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The Ringbearer and the Rose

Chapter Text

March 25th 1420

It had been a nightmare night again, and the voices in the hall were a welcome summons to the morning. Frodo barely listened to the words – it was enough to hear Rosie Cotton and her brothers teasing their way into the morning like they had every morning he'd been here. She'd come in soon, and he'd have to wake up then, but for the moment he lay staring at the bedroom ceiling wondering whether his dreams would be better after this day were past or if they would stay sour until the 8th of April. He wished, not for the first time, that Sam would get back from planting trees and finish getting Bag End ready for them to move back into. He was tired of imposing on the Cottons. He wanted to go home. The sweet dreams might come back then.

"Rosie, has there been any word from Sam?" Frodo asked when she came in to open the curtain.

"Not yet, Mr. Frodo," she said, but she straightened a moment later and shielded her eyes with one hand. "Wait. That's him."

Frodo got out of bed and went to the window. He could see a distant figure coming slowly down the Hill with a pony following lamefooted behind. She was right, it had to be Sam, for as the sun rose higher, it glinted off the gold mail he still wore when he travelled in case any of the ruffians had lingered. "I wonder what happened to Bill," Frodo said, reassured in an odd way that it must have been the pony's injury that had delayed Sam's return. Sam would never mistreat Bill; not even to rush back to Hobbiton.

Rosie jumped a little at the discovery that Frodo was beside her. "Oh, Mr. Frodo, are you sure you should be out of bed? You took such a bad turn the other day."

"It was a passing thing," he reassured her, and at her doubtful look smiled. "Truly. Please don't tell Sam about it. He'd only fret."

"He's turned aside..." Rosie said, her attention going back to the window at the mention of Sam. Frodo wondered if she'd come to his room each morning just because it had the best view of the road. He wasn't the only one who was waiting for Sam. But now that he knew that Sam was safe he could wait a little longer.

"Going to see the Gaffer, I expect," he said, fondly. "Sam tends the things he loves."

"Well he doesn't love himself much then," she said, rearranging the clutter on top of the dresser fiercely. "As tired as he's been the last two times he's come home, you'd think he'd stop for a day or two. And what kept him so long this time I don't know. He drives himself like he's got to see the whole Shire put back the way it was and he's the only one can do it; and if he'd just once ask for help he'd find out that I..."

"That you love him?" Frodo said, into her sudden silence.

"I do," she whispered. "But it's you he looks for first."

Frodo didn't know what to say to that. To his astonishment, she reached for his maimed hand and took it between her own, much the way that Sam did sometimes, to reassure him that it was not shameful. "He won't say what happened, except that you had a hard time of it," she said softly. "Says it's not a story he can tell, and then goes and works all the harder so he can sleep without dreaming. Sam without words! All my life I've listened to him telling tales, and now the one tale I most want to hear and he can't bear to tell it to me."

"It's a year ago today since I knew he was coming home," she went on. "But he's not arrived yet, not all the way, has he? No more than you have."

"It wasn't home we found, when we came back," Frodo found himself answering, his eye following the line of small saplings that should have been tall trees, up to the half-mended scar of the sandpit on the Hill. "Not the Shire we'd dreamed about -- the one he held in his heart." He smiled at the lass before him, glad to have someone to talk to about Sam. "He held you in his heart, too."

"I'd have gone with him if he'd asked me," she said, wistfully. "To see the elves and all. I've dreamed of it since I was a littling. But he never did ask."

Frodo met her bright blue eyes and tried to smile, "He couldn't. Gandalf made him promise to keep the secret. And Merry and Pippin had guessed beforehand. I should have left them all behind and safe, if I could."

"You'd have broken Sam's heart if you had," Rosie said. "And the ruffians would have broken his head when they started digging up Bagshot Row. He'd have been in the lockholes sooner than Will Whitfoot! There wasn't no safety here, Mr. Frodo. Not while the Enemy was hunting the Ring and the Shadow growing all the while."

"And then Saruman came and made things worse," Frodo said bitterly.

"No," she said, her eyes distant. "No the worst was before -- wakin' up in the morning and feeling like there wasn't no point in fighting back. Like you couldn't stop the changes anymore than you could hold back the rain by shouting rhymes at it. Waitin' for winter to end, and the sun so thin in the sky it couldn't hardly be said to be shinin' at all."

"I never knew the Shadow reached so far," Frodo said sadly.

"And why not? It's the same air here as anywhere else."

"Sam knew," Frodo confessed. "He saw what might happen to the Shire in Galadriel's mirror; the Gaffer being turned out and all. But we had still a long way to go to Mordor, and he chose to come home with me or not at all." Frodo put his maimed hand against the windowpane, letting the sun shine on the scar as it shone on the scars on the Hill. "I'd hoped we'd prevented his vision from coming true."

