It was a simple plan, really. For the past eight years, ever since Sam had moved into Bag End, they had been someone's guests at Yuletide. In good years, it was at the Great Smials, and in not so good years, it was, despite Frodo's original vows to the contrary, at Brandy Hall. Sam had been going along willingly enough with this arrangement, for did he not have his family about all the time? Frodo did not, and normally it was rare that Frodo could be induced to leave the comfort of Bag End, unless it was perhaps for a hiking tour, but the excuse of the holidays appeared to be one of those singular motivators, causing Frodo to feel obligated to see the rest of his relatives. Frodo's cousins, of course, made regular, and generally spontaneous, trips to Bag End, but Sam agreed that it was not an unreasonable proposal to face the rest of the lot at least once a year on this specific occasion.
But this year, they were contemplating the prospect of Brandy Hall, once again, and family ties were proving to be less than alluring for Frodo. The last occasion had been quite trying, and Frodo's temper had very nearly not lasted. Truth be told, Sam wasn't particularly relishing the thought of the trip either. Not only was he in a constant fret about what might set Frodo off, but he really didn't care for the nasty innuendos, and aloof airs, that seemed to pervade a good deal of Brandy Hall from certain quarters, even if the culprit was Frodo's own aunt. Besides, it usually took Frodo about a week to work off the foul mood in which he inevitably returned, and Sam really could do without that, seeing as how he didn't have his garden to escape to, this time of the year.
It was in bed, on a typical winter's night, that Sam was suddenly inspired. He had just poked his head out from under the down coverlet, for a quick breath of cool air, since he had managed to somehow overheat himself. Frodo, who rarely got too hot, didn't seem to mind, and was diligently, and rather effectively, trying to persuade Sam back under again. "Frodo-love, I just need a quick breather… Oh." He gave a sudden choke at Frodo's latest tactic, and immediately froze, since whatever it was that Frodo was up to, he had no intention of interrupting it, for if Frodo kept on that way, he'd just surely, inevitably, make him… And he did, with Sam rather vociferously expressing his appreciation with a loud ringing shriek of the perpetrator's name.
Frodo shortly popped up out of the coverlet shortly thereafter, with quite a satisfied grin on his face. "Told you I'd serve you properly for what you did earlier," he mentioned in a pleased voice.
"Ah, Frodo, you'd just feel free t'be doin' that again, any time at all, love," Sam hummed contently, wrapping his arms tightly around Frodo and rolling with him to their customary locations on the bed. Lying there, warm, content, and with the most wonderful tingling in all just the right places, he was suddenly struck with the gloomy memory of their last trip to Brandy Hall.
They had not been able to stay in Frodo's old room, with its enticing distance from the rest of the family, but rather had been forced to stay in one of the official guest bedrooms instead. Esme Brandybuck had commented vaguely about renovations being done to the more rundown parts of Brandy Hall, and wallpaper, and new sconces, and the like, but Sam was positive that he had detected a satisfied gleam in her eye at the thought that he and Frodo would not be as able to escape for a bit of privacy. Instead, it had been a stiff new bed and the alarming prospect of being overheard by Merry's Great-Aunt Delphinium, in the adjoining room, a distinctly dampening factor.
Sam had just finished ruing the fact that in little over a week, they would have to leave this cozy refuge of theirs, when he suddenly felt a rebellious surge at that expectation, and quite abruptly decided that it was time, indeed, past time, for them to have their own Yule here at Bag End. He knew, well enough, that he didn't need to worry about whether Frodo would be pleased to stay home or not, but rather how to get past his sense of obligation. And then it struck him. Had his own family not done without him for the past several Yuletides? It was time to celebrate the holiday Gamgee-style, with the great added benefit of not having to leave home. That would definitely give Frodo an excuse not to feel guilty about declining the invitation from Brandy Hall, and they would have, for once, a relaxed, comfortable, and peaceful Yuletide. And with that happy thought, and a smile on his face, Sam fell asleep.
Sam proposed the plan to Frodo over second breakfast the next morning, having waited through first breakfast to ensure that Frodo was completely awake, and more likely to be properly receptive to the idea. Frodo eyed Sam with a slowly dawning grin, and, as soon as he appreciated Sam's reasoning, hearty congratulations. "Brilliant, Sam!" he exclaimed. "Who could begrudge you a chance to spend Yule with your family, after all? And surely, by now, they've all grasped the fact that I'm certainly not about to spend the Yuletide season without you. Or any other, for that matter," he added warmly, leaning over to give Sam a loving kiss on the cheek. "That's it, then." He poured himself out another cup of tea, with a decisive nod of his head. "I believe that there's just enough time to send a message to Brandy Hall not to expect us. And if not, I imagine they'll figure it out on their own."
Later that morning, whistling cheerfully, Sam ambled down the lane to Number Three, his steps lightly crunching through the icy dusting of snow. He did need to stop by to split some fire logs anyway, and it would be the perfect opportunity to mention the adjusted Yule plans. He gave a glance up at the bright blue sky and blissfully considered what might go well with the roast pork. Roasted taters and onions, of course, with perhaps some rosemary, that would do, he decided dreamily. He had never cooked a Yule feast before and was relishing the idea no end.
