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Sacrament

by CRB and Ladyhawk Baggins

18 March 1420sr

Lily woke with the dawn. Momentarily, she forgot where she was; then she recognized Sam’s ceiling at the Gaffer’s. She sat up slowly, hoping not to disturb Rose.

I wish I were at Bag End! How many nights did I spend there?... Only four! And yet, it feels like home... shall it ever truly be my home?... please, Ilúvatar... In truth, it is not Bag End which holds my heart, but her master. I feel at home with him...

From behind her on the bed, Lily heard Rose yawn.

“Good morning, Rose... I’m sorry if I woke you...”

Rosie yawned again, then spoke sleepily, “It’s fine... I like getting up with the Sun; it’s my habit, anyway.” She stretched for a long moment, and seemed more awake afterward. “What say you we prepare first breakfast at Bag End?”

“I’d like that.” Lily suddenly giggled. “I think the lads will like it even better.”

Rose laughed, then covered her mouth, afraid she might wake the Gaffer.

---------

They slipped into Bag End and made themselves at home in the kitchen, something Rose was already accustomed to doing. She helped Lily become more familiar with the kitchen, the pantries, and the cellars.

“Mmmmm...”

Pippin sniffed the air appreciatively from the doorway. “I thought I smelled something delicious.” He ran his fingers through his hair several times and rubbed his eyes with his fists, then shook his head, trying to clear it.

He smiled broadly. “Good morning, ladies. It’s a delight to see you, especially as you’re fulfilling my dreams... Fresh scones--”

“And nice, crispy bacon!” Merry appeared at Pippin’s side, smiling. “Thank you, ladies, very thoughtful of you, or are you only saving your own stomachs?”

Lily and Rosie both laughed at the mischievous glint in Merry’s eyes. Lily raised her brows, and managed to hide her smile. “My dear Merry, whatever in the world would make you suggest such a thing?”

Pippin snorted and coughed, then mumbled, “Burnt toast.”

“Well, there is that.” Lily conceded. She smiled. “We also felt it was the least we could do, since you kept the night watch.”

Her smile faded and she became more serious. “How did he fare last night?”

The two cousins exchanged an uncertain glance and then studied the floor for a moment.

“He is all right, isn’t he?” Lily felt the beginning of panic rising within her, and did not attempt to conceal it.

Merry glanced again at Pippin, who nodded and spoke. “He’s all right. It’s just, well, shortly after you left, he woke, but didn’t, if you know what I mean, and was asking for you. He fretted a mite until we assured him you were sleeping at the Gaffer’s and would be back in the morning. It was almost as though he knew you’d gone. A bit unsettling, it was. He slept most of the rest of the night, though he woke at dawn for a few moments again, asking for you. I assured him again you were only at the Gaffer’s and would come as soon as was proper. He smiled at that and drifted back to sleep.”

“He’s still asleep, and Gandalf’s with him now,” Merry assured her.

Lily sighed with relief and searched Rosie’s eyes. “May I see him, now?”

Rosie smiled. “Since Mr. Gandalf is there, yes, but don’t stay too long. Firsties is almost ready, and you need to eat like the rest of us; then we’ll feed Frodo.”

Lily smiled and disappeared down the hall.

“How’s he, really?” Rosie asked.

“Quite well, truly,” Pippin replied. “It was just a bit uncanny how he seemed to know she was gone.”

“Somehow, it doesn’t surprise me,” Rosie admitted.

---------

Lily stopped at the bedroom door and smoothed her skirts, then took a deep breath to help calm herself. I’m home, she reflected, and walked into the room, without thinking to knock.

“Good morning, Gandalf,” she murmured, hoping not to disturb Frodo.

“Good morning, Lily,” the wizard replied with a warm smile. “He was asking for you. He settled once he was assured you were merely resting, and would return as soon as possible.”

Lily stepped to the side of the bed, then sat in her usual chair. She reveled in the peaceful joy of gazing on her beloved’s face, free of fever and distress.

“Good morning, dearest. I am here, my love,” she whispered. “Sleep a little longer.” With the tip of one finger, she pushed back the hair on his forehead, and was glad he slept on.

Rosie popped her head in and whispered, “Lily, your breakfast is plated... come eat, and then you may wake him and see to getting some vittles into that slugabed.” Rosie winked at her friend and returned to the kitchen.

Lily whispered to Frodo again. “Beloved, I’ll return in a moment, I promise.” She sighed, smiled, and glanced up at Gandalf. “I’ll hurry, then you may get your breakfast as well.”

