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Sacrament

by CRB and Ladyhawk Baggins

22 March 1420sr

Lily awoke with a sigh. She felt her friend stir next to her. The two of them just fit in Sam’s bed. The Gaffer had been unable to hide his disapproval, considering Lily’s station, but grumbled to himself that it was not his place to pass judgment on his betters -- though he could not resist reiterating that Rosie ought to sleep on the floor, while Lily got the bed. It had made for an awkward moment that first night. Lily was grateful it never came up again.

Rosie yawned and stretched, then burrowed a little deeper under their quilt, which muffled her words. “How’re you feeling? Did you sleep well?”

“I’m quite well, remarkably so. In truth, I cannot remember ever feeling so rested.”

Rosie’s curiosity overcame her nerves, and she finally asked the question she’d put off for days. “Beggin’ your pardon, I know it’s not my place... but what about the -- the darkness, what you told me about, is it -- less?”

“Rosie, of course you may ask. You are our chaperone.” Lily giggled. “The Gaffer certainly has a way of reminding one of what’s proper without saying anything at all. Be that as it may, you’re my friend, and may ask whatever you like. To answer your question, I don’t know as it’s less, so much as not as rampant.” She sighed heavily. “It’s far from beaten. Is it all right if we don’t speak of It? It suddenly feels closer.” She shivered.

“I’m sorry, Lily. I didn’t realize...”

“It’s all right, Rosie; neither did I. Tell me, when are you and Sam going to make your announcement?”

Lily noted Rosie’s immediate discomfort. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to surprise you quite like that, but I’ve been wondering about it...”

Rosie sighed. “I don’t know, as he’ll not yet let us set a date.”

“What?! Why ever not?”

“I wish I knew.” Rose struggled to hide her disappointment, but failed.

“I don’t understand. Everyone in the Shire knows how he feels about you... What could be keeping him from speaking openly for you?”

Rosie’s throat closed tight with tears. She sniffled.

Lily attempted to solve the riddle. “We know he adores you, and no one else, ever... he’s got good work he loves, for as long as he wants it... he’s got a room here, and at Bag End -- a room -- Rosie, where do you plan to live once you’re married?”

Rosie could only shrug as she wiped the tears from her face. She sniffled again, then cleared her throat. “The Gaffer’s been courtin’ the Widow Rumble. I’m thinking she won’t be wantin’ another missus here. Truth be told, I don’t care at all where we live, just as long as we’re together.”

“I know, and you know -- but males see things a bit differently. I’ve been listening to Will talk. He’s wanting to ask Bell for her hand in the worst way, but he flatly refuses until he’s built a house for her. Maybe Sam’s looking for a place... I’m sure Frodo would be glad to have the two of you live in Bag End. There’s certainly room enough...”

“Lily Burrows! Don’t even think it. Yes, Sam and I’d be over the moon to live there, and keep a watch over Frodo, but...” Rosie softened her voice. “...you’ll be living there soon, and I wouldn’t want to be under foot.”

Lily’s own breath caught.

Rose patted her arm and continued, “Besides, I’d really prefer a place of my own. It doesn’t need to be very big, just some place to call my own -- our own...”

Lily nodded. “Someplace where you don’t have to worry about where someone else keeps everything...”

“You can always change things to just the way you like them...”

“And then change them back again, if you want to...”

They both giggled.

“Don’t you worry, Rose,” Lily assured, “Sam’ll be asking soon.”

She became somber. “Rose, if Frodo begins to struggle with the darkness too much -- while I’m gone -- you’ll send for me, won’t you?”

Rose nodded. “I promise.”

Lily’s face became clear of all worry. “And you’ll send for me when you make your announcement?” she pleaded, her face eager.

“No, I’ll not... yes! I was only teasing, Lily!”

The two friends dissolved into giggles, then hurried to get ready for the day.

---------

Lily and Rose stepped out of #3 and took note of the overcast skies. As they started up the lane, fat droplets began plopping about them. They glanced at each other and grinned, then bolted for Bag End. The sprinkling of rain was suddenly a downpour as they pushed through the gate and up the steps. Frodo held open the door for them, and they burst into the front hall, laughing and panting for breath.

“We’re only a tad damp,” Lily declared breathlessly.

Frodo laughed. “Down to the bathing room, both of you! You may only be ‘a tad damp,’ but your feet are another story.”

The two lasses lifted their skirts a little to look.

“He’s right, you know,” Rosie sighed.

“Indeed.” Lily shook her head. “One would think we’d been dancing in a freshly turned garden...”

Frodo’s bemused expression faded to surprise as he caught the shimmer of tears in Lily’s eyes. He asked gently, “When did you indulge in such a thing?”

Lily smiled wistfully, and sniffed. “Long ago...”

“Will you tell me the story, sometime?” Frodo searched her eyes.

She could only nod and blink away the tears.

“Come on, then, Miss Burrows.” Rose adopted an austere tone. “We best repair to the bathing room...” She giggled. “We don’t want to be tracking mud all over the smial.”

Lily whispered loudly, “Particularly as we’ll be the ones cleaning it up...” She eyed Frodo, with a mischievous glint.

He laughed. “Merry! Pippin!” He added softly, “You owe me a kiss for making me lau--”

Lily kissed him swiftly, then blushed. She and Rose giggled and headed to the bathing room where they washed their feet. When they came out, they found Merry cleaning the floor.

He looked up at them and smiled broadly. “We’re hungry for first breakfast; figured it’d come faster if I cleaned the floor while Pippin started cooking.” His voice grew gradually louder as he continued. “Frodo is crying ill health to escape any work!”

