Hal and Daisy had stayed a half-dozen more days after Frodo’s birthday, in order to spend some time with the newlyweds before returning to Deephallow. Seeing Lily’s sister and her husband leave had been difficult, though Frodo admitted to himself it had been even more difficult to part from Pearl, for both of them. But now they were settling comfortably into an easy routine.
A sense of deep satisfaction filled Frodo as he and Lily walked home from Will and Bell’s, after tea. Lily’s hand was tucked in the crook of his arm, comfortable and secure. As they strolled through Hobbiton, they were greeted by everyone they passed. The warmth was genuine, and Frodo knew it was first for Lily, then for him. In the eyes of the inhabitants, she somehow made him more respectable, and less peculiar. How did a lass accomplish such things?
Though she was several inches shorter than himself, she walked with the appearance that they were of equal height, her head up, her shoulders back, then he realized: She was proud to be with him, and his throat closed on some deep emotion he could not name.
She slowed their pace, turning her gaze to him, then stopped. And Frodo knew Lily sensed what he was feeling. He met her searching eyes, and smiled tremulously, his heart more full than ever he had known, and fuller yet because she knew. Wonder filled him further yet, for though she had not moved, he felt her gentle and affectionate kiss. His breath caught, and her smile embraced him to her heart.
Though he was careful not to show it, Frodo was startled out of his reverie by the boisterous greetings of Belladonna Proudfoot, Bell’s mother, and her crony, Dalfinia Bracegirdle. Frodo was certain he gave an appropriate reply but could not remember what he actually said; he was still lost in his wife’s unspoken adoration.
He watched in bemused admiration as Lily chattered excitedly of the tea they had just enjoyed, praising Bell’s skill at providing a delicious and generous repast, and the lass’s beautifully kept home. Mrs. Proudfoot fairly preened with pleasure.
Without needing to utter another word but for farewell, the conversation was concluded, and the matronly pair moved along on their way, stopping to gaze into Tom Wheatwell’s bakery window. Lily started them toward home, only to stop again in front of the post office.
“It looks to be crowded this afternoon, Frodo-love. If you’ll wait for me here, I’ll only be a moment. I want to post this letter to Daisy.”
Frodo drew his brows together. “You’ve carried that in your pocket the whole afternoon?”
Lily nodded, brushing a dark tendril back behind her husband’s ear. The breeze was freshening, she noted.
“Sweet, we could have posted it on the way to tea.”
Lily raised a brow. “Indeed?”
Frodo’s face grew more quizzical.
A smile quirked at the corner of Lily’s mouth. “We barely made it on time to tea, Mister Baggins. We really must plan our... distractions, with greater care.”
Frodo blushed, and grinned. “I’ll wait for you, dearest.”
Lily slipped into the post office, and Frodo shivered with a slight chill at the loss of her presence. The sound of his name caught his ear, then he realized he was not meant to hear. Though he endeavored to close out the sound, he could not. There was no possible way Belladonna Proudfoot and Dalfinia Bracegirdle could know he overheard their conversation.
“So, Bella,” Dalfinia hissed, “Tell me, what juicy gossip does Bell have about our notorious Mr. Baggins?”
“What are you saying, Dalfi? Master Frodo is a right good sort, just reserved, that’s all. My Bell says he’s as fine a gentlehobbit as one could hope for.” Bella chuckled. “Though not as fine as her Will, o’ course.”
“But what about the smial he had built, for that Samwise Gamgee?”
“Oh, that! My Bell was telling me that Meriadoc Brandybuck and Peregrin Took explained it to her.”
“You mean the Thain’s son and his friend from Buckland? They are fine dashing lads, in their uniforms and all.”
“The same. Master Frodo’s cousins, they are. They said that among Men it’s common practice to reward valiant service with titles and property. We don’t have titles here, so it was right and proper for Master Frodo to bestow property. Bell says that Master Samwise served Master Frodo valiantly indeed.”
“What did he do?” Dalfinia could not hide the awed curiosity in her voice.
“Bell says he saved Master Frodo’s life. Several times.”
“Did he? That sure and certain would call for a reward of some sort. And seeing how as Master Frodo associates with sundry folk, from who knows where, I suppose it could only be expected he might pick up some of their ways, whether they’re strange or no.”
“Indeed. And his new mistress is as fine a lass as you’d hope to meet. Bell thinks very highly of her.”
Dalfinia snorted. “And of course it has nothing to do with her being the sister of her husband.”
Bella harrumphed. “Of course that is part of it, but certainly not the main of it, Dalfi. Your sister married an odd sort, and I don’t ever hear you singing his praises.”
“Well...” Dalfinia pointed to the center cake displayed in the window. “What do you think of that cake there? Have you had it before?”
Bella laughed. “It’s a fine cake. You’ve had it. At my Bell’s wedding.”
“Oh. Yes. I think I remember, now. It was quite delicious, though not as good as your honey-spice cake.”
The pair wandered on.
Frodo finally allowed the grin he had held back to spread across his face. He glanced surreptitiously over his shoulder. The ladyhobbits were turning the corner out of sight. He shook his head, his grin broadening, then he turned to gaze over the Water to the Hill.