"That's it," Rosie said, as if she'd been given a key to a lock. "That's why he's doing it. Don't you see, Mr. Frodo, he blames himself. That's why he won't take no help." Her eyes were bright with excitement. "Oh that's got to be it. You've got to talk to him, tell him it's all right. He'll listen to you."

"But… I don't understand." Frodo said.

"Of course you don't. He hides his hurts from you," Rosie said. "But if you just look you'll see. Oh, please talk to him," she begged. "Please. Or one of these times he'll go off and when he gets too near the borders the wind will take him and I'll never see him again."

Frodo didn't think it very likely in spite of the nightmares – Sam wasn't the kind of hobbit who ran off in search of adventure without a pocket handkerchief – but she was worried, and he wanted to talk to Sam in any case, so he smiled at her and patted her shoulder. "We can't let that happen. I'll go this morning if you like, but you'll have to let me get dressed first."

She kissed him on the cheek, the way she kissed her brothers when they brought her ribbons from the village. "I'll have your breakfast ready!" she promised, dancing to the door. "Oh, thank you!"

When Frodo reached the row of new smials that had been built at the back of the leveled sandpit he found the Gaffer out in the morning light, mixing mulch and dirt to go into the raised beds that Sam had had built to make it easier for him to reach them. The old hobbit touched his hat when he noticed Frodo. "Good morning, Mr. Frodo," he said.

"Good morning, Master Gamgee," Frodo answered.

"If you're looking for that pony, you'll have to go along to the blacksmith, for he's thrown a shoe. But if you're looking for Sam, he's inside," he said waving a welcome to Frodo to enter his new home.

"Thank you," Frodo said, and went on in.

He found Sam slumped in the Gaffer's chair, his breakfast plate forgotten on the floor beside him. He turned his head a little as Frodo came in out of the bright morning light.

"Well it's gone."

Frodo thought Sam was talking about the Ring until he saw that Sam was turning Galadriel's box in his hands. "There was a wee bit left, but I couldn't do no more, and then Bill lost a shoe and I had to come back after all, so I stopped at the Three Farthing Stone on the way and gave it to the wind." He handed the box to Frodo and rested his face in his hands. "I hope that was the right thing to do," he said in a muffled voice.

"I'm sure it was, Sam," Frodo said, opening the small box in his hands. A single grain of dust clung to the bottom, so tiny that only the glow of its magic gave it away. How many trees had Sam planted in these few months? Hundreds at least, perhaps thousands. So many grains of dust would fit into even this small a box, and he'd watched Sam planting the chestnuts along the Bywater road, using tweezers to place a single speck of Galadriel's gift with each of the new trees. There must hardly be a village in the Shire that hadn't seen Sam come through since fall.

Small wonder he was tired.

Frodo touched Sam's shoulder and for a long moment he saw his friend and servant with the strange new vision that the Ring had bequeathed him -- not as a hobbit, but as a tree that has been roughly uprooted and washed downstream until it comes to a muddy place and tries to take root again.

The vision passed, and as his eyes adjusted to the dimness of the smial he realized that Sam was pale and drawn, and almost as thin as he'd been last March. Rosie was right. A puff of wind would put him on the road again.

Frodo let the bittersweet temptation linger for a moment. How marvelous to leave the troubles of the Shire behind. How soothing to walk in the wilderness again with Sam beside him and Lothlorien ahead, and no burden to trouble either of them as they sat and shared a quiet supper.

"Sam, you addlepate, have you let your breakfast go cold again?" the Gaffer stood in the doorway, peering at the half-filled plate by his son's feet. "There's no call to go wastin' vittles."

"You can have it, Dad," Sam said, with the careful clarity that they'd learned worked best in the face of his father's increasing deafness. "I had a bite of breakfast before I started out this morning." He started to lever up, but Frodo stopped him, and shook his head as he bent to retrieve the plate.

"Not this time," he said. "It's all right, Master Gamgee. I'll see to Sam."

"Well and good, Mr. Frodo," said the old hobbit, unoffended. "He might listen to you when he don't listen to sense." He picked up a trowel that he'd left on a shelf by the door and went outside again.

Frodo put the spoon into Sam's hand and the plate onto his lap.

"You need to eat, Sam," he ordered. "At least a little more. And then you need some proper sleep. You've worn yourself out with all this traveling."

Sam almost smiled for a moment, and he dutifully chewed on a bite of the porridge.

"Where did you go this time?" Frodo asked, trying to see if he could get Sam to relax enough to eat.

Sam swallowed hard. "Up by Woody End - they tried to burn what they couldn't hew, but I guess that it was too wet a season. There's still places you can stand and look and not see their handiwork." He dug out another lump of porridge and looked at it for a moment before he put the spoon carefully down. "Leastwise, not if you don't turn around." His eyes came up to Frodo's with a plea for understanding in them. "I did eat some already today."

