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by CRB and Ladyhawk Baggins

9 March 1420sr

The drive from Deephallow to Bywater had never seemed so long. Hal struggled to hide his recurring smile as his sister-in-law fidgeted beside him. She and Frodo had been apart for only a little over a week, but one would think months had passed. Hal knew they had written each other every day during that time. Some letters were longer than others, and she read them over and over. On this morning, Hal tried to tease her about keeping the post busy, but the banter was completely lost on her, as she would only ask how much longer before Bywater.

Lily was grateful to Hal for taking the time to drive her, but she wished he would move the pony a little faster. She reflected on her reason for this trip. She knew Hal thought her only excited to see Frodo, and she was, but she also felt great trepidation. This was not only a visit to Frodo at Bag End; this was a trial of sorts. Could she abide the illness that was a part of Frodo’s life? She was certain in her heart she could, but it did not spare her from feeling afraid. If it were her decision to make, she’d be coming to Bywater to marry him, but she knew in Frodo’s mind she was coming to see the worst. She also understood his fears of her being unable to endure it.

In one of her letters to Frodo, Lily admitted she did not truly understand what he meant about nearly having become a wraith. His letters in return told her a little more of the events, and more particularly the wounding, in October, but he wrote nothing of what happened a year ago March, on the Quest.

Her memory of Frodo’s invitation by the Shirebourn was still clear in her mind. He wanted her to know what his illnesses might be like, before they made any further decisions about a possible life together. The thought of a life together always caused her spirits to soar, and to wish again Hal would encourage the pony to move faster.

Will wrote Lily three days ago to tell her his apprentices finished a new smial the week before and planned to share it until one of them married. With the apprentices in their own smial, Will’s spare room was finally empty. Lily would miss being with Rosie, but Will was delighted to have his sister come, so he and Bell might visit at his own home as well as at hers. Will hoped to ask Bell to marry him, once his new house was finished early in summer. He planned to start working on it in the next month or two when business slowed a bit, only because so much of the other rebuilding projects would finally be completed. Once the house was finished, he would ask for Bell’s hand. Lily smiled at the thought, happy for her brother and for Bell. She tried not to dwell too much on her own feelings about marriage, but it was very difficult indeed.

Lily wondered when she’d actually get to see Frodo, as she’d be in Bywater, and he in Hobbiton... he would not know when she arrived. How she wished he would be there to greet her! She longed to gaze into his eyes again... and to... she blushed, suddenly afraid Hal would know her thoughts; she missed Frodo’s gentle kisses and wished he would kiss her again as he had on Strider, but he had not. She closed her eyes and heard his voice again, talking of his family and of memories long past, of the Elves and Ilúvatar, and even a little of the Quest.

Hal suggested she rest a bit, promising to wake her when they reached Bywater. He was not in the least surprised when she shook her head and smiled, a soft blush creeping into her cheeks. “Well, shut your eyes for a bit anyway, and try to rest. Don’t want you wearing yourself out unnecessarily.”

The smile on Lily’s lips broadened, and she did as she was told.

Hal gently woke her, a mile or so outside Bywater.

Lily stretched and yawned, taking in the fresh air of twilight, pleasantly touched with a hint of early spring warmth. The day had been so lovely...

“Thank you, Hal. I feel much better. I hadn’t realized how worn I was.”

Another smile was carefully hidden as Hal simply nodded his head. “You haven’t been sleeping all that well of late. I’m glad you were able to catch a few winks.” He struggled to maintain a somber expression, and asked as seriously as he could, “Will anyone be there to meet you?”

Her face clouded. “I don’t know.”

Hal could no longer hold in his laughter, and it burst out. “Lily, I didn’t ask if he’d be there, I asked if anyone would be there. Do you know if Will’s work for the day will be finished or not?” He quickly put his arm around her shoulders, and gave her a squeeze to tell her he was only teasing.

Lily blushed and smiled. “Oh, I don’t know if my brother will be home or not. It doesn’t really matter...”

