West of the Moon

A Tolkien Fanfiction Archive

 

 

The Hole Dwellers
Pippin buys a new cloak, Merry brings Mabel along for the ride, the Gaffer eats Roast Lamb with Rosemary and Mustard, Sam goes to a concert, and Frodo Pole-Dances. And it's guarenteed Canon!
Author: Polecat
Rating: R

 

Story Notes: This piece was written as a gift for Mira, whose surprisingly tenacious Pole-Dancing Frodo Plotbunny finally roused my slumbering muses. It is an inadequate attempt to thank her for the enjoyment that her writing has given me. It is reproduced here with her kind assent. Grateful thanks to Wendy for stepping into the unknown and bravely volunteering to beta. I could ask for no one better. Thank you.

Author's Note: Everyone has at least one skeleton in their closet. The fact that I am responsible for this story is mine.
 

****
 

In winter, there is less work to be done in the garden. Tools are repaired, stocks of seed are checked and the planting for next spring is discussed, but this requires far less time than even the meagre daylight hours allow.

As autumn sighs to a close, sounds not heard in Bag End for a year whisper and murmur through the corridors once again. The silverware is polished and the crockery, especially that in the display cabinets which may not have been touched since last year, is cleaned. Small repair jobs which have been neglected for too long are now attended to. The picture of Belladonna is hanging straight once again, the broken tile on the kitchen floor is replaced and the bottom drawer of the bedside table moves smoothly now without the ear-rending squeak.

The translations from the Quenya progress far more slowly than would be expected. True, the language is subtle and the words in the common tongue must be chosen with especial care. This, however, is not the sole cause of the glacial pace. Instead, he finds that he has been sitting, muscles tensed, listening breathlessly for every sound that floats along the halls to the study.

Frodo watches his summer gardener and winter valet and year-round friend sitting in front of the fire sewing a button back onto a pair of breeches. He realises that he has been staring at those hands, coarser and more powerful than his own, nimbly and efficiently perform the fiddly task. It is done, and the broad palms brush over the crotch, smoothing out the material so that the final outcome can be examined. Frodo jerks his eyes away and directs them towards the book on his lap but he is unable to comprehend the words.

Sometimes, if the weather is kind and the rain hammers against the windows so hard that Frodo fears they may break, then Sam will stay at Bag End. A cosy meal in front of the fire with several glasses of wine or ale, followed by pudding or cheese and port, or possibly both, and their delight in each other's company ensures that they talk long into the night. They swap stories, Elvish tales in exchange for Shire gossip, which of late has included strange whispers from dark lands afar. Sam sits in his favourite position, cross-legged on the floor in front of the fire. Tonight, as happens occasionally, Sam asks to read some poetry himself, to "keep up my letters, and not just the ones needed for buying vegetables, if you take my meanin', sir". Frodo smiles and hands over at random one of the many large books filled with Bilbo's spidery handwriting. Sam props the book in his lap and reads slowly and carefully, two fingers of his right hand guiding his eyes. The poem is a familiar one and the intonation of his delivery gradually metamorphoses, becoming a mellifluous baritone that Frodo never discerns in normal speech. Frodo wonders if Sam's voice would transform so when murmuring words of love. The hypnotic rhythm of the tones and the lateness of the hour combine to send him to sleep even as he feels a creeping warmth steal over his body. Some time later, he opens his eyes again to find that Sam is still reading, his lips shaping the words, but no sound emerges. The dying fire flares in the hearth, and the red-gold light is caught and held in Sam's face and hair. A sudden wave of desire makes Frodo's whole body ache, but Sam appears so innocent and empyreal that Frodo can say nothing. He calms himself and reluctantly suggests it is time for bed; Sam jerks his head up, and, oddly, he is blushing. He stares at Frodo as if he is not sure what to say and Frodo instantly apologises for startling him so badly. Sam shuts the book hurriedly and replaces it on the pile, clearing his throat and asking Frodo what would he care to have for breakfast tomorrow. Frodo musters a vague suggestion before he wishes Sam a good night with a dull ache in his heart. He does not sleep for some time.

When the snowdrops appear, incongruous white-headed clusters of green against the bare earth, Frodo knows he will slowly lose his winter companion to the growing light and warmth outside and decides he must speak soon. Fresh rumours from beyond the Shire, however, provide more than enough excuse to contemplate other matters, and instead he takes to walking alone further and further afield.

By April, Sam is in the garden most of the day, sometimes only seeing Frodo to say "Good mornin', Mr Frodo," as he pulls back the curtains and "Good evenin', sir," through the kitchen window on his way home. Frodo's resolve weakens as doubts steal over his soul. The time together during winter appears in his mind as if from a distant past or half-remembered dream. What could be lost by speaking to Sam looms larger than what could be gained. Then, one evening as Frodo broods in his study knowing that Sam is heading home again, he hears a once familiar tap on the window.

***

"It's wonderful, isn't it?" said Pippin as he strode across the kitchen in the mid-morning sun and turned sharply.

Frodo sighed in mock exasperation as he put down his teacup. "Your mother is possibly the most vocal hobbit in the Shire on the subject of her spoiled young son, denouncing your sisters to all and sundry, and yet this happens."

Pippin smirked. "Sam, do you like it?"

"That I do, sir," said Sam. "The finest and lightest in the Shire. Feels right soft on the skin and so warm, too." His fingers ran appreciatively over a corner of fabric. Frodo's eyes unconsciously followed the movement.

"I think Sam's been paid by the tailor to say that," said Merry, reaching for a seed cake. Sam dropped the material and looked up in surprise to protest, then saw that Merry was smiling. "If he keeps talking like that, I'll have to see if my mother will buy me one too."

"You're of age, you can buy one for yourself."

"Quite true, Pippin dear, I wonder what's stopping me from buying the Shire's most expensive travelling cloak?" Merry mused. He took a bite and chewed thoughtfully. "Hmm - of course, I remember now," he said, swallowing, "I hardly travel. And neither do you."

"I travelled here."

"After Mabel and I picked you up in the trap."

"That was almost as slow as walking."

"She was tired. You would have been too if you had walked all the way to Hobbiton from Brandy Hall via Tuckborough."

"Yes, but she has four legs rather than two and therefore only needs to do half the work."

The three other hobbits in the room were stunned into silence by this piece of logic.

"Anyway, I might be doing quite a bit of travelling in the future," announced Pippin.

Merry frowned, narrowing his eyes at the young Took.

"Tea, Mr Frodo?" asked Sam, rather hurriedly.

Frodo held out his cup. "Yes, thank you, Sam."

"For example, we'll be travelling again tonight," Pippin continued, quickly. He sat down at the table to eat and set about compensating for the time lost whilst displaying his cloak.

"But you only arrived yesterday!" exclaimed Frodo, turning towards Merry quizzically.

"Yes, but he failed to mention we'll be travelling back here again tonight as well," explained Merry. "Pip wants to see a group of musicians. Apparently they're playing at the Ivy Bush this evening."

"Ah, so you're planning to break in the new cloak slowly, I see," said Frodo, raising his eyebrows at Pippin.

"I don't want to shock it." The answer was obstructed by a mince pie.

Sam had been scratching his ear thoughtfully. "Mr Pippin," he asked eventually, "why would you travel to see some players? Surely they are the ones who should be doing the travelling. And there ain't no lack of 'em. That's what they do. Travel around."

Pippin swallowed his mouthful of pie and chased it down with some tea. "Apparently they're better than the average group. They can put a crowd into a good mood. Or so your Gaffer said. He's the one who told us about them this morning. Heard it direct from Ned last night, he did." Pippin pursed his lips and studied Frodo through slitted eyes. "I thought we all could go. Frodo likes good music and he's been spending far too much time alone lately. He needs to get out."

"I have been getting out," said Frodo, mildly indignant.

Pippin dismissed this comment with a royal wave of his hand. "Not with other hobbits, so it doesn't count." Frodo wondered briefly how Pippin could have known that, but this thought was left behind as the conversation continued.

"I wouldn't have thought my Gaffer would be going to that sort of thing," said Sam, looking puzzled. "He didn't tell me anything."

"Probably because he is not going," put in Merry. He lowered his light tenor voice in an approximation of the Gaffer's deeper tones. "I don't hold with fiddle players who give 'emselves airs and fancy names."

Sam laughed. "That sounds more like him. Especially since Widow Rumble is coming around to do one of her lamb roasts. There ain't no competition."

"Ooo," said Pippin, almost bouncing with excitement, "not the one with rosemary and mustard?"

"Yes, sir." Sam smiled broadly, then swallowed, already anticipating the feast to come.

"How fancy is the name, then?" asked Frodo. "I hope it's not as bad as that comedy twosome that was wandering around at some point calling themselves 'The Mop and Bucket'".

"Yes, well, it suited the style of comedy," said Merry, a little defensively. "They were quite, er-, lowbrow, shall we say."

"You saw them, Mr Merry?"

"The Master of Buckland is partial to a bawdy joke occasionally."

"As is his son," stated Frodo, cocking an eyebrow at Merry. "But back to the more important matter." He aimed his glance at Pippin and frowned suspiciously. "What is the name of these lowbrow musicians to whom you wish to drag me?"

"Er -, 'The Livers in Holes' - or something like that." Pippin screwed up his face thoughtfully.

Merry groaned softly and put his head in his hands.

Frodo looked appropriately unconvinced. "It does give one a rather unappealing impression," he said. He turned to Sam. "Sam, you are quite right, I believe. It would take the best musicians in the Shire to keep me away from Widow Rumble's lamb roast anyway, and the, ahem, 'Livers in Holes' sound like the aftermath of some grotesque sacrificial rite."

Sam's face registered an impressive number of emotions before settling on dependable embarrassment with a good deal of squirming.

"Mr Frodo, I'm -  I'm not sure - " he began.

Meanwhile, Frodo was trying to look blithely unaware of Sam's predicament.

"The Hole Dwellers," came a voice, both exasperated and muffled.

"Frodo, you obviously need to get out more if you have gotten to the point of teasing Sam like that," announced Pippin, ignoring the voice. Frodo flushed slightly and studied his tea.

"The Hole Dwellers," came the muffled voice again, rather more loudly. The owner of the voice raised his head. "They're not called 'The Livers in Holes'," Merry moaned, "they are called 'The Hole Dwellers' and they are apparently quite good."

Frodo's expression changed quite dramatically to one of considerable interest. "The Hole Dwellers!" he repeated, "Are you sure?"

"Yes, that is what I said," sighed Merry. "They hail from the Southfarthing area."

"Well, they are - or were - extremely impressive. I heard them about five years or so ago. I remember thinking that they must have had some contact with dwarves as sometimes their music holds echoes of that style. Well, the little of it that I have heard, mostly when Bilbo had the odd dwarf around for a visit. Though I had no proof of it, I personally suspected at the time that they must leave the Shire to collect new tunes and harmonies. Of course, they don't advertise this and I doubt many hobbits would notice it. Most just register it in a 'the music isn't bad, is it, and would you pass the wine?' way."

"So they are worth seeing, then?" asked Pippin, redundantly.

In answer, Frodo looked up at Sam, who was pouring a fresh cup of tea for him and said, "Sam, I am afraid I will have to decline your gracious invitation to dinner tonight, even though it is a most tempting offer. These musicians actually do not travel around very often and it may be another five years or more before they come again. If at all."

"I understand, Mr Frodo," said Sam, who had relaxed and was now smiling abstractedly, and actually thinking of lamb roast.

"You should come along too, Sam," stated Frodo firmly, and Sam's face registered alarm before he could prevent it. Sam was familiar with that tone.

"Er, Mr Frodo, I'm not sure that I'm one for that sort of thing," he tried, moving around the table to pour more tea into Merry's cup.

