Thanks to Hanarobi for beta duties and helping me improve this story, which begins six weeks after the events in Combe: Year Two. G-rated slash.

Combe Year Two: Fever
by Laura Mason

He tossed in discomfort, shaking with chills. He heard voices, though he couldn't open his eyes to see who was speaking, and their words made no sense.

"The cough?"

"No, he's burning with fever..."

Both beloved voices seemed very far away, and Frodo was too cold to call them closer. Warm bricks tucked beside him and extra blankets, heavy atop him, stopped the tremors. An icy cloth on his face eased the pounding in his head. Even better, a gentle hand smoothed his hair and a voice sang softly. He fell into rest at last.

***

He woke wet with perspiration, still uncomfortably hot. A weak effort to kick off his blankets brought a voice he loved, full of tenderness. Bilbo?

"Stay covered, Frodo, even if you feel warm." Cool hands gently touched his face, then returned to bathe him with soft cloths, face, neck and arms carefully wiped clean and cooled. He sighed, more comfortable at last. A strong arm supported him, and Bilbo gave him sips of cool water. After murmuring his thanks, Frodo once again slept.

***

The next time Frodo woke, the room was bright with sunshine -- and familiar to him, though it wasn't Bag End. He was in Combe, so he must have been dreaming that Bilbo came to him.

Frodo's limbs still ached when he sat up and carefully reached for the water glass on the bedside table. His soft groan caused a dark figure to pop up from the floor beside his bed, startling him.

"Frodo?"

"Estel? What..." He coughed, his throat very dry.

"Here." The Ranger sat up, then gracefully rose and handed Frodo the water. "Doc! Frodo's awake."

Estel sat on the bed beside him, his hands gentle as he felt Frodo's forehead and tilted his face to the light, looking into his eyes.

"You seem much better, though I'll let Doc make the final decision," Estel beamed at him, and Frodo's heart dived as it always did, a swoop of happiness that always accompanied Estel's rare smiles. "How do you feel?"

"Hungry," Frodo replied, delighted when Estel laughed out loud.

"Frodo!" Doc came through the door briskly, a huge smile on his face. "It's so good to see you recovering at last. It sounds like you're almost back to normal." Doc's face was pale and there were dark circles under his eyes. Estel, too, looked exhausted despite his smile.

"I'm sorry you've--" Frodo started, but coughing stopped his words for a moment. Estel carefully gave him more water. He finished, "Sorry you've been nursing everyone alone."

"Nursing everyone?" Doc and Estel exchanged confused glances.

"The coughing sickness."

"Frodo, the coughing sickness ran its course a month ago." Doc sat beside Frodo, opposite Estel, and took the hobbit's hand. "You've been very ill, my boy, for weeks."

Frodo looked at each man, his brow furrowed with thought. "The date?"

"February 3," Estel replied. Frodo closed his eyes, trying to remember what date it should be. He was upset that he couldn't recall, but too tired to do more than frown.

"I'll get some broth for you," Doc offered, and with a pat to the hand he'd been holding, he left Frodo alone with Estel again.

"Frodo, can't you remember?" Estel took his hand, and Frodo knew he should remember when this happened before, but he honestly couldn't recall. There was a bully, not Lotho, but a man...

"There was one night... maybe two. I was hot, or too cold."

"You've been burning with fever for more than a week. That will confuse anyone. But it broke last night, at last, and you seem to have come through with no other damage." Estel stayed beside him, holding his hand reassuringly.

"Damage?"

"A high fever can injure the heart, or the brain. But with Doc's excellent care and treatments, you've managed to pull through fine."

Frodo nodded, though he wasn't sure his brain hadn't been injured in some way. Surely he should remember what month it was. Still, his heart remembered Estel, and Doc, too. He was happy to be with his dear friends and feeling so much better.

Then Doc returned with a steaming mug that smelled wonderful, and Frodo sat up eagerly. Doc again sat opposite Estel on the bed, and both men watched Frodo carefully sip at the soup. He swallowed, then sighed with pleasure and smiled at them.

"That's just exquisite. Thank you."

"I shall never get used to hobbits," Doc laughed as Frodo returned to the mug with gusto.

"Don't pretend you aren't more like one yourself since Frodo came here," Estel teased.

"I've never been so excited over a cup of chicken stock, Estel. No man has!"

Frodo would have laughed with them, but he was too busy demolishing his soup. When he finally drained the mug, he sat back and laughed merrily.

