This is interspecies slash, but very hobbit-centric. Frodo/Faramir, post-Quest. PG-13.

The Apple Peddler
by Laura Mason

"I might have guessed. A little mischief in a mean way: Gandalf warned me that you were still capable of it."

"Quite capable," said Saruman, "and more than a little. You made me laugh, you hobbit-lordlings," the wizard continued, but Sam was too angry at what he'd done to the Shire -- and this disrespect to Mr. Frodo -- to listen very carefully. He saw other hobbits approaching cautiously, but his eyes remained on the devastated landscape, seeking what was no longer there, so that he was surprised to realize how closely everyone had crowded around by the time Frodo ordered Saruman to leave.

"Don't let him go! Kill him!" the crowd hissed, and Sam's heart agreed for a moment before his hobbit-sense came back, and he gently held off his angry neighbors and friends while the wizard made threats against them.

"If my blood stains the Shire, it shall wither and never again be healed!"

But then Frodo spoke, calming the crowd. "Do not believe him! He has lost all power, save his voice that can still daunt you and deceive you, if you let it. But I will not have him slain. It is useless to meet revenge with revenge: it will heal nothing. Go, Saruman, by the speediest way!"

Sam saw it again, the power and authority in Frodo that he'd used with the Gollum-creature -- and had never turned on his fellow hobbits, despite his money and position. He was watching Mr. Frodo, marking the sorrow in his face, and so he missed seeing Saruman's hand pulling the knife until it was too late -- or would have been, if not for the hidden mithril vest that still protected his master.

Sam's arm was shaking with the fierceness of his rage as he held his sword to the wizard's throat. Too much had been done, to his people and his land. They'd gone off and given their blood to save the Shire. Worse, Mr. Frodo had given his health, his peace of mind... for this. To come home and find this evil being had turned their victory to ashes.

But Frodo was speaking, a gentle hand on Sam's arm, and his words made Sam stop and breathe deeply. "He was great, once, of a noble kind that we should not dare to raise our hands against."

Once, perhaps, but the filthy thing in the dirt, being held by a dozen hobbits, was not great. He was small and evil. Fallen, as Mr. Frodo was saying. Still, Sam sheathed his sword as Frodo wished, and stepped back, motioning to the others to let the villain go free.

Saruman was looking at Frodo intently, his eyes full of hatred and grudging respect. "You have grown, Halfling," he said, and Sam growled low in his throat. Kings, princes, and the most powerful of the elves called his master Ringbearer, with awe and admiration. But Saruman was still speaking, proclaiming his hatred of Frodo.

"I will trouble you no more. But do not expect me to wish you health and long life -- or the happiness you expect, Halfling. You will have nothing; no one to hold you when the pain comes and no pleasure in your boring little life here among these dullards. This I foretell."

Frodo's grieved face transformed to something like anger at those words, but Saruman didn't see it as he strode away through a crowd of angry hobbits. Then Frodo shook it off and offered shelter to Wormtongue, and everything went four kinds of crazy as the confrontation ended with both the wizard and his evil servant dead on the very doorstep of Bag End.

And Sam was fool enough to think it was all over but the clearing up. But it wasn't -- the tale was just beginning.

***

Frodo was cheerful enough as the work of reordering the Shire began. Oh, he was weary from the long road home, though we'd taken our time. And he was sorrowful, as were we all. Couldn't look from a window in any smial without seeing the destruction: trees left to rot where they'd fallen, them ugly brick houses, and piles of filth seemingly everywhere.

But hobbits can work hard when there's a task to be done, and the first thing we did was clean up Bag End right quick, so's Mr. Frodo could feel truly settled and home at last. In the meantime we were staying with the Cottons, and I made certain that any view from his windows was cheerful as could be, too. Some hobbits had awfully big wood piles for the next two years, but we got rid of all the dead trees. And those men hadn't known much about building, judging by how quickly their structures came down. The bricks came in right handy, too, for keeping nice new smials warm and building good strong chimneys.

