Quicksilver light. Palest green, shimmering and sparkling when sunshot. Frodo had once found a piece of glass like that, by the Brandywine, its surface smoothed and silkened by the inexorable movement of water. But now he was floating, buoyant, sun over him and the warm water under him, as he lay held in a dream.
And although it was what had taken his parents' life, he had never feared it. It would not be water that would harm him in the end. That, he had always known.
Giving himself over to the flow of the river, he floated slowly down current, eyes closed, and his dark hair swirling out in arabesques around his face.
It was nearing the end of spring, when the warm days were just beginning to outnumber the chill ones, that Pippin had knocked on the front door of Bag End. It was early afternoon, just after lunch, and Sam had already disappeared into the back garden. Frodo was immediately taken aback to see just Pippin at the door. He couldn't remember the last time, if ever, that Pippin had come to Bag End without Merry. But by the look on Pippin's face, there was a tale here to be told.
"Pip," he exclaimed, opening his arms, and Pippin was immediately in them, clutching tightly to Frodo, and burying his face in Frodo's weskit. "Why, Pip, there now, lad," Frodo murmured, still standing in the doorway, his mind racing through all manner of worried thoughts, mostly concerning Merry.
"Here, love, this won't do at all," he finally ran a gentle hand through Pippin's reddish chestnut curls, and realized the lad had grown at least half an inch since he had last seen him at Yuletide.
Ever since Frodo had opened the door, Pippin had not uttered a word, and he remained silent as Frodo led him into the kitchen, and seated him at the table. "Tea, Pip?" Frodo asked, turning to put the kettle over the fire without waiting for an answer. "And I believe… ah, yes, here they are." He uncovered a plate that had been left on the counter. "Sam made these scones for our tea, but I know he wouldn't mind you having a few just a little bit early."
Frodo bustled about, without glancing in Pippin's direction, and once the teapot was steeping before the traveler, and a dish of butter had been laid out with the scones, Pippin was starting to look far more like himself. Frodo sat next to him and poured out a cup of tea for himself.
"So, cousin," he said gently. "Tell me."
And Pippin did.
"It was just a couple of days back," Pippin began, his words still distinguishable among a mouthful of scone. "That friend of Aunt Esme from Hobbiton came by Brandy Hall for a bit of a visit. Chubb, I think, the rather frightening one with the pinched-up little eyes."
Frodo nodded, not recognizing her, but then he had never paid any mind to Aunt Esme's acquaintances. They had seemed to flow into one chattering, brightly-colored multitude in his mind during his years at Brandy Hall, and his chief preoccupation at the time had been to avoid being found at all costs when they were about. Aunt Esme had had an alarming habit of wishing to produce him as an illustration of her fortitude and forbearance.
"Well," Pippin continued, washing down the pastry with a swig of tea, "she brought the news from Hobbiton with her, including…" Here he stopped short and stared rather intently at the table, his fingers unconsciously rubbing along the grain of the wood, and clearly more at a loss for words than Frodo had ever seen his cousin before.
Frodo sighed. He had no doubt what the news had been. "Sam and I," he prompted Pippin.
"Why, yes," continued Pippin, still engrossed by the table's finish, but beginning to redden, "and apparently, this Chubb person was rather specific."
Frodo felt his heart sink. Why his personal relationships had suddenly become a source of fascination for the good matrons of Hobbiton was beyond him, but he had been made all too aware, during this past winter, that it was indeed a fact. "I assume she did not take the information well?" he asked Pippin, even though the answer was evident in Pippin's expression.
"Apparently, she let out a noise rather like a severely scalded cat," Pippin replied, with a wry smile, finally looking back up at Frodo, "So we can assume not. I believe the chief concern was that you had dared to flaunt your degrading personal business before her last Yule. The fact that she did not seem to have a clue at the time is, of course, entirely beside the point."
"So apparently, Sam and I won't be receiving any invitations next Yule," Frodo said, a little impatiently. "I will try my utmost to not be crushed by despair. But how does Merry fit in to all of this?"
Pippin sighed, and pushed his chair back. "She thinks you're a bad influence on Merry."
"Always have been," Frodo grinned, but his grin faded as he studied Pippin. "Go on, Pip, there's more. What else?"
"She thinks I am, too," Pippin said in a very quiet voice, watching Frodo.
"I don't follow," Frodo frowned.
"She says Merry is to get serious about his position in life and doesn't need cousins always about. Besides, she thinks that Merry and I… that Merry and I might… " and here Pippin could no longer hold back his tears.
"Why? Did she say that?" Frodo was indignant as he immediately moved over to Pippin's side and put his arm around the teen's shoulders.
"No, but the look she gave me, oh, Frodo, she's never looked like that at me before… " choked out Pippin. "And then she sent me away, just like that. 'Go back home, Peregrin Took', and she never calls me that, and she wouldn't even let me say goodbye, just ordered a pony and cart, and Merry was out at the brewery with Uncle Sara, and he doesn't even know…" and here Pippin noisily buried his face in the handkerchief that Frodo had silently produced for him.
"How did you get here, Pip?" Frodo asked softly, when it seemed that the stream of information had ended.
"Lost the cart and pony at the Toad and Whistle," Pippin admitted rather proudly. "I convinced the innkeeper to stand Old Toby, the cart driver, a few mugs on Brandybuck credit. That brew is rather amazingly strong. I figure he won't go right back, or he'll act as if I got back to the Great Smials all right, and in any case, it will be awhile before anyone thinks of sending anybody here to look for me."
"So, apparently, I'll be harboring a kindred poor influence?" Frodo smiled at Pippin, his arm still firm about the wiry shoulder. "Well, Pip, obviously you must spend at least the night. Let's put this matter before Sam tonight, and see what his advice would be."
"Sam?" Pippin looked somewhat dubious. "But he really doesn't know Aunt Esme."
"All the better," Frodo reassured him amiably. "The outsider's opinion, you see. And I think you'll find that Sam reads people rather well, much better than I do."
Pippin had been packed off for a nap in the master bedroom, since the guest room had not been prepared, and he awoke on the wide feather bed with a bit of initial confusion over where he was and why. But then the whole miserable mess came flooding back to him, and he realized how late he had slept by the sunset tints beginning to show in the sky. Quietly he rose, neatly straightening the bed back to its prior condition, and left the room.
The aromas floating down the hall suggested that someone was busy at work in the kitchen, but to his great surprise, when he entered, it was Frodo. "Ah, there you are," Frodo looked up briefly as Pippin entered, and then gave a nod to several potatoes on the kitchen table. "Be a good lad, would you, and clean off the spuds for me? I'm trying to get this rhubarb crumble finished off, but it's getting on, and the potatoes need to start to roast."
"Frodo!" exclaimed Pippin, wide-eyed at this new aspect of his cousin. "I never knew you could cook."
"Well, of course I can," Frodo answered, rather impatiently, as he crumbled the butter into the flour and sugar. "Sam hasn't always lived here, you know. I'm not totally hopeless in the kitchen. There you are, Pippin, the water's there, and be sure you prick them well with the fork before you pop them in the coals."
Pippin hurried to do as Frodo had requested, even though it was clear that the entire process was a novelty as far as he was concerned.
"You don't need to impale them, you know," Frodo had been watching his progress with amusement as he finished the topping of the crumble, and shut it up in the oven. "Just poke them a few times."
Pippin revised his method of attack on the potatoes, and soon had them safely shoved into the coals to roast.
"Very good, Master Took," Frodo said with a smile, handing him a large bowl filled with peapods. "Let's see how you go about these, then."
Pippin held up a pea pad and eyed it carefully. "Pea pod, right? Peas inside and all of that?"
"Rather the point," Frodo chuckled. "All you'd need to do would be to get them out, then." Taking pity on Pippin's look of bewilderment, he picked up a pod. "This is why I gave you this task," he confided with a grin. "I'm not terribly good at this, you know. No nails. Here, you try, Pip. Just run your fingernail down the side, see? Pops right open. Now just knock the peas into the bowl and there you are."
Pippin was a quick study and soon enough produced a bowl full of peas and a pile of pods. "Very good," Frodo praised him with a smile. "The rest can wait until Sam gets in. I was just going to make bacon-and-onions tonight, and that doesn't take long."
"So when did you learn to cook, Frodo?" Pippin asked again as he watched Frodo refill the teapot with fresh steaming water.
"Like I said, I always knew," Frodo repeated with a wry grin. "It's just that it isn't all that inspiring when you live alone. I still let Sam do it most of the time, because he enjoys doing it, but this time of year is a fairly busy one for him outside. And Bilbo also enjoyed pottering about in the kitchen, so I never really had a chance there, either. Sam still does the real baking though, it's too exacting for me."
"And you'd not be al'that bad at it, if you'd not be distracted from time to time," came Sam's voice as he entered through the kitchen door, stamping the mud from his feet first. "Master Pippin," he added, giving a nod in the young Took's direction.
"Sam." Pippin eyed him with a distinct hint of exasperation. "It is your own kitchen, after all."
Sam crooked an eyebrow up at that, as he wearily sat down at the kitchen table, pouring himself a cup of tea. "Aye, true enough," he chuckled, before taking a sip, and stretching his tired legs out. "Well, Pippin it is then, leastways, here."
Pip laughed at that. "Good. 'Master Pippin' always makes me want to look for an aunt or two lurking about. And it certainly is much nicer here, without them."
There was a smile on Frodo's face as he turned to the frying pan to complete their meal. Pippin alone, he had noticed, worked his way through Sam's defenses at a much faster rate than the combined Merry and Pippin team. But then, Pippin usually had that effect on the unwary.
Dinner had been quite sociable, and Pippin had exercised his not inconsiderable talent for amusing conversation that never touched on a single subject of import. Frodo had insisted that Pippin relax in the study afterward, while he hastily cleaned up the kitchen. Sam had gone for a quick bath.
But it wasn't long before the three hobbits sat about with feet facing the warm glow of the study fire, and after-dinner pipes in hand. "So, Pippin," Frodo finally brought up the reason for Pippin's appearance again, "Tell Sam what happened."
Pippin repeated his story, somewhat less emotionally this time though, and at the mention of the name of the instigator, Sam gave a distinct huff. "Those Chubbs, they've never been any less than meddlesome busybodies, never," he puffed indignantly on his pipe. "I'd like t'be knowin' what concern it'd be of hers, that I would."
Frodo smiled fondly at him at that. "Face it, Sam," he answered, wryly. "You know we were the chief topic of conversation all winter. I certainly will be thankful when a new scandal comes along, and we can go back to being unnoticed again."
The expression on Sam's face at that left no doubt that he was completely in agreement to that sentiment. But when Pippin disclosed Aunt Esme's reaction, and her banishment of Pippin, he frowned, and shook his head. "But there'd be naught that we'd have t'do with Mr. Merry and yourself," he gave Pippin a puzzled look.
"Is there any reason Aunt Esme should think so, Pippin?" Frodo added quietly, watching his cousin carefully.
Pippin reddened a bit at that, and carefully examined his pipe. "No," he finally said, very quietly. "Merry wouldn't have it. He says that I'm too young."
"And so you are," Frodo quickly agreed, with some relief. "I know how strongly you feel about Merry, Pip," he added sympathetically, "but the both of you have plenty of time."
"But I can't go on without seeing him," Pippin replied, gazing directly at Frodo with a bleak expression.
"No," Frodo answered softly, "I suppose not."
"And what about Mr. Merry?" Sam asked suddenly. "What would he be thinkin'? If you're gone without a word, what would he do?"
Pippin stared at the fire forlornly. "I don't know," he answered softly. "It's never happened before. And I have no idea what Aunt Esme would have told him, but I doubt it was what actually happened."
"No," Frodo agreed to that. "It probably was that you'd been called home suddenly, or something along that line."
"In that case," Sam pointed out to Pippin, "Mr. Merry's not likely to be that worried until your family starts t'come lookin' for you."
"Probably in the next day or two," Pippin agreed, "and then they'll come here as well. But no-one's ever going to tell Merry why I had to leave without a word, and they aren't going to let me near him, and I'll be stuck in the Great Smials for the rest of my life, and I'll never have a friend like that, ever again," he finished, his expression growing more and more distressed as he continued, until it was clear that tears were not very far behind.
"Oh, Pip, don't you fret so," Frodo rose up, and holding out his hand to Pippin, pulled him up and gave him an affectionate hug. "We've got a day or two to figure out how to get word to Merry and then the two of you can figure out what you are going to do about this together. Most likely, if you just stay out of sight for a month or so, it will all blow over, anyway."
Pippin, his arm still tightly around Frodo, gave him a look that clearly revealed his doubts as to that matter. "You do know Aunt Esme," he replied flatly.
Frodo sighed. "Yes, unfortunately, you have a point, there," he admitted.
Pippin had been settled in the guest room, and Frodo returned to his bedroom, where Sam was already waiting for him in bed. "How's the barley coming, Sam?" he asked as he undressed. "I never had a chance to ask."
"Mostly planted," Sam answered, with a yawn. "We'll be finishin' by the morrow. 'Tis wearisome work, though, and I can't say I won't be that glad when it's all set in the ground."
"I'm sure Ned Proudfoot is grateful to you and the Cotton lads for helping him out this spring," Frodo murmured, climbing into bed and wrapping his arms around Sam. "It was very kind of you to offer, you know."
"He's been a good neighbor an' friend, it'd be the least bit I could do," Sam rolled to his side against Frodo, resting his head in the crook of Frodo's neck and wrapping a warm arm around him.
"Sam," said Frodo softly after a few minutes of silence, as Sam's steady breathing showed that he was starting to fall asleep.
"Mmm," Sam murmured, giving Frodo a quick kiss on the side of his neck.
"I'm glad you don't want to go in the other room any more when one of my cousins shows up," Frodo said quietly, tightening his embrace around Sam.
"Hmm," Sam gave a sleepy chuckle. "Never was that fond o'that room. It didn't have you in it."
Frodo gave Sam a light kiss on the nose at that. "I couldn't sleep without you here, either," he admitted softly. "I kept waking up all night to reach for you, and you weren't there. This bed is far too lonely without you. Promise me I'll never have to sleep alone again, Sam."
"That I will," Sam's voice was tender at that, and he wrapped himself even more tightly around Frodo. "No matter where we'd be or whoever else'd be about. That I can promise you, Frodo-love."
"Thank you, Sam," Frodo snuggled contently against him, and they were soon both asleep.
Later that night, Frodo awoke to the sound of light footsteps in the bedroom and a stifled sniffling. "Pippin," he muttered sleepily, turning towards the newcomer in the dark, "Come here, love."
Pippin quickly burrowed under the covers at Frodo's side, seeking comfort from his cousin. From the other side of Frodo came an incoherent mutter from Sam as he curled himself around Frodo in his sleep, his favorite position. Frodo fell asleep again, cozily sandwiched between the other two hobbits, and hazily thankful that both he and Sam had chosen to wear nightshirts this chilly evening.
Frodo could feel the heat of the sun on his face as he glided along. It wasn't long until the summer solstice now, and the light was brilliant behind his closed eyelids. Somewhere upstream, he could hear the rise and fall of Pippin's voice, even though he could not distinguish the words themselves.
The current was slow but inevitable, pushing him slowly on, without any effort of his own. Dreamily, he wondered how long it would take, lying like this, to reach the Sea. And then he felt himself lazily bump into something. Warm, only slightly yielding, and very familiar. Blinking against the radiance from above, he opened his eyes with a smile. Sam.
"You know I canna swim," Sam was returning his smile with only the hint of a gentle remonstrance in his words. "Don't you float away from me now."
" Of course not, Sam," Frodo laughed lightly, squinting slightly up at him. "You're my shore, aren't you." It wasn't a question.
"That I am, love," he heard softly from above, as he closed his eyes again, still smiling.
Two days later, the three hobbits were setting out through the round green door of Bag End, two light packs, as well as a rather heavier one, on their backs, and stout walking sticks in their hands. It had been decided that a hiking trip of several days was in order, in the direction of Buckland. Sam had managed to catch up on his various duties, and Jolly Cotton had promised to keep an eye on the Bag End garden while they were gone. Word had also been left with Daisy, on the chance that someone would be showing up while they were gone, but Pippin had not been mentioned. Frodo had decided on a longer route through the back country for several reasons, but in the back of his mind, there was the thought that if things managed to mend themselves somehow, he might be able to leave Pippin at Brandy Hall. The thought of just he and Sam slowly making their way back to Bag End through the lush, late spring Shire woodlands was attractive indeed.
The paths winding through the back hills were soft with the overgrown spring grass, and the various small streams they crossed were still full, and sparkling with the winter runoff. The woods were alive with the song of birds, and rustling in the bushes and hedges indicated that young rabbits were about, hidden by their mothers. It was a lovely morning to be walking, and Frodo and Pippin began to deplete the supply of every hiking song that they knew. Laughing, the two cousins got Sam to contribute a few that he had learned from the gaffer, though he had to insist that they never were songs for hiking, but more for walking to market and such.
No meals were missed, but it was still quite light, with the nearly mid-summer sun still well above the horizon, when they decided to stop for the night. They did not sit up very late that evening though, around their small camp-fire, for the combination of fresh air and a good deal of exercise that day had them all nodding over their pipes in no time.
Sam had placed the blanket rolls at the dry, sheltered foot of an ancient oak, and it was there that Frodo spread them out that night. He lay down first, in the center, with his cloak spread over him for a light cover. But when Sam lay down at his side, Frodo immediately rolled toward him, catching Sam up in a light embrace, as Sam's happy murmur indicated his approval. Pippin gave them a quick glance, but said nothing, and curled up on Frodo's other side. In no time, the younger hobbits were asleep. Frodo patiently watched the bright stars beginning to appear in the darkening sky.
It was the quiet murmur of voices that woke Pippin, as well as the cool draft at his side, where Frodo had been. But it was Sam's voice that especially caught his ear, with a slow teasing tone that he had never dreamed possible from the quiet gardener.
"And what 'tis it you'd be wantin' from your Sam?" he heard Sam's words, warmed with a barely concealed chuckle. "There'd be no feather bed for you here, me dear."
"As if that would matter," Frodo lightly laughed, but Pippin could hear the slight edge of impatience in his voice. "Come on, Sam, you know what I…" and here his words were abruptly cut off.
Pippin cautiously cracked an eyelid open at that, consumed by curiosity. His interest was well rewarded by the sight of Frodo standing under the great oak in the moonlight with his arms tightly around Sam. Sam's back was to Pippin, but Frodo's face, with eyes closed, was lit by moonlight, and was shadowed and silvered. Hungrily, he kissed Sam, intently and purposefully, one hand sliding up into Sam's curls, and Pippin could see Sam's embrace tighten.
Finally Frodo broke away, gasping for a moment, his head flung back, his throat a long pearl shaft in the moonlight. "Come on," he lowered his head again, and smiled into Sam's eyes, grasping both of Sam's hands in his own, "come with me."
"Aye, Frodo-love," Pippin heard Sam answer softly, but huskily, and the two hobbits left the clearing around the great oak.
Why Pippin did what he did, he never could have said. But he had had questions in his heart for some time now, such as what he felt about Merry, and what Merry could possibly be feeling about him, and somehow, he thought that he might find answers. So, led by a call he could not resist, he stealthily left his blankets, and followed Frodo and Sam into the woods.
They did not walk far, but stopped by the side of the stream, where the moonlight broke once again through the shadows of the trees. Stopping under the willow by the side of the water, Frodo pulled Sam to him once more, his hands disappearing under Sam's shirt, which had come undone somehow from his trousers. "Sam," Frodo moaned softly, pulling a willing Sam closely to him before his mouth claimed Sam's once again. Pippin had halted under the cover of the trees, but he need not have been overly concerned, for it was clear that the other two had eyes for no-one else but each other.
"Ah, Frodo," Sam's voice was low, when his mouth eventually broke from Frodo's. "Oh, me dearest, whatever you'd want, love, anything at all."
"You, Sam, always, you," Frodo sighed, beginning to press very closely to Sam, and starting to move with a deliberate rhythm against him, and now his hands had slipped under the waist of Sam's trousers.
"Oh," Sam moaned at that, his eyes shuttering closed, both of his hands holding Frodo's hips, pulling Frodo to him ever more closely.
A corner of Pippin's mind knew that it wasn't right to stay, that surely this wasn't a scene meant for anyone else's eyes. But he had never seen his elder cousin look like this before, and was powerless to draw his eyes away. Frodo was always controlled, held in. Although he laughed freely, it was never with the helpless intensity that sometimes would strike Merry and himself. And sad? There had been those times as well, but he knew that he had never seen Frodo cry. Merry, of course, well, there had been those times too for the both of them, as they grew up together. But even at this distance, and even in this light, there was nothing held back in Frodo's eyes now, only a giving, and almost palpable, love.
And Sam? Pippin found Sam's transformation from the shy, humble hobbit that he thought he knew even more remarkable. It was evident that Sam had become a full partner in their love, that their former relationship had been discarded long ago, and that even with all the differences that the world still saw between them, they had found their balance, and their joy, between the two of them alone. Sam's touch on Frodo was assured and knowing, possessing and possessed. Inexperienced as he was, Pippin suddenly knew that only if he was very fortunate indeed, would he ever find someone who would love him like this.
The two hobbits near the stream had turned, and it was now Sam with his back to the old willow whom Pippin saw. Sam, whose eyes closed as Frodo's kisses began to descend down his throat, whose breath was growing ever more ragged, and whose hands had found their way unconsciously into Frodo's dark curls. Sam, whose bright hair was gleaming in the moonlight as Frodo dexterously unbuttoned the shirt before him and trailed kisses even lower down Sam's chest. Sam's eyelashes cast dark shadows across his cheeks, and he was calling out Frodo's name so softly and tenderly that it was almost a plea.
But there was no need to ask, as Frodo undid the fastening of Sam's trousers, and kneeling, continued further down. One of Frodo's hands was visible, on Sam's hip, still on the fabric, and the tight grip, pulling Sam ever closer, was clear. Sam was beginning to move, slightly at first, but then more pronounced, thrusting himself into a rhythm that was matched by Frodo. And then Sam opened his eyes, gazing upwards into the full moon and countless stars of the Shire night, and groaned softly, and sighed, and arching himself up, calling out Frodo's name one last time, gave himself up to his love.