"Of course you shall come with us," said Pippin briskly, waving his arms rather theatrically, the better to show off his cloak, "I told your Gaffer that all four of us would be going, so he already knows that you won't be there for dinner tonight."

The teapot was replaced carefully on the table. Sam could almost see the lamb roast with its tantalising tufts of fragrant rosemary sailing just past the reach of his outstretched fingertips. He made a despairing grab for it.

"But Mr Pippin, I've been to a concert before and I just don't think I understand 'em properly, if you take my meaning." Sam's eyes were large and staring and Frodo read this expression not entirely incorrectly as 'worry'. He tried to soothe.

"Sam, this is nothing like Aunt Petunia's 'concert' that we suffered last year," he said. Sam's eyes remained staring. Unbeknownst to Frodo, the roast gracefully rotated away from Sam and began floating into the West. As Frodo regarded his gardener, his expression changed to one of mischief. "Or rather, I suffered. Your suffering was rather lessened by the ale cask next to the buffet at the back of the room."

"Really?" queried Merry and he raised his eyebrows at Sam.

Sam started, blinked, and the roast vanished. He dropped his eyes and reddened. "I- I'm sorry, sir - "he began.

"And for the thousandth time Sam," said Frodo, with a touch of exasperation, "there was nothing to forgive."

"What happened? Tell us!" demanded Pippin enthusiastically, his eyes sparkling with anticipation.

"The only time I ever saw Sam drunk whilst officially on duty," explained Frodo, smiling indulgently at the memory, "and it was perfectly understandable. The music was excruciating and my teeth ache in sympathy every time I think about it." He clutched at his jaw.

"Let me guess," said Merry dryly. "A string of hobbit children sawing instruments in half or bashing them to death after each of which you have to clap and smile sweetly at the appropriate mother and say what a perfectly delightful little genius she has."

"Precisely," answered Frodo through his teeth,"and what is more, it went on for two torturous hours. At the end of which, Aunt Petunia capped it all off with a display of vocal virtuosity unrivalled by any creature in Middle Earth." He made a face and swallowed a large mouthful of tea as if to wash away the thought.

"Sam," announced Merry imperiously, pushing back his chair and standing up, "I need to hear no more in your defence. You are forgiven." He bowed extravagantly to Sam and sat down.

"But I what to hear what happened!" exclaimed Pippin, whose appetite for gossip had not been sated. "Did he insult Aunt Petunia or did you find him slumped at the back of the hall, snoring?"

Sam looked aghast at Pippin, completely horrified, and Frodo laughed incredulously at these outlandish suggestions. "Nothing of the sort, Pippin, and how in the name of the Valar could you think such things? No," he continued, "he was just a little tipsy, that's all. I really do not think anyone else noticed." Frodo's voice trailed off and he glanced quickly at Sam. Sam was seemingly engrossed in clearing plates from the table. What Frodo had not mentioned was that it had been the only time that Frodo had seen Sam to his room, rather than the other way around. Sam had required some guidance to find the room and support to propel himself there and Frodo had put him to bed, quieting the continuously proffered apologies. Frodo had made sure Sam was comfortable and sleeping soundly before he left. Afterwards, Frodo had gone to his own bed, though sleep remained elusive. A memory of pale fingertips tentatively grazing sun-bleached curls teased him once again, and...  Once again he wondered how much of that episode Sam himself remembered.

"Sam," said Merry authoritatively, breaking through Frodo's reverie, "this will be nothing like those concerts. They are playing in an inn, and you will still be able to drink, eat and talk normally. It is just that the background music will be better than usual."

Sam looked at Merry's firm expression, then Pippin's enthusiastic one, and finally at Frodo's questioning countenance before he said slowly, "I'll come, sir."

***

That afternoon, Frodo decided his study had gotten beyond the point of normal chaos and had descended into a state where even he could not find anything. A modicum of tidying would be a useful way to pass the time until he left for the Ivy Bush without starting a major project. As he pottered around, shifting books from one pile to another and back again, he encountered the volume of Bilbo's translations that Sam had read aloud that winter's night. He smoothed his hand over the dark leather binding and thought of Bilbo. A familiar sadness and longing welled up inside of him, but this time the feeling was overlaid with many others. He would be going on an adventure of his own, soon enough. He had recently made an important decision concerning his plan to get out of the Shire unnoticed and though he knew it was right and indeed necessary it gnawed at his soul. It would be a comfort to have Sam with him, he admitted to himself.

Sam. Frodo's eyes flicked automatically to glance through the window. Sam was, this time, in his field of view, but he was not currently working. He was deep in conversation with Merry.

It suddenly occurred to Frodo that he had spotted Merry a number of times of late in the garden, and in Bag End, talking to Sam. A horrible coldness crept into the pit of his stomach. Had Merry become interested in Frodo's beautiful gardener as well? Merry had indeed been coming to Bag End more often, particularly in recent months. Then again, so had Pippin. Frodo craned his neck, trying to gauge facial expressions at too great a distance. He thought they looked rather serious, arms folded across their chests and heads nodding sagely while they listened to the other. Then Merry reached out to touch Sam on the arm and Frodo shut his eyes against the unexpected pain and jealousy that twisted his heart.

"Keep up the good work, Sam," Merry's voice floated back to the window. By the time Frodo refocused on the scene before him, Sam had disappeared and Merry was tramping down to meet Pippin, who was waiting some way ahead on the path. Their delight in each other's company was so evident, that Frodo wondered why he had ever thought for a second that Merry's real interests might lie elsewhere. He shook his head, dismayed at his own irrational imaginings. Sam would be coming with him after all, and quite willingly, at that. Well, of course he is willing, Frodo chided himself, Sam wants to see the Elves. He picked up the book under his palms and opened it at random. A poem about Gil-Galad lay before his eyes. He glanced over it began turning the pages mechanically as his mind wandered.

Of one thing Frodo was sure. He wanted Sam to be more than his gardener and friend. But how to put this question to Sam without actually asking outright and endangering everything he had was a delicate task and one he had so far been quite unable to attempt.

Frodo began flicking through the rest of the book and then paused. Shock followed by a sinuous warmth coursed through his body. He had forgotten that Bilbo had also translated those poems. His mind's eye presented him with a picture of Sam's profile, lips burnished red by the firelight, or so it had then seemed, soundlessly forming words.

One other thing he knew for certain. He would regret not ever trying to find out.

***

"Oh, and Sam," called Frodo over his shoulder, "Merry and Pippin will be joining us at the inn. Pippin is determined to prove that he has a use for that cloak of his, so they are walking the long way round on the footpaths."

Sam paused in the doorway of Bag End. "Mr Frodo, how would you like to drive to the Ivy Bush tonight? I know it ain't far, but I had no chance to let Mr Merry's pony go for a run today. Do you think he would mind if I hitched her up to his trap and gave her a little walk that way?"

Frodo grinned. "I think that is an excellent idea and I am sure Merry will thank you for it."

Sam's grin mirrored Frodo's, and they stood like a pair of conspirators for a moment before Sam said, "I'll see to it then, sir," and disappeared.

Frodo and Sam entered the Ivy Bush just on dusk. The publican gave his traditional cheery greeting and started to guide them towards the corner where Frodo usually sat whenever he turned up for a drink.

"Actually, Ned, tonight we'd like a table somewhere a little closer to the music, if that's all right with you," said Frodo, and, on remembering Merry and Pippin's imminent arrival he added, "and an extra two chairs, please."

"Not a problem, not a problem at all," said Ned, whose real name was a long and complicated fancy of his late father's and hence almost everyone had forgotten it, "right this way." He hurried over with two chairs and guided them to a seat. "Here's a good spot. A nice view of the players, when they start, but out of the way of the rest of 'em." Ned did his job well, quickly learning all his patrons' tastes.

"The usual, sir?"

"If you please, Ned," nodded Frodo, removing his coat and seating himself.

"Sam?" questioned Ned, already knowing the reply.

"Yes, thank you, Ned," said Sam, taking Frodo's coat from him and folding it.

They settled themselves and watched as the musicians made their preparations. The five members of the group possessed at least two or three instruments each and these were arranged in the small space within easy reach. Sam recognised two different drums, a harp, a lute and a fiddle, as well wooden flutes of a variety of sizes and the odd silver one poking out of a couple of coat pockets as well. At his question, Frodo pronounced a stringed instrument a viol, two other wooden things a cornemuse and a crumhorn and then discovered, when he craned his neck, a horn and a tambourine tucked away at the back. One member was erecting a little spinnet, which had collapsible legs for ease of transport. Another of the musicians was laying out a variety of handbells, finger cymbals, woodblocks and other unrecognisable objects that no doubt produced interesting noises. The inn had provided the performers with stools, and a small table with refreshments, but apart from this they appeared to have had no other requirements. There was, naturally, no actual music written down anywhere. Most players did carry memory aids of some description but these were not in evidence.

Ned came by with their drinks and some nibbles. "On the house," he said cheerily. Ned knew not only how to serve his patrons, but also how to keep them.

The Ivy Bush was not particularly busy at the moment, but hobbits were arriving steadily. Most Frodo could recognise by sight if not by name, though a sprinkling had obviously journeyed some way to get here. These tended to be in travellers' clothes and of rather scruffy dress, typical of musicians. They had come to either appreciate the music of their comrades or, possibly, sneer at it.

"Though why anyone would bother travelling any distance at all just to sneer at another hobbit I can't say as I could tell," said Sam, when Frodo mentioned these options.

"Lobelia wouldn't travel for any other reason," Frodo pointed out, failing to suppress a bitter laugh. A shadow passed across his face but it was gone in an instant.

"You're right, Mr Frodo," agreed Sam wryly. He understood why Lobelia's name was more distasteful than usual to Frodo now.

The music had started up by this time and gave Sam an opportunity to change the subject. Neither Sam nor Frodo could say that they had actually noticed it begin.

A lyrical ballad of a drowning maiden is not something Sam would have expected to hear at an inn. But here they were, and that is precisely what was being played. Most of the patrons continued to shout for more drinks and talk just as loudly as before, but the musicians were unruffled by the racket about them and performed just as if they had a captivated audience before them. Gentle pools of silence flowed outwards and the hobbits at the closer tables quietened considerably. It didn't take long before Sam noticed that they had an enraptured audience of at least one.

Frodo's eyes were fixed on the on the players, fascinated, and as Sam cleared his mind and listened to the hypnotic music he believed he could see the graceful figure and beautiful features described in the tale, dark curls rippling against fair skin.

All right, Sam admitted to himself, an audience of one and a half if you were to count me staring at the master. He squeezed his eyes shut, intending to reopen them once he was sure his head was turned towards the music and not Frodo.

"Hey Sam, why are you staring at the wall?" came Pippin's voice.

"Er -," began Sam.

"Did I notice my pony and trap outside?"

Sam grabbed the opportunity to answer the second question and ignore the first. "It was my suggestion, Mr Merry, sir," he said, the words coming out in a rush, "Mabel didn't get taken out of the stables today and I thought - "

"Oh, that's fine Sam, and you know it." Merry clapped Sam on the back and plonked himself down on the remaining chair.

"Present for you Sam," whispered Pippin into his ear and slipped a small package under the table and onto his lap. "Don't you let Ned see," he warned.

Sam peered down cautiously at the little parcel. It felt warm and he bent his head to sniff at it. He looked across at Pippin and met that wide grin with one equally broad. This Took could be frustrating and enraging to have around at times and yet Sam, like most hobbits Pippin met, could do nothing but love him. The distinct smell of lamb with rosemary wafted gently up and teased at his nostrils.

The inn in the meantime had become quite full, but, despite this, Ned materialised instantly with brimming mugs of ale. Merry in particular had been a regular visitor recently and had never once changed his order. He was, in many ways, the perfect customer. He ordered only one thing, was always polite, even when drunk, and could also perform feats of drinking that would give any publican's heart a warm glow. On top of that, and most importantly, he always paid.

