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: Book-canon. This chapter covers parts of the action of three chapters in ROTK: The Houses of Healing, The Field of Cormallen, and The Steward and the King. Some passages of dialogue and description from the original novel have been used, with my additions and small changes.

There is a temporal contradiction in the novel. Appendix B says that Aragorn found the sapling of the White Tree on June 25th, yet in the chapter "The Steward and the King," the sapling has already been planted in the courtyard and blooms by early June. I have assumed that Tolkien might have meant that the hallow scene between Aragorn and Gandalf took place on May 25th, not June 25th.

Many thanks to Elanor for the beta work and to Sarah for excellent suggestions and general encouragement.

Part 8

Gandalf was pacing. He felt as if he had been pacing for days, though it had actually been only the better part of one. There were few things as maddening as having people who badly needed his help and not being able to give it. He had tried everything that he could in his attempts to save Faramir, Éowyn, and Merry from the harm that they had taken from the Nazgûl, but despite his considerable powers as a healer, the three continued slowly to decline.

The Wizard paused by the bed of Faramir, sighing as he recalled the clever, eager lad who had pestered him so when he used to come to do research in the archives. He had been a trifle annoyed at first, but the boy's interest had been so genuine and his ability to learn so great that soon Gandalf found himself only pretending to be annoyed--and not pretending very hard. He had quickly realized that Faramir longed for companionship and guidance of a sort that his father seemed unable to provide. The Wizard hoped that he had managed to be something of a father to the boy, and now he very much feared that he would have to see that promising young life snuffed out.

He wandered into the next room to check on Éowyn and finally glanced into the chamber where Merry lay. There was no sign of improvement there, either. Hobbits may be surprisingly tough, the Wizard reflected, but not enough so to be able to stand up to a Nazgûl. How ironic, he thought, that the Rohirrim cavalry had arrived just as he himself was confronting the Witch King at the Gate of the City. They had not actually engaged in combat, for the chief of the Nazgûl withdrew upon hearing the distant trumpets sound the charge. Had that help, so long looked for, been delayed even a few minutes, perhaps he could have defeated their deadly foe, and Éowyn and Merry would not have taken such deadly hurt. Of course, it was possible that they would have been wounded or killed in some other way.

Or I might be lying here myself, he thought. Who knows whether I could have defeated the Witch King? "Not by the hand of man shall he fall." He pictured himself, sword drawn, defying his opponent: "Aha! I am not really a Man but a Maia! Prepare to die!" Despite his worries, he chuckled slightly. No, I doubt that I could elude the prophecy by such prevarication. A woman and a Hobbit fulfill that ancient prophecy much more fittingly--and quite heroically. His smile faded, and he resumed his pacing.

At last the red sunset filled all the sky, and the light through the windows fell on the grey faces of the sick. Then it seemed to those who stood by that in the glow the faces flushed softly as with health returning, but it was only a mockery of hope.

Then an old wife, Ioreth, the eldest of the women who served in that house, looking on the fair face of Faramir, wept, for all the people loved him. And she said: "Alas! if he should die. Would that there were kings in Gondor, as there were once upon a time, they say! For it is said in old lore: The hands of the king are the hands of a healer. And so the rightful king could ever be known."

Gandalf stared at her for a moment and said, "Men may long remember your words, Ioreth! For there is hope in them. Maybe a king has indeed returned to Gondor; or have you not heard the strange tidings that have come to the City?"

"I have been too busy with this and that to heed all the crying and shouting," she answered. "All I hope is that those murdering devils do not come to this House and trouble the sick."

Gandalf went quickly out of the Houses. Reports had come to him through the day, telling of the progress of the battle and of the final victory. He knew that Aragorn was there somewhere, in the City or still out on the battlefield, and he knew that he had little time left in which to find him. He did not ride on Shadowfax, for on the lowest levels the streets were strewn with chunks of stone and charred beams, and it would be nearly impossible for the great horse to pick his way among them. As the Wizard quickly walked down along the twisting main street, he glanced up at the great glow of the red sunset as it faded. The unnatural black cloud had rolled back somewhat, but it was a grim, grey night that fell nonetheless. All about him were wounded men being carried to a place of aid, and as he neared the area of the Gate, dark stains and covered bodies told of the great losses of that day. He made inquiries of the guards and learned that Aragorn was camped in the area just outside the entrance to the City. Maneuvering through the destruction and litter of the lowest streets as quickly as possible, he made his way toward his lover's tent.

As Gandalf emerged from the Gate of the City, he saw that an area to his right, where the destruction was less extreme, had been cleared enough that a scatter of tents could be set up. He went toward them and walked briskly along the open passageway that ran straight through their midst.

At first the Wizard thought that he would need to ask which tent was Aragorn's. Then he saw a tall, slender, dark shape towering over one of them. He paused briefly, wondering what it could be, and then he remembered the glorious banner that Arwen had patiently and meticulously been embroidering for Aragorn these many years. The reports that had reached his ears during the day had included a description of a great royal banner, unfurled just as hope had seemed to fade altogether. The banner of the King.

A chill smote his heart at the recognition. It was the first overt sign that Arwen might soon claim a long-promised right to the Man. Although Gandalf had known for many years that giving his lover up to Arwen would be excruciating, he had never truly had to face the imminent fulfillment of his bargain with her. Not yet, he told himself. Not for a while. His lowered eyes avoided the wrapped banner as he approached Aragorn's tent.

Its pale cloth walls glowed orange with the light from within. Gandalf pulled aside the flap that served as a door and poked his head in. Aragorn had apparently been cleaning Anduril, but he had finished and fallen into a reverie--perhaps out of sheer exhaustion. He had also shed his blood-stained clothes, washed, and dressed in a clean shirt and trousers, though he was barefoot. The Wizard entered and pulled the flap closed behind himself. He cleared his throat gently.

Aragorn spun around and crossed to Gandalf in two long strides, enveloping him in a crushing hug and kissing him fiercely. The Wizard returned the kiss for only a few seconds before pushing against the Ranger's chest and holding him at arm's length. "It is such a relief to see you, uninjured and victorious, my dearest Aragorn! You have arrived in your royal city as a true king indeed."

"Hush! I have yet to reveal myself as the King. I have pitched my tent here and declared myself not, for I wait to be greeted by the Steward of the City. But believe me, I am relieved to see you as well! I was surprised and puzzled not to see you on the battlefield. They said that you had not come forth this day. Where have you been?"

Gandalf released Aragorn's arms and took a small step back, shaking his head. "It was not for want of trying, I assure you. But that is a long and a bitter story that I must tell you later. For now, there is no time for rejoicing or explanations. I have come to take you to three who desperately need your aid. Nay, do not question me yet. Let us set out for the Houses of Healing, for as you know, they are far up in the City. As we go, I shall tell you all that you care to hear. If you do not wish for people to recognize you, then hide your face."

Aragorn nodded, pulled on his boots, and wrapped the grey cloak of Lórien around himself, so that his head was hooded and his face in shadow as they set out. As they walked quickly through the Gate of Minas Tirith, Aragorn looked in wonder at it, for the great doors were splintered and thrown down, and flames had marred the lower level of the beautiful White City. "So different from the times when I rode into this place years ago," he murmured and shook his head in sorrow.

As they walked up the winding street to the highest levels, the Wizard told Aragorn of the tragic events of the day: of the evil dart that had felled Faramir, of Éowyn's unexpected appearance on the battlefield and the defeat unlooked-for of the Witch King, and of Merry's bold aid to her in that great triumph.

"I stayed with them rather than going out onto the field, for I deemed that the battle would soon be won, and I wanted to try and save them. I have considerable skill in the arts of healing, but although perhaps I have done them some good and held back the progress of their hurts, I have not been able to improve their condition. As I was near to despairing for them, the oldest of the women caring for the wounded happened to quote an old saying: '"The hands of the king are the hands of a healer.' I had long known that you too were skilled in such arts, but I did not know that as the heir to the throne you had some special power beyond my own. I do remember, though, that you treated Frodo's wound at Weathertop well enough that he survived for several days until he reached Rivendell. So, in the hope that you can help these most worthy patients, I have sought you out."

"I do have such skills indeed, and I have long suspected that they belonged to me as a result of my right to the throne. I hope that they may be enough to draw back those who have been brought to the brink of death." As they hurried along through a dark area where there happened to be no one about, Gandalf reached out and briefly squeezed the Ranger's hand encouragingly.

In less than twenty minutes they had made their way up through the city streets to the Houses of Healing. Just as they arrived before the door, they met Prince Imrahil and Éomer. The latter's face was strained not just with exhaustion and sorrow but with worry as well. The Wizard knew what the young King of Rohan feared, and he hoped fervently that Aragorn would be able to help the Man's sister. The pair greeted Gandalf and said: "We seek the Steward, and men say that he is in this House. Has any hurt befallen him? And the Lady Éowyn, where is she?"

And Gandalf answered, "She lies within and is not dead, but is near death. But the Lord Faramir was wounded by an evil dart, as you have heard, and he is now the Steward; for Denethor has departed, and his house is in ashes." And they were filled with grief and wonder at the tale that he told.

But Imrahil said, "So victory is shorn of gladness, and it is bitter bought, if both Gondor and Rohan are in one day bereft of their lords. Éomer rules the Rohirrim. Who shall rule the City meanwhile? Shall we not send now for the Lord Aragorn?"

