Frodo smiled to himself. He could sense Lily’s waking at dawn. Usually she would enjoy lying quietly in the circle of his arms. This morning, he could feel the slight movement of her toes curling and uncurling, as though she were endeavoring to release her pent up energy without disturbing him.
He shifted slightly so he could gently rub his foot along hers.
“I’m sorry, sweet,” Frodo intoned softly. “I hoped to offer a bit of comfort, not frighten you.”
“It doesn’t matter, love,” she murmured, and nestled closer to him.
“Dearest Lily, would you like to prepare to leave, now?”
Before he could utter another word, she nodded vigorously.
They shared their morning prayer of gratitude, then Frodo struggled not to laugh out loud as Lily had them dressed and packed by the time first breakfast arrived.
When he answered the light knock, Mrs. Biddle bustled in with a heavily-laden breakfast tray.
“Good morning, Mister and Mistress Baggins. I had a feeling you’d be wantin’ breakfast early.” She smiled. “I noticed the light under the door. I’ll tell Hammie to get your ponies ready. If you like, I can also pack you a bite of something for the road. There’s naught between here and Bywater, exceptin’ grass, of course, but that’s only good for the ponies.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Biddle,” Frodo grinned. “I’ve a satchel here that your Bandy filled very well just yesterday.”
Mrs. Biddle took the satchel gently.
To Lily’s mind, the cook seemed almost to caress the leather, then she came to herself again, bobbed a quick curtsy, and slipped out the door.
Lily flung her arms around Frodo’s neck, and whispered excitedly, “We’re going home!”
Frodo chuckled as he wrapped his arms about her waist, lifting her briefly off her feet, and swinging her around, then gently setting her down again.
“Yes, Lily-sweet, we’re going home, but first you must eat your breakfast.”
“We must eat our breakfast,” she corrected with a giggle.
Frodo reveled in his wife’s excitement as he handed her a plate and took one for himself, then began to eat.
Lily was almost finished when she caught her husband’s eye, and sensed a difference within him.
“Frodo-love, what are you thinking?”
He started, then smiled. “In truth, I was thinking how very different this homecoming is...”
Lily smiled. “This is as it should be, beloved, is it not?”
A broad smile spread across Frodo’s face, and Lily’s heart missed a beat.
“Indeed,” he answered thoughtfully, “it is. I doubt very much Sam and Rosie’ll be surprised in the least, if Merry and Pippin are anything to go by. I suspect Felena gave Sam fair warning as well.”
“Probably,” Lily giggled. “I’ve finished, have you?” She inspected his empty plate critically, then smiled. “Yes, you’re quite finished, I can see. Good. Where is Hammie?”
A hesitant tapping answered her query.
Frodo opened the door to a sandy-haired tween.
“Hammie, sir, ma’am, at your service... I understand you’re wantin’ to be on your way. If I may, I’ll collect your baggage and have your ponies out front ‘afore you know it.”
“Thank you, Hammie.”
The lad gathered their things, and bobbed his head. “Thanks for holdin’ the door, sir.”
Frodo closed it behind the young hobbit, and turned back to his wife.
Lily smoothed her skirts and glanced around the room. “I’d like to visit again, when we have more time. It’s truly very nice here.”
“As you wish,” Frodo grinned. “Next week, if you like...”
Lily’s eyes widened, then she caught the gleam in her husband’s. “A tempting offer, Mister Baggins, but I’m thinking mayhap another week after that, when we’ll have more company than we know what to do with, and a bit of quiet’ll be welcomed.”
Frodo drew his brows together. “Why would we have that much company?”
His wife gave him a meaningful glance, then raised her brows.
When her husband’s face only grew more quizzical, she rolled her eyes. She lifted her chin and contrived a haughty expression. “Mayhap we’ll simply not celebrate it this year, though I think Merry and Pippin might be a bit disappointed, coming all that way for nothing...”
She swept past him, into the hall, then turned back to see if her husband was following.
He paused in the doorway, then brightened. “My birthday!”
Lily’s heart fluttered once again at the sight of the clear smile and shining eyes. She struggled to regain her mock-overbearing demeanor with an exaggerated sigh. “I suppose we must celebrate; now you’ve remembered it, after all.” She blinked at her husband demurely, then giggled, quickly covering her mouth to muffle the sound.
Frodo chuckled and grasped her hand, then kissed her cheek. “You’re far too saucy, Mistress Baggins.”
His warm breath tickled her slightly, causing her to shiver as he whispered in her ear.
“Please, don’t ever change.”
Lily blushed, pleased, and tightened her hold on his hand.
They walked to the end of the hall, and were met by Mr. Hornblower, the proprietor, who was nearly as wide as he was tall.
Hornblower ushered them at an unhurried pace into the front entry. “Has everything been to your liking, Mister and Mistress Baggins?”
