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 chapter begins in 3018 TA, shortly after the action of "The Shadow of the Past."

Many thanks to Elanor for betaing and to Sarah and Henrika for comments and encouragement.

Part 5

When Aragorn arrived at Sarn Ford late on the afternoon of April 30, he found two of his fellow Rangers camped there. They were guarding that strategic place on the Brandywine River, for someone approaching the Shire from the South would be likely to cross there. In earlier years, the Rangers usually only sent one of their number to check on the Ford at intervals. Now there were seldom fewer than two there, and it was hardly ever left unguarded. Aragorn was pleased to have company for the night, in part because it would distract him somewhat from his intense longing to see Gandalf the next day. His two comrades greeted him cheerfully and asked if he would be able to stay a few days to watch over the Ford so that they could move on and check other likely places for infiltration. Replacements were due there in five or six days, they assured him. Aragorn agreed readily, for he hoped that the Wizard would be able to spare that much time for him before they both returned to their separate tasks.

The three spent a pleasant evening talking by the campfire. The other Rangers were eager to tell of a pair of Men who had appeared briefly a few days before, traveling up the road from the southeast and looking as if they were up to no good. One of the Rangers told Aragorn, "There have been some serious cases of smugglers cutting large sections of the crops in farmers' pipeweed fields. They carry them off to the South. I gather that the custom of smoking has caught on down there, at least among the wealthier people, and the weed can fetch a pretty price. Those two that we stopped had a cart stacked with empty bags."

"Yes," the other added. "It used to be that a stretch of time spent watching over Sarn Ford was so quiet that it hardly seemed worthwhile. Now it's a rare visit here where we don't have an incident or two like that. And there are those who don't come with carts to steal things. They come as spies, we suspect, for we have seen some of them questioning Hobbits or buying the drinks a little too freely at some of the inns up Bree way."

Aragorn nodded sadly. "Yes, it's getting to be more like what I have seen going on east of the Misty Mountains. I never thought it would reach as far as the Shire, though."

They chatted late into the night, for the Rangers were delighted to get some fresh news and gossip to enliven their routine. Aragorn had also picked up some storytelling abilities from Gandalf, and he was able to relate events from his days as a soldier in Gondor that had them hanging on his every word.

Finally they turned in and slept until past dawn, which came early in these days as spring brought the sun up a bit sooner each day. After a leisurely breakfast the other Rangers bade Aragorn farewell and set off toward the northeast. Once out of their company, Aragorn's thoughts turned to Gandalf-not just because he longed to see the Wizard again, but also because he was anxious to find out the results of the test on the Ring.

Early in the afternoon he spotted a figure approaching from the northwest. As he had hoped, it was Gandalf, riding the pretty chestnut mare that Elrond loaned him for many of his travels. They waved to each other. Once the Wizard got close enough, Aragorn watched his face for any clues. Sure enough, Gandalf was looking unusually solemn for a reunion after months of separation.

As the Wizard dismounted, Aragorn said in resigned tones, "So, it is the One Ring."

Gandalf turned to him, and they embraced quietly, their cheeks pressed together. As they drew apart the Wizard nodded. "Without a shadow of a doubt. Isildur was quite correct when he speculated that heat was what caused the writing to be visible." He began to unload his small baggage as he spoke. "It was quite a bizarre experience, putting a plain Ring into that familiar fireplace and bringing it out wreathed with glowing letters, spelling out foul words in the Black Tongue. I have never experienced anything to compare to it. Despite the fact that I expected to find that writing, it sent a little shock of fear through me for a moment. So many of our hopes and fears are now contained within that little circle of gold."

The Wizard thought for a moment and then looked around at the quiet, pastoral scene around them. "Let us sit down, shall we? I want to get these heavy boots off. The weather is lovely, and it has been long since I went barefoot on fresh spring grass . . . Ah, yes, much better."

They sat on the soft grass by the ashes of the fire. Aragorn sighed. "What now? Do you have a plan?"

"Well, I told Frodo a great deal about the Ring, its background, its powers, its maker-how Gollum had acquired it, and so on. He was a bit slow to grasp things at times, but on the whole he was remarkably calm and determined. Finally he began to see the implications for the Shire if he were to stay there with the Ring. He actually volunteered without prompting to take it elsewhere. I was very relieved, since I could not make that decision for him, and I dreaded the prospect of trying to pressure him into it. I must say that I watched him very closely as he pondered what I had told him. I then advised him to take the Ring to Rivendell, and he agreed. I am happy to say that he seems at last to be displaying some of the adventurousness that I perceived in Bilbo long ago." He paused and frowned thoughtfully. "It is interesting to realize that Bilbo was fifty when he set out with us on the Quest of Erebor, and now Frodo will leave home on his fiftieth birthday. Perhaps it takes Hobbits that long to work up their nerve," he added with a smile.

"Well, the coincidence is an auspicious one. Maybe Frodo will succeed in his mission as well as Bilbo did."

"I hope so. There was one disturbing moment. Frodo offered me the Ring."

Aragorn tried to chuckle. "You declined, I take it."

"Yes. Earlier I had had to handle the Ring briefly, to throw it into the fire. There is no doubt that its lure is considerable. I had to take a deep breath and just force myself to do it quickly, before I could think any more-or let it start conjuring up tempting images in my mind. And I handled it with the fire-tongs in pulling it out. But Frodo gradually realized something of the import of what I had been telling of him, and naturally he became frightened. And just as naturally, he assumed that I would be a wiser and more powerful Ringbearer-his words, not mine, though he is right, of course."

The Ranger managed quickly to suppress a little grin before Gandalf continued, "Yes, the little fellow just held it right up toward me, resting on his open palm. It was so sudden that he took me a bit off-guard. For a tiny moment-really only a second or two-it was as it someone else had occupied my mind and body, and that stranger longed to reach out and just take it. I was so shocked by the sensation that I quickly made an effort, pushing the temptation aside and adamantly refusing to accept it. I explained why to Frodo, though I fear that I was not as clear in my account as I normally would be. Also, that morning I hinted to him a number of times that he is the Ringbearer. I don't think he has quite realized that yet, but at least he is willing to take it to Rivendell."

Despite being upset at what Gandalf had just told him, Aragorn also suddenly felt how privileged he was that the Wizard would confide in him so freely his most intimate feelings about the Ring. Would Gandalf tell even Elrond about the moments of temptation? Probably, but not many others. He slid his arm around Gandalf's shoulders, holding him firmly against his side. "When is Frodo setting out for Rivendell?"

"Not until September 22nd. I believe that he wants to imitate Bilbo, leaving Bag End on his birthday. And I very much hope that he will imitate Bilbo in another way and come back home after his 'adventure.' Yes, I know September is a long way off, but I agreed to it. I also told Frodo that I would accompany him to Rivendell. Partly because there may be unforeseen dangers on the road and partly because he has never traveled outside of the Shire and may well need someone along to bolster his confidence. Sam is to accompany him, by the way, Samwise Gamgee-that's his gardener. Don't look so bemused, my dear Aragorn. I am not becoming the conventional eccentric Wizard or even playing at being one. No, the silly fellow eavesdropped on part of my conversation with Frodo about the Ring-"

"He eavesdrops, and you immediately give him a position of such trust! Can you be sure-"

"Believe me, Aragorn, it will be all right. Sam only listened because he is fascinated by Elves. It was quite amusing, actually, once he confessed that. I thought that it would be rather a bad idea to leave him behind, because Hobbits are so prone to gossip. He might not see the harm in telling a few friends, and before you know it . . . At any rate, having got to know him a bit since then, I think he may actually be quite a good companion for Frodo as he travels."

"Well, I trust your judgment, of course, so he no doubt will be." Aragorn leaned forward and brushed his lips against the Wizard's, then asked, "How long do we have together? Must you return to Hobbiton soon?"

"Oh, I can afford to stay a few days. All has been decided, and Frodo is not to set out until September, nearly five months from now. I shall go back and spend much of that time at Bag End, guarding Frodo, but there seems to be no imminent threat to him. I shall no doubt conduct brief scouting trips to make sure of that. If we set out on September 22nd or 23rd, we should reach Bree in four days-or more likely five, since we shall have to stop at Crickhollow. The point is to give the appearance of Frodo simply moving to a little cottage there, since he has family in that area. At any rate, as I said, four days or five at the most. Wait for us at the Pony .. . or if you cannot contain your eagerness to see me again, travel west a little way to meet us," he added with a teasing smile.

Aragorn grinned. "All right. Perhaps I shall."

Gandalf chuckled. "Just don't let me find you waiting for us at the bottom of the Hill as we set out. I need for you to gather news at Bree and let me know the situation when I arrive there."

"I promise. If I am so eager to see you that I cannot sit still, I shan't go further west than a few hours' walk. But I don't promise that I shan't kiss you right there in front of Frodo and Sam."

They lingered near the Ford for three days, conscious ever of the months that they would be apart. They walked or rode among the rolling plains of the land south of the Shire, with their bleak beauty and stillness. They sat peacefully talking and fishing, catching their supper only a short time before cleaning the catch and roasting it over the fire on sticks. They made love as often as they could renew their desire and sometimes more often-spending hours in teasing caresses and banter, frustrated until their passion gradually kindled and burned once more.

In many ways it was a peaceful interlude, for Gandalf had finally discovered what needed to be done and had set his plan in motion. Now all it needed was for Frodo to make his arrangements to leave Bag End, and the Hobbit did not really need Gandalf's help for that.

On the fourth morning, as Aragorn's eyes fluttered open, he saw that the Wizard was already awake, wearing an abstracted look. They had rolled slightly apart after having fallen asleep in each other's arms, and the Man reached over to touch Gandalf's cheek.

The Wizard turned his eyes to his lover's. "I fear, my sweet Aragorn, that the time allowed us for such joys is slipping away. I should return to the Shire."

Neither spoke again for awhile. Instead they sat, naked and cross-legged, on their blankets as they watched the morning light tinge the early mists pink and create tiny, fleeting rainbows as they rose and dissipated.

