Many thanks to Hanarobi for the beta; this story is much improved because she took time to read it and note all 800 typos. If there is a comma missing somewhere, it's only because I ignored her advice on that one comma -- trust me, she tried.

Combe Stories: Year Six
by Laura Mason

Frodo writhes in pain and wishes Doc were here to help him.

"Why did I ever leave Combe?" he moans, but the only response is a snorting laugh that makes the sofa shake. "Oooohh..."

"Frodo Baggins, if you are sick on the parlor rug Aunt Asphodel will never forgive you," Merry states with the smugness of an iron-stomached tween.

"Merry, why did I eat three cream muffins?" Frodo asks, not really expecting a reply.

"Because, my dear cuz, you're a terrible cook and you've missed good hobbit foods." Merry jumps up, evidently bored with watching Frodo's face turn various shades of green, and moves to the mantle. "At least, that's what Mum says whenever she packs one of those enormous baskets for you."

"Well, I'm not the best cook," Frodo admits. "But I've learned a lot, you know. And men don't care as much if a recipe doesn't come out exactly as it should."

"Doc doesn't care, you mean," Merry scoffs as he tosses his grandfather's favorite pipe from hand to hand carelessly.

"We do entertain from time to time," Frodo says tartly, sure he's sounding very mature. Merry always makes him feel about twenty again, though why a younger cousin should be able to do that Frodo cannot say.

Then he smiles, remembering various times he cooked for... But no, he doesn't want to think about Estel right now. If Merry sees even a hint of mystery in his face, he won't rest until he worms out the entire story. It's bad enough that Doc knows how Frodo feels, and sees him behave like an infatuated schoolgirl whenever Estel visits. He doesn't need Merry teasing him mercilessly.

"Merry, I truly don't feel well. I think I'd best lie down for a time."

"Fine, so long as you've recovered for the birthday dinner tonight." Merry looks out the window and scowls at the driving rain. "I'll see if there's anyone up for a game of cards," he says as he leaves the room in search of mischief. Merry wants to be grown up and content with card games, but Frodo knows he'd really like to be playing hide-go-seek in the cellars in this weather. Merry is still a romping child at times, and Frodo loves him for it.

He sits back, closing his eyes, but in the hall a familiar voice squeals "Surprise!" and Merry yelps, then roars, and pounding feet echo through the hall and off into the distance. Frodo rises and heads for the guest room quickly. Pippin is bored, too. At such times, it's safest to be behind a locked door.

***

Frodo wakes close to dinner time with his stomach feeling much better, but his brain full of images of kind eyes and long limbs. He has been dreaming of Estel again, thought he cannot remember the details of today's dreams. Just that he was finally safe, held in strong arms.

As he re-dresses for the birthday gala, he wonders why he always thinks of Estel as his protector. Frodo has never been in need of a rescue -- well, except that one time, and Doc was the one who saved him then. Yet in his dreams he seems like a foolish lass in an ancient romance, with Estel his knight in shining armor.

Of course, the only armor Frodo has ever seen is Bilbo's mithril vest at Michel Delving. He tries to picture Estel wearing it and giggles, for of course the vest could never fit him. Anyway, Estel doesn't wear any armor, despite the dangerous life he leads.

However, no matter how brave Estel is, he has never rescued Frodo from a flooding river washing away Doc's house, nor pulled Frodo away from a dangerous snake while they were picnicking in the woods. Yet Frodo's dreams are filled with such situations, although Estel has merely been a kind, understanding friend -- and not too fussy about his food.

Frodo smiles as he remembers the day, more than four years ago, when he tried to bake cup-cakes.

Doc laughed at the idea, calling them hobbit-size cakes, as he watched Frodo grease and flour his tea cups and place them in a low-sided pan. It was September 21, and Frodo hoped Estel would visit on his birthday. The cakes would be a gift for him, something to take back and share with his fellow Rangers. Something to make him remember Frodo for a day or two.

He was so careful mixing the batter, trying to concentrate on the recipe and not daydream. Once he put the pan in the oven, Frodo relaxed with a sigh and brewed some tea for Doc. Then he had a few minutes of frantic searching for something to serve the tea in, since Doc's good cups were full of batter in the oven. He found a clay beer stein, blushing as he carried it in, but Doc was distracted and didn't notice. He asked Frodo to look for a book he'd misplaced on his shelves. Frodo began his search, but it was slow work as he kept finding titles he wanted to look at more closely later. He didn't remember the cakes until the smell from the kitchen roused him.

