4. Chapter Three - Ashes
Frodo woke sprawled on his bed feeling as if trolls had decided to play some perverse game with his head, despite Bilbo pre-emptively dosing him with hangover remedies and shooing him back into bed for the better part of the day. Late afternoon sunlight slanted through the shutters, ricocheting around the room and splintering into cheerful little shards that lanced into his eyes. He lifted both his pillows and covered his head with a groan.
But he could still hear Bilbo humming merrily, moving about the smials. It sounded as if he was in the kitchen at the moment. Bilbo seemed disgustingly happy with himself, as if he had won some bet, or guessed some riddle that no one else could guess.
Frodo remembered, but it was difficult with all the pounding in his head, that Bilbo had said something this morning about how being in love felt like a hangover. Or was it that a hangover felt like being in love? This seemed essentially wrong somehow, but he couldn't focus well enough
“About time you were up, slug-a-bed!” Bilbo's cheerful voice preceded him into the room and was entirely too loud, at least in Frodo's opinion. Frodo peeked out from under the pillows with one eye and felt his stomach immediately rebel.
Bilbo was standing in his room with a full tray, grinning at him and wearing a waistcoat that was so bright it actually hurt Frodo to look at it. He sat the tray on the bedside table.
Frodo resigned himself. This was the punishment for falling in love with the Gaffer's youngest son. To have Bilbo Baggins repeatedly get him drunk and then sober him up, over and over.
“Don't worry, my boy, it is just tea -- nice weak tea -- and some nice bland biscuits and mild cheese to settle your stomach. And some more of this remedy that would have worked this morning, if we hadn't poured all that cordial on top of it.”
Frodo's eyes widened as his stomach lurched at the mention of cordial. He felt his skin go cold and clammy and he shut his eyes quickly. When things had settled once more, he carefully wormed his way into a sitting position with the pillows stuffed behind him, chanced opening one eye, and reached out for the mug that Bilbo proffered.
Bilbo managed a sympathetic grimace. “Give that a try and I'll be back to check on you in a bit. All right?”
Frodo nodded, but regretted the action immediately as his head throbbed and his stomach lurched. He took a quick gulp of the bitter remedy as he watched Bilbo leave. The humming began again somewhere just beyond his door.
After managing the entire mug of Bilbo's special cure, Frodo carefully consumed a few biscuits and a bite of cheese. He finally decided that he would not immediately die of the after effects of the cordial, but that he would never look at strawberries quite the same way again.
Sitting there in bed cradling a cup of tea, Frodo tried to summon up the feeling of exhilaration he had felt only hours before, and discovered, to his dismay, that the dragons had not really been vanquished, only temporarily addled. He desperately searched his memory for the precise logical path that Bilbo had led him down, but the effort made his head pound again. He had felt that wonderful feeling this morning, hadn't he? Or had it been the cordial? His stomach lurched.
Closing his eyes, he sank back into his pillows. Perhaps he should just stay in a constant state of inebriation until Sam was happily married and surrounded by toffee-haired children. Then he decided that he would just stay that way for the rest of his life. It couldn't possibly be that long. There might just be barely enough Old Winyards to see him through.
But that would mean a constant cycle of hangovers as well. He grimaced and decided that perhaps he could just hide out in Bag End for the rest of his life. If he could just somehow arrange it so that he just wouldn't see Sam, or hear him, or smell him, ever again. That would work.
Oh yes, that would work.
There was the sound of a cleared throat from the door. He risked a glimpse, knowing the sight of Bilbo's waistcoat might just cause a relapse.
Bilbo stood there looking at him with concern. “I was going to head off to The Ivy Bush for the evening, my boy, that is, if you think you will live?”
“Barely,” Frodo croaked.
Bilbo came in and pulled a chair up next to the bed, sitting down to peer at Frodo's face closely.
“Perhaps a nice hot bath would help. I filled the tub and heated water for you. Made sure the room was nice and warm. Nothing like a long sweaty soak to get all that out of your system,” he patted Frodo's hand affectionately.
Frodo realized that seeing Bilbo sitting there again plying him with food and hot baths reminded him of those many hours that Bilbo had spent in that very chair, fussing over him when he had been so ill all those years ago. Something twisted inside him when he realized how very much he cared for the old scamp and how much he dreaded the possibility that Bilbo might really take that last trip and leave him as Master of Bag End -- leave him alone.
Frodo closed his eyes and took another gulp of his tea, knowing Bilbo had no secret remedy for this pain. He wanted to say it out loud. 'Don't leave me Bilbo. Don't leave.' And he wouldn't mean this evening at The Ivy Bush. And Bilbo would know what he did mean, and the brilliant smile would fade.
