They didn't notice, at first. Life was busy and to be honest, they were all a bit off – all a bit unbalanced – all a bit changed. Considering what they had been through, it would have been thoroughly surprising to find themselves not so. Therefore, it took a while for anyone to start asking questions.
After driving the thugs out of the Shire, after the deaths of Saruman and Gríma, for a few months everything seemed to work out. Frodo took over as Mayor for a bit and worked on his book, Merry and Pippin's thoughts had turned towards study, preparation to take over their father's positions, and marriage. Sam regrew practically the entire Shire. Hard work and unending labour paid off in the promise of a bountiful year ahead. It was a time of promise and adjustment after the many dark days.
Sam was the first, of course. The quest had changed him the least. It had merely increased what was already there. The loyalty, the common sense, the patience, the tools of the trade for a good gardener, had been honed in the dark year that lay behind them, and likely for that reason he was the first to spot the change. Or maybe simply because he was closest to Frodo.
At first he thought he was mistaken. It started innocently enough – Frodo had never been very eager to ask for help and not overly attentive to himself. He would not ask for help when sick, regularly forgoing food and sleep unless Sam, later aided by Rosie, made certain of it. This was not a particularly new habit. Sam suspected it had been formed in the childhood years Frodo spent at Brandy Hall, where with the sheer amount of children crawling around the quiet ones like Frodo were often overlooked. Bilbo had been attentive to his young cousin, but Frodo loved Bilbo and was loathe to disappoint the old Hobbit. Once, a young Sam had, through an open window, heard Bilbo lecture then twenty-eight year old Frodo after he'd fallen seriously ill on the road, a result of not telling Bilbo he wasn't feeling well when his older cousin had proposed an extensive trip to visit the elves. Bilbo had urged him to be more forthcoming in the future, but Sam feared it had probably only lead to Frodo becoming even better at hiding his discomfort.
Frodo seemed cheerful enough most of the time. Thoughtful and subdued, yes, but no one who knew what he had been through expected anything else. Frodo had never been as exuberant as Pippin to begin with, even in his tweens, and pensive moods were nothing new.
Taking risks, however, was.
The problem was the risks were all justified. Yes, Frodo could have waited for help to arrive before climbing the willow that one of the little hobbit-lads had gotten himself stuck in. If he had, he likely would not, after lowering the child back down, have slipped on a branch and tumbled into the stream below. However, the child had been terrified, the tree had not seemed particularly difficult to climb and Frodo certainly could not yet be accused of old age and feebleness. He got away with bruises and scratches in that instance. A grateful donation of pipe weed was made that evening by the child's parents, so that Sam and Rosie mostly felt proud of their friend. Rosie coddled him for a few days, or at least attempted to, and that was it.
A few weeks later he could, of course, have sent a messenger to deliver goods and money to an impoverished Hobbit family some miles away that had been struck by illness. Instead he went himself, sitting by the fire with a desperately ill infant in his arms for hours until the child had finally managed to keep down some fluids and slipped into a healing sleep, lulled by the Elvish tunes the older Hobbit had sung. Worried that Frodo, who wasn't in the best of health since the Quest no matter how much he tried to hide it, would catch an illness, Sam contacted Merry and Pippin to see about setting up help for such families.
"I wish Strider were here, or Elrond," Frodo said when he learned of their plans. Then briefly his eyes lit up from their now normal melancholy. "We'll write them, Sam. They may have advice for you and Merry, and Strider is after all King now. The welfare of the people concerns him."
"Great idea, Mister Frodo," Sam said, relieved at the return of spirits in his master, "I wouldn't mind giving growing some of those herbs of Lord Elrond a go, either."
The response came – a package of books and seeds for Sam from Lord Elrond, who it seemed was now preparing to leave for the Grey Havens. This being the case, he had seen fit to bestow onto Sam some of the more rare books in his collection. The seeds were for several kinds of plants that the Shire did not have, and Sam carefully set up a greenhouse to cultivate them. King Elessar likewise, aided by his Queen, sent information and seeds. This sparked an interesting exchange of letters between Sam and Lord Elrond as the new plants sprouted and matured. To Aragorn he sent a few barrels of pipe weed as thanks.