It was but a moment, as Sam fought to catch his breath, and Frodo was still bowed down before him, when Sam suddenly reached down to grasp Frodo gently by the arms and raise him up. Pippin could hear Frodo, in an almost choked voice, gasp, "Your hand, Sam, please…" Sam smiled warmly at that, but Frodo had already unfastened his own trousers and, quickly grasping Sam's hand, drew both his hand and Sam's inside. And now it was Frodo rocking into Sam's hand, still held in his own, with moans and cries. His head was down on Sam's shoulder and the other arm flung around Sam's neck. Sam's other arm was clasped around the jacket-covered shoulder against him, and his mouth was greedily tasting the side of Frodo's face, mouth, and neck, and murmuring the well-loved name over and over. Sam held his back tenderly and rocked him at an ever-increasing pace, whispering his love into Frodo's ear until Frodo finally gave a gulping, moaning cry, and pressed himself into Sam and froze there, as if to never be parted again.
Then there was no sound in the clearing for several moments, save the bubbling of the stream, and the occasional cry of an owl, falling on its dinner from some lofty perch in the forest about them. Frodo had turned his head toward Sam, still resting it on Sam's shoulder with his eyes closed, and his smile, as he was held in Sam's embrace, was one that Pippin forever remembered, when he thought of his youth, and those whom he had loved. And it was only then that Pippin realized that his own trousers were open, and his hand wet and sticky. Silently, he crept back to the clearing where their bedrolls lay, stealthily cleaning himself, and returning to his former position.
The other two soon returned to the clearing as well, Frodo carefully settling back down next to Pippin, and Sam at his side. Once again, Frodo rolled toward Sam, and they were asleep far before Pippin was.
The water rippled in the occasional light breeze, all sparking pale green and gold, for it was shallow here, no more than the depth of a hobbit's waist, and the stream ran warm in the sun over the sandy bottom. Pippin was standing in the stream, watching. The other two were somewhat down river, not that far really, but they had clearly lost track of the third of their party.
Frodo had managed to twine a foot around Sam's legs, and down Sam had gone into the water, with a great splash and laugh. But Frodo only had time to give one delighted laugh himself, before he, too, disappeared under the water amidst a great froth and bubbles. In just a short time though, both heads popped out of the water, one dark and the other light, and there was a quick fleeting kiss before Sam began to pull Frodo toward the shore.
Pippin watched his unclad cousin, and his cousin's equally bare gardener, in the Brandywine, and thought of Merry.
Sam had made a small cooking fire, that first morning out from Bag End, and as Frodo went to fetch water for the kettle, Pippin settled in next to the flames, warming his toes. The early morning still had a crisp bite to the air, for all it was that close to summer, and the tangy scent of pines was particularly prominent, mingling with the scent of the wood fire.
Sam, once the fire had properly started, picked up his heavy pack and drew out the frying pan and some breakfast provisions. Giving the teenager a curious glance, he asked, "D'you think that your folks'd be lookin' for you yet, Pippin?"
Pippin startled up at that. "Oh, I expect so," he answered, somewhat indifferently.
"An' who'd they be sendin'?" asked Sam, with interest.
"Well…" Pippin paused. "One of my sisters, I'd expect. I can't very well see my parents showing up, but they'll probably send a sister or two."
"So you have sisters, too?" Sam asked with a smile. "I'd not be knowin' that. I've sisters meself."
"So that's it," Pippin laughed in delight. "I've always wondered what it is that makes us get along so well. Three for me, all older. And you?"
Sam's grin widened. "Well, if that ain't the limit. Three as well, only I'd be older than one of them, leastways. Though it'd be that hard to tell, truth be told, since she treats me just like her sisters do."
"And brothers?" Pippin prompted curiously. "I've none, myself."
"Two older," Sam answered, holding the pan out over the fire to begin to heat it for the bacon, "but they'd be that much older. They went up north country, to stay with me uncle. They'd not want to be gardening, but roping instead. I was only a small lad when they left."
"And did you always want to be a gardener, Sam?" Pippin asked, drawing his arms around his knees, still watching Sam with interest.
"Aye," Sam answered, watching the pan meditatively. "I can't remember when I didn't." He paused for a moment, and then continued thoughtfully. "The Gaffer'd always say I needed to be the Gamgee that looked after Mr. Bilbo's garden, after it got too hard on his bones, as I'd be the last one left. But it never seemed a hardship t'me, no ways. There's never anywhere I'd rather be, than with green an' growin' things, an' I've never seen any garden lovelier than Bag End's."
"What if Frodo moved away?" Pippin asked him suddenly, watching him curiously. "Left the Shire, just like old Bilbo. Would you go too?"
Sam quickly looked over at him, surprised and yet not so, as one who had considered the question before. "Aye," he answered quietly, but without any hesitation. "There'd be nowhere I wouldn't follow him. And wherever he'd be wantin' to stay, I'd try my best to make him a garden there. It don't have to be Bag End, no ways."
There was a sharp rap on the door at Bag End, right about that time, but no answer. The visitor, after several attempts, was not dissuaded, though, and opened the door herself. Walking down the corridors of the smial, it soon became apparent that there was no occupant currently at home, and from the cold hearths and general tidiness of the rooms, that no occupant had been home for the last day or so, at least. With an annoyed sniff, the visitor was about to leave Bag End, when she heard a door open at the far end of the smial. Quickly following the sound, she found a lass, about her age but clearly of the working class, with her arms full of folded sheets and laundry, entering the Master of Bag End's bedroom.
At the sound of footsteps behind her in the supposedly empty smial, Daisy spun around with a startled look and found herself staring into the face of a gentle-hobbit lass. Her hair was reddish brown and exceptionally curly, and her large green eyes and the sharp cut of her features immediately brought those of Mr. Frodo to mind. Her voice though, when she spoke, had a curious odd lilt to it that Daisy, who had never been a day's walk from her home, had not heard before.
"Frodo Baggins," the visitor announced crisply. "Is he about? Tell him his cousin is here."
Daisy gave a quick bow at that, and nodded her head, her arms still full, to the newcomer. "Daisy Gamgee, if y'please, miss," she spoke up somewhat timidly in her surprise, "but Mr. Frodo's gone on a bit of a trip. He'd not be here."
"Hmpf," the gentle-hobbit's eyes narrowed slightly at that piece of information, but then, catching sight of the linen starting to slip from Daisy's grip, she added, not unkindly, "Go put that away before it escapes you, lass. I'm going to make myself a pot of tea. I don't think cousin Frodo will begrudge me that. Come find me when you're through."
Daisy gladly slipped through the door into the bedroom, and quickly made the bed. And as she lay the clean folded shirts in the wardrobe, her brother's as well as those of Frodo, she heard the clatter of a pot down the hall, and considered the fact that gentle-hobbits had some odd customs that she had not encountered before.
When she had returned to the kitchen, the visitor had managed to start the fire already, pump some water, and was just setting the kettle handle on the hook as she entered. "Well, that shan't take long," she nodded her head towards the kettle and held out a hand to a startled Daisy. "Pearl Took, Frodo's cousin," she explained briskly, giving Daisy's hand an unaccustomed hearty shake.
The family name and features were suddenly familiar to Daisy from Pippin's previous visits, so she asked curiously, "Pippin Took's sister?" before remembering her place.
"A regrettable fact," Pearl answered, the warm grin on her face belying her words, "you haven't seen the young scamp in the last couple of days, have you? Stars, there goes the kettle," she interrupted herself almost immediately, and whirling over to the fire, attempted to pick up the kettle before dropping it back on the hook with a hiss and some rather sharp words that Daisy had no idea gentlefolk knew.
Daisy quickly picked up a tea towel, but Pearl snatched it from her hand, and completed pouring the water into the waiting pot. "There we are," she muttered in satisfaction, but then held up her hand and sucked on it lightly.
"Why, let me see that, miss," Daisy moved instantly to her, her healer's instinct immediately awake. "That'd burn right proper, that would," and sure enough as Pearl drew her hand from her mouth, a angry red mark was already clearly visible on the milky skin. "Oh, now, isn't that a shame," Daisy murmured sympathetically, and taking the tea towel out the kitchen door, quickly returned with it soaked in cold water from the pump.
"Now, you just be holdin' that around you hand for just a bit, an' there'd not be that much blisterin', like as not. No, none of that," Daisy sternly instructed the bemused gentle-hobbit, as she started to lift the cloth, "I know it'd be stingin' a bit, but best a little hurt now than tears tonight."
"You're rather good at this," Pearl gave her a thankful smile, and kept the cloth on. "Are you Frodo's housekeeper?"
Daisy gave a little laugh at the thought. "Mr. Frodo wouldna be needin' that," she answered with a smile, "there'd only be the one of him. But I do the washin' for him, surely. My brother'd be his gardener," she added, a trifle carefully.
"Hamfast Gamgee? Why, I've always heard quite highly of him," Pearl replied warmly. "My mother has always spoken so well of Bag End's gardens, but I've never been past Hobbiton before, myself."
Daisy corrected her with a smile, "That'd be me Da, Hamfast Gamgee. No, 'tis my brother as does most of the work now, Samwise Gamgee, as he'd be called, but he's shapin' up to be just as good, he is."
"Well, now, now that we've been properly introduced, come and sit and have a cup with me," and before Daisy could properly determine how it had happened, she was seated in Mr. Frodo's kitchen having a congenial cup of tea with his cousin.
"So, my brother, Pippin," Pearl returned to the former topic, lifting the cup awkwardly with her left hand. "You haven't seen him about, then?"
Daisy shook her head, gratefully drinking the tea, a much finer leaf than she was accustomed to drink at home.
"And so where has cousin Frodo gone?" Pearl prompted her curiously. "Would your brother know?"
"I believe so, for he'd be takin' him too. Sam said as it'd be a walkin' trip, and for a week or two, mayhap, but not where."
"Frodo took his gardener on a walking tour?" Pearl sipped her tea again, an eyebrow cocked incredulously at this piece of information, as Daisy suddenly found the pattern on her cup of particular interest.
The three travelers were even then putting out the campfire, and preparing to leave their campsite. "So, Frodo," Pippin asked expectantly, "do you have a plan yet?"
Frodo laughed as he lifted up his pack. "Not a bit of one," he confessed with a grin. "Inspiration will have to strike soon, I expect. There is only one thing that has come to mind, though," he added after a short pause. "There's only one of the three of us who could go about unrecognized at Brandy Hall."
And as two disconcertingly similar faces turned his way, Sam realized, with a sinking feeling, that being camp cook was not to be his chief contribution to this expedition.
By that evening, in fact, by the time teatime was ending, Pearl Took had moved into Bag End. After all, since Frodo was to be back any day, there would be no news one way or the other of Pippin until she was able to talk to him. The rooms at the Green Dragon were perfectly frightful, and, truth be told, Pearl was more than happy to have a few days to herself far from the Great Smials. Daisy had promptly aired out the guest bedroom, thankful that Frodo's cousin had not seen fit to move into Frodo's bedroom, with its stack of Sam's humble homespun shirts next to Frodo's fine linen ones in the wardrobe.
Daisy had already been invited to Marigold and Tom's home for dinner that evening, and since Pearl had announced that although she might be capable of a pot of tea, she was no cook, Daisy took the hint and uneasily invited her as well.
But her misgivings were for naught, since Pearl proved herself a gracious and entertaining guest, and immediately set herself to learning all there was to know about these remarkable Gamgee and Cotton families. Rose and Jolly were there as well, and Rose could not help breaking into a blush any time Pearl spoke to her, a fact that entertained Pearl highly.
"So she'll be stayin' at Bag End 'til Mr. Frodo gets back?" Marigold asked Daisy as the two sisters washed dishes together after the meal. Tom had taken the guest into the garden for a stroll after dinner, and his brother and sister had headed back to their parents' smial, full of news.
"Aye, that's what she said," laughed Daisy, "an' who would I be to say her nay?"
Marigold chuckled at that, giving a vigorous scrub to the stew pot. "Wouldn't ha'mattered all that much what you said, I'd be thinkin'," she admitted. "That one seems as though she'd be havin' her way, like it or no."
Daisy agreed to that with a smile. "But you can't help but like her nonetheless, for it all," she added. "All I've ever met of Mr. Frodo's family is her and Mr. Bilbo. They certainly are an interestin' lot, to say the least."
The three travelers had walked far through the Green Hill Country that day, despite ambling at a rather leisurely pace. Any body of water deep enough to reach his ankles had fascinated Pippin, and he also found several rather grumpy bullfrogs, well hidden, or so they thought, in the rushes, and not at all pleased by the inquisitive young hobbit's examination.
The older two hobbits walked together, to the rear, and once they thought Pippin was far enough ahead of them, dared to join hands and exchange a quick kiss under the spreading branches of the great oak that stood to the side of the path. But a distinctly amused voice came floating back toward them, "I can see you, you know," and Pippin bounded back into view. He had rather struggled with a sense of guilt this morning, for having followed them the night before, and had firmly resolved that that would not happen again. But he really didn't see the use of the two of them being so secretive about this sort of thing.
With an amused chuckle, Frodo found that he quite agreed. "Well, that's it, Sam, we won't be having a moment to ourselves on this trip, so we may as well make the best of it."
Sam made a noise that could have indicated agreement, annoyance, or possibly several other sentiments, but, as Pippin noted, he kept a firm hold of Frodo's hand.
As evening approached, Buckland was a brisk morning's walk ahead, but brisk was not the pace at which the three had been traveling. It was increasingly obvious to each of them, as their destination approached, that it was essential that some sort of strategy be devised. However, the discovery of a patch of the very best sort of mushrooms had suddenly made dinner a priority. Sam was somewhat surprised by the enthusiasm shown to this dish by Frodo, but Pippin laughed knowingly when he mentioned it.
"Ah, you don't know the half of it, Sam," he crowed, carefully guarding his portion from his cousin. Frodo had polished off his share nearly instantly, and had been impatiently eyeing those still on Pippin's plate. "I suppose he's never mentioned Farmer Maggot to you, now, has he?"
"Farmer Maggot?" Sam asked curiously, "I'd not be knowin' that name."
"Buckland," Frodo mentioned succinctly, rising to his feet. "I'll fetch some water to wash up with, then."
"Oh, no, you don't," Pippin was delighted to find that Frodo's infamous dealings with Maggot apparently still embarrassed him. "Now, I wasn't there, of course," he confided to Sam, "but Merry has told me all about it."
"Well, he wasn't there, either," Frodo sat back down, realizing the story was going to be told, whether he would have it or no, and it probably would be best not to have it come from Pippin uncorrected. "No doubt he has told you a particularly colorful version. There isn't that much to it, really."
"Then go ahead, tell Sam," Pippin urged with a grin. "I'm sure he has no idea what a unrepentant scamp you used to be."
Sam cocked an incredulous eyebrow up at that, and eyed Pippin dubiously.
"Oh, yes," Pippin continued with glee, delighted to have such an attentive audience as Sam. "Why, he's still known about Brandy Hall, in certain quarters, as That Wild Baggins Lad, you know, for all you may think he's the staid and respectable Master of Bag End now."
"Well, I don't think that'd exactly be what I'd be thinkin' o'him," Sam demurred with a quick smile over to Frodo, who had settled quietly back down at his side. "But 'tis not as a wild lad that I remember seein' him when he first came to Bag End. 'Course I was still fair more'n a child meself."
"That young?" Pippin asked curiously. "How old are you anyway, Sam?"
"Older than Merry," Frodo interjected hastily, having a curious reluctance to go into this particular subject.
Not dissuaded by Frodo's unease, Sam replied with a grin. "Twenty two."
"Barely a 'tween," Pippin breathed, with an owlish stare. "Why, Frodo! And you tell us we're too young."
"Well, you are, at that," Frodo shot back, starting to redden. "You're a teenager, Pippin, and Merry was still one last year. That's much too young, well, you know what I mean," he ended, rather lamely.
Sam took pity on him at that. "You see, Pippin," he explained, turning to Pippin, but laying a gentle hand on Frodo's, which was on the ground next to him, "those of us as aren't gentle-folk have to grow up a bit faster. Me sister'd be younger than me, and she's already married. An' the other as is a year older, well, it's not for the want of tryin', with her. So you see as I'm plenty old enough to be makin' up my mind about who I'd be wantin' t'spend my life with. 'Tis not just a matter of the years, you know." He could feel Frodo's hand close gratefully around his as he spoke.
"Hmm." Pippin gave some consideration to this argument, but Frodo felt alarmingly certain that he had not heard the last of it. Returning to Sam's previous remark, Pippin then continued to probe Sam's early memories of Frodo. "So he was actually civilized around Bag End as a lad?"
"Bilbo had a lot to do with that," Frodo spoke up, with a wry smile. "He never suffered fools gladly. And he could always pack me off, if he wished. So I became entirely respectable, I'm afraid."
Pippin gave rather a snort at that. "Or learned to hide it better, I suspect. But anyway, Sam, this fellow Maggot…"
Frodo rolled his eyes up at this return to the initial topic, and Sam smiled at Pippin encouragingly.
At this promising reception, Pippin continued with relish. "Well, my cousin Frodo, here, as you may have noticed, is a positive pushover for mushrooms. And Farmer Maggot was well-known to have an especially luxuriant patch of them. Unfortunately, he was just as well-known for being the owner of a pack of particularly large, rather voracious dogs as well." And he proceeded to tell Sam the tale with ample detail, and several exasperated corrections from Frodo, that nonetheless entirely failed to hide his pleasure in Pippin's account and Sam's delighted response.
The stars had risen high in the sky, and the campfire was merely embers, by the time Pippin began to yawn lustily.
"I have no idea," he muttered, in a drowsy voice, "how I can manage to get quite so sleepy, when all I have to look forward to is an evening shifting about on roots and pebbles."
"Looks as if you'll never notice them tonight," Frodo smiled at him, rising to his feet from where he had been curled, leaning into Sam. Sam, blinking his eyes, and rousing himself from against the tree trunk that had fit so comfortably against his back, stood up as well.
"I'll take care of the fire, Frodo," he offered, "You go along now, and get some rest, too."
"I'll help, Sam," Frodo's refusal was soft but firm.
Pippin took no more notice of the debate, however, but settling quickly into his blankets, was soon fast asleep. Sam picked up a pot for water from the stream with which to douse the campfire, and he and Frodo walked through the brush to the water's edge.
There was a nearly full moon still, and the birch trees near the stream shone a bright silver. The small stream glittered as Sam reached the pot down and filled it. But rather than turning back to the campsite, he stopped, the pot of water forgotten in hand, and gazed up into the night sky. " 'Tis the same stars here as over Bag End," he remarked softly to Frodo. "Seems as though we'd just be out on the back hill rather than days out from Hobbiton."
Frodo murmured agreement, looking up into the starry sky as well. Closing the gap between Sam and himself, he threw an arm around Sam's shoulders and drew him close. Sam's response was unconscious and instantaneous, a warm arm wrapped closely around Frodo's waist. "See the bright one, just above that tall pine with the bare top?" he asked Sam softly, pointing to the star in question. "Bilbo told me that the dwarves call that one the Star of the North, and that it always points northwards into the wild country."
"Aye," Sam agreed, following to where Frodo was pointing. "Me gaffer says that as well. All seasons, too."
Frodo stood silently for a few moments, his embrace still holding Sam closely to him, and the sounds of the night were all about them, the hoots of the owls, the quiet rustling occasionally to be heard in the bushes, and the last song of the whippoorwill as the final light of the midsummer sun slowly faded from the horizon. "I know, Sam," his voice took on a dreamy quality, "if there's ever a reason that we're apart for the night, after all, it could possibly happen in the next fifty years or so…" He paused to chuckle as Sam gave a brief sound of dissent. "Just suppose, Sam" he laughed softly, drawing his companion even closer to him, "then, you look to that star before you go to bed and think of me, and I'll do the same."
Then lifting a hand and turning Sam's face toward his, he added quietly, "And then imagine that I kiss you just like this," and he paused to give credence to his words. "And that you do the same," he continued, slowly drawing his mouth reluctantly from Sam's warm lips. "And we'll wish each other a good night, and that the time will be short, until we can be together again."
"Can't see as how we'd ever need to," Sam had put the pot of water down long ago, and was slowly running a hand down the side of Frodo's face. "But should that ever happen, I promise you, me dear, I'll look to that star, an' think of you, and tell that star just how much I'd be lovin' you. But it could never shine as bright as lookin' into those eyes o'yours, me love."
"And I hope the occasion never comes," Frodo said quietly, looking with sudden soberness into Sam's eyes and covering Sam's hand with his own. "But if there is one thing that my life has taught me thus far, it is that nothing lasts forever."
Sam gave a shake of his head at that, but Frodo kept his hand in place. "It's not time that I fear, my love," he continued. "And there could be nothing that I would wish for more, than in fifty years hence, you'd be standing here with me, saying that I never had any cause for fretting." He stopped at that, looking down and swallowing hard, and when he looked back up at Sam, his eyes were suddenly wet with unshed tears. "It's just that. . . " he whispered with difficulty, his hold on Sam's hand tightening ever so slightly, "that every day I find myself falling more in love with you, Sam. And the thought that I could, for whatever reason, lose you, terrifies me."
Sam gave no answer to this at first, other than a long and loving kiss. "None of us can ever know what life'd be givin' us on the morrow," he said finally, his forefinger gently stroking Frodo's delicately arched eyebrow, surely and knowingly. "But what we can know is what'd be in our hearts. So if the world'd ever break us apart, rest you easy that your Sam will be workin' his way back to you, never you fear on that, no matter if it took the rest of my life. If ever you do lose me, Frodo-love, it would not be forever. For I'm not too young not to know that it is you that'd be my only true love. Never doubt me, Frodo." And there were no more words after that that needed to be said.
Daisy had escorted Pearl Took back to Bag End after dinner that night. She had rarely been in the large and meandering smial at night, and the shadows that followed her candle as she led Pearl to the guest room gave her the fleeting thought that this great place must have surely seemed strange to Sam after the overcrowded Gamgee home. But her train of thought was broken, when she handed the candle over to the visitor, by the ugly red mark on Pearl's palm.
"Well, look at you, then," Daisy gasped, holding on to the candle and grasping Pearl's hand instead. "That'll be blisterin', surely it will."
