Sam straightened up with a groan. All morning he'd been tending the Rumbles' garden, bending over to pluck the prickly leaves, and now his back muscles were aching and stiff. Sam stuck his knuckles in his eyes to get rid of the sun's glare. It hadn't helped that he'd been awake half the night either, watching the wheel of stars turn from his bedroom window.

"Sam!" That wasn't the voice Sam had been expecting, but there he was: Frodo, wearing an uncertain smile, matching the rather drab brown coat he wore buttoned up all the way to the neck, despite the warm morning.

"Mr. Frodo," Sam greeted back. He stooped to pick up the bucket of weeds. "I'll be headin' up to Bag End soon, sir, to tend the garden."

Frodo dangled his arms over the Rumbles' white picket fence. "I was hoping you would walk up the Hill with me," he said. "I would like to speak with you."

Sam smelled something bitter and dark, and saw doubt in Frodo's eyes. "Yes, sir," answered Sam quickly. "I'll just put these weeds in the rubbish and tell Mrs. Rumble I've finished." Sam headed to the back of the smial, to the rubbish heap, and tipped the weeds in. Depositing the bucket in the shed, Sam knocked loudly on the back door and entered. He had arrived at the Rumbles' smial early, and, not wanting to disturb the elderly couple, had quietly gone about the weeding without even announcing his presence.

He found them sitting at the kitchen table for elevenses, eating cream and jam scones and drinking hot, fragrant tea. "Mr. Rumble, Mrs. Rumble," Sam said shyly, "I've finished the weeding."

Mr. Rumble looked at him sternly, and Sam paled as he held a spoon up at Sam. "Samwise Gamgee, I a-heard something yesterday I ain't liking. I hears you've been giving Mr. Frodo favours more than you ought."

"Now, Tim!" Mrs. Rumble eased Mr. Rumble's hand down to the table. "There's no need to talk to young Sam like that." She looked at Sam. "I'm not sayin' I agree with what you're doing, but we won't hold it against you. 'Tis none of our business."

"'Tis!" Mr. Rumble interjected. "Sam works here -- it oughta concern us."

"What Mr. Rumble is trying to say," Mrs. Rumble offered Sam a small smile, "is that we care 'bout you -- it's not right to be involved with the gentry. Don't you think Mr. Frodo will throw you away like a piece of stale bread when he's done?"

While this was going on, Sam stood rooted to the floor, feeling heat flush up his neck and to the roots of his curls. "Mr. Frodo's a proper gentlehobbit," he said at last. "And I won't have anybody saying aught else 'bout him."

"All right, Sam, but mind yourself. You may go." Mrs. Rumble pressed a scone into Sam's hand and shooed him outside.

Sam blinked in the sunshine, spotting Frodo waiting at the gate. He hurried down the path.

"You took a long time," Frodo observed as Sam opened the gate. They strode up the road, feet crunching the crushed rocks. Golden sunshine sprayed through the swaying trees' leaves, and soft clouds rode high in the sky. Sam crushed the scone in his hand and let the crumbs trickle onto the road for the birds to eat.

"I had some words with Mr. and Mrs. Rumble," said Sam uncomfortably.

"Oh Sam, they didn't ask you to--?"

"No." Sam kicked at a loose stone. "They said I oughta be careful."

Frodo was silent, wrapped in thought. "Yes, they're right," was all he said.

Soon they were passing the great field beneath Bag End, a tall tree waving at its centre. The folk they'd met on the road gave them puzzled glances, but nowt more, though Sam felt a blush rising to his skin.

"I shouldn't have met you at the Rumbles," murmured Frodo, eyes searching the path ahead. "But I wanted to speak with you as soon as I could."

"Aye, sir," said Sam, and was about to say more when he saw who was loitering about ahead. Under a tree were Porto and Panto, twin brothers, a few years older than Sam, known by the lads of Hobbiton as bullies, loud- mouthed and noisy. With the brothers were some other lads, most likely too scared to leave the gang for fear of walking into Porto's fist or meeting Panto's foot. They had never bothered Sam much before. Sam was a stout lad, a good fighter if he needed to be, and the brothers knew this. Porto and Panto were cowards; they mostly picked on the lads who were slighter and younger than they were, though they'd scuffle with anybody if they felt like it. Sam stuck his hands in his pockets and looked resolutely ahead as he and Frodo walked past the gang.

They had nearly passed when Sam stole a look at Panto. He was grinning widely and elbowing his brother. Sam worried his lip.

"Hoy, Frodo, goin' up to Bag End to get a bit o' pleasure?" called out Panto, laughing.

"Sam! Does he holler when you bugger 'im?" yelled Porto.

"Ignore them," murmured Frodo from the corner of his mouth. "They're not worth the trouble."

"Sam," shouted Porto, "does he make you clean him up afterward as well?"

Sam couldn't take no more. "Shut up, Porto, or I'll grind up your face like flour," he said angrily. He turned to Porto, stood with his feet parted and glared.

"No," chuckled Porto, wiping tears from his eyes, "I'd prefer you to do to me what you do to your master. How much do I have to pay you? A silver penny?"

By this time the whole gang were laughing, although some younger lads looked a little uneasy as Samwise began to walk towards them.

"Sam, no!" Frodo tried to grab his arm, but Sam shook him off and stood a step away from Porto's smirking face.

"I won't have you talkin' 'bout Mr. Frodo that way," Sam said softly, anger spilling into his voice.

Porto blanched, but aware that his friends were watching eagerly, said, "Why's that, Sam? Because he won't give you none o' the sweet stuff?"

Hot fury rode through Sam's limbs, and before he could control himself he and Porto were rolling around on the road, hands scrambling to find purchase on each other's throats. "Sam!" a voice shrieked from the crowd, but it was swamped by the lads' guffaws and shouts. Sam could taste blood in his mouth, but he didn't care. He took a chunk of Porto's hair and pulled as hard as he could. Porto let out a scream, and his fist connected with Sam's eye socket. Sam reeled from the blow, surprised, and the world rippled dizzyingly before him. He saw Porto smirk, brush dust off his breeches and get up, to the applause of his friends. A wrath like none other Sam had felt before thrummed in his head and he rushed at Porto, tackling Porto's ample waist, throwing him to the ground.

"Sam, please!"

Sam ignored the insistent voice, and pressed his nails to Porto's face, leaving red, crescent-shaped scores on Porto's cheeks.

Porto twisted his face and grabbed Sam's hair, wrenching his neck. "You're Frodo's little catamite, aren't you?" he said low and mockingly. "Does he share you with Bilbo as well?"

Sam made a sound like a wild animal hunting for its prey and laid hands on Porto's throat, squeezing hard. Porto's brown eyes bulged, his face visibly purpled, and he made a choking sound. A line of spittle bridged his swollen lips. *Don't ever say that 'bout him... If you do I'll...*

"Sam!" A hand wrapped itself around Sam's wrist and wrenched him back. Sam let out a growl as his grip on Porto was loosened, and the shaking hobbit scrambled away.

"Why did you do that?" Sam was panting heavily. On hands and knees he bent his head, watching droplets of blood spray onto the road.

"Because I love you," a voice said softly.

