West of the Moon
A Tolkien Fanfiction Archive
The Secret Life of Nits
In which there is an outbreak of nits, Sam is an obstreperous teenager, Bell nearly reaches the end of her tether, and Frodo is smooth and charming. HWWP (Hair-Washing Without Plot) ensues. In three parts.
Author: Matilda Filch
Part 1: In Bell's
'I ain't lousy!' Sam insisted, scratching his head.
Bell dropped the last shirt into her basket and removed the peg from her mouth.
'Nobody's sayin' you are, Sam love,' she reassured, and, picking up her basket, went back into the kitchen. Sam was at her heels.
'And my hair's clean! So that means I can't have 'em, don't it?'
'Sam, no one's saying you've got nits,' she sighed as she slid the basket onto the table and went to fetch the iron from the fire. 'You've got to wash your hair in that stuff to stop 'em. So you don't get 'em. See?'
She snapped a shirt out over her pressing-board, and Sam folded his arms over the edge of the basket as she went on.
'Anyhow, Lil was tellin' me they don't nest in dirty hair. They're clean little mites, and nothin' they like better'n a shiny, golden head of hair, fresh from the bucket. Like yours, Samwise Gamgee!' and she tousled his head, remembering too late that he didn't like her doing that anymore.
She watched as he smoothed his hair impatiently back into place and went to the dresser to pick up the dark green bottle that was sitting there. He held it up to the light, and watched the liquid inside move sluggishly to one side. As if it was about to explode, he took the stopper out and sniffed gingerly at the opening.
'But it smells!'
'Course it smells!' Bell retorted, bouncing a spit-wet finger off the surface of the iron. 'T'aint supposed to be somethin' you put on to go a-courtin', is it? It's medicine!' She managed to keep a growl of irritation out of her voice.
'But I ain't ill.' He replaced the stopper, put the bottle firmly on the table and folded his arms.
Bell sighed again and, taking in the furrowed brow and the petulant mouth, wondered when a six-year-old had replaced the sixteen-year-old. She pressed her iron to the still-damp cloth. There was a slight hiss and she felt warmth puff around her hand. Why hadn't she married that quiet, steady Halfred? Produced a crop of nice, obedient bairns? But, no, she'd chosen his brother, that proud and stubborn gardener, who begot more proud and stubborn children, with minds and wills of their own.
She worried the iron around a button, glanced briefly at her scowling, beautiful son, and tried another tack.
'What about Mari and the others, eh? T'aint fair on them. They've done it, why can't you?'
'Because...' he became shriller, '...because...'
Sam was stuck for an answer, and Bell found herself on the receiving end of a ferocious glare. He was turning to head off into the smial when a voice issued suddenly from the kitchen doorway.
'What are you giving your poor mother grief over now, Sam?'
Bell turned in the direction of the voice, to see a figure leaning against the doorframe, his arms folded, his face wearing a wry smile. She felt a hope stir: here might be an ally in her war.
'Good morning, Mrs Gamgee. Sam.' The figure nodded at each of them in turn.
'Oh, g'mornin', Mr Frodo. Just tryin' to get young Sam to do his bit and help stop these here nits from spreadin' round the whole of Hobbiton. You heard about them I s'pose?'
'Yes, I had. The Gamgees haven't got a case, surely?'
'No, we 'aven't. Not yet, leastways.' She gestured with her iron at the bottle on the table. 'But Lil Cotton were given that by Widow Rumble. Her young 'uns caught 'em afore she managed to use it, but she used it on herself and didn't get 'em. Seems it scares 'em off. Scarin' my young nit Sam off too though.'
She looked over at her son and only just managed to stop herself bursting out laughing.
The pout and the furrowed brow had vanished and Sam was leaning casually against the dresser, one hand in his pocket. The sixteen-year-old had returned, and it was doing its very best to look like a tweener, at that.
He spoke, and it seemed to Bell as if his voice had also deepened magically in the last few moments. His tone had become quite reasonable.
'Well mam, I just don't see the need for all this worry.'
'Well Sam,' she echoed, 'I don't see the need for all your fuss.'
'I ain't fussing,' he defended, glancing nervously at Frodo. 'I just don't see the need for dousing my head in that stuff. Smells...odd...like it's off, or summat.'
'Well, Tom and Jolly didn't make no complaints. They just got on with it. Just like you'd be doing if you was acting yer age.'
She watched Sam's jaw tense as he fought the battle with the 'Oh, Maaam! T'aint faaaair!' that left his lips more often than he could help.
'You know Sam...' Frodo broke in, saving him, 'I have an idea that could change your mind.'
Bell and Sam turned to look at Frodo, Sam doubtfully, Bell expectantly. Sam was stubborn, but if any hobbit could change Sam's mind, it was this one.
Frodo's expression was quite open and simple as he continued.
'Why don't you let someone wash it for you? It's really nice. That way it might be more of a treat.'
