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Sacrament

by CRB and Ladyhawk Baggins

20 March 1420sr

Frodo stood in the open doorway of Bag End, watching Lily and Rose stroll up the lane from the Gaffer’s. He’d been watching for them from the greatroom window, and as soon as he saw them, he went to the door to await their arrival.

Lily had noticed him straight way and waved. The two lasses walked arm in arm, their heads close together, chatting and laughing.

Frodo would have walked out to meet them but felt unexpectedly wobbly on his feet. He felt sure he was sleeping better than he had since Rivendell, but his strength was still not what it ought to be.

As they approached the gate, Frodo called, “Good morning!”

“Good morning!” the two lasses replied. Their breath showed only a little on the damp chill of the morning air.

Rose smiled broadly as she felt Lily’s hold on her arm tighten. As they reached Frodo, Rose quietly slipped past him, and into the smial.

Lily gazed into Frodo’s eyes.

“I missed you,” he smiled.

Lily remembered her conversation with Rose about those very words. Her heart beat a little quicker. “I missed you,” she breathed. She allowed her hand to stray, as if of its own volition, to his face, where she caressed his cheek.

Frodo breathed in sharply and his eyes closed, savoring the feel of her soft skin against his. “So much seems like the first time -- all over again.”

He opened his eyes and searched hers, then covered her hand with his own. Slowly, he eased her hand from his cheek, and kissed the back of it.

Lily took in a shuddering breath and smiled. “It is a little like starting all over again, only better.”

Frodo eyed Lily over the top of her hand. When he kissed it again, several more times, he discovered an unlooked-for pleasure; Lily’s breath caught with each kiss.

She struggled to continue. “...there’s not the uncertainty of how we feel toward each other...”

Frodo’s eyes widened. I long to tell you, beloved Lily, but why do the words still catch in my throat? he anguished. We must talk. There is so much I need to know. Will you tell me? Or keep me in the dark? He shuddered at the thought. No, you would never bring more darkness. I know you wait only for my strength to return.

Lily felt the struggle within him. How may I ease the turmoil, my love? she wondered. Her brows drew together. “Are you sleeping well, dearest?”

Frodo lowered her hand from his lips and searched Lily’s eyes again, before looking away.

She placed his hand on her waist and wrapped her arms around him, drawing him close and laying her head against the scarred shoulder. She felt him tremble, then envelop her fully in his warm embrace, rubbing his cheek against her hair. She felt some bit of strength leaving her, but marveled again at how well she felt.

She could feel Frodo gradually relax; his breathing deepened and steadied. Lily nestled her head against his shoulder.

He murmured, “From the smell of things, first breakfast should be ready soon.”

“And by the smell of it, Rose is cooking it, so we shan’t go hungry,” she replied.

Frodo’s laugh escaped from deep in his chest, and they tightened their embrace.

“You owe me a kiss, Lily,” he whispered conspiratorially. “For making me laugh...”

“You drive a hard bargain, Mister Baggins. But I think I’m able to keep my end of the agreement.” Lily giggled, and lifted her eyes to gaze into his, then reached up to caress his lips with her own; he met her, holding her closer as his mouth sought the sweetness she offered.

---------

In the kitchen, Merry and Pippin did whatever Rose asked of them. After they glanced at each other and then at Rose for the third time in as many minutes, she asked, “What is it you’re not wanting -- but needing -- to tell me?”

The cousins glanced at each other again.

Merry took a breath. “Well...”

“Merry, we promised!” Pippin hissed.

“We promised we wouldn’t tell Lily... not that we wouldn’t tell Rose!” he whispered back, loud enough for Rose to hear.

Rose eyed the cousins suspiciously. “You’ve gone too far not to tell me now,” she warned.

Pippin peered at Merry. “Go ahead and tell her.”

Merry shrugged off his cousin’s exasperation. “Frodo’s not sleeping much at night. He wakes up calling for Lily. He knows he’s done it a time or two. What we haven’t told him is it’s every few hours, and it gets worse as the night goes on. Pippin and I take turns checking on him. I thought -- I thought after what happened, with Gandalf and Lily and all, he’d have some peace for a while. Why’s this happening to him?”

