Stories soon gave way to songs, and the gathering continued on through dinner and into supper. Frodo enjoyed his guests. They were cheerful and full of life; he pushed away the niggling realization that he was not. The fatigue overtaking him ebbed only when Lily was near.
With a nudge from Bell, Will suddenly noticed the lateness of the hour. He stood to leave, and Bell stood with him.
“Frodo, thank you for your kind invitation. It’s getting colder out and I think I ought to be escorting Bell and Lily home.” Reluctantly, Lily stood as well.
Rose spoke just loudly enough for all to hear, gazing at Sam all the while.
“Yes, thank you, Frodo. It’s a bit of a walk back to Bywater, and I’d better be headed that way myself.”
Sam smiled at her, and she returned it as he added, “I’ll see you home,” as though it weren’t already understood.
Will looked quickly at Bell and Lily, and then again at Bell.
“Frodo, would you care to walk Lily back, along with the rest of us? That is, if your other guests can do without you for a while..."
Frodo had been watching Lily carefully. He knew that by this time, she was not feeling well. The desire to be with her a little longer vied sharply with his concern for her.
Merry and Pippin practically chorused, “Go on, Frodo, we’ll see you when you get back. It’s not as though we can’t make our own way about this old place.” They stared at each other and laughed.
“Don’t keep the lady waiting, Frodo. Go on,” Merry urged.
“We’ll take care of things here while you’re gone, cousin,” Pippin added. He almost winked but for the apprehension in Frodo’s eyes. Pippin wondered for a moment what Frodo could possibly be so nervous about; he put it down to his cousin’s inexperience with the lasses. Pippin spoke more softly in the hopes of encouraging him, “Go on, then, Frodo.”
Frodo nodded to them and turned worried eyes to Lily. Would she be able to endure being near him for another hour?
Lily saw the concern in his expression. She answered him silently with a warm smile, her eyes hopeful and inviting.
Frodo looked steadily into her eyes. He then saw something he’d only observed once before: her hazel eyes now held more blue, with only a hint of green.
He blinked in slight surprise, and murmured softly, “As you wish.”
Rosie retrieved her cloak again from its now-familiar hook on the wall, the one she used whenever she visited Bag End. This cloak was one she had left after visiting Sam a few days ago. It had been cold in the morning when she came out to Bag End, but quite comfortable when she returned home in the early afternoon. When they came today the weather had been quite warm, and none of them had thought to bring one.
As Sam helped Rosie fasten her cloak, the little group realized that neither Bell nor Lily had brought theirs along. Will admitted sheepishly, “We really hadn’t planned to stay so long.”
Bell spoke up. “It’s my fault, Frodo; I hadn’t realized what good friends you and Will had become. He said he had been working up here, but until you showed us round the place, I truly didn’t know just how much you had him do.”
Funny; he doesn’t really seem cracked at all, Bell thought to herself. Perhaps his head’s in the clouds a bit. And it’s true he’s not at all like my Will, whose feet are firmly planted on the ground...
Pippin watched and listened, deciding to take the situation in hand in the hope of easing Frodo’s concern with a bit of gentle teasing. “Why don’t you use my cloak, Miss Bell?” he volunteered cheerfully. “If I remember rightly, you only live in Hobbiton. Frodo here can let Miss Lily borrow his cloak; he won’t need it at all until the walk back home, if then...”
He turned clear questioning eyes to Lily. “That is, if it’s all right with you, Miss Lily?”
His eyes were a bit more mischievous when he turned them to Frodo. “You don’t mind if Miss Lily borrows your cloak, do you?”
Frodo was tempted to box him round the ears, but his cousin only smiled benignly. At it was, Frodo stifled the chuckle bubbling up in his throat but was wholly unable to disguise the twinkle in his eyes. If Lily agreed to this, and she was all right, he would owe his conniving cousin.
For an instant, he felt suffused with joy, joy at the prospect of one more hour in Lily’s presence. Just as quickly, his joy faded, to be replaced with weary sorrow. I am being selfish, he thought. He looked into Lily’s face. She appeared radiant and tired, all at once.
True. You will only feel happy for the next hour at her expense; how can you do this to her, when in your heart you profess to love her? You cannot love her, or, if you do, it must be a very poor sort of love, to place her in such peril. You are indeed selfish.
“No... no,” he breathed, so softly, only Lily heard it, and only she witnessed his expression alter, moving from joy, to sorrow, then to fear. He looked utterly lost.