Finally Aragorn said, "I promised my fellow Rangers that I would stay here to guard the Ford until replacements arrive. That should be within three days. After that, should I simply return to my patrolling duties around the Shire?"

Gandalf considered for a moment. "Not right away. Elrond will be very curious as to the outcome of my visit to Frodo. I think it would be best if you went straight to Rivendell and told him and Glorfindel and others of the Wise." He hesitated briefly and glanced at Aragorn. "And I'm sure that you long to see Arwen again."

Aragorn took the Wizard's hand. "Yes, I treasure those times when she and I can be together. Arwen's and my love for each other does not yet burn with the passion that I share with you-and perhaps it never will, if things go badly for the West. Still, it glows with a banked heat that may break forth as brightly someday. And I am content just to be with her, admiring her beauty and subtlety of mind and heart. You have given me hope for our cause and perhaps for my kingship one day, but she gives me hope beyond that-for the time when I shall no longer have you to sustain me."

Gandalf squeezed his hand. "You are right to think and hope as you do. I try not to be jealous, though I am afraid that I do not always succeed! Yet I think of Arwen and of how she must feel, knowing that we are out here in the world together, as least part of the time. She has been enormously patient and generous in honoring our agreement. Yes, go to her and tell her and Elrond and the others that I send my love and greetings. With luck, I shall be there among them myself well before the year is over-bringing a very dangerous thing into the temporary security of Rivendell."

Aragorn nodded, and there was a brief silence. Suddenly the Ranger asked, "Why Frodo, do you think?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"Why should Frodo be the one to bear the Ring? Indeed, you call him the 'Ringbearer,' as if he is to keep it until the very end-whatever that may be."

"I can't explain it, but-"

"-your heart tells you that he is to be the Ringbearer."

Aragornn chuckled as Gandalf looked at him in some bemusement. Finally the Wizard said, "You and I have apparently spent more time together than it has seemed. Well, yes, my heart tells me that-and it is not my ploy for getting others to go along with what I want them to do!" He savored the twinkle in the Man's eyes. It really would be difficult to part from Aragorn for another stretch of months, and he fought the urge to suggest that they spend one more night at the Ford.

Aragorn became more serious and said, "So, your heart tells you that."

"Yes. I have long pondered why it should be so. Frodo seems the most ordinary little fellow. Yet as I told him recently, Hobbits can always surprise one no matter how much one learns about them. His willingness to sacrifice his own very settled and comfortable life to save the Shire, his underlying bravery and honesty and loyalty-and native Hobbit toughness-in a strange way make him eminently qualified to carry that most dangerous of objects. He seems to have been little touched by its lure in the nearly 17 years that he has carried it . . . though of course he, like Bilbo before him, has not aged in appearance at all. At any rate, there is another side to it. Frodo has very little power, at least as we would define power in the world outside the Shire. My hope is that the Ring will thus have relatively little influence over him. True, I noticed a distinct reluctance and distrust in his eyes when I asked him to give me the Ring in order to test it. Even he has not remained wholly unscathed by it. And it would seize his mind eventually, as it had clearly done to some extent with Bilbo by the end. Perhaps, though, Frodo can resist it long enough to . . . well, take it where it needs to be taken." He smiled sadly. "And if he does succumb to the temptation to seize the Ring, he would find himself with very little notion as to how to use it. He would be quite an ineffectual Ring Lord, initially anyway."

"And what if he does seize the Ring, ineffectual though he may be?"

Gandalf stared at the Man for a moment. "Others would have to go with him. They could take the Ring away from him, and one of them would then have to carry on the struggle."

"Go with him where? The struggle to do what?"

Gandalf frowned. "Let us talk no more about that part of it until we are once more together in Rivendell and I can consult with others. No matter how much you think I do just as I wish, it is not my task to decide such things-only to make the best possible case for my position and to consider what others think. My heart is not always an excuse, I assure you. Sometimes it tells me things that I wish I didn't know. I have no desire to risk Frodo's health or life by taking him out of his home and into the wild, dangerous world. Far from it! But he has the Ring, he is the Ringbearer-and yes, my heart is most adamant on that point! My duty is not to find another Ringbearer, at least not for now. The Wise may indeed decide upon such a course, but my immediate duty is to get Frodo and the Ring to Rivendell. With your aid, I trust that I can accomplish that."

"Would it not be better if he left the Shire sooner? Surely he could settle his affairs by, say, July."

"Perhaps. I believe that he is a bit frightened and reluctant-as well he might be! I am asking much of him, and if it takes him awhile to get his courage up and make such a drastic change in his life, who am I to force him? He might even decide not to go! As things stand now, the delay does not seem particularly dangerous. Well, our beautiful morning mists have lifted. Shall we have our breakfast and be on our separate ways?"

In reply Aragorn slipped his arm around the Wizard's waist and leaned in to nuzzle against his bearded cheek. His tongue slid wetly over Gandalf's ear and he murmured, "Yes, we should definitely do that . . . soon."

The Wizard's eyes closed, and he expelled his breath slowly, gasping as Aragorn's lips and tongue sent heat flowing quickly to his groin. He raised a hand to cup the side of the Man's head and tilted his own to give Aragorn's eager mouth greater access. "Well . . . that delay does not seem particularly dangerous either," he said breathily, allowing the Ranger to push him back down onto their makeshift bed and move above him, overwhelming his senses with the last pleasure that they would share for a long time.

It's only a couple of days, Aragorn told himself. He had told himself that hundreds of times over those days, as Gandalf's words echoed clearly in his mind: "four days or five at the most." It had been seven now since Gandalf, Frodo, and Sam should have set off from Hobbiton. Several weeks ago the Elven-folk of Gildor had told him with solemn faces that Gandalf had disappeared and that the Black Riders had been seen west of the Misty Mountains. Since then his mind had wandered over countless explanations as to where his lover could be and what could have delayed him. Maybe he had heard a rumor and gone to investigate it, taking longer than he had expected. Maybe his horse had been injured in the middle of uninhabited areas where there was no help. Later, when the Elves told Aragorn that Gandalf had not set out with Frodo, he fretted again but comforted himself that the Wizard had surely arrived late and gone after the Ringbearer. Gandalf would have tried to send word to him if something unexpected had happened, but the Shire did not have swift bird messengers to carry news, as did the Elves. The Hobbits' postal system was efficient but a bit slow when it came to far-flung areas like Bree.

Surely Gandalf would have caught up to Frodo and Sam by now, he thought, not particularly convinced by his own claim. Gildor's folk had also told him that Frodo had disappeared after reaching Crickhollow. That argued in favor of the pair now being with Gandalf. Didn't it? It was logical. If Gandalf caught up to the Hobbits and knew that the Black Riders were on their trail, surely he would quietly take them off the Road to travel. And a detour through rough country would delay the little group. Perhaps they were approaching Bree right now.

Still, as Aragorn trudged along the Road west of Bree, peering ahead, he was very worried. He wondered if Gandalf indeed knew that the Nine were abroad again and seemed close to discovering where the Shire lay-if they did not know already. Where were the Riders now, he wondered, suddenly feeling himself quite vulnerable and exposed, alone on the Road. The raised bank on his left offered some protection, but the lines of trees on either side did little to mask his presence. When he had first set out from Bree after lunch in the hopes of meeting the Wizard and the Hobbits, he has passed between the prosperous fields of the region. The harvest was still going on in a few of them, and farmers had either stopped to stare at him or, in the cases of the bolder ones, to wave to him.

This was his third hike westward since he had arrived in Bree, but he had not previously walked this far. Now he had reached the bleak, frightening area known as the Barrow Downs. An aura of death and fear pervaded it, and travelers on the Road hastened their pace as they passed through it. The hair on the back of Aragorn's neck prickled, though he saw no movement and sensed no nearby presence. "You must really want to see that old man again," he muttered to himself with a little smile.

Suddenly his keen ears picked up the sound of several horses' hooves approaching at a fairly rapid pace from the south, off to his left. They did not sound heavy enough to be the large horses that the Riders would use, but the bank might muffle the sound. Anyone riding through the Barrow Downs would have to be viewed with considerable suspicion. Quickly he ducked behind a hedge growing just beyond the row of trees to the north of the Road. Lying prone under the bushes' lowest branches, he knew that he was nearly invisible, his dark, worn clothing blending in with the browns and greys of the bleak fields in autumn.

To his considerable astonishment and relief, he heard the unmistakable voice of Tom Bombadil, talking to what sounded like some Hobbits. He listened eagerly for Gandalf's voice but did not hear it. If Gandalf were there, Aragorn thought with a sad smile, he certainly would not keep quiet for this long! From the conversation, he quickly realized that the group might include Frodo and Sam, though who the two others were he could not imagine. They were talking about a delay, which seemed promising, and then about the possibility of being pursued. Tom reassured them, saying that he guessed that the Riders would not come after them that night. It was only a guess, he added: "Tom is no master of Riders from the Black Land far beyond his country."

Surely, Aragorn thought, this must be Frodo. And yet where was Gandalf? Relief and renewed worry warred in his mind. He was delighted when Tom recommended the Prancing Pony to the Hobbits before he departed in the direction of his woodland home. They lingered nervously, obviously worried at the prospect of approaching an area where there were "Big Folk," as one of them called the residents of Bree. Then a voice said, "Please remember-all of you-that the name Baggins must NOT be mentioned. I am Mr. Underhill, if any name must be given."

As the four set out toward Bree, Aragorn swiftly slipped into the dark shadows of the woods just beyond the field north of the Road. He set out at a pace that would bring him back to the Pony not long after the Hobbits' arrival, even given that they were mounted and he was not. By the time they made their way to the inn and were given rooms, he would be there. He hoped that they would come to the tap-room, even if they chose to dine in their chambers. From what he knew of Hobbits, that process would give him quite a bit of time before he met them, he reflected with a grin. The grin faded, though, as he wondered again why there were four of them and why the Wizard was not with them. Could this be some trick of the Enemy's, he suddenly wondered. He would have to be very cautious in dealing with them at first. He longed to approach them at once and ask where Gandalf was, but the Wizard would have advised him to be on his guard, and he resolved to do his duty.

