Disclaimer: Hobbits: his. What hobbits do and say: mine.

This was supposed to be light and fluffy. The boys thought otherwise.

***

He'd never seen anything like it before, and by the look on his Master's face, neither had Frodo. It lay in the middle of the loose shale and sparse scrub of Emyn Muil, a cauldron sheltered by the slight overhang of a cliff face that towered above it like a giant warming its hands over a campfire. Merely a slight dip in the stone, barely two fathoms long by one wide, it was shaped like a rather lumpy oval and filled with water that seemed to come from nowhere and go the same place. A light mist rose from the surface, but unlike the morning fogs that clung to the Brandywine river, these wispy tendrils did not lie sedately, but rather rose sinuously into the cool morning air like tongues of white flame.

A frown etched twin creases between Frodo's eyes as he stared intently into the little pond. "It's smoking."

Sam sniffed, but there was no scent of burning, only a gentle heat radiating off of the water that gently warmed his face like the embers of a dying fire. "That's just steam, Mr. Frodo. Something or the other's making it hot as it's coming out of the earth, like a right great kettle."

"Do you suppose it's safe?"

Sam dared a step closer. He was able now to see right down to the bottom of the whole thing, but there was nothing to be found under the water's surface except more of the endless rocks that seemed sometimes to be the only thing abundant in this wasteland. Sam sniffed again. The smell was familiar, but he knew he'd never seen one of these simmer-holes before. Suddenly, he laughed, almost clapping his hands with recognition as he turned to Frodo. "Smells like the water the Gaffer boiled taters in!"

Kneeling, he dipped a finger in and out quickly, as though he were checking the temperature of a stew. The water did not burn, either with heat nor toxin, and he put his hand in again more slowly, feeling the warmth as gentle as bath water but somehow twice as comforting. It was as though there was something in the water that made it penetrate his very bones, easing tensions he didn't know he had, and he felt like he could gladly remain there all day. Instead, however, he reluctantly pulled his hand from the water, tentatively licking one of the stray drops from his thumb. He heard Frodo gasp. "Sam!"

"It's all right." He made a face. "Salty, though. It would probably make you all the thirstier to drink it, but it's wonderful soothing on the hands." He stood, wiping his hand on the hem of his cloak like a towel.

Frodo had edged closer to the water now, but his large eyes were still suspicious. "What do you mean?" Sam forgave him for it. Seemed like most of the bad on this journey so far had a preference for his Master. It was enough to make any sensible hobbit a bit jumpy.

"Put your hands in it, Mr. Frodo." He smiled encouragingly. "It's just warm enough to be good and cozy without being burning hot. And there's something about it that's just nice-feeling."

For a long moment, Frodo just looked at him, but Sam was pleased to see the trust forming in his Master's eyes. Finally, he knelt, dipping just the tip of one finger in barely deep enough to send a single ripple licking across the surface of the pool. He sat perfectly still until that ripple had shimmered back and forth to vanish entirely, but when nothing at last emerged to snatch at him or his priceless burden, he plunged both his hands in with nearly childish trust, immersing them up to the elbows. As the warm water closed over his forearms, his mouth opened in a tiny 'o' of delight, his eyes half-closing. "Oh..."

He was silent for a bit, just kneeling there with his arms in the water, and Sam sat down on a nearby rock, smiling. It was nice to see Mr. Frodo happy again after so long. He had begun to worry that the only smiles he would ever see from his Master would be bittersweet at best, but the one forming now was deep and true and wonderfully lazy. "You know, it's been months since I've had a bath. I'd almost forgotten what hot water feels like outside of a cup of tea."

"You could, you know."

Frodo opened his eyes, looking quizzically at him. "Could what?"

"Have a bath." He slipped the straps of the pack from his shoulders and stood, swinging his arms a little to help banish some of the ache as he crossed over to the pool and looked in. "The water's a bit cloudy, but you can see right to the bottom, and I don't reckon it would come any deeper than your chest at the worst." Sam looked up at Frodo, seeing the lure of the idea in his eyes. "Go ahead, it'll get you good and refreshed for all that we've got ahead of us now."

