West of the Moon

A Tolkien Fanfiction Archive

 

 

Divarications
In which social class boundaries begin to chafe.
Author: Lobelia Sackville-Baggins
Rating: R

 

It was, Sam thought, going to be one of those days. And, worse luck, it came hard on the heels of one of those nights.

He hadn't minded the dreams so much when he was a teenager, before it had really sunk in with him that he might as well wish for a beautiful (if very short) elf-princess in his bed as wish for Frodo Baggins. It had taken years and a few hard lessons - none of which had come from Frodo - for him to understand that servants were servants and gentry were gentry, and however amiable their relationships might be, there was a gulf there that couldn't be crossed, no different for the Master of Bag End and his gardener than it was for the Master of Buckland and his scullery maids. He was glad of those lessons, too, because they'd taught him to see Mr. Frodo as the Master first and Frodo second, and that was better than getting ideas above his station and letting himself in for no end of grief and heartache.

Better than thinking that anything might come of dreams in which fair soft skin warmed under his hands like flowers in the sun, and fine, beautiful lips whispered Sam, I love you against his mouth.

No matter how often Sam explained these things to himself, however, no matter how much he believed them, he still had the dreams; and recently, for whatever reason, he had been having them with increasing frequency. Which was why he closed his eyes and stifled a groan when Frodo wandered out into the garden, clutching a cup of tea and shading his eyes against the morning sun, with his shirt half unbuttoned and his hair still touseled, clearly just out of bed and still half asleep.

"Good morning, Sam," Frodo said around a yawn, then smiled. "I'll never understand how you can be so industrious so early. It takes me a good hour and a few cups of tea before I can so much as get my buttons sorted out."

"Good morning, sir," Sam answered, pausing in his pruning to carefully scrutinize the rose bush, and trying not to dwell on the fact that, indeed, Frodo's shirt needed to be unbuttoned and redone right. Then, because he felt he ought to say something else: "Sleep well, did you?"

Frodo frowned a little at that and took a drink of his tea. "Not really, no. I..." He paused for a moment, long enough to clearly change his mind about what he was going to say. "I was up later than I'm used to, that's all."

Well, it wasn't Sam's place to ask, though he knew full well that if Frodo had been up later than usual it must have been well past late and into early before he went to bed; but whatever had kept him from sleeping well, it was a sure bet that he hadn't spent all night dreaming of Sam wearing nothing more than a thin sheet and an inviting smile. "I'm sorry to hear that, Mr. Frodo," Sam answered, trying desperately not to wonder if Frodo's body would feel as warm and sweet against his own in reality as it had in his dream. "Have you tried poppy-seed tea? My gran swore by it."

"No, I'll try that next time I have trouble sleeping. Speaking of tea, would you like some?"

Sam was saved the trouble of answering by a high, whinnying voice calling Frodo's name. Frodo squeezed his eyes closed and muttered something impolite, then fixed a smile on his face and turned to the front gate, where a stout middle-aged matron waved imperiously at him, accompanied by a pretty lass who looked as though she would rather have been somewhere else. "Hello, Aunt Eglantine," Frodo called. "Hello, Pearl. The two of you are about early, aren't -"

"Oi! Frodo!"

Something fast, small, and vaguely blue zipped around the side of the smial and caught Frodo squarely in the midsection, sending him head over heels onto the grass and making Sam duck out of the way of flying tea. There was a brief scuffle before Frodo heaved himself to his feet, Pippin slung over his shoulders like a water yoke. "Pippin, when did you get so heavy?" he gasped.

"When I got into my teens," Pippin said happily, seeming perfectly content in his perch on Frodo's shoulders. "I'll be taller than you soon."

"Peregrin Took -" Eglantine began forbiddingly. Pearl peered out from behind her mother, covering a smile with her hand, dancing eyes catching Sam's in a conspiratorial glance before she turned her attention back to Frodo and her brother. Sam bit his lip and turned back to the roses, trying to keep from laughing.

"Come in and have some tea, Aunt Eglantine," Frodo called, spinning around in a circle while Pippin whooped with laughter. "I just made it." He slung Pippin down, caught the lad by the scruff of the neck to keep him from staggering away, and pulled him into Bag End. At the gate, Eglantine stood for a moment looking very much as if she would like to roll her eyes, then marched through the front door with Pearl in tow.

Sam wiped a stray drop of tea off from his forehead, gazed a bit wistfully after Frodo, then turned his attention back to the pruning.

 

They had elevensies on the lawn, while Sam was still weeding the side flower beds. Eglantine presided in a lawn chair while the rest sat or sprawled on a blanket. Sam tried hard not to eavesdrop but they weren't making any effort to keep their voices down, and he couldn't help but note the many references that Frodo's aunt made to how many suitors her daughter had, and how likely she was to make a good marriage "if she finds someone of the right stock, dear."

That was unsettling enough; Pearl wasn't so young that she wouldn't make a good match for Frodo, and it was clear enough that her mother had set her heart on exactly that match. What was worse, though, and nearly made Sam spit out the mouthful of water he'd just taken, was when Pippin crawled into Frodo's lap and began unbuttoning Frodo's shirt.

"Your shirt's not buttoned right, Frodo," Pippin announced cheerfully. "It's been annoying me all day, and I'll bet it's irking Mother and Pearl too." He wriggled into a more secure position, which happened to involve wrapping his legs around Frodo's waist. Eglantine looked as if she might have apoplexy on the spot; Pearl blinked rapidly and watched in a sort of horrified fascination.

Frodo laughed and swatted Pippin's rear. "Off, sprout. I can button my own shirt."

Pippin looked up at Frodo from under his lashes and kept unbuttoning. "No, you can't, or you'd have done it right the first time."

He's never doing what I think he's doing, and him barely out of nappies! Sam thought, appalled.

He was, the little sod. "I think I should stay here for a few days and show you how to put your clothes on properly," Pippin announced, wriggling a bit in Frodo's lap.

"Peregrin!" Eglantine said ominously. "You mind your manners, my lad, or I'll -"

Not if I get to him first, Sam thought, then squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed a hand across them. Oh, no. I am not jealous of a fourteen-year-old lad with a crush on Mr. Frodo. I'm not.

Frodo snapped his hips to the side and dumped Pippin unceremoniously onto the grass. Pippin bounced back up, laughing, and wriggled over to curl contentedly into Frodo's side as Frodo buttoned his shirt back up. Frodo smiled and ruffled Pippin's hair fondly.

Sam gathered up the weeds and went to stuff them into the compost heap.

 

It was late afternoon before Frodo's relations left. Sam was almost finished in the garden when Frodo wandered up to him again, with his shirt buttoned right this time and his hands stuffed into the pockets of a threadbare jacket with holes at the elbows; Sam knew that the jacket had been Frodo's father's, and knew that Frodo wore it when he was feeling unsettled about something. The jacket was too big for him.

"Well, that's over," Frodo sighed. "I love Pippin, and Pearl's a dear, but Aunt Eglantine can be... Well."

"Mr. Pippin's getting tall," Sam said, more because he felt some response was expected than because he had any desire to discuss Frodo's relatives with him.

"Tall and awkward," Frodo laughed. "He's going to get himself into trouble one of these days. More trouble than he already does, I mean."

"He will at that," Sam muttered, and must have said it a bit more austerely than he'd meant to, because Frodo looked at him in surprise.

"He doesn't mean anything by it, Sam. He's young, that's all. Old enough to know that he can turn heads when he wants, and too young to know what to do with them once they're turned."

And does he turn your head? Sam wanted to ask, and cursed himself roundly. One of those days, indeed. "Is that a fact, sir?"

The silence beside him stretched out long enough that he glanced over at Frodo, and caught a thoughtful look before Frodo hurriedly dropped his gaze to the grass at their feet. That was a thing odd enough to make him frown a little, Frodo not being willing to meet his eyes, but he put it aside as none of his business and returned to pruning the climbing roses.

"Sam, are you almost done here?" Frodo asked abruptly.

Sam lifted an eyebrow. "Close enough to done, sir. If you're wanting me to clear out, I'll just -"

"No. No, I was... going to ask if you'd join me for supper."

Sam caught his finger on a thorn and clamped down on an annoyed exclamation, sticking the finger into his mouth as much to stall for time as to avoid bleeding on his shirt. He knew full well that Frodo couldn't possibly mean to be extending the same sort of casual social invitation that he would have extended one of his cousins, and still less could he mean any of the things that a dinner invitation might mean under ordinary circumstances; but for the life of him Sam couldn't figure out what he did mean. Hazarding a guess, he asked, "Don't you feel like cooking tonight, sir?"

Frodo looked a little hurt. "I asked if you'd join me, Sam, not if you'd cook for me. I can cook, you know."

"I didn't say as you couldn't, Mr. Frodo. I just didn't know why you'd..." He trailed off, unsure how to proceed.

Color flared into Frodo's pale cheeks, but he held Sam's gaze stubbornly. "Because I enjoy your company, that's why. It's no different from asking you in for a cup of tea or... or coming to talk to you while you're working in the garden. I do those things all the time and you don't seem to mind."

But it was different, even if Sam couldn't put into words exactly how it was. And suddenly he realized that something else was different too, something that hung amorphously in the air between them, something that had nothing and everything to do with this dinner invitation.

Frodo was watching him, color rising a little higher, and Sam didn't have the heart to tell him no. "I'd be glad to, sir. Let me run my tools home and get cleaned up."

Frodo's answering smile was surprisingly shy, and Sam bit his lip on the urge to say Frodo's name, without the Mister, just once.

 

The Gaffer was not entirely pleased with Sam's plans for the evening.

"Just like that?" he asked dubiously, watching from the doorway as Sam splashed water into the washbasin in his bedroom and began scrubbing at his hands. "You're just going to go and sit across the table from the Master like you were company?"

"No, Dad, o' course not," Sam answered, a little shocked. "But he had kin visit today, that little cousin of his from Tuckborough with his mother and sister, and now they're gone I think he's a bit lonely rattling about that great hole by himself. He don't know anyone else to ask, is all, bless him."

The Gaffer pursed his lips a bit and his look of disapproval deepened, but it wasn't aimed at Sam now. Much as the Gaffer had always thought the sun rose and set on Mr. Bilbo, and thought it still, Sam knew that he hadn't approved of Mr. Bilbo traipsing off and leaving young Mr. Frodo alone with a great sprawling smial and a position in the community that he hadn't been exactly ready to take up. "Well... you mind your place, now, and don't be too free with your words."

"Have you ever known me to be?" Sam asked, a bit nettled.

This seemed to be the day for silences stretching longer than they should. Sam picked up a towel and turned to see the Gaffer frowning thoughtfully. "No... that I have not, Sam. But I know what store you set by Mr. Frodo -"

Ah, no you don't, and a good thing too, Sam thought morosely.

" - and sometimes he don't seem to know how things are quite as well as you do. Mind you keep to your place and keep him to his."

"I will, Dad," Sam answered, and kept his eyes turned away from his bed.

 

The kitchen at Bag End was already half in shadow by the time Sam returned, lit as much by the cozy light of the hearth-fire as by the evening sun. There was bread and cheese set on the table, and two glasses of blood-dark wine, and the rich smell of stew floated agreeably through the smial.

"Have a seat, Sam," Frodo said by way of greeting, smiling over his shoulder as Sam hovered uncertainly in the doorway of the kitchen. "The stew's almost ready."

"What can I help with, sir?" Sam asked, rather horrified at the thought of sitting at the table and watching Frodo do all the work.

Frodo glanced speculatively at him, then resettled his shoulders with what looked like resignation. "You can get the bowls and silverware out, if you'd like."

"Yessir," Sam answered, moving to pull bowls out of the cupboard and arrange them on the counter. He pulled open the drawer where the plain utensils were kept; but Frodo had been moving things around again, and all that gleamed up at him was silver plate. Sam poked dubiously at a fork that all by itself probably cost more than he made in a week. "Um... where have the other spoons gotten to, Mr. Frodo?"

Frodo glanced back in surprise. "What's wrong with the silver? Lobelia likes it well enough, she's tried at least twice to make off with it."

Sam bit his tongue on a rather exasperated response, remembering his Gaffer's words. "Silver's for special occasions," he informed Frodo, who genuinely appeared to be unacquainted with that fact.

"This is the first time you've had dinner with me, Sam," Frodo answered, turning back to the stew. "I rather think that qualifies as a special occasion."

If there was anyone in all the world who could flummox Sam more thoroughly than Mr. Frodo, Sam fervently hoped he never met them. "I - I mean -"

"Can you hand me the bowls, please? Thank you. If you don't want to use the silver, the other spoons are in the drawer right below that one."

Sam sighed with relief and fished out plain tin spoons as Frodo dished up the stew and set it on the table.

The stew was excellent, well-spiced beef, and the wine so smooth that Sam resolutely decided not to even speculate as to what kind it was; the near-miss with the silver had unsettled him quite enough, given the Gaffer's earlier lecture. Frodo asked about the whys and wherefores of keeping the garden blooming, and seemed gratifyingly interested in Sam's answers, and before Sam really noticed the deepening dark, the only light in the kitchen was coming from the fire and the candles on the table.

"I hope my aunt and my cousins made it home before it got too dark," Frodo commented at last, glancing out the window.

"Must have been nice for you, having them to visit," Sam answered.

"Aunt Eglantine wants me to marry Pearl," Frodo told his stew, poking at it with his spoon.

Sam's breath left him in a slow almost-sigh. He'd always known that someday there'd be a Mistress at Bag End, but he had not yet learned to take that prospect in stride. "Is that so, sir?"

Frodo's sudden glance at him was startlingly penetrating, making him feel suddenly, uncomfortably transparent. "I'm not going to, of course. But I haven't quite gotten that across to my aunt. She keeps telling me how wonderful it is to marry and settle down. So long as one marries someone of good family, of course." He sounded a little bitter, and Sam wondered at it.

"Well, no one should wed before they're ready," Sam said philosophically. "It's not as if the Shire'll run out of lasses, and I can't think anyone would say you nay."

"Really?" Frodo asked slowly. "I wonder."

Sam looked at him, puzzled. "Mr. Frodo, I can't think of a lass in Hobbiton doesn't turn giggly when you go past."

"And what if it's not -" Frodo cut himself off and reached for his wine. "What if it's not my wish to ever marry?"

Sam took a deep breath and answered the question he'd almost heard the first time, or thought he had. "Well, then... lads don't giggle, sir, but there's not many of them as haven't watched you on your way a time or two."

Frodo picked up his wine glass and leaned back in his chair. "And what about you, Sam?" he asked quietly.

Sam felt the blood drain out of his face and thought, What is it you want me to say? Aye, I watch you. I dream about you, too, about undressing you and touching you, and not just for a tumble neither.

"When are you planning to marry?" Frodo went on, and Sam felt weak with relief.

Looking down at his bowl to hide the rush of blood back into his face, he muttered, "Don't know, sir. I haven't thought about it much."

"No? Haven't set your eye on anyone yet?"

"No, sir, not yet." It was half a truth, at any rate.

Frodo's eyes were shadowed in the candlelight, and Sam wished that he could see them a little better. "Yes, you won't... won't be of age for a few more years yet, will you? Still time." His voice was very quiet.

Suddenly there were more shadows around them than the ones cast by the candles, and Sam took a deep breath, unpleasantly conscious of treading a very narrow path in the dark. "I'm old enough to plight a troth if I'd a mind to, sir." Old enough and more to take a lover, seemingly. "It's just... I've not found a lass I'm minded to court, and I've enough and more to do without courting anyway. Just keeping Bag End's gardens up is a job in itself, though I'd not give it up for the world."

Frodo rose with a quick, sharp movement and went to stand before the fire, making minute adjustments to the position of the kettle. "I'm sorry, Sam," he said with a laugh that sounded forced to Sam's ears. "And here I am taking up even more of your time. I shouldn't -"

"Mr. Frodo," Sam said quietly.

He'd never interrupted Frodo before. That in itself was enough to still Frodo's hand over the kettle. Sam waited until Frodo's eyes turned back to his before he spoke again.

"Will you tell me a story, sir? One of them ones with elves and such that Mr. Bilbo used to tell. I always did love those, and I ain't heard one for years, it seems."

Frodo looked into the fire for long seconds, making Sam's breath catch on flickering shadows chasing amber-cast light across those delicate features. Lit by the flames, Frodo's eyes glowed softly under unruly tendrils of night-dark hair; with a deeper ache than any he'd ever known, Sam watched as the firelight caressed Frodo's face, down the line of his neck to the smooth curve of his collarbone.

Ah, why me? Sam thought miserably. Why can't he look like Ted Sandyman, and have the same temper to boot? Why does he have to be where I can't - Touch him. His skin would be warm from the fire, fever-hot under the touch of other hands, and smell a little of wood smoke and pipeweed...