As it turned out, Aragorn did have plenty of time to warm up over a goblet of hot mulled wine and then eat supper before the Hobbits appeared in the tap-room. He watched them for awhile, seeking any signs that they might possibly be spies of the Enemy-or of Saruman, for Gandalf had told him that the White Istar had his own agents in the Shire. After a short while, the Ranger realized that two of the Hobbits-the ones who apparently were called Pip and Sam, were all too convivial and conspicuous. A crowd interested in news and gossip from the Shire had gathered around them. No, not spies, he concluded. Just naïve, provincial little fellows who badly needed Gandalf's guidance and for some reason did not have it. He became increasingly worried about how much the youngest one, Pip, was talking. Aragorn finally managed to catch "Mr. Underhill's" attention and gestured him to approach.

Frodo looked suitably nervous at this, and when the Man threw back his hood to reveal his face, the Hobbit stared rather fearfully at him. "I am called Strider," he said softly. "I am very happy to meet you, Master Underhill, if old Butterbur got your name right."

"He did." Frodo looked ready to turn tail and run, but Aragorn held his eyes with his own and resumed, "Well, Master Underhill, if I were you, I should stop your young friend from talking too much. Drink, fire, and chance-meeting are pleasant enough, but well-this isn't the Shire. There are queer folk about. Though I say it as shouldn't, you might think. And there have been even stranger travelers through Bree lately."

He would have said more, but the name "Gandalf" suddenly caught his ear, and he realized that Pip had started to tell the tale of Bilbo's farewell birthday Party and had got as far as the fireworks. He and Frodo listened for a few moments, and Aragorn wondered why in Arda the Ringbearer was making no move to stop his friend. "You had better do something quick!" To his surprise, Frodo's method of stopping Pip's story was to divert the attention of the entire room to himself, jumping onto a table to make a speech. Even worse, he responded to the calls from patrons of the bar for a song by launching into a long and comic one. Aragorn watched uneasily as the entire room became quite raucous in its appreciation of Frodo's talents.

The Ranger sighed in exasperation. These Hobbits behaved in such a reckless fashion that he could almost imagine that they had somehow managed to lose Gandalf along the way through some sort of prank or foolishness. This, he thought, is the chosen Ringbearer? The song was bad enough, but then Frodo began to dance-and suddenly disappeared.

Aragorn sat up straight. He realized at once what must have happened, and his eyes frantically searched the room for any sign of the Hobbit's presence. Among the hubbub that had erupted from the astonished patrons of the Pony, he spotted the swarthy Bree-lander and his squint-eyed companion, whom he had noticed with suspicion earlier, going quietly out, followed by Harry the gatekeeper. Fine, Aragorn thought, just what we need now. He sighed with relief as Frodo reappeared, sitting on the floor and leaning against the wall beside his chair. He wondered fleetingly why the Hobbit had chosen to come to him. A good sign, he thought.

"Well, why did you do that? Worse than anything your friends could have said! You have put your foot in it! Or should I say your finger?" I'm beginning to sound like Gandalf, he realized, suppressing a reluctant chuckle. Maybe the Wizard had developed his irritability while dealing with Hobbits.

"I don't know what you mean," Frodo said with an alarmed look.

There was no time for beating around the bush or for trying to gain Frodo's confidence now. "Oh yes, you do, but we had better wait until the uproar has died down. Then, if you please, Mr. Baggins, I should ask for a quiet word with you."

Despite looking suspicious and worried, Frodo soon agreed to meet him later. Perhaps he realizes that he needs help and that I am the only one he knows here," Aragorn reflected. "Well, that is a start." The Hobbit rose to go over and try to calm some of the agitated locals, who were still arguing over the mysterious disappearance. Aragorn took the occasion to slip out and make his way to the little parlor where the Hobbits had dined, sitting down in the shadows to wait. Despite their suspicions and their fear of him, he simply had to convince them to take him on as a guide. Given the way that they had just behaved, they wouldn't make it more than a few miles east of Bree on their own.

In the event, Aragorn's dealings with the Hobbits went better than he had expected. This was not because they accepted his account of himself or trusted his offer of guidance, though he hoped that he could persuade them. After all, they would eventually realize that they had no chance on their own. Still, they were very doubtful, and Sam was altogether against going with him. The Ranger breathed an enormous sigh of relief when Butterbur appeared and declared that he had a letter from Gandalf. Surely it would explain a great deal! He had known that his lover would not change his plans without notifying the Hobbits-and through them, him as well. Butterbur said the letter was three months old-two months after their May meeting at Sarn Ford. Much could have happened in that time.

Aragorn waited impatiently as Frodo simply held the sealed envelope and talked with Butterbur. The Ranger already knew all the news that the innkeeper had to impart about the recent activities of the Black Riders in the vicinity, and he longed to shoo the old fellow out and grab the envelope from Frodo's hand. He knew, however, that he should do what the Hobbits had so spectacularly failed to do-stay inconspicuous. Butterbur mentioned him, though, and before the innkeeper could further poison the Hobbits' minds against him, Aragorn stepped forward and pointed out to Butterbur the obvious: that no one else was willing to go with the little group and protect them. After a further delay to make arrangements for an early departure in the morning, the innkeeper took himself off, and Aragorn turned at last to Frodo and asked what he had been longing to since Butterbur had produced the envelope: "Well, when are you going to open that letter?"

The Man noted with approval that Frodo at least was cautious enough to scrutinize the imprint on the wax seal that held the flap shut. Even from a slight distance, Aragorn could recognize it as the Wizard's. Once Frodo had opened it, the Hobbits read the letter over, each in turn, silently. Aragorn had to fold his arms to keep himself from snatching it out of their hands. From their glances and expressions, it clearly quieted their fears of him, and Frodo and Pippin seemed inclined to accept him. Where was the fourth Hobbit, he wondered. The one who had referred to Breelanders as "Big Folk." Out in the tap-room causing more mischief? He would have to keep them all together from now on, so that he could prevent any further foolishness.

Although the letter made Frodo and Pippin willing to accept Strider as their guide, Sam was still dubious. "How do we know you re the Strider that Gandalf speaks about? You never mentioned Gandalf, till this letter came out. You might be a play-acting spy, for all I can see, trying to get us to go with you. You might have done in the real Strider and took his clothes. What have you to say to that?"

Now one of them decides to become cautious, Aragorn thought exasperatedly. "That you are a stout fellow, but I am afraid my only answer to you, Sam Gamgee, is this. If I had killed the real Strider, I could kill you. And I should have killed you already without so much talk. If I was after the Ring, I could have it-NOW!" He put his hand to the hilt of his sword to emphasize the point. That seemed to frighten Sam into agreeing with the other Hobbits that they should travel east under "Strider's" protection. Sam continued to dart suspicious glances his way, however, and Aragorn hoped that the little fellow could be pursued that he was their friend. The Ranger explained his simple plan: to leave the Road and travel across country to Weathertop.

"Weathertop?" asked Sam. "What's that?"

"It is a hill, just to the north of the Road, about half-way from here to Rivendell. It commands a wide view all round; and there we shall have a chance to look about us. Gandalf will make for that point, if he follows us. After Weathertop our journey will become more difficult, and we shall have to choose between various dangers." He remembered the times that he and the Wizard had met at Weathertop since that first night. Usually after long absences, always with joy and passion resulting. Never once had Gandalf been a single day late when they were able to arrange a specific appointment to meet there-or anywhere. Indeed, the Wizard prided himself on unwavering punctuality and dependability.

Frodo looked as worried as he felt himself. "When did you last see Gandalf? Do you know where he is, or what he is doing?"

Aragorn struggled not to let his anxiety show. "I do not know. I came west with him in the spring. I have often kept watches on the borders of the Shire in the last few years, when he was busy elsewhere. He seldom left it unguarded. We last met on the first of May at Sarn Ford down the Brandywine." He had to pause and swallow hard before he could go on. "He told me that his business with you had gone well, and that you would be starting for Rivendell in the last week of September. As I knew he was at your side, I went away on a journey of my own. And that has proved ill; for plainly some news reached him, and I was not at hand to help."

He could not avoid expressing some of his own emotions to the Hobbit, whom he liked already-despite his foolishness in the tap-room. And the Ringbearer should know the true situation, he reflected. "I am troubled, for the first time since I have known him. We should have had messages, even if he could not come himself. When I returned many days ago, I heard the ill news. The tidings had gone far and wide that Gandalf was missing and the horsemen had been seen. It was the Elven-folk of Gildor that told me this; and later they told me that you had left your home; but there was no news of your leaving Buckland. I have been watching the East Road anxiously." Despite the Man's struggle to conceal the depths of his fear for Gandalf, Frodo was clearly shaken by all this. Aragorn knew that he, too, loved the Wizard, as a dear friend, and that he depended upon him in this new mission.

"Do you think the Black Riders have anything to do with it-with Gandalf's absence, I mean?"

Aragorn felt tears threatening to well up, and he clenched his teeth and tried to keep his voice even once he was able to speak. "I do not know of anything else that could have hindered him, except the Enemy himself." Seeing the look of fear that came over Frodo's face, he tried to reassure the Hobbit-and himself. "But do not give up hope! Gandalf is greater than you Shire-folk know-as a rule you can only see his jokes and toys. But this business of ours will be his greatest task." If he is still alive to pursue our business, he added silently to himself as Frodo gave an uncertain little smile and nodded. Well, he had reassured the Hobbit a bit-but not himself. He sat pondering his own dark thoughts until Merry suddenly returned from a walk outside with a tale of meeting two Riders and nearly being overcome by the Black Breath. Aragorn insisted that the Hobbits stay in the parlor to sleep. Really, they are an odd mixture of foolishness and courage, he thought, as the little fellows made beds of blankets on the floor by the hearth. They talked for only a little while, falling asleep from the exhaustion of all the excitement and danger they had been through in the past two days.

