A warm, callused hand covered his own, poised so to be almost weightless. And he didn't flinch, didn't stir. No flaring mistrust stabbed up under his breastbone, no angry alarm seared his mind. He was safe here, and the Ring lay cool just below his neck. Relief rushed into his throat, but he let it run out softly with his breath.
Sam would be very much abashed if he were caught where he thought himself unwatched. Watching, unwatched.
It's always my left hand, Frodo thought in a dreamy, unconcerned fashion. Of course it is. I know...
His first impressions of Rivendell were buried in a blinding white drift, but through it, he'd sometimes felt... this. A hand that cupped his own in a shell of lifeheat. My fingers must have been icy, or it wouldn't have burned as it did. It didn't burn now, but the warmth crept steadily through him, touching up places all over his skin.
Among the rustles of dry fern in the breeze, he could hear Sam's quiet breathing. A strange sound of contentment that carried him slowly back to sleep.
He was wakened again by a teasing, spicy scent. From the flattened ferns crawled a whiff of smoke that dissolved as Frodo watched. Beyond the dip of brown fronds, every bit of land was rich with green, leafy growth, and a blend of enticing odours swirled on the air.
Ithilien, the garden of Gondor, Frodo remembered from the maps he'd studied in Rivendell.
Some steps away, Sam busied himself with pots and pans, whistling softly over the starts of a fire. Though they'd travelled in the dark for a long time now, the sunny tone of his skin hadn't changed. Early daylight warmed it to a gentle tan shade. The whistling spilled over into a hum, then a bit of song interspersed with muttered exclamations.
It was Sam's way of tending things, of becoming absorbed into everything he did -- body, heart and soul. Home in Bag End, he'd encourage even his garden tools with a steady flow of murmurs, as if they were alive and capable of understanding.
Maybe they are, and I'm blind, Frodo thought, surprised by the twitch that stirred in his chest and almost broke free into laughter. He'd been blind so long.
He glanced up into the trees where sunlight caught in shifting glitters. So many times recently, he'd wanted nothing but to squeeze his eyes shut. Close his mind and senses to the warnings that sprang from distorted shadows, or a bird's raspy call, carried over on the eastern wind. So often when they rested, a probing presence stole into his dreams and pressed inward with a dull red glare. And the Eye would be on him again, freezing him in dread, twisting at his thoughts. Once they set foot into Mordor, nothing would shelter him from the power that ruled the Ring and, through the Ring, branded his mind.
Nothing, except --
"If we reach the Fire in that time..." Sam muttered as if their minds had travelled the same path. Then raised a hand to bat the thought aside, "...but we might be wanting to get back, we might."
His fingers shooed at the flames that licked from dry twigs, playing with them as if they were timid creatures in need of reassurance.
Sam and his fires. It had been such a long time since they'd dared to build a campfire and huddle up beside it till it roasted their toes. Perhaps it wasn't entirely safe now, but for the moment, Frodo couldn't bring himself to be concerned.
He closed his eyes quickly when Sam turned towards him, without doubt wanting to make sure that he rested himself properly. And it wouldn't do to be caught watching like this, with such intentness, it had cleared all the drowsy fogs from his mind.
Stronger than the sliding wind in the ferns, a lively crackle drifted across. Twigs and branches caught fire, answering Sam's coaxing in their own voice. Twined with it was a sharp scent of resin and... cedar, such a rare tree in the Shire. Earlier this morning, when they climbed down the green slopes, Sam had taken in every unfamiliar tree, every new sort of lichen, vine and herb with wide eyes and long, indrawn breaths. Smelling and touching and scrambling about in pure joy of discovery. Now he was whistling again, and water started to bubble in the pan.
Frodo peered through his lashes, and found it was quite safe. Bent over a bundle of herbs, Sam paid attention only to his cooking, dawn lighting copper glints all over his curls. Worry and weariness had slipped off him, scattered by the sheer pleasure that rebounded through quick smiles and snatches of song. Generous as the wash of daylight, Frodo could feel it surround him while he watched Sam.
Even now, with his eyes half-closed, every contour and trace of movement set itself into his mind with a stark clarity. Their travels had hardened the lines of Sam's face and body, but that wasn't what carved this radiance. Next to the signs of toil and trouble, everything Sam was had been strengthened and showed more clearly, as if refined through hardship. Home and hope brought to light by his little fire. So present that Frodo's throat closed around the next breath. How could I deserve you?
The thought skimmed a feeling that stole up closer every day. Bladed and mellow, moulded by fear of loss and impossible fancy. Yet for now, none of that mattered, he could simply lie here and hold the moment close. A smile crawled out of him, starting somewhere deep in his chest.
