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Sacrament

by CRB and Ladyhawk Baggins

4 April 1420sr

Lily struggled to remain quiet as she rode along in the back of the pony cart. She wanted to urge Will to hurry, but reminded herself he was already driving the pony at a fair clip. Finally, she curled up and slept for a good portion of the way, barely aware of Bell’s stream of chatter with Will.

When they arrived in Bywater, Will dropped Lily at his house, and then took Bell home to Hobbiton. Though Lily wanted desperately to go with them, she knew the couple wanted time alone. They would also be staying for dinner and supper with Bell’s family, which thwarted Lily’s hopes of seeing Frodo sooner; and it would be unseemly for her to continue on to Bag End alone.

Lily sighed, resigned to wait, and let herself into Will’s home to settle her things. Then she headed next door to Rosie’s.

“Come in, Lily!”

Rosie’s sunny smile and warm embrace assured Lily things were well.

“I’ll not tease you, much as I’d like... Frodo and Sam are coming to dinner and supper. You’re a little earlier than we expected.”

Lily smiled and blushed. “I did get us off to a rather early start this morning.”

Rosie raised her brows.

Lily’s blush deepened. “Just after dawn.”

Rosie giggled. “Mum’s out milking the cows. Help me finish getting dinner ready, and it’ll make the time pass quicker... No, we can’t walk out to greet them; the whole of the Shire’d know before the morrow. You need a bit of privacy...”

She gazed into her friend’s eyes. “Oh, dear. Lily, sit down. I’m not good at this, not like Frodo... What d’you need? Please don’t faint; I could never explain it to Frodo. Have you eaten like you ought, today? Probably not.” Rosie grabbed a scone and a chunk of cheese, then handed them to Lily.

“I’m sorry,” Lily murmured. She struggled to eat the food. “I was...”

“I know, love,” Rosie soothed. “You were too excited to eat.”

Lily nodded and finished off the scone. “I know better, Rosie,” she chastised herself.

“Knowing wasn’t the problem, Lily. Your thoughts were too far away to remember things like food. Now me, I don’t have a problem with that. I find myself unable to eat from time to time but with me it only means I missed a meal. So, don’t be too hard on yourself, Lily dear. You’re just like any lass in love; it’s just your body handles it different.”

Rosie did not miss the gratitude in Lily’s eyes as she continued, “Now, go watch for him at the window. Call me when you see them, and I’ll make sure you have a little time alone with him in the parlour. Off with ya’!”

Rosie sighed with relief as her friend left the kitchen. “Frodo Baggins, if you don’t marry that lass quick, none of us’re going to know a morsel of peace at all.”

She was just finishing the preparations for dinner when Lily called her.

“They’re probably at the top of the lane with a good distance yet to cover,” Rosie muttered with a smile, then joined Lily in the parlour. She followed Lily’s gaze, and nodded to herself; farther away than I thought... she’s got good eyes. Rosie struggled not to giggle.

Once she felt in control again, she patted Lily’s arm. “I’ll go tell him you’re here.”

Lily watched Rosie descend the steps from the smial and walk out to the lane, then up the road at an even pace. Lily found herself wishing her friend would hurry, and then reminded herself this was best, at the same time dreading this first meeting. She worried; Frodo had written her every day, but only of what Sam was doing, nothing of how he missed her or remembered their time together or looked forward to seeing her again.

She watched the three friends meet. Sam took Rosie’s hands in his, and kissed her proffered cheek. Lily stopped breathing and wrung her hands as Rosie turned to Frodo. He glanced at the smial and back at Rosie. His eyes widened, then flicked between the smial and Rosie again. Rosie and Sam both nodded their heads and waved him on.

Frodo gave them one last glance and strode purposefully toward the Cotton’s smial. After a few strides, he broke into an easy trot that carried him down the lane and through the gate. He cleared the stairs and burst through the front door and into the parlour where he stopped, and endeavored to catch his breath while his eyes drank in the sight of her.

Lily stood facing him. Finally, she whispered, “Frodo...”

“Lily...” Her name escaped his lips on a sigh. “I...” His voice faltered. “You came back... for Sam and Rosie’s announcement...”

Lily’s heart tightened. Rosie had warned her in the last letter the darkness was again taking hold of him, though she knew it herself from his letters. She cleared her throat and spoke with more confidence than she felt.

“For you, Frodo. I came back to be with you... if you’ll have me...” She hesitated, then continued softly, “Any way you’ll have me... for as long as you’ll have me...”