"On the house, sirs," came the familiar cry as the ale reached the table.

Merry and Pippin toasted Ned's health and settled in for a comfortable evening with 'The Best Gardener in the Shire' and 'The Best Master of Bag End after Bilbo'.

Neither Sam nor Frodo were entirely happy with their new titles. Sam was uncomfortable with his because it was too grand and "anyways, my Gaffer knows far more about gardening than I do" and received prolonged scoffing noises for his modesty. Frodo, on the other hand, was complaining that Merry and Pippin had only ever known two Masters of Bag End their entire lives and therefore he was also 'The Worst Master of Bag End' by default.

Ned came by with another round of drinks for all, though, as expected, the words "on the house" failed to be forthcoming. 'The Hole Dwellers' by this time had increased the tempo and were playing a lively tune, but one well known only to the Hobbiton folk. This brought cheers and toasts to the musicians and a smile to Ned's face.

As the music settled into a medley of Shire favourites, interspersed with unknown but equally enjoyable tunes, 'The Best Gardener in the Shire After the Gaffer' noticed that 'The Best Brandybuck Living in Hobbiton' was thoroughly relaxed and quite well on the way to becoming rather drunk. Sam was happy to see his master enjoying himself as Frodo had been very preoccupied of late. Not that Sam could blame him as Gandalf's most recent visit had given them both more than enough to worry about. It also helped that 'The Best Thain-to-Be', who had found nothing objectionable about his proposed title, had a wonderful talent for turning a brooding mind towards more pleasant thoughts.

As the 'The Best Brandybuck in the Shire Excluding Hobbiton' was making Ned a happy hobbit with the same careful focus that he attacked all his responsibilities, 'The Cuddliest Hobbit in the Shire', who had appealed against his new title but had lost, noticed that the musicians had never once stopped playing. Instead, one would pause for a while and take a bite or a drink - water only - and then smoothly resume. Frodo had been right. Although he couldn't analyse it, Sam could feel it was more beautiful and more diverting, more lyrically heartrending and more joyous than anything he had heard before. Frodo's eyes were bright with excitement and ale as he leaned unsteadily towards Sam to suggest a new name for 'The Best Thain-to-Be' and Sam could not tell if it were simply the music that was so pleasurable.

Well into the night, or possibly very early in the morning, 'The Best Beer-Boozing Brandybuck in the Bush' was satisfied that had performed his duty towards Ned and would now like to dance. 'The Peregrinating Took' agreed but pointed out the rather awkward fact that was no room left. Hobbits were dancing not only in the cleared area in front of the musicians, but also between the tables.

A distinct scoff was heard. This scoff was produced by 'The Baggins with the Best Bottom' - and the appeal had not even been fully lodged before it was turned down summarily and unanimously - who pronounced them utterly blind to all the space before them. Three hobbits glanced around the inn, asking "Where?" in varying states of confusion and inebriation. The confusion only increased when they turned their heads back, to find that the Best Bottom had disappeared, and so had the Baggins attached to it.

Sam always held back on the ale at such gatherings. It was one thing, drinking at the Green Dragon with his brothers or friends but quite another when he was drinking with his betters. Apart from not wishing to risk making a spectacle of himself, unlikely though that might be, the drinking prowess of Merry and Pippin when intent on a good time often meant that his services were required to help them back to Bag End. Other, more recent events gave added impetus to his usual resolve. The incident of Aunt Petunia's concert plagued his mind. He had indeed been very drunk that night so he could not be sure. Frodo might have run cool fingers through his hair and then kissed him on the lips, breathlessly lightly, after he thought Sam was asleep, or he might not have. It was surely just another dream. By the time Sam had opened his eyes to check, it was already morning.

On top of everything, the fact that they were stationed at the Gaffer's favourite watering hole, provided a solid reason on its own to keep his head fairly clear. Not that the Gaffer wouldn't eventually hear about anything that went on in the Dragon or any other inn in the Shire, but the publican of the Ivy Bush had an affable nature and a talent for subtly embellishing a story such that it always remained believable.

Unfortunately, tonight's tale would require little in the way of tinkering as it was already pushing the bounds of credibility.

Frodo was up on a table, dancing.

There were several reasons why 'The Hole Dwellers' was the best musical outfit in the Shire. They not only knew every hackneyed, popular tune ever composed as well as the latest tastes of the younger set, but they knew what to play when, without being told or even obviously conferring with each other. One simply hired them and left them to it. And it took only a matter of seconds after Frodo had climbed onto the table before the background music segued from a raucous drinking favourite to a raunchy, sinuous beat that had every hobbit in the inn twitching their hips before they were conscious of the movement. Even Sam, for whom hip-wiggling was not normally a reaction, preferring to lean against the wall and drink ale instead, discovered that the music had slipped inside his body like a smooth hand, grasping and twisting his intestines while at the same time whispering in his ear, urging him to move.

The effect on Frodo however, was both immediate and forceful.

Sam wondered how his master had managed to become so drunk and yet still have enough coordination to stand up, much less dance. Added to that, the sort of dance he was performing required quite a lot in the way of coordination. His hips beat out the rhythm of the music whilst his shoulders moved, also in time but seemingly in the opposite direction. He tossed his head and his curls whipped around, unheeded. Frodo seemed oblivious to the appreciative shouts and whistles building around him as he executed this display with his eyes shut.

Perhaps a question of better balance was why Frodo had decided to lean back on the polished wooden beam that both supported the roof of the inn and ran through the centre of the table on which he was currently - er, grinding. Sam could think of no other word for it. Arms gripping the support behind him and gyrating his hips in time to the music, sliding slowly up and down with his hair hanging over his face. Sam had seen a lass dance in a similar fashion once at a rather disreputable pub which he would never visit again, but Frodo was managing to keep an air of innocence mingled with sensuality about him, rather than descending into outright licentiousness. Sam began to feel that it was becoming awfully warm when Frodo suddenly opened his eyes and scanned the faces of the hobbits in his field of view. Liquid black caressed warm brown for just a moment before moving on.

The effect on Sam however, was both immediate and forceful.

I need some air thought Sam, as he stumbled outside. Just to clear my head.

He sat down on a bench and leaned back against the cold stone of the inn. As he focused on his surroundings, he caught his breath. Moonlight poured down and drenched the quiet fields of Hobbiton and Bywater. The young leaves burgeoning on the trees reflected silver, reminiscent of Bilbo's elvish stories of the Trees before the awakening of the firstborn. Sam breathed deeply, drawing cold air into his lungs whilst his mind drifted on the tales. The reasons which had brought him out here were hushed. The muffled noise behind him faded.

He looked up at the moon, the brightness of which obliterated most of the stars, sighing and enjoying the sight of a perfectly clear sky. Goin' to be a cold one tonight he told himself. Are you sure you have covered everything that needs to be protected in Mr Frodo's garden?

Oh dear. Frodo.

Sam groaned and dropped his head into his hands as the cacophony from behind him broke through his hastily constructed mental defences. And it appeared to be getting louder, with distinct chanting. Despite his own turbulent thoughts, the one thing that Sam felt with certainty was that he had to go back. If there were to be trouble of some sort, Sam would want to be there to look out for his master and thus it would be of more use to be inside rather than out. A stab of guilt prodded at him, none too gently. Aye, ye'll want to look out for Mr Frodo, I ain't never doubted that. Just you be admittin' to yerself that ye want to look at him as well, is all. Sam wished that his conscience didn't use his Gaffer's voice. Not for the last time.

Fortunately in the few minutes - or was it only seconds? - that he had spent in the cold night air he had calmed himself enough to square his shoulders, take a deep breath, and step back into the inn.

The wave of heat and sound which crashed over Sam as he reentered the Ivy Bush after the cold quiet of the world outside stunned him momentarily. He blinked his eyes, adjusting to the bright yellow firelight and pipesmoke and the first thing he saw were two dark points of obsidian that seemed to be on fire themselves. Sam stared, feeling like one turned to stone - no, he had simply stepped into a faery ring and would only be released at the whim of those eyes. Then he realised that he had stepped into that enchantment a long time ago and would never be released.

The chanting became clearer and increased in intensity as more hobbits took up the call.

"Off, off, off!"

The Faery turned his head away, but Sam still felt that he could not move, not now, not ever.

Frodo looked slowly around the room and a curious smile curved one corner of his lips. The fingers of his right hand delicately touched the top button of his waistcoat, as if asking the audience - Is this what you want?

The chanting responded with increased fervour.

Sam wondered who had replaced the master whom he had known practically all his life. He had never seen the Sea, but every tale he had ever heard howled at him and he somehow found himself on the deck of a tiny craft, foundering in the waves of shock, and was that really jealousy? And - oh yes, that was definitely desire washing over him. The force of each emotion as it struck him left him weak and gasping for air and he knew he was powerless to withstand them. He had kept such a tight rein on his feelings for so long, deliberately ignoring the responses of his body to Frodo's presence and explaining away those dreams that involved his master as simply the ravings of a sleeping mind, that the flood could now not be stopped. The rising waters pressed behind his eyes and began falling as he let out a choked sob.

The noise in the inn drowned out the sound and not one hobbit noticed Sam's turmoil.

Not one hobbit? Perhaps one. But Sam's vision was blurred and all he could make out was a patch of red that fell away, leaving behind a dazzling white, surely brighter than what eyes east of the Sea were meant to perceive.

Proceedings on the table had meant that Pippin had completely forgotten to take a pull at his mug of ale for at least the last ten minutes. The fact that his normally rather conservative cousin had hopped onto a table and then proceeded to dance, made him wonder how far Frodo would go in such a mood. He had seen Frodo do plenty of interesting things when prodded at the right moment, often by Pippin himself; stealing mushrooms, leaping over mudpools that were just a fraction too wide, singing songs that should really only be sung by a lass and yes, taking his clothes off (mostly over cards), but it only occurred around close friends. This meant himself, Merry and Fatty, and less so Sam and Bilbo, when the latter was still here. Never anything at all that involved such potential public ridicule and exposure.

Pippin's mind was a whirl of what ifs and would he reallys and amused disbelief. Although Frodo didn't look like stopping, Pippin wanted to make sure that he was receiving maximum encouragement. He began to clap.

Sam took several deep breaths, quickly rubbed his hands over his face and blinked rapidly to clear his faulty vision. It really would not do to be found standing at the door of a packed inn with tears running down his cheeks when everyone else seemed to be enjoying it all as the best party of the year. He had just properly refocused on the events unfolding before him when Frodo swung round the beam and pressed himself up against it. He peered around at his audience, as if considering the matter, that odd smile still etched upon his lips. The music swelled around them and Sam would have sworn by the Valar that Frodo had breathed directly in his ear, "I want you to watch."

He stared back, wide-eyed, and part of him was abruptly extremely grateful for the generous cut of his clothes. Frodo oozed around the pole, and started to toy with the button on the left cuff of his shirt.

The standing audience members pressed closer and some among those watching from their seats started to bang their mugs, empty or not-so-empty, on the table in front of them. The music took on a distinctly sultry note. The massed hobbits were not aware of this change, but Frodo was, and continued to wind and unwind himself around the pole like a morning glory vine, rubbing himself against it wantonly, and now sliding up and down, legs apart with back and buttocks pressed firmly against it, wrists crossed above his head and his lips parted. Sam looked at those slim wrists seemingly pinned together and swallowed.  And each time Frodo's eyes held his, Sam felt they could see into his soul with all its secret passions. He knew he was blushing to the tips of his ears, but the heat and excitement had produced flushed faces on most of the hobbits. Surely though, at that distance and the speed at which those eyes had darted past his, Frodo could not actually focus on him standing there and read his expression. Nevertheless, he shuffled backwards to a more shadowed corner, never letting his eyes leave the figure twisting on the table ahead. Then realisation hit him and thrilled down his spine, leaving  cold dismay tangled with heated yearning in its wake. Each time those eyes had swept past, another button on that brilliant white shirt had come undone. Then Frodo turned his back to Sam, planted his feet, and the shirt slipped of its own volition and bared one pale shoulder.

