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The Sandbox  by Celeritas

When she awoke, she felt young again.

And alive.  Oh, so very alive.

The Sun was streaming down through the leaves of the tree that she was nestled against, brighter than she had ever seen her, yet her light did not hurt, nor did the greener greens and browner browns of the tree and the bluer blue of the sky jar against her eyes.

And Elanor knew that she was really, truly dead, and she did not mind.

Words, names of folk that had left her behind long ago flitted through her mind, and thus the pain of separation from those that remained vanished like dew before sunlight.  Mum, Dad, she thought.  Fastred…

How she had missed him these past years, the warmth of his body next to hers as they slept, the way he would lean over and kiss her on the cheek when she least expected it.

And now she was young and golden again, and he would be young and strong and sweep her off her feet and spin her around in the joy of their reunion.

But she did not know where she was.

Taking her time, she rose from the Tree—it was massive, and though it was a Shire oak it was as beautiful as the mallorn—to see where she was.  Evidently in the nearby meadow there was a picnic going on, going by the large trestle tables and the number of hobbits milling around them.  Yet it was the largest picnic she had ever seen, larger than any of the many parties she had seen during her lifetime.

And she wondered how she would find anyone in the mess.

But with a smile she made her way over to the crowd, trying hard not to think of how much earlier some of them must have made their way beyond the Circles of Arda.  The new and strange nature of this place could wait until after she had seen her beloved and all the other people she had missed so keenly as she aged.

She entered one of the lines, glancing all around her for familiar faces.  She was not particularly hungry, but food sounded rather nice right now and besides, she could not imagine any sort of future existence for a hobbit that did not involve it.

The press of people around her was a little unnerving, for she had always been a little shy in crowds; plus she recognized no one thus far.  After loading her plate up with meat pies and stuffed mushrooms, she was about to turn out for a breath of fresh air when she saw the most gorgeous pear trifle.  She made some room for it on her plate and was about to reach for the spoon when the hobbit next to her whisked it from her grasp and proceeded to serve himself.

“Excuse me,” she said.

He jumped a little, startled out of whatever reverie he had been in, and looked at her.  “I do beg your pardon,” he said.  “Did you want some of this?”  He gestured with the spoon, now laden with custard, and at her nod placed its contents on the spot she had made.

But she paid no heed, for something about him niggled in the back of her mind.  That voice…

“Thank you,” she said, and at an impulse, laid her hand over his, to return the spoon to its rightful place.  He looked at her again, quizzical.  Those eyes…

“Do I know you?”

“I’m not sure,” said Elanor, the color rising in her face.  Somewhere, in the depths of her memory…

“Well,” he said, a little irritably, “you know me, at any rate, that’s for certain.  Here I am, among every single hobbit that’s ever lived and died in the Shire—barring a few exceptions—and I still can’t fail to get noticed, just because I happened to—”

“Oh, I did remember right!” she interrupted, smiling as broadly as she could.  “I remembered you, and everyone said it was just my fancy and all the tales and the pictures, but I knew it was my actual memories and it was!  Dad’ll be so proud when I tell him—can you take me to see him?”

“Half a minute,” he said, finally setting down the spoon.  “Let me have a good look at you.”  He stepped back a pace, irritating the already mounting queue, and as he examined her he smiled.  “You’re one of Sam’s, aren’t you?”

“His eldest,” she said, tears starting in her eyes.  “You sang me to sleep.  He made sure I remembered.”

Elanor,” he whispered, and he said it the elvish way.  At last she could not bear it anymore and she flung her arms around his neck, weeping with joy.

“Come on,” he said.  “We’d best not make a scene here, and we’re holding up the line anyhow.”  He walked her a little apart from the crowd, picking up her plate from where she had set it on the table, and they sat down together.

“You know,” he said, “the last time I had you in my arms you were no more than a babe.”

“I know,” she said.

“It’s rather disconcerting.”

