Lily sighed deeply. Then she felt the warmth of her husband, holding her close. A low flame flickered in the fireplace, the log mostly burned down to softly crackling embers. How comforting it was to be here, in this place, with her husband... her husband... a peace from the very center of her swelled and filled her breast, until she felt tears might overwhelm her.
Then she closed her eyes again, reveling in the music of her lover’s voice murmuring in her ear.
“Good morning, Lily-sweet.”
He offered their morning prayer, and when he finished she could feel the smile on his lips against her ear.
“The Sun has yet to make her full appearance, but her light is glowing in the East. Can you see it? Just through the window, there. It will be a beautiful day for traveling. Can you hear it, Lily-sweet? The Shire, it’s calling us home...”
Lily could not suppress a giggle. “Must we wait any longer?” she whispered conspiratorially.
Frodo chuckled deep in his chest. “No, beloved, we may leave now, if you wish it.”
His breath caught as his wife nestled close to him.
“Not quite yet, my love, but soon.”
He intended to answer, but after her first kiss, he forgot what he had meant to say.
At Lily’s insistence they ate a hearty but late first breakfast, and were ready to be on their way before nine in the morning.
Nob held the ponies as the couple bid farewell to the innkeeper.
Barliman smiled broadly as he towered over them. “It’s been a pleasure serving you, Mister Baggins, and more especially your lovely wife, though a bit dangerous for my business, I’m thinking, as a few of my lads have got the idea that they might need to visit the Shire again, if it holds lasses as pretty as yours.” His laughter filled the courtyard.
Nob turned crimson from his ears to his toes, and hurriedly handed the reins to Frodo. Then he trotted over to help Bob open the gates to the courtyard.
Lily blushed, and curtsied to the innkeeper. “Thank you, kind sir.”
The burly man struggled to catch his breath as his laughter subsided, and wiped the tears from his eyes. Then he took the little hobbit’s hand gently in his own. “It has been a pleasure, indeed, Mistress Baggins.”
He released her hand and addressed the couple. “I hope you’ll be recommending the suite to your friends in the Shire. They’d be most welcome, and with things peaceful like they are now, perhaps a few of them might be more inclined to visit our fair town?” Butterbur beamed proudly.
“Most certainly,” Frodo smiled. “Thank you for your hospitality.”
Frodo helped his wife onto her pony.
“By the way,” Barliman continued, “it looks like you’ve decided to keep the pony?”
“Indeed,” Frodo grinned. “My wife has grown fairly fond of him. He seems to fit quite amicably with her pony.”
“I should’ve known,” the innkeeper shook his head, smiling. “Mr. Gandalf picked him out, you know, saying something about him being a perfect match.”
Lily and Frodo glanced at each other, their eyes wide.
Then Lily murmured, “How like him not mention his own part in the matter.” Her heart tightened, as she wished she could thank the old wizard once more.
Frodo searched her eyes swiftly. “Are you ready, dearest?”
Lily shook herself out of her thoughts. “Yes, very much so.”
Barliman astutely ignored the exchange between the couple, then piped up, “Happy journey!”
“Thank you.” Frodo inclined his head, and clicked Strider on.
Lily smiled briefly, and followed.
The couple waved to Nob and Bob, standing at the courtyard entrance. They traversed the town easily. Then they were at the west gate, and finally on the road, headed toward the Shire.
Though Lily was reluctant to stop, even to eat, Frodo insisted, with an indulgent smile. “No matter that you’ve not felt faint for several weeks, now... We’d rather keep it that way, Lily-sweet!”
They followed the border of the Old Forest, making good time, choosing not to speak of the Barrow-downs to the south.
Frodo listened in wonder as his wife chatted happily of their travels, and of plans for when they returned home. He could not remember her ever being so talkative.
The ponies also maintained a quick pace, as though they too knew they were almost home.
Then they saw it: the Hedge, the easternmost border of Buckland. The Sun was sinking leisurely into the West, her burning light bathing the land for another hour, enough time for the couple to reach Crickhollow.
