The story was inspired by the episode of Frasier called ‘Daphne Hates Sherry’, and this memorable exchange between Niles and Daphne:
"Daphne: I mean, I have been keeping myself on the shelf lately. I'm feeling a little like the good China.
Niles: Someone should be eating off you every day."
This and some other quotes from the episode found their way into the story.
In common with most hobbits who enjoyed robust good health, Frodo Baggins resented the rare occasions he was hobbled by some ailment or other. He clung doggedly to the belief that sickness was like an importunate relative hanging on the doorbell: if you ignored it long enough, it would finally give up and go away. It was unfortunate - or perhaps (as events transpired) fortunate - that on the evening of the fifth Birthday since Bilbo’s startling disappearance, Frodo came down with a cold that displayed a tenacity worthy of a Sackville-Baggins.
Sam Gamgee, who considered close and constant observation of the natural wonder that was Frodo Baggins as one of his chief tasks, indeed the chiefest of them all, had noticed the first sign of imminent illness that morning. His employer’s voice had sounded, to Sam’s critical ears, a tad scratchy when he strolled into the kitchen at breakfast with his cousins Merry, Pippin, Folco and Fatty, and gave Sam a cheerful ‘good morning’.
No one else appeared to notice it, but to Sam it was plain as the nose on his face that Frodo was coming down with something.
By the time Sam started serving the Birthday feast, scratchy had turned to hoarse, and when Frodo lifted his wine glass and proposed a toast, ‘To Bilbo’ turned into ‘To Bilbahhhhhh-CHOO!’ and he’d started to cough. It was the sort of deep and congested cough that set Sam’s mind to worrying, though Frodo merely waved his hand in an airy manner when he noticed Sam’s frowning gaze pinned upon him, and said that his wine had gone down the wrong way.
But as the evening wore on, Frodo had seemed more and more miserable, and a pocket handkerchief had come into evidence, tucked discreetly into the linen cuff of his shirtsleeve. When queried by his cousins, however, he stated haughtily that he was ‘perfectly fine, thag you very buch’ as if doing an imitation of Bilbo’s farewell speech at the party. Sam had then quietly taken Mr. Merry aside, and asked if he might not find some way to wrap up the party early so that Frodo could go to bed. Sam knew his master well, and Frodo was a Baggins through and through: stubborn enough to stay up until the wee hours no matter how wretched he was feeling. Merry, who trusted Sam’s judgment in any matter relating to his older cousin, had readily agreed to the suggestion.
A healthy Frodo Baggins, of course, would never for an instant have believed that his absurdly energetic young cousins were suddenly and simultaneously overcome with a degree of weariness so great that they simply couldn’t prop their eyelids open a moment longer but must seek their beds at once. But his ready agreement to their spurious claim and his obvious relief at not having to maintain his façade as the life and soul of the party told their own story.
Next morning, Frodo was a coughing, wheezing, sneezing, snuffling mess. He staggered into the kitchen at his usual hour looking like death warmed over, and Sam wasted no words but marched (or perhaps tenderly propelled would be a more precise description) Frodo straight back to his bed, and sternly ordered him to stay there.
“And I ain’t brooking no nonsense, Mr. Frodo,” Sam said, glaring down at him with his hands on his hips. “I’ll fetch Mr. Merry and Mr. Pippin to sit on your legs if I have to.” Under normal circumstances, Sam would never have dared to speak so boldly to his employer, but these weren’t normal circumstances. To his secret shock, Sam discovered there was undeniable exhilaration to be found in ordering Frodo about, and him actually obeying.
“Tyrah-ah-ah-ahhhhhh-CHOO!” was the best retort Frodo could come up with, before shutting his eyes and subsiding miserably against the pillows.
“Now you stay put, sir, and I’ll run down to Number Three and fetch Daisy. She’ll set you right as a trivet in no time, you’ll see.” Sam spoke bracingly, although in truth he felt rather sick himself - with apprehension. Hobbits had died of colds that had turned to something worse.
“Thank you, Sa-ah-ah-ahhhhhh-CHOO!” Frodo sneezed again, more violently than ever. “Ohhhh,” he moaned. It was an unfortunately evocative sound.