The audience howled like wolves in winter that had scented prey.

Frodo slid down against the pole and, shirtless now, continued to writhe on his knees.

Oh Lady, thought Sam, suddenly panicked, surely he don't know what goes on in my dreams?

Sam's mind began running on twin tracks at breakneck speed, but, as is usual in these cases, in the same direction and, generally, only Ilúvatar knew where.

If Frodo at this point pulled out a blindfold and a caramel toffee would he last more than five seconds and could one get arrested for it? Not the toffee though, you can't be arrested for a toffee. The Shire did have some very arbitrary rules about what one could and could not do in one's own bedroom and with whom, but no one would ever find out unless they hid in your bedroom; an inn however was altogether a different barrow of taters.

Oh dear. Frodo in the altogether. Bugger. Oh Eru!

He also began flipping desperately through all the times he had ever stayed at Bag End, -probably millions by now - trying to decide if he had ever talked loudly enough in his sleep to make Frodo come and check on him, or perhaps he had sleepwalked? Oh no - if he had sleepwalked then Frodo wouldn't have woken him as that's the wrong thing to do with a sleepwalker so he would never have known if Frodo had found out anything that way and it was highly unlikely that Frodo would have told him the next morning Hello, Sam you sleepwalked to my bedroom last night and tried to undress me but really he had never sleepwalked ever so far as he knew and surely his mam would have told him as this sort of thing happened more often to children -

Sam blew out the breath he didn't know he had been holding and panted, mind swirling in a chaotic whirl of half-formed thoughts. Developments on the table, however, jolted him out of his stupor and propelled him back down the path he knew so well - looking after his master.

The hoots and whistles had ceased while the chant of "Off! Off! Off!" with slow clapping accompaniment had been taken up by every hobbit in the inn.

Frodo had turned away from the largest portion of his audience, glancing back over his right shoulder. That small, knowing smile on his face never wavered, and it reminded Sam of when his master was enjoying a personal joke at everyone else's expense. Of course, that made absolutely no sense. How could there be a joke in this?

Frodo had hooked his thumbs into the waistband of his breeches; long, tapered fingers pointing downwards. Again, that same question was being asked - Is this what you want? And the audience had responded as one with a terrible cry. The power in that cry of the crowd was both frightening and exhilarating. They did want to see Frodo naked, every one of them wanted it - no, desired it intensely and immediately, poised at that moment when the hidden lover is about to glimpse his beloved; and if this age of the world were to end it would not dissuade them from turning aside their gaze. If, however, one had questioned each hobbit in the inn previously - Would you ever wish to see Mr Frodo Baggins of Bag End naked? - most would have been shocked and answered instantly with mingled disgust and offense - Certainly not! Perhaps one or two wags would have said Sure, I'd like to see the Jewels of Bag End that everyone else keeps talking about or maybe some would have said Not Mr Baggins, but I'd pay good money to see that Violet Bolger but none would have answered a simple affirmative.

Yet here they all were, and the clapping continued, though the chanting suddenly ceased, collectively holding their breath as Frodo's hands moved to the buttons on his breeches. The music had mysteriously stopped too, but not one hobbit in the inn noticed, least of all, apparently, Frodo.

One button slid free and the clapping gradually increased in speed.

The second button followed, but how maddeningly slowly was it all happening! The clapping accelerated further.

The third button took an age, Frodo was still smiling and the clapping became frantic.

The last button fell open at a gentle, teasing coaxing and the audience howled, releasing that long held breath and their voices again took up the chant as if that were the only word they knew. Dark flaps of material prevented desperate, ravaging eyes from seeing their goal, as Frodo repositioned his hands, thumbs hooked into his waistband and, still moving his hips to the rhythm of the chanting, began to pull downwards.

Every hobbit screamed as if his life hung in the balance.

Merry sat at the table as one felled by a blow. He had started out enjoying the display as much as anyone and had already thought up quite a catalogue of witty comments with which to tease Frodo at some later date when Frodo wasn't so drunk and could thoroughly appreciate them. As Frodo had danced on the table Merry had laughed, and as Frodo had danced with the pole-prop, he had laughed again and cheered. Here indeed was rich material for years. As the waistcoat had fallen to the table, he had chanted and hooted and whistled with the rest, but once the first button of the shirt had come undone, Merry had suddenly stopped enjoying himself, and had sat, frozen to the spot, cold uncertainty filling his soul like a flash flood filling a dry river bed. He had thought that he knew Frodo well, and had believed that he would never go through with this.

As the shirt slid to the table Merry understood what had added to his uneasiness. Frodo wasn't performing a typical drunken-hobbit strip with lots of hilarious face pulling, stumbling and swinging of articles of clothing around the head and into the crowd; he was stripping as if in his own bedroom and his only audience was an awaiting lover. It looked somehow calculated, but Frodo's eyes moved languidly around the room in an apparently random manner. He seemed to be extracting a response from each hobbit individually.

As Frodo's fingers moved to the buttons on his breeches, Merry knew that Frodo was not going to stop. Only physical intervention on Merry's own part would bring to a halt what had begun. He cast a rapid glance towards Pippin and saw that the young Took was as caught up in the show as the rest of the patrons and quite oblivious to Frodo's later inevitable humiliation. Merry looked desperately around for Sam but Sam seemed to have vanished. It was then that Merry realised that he had not spoken to Sam or Pippin for the entire time that Frodo had been dancing on the table. He had no idea where Sam was and there was no time to find him. Suddenly Merry heard the chanting of the hobbits restart as the last button on Frodo's trousers came undone and understood the danger that he could be in if he tried to stop the entertainment at this point. The hobbits were no longer the friendly, jovial companions he knew. He sat rooted to his seat in horror at the knowledge of what had been set in motion at least partially by Pippin and himself. The roar of the crowd was deafening as Frodo moved to perform the final act of the strip. Merry banished all thoughts of danger and jumped out of his seat, but his head swam and his body would not properly obey the orders given out by his brain. The crowd closed in on him and packed itself more tightly whereever he tried to turn and he had to shove aside obstacles as he threw himself towards Frodo, but even as he did so, he knew that he would be too late.

For a fleeting moment, Sam wished that he were as intelligent as Frodo, as resourceful as Merry or at least had Pippin's ability to instantly draw attention to himself, regardless of what was occupying the limelight at the time. But it was no longer possible to plot with Merry and Pippin, and the most intelligent one of their party seemed to have left his wits at the bottom of the last tankard of ale. Sam was not aware that his mind had partaken of any decision, but his feet had already started moving. Not through the crowd, but over the tables, the only islands of space in the inn. Tankards crashed to the floor and he slipped on spilt ale and food as he leaped forward, but he kept his footing well enough, heeding nothing but the impulse that carried him towards Frodo, posed like an elvish statue. He also did not heed the fact that he had no idea what to do once he got there.

There was a thump and a crash and the inn and all its occupants danced around him.

The crowd gasped, followed quickly by dark mutterings. The desire of their hearts had been snatched away and it was all because of that hobbit, a servant no less, it was quite obvious from his ignoble state of dress! The crowd surged closer, intent on an indefinable revenge.

Sam shook his head to clear it and pushed himself upright. Then he looked down and saw his hands were flat against a bare chest.  He stared at brown splayed against alabaster, marvelling how his coarse, work-worn hands were wonderfully sensitive and could appreciate so many intimate details without even moving them. First was a delicate sheen of sweat, no doubt from recent exertions. Underneath was smooth, soft skin, given gentle contours by fine bones and firm muscle. He could feel a rhythmic pulsing vibrating through his right hand and a tightening of nipples beneath his fingers. He did not need to see them as he already knew their colour. Probably a little rosier now than usual. Then his gaze swept upwards and saw a mouth, flushed and beautiful, lips parted with breath coming in gasps. He stumbled once again into two fathomless pools and what was it about Frodo's eyes that had been niggling at him all - Frodo! Sam realised where he was and he drew in his breath and his hands back as if Frodo's skin were a flaming brand, and tried to stand up, before he fully got his bearings.

Merry finally reached the table where Frodo was sprawled supine and Sam was straddled across his hips. Normally, he would have laughed, even though Frodo had probably banged his head a bit and was obviously winded as he was breathing quite heavily. Sam in the stomach would knock the stuffing out of the strongest hobbits in the Shire and Frodo certainly couldn't be listed as amongst them. The expression of stunned horror on Sam's face was on its own enough to inspire years of mirth as he was caught between sitting on his master's hips, of all places, and standing up and exposing Frodo's disarrayed breeches and possibly rather more to the impatient crowd. It was the presence of the latter which was precisely why Merry had no inclination to laugh at all. Rumblings of discontent hissed through the hobbits around him, clearly intent on revenge and only waiting for the boldest to make the first move. Merry felt fear race down his spine, quickly followed by a strange thrill and he knew he would fight until he could no longer stand and beyond if necessary, even though the odds were quite hopeless. That decision felt good. He set his shoulders and faced the hobbits closest to the knot that was Frodo and Sam.

Two things happened at that moment that prevented the Ivy Bush Riot of 1418.

The music suddenly started up again - or perhaps it had never stopped and the crowd had simply noticed it once more - with a gay little tune played on a flute, completely carefree and full of the joy of life. The other was a high-pitched peal of mirth, also joyous and carefree. The muttering subsided considerably and the crowd parted automatically for the young future Thain, laughing like a tree full of birds at sunset. He advanced with confident steps, his new, expensive cloak slung carelessly over his shoulder, held only by the tips of two long fingers.

"Oh, Sam," he finally managed to gasp between heaving in more air to laugh even harder, "if only you could see your face!"

The last shreds of the dark mood vanished as quickly as a barrow-wight in sunlight and wide smiles transformed the crowd as the hobbits took in this new situation. Then someone started chuckling and in an instant every hobbit was laughing. Even Frodo, from his rather ignominious position on the table, was smiling; it was a knowing, gentle smile but in the sudden hilarity and back-slapping of Sam and teasing him with how he had provided them with the best laugh in years, none noticed it, least of all the hobbit to whom it was directed. Within half a minute, the Ivy Bush was back to its old self, with happy patrons dancing and drinking.

Sam, meanwhile, had toiled further and further up the path of mortification and suddenly found that he had reached the peak and there had been no further to travel. So he had simply shut his eyes. He had no idea when or if he would ever open them again.

"Sam," said a gentle voice.

There was no response.

An arm slipped tenderly around his shoulders.

"Sam," repeated the voice, still gentle, but a little note of frustration creeping in.

Sam kept his eyes firmly shut. He couldn't recognise the owner of this voice so it certainly wasn't worth paying heed to it at this moment.

"Sam." Hands were cupped around his ear and the voice was now whispering directly into it. "If you open your eyes and get up so we can cover him with my cloak, I promise that you will be able to sit on Frodo for as long as you want once we get him back to Bag End."

Sam jerked his head away from the whisperer, his eyes flew open and he found himself staring directly at the wide, blue-rimmed green-speckled irises belonging to Pippin. The hobbit who had increased his pain past the point of what he could bear had actually spoken this last comment so that only Sam could have heard it. His mouth was unsmiling and his gaze was unmistakably apologetic.

"Come on, Sam," that low, kind voice sounded in his numbed mind, and it was definitely Pippin's lips which were forming the words, "time to go."

Sam felt a soft pressure at his shoulders again and allowed himself to be guided off the table and steered gently as he walked like one in his sleep out of the inn.

The members of 'The Hole Dwellers' continued playing their merry jig as they watched the four hobbits leave and then exchanged glances filled with a mixture of laughter, pride and a definite smugness. All entertainers consider it a successful performance when they have been able to elicit the desired response from their audience. Orchestrating and controlling those emotions, however, was akin to holding a silmaril.

