From the Ashes a Fire

by Nefertiti

Rating: NC-17

Pairing: Gandalf/Aragorn

Summary: Gandalf and Aragorn develop a deep love during their time spent working to counter the forces of Sauron, and they struggle to maintain it once the Ranger becomes engaged to Arwen.

Disclaimer: No rights, no income.

Author's note: This first chapter takes place in 2956 of the Third Age of Middle-earth, fourteen years after the events of The Hobbit.

Thanks as always to Elanor, treasured muse and beta.

Part 1

The sun was setting in the unseen horizon beyond the thick trees as Gandalf turned his horse off the Road and made for a clearing near the solitary hill called Weathertop. He had camped there often, and with luck there would be a stash of firewood hidden in the usual place. He and the Rangers often spent nights there, and they had developed a polite custom of leaving fuel for the next person, in case he arrived after dark. Indeed, he hoped that he might find the clearing occupied by a cheerful fire and someone pleasant to share in some chat and a pipe. It had not been many days since the Wizard had left Rivendell, but he almost always preferred companionship during the long evenings. Tonight, however, the clearing was dark and empty.

He easily found the stack of small logs and soon had a blaze going and a simple stew simmering over it. He pulled out his pipe and lit it, puffing abstractedly as he pondered his current journey. Despite the troubles that seemed to be growing far to the South in Gondor, he had taken the time to return to consult with Elrond and other wise Elves. Now he was on his way to visit Bilbo and to check on the state of the Shire. Would there be spies of Saruman haunting that pleasant little land, he wondered. He could not fathom why the other Wizard bothered, and yet since the last meeting of the White Council three years earlier, Gandalf had become aware of these agents, prying into his doings. He had escaped such attentions at Rivendell and had not seen anyone on the Road, and he certainly hoped not to encounter any spies on this trip. Saruman's attitude had slowly changed over recent decades, and the Grey Wizard found himself uncomfortable and suspicious in his colleague's presence, though for no particular reason that he knew. Not for the first time he thought back over that last Council meeting, searching for clues in even the most casual remarks of Saruman.

Even as he considered such matters, Gandalf's keen hearing picked up a tiny sound in the woods to his left, in the direction of the Road. He turned and peered with a neutral expression as a dim figure appeared in the darkness and slowly approached. The Wizard cautiously shifted his sword, which had been lying on the ground to his left, across to his right side. As the newcomer entered the clearing, the Wizard saw that it was a Man, obviously well equipped and experienced with life in the Wild. Unless Gandalf was much mistaken, he was a Ranger, though not one whom he recalled ever meeting. Not that that was any great wonder, for the Man seemed quite young, not past his mid-20s. He also seemed quite handsome, though his ragged beard and tousled hair made it difficult to judge. He was leading a tired-looking horse.

The Man regarded him for a moment, and a grin spread over his face. "Gandalf? Yes, of course it is you. What a lucky chance!"

The Wizard stared at him more closely and with a puzzled expression. Despite his superb memory, he could not recall ever having seen this fellow before. It quickly occurred to him that this could be some trick of Saruman's. "I'm sorry, I don't think I-"

"No, of course not," The Man stepped closer until he was only a few feet from Gandalf. "We have never met. It's just that I have spent most of my life in Rivendell. It was a day nearly fifteen years ago now. I was a lad of a mere ten. It was a holiday of sorts, with most of the Elves out in the open air, singing and celebrating. I was startled to hear that a troupe of Dwarves had appeared unexpectedly, accompanied by a Hobbit and the great Istar, Mithrandir."

Gandalf smiled and nodded, beginning to understand. The young Man went on eagerly, his eyes sparkling with enthusiasm. "I was not allowed to attend the banquet greeting you all, of course. But I remember stealing away from lessons to gaze out of windows at your group. Sometimes in the evenings I would watch from my room with the door slightly ajar as you all passed by on your way to your own bedrooms. I found you all fascinating-the tiny Hobbit and the sturdy Dwarves--and all those bushy beards! But most of all your tales. Oh, yes, I managed to hear some of those, creeping into the shadows in the Hall of Fire where no one noticed if I stayed up far past my bedtime. Rivendell seemed a far less exciting place when your band of adventurers left. Oh, I am forgetting my manners. My name is Aragorn, the son of Arathorn."

Gandalf had been smiling more and more broadly as he listened, but upon hearing this name he frowned slightly with sudden interest and looked curiously at the young Man. So this was the heir of Isildur of whom Elrond had told him. He had hoped to meet Aragorn during his recent visits to Rivendell, for the Man featured prominently in his own hopes for the future of Middle-earth. Elrond had, however, told him secretly that Aragorn had left to take up the life of a Ranger, drifting through the northern lands and helping to protect them.

The Wizard smiled and gestured toward the fire. "Please, do not stand so formally. The night is chilly, and you look as though you have ridden far this day. I have a little stew cooking-not much, but you are welcome to share it."

Aragorn sat close to the fire and dug in his pack. "I would be delighted, and I have some reasonably fresh bread to fill out our little meal."

"Excellent! Tell me, are you on your way to Rivendell now?"

The Man's smile faded somewhat. "No. I have come from south of here, and now that I have struck the Road, I plan to head toward Bree. Rangers often meet there to exchange news."

"Oh, yes, I am well aware of it. I often hear much news from them when I am there. Indeed, I am headed in that direction myself, though I purpose to go further and visit friends in the Shire."