“Indeed, yes,” Frodo assured. “You’ve got quite a find in that cook of yours. My wife has already requested we return for another visit when we have more time.”
“That was a bit of good luck on my part.” The innkeeper smiled broadly, and rocked back on his heels as he spoke. “If you’ll send us a post, we’ll make all the arrangements, including the best room.”
Frodo smiled. “We found the back corner room quite to our liking, quiet and very comfortable.”
The proprietor raised his brows, then nodded his head. “Indeed? It’ll be arranged for you, then.” He leaned in slightly toward the couple. “You’re quite right, of course. Most folk prefer the fancier trappings. But I’ll be sure you get that room.”
“There! Here’s my Hamfred with your ponies. Thank you for coming.”
The stablehand waited while Frodo helped his wife onto her pony. Then the lad handed over the other two ponies and tugged his forelock.
“Mrs. Biddle gave me the satchel, and it’s packed on your pony, sir. Good day to you, Mister Baggins, Mistress Baggins.”
The couple inclined their heads together in thanks and smiled, then turned their ponies for home.
They rode in companionable silence at a steady pace, stopping only long enough for a quick bite of second breakfast before continuing on.
Frodo glanced at his wife from time to time, assessing whether or not she was growing weary. He smiled to himself at the sight of her sparking eyes, bright smile, and radiant face. His heart tightened. She knew -- she knew everything, and loved him still. Somehow, all the unpleasant memories seemed softer in the light of her acceptance and love. He would start in on finishing the book in earnest once they were home, he decided, then amended the thought -- perhaps in a few days, after they were settled in once more...
Lily’s question startled him, and he shook himself from his thoughts.
Her sudden gentle smile told him she knew he had been distracted, and she did not mind.
“Dearest, what is that ahead? Is it what I think it is?” Lily’s voice revealed her hushed excitement.
They had crested a hill.
Frodo peered into the distance to where his wife pointed at an indistinct grey spot. From it, branching in opposite directions, a thin, rich brown ribbon cut the Shire’s summer green, north from south. Then he smiled.
“My sweet, that is the Three Farthing Stone.”
Lily’s eyes flew open wide.
“And the Great East Road,” he added, seeing her expectant expression.
“Is it, truly?” she breathed.
“It is, truly.”
Frodo noticed the glistening in his lover’s eyes. He nudged Strider closer, then he leaned across the small space between them, and reverently kissed his wife. Her smile for him was filled with adoration, and his breath caught. He gently brushed the tears from her cheeks.
“I love you, Lily Baggins.”
A tremulous smile touched Lily’s mouth. “And I love you, Frodo Baggins.” She giggled, somewhere between laughter and more tears. “We’ll be home for luncheon...”
Frodo laughed. “Dear Lily... race you!” He touched his heels to his pony’s sides and gave a tug on Pippin’s rope.
Lily laughed and quickly caught up to him, but did not pass him.
They eased the ponies back to a brisk walk, after a mile, and kept a steady pace until they stopped beside the Stone.
“Shall we rest and eat here, Lily-sweet?”
Frodo laughed. “Indeed we must. It’s still three leagues to Bywater and well past elvensies.”
Frodo swung off Strider and quickly helped Lily down as well.
He smiled ruefully. “We truly are back in the Shire, for I dare not do what my heart desires in this moment.”
Lily giggled. “Mister Baggins, I shan’t tell.”
Frodo laughed. “Here? In the open like this, and at the Three Farthing Stone, where anyone might happen upon us at any moment? On the Great East Road, no less?” He shook his head, and gently chastised her with a barely concealed smile, “Mistress Baggins...”
He almost laughed out loud at her wide-eyed, innocent expression, then he kissed her forehead, embraced her, and released her. “I’ll get the satchel from Pippin’s pack.”
They kept the meal brief, though Frodo ensured Lily ate well; she was impatient to be on their way again. And then they were on the last leg of their journey.
They turned west, following the Great East Road until it met up with the road to Bywater, then they turned north. They and the ponies, Strider and even Merry, knew the road well from their daily morning rides, and the pony Pippin was happy to follow his fellows.
Then Bywater came into view, and Lily laughed and cried.
Frodo suddenly realized more clearly than ever that his sweet wife had never been on an adventure before and had never imagined going on one in the whole of her life, until she married him. His heart swelled with love and gratitude. He paused, and Lily stopped with him, gazing at him questioningly; yet in her eyes Frodo saw complete trust as well. Then he offered a prayer of thanks for them, both for their adventure and for their safe return home.
“Sweet, shall we stop at your brother’s?”
Lily sighed not with sadness but with impatience. “I suppose we should.”
They laughed in the knowledge of their shared desire to be home, at Bag End.
But when they rode up to the house, the front gardens were completely changed, and the front door was open wide. A half-dozen shrieking children ran to and fro at the entryway in a spirited game of tag, until a shrill cry from the kitchen called them to a temporary halt.
