Far Over Wood

Warmth. And good food, mustn't forget that in the telling. And a rosy-cheeked hobbit woman standing in the doorway, the firelight from inside tracing her 'round with a golden glow. There she stood, drying herhands, and scolding her husband to be careful, don't go arguing with any foreigners, come straight back.

On second thought, he'd leave her out. Warmth and good food any hobbit could appreciate, but the ache in his heart as he listened to Farmer Maggot's good wife... he'd never been likely to find a loving wife of his own, not for all Bilbo's money and inherited position. Now, with this golden... danger in his pocket, and who knew what ahead --

"Mr. Frodo?" Hardly more than a whisper, just enough to be audible over the wagon wheels, but not enough to disturb the quiet hanging in the air. "Mr. Frodo, are you all right?"

"I'm fine, Sam," he said. (Plowed land inched past the wagon. Couldn't Maggot go a little faster? He'd not lit his lantern, true, but this was his own land, surely he knew it.)

"You're shivering," Sam persisted. The touch of a hand on his arm, fire-warm through jacket and shirt -- it was chill out here in the night air. "Farmer Maggot's given us some blankets. He won't mind."

"Sam--" Blink once, then thick-woven blankets, likely from Goody Maggot's loom, half muffled him. Not as warm as Sam's hand. "Sam, I won't have you freeze at my expense."

"There's blankets enough," Sam said. "Mr. Pippin's already wrapped up in one." But he obediently picked up one himself, and snuggled down against the cold.

They reached the causeway not a minute later, and turned toward the Ferry. Slow, slow -- a Big Person walking could surely overtake them. The darkness pressed down from above, and thick mist rose from below. Sam stared forward as if he could part the fog with strength of will alone. No talking now, not Sam nor anyone. They all listened, for something other than the creak of the wheels and the slow clop of the ponies' hooves.

It arrived just as they reached the Ferry and safety -- the sound of hoofs on the road ahead, approaching. Maggot jumped down and went to the ponies, while Pippin sat up straight, yawning, blanket sliding down and back into the bed of the wagon. Sam, on the other hand --

"You'd better be hidden, Mr. Frodo." Hands on his shoulders and brushing over his hair, arranging him down flat on the cart and drawing blankets over him until he could feel his own breath warm against his face. Sam explained in rapid phrases as he worked: "You get down in the wagon -- and cover up with blankets--"

It won't work, he wanted to say. He'd tried to tell them earlier, Sam and Pippin both, what he'd seen and felt earlier, when the Black Rider passed. He couldn't just lie low. He could feel the Ring in his pocket, pressing into him like an awkwardly large pebble. It burned too, or felt like it did. Not a clean, warm fire like Sam's hand on his arm, but sullen and smoldering. Even as he groped for the words, the feeling was gone.

"--and we'll send this rider to the rightabouts!" Sam clapped him on what was, perhaps, meant to be a blanket-covered shoulder, and jumped down from the wagon to confront whoever it might be.

("What do you want, and where are you going?"

"I want Mr. Baggins. Have you seen him?"

"Mr. Merry!")

Crossing the Brandywine didn't prove nearly as reassuring as Frodo Baggins had hoped. The air didn't hold its breath, over on the far side of the river, and the sense of disconnection -- of being one step back from himself -- faded a little. A great pity, that: he would far rather have made his confession to his friends with some sort of mental insulation in place. Instead, he watched Sam as Merry poled them across the river. Sam's first experience on the River, or so far from Hobbiton, for that matter -- what must he be thinking? But Sam only glanced back and forth from Buckland to the Marish, and shrugged to himself, and sighed once, without explaining why he sighed.

Sam hesitated, once cross the River, and Frodo hesitated with him, even as Pippin led the pony on up the path, and Merry busied himself with tying up the ferry. Frodo opened his mouth to say something reassuring (although what could that be? 'You'll see home again'? Frodo himself didn't believe it, why should Sam?), then Sam leaned into him and whispered hoarsely, "Look back, Mr. Frodo! Do you see anything?"

Frodo, puzzled, looked from Sam to the landing. Farmer Maggot?

No. Worse. A dark shape that sniffed at their tracks, not a hound but something more terrible. Frodo's blood fairly froze in his veins, and Merry's bewildered curiosity didn't help at all. "Something that is following us," Frodo said briefly. "Don't ask any more now." Black Riders still, emissaries of Morder here in the Shire. "I'll tell you later. Let's get indoors and then we can talk." Supper. They'd eaten once, but another supper... warmth and good food, Frodo thought, as Merry at last rode on ahead. But no wife. No one to worry should I fall. Friends, yes, but no one like Goody Maggot, not for him.