"But what about..."

"Don't you worry, I'll keep a watch, and I'll turn my back so's you can have your privacy." Before Frodo could offer any further protest, he hurried over to where they had left their things, unbuckling the straps holding the pack closed and rummaging busily among the pans, rope, spare clothing, and assorted other odds and ends that two hobbits might find useful for a trek into the impossible. "I even think I've got a ball of soap tucked away in my pack somewhere, though I mightn't have brung it had I known we'd be so long between bathtubs. Aha!" With a triumphant cry, he produced a ball of yellowish lye soap, slightly smaller than his fist. It was a little the worse for wear, but if one ignored a few dents and picked off a few tea leaves and bits of lint, it would still be perfectly serviceable.

He tossed it to Frodo, and was delighted to see his Master laugh as he brought it to his nose and inhaled the familiar scent of home-made Hobbiton soap. "You're a wonder, Samwise Gamgee."

"Thankee, Mr. Frodo." Their eyes met, but somehow, the shared enjoyment of that small discovery soon turned to a strange discomfort, and Sam broke away, pretending to settle things back to rights in the already meticulously ordered pack. "Go on, then, scrub up good. I'd venture you've got half the Brown Lands between your toes." Hearing no argument and satisfied with the rustle of clothing being unfastened and removed, he found a small rag and tossed it to Frodo, then turned his back and sat down next to their things on the rock. There was no pipe-weed, but he settled the stem of his clay pipe between his teeth nonetheless. It was comforting.

There was a gentle splash as Frodo slid into the pool, but Sam's teeth tightened on the stem of the pipe as he heard Frodo sigh indulgently. This wasn't any good at all. All he'd meant was for Frodo to have a good cleaning and maybe feel better besides, and it wasn't any good for his imagination to start thinking about what his Master looked like naked there, dark eyelashes fanning over his fair cheeks as he closed his eyes with warm satisfaction....

He tried to stare at the blank cliff-face, but soon discovered that it wasn't particularly blank. The late morning sunlight still shone at enough of an angle from the East that it cast shadows clear and dark on the stone wall. There were the shadows of the scrub-brush, looking like tangled little bird's nests low to the ground. There was his own shadow, with the wild mess of curls and the graceful curve of the pipe protruding from a rather simple, squat hobbit-shape lumped about here and there with folds of cloak and badly worn traveling clothes. Then there was Frodo's shadow.

Graceful as an elf-maid he seemed, arms stretching supple as he washed. Vigorously, he rubbed the little cake of soap down each limb, then his hands smoothed the lather across his chest, slowing and circling before cupping into the water and pouring the soothing fluid across his skin to wash away lather and dirt and weariness alike. His head rolled lazily as he washed his neck, dipping now nearly to his chest, arching back now, sweetly vulnerable, running the soap over that sweet white throat and up to the delicate points of his ears. Then quick as a diving bird, he disappeared under the water, emerging again laughing and shaking his head, his own thick curls slicked down against his skull.

Sam pulled the pipe from his mouth, not wanting to snap the treasured and carefully kept bit of pottery in two. He tried to tell himself that this was wrong. Frodo was only getting himself clean, and while his feelings were nothing more than a harmless crush back in the Shire, or even among the Company, here they could quite well get them both in a great deal of trouble. Here, he had to be Frodo's everything, his protector and his friend, his hope and his caution, his eyes and his heart. There was no place in this dangerous land to allow for any of Sam's own desires, and it was with a supreme force of will that he turned his gaze from the wall, staring out over the bleak gravel of the slopes.

