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Sacrament

by CRB and Ladyhawk Baggins

22 December 1419sr After Yule continuing...

Their journey ended all too soon, by Frodo’s way of thinking. He smiled wryly. With Lily beside him, next week would have been too soon.

When he pulled up the pony at the edge of the village, Lily stirred. She slipped her arm in his and rubbed her cheek against his shoulder, sighing.

Her eyes fluttered open. Deephallow was just ahead. The material against her cheek was so soft. She looked up to see Frodo’s profile. Just for a moment, she was where she wanted to be, and nothing else mattered; nothing at all.

She studied his profile a few moments longer. A dog from a nearby smial began to bark, pulling her back to her surroundings.

She sat up and reluctantly released her hold on his arm. “We’re here.” Her voice was tinged with disappointment.

Frodo nodded. He could not speak for the lump in his throat. A quick cough cleared it, and he swallowed hard. After blinking several times, he finally glanced at her.

“Where do you live from here?”

“Just down that lane there.” Lily pointed to a small lane that headed west. “Daisy and Hal live close by; their smial is just beyond the house.”

Frodo clicked to the pony and turned the cart into the lane.

When they reached the house, Hal stepped out from the smial and waved them to come his way. Frodo glanced at Lily. She nodded her head, and he continued down the lane. Hal reached for the pony’s harness when they stopped in front of him.

Hal was his customary jovial self, beaming up at them.

“Welcome home, Lily! How are you, my dear? And, Frodo! It’s good to see you here. This is a pleasant surprise! So, I take it Will couldn’t tear himself away from Bell, then?” He winked at them.

“Hal!”

Lily’s shock evaporated into a giggle, tired as she was. Frodo was taken aback at first, but followed her lead. He began to smile.

“Something like that, Halfred!” Lily giggled again. “Frodo was kind enough to bring me home...” her voice trailed off a little, revealing some of her sadness at the goodbyes to come. He could not stay in Deephallow forever. She cleared her throat lightly, feigning calm.

Hal could not fail to see Frodo watching Lily intently. It’s as if he’s trying to measure something in her -- her happiness? wondered Hal. It was hard to tell. No matter...

“Well now, you two get yourselves inside and warm up by the fire. I feel the urge for a bit of Old Toby, myself, but that’s got to wait till after supper... eh, Mr. Baggins?”

“It sounds wonderful, Hal.”

Frodo didn’t have the heart to say he was far more interested in seeing the new babe, and in spending every waking moment with Lily, than pipe-weed, but Hal was a good sort and was only offering hospitality. Perhaps a short smoke... but first things first.

“I trust I’ll meet your little Pearl soon? And that your lady is well?”

“Oh, yes -- Pearl! Yes! Of course! You’ve not met her yet!”

Frodo was suddenly reminded of a rain-soaked night in Bree, and of Barliman Butterbur at the Prancing Pony, struggling to recall anything he’d heard about a tall man in a pointy hat. The memory would have been faintly pleasant, but for the feeling of the voice waking within him. How fraught with danger were these memories!

He breathed deeply and tried to focus on Hal again. Lily felt it; she felt it all -- he wished fervently Ilúvatar would make plain what was happening to the two of them.

Hal was blissfully unaware of them as he spoke of Pearl.

“...she’s the apple of my eye, that babe... ask Lily here, she’ll tell you!”

Frodo cleared his throat and sat up a bit straighter on the cart seat, trying to hide the twitching of a smile as Hal almost burst a button.

“She’s told me a great deal about your lovely daughter, and I’ve looked forward to this day, very much. Very much, indeed.” He turned to Lily and found her smiling back with her eyes.

Lily wanted -- she needed -- to go inside, to rest, but could wait a little longer.

She gently teased. “Hal, dear, Frodo also asked how Daisy is faring... you know, the other apple of your eye...”

He laughed outright. “She is indeed that, Lily dear. She’s up and about and feeling much more herself. Motherhood seems to agree with her, I’m pleased to say.

“Now as I was saying, before I got myself sidetracked by talk of the lasses in my life, why don’t you two go on in and warm yourselves by the fire? I’m sure and certain Daisy’s got a spot of tea ready, along with a morsel to tide you over until supper. I’ll take care of the pony.”

Frodo got down first, and held out a hand to help Lily. She placed her hand in his and held his eyes as she stepped from the pony-cart to the ground. She only had to jump a little way.

Hal led the pony away, whistling tunelessly to himself. The pony’s ear turned away from the discordant sound, as the cart rattled on the rutted path to the barn.

Standing together in the gloaming, the sun almost gone, Frodo and Lily had already forgotten Hal. Frodo knew he should release her hand, now she was safely on the ground, but he could not. His eyes searched hers. She looked so tired. “Lily, are you quite all right?” His voice was soft, and full of concern.