Gandalf returned the smile and nodded. Lily disappeared down the hall, and Gandalf studied the peacefully sleeping hobbit before him. “You’re too thin, but strong as ever, it seems. It was a near thing, Frodo, my lad,” Gandalf murmured. “But she saw you through it. She’s a fine choice for you; be sure you choose rightly.” The wizard reached for his pipe, then slipped it back into his robes again and chortled softly to himself. “Knowing your little hobbit lass, I shan’t have time enough even to light my pipe before she’s back to care for you. Never take her for granted.”

He smiled and stifled a chuckle as Lily walked back into the room, finishing her toast and carrying a small tray in her other hand bearing a bowl of stew, and what looked to be a mug of cider. “Ah, breakfast for our recovering lad,” Gandalf observed.

Lily smiled and blushed lightly. “Rosie has your breakfast ready for you.”

“You need not tell me twice. The smell is calling to me.” He chuckled and headed toward the kitchen.

Lily marveled again at his adept movements despite the cramped space. Bag End was quite large by hobbit standards, but Gandalf made it seem small. She placed the bowl of stew on the end table and sat on the bed next to Frodo. A sigh escaped her as she paused to watch his even breathing, his face so relaxed now in sleep, so different from before. The dark circles under his eyes all but gone.

“I love you, Frodo Baggins,” she whispered, and smiled as he stirred, nestling deeper into his pillows.

She spoke a little louder. “Frodo, dearest...”

Frodo shifted a little under the covers. His eyelashes fluttered, then he blinked. He glanced at her from the corner of his eye, then turned his head to her fully. “You’re here.” A smile spread from his lips to his eyes.

Lily returned it. “Good morning. Are you ready for a bit more stew?”

Frodo wrinkled his nose. “Stew again?”

Lily giggled. “We want to start you off easy. It does have mushrooms in it.”

Frodo smiled and sat up slowly by himself, leaning against the pillows.

“I take it you’re agreeable?” Lily teased.

“More than you know... sometime I’ll tell you a story about my love for mushrooms...”

Lily watched a weariness creep across his face, and grew concerned. “Frodo? Are you quite all right?” She reached up her hand and touched his cheek.

Frodo’s eyes softened and his heart swelled. How he loved her, and how he longed to tell her. Not yet; not until he was well again. He did not desire her pity. He searched her eyes, and knew there was no pity there. Not yet... Mayhap it would be best if we had a little time apart, so she might think things over, he decided. The darkness lingers still, though for now its strength wanes; but for how long? She seems well, and yet there is so much I have not been told...

He smiled for her. “I’m supposed to ask you that.”

Lily giggled. “It’s time there was a change. Are you ready for firsties?” She was tempted to feed him, but knew he could do it himself; he had the night before. Instead she handed him the bowl of stew with the spoon and held his mug of cider for whenever he asked for it.

Frodo glanced at his stew and then at Lily. “What of your breakfast, dearest?”

Lily struggled to control the shiver that rippled through her at his endearment. It was certainly not the first time he had used it, but it felt different this morning. She concentrated on his question.

“I’ve -- I’ve eaten, thank you... I would have eaten with you, but didn’t think it fair to eat eggs and tomatoes in front of you.” She smiled.

“Mmmmm, tell me, when do I get a proper breakfast again?” Frodo raised his brows and attempted to pout, but could not hide the smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.

Lily gave him a measured look. “If you behave yourself, and do all you’re asked, we may consider a change of fare for second breakfast. Eat.”

Frodo’s smile broadened, and he ate the stew without further questions, finishing the mug of cider as well. He was about to speak, but forgot his question as Gandalf entered the room.

“Good morning, my dear hobbit.” Gandalf’s voice filled the room. Before Frodo could answer, the wizard continued. “Do you think you’re up to seeing an old conjurer off?”

Lily’s eyes widened in surprise; she glanced at Frodo. Her heart tightened at the sadness reflected in his eyes and the disappointment she felt emanating from him.

Frodo endeavored to control his voice. “Must you leave so soon?”

Gandalf stifled the pang of regret. “There are other places I must go, dear lad. Come; see me off. Lily will help you.” The wizard turned, then glanced back.

“Are you coming?” He smiled and headed down the hall.

Lily swallowed her own surprise and disappointment at the wizard’s sudden departure. She turned back to Frodo, her voice breaking a little. “Where’s your dressing gown? Can’t have you seeing Gandalf off at the door in just your nightshirt.” She smiled for Frodo, hoping to cheer him.

Frodo continued to gaze at the door where the wizard had disappeared and answered absently, “In the wardrobe.”

Lily found a velvet dressing gown coloured a deep wine and trimmed with satin, and brought it to Frodo. He threw off the covers and swung his feet to the floor. She helped him slip into the robe and then looked him over critically as he tied the sash.

She wished she could distract him somehow from the sadness of Gandalf’s abrupt departure. “Oh, my. I’m sorry, dearest. That dressing gown, as lovely as it is, really does not match your green nightshirt.”