"No matter," Pearl attempted to withdraw her hand with a light laugh. "I've certainly never been considered a beauty; a few marks will hardly mar my perfection."
Daisy stopped short at that, but did not release the other's hand, looking straight into her eyes with startled disbelief. "Why, whoever would be fool enough to be sayin' that?" she asked in a quiet voice, before recollecting herself and giving Pearl the candle in its holder. "Light those other candles," she said briskly over her shoulder and she left the room. "I'll be right back."
Pearl did as she was bid, but then stared at her face reflected in the small looking glass propped on the wooden chest, seeing the face of a stranger beneath the familiar red curls. There was nothing here that she was used to, no family, no friends, no servants, only this lass that was none of any of those.
Daisy reappeared before very long, carrying a strip of clean cloth with a small jar of salve. "I left this here last week," she announced in tones of crisp efficiency, "seein' as how my brother'd always let the cookin' fat bespatter him." Pearl silently held her hand back out, allowing Daisy to carefully apply the salve and wrap it lightly with the cloth, carefully tucking the loose ends in. "Well, then." In contrast to Daisy's hands, her voice was clipped and hurried. "I'll be stoppin' by in the morn if you'd be needin' summat."
"Thank you," Pearl called after her, but Daisy was already gone.
"The cave." Frodo stopped the downward course of his mug, the steam of the hot tea visibly rising in the crisp morning air. He turned to Pippin and repeated, with a sudden smile, "You remember it, don't you, Pippin? The cave by the river."
"Ah," Pippin replied, the corners of his mouth curling up in delight. He had already finished off his tea, as well as the rest of his breakfast, and lay next to the morning's small campfire, propped up on his bony elbows. Excitedly, he sat up. "That would be perfect! I know that only you and I and Merry know of that place. No-one would ever find us there."
"Exactly," Frodo replied with satisfaction. "We can stay there until we decide what to do about this mess. Now all we need is a way to get the word to Merry. . . " and Sam sat up straight, with the uncomfortable surety that this is where he fit in to the master plan.
His fears were quickly confirmed. "You see, Sam," Frodo explained reasonably enough, drawing close to Sam and wrapping an arm around his shoulders, "no-one about Brandy Hall will recognize you." Sam sat quite still, terrified about his new role as conspirator, but at the same time reluctant to say or do anything that might result in that arm being removed from where it was so comfortably resting.
Finally though, he felt that there was something that he ought to point out. "Mistress Brandybuck recognized me this Yuletide," he observed, but tempered the objection by wriggling slightly closer to Frodo.
Frodo gave him a warm smile at that, and Sam imperceptibly sighed inside, knowing that he would do whatever Frodo asked of him. "That's because you were with me," Frodo mentioned matter-of-factly. "By yourself, she'll never know you. Besides, with any luck at all, you'll never see her. All you have to do, Sam," he continued nonchalantly, "is look about for Merry, tell him where to find us, and hurry back. That's all."
"Others might be knowin' me, though," Sam gave a last feeble protest. "Plenty o'Brandy Hall folks'd have Hobbiton relations, and they'd be knowin' me a bit better."
"Well, they wouldn't be running off to tell the Mistress of Brandy Hall about it, though, would they?" Frodo laughed. "I think we can rely on their discretion, Sam."
Daisy let herself quietly into the kitchen of Bag End the next morning, only to find Pearl already at the table, sipping a cup of tea, and reading from a book.
"Good morn, miss. I'd be bringin' you a bit o'bread," Daisy nodded toward the visitor, laying her basket upon the kitchen table. "An' a couple a'eggs, for your breakfast. There'd be butter in the pantry, I believe, for your toast."
Pearl put down her book with a warm smile. "Thank you so much," she greeted Daisy cheerfully. "Toast, I think I can manage, but what does one do about eggs?" she picked one up and stared at it ruefully.
"Well," Daisy tried to hide her amusement. How could anyone not be knowing that? "Scramblin' might be easiest, now."
"Scrambling sounds good," the gentle-hobbit looked up at that, her eyes dancing with amusement. "So I just toss them in a pan?"
"Stars, no," Daisy laughed. "Not unless you'd be wantin' to be scrubbin' that pan for a while, and with a poor excuse for a breakfast, likewise. Here, I'll show you, then."
So she instructed Pearl happily in the mysteries of the construction of breakfast, and Pearl laughed again, and declared that she couldn't remember when breakfast had been such a entertaining occasion, and the next time Daisy glanced out the window, the sun was already high in the sky.
"Ah, now, would you look at the sun," she cried, quickly untying Sam's apron that she had borrowed for the morning and neatly hanging it back on the peg, "and me with the marketin' still t'be done."
"Oh, are you going to Hobbiton, then?" Pearl asked, instantly curious. "I need to be getting word back home that I'm waiting here for Frodo."
"Aye, I could forward a note from you if you'd like," Daisy threw over her shoulder as she hastily rinsed out the last of the dishes, and grabbed up the kitchen towel.
"I'd rather come, too," Pearl took the towel from Daisy's hand and gave the last dish a perfunctory swipe.
" 'Tis a bit of a walk, then, especially the sun bein' high by now," Daisy replied dubiously.
"Well, I'm not quite as pampered as all that, Daisy dear," Pearl laughed merrily. "And what would I be doing about here all on my own? Reading Frodo's stuffy books? Not too likely, I should think."
And before Daisy knew how it had happened, she and the gentle-hobbit from Tuckborough were easily chatting together and walking the dusty road to Hobbiton.
As the three travelers stepped through a thicket of barberry bushes, they caught their first sight of the Brandywine. It was not the main portion of the river that was glittering in the noonday sun, but rather one of the shallow tributaries, still full of spring runoff. It was no deeper than their waists, but to Sam, it was the greatest body of water he had ever seen, and he felt his heart suddenly drop at the thought of crossing it.
Frodo stopped short and gazed at the glistening stream with an odd lump in his throat. He knew not why, but the sight of it was irresistible, flooding his heart with memories of the long-forgotten days of his childhood. It was by the banks of the Brandywine that he had been born, and he had learned to swim nearly as soon as he could walk. There had been all those days of golden sun, shining water, and those two whose faces he only saw, so very seldom now, in his dreams. Suddenly he felt the years drop from him with welcome release, and he dropped his pack on the shady path where they stood, quickly stripped himself of his clothing, and running into the sunlight, splashed into the water before turning around to face his companions. "Come on, you two," he laughed. "It's warm enough, at least in the sun."
Pippin chuckled fondly at his cousin, not greatly surprised by Frodo's actions. "He's a river rat, you know," he informed a startled Sam. "Even worse than Merry. There'll be no getting him out for awhile now. Not until lunch, at least."
Frodo had ducked under the water, and as he stood up again in the waist-deep stream, water running from the wet dark curls now flattened against his face and a broad smile on his face, Sam thought he had rarely seen him look so lovely. His fear of the water was nothing to his instant desire to taste those drops of water running in glistening beads down Frodo's chest and decide if they could possibly taste as delicious as they appeared. There was no need for Frodo to call to him again, as his warm look to Sam was slyly inviting. His pack was down beside Frodo's, his clothes were off as well, and he followed into the sunlight and water. Pippin stood on the shore for only a moment more before shrugging the pack off of his shoulders too, and rapidly undressing, joined the other two.
Sam walked sturdily out into the stream, keeping his fears firmly at bay, feeling the cool water about his ankles, his shins, his thighs, and then further up. Upstream, Frodo twisted in the water, and suddenly was lying flat out upon the water in front of him. How he did that, Sam had no idea, lying there as surely as on his great feather bed, back in their bedroom at Bag End. Sam drove himself even more quickly into the water, for seeing Frodo stretched out, eyes closed, dark lashes shadowing his cheeks, dark curls on his forehead and dark curls below, well, Sam was grateful indeed that the water was waist-deep. Clear as it was, though, it wasn't about to hide much, and it might well be awhile before Sam would be prepared to leave its meager safety.
Back behind him, he could hear Pippin splashing noisily about, causing the small terns hidden in the reeds to rise suddenly from the water, flapping their wings in protest, and seek refuge further down the river. But ahead, Frodo lay, dreamily floating away from him in the light current, and Sam marveled once more at the grace and elegance of the slim form that he had come to know so well. There were those that had always said Frodo Baggins never looked like a proper hobbit, and Sam, in his heart, agreed. Far more wondrous than any hobbit he had ever known, indeed, but he never said as much to Frodo, knowing that it would have been no comfort to him, who would so much rather think of himself as just ordinary.
Sam glanced overhead. The sun was high in the brilliantly blue sky; it was nearly time for lunch. But before that. . . Taking a quick glimpse upstream, he saw Pippin sitting in the water at the river's edge, curiously examining something in his hand as mud was slowly dropping from it. Sam gave a quick sigh of relief. At least the teen was occupied for the time being. Just as an added guarantee, though, he called out, with all the nonchalance that he could summon, "We'd be right back, Pippin. We'll just have a look downriver for a bit." And not even looking back to see if his words had had the desired effect, he followed Frodo downstream.
Gliding innocently by Sam, Frodo's eyes were still closed, but a smile appeared again on his lips as he bumped lazily into him. And then with a swirl and flash of water, Frodo dove under, quick as any river otter, and before Sam could see where, he felt a sudden tug to one of his legs and down he was sinking, into the water. With a sudden snort, he leapt back up to his feet to find Frodo standing nearby, laughing mischievously.
"See?" Frodo's expression had definitely become a smirk. "After all, not that deep, now, is it?" Diving back under again before Sam could respond, he surfaced closer to Sam, and in doing so, brushed against him.
"Ah," he breathed at that revelation, his eyes widening slightly as well as his smile.
"Aye, right enough," Sam gave a mock growl at Frodo's reaction. "An' could a body be blamin' me, seein' as how you. . ." and here he broke off, casting another quick glance upriver, but Pippin still appeared to be occupied with the muddy discovery in his hand. "I told him we'd be back in a bit," he nodded his head in the teen's direction.
"Did you now," Frodo answered silkily, ducking down in the water again and gliding slightly ahead of Sam. "Well in that case, follow me." An ancient willow stretched its leaf-draped branches out into the water not far ahead. Frodo headed for the tree with all the assurance of memory, and found what he had recalled behind the screen of green, a clear pool sheltered by the willow from the sight of anyone upstream.
Sam, slowly wading through the clear water as he followed Frodo, brushed aside the graceful branches that dipped into the stream, and then looked around with pleasure. The small pool glistened in the sunlight, but the willow trees on the bank sheltered the occupants from sight. Frodo had sunk chest deep into the water, apparently, as far as Sam could tell, on his knees, and was lazily stroking the water before him as he watched Sam. "This trip is turning out rather well, isn't it, Sam?" he asked softly, moving closer to him.
"Aye, it's had its moments," Sam had to admit as he reached out for Frodo. But before he could make contact, Frodo lightly laughed, ducked down, and swirled away out of Sam's grasp. But this time, Sam was ready. "Ah, no, me dear, it'd not be that easy." He ducked behind Frodo, and caught him fast by the waist. "If you'd be goin' around in naught but your skin, Frodo-love," he whispered, clasping Frodo tightly in front of him, "then you'd best be expectin' your Sam to not be takin' his eyes off of you. Nor his hands, for that matter."
"And glad I am of that," Frodo responded, rising to his feet in the water, and tightly wrapping his arms around Sam's, that were firmly clasped around his waist. "Oh, Sam, dearest," he murmured, closing his eyes and laying his head back against Sam's shoulder. Slowly then, he let his hands trail from Sam's and slowly still, reaching back, follow around Sam's waist behind him and, reaching back even further, grasp Sam and cup him from behind.
"Frodo," Sam's voice was husky, and his arousal was evident, pushing into Frodo's backside. His hands moved slowly from Frodo's waist. Lower, across that smooth stomach, under water, and then lower yet.
"Ah," Frodo sighed at Sam's touch, pushing upwards, and yet at the same time, still pressing hard back into Sam. But Sam's hands found what they had been seeking, and closed firmly around Frodo. Frodo let out a moan at that, and tried to pull Sam ever closer to him, arching his head back over Sam's shoulder.
"Frodo, Frodo," Sam whispered, twisting his head to nibble the delicate tip of Frodo's ear, to trail a tongue along his cheek, to taste the crook of his neck. And all the while, his hands knew their mission, stroking and caressing, cajoling and pleading. Frodo grew harder in his capable hands, and began to thrust himself back against Sam with increasing urgency. Vaguely, Sam wished that he had thought of bringing butter with him, but it was too late for that. And now the sound of Frodo, his breath growing heavier, the incoherent pleas to Sam to just, please, oh, just. . .
And whatever it was, Sam would have given, pressing himself against Frodo harder and harder, but with a rhythm that never forgot its partner, while all the while Frodo moaned with want and need, grabbing at Sam with all his strength, until finally, with a choked cry, Frodo flung himself back, and froze for a hushed moment, throbbing in Sam's hands, and then let go with a strangled cry. As soon as he felt Frodo's release, Sam could no longer wait, but grasped Frodo's hips tightly, desperately, and pressed himself into that delicious cleft once more, and shuddered as well with his own release.
Pippin was glad to see them reappear from behind the willow. He didn't mind waiting patiently, but after all, it was lunch time, and unthinkably enough, they had managed to miss elevenses.
Hobbiton was bustling with the commotion of market day when Daisy and Pearl reached the Green Dragon on its outskirts. A heavily laden farm cart rumbled past them just as they dexterously threaded their way through the mud puddles by the side of the road, still remaining from last week's brief showers. Daisy quickly grasped Pearl's arm, just in time to help her avoid a drover herding a trio of piglets past them, bound for market. Even though it was by now the height of the afternoon, the roads into Hobbiton were still busy, for market went on late into the summer evenings. Farmers from outlaying farms often did not arrive at Hobbiton until later in the day, and frequently, if they were prosperous enough, made an evening of it at the Green Dragon, and found their way home the following day. And if the market had not been as good to them, well, there was the field nearby and the mild night air, and generally, someone willing to stand them a mug at the inn.
With Frodo away, and only she and the gaffer at home, Daisy's needs were few, so there was time for a quick visit with her sister May, still staying with the Burrows in town. Besides, pen and paper would be available at the Burrows residence, and Pearl Took could prepare her note to her family there, Daisy was sure.
" 'Tis probably not what you'd be used to," Daisy mentioned depreciatingly to the visitor as they entered the market square. "I'm sure that Hobbiton'd never be as fine as Michel Delving."
"Well, I certainly would never know," Pearl chuckled, her eyes dancing with the bustle and commotion all about. "Mama never lets me go to town for the marketing, that'd be why we have help, as she would say. Thank you for putting up with me, Daisy," she added with sudden gratitude, tucking her arm under Daisy's. "I hope it's weeks before Frodo gets back, and he can keep that brother of mine with him, for all I care. I'm having far too good a time to want to be going back."
A quick flush of pleasure on Daisy's face was the immediate response.
May had been expecting her sister's knock, but her companion took her aback. It was clear to the more worldly Gamgee that this was a hobbit lass of wealth and importance, and what she was doing with May's awkward elder sister was baffling indeed. But that was nothing to the shock of the name, when Daisy introduced her, as May escorted them into the front parlor. She had been alone in the smial, awaiting her sister, since the Burrows lasses were out on errands of their own. And now she was bitterly regretting that, as the eldest daughter of the Tooks of the Great Smial itself was standing in front of her. She immediately dropped into an unpracticed bow to find Pearl extending her hand instead in greeting. But there was a bandage wrapped about it, which the visitor seemed to just notice as well, and she withdrew her hand with a laugh.
"Well, that won't work too well, I'm afraid," she explained ruefully, "but I'm glad to meet you, anyway."
"Miss Pearl came to Bag End," Daisy explained, choosing not to hear the soft mutter from the aforementioned at that appellation, "to look for her brother."
"Mr. Pippin?" May queried, her eyes widening.
"Do you know him? Have you seen him?" Pearl asked in mild surprise.
"Not to know by sight, surely, but everyone has heard. . ." and May stopped for a moment and then smoothly continued, "what a fine young gentle-hobbit he'd be."
"Well, he is a fine one, and no mistake," Pearl commented dryly. "So you would have heard if he'd been seen about Hobbiton?"
"Oh, aye, indeed," May hastily responded, unsure as to whether she had offended the visitor or not. "But, no, no word of him."
"Well, then, I'd best send a message to Mama," Pearl said decisively. "Your sister has informed me there would be paper and a quill about here?"
"Oh, to be sure, miss," May quickly answered, racking her head as to exactly where these items might be. Neither she nor the Burrows lasses were much for writing. Fortunately, she was saved the embarrassment of a lengthy search by the return of the rest of the residents of the smial. And amidst the flurry of introductions, and expressions of hurriedly muffled astonishment, and the speedy search for the required implements, May found a moment to draw Daisy aside.
"How have y'met up with her?" May hissed quietly to her sister, pulling her into a corner of the ornately adorned front room. "Seems as you'd be the best of friends when you'd be comin' in. Are you sure she's who she'd say she'd be?"
Daisy surveyed her sister with amusement. "She's Mr. Frodo's cousin. Can you na see that?"
May snuck another rapid glance at the stranger, whose arms were being suddenly laden with a plenitude of instruments, some of which were actually suitable for writing. "Well, that would certainly seem to be the case," she reluctantly admitted. "That pointy nose'd be the same, sure enough. But where would Himself be, then?"
"He went on a walkin' trip, so says our Sam," Daisy answered. "An' Miss Pearl, she's makin' herself right at home at Bag End 'til he'd be comin' back." Her admiration for Pearl's bold move couldn't help but creep into her voice at that. "She'll be stayin' right there until he'd be back."
"And Sam?" May asked instantly, apprehension clearly in her voice.
"With Mr. Frodo, of course," Daisy answered quickly but soothingly.
Pearl caught only the last exchange out of the corner of her eye, but there was a clear undercurrent of concern between the two sisters that puzzled her. Once again, she considered the unusual employee relationship at Bag End.
It was late in the afternoon when the travelers reached the Brandywine proper. It rolled past the shores at this point, a strong and powerful river, the greatest in the Shire. Sam stared at the water flowing over the rocks near the banks with a foaming intensity, and was sure that there was no possibility of crossing this fearsome tide. But Frodo gave it a calm glance, and Pippin seemed unimpressed as well.
"Well, there's the ford upstream, along the main road," Frodo said thoughtfully to Pippin, "but I can't think of a better way to make an announcement that we've arrived than to cross there. The river is narrower further downstream, but that's getting much too close to Brandy Hall. And then we'd just have to travel all the way back up to the cave. No, I think this would be the right spot."
Sam stared at Frodo with the terrified sensation that he understood all too well what Frodo meant. And Pippin quickly confirmed it. "Right enough," he responded to Frodo, with the air of it being all in a day's work, "this spot would be as likely a spot as any."
"Sam can't swim," Frodo mentioned to his cousin in a matter-of-fact sort of way, "and I'd rather not get the packs all wet, if that can be helped."
"Hmmm," Pippin answered meditatively, turning his back to the river and staring at the shore. "A log, then."
Frodo gave a curt nod, and followed Pippin's lead.
Both of the cousins spotted it at the same time. It was a short log, lying well off the side of the bank, relatively dry, and also relatively flat. In no time at all, the three hobbits had pushed it to the water's edge, and both Pippin and Frodo had removed their packs as well as clothing.
"Sit there, Sam," Frodo instructed him gently as Sam stood by the water's edge, unsure and far more afraid than he wished them to know. "It's rather flat there, and you can hold the packs and clothing in front of you. Mind you, should it tip, you're not to worry about any of that lot. We can retrieve it all later if needs be."
But try as he might, Sam's face couldn't help reveal his feelings about the idea of tipping. Frodo saw that instantly, and quickly pulled Sam aside.
"Don't you worry, my love," he said quietly and gently, with a warm smile, cupping Sam's face with one hand and drawing Sam's troubled gaze to his. "I grew up on this river, and Pippin almost has as well. I'd never let any harm come to you, Sam dear. You're safe with me. Just trust me."
"As if I ever wouldn't," Sam whispered, giving Frodo a shaky smile. "Don't you mind your old Sam now."
Frodo gazed into his eyes a moment more, and then gave him a quick kiss, not caring if Pippin saw or not.
"Well, let's be off then," he walked, with Sam's hand in his, back to the log where Pippin was patiently waiting. "Pippin, you swim on that side of the log, and I'll take this side. Between the two of us, we'll have no problem keeping it upright, I'm sure. Sam, you just ride on the log with our packs, and we'll be over this puddle in no time."
If Pippin had any doubts, he never showed them, but moved smartly to the other side of the log and gave Sam a reassuring smile. "Not to worry, Sam," he piped up cheerfully. "When it comes to rivers, Frodo is unsinkable. We'll be all right." Sam gave him an uncertain, but grateful smile in return, and before he knew it, the other two were shoving the log into the water, and it entered the turbulent water.
Pippin swam steadily on the one side of Sam, but was frequently submerged and out of sight. But just when Sam started to get the panicky feeling that perhaps he had been down rather too long, up he'd pop again, with a cheerful grin and breathless nod to Sam.
Frodo, though, swam steadily and skillfully on the other side of the log, and it was soon clear enough to even a novice such as Sam that Frodo felt no fear of this riotous river. He never disappeared under the water and even kept, at all times, a warm hand on Sam's ankle, hanging over the edge of the leg. Sam closed his eyes, and felt his heart slow down and steady itself. He was safe. Frodo had him, he felt that warm touch radiate throughout him. Frodo held him, and there was no reason to fear.
He opened his eyes at the unexpected lurch as the log hit the opposite shore. They were over the Brandywine and in Buckland.
It was early in the morning as the three hobbits walked single-file down the narrow, overgrown path that had been made long ago through the rushes that grew thickly along this side of the Brandywine. The fragrant air was already warm this morning, and it was clear that summer was about to stay for awhile. They had spent the night at the cave carved from an overhanging rock ledge further back upstream that both Frodo and Pippin had remembered. But word needed to be sent to Merry, and as they walked along, pushing aside the bulrushes and skirting the thornier thickets, Frodo reviewed the amended plan with Sam, who was right behind him. Pippin followed up the rear, gratefully pushing back the rushes that Sam was absent-mindedly holding aside for him. It was clear that this way had not been much used since, probably, Frodo's time at Brandy Hall, for Pippin was finding it difficult to remember when he and Merry had last been this way.