"He'll not get to us," Sam said from beside him.

It took Frodo a shamefully long moment to realize what Sam meant. "Not tonight, at least," he said, keeping his voice equally quiet to prevent disturbing Pippin, who stumbled along beside them, yawning occasionally. "We've a long row to hoe, Sam, and we cannot tell who might stand along it."

"I could name some names, if I'd the choice," Sam said.

Frodo could hear the smile in his voice, and smiled back, involuntarily. But before he could say anything, Pippin said suddenly, "What are you two talking about?"

"Nothing of import," Frodo said, though he didn't take his eyes away from Sam. "Sam's keeping me from yawning, that's all."

"Well, talk louder, then." Pippin yawned again, and shrugged his shoulders as if that would resettle his pack. "I am asleep on my feet, and I'm sure the road is twice as long as it used to be."

"You had three helps of spiced potatoes. That always sends you to sleep."

Easy, this raillery, more easy than he would have believed possible. Sam had retreated into silence again. After prodding me into speaking. There was safety in speech, too much darkness in the quiet of his own thoughts. How did Sam know? How well do you know me, Samwise, and I never noticed? This was a hardly more comfortable line of thinking than before.

Crickhollow didn't look exactly like home, as they approached. Bag End had been properly dug into a hill, after all, where Crickhollow was (no disputing it) a house. But once inside, wrapped in firelight and fire warmth, surrounded by friends and his own things, Frodo could believe himself home and loved. Fatty in the kitchen, doing something with mushrooms and butter that produced marvelous smells; Pippin beside him, laughing at the looking-glass set askew so it stared visitors in the face; Merry grinning at Pippin and asking what Frodo thought of it, all the old things from Bag End set up anew. And Sam like the foundation of it all, source of warmth and truest support, the only one who knew... for pity's sake, he had to stop this. He'd be mooning over the poor lad in a minute, and Sam had enough troubles without his master losing his wits.

Merry either didn't notice Frodo's distraction, or was polite enough to pretend he didn't. The three travelers hung up their cloaks and piled their packs on the floor, then followed Merry down the passage to a door at the far end. Merry threw it open.

"A bath! O blessed Meriadoc!"

"Which order shall we go in?" A bath. Washing three days' worth of dust and sweat and stink of fear off of him. "Eldest first or quickest first? You'll be last either way, Master Peregrin."

"Trust me to arrange things better than that," Merry assured them. "In that room there are three tubs, and a copper full of boiling water. There are also towels, mats and soap."

Pippin flung his clothing every which way (missing fire and other tubs only by a miracle, in Frodo's view), and dove into the tub farthest from the door (sloshing water onto the floor, as usual). Frodo took more time, dropping his clothing into a relatively neat pile, eyes dreamily fixed on the tub. A bath, in warm water, as much time to wash as he pleased, without worry of unwanted observers...

On that thought he glanced over toward Sam. Sam's gaze was firmly fixed on the fire, a nice neutral object which meant he wouldn't see, well, Frodo, or Pippin either. Frodo opened his mouth with the half-formed intention of teasing Sam about that avoidance, and then Sam stripped off his shirt and unbuttoned his trousers. Frodo closed his mouth again. He'd last seen Sam naked several years ago, back when they were both still young enough to run to the Bywater swimming hole on hot summer days. Sam had... grown... since then.

(Skin golden in the firelight, solid strength in the flex of arms and legs, scattering of curls down Sam's chest. Darker nipples, like shadows in the firelight. Follow the curls down to a glimpse of something else as Sam turned to climb into the bath, something relaxed between Sam's legs... stop staring, Frodo, he'll notice!)

Notice what? This... physical awareness of Sam meant nothing. (If he thought about it, he could still feel exactly where Sam had touched his arm earlier, and patted his hip on mistake.) Sam didn't even think of him that way. (Knew when to speak and when to be silent, how Frodo thought and what he was likely to think.) He should ignore it. (If Sam were a lass, he could ask for a kiss. Kissing Sam... how would Sam taste?) Especially because he still had to get into his own bath, which meant exposing his nakedness the way Sam just exposed his.

Habit proved stronger than this strange new awareness -- habit and the soothing effects of hot water. Frodo slid down into the tub carefully (hot water on one's tender parts wasn't the sort of thing he rushed, no matter who was in the room or might be watching). For a few delicious moments he luxuriated in the warmth, down to the marrow of his bones. Then he sat up, retrieved the soap (lavender-scented, Bilbo's favorite rather than his) and began to lather up. After a minute, Frodo caught himself humming:

Down to the lake she went that morn
To bathe for wedding day, sir --

and bit his tongue to force himself to stop. The Maid of Bywater drowned in her bath. Better to pick some other bathing song. Or just listen. Sam had quite a decent voice.