Before she could continue, Hal laughed again. “No, I don’t suppose it does...” He grew serious as they neared Will’s home. “Lily -- Daisy, Will, and I are all hoping the courtship leads to... leads to... well...” he glanced at her, and smiled at her nod of understanding. “You -- and Frodo -- are in our prayers. What a blessing it is to have that! Anyway, we hope for the best...” Hal began to draw up the pony as a hobbit stepped out of the Cottons’ smial, and Lily caught her breath.

For a moment, Lily sat very still and then whispered, “Frodo.”

Frodo smiled and waved, and hurried down the steps and out to the lane.

Hal didn’t know how Frodo managed to be there just as they arrived, but he was grateful. Maybe this really would turn out right for them after all. “I’ll take care of your things and put the pony and cart up for the night, and then start back in the morning.”

He was quite certain Lily hadn’t heard a word, though she nodded her head.

Lily reached down for Frodo as he reached up to help her alight from the pony cart. Her feet barely touched the ground when they were in each other’s arms in a tight embrace.

They drew apart, and searched each other’s faces, drinking in the sight. Frodo began to lower his head to kiss her when Hal clicked the pony on, and he suddenly remembered they were on the main road; curious eyes were probably watching. Frodo once again embraced her tightly.

Rosie stepped onto the porch from the smial, quite pleased with herself. “Welcome back to Bywater, Lily. You and Hal and Will are having supper with us tonight...”

She let the sentence hang for a moment.

Lily searched Frodo’s face for a moment before responding; a small furrow creased her brow.

Rosie continued, trying not to laugh. “Yes, Frodo’s been invited as well. Thought it’d be nice if you didn’t have to cook your first night in Bywater, and knowing your brother, that’s what you’d be doing, if you wanted any kind of decent meal.”

The frown on Lily’s face disappeared in a soft radiant smile. Frodo returned it in full.

Rosie stifled another giggle. “Come on into the smial, you two! Then he can kiss you properly.”

Lily and Frodo glanced at a grinning Rosie and blushed. They disengaged from their embrace, careful not to lose touch with each other. Frodo took her hand and drew it through his proffered arm. Lily laid her hand across his forearm and he held it there with his own; she then laid her other hand atop his.

They stepped into the smial, and Rosie shooed them into the parlour until supper.

When Sam left earlier in the day, Rose felt quite sorry for herself, particularly when his last words were about his concern for Frodo and being glad Miss Lily was coming, instead of words of endearment for her.

She had sulked all of five minutes after he left, when an idea nudged at the edge of her thoughts. She considered asking Frodo to come to stay with them for a week or two, so he could be closer to Lily, but she knew he would refuse, not wishing to be a burden. As she went about her chores, she wrestled with how to get around Frodo’s worry over the notion of staying with them. A broad smile appeared on her face as the idea grew to full form. She was startled by how close she suddenly felt to Sam as she arranged with young Pogo Boffin to take a message to Frodo.

Alone in the parlour, Lily and Frodo suddenly felt unexpectedly shy, and stepped apart from one another. They glanced about the room for a moment, unseeing, and then finally looked at each other again.

Lily sighed deeply and whispered, “I missed you.”

Frodo smiled, pleased. “I missed you as well.”

They stepped into a warm embrace. Lily trembled, and Frodo immediately felt concern.

“Are you all right?” He could not hide the worry in his voice.

“I will be,” Lily smiled into his eyes, “as soon as you kiss me.”

Again, Frodo found himself returning her smile. “Then I must not keep you waiting.” He lowered his head and softly caressed her lips with his own.

His cherished memory of the sweetness of her mouth, something almost indefinable, mingled with his present joy. Frodo’s heart filled then to overflowing; with each passing moment he grew more lightheaded.

Lily surprised them both as she tentatively deepened the kiss. Remembering again their morning kiss on Strider, she sought a more ardent response from Frodo.

He had intended to keep their kisses brief, afraid of the harm such closeness might inflict. But he was wholly unable to resist her gentle request.

Even as tender passion enveloped them, Frodo felt her trembling cease; he felt her relax in his arms. It was as if she belonged there.

Yes, she belongs here, he realized. He opened his heart that much more, and let himself fall deeply into her tenderness, her urgency. She responded even to this. He felt her fingers in his hair, felt love even in this touch. She was warm in his arms.