Sam gasped. "Frodo! I didn't -- didn't know--"

"Let's get you up to Bag End," said Frodo firmly, taking Sam's elbow and helping him to his feet. "You need to be cleaned up." He took a handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to Sam.

Sam pressed it to his brow, feeling it throb beneath his fingertips. Arm in arm Sam and Frodo walked up the Hill. His head began to pulse painfully, and his knuckles stung. From the corner of his eye Sam could see Porto nursing an injured fist, leering at him.

"What did I say?" called out Porto, looking at Sam. "Didn't I tell 'ee?"

Frodo's grip tightened around him, and Sam let the touch of Frodo fan at simmering flames. Blood dripped onto Frodo's shirt as Sam leant against Frodo's shoulder, unshed tears blinding his eyes.

*

"Sam! What on Middle-earth happened?" Bilbo had rushed from his study as he heard Frodo's shout, and came to a startled halt in the hallway. Pippin hurried after him, giving a cry as he saw Sam.

"Me and Porto got into a fight," muttered Sam, straightening his shirt. "I'm all right."

Bilbo shook his head. "Frodo, take Sam to the kitchen and give him a glass of water. I'll go get some cream for his wounds."

"What should I do?" piped up Pippin, looking shy.

"Get some washcloths from the bathroom, please." Bilbo looked harried. "It never rains, it pours," he murmured, and took off, followed by Pippin.

Frodo led Sam to the kitchen, setting him on a chair. Frodo was silent as he poured a glass of cool water for Sam. Sam took the handkerchief from his forehead to drink. "It's not too bad, is it?" he asked hopefully when he had finished.

Frodo's brow creased with concern. "No, if 'not too bad' is a split lip, a bruised cheek, a soon-to-be black eye and scraped knuckles," he said shortly.

"Oh." Sam slumped on his chair.

Presently Bilbo and Pippin came back armed with towels and a bottle of ointment. Bilbo dipped a corner of the towel in water and cleaned Sam's face and dirty knuckles. It seemed his hands had been skinned on the rough surface of the road. The ointment was fragrant and stung a little as Bilbo dabbed it on Sam's wounds, but soon the pain lessened and the blood stopped trickling from his cuts.

"There." Bilbo stood back and scrutinised Sam. "You'll have a black eye by tomorrow, and your lip will be swollen for a few days, but you will heal eventually." He absentmindedly toyed with the bottle of ointment. "Do you want to tell me what it was about? Or shall I guess?"

Neither Frodo nor Sam made a sound. Bilbo sighed. "Pippin, put these things away and read that book I left in my study."

"Uncle..."

"Go!" Bilbo said sharply. Pippin scowled but took the bloodied towel and ointment from the kitchen.

"Now..." Bilbo sat down on a chair across from Sam. Frodo hovered by the bench, looking pale and shaken; Sam frowned as Frodo looked at him with miserable eyes. "I suppose Porto said words to you or Frodo, Sam, and that is why you got into this mess, is that right?"

Sam nodded, now feeling embarrassed. "He said some mean things 'bout Mr. Frodo, and I wasn't goin' to let him get away with it!"

"So you thought you'd hit him?" asked Bilbo quietly.

"Aye." Sam heard the rustle of Frodo's breeches as he moved a little.

"I'm disappointed in you, Samwise," said Bilbo, producing a pipe and pinch of Old Toby from his pocket. He tamped down the weed into the bowl of the pipe and lit it with a match. Smoke threaded from the pipe like a fog; Bilbo blew a smoke ring and looked at Sam solemnly. "Very disappointed."

Sam looked down. "I'm sorry, sir, but I was defending Mr. Frodo."

"And that you should if he's being attacked by goblins or other fierce creatures! But not a silly hobbit who has nothing better to do than pick fights and cause trouble. Have you learnt anything from my tales? Do you not remember my tale about Gollum? I did not harm him because I pitied him: he was utterly wretched, and his misery moved my heart. It would be shameful of me to hurt a creature who had not laid a hand on me, nor threatened to harm me in any way."

"But Porto said..." Sam pleaded, glancing at Frodo. Frodo crossed his arms and stared resolutely at his Uncle.

"It does not matter what Porto said." Bilbo let a ring of smoke part from his lips. "I will not have my gardener getting into fights." Bilbo looked at Frodo first, then Sam. "I'm sure he said nasty things about Frodo -- I know what Porto and Panto are like -- but it is not worth getting cut and bruised over. If the people you care about know the truth, then why does it matter what others think?" Bilbo rose from his chair. "I am going to lie down for a while. If Pippin is hungry, tell him there's a carrot cake in the pantry. Goodbye."

When Bilbo left Frodo pulled up a chair and sat opposite Sam. Sam could see tears glimmering quietly in Frodo's deep blue eyes, and his lips were set in a tight line.

"That was a silly thing you did, Sam," Frodo said at last.

"'Twas," said Sam, "but I love you so much -- I couldn't let them say that 'bout you!"

Frodo rubbed his breeches with his palms, taking several breaths. "But Sam, you almost--" Frodo's voice dropped to a whisper. "Almost killed him." Sam stared at Frodo with horror. "Sam," Frodo whispered, "please tell me you wouldn't--"

"I can't rightly say I would or wouldn't have," said Sam unhappily. "I just felt so hot in my breast, I couldn't think..."

Frodo was looking outside the window, at the pale blue sky threaded with cords of fluffy clouds. Outside on the wavering apple tree landed a robin, its plumage rusty red, trilling noisily.

"He'll never become a da," said Sam softly, "see, he bobs crookedly on his legs. No lass'll mate with him."

Frodo turned to Sam, a lone tear tracking down his cheek. "Sam, promise you will believe me when I say I love you?"

"Now why would I--?"

"Say it!"

"I -- I promise," said Sam reluctantly.

"Good." Frodo took Sam's hand, slowly running his fingers over the curves of Sam's fingers and palm, as if trying to remember every last hair and callus. Their fingers intertwined, starry-white and earthy-brown, different, yet fitting together like a key and lock. "Because, Sam, I don't think we should do this anymore."

"Do what?" Sam ran his thumb over Frodo's forefinger, over the bow of his perfect nail.

"Be together."

"What?" Sam let go of Frodo's hand and stood up. "What do you mean, Frodo?"

Frodo put his face in his hands and wept. "Be lovers! Be intimate! Lie together! Whatever you like, Sam. Don't you see? You nearly killed another hobbit -- no hobbit has ever been killed deliberately in the Shire before! And over me! I would not be able to live if something like that happened."

"But Frodo," Sam put his hands either side of Frodo's face, easing his face upward, and kissed him gently on the lips, "I won't do it ever again, I promise."

"You said yourself -- it was like you couldn't control yourself. No, Sam, I cannot let it be."

"But everybody knows already -- it's too late!" Sam protested, desperately wanting to convince Frodo.

"It will die down, I do not doubt," answered Frodo, "but only if we are not seen together, if we are not together. Don't you see, Sam? They will ask you -- the gaffers at the pubs, your friends -- whether you are bedding your master. And you will not be able to lie. If we are not together, we can dismiss this as a silly childish prank of Pippin's. That is the only way," Frodo concluded flatly.