"Really? That is wonderful! We can travel together, then. That is, if you don't mind a brash young fellow inviting himself along on your trip."

"Not at all! On the contrary, I too seldom have company during my journeys. And as you probably know, many of my duties and yours are directed toward the same ends. We have much to discuss, now that we have finally met."

Aragorn's smile faded altogether. "Yes, our seemingly endless struggle against the forces of Darkness."

Gandalf chuckled. "Endless! You have been a Ranger for what, a few years?"

"Five years, yes."

"I have been wandering about this continent for nearly two thousand years now, young Man, and I can assure you, by now I know just how endless this struggle has come to seem."

Aragorn chuckled in turn. "To be sure. Yet I base my statement not just on my own experiences but on the tales told in the House of Elrond as well. I probably have more sense of the history of Middle-earth-or at least of the Elves--than do most men my age."

The Wizard nodded. "I'm sure you do. And more sense of its future, no doubt."

Aragorn looked at him quizzically. "Its future. What would I know about that?"

"Well, obviously that you will be the King of Gondor someday." He spoke lightly but not in jest.

"I know only that my future will consist of striving to make that possible-not for me necessarily, but perhaps for one of my heirs someday."

"Oh, let us be optimistic. You are the rightful King, and you come of a long-lived race. I certainly hope that within your time we shall defeat our great Enemy. And if not, as you say, perhaps we shall prepare the way for your heirs."

Aragorn stared at the Wizard with a tiny smile on his face. Gandalf pulled out a bowl and spoon, and the Man produced a battered mug and spoon of his own, and they dished out their meager meal. Afterward they sat talking long into the night, each growing more delighted that this chance meeting had brought him such a pleasant companion.

During the days and evenings on their way to Bree, the conversations continued. The land was bleak, especially in the area of the Midgewater Marshes, and there were no inns. Ordinarily when Aragorn had sat by the fire at night with other Rangers, he heard their tales of small adventures and doings and sometimes blushed as they boasted of conquests among the wenches of local villages. Later in the night they might lie with each other or him to seek pleasure, but of that they never spoke openly.

With the Wizard, however, talk could become magical, and the hours flitted by without Aragorn sensing it. The past became almost more real than the present, parading before him: sometimes his own people's past, the glories of Numenor and the dreadful years that followed, sometimes the past of the Dwarves, all conjured by the Wizard's eloquence until he could see vivid images of people long dead and places now sunk beneath the waves. What he was struggling for was painted for him in verbal pictures so bright that he longed to achieve it, and places that he had never seen suddenly seemed worth protecting at any cost.

Night after night he listened to the Wizard and questioned him and learned of him. Then abruptly one day it occurred to him that their travel together, so casually undertaken, must soon end. They would reach Bree, but Gandalf would go on to Hobbiton. He found the idea of once more being alone of an evening by the campfire almost unbearable. He fantasized all sort of reasons and excuses why the Wizard and he should continue on together a bit longer or meet again soon.

Gandalf noticed all this and wondered at it. He was used to enthralling audiences with his tales, whether he told them in a royal hall at Minas Tirith, the Hall of Fire at Rivendell, or a simple pub in the Shire. Suddenly, however, the tales seemed to matter. This Man, so young and naive, might someday be a King, and the Wizard sensed that in a way his tales were making that possibility all the more likely. He elaborated his stories, spinning them out to hold the beautiful Man's fascinated gaze the longer. Then one night, as his tale finally wound to its end and silence fell, Gandalf realized with a pang that he felt impelled to move to Aragorn, to kneel and take him in his arms, to lie beside him and forget the enormous burden of Middle-earth for a short while as they explored and pleasured each other.

That in itself was not surprising or upsetting. Gandalf had lain with many lovers over the centuries, some of them met under similar circumstances-two travelers encountering each other and taking some comfort together after long loneliness. Aragorn was different, though. Here he sensed immediately that there could be no question of casual pleasure and release. What he felt for this young Man was beginning to be dangerous, all the more so because he vaguely sensed that the Ranger might not be averse to such activities. Gandalf thrust such thoughts resolutely aside.

At last they reached the Forsaken Inn, a day's ride east of Bree. Having good food and ale was very pleasant, and they sat long in the common room that evening. Thin though he was, Gandalf managed to eat and drink at least as much as did the Ranger, and he was very convivial, laughing and gossiping with the locals and other travelers easily. Ordinarily Aragorn was fairly quiet and withdrawn when staying in country inns, but the Istar drew him into the conversations, and soon he felt relaxed and happy being in the group.

It was just as well that they had such an enjoyable evening, for the next day was intermittently rainy, and the pair talked only rarely with each other as they concentrated on making progress as fast as possible without causing their horses to slip on the muddy, uneven surface of the Road. Finally, well after night had fallen, they reached the Prancing Pony at Bree. They had had no lunch and went directly into the bar. Gandalf dropped wearily onto the bench of an empty booth and twisted his body as he sought to catch the hard-pressed waiter's attention. "They make a wonderful sausage locally that you cannot get anywhere else. I always look forward to having it when I return here. Shall I order the same for you?"

Aragorn smiled as he felt a sudden rush of affection for the Istar. This was but one instance of what he had already come to treasure in Gandalf: his delight in such trivial things as a favorite local sausage even as he went about journeys that might well help determine the fate of a continent. "That sounds wonderful. Please do."

As the waiter nodded to them that he would take their orders soon, Gandalf turned back to face Aragorn fully. "On the other hand, their ale does not compare particularly well with what we had last night. I suggest that I order a pitcher of wine instead-unless you dislike wine."

