Teatime by Lbilover

Originally written in 2006 for Marigold's Talechallenge 27. My requirements were that it must be set at teatime and include reference to the four elements: earth, air, fire and water. Although posted in the LOTR gen section, I certainly don't mind if you put a slashy spin on this story!

Sam stretches out his legs toward the hearth, and settles deeper into the comfort of his well-padded armchair. Bag End’s study is quiet and cozy on this late autumn day, and the fire’s warmth feels welcome on the soles of his feet after the hours he has spent out-of-doors working in the garden.

He wriggles his feet, bending them and stretching them in a long-familiar routine; it was one of the healers in Minas Tirith who taught him to work the joints daily to keep them loose, and the skin stretched and supple. But Sam never has regained the full use of them, despite the exercises, and in the cold weather they sometimes ache and swell. Today is one such day, for the ground was hard with frost this morning after a chill night, and it remained cold with a strong wind blowing from the north that prevented the sun from warming the soil.

It strikes Sam as ironic that the very thing that damaged his feet- fire- is the very thing that now helps to ease their pain and stiffness- along with the massages that Rosie gives them at need. No matter how carefully Sam tries to disguise his discomfort, she seems to sense when the pain is at its worst, just as Frodo always did… but then Frodo was the one who instructed Rosie in the caring of them, after all.

The image springs up in an instant, before he can stop it: Frodo’s absorbed expression as he sits cross-legged on their bed in Minas Tirith, one of Sam’s slowly healing feet balanced on his towel-covered thigh while he rubs healing oil into the pink scars and stiff joints with a gentle but thorough touch.

Sam was uncomfortable at first about allowing Frodo tend to him that way, as if he, not Sam, was the servant. But Frodo, stubborn Baggins that he was, gave no heed to his protests, and Sam soon realised that this was a task that not only gave Frodo a sense of purpose, but (strange though it seemed to Sam) it was a labor of love that gave him pleasure, too.

”There now,” Frodo says with satisfaction; he sets Sam’s foot down gently on the coverlet, and smiles at him, eyes shining. “How does that feel, Sam dear? Are you more at ease?”

But letting this old memory escape from its confines in the recesses of his mind has been a mistake. A familiar sensation is creeping over Sam, like evening shadows as the sun retreats behind the Hill. Sorrow, as limitless as the horizon, as deep as the Sea that sighs and murmurs in his heart.

Sam has learnt through bitter experience over the years that there are times it is safe to remember Frodo and the Quest, to remember all the carefree golden years that came before- and the two bittersweet ones that came after. And then there are times it hurts so to remember that he seemingly can’t breathe, as if he is choking once more on noxious fumes from the noisome pits that pockmarked the Gorgoroth Plain, fumes that fouled the air and burned in throat and lungs.

Autumn is the worst time for remembering. The intense cloudless blue of an autumn sky; the changing colours of trees and bushes; the scents of burning leaves and ripe apples: these are too vivid reminders of the day Frodo left Middle-earth forever, and of that long ride home through a world gone dim and grey, as if a thick mist had settled over Sam’s heart and mind. Long months that twilight-grey lingered, and even now can catch him at unawares if he relaxes his guard, as he has just done.

Needing a distraction, Sam reaches for the long-stemmed wooden pipe on the table at his elbow. Slowly and deliberately, he begins the familiar, soothing ritual of filling it with fragrant Longbottom Leaf, tamping down the weed and then leaning forward to light a taper in the fire. As he holds the flame to the pipe’s bowl and begins to draw on the stem with soft puffs of breath, he can hear the sounds of running footsteps and childish giggles outside the study door, and then Rosie’s sweet voice floating down the hall, “Softly now, children, your da is taking a bit of a rest before tea.”

Teatime is a noisy and messy and hectic affair in the Gamgee household, with six young ones (not to mention a seventh soon to put in an appearance) clamouring for their share of the food or their da’s attention or even, if they are lucky, a spot on his lap. Sam’s ‘bit of a rest before tea’, as Rosie always calls it, has become a regular feature of his day. Frodo-lad is shaping up to be a fine gardener, and is already well able to help his father with the weeding and planting. But the bulk of the heavy work still falls to Sam, and, as he knows from long experience, it takes a lot of energy to keep up with a pack of young Gamgees.

