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.

Archiving: Meddling in the Affairs of Wizards; LoM; others please ask.

Author's note: The action takes place in 2976 of the Third Age. Aragorn is now 45 years old and under the name Thorongil has over the past nineteen years served originally in the army of Rohan and currently in that of Gondor. He and Gandalf have been lovers for twenty years.

The action is based on the chronology for these years in Appendix B, as well as on a passage concerning "Thorongil" in the section of Appendix A called "The Stewards."

Thanks to Elanor as always for the beta work. Gratitude also to Sarah and Henrika for their encouragement.

Part 3

Aragorn and Arwen stood unmoving, hand in hand, before the closed door of Elrond's study. They had just arrived after the long journey from Lothlórien, and they had agreed that they would see her father and tell him their news before doing anything else. Neither, however, seemed able to lift a hand to knock on the door. They raised their eyes from the floor to look at each other. Aragorn could see that Arwen was breathing slowly and deeply, and he imagined that her heart was beating as quickly as his was. He glanced down to the Ring of Barahir. It was too large for Arwen's fingers, so she wore it on a silver chain around her neck.

He was not sure to which person he dreaded telling the news more: his foster father or his lover. For once he had been glad to hear that Gandalf had not yet arrived in Rivendell, although he was expected at any time. Facing them both at once would have been too difficult. To give himself courage, he thought back to those wonderful months in the Golden Wood, when his youthful dream of love had revived. "You haven't changed your mind, have you?" he whispered to Arwen, with a sympathetic little smile to show that he was just teasing her gently. She smiled in return and shook her head. Taking a deep breath, she rapped on the door. Elrond's voice bade them enter.

The pair continued to hold hands as they went in, and a sad frown came to the dark-haired Elf's face as he saw that and as he noticed the Ring hanging on Arwen's bosom. He gave a deep sigh and gestured for them to sit near him at the small, delicately carved table that he used as a writing desk. Aragorn sat opposite his foster father, while Arwen moved to kiss her father's cheek and sit near him, her hand over his on the desk.

"So it has come to this, has it?" Elrond asked her.

Arwen nodded. "Yes, Father. We plighted our troth when we met again by chance in Lothlórien. Please, do not be angry. We came here to ask for your consent, and I beg you to give it. I could not marry entirely against your wishes, and yet I know that I love Aragorn enough that, when it comes time, I would make the choice our family faces, and I would remain here in Middle-earth with him. I don't think I realized how much I loved him until I saw him that second time. Galadriel later told me that he had arrived, after long travels and perils, and that she dressed him in silver and white, with a cloak of Elven-grey and a bright gem upon his brow. I was sitting under the trees of Caras Galadhon, which were laden with flowers of gold. When I beheld Estel walking toward me, he seemed more like an Elf-lord from the Isles of the West than like a mortal Man. He had grown to full stature of body and mind since I had last seen him. I knew at once that my choice was made and my doom appointed. We tarried there together for a season, but then I felt that we should speak to you-and Estel of course still has many tasks awaiting him."

Elrond had lowered his eyes to stare at the desktop as she spoke. Instead of replying, he sat now for long minutes, tears standing in his eyes. Aragorn almost wished that he would have reacted with anger, for such grief was difficult to witness, especially when he was its cause. Finally he leaned forward. "Elrond, you know that I am extremely sorry to cause you the terrible sorrow that you will face if you give your consent to our marriage. I beg you for it, though, if you can find it in your wise heart to grant it."

Elrond looked up when he finished, glancing back and forth between them. "Have you told anyone else?" he asked.

Arwen said, "Only my grandparents. They too were greatly grieved, and yet they have come to know and love Aragorn during his many visits there as he journeyed about Middle-earth on his various missions. Galadriel was very kind. She told me that she could imagine that any woman might fall in love with him, be she Elf or of Mankind. In the end, she and Celeborn wished us joy, and I hope you will do the same. Believe me, Father, I have thought much on this question. Not just since our meeting there, but ever since we met so briefly twenty-nine years ago."

The ghost of a smile appeared on Elrond's face. "Yes, I hardly think that you would make such a decision without much reflection." The smile quickly faded, and he shook his head. "It is just . . . so difficult to bear, especially when I think that you will never see your mother again if this marriage happens."

For the first time tears appeared in Arwen's eyes as well. She whispered, "Yes, I have thought much on that as well, believe me. Despite all the sorrow, however, I feel that my love for Estel and for the children that we shall have together will make all the sacrifices worth it in the end." She reached her free hand across the desk to Aragorn.

He winced as he took it and squeezed slightly. How much grief he was asking Gandalf and Arwen to suffer in the end for his sake! Could his love possibly be worth all that, as both had said? He could only hope so and struggle to make it so.

Elrond looked calculatingly at him, and Aragorn wondered if he was mentally asking the same question. His eyes had lost some of their grief, and he saw a sternness there that stopped short of anger.