He smiled weakly. “It matters not.”

“Come, then. I’ll help you; lean on me.”

Frodo stood and nearly lost his balance, but Lily steadied him.

He took a deep breath and sighed, searching her face as tears shimmered in his eyes. “How long must I continue to lean on you, Lily? When will you grow weary, too weary to bear the burden?”

Lily’s breath caught in her throat. “You may lean on me, as long as needs be. And I shall never grow too weary.” She realized her words came out more angrily than she intended, and softened them with a smile. “Just remember: one day you may be required to return in kind. Will you accept such questions from me?”

She suddenly realized what she said. How could she possibly say such a thing? And yet she dared not back down. She lifted her chin, slightly, defying him to contradict her.

Frodo’s face was a picture of surprise -- and pleasure -- at her declaration.

Before he could answer she hurried on. “Are we going to see Gandalf off, or not?”

He nodded and began the arduous journey down the hall, indicating with one hand his desire to walk without help. The first few steps he struggled to take alone, but after teetering several times, he reached for Lily. His eyes searched hers.

Lily sensed a questioning in his mind. She smiled warmly and wrapped her left arm around his waist, as he slipped his right arm around her shoulders. They were halfway down the hall when he needed to stop to catch his breath.

“Will you tell me of these last few days?” he asked softly.

Lily considered his request for a few moments before answering. “Yes.”

He sighed. “Thank you. I’m ready to go on.”

Lily was pleased to see he walked more steadily, and leaned less on her the rest of the way to the front entrance.

Gandalf stood waiting for them, his cloak already about his shoulders. Pippin held his staff for him, with Merry at his side. Rosie stood a little behind the cousins.

“Ah, there you are! We’d begun to wonder if you were taking advantage of being left alone together.” His eyes twinkled merrily.

Lily and Frodo both blushed, lightly, but tightened their hold on each other at the same time.

“If I were not as weak as a kitten, we might have.” Frodo retorted, and returned the wizard’s smile.

Lily leaned her head against Frodo’s shoulder, grateful his darker mood seemed to have passed.

Gandalf laughed, heartily. “Your sense of humor has returned. Good. I’m clearly no longer needed, so I’ll be on my way.”

He turned to go, and then turned back. Frodo and Lily stepped into his swift embrace. Just as quickly, he released them, and retrieved his staff from Pippin.

“I’ll see you again, soon; hopefully before October next.” Though he gazed steadily at Frodo, he noted Lily’s almost imperceptible nod from out of the corner of his eye. Then he gave them all a quick glance, and swept out of the smial.

Lily and Frodo stood in the open door, and watched the wizard disappear down the lane.

Frodo sighed. “His visits are always too short.”

Lily allowed him a few more moments then asked, “Are you ready to return to your bed for a rest?”

Frodo started, and Lily felt him return from wherever it was his mind had been wandering. He gazed into her eyes. “Yes, I’m a bit tired. And you’ll tell me what happened?”

Startled glances passed between Pippin, Merry, and Rosie. Lily carefully ignored them. “Yes, dearest.”

The couple headed back down the hall, stopping once on the way to rest.

Back in his bedroom, Lily untied the sash and slipped Frodo’s dressing gown off, then helped him into the bed, draping the garment over the end of the bed. She drew the covers up to his shoulders and kissed his forehead.

He blinked and smiled. “Tell me.”

Lily nodded and sat in her chair.

“Farmer Cotton found you the morning of the 13th... he’d come to tell you about some food distribution... I knew why you were ill, though I did not know how severe it might be. Farmer Cotton wanted to send for the healer, but I could think of no good way to explain to the healer what was happening.

“Fortunately, Rosie asked him to send for Merry and Pippin... we thought they’d have a better understanding of what was happening, as they were in--” Lily stopped, searching her memory for the name. “--in Ithilien -- with you...?”

Frodo nodded in confirmation as he listened attentively, and for an instant Lily needed to look down at her hands. His eyes were working their magic on her, even though he was all unaware of it, as ever. She cleared her throat softly; he was waiting, patiently...

“It also gave Farmer Cotton something to do. Gandalf arrived midday on the 14th, and Merry and Pippin that evening. The Gaffer checked on us every day to see what we needed. The feather mattress had to be changed out a few times. Merry and Pippin took care of that. They also did some of the cooking so Rose and I could rest.

“Rose saw to it that I rested, so as not to get overly tired. Then on the 15th, your fever finally broke. On the 16th, you slept the whole of the day. On the 17th, we were able to start feeding you broth, and then the stew last night, and now here we are, today.”

Frodo smiled. “You have left a great deal out, Miss Burrows.”

Lily raised her brows. “Have I? And how would you know?”

Frodo laughed. “Someday, I expect to hear the whole of the tale.”