"A story," Frodo said softly, and his smile was genuine, if rueful. "Of course, Sam. Is there one in particular that you'd like to hear?" He picked up the kettle and poured boiling water over the leaves in a small white teapot on the table.

Sam cleared his throat to be sure that his voice was under control. "Any one you'd care to tell, sir."

When old Mr. Bilbo had told stories he had made a right production out of it, voices and gestures and grand turns of phrase, and as a child Sam had loved that. Frodo told them quietly, looking down into his tea as if he were watching the tale unfold before his eyes, speaking of Elves and Men a thousand years dust as if he knew them all to speak to in the street, describing the high spires of ancient cities as if he had walked their hallways himself, and Sam loved that too but it frightened him a little; that Frodo might go, even in his own mind, somewhere Sam could not follow touched Sam with a chill like an early frost. Watching him, Sam felt the sudden urge to reach across the table and take Frodo's hand, to keep him here in this warm, firelit kitchen, to pull him back away from cliffs where the cold spray of the ocean crashed and soared against high carved gates.

"And what happened then, sir?" he asked as Frodo paused and took a sip of his tea.

Frodo spread his hands. "The sea covered it, to the tops of the highest towers. Everything was lost, sunk to the bottom of the ocean."

Sam shivered. "I'm right glad there's no water round Hobbiton could cover more than a good-sized smial."

Frodo laughed. "So am I, Sam. I shouldn't like to see the Shire fall into the sea as well."

"No, nor aught else happen to it," Sam answered, and thought of Frodo sitting all by himself in his study, poring over old tales until he could see them when he closed his eyes.

Frodo lifted his eyes to Sam's, laughter still lurking around the corners of his mouth, and Sam thought: Ask me to stay tonight. I can sleep on the couch in the back parlor. Just let me go to sleep knowing you're not here all on your own.

"I should be getting home, Mr. Frodo," he said instead. "The Gaffer'll be..."

"Worrying?"

"Well, not so much that, sir, as storing up words for me for sitting here with you all evening and not remembering my place, if you take my meaning."

"Your place," Frodo said softly. "I rather hope that one of these days you'll be able to set that aside."

Sam didn't. Knowledge of their positions, their roles, was like armor in this odd new situation. It taught him how to act when he would otherwise have been sadly at sea, and it was the only thing that kept him from reaching out to brush that tumble of fire-warmed hair back behind the delicate point of Frodo's ear, an act that would surely have repercussions that didn't bear thinking about. Even Frodo, who wandered about in a threadbare old jacket and seemed to think of silver as only a shinier variety of tin, would doubtless have some things to say if his gardener saw fit to make quite that free.

Frodo was still watching him, those amazing eyes dark in the light of the tabletop candles, and Sam found that he had to look away.

"It ain't as easy as all that, sir," he muttered, then rose and began gathering up dishes. "I'll just do the washing-up before I -"

"Sam!" Frodo protested in a tone that was a mix of a large number of emotions but seemed to be mostly exasperation. "For heaven's sake, leave the washing-up. I'll do it later."

"Mr. Frodo, I -"

"No, Sam, please. Let it go just this once. You'll make me feel like a terrible host."

Oh, and didn't that pin Sam squarely on the horns of a dilemma. With a sigh of resignation, he put the dishes in the sink and turned back to Frodo. "I'd not want to do that, sir."

"Good," Frodo said with a bit more cheer.

"But I do ought to be going," Sam added, coming to sit down again. "Thank you for inviting me."

"Thank you for coming," Frodo said, and sounded as if he meant it for more than just politeness. He reached out a hand as he spoke, and covered Sam's hand lightly where it rested on the table.

To his eternal mortification, before Sam could put a stop to it his hand had turned under Frodo's, shifting just enough that Frodo's fingertips sat in a light, delicate touch on the palm of his hand. And Sam had no idea when his palm had gotten that sensitive, but the touch of Frodo's hand seared along his skin and started his heart hammering in his throat, and Frodo wasn't quite looking at Sam but he didn't pull away either. So easy, it would be so easy to just close his hand and pull Frodo closer, and see if his whole body would burn like starfire against Sam's...

"You're welcome, sir," he said as steadily as he could manage, pulling away and getting to his feet before his body could betray him any more than it already had. "I'll see you tomorrow, then."

Frodo rose with him. "Tomorrow, yes," he answered in a voice a bit fainter than usual.

Sam told himself that he wouldn't stop and turn back once he'd gotten out the door. He did anyway. "Good night, Mr. Frodo," he said with what he hoped was the usual degree of cheer, hoping desperately that Frodo would reach out and take his hand again, and terrified that Frodo might do exactly that. One more touch like that would be all it took to strip Sam of everything he'd thought he knew, every way he'd been taught to lead his life, every way he had of knowing himself and knowing Frodo, and quite possibly his position; and the mere thought of what the Gaffer would say if he found that Sam had been trying to trip the Master as if Frodo were a buxom, giggling farm girl at haying time made Sam's blood run cold.

But if Frodo's hand touched his again in the state Sam was currently in, no power in the world would have lent Sam enough self-control to keep from catching that hand to his mouth and pressing a gentle kiss into Frodo's palm, and keeping right on going until Frodo either lay naked and sated in his arms or had hauled off and hit Sam so hard his head rattled, one of the two.

In the moonlight, Frodo's smile looked a little wistful. "Good night, Sam," he answered, and closed the door softly as Sam turned away.

 

It was getting so that Sam could tell the time from the length of the moon-shadows cast by the sturdy beams of his bedroom ceiling.

He clasped his hands behind his head and wriggled irritably, trying to get comfortable enough to sleep. It was possible, he reflected, that he would have felt better for some tea; but the prospect of waking the Gaffer or the girls and having awkward questions to answer put paid to that idea. Marigold slept lightly, and she always knew when something was bothering Sam. She'd known the morning after the first time he'd dreamed about Mr. Frodo, known something was wrong though she hadn't known what - and for a skittish adolescent boy, already horrified at the goings-on in his own body, to find that to all appearances his sins really were writ large on his face... well, Sam was grown now, but that still wasn't an experience he cared to repeat even in part.

He still had that dream every so often, among others. In it, he and Frodo were in the garden at Bag End, though it was much bigger than usual, and rolled down in a spray of color to the banks of a vast river (and even in his dream Sam cocked a dubious eyebrow at that garden and wondered how in the world he was going to get all of it weeded and ready for winter before that chill in the air came to frost). A light wind blew their hair across their faces, and Frodo reached out to tangle his fingers in a feather-light touch in Sam's curls, guiding them gently away from Sam's ear. And just as Sam began to think that he could lose himself forever in those eyes of Frodo's, they were veiled with long, soft lashes as Frodo leaned forward.

Frodo's voice at his ear, then, low and lovely, whispering in slow Elvish. His breath was warm on Sam's ear, then on his jaw, then his cheek, moving as slowly as the cadence of his words, until Sam could only clench his fists in his pockets and close his eyes, parting his lips to the sweet, wine-rich taste of Frodo's breath as it passed over his mouth; and ah, meleth, that word he knew, sweet as the taste of Frodo's mouth on his tongue. Frodo's lips lingered a breath above Sam's for long heartbeats before moving on, tracing a slow, warm path to Sam's other ear as his fingers slipped through Sam's hair, stroking and caressing.

In all the times he'd had that dream, Frodo had never once touched Sam's skin.

 

"Good morning, Sam," came a cheery voice from behind him as Sam put the kettle on to boil; and either Frodo had developed a Tuckborough lilt overnight, or...

"Good morning, Mr. Pippin," Sam said with resignation. It wasn't that he didn't like Pippin; but to see him standing in the middle of the kitchen wearing one of Frodo's old nightshirts, looking as if there was nothing in the world wrong with him popping up out of nowhere like this...

"Frodo's still asleep," Pippin said around a yawn. "After I've had a cup of tea I'll go and roust him out of bed. We were up late last night."

"Yes, we were, and you should still be asleep," Frodo said from the doorway. Sam glanced over, rather relieved to note that Frodo at least was dressed, and Frodo shot him an oddly apologetic glance. "Pippin got here around midnight. He's run away from home. Again."

"Is that so?" Sam asked noncomittally.

Frodo went to sit down at the table and ruffled Pippin's hair. "It's all right, they won't look to get him back for another couple of weeks yet. They know he's either here or in Buckland."

Pippin plopped down into a chair beside Frodo. "I left a note for Pearl. She's a good sport, she won't show it to Mum. Not unless she decides to run away too."

"Unless who decides to run away, Pearl or your mother?" Frodo asked dryly, echoing Sam's thoughts.

Pippin snorted good-naturedly. "Pearl, of course. She might not, though. She just ran away a few weeks ago, and stayed for two weeks with the Bolgers. She and Mum were having a row about something. Maybe about you."

Frodo blinked in surprise. "About me?"

"Pearl loves you madly, Frodo, in a cousinly way, but she doesn't want to marry you."

Sam let out a slow breath and closed his eyes for a moment, then turned his attention to pouring the tea.

"She doesn't think you have enough in common. And anyway, she likes lasses."

"Well, I like lasses too," Frodo answered, sounding mildly amused. "We have that in common, anyway."

"No, I mean she likes likes them," Pippin said in exasperation. "She likes lasses the way you OW!"

"Sorry, Pippin, was that your foot?" Frodo asked innocently. "Anyway, speaking of the Bolgers, I caught Fatty on his way to Buckland this morning and told him to bring Merry back with him."

Frodo had been up early, Sam thought as he set tea down in front of Frodo and Pippin. Then he looked at the circles under Frodo's eyes and reconsidered; Frodo looked as if he hadn't been to bed at all. Sam frowned and resolved to do something about that. Frodo might stay up until all hours on a regular basis, but he didn't function well on no sleep at all.

"Ooh, that'll be fun," Pippin was saying cheerfully. "The three of us can go fishing."

"Last time we went fishing, Merry pushed both of us into the Brandywine," Frodo reminded him.

Pippin grinned. "I know. Your clothes took forever to dry, didn't they, even laid out on the grass in the hot sun. You'll have to wear something lighter this time."

Sam closed his eyes in pain.

"You know, Pippin, most people go fishing to catch fish," Frodo commented dryly.

"Fish are just the excuse," Pippin said airily. "The goal is to have as much fun as possible. And so much the better if you can get your cousins out of their clothes into the bargain."

Frodo choked on his tea. "Peregrin Took...!"

"Oh, don't 'Peregrin' me as if you were a gaffer, Frodo. You're too young to be stodgy. And you have a very nice OW!"

Sam cleared his throat but his voice still came out hoarse. "Will you be wanting anything else, Mr. Frodo?" he asked as he dumped a pan full of eggs and bacon hastily onto a plate.

"No, Sam, thank you," Frodo said, sounding a bit sheepish. "You didn't have to make us breakfast, you know."

Sam colored a little. "I know it, sir, but there's things to be done inside today and I thought I might as well."

"Thank you, anyway," Frodo said softly, and there was some unaccountable disquiet in his eyes.

Sam beat a hasty retreat before anything else unsettling could happen and set about replenishing the cut flowers scattered in vases all over the smial. Distracted by the question of what flowers ought to go where, he managed to altogether ignore the low murmur of Frodo's and Pippin's voices in the kitchen, and nearly forgot how uneasy he was until he was arranging late roses in Frodo's bedroom.

Frodo tried to keep his room clean, Sam knew; but the books and teacups proliferated while his attention was elsewhere, and he never seemed able to quite fit his clothes into the wardrobe. And since Sam, who had also tried, was thoroughly incapable of walking out of that bedroom without tidying it just a little, it always meant staying longer in Frodo's room than in any of the others and trying hard not to imagine Frodo in that bed with moonlight silvering his skin. Grumbling at himself, Sam made the bed quickly and then, on impulse, turned the covers pointedly down before he began gathering up clothes.

He'd just gotten an armful of them when Frodo's rueful laugh from the door nearly made him drop them again.

"Are you hinting at something, Sam? Do I look that tired?"

Sam took a deep breath and dropped the clothes in his arms into the laundry basket in the corner. It was getting a bit full; best tell the girls to come and see to it. "Begging your pardon, sir, but yes, you do. You look as if you got no sleep last night."

Frodo became very involved in rubbing at a rough patch on the tip of his fingernail. "Well, I didn't, actually. As I said, Pippin came banging at the door around midnight, and by the time I'd gotten him fed and put to bed I was thoroughly awake."

Sam turned to the curtains and pulled them closed, shutting out the sun and dimming the room. "I'll see to it Mr. Pippin gets his meals until you've had enough rest, sir."

"What's that about meals?" Pippin yawned from the doorway, rubbing at his eyes. "Are you going back to bed, Frodo?"

"Sam seems to think so," Frodo answered, and his glance at Sam was warm with humor and something Sam couldn't identify.

"You need your rest, sir," he said stubbornly.

"Yes, Frodo, come back to bed," Pippin said, moving to crawl onto the bed and collapse onto the pillows. "I want to sleep more too. I walked a long way last night."

Frodo laughed as Pippin burrowed under the covers. "Peregrin Took, you're as lazy as a cat in a sunbeam."

" 'Mnot. I'm just tired. Come and tell me a story, Frodo, and we'll both go back to sleep."

As he watched Pippin, some vague unease inside Sam eased. All the flirtatiousness of the day before was gone, and he looked nothing more than a lad happy to be visiting a favorite cousin. Frodo, who either hadn't noticed the flirting or had treated it with cousinly indulgence, shook his head and smiled.

"All right, I'll not deny that a bit of sleep would be welcome. Move over, Pippin."

"I'll be getting on with the rest of the things as need doing, Mr. Frodo," Sam said quietly, and let himself out as Frodo stretched out on top of the blankets beside Pippin.

It wasn't until he'd finished small chores and large and started home that he let himself think: Aye, but he won't be fourteen years old forever, will he?

 

The next morning meant rising before dawn and heading out with the Gaffer to the Cottons' farm; autumn was half done already and winter would come fast, and even with sons and farm hands of every description the more strong backs were there to help with the preparations the better.

Just past Bag End the Gaffer paused, patting his pockets. "I've a mind to have a pipe while we walk, Sam-lad, what about you?"

"Good enough," Sam answered, reaching for his own pipe and tobacco pouch. "It'll be warm against the chill, anyway."

He managed to very nearly fill his pipe before he broke down and looked over at the light in the kitchen window. By that light he could just see Frodo, sitting at the kitchen table with nothing against the cold but an open shirt and presumably trousers, gazing broodingly into the flame of a single candle on the table and rubbing his fingertip slowly over his lower lip the way he did when he was deep in thought. "Mr. Frodo's been up all night again," Sam said before he thought.

The Gaffer looked up with a frown, puffing his pipe into life. "Not sickening for something, is he?"

"I -" Sam began, then stopped as Pippin popped into in the kitchen, dumped an entire pot of hopefully cold tea over Frodo's head, and vanished again. Frodo's outraged yowl carried outside loud and clear, and he shot out of the chair and bolted after Pippin.

"Naught wrong with his lungs, anyway," the Gaffer said dryly as a sudden shriek and cries of NonononostopFrodostop interspersed with howls of laughter indicated that Frodo had caught up to his cousin.

"What's Pippin done now?"

Sam turned to see Merry, walking stick in hand, smiling wryly in the direction of Bag End.

"Well, everyone's up early today, it seems," the Gaffer remarked. "Good morning, Mr. Merry."

"Morning, Gaffer, Sam. I suppose I'd better go see what -"

The front door of Bag End burst open and Pippin charged out toward the gate, followed closely by Frodo, moving faster than Sam had known either of them could. Pippin caught sight of Merry and made a beeline for him, leaping the fence and slamming into his cousin hard enough to send both of them flying.

"Pippin - what did you -" Merry managed before Frodo cleared the fence and landed nearly on top of them.

"Come here, you little -" Frodo grabbed Pippin by the scruff of the neck, but Pippin managed to somehow twist enough to knock Frodo's legs out from under him, sending him unceremoniously down onto the pile.

Merry spat out a mouthful of Frodo's hair. "Faugh - is that tea? Both of you get off me!"

Frodo rose with Pippin in an amiable headlock. "Good to see you, Merry. Control this cousin of yours before I throw him in the compost pile."

Pippin, to judge from his unabashedly vocal reaction, did not believe this to be an idle threat.

Merry cuffed him. "Quiet, young Took, here's two Brandybucks to one of you, so behave."

"I'm a Baggins," Frodo reminded Merry.

"Nonsense. Bagginses don't leap fences like that. Now, mind your manners and say good morning to the Gamgees."