She suddenly realized how brazenly bold that sounded, and hurried on. “My brother is willing to allow me to live here in Bywater in his house. I know you worry about what would happen to me if we were... together... We could simply continue as we are now, if you wish it...”

Frodo struggled to find his voice. “But you wish to marry... you should marry... and -- and have children...”

“I wish to be with you...”

“But I take--”

“I choose to give... as you do.”

Frodo’s brows drew together questioningly.

Lily drew a deep breath. This had filled her thoughts for all their time apart. “You make sure I eat, and you help me concentrate when my emotions overwhelm me. I make sure your evening prayer is uninterrupted, and I help you endure the darkness. ‘Tis an easy thing for me to give, as all I must do is be held by you... it’s hardly a sacrifice for my part, Frodo.”

She gathered all her courage, and spoke calmly, endeavoring to ignore the pooling sapphire depths of his eyes as they studied hers. “Would you hold me now?”

His expression clouded, as bitterness welled up. “So I may take strength from you?”

“So I may take of your warmth and comfort.” Lily’s voice caught.

Frodo swallowed hard and could not stay the tears stinging his eyes. His heart ached at the sight of the tear sliding down Lily’s cheek. Hesitantly, he stepped toward her until he stood before her, both with their arms still at their sides. They were so close he could breathe deeply of her familiar honeysuckle sweetness; memories of past moments with her flooded in...

He wondered anew at the lass before him. There was no doubt in his mind what she wanted; yet still, even in this moment, she would not ask again, but willingly waited for him.

He gathered her into his arms. A shudder rippled through him as he felt her bury her face against his shoulder. Gradually, he took in deeper breaths as the crushing darkness dwindled; for a moment his knees went weak. It happened so fast... ten days of growing despair, of misery -- and now, within mere moments, Lily had replaced most of that darkness with Light. Frodo thanked Ilúvatar as he held her, unable to believe, once again, that any of this could be happening. Saruman had said he would never find healing here... but Gandalf believed otherwise... somehow...

Frodo returned her tightening embrace. Then he began to ease away, when she murmured, “I’m all right, truly.”

“Let me see your eyes,” Frodo asked gently.

Lily pushed the darkness away and gazed steadily into Frodo’s eyes. She felt joyous tears gather, as the clear light within him shone again, his countenance bright. But she swallowed her tears; Frodo was seeking evidence of any harm having come to her.

Her right hand smoothed his brow, then cupped his cheek. It was sweet pleasure to touch him again. “You see? I’m well... and happier, for now I’m with you again.” She smiled for him.

With the darkness firmly kept at bay, Frodo’s heart spoke. “I’ve missed you so much, dearest Lily...” He searched her eyes again. “Much more than ever I can express. It’s been--”

Frodo stopped. He loathed burdening Lily, and yet he sensed she would accept his words in the spirit he intended; he could not give adequate expression to the depth of his feelings for her. “It’s been -- difficult -- without you... But now I feel -- able to breathe freely, once more...” His voice trailed off. It was too hard to explain. Then he took comfort, for with her gift of sight, he knew Lily understood all his cherished thoughts of her, warm within his heart and mind.

“My dear Frodo, how I’ve missed you...” She felt him tighten his hold on her, then watched his eyes stray to her lips. Finally she whispered, “Kiss me, please?”

“Lily...” he breathed, then touched her lips with his own.

Rosie and Sam had at first stopped cold in the entryway of the smial at the words being exchanged. They gave each other worried looks, their eyes brimming with tears. Propriety dictated they should move on to the kitchen, but neither could move from the spot until they heard the familiar ‘I missed you’ and the kiss that followed. Each heaved a silent sigh of relief. They paused long enough to glance in the parlour and see their dearest friends lost in an embrace, then hurried into the kitchen.

Lily broke their kiss; they were breathing raggedly.

“Please, Frodo, let me come home...”

He saw her sadness, and his own anguish spoke before he could stop it. “How do I live with risking your life every moment of every day?”

“If you’ll not take me home to Hobbiton, then I’ll live here in Bywater...”

Frodo shook his head, unable to meet her eyes. “Lily...”

“Please, Frodo,” Lily’s voice caught. “Please, don’t send me back to Deephallow, alone.” She paused and withdrew slightly. “I’m sorry; I’m far too bold--”

Frodo covered Lily’s mouth with his own, silencing her with a lingering kiss.

Long moments passed. Frodo thought he knew joy, but then he felt Lily give in to him completely; she offered him her whole heart, all in this one kiss.