Bell couldn't help but let out the laughter she'd been holding in. 'Why, Mr Frodo! What an idea!'
'Well, why not? Sam?' Frodo pressed.
Why not? In truth, it was an odd idea - coming from Mr Frodo leastways. Bell just couldn't imagine him doing such an ordinary, everyday thing as having a bath, or eating a meal. Never had been able to. How could he know about things like how nice it was to have someone else wash your hair, when he had his head buried up to the ears in all them books day in and day out?
She knew, oh yes. She knew one of the nicest feelings to be had was strong fingers on your head, rubbing circles over your skin, making you fizz and tingle. Once upon a time, before she had a holeful of wee 'uns running her off her feet, she and Ham had had time for such things.
She knew and, it seemed, Mr Frodo knew too. Well, if it was going to get her Sam to see sense, then what was there to object to, really?
'Mr Frodo, wherever you came by it, I think it's a lovely idea,' she decided firmly. 'What about it, Sam?'
The two older hobbits looked at Sam. He seemed to have lost the power of speech.
'It's really nice, Sam,' cajoled Frodo again. 'Bilbo still does it for me sometimes.'
Bell boggled briefly at the picture this conjured in her mind, but set it aside and looked at her son with what she hoped was bright encouragement. Sam had reddened, and he said uncertainly, 'I don't know...'
'Well, that wasn't a flat-out "no." We might be getting somewhere.'
'We might indeed Mrs Gamgee. Sam?'
'Wh...Who would do it?'
Bell spoke again without thinking
'Well, I could, couldn't I?'
And as soon as she'd said it she could have bitten her tongue. She knew what was coming now. Sam momentarily forgot Frodo's presence, and his voice rose a notch or two.
'You?! But I'm not a baby no more! I'm not having my hair washed by me mam like a kid!!'
'All right, all right, Sam. Don't fret. Mebbe not me, then. Who else?' She made a show of thinking, to cover the twist she felt in her chest. She may have seen off three children before Sam, seen them married, or waved them down the road, but it still hurt when they started growing away.
'What about Mari?'
'Mam. She'd kick up more of a fuss'n I did,' and Bell and Sam both chuckled. Sam could be sharp when he wanted.
'True enough. What about May?'
'She's too busy with the new baby.'
'What about the Gaffer?' said Frodo, and the image of the Gaffer washing Sam's hair made all three bubble into laughter. Then Frodo made another suggestion.
'What about me?'
Bell turned to Frodo with more laughter ready in her throat, to find he was looking at Sam quite seriously whilst Sam was having a deal of trouble keeping up his casual tweener performance.
'Oh, Mr Frodo, you mustn't trouble yourself. We couldn't ask you to...'
'It's no trouble, Mrs Gamgee, really. And you're not asking...' Frodo arched one eyebrow slightly at her and kinked a corner of his mouth. 'I'm offering.' And to her deep and lingering irritation, Bell felt a blush rise in her cheeks.
Frodo turned back to Sam. 'I haven't anything else to do today. Why don't you come up this afternoon? We'll have some tea after,' Frodo twinkled. 'Just to get you over the ordeal.'
That was it. Even though Sam hadn't given his answer, Bell knew her war was won. He didn't stand a chance. Frodo was his elder and better, but more than that, caught in that voice and that twinkle, Sam wouldn't be able to say no.
She had a sudden notion of stepping between them, her back to her son, warding off Mr Frodo. But she shook herself. She was being daft. What harm was there in him? He was just being kind and thoughtful, using his charm to help her out of a corner with her youngest. That was all.
'Aye, alright' Sam agreed finally, in a low voice. He looked up at Frodo. 'All right. I'll come up this afternoon.'
'Good. I'll see you then.'
'Thank you kindly, Mr Frodo!'
'Think nothing of it, Mrs Gamgee. Sam.' He nodded to them both again and was gone.
Bell gazed at the empty doorway for a few moments, then turned to Sam. He was still looking at the space where Frodo had stood.
'Well, well,' she said, not bothering to hide her amusement. 'You won't wash your hair for me, but you'll let young Mr Frodo do it for you, eh?' She knew she shouldn't tease, but she couldn't help it.
'I can't exactly say no to a Baggins, can I?'
'No, indeed. But why all the blushin' to go with it?'
'I ain't blushin',' Sam spoke very quietly.
'No, that's right, you ain't,' Bell replied, just as quiet. 'And I'm an Elf Princess.'
And with that, she put down her iron, walked over to him, took his head in both her hands and planted a kiss in the middle of his curls, fully expecting him to twist away from her. He gave in without a peep.
'Ah, my Sam. What's going to become of you, eh?'
She pulled back to look at him. He didn't reply, but when he raised his eyes sheepishly to hers, they were the colour of hazelnuts just off the fire.