So Frodo seemed cheerful enough, though he was doing an awful lot of writing late into the night. He was usually at the table with a candle every night when I went to bed, and some mornings I'd find him sleeping there, his face smudged with ink. Come to think of it, even on the road home he'd been busy with pen and ink each night. And at Rivendell I think he exhausted the elves' stores of parchment for years with all the notes he took from Mr. Bilbo, and the papers he filled each night. I never did figure out where he carried all the pages he filled, for when he unpacked his saddlebags there was only Mr. Bilbo's Red Book, and a few leaves folded in half.

I was on my way to speak to Mr. Frodo about leaving him for a few weeks. I wanted to do a planting before Yule, and knew he'd be fine; his cousins were due any day for a good long visit, and Mrs. Cotton would care for him. I had my hand in my pocket as I walked, holding the Lady's gift, which I intended to discuss with him. But as I neared Bag End, where he'd been working with a group of hobbits, I saw Master Pippin leading their ponies to the old shed. Merry was beside the front door, hugging Frodo, and I slowed my steps, so as not to interrupt their conversation.

"Stop writing so often. Let him wonder for a change, and wait for him to make the next overture."

"I'm sure you're very wise, Merry. But I want to share my life with him, all my daily thoughts and feelings. It's my greatest joy since we parted."

Mr. Merry looked right unhappy about that, and he searched Frodo's face for a good long time before he said, "Then write if you must. But do stop sending him reams of paper every week, at least until he sends you some reply. Men are always overwhelmed by hobbits -- remember? They feel our emotions are excessive."

Mr. Frodo smiled and nodded, and then Pippin rejoined them and the conversation was turned to his outrageous new vest as was peeking out from the armor he still wore under his fine cloak. I turned the corner, then, and we all went inside.

That night we settled that I'd go wander the Shire replanting trees, and the cousins would stay with Frodo. As we sat by the fire, I noted Mr. Merry's sharp eyes were on Mr. Frodo whenever he got quiet -- as if he hadn't always been a very thoughtful gentlehobbit, and one who lived inside his own head a bit too much if I do say so.

But before I went home, they were opening new bottles of wine Pippin had brung (Mr. Bilbo's wine cellar having been destroyed, and the Cottons not having money for such luxuries) and the three of them were laughing like loons, as of old. I set out the next morning.

***

By the time I returned to the Cotton's, winter had set in good. I blamed the cold weather for the change in Mr. Frodo's mood. Or perhaps it was just his normal, natural reticence was now contrasting with everyone else's high spirits. All were excited about the coming Yule after such a hard year with no cheer.

Frodo looked smaller, somehow, shrunken in on himself. He still spent most evenings bent over a table, writing, but the ease and flow of it had changed, and it seemed his fingers stuttered and stumbled over the words he was trying to capture.

Mr. Pippin came to fetch him to Buckland for Yule, and the Cottons all seemed relieved that he'd be gone for a month or more. Well, they wanted to honor him, but he wasn't the easiest houseguest. He'd spent too many years alone in Bag End to realize how eccentric his life was, for no one else in Hobbiton burned away two whole candles every blessed night and made ink more often than they made bread.

When Pippin arrived, all fancied up with his sword and cloak, the Cotton lads ran to greet him. Frodo practically did the same, but then he stopped, as if he were afraid of his little cousin -- well, little no more, since Mr. Pippin was a good deal taller than Mr. Frodo now. But that had been so for a long time, and didn't explain why Mr. Frodo got all white-faced looking at him, or why his hands shook when he hugged him and took the letter Pippin carried.

The lads were dragging their guest off to the dinner table, but I stayed in the shadows to watch Mr. Frodo stare at his letter for a long time. It bore the King's seal on the flap, I could see that much, but I didn't know why he'd dread word from his good friend Aragorn, or from Queen Arwen, for that matter. But dread it he did, for before he tore it open, his mouth set the same way it had facing that horrible spider on the border of Mordor.