It disarmed him. He must stop now... he could not accept her offering in full... not yet, oh Ilúvatar, please help me, he pleaded.

He gently ended their kiss, and she gazed up into his eyes; the message hers held was vivid within the hazel depths, far more green now than blue. He needed to think to breathe.

“Dear Lily, I do not know the answer, yet... please... I know you follow your heart; never change...”

“Whatever you ask, dearest,” she murmured. She was still recovering from his kiss, and had answered as best she could. For the time being, it would have to do. She could not think beyond this moment, not until her thoughts settled. She was torn between fighting off the darkness and the lovely feeling of wholeness with him and the way her heart sang at his touch and raced with his kiss... I love him. Please give him the faith he needs to trust in Your care. He loves me.

A soft cough in the doorway announced Rosie’s presence. “Dinner’s ready and waiting, whenever you are.”

Lily embraced Frodo tightly once more, pushing away the lurking darkness. Then she smiled into his eyes, and he returned it, kissing her cheek and leading her by the hand to the dinner table. He trembled when she carefully laced their fingers, and deliberately laid her finger over the place where his finger should have been.

She marveled at how well she felt. The darkness initially caused her to feel quite ill, and yet she had easily pushed It away. Was It growing weaker, or was she growing stronger against It; or was she able to endure more, knowing It would not last forever -- only until they exchanged their vows... Surely, that moment was not far away now...

---------

Dinner was served at the Cotton’s plain but generous hearth-table. Rose and her mum were presenting the last few dishes, hot from the oven.

They had shooed Lily away earlier when she offered to assist with the meal. “Go sit with Frodo,” Rosie had winked.

The two youngest Cottons, Nick and Nibs, sighed audibly as the steaming dishes of cabbage and mashed potatoes were set near them; a full day of plowing with their da left them hungry and tired, but in high spirits.

Sam tried to steal a pole bean when Rose set the dish before him, and she caught him in the act.

“Samwise, don’t go nicking the food aforehand,” Rosie laughed. “Or, if you must, do it when I can’t see...”

Sam grinned up at her and snatched another pole bean.

Rosie laughed long after the others had stopped, until she was breathless and had a stitch in her side. She was giddy with happiness, still unable to grasp that in the morning they would truly belong to each other, when the Promisings would be read aloud. For years, she dreamed of the Reading of the Promisings and being wed to Sam.

Gradually, Rose composed herself and smiled at the obvious pleasure on Sam’s face. So many of his favourites were set before them, ham, cabbage, mashed potatoes, black bread, two mushroom pies, and pole beans, laid up the previous summer. For afters, there was mince pie and cheese.

“Such a fair spring,” Farmer Cotton declared, to no one in particular.

Nick and Nibs grew quiet; Da was talking crops.

“And so early this year,” he reflected. “I wonder now if it’s real, or a false start.”

He cut the ham into thick slices and took one for himself, then reached out for more empty plates to fill.

“I think it’s real, Tom,” Frodo offered. “It seems so to me.” He did not feel like any sort of authority, any more than the next hobbit; mayhap less, he added to himself. He only knew with certainty the joy growing in his own heart, with Lily beside him again.

“...it’ll be the fairest spring in ages, I say,” Sam smiled. “Rosie’s here with me.” He kissed her hand and helped her climb over the trestle-bench to sit close to him.

Once settled, Rose held aloft a pitcher of small cider. “Anyone wantin’ the small, I’m pouring,” she smiled. “And small’s all we’re serving tonight, so come and get it.”

Frodo held out his mug when his turn came. “Mrs. Cotton, how are Tom and Marigold faring in Oakleaf? Well, I hope?”

“Wonderful well, Mr. Frodo. I’m sure Sam told you their second babe arrived on the fourth day of January, in the morning. A right lovely child she is; they named her Lily, after her proud gammer.”

“Yes, I remember him going to visit for a few days. I’m sure she’s lovely, Mrs. Cotton; as beautiful as her name...” Frodo was speaking to Rosie’s mother, but gazing at his Lily. She blushed at the open love in his eyes, there for all to see.

When it was time, Frodo gave a gentle squeeze to Lily’s hand, under the table. They bowed their heads for a moment in a silent prayer of thanks, then shared a warm smile as the food was passed around the table.

Frodo drew his brows together. “Where’s Jolly?”

“Courtin’ Ivy Grubb, in Hobbiton,” Nibs grinned broadly.

Mrs. Cotton immediately inserted, “I believe she’s a friend of Bell’s.”