The fact that Mr Baggins hadn't actually managed to take his breeches off - but had obviously wanted to -  had left the audience unsatisfied and craving more. This could work in their favour for a really interesting night. Heady with power, 'The Hole Dwellers' changed music once again, reintroducing the tune that they had played whilst Mr Baggins was occupying the crowd, but modifying it with a more frantic and hard-edged beat.

It was working. Already one shirt was coming off and it only needed one hobbit to begin and in this atmosphere the others would follow, as surely as a row of a hobbit-child's wooden blocks.

By morning, the antics of Mr Frodo Baggins and his companions had paled in comparison with the later debaucheries that had taken place at the inn that night and were therefore completely forgotten.

***

Meanwhile, four hobbits had gathered some little distance from The Ivy Bush. Rather, more of a trio of hobbits accompanied by a fourth, who was sitting on the ground wrapped in a cloak singing quietly and happily a song about grapes. Despite this fairly stable position, the hobbit in question seemed to have trouble remaining upright.

Merry looked down at the seated figure.

"Frodo, dear, I think it is time you put on your shirt and waistcoat and climbed into the trap with us. Sam has shown great foresight in bringing it." Merry turned and inclined his head to Sam.  "Thank you, Samwise," he intoned gravely, without a flicker of irony.

"I didn't do nothing, Mr Merry, sir, just thought you would all be tired after a long night." mumbled Sam, concentrating on Merry's furry toes. He had not expected that it would be due to Frodo's exploits that he would be hearing thanks over this matter.

"Completely sozzled, you mean," supplied Pippin brightly. "And it was supposed to be for me in particular."

Against his will, a tiny smile tugged at the corner of Sam's mouth. The black cloud which had smothered his mood since attempting to rescue his master began to dissipate at the edges. He turned to hide it and knelt down beside Frodo.

"Mr Frodo, Mr Merry is right. You'll catch a chill if you don't put your clothes back on." A vision of Frodo unbuttoning his shirt flashed through his mind. He pushed it firmly aside.

"Hmm? But I'm not cold." The words were rather slurred.

"Not yet, sir."

"Come on Frodo, we'll help you," announced Merry, reaching for the cloak. "You don't want to be frightening Mabel now, do you? She's not as young as she once was."

Frodo made a small noise of protest.

"Get Mabel ready, will you please, Sam, this won't take long." Merry was already plucking at the cloak with one hand, while groping behind with the other for Frodo's shirt.

Sam reluctantly obeyed, removing the pony's nosebag and untying the reins. He stroked her nose and spoke to her quietly as he always did, resolutely keeping his eyes away from the three hobbits. Instead, he listened, straining to catch every sound above Mabel's snorting and shuffling of hoofs. He told himself that he had been using his ears just so an awful lot, particularly of late, and it was simply a habit that he had acquired.

"Frodo, let go of the cloak."

"No."

"Frodo, could you give me my cloak back please, I'm cold."

There was a rustle of material. Pippin knew exactly how to prey on Frodo's politeness instinct.

"Hey, Frodo, did you know, in this light you positively glow. You look like one of those strange mushrooms."

Sam's hands tightened convulsively on the bridle for some reason and he concentrated on breathing normally.

"He's been eating one of those strange mushrooms, you mean," chipped in Pippin, "judging by tonight's efforts. Maybe this is just an additional effect."

More rustles. Frodo didn't appear to be resisting.

"No mushroom has ever made me look like that."

"Quite true, Merry dear, but you would never be able to dance like that either, even with the help of mushrooms, however - "

"Hoy! I'm sure I could if I tried - "

"- however, you just might look like this if you ate one of those glowing mushrooms."

"About as useful an idea as saying I could acquire his eyes by swallowing two large dwarf-fashioned black crystals." The pony made an odd-sounding cough. "At least the dancing I could practise."

"Have you two finished discussing me?" came a petulant voice.

"No, definitely not." Merry informed him. "Now, do you think you can button up your own trousers, or must I do those for you as well?"

There was another odd noise from the pony.

"Sam, do you think Mabel needs to see an animal doctor?"

"She was - ", Sam cleared his throat and repeated, "She was fine this morning, Mr Merry, sir, but if she acts poorly tomorrow than I'll find someone t'see her. Might just be the cold air on her throat all of a sudden like."

"Merry," Pippin admonished with a note of laughter in his voice, "Sam would be the first hobbit in the shire to get a doctor if an animal were ill. Including for lost rabbits and broken-winged birds. Don't fret so and leave it to him. On with the waistcoat now. This arm first."

Sam finally allowed himself to turn and observe his companions. Frodo was still on the ground, but fully covered by the shirt which was hanging out over his breeches. Pippin had just manoeuvred him into his waistcoat and was fiddling with the buttons. Really, there was nothing to get worked up about. It was just his master whom he had seen completely naked many times. Aye, and ye've forced yerself to look away each time, whereas with t'others it didn't bother ye a bit. Sam wished once more that his conscience wouldn't use his Gaffer's voice. Not for the last time.

"Here's your coat, Mr Frodo," he said, thinking it came out rather well. Quite steady, in fact.

He proffered the said item.

"Sam, by the way, I have to tell you something," said Pippin, standing up.

"Yes, sir?"

Pippin placed his hands on Sam's shoulders and fixed him with a serious gaze. "I apologise deeply and sincerely for embarrassing you so horribly tonight."

Sam dropped his eyes and mumbled something automatically.

"No, don't be silly Sam, it was not nothing and I am at a loss as to how to make it up to you - ah - "

He removed a hand and raised it to forestall another protest.

" - though I will think of a way." He smiled rather mischievously but Sam did not look up.

Merry reached up from his position at Frodo's side and removed the coat from Sam's nerveless fingers. "It pains me to say this, but Pippin had the better idea of the two of us tonight."

Pippin turned and poked Merry with his foot. "You must be really drunk tonight, cousin, if you're finally admitting that!"

"I was, but I have since sobered up considerably. Yes, if a crowd is laughing at you, they usually don't want to kill you as well."

"It was just the best thing I could think of at the time," explained Pippin, turning back to Sam. "I'm sorry it meant being cruel to you."

"I suppose I didn't think of nothing better myself," said Sam, finally raising his eyes and giving a wry smile.

"Not at all, Sam," snorted Merry," your action was imperative. You performed the most important duty tonight which was to prevent Frodo losing his trousers. I would have been far too late. I am sure we would have all died of shock."

"Hoy!"

"Yes, and you Merry dear," continued Pippin smoothly, "stalled the crowd with your ferocious visage just long enough to give me time to think of something." He smirked. "We all worked together like a smooth running mill to rescue Frodo from himself. We make a good team."

The three hobbits exchanged slightly smug looks before Sam's glance settled on Frodo and he smiled warmly, and this time it reached his eyes. "That we are indeed, Mr Pippin," he said.

Frodo was still staring at the coat which was now in his lap.

"Ah, yes, thank you Sam," he said to the piece of clothing, though what he was thanking Sam for was not exactly clear. He tried to stand up. He succeeded on the second attempt, though the swaying did make Sam glad that the pony trap was only a few steps away.

Merry helped Frodo into the coat and patted him on the back in a congratulatory fashion. "Very good, now let's get into the trap, shall we?"

"No, thank you." Frodo's voice had taken on a familiar tone of stubbornness.

"Why ever not?" asked Pippin, surprised. "Don't you want to get home then? Or do you know of a warm and comfortable bush around here somewhere?"

"I shall walk."

Three hobbits exchanged dubious glances.

"I am a little drunk," Frodo explained, with a great air of dignity, "and therefore a walk before bed will do me good."

Silence reigned.

"I do know the way."

"Mr Frodo, don't you think - "

"No, Sam, my mind is quite made up. You need not come with me. Meriadoc and Peregrin, my house is yours." He waved his hand airily at them and this small movement had a serious effect on his balance. He took a moment to reorientate himself. "If you are still awake when I reach home, then I will see you, otherwise, a pleasant evening to you all." With that, Frodo began meandering haphazardly along the road, in the approximate direction of Bag End.

"Oh, dear," said Merry.

"I don't think I've ever seen him this drunk and still standing," said Pippin and furrowed his brow.

Sam jogged the few paces between him and his master and caught up to the staggering hobbit.

"Mr Frodo - "

"Oh, Sam, how nice! You've decided to walk too?" exclaimed Frodo. His face beamed with happiness.

"Er -", said Sam.

"I know you like walking at night, and tonight is altogether charming."

Sam thought about how cold it actually was, then sighed and gave in. "It is at that, sir."

"I wonder how Eärendil feels travelling endlessly up there," Frodo continued dreamily, tipping his head far back and casting a longing glance at the sky. "Oof." He tripped on some invisible object and his arms flailed wildly.

Sam automatically reached out and steadied him. "Perhaps we can look at the sky once we get to Bag End, sir," he commented dryly. Frodo's right arm settled across his shoulders with a decided amount of weight behind it. It was going to be a long walk home.

"Yes, that is indeed a good idea, Master Gamgee. Home then we go." Frodo strode forward with the false confidence of those with one too many ales under their belts, but he kept one arm slung around Sam.

The noise of hooves and wheels started up behind them and in very little time the trap pulled level with the walkers.

"Are you sure about this, Frodo?" asked Merry, leaning out of the trap at an awkward angle in order to study Frodo's face.

"Absolutely, thank you," stated Frodo, pointedly staring at the road ahead and not at Merry.

"All right, then," said Merry, "Pippin and I will light the fire in the drawing room for you, but then I for one will be heading straight to bed. Goodnight to you both."

A curious expression flickered across Frodo's face momentarily, before it resumed the intense concentration of the drunkard determined to go somewhere, usually across the room to the bar.

"Goodnight Frodo, goodnight Sam," cried Pippin as the pony trap rattled away, "Oh, and you might need this!"

A large dark mass sailed through the air and landed squarely over Sam's head. Frodo exploded with suppressed giggles and then gave up the struggle with himself and laughed as he pulled ineffectually at the material. Sam extricated himself and then wrapped the cloak around his master.

He shook his head in mock-severity at Frodo and sighed in an overtly exasperated manner. "We ain't never goin' to get home at this rate, Mr Frodo." A tingle of guilt and excitement shot down his spine as he became aware it would not matter to him if his pronouncement came true.

Frodo turned and gently pressed his forehead to Sam's.

"I'm terribly sorry, Sam," he whispered, his hands sliding softly around the other hobbit's waist. "I'll try harder." Sam couldn't help but smile at his master. The lingering oppressiveness from earlier in the night evaporated in the face of other, far more pleasant emotions.

Sam could smell pipesmoke and his own home-made soap and a complex, delicate fragrance which he did not separate into its components, but which he simply registered as "hobbit" and "Frodo". He drew in a slow, deep, breath savouring that scent, knowing that it would just leave him wanting to breathe it in again. That, however, he couldn't allow. It was only then that Sam realised he still had his arms around Frodo, ostensibly adjusting the cloak. Frodo was not objecting and considering that his own hands had now for some reason wandered around to the small of Sam's back he probably would not object. But Sam was not one to take advantage of a drunken embrace. He carefully tucked his left arm under Frodo's armpits, repositioned Frodo's right arm to lie across his shoulders and turned them both to face the road. "Let's try again, sir."

"Do you really think that was a good idea?" asked Pippin as Merry gently prodded Mabel to a brisk trot. He twisted his head away from the receding hobbit-shapes, back to face his cousin.

"Oh, don't worry, Pip. They'll get home soon enough. Sam will make sure of it even if it means carrying Frodo up the Hill." He settled into the seat, satisfied now with the pony's speed. "Since Frodo was being so stubborn, I thought it was a perfect opportunity to get back quickly. There are some things I want to get done before bed."

