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by CRB and Ladyhawk Baggins

20 December 1419sr The eve of Yule continuing...

Sam and Rosie arrived at Bag End first. She was carrying a basket full of delicacies made for the party. As Frodo welcomed them in, Rosie told him what he had waited all day to hear.

“Will and Bell -- ” she began; but Frodo could wait no longer.

“And Lily...?” he asked. He was so undone he did not remember to apologize for interrupting.

“Yes,” Rosie laughed, “and Lily -- are right behind us; see, they’re coming up the Row now.”

“Thank you, Rosie. Please, make yourselves at home,” he replied; but his eyes were already on the path beyond her.

Sam smiled at Frodo as he passed, and patted his shoulder.

“Can I get you anything, Mr. Frodo?” he asked, knowing exactly how his master would respond.

“What? Oh, Sam, I’m sorry... what did you say?”

“Nothing at all, Mr. Frodo.” Sam bit his lip to keep from smiling too broadly.

Indeed, there they were, Will walking along with a lass on each arm; Bell on one and Lily on the other...

Frodo tried to quell his heart, which was already in his throat. They came up the front steps, and Will showed the ladies in first. Lily passed in front of him, so close he had to remember to breathe. Honeysuckle... he was lost for a moment; all thought fled, but of her. She did not meet his eyes until after they were all inside. He sensed her nervousness and wondered if she felt his as well; was it for the same reason? It was dangerous to hope for so much.

He felt sure he must have welcomed Will and Bell, but could not remember doing so. Blessedly, Rosie and Sam took the pair into the greatroom for cider until more guests arrived.

Finally, their eyes met. He gently kissed the back of her hand, completely unable to take his eyes from hers. She blushed, but did not look away. They had yet to say a word to each other.

It seemed to Lily that her heart came back to life in this moment with him. Frodo has no idea, none, she thought, of the magic held in those beautiful eyes, that gentle smile. She felt her hand begin to tremble within his.

Moments passed, and she shifted the basket in her other hand, breaking the spell.

Try as he might to control it, Frodo’s voice was husky. “Hullo, Lily. Welcome to Bag End.”

Lily smiled and only glanced once round the entry, reluctant to look away from Frodo’s eyes. In that moment, he saw the basket, and eased it from her hand. An old memory stirred within him; his mind reached for it, but it slipped away and was lost.

“Thank you,” she replied, still smiling. It was a knowing smile, but Frodo missed the nuance. He could only take in one sense at a time, it seemed, and at this moment he was listening to the sound of her voice. To his relief, it was the same. She had not changed. Finally, he smiled back at her.

It was difficult to remember he had other guests.

He escorted Lily into the greatroom and relieved Rosie of her basket as well, taking them both to the kitchen to add to a table already covered with a variety of foods. Frodo had to admit that what Rosie and Lily brought appeared more appetizing than anything he’d ordered in. Between the two of them, they had provided the makings of a complete meal, and a delectable one at that. For a moment, lifting the warming-cloths from the baskets and smelling the creations within, he was actually hungry. Well, we shan’t be running out of anything to eat, he thought, and smiled to himself at their generosity.

He heard the knock on the door and his smile broadened as Sam opened it to Merry, Pippin, and Fatty.

Frodo arrived back in the greatroom at the same time as his new guests. He first introduced Will and Bell, and then Lily, to his old friends.

Fatty, shy as ever, quickly moved to talk to Sam after the introductions.

Pippin watched Lily for a moment, then remembered her -- she was hard to forget -- from the Battle last month as the lass who fell asleep in Frodo’s arms. He also recalled that Frodo said some extraordinary things at the time.

“How do you do?” Pippin said, bowing. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Lily.” She allowed Pippin to take her hand and kiss it as they exchanged greetings.

Merry hung back, trying to place her.

Frodo started to make the final introductions. “Lily Burrows, may I present Meriadoc Brandybuck...” Lily gave a small curtsey.

“Merry,” Frodo continued, but Merry stopped him, looking intently at Lily.

“Frodo, you don’t need to introduce me to this lovely lass. We’ve met before.”

Frodo’s confusion was clear to see as his brows drew together. Lily paled slightly, and fought to maintain her composure.