"I could hardly grow up among Elves and dislike wine."

"No, of course not. What was I thinking? Not that the wine here can measure up to that of Rivendell in delicacy of taste, but it is not at all bad. Better at any rate than the ale, as I said."

A short time later, after ordering their meal, Gandalf excused himself to go and greet Barliman Butterbur, the inn's young proprietor and obviously a good friend of the Wizard's. Aragorn watched with a little smile as the two embraced, then bantered a bit as Barliman tried distractedly to keep track of what was shouted at him from every direction. Half the people in the room seemed to know Gandalf, and he was stopped several times on his way back to the booth.

Aragorn sighed. During that long day he had become sure of something that had been growing in the back of his mind. He had found himself falling in love with the Istar. Of course, how could he not? Not only did Gandalf believe in him and inspire hope and enthusiasm for the great tasks ahead of him, but he was such a wonderful companion. The fact that Gandalf was so old hardly seemed relevant, for his white hair and lined face were belied by his vigor of movement and his youthful energy. This was only the Man's second experience of love, but he recognized it and was at a loss as to what to do. Gandalf was friendly and kind, but surely the gushing professions of a very young Man's admiration and passion were not anything he would want to hear. Despite the Wizard's casual behavior and enjoyment of everyday pleasures, Aragorn could not forget that this was a lofty Istar, bound on important missions.

Eventually their meal arrived, and Gandalf came and sat down again. He cut a piece of the sausage, chewing and savoring it and finally nodding. "Yes, as good as always. The Pony is quite dependable. I have known four generations of the Butterbur family now, and they have never made any significant changes. In a troubled world, it is delightful to be able to know that it is always here, waiting and familiar."

They ate for a time without talking until they had assuaged their worst hunger. Aragorn's mind turned again to the one thought that had plagued him recently. The next day he and Gandalf would be parting, since the Wizard was going on to the Shire and he himself would have to stay on in Bree until one or more of his comrades arrived to share news and confer. It would be pleasant to live for a short time in such conditions, with a variety of food and a comfortable bed. It occurred to him, not for the first time, that he wished he dared to invite Gandalf to share that bed with him. He had relatively little sexual experience, just quick, furtive couplings occasionally with his fellow Rangers when they met in far-flung, isolated areas of the wilderness. Although he had been somewhat ashamed of these activities and found them painful at times, he also had been thrilled by the resulting pleasure. Certainly his desire built up to an uncomfortable point fairly quickly when he traveled alone.

Now he very much wanted to experience that intense, exciting pleasure with the Wizard. He was almost certain that Gandalf indulged in such activities. After he had grown old enough to understand these things, he had heard gossip at Rivendell that strongly hinted as much. Still, it was one thing for a mighty Istar to lie with one or another of the ancient and sophisticated Elves of Elrond's household and quite another for him to want such a young Man as himself, whose skills in bed were quite rudimentary. As he turned over such ideas in his mind, he suddenly realized that it might well be heart-wrenching to him to sleep with the Wizard in a casual sort of way-without talk of love, without anything further happening between them. Yet unwise though it was, the temptation to try for at least one night spent making love with Gandalf was irresistible.

He kept glancing up at his companion, but the Wizard's eyes were on his own plate, and there was certainly no hint of encouragement there. After much dithering, Aragorn finally made the most innocently suggestive remark he could think of. "It is a lonely existence out on the road. I am very glad that we met."

This made Gandalf look up and smile gently at him. "Surely, though, you sometimes travel with your fellow Rangers."

"Oh, yes. Occasionally we run across each other in the Wild-or more frequently arrange to meet in places like this. But there are too few of us patrolling such a large area. Unless we anticipate some specific trouble that requires our combined forces, we cannot afford to travel in twos and threes but must spread ourselves out, crisscrossing the North."

Gandalf's smile became sad as he listened to the Man, and he nodded sympathetically. "I know that situation all too well. I travel alone much of the time, though to be sure when I reach the places where I must do my research or consult with others among the Wise, I can usually enjoy conviviality among agreeable people. And of course I try to spend as much time as I can in places like Rivendell or Lothlórien or the Shire."

Aragorn's eyebrows rose slightly. "The Shire? From what I know of Hobbits, I should think that an Istar would find little to keep him there. I realize that, like me, you are to some extent patrolling these lands, but you surely would not wish to linger in such a rustic place."

Gandalf stared into space for a short time, smiling fondly, and then spoke. "On the contrary, I find Hobbits quite charming." He glanced around to make sure that no Hobbits were nearby and could hear him. "Oh, I am well aware that they are not terribly bright, and they certainly are among the most insular of all the peoples, seemingly uninterested in anything that goes on beyond their own borders. And they are a bit boisterous. . . very inclined to gossip . . ." He shook his head. "The feuds that go on sometimes, within families! Still, they are also friendly, generous, witty in their own simple way, and surprisingly brave and tough underneath their placid exteriors. Yes, I do enjoy spending time there. Only a week or two, but that can be a very welcome respite after the politics of great courts or the privations of a long, solitary trip. Oh, and they invented smoking, which is a major contribution to the world." He smiled as he pulled out his pipe.

Aragorn grinned in return and pulled out his own. Once they had lit up, he replied, "Yes, I enjoy my time in Bree, including encountering the Hobbits here, but I thought perhaps I was unusual among the 'Big People' in finding them agreeable. I know that many of the Rangers patrol this area only because it is part of their duty."