I was glad I'd stayed, for it looked like Mr. Frodo would faint when he read the letter. He went white so fast I actually took a step toward him, but then he crumpled the paper and staggered to a chair, and threw himself down.

When I heard him sob, I backed out and went to make his excuses to Mrs. Cotton.

***

I finally got a look at Mr. Frodo's letter that next afternoon, while carrying his bags to the ponies. He was saying farewell to Mrs. Cotton, and it only took a moment to find the paper tucked hastily in the outside pocket of his satchel.

King Elessar sent his regards in very proper language, nothing upsetting there, nor in the news that Minas Tirith was recovering from the siege, and Rohan had enjoyed a fine harvest, too. So it had to be the next paragraph, the one that began "There is disturbing news from Ithilien," though just as I was trying to see the rest Mr. Frodo came walking over, and I had to stuff the paper away and finish tying up his luggage.

After they rode off I was busy helping bring in the Cotton's Yule log and decorate te farmhouse with holly and spruce branches. But I had time in the next month to think about the King's letter, and to wish Mr. Frodo hadn't never met Captain Faramir of Gondor, no matter how noble his birth. I even spared a thought to Mr. Pippin's heroics, thinking he might have let Faramir's crazy father burn him up and I'd not have shed any tears.

That whole family was trouble, as I'd known from the first time old Boromir talked about the Enemy's Ring. But at least his kind of trouble-making hadn't caused so much grief, being the kind that even someone as soft-hearted as Mr. Frodo could see right through. While Faramir's fair words had fooled my master right proper, and made him do things that just weren't right. Men and hobbits weren't meant to mix -- though I suppose we'd all been doing our share of gadding with men, elves, dwarves and even wizards. But Mr. Frodo and Faramir, they took it too far.

Those months we spent in Minas Tirith those two sat together at every meal, took picnics out on the walls of the City every fair day, and talked late into the night -- and did more than talking, later, though I wasn't meant to know that, I suppose. Mr. Frodo was discreet with all his affairs, and probably thought I didn't know he fancied lads, not lasses.

I suppose it was because I was some years younger than him that Mr. Frodo thought I didn't understand why Ned Burrows had been such a frequent guest at Bag End once Frodo became the Master, or why Ned's visits stopped the year he married Blossom Sandybanks. For that matter, Frodo probably didn't think I understood why his cousins visited so often, neither.

But I was never blind to Mr. Frodo's doings back then, and I'd certainly seen the way his eyes lit up with interest and speculation when he met Big People during our journey. I just never thought he'd act on it, not until that afternoon we became captives in Ithilien.

Even while that man was interrogating him, and Mr. Frodo was giving such guarded, cautious answers, there was an undercurrent to their conversation. I wasn't surprised when Faramir showed up again after he sent us off to sleep -- he actually carried Mr. Frodo to his bed. And like always, Mr. Frodo assumed I was sleeping because my eyes were closed. He's never understood how closely I have to pay attention to him, to be able to anticipate what he needs or wants.

That night, Mr. Frodo wanted Faramir, and it was mutual. I was careful to let them go ahead enough so he wouldn't be embarrassed about me keeping an eye on the two of them, just in case there was any danger. Not that I still thought Faramir was a villain, but he was a man, and they mostly seemed pretty thick to me. Even Strider, who was the best of the bunch, had seemed pretty ignorant about hobbits when we first met in Bree.

So I followed when Faramir took Mr. Frodo to his own room, away from the others, and I saw every kiss as they undressed. I stayed as they lay together, too, and saw Faramir was pretty gentle with Mr. Frodo, at least until his passions ran away with him. By then Mr. Frodo wasn't objecting, neither. No, he asked for more, really demanded it, and his stubs of fingernails left raw red marks all over that man's arms and sides.

