Lily tried not to wring her hands while she waited for Frodo to appear at the appointed time. She kept herself busy in the kitchen, cooking. Bell arrived to give her a hand, and they took the opportunity to chat. Lily was surprised by how talkative Bell could be. It seemed one merely needed to choose the right subject: her brother.
“The first time we met was at one of the parties in Hobbiton; you know, those ones Farmer Cotton set up?”
Lily knew, from Rose, that Tom Cotton had not worked alone in setting up the parties held almost every night in November, both in Bywater and Hobbiton. The parties had in fact been Frodo’s idea...
“...you should have seen your brother, Lily. I dressed in my favourite yellow skirts and vest with a cream chemise embroidered with green leaves. I don’t think you’ve seen it yet, and my green cloak matched perfectly. Your brother came in his work clothes -- his work clothes! Dirty breeches... I think they were grey, but it’s hard to be sure. His shirt... I couldn’t even tell you what colour that was; maybe green... but he’d been working up at Bag End and ran a little late. He only planned to stop long enough to fill his plate a time or two and share a few ales with his friends. I saw him right away. He’s hard to miss with that hair of his. Isn’t it wonderful? I wasn’t sure he’d notice me at first; he was so busy talking with his friends. Then, it just happened!”
Lily opened her mouth to ask what had happened, but never got the words out.
“We were both at the serving table getting seconds, and our eyes met across the table, and well, we just knew. Did you know he hadn’t planned to stay for the dancing? But once he saw me, he changed his plans. I just know it was meant to be. We had filled our plates with the same things, mutton stew, carrots in cream, bread, and apple cobbler, and we were both getting a mug of cider to top it off...”
Bell continued to describe all the time they’d spent together since they’d met...
Lily smiled; at the very least, it kept her from worrying too much about seeing Frodo again.
Will had tried to spend time with Bell in the kitchen, but found himself shooed away. Grinning ruefully to himself, he reckoned he’d dipped his finger in the cake batter one too many times.
“Will?” Lily called from the kitchen, “Please, would you set up the parlour for me?”
“Already done! Bell assigned me the task the last time I snitched a biscuit,” he called back, and just then he heard the knock heralding Frodo’s arrival. He was precisely on time. Will smiled; Frodo obviously didn’t mind a bit looking too much as though he cared for Lily.
Frodo stood at Will’s door, lost in thought.
He recalled how nervous he had been this morning at the prospect of seeing her again, and had hoped his cousins and friends wouldn’t rib him too much for it. Fortunately, Merry, Pippin, and Fatty headed home to celebrate Yule with their respective families just after first breakfast, so they missed the worst of it -- or, in their view, the best of it, Frodo realized with a smile. Sam spent much of the day struggling to keep his mirth to himself, without much success. Somehow the teasing didn’t seem so bad, coming from Sam, Frodo mused.
I wonder how Lily is faring today. We spent so much time together at the party, and then the walk home, he reflected. His heart raced a little at the thought of her.
He heard laughter from within, and footsteps; the latch was loosened --
Will opened the door with a broad grin on his face, pleased he’d beat Lily to the door.
“Frodo! Welcome! Come into the parlour. My sister and Bell are just finishing up, by the smell of it.”
As Frodo stepped into the cozy room, memories of their first evening together here flooded over him. His breath caught in his throat when Lily appeared from the kitchen. Everything else faded away, including Will’s disappearance into the kitchen. He could see only Lily. Her skirts and vest and chemise were all a deep greenish blue... they matched her eyes today. It was difficult to think, much less speak.
“Lily --” Frodo breathed, as he took the hand she proffered him and tenderly kissed it. “You look...” He searched for the words. “You remind me of the lake Mirrormere.” Yes, that was the memory.
A shy smile lit her face as she asked, “Where is that?”
Again, he needed to concentrate; to think. She seemed so happy and well... she looked rested.
“It’s a bit difficult to describe, but it’s beautiful there.” Frodo noted her soft blush. He’d said more than he intended, and realized he felt no regret. It was worth it to see her so pleased.
Her eyes continued to hold his. With a nearly imperceptible start, he remembered her question.
“Where is it... it’s just this side of Lothlórien...”
The voice goaded him; You mean the other side of Moria, don’t you? Frodo closed his eyes to shut out the sudden images of terror and loss.
He still held Lily’s hand. She felt the inky blackness creep in, and gently tightened her hold on him. “Frodo?”