“You’re telling me!  I’ve read and heard so much about you—always wanted to meet you—and now, finally… I’m afraid I must seem rather giddy.  You waited for Dad to show up before you passed, didn’t you?  I’ll be very cross if you didn’t; he looked so lost before he sailed.”

“Well, he looked very found when he showed up at the dock.  And he told me all about you—and all of his other children, of course, but you were the only one I’d seen with my own two eyes so I was very interested in all the news he had.  Your eyes never did change color, did they?”

“No, they didn’t,” she said, smiling.  “Another gift of the elves, I suppose, though not nearly as prevalent as the golden hair.  I suppose that started some of the odd rumors of me being an elf-child, though anyone who saw me at table knew I was hobbit through and through.”

“He had said you were beautiful.  I’m glad that I can finally see so for myself.”

And although even into age Elanor had heard remarks about her beauty, and learned how to graciously accept them, she found herself blushing as if she were a tween all over again.

“I always felt as if I knew you,” she said.  “The way Dad talked about you, all of the stories—I think they helped me to remember you better,” and she paused, half afraid that if she said his name he would vanish, “Frodo.”  She began to cry again.

“Shh,” said Frodo, putting an arm about her shoulder and rubbing her hair.

“It’s rather silly, isn’t it?  I thought there wouldn’t be any crying after I died and I can’t seem to stop.”

“Not all tears are an evil,” said Frodo.

“Hoy, there’s no need to go quoting Gandalf at me!” said Elanor.

Abruptly he stopped, leaned back, and looked at her.  “You really did read that book, didn’t you?”

“Devotedly.  You did a marvelous job, by the way.  I always thought I’d be set for life if I could write half as well as you.  But I told you, I always did feel as if I knew you.  And sometimes I thought that I missed you, so I’d sit down and read a bit out of your book and it was as if you were talking to me, and then I’d get to know you even better and when I was feeling down next I’d miss you even more.  Once Dad and I had words over how to refer to you.”

“Really?”  A smile tugged at the edges of his lips.

“It’s not funny!  I cried and spent half the day sulking under the Party Tree.”

“How old were you?”

“Twenty-three.”

“Ah.”

“Well, I suppose it is rather funny now, but I outright told him that if you referred to yourself as ‘Frodo’ there was nothing wrong with it, and that you had made out the entire will to him so that meant we didn’t have to ‘Mister’ you anymore, because if you’d done great things so had he.”

“Now, that would have been a moment I’d have liked to see.”

She shook her head.  “It was terrible.  I think he was so put out because I was acting as if I really did know you, even though most of what I had to go on was books.  He never did let off with the ‘Mr.,’ not even when he left.  I suppose he would have had to if there had been some way for you to stay around, the same way he did with Merry and Pippin.  But since you were gone, you were always his Master—just as you were always plain old ‘Frodo’ to me in the books.”

“Well, he let off once he arrived,” said Frodo.

“Truly?”

“I think he wanted to show me how he had done everything I said he would, to make me proud of him.  And of course, I was different, too—maybe I didn’t fit the old title the way I used to.  And now that we’re beyond the West he’s taken it up again—but only at those times he deems it appropriate.”

“Does it really matter that much?” said Elanor.

“Of course not!” said Frodo.  “We understand one another more than well enough for that.  But you must understand, dear Elanor, that I have a bit of an academic’s eye for this sort of thing.  I must have picked it up from old Bilbo at some point along the way—or else from Finrod, for we did talk languages a lot—”

FinrodThe Finrod?”

“Well, I don’t know what other ‘Finrod’ you’d be talking about,” said Frodo, bemused.

“You’ve actually gone and met the—” she was interrupted by a voice from behind them both.

“Frodo, I’ve been looking—” but that was all that the speaker got out, for as soon as she heard the voice Elanor was up off the ground and hanging round his neck.

“Dad!”

“Whoa, steady there!” said Sam Gamgee, for indeed it was he.  “Ellie?” he said, trying to crane his head around to get a good look at her face, or else at least to loosen her grip against him.

Elanor just nodded.  “I’m not letting go of you for another good five minutes at least, Dad, so you’d best make yourself comfortable.”