"O, a bath in winter's hot and good
or a hobbit might be the same shade as his hood,
but find you a friend--"

At this, Frodo coughed and ducked his head underwater, less to wet his hair than because he knew how the verse ended ('but find you a friend to share the tub, for warmer than bath is a kiss and a rub'), and wanted an excuse for his flushed face. An excuse besides stifled laughter and that sneaking awareness of Sam, which thought a 'kiss and a rub' sounded like an excellent idea. Alas, Sam broke off as Frodo surfaced, and coughed. Frodo looked over under his lashes. Sam met his gaze for a moment, blushed bright red, and began to scrub himself energetically.

Frodo opened his mouth to say something -- an apology, a flirtation, something rather than let Sam stew in his bath-water. Pippin drowned out even the thought, first with an ululating yowl like a wet cat, then:

"Sing hey! for the bath at close of day
that washes the weary mud away!
A loon is he that will not sing:
O! Water Hot is a noble thing!"

One of Bilbo's old bath songs, rendered with more enthusiasm than accuracy. Sam met Frodo's eyes again, this time the glance of conspirators, Sam's mouth twisting as if on words he was too polite to say. Frodo smiled despite himself, and shrugged expressively before turning his attention back to his own scrubbing.

Sam finished his bath as Pippin finished his second verse. (Frodo followed Sam's previous example and kept his eyes firmly fixed on the fire as Sam climbed out of the tub. He'd managed to fluster the poor lad once tonight, no need to do it again. Besides, he was washing his hair, and he'd get soap in his eyes.) Pippin, being young and lazy, took immediate advantage of the fact. "O! Water cold we may pour at need -- Sam, bring me a ladle of water from the copper -- down a thirsty throat and be glad indeed--"

Frodo heard, rather than saw, Pippin squeak as he was handed the ladle. He'd gotten soap in his eyes after all. Then a blessed wash of hot water poured over him, rinsing away soap, pain, worries and all. He blinked twice to clear his eyes, then looked up to see Sam, dressed in his trousers and nothing more, holding the empty copper.

"Thank you, Sam," Frodo whispered at last.

Sam smiled, bowed slightly to Frodo, and took himself (and the copper) off to the kitchen. Frodo watched him go, then climbed out of his own bath to dry. Supper would be ready soon.

"O! Water is fair that leaps on high
in a fountain white beneath the sky;
but never did fountain sound so sweet
as splashing Hot Water with my feet!"

"Whoa!" Too late - far too late. Quite a lot of Pippin's bath had imitated a fountain and leaped on high, then fallen down onto Pippin, Frodo, the floor, and all three bath-tubs. The towels were, at best, moist, and Frodo's clothing likewise. Frodo frowned at Pippin (who had his eyes closed and didn't appear to even notice), then pulled on his trousers as well.

A knock came at the door. "What about supper and beer in the throat?" Merry's voice, amused -- well, he knew Pippin too.

Frodo picked the least moist towel he could find, and headed out, rubbing it over his hair. Fatty didn't look up from his fry-pan, but Merry's eyebrows went up, and Sam frowned thunderously, though Frodo strongly suspected both reactions were more to the condition of the bathroom floor than to the casual dress of the master of the house. Kitchen fire or not, it was too cold to go around without a shirt. Once he'd dried his hair, he pulled a shirt from his pack and dressed again. (Sam hadn't looked twice. Had he really thought he would?)

Supper went beautifully. The conversation afterwards did not. Merry's lighthearted question -- "I guess that you have been having adventures, which was not quite fair without me--" and Pippin's hardly more serious response, describing their past three days as if they were an adventure. His own stumbling attempt at a confession, and the embarrassing discovery that he needed none. "Dear old Frodo! Did you really think you had thrown dust in all our eyes?" Well, yes, he had. He'd thought himself isolated and alone. Unobserved. "Merry and I are coming with you. Sam is an excellent fellow, and would jump down a dragon's throat to save you, if he did not trip over his own feet--" He would? Frodo's own observations of this evening... that was quiet caring, not bold rescues and heroic deeds. He had a hard time imagining his gardener facing a dragon. Pippin was exaggerating. "As we were serious, too, and meant business, we have not been too scrupulous. You are not a very easy nut to crack, and Gandalf is worse. But if you want to be introduced to our chief investigator, I can produce him."

And Sam stepped forward -- simple, gentle Sam, who had lied and snuck around -- "It does not seem I can trust anyone," Frodo burst out. He regretted the words next minute, as Sam's shoulders slumped and his eyes darkened to a muddy, unhappy shade.