"Frodo," Sam begged, choking on the tears in his throat, "don't you want to kiss me, to touch me...?"

"Nothing would give me more pleasure than pressing my bare skin against yours," murmured Frodo, standing up and wrapping his arms around Sam. Sam could feel Frodo's heart pounding through his weskit. "But we can only be friends, that is all. I would never forgive myself if you were sent to Tighfield or some other place where your heart does not lie. It was folly of me to think this would ever work out, and for that I am truly sorry, dear Sam. For all the heartache I have caused, I am very sorry."

"But..." Sam growled, and pulled Frodo roughly in for kiss. For a moment it seemed that Frodo gave in, and his mouth parted slightly to let Sam enter, and Sam could taste something sharp. But then a shudder ran through Frodo's shaking body, and he pulled back, horrified.

"We can't do that, Sam!" he gasped. "It causes too much pain." Frodo sank against the table, breathless, his face pale.

"How can you say that...do this?" asked Sam. "For so long we've wanted each other, and now we're parting. Just because of a blockheaded hobbit?"

"It's not just Porto," said Frodo. "It's your Gaffer as well...I know he said that it's all right, but when you come of age, he'll marry you off to some lass. It's much easier if we part now."

"I won't be of age for another twelve years!" Sam bit his lip, tasting the tang of blood. "Is this what you were wanting to talk about before?"

Frodo dipped his eyes to the floor. "Nothing has changed; in fact my worries have been affirmed."

Sam winced, wiping away the blood from his lip. They had never spoken of what would happen if they were found out, but Sam had always thought they'd be together, no matter what anybody else said or thought.

"And you'll be wanting children, little tow-headed children to love and teach," continued Frodo softly, breaking Sam's thoughts. "I have money, Sam, but I cannot give you that gift."

"And I'll love you till I die, whether or no!" cried Sam, tears now running freely down his face, lacing with the bead of blood by the corner of his mouth. "And I'll want you desperately till I die. I'll want to kiss you and stroke you till you shout my name. I'd want to do that to you if I were married or no."

"You'll find a lass, Sam." Frodo's voice was strained. "I know you kissed Rosie Cotton last harvest party. She's a sweet lass. You should go home now and rest. I'm sure your head is throbbing."

"Not nearly as much as my heart, sir!" Sam retorted.

"Please, just leave," Frodo said softly. "Goodbye."

Sam looked uncertainly at Frodo. At any moment he expected a smile to crack over Frodo's face, and to be swept into his arms. But Frodo's eyes were flat, and he turned to the sink, shoulders hunched and trembling. Slowly, as if he had no control over himself, Frodo produced a glass and bottle of wine. It was half empty. Frodo poured the wine with a shaky hand and swirled the glass in his fingers.

"Tell me, Frodo," Sam begged softly. Light sank to the corners of Frodo's eyes and lips, hollow and golden as it sketched down his arm to his hand, clasping the glass with pale fingers.

"I've told it all, Sam." Frodo spoke woodenly. "Do you want me to lie and tell you I don't find you attractive anymore? Do you want me to say I don't love you? Would that be easier?"

Sam could find no answer. It *would* be easier if Frodo said that, for then it would be Frodo's choice and not--

The scarlet wine swished around the glass, coating its sides, dark as old blood. Frodo stoppered the bottle, thumb winding around the mouth to wipe a trace of wine. His thumb rose to his mouth, pushed inside and sucked, before being released, clean.

"I'm doing this for you, Sam. I could have you anytime I want, but I'm letting you go. Take what is yours. Leave me be." Frodo lifted the glass to his nose.

"Don't you remember what you said that night?" whispered Sam.

"No." Frodo put the glass to his lips and drank.

Sam looked away. "Good day, Mr. Frodo." And he left the chilled air of Bag End.

*

Days passed in a gloomy blur; Sam kept himself busy in Bag End's garden, only setting foot inside the smial if Mr. Bilbo or Mr. Frodo needed him to cook breakfast or some other chore as needed doing. Pippin had left after his week's visit, glum-faced at the unhappiness pervading Bag End. Sam's eye did indeed blacken, and his lips and knuckles stung, but Sam didn't mind the hurt: his heart ached harder. Sam had barely spoken to Frodo, and avoided those blue eyes that he once thought he'd look into till old age claimed him. Pain was written all over Frodo's face, as clear as words on parchment, yet whenever Sam opened his mouth to speak or raise a hand in a vain attempt to reach Frodo's heart, Frodo would mumble an excuse and quickly depart.

The nights were the worst. With no job to occupy his hands and mind, Sam was free to recall every tender moment he and Frodo had shared. Sometimes he could still taste Frodo's tang in his mouth, and sometimes Frodo's melodious *oh my dear Sam!* would echo dimly in his mind. Before, when darkness folded around him, Sam would hum softly through his lips, cupping his ache and stroking till he moaned Frodo's name to the pillow; but now his flesh was silent, desire snuffed like a candle in the wind. If being with Frodo was like a warm spring morning, now was like a cold winter night -- sad and lonely and seemingly dawnless.

The days were slowly crawling towards spring, and Sam knew soon the mornings would warm, and soon a dry wind would sweep over the Shire from the east. But despite the flittering butterflies and the scented flowers beginning to bud, Sam walked about heartsick and despondent. Sam could not control this wretchedness, but he kept up hope that his Gaffer's words would ring true one of these days: *Time heals all wounds, Samwise.* But neither his Gaffer nor sisters nor friends could cheer Sam up. They all assumed that Sam was a bit embarrassed for himself and Mr. Frodo, and didn't want no talk or laughter. At *The Green Dragon* Sam's mates were understanding; it hadn't been the first time this kind of thing had happened. They supported Sam's fight with Panto, for upholding your master's dignity was what was expected of a loyal servant. Sam would always slam his empty mug on the table, nod a curse goodbye and walk back up the Hill to Bagshot Row alone, hands stuffed in his pockets and head bent, as if to ward off the fingers of a chilly wind trying to scratch his bones.

One sunny afternoon several days after his fight with Porto, Sam was hauling up a bucket of water from the well behind the shed. The cool water made a splashing noise as it swished against the bucket's wooden surface. Sam was suddenly aware of a quite urgent need to empty his water; when the bucket was safely in his hands, Sam put it in the shade of a bush and trotted off to the privy around the other side of Bag End.

The Bag End privy was a luxury, no doubt about that. Mr. Bilbo had even installed pipes (earning a few grumbles here and there), so it contained a sink. Though Sam, when he was a lad, had once been sure a ghost hunted the privy's walls, he now hurriedly pushed open the door with a flat palm. And came to a complete standstill.

Frodo stopped washing his hands, and turned sharply towards Sam. "I'll be done in a moment," he said, irritated.

"Yessir."

Sam watched Frodo dry his hands on the towel in quick, efficient movements, as if he was trying to hurry, but trying make it look as if he *weren't* trying to hurry either.

Frodo had now finished cleaning himself. He looked past Sam's shoulder. "How is your Gaffer?" he said shortly.

"Good, Mr. Frodo."

