Disclaimer: Kisses to Tolkien, who'd never refuse the creativity of his readers, particularly since I'm not making a dime off of this and write merely as an homage. Thank you Gabby, Ace beta-reader with a good eye for flow. How do you think it came out?
A Dangerous Game
Cool mountains showed themselves in the distance, purple and fading blue, sculpted in the last of the sun's rays. Even at high summer, Mt. Mindolluin's peak was, as always, pristine and white. Although Minas Tirith lay just on the other side of the peak, it had been a journey of several days for Merry and Pippin, as they had to go the long way around it down nearly to the banks of the Anduin river, then back up through the rolling farms and homesteads of Lossarnach. The Lossarnach flooded every year, which made it a fertile vale known for its vineyards, the air scented with the unique combination of sea tang, cool mountain springs, and lush greenery. The inns were fine and the beer of good quality (in Pippin's expert opinion), but it was a glad sound at journey's end to hear Frodo and Sam's familiar laughter carrying down the lane.
"Hey, what's the joke?" As they peered over the gate, Frodo turned and smiled, and waved in his dearest friends. "We heard you two laughing back there."
"You had to be there," Frodo was as cryptic as ever, worse than Gandalf, Pippin thought.
The cottage seemed smaller than Merry and Pippin remembered. They had grown used to the grandeur and scale of Minas Tirith, hadn't seen something so, well, hobbit-like, in quite some time. It was of course no hobbit-hole, but rather a man-sized cottage, quite small for the type. It was a gift to the ringbearers from King Elessar, especially to Frodo, once he had tired of the very grandeur Merry and Pippin gloried in. It had been a little run down last they saw it nearly a month ago, but now signs of Sam's care were everywhere: in the garden, the edged walk and carefully trimmed hedge, as well as Frodo's clutter, always one step ahead of Sam. But more, there was a sense of it being lived in that hadn't been there before, a quality uniquely them. It didn't look at all like Bag End, but reminded Pippin of it somehow, though there was a scent of something subtly different, warmer, that he couldn't put a name to. It passed before Pippin had time to think of it, at the sound of the front door shutting behind Sam, scrambling awkwardly inside with his tea tray.
"A little late for tea, isn't it?" Merry joked, and the four hobbits embraced in the front yard as Sam returned to join them, good-natured laughter and backslaps all around. Sam exclaimed, as he always did, at Pippin's lanky height, he just couldn't get used to it, his chin was at Pippin's collar as he pointed out again. Pippin was cheered to see Frodo in such remarkable health, a pink glow to his cheeks that hadn't been there in ages, although he did still look tired. The mountain air was clearly doing him good.
Their companion's large head arched over the gate, munching on the hedge experimentally.
"What's this - a horse??" Frodo exclaimed. Pippin nodded.
"Merry's been learning to ride this monster. He's almost big enough. I'll take a pony myself any day." Merry stroked the enormous animal, which seemed tame enough. Sam, though he loved animals, was alarmed.
"A pony can't keep up in Rohan." Merry pointed out practically, (Frodo smiled at the Rohan burr in Merry's voice), "if it be true Bullroarer Took could ride a ride a horse, well then, why can't I? But a few more ent draughts would help."
Frodo laughed, "Enough, enough! Any more and we'll never find a hobbit hole to fit you! You'll be ducking doorjambs as it is."
Merry lead his mare, for mare she was and small measured against the great steeds of Rohan, to pasture on the other side of the hedge, away from Sam's prized herb garden. Sam watched the beast suspiciously, certain she was big enough to break any tether and trample a season's hard work - or worse. But Merry appeared to know what he was doing as he expertly stripped off her tack and began rubbing her down, making soothing sounds. So reluctantly Sam abandoned his vigil, and went inside. He was greeted by the happy rustle of bags and bundles being hauled in and eagerly unpacked. While Frodo had asked in his letter for a few small items - they had no lack - they had expected nothing like this. The kitchen table and counters were bursting with brown wrappings, string, unknown packages and already opened ones. There were jars of preserves, pickles, baskets of early fruits of the season, and meat well cured, as well as other gifts. Delighted, Frodo waved him over.
