A/N: Part of a post-Quest AU in which Frodo has a daughter named Primula and they live in the house at Crickhollow.

It was nearly midnight when Merry and Pippin dismounted in the lane in front of the dark house. Pippin led the ponies to the stable a little ways off to settle them down for the night. Merry shouldered their packs and saddlebags and stealthily went in the front door, walking silently so he wouldn't wake the house's sleeping occupants.

He was more than welcome to use the back door, of course, but as it was closer to the bedrooms, it was easier to sneak in and out of the front door if he needed to be abroad after Primmy's bedtime. And Frodo was very strict about Primmy's bedtime. She was now nearly nine -her birthday was a mere month away, actually- but Frodo was still fiercely protective of her. Merry often amused himself with the thought of how Frodo would react when his daughter was of the courting age.

The front room was dark and cold, like always; Frodo only used that room for visitors. Merry and Pippin were in and out often enough that they didn't count as visitors, just nuisances. Or so Frodo claimed, but he could never quite hide his smile as he said so.

The kitchen was similarly dark and chilled, even the cooking fire having gone out. Leave it to Frodo to still not always bank a fire right, Merry thought fondly. He passed the closed door of the study on his right, and arrived at the spare bedroom. Merry dropped the bags just inside the door, and padded across the hall to peek in Frodo's bedroom, which was a touch further closer to the back door.

To his surprise, the door was wide open, the fireplace dark, and the bed empty. He went back to the other bedroom and lit a candle -he knew the house well enough not to need a light to find their room, but now he wanted the light to confirm the darkness hadn't confounded his eyes. Indeed, Frodo's bed was empty. Merry regarded it quizzically, wondering where his cousin had gotten to. He and Pippin had left here a scant week ago, and Frodo hadn't mentioned any travel plans. In fact, Primmy had had a bit of a cold, and there's no way Frodo would have taken her anywhere like that. He feared her becoming seriously ill almost as much as he feared that something would happen to him and leave her an orphan.

Check Primmy's room, then. Perhaps she'd developed a full-blown cold and Frodo was hovering over her like the mother hen he is. This seemed to be the right approach, for Primula's door was tightly closed. Merry cautiously turned the knob and eased the door open, listening and watching.

The room was nearly dark, with only a flickering lamp on the mantel, but it was enough to see Primmy, flushed and sweaty, in her bed and Frodo sitting close by, his back to the door. Merry was about to make some sort of snide comment when he realized the vague rasping sound he'd hardly noticed was Primmy's breathing. It sounded terrible. "Frodo," Merry said gently as he ventured closer to the bed and put a hand on Frodo's shoulder, his eyes never leaving the small girl. "How is she?"

Frodo's shoulder shrugged beneath his hand.

"Well, what did the healer say?"

"A healer hasn't been," Frodo said raggedly. "When she got so sick, I didn't dare leave her long enough to go all the way to the Hall . . ." He buried his face in his hands.

"And this is why you ought to have a pony," Merry couldn't help but say. It was an old argument, and one he frequently brought up in light of Crickhollow's distance from Bucklebury and Brandy Hall, the nearest 'civilized' places.

"And you know why I can't," Frodo said heatedly, brushing Merry's hand off his shoulder. He maintained that in order to make sure Primula would be provided for, he couldn't bear the expense of a pony and all its trappings, even though feed wouldn't be much of an issue since the house was surrounded by uncultivated land that the pony could graze. "Please, I don't want to talk about this now," Frodo pleaded, his anger countered by his worry for his daughter.

"Of course. I'm sorry I brought it up," Merry replied, repentant. He really shouldn't have mentioned it, not now.

"But now that you're here, would you mind watching her while I borrow your pony and fetch the healer?"

Frodo sounded so worn out and old that Merry finally looked down at him. He obviously hadn't slept in days, probably hadn't eaten much either, and looked like he'd fall over if he tried to stand up. "Nonsense," Merry said, and Frodo looked confused.

"I'll go," Merry elaborated. "They won't yell at me quite as loudly when I rouse the Hall in the middle of the night," he said with a grin.

Frodo was obviously relieved. "Thank you, Merry," he said with a sigh.

"I'll be back quick as I can," Merry promised, and left the room. Only once he was out of the house did he run, and almost bowled Pippin over just outside the stable.

"Oy, Merry, what's all this about?" Pippin demanded, following Merry into the stable.

"Prim's sick. I'm going to ride for a healer. Would you get Frodo sorted while I'm gone? He looks like he hasn't slept in days and a stiff wind would blow him away. At least get him to eat something," Merry said in a rush, hurriedly fastening the bridle on his pony and leading it out of the stable. He slid onto the pony's bare back and called, "I'll be back as soon as I can!"

Pippin was left bewildered in the stable yard. But Merry's hurry and that he'd gone without bothering with a saddle told Pippin plenty about how serious Merry thought this was. Pippin ran to the house.

Pippin fully understood Merry's haste when he saw poor Primmy and how pale and drawn Frodo looked. He rebuilt the fire in the kitchen and went to put on some water, only to find the kettle wasn't there. "Frodo?" he asked, going back into Prim's room. "Where's the kettle?"

Frodo waved vaguely toward the fireplace. Pippin found it there, then decided Frodo was on to something by having it in here instead of all the way in the kitchen. So he started a fire there and set the water on, then went back to the kitchen to assess the state of the pantry. The cheese was passable, but the bread was getting a little dry, so he sliced some of both and made toasted cheese sandwiches. He piled them on a plate and brought them and two mugs of ale from the cellar to Primula's room.

"Eat. Drink," Pippin ordered, setting the plate on the bed and shoving a mug into Frodo's hands.

"Pip, I don't think ale is the best idea . . ." Frodo started, but Pippin stopped him.

"So eat a sandwich first. Though it might be more entertaining if you have the ale on an empty stomach."

Frodo shook his head and rubbed his eyes. "Ah, Pippin. Save it for another time, would you? I'm not really in the mood."

"Sorry, Frodo. Will you at least eat something? Tea will be ready in a few minutes."

"I suppose Merry told you to make sure I ate something? All right, I'll have a sandwich, but only if you promise not to pester me to have more."