Frodo seemed to do a little better when the letters came, and especially when Sam and a blushing Rosie could inform him that they were expecting their first child. Sam's worry abated as Frodo spent a lot of time writing his book, venturing outdoors only for brief walks. He even helped Sam build a crib for the expected newborn.
Then, when a fire broke out in a nearby barn, Frodo didn't bother waiting for more help, went inside to rescue the lifestock, was hit by a falling beam and broke his leg, narrowly escaping serious burns. His dedication was praised by his fellow Hobbits, but for Sam it resolved the matter. Frodo was not doing well. Granted, it was a clean break with no complications and would heal in a matter of weeks – the inability to walk kept Frodo confined to the house and his books and out of danger at least – but Sam feared it would only be a matter of time before luck ran out. In desperation, he wrote to Elrond and Aragorn and asked for help.
Which arrived, not as letters or messengers, but in the form of Gandalf. Sam got a note that the Wizard was awaiting him in Bree, and he travelled there immediately.
The old Wizard grinned widely when the Hobbit entered the Prancing Pony.
"Samwise Gamgee," he said, kneeling down in order to embrace the Hobbit, "you have done very well, for yourself and your Shire, I hear."
"Gandalf," Sam clung briefly to the familiar figure, "yes, yes, the Shire is very well. I am married now, and a little one on the way. I have missed you, though."
"A little one, hmmm? That is good, that is very good." He led Sam to a quiet corner, ordered something to drink and eat and then requested they be left alone.
"You probably have heard…" Sam looked down into his tankard of ale.
"The King and Lord Elrond both were worried at the missives you sent," the Wizard muttered, "they begged me to see if the situation was as dire as they feared."
"I do not know if he is trying to kill himself, or if he simply does not care about what happens to him," Sam leaned back, relieved to be able to voice his concerns, "all he does seems honourable and justified, but…"
"But with great disregard for his own safety, to the point of recklessness," Gandalf finished for him.
"Yes. Those three instances I wrote about are only examples. There have been other occasions, not resulting in injury…but still. And then there's his mood, and the days he gets ill…I worry, Gandalf. Perhaps coming back to the Shire was not best for him, after all. Perhaps he would have been better off with Bilbo in Rivendell, or in Lothlorien. Shire folk are no lore masters like you and Elrond. Merry and Pippin and me, we were there, we understand a little of it, but not all. And the others, they have no idea at all."
Silence reigned for a long while. Finally the Wizard sighed.
"The King has granted me permission to, for this once, enter the Shire since the wellbeing of the Ringbearer is involved. I shall come with you, Sam, and see what can be done for Frodo."
Considering Gandalf had once been a fairly familiar figure in the Shire, their journey home met with little curiosity from the shire folk. Aside from the occasional troop of little ones begging for fireworks, it was entirely uneventful. Sam pointed out some of the improvements they'd made as they went. They briefly visited Merry and Pippin, since Sam did not want to deal with those two should they find out Gandalf had been in the Shire and not seen them.
They finally arrived at Bag End around dinnertime, just as the sun began to set. Frodo was unhappily hobbling about the garden with a walking stick and failed to notice their approach. Sam heard Gandalf's soft sigh at his side when he caught sight of the Hobbit.
"Go on, Mister Gandalf," Sam encouraged, "he'll be happy to see you."
Gandalf slowly walked up the garden path, making no effort to hide the sound of his footsteps. Frodo's sharp hearing didn't fail to notice, and he turned, wide-eyed, knowing that footstep but not daring to believe it.
"Gandalf…?" he breathed, "Gandalf? Is that really, really you?"
The Wizard knelt down before him, putting both hands on Frodo's shoulders. "It is me," he confirmed, "with special leave to enter the Shire and orders to convey the greetings of King Elessar and Queen Arwen. Let me look at you, Frodo!"