"My son, years come when hope will fade, and beyond them little is clear to me. And now a shadow lies between us. Maybe, it has been appointed so, that by my loss the kingship of Men may be restored. Therefore, though I love you, I say to you: Arwen Undómiel shall not diminish her life's grace for less cause. She shall not be the bride of any Man less than the King of both Gondor and Arnor. To me then even our victory can bring only sorrow and parting-but to you hope of joy for a while. Alas, my son! I fear that to Arwen the Doom of Men may seem hard at the ending."

Both Aragorn and Arwen stared at him for awhile, as if the confidence which they had vowed to show before Elrond wavered slightly. At last they looked at each other, and Aragorn wondered if he should make one final offer to free Arwen from her promise and to take back the Ring of Barahir. The love and resolve he read in her eyes made him realize that it was not necessary. Aragorn replied, "Elrond, I accept your condition, for if I do not become King, I shall have died in the trying, and all hope of love will have failed."

Elrond nodded solemnly. "Then you and I shall not speak again concerning this matter. I know you go forth into great danger and toil, and that saddens me. Despite all that it would mean for me, I truly hope that you come into your birthright and that someday we shall all come together in Minas Tirith to celebrate both your union and the victory that will have been achieved."

"You are very generous, Father," Aragorn replied softly, and he moved around the desk to embrace Elrond. Arwen embraced her father as well, and without another word they left the room together.

Once away from the door, they paused. Aragorn said softly, "I am glad that Elrond placed the condition of my achieving the Kingship upon me. It is something specific and concrete and therefore gives me hope. It will be immensely difficult to achieve, and yet at least I shall know that if I do, you will be mine." He paused for a moment. "I still think it was right not to tell him about Gandalf-in fact, more than ever, now that I have witnessed his grief. It would be needless to add to that."

Arwen nodded. "True. I have managed to understand and to accept, but he probably never could, much though he loves Gandalf. Estel, it may be selfish, but I am glad that I shall not witness my mother's reaction to the news. I cannot imagine what sorrow she will suffer-not yet, that is. Perhaps when I have children of my own I shall fully understand what it would be to lose one. Well, I think I shall go back to my room and unpack and settle in." They both turned and walked toward the wing of bedrooms. Before parting, they kissed, lingeringly but chastely.

Arwen looked into the Ranger's eyes and saw the worry that remained there. "Courage, my love. Try now to rest and forget your cares for a time. Obviously I hope that your meeting with Gandalf goes well. I shall see you at dinner."

Late the next morning Arwen was sitting embroidering in a small, sunny room at the front of the house when she heard nearby voices, including that of Gandalf. She moved quietly to the door and saw Elrohir and Glorfindel a short distance down the hallway talking cheerfully with the Istar. He was dressed in his cloak, boots, and hat, and he had his small traveling bag and staff. Clearly he had just that minute arrived, and from his mood she assumed that he had not yet seen Aragorn and heard the news that the Man had to impart. For a moment her heart sank, and she was tempted to withdraw without greeting the wizard. Upon further reflection, she realized that it might be better for Gandalf to hear the news from her rather than from Aragorn. If in his reluctance to cause his lover pain Aragorn became nervous and did not give his account well, Gandalf might grow angry with him or fail to understand what Arwen and Aragorn had decided. Taking a deep breath and closing her eyes for a moment, she moved toward the little group in the hallway.

They all turned to her as she greeted the Istar, and Gandalf embraced her. He always tried to hide the slight awkwardness he had felt in her presence since he and Aragorn had become lovers. True, there was little reason to think that Aragorn would ever be able to marry the lovely Elf, but knowing that Arwen was still in love with the Man was difficult to reconcile with his conscience. The other two excused themselves and moved away, sensing from Arwen's serious expression that she had something to tell the wizard privately.

Once they were gone, Arwen said in a low voice, "I take it that you have not yet seen Aragorn."

Gandalf stared at her with a hint of a puzzled little frown. "No, I have just arrived. Those two were the first that I have encountered, apart from waving to a few Elves out on the lawn and handing my horse over to the stable boy. Why do you ask?"

It occurred to Arwen that it would not be good to encounter Aragorn in the halls of Rivendell before she had a chance to talk with Gandalf. If the wizard had not seen him on the lawn, then that might be the place to go. "Shall we take a walk in this beautiful weather, Gandalf? If you are not tired from your journey, that is."

"Not at all. Yes, let's."

They went outside and walked a little way, but the wizard noticed that Arwen looked mostly down at the ground rather than at him or the beautiful surroundings. Finally they found a secluded little grotto that would allow them some privacy. As they sat down, Gandalf sensed his companion's nervousness more and more and was baffled as to what could be causing it.

Finally Arwen looked into his eyes. "My dear friend . . . I can think of no way to make this revelation any easier for you, so I shall simply say that I know about you and Aragorn-no, wait, please, let me go on before you react, for there is far more to it than that!"

