Lily busied herself in the kitchen cooking second breakfast for Frodo. At least it keeps my hands from shaking, she admitted to herself ruefully. He’ll be here. He will. Yesterday went quite well, except for missing elevensies, but even that turned into an unexpected gift. He knows now my spells have other causes than just the darkness, she assured herself.
She was grateful to be able to brush her worries aside when the now-familiar knock came at the door. After releasing a deep breath and smoothing her skirts, she opened the door with a sunny smile. Her breath caught at the very sight of him.
It was all she could do not to throw herself into his arms. How odd, she realized, to be without him for so long -- twelve years -- and now to miss him so desperately when parted a mere half day. She joyously returned his warm embrace, and decided anew she would happily spend the whole of her life with him, if only he would ask.
Frodo tightened his arms about her for a moment. The welcome feeling of health and wholeness pervaded him again, as it always did when she held him, just as the darkness crept back in each afternoon and night when they parted.
Does she know I go for long walks in the deep of night to keep the voice at bay? And that I must banish it as best I may every morning before I knock on her door? And that I will gladly continue the battle, if I may spend each and every day with her? Even if it is only for a few hours...
As though she read his thoughts, Lily briefly held him closer, and then they reluctantly eased their embrace. They sighed together, and laughed.
Lily led Frodo into the kitchen, where breakfast was spread out on the table. He mentioned the day before at luncheon how cozy this room felt, and she suggested they share meals there from then on. Frodo agreed to this readily, and seemed very happy about it. How easy it is to please him! she had thought.
Frodo began to reminisce as he seated first Lily and then himself. “I remember at Brandy Hall, eating so often in the dining room, because the kitchen was nearly always too busy, even late at night... But when it was just Mum and Da and me, the three of us at home together, we always ate in the kitchen.” He stopped. “I just realized I’ve no memory of there being any dining room in our little home. Isn’t it odd I should think of that just now?”
Lily poured them both tea and added sugar to her own. “I don’t think it’s odd at all, Frodo.” She began to eat her breakfast, which seemed to prompt Frodo into remembering to start in on his own. She smiled inwardly and wondered how often he missed meals at Bag End simply by daydreaming. I would make you seven meals every day, Frodo, gladly... She glanced up from her bacon. Frodo really was daydreaming.
“Do go on, dear Frodo,” she invited.
He came back to himself. “Thank you -- this is good tea, Lily... I have no idea where I was... Oh! -- I remember going to market with Mum. She taught me how to pick fresh and ripe fruits and vegetables there. Da complained about her teaching me what he thought only a lass needed to worry about learning, but I enjoyed the time with her, no matter what it was we were doing. She started to teach me to cook when I was close on 10 or 11.”
Lily let the amazement show in her face. “Did she now?” She only sipped at her tea, which was still too hot.
“It’s true!” Frodo laughed. “She started me with simple things like toast, and then eggs and bacon and tomatoes. I remember her teaching me to cook mushrooms in just the right amount of butter to enhance the flavor but not cover it up.”
His smile faded. “It was the last thing she taught me before -- before the accident. I didn’t cook anymore after that.” He paused a moment.
“I’m sorry, Frodo.”
“It’s quite all right... it was a long time ago, as I told you. My Auntie Esme tried to encourage me by offering more lessons, but it felt... I don’t know, somehow I felt almost as though it were something just between my mum and me. My heart was no longer in it. Auntie Esme kindly did not push me to learn. Then Uncle Bilbo became more and more a part of my life until he adopted me, and I went to live with him when I was 21. We kept meals simple for the most part, though he taught me which inns had the best fare and the best sleeping accommodations. Then Sam started to cook for me...”
“...and he has ever since,” Lily mused.
Frodo grinned. “Indeed. Listen to me, though, prattling on. It’s a dangerous business, Lily, letting me carry on about my past.”
There was no hint of irony in his voice. Lily heard only cheer, and some wistfulness.
He buttered his third scone, then slathered it with the last of the blackberry preserves. “I’m going to miss your jam.”