Merry continued. “At the Bywater Fair. Pip was with me! How many years has it been -- eleven or twelve?”

“Twelve,” Lily replied carefully.

Merry laughed. “Yes, it was twelve. Frodo! Don’t you remember? You ran into the poor lass! We had to beg for an introduction. You are as lovely as ever, Miss Lily.”

Lily blushed.

Frodo searched his memories of all the Bywater fairs he attended, but came up with nothing about Lily...

“Lily, why didn’t you mention we met at the Bywater Fair?” Frodo’s tone was puzzled rather than accusatory.

Lily laughed, a little nervously. “I did wonder if you would remember, but it seemed you did not, and then everything happened... It was so long ago. I thought perhaps it did not matter.”

While Frodo tried once again to remember anything at all about meeting Lily before the Quest, Pippin noticed the discomfort on Lily’s face.

“You’re right.” Pippin affirmed. “It was a long time ago, and a lot did happen when we returned home. It’s a wonder any of us remembered one moment to the next. Besides, Frodo doesn’t remember what he ate for second breakfast yesterday. Now, I don’t know about the rest of you, but the trip was long and cold and I could do with something to eat.” He looked around hopefully, and everyone laughed.

Frodo seemed to let the whole incident pass; Lily was relieved. He welcomed his guests and invited them into the kitchen.

Merry stepped forward to escort Lily but found Pippin dutifully at his side, taking the proffered arm, an innocent grin on his face. Frodo was left alone to escort Lily. She took his arm, and he placed his hand over hers. They softly blushed as their breath caught; a shy smile passed between them. They were last into the kitchen.

Since it was a tea, and not dinner or supper, they could fill their plates and return to the comfort of the greatroom. Frodo had decided upon this arrangement so as not to be trapped at the head of the table, away from Lily. Etiquette dictated that two of those present should be his honoured guests and therefore seated on his left and right. He didn’t want to choose, in any event, and he also knew his friends wouldn’t stand for the formality. They, like he, preferred to gather round a warm fire to chat and sing -- he could also be near her more unobtrusively...

The kitchen table was spread with a veritable feast: breads and cheeses and meats, butter and honey and marmalade, biscuits and cakes, tarts, mince pies from Rosie’s kitchen, and sweet corn loaves from Lily’s, among other things they had brought. There was plenty of tea, cider and sweet mulled wine, including mulled cider Pippin brought for the occasion. Sam had taken it when Pippin arrived; it was being heated at the hearth fire.

Frodo wanted his cousins and friends to feel welcomed and at home again. But you do not feel welcome yourself... you only wish you did. Suddenly he felt the darkness swirling up to engulf him. Not now, he begged; not now. Before his guests arrived, he had offered a prayer that the afternoon would be spent pleasantly, with the darkness at least kept at bay, if not banned. How he wished for the latter!

He closed his eyes for a moment, praying again.

“Frodo?” Lily whispered. She felt the struggle within him.

He opened his eyes after another moment, and she could barely hear his reply.

“Yes?” He saw her concern. “It -- it is nothing. But thank you, Lily.”

Frodo wondered how she felt, as his own torment faded. He could not question her, with everyone present. He would ask later.

It was time for a speech. They were expectant; this is what Bilbo used to do at his parties. Merry, Pippin and Sam knew the main difference now would be the length of the speech: Bilbo’s were always too long...

Frodo searched his memory for his carefully rehearsed welcome. At any other time, he would have been quite capable of saying something appropriate on the spot; but today was not like any other time; she was here, and he knew his thoughts would be scattered at best. He was happy now for the preparation, and looked each guest in the eye as he spoke.

“My dear friends, thank you for coming to celebrate the start of Yule and the restoration of Bag End. I find great joy in this homecoming, and now it is completed with your presence. Please, help yourselves to whatever you like, and wander as you please; my home is yours.”

Lily still stood next to him, her arm on his. Frodo found his eyes locked with hers as he spoke the last words. In his heart, he added ‘How I wish it were so.’ Her eyes widened in recognition, and Frodo immediately looked away, realizing that perhaps he had revealed much more than he should have.

If anyone had any doubts about the feelings of the master of the house for one of his guests, those doubts were wiped away.

Pippin interceded yet again. “Ladies first, and please do hurry, or I shall waste away as we stand here.” The little group burst into laughter and bantering chat.