Rapping once on the door, he swung it open with a cheerful greeting. Daisy looked up in surprise from the kitchen, where she was kneading the bread, and even the gaffer glanced up from where he sat by the fire, sanding down a new handle for his favorite trowel. "You'd be in the best of moods, now," Daisy exclaimed, giving the dough a final punch, and plopping it into a bowl to rise. "I thought you'd be packin' to go. Brandy Hall this year, isn't it, then?" she added with a bit of carefully hidden disappointment. She had taken to accompanying them on the years they visited the Great Smials.
"Well, and that's what I'd be here t'tell you about," Sam grinned, giving her a hearty hug from behind, and sneaking a pinch of dough. "We were thinkin' as it's about time we'd have Yule right here in Bag End, a Gamgee occasion, so to speak. As well as Cotton, o'course. Not to mention a certain Baggins."
"Really, Sam?" Daisy exclaimed, her face lighting up at the news. "Da, ain't that great?"
"Aye, 'tis," the gaffer glanced thoughtfully at Sam. "Have you been tellin' Mistress Cotton the news yet? 'Tis alus at her smial, you know."
"Oh, she won't be mindin' at all," Daisy patted Sam's shoulder reassuringly. "Why, 'twas only last week as she was tellin' me that it all was beginning to be a bit much for a hobbit of her years. But her smial is the biggest, so that's where we'd be."
"So she'd not be mindin' if we have Yule at Bag End this year?" Sam asked hopefully.
"It'll make her that happy," Daisy was confident.
"An' you an' Mari'll be helpin' out with the cooking?" Sam asked then, the slightest bit of doubt beginning to creep in. He'd never cooked for a crowd before, and he didn't want Frodo's first Yule dinner to disappoint.
"Aye, to be sure, you'll be needin' it," Daisy laughed, seeing the doubt beginning to creep across Sam's face. "Have you counted up the mouths you have to feed yet, Sam?"
She gave another chuckle at his expression, and started to number them off. "Well, now, there's you and Mr. Frodo to begin. An' me and Da, 'tis four. May'll be here, to be sure, and you'd best count on her bringin' a body with her, and that makes six." May and Daisy had taken to trading time at the Row, with Daisy spending the rest of the year at the Great Smials, still supposedly training the young healer there, who, oddly enough, seemed to always need just a little bit more instruction before she could take over the task completely. And May spent the rest of the time with her friends in the bustling village of Hobbiton. It had turned out to be a rather satisfactory arrangement.
Daisy continued her counting. "Mari and Tom and their little 'uns, there's five, so now we're at eleven. There's Father Cotton, and his goodwife, and Rosie, and Ned and Nibs, with his new wife, the other Rose. So there's six more, and that's seventeen. And then Jolly and Aster and their six fauntlings, that's a party all on their own. That'd make twenty-five. You can see why I don't think Mother Cotton'll be complainin' any t'have you do it, Sam."
Sam suddenly found himself needing to sit down. He had never quite totaled it all up in his head, and had to admit, the idea of entertaining a crowd like this was overwhelming. But on the other hand, it was this or Brandy Hall. That alternative quickly made it all seem doable, somehow. He had no doubts, though, that this would be a Yule to remember for both himself and Frodo.
Frodo looked distinctly taken aback when Sam gave him the headcount over tea that afternoon. "Twenty-five?" he repeated, rather weakly.
"Aye, to be sure, but several of them are but fauntlings," Sam added, hopefully.
"Oh, well then." Frodo brightened at that thought. "I'm sure we'll fit them in somehow." He got up from the kitchen table and headed down the hall to the front room and eyed it thoughtfully. "I seem to remember Bilbo having quite a crowd here on occasion," he mentioned somewhat wistfully as Sam came up behind him, wrapping an arm around his waist. "But I rather doubt it was quite that many."
"Ah, don't you worrit now, me dear," Sam laughed fondly. "We'll fit them all in even if a few end up in the halls." And a rather lingering kiss directly at underside of Frodo's jaw quickly dispelled all plans of seating arrangements, bringing up, as it were, far more interesting subjects.
A couple of days later, Sam was seated on a bench next to the fire and the gaffer in his old smial when he heard Daisy's sudden exclamation of surprise. Sam had been working on his gift for Frodo, a new stout walking staff of well-polished holly wood. The head of it was to have some elvish characters carved into it, and that's what he needed the gaffer's assistance for, the gaffer being a master at whittling and fancy woodwork. Fortunately, the gaffer did not seem to be particularly curious as to what the characters meant.
Daisy had been at the spinning wheel, coaxing the last fleece into thread for another blanket, when she had decided to give herself a bit of a break and stretch her back. It was the sight she saw as she passed the small kitchen window that made her cry out in disbelief.
" 'Tis Mr. Frodo's cousins," she exclaimed, as Sam looked up, curious. "I thought you'd be sayin' that they were havin' Yule at Brandy Hall this year." Quickly, she looked back out as they passed, but felt her heart drop when there was no sign of a lass with them.