"Look what Merry and Pippin brought us!" he held up a large book with a twinkle, "Herbs, Sam. We'll soon know deadly ill you've brought us from that garden."
He tackled another package, this one suspiciously round. It revealed a fine sharp wheel of cheese. "Oh my. I hope all this didn't cost too much, Pippin."
"Not much at all." said Pippin, "As a matter of fact, as soon as people heard it was for you, well.. I could have brought a wain of carts stretching as far as you can see, all bearing gifts for the Ringbearers!"
"Thank goodness you didn't!"
Frodo palmed a bottle of herbed oil, quirking his mouth at Sam, "We'll definitely have a use for this."
He patted Sam's shoulder amiably, though the joke went quite over Sam's head, busy as he was with the 'loot.' Sam sniffed the wheel of cheese experimentally. It was finely aged and very sharp, or he was no judge. It brought to mind a recipe, that with the summer greens, as he quickly changed plans for the evening meal. Several minutes later, while the other three were in the living room, Sam's head jerked up out of his cooking, as he got Frodo's meaning, belatedly.
It was four very comfortably full hobbits that stretched out in the over-sized and over-stuffed chairs after dinner. Every candle was alight, casting a contented glow over the evening. Merry relaxed with his waistcoat undone, casually flipping the pages of Frodo's new book, "once it goes into that miasma you call a library, no one but you will ever find it again," he complained cheerfully. He shared the footstool with Frodo, who curled up in his favorite chair, pulling on his pipe. They sipped ale, nibbled on the remaining cheese, recovering for dessert. Pippin sprawled out on the rug, elbow dug into a plump pillow. His pipe had gone out, though he didn't appear to notice as he waved it about enthusiastically.
"I can't believe you want to be away from Minas Tirith right now! Sure, it's cozy enough here, but the city is filling with people from all over. Elves, dwarves, people speaking all kinds of incomprehensible languages, decked out in every color. I've never seen anything like it!" Frodo chuckled at this 'man of the world,' since not a year before Pippin had never set foot outside the Shire. Pippin pillowed his head on his arms, staring dreamily at the ceiling.
"Carts came pouring in from the mountains loaded with people just a few weeks ago, carrying banners and singing the anthem of Gondor or however it is called. Anyways it was a grand sight, everybody was at the walls, picking up the song and singing throughout the city. It echoed, Frodo, like the horn of Gondor. I tried to join in, though I couldn't rightly follow the words. I think it was in the language of old Numenor... Bere, my friend, he didn't know the words either.
"That's where half of all this comes from by the way, seems only right you should get to enjoy it, too, since you're largely responsible." He rolled over, nearly tipping his plate as he turned a bright eye to his hosts.
"Oh, Frodo, Sam, after that, the parties really started in earnest. If you thought Gondor was celebrating while you were there, well they had only begun. I think I've learned a hundred new dances. And the music! There must be no fewer than five new songs about you alone, Frodo."
Frodo winced and laughed, "Well, there's one good reason to stay away."
Merry and Sam joined in. Frodo's dislike of the ballads about himself was a joke amongst his friends.
"They're not that bad."
"On the contrary, my dear Pippin, they are not only bad: they're awful. And getting worse all the time. And not a grain of truth in them, either. Sneaking into Barad-dur, smiting the Dark Lord - indeed! Why, not even Elendil managed such a feat!
"Besides," he added as an afterthought, "of the two of us, Sam is the more, well, heavily armed."
Sam was so caught up in Pippin's story that it took a moment to catch Frodo's eyes dancing with mirth at him. He lowered his plate to his lap in embarrassment, realizing what Frodo meant.
"I couldn't even go to market without being recognized," Frodo continued, a glint in his eye not boding well to Sam's mind, though it seemed he was to be spared, "you've no idea what it's like to smile and try to be polite through all that."
"Oh," Pippin brushed this off, "they just don't understand about magic and rings and so forth. Anyways, crawling half-starved across the waste of Gorgoroth doesn't make for much of a story."