The Hobbit leaned forward to embrace his old friend, the stick falling to the ground.
"What are you doing here?" his voice, muffled by the Wizard's robe, was obviously tight.
"I've come to see you," Gandalf simply said, "I can stay for a little while, if you are willing to put up with me."
"Put up with you!" Frodo exclaimed, "You'll be our guest of honour! Right, Rosie?" he asked the Hobbit-woman that had appeared in the doorway.
"Most certainly," she said, moving over to Sam to kiss him.
"You know you're always welcome here, Mister Gandalf," Sam said earnestly.
"Dinner is simple, but we can make do. Tomorrow I'll cook you a proper meal," Rosie promised.
In true Hobbit fashion, the 'simple dinner' was more than enough to feed a dozen visiting Wizards if necessary. Then Frodo and Gandalf were shooed out of the house as Rosie set to cleaning up, accepting only Sam's help in gathering the dirty plates.
"Well…" the old man said with a shrug and a slight grin, "I suppose that leaves us to enjoy the evening…"
"If you mean that you have run out of pipe weed and would like to share mine, you are free to say so," Frodo teased lightly, holding out a pouch, "we will make sure you have some to take with you when you leave."
Gandalf hmm'ed in appreciation and for a while all was silent as they blew smoke rings into the encroaching dark.
"Gandalf?" Frodo said after some time, "you're not…you're not suddenly gone tomorrow morning, are you?"
The Wizard quirked an eyebrow, but conceded that HAD happened in the past.
"No, I mean to stay a couple days at least. And if Rosie keeps cooking the way she has, I might well be tempted to stay longer."
"She is an excellent cook," Frodo nodded, then sighed. "I would show you around tomorrow, but I'm afraid I'm not up to walking any distance yet.
"We can borrow a cart and pony. We shall see," Gandalf stared into the darkness.
Afterwards, when Frodo, tired, had gone to bed, Sam replaced him and again Gandalf found himself in a friendly smoke-ring blowing contest.
"What do you think?" Sam asked, when he admitted defeat.
"Regarding Frodo? I haven't had enough time yet," the Wizard glanced sideways, "he seems healed from his injuries…"
"Yes. But there's wounds that aren't always visible, that may not have. I hoped that you or Strider or Lord Elrond could help him with that."
Seeing the Hobbit become agitated, Gandalf put a calming hand on his shoulder. "I will most certainly try, Sam. Whatever I can do for Frodo, I will. And for you, too," he said shrewdly, "since those wounds you spoke of aren't only Frodo's, are they?"
"I think none of us came out of the Quest without them," Sam stared off into the distance, "the things we've seen and done, they're the stuff that keeps popping up in your dreams and thoughts."
"It will lessen, in time," Gandalf comforted, "dear, brave Hobbits. Few Men, even few Elves could have survived what you have, and come out this hale. The sturdiness of your race has always given me hope."
Sam gave a small smile. "I thought Strider's name was hope."
"It is. The Elves named him that. But while he is the hope of his people, he was made king by the efforts of many – Frodo's journey was most crucial to that, and you most crucial to Frodo's success. It is why you four, Sam, bow to no one."
The next morning, Sam had arranged a cart and pony for them. Frodo's leg was in the last stages of healing, so as long as they were careful, he could be driven and move around some. They drove around for a number of hours, Frodo carefully pointing out the changes to the Shire, and the plans all of them were making for its improvement. Gandalf was silent for the most part, listening patiently and offering only small comments of appreciation or advice. Several days continued in this vein, interrupted by a visit or two from or to Merry and Pippin, who were equally ecstatic to see the Wizard again.
Gandalf enjoyed the visits, breathed in the wholesome scent of the Shire, and waited. He could afford to be patient. Frodo was no fool, he knew. The Hobbit likely had an inkling what caused the King to permit this visit, and the Wizard to actually take the trouble to travel here. He was proven correct when almost a week after his arrival, the day Frodo's leg was declared healed enough to unwrap it from the splint and they had gone to a stream to soak their feet in the water, that Frodo first broached the subject.