"Merry and Pippin?" Sam stood up abruptly. "That's odd, indeed."
Snatching up his jacket, and quickly hiding the staff in the bedroom, he nodded his thanks to his father, gave Daisy a quick kiss on the cheek, and left before his father could finish muttering, "That's Mr. Merry and Mr. Peregrin, and they'll be the Master and the Thain afore ye know it, so you'd best not be treatin' them so casual-like, lad." But, seeing as how he was addressing empty space, he growled again and returned his attention to his trowel handle.
Sam caught up with the two visitors just as they were being happily hugged and thumped by Frodo in front of the green door of Bag End. Smiling joyfully up at Sam, as Sam approached from the Row, he cried cheerfully out, "Look here, Sam! We have another couple of escapees for the holiday!"
Sam grinned broadly, reaching out to give Pippin a hand with a rather awkward collection of assorted parcels and mysterious bundles, which were quite threatening to get away from him. Merry plopped his collection down inside the doorway with a hearty groan of relief, and messaged his arms a bit. "Tea, Frodo," he moaned piteously. "That's quite a walk from Hobbiton, loaded up so."
And in no time, they were seated about the table in the snug kitchen of Bag End with steaming mugs in their hands, and a plateful of scones, fortunately not finished off at elevensies, set before the two weary visitors.
"So, however did you manage it?" Frodo couldn't restrain his curiosity any longer. "Did you get the message I sent about Sam and I staying here?"
"Well, of course," Merry replied rather indistinctly. Swallowing scone, he continued. "That's when we decided that our Yule would be bleak indeed without a friendly face about the old pile, and we may as well join the both of you."
"And your mother agreed?" Frodo continued his questioning, rather amazed at this information.
"Well, she didn't say no," Merry quickly responded.
"Little difficult, that, seeing as how she was never asked," Pippin impishly added.
"Oh, no, you two," Frodo gave them a wary look. "Really now, I get blamed for enough, as it is. They'll send someone off for the both of you again, you know they will."
"No, no," Merry assured him with a satisfied grin. "We thought it all out."
"And asked our fathers," Pippin confided, with a matching grin. "Ever so much easier, you know."
"So," concluded Merry with triumph, "it won't just be the two of you sitting down to Yule dinner all by yourselves."
Sam made a sudden strangled sound at that comment, being caught off-guard with a mouthful of tea, and Frodo burst into laughter. "Well, no, we won't, will we, Sam?" He helpfully pounded Sam on the back, leaving his cousins rather mystified. "That's, what, twenty-seven?"
From where they lay in bed, Merry and Pippin could see Sam trudging off into the early morning's light icy drizzle. The window, of course, had both shutters and curtains provided, but Merry never much saw the use of them. Bag End had become their own refuge, since their circumstances had changed, a couple of years ago, and he really didn't think that Frodo or Sam would have any doubts as to what he and Pippin were up to. He was immensely glad that both Frodo and Sam were so accepting of being imposed upon, at the least excuse, and vowed to himself to do everything he could to help Frodo pull off these Yuletide festivities. Except, of course, for helping Sam out quite so early on a cold morning like this, even before second breakfast.
Pippin, still more than half asleep, rolled toward him and buried his nose into Merry's shoulder. Merry laughed softly to himself, reaching up to brush away a stray auburn curl, and set about waking up Pippin in the most entertaining way possible. No sense in wasting any of their time here. He could always sleep when he went back to his bed at Brandy Hall, alone.
Sam hummed happily as he walked up the road to the Cottons to fetch Jolly. Jolly and his family were staying with his parents, and Jolly had promised to give him a hand in selecting a Yule log. Even though Yule was still five days away, with this damp weather, they needed to be getting the log in and giving it plenty of time to dry, lest it smoke them all out of the smial, come Yule Eve. Besides, May had been expected in yesterday, and word had it that she had brought a lad home for the holidays, who would be staying with the Cottons. Propping his axe next to the door, he politely rapped on the round yellow door.
Jolly answered it, already in the process of fitting an arm through a jacket sleeve, and shoving a cap on his dark blond curls. The smial was warm but noisy, filled with the high voices of fauntlings, and Sam privately thought that Jolly seemed more than happy to be getting out, cold drizzle or no. But as he started to leave, he paused for a moment, and turning back, asked a hobbit seated on a bench near the door, "Like t'come along, then?"
It was only as the young hobbit followed Jolly out, with a smile, that Sam gave a start of recognition. It was Lar, the poorly treated servant who had accompanied the gentlehobbit, Bracegirdle, to the Great Smials on Sam's first visit to Pippin's home, several years ago. No longer was he pale and subdued; instead, he had filled out into the proper figure of a hobbit, and gave off an unmistakable air of self-confidence. Seeing that Sam recognized him, though, he held out his hand and a shadow of wariness was behind his eyes as he greeted Sam.
After the first moment's surprise, however, Sam was delighted to realize that this was the hobbit with whom May was keeping company, and with a hearty shake and a warm greeting, Sam welcomed him to the Row. Although it escaped Jolly's notice, Sam could see that Lar was visibly relieved, and followed the other two into the woods with a more calm air about him. Sam, however, resolved to himself to have some private words with Lar at the first opportunity.
