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Sacrament

by CRB and Ladyhawk Baggins

12 March 1420sr

Frodo awakened late and sat up slowly in bed, blinking against the light from the west window. The sun must be quite high in the sky for light to be entering there...

It almost hurt his eyes. The Sun’s light has never hurt me before, he puzzled, not unless I stared directly at Her, at midday; light coming into the smial hasn’t hurt before... How strange...

With Sam away, there had been no faint clank of pot against pan in the morning hours, no first or second breakfast. Since the Quest, Frodo no longer bothered with them, unless he was near Lily. Sam had managed to cajole his master into eating some bit of second breakfast a few times in the dark endless months when he and Lily were separated. Poor Sam, Frodo reflected. At times, he was beside himself with worry over me...

Frodo was surprised at how little he missed the meals. Lily had been a little sad when she arrived at Will’s three days ago. She noticed he had lost a bit of weight -- well, if he were honest with himself, a fair bit of weight -- and for that, he was very sorry. She was always concerned that he eat more. But his heart was not in it when she was away.

He felt he was becoming less and less a hobbit; he was becoming someone he did not recognize. And yet -- and yet, with Lily here these past few days, his hope was being restored again.

Like a leaf upon a swift stream, Frodo’s thoughts immediately drifted to Lily, and his mind rested there, at peace. Seeing her made him feel alive again. Alive. Not dying. When he was with her, he had an appetite. Not a respectable hobbit appetite, to be sure... he could no longer remember ever having that. But when she was away, he felt diminished, and food meant nothing. When she was away, everything had less appeal -- less taste, less fragrance, less colour. He wondered if he were slowly going mad, for the dreaded voice redoubled its efforts when he was apart from her, day or night.

On Friday last, 9 March, just before Sam left to go out on his forestry work -- it was the same day Hal brought Lily to Will’s -- Frodo had asked his best friend for help.

“Certainly, Mr. Frodo. What do you need?” Sam offered.

They were standing in the kitchen.

“Please tell me the colour of this table runner, Sam.”

“That’s an odd question, and no mistake,” Sam smiled, but he stopped when he saw his master’s serious intent.

Sam tried to look at the familiar table runner as if he’d never seen it before. He wondered what this was about. It didn’t sit right.

“It’s red,” he said slowly. Then he elaborated, hoping it might help. “Red, with white trim.”

“What kind of red?” Frodo asked, staring at the runner himself. “What shade?”

“Mr. Frodo, what’s this all about?” Sam’s voice held a worried edge; but Frodo only continued to look at the runner, so he tried again. “It’s -- it’s a deep dark red colour, sir. Like a very red rose. Like those ones blooming in the nor’east corner of the garden.”

“Thank you, Sam. That’s exactly as I remembered it,” Frodo murmured; but to his eyes, the table runner now looked a strange, transparent red; weak, and not dark.

Frodo sat down at the table and touched the runner with his right hand. To Sam it looked as though his master wanted proof it was there. I don’t like this one bit, he chafed.

“Master Frodo, I’m leaving soon to go see my Rosie before I head north. Is there something what’s wrong? I wish you’d tell me.”

Frodo got up quickly and smiled. “I’ll tell you when you return! You mustn’t be late for Rose. Tell her I send my best, and convey my gratitude also for her willingness to chaperone. Come on, now; here is your travel kit. All packed? You’ve some apples for Bill? Good. I thought so...”

He walked Sam to the front door and got a walking stick from the corner, proffering it to his friend.

“Mr. Frodo, not that I mind, but that’s your walking stick. Here, sir.” He took it back to the corner and exchanged Frodo’s for his own. He knew something was amiss, but his master wasn’t going to tell him what it was; that was plain enough.

“So it was, Sam! How careless of me!”

Sam was not fooled by Frodo’s false cheer. Even my old Bill could spot it a mile off, he grumbled to himself; but there was some bit of real happiness mixed in with the sad part, too.

Frodo opened the front door, and embraced his friend warmly. “I’ll miss you, Sam. Please take care of yourself and come back safe and sound. We’ll keep you in our prayers.”

Sam smiled back, but did not bother to hide how puzzled he was. If Frodo wanted to be mysterious, nothing in Middle-earth was going to change that. His master would tell him when he was good and ready. He wondered who Frodo meant when he said ‘We’ll keep you in our prayers’... he and Lily mayhap? But she was in Deephallow...

