This is part of the "Beyond" AU, where Frodo loses Bag End to the Sackville-Bagginses and spends eight years living in Combe, one of the villages of Bree-land. When his time in Combe comes to an end, Frodo returns to the Shire, settling in Crickhollow with Sam.

NC-17 please for explicit sex. And hopefully that's all you need to know to start this one.

Beyond Universe: Crickhollow Year Eight
by Laura Mason


"You're sure you'll be all right now?"

"Sam, if you don't leave this instant I'll-- I'll tell Merry to drop you in the River," Frodo replied with a laugh, watching Sam scramble into the wagon without further question or argument. Even after so many years in Buckland, Sam had a deep mistrust of the Brandywine. No amount of coaxing could get him in a boat on those deep brown waters; he'd go miles out of his way to avoid the Buckland ferry. And though Frodo had taught him to float in the shallow pools where children played, only the hottest summer days drove Sam to the river's cool embrace.

"Goodbye, cousin!" Merry called, flapping the reins he held in one hand. The ponies began to walk, and he turned back to call "You'll be sorry you missed Lilac's wedding when we come back full of good food and better gossip!"

"Goodbye, Mr. Frodo. I'll be back in a fortnight without fail!"

Frodo waved to them both without answer, then stood and watched until the cart was out of sight. Trust Merry to think only of the parties he'd be missing. Frodo had work to do here, particularly with Sam making a trip to see his family. He wasn't some wealthy man of leisure, that's why he'd refused the invitation. It certainly wasn't because he disliked visiting Hobbiton.

Anyway, Sam was always happy to attend to any business of Frodo's during his regular visits home. Sam enjoyed new responsibilities, as was evident from how he'd bloomed in the time since Frodo returned to the Shire. Sam was happiest when meeting new people and still thought of traveling as an adventure, even when it was only the well-known route between Hobbiton and Buckland.

Surely it didn't bother Sam to see Bag End, even if he no longer served as gardener of that grand estate. True, Sam had always put his heart into his work -- but he told Frodo he hadn't enjoyed dealing with the Sackville-Bagginses.

Frodo later heard from the Widow Rumble that almost immediately after they took possession, Lobelia made Sam rip out several flowerbeds merely to see how obedient he was. Frodo still felt guilty when he thought of it, and wondered if he should have continued after Bilbo instead of staying with Doc. But Sam had continued to work for the S-B's without complaint. Still, his willingness to move to Buckland and take a much less important job spoke volumes about Sam's experiences with Frodo's relations. Relations Frodo had only faced once in all the years since he'd returned to the Shire.

Frodo still stood on his walk, and now he turned to look at the tiny house, which they'd freshly painted this Spring. Each window had a box of flowers and herbs; the walls were covered with a thick, lush ivy Sam coaxed into luxuriant growth. He'd made the low house appear more like a smial. Before the round yellow door grew some of Frodo's favorite flowers, and more lined the path to the road. And their vegetable garden stretched from the back of the house almost to the road, so fertile in Sam's care that the crop paid all Sam's yearly wage and bought seed.

He still remembered Lotho's mocking laughter when he and Sam arrived at the Hobbiton market that day, almost seven years ago now.

"Look, it's some Brandybuck sharecropper!" Lotho and his friends were drunk, though it was only mid-day, and making the vendors very nervous as they pushed their way through the crowded street, knocking over displays and nearly trampling some of the farmers' families.

"Lotho." Frodo said flatly as they walked up to him and Sam near the tobacconist's stand.

"I think you'd better call me Mister Sackville-Baggins, Frodo, and remember what class you're in now that you live in a hovel with our former gardener." He expected the laughter from Lotho's friends, but the curiosity and amusement on other faces in the crowd hurt. Frodo had always been polite and courteous to all the shopkeepers and farmers of Hobbiton after he came to live with Bilbo, who'd reinforced the good manners his parents used to drill into him.