As Bell, Rose, and Lily began to fill their plates, Merry spoke to Pippin under his breath.

“So that’s why I ended up with you at my elbow instead of her. Why didn’t you warn me he felt that way about her?”

“I didn’t know she’d be here, or I would have.”

Frodo was the last to fill his plate and return to the greatroom.

As one comfortable and familiar with Bag End, Rosie had suggested that Lily take the settee adjacent the hearth, and sat down with her. They chatted as the others gradually filled in the comfortable semicircle of chairs facing the fireplace.

Sam watched his Rosie, and wished she’d saved the settee for them. She smiled at him and winked when no one was looking. He wondered what she was up to.

Frodo finally rejoined the group, and Rosie stood up, addressing him quietly.

“Why don’t you take this seat, Frodo? I’ve just thought of something I’ve been meaning to ask Samwise about. Look; he’s even saved me a chair.” She beamed at Sam, and then went and sat down next to him.

Frodo felt suddenly uncertain as he approached Lily. Should he be so close to her? Would she be all right or would she become ill? Softly, he asked, “May I?”

Lily smiled shyly and nodded her head, but her thoughts were racing in time with her heart. If only you knew how I’ve counted the days, Frodo! Even the hours...! She tried to appear calm as he sat down beside her; her hand was trembling a little as she took a sip of hot mulled wine. Frodo said nothing at first, wishing only to be able to look at her in peace.

From across the room, Sam noted how well the two looked together.

“Rosie,” Sam asked, “what do you call that colour Mr. Frodo has on?”

“Midnight blue is what they call it. See how it nearly looks black, but isn’t?”

“Like midnight,” Sam replied, and kissed her cheek.

“Samwise!” Rose protested; but she smiled as she blushed.

Sam grinned at her. “And see Miss Lily, all in that particular shade of grey, like smoke?” He paused, and his voice became wistful. “Seeing them together, they remind me a little of the Elves.”

He also saw Arwen’s gift, the white gem, hanging at Frodo’s throat, just at the opened collar. Frodo was fingering it absently as he spoke to Lily.

“They’re deep into talk now, and no mistake,” Sam continued to Rosie.

Rose agreed with him as she watched Frodo and Lily from her vantage point across the room, their eyes meeting, then drifting apart again, talking quietly all the while.

Frodo had so much he wanted to say to Lily but could not; he felt a bit foolish when all he could seem to get out were a few simple questions about her life at Deephallow, all the answers to which he already knew, thanks to Will.

Neither of them had very much of an appetite, although almost every other hobbit was on second helpings by this time.

"Frodo, have you tried the scones?" Lily asked. She knew that by now, Frodo’s other guests might be feeling just a touch neglected by their host. Part of her felt a bit badly about this, but another part of her felt she was the most fortunate hobbit in Middle-earth. The weeks apart from him had been long, far too long -- even the joyful time spent with Daisy, Hal, and little Pearl could not completely erase the misery she had felt at being parted from him. She felt returned to life, more alive; it did not surprise her. She also felt the beginnings of uneasiness, and knew she was too close to him. She was determined to hide it from him for as long as she could.

"Scones?" Frodo repeated, blinking at her. He had been in something of a trance, trying to take in each moment with her and hold it. After today, how long would it be until they could see each other again? And should they even try? He was determined to watch her for signs of any illness she might be feeling. He was suffused with joy at simply being this close to her; but that very closeness... I have prayed so much, he thought. Surely the Creator will take pity on us both --

“Yes,” Lily stifled a giggle. “Scones. I shall get you one.” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “Did you want to see to your other guests?”

Lily smiled as she saw Frodo come out of the little dream he had been in, knowing it was for her. He had not forgotten her at all in their long separation -- far from it; he seemed more interested than ever. He had missed her! Her own dreams seemed gradually to be coming true, but they were for naught if Frodo had even the slightest doubts --

“Oh -- my. Yes,” he replied, matching her whisper. “Thank you, Lily. I should indeed! I shall be back as soon as I may.” He smiled at her as he got up.