Gandalf stared at her as she took his hands in hers and went on. "First of all, I want you to know that I do not object to your relationship continuing and that you and he can probably maintain that relationship until he marries or dies or until you leave Middle-earth, whichever happens first."

Even while listening to her in amazement, Gandalf had been trying frantically to think how Arwen could have found out about his and Aragorn's love. They had always been extremely discreet about it. He sincerely hoped that that love was not the subject of malicious gossip. How hard it would be for Arwen to hear such talk! Finally he voiced his confusion. "How did you learn about all this, my dear, and how in Arda can you of all people possibly accept what we have become to each other? I know Elves, and unless Aragorn was completely wrong about your having fallen in love with him upon your first meeting, then you love him still."

"Aragorn himself told me. We met by chance a few months ago in Lothlórien, after not having seen each other for several years. It was only our second encounter, and yet we found all the love that we had conceived for each other was still hidden within our hearts. He had grown and matured and seemed even more wonderful than when I first met him. I wanted us to plight our troth to each other-hoping against hope that he might someday gain my father's approval. He was reluctant, though it was clearly not because he had ceased to love me. Rather he said he had something to tell me that might make me turn away from him. It was about you, obviously. Estel was very honest about it, much though he dreaded paining me."

Gandalf nodded, striving mightily not to betray the warring emotions that he felt. This all seemed like such dreadful news-for him at any rate, since it sounded very much as though he would have to step aside, to end his relationship with Aragorn immediately. The revelation had come so abruptly that he was unprepared to grasp that notion. How could Arwen accept the current situation? Yet he clung to what she had said as his one hope. He remained silent, for above all now he wanted to hear what more she had to tell him of that acceptance.

She squeezed his hands slightly. "We told my father yesterday that we wanted eventually to marry. He desperately wanted to forbid it, I suspect, but he could tell that I was determined and truly in love with Estel. Given that all three of his children must make the choice between leaving for the Uttermost West or accepting mortality, he has long realized that one or all of us might not wish to leave the continent that we have known as home for all our lives. And love, after all, can lead one to do some very foolish things." She smiled at the wizard ruefully, and for the first time it occurred to him that they both were behaving quite unwisely for much the same reason-and that Arwen seemed somehow to understand that. He gave a tiny smile in response. She has inherited much of her father's wisdom, he realized. He felt an enormous rush of affection for her, and a dawning hint of relief.

"Indeed, Arwen, I suspect that allowing myself to fall so deeply in love with him is far and away the single most foolish thing that I have done during my whole time in Middle-earth. I told myself so at the time-but then I went right ahead and ignored myself! I must say, I then thought that it was indeed only myself that I risked hurting. I simply assumed that I would be with him for all of his life, or at least until he became king. He and I both thought that there was virtually no chance of the two of you ever being united. I hope you believe that if I had had any reason to think that you and he could someday be together, I would have resisted him at any cost to myself." He shrugged and shook his head.

Arwen nodded sadly. "I understand, and I do believe you. Even now the chances for our union are slight. My father has told Estel that he may not wed me until he has gained the throne of Minas Tirith. You are fully aware of how unlikely that is."

Gandalf sighed and went on, "You say that you can accept the continuation of the bond that he and I have formed. How can that be possible?"

She sat thinking for a moment. "Believe me, it is not because I do not care for Estel. I do, very deeply. As much as you do, apparently, so I need not explain to you why one might fall in love with him. When I first heard about him and you, I must admit that I was extremely upset. I never told him, but I did consider rejecting him, following my father's wishes and going across the Sea when the time comes. I thought long and hard about this. And to my considerable surprise, I came up with some solid reasons why I should both bind myself to him and encourage him to continue in his relationship with you. Yes, I know it sounds strange, yet it is true. Perhaps I love him so much that I was seeking excuses to stay even though there was anger in my heart. Yet I think there is more to it than that.

"For a start, he still has so many difficult tasks to accomplish before we could ever hope to be together. Dangers to face, decisions to make, alliances to forge, lessons to learn. You can foster him in all these things. You, more than anyone else, could help him to reach the kingship-and that, after all, is now what must happen before he and I have any hope of happiness together. I cannot do that. It's as simple as that. If I were a great warrior, I could support and love him and be with him. But I am not. I cannot go with him on his long journeys without hampering him. But you-you can teach him what he needs to know. You can impart wisdom as well as loving him. You would . . . you would bring out what I might describe as the Elven side of him. It sounds odd for one in my position to say, but I think that you, more than anyone else, would nurture the qualities in him that I love. Indeed meeting him again and realizing how much he has changed and in what marvelous ways, I realized that I already have reason to be grateful for the immeasurable help that you have given him."

Gandalf said reluctantly, "But surely I could continue to draw out all those qualities simply by teaching him, not by loving him."