Even then, his mind betrayed him. He could still hear the gentle splashes and sighs as Frodo bathed, and he knew his Master must be long clean by now. Now he would just be reveling in the gently heated waters, probably rubbing sore shoulders, lips softly parted as the tight muscles... No! Sam squeezed his eyes shut tight, trying to think of anything, everything but that. Slugs on the cabbage plants. The smell of orc-breath in the Mines of Moria. Drool on Gimli's beard first thing in the morning.

Frodo's voice calling out, so clear and joyful that it made Sam nearly want to weep for the innocence of the days when he had never heard weariness or sorrow in those laughing tones. "Come join me, Sam, it's wonderful, just as you said."

Oh dear.

Sam startled like a young boy caught doing something terribly naughty, suddenly terribly aware that not only had his thoughts been straying, but that his body had been along for the ride. What would Frodo think if he saw him in such a state? At the best, he'd laugh, at the worst... Sam shook his head sharply. "Oh, no, I couldn't."

He could see the shadow as Frodo's head tilted curiously. "Whyever not?"

"Someone's got to keep watch." Even as he said it, it sounded rather the ridiculous excuse, and Frodo was no more convinced than he himself.

"The gravel is loose for fathoms around here. Not even Legolas could come close without our hearing." He splashed the water like a child, bobbing up and down on his toes. "Come, you can soap my back for me."

Sam squirmed awkwardly. There was a part of him, a very particular part, really, that thought this was a very good idea. In fact, that part considered this to be the best idea in recent memory, but things were no longer so simple. "Really, Mr. Frodo..."

"I hadn't meant to say this, Sam, seeing as I suppose I was rather in the same state myself, but now that I'm a bit cleaner, you're something sharp, my friend."

The lightest touch of frustration had crept into Frodo's voice, and Sam was uncertain whether he was still teasing or not. He frowned. "Sharp?"

"You've taken to smelling a bit like old Bolger's pigsty on a ripe summer day."

The accusation surprised Sam, and he pulled out the collar of his shirt, sniffing deeply. He promptly wished he hadn't. Perhaps his nose had grown accustomed to the general presence of the rest of him, but given special attention, he could tell that Frodo was more correct than he would have liked. Months of sweat and campfire smoke and the general dirt of hard travel had formed quite a pungent combination, and he wrinkled his nose. Poor Frodo, putting up with him like this! "Oh dear! I'm sorry, Master, I hadn't meant to!"

Frodo laughed. "Nonsense. You couldn't help it any better than I. But come now, and we can scrape some of the worst of it away."

Sam sighed. There wasn't much for it but to say yes, and at least his other problem was a bit better now. It would come back promptly enough, he knew, but perhaps if he didn't look too much and just concentrated on getting himself clean. "All right then." He stood, feeling his cheeks heat as he shrugged off his coat and began to fumble with the buttons of his weskit. He could feel Frodo's eyes seeming to bore into his back, looking straight through to his very heart, and he rued the idea of looking into that searching, far too intelligent face. He slipped his shirt over his head, but left the trousers, braces hanging low over his thighs.

Keeping his eyes fixed on the ground, he circled around the pool. Thankfully, Frodo did not turn to look at him as he unfastened his trousers and pushed them down, slipping quickly into the water before his Master could turn and see him there, flushed and semi-erect. As Sam entered the pool, the other hobbit did begin to turn, but Sam put one hand lightly on his shoulder, stilling him as his other hand sought the soap and cloth. "Let me see to your back first."

Frodo's skin was as pale as a new moon, brightly gemmed with droplets of water that sparkled in the morning sunlight. Sam nearly gasped at the softness of it under his fingers, gazing with an almost worshipful fascination at the smooth movement of flesh as the muscles beneath first tensed, then soon relaxed under his touch. The cloth glided as easily as the wind, and Sam found himself half-hypnotized by the beautiful details of his Master. The freckles, barely visible, that scattered across the top of his right shoulder. The way the hair at the nape of his neck swirled in an odd little cowlick that never quite lay flat, even sodden as it was. The rise and fall of his shoulders when Frodo breathed. The smell of the soap, clean and strong over the rich, familiar smell of Frodo himself, like the scent of rain over a garden.

