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 the period in The Return of the King from the end of the chapter "The Steward and the King" to the time of the departure from the Grey Havens. A passage from the end of the chapter "Many Partings" has been adapted here.

My apologies for ending with such a very long chapter. I probably should have written this series in ten rather than nine, but I underestimated how long it would take to pry these two apart!

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

Part 9

Gandalf stood in the shadows of the colonnade that ran between the house where the Fellowship were living and the small, locked side door of the palace. At the appointed hour, he knocked softly, and Aldamir, the trusted servant of the King, immediately opened the door to admit him. In the two months that Gandalf and Aragorn had been able to share their love each night secretly in the King's bedchamber, Aldamir had proven as loyal and trustworthy as ever they could have wished. Gandalf and he had formed a little friendship, usually bantering in whispers together as they walked the short distance to Aragorn's door.

They paused there this night, staring at the floor between them, for both knew this was the last time that the Wizard would visit Aragorn in this way. Aldamir had become greatly devoted to his King and wished him happiness, and he knew how Aragorn dreaded losing Gandalf as a lover. Finally the pair looked into each other's eyes, and the Wizard whispered his thanks for all the Man's help. Aldamir nodded sadly and walked away to discreetly spend the night in a small guardroom at the far end of the corridor.

Gandalf entered the bedroom and found Aragorn standing and staring into the fireplace, where, despite the onset of summer, a small fire blazed-as much to give light as to cut the slight coolness of the breeze that wafted down from the snow-capped mountains looming over the City. The fire's light was enough to show through the thin, silky fabric of the Man's long, loose robe, and Gandalf could see that he was naked beneath it. The Wizard's cock stirred as he surveyed the vague silhouette of his lover's torso and long legs.

As he closed the door, Aragorn turned to face him. Gandalf doffed the Elven cloak and tossed it over a chair. "I shall return that to you tomorrow," he said. "I shall have no more use for it, and I am sure that you will treasure this gift to you from Galadriel long after she has departed the Golden Wood."

Aragorn nodded as he crossed the short distance between them. He enveloped the Wizard in his embrace, and Gandalf slid his arms around the Man's waist to hug him tightly. They remained thus for a minute or so, Aragorn resting his cheek on the white hair and Gandalf sighing as he closed his eyes and pressed his forehead against the Man's throat. At last they parted slightly, and Aragorn shrugged the robe off. It fluttered to the floor, and Gandalf breathed more deeply as he stared at the beautiful body glowing orange in the firelight. Aragorn slowly began to unfasten the Wizard's garments. As he did so, Gandalf remarked, "Do you know, I don't think that we have ever had such a long stretch of time together when we made love absolutely every night."

Aragorn pulled the Wizard's shirt wide and brushed the long beard aside, draping it back over Gandalf's shoulder and rubbing his fingertips with a feathery touch over the hardening nipples. "Yes, even during our long journeys searching for Gollum, there were often nights when storms or worries about possible lurking dangers-"

Gandalf gasped with pleasure and added, "Or sheer exhaustion-"

"Yes, or that, kept us from it. But now, you are right. Though we must part, we can at least be grateful that our last months together have been so joyous and peaceful."

Soon Gandalf was as naked as the Man, and they stepped slightly away from each other, letting their eyes wander over each other's bodies-partly because they had seldom since early on taken the time to savor each other in this way and partly because both were reluctant to begin the night of lovemaking that would be their last. Finally Aragorn took the Wizard's arm and led him to the bed. They climbed in, keeping the covers bunched at the far end, just beyond their feet. Their relaxed hands wandered over each other's torsos, feeling the familiar flesh anew in the prospect of never touching it again.

After a few minutes their passion began to reveal itself in their quickening breathing, and they stretched their necks to suck fleetingly and repeatedly at each other's lips. Aragorn's hand cupped the side of the Wizard's head, and he asked, "How shall we make love tonight, so that our last time will be a memory worthy of capping our love? What would you like from me, old Man?" He slid his lips over Gandalf's cheek. "I want to give you so much pleasure!"

Gandalf moaned softly, hugging his lover and rolling slightly to pull the Man partly on top of him. "Let us just do as we usually do. I can't ask any more of our last lovemaking than it be just as wonderful as our other times. I don't want to remember it more than others, for it inevitably will be tinged with sadness. There have been so many wonderful moments that will probably make better memories. Just make love to me, and it will undoubtedly be worthy of being the last time."

Aragorn thought for a moment and then pushed Gandalf's hair back, his fingers caressing the side of the Wizard's head. The Man examined his lover's face as it relaxed in anticipation and the eyes slid closed. He smiled suddenly. "I have just realized that in all these years, in all the times we have been together so intimately, I have never told you how beautiful you are. I had better seize this last opportunity!"

Gandalf, relaxing in the pleasure of Aragorn's embrace, quickly opened his eyes and stared up at him with a skeptical smirk. "Don't be absurd! I'm an old Man."

"Yes, but a beautiful old Man."

Gandalf frowned. "Now you are teasing me--or becoming sentimental and deluding yourself because this is our last night together."

"Not at all! Your eyes alone would be enough to make you beautiful. So many times I have stared into them. Dark and deep and full of wisdom and joy and humor and love." He grinned. "And often lust, most definitely-which is quite beautiful in its own way. Your nose-"

"-is too thin and sharp."

"Some might say so. And admittedly the bridge is thin. But then the delicate shape and flare of the nostrils make it splendid. And you can't have properly seen the profile, so straight and true. Then there are your lips-"

"Again, too thin by far."

"They are thin, to be sure. But so expressive. Their smallest movements tell me how your moods change. And their shape is graceful. That tiny point at the center of your upper lip, pushing gently down into the slight swell of the lower one. No, your lips may not be full, but to me they still hint at softness and warmth and sensual kisses. Don't laugh! I have studied such things the way you study ancient documents. I have had time and opportunity to become an expert on you, old Man."

Gandalf snorted and shook his head in dismissive amusement, but Aragorn could tell that the Wizard was slipping under the enchantment of his words. The Man delighted inwardly that it had occurred to him to tell his lover all this at last, and he continued with enormous warmth and affection, "Your eyebrows. I'm not as eloquent as you are, so I can't really describe them, but the density, the extraordinary length, the elegant curl-well, I've never seen anything like them, and I treasure them. I'm sure you've cowed many an uncooperative ruler or a dangerous foe by glaring at them with those. But luckily, when you're with me, they convey serenity, and when you waggle them, I know that I'm in for a great deal of pleasure." As he spoke, he stroked Gandalf's long, bushy eyebrows with the tips of his fingers and then went on, "The slope of your brow is quite superb, and the pure whiteness of your hair and its thickness make me want to slide my fingers through it and rest my cheek against it. And its sheen is like what I've seen occasionally on a high mountainside in late spring, when the sun has melted just the surface of the virgin snow and it has refrozen at night to create a glassy crust gleaming in the morning's light.

"Your chin . . . well, your chin had been hidden under that beard ever since I've known you, but I'm sure it's wonderful." He laughed gently along with the Wizard as they stared into each other's eyes. "Your cheeks are one of your best features. Those prominent, high cheekbones, sloping down into slight hollows, are gracefully shaped and give you an air of dignity. As to your ears . . . well, I don't think ears usually tend to be beautiful or plain from one person to the next. All I know is, when I put my tongue into yours, I can always be sure of a distinct reaction." He demonstrated.

Squirming with delight beneath him, Gandalf replied in a voice rough with growing desire, "Yes, but that has nothing to do with beauty."

Aragorn raised his head. "Well, your arousal is beautiful to watch as well." The Wizard's smile faded, and he clenched his teeth.

Aragorn studied the Wizard's face lingeringly. "I am running out of features-at least on your head. Shall I continue down your body? Your perfectly round nipples, so responsive and pleasing to touch, your hard, flat belly, your luscious purple erection, your . . . I could go on, or are you convinced that I am telling the truth?" His fingers had wandered down the Wizard's body during this, and he was slowly stroking the hardening member as he finished.