Frodo nodded; still he didn't look at Sam. Shifting on his feet, Sam cleared his throat uncomfortably. It had been a while since he'd been this close to Frodo; close enough to smell him, and to bring back sharp memories, as painful as being smote in the gut with a hammer. Sam blinked back tears, and, ah, that smell of pipesmoke and ink was slicing his heart in two; and the way Frodo's collar brushed light against his chin was doing such--

"You're standing between me and the door," said Frodo, crossing his arms.

Sam must have stepped the wrong way, or Frodo did, but he'd never know, because all of a sudden Frodo was squeezing arms around Sam's shoulders, and kissing every part of his face.

"Sam...Sam...I missed you...oh *please!*"

Sam's mouth fitted to Frodo's, and they kissed eagerly, *hungrily,* tongues tasting, teeth clicking, and, oh, Sam had wanted this--

"Take me, Sam. Oh would you--?" Frodo's voice was breathless, and he reached between the buttonholes of Sam's shirt to tickle warm skin.

"Frodo...Frodo..."

"Hush!" Frodo teased out the shirttails from Sam's trousers, skilfully unbuttoning Sam's shirt at the same time. A hot mouth again locked onto Sam's, then fingers were fussing on Sam's trouser buttons; Sam rose to the touch, rubbing himself on Frodo's palm. Sam moaned as a hand wrapped around him, slick and sweet, and he thrust several times, hard, needing oh so bad to-- Gone, that wonderful hand fell away, and Sam near cried out, but fingers enclosed his wrist, guiding down, searching for -- ah there. Sam pressed his hand, feeling the outline of Frodo's arousal through soft cloth. He fumbled for the buttons.

"No!" Frodo gasped. "Just rub...oh quick!"

Sam chafed swiftly, and was rewarded when that hand returned to stroke him. Frodo nuzzled Sam's neck, nipping, sometimes a bit painfully, crushing Sam's rump against the privy door. Wood planks groaned in protest, but Sam paid no heed, catching his fingers in the back of Frodo's breeches as he sought to press fingers into the heat of a furred cleft. Squeezing the flesh of Sam's backside, Frodo ground their arousals together, cloth to skin, and as their mouths mated Sam drank the dark taste of Frodo, all wanton and aching. Sam was burning like a shooting star, kneading so much his fingers hurt, falling to a place where light was chased away, and--

All too soon Sam felt warmth flood Frodo's trousers, and he followed in turn, and they sank, chests heaving, to the privy floor.

It was a few moments before Sam realised Frodo was crying.

"Frodo?" he asked. "Is something wrong?"

"Yes, Sam, something is very wrong." Two tears slid down Frodo's cheeks in a race; the left tear won, plopping onto Frodo's chest, where it trickled from sight behind his shirt. "I can't do this anymore."

A feeling of joy bloomed in Sam's chest. "Do you mean--?"

Frodo stood up, adjusting his breeches and shirt. "No, I don't mean that. I have to go change."

Frodo left Sam staring in amazement, and as soon as the privy door swung shut Sam sobbed openly, for he was a fool.

*

The air was chill as Sam walked up the Hill, steaming in little puffs whenever he breathed out. And though the morning was clear and bright, and birds sang to the rising sun, Sam felt a brooding sadness swell in his heart. He stopped a moment before rounding the final corner to Bag End, in the pretence of checking his pack, just to steady himself. He couldn't avoid Frodo for the rest of his life, so he might as well do his duty proper.

After a minute he turned the corner, and was surprised to see a pony and cart waiting outside the cream front gate. Without thinking Sam ran down the road, his pack bumping painfully into his back. The driver was feeding the pony a lump of sugar, caressing the pony's hazelnut-coloured mane. Sam murmured a hello to the driver, who nodded back respectfully. Sam reached out to stroke the pony's withers and said quietly, "What's a-going on here? Has Mr. Bilbo gotten some visitors?"

"No." The driver fetched another sugar lump from his bundle, letting the pony nuzzle. "I've gotten orders that I've to take one of the masters to Brandy Hall."

"And who would--?"

"Time to go!" Frodo came bustling down the path, followed by a frowning Bilbo.

"Oh, hullo Sam." Frodo let the driver take several rather large packs and haul them into the cart. "I'm going--"

"Begging your pardon," interrupted the driver, "but if we don't get going now, we won't make it to *The Golden Perch* by dark."

"Of course," murmured Frodo. He quickly gave Bilbo a kiss, and put a furred foot on the step, jumping lightly into the cart. "Goodbye Bilbo, goodbye...Sam." With a nimble flick of wrists, the pony started forward, her hoofs clip-clopping on the gravel.

Soon the cart disappeared from sight, but before it was gone Sam shouted a mangled half-cry of *Frodo!* much to his embarrassment. Tears wet Sam's cheeks; he scrubbed them away with his shirt sleeve. Sam felt something heavy on his shoulder, and found himself pressed up against Bilbo. Bilbo, Sam could see, also had tears crowding his eyes.

"He thought it would be best, Sam-lad," said Bilbo, a catch in his voice. "It hurts too much."

"Will he come back?"

"I don't know, it's up to him. I hope so." Bilbo produced a handkerchief from his pocket, holding it out for Sam. Sam hesitated, but Bilbo's smile was gentle, so he took the handkerchief and wiped his eyes.

"Keep it," said Bilbo, with a soft chuckle. "Now why don't we go inside and have a bite of breakfast?"

"No, sir." Sam shook his head sadly. "I've lost my appetite. I might just go tie some o' those vines to the trellis. Been meaning to do it all week."

*

The morning passed slowly, and when lunchtime came Bilbo invited Sam inside to eat. Sam sat, slightly uncomfortable, at the table, nibbling on a corner of buttered bread. Across from him Bilbo slid a knife over his bread, spreading thickly the dark purple shireberry jam. Satisfied, Bilbo took a large bite, licking away the crumbs from the edge of his mouth.

"Frodo thought it would be best, Sam," said Bilbo, swallowing. "I don't know what brought it on... Did something happen, Sam?"

Sam blushed, staring at the tablecloth.

"I see," murmured Bilbo, half to himself, "yes, I think I see. He was terribly upset yesterday afternoon... But Sam--" Bilbo looked square at Sam; Sam squirmed under the gaze of those keen grey eyes. "Frodo loves you, but he has it in his mind you can't be together. I can't say I was unhappy at that revelation, but when I looked into Frodo's eyes, it broke my heart." Bilbo sighed and dropped the slice of bread on his plate, only one mouthful eaten. "I even told him that I'd bring in a new gardener, but he wouldn't hear of it -- he still loves you very much, I think."

Sam nodded, fumbling with his lunch. "If you told me to leave..." he began, but Bilbo cut him off.

"No, Samwise, that won't do. I'm sure if we did that Frodo wouldn't come home. Last night, when Frodo told me of his plans, I tried every way to think of to keep him here, but he wouldn't hear it. More stubborn than a wizard, that boy is." Bilbo pushed his plate aside. "Now I've lost my appetite, and I doubt it will come back till this mess is sorted out. Sam, will you tell me what Frodo said to you?"

Sam took a deep breath and told Bilbo all he could of what happened after he had fought with Porto. Of how Frodo thought the Gaffer would marry Sam off when he came of age, of how Frodo didn't want Sam to regret never having children, of the gossip that would follow them around. And of how Frodo was afraid Sam might hurt Porto again one day.

