What Needs Looking After

(Fourth in the BFS series)

Westel

"I can look after Master Frodo good as any, Dad!" exclaimed the 16 year old hobbit-lad, a hint of stubbornness hiding just behind the guileless brown eyes. "Ain't I worked with you these past seven years, learnin' how to take good care of the smial and grounds at Bag End and all?"

"Aye, you have," said the boy's Gaffer, stroking his chin. He glanced up at Bilbo, who lingered in the doorway, puffing quietly at his carved wooden pipe. Standing beside the Master of Bag End stood another, younger hobbit—perhaps a hands-breadth taller than his cousin—who smiled enigmatically at the scene playing out in the front yard.

"Why don't you take the lad with you, Mr. Gamgee?" the dark-haired youth asked, exchanging looks with Bilbo. "I'm afraid I won't be much company for Sam. I've this new book to read, you see." The youth, Frodo by name, had grown up among the Brandybucks after his parents had died, and therefore had never taken for granted his privacy here at Bag End. The fact that his Uncle Bilbo was going to the Tuckborough Fair for a week didn't bother him at all. The thought of going along, however, with the Gamgees and other assorted hobbits, did. As much as he loved Bilbo, Frodo Baggins loved his privacy almost as much.

"Na, na, it wouldn't do for a young gentle-hobbit like yourself bein' alone, beggin' your pardon, Mr. Frodo," Hamfast countered. "You just gettin' over being ill. Someone has to stay and that's flat. I think you'll be agreein' with me, Mr. Bilbo?" Gaffer Gamgee stood with his hands on his hips, his eyes flashing, waiting for the master of Bag End to concur.

Bilbo saw wisdom in the gardener's sun-weathered features. He placed a hand on his nephew's shoulder and nodded. "He's right, my boy. Won't be any good for you to go off in the woods reading that book and come home in the rain to a cold, damp smial. You don't have all your strength back yet, and I won't be able to enjoy myself if I'm worrying about you," he finished, seeing the protest forming on Frodo's lips.

Frodo considered, looked at young Samwise digging his toe in the compost around the peonies. Sam was a good lad—hard-working, even fair company. Frodo treated the boy with the same deferential respect and kindness Bilbo showed to all their neighbors, and especially those who, for cultural reasons of the times, were not deemed to be "gentle" hobbits. Bilbo held disdain for such antics, as did his nephew. Perhaps that was why some people thought them both strange.

Besides, liking Sam wasn't in the least a duty for Frodo. He genuinely admired the youngster, having known him since he was just a little fellow. Sam was of good stock, and despite their age difference, they had become friends almost immediately. In those early days, Sam was small enough for Frodo to tote around on his back. Now at 16 Sam's arms and shoulders had already developed the muscles needed to effectively carry on his work. If he wanted, he could easily give Bilbo's heir a ride without breaking a sweat.

Frodo smiled at the mental picture of himself riding pick-a-back at the nearly respectable age of 28. Sam saw the smile, misunderstood it. "I won't be in the way, Mr. Frodo," he promised, putting his hands behind his back as if reciting a verse. "I'll come every morning, tend to the house and garden, and do any errands as needed."

Frodo felt his uncle's hand tighten a bit on his shoulder. He reached up and grasped the sturdy fingers briefly before speaking to the gardener's son. "You're never in the way, Sam," he said, smiling gently at the boy. "And I'll be glad for your company," he added without thinking. So much for privacy, he realized, too late.

Young Gamgee grinned widely, blushing a bit. Frodo's smile broadened too, finding Sam's pleasure catching.

"Well, then," proclaimed Bilbo, tamping his pipe and beaming over the small group standing outside the round, green door of his home. I'd best be about getting ready; we'll want an early start tomorrow, eh,

Mr. Gamgee?"

"Aye, that we will. We've been lookin' forward to this for weeks; won't do to start late."

"No, indeed," Bilbo agreed, and waved the Gamgees goodbye. His eye fell on his adopted nephew who, hands in pockets, watched the gardeners go down the lane. A hint of worry drifted across the older hobbit's brow; Frodo was too thin yet, despite his attempts to fatten him up. Gone was the under-nourished look so prevalent during the boy's last years at Buckland, but the lad's recent illness had robbed him of a few precious pounds, and it showed. Bilbo drew a deep breath, pressing his lips together. No matter, he reminded himself. Frodo's doing very well here.

And it was true. Frodo had come into his own under his uncle's tutelage and loving care. Their personalities intertwined and their interests flourished and grew as they came to know each other in a way opportunity had never provided when Frodo was an orphan-child in a warren of hobbit-folk. For his part, Bilbo had never regretted the day he took Drogo's only child into his home (indeed looking back, he wished he had brought the lad to Bag End even earlier). In the short years that followed, Frodo never ceased to show a deep affection and respect for his elder cousin. The old bachelor honestly didn't know how he got along before he took on the responsibility of raising the tweenager, and during Frodo's recent illness Bilbo's heart quailed at the thought of something happening to his young charge.

He drew another deep breath, catching the scent of herbs growing among the flagstones leading to the steps of his home. Frodo was better now and gaining ground rapidly. His appetite had returned along with the sparkle in his blue eyes, and his laughter could be heard among the hills again. Bilbo was content.

--

Sam was up early the next morning, rising before anyone else. He hurried through his chores so his gaffer could see he was more than capable of getting the work done at home, despite the extra burden of solely caring for things at Bag End. Hamfast was by nature a just hobbit, and a kind one, but over the last few years he had become exacting and quick-tempered, a development that often caused a fair amount of stress for the young hobbit. Sam had two grown brothers who no longer lived at home, and had assumed more and more of the burden of providing for the family. Though only 70, Gaffer Gamgee, a widower, was growing old in the precipitous rush that often accompanies a life tempered with hard manual labor. While such labor strengthened and hardened some physiques, it whittled and weakened others. That was the case for Ham, who was losing his hearing and suffered not a little in the joints of his hands and knees. Though he loved his boy, the physical and mental suffering caused by these afflictions often manifested itself through a sharp tongue and a heavy arm. Consequently, Sam strived constantly to satisfy his increasingly difficult-to-please dad.

Today was going well so far, however. Bilbo had arrived early at the gate, saving the Gaffer a detour to Bag End, and greeted young Samwise as he came out of a nearby shed.

"Good morning, lad! Up and about early, eh?" he called, leaning on the gate.

"Oh, aye, Mr. Bilbo," Sam replied. "Just wantin' to get things squared away like, 'fore I go over to Bag End. I've a few taters to scrabble yet and want to get an early start," the youngster answered happily. He'd been waiting for an opportunity like this, to show his Gaffer he could take care of himself, their home, and his other responsibilities Under Hill. When his dad saw what a good job he had made of things during the next six days, he would surely be more willing to entrust Sam with the kind of unsupervised responsibility that—'til now—he had been reluctant to allow. Sam would make sure Mr. Frodo's household needs would be taken care of, as well. Though his father never did domestic work for the bachelors, Sam knew that Bilbo's younger charge would still need a bit of looking after.

He walked up to the gate, taking in Bilbo's rather travel-worn cloak and hood. Sam often envied the Baggins' long walks and was glad, whenever time allowed him, to go with Mr. Frodo on one of the less-traveled trails around Hobbiton. He wondered if Frodo would feel up to a short walk while Mr. Bilbo was away.

"Is Mr. Frodo up yet, Sir? Will he be wantin' his breakfast?" he asked, opening the gate for the older hobbit to pass through.

"Oh, no, he arose to see me off—insisted on it, in fact! Made us breakfast, too." Bilbo looked hard at the young Gamgee, recognizing the eagerness in the young hobbit's features. "I made him promise he'd go back to bed for a little while after I'd left, so he won't need his second breakfast. You can fix him elevenses if you like."

"That I will," promised Sam. "And don't you worry, Mr. Bilbo, I'll take care of everything while you're away."

"Well, just see that you don't overdo it, lad. You're only one person, you know," Bilbo admonished, winking at the boy. He leaned over and spoke very low. "You do yourself and your old dad proud."

Sam blushed to his knees and jammed his hands into his pockets, speechless with pleasure. Bilbo only grinned and patted the tongue-tied youth on his back. He turned as the front door opened and Hamfast emerged from his hole with May and Marigold in tow. The girls waved a greeting, chattering so fast to each other they sounded like two birds chirping. "A beautiful morning, Mr. Gamgee! Are we ready to go?"

"Aye, that we are, the Gaffer replied. "Got everything?" he asked, and having received vigorous nods from the girls, Hamfast adjusted the pack on his back and motioned Bilbo to precede him through the gate. He turned and fastened his eyes on his youngest son. "Have an eye for Master Frodo, Sam. You mind what you do, now—and how you do it," he warned.

"I will, Father," Sam answered, using his dad's formal title for emphasis. "Have a good time, and don't worry about a thing!"

"Don't give me reason to," was elder Gamgee's answer, an unintentional dart that pierced his son's heart. Bilbo saw it, and winced at the boy's pain. He hung back a moment and placed his hand on the boy's shoulder.

"You'll do fine. Just remember what I said. Pacing's the key, lad. Just don't put anything on yourself you don't need to."

"Thank you, Mr. Bilbo. I'll remember," Sam promised. But his brown eyes were on his father as they walked away, and they were thoughtful, and just a little sad.

--

Frodo woke to the sound of crockery and utensils rattling in the kitchen. He opened one eye, not particularly in a hurry to get up, and stretched himself full along the sofa, knocking the woolen throw to the floor with a furry foot.

"That you, Sam?" he called, sitting up and flexing his shoulders.

"Yes, Sir, Mr. Frodo!" came a cheerful answer. "Hope you're hungry," Sam finished, peeking around the corner.

Frodo placed a hand on his stomach. "I think I am," he replied with cheek, and followed Sam back into the kitchen.

Suppressing a grin, Frodo turned away from young Gamgee, clad in a too-large apron, to look at the spread laid upon the plank table. A loaf of bread, sharp cheese, cured ham sliced thick as a finger, and a bowl of apples awaited them, topped off with a pitcher of cold cider from the cellar.