Within another breath, Sam pulled his pan off the fire and pushed up. Frodo shut his eyes obediently. The smile wouldn't hide away quite so fast, but perhaps it would please Sam, and assure him that he had indeed enjoyed his rest.
Over long minutes, they ate in silence, a mug, an old fork and a wooden spoon traded between them. When they finished, Frodo sighed. Stew and broth warmed his stomach, spreading pleasurable sensations through every part of him. It felt as if he'd slipped back into his own body after long absence, to a startling ease of being. He stretched his legs across the bed of ferns and pale grass.
"There now, I said it'd do you some good, Mr. Frodo, and that it did." Sam wiped his fingers and watched him like his very own handiwork.
"Yes, Sam." Frodo let his head fall back a moment. Clear sky sprawled overhead, running over with the light of an invisible sun. Once she climbed above the trees, the day would grow hot as midsummer. He longed only to stay within this airy quiet, at a distance from too many fears and warnings... and the tingle of the Ring against his bare skin that disclaimed them all.
Beside him, Sam rummaged through his pack, among the knives and skewers and the coil of rope that he carried. "Now there's aught missing but a good pipe to finish a fine breakfast..." A start at whistling broke off a moment later.
Frodo saw the frown set in before Sam withdrew his hand. "What is it?"
"Just this here shame and wreck!" Sam exclaimed, "Oh, for the wrong thumbs on me!" He held out his pipe to show a thin crack in the mouthpiece. "It's a present from the Gaffer on his birthday last summer, and there's a good piece of advice as went with it. Don't you go breaking this one, Sam, when you wear your feet out tramping the wrong side of the Water -- like I ever would! I said -- and now I've gone and broke it after all."
Frodo leaned closer to inspect the damage. "I'm sure it can be repaired. If we found something to tie round it..."
He traced his thumb across the fracture. The tough, cutting grass from the marshes might have served, except for the rotten smell. When he looked up again, something of both memory and pain clouded Sam's eyes. Small loss as it was, Frodo could feel it sting with unexpected heat.
Sam set the pipe down with a mournful look. "I should do better than this, as the Gaffer would surely agree, and there's a fact." He shook his head and went on quoting, "Just you look after things proper, and they'll show you thanks for it."
"They'd sing to you if they could," Frodo said softly.
Sam dropped his eyes and chuckled.
I would, Frodo thought, and it ran through him in a swift rhythm of blood, a tune of startled breathing. You always make things whole.
"I'm serious," he insisted, and when Sam's glance returned with a doubled charge of amazement and doubt, he smiled.
"If they had minds their own, I reckon they'd know I don't mean no harm," Sam said awkwardly.
"And I doubt that your Gaffer will be very much upset," Frodo answered, "once we--"
Return, he'd almost said, a word erased from his private vocabulary. Only a few days before, he'd finally plucked up the courage to tell Sam -- If the One goes into the Fire, and we are at hand... I ask you, Sam, are we ever likely to need bread again?
Instead of completing such a cruel reply, he reached across, clasping his hand over Sam's. He could trace the strength and purpose in that hand, skin roughened over the knuckles, and a hint of pulse running beneath.
"He won't be," Sam returned, his voice lowered, and for a moment Frodo felt that he didn't miss a lot for happiness, if he could still draw such a smile from Sam. The sort that warmed him through the bone. As they sat there, the quiet deepened, wrapping softly closer about them.
Until a sharp rustle in the bracken snapped them from it, and Sam jumped to his feet. A movement so quick and smooth, it captured recent battles and constant watchfulness in a heartbeat. Screeching and trilling, two cobalt-blue birds shot from the undergrowth and wheeled into flight.
"Now where's that Gollum off to?" Sam muttered, a bit of fluster in his tone. "He's been out and about some time."
"He'll be back." Frodo pulled up his knees and folded his arms across them. "He remembers... I think sometimes he remembers too clearly."
"And that's when he runs off, I'll warrant." Sam cast a wary glance over his shoulder as he settled back down.
"Yes..." Frodo paused, caught up in sudden memory. Deceptively cool, the Ring nestled into the small hollow under his collarbone. "Gandalf told me the story once, back in the Shire... He'd learned it from Gollum himself, among much snivelling and snarling, as he said."
"How he came by the Ring." Frodo's stomach felt suddenly crowded and overtight, but he couldn't stop now either. "There was someone with him... a friend or cousin, though very likely he was both, named Déagol. It was Déagol who found the Ring in a river-bed."