"It was *very* good, no matter if men are too silly to know what's worthwhile." He grasped Doc's hand and squeezed. "Thank you for taking such good care of me. From what you've said, everyone has recovered from the coughing sickness now?"

"Yes, those who didn't succumb are completely recovered now, thank heavens."

"And this fever -- no one else was ill?"

"No, just you," Doc said, looking somber. Frodo tried to smile reassuringly, but his effort was interrupted by a noisy yawn. Both men were immediately on their feet, bundling him back to bed. Estel drew the curtains, and Doc tucked Frodo in with a kiss to his forehead.

"Rest now, Frodo." He nodded, his eyes already closing. Then Estel came close and bent over him a moment, and Frodo struggled to stay awake to enjoy the feeling of closeness with him. Much to his disappointment, Estel didn't kiss him, he merely placed his hand on Frodo's forehead for a moment and murmured something -- perhaps in elvish. Then he, too, left the room.

Frodo was asleep before the door latched.

***

Only two days had passed -- Frodo knew this because he asked the day and time now whenever he woke -- but he was feeling much better. So much that he was unwilling to stay in his bed any longer, despite Doc's wishes.

The first thing he did in the pale dawn light was find Bilbo's ring, chained and safe in his waistcoat pocket. Feeling it in his hand again was very good. But he was tired, and his legs felt shaky from being up. Frodo decided to sit and rest a bit. He kept the waistcoat with him as he climbed back into his bed. He lay there, very comfortable, his hand stroking the fabric in his lap while he planned all he would do now that he was recovered.

When Frodo woke again, the sun was much higher in the sky and he was still clutching the waistcoat in his hands. He shook himself, set aside his waistcoat, then rose and washed up. It was good to get dressed -- he was so tired of sitting in bed. Frodo peeked out the window as he pulled on his trousers, then went digging for his warmest shirts in the big chest of drawers.

"Frodo Baggins!" The stern voice made him jump and bang his hand against the side of the drawer. He turned to see Estel in the doorway with a very well-loaded breakfast tray.

"Estel, hush. I don't want Doc in here just yet." Frodo tugged on his thickest shirt, then adjusted his braces over his shoulders. His stomach rumbled at the smell of the food Estel was now placing on his bedside table. "Real food at last. I'm tired of broths." He pulled on his waistcoat but didn't button it.

"Doc finally realized the wisdom of letting a hungry hobbit decide what he wants to eat," Estel said with a wry smile. "He was right to keep you on light foods, you know. Your system needed to adjust."

Frodo climbed up to sit on his bed, facing the table. Estel took his seat in the room's only chair, opposite him.

"I know," he nodded agreeably, then took a healthy spoonful of warm oat cereal. "And Doc knows this is a shamefully small breakfast, for a hobbit. He's still planning to give me six meals today instead of three." He crunched a rasher of bacon to punctuate his assertion.

"I thought hobbits always had six meals. Second breakfast and elevensies, and afternoon tea. Hmm, maybe they eat seven or eight a day."

"Not Bree hobbits. We're man-like and only take three a day," Frodo replied, quite seriously, but Estel still laughed. Frodo smiled back at him as he chewed his cereal.

"Well if you do, I'm sure most Bree hobbits make up for the lost meals by taking vast quantities of food at those three meals. But you have always been slender for a hobbit, Frodo, and more so now. You shouldn't stint yourself when you're hungry." Estel looked very concerned now, and quite serious.

Frodo nodded, too busy eating to speak. He knew he'd lost weight; his trousers would have fallen down if not for his braces. "I'm feeling much better," he insisted after a mouthful of tea.

"I can see you've improved." Estel stood and stretched, drawing Frodo's attention to the sword and weapons which were strapped on the Ranger again.

"You're leaving today, aren't you?" He lowered his spoon, appetite gone.

"Yes, it's time for me to be back to my duties." Estel smiled gently at him. "I'm sorry to leave as soon as you're feeling better, Frodo, but I must. I've been here for several weeks already."

"I understand. Thank you for helping Doc to care for me. I'm very sorry to have been such a bother to you both." Frodo stared at the tray of food, feeling a little sick.

And then Estel's warm, broad hand covered his, and Frodo looked up to see those expressive eyes filled with affection and concern. "You are not a 'bother,' Frodo Baggins, and don't ever forget that. Doc loves you very much, as do... As does Bilbo. I... Gandalf and I are always concerned for your welfare."

Estel released Frodo's hand, stood and walked to the window, looking out in silence for a moment. Frodo's hand throbbed, cold, and it moved to clutch at his pocket.