Gandalf nodded thoughtfully. "Yes. A pity, that. They do not take the trouble to get to know the peoples that could potentially be their allies in our great struggle."

Aragorn looked a bit skeptical. "The Hobbits as useful allies? That seems unlikely."

The Wizard looked keenly at him. "Have you not heard of the part played by Bilbo Baggins in the Quest of Erebor?"

"Oh, yes, I heard the tales that were told afterwards, including those in the Hall of Fire during your return visit with Bilbo. He behaved in a heroic fashion indeed. Still, Elrond has always said that Bilbo was quite exceptional for a Hobbit."

"He is exceptional, no doubt, and yet some of his relatives had gone out adventuring in the world before he did. He is not the only exception, though he was far and away the most successful. The point is, however, that I do enjoy the society of Hobbits-for limited stretches of time, at any rate. It's too bad that you can't come with me and meet more of them, including Bilbo. Maybe you will be able to someday. At any rate, I am sorry that we shall not be able to keep each other company on the Road beyond Bree."

Gandalf hesitated. He wanted very much to ask Aragorn a question, though he found it difficult to phrase delicately. Finally he plunged ahead. "Speaking of loneliness on the road, though, surely a handsome and valiant young Man like yourself has a lady somewhere, waiting for you and inspiring thoughts that sustain you." He very much hoped that Aragorn would say yes, for that would help suppress some of the absurd ideas that the Wizard was beginning to find invading his own thoughts. And yet he had to admit that the idea of such a young lady existing somewhere in the world would cause a tiny pain deep within him. Nonsense, he scolded himself. Put such things out of your mind!

To his surprise, Aragorn stared sadly at the rough wood of the table and puffed on his pipe before answering. "I wish that there was a lady waiting for me. And I know who I wish she would be. Five years ago I met . . . I was still living in Rivendell, and Elrond's daughter Arwen returned from a long visit to Lothlórien." He paused as the Wizard's eyes widened briefly as he stared at Aragorn. The Man smiled ruefully and went on, "Yes, I realize that a pairing of one such as I with an immortal Elf-and one who has dwelt upon this earth for nearly three thousand years now-is absurd. Yet how can a young Man of twenty encounter such beauty and grace and wisdom and not long for them? Naturally I fell in love with her--and she with me, I believe, amazing though that still seems to me.

"At any rate, I was very young and naïve, and the thought of making her mine came to me. Elrond had only recently revealed to me my true identity as the heir of Isildur, and he had delivered over to me the shards of Narsil and the ring of Barahir. The thought that I was the son of kings no doubt led me to aspire higher than I ought when it came to love. And my very name, 'Estel,' perhaps deceived me into hoping that Arwen could be mine. Alas, my parents soon led me to realize that such a union is virtually impossible. My mother told me that I had set my sights too high in gazing upon Arwen with desire. I tried to brush her words aside as too gloomy. After all, she has led a hard life, what with early death of my father, when I was only two. Even now she has little reason to hope for much for the Dunedain. Then Elrond, who is the only father whom I have ever really known, confirmed her warning in equally discouraging terms. He told me, "The years will bring what they will. We will speak no more of this until many have passed. The days darken, and much evil is to come." I knew then that my hope was vain, and I left Rivendell immediately. I have never seen Arwen since, for indeed the days continue to darken, and now she seems very remote from me, almost like the dream that I at first sight imagined her to be."

Gandalf sighed deeply. "The times grow evil, no doubt. By chance-if chance it be-you met Arwen and went out into the Wild in the very year that our Enemy declared himself and took up his abode again in the great Tower of Southern Mirkwood. From everything that I have seen and heard, we face a struggle greater than any of this age of Middle-earth. I have tried to be optimistic and say that your royal inheritance will be fulfilled, and I do think that there is some chance of it. Perhaps then your thoughts could return to Arwen. I wonder if you are aware, though, that Arwen must ultimately make the choice that all of her family face, whether to cross the Sea and retain immortality or to stay here and embrace a mortal life. Obviously if Arwen were to choose to cleave to you, mortality would be her only option."

"Yes, Elrond told me that quite clearly, and he of course is fiercely opposed to it. How can I ask her to do that for me, even if our long struggles end in victory and I at last wear the crown of my forebears? So you see, the only lady who fills my thoughts brings me more longing than sustenance as I travel alone in the Wild."

"I am sorry to have asked a question that has made you dwell upon your sadness. Still, I am glad to know the true situation. When I have visited Rivendell in recent years, I have thought that there was an uncharacteristic melancholy about Arwen, but Elrond was clearly disinclined to discuss it, and I did not press the point. Well, we can but carry on in our efforts to defeat the Dark Lord. Perhaps someday, with great good fortune and the help of the Free Peoples of Middle-earth, we shall achieve victory. In that case, you will become King, and your dreams with regard to Arwen may not seem so absurd." The Wizard grinned. "You are, after all, the rightful King of Gondor, remnant of the great race of Numenor."

Aragorn felt a surge of gratitude and love for the old Man, so recently a stranger, who had taken the trouble to listen to him and to encourage him in a way that no one else ever had. Even Arwen, who had seemed so kind and so responsive, had without intending it made him feel humble and abashed at his own dawning love. To hear someone say, "You are the King of Gondor" so simply and straightforwardly touched him. Elrond had told him that he was the heir of Elendil and Isildur, but that was a very different thing. For the first time he felt a thrill at the idea that he might actually be King someday. With the help of the slight, aged figure sitting opposite him in a village pub, it did not seem ridiculous to think so. His eyes were brimming, and he struggled to contain his tears as he replied, "I thank you for your kind words. You bring me some hope, at least that I might play some worthy role in the great struggles to come. Indeed, more hope than I have had in a long time. If you have retained your own optimism over so many hundreds of years and in the face of such dangers and so many setbacks, who am I to despair, at the mere age of 25?"