Rose mulled over the things Lily told her at the onset of Frodo’s illness. She’d promised not to tell another soul, not even Sam, of their conversation. She sighed. Merry and Pippin knew most of the same things just from what had been said by Gandalf, but she would not break her promise; mayhap she could explain it another way.

“Remember what Mr. Gandalf said? The darkness could only be banished completely if Lily and Frodo wed, and even then, his memories would still vex him.”

Merry nodded. “So he’s truly still fighting it, and Lily helps--”

Pippin interrupted, offering an apologetic smile. “Then why doesn’t he call for her during his afternoon naps? They’re separated then.”

Rose chewed her bottom lip a moment. “They’re in separate bedrooms... but he knows she’s here, if you take my meaning.”

Pippin sighed. “She’s going home in a few more days. What’ll happen to Frodo then?”

Merry and Rose glanced at each other worriedly.

Rose squared her shoulders and set her jaw. “We’ll arrange for them to be together as much as possible before she leaves, and hope it lasts until she returns. She’s holding up well. Whatever it is Gandalf did for her, it’s worked wonders, like the second rising of bread.”

Both Merry and Pippin looked at her quizzically.

She smiled. “Bread rises once and then you punch it down and knead it again and shape it into loaves. Then it rises again before you bake it. Gandalf punched down the weariness in her, so to speak, and shaped what’s to come, if Frodo will let it.”

Pippin smiled a moment at the thought of Lily being compared to a loaf of bread. Then he frowned. “Aye, if Frodo will let it. He fairly squirms sometimes, thinking he’s taking advantage of her. Just this morning he was fretting about it again. Wondering if she’s spending time with him only because she’s gentle hearted and doesn’t like seeing anyone suffer.”

Rosie’s eyes widened. “What’s this nonsense?”

“It’s true,” Merry assured her. “He kept fussing about if he hadn’t come back to the Shire, Lily would’ve found someone that could give her a regular life... Pip and I were fair beside ourselves from talking ourselves blue in the face, telling him she’s not exactly cut from the same piece of cloth as most hobbit lasses. No disrespect to you, Rose -- you’re definitely one of a kind.”

Rose eyed Merry severely, then smiled. “Don’t you be lettin’ Sam hear you talk that way, Merry Brandybuck, or he’ll tan your hide, sure and certain.”

“I know,” Merry grinned. “Be that as it may, Frodo ended up agreeing with us, after a fashion, but it’s left me and Pip a mite uneasy.”

Rose finished laying the food on the table.

“Truth be told, I don’t know what to make of it. We’re tussling with an enemy we can’t see or touch, and only Frodo hears it... Lily hears it... I wonder if there’s a way I could bring it round to her without telling her what you promised not to tell. Then again, maybe she already knows...”

Rose shook her head. “We’d best all look sharp; this isn’t over, but we’ll all do much better with some food in our bellies. Pippin -- no, Merry -- no, I’ll get them myself. If you two would put the tea on and see that everything what’s needed is on the table?”

Pippin stared wide-eyed at Merry. “She doesn’t trust us, Merry!”

“Certainly doesn’t sound like she does, Pip.” Merry pouted.

Rose smiled, sweetly. “Not entirely.” She swept past the cousins to fetch Frodo and Lily.

---------

The front door to Bag End still stood wide open. Rosie approached it quietly, listening carefully. She sighed in quiet satisfaction. At least he’s giving her a good morning kiss today, she decided, seeing how as he didn’t yesterday. She peeked around the corner of the greatroom entrance, and smiled. All she could see were Lily’s hands spread against Frodo’s back. Hope the gossips are up early this morning, or they’ll hate themselves for missing this, Rose mused.

She cleared her throat. “Frodo, Lily, firsties is ready. No dawdling, or it’ll be cold, and not much is worse than cold eggs...”

Rose wasn’t sure at first if the couple heard her. Then Lily eased her hands from around Frodo, and the couple turned together to enter the smial. She struggled not to gasp at the look in their eyes. Lands, they’re top over tail in love. Oh, Sam, I wish you were here to help talk some sense into Frodo. I know the darkness whispers lies to him -- at least, that’s what Lily says -- but she’s leaving soon, and Frodo’ll need you, she sighed. Hurry home, Samwise dear...