“I’ll still be in the Shire, Mr. Frodo. What could possibly happen to me?”

Frodo stared at Sam unseeing for a moment, then focused on him once again. His voice became thoughtful.

“You’re quite right, dear Sam. We’re in the Shire! Nothing at all will happen. I don’t know what I was thinking. You’ll be back in a fortnight, then? The 23rd?”

“Yes, sir, that or thereabouts. Please take care of yourself, and remember to eat a good six meals a day? For your Sam? Please?”

“I shall be eating better this week than I have for a good while. Lily arrives today, Sam, and when I’m anywhere near her I have an appetite almost as great as Pippin’s.” Frodo laughed aloud at his own joke.

“But I knew that, Mr. Frodo! Miss Lily arrives today! How could I have forgotten? A ninnyhammer, that’s what my gaffer would call me now!” Sam chuckled.

“You’ve got the best excuse in the world, Sam. You’re thinking about your beautiful Rose. Go on, then.”

Sam embraced his master, and turned to go. He hated to leave, but the work needed doing, and he was the best hobbit for it. At the gate, he turned back once. Frodo nodded at him, still smiling, his arms crossed, leaning against the open door.

Sam walked on down Bagshot Row, toward Bywater and Rosie. It was good indeed to see his master looking so much happier.

--------

Frodo came back to the present, looking at the grate in the fireplace. He hadn’t bothered to stoke the fire last night, and the smial was more than a little chilly, even without the voice.

Indeed the voice seemed stronger these last few days, driving hard into his soul the moment Lily was out of sight at the end of each half-day they spent together. He went from feeling inexpressible happiness with her, to a sick blank emptiness when they parted, all in a matter of a few moments. And it took far more prayer and strength of will to keep it at bay.

He raised his knees up to his chest and laid his head on his arms, facing the empty grate. He had not told Lily; but somehow, she knew. Only two days ago, she told him how worried she felt. Yet he carefully hid the severity of it, as best he could. And what could she do, in any case? If he spent a full day with her, she would become ill. Lily wanted to try again, to see what would happen, but he asked her to wait. He had started to remind her that the darkness was growing stronger; she nodded and acquiesced. Within a few days she would see more of his darkness than she had ever counted on, surely... She promised not to ask again until the illness was past. He closed his eyes.

Suddenly he felt a wave of desire for her, so strong... In these past days with her, the love he felt was so -- he could not express it, so powerful it was. He felt such a longing for her, such desire...

It felt like another desire he had known, once.

He shook his head. What a horrible, horrible thought. Lily was pure and whole, sweet and loving. She was nothing like the other. She was Its opposite. Frodo was sick at heart ever to have compared them even for a moment. I must be more open to the darkness than I realized...

He shuddered. For most of the previous night he had lain awake, unable to sleep until after the four o’clock hour, when exhaustion won out. He was battling the darkness and knew full well why It fought so hard for a stronger foothold within him. The 13th of March was tomorrow. He shuddered again. Even the sound of the words caused him some pain.

Perhaps I really should not let Lily see me after all on the 13th, he considered, getting up to wash his face. He did not feel the room’s chill at all.

He poured water from the silver carafe into its matching washbasin, then looked in the mirror. Who was looking back at him?

Perhaps you are right, urged the voice. She will only become terribly ill herself, when you fall ill, and why would you wish to hurt her? She could die. You must keep her away.

Frodo suddenly realized that the two voices in his head -- his own and the other -- sounded just alike, for the first time.

He tried not to panic; calm... calm, he recited, and he splashed ice-cold water onto his face.

That will not help you.

He dropped the linen face towel before he could use it, water dripping down, very cold, onto his blue silk nightshirt.

No, no... no... go away.

You don’t want to hurt her, do you? You love her.

Yes, I do love her. Go away.

But I’m helping us. She should be warned to stay away. She must stay away. We don’t want her to become ill. And our love for her is too strong. It feels so strong... it is stronger than we are; yes. This love for her is dangerous. This love cannot be pure. We are not pure. But she is. We shall make her unclean, like us. Sullied. Forever. We cannot have her...

“Stop!” he cried aloud. “Oh Ilúvatar, help me, restal -- help me!”

He wept, falling to his knees, and buried his face in his hands. He knew he had only a brief window of time to pray, fervently, before It came back.

Please help me, Creator. I am losing. I am losing this battle. Tell me what to do. I don’t want to hurt her.