"Now I know I'm hungry!" Frodo proclaimed, and hurried to wash up. When he came back a few minutes later, Sam was busy sweeping bread crumbs from the floor.

"Aren't you eating?" Frodo asked him, plopping himself down at the table and helping himself to the cheese.

Sam hesitated. 'Don't take liberties, now!' his Gaffer had warned him the night before. 'It's true Mr. Bilbo teaches you your letters and lets you read from his books, but it won't do for you to forget your proper place,' Hamfast had reminded him. Sam was determined not to irritate his dad. He was assistant gardener for the Baggins household and would remember it!

"I'll eat after I finish up here, Mr. Frodo," he answered, looking a little abashed.

"That'll wait, Sam. Come and keep me company - I don't want to eat alone," Frodo coaxed. Torn between 'keeping his place' and pleasing his master, Sam finally acquiesced.

Young Gamgee ate quickly, his mind's list of things to accomplish that day aggravating him like an itch. Though Frodo attempted several times to pull him into conversation, Sam answered with polite monosyllables and soon rose from the table, grabbing for the broom.

"Oh, no, I'll do that, Sam my lad! I can see you're anxious to get to work outside," offered Frodo, taking the broom from the boy. He clapped his hand on young Gamgee's back and was startled to find the shirt damp.

"Your shirt's wet! What'd you do, take a dip in the water barrel?" Frodo jested, wiping his hand on his breeches.

"Just got a bit warm this morning while I worked outside, Mr. Frodo. It'll dry soon enough."

"You really should change out of that shirt, Sam," Frodo insisted.

"A damp shirt's nothing," Sam answered cheekily, his mouth pulling into a knowing, lopsided grin that belied his young age, as though to say, 'I haven't seen you working hard enough to warrant a sweat-soaked shirt, Master!'

Frodo looked embarrassed and Sam immediately regretted his response.

"Beggin' your pardon, Mr. Frodo, but I shouldn't ought to have spoke to you like that! It's not my place..."

"Not your… What do you mean?" Frodo asked, his tone sharp.

Mistaking Frodo's sudden curtness, young Gamgee hurried to the door. "Nothing. It's nothing, Sir. I'd best be getting on with my work. If you'll be excusin' me now, Mr. Frodo." The door slammed. The door opened again, and Sam stuck his head in. "Thanks for cleaning up the kitchen!" he blurted, then slammed the door once more.

Frodo shook his head and smiled, half in amusement at Sam's behaviour and half at himself for feeling Sam's rebuke too strongly. 'Sam's right,' he mused as he put away the food and swept up the floor. 'I don't do much for myself around here.' Bilbo had coddled him, overprotected him, since he removed him from Buckland and adopted him as his heir. While Frodo understood and appreciated Bilbo's good-hearted motives, he realized he hadn't done much to try to change the way things were, either. The younger Baggins had rather enjoyed rising when he wished, eating when he wished, and doing anything else he liked to—when he wished. How often had he come home from a walk to find his bed made, a stew simmering in the pot, and his shirts washed and folded? Who did he think did all those things?

Bilbo, of course, helped out occasionally by Sam. Frodo's cheeks grew red with shame. 'What a lazy oaf you've become, Frodo Baggins!' he reproached himself. 'It took Sam's honest nature for you to finally see it.' Well, no more. Frodo took a good look around the kitchen. Though fairly tidy, it needed sorting out. Being the center of the smial, everything was left there: books, documents, candlesticks—things very un-kitchen-like. Looking closer, he saw a fine layer of dust on the topmost shelves and cupboards, and the fireplace needed a proper sweeping. No doubt the rest of the house needed seeing to, as well. The

tweenager stood silently, considering. Then, with a rush of energy, he pulled on Sam's discarded apron and went out to fill Bilbo's largest cooking pot - he would need a lot of hot water today and the morning wasn't getting any younger.

--

Sam leaned back on his heels, looking along the finished row with satisfaction. The last of the potatoes had been pulled and placed in a large basket, the dying bushes piled in the wheelbarrow, ready to be hauled to the compost bin. A brisk wind tossed his damp curls and cooled his hot skin, but as he turned to face the breeze he saw black clouds across the horizon, fast moving toward him. He scrambled to his feet and hurried to store the potatoes under the eaves at the side door.

The wind was picking up now and thunder rolled in the distance. Single drops of water fell here and there around him. Hurrying, he rolled the barrow to the compost and forked the potato greens on top; he'd have to wait to turn over the compost tomorrow, he realized, meaning an earlier start than he'd reckoned originally. Nothing to be done about that—he still had the last row to smooth or the rain would transform the upturned dirt into rough, hard clods later. He ran full-tilt to the garden shed and fetched a rake and back again to the garden, working as fast as he could as the storm built in intensity and volume. Jubilant, Sam finished the row just as the sky opened up, and hurried back to the shed. He cleaned, then dried the tines of the rake and oiled its handle, putting it away neatly with the other garden tools.

Sam relished rainfall. He loved the sound it made running off the sod roof of his home and splashing on the pavers below, he loved the grey softness it brought to the day and the restful feeling it lent to the night. Just now, though, soaked to the skin and without his jacket, which lay on top of the harvested potatoes at the smial, he shivered while he waited for the rain to end.

The storm held on, contrary to Sam's wishes, and the air grew cooler with the north winds pushing the clouds across the sky. At length the thunder faded, but the rainy sky settled into a slow, somber curtain. Sam resolved himself to getting wet afresh. Shutting the shed door, he sprinted for the smial.

Sam noticed the windowpanes of the door were coated with condensation. He opened the door and maneuvered the potatoes into the pantry, wiping his feet carefully on the mat before coming in himself. He closed the door against the weather and stood still, sniffing the air. What was that smell?

--

Frodo stood at the kitchen door, cobwebs in his hair and dirt on his face and hands. He leaned on a mop-handle that led down to a bucket half-full of very dirty water. The dark-haired hobbit broke into a grin when he heard the side-door close.

"Sam, don't you dare sully my kitchen!"

"No, Sir!" came the answer. "I wouldn't do tha—" Sam looked around the corner of the opposite passage and stood transfixed, potatoes forgotten. "Why, Mr. Frodo!" he exclaimed, his eyes round with wonder. "It fairly shines!"

"It does, doesn't it?" Frodo beamed, looking upon the fruit of his labor. Every shelf had been scoured, every surface scrubbed with soapy water, every pot, pan, ladle, spatula, and fork cleaned, dried, and put back in its place. The air was full of the clean, soapy smell. And the floor. . .

The floor - glowed. There was no other way to put it, Frodo thought, as he gazed admiringly at the firelight that reflected warm and red from the spotless surface.

"In fact, I've no intention of dirtying it up, Sam my lad," Frodo announced, pulling off his apron and setting the mop aside. "Let's you and I go to The Green Dragon for our supper, shall we?"

Sam's smile drooped a little. "Well, I dunno. . ."

"You've finished your work for the day, haven't you?"

"Yes, I suppose, Mr. Frodo. But I have my own work to do at home, you see, 'fore bedtime."

"Oh," Frodo said, his own smile drooping. "I understand, Sam," he said, sighing, then brightened. "Hang on! What if fix your breakfast tomorrow morning—that way you won't have to dirty up your own kitchen. In fact, why don't you plan on coming over every morning after you've finished your chores? I really need to practice my culinary skills on someone other than myself."

Sam opened his mouth to protest, but Frodo's wagging finger shut him up. The young gardener smiled slowly and twisted his weskit in his hands. "All right, Mr. Frodo." His head came up and he looked his master in the eye. "But I do the dishes."

"Then it's settled," Frodo agreed. "Now go home - it's getting dark early tonight, and growing quite chilly."

"Good night, Sir," Sam said, putting on his jumper.

"Good night, Sam. Rest well," Frodo answered. He saw Sam out, then picked up the bucket and carried it outside to empty it. If he fared this well tomorrow and the day after, he'd have the smial well to rights before Uncle Bilbo returned. 'Maybe Sam can help me if I run short of time,' he thought as he washed up.

Later that night, returning from a warm meal and a tankard or two at the tavern, he crawled between the sheets of his bed and—as he did every night—blessed his friend, cousin and beloved Uncle Bilbo.

--

Sam hurried home by the fading light, astonished at how cold it had become. His damp weskit and thin jumper did little ward off the still-falling rain, but as he jogged homeward, he grew warmer. There was the feeding and milking to be done, and the eggs must be checked in the henhouse. He worked quickly, finishing by lantern-light before he finally went into the dark house. He left the fire unlit in the room that served as both kitchen and parlor for the Gamgees, opting to grab a bite or two of bread and cheese, a draught of water, then a quick wash-up before bed. Sam shivered under the covers, listening to the wind sobbing under the eaves until he grew warm and drifted off to sleep.

--

He woke and sat up—having heard something—and listened for it now. There it was again, above the moaning wind, a loud banging coming from the kitchen. He threw back the covers, flinching when his bare feet hit the flagstone floor. Pulling his breeches on over his nightshirt, he walked into the kitchen and saw one shutter swinging wildly on its hinges. The other shutter was nowhere to be seen; wind and rain flew freely into the house. Muttering, Sam pulled on a jacket and hat and went outside to check the damage. As he'd suspected, the missing shutter lay a few feet away from the window on the ground, one hinge bent and the other torn completely away. He ran to the tool shed next the garden and fetched some sturdy nails and a hammer. It was a struggle to get the heavy shutter back in place and nail it securely. The wind buffeted him as he worked, and he banged the first knuckle on his left hand with the hammer.

"Ouch! Goblins and pitchforks!" he exclaimed, shaking his hand, then cradling it. He felt suddenly weak in the knees and sat down hard in the mud. He dropped back against the wall, breathing heavily, until the worst of the weakness passed and the pain in his hand had settled into a dull throb. "The daft shutter isn't going to get back on by itself, Sam Gamgee," he muttered, levering himself up and taking hold of the hammer again.