A sigh escaped him, then he staggered backward at the force of a warm body slamming into his legs. He reached down and scooped up the stunned child, who promptly wrapped his little legs around Frodo’s middle.
“Young Tadpole, is that you?”
Tear-filled brown eyes stared into blue. “Mist-t-ter B-B-Baggins, sir! I’m sorry! I am! I weren’t lookin’!” The eyes turned suspicious. “How’d you know my name?”
Frodo gave him an assessing glance. “You are the Tadpole Longburrow, are you not? Youngest grandchild of Mistress Longburrow? The healer of Bag End.”
“Yes... no...” He wailed, “Not any more!” Tears pooled almost to overflowing in the large eyes, then one spilled down his ruddy cheek.
“What’s happened?” Frodo allowed his concern to show in his eyes and voice.
“My sister!” The lad laid his head on Frodo’s shoulder and sobbed.
Frodo blinked in surprise, then patted the lad’s back until the storm of tears passed.
The little hobbit then lifted his head and coughed. At Frodo’s involuntarily scrunched face, the lad clapped his hand over his mouth.
“Me mum’d kill me if she knew I...” Then he gasped, “Me gammer’ll kill me worse! You’ll not tell ‘em, will you Mister Baggins?”
Frodo struggled not to smile at the wild-eyed worry etched across the lad’s face.
“I’ll not tell, Tadpole. Now, what is this about your sister? Which one and what has she done?”
“She was born! That’s what!”
Frodo drew his brows together. “Yes, but that was some years ago, so why are you in a snit now?”
“Not Ruby!” The little chin quivered. “Petunia!” And a fresh batch of tears cascaded down the red face.
“Petunia? Which one is Petunia? I don’t remember--”
“Of course you don’t!” the child interrupted. “She was just born, yesterday!”
“It seems to me she hasn’t been around long enough to cause much trouble. What has she done?”
A pouting lower lip trembled. Then the lad choked out, “Everyone’s paying attention to her! No one even knows I’m there! So I left.”
Frodo raised his brows at this new revelation. “That must be very difficult to be a big brother all of a sudden, when you’ve been a little brother for, what, five years?”
At the sober nod, Frodo continued with an added touch of drama to his voice, hoping to ease the child’s doldrums. “I imagine your sister, Ruby, being as she’s just older than you, by three years, must have felt very much the same way you do when you were born.”
The tears stopped abruptly, and Tad covered his mouth before coughing. Then he swallowed hard. “Do you think so?”
“Indeed. I suppose your parents stopped loving her because you were born?”
“Don’t be daft!” The little hobbit clapped his hand over his mouth again. “I’m so sorry, Mister Baggins. Really and truly.”
Frodo hid a smile. He had heard the inflection of his healer, the lad’s grandmother, in that first declaration. Then he shook his head. “You’re not yourself, young Tadpole. Now, you have a new responsibility, and you mustn’t run away from your responsibilities.”
The lad’s eyes grew wide and round. “What res-res-responbilty do I have?”
“Why, Tadpole, you are now a big brother! You must help your mum and dad with little Petunia, and love Petunia, so she grows up knowing she is worth more...” Frodo let it hang, and eyed the young hobbit.
The lad screwed up his face. “Worth more than all the petunias in our garden...” When he saw in Frodo’s face it wasn’t enough, he offered, “More than all the petunias in all the Shire, all the world!”
Frodo smiled. “You must show her, every day. It’s a terribly big job. Do you think you’re up to it?”
Tad squared his shoulders. “Yes, sir. I’m a big brother, you know.”
Frodo set the child on his feet again. “Off you go, then. And give your parents my best, and your sister my congratulations on having such a loving and protective big brother.”
The child beamed, then dashed back toward home.
A broad smile spread across Frodo’s face, and he sighed contentedly. He returned his gaze toward Bag End. Someday, would his children worry about losing their father’s or their mother’s love? He hoped he could ease their fears as easily.
Pleasure shot through him as his wife stepped close to him, and took his arm possessively.
“What was that all about?” Lily smiled up into her husband’s eyes, and her heart fluttered.
Lily giggled. “How is Tadpole doing?”
Frodo glanced down at his wife, drawing his brows together. “How did you know his name was Tadpole?”
“You told me about him last May. Remember? He was sitting on the bank of the Water, with his mum holding a rope tied about his waist. You said that last year he’d been found in the shallows counting tadpoles, and maintained a careful vigilance until all were either grown or disappeared, by less than savory means.”
Lily wrinkled her nose, and Frodo laughed. “From what I understand, Sweet, he kept a careful count again this year.”
“Did he? There must be Brandybuck in there somewhere.” Lily threw Frodo a sly grin.
A warm and merry laugh escaped Frodo, and his eyes twinkled. “Let’s go home, Lily-sweet.” He turned them onto the road.
Lily stepped in with him easily, and followed her husband’s gaze across the Party Field to Bag End. “It’s so beautiful, love.”
Frodo covered her hand on his arm with his own. “Yes, and more so because you share it with me.”
