"I'm think I'm going to start fostering cats," Frodo announces, when Sam arrives at two pm sharp on Wednesday.
He had his own news, but it would be impolite to share before Frodo is done. And it's not as if his is good news. He's not looking forward to this conversation. "Oh?"
"Well, why not?"
Sam can think of a few reasons, the first of which is that, when Frodo hired him, he asked if Sam could care for plants in addition to cleaning because he, quote, was not capable of keeping them alive. Frodo isn't a bad person, especially not compared to Sam's other clients, but he doesn't strike Sam as a nurturing presence.
"I didn't know you liked animals," is the explanation he settles on.
"Doesn't everyone like animals?"
"Oh, no. My old Gaffer likes dogs, but he can't stand cats. He says they're ornery. And I went to school with a girl who wouldn't touch any animals, not even kittens or puppies. She was afraid she'd get bitten."
Frodo frowns. "Well, I do. Like animals. But I wanted to warn you. I don't think you'll have to do much extra cleaning--I'm not asking you to take care the litter box or anything like that. But they'll be around. Are you allergic?"
"No." He clears his throat, awkward and upset all at once. Frodo is only his second client to get the news, but he's also his favorite. He'll miss seeing him, and not just because he's nice to look at. "It doesn't matter, though. I was going to tell you--next week will have to be my last week. At least for now."
Frodo jerks up in his chair like Sam threw lightning at him. "What?"
"My landlord is kicking us out. His daughter is moving to town and he's giving her the place. We were on monthly lease so it's technically enough notice, but I don't think I'll be able to find another place in time. So I'll be heading home until I get back on my feet."
It's not the solution Sam was hoping for, but after weeks of scrambling, he doesn't have anything better. His roommates found other places with friends and significant others, but none have room for him, and he doesn't have anywhere to stay while he braves craigslist looking for new prospects. If he's luckily, he'll only be on the farm for a few months, and then he'll find a new house with new roommates. The cleaning agency might take him back after all that, but even if they did, he'd probably get new clients. He's likely done with Frodo regardless.
"No, you can't. That's not right."
"Like I said, it's all legal."
"Don't you live in Vermont?" Frodo asks, like living in Vermont is a curse someone put on his family.
"Yeah. Gaffer'll like to have me back."
He worries his lip, hesitating over something, and Sam can't possibly fathom what.
"I have a room you could take," is what he finally says.
Frodo is rich. Not obscenely rich, not rich in the way where he owns yachts or anything, but rich in a way that Sam has trouble grasping, rich in the way where he doesn't have to wonder if he'll have enough money for whatever he wants to do. As far as Sam can tell, it's a combination of inheritance, income from the books he writes (but refuses to let Sam read), and "investments," which Sam still doesn't understand, as a concept. He's never had enough money to think about investing any of it.
But he knew Frodo had more room than he needed, mostly because he knows how little room one person really needs, when you get down to it. When he first moved to the city, he lived in someone's walk-in closet. Minimum living space is relative.
Frodo has three bedrooms, all of which Sam has cleaned. One of the spare bedrooms is always tidy; Sam changes the sheets every other month, to be safe, but as far as he knows no one has ever slept there. The other spare room is occupied once every few weeks by, as far as Sam can tell, a tornado made of pepperoni pizza, pot smoke, and Axe body spray.
He's never met Frodo's cousin Merry, and he's in no hurry to.
Knowing Frodo had room in his place and thinking he might take advantage of that were two different things, of course. Plenty of Sam's clients have extra rooms, and he'd never expect them to offer them to him. If they wanted live-in help, they'd hire maids, nannies, people who could take care of the households. Charity isn't the kind of thing they do in their own homes for down-on-their-luck cleaners.
"It's very kind of you to offer--" he starts, but Frodo waves him off.
"Don't say no just to be polite, Sam. I've been feeling like the place is too big for me anyway. Even if Uncle Bilbo needs to move in the next few years, there's more than enough room for all three of us."
"Are you offering me a place to live," he asks, slow, "or wanting to hire me full time?"
Frodo has one of the most expressive faces Sam has ever seen, and he's never so emotive as when he's wounded. Kicked puppies have nothing on Frodo Baggins for looking hurt and betrayed. "No, no! You don't even have to keep on working for me if you don't want to. But you shouldn't have to leave your whole life behind because of one landlord."
Sam's head is spinning. It feels like the start of a fantasy he's never let himself have, like he's slipped into a bizarre alternate universe. Intellectually, he knows it's nothing like that, that renting a room isn't a euphemism for anything. Frodo is a kind man who saw a way he could help.
But it's a terrible idea, no matter how Sam looks at it. Right now, he and Frodo have a clear relationship: Sam comes once a week to clean and take care of the plants. He stays for two hours, and he and Frodo usually chat a little while Frodo works on his laptop. They're friendly, and it's only natural that Sam has developed some inappropriately fond feelings. Frodo is just his type, but he's also Sam's employer, and crushes on employers are stupid enough without making them landlords on top of that.
On the other hand, if Sam doesn't live here, he won't be able to live in the city. He'll lose his jobs, and his family will be happy to have him home, but they'll probably try to guilt him into staying on the farm, and that's not what he wants. He likes living here, even if he can't quite afford it, likes his friends and his life. It felt as if things were going as well as they could be, until his housing fell through.
"How much?" is what he finally asks.
Frodo screws up his face. "I don't know. How much do rooms cost around here?"
"I couldn't afford to live around here," he points out, gentle.