When they fell asleep, I started back to my own bed thinking it was all over. Mr. Frodo had got that itch out of his system, I reckoned, and with the trouble he'd have walking on the morrow, we'd have no more of such foolishness.

But I was dead wrong, for all those weeks later when I woke up a hero, and we were eventually taken to the healers in Minas Tirith, I found Mr. Frodo making cow eyes at Faramir, and him doing the same in return.

Anyhow, whatever the news from Ithilien was, I didn't care. I'd just see that Mr. Frodo was given lots of attention, like always, and he'd get over it soon enough.

***

When I proposed to Rosie I made it plain she'd be helping me take care of Mr. Frodo, and she agreed to it. It seemed like little enough to ask when she was up at Bag End, making plans with me, as we rearranged rooms to give us our own suite, finer than most folks' smials. We had our own sitting room, storage rooms, nurseries, and the very best bedroom, too -- Mr. Bilbo's of old.

Mr. Frodo kept his study and bedroom, and the only other room he cared to ask about was the guest room that had always been set aside for Mr. Gandalf, with that enormous bed. He asked us to leave that room unchanged, and it was little enough. Still, Rosie sighed once, commenting it was a shame no decent hobbit could be comfortable in there, being on the fine side of the smial with its own windows.

Thankfully, she only grumbled during our honey's-moon, when Mr. Frodo was off visiting in Tuckborough. He'd left right after the wedding to give us Bag End to ourselves, and stayed away a whole month. Why, when he finally came back, it truly seemed he felt that was the one visiting us, not the rightful Master of the place.

And he still seemed sickly. Not like he'd been in March, but reclusive, with no appetite nor interest in the practical matters of life. Rosie could have put the same meal before him three days running, and he'd never have noticed. That frustrated her a bit, being used to having her fine cooking appreciated proper, but I soothed her ruffled feathers while Mr. Frodo drank too much tea and only picked at her good baking.

Rosie and I entertained our family and friends at Bag End, and that was another problem with Mr. Frodo -- he never did. Merry and Pippin visited in September, but there were no dinners or dances held for the local gentry to come visit with them. The three of them cooked up a feast for Mr. Frodo's birthday -- and in honor of old Mr. Bilbo, too. But it was just the five of us enjoying all the fancy food.

That night, after I took Rosie to bed, I decided to check on the state of our pantry now that they'd been cooking, just to start up a list for the market the next morn. Of course, from the larder I could hear them in the study, Mr. Pippin snoring in the chair and Merry and Frodo bent close together by the fire.

"You can't go on this way, Frodo. It's been a year now since his entire troop vanished on the way to Emyn Arnen, and there's been no word."

"I don't believe he's dead, Merry. I'd know."

Wasn't it just like Mr. Frodo to sound so certain of something he couldn't know for certain? He was still pining for that man, who'd evidently been fool enough to fall off a cliff and take along an entire troop of men. Prince of Ithilien indeed.

"Frodo, you can't keep waiting for him."

"There's no one else for me. I'll love him until the day I die."

Mr. Merry seemed to be comforting him, so I finished up my marketing list and went back to bed.

***

In October Mr. Frodo was sick, and it lingered until it seemed he'd never perk up again. I remember it was October 17 when I finally bundled him up in a coat and some blankets, and carried him out to the garden to sit in the sunshine for a while. Rosie brought him a mug of tea, and he sat on the bench looking as if it were midwinter and not a fine warm afternoon. Still, I think it must have done him good to be outside getting some fresh air, for he perked up when we had our first visit from the strange peddler-man.

It was odd enough to see one of the big people here in the heart of the Shier. And in all my travels, I'd never seen a big person so old, misshapen, and plain ugly. The man looked like to keel over dead at any moment.

"See here -- what business do you have here?"

"Apples for sale," the old man offered, holding out a hand that shook. "Three pennies each."

That weakness must have been what made Mr. Frodo take such notice and behave so very kindly. Neither Rosie nor I would have sat a peddler down for tea, nor bought his wormy apples. But Mr. Frodo did just that.