Again he wished that he could get up the courage to ask Gandalf to join him in his bed. He longed at least to embrace and hold him, to sleep beside him even if they did not make love. For a moment he stared into the Wizard's dark eyes and thought that perhaps he saw a warmth there that hinted of similar thoughts, but the Wizard looked away immediately, busying himself with refilling his pipe.

Gandalf at last asked, "After you meet your comrades, where will you go next, do you think?"

"On a patrolling mission north of here, I would imagine."

Gandalf hesitated. "I wonder if you might not be more usefully employed elsewhere. Ultimately, whatever happens in the near future, this will all come to war, a great war that will decide everything. As the future King, you should take a role as a leader in that struggle-something that so far you have little training for. You are an expert hunter and tracker, no doubt, and I am sure that in small skirmishes you can easily hold your own. A great battle, however, is a very different matter."

Aragorn's hope sank somewhat. "I suppose you are right. What must I do to gain such training?"

"I would suggest that you notify your comrades that once your current patrolling mission is over, you will be leaving their number. Then you would be free to travel to the South, to Gondor and Rohan. You should see your kingdom and its most powerful neighbor and ally for yourself. Though the war has not yet come, their troops are frequently involved in military activity. They too patrol, but on a much larger scale and facing more dangerous foes. You could not only gain much experience, but you could also make a valiant contribution to the important work that they do." He stared expectantly at Aragorn.

The man was breathing more deeply, excited at the thought of the new horizons opening to him. "Your kingdom," the Wizard had said, so casually! He longed to see that kingdom and to live up to that image of himself that Gandalf had conjured up in his mind. He could not bear the thought of disappointing the Wizard. He nodded slowly, but the prospect was somewhat daunting as well. "Apart from tales and some readings in the books and maps of Rivendell, I am ignorant of the geography and especially the current politics of those lands. How would I go about joining such great armies?"

Gandalf smiled at Aragorn's willingness to embrace his suggestion. "Well, I was thinking of going back to Minas Tirith myself after my visit to the Shire. If you like, we could travel there together, and I could introduce you to the people that you would need to know. Not under your own name, I think, since we do not want word of the return of the heir to the throne getting out. Of course, you must consider whether you want to put up with the company of a rather garrulous old Man for such a lengthy journey."

Delight flooded over Aragorn. "I need not much time to consider that question! Of course I would love to travel with you again. With your guidance I am sure that I shall find a useful place in which to gain experience and skill. Perhaps, if I become worthy of your trust, I can someday occasionally be a direct help to you in your own missions."

"Quite possibly. Well, that is settled then. If only more of my advice was accepted so readily! Let us agree to meet back here in . . . oh, how many weeks do you think?"

"Our patrols in this area seldom last more than two weeks."

"Two weeks then, here at the Pony. Good, we can have more of these delightful sausages!"

The two weeks passed, and the pair met as planned. As he entered the bar of the Pony and spotted the Ranger, Gandalf berated himself inwardly as he realized how delighted he was to see Aragorn again. The fondness that lit up the Man's eyes as he spotted Gandalf and stood to embrace him was also all too evident. The Istar sighed inwardly as he realized how very long the journey before them was. They would be each other's exclusive companions for many weeks. Well, he would simply have to be constantly on his guard.

This time the weather was perfect, and they made good progress down the Greenway. Soon they passed out of the farming areas and entered the bleaker plains of Eregion. Within several days they had reached Tharbad, the ford on the River Greyflood. A recent heavy rainfall to the north had swollen the river to the point where crossing was difficult. They decided to camp for a day or two, or however long it took for the water to subside enough to make fording the river easy. They had no deadline to meet, and pausing in the midst of their journey would be pleasant in the current setting. In the middle of the afternoon they pitched camp in a slight depression in the midst of a stand of small trees. They planned an unusually sumptuous meal, for Aragorn had shot a young deer, and they butchered the tenderloins to grill for their dinner. The pause in their journey gave them a chance to salt other choice portions and lay them out to dry. After they had accomplished these simple tasks, they sat for awhile talking as usual, until they fell into a comfortable silence.

Gandalf was looking dreamily into the distance, but at last he realized that his thoughts were straying in perilous directions that involved himself and his young companion in intimate situations that did not bear contemplation. He wrenched his attention back to reality. He wished that he felt sleepy enough to excuse himself and take a nap. Unfortunately, although he was weary from traveling, he was all too wide awake. He glanced over at Aragorn and froze when he found the Man staring at him with an unmistakable look of sad longing. At once the Ranger shifted his gaze to stare in a completely different direction, but the red in his face was not all due to the effects of the bright sun that had shown on them that day. Gandalf felt his heart begin to race, but he strove to act as though he had not noticed anything unusual. After a pause he turned his head but could not bring himself to look directly into Aragorn's eyes-which probably would not meet his anyway. Abruptly the Wizard blurted out, "I think I'll take a nap. Please wake me when it is time to prepare dinner." Quickly he pulled his blanket around himself and curled up, facing away from Aragorn. He grimaced. Feigning ignorance probably won't do any good, he admitted to himself. Everything has changed, suddenly and devastatingly. Just with that one look. He wondered how they would behave toward each other from now on.