Then the cloth dipped beneath the water, and he worked his fingers over Frodo's lower back, biting his lip as he felt the beginning hardness of ribs through the flesh. It pained him to think of Frodo's suffering through all this, plain as the aching thinness of his body, but he would do what little he could to make his Master comfortable again, make him forget everything and just...

Suddenly Frodo was facing him, and it was as though the breath had been snatched from Sam's lungs. The water seemed to have drawn every beautiful feature into perfect clarity: his hair darker now, more the colour of ink than of tea or pipe-weed, his cheeks and lips glowing like a spring sunrise, his eyes catching the blue of the winter sky and putting it to shame with their sweet sparkle. He hardly felt as Frodo took the cloth from his hand. "I'll wash your back now, Sam."

He almost agreed, but then, as if in admonishment, a stray sunbeam caught the ring hanging at Frodo's neck, and it glinted bright, flashing harsh reminder that things had changed. Frodo had changed, become something more, something greater and more terrible than he could honestly comprehend, and his part now was to serve, not to be served. He tried to back away, but the stone edge of their 'bathtub' caught him in the back and he could go no further. "That's not necessary..."

Frodo frowned lightly in confusion, then reached out, dragging his fingernails lightly down Sam's shoulder. It didn't hurt, but even Sam could see the clear trails it left in the grime that coated his skin. "Sam, you're quite caked."

He sighed. There was nothing for it. "If you wish it." He turned, closing his eyes as he resigned himself to the effect Frodo's touch would have on him...but the touch never came.

"Sam?" There was a tone to Frodo's voice that Sam had never heard before, a strange mixture of concern and anger, and he frowned.

"Yes?"

"How heavy is your pack?"

An odd question. How much his pack weighed or didn't was no concern of Mr. Frodo's as long as he carried it as far as was needed and without complaint, and he had done so well enough. Sam shrugged. "It's right enough, Mr. Frodo. I do just fine with it."

"You're lying to me."

"What?!" Sam turned so quickly that he accidentally splashed Frodo a bit, but his Master didn't flinch. There was a cold anger to his eyes that hurt keenly, but beneath that, a bottomless sorrow and love that somehow seemed all the worse.

Gently, ever so gently, Frodo raised his hand, settling it light as a whisper on Sam's shoulder. A smile touched his lips, but it was a smile of no pleasure. "Your shoulders, Sam. Two bruised bands, deep set in the flesh, and rubbed raw besides...here's dried blood on the edges. It's the pack what's done this, and through a sturdy shirt, not to mention your coat and weskit. How much more did you take when we left the Company?"

Sam refused to look, staring resolutely into Frodo's eyes. There was no arguing that the wounds were there, as clear as Frodo spoke them, but there was also something to be said for plain Gamgee stubbornness. "Only such as we'd need."

Frodo shook his head, eyes still fixed on the treasonous marks, fingers no longer quite daring to touch. "Dear, sweet Sam...weren't you ever going to tell me the pack was too heavy?"

He captured Frodo's hovering hand in his own, forcing up a merry, soothing smile. "But it's not, not at all. I don't feel it hurting too much, honest I don't, and there's nothing in there it would be smart to be leaving behind."

"Then I will take some."

Sam shook his head violently at the thought of his Master bent under such a burden. "No!"

"But my pack has room aplenty!"

"You carry too much already!" His hand went to the Ring at Frodo's chest, meaning only to touch it to make his point as to the tiny, hideous extent of the weight Frodo bore, but he never got the chance. His Master's eyes flashed with a sudden, hateful fire, and he gave a sharp cry, pulling back like a wounded animal and clutching both hands to his chest, cupping the Ring as though trying to seal his very heart into his chest. For what seemed like hours but was perhaps heartbeats at most, he crouched frozen there at the opposite side of the pool, eyes gleaming furious suspicion, mouth set in anger as he glared with a bitter accusation that cut into Sam with a pain sharper than any sword.