Frodo’s reply could be heard from the kitchen. “I’m making sure Pip doesn’t burn anything!”

“What do you mean by that?!” retorted Pippin. “It’s you what burns whatever you’ve forgotten, because your head’s in the clouds--!”

Frodo and Pippin stuck their heads out of the kitchen and grinned.

Merry cried, “Don’t let it burn!!”

Pippin disappeared back into the kitchen.

Lily and Rose were reduced to leaning against the wall, helpless with laughter.

Frodo remained in the doorway, his smile beckoning Lily to come to him. She caught her breath and walked toward him, holding his eyes with her own.

Rosie and Merry glanced at each other, and smiled, then watched from lowered lids as the couple stepped close together.

“Come now, or I’ll not vouch for its condition!” Pippin hollered from the kitchen.

Frodo and Lily stepped apart, startled, then smiled, blushing. He held out his hand; she laid her hand in his, and they walked into the kitchen.

Rosie rolled her eyes at Merry and sighed in frustration. “Do you and Pip have no sense at all of timing?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Miss Cotton. I’m thinking Pip’s timing is perfect; I’m famished!” Merry got to his feet and gazed at Rose askance.

“You’re hopeless.” Rose did not bother to hide her exasperation. She shook her head and, with Merry trailing behind her, joined the other three friends in the kitchen.

They chatted of the weather as they breakfasted, wondering if Sam were dry or wet, and agreed it would probably rain for most of the day. Plans were made for warm meals, including stew and fresh bread, which the lasses started right after first breakfast. The cousins took an unusual interest in the meal’s preparation. Lily wondered why; but to Rose it was plain: Frodo wanted to be near Lily, and Merry and Pippin did not want to be left out.

After second breakfast, Frodo, Merry and Pippin made themselves comfortable in the kitchen, drinking tea and watching the rain beat on the rounded window casement as they warmed their feet near the hearth fire.

“This is the life, cousins,” Merry expounded. “Beautiful lasses here in the same room... the smell of baking bread...”

“I reckon you mean ‘the smell of RISING bread,’” corrected Rose.

“...ah -- the delicious smell of RISING bread...” Merry winked at Rose, while Pippin took up the refrain.

“A warm fire, good hot tea, our dearest cousin here with us...” He paused, and looked to Frodo, who was deep in thought, staring into the fire; he seemed not to have heard. Pippin cleared his throat softly and went on rhapsodizing.

“The rain, two lovely lasses...”

“I said that already, Pip!” protested Merry.

“Oh -- !”

At Pip’s loss of words, Frodo chuckled, startling them.

“Sam’s almost home,” Frodo looked at Rose, and went on, “...any day now...”

He knew Rose was captivated by any talk of Sam.

Frodo caught Lily’s eye. It was easy enough to do; she was at the butter churn now, no more than six feet away. They shared their private smile.

“I’d like to tell a story about Samwise, if I may,” he offered, still gazing at Lily. She was blushing, happy to be caught by those eyes.

Rose was all attention, kneading a loaf of bread dough.

“You’d like to tell all of us, or just Lily?” Merry teased.

Lily blushed even more, and looked down for a moment, unlocking herself from Frodo’s spell. Between his eyes, and his voice... she sighed quietly.

“Merry!” scolded Pippin. “You’ve embarrassed her!”

Frodo took his eyes off Lily and joined Pippin and Rose as they waited for Merry’s reply.

“Dear Miss Lily; I do apologize,” Merry said, adopting the most innocent expression he could manage. “Will you forgive me?”

Lily knew Merry was only being himself. “Why, Master Meriadoc, whatever made you think I was embarrassed? But I do think perhaps Frodo may want to--” Suddenly she was quiet, and paused. “--to tell all of us... the story... Frodo?... I think I need--”

“Lily--” Frodo grabbed an apple and a paring knife from the kitchen table and cut a slice of it on his way to her, in two strides.

He knelt next to her; her eyes were unfocused. “Eat this, Lily dearest.” He decided not to waste time placing it in her hand; her eyes were closing.

“Open up... Lily, look at me. Open up, eat this, dear.”

She opened her eyes, barely. Rose stood just behind her and held her shoulders gently.

Finally she opened her mouth, and Frodo fed her the bit of apple.

“That’s the way, dear... good.”

Her eyes came back into focus. Frodo gave Merry the apple and knife and let him cut another slice; Merry handed it to Frodo and Lily accepted it from him. She was waking up. Pippin brought a plate of cheese and another knife, and the three of them carefully coaxed her back to wakefulness. Rose fetched Frodo’s still-warm tea, and handed it to him. Lily drank some as she held the mug along with him.

She coughed after one swallow. “Ugh... no sugar...”

A heavy sigh escaped Frodo, and he smiled, handing the mug back to Rose. “Thank you, all of you...”

Frodo took Lily’s hands. “You need to eat a little more, dearest... you must not have eaten much at all this morning. I’m -- I’m sorry I didn’t watch more carefully.”

“Frodo...” Her voice was hesitant. “It’s not your task to see that I eat properly...” She held his hands tightly.

“It’s my task to take care of you. I promised your father, Lily; remember?”

Frodo smiled gently, encouraging Lily to smile, and she did. But his eyes were serious, and told a different story. She needed to close her eyes for just a moment.

She sighed, and opened them again, looking round at her friends. “Thank you. I’m fine now... and very embarrassed indeed, I might add, Master Merry!” She giggled weakly at her own joke.