Frodo started and let go of Pippin, who darted behind Merry. It seemed clear that he'd missed Sam and the Gaffer in the dark. "Good morning, Gaffer, Sam," he said politely, coming a step or two closer; and it was amazing to Sam that Frodo could manage to be every inch the Master of Bag End at an hour before dawn, with his shirt unbuttoned and his hair still dripping tea.

Sam opened his mouth to answer; but a droplet of tea, dark in the moonlight, slid down the front of Frodo's hair, caught briefly in his lashes, and then trailed down the side of his nose, and it was all Sam could do not to reach out and smooth it away.

"Good morning, Mr. Frodo," the Gaffer answered for both of them. "You're up and about early."

Frodo cast a mock glare back over his shoulder. "Pippin couldn't sleep, it seems."

"I woke up and you were gone," Pippin protested in an injured tone, peering around Merry's shoulder.

Merry looked down at him in exasperation. "You didn't make Frodo share his bed, did you? Pippin, you kick like a foul-tempered pony."

"None of the guest rooms have feather beds," Pippin pointed out as if it were the most reasonable thing in the world.

The Gaffer chuckled at that. Sam looked down and, very carefully and with great attention to detail, lit his pipe.

No, the guest rooms didn't have feather beds, because old Mr. Bilbo may have been wealthy but he hadn't been profligate, nor was Frodo. But that lad playing pranks on his overindulgent cousin was going to be the Thain someday, and the cousin he was hiding behind would be Master of Buckland; and Frodo would be... well, the same thing he was now, like as not - a Baggins of Bag End and the wealthiest hobbit this side of the Brandywine. And the Gamgees would be in service just as they'd always been, and maybe Sam's son would come in time to tend the garden for Frodo's.

And that, Sam informed himself stubbornly, was exactly the way it should be.

"We'll not keep you," the Gaffer was saying. "We've a long walk ahead, and you're no doubt wanting to get inside and change that wet shirt. Good morning, sirs."

There was a chorus of Good mornings in return; and Sam followed the Gaffer out onto the Road, when all he wanted in the world at that moment was to run Frodo a bath, get dry clothes on his outside and hot tea on his inside, make a nice pan full of mushroom omelette for his first breakfast, and then put him to bed.

And thoughts of curling up on that feather bed next to Frodo and cradling him close as he slept might be marginally excusable in dreams, but they had no business in the waking world.

 

The day passed in a blur of hammering, hoisting, shooing away curious livestock, joking with the Cotton boys and passing the occasional flirtatious remark with Rose; and by the time they sat down to dinner, twenty-five hobbits in all counting farmhands and Gamgees, Sam's muscles were pleasantly sore and he was ready enough for a hearty dinner and an early bed. Or so he thought when he sat down - but it didn't take him long to find that his head was aching and the usually enjoyable rambunctiousness of the Cotton boys grated on his nerves in a way that he didn't recall it ever having done before.

It wasn't that he didn't like it, this huge bustling table filled with laughter and talk. But the talk wasn't enough to hold his interest, and suddenly he found himself longing with an almost physical ache for the cozy warmth of Bag End's kitchen; or any kitchen at all, so long as Frodo was there with his soft voice and his tales and his long, slender hands folded around a cup of strong tea with twice as much sugar in it as Sam would have been able to stomach.

"It's the roof on the north side of the barn we'll be having to mend tomorrow, or sure as sunrise the first heavy rain of the season'll bring the cows down with ague," Nick Cotton was saying.

They called it Elenna, Starwards; and called it Westernesse too, but most often Bilbo called it Numenor. Have I told you this story before, Sam?

No, sir, that you haven't. Keep on telling, then.

"Be best to move the cows into the west field, then, sawdust falling on their heads puts them off their milk for days," his father answered.

The Pillar of Heaven rose like a white spire, the highest thing in the land, and at the top was a temple, roofless pillars carved from bone-white rock. In the summer the ivy wound around the pillars as if it were welcoming a lover too long away, and the temple floor was dappled green with the sunlight filtering through the leaves...

"Aye, and best check the stock on the peg-nails, then, for it'll take at least three of us up there working."

They were mariners, shipwrights, and built ships fairer than even the elves wrought, great vessels with sails like bright jewels made cloth and seabirds carved into the prow, stretching their wings back along the ship in flight...

"How many of them boards we got sanded? Seems to me we had to use some of them for the pigsty last windstorm, we may need to cut more afore that roof's done proper."

Maybe it wasn't in their nature to be... settled, content, to turn their eyes away from the horizon...

"I think there's enough. Could be wrong, though, we'll count ere we start and set one of the lads to cutting and sanding if we look to run short."

By the time the Queen began to climb the Pillar it was too late. The sea had already swept through the streets, the houses, and even in the tallest towers dolphins swam through chambers where silk tapestries still hung on the walls and swayed like seaweed in the waves. The sea claimed her too, in the end. There was nowhere high enough to save her.

"I think I'm going to go for some air," Sam said tightly, and pushed back away from the table, ignoring the startled, curious looks aimed at him.

The chill night air eased his head but not his heart. Driven by the sudden desire to be as far away from the farmhouse as possible, he made his way to the barn and leaned back against the wall, rubbing the bridge of his nose and looking up at the stars.

Your place. I rather hope that one of these days you'll be able to set that aside.

Well, and that was the rub, wasn't it? Sam liked his place. He liked doing the caring-for, instead of needing cared for himself. He liked knowing that whatever lass he might wed would want him for himself, Samwise Gamgee, not for his money or his name, and liked knowing that his friends chose him for the same reason. He liked working in the garden, and liked a long day of good hard labor, and liked a bright snug smial filled with the Gaffer's pipe smoke and the girls' voices and laundry strung across the parlor when washday was too wet or cold to hang it outside. And if there were things he didn't like about his place, well, what couldn't be changed could at least be borne with good grace, as his mother had always said.

But this... Sam was beginning to wonder if this churn of feelings could really be borne with good grace, or borne at all.

If he was one of the Cotton lads I could court him fair and no one to say a word against it.

Well, no one but the Gaffer, who was firmly of the opinion that there was no such thing as too many grandchildren. But he had five other children to help him out with that, and the girls had plenty of suitors already.

As if Sam's thought had summoned him, the Gaffer appeared around the side of the barn, heralded by the scent of pipeweed and the dim light from the bowl of his pipe.

"There you are, lad. Everyone wondered where you'd got to."

"Just out here, Dad. My head hurt, is all, and I thought it'd be the better for some fresh air."

The Gaffer chuckled. "Aye, it's a mite noisy in there. Not so bad as when your sisters get to bickering, but no help to an aching head all the same."

Sam sighed and rested his head back against the barn wall, closing his eyes to shut out the starlight. "Dad, you know that lecture you were always giving me when I was a lad, the one about knowing your place?"

"Aye," the Gaffer answered, tilting his head curiously.

"Tell it to me again, would you?"

With a surprised laugh, the Gaffer clapped him on the shoulder. "Now, lad, if it's the Cotton lass you've set your eye on, she's not above you. The Cottons may have a good bit of land but they're still farmers, and when all's said they earn their living with their hands in the soil just the same as we do."

"No, that ain't -" Sam began, then stopped, frustrated. Let him come out and ask his father to talk him out of trying his luck with Frodo Baggins and like as not he'd earn a clout on the ear, and that was more than he cared to deal with in his current state. "Never mind. I'm tired, that's all."

"Best you come inside, then. Everyone's bedding down for the night, and work starts early in the morning."

Early, and a whole day ahead of him with too much to do to think about Frodo's tales or his bright eyes either one, and no time to brood about how all of a sudden Sam seemed to be neither fish nor fowl, nowhere near Frodo's world but wanting more than his own.

Trying to put the matter out of his mind, he followed the Gaffer back to the farmhouse, got washed up and settled in on a spare cot in Nick's and Jolly's bedroom, and hoped fervently that he hadn't taken to talking in his sleep.

 

Sam's first thought when he woke in the morning was: Is this how it's to be, then? Day in and day out, for the rest of my life?

The Gamgees were nothing if not practical. It was a source of some pride for them. And this, this mooning over something he could never have, was not practical or anything like it. Nor was watching those lovely eyes grow distant over a book or a tale, or over nothing at all, and wanting to say Take me with you. Whatever visions you're having, let me see them through your eyes. Bad enough, or so said the Gaffer, that he so wanted to see elves just once before he died. That that longing should spread to encompass a hobbit-lad who was more Brandybuck and fox-fey Took than staid, placid Baggins seemed to be courting disaster.

Right. You've spent quite enough time on dreams, Samwise Gamgee, and it ain't fair to put all the weight of them on Mr. Frodo. There's no sense in mooning after something you can't have, and the sooner you get that through your skull the better it'll be for the both of you.

"Up and at 'em, Sam," Jolly said, poking Sam in the shoulder. "Time to eat and get up on that barn."

"Coming," Sam said, rather happy at the prospect of having good solid work under his hands and no time to think.

 

By the end of the day, he was tired, sore, sweaty, and full of new resolve. What would you do if you couldn't take your eyes off someone you could never have? he'd asked Tom; and Tom had laughed and answered Rest 'em on someone you can. There's no cure for a broken heart like another lass.

Well, he wasn't quite sure he was ready to go that far; but he'd rested his eyes plenty on Tom's pretty sister and her friends, and flirted with them a bit more than he had the day before, and found it in his heart not to fault any of them for being light-haired and brown from the sun. It wasn't Mr. Frodo's fault that Sam had cast his eyes where he had no business, and the least Sam could do was take care that Mr. Frodo never found out where those eyes had been cast at all.

Giving up that last, stubborn, foolish thread of hope was easier said than done; but Sam had schooled himself to harder lessons than this in his time, and the longer he set himself not to think of Frodo in that particular way, the easier it would get. The hope wasn't real or right, and wasn't fair to Mr. Frodo besides, and Sam would have given up more than a slender breath of hope to keep hurt away from his master. He told himself these things all through supper, and into the evening when his thoughts began to wander, and had no dreams at all that night.

On the sixth day, repairs done, he shouldered his pack and made ready to head back to Hobbiton, and told himself that the unease he felt came only from leaving the Gaffer behind.

"You're sure you'll not have me stay on?" Sam asked for the fourth time as the Gaffer walked him out to the borders of the Cottons' fields.

"No, lad, I'll be fine," the Gaffer said in exasperation. "What's wrong wi' thee, Sam? You've been skittish the whole time we've been here. Is it the Cotton lass for true, then?"

"No, Da," Sam answered a bit irritably. "It's just... well, I don't know what it is, in plain truth. I want to get home and see that the girls are all right, and that naught's happened to Bag End's garden since I've been gone, but I'd not leave you here to walk back all of your own neither."

The Gaffer chuckled. "Poor Sam, too many things to care for and you broody as a mother hen anyway. Tom'll come back with me. You know he takes any chance he can to see your sister. And the girls can take care of themselves; they take care of you and me well enough. If you're bent on worrying, best you worry that young Mr. Frodo's gone for a walk with his nose in a book and took no note of where he was going 'till he was halfway to Bree and lost as a wasted day."

"Oh, Da," Sam groaned.

The chuckle became an outright laugh and the Gaffer clapped him on the shoulder. "I was only teasing, lad. Even Mr. Frodo's got more sense than... well, I'm sure naught's happened to him while you were gone, anyway. I'll turn back here, then, and see you again in a few days. Kiss your sisters for me."

"I will," Sam promised, and set out for home.

 

>From the Cotton farm to Bagshot Row was an hour and a half's walk for a healthy hobbit lightly burdened; by staying off the East Road, cutting through the woods, and generally not hurrying, Sam managed to add at least an hour onto that time, and it was late into the afternoon before he drew within sight of the Row. Smoke was rising from No. 3's chimneys but not from Bag End, a fact that made Sam frown and pull his cloak a bit tighter against the chill in the air. Like as not Mr. Frodo had gotten involved in a book and forgotten to light a fire, and when it got too dark to read he'd come back to himself cold and cramped and hungry, and the fact that Sam had resolved never again to think about Mr. Frodo in a way not proper for a servant to think about his master didn't mean that he couldn't worry. It surely wouldn't be out of line for him to stop in at Bag End for just a moment on his way home, just to wake Mr. Frodo out of whatever daydream he'd fallen into and see to it that the fires were lit and dinner started -

Sam stopped and leaned on his walking stick, closed his eyes, and then opened them again reluctantly.

Frodo was wandering aimlessly off the path, hands stuffed carelessly into his pockets, feet kicking up leaves that glowed with every color of the harvest, and the breeze stirred the slanting light in his dark hair into tiny golden sparks. He was looking down at the ground as he walked, frowning thoughtfully, a thousand miles away from this still wood and the sunlight that spilled over him in rich dappled beams. Sam stood for a minute watching, as still as if he were watching one of the fawns that from time to time grew bold enough to wander into Bag End's back gardens, and wondered which of them had chosen this path on purpose.

"Mr. Frodo," he called when Frodo was close enough. Frodo looked up, startled, and his face lit with the same shy pleasure that had so unexpectedly greeted Sam's acceptance of his dinner invitation.

"Sam. You're home." Frodo began making his way toward Sam, stepping over tree roots and skirting underbrush; and just for a moment Sam wondered what would happen if he slipped an arm around Frodo's waist, pulled him close, and whispered Aye, love, that I am into that soft tumble of hair. He shook his head, annoyed with himself. "What's become of the Gaffer? Have the Cottons decided to keep him?"

"He's staying on a few days to help the Missus lay out her kitchen garden."

"That's kind of him."

"Aye, well, the Cottons make a good home brew too."

Frodo laughed and turned toward Hobbiton. Sam began walking again, keeping pace with him. "It's been terribly boring here. You hear more of what goes on than I do, perhaps that's why. You haven't been here to tell me things."

Sam looked a bit worriedly at Frodo. "You did go to the market, didn't you? Because I know before I left you were mighty low on -"

"Yes, of course I did, I was out of tea. But tell me how things are with the Cottons."

Sam told him, and more gossip besides, and by the time he wound down they were at the front gate of Bag End. Frodo placed his hand on the gate and turned to Sam, suddenly looking hesitant.

"Would you... care to have dinner with me again, Sam? If you're too tired I'll understand, or if your sisters would like..." His voice was oddly paced, as if it was an effort to get the words out.

Sam frowned. "Don't feel like you have to invite me, sir. I'll be -"

"No, I - I want to. I just don't want you to feel that..."

"That what, Mr. Frodo?" Sam asked after a moment.

"Well, that you have to, or even that you ought to. I just... I enjoyed having you over last time, and I've missed you." Frodo looked away toward the setting sun, loose curls blown into his face by the breeze.

Bless him, he really does get lonely here all by himself, Sam thought painfully, and spared a stern thought for Mr. Bilbo. "I'd like that, sir. Give me an hour or so to get washed up and see to anything that needs seeing to, and then I'll be back."

Frodo's lips parted and an odd look flashed over his face. His breath left him in a soft sigh, and he looked back at Sam and smiled. "All right. I'll see you then."

Wishing that he knew what in the world was going on, Sam nodded politely to Frodo and set out for home.

 

"Mari," Sam said patiently as towelled his hair dry with one hand and reached for the tea his sister held out to him with the other. "Just 'cause the Gaffer ain't here don't mean you have to give me his lecture 'bout knowing my place. I know it as well as you do and better."

Marigold frowned dubiously; there was no anger in her eyes, but there was worry, which rather bewildered Sam. "Sam, I just don't want you to get all used to being treated like a guest at Bag End and then be hurt when summat happens to remind you that you ain't one."

"I won't get used to it. It's a whim of Mr. Frodo's, is all. He'll stop sooner or later, and things'll go back to the way they were."

"You look so sad when you say that," Marigold said quietly.

Sam closed his eyes and took a huge swallow of tea, and for a moment was sorely tempted to say All right. I love him. Was that what you wanted to hear? And that would result in Mari crying her eyes out, and May and Daisy all in a dither with wanting to know what was going on, and eventually the Gaffer would hear about it; and Sam would have no peace from that moment until he was sent to the Northfarthing to live with Hal, and maybe not even then. "Mari, he's lonely right now, is all. In a month or so he'll go to spend the holidays with his kin in Buckland, and he'll come back rememberin' why he lives here and not there, and then he'll be fine. Ain't I allowed to feel bad for him?"

"Aye, so long as that's all you feel," Mari said bluntly.

Sam froze for a moment, then slowly draped the towel over the back of a wooden chair.

"I ain't said nothing to the Gaffer, and I won't neither," she went on. "He thinks you just set a world of store by Mr. Frodo. But Da's no lass and I am, and I know when a lad's so arse over ankles in love -"

"Marigold Gamgee, may you be forgiven!"