Lily and Frodo shared a smile, then Lily urged her pony into a canter for several yards. She realized there was still a fair bit of ground to cover, so pulled up on the reins.
Frodo caught up to her, laughing. “Soon, Mistress Baggins. We shall be there soon enough.”
Then he noticed the glistening in her eyes. He reached across the small space between them and brushed the tears from her cheek.
Her grateful smile warmed his soul. “Come, sweet.”
They road side by side, through the North-gate, and then turned south.
Lily pulled her pony to a halt and gazed about her. “Oh, Frodo-love, isn’t it beautiful?”
He smiled, and his wife continued. “I think in all the earth -- and I admit I now know just how little I’ve seen of it, and much of what I’ve seen is wondrous to behold -- but there’s nowhere as green as the Shire! It’s like a balm to the soul.”
Frodo thought he knew her answer, but was curious what her response would be, and asked, “Are you sorry we left, Lily-sweet, especially as how we’ve missed high summer?”
She stared at her husband. “Of course I’m not sorry. It was a wonderful adventure, but now I think all the more so because we’re safely home again. I don’t think I realized how much I loved the Shire until this moment. Mayhap I have taken it all for granted after all, though I believed I did not.” She smiled, and it reached her eyes. “Thank you for braving this adventure.”
A warm light burned in her husband’s eyes, and she caught her breath. How often had she wondered if she might take him for granted? She knew her smile broadened, for she knew it would be difficult indeed to ever take Frodo for granted; and gratitude rose in her breast, for she knew he would find wonder in each day of their life together.
Frodo offered a prayer of thanks for them both. Then he reached across the small space between them, slipping one hand into his wife’s curls. He searched her eyes for the love he knew was there, then caressed her lips with his own. Her small sound of pleasure lit a fire that rushed through him, catching him off guard. He abruptly ended the kiss, breathless.
Lily offered a slight smile, recognizing the desire flaring between them.
Frodo cleared his throat. “Shall we continue? It isn’t much further, now.”
They shared a smile, then continued on, until they turned down the lane to the house in Crickhollow. Then Frodo led the way, riding through the narrow gate.
He reined in Strider and gazed at the little house, with its unkempt late-summer garden. They need Sam here, Frodo mused, and then he sighed contentedly.
Lily drew up her pony beside her husband, and sighed as well, taking in his gladness and returning his smile.
A hobbit ducked out of the rounded door and glanced up, then his eyes filled with wonder. “Hoy! Peregrin! They’re here! Just like Felena said they would be! Hurry up, you old sluggard!” Then Merry crowed with laughter.
Before Frodo or Lily could utter a word, Merry was joined by a wide-eyed Pippin.
“Oi! They are here! I thought you might be pulling my leg, again!”
Frodo lit from his pony and found himself embraced by his cousins, all of them laughing. He indulged their backslapping for a moment, then broke from them to help Lily from her pony.
Merry swept her up into an embrace, then quickly set her down and stepped away, endeavoring to wipe the tears from his cheeks unobtrusively.
Lily smiled appreciatively, then giggled. “Your look of abject apology, Master Meriadoc, is quite spoiled by that gleam in your eyes, and the twitching of a smile at the corner of your mouth.”
Pippin elbowed his cousin aside, giving him a sidelong glance of disdain, then delicately took Lily’s hand in his own and bent over it, without kissing it.
“Welcome back to our humble home, Mistress Baggins.”
The youngest cousin bowed low, then released her hand. He gave Merry a supercilious glance, and turned his back on him.
His eyes grew wide as he felt a foot firmly planted against his backside, but he quickly composed himself, ignoring the offender.
Frodo and Lily suppressed their laughter and adopted serious expressions, as Pippin and Merry stared hard at each other.
Pippin squared his shoulders, recovering first, and spoke like the future Thain he was. “Merry here shall attend to the ponies, while I show you to your room.”
Merry gaped at his young cousin, and realized he had been had.
Frodo could contain himself no longer and burst into a giggling fit, and though Lily endeavored to maintain some small decorum, yet a sound squeaked out, which she muffled behind her hand.