“And someday, I shall tell you. For now, you need to rest. I’ll wake you for secondies.” Her tone of voice and the expression on her face indicated clearly she would brook no argument.

Frodo smiled and sighed. “Eggs and tomatoes?”

Lily’s face softened. “Yes, dearest; eggs, tomatoes, and mayhap even a bit of bacon. Satisfied?”

Frodo grinned. “Yes, but before you go, may I have my kiss?”

Lily was pleased, but confused. “Oh!” she remembered. “Of course, dear Frodo. I did make you laugh... it slipped past me.”

She leaned forward and kissed his mouth gently.

Frodo closed his eyes. “Mmmmm.” He opened his eyes slowly, mischief dancing in their depths. “Mind you don’t let it happen again... And yes... I am very, very satisfied, for now.”

He closed his eyes again to rest, the hint of a smile still playing on his lips.

Lily giggled, then dashed away the tear that suddenly sprang to her eye as his breathing became deep and even. She whispered, “I’ll only be gone a moment, dearest. I must tell Rosie of the plans for secondies.” A sigh escaped her as she slipped out of the room.

---------

Rose, Merry, and Pippin were talking among themselves and stopped abruptly when Lily entered the kitchen.

She answered the question in their eyes. “He’s sleeping... I promised him eggs, tomatoes and bacon for secondies.”

“I’ll see to it,” Rose assured her.

Lily smiled and nodded her thanks.

Merry and Pippin glanced at each other, and Pippin asked hesitantly, “You told him?”

“I’d rather him hear it from me than from the local gossips.”

“You told him everything?”

Lily shook her head. “Oh no -- not at all -- only what he might hear from elsewhere and enough to tie it all together.”

She smiled as the other three hobbits visibly relaxed in relief. “I did promise that someday I would tell him everything, and I shall, but not today.”

--------

Lily slipped back into the master bedroom and settled in her chair next to the bed. She clenched her fists and smiled; how she ached to run her fingers through his hair and caress his face. She sighed and then began to hum, softly, to herself.

“Lily?” Frodo murmured.

“I am here, beloved.” Lily suddenly realized she probably should not use that endearment with him -- at least, not yet -- and bit her lip wondering if he noted it. She sighed in relief as Frodo settled more deeply into sleep. A tear slipped down her cheek, and she whispered, “You were only making sure I was here. I am, my love. I am here, and I pray I shall be with you always...”

The aroma of sizzling bacon and tomatoes wafted through the smial, and Frodo began to stir, waking slowly. He blinked twice, then closed his eyes again for a short time, enjoying the peace of the smial; he could feel Lily near.

Rosie and Pippin brought in trays laden with plates already filled with food. Merry brought up the rear with a tray bearing a pitcher and mugs.

“Frodo, you slugabed, up with you, can’t you smell secondies?”

Pippin glared at Merry, who replied innocently, “Well, at least I didn’t pound on the door.”

Frodo smiled and opened his eyes, gazing fondly at his cousins. “Clearly, I’m not too very ill to be treated so...”

“What?” Merry interjected. “Did you expect to be pampered and cajoled for days on end? You’re not that ill, dear cousin. Besides, we have to have you up and about and back to normal before Sam gets home, or he’ll have our hides for sure for not telling him what he really doesn’t need to know anyway... but you know Sam!”

Rosie giggled. “Try as the Gaffer might, he could only partly get Sam to know his place, and then only with Frodo.”

“Aye,” Pippin remembered. “He gave King Elessar the where to and what for on more than one occasion.”

Frodo’s eyes wandered from his cousins to Lily and captured hers. They shared their private smile.

Rose doled out plates, and Merry poured cider for everyone.

They tucked into the meal as Merry and Pippin began to tell stories of Sam as a tween. Frodo was kept smiling, and sometimes laughing, so that for most of the meal he put aside any inquiries about the past week and his illness.

Pippin kept an eye on Frodo and finally decided his cousin would not be deterred much longer. He glanced once at Merry, then kept his tone matter-of-fact.

“Well, we would have been here sooner, but Farmer Cotton had to find us first. Merry and I were up at Brandy Hall, visiting family.”

Merry cut in. “Don’t worry, Frodo. We’ve already sent a post to my folks letting them know you’re well on the mend.”

When they had all finished, Frodo was feeling considerably better.

“I’d like to go for another short walk, if I may?” he questioned no one in particular.

The other hobbits looked to Lily. She smiled. “I think that might be arranged. Would a trip to the greatroom suit you? For a change of scenery?”

Frodo nodded.

He was no longer an invalid; when Lily handed him his dressing gown, she turned her back while he slipped into it and tied the sash. The others gathered up the trays of dirty dishes and carried them to the kitchen.