Part 2: In
Sam found himself looking at Frodo's toes.
He was sitting on a bench out the back of Bag End, bent over with his head almost between his knees. He'd taken off his shirt and could feel his back stretched taut. He felt a hand on the back of his head.
The bite of cold water against his sun-warmed scalp made him smile involuntarily.
'Aye, Mr Frodo, don't you be worryin'.'
He felt his whole head softly hatted by the cool water. It trickled down the sides of his face and along his forehead, a stray drop crossing his cheekbone and dripping off the end of his nose. He watched as the ground darkened under the splash of water, which trickled away towards Frodo's feet. He expected to see the feet hop back, but they stayed where they were, letting the water run over them.
Then there was more water as Frodo finished off the bucket, thoroughly dousing Sam's head. Frodo's feet were gone then, moving behind him and he felt a hand sweep the hair away from his brow, then fingers smoothing it back from his temples, then nothing.
He heard a glassy scrape, and caught sight of a flash of green, which disappeared beyond the limits of his vision and suddenly all was still. Sam stared down at the ground, waiting. He could hear no movement or breathing.
Was Frodo still there?
'You still with us, Mr Frodo?' he chuckled nervously.
A voice sounded from close above him.
'Yes, Sam.' There was a shuffle of feet against the ground. 'The mixture is slow to come out. It's very thick.'
A few more beats. Sam wondered if he should sit up while he waited. He began to move, but heard Frodo speak again.
'Ah, here we are.'
He heard palms being rubbed together and then felt his head handled again, hands moving firmly from his brow to the nape of his neck, and then back up, just skimming his ears. The movements pulled gently at the roots of his curls, each tug sending a little shock of sensation through his scalp to the rest of his body.
A smell filled his nose.
It was something like, yet not like, the smell that had wafted from the bottle earlier. In the open air it seemed diluted, stretched thinner. It wasn't just one intense, overwhelming smell, but a lot of different smells crammed together, and as they spread into the air, Sam could begin to name them. The one he knew best was mint. Or at least he thought it was mint. It seemed mintier than normal mint, because it wasn't just a smell, but seemed as if you could almost touch it or hear it or something. It was cool, but peppery too, and he could feel it in his nose and almost on his tongue, yes, but it was prickling on the skin of his scalp too. As if his skin could taste it. Queer. And when he breathed in, it felt as if a breeze was blowing through his head.
Frodo's palms brushed over his head a few more times and then their movements began to shrink, and instead of a whole hand and palm, Sam could feel just fingertips. They began making swirling motions on a patch of scalp near his right ear, and they were so vivid against his skin they almost felt like little animals with minds of their own. A few moved quickly and lightly, weaving around each other, one darting in where another had missed a bit, whilst there were two that were bossier and firmer than the others, and Sam guessed that these must be Frodo's thumbs.
The combination of the peppery tingle of the medicine, his wet hair cooling in the air, with this tickling, swirling touch from the older lad's fingers made Sam's whole scalp fairly hum. He had no idea he could feel so much in one small part of his body. Well, he could, but it wasn't usually this part. And just when he thought he had got used to it, and the shivers had died down, and that piece of skin was almost numb with sensation, he felt Frodo's fingers begin to move across the front of his head towards his other ear, and he felt fresh sparks shower over his scalp.
He began to see why Frodo had made this suggestion. And, he had to admit, why his ma had agreed too, though how she could know what this felt like, Sam found it difficult to imagine. The Gaffer? Had his Da done this for his Mam? The picture this made in his head was too peculiar to keep hold of for long. He didn't want to think about his Mam and Da. All he wanted right now was to feel.
The goosebumps that had risen on his forearms at the first touch of the water were still there, but Sam wasn't cold. His skin was as alive as if he was diving free through Bywater pool. Frodo's fingers continued their swirling so that gradually they had touched every inch of Sam's head and streams of sparks were chasing each other down his body in a rushing waterfall.
Then, all of a sudden, the tone of Frodo's touch began to deepen. It became harder, his fingers beginning to press rhythmically, almost digging into Sam's skin, and the feelings they sent into Sam's body weren't so light and shimmering now, but sank into his flesh and lay there heavily. Frodo's fingers became almost too sharp and Sam felt nearly-pain dart down his neck, lighting up his shoulder blades and spine before pooling in the small of his back. Sam wanted to cry out, 'Ow! Stop!' but he didn't because he had the sudden thought that Frodo knew what he was doing. Sam felt that in some odd way he was being tested.
So he didn't make a sound, but instead gave himself up to the rhythm of Frodo's fingers. He could feel each of them separately now - he could probably have counted them, if they only stayed still long enough, but they pushed and dragged swiftly about his head, making the blood burn in streaks under his scalp. The trick, he found, was to follow them with his mind, let them go where they would, trust them, instead of trying to guess what they would do next. He let go of the tension in his chest and gave himself up. His eyes sank shut and he saw the sun's orange glow on the back of his eyelids; he heard distant calls and cries and birdsong; he felt warmth growing all over his head, and felt it spread over the rest of his body.