Frodo stood in front of the kitchen table, with his arms crossed over his chest, and eyed the pile of evergreen branches critically. He had some twine, and had borrowed Sam's garden shears, so the equipment aspect was taken care of, but this whole thing was still eluding him, somehow. This morning, after Sam left, leaving behind an ample supply of fragrant spruce branches, it had seemed a simple enough task. To create a wreath, one simply twisted some branches about in a generally circular shape, tied the thing up wherever necessary, and there it was, ready to hang on the door in proper Yuletide fashion.
However, the branches had proven to be annoyingly inflexible, and extremely scratchy and slippery. He certainly had the scraped hands to attest to that. Even with the addition of a foot to hold the recalcitrant decoration down, he'd been unable to make it resemble anything other than a peculiarly arranged bundle of branches, randomly tied with the odd bit of twine.
It was then that the distinctive combination of laughter, loud yawns, and random thumping sounds alerted him to the fact that his cousins were at last making their way down the hall, in search, without a doubt, for their customary combined first, second, and post breakfasts. He brightened as they entered the kitchen, Pippin, with his curls amazingly mussed and his shirt still only partially buttoned, and Merry, likewise not fully buttoned but also sporting a rather distinctive mark at the base of his neck. The pair stopped at the sight of Frodo and his creation, and Merry began to helplessly snicker.
"Exactly," Frodo replied, with a touch of asperity. "So I really would appreciate a hand from the pair of you."
"A wreath!" exclaimed Pippin, with sudden satisfaction, having been eyeing the greenery in a bewildered fashion for the last several minutes, a comment which only increased Merry's merriment.
Frodo eyed Merry sharply. "First of all, Merry, you really might want to button that shirt. And second of all, there's no room to spread out breakfast until this is done, so you also may want to grab that end and hold it in place for me."
The second argument proved to be irrefutable, and with the combined talents of all three, they finally managed to twist the greenery in a vaguely orbital shape, although only with a rather liberal application of twine.
"Ribbon!" Pippin, who had been critically examining the final product, suddenly grinned. "Lots of ribbon, Frodo. That will hold it together and cover the twine."
Congratulating Pippin on his creativity, both Frodo and Merry set to work, and if the end result did not resemble the usual Yuletide door ornament, it was at least colorful and festive. Frodo, Merry, and Pippin, all three well sap-stained and thoroughly scratched, scrutinized the finished adornment with satisfaction.
Later, Sam kept his opinions to himself, but, with great restraint, let it be.
Later that afternoon, having just managed to wrestle the Yule log into a corner of the kitchen to dry out, the four occupants of Bag End were sitting down to a well-deserved tea. Sam had earlier opened a tin of spice biscuits, which he had prudently stored out of Frodo's reach the week before, and the aroma of nutmeg and tea pervading the warm kitchen was most pleasing. But just as Frodo began to pour, there was a rap on the front door. "Ah, I'll be getting' that," Sam rose, with a quick swallow of his tea. "I'd asked Daisy to stop by with a couple of eggs. I want t'be getting' that plum cake started; it should be sitting a bit, you know."
He headed down the hall, but quickly returned with a rather startled look on his face. " 'Tis for you, Frodo," he murmured, and gave a quick glance toward Merry and Pippin, who both returned his look with surprise. "You'd be tellin' your fathers, then?" he muttered to both of them, in doubtful tones as Frodo left the room.
"Really, Sam, we did," Pippin protested, in all sincerity.
"Aye, well," Sam shook his head. "You may as well come along, too. And I'd really be buttonin' up that shirt, Merry," he added, Merry's shirt having had reason to come undone since breakfast.
But Frodo re-entered the kitchen at that point, with the most peculiar look on his face, with Pearl Took and Saradoc Brandybuck following behind him.
"Hello, there, lads," Saradoc's greeting was amused. "I was just telling Frodo that I've brought another guest for him for Yule. It seems as Miss Took, here, felt that if her brother could get away for the holidays, she should be allowed to as well." Pearl was grinning triumphantly at her brother during this explanation, but she kept uncharacteristically silent. "And," Saradoc added, with ill-concealed glee, "Paladin bet me a pony that I'd not take off and bring her myself." He chuckled at the thought. "Fine pony, too, he won't be happy to lose that one."
While Saradoc was speaking, Frodo had managed to somehow collect his wits, and now stepped forward to assume the role of a gracious host. "Of course you are both welcome, Uncle Sara, Pearl. It will be wonderful to have the both of you here. Let me take your things; did you walk up from Hobbiton?"
"Yes, and a right nasty, frosty rain that is out there, too," Saradoc replied expansively, seating himself next to his still stunned and unusually pale son, who was all too glad that he had taken Sam's advice. "Need to be getting back tomorrow, mind you. Wouldn't do at all not to have the Master there, come Yule; I'd never hear the end of it. But early tomorrow should do."