To his credit, Frodo understands immediately. "Well, how much do you pay now?"
At the moment, Sam lives in a three-bedroom house with four roommates, which is a little bit of a headache. He shares the largest room with an Orangetheory trainer named Legolas from a rich family who disowned him over either his sexuality generally or his boyfriend specifically--a short, angry body-builder who might actually be as broad as he is tall. Sam doesn't mind Gimli on a personal level, but between his frequent visits and the other people they live with, things always feel cramped.
Having an entire room to himself in a place made to house more people than are currently living in it sounds like a fever dream.
"About $700, with utilities and all," he says.
"How much do you get from what I pay the cleaning service?"
"Seventeen an hour."
"Only seventeen? That's nothing. Compared to how much I pay them, I mean."
Sam shrugs. "If I could go out on my own, I'd make more. But I'd have to manage my own accounts and clients and have somewhere to keep supplies. They take a lot off the top, but I'm not ready to start my own yet. Not that I want to clean houses all my life."
"What do you want to do?" Frodo asks, sounding genuinely interested.
"I'd like to be a librarian," he admits, he dearest, secret wish, the one he hasn't told anyone. "Working with antique book collections. I love old books. Manuscripts. I have my BA, but I'm saving up to go to graduate school. It might never come to a career, but I'd like to try it. Cleaning houses isn't going anywhere, if it falls through."
"So you were going to move home and keep your savings, instead of dipping into those to pay for a more expensive place."
"I know it's silly, but--"
"No, it's not." He worries his lip. "I won't charge you anything."
"I'll fire you," he says. "And we can agree that you'll spend the same number of hours cleaning over the course of the week. I pay the cleaning agency too much already," he adds, before Sam can protest. "I don't want to hire you as live-in help, but what's the point in my charging you rent and paying it back for you to come in and clean? It's pointless."
Sam's mouth opens and closes as his brain scrambles to come up with a counter-argument. Frodo's already said he pays the agency much more than seventeen dollars an hour, and it's not as if Sam didn't know he only got a fraction of what his clients pay for his services. If Frodo cancels his weekly cleaning, he'll save money, and anything he charges Sam on top of that will be profit that he doesn't need.
For Sam's whole life, he's been taught to be honest and pay his dues, but if Frodo says his dues are the cleaning and caring for the plants, who's he to argue? He could pick up a new client in that timeslot. He'd make the same amount of money, but pay nothing for rent. He could pay off his undergrad loans faster, apply for grad school sooner. He could probably even drop the weekend gig driving, if he wanted to, or go down to only one day.
It would change his life, and Frodo wouldn't be any worse off. He might be coming out ahead.
"If you're sure," he says.
"I'm sure," says Frodo, tripping over himself in his eagerness to reassure. "As long as you won't mind the cats. I do still want to foster cats."
Sam is still shell-shocked. "I think I can live with a few cats." He manages a smile. "As many as you'd like, honestly."
"I'm not missing anything, am I?" Sam asks, once he's laid out everything that night.
Rosie taps her jaw. "Does he want to steal your organs? That would be my only worry. That he wants to steal your organs."
As exes go, Rosie is the best one Sam could ever hope for. They dated in high school, broke up when he went to college, and when they reconnected in Boston, he thought it would be their fairy-tale ending, childhood sweethearts reuniting and living happily ever after.
Instead, she was dating a lovely fellow already, and she and Sam wouldn't have been a good fit anymore anyway. They're much better as friends.
"I'm sure he doesn't want to steal Sam's organs," says Legolas.
"Aye," Gimli agrees. Sam has never been 100% clear on whether he's actually from Scotland or if the accent is an affectation, but in a way, it doesn't matter. Gimli is one of those guys who you'd hear speaking with a Scottish accent if he didn't have one. For all Sam knows, he doesn't and it's entirely in his head. "Sam isn't a good target for organ harvesting. Too many friends and connections. Someone would notice he was gone."
Legolas sighs. "How wonderfully reassuring."
"I really don't think he's like that," Sam says. "I'm sure if he'd thought of it sooner, he would have just offered me the room. That's the kind of person he is."
It's the wrong thing to say, judging from the way Rosie perks up. "And what kind of person is he, exactly?"
"Kind," says Sam, firmly. "Charitable. I've seen his tax documents when I'm cleaning up, I know how much he gives. I think it's a bad idea," he goes on, "because mixing work and housing like that is risky. It won't ever feel balanced, but we'll be living together like we're roommates."
"So you're worried about liking him too much?" Legolas asks. "Getting too close to him?"
"I just think it's going to be odd."
He shrugs one shoulder. "On the other hand, free rent, and all you have to do is exactly what you're already doing. And I'm sure it's nicer than our place."
"It is! It is." He runs his hand through his hair. "I'd be an idiot to say no."
"Get a contract," Gimli advises. "That's the ticket. A contract to protect your rights, and if he says no to that, you say no to living with him."
"And make sure he knows how many friends you have who care about you," Legolas adds. "Just to be safe."
Rosie is still watching him, suspicious, and after Legolas and Gimli have left, she asks, "If you are stupid about Frodo, that's another thing."
"I'm not stupid. I'm smart enough to know nothing's happening. He's just--nice to look at."
"And you're not worried about how much more you'll be looking at him now?"
He rubs his face. "Of course I am. I'm worried about everything. But do you want me to say no? Even if I wasn't losing my house, this would be a better deal. It's risky to say yes, but so much worse to say no."
"I just want you to be careful." She smiles. "Just because he's rich and handsome, it doesn't mean you have to fall in love with him. He'd need to have some good qualities for that."