Then, one finger made a furrow in the sensitive skin behind his ear and he felt an arrow of heat light a path down his back. His head rocked under the pressure and he let out a small involuntary moan.
The fingers paused momentarily.
'Am I pressing too hard, Sam? I'm sorry.'
'No. No, Mr Frodo, you ain't. It's...truth be told...' Sam bit his lip and confessed, '...it's nice.'
'Good,' Frodo replied quietly, and Sam could hear the smile in his voice.
However nice it may have been - and Sam felt the word 'nice' didn't quite cover it - when Frodo's fingers returned, he was relieved to feel them gentling against his skin, and instead of circles, they began to make a spreading motion, from the centre outwards. Out-in. Out-in. Out-in. They spread over Sam's head as if it were the sky and Frodo's fingertips were Gandalf's fireworks. Or even, and he smiled to himself at this, like fast-blossoming flowers, appearing and disappearing all around his head. Blooming, and fading. Blooming, and fading. Sam was half-hypnotised.
Mr Frodo's planting flowers in my hair, he thought and felt happy and slightly silly.
But at the feelings those fingers produced, without meaning to, all over the rest of his body, he thought, Mr Frodo's planting flowers all over me, and this made him feel not silly, but excited, and...afraid.
Afraid? Why should you be afraid? Ye daftie.
He looked at the ground, at the uneven, sandy stones framed by his feet, at his hands hanging between his knees, and sensed Frodo behind him.
Because it's nice, he answered. Because I want him to, and I want him to carry on. I want him to touch me in all the places that are fizzing and tingling now, and I never want him to stop.
He could still feel the heat underneath his scalp where Frodo's fingers had pressed so hard before, and overlaying that now, the blossoming motion that soothed like cool water on a burn, that made you almost forgive and love the fire that burnt you, and want it back.
Sam felt the hands leave his head.
And as on a bright day when he closed his eyes and could see everything painted in light inside his eyes, his whole head was covered with sensation, even though there was nothing touching it now.
'Right, Samwise. I think it's worked well enough in by now. Let's rinse you off.'
He heard Frodo's feet against the earth of the yard, padding off to refill the bucket from the water butt. He heard a splosh and a gloop, then the patter of falling drops, and then Frodo's footsteps returning, patting wetly over the ground. Sam's head ducked slightly under the weight of the falling water, and all the mess of sensation was washed away in the bright rinsing.
And here were Frodo's hands again, ruffling briskly, raking at Sam's temples, his forehead, by his ears, and he could have sworn Frodo's fingertips were callused and dry, the rough way they felt against his skin.
And then suddenly the fingers at his nape were replaced by one soft touch.
And for a moment Sam couldn't think what it was. It couldn't have been Mr Frodo's fingers. That feeling - it was gone now - it had been too yielding, too ... too ... blurry ... to be fingertips. Too soft and cool, and a little bit wet too, like clouds, or like a pony's nose, like...like... Oh.
Like a kiss.
And for all his fearfulness a moment ago, Sam couldn't stop a smile begin to spread from the corners of his mouth. He tried to stop it taking over his whole face so he wouldn't look a grinning fool when he raised his head finally, because he could feel that Frodo was nearly done. He was just pulling over locks of Sam's hair now, and Sam felt one final ruffle before the hands disappeared altogether and the rough weight of a towel engulfed his head. It wasn't enough to drive off the last memories of that soft touch.
'That's it. You're done.' Frodo's voice was low, uneven.
Sam raised his hand to the back of his neck and tentatively touched the spot where he thought Frodo's lips might have been. Then he rubbed vigorously with the towel in both hands, trying to rub some sense into his face, forcing the foolish smile away. He stood and let the towel settle round his shoulders. He turned towards Frodo, not sure what he might see, to find the edge of a cherry-coloured face disappearing as Frodo carried the bucket off. He was heading back to the water butt to fill it again.
Sam called across the yard, 'I thought we were done, Mr Frodo.'
'No, Sam.' Frodo called back, hefting the full bucket back over the edge of the butt and turning towards Sam. 'You're done. But what about me? What if I get nits, and pass them on?'
Frodo was opposite Sam now, setting the bucket down, and Sam could see faint swipes of crimson still lingering under his eyes. He felt a lot of words backed up in his throat, but he couldn't get any of them out. Frodo looked directly at him for a moment, then stooped to take up the green bottle. He offered it to Sam.
'Would you oblige me?'
Sam's fingers closed around the cool, smooth glass.
'Be glad to, Mr Frodo,' he managed, and felt as if he had decided to step into thin air from a great height.
Part 3: In Sam's
Sam slid his eyes away from Frodo unbuttoning his shirt, picked up the familiar green bottle and held it up to the light. He smiled wryly to himself as he remembered that afternoon four years ago.