Arwen stared at him for a moment. "Perhaps . . . but that love exists already, for both of you. He loved me as an ideal, a dream, at first. Indeed, when he and I met, he told me he thought that he was in a dream. But you he loved in reality, as a companion in the routine of life on the road in the Wild. You were never a dream to him. You are life itself, here, now, from day to day. I am the life that he hopes for-the future. His present reality and his future dream will collide someday, if the Enemy is destroyed and he gains the Kingship. We shall have to cope with that if it happens. But at best it could take decades! How can I deny him the support and comfort he needs in such an enormously difficult mission? For now and for much time to come, you are what he needs. I have accepted that-more readily, I suppose, because I love you as well, as a dear, dear friend." She looked down into her lap and added quietly, "And also admittedly because I know that if all our hopes are eventually realized, you will certainly leave him to me. Unlike me, you have no choice."

"Well, that is undoubtedly true. If the alliance that we have been struggling to create fails to defeat Sauron, then all questions of love become irrelevant. If we succeed, I shall indeed have to part from Aragorn. And perhaps then I shall be jealous that you would have him to yourself-but I hope that I can be as magnanimous as you are now, enough to desire happiness for you both. As you say, I shall have no choice but to leave. Still, I am amazed that you can face the prospect of many years during which he and I would continue on as we have."

Arwen gazed fondly at him, then shook her head and sighed. "Do not think that I am being wholly selfless and generous in this, my darling Gandalf. I am being quite pragmatic in some ways. I cannot fight what you and he have already experienced together. You met him at exactly the right time in his life. You formed him, taught him, and made him understand love. I met him both too early and too late. First when he was very young and not ready to grasp what love is, and second after you had met him and made him see-very vividly, apparently!-the possibilities of love." She paused for a long while, struggling to hold back tears. "I dread to pin my ultimate happiness upon your inevitable sorrow-but I must. I trade you my pain now for yours later-my happiness then for yours now. It would seem to be the best bargain that we can make under the circumstances. After all, both of us must ultimately lose him. At least you will have his memory for all time-though whether the grief that will accompany it will be worth the temporary joy I cannot foresee."

"Nor can I. Is it worth it? Just what I have wondered from the start. My mind tells me that it cannot be. My heart tells me something very different. Yes, after two thousand years here in Middle-earth, that first night when we declared our longing for each other taught me for the first time the full power of romantic love. It is capable of making one risk anything, it seems. I can only hope that when I return to Valinor and my true state, my mind will still be able to remember Aragorn, but without rancor or pain or bitter longing. Perhaps I shall simply recall and treasure the joys we shared in our short time together. And if instead I do eternally suffer all the wrenching grief of our parting-well, then, I must, for there is no going back now."

Arwen nodded and hesitated, then finally spoke, "I said that I had solid reasons for encouraging you two to maintain your relationship. I must admit that, apart from everything else, I do not want to have to force him to decide between you and me. I am not sure which one he would choose. Or rather, if I were to be so unkind as to force him to make such a decision, it might well drive him to choose you. To be sure that I keep him in the long run, I think that I must agree to you keeping him for now."

The two stared at each other for a long time. At last Gandalf said, "Despite what you have said here, I think that really the right thing would be for me to step aside at this point. To give him up to you entirely-"

"No! It is an enormously generous and brave offer, my darling Gandalf, and I am not surprised to hear it from you. But, no, it is too late for that now."

Gandalf winced as he recalled that fateful moment when he had surrendered to his feelings for Aragorn, and how the Man had said so simply, "It is too late. I love you."

Arwen went on, "This is not your fault. I believe that if you left Aragorn now, the same thing might happen. He might decide that he loves you more than he does me, and he would think that I drove you away and decide to follow you, to draw you back to him. And quite apart from risking losing him, I could not do that to him now. It has all gone too far. For that matter, I could not do it to you, either. I love you very much, you know.

"You will lose each other soon enough, but at least when you do-well, let us be optimistic. You will have at least the satisfaction of knowing that you both achieved your great goals with each other's help. Perhaps that will make the sting of parting a little milder than it would be now. No, do not leave him now and cause such rancor along with the pain. Wait, and leave him to me when you must-when we all know that it is inevitable. Thus the parting that we then face may be but bittersweet. You will both carry the memory of your love unsullied into your separate lives. Indeed, I shall be able to share that memory a little and know that I did not mar it by forcing you to break your bonds of love too soon. Please, Gandalf, agree to this, for I truly think that this arrangement would subject each of us three to the slightest possible pain."

"Well, I can hardly reject both your wise reasoning and your extraordinary generosity. You urge me to do something that I have been all too unable to resist in the past. I assure you, though, that I shall do everything that I possibly can to place Aragorn upon the throne of Gondor. Then, if your father can find it in his heart to give you up to him . .. I shall equally give him up to you. I solemnly promise you that, Arwen. I accept your offer of my happiness now in exchange for yours later. And I very much hope that between us, we can make Aragorn as happy as he could possibly be in such a difficult situation."

Arwen had tears in her eyes, and she nodded as they stood and embraced briefly before slowly walking back to the House of Elrond together.