Lily blushed, pleased by the compliment. “I wish there were more to give you.”
“No matter. I have been indulged far beyond what I deserve! ...these eggs were especially delicious... thank you. Where would you like to go today?”
Lily was pulled out of her own thoughts by his question. Some hint of the illness touched her, but at the same moment she felt a certain confidence; I shall manage it well today...
“I thought mayhap a picnic down by the Shirebourn, but what with the winter drizzle yesterday, I’m certain it’s now far too damp... Which reminds me, was your walk back to the inn terribly wet yesternight?”
He smiled into her eyes. “It wasn’t too awfully wet. It rained not at all on my way there, and the puddles were few and far between...
“We could have a picnic out in your front garden today, even if it is only a patch of brown grass, if that suits you -- and save the visit to the Shirebourn for when it’s a bit drier, mayhap on the morrow?”
“Oh, Frodo! What a lovely idea.” Lily’s eyes sparkled with excitement. “You don’t mind we aren’t actually going anywhere today?”
Frodo laughed. “Why should I mind?”
Lily suddenly felt self-conscious. “You’ve seen so much, and been so many places...”
Frodo’s face softened, as did his tone. “Lily, I have no wish to travel far from the Shire any more; perhaps to Rivendell, someday, to see Bilbo. Perhaps. It’s possible, sometimes, to see too much of the world...”
A light came to his eyes. “For now, I should be more than happy to take an adventure with you just outside your front door.” He grinned again. “After we finish clearing up here, and put a few things together.”
They cleaned up the kitchen, gathered together bread and cheese and some dried apricots and cherries, as well as biscuits and cider. Frodo hefted the basket.
“I think we’ve enough to keep us from starving.” They laughed together and started for the door.
Lily stopped abruptly in the doorway; Frodo, close behind, needed to put his right hand to the doorframe to keep from bumping into her with the basket.
“Wait! Oh, pardon me, Frodo! I almost forgot.” She scurried into the parlour and returned moments later with a heavy blanket in her arms. “Something a little more comfortable to sit on.”
“Good thinking.” Frodo held out his arm and Lily took it lightly, as a soft blush tinged her cheeks.
They descended the steps to the only patch of grass in the front garden; all else was dormant bushes and dirt mounds where bulbs would appear in another month or two. The morning air was still fresh from the rain the day before, and the sun was out.
Frodo set down the basket and then shook out the blanket, laying it flat. Lily gazed up to see white clouds billowing against the bright blue of the sky.
“The sky... Frodo, doesn’t it look more like a summer day? Not like February at all... I wonder what it means?”
Frodo loved her for thinking it meant anything at all, and wanted to tell her so.
“It means the Creator is smiling on us today, my dear Lily. As He does every day.” He held her hand to assist her in sitting comfortably on the blanket. “And when we can be together, like this, I feel He’s given me -- the world...”
Frodo stopped short. Lily gazed up into his eyes; he was serious. She answered by revealing the love in her own.
He sighed, then released her hand. He sat next to her, cross-legged, as she carefully arranged her skirts.
For a moment, Lily picked at nothing on her top skirt, and then she raised her eyes to Frodo and found him gazing at her. She smiled and took several steadying breaths before speaking, for she did not want to sound as giddy as she felt.
“I used to watch clouds with my mum...” Lily began, and then stopped, startled by her sudden deep emotions.
“So did I,” Frodo answered softly. He gazed up at the sky. “We’d lie on our backs for hours and see what shapes could be found in them.”
“That’s what we did.” Lily’s voice reflected her pleased surprise. More to herself than to him she murmured, “We did the same thing with our mothers...”
Their eyes met and they smiled together, then lay down side by side on the blanket, their heads close together, shoulders just touching.
“Of course,” Frodo continued in a serious tone, “I had Uncle Bilbo’s stories to help my imagination along.”
“Hmmm,” Lily considered for a moment, “that may put me at a distinct disadvantage...”
“Not necessarily,” Frodo assured her. “I’m more than a little out of practice.”
