Huge apologies for the loooonnnng, looooonng delay in updating. I hope you all haven't forgotten this story and given up on it. I'd offer excuses (you know, the normal stuff…real life, writers block and such like), but that wouldn't get the story told any faster, now would it. Please forgive me!

Oh! And one more apology in advance to the all you Sam fans out there. I'm afraid he doesn't make a very prominent appearance in this chapter…but I PROMISE, PROMISE, PROMISE that he is being taken VERY good care of by a certain wizard and you shall hear all about it in the next chapter. I tried to work it in, I really did, (that was part of the delay, really, trying to get Sam in there in a way that worked), but every time I did, I just didn't like what it did to the action of the story. Well, there's that and the fact that I am a confirmed and certified Frodo girl. I can't help it. I just love that little hobbit and he's my favorite and always will be. (ducks to miss the rotten tomatoes being hurled her way!)

A great big THANK YOU to all of you who reviewed:

Lovethosehobbits - Thank you! I consider that a huge complement coming from someone who is a masterful writer herself!

Anonymous - Thank you! Glad you are enjoying it! Hope this chapter satisfies!

Rabidsamfan - Thank you so much! I am so sorry there's no Sam in this chapter…but I PROMISE - next chapter!

Eileen - Thanks! Glad you like it! Here you go!

Aelfgifu - I don't have to tell you that you were responsible for getting me to post the first chapter of this in the first place. I'm so glad you enjoyed the finished work! I owe you a lot for encouraging me and for being my beta for the first couple of chapters! Now, read this chapter REAL quick - then, get back to writing RATM!!

Elwen- Wow! Thank you! I enjoy YOUR work so much it is truly an honor for me to receive a review from you! Can't wait to see your next piece!

Barbara Kennedy - Thank you for your sweet comments! I'm glad you didn't find the subject matter to be too stale!

LilyBaggins- Thank you so much for your review! I have to tell you that you have one of my biggest encouragements to keep this fic alive! You really inspired me! (so, anyone who hates this, blame it on Lily! Hehe!! J/K) Can't wait to see what you do to Frodo next! J

Curious Cat - What a cute user name! I'm glad you are enjoying the story! Lots of hobbity TLC in this chapter! Enjoy!

Szhimine - *hands her a hanky…pats her on the back…hands her another hanky…'fraid you're gonna need it this chapter, too!* Glad you enjoyed the first two chapters…hope you won't be too disappointed there's not more Sam in this one…NEXT chapter!

AemiliaRose - *joins her in kissing Frodo's boo-boos and huggling all over Sam* Thanks for the review! More comfort for the little ones in this chapter! Enjoy!

Disclaimer - I am not a medical professional (but I play one on tv!…no, not even that! But I did love my 'doctor' kit when I was a kid!)…so, of course…none of this is to be taken as medical advise or should be tried at home, or work, or church, or the grocery story or the mall or on the subway…or ANYWHERE. This is FICTION people! Come on! Though, on second thought…if you every find yourself in the situation of rescuing a couple of buddies who just destroyed an evil ring of power from the fiery chasm of "MOUNT DOOM", via "Eagle Air Lift Emergency Rescue Squad"…then (and only then)…go ahead…chances are, they will prolly appreciate anything and everything you might do for them.

Disclaimer 2 - Oh…and by the way…these darling hobbits are not mine (dang!) and I'm not Tolkien (as if you couldn't guess!) and I'm not making any money off of this story (unless someone is actually WILLING to pay me some money for this!) and all that other disclaimer stuff.

"BETWEEN THERE...AND BACK AGAIN"

-Chapter 3-

"Tending Hurts"


Aragorn sighed wearily as he sat finally beside Frodo's bed. Gently he reached out and laid the back of his hand to Frodo's cheek, checking the hobbit's temperature. Finding the cheek to be still cool, but not as cold as before, he slipped his hand beneath the blankets covering Frodo and felt his way under the hobbit's shirt at his collar bone, testing the temperature there. Still somewhat cooler than he needed to be, but the hobbit did seem to be warming up a bit. The warm bath he had been given, along with spending the last hour buried under blankets was definitely going a long way to bring Frodo's body temperature back to a normal level.

With Frodo and Sam cleansed and made relatively comfortable for the moment, the king's last hour had been consumed mostly in the mixing of herbs and preparation of linens for bandages as well as planning out in his mind the best course of action to take with his small patients. Distinctly, Aragorn remembered his foster father's words to him during his training as a healer.

"Any good healer, my son, thinks first, then acts." Lord Elrond had instructed.

'Good advise for most any vocation.' Had been Aragorn's thoughts on the matter.

Lord Elrond had been, of course, a most excellent teacher. There was no other known to Aragorn with more knowledge or skill in the healing arts than his foster father. Yet, despite having learned under this great master, Aragorn found himself, at the moment, feeling very ill prepared and unqualified for the task before him. In his heart, the new king knew that the problem lay, not in his lack of skill or knowledge, but in his closeness to his patients. Because of his deep love, admiration and gratitude to Samwise and, most especially to the Ringbearer, Aragorn was finding it difficult to reach the level of objectiveness he needed to perform his task, and he hesitated to move forward with it.

"Get a hold of yourself, Aragorn." The king admonished himself silently. "You are well trained for this task. Stop wasting time. You don't have the luxury of taking decades of time to talk yourself into this as you did claiming your birthright. These small ones need you to act. Now." Aragorn further chastised himself.