Lily smiled at the sound of his voice, briefly heedless of her need to rest. Then she brought herself back, and squeezed his hand.

“I’m just a little tired, Frodo. Traveling always wears on me a bit. I may take a short nap after I’ve had a bite to eat.”

“Of course -- let’s get you inside.”

She laced her fingers into his, and they headed toward the smial. Frodo tried to hide the strength of his reaction; the touch of her hand like this was still so new...

Daisy opened the door and greeted them with a warm smile. “Lily! Welcome home. Frodo... what a delightful surprise!”

Briefly, Daisy looked from one to the other. “Not that we’re not happy to see you Frodo, but what happened to Will? I thought he was bringing Lily home.”

Lily blushed. Frodo did not know why, but more and more he did not like to see her feel uncomfortable in any way, especially not on his account. He quickly volunteered for her. “He seems to have found himself decidedly distracted by a certain Miss Bell Proudfoot of Hobbiton.”

Daisy laughed. “Well, I love my brother dearly and always enjoy seeing him, but this is one time I’m not sorry he couldn’t make it, since it means you’re here instead. Perhaps now we can repay a little of what you have done for us.”

Daisy embraced Frodo and then Lily, holding her sister tightly. She guided them to the kitchen table, where she served them tea along with bread and cheese and a bit of cake. Hal soon joined them.

He turned to Lily as soon as he came in. “I’ve put your basket and things in the house.”

“Thank you, Hal. That was very thoughtful. I completely forgot about them.” Lily blushed lightly.

Hal smiled gently in return. He loved his sister-in-law dearly, and it was easy to see she was very much distracted by Mr. Frodo Baggins. He could think of far worse suitors for her. Far worse.

They spent the meal talking of the trip. Daisy could not help but notice Frodo looking around from time to time.

“Frodo, what is it?”

Frodo started like a child caught with his hand in the biscuit bin, and blushed. “I -- I was just wondering where Pearl was. I -- Lily tells me it went well at her birth... I wanted to congratulate you both...you, and Hal.”

Daisy’s voice softened. “We’ve given thanks to the Creator each day for her... she is all we dreamed of... nay; more.”

Hal nodded in agreement. “That she is...”

Daisy realized with a start Frodo was still awaiting a reply, for she hadn’t yet answered his question. “Pearl’s down for a nap, but should be up soon.”

Frodo’s eyes twinkled. “Ah... then I must needs be patient! Speaking of a nap --” He turned concerned eyes to Lily. “You should be getting one of those yourself.”

Daisy turned to her sister. “Is all well with you, dear?”

Lily veiled her eyes as she looked at Daisy. “I’m just tired from the trip. I’ll be much better after a nap.”

Daisy only smiled in reply; something was amiss with Lily, and her sister did not want to discuss it in front of them all. She would ask her about it later.

“Why don’t you take the spare room you usually use? The bed’s all made up.”

“It sounds inviting, thank you, Daisy.” She turned to Frodo. He alone saw the worry -- it was almost fear -- in her eyes. She spoke softly, so only he could hear. “You’ll be here when I wake?”

Frodo nodded slowly. Is she ill or only weary? he debated. Mayhap I should leave, but she so clearly wishes me to stay... A long moment passed before he answered.

“I’ll be here.”

Lily almost asked him to promise, but the memory of their first night in Bywater on his return flashed through her mind. She remembered feeling the distress emanating from him when he spoke of not being good at keeping promises. And she could not take onto herself any more of his pain right now, or he would soon see her fatigue turn to illness.

She sighed and smiled. Then she turned and headed down the hall to the room. Frodo’s eyes followed her, and he continued to gaze at the doorway where she had disappeared from his sight.

Daisy and Hal glanced at each other. Hal spoke. “Frodo, would you like to rest a bit from your trip?”

They wondered for a moment if Frodo even heard.

Frodo dragged his eyes back to them and blinked. “No, no. I’m fine, really. It really wasn’t that far to travel.”

Daisy looked at him kindly. “Would you like a little time to yourself?”

Frodo started, wide-eyed. “I don’t want to be any trouble...”

“It’s no trouble at all. Hal needs to milk the cow, and the animals in the barn need to be fed. We’ll go tend to them and be back shortly.”

Frodo nodded at first, but then his eyes grew even bigger. “What if the child wakes while you’re out at the barn?”

Hal looked down at the table, while Daisy put a hand in front of her mouth; both were trying to hide their smiles. “We’ll only be gone a short time, and no doubt the babe will sleep the whole time we’re away.”

Frodo did not look comforted by Daisy’s answer.

Hal shrugged his shoulders. “You could pick her up...”

Frodo’s concern turned to barely concealed terror.

“...or come get us, or even wake Lily.”

The fear on Frodo’s face diminished somewhat. “All right,” he replied doubtfully.

The two prepared to leave the kitchen when Frodo suddenly stood and stepped towards them. “I could always help Hal...”

