Observed

Frodo can't say he's always been watched. During his first twelve years, his mother and father kept an idle sort of eye on him, but it meant very little more than, "Frodo, mind you don't fall into the stream!" or "Frodo, where are you? Your father needs your help in the kitchen!" Not so much watching him as watching out for him. Their gaze made him feel loved.

After -- after their deaths, aunts and uncles and cousins three times removed take over that watching. They all pretend not to look, but he can feel it like a pressure on his skin, all waiting to see if he'd break down and cry, or if he'd dive into the river himself, or if he'd -- well, he doesn't know what else he might have done, but he's sure his various relations do. The watching was an invisible cage around him, even as he grew older and (presumably) wiser. He never felt so thankful in his life as when Bilbo handed him a glass of wine and said, in a would-be casual tone, "Really all this celebration of my birthday and yours in two separate places is entirely too much bother. Much better you come to live with me."

Bag End grants him a sort of privacy. Bilbo has his own secrets to keep, and is less inclined than the noisy, laughing, energetic Buckland folk to go poking about in a fellow's affairs. But Bilbo has a Reputation, and a History, and consequently Frodo does as well by association. The Hobbiton and Bywater folk keep an eye on the doings of the inhabitants of Bag End Underhill: it merely takes Frodo longer to realize they're doing it, and learn to notice the eyes that follow him as he tramps about. Sandyman the miller, who hands over their flour with a grit-toothed smile, as if he'd rather spit; Mrs. Clayhole, who pauses in her conversation as Frodo walks past, and waves hello, and then takes up her conversation in a rapid hissing whisper the instant he's out of hearing range; Gaffer Gamgee, who tends their garden and could observe Frodo and Bilbo about their daily habits, not to mention overhear conversations intended to be private. Bilbo merely shrugs it off, but he's had several more decades of practice.

Then Frodo's complaint narrows, from general to specific. He is standing by the front gate, talking with Lily Sandheaver about her brother's recent attempt at fishing in Bywater Pond: it ended in disaster, and Frodo was the one who pulled him out, being nearby and capable of swimming. She is being very effusive in her thanks, and Frodo is silently trying to invent a way to escape her, when he realizes that young Samwise Gamgee is watching him. Sam does not stop in his slow, systematic weeding of the herbaceous border, but he is well within earshot, and his eyes flicker back and forth between the ground and Frodo. Frodo would have said something right then and there, except that first he must get rid of Lily, and by the time he does so, Sam is gone.

No matter. He’ll see Sam tomorrow, and ask him why he was listening in on -- well, no, Frodo can't in all honesty call it a private conversation, not given how loudly Lily was talking. He wouldn't be surprised if Lily wanted all Hobbiton to listen in. So he can't scold Sam for listening. Instead, he'll ask Sam why he was watching.

He doesn't. It occurs to him, late at night, while he's lying on his back and studying the folds of the canopy over his bed, that Sam might have been watching Lily, not Frodo at all. He doesn't think much of Sam's taste if so, since Lily's a brassy, pushy sort of hobbit, with enormous brown curls that Frodo suspects are the result of curling papers rather than nature. Nonetheless, it's possible. Lily's curls aren't the only things that are enormous, and Sam is young enough that he might be influenced by such considerations. It's a plausible excuse. So Frodo says nothing. He doesn't want to embarrass Sam.

Instead, he takes to talking to Sam. Originally, he has a vague notion of finding out who Sam was watching, that day by the front gate, but that soon becomes buried under the enjoyment of their conversations. Sam is a very straightforward hobbit, like his father before him: he likes his ale of an evening, and he waxes passionate about the necessity of tending to the garden in a certain way. But every so often, he shows signs of something more, like a vein of gold threaded through dull gray rock. He loves Elves, and will sit by the hour listening to Bilbo or Frodo read tales of them. He wants to go somewhere someday, although he is vague on both when and where. And he believes Bilbo's stories of his adventures, where most grown hobbits pish-tosh it off as exaggeration, even the ones who believed them as children.