Sixteen he had been then. Sixteen and clueless. And as much as he'd wanted it to, nothing out of the ordinary had happened. He might have felt, when he took the bottle from Frodo's hands, as if he was stepping into thin air, but as it turned out, that afternoon had been no more perilous than stepping off his own back porch. To be sure, there had been nothing he had wanted to do more than untangle his fingers from Frodo's hair and sink his mouth onto that exposed nape, but the thought of actually doing it had turned him to stone, and the moment when it seemed he could do it had slipped further away, until it had become an impossibility.
He'd been too young, that was the truth of it, harsh and simple. He'd washed Frodo's hair, a little clumsily, but without incident, and they'd had tea, as promised. Frodo had been polite, and asked Sam interested questions about starting work with the Gaffer, and at the end of the afternoon Sam had gone home. Frodo had never once alluded to the kiss, and in the months that followed, Sam couldn't help but wonder if he'd just imagined the whole thing.
But not long back, a few months before this new outbreak of nits had been heard of, he had come home from Bag End early. There was generally plenty to do up there, but sometimes - especially during the winter months - there just wasn't much you could do, save sit on your backside and watch the frost thaw. The Bagginses had had to go to Buckland of a sudden that day anyway, and Sam had come home.
He had hung his coat up in the hall of Number 3 with mixed feelings. Aye, it was nice to be back in the warm, and there was no lack of things to be done about the place - he'd give May a hand with the bread, for a start - but there was no denying he'd rather be up at Bag End, being about the job he was built for.
As he made his way down the hall to the kitchen he'd heard two female voices, giggles and the words 'Mr Frodo', followed by a hurried shushing. Any mention of that name could make his ears perk, but that giggle and the 'hush' meant he could easily guess the kinds of things that were being said, and he smiled to himself with an odd feeling of pride. He reached the kitchen-door and stood there quietly for a moment, resting his hand lightly on the handle, knowing full well he wasn't going in yet. He lowered his head as he listened, still half-smiling. The voices of his sisters were muffled but audible.
'Aye, that Mr F, he's a lovely one, but shame on you for saying so, Marigold Gamgee.'
'Well, it's only a truth every lass can see for herself.'
'Well much good may it do them all, for it's not them he has an eye for, I'll warrant.'
Sam heard the quiet, rhythmic knock of china against wood and guessed it was the bowl of dough rocking slightly from the pressure of May's kneading.
'Aye, I suppose that's true enough. Though it seems it don't matter who he has an eye for, nowt ever comes of it.'
'And Mr Bilbo's all of a fret that Mr F won't settle, what with his coming-of-age round the corner and all.'
'It's a right shame, poor lad. Such a lovely-looking fellow.' Sam heard Marigold sigh wistfully. He could picture her sitting at the table, cheek resting on one hand, while her sister worked.
'Oh, don't be so soft Mari. Honestly, you're as bad as them lasses up in the village, mooning and making cow eyes every time he appears at market.'
'I ain't soft. It's not for me I'm wanting anything. It's just sad that he ain't found someone he can settle on.'
'Now you're not just soft, you're stupid too. Mari. You know why it is that Mr Frodo won't settle, don't you?'
'Aye, because he ain't found the right one yet.'
May snorted. 'No Mari, it ain't that.' The sounds of kneading had stopped, and there was a silence. Sam waited. Finally May spoke again, almost to herself. 'It's because he's found it that he won't settle.'
Sam's smile faltered.
'What do you mean?' Marigold sounded wary and curious. 'If he's found it, then what's the sticking point?'
Sam heard a soft thump and guessed May'd taken the dough out of the bowl to knead on the table. He could hear the shuffle and pat of floury dough against wood as he waited for May's answer.
'Because it's someone he thinks he can't have.'
Sam became very still, whilst inside him all became tumult.
'Tell,' Marigold demanded quietly. 'If you know summat, tell.'
'Our Sam,' May stated simply.
And Sam's smile faded completely, his mouth closing, his eyes growing large. He heard Mari let out a shocked little laugh.
'May! You can't mean that!'
'It's there to see, to anyone who cares to look a little closer.'
'But Sam's... He's our ... He's not...' Mari struggled. 'Oh, for the lady's sake.' She gave up. 'He's just...Sam.'
'He's just Sam to us, but you watch next time you see Mr Frodo and Sam near each other. You look at Mr F's face and how he looks at Samwise. You tell me if I'm wrong. It's always been like that with him up the hill, and Mam knows it too. Though she'd sooner die than say so.'
Suddenly the hallway where Sam was standing felt unbearably stuffy and he needed to get back into the open. The sound of Marigold's questioning voice faded as he went to fetch his jacket from the peg and shrugged it back on. Outside, he stood at the gate and took great puffs of freezing air. He felt his cheeks burn and his brain tumble as he tried not to look up the hill towards the empty smial under the tree.