He stood silently while Lotho and his friends heaped more insults on them. It was obvious Lotho wanted a fight, but Frodo wasn't a hotheaded tween, nor was he drunk. It was five against two, and all of them were larger than Frodo, though Sam could probably hold his own even with these older hobbits. But no one else would interfere or help them; too many people depended on the good will of Bag End for their livelihood. So Frodo kept his face calm and turned back to his shopping, and Sam followed his lead.

"That's it, run away, lickspittle coward! Why don't you go back to Buckland, or wherever it is that unnatural hobbits like you can live with men." Lotho laughed, and his followers joined in. "If you weren't such a runt I'd think you were half-man, you're so odd."

The fun of taunting him soon wore off, and Lotho turned to annoying a pretty lass selling fabric while his friends wandered off in search of others to bully. Frodo concluded his business buying pipeweed, then moved on, Sam right beside him.

It wasn't until they reached Bagshot Row that Frodo realized his hands were shaking with anger.

He'd avoided Hobbiton ever since, though he couldn't avoid news of what Lotho was doing with Bilbo's money and influence.

Frodo had a good life in Crickhollow. He had a tiny inheritance from Doc tucked away for emergencies. The sale of Doc's house in Combe had bought his house, which included a broad strip of land reaching to the River. With Sam's help and skill, it was enough for them to survive, though in a very modest manner compared to the splendor of Bag End.

Frodo considered Sam a partner, not a servant, and knew their success was all due to Sam's energy and knowledge. He truly was a marvel. Sam knew everything about plants, but he also knew how to care for animals and cooked much better than Frodo, too. He was very practical and stuck to a budget carefully, and he tried to make Frodo be careful, too.

Sam always did more than his share of the work, freeing Frodo to spend time getting to know the hobbit families living in Crickhollow. Sam did all the chores when Frodo took days walking through Buckland, as happened when he needed to speak to the local landowners about issues.

Their first year in Crickhollow he'd gone to them about paying to have a new well dug in the village. Skip Fulltoes, the healer, had mentioned his concerns about poorer families drinking river water. Since Frodo had learned from Doc how much disease could spread without clean water, he felt it was a valid concern. He tried to explain how important it was to Sam. He must have understood, for Sam didn't complain when the meetings dragged on for weeks, despite the extra work it meant for him.

And where in all of Middle Earth could you find a more faithful friend? Or one who enjoyed quiet evenings reading tales by the fire instead of socializing at the pub? They'd been living together for three years when Sam asked to learn elvish, and Frodo found he enjoyed teaching him. He was reminded of the first days of their friendship, when they would sit in Bilbo's study together, learning their lessons. When he said as much, Sam suggested starting a school for the village children. Then he'd set about freeing time for Frodo to work out the idea and find support.

Most hobbits didn't think much of reading and writing, but many agreed with Frodo when he pointed out how easy it was to be cheated nowadays. Gossip about Lotho's shady business deals had reached Buckland, and when Frodo promised that the school wouldn't start until the harvest concluded, he found many pupils. Not all of them were children, either.

It was harder to get the Brandybucks and other landowners to agree to building a school house large enough to house a teacher. Instead, Frodo found an abandoned house on the edge of town that could be converted, but there was still another long battle to get them to agree to hire Peony Stillwater as the teacher, and pay her enough so the poor girl could support herself and her baby.

Frodo spent the months leading up to the first day of school teaching Peony and preparing the lesson plans for her duties. Many evenings in the next two years were spent helping her prepare the next day's lessons, often late into the evening. Sam never once complained when Frodo overslept or missed the milking.

But thoughts of Sam always led to worries about the future. How much longer would it be before Sam wanted to wed? He'd been of age for several years now, and he always spent as much of his holidays with the Cottons as he did with the Gaffer. Would his Rosie agree to move as far as Buckland? If she did, Sam would need better wages to support his family. Perhaps Frodo should raid his savings to buy more land. They could rent what they didn't cultivate themselves. Sam should have a home of his own, not just a share in this tiny cottage, but perhaps they could begin by adding on a suite of rooms for the newlyweds.