Sam ducks his head, laughing. "I'm sure he'll be awful to live with. Privileged and thoughtless and scatter-brained. I'll be ready to leave in a week."
Rosie smiles at him, but it's a faint smile, the ghost of bad futures. Like she's from somewhere everything that's going to go wrong with this scheme already has and she's looking back, unable to warn him.
But things could go well, too. Nothing's happened yet, after all.
"I'm sure you will," she agrees, and Sam lets it go at that.
Moving in is surprisingly easy. Frodo was happy to bring in his lawyer and have a contract drawn up, and from everything Sam could see, it was fair. He was allowed to use the furniture already in the room, which was fine by him, as he had no great attachment to the stuff he'd gotten from Goodwill, Ikea, and Alston Christmas. If Frodo wanted to him to leave, he was required to give Sam three months' notice, while Sam was allowed to leave at any time. They formalized Sam's cleaning duties, which were to be no more than three hours per week of common spaces, including plant care, and Frodo's bedroom and bathroom. In exchange, he got the room and use of all common spaces in the townhouse.
"You know," he tells Frodo, as they're bringing in a large box of books, "the contract never gives a minimum amount of cleaning I have to do in a week. I didn't notice before."
"I'm not worried you'll shirk on your duties, Sam. I'm much more worried you'll overwork yourself."
"As long as you don't get much dirtier, it shouldn't be hard," he teases, and Frodo just smiles.
As he expected, Frodo is something of an odd roommate. He keeps strange hours, still asleep when Sam leaves for the day and still awake when he turns in himself. It doesn't seem to be unhealthy, just a difference in natural rhythms; Sam's found he likes to get up early and start the day, while Frodo feels more productive in the small hours of the night, when the world is quiet and dark instead of quiet and light.
He knew Frodo wasn't much of a cook from how little time he needed to clean the kitchen, but Sam's always liked cooking, and when he offers to make enough dinner for Frodo as long as he contributes to groceries, he doesn't even finish the question before Frodo is agreeing. The kitchen is nicer than his old one, to say nothing of less crowded, which gives Sam some room to really cook, like he used to when he lived at the farm.
"I don't know how you do it," says Frodo, watching as Sam punches and kneads some dough on his second Sunday in the townhouse. "Just--make things like that."
"It's not hard. There are instructions and everything. You can do it too if you'd like."
"Maybe I'll try something, now that I have you around to save it if it goes wrong."
It's the kind of exchange that happens more than he was expecting, the casual interactions he thought Frodo wouldn't welcome. Sam had been fully prepared to stay in his room with his headphones in, pretending he lived alone, but Frodo is so friendly and eager, he can't even imagine it.
And, of course, the resentment he'd been expecting doesn't come either. Frodo doesn't expect him to clean everything, just to do the heavy lifting, vacuuming and scrubbing the tub and shower, and even that he starts paying more attention to as Sam's residency extends.
"We always had a cleaning person," he admits, with a wry smile. "No one ever taught me how to do it myself."
"How could you not be taught how to clean?" he asks, but he's smiling too. "Did a maid come and collect your toys?"
"Only on days when she came." He shrugs. "My parents didn't come from wealth; my father got lucky and did well for himself. They were happy they could give me the things they didn't have growing up, like someone to pick up after me."
"And now here you are, thirty-four and never learned how to scrub a toilet."
"I don't want all this to be your responsibility."
"I'm not paying anything, so I don't mind contributing other ways. I was thinking I could get more plants, too. Start growing some produce in the yard in the summer. Carrots and tomatoes, maybe some herbs. If you don't mind."
"No, of course not. I don't want you to feel like this is my home, and you're just--you live here too, Sam. It's common space."
"I'd ask any roommate before I started changing things. Even if that cousin of yours never did."
Frodo laughs, bright like a bell. He doesn't laugh enough, in Sam's opinion. "You have such a poor opinion of Merry, you've never even met him."
"No, only seen what he leaves in his wake."
"You'll like him more once you meet him. He and Pippin can be--overwhelming. But good company in small doses."
"Speaking of company, when are you getting your cat? I worry about you all alone all day with your laptop."
"I worry about you inhaling cleaning chemicals all day," he shoots back. "But I finished all the paperwork and I should have the first foster coming in next week. Do you want to come pick it up?"
"Don't wait around on my account, I know my schedule is harder to work with than yours. But I'll be happy to meet it when I get home."
He does mean it, but when he returns late on Thursday night to find no sign of Frodo, he doesn't immediately put together that he must be with the new cat, so the first feeling the new feline inspires in him is panic.
"Frodo?" he calls. "Frodo, where are you?"
"In the guest room!" comes back instantly, at least, and Sam makes his way up the stairs to what he still thinks of as Merry's room. He knocks, soft, and Frodo says, "Yes, come in, I'm with the cat."
Sam pushes the door open to see the room transformed. The bed is still in the middle, and the dresser to the side, but the floor is strewn with things, as if Frodo went out and bought every toy he could find. There are scratching posts, mice, balls, odd plastic contraptions, and climbing structures, so much that Sam is sure no cat could ever be bored. Frodo is sitting cross-legged on the floor with something that looks like a fishing pole, and next to him is, well--
It's a cat, presumably. And of course Sam knows that foster cats are sometimes a little scrappier than other cats, that they're sometimes being fostered because of bad circumstances.
But this cat looks like a cat in the same way Stitch looked like a dog in Lilo & Stitch. If he'd had to pick an animal, he would have gone with cat, but it would only be from a lack of better options.