Pushing aside all doubts, Aragorn began to treat his patient. He hated to disturb Frodo, who had already been through so much, but his hurts must be tended. The ringbearer, Aragorn noted, was still lying just as he had placed him, prone and supine, his head slightly propped on a pillow, and did not appear to have moved so much as his little finger in all that time. Aragorn considered Frodo intently and was dismayed to find that his breath seemed to be coming once more in the weak, shallow gasps it had been before Aragorn had assisted the hobbit with his breathing. Beneath the mound of blankets, barely perceptible until Aragorn drew them back to expose the hobbit's upper torso, Frodo was weakly arching his back with each wheezing intake of air - and was becoming very fatigued from the effort.

"Still struggling, my friend?" Aragorn spoke soft compassion to Frodo as he bent over him and tenderly caressed the pale cheek with the back of his tough warrior's hand, noting as he did that Frodo's lips were slightly more blue than when he had first tucked him to bed. "Worry not. We'll soon have you resting more comfortably." He soothed.

The king's hands slid gently beneath the base of the hobbit's head and neck, supporting both slightly as he removed the pillow Frodo's head was resting upon. Once more, Aragorn folded the pillow in half lengthwise and slid it gently behind Frodo's neck, creating a slight arch in it to more efficiently open up the hobbit's air way. Going a step further this time, Aragorn procured an extra pillow from the stack in the corner of the tent and carried it back to Frodo's bed and rolled it in like fashion as the neck pillow. Aragorn placed his forearm beneath Frodo's hips in order to lift him enough to place the extra pillow under the small of his back, intending to save Frodo the effort of fatiguing himself with arching as he drew each breath. With the pillow in place, Aragorn drew the blankets back over the Ringbearer and sat simply watching him for a few moments, noting with relief that the new position had seemed to ease his breathing a bit. The breaths the hobbit now drew were slightly deeper and perhaps a tiny bit less labored. Aragorn placed two fingers to the pulse point at Frodo's throat and waited to see what would be revealed there. The pulse Aragorn felt was weak and a little too fast, but steady. That was all he could hope for at the moment, he supposed.

Aragorn stood from his chair and turned toward the small table that had been set up behind him to hold the healing supplies he would need. As he did, he heard from a slight distance the sound of a treble voice calling a name.

"Frodo?!? Frodo!" the voice called.

It seemed to be getting closer. "Frodo!" The voice was very close now, just outside the tent. Suddenly, Merry burst through the tent flap that was serving as the door, clad still in his livery and helmet.

"Frodo!" He joyfully called once more as he attempted to look around the comparative dimness of the tent.

Finally, Merry's eyes adjusted and lit upon the one he sought. He stood stock still for a moment, unable to move as he took in the visage of his dear cousin, lying as he was, so broken before him. The fair berries-and-cream complexion he remembered, now a pallid gray-white, the merry cheeks so often dimpled with his infectious grin, now sunken and wan from long hardship and want, the bones so prominent they seemed ready to come through the skin. Merry's heart broke as he saw the many bruises, burns and cuts that marred his cousin's face. Frodo's eyes, as wide and warm and bluer than any early autumn sky, eyes that occupied the very earliest of Merry's memories, and which Merry had expected to find in greeting, were closed firm, deeply shadowed, the dark lashes laying splayed across the pale cheeks like broken raven's wings. Frodo's lips, that gentle bow of a mouth, so often from which witty, ironic one-liners had come to send Merry into peals of mirthful (often naughty!) laughter, and just as often those lips had pressed into Merry's hair or brow or cheek in expression of comfort, love or simply, "good-night, cousin", were now a shade of pale blue as they lay slightly parted, cracked and chapped with dryness as his labored breathes passed between them.

"Frodo?" Merry's voice was a mere whisper now.

In one fluid movement, Merry moved toward the still visage of his cousin as he swept the helmet from his head of honey colored curls, tossing it aside as he slowly and carefully lowered himself down from his newfound height to sit upon the edge of Frodo's bed. "Oh, cousin." Was all Merry's whispering voice could manage. For long moments he simply leaned over Frodo, studying his face and listening to the sound of his struggling breaths. Merry slowly ungloved his hands and tossing the gloves aside, gently stroked back the dark curls gathered at his cousin's temple with the back of his now exposed left hand. Silently, Merry sat caressing Frodo, saying nothing for what could have been hours or only a moment - Merry could not tell.

Finally, Merry found his voice. "Frodo? It's your Merry. Can you hear me, dearest?" Merry waited for his cousin to answer. When no answer was forthcoming, he slowly raised his head to look at Aragorn. The deep blue of Merry's eyes were smeary with tears that threatened to spill, a thousand questions mirrored there.

"Strider? Is he…will he be…? Strider, will he live?" Merry finally managed to ask, as the two tears finally spilled.

"He's fighting, Merry." Aragorn's voice was little more than a whisper as he looked into the hobbit's eyes. It was the only truthful answer that the king could give, for he himself truly did not know.

"Of course he is." Said Merry with obvious pride as he turned back to study Frodo's face once more.. "What else would he do? He's a Baggins - and a Brandybuck besides - not to mention part Took. It's all he knows to do - keep fighting. I don't think Frodo's ever willingly given up on anything in his life. Legendarily stubborn those Bagginses are. And for once, I'm glad. I'm glad." This last came out a whisper as Merry struggled to control his voice, stroking Frodo as he spoke, first his temple, then his cheek and finally gently laying the backs of his fingers against the pulse point of his arched and exposed neck.

"Keep fighting, cousin. Keep fighting. I'll help you fight as long as you need me to. I'll not leave you to fight alone. Not again. I promise." Merry sealed his whispered vow by tenderly pressing a lingering kiss upon the very center of Frodo's chilly brow. "I promise. Your Merry's here now and he'll not leave you." Merry sat for another moment, just cupping Frodo's face gently with both hands, his own face mere inches from his cousins.

At length, Merry finally mastered his emotions and spoke again. "What's being done for him?" Merry asked, his natural practicality rising to the surface.