The cakes were very brown -- even a little black at the edges. But Frodo thought he could cut those burnt bits off, and hide the damage with the frosting. So he tipped the cakes out and set them to cool while he made his icing.

But the icing was stiff and the cakes were dry and crumbly, and soon the frosting looked diseased. It was discolored and lumpy with bits of cake. Frodo actually sat down on the kitchen floor and cried into a dishtowel, hating to waste good food. He knew he was as bad a cook as the legendary Aunt Prunella Took, famous in all the farthings for serving raw meat, burnt potatoes, and a lumpy cake -- all at the same Yule meal.

Doc didn't laugh at the row of ugly little cakes, only smiled. Even that quickly faded when he noticed Frodo's red eyes.

"I suppose we're saving these for tomorrow, " he remarked, as if he were anxious to eat the misshapen, uninviting things. Frodo loved Doc even more for that pretense.

"Oh, those didn't turn out very well," Frodo replied, trying to sound careless. "Really, we should keep a pig to feed my messes."

"I'm sure they taste fine, my boy. My Jilly used to make wonderful pies, but she never served them to guests. She thought they were too lopsided and lumpy, you know. But they tasted just fine, and my waistline proved that."

Frodo could hear the love and affection in Doc's voice, and felt like crying again. Poor Doc, missing his wife and now his son, with only Frodo in their place. And he couldn't bake a pie to save his life! Doc deserved someone who could bring genuine comfort into his life, not an incompetent hobbit.

But his dark thoughts were interrupted by a rap on the door, and Frodo's mood instantly improved. Estel stood there, smiling and full of news. He joined Doc at the kitchen table for ale and conversation while Frodo rushed to make dinner. And later, after dinner, Estel *asked* for a cup-cake.

"I've never seen such tiny cakes. They are cakes?"

"Oh, yes. Some hobbit invention, I believe," Doc replied. "Frodo made those this morning."

So he nervously served them cakes and wine, and watched as Estel took a bite. Well, he needed a second glass of wine before he could finish it, but he ate the whole thing. Doc couldn't manage that, though he tried valiantly. Frodo couldn't even eat two bites of his own.

And Frodo hadn't thought he could love Estel any more than he already did -- until that night.

His thoughts were interrupted by a pounding on the door of his room.

"Frodo! You're late to dinner," Merry calls, then in a lower tone Frodo hears him ask, "Can he still be sick?" There is rapping on the door again.

"I'm ready. Half a minute." With a quick glance in the mirror and a swipe at his hair, Frodo opens the door and joins his laughing cousins. They walk through the corridors into the main hall, where there is more light and a crowd of people making their way into the dining room. Even though this is a family gathering, Frodo is a little nervous.

"So I threw it in the fire and that was that," Pippin concludes, a story Frodo only half heard. Pippin doesn't seem to notice his inattention; he is looking Frodo up and down. He reaches out to touch his new waistcoat. "You're pretty nicely turned out tonight, Frodo."

Frodo stops in his tracks, suddenly not as happy to be here. Are they all noticing his clothes? Or did they expect him to come to a fancy party in his kitchen clothes?

While he's visited Buckland most years since he left the Shire, tonight Frodo is facing relations he hasn't seen since his childhood. Do they all think of him as poor, unfortunate orphan Frodo, a Baggins fallen so low he's been forced into a life of menial labor? Either Pippin is developing a dandy's sense of dress from spending so much time with Merry, or he's overheard talk about Frodo.

"Umm." Frodo looks around the hall, his face suddenly hot. "You go on in. I don't feel well."

It's not a lie, for he runs outside and is sick beside the outhouses. But they haven't left him, for Pippin is there laughing and calling Aunt Esme's cream muffins "deathcakes." Merry, however, looks more somber and concerned. He doesn't even defend his mother's cooking skill, just helps Frodo to straighten up and supports him for a moment.

"Frodo, you should go back to bed. You're really ill."

"No, I'll be fine." No matter what anyone thinks of him, Frodo will not be a coward. Uncle Rory deserves respect and he must make a proper appearance and do the family credit. He can feel sorry for himself later, after he's back in Combe. He's suddenly very glad his visit is scheduled to end tomorrow. "Merry, go ahead -- take Pip and get in the dining hall. I'll be right behind you."