When he returned to the smial an hour later with his sister and a basket filled with sundry dried herbs and bitter tasting decoctions made from ground roots, Frodo’s cousins, in varying states of dress (or undress), were gathered around his sickbed, sipping tea and trying, apparently, to cheer him up with a constant stream of chatter.
Unlike her brother, Daisy never had the least difficulty in speaking boldly to gentlehobbits, especially when she felt the occasion warranted it. “What Mr. Frodo needs is peace and quiet,” she stated, fixing them with a gimlet eye. “Not a tea party.”
Fatty, who had just dunked the corner of a current scone into his tea and was now rather noisily munching upon it, blushed. With surprising meekness, he set his half-eaten scone on the saucer, and tiptoed after the others out of the room.
For three days Frodo felt too miserable to stir from his bed. He slept propped up against a mound of goose down pillows to help ease his congested breathing, and meekly allowed Sam and Daisy to nurse him. It was a measure of his illness that he endured without comment or complaint the vinegar steam baths, mustard plasters, honey-lemon water, willow bark tea and garlic soup that they pressed upon him.
Sam spent as much time with the patient as he could spare from his other duties, torn between anxiety for Frodo’s welfare and other feelings that had absolutely no place in a sickroom but were, alas, inevitable for one in Sam’s advanced condition – for he sometimes thought of his feelings for Frodo as a type of illness, complete with night sweats and aching parts. But if there was a cure for Sam’s illness, he’d yet to discover it. No herb or root could help. The sore truth was that it grew stronger and stronger with time, and nursing Mr. Frodo only inflamed it the more.
If only, he thought despairingly as he sat by his master’s bed that first night, while Daisy took a nap in one of the spare bedrooms, Frodo’s fine white lawn nightshirt wasn’t quite so fine, revealing tantalising hints of hidden treasures where it clung damply to his perspiring body; or quite so prone to sliding off one silken shoulder as he tossed in restless slumber, offering a provocative glimpse of a tight-budded nipple in a flat, pale pink disc.
It was small comfort to Sam (though a considerable help to the grateful Daisy) that the slightest touch of his hand had a decidedly calming effect upon Frodo, for it inevitably led him to wonder, as he pulled the nightshirt gently up into place for the umpteenth time, what other sorts of effects his touch could have, were it applied in a different way and for an altogether different purpose. Further, it led to the burning question of whether or not such effects would be welcomed by their recipient, were Sam bold enough to risk attempting to elicit them.
This burning question had occupied Sam’s mind for many and many a month, and he still had no clear answer. Perhaps he never would. For a mere gardener to aspire to one such as Frodo Baggins… the sheer cheek of it made Sam marvel that the ground hadn’t yet opened and swallowed him up. But there had been times, all the same, when a touch had lingered a trifle overlong, or he’d caught a glimpse of fire in fathomless blue. Such moments were so brief, however, that Sam could never afterward be sure if they had existed at all, or were simply the product of his imagination.
To Sam’s immense relief, Frodo took a decided turn for the better on the fourth day. His coughing subsided, his lungs sounded clear when Daisy (lucky Daisy!) rested her ear on Frodo’s bare chest and listened, and he slept the deep healing sleep of one who was on the road to recovery. That afternoon, Daisy declared the immediate crisis over, and judged it safe to leave Frodo’s cousins in charge of him that night, armed with a list of instructions that Sam wrote down for her.
When the Gamgee siblings arrived at Bag End the following morning, as fine an autumn morning as one could wish (as if, Sam thought, in celebration of his master’s recovery), Merry met them at the front door. In response to Sam’s anxious inquiry about the state of Frodo’s health, the Brandybuck began to laugh.
“Oh, Frodo’s doing quite splendidly, my dear Sam,” Merry assured him, a twinkle in his grey eyes. “He threw a pillow at my head a few minutes ago. Missed by a mile, of course; he’s never had particularly good aim.”
“Threw a pillow at your head? Whyever for?” Sam demanded in astonishment.
“Oh, you’ll see,” replied Merry, grinning.
It appeared that Sam’s threat to have Merry and Pippin sit on Frodo’s legs to keep him in bed had not been far off, although it was Folco and Fatty who were in fact doing the honors, while Pippin stood guard at the door. Frodo was sulking in a very un-Frodo-like fashion, arms crossed on his chest, lower lip pouting.