Lily caught her breath and raised her hand to point at a cloud overhead. “Do you see the daisy?”
“At that size, I’d say it’s a sunflower.”
They laughed, and Lily continued, “You find the next one.”
“What about that one? It looks like a kitten, don’t you think?”
“The nose is too big for a kitten; it must be a puppy. There, that one -- is it a chicken?”
“A rooster, I think. See the comb?”
“Yes, and with that tail, it’s definitely Farmer Cotton’s rooster!” Lily asserted. Frodo chuckled at this, and they paused, waiting for something new to appear.
“Hmmm, that one -- that one looks like... I don’t know what that one looks like.”
“Frodo! It looks like Bag End! See, there’s the hill, and the tree atop it.”
“But the tree doesn’t look like that now.” Frodo could not hide the sadness in his voice.
“No, but it did, and it will again, especially with help from that grain of Sam’s dirt; I’m certain of it.”
Lily wished she could offer more than words of comfort. She turned her head just enough to see the profile of his face, so near hers. He still gazed at the sky. They were so close; she wanted to kiss him, just on the cheek... It would not do. She shook herself free of the feeling and again searched the sky.
“Lily--” Frodo gulped and hoped she did not hear. What he almost said was not yet his right to say. There was still so much to talk about; so much she needed to know. And he did not want to frighten her.
“Frodo, are you quite all right?” Lily’s concern was clear in her voice.
“Yes... I’m fine,” he replied slowly.
He adopted a conversational tone once again. “That one reminds me of Minas Tirith. There are the towers. It’s not really fair for me to use that one, since you’ve not seen it.”
“Where is Minas Tirith?”
“It’s in Gondor, and where King Elessar and his Queen, Arwen, reside. There! That one! The big, fat, fluffy one! That is most decidedly a coney. Pity Sam isn’t here; if he were, we’d be having coney stew for dinner.”
They laughed again and continued the game.
Frodo carefully kept note of the hour, and when it came time for elevensies, he sat up and reached for the basket. Lily began to sit up as well.
“No, no, take your ease... I think I am capable of plating our meal this time.” Frodo’s eyes twinkled. He quickly handed her a plate of bread, cheese, and dried fruit, and poured her a mug of cider, then prepared the same for himself.
They lay on their sides, facing each other, and giggled anew over the shapes they’d seen. After eating every bite laid out for their meal, Frodo put the plates and cider mugs into the basket, and they lay on their backs again, though a little closer, their fingers lightly touching.
They lay quietly for a time, until Lily giggled.
“What?” Frodo queried.
She giggled again, covering her mouth.
He could not hide his amused curiosity. “What? Please do tell it!”
“That looks like Ted Sandyman -- you know, the ears sticking out a bit, and the crooked nose,” Lily laughed.
Frodo didn’t bother to ask her how she knew of Ted Sandyman, all the way up in Bywater; perhaps when she visited Will... or Rosie?... He was too happy to care. He answered her before the cloud got away. “No... Yes! Oh, and look, the clouds have cleared just a little, so now he has a beady eye.”
The two laughed uproariously. They did not notice Hal peeking around the corner of the house.
Don’t know what the joke is, but they’re enjoying it, Hal grinned to himself. Good for both of them. He turned and went to the back garden to resume his work.
Frodo lost himself in Lily’s company, and then suddenly realized they were a little late for luncheon. He sat up abruptly, startling her.
“Is everything all right, Frodo?”
“More than all right,” he replied. He struggled to push away the sudden desire to lean over and kiss her. He swallowed hard and continued. “It’s time for luncheon, and I almost forgot about it.”
A soft smile spread across Lily’s face. He’s making sure I eat something regularly, she realized in wonder. Her heart warmed, and suddenly she wished once again to reach up and kiss him, but no... She sighed and sat up, and placed the plate of food he handed her onto her lap.
Frodo nodded his head in appreciation as they ate. “These dried apricots and cherries are wonderful... I don’t remember Mum or Auntie Esme ever preparing these. How is it done?”
