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"Fly, you fools."

You fools, Gandalf had said, but he had been looking straight at Frodo when he'd said it, right into his eyes, just before his broken fingernails had let go of the rock. Just before he had plummeted down after the Balrog, to undoubtedly a horrible and painful death.

"You fool," he should have said. Fool, singular. Frodo knew it was all his own fault. It wasn't only terror, it wasn't only loss, that blinded him with hot tears as they ran down the mountain away from Moria. It was guilt; nauseating, paralyzing guilt.

Once in a while as a lad, he'd had nightmares that he had done something awful - gotten angry and killed someone, perhaps, though it wasn't really in his nature to do that. And the worst of the nightmares wasn't the moment of killing, or the struggle, or the blood. It was the cold panic afterward, the realization of what he had done, the knowledge that he would be caught and punished, and everyone would know what a monster he had become. He would wake up in a fright, and spend half the day confused, because why would young, gentle Frodo Baggins have dreams like that? What twisted part of his mind came up with those images?

Too many adventure stories, he had decided. Too many idle hours reading about wars and torture and kidnapping and assassination, when he ought to have been doing something useful like gardening or cooking or cleaning. In short, he ought to have been more like Samwise Gamgee.

And then, thinking about Sam would cheer him up, and he would go find Sam, and would hang about (swinging from an apple tree, perching on a garden wall, sprawling on the lawn, getting in the way of the kitchen mop - whatever the scene called for) and chatter to him while Sam did his work.

So easy to banish nightmares in the Shire. All it took was the Bag End garden, and a young golden-haired gardener. (Some people called Sam's hair "brown," unimaginatively, but Frodo knew it gleamed like bronze coins in the sun.)

But now...now he saw where those dreams had come from. They had been shadows from a time yet to happen. They were warning him of the evil he was one day going to commit. Because of him, because of his choice, because of his words (We go through the mines; would he ever stop hearing his own voice say that?), the great wizard Gandalf was dead. Defeated. Lost.

That first night, after Moria, they made an untidy camp in a cold, rocky clump of trees. Crying, almost everyone crying, at one point or another. Pippin blubbering that it was his fault because he had been clumsy and awoken the cave troll and the Balrog. Merry, eyes tired and red, hugging Pip and telling him it wasn't his fault. ("No, Pippin," Frodo added, quietly but very firmly. "It wasn't your fault.") Boromir using his heavy sword to cut kindling for a fire, attacking the sticks in a fury of grief. Legolas wandering under the trees, a look of distressed confusion in his eyes, forgetting to bait Gimli or tease Aragorn for the time being. Gimli sitting motionless, with an occasional teardrop wetting his beard. Aragorn turning away from them and bowing his head, after giving Pippin a pat on the shoulder; Frodo saw the Man wipe his eyes a minute later.

And Sam. Steady, lovely Sam, Frodo's favorite object of obsessive thoughts (or had been, before the recent dangers took precedence), chipper Sam who had always made Frodo smile - there he lay on his spread cloak, on the ground, weeping, his eyes pressed to his sleeve. Frodo instinctively stepped toward him, wanting to help, wanting to hold him, then stopped and retreated. My fault. Sam wouldn't even be crying if it hadn't been for him. Frodo's crime against Gandalf had wounded everyone, down to the last person in the world he ever wanted to hurt. How could he, the very murderer, go console Sam now? He could say, "I'm sorry," but that would be pathetically inadequate. Sam would be civil, he would pretend to be polite, but for how long, before he pulled away and became distant?

Sickness twisted Frodo's stomach. He sank to the ground, at a distance from the others, and wrapped himself in his cloak. He could not cry, not like they were doing, and he could not face them. How long before they made the connection? How long before they realized this was all because of him, the unforgivably ignorant Ringbearer?

* * *

Frodo didn't sleep until nearly dawn. And then he dreamed that the others were putting him on trial for Gandalf's death, and they were all testifying against him (even Sam - oh, the disappointed accusative look on Sam's face!). Aragorn, acting as judge or perhaps king, sighed after hearing all the testimony, and said that he was "sorry, Frodo," but in Gondor the way they did such things was to execute the criminal.

He assigned a sentence of death. He promised it would be fast and painless.

In a black terror, Frodo was led away, hands tied, to a block where he watched a hooded man (dressed very like a Nazgul) sharpen an axe. His companions were in the crowd, watching. "What about the Ring?" Pippin asked, frightened.

"Don't worry," said a grim Sam. "I'll take it." He reached into his shirt and showed Pippin the Ring, which he was already wearing on a chain.

"But you'll die," sobbed Pippin.

Sam appeared not to care - or, rather, to be beyond caring.

"Don't, Sam," Frodo tried to scream, but his voice stuck in his throat. His executioner seized Frodo and pressed his neck to the block. Frodo shut his eyes tight and waited.

A single blow, and all went silent.

Frodo was a ghost, shivering, freezing, walking alone, and crying because he was dead and nobody could see him anymore. He was in Mordor, looking for Sam, who had gone there to complete the quest. On a mountain path, he found his beloved gardener unconscious, near death, his clothing tattered and torn. Frodo knelt beside him, sobbing, begging for him to hear; but, because Frodo was a ghost, he couldn't touch Sam or awaken him.

And at that moment, Frodo woke up, cold in his blanket, lying on the ground. He rolled over and looked around for his companions. Pippin still slept, and Boromir stood guard; the others crouched around the morning cookfire, where Sam was setting up a frying pan.

"Morning, Mr. Frodo," Sam said. "I'm starting up some bacon. You just rest there till it's ready, if you like."

Relief washed sweet over Frodo for a moment. "Thank you," he whispered.

Then uneasiness stabbed at his empty stomach again. Yes, they were being kind for now; they were being gentle for now; but the fact remained that Gandalf was gone and Frodo was to blame, and even if they ignored that, he knew it, and he hated himself.

