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Sacrament

by CRB and Ladyhawk Baggins

17 March 1420sr

Lily woke early, just after dawn. She stretched and smiled happily. Frodo took all his broth yesternight, though again he did not seem to truly wake. But she trusted Gandalf; Frodo would wake today.

She rose and washed her face, then slipped on her skirts and vest, humming to herself. After brushing her hair, she tied it back with her green ribbon. She glanced at herself in the looking glass in the corner of the room, and smiled.

“My room, at Bag End... Lily Burrows, did you ever dream you’d truly be here? Only in your wildest, most private imaginings...” She giggled to herself, then sighed.

It is not over yet, she reflected. I still must convince Frodo I am safe, and yet, he must choose for himself... He chose for himself to bear the Ring...

She stared hard into the looking glass, her words hushed. “Will he give in to his fears -- the darkness -- or choose me?”

Tears started in her eyes, and she dashed them away. “It isn’t over yet, and now there is true hope. Ilúvatar, help him choose me...”

---------

Merry and Pippin repaired to the back garden, easily coaxing Gandalf to accompany them for a morning pipe, while in the master bedroom, Rosie and Lily were again carefully spooning broth into Frodo. Lily would ask him to open his mouth, then tell him to swallow.

Warmth, in his mouth... coating his throat, filling the intense ache in his middle... Beef broth, and barley and mushrooms, his favourite... He breathed in the aroma and noted something else, a sweetness -- lavender -- his mother...

But there was more -- honeysuckle... honeysuckle! Lily!

Frodo awoke, between spoonfuls. He coughed twice, gaining deeper breaths for himself, and opened his eyes wide in an effort to orient himself to his surroundings.

He felt Lily’s warmth surrounding him, supporting him, with several pillows behind them both, against the carved oak headboard. He turned slightly, and saw her face; with one glance he knew her, and tried to speak, but at first nothing would come. When his voice returned, he murmured apologies to her, and reached for her arm with his right hand, then closed his eyes again.

Lily wept for joy, and held him close. “Frodo, shhh, darling, do not speak; rest. Rest. All will be well, dearest.”

Rosie moved quietly away to the window seat, out of Frodo’s sight, but keeping the situation proper.

Frodo found his voice again.

“Lily... please tell me you are you all right... Are you ill? What -- what’s happened? Please, tell me--”

He stopped for a moment to catch his breath. “Please, look me in the eye, and tell me... you’re -- you’re not ill--?”

Dearest, such fear in your eyes! Lily sighed to herself. He closed them once more to rest, and she waited for him. When he opened them again, and focused on her, she was looking into his eyes, as he had asked, her heart skipping beats.

“Frodo, dearest, I am well. I am completely well. Take heart. I feel better than I have for many months. I am telling the truth. And not only am I well, but happy beyond measure, because you are alive, and with me again. Look at me and see...” She continued to keep her soul open to his, confident he would be pleased by what he saw there.

Frodo closed his eyes again, for a moment, and once more he summoned what little reserves he still possessed, and gazed into her eyes. Yes, he could see it... she truly was all right. He felt warm tears forming; they were cleansing, and healing. His eyes pained him; why? he wondered.

He took another deep breath, ragged with fatigue and emotion, to speak to her once more.

“How -- how can it be -- it is a miracle you’re not ill... I was in a dark place... how did I escape? ... I -- I felt love, from all directions... pulling me back... was Gandalf here?” He closed his eyes again, but continued to speak. “Was Sam here? I know I heard him...”

“Hush, Frodo, rest now, and listen... Gandalf was here, and is here. He shall see you when you have rested properly. Sam was here -- after a fashion -- let me save that happy story for you, for later, please... I am well because there were many prayers offered to Ilúvatar... prayers spoken by your cousins and friends, and by Gandalf, who is so powerful... I missed you...”

Frodo stirred and murmured, “I missed you...”

At this, Lily watched as Frodo fell back into deep sleep, still leaning into her, exhausted from their brief exchange. She bent and whispered in his ear. “Now you know how you were brought back.” She kissed his ear, then his brow, and his hair. He looked like a shadow of the beautiful hobbit she knew. But he would live, and she could not contain her heart’s joy, and allowed a tear to fall.

Lily glanced at Rose, and they shared a smile as she continued to hold Frodo for a while longer. When she finally released him, gently laying him against the pillows, she sank to her knees at the bedside, and gave thanks to Ilúvatar.

