West of the Moon

A Tolkien Fanfiction Archive

 

 

The Night Season
A few years after Bilbo's departure, Sam and Frodo find themselves locked in a strange, silent situation that neither of them really knows how to handle.
Author: Achillea Millefolium
Rating: NC-17

 

Before Sam is fully awake he knows that when he opens his eyes, there will be a seam of light under the curtains, and it will be so faint that only the greater darkness of the room makes it visible. In the summer it is a glowing line of golden sunshine, bright as the horizon above the hill, on a rainy day it is a tired trickle of grey, and now, in the autumn, it is merely a lessening of the pre-dawn murkiness, but it is always there, always the same.

Sam sighs and turns over, feeling out the last warmth under the blankets. He usually gets a little respite, a few all-too-short minutes to let his mind wander pleasantly between the unreality of sleep and the sensual awareness of the warm heaviness that lingers even though he is awake, before a cock crows in the valley. Then it is time for Sam to stop wasting the morning away in daydreams and get up and wash his head in the bucket outside the back door.

It is still and grey outside, but the eastern sky is gilded with brightness, and sunrise is not far away. A morning's like a new bride, the gaffer always says, full of promises. Sam steels himself against the shock of cold water on his neck. When did the truth, or otherwise, of that saying begin to seem so important? It tugs at his heart just to think of it, and his breath makes a cloud in the still morning air as he gasps and reaches for the cloth, but it's no matter. He's used to it.

Then Sam gets dressed and drinks a scoop of fresh whey in the pantry. His sisters are putting their hair up and tying their aprons on in the kitchen.

'Morning.'

'Morning. You've got milk on your cheek.' Marigold says.

Sam wipes his face with the back of his hand and licks off the smear. Marigold and May both make horrified faces.

'Ugh, Sam, that isn't very nice. You'll never get married if you carry on like that,' May says pertly, her freckled little nose up in the air as she finishes her thick rye-blonde plait.

Sam smiles.

'And you'll never get married if you don't learn to keep a sweeter tongue in your head,' he says, giving the plait a quick tug.

'Oh, get away with you. Don't you have work to do, sir?' Marigold chides, as May squeals, and Sam gives her a grin and picks up the bundle of clean laundry by the door. He throws a scarf around his neck, leaves the smial and walks up the hill.

In the few short minutes this takes, the sun rises and the daylight at long last takes possession of the landscape, driving the shadows from under the hedges and glittering in the frost that silvers everything in sight, the verges, the fields, Bag End's front gate, multiplying the brightness of the morning. The frost crunches like sand under Sam's feet, and the sensation, new and unfamiliar after the soft earth of the long summer, reminds him that another year has passed since the last frosty morning like this one. A year like and yet unlike any he has ever known before.

Sam pauses to look over the garden gate, passing his eyes over the familiar borders and plantings under their sugary coating. He glances at the roses along the front wall, bundled in their sacking and twine like chilly orphans, before continuing around to the back gate. He stops at the well to draw the day's first bucket of water, and there is frost on the crank handle, too. Despite the cold, Sam's hand is warm enough to leave a dark mark among the crystals.

Inside Bag End, night lingers, although light filters through into the long corridor from the rooms that open off it. The air is still and musty and nothing stirs. Sam wipes his feet on the fraying rush mat inside the door and hangs his coat on a peg.

He always rouses the fire in the kitchen first of all, kneeling on the clean-swept hearth and using the fire-fork to uncover the embers that sleep deep in their soft nest of ashes. Sam puts a few thin strips of curly dry birch-bark among them and blows steadily, closely, watching the tinder curl and blacken, until little blue flames scatter and flee under every breath. He watches them climb over and into the tinder hungrily when he pauses. Soon he can add larger splinters and shavings of wood, and finally whole logs, stacking them so that pockets of air remain between for the fire to breathe. When he straightens up, a little light-headed from the hard blowing, the fire is strong enough to warm his face.

He puts water from the bucket on to boil in the blackened kettle. A stoneware pitcher waits, clean and dry on the table where he put it last night, and he fills it a little less than a third full of cold water.

Then he lays a fire in the parlour, and in the study, and opens the curtains in every room he passes.

***

In the hour when the morning mist burns off, between half six and half seven, Sam does his weekly check on the stock in the root cellar, where carrots, turnips, parsnips and onions repose in wooden crates, covered with straw. Potato and onion soup with thyme. Roast parsnips with butter and salt and crushed hazelnuts. Carrots stewed in cream, served with toast, Sam thinks, in the back of his head, as he estimates the quantities, uncovering and covering the bins and barrels.

When he comes back out, squinting in the sun and welcoming its weak warmth after the damp chill of the cellar, the frost has melted all the way to the garden path, and it's time to go back inside.

***

The water has boiled by the time Sam returns to the kitchen. He takes down a mug and a spoon and makes a pot of tea, and when that's done, he pours what remains of the hot water into the pitcher (saving a little to warm the mug).

Sam knows that there is only one way of preventing these daily tasks from becoming suffocatingly repetitive, and that is to do them with care and attention, and to take delight in the little dance of their orderly cadence, Sam's own and worked out over days and weeks marred by mistakes and waste and unnecessary labour, until perfect. It is possessed of a certain neatness, an efficiency that is so symmetrical that is almost beautiful.

The time it takes to refill the kettle and hang it back up is the same as the time the tea needs to steep to the right strength, and Sam can pour the warming water from the mug back into the kettle (the one who draws the water doesn't waste it, as Sam has had a lifetime of opportunity to learn) and fill the mug with tea. He adds a scant spoonful from the sugar bowl on the table, and uses the spoon to stir it, five turns.

Almost comforting, he thinks. Almost like you'd never want not to do it, however many times you've done it before.

Then he picks up the mug in one hand and the pitcher in the other and approaches the master bedroom.

All is quiet. Sam frees a knuckle from the handle of the pitcher to give three short careful knocks, before pushing the door open with his elbow and slipping inside.

It's dark, and little chilly. He puts the pitcher on the washstand and the tea on the bedside table, and crosses the room to draw the curtains. Clear morning light suddenly floods through the patches of clear ice on the inside of the panes, and bird song can be heard. Sam turns around and says into the air:

"Good morning, Mr Frodo."

He can hear Frodo stir, move, sit up as he turns to the fireplace, but he doesn't turn his head to look. So early in the morning, there is a rawness, an unintentional ease in Frodo's sleepy gestures (rubbing his eyes, raking his hair back from his forehead, yawning) and in his unfocused eyes that fills Sam with disquiet. Sam can tell without thinking about it (he doesn't need to think about it, that's the last thing he needs, as he tells himself several times daily) that it is... inappropriate. He cannot avoid inhaling the smell of warm sheets and night breath and ashes, but he can avert his eyes.

It is not yet wintry enough to light a fire in the bedroom in the mornings, so there is little for Sam to do, little to occupy his eyes, except for checking on the wood and tinder baskets. This he does. 

'Good morning. Thank you, Sam,' Frodo says, as he always does, with a slight sleepy drag on the politeness, reaching for the tea.

Sam picks up the laundry bag by the door, and keeps averting his eyes. He can hear Frodo take a first, cautious sip and in his mind's eye he can see the steam rise and curl around Frodo's nose and forehead, veiling his eyes, white steam over dark, lowered lashes...

'Toast'll be ready in a few minutes, Mr Frodo,' Sam says on the threshold, and wonders, as he has been wont to lately, what it is that compels him to say those same words day after day, although they barely have any meaning at all. Sam prepares toast for Frodo every day, at the same time and in the same way, and Frodo knows it, and Sam knows that he knows. And yet... It needs to be said, there is a sort of safety in such things.

Even if Frodo doesn't respond.

The fire has taken the edge off the chill in the kitchen. Having dropped the laundry bag by the back door, Sam pours a cup of tea for himself and drinks it between slicing bread, placing it on the toasting rack, fetching butter and the last of the bramble spread from the pantry, and getting a plate down. (Except for when there are guests, Frodo keeps a comparatively frugal table, and doesn't tend to have what Sam would call a real appetite until well into the forenoon, in time for second breakfast. He also insists on taking his meals in the kitchen rather than in the dining room. This, a habit that cannot be called proper or fitting, once made Sam uncomfortable but now he's used to it).

When Frodo comes into the kitchen, smelling faintly of soap, Sam puts his own cup in the sink and places the plate of toast on the table. He hears the scraping of the chair as Frodo sits down behind him.

Sam catches a hint of the soapy, damp freshness, over the smell of wood smoke and scorched bread crust, but with the ease of long practice, he turns the thoughts it brings him into a practicality: soap. must get more soap at the market tomorrow.

'Thank you, Sam.'

Sam doesn't say anything. His hands are rinsing out the empty spread jar. He can hear Frodo bite off a corner of a piece of toast.

'It's a beautiful morning.'

'That it is, sir.'

'Will you be going down to the village today, Sam?'

'If you wish, sir,' Sam says without turning around.

'I will have some letters.'

'Yes, sir.'

'Thank you, Sam.'

Again, Sam doesn't say anything. There's nothing for him to say when the master of Bag End says "thank you", there never will be. It's not supposed to be a conversation. Sam knows that.