Bacon suddenly sounded awful. Frodo cringed and turned his back to the cookfire. When the first smells of sizzling meat reached his nostrils, he almost gagged. He crawled away, stood up, and walked off into the forest to find a patch of fresher air. He sat down upon a rock, shivering and breathing deep.

With his head resting on his knees, and his tired mind sliding into dizzy half-dreams, he didn't hear Sam approach, and didn't know he was there until he spoke.

"Mr. Frodo? I've...I've brought you some bacon."

Frodo, startled awake, groaned in pain. "Get that away from me," he muttered. It sounded harsher than he intended, but the sight of the bacon on the plate, and the smell of the cooking grease and smoke on Sam's clothes, was nearly enough to make Frodo throw up.

"Do you not feel all right?" Sam asked.

Frodo shook his head, arms curled around his middle.

"Isn't there anything I can get you?" persisted Sam, sounding concerned. "Herbs, tea of some sort..."

"Just get away, Sam."

"I'm...I'm sorry."

Sam was sorry? That was all wrong. Frodo felt even sicker. He cast Sam a miserable glance. "The smell of the food...it's not...oh, just please go away."

"All right, sir. I'm sorry." Sam took the plate and slipped away, looking like a kicked dog.

Frodo, left alone again, gulped out a single, dry sob.

* * *

Sam was worried. Not just about the quest, not just about the daily dangers, not just about the scary truth that even someone like Gandalf could be defeated. He was worried about Frodo. Ever since Gandalf's fall, Frodo had barely spoken to anyone, nor eaten, and the few things he'd said to Sam had been short replies, almost rude. Sam could see his master was feeling sick, and that it was probably caused by emotion, not by a normal physical illness like having food disagree with you.

Frodo seemed afraid - but of what, specifically? What was Frodo facing that the rest of them weren't? The effects of the Ring, maybe? A possibility, but Frodo hardly seemed to notice the Ring lately. He hadn't been staring at it, or running his fingers around it, the way he had at the start of the journey.

Was he afraid that he had to face this quest alone? That would be a ridiculous thing to think - why, surely he knew that Sam was with him every step of the way. Didn't he?

But then why was he pushing Sam away? Why wasn't he letting Sam talk to him?

Walking beside Frodo now, over rugged terrain, through a thin, cold fog, Sam felt miles away from his friend. Yes, "friend"; Frodo wasn't just his master. Frodo used to talk to him. He used to come and tell Sam about things he had read, and ask him what his family was up to and what the latest gossip was in Hobbiton. It made Sam's work at Bag End go much faster, and Frodo claimed it cheered him up, hearing silly things like what the Gamgees were arguing about lately.

"I sink too deep into books sometimes," Frodo had said once, at the garden gate at sunset, just a year ago. "You bring me back to what's real. Thank you, Sam."

They didn't touch each other often, but after saying that, Frodo had moved his hand along the top of the gate to where Sam's rested, and had run his fingers over Sam's rough knuckles.

I love you, Sam had wanted to answer, as it seemed the only natural response, but luckily his brain had caught that one before it got out of his mouth.

"You're welcome," he had answered, instead. "I'm glad to help, Frodo." He had intentionally left off the "Mister," just to see what Frodo would do.

It had brought a delighted, almost mischievous, smile to Frodo's lips. Frodo gave his hand a final tap, and stepped back from the gate. "Come early tomorrow," he'd said. "I plan to force you into making blueberry muffins."

Their relationship was back on its regular, friendly, bantering grounds. But that moment had existed, and Sam never forgot it.

He looked now at the figure beside him, at Frodo's downcast eyes with the ash-colored shadows under them, at the once-fine clothes splashed with mud and ripped at the knee (Sam would have to insist on mending that), and he wanted to weep. "Frodo?" he said.

Frodo's face lifted to him, slowly, as if returning from a long distance.

"Won't you..." Sam started, not sure what he was about to say. "Won't you take a piece of bread, at least?"

Frodo looked away again. "Stop trying to feed me." His voice was soft, but the message final.

"If you don't tell me what's wrong..." Sam said, and his voice cracked at the last word.

"Everything is wrong, Sam; haven't you noticed that?" Frodo snapped, and pulled ahead to walk by himself.

Sam didn't follow, tried not to cry, felt his lips quiver with the effort. Sensed the Elf near him, and glanced up. Legolas had been watching Frodo with a frown, but now looked down at Sam. Sam waited, resigned to receiving some enigmatic bit of Elven philosophy. But Legolas only tilted his head in sympathy, drifted his hand over Sam's curls, and walked away.

* * *

"Lost, are we?" demanded Gimli. "I thought you were a Ranger, laddie."

"We are not lost," Aragorn insisted. He held up a tattered map, and pointed to a spot on it. "I know exactly where we are. I just...did not intend to lead us this way."

"Which, you'll notice, is a very different definition from 'lost,'" said Legolas, who was leaning on a tree and fletching an arrow, a smirk flitting around his mouth.

Aragorn turned and lifted a finger to say something to Legolas, then faltered, and let his hand drop, unsure if the Elf had been taunting him or defending him.

"Yes, well," Aragorn finally said. "We can rest here for now. Take some food. It will be longer than I expected, before we reach the woods of Lorien."

They were on a forested slope, dotted with boulders, and Sam finally understood the problem of not being able to see the forest for the trees. How Aragorn could figure out where they were, when he couldn't see a hundred feet in any direction, was beyond Sam. He slumped out of his pack, grateful to drop the heavy thing.

"And where are we, then?" Pippin asked.

Aragorn looked up the slope. A wet mist was rolling down from above. "Not far from the Fern Springs. The warm water makes all that fog. And all this mud." Aragorn swiped his boot along one of the rocks, dislodging a muddy clump of leaves.