Frodo was able to stand on his own and take a step or two, but then hesitated as he endeavored to regain his balance.

Lily heard the first step and turned to him, but waited until he reached for her. She deftly wrapped her arm around his waist, and he slipped his arm around her shoulders, just as they had done before.

As they headed down the hall, Frodo asked, “Mayhap it would be easier if I leaned on Merry or Pippin?”

Lily glanced up with wide, horrified eyes, a glint of teasing in their depths. “What?! And deprive me of the opportunity to be this close to you without raising any eyebrows?”

Frodo laughed and murmured under his breath, “Imp.”

“Careful, Mr. Baggins, or I’ll leave you here in the hall to figure out how to get to the greatroom on your own.” Lily kissed his cheek and tightened her hold on him, belying the severity of her words.

This time they made it without a rest, and Lily helped Frodo to the settee next to the fire. She would have fetched a blanket to cover him, but Rose appeared with one in her hands. Lily took it from her with a smile and a thank you, then tucked it around her charge.

Lily glanced at Rosie. “Do you need help with the dishes?”

“No,” Rose grinned. “Merry and Pippin are masters of the trade; they’re almost done. So you two may as well settle for a while, and enjoy the change of view. Still four walls, so to speak, but a different four walls.”

Lily wondered about Merry and Pippin and dishes; it seemed an inside joke. Sometime, she would ask about it, she decided, but not now, as she settled herself beside Frodo and lost herself in being near him. He intertwined the fingers of his left hand with her right. She eased their clasped hands to her lap, then laid her left hand atop them. He was warm, and for an instant she trembled. With a soft sigh, she leaned her head against his shoulder.

She giggled. “I told you the tables would turn.”

Frodo laughed and relaxed. She was so near, so warm... “You’ve made me laugh, my dear Lily,” he whispered against her hair. “Just this once, I’ll turn the tables, and give you a reprieve from our contract -- I shall be the one giving the kiss...”

He kissed her hair, softly, and felt rather than heard her sigh.

Rose adroitly ignored the couple and settled herself in a chair across from them. “Oh, it’s good to just set for a while...”

Merry and Pippin rejoined them, drawing up chairs. They reminisced about the Before Yule party, which led to memories of other parties.

Lily was happy when Frodo joined in and began to tell tales of his own; he was laughing as heartily as the others. He is so much better, she thought happily. She could feel Frodo’s voice resonate against her cheek as she rested against his shoulder. A small thrill of desire touched her then, and she prayed again all would come to pass as Gandalf foretold. She could not imagine being happier than this... being so near him, hearing his laughter, and feeling the joy he felt. She needed to concentrate to feel any darkness within him at all. Yes, it was there... but it was beaten down. It was not revealing itself; not for the time being...

Rose quickly gathered the food for elevensies and served it in the greatroom as the stories went on. Merry and Pippin practiced their considerable storytelling skills on Lily in particular, she being a captive audience. They were telling of something called Ent-draught, and how it made them grow taller... Lily was uncertain if they were joking. It was difficult to tell, with those two. But they were taller than most of the hobbits she knew; they seemed as tall as Will... mayhap taller...

Lily searched her memory for what an “ent" was... then, her eyes closed to rest; she heard Merry speak of Treebeard, and remembered the creature being spoken of, at the Before Yule party. But she did not ask them about it, for she was nestled even closer to Frodo’s warmth, drifting between waking and sleep.

Frodo leaned his head lightly atop hers, enjoying the feel of her soft hair against his cheek.

Pippin nodded off, gradually, but the conversation continued among Merry and Rose and Frodo until Merry began to nod. At Merry’s snores, Pippin woke, and they chatted and laughed, all but Merry, until it was time for luncheon.

Again, Rose prepared the meal, this time with Pippin’s help. Pippin could not resist the temptation of elbowing his snoring cousin as he passed by on his way to help Rose.

Merry woke with a start. “What happened? Did I fall asleep? Where’s Pip?” he mumbled, half to himself.

Frodo laughed softly, enjoying the feeling of Lily sleeping lightly against him and hoping not to wake her. He answered Merry in a low voice.

“Pip didn’t want to hear you snoring any more, Master Brandybuck...”

Frodo smiled, and kissed Lily’s hair once again. His heart felt light, lighter than it had for months. Something miraculous had happened this week. He knew it. Lily would tell him...

When Rose and Pippin returned to the greatroom bearing trays full of the makings of a wonderful luncheon, Frodo realized he was ravenous, as if his appetite had suddenly returned in full, all at once. But then again, I should not be surprised, he reflected. She is so close to me here. No wonder I feel more like myself, and less like... like the other... He turned his thoughts away from any sadness. He marveled at how easily it was done.