Pippin chuckled. "I thought he looked a little surprised there for a moment that you let him walk home at all, let alone giving in to him so quickly," he said.

"You saw that too?" inquired Merry. "Cousin Frodo always thinks he hides his emotions well, and he does, but not from us." He gave a snort of laughter. "And poor Sam knows he doesn't hide his emotions well, but keeps on trying."

Pippin snorted an agreement and shook his head slowly. "Sam has been through an awful time tonight," he said. "We really ought to do something for him."

For a while, the clop of Mabel's hooves was the only sound to be heard.

"Pippin - " said Merry suddenly.

"Mmm?"

"What exactly did you put into Frodo's ale tonight?"

"I - huh? Nothing Merry. I didn't."

"What?"

"I said that I did not actually put anything at all into Frodo's ale tonight. I thought it must have been you."

"Well, I didn't."

"Then who did?"

"No idea."

There was silence for a while. Suddenly Pippin gave a giggle.

"What is it?"

"You don't think - no, that's stupid."

"Tell me."

"No, it's stupid."

"Pippin, you know I hate it when you start talking about something and then break it off. Tell me."

"Sam?"

"What?"

Pippin thought Merry's voice must have climbed two octaves in his surprise.

"Well, he is a gardener and although we have never thought to ask him, he probably knows an awful lot about plants and their, haha, effects." Pippin smothered another giggle.

"What, powdered root of snapdragon ground with forget-me-not petals and attar of roses in secret proportions, collected whilst naked on the night before a full moon and distilled with taters is going to make Frodo take off his trousers in public?"

Pippin laughed out loud. "All right, all right. I did say it was stupid."

"Quite right Pippin dear. Sam would never want to induce Frodo to take off his trousers in public."

There was a brief silence before they both burst into snickers which only slowly died away.

Merry turned the idea over in his mind for a while. "There wasn't even anyone there tonight whom I can think of who would do such a thing. Especially to Frodo. I'm beginning to think that he simply drank exactly the right - or the wrong - amount of ale. Not too much and, obviously, not too little. Normally if we help him along a bit he just gets drunk spectacularly quickly, falls off his chair and goes to sleep under a convenient piece of furniture. It's not particularly entertaining."

"No, you're right. Frodo is one of those rare hobbits who is actually more entertaining when he is sober."

"Except for tonight."

"Except for tonight."

Merry mulled over the recent events. "I really must say that his behaviour took me completely by surprise."

"You don't think it is that ring, do you?" mused Pippin quietly.

"I beg your pardon?" asked Merry, automatically dropping his tone to an equally low murmur.

"Well, Sam was saying something about it corrupting anyone who keeps it."

"I'm not sure if the Dark Lord intended quite that sort of corruption. Besides, Bilbo must have had the thing for 60 years and we would have certainly heard about it if it had affected him in a similar manner." He shifted the reins in his hands and thought for a moment. "One thing we know for sure is that it keeps one looking young. Sam looks older than Frodo now and it's not just because Sam is working in the garden all day. It really struck me tonight."

"When Sam was sitting on him," pointed out Pippin.

"Well, yes," Merry admitted, and a sly grin crept over his face.

"Hmm, he hardly appears older than me, and that is simply not fair." Pippin pulled a face.

"Actually, it scares me. Gandalf's stories, at least the way Sam tells them, gets the hairs raised on the back of your neck quickly enough, but they always go down when morning comes around. And we haven't exactly observed anything ourselves about Frodo or Bilbo that shouted 'Warning! I Am Becoming Evil.'" Pippin's hands placed the words dramatically in the air in front of him.

"Well, yes, if he grew fangs, or dribbled or started speaking in tongues, then it would be easier to comprehend, I suppose," agreed Merry.

"The youthfulness, though. That is unnatural. And everyone sees it as a good thing, and is jealous of it, it's something to have themselves. Which is why it frightens me more than any of Sam's descriptions of orcs or enslavement or general senseless destruction."

"Well, the ring is partly the reason I wanted some time in Bag End without Frodo being there," said Merry thoughtfully.

"You want to snoop?"

"Exactly." Silence settled as both hobbits contemplated this.

Mabel turned a corner and began climbing the Hill.

"Sam told me today that Frodo is working on a plan to leave the Shire," continued Merry, after a while.

"But we knew that already. We just don't know when or how."

"It appears the how is now fairly advanced. Some plan of selling Bag End and moving back to Buckland. And you can guess who the most likely buyer would be."

"Selling Bag End!" exclaimed Pippin. "Is that really necessary? It tears at my heart just to think of it, what could that thought be doing to Frodo?"

"I know. And don't forget what it's doing to Sam. Which just emphasises the seriousness of the situation. It is not yet finalised, but that seems to be the way the wind is blowing. It would make sense, because he would be easily accepted again and from there he could slip out of the Shire whenever he wanted to, without it being noticed for days, possibly weeks."

"And without us noticing for long enough so we would have no idea where to follow him. Sure, we think he would be going through Bree, but we can't protect him if we aren't with him."

"All too true, Pip, all too true. Which is why," continued Merry as the pony came to a natural halt at the gate of Bag End, "I want to snoop tonight. I want to make sure Frodo hasn't got a letter from Gandalf or something that would make him change his plans." He sighed, and turned to face Pippin. "He has been acting very strangely lately and I am no longer sure that he would tell even Sam everything now." His mouth twisted in a familiar mischievous expression. "And Sam is the other reason why an hour or so before they get here is perfect." He hopped down from the trap. "If you really wish to do something to repay Sam, put Mabel in the stable, and get back as quick as you can. I'm going to need some help."

Pippin paused, and then a wide grin spread across his face.

***

They were making quite good progress, better than Sam had expected considering how things had begun. Frodo swayed, staggered and stumbled, but did not actually fall. Eventually they settled into a comfortable four-footed rhythm, and Frodo's coordination improved markedly, though they still walked extremely slowly. Neither of them said much and they fell into a companionable silence. Sam padded along, his mind calmly absorbing the sensations around him: the moon gliding silently overhead, the soft scuff of four hobbit feet, the rustle of their clothes. Other sensations also filtered through: the breathing of two hobbits, the feel of his hand spread over Frodo's ribs and Frodo's arm across his shoulder, their chests making another point of contact, and that intangible, ephemeral perfume that made Sam want to stop and hold Frodo close and stand for eternity just breathing him in. Sam again pushed such thoughts aside and sternly ordered his legs to continue at their steady pace.

A niggling little voice floated out of nowhere through his head. It's always harder working out as what's not there, and Sam had no idea what he was trying to work out.

A rapid glance to the side told Sam that Frodo was deep in thought, as if he were seated in front of the fireplace at Bag End, turning a problem over in his mind. It reminded Sam of a night where they had both been seated in the living room and Sam had read from a book filled with Bilbo's writings. He had started off reading aloud a poem about Gil-Galad but as he had finished it, he had looked up to see that his master had fallen asleep. Not wishing to disturb him, Sam had continued reading the next poem quietly to himself, just to practise.

The language had been overtly flowery and had used many metaphors, and Sam had not really understood at first what the poem was describing. Then something had dawned in him, and he had turned back to the beginning again, reading with different intent. It had then become abundantly clear that these poems filling the last third of the book were far more explicit than any raunchy tale he had heard at the Dragon or any educational material told him by older brothers or friends. He had glanced nervously up at his master, but Frodo had been quite evidently still asleep, and Sam had continued to read, feeling rather guilty. As time had passed, he had forgotten about being cautious for the words had made him encounter far more agreeable sensations than guilt. He had never known that anyone could experience such intense physical pleasure from mere words on a page. He had been so caught up in a sensual tide that he had not heard Frodo stir until Frodo's voice mingled with the poetry, saying something about bed. This had only served to add fuel to Sam's already overheated mind and he had been saved from saying "Yes" by Frodo's apology for startling him. It was only then that Sam had realised that it had not actually been the offer that he so longed to hear.

The upshot of all this was far more problematic. The thought of Frodo reading alone in his study now conjured up the wildest imaginings and considering the amount of time Frodo spent there, Sam was amazed that he managed to get any work done in the garden at all. He had found it necessary to fit the toolshed with a new lock where few would notice it.

As they reached the Hill the path became steeper, and whilst Sam was trying to rein in his runaway thoughts, Frodo appeared to reconnect with his surroundings.

"Sam, you're cold," he stated all of a sudden.

"It's a bit nippy out, sir, but refreshing, you might say."

"You should have said something."

"Well now, I can't see as it would have done any good. I left my cloak in the trap. And really, Mr Frodo, I'm fine."

"You could have taken Pippin's cloak." Frodo stopped walking and waved his free cloth-covered arm under Sam's nose helpfully.

"Sir, then you would be cold and there's no way that'd happen if I could help it," said Sam firmly.

"You do take good care of me," sighed Frodo, and his head tilted and rested on Sam's shoulder. "I wish I could do the same for you."

"There's no call for that, sir," he mumbled, not really knowing what to say as unbidden images of how Frodo might take care of him played out in the shifting shadows around them. Sam felt his face heat, loudly advertising his illicit desires, but a spot on his neck just below his ear registered a welcome coolness. It sent a shiver through him and he released a small sigh of pleasure before he realised that it had been caused by Frodo's lips.

"You like that, Sam." He could feel Frodo smile against his skin even as he understood that Frodo was not asking him a question.

Sam opened his mouth, but no sound emerged. What was he to say? I've dreamed of this for as long as I knew of such a thing. He knew what he wanted to say if ever such an utterly impossible opportunity presented itself, but this was different. Frodo was so drunk that he had been prepared to remove all his clothes in public and then had attempted to walk home alone. Tomorrow would find a Frodo so horrified at his performance at the inn, that it was quite likely he would not emerge from Bag End until the move, whenever that would be. How much worse would it be if he woke to find Sam in his bed? Frodo would need all Sam's help to get through the rest of the time they spent in the Shire as it was, and Sam knew he couldn't risk everything because of his own base wishes.

At some point while his mind was so occupied, Frodo had turned to face him. Slender hands had crept around his waist and his own treacherous limbs had found a way to keep his left arm around Frodo's ribs and slide his right hand behind Frodo's head, lacing his fingers through the finest silk, in a gesture both protective and restrictive. Warm breath traced the outline of his ear and a compact hobbit form pressed up against him. Sam became fascinated at his own hand stroking Frodo's hair, at the heady balm rising around him and the languorous feel of a warm hobbit against his cold body. As Frodo's lips grazed his ear, he caught his breath and held it, biting his lip, until he was forced by his own inevitable response to take action.

Sam took a deep breath, and, with every fibre of his being screaming against it, he pushed Frodo very gently, very slowly away and murmured, as his heart tore at his chest,

"Mr Frodo, we need to get you home."

He could not look Frodo directly in the eye as he formed the words, though he tried.

Frodo gazed back steadily, saying nothing, and Sam had to shut his own eyes against the moonlight glistening on those wells of infinity, blocking the impulse to reach out and touch his lips to that inviting mouth. He hoped that he had turned away before that tear escaped but he could not be sure. After a few steps Sam realised that his left hand was gripping Frodo's ribs so tightly that it was possible to bruise and he forced his fingers to uncurl though he was unable to go further towards removing his arm entirely. He stumbled forward, blinking rapidly to clear his vision.

Frodo remained silent.

When Sam could focus on the path again he saw that they were further up the Hill than he had thought.

"Nearly home, sir," he said, forcing the bright tone. Despite his horribly chaotic thoughts, he noticed that the pony, usually left tied at the gate of Bag End for him to stable, was nowhere to be seen. As Sam opened the door of Bag End, warm air from inside flowed out to greet them and two candles in holders awaited them on the bench inside. Sam smiled wryly to himself. This must have been Pippin's way of 'making it up' to him for tonight's discomfiture. He cringed at the memory.