"But you already hurt -- oh!" Bilbo slumped in his chair, a frown teasing his brow. "Frodo has good points, but surely he would have thought on his feelings before he revealed them. I think we have a very mixed-up young lad on our hands, Sam. It's obvious he still cares for you, but he's got it in his head it's for the best if you aren't together. Why can't he see...?" Bilbo trailed off, deep in thought.

"Begging your pardon, Mr. Bilbo," said Sam, "but there's one more thing I haven't told you. My Gaffer said he didn't mind me and Mr. Frodo, but only if I -- I was his servant like. If we weren't in love, sir. But if he found out otherwise, he said he'd send me away to my brother up o'er to Tighfield."

"You told Frodo this?"

"Aye," said Sam unhappily.

Bilbo took a sip of his tea, looking weary. "I don't know what to think, Sam. I'm used to dealing with high tales of elvish wars and despair, not a hobbit who's confused and in love. We Bagginses seem to be unlucky in love; it took my father five years to catch the eye of my mother, and another five years of courting till she finally agreed to marry him. And then I..." Bilbo paused. "Oh, you don't want to hear me, Sam. Why don't you go home for the afternoon?"

"If it's all the same to you, sir, I'd rather keep my hands busy," replied Sam, rising to take his plate to the sink. His bread was uneaten, but he put it in his pocket. There was no point in wasting good food, but mayhap a bird will like the crumbs. He murmured a goodbye to Bilbo and went to potter around in Bag End's garden.

*

A month passed and a cold winter gave way to spring. It amazed Sam how much quieter -- more solemn -- Bag End was now that Frodo had left. Not that Mr. Bilbo wasn't fine enough company, but often he was in his study reading, or out on one of his business trips to visit the mayor or some other important hobbit, or just traipsing around the Shire for a few days, leaving Sam alone.

This was how Sam found himself now, all alone between Bag End's still walls. Sam opened Bilbo's bedroom window to let the air out, and took the pile of crumpled parchments in the wastepaper basket out to the rubbish dump. Grey clouds claimed the sky, and the air was hushed as if it were taking a deep breath. But Sam paid no heed. When he went back inside the hole he had intended to check the cellar's supply of mushrooms, but instead found that he had wandered into Frodo's bedroom.

Sam started -- ah, but there were memories here! It was painful, remembering, but Sam was assailed with feelings, threatening to overwhelm him. Kisses, as hot as a candle's flame; muted laughter as fingers groped clumsily for buttons; darkness, naught but jumping shadows; a mouth opening over him, a hollow of indescribable sweetness, gentle suction all over--

But then there were those long talks Sam and Frodo had, everything from elves to old Sandyman to the flowers blooming in the garden. And waking to feel an arm tight around Sam's waist, and then opening his eyes and just watching the morning sunshine march across Frodo's pale cheek. Glory, those times were sweet.

Sam sank to the floor, sniffling. *Don't you give up hope, Samwise Gamgee,* he told himself. *You remember where Mr. Bilbo's gone!*

Two days before, Bilbo had decided that he would go up to Brandy Hall to speak with Frodo. In one month Bilbo had received one letter from Frodo, only telling him that Frodo was fine, and that he was teaching his cousin Merry to swim in the Brandywine. Sam noticed the old hobbit seemed to age in that month, not much, as Bilbo didn't seem to get very old for some odd reason, but he grumbled more and slept more and couldn't concentrate on his writings, at least from what Sam could work out as he took piles of scrunched up parchments to the rubbish dump. Sam was about to tentatively suggest that maybe Bilbo ought to go visit Frodo, but before he could speak he found Bilbo packing, and before he knew it Bilbo was trotting down the road on a pony, off to the Eastfarthing.

"I have many things to speak to Frodo about," Bilbo had said, sitting atop his pony. The pony swished her tail and tugged at the reins impatiently. "I am dreadfully anxious about him. And I wish he would come back to Bag End where he belongs!"

"Aye, Mr. Bilbo," Sam said meekly, giving the pony a light pat.

Leaning forward at his waist, Bilbo laid a hand on Sam's shoulder. "It will be all right, lad," he murmured, offering Sam a humble smile. "It will be all right." And with that he clucked the pony forward, pressing a heel to her belly, and before long they had met the curve of the road and vanished.

Sam traced the curve of the carpet with his finger. He knew that enjoying Frodo's company was not the only reason why Bilbo wanted Frodo to come back to Bag End. If Frodo was not settled, did not feel that he was wanted, he might follow Bilbo to the Outside when he left. Sam couldn't bear the thought.

A gentle tapping sounded: rain falling against the window, slipping silently down the window in quickening streaks. In the distance thunder rumbled, low and threatening. A spring thunderstorm was about to soak Hobbiton, drenching the fields and sending hobbit-children inside screaming and laughing.

Sam wouldn't be able to work in the garden today; instead he would just--

*Not think about him!* Sam rose and looked around. He'd find something to do, even if it meant scrubbing the cellar floor with the smallest brush he could find. Or airing out each one of Mr. Bilbo's shirts, coats and breeches in the clothes room.

Sam rubbed the palms of his hands over his trousers and looked out the window. As if he didn't have enough to worry about, what with Frodo and his Gaffer's rumblings and the garden -- if Sam wasn't mistaken, something was up with Mr. Bilbo as well. Something that couldn't be explained away by his missing his younger cousin, surely. During the past two weeks there had been a steady trickle of dwarves passing through Bag End -- sometimes staying the night. And Bilbo took to muttering to himself and fumbling with his pocket when he thought Sam wasn't looking. Then, last week, Bilbo had disappeared for two nights, and when he came back he was carrying odd shaped parcels and a frown to match.

Sam turned from the window. He'd best be going to close Bilbo's bedroom window, and it wouldn't do no harm to hope Mr. Bilbo came back with Frodo in tow as well.

*

There came a time when he began to think that kissing and loving Frodo had only been a daydream, his memories slowly melting away as the weeks passed by.

Sam sucked on his pipe and looked across at his Gaffer, bent on his haunches as he weeded the garden bed. The sun was slipping down a break in the mountains to the west, fanning golden light across the land, and the first of the evening's cool breezes was brushing against Sam's cheek. Cows mooed softly in the fields down near the Water, while a flock of birds flew swiftly over the line of the horizon.

*'Twill be nearing six weeks,* Sam thought as he bent to pull a spiny bitterweed from between two flowering snapdragons. It had been a long, dark six weeks since Frodo had fled to Buckland and to his cousins. Six weeks of worry that he'd never see Frodo again, six weeks of wondering whether he'd ever feel those tight arms around his waist, six weeks of trying to recall the breathless sigh Frodo made when Sam kissed him dizzy. And spending every moment of that time missing Frodo with every bit of his body, with a longing that flushed over Sam's skin in tingling draughts. Sometimes he'd dream of making love to Frodo, but when he awoke he found relief could not be coaxed from his body, no matter how badly he ached.

"Strange, though, ain't it, Sam?" the Gaffer was saying.

Sam squinted and took the pipe from his mouth. "Sir?"