The darkness had come; she felt it as well. She met his eyes without wavering, and would not allow any fear to enter her own heart. Let me help him, she prayed.
She held his eyes, willing him a surcease from the misery he felt. Please, Frodo, let me help you... if only I could hold him! But she could not, not in this gathering, not until they were promised... she could not think such thoughts. She did not know Ilúvatar’s will, or His plans, or if He had plans at all. Perhaps Ilúvatar had not meant for them to meet again. Perhaps she was not meant to see him again.
Lily knew in that moment some of the darkness had found her. These were not her true feelings, not at all. Her heart spoke piercingly against the illness she felt; it was insidious, evil. The Creator listens to our prayers, even at this moment; I will not listen to your lies, she fought against the darkness’ attempt to engulf her. He has brought us this far. He will not abandon us to sorrow. I will not listen to your voice, but to His...
In her effort to focus her strength of will, she closed her eyes. In a panic, she opened her eyes; how was Frodo?
He still stood before her, but the sorrow in his countenance fled. He no longer looked lost.
He knows, her heart whispered. He understands more clearly than he ever has. What is that look in his eyes? Gratitude! and worry... Oh, Frodo, if only you knew how much more I would give of my soul to help you. She lowered her eyes, tears forming swiftly. She could not weep here, not in front of everyone. She mastered the tears and met his eyes again.
They had been alone together, in some other place, for only a scant moment. They both knew the darkness was gone, at least for now. No one noticed them, not even Pippin. The others were busy with their goodbyes, and Merry and Fatty had gone off to the kitchen to fetch themselves more ale.
She knew Frodo’s fear and worry for her lingered. She prayed again for strength for them both, and for strength to withstand despair. Oh, to lose him, only because of this wretched darkness! -- it was possible; he might give up. Her prayer intensified. Let him be well, if only for his own sake, dear Creator. He has already endured so much! Let him find happiness, if not with me, then with someone, somehow. But please, not this. He will die if this persists for too long a time. It will claim his soul. Thank you for taking away the darkness. Please, grant us another hour of peace...
They returned to the moment, as Pippin quickly pulled his own cloak from the hook and presented it to Bell, who blushed at the gallant flair of the young Took. Will might have been jealous if not for the adoring eyes Bell turned to him, as she allowed him to help her with the clasp.
Frodo slipped his cloak around Lily’s shoulders. Pulling the hood up gently over her head, he lingered for a moment, looking into her eyes once more, this time with calm. He noticed Lily’s breathing coming more quickly; for a moment, his own breathing stopped, as memories of their first night in Bywater came rushing back.
Frodo shook his head slightly and was relieved when he was able to easily work the clasp this time, though Lily was a little disappointed, hoping he would again have trouble with it, as he had then. She smiled at her wish to be near him just that much longer, only a few moments more, no matter the reason.
She had thought she would never see him again after that first night, but since then she had gone on a long walk with him and had just attended afternoon tea in his home, both at his invitation. Lily wondered if she could ask him to Will’s, but decided it was best to wait. I am so tired, she reflected. I must not show it.
She hadn’t realized she had closed her eyes once again in thought.
“Lily,” Frodo called, under his breath.
She opened her eyes and her heart leapt at the intensity of his blue eyes searching her own. It was time to go.
As they stepped into the lane they all felt the cold, though Frodo seemed to feel it less. Lily wondered at this. Sam immediately slipped his arm around Rosie, drawing her close, and Bell stepped close to Will, who wrapped an arm around her. Frodo yearned to do the same with Lily, but it was the end of a long day, and there was no telling just how ill she might become on the long walk home. It seemed foolhardy to take the risk, only for the pleasure of having his arm around her. After what had just transpired... he sighed.
They had not gone very far when Lily started to shiver, in spite of Frodo’s warm Elven cloak. He glanced at her, uncertain what he should do. There was no going back. If they returned to Bag End in order for her to take her rest there tonight, Lily, being unmarried, would need a chaperone, and Will was the only one who could serve. No, it was completely out of the question in any event. How can I possibly tell Will what is happening to his sister? Frodo pondered. What you are doing to her, insinuated the voice. He offered a brief prayer, stronger now after what Lily had given him. He would drive that voice away somehow; he must. Lily needed to get home, to Will’s, and they weren’t even to Hobbiton yet.