Sam smiles to himself as a ragged chorus of ‘Sorry, mam’ rings out, and the footsteps fade as the children take their horseplay to another part of the smial.

Silence falls.

As Sam smokes his pipe, and stares into the heart of the glowing fire, he turns his errant mind to his trip to Michel Delving on the morrow. His plan is to ride into town on Bill, take care of his business as quickly as may be, and if all goes well be home again by suppertime. He doesn’t like to be away overnight, especially with Rosie so near her time. He’ll retire early, and be on the road at first light, Sam decides, and then yawns, as if the very thought of sleep is enough to bring on drowsiness.

The dance of the flickering flames is mesmerising; Sam’s eyelids begin to droop shut, and his head to nod. His chin falls to his chest…

Frodo is leaning back against a rock, his eyes shut; his hands rest limply on the barren grey soil, palms upward. Sam hates to disturb his rest, but it is time to move on. Gollum is lurking, somewhere nearby no doubt, and there is no trusting that stinker, not even for a second. Mt. Doom is a sullen and threatening presence, both too near and too far away for Sam’s liking. The restless mountain belches smoke and fire with loud rumbles that shake the ground and cause them to stumble as they walk. Ash swirls through the air like scorched snow, and everywhere reeks with a foul perfume. They must not tarry in this evil place.

“Frodo,” Sam croaks past his thick tongue and cracked lips, and touches his master gently on the stained leather sleeve of his orc tunic, “Wake up, Mr. Frodo.”

Frodo’s eyes open with painful slowness. They are red-rimmed and bloodshot, enormous in his thin and worn face. They stare at Sam for a long moment without recognition, and then as awareness returns, Frodo says in a thready whisper, “Is it time, Sam?”

Sam nods. How hard it is to summon the energy even for that simple motion. “Aye, Mr. Frodo. But let’s have a bite first before we go on.” He forces the smallest of smiles; it feels as if his face will crack apart, as if every drop of moisture has been leached from his skin leaving it brittle as ice. “I reckon if we was home at Bag End right now, it’d be about teatime. How about a nice cup of tea and a bit of cake?” he says, and takes the half-empty water bottle and a leaf-wrapped wafer of lembas from his pack.

He passes the bottle to Frodo, who raises it to his lips with unsteady hands and takes two small swallows before lowering it. “It’s good,” Frodo says, returning the water to Sam. He cracks a small smile of his own; it is painful to see. “I don’t suppose there’s any milk for the tea?”

“We’re fresh out, Mr. Frodo.” Sam breaks off a morsel of the waybread, and offers it to Frodo. “Eat a piece of this cake now. Baked just this morning, it was.”

Frodo eats it, swallowing with difficulty, so parched are his mouth and throat.

“Here,” Sam says, gently insistent as he places the water bottle at Frodo’s lips, “have another sip of tea to wash it down.”

Frodo’s eyes never leave Sam’s face as he obediently drinks, taking barely enough to wet his mouth before drawing back. And then he says firmly, “Now you, Sam dear. You must have some tea and cake, too.”

It nigh breaks Sam’s heart to see how valiantly Frodo tries to keep up the silly pretense that Sam has started. “All right, sir.” Frodo continues to watch him closely, making certain that Sam does not stint himself, and Sam has no choice but to eat his pretend tea and cake. This time, he cannot leave his own share for his master.

Yet seeing the look of quiet satisfaction in Frodo’s eyes after he finishes, Sam can almost believe that he really has had his tea, instead of lukewarm, bitter-oily water and the lembas that, though wondrous like all things made by the Elves, leaves him craving the homey goodness of plain Shire-food.