As they quieted, Aragorn sat in the chair propped against the door and finally did what he had longed to do-read Gandalf's letter, which he had borrowed from Frodo. He was determined to search for any clue, consider every word, hoping to gain a hint as to what business might have diverted Gandalf and kept him from returning to the Ringbearer. He had lit a candle, using the melting wax to affix it to the top of one of the chair-back's uprights. The beautiful script brought tears to his eyes, so familiar was it, and he smiled sadly at the string of postscripts, so typical of Gandalf's letters. Each was signed with a slightly larger G-rune as the Wizard's thoughts tumbled out of him.

"Bad news has reached me here. I must go off at once." Bad news in Bree on Midyear's Day? Not much in that. He assumed that Gandalf would not have left Frodo at that point without some powerful reason. "Go off" where, though? Even the direction might give a clue, but there was nothing more. The most important part seemed to be the change in the date for Frodo's departure. Late July rather than late September. Two months earlier. Gandalf had some reason to think that the Shire was in imminent danger, then. Given that the Black Riders had appeared, it seemed very likely that the Wizard had heard about them at the end of June. But why had he not returned immediately to Hobbiton? Why not rush directly back to protect Frodo every step of the way to Rivendell? It made no sense. Clearly Gandalf had thought it at least likely that he would be able to get from Bree to wherever he was going and then back to Hobbiton in a roughly month's time. Given how fast the Wizard could ride in great need, a two-week journey from Bree and one of equal length to Hobbiton might take him almost anywhere in Eriador. The Ranger struggled to suppress a rising despair and to think carefully. Not Rivendell, obviously, or Gildor's folk would have known. Not the Grey Havens, for the same reason. Surely there was nothing to take him to the desolate areas in the north. South, then. After a certain distance south of Bree, farmland gave way to large, uninhabited areas, and if one went far enough, Dunland and the western limits of Rohan. Beyond that Gandalf could not hope to go and return in a month.

Reluctantly Aragorn went back to the idea that the Riders were the most likely reason why Gandalf would go south-the direction from which they would have come. Would the Wizard be so reckless as to confront the Nine on his own? He certainly was brave and confident of his own abilities, but he was not foolhardy. Try as he might, the Man could not imagine Gandalf putting himself at such risk. Perhaps someone had tricked the Wizard, luring him southward so that the Riders could attack him in the isolated wilderness of southern Eriador. But who could trick Gandalf in such a way? Surely no one. The Wizard was too clever and cautious. Spies like the squint-eyed southerner would not stand a chance at deceiving Gandalf.

He read on slowly and paused. Should Frodo leave a message for Gandalf, as the Wizard requested? Not a written one, he decided, with the Riders about. If Butterbur simply told Gandalf that the Hobbits had met up with "Strider" and gone on with him, the Wizard would know to head for Weathertop. He smiled at the description of himself: "lean, dark, tall." Well, the "old man" could hardly start extolling his hidden beauty in a letter to a Hobbit. He chuckled silently at the thought: "Frodo, you may meet my lover on the Road: lean, dark, handsome, regal, if a bit sinister-looking."

He sobered again as he read the most discouraging part of all: "Make for Rivendell. There I hope we may meet again. If I do not come . . ." Aragorn had to stop and take a few deep breaths at that. "If I do not come, Elrond will advise you." There were not many things that that passage could mean. The Wizard had thought that he might be going into mortal danger-which again pointed straight to the Riders. The Wizard might not return, might not be there to carry on with whatever he had intended to do about the Ring. Perhaps he had shared his specific intentions with Elrond, or perhaps he simply assumed that Elrond would advise Frodo because there was no one nearly as well qualified to do so. Perhaps they could carry on the struggle without the Wizard-but with far less hope of success.

Aragorn forced himself to read on. The first postscript seemed to contain a hint about what Gandalf had known and might have been planning: "Do NOT use It again, not for any reason whatever! Do not travel by night!" There was no escaping the fact that such warnings would again most likely imply danger from the Nine. But the same question arose here: If he knew about them while he was still in Bree, would it not make more sense to ride directly west to Hobbiton?

Aragorn smiled wistfully as his eyes ran down the familiar little poem that Gandalf had quoted in his second postscript. Bilbo had written it for the Ranger. The second half struck him more than it ever had before:

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,

A light from the shadows shall spring;

Renewed shall be blade that was broken,

The crownless again shall be king.

He knew that Gandalf had helped Bilbo a little with the poem, suggesting some of the imagery. For a moment it seemed as if the Wizard was speaking to him in those lines. Gandalf had certainly woken the heat of love and passion in him-and hope as well, for he never had ceased to speak as if Aragorn were already king. And he felt shadows of doubt and fear encroaching on all sides. Only Gandalf's return could provide the light needed to scatter them.

He had been staring abstractedly at the blurred writing, but now he wiped the tears from his eyes and read the third and final postscript, with its angry tone: "I hope Butterbur sends this promptly . . . If he forgets, I shall roast him." Gandalf would never really harm Butterbur, but Aragorn had heard the Wizard utter many such highly exaggerated threats against various people in moments of annoyance, and he could almost hear an echo of the beloved voice in his mind. His eyes fixed on the final line-"Fare Well!" and the bold G-rune that ended the whole.

The letter was far less helpful than the Ranger had hoped, but he read it over and over, trying unsuccessfully to extract something more from it. Such close examination only made it seem more and more likely that the fell wraiths against whom he was protecting the sleeping Hobbits had harmed his lover. Finally, near despair, he gave up and dropped the letter by Frodo's pack. He stretched, glanced out the window into inky darkness, and resumed his seat by the door. Weathertop, he thought. The next real chance to encounter the Wizard, if indeed he was alive and following them. A week's journey if they stayed off the Road the whole time. Well, he had been lucky at Weathertop in the past, and perhaps he would be so again.

Aragorn trudged wearily down the steep path into the deep valley of Rivendell. After Glorfindel has ridden on ahead, bearing the wounded Ringbearer to seek help from Elrond and others skilled in healing, Aragorn and the three Hobbits had followed more slowly behind, leading Bill. Now that Frodo had been saved from the Riders and brought into the safe area controlled by Elrond, Aragorn's thoughts turned once more to Gandalf. Glorfindel's news that the Wizard had not been at Rivendell when the Elf left to search for them had plunged him further into despair about where his lover might be. Aragorn had interpreted the scratches he found on a stone in the circle of Weathertop as a message left by Gandalf to reassure him: a G-rune and three marks to indicate October 3. That was more than two weeks ago. Why had the Wizard not reached Rivendell days before? Perhaps the marks on the stone were merely natural wear, which he had in his desperate hope read as what he wanted them to be. He touched the stone through the leather of his pack. It was silly to carry such a heavy, useless thing, and yet he had taken it with him. He had often touched it as he walked or at night as he tried in vain to sleep, as if it somehow gave him a tiny link to the Wizard. Now, facing possible further bad news when they reached the Last Homely House, he could no longer hide his discouragement. The little group hiked glumly along until they reached the front door of the House.

Aragorn mounted the steps and paused before he crossed the threshold, trying to steel himself to hearing again that Gandalf had not appeared. He and the Hobbits moved from the twilight outside into the bright, inviting hallway and looked around. The place was bustling with activity, as Elves moved about, welcoming the Hobbits and reassuring them that Frodo was being taken care of. The Ranger waited to make sure that the Hobbits were being escort to their rooms and then moved to Elrohir, who was standing nearby talking to other members of the household, and tapped his shoulder. The Elf turned and greeted him warmly, for the two were as brothers to each other.

"Tell me, Elrohir, has Gandalf arrived yet? I have heard dark rumors of his disappearance."

The Elf nodded as he spoke, then smiled and replied, "We had heard them, too, but to our great delight he reached Rivendell the evening of the day before yesterday."

Aragorn struggled to keep himself from revealing the full extent of his relief. Still, all at Rivendell loved the Istar and would not be surprised at an emotional reaction to such news. The Man closed his eyes briefly and then smiled shakily. "Unharmed, I hope."

"Yes. Tired and hungry, but well. He is with Father tending to Frodo now."

"I suppose I should not try to see them right away."

"I believe not. The wound is serious and should ideally have been treated days ago. I suspect that Father is still cleaning and dressing it. The whole procedure is very delicate and would take some time, I'm sure. As I understand it, the blade shattered, and there were shards of it in the wound."

"Do you know where Gandalf was before he arrived? We all wondered and worried greatly as we journeyed here."

"He told us that he had detoured far to the north, managing to draw four of the Riders away from their pursuit of the Ringbearer for a little while."

Aragorn nodded thoughtfully. "Ah, I understand then why there were but five when they attacked us and stabbed Frodo. It was a brave thing for him to do."

"Yes. He ended by traveling up the Hoarwell and through the Ettenmoors until he could approach Imladris from the north."

"I see. And Arwen and Elladan are also well, I trust."

"Oh, certainly."

"Good! Well, I am quite tired. I think I shall have a rest before dinner. I shall wait to hear all the other news."

Tempted though he was to try and see Gandalf, Aragorn went instead to his own room. He stripped and washed before putting on some clean clothes. He decided not to try and see Arwen just yet. His focus was entirely on learning more about how Gandalf was and where he had been, and it was hardly courteous to his betrothed to be with her and yet do nothing but fret over the Wizard. He and Arwen would probably have romantic days together for some time now. He considered lying down and resting, as he had said he would, and yet he could not keep away from Gandalf. He went to Frodo's room and waited outside for a moment, listening for any signs of activity within. Either there was none or he simply could not hear it through the thick door. He did not dare knock for fear of interrupting some vital procedure or waking the weakened Hobbit, but he couldn't bring himself to leave, either. Finally he sat on a nearby bench, maddened by the thought that his lover was so close and yet so inaccessible. He decided just to sit there and wait any length of time until it was clear that his going in to see the Wizard would pose no danger to Frodo.