"Sam!" says Frodo, delighted. "This is Sméagol."
Well, it's not Sméagol's fault he looks like that. Sam takes a seat next to Frodo and offers his hand, which the cat refuses to look at, moving closer to Frodo instead.
"They said he doesn't open up easily, but he seems to like me," Frodo explains, with a helpless little smile that Sam can't help returning. The cat doesn't have to like him; it's not as if, so far, he likes the cat. They don't have to be friends. If he likes Frodo, that's enough.
"Well, that's good."
"Gollum," says the cat, some strange, awkward hacking cough. "Gollum. Gollum."
And then, he throws up on Sam's foot.
"I'm sure he didn't mean to do that," Frodo offers.
Sam peels his sock off carefully. "No. Of course not."
Over the next few days, Sméagol's territory expands from the guest room to the entire house, but he makes no more space in his heart for Sam. After he's thrown up on Sam's bed twice, Sam starts keeping his door closed, so he starts throwing up in front of the door instead. He's happy to sit on Frodo's lap, purring up a storm, but all Sam has to do is walk past and he gets swiped at. He can't even sit on the same couch with Sméagol without risking life and limb.
"Do you think it's personal?" Frodo asks. Sam gives him a flat look, and he holds up his hands. "I don't mean--of course it's personal. But do you think it's that he doesn't like you, or that he only likes me?"
Put like that, Sam's not sure what to think. "Did they say anything about it at the animal shelter? Did he throw up on them?"
"Not that they mentioned." Frodo frees the hand that was scratching Sméagol's ears and fishes his phone out of his pocket. "I think it's time to introduce you to Merry and Pippin."
Of course, Sam knew this was coming. He's been preparing to meet Merry (and Pippin, who in Frodo's mind seems to primarily exist as an extension of Merry) since the first time he cleaned the guest bedroom, bracing himself for Merry just happening to be around some Wednesday afternoon, probably lighting things on fire for fun.
He knows a few things about Merry, but not enough to push them together into a coherent mental picture. Merry is six years younger than Frodo and has an MBA, which he's used to start his own brewery. But according to Frodo he's also a good person who genuinely contributes to the community, which Sam knows isn't just Frodo's kind heart talking because he's seen headlines like Meriadoc Brandybuck Arrested At ICE Protest and Meriadoc Brandybuck Posts Bail For Dozens of Non-Violent Offenders. Sam doesn't consider himself any kind of expert on politics, but he knows that there's a lot of darkness in the world right now, and people with money are in a much better position to help fight it than people without, and Meriadoc Brandybuck seems to be using his excess of wealth to push back the darkness where he can.
He still has no idea what to expect, and he has trouble believing that he and Merry will get along. He has trouble believing Frodo and Merry get along, even; Frodo likes a beer with his meals and has a streak of mischief in him, but it's hard imagining him as the kind of person who goes out and gets wasted on a regular basis.
Merry can't come over immediately, of course, but he and Frodo agree that Friday after work would be fine. Sam is at the museum on Fridays, but he still gets home at a normal hour, so he agrees to make pizza for dinner instead of having Frodo buy it. After all, if he's making pizza, he has something to occupy himself with, an excuse to step off to check how things are doing.
He should have suggested something more hands-on, he decides on the bus back to the townhouse. He should have said he was going to make a roast. Cookies. A complete Thanksgiving dinner.
"Here's Sam now," he hears as he opens the door, and then there's a chorus of "Sam!" from Merry and Pippin, as if they're old friends he hasn't seen in years. One of them even hugs him as soon as he comes into the living room, before Sam's even gotten a look at him. Which does give him a good strong lungful of weed, and explains a lot.
"I thought Frodo was never going to let us meet you!" says the man, whom Sam assumes to be Merry. The other one hugs him too--apparently he's the source of the Axe--and then they pull back so they can all study each other.
Neither looks very much like Frodo; all of them have curly hair, but Frodo's is darker, and neither has his startling blue eyes. The first seems a little older and perhaps slightly more dignified; he's wearing a button-down and jeans, while the second is wearing a Pokemon t-shirt and cargo shorts, for all it's February. Growing up in Vermont, Sam knew plenty of people who considered shorts all-season clothing, but it's less common to see in the city.
"I'm Merry," says the first, confirming Sam's suspicions. "And this is Pip."
"The boyfriend," Pippin supplies, and that is a surprise. Sam sometimes feels as if he assumes queerness too easily, as if his own bisexuality and the number of queer friends he has biases him towards assuming romance where many people wouldn't. But somehow, he'd never put together that Merry and Pippin were an item, not just part of Frodo's cohort.
Even if it does explain why only one bedroom was ever used when the two of them stayed for the night.
"Nice to meet you both," he says, managing a smile. "I've heard a lot about you."
"Same!" says Merry. "So, the cat hates you."
"The cat is trying to get used to him," Frodo protests. "I'm sure it's going to get better."
"He seems like a bastard to me," Pippin says. "The cat, not Sam. You seem fine, Sam."
"He didn't try to throw up on us, though, did he, Pip?" says Merry. "So he still might hate Sam most of all."
"Yeah, we'll need to do more research. Could be a bastard with a grudge. But familiarity does breed contempt," he adds, which does not help Sam's mental state at all. "If he saw us as much as he sees Sam, maybe he'd throw up on us."
"Wonderful," Sam mutters. "I'll just get started on food, then."