As Gandalf unpacked what little he carried with him while traveling, he pondered all that he had just learned. Despite the fact that Arwen had persuaded him that she was truly reconciled to his and Aragorn's carrying on their relationship, he still felt upset at how the situation had developed. Not that things had changed all that much, he realized. In a way, the prospects were better now. If the West succeeded against Sauron, he could leave Middle-earth knowing that Aragorn had the lovely Elf as his bride and would establish a strong line of royal heirs. The wizard's lover would be far happier than if they simply had to part.

He suddenly wondered if Elrond knew about this romantic triangle. That would be most awkward, and yet it seemed dishonest not to tell him. He decided to ask Aragorn, but the man was not in his room and the wizard couldn't find him in the huge house. He went instead to the library, where he attempted to turn his mind away from his present worries by delving into the past. Later, when he went into the great dining hall for dinner, he was escorted to a seat beside Elrond. The Elf seemed slightly pensive, but he smiled and rose as Gandalf approached him, embracing the wizard and welcoming him back to Rivendell. It was quite clear from his demeanor and words that he knew nothing of the affair, and although he felt a pang of guilt, Gandalf felt an even stronger sense of relief. He glanced over at Arwen, who shook her head very slightly. Aragorn was standing behind her chair, and after a tiny hesitation, Gandalf moved to give him a brief, friendly embrace and greeting before returning to his chair as the guests sat down.

As the babble of dinner-table conversation began and there was little risk of their being overheard, Elrond said softly to the wizard, "Have you heard by now of the engagement between those two?"

"Yes, Arwen told me about it-and that you would consent only if Aragorn becomes king. Well, he is an attractive, valiant man, and I am not surprised that she would fall in love with him. Elf and Man . . . that sort of thing seems to run in your family," he said with a gentle chuckle, hoping to cheer Elrond somewhat.

His host did indeed smile in genuine amusement. "Yes, there is definitely precedent for it. And I have loved him myself, as a father, ever since his mother brought him to me to raise. If only he were an Elf and could depart eventually with us to Eldamar, I should be delighted at the match!"

They glanced over at Aragorn and Arwen, who were deep in conversation and completely absorbed with each other. The wizard suppressed a distinct feeling of jealousy. After all, he reminded himself, I have him now. Arwen would never sleep with him until after the wedding. He sensed that it would take him awhile to adjust to this strange new situation.

In the Hall of Fire that evening, Aragorn again sat beside Arwen, but he spoke briefly to Gandalf on the way to his chair, whispering, "I shall join you in your room later . . . if you like," he added teasingly.

The wizard's face lit up with relief. He had not sensed how much he longed for even such a brief intimate exchange with Aragorn, having had no chance to be with him alone since Arwen's revelation in the grotto that morning. "I would very much like that, your majesty. Indeed, I think that I shall retire early tonight. Much though I enjoy the entertainment here, I can think of some even more entertaining ways to spend an evening."

"Or an entire night," Aragorn said with a wink before moving across to sit beside Arwen.

As Gandalf watched him walk away, he took a deep breath and felt a hint of tears in his eyes. He had certainly never taken his love for the Ranger for granted, but now he was reminded with painful intensity how very much he cared for the young man. Far too much, in fact, he thought ruefully, as he so often did. The idea that he would not lose him to Arwen overwhelmed him with gratitude toward her, and he glanced at the Elf to see her looking at him with a sad, fond little smile that widened a bit as she saw his eyes meet hers. Gandalf turned then to listen to the beautifully chanted tale of a romance from a long-ago era, and when it finished, he rose and quietly left the Hall to return to his own bedroom. He longed to lie against Aragorn and hold him in his arms. Despite his bantering words with the Man, tonight he did not feel aroused at the thought, only anxious for physical reassurance that the strong, beautiful body was still his.

Once in his room, he bathed and slipped between the linen sheets of his large bed. The fifteen minutes that they had long since agreed upon as the interval dictated by caution had passed, and soon Aragorn knocked softly and opened the door a crack, coming quickly in and closing it when he saw the wizard. He crossed to the bed, staring at Gandalf with a little smile as he undressed with provocative slowness. The wizard's eyes went over his body, glancing back up at Aragorn's face now and then. Despite a few small scars from battle wounds, the Ranger was as beautiful as when first they met. Yet everything had changed. He would have to become accustomed to sharing the Man's love. Aragorn's smile faded as he sensed the melancholy abstraction in his lover's expression. Quickly he pulled back the upper sheet to join the wizard, embracing him closely.

Gandalf leaned gratefully against him, tucking his head under the Ranger's chin and closing his eyes, savoring the warmth of the strong chest and arms. Aragorn pressed his cheek down on the top of the snow-white hair. "I'm sorry, old man. In the joy of being alone with you at last, I forgot what a shock it must have been to have Arwen tell you about our engagement. I have got used to the idea by now. Believe me, I have had to face some shocks myself. Telling her about us, telling Galadriel and Celeborn about the engagement, and telling Elrond about that as well. Call me a coward, but I am quite relieved that Arwen ended by being the one to tell you. I'm sure with her wisdom and eloquence, she was able to explain everything far better than I could have done."