Gandalf caressed his cheek and pursed his lips slightly. "Oh, perhaps in a way-your own peculiar notion of the truth in this matter. In any case, you have convinced me that you are surprisingly adept at seduction, my darling Aragorn-especially considering how little practice you have had. Your simple, direct approach that wonderful day sixty-three years ago eventually achieved your aim, but it was distinctly lacking in polish. Now you are eloquent and assured." By this point Aragorn could feel the Wizard quivering with barely restrained desire beneath him. Gandalf whispered with hot, tiny bursts of air against his ear, "Make love to me, now!" The final word dissolved into a wanton moan so full of need that the Man groaned and thrust against his lover's body with a rapidly swelling member that throbbed with intolerable heat.

Aragorn sat with his legs straight out in front of him, leaning back on his hands, as the Wizard rose and straddled him. The Man oiled his fingers and worked quickly to loosen Gandalf's entrance, but the Wizard soon growled, "Enough!" Aragorn grasped his own cock and positioned it at Gandalf's opening. The Wizard tentatively pressed down upon its tip until it slid inside. He paused, feeling Aragorn's fingers pinch one of his nipples to distract him from the brief pain. The Man made a great effort to lie still and let Gandalf proceed at his own pace. He longed to thrust upward but contented himself with feeling the hot, moist grip slowly seize him as, with a series of moaning sighs, Gandalf sank gradually down. At last the Man's rigid shaft had opened him until he felt the testicles pressing up into his cleft. He shifted slightly as he grew used to being so full and stretched, testing whether he was ready to move more vigorously.

"Ride me," Aragorn whispered.

The Man bent his legs so that Gandalf could lean slightly back against his thighs. The Wizard began to rock his hips. After a moment's frustration, he murmured, "Bend your knees a little more." Aragorn complied, and suddenly the Wizard uttered a shrill groan and quickly rose to force himself down repeatedly as the bulbous end of Aragorn's member pressed into his most sensitive part. "Perfect," he whispered. His wiry thighs continued to propel him up and down in a rhythm calculated to extend the pleasure indefinitely. At one point Aragorn reached to grasp and pull at the Wizard's member, but Gandalf brushed it away. "I'm on the edge now. Don't!" he said in a rapt tone, concentrating fiercely on the intense pleasure pervading his loins.

The Wizard's fingers fumbled across Aragorn's chest until he found both hard nubs and pinched and pulled at them. The Man's entire body jerked, and his hips propelled his length deeply into Gandalf. The Wizard said hoarsely. "Not yet! Not quite yet. It's so . . ." His head lolled back as he continued to ride the Man's cock as slowly as he could force himself to go. ". . .exquisite," he finally murmured.

Finally Gandalf felt himself growing weak with need, and he leaned forward and embraced the Man tightly, still grinding his hips against Aragorn's as the new position drove the man's tip even more directly against his pleasure point. He lowered his head to kiss his lover deeply and urgently. When he withdrew a little, Aragorn stroked his hair with both hands and murmured, "I love you, old man," before pulling him back down into an even more demanding kiss. He thrust upward frantically, and Gandalf pulled his mouth free to cry out his bliss as it hit him. Soon thick, hot liquid was slicking their bellies as they slid against each other, and Aragorn groaned hoarsely, spurting deep in the Wizard's passage until his clenched balls were empty and his cock's final spasms slipped away.

Slowly the two relaxed inwardly against each other, embracing as tightly as their spent strength would allow and trying to bring as much of their bodies into contact as they possibly could. Gandalf's face settled down atop the Man's shoulder, and Aragorn pressed his cheek sideways against the Wizard's head. After a short time had passed, Aragorn moaned in sheer contentment. Reclining atop him, Gandalf felt the Man's shrinking erection beginning to slip out of his relaxed passage. Reluctantly he pushed himself up until only the tip of the cock remained inside and reached for the little towel on the night table beside the bed. He first swiped at their chests and bellies, removing as much of his own semen and their mingled sweat as he could, then carefully rising and cleaning himself and Aragorn. Once finished, he dropped heavily to the mattress beside the Man.

After a few minutes, Gandalf half-opened his eyes. "There, you see? Quite appropriate for our last night. The usual staggeringly intense, wonderful sex. What more could you want?" He grinned lazily.

They lay silently enjoying the lingering effects of their pleasure for several minutes. Aragorn studied the beloved profile beside him, thinking of how many times he had seen it in similar circumstances and how he never would again, not in that way. He said mournfully, "No matter how much joy we experience this night, it cannot make our parting as lovers any easier."

Gandalf, summoning a sad little laugh, said, "You often accuse me of gloating. Well, note that I told you so. Right at the start. But would you listen to a wise old Man? No, not a bit. So young, so reckless, so . . . irresistible. Here at the end, you remind me so forcefully of why I fell in love with you!"

Aragorn lay on his side, watching the Wizard's face as he talked, with the glory of the satiation of his body still glowing there. How can I give this up, the Man thought with sudden anguish. He whispered, "Is it really impossible for you to return to Middle-earth once in a while to be with me? Surely with all the loyalty you have shown to the cause of the West the Valar might allow you some such freedom or reward."

Gandalf drew him close. "Perhaps, if it were not for Arwen, I would return at least occasionally, embodied in this way, to be with you. But my promise to her must not be treated so lightly."

Aragorn sighed sadly. "But what if she agreed? She did so before, and I know that she loves you and will miss you."

"She might well agree, out of pity, but deep in her heart she longs at last to have you to herself. Even if we could convince her to tolerate such an agreement, it would vastly underrate both the patience that she has maintained all these years and the immense joy that I have taken from your love. You and I have both made promises to Arwen, and she and I have both made great sacrifices for you. I do not regret that-though of course I have not yet left you and faced the prospect of an eternity of longing."

Aragorn stared at him for a moment and murmured, "Arwen said that when she saw me in Lórien, she knew that her choice was made and her doom appointed."

Gandalf looked away into the fire. "Exactly. Much like what I recognized early on-that I had made a choice that doomed me to an inevitable parting. All this is not something to be modified as our passions would have us do."

Aragorn said forlornly. "I hope you don't . . . well, when I first begged you for your love, I did not realize that you are immortal, and not only immortal but one of those who dwell in Valinor. This parting will indeed grieve you forever, I fear. I do not see how I could possibly have given you enough joy in sixty-three years to make up for the eternal sorrow you may face."

Gandalf grasped his head firmly with a hand on either side and gazed into his eyes. "Frankly, I had no idea either, then, how much I might suffer in loving you and in parting from you. I don't know even now. But that is my concern. Do not let that thought plague you, my sweet Aragorn. You had no way of knowing and are not to blame."

"Gandalf, you have been more than a lover to me. A mentor, a guide, a vessel of all the hope that has led me to what my life is now becoming. You have taught me so much."

Gandalf was silent for a moment before he replied quietly, "You have taught me something in return."

"What? Apart from being wary of hero-worshipping young Rangers, that is."

Gandalf smiled briefly and then sobered once more. "You have taught me what it is like to live here in Middle-earth."

Aragorn frowned skeptically. "You have lived here long, you have always told me."

"Dwelt here, worked here, but never had I felt that the life I led here while clad in this aged body was really mine. My life was . . . how to explain? My life in this body was to me what a favorite tool might be to you-something I was using to get a job done. Oh, I enjoyed a great deal of what I experienced in this body, but I always felt that if I were ever to finish my tasks, I could simply put it aside and go back to what, for me, was life. But thanks to you, I have experienced a life that is unlike anything I could ever have imagined."

At this Aragorn's tears, which he had managed to control, welled forth at last. Gandalf pulled the Man's head down on his shoulder as he had the first time they had lain together. "Come now," he whispered soothingly. "It is not all that terrible. It would be much worse if I died, wouldn't it?"