After a short time, Frodo began to stir again, bringing Lily back to the moment. She rose from where she knelt and gently touched his forehead, checking for a fever she knew was not there. Reassured, she settled herself in the chair next to the bed.

Frodo became restless, and began to mumble in his sleep. After a few moments, Lily and Rose caught the words.

“Lily? Lily... no... Don’t go... please don’t go... Don’t leave me...”

His whimpered plea tore at Lily’s heart. She shifted herself to the edge of the bed and caressed his cheek with her hand. She whispered, “Frodo, dearest, I am here with you. I’m right here; right next to you. I’ll never leave you. I shall stay with you always.”

Rosie could not keep from grinning. “At least, once you’re married...” she added under her breath.

Lily glanced at Rose and smiled in return, and then continued in a soothing voice, “Rose speaks truly, my beloved. We must wed before I may be with you always, but I shall be with you as much as is deemed proper...” -- she grinned and winked at Rose, partly to keep herself from weeping again. “...And a little bit more.”

Rose’s great relief at Frodo’s returning health made her feel giddy with happiness. Sam... her Sam would have died inside, had they lost Frodo. She shook her head. “Scandalous, Miss Lily, simply scandalous. What’ll the neighbors think?”

Lily blinked innocently. “That I am perfect for the scandalous Mr. Baggins.”

They both giggled softly. Lily sighed and smiled happily as Frodo settled quietly again into deep sleep.

---------

Rose and Lily talked quietly for a few moments and then fell silent, as Frodo slept on.

After yawning for the third time, Rosie curled up on the window seat. “Just to rest,” she assured Lily, then drifted wearily into sleep.

Still in her chair by the bed, Lily found herself fiddling with the coverlet, picking at nothing or smoothing it out. She glanced up and noticed Rosie fast asleep, her arms drawn close to herself. Lily rose and, with an extra quilt from the cedar chest, covered her friend, who stirred.

“Shhh, Rosie... sleep, and dream of your Sam.”

A smile spread across Rosie’s face, and she nestled deeper within the folds of the quilt.

Lily returned to Frodo’s side and watched him breathe, grateful for the easy rise and fall of his chest. She turned her gaze to his face, which was no longer tightly drawn. His colour was back, mostly. The dark circles under his eyes were fading. His chestnut locks fell lightly across his brow, without a trace of the fevered perspiration of the last few days.

She settled more comfortably in her chair, leaning her arms on the bed. “I’m alone with you, dearest, with no one to hear. I love you,” she whispered. “Frodo, my love, if only you’ll ask me, we shall marry, and you shall be free of the darkness...”

Tears started in Lily’s eyes. She laid her head on the bed, close to Frodo’s side. Her breathing grew deeper and more even, matching his.

Lily sighed as a gentle hand found its way into her curls, stroking her hair, softly. The fingers were too small to be Gandalf’s, she reasoned sleepily, and besides, he was out in the garden... She rubbed her cheek against the bedcover and turned her face slightly to the touch of warm fingers lightly caressing her cheek, ear, and hair. It was so unexpectedly comforting...

“Lily?” The well-beloved voice was hoarse with emotion.

Her eyes widened. As she slowly lifted her head, Frodo’s hand fell away onto the coverlet, limp. She searched his eyes, so weary; he struggled to keep them open. He smiled for her, weakly.

“Frodo...” she whispered.

“Are you -- quite all right, dearest?” he mumbled.

“Yes, I’m fine--” her voice caught.

“I’ve missed you...” His eyes closed.

“I’ve missed you, so much,” she breathed.

Frodo opened his eyes again to gaze into hers; she noted the effort it required simply to keep them open.

“My dear Lily -- I’m sorry. You were -- speaking to me -- earlier, and I didn’t hear a word. I tried to listen... truly.” He took in several deep breaths. “I want to visit with you, but -- it’s so tiring, to talk, and to listen...”

“It’s all right, dearest Frodo. I’ll tell you everything again later.” Lily’s racing heart slowed a little as she endeavored to calm herself. She wanted him to know, but not yet. “There’s plenty of time to prattle to our hearts’ content when you are quite recovered,” she smiled.

Frodo’s lips softened in an attempt to match her smile, his eyes opening for a moment, and then closing again to rest.

Lily continued, her voice soothing, “Are you hungry, Frodo dear? There’s more broth, if you’d like it...” She caressed his cheek with her hand.