Sam looked at his hands, and grimaced to find them stained with dirt and grime. He knelt beside his pack and dug through it until he found a round lump of soap, which he had brought from home. If there were springs, then he could at least wash up before eating. Maybe Frodo would like to, as well. If Frodo was willing to talk to him, let alone eat.

Sam looked around for his friend, and spotted him disappearing into the forest, up the slope. Always wandering off alone. That couldn't be safe. Sam pocketed the soap, along with a pear and some stale bread, and went after Frodo.

He found him behind a pine tree, sitting with his back against it, eyes closed. They opened at Sam's footsteps, and Frodo gazed at Sam, hollowly.

"Shouldn't roam about by yourself," Sam said, kneeling in front of him. He waited for an answer.

Frodo just turned his head away.

"Strider says we're off course a bit," Sam went on. "He's giving us a while to rest. Have some food, maybe."

"Then let me rest," Frodo said, softly.

Sam shut his mouth. Then he edged closer, and settled down on his heels, with a stubborn look to his eyes that Frodo knew well. "I'm not stupid, you know," he said.

That got Frodo's attention. He caught his breath in dread - Sam had figured out the connection, he thought. Sam hated him.

"I know everything in the world is wrong," Sam went on. "I do know that. And I know you're afraid - I am, too. But don't you know you don't have to face this alone? I'm with you, and I'll stay with you."

In Frodo's fatigued state, Sam's devotion was too much - Frodo felt a lump rise in his throat; tears pressed behind his eyes. He hated being alone, wanted to let Sam protect him, ached to give in and crumble on his young friend's shoulder, but...no, his mind weakly insisted. You don't deserve friends. He looked away, fighting the tears, and couldn't speak.

"Now, you used to talk to me," Sam continued. "I can understand you not wanting to talk to the others, but me - why aren't you talking to me? I meant something once to you, didn't I? Something more than the others? I thought I did, but maybe I was just seeing things I wished were there, because of how I felt about you - and still do." Sam trembled to hear himself saying that - it had certainly not been his intention a minute ago - but now there was no taking back the words, and he felt stronger for it, somehow. "If I mean anything to you, won't you speak to me? Won't you let me help?"

Frodo parted his lips, but found his throat was still closed. Sam...loved him? Is that what he was saying? Frodo knew he didn't deserve that. But his heart had seemed to seize up when he heard those words, "...how I felt about you, and still do." Don't give in, he reminded himself, though his self-control was falling apart. Sam deserves better...

Sam, frustrated by the silence, took hold of Frodo's shoulders and pressed him against the tree. His voice become more entreating. "Whatever it is, you can't drive me away. I promise. Tell me what's wrong, Frodo. Tell me or you'll break my heart, you will." At these words he gave Frodo a shake.

The motion loosened the tears collecting in Frodo's eyes; one fell down each cheek, and Frodo looked up with a startled breath.

"It's my fault," he gasped, the confession torn out of him.

Sam blinked in surprise. "What is?"

"What happened to...Gandalf..." Upon saying the wizard's name - which he had not done, he realized, since his final scream in Moria - Frodo broke into a sob. His head fell forward on his chest and he began crying.

"Oh, Mr. Frodo..." Sam collected Frodo into his arms. "You can't think that. Not honestly."

"It is," Frodo said, words garbled against Sam's cloak. "It was my choice. The mines. He asked me and I chose it. And if we hadn't...if we hadn't gone into Moria..." He was choking on his tears, and couldn't continue.

Sam sank to his knees, heedless of the mud and pine needles, and held his friend closer. Frodo leaned on his shoulder. Sam felt tears rise to his own eyes, but kept his voice under control so he could speak. "Think about Gandalf for a moment," he soothed. "He always knew exactly what he was about. Do you think such as you or me could ever make him do anything he was set against? He's a wizard, Mr. Frodo."

"Was. Was a wizard."

"I say he still is. I say there's something left of him, even if it's just in the group of us here, remembering him."

This just made Frodo cry harder, but it was a cleansing kind of crying, at least. It was now mostly grief, without that sickening taint of guilt.

"You don't h-hate me?" Frodo gulped.

"Hate you?" Sam squeezed him tighter. "Never. Never, sir. You've got a hard job ahead of you, and lots of nasty things have happened, and I understand why you're scared. But don't you go adding guilt to it. You've done nothing wrong. Nothing. You hear me?"

"The others...they might hate me..."

"They don't. And if they do, then they're a pack of fools, that's all. I'll take you over them any day."

Frodo's sobs were quieting, but the tears still ran hot and stinging down his face. Some of them left wet spots on Sam's clothes. "I'm sorry for how I've treated you," Frodo whispered. "You only wanted to take care of me. I know that."

"Don't want nothing to happen to you," Sam whispered back. A tear escaped onto his lower lashes.

Frodo sat up slowly, and wiped his eyes on his sleeve. "I'm a mess," he said, sounding congested, like he had a cold. He found a handkerchief in his pocket, blew his nose, and gave a small chuckle upon looking at his hands. "And I'm covered in mud."

"Well, that, at least, I can fix." Sam withdrew one arm from around Frodo, and put his hand in his pocket. He took out the soap and displayed it between finger and thumb. "Strider says there's warm springs up the hill. We could wash up and then have a bite. That is, if you're hungry."

"I am, now that you mention it." Frodo put away his handkerchief, then looked up into Sam's face. He saw the tear lingering on the outside corner of Sam's eye, and rose up on one knee to kiss it away. "Thank you."

Delicious fire bloomed in Sam's belly, love and unexpected arousal in one explosion. Frodo kissing him...now that had never happened before.

But Frodo was climbing to his feet, shoving pine needles off his clothes, looking at the slope. "Up there, you say?"

"Yes..." Sam got to his feet as well. "Just follow the mist, sounded like."

As they started to walk up the hill, Legolas appeared from between two trees. "I was...looking for you," he said, voice faltering as he noticed Frodo's tear-streaked face.