Then Gandalf glanced uncertainly at his companion, and the Man reluctantly realized that he could not keep his identity completely hidden. He said softly, "He is come." And they saw as he stepped into the light of the lantern by the door that it was Aragorn. "I have come because Gandalf begs me to do so," he said. "But for the present I am but the Captain of the Dúnedain of Arnor; and the Lord of Dol Amroth shall rule the City until Faramir awakes. But it is my counsel that Gandalf should rule us all in the days that follow and in our dealings with the Enemy." And they agreed upon that.

At first Gandalf had drawn in a breath to protest. He had not been sent to Middle-earth to rule any realm or people, and indeed the Istari had been forbidden to do so. No doubt Saruman had often secretly mocked him for adhering to that stricture, but Gandalf had been scrupulous in avoiding such political power. Now, however, the deaths of Denethor and Théoden, combined with Faramir's condition and the reluctance of Aragorn to immediately assume the kingship, left him little choice. He exhaled the breath, his protest unspoken, and simply nodded. He said instead, "Let us not stay at the door, for the time is urgent. Let us enter! For it is only in the coming of Aragorn that any hope remains for the sick that lie in the House. Thus spake Ioreth, wise-woman of Gondor: 'The hands of the king are the hands of a healer, and so shall the rightful king be known.'"

During the next hours Gandalf moved with Aragorn from one sickbed to another, watching with relief and pride as the Man used the withered leaves of athelas that Bergil brought to him. The healing power of the plant, combined with Aragorn's skill and wisdom, eventually drew all three patients out of their dire state and toward health. The Wizard smiled as Faramir came to consciousness and immediately addressed Aragorn as the King. As clever as ever, he thought fondly. Not that that is surprising. And predictably, he will accept the fact that the King has returned far more readily and graciously than his poor father would have.

Merry was healed last, and Gandalf grinned to see the Hobbit and Aragorn bantering a little with each other as Pippin looked happily on. Finally Aragorn turned and winked at Gandalf as he went out. The Wizard smiled at the two cheerful Hobbits and then followed the Man.

Gandalf and Aragorn went now to the Warden of the Houses of Healing, and they counseled him that Faramir and Éowyn should remain there and still be tended with care for many days.

"The Lady Éowyn," said Aragorn, "will wish soon to rise and depart; but she should not be permitted to do so, if you can in any way restrain her, until at least ten days be passed."

"As for Faramir," said Gandalf, "he must soon learn that his father is dead. But the full tale of the madness of Denethor should not be told to him, until he is quite healed and has duties to do. See that Beregond and the perian who were present do not speak to him of these things yet!"

"And the other perian, Meriadoc, who is under my care, what of him?" said the Warden.

"It is likely that he will be fit to arise tomorrow, for a short while," said Aragorn. "Let him do so, if he wishes. He may walk a little in the care of his friends."

"They are a remarkable race," said the Warden, nodding his head. "Very tough in the fibre, I deem."

Aragorn glanced at Gandalf, struggling to suppress his laughter, and saw that the Wizard was also having trouble keeping a serious face. They managed to nod gravely at the Warden and walked out. Once the door closed, they walked a little way toward the main entrance, but suddenly Aragorn grasped the Wizard's arm and pulled him into a small, dim hallway off to the side. They moved along it until they felt that they were secluded enough. There they paused, leaning wearily against the walls on either side of the hallway. They glanced at each other and suddenly began to laugh uncontrollably, though they tried not to be so noisy that their chortling would carry back along the corridor and through the Warden's door.

After a while their laughter softened, but as they looked each other in the eye again, Aragorn assumed a solemn air and intoned, "Very tough in the fibre, I deem." They both broke out into a fit of laughter again. Only gradually did their mirth fade. At last they lapsed into silence, wiping tears of amusement from their eyes and grinning at each other as they struggled not to break down into laughter again.

A few moments passed, and Gandalf said, "What in Arda are we laughing at? It's not that funny."

"Oh, it's quite amusing, my dear Wizard, especially after a day of much suffering and grief. How little I thought this morning that we would be victorious by now, let alone find humor in anything! And we have come to each other again, by strange roads." The Man crossed the short distance between them, and they allowed themselves the luxury of a brief kiss before moving back into the main corridor and then outside.

At the doors of the Houses many were already gathered to see Aragorn. They had heard of his uncanny powers of healing and were there on behalf of friends and relatives who had suffered wounds in the battle. Aragorn hesitated, but the Wizard could see that his lover was on the verge of collapse. He spoke softly into Aragorn's ear, "I assume that you have had nothing to eat since before dawn?if then. Take a little time for yourself, so that you may be fit to help others. Let us have some supper, and then I shall help you with those who have taken hurt this day. You could send for Elladan and Elrohir as well. They have some of their father's Elven craft of healing."

Passing into the kitchens of the Houses of Healing, they found simple food already prepared, and they gratefully sat down to eat in a corner where they could talk privately. Aragorn gave the Wizard a brief account of his journey along the Paths of the Dead and the part that the ghastly army had played in seizing the Corsairs' ships. When he had finished his tale, he looked warily at Gandalf for a moment. The Wizard wore a slight smile. Aragorn shook his head. "Yes, you told me that I would know when the time came, and obviously I did. Now you can gloat a bit if you want."

Gandalf's shoulders shook slightly with silent laughter. "I shall always gloat at having such an astute and courageous lover. But your experiences confirm something else that I have always said. There are many unsuspected pockets of friendship and help scattered across this great continent. You seem to have developed a talent, though, for turning to evil beings for aid. First the Oathbreakers, then the Corsairs' own ships! Next I expect to see you turning the Nazgûl themselves against their Master."

"Hardly! But you've also often pointed out that evil can sometimes harm itself, and here that has again proven true. Well, I feel some strength returning. Let us go now and ease some of the pain that this day has brought."

At last, hours later, Aragorn could labor among the wounded no longer, and he allowed Gandalf to pull him away and out of the long dormitories of the Houses of Healing. They paused by the archway leading to the City's next level down. There was a single lantern at its entrance, flickering in the wind, and they moved into deep shadow nearby, trusting to darkness and the deserted streets of the wee hours to hide their conversation. Weary nearly to the point of dropping, they embraced, almost holding each other up as they leaned together. After a quiet minute their mouths met in a long, gentle pressing of lips and tongues.

Aragorn pulled back and sighed. "I would love to lie against you as I sleep tonight, but obviously there would be no excuse to give those who found in the morning that you had been with me all night."

Gandalf released the Ranger, and they both slumped against the rough stone blocks of the wall beside them. As their eyes adjusted to the dim light, they could see each other's faces slightly. "Yes, tonight we must simply be content with having met again and with knowing each other to be safe. I shall go back to my room. Besides, if I were to stay away all night, I'm sure Pip would worry terribly."

Aragorn put on a frown of mock alarm. "Oh, he's 'Pip' now, is he? Don't tell me that I have a Hobbit as a rival! I took longer than I intended in getting here to be reunited with you, my darling Wizard, but I didn't think that you would so easily forsake me for another."

"You hardly need worry that a mischievous young fellow like that has displaced you in my heart. As you well know, I brought him here entirely to make sure that he had no further opportunity for pranks and misadventures. And to my surprise and delight, Pip has proven himself most resolute by helping rescue both Faramir and Merry. Mind you, he has been a bit clinging lately. I hope he has not conceived some sort of misplaced affection for me. I have tried to discourage him, but . . ."

He stopped, seeing Aragorn's look of amused skepticism. "Well, is it so very unlikely that he would? Granted, I'm an old man?but I seem to recall one young fellow who found me quite irresistible."

Aragorn grinned. "True. But you can hardly expect to be that lucky twice, old man." He waggled his eyebrows.

Gandalf laughed softly and stroked his hair. "It's true, I can't. But really, why would I need to be?"

They kissed again, less lingeringly, and then walked out into the pool of light by the archway. Aragorn put up his hood again, though there was no one in sight.

"When shall we meet again?" he asked.

"I shall call a council tomorrow morning. Perhaps the last of the many, many councils in which I have participated. The final, crucial decision will be made there. It should not take a great deal of time. Frankly, I am going to advise that we lead an army forth to attack the Black Gat--not to strive for true victory but to direct the Enemy's eye away from his own land. In short, to enhance Frodo and Sam's chances as much as we can."

Aragorn nodded solemnly. "I am not surprised to hear you advocate such a strategy. It follows from what you advised me to do with the palantir--and that has proven an effective move, at least so far. I shall of course support your plan."

Gandalf grasped his hand briefly. "Thank you, your majesty. I never doubted that I could depend on you in this, as in all else. And if things go as I hope they will, it will take a while to gather and equip the troops that you will lead forth--all right, all right, I know that you do not yet formally claim the crown, so I should say 'the troops that we shall lead forth.' At any rate, we probably have a day's respite. We must contrive some reason why your favorite royal Wizard should spend at least a goodly portion of tomorrow night in your tent--something I can tell Pip."

"Good! And I shall contrive some sort of comfortable place for us to repose, beyond the narrow little bed that I now occupy. Thin as you are, you would hardly fit in it beside me."