"I've just gotten him stabilized enough to begin tending to his hurts. He was very grave when he first arrived." Aragorn answered.

"Was?" Merry queried. "This," Merry gestured to his cousin, "This is an improvement?"

"Yes. He at least draws breaths that are his own now. That is more than he could do only a short while ago. Still, he isn't doing it without some difficulty. He is suffering from the intake of the smoke and fumes and foulness of Mordor. His lungs are still filled with it's poison." Aragorn explained gazing down at his patient in deep concern.

"Is there nothing we can do to help him?" Merry asked desperately.

"Yes, Merry. Of course. But Frodo can only take so much of this treatment at once. It is painful, I'm afraid - and his other injuries make it even more so. Still, it was somewhat helpful when I performed the procedure earlier." Aragorn answered, his eyes distant and sad as he remembered pounding upon the already abused back in order to elicit a cough to clear Frodo's lungs.

"Other injuries?" Merry asked. "What else is wrong with my cousin, Strider? Please, you must tell me."

"I am just beginning to discover for myself the extent of Frodo's injuries, Merry. I was just about to begin tending to his hurts, so perhaps it would be better to just show you rather than try to explain. I could actually use your help, if you would." Aragorn, wise king that he was, saw Merry's need to do something…anything.

"Yes, yes, of course I'll help. What shall I do?" Merry was eager.

"Well," Aragorn began, "we'll start by treating his injuries, then we need to try to get some nourishment into him. He's lost a lot of blood and he can't rebuild it without plenty of nourishment."

"Lost blood?" Merry asked, a note of fear in his voice.

"Yes. I'm afraid he lost a finger, Merry…somehow." Merry's face was a study in grief as he heard of Frodo's injury. Aragorn, as wise as he was, knew no words to say that would be of comfort to Merry concerning this matter. He thought it best to simply move on and let the situation reveal itself naturally.

In as normal a voice as possible, Aragorn spoke again. "Now, I suppose we should just start at the bottom, that is, Frodo's feet and work our way up. He's covered in burns, cuts and bruises from head to toe, I'm afraid." Aragorn mused almost to himself as he slowly drew back the blankets from Frodo's feet and began unbuttoning the row of buttons that ran up the side of the garment Frodo was wearing to expose his legs.

Merry closed his eyes in grief for a moment as he took in the mangled mess that was now Frodo's lower extremities. Frodo had always been so fastidious about his grooming and appearance - he would be just horrified if he could see the state the fur of his feet was now in. What little bit of it that hadn't been singed completely off was a hopeless mess of knots, tangles and snarls. Beneath the mess of this fur, Frodo's feet themselves had suffered many burns, red, angry and in many instances bearing blisters. Aragorn had tenderly lifted one of the hobbit's feet and was examining it more closely.

"I need to cut the rest of this fur, I think. It's the only way I'm going to be able to treat the burns." Aragorn thought aloud.

"It's just as well." Merry answered him. "He'd never get those knots out anyway - not with out pulling it out, leastwise. And it'll grow back, in time." Merry finished sadly.

"Yes. Well then. Let us get started. Would you fetch the shears over on that table for me, Merry?" Aragorn put Merry to task.

While Merry was retrieving the shears, Aragorn folded a towel and placed it beneath Frodo's left leg and foot. Then, with shears in hand, he began to carefully trim away the remaining fur, exposing the skin beneath it, perhaps for the first time since Frodo had been an infant. The now exposed skin, in the few places not red and blistered from burns was, Aragorn and Merry noted, even more fair than the rest of Frodo's skin - evidence of it's not having been exposed to the sun in many years.

With the foot now unclad, Aragorn began to gently bath the angry burns that covered Frodo's foot and ankle in cool athelas tea to help draw the heat and pain from the burns. When the redness began to recede slightly, Merry, under Aragorn's instruction, began to pat the foot dry with a soft towel, careful not to rub and further irritate the already inflamed skin. The drying complete, Merry watched as Aragorn dipped his finger tips into a small stone crock, withdrawing a white cream, which also smelled of athelas. With a feather light touch, Aragorn began smoothing the cream into the burns. A tiny sound emitted from the head of

the bed, causing both Merry and the king to look up as Frodo sighed audibly.

"Mmmmhh…" he said. It might have come from a newborn infant it was so weak and small, but the sentiment behind it was more than obvious. Relief. The two at the foot of the bed exchanged an amused look. In Aragorn's hand, Frodo's toes curled very slightly in response to the touch.

"He's always been terribly ticklish about his feet, Strider. Pip and I were always merciless when it came to tickling him. Of course, Frodo always gave us payback - tickle for tickle." Merry laughed gently remembering, his face more than a bit wistful.

"Does that feel good, my friend? Is that helping?" Aragorn directed his grinning comment toward the head of the bed, though he did not expect a reply.

"Oh, Strider. He must be in so much pain." Merry's voice was sad again.

The healer-king said nothing, but continued working the cream into the burns in slow, small circles, being careful of the blisters as he knew it was best to let them drain on their own. A brief examination of the other foot revealed it to be in an almost identical state to the other. The process of washing, drying, trimming hair and applying cream was repeated. Having done all that could be done for Frodo's feet for the moment, king and cousin moved their attention to the Ringbearer's shins.

Merry simply shook his head in disbelief as he took in more closely the extent of the abrasions and bruises covering his cousin's legs. Abrasions were on top of bruises, making it difficult to tell where one ended and the other began. Along the left shin bone there was almost no skin left - raw, pink, glistening flesh was all that covered bone and sinew for nearly the entire length of Frodo's shin. Merry's breath drew in in a hiss when he saw it. He could almost feel it. And it hurt. When the healer-king examined it closer, he found that tiny gravel had embedded itself in the open wound. It would have to be removed if the wound was expected to heal without becoming infected…if it wasn't too late already.