After a little over an hour, Elrond emerged and smiled in welcome as he saw Aragorn. He walked over with open arms to embrace the Man as he stood up. "Estel! Welcome home. Glorfindel has told us something of the great dangers through which you brought the Hobbits. You actions have been heroic indeed-which, I might add, does not surprise me in the least."

Aragorn shook his head. "I did my best, I hope, and yet I was unable to prevent Frodo from being wounded, perhaps beyond all recovery."

"Yes, but you might have been able to had he not put on the Ring. Oh, yes, Sam has told us that story. He came here immediately upon arriving and insisted on staying to assist us and to run errands." Aragorn's eyes widened when he heard that Sam had been in the sickroom all this time while he had been waiting so impatiently in the hallway. Sometimes it pays to be more enthusiastic than cautious, he thought. He pressed his lips together and remained silent as Elrond continued, "So far there has been little for him to do, but I'm sure there will be. Frodo had nearly succumbed to his wound by the time he arrived here, and it will take days before he recovers. I have cleaned and dressed the wound and done all I could using the craft and power that I possess. I only hope that it is enough to counter the deadly weapons of the Enemy."

"Is Gandalf with him?"

"Yes, he insists on staying at Frodo's bedside, since I still have the many cares of running this vast household. Do come and have some dinner . . . and see Arwen," the Elf added somewhat stiffly.

When he met Elrond after having been away from Rivendell for a time, Aragorn seldom was the one to mention Arwen first. He was grateful that Elrond was quite tolerant of the engagement, but there was a distinct coolness between them when she was mentioned. The Man replied, "Thank you, but I shall simply take some supper in the kitchen and retire early tonight. I would not be a good dinner companion for Arwen in my current state. I am quite exhausted by the journey, for I have watched over the Hobbits at night and slept little. I had hoped to speak briefly with Gandalf, though. May I go in?"

"If you are quiet, why not? Frodo has not woken up yet, and he is not in a natural sleep from which he could easily be disturbed. He is likely to be unconscious for quite some time."

Elrond walked away down the hallway, and Aragorn took a deep breath and opened the door. Gandalf was seated by the bed. He had slumped down into a semi-reclining position, his eyes on the Hobbit's face. Sam was standing on the opposite side of the bed, being just tall enough to rest his forearms and chin on the coverlet near its foot. He looked drowsy but determined to stay awake. He grinned as he saw Aragorn in the doorway. It was the friendliest that Sam had ever been to him, and the Ranger assumed that Gandalf had reassured the Hobbit that the tall, sinister "Strider" was who he claimed to be. He grinned back.

Noticing Sam's expression, the Wizard glanced over and saw Aragorn. Despite his obvious exhaustion, he beamed at the Man and then looked at Sam. He said quietly, "Why don't you go off and have some dinner, Sam? Strider can go on any errands that might need running in the meantime. I know that you will want to come straight back, but do take care of yourself as well, my dear Hobbit. You are of no use to us groggy and faint with hunger!"

Sam paused as if he were about to protest, but he seemed to realize the truth of the Wizard's words. With a last look to see if there was any change in Frodo's condition, he went out and very carefully closed the door behind him. Gandalf stood and faced the Ranger. At once all of the emotion that Aragorn had kept hidden within himself rushed over him. He drew long, shaky breaths, struggling in vain to keep tears from coming to his eyes. The Wizard watched him with a sad little smile for moment and stepped forward, pulling the Man into an embrace and stroking his back soothingly with one hand. Aragorn squeezed him tightly and buried his face against the side of the Wizard's neck, sobbing quietly in sheer relief and joy. "Nearly six months," he whispered at last. "But these last weeks have been the worst of my life."

He drew back slightly and placed his hands on either side of Gandalf's head, the fingers curving up over the skull, and slowly tilted the Wizard's face up a bit. Aragorn suddenly pressed his mouth down upon his lover's, and their lips moved firmly against each other in a long kiss of reunion and reassurance. They pressed the entire lengths of their bodies against each other. As the kiss ended, Aragorn said softly into the Wizard's ear, "I wish I could take you to bed. Not to make love necessarily, but to lie hugging you like this for all the night."

Gandalf nodded sympathetically. "I know, you have had a dreadful time of it. I at least have had indications that you were alive and unharmed-first from Barliman at the Pony and today from Glorfindel when he brought Frodo here."

Aragorn's hands gently grasped Gandalf's upper arms, and he held the Wizard at arm's length to examine him. He looked for any sign of injury or privation, but in the soft candlelight of the room, his lover looked much the same as when they had last been together. The Man sighed with mock annoyance and said, "Fine! Here I spend weeks worrying about you, imagining all sorts of awful things that could have happened-and here you are, looking particularly fit and totally unscathed."

Gandalf looked down at his own soft, clean, grey shirt-front. "Yes, rather boring, am I not?" He looked up again and said with mock reproach, "The fact that I spent a whole night battling Black Riders and then fled from them into quite rugged territory before finally arriving here is not particularly obvious from my appearance."

Aragorn sobered as he listened. "That was you then, at Weathertop, two weeks and more ago."

"Hmmm? Oh, you saw the light from my staff, I take it."

"Yes. It puzzled me greatly at the time. I hadn't realized that you could create such powerful bolts with your staff."

"Well, I don't believe that I have ever been forced to use my command over lightning and fire to nearly that great an extent. Hours on end. Quite tiring! I did learn one interesting thing, however. I do seem to be capable of holding off all the Nine at once, even at night, when they are in their element. Still, I did not manage to harm any of them, as far as I could detect, so it remained a mere stand-off until the end. By the way, did you happen to find the rather cryptic and hidden message that I left there for you?"

"The rune and strokes on the stone? Yes. That has been my one scrap of hope in recent days. Heavy though it is, I brought it with me, and I shall treasure it as long as I live. No jewel could be more precious to me."

The Wizard did not reply, but reached up to slowly brush a lock of Aragorn's hair back from his cheek. The Man managed to smile and resumed, "But why has the king's favorite Wizard been so derelict in his duties and so lax in sending word as to where he was?"

Gandalf's smile in response was sad. "Well, your majesty, I have never really shared with you all of my suspicions and unease about your favorite Wizard's least favorite Wizard! Only a few hints here and there. You could have had no way of guessing where I was for much of the time since I saw you last."

Aragorn's eyes widened. "You mean Saruman? What did he do?"

"Lured me to Orthanc with an offer of help to deal with the Black Riders and then locked me up."

"But why?"

"Apparently he has decided that rather than resisting Sauron, he wants to replace him. Oh, he no doubt deludes himself that he would have enough strength of will to turn the Ring to doing good-or at least good as Saruman now sees it. I escaped by a lucky chance, but I was too late to reach Bag End until six days after Frodo left. I assure you, you're not the only one to have had some moments of despair recently. I was very much afraid when I reached Crickhollow that he had been captured or killed. Not realizing that he and the others had gone into the Old Forest as a way of avoiding the Riders, I found no trace of them, and my fear persisted until I reached Bree and talked to Barliman. Well, I can tell you the rest later. Right now, holding you seems like all the consolation that I need." He looked doubtfully around the room. There were two chairs, but their elaborately carved arm-rests made it impossible to draw them close together.

"Never mind," Aragorn whispered, and easily lifting the Wizard in his arms, he sat in one of the chairs with his lover in his lap.

"What if Elrond or Sam comes in?" Gandalf murmured softly, stifling his laughter as the Ranger nuzzled into his beard and hair. Despite his protest, the Wizard made no detectible attempt to pull away from Aragorn's arms or rise from his lap.

"I believe that Elrond was going to have dinner and then attend to some important matters. And if Sam eats as much as most Hobbits do, he will surely not return for awhile yet. And frankly, right now I don't care what they see!"

"Very incautious, that," Gandalf whispered, but he slipped one arm around the Man's neck and cupped the side of his head with the other, savoring the soft lips and breath that moved over his neck and cheeks.

At last they stood up again. Aragorn looked longingly at the Wizard. "When Elrond comes to check on Frodo, could he not watch for a time, while you come to bed with me? Not to make love, but because you look so weary. Just for a few hours. I could hold you as you sleep and perhaps sleep a little with you if I can get used to having you in my arms again."

Gandalf sighed and looked at Frodo. "I know there seems to be little chance of change tonight, but I could not force my mind to let me sleep anywhere but here. I do manage to nap for short stretches in my chair. Go and eat and sleep yourself-and see Arwen. She has been very worried about you. When Frodo recovers, we shall spend the night together, I promise you. Many nights, in fact. So keep yourself fit and healthy, young man! You will have to satisfy a Wizard who has not only been deprived of pleasure for months but who has been spoiled in recent decades by some very intense and skilled lovemaking."

Aragorn grinned and winked. "Not surprising. Your lover had a superb teacher." As he spoke, he ran his fingers down Gandalf's cheek before turning to leave.

Gandalf glanced around the hallway outside Aragorn's room, and, seeing no one about, he opened the door and slipped quickly in, closing it quietly behind himself. He had seen his lover at least once a day since their initial reunion, but there was seldom an opportunity for more than a quick kiss and clasping of hands. Now, with Frodo safely out of danger from his wound, the Wizard could finally turn his attention more fully to Aragorn.

The only light in the room was provided by some glowing coals in the fireplace and a single small candle in a niche. The Wizard could see fairly well under the circumstances-well enough to move around without barking his shins, at least. He discerned the bed, with the Man sleeping, one arm lying bent on the pillow above his head, the other beside him atop the blanket, which was pulled up to his chest. Moving quietly, Gandalf lit a lamp and set it near the bed so that he could look more closely at his lover. Aragorn did not stir, and the Wizard wondered whether he should return to his own room to sleep or wake the Man to tell him the good news and spend the night here. He felt a bit tired but not really sleepy, having got used to the chair and managed at intervals to have some long naps in it.