"Is anything wrong?" Frodo asked the Elf, softly.

"No," said Legolas. "Only trying to keep track of you."

"We're going up to that spring, if it's all right," Sam said. "Wash some of this mud off."

"Feel free," Legolas said. "Aragorn's still consulting his map."

"Thank you," said Frodo, and started trudging up the slope again.

Sam paused near Legolas, and added, quietly, "Do you think...you could make sure no one bothers us? It's just, he's been awful upset, and could use a bit of time away from the others, just to calm down..."

Legolas gave a polite nod. "Certainly. I shall come find you myself, if necessary, but will keep the rest away."

Sam nodded back. "Many thanks." He set off after Frodo, feeling slightly excited, and a bit guilty. His request to Legolas hadn't been entirely for Frodo's peace of mind, had it? If he was to be honest with himself, wasn't it true that he had asked for the privacy because he hoped there might be more kissing going on soon?

You're a fool, Gamgee, he told himself, wryly.

They found a stream tumbling downhill, rather warm to the touch, and followed it up, through increasingly lush greenery, until they pushed through a net of bushes and found the source: a pool, twenty or thirty feet across, with a waterfall tumbling into it from a cliff above. Steam curled upward from the surface in the cold air, and bright green plants - ferns mostly - grew all around it, interspersed with the rocks.

"Fern Springs," Sam murmured. "That's what Strider said it was called."

"It's lovely," said Frodo. "We should get lost more often, if this is the sort of place we end up in."

Sam sat down on a flat rock at the pool's edge, and carefully slipped his feet into the water. He sighed as the warmth spread through his chilled toes. "Now, that's nice. You should try it."

Frodo came and sat beside him, and sank his feet into the pool too. He relaxed visibly, smiling. "Ah...just what I needed."

"Wash your hands, then, and we can eat," Sam suggested, rolling up his sleeves.

They used Sam's soap to clean the grime from their fingernails and palms; then Sam took the bread and pear from his pockets, and offered them to Frodo. Frodo accepted, but insisted upon sharing. They ate their small lunch, talking about the rivers and falls in the Shire, kicking their feet lazily in the warm pool. When they were done eating, they lingered there, side by side, gazing at the waterfall. They had both tugged their trousers up above the knees to allow their legs to sink deeper into the water.

"How deep do you suppose this is?" Frodo asked.

"Hm." Sam leaned aside, broke a stick from a low tree, and poked it into the water until he felt solid ground. "Not very. Waist-deep on us, maybe."

"Hm," Frodo echoed. He turned his eyes to Sam, with a little smile of mischief that Sam hadn't seen for weeks.

"What are you thinking, then?" Sam teased.

"A bath would be awfully nice," Frodo admitted. "We probably have enough time..."

Sam swallowed, and looked across the pool. He tried to make his voice sound natural. "Aye, it would be nice. Water's lovely and warm."

Frodo sat up, pulled his jacket off, and began unbuttoning his shirt. "Won't have many chances like this," he added.

"No, indeed," Sam agreed. His hands began unfastening his own buttons, though much more slowly than Frodo was doing. Don't get excited, he told himself. Least, not till you're in the water and all hidden...

Frodo wriggled out of his trousers, pulled the mithril vest over his head, and even took off the chain holding the Ring. He hopped naked into the water, with the chain still in his hand, and then leaned over and set it on top of his heap of clothes. "I imagine it's safe there," he said, reluctantly letting it go. Then he leaned back in the water, which, as predicted, lapped around his waist. "Ah...Sam, you should get in. It's quite nice."

He watched as Sam mumbled, "Right, then," and shrugged himself out of his shirt. Frodo moved backward in the water, enjoying the buoyancy, and smiled to himself as he watched his gardener turn his back and take off his trousers. He wouldn't dare say anything to Sam about it, of course, but really the lad had a lovely behind.

And he had feelings for Frodo. And the two of them were naked together in a warm, gorgeous pool. Frodo felt a flutter of dizzy joy in his stomach. He suddenly had the distinct impression that this situation was possibly not so wise; it could easily rocket into places he hadn't foreseen. And most alarming of all...he didn't really mind that idea.

He turned and made his way to the waterfall. "Don't forget the soap, Sam," he called. The pool was deeper at the base of the falls, the water reaching his chest. Frodo ducked under the waterfall, letting it soak his hair and face. When he stepped back out and wiped the drops from his eyes, he saw Sam, soap in hand, edging toward him as if he distrusted the water.

Frodo smiled. "Here, Sam. I'll come to you." He moved into the shallower part of the pool.

Sam caught Frodo's arm as Frodo stepped on a slippery rock. "Steady, sir. Here, I'll soap your back where you can't reach."

"Thank you." Frodo turned, folded his arms, and let Sam rub the ball of soap on his back. "That feels lovely."

"Lots of grime on you," Sam said. "Don't know how you get so dirty even in all those clothes." He scrubbed over Frodo's shoulder blades, and splashed water up to rinse the suds away.

"Travel is hell," Frodo commented wryly.

Sam slid the soap across Frodo's back, and nudged it into the crook under his arm. "Now, I'm not saying you smell, Mr. Frodo," he said, shyly, "but in order to clean you up proper..."

A laugh welled up from Frodo's chest. He lifted his arms out of the water, willingly, and folded them atop his head. "I do smell, Sam. I know it very well."

"You don't," Sam insisted. "Least, not compared to that Boromir fellow."

Frodo laughed again, and this time Sam joined him. He began rubbing the soap into the hair beneath Frodo's arms, reminding himself that this wasn't so private, really; he had done this in Rivendell. Even though Frodo hadn't been conscious then.

"That soap smells good enough to eat," Frodo said, and giggled as Sam swiped over a ticklish spot. "Is it your oatmeal variety?"

"Yes, sir. Feels nice on the skin, and smells almost like a batch of fresh teacakes."

"It does. On both counts."