The feeling ebbed away as Frodo silently prayed.
Finally, he opened his eyes, and searched her face. “Are you all right?”
With a quick nod, she answered, “Yes. Are you?” She hadn’t meant to ask the question, for she did not want to pry, but it slipped out.
Lily decided she was not sorry, for she was rewarded with the reassurance of his slight nod and his warm smile. She could feel his intense relief that no ill had befallen her.
Will returned to the parlour, and Lily seated herself on the settee; next to it, on a table, were three neatly wrapped gifts. Will indicated that Frodo should sit with Lily while he sat in his favourite chair. There was a comfortable chair close to him, presumably for Bell.
Bell swept into the room with the tea service and set it on another table close by. She then went back to the kitchen and returned with another tray laden with other delicacies Lily had prepared for the day, including, to Frodo’s pleasure, more of her scones.
As Bell served the tea she noted again the gem at Frodo’s throat, and her curiosity finally got the better of her.
“Frodo, would you tell us more about the Elves?”
Frodo smiled. “Sam’s the real expert on Elves.”
“After yesterday, I’d say you’re all experts on them now,” Will laughed. “But tell me, do they build houses, as Men do?”
Bell chimed in with a smile, “Didn’t Merry and Pippin talk about them living in trees? Is that true? I don’t imagine they live in holes as we do.”
Laughter rippled through the room, and Frodo settled more comfortably next to Lily. “Yes, they did, Bell, and you’re right; they do not live in holes as we do, quite, but then it depends on which Elves you’re talking about, as to where they live.”
All three looked at him in surprise. Lily searched his face, curious. “There is more than one kind of Elf?”
Frodo tried to give some of his attention to Will and Bell, but again and again he found himself drawn to Lily as he spoke. “The Elves of Mirkwood live in an extensive cave system, whereas the Elves of Rivendell live in a vale where the buildings were created around the living things there. Then there are the Elves of Lothlórien, who dwell in the trees.”
“However in the world do they manage that?” burst out Bell. Both she and Will leaned in a bit closer to Frodo.
When Frodo shifted slightly to address them more directly, his arm touched Lily’s, and he was glad she did not pull away. How odd, he thought. For so long, the only touch he desired had been the Ring. He remembered the panic and fear he knew on those occasions when, unable to feel It, he thought It lost; then the discordant relief brought by the feel of It resting in his hand once more.
This was not a good direction for his thoughts. Lily would surely suffer from the revulsion rising within him. His prayer rose just as quickly, and the feeling subsided.
He was right; she had. To his dismay, he saw it cross her face like a shadow. Then it was gone.
With some difficulty, Frodo began again. “The trees -- were enormous, not like the trees found in the Shire, not like trees anywhere else... not even the Party Tree was as tall as a mallorn. Stairways ascend round their trunks to higher levels, where there are built flets, similar to a porch. Some flets are reached by stairs, others by ropes.”
As Frodo warmed to describing the Elven architecture, Lily noted she felt no illness, but she also could sense him choosing more carefully what he shared and what he did not. The ill feeling began to creep in again. She carefully pushed it to the back of her mind. She did not want to miss this time with him. He would leave if he became aware of the illness encroaching upon her.
“Frodo, do they farm land as we do?” she wondered aloud.
He stopped and carefully considered before he answered.
“No, not as we do, though they appreciate our love of the land. Their relationship... It’s difficult to describe. They care for their lands, and in return it gives them all they need.”
Bell decided she didn’t understand it at all and didn’t really need to. “We should all go for a walk before we have the cake and gifts. It’s so lovely out today, and we get so few such days this time of year.”
Will quickly rose and offered his hand to help her up.
Frodo searched Lily’s eyes. She smiled and nodded. He stood as well, and hesitated only a moment before offering his hand to her. As her fingers touched his, their eyes met again.
Will decided not to wait for them. He remembered yesternight, and what he had interrupted at the front door. He started Bell for the door, touching his finger to his lips. Bell nodded, and they quietly left.
After a few moments -- neither of them knew how many -- Lily laced her fingers into Frodo’s, and he tightened his hold on hers, as they turned and walked together out the door.
“Frodo, tell me more of Rivendell. Do I remember right that once you told me your Uncle Bilbo lives there?”
Frodo glanced at her in surprise. He could not recall ever having told her this.
“Yes, Bilbo does live in Rivendell, now. It’s a beautiful place...” He suddenly wished he could show it to her.