Tom Cotton stepped from his smial one door down, and stopped in surprise, his face wreathed in smiles.
“Frodo Baggins! It’s good to see you, lad! And your mistress, as well.” He walked to the lane and waved the couple toward him. “The Rumplepuff family lives there now. Will’s finished his house and is living there, just this side of Hobbiton. Bell wanted to be close to her family, and Will obliged. You best get on up that way! I’ve got a fence needs mending to the south, or I’d stay and catch you up, though I’d wager my best milk cow you’re wantin’ to be home anyway.” He winked at them, then chortled and waved them off as he headed toward the southern pasture.
Lily and Frodo shared a bemused glance, then turned their ponies for Hobbiton. As they drew near the village, Frodo gave Lily a sidelong glance.
“You know, Mistress Baggins, I think it might be best if we wait to call on your brother. I’m thinking it might be rude to simply drop in unannounced, without any time for him to prepare anything, especially if your sister and Hal and little Pearl are there keeping him busy as well. Perhaps it would be better to unload our baggage at Bag End and turn the ponies over to the livery first. Indeed, I’ve a feeling our trusty steeds would be none too happy with having to stand about waiting for us to finish visiting. We can clean off the dust of the road then, and visit your family properly.”
He had watched her face through his entire monologue, amused and touched by her indecision and unmistakable longing to be home. She was torn, that was clear, so he decided to spare her. He drew up Strider beside her, causing Merry to stop as well. Then he reached across and gently caressed her cheek with his hand.
“Let’s go home, first, Mistress Baggins. The ponies are ready for a rest, and so are we. The family’ll not mind if we rest a little. Then we’ll visit for tea. Does that suit you?”
Lily heaved a sigh of relief. “Yes, Frodo-love. Thank you. That suits me very well, indeed.”
As they rode into Hobbiton Lily asked if Frodo noticed any new houses. He admitted he did not, and they would need to learn where Will had built his new home. Riding through Hobbiton they greeted all those they passed. Then they were crossing the bridge and headed up the hill. They looked all about themselves eagerly, drinking in the familiar sights of home.
The couple was almost to Bag End when they shared a quick glance and a grin as the rounded red door of Garden Hill flew open and Sam burst out. They could hear him calling.
“Rosie! Rosie-lass! They’re home! Come on! Hurry, Rosie!”
Sam was out the gate by the time Rosie shut the door behind her and ran to catch up. Sam grasped her hand and ran with her down the row, as fast as their legs would carry them.
Frodo jumped off Strider and helped Lily down. They dropped the reins and turned to greet their friends. His throat welled with tears as Sam approached, beaming, with Rose just behind.
Then Sam was there; he grabbed Frodo and they held each other tightly, while Rosie and Lily fell into a gentler embrace, all of them laughing and crying at once. Then Sam quickly embraced Lily while Frodo briefly held Rosie.
“Sam, Rosie,” Frodo laughed. “It is so good to see you, and how well you both look!”
“Yes,” Lily agreed as she wiped the tears from her face.
Sam laughed even as the tears still ran down his cheeks. “The Lady Felena said you’d be home, and she was right! And a lovely lady she was, too! And, oh, Rosie got to meet her as well, and her escort, Ab... no, that ain’t right, it’s Ad... Adber! My old Gaffer’s toes, but I never could say his name right, Mr. Frodo, not once the whole time they were here!”
Sam’s eyes shone with excitement and pleasure as he seemed to recall the need to breathe.
“Well, Samwise Gamgee,” Frodo laughed, “slow down! It’s all right! We’ve got all the time we need, and then some, to catch up on the news!”
Sam only nodded as he strove valiantly to quell his tears. He wiped some away with his forearm, then stopped to look at his friend as if seeing him for the first time.
Frodo grinned. “What is it, Sam? What’s wrong?”
Rose and Lily were silent, waiting for Samwise to speak. They watched as Sam appeared to examine Frodo from head to toe; he raised his head at last, slowly, to meet Frodo’s eyes.
“You’re really all right, aren’t you, Mr. Frodo? I mean, you’re well? You’re still fine, just like after your wedding Miss Lily... I can see it... is it true? It’s the old you, just like before the --”
He stopped short, but Frodo knew well enough what his friend meant.
“I’m truly all right, dear Sam. Just as I was before; and I am grateful at each new morning for this gift, even though I can’t begin to understand it.” He put an arm around Sam’s broad shoulders, to comfort him.
Sam turned his head to look at Frodo once more. “I can see it, plain as day, Mr. Frodo. I can see it. I was so afraid, maybe, that it would all come back...”
Frodo faced Sam again and placed his hands on his shoulders.