Sam splashed more warm water up to rinse away the soap, and moved to Frodo's other side.

"You know," Frodo said, also shy now, "I do feel much better. I can do this myself; you don't have to."

"I'm enjoying it," Sam answered, and blushed when he realized what he'd said. "That is...I'll stop if you want..."

He lifted his eyes to Frodo's face, and found Frodo watching him, lips parted, eyes serious. "I'm enjoying it too," Frodo said. His voice sounded lightweight, but husky.

Nothing moved for a moment except the swirling water and Sam's chest as he took a breath. "Well," he finally said. "Let's get you clean, then."

Frodo's arms were still folded on top of his head, like he was posing for a piece of erotic art. Sam tried not to think about it like that. He rubbed soap under the other arm, rinsed it with water, paused a moment. Frodo's nipple was so close...would he mind?... He stole another look at his friend's face. Frodo's eyelids were lowered, dreamily watching the soap bubbles float away on the surface. Sam slid the lump of soap across the plane of Frodo's chest muscles, letting his knuckles brush the nipple, as though it were an accident. Frodo's lashes fluttered a bit at the touch, and Sam thought he saw Frodo's throat constrict, as if he had suddenly swallowed. Sam didn't know what to make of that, so he retreated to safer territory: the light wisp of hairs at the center of Frodo's chest. He circled the soap there, trying to seem businesslike about it.

"That felt good," Frodo murmured.

The soap stopped. It was Sam's turn to swallow. "What did?" he asked.

In answer, Frodo lowered one arm, took Sam's wrist, and moved it back to the nipple. Their eyes met, and held. "It's just," Frodo said, his voice tentative, "I'm a little bruised there, still, from the...the..."

Cave troll. Right. Sam nodded immediately so that Frodo wouldn't have to refer to that horrid event.

"And," Frodo continued, "the soap made it feel better."

"Course it does," Sam said, trying to sound cheerful. He cleared his throat and began gently circling suds around Frodo's nipple. "The oats, you know. Soothe any skin." He'd already said that. Stupid. He shut his mouth and concentrated on the task.

Frodo adjusted his arms over his head again, and sighed luxuriantly. Sam, feeling bold now, moved to the other nipple and began attending to it too, even though Frodo hadn't been stabbed on that side. His master made no complaint, just arched his back to make Sam's work easier.

As Sam leaned that direction, his foot slipped from its rock, on the bottom of the pool, and he stumbled forward, bumping into Frodo.

"Oh - careful, Sam," Frodo said. He quickly dropped both arms to circle Sam's shoulders, steadying him.

Sam sucked in a breath. His arousal, which had safely been hidden under the water, had poked Frodo's hip. And though Sam had pulled back instantly, Frodo must have felt it. Yet here he was, standing with Sam in a loose embrace, Sam's soap-slick hands on Frodo's chest, both of them naked. And he wasn't letting go, even though Sam had recovered his balance.

They stared at each other.

"I lied," Frodo confessed.

"What?"

"I'm not bruised - I mean, I am bruised, but that wasn't the reason. I just wanted you to keep doing that."

Sam ran his thumb carefully over Frodo's right nipple. Frodo took in his breath, and nodded. Then he adjusted his footing in the water so that Sam felt, for a brief second, something smooth and hard brush his thigh. It could have happened by accident. Or Frodo could have been letting him know that the feeling was mutual.

Sam spread both hands so that each touched a nipple.

Frodo bit his lip. "Sam..."

Sam lifted his eyes again. "Yes?"

"You weren't just imagining things."

"Sorry?"

"You do mean something to me. You said you didn't know if...if you had been imagining that. Well...you were right. You mean a great deal to me; it wasn't just your imagination." Frodo watched as an amazed glow sparked to life in Sam's eyes. He smiled, and bashfully tugged Sam a little closer. "You weren't just imagining what you might have felt a second ago, either."

Sam tipped his face down, with an embarrassed laugh. "Ah. Well. Reckon you noticed something, yourself."

"Don't worry," Frodo whispered. "I won't tell."

Sam looked up at him, and Frodo winked. A tender laugh caught at Sam's throat. He slipped his hand up, into Frodo's dripping hair, and brought his friend's head close for a kiss.

They kissed slowly, mouths sliding closer, arms twining tighter around each other, faces wet and slippery with the springwater. When they pulled apart, they were both breathing fast.

"Suppose it wouldn't do to have Legolas find us like that," Frodo said.

Sam laughed, shakily. "No, reckon it wouldn't."

"All right." Frodo cleared his throat, and took a more practical tone. "Let's have that soap." He plucked it from Sam's hand. "Turn around. Let me get your back."

"Now, you don't have to do that..."

"Don't be silly. It's much easier if someone else does it." Frodo began washing Sam's back, pushing the suds over the small freckles scattered there. He felt a rush of fondness, that he was the one here, getting to do this to Sam, getting to see those little intimate details. Getting to kiss him naked...getting to feel his hardness against his leg...

Frodo shook his head to clear it of those thoughts. "You know, you should take the chance to wash your hair, too," he told Sam. "It's very refreshing."

"Ah, I don't like getting me head under the water..." Sam demurred.

"Well, you don't have to stand in the waterfall. Here." Frodo wrapped his arm around Sam's back, and began tilting him backward in the pool. Sam resisted, and Frodo stopped in exasperation. "Sam. I'm not going to let water into your ears. I promise."

A sheepish look crept over Sam's face. "Right, sir. Sorry." He closed his eyes and let Frodo lower his head backward into the pool until the water just covered Sam's hair.

Frodo gently soaped Sam's scalp, and swished water over it. "There. Is that so bad?"

"No," Sam admitted. "Feels nice, actually."