Frodo recognized the slight euphoria Lily experienced after coming out of such spells. She was all right.

“Lily, come sit by my side, and I’ll tell the Samwise story now.”

He helped her to stand, slowly, from her place at the butter churn, and settled her at the kitchen table. He then sat next to her; they were both facing the firelight, with Merry and Pippin sitting across from them.

“Rose? Would you like to take a rest in the rocking chair? It’s waiting for you, you know.” Frodo smiled.

Rose had gone back to kneading the bread dough.

“Well, Mr. Frodo, I can’t rightly leave the dough now, or it won’t rise as it ought and the bread’ll turn out all crumbly. Not much longer now, but it still feels not quite ready for shaping. As soon as I can leave it, I’ll sit for a while. But please tell the story... I want to hear about my... about Sam...” She blushed.

“Very well, then,” Frodo replied. “Here follows the tale of Samwise and Frodo on a walking trip. Merry, Pip, you’ve heard this before... no ruining the ending, now!”

His cousins were so glad to see Frodo feeling well, and telling tales, they obeyed without question. “Yes, sir,” they chorused, and grinned.

Rose got flour on her face when she covered her mouth with her hand to keep from laughing, and Lily giggled.

Lily sipped some sweetened tea, prepared by Pippin while Frodo had helped her up. She held the mug gingerly with her right hand. Her left hand was on her lap, beneath the table, and Frodo held it in his right. The warmth of his hand felt wonderful on hers; but he carefully avoided allowing her to lace their fingers. Lily understood.

“Mmmmm. Thank you, dears, for this lovely tea,” she murmured, smiling at the cousins. “How about our story, dear Frodo? I am quite eager to hear it... please leave nothing out!” She could not reveal her real reason for wanting every detail; she wanted to learn as much about him as possible.

The warmth in her eyes touched Frodo’s heart, and he quickly cleared his throat. “I was not yet a tween when this tale takes place, but Bilbo asked me to visit Bag End from time to time. It was early spring.”

The rain pelting on the windows throughout the smial grew suddenly louder. Frodo wore a crooked grin as memories came back to him. Pleasant memories.

“I believe I was nineteen... Samwise was then seven, or close enough...

“It was a day much like today, rainy and blustery... I took it into my head to go for a walk regardless of the weather. Uncle Bilbo thought me a bit mad, since getting wet was never something he enjoyed, but I loved it. I put on a cloak and grabbed my walking stick and I was off...”

Merry and Pippin exchanged a look. Bilbo calling Frodo mad was a bit like the pot calling the kettle black. Frodo shared the smile with them; he guessed what they were thinking, and went on.

“I didn’t follow the road; it was too muddy... Anyway, I walked three miles, at a steady pace, due north, across open fields and into the birch-forest past Overhill... Merry and Pip know the one.”

Frodo smiled at his cousins, who nodded, then at Lily, and was rewarded by another squeeze to his hand beneath the table. Lily drank more of her tea as she smiled, softly.

“Let me see now; where was I?” Lily’s gesture had caused him to lose his place.

“Oh, yes! Another half mile, perhaps -- I’d gotten just about four miles from Bag End, when I heard a voice I knew...

“It was Sam... He had followed me all that way in the rain.”

“Oh, my,” Rose exclaimed. “I can’t say as I’ve heard this one!” She wiped her hands on her apron, the dough forgotten, and joined them, sitting in the rocking chair at the hearth, just to the left of Merry, and away from the butter churn.

“Yes. ‘Oh, my’ was something close to what I said to little Samwise when I saw it was him!” Frodo exclaimed.

“‘Samwise, what in the Shire are you doing here?’ I asked him, as I took the blanket from my backpack--” Frodo turned to Lily. “Did I mention I brought one along? No? Well, I had, and we stopped under an oak we found. It offered a little protection from the rain... I didn’t care so much if I got a bit of a sniffle out of my expedition, but I really didn’t want Sam to catch his death of cold from this hare-brained idea he’d had to follow me.

“So I wrapped the blanket all round him, trying to make a bit of a cloak. It worked well enough, and the rain seemed to be slowing down. We found a dead tree to sit on, while we waited it out, and I said, ‘Sam, answer me truthfully... Did you tell the Gaffer and your mum you did this? Do they know where you are?’

“Dear Sam; he could never lie! He was the same then as now. He looked up at me and said through chattering teeth, ‘No, Mr. Frodo, I didn’t tell nobody, sir.’

“I remember vividly how I felt. ‘Sam, they’ll be sick with worry for you! It’s been a couple of hours, at least! What were you thinking?’

“‘I was just hoping--’ Sam said, ‘I was just hoping we might see some Elves, sir? I hear as they like rain a lot.’”

Merry and Pippin and Rose laughed aloud at Frodo’s imitation of little Sam; but they laughed more at Sam’s unfailing pursuit of the Elves. Frodo laughed as well, and Lily smiled. She was beginning to weary, just a bit. It was not too bad, she told herself. By now it was obvious they would be taking elevensies piece meal, so Frodo could continue the story.

“‘My dear Master Samwise,’ I said sternly, ‘Go home this instant.’ Sam being Sam, he stood up and gave me the blanket which covered him from the rain, and said, ‘Yes, sir,’ and started walking back to the Row.

“I came to my senses. ‘Wait, Samwise! Wait!’ I said, and he stopped. ‘I’m coming with you. You can’t go back alone.’

“Sam smiled a smile so big it made me laugh. ‘Yes, sir, thank you, sir,’ he said, and he tugged his forelock.