The wall of rushes suddenly stopped, crudely hewn down and chopped back, and a field of richly green young spring wheat stretched out between the river bank and the hills on the far side. They had entered the rich lands of Buckland now, and Sam could not help but feel awe at the bounty that lay before him, for the fields that he helped harvest for the Cottons could not begin to compare to this. Behind the rushes, to the side of the field, the thickly wooded verge ran, with a rail fence and narrow dirt road separating it from the planted cropland.
Frodo stopped and nodded to the road as Sam came up beside him. "That's the road that I was telling you about, Sam," he indicated it quietly. "Just follow it that direction, towards Brandy Hall. But these woods on your left, now, they'll only stretch a mile or so more and then you'll see the road to the spring pasture. It's fairly wide, since the herd that travels it is rather large. Just you go then, up to your left, to the top of the hills and you'll find the herd and herders there."
Sam nodded, trying his best to keep his apprehension from showing.
"It's Halstad that you want to see, he's the chief herder. Large fellow, dark hair, and doesn't say much. Just give him the note." Here Frodo held up a piece of paper from the notebook that he had brought with him, upon which he had hastily written, "River cave, tonight."
"Tell Halstad that the message is from me, and it's for Merry. Be sure to tell him that I'd really rather no-one but Merry saw it," Frodo added as Sam reluctantly took the paper from him. "Don't worry about Halstad, or any other of the herders," Frodo gave Sam a reassuring smile as Sam stuffed the note in his pocket. "They're all good fellows. None of them were that partial to spending time at Brandy Hall, either, so I always got along quite well with them. Halstad slipped many a note from me to Merry; he really is very good at it. Enjoys the challenge, I think."
"And remember, Sam," he laid his hands on Sam's shoulders lovingly, and searched his eyes with a warm smile. "If you aren't back by early afternoon, I'll come looking for you. I'll be waiting for you, dear." Throwing his arms around Sam's neck, he gave him a tender kiss, which Sam instantly returned, no matter his anxiety. Pippin stepped back and found the thick grasses at the side of the road of particular interest. But after a few moments, Sam parted from Frodo, and with a certain determination despite his reluctance, gave him a slight nod, and turning, set off down the road.
Notwithstanding his fears, Sam soon felt himself beginning to enjoy the sight of the thick grasses, waving in the light morning breeze. He had not been able to see much of the fabled Buckland during the quick Yuletide visit he and Frodo had made. Primarily they had been at Brandy Hall, and snow had covered most of what Sam could see. In a corner of his heart, he was hoping that, whatever else might happen during this visit (and privately, he did not expect much of it to be good, although he'd rather have been struck mute than to mention that to Frodo), the thought that he might, somehow, have a bit of a quiet chat with the Brandy Hall gardeners burned brightly in his breast. Wouldn't the gaffer be that proud of him then, if he came back with some bits of useful advice? For surely, the gardeners of Brandy Hall must be masters of the craft, and there would be much that could be learned from them. With these thoughts running through his mind, it was no time at all before Sam reached the road that ran up to the spring pasture.
Back into the woods this road wound, but not for long. Sam soon saw a clearing ahead. Cautiously walking a little closer, he found a wide sturdy oak to stand behind as he looked on. Obviously it was the dairy herd that he saw, docile black and white creatures, grazing upon the grass, with generous udders. At least two dozen of them were spread about the expansive meadow, some quietly grazing, others lying in the shade of the poplar trees scattered about, for even this early in the morning, the sun was already warm overhead. The herders were sprinkled about the meadow as well, some leaning against a tree trunk in the shade, seemingly already asleep, others standing near the perimeter of the meadow, with a watchful eye for any potential strays. But there was one hobbit who stood in the center of the meadow, leaning on a thick staff, and surveying both the herd and the other hobbits with an unmistakable air of authority. He had dark hair, thick shaggy dark hair at that, and was deeply brown from a lifetime spent in the open air. Sam had no doubt that this was Halstad.
Even as Sam stood in the shade of the oak and wondered on how to best approach this grave figure, Halstad suddenly narrowed his eyes and turned in Sam's direction, giving Sam, to his consternation, a direct glance. Sam stood his ground, but all manner of words of greeting were lost to him as the other hobbit unhurriedly made his way over to the oak. The rest of the hobbits in the meadow never moved from their positions, but all heads had turned to their leader, and even the sleepers had roused themselves to watch.
"An' who might y'be, lad?" came the deep voice, as Halstad stopped only a few feet from Sam. "You'd be no Bucklander, I swan."
"No," Sam found his voice with some difficulty. "I'd be from Hobbiton." A small corner of his mind was telling him that he ought to offer a bit more information than that, but his tongue was having a curious amount of trouble in finding the right words.
"So," chuckled the older hobbit, apparently having decided that Sam was harmless enough, "you thought to have a bit of a stroll t'view our fine cattle? I'd no idee we'd that sort of reputation w'Hobbiton folk."
The rest of the herders laughed with appreciation at Halstad's joke. Herding could be a trifle monotonous, at times, but this morning was shaping up to be a rather entertaining one.
Halstad suddenly furrowed his brow, giving Sam a more searching look. "I know ye," he said slowly. "You'd be Mr. Frodo's lad. You were here last Yuletide, w'him."
Sam nodded, wondering fleetingly what the implications of the term "Mr. Frodo's lad" were, but with no thought of denying them, whatever they might be.
"No fear, lad, I'd not bite you," Halstad smiled encouragingly at that, and Sam was suddenly quite glad that this hobbit seemed to be on his side. "So would that young scamp be about somewhere then?"
Sam blinked at that. He was beginning to realize that this had been a rather common perception of Frodo at Brandy Hall, no matter the difficulty he had with the idea. "Erm. . . He sent me wi' a message for you," Sam replied, rather vaguely. Stuffing his hand in his pocket, he withdrew the crumpled bit of paper and held it out to Halsted. "It'd be for Mr. Merry," he added.
Halstad laughed out suddenly at that. "Still up t'his old tricks, I see. And Mr. Merry's mum is t'know naught about it, I expect?"
Sam couldn't help smiling at that. "Aye, true enough." he admitted.
"Ah, well," Halstad continued to chuckle, shaking his shaggy head, "seems like auld times again, sure enow." He took the paper from Sam, unbuttoning his shirt and stuffing it inside. "You tell that Mr. Frodo of yours to rest hisself easy. Ol'Halstad'd know what t'do." At that he gave Sam a rather thorough look. "You'd be lookin' a bit sturdy for house work, lad. You do for Mr. Frodo, then?"
"I'm his gardener," Sam explained simply.
Halstad gave a bright smile of recognition at that. "Well, ain't you now. I thought there was summat that familiar about ye. You'd be one of them Gamgee lads, sure."
"Samwise Gamgee, if you please, sir," Sam acknowledged politely, wondering how he could possibly know that.
"Aye, t'be sure. The little one," Halstad clapped him on the back heartily. "All grown up, ain't you though. I'd be knowin' your dad, lad," he explained with a chuckle, "an' if you ain't just like him. Ol' Mr. Bilbo, he used to bring Hamfast Gamgee out this way many a time, and a right fine one to talk to, he surely was. How's he doin', lad, anyways?"
"Well enough, thank ye for askin'," Sam replied with a smile, although he had noticed several of the herders watching him now with greater interest. He was not going to be unrecognizable for much longer, it appeared.
"An' now here you are, comin' to Buckland with Mr. Frodo," Halstad shook his head with a grin.
"Mr. Frodo would rather not have folks knowin' he'd be here, not just yet," Sam felt compelled to add at this point.
"Well, an' I wouldn't be deliverin' this little message otherwise, now, would I," Halstad shook his head knowingly. "No worries, lad, You just let Mr. Frodo know that his ol' Halstad, he'd be takin' care o'the matter. Just tell him to pay me a visit afore he goes, if he gets the chance." And with a wink to Sam, he turned his back on him and muttered, "Now, take off, lad. I'd have no idee where you went."
"Thank you kindly, Mr. Halstad," Sam called out, and quickly left the pasture, leaving Halstad behind chuckling to himself at that title.
Pippin and Frodo were sitting at the water's edge, backs against a muddy bank, and toes cooling in the backwash of the Brandywine. There was an easy silence between the two of them, only broken by the soft lap of the water, and the occasional rustle of some creature well-hidden in the rushes. Frodo was aware of the sun, but it was not yet high overhead. He did not expect Sam back for another hour or so.
Pippin was munching thoughtfully on an apple that he had saved from their breakfast, and as he finished the last bite, he tossed the remains of the core into the river before him, where it sank with a soft plop. Turning to his cousin, who was lying back on his elbows, with his eyes closed, he softly said, "Thanks, Frodo."
"What for?" Frodo asked, puzzled, his eyes quickly opening and turning to Pippin.
"For helping me," Pippin replied seriously. "For dropping everything and slogging to this far corner of Buckland with me. For bringing Sam too, and letting me get to know him a bit better.
"He's rather worth knowing, isn't he," Frodo turned to his cousin with a glowing smile.
"Yes, he is," Pippin breathed, mesmerized by the way Frodo's expression had suddenly changed at the mention of Sam's name.
Frodo stopped for a moment, and stared at the younger hobbit intently. "I truly do love him, you know, Pippin," he said at last, very quietly.
Pippin threw his arms around Frodo, unable, for the moment, to form words. "I know, my dear, I know," he murmured at last. Frodo held him tight.
Sam turned the final bend in the road back to the river to find Frodo sitting alone on the rail fence where it ended, running into the thick rushes. Frodo's head was turned to the river, and for the moment, he was unaware of Sam's approach. Sam stood still for that same moment and gazed at him.
The sun had struck the russet glints in Frodo's dark hair, but the exposed face and limbs were stubbornly pale, no matter how long Frodo spent out of doors. He sat, perched high on the rail, with an easy grace and agility that always belayed his years, still looking much like the young hobbit lad who had once lived here. Sam was suddenly struck by the notion, as he watched Frodo, who was staring dreamily out over the Brandywine, that he could never imagine Frodo growing old. As for him, that was easy enough. One look at the gaffer gave him a quick enough foretaste of what he'd be like at that age. But Frodo? He could never imagine him other than eternally young, with that quick smile that always lit up his face, everlastingly beautiful.
Sam smiled to himself at that, and shook his head at his foolish notions. Like as not, he would be finding out the answer to that riddle some day. He strode forward again, and at that, Frodo spun around and greeted him with a laugh.
"You made it back, Sam," he said with delight. "And it was a success, too, I can see it in your face." Jumping down from the fence, he ran forward and grabbed Sam's hand. "Pippin's gone to a nearby farm for provisions. They're used to seeing him stop by and won't think twice about it. But until he gets back, well, come with me, Sam."
Sam clasped his hand tightly and followed.
It was close to dusk, even with the forgiving light of a long summer evening, by the time Daisy and Pearl were setting off from Hobbiton. They had left behind a disappointed May, not to mention the Burrows family as well, but Daisy knew her father would be awaiting her return, and as for Pearl, she explained that she couldn't very well keep an eye out for Frodo all the way from Hobbiton. May had quickly pulled Daisy aside though, just before they left, and mentioned that it had been awhile since she had paid her respects to their father, and she planned on a visit home in the very immediate future. Daisy laughed, and told her that her room would be ready for her the next day.
As they passed the Green Dragon, on the outskirts of town, the windows glowed with a warm light, the sounds of merry voices inside could be heard, and Pearl stopped short. "It's a long road back, and I'm feeling slightly parched. Care for a mug, Daisy?"
Daisy halted, and stared with surprise at her companion. Never, in all of her years of traveling this road, had she ever thought of doing that, although now, wracking her brain for a response, she couldn't think of why not. It wasn't as if she'd never been in the Green Dragon, there'd been many a festive gathering she had attended there. But to just stop by for a half-pint on a whim? No, never.
"Why, thank you kindly," she found herself replying, amazed at her own daring, "that would be nice."
They entered the crowded inn, and were greeted warmly by the innkeeper. "Daisy Gamgee, welcome, lass," he roared over the heads of a cluster of hobbits seated next to the door. "Good to see you, m'dear. I still can't be thankin' you enough for helpin' out with our littl'un this last winter. But the gaffer's not here, he'd have left at least an hour back."
"I'm not here for him," Daisy found her voice, despite a bit of initial difficulty. She stepped bravely up to the counter and added, "We'd be havin' a half-pint each, if you please."
"Well, now, lass," the red-faced publican's grin grew. "This'd be summat new, then. And who'd this fine lass with you be?"
"Pearl Took," the lass in question nodded in response, and asked, "and you?"
"Bless my. . . " the innkeeper began to chuckle, and then froze as the name suddenly registered. "Pearl Took?" he gaped. "That Pearl Took? From Tuckborough?" And turning back to Daisy again, he registered an even more improbable fact. "With Daisy Gamgee?"
A wave of hushed silence had swept out through the room, as from a stone dropped down a well, and conversations concerning Farmer Brownwort's luck with spotted pigs, and the unusually fine rhubarb crop this year, were halted mid-sentence and immediately forgotten.
"Aye, that'd be her, true enough," came a deep verification from the corner of the room. A rather well-fed older hobbit raised his mug in acknowledgement. "I'd have been in Tuckborough not six months past, and it was her as passed me by, with the Great Took hisself, no less."
There was a murmur of surprised verification at that, for Farmer Barkham was never less than absolutely reliable. Pearl, giving the farmer a quick nod of recognition, turned back to the publican and mentioned quietly, "And about those half-pints?"
"Oh, aye," the innkeeper hastily grabbed up two mugs and gave them a careful swipe with the dishrag, an unusual courtesy on his part. "Here you'd be, my young ladies," and set the two generously filled mugs before them.
Pearl nodded her thanks, and placed some coins on the counter. Not waiting for the change, she swept her way to one of the few unoccupied tables to the far side of the room, Daisy quietly following in her tow. As it seemed there was to be no explanation forthcoming of the unexpected appearance of one of the Shire's finest families in this lowly inn, the pre-empted conversations slowly resumed about them, and Daisy and Pearl were allowed to savor their brew in peace. They left not too long afterward, and that's when conversation at the Green Dragon became truly lively.
The rest of the way back to Bagshot Row though, banter flowed readily between the two, and Daisy found far more at which to giggle than she ever had on that road before.
Sam had built a small campfire to start preparations for lunch in the front of the river cave, and was going through his provisions when Pippin finally returned. With a gesture of triumph, he dropped a rather hefty sack in front of Sam, and then crossed his arms, looking extraordinarily pleased with himself.
Frodo had been sitting near the river edge of the cave, feet dangling over, and reading a book that he had brought with him. "That certainly took awhile, Pippin," he swung his legs up from the edge and stood up, stretching. "I was beginning to think you'd gone all the way back to Hobbiton."
"Well," Pippin patiently explained at that, "if Merry's going to be here as well, we won't have nearly enough apples to keep him happy. You know how he is about them. Cherries aren't nearly the same, for him."
"You do think of everything, don't you," Frodo gave him an affectionate hug at that, tousling his hair slightly.
"Ah, don't I, though," Pippin laughed, reaching back into the bag and producing another small parcel. "This would be for you, Frodo."
"Mushrooms," breathed Frodo, his nose twitching, before he even opened it.
"Remember what I told you now, Sam," Pippin confided with a grin as Sam chuckled at Frodo's reaction to the unexpected treat. "I'm sorry I didn't get anything especially for you, Sam, I don't know what you like the best in the way of food."
"Butter," muttered Frodo, his head nearly all the way in the bag, and then turning, he couldn't help a laugh at Sam's suddenly rosy face. "I'm sorry, dearest," he murmured, giving Sam a warm hug at that, "Never mind me, Pippin, mushrooms always make me giddy."
It was at that moment that a sudden sound caused them to quickly look, Pippin still crouched on the ground near the bag, and Frodo with his arm still around Sam, over to where the hidden path from the hills above came down to the cave. It was Merry. He stared at Frodo and Sam, his expression hard to read as the mid-afternoon sun shone behind him. But when he glanced down and saw Pippin, the hardness that had been in his face instantly vanished, and in one quick movement, he was down next to Pippin with his arms around him. "Oh, Pip," he breathed, in immense relief, "oh, there you are." And for a moment, he buried his face in Pippin's shoulder as Pippin sighed happily and returned Merry's embrace.
But it was no more than a moment before he straightened himself up, and backing away with his hands thrust deep in his pockets, he stared at Frodo, who had let go of Sam and was now standing protectively in front of him. "So what's this all about anyway, Frodo?" he asked his older cousin, almost angrily. "Why has Pippin gone missing, and why is he here with you?"
"With Sam and I," Frodo returned, with a certain precision in his voice.
Merry gave Sam a curt nod at that point. "Sam," he acknowledged, briefly.
"Mr. Merry," Sam returned his nod.
"Sam!" both Frodo and Pippin, cried out in exasperation, nearly simultaneously, both turning on him.
Sam colored at that, but stood his ground and said no more.
"I hope you realize, Frodo," Merry continued at that, with an edge to his voice, "that both the Brandybuck and Took clans are currently combing the hills for this one. Pip's sister has apparently been to Bag End, and word is that you've disappeared as well. What is all this fuss about, anyway?"
"They wouldn't let me see you anymore, Merry!" Pippin burst forth at that, unable to keep quiet any longer. "And Aunt Esme wouldn't even let me say goodbye to you or tell you why I had left!" With a sudden movement, he was clinging to Merry's arm, and although Merry stared at him in bewilderment, his other hand moved up unconsciously and closed over Pippin's.
"It was because of Frodo and Sam," Pippin began to sniffle now, tears welling up in his eyes, "but it wasn't really their fault, not really."
Merry was now starting to look thoroughly confused, and Frodo took pity on him. "Sam," he said quietly, turning behind him and laying a hand on Sam's shoulder, "why don't you take Pippin out to help you gather some fire wood. I'll explain the situation to Merry."
"Aye, I could use a bit o'help," Sam agreed hastily, and quickly grasping Pippin's arm, added, "I'd be appreciatin' your assistance, if ye'd not mind, Pippin," and dragged an unresisting Pippin from the cave.
Merry's face darkened at that familiarity on the part of Sam, but said nothing and turned back to Frodo with a scowl on his face.
Sam walked up the rush-walled path, away from the cave, with Pippin and then stopped. "I don't know where I'd be going," he admitted, unhappily.
"Of course not, Sam," Pippin sighed, moving around him on the path. Matter-of-factly he took Sam's hand and began to tow him unresistingly further away from the cave "You've never been here before now, have you."
Sam followed him without question for a few moments, but then stopped short. "Mayhap we shouldn't be goin' far," he mentioned hesitantly. "Mr. Merry seemed that mad."
Pippin turned quickly around at that, both hands on his hips. "Really, Sam," he said sternly, nearly glaring at the older hobbit. "You don't have to call him that, you know. Frodo hates it, and unfortunately, Merry enjoys that."
Sam looked unhappily down at his feet but said nothing.
"Come on, Sam," Pippin sighed again, his voice softening, and he took Sam's hand up again. "Just a little way longer."
After the next bend, the wall of rushes fell away, and now the Brandywine could be seen as well as heard. There was a pile of stones on the shore at this point, where the river took a bend, and the tops of other smooth grey slabs could be seen further out in the water, submerged from time to time in the swirling water and white foam.
"Merry told me there was a great stone bridge here once," Pippin mentioned quietly, staring out over the dark churning river, "but it was washed away in a flood." He was silent for several more moments, and then, still gazing unseeingly out, said, almost to himself, "I suppose they thought it would last forever." He shook himself a bit at that though, and turning to Sam, indicated the stones at the shore. "These, however, Sam, are quite safe. I imagine they haven't moved a bit in the last fifty years or so. Let's sit here for a while and give the two of them the chance to sort it all out."
Sam sat down on a smooth sun-warmed boulder next to Pippin, and stretched his legs gratefully out on the warm rocks. "I'd not be understanding Merry," he confessed to Pippin, after a few moments' companionable silence, with only the slightest of hesitations before he said the name. "I expect he thinks me not to be suitable for Frodo, but it always seems to be Frodo he'd be mad at, not me."
Pippin turned to Sam at that, smiling, with the sun shining copper in his curls. "Don't you know, Sam?" he chuckled quietly. "Merry's jealous of you, of course."
Sam stared open-mouthed for a moment at Pippin. "But, I thought, it'd be you. . . " he stammered out, trying to make sense of this, but never doubting Pippin.
"Well, yes, of course it's me that he really loves," Pippin explained, his lips quirked in a smile, and supremely self-confident, "but he hasn't actually discovered that yet."
He turned his face back to the river, resting his elbows on his knees and his chin in his hands. "He still thinks it's Frodo," he commented quietly, "but Frodo is taken. Quite taken, I might add," he smiled warmly at Sam by his side, who was still trying to piece all this together. "And after he gets that worked out," Pippin continued softly then, turning back to the water and speaking almost as if to himself, "then he'll know it's really me."
"I see Halstad hasn't lost his touch," Frodo commented mildly, as the other two left, leaving Merry still standing near the cave entrance, his hands crossed over his chest.
"Perhaps," Merry admitted reluctantly, his face still hard, "but I really have no time for camping out in caves any more. I'm no longer a teen, and you're no tween, I might point out. There's fruit and hops to be harvested, and summer planting to start, and my father is expecting my assistance. So just explain this nonsense about Pip, and I'll bring him back and you can be on your way."
Frodo gave him a careful look, but let the subject drop. He sat back down on the cave floor, his feet once again over the edge, and politely nodded towards the ledge next to him. "Have a seat, Merry," he said gently, "and I'll tell you what I know."
"I'd rather not," Merry answered adamantly, not moving.
"Well, I'm not very well going to get a crick in my neck just to talk to you," Frodo retorted, a bit of sharpness creeping into his voice despite himself.
Merry didn't move at first, but then, with a noticeable grunt of displeasure, sat heavily down, with crossed legs, at the far end of the ledge.
"Pippin showed up on my doorstep, oh, about four days ago," Frodo began. "He was quite upset; I couldn't get a word out of him for awhile. When I finally did, he told me that your mother had apparently banished him from Brandy Hall, and sent him home alone."