Daisy looked at him in surprise. “I didn’t know you’ve cared for farm animals.”

Frodo lowered his eyes and bowed his head. His voice soft, he admitted, “I haven’t. But I’ve never cared for a child, either; not really.”

Daisy touched Frodo’s arm, and he looked up into her eyes. She smiled warmly. “It will be fine. She’ll most likely sleep the whole time. And we’ll not be far.”

Hal smiled and took his wife’s hand in his. “Besides, it’s not very often Daisy and I can be alone together, even just taking care of the farm animals.”

Frodo was confused for a moment, and then understanding dawned. He blushed slightly and nodded. “I’ll make do. I remember a bit from living in Brandy Hall, come to think of it. It was a long time ago.”

After donning cloaks, the two headed out the door together to the barn. Frodo watched them go and then sat again by the fire to think. He hadn’t been there long when his hearing picked up a whimper. He got up and followed the sound, tracking it down the hallway to a small room.

He stepped into the darkened nursery. The only light was a fire in the grate; his vision adjusted quickly. It was something from the Quest to be thankful for...

He thought of Lily’s father’s saying: ‘To be thankful is to know.’

As he approached the child’s small bed on the floor, a simple basket lined with soft blankets, he felt thankful indeed. Pearl represented new life in the Shire. She represented hope. He knelt by the basket and looked down at her.

Frodo smiled at the sight of her, and noticed something familiar; Pearl was wrapped snugly, swaddled in the soft yellow blanket Rose had helped him pick out at the market in November...

He sighed. Pearl turned her head toward him and made a sort of soft cooing sound, followed immediately by a long series of vocalizations which sounded like nothing he’d ever heard... he laughed, softly, not wishing to disturb her. It seemed for all the world to him that she was trying to talk to herself.

Something made him realize he should not startle her. He sat on the floor next to Pearl’s little bed, and simply gazed at her.

She was beautiful; a beautiful child. She had Lily’s eyes! Those must have been passed down from Lily’s mother. Pearl’s eyes resembled Lily’s more than either Hal’s or Daisy’s...

Long ago, Frodo abandoned the idea of ever having children of his own. That was before Lily. He fought the pain welling up within him. They would part tonight; he did not know for how long, but any length of time would be painful. He would have to try to see her again soon, as soon as it could be arranged. Perhaps he could stay in Deephallow for a time at the local inn. The thought gave him some relief.

Pearl had been studying his face with all the serious intent of a six-week old. She followed his eyes. As long as he did not move too quickly, he noticed she was able to follow his gaze, no matter which direction he chose to look. It was a game, and he smiled. He was rewarded immediately with a toothless grin, and he laughed softly. She grinned again in return. This was delightful.

Pearl managed to squirm her way out of some of the swaddling, and her left hand was now free to explore the world.

Memories of playing with his infant cousins returned; Frodo had not thought on those times for so very long. His memories of playing with Merry as an infant were clearest; he was even living with his Uncle Saradoc and Auntie Esme the night Merry was born. He remembered most of all the emotions of that night, the fear for Esme, and later the joy when Merry was there, and everything had turned out fine...

Frodo offered his right index finger to Pearl’s open hand. She made several attempts to grasp it, but after three missed tries, Frodo knew she was not going to have an easy time of this game just yet. He placed his finger in her hand, and she clutched it, very tightly. He was amazed at the strength of her grip.

He waved her hand a bit by slowly waving his own, back and forth. He was smiling instinctively, and she grinned anew, her eyes lighting up her little face.

She let go his hand, and when Frodo made to stand up, Pearl actually looked disappointed; surely I am imagining that, he mused. He knelt next to her basket once more.

He reached down gently and with his left hand barely touched the downy curls on her head. “You must be Pearl,” he spoke softly. “Hullo, Pearl. I’m Frodo. We have not officially met, but I was the only one who knew you were a lass before you were born.”

At this he grinned, and again she returned it; but to his great surprise, Pearl then suddenly began to whimper. He was astounded at how quickly her mood changed. Was it something he had done?

The babe whimpered again, this time a little more insistently. Frodo wanted Hal and Daisy to have more time, and he did not want to wake Lily. He was amazed he felt so inadequate to the task of picking up a tiny child. He had endured so much... he had faced orcs, and far worse... he felt foolish for being afraid of this infant. He searched his memories of Brandy Hall again.

Suddenly he smiled. “You’re in luck today, sweet little one. I seem to remember holding my cousin Pippin not long after he was born. Merry, too, you know, but I was only 14 when Merry was born... mayhap only 13... I’m not at all sure now. But it was daunting to hold a babe at that age. I was always afraid I might drop him...”

Pearl continued to fret, and Frodo along with her. “I have no excuse now, do I?” He started to hide his nervousness with a smile, then realized Pearl would sense it anyway. With that, he laughed at himself.