“I put the blanket back round him and made a little hood over his head with it, and said, ‘Sam, you’ve got to stop that. We’ve been friends for a very long time, now. You’re nearly eight, I think? Yes. I’ve only been able to visit with you now and then, since you were born... but I still feel we’re fast friends. You don’t need to do that for me.’

“‘But the Gaffer doesn’t like it when I don’t show you proper respect, sir,’ Sam said, ‘and I need to stay in the habit, so to speak, if you take my meaning, sir.’

“He was so serious, I had to laugh again.”

“‘Come on, Samwise,’ I said, and carried him piggyback for at least three miles. He protested mightily at this--”

Rose laughed to herself. “I can well imagine it,” she commented aloud. “Oh! Please forgive me, Frodo. I interrupted.”

“Just remember you owe us one of the Gaffer’s stories about Sam, too, and I’ll overlook the interruption,” Frodo declared, and then laughed; they knew he was teasing. Lily squeezed his hand again, and he turned to her. For a moment he felt unexpected irritation they weren’t alone; he wanted to kiss her, just her cheek, but in front of Merry and Pippin might embarrass her.

“What happened next, Frodo? Don’t keep us in suspense, now!” Merry protested.

“Oh, yes... where was I?”

“Carrying Sam piggyback three miles in the rain...” Lily smiled. “That is, if you’re not stretching the distance, for the sake of telling a good tale?”

“My turn to interrupt,” Pippin chuckled. “Frodo doesn’t even know how to exaggerate or embellish... his stories are often quite dry as a result... he’s quite literal.”

Frodo endeavored to appear offended. “Dry?? My stories? I could always stop telling the tale, if it’s too stale for you!”

“No!” complained Lily and Rose in unison, and then burst out giggling at their own eagerness. Merry and Pippin grinned, and Merry shook his head.

“Not only that...” Merry eyed Lily, and spoke more softly. “Frodo is so literal, when he gives a lass a compliment -- and to my knowledge, you’re the only lass he’s ever paid any mind -- he means it. Every word. Literally.”

Merry smiled, as first Lily blushed, then Frodo.

“Merry! You’re determined to embarrass this lass!” Pippin accused, not quite angry, but serious nonetheless.

“It’s -- it’s all right, Merry,” Lily giggled. Frodo was watching her, and smiling. She recalled all the times Frodo had told her she was beautiful. It made her heart race.

“It’s -- all right,” she repeated. She met Frodo’s eyes for only a moment, then looked away, to Rose.

“I want to hear more, and I know Rose does...” she continued. She turned her smile to Merry, as if to forgive him, then to Pippin, who appeared exasperated with Merry, but was grinning all the same.

“Well, I’ll go on, then, in my literal way,” Frodo sniffed, but the ruse fooled no one.

A tremendous crash of thunder startled all of them.

“That was close -- maybe a mile away,” Pippin murmured.

For a moment they were silent. Fear shot through Frodo for Sam, traveling in this weather. He closed his eyes for several seconds in prayer. When he looked up and saw Rose’s expression, he knew she was worried as well.

“Don’t worry, Rose. Sam’s all right, I’m sure of it... Now... where was I... Oh, yes! After about three miles, I needed to put Sam down. He was never light, not now, and not then. He’s built quite sturdily. I apologized to him, but he was thrilled I’d put him down. He could barely stand having one of his betters, as he called me, carrying him about like a king... I think those were his exact words.

“And so we got back to the Row. I took Sam by the hand and told him to apologize when we reached his door, and that I’d take it from there. He only nodded, but he was quite afraid. I knocked, and at once the door flew open and his mum stood there. The moment she saw Samwise she started sobbing. She threw her arms around him and held him so tight I doubt he could breathe.

“‘Sam, Sam! We’ve been worried sick about you! Your Gaffer’s out searchin’ the whole of the Shire! Oh, Sam, where’d you get to? And why didn’t you tell us? Why didn’t you ask, first? And on your birthday, of all days!’

Frodo saw Pippin’s eyes misting. He had not told the story to elicit this reaction; but his youngest cousin’s emotions, like his own, and Sam’s, were always close to the surface. Merry refilled his tea, looking thoughtful but keeping his emotions to himself. Frodo decided to keep his eyes on Merry for the time being; he knew Rose and Lily would not likely get through the rest of the story without tears. Perhaps this hadn’t been the best choice of tales to tell...

“Sam was mortified. He was weeping, of course, since he couldn’t bear to think he’d hurt his mum so. ‘I’m sorry, Mum, I’ll never do it again,’ says he. ‘I promise.’

“His mum only held him longer, so I took my opportunity to speak. ‘Mrs. Gamgee, I must tell you I feel partly responsible for this. I’ve invited Sam on walking trips with me before; he does love them so... mayhap I’ve encouraged him too much...’”

Frodo stopped short, as if something in the story, a memory, surprised him. For a moment the only sounds in the smial were the patter of the rain against the pane and the crackle and spitting of the fire in the grate.

“‘He loves you, Mr. Frodo.’ She looked me in the eye as she said it... I just remembered that... after all these years...”

Frodo shook his head once, and sighed, then picked up his ice-cold tea and sipped at it. He could not meet his friends’ eyes.