Gandalf did not speak but reached up to pat the Man's shoulder and then watched briefly as he disappeared into the shadows, walking down again toward the camp outside the shattered Gate. The Wizard turned and crossed the cobblestones of the broad street that ran past the building where he shared a room with Pippin. As he quietly opened the inner door, he was surprised to see the lamp still lit and the young Hobbit removing his uniform. Pippin turned and grinned at him. "Gandalf! You're back."

Gandalf's reply was cut off by a yawn as he leaned his staff against the wall and hung up his cloak and hat. "Yes, Aragorn and I have done all we could among the wounded tonight. I am badly in need of a night's sleep, short though it will be."

The Wizard yawned again and moved toward his own sleeping alcove. As he passed Pippin, the Hobbit caught his hand and looked up at him with earnest eyes. "Gandalf, thank you for helping me to save Merry. I could never have brought him up all the levels of the City to the Houses of Healing. It seemed that no one cared about a wounded Hobbit in all the turmoil, but you did."

Gandalf stared into his eyes for a moment, hoping that the adoring look there was nothing more than simple gratitude. He tried to speak with friendly enthusiasm. "Well, of course! You two are not just Hobbits but members of the Fellowship, and not just that, but full-fledged soldiers who have both behaved heroically this day--or yesterday, I should say by now. Naturally I had every reason to particularly want to help Merry." He paused, wishing that Pippin would stop gazing at him so very . . . yes, adoringly was the only word for it. Gently he pulled his hand free, and to change the subject he added, "What are you doing awake in the wee hours of the morning, Peregrin, Son of Paladin?"

Pippin pressed his lips together, glancing down at the floor, and a deep red quickly suffused his face. He responded falteringly, "Oh, I . . . I just stayed to keep Merry company. That is, I mean, to make sure that Aragorn had really healed him. And, um, in case he needed something--food or drink or . . ." He broke off, blushing even more deeply, if that was possible.

Gandalf's eyebrows rose slightly during this, but he suppressed an amused smile and simply nodded solemnly. "I see. Very commendable. Well, you must be exhausted as well." Pippin glanced up quickly at the Wizard, but Gandalf maintained a straight face as he continued,"Off to bed with you, young Pippin. Good night!" He walked to his own bed, closing the curtains of the alcove behind him. As he undressed, he reflected with a silent chuckle, Well, I certainly am a vain old man, imagining that such a young Hobbit would be infatuated with me. Those two make a much more logical couple. Pouring some water into the basin on the bedside stand, he quickly washed and slipped between the sheets. Bed had never felt so wonderful, it seemed--or at least any bed where he had slept alone, he thought with a last drowsy little smile before slumber overtook him.

All was decided now. The combined armies of Gondor and Rohan would set out for the Black Gate in a mission of little hope, seeking to divert the Eye of Sauron from his own land for a while. It seemed the only way that Frodo and Sam might possibly reach Mount Doom undetected and destroy the Ring. Although this last battle might end in defeat and death, Gandalf felt at peace as he walked down the winding main street of Minas Tirith to join the Ranger in his tent. Despite his fears, the stalwart leaders of the southern kingdoms had agreed readily to the possibly suicidal idea of attacking Mordor. It was, Gandalf reflected, probably the last major decision that he would ever need to guide such leaders to make. His plan might well determine the outcome of their long struggle and if it didn't?well, he and the others would not live to see the aftermath. He smiled sadly, suspecting that the Valar would not send him to Middle-earth for a third try if that happened.

It was dark by now, since preparations for the last, desperate campaign had taken much of the day, and dinner had been long delayed. Now, however, he was determined to spend this last night with his lover. He knew that Aragorn was waiting eagerly for him, and yet for once the thought brought no hint of warmth to his groin. He was simply too tired.

The Wizard made no attempt to enter Aragorn's tent surreptitiously. Any figure lurking secretively about that area was likely to arouse suspicion among the soldiers camped nearby, many of whom already regarded the Ranger as their true king. If anyone saw Gandalf enter the tent, they would assume that he had come for yet another consultation with Aragorn concerning the logistics of the campaign. As he stepped through the tent's opening and pulled the flap closed behind himself, Aragorn rose from the stool where he has been sitting, gazing into space rather than at the unfurled map resting on his lap. For a moment the two simply looked at each other fondly. Then Aragorn crossed, and they carefully knotted the series of ties that held the tent entrance firmly shut. Only then did they turn and cling together for a time.

"Much though I want to make love to you," Aragorn whispered, "I am simply too exhausted. Between having so little repose last night and having done so much today, I need to sleep."

"I, too. It is maddening to be with you and want you so much and yet to be so incapable of fulfilling our desires. We have shared pleasure only once since our reunion, and that is more than two weeks ago now! Let us just hold each other and sleep for a while--but not all night, I trust."

Aragorn let the Wizard go and moved aside, sweeping his arm grandly to present a broad, mattress-like pad on the ground, with some blankets laid over it and a few small cushions in a heap. "I could not provide a real bed, I'm afraid, but this should at any rate provide distinctly more comfort than many of our 'beds' in the woods beside campfires."

Gandalf chuckled softly. "It looks very inviting. But not quite inviting enough. Why don't you lie down on it, your majesty?"

The man grinned at him and stripped and then lowered himself to recline on one side of the makeshift bed. Gandalf nodded and sighed, "Yes, now it is supremely inviting." He quickly doffed his own clothing and slipped naked under the blankets, moving against the Ranger until they were embracing tightly. "After many nights alone, sleep now becomes more than a cure for weariness," the Wizard whispered. They both drifted quickly into slumber.

A few hours later Gandalf emitted a small gurgling noise as he felt warm lips moving over the nape of his neck, sucking in a leisurely fashion and gliding on. He struggled into a half-waking state and realized that he had shifted at some point and that Aragorn was spooned behind him, their skin hot and moist where the Man's hard chest and belly pressed against his back. Insistent fingers plucked at Gandalf's nipples, and his body twisted in startled, sudden arousal. Aragorn was squirming and uttering gasps that were almost moans. He hugged the Wizard even tighter, and Gandalf felt the unmistakable pressure of a very hard cock lodged in the cleft between his buttocks. As it shifted with the Man's movements, Gandalf let out a long sigh in anticipation of what would soon happen.

Aragorn's lips were by his ear, and he whispered, "Are you awake, old man?" Those lips pulled at the lobe, and then the tip of the Man's tongue explored the whorls and opening of the ear. The Wizard's body tensed, and he whimpered softly.

"Of course, I'm awake--now."

"Good," Aragorn whispered, and his hand slid down the Wizard's belly to discover a rapidly swelling erection. Slowly he squeezed and pulled at the nearly rampant organ, caressing one nipple with the other hand and running his hot tongue over Gandalf's neck. The Wizard writhed in wanton abandon within his arms, savoring the flood of sensations that the Man was setting loose in his body. After a while he dimly realized that this was all going on far too long for a reunion after such a separation, and he rolled abruptly, pushing Aragorn onto his back and moving atop him. He thrust his tongue demandingly into the Ranger's willing mouth, groaning hoarsely as he ground his lips against Aragorn's. One hand cupped the Man's buttocks and pulled his hips upward to meet his own heavy, throbbing member, while the other groped across Aragorn's chest until his fingers found a small, hard nub, pinching and twisting it. The Ranger thrust upward with growing urgency. He managed to pull his mouth away from Gandalf's, reaching to the side of the bed as an eager tongue moved over his throat. "Here, use this," Aragorn murmured, thrusting the small jar against the hand playing with his nipple.

Gandalf clutched it without looking, and somehow he contrived to open it as one hand and his mouth continued to drive his lover toward even greater arousal. Aragorn jerked as he felt a slicked finger enter him, and he spread his legs wide to allow the Wizard to loosen his entrance with dexterous, probing fingers that abruptly set his body afire with need. By the time Gandalf decided that he could safely take Aragorn, the Man was whimpering in desperation. "Go deep," he pleaded.

In response, Gandalf slipped his hands under the Ranger's bent knees and leaned forward, pushing until Aragorn's thighs were pressed up against his torso. The Man placed his legs over the Wizard's shoulders, and Gandalf guided the tip of his cock to the relaxed opening, sinking it with tormenting slowness into the scorching passage. Aragorn grimaced at the dying pain and blooming pleasure, rocking his hips to encourage Gandalf to move further. As the thick cock finally slid over Aragorn's prostate, the Man began to make a shrill, keening noise. Gandalf quickly put his hand over Aragorn's mouth. "Quietly," he warned as he removed the hand. Aragorn grimaced and clenched his teeth in an effort to stifle the natural reactions that sought to burst from him. Gandalf watched the intensity of his pleasure twist the Man's face, and he reached down to pull Aragorn's rigid member away from his belly. He grasped it gently and felt along its length with his fingertips--the slick, sweaty skin; the throbbing, high veins; the tight balls, so ready to spill; the velvety head, leaking the first drops.

The Wizard began to thrust faster and harder, the roaring in his ears nearly drowning out the soft keening that Aragorn was by now muffling with his own arm. Quickly the bliss in Gandalf's member washed out into his loins and robbed him of any other sense or thought. His head tilted back and his buttocks tensed rhythmically as he pushed over and over into the gripping heat. One last bit of conscious awareness led him to pump Aragorn's shaft vigorously, and he immediately felt it spasm. He looked down and watched it spew forth strings of semen that scattered wildly across the Man's torso as Gandalf jerked at it. With a final deep thrust, Gandalf growled as his own intense pleasure seized him and waves of ecstasy surged through his member while he emptied his balls into his lover's depths.