“Off you go, Master Meriadoc.” Pippin waved his cousin away, then winked broadly at Lily.
She gave up the struggle and laughed out loud. When she got her breath back, she cajoled, “Dear Pippin, I do believe Frodo and I may find our own way. Please be a dear and help Merry. Then we may all sit down together the sooner.”
Merry smiled triumphantly and lifted his chin, then his eyebrows. “Well, Pip? Are you comin’? T’isn’t right nor proper to disappoint a lady, you know.”
Pippin glanced between Lily’s beseeching smile and Merry’s gloating grin, then shrugged and followed his cousin.
As they led the ponies away, they stopped at the gate to look back at the couple entering the rounded blue door. They watched in wonder as Frodo handed his lady in, then turned to them. He offered a warm smile to his cousins, then followed his wife inside.
The cousins slowly turned to each other, their mouths agape. They closed their mouths and noted the glistening in the eyes of the other.
“Come on, Merry, let’s hurry.”
Merry cleared his throat. “We’ll turn the ponies over to the stable lad. I told him to expect some extra ponies soon.”
The cousins hurriedly handed over the ponies, and gathered the baggage.
Merry drew a deep breath. “You didn’t know him Pip, before he was adopted by old Bilbo. But I remember him, and then he went to live at Bag End... before the Ring. You were only eleven when Bilbo went away, so you don’t remember as well what Frodo was like... before...”
Pippin listened intently as his cousin spoke. But then Merry was silent as they passed through the gate. “What, cousin? What did you see, just now? I know I’ve never seen him so happy. He seems almost... younger...”
A grateful smile touched Merry’s face. “You’ve good eyes, Pip. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, or they’ll have me to answer to. Yes, that’s it exactly... now, let’s get in there and hear what tales they have to tell.”
Pippin smiled. “It looks like they’ll be pleasant.”
Merry chortled. “What tales they’re willing to tell, anyway.”
Pippin blinked, then his eyes opened wide, and he sputtered.
A great laugh escaped Merry. “Close your mouth, Pippin, before a fly goes in. Come on, then.”
They found the couple in the kitchen, preparing dinner together.
“What’s this?” Merry demanded.
Frodo blinked at his cousins. “We were hungry. We didn’t think you’d mind.”
Pippin laughed and crossed his arms. “Are you making some of your scones, Mistress Lily?”
“Indeed I am, Master Peregrin,” she smiled.
Pippin threw Merry a look, then turned back to Lily. “Then I’ve no objection, whatsoever,” he stated, grinning.
“But they’re our guests!” Merry declared.
“And so they should be allowed to do whatever they wish, don’t you think?” Pippin continued reasonably. “Now, tell us about your journey! We want to hear all about it -- oh, and start at the very beginning!”
Pippin stopped and thought for a moment. “Well, you can skip the bits about the time you were here, on your way out of the Shire... we know that part,” he finished matter-of-factly.
Merry watched as the couple exchanged glances, and Lily gave an almost imperceptible nod, then Frodo began to speak.
They talked well into the evening.
Merry and Pippin surreptitiously grinned at one another, as Lily and Frodo shared the telling, each filling in details the other overlooked.
After the mantel clock struck midnight, Frodo noticed Lily was beginning to show signs of weariness, and bid his cousins good night.
Merry caught him by the arm, holding him back as Lily proceeded to their room. “Why don’t you stay and have a smoke with us, cousin? I’m certain your lady’ll not mind.”
Frodo glanced away, then back, wholly unable to hide the grin on his face. He whispered, “Are you daft, dear Merry?” Then he simply winked broadly and followed his wife into their room, shutting the door softly behind him.
Merry stared after his cousin, then blinked and found himself blushing up to his ears. He hunched his shoulders, endeavoring to hide his face as his younger cousin joined him, but to no avail.
“What is it, Merry? Is he going to put her to bed, and come join us?”
Pippin glanced at his cousin, once, then again. “Meriadoc, are you blushing?” Then Pippin began to chortle. “I see the truth of it now, dear cousin! Well, you can hardly blame him, now, can you?”