As they walked to the kitchen together, Rose decided someone needed to take control of the situation. Frodo could not be allowed to continue to entertain such notions as Merry and Pippin described. I am the chaperone, after all... best be earning my keep, she determined. She smiled to herself, thinking of Mrs. Longburrow, the healer, earning her keep, then grew serious again. She faced the couple as they took their seats at the table.

Once greetings were exchanged, Rose announced, “After firsties, you two can sit out on the front porch until secondies, then we’ll take a walk to Hobbiton. We’ll pack a picnic to eat in the Party Field on the way back for elevensies, and relax there for awhile. Then, after we have luncheon here, you two can get your respective naps. Does that suit you both?”

Frodo raised his brows, but Lily smiled and replied. “Yes, Rose, it sounds just right, if Frodo’s up to it. Are you, dearest?”

“Yes, I think I can make it to Hobbiton and back,” he smiled. “Slowly.”

Merry piped up. “The gossips’ll be most grateful for something new to yammer about.”

“Especially as it involves our dear cousin,” chimed Pippin.

Frodo blushed. “But there’s nothing--”

“Don’t worry, Frodo; they’ll embellish it, better than Merry,” Pippin continued cheerfully. “Ow! You needn’t have elbowed me, oh future Thain, particularly as it’s true, and you know it!”

Merry considered his cousin’s declaration for a moment. “You’re right.” He elbowed his cousin again, in the midst of a bite of scone, eliciting another muffled howl. “But that doesn’t mean you have to say it.”

The banter seemed harmless enough, for the most part, but Lily sensed an underlying strain. The talk around the table turned abruptly from the local gossips and proceeded to cover general things, ending with one and all thanking Rose for a delicious meal. Lily was grateful when Rosie waved her and Frodo off.

“It will give the two of you a chance to talk” -- Rose eyed Lily and hoped she understood, then glared at Merry and Pippin -- “without interruption.”

“Pip, I believe we’ve been given an order.”

“Yes, Merry, I’d say we have. What shall we do then?”

“Dishes,” Rose enunciated.

“Yes, captain!” The cousins bowed low at the waist and gathered dishes from the table to start the task assigned them.

Lily smiled to herself. I really must ask about those two and dishes... but Rose seems to think Frodo and I need to talk now. She allowed Frodo to lead her outside.

He settled her on the bench on his right, as always, wrapping his right arm about her shoulders. A contented sigh escaped her, and she reached for his left hand to hold it in her lap, gently stroking it as one might a kitten. She studied it, thinking about the marred hand he so rarely gave her to hold, and never without hesitation.

What did Rose want them to discuss? Lily closed her eyes, endeavoring to decipher the riddle, and remembered the question Frodo did not answer earlier. “Dearest, why are you not sleeping well?”

Frodo shifted uncomfortably, then withdrew his arm from around her shoulders. He moved to rise, but Lily kept hold of his left hand and grasped his right, turning to face him.

She gazed up into his eyes; unshed tears shimmered in her own. “Please, Frodo, do not create more distance between us. There is too much already.”

“Oh, Lily...” Frodo settled back on the bench. “I...” He glanced at their hands, then met her gaze.

“You’re uneasy about something. I felt it yesterday. I’m sorry, dearest. I didn’t want to think about anything but how wonderful it was to have you up and about, and the darkness seemed so distant...” Lily stared down at their hands and tightened her hold. She continued, her voice small. “I needed -- I wanted to -- to imagine It was gone, just for one day. I’m sorry.” A tear slid down her cheek.

“Darling Lily.” Frodo swallowed his own tears. How I long to take you in my arms and kiss your tears away, his heart cried, but then how shall I ever find the courage to let you go? “We must talk about -- about my illness. I know you wish to spare me, but I need to know. Please...”

Lily nodded as she continued to stare fixedly at their hands. “Ask me anything,” she whispered.

Frodo squeezed her hands, gently. “It must have been serious for you to feel you needed to summon Gandalf...”

Lily’s head snapped up, and she shook it vigorously. “We did not send for him, Frodo. Truly, he simply appeared at the door!” Her eyes beseeched him to believe her.

Frodo’s brows drew together. “Then how did he know?”

“I don’t know...” She searched her memories of the past week.

“Someone must have summoned him, Lily; who?”

The moment crystallized in her mind. “You did.”