"I'll buy all you have," Frodo said, on his feet though he looked no sturdier than the peddler. "Come rest a bit while I fetch my purse."

Rose ran for his money, of course, while Mr. Frodo settled the peddler on the bench and gave him his tea. The man grimaced -- perhaps he meant it to be a smile -- and slowly drank it all, Mr. Frodo now seated beside him, watching him out of the corner of his eye as he pretended to examine the three small, wormy-looking apples.

I thought he'd have sense enough to dicker over the price. Mr. Frodo wasn't born yesterday. But when Rosie gave him his purse, he counted out nine pennies and gave them to the old man without comment. Rosie took the apples inside with an exasperated look at me, but I could only shrug. Mr. Frodo could spend his money as he saw fit, I reckoned, even if it was a plain waste to pay for poor specimens of what grew plentifully on his own lands. We'd wind up feeding those apples to the pig.

The peddler looked at the money on his palm for a while, then carefully tucked it away in a pocket and stood. Frodo and I watched him toddle away, then Frodo met my eyes -- and actually flushed.

"He needs the money, Sam."

"I suppose that's true enough, sir. But no one else in Hobbiton would buy from one of the big people, particularly such poor merchandise."

"All the more reason for us to show some kindness, Sam, so he can make his way home."

I nodded without really agreeing, and kept my ears open that week, to hear who else had been bothered by our apple peddler. But no other hobbits had even seen the man, though he had to pass their homes on his route to Bag End. He'd probably been picking up fallen apples near every orchard to sell to softhearted hobbits, even if no one else would admit to having paid him.

Mr. Frodo thought the man was trying to make his way home, but I thought it more likely he was a rascal who'd found an easy touch. So I wasn't surprised when he showed up at our door the very next week.

Rosie was trying to send him away when Frodo came out of his study and instead invited the old man inside for some tea. He brought that filthy, smelly old man into his study and set him on the comfy chair, too. Then Frodo left him enjoying the warmth of the fire while he ransacked the pantries for a full meal -- not just tea, but seed cake, cheese, bread and butter, cold meat, and fruit that was far better than half-rotted apples.

Mr. Frodo served that sad old man and listened to him mumble about the weather, the harvest, and his home "away south." And then, to top everything, Mr. Frodo paid him nine coppers for three more nasty apples.

Now it's never been my place to criticize what Mr. Frodo does. I'm well aware that others might think Rosie and I were taking advantage of his soft heart, living in Bag End and all. Those who live in a pond don't make water, as we say.

Yet my disapproval had to be writ plain on my face, for as soon as the peddler was out of earshot, Mr. Frodo said, "He needs our help, Sam."

"He needs plenty of help, that's true enough. But you're never going to be rid of him now. Until the day that old man dies, he'll be bothering you."

"It's no bother, Sam." Mr. Frodo was still watching him walk away, his eyes seeing something else entirely I'd guess.

***

I was right, of course.

That old man came every week, rain or shine. But Mr. Frodo truly didn't seem bothered. Oh, his health was still poor, and he was often melancholy. But now, for several days before the peddler's visit, he'd be planning and fussing. He took an interest in the kitchen at last -- not eating, but in baking fine things to tempt the old man. And not just cakes, either. We had roasts and stews enough to feed an army. The neighborhood youngsters soon learned to call on us every Friday for all the left-over bounty the three of us couldn't eat.

Mr. Frodo refused an invitation to Crickhollow for Yule, and Mr. Merry was upset enough that I slipped a note into Mr. Frodo's next letter to explain it. That brought the cousins to Bag End right quick.

"Frodo, you old bookworm. How are you?" Mr. Merry seemed determined to pass off their arrival as a coincidence, but I could see the worry in his eyes clear enough. He and Pippin invaded our smial, and half an hour later a cart arrived full of ducks, geese, bags of flour and sugar, wheels of new cheese, boxes of some fancy Buckland wine, and a few barrels of ale. It was a generous gift, and there was even a beautiful cut-glass lamp with Rosie's name on a tag nestled in a box of shredded paper.