Smoothly distracting Saradoc from the glance he saw Merry and Pippin exchange, Frodo warmly replied, "And haven't I invited you here I don't know how many times? You're most welcome, Uncle Sara, for as long as you'd like to stay. As are you, Pearl," he added, turning and giving her an unexpected grin. "There may be others who'd like to bid you welcome, I suspect."
Sam cleared his throat politely, at that veiled comment. "I'd need to be gettin' those eggs from the Row," he mentioned, to nobody in particular. "An' mayhap some bay, that'd go well w'the soup."
"Oh, how nice," Pearl stepped forward, as if on cue. "It would be lovely to see your dear sister again, Samwise. Do you think she'd mind?"
"No, I don't believe she would," Sam responded graciously, as Pearl shot a quick glance at her brother, daring him to open his mouth.
Pippin gulped, for once choosing the way of prudence, and remained very quiet next to Merry, as he dunked his biscuit in his by now quite cool tea.
The evening had been initially somewhat strained, but by the time they had gathered in the study with their pipes, the quintet had quite mellowed. Pearl had stayed behind at the Gamgees' smial, so it was just the lads. Merry had become progressively bolder, as the evening wore on, and by the time the last bottle of Wineyards had been drained, had managed to get himself quite entwined around a very willing Pippin.
Indeed, Sam had to admit to Frodo, once they were in bed, that the occasional quickly muffled cry, and rather frequent bursts of hastily stifled laughter, in the bedroom next to theirs, was an astonishment to him, seeing as how one of the participants' father had a room just on the other side.
"I don't know how as they'd be managin' that, no ways," he chuckled into Frodo's curls, as he made the slightest of adjustments. "If it'd been the gaffer next to us, well, Frodo-love, you know how much I'd love you, but that would never have worked, make no mistake about it."
"Ah, Sam, I don't blame you a bit," Frodo's laugh brushed against his throat, causing Sam's toes to curl in the most peculiar of ways. "That would rather put me off as well, I must admit. Fortunately, those two don't bother me at all."
And Sam gave hearty thanks for that, as Frodo's hand caught him, not entirely unexpectedly, and he sighed, and squirmed, and buried his face in the crook of Frodo's shoulder, and forgot all else in that touch, and the glorious scent of wine and smoke and pipeweed, and his beloved Frodo.
But the best-laid plans oft go awry, as Saradoc Brandybuck found out the next day, when the Water became swollen and impassible with the rain, and even the Brandywine Bridge was cracked and threatened by the flood. He returned that afternoon, hastily deposited by a Hobbiton driver eager to return to his own warm smial, and was alternately bemused and rather distraught about not being able to return as planned, until both Frodo and his son's enthusiasm over his having to stay perked up his spirits a bit. And after a luncheon featuring Sam's best mushroom omelet, and the sudden thought of an unexpected few days with no duties of any sort to perform, Saradoc was beginning to think that this wasn't such a bad predicament after all.
Bag End might be small, but it was undeniably comfortable, and, with a bit of surprise, Merry found that his father fit in to the general scheme of things rather well.
Pearl had also fit in, and it was Jolly, delivering several dried apple pies to Sam, courtesy of Lily Cotton, who admitted that she was now staying at Marigold and Tom's smial, along with Marigold's sisters, Daisy and May. Apparently, Tom had decided to seek a bit of peace at Number Three, for, as he had confided to Jolly, Pearl was so very glad to see Daisy, that they were really rather loud about it. "Too many lasses about," he had shaken his head. "I'd just be lettin' them have a bit of catch-up." Most of that appeared to occur behind closed doors, but Marigold and May had made no comment to him, and even seemed to be a trifle smug.
Of course, no sooner had Tom found a peaceful refuge with the gaffer, than Sam's older brother, Hamson, had arrived for Yule as well, along with his wife and three fauntlings, pretty well filling out Number Three once again.
And as Sam sighed, stretching languidly under Frodo that night, "Thirty-four, Frodo-love."
Frodo gave a quick chuckle, and with a rapid downward motion, instantly caused Sam to lose track completely, as Sam gave a startled squawk and clutched Frodo's curls abruptly. The two occupants of the room next to theirs paused only briefly, but shared a knowing grin.
It was now the day before Yule eve, and Sam realized that his supplies of flour were running dangerously low, and Frodo and his cousins appeared to be going through tea at a rather alarming rate. He mentioned this to Frodo as Frodo re-entered the kitchen, early in the grey morning, with another bucket of water, this one allocated, once again, for the bath. To Sam's secret dismay, Frodo had pitched in to help Sam with the chores necessary to entertain their visitors properly, and refused to hear otherwise from Sam. "You are not waiting on the four of us, Sam," he had declared, with that certain narrowing of the eyes that Sam had long ago discovered meant that he was not to be budged on the matter in question. So Sam sighed, and tried to let Frodo have only the less arduous of tasks, and felt distinctly uncomfortable about meeting Saradoc Brandybuck's gaze.
"Looks like one more trip to Hobbiton," Sam had given the morning out of doors a dubious glance at that proposition. The icy drizzle had seemed to settle in permanently, and Sam couldn't help but spare a gloomy thought as to all the frost-blackened plants about the gardens. There would be much to replace this year come spring, without a doubt.