"You don't have to yet!" Frodo protests. "Come, sit with us. I didn't just want them to meet Sméagol, I wanted them to meet you. I know they're assholes, but you get used to them."
"How dare you!" says Merry, putting his arm around Frodo like he's going to give him a noogie. "I'm a model citizen. Forbes had me on the 30-under-30 list!"
"But you are also kind of an asshole," says Pippin. He turns his attention to Sam. "Do you smoke? Frodo said you'd take a beer but he wasn't sure about the weed."
It feels a little strange to smoke with his landlord, but it's not as if Frodo's going to kick him out; Frodo's smoking too. It's not even illegal anymore. "I wouldn't mind some."
Frodo ends up shutting Sméagol in the guest room, as, even if he's not throwing up, he won't stop hissing and swatting at people, so even Frodo agrees it's best for his so-called fragile temperament.
"Fragile my old Gaffer," Sam mutters, and Merry snorts.
"Frodo's a big softie, I'm sure you've noticed. Never met a kitten he didn't want to save from a tree."
"I haven't either," Sam says, with a frown. "Animals love me! I grew up on a farm. Whatever that thing is, it's the one with the problem, not me."
"I believe you," says Pippin. "Now, its time for you to tell us about yourself. Frodo says you're a cleaner and a Lyft driver and you work at a museum?"
Sam frowns. "He told you that?"
"I didn't think it was a secret," says Frodo, settling next to Sam on the couch and taking the joint out of his hand to puff it once before handing it back. "I'm sorry if I shouldn't have."
There's no reason for Sam to feel self-conscious about smoking with Frodo--he's not twelve, he doesn't think it's a big deal that he and his crush are sharing a joint--but it takes him a second to do it anyway. Hopefully it comes off as some deliberate show of consideration.
"No, I don't mind. I just didn't know you talked about me."
"I had to know more about this man who was living with my cousin," says Merry. "Before I gave my blessing. How do the jobs pay?"
"That's rude," says Frodo, frowning, but Sam doesn't actually feel offended. Merry looks genuinely interested.
"The museum is eleven dollars an hour," he says. "I have twenty hours a week there. Cleaning is seventeen dollars. They won't hire me full-time because they don't want to give me benefits, and I can't afford to go full-time at the museum. I drive Lyfts when I want to make extra cash on the side."
"How many hours a week for cleaning?"
Merry nods. "Well, if you ever want at least fifteen an hour for full time with benefits, send me your resume. I can find you something at the brewery any time."
"You never told me that!" Frodo protests.
"I never trust your opinion of people. Oh Merry, he's so kind and hardworking and handsome!" he says, in a high-pitched tone that sounds no more like Frodo than the actual words do. Still, it warms something in his chest until Merry adds, "If you were right every time you said someone was amazing, the world would be a better place."
Frodo scowls. "I don't like plenty of people, I just don't tell you about them."
"Then you still have poor taste in some people. Who was the grumpy one who never smiled and looked worse the cleaner he was? Aragorn? Glad you dumped him."
"I thought he dumped Frodo," Pippin puts in. "Wasn't he the one with the big dramatic speech about how their destinies weren't entwined?"
"Though we are both bound for great things, we are not meant to travel to them together," Merry says, his voice deep and overblown now. Impressions probably aren't his strong suit, but he does have a flair for the dramatic. "Christ, just say it's not you, it's me and move on."
"This was your ex-boyfriend?" Sam blurts out, before he can stop himself.
Frodo is looking down at his hands, his neck slightly flushed. "For a few months. Nothing very serious."
"That isn't a problem, is it, Sam?" Merry asks, a familiar edge in his voice. Sam's been that person for other friends, the homophobia patrol ready and willing to have the argument someone else might not have the strength for.
"No, of course not," he says. "I'm actually, you know--" He gestures vaguely. "Bisexual."
It still feels awkward to say, as if he's oversharing, giving out information no one really needs and at the same time taking attention he doesn't deserve. He's not embarrassed to be bi, just to have to come out.
"Excellent!" says Pippin. "I like when people say it, instead of just not liking labels."
"I'm pan!" Merry protests. "I said I didn't like labels one time, Pip. Once!"
Pippin shrugs. "And you sounded like a douchebag."
Sam's attention is on Frodo though. He's watching the conversation, but there's still color on his neck, and Sam can't help wondering if he'd known Merry was going to out him. It really could have gone either way--he's had friends who asked him to casually drop a reference to an ex when they didn't know how to come out for themselves, but there are also plenty of people who keep their private lives more private than their friends realize. Is Frodo embarrassed? Relieved?
Does he care that Sam is queer too?
The oven dings, signalling the end of the preheat, and Sam gets up to put the pizzas in. By the time he's back, someone has hooked a video game system into the TV and they're starting to play.
He settles back next to Frodo and tries not to think about anything.
Sam really isn't planning to take advantage of Merry's job offer. Of course he appreciates it, but he's had plenty of people say that they like his work ethic and that he should apply for a job, and none of those actually turned into a real position. Merry probably doesn't even have any jobs open right now, he was just speaking generally. Being friendly.
Then, the cleaning service cuts a full eight hours from his schedule, with no explanation except that they won't need him on Tuesdays anymore. Most likely they want to hire someone else that they can pay even less than they pay him. He'd been happy when he got a small raise last year, but he should have seen this coming. The money he's saving on rent is huge, of course, but it still rubs him the wrong way, the bait-and-switch of more pay and fewer hours.
"Do you think Merry meant it?" he asks Frodo.
"About hiring me. Would he really give me a job?"