It is now eight o'clock. Since it is the day before market day, Sam spends a few minutes in the pantry, making a mental list of what he will need to buy (candles. sugar loaf. cheese, if there's a good one to be had. eggs. soap...). Then he fetches the bundle of clean laundry in the hall and brings it into the bedroom, and puts it away in drawers and chests. He makes the bed (snapping the sheets tight and shaking out the covers with quick, efficient movements, like it's just any other chore), and discards the wash water.

Pausing for a moment, he can hear papers rustling - Frodo in the study. He picks up the empty pitcher and returns to the kitchen where he wipes it and puts it on the shelf. Frodo's plate and the empty teapot go in the sink - Frodo has poured the last of the tea and taken his mug with him into the study, as usual. Sam takes the water bucket out with him as he leaves for the garden. As usual.

***

From nine to half past ten, Sam sets mousetraps in the root cellar.

He takes twenty minutes to make Mr Frodo's second breakfast (tea, omelette with crumbled crispy bacon, and a little tart made with greengage jam) and returns to the garden.

Between eleven and noon, he mends a spade and then uses it to turn the compost heap.

***

When his shadow creeps as close to him as it can these long-lit days, he goes to wash. He draws fresh water into the waiting bucket and prepares lunch - leek soup, made with milk. He puts a bowl of this and some bread, along with a glass of water, on a tray.

There is a bowl of late apples, with sweet yellow flesh and thick, waxy red skins, on the table. Sam takes one and spends a concentrated minute with his lip caught between his teeth, peeling it in one long strip and then coring it and cutting it into careful wedges. Puts it on a saucer and sprinkles two pinches of brown sugar over.

Frodo doesn't look up as he puts the lunch tray on the low table before the fire in the study.

'Thank you, Sam,' he says absently, over the scratching of the pen.

***

Sam has the rest of the soup in the kitchen, standing up, wiping the pot with some bread.

When he goes to collect the tray from the study, Frodo hands him three letters. Having washed and put the dishes away and wiped his hands, he picks them up along with the laundry bag and walks down the road. He leaves the laundry with his sisters and takes the letters to the post office. By the time he gets back, the sky has become overcast and dull.

***

  From one to three, Sam chops firewood.

***

On his way back inside for a cup of tea, he passes the young maple that makes up part of the hedge in the bottom corner of the garden. Only a few leaves still cling to its branches, but the ground beneath is ablaze, a deep, layered carpet of hand-shaped leaves glowing with generous colour. Just in front of Sam's toes there is one that burns in gold and orange shading into the deepest brick red, with just a touch of green around the stalk. Sam picks it up. No matter how many times he sees it, he can't understand how leaves that were fresh and green can change colour like that, and why it is that they turn red at the end of the year, just like the sun turns red at the end of the day. Where is the red when it is summer? Where does the cool, crisp green go? And why red, why is red the colour of waning, and not... black? White? Blue, like forget-me-nots? He wonders if there is anyone at all in Middle Earth who knows the answer to such questions, and he stands there a minute, twirling the stem slowly between his fingers, before he lets the leaf flutter down to the ground, losing its distinction as it becomes part of the mass of leaves, stirred by the wind.

***

He is still somewhat distracted by these musings as he enters the kitchen (could it be that the cold of autumn somehow has a power like that of heat, changing the leaves the way that fire changes wood? Or does there, in the memories of trees, exist some dreadful event that needs to be commemorated with the colour of blood each year? But trees have sap, not blood...), but he's hardly got his foot over the threshold before he stops dead.

Frodo is crouched on the floor, in the corner on the other side of the hearth, with his back to the door.

Sam's trusty mouser, a sleek and haughty feline that comes above Sam's knee in height, had a litter three weeks ago, five fine kittens, two black and white and three clad in stripes like their mother. Sam hopes that they, having already the famously huge ears that tell on their fine hunter pedigree, will fetch him many pints of ale once weaned, and he has given them plenty of rich scraps, and a basket in a warm corner of the kitchen.

It is over this basket that Frodo crouches, and if Sam is unprepared to see him there, Frodo must clearly be even more so, because at the sound of Sam's feet on the flags he spins around and gets to his feet, moving faster than Sam has ever seen him do before. He straightens up, as tall and dignified as if he were giving a speech at the Mayor's midwinter dinner, and Sam sees that he is holding one of the kittens, a black and white one, against his body with both hands. For a second Sam feels the corner of his mouth curl upwards, but the smile dies on his face when he looks at Frodo and sees the stiffness of his posture. Frodo lifts his chin a fraction, but doesn't seem to know what to say, either. His eyes, barely visible in a face that is darkened against the window's dull afternoon light, flick away from Sam's face.

For several breaths they stand there, on either side of the kitchen table. The queen, perhaps worried about her offspring in the hands of a stranger, gets up and starts circling Frodo's knees anxiously, looking up at him. Frodo doesn't move.

Suddenly a log slips in the fire, falling and breaking with a flurry of sparks and a crunching noise that breaks the tense silence. Smouldering, brittle pieces of it roll dangerously close to the edge of the hearth. Sam takes a second to snap out of his awkwardness, but Frodo, who is also marginally closer to the hearth, moves with surprising surety, and before Sam has taken three steps, he has put the kitten back in the basket and turned to the fire. He kneels, quickly, and reaches for the ash shovel.

Sam finds his voice.

'Don't worry yourself, sir, I can do that,' he says hurriedly.

But Frodo has already flicked the embers back into the fire, and reached for another log. Sam watches him start to rebuild the fire. He feels oddly useless, having nothing to do but to stand there, and at the same time, an inchoate eagerness, strange and yet as familiar as hunger, stirs beneath his ribs at the sight of Frodo there on the floor, his hands clasping and handling the rough pieces of wood so capably. His fingers come dangerously close to the flames as they place the log across the hottest coals, but he doesn't pull them away until the log is securely rested just where he intended. Sam bites the inside of his cheek. Those who think Frodo's gentlehobbit hands good for nothing but pens, pigskin gloves and soft-as-butter pony reins don't know what Sam knows.

Frodo is getting up. The fire touches his face with amber light, and the colour and warmth it awakens there makes the kitchen seem dull and colourless, a place without a life of its own. Sam watches as Frodo brushes off his trouser knees and his palms.

'I was going to make some tea,' he manages, because something must be said before that silence gets a hold of them again.

'That would be very nice,' Frodo says, sounding as if he is making an effort to keep his voice even.

'Won't be a minute, Mr Frodo,' Sam says, with something like relief, as he turns automatically to get the teapot and the mugs.

But Frodo doesn't leave. Sam can feel him standing there, in the middle of the room, halfway between the hearth and Sam's back.

'What do you call the cat?' he asks after a second.

Sam feels his cheeks grow warm.

'Beruthiel, but it's Ruthie for everyday, like,' he mumbles into the teapot. Four syllables, and elvish ones to boot, for a common housecat. Sam stares hard at the teapot, trying not to blush. Will he hear Frodo struggling to suppress a superior smile when he answers?

But there is no scorn or ridicule in Frodo's voice, only concern, a little curiosity, perhaps, slipping past his usual careful diction, as he continues:

'What about the kittens? Will we be keeping any of them?'

But Sam barely registers the content of those words, because his heart stumbles over itself and misses a beat, sending a weak little shiver down his breastbone. He puts the tea caddy down carefully. We. Never mind that Frodo has never taken a moment's interest in Ruthie before as far as Sam knows, never mind that it's just a slip of the tongue, never mind that Sam knows that it is just a slip - Sam is ready to give the cat, basket, kittens and all, to Frodo, to give Frodo whatever he asks for, whatever it takes to make him say that again, say it with such casual ease, as if it were self-evident...

It's just that there is precious little left to give. The ruthless little voice in Sam's head makes him bite his teeth together. For a second he tastes regret, but not for long, because deep down he knows that there really is no regret, there never could be, it is a mere ghost of an emotion. Nevertheless, it carries a sting of truth, a truth that Sam still, after all these months, does not know how to touch or handle, no more than he does a hot coal.

He turns and faces Frodo, knowing that he has to answer the very simple question, somehow, but he finds that Frodo is looking at him, meets his eye as he has not done all day, all week, probably, and the gaze makes the words stick to his tongue and unsettles his thoughts. Something about these last few minutes they have spent together in the kitchen, in the light of the same fire for once, has made Frodo's eyes more transparent to Sam than usual. It lasts for but a second, and although Frodo appears to have mostly regained his composure, there is something in his eyes besides determined calm that Sam recognises. It's a look he has seen before, if rarely (three times, count them, Sam, rare enough), a glimpse of a different hobbit, a different master and employer. Something inside Sam leaps like a flame for that fleeting moment of eye contact. He swallows.

'I don't reckon so, sir. There's no need.' His voice sounds unnecessarily harsh, although he doesn't mean it to be, and he wants to hit himself for not having said something, anything, more amenable and acquiescent.

Frodo nods.

'I'll bring you your tea, sir,' Sam says, weakly.

'Thank you, Sam.'

Sam turns to get the kettle.

'Oh, Sam.

Sam stops, tea towel in hand, and turns dutifully, swallowing hard. He raises his eyes but slowly, and not all the way, and his heart tightens momentarily when he sees Frodo standing there, neither inside nor outside the room.