"It depends on what you want," Merry said, voice steady out of the darkness around the fire. "You can trust us to stick to you through thick and thin -- to the bitter end. And you can trust us to keep any secret of yours -- closer than you keep it yourself. But you cannot trust us to let you face trouble alone, and go off without a word. We are your friends, Frodo."

Even Sam?

Even Sam. Who, unhappy or not, was quite capable of teasing his master like an equal. Gildor said you should take them as was willing indeed. "I'll never believe you are sleeping again, whether you snore or not. I shall kick you hard to make sure." And Sam only laughed. This was not exactly Goody Maggot, hearthfire warmth and gentle worries worn down by years together. This was... something else.

Sam would jump down a dragon's throat to save you.

He'd no reason to cling to that. No more reason than the slow-rolling burn of wanting that roused in him as he looked at Sam, or the slow-swelling ache of yearning in his heart when Sam looked back. And so, after the conspirators had settled their plans for the morrow, Frodo followed Sam down the hall until they were out of earshot of the others. "Spying on me, Sam?"

"Keeping an eye, like," Sam said firmly, and held the bedroom door open for Frodo to lead the way inside. Someone -- Fatty or Merry, probably -- had laid a fire on the hearth in here: it took only a minute of Sam's fiddling to light it. "Mr. Merry came to me, early in the spring," he said, rising to his feet again. "He'd noticed, and so'd I--"

Noticed what? No, he didn't quite dare ask that. Not yet. Not of Sam, at least.

"--and none of us wanted to see you just walk off out of the Shire, on your own, without even your friends to help you."

Frodo shook his head ruefully as he sat down on his bed. Phrased like that, he could almost wonder how much of the conspiracy was Merry's invention, and how much Sam's. "Gandalf chose well," he murmured.

"I'd have followed you anyway, sir." Sam knelt down beside Frodo's knee. "And... and I think you know it, if you don't mind me saying."

"If it were anything less dangerous, I'd have asked you myself." Even before his uncomfortable private revelations of earlier -- how often had Merry jokingly accused Frodo that he couldn't last long without Sam? A solid stay that Frodo himself hadn't even noticed, more shame to him, until this journey cut out the usual distractions of day to day life. Sam gave and gave and gave, and in return...? Will you take me? That sounded foolish at best.

Sam rose to his feet again. "Will there be anything else?"

"Stay?"

Soft hiss of indrawn breath, but Sam didn't speak. Frodo didn't give him time to think of something to say: his courage wavered badly enough as it was. "Not long. Merry's right, we must rest for tomorrow. Just... stay. A little while. If you're not sleepy." Frodo patted the bed beside him.

After a short eternity, Sam sat down there. "No, sir," he said. "I'm not."

Under that steady gaze, Frodo found himself without words. Conversation. He was capable of simple, intelligent conversation, once. He hadn't asked Sam to stay so he could drink in Sam's newly discovered beauty, or to ask things of Sam he might not choose to give -- reassurance. Comfort. (Love.)

He shifted his weight on the bed, and grimaced involuntarily as his calf-muscles groaned. "I should have planned better. I'm sadly out of training for this."

"I don't think Black Riders and quests are the sort of matter you can practice for, Mr. Frodo," Sam said with perfect gravity.

"No, but walking is." Frodo swung his legs up onto the bed, curling them around so he wouldn't be left with his back to Sam. Instead, he found himself leaning into Sam in a far more familiar fashion than he intended, and his next words came out stumbling over his tongue. "I haven't been this sore since... I can't remember."

"The Gaffer swears by a sweetoil rub when he's aching."

A little voice in the back of Frodo's head began singing, but better than bath is a kiss and a rub-- "I don't have wife and children to give me such a thing," Frodo said aloud, trying to drown out that little voice.

"I'll do it."

"Sam --" Oh no, this was going entirely wrong -- "I didn't mean to hint--"

"No more you did." Touch of Sam's hand on his arm. Frodo looked up at Sam, and surprised an odd look on Sam's face, terror and yearning and tenderness all out there to be seen. "I'm offering."

Sam had to go to the kitchen to fetch the sweetoil, which meant Frodo might remove his trousers in privacy. He hesitated a moment over taking off his shirt as well, before deciding against it. To lie here entirely naked, awaiting Sam as if... despite himself, the image of Sam naked, as he'd seen him only a few hours ago, sprang to his mind, and his treacherous flesh responded. Frodo tugged his shirt-tails down and attempted to think cold thoughts.

(Sam cold, lips cool against Frodo's, warming as they tasted each other slow and sure--)

Frodo tugged his shirt-tails a little lower.