Sam wanted to kiss him.
“Thank goodness you’re here!” a relieved Pippin exclaimed. “Frodo insists on getting up.”
“I can speak for myself, Pippin,” stated Frodo, nettled. “And I am perfectly we-we-wellaaahhhhhh-CHOO!”
“Oh aye?” Sam said dryly. Frodo scowled and blew his nose.
Sam really did want to kiss him in the worst possible way.
“Well, we’ll leave Frodo in your capable hands, Sam and Daisy,” Merry said in an overly hearty voice. “Besides, it’s past time we were off for our own holes and, um, no longer a burden on cousin Frodo’s hospitality.” There was a chorus of agreement from Pippin, Folco and Fatty. The fact that they had originally intended to remain at Bag End for another few days was conveniently forgotten.
And then, almost before you could say ‘Bob’s your uncle’, Merry, Pippin, Fatty and Folco had bidden their cousin farewell, packed up their belongings and decamped. Clearly, Sam thought uneasily as he watched them troop off down the Hill Lane with almost indecent haste, they knew something he and Daisy did not.
Sam discovered what that something was when he came in from the garden later that afternoon to wash up, and was given an earful by a frazzled-looking Daisy. Frodo had apparently been the worst possible patient, complaining about everything from the taste of the medicine to the hardness of the feather-stuffed mattress to the brightness of the fire that, by turns, either hurt his eyes or didn’t give enough light.
“Why, he even threatened to throw his bowl of chicken broth across the room, if you can believe it. Said he wanted a proper meal, not bland pap. If Mr. Frodo weren’t a full-growed gentlehobbit, I’d turn him over my knee,” Daisy ended flatly, and blew a tousled curl out of one eye.
“He didn’t mean it, Daisy,” Sam offered in a soothing voice, while he tried not to blush at the image that sprang into his brain when Daisy mentioned turning Frodo over her knee; he’d caught a glimpse of Frodo’s bare buttocks on one memorable occasion a few years’ earlier down by the Water, and the image of those flawless creamy globes had haunted his dreams ever since.
“Mayhap not, Sam, but when a hobbit acts all cantankerous-like, the way Mr. Frodo is, I reckon he don’t need my services no more.” She added with obvious relief, “He’s in your hands now.”
Sam wished that everyone would stop saying that, for it didn’t help his distracted state of mind; in his imagination Frodo was already in his hands, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that his hands were already on Frodo, specifically the aforementioned, briefly glimpsed buttocks. Sam could barely pay attention while Daisy reeled off the list of things that still needed doing for Frodo, because none of them involved what he actually wanted to do.
“I daresay it won’t hurt him none to get up for a bit this evening,” she allowed. “Only don’t you go a-letting him overdo it, mind.”
“I won’t,” Sam promised.
“Well, there you are at last, Sam,” Frodo said crossly when Sam, carrying a tray with a bowl of steaming chicken soup, came into the sitting room, where his master, up at last and dressed, was ensconced on the rather lumpy sofa that had been Bilbo’s favourite. “It took you long enou-ou-ou-ouaahhhhhh-CHOOO!” He sneezed into a large white handkerchief with an ornate ‘F’ and ‘B’ embroidered upon it in bright blue. “Ouch,” he complained as he delicately dabbed. “My nose is sore from all this dratted sneezing and blowing.”
Sam had to admit that the appendage in question was rather red, but as his constant study over the years had proven that Frodo Baggins was incapable of appearing unattractive under any conditions whatsoever, he could find no fault. If anything, the reddened tip only intensified the blue of those remarkable eyes.
“I’m sorry to be so long, Mr. Frodo,” he apologised, setting the tray down on the low gate-leg table beside the sofa.
“No,” Frodo said, crumpling his handkerchief in his hand and then tossing it aside. He sounded contrite. “I’m sorry, Sam. I shouldn’t have snapped at you that way. Really, you are far more patient with me than I deserve.” He sighed. “And I’m afraid I was terribly rude to poor Daisy, too. I owe her, I owe you both, an apology. But oh, if only this dratted cold would just go away. It quite spoiled the Birthday Party for me, you know. I couldn’t taste a bite of the marvelous food you prepared.”