There was nothing for it; she was so cold. Frodo quietly touched her arm. She continued to shiver as she raised her eyes to his. He offered a silent prayer of protection for her -- surely Ilúvatar must be very near tonight, he hoped -- and tentatively placed his arm around her; so lightly that at first she almost could not feel it.
Eventually, they fell into the easy pace of their first walk together; the familiarity was comforting for them both. Lily looked up into his eyes again and smiled. Frodo gradually tightened his hold until she was held snugly against him. Feeling his warmth, Lily finally stopped shivering.
When they got to Hobbiton, Will suggested the others go on ahead; he would see Bell to her door and catch up to them later. As they parted, Bell addressed Frodo.
“Thank you for the lovely afternoon.” She turned to go, stopped, and looked back. “We’re having a bit of cake for Lily’s birthday at Will’s tomorrow afternoon, really just the three of us. If you’d like to come, you’re more than welcome. It would make it a foursome.”
He looked again at Lily and wondered if she would be all right. She inclined her head slightly; her voice was soft.
“If you have time, it would be wonderful if you could stop in... if only for a little while.” She smiled. “I even have a gift for you.”
For a moment the seriousness left Frodo’s eyes, replaced by surprise. He smiled. “What is it?”
“You’ll have to come and see.” Her eyes sparkled, despite her fatigue.
Frodo beamed, trying to force himself to not worry for her; the darkness crept into his thoughts, urging him to refuse the invitation. He ignored it, and thought only of her.
“How can I refuse you?” he replied softly. “I’d be delighted. More than delighted...”
To Lily, it seemed Frodo was awakening from a little dream as he remembered to answer Bell.
“Thank you, Bell, for your kind invitation.”
Bell nodded her head in satisfaction. “Good. We’ll see you for early tea and cake.” She and Will headed down the next side lane towards her home.
Sam and Rosie started walking again with Lily and Frodo beside them; Lily and Rosie were side by side. Lily almost stopped as another thought occurred to her. “The two of you are welcome to come as well, if you like.”
Rosie replied with a gleam in her eye meant only for Lily. “Thank you, Lily, for asking us, but my family already has a grand dinner planned with Sam and the Gaffer.” Rose smiled again, and made sure Lily saw it. “Frodo was invited, but declined.”
“Dear Rosie,” Frodo smiled. “I have been a guest in your home for well over a month, and your family surely must be sick of me by now.”
Rosie laughed. “Don’t try to hoodwink me, Mr. Baggins. You were waiting for a better offer, and now you have it.”
Frodo blushed to his toes and was grateful it was so dark. “I can only say I’m fortunate indeed to have two such lovely offers given me at once.”
Even Sam laughed at this, and tightened his arm around Rosie as they walked. She could say things to Frodo no one else dared, and he never seemed to mind in the least.
When Lily briefly leaned her head against Frodo’s shoulder, his breath caught in his throat. He tried to relax, but it was easier said than done; she was so near. If only she could stay near him forever; if only he could be the one her father said she’d been dreaming of.
Frodo tried to put the thought from his mind, but it was impossible. In a little while, Lily would say goodnight to him at Will’s door, and he would spend another sleepless night in Bag End, counting the leaf-tips on the ceiling. He gently tightened his arm around her. I’d best be grateful for these moments with her. I can do nothing but continue to pray, and hope. What was it Gandalf always said about hope? ‘Hope against hope,’ was one of them... and ‘hope un-looked for’...
His heart leapt a little; he’d be seeing her tomorrow. This was not really goodbye at all.
He looked carefully up at the stars, so as not to disturb Lily, who was leaning against him now as the four of them walked in companionable silence. He wondered where the Creator was. Beyond all those stars, no doubt, the Elves had said. But Gandalf said the Creator was quite near, even so near as to live within one’s soul, if He were but invited to dwell there. As a Maiar, he must know...
Before realizing it, Sam voiced his thought aloud, musing, “It surely is different to be out walking and not looking over your shoulder.” He caught his breath abruptly. “I’m sorry, Mr. Frodo, I should think before I open my mouth.”
Lily was amazed by the deference shown to Frodo over and over by Sam, Merry, and Pippin. She had noticed how conversations were carefully guided away from anything unpleasant. She knew the story Samwise told her by heart now, and realized it truly had been only the short version, as Frodo had said. It wasn’t just details of where they went and what they did that were left out; she realized now that the depth of the pain had only been hinted at. She shivered and was grateful for Frodo’s tightened embrace. She wished they could stop walking, so he could hold her as he had all those nights ago.