In the pause, he could hear insects spin lazily through the air, and then there was Sam's hand on his arm, with gentle, unyielding directness.
"Sméagol strangled him," Frodo finished, and the hand gripped a little harder. As if catching him in a dangerous spot.
Pity, he thought without a clear reason. He'd not felt any pity towards Gollum back then, but there were days now when his own nightmares stared back at him from Sméagol's eyes.
"Mr. Frodo," Sam said in his sternest voice, the one he used when the garden weeds had given him grief by choking tender shoots, "I can see where you're heading off to, begging your pardon, but it's all wrong. There's no need to be thinking you'll ever grow to be like him."
"But -- Sam, I could!" Frodo burst out. It was vital that Sam should know, and be on his guard. A small measure of relief came from speaking his fears.
Sam shook his head, eyes thoughtful. "Could, maybe, but could is a fair ways off will, and so much smoke up the chimney, if you understand me."
"No, I don't."
"And I don't know if I can rightly explain, but I do say that Gandalf told you this story to make less of your worries, not more. Sméagol took the Ring for himself, Mr. Frodo, and with no remorse. You never did."
Frodo gazed into the dwindling fire that gnawed on a withered branch. "I don't know if there will be such a difference over time."
On his right, the ferns stirred and crackled, then Sam grumbled softly, "Oh, but I do" -- as if it were a confession of some sort -- and his hand cupped Frodo's jaw to turn his face.
When their eyes met, recognition flashed between them, and there was a slight twitch in Sam's touch as if he would draw back. But he didn't.
"It's not my place to be saying such things--" he breathed in quickly, "--but there's going to be so much of a difference as I can make it."
"You do... you always do." Frodo held himself completely motionless. "I'll trust your judgment."
Full of unflinching candour one moment, Sam's glance faltered the next and slipped down to a spot on the ground between them. "Now, Mr. Frodo, that ain't right neither..."
Before he could pull away any further, Frodo curled his fingers over Sam's wrist. "But it is. More than you know."
Safety spread from the touch that lay so bright and undemanding on his skin. He leaned into Sam's hand, the roughness of his palm that cradled him so lightly. Warm scents pooled in the hollow, and he traced them inward until his mouth rested there, at the very centre.
"Frodo..." Sam's voice, soft and shaking, made a promise of his name.
He could smell earth and the wild herbs Sam had crushed between his palms. A small shiver caught against his lips when he moved them along the hard ridges left by garden work. It was gone the next moment when Sam snatched his hand away.
"Afraid to touch me?" Frodo clenched his own hand tight, before it could sneak up to the Ring.
"I'm -- yes -- No!"
So quick and breathless came the reply that some of his alarm subsided. Sam couldn't lie to him if he wanted to. And it would never occur to him, excepting only the small untruths that dotted their journey, when it came to the weight he carried, or his share of their meagre provisions.
Frodo pressed his lips together as he watched Sam's expression shift from bewilderment to anguish.
"It's only -- much as I've ever wanted a thing, Mr. Frodo -- I don't mean to... I don't know's I could stop anymore... if you follow me."
The breath he'd taken in stung Frodo's chest, and now that he let it out, it bubbled up close to laughter, with a cutting edge.
"I don't want you to stop." He reached for both of Sam's hands and raised them back to his face, "Sam, nobody else could -- just you--"
He stopped when Sam's fingers crept along his jaw and temple, and his pulse raced into the searching touch. They both moved on one breath, kneeling up without letting go, and Frodo wound his arms tight around Sam's back.
They'd touched and embraced many times, for comfort and encouragement, or simply because words failed them, but now there was so much of Sam... So much solid strength and generous welcome, it stormed all his senses to a point of brimming over.
Clumsy and not quite steady, his hands wandered without pause over the compact body, searched out the reassuring softness that lingered at Sam's waist, and the sharper outlines of muscle across his broad shoulders. He closed his eyes as Sam carded gentle fingers through his hair, one hand curling around his neck.
No one had ever touched him in this way, with such reverent and determined tenderness. Fine shivers roamed Frodo's chest and seemed to gather where the Ring warmed against his skin. I shall need this memory, more than anything else...
"Sam..." Heartbeat thick in his throat, he looked up, and speech faltered.
Their mouths had come within reach of each other's breath, and then there was more than breath, a brush of warmth more solid and real -- Sam's lips against his own -- stirring a leap within his chest.
Frodo's eyes slipped shut even as the contact broke for the briefest moment. Hands cupping Sam's face, he leaned forward, pressing gently into the taste of salty broth and herbs and a rich flavour like the essence of the Shire. Heady and strong, and growing stronger as Sam's mouth moved awkwardly against his own. Frodo tilted his head to the side -- and he was falling into a sweetness that rushed to meet him when their mouths opened on a short gasp. Startled sparks flew out from the pit of his stomach.