Sam laughed.  “I don’t think I realized how much I missed you till now, my dear.  Am I allowed at least to sit down?”

“If you can manage it,” said Elanor.

“After thirteen children I ought to be able to,” said Sam, lifting his daughter so that he could sit down, and then setting her on his lap.  “I see you’ve managed to find my Master.”

“Quite by chance, too, Dad—but I did recognize him, and right from my memories.  I was able to keep them up until the day I went on.”

“That’s nothing less than I expected, Ellie.  I’m very proud of you.”

“And quite unexpected from me,” said Frodo.  “I thought she was another one of those well-wishers.”

“Well-wishers?” said Elanor.

“Oh, you know, the usual lot, ‘I’m sorry I thought you were so cracked and that I thought it was a good riddance when you left the Shire for good,’” said Frodo.

“We all get bits and pieces of it,” Sam added, “even if it’s just for not appreciating what we did abroad enough, but it’s the worst for him.”

“Plus I don’t have half a lifetime’s experience of dealing with this sort of thing, and all of this is after Eressëa cured me of any lingering desires to get recognized for what I may or may not have done outside the Shire.”  Frodo sighed.

“I was wondering if you’d gotten detained,” said Sam.  “I was planning on rescuing you.”

“Well, under most any other circumstance I’d thank you, but it seems that your daughter and I get along quite nicely.”

“As she ought to,” said Sam.

“And what’s this about her remembering me and all?  You couldn’t have been older than six months when I sailed, Elanor.”

Elanor blushed and looked down.

“Well,” said Sam, “I always did say that Elanor got the greatest part of the Lady’s blessing.  And if she was as beautiful as an elf, then maybe, I thought, she’d have the memory of one of them folk, too.  So I asked her if she remembered you, and she did.”

“Dad’s giving me far too much credit.  I hardly remembered anything—just the sound of your voice, and your eyes, and I don’t even remember when he first talked to me about it.  He just said that I should always strive to remember you each day, because otherwise I’d forget what you looked like, and I was going to be the last hobbit in the Shire to know.  He reminded me every week, until I was old enough to remind myself.  Most everyone else thought it was fancy, or else pictures compounded with stories other folk told; but I always hoped it was you I was actually remembering.”

Frodo looked up at them, and his gaze was so unfathomable that Elanor was immediately transported back to the recesses of her memory.  “Sam, I—”  Briefly he dashed his sleeve against his eyes.  “I hardly deserve even having known you in my lifetime.”

Judging that at least five minutes had gone by, Sam gently set Elanor on the ground so that he could go to his Master and lay a hand upon his shoulder.  “And we’ve been through that talk many a time enough, so I’ll just remind you that you know you’re wrong and leave it at that, much as the sentiment is appreciated.  And if you don’t mind, I’d suggest that we head back to the others, before they conclude that this time the well-wishers were too much for both of us.  Elanor, surely you’d like to see your Mum again?”

“Would I ever!” cried Elanor, jumping to her feet.  “You know where she is, then?”

“I ought to,” said Sam, “seeing as we’ve been married for over a century, now.”

“Just a moment, then,” said Elanor, picking up her plate of food from where it had sat, ignored, for the past conversations.  She tried one of the mushrooms.  “It’s still hot!”

“One of the many good things you’ll find about the food here,” said her father.  “Well, you can eat and walk at the same time, can’t you?  Let’s find your mother and see who else is near.”

So Elanor made her way past the tables of food and the many hobbits clustered there, with a plate of food on one arm and her Dad on the other, the hero of her childhood days closely in tow.  Sam led her to another tree, separated from the main scene by a small hill, where a blanket was spread on the grass and an open hamper lying upon it.  On seeing them, one of the figures sitting on the blanket rose and hailed them.

“Well, who have we got—Elanor?”

“The same, and no thanks to you, Sir Peregrin.”  She handed Sam her food and ran down the rest of the slope for a brief hug.

“I always did hate it when you called me that,” he muttered.