He recalled what Aragorn had said about wanting to sleep holding him, and he decided to stay. Quickly he shed his clothes and climbed onto the bed until he was on his hands and knees-taking care not to crawl on his trailing beard. The Ranger was fast asleep, and Gandalf gingerly pulled the covers on his side of the bed down off the pillow but decided to stay awake a little longer, enjoying being with his lover in private at last. He lay on top of the covers, propped on his elbow. In the low light he could not see the few white strands that had come in recent years to be salted through the dark hair, but he knew they were there. The face, so grim at times, was relaxed and almost seemed to smile slightly-or perhaps it was a trick of the lamp's flickering flame. The covers had slipped a little way down Aragorn's body when Gandalf pulled them down on his side. The Man's chest was as muscular as ever, and the dark nipples were relaxed. They made the Wizard's fingers itch to touch them. Very carefully he arched his body up off the mattress and pulled the blanket beneath himself further down. As he had hoped, the movement dragged it off Aragorn's torso as well until he could survey the flat stomach with its small, deep navel.

By now Gandalf was half erect, and his hips shifted restlessly on the mattress. It had been so long! There were priorities, of course. Frodo's welfare, first and foremost, then sex, and then sleep. Definitely. He stretched over and licked Aragorn's neck gently, feeling a vein pulse slowly. He twisted slightly so that he could move his lips over the warm shoulder while rubbing one of the beautiful nipples with a feathery touch. It contracted into a perfect, tight little bead that he bent and rolled, watching it change shape and press into the areola as he pushed it from side to side.

Aragorn's breath was becoming deeper, and his eyes fluttered open. Gandalf stopped caressing him and moved back to recline on his elbow again. The Man glanced down at his own nearly exposed torso. "I see that the king's favorite Wizard has come to turn down the bed for him."

"Yes, your majesty. It is a service I am always happy to perform."

"You realize, of course, that you are supposed to turn down the bed before the king gets into it."

"So I have heard. But where is the fun in that? I much prefer my method." Gandalf's eyes once more moved appreciatively over the Man's body. He reached down and grasped the edge of the blanket resting on Aragorn's lower belly daintily between his thumb and finger, raising it until the thick, dark clump of hair and the slightly engorged penis were just visible. The Wizard sighed happily.

"Stop lusting after me, old man, at least long enough to tell me how Frodo is faring! Better, I assume, or you would not be here."

Gandalf slowly turned his eyes to Aragorn's. "Making good progress-at last! A few hours ago Elrond finally found the tiny splinter of the blade that was still deep in the wound. You will recall that I had insisted there must be something of the sort wrong."

"I suppose you enjoyed pointing out to Elrond that you told him so."

"Oh, not more than a few times-so far. Once the bandage was replaced, a healthy color began slowly to seep back into Frodo's skin, and he fell into what seemed a more comfortable and natural sleep. After a few hours I decided that he was in no danger of a relapse and that it was safe for me to come here to you. I left Sam, heroically pretending that he wasn't drowsy and sitting watch in my place."

"And went off to ogle unsuspecting Rangers in their sleep."

"Only one, and I did wake him to let him know that I was doing it-eventually. You did look peaceful, sleeping there. Peaceful and very, very desirable." He slid his hand from Aragorn's shoulder down and across his torso, finally resting it on the side of his hip.

All banter ceased as they looked into each other's eyes and down at each other's naked bodies. "I'm glad you woke me," Aragorn murmured. He saw that the Wizard's cock was rigid and upright, and his own felt on fire, it was swelling so rapidly.

"I have seldom gone so long without . . ." Gandalf replied. "Of course, I occasionally relieved my own need while I was imprisoned, but the situation was not exactly conducive to desire-and privacy not at all certain from moment to moment."

The Wizard slid so that the length of his body was pressed against Aragorn's. His purple member jutted up diagonally across the Man's belly as they put their tongues out to lick and writhe against each other lasciviously. Aragorn reached down and stroked Gandalf's cock with his fingertips.

"Gently. I am so close already!"

"Then go inside me, now!"

Gandalf began to rise, but he could not bear to lose contact with the Man's fingers, which were providing enough pressure to make his arousal soar toward completion. He dropped heavily back down onto the bed. "I . . . I wouldn't last. I want . . . please, quickly!"

Aragorn was rock-hard by now, watching need twist the Wizard's face into a desperate grimace. "For me as well," he said hoarsely, turning partially onto his side and guiding one of Gandalf's hands to his own shaft. He grasped the Wizard's length, and they began to pump rapidly, quivering as their excitement mounted. Within a minute Gandalf groaned loudly as fierce spasms of ecstasy sent jets of his hot seed spattering over the Ranger's belly and his own, with drops emerging and dribbling down over the Man's fingers as he continued to pull on the shaft. In the throes of the Wizard's pleasure, his fist had tightened on Aragorn's cock, and now the Ranger's bliss hit him. He sent sprays of drops over them both as Gandalf managed to continue to pump his shaft until the last spasms of ecstasy passed.

They lay still and rested, their hands still holding each other's members as they shrank. At last they let go and relaxed onto their backs, looking at each other with half-closed eyes and rather foolish grins.

Gandalf said, "That was . . . it was . . . mmmm," he sighed in conclusion, his eyes sliding shut.

Aragorn chuckled. "Where is the eloquent Istar now? For that matter, where is the sophisticated, skilled lover that pleasured me so slowly and subtly during our first night together?"

Gandalf grinned lazily without opening his eyes. "Left up on top of Orthanc, maybe." He groped and took the Man's hand in his. "No, he's right here, in a bit better state now, ready to be as sophisticated and subtle as ever you could wish-in a few minutes. Right now I shall continue to enjoy the delightful aftereffects of what we just did, crude, direct, and unsophisticated as it was."

"So shall I. We have all night, after all-if you're not too sleepy."

"Well, I don't know about all night, for I would like to get some sleep and then be with Frodo tomorrow morning in case he wakes up-which seems quite likely. Now that that splinter is finally out," he added, glancing at the Ranger.

Aragorn suppressed an exasperated smile and instead assumed a sincere, worshipful gaze, stared into the Wizard's eyes and sighed, "You are so wise."

Gandalf snorted and dissolved into laughter, and the Man laughed along with him. As they quieted, the Wizard looked at him sternly. "You presume a great deal, young man, upon the fact that you will be king someday, and upon the fact that you are so beautiful and so good in bed . .. and upon the fact that I am utterly besotted by you." He reached over to stroke Aragorn's cheek softly with his fingertips.

Aragorn was silent for a long moment and then looked down at the sheet between them. He leaned forward and kissed the Wizard's cheek and slowly rubbed his own against it. Finally he whispered in Gandalf's ear, "Sometimes . . . especially when I have been away from you for a long time. . . I wonder if you still believe what you said that first day-that all this will be worth it". He did not say what "it" was, but the Wizard knew all too well-better than Aragorn did.

Gandalf pulled slightly away to look into the dark eyes so close to his own. "From time to time I think of that claim-not about you but about both of us. How shall we feel about it afterwards? All I can tell you is that I have come to love you so deeply that the question seems almost irrelevant. I cannot conceive of wishing that all this had not happened-that I had taken the prudent course that afternoon and sent you back to your blanket, disappointed, heartsick for a time, but safe from the loss to come."

"It was my fault. I seduced you. Clumsily, to be sure, but I did."

Gandalf's fond gaze remained steady. "I could have said no. I refuse to say that I should have." He nodded slightly and whispered, "Worth anything."

Aragorn swallowed hard. "Worth anything," he echoed.

After a short silence they reached to caress each other and immediately encountered the crusted drops and sticky strips of their expended seed on their bodies. Gandalf made as if to go and fetch something to clean them, but Aragorn stopped him. "Wait here. I am your host, and I shall fetch what is needed." He rose and crossed to the chest where a pitcher and basin stood. Gandalf lay on his side, watching the powerful muscles in the Man's back and hips ripple as he walked. Aragorn quickly returned with some cloths and the basin half-full of water. He set it on the bed and knelt beside Gandalf, who relaxed onto his back with a delighted little smile of anticipation as the Ranger dipped one cloth into the water and wrung it out. Aragorn began softly to sponge the dried semen off his chest and belly. The Man moved slowly, glancing up at the Wizard's face at intervals. Gandalf's eyes gradually dropped shut, and he uttered tiny grunts of pleasure. These became soft moans as Aragorn ended by rubbing the rough cloth very gently over the sensitive nipples and finally over the crown of the slowly reviving cock. By the time he was finished, Gandalf was half hard again.

The Wizard sat up as Aragorn in turn lay back to be cleaned. His lover wet another cloth and rubbed carefully at the Man's stomach for a short time. Soon he leaned down to avidly tongue and suck each dark nipple in turn. Aragorn sighed deeply at intervals, stroking Gandalf's back lightly. The Wizard rose slightly to resume wiping the dried semen, but he could not resist returning to the hard little nubs on the Man's chest, flicking his tongue over them until Aragorn was squirming with arousal. "Hurry and finish, old man," he said in a tight voice. "I didn't torment you this way."

Gandalf chuckled and quickly wiped the last few little crusty patches from the lower belly. He swiveled and lay on his side along the Man's body, seizing his swelling cock and running his tongue over its entire length, pausing to admire it and then kissing it clingingly and slowly. Aragorn turned his head toward the Wizard's erection, which was jutting out stiffly and resting on his shoulder. He slid his fingers around it, feeling the heat that was throbbing through it and the silkiness of the skin moving as he began to pump it slowly, drawing the tip into his mouth and sucking hard. They lay for a long time, drifting in bliss, caressing each other's hardness with mouths and hands, occasionally glancing at each other in sheer delight.

Finally the Wizard rose and moved between Aragorn's legs, slipping a pillow under his hips so that the Man could continue to rest his feet on the mattress. Gandalf poured a generous dollop of oil along the top half of his erection and onto his fingers and then spread it over his hardness before he prepared the Man as quickly as he dared. As he did so, he slipped a finger further in at intervals and stroked the small gland, making Aragorn stiffen and dig his heels into the mattress, lifting his hips slightly each time. At last the Man's entrance seemed relaxed enough, and the Wizard edged his knees forward and seized his own cock to guide it inside. He paused then, watching the slight discomfort fade from Aragorn's face and feeling the Man's hips shift, inviting him further in. Gandalf rocked his hips gently, moving inside by small increments. He felt that he was not quite at the right angle and parted his knees, lowering his hips until they were brushing his heels as he moved. At once his member pushed against the hidden place that made Aragorn gasp and writhe. "Oh, please . . ." the Man murmured.