You must trust her. Stay close to her. It is the only way.

But it makes her ill! I don’t understand!

Of course you don’t, the darker voice insinuated. Frodo could still tell the dark from the Light. The Light was quieter, but always the stronger of the two.

Frodo pressed his face into his hands. Please, tell me again what You said.

You must trust to her, and to Me. Stay close to her. Tell her of this strong desire. Ask her for discernment. She is wise, and stronger than you know.

No she’s not. She’s frail, and you shall make her very sick...

Ilúvatar was gone. Frodo leaned against the washbasin stand, spent. He was alone with the darkness once again.

I shall go mad before I can ever solve this...

You cannot win this battle. You shall be the death of her.

I must speak to Lily before I lose the will to do so...

We wouldn’t do that, if we were you.

Frodo prayed for sleep, for surcease. It came to him, and he slept, there against the smooth wood grain of the washbasin stand.

----------

When he awoke it was late afternoon. He could tell from the angle of the sunlight. He needed to prepare himself; today he had been invited for tea and supper at Will’s. Bell and Rosie would be there, along with Lily.

He prepared a fire and heated water as quickly as he could, nearly burning himself as he stepped into the steaming bath water. He added another carafe of cold water to the bath and got in regardless; if he was burned, he would heal.

He immediately tried to think of something else... the colour of the square of soap... anything. For it was when he had a hopeful thought, when he was alone, that the voice attacked; and he had thought about healing.

He had diverted the voice, for the present.

His hands shaking, Frodo dressed in his best dark wine breeches, then pulled the first clean silk shirt his fingers touched from the wardrobe; it was a tawny golden colour. It was not a match. It clashed with the wine waistcoat he pulled on; but it did compliment the deep brown coat, which suited the wine colour... No, it was not a match at all. It would have to do.

He half-walked and half-ran the distance to the Hobbiton stables, and asked the young stablehand -- he could not yet have been in his tweens -- to post him the bill for Strider’s care that week, and he and the lad had Strider saddled so fast the pony was at first bewildered. He nickered as Frodo checked the girth and leaped up into the saddle.

“Come on, Strider.” He patted the pony’s neck. “We’re late. You’ll have us there in no time.”

He talked to Strider on the way, but there wasn’t much time to tell the pony anything, other than how he wished he’d remembered a cloak. It was beautiful now, the Sun well past four o’clock, an early spring sunset glowing in the west. After sundown, the air would be quite chill. There was nothing for it, and it didn’t actually matter.

“Here we are,” Frodo soothed, patting the pony’s neck once again. “There’s a good lad.” Strider knew the way to the Bywater stables by heart. Frodo leaped down and handed the reins to the grizzled stablehand before turning to race up the lane. Will’s house was only a half-mile away.

“I’ll be back tonight; I’m not sure when,” he panted. He was accustomed to riding, but the day’s lack of food and rest was taking its toll.

---------

“Frodo! Come in! You’re completely out of breath!” Will shook his hand and clapped Frodo on the back, inadvertently knocking just a little more air out of him.

Frodo smiled to himself. Will was the tallest hobbit in Bywater, and sometimes forgot his own strength.

“Yes--” Frodo left off talking and resorted to nodding at Will, as he continued to pant for air.

“Frodo!” Lily appeared from the kitchen and ran to him. He opened his arms and she filled them, and now he could not breathe at all, for joy.

She pulled back to look at his face. “You’re past time... are you quite all right, dearest?” she smiled.

Frodo only nodded, still panting. He wanted terribly to kiss her, but not here in front of Will, nor Bell, who emerged from the kitchen at that moment. A kiss in the presence of others would be acceptable after the betrothal... if there was one. He pushed the thought aside.

“Don’t tell me you ran all the way here?” Lily smiled again, into his eyes. “Your hair is damp!” She laughed, that musical sound he so loved.

“I shall leave my hair damp more often if -- if you’ll always laugh for me that way,” Frodo managed. He was getting his breath back. This was better.

“Would you like some tea? We’re all ready for you,” Lily assured, pushing back a dark curl from his forehead. The sensation of utter joy he felt when she was near -- the wholeness, and health -- returned to him in full measure, just as it always did; exactly like this.

“Yes, please; that would be wonderful,” he replied, but he only released her after another moment.

They made their way back to the kitchen for tea. Rosie was putting the finishing touches on the table.

“How are you, Rosie?”