Frodo shook himself out of his thoughts. No sense planning so carefully, particularly without speaking to Sam first. Life had taught Frodo to be ready for change. And in the meantime, he had to remember what he was about right now, and not neglect the garden while Sam was away. Right now he should go inside and have tea, before some gossiping neighbor caught him mooning over his flowers.

No one in the Shire ever forgot any scandal or gossip. Frodo had been the subject of both since he was twelve, and he'd only compounded it by moving to Bree-land and living in a man's house for eight years. Frodo dreaded new tales of his oddness reaching Hobbiton and becoming fodder for Lotho's hatred. He wondered again what he'd ever done to his relatives to earn such animosity.

Frodo went inside, but had no appetite for tea. He was lonely whenever Sam left, and having one of his favorite cousins gone at the same time only added to his boredom. Lilac Bolger's wedding to Perry Proudfoot was the social event of the summer in Hobbiton, and they were both distant Brandybuck relations. But even if they weren't, Merry was always ready for a trip that brought him closer to Tuckborough. He and Pippin would probably terrorize the bride's family for day with their elaborate practical jokes, and liven up the bachelor party, too.

But oh, how Frodo missed Merry's happy chatter. The older he grew, the more cheerful Merry seemed -- unlike Frodo, who was prone to melancholy.

It was time to bring in the cow, but walking through his pasture at this time of afternoon he'd meet far too many of his neighbors, those whose animals were permitted to graze on Frodo's land leading to the river. Frodo wasn't in a mood to be sociable. If he waited, perhaps most folk would be on their way home to supper.

So Frodo sat at his kitchen table a moment longer, and his thoughts led to Doc. He still missed the man who'd been more like a father than an employer. Doc had missed his own son so much, he'd become a second father to Frodo. Unlike Bilbo, who avoided behaving too paternally and always insisted that Frodo be independent. Frodo wondered if it was because Bilbo had known and loved his parents, and didn't want to displace them. Perhaps it was simply that Bilbo always knew he'd leave someday, and kept his distance from Frodo to spare them both pain.

Of course he missed Bilbo, too, and thinking of him living among the elves led to thoughts of Estel -- and Gandalf, he quickly added to himself. Frodo wondered where they both were now. The wizard's last visit had been back in Combe, just after Frodo had finalized the sale of Doc's house. Gandalf told Frodo he would be traveling, and warned that he wouldn't be able to visit. But he hadn't said that eight years would go past with no word at all from him.

It was worrying, but the wizard couldn't be in serious trouble. Bilbo had told him many times how very clever Gandalf could be in the face of danger, and how skilled he was with a sword. Besides, Estel was with the wizard, and Frodo knew the Ranger was well able to defend them both from any trouble.

Estel. Frodo just couldn't keep his thoughts away from the man, despite everything he'd promised himself. Why couldn't he fall in love with someone here in Buckland? Peony was a wonderful lass, despite being left in a fix by Lotho. She was smart and wouldn't object to Frodo's reputation. But he didn't love her.

For that matter, why couldn't he love Sam that way, instead of as a friend? Even though Sam wouldn't share his feelings, Frodo could have the joy of close friendship with the one he cared about, and be able to see him every day and work closely with him. But while Sam was dear to him, Frodo didn't want Sam the way he'd always wanted Estel.

Frodo still loved and wanted a man who'd said a final farewell to him almost eight years ago, and he was fool enough to keep hoping they'd meet again, somehow.

Anger at himself propelled him out of his chair. Frodo quickly found a straw sunhat and his walking stick, then left to fetch the cow, slamming the door quite loudly behind him. He strode toward the pasture, thinking what a nasty hot day it had become and very grateful that he didn't meet any villagers on his way.

Blossom was contentedly lying in the sunshine, not far from the river. Frodo moved into the shade along the low bank, away from the area trampled by the animals who drank here. Sharing the pasture was working out quite nicely, despite Uncle Sara's predictions of trouble. There were just too many neighbors who didn't have enough land for their livestock, or didn't have access to the water. Why should these hardworking hobbits have to waste hours carrying water for the animals, when Frodo only owned one cow and a few pigs? Sam's chickens certainly didn't need much room. He had more than enough grassland for all the villagers.