"Wisdom and eloquence indeed. She managed to convince me of something that I would have thought impossible. She also said, however, that she had been very upset when you first told her of our love. You must have gone through a very difficult time, for I doubt that she would be able entirely to hide her reaction from you."

"Yes, after our first conversation on that subject, I had a very miserable few days. I swear to you, though, that I never once regretted having fallen in love with you and acted on that love. I told you long ago that loving you would be worth anything, and that would be true even if it cost me any hope of union with Arwen. Yet I do love her as well, and more than ever now, for she has shown her deep wisdom and great compassion. And when finally she explained that she could accept the continuation of our bond, I felt the most blessed of Men, to have two such people fall in love with me and to be able to love both in return without guilt or pain. I hope that you do not feel jealous of Arwen. Please believe me, I love you as much as ever and long for everything between us to be as it was before."

"I suppose that I have had a few moments of jealousy, but I suspect that they will pass. Most of all I feel enormous gratitude toward her. And you are providing me with great reassurance." Gandalf tilted his head back so that Aragorn could kiss him, with warm lips moving languidly against his own for a long time. The wizard nestled once more against Aragorn's chest. "How did all this come about? Arwen told me only that you met and became engaged in Lothlórien some months ago. Oh, and I presume that you have now left your military service in Gondor, as we agreed. What I found out today has driven all thoughts of your other activities from my mind."

"Yes, there is much to tell on that subject as well, but no news that cannot wait. More recent events have made what I had been doing before seem very long ago. I was on my way here from a scouting mission on the edge of Mordor, and I hoped to find you here. Naturally I stopped in the Golden Wood. As Arwen said, she and I met there. I realized at once that the youthful love that I had tried so long to put out of my mind had lain hidden there all along, and I discovered that she had maintained her feelings for me as well. We wandered far through the timeless glades and talked of our love and of the great struggle that will surely keep us apart for many more weary years. I knew, though, that I had to tell her about your and my love for each other. It took me a few days to get up the courage, but finally I related the whole tale to her.

"I thought then that I had lost her, for she withdrew from me, and I did not see her again for nearly a week. During that time I think I despaired briefly about everything. Gaining the kingship would cause you to depart as well, and for a time I considered giving up the struggle-just staying a humble Ranger all my life and hoping to keep you with me until the end. I could not bear the thought of losing both the great loves of my life. If I became king and you and Arwen ultimately sailed into the West, I would face a loveless marriage. Of course I would have to marry and maintain the bloodline, but how could I hope to find someone as wonderful as either of you?" He smiled as Gandalf took his hand, kissing it and then pressing it against his beard. He went on. "Fortunately Arwen did not reject me. She even wanted us to plight our troth to each other, and we did. I shall never forget that moment. Joyful though we were, neither of us could forget the perils that lay between us and our union or the sorrows that all this would cause for us and for others.

"We walked unshod upon the undying grass of the fair hill of Cerin Amroth, where elanor and niphredil ever grow. We looked first to the east, to the Shadow, where lies our peril, and then to the West, where lies future sorrow, and we promised ourselves to each other. Then she said, 'Dark is the Shadow, and yet my heart rejoices, for you, Estel, shall be among the great whose valour will destroy it.'"

"And so you shall be."

"Perhaps, but having so recently seen the great power of the Enemy growing within Mordor, I could not entirely believe it, and I replied, 'Alas! I cannot foresee it, and how it may come to pass is hidden from me. Yet with your hope I will hope. And the Shadow I utterly reject. But neither, lady, is the Twilight for me; for I am a mortal, and if you will cleave to me, Evenstar, then the Twilight you must also renounce.' I wanted to make sure that she knew exactly what she faced in giving her promise. She told me, 'I will cleave to you, Dunadan, and turn from the Twilight. Yet there lies the land of my people and the long home of all my kin.'

"Thus our moment of joy was also one of sadness. I felt a great fear, for I had no idea how you would react to this. True, Arwen was willing to have me maintain my bond with you, but I worried that you might not accept that. You might well be so hurt or angry that you would withdraw from me. Or, more likely, you would give me up in a misguided but selfless gesture. I wished that all this had happened after our victory, when you had already departed and would never have to confront this difficult situation. We set out the next day to come here, and we rode under the cloud of the coming meetings with you and with Elrond. I have never been as relieved as when Arwen told me that you had accepted her offer. Well, perhaps once before-on that glorious afternoon when you and I confessed our love to each other!"

The two remained silent for a long moment, and then they slid down to lie side by side, holding hands. Eventually Aragorn moved against Gandalf, so that his chest was pressing hard against the wizard's left arm. He rubbed his lips gently against Gandalf's neck and then withdrew to look inquiringly at the wizard when he failed to respond. Gandalf glanced at him, but then turned his sad eyes away again. "Can we really make love here, in Rivendell, under the same roof with both Arwen and Elrond?"