If unexpected visitors always came so prepared, they'd be welcome in every smial.

Frodo did seem cheered to see his cousins, and I hoped that their presence would make him forget the peddler's visit at the end of the week. Maybe if Rosie and I could get to the door before he rang, and sternly send him away, we'd finally see the backside of him for good.

But that night, as Mr. Frodo sat up with the two of them and I checked that the ale had been placed properly in the cellar, I heard otherwise.

"I can't go with you tomorrow, Pippin. I have to do some cooking. But you're both welcome to help me with that."

"You're cooking, Frodo? I thought Rosie did all that for you and Sam."

"She's a very fine cook, of course, but I wouldn't ask her to do all the baking when I'm entertaining a guest. I'm expecting someone for tea on Thursday."

"You're expecting guests besides us?" Pippin laughed. "This is like the old days. Bag End full of company, visitors coming and going."

But Mr. Merry, who'd read my note, didn't laugh. "So you can't go with us to Middleton tomorrow or the next day, either?"

"No, I'm afraid I wouldn't be available until Friday. You can go without me, if you wish. Though you're equally welcome to stay and meet my friend."

"What's his name?"

"I ... I don't actually know his real name. I call him Plat, after the apples he brings each week."

"Apples?" Mr. Pippin sounded confused -- as well he should.

"So it's true what I've heard," Merry said. "You're really entertaining some peddler-man each week as if he were King Elessar himself."

There was silence for a moment, and I couldn't imagine what was going on. Then Mr. Frodo spoke, so softly I could barely hear. "He's old, and feeble, and far from his home. What harm is there in showing him some kindness?"

"The harm is that it sets you further apart from the rest of the Shire, Frodo. Who else would be entertaining one of the big people on a regular basis? And it's not as if he's someone who shared your adventures, as when Bilbo had dwarves visit here. No, this is just some dirty, sickly old man who happened on Bag End and won't leave."

"Merry?" Pippin sounded stunned to hear his cousin speak so sternly -- well, really just yell at Frodo. They'd always given him respect as their elder before this night.

"I am set apart from the Shire already. I have always been set apart, by events that took place before you were born, Meriadoc Brandybuck." I heard the scrape of his chair as Frodo rose abruptly and moved toward the door. I'd never heard his voice so cold and formal when addressing Mr. Merry, that was certain. Why, Mr. Frodo had never been near that cool with the Sackville-Bagginses. It surely was a shame that Mr. Merry couldn't hold his tongue, wasn't it?

"Frodo, this isn't about ... Faramir, is it?" Mr. Merry sounded apologetic now.

"Merry!" Now the young Took was scandalized, as if speaking of the dead was a serious breach of etiquette after such words as they'd exchanged already.

"If you're asking whether I hope that someone would be kind enough to take in Faramir if he was injured or wounded, and civilized enough to feed and nurse him without knowing who he is or how much I love him, then yes. I suppose this is about Faramir."

"This peddler could rob you, or bring ruffians back to Bag End."

"Merry, I'm a grown hobbit. I don't live alone. Sam is one of the three best hobbits in the Shire, you know, and he still keeps a sword under his bed and knows how to use it." There was affection in Frodo's voice again, and I relaxed. Their argument was over, seemingly, and Mr. Frodo trudged down the hall to his bedroom as Mr. Pippin began whispering with his cousin. I was right tired by then, and the ... oh, yes, the ale. It seemed just fine, so I headed back upstairs to my Rosie.

***

The next day, while Frodo and his cousins were busy in the kitchen, Rosie came home from the market in tears. The gossip about Mister Frodo in the village had made her feel she couldn't hold her head up among her friends. I pulled her in my lap and hugged her, then teased a smile back to her sweet lips. But when she finally left to take off her hat, I sat thinking about our reputation.