But no sooner had he uttered this statement, than, with a quick, "I'll just let them know where we'll be," Frodo had popped his head in the study, informed Saradoc, who was mulling over some of Bilbo's old records with a pot of tea and a plate of griddlecakes at hand, of their mission, had grabbed his cloak from the peg where it hung by the front door and stood ready to accompany a surprised Sam.
"It's that frosty out, Frodo," Sam mentioned with a bit of concern as they exited out of the smial from the kitchen door. "You'd really not need t'be goin,' you know."
"I know," Frodo answered, only a trifle impatiently, but then took Sam's hand and gave him a warm smile. "But I have you for hardly a moment to myself in there. At least in the daylight."
Sam chuckled, tightening his grip around Frodo's hand, and acknowledged the truth of that statement. "Right enough. Well we'd best be makin' this a short trip, for there's still bakin' to be done. I'd no idea what a fuss it is to feed thirty-five mouths."
Frodo gave him a quizzical glance from under the hood of his cloak as they strode together down the freezing muddy road. "I thought it was thirty-four. Did I just lose count or did we add another?"
"Another," Sam's mouth quirked up. "Seems as how Da has asked the Widow to join us, her bein' alone this year."
Frodo couldn't help grinning at the news. "Well, what's one more, then? Although where they'll all be fitting in is beyond me, I must admit. Ah, well, I suppose we'll find out, come tomorrow night."
The shops in Hobbiton were crowded, as usual, with customers desperately running in for a bit of this, and that other thing they had just forgotten. Frodo was standing at the back of the shop while Sam waited his turn at the counter, when he, unseen, noticed his distant cousin, Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, entering the shop, with a rather breathtaking hat staunchly jammed on the top of her head, and her sharp nose quite reddened by the chill. Carefully, he ducked behind the door, hoping to remain unnoticed, but as he did so, he heard the muttered conversation of a couple of hobbits behind him.
"Well, if it i'nt Mistress Lobelia herself," one observed quietly. "She'd naught be havin' much of a Yule, I hear."
"Aye, that Lotho is off causin' trouble in Michel Delving, so's I've heard," the other replied. "It'd just be her, then; can't fancy any other body'd be goin' her way."
But just then, Sam had finished his turn at the counter, and turned to him to leave. And invariably, Lobelia's eye followed, and fell upon Frodo. Frodo nodded a greeting, which Lobelia somewhat ungraciously returned, having little choice in this quite public setting. But it was as he was turning to leave the shop, that Frodo felt a pang of pity, a quick memory of what it was like to feel alone and defensive about it, and on an impulse that he was immediately sure that he would live to regret, turned back to her, and motioned her aside.
Curiosity piqued by this move, Lobelia joined him quickly enough, as Sam stood by, bewildered. "I understand Lotho is out of town," Frodo spoke politely. "If you'd like, it would be lovely if you'd care to join us tomorrow evening for Yule." He did not dare glance at Sam's expression, but Lobelia's was entertainment enough. She opened her mouth nearly instantly to snap out a hasty declination, but Frodo was even faster. "Saradoc Brandybuck is staying with us," he added, in a suddenly impish humor, "and he was just saying how long it had been since he'd seen you."
Lobelia gave a sudden choke, swallowing her words as rapidly as she had almost uttered them. If there was anyone in all of the Shire who had her respect and admiration, it was the Master of Brandy Hall, and the thought of dining with him at Bag End was far more temptation than she could ever resist. "Erm, how very kind, yes, I do believe I am not engaged tomorrow evening," she found herself stuttering.
"Wonderful," Frodo gave another bow, which did not entirely conceal the mischievous glint in his eye or the wicked smile. "About fiveish then? Lovely." And he exited, leaving behind a most flummoxed Lobelia, and a circle of stunned hobbits.
Without a doubt, Bag End had never seen quite so many hobbit bodies crammed into it. The front room, festively decorated with the traditional holly and evergreen, and warmed by the massive Yule log gaily blazing in the hearth, was fair stuffed with chairs, benches, pillows and rugs, but every hobbit managed to find some corner in which to settle. There was no room for the food, which was laid out over every available flat surface in the kitchen, so there was a constant stream of guests going down the hallways with empty plates, and returning with well-loaded ones. Care had to be taken however, for the young ones, unaccustomed to hallways quite as long as those of Bag End, had discovered that, with a decent running start, one could slide rather satisfactorily down a goodly number of yards of polished flagstone. The mothers had long since given up trying to reign in their children, in the midst of all the unusual excitement, and just gave out an occasional distracted call of "Mind yourselves, now," when the squealing seemed to reach an especially fevered pitch.
The places of honor by the fire had been accorded to Saradoc Brandybuck and Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, and it was indeed a miracle to see the prim old gentlehobbit smile and laugh in an arch, albeit slightly rusty, way at the Master of Brandy Hall's merry tales. Frodo was far too busy with his duties of being the host to listen to much of it, but, as he laughed to Sam in the kitchen, who was preparing yet another batch of mulled wine, it certainly appeared to insure them at least a year in her good graces.