" - that he ain't able to use what mind he had to begin with, and never you mind what language I use, Samwise. I don't want to have to figure out how to keep May and Daisy away from Mr. Frodo's sheets come washday. Just remember you've got no business rumpling the sheets of a bed you ought to be making."

"Mari -" Sam looked at his sister's expression and sighed, shoulders slumping in defeat. "It ain't like that. He wouldn't have me and you know it."

Marigold echoed his sigh and reached up to comb her fingers through his nearly-dry hair. "I don't like to see you pining, is all, Sam. I can think of half a dozen lasses off the top of my head who'd be thrilled to death if you was to court them. Keep your eyes on your own part of the Row and don't look for your first tumble up at the top of the Hill and you'll not go wrong."

Sam pulled on his coat and leaned to kiss his sister. "I don't know how long I'll be. You know Mr. Frodo, up so late and loses track of time so easy. Don't wait up too long."

"You mind what I said, Sam."

"I will," he called over his shoulder, and made his escape out into the evening air.

 

"Come in," Frodo called, and Sam took a deep breath and stepped into the front hall of Bag End. After a bit of internal debate, Sam folded his coat and set it on the bench under the coathooks before he followed Frodo's voice.

Frodo was in the kitchen, up to his elbows in dough, a smear of flour across his nose that made Sam's fingers itch to wipe it away. He smiled as Sam entered. "I'm glad you could come, Sam. I thought your sisters might have kept you after all."

Sam winced a little at the thought of Marigold. "No, sir. They're all fine, and naught that needs doing that can't wait until tomorrow."

At his wince, Frodo, who no matter how much of him lived in other worlds was sharper in this one than Sam was really comfortable with, shot him a concerned look. "Did they... I mean -"

"Mari's training on to be a Gammer, sir, naught more than that. What can I help with?"

Frodo lifted the back of his hand to his nose, rubbing at the streak of flour and making it worse. White powder drifted down to settle on the front of his open weskit. "You can turn the hens and baste them, if you'd like."

Sam lit the table lamps and saw to the hens; fine big ones, turning golden brown on the spit. He couldn't decide whether to be sorry that Frodo had gone to all this trouble or glad of it. At least it meant that his master would have a decent meal, which was more than he probably had when there was no one there to cook for.

"Mind your head, Sam," Frodo said from behind him, catching up a towel to open the iron door of the oven just above the fireplace. "These rolls should be done in about ten minutes. Would you like some wine while we're waiting for dinner?"

The door closed again and Sam straightened. "Thank you, sir, that'd be -" he began, then stopped in exasperation. "Bless you, Mr. Frodo, you get more covered in flour every time I look at you. Come here."

Frodo laughed and stepped forward as Sam pulled a clean handkerchief out of his pocket. "It does make a bit of a mess, doesn't it?"

"Not if you're careful, it don't," Sam replied, steadying Frodo's face with one hand and dusting it off with the other.

"It's only flour, Sam. It comes off," Frodo said softly, with not quite enough laughter in his voice to make Sam think his master was laughing at him.

Sam glanced up at him, and his hand faltered a bit. Oh, half Frodo's face still to clean and he couldn't move away yet - but those eyes danced in the firelight, and skin smoother than good rich cream was warming under his hands, and Frodo's small smile was warm and fond and inviting. Sam tried to unobtrusively take a deep breath and returned to his tidying - Frodo's face was quickly dealt with but there was a streak of white dust in his hair, too, and save us, had he run his fingers through it while they were coated with flour? Probably, it was like him to do something like that and not notice.

Frodo's hair was soft and warm between his fingers, still a tiny bit damp from the bath, and Sam's fingers drew the smell of rosemary and late roses behind them like the breeze from the garden.

"Am I presentable now?" Frodo teased gently as Sam lowered his hands and moved away.

"Yessir. I'll get the wine, shall I, while you keep an eye on dinner?"

"All right. Get the 1386 Woodhall Gold, that was a good year."

"Yes, sir," Sam repeated, and made for the cellars.

By the time he emerged, dusty and with an itchy nose, Frodo had set out wineglasses and a bowl of batter-dipped mushrooms and seated himself at the table. His face brightened a little when Sam came into the room - had that soft glow of pleasure always been there, and Sam had just somehow managed to miss it? No, he decided; not likely that he'd miss anything that beautiful, not as long as he'd watched everything that passed in Frodo's face. If he were one of the Cotton lads...

Well, he ain't. He's the Master. Now mind what you promised yourself and open the wine, he instructed himself firmly; and tried to forget standing in the cellar with the feel of Frodo's presence all through him, lifting his fingertips for the faint, sweet smell of Frodo's hair.

"Sam?" Frodo said from behind him, mildly puzzled, and Sam realized that he had been staring down into the drawer at the corkscrew for who knew how long.

He smiled and turned back to the table. "Just woolgathering a bit, sir."

"If you're tired, we can have dinner another time."

And over the years Sam had trained his ear to every tune that came through Frodo's voice as well; and this one was a new one, and not one Sam could read. Frodo was holding himself very still, waiting for Sam's answer.

"No, I'm not tired at all." He twisted the cork out of the wine and poured Frodo's glass half full. "I was just... well, I was thinking of the story you told the last time I was here, and that island that sank under the ocean. It was a sad story, that."

"So many of the old stories are sad," Frodo answered quietly, reaching for his wine.

"It's funny, that is," Sam said thoughtfully. "When things are good and end happy nobody thinks to write them down - or the Big People don't think to, anyway. Maybe it's only bad things as need to be written down, so they can be made sense of."

Frodo tilted his head and looked at Sam with a small smile on his face. "Do you know, Sam, I think you learned more from Bilbo and his stories than I did."

Sam felt himself color. "Course I didn't, sir, you being as smart as you are and knowing more about books than I ever will -" To cover his embarrassment he reached for a mushroom, and found too late that Frodo had done the same. Just for a moment their hands tangled softly in the bowl, fingertips weaving and brushing; and then Frodo pulled his hand back and popped a mushroom into his mouth, and had that tiny, deft flick of his fingers pushed the biggest mushroom of the lot right under Sam's hand where he had no choice but to take it? Yes, Sam decided, looking at the impish glint in Frodo's eyes; he had done exactly that, and avenged himself well and subtly for Sam's compliment. Accepting his defeat with good grace, Sam bit into the mushroom and reached for the wine.

"Still and all, though, you're quite right," Frodo said thoughtfully, swirling his wine idly in the glass. "And maybe more... maybe it's a matter of wanting to hold happiness to us, to keep it safe and hidden so that nothing can ever touch or tarnish it. Perhaps we hoard our happiness as a dragon hoards gold, because there is nothing more precious..." His eyes lifted to Sam's, blue and endless as the midsummer sky, and the growing shadows filled the soft curve of his throat with shimmering firelight.

Sam tore his eyes away from Frodo's and cast about for something to say; it was that or burst into tears from the sheer unfairness of it all. "Or maybe happiness is too small and quiet to make a good story," he managed after he'd cleared his throat. "Look at you and me, now, here with this nice fire and good food cooking, talking of stories with a fine dinner ahead and maybe a pipe after - what kind of tale would we make, eh? I can't see little ones clustering 'round their mam's knee and saying 'Tell us the story of how Frodo Baggins and Sam Gamgee had hens for dinner, Ma, that'un's my favorite.'"

Frodo burst out laughing, making Sam feel ridiculously pleased with himself. "Yes, you're quite right. If we were having roast oliphaunt, now, roasted over a huge pit in the Party Field, it might be another matter - but hens, alas, are irredeemably boring." He glanced up at Sam, sobering a little, and when he spoke again his voice held that same odd note that Sam had been unable to read before. "Are you happy here, Sam?"

"Yessir," Sam whispered tightly, unable to say more or to look at Frodo. The question had drawn too many sudden, vivid images of what would have made Sam even happier - the sibilant whisper of linen gliding over Frodo's skin and pooling on the floor at their feet, paths of starlight on that milk-pale body for Sam to follow with breath and fingers and reverent mouth, leading him far away from the Shire's stiff custom-bound borders to a place where the sun rose only to warm white starlight with a fine golden mist like a lover's heated touch.

He wondered suddenly if his gentle, quiet Frodo would make love in silence, or if that beautiful voice would surround a lover in whispers, moans, building to urgent cries as those elegant ink-smudged fingers dug into shoulders or back or -

The loud snap of a log in the fire made him jump half out of his skin, bringing him so sharply back to reality that he gave a strangled gasp. Frodo was looking at him in mild alarm.

"Sam? Are you all right?"

"Yes, Mr. Frodo," he answered, forcing his fingers to relax around the stem of his wineglass before it snapped. "Had a crick in my neck there for a minute. It's gone now."

"Are you sure? I can -"

"No, no, sir, it's fine," Sam said hastily. He'd been a fool and let his thoughts wander where they had no business, and if Frodo set hands on him at that moment then within two minutes either Sam would be unceremoniously sacked or the kitchen table would be put to uses no decent hobbit would put it to.

"All right, but the offer's open in case it should come back. If I'm not mistaken, the rolls should be done by now - and the hens too, probably. If you'll fetch the rolls and lay out the butter I'll tend to the hens and sauce."

"I'll do that, sir," Sam answered, relieved at the excuse to spend a minute or two in the cold larder.

By the time he had finished setting out the rolls, fetching the butter, calling himself every hard name in his Gaffer's large repertoire, and thinking hard about ice-cold baths, Frodo had carved the hens, doused them in redcurrant sauce, and set out the side dishes. "I mixed a bit of nutmeg in with the butter, sir," he said as he sat back down.

"Ah, lovely. Thank you, Sam," Frodo answered, sliding back into his seat across the table. For just a moment his foot brushed against Sam's ankle, a thatch of curls as fine and soft as the hair on his head sliding like new-carded flax against Sam's skin, and Sam took a quick gulp of his wine and hoped that he wasn't as beet-red as he felt.

"Oh, I forgot to tell you," Frodo said as he passed the salt to Sam, light brush of fingers against Sam's own. "I had a visit from Lotho and Lobelia while you were gone."

Sam winced. "And me not here to tell them you weren't at home."

Frodo laughed. "Worse yet - they caught me outside, so I couldn't avoid them. Lobelia spent the whole time craning her neck to see over my shoulder into Bag End's windows and lecturing me on what an awful excuse for a Baggins I am, having my gardener to dinner but not my own kith and kin. I had a nasty headache and hadn't slept well the night before, and I'm afraid I lost my temper and told her outright that you were better company."

Sam choked and reached for his wine. "Well, I could hardly be worse," he managed after a couple of gulps.

"You're better company than anyone else I know," Frodo said quietly.

It was all Sam could do not to squeeze his eyes shut in pain. Oh, don't. Don't say things like that, when you don't know how much it's taking for me not to just reach across the table and -

"At any rate, Lobelia marched off in a huff, 'accidentally' whacking my shin so hard with her umbrella that I still have a bruise, and Lotho leaned over the fencepost and informed me that his dearest wish was to see me turned out of Bag End with nothing more than the clothes on my back." Frodo's voice was full of laughter, but Sam found himself clenching his teeth.

"You know, Mr. Frodo, meaning no disrespect to you, and them being your kin and all, but one of these days I'm going to catch that Lotho when he don't have all his cronies around him and plant him head-first in the ground like a radish." Especially since he had his suspicions as to what Lotho would actually like to see Frodo wearing, and it was considerably less than the clothes that were on his back at the moment.

"Sam." Frodo reached out and took Sam's hand, stilling his breath in his throat, and which of them was trembling Sam couldn't quite tell. "I've upset you. I'm sorry. Maybe you had to be there, but it truly was funny."

Sam forced himself to meet Frodo's eyes, and couldn't stop his hand from tightening around Frodo's. "He shouldn't ought to talk to you like that, is all, an' you worth ten of him and that..." Just in time, he bit back a word he'd as soon not say at Frodo's table.

Frodo's eyes softened. "Thank you, Sam," he said quietly, and his thumb moved just a little on Sam's fingers.

Sam cleared his throat and looked back from their joined hands to Frodo - and was that soft heat in Frodo's eyes only a trick of light and shadow and wishful thinking? So easy to find out, his hand and Frodo's were clasped already, more this time than the light touch of fingertip to palm; if he were to lift their hands the short distance to his mouth -

Frodo's hand slipped out of his, and Sam caught himself just in time to keep from catching it back.

"Eat, Sam," Frodo urged, turning his attention to his own plate. "I don't mean to be nattering away until the food's about to get cold."

"Ah, but I like to hear you talk, sir," Sam blurted, then gave himself a mental kick.

"I shall have to remember that," Frodo answered, and there was a note in his voice like rich, dark velvet that nearly made Sam's heart stop in his chest. By the time he looked up, however, Frodo was smiling amiably - and, curse it, innocently - at him.

Oh, stop it. It's one thing for you to want him, as fine and lovely as he is, but the gentry don't do aught more than tumble their servants, and that rarely. What would he want with you, Sam Gamgee, when he could have someone just as fine as he is?

It was entirely possible that Sam was going to go stark off his head if he didn't find a distraction somewhere. "Aye, well, maybe you could tell another story, then."

Frodo tilted his head thoughtfully and swallowed a forkful of mashed potatoes. "Have you heard the story about how Tuor came to Gondolin?"

"Gondolin..." Sam frowned and rummaged through the rather chaotic storehouse of his memory. "That was the hidden Elf kingdom, weren't it? Mr. Bilbo mentioned it once but he never said what happened to it, or if it stands to this day."

"He told me once that it fell, but he didn't say how. I don't know if he knew."

"I never did hear that story, no, sir. But I'd surely like to."

"It's a good tale. You'll like it, I think."

Sam did. A Man raised by Elves, neither fish nor fowl; oh, Sam knew how that felt, right enough, sitting here in the firelight with his master as he really oughtn't to be in the first place and wanting things of him - a cuddle, a tumble, love - that no servant had any business wanting of the Master.

Love. It was the first time he'd so much as let himself think it - that he wanted Frodo to love him too. But that was well and truly beyond a pipe dream, and he would have taken a tumble and been glad of it even if it broke his heart.

Still and all, he thought dubiously as Frodo's soft voice filled the kitchen; just because he knew how Tuor felt didn't mean it wasn't daft to go traipsing all over the world following after streams and birds like they knew what they were doing.

When he made austere mention of that daftness, Frodo laughed. "Yes, but it served him well in the end. He followed the swans to a ruined citadel by the sea; and there, in the Great Hall, hung on the wall, he found a sword and armor of wonderful quality, and a shield blazoned with a swan's wing. So he took that for a sign, and took the armor too, and when he came out of the Hall the swans each plucked out a feather and gave it to him, then bowed and flew away."

Sam looked dubiously at Frodo. "What'd he do with seven swan feathers, then?"

Frodo speared a carrot slice and ate it, the corners of his mouth tugging upward in a vain attempt to suppress a smile. "Stuck them in his helm, I'm afraid."

Sam burst out laughing.

After a moment's more struggle Frodo joined him, and the two of them laughed helplessly until Frodo finally regained breath enough to choke out, "Well, I said he was a great hero. I didn't say he had much of a fashion sense."

"Aye, you didn't at that," Sam answered, wiping his eyes. "Ah, what a sight that must have been. What happened next, then?"

Frodo settled back in his chair, picked up his wine, and began to talk again; through a visitation from the Lord of Waters, a terrible storm, and the acquisition of a thoroughly bewildered Elf - and no need to describe that one; in Sam's mind Voronwë had a soft tumble of night-dark curls and entrancingly blue eyes - past the huge claw-tracks of black Ancalagon in a once-fair wasteland, through bitter snows and near-despair to the fires of a camp of orcs.

"Uh-oh," Sam commented, food long finished and forgotten in the enchantment of Frodo's tale.

Frodo gave him a small smile. "Indeed. And Tuor was all for descending upon them and slaughtering every one of them, or being slain himself."

Sam shook his head and muttered about common sense.

"You're right," Frodo laughed. "Fortunately Voronwë had more of it; and besides, the law of Gondolin was that no one could approach the Gates with foes at his heels, and even to save his own life Voronwë would not break that law, command of Ulmo or no. But the cloak Umlo had given Tuor had the power to make the wearer invisible, or at least unnoticed; so Tuor clasped Voronwë to him and covered them both with the cloak, and they went across the road."

Sam swallowed convulsively. "And were they unnoticed, then?"

"For a while. But orcs can smell as well as see - some of them can smell like hunting hounds - and they caught Tuor's and Voronwë's scent. They stumbled to the top of a ridge, listening to the orcs crashing through the brush and calling to each other behind them, and found a sort of lair underneath an outcropping of rock; and Tuor drew Voronwë down into it and covered the both of them with the cloak, and there they slept until morning - or rested, in Voronwë's case, for Elves don't sleep the way the rest of us do..."