Aragorn gasped briefly in sad laughter. "Yes, of course. The grief that I felt after Moria was far more wrenching. It was very different, for it seemed like utter despair at first. Now I can comfort myself that I shall at least have you as a friend . . . and yet . . . it is so hard!" He clung to the Wizard, weeping.

Gandalf fought his own tears, concentrating on comforting his lover. "Think of your marriage to Arwen if you seek consolation."

Aragorn pulled away from his embrace and sat up to look at him with reddened eyes. "Someday, perhaps soon, she will be a consolation to me. But now my longing for her seems a thing quite apart from the way I feel at losing you. No matter how much I love her, it remains just as difficult to give you up. Maybe that sounds selfish, for I know that you face our life apart without another love to turn to. But my love for you is so precious that for now there can be no consolation."

He lowered himself to hug Gandalf and lie pressed against him. The Wizard again managed to control his own tears as he thought, True, I shall suffer the greater loss, for Aragorn will be aided by Arwen's love, difficult though he may find it to recognize that now. Still, of us two, I have by far the greater strength. I should be able to cope with this sorrow better. He struggled to draw upon that strength.

Gradually Aragorn's tears diminished, and he fell into an exhausted sleep. For once the Wizard did not revel in the warmth of his lover's body and fall into the drowsiness of repletion. Instead he cradled Aragorn and lay awake, experiencing the full awareness of how much he loved this vibrant, alluring, all too mortal being.

Eventually he sensed that midnight was approaching. The last day of his long relationship with the Man was about to end, and he felt that he should not seek to prolong their parting. Gently he eased himself away from Aragorn's body and waited as the slight disturbance caused by his movement passed and the Man drifted back into full sleep. The Wizard propped himself on his elbow and gazed briefly down at the figure beside him in the dim light. At last he slipped out of the bed as silently as possible. He pulled his clothes on and moved to the door. Behind him, Aragorn stirred and tried to embrace him, opening his eyes when he found the other side of the bed vacant. The Man quickly got up and moved to Gandalf, pulling the Wizard tightly against himself. "Why are you leaving so soon? Come back to bed. It is long until the usual hour of your departure arrives. We have made love too recently to be able already to do so again, but let us rest and hold each other. Surely we will be ready soon."

"No. You know that I would delight in that, but Arwen arrives tomorrow, and tomorrow begins only a few minutes from now. It is her day, and all the rest of the days of your life are hers as well. I simply feel that I cannot take away even a part of one of them. There must be some moment when you and I can say to each other, 'We are no longer lovers.' What later moment would you want? Tomorrow at dawn? At noon? When we see Arwen's entourage approaching the City? I have chosen midnight, and it is taking great determination to force myself to abide by my own choice. I could not bring myself to make another and abide by it. I am leaving now, and when we meet again, we shall not embrace or kiss-not like this, ever. From now on, we shall be friends. Dear friends, to be sure, but just that."

Aragorn backed away a step. "But stay until the usual hour, won't you? Without kisses or caresses or any gestures of love passing between us. Just to share the bed, in friendship."

Gandalf sighed. "Friends do not share beds in that way. Not when both have comfortable bedrooms of their own. No, you are simply trying to draw out a transition that should be quick and thorough. I understand, believe me, but surely it would be better if I simply go."

Aragorn's eyes were still red-rimmed from his earlier crying, but now he stood silently for a moment and finally nodded. He tried to speak calmly. "You will have other lovers now, won't you? Not long-term lovers perhaps, but at least those who would allow you to share some pleasure in a friendly way. I would feel badly if you did not. I do not consider your promise to be true to me to last beyond tonight, you know. Will you at least feel free to do that if you wish?" He smiled sadly and tried to chuckle. "After all, I know you, you randy old Man! You won't be able to sleep alone for all the time you remain in Middle-earth."

Gandalf sighed. "Right now I cannot imagine having another lover, however casually. Perhaps, as you say, I shall not be able to resist. But in the long stretches when we have had to be apart, I have taken care of my own desire many times, and at least for a while I think I shall continue to do the same. But don't worry! If I do decide that I want to lie with another, I shall not refrain because of some lingering notion of remaining true to you. I have been utterly faithful, and I know that you have been as well. That is enough. I am well aware that I do not have to prove my love for you by self-denial in the future."

Gandalf paused for a moment. "It is midnight." He reached out and stroked Aragorn's cheek, staring into the Man's face. "I wish that I could think of something brilliantly eloquent to say to you here at the end, to make even more vivid to you how much I have loved you and love you still and always shall. But I cannot think of anything more eloquent than the words that we whispered to each other as we lay side by side by many a campfire in the woods of Middle-earth, wrapped in our blankets after making love."

Aragorn did not trust himself to speak but clenched his teeth and nodded again.

Gandalf drew a deep breath. "I shall see you in the morning, then." He took Aragorn's chin between his thumb and fingers and brushed his lips against the Man's fleetingly and then went out, shutting the door without looking back.

As the Wizard has predicted, the large entourage of Rivendell and Lórien Elves escorting Arwen to the royal city arrived on Midsummer's Eve, just as the sun was setting. There was enormous clangor and celebration as the group made its slow way up the winding streets of the City, and a late supper was taken in the great formal dining hall of the King's palace. As it was ending and the many guests were drifting away to their respective rooms, Arwen managed to speak a few words privately into Gandalf's ear.

"My dear friend, I have asked Estel if I may meet with him tomorrow morning in the Courtyard of the White Tree. Oddly enough, speaking privately proves difficult within the palace, with so many servants and officials about. There may be more chance of it outdoors. And it seems a highly appropriate place for the three of us to be together in private for the first time. I would, though, much appreciate a chance to talk with you alone ahead of time. I have asked Estel to join me at the third hour. Would you be able to come a few minutes early?

"Of course, my dear. I would welcome such an opportunity to talk with you alone."

Arwen arrived the next morning in the Courtyard to find Gandalf already there, standing by the fountain and contemplating the White Tree. Knowing something of the Istar's origins as she did, she thought that she had at least a slight sense of what significance it must have for him. The night before, Estel had told her briefly of how Gandalf had helped him find the sapling and how the Wizard was sharing with him and indeed with her this beautiful link to the remote past of Valinor. Realizing that she would never herself see the Undying Lands, the place where her people had originated, Arwen suddenly felt poignantly just what the lovely Tree meant to them all.

Gandalf looked up and smiled gently as she approached. Arwen was carrying a small, cloth-wrapped bundle, which she set down on the low rim of the fountain. When she was at the Wizard's side, he raised his eyes to the great banner hoisted on the roof just above the palace's entrance. It was flapping in the south breezes, its colors resplendent in the morning sun. The Wizard sighed. "How glorious is the banner you made for Estel! How indicative of the great reign that shall be his!"

Arwen smiled warmly at him. "Thank you. It took so long to make, and many was the time when I wondered if it would ever be used."

The Istar's smile faded. "I cannot possibly convey to you my gratitude for your allowing me to . . . delay the sorrow this long. You have been so generous to me! Surely there could be few greater or more difficult gifts to give someone."

Arwen shook her head sadly. "It was difficult originally to give the gift, yes. Now, though, being with Estel again, I have realized more than ever how very right I was to do so." She hesitated long before continuing. "I almost think that, if you could stay, I would share him with you." She laughed slightly through starting tears. "And no, I'm not saying that only because I know that you could not accept such an offer. Truly, I wish that the three of us could be together forever-" She broke off suddenly, closing her eyes and clenching her teeth. "For all of his and my lives, at any rate.

"I . . . I realize that the man whom I have loved all these years is . . . how can I put this? A large part of Aragorn's very being has for so long been his love for you. Once you are gone, something will be missing from him, something that may have been the best of him. I suppose I should be glad that you are leaving him solely to me, and yet I know that he will no longer be quite the same Man. That frightens me a bit. And of course I shall be losing not only my real father, but a dear Man who has come to seem like a second father to me."