He lowered his head to wake Lily, whispering in her ear; he felt her stir. He breathed deeply and noted with surprise a sweet fragrance about her as she woke, one he’d never noticed before. He closed his eyes and wished she would always wake beside him. Without conscious thought, he tightened his hold on her hand, then struggled to hide the trembling he felt when she gently returned the squeeze.

They talked quietly, over their meal, of the impending approach of spring, and the weather of the last few days.

Frodo had difficulty concentrating on the conversation. Thoughts of spring and of its beauty -- and its promise of new life -- merely carried him back to thoughts of Lily. As much as he loved spring, Lily was more real and more beautiful than even the loveliest spring he had ever known...

He caught himself staring at nothing as Rose began to gather the dishes; the meal was over. He wondered how much of the talk he had missed.

“All finished there, Frodo?” Rosie asked with a grin. She knew he had been far away. It was a comfort to see him this way. This was more like the Frodo of old -- before the Quest. Daydreaming, with a slight smile on his face... Rose turned to wink at Lily, but Lily was watching Frodo, as well.

Frodo started, and smiled up at Rose. “Yes... I think so... yes. I couldn’t eat one more bite -- thank you, dear Rose... everything was delicious. Especially your mince pie,” he smiled.

Rose added his dish to the others in her hand, and Frodo laid his left hand over Lily’s right. He was about to ask her how she felt when Merry laughed.

“Well, dear cousin, you might’ve enjoyed some of that wonderful mince pie sooner, had Pip not eaten every last bit of it a couple of days ago! Rose graciously made another one, because of you!” He eyed his younger cousin.

Pippin feigned indignation. “Ho there, now! Frodo wasn’t up to mince pie the other night! I couldn’t let it go to waste, could I?”

Merry rolled his eyes. “Good one, Pip, but not good enough. You were on a mission, quest, thing -- whatever you call it! -- to finish that pie off. Yours truly never even got any!!”

Rose was laughing, breathless, and needed to set some of the dishes down.

“Stop it, you two!” she cried. “You’ll get me into one of my laughing fits!”

“Sorry about that, Rosie...” Pippin smiled, suddenly drowsy. Now the meal was finished, he yawned, covering his mouth. “That was a meal fit for King Elessar. Thank you, dear Rose. I wish I were as lucky as Sam...”

“I’d be over the moon to be Sam or Frodo...” added Merry, winking at Lily, and then at Rosie. “Thanks, Rosie. You’re lovely and talented.”

Rosie giggled again. “Hush now. What’re you thinking, Meriadoc Brandybuck? If you spent as much time buttering up some of the local lasses as you do me, you’d have caught one by now.”

Merry blushed, then laughed along with everyone else.

Lily moved to help her, and found herself directed to stay where she was.

“You’ll be needing to rest soon.” Rose smiled. “Frodo needs a rest as well, as do Merry and Pippin, by the look of it.”

“What of you?” Lily asked, concerned.

“I’m fine. I’ve had several very good nights’ sleep now and am feeling quite myself again.”

“You don’t need to keep an eye on me,” Frodo assured her.

“Who said anything about keeping an eye on you?” she teased. “There’s a bit of work to be done around here, and it’s time it got done, or Sam’ll know sure and certain something’s up. His room needs getting back in order.” Her smile was wistful, but happy.

“Lily, see Frodo back to his room and settle him, if you please, and then take a rest in your room. Merry and Pippin, go catch your rest while you can... I’ll be wantin’ your help airing things out a bit, when you’re up and about.”

Merry and Pippin stood together. “Come on, Pip, better get our beauty rest. I don’t need it nearly so much as you...”

Merry ducked the cuff Pippin aimed at him, but Pippin caught him on the arm with another quick swing. They sauntered down the hall laughing.

Lily helped Frodo stand. They began their return trip to Frodo’s room when Frodo stopped and turned to Rose.

“Thank you, Rose, for everything... For all the care, these past months, all you’ve given me, and Bag End. And more especially, thank you for taking care of Lily.”

Rose smiled and blushed, then bobbed a curtsy. “You’re most welcome, Mr. Frodo. Now, off with you before I take a switch to you for dawdling.”

Frodo and Lily laughed as Rose struggled to keep her face stern, finally waving them off.

Lily helped Frodo down the hall to his room. He removed his dressing gown, and Lily hung it in the wardrobe while he crawled into bed. She helped pull the covers up to his chin, then kissed his cheek.

“Lily--” Frodo started. How desperately he desired to tell her of his love for her... but not yet. Not telling her was beginning to cause a dull ache deep within him. “...Rest well, dearest.”

In her heart, Lily knew the words he chose to speak were not the ones he wished to share. I’ll wait for you, beloved, she determined, and smiled, hoping to convey all her feelings in her eyes. “And you, dearest.”