"I'll visit again, when I can," the man said softly, still not facing him. Frodo nodded, then tried to find a smile to send Estel on his way. But when he finally turned from the window, Frodo saw the sadness in those clear eyes and knew his effort wasn't successful.

"Goodbye, then, Frodo."

"Farewell, Estel. Varna lemien."

***

"Frodo, are you feeling ill again?" He jumped a little, and realized he'd been staring into the fire, the food set before him ignored.

"I'm sorry, Doc. I'm not hungry, I'm afraid."

Doc came over and felt his face and looked into his eyes. "You're still tired."

Frodo nodded; he was quite tired. He felt ... discouraged, as if there were no reason to try to keep eating, or to stay awake. He turned to the window, wondering how many miles Estel had traveled since the morning, then froze.

"Frodo!" Doc looked afraid now, and Frodo realized he'd been speaking to him, calling his name, for some time. But he couldn't reassure Doc; his eyes remained fixed on the parlor window. For just a moment, he'd seen a face there, the features twisted with hatred yet familiar, peering inside at him.

"Frodo, you're shaking. Let me help you." Doc was holding him, shaking him by the shoulders. No, Frodo realized that he was the one shaking. Doc was only trying to steady him.

"I saw-- I thought I saw--" he whispered, still staring at the window.

"What?" Doc turned and looked, but of course there was nothing to see. Not now. Had there really been someone there? Frodo closed his eyes, grateful Doc was still holding him, for the room was spinning.

"A ruffian -- that man. I saw his face. In the window." Doc looked alarmed then, but he didn't move to look outside. No, he wouldn't look. Frodo was certain that Doc's alarm came from knowing the hobbit's mind had been disordered by his illness. He was imagining evil things lurking around them, waiting to do them harm.

"Come now, lad. You've been out of bed too long this day." Doc fussed, chattering about recovering strength, until he had Frodo clothed in a soft nightshirt and tucked under a thick quilt. Doc even closed the wooden shutters over the window, as if he understood Frodo would be worried, his imagination conjuring dark figures lurking outside. Then, with a final caress to Frodo's brow, Doc left the room, taking the candle with him.

Frodo sank into the still darkness, his aching head and burning eyes relieved at the change. His heart still ached, yearning after Estel -- but he would sleep now, and hope for kindly dreams.

***

Frodo was dreaming, he knew that -- for he heard Estel speaking.

"Frodo saw him?"

"Thinks he imagined it."

Estel and Doc? What a silly dream. Frodo rolled to his side, noticing the soft coolness of his pillow. Estel was far away by now, though Frodo couldn't imagine how he lived in the Wild, with no settled home. He'd like to make a home for the man, a sweet little house much like Doc's. But he would have a kitchen with two of everything, one hobbit height and the other man-high.

"Harle will be leaving Bree-land tonight and won't trouble you again."

"The others?"

"Scattered at the first sign of trouble."

Scattered -- what a nice word. Scattered like the seeds Frodo would plant in his own garden, flowers and herbs and vegetables even nicer than those at Bag End. In his dream, Frodo could grow things as well as Sam Gamgee. He was weeding while Estel worked beside him, dressed in loose clothing and a sun hat like Doc's old straw.

Frodo knew that there were good things baking inside, and that Bilbo was there, returned to him at last, happy to doze in the sunshine and debate with Doc, who lived there, too. His friendship with both Bilbo and Estel made Frodo's happiness complete.

"I cannot thank you and your men enough, Estel."

But Estel no longer commanded men; he was relaxed and his face was free of the weight of his responsibilities. Estel smiled and laughed, a sound warmer than sunshine. Frodo couldn't take his eyes off that happy face, and his heart stopped when Estel rose and opened his arms, walking toward Frodo.

He stood with a smile and lifted his own arms, but Estel kept walking, moving past him -- to her. His lady was there, and though Frodo couldn't see her face, he knew she was beautiful. She glimmered like stars, glowed like the moon. Estel held her, cherished her, touched her with reverence and love, whispering of her beauty and goodness. Each word cut into Frodo with tearing pain, a searing agony he couldn't escape. He wanted to turn and run, but his eyes remained fixed on them as his dream home crumbled behind them, flames springing from the rubble.

"Frodo! Frodo, you're all right now. Calm yourself." Frodo was awake, and Doc was holding him, rocking him as if he were a child and soothingly rubbing his back. He realized his face was wet with tears, his throat sore from screaming, before he fell back asleep.

 

Varna lemien = safe journeying

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