As they stepped inside and Sam closed the door, Frodo automatically moved to the little foot-bath to rinse his feet. Sam heard a groan and whipped around to see Frodo standing in the water with his head down and one hand pressed against the wall. He instantly rushed to steady his master, slipping his arm around Frodo's shoulders.

"Mr Frodo?"

Frodo did not reply. His concern increasing, Sam reached out and gently tucked Frodo's dark curls behind a delicate ear, in order to study his face.

Frodo finally turned his head and the two black crystals were dangerously close once more. Sam's breath stopped in his throat and it struck him all of a sudden He's - But then that thought was gone and Sam had no idea what it was that he had just understood. Whatever it was that he had been trying to remember or discover all night was as elusive as catching dandelion fluff out of the air. He would open his palm, certain he had trapped it, and it would simply not be there.

Then Frodo smiled and coherent thought vanished.

"I'm sorry to have worried you Sam," and the smile twisted a little, "it's just that the water is warm and I didn't expect that. It feels... nice." His voice trailed off and he seemed at a loss for words.

They stared at each other for a moment in silence. Then Sam remembered to breathe.

"Warm?" he repeated, as if he could not comprehend the word.

"Yes, warm. Pippin and Merry must have heated it. It was very thoughtful of them."

The mention of Pippin and Merry brought Sam back to Middle-Earth with a thump. He had been unconsciously teasing the hair just over Frodo's ear through his fingers. He had registered silk or satin or any number of enchantingly soft sensations and also that fragrance, that he couldn't quite name... He now froze, staring wide-eyed and wondering how he could inconspicuously extricate himself from this situation. Frodo didn't move, but closed his eyes on a soft sigh. Ah, yes, of course, the water, Sam thought in a rush, it would feel right good on cold, tired feet. He carefully disentangled his fingers from Frodo's hair and forced his hand down to a cloth-covered shoulder.

"Let me - Let me take the cloak, sir," he managed, clearing the hoarseness out of his voice.

"Thank you, Sam," replied Frodo, so quietly that Sam almost did not catch the words.

Frodo dried his feet, picked up a candle and wandered off into Bag End. Sam hurriedly sloshed his feet in the bath and yes, that warm water did feel exceptionally good on his cold toes, even more so when one was used to a freezing foot-bath at nights, dried them, and proceeded to hang Pippin's cloak in the hall. He removed his own coat, hung it up as well and headed towards Frodo's bedroom to light the fire. On the way through the drawing room, he saw the fire there burning brightly in the hearth as promised. Mechanically, he reached for Frodo's coat which had been discarded over a chair and blew out the candle which had obviously gotten no further.

He had picked up and was folding Frodo's waistcoat before he comprehended what he was holding. He turned and walked towards Frodo's bedroom, heart racing with unreasonable anticipation.

Frodo was leaning back against the door frame, a hand paused part-way down his chest, the other arm dangling, looking into his bedroom as if he didn't recognise it. The pose was almost identical to one which Frodo had struck earlier in the evening. Sam desperately tried to put that thought out of his mind as he forced his eyes past Frodo and peered around. A small fire threw a tremulous light around the room. Near the fire, the card table had been pulled out on which a bottle of wine with two glasses and a plate piled with cheese and dried fruit had been placed. The bed itself had already been turned down and on the bedside table was some sort of oddly shaped mass, its true form difficult to discern in the flickering light. In an attempt to see what else had been done, Sam leaned around a little further and his hand accidentally brushed against his master's.

"Ah, Sam!" exclaimed Frodo, causing Sam to draw back instantly, "No, Sam, come here, it is only that your skin feels like ice!" He took Sam's hands in his own as if to demonstrate the difference in temperature. "You really did freeze out there, didn't you?"

"I'll warm up soon enough, Mr Frodo," answered Sam, successfully avoiding Frodo's eyes but staring at Frodo's half-open shirt instead. He recalled his hands pressed against a bare chest earlier in the evening and fine-boned hips trapped under his thighs. He closed his eyes and swallowed, trying for calm even as he shuddered with desire, both remembered and immediate.

"Maybe I can help, since you kept me so warm on the way home," came Frodo's voice quietly at his ear.

Frodo's mouth was, as Sam had often imagined, indeed very warm against his own and deliciously soft. He felt Frodo's tongue brush gently against his lips, asking the question that had not been formed with words, and he could do nothing but answer truthfully. He thus discovered that that mouth surpassed in sweetness and intensity the most fervent depictions of his mind as a perfectly ripe wild raspberry outshines its inferior cultivated cousins. Sam's earlier resolve crumbled and he whimpered and responded helplessly. Frodo had caught him with his usual defences in complete disarray. This whole night seemed to have conspired against him. In the course of one evening he had scaled the heights of humiliation, descended the depths to cold fear, felt buffeted between joy and despair and, over all, a love and a desire that had the power to twist his stomach and set his whole body trembling.

Sam could not resist as his hands were guided under a light film of material and carefully placed on the smooth, firm flesh of Frodo's back. As he heard Frodo draw in a sharp breath at the shock and then felt him relax, he tried in vain to work out how he came to be standing here with his arms full of Frodo, breathing in Frodo, tasting sweetness and starlight and pipesmoke and a hint of ale - Are you goin' to just keep right on and let this happen, takin' advantage of your master when he's drunk? admonished a familiar voice. But he's - and Sam broke the kiss with a laugh as he discovered that finally grasping that one key had opened the door to a whole dragon's hoard of treasure.

"Sam?"

Whichever of Sam's reactions Frodo might have prepared himself for, this obviously was not one of them. He searched Sam's face intently, his relief at Sam's initial response freezing to uncertainty.

"Ah, Mr Frodo, much as I've wanted such a thing, aye, for years you might say, it's just that I can't let this go on." Sam's lips were compressed but his eyes were smiling.

Frodo struggled with several conflicting messages. From his vantage point on the table that night and from his fairly overt advances on the walk home Frodo had been certain that Sam did indeed harbour feelings for himself that went far beyond simple friendship. But he had shown a reluctance to continue. Hence, Frodo had decided that these feelings required only a little more nurturing with a modest approach, for instance, a passionate kiss, to bring them to full flower. Or at least to the point where any verbal denial could be proved a blatant lie. Presently, his body was urging him to continue and even intensify the recent pleasurable activities. He had just discovered that Sam tasted of, amongst other things, a most intriguingly familiar mixture of flavours involving rosemary and something else which warranted further exploration and, on top of this, he had just heard that Sam had been wanting him for years, which had made his heart race, so what exactly was the obstacle to -

Oh. Propriety. The class difference as wide as the Sea. Years of being told to know his place.

"Sam, I'm not at all interested in discussing what your Gaffer would say about this, so -"

Strangely, mention of the Gaffer appeared to amuse Sam.

"Neither am I, Mr Frodo." Sam's eyes sparkled, and his hands, which had already warmed considerably, stroked feather-light up and down Frodo's back eliciting several exquisite shivers.

A vision of Sam stroking Mabel's nose in the same gentle manner rose unbidden to Frodo's mind. He didn't know what to make of that, so he quickly decided to ignore it and try and sort out the rest of the matter. During this time, his mouth had opened to say something, but he couldn't quite remember what.

"It's just that you're very drunk, sir," explained Sam very quietly, his low tones yet another caress, "and a roll in the hay for one night to be sorry about tomorrow ain't what I ever had in mind." Completely at odds with his words, his hands continued their gentle exploration under Frodo's shirt, gliding over hyper-sensitised ribs and flesh.

"I'm not quite that drunk," Frodo protested weakly. Neverthless his ability to formulate a rational argument was quite chronically impaired. "I do know what I want." It was at this point that he decided simply to listen to Sam's intoxicating eyes and hands and voice rather than his words.

"Aye, what you want now, I'd not doubt," agreed Sam, those distracting fingers now meandering around to the front of his chest, "but I'll not be taking advantage. It wouldn't be proper, if you take my meaning, sir." Sam's eyes smiled at him and something delicately brushed around and over a nipple, light as a breath. Or perhaps it was a breath.

"Ah," said Frodo, less than half of his mind wanting to explain and more than half wanting to lose himself in the sensation of fingertips stroking his belly and concentrating on whether or not they were gradually inching lower. An underlying warmth that had been growing imperceptibly stronger abruptly reminded him of its presence.

"Of course, Mr Frodo," declared Sam, withdrawing his hands without warning, and causing an involuntary groan of disappointment from Frodo, "if you can look me in the eye and tell me you ain't drunk at all, then it might be different." Strong hands were placed on the door jamb just above Frodo's head as Sam leaned on outstretched arms, his eyes searching Frodo's face.

Frodo considered his options quickly. If he were to admit to Sam that he was indeed, as suspected, not drunk at all, then this might lead to some awkwardness on his part. However, if he persisted with the charade then he would mostly definitely lose, and decidedly more than he cared to. The firelight streaked golden threads through Sam's hair and his eyes were large and dark, unmistakable in their message.

Frodo took a deep, steadying breath before he confessed quietly, black eyes locked onto brown, "Samwise, I am not drunk."

"Ah," breathed Sam, and the gaze remained unbroken as he pushed himself upright and brought his hands down to deal with the remaining buttons on Frodo's shirt. "Good." Frodo saw bright flame reflected in those eyes as they came closer to his face before his own eyes shut of their own accord and he melted into the kiss. He knew nothing but pure sensation as those seductive lips met his own and something warm and living touched him delicately, patiently requesting entrance. This he granted unhesitatingly and found that his first taste of Sam had truly been far too cursory. Where in Middle Earth had Sam learned to kiss like this? Frodo may not have drunk much ale, but Sam's lips and tongue were weakening Frodo's knees and creating an addictive dizziness far quicker than any alcoholic beverage. Strong arms had at some point securely enfolded him and his whole body began to ache, pulsing with the need to grind and set himself down the path of release.

Sam, however, appeared to be in no hurry. He began kissing along Frodo's jaw and throat, mapping a route over Frodo's chest, indulging in two short detours to pay special attention to something there, leaving muffled, plaintive sounds in his wake. Then, moving inexorably on, his mouth following the path left by the open shirt, over a sleek, downy belly, with fingertips continually roaming, keeping pace along Frodo's sides. As Sam knelt, hands now poised at the front of Frodo's breeches, he stopped and looked up.

"Ah, Sam, no!" Frodo's groan at this interruption in proceedings was considerably louder, with a note betraying his desperation.

"Of course, Mr Frodo," said Sam, and his voice sounded tightly controlled, as his fingers grazed over the straining ridge covered by dark cloth, "if you can look me in the eye and tell me you weren't never drunk at all tonight - "

Frodo drew a ragged breath to protest at this cruellest of treatments; then he recognised his own need reflected in Sam's shaking hands and imploring eyes and he put that breath to a far better use.

"No, Samwise," he whispered, and the admission was like a benediction, "I was never drunk."

Part of Frodo hung suspended in the air, still frozen in disbelief at how this moment had been completely upended even though he already knew why. Sam had caught him out on a lie. This part of himself, though, ceased all operation as a sudden wet heat sent pleasure and fire in equal measure racing through his every nerve and he heard a strangled wail long before he realised that it had been torn out of his own body. The overwhelming need to thrust took control and desire played out her ancient rhythms upon him until he was born up on that crest, hands buried in Sam's hair and crying out Sam's name as he came.

As the aftershocks subsided, Frodo found that his hips were pinned against the door frame by capable hands and this was probably his only means of support as his legs seemed to have been replaced by columns of water.

Sam carefully released his sated charge and indeed Frodo's knees no longer knew their intended function as he slid down against the door frame, heaving breaths slowing. Feeling rather like a propped-up rag doll he opened his eyes and regarded Sam suspiciously through his curls.

"How did you know?"

"Something was worrying me all night about you, sir, and for an age I couldn't work it out."

"Oh."