She watched him speak to each guest in turn. When she saw Frodo leave the greatroom with Will and Bell to see the rest of the smial, she took a deep breath, to clear her head. It had not been too difficult to hide her discomfort thus far. She did not know how long that might last. When they came back into the greatroom a little while later, she fetched a glass of cider, forgetting the promised scone, and returned to her seat.

Frodo returned but did not sit down. He almost reached his hand out to help her up, before remembering they were not alone. He smiled as their eyes met.

“Lily, I’ve been remiss! You haven’t seen the rest of Bag End! Please, may I show it to you? Everyone else here is quite familiar with it, and Will and Bell just took a look around with me... not that Will needed it! I believe he’d know Bag End with his eyes closed, with all the work he’s done here.”

“I would enjoy that very much indeed!” The thought of being away from everyone here, alone with him even for a few moments... she looked away, composing herself and trying to mask her feelings. She wondered how obvious she must look -- how both of them must look -- to the other guests. Part of her did not care. She accepted his proffered hand; anyone could see it was a formality now. They would realize he was going to show her round Bag End as well.

He offered her his arm once more; they went past the greatroom fireplace and then through the kitchen, and he showed her to the long hallway. It was bigger than any smial she had ever seen, although not bigger than her father’s house. But it was not by any stretch of the imagination a typical hobbit-hole.

Frodo showed her several guest rooms, praising her brother’s talent as a carpenter as well as his hard work.

They came to the master bedroom. Some slight etiquette for the sake of propriety was no doubt called for now, but Lily was not really sure of exactly what that would be. She had never been alone in or near any bedroom with any hobbit other than family; perhaps Frodo knew the proper decorum...

He took one step inside the doorway with her, then stopped.

She had never seen such a large bedroom.

“Frodo, it is so beautiful! Look at the carving on the bedposts! And on the wardrobe!” She wanted to touch the carvings; he released her arm and stayed behind, not taking another step.

With childlike wonder, she delighted in the carved designs and the dark forest green of the bedclothes. Frodo closed his eyes. Perhaps this was ill-advised, he thought. This feeling -- Gandalf says it is love; I cannot! -- it is so strong! The darkness began a furtive path toward his heart; just in time, her voice shook him free of it.

“The ceiling!” she exclaimed in amazement. “I have never seen anything like it! How -- ?” She turned to face him, then looked up once again at the painted leaves.

Frodo blushed. “The design is from the Elves at Lothlórien -- the Golden Wood,” he said. “I remembered some of the patterns. I could never have painted them myself. I found an artisan for that. It is lovely, isn’t it...” He did not tell her of all the times he counted the leaf-tips to keep from thinking of her.

Lily returned to him, and they stood together in the doorway. She wanted to tell him about the Bywater Fair; how he had tried to tell her about Elves all those years ago... but not here. She looked up into his eyes, and they both had to look away.

“I suppose it’s best we get back,” he said. He did not try to hide the resignation in his voice. “How do you feel, Lily?”

He was looking at her with such concern, just as on that cold night six weeks ago when he found her in tears. But now there was so much more in his eyes...

“I -- I feel fine.” It was nearly impossible to lie to him. “I feel almost fine.” She smiled, half-heartedly.

“Let’s go back to the greatroom and have that scone you mentioned. Then I think it best we not sit together for a while... I am sorry, Lily. It won’t do for you to feel badly, ever, but especially not at a party, when you should be enjoying yourself.”

“If you are not near, I will not be enjoying myself, Frodo. Surely you know that... oh! Forgive me...” Lily lowered her eyes and blushed.

His heart was again in his throat, and he became aware that he was very close to taking her in his arms, here, in Bag End. He wanted to kiss her, but how to start? -- he was frightened, and excited, all at once. Perhaps a kiss on her cheek. No, I cannot. Not here. Not now.

So that she would understand he was not upset by what she said, he offered his arm again, and smiled as best he could. He was aware his breathing was coming a bit faster.

“It’s all right, Lily. Believe me, there is nothing to forgive. I would have said it myself, had I more courage... I think we should go back...”

She sighed and nodded, taking his arm. Her hand was shaking. They gradually made their way back, stopping to glance in the dining room.