"Mr. Frodo up and leaving like that. 'Twas like when Mr. Bilbo left all them years ago." The Gaffer lifted his cap as he wiped a line of sweat from his brow.

Sam chewed the insides of his cheeks and looked quickly away. They'd spoken of this before, but the Gaffer never seemed to tire of it. "'Tis not like that -- he's only gone to Brandy Hall."

"Hmm." The Gaffer grunted. "You never know."

"Mr. Frodo would never go," Sam murmured, half to himself. "Maybe Mr. Bilbo." Sam drew a long seam in the soil with his toe. Could Mr. Bilbo disappear without even saying goodbye, Sam wondered. Would he be called to the Outside because there were too many troubles to bother him in the Shire? And-- Sam bit his lip. Would Bilbo take Frodo with him -- or would Frodo follow on his own?

"Ah, Mr. Bilbo might at that, Sam!" said the Gaffer thoughtfully, "if that Mr. Gandalf comes a-lurking again. Never did like the look of that wanderin' conjuror, with all them loud fireworks and fancy smoke rings. *'Tis an ill wind as blows in with him,* I always said. But, no, Sam, I wouldn't be saying Mr. Bilbo will be going just yet. He wouldn't be leaving till he's settled all his business at Bag End -- and sold it for a pretty penny. Aye, I remember when he came back from his adventure. I was 'prenticed to Holman, keeping folk from trampling the garden. Went as white as a ghost when he found the Sackville-Bagginses traipsing 'round Bag End. Nay, he'll not let 'em get it a second time!"

Sam bit the stem of his pipe to mask his relief. Of course Mr. Bilbo wouldn't leave Bag End to the Sackville-Bagginses. Surely he'd not leave all his books for the S-B's to most probably toss into the fire. Sam dragged his toes through the grass. But maybe Bilbo would have no choice, or be in a hurry, and not be able to settle his affairs.

*He'd go with him, you know he would.* Sam sighed. With Frodo troubled and uneasy around Sam, he'd not likely pass up the opportunity to leave the Shire. Now that he and Sam weren't-- What had Mr. Bilbo said?

*He is still in love with the Shire. Perhaps if you, Sam, were not here, he might. Frodo loves you more than you shall ever know, more than the cities of Elves and Men and all the wonders of the Outside. He has found his place, and it's in the Shire. With you.*

Sam's head was beginning to hurt. He was still in the Shire, but Frodo wanted nothing to do with him. Wanted to not go anywhere near him, for fear of pain. Sometimes, when Frodo was talking about the elves and things outside the Shire, Sam caught a glimpse of something in Frodo's eyes, fleeing as swiftly as a falling star. Sam didn't know what it meant, but it worried him.

"Sam! Sam!" The Gaffer was trying to attract his attention. "Go tell May to start the supper." He lifted his chin to the woodpile. "And we'd be needing some logs for tonight."

Sam nodded. The Gaffer was piercing him with those dark, watchful eyes. "You troubled, Sam? 'Tis not like I ain't noticed you've been quiet since Mr. Frodo left. I hope you're not thinking--"

"No," Sam said quickly. "He just -- he was teaching me my letters with Mr. Bilbo, and now I reckon I won't learn 'em at all."

"Letters!" The Gaffer snorted. "Cabbages and potatoes are better for me and you. What about them ruffians? Ain't bothering ye?"

"No. I've been avoiding them, like." In the weeks since the fight he'd managed to avoid Panto and Porto for the most part. Sometimes they'd lend him a sneer or a rough word when they met at the *Dragon* or on the road, but Sam pushed his anger to the empty space in his heart and ignored them.

"Good on ye." The Gaffer nodded. "Go on, then! Supper ain't going to cook itself."

"Aye," said Sam softly, and went to find May.

*

The morning's mail contained a letter to Bilbo from a Boffin cousin, a letter addressed to Frodo from Pippin, and a small envelope addressed to Sam. It was marked with Bilbo's sloping hand, thin and wiry, like trails of stretching honey. Sam stared at it for a long time, swallowing hard, then left the letter on the kitchen bench while he went to hoe the garden. As he shovelled the soil, all of Sam's thoughts chased and nipped at the envelope lying inside Bag End. The sun burned the back of Sam's neck like a brand. After Sam had stubbed his toe with the shovel for the third time, he gave up and walked slowly inside. His hands shook as he slit open the envelope and unfolded the letter.

*

Sam took a sip of ale and looked across the inn. Laughter spilled from a corner where raucous hobbits huddled, and Bob the bartender was quickening his steps as he crossed the room, balancing a flagon and a wheel of cheese precariously on a tray. A sudden crash in the kitchen, followed by a shriek, meant one of the serving maids had dropped her tray. Sam swirled the dregs of his ale. Though the innkeeper was a fair hobbit, Sam knew the maid would have to pay for the damage.

Beside him Tom Cotton moved. "Had a hard day, Sam?"

Sam swallowed the remaining drops of his ale. "Not really," he admitted. "Since Mr. Bilbo's gone I've been working in the garden. Mostly I've been turning over the soil so's the cabbages and taters and carrots can be planted soon."

"How long's Mr. Bilbo been gone, Sam?" Tom asked, picking up a stick of cheese from the plate in front of him. "Do you know when he's coming back?"

"Three weeks now, Tom," murmured Sam to his glass. "And Mr. Bilbo sent me a letter yesterday tellin' he'd be back on Mersday."

"Two days," said Tom, taking a drink, wiping foam from his mouth with his sleeve. "Do you think he'll be bringing Mr. Frodo back with 'im?"

Sam shrugged. "I don't rightly know." He curled his fingers around his empty glass. "'Twould be up to him, though I reckon he ought to be here where he belongs."

Tom sent Sam a glance, sharp as a sliver of ice. "Would 'ee like that, Sam? Do you--?"

Sometimes a cold wind would dart in and swirl about the floor as the door opened and chatting hobbits piled inside, calling for a warm beer. Now a breeze brushed Sam's legs, making him look up and then nudge Tom sharply.

"We should go," said Tom, quiet-like. "Before they see--"

"Look who's here!" Porto, followed by Panto, swaggered up to Sam and Tom's table. Sam felt his muscles tighten.

"Leave us be," said Tom, putting a hand on Sam's arm where neither Porto nor Panto could see. "We just want a quiet ale after a day's work."

"And so do we," said Panto. "Mind if we sit down?"

Sam licked his lips with a dry tongue. "I don't--" he began, but Tom interrupted.

"Sam! Weren't we meant to meet Jolly at the stables tonight? To saddle his pony?" Tom gave Sam a meaningful stare.

"Aye." Sam caught on fast. "He'd be right angry if we're not there double quick."

Porto glowered, but allowed Tom and Sam to rise. Tom tipped his cap to the brothers. "Good evening to ye," he murmured and pressed a steady hand on Sam's back.

Sam stepped around Panto's bulk. "Next time," whispered a hot breath in his ear. Sam's jaw clenched, but Tom hooked an arm through his and led him out.

The night air blew chill on Sam's face. Stars crowded the night sky, and the moon's light limned the trees in soft, milky light. Tom pulled Sam to a ditch skirting the road; Sam allowed himself to be taken there reluctantly. His heart was clinched with anger, and he glanced longingly at the inn's door, wanting to go inside and dash the smirk off Panto's ugly face. Blood pumped hot through his veins.