It was all because that smelly old man kept coming around bothering Mister Frodo. I wasn't going to let it continue any longer, and I'd best take my chance while the cousins were here to keep Frodo occupied.

On Thursday the peddler came, was introduced to Merry and Pippin like he was the cream of Hobbiton society, and as usual sat in Frodo's study for hours, talking and eating. When it grew dark outside, I wrapped up in my elven cloak and went to the bottom of the garden, behind the holly bush, where I could watch the gate. And when high tea ended at last and the old man left, I followed him.

He struck across Mr. Frodo's fields, and at first I thought he was headed for the creek. But then he turned into the stand of trees planted long ago to break the wind and protect the northwest potato fields. I was well back from him, and didn't think he'd seen me, yet once I got under the trees, I couldn't find his trail. His foot prints just seemed to vanish.

So, maybe our peddler had seen me. Or maybe he knew enough about wood-craft to stay well hidden. That would explain why no other hobbits had seen him, I suppose. Still, he had to eat the other six days a week, didn't he? He'd earned enough money off Mr. Frodo to be staying in one of the poorer inns. Now that the apples were long gone, he'd bring a puny load of firewood -- kindling, really -- and take money for that.

I made my way back to Bag End to find Rosie much cheerier, entertaining the Smallburrow sisters in our parlor, and decided to leave the peddler alone for the time being.

The winter really came in then, but the three of us were snug in our fine smial. The following week Mr. Frodo roasted a hen for Thursday tea and that peddler looked right touched when he came in and sniffed the air. They holed up in Frodo's study, as usual. I was right busy all afternoon, helping Rosie clean the pantry, and it grew dark before we finished. So I didn't know it had begun to snow, neither.

When Mr. Frodo escorted his guest to the door and saw there was already a white layer on the ground, with still more coming down, he stopped short.

"You must stay here for tonight. The weather is far too severe for you to get home." But the old man continued walking toward the door, reaching for it himself when Frodo didn't open it. "Please. We have a spare room where you'll be comfortable. You can be on your way in the morning, once the storm is over."

No matter how odd he might be, there was no fairer-spoken hobbit than Frodo Baggins anywhere in the Shire. How that nasty old man ignored his kindness and pleading is beyond me. But he just shook his head and left, vanishing into the swirling snowfall. Good riddance, I thought.

But the next morning, when I went into the kitchen to stir up the fire, Frodo was there, wearing his traveling clothes, hastily stuffing food into a knapsack.

"Mister Frodo? What's wrong? Have you had news from Buckland?" I couldn't imagine anything that would send him on the road so early except one of his cousins being seriously ill.

"Something's happened to Plat, Sam. He needs me; I heard him calling for me last night. I've got to go find him..."

I grabbed him, almost rough-like, and shook him. "Calm down now, you're making no sense. Plat -- the peddler?"

"He needs me, Sam." He didn't seem hysterical anymore, just distant, his eyes far away like when he was hearing elf-music.

"You had a bad dream, Frodo, that's all."

"No, I can tell -- he's been hurt, I need to find him or he'll die." And now Frodo was back in the room with me, and his face set in a determined look I knew better than to argue with. I sighed and grabbed my own sweater from the hook by the door.

"We'll go, together. I'm not letting you search by yourself in all this snow and muck, just make your mind up to that." I added another layer of clothing, then my own cloak. "Though how you think we can find one old man in the wide world is beyond me."

Frodo just smiled, that happy glowing look I'd follow to back to Mordor if he said he had to go there, and we left the smial together.

I took us in the direction I'd followed the old man a week before, since there were no tracks left in the snow for us to follow. The wind had piled the snow up in small drifts against buildings and trees, but much of the ground was bare, if still wet. Snow was rare in Hobbiton, and usually melted quickly.

