A/N 1: Based on this Shirebound plotbunny: Somewhere on the Quest, Aragorn develops a tiny cold. The hobbits, grateful for the attentive care he's shown all of them, nearly smother him in Shire remedies and advice -- to the amusement of the rest of the Fellowship.
A/N 2: Thanks to Pipwise for the beta.
In a silent camp, even a small sneeze sounds startlingly loud.
"What's that?" growled Gimli, axe in hand.
"Nothing," Aragorn hissed from where he stood by the sleeping hobbits. "Go back to sleep."
"It sounded like a sneeze," Frodo said, sitting up carefully so he would not wake the others. He watched Aragorn suspiciously, but before the man could deny it again there came three more sneezes in quick succession, each one louder than the last.
"You're sick!" Frodo cried, scrambling out of his bedroll. Sam stirred at the movement and sat up, blinking sleepily as he followed Frodo out of the blankets.
"There is nothing to worry about, Frodo," Aragorn insisted, sniffling a little. "I just have a little cold. Go back to sleep."
Merry and Pippin, now awake and unfolding themselves from the nest of blankets and cloaks, stared at Aragorn with a mixture of surprise and concern.
"There is no such thing as 'a little cold,' Strider," Pippin said. His tone of voice stifled Aragorn's ready protest, and the man raised his eyebrows at the wiser-than-his-years expression on the hobbit's face.
The hobbits huddled together, talking animatedly. Every now and then one of them would glance over at Aragorn and shake his head sadly.
After some discussion, Sam broke from the group first. He hurried to where Legolas stood at the edge of camp, having taken over the watch from Aragorn, and whispered in his ear. Legolas glanced over at Aragorn and smiled before following Sam into a cluster of trees.
"I do not like the look of this," Aragorn muttered to Gandalf, who sat on a nearby rock smoking his pipe, apparently enjoying the drama playing out before him. "What are they plotting?"
Gandalf raised his eyebrows, but offered no answer. Sighing in defeat, Aragorn returned his attention to the hobbit-huddle. After a few more moments of discussion the cousins broke apart, with Merry and Frodo dispersing in opposite directions. Pippin, however, bounded over to Aragorn's side.
"Let me check for a fever," Pippin said, pulling Aragorn over to the pile of blankets and cloaks that served as the hobbits' bed.
Pippin tugged down the man until he was seated and pressed a small hand to Aragorn's forehead, his eyes wide with concern.
"You don't feel too warm," he said after a moment, "but you had better rest here anyway. We can't take any chances!"
"Really, Pippin, I'm not-"
"There, now," Pippin said brightly as he tucked a blanket around Aragorn's shoulders. "Don't you feel better already, Strider? Now, just rest for awhile and let us take care of you. I'll be back soon." Without waiting another moment he took off running to the other side of camp where Gimli sat sharpening his axe and watching the flurry of activity that had engulfed the camp with a mixture of confusion and amusement.
Aragorn's attention was drawn away from Pippin and Gimli's conversation by the appearance of Frodo at his side.
Taking Pippin's seat, Frodo placed a cool, wet rag on Aragorn's forehead. "You really should have told us you were sick and let someone else take the watch," he said disapprovingly. "It would not do to have you fall ill."
"I'm not ill!" Aragorn protested, but even to his own ears his voice sounded congested. He cleared his throat, coughed, and sniffled wetly.
Frodo watched him, his blue eyes troubled, and plucked a wad of handkerchiefs from his pocket. He handed them to Aragorn, but before he could say anything Merry joined them, carrying a steaming bowl that gave off a rather foul stench.
"You're very lucky, Strider," he said excitedly. "Sam had almost all the necessary ingredients in his pack, and I was able to find the other herbs I needed nearby."
"What is that?" Aragorn said, wrinkling his nose.
"A genuine Shire remedy," Merry said proudly. He scooped up a sticky glob and held it close for the man to see. "An herbal paste my mother made whenever I had a cold. You rub it on your chest and it helps you breathe easier."
"I'm breathing just fine," Aragorn hissed, backing away from the hobbits.
"Now, Strider," Frodo interjected, in the same tone of voice Aragorn had heard him use when he was rather impatient with one of his cousins. "Merry made this especially for you, to help you get well again. Come now, off with your shirt."