Finally the job was done, but it had only added to the list of things he must do on the morrow. Wouldn't do for his dad to come home and find the shutters only half-tended to, so he would have to run by the village smithy on his way to Bag End. Master Bilbo's compost heap still needed turning, too, and Mr. Frodo would surely need his help with cleaning. Entering the house once more, Sam took off his jacket and hung it up to drip dry. When he reached for his hat, he grabbed a fistful of wet hair instead; it must have blown off his head without his knowing. Young Gamgee looked down at the muddy water dripping from his lower body, frowning. Breathing out in disgust, he grabbed the water bucket, went out onto the door stoop, and doused himself with it. Then he stepped out of his breeches and hung them up next his jacket. It was too late to start a fire, he reasoned. Even if he turned the smial into an oven, his clothes wouldn't be dry by the time he needed them again.

Sam went back to his room, shedding his nightshirt along the way and throwing it over a chair. His cold, clammy skin slowly dried and warmed under the clean sheets and blankets, but he slept little, a pressure building in his head and his hand paining him with every beat of his heart.

--

Frodo looked out the window again, wondering where on earth Sam was. The bacon had long been fried and was on the back of the stove, looking a little burnt. The biscuits sat on the table, still in their pan. Fresh and hot when they came out of the oven, they looked shriveled and forlorn now. Frowning, Frodo pulled the kettle away from the fire, its lid fairly jumping with the steam from its boiling contents.

"Where is that boy?" Frodo questioned, beginning to worry. He fretted another ten minutes, watching the hands of the clock slowly move across its face, until he heard someone running up the lane.

It was Sam. The youth saw Frodo looking out the window, apparently, because he threw young Baggins a wave and disappeared behind the tool shed.

"What in middle-earth is he doing?" Frodo fussed, walking out the door and striding across the yard to the shed. He turned the corner and found Sam turning compost with a pitchfork, whistling as he worked. His left hand was roughly bandaged.

"Hello, Mr. Frodo!" Sam called cheerfully, throwing a grin over his shoulder. "Sorry I'm late," he continued, throwing compost around with a vengeance. "I had to go t'the smithy to get a new hinge for our shutter. Wind damaged it in the night. Had to put it on, y'see, and straighten the other one. It was a fair mess, to be sure," he chuckled, still working away.

Any disgruntlement Frodo may have felt about the ruined breakfast drained away as he watched young Gamgee busy with his chore. He smiled, feeling silly at his troubles in light of Sam's own during the wet night. He shivered and wrapped his arms around himself.

"Where's your jacket, Sam? How'd you hurt your hand? Have you had breakfast yet?"

Sam halted in mid-toss, debating how to answer three questions at once. "It's still wet, Sir - no sense wearing it that way. As for the hand," he began, but then his smile disappeared, followed by a look of dismay. "Breakfast! Oh, Mr. Frodo, your lovely breakfast! I forgot, Sir, I fair did!"

"Don't worry," Frodo soothed him. "I'll fix you a bacon sandwich and then you can have a proper second breakfast with me later, all right?"

Sam shook his head. "No, Sir, I'd better not. I'm behind as it is and I mustn't be late getting home tonight. I was late milking Tessie last night and she didn't give as much milk as she oughta. It's important to milk 'em twice a day, same time every day, you see. Dad always said I. . ." He stopped in mid-sentence, looking embarrassed. "Anyway," he continued, "a bacon sandwich sounds fine, Mr. Frodo. Don't make a fuss over me, now."

Frodo acquiesced, but sobered thoughtfully as he made his way back to the smial. That was the second time Sam had alluded to something his Gaffer had said, something that made him reticent. Sam just wasn't acting himself; Frodo realized he'd have to keep an eye on him if he wanted to find out what was bothering the young gardener. 'Two eyes', as Gandalf the wizard was wont to say. He busied himself with the sandwiches, putting them on a tray along with napkins and some sliced cheese. He slipped on a thick wool jumper, then filled two tumblers with milk and walked back to the shed, balancing his load carefully.

He almost walked into Sam, who was coming around the corner of the shed with his pitchfork, sweat trickling down his face.

"Watch it!" Frodo yelped, pulling the tray out of harm's way. "I thought we'd make a short picnic of it here in the sun," he offered, setting the tray down on a small bench beside the shed. "Less wind here, too."

Sam's face lit up. He quickly wiped off the tines of the pitchfork and put it away, brushing the worst of the dirt off his hands and finishing the job on his breeches. He and Frodo sat on either end of the bench, straddling it, and helped themselves to the fare. The bacon was a little overdone, but Sam relished the meal nevertheless, swallowing the milk noisily and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. He saw Frodo pick up his napkin and suddenly felt awkward. Though his master had made no sign of noticing Sam's lack of manners, young Gamgee couldn't help but think he had noticed. He looked down at his hands, sun-browned and already showing calluses and little scars from his vocation, and surreptitiously glanced at Frodo's. Though the fingernails were bitten and ragged, the hands were refined—with long, slender fingers and white, unmarred skin.

His face fell. Oh, but his Gaffer was right! He was nothing like Mr. Frodo. Nowhere near his class, his education—his position. He was daft to be letting the heir to Bag End wait on him—how ridiculous! What was he thinking to let Frodo cater to him like this? If his dad were to see him now. . .

He jammed the last of his bacon sandwich into his mouth and tried to talk around it. "Well, I'd best be getting to the garden, Mr. Frodo." He swallowed. "I do thank you for breakfast, but. . ."

"Sam, if you're pressed for time I can help…"

"No, Mr. Frodo. It's fine, really. It wouldn't be proper, nor sensible, your bein' on the mend and all." The young gardener grabbed his napkin, made a swipe at his face, and scurried away.

Frodo sat on the bench, a half-eaten sandwich suspended in his hand. Sam had gotten the better of him this time, but Frodo was beginning to see another side to Mr. Samwise Gamgee—a side both deep and stubborn. Well, he was no stranger to stubbornness—having been known to possess a certain amount of it himself—and could certainly find ways to get around the young hobbit. Frodo relaxed back onto the bench with a slightly smug look on his face, eating the rest of his sandwich with relish.

--

Frodo busied himself in Bag End for most of the day, taking few breaks except to heat more water or prepare a lunch for himself and his gardener. Though no bad hand at work, he was still a bit weak. He was no complainer, though, and took a certain amount of satisfaction in the work, feeling he was compensating somewhat for his former life of idleness at Uncle Bilbo's expense.

When it was time for supper, however, he found himself at the end of his reserve, and realized too late he had probably tried to do too much that day. Fortunately, supper was soup and had been on the hob since mid-day. There was nothing to do but set out bowls, spoons, bread and butter. He poked his head out the back door.

"Sam! Oy, Sam!"

A curly, sandy-haired head poked itself out the shed door.

"Yes, Mr. Frodo?"

"Dinner! Come and eat!"

"Oh, no, Sir, I can get my own…" Sam's stomach rumbled and he thought miserably of hard cheese and stale bread in the cold kitchen at home.

"You'll do no such thing, Samwise Gamgee! Shame on you, refusing my hospitality! Now come on—you've just time to wash your hands! I'm putting it on the table, so hurry up!"

"Oh, aye! All right, I'm comin'," Sam answered, and hurried to get cleaned up.

--

Dinner was a pleasant, if somewhat silent affair. Like most hobbits, when the two companions tucked in, there was first the very important matter of filling their stomachs. Later, when the table showed little but empty bowls and crumbs on the board, Sam was feeling a bit guilty about that morning, and Frodo was fighting to stay awake. During an uncommonly long lapse of conversation, Sam looked up to find his master slouched in his chair, his head lolling to one side.

"Mr. Frodo? Mr. Frodo, Sir? It's time you went to bed, I'm thinkin'."

Frodo started awake, looking abashed. "I'm sorry, Sam! Not much company, I'm afraid," he said, yawning.

"You've worked too hard today, if truth be known," Sam fussed, gathering dirty dishes onto a tray. "Better get on to bed, Mr. Frodo; my Gaffer'll box my ears if you get sick again under my care."

"Samwise Gamgee—I'm as healthy as you, and I can surely take care of myself!" Frodo said sternly, then smiled. "Though I think I will take it a little easier tomorrow."

"You shoulda told me you needed help. I have some chores to do in Bagshot Row in the mornin', but I'll be able to do for you after that."

Frodo's smile faded to thoughtfulness as he helped Sam pile the dishes into the sink. "I wonder if you're not trying to do too much yourself, Sam. Can I help you with anything?"

For just one moment, Sam looked as if there was nothing more in the world he wanted than to accept Frodo's generous offer. Just as quickly, the look was gone, and that stubborn set of the mouth was back, a look that young Baggins realized could be troublesome.

"No, I'm fine, Mr. Frodo," Sam answered, reaching for the water bucket.

--

Sam hurried home, wanting to get a good fire going before he went to his chores. The afternoon had been warm—at least as long as he'd been working—but after his hot supper and cleanup in the warm kitchen, the walk home was too cold for his liking. As he approached the house, he heard a soft lowing off to his left. Strange. The corn field was that way—no cow should be over there. Perplexed, yet guessing what it was, he hurried to the barn and located a lantern there on a shelf by the door. He lit it and checked Tessie's stall—it was empty. Upon further investigation, Sam found the pen empty, too, and the reason why. A post had loosened, dropping a rail, and Tessie had wandered out some time during the day.

Sam swallowed a curse and walked back up the road toward the corn field. He only hoped Tessie was already replete with cornstalks and would let him catch her. "Blast you, girl!" Sam fussed as he picked his way through the cut stalks. "You'll be fair drippin' when I get you back to the barn! Not that it won't serve you right!"

Fortunately, Tessie was ready to go back to the warmth of her stall. With the setting of the sun, the wind had picked up again and she had turned her rump into it, standing there as if she had been waiting all this time for the youth to get her and was put out by his tardiness. Sam led her back to the barn and fed her. While she was eating, he hurried to the house and lit a candle and small fire, then washed his hands before going back to do the milking. That finished, he went back to the house, leaving the egg-gathering for the morning. No doubt some of them would be broken by then, but it couldn't be helped if he wanted to get the churning done. Though he hurried, the churning proceeded at its own time-worn pace; still, in the end, the fresh butter was nestled in its clean dish long before Sam found his own bed.