"Oh, I'm sure. You want to work for Merry?"
"I don't want to, exactly. But a full-time job with real benefits would be nice. Better than replacing the hours I was working at the cleaners doing more driving. I could have days off, sometimes, and health insurance. And I'd still be making more money than I was before."
"I didn't think of it like that," says Frodo, soft. "If you need help, Sam--"
"I'm fine," he says, too quickly. "There are plenty of people who need more help than I do. But if I could get another job, that would be nice."
"You should talk to Merry, then. The brewery is still new and growing, and he'll treat you well."
"And if it falls through, I can find another cleaning job easy enough. Someone's always hiring."
"And if you need some time to get on your feet, you'll have a place to live and food to eat. No questions asked."
It should be a comforting statement, but something churns in Sam's stomach, the sharp, hot sting of bile unwelcome and more than a little alarming.
"Of course," he says, swallowing past it, and texts Rosie for an emergency drink.
"I feel like I'm a Jane Austen heroine," he tells her, an hour and a half later. "Maybe I like him, maybe I only care that he gets five-hundred pounds a year."
She shakes her head, smiling faintly. "It does feel more like the setup to getting a sugar daddy than getting a boyfriend."
"I'm not looking for either!"
"But you're living with him and cooking him for dinner and snuggling with him on the couch every night."
"No, I'm in the armchair so his foster cat doesn't shred me to bits."
"But the rest of it."
"He's a good roommate."
"A roommate or a landlord?"
"Both. That's the problem. I can already see my whole life getting tangled up in him, Rosie. Living off his charity, getting a job from his cousin..." He scowls into his beer. "If he changes his mind, it's all over for me, and I should be worried about that, but every red flag just makes me like him more."
"They're only red flags if he changes his mind. I'm not saying you should ask him to marry you," she adds. "But you might as well take the better job, save the money on rent, and if it does blow up in your face, you'll be in better financial shape than when you started. Unless he sues you. Then you're in trouble."
"Not until then?"
"You're not the first person to get a crush on someone you shouldn't. Are you going to get over it?"
"Yeah," he says. "Obviously."
If not for the financial awkwardness, Sam's life really would be great. If Frodo was a normal roommate, one who split the rent with him down the middle, one who didn't have a cousin who gave Sam a nice office job with a twenty-dollar-an-hour salary, one who had a normal job and a mountain of student debt, Sam wouldn't care that he was falling for him. It would have been nice, if they'd met as equals, as friends. If he'd seen Frodo in a bar and decided to buy him a drink, if he'd come into the museum, maybe even if he'd called Sam for a ride. There are thousands of ways they could have met that don't feel impossibly lopsided. Ways that wouldn't make him feel like an idiot.
Because when he can forget about all those things between them, Sam's life is the best it's ever been, with prospects to get better. He's working less and saving more. The job Merry found for him is easier than any position he's ever had, with more forgiving bosses and more freedom. He'd always known on some level that it worked that way, that the higher up someone was and the more money they made, the less accountable they were, but he's never gotten to experience it before. He's always been overworked and underappreciated.
But suddenly, he's just not. Now he's working forty hours, getting good reviews from his boss and nice emails from his coworkers, and going home at a reasonable hour to make dinner for his roommate/landlord, who thanks him effusively every time. Samwise Gamgee has never been so appreciated in his life.
At least he still has Sméagol to keep him humble.
But the money thing does bug him, even though he knows it shouldn't. Because he does contribute to his and Frodo's home, in all kinds of ways. He does the shopping and the cooking, and most of the cleaning too. He helped Frodo set up an actual budget and get autopay going for the bills and generally makes sure everything runs smoothly. Frodo's life is better with him in it, but he can't really believe that because he doesn't pay rent and, at any time, Frodo's kindness and generosity could dry up and he could decide that he's not actually happy with their arrangement and toss Sam out on the street.
He doesn't really think he will, but he's been wrong about people before and could be again.
Which is why he's actually tempted when Legolas says, "Gimli and I are going to get a two-bedroom place, and you can have the second bedroom if you want."
It's been about six months since he moved in with Frodo, four since Frodo started fostering Sméagol, and three since he got his job with Merry. Nothing, aside from Sméagol hating him, has gone wrong in that period of time, but that just makes him more nervous. He is hurtling, inevitably, toward disaster. He must be.
"Where?" he asks, mostly as a stall tactic.
"Cambridge. Near Porter."
He whistles. "Fancy. How are you affording it?"
"My father's decided that it looks worse for him to not talk to his gay son than it does to have a gay son."
"Just once, I'd like to have a nice apartment without having to rely on the generosity of a rich person," Sam grumbles.
Legolas shrugs with his typical, fluid grace. "Well, it's an election year. Vote for someone who will tax the hell out of us. I know you and Frodo are doing fine," he adds. "The offer is open if you want it, but if you don't, I understand. We'll be getting the same place either way."
"Thank you. I don't know what I'll decide, but I do appreciate the offer."
And he really does think about it. He'd probably pay rent, but he could afford rent, and he could still be friends with Frodo, couldn't he? They could see each other socially, maybe start dating in an organic way. He doesn't think, really, that Frodo would just lose interest in him, stop being friends.
By the time he's opening the townhouse door, he just about has himself convinced: he should move out. It would solve all his problems. Improve his whole life, again. It would be so good.
And then, Frodo is on the couch. He's not doing anything special, just curled up with his laptop and his awful cat, smiling at Sam with such warm happiness it takes his breath away.
