of the Shire as she never had before, and it was also the year she learned to work with her brother, letting his strengths complement hers instead of clashing with them as they always used to.
He was eager to make it into a book that could be shared right away, but Goldberry gave the task the years it needed, until she could walk from Bywater to Hobbiton and see the tall trees that no longer lined the road, feel the breeze underneath them. Until she knew Samwise Gamgee not as a character in a book but as another member of her family. Unlike the hobbits who told her stories about the old days, he would always be young. A hobbit like her, who liked to recite poems just as she did, and who loved Rosie Cotton and Frodo Baggins.
Frodo's children heard the tale of the Ring a dozen times before they knew how to talk. They knew what their parents had given up in order to see the Shire free. After Frodo was gone, Rosie explained that he'd have lived many more years and with less pain in the West, but he'd chosen to stay with the hobbits he loved. He'd chosen them.
The sacrifice of others is no easy burden to bear but he'd learned to live with it, through more years than he ever thought he could. And so would they, with time, so would they.
Rosie lived much longer than she thought she could too. She'd never had her heart stop the way Frodo did, but she'd twice had it broken, twice lost everything and thought she couldn't go on.
She lived to see the Shire green again and the bulk of its people never having known what it looked like under occupation. She lived to see her son marry and her daughter decide that, really, she'd rather not. She lived to see four grandchildren grow from sweet-faced toddlers into wild tweens.
And she never stopped thinking, if only her Sam could've seen it too.