"Merry, would you fetch the tweezing instrument, please? Aragorn asked as he uncorked a bottle of spirits. "I believe it's on the left end of the table."

Quickly, Merry found the needed instrument and retrieved it to Aragorn's hand. Aragorn took a deep breath and shut his eyes for a moment before beginning to poor the spirits over the open wound as an antiseptic. The response it elicited from Frodo was instantaneous and every bit as bad as Aragorn had anticipated. He was too weak to do more than jerk once involuntarily but the king knew, had he the strength to do so, Frodo would be taking himself and his leg as far from Aragorn's reach as he possibly could. "Mmmmhh…" he said once more. And once more the meaning of the tiny sound was clear. Pain.

"I'm sorry, Frodo." Aragorn soothed as he gently lifted his hand to stroke Frodo's cheek. "I'm trying not to hurt you, but it must be done."

"Merry, would you mind sitting on Frodo's bed facing me and holding his leg in your lap as I work? I'm afraid this is going to be a bit painful for him and he may jerk and cause further injury." Aragorn asked the Ringbearer's cousin.

"Of course." Was Merry's answer as he gently lifted Frodo's leg and slid his own beneath it. Carefully he lowered it to his lap and placed one hand behind his cousin's ankle and the other just above where the wound began below the knee, securing the leg in place.

Aragorn bent to work again. Frodo cried out pitifully once more and tried to move away from the source of the pain, but was too weak to overcome even Merry's light grip. The leg began to tremble as Aragorn continued to work, wielding the tweezers to remove the gravel that was deeply embedded in places. The king struggled to keep his concentration directed at the task as he listened to Frodo's piteous moans and witnessed his body's attempt to avoid the pain it was in.

Merry's heart was breaking as he was forced to hold his cousin still. He tried to talk soothingly to him as Aragorn continued to work and Frodo continued to moan and writhe weakly.

"Mmhhh…" the moan that issued was a bit louder now, though Frodo's voice trembled even more, his lips and teeth beginning to chatter slightly.

"Shhhh, dearest. I know. I know, it hurts. It's all right. Everything's going to be fine. It will be over soon, then you can rest, dearest cousin." Merry soothed turning his head to face Frodo who's brows were drawn in deep pain.

"Ahhh…mmphhh…mmmph…" Frodo was almost in a pant now, his voice reduced to a mere squeak .

"Aragon! Aren't you almost done? I don't think he can take much more. Can't you give him something for the pain?" Merry turned accusing eyes on the king.

"I'm afraid not, Merry. His breathing and pulse are still too weak and I couldn't predict what would happen if I gave him something. I'm afraid it would relax him too much and his heart would stop. I'm sorry, Merry. You must know I'm not hurting him on purpose?" The king's heart was in his eyes as he looked up briefly at his accuser.

"Yes. I know, Strider." Merry said softly. "I'm sorry. It's just, I can't stand to see him in such pain."

The king bent his head back down to his task and finished as quickly as he could. Rocking back on his heals and sighing in relief, he said, "There! Done."

"Now, all we have to do is wrap it, so that I don't have to repeat the picking process again." He continued. "Hold his leg up slightly, Merry and I'll wrap it."

Merry complied, watching as the white linen was gently wrapped the length of the wound, secured in place with Aragorn's practiced, perfect tie. With the shin taken care of, Aragorn performed a closer inspection of Frodo's left knee and thigh and found them to be relatively unharmed but for a few minor scraps and bruises which would be all right to heal on their own. Examination of the right knee and thigh however revealed a different story. The whole of the upper part of Frodo's leg was covered in one giant bruise, black mostly, mingled with dark reds and purples and mottled throughout with torn flesh. The tears were ragged and irregular - the kind of injury one might sustain if pulled carelessly across a rough surface - the kind the rough and jagged rock of the land of Mordor would be perfect for inflicting. The knee itself seemed to have sustained some injury of its own - perhaps from a hard or repeated fall - and was swollen now, almost twice the size of his other. Gently palpating the knee, Aragorn found the kneecap itself to be intact and he could find no break.

"Perhaps the swelling is just from deep bruising." Aragorn mused aloud, but almost to himself.

Merry watched as the king put the cool athelas tea to service, bathing his cousin's leg in the soothing mixture. Methodically Aragorn would dip his cloth into the water then hold it slightly above Frodo's leg, letting the fragrant tea wash slowly over the damaged limb, into the torn flesh and finally onto the toweling waiting beneath. There was no response from Frodo and both Merry and Aragorn took that as a good sign. Once more, Merry wielded the towel with a gentle, patting, blotting motion and dried to remove the excess moisture from Frodo's leg. While Merry was drying, Aragorn prepared a poultice for the swollen knee. With the poultice in place, Merry lifted his cousin's leg while Aragorn applied a wrap, going half way down the shin and halfway up the thigh with it to provide more stability. Once wrapped, a pillow was placed beneath Frodo's knee to elevate it just a bit to help relieve some of the swelling.

King and cousin were silent as the night shirt was lifted enough to reveal Frodo's hips. The injuries they found there were minor, only bruises and more scrapes to add to the tally. What was heartbreaking, however was the prominence of the hipbones themselves. Seeing them made the truth so obvious – Frodo had starved – for months.

"Would he ever be the hobbit he once was?" Merry wondered, but did not speak the question aloud. He did not think he could bear the answer just now.