The Wizard paused, his eyes screwed shut, his breath coming in deep pants. Gradually he helped Aragorn lower his legs to the blankets. Feeling dizzy, he withdrew and rested back on his heels. Blearily he looked down to see his seed oozing from the Man's orifice. He looked around and saw a small cloth on the ground beside the mattress. It seemed absurdly far away at that moment, but he leaned to the side and stretched, managing to reach it and to wipe both of them. Upon inspection, he realized that it was not a perfect job, but without water it would have to do. The pitcher was on top of a small table, and it would require the impossible effort of standing up to fetch it. Instead he carefully lowered himself to lie beside Aragorn, who seemed already to be drifting off to sleep. The Wizard struggled briefly to stay awake and enjoy the lingering afterglow of their lovemaking, but it was a struggle that he soon lost.

A few hours later, Gandalf's eyes fluttered open, and he slid over until his stomach was pressed against Aragorn's side. His lips moved tantalizingly over the Man's neck and nibbled at his ear. Finally he rose slightly and draped himself across the broad chest, brushing his lips against Aragorn's.

Aragorn's eyes slid half open, and as soon as his mouth was free he chuckled and murmured, "You are a randy old man."

Gandalf lifted his head to examine the Man's face. "Of course! At this late date, are you surprised? I suppose I always have been." He clicked his tongue and shook his head. "I partly blame you, though.After all, I have had some very attractive and enthusiastic partners during my long time in Middle-earth, but it's distinctly worse now. I have never wanted as much sex as I do with you. How do you account for that?"

Aragorn put on a thoughtful frown and pursed his lips, gazing up toward the roof of the tent. Finally he shrugged and suggested, "Maybe Istari just get randier as they age."

The Wizard grinned. "I doubt that."

The Man sighed happily as Gandalf's hand roamed over his torso, but he affected to think deeply again. He reached up and raked his fingers through the Wizard's beard. "Perhaps it's because you want to enjoy what remains of my youth and beauty before I get old and wrinkled and white-haired like you."

Gandalf laughed and shook his head as he looked fondly at the Man pinned beneath him. "No, that's not it either." His amusement diminished to a slight smile as he studied Aragorn's face again. "I think it's simply because I cannot get enough of you--in any way. Enough of looking at you, enough of talking with you, enough of touching you, enough of sharing bliss with you, enough of falling asleep at night in your arms, enough of waking the next morning to find you still there beside me."

Aragorn swallowed hard and looked away briefly before again raising his eyes to Gandalf's. "Well, then it sounds to me like you're a randy old man in love."

Gandalf chuckled and nodded slightly. "I am that." Far too deeply in love, he told himself at once, as he so often had, and then he brushed the thought aside. There was nothing to be done about it now.

Aragorn pulled his head down to trail kisses across one cheek. "Well, you're lucky, then, because I can't get enough of you, either." He shifted so that he could wedge one hand between their bodies and finger the Wizard's organ, which was showing definite signs of reviving. Gandalf grunted softly with pleasure and rolled slightly to give the Man better access, pinching and rubbing one of the dark-brown nipples until Aragorn's breath caught in his throat. The Ranger managed to gasp, "Note that for once I have remembered to let you enter me first. Now I plan to ride you long and hard, old man, and I promise you, you will be the one who is sorer tomorrow."

Gandalf smiled ruefully. "Well, at least I am glad to know that you are as clever a tactician as always. That is encouraging as we set out to battle! A whole day on horseback, though. I must ask Shadowfax to give me as soft a ride as possible. I shall not ask you for the same thing now, though. And take all the time you like, your majesty."

Gandalf stood still for a moment, almost unable to grasp that it had happened, after two thousand years of striving and setbacks and fears. He stood taking slow, deep breaths and watched the wild billowing of the dark clouds in the sky as they were ripped apart by the winds of the west. He said quietly to no one in particular--or only to himself, "The realm of Sauron is ended. The Ringbearer has fulfilled his Quest." It flashed through his mind that everything had changed. He would soon be able to return to his beloved home, would soon have to leave Aragorn. At once he snapped out of this tiny reverie to find himself staring at Mount Doom as it became visible through the dissipating dust and fumes. It happened to be perfectly centered in the immense gap left by the collapse of the Black Gate. The Wizard panted as he stared at it for a moment and then quickly glanced around to locate Shadowfax. The great horse was at some distance, calmly awaiting him at the foot of the hill, but as Gandalf's eyes returned to the Mountain, he saw that great rents in the earth and sinuous streams of flowing lava filled the forty miles or so of the flat Gorgoroth Plateau between him and the erupting volcano.

For a moment he clenched his teeth in frustration and then suddenly looked up toward the swooping forms in the smoke high above him. "Gwaihir!" he called, as loudly as he could, and again he called. To his relief, the largest of the Eagles dove swiftly toward him. In the few seconds while he waited, he glanced again at Mount Doom and wondered if any creature could possibly survive the chaos of destruction that was gripping Mordor.

The enormous bird alighted beside him, and the Wizard smiled fondly. "Twice you have borne me, Gwaihir my friend. Thrice shall pay for all, if you are willing. You will not find me a burden much greater than when you bore me from Zirakzigil, where my old life burned away."

The Eagle's eyes regarded him with enormous respect, and he said quietly, "I would bear you whither you will, were you made of stone."

Gandalf felt tears starting to his eyes. How many friends he had made in his long years in Middle-earth, he thought, and how unexpectedly they had helped him in his great task! But there was no time to think of such things. "Then come, and let your brother go with us, and some other of your folk who is most swift! For we have need of speed greater than any wind, outmatching the wings of the Nazgûl."

As he climbed astride Gwaihir's shoulders, the Eagle replied, "The North Wind blows, but we shall outfly it."

Gandalf held tight as the great bird rose into the sky and called to Landroval and Meneldor to go with them. The Wizard glanced over to his right and down to where he thought he had last seen Aragorn, but he could not distinguish his lover in the tumult of the battle. Soon they were too high for individual figures to be discernable, and by then Gandalf was looking ahead to Mount Doom again. As the three Eagles flew swiftly over the fallen Gate and the great round valley of the Udûn, Gandalf surveyed the epic collapse of the Enemy's works allacross the ruined land of Mordor. He shook his head slightly in amazement as he watched the blighted plain twisting in its agony and the hopeless, chaotic flight of orcs and trolls and enslaved Men, this way and that, as they sought in vain to escape the downfall of the Power that had driven them.

Above all his eyes were drawn to the great black Tower off to his left, still collapsing as he watched, for such a vast and mighty stronghold could not be destroyed in an instant. Tears truly came then, for the length of the journey to Mount Doom gave him the leisure to glory quietly in the accomplishment of the West--an accomplishment that owed so much to so many, and yet one which he had planned and led. He recalled how much he had feared Sauron from the moment when the Valar had ordered him to Middle-earth and how immensely heavy his burden had been at times. He felt a relief that seemed for the moment stronger than any emotion he had felt during his entire embodied life in Middle-earth--greater even than his love for Aragorn, he realized, though not as steady and enduring.

Even now he could not fully rejoice, however, for the losses in achieving this moment were too great for that, and he feared that he was about to face the reality of the death of the Ringbearer and his faithful friend. Sending them to that fate, no matter how inevitable that had been, would mar this victory for him and dim all else that followed. Yet Aragorn had saved Faramir, Éowyn, and Merry in the face of what seemed inevitable death. There was always hope.

Finally, as the Eagles neared the slopes of Mount Doom, Gandalf tore his eyes away from the ruins of the Dark Tower and peered down through the poisonous fumes to the tangle of molten stone and jagged rocks below. The birds swooped lower and glided over the slopes of the Mountain, and before long Gwaihir said, "There" in a voice loud enough to be heard over the din of the eruption. Following the direction of his gaze, Gandalf witnessed the two tiny figures falling to the ground even as Gwaihir's companions dipped down to lift them gently in their claws. Hoping desperately that the Hobbits were still alive, the Wizard endured the flight back toward the battleground outside the entrance to Mordor.

When the Ring had gone into the fire, the Enemy's troops had faltered and begun to flee or to lay down their arms. Aragorn's mind was torn between the dazzling realization of the destruction of the Ring and the practical necessity to continue commanding his troops. He struggled to change tactics, sending orders for the soldiers to surround and control groups of prisoners. As he sought to keep track of the pandemonium before him, the Man looked over to where he had last seen the Wizard, standing in apparent despair on the hilltop looking out over the battle. He spotted Gandalf climbing onto Gwaihir's back just before the great Eagle rose swiftly into the sky. Realizing at once that the Wizard must be going to try and rescue Frodo and Sam, Aragorn watched them until the three mighty birds disappeared into the clouds of smoke and gases that roiled above the destruction. Pulling his attention back to the task at hand, he clenched his teeth and smiled reluctantly. The old man has survived worse than this, and he's not about to let himself be killed just after we have won, he reassured himself. Resolutely dismissing his lover from his mind for the moment, he inspected the scene of tumult and victory before him and gestured to Prince Imrahil to join him for a quick consultation.