In the months after that, though he tried to tell himself that May's words had been idle gossip and didn't mean anything, he had held onto them all the same. He had kept them in a quiet corner of his memory, as he might stow a keepsake under his pillow, taking them out to hear every now and then. And the moment Sam had heard the rumour of a new case of nits making the rounds, a treacherous little hope had lit up in his heart.
So here they were again, out the back of Bag End, everything seemingly the same as before, but not quite. As Sam rubbed Widow Rumble's concoction between his palms, he watched Frodo settle on the bench and tried not to pay too much attention to the fact that Frodo wasn't wearing a shirt, or to the sneaking hope that things were going to be different this time. He was being given another chance, he thought, a chance to play out that whole sun- and water- and sensation-drenched afternoon of four years ago, but this time with the right ending.
'So Sam, here we are again, eh?' It was almost as if Mr Frodo had heard and echoed Sam's thoughts.
'Aye, right enough, Mr F. Seems they always come back, no matter what you might do to stop 'em,' he responded carefully as he swept the mixture over Frodo's head. The hair felt like wet silk against his palm.
'Though this stuff did seem to work. Let's hope it's the same this time.'
'Aye, let's be hoping.'
'And it's not the most unpleasant way to spend an afternoon, after all.' Frodo's tone was light.
Sam was taken unawares by his own blush, but he managed to keep his voice steady.
'Indeed no, Mr F. Now, you will be sure and tell me if I press too hard, or pull your hair or owt, won't you?'
'Oh, I will Sam.'
As Sam threaded his fingers in amongst the curls, Frodo's hair felt cool against his skin, as if he was dabbling his fingers in a pool on a hot day. He worked his way gradually over Frodo's scalp, his hands side by side, his thumbs in the middle, moving up the crown.
'Oh, that's nice.'
Sam's flush of pleasure deepened, and his hands carried on, pressing not too firmly, not too softly.
'Been getting a bit of practice have you?'
Sam let out a flustered cough and his circling fingers paused briefly. 'Mebbe.'
'And who might the lucky lass be?' Frodo paused knowingly. 'Or lasses?'
Sam felt his blush reach the roots of his hair. This wasn't the way he'd been hoping the talk would go at all. The movements of his hands against Frodo's scalp became a little brisker.
'Oh, you know. No-one special. Just. Lasses.'
'Friends of your sisters, perhaps?' Frodo's tone nudged at him.
'Aye, mebbe.' Perhaps if he didn't say much Frodo wouldn't pursue it.
'Oh Sam, you've gone all bashful. You can tell me, surely?'
'Nowt to tell.' He knew he was chancing it being so short with Mr Frodo, but he just didn't know what else he could do to head him off.
'Now, I bet that's a lie to begin with. I have a feeling there's plenty to tell.' There was something a little plaintive in Frodo's tone now.
'Nowt you'd want to hear.'
There was a silence, and when Frodo spoke again, the tease had left his voice.
'I'm sorry Sam. I won't pester you anymore.'
Well, he'd got what he wanted, but a little more than he bargained for on top. He and Frodo lapsed into silence and Sam wondered if one day he'd be able to be in Frodo's presence and open his mouth without putting his foot in it. He wove his hands back through Frodo's hair, and set himself to the job of pressing Frodo's pique out of him as best he could.
He'd been caught on the hop by Frodo's sudden teasing - he'd never had such a conversation with him before, and was surprised by how flummoxed it had got him. Of course he had dallied with some lasses about the place, and aye, it was enjoyable enough in its own way, but he'd done it to keep his sisters happy as much as anything, to stem the flow of their constant ribbing about when he was going to start courting. And to hear Mr F take the part of his sisters, well, that was a bit of a turnaround, and he didn't know quite where to put himself. He felt himself pink again at the thought, and paid renewed attention to the task at hand.
He pushed his hands through the wet hair, and looked at his thumbs circling against Frodo's scalp. The curls wound round his fingers like black ribbons.
Lots of folk said Frodo's hair was black, but it wasn't really, just a darker shade of brown than most hobbits. Sam was used to seeing it dry, when the light caught at the warm hues hidden in its depths, the golds and umbers. But in the water, and the lowering sunlight, the colour had deepened and a whole new palette shone through that Sam found hard to place. It did look black, he had to admit, but not quite. The only thing he had to compare it to was the colour of the ravens that he saw settle on Farmer Cotton's fields sometimes. If you could get close enough to them, and their plumage caught the light in the right way, you could see they weren't true black, but had a blue shimmer to them. He saw deep blue flash off the surface of Frodo's hair in the light of the late sun and the colour of his eyes made a sudden sense.
...It don't matter who he has an eye for, nowt ever comes of it...
'Remember the first time I did this. I were that nervous.'
