With A final hug, Sam stepped back from his friend's arms and smiled up at the older Hobbit. His gray-green eyes were happy and he was practically bouncing in his excitement. "Gaffer never let me walk home alone before, Frodo." He waved to Bilbo merrily but his attention was mainly on the dark haired Hobbit before him. "Now I'm really growing up, right?"
Frodo laughed softly and hugged the boy quickly. "Of course you're growing up, Sam. You're seven, after all, and it's time you were allowed to walk between our houses without an adult." He hugged another time, laughing as Sam chuckled and pulled back.
Sounding like his father, Sam wagged a semi-stern finger at Frodo. "Now, Master Frodo, if you keep that up, I'll never be getting home, sir."
Delighted laughter rang out from the older pair and Sam chuckled again. The three headed out the faded green door, Bilbo frowning as the latch failed to catch twice before finally clicking. His ward never noticed as he kept his attention on the child. Sam shrugged, grinning, and looked up at his employers.
"Time to go, I suppose..." There was a sudden longing in the lad's voice.
Slipping his hand to caress Sam's strawberry-blond curls, Frodo sighed. "Yes, I'll be here tomorrow, though, Sam. I'll not be going back to Buckland for a while more."
Bilbo smiled benignly at the pair, pleased that their friendship had lasted through everything the past seven years had thrown in their way. It wasn't easy to find someone to be so close with, especially as quickly and in such an odd way as Frodo and Sam had; when a body did find that kind of lasting friendship, it wasn't always easy for others to understand it. The elderly Hobbit was pleased that Sam's family supported the odd friendship as much as he did: that helped.
Finally, unable to stay longer, even under the pretext of saying goodnight, the little Hobbit child turned and headed down the path towards his own home at Number Three Bagshot Row. He walked with a spirited step, humming a little walking song he'd heard Bilbo sing on occasion. The darkening sky was still rather bright with the full, round moon and hundreds of twinkling stars peeping out of the heavens. Insects hummed and chirruped happily in their peaceful abodes; all seemed right with the world.
The seven-year-old was proud that he was finally old enough to go home by himself. He disappeared around the bend with a final wave to the two still watching.
"He'll be fine, lad; there's nothing to threaten the boy in the Shire."
Frodo turned worried, ethereal eyes on his adopted uncle, biting his full lip. "I... I know, Bilbo, but... well... it's Sam. He's just a child..."
Chuckling, the elder Hobbit gestured for his nephew to follow. He didn't speak, continuing to chuckle, as he led the nineteen-year-old through comfortable, rounded rooms. They passed wooden furniture and woven rugs, hand decorated knick-knacks and elegantly painted portraits. The pair ended the short journey through the winding halls in the well-lit parlor.
"Frodo, what do you see here?"
Glancing around the warm, cozy room, the teen tried to puzzle out just what Bilbo was at. He knew the older Hobbit was fond of giving him odd riddles to test his mental abilities, but Frodo wasn't in the mood for mind-games; he was worried about young Samwise. Impatient, the younger Hobbit shook his head, dark curls bouncing, and turned frustrated blue eyes on his relative.
"I only see the sitting room, Bilbo. It has comfortable chairs, a rug, a fireplace, some portraits..."
Bilbo's nodding stopped the younger Hobbit's list. "Well, my lad, when you see it, you'll know. Keep looking. What you find will help your Sam someday, I'd wager." Smiling gently, Bilbo slowly left his cousin in the sitting room, moving on to the well-stocked pantry.
Confused, Frodo glanced around once more. Help Sam? How? What? What could possibly be in this room that might help Sam? Still with the puzzle in his thoughts, forgetting to worry for his friend, the nineteen-year-old took up a branch of candles and slowly headed down the hallway lining the outer edges of the hole.
Excitement filled the little Hobbit child. Wide green-gray eyes, never still, took in every detail of rolling hill and lone trees. The familiar sights were now shrouded in shadow and mystery, and Sam felt as if he were on one of the story adventures Frodo and Bilbo were always relaying to him. As Sam had not even left the familiar road to his own hole, he was merely imagining that he'd taken the first step in a terrible adventure. This was fun.
As he passed the gate to the party Field, however, flashes of memories pervaded the child's mind. Here was where Frodo had fallen during that hailstorm. There was where his father had helped him look for a blue flower that had never been there. Over there was the bathing room window where a dead cat had hung at Frodo's birthday party.
A sudden sick terror gripped the child and he felt his breath speed up. Panting, trembling, all the horror of that image swept over him, and Sam was frozen in his tracks. All he could do was stand and stare, shaking, at the darkened window.