“I did?” Frodo did not attempt to hide his disbelief.

“Yes; midmorning on the 14th. You called his name. I thought you awake, but you weren’t, not really...” Her voice caught. She took a deep breath and released it before continuing. “Then Gandalf appeared at the door, midday.”

“And he left before I could think clearly enough to ask him about my illness,” Frodo interjected sadly. “Gandalf wished to avoid answering my questions, just as you do.”

He sighed. “I am sorry... I talked in my sleep, then. What did I say?”

At the memory, Lily’s lower lip trembled, and she carefully bit it, endeavoring to think, to concentrate... “You -- you spoke of the Ring, and about It being gone. It seemed to be at the end of -- of the Quest. I don’t remember all the words.”

“So you know I could not give It up.” Frodo’s teeth clenched. “I claimed It for my own.”

Lily searched his eyes. “I’ve known that since last November. Remember? Sam told me -- me and Rose. Frodo, no one believes you failed but you. Why?”

Frodo turned his face away from Lily’s searching gaze, but tightened his hold on her hands. “They were not there, Lily.”

“Sam was there, and he does not believe you failed...”

Frodo smiled depreciatingly. “Sam is mayhap not the best one to defer to, as he is a bit biased, you must admit. But no matter. My true concern is, how did you fare in all this?”

“Well enough,” Lily answered slowly, then braced herself for the question she knew was coming.

“Did you faint, as you have in the past?”

Lily weighed her answer, then whispered, “Yes.”

Frodo’s head dropped, and his shoulders sagged. “More than once?” he mumbled.

Lily nodded then whispered again, “Yes. Twice.”

“Twice?!” Frodo choked on the word. He endeavored to release her hands, but Lily would not relinquish her hold on his. “Lily, you must leave,” he pleaded. “You are in danger. What will happen when the darkness regains Its strength? If It overwhelmed you twice in only a few days, what hope is there for us to be together?” He hurried on. “You must not see me any more. Leave while the darkness is still weak... before It finds a way to claim us both.”

Frodo snatched his hands from her grasp and stood, stepping away from the bench. He glanced at her upturned face, and the tears streaming down her cheeks. He then stared out over the Party Field as his own tears gathered...

“I will be all right, Lily. I feel much better now.” He glanced back at her. “That did not come out quite the way I meant it. It is one thing for me to live with the darkness; we are familiar with each other. It’s another consideration entirely for you to be claimed by It. I cannot allow it.”

Lily frantically searched her mind for a reply. Silently, she prayed; Ilúvatar, what do I say? It was not entirely the darkness... she rose from the bench and stood next to Frodo, her hands clenched at her sides.

“Frodo,” she sniffed. “In both instances, I was overwhelmed by more than just the darkness. The first time was early morning on the 14th, after being up all day, and much of the night, with only a short nap... I did not want to be parted from you; and simply couldn’t sleep, but I should have at least rested... You would have seen to it I did, in any other situation. And I did not make the same mistake again.

“The second was on the 15th, after your fever broke. I was so relieved... Dear Frodo, you know what happens when my emotions overwhelm me...” She struggled to explain more clearly. “It’s not unlike a baked potato that’s not been forked.”

A smile tugged at Frodo’s lips, and he turned to face her. “You do not explode.”

Lily offered a tentative smile in return. “No -- but then again, I’m certainly not my best at those times.”

How I wish I could tell you of my gift, beloved, she sorrowed. But you would always wonder about your true reasons for staying with me. She sighed.

“I’ll not deny it,” Lily continued. “The darkness was a terrible strain while you were ill, but It did not claim me. And now, I am more well than ever. Are you still so much in a fog you’ve not noticed we’re spending whole days together?”

Frodo blinked in surprise.

“In truth, dear Frodo, we’ve hardly been separated since the 12th...”

Lily felt a warm satisfaction seeping through her, watching Frodo turn her words over in his mind. Then her eyes widened in surprise, as revelation lit up her soul.

“The darkness, Frodo! It is weaker, but seeks to claim you still; only now It is far more subtle. I almost did not recognize It.” She searched Frodo’s eyes. She added, her voice hushed but determined, “It may not have you.”

How could he resist her? he wondered. The smile on his lips reached his eyes. “It is not fair to ask you to endure these illnesses at least twice a year for weeks...”