"How is Bilbo?" he began.
"Aging, as you can imagine," Gandalf replied. After a short silence, he turned to look at the Hobbit. "Do you wish you had stayed with him?"
Frodo shrugged. "The Shire was my home. Besides – Lord Elrond is planning to sail, isn't he?"
"Was your home?" the Wizard questioned, ignoring Lord Elrond's possible nautical expeditions for the moment.
His companion looked down. "Frodo?" Gandalf pressed.
"Nothing is home anymore," a soft voice finally replied, "what is wrong with me, Gandalf? We did what we set out to do, the Shire is more beautiful than ever, and yet I can't seem to…"
He looked up. "Am I ungrateful?"
"Ungrateful?" nearly dropping his pipe into the water, the Wizard shook his head, "no, Frodo, there's nothing ungrateful about it."
He paused briefly, examining the Hobbit. "You hurt, don't you?"
Frodo seemed to deflate entirely. "I don't know what to do," he whispered, "I want to be happy and strong for Sam and Rosie, but I can't seem to do it. I've considered leaving, but where would I go? The Elves are sailing, so that leaves Minas Tirith. I am not a city person, Gandalf, no matter how much I would enjoy Strider's company. If I cannot be happy here, in my own Shire, I don't see how I could be anywhere else in Middle Earth."
Gandalf sighed and put a careful arm around the shaking shoulders. "And all the accidents? All the risks you take?"
"What does it matter?" Frodo asked brokenly, "Look around. Sam and the others have done wonders with this place, and I can't see it. My eyes tell me it is beautiful, but inside, it's like part of me is still in Mordor…something dark and empty cutting me off from enjoyment. What does it matter if I break a leg or get a few bruises – it doesn't hurt nearly as much as that."
He looked up, suspicious. "Sam wrote to you, didn't he?"
"He wrote to Aragorn and Elrond," Gandalf conceded, "but only out of concern for you."
"I know." Frodo bit his lip. "I'm sorry for causing so much trouble."
"Frodo…" the old man sighed, "you are no trouble. I want you to write to me or to the King, when such things trouble you. Our ability to help you is limited, but we will do what we can."
He shifted slightly so he could look the Hobbit in the eye. "You have always been strong, Frodo Baggins. Are you strong enough to face one last thing?"
Frodo looked up, anxious.
"You are right that there is now no place in Middle Earth where such wounds as yours can be healed completely," Gandalf said, "the best chance was always here, in the Shire, your home."
He lifted the Hobbit's chin as Frodo once more went to examine the water in despair.
"Are you ready yet, to consider accepting Arwen's gift?" Gandalf inquired softly.
"…sail…?" Frodo whispered, his voice tight, "leave?"
"The healing you cannot find here, may still be found in Valinor, where powers far beyond any of ours, far beyond mine, dwell. The Ringbearers have that right."
"But…sail…" Frodo swallowed, "Leave Sam, and Merry and Pippin…the Shire…"
Gandalf observed him with pity. "I know. I know, Frodo. Take your time. I am only reminding you that you have the option, and that there is hope, still."
Suddenly the Wizard looked positively ancient. "I am sorry, Frodo. I am sorry you are hurting. That is not what I wished for you."
Frodo stared across the Shire, his face displaying a myriad of emotions.
"No more risktaking," Gandalf shook his shoulder softly, "promise me that. You have already saved the Shire, at great personal cost. You do not need to risk yourself over and over again. That is the poison of Mordor talking. Think. Write to us. Write to Bilbo, who, beyond anyone else, understands."
Frodo turned to face him, and Gandalf already saw, deep in those troubled eyes, the eventual outcome of the decision Frodo now had to make. He left for Rivendel three days later, leaving behind a Sam who was relieved Frodo seemed to be willing to take better care of himself and one thoughtful Hobbit who fully turned his attention to finishing his book.
When the message came, nearly a year later, that Frodo would join them on their journey across the Sea, of all the things Gandalf felt – the most prominent of them was hope.