'Yes, sir?'

'I just remembered. Could you... would you be so good as to take a minute to sit down with me and look over the household accounts after dinner?'

'Certainly, sir.'

'Thank you, Sam.'

When he is gone, Sam drops the cloth on a chair and leans heavily on the kitchen table, the tea all but forgotten. When he closes his eyes, all he can see is the darkly flickering fire reaching for Frodo's tense, spread, inky fingers. Oh, Sam, don't go foolin' yourself that any more will come of it, not now or tomorrow or next week. It's over - third time pays for all, and then the game is finished, no matter how eager you are to be a plaything in it. It's not for you to say, when are you going to get that into your thick head? His very heart strains against the helplessness, the injustice, the aching claw-like heart-grip of a longing that has no match and no completion. He presses his knuckles into the wooden tabletop.

'Would you be so good...'  Frodo Baggins, not two years into his own, yet every inch the master when he needs to be. Since Bilbo left, Frodo keeps his own counsel and takes advice from no-one, as far as Sam can tell, and yet he never seems to hesitate, never seem to stray or stumble. He walks his own quiet path, his eyes revealing no more than his words. Sam sometimes forgets that Frodo is really just a lad, barely out of his tweens and thus not much older than Sam himself, so straight is his back and so clear and calm his voice.

In truth (Sam has thought on one or two heretical occasions) it would perhaps not be the strangest thing in the world for a hobbit like Sam to tell another hobbit like Frodo Baggins that there is no need for such strict formality as that which governs Bag End - there's nobody here but you and me, sir. And there have probably been hobbits not unlike Frodo who have found it in themselves to ignore propriety from time to time and be jolly or, possibly, even happy. Sometimes Sam looks out the kitchen window and ponders how it is that the two of them are alone together inside this smial, for all the world a hundred miles from anywhere and anyone, and yet... But then, the kitchen window faces the garden. The study window, on the other hand, faces the village, where each night windows gleam like watchful eyes. And Frodo sits in there. He sits in Bilbo's chair, under the portraits of his long-dead parents, under the hill and above the village, as if he's done it all his life, and he is flawlessly polite at all times and to everyone he meets, as indeed behoves a Baggins. But sometimes it seems to Sam as if, instead, Frodo is the victim of some sort of terrible misapprehension, believing, as some believe that you must throw salt over your shoulder if you break a glass, that impeccable manners is the only thing holding his body and his soul together.

Be that as it may. It remains a fact that a gentlehobbit like that can pet anyone's cat, or indeed any creature in the Shire, as suits his fancy. It doesn't make chickens fly, as the saying goes. In other words, it doesn't make any difference. 

Straightening up abruptly, Sam puts his untouched cup of tea into the sink with a sharp clack of pottery on stone.

When he's taken Frodo his tea (without lifting his eyes from the study carpet), there is time for an hour and a bit of concentrated, careful pruning of the apple trees, before it is time to start thinking about supper.

Lamb chops with rosemary and garlic and roast potatoes and parsnips. Sam trims the meat, chops the herbs, peels the roots. He pours oil, thick and slow from the cold of the pantry. The smial is silent, as if there were nobody there but him. Outside, the world is turning a dusky blue, and winter darkness will soon envelope the resting garden. Bright, round yellow splashes of light can already be discerned on the dark grass below the windows.

Sam likes to cook, and that's one reason he welcomed the suggestion that he do indoor work at Bag End as well as outdoors, when Mr Bilbo raised the matter, just around the time of the big party. At home his sisters are always in the way, and oftentimes there are too many opinions on the menu and the method to give a body any peace among the pots and pans. He figured that cooking for Mr Frodo would be sheer delight - that big kitchen all to himself, and all the butter and cream he could wish for to make the most of his vegetables. But he has to admit that he has since discovered that even cooking can lose its appeal and become just another marker of the passing of the day. He has the kitchen to himself, he can't say otherwise, and from time to time he does lose himself in the perfecting of some cake or layered hotpot, but more often, now, each dinner just reminds him of the ones he's made before. And that can't but put a weight upon his heart.

He lays the table. Checks the saltcellar. Lastly, he takes out an ironed green linen napkin and folds it into even triangular folds, running the edge of his hand slowly along each crease. He places it across Frodo's plate.

At a quarter to six, Frodo steps into the kitchen. Sam puts the steaming serving dishes on the table along with a pitcher of fresh water, as Frodo sits down and shakes out his napkin.

'It looks lovely, Sam, thank you,' Frodo says, and for a second Sam wonders if he ever thinks about the way they say the same things at the same times every day.

'Call if you need anything, Mr Frodo,' he replies, and Frodo nods, putting a potato on his plate. He's brought a book to the table, as usual. He arranges it so that its edge is held flat by the rim of his plate, and the white of his nape can be seen through his hair as he bends forward. Sam swallows.

'Yes, thank you, Sam,' Frodo says without looking up.

***

From half six to half seven, Sam lights the lamps in all the rooms, brings in enough firewood to replenish the baskets in the parlour, bedroom and study, and sweeps the front and back steps.

Frodo takes a walk with his pipe after supper - he likes to watch the moon come up, these clear, dark autumn nights. Sam fetches his scarf and his shearling jacket. When he's gone, Sam piles more logs on the study fire, ready for when Frodo comes back, and takes his tea in the kitchen, the last lamb chop, bread and butter, cup of tea. He washes up and scrubs the table. He can hear Frodo close the front door behind him and wipe his feet on the mat as he comes back inside.

Having dried his hands carefully, Sam takes the household account book and the postmaster's bill from the shelf to the left of the kitchen door. Outside the study, he pauses to draw a deep breath. He knocks on the doorframe before stepping inside.

'Ah. Come in, Sam. Please sit down.'

Sam brings a straight chair to the side of the desk, while Frodo opens the account books. Despite the extra wood, the warmth from the hearth doesn't quite reach the desk on the other side of the room, and Sam gives a little involuntary shiver as he sits down.

Frodo doesn't seem to feel the chill. His dark head bends over the pages of the account book, and he frowns a little, resting the end of the black quill against his lower lip thoughtfully as his eyes scan the columns. The stiff, shiny feather bends and brushes back and forth along the soft line of Frodo's closed lips, the strands rippling and breaking apart with a whisper of a rustling sound...

Sam is startled, and forced to tear his eyes away, when Frodo suddenly lifts his head and lays the quill on its rest in a businesslike way.

'Well, Sam? How are we doing?'

'Just fine, Mr Frodo,' Sam answers, briskly, sitting up straighter. 'No unexpected expenses... if my reckoning is right we're right where we were come October last year, less fourpence.'

'Very good...' Frodo turns the pages, examines Sam's careful writing and the figure at the bottom of the page, underlined twice, with a ruler. 'Excellent. And what about bills? The butcher?'

'Hasn't arrived yet but I don't expect any surprises there, sir.'

'The mill?'

'Top of the page before, sir.'

Frodo asks after each item, stabling, firewood, chimneysweep, blacksmith, and Sam leans forward and indicates each entry without touching the page. Frodo examines them, taking his time.

'Wine? I noticed we are running short on some vintages.'

'Thought you'd like to look after that yourself, sir, like Mr Bilbo used to.'

'Yes, I think I will... remind me to write to them and tell them I will be coming down there in a few weeks, won't you. The post?'

'Right there, sir.' Sam indicates the envelope on the desk.

'Ah. Thank you, Sam. Mr Tunnelly is well, I trust?' Frodo says as he breaks the seal and takes out the bill.

'Very well, sir. Mistress Tunnelly had a little one week before last, a girl. They're both well too, I'm told,' Sam volunteers, not sure if the events of the postmaster's family, or the comings and goings of the village in general, mean much to Frodo, who is as solitary as a marten and rarely has interactions of any length or depth with anyone except his relatives and his few friends.

Frodo's head is bent over the letter. He dips the pen and makes a little note at the bottom.

'Her fifth, I believe.' He looks up and smiles, proving Sam wrong, but his smile is not quite directed at Sam. 'I don't suppose there are any flowers left, but will you take them one of those old silver spoons?' he says, writing again. 'Same as we gave the other four?'

Sam nods. There is more silver at Bag End, forks and spoons and salvers and eggcups, than Frodo could ever have a use for, as he doesn't plan to ever throw a party on the same scale as Bilbo's birthday parties - the only occasions when all the rolls and drawers have been empty - so he takes a delight in giving a piece to every hobbit child born in Hobbiton, and quite a few in Buckland, too.

'A girl. That'll please them, after four boys. Polish it up nicely, won't you, Sam.'

Sam nods again. Frodo should know he wouldn't ever deliver tarnished silver with the Baggins name on it. For a second he is tempted, in the warmth of Frodo's thawing smile, to say as much, mock-serious like, but he stops himself, bites his buttoned lip. Frodo's smile has nothing to do with Sam, and he'd do well to remember it.

'Now, what about the garden, Sam?' Frodo says, lifting a piece of petrified wood that acts as a paperweight and placing the post bill under it.

'All in order, Mr Frodo.'

'Seeds?'

Sam points at the entry.

'Very good, Sam. Anything else?'