Frodo thought of all the breakfasts he'd barely touched and forbore from chiding Sam. "If you're sure you're not hungry, Sam," he said, taking the plate back.

"I just need a nap." Sam pushed himself out of the chair, and stumbled towards the bedroom. Frodo followed him and helped him get out of the heavy mail shirt. Sam was too tired to make more than a token protest, and Frodo waved it aside.

"I don't mind, Sam. You can't sleep in all that."

"I did on the road," Sam said, rocking gently where he stood. "It don't matter."

Frodo hung the mail carefully over the back of a chair, moving aside Sam's bulging saddlebags. By the look of this room, Sam had barely spent enough time in it to make an impression. Only the Elven cloak was neatly hanging in its place. Everything else was still in packs, or in jumbled piles, waiting to be washed. Frodo gave up looking for a nightshirt, and turned back to Sam.

Sam had fumbled off the swordbelt, and was clutching Sting in its scabbard to his chest, tears streaming down his face. Frodo took the sword and set it on the chair and steered his exhausted friend into the bed. "What is it, Sam?" he asked, once he'd gotten Sam lying down.

"It's Gollum," Sam said, turning his head on the pillow as if he were ashamed to have said as much.

Gollum? Frodo sat very still as the memories of Smeagol danced in front of his eyes. "What about him?" he asked, when he could speak again.

"A year ago today he fell, Mr. Frodo, and ain't nobody grieved for him yet." Sam shivered under Frodo's hand, like the Mountain had shaken with hidden torments.

"And aren't you grieving for him now, Sam?" Frodo said, pulling the blanket up to Sam's shoulders. "He's not forgotten, Sam. I promise."

"But he's gone," Sam wailed. "And he didn't have to be, or Gandalf wouldn't've come to the mountain with three eagles and not just two. And it's my fault. I never thought about how hard words hurt." For a moment his eyes went to the window, where the Gaffer could be seen puttering among the flowerbeds. "I wonder sometimes… he was so quietlike there on the stairs… If I'd not called him a sneak…" Sam curled into a tight, miserable ball, trying to hide his sobs, and all that Frodo could do was stay and rub his shoulders, and wait for the storm to pass. It didn't take long. Sam was too weary. In time he uncurled, wrung out but for a last few shudders, and waited with scorched eyes for Frodo's judgment.

"I hurt him first and worst at the pool by Henneth Annun," Frodo told Sam, admitting it aloud for the sake of lost Smeagol. "He might still have come to me if I'd told him the truth, but I never gave him the chance." He used his handkerchief on Sam. His own tears burned hot inside, but he wouldn't… couldn't cry.

"You meant no harm," Sam said, patting Frodo's hand weakly, as if he could see Frodo's distress in spite of the exhaustion that was claiming him. "And you'd been woke out of a sound sleep, and the first good bed you'd seen in a long time."

"Just as you were wakened on the Stairs," Frodo reminded him. "There's no good in wondering about might have beens, Sam. We did our best."

"I'll believe it if you will," Sam murmured, melting into the pillow.

Frodo waited, but Sam didn't speak again, and his breathing softened. "It wasn't your fault," he whispered, when he was sure that Sam was sleeping. "None of it was."

It wasn't until he got outside, all the way to the stone wall that marked the edge of the old hillside and the new garden that he was able to cry. The dreams made sense now, horrible sense, and he could deny them no longer. So he sat in the winter grass and leaned on the cool stones of the wall and wept, not knowing if he wept for Smeagol, or Sam, or for himself. And after a time, Rosie found him there, and gathered him into her arms and let him cry on her shoulder without saying a word.

She waited, rocking him gently and rubbing his back to soothe him. The Gaffer was puttering happily in his garden – there would be time to go to Sam – she could take time enough now for Frodo.

He never let anyone see him crying; not since after the battle, when Elma Bracegirdle found two of her sons in the rows of slain hobbits and the whole village had been weeping. He hid his tears, even from himself. But she was the one who changed the linens, and she knew it wasn't sweat that made his pillow damp so many mornings.

Even before he'd gone away, he'd been shy of showing too much of his heart; quick with a song, a story or laughter, but quiet with his griefs. A gentlehobbit in more sense than one, was Mr. Frodo, even if most of Hobbiton and Bywater thought him a bit too educated for his own good. There'd been more than one lass had set her cap for the master of Bag End, only to find herself forgotten for the sake of a bit of poetry or a book that he'd tucked into the picnic basket. She could remember Angelica Brownlock saying once that it wasn't much fun chasing after a hobbit who was prettier than she was and likely to stay that way. Better just to stand back and enjoy looking from afar.

But he looked every year of his age since he'd come back. There were new lines drawn into his fine, fair skin, and new sorrows in his eyes. Her father thought it only right, she knew, and respected Frodo's judgment all the more for the silver strands in his hair. But he felt frail in her arms, like a child newly risen from a long bout of fever.