"Well, I suppose if I were to beg the Valar, they might let me stay awhile. After all, I flatter myself that I have earned some gratitude from them. But I shall not attempt that. My time here is over, as I told Elessar. The Bearers of the Three will depart Middle-earth together. The hour is already appointed, though I know it not." He smiled with quiet irony. "Within the not-too-distant future, the mingling of mortals and immortals will no longer occur. The sorts of dilemmas that we have faced will not arise."

"And you think it will be better thus?"

"Logically one must assume that since such dilemmas cause enormous grief, in the long run, Arda would be better without them."

Arwen stared toward the Mountains of Shadow for a while. "Then do you wish that you had never fallen in love with Estel? Or will you at least come to wish that, do you think?"

"No, I doubt I could ever wish that. Despite all my caution, love does not seem to be controllable by logic."

They heard approaching footsteps and turned to greet Aragorn.

Arwen picked up the bundle and handed it to her betrothed, saying "I have brought that which you requested, Estel." He smiled in recognition and unwrapped the stone on which Gandalf had written his cryptic message at Weathertop.

Aragorn looked long at it, tracing the faint marks, and Arwen whispered to the Wizard that the Man had long ago explained its significance to her.

Eventually Aragorn laughed sadly. "Gandalf scratched three strokes on this stone, simply to signify the third day of October. But now it might as well stand for the three of us, who have been joined in such a strange way. Or the Third Age, of which Gandalf was the Steward. At any rate, I shall treasure it all my life, and I shall give orders that when I die and am laid in my tomb, it will rest against my side during my long sleep."

He stared into the Wizard's face, seeing how moved he was by this declaration. Suddenly Aragorn frowned slightly. "But, Gandalf, I have never given you any gift that you could take with you to remember me by. Oh, I realize that you hardly meant this stone as a lover's token! Still, it swiftly became that in my mind. Is there anything I could give you that would have a similar meaning for you?"

Gandalf shook his head. "I don't need anything tangible from you. I remember every word we have ever spoken to each other, every gesture, every caress. Every meeting after long separation, every teasing smile. I shall never forget them."

Arwen listened to all this, touched and silent. At last she glanced up at the large sun dial on the façade of the palace. "I should go back in and begin dressing for the wedding. Gandalf, Estel has told me that you plan to marry us yourself and why. I am very grateful to you. It will mean so much to me." She smiled suddenly. "It will also make it unnecessary to explain to my father why you would not be performing the ceremony for us. I know that he has been assuming you would."

Gandalf raised his eyebrows and shrugged uncomfortably. "Apart from the fact that I have always know that Aragorn and I would eventually lose each other, the one thing that I regret about our love has been the occasional necessity to deceive people. It goes against my nature! Still, it was obviously necessary, especially for your sake, my dearest Arwen. Well, until later then, when I shall finally pay my debt to you and wish you exactly as much joy with him as I have had myself. That would be the best thing I could possibly imagine for you."

"I'm sure of it. Whenever I have felt just a little afraid of the consequences of my choice, I have thought of how much you love Estel. You have spent far more time with him than I have, and hence you know him better. If someone as wise and kind as you loves him so deeply, then he truly must be as wonderful as I have long believed."

Aragorn was blushing by this point as the two stared lovingly at him. Gandalf chuckled at his embarrassment. "On the other hand, he's quite a lucky fellow to have had both of us fall in love with him. There can hardly have been many mortal Men who could claim to have ensnared a Maia and an Elf!"

After the wedding, Gandalf saw Aragorn every day, but on most occasions he deliberately kept their time together relatively short. The Wizard stopped going to council meetings, even just to sit by and watch and listen, as he had been wont to do. In part he simply felt that his presence was quite superfluous and in part he found that looking at Aragorn for long stretches of time without being able to talk personally with him led his mind to wander into painfully nostalgic daydreams. Gandalf decided that he should occupy himself as much as possible in other ways.

He continued to spend part of nearly every day with Frodo, but he did not want to make the Ringbearer less self-reliant as his health slowly returned. The company of the other Hobbits was pleasant and entertaining during meals, but they were a little too lively and boisterous for him to want to stay with them for long stretches. On most days, Gimli and Legolas took long walks about the City together, making plans for how their respective peoples might help in its rebuilding and indeed its improvement over what it had been before the War of the Ring.

On a few evenings, Gandalf entertained himself and others by visiting a neighborhood pub and telling stories to the patrons. On one such occasion, he noticed an attractive Man among the listeners, and for the first time in over sixty years he found himself vaguely considering an attempt at flirtation and possibly even seduction. He quickly discarded the idea. As he had told Aragorn, he still could not imagine making love with anyone else.

One day nearly two weeks after the wedding, the Wizard decided to visit the City's archive again and indulge himself by reading texts of the sort that he had previously found intriguing but had resolutely set aside in favor of documents more relevant to his task. Besides, there was a bit of unfinished business there.

Upon arriving in the archive's main room, he was startled to see large portions of the floor free from the dusty stacks of documents and books that had sat there for years-and in some cases possibly decades. Mardil was just placing a few volumes atop a heap of tomes that a thin young Man was holding. The latter pressed his chin down on the top one and walked rather awkwardly toward the far end of the room, where he began shelving them.

"Good morning, Mardil," the Wizard said as he shut the door behind himself.

The archivist spun about. "Ah, welcome, Mithrandir! I had been expecting to see you again long before this, now that your great tasks are all accomplished. "

"Yes, but I, um, I have been indulging my desire for learning in a different way lately by . . . studying the stars." He still hated telling even such a harmless lie, but he went on, "And, as a result, I have also been taking naps on most days."

Despite the Wizard's awkward manner during this declaration, Mardil simply nodded. "Oh, yes, a fascinating subject, the stars. I can direct you to some excellent books and scrolls concerning them."

"Well, I am primarily interested in history at the moment. But whatever topic I choose, it would seem to be considerably easier for you to show me all the texts relating to it than it would have been during my earlier visits. You have finally begun to make real progress in your own great task."

Mardil surveyed his domain and nodded with a proud smile. "It's one of the many new decrees from King Elessar. He has given me that assistant and two others, and he has told me that he wants to have everything in its place as soon as may be. His Majesty also said something rather peculiar: that we should put a bed in one of the small side rooms. I was rather startled and asked if he meant that I should take up residence here to quicken the completion of my assignment." Mardil chuckled and shook his head. "He replied that he was just joking. Well, it was far from the funniest thing I had ever heard, but I suppose one must laugh at the jokes of a king." He shrugged.

Gandalf had been chuckling himself during this. "Yes, I think it would be most politic. I assure you, though, that King Elessar's sense of humor is usually distinctly more mirth-provoking than that."

"Yes, I hope so. Well, you have arrived at an opportune moment. The young Steward and his bride-to-be are here, sitting in the back room where you worked during your last visit."

"Oh, yes? I suppose I should not intrude upon them, then. A betrothed couple would probably not welcome the company of an old Man." At least, he thought to himself, here is a couple whose engagement I can enjoy without a thought of sorrow to come.

Mardil waved a hand dismissively. "I'm sure they won't mind. For a start, my other two assistants are at work there, so their privacy had already been invaded."

I know how they feel! Gandalf thought, suppressing a rueful smile.

"And besides," Mardil continued, "they really are working quite seriously. Lord Faramir is teaching the Lady to read."

"Really?" Gandalf's face brightened. "Excellent! Well, in that case I shan't feel that I am intruding." The Wizard was so pleased that he started toward the small doorway at the end of the room before he remembered one of the main purposes of his visit and turned back. "Mardil, do you have a moment to come along with me? Good. I want to show you some interesting documents that were put away on the wrong shelf. Now, don't be alarmed! It was not a mistake on your part or on your father's. I shall explain when I show them to you."

With a mystified frown, Mardil followed the Wizard as he walked quickly through the familiar, circuitous route to the back reading room. There Faramir and Éowyn were seated at the large table, side by side, leaning over a thick tome, their dark and golden heads almost touching.