Frodo is looking at him, one eyebrow raised, indifferent and polite. Before Sam has finished shaking his head, Frodo has already looked away, to the drawer, taking out a pen-knife. He starts to trim his pen, carefully, a wrinkle of concentration between his eyebrows, thumb braced against the back of the knife blade. He likes the nib quite short, but narrow, slightly slanted. Sam knows that he has been dismissed but he can't take his eyes off Frodo's fingers guiding the sharp blade, shaping the nib in slow, precise, measured cuts. Its shape suddenly seems as intimate a detail as if it were part of Frodo's body. And indeed, Sam thinks wryly, sometimes, lately, even the sight of Frodo's writing, the sinuous traces of that short, narrow, slanted nib, can have quite the same...

Frodo looks up, and Sam barely keeps from blushing.

'I'll keep the book here just now, Sam, if you don't mind.'

'No, sir, of course not.'

Sam replaces the chair along the wall and puts a few more pieces of wood on the fire.

'Bring me a cup of tea, would you? Two sugars.'

'Of course, Mr Frodo.'

Sam makes a pot of tea in the kitchen and puts it on a tray with a cup and a sugar bowl and a few pieces of shortbread, made in Frodo's mother's tin with the pattern of birds and wheat sheaves. He carries it into the study.

'I think I'll have it in the parlour, Sam, I'm almost done here. Thank you.'

Sam stops for a second. Frodo is studying a piece of paper intently, pen poised in one hand and the other at his mouth, his teeth gnawing absentmindedly at the side of his thumb. This feral habit distorts the tender arcs of his lips, and Sam wishes, as always, that he could go up and take that helpless hand in his own and pull it away, save it. He imagines how, if he were to do this, Frodo might frown as he is thwarted, but then look up, and smile.

Sam puts the tea tray on the parlour table.

***

On cold nights, Sam lights the bedroom fire early, just before he heats the bath water, so that the empty room has a chance to get warm before it is to be used. He also fills a brass bedpan with hot water and returns to the bedroom to slip it under the covers.

In the next half hour, Sam mops the tiled floors of the halls, sweeps the kitchen floor and scrubs out the water bucket. Then it is time to light the bathroom lamps, pour the heated water into the tub, and hang a towel on the rack in front of the fire.

Frodo is sitting on the parlour sofa with a game of odds-and-pairs laid out on the table in front of him. He looks up when Sam comes in, and the shadows fall in such a way that Sam can't see his face properly. The colours of the quilt that is draped across the back of the sofa glow in the warm light of the fire; red, umber, indigo and gold. For a second Sam's heart almost stops. is this it?  But when he says the bath is ready, all Frodo does is nod and get up and stretch.

When he's gone, Sam tidies the room and takes the tea tray into the kitchen. He does the last washing up of the day.

Wiping the table down afterward, Sam pauses and looks around the kitchen. 'Tis so clean you could eat your tea off of the floor, should it please you, he thinks, with a measure of proprietary pride. But a voice inside him answers closer to the truth, 'tis so clean it's like no one lives here at all. Sam ignores it and begins to hum to drown it out as he dries the dishes and fills the butter crock in the pantry.

Having finished in the kitchen, Sam checks the bedroom fire and puts some more wood on. It's a tricky thing to lay a fire so that it lasts the night, but Sam has years of practice and he chooses the right logs (dense, dark heartwood) and stacks them carefully. That done, he puts the fireguard down and goes to tend to the other hearths in the smial. The day is drawing to an end, and when this is done, and the kitchen wood basked filled, and the lamp in the hall is put out, there will be nothing left for Sam to do, except to go home.

The study is dark and chilly, and the smell of the day's fire lingers in the air, mingling with the bitterness of ink and the faint smell of old leather. The desk chair, with its strong, comfortably rounded armrests, stands slightly apart from the desk, at a slight angle, as if guarding it. Sam stands inside the door, watching the black shadows thrown by the lamp as if he has momentarily forgotten why he came.

Then he shakes his head, and crosses the dark room. He quickly rakes over the remains of the fire.

No one will come into the parlour until tomorrow, so Sam starts to rake over this fire too, but the warm glow when he leans over it feels so good, and makes him feel a little tired, and he sits back on his heels and enjoys it for a few minutes, staring absently at the embers. He closes his eyes, listening to its soothing presence, and feels the warmth touch his weary eyelids. What remains of the fire crackles, ticks, hisses, breathes, mumbles to itself as it settles into cinders. Almost like a person, Sam thinks. You're never alone long as you've a fire nearby.

'Sam.'

Sam opens his eyes and straightens up, as if by reflex. He picks up the ash shovel and starts raking over the fire again, quickly but steadily, covering the flaring red embers with grey ash, fine and soft as down.

'Yes, sir?' he says, without looking up, raking away. He can feel a shiver stealing up his backbone, without daring to think why.

There is no answer at once. Sam can see lamplight reflected in the fireguard to his right, and he can sense Frodo standing there, lamp in hand.

'Will you...'

Frodo clears his throat.

'Will you see to the fire in my room when you are done, please?' he says in a voice that is low and carefully even.

And Sam is still. The moment is so fragile, he doesn't want to even breathe, for fear of moving something, testing fate, upsetting some balance that has brought this offering about. He stares at the fire with unseeing eyes, the shovel hovering in mid-air, and it seems to him that the coals are glowing brighter, as if they are about to burst into flame again, and that the flame of every lamp in the room is suddenly burning higher. The fire in front of Sam is nearly extinguished, yet heat spreads deliciously over his skin, prickles his scalp, numbs his fingertips.

'Yes, sir,' he whispers, throat tight.

The first time Frodo made that request, in those very words, Sam was fool enough to say But I've already... and Frodo had answered, in a voice that sounded very calm to Sam, Oblige me.

But Frodo lingers. Perhaps he didn't hear Sam's reply.

'Will you, then...?' he says uncertainly, after a moment.

He sounds as one who has heard a noise in the night, asking "Who's there?" into a dark room. And Sam feels a shift, a promise from he knows not where, and it makes his voice steady as he says, low but perfectly audible, his hand already busy with the fire utensils again:

'I'll be there right away, sir.'

And the lamplight flickers and breaks and slides unevenly across the brass surface of the fire guard in front of Sam and when it disappears, Sam knows without turning around that Frodo is gone.

He replaces the ash shovel carefully at the side of the hearth. For a few minutes he remains on his knees.

Eventually he gets to his feet and walks silently to the back door, passing Frodo's closed bedroom door on the way. Reflections of the new moon dip and glide and shatter on the black surface of the water he draws and carries inside. He warms water and washes, with an old cloth that is worn softer than his palm, passing it slowly and carefully over his face and neck, chest and arms, as if not just washing, but partaking in a ritual of blessing, or good fortune. The water trickles around his neck and down his chest, dripping from his wrists and runneling down his sides, making him shiver, and he can feel the tarnish of the day's work run off his skin. Failing hope, drudgery and the grime that has settled on his dreams in the waiting time disappear, dissolve, insignificant as a drop of ink in a bucket of clear water.  

Lastly, he places the basin on the floor and cleans his dusty feet carefully. Before he puts his shirt back on again, he takes a threadbare but clean kitchen towel, and soaks up every stray drop of water. He hangs the washcloth and the towel on the drying rack.

Then he is outside the bedroom door. He stops for a second before putting his hand on it, willing his heart to slow down.

It is dark inside. The only light is the red pinpricks that glow through the pattern of punched holes in the fireguard, making a picture of a dragon twisting and snarling in mid-flight, its tail curled and its spiky wings poised. Sam can smell heated brass and the dry, resinous scent of burning wood, and a fresh breath of clean linen in cedar chests.

Closing the door behind him, Sam goes soundlessly to the fireplace. He takes a stick of tinder from the basket, so that he can light the taper on the mantelpiece. The warmth of the flickering flames plays over his face and hands as he bends to touch the stick to the fire.

'Don't.'

Sam drops the tinder, after a moment's hesitation, into the fire, and turns around. The fire dances blue and yellow in the dark, pulsing in his seared eyes, but he can make out the white of the bed sheets and of Frodo's nightshirt, an upright shape among the linen.

'I know,' Sam says, quietly, because he does know and he has no idea why he even went to the candle.

No lights.

When Sam takes a step towards the bed, Frodo moves forward from his knees, on one hand like a cat, and rises up in one swift, fluid movement, and he falls hard into Sam just as Sam reaches the bedside. The covers drop away. Frodo's body is warm and lean and hard against Sam; he fastens his hot mouth to the side of Sam's neck, and Sam reaches out and grabs him and crushes him close with both arms as he fights to get his breath back. He can smell the warmth of the linens and of Frodo's skin deep in the hot angle between his neck and shoulder, salt-and-sugar sharp.

Frodo pulls back for a second, and the fireguard dragon gleams in his eyes, a red flash in the dark, and desire leaps in the pit of Sam's stomach, wild and ravenous. He lets his hands rake up across bunched, wrinkled linen and into the untamed tangles of hair, to capture Frodo's head and force it to be still between his palms. When he finds Frodo's mouth and opens it with his own, Frodo becomes even heavier against him, and his hands fall powerless from Sam's shirtfront as Sam's palm slides around to his nape. He makes an inarticulate, pleading sound into Sam's mouth, as naked and unashamed as if he were in the throes of a dream.