“That’s one month out of twelve, Frodo -- not so very long a time...”

“It may only grow worse...”

Lily acted quickly, before he could stop her, standing on tiptoe and wrapping her arms around his neck. She kissed him gently, then released him, touching first his cheek and then his dark chestnut curls with her right hand. Her eyes were very bright when she replied.

“It may not...”

She smiled; so many emotions at once were written clearly on her beloved’s face... joy and sadness, calm and fear; hope -- and longing; gratitude...

“Dear Frodo, Ilúvatar may yet provide a way to help us. He brought us together. And you’ve taught me to believe He cares for us; believe it for yourself, too, dearest. And do not let the darkness tell you otherwise.”

It seemed to her Frodo pondered a long while before answering.

“I’m certain you’re right, Lily... I am sure of it,” he repeated. He knew his tone still revealed some doubt, but he smiled for her, and took her right hand from his face, kissing it once very lightly.

“I -- I need to ask for the gift of belief, and for more strength against this darkness... He would grant such a gift, wouldn’t He?”

“My heart tells me He would.”

Frodo sighed. “We have no other recourse, do we, Lily? None that I can see, that is... There really is no one else who may help us, is there?” He paused, and his tone became more hopeful as he continued.

“And He brought you to me! -- something I never foresaw; never... if I remember only this, and nothing else, then I can easily believe He cares for me, and very greatly indeed... Lily, it must happen somehow; we must be allowed to stay together, forever... Why else would we feel this way for one another? I cannot believe He is cruel. I shall not believe that. But I -- when I pray, the darkness interrupts me. It’s so difficult to pray. Especially when I am alone.”

Lily struggled to contain the joy she felt at his words of their being together, forever; she would hold those words in her heart. But other concerns needed to be overcome first.

“Frodo, dear, let us pray together each night, before parting; the darkness retreats while I am near you.” She hesitated. “If you’d like, you may hold me now. I’m not weary at all.”

“Lily,” he whispered, his eyes full of anguish, “I do not wish to take advantage of you.”

She sighed. “Frodo, I would like very much if you would hold me for a while. Rosie should be calling us to secondies soon.” She took a deep breath and gathered her courage. “I want to feel your arms around me, holding me close. Within your embrace, I feel safe, and at peace, and happy, all at once.”

Frodo’s breath caught in his throat. He held her gingerly, and tried not to lose his concentration as the faint perfume of honeysuckle in her hair filled him. He closed his eyes and prayed fervently; no darkness came to mar his thoughts and hopes, and he held her closer; only for a moment. Then he sighed heavily, and let her go.

For the first time, he began to believe the day might truly come when he could tell her the words he longed to say; the ones she longed to hear. Tears stung his eyes, but his smile was true; and Lily saw it.

They settled on the bench again. Frodo hesitated.

“I’m all right, dearest.” She smiled into his eyes.

He wrapped his right arm around her shoulders. She nestled closer and grasped his left hand between both of hers and held it in her lap once again.

She steeled herself and asked, “Was there anything else you wished to know? Best clear the air now.”

“Secondies!” Merry called from the greatroom window.

“Whenever you’re ready,” Rose added, and pushed Merry away from the window. “It’s bread and cheese and dried pears, so it’ll keep...”

She closed the window, but not before Lily and Frodo heard her scold Merry.

“I told you not to bother them!”

“But I could see they’d worked it out!”

“Yes, but they need settling time--”

Lily giggled and leaned her head against Frodo’s shoulder. He chuckled, then kissed her temple, and tightened his hold on her.

“Have you anything else you’d like to ask?” she murmured. Suddenly the sun broke out from behind the morning’s clouds. They were bathed in bright sunshine, and blinked at its intensity. The warmth was soothing.

He sighed. “Is it -- is it all right if I ask questions as they reveal themselves? Sometimes I don’t know where to start, Lily. I’m beginning to realize some questions are my own, and others are not.” He shivered, and held her more tightly. “I do not know how much of it is the darkness casting doubts -- but I want the answers, all the same -- for I don’t know which are which.”

Lily pulled back a little and gazed into his eyes. His worry was plain to see. “I understand. And yes, I’ll answer whatever you ask, whenever you feel able to ask...”