“Yes,” Rosie added. “In fact, if I remember rightly, Bell and Ivy went to the dinners and dances together, November last. Jolly told me they’d met before, but he didn’t pay her much mind. Then Ivy reached her coming of age several months ago, and Jolly decided to give her another look, and liked what he saw.”

The last dish came round to Frodo, a mushroom pie. He served Lily, and himself, then passed the plate back to Farmer Cotton.

With the food doled out all round, the old hobbit began his meal. At this signal the others tucked into their dinners, and it was quiet for a time.

Sitting across from Sam, Frodo saw his best friend was not eating. He was in fact seemingly staring at nothing, his fork idle in his right hand. But the sandy-haired hobbit was wearing a tiny smile.

Lily noted it just after Frodo, and with a conspiratorial grin, she caught Rosie’s eye, then looked toward Sam.

Rose followed Lily’s gaze, and tried not to laugh, although secretly she was pleased at Sam’s distracted state.

“Samwise, love,” she whispered, not soft enough to keep it between them, “wake up, and eat some dinner. I don’t want you losing your strength between now and May 1st!”

The spell was broken, and Sam glanced round at the others. He blushed; Nick and Nibs had not noticed, famished as they were, but the rest of them had seen it all, and were grinning. Sam began to eat, and Rose whispered something in his ear; they shared a knowing look, and he smiled at her.

“Rosie’s right, of course, Sam,” Frodo teased. “You don’t want to end up too thin, like me, do you now?” He spooned out another helping of mashed potatoes from the bowl being passed around, waiting for Sam’s reply.

“No sir; I mean, right, Mr. Frodo... that is, well, yes, I don’t want to... that is... well, I think Rosie’d be upset with me if I lost an ounce, sir...”

Rosie nodded her agreement. Sam managed to extricate himself from Frodo’s impossible question, barely, with a grin. Frodo returned it, appreciating Sam’s success, and realizing that the Quest had truly changed his friend as well. Before the Quest, Sam would simply have remained tongue-tied, unable to reply.

They resumed their meal in earnest when Nibs spoke up.

“Mr. Frodo’s goin’ to be puttin’ back on all that weight he lost in the past ten days, now that Miss Lily’s here. He’ll be eatin’ everything in sight. That’s what me mum says... right, Mum?”

Silence hung in the air for a moment; it was now Frodo and Lily’s turn to blush furiously, but they smiled all the same. Frodo stared at his plate. Lily glanced at Rose and giggled, as a horrified expression crossed Mrs. Cotton’s face.

“Carl Cotton!!” she cried at Nibs. “How many times’ve I told you not to go repeatin’ everything ya hear, child?” She turned to the bemused couple. “I’m dreadfully sorry, Mr. Frodo, Lily -- he’s only a tween... Rosie’s told me how much happier Frodo is when you’re here, dear. And right happy we are for both of you...” she finished, sniffling.

Rose leaned past Sam to gaze at her mother, her voice soothing. “Mum, don’t be starting that now, or we’ll all be cryin’ with you...” Rose reflected fondly that her mum was almost as tender and sentimental as her dear Samwise. She watched her mother nod and dab dry her tears. Rosie turned to smile unapologetically at her friends across the table, and Frodo caught Rosie’s tacit permission to speak.

“There’s no need for an apology, Mrs. Cotton. Rosie is quite right. I am far more content now, and Lily is indeed the reason for it.” He felt Lily blushing again next to him, her hand tightening on his under the table, but he looked to Rose, grinning. “Rose was only telling the truth, and I could never be upset about that bit of news making the rounds.”

“Aye, it’s good to hear summat true goin’ round the gossips for a change, Mr. Frodo, instead of all that other muck about those mad Bagginses! They don’t know you like we do!”

Nick had indulged in one too many ciders, and Frodo smiled, for the young hobbit’s intentions were good. Frodo held up his hand slightly, asking the family and Sam not to chastise Nick.

Farmer Cotton followed Frodo’s lead. “Right you are, Nick.” With that, he eyed Sam quickly and continued, “Samwise, give us a tale from your forestry trip, now.”

Nibs cried happily, “A story! Tell us one, Sam!”

Sam thought for a moment, then sighed once, and began.

“Up in Northway, when I was plantin’ saplings, oh, around March 17th, or 18th, I’m not sure which -- they had a late snow...

“It was a good foot deep, if it was an inch. Truth be told, it was only a skiff, but it felt like a foot, tryin’ to work in it. I was workin’ near the only road they have there, and felt a snowball hit me... pretty hard it was, too, right in the middle of my back. So there was sure and certain enough for snowballs.”