“No matter where you are there, you hear waterfalls,” he continued. “Not great rushing sounds which deafen you like the Falls of Rauros on the Anduin...”
Lily listened so attentively Frodo forgot she knew nothing of the river Anduin.
“A conversation can easily be carried on next to one of these falls. Oh, and the conservatory! It is filled, floor to ceiling, with books and maps...”
“Maps! I have never seen a real map! Da spoke of seeing one in Bree when he was there, long ago. He made a little drawing for me, but he admitted it was nothing like a real map.”
“I wish I had known yesterday you were interested. I would have shown you one.”
Her eyes lit up at this. “You have a map?! Oh, I should like to have seen it!”
Frodo could not suppress a smile at her childlike excitement. It was not winter, but spring, with her near.
“I have many maps. And I will be more than happy to share them all with you, the next time you visit Bag End.”
Lily’s eyes widened, then lowered to the ground in front of her as she quietly replied, “I’d like that, very much.”
Their walk slowed to a stop and Lily gradually raised her eyes to meet Frodo’s. She found him gazing intently at her.
“So would I, very much indeed.” He gently squeezed her hand and she returned it, closing her eyes for a moment, happy. They continued, walking a little closer together.
Will and Bell caught up to them on their way back, and the four of them began to talk of happenings among the local Shire folk. Frodo especially enjoyed hearing Bell’s stories of recent antics of the tweens in the area. Bell herself seemed a bit put out by some of the news, but for Frodo it was further proof that the Shire was healing. The Quest had not been in vain... the voice had tried to speak to him just then, to counter his happiness, but it could not...
When Frodo looked to Lily, she was smiling. He knew she was reading his thoughts. She understands! His heart was suddenly full, and he had to compose himself; it was difficult. At this moment he wished only to be with Lily. There was so much he desired to share with her... but not here, and not now; Bell was still telling stories.
He turned his attention back to her, just in time to hear her story of the Hardbottle twins, who’d nicked what was left of someone’s winter crop of turnips and parsnips...
“Were they Farmer Maggot’s?” Frodo interrupted suddenly, nearly beside himself with mirth.
“Why, yes -- how did you know?” Bell exclaimed.
Frodo looked at Lily, unable to hide his happiness. She was part of all this. Part of why he felt so well. But still, it was wonderful news, in and of itself, evidence the Shire was returning to normal.
He stopped and looked harder at Lily, forgetting Bell’s question for the moment. Lily wore a very intriguing expression. Something far more than her slight fatigue was apparent. With an effort -- for he wished fervently only to hold on to this feeling of joy -- he made himself remember that Lily wanted to be with him, despite how ill she might feel; despite everything...
At this he nearly lost what little bit of composure he still possessed; between his enjoyment of the simple story of the tweens stealing Maggot’s crops, and Lily’s very evident devotion, he felt overwhelmed, his heart soaring...
It was an effort to remember Will and Bell were even standing next to them. He felt obliged to rein in his feelings yet again, setting aside his frustration at not being alone with Lily. But he was permitted, at the very least, to study her expression for a moment.
Yes, something joyful and mysterious was there in her face. Something she knew, which he did not...
“Lily, may I -- may I ask what you’re thinking?”
“You may ask,” she smiled, suppressing a giggle, “but I think I’d prefer to answer you another time...”
Her smile was completely unreadable. Even Bell and Will were smiling now, wondering what this was about.
“All right then, keep your secrets,” Frodo laughed, “but please tell me sooner, than later? I confess I can hardly stand the wait.”
“I promise to tell you as soon as I may,” she smiled again.
The foursome made their way back to Will’s, Bell chatting all the while.
Evening arrived more quickly than any of them expected. They returned to the house, and Bell served the cake, which still smelled fresh-baked.
“Bell is a gracious hostess, Will,” Frodo observed, and she blushed, head to toe.
Frodo made a point of turning the conversation to Will and Bell. After a time, he looked carefully at Lily. She didn’t seem to be feeling ill, but then he noted she was also very quiet, and berated himself for not being more aware. He worried he had overstayed his welcome, even if she would never say it.
He offered a silent prayer that she would be all right, and fought off his dismay at their strange situation. All he could do was pray. Pray, and hope. Frodo found some peace in this; hope had borne Sam and himself through the worst times of the Quest, although Sam often carried it alone...