Then, as quickly as it had come over him, the fury was gone, and Frodo suddenly looked terribly small and afraid, his hands now twitching oddly overtop the Ring but no longer quite daring to touch it. When he spoke, his voice was soft, and Sam could hear a slight trembling to the edges of his words. "I'm sorry, Sam. I don't mean to...it's just..."

Sam waded across the pool, putting one arm gently across his Master's shoulders, but careful to keep as far from the Ring as possible. "It's all right."

"No." Frodo shook his head slowly, and when he looked up, Sam was not entirely surprised to see tears gleaming in the blue eyes. "It's not. And less so every day. It's as though it whispers to me. But not to my ears. Right to somewhere deep in me, like it can slip itself into my thoughts. It says evil things, Sam: hungry, grasping, needy, angry things, and I know they're all lies, but they're so close." Frodo's eyes closed now, and he leaned his head back against Sam's arm as though even that had become a weight to heavy to bear. "So close that sometimes they seem like truths just for the intimacy."

"Hush now." Sam drew his Master close, holding him like a child as he soothed his hands in slow circles over Frodo's back. "Don't think on it." His questing hand found the soap again, and he settled himself back on a small ledge that he had discovered protruding like a seat from the inside wall of the pool. Gently, he brought the unprotesting Frodo to sit on one thigh. "Here. I'll soap your hair for you." Thoughts of improper desire no longer worried him...Frodo had frightened him, and not with fear for himself, and all that mattered now was trying to bring the joy back to those achingly beautiful eyes. He knew it was too late to bring back the innocence.

Frodo said nothing at first as Sam worked the ball of soap over his head, but as Sam's rough, blunt gardener's hands worked it into a thick lather, a soft, wistful smile came over the delicate features. "You have such strong fingers."

Sam chuckled, but he was glad to see that Frodo could still smile, even now. "Weeding, mostly. The old Gaffer has had me pulling up cowslip and dandelions since I could first go crawling about the vegetable patch. Some of those roots go right deep."

The smile vanished, and he felt Frodo grow tense again as he rinsed the soap away. "Almost to your heart."

He stopped, afraid he had done something wrong. "Mr. Frodo?"

But Frodo didn't seem to hear him, lost somewhere in a world of his own as he whispered softly to himself. "Some things, they grow where they don't belong, but they put down roots so deep you don't know if you can ever get them out."

"You can always get them out, Mr. Frodo. You just need to know how." Sam's voice was soft, fearful of saying the wrong thing, but knowing that something needed to be said nonetheless.

"How, Sam?" The question came almost as the very sob of Frodo's heart, and the despair of it plunged deep into Sam. He drew Frodo in tightly, wrapping his arms around him as though he could protect him from his own churning thoughts.

His own words came whispered, choked with tears that would not, could not come. "Mostly by being real gentle, real careful like. Just by taking good care of what needs caring for, the good ones will often push the bad away on their own."

"You make it sound so simple."

"Things often are, when you stop complicating them."

"But not always."

"I reckon not."

Then Frodo had turned in his arms, and his face was buried hot against Sam's shoulder. Grasping fingers hurt the bruised flesh, but he didn't care, and he combed his own hands gentle through Frodo's hair as he felt his Master's shoulders begin to quiver. He felt the words more than heard them as Frodo's lips moved against his skin, the sound barely more than whisper. "It's heavy, Sam. It's so very heavy."

And he couldn't say it was all right, or that it would be over soon, because it wasn't and it might not be, and they both knew it all too well. All he could do was sit there and hold him, hold him naked and trembling even in the warm water of the pool. Hold him and try to give him what safety his own small body could provide through great love. Just hold him. Hold him as he cried, and with him, try to hold some small bit of the burden that was the Ring which so cruelly seemed to own them both.

The End