"No!" Aragorn cried, pulling the blanket tightly under his chin. He knew the hobbits were trying to help him, but, well… he was the healer here. He knew what he needed, and it did not include dabbling in Merry's idea of medicine. "I don't even know what's in this so-called herbal paste!"
"I beg your pardon," Merry said stiffly, clearly insulted. "You should know that I would not try to poison you, Strider."
From across the camp Aragorn heard Pippin's voice. "Oh, this is just getting silly," he exclaimed, and the man could almost hear the youngest hobbit rolling his eyes. "Boromir!" he called. "Merry needs your help!"
Dropping the firewood he was gathering, Boromir hurried over and took in the sight of Aragorn, huddled under a blanket and fending off the hobbits, with a look of clear amusement. "What is it, Merry?"
"I need to put this medicine on Strider's chest, but he will not remove his shirt," Merry replied, frowning at Aragorn.
"I see." Struggling to keep a straight face, Boromir stroked his beard as he contemplated the Ranger, and then popped his knuckles loudly. "I think I might be able to assist you," he replied.
In mere moments, Aragorn found himself shirtless and glaring as the two hobbits smothered his bare chest in the herbal paste, which smelled even worse now that it was being spread on him.
If he just closed his eyes, Aragorn thought as Frodo wrapped the blanket around his shoulders, maybe they would think he had fallen asleep.
"Strider! Strider!" Pippin called out excitedly. Aragorn looked up wearily to see the hobbit and Gimli setting several steaming bowls and pots on the ground. Gimli glanced at Aragorn, harrumphing at the man's appearance, before retreating to a nearby rock to watch the proceedings.
"What is all this?" Aragorn asked.
"I remembered that whenever one of us catches a cold, my mother has us soak our feet in water so we don't catch a chill. But since we don't have a basin, and Sam would have a fit if I use the cooking pot…" Pippin paused to lift a steaming length of cloth from a bowl. "Gimli suggested that we wrap your feet with some hot cloths to keep you warm."
Aragorn smiled. "I assure you, Pippin, that my feet are not cold."
"Nonsense," Pippin scoffed. "The ground is cold and you are sitting on it. If you catch a chill now, your cold will turn into pneumonia before you know it. Now take off those boots."
Frodo grinned at Aragorn's hesitation. "Strider, you'll find that the best way to deal with Pippin is to let him get his way," he said. "He's even more stubborn than Merry, and I'm sure he won't hesitate to ask Boromir for some more…assistance."
Aragorn waited no longer and hastily pulled off his boots.
"Frodo, look at Strider's feet! They're bald!" Pippin exclaimed, holding up one foot by the toes to show them.
"Don't be rude, Pippin," Frodo said, though he smiled.
"It's no wonder you've caught a cold, being hairless like that," Pippin said conversationally. Aragorn hissed as Pippin and Frodo wrapped his feet in the hot cloths.
Just then Sam came running through the camp, trailed by Legolas.
"Look here, Strider!" he cried, dangling a cloth bag before Aragorn's face. "I wanted to make you some chicken soup – my own recipe, you know – but seeing that we have no chickens about, I asked Legolas to help me find some sort of bird. These looked foreign to me, but Legolas said they're safe enough to eat."
Aragorn glanced inside the bag; he had seen these birds before, and though they were not found in the Shire, he knew that they were not dangerous.
"Very good, Sam," he said, feeling far too weary for someone who was being tended to hand and, well, foot.
Sam frowned. "You look like you need some rest, Strider. Don't worry, we won't bother you now, unless it's time for you to eat or take some medicine."
"Thank you," Aragorn said, smiling a little as Sam, Frodo and Pippin clustered by the fire to begin cooking.
Legolas glanced down at Aragorn, taking in his wrapped feet, medicine-covered chest and wet cloth-covered head. Though the Elf's smile grew wider he mercifully said nothing and instead headed to the edge of camp, presumably to take up the watch once more.
Aragorn scanned the camp as he waited for the next onslaught of hobbit-healing. Gandalf remained where he had left him, smoking his pipe as he kept an eye on the proceedings, while Merry and Boromir sat alongside Gimli. Every now and then Aragorn felt the (apparently still offended) hobbit's eyes upon him.