At last he pulled up a little, and she could take the corner of her apron to his face. "There now, there, it will be all right," she murmured, as if he were one of her nephews weeping over a skinned knee.

"It won't," he said, "not if Sam leaves the Shire."

"Leaves? Sam?" Her eyes stung. "Why would he leave?"

"Because you were right, Rosie. You saw what I didn't want to see. A puff of wind…" He swallowed, once and again, as if he were finding the words hard to get past his throat. "If it weren't for the Gaffer he'd already be gone."

"Nay, nay," she said. "Why would he go?"

"He's grieving," Frodo said. "Grieving for Gollum, and the trees of the Shire, and everywhere he looks he sees reminders of what he didn't do, and forgets all he did. He'll go. It will hurt too much to stay. Unless…" his eyes searched her face, as if he were looking for something only he could see. "Will you marry him, Rosie?"

"Marry him?" She cried, "How can I marry him if he won't even court me?" It was the question she'd asked herself a hundred times since November, and it didn't improve by being asked again. She'd had such hopes when Sam came to their farm in his fine new armor and all, but after the battle and the death of Saruman he'd hardly seemed to notice anything but the work to be done. "How can I marry him when he looks right past me?"

"Make him see you," Frodo urged her. "Don't let him go away."

He tried to smile, but it couldn't reach his eyes. "I know it's not the way things are done. He ought to be the one to speak. But he can't until he's sure he's staying and he won't stay unless he's sure of his ground."

"But I don't even know if he wants to marry me," Rosie protested.

"He did when we last left Rivendell," Frodo said, with a certainty that warmed her frightened heart. And now he did smile. "I heard him practicing how to speak his heart while we were riding to Bree. If it hadn't been for Saruman I think he'd have asked for your hand long since." He sighed a little, and took hold of the gem he wore on a chain around his neck. "But the way things turned out… I know him, Rose Cotton, I know him better than I do myself. He hasn't a thing to offer you, from his standpoint, that you can't find better somewhere else. The gold Bilbo gave him he's spent restoring Bagshot Row, so he's not got a roof of his own."

"As if that mattered to me!" Rosie said.

"It matters to Sam," Frodo told her. "And then there's the gossip. Merry and Pippin don't seem to come in for much of it, but they're always laughing these days. And I'm the nephew of Mad Baggins, and never had a reputation to begin with. But Sam -- it's hard on a hobbit to leave the Shire and come back. He's heard the fools; I've heard them myself, ready to think that we've lost any hobbitsense we ever had. How can he ask you to be an object of gossip? But, oh, he needs you, Rose."

She dismissed that objection too. If she cared what the gossips said she'd hardly be sitting in the sunshine with her arms around Frodo Baggins. But there were other considerations, and harder to get around, before she could wed Samwise Gamgee. "And wouldn't you be jealous, if I took too much of his time?"

Frodo shook his head. "Tis the other way around, Rose. The only thing holding me here is Sam. It doesn't work the other way, no matter how much I wish it did." He touched her cheek, softly, so that she could not look away. "I would never be jealous of you for loving Sam. Only grateful to you for healing him."

She ducked her head, "I was that jealous of you, while I was waiting for Sam to come back. And I feel it still sometimes." It was hard to admit that, and harder still to go on, "But the strangest thing is that when I see him with you it's different. It'd be like I was jealous of the sun for making the moon shine at night. Might as well be jealous of the Shire, for needing someone to plant trees around."

"I'm neither Sun, nor Shire," Frodo said, shaken by her words.

"You are to Sam," she said, and found her heart the lighter for accepting it. But Frodo bowed his shoulders, as if he'd been given a heavy burden, and he shook his head, denying it.

"No," he said. "No. For Sam is the Shire, and if I am the Sun I am setting. Elrond healed me in Rivendell, Galadriel solaced my grief in Lothlorien, and Gandalf summoned me from death in Ithilien. It is only by the power of the three remaining Rings that I have been given the grace of a few years, and the Three are fading. They will leave Middle Earth in time."

"I don't understand," she said, feeling as if a cloud had come over the sun. She didn't want to understand. But she had to.

"I cannot be what Sam needs. I'm dying, Rose. I've seen it, and I know it is true. When the Three leave Middle Earth, all that keeps me from the cold and grief and shadow will be gone, and I shall slip deeper and deeper into pain and bitterness and death. And there will be nothing Sam can do to save me."

"But that would break him," she protested.

"It would," Frodo agreed. "I've seen him wandering alone, like Gollum, bereft of all he loved." He sighed, and rubbed his thumb against his scar. "I'd hoped it was only nightmares," he whispered, closing his eyes against the vision. "But I can spare him that, if I go with Gandalf and the others. I've seen that too -- a future where Sam stays in the Shire, and is whole and well for many years."