“I was quite at a loss for words. I certainly knew Sam felt affection for me, even love, in his childlike way... but his mum almost seemed to be laying a charge on me... she knew Sam would follow me anywhere, in any weather. And that at times, of course, these trips I took might prove dangerous for a young child... depending on the terrain; she was even half-afraid there was mayhap a bit of a curse over me, and that Sam might drown if he tagged after me anywhere near a river. I’d forgotten that, too, till now. That hurt a bit. I was young enough not to have thought it through very well myself... not to have thought of any real harm coming to Sam...”

Frodo seemed to be drifting from the story and into other memories.

“I could swim... I could have rescued Sam from drowning, if it had come to that... but it never occurred to me he might get out of sight and into a pond, or a river. I suppose he could have...”

Rose spoke softly, trying to reassure him. “Frodo, I knew Sam’s mum a little, for a few years... she was only afraid for Sam, as any mother would be. Mums are just like that.”

“Yes...” Frodo sighed. “I suppose you’re right. But this is how these things happen, I suppose. One moment of inattention...” He thought of the Quest, when Sam nearly drowned.

He shook his head again, struggling to clear it of all memories other than the story, then studied his cold mug of tea. “I’m sorry, all of you. Mayhap I’m not really the person to be telling stories anymore...” He smiled faintly.

“Oh, please tell the rest of it, Frodo... please,” Rose pleaded.

Frodo glanced at her. He could see clearly she really did want to hear the rest.

“I want to hear it, too,” Lily added softly. Merry and Pippin were quiet.

“Right, then...” Frodo cleared his throat. “I said to his mum, ‘Mrs. Gamgee, I am sorry. I never thought of it that way. Sam is indeed very -- attached to me. Why, I don’t know. I am sorry I hadn’t thought ahead to possible danger to Samwise. I’ll not let him come on any more trips with me.’”

“Sam sobbed harder at this. ‘Mum,’ he cried, ‘please Mum let me go with Mr. Frodo. I’ll be a good lad, truly, and never leave his sight. And I’ll not leave his side, neither... I’ll be careful, Mum, I promise...’

“Sam’s mum relented, which surprised me greatly, and Sam was overjoyed, and thanked her over and over; he must have given her a dozen kisses at least, until she began to laugh through all her tears. Sam amazed me then, as he does to this day. He actually asked his mum for a few more minutes with me, as if sensing her great joy, which far outweighed her anger, might allow him to get away with just a bit more...

“‘All right, my dear Samwise.’ Though she endeavored to appear stern, she couldn’t hide her smile. ‘Only because it’s your birthday... but five minutes, and no more. I know what you want to do. Go on then, hurry, and get back. There’ll be a worse storm t’face when your Gaffer gets home. I can’t promise you’ll not have a sore bottom tonight...’

“‘Yes, Mum,’ Sam replied in a very quiet voice, then, ‘thank you, Mum...’ He kissed her once more, then turned back to me and took my hand. ‘Come on, Mr. Frodo, quick-like. I have to give you a birthday present... but hurry.’

“He dragged me by the hand back to Bag End; I couldn’t imagine what his gift would be. I told him under no circumstances was he allowed to give me a gift again until he was a much older hobbit. He needed to save such things for his family. He acted like he didn’t hear me; perhaps he really hadn’t...”

Frodo finally met the eyes of his listeners, and settled on Lily’s.

“He took me to Bilbo’s northside garden, and -- oh, I should say the rain had stopped, and the Sun had come out -- and he pointed at the ground. ‘Look, Mr. Frodo,’ he beckoned. I could see nothing. He stooped down and touched a small blade of green reaching up through the soil, between a pair of lilies. They were just coming up, still young for that year, it being early spring.

“‘It’s a ama- ama- amaryllisis.’ Sam finally managed to get it out.”

Frodo caught an unexpected expression creeping into Lily’s hazel eyes, and they were fast turning green. He kept his eyes on hers, endeavoring to read them, as he finished the story.

“‘An amaryllis! For me? Samwise, thank you! And happy birthday! How kind of you...’ I told him, and meant it. Sam answered, ‘I know you love lilies, Mr. Frodo, so I thought -- I thought you’d like one of -- one of these. It’ll be red and white striped with some pink in it when it blooms. Will you be back in a month, maybe? Do you think, sir?’

“I’m sure I’ll be able to arrange it, Sam. Yes, I shall. I’m older now, and Auntie Esme and Uncle Saradoc let me travel as I please. And Bilbo only needs a few days’ notice... shall I bring Merry along?’

“‘Oh, yes, yes, please bring Master Merry!’”

Merry was smiling quietly. But Frodo only noted this from the corner of his eye. He was studying Lily, trying to fathom what was behind her sudden tears, which she was struggling so hard to quell. When he spoke again he still held her eyes with his own.

“Pippin was only a twinkle in his da’s eye, then, Lily, or I’d have tried to bring him for a visit, too... I got down on Sam’s level and embraced him, and then thanked him again, and wished him a happy birthday, and told him to hurry back home. He couldn’t hide his happiness, and hurried home as he was told. I returned a month later, as promised, with Merry in tow, at the beginning of May, and there were the two white lilies and the beautiful amaryllis between them, just as Sam promised. Glorious, it was...

“And that is the end of the story. Lily, dear... what is wrong? What is it?”

Frodo glanced over at his cousins. “Would you give us just a moment?”

“Of course,” Merry agreed quietly. They retired to the greatroom.

“I’ll go with them,” Rosie murmured.

“Yes... all right, Rose...”

They were alone now, side by side at the kitchen table on the trestle bench. He pulled his right hand slowly from hers, from underneath the table, and placed it on her left cheek. She let the tears fall, hard, and they fell over his hand.