Tipping his head back against the door frame and closing his eyes, Frodo relaxed as he waited for the answer to continue.

"When you kissed me, sir, there was hardly any taste of ale," said Sam simply.

Frodo flopped sideways onto the floor, rolled onto his back and groaned. He cast an arm over his eyes and asked, "When did you start to 'worry', Samwise?" not sure that he wanted to know the answer.

Sam lay down on his side, propping his head in his hand.

"Just about the first time you looked at me from that table," he murmured.

In answer, Frodo groaned again. Sam stretched out an arm and began once more to describe random patterns on Frodo's skin.

"But I was worried this was going to happen all night," he said thoughtfully.

"What?" Frodo whipped his arm from eyes to stare at Sam, astonishment mixed with horror. He  wondered how many other hobbits had thought he was so obviously stripping only for Sam.

The caress continued uninterrupted.

"Aye," Sam nodded slowly, but he looked as if he were about to laugh, "I was worried that I would have to carry you to your bed and look here," he rapidly changed position and picked up a stunned and unresisting Frodo, "it came true, just as I thought." He dumped Frodo on the bed.

Frodo looked at his friend, standing there fully dressed and then down at himself, also technically clothed but the difference lay in the long line of unbuttoned fabric and exposed flesh. A frown creased his brow. "This wasn't exactly what I planned," he complained, petulantly.

"And exactly how much of this was planned, sir?" Sam casually walked over to the door, closed it, and then came back to sit down on the edge of the bed.

"Erm, well - " began Frodo. Thoughts of the night's further possibilities made it difficult to marshal his wits.

"So you agree there was some planning involved, sir."

"Maybe a little, but only with the best of intentions," said Frodo finally. He composed himself and raised himself to kneel behind Sam, slipping his hands under Sam's armpits.

"Yes, sir?", Sam asked pointedly, seeming not to notice that his waistcoat buttons were steadily coming undone.

"Well, pretending to be drunk, for one, that was integral to the whole scheme - " Frodo's lips pressed gently onto the back of Sam's neck and Sam shivered. He had been awfully patient.

"Mmm, so I understood, sir." Sam's head tilted fractionally to the side as Frodo's mouth traced a warm path behind his ear.

" - and so was going to see those particular musicians -" the waistcoat whispered promises to Sam as it slid away, "- because I had seen them pick up on the mood of a crowd before and I -" Sam closed his eyes and leaned his head back, chestnut curls covering Frodo's shoulder, "- was fairly certain they would follow me." Sam would have liked things to progress more quickly, but Frodo's lyrical voice murmuring at his ear had hypnotised him and stayed all incipient attempts to help.

For a moment, the only sounds that could be heard were rustles of cloth as more buttons parted company with their respective holes and Sam's increasingly unsteady breaths.

"Oh, and I made sure to mention Merry and Pippin so you would offer to organise the pony trap," confided Frodo, trailing his fingers along sun-kissed skin as he eased the shirt down and away, "so we could walk home without it." He pushed Sam slowly back onto the bed. "It's all quite straightforward."

"Begging your pardon, sir, but that ain't straightforward at - Oh. Ah." Frodo's head had dipped down and his tongue teased at already tightened nipples.

"I wanted you as more than my gardener and my friend but how could I find out your wishes without risking everything I already had? I needed an escape route so that we could both pretend the question had never been asked." Sure fingers explored the length of Sam through his breeches. "And I already had so much." Frodo's mouth twisted wryly. "I realise that my plan may have gotten a little too complex."

"A little too complex!" exclaimed Sam, eyes wide with astonishment and the knowledge that his trousers must not have had any buttons on them, "The smials at Brandy Hall twist less than that plan."

Frodo smiled ruefully. "Actually, it was all cobbled together this afternoon and not a single strand of it went as expected." His hands tugged at cloth.

"Well, mine didn't work as expected neither," Sam admitted, lifting his hips.

"Your plan?" wondered Frodo, stroking thoughtfully.

"I - ah - I planned to stop much earlier and leave you hanging, so to speak, and then bring you to the bed to finish you off. But I was enjoying myself so much that I couldn't."

"Were you now?" Frodo chuckled wickedly and rolled over. "Well, I think it will not be that long before you get a second chance."

Sam had barely enough time to separate Frodo from his shirt before Frodo disappeared southwards. Sam had neither the will nor inclination to stop him. He had been waiting for a goodly time now and was already almost painfully aroused, so the sight of black curls hanging over his belly nearly undid him. The first touch of Frodo's mouth made him buck reflexively, but he stilled soon after, closing his eyes as awe and a surreal amazement layered over the excitement. Frodo was working carefully downwards, with excruciating slowness, but well beyond what Sam himself had managed. A little doubt suddenly crossed his mind, but the usual comparisons made in his tweens assured him that he was no small hobbit. It was only once Sam felt that he had been completely enveloped that wonder and amazement evaporated and raw arousal rushed to fill the vacuum with heightened power. He thrust convulsively, unable to control his movements despite a concern for Frodo. It took no more than a half a dozen strokes before he reached that peak, his hands twisted painfully in the sheets to prevent them finding their way onto Frodo's head.

He was still quivering with small tremors when dark eyes came level with his. Frodo was smiling and, to Sam's great relief, did not seem hurt.

"How did you learn to do that?" he gasped.

"Oh, just practice," replied Frodo as easily as if Sam had asked him how he had learned to blow smoke rings. "I'm really quite flexible for a hobbit."

Sam simply gaped at him.

Frodo threw back his head and laughed. "Oh, Sam!" he heaved, almost crying, "You should see your face!"

That was the second time Sam had heard that phrase this evening, but this was much more pleasant to hear than the first. He glanced around the room, searching for inspiration. And his eyes settled on the heretofore uninvestigated lump on the bedside table.

The first Frodo knew of this new turn of events was that he had been promptly and efficiently flipped onto his back and Sam had straddled his hips. His laughter subsided considerably, though his breath continued to come rather quickly. Two warm hands were placed carefully on his chest, barely moving in tiny teasing circles.

"Well now," murmured Sam, bringing his mouth close to Frodo's and the last of Frodo's laughter transformed into light, quick breaths, "we've been here before, haven't we? But now there's no one to watch."

"I think I prefer that," managed Frodo, before he reached up and eased Sam's head down another inch.

Abruptly he stopped kissing and pushed Sam back just far enough to look him in the eye with an amazement of his own.

"Can you - ? Already?" he squeaked.

"Well now, Mr Frodo," said Sam, carefully, "Not meaning any offence, but twelve years makes a difference, I'd say."

"Yes, but - "

"But not quite enough, sir." Sam carded his fingers through Frodo's hair. "For that, you need to have Mr Pippin."

"I think Merry would have something to say about that."

"So would I, sir."

I promise that you will be able to sit on Frodo for as long as you want once we get him back to Bag End.

Sam couldn't hold back a snort of laughter.

"Sam?"

"Nothing, Mr Frodo," answered Sam, lowering his head once more.

Now that the initial demands of his body were placated, Sam discovered that he had the time for the sensual exploration of Frodo for which he had so yearned. In his dreams he had imagined that he would use this slow, deliberate touch first, taking an age to worship every part of his master before moving on to the somewhat less intellectual part of the programme. She who ensures that the pulse of life continues, however, had quickened the beat of his heart and conducted the rhythm his mouth and hands had played upon Frodo and he had followed her lead blindly until he had tasted that life in his own mouth. Although Frodo had quite evidently enjoyed his attentions, they were certainly not what Sam would have described as thorough. And Sam wanted that feeling of satisfaction created by a job well done, as opposed to this temporarily sated, but vaguely guilty state he was in now.

Frodo's eyes slid shut but he was sure that he did not sleep. The firelight flickered red through his closed lids and he could feel a solid, comforting weight across his hips, partnered with a slow wandering touch, almost reverent in its explorations of his upper body. It kept him in a state of sweet unrest, awake enough to appreciate the sensations gliding over him, yet not so insistent that he was compelled to respond. He thought he registered every caress; grazing at his temple, tracing delicately over the edge of his ear, trailing down the centre of his chest, meandering over his belly and disappearing somewhere around his hip. His hands and collarbone passively acknowledged the ghost of a touch, his jawline and the length of his throat noted a whisper against his skin. Then a warm, damp pressure suffused his body and it responded with a steadily rising heat. He could feel clearly now that his breeches had, at some point, melted away and that something searingly hot and deliciously moist was moving along his throat. He thought he made some sort of noise, but he couldn't be sure. Suddenly, he couldn't feel anything at all, except that constant weight across his hips, and he cried out loudly, protesting the loss.

Frodo opened his eyes to see that it was considerably darker in the room now and that Sam was holding a little glass flask by the neck between two fingers. An eyebrow was raised in silent question, obviously asking if he wanted to continue. The clear auburn liquid inside caught the dim light and cast dancing patterns over Sam's hand. Sam must have found it earlier in his bedside table - of course, when he had fixed that drawer! Frodo had forgotten it had been safely stowed there. He wondered how long Sam had known what his master truly wanted. He looked at those fingers and then at the flask and swallowed audibly in anticipation.

Sam, meanwhile, whose powers of logical deduction had been hamstrung by the possibilities contained in the item he held, was stunned at how Frodo had managed to plan even this detail. He had noticed it only about an hour before. The bottle had been sitting on the bedside table on top of a complex but stable construction involving two small earthenware dishes and a layer of hot coals. The end result was that the bottle, and hence the liquid inside, was warm. He raised an eyebrow in impressed amazement at Frodo as he opened the bottle and sniffed it automatically. His curiosity piqued, he paused and sniffed again.

"It's sandalwood." Frodo eyed the bottle and squirmed impatiently.

"Sandalwood?"

Sam continued to sniff.

"The dwarves trade it. I bought it from some er- dwarves." He wriggled again.

"Dwarves?"

Sam was transported by the scent.

"They sell it to Gondor, mostly for expensive perfumes." Impatience was edging towards exasperation.

"Mmm?"

"Sam!" Frodo jerked his hips and both Sam and the bottle jolted sideways.

"Sorry, sir, it's just that I haven't ever smelled nothing like that before and - "

"You like it?"

"Oh, sir, 'like' ain't quite the word -"

"Good," said Frodo firmly, removing the bottle from Sam's fingers and abandoning it on the table, "because I think we've probably poured enough of it now."

Sam looked down. "Oh."

"No, I cannot say that I ever considered a navel to be a suitable receptacle either."

"Oh."

"And since it seems to be all over you I think we'll just go with the way things are." Frodo's hands reached out and grasped firmly.

"Oh... Ah."

She who conducted the pulse of life looked on and smiled. Sam was young and handsome and her fire burned brightly in him. She was going to have lots of fun with him in the years to come and he would reward her well. At the moment, though, his mind was racing madly over snatches of elvish poetry, horribly twisted in the knowledge that he had no experience in what he was about to undertake, the fear that his ignorance would become blaringly obvious mingled with a concern of hurting Frodo, and fervent love and desperate desire overlaying all. She took pity on her charge and breathed gently in his ear.

Sam released a breath to calm himself and relaxed. The cacophony of thoughts in his head drained away. He loved and wanted Frodo and would take care of him. He had heard that melody before and understood it. He knew how to do this. He turned down that path, blindly following the rhythm. Even if it meant that neither of them would last as long as he would have liked.

***

Pippin suddenly let out a muffled snigger into the dark room.

"Tell me," ordered Merry.

Pippin paused. "I don't know why, but I always thought that Frodo would be louder in bed," he murmured finally.

Merry considered for a moment. "I also would have said that. But I wouldn't have been able to say why."

"Ah well, it goes to show that you really can't tell these sorts of things just by looking at someone, no matter how well you think you know them."

"All too true."

There was a brief silence.

"'Night, Pip."

Another silence.

"'Night, Merry."

 

*** End ***

 

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