“Which would explain your preening whenever I did,” replied Elanor.  Pippin had always been a bit like the proverbial bachelor uncle who acted more like a playmate than an elder when Elanor was young, and even though he eventually had children of his own neither one ever let that get in the way of their continual battles of wits.

Frodo, who was continuing down the hill at a much more sedate pace, stopped Sam with a hand on his elbow.  “You’re not telling me they get along?”

“Oh, she’s every bit his match, Mr. Frodo.  First time he tried getting her into a scrape she calls out, ‘Mum, Pippin’s being a troublemaker!’ and Rosie’d give him such tongue-lashings that he finally out and gave up on her and tried with the younger ones—only she’d sniff it out and tell on him then, too.”

“Well, I should hope he stopped eventually!”

“He did—but only when he started having children of his own.  Gives a fellow perspective, that.”

Meanwhile, Elanor had stepped away to get a better look at Peregrin Took.  “You’re young!”

“I ought to be allowed to be, if I’m dead!”

“Well, doesn’t Diamond have anything to say about it?”

“I am as old as I was the day we first kissed one another, and if that was old enough then, it’s old enough now.”

Elanor looked around to see Diamond Took, sitting with her back up against the tree and doing some sort of needlework, and looking not a day over thirty.  “Fair enough, I suppose,” she said.

“Ah,” said Pippin, as the other two finally joined the party.  “You brought food for me, Sam?  That’s uncommonly kind.”

Elanor swatted him on the arm.  “Get in line yourself if you want some; that plate’s mine and I won’t have you stealing from it.”

“Pip, you can’t even get hungry here!  Whyever would you want to steal the poor lass’s food—especially if it’s her very first plate?” said Merry Brandybuck, coming in to greet her.

“How was I to know it was hers?” said Pippin.  “Or her first?”

Merry ignored the questions, and turned to Elanor.  “And were you able to look after the land after we left it?”

Elanor sighed, remembering the promise she had made the two shortly before they had ridden away South, never to be seen again.  “As best as I could.  It all seemed to get worse after Fastred passed—but you’ve already heard about all of the Falling-Out from your namesake, I suppose.  Poor Farry took it worst of all, but I suppose we all ought to have expected something eventually.  Change comes especially hard to us, and we should be grateful enough that it took as long as it did for anyone to react to it.  Still, I have my hopes for the far future—all of my own brood, at least, know how important the stories are, and they’ll spread it, eventually.  My youngest granddaughter let out the Book to a child before I came here—and just so that she’d believe in Elves, too.  Perhaps not prudent, but wise—very wise.”

A change came over Merry’s face.  “Oh, dear,” he said.

“What?”

“Oh, it’s nothing—it’s just that… well, you know how Frodo started getting these visions—these bouts of foresight, if you will, before he sailed?”

Elanor nodded.

“Well, they’ve kept up to the present time, and sometimes he still sees things that happen, or will happen, Below.”

“And he doesn’t mind?  I thought you weren’t allowed to get sad here.”

“He doesn’t—mind or get sad, that is.  Something about his time in the West, I think—made him far wiser and able to deal with a lot more than any of us would have.  Well, for the ‘able to deal’ bit, that goes without saying, but…”

“Please,” came Frodo’s voice from behind.  “Let’s not talk about any of that now, shall we, Merry?  This is Elanor’s time here, and we oughtn’t muddle it with things she just left behind her.  There will be time enough later.”

So Merry just smiled and said, “Well, I’m glad you’re here, Elanor,” and Elanor left him to find her mother.

She was sitting in the shade, away from the basket and the small gathering there, and she was beautiful.  Quietly Elanor sat down next to her and put her arms about her.  “Why didn’t you get up and say hello to me?”

Rosie smiled and laid her hand on one of Elanor’s arms.  “You seemed to be having such fun with that lot over there, I thought it best not to disturb you.”

“I didn’t come here looking for them, though.  I wanted to find you.”

“And so you have, my dear.”

“How long did you have to wait for Dad?”