“So who threw the snowball, then?” Nibs managed, while stuffing forkfuls of cabbage into his mouth.

Rose and her mother protested in unison. “Nibs!” they cried, and Mrs. Cotton finished it. “Don’t be talkin’ with your mouth full!”

“Pardon, all...” Nibs mumbled contritely. He gave Mrs. Cotton his biggest grin, and she glared back, then softened.

Sam continued. “Well, it was a lad... I’m thinkin’ twelve, give or take... maybe ten. I’d been planting so many saplings that day I welcomed a good snowball fight, and no mistake.”

He stopped, and stared at Rose, smiling for her, the brief pause stretching into a long moment.

“Samwise?” Frodo called gently. “What happened then?”

“Oh! Right you are, Mr. Frodo; where was I?” Sam took a pull on his cider. “Oh! So, I says to the lad, ‘T’won’t be no fair fight, you only bein’ a lad, and me a big grown hobbit. Got any brothers and sisters?’

“The lad ran away and left me there laughing. I went back to my planting, and before I knew it there was four of ‘em -- lads, I mean -- and they could aim like an Elf; good as Legolas, they were...”

The Cottons sat mystified, but for Rose. Lily wore a curious expression, sensing the emotions all around her.

Rose clasped Sam’s left hand in her right, under the table.

Frodo could see tears standing in Sam’s eyes, and smiled at his friend. “We’ll see him again, Sam. He’ll come and see us, one of these days, I’m sure of it... he only needs inviting; and Gimli, too. I wonder if they’ve visited the Glittering Caves yet... Legolas promised to go with Gimli, and by now I should think the two of them have seen Fangorn Forest, and the Ents...”

The utter silence of the room pierced Frodo’s reverie; Sam surveyed the scene with him. Even Nibs had stopped eating.

“I beg your pardon, everyone,” Frodo blushed. “I get carried away from time to time, reminiscing about Elves and such. Pay no attention. Samwise, please, go on... you said there were four lads, with hobbit-aim.” Frodo grinned. “Hobbit-aim’s nearly as good as Elf-aim.”

Sam chuckled. “True enough, Mr. Frodo, true enough... Well, they got me good, I have to say, or there’re no mayweeds in summer. I hid behind the nearest snowbank and could barely keep up with ‘em. They got closer and closer, all of us laughin’, and me tryin’ not to hit their faces and all...

“Sure enough, I ended up standing and raising my arms. ‘I surrender!!’ says I. And they ran up, and wouldn’t you know it, they were all over me, like bees on flowers. We were still laughing. I says to them, ‘Lads, I’ve got real work to do here. You help me for the rest of today, and we’ll get all of Northway done, and then you can tell your grandchildren you planted these trees, for that’s what these saplings’ll be when all’s said and done. When you’re old, the trees’ll still be young but big and tall.’

“And all that day they helped clear the snow away so’s I could plant the saplings. We made a good team, we did... three cousins and one friend, they were, Mr. Frodo. The one who was alone, throwing that first snowball, he was one of the three cousins, the oldest. Hornblowers, they were, but for the friend; he was a Bracegirdle. Ain’t that something, now?”

Sam’s eyes misted again, and he cleared his throat. He saw the same evidence of tears in his friend’s eyes. He watched as Frodo composed himself.

“Samwise, you tell a good story, indeed. You’ve also reminded me of one I’d forgotten.”

“Hear, hear! A story, Master Baggins! We’re waitin!” exclaimed Farmer Cotton. “Rosie, where’s my pipe, lass?”

“I’ll fetch it, Da,” she laughed. She kissed Sam on the cheek as she left the table.

He blushed a deep red, and the others chuckled, Sam joining in. “That Rosie of mine!” he grinned, and suddenly turned to her mother. “I’ll take the bestest care of her, Mrs. Cotton; I will...”

She smiled back at him with warmth in her eyes. “That I know, Samwise. She’s happy, and it does my heart good to see it.”

Farmer Cotton turned the attention to Frodo. “Please do tell the story, Frodo. I’m all ears.” He wiggled his ears, and Lily burst out laughing.

The others had all seen this before; they looked on indulgently. Mrs. Cotton laughed softly, more at Lily’s enjoyment than anything else.

Lily had to catch her breath. “Oh!” she exclaimed, still laughing. “I’ve never seen anyone who could do that so well!”

Rose returned with her father’s pipe. “What did I miss? I heard laughing...”

“You missed Frodo’s whole story, Rosie!” cried Nick. “It’s over!”