Merry frowned at that. "She never said anything to me about that. That's rather hard to believe, you know. Did he say why?"
"Well, yes," Frodo looked off to the river, sparkling below the cave ledge. "It was because of me."
"What?" Merry exclaimed, still bewildered. "This makes no sense whatsoever."
Frodo paused for a moment, still watching the shimmering river. "Someone told her about Sam and me," he said finally, still not looking at Merry. "And for some reason, she thought of you and Pip."
Merry's face immediately flushed red at the implications of what Frodo had said. "There's no reason for her to think that, ever," he declared flatly.
Frodo turned to him at that, and gave him a searching gaze, but said nothing.
"So that's the reason Pippin left?" Merry asked, his voice starting to rise. "How ridiculous. Just because you and that lad of yours have to come in to Brandy Hall and parade your relationship in front of everyone, now she thinks. . . "
"Excuse me a moment, Merry," Frodo's voice was crisp, always a warning sign. "I don't believe that we were parading anything in front of Aunt Esme's delicate sensibilities. I was invited, and was specifically told to bring a friend, which I did. The fact that my friend was apparently not of the proper social status meant that he was whisked away immediately upon arrival, but I did not complain at that. I allowed Sam to be shuttled off to the servant's hall, something that I am still ashamed of, by the way, for all that he tries to assure me that there was no need to disturb the family for his sake."
"It sounds as though at least he has some common sense, something I think you've been rather lacking as of late, Frodo," Merry answered tightly, rising to his feet in agitation, as though he could no longer sit.
"There's more to all this, isn't there, Merry?" Frodo had also risen to his feet, and was watching Merry pace to the back of the cave, with his head down.
Merry stood for a moment with his head bowed, and then spun around. "Why him, Frodo?" he hissed angrily. "I know he's sincere, and I'm sure that he's easy enough on the eyes, but really, Frodo. Is he worth the damage he's doing to your reputation? I don't think anyone would have minded if you had been the least bit circumspect about all of this, but to make him out to be your equal is just an insult to the rest of the family."
"Then I don't expect I'll be back to Brandy Hall again. Is that the position you want to put me into, Merry?" Frodo would have been more upset, but there was something that was starting to catch his attention concerning Merry's expression, about his strangely intense anger about all of this. And then it became clear to him. He walked over to where Merry stood, still fairly bristling with, as Frodo now realized, pain. Gently, he laid a hand on Merry's arm and quietly said, "It couldn't have been you, you know, Merry dear."
Merry quickly turned away, but as he did so, Frodo saw his face begin to crumple, and knew he'd been right. Merry had put out a hand against the rocky wall of the cave to steady himself, but it was not enough, and he slowly sank down to his knees, his back to Frodo, and began to cry in harsh gulping sobs.
"Oh, Merry," Frodo whispered, stricken, and sank down next to him. He hesitantly tried to lay a hand on Merry's shoulder, but Merry quickly shook it off without even looking up. With a sigh, he moved behind Merry, settling back against the rocky wall, with his knees drawn up and his arms tightly around them, as near as he could be to Merry and still not touch him.
Patiently, he gave Merry time, waiting until the sobs seemed to be easing a bit. Then he quietly mentioned, "You were the only thing that made Brandy Hall bearable for me, you know." Merry did not respond, but Frodo knew he was listening. "I know I would have run away, and never come back, and I wonder if they would have really cared. Other than having to explain it to Bilbo, or perhaps Uncle Paladin. But I never did, because of you."
Merry was quieting now, down to the sniffles and an occasional shuddering breath, but he still wasn't looking at Frodo. "You were the only one I had left to love, and I did," Frodo continued, and hesitated just a moment. "And I still do, Merry. Very much. But we are too much alike, you and I. We couldn't have been what each of us needs."
"What's that?" The words were ragged and dragged unwillingly out of Merry, and he still did not turn around.
Frodo paused for a moment, and then said simply, "Someone who gives. Someone who will give to you, even if they don't expect you to give back, because they must. Someone with a generous heart, and a charitable spirit. We are not like that, Merry, neither you nor I. But Sam is. And, I think, Pippin too."
Turning again toward Merry, he laid an arm around Merry's shoulder and this time Merry did not shake it off. "Please forgive me, Merry," he whispered, closing his eyes. "Forgive me for not being who you thought I was."
It was the dampness that first aroused Sam. He and Pippin had been sitting on the warm stones, each lost in their own thoughts in a comfortable silence for he knew not how long. But as he glanced up with a start, he saw the long wisps of white mist creeping over the river, floating down from upstream, and realized that the far bank had vanished in white. Overhead, the sun had been obliterated by dark thick clouds, all the signs of an imminent summer rainstorm. "Pippin," he lightly shook Pippin's shoulder, and gestured upstream. "We'd best be gettin' back."
"Oh, aye," Pippin nodded, and quickly rose. "We've given them plenty of time, I should think. And we never had lunch, and it clearly is getting on past tea time."
Sam chuckled at that. "Just thinkin' the same thing meself," he commented wryly. "And a hot cup of tea sounds like just the thing, what wi'that wet acomin' in."
When they returned to the cave, they found that Frodo had already begun a fire, and Sam quickly started a kettle. The rain had begun to fall shortly after their return, and even though it was still afternoon, the light had become dim outside, and the river lay hidden by mist. Sam, with Pippin's assistance, prepared a rather substantial meal, with sausages and mushrooms, as well as apples and the fresh bread that Pippin had brought from the farmhouse. They had found Frodo and Merry silently sitting at either edge of the ledge on their return, and conversation through the meal was awkward and restrained, given to sudden silences. Sometimes, the loudest sound to be heard was that of the raindrops dripping from the cave opening, and running down the rocky ledge to the rush path below.
Finally the meal was through, and picking up the pan, Sam rose to go down in the rainy afternoon to the riverbank to clean it. Frodo followed him, as if he had been waiting for Sam, and left the cave without a word to the other two hobbits.
Knowing that Frodo was following him, Sam made his way down to the break in the reeds, at the river's edge and occupied himself in scouring out the pan, giving Frodo the chance to speak first. But Frodo said nothing, and only stood silently behind Sam, with his hands thrust deep in his pockets. Finishing the pan, Sam laid it on a rock at the water's edge, and rose, turning to face Frodo.
Even in the deep dusky light, Sam could see Frodo's face clearly. His wet hair was soaked against the sides of his face, accentuating his high, wide cheekbones and the delicate tips of his ears. Had Sam been in a more contemplative mood, he would have noticed the striking resemblance between Frodo and the drawings of the inhabitants of Rivendell in some of Bilbo's old journals. But rather it was the expression of Frodo's face that made Sam catch his breath, the anguish in his eyes, and the fact that Sam wasn't sure whether the drops that slid down Frodo's face were raindrops or tears.
"Have I ruined your life, too, Sam?" he heard Frodo whisper, and that was more than he could bear to hear.
Frodo did not wait for a response, though, and turning from the river, began to blindly push his way through the thick walls of rushes and grasses. Sam followed, thinking only to catch up to Frodo, to hold him, to do whatever he could to take this hurt away from him.
The wet grasses were slick against Sam's hands as he shoved them out of the way. He hurried to keep up with Frodo in the muted light, not calling out, but relying on the sound of Frodo's movements ahead of him to stay with him. Well he knew that Frodo would not stop until he felt far enough away from the cave, and whatever had happened there between he and Merry.
Finally the grassy borders of the river started giving way to bushes and small trees. Frodo, still ahead of Sam, had slowed down, and when he reached the leafy shelter of an ash tree, turned around. Sam approached him slowly and without a word, gently lay a hand on the side of Frodo's rain-glistening cheek. "Never ruined it, Frodo-love," he spoke tenderly, slowly sliding his hand back to gently cup Frodo's face, "never at all. Only gave me so much more than I ever thought to have."
With an incoherent cry, Frodo flung his arms around Sam's neck, his mouth hungrily seeking and finding Sam's. Sam wrapped his arms tightly around Frodo at that, and nothing else mattered, but that beloved wet form in his arms. Eagerly, he returned Frodo's kiss, his mouth opening without hesitation to Frodo, his tongue seeking Frodo's, his breath joining with Frodo's. Urgently, he sought to reassure Frodo in every way he could, not really knowing why, and not caring, at the moment, in the least, for the reasons for Frodo's question to him by the river.
Words had never been his strength anyway, no, it had always been his hands that had served him best. And it was these hands now that held Frodo closely to him, that ran through Frodo's wet curls, that grasped Frodo tightly as his mouth slid down to caress that rain-slicked throat. Frodo clung desperately to him but said not a word. Instead his hands were busy as well, pulling out Sam's sodden shirt, frantically seeking Sam's skin, only reassured by the feeling of Sam's chest against the palms of those restless hands.
They had turned somehow in their embrace and it was now Sam with his back against the smooth ash trunk. Frodo was pressing himself against Sam, his mouth busy on Sam's ear tip, his hands under Sam's shirt seeking the most sensitive of areas. As the rain still found its way through the leafy canopy above, Sam tasted the drops on Frodo's mouth, his cheeks, the base of his throat, and hungrily became aware that it was Frodo's arousal that was pressing itself demandingly into his hip.
"Frodo," he gasped, bringing up his hand and stroking Frodo through the wet trousers, "oh, Frodo." It didn't matter in the least to him that they were both soaked through and through, nor that the ground below them was a mire of mud. All he knew was that he was wild with desire to feel Frodo on him, loving him.
Frodo cried out at the feel of Sam's hand on him, and without any hesitation, grasped Sam's trousers and undid the fastening. But the wet heavy fabric was slow to pull off, and Sam groaned with frustration at the time it took until he could finally kick them heedlessly off and thrust himself frenziedly into Frodo's hand.
It wasn't until that hand suddenly withdrew that he dimly realized that Frodo's trousers were still on. Quickly, he joined Frodo in undoing them, pulling and tugging at the drenched fabric, until they finally gave way and fell. And now there was nothing between them, nothing at all.
Sam felt Frodo's hand around him and he arched his back against the tree, digging his heels into the mud, moaning helplessly at the touch. Wildly, he grabbed Frodo's backside and tried to draw him closer, ever closer. But Frodo had slipped between his legs, and oh, the feel of him there. Frodo's breath was growing ragged, as was his own, and Sam knew there was only one thing he wanted now. If only Frodo felt it too. . .
And there was Frodo's hand between his legs, and oh, yes, oh, yes, oh please. . . Frodo's fingers had found him and with a wrenching groan, he arched his back and gratefully allowed them entrance. With difficulty, he forced his eyes open, and there was Frodo's face before him, raindrops running down his cheeks, eyes wide and nearly feral, his mouth open and his breath coming in short pants. "I don't have anything, Sam," Frodo forced out with the greatest of difficulty, his brow knit with the effort of restraint.
"I don't care, Frodo!" Sam cried out wildly, grabbing his shoulders fiercely, "I don't care!"
Frodo bowed his head, resting it on Sam's shoulder for a moment, and then Sam felt Frodo thrust himself inside of Sam. And passionately he accepted the pain, for it was Frodo in him, Frodo holding him, Frodo in his body, and Frodo in his heart, and they were joined, merged into one, and Sam cried out, his heart rent with joy.
When the world returned to them, they slid slowly down the smooth trunk and curled closely together, heedless entirely of the mud. Sam was sobbing, he knew not why, and Frodo held him in a loving and healing embrace, whispering a litany of love in his ear as the rain continued to fall.
It was much later when they returned to the cave. Pippin raised his face from where he was huddled on the ground, and his pain was heartbreaking to see. But Merry was gone, and not a word of explanation would Pippin give.
Paladin Took tapped the shell of his egg in its cup irritably. "So now you're telling me, Esme," he grunted, messily breaking the top of the shell off, "that your son has gone missing as well?"
"I really don't think that that has anything to do with Pippin's vanishing into thin air," Esme commented sourly, giving her brother a glare as she carefully stirred her tea. "It was more than past time that Pippin went home. It's hard enough for Merry to learn all his new duties now that he is a tween, without having the distraction of a young cousin always about who only wishes to be amused." If there was more to her reasoning than this, she had thus far kept it from, as far as she was aware, anyone else. Distasteful matters such as Frodo Baggins and his recent disreputable conduct really need not be discussed. Her judgment should be sufficient when it came to matters regarding her son.
"I sent Pippin home properly escorted by one of our most reliable drivers," she continued sternly. "I can't help it if he shakes him off at the inn, and goes off on his own. Merry is probably checking on some matter that needs his attention. It's unfortunate that he's forgotten to mention it to either his father or myself, but I'm sure he'll have an appropriate explanation when we do see him."
"Humph." Paladin's observation was clearly disbelieving. "Then you are telling me the fact that apparently Frodo Baggins has chosen to vanish at this same time on a walking excursion has nothing to do with the disappearance of your son or mine? A fine coincidence, I'd call it."
"I have warned Merry to stay away from that worthless cousin of his," Esme replied loftily, "so I fail to see the connection there. Pippin, of course, may be an entirely different matter."
"Do you suppose that Frodo has gone off after Bilbo?" suddenly interposed Eglantine Took, "and taken the lads with him?" Her green eyes widened at the thought, and she suddenly clutched her husband's arm tightly.
"No, Lana dear, don't you fret," Paladin's voice was gentle as he lay a soothing hand on hers. "I'm sure it's just lads' nonsense. They'll turn up soon enough. What could go wrong here in the Shire?"
Esme surveyed her brother and his wife with an annoyed expression. Too trusting by half, that's what they were. And if there was one thing that she was sure of, it was that Frodo Baggins had a good deal to do with this matter of Pippin. At least Merry had more common sense than that. It was understandable enough that Paladin and his wife had come to Brandy Hall in search of Pippin when he had failed to return home. But Esme felt it was immaterial exactly why she had so summarily dispatched Pippin Took.
Pearl wandered about the garden of Bag End, an early morning cup of tea in her hand. Daisy's visit at breakfast had been, unfortunately, a hasty one. Her sister, May, had arrived at Number Three with the sunrise, apparently an unheard of event. Daisy had felt it only right to give fair warning that May was planning on conferring with their other sister, Marigold Cotton, regarding some sort of welcoming festivity in her honor. Pearl sighed, taking another sip of her tea, and noting, in an absent-minded sort of way, the exceptionally beautiful deep blue morning glories that wreathed the window of Frodo's bedroom. She had had hopes that she would escape that sort of recognition, but evidently not.
Preoccupied as she was concerning the dreaded forthcoming social affair, Frodo's gardens were definitely beginning to catch her eye. They truly were lovely, and so carefully tended. Almost as if they were meant as a gift to the master of Bag End, she mused, and then shook her head at her foolishness. She had heard of the Gamgees' talent along those lines before, and the son certainly seemed to have his share of it.
Wistfully, she returned to the kitchen. She had found Bag End to be remarkably peaceful and warmly welcoming, for all that it was the home of her eccentric bachelor cousin. She really wouldn't mind at all if Frodo turned out to be gone for quite awhile.
The three travelers, who were walking up the road to Brandy Hall in the warm mid-morning sun had, each of them, their own reasons for dreading their arrival at that imposing destination. Frodo had them leave their camping gear in the cave, with the private hope that, if he was summarily dismissed by the Mistress of the Hall, at least he and Sam could spend the evening there and then be on their way back home. And if things appeared dodgy enough, he was even willing to include Pippin in his escape plans. All in all, that was not the worse scenario he could imagine. Moodily, he paid little attention to the verdant fields and orchards of the land where he had grown up, lush and ripe though they were in the early summer light.
Sam walked close by him. Frodo's discomfort and anxiety were clear to him, and he fervently wished that whatever lay ahead of them was all over and they were on their way back to Bag End. But his gardener's eye could not be denied, and he found the beauty about him humbling. No farm around Hobbiton was any larger than what one family, with perhaps a friend or two, could manage, but these lands obviously required the services of scores of workers. What was more, the rows were immaculate and uniform, every tree in the cherry orchard they passed was flourishing and heavy with fruit, and there were no weeds to be seen anywhere, not even along the sides of the dirt roadway down which they walked. He spied an oat field in the distance, with a harvesting crew busy at work before the sun rose too high. They were all working diligently, but there was a lively conversation going on as well, interspersed with many a laugh. With all his heart, Sam briefly wished that he could join them rather than face the Hall again, but he firmly removed the thought from his mind. Even though he doubted his own usefulness in this matter, Frodo needed him by his side, and that was where he'd be staying.
Pippin said nothing as they walked, and was notably quiet and subdued. Merry had never returned last night.
Saradoc Brandybuck strode through the doorway of the front dining hall, where his wife and the Tooks had been breakfasting. An imposing, strongly built hobbit, he was every inch the Master of Brandy Hall, but his expression this morning was concerned and he only gave his brother- and sister-in-law the briefest of nods before turning to his wife. "The lad hasn't shown up yet?" he quickly asked, with a frown.
"And which lad would that be?" Esme asked, with an only partially concealed air of infinite patience.
"Why, either one," he barked impatiently. "Bad enough to lose the one, but our son as well? He seemed fine enough yesterday, what's getting into these lads anyway?"
"When was the last you saw of him?" Paladin rose, walking over to where his brother-in-law stood pouring himself a quick cup of tea, next to the long wooden table.
Saradoc hastily poured the contents of the cup down his throat, and set it down with a noticeable thump. Esme winced, those cups had belonged to her mother, and were rather fine. But Saradoc paid no heed, scratching his head as he tried to remember the details of his last sight of Merry.
"Just came back from the cherry orchard, ought to begin harvest on that tomorrow, those oats are just about through. Ponies went to the stall, I went to the barn to have a word with Halstad, herd was just coming in for the afternoon. Merry said that he was going to get cleaned up for lunch, but I didn't have time to eat." Saradoc paused thoughtfully. "That was the last time I saw him. He was supposed to go have a word with the barrel makers in Frogmorton yesterday afternoon; this year's pipeweed harvest promises to be an exceptional one. When I didn't see him at dinner last night, I assumed he was waiting the storm out at the inn."
"But the rain ended before sundown," Esme said fretfully, "and he wasn't at dinner last night, nor first nor second breakfast this morning. And I just went to check his room and the bed was never slept in." She also rose, and striding over to the bell pull, gave it a sharp tug. "Really, Sara, I do wish you and your son would do a better job of communicating. He probably has a valid excuse for all of this, but you really need to keep better track of him."
Saradoc began to say something and then thought better of it. "He'll turn up," he stated flatly, and then turned to Paladin. "I've put up a new rack for drying the pipeweed. Would you like to take a look at it?"
"Certainly," Paladin laid his napkin on the table and was nearly instantly out the door at Sara's heels. Esme might be his sister, but he couldn't help but admire Sara's fortitude these last several years.
"Humpf," Esme's snort left no doubt as to her opinion at her husband and brother's quick retreat. "So, Eglantine, I'm amazed that you let Pearl go off to Hobbiton entirely on her own," she turned on her sister-in-law with a snap. "Do you really think that was wise?"
Lana strove hard not to rattle her tea cup as she placed it on the table. Her sister-in-law had always secretly terrified her. "Pearl is very reliable," she stated quietly, her voice only quavering the tiniest bit. "She has plenty of friends in Hobbiton with whom she can stay."
"Well, I don't see why she has to wait for that Baggins lad to return," Esme's disapproval was evident. "Surely she could have left a message with someone."
"I thought it might be nice to let her have a bit of a visit," Lana bravely declared. "There are so few lasses her age around us that it's nice for her to have a chance to get into town."
Esme raised an eyebrow at that. The housemaids had just responded to her ring, and silently, she swept her hand in the direction of the dishes on the table. But after they had left, with full hands and arms, she commented darkly, "Well, I would hope it's not only the lasses that she's visiting, but perhaps some of their brothers as well. How old is she again, anyway?"
Pearl stood in front of the mirror of the guest bedroom at Bag End, studying her gown in front of the small looking glass. Slowly she sighed. No, it really would not do at all. A useful dress, to be sure, but in no way a festive dress. Glancing at the only other dress that she had brought with her, which lay in a rather rumpled heap on the floor, she considered her situation.
The dinner in her honor was to be tomorrow night. Her choice of apparel for that event consisted of either the dress she was wearing (and as she was becoming uncomfortably aware, had been wearing for a couple of days now), or the other dress, more festive perhaps, but unaccountably sporting a rather large blueberry stain prominently on the bodice. In any event, it seemed that the need for laundering one or both of them was upon her.
And here was her dilemma. For wasn't Daisy, by profession, a laundress? Yet for some reason that she could by no means account for, she was very reluctant to request Daisy's services. Falling back onto the comfortable bed, she stared up at the ceiling. For some reason, she had been drawn to Daisy from the moment of their meeting. She treasured the hope that Daisy might actually think of her as a friend, and certainly, one did not ask a friend to do one's laundry.
At last, she sat up on the bed. Surely she ought to be able to manage this task by herself. After being gone all this time, Frodo just couldn't choose this particular moment to return home. She could launder both of her dresses herself (for certainly that stain would come out if she used very hot water and scrubbed quite hard), and dry them before the fire. Her chemise would do in the meantime.
Heartened by her decision, she quickly set to work.
Once again, Sam was amazed by the number of hobbits about the courtyards and outer buildings as they approached Brandy Hall. Only on market day and festival days had he ever seen as many in one place, and he knew, from his and Frodo's last visit here, that this was just a normal day at Brandy Hall. But he did notice the looks that Frodo and Pippin were receiving as they passed by. Certainly their faces were known here, and he saw some of the laborers talking to each other and staring at them as they passed. Frodo's face was impassive, and he was giving no outward indications of his emotions, but Sam knew by the set of his shoulders and slight clench of his jaw that he was uncomfortable as well. He moved ever so slightly closer to Frodo, willing him comfort, and determined to undergo any amount of uneasiness for his sake.
The murmurs around them grew louder and more distinct as they approached the Hall, and once again, apparently forewarned, the Mistress of Brandy Hall came from the grand front door, as she once had several months ago. But this time, she was followed by another gentle-hobbit of about the same age and strangely familiar green eyes, and when she gave a sudden sob and rushed into a startled Pippin's arms, Sam realized that this must be his mother. Quietly, she drew Pippin willingly off, and Frodo and Sam were left alone before Esme Brandybuck.