Frodo placed the soap back in Sam's hand. Sam's fingers closed around it. Frodo paused, still holding Sam on one arm, as if he had dipped him down in a dance. He gazed at his gardener, whose eyes were still closed against possible splashes. He was a vision of wet gold-brown ringlets, dark lashes tipped with blond, adorable nose slightly upturned and shining with damp. Frodo brought his hand carefully to Sam's pointed ear, and stroked the hidden skin behind it.

Sam took in a breath, and his eyes sprang open. Seeing the look on Frodo's face, he licked his lower lip cautiously, then twined his arm around Frodo's shoulder and climbed up to kiss him. Frodo met him with a moan and open lips.

There was no mistaking the interest for either of them now; Sam's hardness, under the water, edged between Frodo's thighs, and Frodo's was pressed up against Sam's belly. "Oh," Sam gasped, into Frodo's mouth.

Frodo's tongue flickered out and lapped the water from Sam's lips, then he pulled his head back, and sighed in frustration. "Oh, we really shouldn't do this. What if someone comes along..."

"I'm almost starting not to care," Sam said.

A hint of mischief sparkled in Frodo's smile. "Well. You've still missed a few spots, you know. After all, I haven't...finished my bath..."

Sam swallowed. "Right...we'd best work on that."

Frodo turned, and pressed his back to Sam's chest. He lifted his soaked curls from his neck. "Could you get the back of my neck? Have the feeling some nasty stuff has lodged there. Trees always dripping on us, you know how it is..."

"Indeed," Sam breathed, which was difficult, since Frodo had leaned his rear right against Sam's groin, and Sam's length lay along the cleft. So difficult not to start moving... Sam forced himself to concentrate on the soap. He scrubbed the back of Frodo's neck, brought a few cupped handfuls of water up to pour over it. "There, that's looking cleaner," he said.

"You sure?" Frodo asked, still holding his hair out of the way.

"Well now, let's see..." Sam let the tip of his nose travel up Frodo's spine to the neck. Frodo shivered deliciously. "Smells clean," Sam murmured. He licked Frodo's skin, tasting the springwater and the faint residue of oatmeal soap. Frodo moaned softly. "Tastes clean too," Sam whispered. He licked the nape again, and again, slowly, feeling Frodo twist and twitch against him.

Finally Frodo swirled around in Sam's arms, and kissed him hard, tongue probing deep into Sam's mouth. Sam swallowed the salty-sweet taste of his friend's tongue, and groaned in his throat as Frodo's hips began moving rhythmically, rubbing their erections against each other in the water. It was a maddening sensation; they kept slipping and bobbing away, though both hobbits pressed and wriggled to try to keep them together.

"Let's get into the shallows," Sam gasped. "That way I can reach the soap...everywhere..."

"Yes, let's do..." Frodo murmured, in between wet kisses, his hands clasping and re-clasping Sam up and down his body - head, back, shoulders, waist, rear. Kissing, latched together, they sloshed to the edge of the pool, where Sam sat down upon a rock just below the surface, pulling Frodo with him.

Frodo was thinking that even though Sam hadn't read as much erotic Elven poetry as he had, the younger hobbit must have learned at least a little about sex, for he seemed to have a fair idea of the effect he was having upon Frodo. If he was merely acting on instinct, then his instincts were good. Awfully good. Frodo whimpered.

Sam was thinking that even though Frodo often had his nose in a book and hadn't spent as much time hearing racy stories at the pub as he had, he must have figured out some of the naughty things people could do with each other. Maybe in all those afternoons by himself, he had done more than just read - maybe he had played with himself, found some things that felt good. Sam got even harder at the thought.

The water only reached to mid-thigh now. Frodo nudged Sam's head to the side, and planted kisses down his neck, giving special attention to his collarbone. Lovely goosebumps broke out on Sam's skin. He found he still clutched the soap, against Frodo's back, and he began circling it, moving lower and lower. At the base of Frodo's spine he paused, and met both hands behind Frodo's back, so that he could lather them - a tricky operation when he was being so thoroughly distracted by his amorous employer.

When both hands were sufficiently soaped up, he reached aside and dropped the lump of soap on the moss beside the pool. Then he slid his hands down over Frodo's rear, squeezing and cupping.

"Mmm..." A naughty smile curved Frodo's lips. With one leg he pushed Sam's knees farther apart, and fitted their hips together, wet arousals meeting with hot friction, visible above the water now. Frodo looked down, and his cheeks flushed with a deeper glow - but not shame, Sam realized from the breathlessness in his friend's lips; it was purely desire, primal desire. Sam dared a glance himself, and felt the same rush. The things he wanted to do almost shocked him.

His hands, on Frodo's behind, moved closer toward the center, until two or three fingers slipped into the cleft. A soft sound escaped Frodo's lips. Sam pressed deeper, fingers sliding on suds, rubbing and probing gently. Frodo laid his face on Sam's neck, breathing hard. His thighs opened wider, which forced Sam's apart too.

"You like that?" whispered Sam.

"Yes," Frodo whispered back.

Sam's middle finger found the opening, and pushed inside, just a bit, less than an inch. "Ah," Frodo cried out, against his neck. The heat against Sam's crotch seemed to flare in intensity.

"Does it hurt any?" Sam asked.

"No," gasped Frodo. "Feels good. So good..."

"Stop wriggling like that," Sam begged, out of breath. "You'll make me..."

"Sorry," Frodo managed to whisper. Then he lifted his face and began kissing Sam, ravenously, tongue and teeth swiping him. Sam held him close, and pushed his finger deeper, another fraction of an inch. A groan rose from Frodo's throat.

Sam untangled his mouth, and ordered in a gruff whisper, "Turn around."

A flicker of fear crossed Frodo's eyes. Sam read the look, and assured him, "It's just to get you clean. Everywhere."

Frodo relaxed, and one eyebrow rippled up in anticipation. He turned. Sam scooted back farther on the rock, leaving room between his legs for Frodo to sit there. He pulled Frodo's back against his chest. His own hardness once again pressed up against Frodo's rear, yes, but he wasn't about to do that. The idea frightened him a little, too.