"I'm back," he says, a smile taking over his own face.
"Welcome back. How was your friend?"
"Good. How's Sméagol?"
Sméagol lets out a hacking, "Gollum," but does not throw up.
"Good." He wets his lips, trying to figure out the right words. What would he even say about why he was leaving? He doesn't want to go. Moving in with Legolas and Gimli wouldn't be the worst, but it wouldn't be as good as this. And if he moved out, wouldn't he just be trying to get back to this point anyway? He'd be hoping that Frodo would fall in love with him, that someday they'd be living together. It wasn't as if he'd stop wanting to be here all the time. He'd just be here less.
Why would he give up on this before he's even tried? If it doesn't work out, he has a backup plan now. What Legolas has given him isn't an escape rope, it's a safety net. A guarantee that if things go wrong, he'll won't be out on the street.
The freedom to let them go wrong.
In a fit of wild optimism, he tries petting Sméagol, and of course gets hissed and swatted at.
He jerks his hand back, still smiling. The cat can't kill his good mood. Sam feels free. "Nice to see you too."
The complicating factor to the whole thing is that Sam doesn't really know what making a move on Frodo looks like. It's not as if he's never asked anyone out, but it would be easier to do in another context. He can't just ask Frodo out on a date, like he would anyone else. They already live together, he can't offer to buy him drinks or flirt with him over a game of darts. No relationship he's had has started like this, and he has no idea where to go from here. The goal is clear, but the path there is a mystery.
The answer, when it comes, doesn't look like the answer. It looks like a crisis.
It's Saturday and Frodo is meeting with his agent, Gandalf. After seven months of cohabitation and another year and a half of casual acquaintance, Sam still doesn't know if Gandalf is a first or last name, or perhaps some kind of title, which is probably how Frodo felt when Sam first called his father his gaffer, so maybe fair is fair.
Regardless, it's one of the only times Frodo is gone while Sam is in the townhouse, and Sam still feels a little strange about it. Despite his best efforts, some part of him still thinks of this as Frodo's, and himself as an extended house guest. Being here without his host is strange.
But he still has plenty to do, things to clean and books to read and plants to care for. He's even been looking into grad programs; he might be able to afford one soon.
When the noise starts, Sam can't immediately identify it. At first, he thinks it's a siren, but as it goes, he realizes the volume and pitch are wrong. It's a low, continuous keening, like an animal in--
He realizes it all at once. " Sméagol!"
He hasn't seen the cat all afternoon, but that's not particularly uncommon. When Frodo isn't around, Sméagol tends to lurk, hide, and throw up in or on anything Sam has been foolish enough to leave out. Not seeing him isn't suspicious.
But he's definitely the one making the noise.
Sam finds him under Frodo's bed, keening miserably, and spends a good ten minutes trying to coax him out before he gives up and closes the door, blocks off everything else he thinks the cat could get under, and hauls the mattress off the bed.
He doesn't know how long it takes him to wrestle Sméagol into the cat carrier, nor will he discover all the wounds he sustained for several days. By the time he gets to the vet, he's sore and bleeding and exhausted, but they at least agree to see him without any notice. They remember Sméagol, apparently. He's probably hard to forget.
Frodo shows up while the cat is still being examined, eyes frantic until he actually sees Sam in the waiting area, and then he starts laughing.
"What?" Sam asks, grumpy. He feels like a drowned rat.
"I'm so sorry. He really didn't want to go with you, did he?" He runs his hand over a long gash on Sam's arm. "I'm sorry for laughing, too, but--"
"I look like a mess."
"You look like you picked Sméagol up."
"I wish that was all I'd done. I had to take your mattress off your bed frame and drag him out, kicking and screaming."
"You could have called me," he says, gently chiding. "I would have helped."
"Well, I was in a hurry, wasn't I?" Sam mutters. "I didn't want anything to happen to him."
It shouldn't be an impressive statement. Sméagol might be a horrible gremlin of a cat, but he's still a living creature, and Sam doesn't want anything to happen to him. No matter how many times he steps in cat vomit outside his door at seven am, no matter if that hacking gollum cough haunts his nightmares, there's some part of him that's fond of the stupid asshole.
And even if he wasn't, Frodo is. Frodo loves the cat, and that would be reason enough for Sam.
But Frodo is looking at him with stars in his eyes, like Sam's efforts were superhuman, something marvelous. And as much as he thinks he doesn't deserve any special credit for this, if Frodo wants to give him that credit, he's not going to say no. If the vet didn't know for absolutely certain that Sméagol was up to date on his shots, Sam would probably have to get treated for rabies. He's allowed to try to leverage that for his love confession.
"Sam," says Frodo, all fondness, and Sam's not going to kiss him in the lobby of the vet's office, but he does think about it for a second.
Before he can come up with an actual response, the vet calls, " Sméagol?"
Frodo startles a little too, jerked out of the moment. "That's us."
"Do you want me to come?"
"Of course. You brought him in, you should find out what's wrong."
What's wrong is, apparently, that Sméagol ate an as-yet unidentified object and will need surgery to have it removed. It's too late in the day for them to do it now, but they do have an emergency vet who works on Sundays, so they should be able to get him by Monday or Tuesday, depending on how it heals up.
"How are you doing with him?" the vet asks, a slight frown on her face. "I know he's a handful, but you've had him for a while. Do you think he might be ready for placement soon?"
"I thought we'd probably just end up keeping him," Sam admits. "He likes Frodo and he hates me, but if he would hate everyone in his new house, we're probably a better fit."