Coolly, she gazed at Frodo, as if he were a not particularly interesting insect that she might have found upon the table, and the decision as whether to swat him or allow him to fly away was entirely without consequence to her. With a sudden rush of passion that was entirely foreign to him, Sam abruptly found himself hating her, hating the lack of affection with which she had allowed Frodo to grow up, hating the absolute lack of interest with which she had regarded Frodo on their last visit, hating coldness with which she observed him now, and silently vowing that if it took his whole life, he would compensate Frodo for that lack, a thousand times over.
"Pippin came to me," Frodo stated quietly but firmly. "I guessed that his family would come here to look for him, so I brought him back here. And the next time you send him off, Aunt Esme," he added, with a bit of a bite edging into his voice, "I would suggest that you do so a bit more diplomatically."
Esme Brandybuck coldly turned her head past Frodo at that, as if he had made no comment worth remarking upon. "Please see that you are gone by lunch, Frodo," she remarked over her shoulder as she turned away. "Make sure that your boy leaves with you, and kindly do not come back without an invitation again."
Pippin did feel rather ashamed of himself when he saw how upset his mother was, though she tried to hide it from him. "I'm sorry, Mother," he said remorsefully, as he took her arm and drew her along a path in the shade, away from the Hall. "I really should have asked Frodo to send word to you that I was with him. But we were just having such a lovely trip back, he and I and Sam, and we didn't stop at any inns where I could have sent word, and, well, I suppose I just didn't think."
"Oh, Pippin," she replied, giving his arm a small squeeze and quickly pecking his cheek, for she had never really been able to be stern with the lad, "you have a good heart, my dear, but you are just so impetuous. And now your father and I have had to make this trip to Brandy Hall, and you do know how your father hates that."
Pippin couldn't help a grin at this. There was a reason he normally stayed at Brandy Hall without his parents' company. "Is Aunt Esme driving him wild yet?" he laughed, but then suddenly the reason for his departure jogged his memory.
"Aunt Esme," he swallowed hard. "Has she said, erm, anything about me?"
"About you?" his mother stopped, clearly surprised by the question. "No, not really, other than she had asked you to go home because she thought that Merry needed to pay more attention to his duties."
Pippin felt himself relax at that as his mother continued. "Oh course, it's odd that Merry can't be found at the moment, but I imagine she's right, he'll have some reasonable explanation when he does show up. Merry is always so sensible and clear-headed."
"Merry's missing?" Pippin repeated, puzzled. "Why we just saw him…" and then Merry's last words to him came back to him. Resolutely, he steered his mother back around towards the Hall. "We have to go back, Mother," he informed her. "I need to find him myself." Concealing his concern, he flashed her that impish grin that always made her forgive him, no matter what the circumstances. "Cousin Merry has really never been that hard to find. Don't worry, I promise I'll have him back by tea."
Pearl Took slumped in a chair in front of the kitchen fire. The attempt at laundering had not gone particularly well. The blueberry stain had proved impossible to remove, and the wet dresses seemed to be taking an infernally long time to dry. Worse yet, she was now trapped inside Bag End in her chemise, and it was turning out to be a lovely day outside. Gloomily, she glared at the wet fabric laid out on the floor, and wondered if popping them in the oven might not speed the process along. Probably not the best of ideas, she conceded with a sigh. They would probably just dry out in nasty little balls, and she would never be able to get them on again.
Her heart suddenly jumped into her throat, as she heard the sound of someone opening the kitchen garden gate, and she immediately had a horrific image in her mind of Frodo deciding to return at just this moment, and finding a rather scantily clad cousin with her wet clothing strewn about, making herself quite free with Bag End.
With great relief, she heard footsteps approach the kitchen door directly and with a quiet rap, let herself in. That had to be Daisy, and to her immense relief, it was.
Daisy took in the situation with a glance, and began to giggle, quite helplessly. Pearl tried, for one brief moment, to appear affronted, but Daisy's laughter was far too infectious, and she was forced to join in. "Oh, very well, then," she finally managed to get out, "I concede that I am hopeless. But," she added, no longer laughing, but looking up at Daisy, suddenly wistful, "I so do wish there was something I could get right."
"Oh, my dear," Daisy said instantly, ashamed immediately of her first reaction, "There's no-one as is born knowin' these things. I just wished that you'd asked me."
"But I didn't want to," Pearl responded quietly at that. "You don't do for me, Daisy. I don't want you to do for me." An unexpected silence fell at that, and Pearl suddenly felt that she was in a situation with no known guidelines, no normal procedures, and, perhaps, no definite boundaries.
But Daisy looked straight back at her, her warm brown eyes regarding Pearl carefully. "I don't want t'be doin' for you, neither. But I would've helped you."
Saradoc and Paladin strolled onto the drive leading from the outlying buildings to the main hall and stopped in surprise. Down at the end of the drive, Frodo had just turned away from Esme Brandybuck, and was already heading away from Brandy Hall, with another hobbit they did not recognize at his side. Breaking into a quick trot, Paladin Took ran down the drive, calling out Frodo's name, with Saradoc Brandybuck at his heels.
"Oh, lad, 'tis good to see you," exclaimed Paladin, grasping Frodo firmly by the shoulders as he met up with him. "And Pippin?"
"Came back with me," Frodo assured him, with a smile. "He's with his mother right now."
"Ah, now, Frodo, I thought we could count on you," Saradoc joined them quickly, a relieved smile on his face. "He certainly did give us a scare. But, where would you be going, now?" Paladin had already left to check on his son when Saradoc suddenly registered the fact that Frodo had been walking away from Brandy Hall, not toward it. "You can't be leaving like this, you haven't even eaten with us yet."
"Well, I really do need to be getting back," Frodo began, but Saradoc was having none of it.
"Nonsense, my lad. Tomorrow will be soon enough for you to be going. I really had no chance to talk to you that much this Yuletide, what with that lot that always shows up here, for no particularly good reason other than to make free with my provisions. Come, you'll at least stay for dinner tonight, now, won't you?"
Frodo was silent for a moment, but his wry sense of the potential drama of this situation was proving hard to resist. Besides, he really did want to speak with Merry once more before they left, although he had no idea what he actually had to say to him.
"Thank you, Uncle Sara, I will," he said finally, but immediately added, "but first let me just have a moment with my friend."
"Certainly, and of course he's invited as well," Saradoc nodded. "I need to speak with my foreman anyway. I'll meet you in the courtyard." And he was gone.
Frodo turned to Sam, who had been quietly waiting to the side during this exchange, hoping against hope that he and Frodo would be able to return to the cave where they had spent the previous evening. It was with sinking spirits that he had heard Frodo agree to stay, but he was resolved to hide that from Frodo. But Frodo seemed, as always, to read his heart.
"I'm sorry, Sam," he said softly, turning and taking his hand, no matter that the courtyard was full with the bustle of Brandy Hall. "I really should do this, I think, and not let Aunt Esme run me out."
Quickly, he gave a glance over his shoulder to where Saradoc was standing near the stables, engrossed in conversation with the foreman of Brandy Hall. He turned back to Sam, and felt Sam's reassuring return grip, and looked into his warm hazel eyes. "This next bit could get nasty," he said haltingly, "and I'll not put you through it. If you go to the servant's hall, you can eat there, and look for Halstad. Tell him I asked you to stay with him, and I'll find the two of you as soon as I can."
Sam nodded, but kept Frodo's hand firmly in his.
"And Sam," Frodo swallowed and then added softly, his clear blue eyes searching Sam's, "I'll be with you tonight. I promise you that, my dearest. And we'll leave tomorrow. You have my word on that, too."
Sam smiled warmly at him, and raised Frodo's hand, still tightly grasped in his own, to his breast. "Don't you never let them fret you, Frodo-love," he murmured, holding Frodo's gaze. "You are so much finer than they could ever be. Never you forget that, me dear."
Frodo looked at him for a moment in silence. "I do love you so, Sam," he whispered, and then, releasing Sam's hand, followed Saradoc down the drive without a look back. Sam watched him go with a smile.
It was in the apple shed that Pippin found Merry. He had been stretched out on his side upon a bale of straw, hidden in the shadowy back corner, but he looked up as Pippin entered the shed with no surprise whatsoever on his face. "Yes, here I am," he said flatly. "You always do find me, don't you."
Pippin looked down at him. "Well, you could at least let me have a corner. I've been walking my legs off lately."
Merry silently moved his legs slightly to the side, allowing Pippin only the smallest of corners on which to sit, but Pippin plopped himself down and thankfully stretched his legs out.
"I'd offer you an apple," he commented, looking about the shed, "but it seems as though that would be a little unnecessary. I didn't finish the bread, though." From under his jacket, he produced the remains of the heel of bread he had been munching on as they had traveled to Brandy Hall that morning. He tossed it over to Merry, who caught it, gave it an appraising look, and then started to consume it moodily.
"So you've been found again," he at last asked Pippin, rather querulously.
Pippin had produced an apple of his own from his pocket, and was gnawing on it thoughtfully. He looked over at Merry's question and gave him a brief smile. "Yes," he answered, turning to stare unseeingly out the door of the shed. "And then you go missing. I've promised to bring you back by tea time, you know."
Merry gave a brief grunt at that, but said no more.
They sat silently together after that until at last, Pippin flung his apple core out the doorway of the shed and said, with a certain edge to his voice, "I suppose we really aren't free to choose, are we, Merry. Not like Frodo." Unconsciously, he had pushed himself back on the bale, until he was leaning into Merry's outstretched legs.
Merry was still silent, but drew his knees up, wrapping himself around Pippin.
"Sometimes, I wish we were just nobodies, and could do what we like," Pippin continued, still rather mournfully, but tucking himself a bit further into Merry.
Merry gave a reluctant snort of amusement at this. "You will never be a nobody, Pippin Took," he commented wryly. "I don't think you'd be capable of that."
Pippin was curled up by now quite thoroughly against Merry, who had draped an arm casually over Pippin's shoulder. Silence fell again, but a more comfortable one this time. Merry broke it by saying, very quietly, "I'm sorry, Pippin. For what I said last night. I was upset. It was a pile of rubbish and I didn't mean a word of it."
Pippin was still gazing in front of him, through the opening of the shed to the green fields beyond. He smiled at that, but didn't look back at Merry. "I know, my dear," he murmured. "It's all right."
Merry found himself examining Pippin's profile as if seeing it anew. The distinctively Tookish sharp features, the coppery curls, the green eyes staring thoughtfully away to the fields, they were all so familiar, and yet they were not. Somehow, Merry realized, Pippin had been growing up. Almost without realizing that he spoke aloud, he said simply, "Frodo was right."
"He generally is," Pippin responded easily. Turning his head to Merry, he inquired curiously, "What about this time?"
Merry gave him a smile at that, a warm one. "Maybe someday I'll tell you." He swung his legs off the bale then, and stood up to stretch heartily. "I suppose it's nearly lunch. May as well face the family. If Cook is in good form, perhaps they'll be distracted."
But as Pippin also rose, Merry caught him up quickly in a fierce hug. "I'm glad you always find me," he said softly as he held Pippin close. Then, releasing Pippin, he strode out into the sunlight. Pippin followed with a smile, for it was definitely a kiss that he had felt on his cheek, before Merry had let him go.
"It'd be the breeze as does it," Daisy pronounced mildly, as she and Pearl still stared at the drying dresses in the kitchen of Bag End. "That, and the sun. Especially on such a fine day as this'd be." And indeed, the day outside had become quite warm, a true harbinger of the summer that had nearly arrived. As if coming to a sudden decision, she gathered up the damp clothing and handed one dress to Pearl. "Just wrap it about yourself, they'd be none to see," she said briskly. "There's a back field to Bag End, we can be spreadin' them out there. There's naught as could be botherin' us, don't be frettin' about that."
"Wonderful," Pearl replied gratefully. ""It's so much nicer out-of-doors than being cooped up in this kitchen. Here, I'll be right back." She disappeared through the doorway to the pantry, and reappeared in no time with a bulging sack. "Cousin Frodo, will clearly have to go to market when he returns," she announced with a grin. "But fortunately he apparently believes in a well-stocked larder."
"Ah, that would definitely be Sam," Daisy laughed, unthinkingly, as they exited out the kitchen door into the nearby garden. "Mr. Frodo would never keep it so well, but Sam now, well, that lad has always had an appetite."
"Really?" Pearl answered, curious, as she followed Daisy up the path to the back hill. "Frodo and his gardener do appear to be rather close."
Daisy stopped short, her face suddenly flushed. Gazing unseeingly at the lush green meadow sprinkled with the gold of dandelions that stretched out before them, she softly said, "T'would not be my place to say."
"As close as all that?" Pearl came up to her side, with a warm smile. "Well seeing as how it's your brother, I'd say that Frodo is a very lucky hobbit." And before Daisy could have time to react, Pearl stepped forward, and laying down the dress that she had wrapped about her out on the grass, she twirled impulsively around in the light breeze in her chemise. "Oh, Daisy," she beamed back at her, "I can't tell you how lovely this feels. You really should try it too."
Daisy only watched her for a moment before years of inhibitions fell away, and dropping the other damp dress quickly upon the grass, she rapidly stripped herself of her own, and in her chemise as well, ran laughing up to Pearl.
Pearl caught up her hand. "Up here," she said quietly, holding Daisy's hand tightly, "who our families are really doesn't matter. Here, it's just the two of us."
"Aye," Daisy breathed, feeling as if a whole world had unexpectedly opened before her amazed eyes. And in the brief moment before Pearl kissed her, she suddenly understood everything Sam had ever told her.
It was with a sharp hiss of her breath that Esme Brandybuck registered Frodo's entrance, along with that of her husband and her brother. But the luncheon table was set, and Cook had prepared a rather extraordinary mushroom tart, and the strawberries were still quite good. So she stifled her comments until the dishes were being removed, and the party withdrew to the front parlor. It was then that she spoke her mind. "Really, Saradoc," she elegantly draped herself upon the chaise lounge, teacup in hand, "I do not understand in the least why you allow Frodo's presence here any longer. He is hardly a proper influence on our son."
Frodo set his teacup down upon the side table and walked towards the door. There really was a limit, and the thought of returning to his beloved Bag End with Sam was beginning to prove irresistible.
But Saradoc moved gracefully but purposefully to the doorway, effectively blocking Frodo's exit. "Tell me, my dear, what frightful crime has Frodo committed this time?"
Esme glanced carefully at the cup in her hand. "I believe Frodo should be the one to give you that information," she replied loftily. "I'd just rather that he'd not come into contact with our son any longer."
Saradoc turned to Frodo with puzzled frown, and Frodo suddenly felt as if he'd had enough of these half-truths, and delicate nuances. "I believe Aunt Esme is referring to the fact that I share my home and my bed with Sam," he stated bluntly, more than glad to get it out and then just go.
"Sam?" replied Saradoc with a puzzled frown. "Never heard of the fellow."
"Samwise Gamgee," Esme pronounced the name as if it were a particularly distasteful species of mold.
Saradoc turned to Frodo with a grin at that. "Can't say as I know him," he commented, "but that'd be Hamfast Gamgee's son, surely? Fine hobbit, the father. Fine indeed. I'd enjoy meeting his son, that I would."
Esme rose up at that, in righteous indignation. "Saradoc Brandybuck, you can't tell me that you'd allow our son to have any contact with such an unhealthy influence as this! I simply can't believe it."
"Well, if that bothers you so, why didn't you have any qualms about shipping Frodo off to Bilbo Baggins, years ago?" Saradoc questioned her sharply.
"Bilbo?" Frodo gasped at that, questions racing through his mind that he had never before considered.
"Bilbo?" he heard Paladin grunt from behind him. "That one always was a puzzle."
"Well, I had always heard dwarves were what he fancied," Saradoc answered placidly, turning to his brother-in-law. There was a snort of indignation from Esme at that, as well as a quickly suppressed snicker from Lana, demurely perched on a window seat and sipping her tea.
"Like enough, if he ever had an actual preference," Paladin chuckled. "I had always understood that he was a hobbit of a rather wide range of experiences."
Saradoc gave a guffaw at that. "Well of course, there was always the incident of the… Ah, it's Merry. And Pippin."
Pleased as he was at his cousins' appearances, Frodo couldn't help but feel that their timing was a bit unfortunate.
Frodo had insisted on his old room this time, high in the upper warren of rooms that was Brandy Hall. Esme had felt compelled to mention that though doubtlessly clean, it had not been used much in recent years, and was hardly suitable for the use of guests. But since there was no accounting for the preferences of some, and there had been a particular emphasis on that last phrase on her part, he may as well use it. The question of where Sam was to spend the night was, of course, entirely beneath her notice.
Sam followed Frodo, who was lighting the way by single candlelight, carefully up the winding stairway. Sam had encountered stairs for the first time on their previous visit to Brandy Hall, and was still not too certain about them. But if Frodo was leading them to a room of their own, where they could escape the rest of the inhabitants of this populous place, well then, he was more than glad to follow.
"Not much further, Sam," Frodo turned back to him, and smiling, stretched out a hand. "At the end of this corridor." Sam reached out, and grasping Frodo's hand, followed him around one more turn, and through a plain wooden door that had been left open. "Ah, it hasn't changed." Frodo said, with a distant voice, entering the room. "It really hasn't changed at all."
Sam followed Frodo into a small room, lit only by candlelight and the moonlight that fell through a large round window that was centered in one wall. There was a bed against the opposite wall, several shelves against the sides of the room, only partially filled with dusty darkly-bound volumes, and a small wardrobe in the back corner, empty, and with its door ajar. Situated directly under the window was a rather sturdy desk and plain chair. Other than the books, there was no attempt at ornamentation, and the room had the distinct air of disuse.
But Frodo looked about with a smile, as if he had returned to a welcome home. "I loved this room," he said softly, placing the candle in its holder upon the shelves and blowing it out. "Let me show you why."
Leaning over the desk, he pushed open the window casement, and then climbed on the chair and then onto the desk. Sam watched in silent amazement, as Frodo turned back to him, with a laugh, and said lightly, "I'd better check it out first, Sam. I'll be right back." With that, he stepped over to the wide window sill, placed one foot on a ledge directly outside the window, and disappeared from Sam's sight.
Sam moved fearfully over to the window and looked out, but could see Frodo nowhere. Instead, though, his breath caught in his throat as he beheld the hedge that surrounded this side of Brandy Hall, lying far below in the moonlight. As he backed instinctively away from the window, Frodo reappeared with a breathless laugh. "No-one's been up here save the pigeons," he exclaimed. "Throw me that blanket, Sam, there's the lad."
Sam turned and spotted one folded at the end of the bed. He tossed it to Frodo, who promptly disappeared again. But before Sam could go back to the window to brave another glance, Frodo had returned, and was standing on the desk again, his hand outstretched, and a wide smile on his face. "Come, Sam, dearest," he said gently. "Come with me."
Of course there was no question as to whether Sam would follow. He tried his best to hide his fear, and stepped up onto the desk beside Frodo, who briefly touched his cheek, and lightly kissed him. "It's worth it, trust me," he whispered, with shining eyes. As if Sam ever wouldn't. Watching only Frodo before him, he stepped out onto the ledge as well. "Right here, Sam," Frodo proceeded him, showing him the ledge on which to step, the stone to grasp. And before Sam could quite realize where they were going, they were on the roof over Brandy Hall, and all of Buckland fell away far below them in the bright moonlight.
This particular section of the Hall had jutted away from the hill, and the thatched roof extended from the sheer face of the rise. It was not a large section of roof, covering no more than Frodo's room beneath, and had been constructed more for the purpose for drainage, to the sides, than for additional living quarters. But whatever the purpose, it was immaterial to the two that stood there, so far above the courtyards and gardens below.
For the view was everything. Beyond the immediate grounds of the Hall, the tops of the surrounding trees shone darkly in the silvery light, and far off there was a glint and sparkle that could be glimpsed beyond them. With a start, Sam realized that it was the Brandywine he saw. Without words, he sank down on the blanket that Frodo had already spread out on the thatch, and gazed, open-mouthed, at the wondrous sight before him. Frodo sat down beside him, with a pleased smile at Sam's reaction, and throwing an arm tightly about his shoulders, softly chuckled. "It's glorious, isn't it, Sam?" he murmured proudly.
"Aye," Sam whispered, finding his voice with some difficulty. "Who'd ever know the world'd be this great?"
Frodo gave a happy laugh at that. "Exactly what I always thought," he exclaimed, warmly. Drawing Sam even more closely to him, with his free hand, he took Sam's nearest hand into his lap, and interlaced his fingers through Sam's. "I used to come up here to get away, to think, and to day-dream. No-one ever found me up here, no-one ever thought to look. Only Merry knew where I'd go, and he was always too afraid to follow me. Of course, he was still quite young then."
Frodo tightened his grip around Sam's fingers a bit at that, and fell silent, staring off to the west. "I used to dream that I could see the sea from here," he said at last, very quietly. "I would think I saw it shining silver, very far off. And I thought that someday I might try to find it, for I saw no reason to stay here." Slowly drawing his hand away from Sam's at that, he raised it to the side of Sam's face and gently turned it toward him. "I don't think that any more, Sam," he whispered, and Sam raised his mouth up at that and found Frodo's waiting for him.
The long stressful day became immediately a forgotten memory to Sam as his arms closed around his beloved Frodo, and their mouths sealed in a lingering kiss. When they slowly, at last, broke apart, Sam took up Frodo's hand in his, and held it, gazing at it as if it were some warm, momentarily stunned bird, ready to fly away at the least touch. "Were you that lonely here, then?" he asked quietly, not looking up at Frodo. "To be thinkin' of goin' so far away as all o'that?"
Frodo sighed, leaning his head onto Sam's shoulder, and stared out again to the moonlit vista before them. "I was," he murmured. "Uncle Sara means well enough, but he didn't have much time for children. And Merry was very fond of me, and I loved him dearly, but he was still so much younger. And, well, you've met Aunt Esme."
He was silent for a moment, and then added, almost reluctantly, "Do you know what I used to wish for, up here, Sam?"
Sam's hands closed gently around Frodo's, but he said nothing and waited.
"For someone to fall in love with." Frodo's voice was very soft now, and his emotions were very clearly quite close to the surface. "And I thought that I would never. . . , that there never would be anyone. Because I looked so strange, and was far too shy around others, and liked books and things that no-one else did, and because," here he paused, and tucked his face into Sam's shoulder.