“Thank you.” He caressed her forehead with his lips. “We need to feed you, dearest.”

Lily giggled again. Frodo pulled back and gazed into her eyes; he drew his brows together, questioning, and then raised them, as Lily began to blush.

She realized her giddiness emanated from the relief she felt; they seemed to be back on a comfortable footing. She kept her voice low. “If I could exist on only your kisses and caresses, I should be very well fed indeed.” Her eyes sparkled.

Frodo blushed as well, and gathered her close. In his heart, he knew he wanted to hold her always, but still wondered how it would be possible, with the darkness still staining his life. He thought of Lily’s desire to pretend It did not exist for one day. Suddenly, he ached to grant her wish, and tightened his embrace briefly, then stood and pulled her up with him.

---------

As the couple found their places at table and joined the other three, they did not notice Merry wink at Pippin; the two cousins were pleased to see Frodo sitting closer to Lily. They talked of their plans for the day.

While Lily and Frodo finished up their tea, Merry and Pippin helped Rose prepare the picnic they would all enjoy later under the new Party Tree.

After gathering up two blankets for the picnic, the five set off together. Merry and Pippin, laughing together at a shared memory, walked a little ahead, stopping frequently for the other three to catch up. Rose allowed Lily and Frodo to lag a little behind. She smiled at her own cleverness; they each carried a blanket, keeping their hands occupied. No one could fault them for their decorum. She could hear their voices, but not their words, as they talked all the way to Hobbiton.

Merry and Pippin waited for the others once they reached the Mill Bridge. Then the five of them walked into Hobbiton proper together.

Market day was still two days away. Even then, the vendors’ offerings would be sparse, fresh vegetables and fruits being out of season; but today the regular shops were open. Rose stopped at several, checking what was available, and came out of the bakery with a parcel. She refused to answer the inquiries of her companions, but smiled to herself as they continued their walk.

Merry and Pippin wanted to check their ponies at the stable, and Rose wanted to stop in a few more places. Lily felt Frodo’s weariness begin to edge closer, and suggested they take their blankets and sit by the Water until the others were ready to return to Bag End.

“Did you want to see Strider?” Frodo smiled.

“Another day,” Lily assured him.

Frodo laid out the blanket he carried and helped Lily sit, then sat down heavily beside her.

“Do you have any aunties or uncles?” Frodo ventured.

Lily was at first surprised at the question, which seemed to come from nowhere; she sensed Frodo’s contemplative mood.

She sighed. “Not really. That is, they died before I was born. Da’s older sister died when they were still in Bree, of fever, before she was a tween. Mum’s younger sister died delivering her first child. Sadly, the babe was lost as well. Her husband remarried and moved to Bree. He preferred not to stay in touch, as he just wanted to start over...”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s the way of it...” Lily paused. “Frodo, tomorrow, if you’re up to it, may we visit the Battle Garden? I hear tell they added the name stone a fortnight or so ago.”

Frodo watched her; she was staring at the blanket, smoothing one spot. He longed to take her in his arms. Here, he could not even hold her hand without tongues wagging. Carefully, he shifted his position, until he sat comfortably with the tips of his fingers just touching hers on the blanket.

Lily glanced up and met his steady gaze.

“Yes, Lily. We’ll visit the Battle Garden tomorrow. You haven’t seen it since the burial, I know... They did add the name stone. I haven’t yet seen it myself, although the neighbors on the Row say it’s beautiful.” His heart tightened as her eyes pooled with tears.

“Thank you,” Lily whispered. She looked up at the sky. The Sun was once again obscured by a thick cover of clouds, as was common at the middle of March in the Westfarthing. Memories of their cloud-gazing afternoon in February flooded through her. It had been a mostly sunny day, unlike today, which was mostly grey. She smiled wistfully as she recalled more details, enjoying the feel of his fingertips on hers.

“Are the two of you ready for elevensies?” Pippin called, as he and Merry crossed the nearly-deserted market square.

Lily blinked her tears away, and turned with Frodo to greet the cousins. “Yes, I’m a bit hungry.”

After Frodo rose, he offered his hand to help Lily. She searched his eyes as she deliberately laid her hand in his. He felt her tremble as he folded his fingers over hers. She rose slowly, on purpose, allowing their touch to linger. Once she was standing, they reluctantly released their hold, but continued to gaze into each others’ eyes, until Rose joined them moments later.