Lily tightened her hold on her husband, and leaned her head briefly against his shoulder. She whispered, “I love you, Frodo Baggins.”
“And I you, sweet Lily.”
When they strolled up the lane to the Hill, Lily noticed how Garden Hill was becoming more prominent than Bag End. The eye-catching rounded door was painted a cheerful yellow that reminded Lily of the Sun. The gardens surrounding the smial were a riot of colour, whereas Bag End was more subdued, by Frodo’s choice and hers. And as Garden Hill was drawing more attention, so was the couple living within. It pleased Lily that Sam and Rosie were quickly settling into their new roles in the community. It also meant that she and Frodo were better able to enjoy the retiring way of life they both preferred.
As he opened the round, green door, Frodo wondered aloud, “Are Sam and Rosie having dinner here, or are we going to Garden Hill?”
Lily stepped into the smial and glanced back at her husband. “We have the evening to ourselves.” Frodo helped her off with her cloak. “Sam and Rosie were invited to the Cotton’s as Marigold and young Tom are visiting.”
Frodo chuckled and gathered his wife into his arms.
Dinner and supper had been simple. Now as they prepared for bed, Lily realized that Frodo had been growing progressively more quiet all evening, but she did not fret. Something niggled at him; she could sense it. But she trusted he would tell her, when he was ready.
The nights were growing colder, and Lily sat on the rug in front of the bedroom fire. Frodo sat in a chair behind her, absently brushing her hair.
“Sweet,” he hesitated, “an... an anniversary is approaching...”
Lily heard the tinge of concern in Frodo’s voice.
He continued, “Do you think I’ll become ill, again?” He hurried on. “I know that I have been healed, and yet there is some part of me... perhaps it is only habit... but I cannot help but wonder if some little bit is left...”
Lily carefully considered her words, then she slowly turned until she was kneeling and only inches from her husband’s shadowed face. She reached out her hand, and gently smoothed the furrowed brow. A tender smile touched her mouth, and she searched worried blue eyes.
“I see no darkness at all, my love, nor do I feel any. There is only light, and love -- and,” she gave him a teasing smile, “a little fretting.”
Frodo smiled sheepishly. He looked down at the brush in his hand, then up into his wife’s eyes. His heart skipped in his chest and started to pound.
Lily knew what was coming next. She had been deliberate in placing herself so close to him.
Frodo found himself captured by his wife’s eyes. Only a week ago, he had discovered the immense pleasure of watching his beloved’s eyes change colours; how grateful he was she allowed it. The first time it happened, they had been talking about some detail in the story Frodo was endeavoring to remember. Quite unexpectedly, he had suddenly noticed how blue her eyes were, with hardly any green at all. He could not resist; he cupped her cheek and brushed his thumb across her lips. She had closed her eyes and kissed his thumb.
“Open your eyes, Lily-sweet, please,” he had asked her.
She had opened them and gazed into his own.
He noticed the serious blue of her eyes was now tinged with the faintest hints of green. Then he gently pushed his hand deeper into her curls. “Please look at me,” he had murmured. “I want to see your eyes, beloved.”
His lover had struggled to do as she was asked, he knew.
Frodo had searched her eyes as he gradually slid his hand from her hair down her neck to her shoulder, gradually pushing her chemise aside. He felt her breathing quicken, then he heard it, and her eyes shifted from more blue to more green. He eased the chemise from her shoulder, and her eyes turned a deeper green. His own breath caught. He never imagined he might experience so much pleasure seeing her response to his touch reflected wholly in her eyes. Now he understood what Lily meant, when she told him once that she enjoyed simply watching him.
Since then, there had been several opportunities for him to explore this facet of his wife, and he appreciated that she allowed it, once she understood what he sought.
Now, she was offering that gift. Some part of him suspected she was distracting him, but he cared not at all.
Frodo gently cradled Lily in his arms, warm and content. Already she had slipped into sated sleep. He rubbed his cheek against her hair, and reveled in the sigh he heard and felt as the air brushed across his chest. Lily nestled closer.
Carefully, he explored his thoughts. Last year -- was it only a year ago? Awe and wonder filled him. This day last year, they were preparing to leave the Quest finally behind them, to leave Rivendell for home. His first inkling that things were badly amiss was before they even reached the Ford of Bruinen, and his shoulder ached. But then, he had not known Lily was waiting for him.
Now, his life was new, and Lily ensured every day was as their niwealdor, sweet and generous and filled with peace and a joy he never imagined possible. What had led him here, to this bright moment from such darkness?
Lily. Sweet Lily. His desire for her had finally eclipsed his want for the Ring. Such different things each had promised. The Ring had attempted to drown his every last thought with promises beyond his wildest imaging, if only he would claim It for his own. But Lily promised only love, with all its imperfections. He remembered the darkness once mocking him for the smallness of the offering. She offered only the heart of one tiny lass; what was that to what the Ring had offered?
Frodo gathered up the dark insinuations and banished them from his heart and mind. He allowed himself to be filled by the brightness of his beloved. A smile touched his lips. The Ring had never offered the exquisite oblivion Lily gave him, but then, how could it? What did It understand of love and surrender? Nothing.