Frodo reached in and carefully lifted the babe into his arms. It was awkward at first, but he relaxed as his memory proved true. He remembered to place one hand under her head, before lifting her. Some part of him recalled their head needed support when this young. He did not try to hold her to his shoulder; he was too uncertain about how to manage that. But Sam had said it wasn’t unlike holding a sack of potatoes or flour -- just much more carefully done. He found it easiest to settle her in the crook of his arm, and was pleased when she settled quietly.

A rocker stood in the corner by the fire. Frodo walked over and sat down, slowly. Within moments Pearl started to fuss. He stood, and she quieted.

Frodo did not know, nor care, how long he would have to pace the room with Pearl before Daisy came looking for them. He was content.

Pearl studied his face and then his coat with great deliberation, her tiny hand attempting to grab at anything within her reach... his lapel, his buttons, his hand, when he showed it to her... even his hair, when he bent his head to kiss the top of hers. She managed only once to touch what she reached for -- his hair -- and she quieted for a moment, but he had to pry her little fingers away, laughing as he did so. Pearl seemed to frown, her tiny brows furrowed, as if she did not want to relinquish her acquisition.

I’d forgotten how sweet a babe’s head smelled, Frodo reflected. His memory stretched far back, back again to Brandy Hall, and to that same sweet smell of another child. It had to have been Pip, the only one he really felt comfortable holding... and that was when he was -- he thought harder -- 22. He had traveled with Bilbo to see Pippin just after his cousin was born. Had he ever really been 22? It was, indeed, another lifetime...

“You and I would get along just fine. I pace most mornings for hours.” Frodo smiled at Pearl again. It seemed she was paying attention to him, which of course was impossible... but was it? He admittedly knew nothing about these little ones.

A pang of desire struck his heart. If he and Lily could ever be together -- he sighed deeply and pushed the dream aside. It was far too much to hope for. He would be fortunate if he could see Lily again after tonight; there were no guarantees now. There had never been any. He was painfully aware of how far his dreams of her were from reality. She was in Deephallow now, her home. He would be in Bag End, a day’s drive away. Perhaps that other hobbit...

No, it was impossible. Not after what they had shared. He refused to believe it. Lily’s father must have been wrong...

When Daisy found them, she stopped in the hall a moment to listen to him talking to the babe but then stepped back, suddenly feeling as though she were listening to something she should not have. She approached the door again, softly calling his name. “Frodo?”

She appeared in the doorway, and Frodo looked up at her and smiled.

Daisy entered the room. “I see you’ve met our noise maker. How long have you been here?”

Frodo shrugged, and became thoughtful. “I don’t know. I heard a sound and followed it here.”

Daisy smiled and opened her hands to take the babe. “She probably wants to be fed and changed. It’s nearly mealtime for her.”

Frodo found himself reluctant to relinquish the warm little bundle. “May I feed her?”

Daisy was at first taken aback until she recalled he really had very little experience with babes, by his own admission. She smiled. “I’m sorry, Frodo. She’s not eating solid food yet. She won’t for many months to come. I still must feed her.”

She was amazed by the depth of curiosity in his expression. He seemed to be fascinated by the new information -- until he realized what she meant, and then he blushed deeply, down to his toes.

“How could I have forgotten? She... just two days ago, at Bag End -- at the party -- Lily told me all about how often Pearl has to be -- fed --” His voice trailed away, and he could not meet Daisy’s eyes.

Daisy almost choked on a giggle. “It’s all right, Frodo. This shouldn’t take long. Why don’t you see if Lily is awake yet.”

Frodo shifted Pearl in his arms. She is such a beautiful child, he mused. She is so very --

He ceased all thought, and closed his eyes, trying to clear his mind. He had nearly used that horrible, ruined word to describe this innocent babe. That endearment which the Ring favored above all others...

Frodo blinked several times, then swallowed, pushing the memory away. He felt sure Daisy had not seen his lapse in attention. He gave Pearl to her, and immediately went in search of Lily, easily finding the kitchen again. Hal was stoking the fire and looked up when Frodo entered.

“Frodo, who are you looking for?”

“How did you -- ?”

Hal grinned. “Here she is.”

Lily stepped into the kitchen looking a little less tired, her smile radiant when she saw Frodo. He returned the smile, walking to meet her where she stood. They both had to make a conscious effort to look away from each other’s eyes.

Frodo’s were filled with concern which he could not mask. “You’re still tired. Are you sure you’re rested?”

“I’ll be all right.” She squared her shoulders. “Where’s Daisy?”

Frodo answered a little self-consciously. “Feeding Pearl.” He blushed again.

Lily wondered at his reddened face and looked at him questioningly.

He spoke very softly. “I -- she -- you know -- please, don’t make me say it.” His blush deepened, and he could not meet her eyes.