She trailed a finger down his cheek. Frodo covered her hand and held it against his face, closing his eyes to savor the feeling. Lily bent and almost caressed his lips with her own, but realized how vulnerable they both were, in this moment. She paused, then kissed his forehead.

“Sleep, dearest,” Lily whispered. “I’ll be in the far guest room. I’ll see you when you wake. Sleep...”

Frodo nodded and gazed at her a moment longer, then closed his eyes. As he drifted to sleep, he eased his hold on her hand, until finally Lily was able to withdraw her hand and tucked his under the covers. She lightly kissed his forehead again, and he nestled deeper into the pillows.

She smiled and wandered down the hall. Stepping into her room she glanced around, and her smile broadened. “I’m home.” She stretched out on the bed, pulled a quilt over herself, and fell asleep.

---------

She woke just before tea. For a moment, she tightened the quilt about her. “Frodo, you’ll not let me tell you I love you, but I do... and I shall show you in every touch, every glance, and every word. No matter how the darkness continues to pull at you -- yes, I feel it -- you’ll not be able to doubt my love for you...”

She sighed and rose to wash her face, then padded down the hall to check on Frodo.

Rose glanced up from her sewing as Lily walked in. “He’s not stirred,” she whispered.

Lily allowed her eyes to caress the dear sleeping face and settled in her chair next to the bed. “Thank you, Rose,” she whispered back, without looking at her.

Rose smiled and returned to her work.

“What are you sewing, Rose?” Lily’s eyes still rested on Frodo.

“A shirt for Sam. He doesn’t know it of course, but as hard as he works, he’ll need it soon enough. Should we wake the Master for tea?”

Lily glanced quickly at Rose, then back to Frodo. “No. He needs the sleep. The worst is over. We’ll wait till dinner, if he’ll sleep through. Would you mind bringing my tea here? I’d be obliged...”

Rose giggled, softly. “Already planned on it.”

The friends shared a warm smile, and Lily returned her attention to Frodo; she did not notice when Rose went to fetch tea.

Frodo stirred, his brows drawing together.

“You’re safe, Frodo, dearest. All is well. I’m here,” Lily murmured, and she watched him settle again.

Rose returned, quietly, with a tray of tea and scones. “Merry and Pippin are still sleeping. I figured they needed the sleep as well.” She handed Lily a cup and plate with a scone already buttered and jammed.

Lily had no more finished the scone when Rose placed another one, buttered and jammed, on her plate.

She smiled up at her friend, who whispered, “You need your strength, too.”

First Pippin and then Merry strolled in, rubbing their eyes.

Both lasses turned to them immediately, each pressing a finger to her lips. The cousins nodded and glanced at the bed. They helped themselves to tea and scones, then settled in their now-familiar chairs at the foot of the bed.

After they polished off the last of the scones, Rose signaled the cousins to follow her out into the hall, taking the tea tray with her.

Lily heard them whispering as they made their way down the hall toward the greatroom. She realized it must be time for the airing out Rose spoke of earlier. After settling a little more comfortably in her chair, and a little closer to the bed, Lily closed her eyes and endeavored to better understand the gift Gandalf explained was hers... hers, for Frodo.

She felt the darkness touch her and pushed it away, then began to hum her mother’s favourite lullaby, and felt the darkness retreat further.

“It does not understand love,” she realized aloud.

Frodo stirred, and Lily caressed his cheek with her hand. He turned to the touch, and sighed in his sleep.

Rose returned moments later to keep the couple company. “Merry and Pippin are taking care of the tasks I gave them,” she whispered to Lily.

Then Rose curled up on the window seat and picked up her sewing, giving Lily a reassuring smile when their eyes met.

---------

As dinner approached, Lily noted Frodo growing more restless, nearing waking himself, but she sensed there was more to it... The darkness was weakened, but still very present. She reached out her hand and brushed the chestnut curls from his forehead, stroking his face several times, until she felt the darkness once again retreated.

“Why do You continue to fight for him? What is he to You?” she murmured, and shook her head. “I do not understand You, but understand this: You may not have him. We shall conquer You together, in time, with Ilúvatar’s help...”

Rose kept her eyes fixed on her work, but her hands stopped their stitching when Lily began to speak. She’s more like him, now, Rose realized. What did Gandalf say about her? She was a gift from Ilúvatar to Frodo, and Frodo was meant for her... It looks to me she’s doing all the giving right now... but then that’s probably what keeps Frodo from speaking for her. What was it my Sam told me? Something about not meddling in the ways of wizards. ‘Well, Rose Cotton, that’s what you’re doing, so stop it,’ she berated herself, and then returned to her stitching.

She glanced up again, and noted Frodo was waking, then realized dinnertime was coming up quick and she hadn’t started a thing.