“Well,” Lily explained, “it’s very important to get an early start, preferably before sunrise -- to take advantage of as much daylight as possible, which means everything must be prepared the night before. The other vital requirement for successful drying is a bright, sunny day.”
“What if it rains unexpectedly?”
“The fruit can be placed close to the hearth, with a fire going, but it takes much longer, and the kitchen becomes unbearably hot. It would be wonderful to dry in winter when it’s cold anyway, and the hearth fires are going all day, but it must be done in season, when the fruit is fresh. The drier the weather, the faster the fruit will be ready. One also needs to plan for working outside, close to the fruit, or the birds and squirrels and such will steal every last bit.”
Frodo’s brows drew together in question. “Has that ever happened to you?”
She rolled her eyes in resignation. “Yes. And it was just after my mum cautioned me to keep a careful watch.”
His voice softened. “I am sorry. Did she scold you terribly?”
An unexpected smile touched Lily’s face. “No, in fact... she didn’t scold me at all. I came in with tears streaming down my cheeks because all my work of cutting and pitting had disappeared into the hungry maws of the forest creatures, who must have come from far and wide, it all disappeared so quickly. Mum seemed to think that was punishment enough. But, you can be sure and certain I never let it happen again.”
They shared a grin as Frodo took her plate and mug and placed it along with his own back into the now-empty basket. Then they lay down again and laughed when they both sighed in contentment, their heads close together. Frodo reached for Lily’s hand, and she laced their fingers.
Such a simple touch cannot possibly create such intense feelings, Frodo deliberated. But it does... O Creator, how can this be? How can we ever be together, always, as I wish? And I know she wishes it, as well, in every glance and touch she gives...
He fought off the despair creeping in; it was always easier, with Lily near him, for the voice rarely found a foothold at such times. Frodo offered another prayer, requesting some sort of miracle, if it were possible; and he pleaded for some measure of peace for both their hearts.
Lily sensed his thoughts slip somewhere far away. She almost asked him, but let it go. His hand in hers felt wonderful; warm and strong.
The early afternoon waned as they resumed their cloud-gazing.
“You two keep lazing about like that, and you’ll miss tea!” Hal grinned, calling to them, as he rounded the corner of the house and headed to his smial.
They startled like guilty children, and then laughed. Frodo rolled to his feet and then offered his hands to help Lily rise.
She picked up the blanket and shook it out, and then he grasped two corners and helped her fold it. For a moment, matching up the blanket’s edges, they were very close, face to face; he decided to let Lily make the final fold in the blanket, as she was pulling it gently away from him. He tore himself away from the love in her eyes, his breath catching in his throat.
For a moment he was unable to look at her. He blinked to clear the fog from his mind, then gave her a wisp of a smile as she placed the folded blanket on his left arm. He picked up the basket.
“I’ll -- I’ll put these in the house, so you can go ahead with Hal if you like,” Frodo offered. “Basket in the kitchen, and blanket in the parlour?”
“Yes, thank you.” Lily paused, the hint of a warm smile lighting her face. “But I’ll wait here for you.”
Frodo’s smile broadened, and he hurried into the house, deposited each item into its appointed room, and rejoined Lily in moments. Without a thought he reached for her hand, and she laced their fingers once more.
They ran to catch up with Hal, laughing and breathless.
As the three entered the smial, Daisy placed one hand on Lily’s shoulder and the other on Frodo’s, and eyed them both carefully. Then she stepped back next to Hal, and exclaimed, “Goodness, look who’s been spending the day in the sun! Gives you both a lovely, healthy glow.”
Hal became indignant. “Them? What about me? I’m out all day, and--”
Daisy silenced him with a quick kiss and smiled at his silly grin as he blushed to his toes. “I don’t suppose it really matters much,” he muttered. “They do look all rosy-like.”
Tea was spent in conversation about clouds, rain, and food. Neither Hal nor Daisy offered any resistance to the notion of Lily and Frodo cleaning up together.