"And because?" Sam gently prompted, somehow knowing that there was a matter of importance behind this pause.
After a moment, Frodo lifted his head up and set his shoulders. "Because, whenever I dreamed of that someone, I always saw the face of a lad," he stated quietly. "Never a lass."
Sam said nothing to this revelation, but bringing Frodo's hand to his lips, he gently kissed it.
"I don't suppose that's the sort of day-dream you ever had, was it, Sam?" Frodo glanced over at him with a slightly wry smile. "Yours must have been full of bonnie lasses and bouncing children, I should think."
"Aye, they were supposed to have been, at that. Wouldna that be the type of life you've ruined for me?" Sam gave him an unexpected sideways smile.
Frodo suddenly felt himself redden slightly, although in the moonlight, no-one ever could have told. "I still can't help think that, at times," he admitted, rather sheepishly.
Sam regarded him warmly, reaching a hand out to cup his face. "If that'd have been the life I'd wished for, why then I'd have never come back to Bag End that night you asked me to sleep with you," he said firmly, searching Frodo's eyes with his own. "I'd never have kissed you in the kitchen. An' I'd surely never would've stood up to the gaffer, to come live with you at Bag End. There ain't a thing you've ever forced me into, Frodo. So unless you'd be sayin' I'd be too weak-minded to know as what'd be best for me, it seems as though I've pretty much done this to myself."
And Sam leaned forward at that to kiss Frodo in a way that rather reinforced his inescapable logic about the matter.
"Well," Frodo protested rather weakly, his arms still on Sam's shoulders as their mouths broke apart, "I might have a distracting influence on you, you know. You might not have been thinking all that clearly."
"Oh, aye," admitted Sam, running a gentle hand through Frodo's dark curls, and, caressingly, out to his ear tip. "I'd admit to having the hot blood runnin' through me, and some other part of me thinkin' stronger than my brains." His hand came back down the side of Frodo's face and gently teased the curls at the nape of Frodo's neck.
Frodo felt an involuntary shudder course through his body at that. Unconsciously, he was kneading Sam's shoulder through the fabric of his jacket.
"Doesn't make my choices wrong though, as near as I can tell," Sam whispered at that, scooting closer to take advantage of brushing the dark locks back from the side of Frodo's silvered face, and lightly kissing him on the taut skin over the cheekbone.
"Oh, not wrong," Frodo's voice came out in nearly a moan, for surely Sam's tongue had become very clever as it sought out the most sensitive areas of his now exposed ear. Suddenly he felt a rush of emotion, a fervent wave of passion for this gentle and loving hobbit beside him. And he knew that whatever he had dreamed up here, all alone, as a lonely and awkward youth, had never come anywhere close to what he'd been given.
He turned to Sam, cradling his face in his hands, and gazed on the face of the hobbit that he loved with all his heart. Sam's eyes had closed, and his tanned features were strangely glowing in the blanched light, but his strong hands still cradled Frodo's head as Frodo bent forward and lightly kissed those shut eyelids. "Oh, Sam," he breathed, "oh, my own love. You are the greatest gift I'll ever know."
And then there was no more time for words as his mouth met Sam's once again. But now it was his tongue that urgently sought entrance and was willing welcomed by Sam's. And even as his breath quickened, and his arms tightened around Sam's shoulders, his mouth melded with Sam's and joined it as one. Inevitably, he had to finally gasp, and catch his breath, but could not stay away, for nothing he knew had ever been as sweet as Sam's mouth. It inflamed him, as always, enflamed and engorged him, and they were both wearing entirely too much clothing.
Urgently, his hands slipped under Sam's jacket, and coaxed it quickly off Sam's shoulders, and no sooner had he done so, than he felt Sam's hands under his, performing the same task. And then Sam's clever fingers were at the buttons of his shirt, and they were undone and it was pushed back off his shoulders, and ah! Sam's mouth was upon his skin, moving quickly to the crook of his neck, suckling and nipping, and Frodo threw back his head and laughed joyfully.
"Oh, Sam," he cried, catching his breath. "Maybe we should go back down to the room."
By now, Sam was trailing kisses down what was revealed by the partially unbuttoned shirt, but he stopped for a moment to growl, "So my fine lady wouldna be appreciatin' us endin' up in her petunia bed below?"
Frodo laughed again, feeling gloriously carefree, "Why, Sam!" He buried his nose in the mass of golden curls, just behind Sam's ear, and gave Sam's neck a playful nip at that. "Well," he pronounced with a great attempt at solemnity, "broken legs are so very inconvenient."
Sam had broken away his exploration of Frodo's chest in the face of his action, and was now sitting with a leg on either side of Frodo. "But we'd have to be lettin' go then," he observed, sliding his hands under Frodo's open shirt, "and I can't say as I want to be doin' that."
Frodo, sitting back on his heels, leaned into Sam's caressing touch and moaned softly. "You do have a point, at that," he gasped, his eyes closing.
Leaning forward, Sam brought his hands around to brush aside the inconvenient shirt, and leaned forward to tease those sensitive dark nubs with his tongue.
"Ah, Sam, we need to go down," Frodo moaned at that, involuntarily rising up into Sam's firm grasp.
"Aye, that'd be the idea," Sam muttered quickly, before tugging Frodo's shirt off suddenly and flinging it aside. It sailed over the side of the roof, but neither noticed. Sam was far more concerned with Frodo's trousers, which, curiously enough, were still on him. One hand kept Frodo still firmly in place, while the other worried at the fastening, and all the while Sam's mouth was busy on that delicious stomach, and Frodo lost all thought of moving from where they were.
Finally the trousers were open, and Frodo gasped a choked wordless cry as Sam's mouth closed around him. He closed his eyes, and gave himself over entirely to Sam; Sam's strong hands supporting him from behind, his warm mouth around him, and Sam's tongue… ah, when had that tongue become so clever? Teasing him, fondling him, stroking him, as his rhythm increased its pace, and his hands dug deeper into Sam's shoulders, and his breath came out in short harsh pants, and he found himself entirely unable to even say Sam's name, until, inevitably, he felt the throbbing surge beyond all control, and he burst convulsively into Sam's waiting mouth.
It wasn't until he could catch his breath that he sank back down for a moment between Sam's legs, and laid his head on his shoulder. He could hear Sam's pleased chuckle, and feel Sam wrapping his arms around him in a warm embrace, and felt the sudden rush of passion in his heart for this, the treasure he'd never thought to find, hidden in his cousin's garden.
Suddenly, he raised his head and, sweeping his arms around Sam, caught him up in a fervent, adoring embrace. "Sam, oh my Sam," he cried, and gently but insistently pushed Sam back onto the blanket upon which they were sitting. Sam lay back, saying nothing, but raised a hand to the side of Frodo's face, silvered in the moonlight, and smiled lovingly up at him. "You are mine, Sam," Frodo whispered, staring down at him, "always mine." And he bent down, kissing him fiercely.
"Aye," Sam murmured, his arms flung around Frodo's neck and his eyes shining with happiness, "always yours, Frodo-love. Always."
It was fortunate the Mistress of Brandy Hall chose the next morning in which to sleep late. Had she risen earlier, she might have found her nephew's and his gardener's jackets draped over the petunias outside of her bedroom window, and Frodo's shirt cast upon the primrose. However, by the time she rose for her morning tea, they were once again quite properly covering their rightful owners.
Lanterns had been hung from the tree branches surrounding the back of the younger Cottons' smial, and there was still plenty of food left on the table under the great oak. Bowls of cherries and apricots were laid next to the sweet buns and little cakes. And for those with less of a sweet tooth, and wishing for something that went a bit better with beer, there were loaves of dark rustic bread, and half a wheel of cheddar. For there was certainly beer as well, what party would be complete without it? The keg was sat right beside Tolman Cotton, or rather he beside it, and there wasn't a hobbit that passed by that wasn't urged to have just another half-pint. Surely it wasn't every day that you had a Took as your guest of honor.
And indeed, those guests from Hobbiton, a rather goodly crowd, shook their heads at the sheer extravagance of it all, and declared that they couldn't remember such a glorious party that hadn't been occasioned by either a wedding, a birthday, or the harvest. But Tolman had joined forces with May Gamgee, and that combination was undeniably a formidable one.
Of course, Pearl Took had turned out to be a delightful addition to the festivities. Daisy had summoned her sister to assist in adorning Pearl's tall, spare form. May, thrilled by the challenge, rose to the occasion, just as Daisy had fully expected. Using a combination of Daisy's meager wardrobe, for she and Pearl were close in height and frame, and what was salvageable of Pearl's own, with the addition of whatever adornments May herself could provide, she set to her task. And when she was through, Pearl was indeed a unique and enchanting vision, with her abundant red curls and unusual green eyes set off just so. May had been quite pleased, with just cause, of her handiwork, and even Pearl herself had to acknowledge the results were really rather amazing. Daisy kept quiet, but her eyes shone in delight at Pearl's transformation.
But it was far more than just Pearl's appearance that brought such pleasure to the festivities, for it was the talk of Hobbiton for many a month afterward what a charming and unassuming lass she was, for all she was a gentle-hobbit of perhaps the most venerable family in all of the Shire. For she danced every dance, and didn't leave a single lad out. From Nibs Cotton, who was blushing so violently throughout the entire reel that he was a perfect match for her flaming curls, to Gaffer Gamgee himself, who, protesting heartily, was dragged into the dance by his two giggling younger daughters, but who stayed dancing until they finally had to intervene again, this time with a bit of concern for his stamina, she was the center of it all.
Daisy sat on a bench under the elms to the back of the field, and watched, with a fond smile on her face. She hummed the dance tunes quietly to herself, and felt the pleasant cool evening breeze upon her face, and felt happier than she could ever remember.
But the evening finally came to an end, as all good things must, and when the bowls and the plates upon the great wooden table were finally starting to look somewhat sparse, and the beer had been nearly drained from the kegs, the friends and neighbors eventually began to pay their respects and leave. The night had been a wonderful and glorious one, but there was the summer planting on the morrow, and the seedlings would not wait.
Daisy slipped back into the kitchen to help with the washing up, but when Pearl, who had been standing between Tolman and the gaffer, had bid farewell to the last guest, she laid down the towel and offered to walk Pearl back to Bag End.
The night was warm and fragrant, and the white moths flew all about the small lantern that Daisy held to light their way back. Pearl tucked her arm under Daisy's, as soon as they were out of sight of the others, and Daisy clasped her hand quite tightly. Had it only been a day since they had spent the afternoon in the field above Bag End? Daisy's heart and mind were still full of memories, of their shared revelations, of those hesitant, sweet kisses that they had exchanged.
A quiet, rational corner of her mind reminded her that Frodo and Sam would surely be returning any day soon, and Pearl would go, and vanish from her mundane life as suddenly as she had appeared, but Daisy firmly turned those thoughts away, and fell to dreaming that it was Pearl who lived in Bag End, and that what had started between them would not be ending any time soon. How often she was reminded of Sam now, and how well she began to understand her brother's heart.
Pearl was silent as they walked through the fields that separated the Cotton farm and Bag End, her previous gaiety gone from her. They had reached the back garden, under the jasmine vine that was fragrantly glimmering in the warm night air, when she finally stopped, and turning to Daisy, clasped her shoulders tightly. "We don't have much time," she said in a low voice, "Frodo will be back any day."
Daisy nodded mutely, the lantern held to one side, but her other hand reaching up to encircle Pearl's waist.
"Will you stay with me?" Pearl whispered, carefully searching Daisy's eyes in the faint circle of illumination that surrounded the two of them.
Daisy swallowed. "My Da will be waitin' for me, as will my sister," she finally answered, in a voice heavy with regret.
Pearl looked down and nodded, but did not let go of Daisy.
With a choked sound, nearly a sob, Daisy suddenly reached up to Pearl's face with her free hand, and brought her mouth to Pearl's in a sudden fierce kiss. Then Pearl was left standing, the lantern thrust into her hand, and Daisy was gone in the dark night.
Frodo woke slowly, feeling warm and so very languid. He was in a familiar bed, in a room that had been achingly well-known, but the loving presence close against his side, in the narrow bed that was meant only for one, would ever be new to him. With a tender smile, he opened his eyes to gaze upon the dear face that was, eyes closed and breath regular in sleep, lying next to his. The golden curls, strewn over the tanned face, caught at the morning sun as it shone through the opened window, and the slightly snubbed nose, with its light dusting of freckles, the luxurious light brown lashes upon the faintly reddened cheeks, and the perfectly bowed mouth, well, it all delighted Frodo more than he ever could have said, as he fondly gazed on Sam. How he had ever made his way through day after dreary day without this great gift of love that he had been given, he would never know. Sam sighed slightly as Frodo watched, still asleep, but his arm, which was wrapped around Frodo's waist, tightened just a bit. He was waking now, and Frodo leaned forward to fondly, lightly, kiss him awake.
"Good morning, Sam, my love," he whispered, as Sam's eyes sleepily flickered open. Lifting his hand, he ran it tenderly through his mussed hair. "Time for us to be going home, I think."
Sam's drowsy smile was response enough. He snuggled his face into the crook of Frodo's neck and kissed it lingeringly.
"Ah, don't you start on me, now," Frodo laughed at that, hugging Sam tightly. "They begin breakfast early here, you know." Sam gave a chuckle then, and with his face still buried, stretched luxuriously out against Frodo.
"Sam!" Frodo cried out happily at Sam's tease, and sat up as abruptly as he could with Sam's weight still partially on him.
"Ah, well, then," Sam gave a mock sigh of disappointment as he sat up as well, "guess I'd have to be content with just breakfast, then."
"Just wait until we're back at Bag End, my dear," Frodo kissed the tip of his nose lightly, "and I promise you a whole day in bed anytime you like."
"Aye, we'd best be gettin' on the road than," Sam chuckled, swinging his legs around to the floor.
It wasn't until Frodo flung the light blanket aside that he was struck with a sudden disquieting thought. "Our clothes," he muttered, turning to Sam in alarm. "Someone's probably picked them up by now."
But Sam did not seem in the least perturbed, in fact, he grinned in a rather pleased manner. "On the chair," he waved airily to the plain wooden chair in the corner where, indeed, Frodo could now see his jacket and shirt neatly folded, with Sam's jacket underneath.
"Oh, Sam, you are too clever," Frodo exclaimed admiringly, dressing quickly. "Whenever did you get them?"
"Last night," Sam explained, still grinning. "Woke up in the middle of the night, thinkin' about them."
"Why, I never knew you were gone," Frodo said in surprise.
"Didn't think so," Sam replied, a trifle smugly, as he drew on his jacket. "You were that tired, to be sure. Snoring right fine, you still were, when I got back."
"Snoring!" Frodo exclaimed, indignantly. "Why, I never do!"
Sam laughed at that. "Sometimes you do, me dear. But I love it. And you." With that, he threw an arm around Frodo's shoulders and kissed him soundly. "Breakfast sounds fine at that. And don't you be forgettin' your promise, Frodo Baggins."
"Never," Frodo assured him, warmly, just before he found his mouth again. "You have my word on it, Sam."
First breakfast was normally a rather scattered affair at Brandy Hall, since some family members were up and about earlier than others, and Frodo was not surprised to see just Saradoc and Paladin, standing by the breakfast table but gazing out of the large window to the fields beyond, as he and Sam entered. They stood with a plate in hand each, absently eating sausage and tomatoes, as they discussed the affairs of the Brandybuck lands and Tuckburough. Frodo and Sam had already agreed that Sam would find Halstad in the pastures, and wait for Frodo there, giving Frodo the opportunity to find Merry and Pippin and have a quick word with them before he left. Frodo had hoped to give Sam some food to take with him, but he had not counted upon his uncles being here alone in the dining hall.
They both had turned around as Frodo and Sam had entered, and before Sam could duck quickly out again, Saradoc broke off his conversation with Paladin and strode towards them, his brother-in-law in tow. "Samwise Gamgee?" he asked with a smile, holding a hand out to Sam.
"Aye, if you please, sir," answered Sam, caught off guard, but hesitantly grasping the pro-offered hand, as his face instantly reddened.
"No chance to have a word with you last night, what with that mob that generally shows up for dinner," Saradoc mentioned with a chuckle, "but I'm right glad to see you here, lad. Frodo, here, tells me you're Hamfast Gamgee's son?"
"Aye, sir, that'd be the truth," Sam ducked his head in acknowledgement as Frodo stood beside him, watching his uncle in surprise.
"Well, a fine hobbit he is, to be sure. Bilbo brought him by many a time, and my gardeners would still be thanking him for some of his advice. Right nice to be seeing you here, lad, and be sure you bring your father with you the next time you come. I'd dearly love to have a word with him again, for all Bilbo's taken off to parts unknown."
"Thank you kindly, Mr. Saradoc," Sam replied politely, even if he was still a bit taken aback by the Master of Brandy Hall's warm reception.
"Now, I mean that, lad," Saradoc added with a mock stern tone, but a kindly smile. "Well, I won't be keeping you, then."
Sam gave a grateful quick nod, and turned to Frodo. "I won't be long, Sam," Frodo gave him a warm smile, and Sam quickly left.
Frodo turned uncertainly toward Saradoc as Sam left, but the elder hobbit gave him a suddenly serious look. "You could be doing far worse than that, Frodo," he said quietly, giving Frodo an unnervingly direct gaze. "And I hope you'll keep coming around, for Merry's sake."
"Aunt Esme'd just as soon that I wouldn't," Frodo stated, uncertainly.
"Well, I'd just as soon that you did," Saradoc stated firmly, in a voice that allowed no opposition. "Merry needs you, Frodo. Don't be a stranger here."
"Pippin as well," Paladin added softly at that, standing quietly behind Saradoc. "You mean a great deal to both of them, Frodo, and don't you be forgetting that."
Sam knew where the dining hall for the rest of the inhabitants of Brandy Hall was from his previous visit last Yuletide, and hoping to pick up a bit of breakfast before he went in search of Halstad, he thought to stop by there first. With as many hobbits as came and went on this great estate, he had hopes of slipping in and out unnoticed.
And he almost did. But as he re-entered the courtyard, biting into a ripe peach, with an apple and wedge of bread safely in his pocket, Merry was standing on the path to the stables, arms crossed over his chest, watching him with an unreadable expression. Sam swallowed the bite of peach unconsciously, and stood still, the juice from the peach dripping down onto the scuffed dirt about his feet. Then Merry gave a slight tip of his head, and turning, walked up the stable path away from the courtyard. With a sinking feeling, Sam followed, trying to finish the peach as he walked, and wishing he had chosen a less messy fruit.
The cool shadowy stable, with its high raftered roof, was empty of hobbits this time of day, all of them being at second breakfast by now. The ponies moved restlessly in their stalls, anticipating being let out into the fields as soon as the dew had dried from the grass. Merry found a bundle of hay from the stack on the back against the wall, and motioned silently to Sam, who was still hesitantly following, indicating another twine-bound stack. Sam would have preferred to stay standing, but sat as he was directed.
Merry had plucked a piece of straw from the ground and was running it moodily through his long fingers when he finally spoke. "I wanted, well, I really needed to. . . " he muttered, staring still at the straw, but then he lifted his head, and with a certain set to his jaw, stared bravely at Sam. "I'm sorry, Sam. I really have been treating you and Frodo badly, and especially you."
Sam stared at him, his nervousness suddenly gone. "I'm sorry, too," he answered quietly. "It must be that hard."
Merry swallowed suddenly at that and quickly stood up, turning his back to Sam. "You have no idea," Sam heard him say, in a choked tone.
Sam stared sightlessly down at his feet. "How many o'those as we love have we hurt," he murmured suddenly, and it was not a question.
Merry twisted quickly around at that, and stared at Sam intently. "You can't be regretting it, though," he said finally.
Sam looked up swiftly at that, and the pain was evident in his eyes, even to an reluctant Merry. "What we've done? Never," Sam said softly. "But hurtin' those as love us? More'n I can say."
Merry said nothing at that, but gazed upon Sam as if he had, for the first time, really seen him. "Don't regret it," he said abruptly. "Never regret it. I've seen Frodo's face when he looks at you, when he thinks that no one else sees him. I can't tell you how much I would have given to have had him look at me like that, but he never will. He's chosen, Sam, and it's you. Never, never regret that he's made that choice."
Sam looked at him steadily. "T'would never happen," he stated firmly, his eyes holding Merry's. "My heart'd be his, an' my life'd be but to follow him."
Merry held his gaze but a moment more until a slow, almost unwilling smile stole across his face. "Frodo chose well," he stated softly, and with a quick clasp of his hand to Sam's shoulder, left the stable.
It was the laughter that caught Frodo's ear, as he rounded the hill. Clear and free, and immediately recognizable. As he walked about the bend, into the upper pasture, his eyes fell immediately upon Halstad and a couple other of the herders, leaning upon their staffs and laughing heartily, and in the middle of them all, was Sam, with his face alight and smiling. But that was nothing to the warm glance he gave Frodo, when he turned around and noticed Frodo, quietly standing under the shadow of the oak. And all of a sudden, there was no one else in Sam's eyes, and his smile was all at once for Frodo alone.
Frodo strode forward at that, joy unexpectedly surging up in his heart that they were finally on their way home. It suddenly seemed forever since they had had a quiet supper in the cozy kitchen of Bag End, since they had spent a tranquil evening, with book in hand, in front of the evening blaze in the study, since they had lain in their feather bed and made love far into the night, and oh, but Sam was home and Sam was love, and all he'd ever wanted.
Sam had seen Frodo's expression, and had read it true, and waited, quietly but impatiently, by the oak as Frodo thanked Halstad for his assistance and bade him farewell. And as soon as they were out of sight, on the road to the river, Frodo had Sam against a tree, and Sam's voice was sighing in his ear, and it was hard, very hard, to pull away from each other, and head back to the cave where they had left their packs the day before.
As they turned the bend in the rush road, though, where the hidden path up to the cave lay, it was immediately obvious that they were not to be continuing their journey alone. Pippin and Merry were sitting cross-legged by the side of the road, and Sam immediately spotted his and Frodo's packs at Pippin's side.
"Oh, there you two are," Pippin withdrew the pipe from his mouth and waved cheerfully. "I'd been telling Merry that he really needs to get away for a bit of a holiday, and he finally caved in. So here we all are, then," he beamed.