The sound sets Sam on fire. He kisses Frodo, over and over again, eats his mouth, swallows the quickening gasps he draws from its hot silky depth. Oh, to finally, finally be here, to have gained admittance to this dark realm again, to be confirmed in the slender hope that there is more to life than the bleak daylight can discover, that is finer than anything Sam has ever known or has words to speak of. He will never have his fill of this mouth, of the supple strength of the body vibrating in his embrace, and for a moment the song of his blood is layered with darker chords of a wrenching, desperate love that knows it will never be fully sated. Sam tightens his arm around Frodo's ribcage, crushing an eager little moan from him.

But then Frodo disentangles a hand and finds the front of Sam's trousers, palm full against the heat there, and gives a hungry squeeze, bringing Sam back to the here and now on a knee-weakening rush of need. His sigh hitches on a moan as he presses into the touch.

Breaths and rustles break the silence like the faint glow from the guarded fire tempers the darkness. Sam has had three opportunities to learn that Frodo's hands and mouth have a language of their own, and can tell him how he's wanted and when, and he tries his best to listen and obey, through the deafening beating of his heart. But it isn't always easy, because this place, this dark universe, operates on entirely different rules than the ordinary one. The Frodo who says 'Very good, Sam' and who stands stiff and straight-backed while Sam fetches his coat and whose skin looks cool and smooth as bone in the stark light of day, is gone, and the Frodo that lives here is as hot and pliable and darkly glowing as iron in the forge fire. Sam feels almost afraid of his devouring heat sometimes, has to put all his will into pouring oil onto those flames. It's not that he doesn't want to, oh, he does, he is hard the moment he steps over the threshold knowing that Frodo awaits in the dark, but... it's so different, so much more than anything else in Sam's life. Sam's days are filled with responsibilities, but they are nothing next to this.

Now the heel of Frodo's hand rubs slowly, grindingly, up and down, and Sam responds with alacrity despite the distracting demands of those fingers tearing through him. He lets his own hands slide down and grab. One lesson of the time he has spent in the dark with Frodo has been that gentlefolk aren't made of glass (when he's too timid, Frodo's fingers are wont to close around his own, making them harder than Sam would ever dare). Sam knows that right now Frodo doesn't care what it looks like, all he cares about is how it feels, and that means that it is safe for Sam to do the same and be as rough as he likes. Or rather, as rough as... He hitches up the hem of Frodo's nightshirt so that he can cup and palm without any cloth in the way, and Frodo, winding his arms around Sam's neck, gives a little growl and bites him, catches Sam's lip between his teeth, and the sweetly pulsing pain fuels both Sam's need and his determination to be needed. Blowing on the flames and knowing it, Sam takes Frodo's hand and pulls it down to his trouser buttons.

Clothes tumble to the floor, seams creaking under eager hands, still-warm fabrics slipping into the inky darkness around their feet, and Sam barely has room to wriggle out of the last shirt sleeve before Frodo reaches for him.

Sam knows the rules of this engagement now, knows how to meet the challenge that is so clearly spoken by Frodo's hands and mouth - roving, raking, kissing, biting. He pushes a knee between Frodo's, unsteadying him, and Frodo pushes back with all the unruly heat that is in him, but he doesn't seem to know whether he is trying to push Sam off or to press himself harder against him, and with his defences so divided, he must fall, and let Sam push him onto his back. Sam finds his wrists and pins them to his sides.

Frodo tenses and twists in protest, but Sam can feel that in truth, the restraint only feeds his hunger, can feel Frodo's stomach muscles harden and his white-hot arousal branding his skin. The secret, Sam knows, is to provide that restriction, to tighten it anon, without ever letting on that he knows what he is doing. Sam kisses the tense throat, pressing and releasing slowly with his thigh, and Frodo sobs and his hands clench into fists. His own hands occupied, Sam strokes Frodo's cheeks and shoulders and collarbones with his face, running his nose close to the skin under the jaw line, kissing and licking and nipping where he can. Frodo arches up into him, hard, trapping Sam in the hot crevice between Frodo's leg and body, where the skin is already slippery with sweat. This will not last long, and Sam feels like he is being ripped apart for a second, because it is so good, and so unfair, and yet it can't be any other way.

Frodo writhes under him, and Sam knows that he has to give in. He releases Frodo's wrists, and both his hands immediately come up to twist into Sam's hair and push him where he is already going. He touches with his tongue first, but he hasn't come here to tease, so when Frodo pushes, he gives in at once, and takes him as deep as he can.

Salt and skin and sweat fill his senses, and he presses his tongue against the silky skin, drawing a strangled cry from Frodo. Frodo has taught him this, teaching by example, and he tries to use his throat like Frodo does, but it is unnecessary, because Frodo is already shaking and sobbing and crying out breathlessly, and his hands fist painfully in Sam's hair as the welcome heat floods onto the back of Sam's tongue.

When Sam comes back up, Frodo finds his face with his hands, pulls him down and kisses him, deeply, greedily, still panting. He rolls Sam over onto his back, his whole body plastered against Sam's side, and buries his face at Sam's shoulder as his hand slides down his stomach.

Frodo's fingertips are like hot coals on him, and when he closes his fist, Sam's mouth falls open on a silent gasp. Every fibre of his body is crying out for relief, and each stroke, each hard, sure, rough caress brings him closer to that sweet oblivion. He reaches out and grabs Frodo's waist, digs his fingers in, hard, and Frodo's hand is instantly, miraculously harder too, tighter, sweeter, deeper, his slippery-hot tongue tastes the sweat on Sam's chest, and suddenly the tension is wrenched from Sam so hard it almost hurts, and he is spilling over Frodo's hand. Through the throbbing of his pulse, he can feel Frodo's open mouth on his chest, and a moment later, Sam feels his lips on his wet belly. Then Frodo collapses next to Sam, half an arm's length away.

After half a minute Frodo rolls over towards Sam and presses his sweaty face to Sam's for a second. Neither of them says anything, not even when their breaths have come back to normal. Sam is too drained to move. Eventually he will have to go, but not just yet. Just another minute here in the dark, with Frodo's warm body and the sound of his breathing near.

He has almost drifted off when he feels the bed move. Frodo is sitting up to pull the blankets over them both, before lying back down.

The interruption brings Sam back to wakefulness, and although he doesn't stir, he cannot rest anymore. The thought of getting up and leaving and walking home through the icy night fills Sam with more than just sleepy, sated reluctance. There is something in him like regret, a soreness like a bruise on his heart, or something missing, missed, like a desperately gaping hole somewhere inside him.

Is this love? he thinks, staring into the dark. Going about a house that isn't yours and where your life is kept in one of the rooms; doing the same things at the same times of the day and hoping to be called in there so that you can see your life, taste it, touch it, once every six weeks, or six months, without warning? That loss, that helplessness, that endless yearning and the aching hunger that absence engenders, is that love? Is it enough? A lover, something inside him insists, should be more than a remote beacon on a misty hilltop, to be glimpsed as fortune and the atmosphere allows.

A strange thing, necessary as air yet devoid of rhyme or reason. Like being presented with a gift yet later finding that you have less than you had before. Like insisting on playing with dice loaded to lose. Like a grateful victim of a theft.

And still this unspoken contract, this distant coexistence, for all the world such a poor and wanting thing, has captured him, and him such a willing captive that he has come to accept its imperfections as he accepts the limited reach of his arms, or the passage of the sun. It has brought out things from deep inside him that he didn't know were there. He has known, on occasion, the pain of a starved belly, but the pain of a starved heart, oh, it can make you do things so that you don't recognise yourself...

Frodo lifts his arm and rubs his face with his hand, the slow sound of skin against skin loud in the darkness.

He shouldn't even be thinking these things, not when he's lying here, on sheets that haven't even had time to cool, with the smell of Frodo on his skin, what is wrong with him? What is it that he wants? And suddenly Sam feels like crying.

Then he feels Frodo's hand on his chest. It slips slowly over his arm and around his ribcage, warm and cautious. After a few moments, Sam, bewildered, slowly turns his head.

The hand wanders across his face then, slowly, very lightly, as if seeking to learn its shape in the dark. Sam lies still, and lets his ears be traced, his hair be brushed from his forehead. The fingers are light, almost hesitant, but they pull him in, slowly and carefully, and before long Sam finds that despite his hesitance, he is lying in the warmth of Frodo's breath, and Frodo in his, close and secret as if they were a mile under the earth.

This is not what Sam expected. Usually he gets up, before it gets too late, and twice there has been a silent, slightly ill aimed kiss in the dark (Frodo's shoulder or arm leaving a last, warm imprint in his hand) before he goes home to his own lonely bed. But this... it seems too good to be true, and Sam is for a second more afraid to abandon himself to this than he ever was to take his clothes off in the first place. What does Frodo want? This is so different, so inexplicable, and yet it already feeds and soothes his longing better than any of what has gone before... perhaps anything that has ever taken place between them in the dark. Each whisper-light stroke of Frodo's fingers across his face leaves him wanting more. It is not Sam's doing, and yet it is what he wants, it somehow manages to coax the closed shell of his heart ajar, and an unworded, unformed scrap of a yearning that could too easily grow to be hope slips free.