"Deal," Pippin said immediately. Both were silent as they ate, Pippin eagerly and Frodo slowly, with the sound of Primula's labored breathing in the background. When Frodo was finished, he sat back in his chair with a sigh and let his eyes close for a moment.

"Do you want to go lie down until Merry gets back with the healer?" Pippin asked, assuming (and rightly so) that Frodo would want to be present when the healer came.

"Thank you, but no. If I lie down, I won't be getting back up for a while," Frodo said with a wan smile, then coughed a bit and sipped his tea. Pippin watched him a moment, then patted him on the shoulder and returned to devouring the rest of the sandwiches.

Both curly heads were nodding by the time the front door banged opened and Merry called to them that the healer was here. Pippin was on his feet in an instant, and he went to guide the healer to the room while Frodo straightened and tried to look alert. Old Mungo Brownlock soon appeared in the doorway and said cheerfully, "Tell me what's the matter with the dear lass while I take a look at her."

Frodo briefly described the cold she'd gotten after they'd returned from spending a few nights at Brandy Hall so she could play with her cousins; how she seemed to be getting better, then a short while later was much worse with coughing and difficulty breathing, and it had only gotten worse from there.

Healer Brownlock nodded and grunted his understanding in the appropriate places, his mind only partially noting what Frodo was saying. There had been a few other young folk at the Hall that had recently developed a similar complaint, so it seemed a foregone conclusion that's what she had. The only difference was that the others had come under his care sooner, but he didn't think this young one would suffer for that in the long run.

Frodo watched with mixed alarm and curiosity as Mungo sat Primula up and leaned her against his shoulder. She fought him weakly, then started coughing. Frodo thought it sounded painful, but Brownlock seemed pleased and held her there for several long minutes until she stopped coughing.

"It's as I suspected," Mungo announced after he'd settled Primula back against her pillows. "Mild lung sickness. Some of the youngsters at the Hall got it, too. Sit her up every once in a while so she can cough the stuff out, but otherwise let her rest. Give her as much liquid -water, broth, and the like- as she will take. If she still has difficulty breathing, I'll leave some herbs that you can mix with boiling water and have her breathe in the steam. But she should be fine. If she doesn't start getting better in two days, come and fetch me. Otherwise I will return in four days to check on her."

Frodo nodded dazedly, hearing what he said but not quite absorbing the meaning of all the words. His mind was too busy trying to reconcile 'mild lung sickness' with 'she should be fine'... couldn't one die from the lung sickness? Or is that why he was calling it 'mild'?

Merry said from the doorway, "Yes, of course. If you'll leave those herbs with me, I'll write down what to do so we don't get it wrong."

Healer Brownlock accompanied Merry out into the hallway to dictate the directions. Pippin patted Frodo on the back and said encouragingly, "See? Nothing to worry about. She'll be fine."

But Frodo wasn't listening. He was staring at the bed, where Primula was lying, her eyes open the tiniest bit and staring at him. "Da?" she murmured almost soundlessly.

"Yes, Primula, I'm here," he said, holding her hand gently, feeling a moment of wild hope. "The healer says you're going to get better," he told her, almost ready to believe it himself.

She nodded slightly, and let her eyes droop closed again. Frodo squeezed her hand, and watched her until she seemed to fall asleep. Then he sat back in his chair and felt the last of his nervous energy seeping away.

"Now will you go lie down?" Pippin asked, sounding amused.

Frodo mumbled, "I can sleep here."

Now Pippin did laugh. "Not very well, you silly hobbit. Come, let me help you to your bed."

"Don't want to leave her," Frodo objected.

"You'll be no use to her if you make yourself ill," Pippin said reasonably. "Merry and I will stay here and fetch you if you're needed."

It was logical, and Frodo couldn't argue with logic at that point. Even if it was Pippin's logic, which was often full of holes. "Oh, all right," he said, and staggered to his feet.

Pippin was there with an arm around his back to keep him upright, and they went to Frodo's room. Pippin tried to get Frodo to change out of his clothes and into a nightshirt, but Frodo resisted. "If you want me to go to bed, I'm going to bed," Frodo stubbornly insisted. Pippin managed to at least get his waistcoat and braces off, and left it at that.

Frodo was asleep almost as soon as he was between his ice cold sheets. Pippin belatedly realized that the room was quite chilly, since neither he nor Merry had thought to start a fire in here as well. So he remedied the oversight, and left only when the wood was burning merrily and the room was noticeably warmer.

Merry was already back in Primula's room when Pippin returned and was straightening up. Evidently Frodo had at least had the presence of mind to bring what he could to Primmy's room when she'd gotten so sick, so the kettle, some dishes, a pitcher and some cups, a basin, some cloths, and a number of assorted oddments were strewn about the room.

Pippin helped him and made several trips between the room and the kitchen, and they discussed what food would need to be gotten, if any other supplies were needed, and shared the concern that Frodo wasn't able to get the help Primmy needed. There was also the unspoken worry that Frodo might become ill himself from running himself so ragged, but there wasn't anything they could do to change that, so it wasn't worth discussing. Obtaining a pony for Frodo, on the other hand, was infinitely more doable.

"Do you think Sam could convince him?" Pippin asked at one point.

"No," Merry said. "Even he can't change Frodo's mind when Frodo is being stubborn about it." Then Merry stopped short. "Sam! That's it! I have an idea."

Frodo woke to bright sunshine outside his window and a momentary confusion about what was going on. The sound of coughing from Primula's room brought everything back in an instant, and he was out of bed and in the hall before his mind caught up with his actions. Conscious movement also brought the realization that he was rather stiff and sore. That chair really wasn't meant for such long usage, at least not by his aging bones.

He shuffled to Primmy's doorway and watched Merry pat her back, then laid her back down. "How is she?" he croaked, his voice still rough with sleep.

"Ah, there you are, sleepyhead," Merry teased. "We've gotten her to cough every hour or two and it does seem to be helping."

"Good," Frodo said with relief. He went to the bedside and touched her face, held her hand, and was satisfied that what Merry said was true. She was indeed breathing a little better, though she was still warm to the touch and obviously unwell. "What time is it? Where's Pip?"

"It's about midday. Pip is off getting some bread and such. You were getting low on some things."

