Sam should be studying, but he’s in the garden instead. His gaffer posted him down some crocus seeds last weekend and they’ve been sitting in the kitchen by the window since, gathering dust on their paper packages as the hottest sun they’ve seen all year beats in through the glass til just after midday. Sam likes the heat in the morning. His bedroom is north facing and doesn’t get much light with the crowded poplars out front but he makes sure to wake up early every day to catch the warmth in the kitchen like a cat, Frodo says. Sam’s never had a cat and doesn’t know if it’s true or not but he likes the way Frodo smiles when he says it, the way his eyes crinkle up just at the corners when he spots Sam napping in the little patch of sun that’s made its way across the linoleum to the beat-up kitchen table they’d found on the side of the road and lugged three blocks back to their place because neither of them had a car. The paint was chipped so Sam’d sandpapered it off, smoothed down the splintery edges and coated it with oil til it shone. It’s still old and slightly rickety no matter what small bit of junk they cram under the table leg but it’s theirs and it’s home and it’s warm, in the sun, so that’s where Sam spends his mornings.
It’s afternoon now and the sun’s lowering down to the west but it still makes Sam’s shirt stick to his skin with sweat. He digs the crocus seeds into the damp soil and pats them down til they settle, rocks back on his heels and wipes a big slick of dirt across his forehead because he forgot to wear his gloves again. At least he remembered his hat, that big old broad brimmed of a thing Frodo got him half as a joke, half as a serious reminder that Sam tans everywhere but the tip of his nose. The sunscreen’s disappeared to who knows where and Sam never remembers to add it to the list when he shops on alternating weekends to Frodo, who still sometimes insists they go together because he can never find where things are and Sam, Sam has a garden to tend to and essays to write but he doesn’t say no, can never say no to Frodo, goes shopping with him on the weekends that are meant to be Frodo’s turn and laughs in the veggie aisle at the sweet potatoes shaped like ugly garden gnomes. They take the bus home from the store with their groceries in canvas bags taking up two extra seats each and Sam always makes sure to grab the heavy one from the cashier before Frodo can every time, studiously ignores Frodo’s eye roll and gives him the bread and the eggs and the cereal boxes to carry instead and tries to forget about the scar nestled over Frodo’s heart like a backstitch.
In the garden, Sam shifts to his feet, circling round the side of the house to inspect the flowerbed beneath the kitchen window. Frodo is there at the sink, catches Sam’s eye through the glass and makes a face, holds up the mandarin he’s peeling wordlessly and at Sam’s nod moves away from the window, leaves the kitchen and comes out the back door, barefoot on the grass as he tosses Sam half the mandarin and peels away the first segment of his own half to hold up against the light and check for seeds. “Crocuses all in?” he asks, digging his thumbnail into the flesh and flicking out the seed in the centre. He wrinkles his nose. “Crocuses. Croci?”
“All in. And you’d know that better than I do,” Sam says, spitting a seed out into the grass.
Frodo laughs. “Says who? I spent Latin doodling dragons into the margins of my notebook.”
“Much more worthwhile than Latin, I’m sure.” Sam catches Frodo’s smile and smiles back, lips sticky and split skin at the corners stinging with citrus. He has a quiz tomorrow he should be studying for and he knows Frodo hasn’t finished the chapters he was supposed to but neither of them make a move to go inside. Sam finishes his mandarin. Frodo offers what’s left of his; Sam rolls his eyes, takes it. “Is this you bribing me into cooking tonight?”
“Maybe,” Frodo says. “Is it working?”
Sam humphs, then laughs. “You chop, I’ll cook?” he allows, and Frodo smiles, and later they do just that and eat on the porch the way they always do in the summertime, on the fine china plates Frodo insists on using with the gingham napkins Sam sewed last Christmas and leaves to soak in the laundry overnight. Sam has a beer with dinner and Frodo doesn’t and they stand pressed shoulder to shoulder in the kitchen after, Frodo washing, Sam drying, til the china plates shine and go back in the crockery cupboard, two by two.