She glanced up, and smiled, though there were darkened circles under her eyes. Before she could reply, Frodo continued.

“Mayhap I should ask how Mistress Boffin is doing?”

Rosie’s smile broadened. “She’s doing very well, as are Pansy and Marigold, healthy little bairns, and cute as can be; finally made their appearance just after the four o’clock hour this morning. Mrs. Chubb arrived in plenty of time. Did turn into a bit of luck having me there -- they really did need an extra pair of hands.”

Will and Bell entered the kitchen behind Lily and Frodo.

Bell remarked excitedly, “They’ve been having company all the day long. There’s the usual female kinfolk, but even Mayor Whitfoot came calling... Oh, I’m sorry, Frodo; you’re mayor...” Her face reflected her distress at the slip.

Frodo smiled. “It’s no matter, Bell. I’m only deputy mayor until Mayor Whitfoot is willing to take the reins again.”

Bell’s face cleared with a relieved smile, and the five of them sat down to tea.

Frodo felt he was starving. There may have been some small truth to this, as he could not easily remember the last meal he had. Oh yes, tea, yesterday, with Lily. He forced himself to eat and drink slowly, at their pace. But he ate his fill of everything offered, especially Lily’s scones. They talked of Will’s plans for restoring the house in May, when it was warmer.

“I’d like to help with that, Will, if I might,” Frodo offered, finishing his third cup of tea. He finally felt satisfied.

Lily was beaming, and Frodo knew it was because he had eaten so well. It was so easy to please her; he smiled as he saw her reading his thoughts.

“...could use the help, but how much carpentry work have you done, other than some of the repairs with me at Bag End?”

Frodo realized Will had been speaking to him.

“Next to none; only what you and I did there in early December. But I learn quickly. I only hammered my finger once, then. As I recall, Sam was rather amazed.”

There was laughter at this, Frodo joining in.

“I need all the able bodies I can get, Frodo. That will indeed be a help.”

“Will,” Lily interrupted gently, “Bell and I will clear the table and get these dishes done. We’ll still have time for a walk before dinner.”

“I have another idea,” Frodo offered. “Lily and I could stay here and do all the tea dishes and you and Bell could take a walk now. We’ll be out as soon as we may. We can meet back in an hour for dinner. Is that acceptable, Miss Burrows?” He gave her a small conspiratorial grin; he felt wonderful now, with her near, and after a good meal.

“Yes,” she smiled back at him. She then turned to Bell and Will. “Go on, you two. We’ll be out walking soon enough.”

Rosie pulled herself from her half-asleep state. “What’s this? How am I supposed to keep an eye on the four of you if you split up?”

Will glanced at Bell. “Bell and I’ll walk within the village limits of Bywater, so no one wonders where we’ve been or what we’ve been up to, and you can stay here with Frodo and Lily...” He could not bring himself to mention there would be far more talk about his sister and Frodo than about himself and Bell.

Rose sensed there was something more behind Frodo’s suggestion. “I’ll sit on the front porch, if no one minds. I can keep an eye on the road -- you’ve got a fair view of it from your porch -- and it will keep things proper with Frodo and Lily, and give me a chance to catch my breath.” She did not miss Frodo’s small nod and quiet smile of appreciation.

With the issue of chaperoning settled, Will and Bell were gone before Frodo could finish clearing the table with Lily. Rose excused herself and Frodo moved one of the kitchen chairs outside for her to settle in.

“Thank you, Rosie,” Frodo murmured.

She smiled in return. “I’ll be able to hear your voices out here, but not what you’re saying,” she reassured him, then teased, “see that you two behave yourselves. Don’t be spoiling my reputation.”

Frodo grinned and nodded, then returned to help Lily in the kitchen.

These past three days, they had washed the dishes together after nearly every meal they shared, and they fell easily into their old pattern, Frodo drying. Lily hated drying dishes. He had no preference, and teased her lightly once again for her vehemence about it. She was laughing back at him now, her eyes sparkling. It was wonderful to see her so healthy...

Suddenly he felt overcome with desire for her, and fought to stay calm and clear-minded. He was nervous about what he was going to ask.

Lily slipped off her apron while Frodo finished drying the last dish and put it away. “Are you ready for our walk? I missed you this morning... it was lonely without you,” she reflected, and touched his face gently.

His eyes closed for a moment, and then he took her hand into his and kissed the back of it. Even this small action had an effect on him out of all proportion to its seeming insignificance; but every moment with Lily was important. This was how it felt.