Aragorn was saddened by Gandalf's withdrawal, and he was tempted to roll himself in his blanket as well and try to nap-but he knew he could not. He could swear that at times he had seen in the Wizard's eyes something of the same longing that by now was obsessing him, and yet if anything Gandalf seemed a shade less friendly to him lately. The Ranger sighed. He had so little experience in such things. After a brief internal debate, he rose and moved to stand beside the Wizard. Gandalf looked so human and ordinary lying there with Aragorn towering over him. The Man gained a little courage at the thought.

Gandalf considered pretending to sleep, but it seemed cowardly to do so, and it would just put off the inevitable. Reluctantly he rolled onto his back, and his blanket slipped off him. He looked up at Aragorn and wondered if the raw need that he felt was apparent in his face. The Man knelt by him and surveyed his body candidly, a faint smile playing about his lips as he realized that he had been right. Gandalf desired him. His eyes lingered on the bulge that was obviously forming in the Wizard's trousers.

Gandalf found it difficult to take a breath, but he forced himself to say, "I cannot ask anything of you, Aragorn."

The Man's eyes stared into the Wizard's. He shook his head slightly. "You already have more than my respect. You have more than my friendship. You have . . . well, you could have anything you want of me."

There, it was out, and Gandalf could no longer make excuses or put off a decision. He sat up. Aragorn looked so young, so vulnerable, so desperate at that moment that the Wizard searched his mind frantically for a way to put him off, to explain why this was simply impossible. "I shall not insult your intelligence by pretending not to understand what you mean. I have felt the attraction between us, and it has disturbed my thoughts and dreams. And I shall not insult you either by pointing out the difference in our ages. I hardly think that you will not have noticed that for yourself. But Aragorn, think of this from my vantage point. I have seen so many generations of mortals walk their short time upon Arda. Many have been friends, and I mourned their passing. In a few cases I allowed them to become more than friends to me, and the grief was even greater. When I first arrived in Middle-earth, I knew little of death and what feelings it caused in those left behind. I fell in love easily and found out all too soon what death meant. It took me a long time to learn to resist such love, but believe me, since then I have been far more cautious. I do not allow myself to contemplate mortals as long-term lovers. I am simply tired of the loss, Aragorn, time after time. I cannot face the prospect of going through that again. Believe me, it would not end well for us."

Aragorn gasped in frustration. "Then let it begin well, and the ending may come as it must. Gandalf, if, as you say, a great war approaches, then we might either of us be killed in it. You urge me to take part in dangerous military activities far to the South. Anything might happen! I want at least to have experienced one passionate, romantic love if I must fall in battle."

"And if you do not fall?"

Aragorn tried to smile and shrugged. "Then we would have a bit more time together."

The Wizard gazed into the young Man's beseeching eyes. He surveyed the beautiful face and glanced down at the hint of erect nipples under the tight cloth covering the chest. What was there about this particular young Man that tempted him so? He had resisted the lure of many attractive people. Yet now . . . Reluctantly he shook his head and said, "Somehow I know that if I did . . . fall in love with you, it would be . . . well, I think that my heart would kindle like the driest straw. You could draw me all too easily to forget what I have learned about love over these many long years." After a moment of silence, he finally burst out, "I feel at last that I am relatively close to finishing my tasks in Middle-earth! Why should I expose myself to such a loss?"

Aragorn said simply, "It is too late. I love you."

Gandalf again stared into the earnest eyes and realized that for him it was too late as well.

Even now, though, he struggled to think rationally. No, this was ridiculous. "For another thing, Aragorn, if we do manage, by some great stroke of luck, to defeat the Dark Lord and establish you upon the throne of Gondor, I would be finished with my mission. I would have no choice but to depart from Middle-earth altogether and forever. If that happens within your lifetime, I would have to leave you behind. Can you not see how devastating that parting would be for us both?"

Aragorn's anguished eyes looked down and back up again into his own. "Is it worse to suffer a great agony then or the slow agony of being with you for many years, of loving you, and of not acting on my love? I believe that my final parting from you will be wrenching, whether or not we have ever held each other in our arms as real lovers. Can we not have the joys of love along with its sorrows?"

Gandalf stared at him reluctantly, feeling himself sliding down a very slippery slope and gaining speed. "But would it be worth it, Aragorn? In the end, would it be worth the grief?"

Aragorn tentatively stroked the Wizard's cheek once. "For me, it would be worth it. It would be worth anything. Any sorrow."

Gandalf contemplated trying to explain to this desperate young Man more about himself--that for him, as a Maia, the grief would be eternal. He was immortal, and he knew somehow that if he fell in love with Aragorn as deeply as he sensed was possible, the memory of losing him would haunt him forever. After a breathless pause, Gandalf closed his eyes and replied softly, "For me as well. Any sorrow. I only hope that we both feel that way when it finally ends. That it has been worth it." He looked up into Aragorn's eyes, and the sheer relief and joy and desire that he saw there almost convinced him that it would be. He suppressed that last little inner voice of warning and cupped the back of Aragorn's head, drawing it toward his own eager mouth.