He turned his head toward her touch and nodded once.

She rose to fetch his luncheon, and stopped when his hand grasped hers feebly.

His brows furrowed as he strove to open his eyes. Each word was an effort. “I’m not hungry, if you must leave...”

“Please, dearest, I’ll be gone but a moment...”

Rosie drew close to Lily’s side, her step only slightly uneven as she roused herself quickly to wakefulness. “Never you mind,” she ordered, with a tired but happy smile. “I’ll get what you need.”

She headed for the kitchen, but stopped in the doorway. “Now just because I’m leaving you two alone, for a moment, doesn’t mean you’ll be doing whatever you like. Behave yourselves.” She chortled to herself as she padded down the hall.

Lily stared after Rose and felt Frodo relax, though he did not release her hand. She worried, for only a moment, about what her friend heard, and then realized nothing had been said that Rose did not already know. Lily settled onto her chair again.

“Does this mean we’re -- without a chaperone?” Frodo teased, his soft voice rough from disuse. Lily decided it was the most beautiful music she had ever heard.

“So it seems... Why do you ask?” she inquired cautiously, unable to hide her warm smile. How beautiful he is, waking, she sighed. She suddenly wished to share every waking morning with him, and trembled, then hoped he did not notice.

Frodo breathed deeply. “What -- must the neighbors think?” He was too weak to try to hide his smile.

Lily grinned. “I’ll tell you what they think. At this very moment, they’re sitting by their fires and wondering about the state of affairs at Bag End. I can hear it now...”

She sat on the edge of the bed, and as she spoke she struck a pose for each character in the little tale, adopting a different tone of voice for each.

‘Have you heard? That old conjurer, Gandalf, is up at Bag End.’

Frodo was already smiling. Lily actually sounded very like Old Widow Rumble.

‘No, you don’t say!’

At this Frodo smiled more broadly, then opened his eyes a little to watch her face. The second voice she used was a little deeper; a bit like Will Whitfoot’s! He smiled again at the silly grin Lily wore on her face. She was thoroughly enjoying herself, and the effect was contagious; Frodo felt less sleepy. Lily imitated Old Widow Rumble again.

‘I do say... What’s more, they say poor Baggins is sick as can be!’

Is he now? That’s what comes from too much adventuring. And now having to deal with that disturber of the peace, too...’ As Whitfoot, Lily shook her head sadly.

She brightened suddenly as the widow again added, ‘What’s more, his kin are there!’

No! Him ailing, and a houseful of kinfolk? Wait -- where’s that lass he’s been courtin’?’

At this, Frodo grinned, then coughed, as he began to laugh weakly. Lily grinned at him as well, and went on, throwing herself into the imaginary scene.

‘She’s there, too!’

NO!’

Yes!! Would I make that up?’ Lily’s face reflected the indignation of the widow’s voice...

‘Oh, dear,’ she went on, as Whitfoot. ‘Only the worst sort of fellow would consider her now...’

‘I know. It’s such a shame,’ the widow lamented.

‘Indeed...’ Lily’s Whitfoot replied gravely.

Frodo was chuckling between little coughs. He felt more awake and aware by the moment, wondering what his Lily would come up with next.

Whitfoot continued, ‘Too bad Sam’s not about. He’d have kept this whole affair decent and proper--’

At this, Frodo laughed harder, then coughed some more. He was gasping a bit for air, but he was all right, and he waved off Lily’s look of concern. He finally managed to say, “Go on -- please!”

‘True enough, Sam would’ve -- o’course, Rosie Cotton is there,’ the old widow added; Lily adopted a thoughtful look to complete the picture.

Whitfoot gasped. ‘Rosie Cotton! Why didn’t you say so in the first place? She’s worse than having one’s mum about! She don’t put up with no nonsense o’ no sort from nobody, not even Frodo Baggins.’

‘True enough,’ agreed the old widow, with Lily nodding sagely, then continued. ‘With her about, it’s sure and certain nothing worth knowin’s goin’ on.’” Lily let the widow finish the tale with a disappointed pout.

Frodo had tears in his eyes as he laughed and gasped for breath; and Lily laughed out loud along with him. She leaned over and lightly kissed his cheek. She heard his breath catch in surprise, and then he sighed.

“It’s so good to hear you laugh, dearest.” Her soft smile was radiant with suffused joy.