She nods. "Him liking one of you is a good start, you're right. You don't have to rush into a decision, but of course if you decide you'd like to keep him, we'll be thrilled."
The rest of the visit is straightforward, information about what they'll hear from the vet and when. Since Sméagol is, for the moment, still officially a foster cat, they won't have to pay anything for the surgery, but it feels a little like cheating. He is their cat, isn't he? Frodo's cat, if not Sam's.
Frodo seems to be thinking the same thing. In the car on the way home, he says, "You want to keep Sméagol?"
"Well, I wouldn't keep him on my own. But I think you should keep him."
"It's your home too, you know."
"You and me and Sméagol," Sam agrees. But Frodo does sound worried. "I don't mind. I'd rather have a nice cat, but this is the cat we've got."
Frodo is quiet for a long moment, and when he finally does speak, it's so soft Sam almost doesn't hear him. "I don't want you to leave."
It's not a long drive to the vet--Sam wouldn't have even taken the car, if he didn't have the cat with him--so he doesn't have to find an answer to that right away. He has some time to get it right.
"Legolas did offer me a room," is what he says, once they're inside. It feels a little empty without Sméagol, but Sam's just as glad to have some privacy for what might be an awkward conversation. Cats can't laugh, but he's sure that if Frodo shot him down, Sméagol would know. And he'd find a way to rub it in. "He and Gimli are getting their own place."
Frodo's eyes widen. "Why? Did he offer the room, I mean."
"In case I wanted it." He leans against the island, drumming his fingers against him. "I have thought about leaving, more than once."
Frodo looks away. "I thought you might have. I don't want you to go, but I do understand."
"I'm not sure you do." He sighs. "I feel like I'm living in a romance novel, except there's no romance. Some rich, handsome man came along and solved all my problems, and I'll never catch up to what you're giving me. I wanted to move out so that I'd feel like we were on equal footing, but I didn't want to leave either. Just feels wrong," he adds, mouth twitching up into a small smile. "Moving away from the person I want to be with."
Frodo's face opens up, blooming with happiness, and Sam's relieved and embarrassed all at once. All that worrying and wondering and trying to find the right words, and all he needed was any words. All he had to do was ask.
"You shouldn't do that," Frodo agrees, and it's all the encouragement Sam needs to step in, cup Frodo's face in his hands, and kiss him.
And that's all the encouragement Frodo needs to kiss him back.
"I'm a little worried about picking Sméagol up," Sam says, as they head to the vet on Tuesday.
It is, of course, not the only thing he's worried about, but he's doing well with managing the rest of his anxiety. It helps that Frodo has been fighting a crush on him for as long as he's been fighting a crush on Frodo, and he's been worrying about the same things Sam has. Frodo doesn't want to be his dashing savior any more than Sam wants to be a damsel in distress. They're just two people who like each other and come from vastly different backgrounds, and if things don't work out, it will be messy, but breakups are always messy.
Besides, Frodo can't feed himself and is still working on operating the vacuum. They each have their own strengths they bring to the relationship.
Frodo gives him a crooked smile that would be worth a lot more complications. "He'll be in the carrier, he won't attack you again. Not if I hold it," he adds. Sméagol definitely took a few swipes at Sam from inside the carrier on their way in.
"Not that. I'm thinking about what it's going to be like when he and I both want to sit next to you on the couch. I've been letting him have you, but now I'm going to want to fight."
"It's not a competition," says Frodo, laughing.
"Does he sleep on your bed? Will he share it with me?"
He opens and closes his mouth, rethinks whatever he was going to say. "We can always close the door."
"You don't think you could put in a good word for me?"
"I don't think cats work like that." He parks and he and Sam get out of the car, heading into the office. "You did save his life. Maybe he'll change his mind about you."
"Sure he will," Sam grumbles.
Inside, they find out that Sméagol nearly killed himself eating one of Sam's socks, which is a level of spite that's going to be difficult to overcome. Sam is willing to meet him halfway, but the cat will risk his life to destroy an article of clothing Sam barely cares about. "The middle" for Sméagol is probably just Sam's left arm getting shredded to bits instead of both arms.
He hisses the entire way home and, as soon as Frodo releases him from the carrier, darts out and up the stairs, probably to hide under Frodo's bed again.
"We could sleep in your room," Frodo offers, finally.
"We're just going to give up and give the cat your entire room?"
"One room for Sméagol, one for us, one for Merry and Pippin when they stay over. We can move the toys from the spare room to my bedroom. It would be easy."
"We could at least try to keep the master bedroom," Sam points out. "Come on, Frodo. There's hope for us yet."
Frodo smiles, shakes his head. "You're the one who's going to get hurt if Sméagol isn't happy. He won't attack me in the middle of the night."
Sam's been sure he was going to be the one hurt in this for years, since long before he moved in. He was always ready to be wrong about Frodo, to lose the investment he had in him. He's still ready, but it feels less and less likely.
And, as ways to be hurt go, Sméagol biting him in the middle of the night isn't nearly as bad as heartbreak.
"Just for a week," he says. "Anything worth having is worth fighting for, right?"
Frodo shakes his head. "If you say so."
Sméagol doesn't attack Sam in the middle of the night, but he does wake him up at 5:45 with three hacking gollums before throwing up on Sam's nightstand.
He flops onto his back, taking a second to process the situation. The bed is warm and the mattress is firm and Frodo is still asleep. "Well," he says, to no one in particular, "at least it wasn't on the pillow." And he settles in and goes back to sleep.