Lily finally understood, and smiled. She would have laughed but for her fatigue. "We’ll get supper started for the rest of us, then... would you mind very much helping me, Frodo?” She set him to the task of cutting up carrots and potatoes.

The four of them spent supper talking of many things. Frodo’s curiosity seemed endless. He wanted to know about what was happening in Deephallow and the surrounding areas, and how Hal and Daisy were faring, but mostly he wanted to know about Pearl. He knew something of Pearl’s delivery and her eating habits; Lily had spoken of this at Bag End a few days earlier. But he wanted to know: how much did she sleep, and when? Was she ever ill? -- he prayed not! When did she begin to smile? All three of them fed him answers, which he consumed as a hobbit would a favourite food. Daisy and Hal made it a point to tell Frodo how great a help Lily had been to them since Pearl’s birth.

Lily wished he would eat more of the supper, in fact, for his own sake; but he seemed more interested in learning even than eating... he was a most unusual hobbit, and she loved him the more for it.

She became more quiet as the evening progressed, and could not bear the thought of him leaving. She also knew she should be feeling much better than this, and reached down deeper for the strength needed to cover the feeling of illness.

Frodo heard Pearl’s cooing before anyone else. When no one made to get up he waited a moment and then asked, “Is it all right if I get Pearl?”

Daisy gave him an odd look. “I suppose that would be all right, when she wakes up.”

Frodo nodded and stood up. Daisy opened her mouth to stop him when she heard her daughter cry.

“How did you know?” she asked, more than a little surprised.

Frodo smiled faintly. “I heard her.” He was not about to tell them how much more acute his hearing was since the Quest. How could he explain it?

He left the room, and came back with Pearl.

He stood holding her gently against his shoulder. He had summoned his courage and placed her there after all, one hand just near the back of her head, to help hold her if she overbalanced. He turned so that Pearl was facing the others. She was doing well, bobbing her head up to look about the room, at her parents, and at Lily, only to crash down again on his shoulder as her little neck tired of the effort involved. Then she did it all over again. Frodo first smiled, then laughed, at the show Pearl was putting on.

Lily’s heart leapt into her throat as she watched them. Just for a moment, she saw him holding their child. Her eyes welled with tears. In all her years of dreaming of him, she wondered what he would look like with their child in his arms. The reality of it was so much more beautiful than anything she had ever imagined. She needed to think very hard about her breathing; she felt overcome with emotion, and it would not do at all to faint now...

Frodo turned and looked up from the infant, then smiled into Lily’s eyes. She caught her breath, and pushed the illness away. His eyes held hers, and she found herself standing and walking to him. In unspoken agreement, Frodo eased Pearl into Lily’s arms. Lily spoke softly to the babe, who fussed a moment and then settled again.

Lily looked up into Frodo’s eyes and smiled. “She likes you.” She returned her gaze to Pearl, as the babe began to reach for her hair and make her nonsense sounds again.

Frodo drank in the vision before him. I did not believe she could be more beautiful, he thought; yet here she is. Perhaps if I pray harder, and more often, the Creator might keep her well, always, even when with me. She had been so tired today.

Was it simple fatigue? He could not tell. But he knew he felt wonderful, just as he had in the two previous days; days he was near her for several hours at the least. Today was the longest he had ever been with her, and he felt the best he had since -- since meeting her November 2nd.

Hal began to speak, but found himself silenced by his wife with a gentle hand on his. He looked at her, and she shook her head.

Pearl finally started to cry, breaking the spell.

Lily smiled. “Daisy, I believe your daughter has decided she has waited long enough for her supper.”

Frodo looked at the babe and then at Daisy in surprise. “But she just...” He blushed again but couldn’t resist commenting, “She really does eat every couple of hours, as Lily told me.”

Daisy laughed. “Not always. She seems to be in a growing spurt now, so she’s nursing more often. It will slow in a few days and her nursing will cut back again, until she goes through another one.”

The surprise on Frodo’s face turned to wonder. “She doesn’t grow at the same pace all the time? So it changes from day to day, and you must be aware of what she needs...”

Daisy assured him, “It’s not difficult when they are small like this. She lets me know rather loudly if she is hungry in the slightest."

Daisy smiled at Pearl and tickled her chin; Pearl giggled, and Frodo’s heart felt lighter for it. Daisy took the child and was about to sit down by the fire when she suddenly remembered Frodo’s earlier discomfort. She smiled at him and headed down the hall to the nursery, signaling Hal to come with her.

Frodo blushed once again. Lily reached up to touch his face, but stopped and let her hand fall to her side. Frodo’s eyes searched hers. His brows drew together.

“Lily, how are you?”

“I’ll be fine, Frodo.” She realized the illness was finally beginning to overtake her. “I -- I just need to sit for a moment.” She carefully settled into the nearest armchair.