Frodo stopped and eyed his cousins skeptically. "Isn't this how it all started anyway, Pip?"
"No, no, Frodo." Pippin stood up and shook off the stray bits of reed. Patiently, he explained. "This time we asked. Well, maybe not so much as asked, but we did mention it. At least, rather put the idea in their heads." He paused at that, and then added thoughtfully, "Well, I think they know where we went. . . "
Merry stood up quietly next to him, and added, in a rather reserved voice, giving Frodo a diffident look, "Of course, only if you don't mind. . . "
But Frodo immediately strode over to him and wrapped his older cousin in a warm hug. "Mind? Of course not, my dearest." And he turned to Sam, with his arms still tight around Merry. "What do you say, Sam? Should we let these rascals tag along?" he asked, glancing over to him.
"T'would be a pleasure, an' sure it would," Sam responded, with a warm smile, as Pippin continued to beam at Merry's side, which seemed to settle the matter.
They had crossed the Brandywine by way of the bridge this time, and were a bit beyond the wide river, when the evening fog rolled in. The weather could be a bit tricky, in early summer, and the warmest of days was often followed by a damp and chilly night. Such was the case on this evening. There would be no rain, but the river fog was heavy and by mid-afternoon, already held the banks in a thick white mist.
"Not much use trying to make our way any farther today, I think," Frodo, walking in the front with Merry, stopped and looked ahead thoughtfully. "We may already be off the path, it's hard to tell."
Merry nodded. "It'll be easier to take a look about come morning," he agreed. "I noticed a couple of fallen logs just back a bit. That might be a good spot to make camp."
"Right then," Frodo turned back to the other two, who had fallen back slightly, chatting and laughingly discussing the tribulations of being raised by sisters. Sam remembered the spot that Merry had mentioned, and they quickly returned to it, gathering likely firewood as they went.
And in no time at all, the campfire was made, and had begun to cheerily flame, and Sam had the kettle on for tea. With a rather unusual amount of foresight, Pippin had thought to have Cook pack a bag or two for them, so Sam soon had a thick soup of vegetables and sausage, with bits of herbs bubbling merrily away, and they began to toast some bread and cheese for tea. Enclosed in their cozy circle of light and warmth in the darkening damp dusk that surrounded them, it did not take the four hobbits long to forget entirely the world about them.
Merry had been somewhat quiet and subdued initially, but the effect of Frodo's and Pippin's easy conversation soon began to soothe him, and before they had begun on the soup, he was far more relaxed and outgoing. Sam quietly busied himself in the details of dinner, but Frodo sat quite close to him, and on several occasions during the evening, met Sam's hand with his own for a quick tight grasp, a matter not commented on in the least by the other two.
Pippin was saving his crowning achievement for afters, however, for no sooner had the soup kettle been rather thoroughly emptied of soup, leaving its eventual cleaning up merely a formality, than Pippin triumphantly produced a flask of the finest eponymous brandy from the Hall. Merry whistled at that, his eyes gleaming. "That, my dear Pip," he pronounced solemnly, "is surely the result of a feat of amazing skill. Because I know that my father does not allow that to leave the doors of Brandy Hall willingly."
"It would be best to hope that he does not visit the farther corners of the wine cellar in the near future," Pippin agreed delicately, "for I would hate to see suspicion fall on such lads of tender years as ourselves."
"You young scamp!" laughed Frodo in delight, reaching out for the precious vial, "I am most impressed. I've only tasted a small glass, on the most solemn of occasions, and yet look. A whole flask! Indeed, Peregrin Took, you seem to have found your calling in life."
Pippin grinned, quite pleased with himself. "They never suspect the young ones," he confided, happily.
"A mistake we'd never make," Frodo chuckled, carefully pouring a few inches into the three mugs held out towards him, as well as his own. "But your reputation is safe with us, Pip."
The coils of white chilled mist crept past the fire's circle, but the four within, warmed by not only the flames and the fiery liquid, but by each other's company, laughed and chatted, and drank, far into the night.
Sam awoke later in the evening. The fire had burnt quite low, but he was feeling warm and very comfortable. Gradually, he realized that the later was due to the fact that his head was cradled in Frodo's lap, and one of Frodo's hands was draped rather securely around his shoulder. Something was at the waking edge of his consciousness, but for the moment, he was content with the feel of Frodo's hand holding him close, and the warmth of Frodo's legs against his cheek.
But then he slowly realized what had awoken him. There was an indescribable sound far off, barely distinguishable, and like nothing he'd ever heard before. Carefully, he raised his head, not wishing to disturb Frodo, whose steady breathing confirmed the fact that he was asleep. But he was consumed with curiosity. It was like song, yet like no voice that he had ever heard, only barely audible, like the memory of a melody from years gone by, perhaps something his mother had once sung to him.
Carefully, he eased from Frodo's loose grasp, glancing back at Frodo, who had been sitting with his back against one of the fallen logs. But Frodo's eyes had opened and in the dim light of the dying fire, he was staring back at Sam.
"Listen," Sam breathed. "D'ye hear that?"
Frodo nodded dumbly, and, as of one mind, they silently rose to their feet. Merry and Pippin were still fast asleep, fallen together in a rather complex knot, and breathing in concert with light harmonic snores.
To their surprise, as they stepped away from the circle of firelight, the heavy fog of earlier that evening had dissipated, and they could make out their way by the light of the half moon above. Stealthily, they slipped into the woods, and now it seemed as though they heard faint laughter as well, and there appeared to be, far ahead, the ghost of a glimmering light. Silently, they approached, with unknowingly clasped hands, when there was a sudden sharply amused murmur, and a flurry of silvery lights, and the feel of a breath passing by them, and the woods were suddenly dark and silent about them again.
But there was no doubt in either of their minds as to what they had almost seen. "Elves," Sam whispered, and in the moonlight, Frodo could still see the awe and wonder on his face.
"Yes," he answered, in just as hushed a voice, "I believe so."
Sam's hand was still caught up tightly in Frodo's, and Frodo was suddenly struck by the yearning he saw on those well-loved features. "D'ye ever think we'd be seein' them, one of these days?" Sam turned to Frodo, wistfully.
"Of course, Sam dearest," Frodo smiled back tenderly. "One of these days we'll go look for elves. Just the two of us, Sam. And maybe we'll come back, and maybe we'll stay gone, just like Bilbo. But we'll see them together, you and I."
"Ah," sighed Sam happily, "that would be right fine, that would. As long as we'd be together, me dear." Raising up his hand to the side of Frodo's face, he lifted his mouth to Frodo's and kissed him slowly and most thoroughly. Frodo gave a murmur of appreciation as his arms found themselves tightly around Sam.
They did not make their way back to camp until the glowing moon had nearly set.
Pippin was unlike his normal cheerful self the next morning, and wondered, rather crossly, why everyone felt the need to shout so. Merry, looking rather stoic himself, gave a faint smile at that. "Cold water helps, Pip," he muttered, rising slowly and cautiously to his feet, and holding out a hand to the youngest hobbit, who was gingerly rubbing his temples, and not appearing interested, in the least, in the breakfast that Sam was serenely preparing. Pippin allowed himself to be hauled up, and gave a few uncertain steps, his face suddenly revealing that that might not have been the wisest of moves. "All right, then," Merry quickly threw a supporting arm around him. "This way, Pip," and with a certain amount of hastiness, hustled the unfortunate Pippin from the campground.
"Would he be all right, then?" Sam looked after the departing pair with some concern, as he turned over the bacon frying in the pan.
"Oh, they'll be fine," Frodo chuckled. "Young stomachs. Lack of practice. You seemed to handle it quite well, though," he grinned at Sam with a raised eyebrow.
"Well, I'd have grown up on the gaffer's home brew," Sam said placidly, flipping the bacon once more. "I'd bet even Marigold could drink those two down, any day."
"And why have I never had the pleasure of tasting this fine brew?" Frodo raised the other eyebrow as well at that.
"I expect the gaffer thought it a bit rough for the fine stomachs of gentle-hobbits." Sam dexterously flipped the bacon next to the toast and tomatoes on the waiting plate, and passed it to Frodo.
"But not too strong for young lads and lasses?" Frodo asked skeptically, placing a couple of pieces of bacon over a piece of toast and biting into it with relish.
"Ah, but we'd be Gamgees, now," Sam chuckled, adding a tomato to his piece of toast and throwing three slices of bacon over the top. "Just as well I didn't fry the whole lot," he added philosophically. "Looks as though the other two won't be joinin' us."
Pippin and Merry seemed recovered enough when they returned later that morning, and the four continued on. The next couple of days passed in a pleasant blur of walking, swimming in any stream that they passed, stopping as often for a meal as their supplies would allow, and spending congenial evenings about the fire. But all too soon, the path through the woods met up with the main road between Hobbiton and Buckland, and it was time for Merry and Pippin to be turning back. They had stopped for elevensies not far from the road, and Frodo took the opportunity, as Pippin helped Sam pack up, to take Merry by the hand and lead him away from the path, to a small stand of young sycamores in a sunny grassy clearing. Merry followed, not unwillingly, and with his hand tight around Frodo's, but his face was quiet and closed off.
He turned toward Frodo, his face dappled with light under the young bright green leaves, and reached for Frodo's other hand as well, his eyes cast downwards at Frodo's pale nail-bitten fingers within his long strong ones. Frodo stayed silent, knowing that Merry was collecting himself, and giving him time.
At last Merry looked up, staring resolutely into Frodo's concerned eyes. "I won't say it isn't hard," he said softly, his voice catching slightly. But he cleared his throat a bit then, and continued, his voice gaining strength, and his jaw setting in a manner that was so familiar to Frodo that a pang shot involuntarily through him as he watched his cousin, "but it wasn't right of me to assume. To think that you must feel as I did. To forget that you've been away for years, that you've found someone to love, someone who obviously loves you more than anything. To regret that you're so happy. I'm sorry, Frodo. It wasn't right of me at all."
"Merry," Frodo whispered, his eyes welling with tears at Merry's words. Slowly, he lifted his hand to Merry's cheek, cupping it gently. "You'll always be my dearest cousin. You'll always be that loving heart who gave me reassurance and strength, when I needed it so desperately. You were all I had to love, and you were all I needed. I would have given anything not to hurt you as I have done."
"I know, Frodo dearest," Merry said quietly, his mouth quirking up in a rueful smile that was so very well-known to Frodo, his own hand coming up to rest over Frodo's. "You always looked out for me, didn't you. And still do."
Frodo gulped at that, tears starting to spill unbidden down his cheeks. "That's all right, Frodo," Merry whispered in a quavering voice, tightly embracing Frodo, and burying his face against Frodo's shoulder. "That's all right, my dearest. I could never stop loving you, you know."
Sam and Pippin sat side by side on the side of the road, waiting for the other two. Conversation had been somewhat intermittent and distracted when Sam turned suddenly to Pippin and gazing at him worriedly, said, rather shyly, "The two of you'd still be comin' to see Frodo, now, wouldn't you? Just because I'd be livin' at Bag End too, I hope that wouldn't mean you or Merry'd feel any different. . . " His voice trailed off, and gathering himself, he added bravely, "Frodo still misses you both, I know he does. You'd be all the family he's got."
Pippin turned to him and, regarding him warmly, with an understanding beyond his years, said quietly, "Don't you be worrying, Sam. Merry will come around, he loves Frodo far too much not to. We'll be on your doorstep before you know it. Never you fear, Sam dear, Frodo hasn't lost anything by falling in love with you. Ah," he glanced up, with a bright smile on his face, "here they are."
It was the last leg of the journey, the last few miles before Frodo and Sam came to the outskirts of Hobbiton, and ahead, Bag End. And as much as they were both looking forward to being home, yet there was a certain reluctance in returning. It was early afternoon, the sun was yet high overhead, and if they had pressed steadily onward, they could have been at Bag End before nightfall. Yet both Sam and Frodo found themselves in no hurry to do that. The path through the woods was theirs alone, and the afternoon was warm and ripe. It would be mid-summer in a day, and the light would linger on, far into the evening. Frodo paused, under the oak, knowing that the trees would be soon growing smaller from here, and that the fields were not far away. Suddenly, he knew not why, he could not stand the idea of being under a roof with Sam tonight. It was under the open sky where he wished to be, just he and Sam alone, as they had not been since they had set off from Bag End with Pippin, weeks ago.
Without a word of explanation, he grasped Sam's hand and pulled him along, from the worn path, pushing through the bush that grew at the side of the dusty road, and into the thicket of oak and gorse. The bushes scratched and held firm, but Frodo pushed blindly against them, a willing Sam following. Finally the oak gave way to pine, and the pine to cedar, and the ground swelled up in a hill, and at the top, there was a bare grassy round, where the sun shone down uninterrupted, and the light breeze was welcome on their faces.
With a small sigh, Frodo dropped the pack from his shoulders, and spun around to Sam with a smile. Sam followed suit readily enough, and stepping up to Frodo, placed his hands on Frodo's shoulders and said softly, "So you'd not be wishin' your feather bed tonight, me dear?"
Frodo laughed happily, his hands coming to rest on Sam's waist. "How can you read me so well, Sam dear?" he murmured, his hands slowly running down Sam's hips and around the back.
"Practice, me dear," Sam chuckled, drawing Frodo to him, his hands around his waist. "Practice. But never enough, love." And with that, his mouth was on Frodo's, hot and demanding, his tongue forcing its way past Frodo's lips, not that Frodo was resisting, oh, no, not at all. And with a hungry moan, his mouth opened eagerly up to Sam's, and his eyes closed with the sweet yearning for Sam, for his lips, his tongue, for his strong arms around him, for his inflaming touch, for the feel of him without end.
And his hands, oh, there was no way he could have kept them off of Sam, for they had to feel that sweet warm flesh at all costs. So they grasped breathlessly at Sam's shirt, yanking it with a quick movement from his trousers, and hungrily ran slowly, unhurriedly, up his sides. Sam gave a choked gasp at that, and instantly reached for the buttons of Frodo's shirt. Feverishly, they were undone, and with a quick tug, the shirt and jacket flew off his shoulders and Sam's hands were on him, warm and insistent, stroking, caressing, inflaming his senses, making him crave more and more.
"Ah, Frodo, oh, Frodo," moaned Sam, reaching for his own trousers and hurriedly unfastening them. And then Frodo felt his hand being grasped hastily by Sam, and guided blindly through the opened fabric, and then he lurched forward against Frodo as Frodo's hand closed about him, hot, smooth, and he blindly thrust himself up against Frodo's palm.
"Sam," whispered Frodo passionately, awkwardly reaching for his own trousers with his left hand and hurriedly unfastening them as well. Shoving them off of him as best as he could, they pooled about his ankles, as he enclosed Sam's closest thigh between his legs, and desperately ground himself hard against Sam, gasping with the feel of that firm flesh between his suddenly shaky knees, against that part of himself that cried out for more, and harder, and faster, and oh, just more, more.
Then his hand closed tightly around Sam, and pulled upward sharply, as Sam gave a wordless cry, his legs buckling under him. Down Sam went, Frodo following, and now he was stretched over Sam, and Sam was writhing under him, clutching at Frodo's backside with all his strength, and thrusting himself up against Frodo, over and over.
"Sam!" gasped Frodo, braced up by only one hand, the other still on Sam, feeling his hips start to thrust rhythmically against Sam, again and again, "Oh, my Sam, my Sam."
"Frodo," Sam moaned in response, grinding himself up against Frodo with all his might, panting and arching his back desperately up. "Harder, Frodo, harder!" And Frodo obeyed, increasing the pace until he felt himself moistening, and Sam, within his hand, was not going to wait much longer. Down he thrust, one last time, tightening his grip on Sam almost painfully, and feeling Sam's fingers dig desperately into his buttocks, as Sam arched up and gave a wild cry.
And then the release swept through him, sweet beyond belief, flooding through him, and pouring onto Sam's stomach, and joining with his as well. They collapsed, Frodo heavily on top of Sam, and both lay there panting. But even though Frodo's physical need had abated for the moment, his emotional one had not. "I love you, Sam," he whispered passionately, holding tightly onto him. "Oh, how I love you."
Sam gazed up at him, his golden curls radiant in the sunlight, lighting his face, and his hazel eyes shone brightly with unabashed adoration. "You're everything, Frodo," he whispered. "You're everything to me."
Sam was quite surprised, when they reached Bag End early the next morning, that the smial had had a resident the entire time they were gone, but Frodo was not. The unpredictable nature of Tooks was all too familiar to him, and he laughed and told Pearl that he hoped she had a pleasant stay in this quiet, forgotten corner of the Shire.
She smiled at that, but said nothing. Frodo gave a condensed version of their journey, and politely offered her the guest room as long as she wished. But Pearl shook her head at that, and said that she wouldn't dream of imposing on them, after such a trip, and that she would stay with friends in Hobbiton for the night, and find a wagon bound for Tuckborough the next day. It didn't take long for her to pack up the few items that she had brought with her, and tidy up the room she'd been using, but before doing so, she had asked Sam, in an uncharacteristically shy manner, if he wouldn't mind letting his sister Daisy know, and that perhaps she might walk with her into Hobbiton.
Sam did wonder at that, but left off unpacking his and Frodo's packs, and headed down to Number Three. Daisy was in the back yard, as she generally was this time of the morning, hard at work, her hands deep in the steaming tub of laundry. She looked up at Sam with a smile at first, but then an odd expression crossed her face, and when Sam conveyed his message, she gasped, upsetting the tub. With no attempt to put it right, she quickly fled, her wet hands to her face, up the hill toward Bag End. Sam, concerned and amazed, carefully picked up the tub and clothes from where they had spilled on the ground, shook out the garments that had landed in the dirt, and plunged them back into the bucket of rinse water. Then he started up the hill after his sister.
Pearl had already left Frodo and Bag End, and was waiting for Daisy a little down the road. When Daisy ran up, tears streaming down her face, Pearl grasped her arm and urgently whispered, "The back road, Daisy. Show me."
Daisy nodded, still without words, and led her to the back road to Hobbiton, away from all the other travelers. It was only then, in the leafy shade beside the little-used path, that she could turn towards Pearl and feel Pearl's arms enclose her, and Pearl's voice, on the verge of tears herself, whisper comfort to her.
Finally Daisy brought her head up and stared hopelessly at Pearl. "I should have stayed that night, Pearl, I wish I had."
Pearl shook her head, tears on her own face but with a rueful smile, "No, Daisy. You weren't ready for that, and to tell the truth, neither was I. 'Tis best we didn't." She stretched out her hand at that, gently stroking Daisy's face, and her eyes fell on the red mark, still vivid on her milky skin, of the burn she had received the first day at Bag End.
"Look, Daisy," she said gently, holding out her wrist, "I'll always remember you by this."
"There'd be a mark on me, likewise," choked out Daisy, staring desperately into Pearl's eyes. "An' it'll always be there, no matter that none can see it."
A look of determination came to Pearl's face at that, and she gazed back at Daisy, almost sternly. "Then 'tis not over," she murmured with resolve. "There'll be a way for us, Daisy Gamgee. If you're willing for it to be so."
"Oh, I am, I am," Daisy cried out wildly, before her mouth found Pearl's.
Gandalf showed up at the round green door of Bag End only a few days later, unexpectedly, of course, as wizards are wont to do. It was tea time, and Frodo, happy indeed to see him, greeted him warmly. It took no time at all, of course, for Gandalf to surmise the changes at Bag End, and with many a deep chuckle, and shake of his head, to allow that hobbits were ever an unpredictable lot, but he was glad to hear of it, he truly was. Frodo asked after Bilbo, of course, and Gandalf informed him that Bilbo was, indeed, staying with the elves and seemed quite content.
It wasn't until after dinner, that Gandalf asked after the ring of Bilbo's, and Frodo had to stop for a moment and think of where it had ended up. Eventually he remembered it had been left in the great chest in the entrance hall, under a rather odd collection of stray items left behind by various visitors. After he fetched it for Gandalf, he watched curiously as the wizard held it up to the firelight and examined it carefully. Sam had been clearing off the dishes, and a contented occasional drift of song could be now and again heard, coming down the hall from the kitchen, above the dishwater splashes.
"Does Bilbo want it back?" Frodo asked with polite curiosity. "He's welcome to it, you know. I've had no need for it."
"No, no, I think not," Gandalf answered absently, examining the artifact with scrupulous care. "No, I rather think it's best off here."
Placing it quickly back in the case in which Frodo had found it, he gave Frodo another warm smile. "Duty calls, my dear hobbit, and I must be off again. Take good care of that Sam of yours, now, and don't use that trinket, Frodo, there's a good lad. I'll be back before you know it." Frodo affectionately returned the embrace of the towering wizard, and Gandalf was gone again, as if he'd never been there.
Frodo stood at the green door, staring out into the dark night, suddenly piqued by inquisitiveness about Bilbo's ring, which he had entirely forgotten until now. Bilbo had always carried it about, and it did seem to be a rather handy item to have in a pinch. Odd, he reflected suddenly, but he realized that he had never told Sam about it.
But then he heard Sam's voice, calling him excitedly from the back of the smial. Carelessly, he tossed the ring in its case back into the chest, and slammed the lid tight, thinking no more of it. Running down the hall, he burst into the kitchen to find Sam at the kitchen door, impatiently waiting for him, with a broad smile on his face.
"Frodo, Frodo," he gasped. "Come quick!" He reached out and grasped Frodo's hand tightly, pulling him through the kitchen door out into the dark night.
Frodo followed, and following Sam's gaze, looked up into the dark night sky and gave a cry of wonder. The black sky was alight with the shimmer of shooting stars, sparkling, dazzling, raining down on the two hobbits in a radiant glory. Close together, they stood in the kitchen garden, arms around each other, and staring up into the amazing sight in awe.
And then Sam gave a gleeful laugh, and grabbing Frodo's hand, ran, in the dark, up the back path to the field above Bag End. Frodo ran behind him, and when they reached the top, looked wonderingly at this loving spirit that had so captured him. Sam lifted his face to the silvery lights in the sky, laughing with joy, his young face alight in the starry glow of the night. And Frodo, his heart so full of delight that there was nothing that he could say, clasped Sam about the waist, and spun him around under the stars.
Below the ring waited, patiently. There was nothing it could offer Frodo now.