In his heart, he knew that if he were not healed somehow of the darkness, it would claim first his mind, and then his life. But if Lily loved him -- which he also believed in his heart -- what would become of her? It was unfair, if he were not likely to survive, to spend so much time with her now. But Lily wanted to be with him, and he with her...
This was like crawling across the plains of Gorgoroth -- a journey with an unknown end, for neither he nor Sam really knew what lay ahead. Or like the Emyn Muil: circling, ever circling, and lost.
He was suddenly aware of the silence all around him. The three of them were looking at him curiously, but not unkindly. He wondered how long he had allowed his mind to wander.
Frodo wrenched himself free of his thoughts; this was Lily’s birthday! He would not dampen her spirits, or theirs, for anything. There would be time enough at Bag End to be alone with his fears.
“I seem to have forgotten myself for a moment. Please forgive me. This cake is wonderful...”
Lily could not hide her pleased smile when Frodo indulged in a second helping of cake. As they were finishing up, Bell encouraged Lily to hand out her gifts.
She gave Will a new set of braces with the assertion that if he kept eating the way he was he would not need them, for his girth would easily keep his breeches in place. Will laughed appreciatively and kissed her on the cheek.
To Bell, she gave a carefully stitched chemise with flowers and leaves embroidered on it. Bell was delighted; it even matched the skirts she was wearing.
Shyly, she handed her last gift to Frodo. “I did not know you would be here today or I would have done something more, but I think you’ll be able to use this, with winter coming on.”
Frodo opened the package carefully. He smiled as he recognized his scarf, given her to wear on their walk in November. Within its folds, he found several pocket handkerchiefs embroidered by her with the initials ‘F. B.’ in the corner. She did not tell him she had been working on them from the moment she returned home and had wondered how she might get them to him. She eventually decided to send them by post when Will invited her up for Yule. She waited, in the hope that just maybe she would see Frodo on the trip, and could return his scarf with the handkerchiefs as a thank-you.
At seeing his obvious pleasure, Lily wished she could reach up to touch his cheek, tinged with pink.
Frodo carefully ran his fingers over the stitching on the handkerchiefs. “I freely admit there’s little I know about handwork such as this, but I remember well Sam’s sister Marigold lamenting the daily embroidering lessons given by her sisters. On more than one occasion, she stormed into the garden to cry at her brother about how she wished she were not a lass, and then would not need to learn such things... to her credit, she did finally master it. She’s quite skilled now, as I recall.”
He studied again the intricate pattern on the handkerchiefs; the needlework must have taken hours. His voice softened, and he raised his eyes to Lily’s once more. “This is fine work... Thank you.”
Bell cleared her throat as discreetly as she could, and began cleaning up. “Lily, could you help me with the tea things? It’s time we got things cleared away.”
Will put his hand on Lily’s arm, as she made to rise. “I’ll help.” He leaned close to his sister and whispered, “It’ll give me more time with her.” He grinned and carried the other tray into the kitchen.
Lily carefully folded her hands in her lap to keep from fidgeting. She raised her eyes to Frodo’s, and found him watching her.
He reached for her hands, and she turned them, palms up, in her lap. His fingers lightly touched hers. Gently, he enfolded her hands within his and searched her eyes.
“Are you all right, Lily?”
The concern in his eyes caused her heart to beat a little faster and her hands tightened on his. “Yes, Frodo, thank you. I’m -- I’m so glad you could come today. It made the day...” She felt at a loss for the right word. Her eyes searched his, hoping he understood what she was trying to express.
Frodo leaned forward to kiss her cheek, but stopped when Bell and Will entered the room. Lily’s faintly tired countenance was briefly tinged with disappointment. Frodo did not want to place her any more at risk; he realized he didn’t even know what a kiss might do to her, what effect it might have, the closeness... The desire to kiss her grew, day by day. It was more like longing, now, something beyond desire.
He sighed, deeply, and decided he should go. He also had the feeling Bell was impatient to leave.
Frodo felt truly grateful to have been asked to this gathering, and not only because Lily was here. Since the Quest, he felt isolated -- separate from his life before, and separate, somehow, from everyone in the Shire, except Sam, Merry and Pippin; though even they were occupied with business of their own these days. He felt a little less separate from Lily and Rose, now, because they knew something of the truth of what had happened. Fatty learned of some of it simply by listening. But no one else here knew about any of it. And how could he ever begin to tell them that their whole world, their happy life as they knew it, hung in the balance for a time? And that he and Sam had been part of something that had tipped the scales in favor of not only the Shire, but all of Middle-earth?