“I wish I could explain how much -- it means to me to be able to laugh -- oh, Lily...” Frodo wiped a tear away with his right hand. “And if I may receive a kiss from you every time you make me laugh, then I look forward very much to many more such kisses.” Frodo tilted his head against the pillows to gaze up at her. Then his eyes closed in weariness, but the joy he felt could not be hidden. He opened his eyes again long enough to ask, “May I?”

Lily eyed him, unsure of his meaning. “May you what?”

“May I have a kiss for every time you make me laugh?” He smiled, and closed his eyes again.

For a moment, she thought Frodo had drifted back to sleep, but he took a deep breath and opened his eyes again.

“May I?” he repeated, though softer than before.

Lily’s heartbeat quickened. “Yes, you may,” she breathed.

Frodo sighed. “You’re not just letting me have my own way because I’m a little under the weather, thinking I’ll forget, when I’m better?”

She raised her brows imperiously. “And what if I am?”

A weak laugh escaped Frodo. “I shall claim my prize anyway, to teach you a lesson about making bargains with me, for I shall not forget...”

Lily raised her chin and looked down her nose at him. “See that you don’t.”

Frodo attempted to laugh again, but was too tired. He rested a moment, then eyed her doubtfully. “I don’t suppose that one counts? I did try...”

A smile lit Lily’s face. “I see you shall hold me to the agreement.” She leaned forward and caressed Frodo’s lips with her own.

Frodo closed his eyes at her kiss, sighing deeply. His reply came slowly. “One of my -- smarter contracts,” he breathed, smiling up into her eyes.

Lily giggled and stroked his forehead gently with her fingers. Soothing, so soothing it was; he closed his eyes again.

“What’s all this giggling and laughing back here?” Rose employed her sternest chaperone voice as she appeared in the doorway. “Are you two staying out of trouble? Lands, I’ve not been gone but a moment, and I fear you’ve already taken advantage of my good nature. Just can’t leave you two alone, can I?”

She broke into a broad smile. “Didn’t expect to hear you laughing so soon, Frodo. But it’s good to hear...

“Help him sit up, Lily,” Rose instructed. “You won’t have many more opportunities to hold him like that -- in his bed, no less! If either of you breathes a word about this, I’ll have your hides, sure and certain. Ruin my reputation, it would!”

Lily blushed and giggled, and Frodo smiled. She shifted and helped Frodo sit up, holding him in her arms and letting him lean against her. He laid his head on her shoulder between sips of the broth.

He finished the last of it, and nestled his head once more against Lily’s shoulder. Rosie hadn’t the heart to scold him, and turned a blind eye, taking the empty bowl back to the kitchen.

Lily caressed his forehead, first with her lips, and then her fingers, holding him close. She felt his breathing grow deeper and more even, as he completely relaxed against her. A tear slid down her cheek. She brushed it away against his curls.

Rose returned to the room to find Frodo sleeping soundly in Lily’s arms. It appeared Lily had fallen asleep as well.

Rose decided to take up her post on the window seat. She would wait until just before Merry, Pippin, and Gandalf returned, to wake Lily.

---------

Frodo stirred, and his eyes fluttered open. He blinked several times to clear his vision, then gazed about the room.

“Merry... Pip... what are you doing here?”

“Merry... the lump in the bed... it talked!”

“Indeed it did, dear Pip. I told you it was alive. Now, pay up.”

Frodo smiled weakly. “Making bets on me, were you?”

“Had to do something to while away the time, dear cousin,” Pippin replied, “as you’ve been sleeping for hours and hours...”

“What are you doing here?” Frodo persisted.

The two hobbits glanced quickly at each other. Then Merry teased, “Visiting you, you old slugabed.”

Frodo started suddenly and sat up, then put his hand to his head, feeling the discomfort of moving too fast, too soon.

“What are you doing?” Merry scolded, and got up to help ease his cousin back against the pillows, but Frodo resisted, glancing around frantically.

“Where’s Lily? Is she all right? She’s not ill, is she? Please, tell me she’s all right!”

“Where do you think you’re going?” Merry admonished sternly. “Settle back, there.”

“Aye, easy, now, Frodo,” Pippin soothed. “She’s right as rain... Lily’s resting, that’s all... She usually naps in the afternoons anyway, doesn’t she?”