Was it... still there?
The mind of a child rarely rationalized anything when faced with such dread. He never considered that the cat would hardly have been left there the next day, let alone two years later. Something of morbid curiosity suddenly seized the boy and he found himself slowly, step by wavering step, heading for the darkened bathing room window, just to verify what he didn't even wish to encounter ever again.
Before reaching the window, light came into the room. Sam froze. Relief swept over him as he registered no cat, dead or otherwise, hanging silhouetted in the now lighted window. Nearly sinking to the ground in relief, the lad smiled; then the infamous curiosity common to most Hobbits and children seized him, and Sam found himself drawn to the window. Who could be in there?
Slowly squatting to peek inside, Sam smiled when he discovered his friend, Frodo, placing a lit candelabra on the sturdy table by the door. The older Hobbit started to unbutton his vest, moving as if in deep thought. With a happy, relieved smile, Sam backed away from the window, feeling safe once more.
It was all he could do not to scream when a firm hand clamped down on his shoulder, whirling him around forcefully. A full minute passed before the child registered that his brother, Halfred, was scolding him in a harsh whisper. The seven-year-old frowned, hanging his head, as the angry eighteen-year-old threatened to tell their Gaffer that Sam had been spying in windows.
"And what would Mister Bilbo say to find one of his gardeners peeping in the hole like a burglar from up in Bree, huh? I can't believe you'd stoop to such a pass, Samwise Gamgee, spying on your betters! Why..."
"I didn't spy, Halfred!" Adamant on defending himself, Sam shook his head, strawberry curls swishing wildly across his face. "I didn't!" He didn't think to keep his own voice down and the familiar tone brought Frodo rushing to open the window.
"Sam? Halfred?" The teenager, torso nude and glowing a gentle pale tone in the candle-light, was surprised to see these two right outside his bathing room. "What's happened? Is Sam hurt?" Frodo slipped a hand through the round window, wanting to reassure himself that the boy was unharmed.
The little boy instantly turned to his friend and long-time protector. His distress was evident as he hurried to meet Frodo's questing hand, chubby calloused fingers meshing without thought with slender graceful ones. Both seemed to take comfort from the contact. Worried blue eyes met upset green ones and Sam seemed to be relieved by what he saw there.
"I promise I wasn't spying, Frodo. I... I wanted to see if... the cat was still here."
"Cat? What cat?" Halfred's voice cut through their private communion. "Master Frodo doesn't own a cat, Samwise."
Somehow, from his deep understanding of little Sam, Frodo knew just what the seven-year-old referred to. He tore his eyes from the boy's to meet the hostile green glare of the other teen. "Sam is talking about the dead cat someone hung in my window during my birthday party two years ago... a stupid, sick prank which scared the wrong Hobbit. Poor Sam couldn't calm down for a long time, Halfred Gamgee." He still privately harbored bitter feelings about the incident, convinced that in his dislike for the richer Hobbit, Halfred himself had been the perpetrator of the cruel joke gone wrong.
Halfred's reaction did nothing to disabuse the notion either.
"Oh, that! That was two years ago, Samwise. Why would anyone leave a dead cat in their window that long? Use your brain, Slow Top, and leave the master to his bath! Unless you're looking to see something else you shouldn't."
Frodo didn't understand why he felt himself flush at the words. After all, Halfred was right. If Sam looked in windows, he might see something more than a dead cat or even his older friend preparing for a bath. He might see things a bit harder and less comfortable to explain. "Sam, you're all right?"
The boy nodded, eyes wide.
"Good. You'll be needed at home. I'll be here tomorrow, and I'll expect you on time for work, right?" Frodo smiled to ease the harsh tone of his words. He didn't want Sam in trouble for whatever Halfred thought he might be doing, so added, "The cat's long gone, though I thank you for checking. That was brave. You go on home and we'll forget this happened."
As Sam nodded, withdrawing his fingers from Frodo's, Halfred frowned. "All right. If you say so, Master Frodo, we'll forget it. But if I catch you peeping in windows again, Samwise Gamgee, I'll let the Gaffer know. Then you'll get what for. You go on home now, and don't go dawdling along the way, hear?"
The boy threw a last glance at Frodo, nodded obediently to his brother, then turned and quickly walked towards his own hole, not even looking back. He made it there quickly, panting as he fumbled the door open and slipped into the small hallway. Catching his breath and heading down the hall to the larger room he shared with his brothers, the boy missed entirely the puzzled frown his mother shot after him as she stood in the doorway to the small storage room... once used as an infant room.
Frodo looked through the wide, circular window at Halfred, still standing there with a faintly resehrn
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