"Well, this is a pleasant sight," Gandalf said cheerfully, walking over to them and leaning with one hand on the table as he lightly clapped Faramir on the shoulder with the other. "So, my dear Lady, you are learning to read! How are you coming along?"

"Please, Mithrandir, simply call me Éowyn, as you did when I was a little girl and you used to visit Edoras. I am coming along quite well, thank you. Fortunately I already knew a little, and I have been studying ever since our betrothal," she said, gazing lovingly at Faramir.

"Yes," Faramir said proudly, "and she has learned quickly. She is as clever as she is beautiful, and that is saying something."

"Oh, I am well aware of it," the Wizard replied. "You two are perfectly matched in that as in all else. Now, I have come partly to show something to Mardil, but I suspect that you will both be interested in it as well. Wait here."

With that Gandalf led the archivist into the small, dark side room and pointed out the neat heap of scrolls, sitting exactly where the Istar had left them.

Mardil was more mystified than ever, and he clicked his tongue as he picked up two of the scrolls and examined them. "You are quite right. These don't belong here!"

"No," Gandalf said. "Let us take them all out and put them on the table, where the light is better."

Once the scrolls had been moved, the Wizard carefully unrolled the one written by Isildur, showing them the text that had yielded to him such a vital clue. He explained how they came to be hidden by Saruman and how he had found them.

"I would suggest," he concluded, "that this document should be stored in a special box to protect it. Indeed, all of these scrolls are very old and should have careful treatment."

The archivist nodded and hurried away to clear a shelf where the scrolls could be kept until more elaborate means of storage could be devised. Gandalf turned back to the young couple. "Would the two of you possibly be free to dine with the Fellowship members at our house tonight? Well, not all of the Fellowship members," he added, remembering that so soon after their marriage, the King and Queen would probably prefer to dine alone. He brushed aside the small stab of jealousy that the thought caused, feeling annoyed at himself for allowing such an unworthy emotion to arise.

Faramir and Éowyn cheerfully accepted his invitation, and they went back to the lesson as Gandalf puttered about looking for something interesting to read. As he wandered slowly from one set of shelves to another, he glanced over at the pair. Yes, he reflected, I still have friends, here and elsewhere in Middle-earth. In their company I can perhaps banish thoughts of jealousy or longing.

Yet although Gandalf filled his days with reading and good company, at night the longing for Aragorn returned with disturbing force, and the passing time did not seem to alleviate it noticeably. He usually lay awake until late into the night, trying to read and distract his mind from thoughts of the Man. More often than not, he found such thoughts instead distracting him from the book before him, so that he stared unseeing at the lines of text, unaware of how much time had passed since he had ceased to read.

During some nights, arousing memories of their times together left him dizzy with need, and he relieved his own desire slowly, vainly resisting the urge to imagine himself in bed with his ex-lover, feeling the Ranger's hands doing to him what he was actually doing himself. Afterwards, he would at last fall asleep. On other nights, he went out to wander for a while in the courts and onto the walls of the City's upper level-realizing that ironically he was now in fact observing the stars, as he had previously claimed to his friends. When he did remain in bed all night, he often woke at the same early hour when he had habitually left Aragorn during their last nights together, and he lay as dawn came, recalling how they had bantered and kissed and traded endearments during those early-morning partings.

One way and another, the Wizard managed to get through the nights until the time approached for the funeral escort of Theoden King to set out for Edoras, accompanied by the many visitors who would then be returning to their respective homes. A week before the departure, Arwen came to speak with Gandalf alone, and she told him of an idea that she had had. It was apparent to all that the Ringbearer still suffered many ill effects from his hardships during the Quest. She wondered if he might not be allowed, as a great privilege, to live out the rest of his life in Eldamar, where the healing skills of the Elves might help him beyond anything that he could hope for in Middle-earth. After some thought, Gandalf decided that the Valar would hardly object to such a plan, unprecedented though it was, and he decided that Bilbo could no doubt benefit from the same healing. The Wizard was delighted, for he could see already that the idea of such aid and the effects of the healing jewel that Arwen gave to Frodo had distinctly buoyed the Hobbit's spirits. The decision also helped ease Gandalf's sense of guilt at having had to send Frodo into Mordor and such suffering. At least now there would be much greater help than he could offer the Hobbit.

"Are you still angry with Treebeard?"

Gandalf and Aragorn were strolling slowly around the periphery of the pool surrounding the great black tower, gazing at the lovely garden that now covered what Treebeard had named the Treegarth of Orthanc. The other travelers were near the entrance, where the now-vanished gate had stood. Gimli was near Galadriel and Celeborn, quietly gazing at the Lady for the last time. Legolas was talking and laughing with the Hobbits.

The Wizard shook his head. "Oh, I wasn't really angry exactly. Disappointed, yes, since I had assumed that Treebeard would never succumb to the wiles of one who had caused such destruction in his forest. Worried, definitely, since Saruman was so completely unrepentant and will likely try to take some sort of revenge."

"Well, he is a wily old fellow, as you say, but when we were last here you had complete control over him by the end, and he seemed utterly defeated. Now that you have cast him from the order of Istari and broken his staff, can he really do anything more than a bit of spiteful mischief?"

"Oh, undoubtedly he can. He no longer has any of the powers that were originally gifted to the Istari, and he is not stronger than an ordinary old Man. Still, he retains the power of his voice, and he might well persuade others to do considerable dirty work for him. You should take note of any unusual trouble in your kingdom, for obviously you would be one possible target of his wrath. Well, let us forget him for now and enjoy our last moments of companionship for quite a while."

"Yes. Most importantly, do you know when you will return to Minas Tirith? I hope you will spend a good long time with us. Indeed, I wish that you could return with me now and remain there until you must depart from Middle-earth."

"No, I think that would be most unfair to Arwen. I shall stay away long enough for you and she to settle into your marriage. I have talked much with Galadriel and Elrond, and they are of the opinion that somewhere between two and three years will be necessary to survey the northern and eastern lands and make sure that the last vestiges of Sauron's evil have been eliminated. As we rode here, I pondered when I might return to see you and Arwen. It occurred to me that you will turn 90 on March first of 3021-and that would also be, as you said at the time, the anniversary of our reunion in Fangorn. And less than four weeks later, we would celebrate two full years since the Ring went into the fire. Why don't we assume that I shall arrive on January first of that year and depart . .." He thought for a moment before resuming, "I think it would be appropriate if I departed on March twenty-sixth, after that celebration."

Aragorn sighed. "And then Gondor will never again see the Steward of the Third Age. I have wondered when to commence a new system of reckoning years for the Southern and Northern Kingdoms, to mark the start of the Fourth Age. I shall order it to begin on the day before you leave for good, March the twenty-fifth. Thus we would honor you on the eve of your departure, as well as mark the anniversary of the triumph that you did so much to make possible."

"You need not honor me in such a way, my dear Aragorn, but I must admit it does seem like a suitable time to designate the beginning of the new age-and for me at last to formally turn the Stewardship of Middle-earth over to you. I presume there will be a sumptuous banquet, but you must promise me: no long speeches in praise of my deeds. You know how I hate those. Let us adopt the custom of Rivendell and instead spend the evening in tales and songs of remembrance."

"Fine, I promise. Only short speeches of praise-and many of them."

Gandalf softly punched Aragorn's arm and said, "No! No speeches of praise at all. Well, all right, one or two, if you must, but-"

"Yes, of course. Seriously, you know that I would not want to bore or embarrass you."

"Good. Well, I think that we should return to the others and be on our various ways soon." The Wizard sighed. "This will be our first long separation since we became lovers when as we part we shall embrace only as friends. Yet you will know what is in my heart."

"Yes. The same as what is in mine."

They stood silently gazing at each other for a short while and then turned toward the distant group. They walked slowly back.