After only a brief sponging with the athealas water, the two moved on. Quickly Aragorn refastened the buttons he had opened to get at Frodo's lower regions, and as he did, Merry was working on the buttons that ran the length of the night shirt from collar to waist. Frodo was redressed and covered by blankets once more from the waste down, that what warmth he had gained would not be lost. When Merry had opened all of the buttons, a dozen of them in all, Aragorn joined him at the head of the bed.

"When I raise him up, you slip his night shirt down, Merry." Aragorn gave instruction as Merry responded with a nod.

With no further talk, the king once more slid one hand behind the hobbit's neck and the base of his head, the other hand he slid behind Frodo's back at his waist and began to gently lift him enough so that Merry could slid the garment off of his shoulders without chaffing his already abused skin. Frodo's only response as he was lifted was a tiny, audible sigh, nothing more than a breath really. With as much ease as possible, Merry began to work the garment off of his cousin's shoulders then gently remove Frodo's arms from the sleeves. Merry had steeled himself for the sight of Frodo's emaciated torso unclothed and he was glad that he had for the sight smote his heart even still. Frodo had never been heavy, especially by hobbit standards, but he had always been as sturdy and solid as he could be. The cousin's had joked that there wasn't much of him, but what was there was solid muscle and as tight as a drum. Merry well remembered the wrestle and tickle matches he and Frodo had engaged in in happier times. All of his life growing up, Merry had warned Frodo that one day, he would be bigger and therefore the victor against him. When the day came when, indeed, Merry had grown bigger, heavier anyway, Frodo had proven him wrong. Even with the element of surprise in his (completely unprovoked) tickle attack turned wrestle match and the advantage of his greater weight, Merry had still been the one who, in the end, was laying flat on his back, his older cousin on top tickling mercilessly.

0o0o0o0o0o

'Say it, Merry!' Merry could still hear his cousin's voice, full of laughter mocking him as he sat astride him, only stopping his tickle attack long enough for Merry to catch his breath enough to say the words that might free him from Frodo's grip.

'Never!' The helpless Merry had cried in defiance. He was quickly sorry, for that was not the response Frodo was looking for and was instead, the word that launched another attack of merciless jabs and rubs that hit all the tickle spots that were well known to Frodo.

'Come on, cousin! Just let me hear you say it and this torture will end.' Frodo was crouched down so close to Merry's face that his hair tickled Merry's nose as he sat waiting to see what his cousin's response would be. He sat up, hands poised at Merry's ribs ready to begin again if the words he wanted to hear were not spoken. Beneath Frodo's slight weight, Merry writhed and twisted, trying to get away - but it was all in vain. Once Frodo had you in his grip, there was no getting free until HE was ready to let go - a fact of which Merry was well and painfully aware. Yet, he just couldn't give up. Not yet anyway. Frodo cocked his head to one side waiting for Merry's answer. Merry decided to try a new tactic.

'Please, Fro…just let me up. Your bony behind is digging into my stomach, you bag of bones - it's quite painful!' Merry's voice plead. Frodo's face grew concerned - for a second…that is, until Merry continued. 'Besides, I'm so much bigger than you now, I should hate to have to hurt you if you force me to let MYSELF up.'

Frodo's bright blue eyes grew even larger as he listened to what his cousin had to say, and to Merry's chagrin, they took on the twinkle of determination that Merry had seen often enough in his life to know would mean trouble for him. Frodo sat back a little as a slow smile began to grace his face, his flushed cheeks dimpling in reaction to it, the tiny space between his front teeth revealed in the process. Slowly he spoke.

'Oooh, I see. Is that right then, cousin? Afraid you'll hurt me, are you? Well, that's very kind of you, Merry, I'm sure, but I wouldn't worry about me right now, if I were you. No. What I would worry about, Merry…were I in your position…' And here he began to laugh a sarcastic, sardonic giggle and continued, 'but, of course, I'm NOT. BUUUTTT…if I were…which I'm not…I would be more worried about…taking…the…biggest…

deepest…breath…I possibly could. Because, cousin…' Frodo stopped speaking long enough to lay his hand gently upon Merry's flushed cheek and looking him strait in the eye, continued in a whisper. 'I promise you…you will need it.' Briefly, a thought of , 'Oh dear, sweet Eru…what've I done? It is ON now!' went fleetingly thorough Merry's mind. But there was no more time to attend to that thought.

With that, Frodo had launched the most merciless attack he had ever given Merry, and enjoyed every bit of it. Merry writhed and tried to get away and tried to protect his most ticklish areas, but as soon as he had one area covered, his older cousin had found a new area to concentrate on. All throughout the attack Frodo had offered Merry a cease if he would but say the right words…but Merry was stubborn - almost as stubborn as Frodo himself - almost…but not quite. Finally after many minutes and every vulnerable spot on Merry's body had been tickled, the helpless victim finally relented.

'All right! All right! I'll…say…it!' He struggled to shout between laughing fits.

'Say what, cousin?' Frodo didn't let up on his tickling even for a second. 'What'll you say?'

'Pleasssse, Fro…I'll…' and Merry was laughing too hard to finish it. His voice had risen as high as a lass'. Frodo let up just enough for him to continue.

'What, Merry…what was that? Did you say something?' Frodo mocked. 'I couldn't quite hear you, cousin. Seems there's a great deal of laughing going on in here…you'll have to speak up.'

Merry panted to catch his breath. 'I said,' Merry started, then panted some more. 'I said, I'll say it.'

'Oh? And, and what uhh, what was it you wanted to say, Merry?' Frodo was loving every bit of this! 'I don't believe I've heard you say it yet. Do I need to prove my point a bit more?' Frodo's hands poised over Merry's ribcage once more.

'No! No! Please, Frodo! You win!' Merry plead, his voice still breathless.

'Merry. I still haven't heard you say it, dearest.' Frodo's face was mock indignant. 'I mean, if you wish, I can go a bit more. I'm not tired of this game at all. Why, I believe I could go on for ----…' Frodo began.