Also comfortably ensconced near the fire were the gaffer and the Widow, the former as near to beaming as his children had ever seen him, and the latter with quite a determined eye on the former. Both Pippin and Merry had stepped up as assistants to the hosts, and many a lowly hobbit could but shake his head that he was being served wine punch by the finest gentlehobbits in all of the Shire. But both cousins were so infectiously merry and charming, that, indeed, none could resist, and when Pippin produced a bit of rather bedraggled mistletoe from his pocket, and stuck it on top of the arch of the doorway to the hall, the assembled crowd quickly roared its collective approval. An unsuspecting Jolly was the first victim through, and received a resounding buss on the cheek from a wickedly grinning Merry, very nearly spilling his entire plate in the process.
After that, the game was on and likely and unlikely couples alike met under the mistletoe. Saradoc made it his particular mission to greet every female in the smial in holiday fashion, from the eldest (an uncontested honor that belonged to either Lobelia or the Widow, no one yet alive seemed to know which), to nearly the youngest. The youngest, a certain six month-old Lavender Cotton, declined that treat in a most emphatic fashion, to the merriment of Saradoc, and the embarrassment of her mother. Both Merry and Pippin were frequent visitors under the sprig, ready to kiss lads and lasses alike, and sometimes even each other.
Frodo had just finished convincing Sam that Yule eve was no time to even consider dishes, and that every last one of them would still be there in the morning, at which time he planned on recruiting his cousins to join in dish washing festivities, whether they would or no, when he managed to hear the sound of knocking, or rather pounding, on the front door filtering its way through the general din. Laughing, he dragged Sam down the corridor, threading his way through the maze of fauntlings, a refilled goblet of mulled wine in the other hand. "There couldn't possibly be anyone left in the Shire by now," he turned briefly to Sam, his blue eyes dancing with happiness. "Who did we manage to forget?"
But it was no hobbit who awaited on the doorstep, but rather the imposing grey figure of Gandalf, looking a bit worse for the weather. Delighted, Frodo exclaimed, "Gandalf! Come in!" and only then stopped to wonder how. But he loved the old wizard dearly, and there must be room somewhere.
Gandalf nodded at his greeting, and with a quick hug from Frodo, and a warm nod to Sam, entered Bag End. The appearance of the wizard, of course, caused squeals of joy from the advance guard of fauntlings, who really had thought this day just couldn't get any better, and, being in a festive mood, and having already been liberally plied with Sam's special formula for spiced wine punch, the older hobbits greeted him enthusiastically as well. There was room, after all, for the wizard, on a bench in the corner, and heaping plates of food, and a goblet full of something warm and invigorating. The fauntlings had pressed for fireworks, of course, but found the crackers that Gandalf had brought from distant lands a quite decent substitute. No one asked Gandalf's business, accepting his presence as just another Baggins' Yuletide treat. And Gandalf sat quietly in the corner, savoring the company of this forgotten folk, in this out-of-the-way corner of Middle Earth, and knew exactly why he toiled so hard.
It was far into the frosty night when most of the guests managed to straggle off. The rain, fortunately enough, had finally ceased, and Farmer Cotton had still had the presence of mind to suggest that he round up his reluctant pony, and farm wagon, to convey guests who made their homes farther away. So it was that Mistress Sackville-Baggins found herself gallantly deposited at her very front door. She entered the dark smial still humming the tune that they had been joyously singing out into the still night as the wagon bumped along, and absent-mindedly plucked a few pieces of straw from her rather elaborate dress. She had had the most pleasant evening in absolute ages, but she was more than half glad that she didn't need to explain it to Lotho.
Merry and Pippin had disappeared to their room before the last guest left, and the mistletoe appeared to disappear with them. Saradoc, giving a hearty yawn, thanked Frodo and Sam for the most splendid Yule he had had in many a year, and it was only then that Frodo realized, with somewhat of a shock, that he had had no word with Gandalf and didn't really know why he was here. But when he poked his head into the extremely disheveled room, Gandalf seemed to have nodded off, and laying an extra blanket cautiously over him, and quickly and silently banking the fire, he left it to the morning to ask Gandalf any questions.
And then finally, finally, they were in bed together, shivering slightly under the still chilly bedclothes, but there was, even now, a residual excitement running through their veins, and the thought of a nightshirt was quite impossible. "So, you think it all went off well, Sam?" asked Frodo, laying on his side closely against Sam and propped up on one elbow, the other hand gently smoothing the curls back from Sam's forehead.
"Can't think of a thing that could have been wantin' any improvement," Sam smiled back up at him in the silvered light of the moon. "Even ol' Lobelia seemed to be havin' herself a good time, and that's sayin' something." He raised a hand, gently brushing it against Frodo's cheek. "An' you, me dearie, you were near to sparkling, you were. I don't think I've ever seen you look happier or lovelier."
"Oh, Sam," Frodo laughed, grasping his hand and kissing the palm lingeringly. "I'm just still the same scrawny hobbit I've always been, but undeniably a much happier one. And how could I not be, with someone as extraordinary as you in my bed, and brightening up my days." Leaning forward, his mouth met Sam's, as Sam's hand crept around his shoulder, pressing him ever closer. Slowly and thoroughly he kissed Sam, tasting the wine and the spices, and Sam, as Sam gave a throaty sigh, and pulled Frodo tightly to him.