“Nick!” protested Nibs, and Nick grinned.

“Only makin’ fun, Sis.”

“Lads, listen up now. I want to hear the story.” Tom Cotton’s voice was firm, and his sons quieted immediately.

“Yes, sir,” they replied in unison.

Sam assisted Rose once again to her place at the table.

Frodo’s brow furrowed. “How shall I begin this?” He smiled at Lily for no reason other than that she was there, and he could.

She squeezed his hand again beneath the table, then released it, knowing he would need his hands for storytelling.

“Let me see... this happened just out in front of Bag End, on the Row... I was 34, I recall; a year and several months had passed since Bilbo’s grand birthday party...”

Rose and Sam, and Lily, as well as the rest of the Cottons, were all momentarily lost in their respective memories of that night. Frodo saw the faraway looks in their eyes. Even the two youngest would remember having been there.

“I was fifteen,” Nick thought aloud, as if in reply. “I remember the games and fireworks.”

“I remember the toys and an old hobbit telling scary stories about trolls,” Nibs recalled. “I reckon I was eleven or so.”

“That was Uncle Bilbo,” Lily offered, and Frodo beamed at her.

To Sam, looking on, and remembering his dance with Rosie, it seemed something of the old clear light had returned to his master.

Lily smiled, “I was standing behind all the children, listening to the trolls story...”

“Well, Lily dear, you must’ve met Frodo that night?” asked Mrs. Cotton.

Frodo watched Lily’s face intently. Everything in their lives had been guided by the Creator; that special night was no different. Surely it was for the best they had not met that night. If they had fallen in love, then... She was so beautiful, now, sitting here so close. He wondered when he last told her.

“No, Mrs. Cotton, I -- I didn’t meet Frodo that night. We met for the first time twelve years ago... well, halfway to thirteen years, now... at the Bywater Fair.” She smiled back at her beloved.

Frodo nearly told them all the full truth: that he could never have fallen in love in those days, as had Sam and Rose; he was incapable of giving his heart then. But Ilúvatar had blessed them, Frodo realized. I could never have undertaken the Quest if I had known and loved Lily; I could never leave her...

He shook his head once, in an effort to clear his mind. “All right, then. I was 34, Sam was...”

“Twenty-two, Mr. Frodo; and Merry was twenty, and Pip was twelve.”

Frodo’s face was a picture of amazement. “How did you do that?”

“Oh, you know me, sir, I’m good with dates, is all...”

Frodo smiled slyly. “Sam, you know already the story I’m going to tell...!”

“Yes, sir. But it’s a good one, Mr. Frodo.”

“Thank you, Samwise. Well, now, snow had fallen, all day, and banks were drifted deep, and the four lads in this story, just as in Sam’s, were ‘three cousins and one friend.’

“I got the idea of having a snowball fight... Sam, Merry and Pippin against me. The oldest. We were having a grand time, when the Widow Rumble came out.

“‘Well, well, well, if it isn’t Frodo Baggins, the Master of Bag End...!’ she called out. ‘I think you lads ought to get off the Row and have snowball fights and any other such nonsense out in the Party Field...”

“‘Yes, Widow Rumble,’ I said.

“‘You know you’re going to end up hittin’ someone’s window, Mr. Baggins?’

“‘Yes, Widow Rumble. I mean -- that is -- No, Widow Rumble. We’ll be careful... we were just thinking of moving,’ I assured her.

“‘Hmmph!’ said she, and she went back inside.” Frodo paused.

Nick and Nibs were sitting enrapt, while Sam was smiling at the memory of it.

“We never moved from the spot, of course,” Frodo continued. He kept his face as immobile as he could, even though Sam was still smiling. “Pip then got in several very well-timed and well-aimed shots at me. Then I sent a snowball over Pippin’s head, as he ducked; a very near miss indeed. I was pleased it missed, since I didn’t want to hit him in the face.

“That was until we all heard a strange crashing sound. And a scream...”

Frodo paused again, turning his fork over slowly, where it lay next to his plate. “All of us wanted to hide at that moment.”

Nick and Nibs were still as statues, food forgotten, listening.

“The Widow Rumble ran right out of her house, screaming at me and shaking her fist, and I went to her immediately to apologize. I promised her I’d call on the glassmakers that same day, and get them started on a new window for her.

“The Gaffer came to join us there in the Row. He was certain Sam had done it, until I finally convinced him Sam was not at fault.

“It’s odd; I felt like an adult that day. I was Master of Bag End, and somehow I needed to act that way, and I didn’t know how...”