"Yes. Prim fell ill the night before market day, so I couldn't go," Frodo said.

"I suspected as much. There is food out in the kitchen, and water heating in the bathing room if you'd like a bath."

"A bath sounds lovely. I'll be across the hall." Frodo began to go directly there, but recognized he'd want to put on different clothes afterward, so he fetched clean clothes from his bedroom before going into the bathing room. He eagerly dumped the pails of water into the tub, took one outside to get cold water from the pump -gracious, it may be sunny, but it was still cold outside for February!- and added just enough cold water that he wouldn't scald himself. The full, steaming tub was a lovely sight, and Frodo quickly stripped and stepped in.

For a few blissful moments, Frodo could forget the anxiety and worry of the past several days. He leaned back against the tub, immersing every inch possible in the wonderful water. He was still quite drowsy and sleep beckoned, but he resisted. He needed to get back to Primula. After the absolute fear of losing her for so many days, he needed to be near to see her recover. He could rest when she was better.

Even so, the water was growing cool when he was finally finished soaking. He dried and dressed quickly and wandered back across the hall, toweling his hair. Merry looked up when he appeared in the doorway. "Go eat, silly hobbit. She's not going anywhere."

"I know . . . it's just . . . I have to see her . . . I've been so worried . . ." his vioce cracked and he felt hot tears on his cheeks. He swiped impatiently at his cheeks with the towel still in his hand, then Merry was there, wordlessly enfolding him in a hug. Frodo let himself relax in the embrace and weep into Merry's chest.

At length Frodo felt more calm than he had in days, and he patted what he could reach of Merry's back. "I'm all right, thank you," he said, sniffling. "Now let me go before I wipe my nose on your shirt."

Merry chuckled, patted Frodo's back quickly, and stepped back. "While I'm willing to sacrifice my shirt, I think I'd prefer you use a handkerchief," he said, grinning. He laughed outright when Frodo's stomach growled. "And I think your stomach would prefer that you go eat something."

Frodo blushed and nodded. "I'm going, I'm going," he said sheepishly, crossing the hall to pick up his dirty clothes to drop them in the basket near the back door.

"Take your time," Merry called after him.

Frodo didn't answer, mostly because he intended to go back to Prim's room with whatever food he picked up, and he knew Merry would object and tell him to eat in the kitchen. The food laid out was simple but sufficient; some sliced ham was keeping warm on the back of the stove, the remainder of the bread was also on the stove to soften it up a bit, and on the table was a bowl of canned pears (Frodo wondered if his cousins realized he'd canned them himself), jam for the bread (he was hoping to make a foray into jam making this year; those raspberries that grew in profusion near the Hedge seemed perfect candidates), some applesauce, and a pile of carrot sticks on a plate. Frodo put what he thought he'd eat onto a plate and fetched a mug of ale. Perhaps it would help the headache he felt gathering behind his eyes.

Merry shook his head, rolled his eyes, and muttered about stubborn Bagginses when Frodo appeared with his plate of food, but he didn't try to convince Frodo to leave. He knew he wouldn't win, so there was no point in fighting that losing battle. He'd save his efforts for other things. Like the darn pony question. Merry hoped Sam would respond to his letter quickly; he'd written it and sent it with Pippin this morning, so Sam should have it by the end of the week at the latest.

Frodo ate with gusto, but spent a few moments between each bite watching his daughter sleep. She looked so small and fragile lying there, and thinking again on how he could have lost her brought a lump to his throat. Merry's voice broke into his thoughts. "You're brooding again."

Frodo shrugged. "I can't help it," he said simply, standing with his empty dishes. He took them to the kitchen and left them in the dish bin; he'd deal with them later. He went straight back to Prim's room. "Merry, do you need to sleep for a while?"

Merry initially wanted to say no, but he realized the only way he and Pippin would be able to convince Frodo to sleep again tonight was if Frodo thought they also were getting enough rest. "That would be a good idea," Merry said, rising from the chair closest to Prim's bed. "The watch is all yours. I expect Pippin to be back within an hour or two. Oh, and Prim will need to cough again in about a half hour."

"All right. Sleep well," Frodo said, sitting down and settling himself for another long watch. After the prescribed half hour, he sat on the edge of the bed and gently coaxed Prim to sit upright and lean against him. He held her firmly, rubbing her back as she coughed; when she was finished, Frodo held her a little while longer just to feel her and hear her breathing easier than before.

Even after he laid her down and tucked her in again, she didn't return to her restful sleep, instead fidgeting and tossing her head restlessly. When she opened her eyes slightly, he asked, "What's wrong, dear?"

"Da," she whispered. "'m hot."

"All right, give me a moment," he said, pouring some water from the pitcher on the table by her bed into the basin, then wetting some cloths in the basin. These he folded and put on her forehead and over her eyes. "Is that better?"

"Yes," she sighed, and seemed to fall into sleep.

About an hour passed, and Frodo was deciding whether he should go fetch a book to read -it was proving difficult to stay awake, as he was still rather tired and his head felt congested besides- when the front door banged open and he heard Pippin call, "Who wants dinner?"

Frodo hurried into the hallway. "It's not dinnertime yet, Pip, and if you wake Prim I'll have to kill you," he said, taking some of the bundles from his heavily loaded cousin.

"Sorry, Frodo." Pippin tried to look repentant as he shoved the door closed with his elbow. Fortunately it didn't slam *too* loudly, and Frodo only rolled his eyes as they took everything to the kitchen. Pippin sorted his purchases on the table around the food set out (he periodically snitched something from the table to eat while he was at it), and Frodo pulled up the door to the pantry. "You need a proper pantry," Pippin groused as he descended the stairs into the underground room, trying almost successfully to keep from hitting his head on the top of the passageway.

"You say that almost every time you're here," Frodo retorted. "And you know the pantry has to be down here because it's the only place that stays cool enough in summer that things don't spoil."

"It's not my fault you don't live in a proper hole."

"Merry picked the house for me, remember? Take it up with him," Frodo said. "Gracious, how much did you buy? I didn't really need jam, silly Took."

"You will if Merry and I are here for any length of time," Pippin said with a grin. "Especially if you make any bread. It's only palatable with lots of jam."