Frodo's eyes swept back and forth, looking for his peddler. If I hadn't been with him, likely he'd have fallen into a ditch or walked smack into a tree. I kept him safe and let him look for the old man.

But when I wanted to turn to the woods, Frodo turned toward the Mill Creek instead.

"I saw him go this way once, Mister Frodo," I admitted, glad he was too distracted to really understand I'd been following the peddler.

"I heard water -- not the Sea, I hear that most nights," Frodo mumbled, and he just walked off. I stood there a moment, uncertain if I should follow him or try the trees. Then I heard Frodo cry out.

"Sam, over here!" I turned and saw him bending over a long shape in the dead weeds by the creek. "He's been hurt, bring some water."

I stripped a piece of bark off a birch tree and twisted together a cup, then filled it at the creek. When I turned back, Mr. Frodo had the old man's head in his arms, his torso resting on Frodo's crossed legs.

We carefully dribbled water into his mouth, and the rheumy old eyes fluttered, then opened.

"We've got you safe, Plat. Everything will be fine now," Frodo soothed, smiling down at him.

"Knew you'd come," he managed to say, and Frodo motioned to me to bring more water. I refilled my cup and came back, and the old peddler drank it down more easily. Frodo had removed his own cloak and covered the man with it.

"Of course I came. Now we've got to get you home to Bag End; you're starved with cold," Frodo said, looking at me defiantly as he rubbed the man's arms to warm him.

"What did you call me? Before," the peddler asked suddenly, and Frodo turned very red.

"You've never told me your name," he said softly. "I named you for your apples. Court-pendu plat."

Well, that was as good an explanation as any, I supposed. "Pendu" seemed about right to me -- he was ripe for hanging if anyone was, that sneaking old swindler.

But when I looked back at the old man, he was smiling up at Frodo and didn't look like such a villain. There was something in his eyes, some pain that actually made me swallow and look away. But of course Mr. Frodo didn't react that way; he weren't never no coward, no matter what some folks think. He met those sad eyes with a brave, sweet smile, and actually bent over to kiss the filthy old duffer.

Now Mister Frodo was aiming for his brow, I've no doubt of that, but the sneaky old thing tipped his face up, sudden-like, so Frodo's kiss landed smack on his lips.

That tore it. I took a step forward to pull him away, no matter how hurt he was. But then the sky darkened, and the earth rumbled so fierce I fell back on my bottom and the air rushed out of my lungs. Frodo hung on to the peddler as thunder and lightening put on a show like Gandalf's fireworks.

And when it ended and the sun shone upon us again, Frodo was holding a different person in his arms -- a person I knew and had thought dead these last twelve months or more.

"Faramir?" Frodo stammered, and then that man laughed joyously while Frodo burst into tears, the two of them rolling around on the wet, cold ground clutched together and looking likely to eat each other alive.

I suppose some might have left them there, like that. Well, if you think I did you don't know Sam Gamgee very well. When I could finally get their attention, I chivvied the two of them back to Bag End to get clean and warm like decent folks.

The noise they made in the tub-room! Well, no matter, for Rosie was busy packing all our gear for a long visit to her family's farm. I figured that spare room bed would be in pieces before we returned, and Mr. Frodo wouldn't walk for a month or more. But hearing Frodo's happy laughter again as Rose and I walked away, I didn't mind one bit.

***

"Are you still writing, my love?" Faramir came up behind Frodo and long arms encircled him.

"Just finished," Frodo said, dropping his quill and turning into the embrace to steal a kiss, then nuzzle into his man's neck. "If I don't write regularly, Sam will worry. And who knows where that could lead? He might show up here in Ithilien himself to make certain you're not abusing me."

"I am... but you love it," Faramir growled as his mouth covered Frodo's. Indeed, from the cries and moans that came from their room for the next hour or more, it might have seemed that some prisoners were being tormented for information.

But the guards of the Prince knew better, and they stood as still as the stones they'd been enchanted into while Faramir was under Saruman's spell.

 

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