While they were still out of earshot of the others, Gandalf remarked more cheerfully, "Over sixteen months. I might hope to arrive and find a young heir to the throne in Arwen's arms."

Aragorn grinned, "I shall do my best,"

Gandalf chuckled softly. "Knowing you, I have no doubt of it."

Gandalf could sense Shadowfax's impatience with the slow gait he had to maintain to accommodate the pace of the four Hobbits' fat little ponies. He patted the powerful horse's neck. Soon they would be flying away south across the Barrow-downs, and Shadowfax could run as fast as he wished. For now, the Wizard listened as his companions speculated on the ominous news they had heard in Bree: how evil Men from the south had come there and actually killed citizens of the town and how fearsome wolves and worse creatures made the lands round about dangerous. Not all was well in the Shire, Barliman had said, and the Hobbits were speculating that Lotho was at the bottom of it.

"Deep in, but not at the bottom," said Gandalf. "You have forgotten Saruman. He began to take an interest in the Shire before Mordor did." Internally he was furious with his former fellow Istar. He had imagined that Saruman would seek revenge, but to try and get back at Gandalf by choosing the small, defenseless Hobbits as his target seemed low even by the traitorous Wizard's current standards.

As he thought this, the Hobbits looked at each other in worried surprise, but Merry soon grinned up at Gandalf. "Well, we've got you with us, so things will soon be cleared up."

Oh, fine! the Wizard thought. The little fellow helps to kill the Witch King and now expects me to solve the Shire's problems for him and his friends. He shook his head slightly in amused exasperation. "I am with you at present, but soon I shall not be. I am not coming to the Shire."

At that they all four reined in their ponies and turned to stare at him in bewilderment. Gandalf shrugged. "You must settle its affairs yourselves; that is what you have been trained for." They still looked a bit taken aback, and he added, "Do you not yet understand? My time is over: it is no longer my task to set things to rights or to help folk to do so." He beamed at them. "And as for you, dear friends, you will need no help. You have grown up now, grown indeed very high; among the great you are, and I have no longer any fear at all for any of you."

During this speech Frodo looked sadly off into space, thinking perhaps of all that they had been through to achieve such growth. Sam looked flustered at being called "great," and Merry had a thoughtful expression on his face. Pippin gasped in utter surprise, and a delighted little smile crept over his face as the Wizard concluded.

There was a moment of silence as they all struggled to absorb this unexpected praise, and Gandalf resumed, changing the subject, "But if you would know, I am turning aside soon. I am going to have a long talk with Bombadil: such a talk as I have not had in my time. He is a moss-gatherer, and I have been a stone doomed to rolling. But my rolling days are ending, and now we shall have much to say to each other."

They smiled again at that, fondly now, as if recalling their own talks with Bombadil only a little over a year ago. The five rode on.

Soon they came to the point in the Road where the four Hobbits had parted from Tom and set out for Bree. As they halted, Frodo looked to the north of the Road at the hedge and field and woods beyond. He pointed to the hedge. "That must be where Aragorn hid and listened to our talk with Tom," he said to the others, and they nodded. Gandalf glanced down at the row of unkempt bushes, with their brown, dry leaves. He could easily imagine the Man being able to hide there so effectively as to avoid even Tom's notice, and he sighed at the recollection of Aragorn as he had first met him, a beautiful, clever young Ranger.

Fortunately Frodo interrupted these thoughts by turning to look wistfully to the south and saying, "I should dearly like to see the old fellow again. I wonder how he is getting on.

The Wizard had a good sense of how much the visit with Tom had meant to the Hobbit, and he said soothingly, "As well as ever, you may be sure. Quite untroubled; and I should guess, not much interested in anything that we have done or seen, unless perhaps in our visits to the Ents. There may be a time later for you to go and see him. But if I were you, I should press on now for home, or you will not come to the Brandywine Bridge before the gates are locked."

Merry frowned quizzically at the Wizard. "But there aren't any gates. Not on the Buckland Road; you know that quite well. There's the Buckland Gate, of course; but they'll let me through that at any time."

"There weren't any gates, you mean," said Gandalf, rather enjoying again being the all-knowing Wizard to these young fellows. "I think you'll find some now. And you might have more trouble even at the Buckland Gate than you think. But you'll manage all right. Good-bye, dear friends!"

From the shocked looks on their faces, Gandalf realized that he had phrased that a bit too abruptly. He hastened to add, "Not for the last time, not yet." They all looked quite relieved, and he nodded to them with a smile. "Good-bye."

He turned Shadowfax off the Road, and the great horse leaped the green dike that ran beside it; and then at a cry from Gandalf he raced toward the Barrow-downs like a wind from the north.

For a time the Wizard let Shadowfax run as he would. He realized that they had been traveling long with others or even staying for long stretches in the same place, and the horse had not had a chance to really gallop since they had left Rohan more than two months earlier. The pair was many miles to the south of the road before Shadowfax slowed to a pace that was as fast as other horses could run but was for him a gentle canter.

Gandalf expected to enjoy the ride, and to some extent he did. His thoughts, however, frequently returned to the Hobbits. They will be fine, he insisted to himself. He truly believed them capable of handling whatever situation might confront them in the Shire. His desire to help others was so deeply ingrained, however, that he could not put them entirely out of his mind.

"Do you know," he said aloud to Shadowfax, "I believe I have lost the habit of being alone. So many, many times I have traveled for weeks on end without seeing a single person. Yet I don't think that I have been out of the presence of one or more of the Fellowship members since . . . well, since the night of the battle at Helm's Deep. Oh, I've been alone in my room or wandered through the streets of Minas Tirith by myself, but I always knew that I would see them again within hours-eat with them, talk and laugh with them. It is very strange to be away from them this way-not just Aragorn but the others as well. Especially Frodo," he added.

He brought Shadowfax to a stop, looking somewhat wistfully back toward the Road, long since out of sight behind the downs. "A rolling stone," he muttered. "Stop rolling, yes, easy to say, but it's not going to be easy to accept." He recalled the line, "Not all those who wander are lost" and was about to find a way to apply it to himself when he quickly remembered that that would take his mind back to Aragorn. They had both loved Bilbo's little poem about the Ranger. He winced and shook his head slightly. He was still thinking about Aragorn at least every few minutes, day in and day out. "Well, let's go and find Tom," he said to Shadowfax. "If anyone can teach me to stop rolling, it is he."

As Shadowfax ran easily toward the nearby edge of the Old Forest, Gandalf found that although he much looked forward to seeing Tom and Goldberry again, the idea of actually settling into their cozy home for a long visit made him strangely uneasy. Nonsense, he told himself. You've stayed longer than that in Rivendell or Lórien or Minas Tirith or even the quiet little Shire. As soon as he thought that, he grasped that this visit would be very different. In recent decades, relaxation and conviviality in those other places had been mixed with making plans, taking counsel, checking on situations-and finally with sharing the immediate joy of victory. Now he had no real purpose in visiting Tom. Well, that is the point, he reminded himself. To learn how to behave when one has no purpose. And how to avoid constantly pining over a lost love. With that thought his mood settled from unease into melancholy. By now they were at the eaves of the Forest, and Gandalf urged Shadowfax forward into the darkness under the great, ominous trees.

Eventually he saw a lighter area, and soon Shadowfax stepped into the clearing where Tom and Goldberry's cottage stood. The old fellow was chopping wood with his back to the visitors, and he was singing one of his merry nonsense songs.

Gandalf smiled and shook his head, sliding down from the silver horse's back and walking toward the cottage. "Tom," he called jovially as he approached, "you may be able to impress Hobbits with your ring-dong-dillo nonsense, but not this Wizard! Enough of singing for a while. Come and greet an old friend!"

Tom turned and stared at him, a delighted smile slowly spreading across his ruddy face. "Hey there! Gandalf! Yes, Tom had a feeling that you would turn up someday soon. Goldberry will be pleased! You can tell us all about your great triumph."

"How do you know about that? And it was our great triumph, I should emphasize, not simply mine. I'm surprised that you are much interested in all that."