"You know you like my bread," Frodo said with a mock pout. "If you insist on insulting my cooking, you can finish putting everything away yourself. In the dark." Frodo started toward the stairs back up to the kitchen, carrying the lamp.

"Go on up, but leave me the light unless you want everything jumbled on one shelf," Pippin replied.

"That wouldn't do," Frodo said, and put the lamp back on a shelf near Pippin. "I'll be in Prim's room."

"Of course. Where's Merry?"

"I told him to go sleep a while."

"Do you need to sleep?"

"I should be all right until dinner at least, so if you want to sleep too, I can manage."

"I might. I'll tell you if I do," Pippin said.

Frodo nodded and climbed the stairs. He grabbed a mug and some fresh tea leaves to make tea, and returned to Prim's bedside. She was sleeping peacefully, so Frodo went ahead and put the water on to boil, then made a pot of tea and let it sit for a bit. Pippin reappeared and said he'd try to grab a bit of sleep, but he'd be up to put supper together.

After Pippin left, Frodo remembered it was time to make Primmy cough, so he poured his mug of tea and set it aside to cool while he took care of her. She resisted him a little, whimpering that it hurt, but Frodo shushed her and told her it was the only way to get better. She sat up more willingly after that, though she was still reluctant and clung to her da afterward. He held her until she was ready to let go and lie back down. Once she was tucked in, Frodo held her hand until she was asleep. By the time he remembered his tea, it was nearly cold, but he shrugged and drank it anyway. Then he settled back in the chair and put his hand on Primula's.

The next thing he knew, he felt a hand rubbing across his shoulders and heard Pippin's voice calling his name. Frodo slowly sat up, fighting the stiffness in his neck and back.

"I thought you said you'd be all right until dinner," Pippin said gently.

"I thought I would be," Frodo replied hoarsely, then sneezed. He patted his pockets until he found his handkerchief. He blew his nose loudly, sniffled, and dabbed at his nose when it continued to run.

"Sounds like you're coming down with the cold that Primmy had," Pippin said with some concern.

"I'll be fine," Frodo said dismissively. "What time is it?"

"Not quite suppertime. I thought I'd check on both of you before I headed to the kitchen."

"Bother. I didn't mean to sleep, much less sleep for that long! I haven't done anything for Prim since right after you went to nap."

"Take care of her, then, and I'll put out supper. Merry will be along in a little while, I expect."

Merry poked his head in as Frodo was tucking Prim in; seeing she was awake, he shooed Frodo off, supposedly to make sure Pippin wasn't making a mess, but he really wanted to talk to the lass alone. "How are you feeling, dearie?" he asked, sitting in the chair Frodo vacated.

"I'm tired," she said plaintively. "It still... hurts to breathe."

"That will get better with time," Merry promised. "You're already sounding better, and it's only been a day since the healer was here."

She shrugged weakly. "How is Da?"

"What do you mean?"

"He looked . . . so tired . . . worried . . ."

"Well, yes, he's been worried about you. He cared for you night and day before Pippin and I came. But don't worry about him, we're taking care of both of you now. You just need to concentrate on getting better."

Prim nodded, trusting his every word. She relaxed and closed her eyes. She fell asleep only a few minutes before Pippin dropped in, leaning his elbows on the back of Merry's chair. "Did you want me to bring you something to eat, or will you go get it yourself?"

"Like I trust you to bring anything without eating half of it on the way," Merry teased.

"I might," Pippin protested.

"I know. I'll go myself, though. Where's Frodo?"

"I chased him off to bed," Pippin said airily.


"Only figuratively. I did stand in the doorway until he was actually in bed, though. We'll have to unlock the door later," he said, tossing a key onto the bed.

"You locked Frodo in his bedroom? You're incorrigible."

"Perhaps. Now go eat," Pippin prodded, poking Merry in the back of the head.

"I'll break your finger," Merry threatened, but rose, picked up the key, and left the bedroom. He paused on the way to the kitchen to unlock Frodo's room and peer inside. Frodo was snoring loudly -he only ever snored when he had a cold- so Merry left the door open a crack in case Frodo needed anything.

In the kitchen, Merry absentmindedly put some food on a plate and put the rest away, thinking that he'd need to discuss with Pippin how they'd arrange things if Frodo became ill as well. Just in case.

The next two days passed in a similar way. Prim seemed to be slowly getting better and waking more; Frodo was in her room whenever possible, watching her sleep and frequently sleeping in the chair beside her bed. With Merry and Pippin around, Frodo knew food and such would be taken care of, so he didn't feel guilty for sitting with his daughter instead of minding all those chores he'd normally need to do every day. For that comfort Frodo was willing to endure their voiced concerns about his own health (and ignore them). They meant well, at least, even if they did nearly drive him batty sometimes.

This particular afternoon Merry was needling him to go lie down for a while because he "sounded awful."

"It's a cold, I'm fine," Frodo insisted, blowing his running nose in his handkerchief. "Take it up with the healer if you're so concerned. He's due back today."

A knock on the front door echoed down the hall and Pippin called from the kitchen that he would answer it. The healer's jovial voice carried to Frodo and Merry. "Quite a winter we're having, eh? Snow in February!"

Frodo stiffened and quickly looked out the window; indeed, he saw snow flakes drifting past the pane. Bother.

Healer Brownlock bustled into the room and greeted them cheerfully. "How is the dear lass doing?"

"Somewhat better," Frodo assured him.

Mungo turned to peer at him instead. "Picked up a cold, have we? Breathe for a minute and let me have a listen." Frodo obeyed and he leaned close, then nodded. "Just a cold. Mind yourself and it'll be better in no time."

"Does minding himself include sitting with Primula for hours at a time?" Merry asked pointedly.

"So long as sitting is all he's doing, yes."

Frodo tried not to smirk and Merry threw up his hands in exasperation. By now, Prim had been woken by all of the talking and Healer Brownlock turned his attention to her, kindly asking questions and letting her answer. When he was satisfied, he gave her a toffee from his pocket and admonished her to be a good lass and behave so she'd get better.

"She is recovering nicely. I'll come back again in a week; I may be able to allow her out of bed for short periods of time if she makes sure to rest in the meantime." Behind him, Prim looked hopeful. "Of course, call for me if anything gets worse. Now, if there's nothing else, I should be going. The wife worries so when I'm out in this weather," he said with a wink.