“Lily! Lily, dearest, what is it? What is wrong? Please don’t cry...”

“Oh, Frodo...” her voice was ragged, as her weeping intensified. “I’m -- I’m -- the story was wonderful. Amaryllis -- was my mother’s name... It... it just -- it set me off... I’m so sorry I ruined the end of your story...”

“Lily!” Frodo wrapped his arms around her, and she laid her head on his shoulder. “I’m sorry to have made you cry. I had no idea...”

“I know. It’s all right, really... it’s everything... it’s Sam, and Rose, and you and my mum and the story and all of this. It’s everything,” she sobbed.

“Should I continue to hold you, Lily?”

She nodded, and slipped her arms around him, then held to him tightly. He stroked her hair, and kissed it as her weeping slowed, and then ceased. He knew she was sleepy now, much as she had been on that cold November day, the morning of the battle.

He soothed her with his endearments, stroking her hair all the while. She lay very quietly but still held him tightly.

“Lily dearest, take some more tea with me. I’ll warm yours.”

“All right... Oh, dearest Frodo, no matter how tired I may become, my heart is happy, and my spirit feels light... I never feel more alive than when I’m with you...

“Oh!” she exclaimed as she leaned back, out of his embrace. “I’ve soaked your lovely waistcoat...”

“Never mind that, dearest. I’m so glad you’re all right. Let’s get a proper meal into you, and put you to bed. You need your rest.”

“You’ll take your nap as well?” she asked, concerned. With a tenuous hold on her emotions, she was finally able to meet his eyes again.

“Let’s invite them back in, Frodo, and I’ll help serve the stew we’ve got on the stove for luncheon. The distraction will do me good.”

He stood first, stepped away from the bench, and helped her up with both hands. She was steady on her feet.

“All right, Lily. I’ll go get them. The stew smells wonderful, I meant to say...”

She smiled wanly. “Methinks you’ll find it to your liking. It’s loaded with mushrooms.”

“I can tell.”

“Go. I’ll get some dishes on the table.”

Frodo kissed her hands, each cheek, and her mouth, once. He gave her one last longing look, then went to the greatroom.

---------

At luncheon, Lily and Frodo were both showing signs of weariness. They settled close together at the table, and Frodo grasped Lily’s hand with his own under the table. She carefully laced their fingers, laying her finger deliberately over where his missing finger should have been. When Frodo trembled and halfheartedly attempted to pull his hand away, Lily tightened her hold. By the end of the meal, she was leaning against him.

Frodo turned his head to her and whispered against her hair. “You need your rest...”

Lily sighed and nodded her head, then murmured, “I know.” She laid her right hand atop their clasped hands in her lap.

Rose smiled at the couple. “Off with you two, you both need rest. No stalling, now. GO.”

The couple meekly left the table, still hand in hand. In the hall, they gazed into each others’ eyes. Lily kept her hold on his right hand and lifted her right to lay her palm against his cheek. Frodo lay his left hand atop hers, pressing it against his face. Finally, he removed her hand only to raise it to his lips, and leisurely caress the back of it.

“Rest!” Rosie called from the kitchen.

Lily smiled. “I’ll miss you,” she whispered.

Frodo grinned and whispered back, “I’ll miss you.”

Reluctantly they stepped apart, gradually releasing their hold on each other, finally walking backward down the hall until Lily arrived at her room. Frodo raised his hand in farewell, and Lily shyly waved back, blushing.

---------

Lily woke before tea. She enjoyed the warmth of her room, thankful the fire in the grate was burning merrily. Most of the fires in Bag End were kept burning. She shivered at the memory of that first day they found Frodo and how cold the smial felt then.

“Thank you, Ilúvatar, for seeing him through this illness.” She hesitated. “Please... I do not wish to ask amiss, but please help him choose me...” she pleaded. A tear slipped down her cheek, and she brushed it away.

The smell of baking biscuits tantalized her, and she found Rose in the kitchen with Merry and Pippin covered in flour. Lily started to laugh and covered her mouth to keep quiet, for she knew Frodo slept on, and probably would until dinner.

It was difficult to regain her composure, as each time she did the baleful looks on the cousins’ faces would cause her to start giggling again. Finally she was able to ask, “What happened?”

Rose glared at the cousins over her shoulder from where she was working at the hearth. “They decided they’d help me, don’t you know. The next thing I know they’re both trying to put the flour away -- as it was closer to the bowl, if you take my meaning -- and... well, you can guess what happened.” She turned her attention to the dusted pair. “Off to the bathing room with you. I’ll get some hot water going, though it won’t be enough for a proper warm bath; but you’ve no one to blame but yourselves.”

The pair turned pleading eyes to Lily, who giggled again. “Dear Rose, how can you speak to them so harshly?”

Rose turned full to her friend.

Lily’s eyes widened. She waited a few moments before speaking. “Oh, dear.” She giggled. “Oh, dear.” She giggled harder, and quickly covered her mouth again. After several steadying breaths she asked, “Do you have anything here to change into?”

“Fortunately for those two rogues, I do,” she replied tartly. “The Gaffer brought an extra skirt and vest for me when we were staying here. I figured I’d leave them here until just before Samwise returned home. Good thing, by my way of thinking.” She glared again at the cousins. “Go on with ya’! No more dallying about, get yourselves to the bathing room.” She shooed them out of the kitchen, then winked at Lily. “Someone’s got to keep those two in line,” she whispered.

“We heard that!” The cousins chorused from the hall.