They leave, Merry looking back anxiously at Frodo as he pumps water into his hands to rinse his mouth and wash his face. He stands there for a few minutes, breathing deeply, and puts his hand in his pocket. Bilbo's ring is there, for he carries it with him all the time. He feels a little better as he rolls it between his fingers. Righteous anger begins to replace his distress.

Frodo is not ashamed of the work he does for Doc. While it isn't as grand as managing the holdings of Bag End, it's honest work that helps many hobbits and men. How many of his relations can say the same?

Frodo's attitude when he finally stalks back into the dining hall is hardly appropriate for the festive occasion. He has his most lofty, careless attitude on display and is very ready for a fight. He examines every glance and every greeting for slights, but everyone smiles and is happy to see him. No one sneers or whispers, either. Aunt Asphodel pinches his cheek and tells him he's a handsome lad, and even cousin Milo Meadows, the bane of his youth at Brandy Hall, merely smiles and pounds him on the back like an old friend.

By the time Uncle Rory hugs him and hands him his birthday present, Frodo is relaxing and almost back to his normal self. The beautiful silver watch his uncle hands him is a surprisingly nice gift for such a large party. Most gifts are mathoms.

"This belonged to your grandfather, Frodo, and would have gone to your dear father. May you use it in good health."

Frodo is stunned almost speechless by such a generous gift.

"Thank you, Uncle," he manages to stammer out. "I'll treasure it."

"I know you will, my boy. That's why I gave it to you and not this wildcat," he replies, grabbing Merry as he runs past and hugging him close. Frodo smiles at the two of them and makes his way to the tables to find a seat for dinner. He ends up between Cousin Belle and Rollo Wells, neither great conversationalists, but friendly and unaffected hobbits.

Dinner is a long, multi-course affair with many toasts and speeches. Frodo has forgotten all his self-consciousness by the time the youngsters start calling for songs. Instead, he smiles as he watches them and remembers past birthday dinners with Bilbo, and that final, amazing party the night he left the Shire.

Merry and Pippin are dancing around the tables, singing loudly, and all the tweenage girls in the room watch them. Merry reaches out to pull at Lavender Bracegirdle's curls and she blushes and giggles. Frodo almost hates to see them grow up and change, but soon enough Merry will be of age and be marrying some "appropriate" lass. Even little Pip...

Frodo is shaken with sudden loneliness. He has no close hobbit friends in Bree-land, and no respectable hobbit there -- or here -- would choose to spend her life with him. Nor would it be fair to ask it, for his heart has been given away to another. Estel. The thought of him lightens Frodo's heart, despite the pain of knowing Estel is not free to be loved.

Frodo wishes they could be together as more than just friends, even if it's only once. But Estel doesn't feel that way toward him. Even if he did, he is far too honorable to betray his true love for simple physical pleasure. Frodo is not so honorable - he would give almost anything for just one kiss.

He realizes he is again holding Bilbo's ring. Funny how tonight he keeps finding comfort in it. The ring usually is forgotten, safe on a chain in his pocket. Frodo looks at the plain band and it seems very warm and lovely in the candlelight. Frodo thinks he'd like to put it on, right now, and vanish. Leave all the foolishly happy hobbits in this room and head back to Combe immediately to find Estel. He could do it. He could make Estel love him...

"Frodo, come along. You're too young to sit like a stick-in-the-mud!" Merry pulls him to his feet with a laugh and a hug, and Frodo forgets whatever he was thinking as he dances with his cousins.

***

Frodo gets a late start the next morning. His pack is heavy, full of his clothes plus the Longbottom leaf he bought for Doc, his new watch, and food for the road that Aunt Esme insisted on packing. She was appalled when he turned down elevensies to get started, and agreeing to take the food was the only way to appease her. Frodo smiles, wondering what she would do if she knew hobbits in Bree-land don't usually serve Second Breakfast. Knowing her, she'd probably travel to Bree to lecture everyone on proper hobbit behavior.

He laughs and begins to sing, one of Bilbo's walking songs. Frodo's life has been unadventurous compared to Bilbo's, but at least he's seen some of what lies beyond the Shire. And if that has now become familiar and a little boring it's not anyone's fault. It's just the way of things.