"No. Not much fun I imagine..." murmured Frodo, not liking the reminder anymore than he liked the songs. The memory sent a chill down Sam's spine and he instinctively edged closer to Frodo's chair. Bad poetry and exaggeration aside, there were many reasons Frodo disliked the ballads. What Sam knew or guessed of his reasons was hard to say.
"So why not enjoy what you've earned? There are no songs of me!" Pippin said plaintively, "no one wants to sing about old Lord Denethor nearly cooking his son, for all I had a hand in saving him."
"Pippin - !" startled Merry.
"I said 'nearly cooked.' Bother, you're getting as bad as old Gandalf, Merry," he continued, "- and I do know what it's like, Frodo. To be you, that is. I get mistaken for you all the time. And I wouldn't mind. If it were true."
"Then we're back to my original point: it isn't." Frodo said with finality. He would say no more on the subject. Sam rose and rescued Pippin's plate before he could roll over and break it, and began collecting the others.
"But you're missing everything, and you're so far away. Parties nearly every night, Frodo! It would be so grand to have the four of us all together."
"Well, my parties these days tend to be of a more private nature," Frodo answered with a small distant smile. Sam bobbled Merry's plate. He glanced over at Frodo, who was carefully not looking at Sam this time, but the little smile remained. Sam shook his head to clear it and fled to the kitchen. He returned several minutes later wiping his hands, determined to not encourage Frodo in his teasing, and walked in to a heated discussion between Merry and Pippin.
"Look, Pippin, it was your fault - "
"- Ha - !"
"Now, now, there, it takes two to tangle," Frodo interrupted with a grin, glimpsing Sam's return out of the corner of his eye.
Sam firmly ignored the hint.
"Well, whatever it is, it's very likely Master Pippin's fault," he commented.
That brought down the house and even Pippin slapped Sam on the back. Sam blushed with pleasure.
"Oy, Sam, you're not nearly as shy as you used to be!" laughed Pippin.
"Sam's quite cheeky in fact," Frodo said, winking at Sam, "But I like that about him. There's more to him than most hobbits." Sam blinked, forgetting his resolve. He was not quite sure he took that as a compliment. He wasn't that big.
"You two," Merry observed, looking back and forth between Frodo and Sam, "you seem so much closer now, even more than just a month ago; though I would hardly have thought it possible."
"Yes, we've seen a great deal more of each other lately," Frodo answered easily, tongue firmly in cheek. Sam choked, his answer tangled and lost somewhere between his voice and his mind. Fortunately the conversation wandered to Merry's latest enthusiasm, his horse; he and Frodo talked animatedly about riding the next day.
"She's well-behaved, but quite a handful!" Merry gushed.
Pippin piped up, interrupting Frodo, "Oh yes! And maybe we can discover a shorter route to Minas Tirith while we're about it, climbing over that mountain. We have to go such the long way around. But don't you dare do too much, Frodo! If you don't mind my saying so - you look tired."
"Well, the only climbing I've done lately is on that bed - and that has been quite adventure enough!" Sam jaw fell. "I'd say I've quite worn myself out. Though Sam here, he can go all night, and still have breakfast ready in the morning." Frodo looked like he was about to laugh out loud. "I'm really quite impressed," he added.
Sam stood up. That wasn't near the truth, nor was it even part of the truth: it was damned near all of it. He realized suddenly then that Merry and Pippin were staring up at him quizzically, and he flushed, and mumbled something about dishes and washing up. Frodo's shoulders were shaking with silent laughter as he gently patted Sam's arm and pulled him back down beside him.
"It's alright, Sam. It's fine. I am sorry - " Frodo said, quickly recovering, adding for Merry and Pippin's benefit, "- for not helping you with the dishes earlier. If you'll stay, I will help you in the morning. I really want you to be here, Sam. Please. We have so much to talk about." Something in the way Frodo said it made Sam sit down uncertainly. Merry and Pippin looked puzzled at the interchange, but seemed to decide to ignore it as their personal business.
"So... how have things been around here?" Merry asked with polite disinterest, clearly thinking he knew the answer.