At this, Frodo gave in to Merry, and slumped back against the pillows. He nodded slowly. “Yes, she usually naps in the afternoons,” he replied absently. They knew about her need to rest because of his drain on her...

“Yes,” Pippin continued. “It seems to be something she’s done most of her life, from the sound of it.”

Frodo glanced at his cousins. Mayhap they don’t know, he reasoned. If my Lily has told them this is typical for her, then they very likely do not know... He studied their faces. They don’t look like they know...

“Why are the two of you here?”

“Like I said, cousin Frodo, we’re visiting you,” Merry replied cheerfully.

“So I see; for how long?” Frodo did not disguise his exasperation. He rolled his eyes when Merry and Pippin only laughed in reply.

“Not long,” assured Pippin.

“How many days?”

“Merry, what does he remind you of?” Pippin glanced quickly between his cousins.

Merry shook his head. “A cranky old goat?”

Pippin ribbed his cousin swiftly. “Now don’t be getting insulting. After all, he’s been sick. I was thinking of one of Farmer Maggot’s dogs. You know the one; it grabs the seat of your breeches and won’t let go... Do you think if we feed him, it might improve his disposition? It works for ol’ Maggot’s dog.”

Merry laughed, and Pippin joined in, as Frodo dropped his head in resignation and shook it slowly.

“Merry?! Did you see it!? Get a better look at his face; I’d swear I saw a lip twitch. Mayhap a smile?”

Merry peered at Frodo’s downcast face. “I think you’re right, Pip. There does seem to be something resembling a smile showing on those pouting lips.”

Frodo started to chuckle. “You two are impossible.”

“Is that a good thing? Or a bad thing?” Pippin queried.

Frodo laughed quietly. “In your case, it may be a good thing.”

“That’s all right, then.”

Frodo took in a deep breath and released it, relaxing and lying back against the pillows.

Merry patted his arm. “Now, there’s a good lad. Mind your manners, and we may let you get up tomorrow.”

Frodo’s eyes widened, and his brows furrowed in consternation. “Tomorrow!? Why can’t I get up today?”

“You need rest, Frodo lad. Gandalf’s orders,” Merry assured him.

Gandalf’s here?”

“Indeed, but Lily already told you that this morning. You just don’t remember... Don’t go worrying that pretty head of yours; you’ll figure it all out,” Pippin responded confidently.

“Not if you don’t answer my questions.” Frodo eyed first Merry, and then Pippin.

The cousins glanced at each other, and Merry sighed. “Pip, he’s got you there. No doubt about it. He’s a clever one, even when he’s sick. Walked right into that one, you did.”

Pippin shook his head slowly and kept his face as straight as he could, though he was clearly losing the battle. “Indeed, nasty little trap he laid, didn’t he? Must be careful not to forget what a sly fox he can be, ailing or no,” he lamented.

Frodo smiled indulgently. “Enough of the cat and mouse... When did you get here?”

“Oh!” Merry gazed at his cousin with wide, innocent eyes. “That’s an easy question to answer. We got here the night of the 14th.”

Frodo nodded and pursued the answers he sought relentlessly; he would get to the bottom of this. “And what day is it now?”

Merry hesitated. “That’s not so easy to answer.”

Frodo raised his brows. “Out with it. What day is it?”

The two young cousins shifted uncomfortably. Finally Pippin mumbled, “Evening of the 17th...”

“What?!” Frodo’s eyes grew wide. “How long have I been ill?”

Merry and Pippin glanced at each other, at the floor, and around the room -- anywhere but at Frodo.

“Well?” Frodo’s voice reflected his growing impatience.

Merry finally faced his cousin and shrugged. “At least since the morning of the 13th...”

Frodo sagged against the pillows. “Five days, Merry! That’s five days, and I don’t remember them but for odd snatches, which I’m not sure are real, or dreamed...”

The young cousins exchanged surreptitious worried glances, and then Pippin smiled broadly. “What are you fretting about, Frodo? You’ve had the prettiest lasses in the Shire taking care of you. I’d think you’d be pleased to be made such a fuss of! Your Lily is quite something, you know.” Tears suddenly glistened in Pippin’s eyes, and he looked away.

It was not lost on Frodo. “Pip, tell me.”

Pippin cleared his throat. “Tell you what?”

“What’s wrong?”

For a moment, Frodo was met by silence.

“Nothing at all, Frodo -- we’re just a bit surprised to realize you’ve finally found someone, and she suits you so well...”