Frodo's letters to Sam used to be full of the differences between Combe and the Shire, but that stopped years ago. These days he thinks of his life in Combe as normal. Life in the Shire, while sweet and familiar, now seems more interesting than he ever found it while he lived there. He pores over the infrequent letters from his family and Sam's faithful monthly letters, full of garden details and weather in Hobbiton -- and noticeably silent about the Sackville-Bagginses. Sam won't speak ill of his employers, even in a letter. Sam's letters almost always include a plea for news of the elves or dwarves, though Frodo rarely hears about either race in Combe.

Doc would welcome Sam for a visit, but Frodo wonders if the Gaffer would allow his son to travel so far. Perhaps if Frodo came to Buckland to meet him, and bring him back to Combe? But he can't imagine Sam being comfortable in Doc's house, where there is very little hobbit-size furniture. Frodo is accustomed to the big house now, but he remembers how foreign it seemed at first. Maybe it's best if he visits Sam in Hobbiton instead, and takes him to camp in the Woody End. That would avoid any contact with the S-B's, and perhaps he can show Sam where he and Bilbo once met elves passing through the Shire.

Absorbed in his thoughts, the miles pass quickly. He munches an apple as he walks instead of stopping, for it will be full dark before he reaches Combe, even if he takes his shortcut. And he is not sure whether he should go through the woods and across the fields of Archet to enter Combe from the west. The Road goes further south and east than Frodo needs to travel, but it is perfectly safe. He remembers someone saying that short cuts make long delays -- maybe the Gaffer? But he was probably referring to passing a tavern on the way home, not avoiding several miles of tramping. Still, the spring rains have been heavy and there could be fallen branches or swampy low areas.

When Frodo reaches the familiar bend in the Road, he is still uncertain. He takes a drink from his water skin while hesitating. As he stands there, he hears rustling noises from south of the road. The noises grow louder, and he becomes alarmed at the thought of a large animal bursting through the underbrush.

"Help us!" A child comes crashing into the road and almost runs over Frodo. The girl is as tall as he is, out of breath and muddy. She tries to keep running but Frodo holds her arms to stop her frantic movement.

"What's wrong?"

"Oh, you're a halfling," she gasps. "Please, my brother--" She grasps Frodo's hand and tugs him toward the side of the road. He quickly follows her into the trees and they run past a faded wooden house, evidently her home. "My parents went to market, there's no one to help," she pants as they run past it together.

There is a clearing, then more thick trees. Frodo can hear a faint voice calling for help just ahead of them.

"I'm here, Jeb!" the girl screams as she tugs Frodo through tall weeds to the very edge of a large pond.

"Faith!" The little boy screams. "Come get me!" He continues to cry as he holds on to a large rock sticking up out of the water.

"How on earth did he get out there?" Frodo asks, and the girl bursts into tears.

"I made a raft, to play Sea-King, but he took it out alone, and lost the paddle."

The sun is sinking beneath the trees behind them, but Frodo thinks he can see her 'raft' -- a log -- floating farther out.

"How deep is the water?"

"I don't know! We're not supposed to play in it."

Frodo drops his pack and begins removing his outer garments. "I'll try to help him. Faith, where were you running before you found me?"

"The Waybarn's farm."

"Go see if anyone's home and bring more help. I'll stay here with Jeb."

She obeys him, though her brother screams her name as she leaves. Frodo strips down to his undergarments, then calls to the boy.

"Don't tire yourself, Jeb. I'm coming." Frodo walks into the water, hoping the pond is shallow, but the ground drops away quickly and he is swimming toward the boy. He knows that if the boy panics he could drown them both, so Frodo makes for the far side of the rock, staying well away from Jeb.

The water is dirty, full of weeds, and the rock is slick with moss, but at least it provides support. Frodo rests there a moment, then manages to heave himself up so he can look over and see the boy.

Jeb has stopped crying and looks exhausted. Frodo decides to pull him up and out of the water first, so he can rest for a while.

"Hello, Jeb. I'm Frodo."

"Hello," the boy sniffs in return.

"Can you reach your hand up toward me?" Frodo reaches down and braces himself with his other hand. The boy does as asked and Frodo is able to haul him partially onto the rock. "Good. Now the other hand," he gasps and grabs the little one's arms securely. With a grunt Frodo pulls him atop the rock and holds him close. Jeb is soaked and Frodo is no better, and the sun is too low to warm them.

"Better?" Frodo asks, but the boy only nods. Frodo rubs his arms to warm him and hums a song Bilbo used to sing him. Jeb's breathing gets ragged and tears fall again.