But Merry didn't dare wait for him to finish to find out just how long Frodo could keep this up. He already knew the answer to that - just a little bit longer than himself - that's how long.

'All right, all right!' Merry's voice interrupted, loud and high. 'Here it is, then! You're the king and reigning champion!' Mock drama filled Merry's voice.

'Who was that, Mer…? Whoooo did you say was 'the king and reigning champion', dearest? Don't think I quite caught that name…what was it, again?' Buggers, but Frodo truly was merciless when it came to this!

'YOU, are, Frodo!' Merry yelled at the top of his lungs, even as he rolled his eyes. 'Frodo is the KING and REIGNING CHAMPION!' To anyone listening, Merry would have sounded like a town cryer.

'Aaannndd…?' Frodo wasn't satisfied yet.

Merry groaned his frustration. 'And…you will ALWAYS be the KING and REIGNING CHAMPION of tickle matches, no matter how…' here Merry stumbled, gritting his teeth at having to say the words.

'Yes, Merry? Was there something else, dearest? Did you have something more? Because…if not, I could aaallways…' Frodo started but was interrupted again.

'Oh, for pity sake, Frodo! You are the stubbornest BAGGINS I have EVER seen and that is saying a LOT! Fine! No matter how FAT I grow, you will ALWAYS and FOREVER BE…the tickle match king and reigning champion! There! Are you satisfied, now, you stubborn, bony-bottomed Baggins?' Merry huffed.

For a moment, Frodo sat silently smiling down at his cousin and terror went through Merry's heart as he thought Frodo might begin again. But, to Merry's surprise (and great relief), Frodo merely laughed and said, 'Yes. Very. I'm very satisfied. Thank you, Merry for inquiring. You are most accommodating, cousin!' And with that, leant forward and pressed three wet, sloppy kisses (the kind Merry had given him when he was just a wee bairn come to tell him goodnight) - one on each cheek in turn and the final one landing on the tip of Merry's nose. Frodo rose (though still managing to dig his 'bony bottom' into Merry's stomach once more) and offered his hand to his pouting cousin. For a moment, Merry merely glared up at him. But Frodo had a talent for never allowing anyone to stay mad at him long. All who ever tried it found it simply impossible.

'Aww…come on, Mer! It isn't over yet. There's still hope for you, dearest. I do have a good fourteen years or so of age on you.' Frodo's voice was philosophical now. 'One of these days - if you're lucky - I might just be old and broken down and feeble enough for you to best.' Frodo's grin at Merry was so infectious that he could resist no longer. Finally Merry took Frodo's hand and allowed him to help him to his feet. Though, he was still muttering something about, 'stubborn, wiry Baggins' under his breath.

o0o0o0o0o0

Merry was brought from his reverie by a voice calling his name. Aragorn's voice. And from the sound of it, it wasn't the first time he had called him.

"Merry?" Aragorn asked, finally getting a look from the hobbit he called. "Are you all right?"

"Oh. Yes. I'm sorry, Strider. I was just…remembering. He was so strong, you know? I mean, it surprised you how strong he was. No matter how many times he got the better of me in our wrestling, tickling, squirming matches…I was ALWAYS surprised. It's like he had this hidden strength that was buried somewhere deep, so it didn't always show on the surface, but whenever he called on it…well, there it was." Merry's face was distant as he spoke.

"Merry, you speak of this strength as if it all lay in the past, my friend." Aragorn looked the hobbit squarely in the eyes and laid a hand on his shoulder. "I wouldn't count him out, just yet. I KNOW how strong Frodo is. I saw him fight for seventeen days after Weathertop, remember - against the likes of which had taken down men twice his size, and even gotten the better of elves. Hobbits in general, in my experience, are made of stern stuff - and Frodo not the least of all…in fact, I'd say he may be even just a bit sterner. So, let's give him some credit, shall we? As long as he draws breath, there is hope. All right?" Aragorn's gaze was still locked with Merry's.

Hope shone once more on Merry's face and he nodded his assent emphatically, too overcome with emotion to give voice to his agreement.

"All right, then. Let's see what we're facing here." Aragron set about examining his patient once more. Firmly but gently his hands pressed around on Frodo's stomach, which was a sunken cavity now. Intently he watched Frodo's face for any telling reaction he might show that would give away information about any internal injuries the hobbit may have suffered. A line of pain flickered briefly between Frodo's brows as Aragorn's hands neared his kidney and bladder area. The king had been afraid of that. He hoped desperately that the obvious dehydration had not done permanent damage to those organs. With any luck, any damage would be undone with a good supply of fresh clean water.

Frodo's arms were checked next and together, Aragorn and Merry treated the abraded and bruised elbows that Aragorn had noted when he was bathing Frodo earlier. Again, the skin had been taken completely off in places, leaving the poor hobbit raw and terribly sore. Gently, after washing and applying ointment, both elbows were bound in linen bandages.

Finding nothing else, Aragorn moved on Frodo's ribs, colored black and blue and every shade a bruise can be, indicating that these were not all from a single injury, but from several different ones, all in separate stages of the healing process - some old and almost healed, still others brand new and still forming even now. Again the king noted the cracked and broken ribs he had found earlier. He sat for a moment, thinking.

"What is it, Strider?" Merry asked, concerned by his silence.

Aragorn looked up apologetically and said, "He has some broken ribs but I dare not bind them and risk making his breathing even more difficult. No, no. They will just have to remain loose for now, I'm afraid." Aragorn spoke his thoughts aloud.