Perhaps what he should say instead was 'Take me with you Bilbo. Let me come with you.'
No risk in that. Off down the road on an adventure. No one hurt. No one's heart broken. No ghosts of toffee-haired children wafting through his dreams.
No hummed and whistled and half-sung tunes outside his window. No golden head bent lovingly over pale green shoots in the rich black earth. No more 'What would you be wanting here in this bed this season Mister Frodo?' No more tales teased out of reluctant pages to coax an amazing smile from that mouth. No more shared hikes and campfires and songs. No more of the vital and rich smell of clean soil and blooming flowers and cut grass and -- Sam.
No more running. Running was not the answer this time. He did remember that from this morning. He couldn't run from this. He couldn't run from Sam.
“Or you could just take it easy and stay in bed. Curl up with a good book. It is going to be a lovely cool evening, I think,” came Bilbo's worried tones.
Frodo opened his eyes and found blue-grey ones focused on him anxiously. And suddenly he realized why Bilbo had plied that Baggins' wit so hard this morning. Why he had been at his silver-tongued best. And why he had been so cheerful all afternoon. Bilbo would no longer be leaving his young charge alone.
He would be leaving him Sam.
Frodo put his hand over Bilbo's soft wrinkled one on the sheet, but found there was suddenly a lump in his throat. For a moment, they simply sat, gazing at each other.
“A hot bath sounds absolutely wonderful, Bilbo,” Frodo managed. “I'll be fine. Really. You go and have a grand time.”
Bilbo looked at him a moment longer, then patted Frodo's hand and stood. “All right then, I'm off,” he said in a gruff voice.
He went to the door and turned back, “Don't hide in here, lad. You're a Baggins, you know. Have to go face the dragons.”
Frodo smiled weakly, “I know, Bilbo.”
Only the dragons weren't 'out there' somewhere.
They were all roaring inside his head in a painful chorus.
The bath was as steamy as Bilbo had promised. Bag End's bathing room was a real luxury. No dragging a tub into the kitchen as most inhabitants of Hobbiton did, if even that. No, Bag End had a proper room set aside just for bathing. Originally an interior storeroom, it nestled into the hill with a stone flag floor, a specially designed drain, a huge wooden tub, and a stove to heat the water. Bilbo had heated plenty, but Frodo set more to boil anyway, knowing his own inclination to sometimes stay in until his skin wrinkled up or until the water cooled and woke him.
Soap up first then soak, or soak, then soap up? Frodo chose the latter and slid gingerly into the too-hot water with a shudder. But his skin adjusted quickly and he sighed luxuriously and stretched out along the bottom with his head resting against his folded towel on the rim.
For long minutes he drifted in the water, eyes closed, letting the heat seep into his bones. The last of the dragons whimpered for a moment behind his eyes, then crawled off into the dark. He slitted his eyes open cautiously.
The room was dim, lit only with a few tapers and filled with steam. Wispy tendrils of steam lifted from the water in a sinuous dance. He sank in until only his eyes remained above it, his hair floating around him. Then he pushed off, floating.
Frodo still didn't know where Bilbo had managed to get this tub, but it was amazing. Long enough to practically swim in. He closed his eyes and flipped over on his stomach, letting himself sink to the bottom. One day Bilbo had found him like that and nearly fallen in the tub trying to pull him out.
Bilbo had given up understanding Frodo's relationship with water. Yes, water was the enemy. But every confrontation was a battle won. Frodo had learned how to swim only after learning not to eat anything at all for hours before. That way there was nothing to heave up when the tremors hit and shook him to the core. He had learned how to hold his breath, drifting along the bottom of the river, until stars danced behind his eyes or a panicked relative splashed in angrily to pull him to the surface. He had learned how to fight the current by giving into it, letting it tug him away, thinking it had won, then managing to twist agilely out of its grasp. He had learned how to grit his teeth against the memories every time he dove in. To thrust the anger and grief into lithe muscles that could beat water at its own game. He hated it, and loved it at the same time.
With a push and a pull from him, the water rolled him back and forth in a rhythmic pulsing wave. He wondered if that was what the sea was like, always pulsing with movement, with life. He had dreamed of the sea, even though he had never seen it or heard it or smelled it. He thought that the salty water must feel different sliding over your skin. And the stars must be even brighter when you lay floating on the surface of the sea far beyond any hope of land.
Frodo spun slowly over and floated on his back for a moment, eyes closed, imagining that lustrous sky shining down on him. It would be so full of stars that it would outshine the moon and spangle the calm waves below with brilliance beyond imagining. He could almost hear it, singing above him. Here, lying beneath the earth itself, he could hear that strange slow and stately song, almost inaudible, but felt inside.