“Not very long at all.  Couldn’t tell you exactly how long, time doesn’t work regular here; but I’d say not as long as you and Fastred have been apart.”

At this Elanor sighed.  Rosie looked at her with immediate concern.  “Don’t tell me that nobody’s let you even get a peep at him all this while!”

Elanor shook her head.  “I wanted to find him first thing, but after I ran into Frodo everything just fell apart.  I don’t even know where he is!”

“Tut, tut,” said Rose.  “I’ll have to have a few words with him, then.  It ought to be a rule—people who have someone waiting for them are to be escorted to their spouses first thing.”

“Mum, I wasn’t complaining, or at least not that much.”

“I know you weren’t, sweetheart.  But I also know how things go here, especially when reunions are involved.  Let yourself get caught up in something, and suddenly half the day’s gone and all of your plans out the window.  It was like that when Sam got here, too—my own mother came rushing to me, saying, ‘Your husband’s here, and good luck getting to the center of the crowd yonder,’ and I had to squeeze my way through before I could find him, looking quite bewildered and not a little overwhelmed at all the attention.”

“What did you do?”

“Well, once he caught sight of me, he grabbed a hold of me like a drowning hobbit to driftwood, and he planted a kiss right on my lips, and we just held onto each other until all the folk around realized he wasn’t going to so much as acknowledge them until they left us alone for a good while.  I guess news of Mr. Frodo’s arrival put a bunch of people on the lookout for him—though they came so quickly after one another that I didn’t even know for sure if Mr. Frodo had come until Sam told me.”

“I’m glad I finally got to meet him—properly, that is.”

“He is a gentlehobbit, isn’t he?”  Rosie smiled.  “But enough of all that.  If the menfolk aren’t going to take you to your husband, I suppose it’s up to the ladies.”

Just then a shout came from where the four Travellers were gathered.  Elanor thought it was Frodo’s voice.  “Hoy, Elanor!  How would you like to be an honorary Baggins?”

What?” said Elanor.

Rosie smiled apologetically.  “On second thoughts, why don’t we bring him to you?”  Elanor kissed her, and both of them rose to attend their various duties.

Elanor reached her father and the others with an expression of pure astonishment on her face.  “Dad, did I mishear something, or did your Master just tender me a proposal of marriage?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Elanor,” said Frodo.  “I said an honorary Baggins, not an actual one.  The proposal is merely one of adoption—or semi-adoption, I should say.”

“That’s good,” said Elanor, “because the answer would have been ‘no.’  But what problem is there with the family I currently have, that you would feel the need to take me under your wing?”

“None whatever.  The proposal is sheerly for the purposes of enumeration.”

“Well, before I decide whether to accept or not, someone had better sit down and explain to me what in the name of the Lonely Star is going on.”

“Oh,” said Frodo, coloring a bit.  “Sorry.”

“Quite simple to explain, really,” said Pippin.  “When Merry came to join us, I told him, ‘Sam’s got you tied now—’”

“Tied for what?”

“Children that have come on to join us,” said Merry.

“That’s not very charitable!” said Elanor to Pippin.

Pippin merely shrugged.  “And then Merry pointed out that Sam still had the record for total descendants, and probably would for all eternity, since he and Rosie—”

“That’s my daughter you’re talking to,” put in Sam.

“Right—well, you see what I mean; but what I meant to get to is that Frodo’s just looking at the three of us without being able to put in a single word edgewise, seeing as no lass was good enough for him for marriage, so he can’t enter the competition at all, even though the best Merry and I can do is compete for second place.  So, trying to somehow bring my poor bachelor cousin into the conversation, I suggested that he take some of Sam’s children off his back, since he had more than his fair share.”

“Of course, Mr. Frodo took it seriously,” said Sam, “so now he wants to make you an honorary Baggins.”

“Don’t any of you have anything better to do?” said Elanor.

“Nothing that can’t wait,” said Merry.