Frodo knelt in front of her and without thinking took both her hands in his. He searched her eyes and noted the pallor of her skin. His voice was hoarse as he choked out, “Lily, you are not just tired from the journey, are you?”

She could not lie to him. Her eyes filled with tears and her lip trembled. Ever so slowly, she shook her head, just once, and whispered, “Please, don’t go.”

Frodo’s eyes closed briefly in resignation and a tear slid down his cheek, followed by another. He searched her eyes again and saw his tears reflected in her own. He felt he could barely speak.

“I cannot stay if my very presence makes you ill. I do not understand it, but somehow you are touched by the evil that was -- that is a part of me. I endured what I did to save the Shire and all those I love within it. Now I am harming the very thing I set out to protect. I thought I would perish fulfilling the task given me; I expected to die. I longed to... Perhaps it would have been better...”

Lily softly cried, “No,” and covered his lips with her fingers as she shook her head. She mouthed again, without a sound coming out, “No.”

The horror she felt at the thought of him never coming back at all was far worse than the discomfort washing over her.

“Please, Frodo, I -- please, let me get some sleep tonight. I shall be better in the morning, I promise. You’ll see.” She knew she should not promise such a thing...

Frodo slowly shook his head. “You will only learn to hide it better, until it is perhaps too late. I cannot -- I will not let this evil have its way with you. I can protect you from it and I will. I must. It seems there are some mistakes for which one never stops paying...”

Lily’s shoulders shook as she struggled to control her sobs. She wanted to put her face in her hands, but then she would not be able to look into his eyes... “Please, Frodo...”

Frodo stood, and Lily stood as well. She fought down the dizziness and searched his eyes. She could see him withdrawing, and softly pleaded, “Don’t leave me.”

His eyes closed tightly in an effort to stem his despair. It was useless. It only served to intensify the anguish in Lily’s voice as she whispered his name.

As they wept, he searched her face and could not stay his hand, reaching up to gently brush away one of her tears; it was followed by another. Very slowly, and with all the tenderness he felt for her, he lowered his head and placed a kiss on her left cheek. He lingered there, wanting to hold the moment in his heart, every detail to be remembered as clear as crystal, for whatever time was left to him. He could feel her breath on his cheek and taste the salt of her tears on his lips. Her skin was warmed from the nearby fire. She was soft, so soft! He breathed in some lovely scent which he had never known before; he had never been so close to her, not like this. Only in dreams; and now the dream was ending. He did not wish to take his lips from her cheek. To have her so close, to know that she cared so much for him, as he did for her: this was agony; torture. He slowly pulled away.

He spoke softly; he was trembling inside. Nothing was as hard as this. “Lily, I could not bear it if anything happened to you. It would be worse than anything that happened to me on the Quest, for I know I can prevent any harm coming to you simply by leaving.”

There would be no more chances to hold her after this; it felt like a waking nightmare. His world, which had been so bright only moments ago, was turning dark. He resisted the impulse to hold her, at first; he was sure that holding her would only increase the illness she felt. But when he saw her expression -- pleading, sorrowful, anguished -- he wanted to hold her close, to comfort her for a moment, if such a thing were even possible now.

He took her into his arms. She clung to him, welcoming his embrace. This was so different from their time together in November. Then, there was hope. Now, there was nothing ahead but the sadness and pain of separation...

What had not changed was her love for him. It remained constant; he could feel it pouring out of her now, like light, spilling into his soul, filling him. He felt her open her hands against the back of his coat, holding him more tightly.

It felt wrong to leave her, yet he could see with his own eyes the results if he stayed. He knew that as she filled him with her love, she grew weaker by the moment. He thought of those last days in Mordor; he was so tired and ill then. Now it was happening to her as well, insidiously. I must leave, he thought again. But how can I leave her like this? Is there no way I may comfort her?

“Lily --” His heart was in his throat; he had to try. “You are young, and beautiful, and loving. Your spirit --” At this he stopped for a moment, unable to go on. He was losing all of this; all of her. “More than anything else, you are intelligent and curious -- you learn so quickly -- there will be others. Someone will be worthy of you --”

“Frodo,” she cried softly. Her voice was nothing but a whisper, her breathing broken. “Frodo, no... there will be no others." Lily pulled back from him and placed her hands on his chest, lightly grasping the lapels of his coat. She laughed once, bitterly, and her voice became stronger. “There is no one else like you, no one --” She looked up again into his eyes. “Frodo, you know so much about me and still do not know...” Lily gathered her courage; he needed to know.

“I cannot love another.”

She watched the transformation of his beautiful face; surprise and wonder blended with the sorrow already there. Her voice softened and she smiled sadly, then reached up to touch his cheek.

“And besides -- how many hobbits do you know who prize intelligence in a lass?” Lily dropped her eyes before continuing. “...but no matter, it is no matter,” she wept and searched his eyes again.