The moment that their lips touched, Aragorn uttered a soft moan. He had lain with few enough men that he still remembered the number-seven of them, all intense, swift couplings that left his body satiated. Yet he had never felt such an exhilarating anticipation of bliss soon to be exchanged or such a desire to linger over simple touches. This, he realized, was what he had longed for from Gandalf. With a sense of discovery he opened to the Wizard's tongue and felt it slowly explore him. His cock was suffused with a familiar heat-but one which he thought he could patiently allow to build, like fire created with flint and tinder, only a few sparks at first, but then a lovely flickering as small pieces of fuel were added. He wanted it to go on for hours, lengthy acts that would introduce him to his new lover thoroughly.

The Wizard found the Ranger's surrender immensely arousing, but he controlled his desire to strip the Man and lower him to thrust unrestrainedly into him. Instead he struggled to concentrate on caresses and kisses, sucking long on the delving tongue that he coaxed into his mouth. He could tell that the Man had experienced enough of sex to perform with some modicum of skill, and yet he was marvelously grateful for care and patience in meeting his needs. Already the Wizard sensed Aragorn's wonder at the new way of gaining pleasure that he was feeling.

They had seen each other naked, or nearly so, several times, washing and shuddering at the cold by a clear stream, or relaxing in a hot bath in a country inn. In those situations, jokes and talk had covered over the brief glances of longing, and neither had ever studied the other's body as he wanted to. Now they continued to tamp their passion as they slowly unbuttoned and discarded shirts and caressed the skin beneath with trembling hands. Gandalf's fingertips brushed the dark nipples, and his breath caught in his throat as they hardened into perfect, round beads centered in puckered areolas. Aragorn closed his eyes and breathed deeply through his nose, then opened them again. He had never thought of such caresses as particularly important, for his previous partners in love had pinched or suckled his nipples only briefly before passing on to the more important part of his body, down below his belly. Now, however, he discovered that nipples could afford great stimulation. Suddenly he found that he desperately wanted to feel one in his mouth. He brushed Gandalf's beard aside and leaned down to kiss and tongue the light brown nubs until the Wizard whimpered shrilly. Aragorn's cock jerked as he realized with delight that he had caused that desperate sound.

Gandalf lowered the Man onto his back and bent down so that his open mouth could rove over Aragorn's skin, brushing and clutching gently, with a hint of a warm tongue tasting him every now and then. The Wizard was quivering with controlled desire, and once in a while a tiny moan of arousal escaped him, almost too faint to be audible over their combined panting and the small rustles of their garments as they gradually removed them and of their bodies as they shifted against the blanket and the leaves beneath. At last Gandalf straightened up slightly, and his eyes slid over Aragorn's face and chest, his teeth clenching and his breath hissing between them. He emitted a breathy, reluctant little laugh. "How did I ever think that I could resist you?" he said at last, shaking his head.

Gandalf straddled Aragorn's waist. His rigid member lay heavily on the Man's stomach. He leaned forward and nuzzled wetly at Aragorn's neck and ears, then pushed his tongue slowly but insistently into the welcoming mouth. Aragorn's hands cupped the Wizard's buttocks, then skimmed up his back. Finally Gandalf withdrew again and murmured, "Touch me."

Aragorn gasped with laughter. "I . . . am touching you."

"I meant, touch me here." Gandalf guided the Man's hand to his pounding erection and into a languorous stroking rhythm. The Wizard reached down to gently pinch and roll Aragorn's nipples, his eyes sliding shut in quiet ecstasy. He hummed with arousal and finally whispered, "Yes, like that."

Aragorn had never really noticed the textures of another's Man's erection. He delighted in the silkiness and the rough, high veins, the way the skin slid smoothly over the rigid, unyielding flesh beneath. He had never drawn his fingers slowly and teasingly over the velvety tip or burrowed them into the clump of wiry hair at the base or rolled the balls gently in their sac. His own cock remained a light pink when it was engorged, and he watched with fascination as a rich purple color pervaded the Wizard's entire length as it swelled and throbbed.

At last Gandalf opened his eyes slightly and looked down at him, saying softly, "You are setting me on fire. Can you feel the heat?" He thrust slightly within the caressing hand. Aragorn gasped, unable to answer, and simply nodded. He panted as jolts of pleasure traveled from his nipples directly to his cock. He realized that he was ramrod hard and pushing rhythmically up against Gandalf's buttocks, and he wondered how long that had been going on.

With that, Aragorn's restraint suddenly cracked, and he seized the Wizard's thigh with his other hand, squirming under him. "Fuck me!"

Startled out of his rapt concentration, Gandalf paused. "What? Just like that? Don't you know that it can be difficult, that-"

"Yes, I know it hurts. I have done it and had it done to me. But after the pain comes such pleasure! I want to have that from you. Please!"

Gandalf rocked his hips so that their cocks rubbed against each other's bodies. He drew a shuddering breath at the thought of burying his aching erection in the eager young Man's tight depths. "Believe me, I want to take you-eventually. But this will not be what you are apparently used to, a roll on the ground between two people trying to assuage their pent-up lust as quickly as possible. There will never be another first time for us. Right now I want to feel you, to find out what excites you, to find out what about you excites me. I must linger over it. All that I long to do with you will take more than one night." He smiled and slowly surveyed the powerful torso pinned beneath him, giving the nipples a last twist and leaning down to run his tongue over them. Gradually he shifted his body downward and off Aragorn, leaving wet trails along his firm stomach and nuzzling into the dark clump of hair from which his erection jutted proudly upward. The Wizard settled beside the Man's legs, supporting himself on his elbow and leaning over to flick his tongue maddeningly around the leaking tip, making the whole member jerk and twitch as the Man moaned in frustrated pleasure.