Tom touched Sam's shoulder. "Don't worry about them. I know Mr. Frodo's a gentlehobbit, and Mr. Bilbo too. My da told everybody that Mr. Frodo would never pay for that, nor would Mr. Bilbo. He says Panto and Porto would do anything for a scuffle."

Sam combed a stalk of grass with his toes. "Aye, you're right there, Tom." He offered no more.

Tom shot a wary glance at the inn's shadow. "We ought to go now. We don't want Porto or his brother stepping out to catch us."

Sam hummed softly in agreement and walked with Tom for a bit. Soon they came to a fork in the road, and Tom parted with a wave and a puzzled smile. Sam watched Tom's shape melt into the darkness, then picked up his thoughts and hurried up to Number Three. He could think of nothing better than to be wrapped up in warm blankets and be in a dreamless sleep.

*

The darkness weighed heavily on Sam's shoulders as he walked down the Hill. Soft moonlight fell onto the path ahead of him, giving him a bit of light to see by. Sycamore trees guided the road on its journey down to Hobbiton; sometimes birch trees squeezed their way through, like interlopers trying to gain a space. Sam'd been up at Bag End for most of the day, doing the odd job of cleaning and preparing for Mr. Bilbo's return, or just sitting quietly in Frodo's room.

Bilbo hadn't arrived for supper, so Sam had shut Bag End's curtains and lit a lamp in the hall in case Bilbo arrived sometime in the night. He'd had a mind to go to *The Green Dragon* for an ale or two, for he didn't think he'd get a wink of sleep that night. Wondering how many bodies would be in Bag End when he arrived in the morning would occupy his thoughts, as like as not.

A crack of a branch alerted Sam to a presence ahead, and from the darkness appeared Panto and Porto, probably cutting through the field from *The Green Dragon* to their smial.

Porto spotted Sam. "Hey look here! It's Sam Gamgee." He gave Panto a sharp elbow to the ribs.

A smile darted over Panto's lips. "Hoy, Sam! How ye doin'?"

Sam stuck his hands into his pockets, trying to smother the feelings that bit at his skin. "'Twill be fine once I'm somewhere warm," he said, soft and quick as a rabbit fleeing from its prey.

"Goin' to *Dragon* are ye? We thought you might," said Panto, his bulk all but blocking the way ahead of Sam.

Sam quickened his pace, edging towards the sycamore trees, so that he might avoid Panto's ugly stare. But Panto stumbled to path's fringe, his eyes heavy-slitted and mouth curling. A sudden gust came up, catching Sam's coat and whipping it on his cheek. With nimble fingers Sam smoothed it down, raising a hand to his face where it felt like he'd been slapped.

"Aye, but that's none o' your business," said Sam in a clipped tone, sharing with Panto a surly gaze.

"Now, Sam," Porto swaggered over, and the two lads loomed heavy before Sam, like an old oak's gnarled roots, waiting to trip an unwary traveller, "there's no need to get angry."

"I'd like to be nursing an ale by the fire," said Sam, searching for a space to escape. "And my stomach's grumbling for a hot soup."

"Oh?" Porto's grey eyes searched Sam's face. "You're missing your master already?"

No answer would suffice, so Sam stood in silent defiance, folding his arms at his breast, tapping the road softly with his foot.

Panto laughed. "I'm guessing you miss that warm bed of his -- and more?"

"That's not your worry," murmured Sam, and was now desperate to escape. The two brothers formed a triangle with him; Sam couldn't move forward without bumping into them and he couldn't move back neither, else they might grab his arms at the sudden rush and that most likely would lead to a fight.

Panto laughed again, leaning close to Sam. With the pipeweed on Panto's breath also mingled bitter ale, tangy and full, lingering in the night air. "More," grinned Panto, "like you miss your master's body pressing on you. Does he like to be on top or beneath?"

"Shut your mouth, Panto Haystock, or I'll--"

"Run to your master?" finished Panto in a challenging tone.

"No," said Sam, confused, "he's gone to visit the Brandybucks."

"Is he now?" Panto's thick tongue ran across his lips, leaving a moist trail. "Well, there's a body as looks close to your master's at the *Dragon* now, taking his supper."

"F-Frodo's back?" Sam stuttered, searching Panto's face for a lie.

Panto wagged a finger. "That's *Mister* Frodo to you, Samwise. Maybe you ought to toddle back to Bag End after we're done here and wait for your master. I'm sure he'll be hungry for it -- 'less he paid some serving boy at Buckland to tup him every night."

Peals of laughter sang to the silent sycamore trees; Sam blushed, not from shame but rage, hot and unfiltered as it steamed through his blood. "Don't you say that," he said in measured tones. "Mr. Frodo's always been a proper gentlehobbit, and if you--" Sam stopped, biting the words from his tongue. Stars glittered past the trees' leaves, like the sun slanting on morning dew, bright and alive with knowledge. And Sam knew -- he had learnt -- that fighting, bandying words, would do no good. So he looked slowly from one brother to the other, piercing them with an unflinching gaze, and if Panto's smile stammered for a moment, or Porto's eyes faltered, then maybe Sam had done his part.

"I'm not going to fight you," said Sam quietly. "I've learnt nothing good'll come from it, so why don't you two go on home to where your ma's waitin'?"

A low grumble rippled up Porto's throat, and he looked at Panto. "C'mon," he said gruffly. "Let's not waste time on *him.*" Porto put in as much loathing into the word as Sam had ever heard. "Let's go home. Didn't ma say she was making custard tonight?"

Panto watched Sam's face, bending his thought this way and that. "All right," he said finally, "we shouldn't be wasting our valuable time with naught but a common servant."

Hooking their elbows together, the brothers crossed the road, slipping into the trees as they hummed a song beneath their breaths. Sam released a pent- up sigh; it misted a bit in the frigid air before gently diffusing into insubstantial pieces, vanishing between heartbeats. A shiver stole down Sam's body, and he wrapped him arms around himself, pushing his nose into his collar. The pockets of the trees were full of twisting shadows, diving and shifting across the boughs. Tears brimmed in Sam's eyes, and when he looked up at the stars they were splintered and cracked like a smashed mirror.

"Sam?"

Sam whipped around, half expecting Porto or Panto, but leaning against the bark of a sycamore tree was a shadow of pale and dark that he thought he'd never see again.

"Frodo!" Sam crossed the road in two breaths, stumbling to a stop a step before his master. "You ought not to be out here on such a cold night," he said, instantly regretful and worried.

"I have a coat." Frodo tipped his chin at Sam. "Like yourself."

Sam wiped his eyes with the edge of his coat sleeve. Moonlight traced the contours of Frodo's face: the slight cleft of his chin, the flaring of his nostrils as he breathed, the arches of his eyebrows as he gazed steady at Sam. The coat Frodo wore was dusted in bits of leaves and his hair was mussed from being caught by wind and branch.

"You should be goin' home," Sam said at last. "I was just headin'--"

"I followed Porto and Panto from *The Green Dragon,*" Frodo interrupted. "I wanted to speak with them about you. I didn't want them to hurt you anymore. But then I heard voices and I..." Frodo trailed off.