The thing about Sam and Frodo is that they’ve known each other forever. His gaffer used to work for Frodo’s uncle, way back when, and Sam’d tag along, peeking through the windows of the manor house instead of doing the weeding like he was supposed to. It was all so golden and airy inside, like how Sam imagined elves would live if they really existed, all curving columns and teetering bookshelves and climbing ivy on the trellis, buttery electricity nothing like the buzzing fluorescents in their apartment back home.
Except one day Sam was peeking in and another face was peeking back—eyes like the bluebells in the Bagginses front yard, hair a wild raven’s black. Sam waved, and the boy in the window waved back, and then he opened the glass, hand small on the white pane, and climbed right out into the lavender bushes and that’s how Frodo met Sam. They’ve been climbing in and out of each other’s lives ever since.
Sam studies ag at the uni two stops down the line from their place and Frodo majors in literature. What it means is that Frodo reads to Sam every night in the living room because Frodo can afford a TV but Sam can’t and won’t let Frodo buy one for them. What it means is that Sam knows Tennyson and Eliot and Austen as well as he knows cell culture and soil retrogression. “I don’t bore you, dear Sam?” Frodo asks one evening halfway through a Brontë passage and Sam shifts where he is sitting at the foot of Frodo’s armchair, eyes closed but hanging on to every word.
He opens them, tilts his head back into the seat cushion to hold Frodo in view, says, “not at all,” and thinks with practiced yet blinding clarity: I would kiss you on the moors. Frodo is as unreadable as ever but he laughs, smooths a hand through Sam’s curls and brings it back up to the book in his other hand, turning the page.
“You would tell me if I was?” he asks before continuing, and there’s an edge in his voice Sam only ever hears rarely, though when Sam glances up he is smiling.
To that smile Sam says, “I tell you everything,” and it’s the biggest lie he’s ever told. Frodo laughs again, shaking his head, and continues to read. Sam closes his eyes, rests his head against Frodo’s knee, and listens to Jane and Helen at Lowood—to the hollyhocks, lilies, tulips, and roses, and the liquid lustre of eyes Sam imagines blue as bluebells.
Frodo’s uncle died when they were both in sixth form and he didn’t come to school for a week. On Saturday Sam bundled the worksheets he’d missed into his backpack alongside a Tupperware of date scones and a jar each of strawberry jam and cream. From the florist on the way between their houses Sam bought orchids with the money he’d saved mowing the Sackville’s lawn and was careful to cycle only on the smooth asphalt of the road, bouquet nestled gingerly inside the basket on his handlebars.
At the green front door Sam clutched the flowers in one hand and knocked with the other. Frodo answered after only a moment—he must have been in the parlour. There were bruised purple shadows under his eyes and the whites were red from crying, and he was wearing the holey green knit jumper that used to be his dad’s with the sleeves that flopped over his knuckles and a coffee stain by the right hip hemline.
“I’m so sorry,” was all Sam could say, hopelessly, and then he was over the threshold and in Frodo’s arms and couldn’t tell who was holding who.
Later Sam found a vase in the kitchen china cabinet and placed the orchids inside. He microwaved three of the scones, one for himself and two for Frodo, and sat at the dining room table with a butter knife and the jam and the cream and made sure Frodo ate everything. Even later Sam pulled the worksheets out and his own completed ones beside them and watched Frodo copy the answers mechanically in black ballpoint ink. He called his gaffer when Frodo was in the shower to let him know he wouldn’t be home for dinner, and then he guided Frodo gently to his bed, pulled down the covers then pulled them back up again once Frodo was inside. “Stay with me, Sam,” Frodo said then, fingers catching on the threadbare sleeve of Sam’s shirt as he stood to leave, the first words he’d said all day—and Sam did, sitting by Frodo’s bedside in the old rocking chair Bilbo used to read Frodo to sleep in a lifetime ago.