Conversation stopped for just a moment in the greatroom when they entered, arm in arm, with all eyes upon them. It was an odd moment; Frodo sensed Lily’s discomfort and spoke to her under his breath. He released her arm and she made for the Yule table, still laden with more than enough food and drink than even a score of hungry hobbits could have eaten. Lily gathered two scones on a plate, and kept her eyes on what she was doing. She could only see Frodo out of the corner of her eye. He had gone to stand in the midst of his guests. He smiled.

"What have I missed?"

This broke the silence, and he was rewarded with hearty laughter; the conversations resumed. He went to the table and ladled out a tankard of hot mulled cider for himself; he was far enough away from Lily that they would not appear to be meeting again.

He took sips of the cider as he made the rounds of his guests. He stopped when he reached Merry, who along with Fatty was deep in conversation with Will. Frodo waited patiently for a break in their talk.

At last Merry stopped talking; he was always the last to stop, Frodo recalled fondly. Frodo was overjoyed that he could stand here in Bag End and simply enjoy Merry in his natural state as the center of attention in any group -- free from fear and battle, pursuit and fatigue. He and his friends -- and Lily -- were enjoying life in the Shire again, as it had been before. He was stunned to realize that this was not a dream; life in the Shire was reborn. The trees would take much longer to return, but it would happen...

He turned just for a moment toward the fireplace and closed his eyes, breathing a prayer of thanks. It was coming true; the Shire would be whole once again.

“Well, Frodo, what was it you wanted to say, then?” his cousin asked, from where he was holding court.

Sam and Fatty had joined his little retinue. Bell and Rose were chatting with each other, and Lily was talking to Pippin. No, it was the other way round. Pippin was regaling her with stories from the Quest... Frodo heard him say ‘Treebeard’ and Lily was giggling soon thereafter. Frodo caught her eye and winked. There is a first time for everything, he decided.

Pippin realized his words were no longer being heard as Lily’s head lifted a little and her eyes widened slightly in happy surprise. Her smile softened, and her cheeks were tinged in a delicate pink as she lowered her eyes. He glanced to where she had been looking and saw Merry trying to get Frodo’s attention.

“Frodo! Frodo Baggins! Are you there? Or is this only someone who looks like you?” Merry began to laugh as Frodo blushed and turned to him. “You couldn’t be much more obvious, cousin. You’d better get back over there before Pip steals her away.”

Frodo laughed and nodded. “You’re right, Merry. All I wanted to say was that this mulled cider of Pippin’s is the best I’ve ever had.”

“Is it, now? I thought so, too. It’s the old Bullroarer’s recipe, but I added a secret ingredient.”

Frodo smiled suspiciously at his friend. Merry was already good at pulling a hobbit’s leg, even without a few half-pints in him. “What did you add?” Frodo asked slowly.

Miruvor! We got some off Elrond before we left Rivendell...”

Frodo looked at his tankard. He had wondered why he felt so fine from the inside out. “You didn’t... did you?” His eyes were bright.

“Ha! Frodo Baggins, you are the easiest mark in the Shire!! Ho, Pippin, everybody, he fell for it!” Merry called.

Pippin stood up and bobbed his head once to Lily before approaching Frodo. The ladies were laughing quietly, and all the rest of his friends were having a very good laugh indeed over the set-up of the joke, even Samwise.

They were having plenty of fun at his expense. Each friend gleefully began to recount moments from their younger years, when Frodo was put on the spot by one prank or another -- most of which were planned by his good cousins, with a little help from time to time from Sam. Fatty couldn’t resist telling Will and Bell about the times Merry and Pippin, as youngsters at Brandy Hall, would leap upon Frodo early in the mornings whenever he came to visit, to jolt him awake. Will looked round at Frodo questioningly. Was it true? Frodo was still laughing, and could only nod.

“Oh!” Merry’s eyes danced mischievously. “What about the gift he brought my parents from his Uncle Bilbo?”

Fatty, Sam, and Pippin all burst into uproarious laughter.

Lily caught Frodo rolling his eyes and shaking his head slowly -- he was still smiling -- as if what he was about to hear was a very old and oft-told story. She could hardly wait for a tale from Frodo’s past that promised to be amusing. She wanted to know all there was to know about him, everything... how often she had dreamt of learning it from Frodo himself! Hearing a story from his cousin would give her another view into his past.

Bell couldn’t resist Merry’s invitation. “Do tell, please!”