How many minutes or hours had passed as the army slowly gained control over more and more of the battlefield he could not tell, but eventually Aragorn sensed a dim shadow pass nearby, and he looked up. The three Eagles were wheeling downward, and Aragorn gasped with joy as he saw the gleaming white figure of the Wizard still astride the neck of the largest, while a tiny figure was held within the claws of each of the other two. As the birds landed and gently laid the Hobbits on the ground, Gandalf leapt off Gwaihir and knelt beside them. Aragorn bounded up the slope and dropped to his knees as well, and they examined the pair anxiously. Frodo and Sam were clearly alive, but they were pale and emaciated and covered with many scratches and scrapes and bruises. Struggling to control his emotions, Gandalf looked up into the Man's eyes. "Well, I have brought two more worthy patients who could benefit from the healing hands of the King. Are you finished here?" He gestured at the battle, which was clearly winding down.

They wrapped the Hobbits in their Elven cloaks and lifted them as Aragorn replied, "Yes, Éomer and Imrahil and the others should be able to deal with the aftermath. Let us move out of this poisonous reek and into the forest of Ithilien. There these two can breath clean air and begin to recover--I hope!"

Gandalf sat astride a folding chair, his chin resting on his crossed arms, which rested in turn along the top of the chair's back. He was watching as Aragorn gently inspected the sleeping figures of Frodo and Sam. It had been eleven days since Gandalf and the Eagles had brought the pair out of Mordor. Aragorn and the Wizard had swiftly organized a group to convey the two stricken Hobbits to the woods of Ithilien and to build a simple open-air sick-room for them, surrounded by a circular screen of cloth walls.

The Hobbits' hurts had been many but not such as to threaten their lives. They were simply worn and exhausted and starved beyond the capability of most races to survive, but they clung to life and slept deeply. At intervals the Ranger, with the help of Gandalf, had managed to prop each up and pour some milk down his throat, and both had swallowed it reflexively without waking. Their scratches and bruises had largely healed, and it was clear that eventually they would awaken.

Aragorn straightened up and looked at Gandalf with a little grin. "Very tough in the fibre, I deem," he said softly.

"They are indeed," the Wizard replied, smiling fondly as he stared at the two sleeping figures. "It remains to be seen what effects the Quest has had upon their minds and hearts, but they are beginning to look almost healthy." His smile faded, and he shook his head with a sigh. "I have long carried the burden of having to send Frodo into such unimaginable danger. Sam, of course, went without my having planned it, but he must have given such tremendous support to the Ringbearer that I cannot regret having had to worry about him as well. To be able to bring them both forth into safety . . ." He paused, gasping as tears came to his eyes.

At once Aragorn smiled sympathetically and moved to slip his arm around Gandalf's shoulders. "Do not sorrow over what has happened, old man. Frodo and Sam have done what they had to do, and you have brought them out alive. I don't see what you should be crying about now."

Gandalf stood up and drew his eyes away from the sleeping Hobbits to look at his lover. "True, and soon they will awaken and be honored as few have been in the entire history of Middle-earth. Still, they have suffered greatly to finally end the great evil of this age." They stood gazing down at Frodo and Sam for a while. Finally Aragorn rested his hand on the small of the Wizard's back and whispered, "There is nothing more that we can do here now. What would you say to a little nap?"

Gandalf smiled knowingly at him. "I would have no objection to a little nap--afterwards."

The two had contrived to share a large tent during the military campaign to attack the Black Gate. Arguing that it would save weight and space in the supply carts, Aragorn had ordered all officers to double up in the few tents that were available. "That way more of them can have shelter in which to sleep. And who knows what relationships might result?" he had added to the Wizard in a whisper.

Now the pair left the Hobbits' enclosure and strolled back to their tent, reveling in the breezes of April and in the knowledge of pleasure to come.

On the day of Aragorn's coronation, Gandalf stood beside him while Faramir, as Steward of Gondor, officially welcomed Isildur's heir to Minas Tirith. The Wizard took care, however, not to stand too close beside him. This was the Ranger's moment, when he shed that appellation and became what he had been destined to be: the King of Gondor. The Wizard was delighted that Aragorn refused to receive the rod of the Steward when Faramir offered it. Instead Aragorn returned it to Faramir and said, "That office is not ended, and it shall be thine and thy heirs' as long as my line shall last. Do now thy office!"

Gandalf beamed, not sure for whom he felt happier at that moment--Aragorn as he assumed his rule and dealt justly in his first royal decision or Faramir as he received a high office worthy of his devotion and wisdom. The Wizard had not advised Aragorn to retain Faramir as the Steward, and yet the new King had done so on his own. Gandalf realized that in a sense the Man had just passed a little test. From now on he would need the Wizard's help less and less. Gandalf's smile faded as he thought with a little pang of sadness, Indeed, perhaps he now has little use for it at all. Never mind, that was our goal in the end, and if he has reached full independence, or nearly so, all the better. The Wizard surveyed the onlookers, exchanging smiles with the Ringbearer and Sam, who by now were looking wonderfully fit. He turned back as Faramir spoke again.

"Men of Gondor, the loremasters tell that it was the custom of old that the king should receive the crown from his father ere he died; or if that might not be, that he should go alone and take it from the hands of his father in the tomb where he was laid. But since things must now be done otherwise, using the authority of the Steward, I have today brought hither from Rath Dínen the crown of Eärnur the last king, whose days passed in the time of our longfathers of old."

Then the guards stepped forward, and Faramir opened the casket, and he held up an ancient crown. It was shaped like the helms of the Guards of the Citadel, save that it was loftier, and it was all white, and the wings at either side were wrought of pearl and silver in the likeness of the wings of a sea-bird, for it was the emblem of kings who came over the Sea.

Then Aragorn took the crown and held it up and said: Et Eärello Endorenna utúlien. Sinome maruvan ar Hildinyar tenn' Ambar-metta! And those were the words that Elendil spoke when he came up out of the Sea on the wings of the wind: "Out of the Great Sea to Middle-Earth I am come. In this place will I abide, and my heirs, unto the ending of the world." Gandalf suppressed a smile. Aragorn had learned his lessons at Imladris better than he would have expected. His pronunciation of the ancient text had been excellent.

Then to the wonder of many Aragorn did not put the crown upon his head, but gave it back to Faramir, and said, "By the labour and valour of many I have come into my inheritance. In token of this I would have the Ring-bearer bring the crown to me, and let Mithrandir set it upon my head, if he will; for he has been the mover of all that has been accomplished, and this is his victory."

Gandalf tried not to look surprised--though he was considerably so. Aragorn has said nothing of this to him, and he had assumed that the Man would simply place the crown upon his own head. His heart warmed at the King's so honoring the Ringbearer, and he found that he was extremely happy at the notion of crowning his lover--despite the impending loss for himself that it symbolized. He looked at Frodo, who seemed somewhat overwhelmed at the attention that he was being accorded. Gandalf smiled and nodded slightly to encourage him.

Then Frodo came forward and took the crown from Faramir and bore it to Gandalf; and Aragorn knelt, and Gandalf set the White Crown upon his head, and said: "Now come the days of the King, and may they be blessed while the thrones of the Valar endure!"

But when Aragorn arose all that beheld him gazed in silence, for it seemed to them that he was revealed to them now for the first time. Tall as the sea-kings of old, he stood above all that were near; ancient of days he seemed and yet in the flower of manhood; and wisdom sat upon his brow, and strength and healing were in his hands, and a light was about him.

Gandalf gazed at him with a mixture of delight and piercing regret. All the beauty and wisdom of the Man with whom he had fallen all too deeply in love were so evident again that he gasped and struggled to maintain a slight, proud smile. At the same moment, Aragorn had revealed how much he had fulfilled all the Wizard's hopes. Gandalf felt as if he could never again be a mentor to Aragorn--not in any real or important way. And by crowning the Man, he had in an instant allowed him finally to meet Elrond's condition. Arwen was now free to marry Estel--or Elessar as he now was. So be it, Gandalf thought. As he grows into the kingship, I shall lose him. After all, I foresaw this, and if I hadn't, I certainly should have. I must use well the time we have before Arwen claims him. The fleeting, precious time. He tried to wrench his mind back to the events at hand.

Then Faramir cried, "Behold the King!"

And in that moment all the trumpets were blown, and the King Elessar went forth and came to the barrier, and Húrin of the Keys thrust it back; and amid the music of harp and of viol and of flute and the singing of clear voices the King passed through the flower-laden streets, and came to the Citadel, and entered in; and the banner of the Tree and the Stars--Arwen's banner--was unfurled upon the topmost tower, and the reign of King Elessar began, of which many songs have told.

In his time the City was made more fair than it had ever been, even in the days of its first glory; and it was filled with trees and with fountains, and its gates were wrought of mithril and steel, and its streets were paved with white marble; and the Folk of the Mountain laboured in it, and the Folk of the Wood rejoiced to come there; and all was healed and made good, and the houses were filled with men and women and the laughter of children, and no window was blind nor any courtyard empty; and after the ending of the Third Age of the world into the new age it preserved the memory and the glory of the years that were gone.