For a few brief moments, Frodo was unaware of anything but Lily, knowing only the joy and healing she brought. For a few moments, he was even able to forget about the darkness, and his fears.

They barely heard the soft cough from the doorway. They broke the kiss with several more gentle caresses, as Rosie, hiding her smile behind her hand, informed them supper was ready whenever they could get themselves to the table. They held each other a moment more.

“Are you all right, dearest?” Frodo whispered against her ear.

“Yes, dear Frodo,” Lily assured him. She felt the touch of the darkness, but pushed it aside easily for the moment, as she offered a silent prayer of thanks for being with Frodo once again.

They tightened their embrace one last time, their breathing unsteady, and then headed to the dining room hand in hand. Each of them took a deep breath, in an effort to regain some semblance of composure.

Hal and Will were already seated at the dining table. Lily would have blushed -- they had not heard them enter the smial -- but Frodo squeezed her hand and spoke calmly. “When did you two arrive?”

Hal fixed his eyes on the plate of rolls Rosie was placing on the table. “Just a bit ago. We were going to go looking for you, but Rosie told us you’d be here in two shakes, and here you are.”

Frodo seated Lily and then sat next to her. Farmer Cotton offered a prayer of gratitude for the safe arrival of Lily and Hal and for the meal. As the mutton stew was being served and passed, Will and Cotton began conversing about how the repairs were coming along in Bywater and Hobbiton. Everyone else joined in, discussing the changes since November, except Lily and Frodo. They gazed at each other often, as though unable to believe they were really together once more; as if the other might disappear at any moment. They spoke quietly of the trip from Deephallow to Bywater.

Hal’s curiosity got the better of him. “Frodo, how’d you manage to be here just as we arrived? It’s a mite uncanny, if I do say so myself!”

Frodo smiled warmly. “There was no magic at all on my part. Ask the wizard.” He nodded his head toward Rosie.

Rosie blushed as all eyes turned to her. “It weren’t no trick to know about when Lily would be coming in. I also knew Frodo wouldn’t want to be imposing on us, by staying here, but he couldn’t turn down an invite to dinner and supper, especially if I sent it by special messenger, with orders to get a reply.” Rosie smiled at Frodo. “Then it was just a matter of him standing at the window, waiting.”

Warm laughter broke out around the table. Frodo blushed. Lily’s eyes sparkled as she spoke softly. “It pleased me when I thought you knew when I’d arrive, and arranged to be here, but I appreciate even more that you were waiting and looking for me.” Frodo’s blush deepened.

Hal laughed. “All right, all right, enough of embarrassing the poor lad. Thank you, Rosie; you’re very thoughtful. Frodo and Lily are very blessed indeed to count you as one of their friends.”

Lily and Frodo spoke at the same moment. “Thank you, Rosie.” They shared a look of surprise and recognition, then laughed together.

Rosie blushed lightly, but Frodo and Lily saw the sadness behind her eyes; she missed Sam already, and he would be gone a fortnight. “Never you mind,” she stated firmly. “It’s only what my Sam would have done if he’d been here.”

The conversation turned again to restoring the Shire, until supper drew to a close, with Rosie serving bread and cheese. Lily offered to help with the dishes, but was interrupted by Hal.

“Lily, you and Frodo should go for a walk. You need to stretch your legs after our long drive here. I’ll give Rosie a hand with the cleanup.” Everyone stared at him.

Farmer Cotton shook his head. “Rosie can take care of the cleanup and the dishes just fine. We can set here for a spell and have a smoke.”

Rosie lowered her eyes. “Thank you just the same, Hal.”

Hal proceeded in his typical jovial manner. “Nonsense. Rosie cooked a lovely meal for four extra. I can wield a dishcloth as well as a hammer.” He looked at his brother-in-law pointedly. “Will, you’re drying.”

Will sputtered, but knew better than to argue with Hal, whose ideas were a bit peculiar. But Hal was good to Daisy and Lily, so Will tended to mind him. Farmer Cotton shook his head in disbelief and pulled out his pipe and weed for a smoke, then retired to the parlour.

Lily briefly laid her hand on Hal’s arm and smiled, then turned to Frodo. “I’ll need to get my coat from Will’s...”