Sam was barely listening. He was thinking instead about lying under a cloak in the sheltering darkness with an elf who in his mind's eye looked remarkably like Frodo; about the way their bodies would have fit together, how that soft heavy weight would have felt in his arms - and there were hands and mouth, too, for soothing away hurts and fears...

He shook his head a little and brought himself back to the warm firelit kitchen, listening and watching as Frodo described the seven great Gates of Gondolin, and the challenge of the Lord of the Fountains, glimmering in the rising sun in armor of silver and a shield bedecked with crystals, and Ulmo's speech through Tuor that won them entrance to Gondolin.

"And what happened then?" Sam asked as Frodo wound down.

Frodo spread his hands, looking a bit embarrassed. "That was all of the tale that I found," he confessed, and had to clear his throat.

"Bless you, Mr. Frodo, here I've let you talk yourself hoarse," Sam said in dismay. "Just you sit quiet while I make you some tea with honey and lemon -"

"Sam, I'm fine, really." Something in Sam's face made him relent, though, and after a moment he said "All right, but I'll put the dishes to soak while you're making it, and we'll have it in the parlor with that pipe you were looking forward to."

"Yes, sir," Sam answered, and then had to ask - "I don't suppose you know what happened to them two, do you? I mean, did they stay... friends, or -"

Frodo smiled and began picking up plates. "I don't know, but I like to think that they did."

"Be a shame if they didn't, after all that," Sam commented as he pumped water into the kettle.

"I don't think the friendship of the Elves is lightly cast aside," Frodo said from so close behind him that his breath was warm on Sam's ear, nearly making him drop the kettle. A hand reached past Sam and deposited dishes into the sink.

"Well, that one Man managed it right enough, that one as married his sister and killed the dragon," Sam pointed out, glad that his voice wasn't shaking.

Frodo laughed and leaned against the sink, so distractingly close that the kettle overflowed before Sam even realized it was getting full. "Turin. He was a kinsman of Tuor's."

"Was he, now? Not much in the way of brains, that family, were they?" Sam asked, then colored a little at the realization that much the same thing could be said of his own.

"It's always nice to have wisdom and a strong sword arm, but the two don't often occur in the same person, it seems."

"Good thing for those of us as don't have any wisdom that there's times only a strong arm will do, then."

He made to move away but Frodo laid a hand on his arm, stopping him dead in his tracks.

"You have more of wisdom than any hobbit I've ever known, my inappropriately-named friend," Frodo said quietly, and Sam blushed to the tips of his ears. "I wish you could see it as I do."

Sam took a deep breath - this seemed to be a night when many of them were required - and moved away from Frodo before he could give in to the urge to pin him against the sink. "Aye, well, there's things about you that I wish you saw as I do. Suppose that makes us even."

"I won't ask what those things are," Frodo laughed ruefully, coming to collect the rest of the dishes.

Sam hung the kettle over the fire and turned back to Frodo. "You say that like you thought it was summat bad. Do you think I'd ever think ill of you?"

Frodo's hands stilled on the plates, and it was a long moment before he looked up at Sam. "No," he whispered, and there was such a muddle of emotions in his face that Sam couldn't begin to untangle them all. "No, I don't think you would. Even if... even if I deserved it."

And there seemed to be no answer to that but the one he couldn't give: to pull Frodo into his arms, whispering words of love and reassurance into his hair, taking him to bed to chase those shadows away in a warm slick tangle of limbs and breath and soft cries of pleasure...

"I never knew you to do aught to deserve it, sir," he managed finally, and his words rang oddly in the suddenly thick air.

Frodo smiled thinly and gathered up the plates. They rattled a little in his hands. "Let's have that pipe, shall we? I'll take the kettle off when it's done and set the tea to steep."

"Yessir," Sam answered, and went into the parlor to light the fire.

There was a bright moon shining through the windows; fortunately, since he'd completely forgotten a taper and had to work by touch and hope that Frodo hadn't lost the matches again. Should have laid this earlier, he thought in exasperation. Serves me right for not paying attention to aught but Mr. Frodo in spite of telling myself I'd -

"Would this help?" Frodo asked, and Sam looked up to see him leaning in the doorway with a lit taper, bathed in the dim orange glow of the small flame.

"Um," he answered, then bit his tongue and tried to be more articulate. "It would at that, sir. Can you -"

Frodo came to sink down beside him on the hearthrug, tilting the taper so that it illuminated the wood, long fingers sliding along the wax-coated length as deftly as they moved on his pen. "Better?"

"Much," Sam answered, and turned back to the fireplace, shifting his position a bit and hoping against hope that Frodo wouldn't look down.

"How long can you stay?" Frodo asked as Sam finished arranging the kindling.

"I told Mari not to expect me back 'til late," Sam answered as he reached out without looking to take the taper from Frodo. His hand closed on warm skin instead, and it took a moment for him to recover from the jolt enough to slide his fingers upward and appropriate the taper to set the kindling alight. "She knows you keep late hours."

"I do, yes," Frodo murmured absently. He drew his hand back and knotted his fingers together on his knee, but not so quickly or tightly that Sam didn't see how much they were shaking.

The fire caught and began to crackle merrily, and Frodo stretched out a hand toward it with a soft murmur of contentment that went through Sam like a bradawl. Sam watched the flames light Frodo's hand, amber glow licking along his fingertips, and thought with a sudden strange clarity: Aye, then, it's tonight I get the sack, for I can't keep my hands off him much longer.

Frodo rose to his feet and leaned against the mantelpiece, and Sam followed suit. "Mr. Frodo... you're a bit shaky, there. Are you cold?"

Frodo took a breath and for a moment his hand tightened on the mantel; then he eased away from it. "No, rather the opposite. I'm a bit overheated with the fire going, the nights have been so warm. Are you?"

"Yes, sir," Sam managed, and suddenly wondered which of them was trying to fool which, and if either were succeeding.

"Good, then you won't mind if..." Frodo trailed off and lifted his hands to his shirt buttons, fingers trembling on fine, thin bone as he slipped the top button loose and stuck Sam's tongue securely to the roof of his mouth.

"Not at all," Sam managed to answer, with rather more truth than he would have liked.

Frodo's hands slipped downward, fingertips drawn along the luminously pale skin of his chest to the second button, his gaze never leaving Sam. Sam was in a miserable state and knew it; knew that he was staring so blatantly that blind old Widow Proudfoot couldn't have missed it, knew that he was desperately and obviously hard, knew that he should go and couldn't move. And Frodo wanted that, wanted him in this state, or he would have stopped -

Don't be a fool, Sam Gamgee, he's overheated, that's all, he told himself desperately. But that soft heat was back in Frodo's eyes, no mistaking it this time, and his hands rose from his buttons to slide his weskit off his shoulders and let it fall carelessly to the floor.

"You," Sam said, then had to start over. "You shouldn't ought to drop your weskit there like that, sir, it might take a spark from the hearth." He moved forward and knelt in front of Frodo, reaching past Frodo's ankle to catch hold of the discarded garment.

Trembling fingers wound themselves tentatively into his hair and pressed, just a little, so softly it might as well have not been a press at all; but if he'd followed it forward it would have brought his mouth to the soft skin of Frodo's stomach through the fine linen of his shirt.

Sam swallowed hard and stood - with considerable difficulty, given the state of his knees - and Frodo's hand stayed with him, gently stroking his hair. Sam had a sudden, vivid memory of his dreams, of Frodo whispering slow Elvish against his skin, and had to close his eyes tight against it.

"Sam," Frodo whispered, voice taut with such an ache that it made Sam's eyes fly open to meet his. His own wanting was so vividly mirrored there that every lie Sam had told himself about the two of them shattered in its light.

He had no idea which of them moved first. It didn't matter.

Frodo's body was hot and pliant in his arms, but not passive, no; no more than the mouth that burned against his own, the taste of Frodo's tongue that seared through him, the soft, urgent whimpers that set his heart racing so hard that he thought it might burst. Dimly he felt himself yanking Frodo's shirt out of the back of his trousers, running his hand up along skin softer than fresh-turned earth, and oh, he wanted -

For a moment he was off-balance; then he found himself in the overstuffed chair beside the fire, with a lap full of Frodo wriggling against him in a way that made him give a choked moan into Frodo's mouth and clench his fists in the fabric of Frodo's shirt. Frodo shifted a bit, pressing his knees firmly into either side of Sam's hips, and ground slowly down against him, his own breath coming in increasingly short gasps until his head fell back and a sharp, desperate cry escaped him. The line of his throat was bared now to Sam's mouth and Sam took advantage of the fact, laving his tongue along the smooth skin and nipping almost hard enough to leave marks as Frodo wailed and writhed against him with increasing desperation.

When Frodo's back began to arch Sam pulled sharply away, meeting Frodo's cry of protest with a tense groan of his own before he managed to choke out, "Bed."

"Now," Frodo gasped, stumbling to his feet and pulling Sam after him. And Sam could only hope that Frodo knew which direction they were headed, because it was all he himself could do to hold back until they got there, and it seemed utterly out of the question that he should pry his mouth away from Frodo's. The pile of books that he stubbed his toe on told him when they'd gained the hall, and he tried to maneuver Frodo out and away from the wainscoting without actually opening his eyes; but Frodo tripped over the same stack or a different one and fell back against the wall, pulling Sam with him for an impact that nearly cost Sam his hard-kept control.

"Sam," Frodo sobbed, clenching his fists in the cloth at Sam's hips and grinding hard against him; and oh, that was enough and more than enough, and Sam caught Frodo around the waist and lifted him to sit on top of the book stack. One of his hands slid into Frodo's hair, mussing and entangling, and the other slid down to the buttons of Frodo's trousers - and hesitated.

Oh, save us, what are we doing, what does this mean -

Frodo pulled back and cupped Sam's face with his hands, and oh, he was lovely, flushed face and glittering eyes and hair all falling in a mess about his face. "Sam," he whispered in a voice thick with a desperate longing that resonated all through Sam. "Please. Please."

Sam closed his eyes and snapped open the buttons of Frodo's trousers, moving slower than he would have liked between the sudden clumsiness of his hands and Frodo's hands getting in the way as they opened Sam's pants. Then with startling suddenness there was no more cloth between them and Frodo's legs were wrapped so tightly around his waist that it was hard to breathe, and his face was buried in the cool shadow of Frodo's throat as Frodo writhed and sobbed and begged for more, harder, and oh, this was nothing like touching himself, this searing through every inch of him so that even the faint smell of roses and rosemary was tinder for that flame - this new knowledge that he could strip away Frodo's control just as Frodo could strip away his own.

And after so long of wanting, the feel of that slender body in his arms, the knowledge that it was his Frodo arching and thrusting against him, fists tangled in Sam's hair, cries filled now with a wordless desperation, swept through Sam's whole body in a flare of hot light; all he could think was Oh, Frodo, Frodo, and he might have been saying it aloud but he neither knew nor cared. All he knew was that he was on the crest of bursting with it when Frodo wailed his name and arched so hard that his head slammed back into the wall, coming hot and hard between them, and that heat and light and need flared in him until it twisted his gut and drove him hard against Frodo to lose himself in the strange unity between them.

When it passed and he could tell which parts were his and which were Frodo's again, it became clear to him that his knees were on the verge of collapse. Trying to steady his breath, he moved Frodo a little to the side and slid down the wall, sitting on his heels with his knees against the floorboard and his forehead against the cool wainscoting and Frodo still curled tightly around, and held tightly to, him.

"Oh, Sam," Frodo said at length, voice small and still breathless. "I don't think I can move."

"Aye, well, we can't stay here on the cold floor all night," Sam answered, tilting his head to nuzzle into the crook of Frodo's neck. Truth be told, he wasn't any too inclined to move himself.

One of Frodo's hands disconnected itself from the tangle and rose to rub at the back of his head. "Ouch," he said ruefully.

Sam had to laugh as he lifted his head. "Here, let me see. Are you all right? No bumps, feels like."

"I'm fine. It stings, that's all." Frodo moved his hand to lay along the side of Sam's face and leaned slowly forward, touching his mouth with an exquisite gentleness to Sam's. "My Sam. I wish I had words to tell you how dear you are to me."

Aye, I can think of words, right enough, Sam thought, then bit his lip to keep those words back. He would take what Frodo offered and ask no more, and if no more was offered than this one night...

Well. Best not to think on that. Best not to think at all.

Frodo shifted against him, wriggling luxuriously. "I think my knees have come back from wherever they disappeared to," he observed. Then he threaded his fingers into Sam's hair, looking suddenly uncertain. "Will you... will you come to bed?"

"That I will," Sam answered, and found courage enough to lean in and brush a tender kiss across Frodo's mouth.

 

Frodo's room was lit with the dim glow of moonlight and nothing else, giving a silvery sheen to Frodo's fair skin as Sam drew that fine linen shirt off and let it fall to the floor beside his own.

"My lovely Sam," Frodo murmured, running his fingertips up the fine patch of hair on Sam's chest. He bent forward to drop a soft, slow line of kisses from Sam's collarbone to underneath his ear, making Sam's breath catch. "Oh, I've wanted this for so long..."

Something that was not quite a laugh caught in Sam's throat. "And me wanting you just as much -"

"You never said anything."

Sam tilted Frodo's chin up, moving him back so that their eyes met. "It weren't my place to say and you know it. You ain't some Tunnelly lad from Bywater. You're a Baggins. How could I ask to lay hands on you like this, and me in service and apt to be my whole life?"

"Like this," Frodo whispered, and leaned forward to reclaim Sam's mouth, winding tenderly around him.

Well, there was no making Frodo see sense when he'd set himself against it, and Sam much preferred this slow exploration of each others' mouths to arguing. Frodo's hands moved at his waist and his trousers slid down and away, followed by Frodo's as soon as Sam could manage it, and he found himself being gently but firmly guided over to the bed.

He'd never before done more than plant a knee on Frodo's bed as he made it, and the feather bed was much softer than he expected; soft enough that it made him startle a little as he sat down on it. The state of the bed was quickly forgotten, however; Frodo nudged and nuzzled at him until they were both stretched out in the middle of it, Sam arranged more or less comfortably on his back with his arms full of warm, amorous hobbit-gentry who was tasting his mouth with such slow thoroughness that it made his head swim. Even if Sam had wanted to, he couldn't have stopped his hands from wandering along skin that glowed like new snow in the moonlight, and Frodo gave a pleased sigh and wriggled against him.

Aye, like that, do you? Sam thought, and wasn't quite adventurous enough to say it aloud. Come here, then, and let's see how you like this.

He shifted, turning the both of them over, and pressed gentle, hungry kisses to Frodo's mouth, his eartips, his throat, working his way down to Frodo's chest. Frodo stroked his hair gently, and down the back of his neck to his shoulders, deft hands whisper-soft except for the pen callus on his index finger - and ah, there, he liked that well enough, didn't he? Sam slipped his hand downward to catch hard, silky heat in a reverent touch; and there seemed to be no end to this wanting, no amount of touching that would give him his fill of Frodo's taste and touch and voice, and Sam could be glad even of that endless need if it was fired by the feel of Frodo's body against his own.

After a while he found himself on his back again, Frodo braced atop him and nipping lightly at his earlobe, breathless whispers of ah, Sam... you feel so good... caressing him like the touch of Frodo's hands. And oh, Frodo's mouth felt wonderful on him, growing bolder than Sam's had, gentle strokes of his tongue along fingers and collarbone and the inside of Sam's elbow, moving down until it seemed that - but surely he wasn't -

He was, and Sam clenched his fists in the sheets as that warm, soft mouth drifted along his length and then took him slowly in.

Ah, this was - he could barely think from the sheer pounding need and the wash of sensation, and the soft sounds of pleasure that Frodo made around him set his whole body to vibrating like a harpstring; and he was so close already, and it wasn't right to leave Frodo hanging like that -

"Wait," he gasped, his own voice hoarse in his ears. "Mr. Frodo, I - stop for a second -"

Frodo lifted his head, and was that a flash of hurt in his face? If so, it was quickly hidden as he bent his head to nip lightly at Sam's hipbone. "I'm sorry, Sam, I didn't mean to go too fast -"

"No, it ain't that, sir. It's just that..." It was getting more difficult by the moment to summon coherent thought, what with Frodo's hair brushing against him where it was; but he had heard other lads talk, and it seemed like sense... "If you'll shift yourself around here, then I can... we can, I mean..."