After the coronation, Aragorn naturally lived in the royal palace, but he gave a fine, large house adjacent to it over to the use of the Hobbits, Gimli, Legolas, and Gandalf. After they had spent one night there, the King summoned Gandalf to him in his study, and they discussed in private as to how they could secretly maintain their intimate relationship in such circumstances, with Aragorn now surrounded by servants and guards, and the Wizard living in a group of lively and inquisitive people. They considered meeting only during the day, pretending to confer but in fact making love quickly in the King's private rooms. Both immediately agreed, however, that this would be a maddening way to spend their last months together. As Aragorn said, "So much of our pleasure in being together is in lying quietly and holding each other, or in talking, or in sleeping side by side." Neither could bear not being able to do such things again. Only if they could find no alternative would they settle for quick, furtive couplings.

After much pondering and scheming, they concocted a solution. Aragorn had deliberately assigned the Fellowship members to a house close by the palace. It was in fact a large dwelling used in earlier ages by the princes of the royal family, and it shared a small courtyard with the palace. A high brick wall extended from one side of the house to the palace, and the other side, the connection was created by a wall with a colonnade. At night, someone going along it might reach a door into the palace unobserved. Aragorn loaned the Wizard his own Elven cloak, which would make him nearly invisible as he walked the short distance to the palace in the shadow of the colonnade.

As to the guards, they would be stationed at either end of the corridor in which the King's bedroom lay, but he ordered that they stand outside the closed doors. Given the simple, even spare life that he had endured during his years as a Ranger, Aragorn was naturally disinclined to be pampered by a large number of servants. He pared his staff to the minimum, and insisted that he would have only one body servant with him in the evenings. After much discussion with Gandalf, it was agreed that Aragorn would have to take one extremely trustworthy servant into his confidence about his relationship with the Wizard. There was simply no other way to smuggle Gandalf into the King's bedroom successfully, night after night. Aragorn sought out the son of a valiant soldier he had served with during his early days in Gondor, masquerading as Thorongil. He had known this fellow as a lad and now found him as stalwart and loyal as his father. With the aid of such a servant, Gandalf could come and go in the dark hours and share each night of love during the last weeks in which he and Aragorn would be lovers.

The two settled upon a time each night late enough for it to be safe for Gandalf to move secretly to the palace and upon a time before dawn when he could return. The time for his return in particular became an inviolable rule between them, for if he lingered too long, they risked having the servants who came to wake and tend to the King in the morning discovering the Wizard still there.

Under such circumstances, Gandalf and Aragorn managed each night to share passion and the mutual contentment that followed, sleeping a few hours before the inevitable parting. To his housemates, Gandalf explained his frequent naps during the day as resulting from his having indulged in a passion for observing the stars. Upon hearing of that excuse, Aragorn teased the Wizard--who prided himself upon his scrupulous honesty--by claiming that he had a natural talent for duplicity. Gandalf pretended to be highly indignant about that accusation, and the resulting "quarrel" led to an exceedingly agreeable reconciliation.

During the day Aragorn was often busy with matters of state, but he took care to invite Gandalf to join him and his councilors when meetings were held on anything more than routine affairs. The business being conducted often seemed to be fairly insignificant for a great Wizard, and the King felt a trifle strange asking for Gandalf's advice--but the last thing he wanted was for the Wizard to feel that his growing confidence as King would cause them to drift apart. On the whole, Gandalf sat looking on, seeming never to tire of watching Aragorn dealing with the issues at hand, important or trivial. The Man soon realized that his lover kept attending such meetings not because he felt he could offer suggestions but because he simply was proud to see Aragorn at last being able to perform his royal duties. And occasionally the Wizard did chime in with a comment that was useful to the discussion, but even when he remained silent, Aragorn took comfort from having him there.

After one such meeting, Faramir moved to Aragorn and said, "My Liege, I noticed that you were yawning during the proceedings. I hope you do not find these meetings too boring."

Aragorn had laughed softly. "No, I simply am tired. I have not getting as much sleep as I need."

Faramir had nodded and went out, but Aragorn winked at the Wizard as they walked toward the door. Thereafter the Man took care to have a little time to himself in the afternoons, for napping.

Such days of happiness and nights of bliss passed until the end of May approached. But despite such joy in each other, both realized that an unspoken question was forming. Would Elrond honor his promise to allow Arwen to stay in Middle-earth and marry Aragorn? It seemed certain that he would, and yet as time passed with no word, no message, Aragorn began to worry and to long for some reassurance that the beautiful Elf would indeed be his bride. Thus doubts and longing began to shadow Gandalf and Aragorn's dwindling time together.

"Hallow. What hallow?" Gandalf's mind asked as he struggled up from the depths of sleep. He lay quietly. It was only about four in the morning, he quickly realized as his precise sense of time awoke with him. After a moment's reflection, he knew the answer to his question. Still slightly befuddled by sleep, he ran his hand through his thick white mane. "Now?" he thought reluctantly. But yes, apparently it had to be now.

The Wizard sighed deeply and glanced to his left at the dim figure of Aragorn. The Man was sunk in slumber, lying on his stomach with a hand cupped over Gandalf's shoulder. The Wizard ran his fingertips very lightly over the blanket above Aragorn's back, dipping them down to skim over his waist and up to climb the hills of his muscular buttocks. With another sigh, Gandalf leaned over to move his lips over the damp heat of his lover's neck. Aragorn eventually stirred. As a Ranger, his training had long allowed him to come to full waking almost instantly at any disturbance. In recent months, however, he had learned to relax, and now it took a while for him to smile drowsily at the Wizard. "What is it, old man? Not time for you to leave already, is it?"

"No, that's not it. It's early, but I'm afraid that we must both rise and go somewhere together."

Aragorn sat up and lit a candle before looking in puzzlement at the Wizard. "Where in Arda do you want to go in the middle of the night?"

"You will see soon enough. Trust me, this is important."

Aragorn saw the serious expression in Gandalf's deep eyes and nodded, realizing that this was no time for protests or explanations. The Wizard kissed his cheek and rose, beginning to wash quickly before dressing. Aragorn did the same, muttering, "What are you up to now?" knowing full well that he would not receive an answer. "More mysterious pronouncements by the favorite royal Wizard," he added with an affectionate grin.

Then Gandalf took Aragorn out from the City, and he brought him to the southern feet of Mount Mindolluin; and there they found a path made in ages past that few now dared to tread. For it led up on to the mountain to a high hallow where only the kings had been wont to go. And they went up by steep ways, until they came to a high field below the snows that clad the lofty peaks, and it looked down over the precipice that stood behind the City. And standing there they surveyed the lands, for the morning was come; and they saw the towers of the City far below them like white pencils touched by the sunlight, and all the Vale of Anduin was like a garden, and the Mountains of Shadow were veiled in a golden mist. Upon the one side their sight reached to the grey Emyn Muil, and the glint of Rauros was like a star twinkling far off; and upon the other side they saw the River like a ribbon laid down to Pelargir, and beyond that was a light on the hem of the sky that spoke of the Sea.

Gandalf stared at that light, feeling a sudden longing to view the Sea again, the path leading to his distant home. Yes, he thought with a pang of sorrow, it is time to relinquish this mighty continent to Aragorn, to think more of surrendering his love, of returning to Valinor.

With a sweep of his hand to indicate the vast landscape around them, he said, "This is your realm, and the heart of the greater realm that shall be. The Third Age of the world is ended, and the new age is begun; and it is your task to order its beginning and to preserve what may be preserved. For though much has been saved, much must now pass away; and the power of the Three Rings also is ended. And all the lands that you see, and those that lie round about them, shall be dwellings of Men. For the time comes of the Dominion of Men, and the Elder Kindred shall fade or depart."

Aragorn's heart began to beat rapidly as he listened to this. Gandalf had always made it clear that he would eventually leave and return whence he had come--but he had never hinted at when. For all the Man knew he might have the Wizard's precious friendship for many months, years--perhaps even a decade or two. He realized now that he had been afraid to ask how long--and he had also got the impression that the Wizard did not fully know himself. After a brief hesitation Aragorn said quietly as he stared at eyes that would not meet his, "I know it well, dear friend, but I would still have your council."

Gandalf winced inwardly. It's not over yet, he reassured himself, but that was small comfort. He clenched his teeth at having to disappoint his lover, but there was no choice. He shook his head and finally looked up into the sad eyes. He realized that he also felt a tiny flash of annoyance at Aragorn for trying to keep him longer than he could stay, but he stifled it at once. He is so young still, really, he thought. So mortal. Indeed, for a moment Aragorn reminded the Wizard vividly of the young, desperate Man who had knelt by him that afternoon so long ago and pleaded for his love. The Wizard sought not to allow his emotions to show too clearly and to keep his voice steady as he reluctantly replied, "Not for long now. The Third Age was my age. I was the enemy of Sauron; and my work is finished. I shall go soon. The burden must lie now upon you and your kindred."

The tendons in Aragorn's cheeks worked as he struggled not to shed tears. He felt nearer despair than he had ever expected to again once the Ring was destroyed. He knew the age-old saying that the White Tree would blossom in the courtyard of Minas Tirith when the king returned and re-established the royal line, and yet in the weeks since his coronation, the White Tree had remained as dead and leafless as ever. This was not how things were supposed to turn out. With a touch of anguish in his voice he said, "But I shall die, for I am a mortal man, and though being what I am and of the race of the West unmingled, I shall have life far longer than other men, yet that is but a little while; and when those who are now in the wombs of women are born and have grown old, I too shall grow old. And who then shall govern Gondor and those who look to this City as to their queen, if my desire be not granted? The Tree in the Court of the Fountain is still withered and barren. When shall I see a sign that it will ever be otherwise?"