Frodo paused so long that Sam felt the need to rescue him by speaking, wondering if the darkness were affecting him in this moment. “I remember the day, clear as crystal, Mr. Frodo. None of us could believe it went through a window--”

“Through her kitchen window,” Frodo sighed. “While she was preparing dinner,” he smiled wanly.

“She was making a meal when her kitchen window was smashed?” Rose added, aghast. “She must’ve jumped out of her skin!”

“Yes, that describes it well,” Frodo concluded.

“What a sight that must’ve been!” Nibs chuckled, soon followed by Nick and the others at table, except Frodo, who seemed unaware.

“I really shouldn’t tell stories any more,” Frodo mumbled. His voiced dropped further so only Lily heard. “They seem to affirm my lack of judgment.”

Lily shut out everyone from her mind but Frodo. She felt the darkness skulk nearer, and restrained her shudder; then she quelled her worries about how anyone in the room might react to what she decided to do. Deliberately, she laid her hand atop Frodo’s, resting on the table.

Frodo glanced at her, and she smiled while she intertwined their fingers, again careful to lay her finger over where his should have been. She breathed deeply as the darkness scuttled away.

No one at the table missed the exchange. Sam and Rosie glanced at each other, then at Mrs. Cotton, who was clearing the table. She turned to her husband with a silent plea. Farmer Cotton nodded as Sam and Rosie left the table, and mutely indicated the lads should move to the parlour, following their mother.

Before leaving he glanced at the couple. “Help yourselves to the mince pie, whenever you’re ready.”

Lily and Frodo smiled at him briefly, then Lily searched Frodo’s eyes. She whispered, “Everyone makes mistakes -- everyone.”

“Not everyone’s mistakes hold the whole of Middle-earth in the balance...”

“Middle-earth is still here. The Shire is still here. Not only here, but truly safe from the shadow of Sauron’s power.”

Frodo winced slightly at the sound of that name on Lily’s fair voice. “But if not for Sam and -- and Gollum...” He trembled.

You should release her hand... Frodo loosened his grip, then immediately tightened his hold again, and desperately searched Lily’s eyes.

“Dearest Frodo, I do not pretend to understand the Ring, or Its power; not even Its hold on you. I do know what Gandalf and Sam and Merry and Pippin have told me. The Quest would not have succeeded without you. You have told me you made mistakes. Mistakes that still shadow -- still shadow your thoughts.”

Lily paused, then lifted Frodo’s right hand to her lips and gently kissed the back of it. She pressed it to her cheek for a moment, then held it in her lap. “Somehow, the Shadow in the East lives with you still. I can only guess it is the memory of the Ring...”

Frodo choked on his words. “I cannot forget.”

Lily whispered. “Frodo, dearest, I shall not demand you forget.”

She smiled for him at the question in his eyes. “How may I ask you to forget something so horrific, when still I cannot tolerate the smell of cooking oatmeal?”

Confusion filled Frodo’s face. He opened his mouth to speak and found Lily’s fingers gently touching his lips.

“When I was very small, my mum took to her bed. I don’t remember why, but I was sent to stay with a neighbor. She made cooked oatmeal for my breakfast, and I was -- unable to keep it down. Ever since, the smell of cooking oatmeal...” Lily shuddered.

“Frodo, mayhap the memories shall be with you always, but you need not punish yourself further.”

He was listening intently. She sensed a thirst within him for something -- anything -- to help ease the pain in his mind.

“Dear Frodo, mistakes are made. What matters is doing what one is able to make it right, and then moving on, a little wiser for it.”

Frodo bowed his head and whispered back, “Sometimes one learns too slowly... and is reminded daily.”

“Being quick is not important; it is the learning. And remember, the Sun rises daily.” Lily struggled to keep her voice low, and curb the desperation she felt, wanting her beloved to understand he had not failed.

“At what cost?” Frodo’s voice disappeared to nothing.

Lily felt certain there was more to that question than what they had been discussing. Ilúvatar, give me the answer, please. She smiled to herself as she realized how often she now sought His aid. But I have nowhere else to turn...

A gentle spring breeze touched her heart. “Only Ilúvatar knows, dear Frodo. Are you able to trust He’ll not ask more than you are able to give?”

“How do you know He’ll not ask more?”

“You do not ask it of me.” Before he could answer Lily continued. “Never have you asked more of me than I could give. Surely, the Creator, who loves us beyond measure, is even more generous and kind...”