--

When Sam awoke the next morning, his face tingled with the chill in the room, and he could see his breath. He shuffled into the kitchen in his nightshirt, yawning widely, and slipped on his jacket before going out to the privy. He opened the door but remained where he was, staring across the yard at the empty pen, eyes blazing. Tessie, exhibiting great bovine-wit, had apparently discovered that leaning against the loose post caused the rail to drop. There she was, off in the winter-wheat field, gorging herself on the short green turf as Sam looked on in furious disbelief.

His shout of anger echoed off the hills, nearly matching the volume of his slamming of the door. Seconds later Sam re-emerged in his work-breeches and half-buttoned shirt, and ran into the field. Tessie took one look at him, turned tail, and trotted happily in the other direction, her full udder swinging.

One hour, two skinned knees and a wide creek later, a bedraggled hobbit returned, pulling the black and white bossy behind him. He was muttering darkly and threw a look of pure malice at the cow from time to time, who took no notice of him. Why should she? Her stomach was full and her pendulous udder had practically emptied itself while she evaded her captor. All she wanted to do now was lie down in a sunny spot and ruminate; she had made several attempts, but this had only evinced more yells and mutterings from the hobbit.

Sam was infuriated but did not take out his anger on the stupid beast. She was only doing what came naturally to her; he couldn't fault her for that. But there was no milk, he was shockingly behind on his work, and Frodo would be waiting breakfast long before he got there.

"Thunder and sour milk!" he cursed under his breath, pushing Tessie into the pen, and rushed to repair the post and rail before finishing his chores. As he worked, he found himself overcome with fits of sneezing, and he shivered even in the bright, warm sun. But that couldn't be helped—he was very late, and his clothes would have to dry on him as worked.

--

Frodo had just finished turning the plate of overdone breakfast on the warming shelf yet another time when he heard the tool shed door creak. He grinned, hurried out of the smial, and sneaked up to the door, hearing movement inside. Frodo had meant to surprise Sam and tease him a little about being late for breakfast again, but before he could open the door he heard several loud sneezes from within. He opened the door and found Sam standing there with a large pocket-handkerchief, blowing his nose.

"Sam!"

"'Hello, Mr. Frodo," came a rather morose and hoarse answer.

"What have you done to yourself?" Frodo couldn't help himself from asking. The knees of Sam's wet breeches were grass-stained and muddy, his feet encased in grime. The knuckle-bandage had come off and Frodo could see a swollen and bruised hand. The youth's eyes were red and his fair hair hung lank and damp over his brow.

"Tessie," young Gamgee answered. "She got out, 'n I had to catch her."

"Did you? Catch her, I mean?" Frodo couldn't help but smile at the image of the young hobbit up to his knees in mud, running after the recalcitrant animal.

There was a bright glint of irritation in the young hobbit's brown eyes. "I did. You think I'd leave her out roamin' about, eatin' the winter wheat and trampling the pumpkins?"

"Why no, Sam! I didn't… I would never accuse…" Frodo stammered, taken aback at the suddenness—and intensity—of Sam's aggravation.

Sam blanched and he looked away, curling his hands into tight-clenched fists. "Sorry, Sir; I oughtna said such a thing…"

Frodo, recovering himself, could see strong emotions on the young hobbit's features. "No, Sam, you're right. I know you would never let an animal go untended. I didn't mean anything by what I said; I just—well, you are a sight!"

Sam's eyes darted to Frodo's face, then down at his person. A slow burn came into each cheek. "Guess I am, at that," young Gamgee admitted, his natural humor returning. I'll clean up proper before lunch,

Mr. Frodo."

"Sam, are you all right?" Frodo couldn't help but notice the bright flush on young Gamgee's cheeks and a slight tremor in his hands.

"I'm fine," Sam said.

"Sure you don't want to come in and eat something? Warm up a bit?" Frodo knew that Sam's damp clothes had to be uncomfortable, but he could also see the pride welling in the brown eyes again.

"Maybe after I've finished putting the cabbages in the root cellar," Sam said, hesitating. "That's the last of the vegetables," he added.

"Well, that's perfectly marvelous! Later, if you feel up to it, you can help me finish up the cleaning in the bedrooms, then you and I'll have an early supper, and I'll help you with your chores tonight."

"Oh, no, Mr. Frodo, that wouldn't do!"

Frodo felt a niggle of anger swelling in his own breast, and fought to keep it from showing. Instead he simply smiled and said, "On the contrary, it will do very nicely for me, thank you. I need to get out of the house for awhile, anyway."

Sam nodded then, a little reluctantly perhaps, but Frodo was satisfied. There were bound to be some of Bilbo's old clothes that Sam could wear, and he was determined to get Sam properly dry and warm before he left Bag End that day.

--

After lunch, Sam stayed inside to help Frodo finish cleaning the smial. Frodo had watched the lad unawares, growing more concerned as the afternoon progressed.

As they neared the end of their work, the air was split by another loud sneeze. Frodo stopped dusting and listened, then walked to the door. "Sam?"

There was no answer.

Frodo went across the hall to the bedroom where Sam was working. "Sam?"

"Yes, Mr. Frodo?" came the answer; it seemed hoarser to young Baggins. Sam dropped the mattress he'd been turning to look at his master.

Frodo's eyes widened. "Sam, you're ill."

The boy looked down at the handkerchief he had in his hand and put it away quickly. "Just sneezing, Sir. I think I've caught a bit of cold or something."

"At the very least," Frodo said, walking over to Sam and laying the back of his hand to the gardener's forehead. "I thought so. You're too warm, Sam."

"It's just a cold, Sir."

"You were trying to catch your breath when I came in."

"I'd just finished sneezing, Sir."

"Sam, please stop calling me 'Sir'."

"But what am I supposed… " Sam stopped at Frodo's raised eyebrow.

"Yes, S… Yes, Mr. Frodo."

--

Frodo was thinking hard, his hands jammed into his pockets, as he and Sam walked back to Bagshot Row. Though the early evening was lovely and clear, and birds that had not yet flown south sang their hearts out in the hedgerows, Frodo had no thought for them. Instead he looked down at his feet as they walked, chancing a glance at his companion when he didn't think he was looking.

Young Baggins was pondering some of the things Sam had said while his Gaffer was away, things that bothered him now. The last few days had shown Frodo just how mature Samwise had become, despite his lack of years, but with that maturity had come—something not right. Frodo couldn't define it exactly, but he saw that whatever it was troubled the youngster, overshadowed his natural exuberance, his longing to learn, even his friendship for his master, Frodo.

Frodo stopped dead in his tracks. Master.

"Coming, Mr. Frodo?"

"Oh—uh, yes, Sam. Coming." Frodo jammed his hands even deeper into his already straining pockets, and hurried to catch up with his sandy-haired companion.

--

They worked together, getting the evening chores done quicker than Sam had ever imagined. Frodo worked with a will, and handled Tessie in such a way as to show he'd milked before, and more than once. If Sam had but known it, Frodo took on the heavier work, pushing Sam out of the way as soon as the boy had shown him what must be done. He mucked Tessie's stall while Sam put out her feed, and began the task of churning while Sam gathered the eggs. When the work was finished, Sam insisted Frodo stay awhile and warm himself before he went back to Bag End. They sat in slatted chairs, their feet upon the fender, basking in the warmth of the fire.

"I miss my pipe, Sam," Frodo said, dreamily. "A good fire does that to you, I suppose."

Sam's feet came off the fender. "There's an extra one on the mantle—let me get it…"

Frodo reached out and gently pulled Sam back down into his chair.

"No, thanks, Sam, though I do appreciate the offer. If I get any more comfortable I shall fall out of this chair and sleep the night away right here on the floor!" he chuckled.

Young Gamgee grinned, then coughed, grimacing. Frodo looked carefully at the boy, and let out a breath. "I think perhaps I ought to stay here tonight and look after you. You're not well at all," he said.

"That's not… You don't…" Sam stuttered, reddening. "I mean to say—I'm fine, Mr. Frodo. Well, alright, not fine exactly," he continued, seeing the look of disbelief on Mr. Baggins' face. "But it's just a cold. My throat's sore, is all."

Frodo got up and felt Sam's forehead again. "You're still warm, Sam, though you have been sitting by the fire. But lad, if you don't take care of yourself, you really will be ill. Believe me, I know." He thought a minute, then asked, "Do you have any spirits in the house?"

"There's a bottle of whiskey Da keeps in the root-cellar. Mum used to mix it with sugar and herbs for ailments 'n such—I don't suppose we've had it off the shelf since she died, now I think on it," Sam answered, his eyes dropping to his lap. He hadn't talked much about his mother to anyone—the loss was still too near for him.

"That'll do nicely," said Frodo, and had the cellar door up and was down the ladder with a candle before Sam could respond. Soon he was back, carrying a dusty bottle that sloshed half-full. Sam watched in a daze, soothed by the fire and the feel of clean clothes on his skin—Frodo had insisted he have a bath and change into some of Mr. Bilbo's old garments before they ate supper at Bag End. He heard the clink of glass on crockery, and the soft noise of cupboard doors opening and closing, not comprehending at first what Frodo was doing. When Frodo crossed in front of him to take the kettle off the hob, however, Sam came to himself.

"Here! What're you doin', Mr. Frodo? I coulda done that. You've done enough for me already."

Frodo shushed him. "It won't hurt for me to do one more little thing, will it? Here," he said stirring something in a tumbler he'd just added the hot water to. An aromatic steam was rising from the cup and Sam inhaled it gratefully—the smell reminded him somehow of laurel bushes and mint. He took a swallow.

"Careful you don't burn yourself," Frodo admonished, watching Sam intently. "But you must drink it all—it should help clear your head a bit and sooth your throat in the bargain."

Sam nodded and continued to take small sips of the hot liquid. It was strong, but Frodo had

sweetened it liberally with honey and it wasn't hard to get down. By the time Sam had finished it, he was feeling positively languid and his eyelids were drooping of their own accord.

"C'mon, now, up you go," Frodo said, guiding Sam out of his chair and steering him toward the bedroom. "I've run the warming pan between the sheets; should be nice and toasty for you."

Sam looked at Frodo, who held out his nightshirt, grinning.

"You do remember how to put on your nightshirt, don't you, Sam?"

"Er, yes, Si… Aye."