Frodo smiled, softly. “It’s almost as though Ilúvatar created her for me.” Tears gathered in his eyes, and one slid down his cheek; he quickly brushed it away. “When do I get to see her again?”

“As soon as she wakes,” Merry assured him.

Frodo glanced at his cousins, and down at the coverlet, then back at them. “Why did Lily send for you?”

“She’s a smart lass, Frodo,” Merry asserted. “She knew the illness had something to do with the Quest and didn’t want to involve a healer; she knew she couldn’t explain it... She and Rosie took care of you the whole of the day on the 13th. Gandalf arrived on the afternoon of the 14th, and Pip and I arrived that evening.”

“Gandalf was here?”

Is here, Frodo,” Pippin corrected.

Frodo could not hide the worry he felt. “Wait -- you told me that earlier, and Lily said it, before that... I wish I weren’t so muddleheaded. I must have been terribly ill for Gandalf to be required.”

“Don’t you be worrying about that, Frodo.” Merry sought again to reassure him. “Gandalf was in the neighborhood, so to speak, and found himself taken in by Lily and Rose. He’s a smart one, you know; he’s not one to turn up his nose at good home cooking when it’s offered, especially by such fair lasses.”

Frodo smiled and relaxed a little. “I suspect you’re not telling me everything, but no matter. It’s a great deal of work to dig information out of the two of you, and I’m simply too tired to continue the excavation.”

Merry and Pippin gazed at Frodo in open shock, and then they chuckled.

“It’s a pity you’re feeling so much better, Frodo,” Pippin admitted, feigning seriousness. “Now you’re feeling so well, there’ll be no more of Miss Lily feeding you in bed... Look, Merry -- ! His eyes really can grow round as saucers!”

“You’re right, Pip. Amazing.”

Merry and Pippin burst into fits of laughter, nearly falling off their chairs.

Frodo blushed bright red and muttered, “I’d pull the blanket over my head, if I didn’t know it would only give you more pleasure at my discomfort.”

“Now, now, Frodo,” Merry cajoled, “she and Rose took their turns feeding you, just like Pip and I did. Pippin held you, while I or Gandalf spooned. Lily held you, while Rose spooned: all very proper.”

Concern crossed Frodo’s face once more. “You had to feed me?”

Pippin sighed. “Stop making such a fuss over every little thing, Frodo.”

“I thought I heard voices.” Gandalf filled the doorway, bent over as he was.

Frodo’s face brightened. “Gandalf!

“Yes... How are you feeling, Frodo?”

“Tired, and more than a little frustrated... I’ve been sparring with Merry and Pippin here, and not getting much of anywhere.”

Merry drew back his shoulders and lifted his chin in mock offense. “What do you mean by that? We’ve answered your questions, every one.”

“Around the garden and through the back door,” Frodo retorted. “Nary a single straight answer seems to be coming from either of them. In truth--” he glanced at Gandalf “--they sound like you.”

“Now, hang on there!” protested Pippin. “You asked us how long we’ve been here and how long you’ve been sick, and if I’m not mistaken -- and I’m not -- we answered those questions quite clearly. Just because you’re muddleheaded, don’t be blaming your unsuspecting cousins, or we may just regret not letting the soup dribble down your front.”

“Well and truly said, Pip.” Merry meant to glare at Frodo, but couldn’t hide the tugging of a smile at the corner of his mouth.

Gandalf entered the room, and straightened as much as he could. He fixed his eye on each of the cousins in turn, and then shook his head in seeming dismay. “Are the three of you quite finished?”

Merry and Pippin glanced at Frodo, then at each other; they shrugged their shoulders, and nodded. “We’re finished,” they chorused.

Frodo rolled his eyes. “Since my cousins are less than forthcoming about the severity of my illness, mayhap you’ll tell me?” He gazed up at the wizard.

Gandalf felt a rush of thoughts and emotions flood through him, but was grateful he was able to keep them all in check. He cleared his throat. “I’ve seen worse.”

“Aye, much worse,” Pippin added.

“We won’t even be mentioning this to Sam,” Merry added off-handedly.

Gandalf nodded. “Now, enough of all that. Since you’re on the mend, I’ll not be staying much longer. There are other things I must see to, and I’ve spent quite enough time here, I think.” He smiled broadly.

Frodo opened his mouth to question Gandalf further, and found himself interrupted by the old wizard.