Frodo grinned.  “They’ve been doing this silly number game for years, and if they’re giving me a chance to jump in on it I don’t see why not.  And, Peregrin, lest you think you’ll be getting off easy, should I find any of your or Merry’s offspring worthy, they are eligible for semi-adoption as well.”

“And should I refuse?” said Elanor.

“Well,” said Frodo, looking a little flustered, “you may, of course.  But as I said, it’s only an honorary sort of thing—you’re still Sam’s and Rosie’s, and I wouldn’t change that for the whole Shire and everything in it.  But—if things had gone differently—if I had married, and had children—I should have hoped for a daughter just like you.”

“Really?”

“Truly,” said Frodo, and since Elanor felt herself misting up again she decided that Frodo really did not mind if she wept into his shoulder a third time.  When she had dried her eyes she turned to her father.  “What do you think of it, Dad?”

“I think it’s the best compliment he can pay you, Ellie,” said Sam, smiling broadly.

“Will it count against his numbers?”

“I hadn’t given any thought to it,” said Frodo.  “I’d much rather give credit where credit’s due; however, if I wanted to compete in the numbers game I could be considerably more selective that way…”

“And why don’t you bring out the red ink while you’re at it?” muttered Merry.

“A capital suggestion,” said Frodo.  “I suppose there’s someone who has it on them—maybe my old lawyer…”

“I told you not to give him any ideas!” Elanor could hear Pippin whisper to his cousin.

“And that’s rather the orc calling the goblin ugly, isn’t it?” Merry retorted.

“We really don’t have to do anything official, Frodo,” said Elanor.  “Do I even get to call you that, anymore, or are you suddenly an uncle or something like that?”

“No, no,” said Frodo, laughing, as he began to lead them off in search of some red ink.  “It’s only semi-adoption, after all, and I don’t even know what that ought to mean.  It’s keeping those two entertained at the very least, but otherwise it serves little to no purpose—though I did mean what I said about you.”

“I know,” said Elanor.  “Thank you.  But why the red ink, then?”

“Because,” said Sam, sighing, “the more fanfare Mr. Frodo can put into this, the more he will.”

“It’s one of Frodo’s favorite pastimes,” Pippin added from behind as they crested the hill and rejoined the crowd.  “Embarrassing the Gamgees.  Sam might try to gainsay him, but he can’t do it in public, because that’d be saying that he thought Frodo was wrong about something!”

“Pippin, don’t exaggerate,” said Frodo.

“I’m not!  I counted the number of times it happened on one of the market days in the
White City—and every time you started setting that whole ‘esquire’ business straight there Sam went, red as a beet, but si—”

But if Pippin went on, Elanor did not hear him; for at that moment out of nowhere an arm slipped around her waist and a pair of soft lips brushed her cheek.  A shiver ran up her spine, and she turned to see her beloved Fastred’s eyes gazing into hers.  Putting a finger to his lips, he took her by the hand and led her away.

When they were far enough away to have some privacy, at last she broke down and clung to him, kissing him wherever she could and setting her head against his shoulder, so that every breath of air she took in smelled like him.  “I’ve missed you so much,” she whispered.  “Fastred, I—”

But he silenced her with a kiss to the lips, and only when she had relaxed into his embrace and was breathing steadily did he speak.  “Elanor,” he said.  “Welcome home.”

 *  *  *

By the time any of them had noticed that she was gone, it was too late.  “You won’t be hearing from her for the rest of today, at least,” said Rose Gamgee.  “I’ll excuse you for the time, Frodo Baggins, but the other three of you, at least, should know better.  When you three came, who was the first person you wanted to see, hmm?  And now I find that none of you helped my own daughter find her own husband, but instead dragged her into this whole—”

“I’m sorry, Rosie,” said Sam.  “It’s just been feeling so much like old times, I half-forgot—”

“I know,” said Rose.  “That our little Ellie has a family of her own.  For a little while, maybe, we can expect to be the first ones to see our children as they arrive here.  But not for long.  We’d best get used to keeping ourselves company, if that’s what we need.”

Frodo sighed audibly.