"Good. I'll leave you to it, shall I? I'll take care of the fire and close up the house for you before I leave. And I'll be here in the morning bright and early to help you with your chores, all right? Then we'll be lazy the rest of the day."

Sam was too tired, too pleasantly soporific to argue tonight. He simply nodded and said good night as Frodo closed the door, then sleepily tended to changing into his nightshirt and falling into the deliciously warm bed.

Frodo leaned against the outside of the door, listening to make sure Sam didn't fall over before he crawled into bed. He had put nearly a jigger of spirits into the tumbler, but if the boy was going to get any better, he needed to sleep. Soon, when the sound of the bed's creaking faded away and the sibilance of soft snoring came from behind the door, Frodo was satisfied and went back into the kitchen. He must bank the fire and check the animals one last time before he went home to his own bed.

--

Sam turned over and put a hand to his face—it felt like someone was in there banging behind his eyes and cheekbones. He swallowed and regretted it—eating sandpaper could feel no worse. Stretching, his foot touched the bedpost and he came fully awake. He must be up and about his chores…

He stopped to listen—there was someone moving about in the kitchen—surely Mr. Frodo wasn't here already? What time was it?

Sam scrambled out of bed, pulling a blanket around his shoulders, and hurried into the kitchen. There was Mr. Frodo, apron-clad, leaning over the fire, stirring something in a small iron pot. He turned upon hearing Sam's entrance and grinned. "Hullo, Sam! Sleep well?" he asked.

"I musta, Mr. Frodo. Don't remember a thing between my head hittin' the pillow and my wakin' up just now." Sam's voice was raspy and his n's sounded more like d's when he talked.

"That's good. I hope you have an appetite—I didn't realize the porridge would expand this much when I put it on to soak last night. There's enough here for an army!" Frodo prattled as he spooned the savory concoction into bowls for the two of them. "Cream?"

"Just butter, Mr. Frodo, thank you," Sam said.

"I'm for cream and honey, myself," Frodo said, pouring both items liberally over his porridge. "Tuck in!" And without further ado, Frodo began to eat as though he hadn't had a bite for days.

There were mugs of tea beside each bowl and Sam swallowed his greedily, relishing it going down his sore throat. The porridge was good, too, easy on the digestion, and warmed him to his toes. There wasn't much taste nor smell, he noticed, and he could only eat half what had been given him.

Frodo appeared satisfied, however. "You'll do," he said. "Now I'm going out and feed the chickens. I've got your clothes warming there; just slip into them while I'm out, all right?"

Sam was taken aback. "Mr. Frodo, you really are doin' way too much! Why, I… It's just that…"

Frodo waited, his hand on the doorknob. But Sam's lips seemed to have sealed themselves and he sat mute at the table, breathing hard. The blue eyes wandered over Sam's face, puzzlement and a hint of sadness gracing them as he smiled at the young gardener. "I only want to help, Sam," he said, softly. The brief smile faded. "That's all."

Frodo had finished feeding the poultry and was about to check to see if Tessie had finished eating when he noticed the cow had already come out into her pen. His eyes widened when he realized she wasn't just scratching her neck against the post, but rather was leaning her whole weight against it! He broke into a run, circling around the pen to prevent her escape, but was too late to stop her from breaking the already damaged post right in two. "Get back, girl!" he cried, waving his arms at her, but she jumped over the dropped rail and headed right for him in a lumbering run.

"You stupid, daft—cow!" the dark-haired hobbit yelled, and tried desperately to head her off. Tessie was bearing down hard upon him, Frodo's yelling and waving only turning her just at the last minute. But her heavy bulk carried a momentum of its own and her bony hip caught Frodo a glancing blow as she went by, turning him hard and throwing him to the ground. He lay there a minute, listening to the sound of her merry hoofs dying in the distance. He spat out dirt, catching his breath and waiting for his head to stop spinning, and heard Sam calling to him from the door of the house.

--

Sam hurried to get dressed, appalled that Mr. Frodo had already fed and milked the cow, fixed breakfast, and was now out feeding the hens. If his dad got wind of this… He spluttered and fumed as he pulled on his clothes, having to stop to blow his nose twice. "Samwise Gamgee, you keep this up and you'll begin to sound like your Gaffer, no mistake!" he muttered, then pulled up short when he heard Frodo's shout. He jerked open the door and ran out just in time to see Frodo go down. "Mr. Frodo!" he yelled, and bolted for the yard. Frodo Baggins was not moving.

--

"Mr. Frodo, Mr. Frodo! Are you all right?" Sam dropped to his knees beside the other hobbit.

There was a grunt and sputter, and Frodo raised his head up to look at Sam. "I'll live," he replied, still spitting out dirt. He rolled over on his side and sat up, wincing. "Sam, that animal is a menace—couldn't we make her into a nice stew and a couple of roasts?" he jested, struggling to stand.

"Did she hurt you, Sir? I swear, if she did, I just may do that very thing!" young Gamgee fussed, brushing grass and dirt from his master's clothes.

"I'm all right. Just got the breath knocked out of me," Frodo answered. "Give me a minute and I'll go get her," he panted, looking out over her path of escape and fingering his shoulder. "Never knew a cow could be so blasted quick," he muttered.

Sam sniggered at that remark. "I thought you said you'd been around farm animals, Mr. Frodo."

"I have!" Frodo remarked indignantly. "Just not recently," he added, grinning. "Don't know how I'm going to catch her, though. Look, she's eating the wheat."

"Aye, she got a taste for it the other night. Serves me right for not checkin' the post more careful," Sam said, shaking his head. "Well, no use puttin' it off—I'll go get her."

"I'd better try to…" Frodo stopped, his words tripping over Sam's. "You know how to lure her back?"

"I know a few tricks, aye," said Sam, his eyes twinkling.

Tessie was up on a low ridge in the wheat-field, gorging herself and having an eye on the two hobbits standing near the stile. They had their heads together, looking up the hill and pointing. But her bovine-brain had only room for the task at hand, and currently that was chomping the sweet, tender blades of new winter-wheat. It was only when she felt the rope go over her head that she realized—too late—that her feast was over.

"That was excellent, Sam!" Frodo exulted, holding fast to Tessie's halter as Sam maintained a second grip on the rope around her neck from the other side. "She didn't stand a chance!"

"Good thing she was on a ridge," Sam explained. "Made it easy to sneak up on her—we coulda been out here all morning tryin' to catch her."

"Aye," Frodo said, slipping into the vernacular, not noticing the look of surprise on Sam's face, nor the quickly smothered grin.

Tessie was soon put back in her stall, where she remained until the hobbits had made a full round of the pen, replacing the broken post and checking the other posts and rails for sturdiness. She bawled pitifully as they worked, making such a ruckus that Frodo thought again about making a few good meals out of her. The labor was warming, however, and though young Baggins knew he'd boast a few sore muscles on the morrow, he realized he had missed his more physical activities, and wondered at how quickly he could forget what that wilder, boyish life had been like. He glanced over at Sam, who was working stones between a post and the soil, hammering them down with a large mallet. The broad shoulders carried the work easily, though the boy still sneezed and sputtered with the cold that plagued him. As they worked, Frodo thought of the plans he'd made for a quieter afternoon. When they stopped for lunch—having skipped second breakfast—Frodo revealed his idea.

"I don't know, Mr. Frodo," Sam mused, shaking his head. "Don't seem right with the other work to do," he added, taking a bite of apple.

"What work?" Frodo retaliated, chewing his own bite. "We've the chores tonight. Bag End is clean and the garden is put away for the winter—you said so yourself."

"I have to go to market, and this place could use a good cleaning, too," Sam argued, realizing what a bachelor's life he and his dad had taken on, despite May's attempts to make it a home when she wasn't keeping house for Mayor Whitfoot in the village. Then, too, little Marigold was too small to have made much of a feminine impact as yet.

"Look, Uncle Bilbo and your gaffer aren't due home for two days yet. We'll clean the place after chores tomorrow, and go to market the next morning so everything will be fresh when Master Gamgee comes home in the afternoon. There'll be a nice dinner on the hob and flowers on the table!"

"Well…" Sam was weakening—Frodo could see it in his eyes. To spend an afternoon lazing on the creek bank in the bright sun, a line in the water but not caring whether it fetched a catch—what luxury, what abandon! Frodo swallowed a smile as he saw Sam's reticence crumble. "Oh, all right, if you think we can get everything done before my Gaffer comes home."

Frodo felt just a little guilty about persuading young Gamgee to go against his principles, but Sam needed a break. He was looking flushed and shivering time and again. It would do him good to rest this afternoon, and he, Frodo, would be there to help him with the work later. Besides, Sam had said 'we', and that delighted young Baggins no end.

So it was that they went to the creek and dozed, drifting dreamily along like the clouds above them. It was late afternoon when they awakened, chilled by the sun going behind the trees, their lines empty…

Gaffer Gamgee was calling Sam's name in the distance.

Sam sat up and shot a panicked glance at Frodo. "Oh, no!" he said, under his breath. He jumped up, dropping his pole. "Muck and cow-pies!" he cursed, and bolted for home. Frodo scrambled up to follow, pausing to grab Sam's abandoned pole, and only caught up with the boy as he entered the yard. Hamfast was standing outside the open door of the hole, and his face was grim.

"Good afternoon, Sir," Frodo said, as pleasantly as he could. "You're home early!"

"Mr. Frodo," Gamgee answered curtly, his eyes on Sam.

"We were fishing, trying to catch our supper," Frodo began, but Gaffer Gamgee held up his hand.

"I know what you were doing, Mr. Frodo, and for someone of your standing, that's all well and good. But I thought my Sam had a better idea of what his duties were than that."

Sam waited silently, staring down at his feet. Marigold and May stood just inside the open door, looking on. May caught Frodo's eye and shook her head warningly, tipped her hand to her mouth to show her dad was in his cups, then closed the door, pulling Marigold in with her.