All his senses stretched and filled up with the softness and pressure of Sam's mouth, the way their breathing roughened and mingled while pulse battered between their chests. Distantly, he felt the campfire smoulder beside them, a shadow next to the licks of flame that danced in his belly. Sam's arms had slipped from his torso to his waist and locked him close, so close, his whole body tightened with it. His tongue slid deeper into melting warmth, and a soft moan from Sam filled his mouth.
Suddenly it flared through him that he could own Sam, everything he was, that whatever he wanted would be there for the taking, without guard or second thought. The Ring seared at his skin. Massing and raising a careless, selfish need that wasn't his own. Something... other clawed and stared through him.
He pulled back, struggling to even out his breath. But when he met Sam's eyes, alarm and purpose both fell to pieces.
Bright like autumn sun piercing the heart of a forest, so much feeling was laid bare in that vulnerable, utterly fearless look. It was everything he wanted to treasure and keep safe.
...but instead of protecting you, I'm dragging you into danger. And every day is worse than the day before...
"Frodo..." Sam bit his lip. "Mr. Frodo, what--?"
The words felt strange in his throat. "Sometimes... I see an Eye that's all fire, all destruction."
Sam held his gaze steadily. "But not here."
"No." He shook himself, reaching out again, and every hint of worry vanished from Sam's face as if by magic. Sunlight fell over them in swathes, sliding on Sam's tangled hair, and he followed it with his fingers. Tracing it down his cheek to the beautiful shape of Sam's mouth. I'm no longer blind, Sam, and I don't want to be...
He couldn't let the Ring's possessive urging come between them. Not here. Not now. In another day or two, we'll cross into Mordor, and then it will be too late... for everything.
All he had to do was look at Sam -- "I don't understand," he whispered. "You're..."
Radiant, was the only word he had. And so lovely, it hurt to look at him.
"This is... my doing..." Helpless to explain, he traced the crinkles around Sam's eyes with a fingertip. The dust of their journey had left its fine traces there, edging the smile in Sam's eyes. Dark against the sun, yet rich and fervent, like a perfectly flamed coal. "How is it that I can--"
"It's you," Sam murmured, and he felt each word against his face, "because you -- you're..."
It was a mystery to him, one Frodo couldn't hope to understand, but he could claim it and kiss it off Sam's mouth. Tasting and breathing him in while they pressed into each other, with greater certainty and hunger, until he could hardly draw breath anymore. Against his inner ribs, more feeling built and crowded than his body could contain. He broke away and buried his face at Sam's shoulder, fingers cradling pulsebeats through the soft skin below his jaw.
Strong fingers linked through his own, and Sam's lips moved down the ball of his hand, closing on the pulse at the inside of his wrist. The caress shot into the depth of his body like a touch of flame, wrenching his breath out in a gasp.
"Did you ever--" he asked without much of a voice, "think that anything could be... too beautiful to bear?" -- and found Sam smiling at him.
"Many times, Mr. Frodo."
"You're wiser than I." Frodo remembered to breathe before trying to say anything else. "But... I suppose it's not too late for me to learn."
Sam settled back slowly and blinked at the last of the flames that still fed on cedarwood. "We should put this out, I expect. We need to be watching ourselves..."
"And find a more secluded place, maybe?" Frodo asked. He felt a little feverish and for the moment ready to laugh for joy. "After we've put out this fire here."
It was sheer delight to see the high colour on Sam's face rise a little more. Bits of rust-coloured fern clung to the knees of his trousers when he climbed to his feet and grabbed a pan. "I'll fetch some water."
Humming to himself, Frodo stowed the rest of the cooking gear in Sam's pack and carried it to the sheltered spot where he'd slept. The ragged little melody strummed in every part of his body. Of course they couldn't dare to lower their guard very long, but surely a few more minutes would do no harm --
There, a strangely prolonged whistle trilled from the undergrowth south of the fern-brake. Followed by another at his back. Frodo whirled, and alarm leapt into his blood.
Sam! he barely kept himself from shouting, but Sam was already rushing back from the waterside.
Frodo cursed himself as he yanked Sting from its sheath. Because of his own indulgence, their small fire had given them away.
A moment later, swords drawn, they braced themselves back to back. Through his clothes, Frodo could feel the hammerbeat of Sam's heart, blending through his own.
With everything that I am, he thought, I'm going to protect you. I'm going to see you happy again. And he stepped forward.
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