Once Frodo and Lily stepped off the blanket, Merry picked it up and shook it out, then folded it and draped it over his arm. He offered to take the blanket Lily had been carrying as well, and she accepted with a nod.

Pippin carried the picnic basket and bakery parcel, while Rose walked between Frodo and Lily, arm in arm, across the bridge and up to the Party Tree. Merry and Pippin laid out the blankets, and Rose served their meal of savory scones, sliced ham, and carrots, along with cider.

Merry, Pippin and Rose spent the meal reporting the village gossip. No mention was made of the polite and courteous greetings given Frodo and Lily, or more particularly, of the whispering that erupted as soon as they passed.

When elevensies was finished, Rosie placed the bakery parcel, tied with string, in the middle of the circle of friends.

“Finally ready to reveal your secret, are you?” Frodo smiled.

Rosie raised her brows. “Would I be keeping secrets from you, Mr. Frodo?”

Frodo laughed out loud. “Indeed you would, just like your Sam. I would warn him of your sly ways, but I suspect you learned them from him.”

“Really, Mr. Frodo!” Rose huffed. “What would my Sam think, hearing you speak of me so?”

Frodo laughed harder. “That I speak the truth, and I may as well get used to it... Now, what is this all about?”

Rose removed the parcel from the center of the circle haughtily. “If you’re going t’be difficult, I’ll take it back.”

“Rose!” Frodo smiled, and laid a hand on her arm. “Please, Sam would never forgive me, if he thought I mistreated you, though in this moment, I think he’d be chuckling, at my expense.” He entreated, “Please, do not keep me in suspense.”

“If you insist, Mr. Frodo,” she sighed in mock resignation; then Rosie smiled broadly as she untied the string, removed the outer paper wrapping, and opened the box. She lifted out a fancy cake. “I asked the Gaffer to pop down this morning and arrange for this, as I thought it might be nice to have a little celebration for your first real day out and about...”

Frodo smiled, replying in hushed tones, “Thank you, Rose. This is so very thoughtful of you... but more than that, thank you for taking care of me, and Lily... for everything.”

Rose blushed. “It weren’t like I’d anything else to do,” she mumbled, and quickly sliced the cake, then served a generous slice to each of them.

Frodo began to wonder how he might ever repay the kindness Rose had shown him and Lily, and if indeed it was even possible to do so. Sam felt so much a part of Bag End, long before the Quest, and an intricate part of his own life for years... now Rose had slipped into his heart in the same manner. How could he ever recompense either of them?

Lily turned the conversation, encouraging Merry and Pippin to share their memories of Lothlórien, as they sat under the spreading branches of the new Party Tree. As she expected, the cousins plunged into animated talk.

Rose smiled at her gratefully. She and Lily asked many questions as the stories flowed along, until a chill wind picked up, and they all agreed it was time to return to Bag End.

---------

Luncheon was spent in quiet conversation about their venture into Hobbiton. Some little mention was made of the whispers and stares; it was only to be expected with the Master of Bag End, and it should put to rest any talk of Frodo’s illness. Sam would never know.

The afternoon was spent much the same as the day before. Lily and Frodo took their respective naps, with Lily waking before tea; Frodo slept longer, waking before dinner.

They were both glad to spend the evening in the greatroom, chatting and singing songs. Rose gave Frodo permission to place his arm around Lily and turned a blind eye when Lily held his left hand in both of hers.

As the evening drew on, Lily began to feel the wear of the day. She listened quietly to Merry and Pippin’s stories of the grandeur of the court of King Elessar and Queen Arwen, nestling closer to Frodo.

For a time, listening quietly to the stories, and basking in Lily’s gentle warmth and the healing she brought, Frodo felt a peace he had not known since well before his inheritance of the Ring. Some part of him knew that without her, without her healing, he would indeed die, and not just from the stark misery of being bereft of her love. He would gradually fall to the darkness and the Voice.

Ilúvatar had urged him to trust, and to stay close to Lily. But would Lily eventually suffer too much, become too ill, and die? Ilúvatar spoke not at all of this.