In the same moment, the smell of sausages permeated the smial. Rose smiled, and mused softly, “Mmmmm... Merry and Pip must’ve started dinner, bless them...”

Lily breathed deeply, as did Frodo. He did not open his eyes, but mumbled, “Hope they don’t burn it.”

Rose jumped from her seat. “I’ll check on them.” She hurried out to the kitchen.

“Good evening, dearest,” Lily murmured, and smiled when he opened his eyes.

“Good evening, dearest--” So many things he wanted to say and could not, not yet. He sighed. “Am I the last to wake?”

“Yes. We let you sleep through tea, and from the smell of it, dinner shall be ready presently. Would you like to eat it here, or out in the greatroom?”

Frodo stretched under the covers, then released a deep breath. “It feels good to breathe... I think the greatroom, if I may; I need the walk, if we are to get me back to a state suitable for Sam’s return.”

Lily returned Frodo’s grin. She fetched his dressing gown and handed it to him, then slipped into the hall to wait for him.

He walked much more steadily, and did not actually need to lean on Lily, though she insisted on wrapping her arm around his waist “just in case.” They both laughed.

“May I have my kiss?” Frodo glanced at her, uncertain.

“You remembered,” Lily giggled. Then her expression grew serious, and she studied his mouth. She raised her right hand, and touched his lower lip gently, before she kissed him, then pulled away slowly.

He searched her eyes. She felt the doubt growing within him, and laid her fingers softly on his mouth once more. He kissed her fingers, and she removed her hand with a smile.

“They’ll wonder where we are.” Her smile broadened, and they continued down the hall to the greatroom.

---------

Dinner and supper were spent in the greatroom. The conversation flowed easily; family stories they knew by heart, of the Brandybucks and the Tooks, were told with great verve by the younger cousins. To Lily, it seemed they possessed an inexhaustible supply of anecdotes, many about Frodo; she soaked up the telling of each one as the comfrey in her garden, when rain was long in coming. Frodo reveled in watching her face as she listened, at times in rapt wonder.

When Lily and Frodo shared brief smiles, their eyes shining with unselfconscious love, they were unaware of the knowing sidelong glances shared between the other three hobbits. The trio could not forget their promise to Lily, and were careful not to discuss her gift, nor anything regarding the past week, as they talked and laughed together.

As supper drew to a close, Frodo began to nod and finally commented, “I’m feeling much better, but clearly am not quite myself yet.”

Rose encouraged. “You’re making fine progress, Frodo. We’ll have you to your old self again in no time--”

“We must,” Pippin rejoined. “Or Sam’ll skin us like coneys and stew us all.”

They all laughed, then Merry interrupted. “I don’t know why we’re laughing. Pip’s right. Sam’ll tan our hides, if he ever finds out. We all have to agree not to tell Sam, and let the rumor spread it was just a little fever -- Frodo, your eyes get remarkably big when you open them like that -- really, it was only a bit of fever. We wouldn’t have come, if it was just the sniffles, but don’t be making a flea into one of Sam’s oliphaunts or we can all say goodbye to peace and quiet, for Sam’ll never let us have any. So, you’ll not be making too much of this?” He pinned Frodo with his gaze.

Frodo eyed his cousin skeptically, then smiled. “You’re never going to tell me the truth, are you? I promise not to dwell on the five lost days.”

Merry ignored the jibe. “Good. Now we’ll be able to live in peace, without wondering if Master Samwise might consider taking us each to task. Don’t worry, Rose. We’d make sure he knew you had no choice in the matter.”

Rose giggled. “Very thoughtful of you to protect me, but I don’t think it’s needful...”

Pippin nodded sagely. “She’s right, Merry. Sam’s a goner where she’s concerned. And he’d not dare touch Miss Lily. So I guess we’re really just protecting our own skins, and Frodo’s, o’ course.”

“I’m very fond of my skin. We’re attached, you might say,” Merry added.

They dissolved into laughter, then shared a couple of songs before deciding it was time to put Frodo to bed.

Rose escorted Lily and Frodo back to the bedroom, while Merry and Pippin cleaned up.

Frodo slipped out of his dressing gown, and crawled into his bed. Rose hung up the garment as Lily was tucking Frodo in.

“Sleep well, dearest Lily.” Frodo gazed up at her, his eyes heavy.

“Sleep well, Frodo dear. I’ll return in the morning... I’ll miss you...” She whispered the last.

“I’ll miss you,” Frodo whispered back, so softly even Rose did not hear it.

Lily pushed back his curls, and his eyes closed. She kissed his forehead, and murmured, “Til morning...”

Frodo nodded, barely. “Til morning...”

As Lily watched, his breathing deepened and became increasingly even.

Lily caressed his face with her eyes, willing him to feel her love. She breathed a prayer, then left the room arm in arm with Rose.