Slowly the Wizard thrust and withdrew, working inward until he was fully sheathed in the tight channel. Having come once, he set a slow, tantalizing rhythm that elicited soft moans and whimpers from both for long minutes. At last Aragorn began to keen more loudly, and he reached for one of the Wizards' hands, which were both clutching his inner thighs, and moved it to his rigid shaft. At once Gandalf clutched Aragorn's cock harder, stroking it more and more quickly. Suddenly the Man lifted his legs and wrapped them around the Wizard's waist, bucking up rapidly to meet the increasingly powerful thrusts. Almost immediately he cried out and rode Gandalf's member even harder as he again covered his own belly and chest with his seed. As Aragorn's driving hips jerked hard at him, Gandalf gasped and then groaned as he emptied his balls into the Man's depths.

Their final wild movements had jolted the basin so that a small amount of water had slopped out of it, but there was enough left for them to clean themselves after a short interval for recovery. Gandalf surveyed the tangle of covers and sheets around them with some pride. "Yes, that is definitely the way to turn down a king's bed-at least a king as handsome as you."

Aragorn chuckled. "Such an excellent royal Wizard, always eager to perform that task above and beyond the call of duty." Gandalf lifted the basin to the small bedside table and managed to tug the bedclothes into some semblance of order as he lay down beside his lover and covered them both.

They rested contentedly in each other's arms for a short time. Gandalf finally said, "We should sleep. I do want to be up before Frodo wakes tomorrow-or today by now, I should say."

"All right, but first could you not tell me briefly what Saruman did to you during those long weeks? I have worried greatly over that since you told me where you had been."

Gandalf sighed. "Well, it seemed worse at the time than it actually turned out to be. On the whole Saruman left me alone, letting fear and uncertainty and boredom work upon my mind. He came up at intervals to badger me, trying to draw me into betraying any clue as to the Ring's whereabouts. He soon gave up on luring me into joining him, partly because he knew that it would not work and partly because he simply wanted the Ring for himself.

"I could sense his own fear, for he knew that eventually Sauron would grow very curious as to why Saruman had not sent me to the Dark Tower-and very angry if he found out the reason. Saruman was growing increasingly desperate, I'm sure, and yet despite his threats, he never tortured me physically."

Aragorn stroked Gandalf's chest softly and slowly as he listened. "Why, do you think? If he was so desperate?"

Gandalf thought for a moment. "Ultimately, I think he retained just enough of his former self to prevent him from harming a fellow Istar in that way. He wasn't quite that far gone." He chuckled. "Just as at Minas Tirith he could not bring himself to destroy the Scroll of Isildur. He was still too much the scholar to do such a thing to a precious, unique record of the past. He hid it without much compunction, I'm sure-but destroy it? No. I suppose he felt a bit the same way about me. Dangerous to him if I were free to help others, but a bit too rare and precious to damage. Like the Scroll, he just hid me away where no one could find me-he thought. Two serious, possibly fatal mistakes. Had he destroyed the Scroll and me, he might have stood a chance at finding the Ring. I doubt it, though. Surely Sauron's minions would have found it first. As indeed they did. Still, thanks to you, my darling Ranger, they have failed to obtain it-so far. And we must keep it that way."

"I see. Well, I'm sure that you had a miserable time at Isengard, but I am very grateful that it was no worse-as it so easily could have been!"

After breakfast on the morning when Elrond's hastily called Council was to meet, Gandalf spoke to Aragorn in the hall, not bothering to keep his voice low, for there was nothing intimate in his words or demeanor. "I would like to speak with Bilbo for a bit before we all assemble, and I need to find Frodo and conduct him to the place of meeting when the time comes. In the meantime, could you prepare to leave on short notice for a scouting trip? Elrond and I have decided that it is vital to find out what happened to the Black Riders after the flood at the Fords, and in general to scour the lands all about for any spies or other threats that may be lurking there. Several groups will go out, but Elrohir and Elladan will go with you to search specifically for evidence concerning the Riders. The supplies you will require have been packed. It only needs for you to dress and assemble your own gear."

"Fine. The gear is ready now. I never unpacked it. I should have time to fetch it and change clothes before the signal bell is rung."

"As to the Council itself, you will almost certainly be called upon to speak, to tell of the hunt for Gollum and other tasks that you have performed in the events that have led us all together here today." Gandalf half turned to go, then paused and looked back intently at Aragorn for a moment, as if he had not seen him for a long time. "And you will of course tell them who you are."

Aragorn nodded and watched as the Wizard walked away towards Bilbo's room. Tell them who he was. It was a strange remark. Of course he would identify himself when he spoke, though more likely Elrond would introduce him to the others. Was that really what Gandalf had meant, though? The Wizard seemed a bit more stooped than usual, as if his worries physically rested on his shoulders. How different from the playful and passionate lover of the last two nights, he reflected. But that was one of the things he loved most about Gandalf-how his wisdom and dignity were mixed with his gusto for the joys of life. He turned to go to his own room and don his Ranger's clothes.

Shortly after he had changed and set everything necessary for his scouting trip near the front door, he heard the clear tone of Elrond's signal bell. He went quickly to the large open porch upon which the Council was to take place and quietly shifted a chair slightly so that he could sit in a corner. He felt somewhat abashed to be in the company of so many members of the Wise and leaders of other groups from far off in Middle-earth. He had occasionally dined and socialized with such important people over the years when he visited Rivendell, but he had never been at a meeting with them-much less such an important one. He surveyed the Dwarves with particular curiosity, for although he sometimes came across members of that race on the Road, he had seldom held much conversation with them. They usually seemed wary of all but the most formal and polite exchanges.

Gandalf appeared with Frodo and Bilbo. He smiled briefly at Aragorn as he moved across the large open space in the center to sit in one of two slightly larger chairs situated side by side apart from the circle in which the guests were to sit. The Ranger was a little surprised that the Wizard should be placed there. He would have expected Elrond to sit alone in token of his place as the convener and host of the Council. A small bench with a padded seat and low back that stood to the other side of Elrond's empty chair was clearly for the Hobbits.

Elrond was chatting with a small group on one edge of the central space, but he smiled and led Frodo and Bilbo to the bench, then seated himself with the Hobbits on his right and Gandalf on his left. Gandalf's eyes were drooping slightly, and he looked drowsy, but Aragorn could tell that he was actually surveying the other Council members keenly. After all had taken their seats, Elrond began the meeting by introducing Frodo, who was looking distinctly nervous but determined. He also introduced Boromir, and Aragorn frowned slightly, glancing at Gandalf as he realized that the issue of Gondor's role in the plans to be formulated had unexpectedly been thrust into the debate.

After that, the early portion of the Council proceedings held few surprises for Aragorn. He was already familiar with much of the history that Elrond related, as well as with most of what Gandalf and the others said of recent events. True, Legolas' news about Gollum's escape shocked him initially, but Gandalf dismissed it with so little regret that the Man decided that it must not be important. After all Gollum had probably given them all the information that he could and was of no more use.

The Man had expected the discussions to center entirely around the Ring and what needed to be done with it. The exchanges ranged far wider, however, and other aspects of the Council were revelations to him. For a start, he was surprised to see how much the others deferred to Gandalf. He had always known that the Wizard was an important and powerful being, well respected and one of the Wise. Yet Gandalf seemed to go about on his own most of the time, devising strategies and carrying them forward. Aragorn had seen him in Rivendell and Lothlórien, where the Wizard was primarily a visitor, resting between travels. He had never been privy to a meeting between Gandalf and others of the Wise. The Man had not realized that the Wise regarded the Wizard as their leader-even though Gandalf had so far told none but Aragorn and Elrond about the treachery of the White Istar, and by rights the others should all regard Saruman as the chief of his Order and of the White Council.

Aragorn was also struck by the extent to which the races had suddenly come together. He could not recall such a thing happening since the Battle of Five Armies, well before his own birth. Gandalf had said that the races must learn to overcome their differences and prejudices to join forces against Sauron, but he had also always complained about their reluctance to do so. Aragorn had come to assume that such union among the Free Peoples of Middle-earth was still a long way off, and yet here they were, consulting together with relative amicability. As the Wizard had said, the discovery of the nature of the Ring was finally bringing events to a head, forcing union for mutual protection.

Most importantly to Aragorn himself, he seemed suddenly to be actively moving toward achieving the kingship of Gondor. He had worked hard for many years toward that end, but mostly he had thought of his tasks and adventures as simply preparing the way. Now the moment that he had prepared for had come. In particular, the unexpected presence of Boromir had forced the issue of the throne of the southern realm into the larger debate, and by the end, all those present knew that he was Isildur's heir and presumably expected him to take a major leadership role in the Quest and the War of the Ring. He had always worked primarily to aid Gandalf and to prepare himself to be a leader. Now he was part of a much larger whole, and a prominent part at that. For so long his true identity had been known only to Gandalf, Elrond, Arwen, and a few of the Wise. Having it suddenly revealed in such a large and important meeting almost dizzied him.

At intervals in the proceedings he glanced over at Gandalf and found the Wizard's eye upon him. Gandalf gave an almost imperceptible, encouraging smile a couple of times. It could have been mere affection, but somehow the Ranger realized that his lover was watching him to see how well he could manage these new developments and carry himself in a group of important leaders. Looking around, it occurred to him that, apart from Frodo and Sam and perhaps Gimli, he was probably the person there with the least experience in this sort of debate. His participation in the planning of military campaigns in Gondor had been done on a much lower level, with he and a few other officers making the decisions themselves.

