He came to Bag End as the sun was rising, coming up the Hill through a chorus of birdsong. The summer lilac bush by the kitchen door was a mass of white, and he breathed deep of the fragrance as he fumbled with the latch and went in.
The kitchen was quiet, no fire on the hearth. He had thought Rosie would be up by now, the kettle steaming and breakfast underway. Well, she and Sam were old – he was old himself – maybe they slept later these days. He'd surprise her and have breakfast ready when she came in.
He worked quietly, not wanting to wake them. A pan of fried potatoes with bacon and onions was filling the kitchen with a tempting aroma, when he heard steps in the passage.
He turned to greet Rose, anticipating amazement, questions, cries of welcome, but it wasn't Rose, it was Sam. A Sam he hardly recognized, white-haired and wrinkled, his face drawn with grief.
"Hello?" Even the voice was quavery – age, or sorrow? "Hello? Who is it? Is that you, Frodo-lad?"
"It's Frodo, yes," he said, but he wondered. It was fifty years, at least, since anyone had called him lad, and Sam never had.
"Frodo? What are you doing here so early, they won't be here till mid-morning – Mr. Frodo!"
The halting steps stopped, the bowed head lifted, wide-eyed with shock.
"Mr. Frodo! Oh, Mr. Frodo, you've come, how did you know – you're in time for the funeral, I'm that thankful you've come today – oh, Mr. Frodo!"
He caught Sam before he fell, helped him to a chair.
"Rosie?" he asked, but he knew.
"She passed away the day before yesterday, Mr. Frodo. Just – slept away in the night, like. Peaceful. My Rosie, my sweet Rosie…."
He wept quietly, acceptance as well as sorrow. He was very old.
Frodo made the tea and slid the mug into his hand. "Drink, Sam."
"I'm that glad you've come, Mr. Frodo. Yesterday – I was so alone, yesterday. Even with all the children…."
"I'm here now, Sam."
He sat beside him, gripping his hand. After a bit he got up and filled their plates, coaxed Sam to eat. How many times on their journey had Sam hovered at his side, making sure he ate, when he wouldn't have bothered on his own account. Now it was his turn.
"Come on, Sam – finish it up. You don't want to hurt my feelings, make me think you don't like my cooking!"
"The children will be here soon, Mr. Frodo. Strange it is, to think you never met any but Elanor! There's thirteen in all, you know. I thought it was Frodo-lad, when I heard you in the kitchen – he's like my right hand, Fro is. He'll be proud to meet Mr. Frodo Baggins as he's been hearing about all his life!"
Frodo shuddered dramatically, teasing him. "What a thought, Sam! Do I have to face your family as some character out of legend? Can't you pass me off as your long-lost cousin from Bree?"
Sam chuckled. "Should've come back sooner, Mr. Frodo, before the legends had a chance to grow." His smile faded. "I wish you'd got here a few days earlier, for Rosie to see you. She always had a soft spot for you."
Frodo's eyes filled, and he squeezed Sam's shoulder. "I wish I had, too, Sam."
In his heart he grieved for Rosie. Once again he was too late to say goodbye, and she had been a good friend to him, a lass of kind heart and quick tongue. The years he lived with them, after the Quest – they had been hard years, full of his private torment – but Rosie's merry presence had been a comfort to him, like Sam's unwavering love. Not their fault, that it hadn't been enough.
At least he was here now, to stand by Sam in his sorrow. He would not allow himself the luxury of self-recrimination, that he had not come sooner. He would be grateful that he had come no later.
"So did you go to Mordor, Mr. Frodo?"
"I did." He pulled himself back from grief. Time enough for that later. For now, if he could give Sam's thoughts a happier turn –
"It blooms now, Sam -- the Morgai. Little spiny plants, but they bloom – and the thorn bushes are getting into Gorgoroth, a bit deeper in every year – and there are birds! Thousands of them, and animals – little skittering lizards that move so fast, they're gone almost before you see them, and conies and foxes –"
"And snakes, I suppose," Sam interrupted drily.
"Yes, them too!" Frodo laughed, and Sam marveled at him. Frodo's hair was gray, his face as lined as Sam's own, but his eyes sparkled and his voice was strong.
He's older than I am, Sam thought, and he felt a twinge in his rheumatic knee. But he's happy, full of life – he's like he was before –
"You're healed, Mr. Frodo."
Frodo bent down where Sam still sat at the table and hugged him.
"I'm healed, Sam, and I'm home. Home to stay."