"Master Gamgee, if I could just explain…"

"The boy's old enough to explain for himself," barked Gamgee, turning and sitting clumsily on a bench. His knees and ankles were aching with the walk home and his stomach was grumbling with hunger. Stopping for an ale or two hadn't helped his mood, either. The fair hadn't gone as well as he'd expected—none of his vegetables had even placed this year, much less won a ribbon, and he took it to mean that encroaching age and infirmity went hand-in-hand with poor performance, and eventually to a bad end. On top of that, he'd come home to an empty, dusty house and a cold hearth. Though in all fairness he knew Sam could not possibly have been expecting him, he had thought to find things in better order than this. He looked at Frodo for the first time, frustration and ale loosening his tongue. "And I'll thank you, Master Baggins, to not go meddlin' in affairs that are not your concern."

"Master Baggins" had not fallen on deaf ears and Frodo's cheeks flamed. He had just been put down properly, and right smartly, too. But despite his respect for his elders, Frodo couldn't stand by and see Sam misused.

"You're wrong, Sir," he said, looking Hamfast in the eye. "It is my concern—because it's my fault."

Sam's head came up. "Oh, no, Mr. Frodo! It was my decision to go fishin' as much as yours. Da's right—I shoulda been about my work, not lollygaggin' about like I was some…"

"Lollygagging?" Frodo questioned, turning to look at his companion. "You were resting, Sam! Sir, Master Gamgee, Sam's been sick these last few days. He needed to slow down this afternoon. We planned to have everything ready when you and Uncle Bilbo came back day after tomorrow…"

"We?" Gamgee growled, standing up and turning to his youngest son. "We? You been lettin' Mr. Frodo do your work for you, now?" The elder hobbit's voice had taken on an edge Frodo had never heard before.

It was Sam's turn to redden. He glanced at Frodo, then nodded slowly.

"It wasn't that way, Sir," Frodo interjected. "He helped me do some of the heavy cleaning at Bag End, so naturally I wanted to…"

"Begging your pardon, Master Frodo, but it was Sam's job to take care of you! And to think I believed he could handle the responsibility…" Hamfast shook his head and opened the door, reaching around the jamb for something.

Before Frodo realized what was happening, Sam had turned away, hunching his shoulders, and his father had brought out a small cane of woven reed. In a flash the cane came whistling down on Sam's back. Sam flinched but said nothing.

Frodo felt as if he were mired in mud up to his knees. The shock of seeing Sam being beaten rooted him to the ground as fixedly as a pair of irons; two more blows landed on the boy before Frodo could get his body to react. He yelled and flung himself between younger and older Gamgee, receiving a slice to his neck before he could grab the cane. Hamfast jerked the whip out of Frodo's fingers with strength found of many years' hard toil, young Baggins crying out as the thin reed cut his fingers. The gardener staggered back and lowered his arm, dismayed that he had struck one of his betters. Appalled, Sam took the cane from his father's limp hand. The lad stood next to Frodo, hands clenching the reed as if he would break it in two—Frodo could see he was trembling. "Da," Sam said once he had regained control, "look what you did!"

The elder Gamgee was so taken aback by what had happened that he stood still in his tracks, mouth open.

"You struck Master Frodo!" Sam went on, pulling Frodo's hand away from his neck and revealing an angry weal just below his ear.

Gamgee's eyes dropped, then he drew himself up and squarely looked at Frodo. "I am sorry for that, young Master. You stepped in that quick, and the blow fell afore I could stop it."

"You've no need to apologize to me, Sir," Frodo answered graciously, though still angry at the injustice of what he had witnessed. "I just couldn't let you punish Sam without knowing everything that's happened this week. If you had come home at the time you said you would, all would have been taken care of, and that on top of everything else Sam's had to do while you were gone."

Sam could see that his father was taking in Frodo's explanation, but he was a stubborn hobbit and not given to quickly changing his mind once it was made up. His Gaffer had great respect for Mr. Bilbo, and though Mr. Frodo was as yet unproven in the old gardener's eyes, that respect spilled over onto Bilbo's heir. But now was not the time for reconciliation.

"I'll get to my chores," Sam said, turning away.

"And I'll help you," Frodo added, locking gazes with the Gaffer before turning to follow Sam.

--

As it turned out, once chores were done, May told Sam and Frodo that Bilbo had remained at the fair. She insisted that Sam go home with Frodo, promising to do the marketing on the morrow and put their home to rights—an easy task since she wasn't due back at the Whitfoots until the first of the week. Sam, though he didn't like the idea of May having to finish up his work, saw the wisdom in her offer, and the further wisdom of getting away from his Gaffer for awhile. He knew, too, that he needed more rest, and that he would never allow himself that luxury if he stayed home. May's reassurances helped as well, promising him there was enough food left over from their trip to piece out with the fresh eggs and milk for their supper.

In the end, Sam promised he would be back at sunup to do the morning chores and help May with some of the heavier work if he could, then left with Frodo for Bag End. As for Hamfast, though he sat on the bench, listening while plans were made and tasks were completed, he never said a word.

--

"How're you feeling, Sam?"

Young Gamgee started and turned from looking out over the garden. "Oh, it's you, Mr. Bilbo. Good mornin', Sir."

Bilbo Baggins came to stand next to Samwise, looking out over the turned earth of his garden. "You've done an excellent job, my boy," he commented, cocking a critical eye toward his companion. "Don't let anyone tell you differently."

Sam blushed and fidgeted, crossing his arms to give them something to do, his answer a fleeting smile which faded quickly. He sniffled and gave a little cough.

"Mustn't stay out here too long, lad. We had a hard frost last night; it feels warmer in the sun than it really is. Come along, now, breakfast is ready." Bilbo turned and went back to the smial, knowing that Sam would follow, and knowing he had to do something to get the boy back in Gaffer Gamgee's good graces.

It had been nearly two weeks since Bilbo returned home to find Sam and Frodo keeping each other company at Bag End. Though he knew there had to have been trouble in the Gamgee family, Bilbo kept quiet, attending rather to the needs of the two young hobbits.

For Sam's cold had worsened despite Frodo's care, and he had developed a stubborn fever which went up at night, giving the boy little rest or relief. Frodo, though healthy enough, bore an angry weal on his neck and sported sticking-plaster on the inside of his right hand. He favored his side a little, too, and told Bilbo of the cow incident only when pressed. Bilbo had looked after him, finding an ugly bruise on his right shoulder and breast. It was only when Sam's fever had reached a dangerous level one night and the two Baggins kept careful vigil that Frodo finally broke down and told Bilbo about all that happened during his uncle's absence. Bilbo had wondered at the boy's initial reluctance to talk, but noted most particularly Frodo's indignant passion when he described Sam's beating. Frodo had himself suffered two thrashings nearly a decade ago, but Bilbo never knew his nephew had been so affected by them. Then again, he realized, Frodo had seemed to want to put away everything about his life in Buckland when he had come to live with him seven years ago. But it was plain now that there were things in Frodo's heart that, though he kept them to himself, were firmly fixed in his memory and rooted in his character. This young hobbit's well was deep, and Bilbo had yet to reach the bottom of it.

Sam was on the mend now, gaining strength daily. Still, Bilbo knew the sooner the lad returned to his own home, the better. Earlier in his illness, the lad had fretted about his inability to tend to his responsibilities and help May. He longed, too, to be reconciled to his father, but his youthful fear of the patriarch got in the way. Seeing Sam's dilemma and deciding to take matters into his own hands, Bilbo sent word to Mr. Gamgee, asking him to come for a visit and see if things could be worked out. A note had come this morning; now it was time to tell the boy.

Breakfast over, Sam was wiping the breakfast dishes and placing them in the rack against the kitchen wall, humming as he worked. Frodo laboured beside him, washing up the last of the pans. He hummed along with Sam, weaving a simple harmony to the younger hobbit's melody. Unknowingly, they had struck a rhythm in their work; there was no wasted movement, no waiting of one on the other. Bilbo smiled to himself. "When you're done there, lads, come into the parlor and sit with me awhile. I feel positively lazy this morning."

Frodo and Sam exchanged glances. "We will." "We'll be finished soon, Sir."

Bilbo settled himself near the fire and lit his pipe, grinning when he heard a loud splash followed by stifled giggling. But he was composed by the time the hobbits came in and sat down, and his eyes were serious. Frodo slipped forward in his chair and searched his uncle's face. "Uncle? What is it?"

"We need to talk about some things this morning, lads…" Bilbo paused, biting the inside of his cheek. Sam and Frodo exchanged glances. "Because," Bilbo continued, "Master Gamgee will be paying us a visit this afternoon."

--

Hamfast Gamgee walked briskly along the path, nodding absently to passersby, his thoughts all in a muddle. He still felt as though he ought to be angry with Master Baggins for allowing his youngest boy to stay at Bag End. After all, neither of his older boys had treated him the way Sam had, choosing to leave Bagshot Row and run off to stay with Master Frodo like he did. But they hadn't spoken openly to him the way Sam had, neither, as his good sense reminded him. The boy was just a child, only 16, but he showed remarkable maturity for his age, especially when it came to dependability. That was what rankled the aging hobbit so, after he had bragged about him at the fair and all, only to come home and find things in a state. Master Gamgee was a good-hearted hobbit, but his stubbornness sometimes won out over reason, especially when his pride was at stake or his joints were hurting.

He climbed up the lane, spotting Bag End's chimney pot first, then more of the smial as he rounded the turn. This was a fine afternoon for all it being late fall; the sun had warmed the air, a few birds were singing, and the sky was robin-egg blue, dotted with a few crisp clouds flirting with the sun. May had been feeding him well, the hole was sparkling, and his stomach was pleasantly full of lunch and treacle tart. The warmth of the day had brought relief to his bones and the walk had loosened his joints. He smiled without realizing it, opening the wicker gate and mounting the steps to the big green door. No side-door today—he was here by invitation, he had on his second-best weskit, and had brought along his pipe. He raised his hand…

"Good afternoon, Master Hamfast!" Bilbo greeted him, having pulled open the door before the Gaffer could knock. "I've been watching for you. Welcome! Come in, come in!"

"Thankee." Ham bowed his head politely and walked past Bilbo. He waited in the hall as Bilbo closed the door and bustled to take his hat and jacket, then followed Baggins into the parlor, where Sam and Frodo waited.