Fingers brushed lightly on Sam's arm, hesitant. "I wish to speak with you." Light fingers lifted Sam's chin, forcing him to look deep into troubled blue eyes, swirling with a storm of concern. "I've been a fool, Sam. How can you ever forgive me?"

Sam took a pace back, swallowing around the heavy lump trapped in his throat.

Frodo sighed wearily, placing his hand by his side. "Maybe you can't," he said, "maybe never. Will you do me the favour of listening?"

Sam trusted his voice to speak. "Aye," he murmured thickly.

"Bilbo and I arrived back only an hour ago. We stopped at *The Green Dragon* for supper first," Frodo began, alternately looking at the grey loam below and the speckled canopy above. "At Brandy Hall he told me he was planning to leave the Shire soon." Frodo's gaze hung about Sam's eyes. "He told me you knew of this."

"Yes, Mr. Bilbo told me," said Sam, scuffing his foot on the ground. "But he told me not to tell you... He didn't want to make you unhappy."

"I understand." Frodo's smile was gentle, but tinged with sadness. "I am sorry for leaving you, Sam. I just couldn't--"

"I understand misself, sir," Sam interrupted. "I will stop gardening at Bag End, if that's your wish, Mr. Frodo. The Goodbodies are--"

"No." Sure fingers smoothed Sam's shoulders; Frodo's breath warmed Sam's lips. "I wish for us to be together again, Sam. If you want to."

Sam looked deeply at Frodo's face, open and willing, but fraught with a thin film of anxiety. "What about...Porto?"

Frodo's thumb wiped away the tear spilling down Sam's cheek. "I saw your conversation with Porto and Panto before," whispered Frodo. "I trust you will take the right action now."

"But I'm not of age... What if my Gaffer wants to marry me off? What about my children?"

Frodo's thumb slipped across Sam's cheek, hovering about the corner of his mouth. "We have twelve years, Sam. Even if you are to wed one day, we will treasure the days we are together. And, when the time comes, it's not my choice to make. I took your choice away, Sam, and I shouldn't have. If you wish to take a wife and have children, you may, and if you don't want to, you don't have to. But, in the time between...I don't want to regret not being able to love you." A leaf flittered from a tree above, landing on Sam's head. Frodo picked it off with his other hand, turning it in his fingers for a trice before tossing it into the shadows. "When Bilbo told me he will be leaving soon, Sam, I -- I couldn't... I offered to go with him, but he wouldn't let me. He doesn't think I really want to, yet. And I don't, because..." Frodo paused. "Oh, Sam! I ached for you every day at Brandy Hall. So many times I wrote you a letter, telling you how much I needed you, how each day felt empty and bitter without your smile and touch, only to toss it into the bin."

Frodo faltered. "I thought I could manage without you," he said quietly. "I'm not as weak as some of my cousins would think, but you make everything- -" Frodo stretched his hands out. "*Right.* I came back because I wondered if you would still...want me. Will you, Sam? Will you forgive me? Will you love me?"

Sam pulled Frodo into the shadows, and his promise was gently sealed when his lips closed over Frodo's, stemming the gasp that rose in Frodo's throat. A rush of longing dispersed over Sam's skin, pricking deep into every crevice, till he was warmed by thought alone, the sure knowledge he would be able to love Frodo again.

"Maybe," said Sam huskily as he dabbed kisses over Frodo's mouth, "maybe--"

"Forever," finished Frodo, opening his mouth to Sam's.

Frodo's hands fell to Sam's hips, pulling him close; the heat flowed through Frodo as well, urgent on Sam's thigh. Their tongues tangled for a space, seeking for surety, asking for reassurance. A hand splayed at the back of Sam's head drew him in deeper, while a thumb circled lazily the small of Sam's back. And when Frodo hooked his leg over Sam's thigh, grinding their swelling arousals together, Sam knew he was coming undone, piecemeal.

Frodo broke the kiss, cupping Sam's cheeks. "I was a fool, Sam. I am sorry I hurt you so much."

"You was hurtin' too," said Sam, smiling past his tears. "And I reckon we're better 'cause of it."

"Yes." Frodo's brows knitted together. "You're right, Sam. We'll need to be strong, for it won't be easy. The rumours..."

"They've died down," said Sam, kissing away Frodo's tears. "And I think Porto and Panto won't be botherin' us anymore."

"You're a marvel, Sam-dear," laughed Frodo. "Surely it was impossible to think I could stop loving you."

"And I couldn't stop loving you, me dear," said Sam. "Not even when my Gaffer..."

Frodo's hand paused in its gentle stroking of Sam's arm. "Sam?"

"My Gaffer thinks I only...touch you because I'm your servant. He said he'd send me away if we..." Sam buried his face in the hollow of Frodo's neck, filled with the scent of pipeweed and woodsmoke and *Frodo.* "Do you think we could--?"

"Yes," Frodo breathed out, mouth threading over Sam's hair. "You could pretend to just take care of me, if that's what it will take."

Sam raised his head; the stars spun about Frodo's head like a jewelled crown, but there were stars in Frodo's eyes, and they drew Sam in, forever and ever. A smile tugged at the corner of Frodo's mouth, and Sam joined him, laughing softly in the darkness as the moon crept steadily to crest the trees. Sam took Frodo's hand, rubbing the pliant skin between his fingers, flushing as Frodo's gaze seemed to strike right to his bones.

"Would you like to come to Bag End for a while?" asked Frodo. "Bilbo will be at *The Green Dragon* for a while yet, and I shall be alone in the dark hole." The unspoken invitation pulsed between them, as if a sudden hot wind had traced through the trees from the Hill.

Sam nodded, and relief flew over Frodo's face. Frodo made to take Sam's hand, but Sam drew back. "Yes," Frodo inclined his head and his voice fell a mite, "it's not allowed."

They walked up the Hill, sometimes touching fingers for no more than a moment, knowing that a little patience was all as was needed. Frodo pushed open the gate, leading Sam down the stone path, and at last they were standing on Bag End's doorstep, gazing at the view spreading around them.

Frodo laid his head on Sam's shoulder, silent as violet clouds crept across the moon and crickets hummed to the night air. The lights of inns and smials blinked below, warm and friendly, brimming with wives steeping tea on the hearths, fathers laying their children to bed and old gaffers supping on thick brew between tales of gossip and goings-on.

Frodo's breath was steady by Sam's ear, at peace for a time, and an arm wound around Sam's waist, hooking fingers into Sam's trousers.

Maybe Sam would feel the need for a brood of children blossom within his breast one day, and maybe he'd settle down with a pretty lass in a comfortable smial, telling stories to his family around the fire each night. *Oh, but I have him today,* thought Sam, closing his eyes to the world below, knowing it would always be there, sure in the thought he'd never regret his choice.

Frodo stirred, stroking at the gap of skin on Sam's belly.

Sam didn't know what would happen tomorrow, or the next day, or the next. But he knew, whatever happened, that he and Frodo would--

"Yes," breathed Frodo. "I think so"

Warm fingers twined through Sam's, and Frodo tugged his hand, and they walked towards the golden light of Bag End.

~ end ~