But there were other things that felt good. Lots of other things.

He picked up the soap and re-lathered his hands. Then he reached around and laid one on each of Frodo's thighs, soaping them up in steady circles. Moving gradually upward.

Frodo whimpered, and spread his legs, lifting his hips.

Sam reached the petal-soft skin high up on the inside of Frodo's thighs. He slid his fingers down into the close warm space between thigh and sack. ("Oh...Sam..." Frodo whimpered.) Sam's hands collected the sack and stroked it, squeezed ever so gently. It was hot and felt almost heavy, so swollen with need.

Frodo reached up, dropped his arm around Sam's neck, crushed Sam's curls in his flexing palm. His head was thrown back on Sam's collarbone, lashes aflutter, lips full and red. Beautiful, Sam thought, senses reeling with love and want.

He left one hand to continue holding the sack, and moved the other up to Frodo's thick shaft. Still slippery with soap suds, his hand closed around it, and pulled upward in a first tentative stroke.

Frodo emitted a wordless cry. Sam stroked again, his own need now pulsing against Frodo's body, threatening to explode. Not too fast, he begged himself. Before it was all over he should at least indulge his curiosity about what Frodo's foreskin felt like... Sam slid his hand to the tip, and slowly edged down the loose sheath of skin. Frodo made another desperate sound in his throat, lifting himself into Sam's hand. Sam could see the rosy head, and to his soapy fingertips it felt silkier than anything he had ever known. His heart was beating so hard he was sure Frodo could feel it.

"Please," Frodo entreated. "I can't...hold..."

Hearing the edge of rising urgency in Frodo's voice, Sam squeezed harder, and stroked faster. Frodo's hips pumped to match the rhythm, hand gripping tighter in Sam's hair, chest heaving for breath. Then his back arched, he gritted his teeth against a cry, and his seed spurted out, splashing into the pool with barely a sound.

The noise of the waterfall, the rush of his pulse in his ears, Frodo's moans...Sam's eyes fell shut, and his world blurred into a roar of gorgeous sound.

His hands moved, stroking and caressing, until Frodo squirmed and chuckled and pushed them away. Sam opened his eyes. Frodo was sitting up, recovering his breath, turning, settling a bashful blue gaze on him. He looked like himself again, rather than the carnally-driven pliable thing he had temporarily become.

"Well," Frodo said, eyes twinkling. "Didn't expect to do that today."

Sam, who for his part still felt carnally-driven, leaned forward and kissed Frodo, somewhat roughly. "Love you," he whispered.

"Give me that soap," Frodo purred.

Sam handed it over, expecting Frodo wanted to clean himself up a bit. But Frodo lathered his hands, eyes darting slyly to Sam's face, and then tossed the soap back onto the moss. He pushed Sam's thighs apart and placed his slippery hands between Sam's legs, kneading and fondling in all the ways Sam had touched him. Sam's mouth opened, and he made a helpless squeak.

Frodo tickled Sam's ear with his nose, and then, low-pitched and lovely, said, "You feel so hard. Want you to come for me, Samwise...go ahead..."

Mr. Frodo had never said anything like that before, at least not to Sam, and it was more than Sam could take after all this tension. He shuddered and moaned, and came hard and sweet, clinging to Frodo's shoulders.

When his hips, and Frodo's hands, stopped moving, and his heart had slowed down somewhat, Sam opened his eyes and found that he had toppled onto his back on the rock. His head lay on Frodo's arm, hair trailing in the pool, water moving over his chest and washing away the stickiness. Frodo was running his palm over Sam's nipples, just below the surface.

"Incidentally," Frodo told him, "I love you, as well. Would have said it sooner, but I assumed you knew."

"Never hurts to hear," Sam answered, voice creaky. Frodo leaned down and kissed him; their tongues curled together lazily.

"Frodo? Sam?" The melodious voice bounced off the rocks, entirely too close. Legolas. Over the rush of the falls, they hadn't heard him till now.

Sam and Frodo flew apart, in a loud splash of water, and struggled to get up from the slick, wet rock, but there simply wasn't time.

The leaves of a tree parted, and Legolas stepped out onto the bank.

He saw them, and stopped, perfectly still. His face registered nothing - his centuries of Elven stealth had apparently taught him not to yelp or jump or say anything unintentional, even at the most startling of moments.

Then a tiny smile kindled on his symmetrical lips, and his eyes tracked around the green-edged pool, pausing to appraise the waterfall. "Well, this is a pretty sight," he said. The smile stretched a bit. "And the waterfall's not bad, either."

"Very funny," grumbled Sam. He climbed out of the pool, seized their cloaks, wrapped himself in one and threw the other to Frodo.

Frodo climbed out too, dripping and starting to shiver. "Legolas...," he requested, meekly. "I won't insult your intelligence by pretending we were just bathing. I can tell you know better. But can we trust you not to tell the others?"

"Well, I won't say anything, but surely they'll wonder what smells so nice," the Elf answered.

"It isn't that I'm ashamed..." Frodo added, with a reassuring glance at Sam.

Sam answered with a nod. "It's that it's none of their business," he filled in.

Legolas seemed preoccupied by the scent. "Is that..." He sniffed at the air. "...oats?"

"Oatmeal soap," Sam muttered, drying his legs.

"You won't tell, will you?" Frodo repeated to Legolas.

"I won't tell." Legolas spotted the soap lying in the moss. He leaned down and picked it up, and smelled it. "Oats, and honey," he said, "and...is that nutmeg?"

"Yes," Frodo said, buttoning up his trousers. "Sam makes wonderful soap."

Legolas's eyebrows arched. "You made this, Sam? How delightful. Will you make me some?"

Sam, tugging his shirt over his head, just glowered.

"All right; I understand," said Legolas. "Your schedule's a little full right now."

"I assume it's time for us to go?" Frodo asked.