Frodo thought again about buying more land, and using some of it for pens, or even a barn for bad weather. Sam would like the storage...

From such practical thoughts Frodo's mind moved to the beauty of the afternoon. The sun hung low in the western sky, over the heart of the Shire. Every year it seemed to grow more beautiful to him. He'd thought living here again would make him less appreciative of the blessings of good land. Instead, every day he was reminded of how hard it was to grow fine crops in Staddle, or how rocky the soil was in Combe. Every month brought new wonders that sometimes left Frodo breathless.

How he wanted to share it with Estel.

But that was impossible. Frodo closed his eyes to the Shire's glow and let his mind be carried back to a day eight years before, when overcast Combe seemed like paradise.

"Frodo!" He turned with a happy smile when he recognized the voice calling to him across the market square.

"Hello, Estel. I didn't expect to see you again so soon." Only two months had passed since Doc's funeral. Estel had stayed with Frodo for nearly a week, preparing food and making him eat, and taking Frodo to visit the burial site when he only wanted to stay in bed with the covers pulled over his face.

Estel confronted Frodo, and made him so angry he screamed at the man. Then Frodo cried for the first time, making such a fool of himself in his grief that he should have been embarrassed. Instead, he felt relieved. Estel's care and friendship lightened Frodo's grief, turning his despairing rage into acceptance. And now he was back, his warm eyes softening the stern look on his face, and brightening Frodo's day.

"I came to say goodbye. I'm going to be traveling." Estel pulled him into a quiet street away from the marketplace. "Gandalf spoke with you, didn't he?"

"Yes." He knew his face had fallen, but Frodo tried to smile. "I'm glad you'll be helping him. I'm sure it's a very important task."

"It is a hunt, Frodo, and he needs my aid, for the trail is cold. I have tracked many creatures all over Middle Earth. And you are correct, Gandalf would not ask my help if it were not vitally important -- and if this task did not involve my fate, as well as that of others."

Frodo merely nodded, resigned to the secrecy about Estel's true name. Then a thought occurred to him, and he smiled up at the man. "Do you have time to take tea with me before you must leave?"

"Yes," he replied with his infrequent, always wonderful smile. "Just time for that, for I start east tonight."

"Then we shall make it a very good tea, to last you on the road." Frodo took Estel's hand and led him through the winding streets, back to Doc's cottage, very glad he'd baked that morning.

But Estel had no appetite. He sat at the table, stirring his tea into coldness while his eyes showed his thoughts were far away. Frodo sipped his own cup, taking advantage of Estel's distraction to openly stare at the beloved face. Estel looked worried, he thought. His journey with Gandalf would be dangerous, then. Frodo wondered what it would be like to have your fate -- and that of others -- in your own hands. He usually felt that he'd been buffeted by events beyond his control, though chance had led him to great joy in knowing Doc and Estel. Watching Estel's faraway eyes, he knew the weight of the man's destiny was heavy this afternoon.

"Estel?" The man turned to him at last, and Frodo forgot his questions at the sight of the yearning in Estel's eyes. Could it be? Frodo let his own love and longing show in his eyes as he reached across the table. When Estel took his hand, Frodo thought his heart would stop.

Somehow Estel was next to him, as if the table had dissolved, one hand still holding Frodo's and the other on his face. Frodo leaned into the caress, then turned his head and kissed the calloused palm, hoping he could pour all his love into Estel somehow. The gesture seemed to open the floodgates, for he was crushed to Estel's chest, his mouth being devoured while a strong arm held him close and a large hand twined in his curls.

The kiss seemed to go on forever, Estel's tongue probing and teasing while Frodo attempted to do the same to him. He was moaning, he knew, but he couldn't find shame -- his heart was too full of joy. Estel cared for him as more than a friend.