“Lily, before we go out, please, may we sit and talk? I do need to discuss something with you.” At that moment, desire swept over him again, and he wanted to kiss her, rather than to talk; but he did not dare. Once begun, he knew they would not want to stop. He was frightened by the intensity of what he felt.

“Of course we may talk.” With a quick nod, Lily led him into the parlour and made herself comfortable on the settee. “Come; sit.”

She studied him closely. He was clearly more nervous than he had been at any time in these past three days. He brought to mind a skittish colt she and Hal noticed in a field on their trip here.

Finally Frodo sat down next to her on the settee. “I don’t know where to start.”

Now she was filled with a mixture of anticipation and fear. What was wrong?

“Start with what is bothering you most,” she encouraged, “for surely you are troubled.”

“Oh, dear Lily, Ilúvatar told me you are wise...”

“Frodo!” she blushed, and resisted the urge to touch his face again. With her hands already in his, she was content. She wondered if he meant what he said about Ilúvatar, or if he had merely imagined it... She smiled for Frodo, waiting for him to speak.

Frodo returned the smile; then it vanished.

“I -- I need to tell you something, and I’m -- I don’t know how. But He told me to trust you.” His voice softened as he spoke.

Lily understood now that Frodo meant every word he said. The thought of Ilúvatar saying something so directly to him -- especially something about her -- was frightening. She went on, as bravely as she could. “Then listen to Him, Frodo. You must. It’s all right.”

She was so accepting, so beautiful; so dear. He released her hands and gently caressed her shoulders, noting the silkiness of her chemise under his hands and the feel of her soft auburn tresses against his fingertips. Even before he leaned forward to kiss her, she tipped her face up to his in anticipation. He lost himself within her kiss; he was lost and wished to remain so, for she responded eagerly... he felt his concentration, his reason, begin to slip away. The love he felt for her each time they shared these moments became more like an ache within himself...

He broke their kiss, sighing. They could have gone on, and on, but this was part of what he needed to tell her...

Lily’s eyes opened gradually. Frodo saw they were bright and somehow sleepy, all at once. Only blue flecks shimmered in the green depths. She appeared to be waking from a deep dream.

“Tell me I have not hurt you,” he pleaded, breathlessly.

“I am well... very well indeed,” she smiled, and then met his eyes. “I am overjoyed, dearest Frodo. I am with you, the only place I wish to be... What more could I ever need, or want?”

Her declaration was one of love, and caused Frodo’s heart to swell within his breast; he fought down the desire to take her in his arms fully. Instead, he studied her eyes, looking deeply into them, as if for the first time...

...like that morning on Strider, Lily realized. Her breath caught as she saw once more the intensity of his love. She could hide nothing from that azure gaze; her soul was exposed. She was very glad there was nothing to hide.

Lily moved close to kiss him again, but Frodo stopped her by placing his fingers lightly on her mouth. She gently kissed them and he took them away.

“What is wrong, dear Frodo? Please tell me.”

He had to start somehow.

“I’m afraid of how -- how intense this feels. I... what I feel for you is as strong... is stronger than...” he stopped. “I’ve never felt anything like this except--”

He stood up suddenly, unable to face her. But Ilúvatar told him to trust her...

“...except the Ring,” he faltered, finishing his thought. He could not meet her eyes, and began to pace in front of her.

“I don’t know what it means,” he continued in a rush. “I don’t know if what I feel for you is pure, Lily. I think it is, and I want it to be, but when you are near, I --” Again he faltered.

She looked up at him expectantly, and endeavored to maintain a sense of calm.

“Yes? Go on, dearest.”

She was so understanding. He could not lose her...

“I feel I want to -- to possess you; to own you in some way. I feel much stronger with you than without you. I feel ill when we part. I feel such--” His voice softened, “such desire, Lily...”

He stopped pacing and looked down into her eyes. She was lovelier than ever. It must be because she was not being harmed; their short visits were working...

“I think of you every waking moment. I dream of you at night, when I manage to find any sleep. I have no desire to eat or drink when we are parted. I want you too much, Lily. I don’t understand it.”

“It is love, Frodo. I feel the same way for you; I feel all of it.” She stood to approach him.

He held up his hands in a gesture meant to halt her. “Please, just for the moment, don’t -- I’m sorry, forgive me! -- please don’t come closer.”