Gandalf watched the Man's face and gestures with pity, and yet toward the end of the speech he almost seemed to stop listening, frowning slightly and staring away to the distant glitter of the River. He seemed to be waiting for something.

As Aragorn concluded, he looked in puzzlement at his lover. Why was he not responding, whether it be with reassurance, or, if need be, with more talk of the inevitable parting to come?

Without ceasing to stare to the east, Gandalf said, "Turn your face from the green world, and look where all seems barren and cold!" He stood unmoving, still waiting. Aragorn continued to gaze at him for a few seconds and then turned. There was a stony slope behind him running down from the skirts of the snow; and as he looked he was aware that alone there in the waste a growing thing stood. And he climbed to it, and saw that out of the very edge of the snow there sprang a sapling tree no more than three foot high. Already it had put forth young leaves long and shapely, dark above and silver beneath, and upon its slender crown it bore one small cluster of flowers whose white petals shone like the sunlit snow.

Then Aragorn cried: "Yé utúvienyes! I have found it! Lo! here is a scion of the Eldest of Trees! But how comes it here? For it is not itself yet seven years old." He was panting with excitement. Perhaps a White Tree could indeed blossom again in the Courtyard. There was hope after all. For his kingship, for his line, for all of Middle-earth.

Gandalf walked slowly after Aragorn and came up beside him to look at the lovely sapling. When he had brought Aragorn here, he had no idea that their purpose was to discover the young tree. He had only realized that at the moment when the Man mentioned the "sign" that was needed, when suddenly his heart told him where Aragorn should look. Somewhat reluctantly he examined the little tree, touching its leaves reverently and admiring their shape and beautiful silver undersides. As he had feared, searingly vivid memories of the original White and Golden Trees flashed into his mind--so detailed that they seemed almost to transport him briefly back through the eons to that time when the Trees cast their light across an unsullied world.

He gasped now in the effort not to weep. For two thousand years he had struggled to do what he had now told Aragorn to do: to preserve what might be preserved. He had found an enormous delight in recent months in realizing just how much he had indeed managed to save from the blight of Sauron's evil. Yet so much had been lost as well--not just in the Third Age but in the earlier Ages as well. Even now when he was free to return to his home, he would find it long-diminished, lacking that vital original light. Yes, this little sapling was wonderful, but it would never light the world. For a moment, the poignancy of Arda's long decline hit him with dizzying force. He longed for nothing more than to be transported instantly back to the sublime gardens of Lothlorien in Valinor, to sit at Nienna's feet and hear in her melodic speech the echo of that perfect world of his youth. Such comfort seemed at that moment almost worth leaving Aragorn.

A shudder ran through his body, and he fiercely concentrated on the Man--on helping him, on telling him what he needed to know. He watched Aragorn's beautiful face as he examined the tree with wonderment and growing joy. No, not nearly all is lost, he thought. Aragorn has shown me how precious the world can still be. The Wizard said solemnly, "Verily this is a sapling of the line of Nimloth the fair; and that was a seedling of Galathilion, and that a fruit of Telperion of many names, Eldest of Trees. Who shall say how it comes here in the appointed hour? But this is an ancient hallow, and ere the kings failed or the Tree withered in the court, a fruit must have been set here. For it is said that, though the fruit of the Tree comes seldom to ripeness, yet the life within may then lie sleeping through many long years, and none can foretell the time in which it will awake. Remember this. For if ever a fruit ripens, it should be planted, lest the line die out of the world. Here it has lain hidden on the mountain, even as the race of Elendil lay hidden in the wastes of the North. Yet the line of Nimloth is older far than your line, King Elessar."

During this speech, Aragorn glanced between the sapling and Gandalf. He felt a sense of awe such as he had not felt since the Wizard had returned to him, clad in white, and revealed who and what he was. With a little shiver he realized that Gandalf must have looked many times upon Telperion itself, of ancient legend. And now the Wizard--the Maia, he realized, and the thought almost made him dizzy--was giving him the descendent of that Tree. He recalled briefly that moment in the Prancing Pony when Gandalf had made him envision his own future as king--but that vision had never extended this far. He remembered how he had grieved after Gandalf's death in Moria, when he had felt all their shared memories slipping away. Now Gandalf was in a sense allowing him to share just a little in one of the Wizard's own most precious memories: the White Tree. He breathed deeply but could not think of anything to say in the face of such realizations--and besides, Gandalf seemed sunk once more into his private thoughts, staring at the small tree.

Then Aragorn laid his hand gently to the sapling, and lo! it seemed to hold only lightly to the earth, and it was removed without hurt; and Aragorn bore it back to the Citadel. Then the withered tree was uprooted, but with reverence; and they did not burn it but laid it to rest in the silence of Rath Dinen.

One morning in early June, the Fellowship members that were living in the house had a large lunch together and then dispersed to their various activities. Gandalf settled into a chair in the courtyard to relax and read after the heavy meal. Glancing at the colonnade that attached the house to the palace, he grinned briefly in anticipation of joining Aragorn as usual that night. At intervals he lifted his eyes from the page to survey the snow-capped mountains that loomed nearby. How pleasant to be so warm, he reflected, and yet to see such cold, untouched beauty.

He had been sitting there for nearly an hour when a messenger arrived to bid him, if he would, to join King Elessar in the larger Courtyard of the Fountain, which lay before the palace. With a sense of foreboding, Gandalf agreed and put his book down on the cushion of his chair, walking quickly toward the Fountain.

Aragorn stood waiting for Gandalf. He was elated as he stared at the delicate, newly blown blossoms that almost sparkled in the mid-afternoon sun. Surely this was the sign that he had been waiting for. He felt certain that Arwen's entourage was even then traveling toward Minas Tirith and that their long wait would finally soon end. Surely messages would be arriving to tell him the planned date of their arrival. He was suddenly full of boundless energy and longed to rush off and order preparations to begin for a magnificent reception for the visitors and for a sumptuous wedding ceremony and feast. Turning, he found it easy to suppress his joy and excitement as he saw his lover enter the Courtyard. From the solemn look on the Wizard's face, he knew that Gandalf already had more than an inkling of what he was about to say.

Gandalf stopped beside him and gazed with a sad smile at the radiant blossoms, bobbing gently in the warm breeze. The Man said somewhat hesitatingly and awkwardly, "This is the sign that I had longed for, I believe."

The Wizard stared at the sapling and managed to nod. After a moment, he swallowed and nodded more firmly as he finally smiled and looked Aragorn in the eye. "You are right. Soon you must make preparations to receive your bride in a fit manner, with great ceremony and celebration."

"Just what I was thinking myself. I wonder when they will arrive."

"If all goes well, on Midsummer's Eve, and I imagine that you will want to arrange the wedding for the next day."

The Man looked at him, startled. "How do you know that?"

Gandalf paused briefly. He had never told his lover that he held one of the Three Rings, and he felt that that great secret must still be kept. As the other Two moved south from Lothlorien, closer and closer, he sensed them and received that thought. He said aloud, "I knew where the sapling was, didn't I?"

Realizing that again he was not going to receive an answer, Aragorn simply nodded. He was relieved and grateful that Gandalf had not betrayed his own grief and behaved in any way that would mar the joy of the moment for him. At the same time, he suddenly wondered if by showing the Wizard the flowering tree, he had pushed his lover away, just a little, for the first time. He vowed that in the weeks that they had left, he would make up for all the indications of their impending separation as lovers. As always, he dreaded the swift passage of time as much as he longed for it. Right now he felt awkward with the Wizard, not being able to embrace and reassure him in the sight of the guards and of many of the windows in the royal complex. Instead he simply patted Gandalf's shoulder briefly and murmured, "I shall go now and order that those preparations be started. But I long for tonight and our time together, favorite court Wizard."

Gandalf nodded and sighed as he watched the Man stride quickly away toward the main entrance to the palace. When the door had closed behind him, the Wizard turned back to the gleaming clumps of petals. Even more vividly than when he had first beheld the sapling in the hallow little more than a week ago, he pictured himself back in Valinor. In a way, it would be so easy if he were there now, safely away from the pain that was soon to come. And yet he much feared that the return to his home would do little to ease the ache he would feel after he left Aragorn for good. He could not imagine ever not longing to be with the Man who, for reasons that he still did not fully understand, had become the dearest of all the lovers he had had in his centuries of incarnated life in Middle-earth.

He reminded himself that Aragorn would also suffer after they parted. Still, he would have Arwen. Gandalf quickly suppressed a tiny sting of resentment over that fact. This was inevitable; it was what he had agreed to years ago. He longed for Aragorn to be as happy as possible once he himself left. He thought, I suppose that Valinor will be to me what Arwen is to Aragorn--sustenance after our parting.

The Wizard started to raise his hand to brush his fingers over the shimmering petals, but abruptly his arm dropped to his side. I can't stay here and wallow in sentimentality and self-pity, he thought. I should . . . what? Suddenly he smiled. I should go and see how Frodo is getting on with the notes for Bilbo's book. Perhaps we could smoke a pipe together, and I could tell him more about what happened during the War of the Ring while he was so valiantly struggling his way through Mordor.