Frodo laughed softly, saving Sam any further embarrassment, and shifted as requested, wrapping hand and mouth around Sam again. Sam caught his breath and his hand tightened on Frodo's hip, and it really should have occurred to him before he suggested this that he had no idea what to do; but surely there couldn't be aught wrong with tasting Frodo as Frodo was tasting him, and at the first touch of his tongue Frodo moved his head back with a strangled cry, biting hard into his lip and winding his fingers into Sam's hair.

Thoroughly distracted by Frodo's taste and heat and hardness, Sam was caught off-guard when Frodo's tongue returned to his skin; and then it was even harder not to become distracted by the things Frodo was doing to him, by the way the dim light played over Frodo's face as his cheeks hollowed and pleasure flooded through Sam as if drawn right out of his bones. The rhythm that built between them was somehow even more arousing for its slowness, for the slow stretch of pleasure, and if there was a world outside this bed and Frodo's arms then Sam cared nothing for it at all.

Sam lost control first, struggling not to thrust, pulling back to rest his head on Frodo's thigh as it caught him in a slow, inexorable winding that was somehow just as intense as the first, drawing out until it was almost unbearable, and Frodo's mouth never left him. It wasn't long before he could breathe again, though, and not long after that until Frodo's breath began coming in sharp gasping cries and his fingers tightened almost painfully in Sam's hair; and then he was coming, crying out Sam's name and yes and taut as a bowstring in Sam's arms. When he was still again Sam lifted his head to place a soft kiss on Frodo's leg, sighing in contentment against Frodo's skin.

After a minute Frodo wriggled around, urged Sam up onto the pillow, and wound tightly around him, nudging his face into the curve of Sam's neck. His breath was still a little fast, breezing warm and sweet over Sam's throat; and Sam held him close, gently stroking his hair.

"I'm glad you're here, Sam," he whispered, then yawned.

"Me too," Sam answered softly. "You're tired. You should rest."

"Mm. You've rather worn me out, I'm afraid, but in such a wonderful way..."

"You rest, sir," Sam urged again, and felt a small reflexive flinch from Frodo, a slight tightening of his muscles, drawing away just a bit. Frowning, Sam drew him back, whispering shhh into the thick tangle of his hair. Frodo relaxed slowly, melting against Sam; and then there was only the sound of their breathing as Frodo's slowed and deepened.

 

For a long time Sam lay still, watching the moonlight slide over Frodo's skin, not daring to move and barely daring to breathe; here, in this darkened room, it seemed far more likely that Frodo would silently vanish between one breath and the next than that he would stay drowsing in Sam's arms.

Ah, but this is a miracle, Sam thought, closing his eyes and losing himself in the feel of Frodo's soft skin against his own, of warm breath drifting slowly across his chest and hair tumbled over his shoulder. The thought of Frodo, his beautiful Frodo, as his lover... it seemed all the less real for the long years spent wanting something he'd been convinced he could never have. Carefully, gently, he tightened his arms just a little, bringing the slow, steady beating of Frodo's heart to his own, summoning courage enough to drop a soft kiss into Frodo's hair. Frodo sighed a little but did not stir, and Sam opened his eyes again, drawing the blanket a little farther up over his sleeping master.

Master. Now, that gave him pause.

Moonlight and dreams held too long in secret were one thing, and fine in their place. But soon or late the light outside those windows would turn golden, and long before that Sam would have to get dressed and leave to forestall one of the girls coming and knocking at the door of Bag End to see if Sam had fallen into a ditch on his way home. It was well and good to feel that he could have lain here forever with Mr. Frodo cradled in his arms and never wanted for another thing, but the plain fact of the matter was that sunrise would find him in his own bed like usual, and Mr. Frodo alone in this one; and in a few days he would have to come back to Bag End and work in the garden, because starlight on dark hair and milk-pale skin didn't make flower beds weed themselves.

And what then? He couldn't even begin to guess how things would be between them. Sam knew his master's heart well enough to know that he wasn't the type to trip servants into bed on a whim, but... well, it wasn't as if they could move in together and set up house, either, as Mr. Frodo surely knew as well as anyone else.

On the other hand, the fact that he was here in this bed, with the taste of Frodo's mouth still on his, was proof enough that Sam didn't know Frodo's heart quite as well as he'd thought.

It's past late. Best you go now before you manage to talk yourself out of it.

Well, going meant disentangling himself from Frodo, and that was easier said than done; Frodo was wound around him like climbing roses around a trellis, his head was resting on Sam's shoulder, and Sam knew for a fact that Frodo was not a sound sleeper. Moving carefully, he eased his legs away, then slowly slipped his shoulder out from under Frodo's head, replacing it with a pillow. Frodo stirred a bit, frowning, then turned his face into the pillow and relaxed again. With a sigh of relief, Sam eased off the bed, dressed quietly, and felt his way back out into the hall, stumbling a bit in the unfamiliar dark. He pulled the door silently closed behind him, and on the table just there should be...

Yes, there. Sam lit a candle and the hall sprung into view, familiar again now with that small light.

Go on, then. What are you waiting for?

For an excuse to go back. For someone to come and tell him that duty, obligations, position, knowing his place, were none of them as important as being there when Frodo woke, watching him stretch and yawn and turn his face away from the sun that spilled golden onto his sleep-touseled hair; being there to pull him close and soothe his soft, sleepy grumbling at having to wake so early...

Stop it. This is hard enough without making it worse with imaginings. Just go.

Sam paused with his hand on the front doorknob, breath easing out in a long sigh. Reluctantly, he lifted the candle to blow it out.

"Sam."

Sam started and turned to see Frodo leaning against the wall of the hallway outside his bedroom door, pants pulled hastily on and shirt flung on unbuttoned, clutching his elbows as if he were cold. In the dim light he looked very sleepy and very young, and Sam's heart melted painfully. "I thought you were asleep," he said quietly.

"I think I was. I don't know. Are you leaving?"

"I have to be getting home. The girls'll fret if I'm not there soon."

Frodo looked down. "I won't ask you to stay," he said, very softly. "But I want to."

Sam sighed again and went back to Frodo, gathering him into his arms. Frodo rested his head on Sam's shoulder, holding him in an embrace loose and heavy with sleep. "Give me half an hour," Sam whispered. "I'll tell the girls - well, I'll tell them something, I don't know what. Then I'll be back."

"Tell them I don't feel well and I want you to stay. That's the truth."

Sam frowned and moved away a little, cupping Frodo's chin in his hands and lifting it. "What's the matter?"

"My head hurts, that's all."

"Go back to bed. I'll be back as soon as I can."

Frodo pulled Sam back, pressing slow, drowsy kisses to the side of his neck. "Thank you, Sam," he whispered.

"Go back to bed," Sam repeated, kissing Frodo lightly on the forehead.

When he got back, though, the hearth-fire glowed red from the kitchen. Setting down a pack with a change of clothes in it, he made his way to the kitchen to see Frodo sitting at the table looking down into a cup of tea. Frodo glanced up when he came in, eyes softening into an oddly shy pleasure.

"I half thought you wouldn't come back."

Unsure what to do or where he ought to be, Sam leaned against the doorway. "I said I would. When have you known me to break my word?"

"Never," Frodo said with a wry smile. "But... well, you're here. Do you want some tea?"

"No thank you, I'm fine. How's your head?"

"It still hurts a little, but it's getting better."

There was a moment's silence; then their eyes met and they both began to laugh.

"This is a bit awkward, isn't it?" Frodo said ruefully.

"Aye," Sam answered quietly. "It is that."

Well, if it was over now then over it was, but Frodo was still his Mr. Frodo. Sam moved around behind Frodo's chair and began rubbing at his temples. "Better?"

Frodo sighed happily. "You have such wonderful hands, Sam." He leaned back and stretched, running his hands up Sam's arms.

"You should go back to bed, Mr. Frodo," Sam told him, and meant only You're tired.

"I should. And you should come with me," Frodo answered, pulling Sam's hand down to his mouth and kissing it softly. "And you should stop calling me Mr. Frodo once we're there."

Sam frowned. Even with the taste of Frodo's skin still on his tongue, that seemed like taking a bit too much of a liberty. "Sir, I..."

"And 'sir.'" Frodo drew Sam around to the side of the chair and stood, sliding his hands up Sam's chest. "Sam. It's the middle of the night. There's no one here but the two of us. Surely having your hand down my pants ought to put us on a first-name basis, don't you think?"

Sam felt himself go scarlet. "Mr. Frodo!"

Frodo smiled and moved closer, drawing his tongue in light teasing flicks over Sam's throat. "Really, Sam, you've breached propriety enough to make me come so hard that my knees are still weak, what's calling me by name compared to that?"

"It's..." Oh, and there was no way to explain this without insulting the both of them. "It's just different, that's all. Laying with the Master doesn't give you leave to be familiar outside the bedroom, or even free with your tongue in it."

Frodo had gone still four words into that sentence, mouth barely resting on Sam's collarbone; now he pushed away, teasing transmuted into blazing anger in the space of a moment. "Is that what you think this is? That I'm nothing more than... than one of the gentry tripping the servants and groping the parlormaid?"

"No, I -"

"Why are you here, Sam? Why did you do this with me? I wanted you, and I thought you wanted me. Are you telling me that this was nothing more than one of those things that servants have to put up with if they don't want to lose their livelihoods? Did you think you couldn't tell me no? You could have, you know. You can still. You can turn and walk out the door and you won't lose your job. You won't lose anything, nothing important, you'll lose me but that's apparently beside the point. You can go home and I won't ever take advantage of our positions again. There won't be anything more come of this than a story to tell when you're at the pub with the rest of the servants complaining about your positions, so they can click their tongues and shake their heads and say 'Oh, poor Sam, having to be in service with that Mr. Baggins, and him no better than he should be but at least he can't get you pregnant and then turn you out into the street without a character -'"

"Stop it!" Sam shouted, horrified at himself for doing it but unable to keep silent in the face of Frodo's anger.

"And don't shout at me!" Frodo shot back, his own voice rising precipitously in volume. "You can speak to me like a lover or you can speak to me like a servant but by the Valar you won't take half measures, not with the smell of sex still hanging in the air in my bedroom. If I'd seen anything like distaste in you I would have stopped, if I'd seen any sign that you were less than willing, I'd have let it go and licked my wounds and never tried anything on with you again, but you never gave me any sign, all it took was a dropped weskit and a suggestive touch to get you panting after me like a -"

"Stop! Stop now before you say something that'll hurt us both beyond fixing."

"Do you think that isn't already done? I don't think I can agree with you there, Sam. Not after you've let me know what you think of me, that you didn't want this, that I -"

"I didn't say that! You're putting words in my mouth, and sure as death you've words and to spare of your own, but they're yours, not mine."

"Then tell me why you won't call me by name. Tell me why lying with me isn't lying with me at all, not Frodo Baggins, it's 'lying with the Master' and it doesn't give you leave to extend any sort of intimacy because the Master is still all I am to you. Tell me what you wanted when you put your tongue in my mouth and your hands on my body, tell me who you pretended you were touching when you closed your eyes, tell me what you think I am that I could do something like this!"

"How can I tell you anything when you won't let me get a word in edgewise?" Sam cried, wishing for one dizzying minute that he could grab Frodo by the shoulders and shake some sense into him. "You're taking it all wrong, what I said, and you won't let me tell you different because you've worked yourself into such a state that you wouldn't listen if I did tell you. You're so sure that you know how it is, and you're too angry for us to sit down and talk about it like sensible people. You tell me what I'm supposed to say to make that better."

"I love you, Sam."

Sam stopped in mid-breath, stunned into silence as much by Frodo's suddenly quiet voice as by the words themselves.

"I have for years, I think, and Valar help me, I still do, and I don't think I want to talk about this anymore." Frodo turned and vanished into the sitting room so quickly that Sam was left blinking against the candlelight before he whirled and shot out into the hall, intercepting Frodo on the way back to his room. Setting aside thoughts of his place completely, he caught Frodo by the upper arms and pulled him to a halt.

"Please," he said desperately. "Stop. Tell me what to say, tell me what to do, please. Tell me how to make this right again."

"There's nothing to make right, I told you you wouldn't lose your position and believe it or not I meant it -"

"Bugger my position, that isn't what I meant. I don't care if I lose my position. It's you I don't want to lose, not now, not after so long of watching and wanting and..." Sam laid his hand gently along the side of Frodo's face, turning it back to him. "And loving. I just... you're all air and fire, and I can't change as fast as you can. Give me time to get used to this."

Frodo closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "When you can come to my bed without thinking of me as the Master or Mr. Frodo, then we'll see what we can make of this. Until then - I can't, Sam. I can't bear to be the kind of person that would make me." He pulled away from Sam and started down the hall again.

"I'm going to bed," he said without looking back. "You can stay or go as you see fit. You know where the extra blankets are."

He didn't slam the bedroom door behind him. In a way, it was worse than if he had.

 

Frodo was gone the next time Sam came to Bag End.

The time after that he was there, but so were a handful of his kin: Pippin and his sister and mother, and what seemed to be another sister, and Merry Brandybuck. They took tea out on the lawn again; clearly against Frodo's wishes, but Eglantine under full sail appeared to have something of the blithely indifferent force of an avalanche, and by the time the dust had settled she was holding court in a lawn chair again, with her offspring and younger kin settled around her on the blanket.

Sam picked up his tools and withdrew to a part of the garden where he could watch Frodo without being in his line of sight.

There was much talk of Pearl's suitors, and much rolling of Pearl's eyes behind her mother's back, and talk of a large number of things about landholding that Sam didn't understand and didn't care to; and Frodo's voice was only raised two or three times into that discussion, and it was quiet and strained every time. This time, when Pippin climbed teasingly into Frodo's lap, Frodo didn't push him away. Instead he cradled his cousin to him as if Pippin were a very small hobbit-lad, burying his face in the unruly tangle of Pippin's hair.

Pippin sobered immediately, frowning, and burrowed closer into Frodo's embrace. Merry eased closer as well and wrapped his arms around Frodo's waist, clearly knowing only that Frodo was unhappy; but Pippin's eyes flicked toward Sam, troubled and suspicious. Sam looked quickly away.

Their tea ended like that; with Eglantine and the Took lasses sitting in troubled silence while Frodo rocked Pippin with a slow, slight movement, and Pippin wound his arms around Frodo and crooned a soft, gentle, indefinably Tookish melody.

Sam left early that day.

 

When he got home, Marigold was kneading bread dough in the kitchen. He greeted her with what he thought was sufficiently convincing cheer, poured himself a cup of tea from the kettle, dug bread and cheese out of the pantry, and sat down at the kitchen table.

"Da'll be home tomorrow," Marigold said over her shoulder.

"I know it, Mari, I've been keeping track," Sam said mildly.

Marigold rolled the dough into a ball, tucked the edges under, and slipped it under a towel to rise on the counter. That done, she dusted off her hands and came to stand beside Sam, setting her hands on his shoulders and squeezing softly.

"Best you tell me about it, then, and pull the sting before the Gaffer gets home and sees you in such a taking," she said gently.

Sam opened his mouth for a denial, and found instead that he had wrapped his arms around his sister's waist and turned his face into her apron as he had done with their mother when he was small and had taken some hurt or other.

Mari sighed and stroked his hair. "What did you do with him, Sam? First you're to stay the night at Bag End, then you don't, then you won't talk to anyone but to snap at them, and now you're home from work early looking like somebody died."

He hadn't meant to tell her. He told her anyway, and between misery and sheer relief at unburdening himself, he was in tears by the time he was done.

"Oh, Sam-lad," Mari said, half in affection and half in exasperation. "Bless you, you know he don't like that 'Mr. Frodo, sir' business from his gardener, what made you think he'd want it from his lover?"

"It's only proper," Sam said stubbornly.

"Prop - Samwise Gamgee, you're a fine one to talk of proper. Proper ain't tumbling your master so hard they probably heard him in Bywater -"

"What? "

"Proper's keeping your trousers buttoned and your hands where they belong, and your eyes and all the rest of your body too, and if you've spit in propriety's face enough to take a roll in the hay with the young Squire hisself then you've got no business calling him 'Mr.' or 'sir' when you know it'll make him unhappy."

Sam closed his eyes, still leaning against his sister. "That's what he said. And said a whole lot of other things besides, and was so furious at me when I left that he wouldn't even shout anymore. What am I going to do, Mari?"

Marigold was silent for a minute, then heaved a sigh. "All things pass, Sam. Likely he'll never ask you to dinner again, but it'll get so you two aren't like this around each other. You'll find a nice lass to wed and so will he, and the two of you between you may have broken something that can't be mended but there's naught to say there's nothing else you can put in its place."

"And supposin' I don't want something else?" Sam asked slowly. "Suppose I want him?"