It was a gentle quivering hum beneath his breastbone, like Sam's deep tones humming in the garden, vibrating under his heart. And Sam was like those stars shining down on that vast dark sea. Never wondering, just pouring that lustrous energy of his into everything he touched. Sam had always been there, shining brilliantly on him, transforming him into something he would not have become. Even when Sam was young --
Still weak after taking ill with a fever right after he came to Bag End, Frodo had decided that the couch in the parlour, though vastly more interesting than his room, was not comfortable. He had resolved to walk back to his room unaided. A very stubborn and ill-advised move, but with walls and doorknobs as supports, he had made it, sweating and shaking.
Frodo had managed to stumble on weak legs back into the warm cocoon of his bed. Lying with his eyes closed and listening drowsily to the hum of a spring afternoon, he had overheard Bilbo in the garden worrying over his charge's slow return to health with the Gaffer, unaware that he was within hearing.
Frodo hadn't had the energy to get up and go to the window to indignantly protest, but there had been no need, for young Sam's voice had piped up. “I think Master Frodo is a bit like those Eniara plants over there. You remember Mister Bilbo, you brought 'em back from the elves and planted 'em yourself.”
“Boy, the Master don't need no advice from your like,” the Gaffer had, of course, interrupted.
“That's all right, Gaffer. I really do want to hear what our Samwise has to say,” Bilbo had responded. “What do you mean Samwise?”
That little voice had piped up bravely, “Well, sir, meaning no disrespect, but you...you sorta forgot where you put 'em you know. And they got left out. No water, no tending, just left to go on their own as best they could . . . Right out in full sun, and them needing shade.”
“Samwise!” the Gaffer had interrupted in dismay.
“Let him finish. It's all right,” Bilbo had said soothingly.
Frodo had almost been able to see those huge gold eyes swivelling from the Gaffer to Mister Bilbo, as Sam's childish voice quavered to life again. “Well, they managed all right, they did, but they never did bloom like they ought and they were a tad yellow and just not quite right. So, I moved 'em to shade and seen to it they got the proper attention and all. Well, now they bloom like the stars in the sky and smell like... Well, they smell right nice they do.”
There had been a hint of a smile in Bilbo's patient response. “And how does that make them like Master Frodo?”
“Well, I'm thinking Master Frodo is like that. He was just planted in the wrong place for a while with no one really watching over him. But at Bag End here with us -- I mean with you, Mister Bilbo -- Bag End is the right place. And those Eniaras didn't thrive right off neither. Almost lost ‘em when first I moved 'em. Took a right while to get took there, but now they're fair taking over. They just needed some’un to pay 'em some attention.”
There had been a long silence. Frodo had found himself moved to tears. He'd had to imagine the look in Bilbo's eyes and was certain that, from the sound of it, his cousin had moved to hug the young gardener in gratitude. He heard an inaudible protest from the young voice, then Bilbo’s soft voice, “Thank you, Samwise. You are a master gardener.”
From that moment on, it seemed to Frodo that Bilbo had conspired, against all the Gaffer's instincts and objections, to push the two boys together, ensuring that his special transplant had all the attention required to thrive.
Frodo wondered what delicate seedlings Sam was pouring his light and energy into at that very moment. More strawberries? Some exotic plant Bilbo had persuaded him to foster?
No, it was more likely Sam was finished for the day and washing up before supper. He could picture Sam standing outside his smial in the last glimmers of sunlight, sluicing water over his bowed head and neck, then standing up and letting it slide down that heated skin, slide down his neck as he slowly unbuttoned his shirt, slide down across that sun-kissed chest sparsely furred with gold as he pulled his braces free to dangle around his hips, slide further down.
Water sloshed onto the flagstones as Frodo lurched up, grabbing at the sides of the tub, gasping as water runnelled over him. He shook his head, flinging water everywhere, heedless of the hiss of an extinguished candle. How easily the water extinguished that flame. What would ease the flame that flared into unquenchable life in his breast and quickened his flesh at just the thought of touching Sam's heated skin as that water had, sliding his fingers down that same path?
Oh, Frodo knew what would ease it, certainly, but even that seemed only to bank the fire, not quench it. Nothing seemed to quench it. It seemed, at the moment, that it would manage to burn him to cinders even while he sat in steaming water. He muttered a dwarvish curse that Bilbo had taught him not long ago. He loved the harsh sound of it. It sounded exactly like what it said. And it said exactly what he wanted to say.