--

If not for the seriousness of the situation, Bilbo would have laughed aloud at the sight of the two boys. Sam sat like a stone on the edge of his seat, feet together, his hands clasped in his lap. Frodo stood next to him as if ready to beat off the elder Gamgee, whom Bilbo knew possessed a heart of gold. Two sets of eyes, one brown and one blue, were fixed on the gardener. Bilbo took his time making the elder Gamgee comfortable, providing him with a cushioned chair, a table set for tea and a few munchables, tobacco and a taper for his pipe. That seen to, Bilbo filled and lit his own pipe and settled on a footstool next the fire,

pretending to re-arrange the logs.

"Well," said Gamgee, "I thank you kindly for your hospitality, Master Bilbo. You were always a fine host, and no mistake."

"It's my honor to have you here, my fine fellow," Bilbo said, lifting his pipe in salute. "Frodo, I think you may sit down now. More tea?"

Frodo shook his head mutely and sat next to Sam, who's own cup remained untouched.

"I see no reason to put this off any longer, hoping you'll not take offense, Sir, seein' as how I need Sam here back at home."

"No reason whatsoever." Bilbo put down the poker and stood, leaning one arm on the mantelpiece. "But I did feel it important to have you come by before I sent the lad packing."

Sam's Gaffer didn't respond, but leaned back into the softness of the chair. He was used to Bilbo's way of doing things; this would be no short visit.

"You see, Frodo and I had a long talk a few nights ago, when young Samwise wasn't feeling too well." Bilbo placed a hand on the boy's shoulder; Sam glanced up at him and smiled worriedly. "I take it you were not exactly pleased with the condition of your hole when you came home from the fair."

"I was most displeased, Sir, as was warranted. Sam had convinced me that he was capable of handling everything—including chores at Bag End—while I was away. I boasted on him to friends who asked after him, how my Sam was such a responsible young hobbit…"

Sam's face grew red and he dropped his head in shame.

"…an' I come home and find Sam dawdlin' by the stream, fishin', with the fire gone out and dust on the furniture!" The elder Gamgee breathed a little harder, the memory of his embarrassment playing vividly in his mind. In his disquietude, he had slid forward to the edge of his seat.

"Tell me something, Ham," Bilbo said quietly. "Truthfully, now—was it the dust and fishing that stung you so, or was it that your dignity had been treated ill?"

Sam and Frodo stiffened at these words, watching Sam's Gaffer for a reaction similar to the one two weeks ago. But, to their surprise, Hamfast stared open-mouthed at Bilbo for a moment, then slumped back into his chair, chuckling.

"Ye don't mince words, Master Bilbo, and that's a fact." Gamgee studied the wall for a few seconds, drumming his fingers on the arm of the chair. "I suppose I did over-react some, what with comin' home with no prizes and findin' no one at home. And I certainly never meant to cause you no harm," he added, turning to Frodo.

"It's I who caused the harm, Master Gamgee," Frodo replied. He glanced at Bilbo, who nodded. "Please, Sir, I would very much like to explain what happened while you were gone." Frodo went on quickly, not waiting for a yea or nay from the gardener. "I know you aren't happy with my helping Sam with his chores, but I don't look at it that way," he hurried to say, cutting off the Gaffer's inchoate protest. "Sam's my friend, Sir. He was my friend before I was his, actually," he added, glancing a look of apology at the boy seated beside him. "I mean, I was a stupid hobbit just out of his teens and he was just a baby at ten—or so I thought," he grinned, elbowing Sam, who was looking entirely too serious.

"That's all well an' good, young Master," Hamfast replied, nodding sagely. "It was right and proper for my Sam to be lookin' out for you and Mr. Bilbo whenever he could."

"No doubt that's true," Frodo stammered, wanting to get back to the point. "I actually thought that at first. I was preoccupied with—other things," he trailed off, remembering his state of mind when he first came to live with Bilbo.

Bilbo hemmed, noting the far-off look that had crept into his nephew's eyes. "More tea, Hamfast?" he offered. The gardener accepted and Bilbo puttered about so that Frodo could gather his thoughts. Frodo's confessed preoccupation had indeed been a source of concern when he first came to live at Bag End at the age of twenty-one. But the cause was known to Frodo alone. It was Bilbo's love and attention for the lad that had eventually overcome Frodo's somber frame of mind.

"But as time went on," Frodo continued, "I sensed there was more to Sam's attachment to me—more than just duty. There was just something about him—a turn of phrase, maybe—an expression…" Frodo paused and seemed to make a decision about something before continuing.

"I never had many true friends, Master Gamgee, at Buckland. There were some younger cousins, but then they were so small I was mostly their caretaker. When I moved to Hobbiton, it took a while for me to make new friends. Merry and Pippin would visit of course, and when they did, it was wonderful. We have fun together, and they tease me mercilessly. But Sam never really knew me before I came here to live, yet he warmed to me as if I were one of his older brothers."

If Frodo noticed the slight frown that crept upon Master Hamfast's face, he made no mention of it. He continued: "He didn't treat me like I was the Master's nephew, Sir. He wasn't deferential or coolly polite like some of the servants at Brandy Hall. He was just—himself. He didn't expect anything of me, or presume anything about me, either, just accepting me as I am. I don't think he realizes how much that means to me."

Sam looked at Frodo, surprise written on his face. Everything Mr. Frodo had said was true, only Sam didn't think Frodo knew. His Gaffer had known, though, and had reminded him of his place many times over. But no matter how often or much Sam tried, he just couldn't think of Frodo that way. Master, yes—but friend, too—someone he trusted as much or more than he did his own kin.

"It's a lovely notion, to be sure," Sam's Gaffer said, "but not so practical. You're but a lad, yet; you'll see things begin to change when ye get older."

Frodo stiffened, but Bilbo caught his eye before he said something he would regret later. He took a breath. "I don't understand," he said quietly, and was surprised to feel moisture in his eyes.

"It's the way things are," Gamgee said, an edge to his voice. The old gardener felt he had already explained things quite satisfactorily and was not a little irritated that young Baggins was so bent on not seeing things properly.

"But why must it be that way?" Frodo asked. "Bilbo always says…"

"I know what Master Bilbo says, and despite that, we have a good relationship. He is Master of Bag End and I am his gardener. We have true respect and regard for each other, too. I think ye'd be agreein' with me, Sir?" he said, looking to the elder Baggins for confirmation.

"All too true," Bilbo said, purposely keeping his thoughts and words to himself.

"Still, I would like to…"

"Nay, it's not what ye would like, Master Frodo, but what must be," Gamgee stated, his voice firm. "Ye're a fine lad," he continued, seeing Frodo was prepared to press the point for some time to come. "But ye're in a class above my boy, and he's not to presume upon a type of friendship that canna last."

Frodo blinked and darted a glance at Sam, who was looking at his father as if seeing him for the first time. "You—you're afraid Sam will be hurt. Is that it, Sir?"

"Well, not that ye'd mean to, ye understand. But, well…"

"I see," Frodo said, his quiet voice holding back something deeper.

"Don't take it hard," Gamgee said, feeling as if he'd won the debate. "My Sam will be a good servant; he's loyal to a fault, 'n he don't lollygag about."

Frodo's jaw hardened. Lollygag, indeed!

"Ye'll understand better in a few years, I'll warrant," the old hobbit stated, satisfied that his business was done.

"After I've finished growing up, you mean," Frodo said, his voice tainted with barely suppressed sarcasm. "Grown up to become the true and proper heir of Bag End," he continued, his eyes flashing. "After I've outgrown little Samwise Gamgee with his dirt-covered hands and calluses." Frodo stood up. "After I've thrown our friendship away like so much rubbish!"

Bilbo stood, too, and laid a hand on his nephew's shoulder. It had a calming effect, and Frodo sat down again.

"You must forgive my nephew, Master Gamgee. As you said, he is still a tween and has several years of maturity to accomplish before he will come of age." Gamgee, who had puffed up during Frodo's rant, listened to Bilbo's wise words, but his anger had not yet abated.

"I'll forgive the lad, for certain. Never let it be said that I could not forgive, Master Bilbo." Gamgee sat stiffly, the comfort of the chair forgotten. "But it does my boy ill to see another child speak to his elders as I've been spoken to just now."

"It's all right, Da," Sam said, speaking for the first time since his father had come into the smial. "No harm done," he added, trying to cut through the tension in the room.

Hamfast ignored his son and looked at Bilbo. "You and I were raised better," he said.

"Perhaps," Bilbo said, running a finger over his lower lip. "No doubt I earned every childhood thrashing I received, Master Hamfast, but there is such a thing as being too free with the lash. I've seen what it can do," he finished, glancing at his nephew.

"Sir," Frodo interrupted. "I brought dishonor to Uncle Bilbo by my words just now. And I showed disrespect to you."

"Aye, that you did." It was evident that Hamfast Gamgee was not used to being crossed. Frodo faltered, looking to his uncle for help.

"What would you have him do, Ham?" Bilbo asked the gardener.

"More like what you should do, I'm thinkin'."

Bilbo's eyes widened. His guest was suggesting that he thrash his nephew, whom he'd never raised a hand to in all his twenty-eight years. Well, he was certainly not going to begin doing it now…

Frodo shook his head at Bilbo, heading off an indignant retort from the older Baggins. His eyes glinted with emotion and not a little guile. Bilbo was taken aback, searching for words.

"Master Gamgee, may I speak my mind?" Frodo had stood again, his hands jammed into his trouser pockets.

Gamgee looked up at the boy, laying aside his pipe. "Aye," he said, warily.

"Do you remember what happened the day you came home from the fair?"

"Well…" the Gaffer said, pondering, wondering where this was leading.

"Sam took the cane from your hand and admonished you for striking me."

"Aye, now I do, now you mention it," Gamgee said. "He was upset with me—became upstart with me—because of what happened, accident though it was. All the more reason that he's not too old for a proper whippin'."

"Isn't he?" Frodo asked. "While you were away, Sam's done nothing but work, and mighty hard, too. He took himself into account least of all, though he was sick most of the time. You must admit you were a bit hasty in your punishment—without finding out all the circumstances first."

"No one needed to tell me any circumstances," Gamgee retorted, then remembered who he was talking to and seemed to shrink, a reaction Frodo recognized and hated.