Merry glared at his younger cousin, then abruptly turned away. “Come on. We can still enjoy a smoke.”
Pippin nudged him, and they strolled down the hall to the kitchen and the back door. “You’re not angry, are you Merry?”
His older cousin sputtered. “What are you on about?”
“Well, you looked none too pleased about... you know...”
Merry laughed out loud, then shushed himself. “Pip! Surely you know me better than that?”
“I thought I knew you, but, one never knows...”
Merry placed a reassuring arm around his cousin as they walked into the little kitchen garden. They settled on the bench, side by side, then prepared and lit their pipes.
Merry took a puff and after a long moment blew the smoke out slowly. “Pippin, truth be told, I am a bit put out, but only because I’ve missed him, and you have as well; you can’t deny it. More so because I’ve missed him, if you take my meaning.”
“You mean the old Frodo? The one that weaves a tale as good as Bilbo and laughs easily -- the one unmarked by the Ring...”
“Exactly,” Merry smiled. His smile faded, and he took another puff. “I hate to say it, but it was hard, cruel hard seeing him when we came home. I’m ashamed to say it, but it was getting easier to stay away than to see him that way...”
“Aye, you’re right, Merry. I felt the same, but now that’s all in the past.” Pippin chuckled. “Never did I think I’d see our dear cousin flirting with a lass the way he does with his dear wife. I truly don’t blame Frodo choosing her company over ours.”
Merry smiled as he planted his heels into a section of the rose trellis, then gave a relaxed sigh. “Yes, you’re right, all right, and now there’ll be all the time in the world for seeing him, so I can’t begrudge him spending this night with his dear Lily.”
They sat quietly for a time, then Merry chuckled.
“Pip, did Frodo ever tell you stories -- I mean, when you were very small?”
Pippin gazed up at the stars, casting back in his memory. “Yes, now that you mention it. I’d not thought of it in years.”
“He was already living at Bag End by the time you were born, but I can remember when he still lived at the Hall. I was eight when he was adopted, but before that, I can remember him telling stories in the winter. Did I ever tell you how, one way or another, those of us that could, would search him out, no matter where he was, and beg for a story? Especially those days, when it was too cold to go outside.”
Pippin turned full to his cousin. “You’ve never told me about that!”
Merry laughed softly. “I suspect I was too embarrassed to admit that even at eight years old I was still wanting tales. The truth is that I frequently sought him out all on my own. You see, if you could get him alone...”
“He made you the hero of the story,” Pippin finished.
Merry sighed. “Yes. So he did that with you, too?”
“Aye. He did, but even with a group of little ones, he managed to include every one in the tale, even my sisters.”
“We were blessed, Pippin.”
“Indeed, Merry, and more blessed now, for I’m thinking it’ll not be long now before he starts into his story-telling ways again.”
“What makes you say that, Pip?”
Pippin sighed in exasperation. “Why do you think?”
When no answer was forthcoming, Pippin continued, “Frodo was right -- you are daft.”
“Merry...” Pippin spoke slowly, letting each word sink in. “If the lass isn’t with child now, she soon will be.”
Then Pippin laughed out loud as his cousin turned crimson, noticeable even in the moonlight, and ducked his head.
“Pippin! Don’t be talkin’ about that that way.”
“What way? It’s the truth, and besides, it’s the way of things. Frodo’ll make a fine dad, don’t you think?”
Merry recovered himself and chuckled in agreement. “Yes, he will. And I’m glad of it, Pip.”
“Aye.” Pippin blew a smoke ring, and sighed contentedly. “Well, Merry, if we’re to fix them breakfast, we best be off to bed ourselves.”
“At least they’ll not be leaving early, so we’ll have a bit more time to catch up.”
“That we will. But then we’ll be seeing them again, in a couple of weeks, for Frodo’s birthday.”
“Wonder what they’ll plan?”
“I don’t know, but if Mistress Lily is cooking -- and I’ll wager dear Rosie’ll be helping -- well, then, it’ll be worth attending for the food alone!”
The cousins laughed, and Merry studied his feet.
“Aye, it’ll be a night to remember.”