He still watches Frodo.

Frodo can't deny it after the second time he catches Sam at it. Frodo is sitting in the garden reading when he feels the tell-tale prickle along the back of his neck, and looks up to meet Sam's eyes. There's no Lily around to excuse it this time: there's no maid about at all. Sam does not even flinch: he politely ducks his head to Frodo, then bends back over his work. Frodo stares at his book for a moment longer, then claps it closed and retreats back into Bag End to think about this.

In the end, he does nothing. It's not hurting anyone, he tells himself. Sam is the best gardener for miles about: he'd be a fool to let him go for something as trifling as this. Sam's looking out for him, that's all it is, protecting Frodo from sun and weather and tripping over an unseen hoe. It would be like Sam to be so protective, too. Frodo has enough ear for the talk in Bywater and Hobbiton to know that Sam, like his father, has defended Frodo and Bilbo both from such as Sandyman's spiteful words. They are vague, cloudy reasons, all of them, blurring the thought at their core: Frodo, who has been watched all his life, does not mind being watched by Sam.

He does not say so to Sam. He knows, and Sam knows he knows, and he knows Sam knows he knows, and yet saying to Sam, "I do not mind your eyes on me, in fact I think I like it--" At best it would sound clumsy, trampling over this delicate thing between them like heavy feet over a flower bed. At worst it would sound proud and condescending as the Sackville-Bagginses. So Frodo keeps silent, and Sam continues to watch him.

The silence is sometimes a handicap. When Frodo comes of age, and Bilbo disappears, Frodo cannot turn to Sam openly for support: he must depend on other friends and other friendships. When Frodo goes tramping about the Shire, he cannot ask Sam to go with him, as he might Merry or Fatty or Pippin, because Sam has work to do. And while sometimes Frodo may invite Sam up for dinner and a glass of wine and a pipe of smoke, he cannot do so more often than once a month or so, because to do so more often implies that they are friends rather than master and servant, and Frodo does not quite dare take that step. If he takes that step, then he will have to say what he has kept silent.

Nonetheless, he feels certain that he is understood. He sits out on his front stoop rather than inside, to enjoy the fresh air and Sam's company. They talk every so often, of simple subjects -- how the garden is doing, what Frodo saw on his last trip to Buckland. As Sam matures, he becomes bolder: sometimes Frodo will look up from lighting his pipe to see Sam leaning on his hoe, watching him without even the pretense of work to hide behind. Frodo smiles at him, and attempts a smoke-ring.

He cannot spend all his time outside, nor will Sam come in. But Frodo keeps his windows open more often than not: even a hobbithole will turn damp and musty if not properly aired out. Sam passes by those windows quite often, and as the weather turns colder -- meaning Frodo stays in more often than out -- occasionally Sam will even lean in, to ask Frodo if he wants something down at the market, or even just to pass the time of day. Frodo takes this extension of Sam's watching gladly. With Bilbo no longer here, he can pass days without seeing anyone at all, if not for Sam's determined sociability. Once Frodo slips on a puddle of spilled tea, and sprains his ankle. Sam hears his cry of pain from outside, and abandons the hedge half-trimmed to come running. He spends the next week waiting on Frodo hand and foot, before Frodo finally persuades him that it's only a sprain, and he can tend to his own needs, albeit limpingly.

It's not until the Incident that Frodo realizes perhaps he's taken this watching thing too far -- or else Sam has, and Frodo hasn't stopped him. It was a fine autumn twilight, and Frodo felt restless -- not in a wandering-about-the-Shire-in-halfhearted-search-of-adventure sort of way, but in a time-to-hide-in-my-bedroom-with-oil-and-no-clothes sort of way. He lay down on his bed, closed his eyes, and let his hands explore. (He never talks about touching himself, not to anyone. He tried once with Merry, but the conversation didn't go well. Merry believes in bounce-and-tickle, laughter and fun and doing things because they feel good. Frodo agrees that it feels good, but believes there's a spiritual element to loving, even self-love. Things degenerated from there, the two of them talking past each other. Frodo couldn't look Merry in the eye for weeks afterward.)