“Are you going to continue to beleaguer me with questions, or would you like to see your Lily? I believe she’s just waking.” Gandalf laughed. “I see the answer quite clearly on your face. Peregrin, why don’t you fetch Miss Lily here; tell her he’s awake.”

Pippin nodded eagerly and disappeared down the hall. Within moments he escorted Lily into the room, with Rose close on their heels.

“You are so beautiful,” Frodo whispered, gazing into Lily’s eyes.

Lily smiled through her tears, and dashed away the one trickling down her cheek.

“I’ve missed you,” he continued, as Lily approached the left side of the bed; his voice was still hushed.

“And I’ve missed you,” she replied, endeavoring to keep from laughing and crying at the same time. Rosie gave her a gentle nudge, and she glanced over her shoulder at her friend.

“Go on, then, Lily. You can hardly do anything untoward, seeing how as we’re all in the room,” Rosie encouraged.

Lily hesitated only a moment, then sat on the edge of the bed and found herself enveloped in Frodo’s warm embrace. They sat together, quietly, until one of the logs in the grate shifted and collapsed, causing a few sparks to fly. They drew apart but still held each other, each searching the other’s eyes and then touching the other’s cheek with their fingertips. For a moment, everyone else in the room seemed to disappear, and Frodo leaned forward and softly caressed her lips with his own. Lily returned it, slipping her fingers into his curls. They ended the kiss, reluctantly.

“You truly are well,” Frodo murmured in wonder.

“Yes, dearest; better than ever. And now we must see to it you recover... Are you ready for some stew, Frodo dear?”

Frodo nodded. “But only if I may also feast my eyes on you,” he whispered.

Lily blushed.

Rosie stifled her laughter of relief. “Merry and Pippin, come help me in the kitchen. We’ll take an early dinner in here with Frodo. Mr. Gandalf, you’re the chaperone until I return. See that you’re not too lenient with them,” she pleaded halfheartedly, and then she did laugh.

When they returned with the tray of food, Lily helped Frodo sit up in the bed. He held her hands and searched her eyes for a moment. She nodded her assent, and they closed their eyes, briefly. When their prayer was finished, Lily handed him his bowl of stew and a spoon. He ate it without help from anyone, albeit slowly.

Merry and Pippin kept up a steady stream of lighthearted conversation with news of the happenings in Buckland, and especially Crickhollow.

Frodo enjoyed watching and listening to Lily giggle at the banter.

“Don’t encourage them, Lily,” Rose admonished sternly, then winked at the cousins.

Frodo spoke hardly a word, finishing his dinner completely. He glanced at Lily often, and from time to time lost track of the conversation, though no one brought this to his attention.

Lily felt him grow increasingly weary. Finally, she removed his empty bowl and spoon to the tray, helped him sip more water, and then eased him back against the pillows, unaware of the four friends intently watching.

Frodo gazed up at her as she leaned over him, covering him with a quilt. She finally met his eyes and smiled, warmly, then allowed herself to caress his cheek with her hand. His eyes closed at her touch for a moment, then searched hers again.

“You truly are well, dearest Lily,” he whispered, again in open wonder.

“Yes, dear Frodo, and you shall be, soon.” She smiled for him.

His hand escaped the covers and grasped hers, and she intertwined their fingers. Frodo closed his eyes as Lily settled once again in the chair next to his bed and began softly rubbing his hand with her thumb, tightening her hold on him. He sighed heavily and relaxed into the pillows, drifting once more into sleep, as Lily kept watch.

---------

That evening, as Frodo slept, Lily prepared a late supper for his friends... they were her dear friends now, too, she reminded herself with a tired smile.

Rose gathered her coat and cloak and came back into the kitchen, where the others were gathered.

“I think it’s best I get over to the Gaffer’s... I’ll make him a bite of supper, and answer his questions -- he’s bound to be wondering about the goings on.”

She pulled on her coat, keeping the rest of her thoughts to herself. She would try to calm any fears the Gaffer might have without letting on how ill Frodo had really been.

Rose called Lily over toward her with a look, and the two friends stepped into the long hall, away from the others.

At Lily’s questioning glance, Rosie went on softly, “It’ll be all right for me to be away from here that long, at least, but truly I think it’s best we sleep at the Gaffer’s tonight -- with Frodo doing so much better, and all...”