The mattress dips and shifts as Frodo slowly curls up onto his knees, and leans down almost hesitantly, and when he lays his mouth very lightly, very softly to Sam's it feels as though it is the first time he has ever done it. Sam squeezes his eyes shut and raises his hand to hover along Frodo's cheekbone.

Each of his lips, one first and then the other, and each plump corner of his mouth, is tasted. Frodo's fingers play in the hair above Sam's ear, twining it softly, and when he tilts his head a tiny fraction, Sam opens his mouth and lets him in. Warmth, fierce as the sting of unshed tears, blooms in his chest as Frodo's tongue runs along his lower lip and then dips, ever so gently, almost innocently, into Sam's mouth to touch Sam's tongue.

It is so sweet it almost hurts. Sam cannot but let it happen. It feels as if Frodo's gentle fingers are reaching right into his chest and touching his heart, undoing the knots there, as if his whole body has become a heart, wherever Frodo's hands glide - his chest, his neck, his arms.

It takes a long time for the tenderness to simmer into something else, and by the time it does, Frodo has touched, and somehow by the touch reclaimed, every warming part of Sam. Sam has found that Frodo's skin has a depth to it that hasty fingers overlook; the warm air a hair's-breadth from the skin can carry a touch like still water carries a skating insect. Sam's mind, unbidden, brings him a memory, a stolen glimpse of Frodo returning from the river early one morning last summer, with his jacket over his arm, cattail fluff in his damp hair, silent-stepping as a runaway, utterly unaware that he is being watched, and Sam puts every second of longing since then into his touch on Frodo's skin. The shivers this produces in Frodo are long and ripplingly delicious and nigh on unbearable for either of them.

So, too, are the careful little kiss-bites that Frodo scatters in the wake of his hands. Sam is undone. He melts under Frodo's searching hands and mouth, he falls apart, opening himself and yielding whatever Frodo finds and asks for without question. Once, Frodo's fingers slip on skin that his tongue has smoothed already, jolting senses brimming with bliss, and Sam starts, because it is close to pain, and Frodo's hand flies immediately to soothe, circling low on his stomach, until he lies back again. Soon, and Sam doesn't understand how it can be, or that it is real at all, Sam is moaning out loud under that very same touch, no longer accidental. All his senses are submerged in agonizing sweetness, soaked in pleasure, it seems his body is not a vessel equal to this passion, and he reaches out blindly for Frodo, because he needs to make sure that they lose themselves together, now. He pulls Frodo to him, and he is easily brought, a weight of damp, radiant warmth, slick against Sam's chest as Sam rolls them both over.

Frodo's skin seems to offer itself to Sam, seems reluctant to let his hands pass but slowly over its dampness, and Sam complies, taking his time while he gathers the scatterings of his wits. He finds that he cannot stop his hands from moving down, around, behind, between, curiosity and need together dream up a path for them to take and Frodo's head falls back as he finds a slow-hard stroke that seems to fit his purpose. Soon he is even braver, he imitates Frodo's boldness, dipping into heat, and Frodo is well-paid for that chance: the moan on his open lips turns into a cry, and he leaves a wet streak on Sam's belly where he presses himself against him as if he were seeking to get underneath Sam's skin. When Sam rolls fully over him, he lifts his head and kisses Sam as if he'd rather kiss than breathe, until Sam touches them together with a twist of his hips, and kisses are broken into gasps. Sam can't help but do it again, but when, half a minute later, he slips his hand behind Frodo's knee to raise it and wrap it around his hip, as they have done before, he finds that Frodo's hands have slipped between them to close around Sam, and the bolt of pleasure that is let loose in Sam's spine sends any other thought or plan flying like a handful of feathers. The grip is sure and firm, and Sam has to force himself into it, each grinding slide affording him a new, hot surge of what he craves.

The delirious pleasure is almost, but not quite, enough to drown the awareness of the tremendous thing Frodo seems to be aiming to achieve, with his tight hands and his locked ankles and his clenched teeth, and with an effort, Sam stills his movements.

Unfathomable, unsought, nearly unimagined.

Nearly.

Sam lets go Frodo's waist and seeks them out, fingers tangled, tight on tight. He closes his own hand there.

Waits.

Three, four, five tense, rapid breaths against each other's faces.

Frodo turns his head a fraction, so that his nose and cheek are laid flush with Sam's, and for no reason at all Sam finds himself thinking of the card game lying abandoned on the parlour table, the dark study, the long black shadow thrown by Frodo's pen in Bilbo's crystal ink stand, the empty embrace of the armchair.

Frodo's fingers, red with cold and teeth damage, creeping into kitten fur.

And he finds that more than anything else, he is filled with the desire to make Frodo forget all these things, to banish all that loneliness, light the darkness that surrounds them, the darkness in Frodo's very heart.

Then Frodo nudges his head forward and lays his lips to Sam's in a silent gesture that is both acquiescent and urgent, soft lips and a flick of hard tongue.

And Sam sinks back into the moment, into Frodo's hands, and when he wraps his arm around Frodo's waist again and pulls him closer, Frodo makes a tight, needful sound that is like a silken whip to Sam's desire. He offers himself up then, wraps himself around Sam and holds him tight, whether for his own reassurance or for Sam's, Sam cannot tell.

When it happens, when Frodo's body ceases its nipping resistance and yields up its tightness, Sam receives the hard arch of Frodo's spine in his arms, buffers the ragged, uneven breaths, listens to the suppressed whimper, and most unusually, Frodo doesn't snarl and twist against the soothing restraint. This is a game no more.

Dark it may be, but there is no hiding now, no more evasions, no more lies. Only need, perfectly revealed and met with tenderness as deep and terrifying as the widest sea. Sam would give everything he has for that moment to last, to rest in this bottomless closeness awhile longer, with his hand smoothing the sweaty curls from Frodo's forehead, and Frodo's hands closing and opening on his back as their bodies burn and melt together.

It is Frodo who begins it. He raises his head for a kiss - a tiny gesture, but Frodo doesn't know how his slightest movement reverberates through Sam, sending hot shivers along every vein in his body. Sam doesn't mean to, but when Sam's tongue curls around the sultry savour of Frodo's mouth, when he shifts and leans down to drag the kiss down to Frodo's neck, Frodo gives a whimper, a single want-soaked vowel that flies out of his mouth like a bird released. Sam hears it, and lets it pulse through him, lets its urgency merging with his own yearning and pull on his muscles like it was his own will, with the result that the next movement is deliberate. And Frodo takes it and gives it back, he takes whatever Sam gives, and gives exactly what Sam needs in return, until the very darkness seems to glow and smoulder at the edges, like a sheet of inky paper, before it is consumed in a flare of brilliant light. Sam sees Frodo before him as he shakes and sobs and clenches his fists on Frodo's body, but it is not the Frodo that is straining and panting beneath him that materialises in that brightness, but the other one, with clear, pale light on his thoughtful face, distant, and yet become as close as Sam's own flesh. Still quaking, Sam fumbles until he can squeeze Frodo's hard, sticky-slick length in his fist, pushing one last time as he does so, and Frodo gasps, clings to Sam's neck, biting his shoulder as he comes, tightens, trembles and then, finally, eases, his head falling back onto the pillows.

The pain of the bite, real and true, sears sweetly through Sam, and he collapses onto Frodo's heaving body. In the morning, that bite will be there, a mark of the night that will not fade in the daylight, and proof, somehow, that night and day do not have to be forever set apart.

Eventually, there is a softening little slip, a separation, but neither of them moves. For a long, long time, as Frodo's skin slowly cools and dries against his own, Sam lies where he fell, and Frodo breathes slowly, steadily under him, against him, through him. The dregs of pleasure continue to drip and seep slowly from Sam's muscles, little ticking twinges of release.

Presently, Frodo stirs, and Sam groggily eases his weight off him. Frodo turns over and pulls the mussed covers over them. Then he lies down and wriggles languidly into Sam's arms, his back against Sam's chest, and Sam slips an arm around him.

Frodo lets out a drowsy sigh.

Even as Sam comes to a bit, and starts listening vaguely to the fire murmuring in the chimney and to Frodo's quiet breathing, his contentment is complete and untouched, safe as a firefly in cupped hands.

Then Frodo moves again, burrowing farther backwards into Sam's embrace.

'I thought you might have changed your mind, tonight,' he whispers suddenly, out of the dark.

Sam is too drained and too perilously close to something like happiness to react fully to this unprecedented sound. He has just enough energy left to tighten his arm briefly around Frodo's waist.

'Ain't no reason for me to,' he murmurs sleepily into Frodo's hair. 'Why'd you think that?'

'I don't know. I just thought... perhaps you had had enough.'

I will never have enough of you, Frodo. This answer wells up in Sam, like a wave in a quiet sea of love and longing, but despite everything, Sam finds that there is no way for them to go from his heart to his tongue. He fights them back, opting for the gentle ripples of the shallows instead.

'Well.' Sam nuzzles the back of Frodo's neck. Frodo sighs.  'I think I have had enough, and even you can't do a thing about it, I'm afraid. But who knows, if you're still keen in a few hours...' Frodo squirms a little, pressing a quick snort of a near-giggle into the pillow.