“Well, sir, you’re breathing easier now, and I expect this chicken soup will taste a treat.” Sam handed Frodo the bowl and a silver spoon that had miraculously escaped Lobelia Sackville-Baggins’s depredations; he accepted them with visible reluctance.
“More chicken soup?” He dipped his spoon into the bowl in a dispirited manner, although the broth was rich and swimming with succulent pieces of chicken and tender vegetables.
“Now, Mr. Frodo,” Sam replied bracingly, “just you keep in mind what my mam used to say: ‘Chicken soup to warm the insides and a hug to warm the outsides, ‘tis all you need to feel better.’”
“That’s all well and good, Sam, but you’re only providing half the prescription.”
Sam’s heart stuttered and briefly stopped. He actually felt dizzy for a moment.
Frodo took a taste of the soup, slurping it the tiniest bit, and then he froze, suddenly seeming to realise what he had just said.
Slowly he looked up, and the redness of his cheeks could not be entirely explained away by the lingering effects of his cold, or the steam rising from the broth. “I didn’t mean to imply that you should hug me,” he said, appearing uncharacteristically flustered. “I was only joking, of course.”
“Of course, sir. I know that,” Sam repeated steadily, trying not to reveal the depths of his disappointment.
There was a silence. Frodo ate a few more mouthfuls of the soup, studiously avoiding looking at Sam, and then set the bowl down with a sigh. “I can’t eat any more right now. I have no appetite.” He reached instead for a crystal goblet that was half-filled with wine, and took a swallow.
Sam hadn’t noticed the wine before, and frowned a little at the dusty bottle of ’87 vintage Old Winyards that Frodo had opened in Sam’s absence. Spirits weren’t on the list of things that Daisy had told Sam he could offer Frodo to eat or drink. But what could he do? Wrestle the glass away from his employer? Besides, Frodo could hold his liquor like a gentlehobbit, and he rarely overindulged. And perhaps, after the miserable days he’d just spent, he deserved a glass or two of wine.
“Five years, Sam,” Frodo said on a sigh. “It’s been five years since Bilbo left.” He let his head fall against the back of the sofa and stared up at the ceiling. The hollow at the base of his gracefully arched throat was gleaming with perspiration. Absent-mindedly he turned the glass around and around in his fingers, and then heaved another heartfelt sigh. “And what do I have to show for it, I ask you?”
There was, Sam supposed as he tore his eyes away with some difficulty from that patch of glistening pale skin, an answer to Frodo’s question, but he had no idea what it might be.
Frodo sat up and drained his glass in one long gulp and wordlessly held it out to Sam to refill. “It’s all quite, quite depressing,” he observed, and sneezed.
Sam picked up the bottle and carefully poured a small measure of the ruby wine into the goblet. Frodo raised his eyebrows in surprise at Sam’s stinginess, and Sam added two fingers’ breadth more. He didn’t know what to say. Frodo Baggins appeared to have everything a hobbit could desire, after all, and no cause that Sam could see to be depressed.
“Merry said something to me before he left,” Frodo commented abruptly.
“Oh aye, Mr. Frodo?” Whatever it was, it had made a profound impression on his master, Sam thought, his curiosity roused. Maybe it was the lingering effects of the cold, or the wine he had consumed, but Frodo’s blue eyes held a decidedly queer gleam, and no mistake. There was an air almost of recklessness about him.
“Yes. He said that what really ails me isn’t a cold, that I’m being snappish and disagreeable for another reason altogether. He said…” Frodo bit his full bottom lip, stained bright red by the wine he’d drunk, and stopped.
“What did Mr. Merry say?” Sam prodded gently.
Frodo quickly drained his wine glass again, as if in need of fortification. “He said that I’m too rigid and too picky.”
“Begging your pardon, sir, but I’m not quite taking your meaning, or Mr. Merry’s, for that matter.”
“Sex, Sam, he was talking about sex,” Frodo elaborated. “It’s been so long, you see, and Merry says that I’d be much happier if I simply went out and found myself a lover.”
Sam turned alternately hot and cold. Never in his wildest imaginings had he envisioned Frodo saying such things to him, Sam Gamgee.
"All I need is a quick roll in the hay, according to him,” Frodo went on, sounding bitter. “A little slap and tickle would solve all my problems.”