Now he strove to live up to what Gandalf expected of him. "You are the king of Gondor, remnant of the great race of Numenor." That statement echoed in his mind, and he steeled himself to speak clearly and authoritatively. When Boromir suddenly rose to tell of his strange dream and journey to Rivendell, Aragorn was amazed that part of the prophetic poem referred to him. Realizing that his own identity could no longer be concealed, he rose proudly and displayed the shards of Narsil to the startled soldier from the south. Then at last Elrond introduced him to the group as the heir of Isildur. The amazed reaction from the group helped to calm his nerves, and Boromir looked upon him with wonder and continued to do so for awhile.

Later, Aragorn was called upon to describe the capture of Gollum. When he sat down afterwards, he saw the Wizard give him a tiny, approving nod. His heart soared. These people now accepted him, if not as a king, at least as a royal heir. What's more, they were willing to help him achieve the throne, if only as a side objective to the main Quest to destroy the Ring. This, he realized, was what Gandalf had prepared him for across all those years. Briefly he tried to imagine what he would have done in this group if he had remained simply a Ranger until this point. He would still be Isildur's heir, and Elrond would probably still invite him to the Council-but he most likely would have stayed silent much of the time, letting Elrond and Gandalf do the talking for him. That he could be in the same meeting with those two and with others of power and dignity thrilled him. He had not felt like this since the moment in the Pony years before, when Gandalf had suggested that he go south to see "his kingdom"-over that particularly good sausage, he recalled with a little smile that he quickly suppressed.

Afterward, on the way into the dining hall for lunch, Gandalf drew Aragorn briefly into a small side room and embraced him. "I'm sure I shall be besieged by questions over lunch, and after that's over I'm going to Frodo's room to try and give him a little reassurance. He looked a bit pale by the end, and I don't think it's just the lingering effects of his wound. I may not have a chance to talk with you again before you and the twins leave on your scouting mission. But I could not let you go without telling you how well you conducted yourself today," he said, holding the Man at arm's length and beaming at him. "You presented yourself impressively, and you were such a help in getting an agreement among that crew of stubborn people, with all their different viewpoints and desires."

Aragorn sighed. "You felt it too, then. That this was a great moment for me, a turning point. I didn't realize it until it happened, but . . . I'm . . . well-"

"You are a leader to stand alongside the kings and chiefs of the races gathered here and of all of Middle-earth's peoples. I hope that Elrond praises you as well. He, after all, is as much responsible as I am for what you have become-all right, all right, nearly as much. But . . . the outcome of this Council brings you a little closer to possibly winning Arwen as your bride someday. Elrond well knows it, and if he does not extol you for your performance today, do not take it amiss. I know he appreciated it, your majesty." He paused, and they smiled over this familiar endearment, which seemed to have a new significance. Aragorn realized that the Wizard's dark eyes were shining with pride. "You have achieved an immense step forward today, Estel." Aragorn felt the pricking of tears about to come into his eyes, but the Wizard kissed his cheek and clapped him lightly on the back. "Now! Time, as Bilbo said, for lunch! Arguing and persuading is hungry work."

Aragorn put out his hand to detain Gandalf for a moment. The Wizard turned to him curiously and with a touch of impatience.

"Gandalf, I noticed that at one point during Boromir's recitation of the prophetic poem from his dream, your eyebrows absolutely shot up and you whispered something to Elrond. That whole account of the dream was quite astonishing, of course, but what in particular caught your attention so strongly?"

The Wizard smiled and looked away thoughtfully for a moment, then back at Aragorn. "'There shall be counsels taken/Stronger than Morgul-spells.'" Everything else in Boromir's prophetic dream has come true by now. So, maybe the counsels taken today will indeed prove to be stronger than Morgul-spells. Perhaps I am clutching at straws, but I found that poem quite encouraging!"

Once Aragorn had come back from the scouting mission to investigate the whereabouts of the Black Riders, he and Gandalf spent blissful weeks together. They tried to ignore as much as possible the worry and doubt ahead. The Ranger aided Gandalf in planning the journey. They consulted many of the volumes and maps in Rivendell's vast library. It was very different from the archive at Minas Tirith, being one long, high-ceilinged room with carven wooden rafters and panels. Every book and scroll not in use was neatly in its place. The only things on the floor were beautifully woven and embroidered rugs of forest hues. The lovers did not caress or sit beside each other in this public place, for Elrond often joined them, and other Elves spent time there for various purposes. The pair lifted their eyes at intervals to look at each other and smile for the sheer joy of being together. The two months that passed from the Council to the setting-out was the longest stretch that they had been together except when traveling and camping. To have such good food, conviviality, comfortable sleeping quarters, and, most importantly, each other, seemed luxury indeed.

At night they retired to their respective rooms, and when the hallways seemed quiet and deserted, Aragorn went silently and secretly to join the Wizard. They had agreed that the members of the household, especially Elrond's family, would feel free to come to the Ranger's bedroom at night if they needed to tell him some important news. Gandalf had made it clear, however, that he was to be disturbed at night only in case of considerable emergency. They made love nearly every night and sometimes more than once. If either wanted to reignite the other's passion, he only needed to whisper, "Soon." They both knew what that meant: soon they would be on the road with the others, sleeping in the open, with cold weather and no privacy.

On the last night before their departure, they vowed to make love three times, if possible. The first time was slow and teasing, with mouths and hands skillfully and easily drawing forth ecstasy in the end. Once they began anew, it was a different matter. Now they spoke not a word but uttered faint moans and grunts and gasps as they clutched and rubbed against each other. They changed their position a few times, which they did not ordinarily do. Soon they were both damp with sweat, and they strained toward bliss and then denied themselves the final release, freezing or drawing apart briefly to master their passion until they were calm enough to go on. At last one began to whimper with need, the other to moan with frustration. At last they increased their pace, thrusting and receiving in perfect harmony until their arousal flared into sweet, shuddering fulfillment, so intense that they could not move at first, and lay with their limbs entwined in a position that was clumsy and somewhat uncomfortable once they were aware enough to notice it. They gradually separated and rolled slightly until they were barely touching. Neither reminded the other that they had planned to go on to a third time.

Gandalf had come so hard that he was trembling and panting. Aragorn recovered somewhat sooner and slid up slightly to lay his head on his pillow. The Wizard turned toward him, throwing his arm limply over the Man's waist and pressing himself against Aragorn, as if to stretch over and kiss him. Instead he simply laid his cheek against the Ranger's sweaty chest, his eyes closed. As the Wizard shifted, his beard tickled Aragorn's stomach, but the Man tried not to move overly much and disturb his lover. Tenderly he drew the blanket up over the exhausted Wizard. Gandalf settled against him with a contented little grunt and gradually drifted into sleep.

Aragorn loved such moments. When they had first met, the Wizard had been so wise and sophisticated. Aragorn had felt terribly young and naïve, almost like a child in comparison with the venerable figure. In bed, though, when they were both naked and exhausted and spent, he would sometimes pretend to himself that he was the stronger one, supporting the old man, soothing and protecting him. It was only an illusion, he knew. Even lying exhausted and asleep, Gandalf was not really vulnerable, for he held a power far greater than the Man's. Still, the impulse to protect had been deeply ingrained in Aragorn's nature, and his decades as a soldier and a Ranger had strengthened that urge. He smiled at the thought that he could only "protect" Gandalf in his imagination and only when the Wizard was asleep. Gandalf certainly would not let him do anything of the sort when he was awake!

By now the Wizard was fast asleep, and Aragorn gently wrapped his arms around the slender body and enveloped it as much as possible against his own. Then, with a cold shudder that ran up his spine, he felt as if that body had slipped away, vanishing and leaving his arms empty forever. That, too, was only an illusion, and he hugged a little tighter to reassure himself that the Wizard was still there. Gandalf squirmed slightly without waking, moving his hand up to rest flat on the Man's chest, and Aragorn loosened his grip. Despite this reassurance, Aragorn was seized by a sudden, vivid terror of losing Gandalf. He had feared for his lover before, most agonizingly during the long, inexplicable absence when Saruman had imprisoned his fellow Istar. But that had been a rational fear, based on a real, ongoing situation. Now what he felt was just an unreasoning foreboding, a vague dread that was only a product of his imagination-and yet it seemed just as real and tangible in his mind. He listened to Gandalf's slow, deep, steady breathing and felt his damp warmth and occasional tiny movements as he nestled against the Man's chest.

Aragorn had usually managed to ignore the tiny realization, ever-present somewhere deep in his mind, that he and the Wizard should make the most of their time, for inevitably, one way or another, they would part someday. Now, however, he sensed that the threat was hovering much closer, and if it ever indeed proved real, it would wrench them apart far too soon-and somehow he knew, too, that it would happen violently, with great pain to his lover.

It's just nervousness upon facing the long and dangerous Quest, he tried to reassure himself, and fear of the unknown dangers that we might confront. In making plans during the two months since the Council, Gandalf had repeatedly suggested that they might have to travel through the Dwarven realm of the Mines of Moria. The idea had disturbed Aragorn profoundly, and not just because he dreaded repeating his single fearsome experience of traveling through that grim, terrifying place. It was not for himself that he feared now, but for the treasured being now sleeping so peacefully and safely in his arms. He fervently hoped that he would never have occasion to protect the Wizard in reality, and that the secret little game that he played would remain confined to these quiet moments in bed. Upon brief reflection, he doubted that he would ever play this game again. The prospect of real terrors that he might have to try and protect Gandalf against made it seem silly.

Aragorn tried to shake off the foreboding. He reminded himself sternly that he had agonized for weeks over Gandalf's disappearance, only to find him safe after an admittedly frightening but ultimately fairly harmless ordeal at Orthanc. Even an attack by the Nine had left him unscathed. "Gandalf is greater than you Shire folk know," he had assured Frodo, and that was truer than even he had realized. He vowed not to mention his premonition of disaster to the Wizard-who would probably just dismiss it anyway. He kissed the top of the white head and forced himself to think of their past shared joys until finally, still cradling the old man in his arms, he too fell asleep.