“I hope so!” Rose retorted, with a broad grin. She stuck her head into the hall and hissed, “Frodo’s sleeping, and if you wake him...”

The cousins quietly hurried to the bathing room.

Rose returned to the kitchen chuckling. “I’ll change after we’ve had a spot of tea.”

The two friends sat at the table together, with Rosie relating every detail of the flour incident, interspersed with soft laughter from both of them.

Rose cleared her throat and sat up straight. “Lands! I forgot the hot water for Merry and Pippin’s baths.” She jumped up and grasped one of the steaming kettles.

“I’ll help you.” Lily collected the other kettle.

They padded down the hall to the bathing room and knocked lightly.

Pippin peeked through the door, his hair dripping wet. “Thank you, dear ladies. We were beginning to wonder if you might’ve decided to punish us with cold baths,” he admitted sincerely.

“No, Pip. We just got a bit distracted was all. Sorry it took so long, but at least it’s nice and hot,” Rose replied brightly.

“You can just set them by the door, and we’ll get them ourselves,” Pippin assured them.

Lily and Rose returned to the kitchen to prepare dinner. At first, they didn’t notice the singing coming from the bathing room, growing more boisterous with each verse. As they arranged the finishing touches, the last verse of the bath song could easily be heard in the kitchen. The two lasses glanced at each other, wide eyed.

“I’ll take care of them,” Rose muttered and grabbed the water bucket.

Lily laid her hand on her friend’s arm and smiled. “It’s all right, Rose. It’s almost time for dinner. It’s good to hear them so relaxed.”

“What if they wake Frodo?”

“You are a dear to worry, but he’ll be waking soon anyway. I think he might like the sound of something so carefree, if you take my meaning?” Lily assured her friend. “I’ll go peek in on him.”

Lily headed down the hall and paused near the bathing room, and listened to the splashing for a moment, smiling to herself. “Merry, Pippin, dinner’s ready...” She grinned; from the sound of it they were hurrying, and water was going everywhere.

“We’ll be there presently!” called Merry.

Lily shook her head and continued down the hall, but stopped as Frodo stepped from his bedroom, running his fingers through his hair.

He hesitated the moment he saw her, then smiled.

Lily’s heart skipped a beat. She opened her mouth to speak, then needed to clear her throat to get any words to come out. “I was just coming to fetch you. Dinner is ready.”

“I missed you,” he whispered.

“And I missed you,” she murmured, and took a step toward him.

Frodo acknowledged to himself he ached to hold her. How would he bear being parted from her when she returned to Deephallow? he wondered again. She stepped close to him; the request in her eyes was clear. He gathered her into his arms, and breathed deeply of her. The ill feeling of moments before ebbed away. They stepped apart at the sound of the latch click as Merry and Pippin appeared in the hall.

Pippin glanced at them. “You didn’t tell him, did you?” he pleaded.

“Tell me what?” Frodo eyed his cousin.

Pippin yelped from a sharp elbow in his side. “What was that for?” He turned accusing eyes on Merry.

Merry replied in a loud whisper. “If you’d not said anything we’d be in the clear, but now he’s going to demand to know what happened.”

The beseeching look in Pippin’s eyes elicited a giggle from Lily. “Methinks you can tell him yourself, or you can wait for Rose to tell him.”

Two pairs of eyes widened. Merry rushed to explain. “We were helping Rose make biscuits and weren’t watching and ended up covering ourselves in flour and got a little on her as well.”

“That’s the short version,” Rose added from the kitchen doorway, “but it’ll do, for the moment. Come eat, before it gets cold.”

Rose took great pleasure in retelling the story in every detail throughout dinner. Merry and Pippin joined in, laughing good naturedly and embellishing until everyone was in stitches.

Finally, Merry stood and, bowing with a flourish, announced, “Miss Rose Cotton, for being the cause of so much grief and trouble, Peregrin Took and Meriadoc Brandybuck shall clean up the table and do all the dishes whilst you rest at your leisure.”

Pippin stood beside his cousin. “It’s only fair. So off you go, and we’ll see to all this. After all, there’s none better at dishwashing then us. Frodo, please escort these lovely ladies to the greatroom and keep them company until we may once again join your fair company.” He bowed and then began gathering plates off the table.

Laughing, Frodo escorted Lily and Rose into the greatroom.

Rose settled herself in her chair next to the fire across from the couple. “You may put your arm around her if you like, Frodo.”

“Thank you, Rosie.” He smiled appreciatively, and slipped his right arm around Lily’s shoulders, drawing her close.

Lily sighed and nestled against him, holding his left hand in her lap. There’s an unexpected comfort in doing the same things, sometimes, she decided, and realized her curiosity was getting the better of her.

“Tell me, what is all this about Merry and Pippin doing dishes. There’s a story behind it, I’m sure.”

Rosie laughed and replied, “Indeed there is, but I’m thinking it might be better coming from them. They can practice their storytelling.”

Frodo laughed as well. “I’d like to hear how it changes this time. I’m not sure they’ve ever told it the same way twice.”

Lily felt grateful she did not need to wait long, for Merry and Pippin soon joined them. She was wondering about how to broach the subject when Frodo spoke.

“Merry and Pip, what say we hear the story about how you became old hands at washing dishes.” He smiled broadly at the startled look on the cousins’ faces.

“What do you want to hear that old story for?” Merry asked.

Rose smiled. “Lily’s not heard it yet. We thought the telling might be better from the two of you than from us.”

“Oh! And right you are, dear Rose. Now, Lily dear, would you like to hear me tell it, or my cousin?”