Lily stopped, surprised but not angry. She continued to study his eyes, for they always told her more than his words ever could.

Frodo stared at the floor for a moment. “Please tell me why this is all right. I want you too much. I need you too much. I cannot say the rest, not yet, but I want to say it as well.” He raised pained eyes to hers. “Is this really how love feels, Lily?”

She considered her words carefully. “From everything I have ever heard, and known, with you, this is how it feels, dearest. You needn’t be afraid.”

“The only love I have ever known... no; I loved my mum and da, I love Samwise, and Bilbo -- but this is not the same...

“It is desire... the only desire I have ever known before -- before you, was--” he sighed, “--was for the Ring. I wanted to possess It. It was not a pure desire. It was evil. I should not want to possess you, Lily. You are not a thing, to be possessed.” His voice took on an anguished tone. “I am impure, and you are pure. If -- if we marry, you’ll no longer be pure. I shall corrupt you. The darkness still lives in me. I cannot deny it, and I cannot banish it. I don’t know how...”

“Dearest Frodo! This is nothing like the Ring! How may I convince you? I -- I want to be possessed, in all ways, by you.”

She glanced away for a moment. That had been a very bold thing to say. But when she looked up again, Frodo was still waiting for her to speak, seemingly awaiting an answer...

“Tell me this, Frodo: did the Ring want to be possessed?” She was not sure, even, what that meant... but Frodo seemed to know.

“Yes.” His face was crestfallen, and weary.

Lily realized she was not on a good road. She tried again.

“I’m sorry; I don’t comprehend the Ring -- but I know you. Frodo, your heart is pure. Your soul has been wounded desperately in some way I do not fully understand. But I cannot believe you will corrupt me. You are not evil.”

“Why then does my presence make you ill? How can we ever be together for a whole lifetime?”

Her heart leapt at his words. She kept her voice even. “It is not you which causes the illness, but that darkness within you. There is so much I do not know, but I do know for now we can only continue to pray, and trust, as you taught me, Frodo. Trust. Even Ilúvatar told you this...”

He said nothing at all, but stood staring at her with tears in his eyes.

She searched her heart for something to convince him. “Dearest Frodo. Please listen...”

“I am listening, Lily. He told me to listen to you.” The tears made his beautiful eyes appear blue-green.

Her heart tightened. “Please understand; I don’t wish to hurt you, Frodo.” She took a very deep breath, and let it out gradually, giving herself a moment longer to think.

Finally, she asked, “In the end, could you give up the Ring?”

She knew his reply, for he had told her of it before, as had Samwise.

He hung his head. His whisper was so low she could barely hear him.

“No. I could not. I wanted It for my own. I could not give It up.”

Lily continued, her voice gentle. “Frodo, if I were to tell you I loved another, and he loved me, and I could only be happy, truly happy, with this other hobbit, would you set me free? Would you give me up?”

He stared at her in wonder and fear. It took him longer to reply than he wished, but he knew the truth. He spoke as steadily as he could.

“Yes.” He paused. “It would break my heart unto death. But I would give you up, if it meant giving you happiness, Lily. I could not ever hold you against your will.”

She gazed up at him for a long moment, meeting his eyes. He allowed it now.

“Then how is this anything like the Ring, Frodo? You would give me up, no matter the cost to you, to make me happy, be it with another hobbit, or simply parted from you, for the sake of my health -- though my presence eases your pain. But you could not give up the Ring, not for anything, even knowing It would have claimed your soul, your life, and all else you hold dear; It would have stolen all life on earth...”

Frodo began to tremble. “Ilúvatar spoke to me, in my mind and heart, and told me you were wise. You are wise, and beautiful, strong, and patient...”

When Frodo spoke again his voice held hope. “I will try to trust to Ilúvatar, and to you. Perhaps He was right -- months ago, He told me -- mayhap I was meant to live.” His eyes were full of gratitude, and tired wonder.

She stood and went to him; he held her so tightly she could barely breathe. Now her tears were falling, wetting the softness of his deep brown coat. He stroked her hair and kissed it.

“Dear Lily! I want to hold you close forever. I want to know each breath you draw... Do you know how often you have saved me?” He searched her eyes. “I have lost count. You are such a gift. How shall I ever thank you?”

His question was partly rhetorical; her reply came as a surprise.

“Allow me to come and take care of you at Bag End, when your illness comes; the one which shall befall you on the morrow. Rosie would be with me when I visit you. Samwise’s gaffer has invited Rose and me to visit him, while Sam is away... I want to be closer to you if you should need me. This is all I ask.”