Grabbing the bowl of soap perched at the side of the tub, Frodo slathered it into his hair, tugging at the tangles harder than necessary, hoping the resulting twinges of pain would defeat his rebellious libido. He dunked his head quickly to rinse, then grabbed the rough sponge beside it and scrubbed, probably harder than necessary, at his face and neck. He stopped briefly to rub his thumbs into his eye sockets where dull twinges of pain still lingered, then abruptly remembered that pain, at this point, was a good thing.
So he scrubbed fiercely at his arms and hands and stood up, letting the water sluice off of him, running the sponge quickly and roughly over his back and legs, trying to ignore the tumescent evidence of his heated thoughts. He gritted his teeth, and propped one foot on the side of the tub, lathering the curly hair carefully, scrubbing at the leathery sole and rinsing, then doing the same for the other. He dunked himself back into the water, and then groped over the side of the tub for the bottle he had picked off the shelf. He pulled off the cork and sniffed. It wouldn't do to mistakenly douse himself with that concoction of Bilbo's, which smelled entirely too sweet. Lavender was for lasses, to his way of thinking. He poured a small dab of the juniper-smelling oil into his hands, carefully replaced the bottle and cork, then stood up and spread it carefully through his fingers, running his hands through his hair and quickly over his arms.
As his fingers slid across his ribs and down the sensitised flesh of his stomach, Frodo realized with a shiver that applying the oil probably hadn't been such a good idea. He stopped, took a deep breath, and wiped his hands roughly on his thighs. Then he leaned over, grasping for the ceramic pitcher he had placed by the tub for a final rinse, and hefted it up to pour it slowly over his head and then the rest of him.
A mistake that.
The feeling of the warm water sliding slowly over his skin was his undoing. By the time the pitcher was empty, he was shuddering with raw need.
Frodo barely managed to set the pitcher down without breaking it and grabbed at the side of the tub, gulping in ragged breaths. Impossible. This was impossible.
Pulling himself out of the tub, he slid down to sit on the rough floor, his legs sprawled out on the flagstones, his back scraping against the wood slats. Bilbo would find him here eventually, a pile of smouldering ash beside a tub of cool water, candles guttering in the moist air.
He leaned his head back against the tub, closing his eyes and sighing resignedly. As he slid his oil-slicked hand across heated skin, tremors rippled across his stomach ahead of the questing fingers. A thousand stars seemed to be vibrating within him as his hand closed around his own painfully rigid flesh.
It would never be enough, Frodo thought, as his fingers encircled and stroked. It would only be a matter of time until he was needy once more. Not even if he imagined his fingers tangled in that flaxen hair, pulling that generous mouth to his, pressing shoulder to knee into that sturdy sun-warmed frame, clothes and all. Drinking undiluted sunshine from that mouth. Falling into the sky full of stars in those eyes. Just one kiss and he would be undone. Just one kiss.
He managed to lift his other arm to press the back of his hand over his mouth as his body quivered with release, but not in time to stifle the moan that echoed in the stillness “Oh...S... Sam!” The thousand stars exploded back into the sky.
And something fell in the cellar beyond the door.
Frodo scraped skin off of his back by rising far too fast onto unsteady legs beside the tub. Still shuddering and breathing hard, the muscles in his thighs twitching in protest, he gazed at the door.
Which stood partially open, revealing dim shadows beyond.
Of course, why wouldn't it be? He must have left it that way in his distracted mood. He usually shut it, knowing Bilbo would fuss about the dampness getting into the cellar instead of going up and out the vent in the roof. But he must've left it open this time. No one would just wander into the cellar without knocking or making themselves known somehow. And certainly no one would open the bathing room door, not even Bilbo. And Bilbo was gone.
Frodo listened for long moments over the harsh sound of his own breathing, water dripping off of him and pooling on the floor. No sound came from the shadows beyond the door. He finally leaned over, his hands on his knees, exhaling with relief. It must've been some pest creeping around the stores. He would have to check for signs and warn Bilbo.
He groped for the sponge in the tub to swipe at the evidence on his stomach angrily. Tossing it back into the water and grabbing his towel, he rubbed roughly at his hair then dried the rest of him and wrapped it swiftly about his waist. His thoughts churned mercilessly as he worked to empty the tub, tilt it against the wall to dry, bank the stove and mop up the floor.
This could not continue. His body was reacting as if he were a tweener who had never even touched another. He would burn to ashes or disintegrate into pieces if this went on without some resolution. He groaned when his mind automatically selected the resolution desired and threw him a vivid picture.
Shutting his eyes, Frodo wondered how many bottles of Old Winyards Bilbo had left.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.