"Because you leave him?" She didn't believe that. But Frodo smiled at her.

"Because he finds something which I cannot give him," he said.

"Me?" she whispered, hoping that his dreams would guide hers.

"A child." He took her hands in his. "I won't lie to you, Rose Cotton. If you choose to marry him you shall always have times when you feel second best, because you do not need Sam as much as Sam needs you. You shall have to love him as he has loved me, knowing all the while that my eyes have gone to Bilbo -- yes, and even to the Ring -- before him. I might have withered without Sam's care, but it was always there, and I took it for granted. It is only now that I am learning how much it has meant to me."

She couldn't answer. She had to think. "But if you go… if you go before the baby comes… he'll follow you, won't he? He'd follow you to the moon. And I'd be all alone." It would hurt worse than it had the last time, if she won Sam and lost him again.

Frodo put his face in his hands. "I thought to go come autumn," he admitted. "When the leaves turn gold again. But I shall send a message to Elrond and tell him that I cannot go until I am certain of Sam's healing. Bilbo…" his voice thickened, "Bilbo might last another year. And even if he doesn't… It's not like he hasn't already beaten the Old Took is it?"

"Oh, Mr. Frodo," she said, and gathered him to her again. "Oh, me dear, me dear. If it's worth as much to you as that, then of course I'll marry Samwise Gamgee."

"Thank you," he told her shoulder.

She felt laughter welling up inside her like a song, the way she had a year ago, and she let it free into the bright sunlight. "Now all I have to do is tell Sam!"

Her laughter unloosed his, and his own joy surprised him. She understood. She understood, and everything would come out right now. He hugged her tight, enjoying the rapturous tingling feeling of balancing between laughter and tears, because he was not alone. And then a strange movement caught his eye. Dandelion leaves creeping out over the grass. Frodo stared past Rosie's shoulder, frozen with the realization that he was watching a flower push its way out of the ground. "Rose?" he said, "look."

"No, you look," she said, her voice hoarse with awe.

He turned and saw the saplings along the road, stretching upwards, the small twig fingers waving in the breeze as if the wind were blowing them everyway around. Already small buds were showing, swelling out of their parent stems as if one day would have to do for twenty.

It was magic.

"Sam!" Frodo yelled, flinging himself back toward Bagshot Row with Rosie in tow. Sam had to witness this!

And at his cry Sam came tumbling out of the smial with Sting drawn and ready, braced for an attack. He stopped, confused, when he saw the wide grin on Frodo's face. "What is it?" he asked, and then he saw the trees, and the blade fell from his nerveless fingers.

The golden-green of spring growth swept along the grass, leaving daisies in its wake. A flush of color swept up Sam's face, and tears started in his eyes. "Oh, Mr. Frodo," he whispered. "Mr. Frodo. Look what the Lady's done for us."

"You did it, Sam," Rosie said, her eyes shining. "You shared her gift with all the Shire." Before he could move or speak she took his head in her hands and kissed him. And Sam, startled beyond thinking, forgot to stare at the trees and stared at her instead.

Frodo laughed, and hastily bent to retrieve the sword before either of them stumbled onto it. "What about the little seed, Sam?" he asked, although he thought he knew the answer. "Where did you plant that part of the Lady's gift?"

"The party field!" Sam exclaimed, catching Rosie's hand and starting off. "Let's go see!" He got a few steps and then stopped, and turned. "Mr. Frodo?"

"Go on," Frodo said, showing the blade in his hand. "I'll put this away first and catch you up." He couldn't stop smiling; Sam was dazed yet, but the dissatisfaction had fallen from him like an old coat. Rose smiled back at Frodo and he nodded a little, to let her know that he would take his time coming.

They climbed through the field hand in hand, with the grass tickling their feet as it grew, and as they climbed he saw a thin wand of silver rising from the place where the party tree had stood. Already it was as tall as he, and twigs were growing off the main stem, sketching a promise of the shape of the tree to come. They came close enough to touch, but he did not dare touch yet, for fear that he would waken, and the dream would flee.

"What kind of tree is it?" Rosie asked, leaning against him, so that he could not help but put his arms around her when he answered.

"It's a mallorn tree," he said, seeing the glimmers of gold at the corners of the newformed buds. "A mallorn," he repeated, when it didn't disappear. "I'd have given all the Shire to see one again this morning, and here it is."

"A mallorn tree?" she said, with delight growing on her. "Like the trees of Lothlorien?"

"Yes," he said, and then wondered how she knew. "Who told you about Lothlorien?"

"I heard Mr. Peregrin talking about it, and Lady Galadriel." She flirted her eyes at him, holding his arms tight where he'd wrapped them around her. "Said she was the prettiest girl you'd ever seen."