Pipping ushered him out, saying, "Are you sure you can't stay for tea? I can have a pot ready for a few minutes. . . "

Frodo waited until their voices receded into the kitchen, then rose and slipped from the room. Merry thought nothing of Frodo's absence until Pippin arrived with tea about ten minutes later and asked, "Where's Frodo?"

"He's not with you?"

"I thought he was still in here."

"He left not long after you and Brownlock did. You didn't see him?"

"No. Maybe he went to the privy or something," Pippin suggested.

"He's been gone a little too long for that," Merry countered.

"You never know. I had a great-aunt who-"

"I don't think I need to hear this, and I know Primmy doesn't," Merry said quickly.

"She could take a really long time, is all," Pippin said and winked at Prim, who giggled. "Let's give him a little longer before we go barging in on him."

Merry reluctantly agreed, and was finished with his tea and seedcake in near-record time. "Stay here, I'll go find him," he said to Pippin. He noticed Primmy was anxiously clutching her mug of milky tea, so he said, "Don't worry, dear. I'm sure your da is fine, but we'd like to know where he is. Does he get upset with you if you go someplace without telling him?" She nodded slowly. "I'm going to go find him so I can scold him," Merry explained, winking. Prim smiled.

Merry started his search with the bathing room where the indoor privy seat was set up in the far corner on the other side of the fireplace. No one was there, and the pot was empty, so Frodo hadn't used it. Merry methodically checked each room on that side of the hall; the front door was locked; he went down the other side of the hall, checking the rooms, even going down into the cellar. Merry arrived back at Prim's room empty-handed. He didn't go in, but turned to check the back door. It was open. Merry poked his head outside and spied a figure near the house off to the left.

None of the cloaks on the rack were missing; Merry rolled his eyes, grabbed two as he stepped outside, and closed the door behind him. He waded through the quickly accumulating snow to Frodo's side where he was crouched next to an odd box built right next to the house wall and dropped one of the cloaks over his hunched back. "What in the name of sanity are you doing?"

"I've been neglecting my plants. Here, hold these," Frodo said, lifting the lid of the box off his shoulders and handing Merry a few scrawny carrots, radishes, and greens. "I should've checked on them sooner -half the carrots started to rot in the ground. But they grew, and that's what's important."

Merry peered curiously over Frodo's shoulder into the box and reached out a hand to touch the soil. "How deep do the sides go?"

"About a foot."

"And the glass in the top lets the sun in to keep it warm."

"That's the idea. I saw a mention in one of Sam's gardening books and thought I'd give it a try."

Merry nodded. "Interesting. What did you plant?"

"Carrots, radishes, lettuce, cabbage, spinach."

"Will you try again next year?"

"Most likely. I don't lose anything by trying, and there are a couple of changes I want to make in the box shape and location to get better sun exposure." Frodo sat up and put the lid down securely, then collected the non-edible harvest that he'd gathered. "You go back inside; I'll come in once I take care of these."

But Merry waited and watched Frodo spread the stuff on the compost heap beside the privy. Frodo used the pitchfork leaning against the privy to turn over the compost until the additions were buried and the heap steamed with the release of its inner heat. Eventually he started wandering back, pausing halfway through the garden to blow his nose and cough.

When Frodo reached the door, Merry opened it and let him go in first. "You could have told us where you were going, you know," Merry said quietly as they hung up the cloaks.

Frodo shrugged and took his vegetables from Merry. "I didn't think it would take long."

Merry followed him to the kitchen and leaned against the doorway. "How are we supposed to tell you something has happened if we don't know where you are?"

"I suppose that's true," Frodo admitted.

"And I don't think Brownlock would say being outside mucking around in your garden is minding yourself."

Frodo sighed in exasperation and stopped cleaning the carrots to stare at Merry. "I have had colds before and been able to tend to things anyway. I've been able to take care of us just fine, and as often as you're here sometimes, you don't see the half of it. The bread? I grew the wheat and rye. Those canned pears? We picked the pears and I canned them. There are very few foodstuffs now that I must obtain from others, and I don't think you can say we're lacking in anything. I've done all of this with feeling ill every so often, as happens to everyone now and then. Don't be a mother hen."

"I didn't realize you have been doing so much," Merry admitted. "I'm glad you're doing so well, but just because you've done things while feeling ill in the past does not mean it's wise to do so. Let me propose a bargain: I'll stop nagging you -and tell Pip to stop, too- if you promise me something."

"What?" Frodo asked suspiciously.

"Go to bed when you need to, without us needing to convince you. I know you know when you need rest; trust us to carry on without you."

"I do trust you, or I wouldn't have gone outside," Frodo protested.

"But you didn't trust us enough to tell us where you were going," Merry countered.

"You wouldn't have let me go if I had told you!"

"You don't know that. I would've thought about keeping you indoors and going myself, or I might have just made sure you were dressed warmly. Which you weren't," Merry said pointedly.

"Oh, stop it. I'll agree to your little bargain. But the needling must stop now."

"Of course." Merry said brightly. "Is there anything you need me to do right now?"

Frodo looked around a moment. "Fetch more wood," he said finally. "We could have brought some in when we were outside, if I'd known we needed it."

"I'll check the other rooms too and see how much is needed," Merry acknowledged and left to do so.

Frodo finished cleaning the vegetables, then chopped the carrots and radishes and added them to the stock pot with some cubed potatoes for soup for later. He checked the pantry; he had bread and cheese and sausage, which would be enough for dinner with the soup.

He set some yeast in water to cure so he could make bread in a little while; he anticipated the loaf he had would be finished off tonight. Frodo pulled out the flour and the bowl and pan he'd need to make the bread and left them on the counter, then sat down at the table to think until the yeast started bubbling.

Though he hated to admit it, Merry might just have a point. He hadn't thought about it in terms of not trusting Merry and Pippin to do things right when he wasn't there, but it had a disturbing amount of truth in it. Frodo confessed to himself that he had a hard time seeing them as anything but fun-loving pranksters sometimes, but even Pip was well past his coming-of-age and they deserved for him to think better of them. It was true they still enjoyed their jokes, but so did Frodo on occasion (though he had to mind the timing, to be sure Primula wasn't watching and learning from her miscreant father!). Yes, he would need to remember they were both grown up now and act accordingly.