He caps the bottle and stows it his pack, and then carefully returns the remainder of the waybread to its leaf wrapping, and stows it, too. He shrugs the straps of the pack over his shoulders, and rises to his feet. “Ready, Mr. Frodo?” he asks, holding out his hand. For answer, Frodo grasps Sam’s hand, and allows Sam to pull him to his feet.

But Frodo does not release Sam’s hand at once; he presses it gently between his own for a long moment. “Sam,” he says, “thank you. It’s getting harder and harder to remember, and soon I fear…” Frodo turns his gaze toward the Mountain, and Sam can see the precise moment that the full weight of the Ring descends upon Frodo, and his master takes up his heavy burden once more: his head bows as if an invisible hand is pressing it downward.

Were there moisture enough in his body to produce tears, Sam might have wept. Instead, he sets his jaw and, ignoring the dry stinging in his eyes, stumbles after Frodo as they resume their slow, tortuous trek across the plain.

A sudden noise jolts Sam awake: a burning log in the fireplace has broken in two with a loud crack and a shower of sparks. Heart pounding with the aftereffects of his vivid dream, he sits up and struggles to remember where he is: no longer in Mordor with Frodo, but safely home, in the study at Bag End. He discovers that his pipe is still clenched in his right hand, but it has gone out. Sam sets the pipe aside, and fumbles in his jacket pocket for a handkerchief. The tears he could not shed in his dream are wet on his cheeks, and he scrubs hard at them with the soft square of white linen, until no telltale trace is left for Rosie’s observant eyes to discover.

She has endured enough on Sam’s behalf in the years since Frodo left.

A soft knock on the door causes Sam to spring almost guiltily to his feet, wincing a little at the pain caused by the sudden movement. A red-gold head peeks around the door. It is not Rosie, as he feared, but his daughter Elanor.

When Elanor sees her father standing by his chair, her lovely face breaks into a wide smile, and she runs to him, holding out her arms. Sam catches her in a warm embrace, hugging her perhaps a bit more tightly than usual. His Elanorellë, his beautiful Elf-fair daughter, and the only one of his children Frodo would ever know. He buries his face in her bright curls, fighting back his emotions, and then, the battle won, releases her. He steps back and smiles down at her. “Is tea ready, my dear?”

“Yes, Sam-dad. Mother sent me to fetch you.” Elanor takes her father by the hand and, with a little skip, leads him to the door. “You must be awfully hungry. I hope Pippin and Merry haven’t eaten all the seed-cakes Mother and I baked.” She looks up at Sam and adds, with all the wisdom of her eleven years, “You know how little boys are.”

“Aye, that I do, Elanorellë,” Sam replies, a twinkle in his eyes, “for I was one once myself, though you might not believe it. Any road, my dearest,” he adds softly, “if Merry and Pippin eat it all, well, a mug of water and a bite of bread will do your old dad just fine.”

Elanor halts in the quiet hallway, and looks up at her father, her face quite serious, for he has read to her from the Red Book the story of his journey through Mordor. “No, Sam-dad dear, it won’t. And Frodo of the Ring would say the same. You deserve more seed-cake than anyone, and you shall have it.” Elanor gives her father a quick, fierce hug. “Now come along, Sam-dad.”

The kitchen is warm and bright, fragrant with the wonderful smells of Rosie’s cooking, when Elanor and Sam enter, hand-in-hand. The younger children run joyfully to greet their father, and Rosie smiles at him from across the table where she is pouring steaming water into a large teapot.

Sam hugs and kisses his children, and Elanor fusses over him, settling him in his seat at the head of the table, and bringing him a plate nearly overflowing with food, including the largest slice of seed-cake he has ever seen. He remembers the look on Frodo’s face in his dream. Were he here now, Sam feels certain it would wear that same expression of quiet satisfaction, but not because Sam’s plate is filled with cake, or his mug with hot tea.

Little Goldilocks totters toward him, plump arms raised. “Da,” she says imperatively. “Up!” Smiling, Sam picks her up and settles her warm weight on his lap. No, it is not the food that would bring a smile to Frodo’s eyes. Sam kisses his daughter’s soft, sweet-scented curls, and holds her close. It is only this.