With nothing to be done for the ribs for the moment but a brief sponging, the examination was moved on. Aragorn and Merry's eyes moved from Frodo's ribcage and chest up to his neck and shoulders. The shoulders they found to be fully intact and well. The neck, however was another matter. Brushing back the overlong chestnut locks of hair that had gathered around Frodo's neck and throat, both king and cousin were overcome with new understanding of the weight that Frodo had born across Middle Earth. The Ring, it seemed, was not only a weight on the mind and soul, but on the body itself as well. Frodo's poor neck was testimony to it's terrible, dragging weight, for etched into the delicate, fair skin was a reminder in the form of a scabbing welt. The chain the Ring had hung from had, in places, actually cut into Frodo's neck. In the best of places, the least it had done was chaff until the poor hobbit's flesh was all but rubbed away. This time, it was not only Merry's eyes that filled with tears, but Aragorn's as well.

"Oh, Frodo." Aragorn whispered. "I and all of Middle Earth shall ever be in your debt. For you alone have born the burden which belonged to us all." Taking a deep breath, the king pulled himself together again, retuning to his task. "Merry, the athelas tea, please."

Aragorn's touch was extra gentle as he sponged around Frodo's neck as much as he could from the front. At the king's instruction, Merry sat on the opposite side of the bed from Aragorn, facing Frodo. The Ringbearer was then tenderly lifted by the healer-king to rest against his cousin's chest. Over Frodo's shoulder, as Aragorn worked on his neck, lifting the hobbit's hair to get at the wounds, Merry could see the mess his cousin's back was in. He couldn't even form words to express the sorrow he was feeling and so, instead turned and gently placed his lips against Frodo's brow which was turned toward Merry's neck as his head rested on his shoulder. A gentle kiss was placed as silent tears slid down Merry's cheeks. Had Frodo's mouth not been in so close proximity to Merry's ear, the tiny sigh that issued forth from the Ringbearer would have probably never been heard. As it was, however, Merry did hear it and turned his eyes to look down at his cousin, just in time to see the dark eyelashes flutter. It took several attempts before Frodo was able to actually open his eyes, and when he did finally manage it, it was only a tiny sliver of an opening, but it was just enough for Merry to catch sight of the startling blue irises he remembered so well.

Frodo's cheek pressed against Merry's shoulder, causing his lips to pucker slightly open. Slowly, and with a look of great concentration furrowing his dark brows, Frodo tried to moisten his parched lips with his tongue, but it too was without moisture. Thickly, the hobbit tried to swallow, making tiny squeaking noises with the effort. Briefly and with terrible taxing effort, Frodo lifted his weary eyes to rest on his cousins face.

"Meeeahr…?" Frodo tried very hard to get his cousin's name out but it came out as little more than a breath with a bit of inflection, but it smote Merry's heart so that he sobbed out loud, a great wracking sob that tore through his chest.

"Yes, Frodo! It's me…your Mer is here. I'm here." Merry whispered through his tears and laying his hand against his cousin's cheek, holding him closer against his shoulder as he looked into the weary blue depths of his eyes.

Desperately, Frodo tried to form his mouth into a smile of reassurance, but in spite of his best efforts, all he could manage was a tiny grin around the gasping, shallow breaths.

"Don'…cry,…Mer. 'S all…a' righ', now." Frodo whispered in a squeaky slur, trying to bring his unmaimed hand up to touch Merry's tears, but failing in the effort that was just too great for him in his current state. Merry understood what he was trying to do and with great tenderness, lifted Frodo's hand and held it to rest against his own teary cheek. His cousin's palm was cool and soothing upon his hot tears.

"Yes, you're right, dearest. It is all right now. You're back, and I'm here and everything is going to be fine. Just fine." Merry punctuated this statement by turning his face into Frodo's open hand and kissing it's palm. Slowly, Merry lowered the hand but did not let it go, hanging on to the cold fingers that curled gently, almost imperceptibly into his larger, warmer hand. Merry raised the hand once more, this time kissing the back of it just behind the knuckles and having done so, caressed it with his thumb, his eyes never leaving Frodo's face. Weakly Frodo struggled to grip Merry's hand in return as his heavy eyes slid shut once more, a sigh accompanying the action.

"Rest now, dearest." Merry whispered to his cousin, still sleeping gently in his arms.

All this while, Aragorn had continued working silently as the cousin's took comfort in each other. By the time Frodo's eyes had closed again, Aragorn had treated not only the neck wounds but also those of his back and was ready to lay Frodo back once more. Gently he took him from Merry's embrace, though Merry never let go of his cousin's hand. Slowly Frodo was lowered back down into the comfort of his soft nest once more, the pillow rolled under his neck and another under his lower back. Aragorn was still very concerned about his difficulty breathing. The dreaded treatment must be administered again. The hobbit's lungs must be cleared - and soon. Frodo was strong, but even the strongest ran out of strength eventually.

Once more following his foster father's advise, Aragorn sat thinking about his next move. Frodo was simply not strong enough to cough effectively on his own - that he knew. Perhaps, it would be best to let him rest for a bit, then, try to get some water and nourishment down him, then give him a bit of a chance to digest it (so that it wouldn't all come right back up again) and then try to get him to cough. It was risky, he knew, because of the delay the hobbit would experience in having his lungs cleared…but it seemed to be his best chance for success.