Hal was especially grateful, as he could finally tell Daisy about finding the pair outdoors, laughing together and enjoying the open air in plain view. He had noticed one of the neighbors snooping about, at a fair distance. Hal and Daisy knew well enough that Frodo would cause a stir no matter where he was, but that he was courting their closest relation... Well, they could easily imagine the stories being told. Today’s innocent activity should quiet things a bit.
Lily retired for her afternoon nap just as Pearl awoke.
Daisy retrieved her daughter from the nursery. She smiled broadly at the hopeful look in Frodo’s eyes when she returned to the kitchen, where she’d been sharing a fresh pot of tea with the master of Bag End.
“Pearl, love, would you like to visit Frodo?” Daisy turned so the babe could see the hobbit she had come to adore in such a short time. Daisy grimaced in discomfort as her daughter squealed with excitement into her ear, her little legs kicking away, as she tried to get to Frodo faster.
Startled blue eyes widened at Pearl’s obvious delight. The babe was now wiggling every which way, trying to reach his open arms. She squealed again, this time in Frodo’s ear, as he took her.
“Ho, Pearl!” Frodo smiled at Daisy briefly as he spoke. “You’ll never be lost with that voice of yours!”
Frodo held her for a long while, responding to every gasp, gurgle and coo with amazement and intense interest. As he had each day, he carried on a sort of conversation with her, usually in hushed tones as if plotting secrets.
Today he endeavored to share a special message with her of the thrill he felt in his heart that she was whole, and well. Three visits, three days in a row now, and still little Pearl displayed none of Lily’s weakness. Surely, if his illness affected the child in the same way, it would have shown by now...
He had not told even Lily of his fears that his darkness might somehow harm this pure dear maidchild. Now he believed she was safe, and he offered a prayer of thanks. It really must be only Lily; he pushed the unhappy thought away.
Daisy touched his arm and noticed how he struggled to drag his attention away from the warm bundle in his arms. “You need not stand there holding her. I realize she grows quite heavy after awhile. She will lie on her back or her belly now, quite happily.”
Frodo responded by turning his attention immediately back to the babe in his arms. “Pearl, your mum says we may play on the floor; what think you?”
She gasped and gurgled and grinned.
Frodo found a patch of rug safely away from the fire and lay Pearl on her back. He knelt over her and found himself suddenly pulled closer as a little hand, by sheer luck, grasped the gem hanging at his throat and pulled it. He gently pried the tiny fingers away and noted the frown and matching furrowed brows.
“Here, let me take it off. It will be easier for both of us.” He sat on the rug next to the child and quickly removed the necklace, then dangled it over her. Pearl giggled and gasped as she batted at the gem and kicked her feet. She successfully hit it most of the time, which elicited shrieks of delight. Frodo could not help but laugh, despite the ringing in his ears.
Then Pearl grew weary of the game and began craning her neck to look around. Frodo recalled Merry doing this as an infant and helped her roll over onto her belly; then he lay down in like fashion, facing her. Pearl raised her head and upper chest in glee at the new game. He talked and listened to her all the while, until she started to fuss.
Daisy noted the change in her child’s tone and picked her up; Frodo looked at her in question.
She smiled warmly. “Frodo, you’ve been wonderful with her. This is her ‘I’m getting hungry’ voice. There’s a little time yet before she’s truly cranky, but I try not to let it reach that point.”
“And fortunately, Pearl has a most thoughtful mum; don’t you, love?” He stood and brushed off his coat and breeches as his usual curiosity took over. “So they cry differently, for different reasons?”
“Oh, yes! There’s ‘I’m hungry’, ‘I’m tired’, ‘I’m hurt’, ‘I’m bored’...”
“That’s remarkable. And you learn to hear and understand them all and tell them apart...”
Daisy giggled. “Oh, yes, as there is also ‘I’m-frustrated-because-you’re-not-giving-me-what-I-want.’ Isn’t that right, Pearl?”
Frodo held out a finger for the little waving hand to grasp. Pearl proceeded to draw it to her mouth and began gnawing on it, and Frodo bit his lip.