Frodo gave a slight chuckle as they finally broke apart, and dipped his head down to the crook of Sam's neck. "It was all wonderful, you know, Sam," he murmured, giving Sam a little nibble of the neck that caused him to gasp and wriggle under Frodo. "But you know I would have been every bit as happy if it had ended up being just the two of us."
Sam gave a laugh at Frodo's words, as he ran a hand lightly up Frodo's smooth, enticingly curved back. "You just see now," he teased Frodo fondly, "next year there'll be twice as many who'll want to come. We'll not have two minutes to ourselves."
"Well, then, we'll have to pretend we're away, and hide out in the bedroom all day," Frodo had lifted himself up again, and was slowly running a hand down Sam's chest, and leisurely over the curve of his rounded belly.
"All day?" Sam answered softly, and then, as he had anticipated, Frodo's hand dipped lower, and stroked him lightly and tantalizingly.
"Why, Sam," Frodo declared in a tone of mock surprise at Sam's instinctive reaction. "And weren't you just telling me you were too full to possibly do anything?"
With a deep laugh, Sam threw an arm around Frodo's shoulder, and in a moment, had rolled the both of them over, so that a grinning Frodo was now pinned under him, but with Frodo's hand still busy between the both of them. "Ah, Frodo, you know that well I've never… Oh, oh, yes," he closed his eyes at Frodo's touch, instinctively beginning to move rhythmically over him.
"Mmm," Frodo hummed happily. "I thought as much." He took advantage of Sam's head beginning to droop over him to reach up and give the delectably exposed ear tip the least of nibbles.
Sam gave a quick gasp at that move, and now his hand had joined Frodo's between them. It was Frodo's turn then, to give a sharp intake of breath, throwing his head back, as he responded to Sam's touch. How many nights had they lain together in this way, and usually the heat of the moment would take them, and the fire would run through their veins, and there would be no holding back.
But that was not what either of them wanted, not this Yule eve. No, tonight was a night for exchanging deep kisses, for savoring the feel of each other's hands, for rocking together in a nearly languorous manner, for slow lovemaking. Hands were trailed in an unhurried way down heated, smooth skin, around sweet curves, in all secret and hidden places. There were occasional gasps, intermittent husky chuckles, and the only words spoken were each other's name, in a devoted and nearly reverent chant of love. Because what did avowals of love mean anymore when every touch of their hands said as much, glorifying each other in ways that no words could ever manage.
But finally, the fever to give became too deep to postpone any longer, and their gasps became more frequent and breathing more shallow, their movements became synchronized in a slowly writhing dance of love, and Frodo flung back his head, just as Sam's mouth found the base of his neck, with a final moan, and stiffened, arching up, under Sam. That was all Sam needed, as burying his face at the base of Frodo's neck, and murmuring his beloved's name in an unthinking recitation of devotion, he thrust himself into Frodo's ardent hand one last time, and felt himself released.
It was several moments before Sam realized that Frodo was kissing his cheeks, his forehead, his nose. "Oh, Frodo," was all he could manage, as Frodo gently rolled them both on their sides, and reached out to the small bedside table for a towel. Tidying both of them up, Frodo flung the towel to the side of the bed and wrapped his arms around Sam again.
"Love you always, my Sam," he heard Frodo's soft voice in his ear, as he let himself drift into sleep, held by those beloved arms. "Good Yule to you, my dearest."
It was rather late the next morning when the two residents of Bag End ventured into the front room to survey the wreckage from the night before. But not only had both the hobbits completely forgotten their last visitor from the previous night, but like all wizards, Gandalf had the ability to not be noticed, when he wished not to be, so neither Frodo nor Sam paid the figure in the corner next to the hearth any mind.
Frodo sighed, and crossed his arms over his chest. "We've more than given those two rascals a chance to sleep in," he remarked, somewhat tartly. "I think it's time to introduce the concept of cleaning to them, though I doubt it will take."
"They took the mistletoe with them," Sam observed, gazing up at the archway, and then turning to Frodo with a small smile.
Frodo gave a quick and joyful laugh, and Sam was in his arms in an instant. And just before Frodo's mouth met Sam's, he murmured, "And when did we ever have need of mistletoe, Sam, love?"
Gandalf's eyebrow rose at this exchange, but for some reason, he found that he was not terribly surprised. This business with Bilbo's old ring was beginning to disturb him greatly, and the true reason he had stopped by was to have a last look at it, before he researched it further. He had misgivings as to Frodo's future role in all of this, but this revelation altered things immensely. Whatever Frodo's future would be, it was clear that he would not be facing it alone. And that made Gandalf feel suddenly very grateful. He knew there was very little in Middle Earth that was as strong as the heart of a hobbit in love.
Matters seemed unexpectedly not quite so bleak, as Gandalf politely cleared his throat, and inquired as to the possibility of a pot of tea from the two startled hobbits.