As he thought, he had taken up the cloth and athelas tea once more, now using it to bath Frodo's face and sooth some of the hurts written there. With slow and gently motions, he swiped the fragrant water across the hobbit's brow, blotting at the cut above his left brow and the bruising at the opposite temple. The cheekbones bore bruises and cuts as well and these the healer king tended too also as Merry looked on. Across the cleft of the hobbit's chin a particularly nasty cut lay. Aragorn used extra ease as he dabbed the cloth there. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Aragorn found himself hoping that Frodo's face at least would not bear scars. What a shame it would be to permanently mar such beauty, ran the course of the kings idle thoughts as he continued to work. Coming at last to Frodo's lips, Aragorn dipped the cloth in the athelas tea but did not wring it out as vigorously as he had before. Instead, he left it slightly dripping as he wiped Frodo's lips, testing to see if the hobbit would accept water if offered it. As he had suspected, the hobbit in his care was so thirsty that he was apparently willing to drink even bitter athelas water. As the water dripped from the cloth to the parched lips, the hobbit's mouth began to tremble and work, trying, even in his unconscious state to find the moisture his body so desperately needed. At seeing this, Aragorn decided to alter his plan just a bit. That was another thing Elrond had taught him - flexibility. Frodo needed water very badly, and he needed it now. That much was clear.

"Merry." the king spoke finally as he laid down the cloth. "Would you please fetch the earthenware pitcher from the table, and the small wooden cup beside it?"

Merry complied immediately, though he was loath to let go of his cousin's hand which was still nestled with in his own. Quickly, he returned with the requested items and looked at the king for further instruction.

"Thank you, Merry." Said Aragorn, already beginning to fill the small cup with the cool, clear water contained in the pitcher, which he handed back to Merry when the cup was full. "Now" he continued, "there are several small, hollow, wooden reeds on the other end of the table. Please fetch me the shortest of them."

Again, Aragorn found Merry to be a most efficient helper as he had the smallest reed in his hand in seconds. Curiously, Merry watched to see what it was that Aragorn intended to do with the reed. Was he going to stir the water, he wondered? As he watched, Aragorn sat the small cup on the low table beside the head of the bed. Next, he placed the reed as far into the cup as it would go, and placed his forefinger over the other end sticking out of the top of the cup. With his other hand, Aragorn gently turned Frodo's face slightly to one side to face him and kept his hand on the hobbit's chin, pulling very slightly to part Frodo's lips and teeth enough to get the reed in. Once parted, Aragorn laid the reed barely inside Frodo's mouth and slowly, with a small tapping motion, removed his finger from the other end of the reed, thereby releasing the small trickle of water in to Frodo's mouth gradually. Aragorn's hand then went to Frodo's throat, stroking gently to encourage Frodo to swallow. Very little encouragement was needed, however, as not only did Frodo swallow, but he also sucked weakly at the moisture giving straw. As the empty reed was pulled away, he moaned, or rather, squeaked weakly in protest, the parched lips trying to follow it as they trembled pitifully.

"Easy, Frodo." Aragorn soothed. "You can have as much water as you like…but you must take it slowly. It wouldn't do to have it all come back up, now, would it? No, no it wouldn't." Aragorn answered his own question. "Mustn't be greedy, Frodo. Here we go, now. Here's a bit more." Aragorn crooned at him as he once more brought the straw to the thirsty Ringbearers lips. If the king hadn't had hold on the hobbit's chin, he believed he might have bitten the reed in two in his eagerness to drink. He squeaked out a moan of pleasure and worked his lips looking for more as the water slowly trickled down his throat.

Seeing the relief and comfort this was giving his cousin, Merry was no longer content to simply watch. "May I, Aragorn?" Merry asked hesitantly.

Aragorn looked up surprised at the query. "Of course, of course, Merry." The king answered in the affirmative handing the reed over to Merry who had come to take his place on Frodo's bed. At length, Aragorn showed Merry how to draw the water into the straw, then how to release it slowly so that Frodo didn't become strangled. Aragorn stood watching as Merry did just as he had been shown, much to Frodo's obvious delight. The only error he made was in pulling the reed away just a tiny bit too quickly, causing a trickle of the cool liquid to trace slowly down Frodo's chin. The face Frodo made of protest and outrage at being denied even one precious drop of the water was almost comical. Aragorn struggled not to chuckle as he quickly handed Merry a towel which he used to blot the small mess he made.

"Oh! I'm sorry Frodo! Hold on just a sec, dearest. Your Mer will have you cleaned up in a jiffy." Merry apologized as he mopped. But Frodo was having none of it. His lips worked and his head moved, searching for the reed as another squeak escaped his lips.

"All right, all right, cousin. No need for all the dramatics. Here it is, here it is." Merry was mock indignant even as he grinned at this new show of spunk from his cousin. 'Oh, what Frodo wouldn't say had he the strength!' Ran the thoughts of both king and cousin.

Seeing that Frodo was in very capable hands for the moment, Aragorn turned as he told Merry, "Just keep giving it too him as long as he'll take it, Merry. I'm going to go see how Gandalf is faring with Samwise. I shall only be a few moments."

"As if I could do otherwise but give Frodo exactly what he wants!" Merry jested, his heart lightened at seeing Frodo comforted.

With that, Aragorn turned and left the two in peace. Even as he walked away from the sweet sight, however, his heart was slightly heavy as he thought of all that Frodo still had to go through this day. They still had to get some food down him and digested, then more pounding upon his poor back to hopefully elicit a lung clearing cough. Of course, the hobbit's finger would need more tending as well.

'Would there be no end to his suffering?' Aragorn wondered. But for the moment, his heart was glad as he looked back at Merry and Frodo once more. Merry bent over his cousin was still talking to him in mock scolding - Frodo still eagerly drinking. Still Aragorn found a small smile grace his face as he remembered the hopeful sight. Taking the long steps he had been nicknamed for, he crossed the length of the roomy tent, headed toward Gandalf and Samwise.

"How fares he, Gandalf?" Aragorn asked as he reached them.

The king sat himself wearily in a chair beside Samwise as he listened to Gandalf describe all of his findings. Silently he prayed to Eru for strength, both for himself and these small ones who still had so much to endure.

TBC - Soon!!