He stayed like that, awake, all night, and in the morning when Frodo couldn’t get out of bed, went down into the kitchen he knew as well as his own, clicked on the kettle, put bread in the toaster, and walked breakfast back up to the bedroom where Frodo was waiting.
Sam works at Rosie’s down the road Friday through Monday. Frodo visits, Friday through Monday, and accepts the free vanilla latte only because he tips twice as much as it’s worth. Most days he holes up in the booth in the corner beneath the stairs to the lofted dining, hunched over his laptop in a way that makes Sam’s back ache to look at. Sam isn’t sure why he wants to study here, in a hardback chair with shitty Wi-Fi and the furthest from peace and quiet imaginable but all he gets when he asks Frodo is a shrug and that tired smile Sam could trace in the dark. He voices his worry to Rosie one day when they’re side by side at the coffee machine, and she gives him a strange, long look.
“He’s here to see you,” she replies flatly. Sam frowns.
“But he sees me at home.”
Rosie heaves a huge sigh at that and turns the milk frother on, ending the conversation.
Another day finds Frodo asleep at his usual table, head pressed into the keyboard, creating a Word document full of ys. Sam peeks at the corner of the screen. 42 pages. He shakes Frodo gently on the shoulder to wake him.
“Time to go home?” Sam asks softly, smoothing the hair from Frodo’s forehead with one hand and wiping away a little sleep crust at the corner of his eye with the other.
“Only if you come with me,” Frodo answers, petulant in his tiredness, and Sam sighs but looks back at the counter to Rosie, who is already looking at them. She rolls her eyes but makes a shooing gesture with her hands, leaving Sam to bundle Frodo up in his cardigan, put his laptop to sleep, and walk the two blocks home in the fading afternoon light, Frodo pressed to his side hip to head.
(There is another day Sam doesn’t think about when Frodo didn’t come in like usual, when Sam came home to an empty house, when his phone buzzed against the kitchen counter and he answered to white noise and careful words like hospital and critical and surgery, when the taxi pulled up outside emergency and for once Sam didn’t care how much it cost, when the pacing and the nail biting and the white-faced clock ticking on the wall gave way to a chair by the bedside and a cool, limp hand in his and words like lucky and recovery felt like all the prayers Sam had ever heard in Sunday school together at once. When Frodo opened his eyes to the hospital fluorescents and Sam, always Sam, and smiled, and said, “I’m glad you’re here with me,” and slept on under the neons til the shadows beneath his eyes bruised away, til Sam woke him in the morning for breakfast.)
Frodo sends Sam links to Buzzfeed quizzes titled What potato are you. Sam saves clippings of book reviews from the weekend paper to comb through come Christmas. Frodo sleeps strange, on his stomach with one leg bent, left arm jammed firmly beneath his chest and Sam takes his coffee with milk and cinnamon. Frodo’s cousins are loud and obnoxious and take up space in Sam’s kitchen and use his mugs and gingham napkins and Frodo passes by on their way out with a touch on Sam’s shoulder, a wordless apology. Sam works late with Rosie and forgets the milk he promised to buy on the way home and Frodo crosses his arms on the couch, turns away, his voice a bitter curl gone by morning. Frodo yells at Sam for cooking bacon in the house and Sam dumps Frodo’s laundry onto his bed unwashed and Frodo cries when he knocks over Sam’s potted begonia and Sam buys a new copy of Sylvia Plath’s poems to replace the one he ripped up for compost and Frodo knows Sam’s phone number by heart and Sam shops for clothes for the both of them because why not if he knows Frodo’s size and Frodo gives Sam a wheelbarrow for his birthday and Sam massages out the crick in Frodo’s neck and this house that holds the two of them creaks and groans around their messy lives and bursts its pipes and skins Sam’s knee out on the concrete driveway and drives Frodo sleepless with its nightingale floor and holds out the rain from that late summer storm and opens its door to the key in their hands and presses every sound, every word, every sigh into the flocked wallpaper to keep safe, forever.