Merry was also right that he should be taking better care of himself -he was exhausted, and knew he had no excuse to work himself to the bone with them here- but he wasn't going to tell his cousin that. It might go to his head to be right twice in one conversation.

Judging enough time had passed for the yeast to bubble, Frodo rose and mixed up the bread, then covered the bowl with a towel and let it sit to rise. He would have to remember to knead it in about an hour. As he was cleaning up the stray flour and putting away his supplies, Merry returned with wood. "Took you long enough," Frodo teased.

"It does take a bit longer when you have to split some of the logs to fit in the stove," Merry retorted, waving one of the pieces to display his handiwork.

Frodo laughed. "Fair enough," he conceded, then sneezed. He wiped his nose with his soggy handkerchief -he be sneezing far more often than he'd noticed for his handkerchief to be in that state- and caught Merry watching him. Frodo suspected he knew what was going through his cousin's mind, and felt a guilty glee that Merry couldn't say it or break the bargain. Though that meant he should also live up to that bargain . . .

"If you'll take care of the bread, I could use a nap," Frodo said blandly, watching for Merry's reaction. Some surprise, but he also seemed pleased.

"Are you sure I know what to do with bread?" Merry asked innocently, grinning.

"Since I taught you myself, yes," Frodo said with a chuckle and a cough. "It's only been sitting for about five minutes, so you have a while before it needs anything."

"All right. I'll handle it." Merry said, and waited. Frodo seemed undecided whether he really wanted to go, but after a moment, he shrugged and left the room.

Frodo peeked in Prim's room before going to his own; she was sleeping, and Pippin was slouched in the chair, either sleeping or daydreaming. If he was daydreaming, Frodo could guess the subject was his lovely wife Diamond. Frodo momentarily wondered what Diamond thought of Pippin being here, but shrugged and assumed he had cleared it with her first. If not, well, that was his problem.

He continued on to his room, sighing as he closed the door, then cursing himself when the sigh started him coughing. Bother, but that was annoying! It was over quickly, and Frodo sat on the edge of his bed and debated whether to undress or sleep in his clothes. Undressing would be more comfortable, but keeping his clothes on required far less effort. He chose the less effort option, and crawled beneath his blankets.

Merry looked in on him about ten minutes after Frodo left the kitchen and found him dead to the world. Merry smirked; Frodo really was as tired as he looked, all protests aside. He'd done the right thing to have Frodo agree to the bargain.

Pippin wanted to wake Frodo for dinner, but Merry disagreed, arguing that while Frodo probably needed the food, he needed the sleep more. Pippin saw his point and agreed, and took it upon himself to entertain Primula while Merry tended to the remaining household chores. Merry briefly looked in on Frodo, who was sleeping soundly and snoring, and instructed Pippin to wake him when he needed to sleep. It wasn't that Prim was in any danger -she was recovering slowly but surely- but Merry and Pippin wanted to make sure she lacked nothing and Frodo could rest knowing she was well cared for.

Frodo finally woke in the wee hours of the morning and was shocked that his cousins had let him sleep so long. He rose and changed, since sleeping in one's clothes is a sure recipe to looking disheveled and feeling little better, then wandered to the kitchen to satisfy his growling stomach. Frodo was just sitting down at the table with some of the dinner leftovers when Merry stuck his head in. "Ah, you're awake. I wondered who was bumbling around at this time of night."

"I wasn't bumbling," Frodo said indignantly, and Merry laughed.

"It's far too easy to get a rise out of you sometimes, cousin," he teased. "Did the sleep help? You're looking somewhat better, at any rate."

"Yes, thank you, I'm feeling as well as can be expected. Let me eat, and you can go to bed. You're looking rough around the edges."

"Sounds good," Merry agreed. "Prim's been sleeping fine, so there isn't much to watch anyway."

"I'm glad," Frodo said fervently.

"We all are, I think," Merry replied. "Go ahead and eat, and you know where to find me."

Frodo nodded, beginning to eat, and Merry disappeared from the doorway. The soup wasn't bad, though he'd done better, and his slice of bread from the new loaf seemed . . . off, somehow, but Frodo couldn't put a finger on what seemed different. Ah, well, it was perfectly edible, and that's what mattered.

He finished eating fairly quickly, and went to sit with his daughter. Merry wordlessly rose and left when Frodo entered the room; rather than sit in the chair right away, Frodo took a moment to perch on the edge of the bed. He gently touched Prim's cheek and brushed back some of her hair -it would need to be washed and combed, as it looked matted and dirty- and watched her sleep.

The congestion in her chest was no longer audible with each breath; her cheeks were slightly pale rather than fever pink, but Frodo thought she looked quite fine. His lovely daughter, recovering well from an illness he had feared would take her from him. He didn't know what he would have done if he'd lost her; she was his treasure, his reason for living, she brought light into his darkest days. If he did not have her, he would have sailed long ago and missed so many happy days for those he loved. Pippin had already married, and while he hadn't quite settled down just yet, Frodo expected children would not be long in coming -Merry and Pippin both were very good with Primula, and would make wonderful fathers.

Frodo shook himself from his rather maudlin train of thought and settled himself in the chair. Hours slowly ticked by, and the grey pre-dawn light brightened outside the window. Primula woke up when it was almost fully light outside. "Morning, da," she said sleepily.

"Good morning, poppet. How are you today?"

"Better than before," she said shyly, scratching at her head. "But my head itches."

"It's been a while since we've washed your hair, that's why it's itchy," Frodo explained. "I'm thinking about having you take a bath later. Would you like that?"

"Oh, yes!" she enthused, nodding emphatically. "It would feel very nice."

"We'll need to comb your hair first, though."

She giggled. "And yours too, Da!"

Frodo reached up to feel his hair, and indeed he'd forgotten to comb it when he got up. "Mine too, then. Would you like to comb my hair?"

She grinned and nodded. Frodo combing her hair and then Primula combing his had been one of her favorite games since she was old enough to understand what a comb was for.