Frodo finally spoke. “You’re right, Sam, it is different... quite different, and very good.”
Rosie had heard this conversation before, or something akin to it, several times in her home, when Sam would say something quite innocent and then realize it might cause Frodo pain. And Frodo would try to reassure him it was all right. She’d also learned the best way to smooth things over when this happened.
“Sam, where do you think you’ll start first with your little box of dirt?”
The rest of the walk was spent talking of Sam’s plans; all too soon, Frodo thought, they came into Bywater and arrived at Will’s house.
Sam and Rosie continued on to the Cottons’ door after they said goodbye to Lily. Frodo walked her up the three steps to the porch, more memories of that first night spent with her flooding into him. The porch light wasn’t lit, but the Cottons’ light was -- just as on that night -- it gave enough light for Frodo to see Lily’s face.
Lily wished she could stay close to him like this all night. Frodo’s hold on her eased and she turned to face him. She had feared she might not see him after today, but knew now she would see him on the morrow. She smiled warmly into his eyes, feeling a little ill, but knowing she could hide it a bit longer.
Frodo searched her eyes. “How are you?”
She knew what he was asking. “Well enough.”
He reached across the short space between them and gently touched her cheek with the tips of his fingers; Lily’s eyes widened and her breathing quickened. She wanted more, but Will came trotting up the path, and Frodo dropped his hand. Frodo looked down first, and then up at Will, stepping just slightly away from Lily at the same time.
Will was almost out of breath. “Sorry, I meant to catch up sooner, but Bell and I got to talking... Here’s Pippin’s cloak.” He had been so wrapped up in thoughts of Bell, he had forgotten everything else, and only now noticed the sudden, awkward silence; he realized he had interrupted something. He cleared his throat. “Thank you again, Frodo. We’ll see you tomorrow.” He handed Frodo the folded cloak and slipped into the door, closing it behind him.
Frodo noticed Sam standing quietly out in the lane and looking up at the stars, as though he planned to do it all night. He turned and gazed again into Lily’s eyes. There were so many things he wanted to say. He wished he could hold her again; perhaps tomorrow...
He smiled down at her, memorizing her face once again, her eyes; her brave smile. “Sam’s waiting.”
She could not hide the disappointment in her own eyes.
Then he whispered the first thing that came into his mind. “I’m -- I don’t wish to leave you.”
Lily’s breath caught. She wanted so badly to say these same words to Frodo, but was only able to nod.
She lifted her right hand to touch his cheek, but hesitated as the cloak fell away from her arm. Frodo’s gaze was so intent! A moment passed; she gathered her courage again and touched his cheek, her palm resting there tentatively.
He closed his eyes, then reached up to cover her hand with his own warm one; at his touch, she trembled. Expecting to feel the illness seep in, her heart leapt instead as she sensed his love, immediate, present, and strong. She realized she wasn’t breathing and smiled. I’d best breathe if I do not want to faint where I stand, she mused.
Frodo’s voice was low and soft. “Lily, tomorrow cannot come soon enough for me...”
Lily knew he wanted to say more, and so did she; but their day together had come to an end. She felt no sadness; instead, a warm joy grew within her, for she would see him again very soon. He lowered her hand from his face with a small sigh, and kissed it. She shivered and felt grateful for the warmth of her cloak.
“Oh! Your cloak.” She quickly released the clasp and slipped the cloak from around her shoulders. She handed it to him and took Pippin’s cloak from his arm, adding, “Let me hold that while you put it on. It’s getting colder, and you have quite a walk back.”
Frodo obediently draped the cloak around his shoulders and tried to fasten the clasp.
“Here,” Lily offered, and smiled. She handed Pippin’s cloak back to him, and affixed the clasp for him. She let her hands linger there for a moment.
Frodo held Pippin’s cloak in his right hand and gently took Lily’s left hand into his own. He lifted it to his lips, tenderly kissing the back of her hand once again.
“Until tomorrow.” Frodo opened the door for her and handed her inside.
Lily nodded. “Tomorrow.” She held the door open a moment longer.
Frodo smiled and headed out to the lane. He stopped when he reached Sam and turned to look back. Lily waved, and he returned it, sharing her smile.
Sam and Frodo headed toward home.
Lily watched until she could see him no more, then closed the door. She leaned heavily against it and felt the illness first wash over her and then slowly dissipate.