Sam felt his tiredness fly away, like a wind-swept cloud on a summer morning. "Well she's beautiful, sure enough," he teased back, as if they were both children again, tossing strawberries at each other when their bellies were full. "But not the prettiest girl I've ever seen."

"So who is then?" she asked, with a giggle.

He pretended to think about it. "Well, there was the Queen, after all, and Eowyn of Rohan, and come to think of it, Mistress Peony Baggins was fine to look at – in an old ladyish sort of way, o' course."

"Sam!" Rosie said, and he tapped her nose.

"You mustn't fish," he chided her, but the words reminded him of Gollum, and his smile faltered.

Before he could fall into sorrow she turned inside the curve of his arms and hugged him, resting her head against his shoulder. "Did you really wish to see a mallorn tree again?" she asked.

"I did," he told her, looking again at the miracle growing beside them, and daring now to reach out and feel the smooth, solid bark of it. It was real. It was real, and so was she. "That's two of my wishes have come true today," he said, wondering if it were possible to keep this moment forever in its sweetness.

"Two wishes?" she said, turning her face to his. "What was the other?"

"A kiss from you," he said, and felt her hold him all the tighter.

"Wishes come in threes," she said, her breath like a whisper of breeze on his face.

"They do," he said, and bent his head to make the third come true.

Chapter Text

Epilogue: April 6, 1420

There hadn't been a birthday party to match it since the Troubles had begun, and every child in Bywater or Hobbiton who could sneak through a hedge had turned up, whether their parents had been invited or no. Some of the parents had turned up too, but as they'd come with bread or covered dishes to eke out the luncheon, no one had been turned away. Bits of ribbon had been the prizes for the races and the games, and the cake would have to be cut into rather small pieces, yet still folk were laughing, and half the instruments in Hobbiton had been hauled up to the party field by musicians who would get no more pay than a chance to watch the dancing.

Frodo sat on the stump of the party tree, guarding the basket of birthday presents. He missed the old tree, but the stump made a good place to watch over the field. A few feet away stood the mallorn tree, now nearly twelve feet high. The buds had opened up just this morning, unfolding into golden flowers which shed a pleasant perfume and glimmered like firefly lanterns even in broad daylight.

A few of the more daring hobbits came to pass the time of day with him, Farmer Cotton for one, and it was hard for them to keep their eyes from those blossoms. Frodo in his turn had a hard time keeping his amusement to himself. Even the most staid of hobbits were having trouble denying the existence of Elven magic, in light of the past twelve days. And the mallorn tree had proven them wrong beyond a doubt.

But only a few souls ventured near, and for the most part Frodo could sit and be content to watch. Merry and Pippin were holding court at the barrel of beer that they'd brought along with the furniture from Crickhollow. There were several pretty hobbitlasses crowding around to listen to their tales, and some not so pretty as well. Gaffer Gamgee had collected a number of his friends, and was holding forth on the virtues of well-rotted manure for flowerbeds.

Sam had officiated at the races and games, and ended up perched on an upturned bucket, surrounded by children who stared wide-eyed as he described the snow and storms of Caradhras. Rosie sat at his knee, as absorbed in the story as any of the little ones. Frodo was certain that the announcement of their wedding was going to come as no surprise, so often had Sam's hand sought hers this day.

He closed his eyes for a moment, remembering how bashful Sam had been about admitting his intentions, and the relief that had lit up his face when Frodo had invited him to bring his bride to Bag End. "Torn in two," he said he was. But no longer shattered, thank goodness. The fair haired lass of Frodo's dreams would be joined by a small brother, if everything went well. It would go well. Sam just needed someone else to take care of… His hand went of its own accord to the gem that Arwen Undomiel had gifted him.

"Ho, Frodo," Pippin's cheerful voice drew him out of his thoughts. His cousin put a tankard into Frodo's hand and scrambled up to sit beside him on the stump. "What's in the basket?"

"Presents."

"Yes, but what kind of presents?" Pippin snatched out one of the twists of paper and looked pleased with himself, deflating only when he realized that Frodo hadn't tried to prevent the pilferage. He looked at his prize. "It's not heavy enough to be a coin," he said. "And it's not big enough to be much of anything else." He shook the small packet. "Salt?"

"Seeds," Frodo told him, since he'd find out soon enough. "Flowers from Ithilien. The color of the ribbon tells you whether to plant in sun or shade." Frodo wasn't sure that Sam owed anyone in the Shire a birthday present this year, but Sam had insisted on portioning out the stock of seeds once he'd agreed to the party, saying it would save him the work of planting them all himself.

Pippin at least seemed pleased with the prospect of something to unwrap, and he put the packet back into the basket and surveyed the field like the king on his throne, letting his legs swing. "It's a great party, isn't it? Why aren't you out there deputy mayoring?"