He released her and became suddenly tense, stepping back. “I was going to ask you the opposite. I was going to ask you to stay away.”

“But why should I wish to do that? I need to help you.” Lily tried to search his eyes, but he would not look at her.

“I -- I don’t know.” Frodo became increasingly agitated, looking first at the floor, then away; anywhere but her eyes. “I don’t know what will happen.” He met her gaze briefly and looked away again.

“I’m afraid. I don’t know -- Lily, what if you become so ill... you die?”

She swallowed hard, endeavoring to conceal her growing fear. “Dearest, we must place more faith in the Creator. We must trust Him. Let me stay close. Let Rose and me come and watch over you tonight.”

Frodo’s eyes widened in fear. “No! no... no. I -- no. I cannot tell you not to be with Rose. But please, do not come into Bag End tonight. I truly don’t know what might happen. I feel the darkness more and more each day, Lily. It seems to be fighting with me. I don’t know what I may say... or do.”

“You care for me... I truly cannot imagine you would do anything to hurt me.”

Frodo was silent.

“What’s wrong? Please, can’t you tell me?”

“On the Quest, there were things I said to Sam, and things I did... Lily, I cannot even tell you... You don’t know. Please, I beg you, do not ask me to tell you of the evil, but trust me when I say It has influenced me to do what I never believed I could.”

Lily’s own concern grew. “Frodo, it is almost as though you believe the darkness is stronger than Ilúvatar.”

“Sometimes, it feels as though It is.” A tear slid down Frodo’s cheek.

Lily sighed, and tenderly wiped the tear away. “Frodo, Ilúvatar created us. He shall provide a way through this; I know it. I know.”

Frodo struggled to hold back further tears. “Please, Lily, please, I beg you, do not come tonight. Please...”

A gentle smile touched Lily’s lips. “All right. I shall not stay there tonight. But I shall be near, and shall send Sam’s da to visit you on the morrow, after second breakfast... is that agreeable?”

Frodo nodded, and she released the breath she had been holding. She sensed the tension leave him, but suddenly he seemed very tired. She began to feel it now, as well.

“Lily?” Frodo reached to touch her hair again, but stopped.

“Yes, Frodo?”

“I need to tell you something your father told me just before he died.”

This was unexpected, and new tears sprang to her eyes.

“Your -- your question about my willingness to release you to another hobbit reminded me of it. I am sorry I did not tell you this before. I can only beg your forgiveness, although I do not deserve it.” His voice was sorrowful.

“What did he say?” she cried. “Was it something bad?” What could her da have said, that Frodo would have kept it from her all this time?

Frodo could not bear to see her comfortless like this. He held her again, and she welcomed the warmth of his arms.

“No, it is not bad,” he whispered. “He said you were holding your heart for someone. He said you needed to marry. He said you needed to -- to stop dreaming, to stop waiting for him, for a certain hobbit... but he never gave a name.”

He paused, and his voice remained gentle. “Lily, is there someone else who would make you happier? Must I someday release you?”

Now she wept against him without reserve. “Oh, Da... oh, how I wish he were here! I wish my mum were here. If I did not have you...”

She leaned back just enough to start to wipe away her tears with her hand, but Frodo did it for her. He was once again avoiding her eyes. She waited, silent, until he met her steady gaze.

“Frodo, you are the one I was waiting for. The one I was dreaming of. It was you. It has always been you.”

He sighed, deeply, and shuddered, then drew her close again.

“Lily?” he whispered gently against her ear, “How long? Did we ever meet again, in all those years between the Bywater Fair, and this past November?”

Her tears fell harder, and she held him tightly, speaking between wracking sobs.

“No -- never. Da... was speaking of you, Frodo... He never knew the name of the one I was waiting for. I never told him. In truth, I never told him there was anyone, but Mum knew, and -- and,” she took a deep breath between sobs, “-- she must have told him. I did listen -- for any news I could ever hear of you, but I -- I never dreamed we could really meet again... I hoped; I wished... but I didn’t believe I could ever have any of this, all of this, with you... And the joy of having you near is worth far more to me than the discomfort of any illness I might suffer for being with you.”

“Oh, dearest Lily...”

Frodo held her tightly and let her continue to cry, stroking her hair. This was the answer he dared not hope for. He could not say more, but he kissed her, once, tenderly. Then his own tears fell, and he buried his face in her hair.