"Frodo," came the husky gasp. "Frodo, my Frodo." Estel's mouth moved to his neck then, and Frodo couldn't control the shivers that racked his body as the man explored him.

"Oh, Estel. I love you so much." Clothing was being loosened, then Frodo's clothing was removed, and he found himself spread out on Doc's kitchen table, his love looming above him. Hands, mouth, teeth and tongue all explored him yet Frodo knew no embarrassment, arching his back and freely crying out his pleasure as Estel made love to every inch of him.

After an eternity of breathtaking bliss, Estel pulled away and asked, "Frodo, may I... would you..." He was shaking with desire, and the sight made Frodo feel powerful and proud. He smiled, then sat up and reached to unlace Estel's trousers. When he finally had Estel's engorged member free of the fabric, Frodo stroked it, laughing when Estel threw back his head with a deep groan. Then Frodo kissed and licked it, watching the man's hands turn white as they gripped the table.

Finally Frodo lay back on the rough wood, lifting his legs and spreading them to welcome Estel. The man slowly moved over him, his hand on his cock, kissed Frodo again, deeply, before positioning himself at the opening of Frodo's body. With a grunt and a long sigh, he began to push, and Frodo tried to relax and hold himself steady for the invasion. There was some pain, but the bliss on Estel's face overshadowed Frodo's discomfort.

"Frodo... love..." Estel was reduced to sobs and grunts after those words, but Frodo didn't mind. His body was invaded, then left wanting, and he began to push in counter-rhythm to Estel's thrusts, wanting to keep the feeling of fullness and possession longer. Estel's hands were on his hips, holding him, driving deep, and Frodo cried out when the man-cock inside him touched a place within that made him see stars.

Another endless time of overwhelming sensation, of feeling Estel's sweat mingling with his own, of watching the grey eyes glaze over with bliss, and of feeling like a beast rutting with all the ferocity of instinct, while knowing in his heart that it was love, not lust, that made their joining so transcendent. Frodo screamed his pleasure to the skies, and Estel's deep voice joined him at the end, his bellow of completion more violent than the act itself.

They lay together on the table for a long time, dozing, Frodo kept warm by Estel's arms. But they woke to awkwardness they'd never before known with each other.

Frodo cleaned and re-dressed himself, Estel doing the same but unable to meet his eyes. There were no kisses, no shared smiles, just silence and shame.

He'd forced Estel to break his vow to Arwen. Frodo knew what was wrong even before Estel tried to explain, in halting words, that they could never see each other again.

"My destiny... my fate, Frodo, is at hand. I go into dangers and battles now, and I do not know if we shall meet again. I do not think it likely." Estel looked at the table, then blushed, and Frodo did, too, feeling more shame than he had experienced while spread naked before this man's eyes.

"I'm not sorry," he managed to reply. "I know you regret this, but I cannot. I will hold to the memory of this day for the rest of my life."

But Estel looked stricken at his words, and the regret in his eyes seemed to multiply. "I hope that does not prove true, Frodo. You deserve true happiness with someone who is free to love you."

"You sound like Doc," he couldn't help saying, scorn in his voice.

"Doc spoke the truth. He always wanted what is best for you." Estel stood and drew on his cloak. "I am sorry, Frodo. I should have controlled myself one more day." Then he was in the doorway, and Frodo ignored the rest of Estel's words, instead filling his vision with this last look at his Ranger. "Goodbye," Estel concluded, and Frodo had no words to answer him before he turned and left.


His time alone was almost over, Frodo realized as he closed the shutters and prepared to retire. Merry and Sam would be starting for Buckland tomorrow if their plans hadn't changed, and should be at Frodo's house in time for dinner on Friday.

Frodo had a cold dinner planned, something that would hold if the travelers were delayed. Tomorrow he'd look for mushrooms by the river, so he could cook up something hot when they finally arrived.