Pippin inserted, “I think she’d best hear it from me, as she’s more likely to hear the truth.” He grinned.

“Are you saying I wouldn’t tell the truth about it?”

“No, I’m saying you’re likely to paint yourself in a more favorable light, dear cousin.”

“Out with the story,” Frodo interrupted, chuckling.

The pair turned wide eyes to their cousin, then laughed.

“It all started at old Bilbo’s Grand Party when he turned eleventy-one,” began Merry.

“So long ago?!” Lily could not hide her surprise.

“You were at the party, then?” Pippin exclaimed.

“Indeed,” Lily replied. “My folks were invited, as my mum’s a Chubb and my da’s a Burrows. And I believe my da’s mum did some sewing for Bilbo when they first moved from Bree... Please, do go on.”

“Well, then, you remember the fireworks, don’t you?” Pippin queried.

“Of course. They were wonderful!” Lily smiled.

“What of the dragon?” Pippin asked her.

“Certainly, I’ve never seen so many folk duck all at once so quickly,” she giggled. “Me included.”

Merry rolled his eyes, then grinned. “Pip, you’re starting in the middle instead of the beginning!” Merry turned his attention to Lily. “Pip and I enjoyed everything the party offered, but by evening we wanted a bit of diversion of our own, so we went searching for Gandalf’s cart where he kept the fireworks. Once we found it, we kept a close eye out for the crafty old wizard, and when we were certain he was off doing something else and wasn’t looking, Pip grabbed the biggest one he could find.”

“Make sure you tell her you pointed out which one was the biggest,” Pippin interjected.

“It doesn’t matter, now, Pip. It was so good, we decided to try another, but before we could nip it, Gandalf grabbed us by the ear and set us to washing dishes.”

Lily’s eyes grew wide. “During the party?”

“Alas, yes,” sighed Merry. “We spent the whole of the rest of the party doing dishes.”

“To keep us out of trouble, or so Gandalf said, but I’m thinking it pleased his sense of evening the score for spoiling his surprise,” Pippin lamented.

Frodo chuckled and reveled in Lily’s obvious enjoyment of the story.

Rose brought in their supper. “What I want to know is what made you think you could get away with it in the first place? That’s what I want to know.”

Pippin smiled sheepishly. “Well, truth be told, we’d indulged in more than an ale or two, if you take my meaning.”

Rose laughed. “Indeed I do. I hope you learned your lesson.”

“Most certainly,” assured Merry. “Don’t get caught by Gandalf if ever you can help it!”

Pippin gazed at Lily. “Merry jokes about that, but we both really did learn a lesson, though not as well as we should have -- but it seemed harmless enough...” His eyes clouded. “I’ll get the cider, Rose. You go ahead with your meal.” He left the room, heading for the cellar.

Lily stared after him. She glanced at Merry and then Frodo.

Merry spoke softly. “He learned the lesson a little harder than the rest of us, I’m thinking.” He glanced quickly at Frodo. “Maybe not.”

Frodo sighed and held Lily a little tighter. “It’s a lesson we all learned one way or another. Even if our intent is harmless, we can’t decide the outcome of whatever we choose to do. We can only try to do right, and then hope it works to the better in the end. And if your choice is not a particularly wise one, you can’t fret over it. All you can do is endeavor to make the bad situation better and learn from it...”

He set the plate Rose offered him on his lap so he could keep his arm around Lily. They closed their eyes and leaned their heads together for a few moments. By the time they finished their prayer, Pippin returned, all smiles, with a tray bearing a bottle of cider and five mugs.

They talked of the day and childhood memories of baking biscuits with their respective mums. The meal was relaxed and unhurried, with Merry and Pippin cleaning up after it with broad grins.

Merry declared, “Better enjoy it, as tomorrow it all changes.” At the surprised glances, he continued, “Pip and I are headed back to Crickhollow on the morrow. We don’t want to risk being here when Sam gets home. We’re both a little worried we might let something slip. We’ll be back to visit soon and’ll have plenty to talk about other than the last week. It’s a mite difficult, and a bit tricky dodging direct questions from Master Samwise. We’re thinking it best to retreat at the outset and let things settle back into a quiet routine. Then we’ll show up on your doorstep again. And, you are in good hands, dear cousin.”

Lily tightened her hold on Frodo’s hand, and he smiled. “You’re certainly a bit wiser, Master Merry.” He did not attempt to hide the fondness he felt for his young cousins.

“A few songs tonight, ladies, before you return to the Gaffers,” Pippin decided.

Merry and Pippin sang more songs of Gondor and Rohan, until Frodo and Lily began to nod.

“Come along, Lily,” Rose beckoned to her friend. “Time we were headed back to the Gaffer’s. I’m hoping he’s got warm water on so we can wash the mud off our feet right quick, as I’m sure there’s still plenty between here and there.” She gathered her cloak and headed out the door.

Frodo stood and offered a hand to Lily. She held it, and followed him outside. “I should walk you home, Lily.”

“When you are completely well again. Until then, I don’t want you to risk getting too cold, or too weary.” She grasped his other hand and raised them until she was able to lightly kiss each one, then continued to hold them in the same position.

Frodo’s breath caught, and took a moment to recover from the pleasant surprise of her caresses.

They offered a simple prayer, then stepped into a warm embrace.

“I’ll miss you,” Lily whispered against his ear.

Frodo tightened his hold on her. “I’ll miss you,” he murmured against her hair.

Lily pulled back a little to raise her face to receive the kiss he offered, warm and gentle.