Frodo closed his eyes, and knew in his heart he would, at some point, need to choose... Choose between trusting in Ilúvatar to somehow protect Lily from harm and death, or to protect Lily himself, by leaving her. But leaving her felt all wrong; she loved him so much now... she might waste away and die if he left her; she had not fared well after they parted on December 22nd, and neither had he.

It occurred to him that all he needed to do was dredge up the courage to risk Lily’s life, for the sake of saving his own... and to trust to the Creator that Lily would not be made into some sort of sacrifice. It was ironic; for if Lily died for the sake of his health and his life, Frodo would want to die anyway. He could not imagine his life without her, and he could not bear to imagine being the cause of her death.

Frodo accepted he did not yet possess that kind of courage; the courage needed to trust so deeply in the Creator’s love. As it stood now, walking straight into Shelob’s Lair at Cirith Ungol would be easier than risking Lily’s life for his own.

A window of sudden understanding opened, and Frodo realized he would need to pray for the courage to trust, and to fight the darkness on his own again, when Lily returned to her home.

But he would not be fighting alone; Ilúvatar was real. He did believe this, in his heart. The darkness tried even harder to pull him down into itself, in those times when his faith was stronger; he saw the pattern each time, saw the pattern of the darkness attempting to smother the Light.

How long would he be required to wait for the courage he needed? The courage to make Lily his own -- for he knew she wanted this as much as he did. And he needed to believe, without a trace of doubt, that desiring Lily for his own was nothing like wanting the Ring for his own. He needed the courage to believe it was not pure selfishness to make her his own. And this courage could only come to him if he left his heart open to it.

He had learned much from Sam about the workings of the heart, and of hope. Sam’s hope had saved them both, in Mordor. Frodo admitted to himself he knew some courage as well, and had learned much of it from the Fellowship. He had also learned of the workings of love from his friends and family. And from Lily, who came into his life so very unexpectedly on that cold November night they had come Home.

Rose watched Lily carefully, and noted the weariness creeping in. She stood and cleared her throat at the end of Merry’s tale of finding a stash of the best Southfarthing weed within the ruins of Isengard.

“It’s been a lovely day, but I think it’s time Lily and I return to the Gaffer’s.”

Frodo started out of his reverie, and glanced quickly at Lily.

She smiled into his eyes. “I’m only a little weary.”

“Still, you need to rest.”

Lily sighed. “I know.”

Frodo stood, and drew her up gently. “Come, Lily,” he beckoned softly. She did indeed appear tired -- not ill, nor exhausted, but tired...

Rose slipped on her cloak and headed out the door. “I’ll stroll... Good night, all of you. Sleep well.” She headed toward the Gaffer’s.

Frodo helped Lily with her cloak. They stepped onto the front porch, and into a warm embrace. Frodo whispered into her ear. “I shall miss you, dear Lily.”

“And I miss you already, dearest Frodo,” Lily breathed. She felt him hesitate, and smiled. “I’ve not forgotten.” She pulled a little away and eased her arms from around him, grasping his hands in her own and raising them until she could almost have kissed his hands if only she allowed herself...

Frodo smiled, briefly, then closed his eyes and bent his head, and Lily did the same. There was pleading in his voice, a fervent tone which surprised her. “Ilúvatar, Creator of All, we come to You with gratitude for the gift of prayer and -- Lily...”

Lily’s breath caught. She felt Frodo struggle for words, and continued their prayer. “Please, help Frodo withstand the darkness through the night... and thank You for prayer and -- for Frodo...”

She gazed up into Frodo’s eyes, filled with wonder. She smiled for him.

He bent his head and kissed her hands, then held both her hands in his left, and reached out with his right. The tips of his fingers caressed her cheek, then froze, as his eyes were drawn to the missing finger.

Lily felt him begin to recoil. Her left hand released his and covered his right hand, pressing it against her cheek, to show him her acceptance and love. She searched the bright blue depths of his eyes, and watched in relief as the revulsion ebbed and faded into gratitude, and more. Her heart beat faster and her breathing quickened at what she saw in his eyes, at the openness there, the love and the desire.

“Sleep well, dearest. I -- I’ll miss you...” her voice faltered.

“Lily,” Frodo whispered desperately. He swallowed hard. “Until the morrow. I’ll miss you, my dearest Lily.”

She smiled, and reached up to meet the warmth and passion of Frodo’s kiss.