“I cannot love another. Only you.” Her face paled, and she leaned against him.

Lily’s words pierced Frodo’s heart, leaving him momentarily speechless. She can love only me, and no one else? She loves me... I knew this, in my heart, I knew. There was no one else in her heart. Should I tell her I love her? he wondered. But we cannot be together. If I tell her, will it cause her pain, or no?

“Lily, dearest -- once again your courage puts me to shame. I must -- I want to tell you...”

She was still leaning against him, much as she was after the death of her father. He lowered his voice further, and spoke into her ear as she rested.

“My heart belongs to you. I shall never take it back; I could never love anyone else after knowing and loving you. I wish I had been brave, and told you sooner --”

Now his voice broke. He was leaving her with no hope at all. He had no hope himself... there was none to give, or he would give it.

“But I fear this -- this evil will eventually claim you if we remain together. How could I live, knowing I caused the death of the one I loved most on earth?”

She was trembling. He knew she heard his words, for she wrapped her arms around him again as he spoke, and held him tightly. But already her hold on him began to ease, her arms weakening. There was no more time, he could feel it. He allowed her to rest against him for another moment, his arms encircling her. He dared not delay any longer; it was time.

“It is -- for the best. Someday, you -- we -- will both see it. There must be a reason; there must be; we cannot see it now. We cannot see all ends.”

Frodo doubted he had convinced her of anything; he had not convinced himself. He gently kissed her hair. “You have brought me so much joy, Lily. So much more than I ever imagined possible.”

He was desolate. Words, only words, he lamented. Nothing I say will help now.

Lily knew she could not change his mind. His decision was made; it was clear on his face. She felt the illness rising within her, unable to push it away. If she wanted to kiss him, it must be now. It took most of her strength just to stand on tiptoe, and she needed to grasp his lapels again to steady herself; her own balance was gone. He closed his eyes at the feel of her soft lips on his cheek as she kissed him. He sighed, and tightened his embrace to support her; she was near to losing her balance, weakened as she was. He felt her linger there as she kissed him once more in the same place, then he slowly opened his eyes as she pressed her cheek against his. He swallowed the lump that was forming in his throat as he felt the softness of her cheek. With each controlled breath he took, he could smell the sweetness of her hair...

Lily lowered herself from his face and searched his eyes. A new colour was there, an ephemeral shade of blue-green, shimmering with tears. She saw sorrow there that was deeper, different, than she had ever seen before; and she had seen much sorrow there in the short time she had known him. She so wanted to help lighten the burden he still carried.

Only now could Frodo sense what Lily felt much earlier; she was slipping deeper, becoming more ill with each moment, and although this current sorrow was crushing him, his spirit felt healed more than ever by her presence. He wished fervently he could take all her illness back onto himself, but he did not know how.

Their time had run out. He lowered her into the armchair and knelt next to her. She was not gone yet; if he left in time, she might not lose consciousness. He took her hands in his, one last time.

“May Ilúvatar bless you, Lily Burrows...”

Lily’s eyes fluttered open, but only partly. He was leaving.

“May -- Ilúvatar -- bless you, Frodo -- "

She wanted to say so much more; if only she could think of the right words to say, he might stay? -- but she choked on her tears.

“Goodbye, Lily,” he whispered.

Her eyes closed.

“I am sorry for the sadness I have caused... for the evil which harms you. May Ilúvatar bless you and heal you. May you find happiness; true happiness, and full health.”

Before she could open her eyes, or even attempt to speak, he got up and walked out of the kitchen, dashing away as many tears as he could as he made his way down the hall to the nursery. Hal and Daisy just finished putting Pearl down to sleep for the evening.

Frodo knew he could not leave without some sort of explanation. “Daisy, Lily isn’t feeling well. I fear the trip has been too much for her. I think it best I return to Bag End now.”

Daisy nodded and left to see to her sister.

Hal made one last check on Pearl and motioned Frodo into the hall. “What about you? You really do not look well, Frodo, I’m sorry to say. Wouldn’t you rather spend the night here?”

Frodo felt panic rising within him. He must get away from Lily, immediately. He could not stay under this roof. “I do not feel quite myself. But I’m certain I’ll be fine. Thank you for all your kind hospitality. Goodbye, Hal. Please convey my thanks to Daisy. I apologize for having to leave so quickly. I can get the pony and the cart; please, see to Lily...”

Frodo shook Hal’s hand and went out to the barn. The pony would not be happy about making the trip back to Bywater so soon, but he could not stay a moment longer.

---------

In the dark of night, Frodo had hardly been aware of his surroundings. Fortunately, the pony knew the way. Frodo, lost in his thoughts as he was, would have missed Bywater completely if the pony had not stopped, reluctant to continue on. Walking all the way to Bag End from Bywater was more than Frodo could contemplate; he clicked the pony on.