“My, my, Pearl! That’s quite the bite you have there, and without a single tooth yet!” At the outer edges of his mind, Frodo realized the thumb of his right hand rubbed where a finger should be, yet no voice or cruel memory darkened his thoughts, so healing it was to have this little child near.
After a moment or two, she began to cry, disappointed, and pushed the finger away, then drew it to her mouth a second time, and started to cry all over again.
Worried, confused eyes met gentle, understanding ones as Frodo searched Daisy’s face. “It’s all right, Frodo. She’s hungry, is all. We’ll be back in a while.” Daisy chatted at her daughter to keep her occupied until they got to the nursery.
Hal entered the kitchen with an armload of wood and saw to preparing the fire for dinner. “How’d you do with Pearl today? As if I couldn’t guess,” he grinned.
“She’s so... so beautiful.”
“Like her mother and Auntie Lily, don’t you think?”
“Yes, very like her... mum...” Frodo blushed.
Hal smiled kindly. “Frodo, it’s all right to tell me you think Lily’s beautiful. She is. I’m just partial to her sister. I’m thinking she’d probably like it better if you told her, not me, though.” He raised his brows and looked past Frodo.
Frodo glanced over his shoulder and saw Lily standing in the doorway.
She smiled suspiciously at the two of them. “Better if I was told what?”
Frodo’s eyes darted to Hal and back to Lily.
“Go ahead, Frodo,” Hal encouraged. “I don’t mind a bit.” Then he grinned. “I’ll go see how Daisy and Pearl are doing.”
He patted Lily’s arm as he passed her. He lowered his voice, and then realized Frodo would probably hear anyway, with his keen hearing. He carried on in a loud whisper. “Go easy on him. I think he may be a bit out of his depth; he’s starting to remind me of a fish out of water.” Hal winked and chortled all the way down the hall.
Frodo blushed crimson and lowered his gaze to the floor. He wasn’t aware of Lily’s approach until he saw her feet stop close to his. Gradually, he raised his head until her eyes captured and held his.
“Tell me what?” she gently asked. Hal’s demeanor suggested it was not unpleasant, but Frodo’s discomfort worried her a little.
After releasing a shuddering breath, Frodo spoke, his voice timid. “I told Hal that Pearl was beautiful, and he said ‘like her mum and Auntie Lily.’ I could only agree.”
“There’s a bit more to it than that. I agreed with Hal...” Frodo’s blush deepened, “...but in truth, I thought only of you.” Somehow, telling her this stirred within him more than ever the desire to kiss her.
Lily blushed as well, her reply hushed. “Thank you.” She reached to kiss his cheek and stopped as Hal and Daisy entered the kitchen.
Over dinner they answered more of Frodo’s questions about Pearl, and discussed their gardens. Hal enjoyed filling them in on every detail of what he was planning for Lily’s back garden, including what he’d already planted for spring and summer.
“So, Frodo, who takes care of the gardens at Bag End? You?”
“Actually, Hal, no. I’m not much good beyond reading and writing. Samwise Gamgee is the master of the gardens.”
“Is that your friend Sam?” Daisy asked, and wondered about a servant being a close friend as well.
“Indeed, the very same, and none better... as a gardener, or a friend.”
Lily struggled to control her trembling as Frodo changed his fork from his right hand to his left and reached for her hand under the table. She held it in her lap while they ate.
Hal pursued the conversation. “How long has he been the gardener?”
Through the rest of dinner, Frodo reminisced about the Gaffer and Sam.
Frodo and Lily cleaned up while Hal and Daisy finished up the outside chores, this time needing no reminder. Lily wished fervently she could push the illness away a little longer, and was tempted to try, but remembered her promise. Frodo put the last dish away and Lily gently laid her hand on his back. He turned and searched her eyes. Neither could hide the sadness they felt at parting.
“Frodo, it’s been a wonderful day. Thank you.”
“I shall see you tomorrow for second breakfast.”
They would have embraced, but Hal and Daisy entered the room.
Frodo nodded to them and smiled once more for Lily, then headed back to the inn.