Lamps doused, Frodo carried his candle to the bedroom. He washed up and cleaned his teeth, then changed into the lightest nightshirt he could find. The day had been so warm he'd avoided making any fire, not even for tea, eating some fruit and cheese for supper. On summer days he missed living closer to a public house with cold ale and a good kitchen, far from the main room. But he knew if either Sam or Merry had been here, he would have gone to the Tipsy Traveler with them. He just didn't want to face the walk there alone.

Frodo pulled the quilt and blankets off the bed, and lay atop the sheets in the humid darkness. He was restless, and there was no air coming in his window. Frodo was sure it was the heat making him uneasy, but he rose with a grunt and re-checked the door and front shutters anyway, something he never did when Sam was at home.

When he returned to his room Frodo sat under the window, staring at the stars for a long time. He was waiting for something, despite his weariness -- but he didn't know what it was. He finally returned to his bed when the wind changed, bringing a breeze.

It seemed he'd just closed his eyes when there was a pounding on the door. Frodo sat up and realized it was still night -- the sky was brightening, but the sun had not yet risen. Again, the sound of the door knocker.

"Who on earth," Frodo complained, but he pulled on a robe and ran for the door. Perhaps Sam had come home early. Or a neighbor might be in trouble...

He glanced through the diamond-shaped window pane beside his door and saw a tall figure, larger than any hobbit. He unlocked the door eagerly and quickly pulled it open, a smile on his face.

"Estel!" But when he turned, Frodo saw it was a stranger -- not even a man, though he was dressed much like a Ranger. But his fair features glowed with the light marking him as one of the elves.

Frodo knew his smile had been wiped away, but he politely bowed. "Quel re," he said. "Lle anta amin tu?" (Good day, do you need help?)

"I believe I have found Frodo Baggins," the elf replied.

"Yes, that is my name. Please come in and have a seat." He led the elf to the sitting room, and installed him in the oversize chair he'd purchased with Gandalf in mind. "Would you like some tea?"

"No, thank you. It is delightful that you still speak our language as Bilbo taught you."

"Thank you," Frodo said with a sad smile. "Did you know Bilbo?"

"I have seen him quite recently, in Rivendell where Elrond Halfelven dwells."

With his beautiful daughter, Arwen, Frodo's mind added, the pain as fresh as the first day he learned Estel could never return his feelings. He quickly pulled his thoughts back to the elf, who'd continued speaking, though he seemed confused by Frodo's shifting spirits.

"I am Ortanore of Mirkwood, and I carry a message for you."

"Oh, how kind of you. Won't you please share breakfast with me, as my thanks?"

"Alas, this is not the day I shall experience hobbit cooking, Frodo. I have many miles to cover before sunset, on other errands."

"Then it is doubly kind of you to come out of your way for Bilbo."

"Bilbo? I am sorry if my words misled you. The message I bear is not from Bilbo, but from Gandalf the Grey." He pulled a grey envelope from his tunic, and held it out to Frodo. The hobbit stared for a long moment at his name in Gandalf's bold handwriting. He felt that this letter was the source of all the dread he'd felt earlier.

Ortanore looked concerned by his silence and stillness. "Are you ill?" he asked, but Frodo only shook his head in response. "You do seem upset."

"No, thank you. Please, wait here just a moment and I'll see you on your way." Frodo walked quickly to his kitchen, tucking the envelope away in his pocket without opening it. He put together a bundle of traveling food and filled a flask with Brandybuck cider, then carried both back to the sitting room.

"I'm sorry to have delayed you, but perhaps this food will help speed your journey today." Ortanore bowed his acceptance. "Thank you for bringing Gandalf's letter."

"You are a jewel among hobbits, Frodo. I hope some day when Middle Earth is safer that you may travel to Rivendell to see Bilbo and meet more of my people. I name you elf-friend," and Ortanore touched his forehead gently.

"You're very kind," Frodo replied, inclining his head and feeling wanderlust flare in his heart. He'd believed his adventures in Bree had burned away the desire to travel, but it was still there, buried in his heart. If he had a friend, a travel-minded companion, he'd be off to see Bilbo right now.