"Exciting." Frodo laughed, then squeezed his eyes shut with a wince. He set an apologetic hand on Sam's shoulder, as Sam closed his mouth.
"I'll bet!" Pippin rolled his eyes. "Watching the grass grow..."
"Yes." Frodo went on, "things have been growing quite out of control. Maybe too much so, Sam, do you think?" His eyes looked clear through Sam, who could hardly gather his wits to answer.
"Oh... I... I don't think so..." he mumbled.
Merry nodded, "Sam will take care of everything."
"Yes. So he does." Frodo said softly, examining Sam under lowered lids and taking another long pull at his pipe. His hand still rested on Sam's shoulder, firm and distracting. Sam blushed furiously.
"No need to be embarrassed, Sam!" Pippin clapped him on the back, "everyone knows you're the best gardener in all of Hobbitton, if your Dad would admit that you've bested him, that is." Frodo tapped out the ashes of his pipe casually, finally removing his hand. The spot where it had been was warm with the memory of his touch.
"He's fantastic. I mean that. Although I admit, I haven't had much experience with others. I do have some bias towards Sam. We all know how I feel about him."
"I somehow doubt that," muttered Sam under his breath and he shot Frodo a warning look, which fortunately Pippin missed.
"Yes, Sam's a prince!" Pippin beamed.
Merry didn't miss it however. "I'm sorry... Sam, did you say something?"
The room grew suddenly very hot and Sam stood up.
"Yes, sir, dessert? Mr. Merry, Master Pippin?" He wanted to escape, quickly.
Frodo stopped Sam on his way to the kitchen, catching and holding his eyes.
"I'll have whatever you'll have, Sam. But no more than you wish." Frodo's face was earnest and sincere.
"My, my, we take our dessert seriously in this house!" Merry said mockingly.
"Some things are more serious than others." Frodo leaned back, his eyes distant and cryptic as he relit his pipe.
"Especially dessert!" Pippin piped up, and happily volunteered to help Sam with Pippin's favorite meal.
Sam's heart fluttered and his knees were weak as he retreated to the kitchen. Pippin's help was the last thing Sam needed. He wanted time to think, to catch his breath. He was getting dizzy with two things going on at once, with what Mr. Frodo was saying, and what Mr. Merry was saying, and what Mr. Frodo had said, and what he meant, and what Mr. Merry thought. He needed a moment to sort it all out. He couldn't think on the fly like this. Pippin hovered unhelpfully underfoot in a kitchen that felt small and crowded already. Sam loaded a tray with pies and apple tarts and stuffed it into Pippin's arms to get rid of him, sending him along with a far too familiar pat on the bottom, like he was a hobbit child. Or Mr. Frodo. Sam realized what he'd done, too late; he was getting mixed up. Pippin yipped and blinked, but then paid it no mind as he pranced into the living room to cheers and clapping for the ever-popular dessert course. Sam whipped some cream for the pies with a sprinkle of sugar, thinking furiously how to answer Mr. Frodo; how to be plain, and not plain, so to speak.
Pippin's voice sang out from the living room, "Hullo Sam! Don't be too long or we shan't wait for you!"
Sam thought he had his answer, or at least it was his best effort and would have to do. He was no match for Mr. Frodo, or Mr. Merry for that matter, in a game of wits and knew it. He gathered the last pie and the whipped cream and bit his lip as he went to his doom. Or so he felt.
He slid a piece of pie onto a plate and handed it to Mr. Frodo. First. Right on schedule, Frodo responded perfectly to the set up. If there was one thing Sam knew, it was his master.
"Shouldn't you serve our guests first?" Frodo reminded Sam mildly, with idle amusement.
"You... you come first," Sam stammered, his voice breaking, "...you always have."
Lips slightly parted around the pipe was all that betrayed Frodo as he sat, poleaxed, and made no answer. The room went white hot, for both of them. The candles fluttered. Perhaps Sam had spoken too plainly? Sam felt trapped and uncertain, and Merry shot a confused look between Frodo and Sam, like he suddenly felt he was missing the punch line of a joke. Or three.