Hands. Frodo traced his lips, closing his eyes so he could imagine that these were someone else's fingers. It didn't work very well: his fingers were cool and smooth against his mouth, without any roughness or calluses, and smelled faintly of ink. Frodo opened his eyes again, and moved his hands down to his chest, tracing nonsense patterns back and forth across the skin until it tingled with sensitivity, and the faintest brush of his fingertips across his own nipples could make his breath catch on a moan.

The fantasy was easier now. The canopy blurred before his eyes, and he could imagine that he lay, not on the soft embrace of his mattress, but in the harder, warmer embrace of a lover's arms. He could pretend, when he took himself in a tight grip, that it was someone else's hand. He closed his eyes tightly, and in the shimmering darkness behind his eyelids, he could see his lover's smile, feel soft kisses against cheek and hair and neck, smell the tang of his lover's arousal mingled with his. The slow-rising swell of his pleasure was because his lover wanted to see, wanted to hold him safe while he let go all his hard-won control. Because his lover wanted to watch.

Sam!

He'd thought that no more than a thought, a whisper. But a sound outside his window made his eyes fly open, and he looked straight into the eyes of Sam Gamgee. Sam was flushed, lips wet as though he'd licked them several times, eyes wide and dark, one hand fisted in the grass beside Frodo's window. Frodo couldn't see the other. The two of them stared at each other for what felt like an age. Then Sam turned abruptly and went away.

Frodo should have said something. Not then: when he met Sam's eyes, he still trembled from his release, with hardly enough thought to realize what had happened, much less react to it. But afterwards. Instead, Sam came to him the following day, eyes fixed on the ground, and apologized. He'd been passing by, on his way to the inn or the way home (Frodo wasn't clear which), and hearing a noise he'd looked in. It's a superficial explanation: it doesn't tell why Sam kept looking, for one, nor what had him so flushed and wanting. But Frodo claps Sam on the shoulder in silent forgiveness rather than ask. He can guess, and that guess glances at the silence between them which he still doesn't quite dare touch. This is more than just watching, or permitting himself to be watched.

He wonders what Sam heard, or if Sam heard anything. He wonders what Sam is really looking for, when he watches Frodo. He watches Sam in his turn, but he doesn't get very far. Sam will talk about gardens and gossip, and he will touch on Elves, with naked yearning in his face. But no matter what Frodo says, how carefully he watches, he cannot see through to the Sam he once suspected was there.

Then Gandalf arrives, with terrifying truths, and while Frodo is still reeling from learning about Bilbo's ring, Gandalf exposes Sam's watching. Gandalf demands Sam's reasons, and Frodo seizes his chance to win answers to his own wonderings: "Just you up and answer his questions straight away," he tells Sam sternly. Sam stammers something about Elves, and for a moment Frodo's heart is like to break. Elves? All this, all these years, is about no more than Elves?

Then Gandalf tells Sam -- commands him, more like -- that he must accompany Frodo on this quest. Sam cheers, then bursts into weeping. Through those tears he meets Frodo's eyes. The yearning in that gaze isn't for any abstract, story-book Elves. It's for something more real and immediate. Frodo cannot but embrace him -- awkwardly, he's not in the habit. Sam buries his face in Frodo's shoulder for a moment, then remembers himself and finds some excuse to go back out again and finish trimming the hedge.

Frodo watches him go thoughtfully. This will not be a quick journey, after all. He will finally have time to watch Sam properly -- and away from the strict conventions of the Shire, who knows what he might see? Perhaps Frodo will even gather the courage to finally say, I don't mind if you watch me. And then he and Sam together can find out what lay behind that silence between them.

– end –

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