"Oh, your little friend with the precious Ring told me much on his way to Rivendell last autumn-more than he was aware, Tom suspects. And I have heard more from the Elves that pass here from time to time. But the real tale was told by the trees and plants, the river and land-and all the beasts and birds that dwell here. That's why I'm keen to hear your tale. All green things are growing apace once more, and the spring will be glorious-perhaps the most glorious that I have seen in all my many years, and that would be saying something! Even the anger of the oldest trees is beginning to fade. They are all welcoming you as they have welcomed no one in the past."

Gandalf looked around. Even with his great love for trees, he could not see anything special or welcoming about these particular ones. "Well, I shall take your word for it. Yes, the great Enemy has been thrown down, and the times will be better for animal and plant alike."

As they were speaking, Tom set down his axe and washed his hands in a wooden tub full of rainwater. Now he turned back to his guest. "My pretty lady is doing some laundry down at the river. Come now, and have a mug of ale!" He peered closely at Gandalf. "That is, unless this new white guise of yours means that you've given up such pleasures."

"On the contrary, a mug of ale sounds delightful."

"Good! By the way, Old Fatty Lumpkin will be mightily impressed by that horse of yours. Should Tom provide anything special for him, or . . .?"

"Not at all. Shadowfax is not used to stables. He has stayed in a few lately-mostly to oblige me, I'm sure-but he is happiest wandering around on his own in the open. Of course there isn't much grass here in the heart of the forest, but he would think nothing of traveling far, even out to the Barrow Downs, in search of fodder."

Tom looked Shadowfax over and grinned. "By root and twig, he's a beautiful animal."

Gandalf watched proudly as the great horse trotted around the clearing, obviously not tired at all by hours of traveling. "Yes, he is indeed. I have decided that he shall go with me when I take ship and return to my home. It will be a great comfort for me to have him when I must leave so much of what I have come to love here in Middle-earth." The Wizard chuckled. "He's a very good listener. I'm sure he doesn't follow half of what I tell him, but he manages to look as if he's paying attention."

With that they went inside, and Tom drew two large mugs of ale from a small barrel sitting on a shelf recessed deeply into the wall. They sat by the fire in the cheery kitchen.

Tom said, "You have come to stay for a while, I hope . . . a good long while. We've never had enough time for talk, what with your going about here and there on your errands like a butterfly, never landing in one spot for long. And there is so much to talk about!"

"My sentiments exactly, and I'm fairly sure that you two won't feel it an imposition if I stay for a few weeks-"

Tom snorted. "Weeks! Months if you like. No duties for you anymore, I'll wager."

Gandalf thought of Frodo. "I have a few last things that need attending to, but no specific appointments or deadlines. For now, yes, we can have a good, leisurely visit."

As Tom and Goldberry hoped, the Wizard stayed long with them, trying to numb the pain in his heart and mind by concentrating on the bleak beauty of the Old Forest and its surroundings. The Barrow-downs now were purged of evil, but they remained a mournful monument to the great troubles of the past, which had ceased now to infect the present. They suited Gandalf's mood, and he and Tom would ride their horses among the mounds and occasional standing stones, talking of grandeur past and its eventual downfall. Tom's storytelling ability rivaled Gandalf's own, and as the Wizard fell under the spell of Tom's voice, images of the past enthralled him.

As the weeks passed, Gandalf came to know that, despite his early doubts, he had made a wise choice in coming to visit Tom and Goldberry. It was such a radically different way of life than he was used to that the change made it easier for him to gradually adjust to having no pressing responsibilities. He helped with the chores around the house and talked with Tom long into the nights. Gradually the quiet pleasures of friendship and good conversation helped him to relax.

It was after he retired to his bedroom, however, that he felt a loneliness and longing that did not diminish with the passing weeks. As in Minas Tirith he had great difficulty sleeping. Relieving his own desire helped a little, and he did so nearly every night, again trying not to think of Aragorn-but inevitably failing in the effort. Thinking back over his 2000 years in Middle-earth, it seemed quite bizarre that he should follow up the great events of the War of the Ring by hiding away in a cottage in the woods with a decidedly eccentric host and hostess, but for the time being, it seemed as pleasant a refuge as he could find.

In the spring he traveled to the Shire at last, and although the ravages of the occupation by "Sharkey's" troops were still apparent in the missing buildings and the stumps of felled trees, the Wizard was delighted to see how diligently the Hobbits were restoring their bucolic homeland. During the Wizard's stay at Bag End, Sam took him on long walking tours to survey their efforts and to show how the dust from Galadriel's little box was hastening the growth of new plants. As they ended one hike in mid-April, they stood in the Party Field and stared at the tiny mallorn blooming. The Wizard looked fondly down at Sam and said quietly, "You have become a gardener unto your entire race, Samwise Gamgee." The Hobbit blushed and shrugged, but he was smiling as well.

A few weeks later, Sam married Rosie Cotton in the Field, and Gandalf noted that the Hobbit had chosen the first anniversary of Aragorn's coronation for the event. During the party that followed the ceremony, the Wizard delighted to see Sam's long and loyal aid to the Ringbearer so rewarded and the Shire once again full of joy and laughter. The Wizard managed to put together a modest display of fireworks to honor the occasion.

Most of all during the Wizard's long visit to the Shire he spent time again with Frodo, listening to the Hobbit's tales, comforting him and taking comfort in doing so. He soon came to realize that they both had great longings that would never wholly leave them. Each day the Wizard yearned to escape his own sorrow by beginning the journey back to Valinor, and yet the time for the departure of the Three had not yet come. And he had promised to visit Aragorn in Minas Tirith. He knew he could never go back on that promise, and even without it, he could not have borne the idea of leaving without seeing the Man again.

One evening Gandalf and the Hobbit sat up late, talking and smoking by the fire. The Wizard had just finished telling Frodo a story of his travels with Aragorn as they searched for Gollum. Gandalf fell silent, thinking of his former lover as he gazed into the fire. At last he roused himself from his reverie to find the Hobbit staring at him.

"What's wrong, Gandalf?"


"Yes. You should be happy, I would think. The Ring is gone, and soon you will be going home. Yet you're sad."

Gandalf realized that his thoughts must have been more apparent on his face than he had realized. "You're right. Well, I have made many friends in Middle-earth, some very good ones, and I am already beginning to miss them."

Frodo hesitated and then said, "Forgive me if I am presumptuous or indiscreet, but . . . when we lived in our house in Minas Tirith, I soon noticed that you visited the palace every night. Oh, don't worry! It wasn't obvious. You were very careful, and I doubt that anyone else noticed. It's just that, having had the Ring so long, I can see and hear things much more keenly than before. My bedroom faced out onto the little courtyard and the palace opposite and . . . well, there were nights when I could not sleep and looked out to breathe the lovely spring air. Once I had seen you walk across the courtyard a few times, I began to notice how you and Aragorn looked at each other. I thought then that you and he were . . . very fond of each other."

The Wizard quickly decided that there would be no harm in admitting the fact to Frodo, who would neither judge him nor mention it to anyone. Indeed, the idea of talking to the Hobbit about Aragorn suddenly appealed to him greatly. And he could hardly expect Frodo to confide in him if he himself were not open and candid about his own problems. He said quietly, "Yes, very fond indeed."

Frodo nodded and paused sadly before replying, "I've never been in love like that, and I suppose that now I never shall be."

Gandalf shook his head slowly. "No, and I am sorry for that, though you may think from my morose behavior these days that love brings more sorrow than joy."

"I'm sure that it brought you great joy before you had to part. How long were you lovers?"

"Oh, by mortal standards, quite a long time. About sixty-three years."

Frodo nodded, thinking back. "So, even before I was born."

"Yes, for several years before that."

"That explains some things."

"Does it? What things?"