The voice snaked in so swiftly. You tipped the scales in the wrong direction. Had it not been for Gollum --
Not now! Not now -- you may have your way with me later, Frodo answered vehemently. I will not listen to you now; leave me alone. I am with Lily...
It retreated; Frodo almost imagined it hissed some words in parting...
He felt suddenly tired, almost weak. It seemed unreal -- but then, much since the Quest seemed unreal to him, including the fight being waged for his soul. What was happening? He was afraid even to look at Lily.
No. He could not, he dared not ever tell the tale. He would write it down, as Bilbo bid him, someday.
The darkness isolated him, and he had a growing awareness that this was how it would be for the rest of his life: this separation, this loneliness, and he did not want it to be this way. Before the Quest, he had been at ease with anyone he met; with perfect strangers... He had not felt separate from anyone then; he was at one with the Shire he loved, and with everyone living there. That feeling was gone, and he wished desperately to regain it. This simple invitation from Will and Bell -- and Lily -- to a birthday tea, was a start.
Yes, it was a good start. It was a comfort.
“Thank you for inviting me. I’m sure you have other plans as well for this evening, so I’d best be on my way.”
“Yes, it’s true,” Will admitted. “We’ve been invited to Bell’s for supper tonight.”
Will was smiling, but Frodo knew Lily’s brother fairly well now; ironically, he had spent more time with Will, repairing Bag End, than he had with Lily... Will would have been just as happy to spend the evening in conversation, perhaps with a pipe or two, just the four of them together.
Frodo rose to go. “Then I’ll let you get ready.” He turned to Lily. “Happy birthday, Lily.”
“Thank you, Frodo.”
He lifted her hand and kissed it, then made his way to the door. Will stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.
“Frodo --” Will seemed a bit uneasy. “I’m supposed to take Lily home to Deephallow with the pony-cart tomorrow. Bell’s family has a supper planned for tonight, but an all-day party set for tomorrow for After Yule...”
Frodo guardedly looked Will in the eyes.
Will continued hopefully. “Would you be able... would you mind... that is if you don’t already have other plans, would it be a bother to have you take Lily home tomorrow?”
Lily’s eyes flew open wide in surprise, glad Frodo could not see her reaction, as Will stood between them. When did her brother decide this? Not that she was sorry, especially if Frodo agreed. Her attention was caught by Bell, who smiled and winked.
Frodo was momentarily bereft of speech.
Will lowered his eyes, a bit discouraged. “If it’s too much trouble...”
Frodo wasn’t sure if this was the wisest decision, but at the moment he did not care. “No, no... It’s no trouble, Will. Yes, I will take Lily home for you.”
He suddenly felt dazed. The whole day -- the whole day -- he would be able to spend all that time with her! Swiftly, the doubts rushed in. Would she be all right for that long? Surely not. What are you thinking? She is not yours. She never will be.
Frodo would have taken back his offer if Lily had not spoken first.
“Thank you, Frodo. I’ll be ready in the morning, whenever you would like to leave.” She was now standing beside Will, fear and hope residing side by side in her heart.
Frodo’s own heart was pounding; he threw away his customary caution. When would they be together again?
“Is after second breakfast too early?”
“No, that would be fine.” Lily wanted to laugh at how calm they both sounded. She didn’t feel calm at all.
Frodo nodded his head, and smiled broadly. “Then I shall see you after second breakfast tomorrow morning. Good evening, and thank you again...”
Before he could change his mind, he turned and walked out the door, closing it carefully behind him.
Lily turned her brother around, kissed him on each cheek, and threw her arms around his neck tightly. “Thank you, Will.”
Will’s deep blush almost matched the color of his hair. “Happy birthday, Lily.”
She giggled again and kissed him on the cheek one more time before finally releasing him.
As Frodo started to walk home, he wondered again why Lily was affected so by his darkness, when no one else seemed to be. Then again, perhaps others were, and he did not realize it...
He touched Arwen’s gem, hanging on its gold chain about his neck. Had it helped protect Lily at all? Had it kept her from feeling ill? It was hard to tell. At Bag End, she had admitted to being tired... for the most part, with a rest, she had seemed all right. But would she have been more tired or more ill had he not worn the gem? It was another riddle without an answer. She seemed -- well, the same as before -- at least, she did not seem worse. That was good. For the time being, he would continue to wear it.
He prayed all the way home that tomorrow would not be a mistake.