Lily nodded in silent understanding. After Rose left, she made her way back to the others in the kitchen, trying to hide her disappointment. But it was for the best. Frodo really was much stronger. It would be unseemly now for them to stay another night.

---------

Lily served a hot vegetable soup. It had been easy enough to make; the cellar was stocked full of potatoes, onions, and all manner of vegetables that had been laid up over the winter. It was nearly spring now, but new vegetables were not to be found yet. They finished off what remained of Rosie’s mince pie, Pippin making contented murmurings of satisfaction with almost every forkful.

As they ate, Lily sliced some bread and cheese for them, and they filled in the corners with hot mulled cider. She had been making this recipe for years, and knew it was good.

“Frodo’s missin’ this!” Pippin said. He was attempting to talk and eat and drink all at once. Lily giggled and sat down next to Gandalf, who was finished with his meal and preparing a pipe.

“And he’ll not have any when he wakes up, if you don’t leave him some, Pip!”

Merry was only half-joking, and Pippin knew it. He looked around at the others for support, but all he got was an amused smile from Gandalf. When Pippin looked to Lily, she seemed preoccupied, and far away.

“Are you all right, Lily?” he asked.

She smiled at them nervously.

“I -- would like to ask all of you to do something for me. I am perhaps presumptuous to ask it, but I must.” She had already spoken of this with Rosie.

“What is it, child?” Gandalf asked. He had lit his pipe, and the blue smoke trailed off in tendrils above their heads.

“If you tell Frodo of this -- this gift I have, I know what he’ll do. I know him... He’ll feel that he is -- taking advantage of my healing powers to help himself, and he’ll push me away. I’ll never be able to convince him that I love him and am happy to heal him, in any way I might be allowed to... He’ll worry that I shall take on too much of his own darkness -- that something ill shall befall me.”

Lily paused, and sighed. “He already fears that since he has touched--” Lily sought for the words “--and known... evil, and for such a long time, that I’m in danger of being harmed forever, simply by being near him and loving him as I do.”

She looked at each of her friends individually, her voice full of quiet urgency. “Please, I beg you all... please don’t tell him what you know of this -- gift I have. Please. I beg you. I love him with all my being. I can say it out loud to you, but he will not let me say it to him; not yet. He is the most stubborn hobbit I have ever known... He says the words ‘I love you’ are like a talisman, very strong, and not to be spoken lightly, nor too soon. Oh, that he only knew, I say it a thousand times a day in my heart!”

They saw the pleading in her eyes. In answer, Gandalf smiled quietly and puffed on the pipe; his eyes seemed to reflect the warm light of the hearth fire. Pippin, and especially Merry, were wearing new expressions of wonder and respect. Merry’s eyes were twinkling; but Pippin looked more thoughtful. He knew this was an important secret to keep, a trust which had been laid at their feet. He broke the heavy silence about them.

“Lily, I’ll never tell Frodo your secret. Never. You have my promise.”

“And mine,” smiled Gandalf.

“And mine as well,” Merry agreed. He was suppressing a smile, and not successfully, but Lily knew that his promise was made in earnest.

“Thank you all. I am in your debt.”

Pippin grew more serious. “No Lily, we are in yours. You’ve given Frodo what we could not.”

---------

After the supper dishes were cleared, Merry and Pippin sent Lily to be near Frodo again. She had protested, once again, about them cleaning up, but they would hear none of it; they were old hands at washing dinnerware, they assured her. Gandalf had winked at them, but Lily was too tired to ask what it was about.

Gandalf joined Lily after his evening pipe, and after stoking the fireplace, he sat on Lily’s side of the bed on the cedar chest. Soon thereafter, Pippin and Merry joined them, pulling up chairs and propping up their feet on the end of the bed. Pippin sighed contentedly. Frodo was getting well; they could rest now.

The fresh scent of the pine-wood fire in the grate filled the room. It was quiet, except for the occasional crackling flame, and the cousins began to nod off. Merry’s light snoring did not disturb Pippin, but it gave Lily cause to smile wearily at Gandalf, who chuckled softly.

Frodo slept on without stirring.

Rose finally came to fetch Lily back to the Gaffer’s, and Lily sighed. It was time to go.

She drew close to Frodo and tenderly brushed a stray lock from his forehead. His dark lashes fluttered, but his eyes did not open. She leaned closer, and caressed his cool brow with her lips. What a joy it was to touch him without pain.