Hal looked up from clearing the table. “No you won’t. It’s hanging by the door. I brought it with me, in case you’d need it.”

Lily giggled, and surprised him by throwing her arms around his neck and kissing him soundly on the cheek. “Thank you for taking such good care of me.”

She stepped back next to Frodo, who laid his right hand on Hal’s shoulder; Frodo looked at Will and Rosie in turn, then at Hal, his voice low.

“You do take such good care of her, all of you. I cannot thank you enough.”

Will and Rose nodded; between the kiss from Lily and Frodo’s heartfelt gratitude, Hal blushed beet red. “Get off with ya’! Go! Or it’ll be too cold to walk.”

He busied himself at the table again. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught Lily’s and Frodo’s smiles. He winked, and carried the plates in his hands into the kitchen. The couple grinned back at him, and headed for the door.

Frodo helped Lily on with her coat as well as her cloak; Hal had thought to bring both. Frodo wrapped his own cloak around his shoulders and began to affix the clasp. He stopped, and looked toward Lily.

She reached up and touched his hands. “May I?”

“Yes, you may.” Frodo released his hold on the clasp, and consciously held still to hide the shiver he felt coursing through him from head to toe.

They nodded to Farmer Cotton as he sat smoking his pipe; then Frodo opened the door and followed Lily onto the front step. He reached for her hand and she met him part way, lacing her fingers in his. They paused; and Lily marveled that the mere touch of their hands still affected them both so. She wondered if it would always be this way, and asked Ilúvatar again for Frodo’s healing. Then they were down the steps and out to the lane.

“Which way, Lily dearest? Toward Hobbiton, or the Great East Road?”

“Is Strider here?”

“Yes, down at the livery.”

“I’d like to see him, if I may. I’ve missed him, and our riding lessons.”

Frodo laughed. “I suspect he’s missed you as well. Into Bywater it is.”

As they strolled, Lily noted the many changes since her last visit, over two months before.

It was mild for March, and tiny buds were already forming on some of the very young trees, which were growing at an astonishing rate. The grain of dirt Sam planted with each one was working its Elven magic. Frodo explained that Sam was in the Northfarthing, planting more trees in Nobottle and Needlehole. Sam had left that morning, with plans to be away for a fortnight.

They spoke of Merry and Pippin’s visit to Bag End in the past week, and of the news from Buckland and Tuckborough; Lily plied Frodo with questions about his cousins. There was much to tell, and Frodo wondered if he should speak of the Quest. The happier moments... but the decision was taken from him, for they were now past the Green Dragon and approaching the Bywater livery.

When they arrived at the stable, Frodo purchased an apple and gave it to Lily; then they found Strider’s stall. The pony nickered at them and dropped his head over the stall door, nuzzling first Frodo and then Lily.

Lily laughed. “Goodness, it sounds like he’s almost talking.” She turned bright eyes to Frodo.

Frodo smiled and scratched the star on the pony’s forehead while Lily fed him the apple. “I suppose he is talking, in his way. He’s happy to see you, for now he may tell tales on me, and play on your sympathy. He’s feeling quite neglected, since we don’t go riding every day as we did in Deephallow.”

“Will we be able to go riding?”

“I’m afraid Sam has Bill with him, and the stablehand here tells me they haven’t any ponies for hire; at least, none that would be to our liking... Actually, there is one for hire, but he is truly barn sour. He’ll only go out with a fight, and then he tries brushing you off against every tree and bush, and barring any success with that, he’ll run all the way home. I tried him.”

“Oh! It’s all right,” Lily smiled. “We shall simply hire Diamond when you visit Deephallow again.”

Frodo could not hide his worry. “Lily, what if--”

She covered his lips lightly with her fingers. “Shhh, dearest, let me believe... let me dream...”

He kissed her fingers, and she withdrew them with a quick intake of breath.

“Dear Lily, I don’t want you disappointed, or hurt--”

“I know.” She searched his eyes, but was distracted by the stablehand moving about at the other end of the barn. She sighed, and turned to study the bright blue of Frodo’s eyes. “I’m so happy to be with you; I missed you.”