Frodo chuckled. 'Yes I know, Sam. I remember.'
'And you were right good about it too. Didn't shout or get angry or the like,' Sam continued carefully.
'That's because I knew it would do no good. Just make you more nervous...' Frodo laughed at the memory, '...and I probably really would have lost all my hair.' Sam laughed at this too.
Frodo had teased him at the time for his clumsiness. 'Ow!' he'd exclaimed, 'Have you been helping the Gaffer with his weeding lately? Because that's what it feels like you're doing up there.' And then afterwards, whenever he saw Sam, he'd sometimes tip his head towards him, ruffling his own hair, and say 'Do you want to finish the job? I'm sure there are a few hairs you missed last time - I'm not completely bald yet.'
'Aye well,' Sam said now. 'At least there wouldn't have been no danger of you gettin' nits then, eh?' They giggled at this, and lapsed into silence again, a silence that was a little softer round the edges.
Sam looked at his fingers overlapping each other, whorling the wet clumps of hair, and watched as Frodo's shoulders began to loosen from the slightly tense hunch they had been in and Frodo's head began to give a little under the pressure of Sam's touch. The first time he'd done this, it had been impossible to think that he might produce the same sensations in Frodo as had been drawn from him, but now he let himself believe differently. Sam remembered something Rosie had done once that had fair sent tingling needles through him, and he did the same to Frodo now, combing his fingers down the sides of Frodo's head quickly a few times, and then dragging his thumbs up the middle from nape to forehead, and watched as Frodo's shoulders shivered.
'Well Sam,' Frodo said on a shaky laugh, 'Whoever you've been practicing on, I must say you have improved with experience.'
'Good of you to say so.' Sam let his smile show in his voice. This was better.
He began to press harder, feeling the rough scramble of hair against the pads of his fingertips, and further below, the bumps and undulations of Frodo's scalp. He pushed his fingers in up to their hilts, felt them buried entirely in Frodo's ever-so-slightly-too-long curls and began to make rhythmic circles, each hand mirroring the other's movements, and Sam felt himself quite hypnotised by the tickle of Frodo's hair against his hands - it seemed to wake answering tingles over his body that lit and faded and reappeared, like glow-worms in the dark.
It's because he's found it that he won't settle.
And the Lady help him, for he suddenly said,
'Mr F, I ain't forgotten nothing about that first afternoon I come up here. Nothing.'
There was a long quiet pause.
When Frodo responded it was with infinite care, sounding as though he was holding his tone steady so as not to spill anything. 'Why, Sam. I know you haven't. We were talking about it only a moment ago.'
'Aye, but we was joshing, Mr F. I been remembering how nice it was, to have come up here on such a fine day, and remembering what it felt like to have someone...'
'And you have those lasses to court now,' said Frodo laughingly, 'and you must have a lovely time doing all th...'
'But I ain't been thinking about them, begging your pardon. I been remembering you.' Sam's voice was quiet and steady. 'And I been remembering something you did.' Sam circled his thumb over a particular area of Frodo's nape.
There was no immediate response and the echo of Sam's words rang in the stillness.
'I see,' said Frodo eventually, almost tonelessly.
Sam held the curls still against Frodo's scalp. The silence was thick and heavy.
Frodo spoke again, very quietly.
'And I assure you, I apologise. It was an oversight. Please don't feel obliged to mention it.'
Sam's heart sank.
'But I ain't...'
'It's all right, Sam. You've no need to excuse my behaviour. I know it was wrong, and there's an end to it,' he said, as if shutting a door firmly. 'Are we nearly done?'
If the door had been real Sam would have rested his forehead against it, and laid one palm on its rough surface. Silently, he took a breath.
'Nearly, Mr Frodo.' His voice was almost as toneless as Frodo's had been a few moments before.
Sam suddenly felt as if no time had passed since the first time he had done this, years ago; that he was the shy and shaky teen he had been then, with no clue what to do, or about Frodo, or about anything at all.
He moved his hands automatically over Frodo's scalp and listened to the rushing sound of emptiness in his head. He didn't know - had never known - how to penetrate this glassy coolness of Frodo's. Whatever words he might use would just slide off with a clink, leaving the surface undisturbed. He looked at his brown, square fingers caught up in that blue-black silk and something cut off in his throat. He realised that this afternoon had indeed been different, but not in any way that he had been hoping.
He may as well get it over with.
'Just need a rinse now,' he murmured and untangled his hands from Frodo's hair. He picked up the bucket to take it to the water-butt. They'd not had rain for a couple of weeks and he had to stretch in for the rim of the bucket to reach the surface of the water. As he hefted the bucket over the side, he felt the blood hum in his cheeks and lips. He still couldn't quite believe that this was how the afternoon was going to end - not with May's words still whispering quietly in the back of his head.
He took the bucket to the other side of the bench so that he stood in front of Frodo. He placed a hand on the back of Frodo's head.