Aragorn snorted with frustration, and said, "But Arwen has approved our relationship. She would not mind . . . or if she does, well, she has not let me see that since our agreement in Lothlórien. And Elrond does not know. I don't think it is any of his concern, as long as Arwen has decided to allow it. It is really only between you and her and me-and we all are reconciled to it. Please, do not deny me your body or yourself the pleasure that I long to give you. You are so used to worrying about things! Perhaps even I do not realize how many responsibilities and goals you have here in Middle-earth, but I know better than most. Our time together has always been a solace to you, as it has to me. I could not bear it if our love became simply another worry for you! Come, let us be to each other what we have always been. I long for you . .. and she would not want you to worry in this way. You know that, surely."

He cupped his hand around the far side of Gandalf's head and gently turned the wizard's face to his own. He slowly placed many kisses over it, covering the cheeks and nose and lips, nuzzling into the beard and finally flicking his tongue tantalizingly into one ear. He continued to tease the ear as he felt the wizard's body melt against his own and heard low moans of arousal. The Man slid his hand under the beard until it found a high, round nipple. As one finger slid over it, the wizard jerked and groaned, throwing his arms around Aragorn's neck and pulling him into an awkward, wet, and altogether arousing kiss. The Ranger's left hand was busy plucking at the hard nub, and his other was pinned beneath Gandalf's body, but he shifted to push his open lips upward to receive the wizard's delving tongue. He moaned as it seized his entire mouth and sucked hard as his cock soared and throbbed.

Finally they pulled apart slightly, and Aragorn said with a little grin, "Your scruples don't seem to have lasted very long, old man."

Gandalf's eyes surveyed his muscular torso and engorged cock. He slid his flat hand down its underside and curled it around the large balls, squeezing and rolling them gently as the Man gulped and shuddered. "No, but as you well know, I have never been able to resist you. I suppose you are right. Arwen has wished me joy for as long as I have you. It all just came as such a shock to me, and I have not had very long to get used to this new situation!" He whimpered as Aragorn leaned down to flick his tongue rapidly over one of the wizard's nipples, resuming his pinching of the other with his fingers. Gandalf's cock, already slightly swollen, rapidly hardened until it was standing straight up.

The wizard's hips shifted, and he gritted his teeth as Aragorn stroked his shaft slowly, then lowered himself to lick it up and down. He drew back to admire the little pearl of pre-come that had leaked from the slit and glanced up at the wizard with a smile. "Part of you seems to be used to the situation by now." He prevented Gandalf from answering by sucking and tonguing the tip avidly. "I want this inside me," he said hoarsely, all humor put aside. He pivoted and rested on his knees, placing his head on his forearms and presenting his raised buttocks to the wizard. Gandalf pulled himself up slightly onto his elbow, panting with the arousal that the wanton position caused. Aragorn's throbbing erection and heavy testicles hung down between his parted thighs, and the slight depression of his dark, puckered hole was clearly visible. Eagerly the wizard kissed his way slowly up the underside of the high-veined shaft and then stroked it with his fingers as his tongue moved up to press and roll the balls.

Aragorn twitched and gasped with each wet caress, and he keened and murmured, "Oh, yes!" as Gandalf's tongue moved on, upward to press against his opening. It circled and thrust, slowly invading as the Man willed himself to relax and let it enter. Then he became entirely quiet, raptly concentrating on the exquisite sensations as Gandalf licked and kissed the sensitive flesh. Suddenly a thought came unbidden to the Ranger's mind, and he wondered if Arwen had any notion of the sorts of things she had consented to him and Gandalf doing together. He gasped with a mixture of amusement and dismay at the thought. He tried without success to ignore the idea of his promised bride seeing them engaged in their current activities. He realized that he himself had some things to get used to.

Finally he forgot about Arwen when Gandalf's tongue withdrew and he replaced it with an oil-slicked finger, rubbing the puckered opening gently before slipping it inside and pushing it repeatedly along the front of the passage until Aragorn was quivering and again moaning, now more loudly. The wizard rose to kneel behind him and oiled his erection thoroughly, pushing it slowly inside and pausing. Soon Aragorn whispered, "More," and he began to thrust, filling the Man gradually until he was entirely buried within him. Gandalf resisted the temptation to speed up, caressing the Ranger's back and buttocks as he pumped at a moderate pace, humming with bliss. Soon, however, Aragorn began to push backward to meet him, and their thighs slapped together with each thrust. "It has been too long," the Man said with a tight voice. "Faster, please! It feels so-" He broke off as the wizard reached around to grasp and pull his pounding shaft and doubled the pace with which his flexing hips drove him into the clenching heat. Aragorn felt dizzy with excitement, and he tilted his head back with a tight grimace as ecstasy hit him and his seed gradually drenched the wizard's hand, which continued to milk the shaft. His spasming passage contracted around Gandalf's cock, driving him to an intense climax that left him sweaty and exhausted, leaning heavily against the Man's hips.