Pippin scoffed around a forkful of pie, "Sam, if I didn't know better I'd say you'd been at Frodo's brandy. You're always such a mush-pot at the bottom of a cup of ale." Frodo recovered first.
"Oh. Well," he said breathlessly, "in that case, I accept." He spoke softly looking down at his plate. He gave Sam an unreadable look and changed the subject. "Tell us about being in the guard, Pippin. We've seen you in all your finery, but I for one have no idea what you do!"
Sam sank to a chair, pie forgotten in his hands, grateful for his master's skillful distraction. He had spoken his mind a bit too plainly, it was clear. He berated himself roundly, using every name his father had for him and a few others, "Sam Gamgee," he thought, "don't try to be clever. Only a fool tries what he don't know how. And you're a fool, Gamgee, and twice over at that!" He watched Frodo, who for all appearances was absorbed in Pippin's eager story. But to Sam's sharp observation Frodo's eyes were a trifle unfocused, and his breathing heavy. He was carefully not looking at Sam. This was not the reaction Sam had wanted, though it was hard to say what he did expect. Perhaps he didn't know his master as well as he thought. Sam yearned to know his master's mind. But there was no chance Sam was going to make a second attempt.
Sam was having trouble following Pippin's tale himself, only catching it in snatches, his feelings churning as they were. Only half-aware of what was being said, images of a clarion wake-up call at first light caught at his mind; young Pippin at an end of a long line of soldiers, at attention, bearing row upon row of gleaming steel, glinting in the cool dawn; his arm crossed across his chest in the salute of Gondor. This tangled with Sam's throbbing heartbeat, watching Frodo, and he forgot all else for a space. His attention returned to the talk, which had wandered to a lunch hall, wooden trestles crowded with familiar faces who hailed Pippin on sight, as Pip attempted to tear himself away to his duties. They laughed, saying when does duty come before food with you? Pippin cursing his ill luck for having drawn the lunch shift, as someone tosses him a buttered roll, to 'fend off starvation', as Pippin leaves them to their merriment at his expense. Throughout this, Sam made hopeless furtive attempts to catch Frodo's eye. He didn't seem angry, but Sam couldn't understand his looking away. Frodo ate his pie slowly, as if he'd forgotten he was doing so, his face silhouetted and warmed by candlelight. Sam forgot not to stare. The soft gold on his master's face reflected and blended hazily with Pippin's next words; an image of afternoon sun beating down on a small Pip sparring in the dusty salle, training with the younger lads, sweat sticking his tunic to his back.. "The heraldry has to be black! In the summer, in this sun!" Pippin's voice broke in. That caught Sam's attention.
"Really, Master Pippin?" he asked, amazed, "You know how to use that steel of yours then?"
"No, not yet!" Pippin laughed, "the lads best me all the time. They have years more experience than I. But no real battles, so I'm one up on them there. And I'm catching up.
"-- but here now, let's continue this tomorrow. I don't think either of you have heard a word I've said!" Pippin accused, "You and Frodo, you're both falling asleep!"
Sam realized that they were. Well, they had been up late the night before. All night in fact. Had it really only happened just last night, Sam wondered. It seemed so much had changed in such a short time. Frodo stood, brushing the crumbs off his lap and setting his plate to the side.
"Yes, it's late. And as you didn't have the first piece of pie, you two can have the larger bed tonight. I'll share with Sam."
Usually Merry as the eldest shared with Frodo, and Sam, wiping his mouth, watched Merry carefully, feeling a rush of both relief and fear. Something tender had been revealed, too new and fragile to be touched by their friends' inevitable shock; and their equally inevitable merciless teasing that would surely follow. But Merry accepted the gracious offer without comment or apparent concern.