Frodo’s eyes widened, and he noticed Lily’s eyes were more blue than green; calm radiated from her, washing over him. His breathing stopped, then he threw his arms around her, tightly. “Lily...” He could not hide the tears in his voice. “I cannot bear to think of my life without you...”

Lily struggled to control the racing of her heart, tightening her embrace. “You don’t need to.”

Several moments passed, then he whispered in her ear. “I know.”

She pulled back a little and searched Frodo’s eyes, and could not ignore the misgivings there. Her heart whispered he still worried for her. A part of her knew she could push for what she longed to hear. Then his question echoed through her mind: ‘At what cost?’ A reassuring smile touched her lips, and she did not miss the adoration revealed in Frodo’s eyes. She could wait.

Frodo gradually lowered his head, until his lips softly caressed hers. Her gentle acceptance warmed him, and he offered a second. Again, she welcomed his gift.

She deserves so much more, his heart whispered. So little does she ask of me; only that I give her my love. I must tell her... but if I tell her, she shall belong to me, and I to her... Marry her... but what would such a union cost her, in the end. It might well cost her everything...

Laughter from the parlour cut through his thoughts. “Supper must be soon.”

Lily glanced in the direction of the parlour, and sighed. “We’re very blessed, Frodo, to have such friends.” She gazed into his eyes.

“Indeed.” He longed to say more, and hesitated, then changed his mind. “Mayhap we should help them get supper ready...”

“We have put them out a bit...”

They nodded together, then met in a gentle kiss. After rising from the table, they finished clearing it, making enough noise for those in the parlour to hear.

Not a word was spoken of the interaction between the Master of Bag End and his lady. The younger Cottons were warned before leaving the parlour not to pursue the topic, on penalty of missing the cream pie their mum prepared for supper afters. The look in their eyes was enough to assure not a word would be uttered.

The conversation quickly turned to Sam and Rosie’s plans for the following day, which occupied the rest of the evening.

As Frodo and Lily were leaving, Sam agreed to meet Frodo out in the lane for their walk back to Bag End, and Rosie spoke to the couple in earnest.

“Now, the two of you’ll be at the Green Dragon for the Reading of the Promisings? Eight o’clock sharp.”

Lily and Frodo smiled, and he answered for them both. “Yes, Rosie, we shall most assuredly be present for the Reading of the Promisings.”

The twinkle in Frodo’s eyes did not go unnoticed by Rosie. “Of course you’ll be there -- you’re doing the Reading! -- and then there’s the Promising festivities after, starting with the luncheon.” She smiled. “In betwixt and between you two may go for a walk alone, as the attention of the gossips’ll be quite occupied. Just be sure you’re back in time for luncheon... and be sure to take something to eat. We don’t want Lily missing a meal. I’ll fix up some vittles for you.”

Lily giggled. “Rosie, you’ve quite enough to do arranging for all the activities on the morrow. I’ll take care of preparing our food.”

“So, you’re sacking me as your chaperone?” Rosie forced one fat tear to roll down her face.

Lily’s eyes grew wide, then she broke into a grin. “Rosie, the tears would work better if you didn’t have that smile twitching at the corner of your lip. All right, all right... You, and no one else, are the chaperone, and may do as you wish.”

Rosie giggled as well. The friends quickly embraced and shared smiles and goodbyes.

---------

Frodo escorted Lily home. At Will’s front door, Frodo searched Lily’s eyes. “Are you well, dearest?”

“Quite well, indeed, thank you.”

“What of -- what of the darkness...”

“It is there... I’m a little weary, but the day started quite early, and you know the travel always tires me.” Lily smiled warmly. “I’ve missed you...”

She could see the indecision in Frodo’s eyes as he debated what was best for her, then his face cleared at her words.

“I’ve missed you, Lily, my dearest. I am so happy you’ve come back; I can’t tell you how happy...” He allowed a smile to spread from his lips to his eyes.

They stepped into a gentle embrace. “I feel so much calmer with you near again,” Frodo whispered against her ear.

“As do I,” Lily murmured.

Frodo pulled away, slightly. “Even with the darkness...”

“Yes, dearest.”

They tightened their embrace. Frodo released a trembling sigh, then breathed more deeply and evenly as Lily nestled her head against his shoulder. Gradually, they were breathing together.

Frodo softly caressed her forehead with his lips, and Lily raised her face to receive the kiss she knew they both wanted. The chill of the night air faded in the warmth of their lengthening kiss. For this moment, nothing else mattered but that he loved her and she loved him, and though the words had not yet been spoken, they both knew the truth of it.