'That's not what I meant,' he says breathlessly after a few seconds of slow teasing and drowsy tickling. Sam's hands become still, and Frodo's quick breathing has time to slow in the silence that follows.

It is lovely to hear Frodo's voice, not raised in cries and moans but speaking low, throaty, smile-softened words, for Sam alone to hear, but... there is more to this than sated playfulness, and Sam is beginning to understand what it is.

'I know,' he says quietly at last, because he does, and when it comes down to it, when sincerity and seriousness have settled, and apprehension and expectation hover in the air, there is no way he could not say so.

'And?' Frodo asks uncertainly, after several long moments of silence.

And I don't know how to tell you how the ordinary days abuse my heart in their passing, how I grow weak with waiting and sore with love, or how to say that I am afraid that I love you more than you do me.

Sam kisses the back of Frodo's neck to fill the silence, but Frodo prevents this gentle evasion by wriggling around in Sam's arms so that they are face to face.

'I don't mind,' Sam whispers lamely at last, fully aware that this is so far from accurately representing his true feelings that it might as well be an outright lie.

'You don't mind.' There is a peculiar, wry tone to Frodo's voice, even in a whisper.

'No.' Sam knows it is insufficient, but he can't think of anything else to say.

'So are you... do you do this just for me, then?'

Yes. No. Oh, Frodo!

'No, of course not. Never,' Sam says, and hopes that he doesn't sound as bland as the words.

He can hear Frodo scraping a fingernail thoughtfully against a knot in the weave of the pillowcase.

'Are you... happy, Sam?'

Happy. Are you happy, Frodo? Can you tell me that you've never known a moment's doubt, a beat of heartache or a single, furtive tear on a cold afternoon since you began this whole unforgiven business? If you can, then I know that I am not. How is it that your misery and my happiness come to be the one and same thing?

And with this thought in his head, Sam knows, like he knows the approach of thunder when all the birds fall silent and the flowers close, that he will not be able to produce an answer, and that the terrible silence will be broken by something much worse, like a storm rips into its heralding silence.

The spell, full of Frodo's anticipation, and then dismay, lengthens, and Sam swallows, in the tense darkness.

'I see,' Frodo says at last, turning stiffly over on his back, and pulling away somewhat as he does so.

'You don't, it's not like that,' Sam says tightly, trying not to sound as defensive as he feels, refusing to remove his arm, the arm that still circles Frodo's waist. 'Begging your pardon.'

Frodo snorts derisively at this last, and Sam's heart sinks further. It won't do, he can hear how helpless and unhelpful his own words sound. After a moment, he reaches out instead and gathers Frodo in, pulls him close, and he comes, but reluctantly, wilful and wound up as a stiff-legged colt.

'Frodo,' he murmurs into Frodo's hair. 'What I have, you give me, and I don't mean my clothes, or my coppers neither, for that matter. But I don't think there'd be many people in the Shire who'd be happy if it were with them as it is with me.'

'How is anything different for me than it is for you?' Frodo asks after a second, defensive and uncomprehending, but with a touch of hesitance that takes the edge off his hostility.

'Once the lights are out, aye, it's no difference, and that's as it should be. But Frodo - ' Sam takes a deep breath, trust him now ' - we walk about all day like strangers, and when it comes to it, it's never my choice. All these long days I'm full to bursting with wanting, but my wanting doesn't count until you want it to count. I always come to you, you never...'

And it is said. Sam feels dread tighten around his heart, and he counts six tense intakes of breath in the dark before Frodo speaks.

'I never said or did anything to force you,' Frodo says, and there is a coldness in his voice that is unmistakable despite his obvious attempt to keep his voice steady and reasonable.

'You never had to.'

How can Frodo not understand this? How can he not know that sometimes there isn't anything for Sam to say?

'Are you saying I would have? Sam, how can you - '

'No, I don't say that, please - '

'What, then? What's so hard about it?' And then, with some softness, again: 'Why does it have to matter so much who asks?'

Oh, Frodo, how can you be so treacherous and so innocent at the same time, so close and so far away, so weak when I feel your strength, polished and pliant and ringing like a copper shield under the silence, every time we are in the same room? If only you'd let me, you'd see that there's nothing to be fearful of.

Helplessness and ragged desperation rise in Sam's breast, together with appalled amazement, and not even the fear of the inexorable slide towards disaster, towards the saying of things that can't be unsaid, stops the words from bursting out of him, as if they'd been there, in the darkest part of the back of his throat, for months upon silent months:

'Because I ain't got no choice, and it's like bein' dumb, that, like bein' tied hand and foot!'

And no sooner have these words leapt from him than Sam recognises that they are perfectly untrue; it is not a matter of fetters, what ails Sam is rather the opposite, an excess of freedom: he is like an untrained vine that grows useless, wayward branches, like a lonely horse left in the field, longing for the harness and the gentle hands doing up its buckles.

But the words are said, true or untrue, and they hang in the air, until Frodo suddenly pulls away and rolls over, his back to Sam.

'You have a choice,' he says, icy as the air that hits Sam's skin where Frodo was. 'You're not tied.'

And then the ice is in Sam's heart as well. Frodo wouldn't... would he? He reaches out to touch Frodo's shoulder.

'No, I know I ain't,' he whispers. 'But when you look at me...'

You tie me to you more securely than any rope or chain, any pledge or promise, aye, more than any longfather tree ties you to your name and me to my spade, and you don't even know it. Nor do you know how that tie tightens, day by day, around my vitals, until I fear for my breath and my sense both. Until you loosen them, at your whim.

No response.

'Frodo, me dear... ' Whatever else he was going to say gets stuck in the tangled love-words in his throat and he leans his forehead on Frodo's shoulder, praying that Frodo can feel what Sam cannot say, can gather something of what is ripping him apart through the thin boundaries of skin.

'Don't you know I couldn't say no if I wanted to,' Sam tries again, whispering. He means to say that he wouldn't have it any other way, but he is cut off.

'You make me sound like a slave driver,' Frodo snaps, resentfully, making Sam pull back. And then, with bitter reproach between tense lips: 'You know it isn't like that.'

Something falls down in Sam then, having teetered for long minutes something finally tumbles and is lost, like a bucket in a well when the rope fails.

Sam sits up and rubs his eyes wearily with his hand. Does he know that? No, he doesn't. And yet... oh, curse it all. He is all at once so tired, so heartsick, so disappointed that he is for a moment afraid that he really will start crying. Frodo is silent, lying in the dark like a stone, and Sam doesn't know what to do with him, or with himself, except to get out of the bed and go home. His mind turns to the refuge of practicalities. He has already stayed too long - although if it helped to undo the damage of the last half-hour, he would stay all night. Besides, if he's going to cry, it's not going to be here, in the master bedroom of Bag End. He fumbles for his clothes in the dark, trying to keep his hands steady on his buttons. Frodo still doesn't move or speak.

With his clothes on, Sam hesitates. It is clear to him that this must be the end, now, and that he has no one to blame but himself. It seems a high price to pay for getting one tiny splinter of truth out from under his skin.

He bends down over the bed.

'Frodo?'

Asleep? No, surely not. But silent, and still as if frozen. Sam leans down and presses a kiss to Frodo's cheek, but Frodo still doesn't move.

Not until Sam has closed the door behind him does he notice the touch of salty dampness on his lower lip.

***

Before Sam is fully awake he knows that when he opens his eyes, there will be a seam of light under the curtains, and it will be so faint that only the greater darkness of the room makes it visible. In the summer it is a glowing line of golden sunshine, bright as the horizon above the hill, but today, it has a cold, piercing brightness to it that makes him think of snow, but it is always there, always the same, regardless of what kind of morning it heralds.

Sam gets up, washes, dresses, drinks his milk and puts on his scarf. In his head, sharp fragments of the night before whirl like the first unmistakable stings of a winter storm, and he shuts them out until he stands outside Bag End's back door again. It has indeed snowed, a thin, dry, powdery dusting that seems to reflect the greyness of the overcast sky, and he looks up at it, to delay the moment when he has to open that door. More snow, before evening, he thinks, with strained indifference, and puts his hand on the doorknob.

It is silent, dim, ordinary. The kitchen table gleams dully in the winter light. The empty wood basket by the hearth gives him an unpleasant jolt - you forgot, Sam, didn't you, you forgot because you were... Enough.

Deep breaths of icy air out by the woodpile, and soon enough the fire gets lit and the water poured, just like they always do. The extra errand causes a delay in his routine that Sam gratefully receives as an excuse to rush from one task to the next, keeping one step ahead of the need to remember why this morning isn't really like any other.

But eventually, following in the dance of the ordinary day, he comes to stand outside the bedroom door, mug in one hand and pitcher in the other. If Sam has had to do anything more difficult in his life, he can't remember it, it is nothing like the other mornings, which were awkward enough but not... not like this. His heart is beating so hard he can feel it, and his hands feel numb.

But there is nothing for it but to knock, three times, and go inside. He can't feel the floor under his feet as he goes first to the washstand, and then to the window, and to the bedside table, and his voice sounds like someone else's, astonishingly even and calm, when he says:

'Good morning, Mr Frodo.'