The wine bottle nearly fell from Sam’s suddenly nerveless fingers, and he hastily set it down. His tongue was cloven to the roof of his mouth.
His gaffer might frequently accuse him of talking too much, but at that moment, Sam could not have spoken a word to save his life. Which was all to the good, for if he could have spoken, Eru only knew what might come out. Choose me, sir! seemed likely.
Then Frodo continued, slowly now, “Only, I- I admit he has a point, Sam. I mean, I have been keeping myself on the shelf these past five years. I'm feeling a little like Bilbo’s good china.”
“Someone should be eating off you every day,” burst out Sam, his tongue coming unstuck at the worst possible moment and in the worst possible manner. Oh, please, he silently begged the floorboards, stop threatening. Do it this time. Open up and swallow me whole, this very instant as is.
Alas, the floorboards remained obstinately in place.
A speechless Frodo stared and stared at him. His jaw had dropped open in sheer astonishment. Sam stood before him awkward and miserable, shifting his weight from foot to foot while his cheeks flamed with embarrassment.
“What did you say?” Frodo eventually got out.
“Nothing, sir,” mumbled Sam, avoiding his eyes. “’Twas only a bit of nonsense. I - I’d best go to the kitchen, Mr. Frodo, and start the washing up.”
He began to turn away, when Frodo said softly, “Isn’t it a little early to start the washing up, Sam? You haven’t eaten yet.”
Sam froze, scarce daring to trust that he’d heard aright, and then slowly he faced Frodo again. His pulse leapt. That flame he thought he’d glimpsed once or twice in the past was there in truth now. There was no mistaking it this time, for it burned hungry and hot in the depths of Frodo’s eyes.
“Mr. Frodo…” Sam cleared his hoarse throat as if he were the one recovering from the cold. He must speak, for this was far too important to risk any misunderstanding. “Do you mean- are you saying that you want me to… to…” He gulped, and said in a rush, “To be the one to eat off you?” His voice rose to an embarrassing squeak on the last word.
“Of course I am,” Frodo exclaimed at once, “and I have wanted you to, oh, for such a very, very long time.”
“You have?” I’m asleep, thought Sam. I must be. Nodding off in my soup no doubt, and any second now the Gaffer will give me a clout on the ear and call me a ninnyhammer.
“Oh Sam, why else do you think I’ve kept myself on the shelf all this time?” Frodo asked. “A tumble with just any lad won’t do, not for me, no matter what my cousin might say. I am rigid and I am picky, it’s true. Because it’s you I want, Sam Gamgee. You, and none other.”
“But you never said…” Sam was flabbergasted. Five years? He’d been waiting for Sam for five years? Samwise, you are a ninnyhammer, and you don't need your gaffer to tell you so!
“Well, I am now,” said Frodo firmly. “These past few days while I was sick, I almost wished never to be well again, so that I might always feel your touch in the night. The thought of losing it made me nearly despair, Sam. I simply had to say something, to judge, if I could, if you were even a little interested in me. Merry gave me the opening.”
“And I rushed through it, a-tripping over my own feet in my haste,” Sam joked, almost light-headed with joy. “You ain’t the only one who nearly despaired, Frodo, though I’d not have you unwell, no, not even for the chance to touch you like I’ve dreamed of doing.”
“Then might I have that hug now, to complete my cure?” Frodo opened his arms, and Sam flew to them like a swallow to roost in the safety of its nest at eventide, kneeling before Frodo and sliding his arms around him.
They held each other in blissful silence, and then Sam sat back at last, hands resting lightly on Frodo’s knees, and said hesitantly, “Daisy warned me not to let you overdo it.” He touched Frodo’s soft cheek, finer by far than the finest porcelain dish in the cupboard. “I don’t never want to do nothing to harm you.”
“Daisy is a dear lass, but you mustn’t believe everything she says,” Frodo pointed out. “I’m perfectly well again, not a sneeze in sight. Your mam was right, Sam dear, though I expect the cure has more to do with your hug than the chicken soup.” The blue flame in his eyes burned suddenly hotter as he drew Sam up beside him on the sofa, and pushed him back against the cushions. “And besides,” he said as he bent to capture Sam’s lips, “this good china can stand up to a little rough handling.”