When Sam arrived with the sweetoil, he set it on the bedside table, then matter-of-factly stripped off his own shirt. Frodo bit his tongue again on a gasp. He leaned back against the pillows to await the touch of Sam's hands.

Sam warmed a palmful of oil, then spread it along Frodo's right leg, catching stray drops with quick fingers. Frodo watched through half-closed eyes, moving as Sam directed. This would be enough. It must be enough, the simple physical delight of a loving touch.

(Sam loved him.)

(Sam had looked, in the bathroom, wind-quick glance under his lashes as Frodo lowered himself into the tub. Frodo remembered feeling it and not daring to look back, half-afraid it was no more than wakened imagination.)

Frodo let his eyes drift shut on this waking dream, as Sam moved from one leg to the other. Slow, steady strokes, up and down, pressing into the ache until the warmth of Sam's hands and the warmth of his movements soothed the ache away.

(Familiar as lovers. Sam knelt between Frodo's legs, Frodo's right leg up and propped about Sam's hip as Sam's fingers worked just behind Frodo's knee, almost a caress. Another minute and Frodo would say something. One more minute. Perhaps two.)

Sam moved down the bed again, taking one of Frodo's feet in his hands. Frodo's eyes flew open in surprise: he hadn't -- Sam wasn't -- but Sam didn't even look up at Frodo, head bent over Frodo's feet as if the only matter on his mind was melting his master into a relaxed lump of hobbit. Sam was very good at this.

(No sounds from the rest of the house. Either the others must have finished their preparations for the morrow and gone to bed, or the door was thicker than Frodo had realized.)

From foot to calf again, working his way up. From calf to thigh -- Frodo tensed involuntarily, then forced himself to relax. He watched Sam, hardln breathing. Did he mean to -- he mustn't let this happen, it was taking advantage -- yes, there, please, Sam --

As Sam's hands closed around Frodo, he looked up and met Frodo's eyes. Still dark, Sam's eyes, but not with fear. With hope. As clear as if he said, only let me and I'll take care of you, Frodo.

Without allowing himself time to think about it, Frodo reached up, grasped Sam's shoulders, and pulled Sam down into an awkward kiss. Sam's grip tightened for a second, almost painful, then he let go -- but only so he could move into a better position and offer his mouth again.

Sam tasted of tea and mushrooms, dark and earthy and golden Sam-taste. His body pressed close against Frodo --

(Sam wanted this too, hard hot proof rubbing against Frodo's thigh.)

-- Frodo moaned into the kiss and bucked up against that blessed pressure. Sam shifted his weight so he lay alongside Frodo. Frodo would have cried out in protest, except Sam's lips still drank from his, and anyway Sam's hand replaced his body.

Frodo's mind went blank of all but incoherent fragments of poetry. He touched himself rarely enough; this was as far beyond that as stars beyond an oil-lamp. He burned, and he never wanted to stop. Sam in all his senses, overwhelming him until at last Frodo pulled his mouth free of Sam's, sobbed Sam's name, and came.

It took Frodo a little to regain his composure to the extent of looking at Sam properly. So many things he could, he should say. You don't have to do this -- but Sam knew that. I didn't know, perhaps, or I love you.

(Sam's eyes were soft with wonder. His arousal still pressed against Frodo's thigh.)

"Sam," Frodo whispered, and reached for Sam's trouser buttons.

Sam gasped and tried to protest, although the only understandable word was Frodo. Then Frodo got the trouser buttons open, and Sam lost the capacity for coherent speech altogether. He felt beautifully hot and solid against Frodo's palm. Up and down, learning the right rhythm by what made Sam gasp and thrust helplessly into Frodo's fist. He wanted to give Sam that glorious pleasure he'd just felt.

(Not all, not enough. Not a young hobbit any more, and carrying a burden to terrify even wizards -- what could he offer a beloved?)

"Frodo--" Sam reached out to pull Frodo tight against him, raising his face in blind begging for another kiss. Frodo gave it to him, taking Sam's broken cry into him as Sam fell in his turn.

The kiss slowly gentled, sipping of each other's mouth. Frodo's shirt was rucked up and damp, Sam's trousers in hardly better state. They helped each other undress, and then Sam tended to the fire, banking it for the night.

Frodo lay back on his pillows and watched. Sam looked golden-fair, a hobbit of hobbits. Tomorrow they'd leave the Shire complete. And whither then, I cannot say.

"Sam," he said softly. "Come to bed." Be careful, don't go arguing with any foreigners, come straight back.

That night, for the first time, he dreamed of the Sea, and was not alone.

end

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