"I think," Frodo began, carefully choosing his words, "that your sense of respect muddies your own natural sense of what's right. You backed down—just now—only because you felt you had no right to speak to me in anger. And the only reason you didn't waver the other day was because the ale loosened your tongue."

"Frodo!" Bilbo exclaimed, astounded at the words coming from Frodo's mouth. "Now that's enough!"

"Please forgive me, Uncle, but it's not enough," Frodo said, his eyes remaining on Sam's father. "The point is, you and I are no different, Master Gamgee. My coming inheritance—my position or whatever you want to call it—that doesn't make me better than you—nor your son! Sam is my friend, and I hope to have his friendship until I die. And not you, nor Uncle Bilbo, nor the opinion of all Hobbiton will change my mind either!"

Frodo crossed his arms in a contrived act of petulance, turning to Bilbo. "There now. In your presence I've been rude to Master Gamgee. Tell me, Uncle, does he deserve any less respect than you do?"

Bilbo's face was a study in frowning perplexity. "No, he does not. And I must say that you've shown unconscionable discourtesy to my old friend."

Frodo turned back to Hamfast. "Would you say that my rudeness compares to Sam's words to you the other day?"

Gamgee thought a moment, his wits showing him the way of things. "Nay, it don't," he said slowly, looking long and hard at his youngest boy. "It don't compare atall. There's no such disrespect in my boy."

"Yet you whipped him," Frodo said.

"Frodo, you are incorrigible!" Bilbo protested.

Frodo continued without responding to Bilbo's tongue-lashing. "I've been disrespectful to you today, Sir, and I've truly shown bad manners toward a guest and friend of my Uncle. But you've stayed quiet. Do you know what I think? If you would but say it, you would like to see more than Uncle Bilbo taking a strap to me. Given half the chance, I believe you'd like to do the job yourself!"

Bilbo threw his hands up in exasperation. Hamfast, however, was rooted to the spot, dumbfounded at Frodo's inconceivable behavior.

Frodo hesitated, then held out a hand in appeal. "If you would just agree to take more care in the way you put Sam to rights, Sir," Frodo's tone softened. "A word will more than likely do—he dotes on you, you know, and does everything in his power to please you, though you don't see it."

Bilbo grimaced at Frodo's third indiscretion but said nothing, frankly wanting to see what would come next.

"And I…" Frodo took a deep breath. "I'll take any punishment that's fair."

The elder Baggins drew a sharp breath. Frodo knew what kind of disciplinary philosophy Hamfast held—what was the boy thinking? The next words out of the worthy gardener's mouth confirmed Bilbo's fear.

"It—it's not my place to whip ye," Gamgee stuttered, clearly taken aback at Frodo's offer.

"You'll give your permission, won't you, Uncle?" Frodo asked.

"I will do no such…" he began, but the pleading look in Frodo's eyes stayed his words. "Well…" He bit the inside of his lip. "I'll not forbid it, but I'll not be party to it."

"Maybe you should go outside," Frodo suggested, knowing how Bilbo felt about such things.

"No, if my boy is willing to take his punishment, I must be willing to stay." Bilbo's eyes were flashing. The last time Frodo had received a beating (at least as far as he knew) was nigh a decade ago, and the consequences had been dreadful. Bilbo had secretly blamed himself for not having adopted the lad sooner and possibly preventing the episode.

Gamgee was obviously uncomfortable with the way things were heading. But Frodo had backed him into this corner and there was nothing for it but to give the lad a whack or two. I'll just make light work of it, he thought. The old gardener had often used this tactic when punishing one of his children, making much ado about the event but using a light hand. "I'll need a switch, Sam," he said, stumbling over the words. "Fetch me one off the maple just outside."

"Wait." Frodo's eyes lighted on a tall jar full of rushes drying on the hearth, to be used for kindling. Some of them were newly picked, still green and pliable. He snatched one up and handed it to Gamgee. "This should do," he said quietly.

Sam fidgeted, Frodo's closed and unreadable expression frightening him. He watched as young Baggins walked over to the far wall, slipped his braces off his shoulders, and pulled the shirt up around his neck. Frodo stood with his feet apart, hands on the wall. His eyes were closed, his ribs standing out a little as he breathed.

"Stars and comets," muttered Sam, his eyes widening in alarm. Bilbo came up beside young Gamgee and wrapped an arm around his shoulders. Sam could feel Baggins' body trembling through the touch.

Gamgee stood aghast, his eyes fixed on three pale, silver-white stripes that crossed Frodo's upper back. Slowly his arm lowered to his side, and the rush fell to the floor, quite forgotten.

"Nay," he said, shaking his head and turning away. "Nay," he repeated, clearing his throat. "Come away, Samwise. Get yer things now; we're going home." Bilbo released his hold on the boy and Sam hurried to obey his father. Hamfast picked up his pipe and walked to the front door. Collecting himself, he turned back to bid his host goodbye, noticing that Frodo had vanished without a sound.

"Tell Sam I'll wait for him by the gate," he said. "And thankee for the hospitality."

Bilbo, smitten with a dry mouth, could only nod affirmation.

"And Master Bilbo, when ye be seein' the lad, tell him…" Gamgee cleared his throat. "Tell him he's made his point, fair and square. Tell him I said…" The gardener straightened his jacket and looked Bilbo in the eye. "There'll be no whippin'—today or otherwise." He turned away and was out of the door before Bilbo could think of a reply to his loyal gardener.

--

Sam rushed into the kitchen, where Frodo had disappeared only moments earlier. But Frodo was not there, and Sam dared not make his dad wait—their relationship, though mended, would be delicate for awhile and Sam would be the one to make the world all right again. Best to start well, and not aggravate his father today. He grabbed his jacket and a small bag that Bilbo had packed and labeled with Sam's name, leaving it on the table for him to find.

"Thank you, Mr. Bilbo, for puttin' me up and takin' care of me 'n all," he said, returning to the parlor. He held the bag up with both hands. "And for this, too. I'll bring it back tomorrow after chores."

"No need, my boy. It's yours—I think it's fair to say you've more than earned it. I'll see you soon, eh?"

Bilbo held out his hand.

Sam looked at it, surprised. Bilbo had always been kind to him, shown him the greatest deference, but they had never shaken hands. The hand remained where it was, and a kindly smile graced the elder Baggins' features. Sam shifted the bag to one hand and drew himself up. He gripped Bilbo's fingers in his own and was surprised at the strength he felt in them. The two hobbits looked at each other, hands firmly clasped, and grinned.

"Aye, you will, Sir. 'Will you—tell Mr. Frodo I—well, just tell him I'll talk to him later." Sam glanced out the open door, where his father waited by the gate. "My Gaffer's waitin'." He let go of Bilbo's hand. "G'bye, Sir."

"Goodbye, Samwise Gamgee. I'll give Frodo your message."

Hamfast, seeing the smiles on both hobbits' faces, threw up a wave and held the gate for Sam, then the two Gamgees set off down the path toward home.

--

Frodo sat in the garden shed, listening to sounds of goodbyes, the gate closing, and footsteps retreating down the lane. He was dry-eyed, but his heart felt strangely empty and cold. He took a deep breath, but it did little to ease the deep ache in his breast.

Soon he heard footsteps coming along the path that cut across the garden to the shed, and turned to face Bilbo when he opened the door.

Bilbo stood there a moment, his curly hair a halo in the clear sunlight. The elder Baggins' features were thrown in shadow; Frodo could just discern his outline.

"Hello, Uncle."

"My boy."

"They're gone?"

"Yes."

Frodo stood, hastily, adjusting his braces, looking at Bilbo in what he hoped was a cheerful aspect. "Are you hungry, Uncle? I thought I'd unwrap that cheese Mistress Hardbottle put up for us last…"

"Frodo…"

"You know, I've been practicing my cooking skills while you were away," Frodo rattled on, making as if to leave the darkness of the shed, but Bilbo did not budge.

"Frodo..."

"Poor Sam was my test subject, but I managed not to kill him…"

But Bilbo was not to be put off. He stepped close to his nephew, put his hands on the boy's shoulders, and pulled him into a strong hug. He felt Frodo's body go rigid, but was not deterred, continuing to hold the lad and patting him occasionally on the back.

Slowly, the stiffness disappeared and the lad relaxed against Bilbo, putting his own arms around his uncle.

"I'm very proud of you, my boy," Bilbo whispered. Frodo didn't answer, but the elder hobbit could feel a sudden dampness on his shirt, triggering a prickle behind his own eyes. Finally, he pulled away, clearing his throat and blinking hard.

"Just look at you, Frodo! You'd think I'd taught you better than to go around with your shirt half out of your breeches!" he fussed.

Frodo smiled faintly, tucking his shirt in properly and following his uncle out of the shed. The two hobbits walked to the edge of the garden, looking out over the turned earth which smelled heavenly in the unexpected warmth of the fall morning, a smell only hobbits could fully appreciate.

"He's done an excellent job," Bilbo said, reaching for his pipe.

"Yes."

"He'll make you a fine gardener some day."

"Yes."

Bilbo puffed on his pipe, blowing out the match and watching the smoke rise from the bowl. He turned and placed a hand on Frodo's shoulder.

"He's already an excellent friend."

Frodo looked at him intently for a moment, then a smile slowly spread across his face, clearing away many things.

"Aye," he replied, nodding. "He is, indeed."

There was silence between the two hobbits for a few minutes while Bilbo enjoyed the rest of his pipe. When it was finally out and the ashes scattered over the garden, Bilbo placed both hands on the front of his weskit.

"Well, I think I need a little repast after all this. What do you say to tea and biscuits? Perhaps that cheese you were talking about?"

Frodo threw his arm around Bilbo's shoulders. "I'd like that very much, Uncle, but under one condition."

"What's that?"

"You sit and be comfortable, and I'll make the tea."

"What's all this?" Bilbo sputtered playfully as they approached the kitchen door.

"Nothing, Uncle," Frodo said, opening the door and standing aside to let Bilbo in. "Nothing at all."

He hesitated a moment, looking out over the garden, and smiled to himself. "Just something Sam taught me," he whispered.

And he went in and closed the door.

The End