Thinking about helping someone else calmed his worries about his own future, and quietly he walked from the Courtyard back toward the house shared by the Fellowship. There was a small study there, lined with books, and Frodo had taken to spending his afternoons there. For weeks he had been working quite diligently at making notes, as Bilbo had requested that he do in preparation for a sequel to the older Hobbit's memoirs of his own quest with the Dwarves. Sure enough, when Gandalf quietly pushed the door to the study open a little, he saw Frodo at his desk. The Hobbit was not writing or reading, however, but seemed sunk in a dark reverie, staring out the window, his hand resting on the desk and slackly holding a pen.

Gandalf pressed his lips together. He had seen this moodiness in Frodo at intervals during the period after the destruction of the Ring, but he had believed that it was diminishing. Now it had returned after several days in which the Ringbearer had seemed fairly cheerful. The Wizard moved into the room and deliberately closed the door behind him loudly enough to rouse Frodo from his abstraction. The Hobbit turned and smiled wanly in greeting. Gandalf was tempted to try and cheer Frodo with encouraging words, but a different idea occurred to him. Instead he moved across to sit opposite the Hobbit in front of the small writing desk. Frodo asked, "Have you come to help me with my work, Gandalf? To tell me more that I need to know about the history behind the Quest?" He sat up and diligently dipped his pen into the inkwell, ready to take notes.

The Wizard sat staring at the heap of paper already covered with Frodo's delicate handwriting. "To tell you the truth, Frodo, I didn't come here for that reason--though I must say that you have done extraordinarily well in recording the Quest for future generations. No, I am just feeling a bit sad today for some reason. I thought you might be willing to take a little holiday from your work this afternoon and help cheer me up."

As the Wizard had anticipated, Frodo's eyes lit up at the prospect of helping him, and the Hobbit nodded eagerly. Gandalf inwardly congratulated himself on the success of his little strategy. He continued, "Yes, I think a short ride out into the countryside on Shadowfax would be a lovely diversion, but I don't like the prospect of going alone. Would you mind coming with me? I promise to show you some beautiful views and, if you like, to tell you something about Gondor as we ride."

"Really? I would love to come with you and ride such a grand horse as Shadowfax and see more of Gondor. To . . . to be honest, I haven't been getting much writing done today. I could do with a bit of cheering up myself."

"Indeed? All the better, then. Do you think that you can manage without our packing a bit of food to take along?"

Frodo laughed, and Gandalf delighted at the sound. "Yes, I know we Hobbits eat a lot, but that lunch was enough to satisfy even me. Let's just take some water--and maybe a few pieces of fruit?"

"And some hard-boiled eggs and little cakes, perhaps?"

"Well . . . just in case we go further than we intend." They both chuckled.

"All right then. Close up your inkwell, and I shall endeavor to entertain you for the rest of the afternoon."

The long ride through the fields and villages of the Pelennor cheered both Wizard and Hobbit, and from that point onward, Gandalf spent part of each day sitting with the Hobbit in the study or taking him out on walks or rides. Each received comfort from the other's companionship, and their long friendship deepened as they reflected on what they had accomplished together and beheld the beauty of those things that had come through the war unscathed or capable of healing.

Aragorn woke up and saw the dim, pre-dawn light that signaled the early hour which had been chosen as a safe time for the Wizard to leave the king's bed and return secretly to his own. Gandalf was still fast asleep, lying on his side and facing his lover. Aragorn murmured, "Come here, old man," and gently tugged the Wizard toward himself.

Without opening his eyes, Gandalf squirmed and resisted slightly, muttering drowsily, "Not again. I'm too sleepy."

The Man pulled more firmly and hugged the thin body against his own. "I'm not trying to make love to you. I just want to hold you a little before you have to go."

Still with his eyes closed, Gandalf pressed a brief kiss onto the side of Aragorn's jaw and nestled against his torso, pushing his nose into the chest hair and settling back into sleep. Aragorn held him for a few minutes. As they lay against each other, with the pleasure of their recent release not yet completely faded, a thought came unbidden to Aragorn's mind. For a moment he was tempted to tell Gandalf that being with him meant everything to him--more even than the kingship. How he longed to freeze time now or to give up all else and beg the Wizard to stay with him forever! He reminded himself instantly that Gandalf would be devastated at hearing such a request. They had worked so long and suffered such hardships to get to this point. He was now the King of Gondor, and there was no other life that they could live together. And despite all his love for the Wizard, the thought of Arwen tugged at him.

As the grey light in the window relentlessly brightened, Aragorn flicked a finger lightly over his lover's ear. "I know that was quite a vigorous night we had, but it's time to go, favorite royal Wizard. Wake up."

Gandalf retreated slightly further under the covers and pressed even closer against him. "I don't want to," he whispered.

Aragorn chuckled. "Well, I don't want you to, either, but that's our rule. If you don't obey the rule, I can't have you back here again."

Gandalf groaned. "You're forcing me out into the cold."

The Man shook his head with an exasperated smile. "You're just teasing me. It's a mild June night, old fellow. Away with you!"

Gandalf's answer was slightly muffled. "I thought when I helped you to gain your crown that you would be a wise, benevolent ruler. Now you turn out to be a cruel tyrant."

"I see. As opposed to a kind tyrant, I suppose. You're not thinking very clearly yet. Do wake up. You can sleep as long as you want, but you must go back to your own bed to do it."

"I don't like my bed."

"What!? I made sure that you had the finest accommodations that Minas Tirith could offer. You've never complained before. What's wrong with your bed?"

He felt the Wizard's fingers sliding lightly over his belly and chest. "It doesn't have a beautiful, muscular, virile king in it. Not even a prince," Gandalf snorted softly in mock disdain.

Aragorn quickly suppressed his laughter, and he shook the Wizard's shoulder and pushed the covers down slightly. "You are teasing. Stop trying to distract me. Up you get. I mean it!" he added sternly.

Gandalf rolled onto his back and opened his eyes. "Oh, I know you're right. Yes, I shall have to go. I definitely don't want you to forbid me to return. After all, we only have a few more days . . . as lovers, at any rate."

Aragorn nodded sadly. Gandalf sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed, pausing to lean down and kiss the Man briefly. Aragorn watched as the Wizard stood up and began to dress. He hesitated uncertainly and then said, "I have been wondering whom I should ask to perform Arwen's and my wedding ceremony. There are several possibilities. Faramir or Prince Imrahil among those here, or perhaps Celeborn or Glorfindel among those who will arrive. Ordinarily you would be the most obvious candidate, and yet under the circumstances I can hardly invite you to do it. I simply could not put you through that. I'm sure it would be far too painful for you."

Gandalf slowly buttoned his shirt as he looked steadily at his lover. "On the contrary, I would very much like to marry you and Arwen."

Aragorn frowned in puzzlement. "But why?"

"I think it would help me to realize deep in my heart that it is all over between us if I participated in a formal . . . well, a formal handing-over of you to her. Elrond, after all, will give her to you, and, as I told her long ago, I shall give you to her. I do not want merely to be there, looking on, as this momentous event occurs. It will no doubt be extremely difficult for me, but I want to make that break myself, to cut the bonds that have held us so closely together for years--not to see someone else do it, someone who knows nothing of what you and I have been to each other. For so long this has all been between you and her and me, and I want it to be that way now, at the end--and the beginning. The beginning of your life with her, of your life as King. Of your life as the Steward of Middle-earth as its Fourth Age commences."

"Of my life without you."

Gandalf looked at him with an unfathomable expression. "Yes, of that too. I want to be able to bless that beginning, for despite any grief I feel, all of this is what I want for you. I have worked so long and hard to help make this possible. And as we have said, we shall still be dear friends for some time to come."

"It seems so unfair to you, here at the end, that you should have nothing left in Middle-earth."

"In a way it is fitting. I no longer belong here. Arwen once said to me that she was your dream of a future life. I suppose that means that now I must be your dream of the past--of our great accomplishments together on this continent as the Third Age moved inexorably to its end and of the private joys that sustained us both."

Gandalf sat in a chair to put on his shoes. "But it is not the case that I have nothing left in Middle-earth. I have friends. Apart from you, there is Frodo, who will need my help in dealing with the physical and mental scars of the Quest. Oh, and I have decided to go and visit Tom Bombadil once we return to the North. That should be quite a pleasant way to spend some of my time, relaxing and talking about the trees and the land--and the long ages of history that he has witnessed."

Aragorn nodded and managed a little smile.

Gandalf rose and took his staff from where it leaned against the wall beside the bed. He crossed to the door and paused with his hand on the knob, staring thoughtfully into space. "'I trade you my pain now for yours later--my happiness then for yours now.'" To Aragorn's inquiring look he replied, "That was what Arwen offered me. As she said, 'It would seem to be the best bargain that we can make under the circumstances.' In a way she was right, and yet I had already made a similar bargain with a very young, very beautiful Man who came to me one afternoon and simply would not take no for an answer. I bought his love and paid for it with a pain that I knew could only be delayed, not avoided. And now it can not even be delayed much longer.

"Still," he added with a little smile, "we have those few days. I'm going to obey our rule, and I'm going to sleep quite late in my extremely comfortable bed. I definitely intend to be back here tonight at the usual time."