"Yes; Aragorn sent me to fetch you. Aren't you lucky he didn't come himself? He was about to, you know."

Frodo blushed, and slipped the Ring-chain on over his head. "I'm sure a Ranger's seen worse."

"Never know," mused Legolas. "Men are weak. You two could have shocked him into a heart attack. It's really very fortunate that I'm immortal."

The hobbits followed Legolas back to the group, where the others turned and peered at Frodo and Sam. Their clean faces and wet hair occasioned a few puzzled frowns.

"Been bathing, have we?" Aragorn said.

"The spring..." Sam stuttered, "and I had some soap, so..."

"Oh, you went bathing and didn't tell us?" said the crestfallen Pip. "I could have used a bath."

"We've noticed that, Pippin," said Merry.

Pippin smacked him with a stick, and Merry smiled and flung a pine-cone back, and the rest of the group lost interest. Frodo and Sam exchanged a glance, relieved that nobody had pursued the bath topic too much further.

But they were not to be let off quite so easily. Some time later, as they trudged through the woods, Gimli made the remark: "These are tragic times for us all, indeed, but we must look at the bright side: there are still the eight of us, and finer companions I could hardly ask for - despite one being an Elf."

And at that, Legolas answered, mildly, "Indeed, we must take comfort in one another." His eyes dropped pointedly to Frodo's, and a smirk tugged at his mouth.

Frodo looked up in alarm. Sam glanced around nervously. Legolas winked.

"At least we're learning how the other races live," Merry said. "Elves, and Dwarves, and Men."

"Yes," Legolas added. "I'm certainly seeing more of hobbits than I ever expected to."

A sound like a suppressed sneeze escaped Sam. Frodo sucked in his cheeks to keep from bursting into panicked laughter.

Soon Aragorn returned from scouting ahead, and reported that Lothlorien was but a few more hours away. Merry and Pippin wanted to know what it would be like, and Legolas spent a while describing the scenery to them in poetic language.

"Tonight we'll all sleep sound in the arms of the mallorn trees," he concluded. "They shelter beds large enough for a full-grown man. And as for hobbits - why, the berths are large enough to fit two of you. Won't that be handy?"

Frodo dared a glance at Sam. Sam's cheeks were deep pink, but he allowed his eyes to slide toward Frodo, and they shared a secret smile.

"As long as I've got enough room to turn Pippin over when he snores," Merry said.

"Quite enough," said Legolas. "Two of your size could lie side by side, end to end, whatever pleases you."

Frodo's eyebrows climbed his forehead. He didn't dare comment on that one.

"If only Legolas would tell us why he smirks," Aragorn said. "Such mystery among the Elves."

"Simple-mindedness, I'd call it," snorted Gimli.

"I'm just thinking of pleasant things, as a way to soothe my grief," Legolas said. "Small pleasures. The pleasures of the small. Something like that."

Frodo took a deep breath, keeping his lips pressed together. He glanced again at Sam, who was directing a subtle glare at Legolas. The Elf gazed serenely at the horizon, still smirking.

Aragorn stared at Legolas, then looked at each of the hobbits in turn. Merry and Pippin barely noticed. Frodo did his best to look innocently troubled. Sam took the opportunity to stoop down and pluck a weed from the forest floor.

Frowning, Aragorn stepped up close to the Elf and said, in an undertone, "I do not think it appropriate to flirt with the hobbits, Legolas."

He had said it quietly enough that only Legolas and Frodo had heard it (Frodo's hearing being better than people expected), but Legolas answered in a normal, loud, conversational tone, "Flirting with the hobbits! I wonder at your presumption. Frodo. Have I ever flirted with you?"

Frodo quickly shook his head.

"Sam? You?" Legolas asked.

"No, sir," muttered Sam.

"You haven't flirted with me, either," said Pippin, "but I wouldn't mind if you did."

"Pippin!" reprimanded Merry.

Aragorn lifted his hands, signaling that he was giving up on this conversation, and stalked ahead.

* * *

As promised, Frodo and Sam were given a large, soft berth to share, in the curved shelter of a mallorn tree. When most of the mysterious bluish elf-lanterns had been taken away, and they lay hidden in shadow, Frodo moved closer to Sam, and Sam wrapped his arm over him.

"I've had horrible dreams lately," Frodo whispered. "I'm glad you're here."

"Always was here," Sam answered.

They found each other's faces in the darkness, and kissed, soft and dry and warm, a different feeling from the earlier slick wetness of the pool, but just as alluring.

Frodo was sinking his hand into Sam's hair, and hooking his leg over Sam's knee, when a beam of lantern light fell across them. They pulled apart, startled.

Legolas's fair hair shimmered blue-white in the glow, and he smiled as he leaned down. "Just came by to say goodnight."

Frodo recovered his voice. "Oh. Goodnight, Legolas."

"Night, Mr. Legolas," Sam echoed.

"And thank you for...you know," Frodo added.

"Even though you've had a bit of fun with it," pointed out Sam.

"Not as much fun as you've had," Legolas returned. Then he sighed, and crouched beside their bed. "Truthfully, it lightens my heart to see the change in you both. And makes me envious that I haven't such a friend."

"Legolas," reproached Frodo, "I'd say you're quite good-looking enough to get one if you wanted."

Legolas rolled his eyes, and pretended a haughty toss of his head. "Yes, but finding one who's good enough for me, that's the hard part, isn't it?"

While the hobbits grinned, he reached out and touched each softly on the head, murmuring a lengthy phrase in Elvish. Then he rose, said "Goodnight," and strode away.

In the darkness again, Sam whispered, "What did he say? Did you catch it?"

"Something like...'May you dream of each other, and glow even brighter for it tomorrow.'"

"Ah." Sam hugged Frodo against him. "Pretty words, those."

"They are." Frodo kissed his young friend on the lips, and settled down to dream, unafraid.