He arrived in Hobbiton at dawn. After waking the stablehand, he paid him and then gave him spare coins as well, with instructions to have the pony and cart returned to the Bywater stables later in the morning, and with the last coin in his pocket, he bought an apple for Strider. He’d thank Will in person on the morrow, if he could manage to face him...

Frodo found his pony’s stall. “Hullo, Strider,” he murmured. A long soft tongue first licked the apple and then front teeth bit into it, munching it from his outstretched hand and finishing it appreciatively, nuzzling him for another. Frodo stroked his neck absently, perhaps even too quickly and too hard; but the pony did not seem to mind.

“My dear friend, how are you? I have missed you. It looks as though you’re being well cared for; it cheers me to see you looking so well... I’m sorry I was not here to see you the past three days; will you forgive me?”

The pony nickered as Frodo held his neck tightly.

“Strider, what am I going to do? How shall I live? What have I done to her? ...we were so happy. I don’t understand any of this... Can you tell me why this had to happen?”

A velvety nose nudged him for another apple.

Frodo momentarily hid his sad smile in the thick silky mane.

He was glad the stablehand was so far away, at the opposite end of the barn. Frodo had to stop himself from breaking down; he must get home. The tears were starting all over again, if he had any tears left in him, after the long drive alone from Deephallow. He needed to be off home, away from everyone...

With a gentle pat on the neck, he said goodnight to Strider and promised to come again at least every other day. No, no promises, he decided.

“I will visit you as often as I can,” he murmured. Strider turned his ear to Frodo’s voice, then looked him in the eye with his wise, patient gaze. Frodo could not tell if he saw compassion or condemnation there. Surely Strider would not turn from him?

Frodo left, feeling condemned within his heart.

---------

When he finally arrived at Bag End, he was relieved beyond words that Sam was not there. He would not have known what to say to his dearest friend.

It felt as though his world had ended. How different it was from that other loss! He had thought then that his life was over. Perhaps it would have been better if it had been. If Sam were here he’d have broken down on his shoulder, and then Sam would be miserable for him... and there was nothing, nothing that could be done.

He felt physically ill now, and sick with sorrow, both for himself and for Lily. The day had started so beautifully, with so much hope. They had both been so happy...

He looked in the mirror in the master bedroom. Sam had banked the fire for him; there was light. He stared at his reflection.

How could I have let it go on so long? I have broken her heart as well as my own. She loves me. I could see it in her eyes; it was plain in her voice -- it took me so long to see and hear it -- to believe it. We could not say it. I could not say it. What do I know of these things? I cannot even pray, he thought to himself.

No, you cannot even pray. Ilúvatar never wanted you to be together. You must realize this, no matter what Gandalf said... no matter what she wanted, no matter what you wanted. You knew better than to torment her like this, to play with her heart... it was very careless of you; look what you have done to her. Plenty of others will woo her now. Forget about her. She will forget you. She is lost to you. Don’t bother praying about it. You knew in your heart the prayers would never work, not for this. They don’t really work; you know this in your heart...

The voice blended so well with his own; he was taken unawares by it.

Unbuttoning the top of his shirt, he took Arwen’s necklace off and stared at it. It glowed faintly in his hand, but it was pointless to wear it. It had warded off nothing. Arwen gave you this in her stead. You will go to the West in her place. Leave the Shire. You are not well, you are sick; you will never be well. Go before you cause more misery for your friends. Go sooner, rather than later.

No, one small part of him rebelled. No. He ran to the front door and stopped on the front steps, searching the stars for help, for faith, for guidance. Please help me to believe. I have nothing left if I cannot speak to You. Nothing.

You have Samwise, Rose and many other friends. And you are speaking to Me now.

Frodo answered aloud. “But I want her. I love her. I love my friends -- I love Sam, but I need Lily. I need her to live. Oh, Creator, why? What must I do? Have I not pleased You? Is it because I failed?”

Look around you and before you. Have you failed?

Frodo swallowed hard. Gandalf, what should I say?

He looked around him and before him. All of Hobbiton was there, asleep, and beyond it Bywater. Beyond that, in all directions, Deephallow, Crickhollow, Brandy Hall, Tuckborough, Bree, Tom Bombadil, Rivendell, Lothlórien, the Long Lake, the Glittering Caves, Fangorn Forest, Rohan, Ithilien, fair Ithilien; Gondor... the King and his Queen. He looked again at Arwen’s gem.

No, I have not failed. It is all still here. He looked up again at the stars, and sighed heavily. It simply did not turn out as I hoped... Please bring her comfort and happiness. Since it cannot be with me, please let it be with someone. She is all I -- I love her. Please, let her find happiness.

You must have more patience, my child. I care for all who are mine, in my own Time. Sleep now.

Frodo staggered back to the bedroom, exhausted, and slept, still thinking of Lily, and still hoping for whatever was best for her. What that was, he did not know.