“Your eyes aren’t deceiving you, dear Sam. I can only thank Ilúvatar, and my sweet wife, for what has happened. And I still do not know why my health was given back to me. But I am endeavoring not to question it quite as often as I once did.”
He turned to Rose and took her hand, placing it into Sam’s. “And, I can thank my two dearest friends, as well, for their love, at a time when so many here did not love me at all, for such a long time. I daresay many won’t be all that happy to see me back, but... Rest your heart, dear Sam. All is well, as I’m sure the Lady and Adber told you...”
Lily smiled, even as she fought for composure. “Yes, and we’re so glad you got to meet them. We must tell you all about them...”
“But not out here in the road!” Rosie laughed. “We need to get you fed...”
“Speaking of fed,” Sam chortled, recovering as fast as he was able, “you’ve put on a bit of weight, Mister Frodo! And Mistress Lily, you’re lovely as ever. And we’ve news!” He placed his arm possessively around Rosie’s shoulders. “Rosie’s expecting.”
Frodo’s eyes grew wide, and for a moment he could not speak. “Sam, Rosie, congratulations! That’s wonderful!”
Lily embraced Rosie once more. Her voice expressed her delight. “Oh, I am so happy for you! When is the child due?”
Rosie beamed. “In March. But listen to us. You haven’t even been inside your own gate yet! Sam,” Rosie commanded with a smile, “if you’ll carry in their baggage, and take care of the ponies...”
Frodo laughed. “I’ll take care of the baggage. It somehow doesn’t seem fair to put Sam to so much work simply because we’ve returned home.”
“It’s no trouble, Mister Frodo--”
“Just Frodo, my dear Sam.” At Sam’s look of consternation, Frodo continued. “You’re a property owner now, Sam. It puts us more on equal footing, you might say.”
Sam looked down at the ground, and dug his toes into the dirt. “It don’t seem right, somehow, Mister Frodo.”
Frodo gently laid his hands on Sam’s shoulders once more, and kept his gaze on his friend until Sam raised his eyes to return it. “It is exactly right, Sam.”
“Things have changed, Sam. Many things. Let them change, Sam.”
Lily touched Sam’s arm gently. “Please, Sam? Really, it’s true, what Frodo says.”
Frodo smiled. “It’s time to move on, Sam. You have a new place to fill. Especially now you’re to be a father.”
Sam’s eyes glistened. “I’d hoped my son would be the gardener at Bag End as well...”
Frodo’s eyes widened and his eyes filled with tears. He took his friend in his arms briefly, released him, then grasped his arms and searched his eyes. “Samwise Gamgee, your eldest son will be the master of Garden Hill, but there will be more children to come, enough to fill your smial and then some, and I’d be proud to have any one of them.” A crooked grin crossed Frodo’s face. “After all, someone needs to teach my sons the craft, and I can think of none more qualified than a Gamgee.”
Sam grinned, and wiped the tears from his face with one sun-browned hand. “I’ll do my best, Mist -- Frodo.”
“Thank you, Sam.”
Rosie sniffled. “They’re right, Sam. Your friendship’s deepened beyond that, now.”
Sam smiled at Rosie. “I reckon that’s true ‘nough.”
Rosie nodded in satisfaction. “Now, our friends must be weary, and they’ll need time to get ready.”
Frodo drew his brows together. “Ready? For what?”
“Well,” Sam started working his jaw. “You see, he wanted to tell you himself, but he knew we’d see you first, so he decided it’d be all right if we told you. Will and Bell are to be wed in five days time.” He grinned broadly. “And now you know why I told Merry and Pippin they couldn’t keep you!”
Frodo and Lily blinked and then laughed together.
“It’s a bit of a relief,” Frodo admitted. “I did wonder why they hustled us off so quickly. Bless them.”
“Come,” Rosie invited, opening the gate to Bag End. “Let’s get you two settled. I restocked the pantries just yesterday, so while you two stow your baggage and clean up, I’ll make a bite of luncheon and Sam can take the ponies to the livery.”
Sam eyed the baggage critically. “Mist-- Frodo, I’m thinking you can’t carry all that yourself...”
Lily laughed, gazing at Frodo and Sam. “Why don’t the two of you bring in the baggage, and then the two of you can take the ponies to the livery, so the two of you can catch up some, while Rosie and I do some catching up of our own?”
Frodo and Sam glanced at each other, then at their wives. They spoke in unison. “Done.” They laughed and unburdened the ponies while Lily and Rosie made their way inside.
Frodo did not miss seeing his wife pause in the doorway, her hand gently touching the gold knob in the middle of the deep green of the door. He understood her feeling. A part of him wished it were still just the two of them, and that he could share this moment with her, and yet it also felt very good to be with his dear friend once more. He shook himself out of his thoughts, and between the two of them, he and Sam were able carry everything inside. Then the two friends were back out on the road, leading three ponies behind them to Hobbiton.