Frodo smiled and fetched the comb from the top of her dresser. "Let's say you can do mine first, just this once," he said as he knelt beside the bed and offered her the comb.

Primmy plucked the comb from his hand and sat up eagerly. Frodo bent his head, and she went to work. She was quite gentle with the comb considering how young she still was, and Frodo found it rather soothing. Then she stopped and announced, "Done!"

"Good job!" Frodo said encouragingly. "That feels much better. Now shall we do yours?"

"Yes!" she said, and handed him the comb.

Frodo sat just behind her on the bed and gingerly began teasing the mats and tangles out. "I'm trying to be gentle, but there may still be some pulls," he warned her.

"All right," she said seriously, and didn't cry out much when he hit a few snags.

It took quite a bit of effort to detangle Prim's hair, and there were some spots that Frodo despaired of freeing and suspected that he may have to cut out. He was proud of the fact that he'd learned enough about lasses' hair to be able to style Primmy's and keep it fairly tidy -the last time he'd had to cut a tangle out was when she was maybe three and had tried to play in a patch of thistles- but he could admit when he was well and truly beaten.

Frodo was working on a particularly bad spot right at the back of her head when Pippin ambled in. "Oh, how sweet, Frodo's combing her hair," he said with a wide grin.

"And you'd do the same for a daughter of yours, I'm sure," Frodo replied dismissively.

"Possibly, if my wife would let me near her hair," Pippin said as he claimed the empty chair. "Do you need anything?"

"I might need my shears if I can't get this part to cooperate," Frodo said with frustration. Primmy gasped a little, but didn't say anything. Frodo patted her shoulder. "That's only the last resort, and you know I wouldn't take off any more than I had to," he reassured her.

"I know," she said in a small voice.

"Do you need anything, my dear baby cousin?" Pippin asked her.

"What's for breakfast?" she asked timidly.

Pippin turned to Frodo. "For shame! Putting hair before breakfast. You ought to be ashamed of yourself," he scolded, partly in jest, though he was admittedly somewhat horrified that Frodo's first thought hadn't been food like it would be for any normal hobbit. But then, Frodo wasn't really a normal hobbit, so it all made sense.

"I shall go whip up something for your breakfast, my lady, and perhaps your father will be done attacking your head by then." Pippin rose from the chair, did an exaggerated bow for a giggling Primmy, and strode from the room.

"I'm sorry I didn't think about your breakfast," Frodo said after Pippin left.

"That's all right, Da. I didn't think about being hungry until he asked," Prim said honestly.

Frodo was just doing the final run-throughs on her hair when Pippin arrived with breakfast for the three of them. There were still some areas that seemed to be tangled every time Frodo found them with the comb despite careful attention to those spots, so Frodo let them be and hoped getting her hair clean would help. Pippin had done well with breakfast; there was porridge and applesauce with cinnamon for Primmy and omelets and sausages for himself and Frodo.

Pippin finished eating first, so Frodo asked him to start some water heating in the bathing room for Primmy's bath. The water was nearly warm enough by the time she had finished slowly eating, so Frodo made one last attempt on her hair (having learned long ago that hair is less tangled after a bath if it's not tangled before the bath) and pulled out a clean nightgown for her.

When the bath was ready, Pippin swooped into Prim's room, scooped her up, and threw her over his shoulder as she squealed. They were halfway to the bathing room, Frodo a few steps behind them, when Primula's giggles turned to coughs. Pippin hurriedly took her off his shoulder and set her on the floor inside the bathing room; Frodo appeared seconds later with a cup of water, but by then the coughs had nearly subsided and Prim looked fine, if slightly red in the face. She willingly drank the water, and nodded when asked if she was all right.

"All right, then, it's in the tub with you," Frodo said briskly, pulling her nightgown over her head and lifting her into the steaming water.

"Ooh," she sighed in contentment, and sank down until she was entirely submerged. She emerged moments later, dripping wet and smiling.

"Your uncle Sam would say you're entirely too comfortable in that water, there," Pippin said with a laugh from where he sat on the floor minding the fire.

"I think even Sam would be comfortable in his bathwater! But she does swim like a fish," Frodo admitted. "Come here, my water maiden, and let me soap your hair and back."

Prim obediently sat at the end of the tub where her da was perched on a stool and stayed still long enough for him to lather up her hair and scrub her back. When he patted her shoulder and passed her the soapy sponge, she cleaned the rest of herself, then went back underwater to rinse. She presented her hair for Frodo's inspection to check for lingering soap, and Frodo said, "All clear. Did you want to stay in the water a little longer, or are you done?"

"I'm done," she said with a yawn.

Frodo wasn't surprised by her answer or the yawn. She had been unusually quiet during her bath -usually she was brimming with questions or stories- and while she sometimes was quiet, it was a thoughtful quiet, not this drowsy quiet. He held out a hand so she could stand up without slipping, and Pippin brought over a towel he'd been warming and wrapped her in it. Pippin sat back down near the fire with Primmy in his lap while Frodo grabbed a smaller towel and briskly rubbed her hair. He never got her hair entirely dry -it was much longer than his and he didn't have the knack for it- but it was good enough.

Frodo had to stand back up and go to Prim's room for the comb, having forgotten to bring it earlier. Mercifully, there weren't a lot of new tangles, so he finished fairly easily, and he and Pippin helped her put the clean nightgown on. Frodo picked her up from Pippin's lap and had her wrap her legs around his waist and her arms around his neck; she pressed her face against his neck sleepily as they traversed the short distance back to her room. Frodo noted that she still felt a little feverish to the touch, but it had been far worse and he was grateful for the improvement.

He was surprised to find Merry in Primmy's room, tucking in the sheets. "I heard you in the bathing room and thought I'd take advantage of Primmy being out of bed to change the sheets."

"I hadn't thought of that. Thank you, Merry," Frodo said as he laid his daughter in the newly made bed and Merry tucked her in.

"Thank you, Uncle Merry," she said drowsily.

The three adult hobbits watched silently as she relaxed and her breathing deepened. Pippin finally broke the silence. "You'll have your work cut out for you, Frodo, when she grows up and the lads start lining up for her affections."

"I try not to think about it," Frodo said lightly. "I have plenty of time yet before she's old enough to worry about that."