They held each other, not moving from the spot, until they heard Rosie call.

“Will! Bell! Good to see you back. I trust you behaved yourselves?”

Lily gazed into Frodo’s eyes, and they shared a smile. He whispered, “Rose is a treasure.” Lily nodded.

Rosie, Bell, and Will entered the house and found Frodo and Lily starting dinner; they set to helping as well. They carefully avoided mentioning the tell-tale signs of tears they noted.

Will cleared his throat. “Lily, I hate to cut your visit here short, but Bell’s cousin, Tom Proudfoot, in Willowbottom -- well, he’s got a problem with his barn. Near as I can tell from what I’ve been told, it’s all but torn apart by the new bull. Tom didn’t prepare proper. I said I’d go and help them out. It’ll take a week at least, I think. Bell will come with me, and then we’ll go on to Deephallow to visit Daisy and Hal for a few days...”

“It’s all right, Will -- Rose has asked me to spend several days with her at Mr. Gamgee’s.” Lily glanced at Frodo. He couldn’t object to her being at the Gaffer’s now.

Frodo smiled in return, seeming to know what she was thinking.

Will blinked in surprise. Bell’s da had caught them on their walk, and told them of the predicament. Will readily agreed to help out, but fretted all the way home about what he would tell his sister. He knew she would be badly disappointed about needing to leave so abruptly...

Now, she and Rosie would be at the Gaffer’s. It was closer to Frodo. Will could imagine how pleased his sister must be with that prospect. Still, he worried for a moment about what folk might think. He settled his own fears by reminding himself it would be no better or worse than what they thought now.

Frodo pulled Lily aside and whispered in her ear. “If I didn’t know better, I’d almost believe you arranged all this.”

Lily’s brows raised in surprise. She glanced at him, prepared to defend herself, then caught the teasing twinkle in his eyes. She lifted her chin. “Mayhap I did...”

Frodo laughed out loud. His fears about the increasing desire he felt for her were completely gone, and -- there was no other hobbit, but him. He marveled at his feeling of well-being.

Lily’s expression turned mock-haughty, and her eyes gleamed. “You never know, Mr. Baggins. Mayhap some of that Elvish magic Sam’s been spreading about to help the trees grow is seeping throughout the Shire and now grants wishes, as well.”

Frodo stopped laughing for a moment to consider her explanation, and then Lily giggled.

“Miss Burrows,” Frodo reprimanded her, barely able to conceal his smile, “are your brother and sister aware you tell tales?”

Will laughed. “Frodo! How do you think she survived being the youngest?”

Frodo drew his brows together. “Why should that matter?”

Will laughed all the harder. “You didn’t have any brothers or sisters to blame when Mum’s favourite flower pot was broken...”

Frodo raised his brows higher. “She would lie?”

“No! No.” Will found it increasingly difficult to control his laughter. “That’s just it. She never lies when it matters, but she can weave such a story -- until all attention’s drawn from the original question! -- which of course is finally forgotten.”

Frodo glanced at Lily questioningly.

She smiled serenely. “It’s a gift. You’ve no idea how many times Will and Daisy tried to blame me for various mishaps simply because I was the youngest, and generally unable to defend myself. I wasn’t bigger or smarter, by virtue of age difference, so I learned to be... creative. Now, I can only believe Ilúvatar gave me the gift to even the playing field, so to speak.”

They all laughed, and as she dried her eyes, Rosie looked to the practical side. “When’ll you be leaving, Will?”

“Tomorrow, first thing; after first breakfast.”

“Well, Lily, we’ll send Pogo to the Gaffer’s to let him know we’re coming tonight. Frodo, do I remember right, you brought Strider?”

Frodo nodded.

“We’ll use him as our packpony and walk with you. If you don’t mind, of course?” She smiled at Frodo’s bemused expression. “Are things moving a little too fast?”

Frodo shook himself. “No, just unexpectedly.”

Rosie laughed. “Most unusual for Shire folk.”

---------

Over dinner and supper, they discussed their plans, and when Rosie tried to make some plans for the next day, Lily assured her that she and Frodo had already made arrangements; she would tell Rose later.

Lily struggled to hide the excitement she felt at being closer to Frodo, and her relief at not needing to explain anything to Will. He was better off not knowing about Frodo’s coming illness, as he would simply have fretted the whole time he was away.