He busies himself with the fire, trying to close his ears to everything else in the room, as he lifts away the cold fireguard with its lifeless dragon, and rakes through the ashes for coals. But there are none - despite Sam's efforts, the fire has gone out. He takes tinder and flint and despite his shaking hands, he soon has a flame going.

He straightens up, his back prickling. There are rustling sounds. And then:

'Good morning. Thank you, Sam.'

Sam feels like screaming.

'Toast'll be ready in a few minutes, Mr Frodo,' he mumbles, before slipping out the door.

The kitchen is chillier than it should be on this snowy morning, since the fire was laid late, but Frodo sits down to breakfast with what seems like every bit of his usual composure. The knife scrapes across the toast.

'It's a lovely morning.'

'That it is, sir.'

The silence stretches.

'Excuse me, sir,' Sam says hoarsely, at last, and makes himself an errand, a long one, in the second pantry. He can't bear to meet Frodo's eyes. Or is it not meeting them that hurts so? Not that Frodo has made any attempt to look at him. He never does, after all. He looks at his toast.

With Frodo safely at the other end of the house, in the study, Sam quickly tidies up the kitchen and flees to the garden. He has been in the process of digging the onion patch for a few days, and the job needs finishing before the ground freezes completely. The steady rhythm of the familiar work pulls Sam in, harnesses his muscles and joints to its purpose, but his mind is free to wander, to go round in circles over and over the same painful ground, until the tears stand in his eyes. The earth is drably, dully grey, hard clods that resist the spade and seem to bear no relation to the fragrant, sun-warmed brown stuff that feels like velvet when you bury your fingers in it on an April morning. Sam digs and digs, as if his life is over, breathing ragged clouds and wondering if Frodo really did make a veiled threat to let him go, and if so, if he is going to make good on it. Disastrous as that would be, there is a part of Sam that would welcome it.

***

He serves second breakfast, tea and poached eggs on raisin bread, making an effort to seem calm as he sets the tray down, and goes back to digging. Frodo barely seems to notice his presence for the few seconds he is in the room, but then again, that's nothing new.

***

Lunch.

'Thank you, Sam.'

Sam washes the dishes, wiping his cheek with the back of his hand.

***

By the late afternoon, Sam's heart is tired and sore. Hurt and confusion and humiliation snare it tightly, threatening to make it burst. Frodo seems to be his usual serene self, although Sam thought he detected a slight strain in his voice when he asked Sam to fetch the kitchen shears, so that he could cut the string on a parcel of legal papers that were delivered around midday. Sam was in the back hall, on his way out, and had to come all the way into the study, and then go to the kitchen, and back again, with the shears.

When he brought Frodo his afternoon tea, he was taken aback to find Frodo slumped across his desk, no pen in his hand, forehead on his crooked arm. Of course, he must be tired, Sam thought (with an uninvited and unaccustomed snipe of bitterness that surprised him with its reckless, satisfying savour) and indeed Frodo's eyes were glazed with weariness when his head snapped up at the sound of Sam's feet on the floor, but Sam had already turned hurriedly away and left; tea or no tea, he had been unable to bring himself any closer.

Back in the kitchen, Sam felt sorry, and guilty, but there was also a mean voice that mumbled in the back of his head that Frodo could afford to be tired, to be so elegantly, fragilely fatigued, couldn't he. Unlike Sam. And he didn't know what to say to that, and couldn't get a grip on that thing that yesterday would have been sympathy, but which now doesn't look like anything Sam knows, either. The clash of the unfamiliar meanness and the almost-pity created such an uncomfortable stir in Sam's chest that he didn't dare to go back into any of the front rooms, not even to check the fires, while Frodo was around.

Now Frodo is somewhere else in the smial, or perhaps gone for a walk, and Sam is on his knees in front of the hearth, putting wood on the failing fire. His back is cold, the smial is as silent as a glacier, the logs won't stay in the places where he's stacked them so carefully, but insist on coming crashing down into the ashes, smothering what coals remain, and suddenly Sam flings the last piece into the heap with a dull thud and slumps where he sits, hiding his face in his sooty hands. It's no good, and he can feel the tears coming. There's only so much a hobbit's heart can take, and Sam doesn't have anything left with which to fight the sobs that are forcing their way out of his chest. Damn Frodo and his charm and fine manners, damn his unshakeable calm, damn all there is of gentlefolk and their idiotic set-ups, that make mere fools and animals of other folk. Curse this whole affair, that has let him know things he never had no business with, like how Mr Frodo's arms feel when wrapped around his shoulders, and what sweetness and truth there is in the pure line of his profile as he daydreams unaware, and how his very presence drifts through walls and bricks and earth and touches Sam like an warm wind on the back of his neck, inexplicably filling his heart to the brim.

Sam gets up, wipes his eyes with his sleeve, and taking a step backwards, he sits down on the parlour sofa. He has never sat on it before, wouldn't dream of it - his clay-stained breeches on the rich brocade, never - but it doesn't seem to matter anymore, now. He stares at the dead fire.

If only Frodo could have remained on the Hill and Sam below, if only he had had the wit to remain outdoors. If only he had never agreed to tend the fire in Frodo's room after dark... He leans his forehead in his hand again, closing his eyes, but the wetness seeps through his eyelashes all the same. Now he never will again. That shouldn't be the thing that hurts most of all, and it isn't, but it's not far off. He loves daytime Frodo dearly, loves his frowns of concentration and his rare laughs and even the sweet insecurity that never allows him to quite let go of the polite manners that make him young Mr Baggins of Bag End. But there is something about the nights, about the swift way Frodo moves in the dark, the dimmed fire flickering on living skin, a mystery of unknowable need, of attainable but unspeakable beauty that will ever draw Sam to it, even as he fears that it is all a dream, and that any moment he will sit up in his own narrow bed and gasp I love you to the empty room.

Eventually, the tears dry up, but Sam remains where he is, immobilised by the sudden meaninglessness of it all. What to do? Cook supper? Go home? Give his notice?  The noise that makes him look up is the tiniest shift, such as betrays presence but not movement.

He raises his head and Frodo is standing in the doorway, half in shadow, holding a cup in his right hand. His face is unreadable, attentive but impassive as a painting. Yet his eyes, in the flat afternoon light, seem to have a depth to them that curbs Sam's breath.

Sam is too flustered, too numbed and exhausted by this whole day and its surfeit of mixed emotions, to move or speak, and he simply remains seated as Frodo quietly crosses the room and comes to the sofa. Sam looks up at him, and Frodo's expression doesn't change, but he meets Sam's eyes, steadily, perhaps a little shyly, and then, without a word, he sits down, very close to Sam. So close that Sam has to move back as Frodo settles in against him, his back against Sam's chest.

Astonishing.

Very gently, Sam makes room, raises his inside knee, and Frodo lets his weight relax into Sam, lets his body mould itself to every inch of Sam's. Sam receives it, leans cautiously back into the corner of the back and the armrest, robbed of speech.

After a few moments, Frodo tips his head back against Sam's chest, still holding the cup of tea. He is loose and heavy, the warmth of him seeping through his clothes like redemption, and he doesn't speak a single word. He sits, silent, lashes lowered at first, but then flicking up and down as his eyes wander over the room. Sam can feel every inch of him sinking into his support, can feel every quiet breath, and he is stunned into absolute speechlessness.

In the bleak winter light, Frodo's dark hair, so close, has a deep burned-sugar gleam to it that wouldn't be obvious from a distance. Sam can see a few pale freckles on his cheek and nose - he guesses that they come out more clearly when his skin is pale and transparent with the faint lustre of tiredness, as it is now. There is a tiny scar, like the mark of a thumbnail, above Frodo's eyebrow, just where it begins to fade towards the temple into a scattering of fine, almost invisible hairs. Sam is suddenly filled with a wish to touch that little scar, stroke the eyebrow with his fingertip, but he doesn't move, because he knows that his hand would tremble, as his heart trembles at the evanescent knowledge that this is true, that it is real, that Frodo has somehow at last gathered in his courage and that his quiet steps across the bright floor in the middle of Sam's tears have irrevocably changed everything.

And so they sit, together in the silence, close and weighted together as if they never have been separate and never will be, and Sam's thoughts slowly sort themselves out into their separate threads as the steam slowly rises and curls from the mug in Frodo's hand. Snow has started to fall slowly outside the window, white feathers come drifting down, and the sounds of the world outside, never loud, are muffled.

Sam finds himself looking at the mug and the wisps of steam above it, and at Frodo's strong, short-fingered hand around it. The fingers are unusually free of ink stains - has Frodo not written anything today, in all the hours of the forenoon? 

Sam is reminded of the hunch of that exhausted body across the desk. Now, with a crushed heart, he notices the faint traces of tears, a salty smudged tide line, in the outer corner of Frodo's eye, and he feels a fool.

Very carefully, he wets his thumb on his tongue and touches the stain away from the fine skin. Frodo doesn't protest, what is more, he leans into the touch like a cat, and when Sam is done, he rubs his cheek on Sam's waistcoat and after a few seconds, he says, very quietly:

'Thank you.'

And Sam answers, with his mouth in Frodo's warm hair:

'You're welcome.'

 

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