Frodo had bought it on a whim. He covered Sam’s eyes to lead him inside and stopped right in the kitchen, in the sun, where one day their rickety table would be. Sam looked around, at the tiles and white-paned windows and yellow curtains yellower in the light, and imagined a life built around this stove, this house, this garden. “Move in with me?” Frodo asked, like he was sure Sam would say no, Sam who was on scholarship and had never taken a Baggins handout in his life, but there was a cliff and beneath could be rocks, could be waves, but Sam leapt all the same into that blue. Three years later, he’s still falling.
“I will slay the dragon!” said Frodo, ten years old, brandishing a branch like a sword and stabbing the air with its splintered end. “With my trusty dagger Sting and knight companion, Samwise the Brave!” Sam ran onto the grass, swinging a rope tied like a lasso over his head, screaming in delight. His backpack had what looked like the entire Baggins pots and pans drawer stuffed inside.
From the bushes Bilbo growled, and emerged with his hands held out in front of him like claws. “You fools will never vanquish me!” he cried. “I am Smaug the Terrible and you will tremble at my feet!”
“Never!” Sam threw his lasso and Bilbo caught it, twisting the rope around his hands and falling to his knees.
“Samwise the Brave has captured me!” he moaned, flopping back into the grass. “I await my doom at your hand, Sir Frodo.”
Frodo stepped close, stick sword held high over his head, but lowered it when he met Bilbo’s eyes. “I have no wish to kill you, dragon,” he said, seriousness belied by the tremble in his voice. “Give us your treasure and we will depart as allies.”
Bilbo bowed and scraped as best he could in the grass, handing over the packet of Jaffa Cakes slightly squished in his coat pocket. “Your treasure, my liege,” he said. Frodo plucked the biscuits from his hands and looked at Sam.
“Release him, Samwise the Brave,” he ordered, and Sam, though their prize was in Frodo’s hands, frowned uncertainly.
“But Frodo,” he began, eyes round as saucers, “what if he gets you?”
Frodo rolled his eyes and laughed. “He won’t get me, silly!” he said, then smiled, tearing open the Jaffa Cakes and offering the first one to Sam. His own mouth was full of biscuit when he continued: “Not while I’ve got you.”
In the grass behind them, Bilbo smiled.
In September they feed the ducks at the lake with the peas Sam cooked and packed in a Ziploc bag. He gives half to Frodo, who throws them one by one into the water with a careful precision matched by the furrow in his brow, who looks beautiful and silver and moon-like against the reds and golds of autumn, who turns to smile at Sam with too much teeth and raven’s feather hair cowlicked by the wind, and it is the easiest thing for Sam to take that smile and press it paper-thin into his heart, to lean forward and in and tuck Frodo’s scarf tight around his neck, to catch his fingers in the fabric (green), to look up as Frodo is looking down and press their lips together while the ducks beneath the bridge flap their wings in indignation and the clock tower bell goes off for noon and the office workers peel from their buildings like so many citrus rinds while the world spins on, while Frodo kisses him back.
It is September, October, November when Frodo leans back on his heels, smiles, laughs, tips his forehead into Sam’s and breathes there. “I’ve been waiting for you to do that for years,” he says, and presses a gentle thumb into Sam’s lips like checking a fruit for ripeness. His hand falls away but Sam catches it, twists it, locks their fingers together.
“You didn’t have to,” he says, “you could’ve kissed me first.”
Frodo smiles, ducks his head again, kisses Sam like Jane and Rochester, like hollyhocks and bluebells. “You were always the brave one,” he answers, like he hasn’t been blazing the trail Sam has followed all his life. He pulls apart, rocks back, smiles. “Maybe I should start trying to be.”
Below them, the ducks chase the peas underwater, pearl divers cresting the surface.