"I want to go home," he states.

"I know." Frodo wants that, too. The boy is small enough for him to handle, but will he trust a stranger to swim him back to the shore?

"You and Faith were playing Sea-King, Jeb?" Another nod. "I'll tell you the story of Tolbert the Knight. He was a tall man, very learned, and he sailed with the Sea-King." He describes Doc's son to the boy, since he cannot think of any real man-stories. "Tolbert was fearless in battle, but afraid of the water for he could not swim. One day as they sailed home from war with the Southrons, a storm suddenly blew up. Tolbert was washed overboard by a great wave, and the next thing he knew he was in the Sea, holding on to a barrel to stay afloat."

"Like us," Jeb says, wide-eyed, and Frodo blesses the child's imagination. "Was he scared?"

"Very frightened, though a Knight won't cry," Frodo assured him. "Still, Tol thought he was done for. But suddenly a face popped up right next to him. It was a strange creature, half-fish and half-man. 'Hello my good knight,' it said. 'I am Merdo, and if you'll trust me, I can bring you to safety.' Do you think Tol listened to Merdo?" Frodo asks, and Jeb nods.

"You're right, he did. 'Let me carry you, Sir Knight. Close your eyes and trust me.' And Tol did as he was told. He put his arms around Merdo's neck, like this," and Frodo puts Jeb's arms in place on his neck.

"Merdo moved him away from the barrel, but Tol wasn't afraid, for Merdo was strong and swam like a fish." And Frodo lowers them into the water very slowly and carefully, then begins swimming toward the closest shore. Jeb's arms tighten around his neck but the boy doesn't cry or struggle.

Frodo cannot continue the story, burdened as he is. He hears voices, shouts from the shore, but he concentrates on swimming and remaining calm until he feels the ground rise up under him and he can put down his feet.

"Jeb!" Faith is there in the muddy water beside them, hugging her brother.

"Don't cry, Faith. I'm a knight now!" he pipes out, and he is surrounded by big people. Frodo stands watching them, the relief making his legs weak. He's actually shaking, which is wrong, for he's the adult and the one who rescued the boy. And now he wants to cry, but the rescuer shouldn't need to be comforted. But hobbits are never the heroes in stories, so of course he doesn't behave like a proper knight. He just watches numbly as the chattering big people surround little Jeb and carry him out of the water and back to the house.

He notices one pair of legs has not moved and looks up. Then he falls back, landing on his behind in the muddy water again.

"Estel!"

"Frodo Baggins, you do have a knack for finding trouble." The Ranger puts out his hands, which Frodo grasps, and helps him up and onto the shore. "As soon as that girl said she'd found a halfling on the road, I knew it had to be you." Estel is scolding, but Frodo just smiles up at him. His scolding, like Doc's or Bilbo's, is full of fond affection. "You're cold. Where are the rest of your things?"

"Somewhere here, my pack and my coat -- there they are." Frodo walks a few steps and sees the pile of his clothes. When he points to them, Estel takes a few quick strides and brings them back to where Frodo stands shivering. "The boy is all right, isn't he?"

"There was nothing wrong with him that a good fire and a talking-to won't fix," Estel says, putting Frodo's coat on him. "But those are the most ungrateful people I've ever seen. The children I'll excuse, but even the adults left you out here, chilled, to fend for yourself."

"Perhaps they thought you would bring me inside," Frodo replies as Estel rubs his arms. The Ranger removes his own cloak and doubles it, then wraps it around Frodo, over his wet and muddy hair.

"But I won't. Rangers aren't welcome in most homes. Will you come back to my camp, Frodo? It isn't far from here, and you can wash and dry off."

"I'm afraid Doc will be worried," Frodo says, though he wants nothing more than to spend time with Estel. And he *is* very tired.

"Then I'll bring you to him before the night is over. Come now, you're too tired to continue arguing."

Frodo lets Estel lead him into the woods, but he is having a difficult time keeping up with the man's long legs, even though he knows Estel is moving slowly for his sake. Finally Estel stops.

"You're too tired to walk. If you'll allow me," and Estel picks Frodo up and carries him in his arms. Frodo knows he should be indignant, but instead he smiles happily as he burrows into Estel's warmth and strength, pulling the cloak that smells like him even closer and tucking his head next to the steady heartbeat. Frodo feels safe, just as he always imagined he would in Estel's arms.

His Ranger has rescued him at last.

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