"When the time comes, just let me know if any Brandybuck lads need help staying in line," Merry said with an evil grin.

Frodo laughed. "I think the angry father will be deterrent enough, but if I need the Master's assistance, I'll be sure to let you know." After a pause, he said, "Speaking of the Master, how is your father doing? He didn't look well the last time I was at Brandy Hall, but your mother said he'd just had a cold."

"He did have a bad cold, but there's more than that. Old Brownlock says his heart is going bad, so he could be fine for a while, but he will likely get worse, and could just keel over dead one day," Merry said.

"I'm sorry," Frodo said earnestly. "I didn't realize it was that bad."

"He hasn't told anyone outside those who need to know. He doesn't want there to be concern for his health. But he's having me take over many of his duties while he remains Master in name."

A somber silence fell. "So, Pip, how long will it be until the Travellers control the Shire?" Merry teased.

"I'm not ready to be responsible yet," Pippin scoffed.

"I don't have anything to do with the running of the Shire, and I prefer it that way," Frodo added.

"You have influence with those who do, so it's the same thing," Merry countered.

Frodo waved a hand dismissivly. "Are you still courting Estella?" Merry blushed mightily, and Frodo laughed until he coughed.

"I keep telling him to marry her already, but he's being a gentlehobbit and taking it slow," Pippin said with a grin.

"Just because you and Diamond only needed six weeks to go from courting to engaged doesn't mean all of us want to rush into it," Merry replied defensively. "I want to be sure Estella is ready for me to ask."

"And she's probably wondering what's taking him so long," Pippin whispered to Frodo, who grinned widely and nodded.

"No doubt. She might even be wondering if he thinks she's not suited to be Mistress of Buckland," Frodo whispered back.

Merry looked horrified. "She wouldn't . . . I don't . . ." he stammered.

Pippin clapped him on the back. "Ask her. You want to, don't you?"

"Yes," Merry said adamantly.

"Then do it. I think you'll be surprised how quickly she says yes."

Merry looked to Frodo, who was smiling and nodding. "All right, I'll ask her. But if it goes badly, it's your fault, both of you."

"It won't," Frodo soothed. "I'm sure Fatty could tell you she's been fretting about whether you're really serious. Now, have you had breakfast yet? I swear I can hear your stomach from here."

"No," Merry admitted. "I was going to go eat when I thought to change the sheets." Frodo gave him a look, and Merry said, "I'm going, I'm going," and backed out the door. He was nearly to the kitchen when there was a knock on the front door and a voice called, "Post!"

Merry detoured and answered it, accepting two letters from the Quick Post rider and tipping him well. Good old Sam, he could always be counted on. Frodo looked at the letters curiously. "What is it?"

"One for you, one for me," Merry said, handing him his letter.

"It's from Sam," Frodo said with some puzzlement. He read it quickly while Merry watched, and looked even more puzzled. "He's asking if I could keep a pony here for him for when he's in Buckland on business, and he would provide the tack. I don't understand how that could be helpful -doesn't he typically ride here on a pony?"

Merry shrugged. "I don't pay attention to how he usually gets here, to be honest. But that pasture of yours is ideal for ponies -Pip's and mine always seem perfectly happy there."

"Do you have ponies out there now?" Frodo asked, startled. Merry nodded. "I didn't think about how you two got here. Have you been checking on them?"

"Yes, Frodo, we know how to tend to ponies. One of us has gone out to check on them at least once a day."

"Good. But do you know what Sam means? I can't think of a time he would be here without having used a pony or a wagon or some such."

"Perhaps he wants to hike here once in a while, like you used to," Merry suggested.

Frodo looked at him closely, then said aghast, "This is part of your crusade to get me to have a pony, isn't it? You thought that if Sam asked me to keep it here for him, I'd agree. Then when Sam had one brought, he'd say that I was free to ride it whenever I wanted when he doesn't need it."

Merry had the decency to look embarrassed. "In short, yes," he admitted.

Frodo's eyes narrowed. "You need to learn not to meddle, my dear cousin," he said darkly, poking Merry in the chest with every word for emphasis, then he seemed to deflate and sighed. "But given recent events, I don't know that I have any choice but to agree to that pretense. If Sam is willing to play along with your wild idea, I suppose I can only accept. It will give me a chance to teach Primula to ride, at any rate."

Merry sensed that showing his joy would not be well-received, so he said only, "I think it's for the best, Frodo."

"I know you do," Frodo said with a smirk. "Now what did Sam have to say to you? That he was suggesting the pony to me and you should do anything you can to make me accept?"

"Close," Merry said, skimming Sam's words briefly. "He says he's surprised I didn't try to give you a pony outright, and also mentions some business we need to discuss, but I don't think you care about that part. I'll have to tell him I knew better than to give you a pony because you're stubborn enough not to accept it since you can't reciprocate with some gift equally large." He left out the statement that Sam intended to also send money to Frodo 'for his trouble' in caring for the pony, as a way to increase what Frodo was willing to accept from him. Sam considered it the least he could do to ensure Frodo and Primula were well provided for from what Frodo had bestowed in giving him Bag End.

"I don't wish to be in anyone's debt," Frodo said icily.

"A gift from family doesn't put you in anyone's debt, Frodo! But I don't want to argue about this; I know better than to try. I would like to go eat, though. It must be nearly elevenses and I'm still starving."

"Goodness! By all means, go feed yourself. I'll be along in a moment." Frodo said, turning to re-lock the front door.

Merry pressed a kiss to the top of Frodo's head and retreated back down the hall. Frodo stood there a moment, thinking. He wasn't too proud to recognize what was essential for the safety and well-being of his daughter. If it meant Primula was happy and healthy, he would do it, whatever 'it' might turn out to be. This time, that meant accepting Sam's offer to keep a pony on his behalf, with permission to use it during his (many and lengthy) absences. It might even mean that he could break more ground for grain, so he could have more to share with the farmer's widow down the lane.

Primula would be well, they would have a pony, and life was good. Frodo sneezed. Life would be even better once he got rid of this cold, he mused, blowing his nose noisily in his handkerchief, but he was satisfied in the meantime. He went to find out what Merry was doing in the kitchen, humming to himself.