“And if you’ll just remember that marriage is normal among hobbits, you’ll be fine.  I daresay whatever sort of oddity you’ve got in mind for Elanor you’ll get to do, for if she objected to it she’d be the first to let you know.”

“He’s adopting her,” said Merry.

What?” said Rosie.

“It’s a long story,” said Sam.

“Penny for your thoughts, cousin,” said Merry. Frodo was lying flat on his stomach on the ground, his head turned to one side and his eyes staring out unfocused.

“Shh,” said Frodo. “Don’t break it.”

“Break what?”

“I’m seeing something, and it’s very, very interesting. Shouldn’t take half a minute longer… There.” He looked and sat up.

“You’re a very strange hobbit, you know that?” said Merry.

“I aim to please,” said Frodo with a small bow.

“You were really seeing something? Below?”

Frodo nodded once. “And I have no idea what to make of it, but I know it’s important or I wouldn’t have gotten it.”

“Do you think these things will ever leave you alone?”

He laughed. “If I want them to. I’m still too interested in the mundane happenings of Middle-earth for that to be the case just yet, though.”

“So what did you see this time?”

“Something most peculiar. An old room in Brandy Hall, a child sitting in a bed in the middle of the day—”

“Steady on! What’s that?”

“What’s what?”

“It’s gone. Keep talking.”

“And another hobbit, sitting on a stool next to her with an old primer—”

“There! However do you do it, Frodo?”

“Do what?”

“Look!”

Merry gestured out in front of him, where a small scene had coalesced in front of his eyes.

“Heavens! That’s never happened before!”

“What is it?”

“I don’t know—I’d say it’s another elven gift—the ability to make song appear right before you.”

“Only this isn’t song,” said Merry. “It’s a story, a brief vision.” He looked closer. “I can’t see it very well. Do you think you could refine it?”

Frodo began talking again.

“That’s astounding,” said Merry. “Whatever do you suppose it could mean?”

Frodo looked at the vision more closely. “Well, I’d warrant that the fellow on the stool is one of yours. Look at that—teaching someone to read, though she’s much older than I’d have expected.”

“Wait—she’s one of mine, too!”

“What? She looks nothing like you!”

“But she is! Lagro’s child.”

“Oh, him? I only met him briefly; I suppose you could see a bit of a resemblance.”

“Doesn’t that just take the cake? Lagro’s child, learning how to read, and—oh, look! They’ve got your book, now.”

“Maybe we should tell him. Think he’d like that?”

“No, not yet—let’s keep looking. There’s got to be some reason you saw this.”

Frodo found himself smiling in spite of himself. “I think there is. That’s my old room!”

“What?”

“It’s my old room; look—those odd shutters with the wider slats than normal.”

“That was never your room!”

“I ought to know that it was. I lived there.”

“When?”

“Before you were born.”

Merry paused. “Oh.”

“After my parents passed but before you were born. I used to find my escape reading books in bed—and how much will you wager that she will, too?”

Merry grinned. “I like her already. Keep an eye on her for me, will you?”

“I’ll keep you apprised. There has to be more to this story than we’re currently seeing.”

The elves had a name for this—stirring. Properly it referred to a time of the year, but it was built on a time of day—circles on circles repeating one another, over and over until the end. He’d left that, finally, broken free from the endless rhythms, but he was glad to know they hadn’t quite gone away. They just no longer weighed.

He wondered if winter happened here. He’d come to miss snow.

And he’d come to miss this, too—the tickle of grass on his neck, the distant sound of birds welcoming the Sun, the smell of the soil awakening at the touch of dew. Oh, he had greeted the dawn times enough on Eressëa—more times, in fact, than he ever had at home—but it wasn’t quite the same.

And he understood, now—now that he had the time after all the reunions and long conversations to get at the solitude he still surprisingly craved—that this was the place he’d missed, during his rest with the Elves, and even before. Or rather, something like this—his mother had told him there would be something more—and, after all, there was no Sea here.

“Frodo?”