Frodo laughed and took a draught of the cool beer, warmed by Pippin's easy banter. "It's Sam's party," he answered in kind. "I thought I'd let him do all the work."

"He's done enough work," Pippin said, softly. Then he glanced at Frodo and put the smile back onto his face, raising his drink. "Still, he looks better than he did. What did you do, hit him over the head with a brick so he'd get some sleep? Or just lock him in a room with Rosie Cotton?" Frodo wasn't sure how to answer that, and it was just as well, because Pippin emerged from his mug with a particularly mischievous grin. "No, it must have been the brick," Pippin answered himself. "He wouldn't have got any sleep with Rosie, would he?"

"Peregrin Took!" Frodo pretended to be appalled, and it wasn't as hard as it might have been. How could he have been so blind, if even Pippin had noticed that Sam was tired. But it was impossible to dwell long on his own shortcomings with Pippin sniggering like that. He gave up and laughed too.

"What are you going to do?" Pippin asked, once they'd recovered. "Build another smial in the New Row for them?"

Frodo shook his head. "No. I've invited them to move into Bag End with me."

Pippin raised an eyebrow. "That's not going to be easy, is it?" In the Great Smials or Brandybuck Hall, where dozens of hobbits lived together, it was normal for the servants to have quarters in the same hole, but in Hobbiton it was more unusual; except for a few elderly gentlehobbits who needed constant care he couldn't think of a single instance.

Frodo shrugged. "Easier on Sam than having to run back and forth all the time. And close enough for him to keep an eye on the Gaffer, without having to put up with the old hobbit's tongue," he added quietly.

Pippin nodded; his own parents didn't understand why he didn't fit at home anymore, and they weren't nearly as deaf and stubborn as Gaffer Gamgee. "I thought Sam wanted a hole of his own, and a bit of garden," he said. "That's what the Lady offered him, isn't it?"

"Yes," Frodo said. "But it's not what he wants now, and until he does, he can stay at Bag End."

"What about the bride? What does she think of the arrangement?"

"Rose Cotton and I understand each other. We should, after I've stayed with her family for the past five months. She wants to see Sam happy as much as I do."

"Well, yes, but what are you going to do if it goes on for years? I mean, they're bound to have children."

Frodo laughed, "Bag End was built for children, Pippin. Why do you think it has so many rooms? Just because old Bungo and Belladonna didn't have any children besides Bilbo doesn't mean they didn't want them." He remembered Bilbo telling him of that long ago sorrow shortly after he'd come to live at Bag End, on a stormy night when the hole had seemed empty and haunted after all those years at the Hall. They'd eaten seedycakes with clotted cream and jam for comfort, and he'd fallen asleep in the parlor chair. Bilbo had covered him with a coat that smelled of pipeweed and peppermint, and itched where the rough twill touched his face. He could still remember the touch of his uncle's hand on his head like a benediction as he drifted into dreaming. "They tried, more than once. But he's the only one who lived long enough to be named."

"You miss him, don't you," Pippin said, not asking.

"Every day." Frodo sighed and then smiled and reached up to ruffle Pippin's hair. "Anyway Bilbo has always liked children. I still remember helping him wrap all those toys he'd got for his eleventyfirst birthday party. He'd chosen something special for every child in Hobbiton and Bywater, even the ones who were afraid of him. And all the twelve-mile cousins. He was forever telling stories and distributing biscuits in the garden on sunny afternoons. You ought to remember that."

"Just a little," Pippin admitted. "I was only ten when Bilbo went away. That's what I remember," he said, nodding at the storyteller before them, who was demonstrating the way that Legolas had drawn his bow against the wargs. "Sam telling stories—all about Bilbo and Elves and Trolls and Dwarves and dragons." He turned his head sideways, and wrinkled his nose. "He didn't give me biscuits, though. Just the thinned out carrots and things. And he made me work for them, too!"

"Did he?" Frodo was delighted. He'd never known that Sam had been able to resist Pippin's blandishments. Not many had, when Pippin was small.

"Well why did you think I got so grubby every time we visited?"

"I thought you just liked dirt," Frodo laughed.

"Well, I did," Pippin winked. "And I loved how Pearl would get angry and then have to try to hide it from her latest beau." The memory of old mischief sparkled in his eye. "But mostly I liked helping. Sam was the only one who ever thought I was big enough."

"Is that why you always wanted to come when your sisters visited?" Frodo had wondered about that for years. He'd been glad enough to let Eglantine Took and her daughters use Bag End as a base for husband hunting when they visited Hobbiton, once Pearl had decided that he wasn't among the hunted, at any rate.

Pippin shrugged. "I just wanted to come," he said as if he'd never considered it before. "I think I kept hoping that something magic would happen, like it did at the party. Like Gandalf's fireworks. I've still got that wind-up pony Bilbo gave me." He finished off his beer in one long swig. "Besides, there was always a chance you'd forget to lock the pantries. They never forgot at home."