Finally Gandalf seized the shaft firmly with one hand to steady it as he engulfed the entire head with his mouth and tightened his lips. He sucked hard, swirling his tongue around the end and collecting the first taste of Aragorn's impending ecstasy. Moaning deep in his throat, the Wizard grasped his own pounding erection and began slowly to stroke it.

Drifting in dizzying sensations, Aragorn watched Gandalf in growing amazement. With every other lover he had had, it was a matter of anal or oral sex performed quickly, with hands and mouths clutching and demanding and pleasure arriving soon and intensely. To have a Man take so much time and care over him-one who could derive such excitement from giving him bliss-was wholly new to him. Gradually he learned not to long simply for release but to focus on the hovering arousal, the tiny movements, and above all the tenderness of his partner.

He quickly realized how arousing just watching another Man's mouth on his erect member could be. He was used to seeing the top of another Man's head moving back and forth quickly and drawing the seed from him. Now Gandalf languidly molded his open mouth onto the side of the shaft and withdrew so slowly that Aragorn could see the moist lips stretch slightly as they clung to his flesh before springing away from it. He panted unevenly as Gandalf withdrew his face to stare at his cock, enraptured, before eagerly kissing it up and down, ending by slithering the underside of his tongue over the little dome at the top.

Eventually Gandalf sank further onto the firm column, and began to bob up and down on it, increasing the rhythm of his mouth's movement and that of his hand's caresses on his own cock. Aragorn trembled and gasped raggedly, and finally he tensed as his climax seared through him. The Wizard milked every spasm of pleasure, draining the thick liquid into his throat and swallowing it adeptly. The sounds and feel of Aragorn's reactions set off Gandalf's own orgasm, and dimly the Man sensed that hot strings of come were falling on his knee. Aragorn's head dropped back and he panted, unable to speak for a moment. He smiled slightly as he felt the Wizard's tongue moving gently over his shrinking penis. Then Gandalf sat up and reached for a cloth to wipe his spattered semen from his lover's skin.

Overwhelmed by the Wizard's care and generosity, Aragorn shifted and gently coaxed Gandalf up until they were lying side by side. The Wizard pulled the other blanket over both of them and laid his head on Aragorn's shoulder, gazing with heavy-lidded eyes into the Man's contented face. Aragorn grinned. He kissed Gandalf's forehead and ran his fingers lightly over the white mane of hair. "That was wonderful. To be frank, there have been times when I felt it more at the end-yet absolutely never have I so enjoyed the process of building up to that end."

Gandalf simply smiled and brushed a strand of the Ranger's unruly hair off his cheek.

The Man resumed, "I am glad that you did not . .. go inside me. That might have been more powerful for a little while, but you have created a pleasure that has spread throughout my body. I feel completely limp and satisfied. And I still can look forward to that even greater pleasure .. . tonight, perhaps . . . or tomorrow."

"And for many tomorrows to come," Gandalf whispered, surveying the beautiful, ecstatic face so close to his own.

"Mmmm, yes. And I can certainly say that I have never enjoyed it nearly so much afterwards. Gandalf, I just want to lie here in your arms for hours."

Gandalf gently cupped the Ranger's chin and ran his thumb over the slightly swollen lips. "And how did you feel afterwards with those others?"

Aragorn laughed and shrugged. "Oh, I liked them well enough . . . but to tell the truth, almost as soon as it was over I just wanted us both to curl up in our separate blankets and go to sleep! But now I don't want you to let me go. Not yet!"

Suddenly Aragorn flung the blanket off them. As the cool air hit their damp skin, Gandalf laughed. "What in Arda-"

Aragorn's grin was just a bit giddy. "If I'm too warm, I'll fall asleep, and I don't want this moment to end, Gandalf. I . . . we. . ."

Gandalf chuckled and plucked at the discarded blanket, trying to pull it up again. "Yes, well, I'm an old Man, and I would like to be a bit more comfortable."

Reluctantly Aragorn helped him to replace the blanket. The Wizard stroked his cheek. "This moment may end all too soon-but we shall have many more, I promise you. We shall discover much together." His hand drew the jubilant young Man's head down onto his shoulder. "And soon I shall do what you begged me to do earlier-which, I assure you, I long for as much as you do. And I shall ask you to do the same for me."

"I said that you could have anything you want of me. I'm not sure what I meant then, but I know a bit better now. Anything, Gandalf. I would trust you with my heart, my body, nay, with my very life." He twisted to press his sweaty forehead against the Wizard's neck.

Gandalf hesitated, hugging the powerful young body that had so unexpectedly been given to him. "I love you, Aragorn," he murmured at last.

Aragorn's face grimaced slightly as he sought to hold back tears. He lifted his head to look into the deep eyes so close to his own. "Is that possible? Can someone as lofty and ancient as you love a young fellow like me?"

The Wizard smiled reluctantly. "Yes, unwise and dangerous though it is, I do indeed love you. I may be mistaken, but I vaguely recall your saying something to the effect that you are rather fond of me as well."

Aragorn gasped with brief laughter. "I could never begin to tell you how much I love you, Gandalf. If I had even a little of your wit and eloquence, maybe I could. You are the peace, the warmth, the happiness, the hope that I have been looking for all my life."

Gandalf drew a few deep breaths before he sighed and replied, "Someday this will surely bring us great sorrow, but I cannot see that for the joy."

They said no more but lay awake together for an hour or so before drifting into a late-afternoon nap.