After a brief pause, the wizard pulled out and wiped them both. They sat slumped against the headboard, their damp shoulders pressed together. Aragorn's head lolled back atop the railing, and he slipped his arm around the wizard's neck, pulling his head down onto his shoulder. He stroked Gandalf's hair, smoothing the tousled white mane. "As always, that was extraordinarily intense, old man."

Gandalf chuckled. "Despite the fact that you always call me that, you are the only lover with whom there has never been a tiny tickling thought in the back of my mind, 'Does he think I'm too old?' You so clearly don't think that! And I certainly don't feel old when I'm with you. I feel younger than I ever had in all my time in Middle-earth."

"I'm glad. You certainly didn't seem like an old man a few minutes ago! I must admit that for a long time I thought that I was too young for you. Too callow, too inexperienced. Then there came a day when I realized that I had learned so much from you that I had become the lover that you deserved. Well, no, that's a bit much for me to boast of. You could never find a lover wonderful enough to be all that you deserve. But at least I didn't feel horribly young after that."

After a short silence, Gandalf said, "How is your mother? I assume that you were with her today when I couldn't find you. I was surprised that she was not at dinner tonight."

"Yes. I had long talks with her about Arwen and about the future. I fear that Gilraen will not live to see us wed, if indeed that ever happens. She looks old before her time and apparently now often dines alone in her room. The darkness of our times weighs heavily upon her. She speaks of going back to live in Dunland, whence she came. I urged her to have hope, but so far to no avail."

Gandalf shook his head sadly. "I shall certainly visit her tomorrow. And what had you been doing away to the South, before your trip to Lothlórien?"

"As my last official duty for the Gondorean army, I was finally able to take a fleet and attack the Corsairs of Umbar. We took them by surprise at night and were able to set most of their ships ablaze."

"Excellent! That should worry Sauron a bit."

"Probably, but for how long? Once we reached Pelargir, I sent a message to Ecthelion saying that I was leaving the Gondorean military. I went then to Ithilien and talked to the Rangers there. I also did a little investigating of my own along the fringes of Mordor. It is obvious that rebuilding on the Dark Tower continues and that Sauron's strength is growing."

Gandalf snorted. "When is it not, these long years now? Are the southern kingdoms still strong enough to resist, do you think?"

"They seem so for now. The Steward's grandson Boromir continues to grow apace and seems a sturdy, healthy little boy. There is a new King upon the throne of Rohan."

"Ah, so poor Thengel has died. Well, Théoden seems likely to prove a worthy successor. He will have to play an important part if Saruman continues his current path. He manages to hide it from many, but I think he is no longer a friend to Rohan-if ever he truly was. He acts far too much like a lord of Men these days. His attitude and behavior puzzle and anger me more each time I encounter him. Yes, there are many troubled places nowadays."

Aragorn kissed his forehead. "Well, let us forget them for awhile. Surely you can stay at least a few days before we must part. Whither are you bound next?"

"I shall visit Erebor-yet again! The last time I was there Balin was hinting that he yearns to re-establish the fallen Dwarven realm of Moria. Can you believe it? I keep telling the leaders that eventually they will have their hands full defending one realm, and that the whole idea is far too ambitious. But as the time goes by and they sense no direct, immediate threat to themselves, they grow restless."

Aragorn replied wistfully, "And I suppose you need me to do something else that would prevent my going with you."

Gandalf said reluctantly, "Yes, I am afraid so. Now that you have finally returned to the North, I wonder if you would mind resuming something of your old patrolling duties. I know that all these other realms seem more crucial and that the Shire is protected by its great distance from the sources of trouble, and yet I always hesitate to leave it unguarded for long. If you could make a scouting trip there and then make sure that some of the other Rangers are watching it when you cannot, it would remove one considerable worry from my mind."

"Of course. At least I can finally get a new supply of pipeweed! What you were able to bring me never lasted from one visit to the next, and now I have gone months without. Apart from the pleasure of smoking, it is a scent that I have long associated with you." He leaned down to push his nose into the thick beard and inhale deeply, then straightened up and smiled at the wizard, who was beginning to look drowsy. "Tired, old man? I cannot tempt you into sharing such delights a second time?"

"Well, you are very tempting indeed, but I think not. After my conversation with Arwen this morning, I was convinced that I would never be able to get to sleep tonight. Now, however, you have relaxed me in the most marvelous way imaginable, and I should take advantage of it." He turned and pulled his head back to study the Ranger's beautiful face. "In the morning, however, who knows?" He waggled his immense eyebrows.

Aragorn laughed and kissed him briefly. "Now that is the wizard that I know . . . and love," he added tenderly as he took his sleepy lover into his arms and coaxed him downward until they were lying peacefully together.