'Ready? It'll be chilly.'
'I'm fine, Sam. Go ahead.'
Sam poured carefully, and as the bucket emptied and lightened, he held it with one hand at the top rim, while he ruffled and drew the water through Frodo's hair. Frodo shifted and Sam watched as Frodo brought his own hands up to his head to join Sam's and began to work the rinsing water through. The pale lengths of Frodo's fingers covered his own, making a lattice against the black background of Frodo's hair. The last drops dribbled out of the bucket.
'Towel,' Frodo intoned.
In a trance, Sam put the bucket down and, stepping back over the bench, went to the windowsill where he'd left the towel. He returned and dropped it over Frodo's head. Frodo filled both hands with it and rubbed rapidly, standing as he did so and wandering forward a few paces.
There must be something he could say.
Frodo turned gradually, still towelling, his movements slowing as his head came up and his eyes met Sam's. Sam knew he was staring - he wasn't even pretending to be busy, doing something half-useful like putting the stopper in the bottle, or hanging up the bucket. He was just standing and looking at Frodo, and gradually Frodo stopped rubbing, let the towel drop around his shoulders and stared back.
His hair was sticking up in tufts all about his head, stray drops of water still trickling down the sides of his face, which was flushed from having had his head at his knees for such a while. His lips were slightly parted, as if about to speak, his eyes unblinking, and his brows almost imperceptibly tented.
Someone he thinks he can't have.
Sam thought he heard a gull's call far away in the distance, but realised that the sound had come from inside his own chest. There was a tiny question in Frodo's expression that Sam suddenly knew he could answer - but not with words.
He stepped over the bench and covered the ground between them in two calm strides, and with both hands he brought Frodo's face to his, Frodo's mouth to his and kissed him with soft determination. Frodo's face was chill, still damp from the rinse-water runnelling over it, and his lips were cool as whipped cream.
And now Sam knew what it was like to step into thin air from a great height, because he was falling, wind whistling past his ears, heart trying to escape his chest, and he was hoping, hoping, hoping that Frodo would put out a hand to catch him, but Frodo was still, quite still, and Sam felt as if he was holding a statue.
And then slowly, at the point Sam thought his heart was about to break or burst, he realised a hand had bunched itself in the fabric of his sleeve, and he felt another had come to rest against the side of his face and he knew it was all right - that he was safe - and the cool lips pressing against his yielded and gave sudden glimpses of a molten place beneath - hot, viscous, and sweet - and waterfalls of sparks such as Sam had never felt before cascaded through his veins.
He folded Frodo entirely into his arms, his palms filling with the smooth, surprisingly warm skin of Frodo's bare back. Sam heard a small noise of impatience, and Frodo's mouth began to break open under his and he fell again, lost himself in this unimaginably hot place; a place that tasted dark and headily sweet and grown-up - of wine and chocolate and salt - and he thought that as long as he had this mouth, he'd never want for anything else. He became aware that Frodo's thumb was making tiny circles over the skin at his temple, and he could feel the sting of something pinching at the small of his back where Frodo's other hand had become twisted in his shirt. He never wanted this to end, ever.
But slowly, inevitably, they began to release each other.
As they caught their breath, Sam gazed searchingly into Frodo's eyes, and spoke the first words that had been uttered for many minutes.
'I love nits.'
Frodo's deep breaths wobbled into an uncertain chuckle.
'I beg your pardon?'
Sam smiled sideways, as his fingers threaded through Frodo's damp hair, and he looked at the once-impenetrable features, now suddenly softened and open.
'I said I love nits. I been waiting years to do that, and I thought I might never get another chance.'
Frodo tipped his head back, baring his throat, and Sam smiled, watching, drinking in the sound of his laugh, feeling as if he'd found the key to a puzzle.
Bell was just taking the last pillowcase from the line when she heard a peal of laughter sail out over the air from Bag End. She paused with one hand full of linen and the other just dropping the peg into her pinny and listened. It rang out for a few moments and then stopped abruptly. She wondered at that and hoped Mr Frodo was all right, and that Sam wasn't bothering him too much. She'd never have guessed that they would have made such friends, but at the same time also wondered why she had ever been worried for Sam in Mr Frodo's company. He'd turned out to be harmless, good for Sam even, teasing Sam out of his youthful nonsense. She put her basket on the kitchen table and moved towards the fire for her iron. Sam had grown in a few short years into a hobbit with a ready laugh - against himself as much as others - and quite the eye for the lasses. And she couldn't help but think that it was Mr Frodo drawing him out of himself that had done it. Not that Mr F was one for the lasses himself (and nor was Master Bilbo either, now she came to think on it) but, he seemed to have passed on something of his easy way to Sam. She smiled to herself as her iron hissed down onto the damp sheet. Aye, them two getting to know one another, it had turned out for the best all round.
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