"Do you now?" Marigold asked gently. "You want the lads down the pub elbowing each other and asking if you're too fine for them now you're rumpling the finest sheets in Hobbiton? Want Ted Sandyman askin' you how the planting's going and then laughing and slapping his cronies on the back? And what about Mr. Frodo? Them Sackville-Bagginses were in enough of a taking just from him having you over to dinner. You want all the old cats in the market getting quiet when he passes and then whispering about him behind his back? Want every one of the gentry for miles around sniffing about how their daughters ain't good enough for the Baggins fortune, he'd rather have a roll in the dirt with a servant?"

"He ain't 'the Baggins fortune,' Mari!"

"That's just what he is to some of 'em, and more besides - an upstart Brandybuck whelp waltzing in to take up the position in Hobbiton that ought by rights to have gone to one of them when Mr. Bilbo left, or so they think. You know all this, Sam. You know how it could hurt the both of you. You may be willing to put up with it, but how can you ask it of him, and him probably not understanding what'd happen, bless him?"

"He understands more than you think."

"And less than you do. Between his parents and his Buckland kin and old Mr. Bilbo, when has he ever been anywhere he wasn't loved and doted on, let alone having people think ill of him?"

Sam smiled. "Aye, he must have been a pretty bairn, with them eyes and all," he said quietly, then yelped as Marigold grabbed the tip of his ear and gave it a good yank.

"Samwise Gamgee," she began, then grabbed a fistful of his hair and gave his head a light shake. "Oh, I wash my hands of it. You're too besotted to see sense, and like as not he is too. Well, then, find out the hard way, but don't be saying I never gave you warning."

"Aye, well, I'm not likely to find out any way at all, am I?" Sam answered glumly. "He's that hurt and furious, Mar, he won't so much as talk to me."

Marigold sighed and petted Sam's hair. "He will sooner or later."

"Aye, to say 'Good morning, Sam, I'm marrying Pearl Took, hope you'll come to the wedding and all - and by the way, she wants them roses along the back wall torn out and turnips put in instead.'"

"Now you're just pouting," Mari said sternly. "Go on, get cleaned up and go down to the Green Dragon for a while. You want taking out of yourself."

"I want taking out of your kitchen, you mean," Sam grumbled, then gave his sister a light squeeze and sat back. "And thank'ee for letting me natter on. I know you mean not to see me hurt and if I had a brain in my head I'd take your advice; it's just..."

"Just that between your heart and your pants and Frodo Baggins' bright eyes your poor brain couldn't make itself heard if it roared like a dragon," Marigold filled in dryly. "What will you do, then?"

Sam spread his hands helplessly. "I don't know, Mar. Leave flowers on his doorstep until he ain't so mad anymore and then try to talk sense into him. Call him Frodo if that's what he wants. I can't pretend I don't think of him as the Master. I do, and the Master's that dear to me that I can't choose between him and Frodo, if you take my meaning, no matter which one of 'em I'm supposed to be lying with."

Marigold snickered. "Take both of 'em, then, and the three of you have a right party in that big feather bed."

Sam swatted her on the hip. "Marigold Gamgee, get back to your baking and get your mind out of the privy," he said sternly. "Anyway, two of Mr. Frodo's more'n any hobbit in the Shire could live through, though whether you'd die quicker of happiness or grief is more than I can say."

Clicking her tongue sternly, Marigold went back to the counter and lifted the towel covering a bowl of dough. "Aye, you don't ever do aught by halves, do you?" she asked, pushing at the dough and deflating it with a soft whoosh. "Frodo Baggins, of all the beds in the Shire you could have cast your eyes toward..."

Sam rose and reached for his coat. "There's none in the Shire more worth casting eyes toward, and wouldn't be if the mattress was stuffed with straw and fleas instead of goosedown, so long as he was in it," he said quietly. "I'll not be too late coming home."

"See to it you aren't," Marigold said mildly. "I'm not doing all this baking just so me, May and Daisy can sit down three to supper."

Sam thought about having dinner alone with his three sisters, one of them knowing full well what was bothering him and not approving of it, the other two bound and determined to find out what the trouble was, and mentally revised his expected length of stay at the pub.

 

The Dragon was busier than usual, full of bustle and laughter and the warm smell of ale, pipe-smoke hazing the air like a fog off the Brandywine. Sam had no sooner ducked inside than Nick and Tom Cotton hailed him from the corner.

"Left the Gaffer at home, did you?" he asked as he slid onto the bench next to Nick. Catching the barmaid's eye, he signalled for an ale.

Nick chuckled. "He thinks Da's homebrew could use a bit of tinkering with. They've been at it all day, changing and testing and all, and he and Da and Mum all were three sheets to the wind when we left. How's your pretty sister, then?"

"I have three sisters and they're all pretty, and all of 'em doing fine," Sam said a trifle repressively; he wasn't sure he held with a flirt like Nick Cotton casting eyes on one of the girls.

"And what's the matter with your Mr. Frodo?" Tom asked, and the noise of the pub dimmed suddenly in Sam's ears.

Fortunately his ale arrived at that moment, giving him something to occupy himself with until he was sure he could speak without his voice shaking. "Sickening for something, is all. Why?" he asked, paying very careful attention to blowing down the foamy alehead.

Tom gestured back toward the bar. "He's way back there in the corner, him and his cousin and Fatty Bolger, hiding at that table on the other side of the screen from the alecasks and looking like he's had a death in the family. Figured you'd know what he was so unhappy about."

"Don't know everything that goes on with him, do I?" Sam asked, trying to make light of it. He should have thought of Frodo being at the pub but he hadn't, and if he left now it wouldn't take as quick a wit as Tom and Nick shared to figure out why.

Nick looked narrowly at him. "If you don't, it'll be the first day since he moved to Bag End that you haven't. Wasn't it you as knew he was coming down with pneumonia before he'd so much as gotten the sniffles?"

"That was no more'n sense," Sam answered in exasperation. It was the circles under Frodo's eyes and the small, fretful movements of his hands that had told Sam something was wrong; and when Sam had asked Frodo to read him something, the soft strained hitch in Frodo's breathing had told him exactly what. It was so clear that Sam had been amazed - and none too pleased - to find that no one else had noticed.

That's all right, Mr. Frodo, I've heard all I need to. Begging your pardon, sir, but I'm putting you to bed and making you some willow-bark tea and a hot compress, and when Mr. Bilbo gets home to sit with you I'll go for Gammer Hornblower.

Once while he'd been ill Frodo had fallen asleep holding Sam's hand, fever-hot fingers interlaced with Sam's own.

"What's ailing you, then, Sam?" Tom asked, and Sam looked up to find two near-identical pairs of gray-green eyes fixed far more closely on him than he would have liked.

Sam forced a smile and busied himself filling his pipe. "Feeling a bit under the weather m'self, I suppose. How's that barn roof holding up?"

Nick and Tom looked at each other; some unspoken communication flashed between them, and then Nick picked up his ale and turned back to Sam. "Well enough. It'll keep the rain off the cows for a year or two, right enough, though I thought when I looked at it..."

Sam wasn't listening. He couldn't. Frodo's presence in the room pulled at him like the sun drawing a flower, filling his senses with the scent of rosemary and the feel of whisper-soft skin against his own, of Frodo's breath warm on his ear and soft murmurs: Oh, Sam... oh, yes, there, touch me... Not a dream now, those images, not the product of restless wishing in the silence of his room, but sharp and real as the table under his elbows. And those hurt, right enough, but not nearly as much as others - Frodo twined trustingly around him, drowsy and sated; cornflower eyes lit with a fury that did not quite cover feelings of hurt and betrayal.

I love you, Sam. I have for years, I think, and Valar help me, I still do, and I don't think I want to talk about this anymore.

"Go home, Sam," Tom said flatly, and Sam realized that he was clutching his pipe in a white-knuckled grip. "You look like death warmed over."

Sam smiled ruefully. "I will in a bit. I'd as soon not be home for dinner and have three sisters clucking over me. One more ale and I'll be on my way."

"Aye, Rosie can be a right dragon when one of us is ill. All right, then, but if you fall dead face-down in your ale don't expect us to be carrying you home. We'll just shove you under the table and use you for a footrest."

"Fair enough," Sam answered, and looked about for a barmaid. Seeing that they were all busy, he caught up his own tankard and Nick's near-empty one and made his way toward the alecasks.

It was Merry that Frodo was with, he saw as he drew near, and both of them had their backs to the room; it was doubtful that they'd seen him come in. Sam slipped by them unnoticed into the dark alcove where the casks were set and set Nick's tankard under the tap, acutely conscious of the fact that only a thin, opaque piece of carved wood separated him from Frodo, unable to keep from straining his ears to catch his master's soft voice - or, might as well say it and have done, his lover's. Or whatever Frodo was to him now, if indeed they were still anything at all.

"Frodo has, haven't you?" Fatty Bolger was asking cheerfully. Though he didn't mean them to, Sam found his movements slowing. He finished filling Nick's mug, set it aside, and rested a hand on the spout, listening.

"I don't think he has," Merry argued.

"I have," Frodo said, so quietly Sam could barely hear him. "Once."

"You have? And here I was thinking you were still a virgin."

Oh, Elbereth, no, Sam thought numbly, oddly disconnected from the voices in his ears and everything else around him, staring down at his empty mug as though it were the only thing anchoring him to this warm barroom. No. His first time too, and I... Oh, Frodo.

"Why only once?" Fatty wanted to know.

There was a long silence. Sam closed his eyes, waiting.

When Frodo finally spoke again, the strain in his voice showed through the thin layer of forced cheer so palpably that tears stung behind Sam's eyelids. "I... it... things between us ended badly, I'm afraid. Quite broke my heart into about ten thousand pieces. I should never have done it to begin with, but the only thing to be done about it now is to face up to the fact that I made a stupid mistake, and carry on."

Sam leaned his head against the keg and wiped his face with one trembling hand.

"What happened, Frodo love?" Merry asked softly.

"I..." Another moment's silence. "I pushed things too hard, I'm afraid. I asked things that I had no right to. It was my own fault, but I couldn't... I couldn't not ask. So I did, and I found out far more than I wanted to about his feelings for me, or lack thereof."

"What in the world did you want, then?"

A longer silence before Frodo whispered, "I wanted him to call me by name."

And the effect that that simple sentence had on Sam's gut was not in any way ameliorated by the fact that Merry's voice when he answered was thick with a cold rage that Sam had never heard in it before. "And that was too much to ask? What the blazes did he call you? 'Rent boy'?"

"Merry, you don't understand, there's more to it than that. It was more than I should have asked. Let it go, it's over now."

"Poor Frodo," Fatty said sympathetically. "Never mind, you'll find someone else. You're young yet, and not too terribly homely."

Ah, don't say that, he's as beautiful as the morning. If you'd seen him the way I have, with the moonlight on his skin...

But the small, lame joke had made Frodo laugh ruefully, which was more than Sam would have been able to do at the moment. "Thank you for that heartening reassurance, Fatty."

Sam left the tankards where they were and slipped out the back, cold autumn air chilling the tears on his face.

 

It was much easier, Sam found, to resolve to say something than to actually say it, or even to decide what to say.

By the time the Gaffer came home from the Cotton farm, Sam had spent a couple of sleepless nights dwelling on the matter; and had decided that, come what may, he couldn't let Frodo go on thinking what he was thinking. But it wasn't as easy as saying I love you, I'm sorry, can you understand? There was no knowing what Frodo would take that to mean at this point; and it was already a wound deeper than Sam cared to probe that Frodo could take such a dim view of Sam's feelings for him, without digging himself in deeper. It might well be that Mari was right, and best and easiest would be to let things go and let time mend them. But somehow his master, without being any the less his master, had gone in Sam's thoughts from Mr. Frodo to Frodo, and attached to that name was an unspoken mine; and, startled and disturbed as Sam was by his own sudden possessive streak, the fact was that he couldn't bear to let that distance between them set itself in use and custom until there'd be no bridging it even if he tried.

By the time he was due back at Bag End, he had had just about all he could take of staring up at the ceiling and trying not to remember Frodo's warm, soft weight in his arms.

He set to the pruning absently when he arrived, blinking against the afternoon sun. Bag End was to all appearances empty; the better to come up with some sort of opening before Frodo returned, because he could hardly just barge into the kitchen and demand that Frodo sit down and talk to him. Maybe better to leave it until the next time he was there first thing in the morning. If he got there before Frodo woke, what would there be easier than to slip into bed with him and fold Frodo in his arms, and either Sam would hit the floor again right quick and probably square on his head or they wouldn't need words at all for a while -

"Sam."

Only a quick dodge saved Sam from dropping the pruning shears point-first onto his foot. His heart hammering in his throat, Sam picked up the shears and turned to face Frodo, and oh, he wasn't ready for this after all, and Frodo's arms were folded far too tightly across his chest and he wasn't looking at Sam, and his face was more closed than Sam had thought it could be.

"May I speak to you for a moment, please?" Frodo said more than asked, voice more formal than Sam had ever heard it. Without waiting for an answer, he turned and went back in through the kitchen door.

None too sanguine about the outcome of whatever discussion was coming his way, Sam followed Frodo into the smial.

The table was between the two of them, and Frodo was busy pouring boiling water into the teapot to steep. He did not look at Sam. "You probably know already that the Widow Chubb's gardener is retiring," Frodo said in a tightly controlled voice; no How are you, Sam? , no asking after his family or the garden or anything else. The knot in Sam's stomach twisted tighter.

"Aye, I know it. He's got the rheumatism, Farley does, and says he's past the age he ought to be diggin' in the dirt -"

"I've arranged for her to take you on," Frodo interrupted. "The gardens there are lovely, bigger than mine, Farley's kept them very well."

Oh, I'm not hearin' this, Sam thought, stunned. "But... that's a big job, sir, and not enough hours in the week for me to be here and there both."

Frodo's mouth twisted impatiently and he moved around the table to hang the kettle back over the fire. "I can take care of my garden better than the Widow Chubb can take care of hers."

Morgoth's bloody gate you can, Frodo Baggins, you could kill a rock garden! "Sir, if I've not given satisfaction -"

The kettle slipped off the swinging metal arm and clattered deafeningly into the fire, sending sparks upward in a brilliant cloud. Without bothering to get it back, Frodo turned and went to pull a bowl of sugar out of the cupboard. Sam waited until Frodo's back was turned and then grabbed a pair of tongs and fished the kettle out of the flames, moving it to a more secure perch in the sink.

"Of course you have, Sam, you're the best gardener in the Shire. I recommended you very highly. She's anxious to have you start at once, so Farley can show you how everything's laid out."

Sam felt as if the breath had been knocked out of him. Through the blood pounding in his ears, he heard himself say "I'll need a few days to see that everything's put to rights here."

Frodo dusted off his hands and looked up, focusing his gaze a few inches to Sam's left. "Of course, take as much time as you need, but I told her you'd be available by the end of the week."

"Yes, Mr. Frodo," Sam whispered. Seeing no other choice, he turned to leave, and got all the way to opening the the door before he gave in to the urge to look back. Frodo was staring at the floor, clutching his elbows as he had the night he'd asked Sam to stay, and there was more pain and loss and loneliness in his face than Sam could have stood to see on Ted Sandyman's face, let alone Frodo's.

Suddenly the situation seemed thoroughly intolerable. Sam paused, one hand on the door, and turned back. "Is this how it's to be, then? Us pretending we're no more to each other than master and servant, and not even that in a few days more?"

Frodo turned away, busying himself with the teapot. "I didn't know we were anything more," he said coldly, but Sam heard the hurt underneath it and sighed. "All right, I seduced you, I'm sorry -"

"I'm not."

Frodo's hands stilled.

Sam watched him, watched the afternoon light glow in his hair, looked at the delicate, expensive stitchery on his waistcoat. There were hundreds of years of social class surrounding that still moment; generations of Gamgees in service, generations of Bagginses and Brandybucks and Tooks with so much money and power that they didn't even see it anymore. There were years, as long as he could remember, of the Gaffer telling him to know his place; and Sam knew it, none better. There were all the things that Frodo would never understand, and all the things that Sam wouldn't either. There was the fact that Sam had nothing to offer Frodo that he didn't already have, that Sam would never be able to live in Bag End and feel that it was home, that there'd be grief from everyone from the Master of Buckland right down to the tosspots at the Green Dragon...

There was Frodo with the light in his hair, with ink stains on his fingers; there was the memory of what those amazing eyes looked like when they were lit with happiness.

Walk away, Sam, you fool, he thought, and closed the door.

Frodo gave a startled sound and flinched when Sam's hands slipped onto his shoulders from behind. Sam shushed him, pulling him close, and rubbed his face against Frodo's soft hair. "You've put salt in that tea, you know, not sugar," he said quietly.

"Oh," Frodo said in a voice that shook just a little. "I... they were..."