“I missed you. I’m so glad you’ve come--” The worry crept back into his eyes. “It hurts to be apart from you. It pains me... I feel I shouldn’t tell you... it causes such an ache in my heart, quite apart from the darkness; it has nothing to do with the darkness.”

Lily nodded. “Yes, I know. I feel it, too. It is a deep sort of ache, is it not?”

She would have smoothed his furrowed brow but for the stablehand working his way through the barn, throwing feed. All the ponies now had their heads hanging over their stall doors, and most were calling to the stablehand. Lily laughed softly, hoping to cheer Frodo. “You’d think they were never fed!”

It seemed to work, for he smiled as well, and led her out of the barn and back into the deepening night. “I should see you back to Will’s. I’m certain you must be weary after your journey.”

“Yes, a little.” She tightened her hold on his hand, and he returned the gentle squeeze. They walked in silence for a while, enjoying the voices of the night, the muffled chatter and music from the Green Dragon, and the whisper of the wind in the bushes and the sapling trees.

From one of the houses they passed wafted the aroma of bacon, and Lily’s eyes lit up. “Are you coming for second breakfast?”

“If you are asking,” Frodo replied with a smile.

“Indeed I am. I look forward to returning to the familiarity of our daily visits, and our little routines... they were comforting... I missed them...” Her voice softened. “I missed you.”

Lily heard him breathe to speak, but he said nothing, as they approached Will’s home. She sensed something was amiss. “Frodo?”

“I truly am glad you’re here...” he began.

Lily stopped before reaching the porch steps, and Frodo stopped as well, turning to face her.

She finished his thought. “...but you wondered if I would come.” Her voice revealed sadness, and surprise, but no anger.

Frodo could see the disbelief on her face by the light of the lamp lit on Will’s porch. He nodded his head slowly. “I tried to believe, Lily. I--”

“But the darkness whittled away at your certainty... I am here, Frodo, and happy to be so. The darkness tells you lies. Believe me when I say I am where I want to be: with you.”

She caressed his face and studied it again, tracing his left cheek with her fingertips, and then resting her palm under the strong line of his jaw, her thumb touching the generous mouth she loved.

Frodo needed to close his eyes for a moment. “Lily --” He covered her hand with his own. “I --” He removed her hand and kissed the back of it, then drew her into his arms and held her tightly.

She returned the embrace, reveling in his warmth, his nearness, aware of his unspoken love for her.

They stood together for a time, quiet. Finally, Frodo pulled away. He searched Lily’s eyes and smiled. “You must be weary from your journey,” he repeated.

“A little,” she admitted.

“I’ll be here for second breakfast,” Frodo promised.

Lily smiled and sighed contentedly. “It cannot come soon enough.”

Frodo cupped her face in his hands. She grasped his lapels, and tipped her face up to receive his kiss, soft and gentle. Lily waited for the deeper kiss, but she knew he was protecting her, or attempting to, when he gave her several light kisses instead, one after another... Her knees weakened, and with all her might she kept herself alert, for faintness beckoned.

Lily smiled inwardly as Frodo released her. He was not aware of her struggle -- or was he? She felt suddenly more tired than before.

Reluctantly, they stepped apart. Frodo walked her up the three steps to the front door, opening it for her. Lily paused, and looked back, then briefly caressed his face with her hand once more; it was difficult to break the touch, to let it go.

“I shall miss you,” she reminded him with a smile.

Frodo’s intense blue eyes met her serene hazel ones and held them. Then, his gaze still burning into her, he kissed her hand, the warmth spreading through her, disarming her, almost finishing what his earlier kisses had begun. She felt wonderful and light, despite her fatigue. She heard his voice, and tired as she was, it sounded like a lullaby, soft and low.

“And I shall miss you. Sleep well.”

“And you...”

Then they sighed, and closed the door together.

Oh! Lily remembered. Our first long walk, in November! She smiled to herself, sleepy. This was just how that walk ended, too. She headed to bed, weary and happy, reflecting on the last loving look in his beautiful eyes.

Frodo paused for a moment and touched the door lightly, then smiled. We shut it together in November, after our long walk, he mused. Then he turned for the stable to fetch Strider for the ride to Hobbiton, and home.