It was a feminine voice, and one he couldn’t place. So many old memories, from so long ago…

“Frodo! Oh, it really is you!”

He sat up, and felt a hand on his shoulder. He twisted around to see a smiling face, looking down on him with glistening eyes.

“Estella?”

She nodded, and he swiftly rose and pulled her into a hug. She was crying on his shoulder.

“Oh, Cousin Frodo, I’ve missed you so much!”

He blinked. He’d been fond of Estella, true, and she’d certainly been a friend to him, but—Oh. Merry.

When she was quite finished, Estella stepped back, dried her eyes, and looked back at him. “You’re well,” she said.

“I am.”

“And—I hope—you got well with the elves?”

“Yes. I had a long and blessed life—stayed on long enough for Sam to see I was well, and then we both passed on, quiet as you please, and here we are!”

“That’s good. We worried, you know.”

Frodo chuckled. “Merry worried, you mean, and you got pulled in. I hope not too often?”

“No. But he never stopped missing you.” Estella sighed. “But this—this is wonderful! I didn’t think there was anything after! And now…”

“Did Merry? Think there was anything after, I mean.”

“He didn’t know. You know him—made a study of all the different people’s ideas, from the elves and their waiting to the Riders’ halls of feasting. He hoped, though. He’ll want to see you first, of course, when he gets here.”

“Before you?”

“He’s spent the past sixty-odd years of his life with me. He misses me now, I know, but it’s you he wants to see first. And he’ll have some very sharp words to say to you, I’d imagine, so don’t think you can shove him away by sending him to me!”

“You two really are well-matched, aren’t you?” He meant it half-jesting, but Estella took it in earnest.

“Yes. As rough a start as we had, I really do think it all worked out in the end. You helped bring us together, you know.”

“I?”

“Well, your leaving, more like. Merry was so devastated by it, he wrote this long letter, more to himself than to me. Couldn’t help but pity him as I read it, and that’s when I realized he was more than I thought him to be.”

Frodo grimaced at the description of the letter. “I wish I could have written to him across the Sea.”

Estella shrugged. “He wouldn’t have had a need to write to me, then, would he? I told you, it all worked out, and now that I know he’ll get to see you again, that’ll heal, too.”

Frodo laid his hand on her shoulder. “I’m glad you were there for him, Estella.”

“Me, too.” She sighed. “I miss him already—isn’t that silly of me?”

“Not at all.”

“Do—do you think there’s any way I could write a letter to him? Not that he’d be able to read it until later, but it’d help me feel better.”

Frodo’s brow creased in thought. “I haven’t been here long, Estella, but I think that anything that would help you feel better is possible.” He struck out in a random direction, and around the next hillock was a table fitted with two chairs and a writing-set. Behind him, Estella let out a little cry and rushed forward. By the time Frodo reached the table she was caressing the silver inlay on the box.

“Did you do this?” she said.

“Not as far as I’m aware.”

“This is—well, it looks like—the one Merry gave me, before we even started courting. How did they know?”

“The Powers know a good deal,” Frodo said. “I’ve given up on asking how.”

Estella opened the set, took out a leaf of paper, pen, and ink. She sat down. “What is the date?”

“I don’t know,” said Frodo.

“Never mind, then,” said Estella, and she quickly wrote at the top, “Date undefined.”

Frodo took the other chair. “Do you mind if I write him a letter as well, Mrs. Brandybuck?”

“Not at all!” She looked up at him. Frodo had a peculiar smile on his face. “What is it?”

“That’s the first time I’ve had occasion to call you that. Mrs. Brandybuck.”

“You only have yourself to blame for that, removing yourself from our affairs so thoroughly.”

“I thought you’d never have given him the time of day if I hadn’t removed myself from your affairs. I was doing you a service!”

“I never said that. I only said you helped. By breaking my Merry’s heart, I might add.”

“Look, you’ve already informed me he’s going to harangue me about it; you don’t have to start as well!”

Estella only laughed. The sun pierced her way above the horizon, and the two of them were writing.





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