"And there I thought you came for my sparkling company," Frodo protested, laughing.

"I was afraid of you! At least until I got a little older and I realized that you were only scowling because Primmie kept matchmaking. But I was never afraid of Sam. I used to take him all my scraped knees." He shrugged at his own serious tone. "Listen to me. I sound like I'm a hundred years old and Sam's at death's door. Just because he's found a girlfriend."

"Nothing wrong with that," Frodo said.

"Then why don't you go find one?" Pippin asked a little too sharply and then flushed under Frodo's gaze. "I'm sorry. Merry sent me up here to make sure that you would join the dancing."

"Pippin, I'm fifty two years old and I'm starting to look it. What makes you think any hobbit lass would want to dance with me?"

"You're rich. And famous. And you don't look old, not really. Well, older than you did, but that's all right. And Merry's going to dance, and he's looking for a wife I bet and pretty soon everyone thing is all going to be different and I wish…" he caught his lower lip between his teeth and stared hard at the ground.

Frodo touched his arm. "You wish it wasn't changing."

Pippin nodded. "It's not the girlfriend part I mind. It's the marrying. Sam's only a little older than Merry after all. It doesn't usually matter, being younger, but it does now, because I can see how much Sam wants to be with Rosie and I can't understand it. I wish we were at Caras Galadhon," he said. "You and me, and Sam and Merry looking after us. The mallorn tree only makes it worse, reminding me. At least you can have Sam with you – Merry's going to have to stay in Buckland once he's found a wife, and I'll have to go home all alone."

"And who says you won't find a wife?" Frodo asked.

"You never did," Pippin studied him, waiting for a reply.

"I had the Ring," Frodo said, surprising himself by being able to speak of it. "I don't think it tolerated rivals."

"Don't blame it on the Ring," Pippin said. "You just wanted to be like Bilbo as much as possible. He didn't have the Ring until he was nearly your age, and he never married. Just never noticed girls."

"Oh, he noticed all right," Frodo laughed. "He just didn't want to get tied down to only one!"

"Bilbo?!" Pippin exclaimed, "really?"

"You ask your Aunt Petunia and see if she blushes," Frodo challenged him. He smiled. "We had some very interesting discussions Bilbo and I when I got to the age where I was noticing girls."

"But if Bilbo was such skirt chaser, why did he ever have you come to live with him? I mean, it must have made things difficult."

Frodo looked away, down toward the road that led up to Bag End. "I asked him that once, and he said that even though he hadn't got older on the outside much, he'd got older inside. After a while the lasses he'd known for years were old themselves and the lasses who weren't all looked like children to him. Besides, he was ninety nine when he took me in. He needed his sleep."

Pippin propped his chin in his hands and his elbows on his knees, watching as Sam's audience oohed and aahed over his description of Gandalf's fireworks and the defeat of the wargs. "Maybe when I'm older," he conceded softly. "Maybe. If I ever find a girl who makes me feel the way Sam looks today."

Frodo looked too, wondering if Pippin could see the glimmers of elflight that danced in Sam's hair. Twelve days had not been enough to ease the marks that the past winter had left on Sam – the lines of sorrow had been drawn too deeply, and his wrists and ankles still showed thin– but there was a strength to his stance and movements now that spoke of the renewed Earth. The Lady's gift had seeped in through his pores and was mending him as it mended the trees. As if he could feel his master's eyes Sam looked up the hill, meeting that gaze with a momentary concern that turned into a shining smile when he saw that Frodo was all right. But his hand reached out and Rosie was there to take it, and Frodo smiled at both of them.

"Find a girl who looks at you the way Rosie looks at Sam," he told Pippin, as Sam began to work his way up the hill towards the basket of presents, stopping now and then to speak to his guests, or crouch to receive the carefully rehearsed birthday greetings of smallhobbits. "Find a girl who sees you, and you'll be all right."

"Do you think that's possible, Frodo?"

Frodo gazed out over the world before him, seeing the trees that lined the Road pushing out new leaves, and the flush of green that was cheerfully obliterating the scars of the year gone by. A burst of carefree laughter from below caught his ear and he smiled to see Merry bowing with exaggerated gallantry to a bevy of bright eyed lasses as they cheerfully jostled each other for the privilege of being escorted up the hill. There was no malice in them, no despair in the well-earned fussing of the elderly hobbits over the manners of the young, no fear on any face he saw before him. The Shire was healing, and its folk were healing too. Frodo took a deep breath of the perfumed air, turning up his head to look at the miracle of the mallorn flowers one more time. He'd not felt this safe and whole since he'd woken in Ithilien. "I think it must be, Pippin," he said, and then smiled at his young cousin, "Some days I think anything is possible."