Frodo walked Ortanore to the door and watched him slip away until the shadows swallowed his grey-green raiment and he vanished. Frodo stayed there until the earliest birdsong started, dreaming of journeying to Rivendell with Merry.

Gandalf's letter was almost forgotten in the beauty of the new day. Frodo generally wasn't an early riser, but he appreciated the thrill of watching the sunrise and feeling ready for new beginnings. He simply had more energy after sundown, unlike Bilbo or Sam.

When he finally went inside to start a fire for some tea, he pulled out the envelope and left it on the table, smiling at how clean it looked. Only an elf could carry a letter so far without it being soiled and creased.

Once he had a cup of tea in front of him, he opened it and read.

My dear Frodo, I hope this letter reaches you swiftly. You are in my thoughts every day, though I have not been able to return to the Shire.

Estel and I have concluded our hunt. He is heading south on an errand, then to Rivendell. I plan to stay in Mirkwood for a time, and then I will be coming to see you at last.

Please continue to stay secret and safe, as you have done so admirably all these years, my dear friend. G

Frodo re-read the letter, then folded and returned it to his pocket. Gandalf would be visiting, though it was possible his "time" in Mirkwood could last years. The wizard rode swiftly when it was necessary, but immortals didn't measure time as closely as hobbits. Still, the news was good. Estel and Gandalf were safe.

But Estel was not coming to the Shire. No, he was going to Rivendell, to his lady. Arwen, who he called Evenstar of her people, as beautiful as Luthien. Perhaps Elrond's heart had changed at last, seeing how Estel aided Gandalf, and he would finally allow Arwen and Estel to wed.

He would never see the man again. He'd known that all these years, yet it still tore at Frodo's heart to have it confirmed.

He'd once told Doc that he couldn't be hurt by his love for Estel, hopeless as it was. He'd been wrong about that. He stretched his arms out in front of him on the table and rested his head atop them, heartsick.


"Master!" Sam's voice was full of joy as he hopped down off Merry's wagon to tie the pony.

"Frodo!" Merry hugged him, then pulled back. "You look awful. Did you miss us so much?"

"Yes, I'm afraid I did," Frodo said with a smile. "Sam, you'll be glad to hear your garden hasn't blown away for lack of water." His friend came up and shook his hand fervently, and Frodo gave in to impulse and hugged Sam with one arm.

"I'm more afraid that you've been neglecting yourself, Mr. Frodo. I'm sorry we didn't get here last night."

"It's my fault, Sam, don't hide it. I insisted that we stop at The Cooper's Bottle last night to try their ale."

"Don't fuss, Sam, I'm fine," Frodo replied, leading them into the kitchen. "Your stop just means we can have mushroom omelettes this morning. And a cold luncheon later."

"Lilac sends her love, Frodo, and thanks you for the table linens you had made up for them." Merry was cutting fruit for them, popping half of what he cut into his mouth. Frodo smiled, letting Sam push him away from the frying pan to make the mushrooms himself. He filled the kettle instead, glad to have his family back at last.

"And I suppose Sam can tell you the news from Hobbiton," Merry continued. "Pippin is coming for a visit next month. I think he'll stay through Yule."

"That should be lovely," Frodo answered. "He comes in time to spoil the harvest, and stays long enough to eat whatever you manage to salvage." Merry only laughed at his remark, pushing the fruit he'd cut into three bowls.

"Mr. Pippin is growing up. You'll be surprised at how well-behaved he can be."

"Sam, that only tells me that he didn't put any frogs in your waistcoat pockets this time."

"True enough, we didn't," Merry laughed. "And we left Rose Cotton strictly alone, too! That's all it takes, seemingly." Frodo joined in Merry's mirth as Sam blushed.

With friends like Sam, Merry, and Pippin to keep him busy, his heartache would recede, just as his memories of Estel were slowly fading. Perhaps, someday, he'd truly forget the Ranger and be able to find his place among the hobbits again.



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