Eventually he spoke. "Merry," he said gently. "I am sorry that I…insulted you before. You were right – this herbal paste is helping me breathe better."
Merry had the grace not to look too smug. "I'm glad to hear that, Strider," he replied. "I hope that means you will not put up too much of a fuss when we have to reapply it."
"Reapply it?" Aragorn asked in a very small voice.
"Yes," said Merry. "The smell wears off in time, after all, so applying it every four hours will ensure that it is powerful enough to work." He moved closer to Aragorn and poked at the drying mixture on his chest. "I should make a new batch now," he said before hurrying toward the fire, where he nearly ran into Gandalf, who was making his way towards Aragorn.
If Gandalf thought Aragorn's appearance strange he said nothing; but then he had spent so much time around hobbits that he was undoubtedly familiar with the remedies of the Shire-folk.
Side by side they watched in silence as the hobbits worked near the fire. While Merry crushed herbs in a small bowl to make the dreaded paste, Sam stirred his pot and watched as Frodo and Pippin chopped dried vegetables and wild mushrooms for the soup.
"They are trying to help in the only way they know," Gandalf said after a few moments. "It is part of their nature, as hobbits, to care so deeply for others. They think highly of you, Aragorn, and consider you a very dear friend. So it is no surprise at all that they would smother you with soup and cool rags and…herbal paste, was it?"
Aragorn smiled, feeling quite touched by Gandalf's words. In silence they continued to watch the hobbits, still working around the fire, before Gandalf spoke again.
"Sometimes they feel that they are a burden, slowing us down and requiring our help." Gandalf smiled. "I am sure that, deep down, they are quite overjoyed that you are the one needing the extra care and attention."
"I may have resisted their attempts at helping me," Aragorn said, "but I am very impressed by how knowledgeable they are in healing. However unfamiliar, their remedies are quite effective – I am already feeling less congested."
"Yes, these four hobbits do know their way around a sickroom a little too well," Gandalf said, sighing heavily before lapsing into silence once more.
Aragorn watched as Pippin, his task of chopping vegetables complete, now appeared to be offering Merry and Sam advice, which, interestingly enough, they seemed to be taking.
"Pippin did not have a healthy childhood?" Aragorn asked. He took note of Gandalf's surprise and said, "I suspected as much, after some things he has told me today."
"Small and slight, always quick to fall ill and slow to recover is our Peregrin," Gandalf said quietly. "Though he never found himself without at least one overprotective older cousin around...however much of a blessing or a curse that was," he said, chuckling a little.
Now that he was experiencing firsthand just what it was like to be healed by hobbits, Aragorn wondered what Pippin had been subjected to for all those years. Even now, he watched as Merry rested a hand on Pippin's forehead, searching for any sign of illness.
"I think I understand them now," Aragorn said.
"What, hobbits?" Gandalf asked. "You can never understand them completely. They will always find new ways to surprise you."
After another dose of the dreaded herbal paste, and a large portion of Sam's soup, Aragorn soon found himself feeling quite healthy again. Just before they set out once more, he took the hobbits aside to offer them his thanks.
"It is because of you that I am feeling well again so quickly," Aragorn said, looking at each hobbit in turn. "Even though I did not always seem so, I am very grateful for all the care you showed me."
The hobbits smiled; Frodo in satisfaction, Sam rather shyly, Merry far too smugly, and Pippin in relief.
During that day's march, the hobbits proudly discussed Aragorn's swift recovery, each one insisting that his remedy had been the most immediate cause of good health, and otherwise gloating that they had, indeed, healed the healer.
Finally, Gandalf had enough of the chatter and, under the ruse of giving everyone an opportunity to catch up on the sleep they had lost whilst seeing Aragorn through his brief illness, decided that they would set up camp early.
They ate a quick meal and, with the exception of Boromir, who had the first watch, the other members of the Fellowship settled down for a rest.
All was quiet, and just as the hobbits were dropping off to sleep a small sound, not much louder than a twig snapping underfoot, was heard.
"What's that?" grumbled Gimli, reaching for his axe.
"Nothing," Boromir muttered. "Go back to – Aaa-achoo!"
In a silent camp, any sneeze sounds startlingly loud.