Sam huffed a sigh, exhausted. He was grateful they were leaving the washing up for the morrow, though he felt a tad guilty too; it would be an awful mess, and his mother had never allowed the washing to go undone. "What's bad is always worse if you wait." But he was glad Frodo was helping. For one thing, given Pippin's aversion to cleaning, he stood a good chance of having a quiet moment alone with Frodo to talk. He watched Pippin dig through the baggage for their pajamas, resting his mind. A sudden thought, a bolt out of the blue, occurred to Sam - about cleaning. He made a beeline for the bedroom and began stripping the sheets off Frodo's bed with alacrity.
"Sam, that is very thoughtful, but really, you don't have to." Merry moved to forestall him.
"It is quite late, Sam. I suppose we should have thought of it sooner," Frodo agreed.
Sam tossed Frodo his pillowcase, which had seen much use the night before, giving him an emphatic meaningful look. Frodo caught the scent immediately, his eyes widening at Sam. "I'll fetch the linens." he said, turning abruptly.
As they made the bed together, once Merry's back turned, Frodo made a wordless helpless gesture of disbelief to Sam, rolling his eyes at their utter carelessness. Sam bobbed and nodded, and put his head in his hands in mock horror. Frodo's eyes danced and Sam grinned at him. After they tucked the last corner under the oak headboard, Frodo murmured under his breath "Well done, Sam." And he stood there for a moment, his palm to his temples.
The sheets felt so cool and light that Sam pulled out fresh sheets for his own bed, especially since Frodo was going to be sharing them with him tonight. Sam felt warm and happy. He hadn't done too terribly after all.
The four of them began to undress. It felt a little awkward and odd to Sam, though they had done this hundreds of times before. His mind would not stop telling him Merry and Pippin could see right through him and knew exactly what had happened in the last day or so, no matter how he argued with it. And Frodo he saw in a new light, the curve of his back and his refined manner seemed achingly sweet to him now. He was careful not to stare, or glance too often. Surely he'd have other chances. Even Merry and Pippin looked different. Frodo had assumed an enviable mask of calm. Sam knew now it was a mask, and suspected that underneath it all Frodo was as nervous as he. If such were possible.
Pippin clambered into bed as Merry returned from a quick trip to the washbasin, toweling off his face, settling onto his side of the bed. Frodo and Sam stood at the foot of their bed, staring at each other, and the bed, in blinking amazement. Now that it had come to it, they were reluctant to get in. This would be the first time they would have done so deliberately, knowing each other as they did now. Perhaps without visitors they would have slept in Frodo's bed tonight. Perhaps Sam would have returned to his own. But as it was they had no choice.
Frodo waited for Sam politely, then finally nodded to Sam, explaining, "It's your bed."
"I sleep on the outside edge," said Sam.
"Oh. So do I." Frodo blinked.
This seemed suddenly strange and funny to both of them, summing up their entire dilemma somehow. Sam gave up and dove in first, cringing at the squeak and feeling a bit squashed against the wall, as Frodo struggled in under the blankets beside him. Sam was minded suddenly of a boat, with the bed and covers moving about him unexpectedly. It was not a comfortable feeling.
Pippin blew out the last candle on Frodo's little table, bouncing and tossing all the covers to his cousin, who threw them back. "It's too hot in here." Frodo reached to open the window, catching Sam with an elbow and apologizing, as he opened it a little wider. Sam rubbed his ear, hushing Frodo's anxious apologies. The night before this had been so easy, if not precisely graceful.
In the dark, Merry and Pippin's breathing gradually deepened and slowed to the rate of the soft cooling air that wafted in off the mountains. Pippin coughed and turned with a little sigh, fresh sheets rustling.
Frodo's face was a brush of silk on Sam's shoulder, breath soft and warm in Sam's hair. Sam felt Frodo hesitantly slip a hand up under his pajama top and ease across Sam's chest, though he ventured no more. Sam was grateful, exhausted, though he blinked nervously at the unfamiliar touch and then drank in the new sensation of the cool hand on his chest. He was drifting off when he felt as much as heard the whisper on the back of his neck.
"Sam... are you still awake?"
Sam nodded, wondering sleepily what Frodo was up to, his mind going to the squeak in the bed. A kiss pressed into his hair.
"What you said earlier.." Sam listened into the pause.
"I know. Sam." Frodo said simply.
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