"Set right next to each other, aye, I know. How do you manage when I'm not here to look after you?"

"I..." Frodo swallowed hard. "I throw things out and start over a lot."

"Well, that's as good a way as any, I suppose; but better to mind what you're doing to begin with. You can't tell me that salt cellar looks much like the sugar bowl."

"No, I suppose it doesn't. I don't know what I was thinking."

Sam moved his hands down and slid his arms around Frodo's waist. "I don't know what I was either. Except that you're a gift so precious that no Gamgee since the name began ever set hands on the like, or ever deserved to. And that it was easier, in a manner of speaking, to watch you from out in the garden and know I could never touch you than to hold something this rare in my hands and be afraid to death that it'll shatter. I have a hard enough time keeping you from putting salt in the tea, how am I supposed to keep your heart safe too?" He smiled into Frodo's hair. "You know, I remember when you came to Bag End."

"Do you?" Frodo asked with a small smile of his own, and the tension was beginning to drain out of him.

"Aye, I do. I thought you were the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. And I thought: This one wants looking after. Mr. Bilbo, he can do for himself, but if ever there was a one with one foot in another world and not enough attention to spare for the pot roast, it's that cousin of his."

Frodo laughed ruefully. "I'd argue with you but I don't think I have a leg to stand on at the moment."

"You don't at that," Sam whispered, lips brushing across the hair behind Frodo's ear. "Ah, you've no idea how much your coming was talked about. Mr. Baggins' cousin, a new heir, all the way from Buckland and half a Brandybuck himself, born and raised in the Hall we'd all spun so many wild tales about... aye, we all expected you to be so fine that you'd have nary a word for any of us. Then you got there and stood in the garden talking to the Gaffer with just as much respect as you showed Mr. Bilbo, and spoke to me like I was grown, not like some folk talk to bairns like they were half-witted, and your smile was so shy and so sweet... I promised myself then that it'd be me as took care of you, and I've tried hard to do it ever since."

"Oh, Sam..." Frodo's hands crept upward, coming tentatively to rest on Sam's arms. The slanting sun spilled onto those hands and soaked them with rich golden light.

"I didn't mean to hurt you like I did. It's just that I had to learn to see you in a whole new way, like the dear Master I'd known was gone and I didn't quite know who'd taken his place, and I surely didn't know where my place was supposed to be. I'm still not sure of it, and for all your words I don't think you are either. This is so new and so fragile, and so many things standing between us, that I'm terrified to put a foot wrong and bring it all crashing down forever." Sam's arms tightened involuntarily around Frodo, and he remembered being half-afraid that Frodo would vanish from his arms like a ghost at cock-crow. He swallowed hard against the image and forged on. "And I don't know what's to become of us even if we do get past this first part; because the plain fact is, and no making it go away, that there's no one in your world or mine likes to see servants getting above themselves. For a quick tumble now and then, aye, everyone'll look the other way, but not for this. Not for loving each other, not for me not being able to call you Mr. Frodo without you looking like I'd slapped you."

"I know," Frodo whispered. "I'm not so caught up in books and old tales that I don't know all that."

Sam smiled and caught Frodo's hand in his, rubbing at the ink stain on Frodo's index finger. "I was all of seventeen when I first found out I loved you... aye, as long ago as that. You'd come out into the garden one evening, you and Mr. Bilbo, just as the stars were starting to show and the crickets starting to sing; and the two of you were laughing because there was a breeze and you couldn't get your matches to stay lit long enough to light your pipes. Mr. Bilbo called over and told me the roses were looking beautiful, and I thanked him for it, but something in me thought: There's nothing'll ever grow in this garden as beautiful as my Frodo is tonight."

Droplets fell onto his arms like a warm rain, one and then another, and Frodo lifted a hand to rub at his face. "You tell stories beautifully, Sam," he said shakily.

"Ah, not good ones, not fine tales like you and Mr. Bilbo tell. All I can tell about is little things, homely things, gardens and... and you lit by the sun like it was shining through autumn leaves, putting salt in your tea and never noticing..."

Frodo slipped a hand around the back of Sam's neck and craned his chin around, catching Sam's mouth with his own; then before he had done more than brush Sam's lips with his he drew back again, looking away uncertainly. Sam turned Frodo around to him and slipped his hands up to cup Frodo's face, drawing that unsettlingly blue gaze back to his own.

"Oh, if I ever did aught to make you think I wouldn't want you..." he breathed, and kissed Frodo softly.

To Frodo they were probably only comfortable sheets, but they made Sam nervous: cool linen woven so finely that it felt like silk, gossamer-thin - he suspected, he hoped, that they were much less delicate than they looked. But the problem of the sheets could be safely delayed for a few minutes while Sam covered Frodo's mouth with soft, teasing kisses, nipping lightly at Frodo's lips and running his tongue over them in brief, flicking strokes as they unbuttoned each other's shirts. Frodo murmured fretfully and caught Sam's lip between his teeth, releasing it to dart his tongue deep into Sam's mouth, and Sam smiled and stopped teasing. Then there were no more buttons under his hands and he pulled back a little to ease the shirt away from skin lit golden by the failing light. Thick-woven cotton slipped away from Frodo's shoulders and down his back; Sam caught the shirt and began automatically to fold it before Frodo grumbled with affectionate exasperation, took it away from him, and dropped it unceremoniously onto a chair.

"You're beautiful," Sam whispered.

Frodo smiled and caught the open front of Sam's shirt, pulling him closer. "My standards of beauty are a little different, I think, my lovely Sam." He slipped Sam's shirt off and dropped it onto the chair with his own.

Sam sighed blissfully and ran his hand in long slow strokes up and down Frodo's back, pulling him closer as Frodo's arms twined around him. "And what am I supposed to tell the Gaffer when he asks why those flower beds along the back wall didn't get weeded, eh?"

"Tell him I had other things I wanted you to do," Frodo whispered, tilting his hips against Sam's and moving to suck at his earlobe.

Sam took a deep breath and let his hand travel down past the line of Frodo's trousers. "And when he asks what those other things were?"

"Tell him..." Frodo nibbled thoughtfully at Sam's eartip. "Tell him I wanted you to help me get some things up. Shelves or something, I mean, of course."

Sam laughed. "Do you think I could tell him that with a straight face?"

Frodo's hands moved down to rest, trembling and hesitant, on Sam's trouser buttons. "Better than telling him that I wanted you to make love to me until neither of us could keep going another minute, isn't it?"

"It is that." Sam's fingertips traced the shadow of a slender branch up Frodo's arm, weaving softly back and forth as the branch was tossed by the breeze. If he had had qualms about standing by the window, they were long gone now.

"I do, you know," Frodo whispered against Sam's ear, sending a shiver through him. "I want you here, with me. Sam, I need you."

"I ain't going anywhere," Sam answered, caressing Frodo's arm soothingly.

Frodo slid his hand over Sam's and lifted Sam's hand to his mouth, trailing a soft, unhurried line of kisses from wrist to fingertip. Sam took advantage of that momentary repositioning to unbutton Frodo's pants and slide them down over his hips, releasing them to fall to the ground. Frodo kicked them absent-mindedly to the side, still intent on exploring the taste of Sam's fingers. With a soft murmur of desire, Sam pulled his fingers back and replaced them with his mouth, pulling Frodo full against him.

Thin, clever hands edged between them, freeing the rest of his buttons, pushing his pants to the floor, touching him, and Sam whimpered and pressed into that touch. Frodo released him instantly, laughing as he pulled away toward the bed. And somehow the sheets had completely ceased to matter; what mattered was that Frodo was pulling Sam down on top of him, lifting his mouth eagerly to Sam's, his own hair and Sam's casting shadow-tendrils on his face in light that was slowly turning from golden to lavender. And oh, he was dazzling, there wasn't a sense Sam possessed that wasn't filled with him in a soft glow of pleasure; and Sam didn't think he would ever find it in himself to take this for granted, to come to Frodo's bed and not touch him as if it might be the last time he ever could.

"You smell like honeysuckle," he whispered, brushing his lips against Frodo's ear.

Frodo laughed. "And you smell like roses."

"Mm. It was the roses I was pruning today." A quick taste of Frodo's mouth and then he moved down a little, wondering at how soft and delicate the skin of Frodo's throat felt under his tongue.

"You amaze me, do you know that?" Frodo whispered, lacing his fingers in Sam's hair and shifting slowly against him. "Whatever you touch lives and blossoms."

"Gardens just want a bit of care, is all," Sam told him, nibbling lightly at the base of Frodo's throat and moving down past his collarbone.

"And what do gardeners want?"

"Something to take care of, I suppose." Sam's mouth began a slow exploration of Frodo's chest, making Frodo gasp and whimper and move eagerly underneath him. "Never... thought about it... really."

"You'll have to, you know." His voice was tighter now, and so were his hands in Sam's hair.

"I know it. But not right this minute. Seems to me I've more important things to do." And Frodo wanted distracting before he worked himself around to being all upset again, and since Sam's mouth was moving in that direction anyway...

"Oh, Sam..."

What a purely physical pleasure it was, the feel of that skin in his hands, on his tongue - soft as Frodo's hair, softer than the sheets beneath them, as if Frodo's whole world were wrapped in the smooth weight of heavy silk. For a moment Sam winced at the thought of the calluses on his hands; then Frodo gave a strangled cry of protest and he returned his attention to what he was doing.

Not long, though, before Frodo was murmuring "Sam, stop, come here," and pulling him back up, winding him in a tight embrace, arching and stretching up against him with tantalizing slowness. Sam let out a shaky breath and matched that slow pressure, exploring Frodo's mouth with deliberate thoroughness; and the languid ebb and swell of their movements was dizzying, hypnotizing, unbearably exciting.

"Ah, Frodo, love," he breathed into Frodo's ear, running his hand down to curl around Frodo's hip, and Frodo gave a soft, contented hum as Sam's tongue traced the upsweep of his eartip.

Some irksome part of Sam's mind was aware that it was getting late, that the sun would be down soon, and that the combination of no Sam in the garden and no lights on in Bag End would make for two and two that the Gaffer and Marigold at least were certainly capable of putting together to make four. Sam found that he didn't care. All that mattered, maybe all that had ever mattered, was that Frodo was happy; that Frodo's mouth was warm and sweet under his own, that his body rocked lazily against Sam's like the calmed sea in Bilbo's tales, arms twined around Sam's back, fingers combing gently through his hair. Sam sighed and bit gently at the curve of Frodo's neck, making Frodo whimper and push up against him a little harder. There hadn't been time before to do this, to find all the spots where a touch or a kiss could draw gasps and moans; the sheer urgency of his need and Frodo's had been too great. There was time now.

Frodo's movements quickened a little as Sam licked at his neck; sucking on that spot produced the most wonderful jolt, a quickening of breath to match his movements, and Sam went with him, letting his slow thrusts gradually speed. Frodo was moaning softly now, holding Sam's head where it was, protesting inarticulately when Sam lifted his head for a kiss. Sam laughed and moved obediently back downward, covering the line of Frodo's throat with light kisses and gentle bites, until Frodo wrapped his legs around Sam's waist and pushed upward with an impatient exclamation.

Oh, anything you want, anything...

"Sam, harder," Frodo pleaded; but he did not, Sam thought with a smile, specify exactly what he wanted done harder, so Sam bit harder at his throat and kept his rhythm as it was. Frodo sucked in a sharp breath and his fingers tightened in Sam's hair. "Tease," he muttered.

"You love it," Sam informed him, and hoped he was right.

"Mm, I do, but... oh, Sam, you... ah, yes, like that -"

More, then, and faster, until Frodo was sobbing and driving hard against Sam, one hand buried in Sam's hair and the other raking down his back, tense with the effort of control. "Oh, don't, don't hold back, you're beautiful when you come," Sam whispered. Frodo's hands clenched into fists on him, and Sam lifted himself a little when he felt Frodo's thrusts become uneven and urgent. Frodo was gulping for air now, cries becoming louder and more desperate, and Sam fought for control of his own.

"Oh, Sam, Sam, I -" and Sam watched every flickering change of expression with rapt fascination as Frodo shook and cried out and dug his fingers into Sam's back with bruising force. Then it was all more than his precariously balanced self-control could take and he buried his face in Frodo's neck again, crying out Frodo's name as pleasure flooded through him in a brilliant white wash.

After a while he felt Frodo shift and moved with him, but didn't open his eyes until the bedside candle flared into life. Frodo's skin was lit with the soft red-orange glow of the flame; Sam smiled and ran a hand up Frodo's arm as Frodo curled beside him, sitting with his hand braced on one side of Sam's chest and his knees tucked into the other, smiling back down at him.

Oh, I don't care what this brings down on our heads. I don't. There's nothing this isn't worth.

"How did it get dark so fast?" Frodo wondered, then closed his eyes and somehow managed to give what looked like every muscle in his body a long, catlike stretch without actually moving.

"And where did the day go," Sam added, then winced as Frodo turned a little toward the light. "Ah, I didn't mean to bite that hard," he said in chagrin, lifting a hand to the base of Frodo's neck.

Frodo laughed and caught Sam's hand in his. "I liked it. And I don't mind the mark. I'll wear my collars up for a few days, that's all." He brought Sam's hand to his mouth and kissed it softly, and said, quietly, "I love you, you know."

Sam smiled and moved his fingers to caress Frodo's cheek. "Aye, and I love you."

"Do you..." Frodo took a deep breath and didn't quite look at Sam. "Do you like this? I know you said in a way it was better before -"

"Ah, no, that was just... just me wishing things could be easier for us, is all. I don't think I could stand to not be able to touch you anymore, not now that we've started on it."

Frodo frowned and made a slow, dubious humming sound. "I don't think that answered my question."

"Then let me answer it again." Sam tugged at Frodo's hand, drawing Frodo down to stretch out beside him. "Yes, I like this, being here with you like this. I love it as much as I love you, and that's saying something."

"Good," Frodo murmured.

"Does this mean you'll not be passing me off to the Widow Chubb, then?"

Frodo laughed ruefully. "Not if you want to stay, meleth. But it might be easier, in a way -"

"Aye, but it'd be harder in so many others that it don't seem worth it."

Frodo's arm tightened around him. "Stay with me, then," he whispered, and didn't seem to be talking about the garden anymore.

"As long as you want me." Sam turned a little closer to Frodo and stroked his hair. "You have to understand, though - no matter what I call you here in this bed, or where we know for a fact it's just the two of us, I still have to call you Mr. Frodo when we're not in private."

"And will that keep people from knowing?"

"No. One candle lit in the whole of Bag End, and that in your bedroom, is enough right there to write it across the sky like one of Mr. Gandalf's fireworks. But it'll let people pretend not to see if that's what they want to do."

"Only the rooms on this side of the hallway have windows. The whole smial on the other side could be one big blaze of light for all anyone else knows."

"It's not me you need to make your case to, love, I'm only telling you what people will see. They'll be slower to catch on, maybe, than they would if one of us was a lass, but..." He trailed off and kissed Frodo on the top of the head, laughing softly.

Frodo smiled. "What's funny?"

"I was thinking of what the Gaffer'll say when he finds out about this. 'Have you lost your mind, boy? That's the son of the House!' is how he'll start out, and then he'll say a great many other things, but after he's done scolding and he's fetched me a ding or two round the ear with the flat of his hand -"

"Sam! Would he -"

"Not hard enough to really hurt me, sweeting, never mind it - then when he's done with all that he'll find himself telling me that if I don't take good care of you he'll give me worse than a smack in the head, and then he'll be madder at himself than he'll be at me."

Frodo laughed and kissed Sam's fingertips. "Really... but you said when he finds out."

"Oh, he will. He's as canny about people as he is about plants, the Gaffer is; and he knows me, and knows you better than you might think. For all I know he's seen this coming for years, or it may be he's known since he came back from the Cotton farm."

"Maybe everyone has, and we've worried for nothing," Frodo said wistfully.

He so clearly didn't believe it himself that Sam only kissed him again and whispered, "Maybe. Are you hungry?"

"Starving," Frodo answered, sounding a little surprised.

"Me too. Up with you, then, and I'll make dinner for us."

"Mmm, but my clothes are all the way over there."

"You stay here then. I'll make dinner and bring it in to you."

"No, I'll help." Frodo crawled across Sam - a process that took some time - gathered up Sam's clothes and tossed them to him, and began to get dressed. Sam dressed too, then reached out and gathered Frodo to him.

"Aye, I like this," he whispered into Frodo's hair.

"So do I," Frodo answered, and touched his lips lightly to Sam's; only resting them there, but it was a surprisingly intimate thing nonetheless. "Dinner."

"Dinner," Sam agreed, and let Frodo pull him down the hall.

 

 

Back to Slash Story Listing