Frodo smiled reminiscently. "Oh, the fact that Aragorn was hiding by the Road when Tom Bombadil brought us out of the Barrow Downs and sent us off to Bree. At first he pretended that he had just heard us talking by accident. Later he said that he had been watching the Road for us because you had told him to. But now I think that he came there mainly hoping to see you a little sooner than if he had waited at the Prancing Pony."

Gandalf stared at him with a sad little smile. "Did he? Well . . . maybe he just could not sit still."

Frodo waited, but when the Wizard did not elaborate, he resumed, "I suppose. And later, when he read your letter, he was so very upset-more even than a friend might be."

"He read my letter? He never mentioned that to me."

"Yes, after we Hobbits went to bed in front of the fire. I'm sure he thought that we were all asleep, but Sam was so suspicious of 'Strider' that he made me promise that we'd just pretend to fall asleep, and then we'd see what he did. While we watched, he read your letter, over and over. I think Sam fell asleep in earnest because Aragorn read it so often. But I kept looking secretly at him, and he read it at first with such fear and hope, and then with fading hope . . . and tears."

Gandalf clenched his teeth. "He cried over my letter?"

Frodo moved to sit on the arm of the Wizard's chair, and he put a comforting hand on his friend's shoulder. "Well, not sobbed or anything like that. But yes, there were tears. It didn't really puzzle me at the time, but at any rate, I knew that he was really your friend and not some imposter."

Gandalf looked at Frodo with moist eyes and placed his hand over the Hobbit's. "Frodo, what you say makes me realize that you share many memories with Aragorn that I do not. It would comfort me, my dear Hobbit, if you would tell me more of what Aragorn did and said during that journey and after my death in Moria as well, though it will pain me to hear of his grief. Would you be willing to do that each night-to tell me stories about him?"

"Of course I shall-if you will tell me things about Eldamar, where I am to go someday."

The Wizard squeezed Frodo's hand. "Yes, we two, who no longer truly belong to Middle-earth, can look both behind and ahead. Perhaps that will help to banish our current sadness, at least for a little while."

Gandalf stayed with Frodo and Sam and Rosie through the summer and into the autumn, delighting in how the young couple cared for the Ringbearer. He watched Frodo's struggle with the effects of the Quest. There were many good days when he would write his book or wander through the fields and woods with Gandalf. There were occasional bad spells as well, when the clinging darkness of the Ring's memory seized his mind for a time. On October sixth, such darkness was intensified by the dull, throbbing ache of the wound suffered at Weathertop exactly two years earlier.

At about that time, Gandalf's thoughts turned to his promise to Aragorn, for he would have to set out in order to arrive in Minas Tirith on January first. He was also feeling a bit in the way, for Bag End was beginning to bustle with the preparations for the birth of Sam and Rosie's first child. Helping with these preparations appeared to cheer Frodo considerably, and although it seemed likely that the Ringbearer would again fall ill on March thirteenth, the anniversary of his wounding by Shelob, Gandalf knew that he was leaving the Hobbit in good hands. The Wizard set out early one cool, foggy morning, promising that he would return to the Shire the following summer, at last bearing word to his friend of when they would be departing for the Uttermost West.

To his amusement and delight, Gandalf found that the situation in Minas Tirith was similar to the one at Bag End, though on a far grander scale. Arwen was several months pregnant, and here, too, preparations for the birth were underway. She and Aragorn welcomed the Wizard with enormous warmth, and he quickly concluded that they were as blissfully happy a couple as he could have hoped.

So much had changed, though. During the nearly three months that Gandalf stayed with his dear friends in the White City, Aragorn was attentive and loving to the Wizard, but he was much taken up with Arwen and with the running of his great kingdom. Gandalf realized that he and the Man were not able to spend nearly as much time together as he had hoped, and he tried hard to accept it and not to be jealous of Arwen. As before, he avoided participating in councils and planning. He took great pleasure in seeing Gimli again, for the Dwarf had brought a team to work in the reconstruction and improvement of Minas Tirith. Legolas, the Wizard learned, was doing similar good in Ithilien, and Gandalf made a brief trip there to see him and Faramir and Éowyn. That was his most carefree time, witnessing the beauty that was being restored to that lovely land and enjoying friendship untainted by longing.

During his time in Minas Tirith, Gandalf fretted at once again feeling so marginal and ineffectual. Since the destruction of the Ring, he had got somewhat used to not bearing heavy responsibilities and carrying out great tasks. That had been achieved largely through his stay with Tom and Goldberry. In the Shire he had helped deal with Frodo's problems, and that had provided a sense of usefulness. Now, being back in the place where some of the War of the Ring's most crucial deeds had been accomplished, the Wizard felt more than ever that he no longer had a place in Middle-earth. He hid his feelings from Aragorn and Arwen, but he was lonely, and it was all the worse for being near the Man he loved. At times he almost looked forward to leaving, though he also anticipated the final parting with considerable trepidation.

Eventually that parting loomed large, and any reservations that Gandalf had felt over being in Minas Tirith disappeared as he dreaded the moment when he would have to say good-bye to Aragorn and to the woman who had so patiently allowed them their long joy together.

The second anniversary of the Ring's destruction was celebrated with due pomp but also with great revelry. An immense banquet was held in the palace-where King Elessar and the Queen made only very brief speeches praising the Wizard's role in ending the terror of Sauron. Later that night, when the torches had been doused and the guests had dispersed to their rooms, Gandalf whispered to the royal couple that he would like to speak to each of them in turn, alone. Aragorn nodded and said that he would await Gandalf in his study. After he had gone out, the Wizard and Arwen moved to stand by the embers of the fire in the great hall.

Gandalf's dark, deep eyes glowed in the fading light as he looked at her with great affection. "My dear Arwen, I would like you to be there when I part from Aragorn . . . Elessar, I should say . . . tomorrow. If you don't mind, that is. After all, I am leaving him not as my lover but as my treasured friend, the King of Gondor, and I am leaving another very old and very beloved friend as well. I want my last sight of him to be beside the person in whose lovely hands I leave Elessar's happiness. I shall go knowing that for him at least, there will be much comfort later. And after all, my departure was part of the bargain that you and I made, and although I know full well that you have never intended for me to suffer, I foresaw from the start that I would, and I accepted it."

"I understand that, and yet now that I have experienced the full joys of being with him, I cannot fathom how you could bear to give him up, bargain or no."

"Well, my dear, as you pointed out at the start, I have no choice. Ultimately, though, I fear that you may suffer even more for Aragorn's love than I shall. You went through the years of longing and of patience, and at the end you will see him die and will then die yourself."

"Is death worse than eternal grief, do you think?"

Gandalf thought for a while, his eyes unseeing and sad before focusing on hers again. "Perhaps not. We shall never know, for neither of us can experience both and compare. As I face eternity without him, I comfort myself that at least once he is gone, someone will retain the memory of him for all time. The love that we share will never wholly die. As you and I agreed long ago, love can make one do very foolish things-and now I find that one will even accept eternal sorrow in exchange for holding fast to just the memory of such joy." He shook his head with the faintest of wry smiles. "At any rate, my dear, I ask you to join us tomorrow, alone in the throne-room, before I depart."

Arwen nodded, but as he turned to go, she touched his sleeve to detain him. "You and I have never spoken of the children that Elessar and I shall have together or of the relationship you bear to them. You have never created life in this way, and no doubt you had no need or desire to do so. But this child that I carry and the others that may come would not exist without all your efforts and help and inspiration to Elessar. Someday we shall tell them stories of you-not, of course, about all that you and he were to each other, for they would never understand. Tales, rather, of how you helped him and me and all the fair races of Middle-earth. Your part in our lives will not be forgotten as long as our line lasts."

"Thank you, Arwen. I do not desire renown for what I have done here, but your family should know exactly how brave and devoted and wise Estel was during our great struggle-and his and my parts in that struggle really cannot be entirely separated. Portray me to them as one who admired and valued Estel as he truly deserved, and I desire no further glory."

Kissing her cheek, he left the room to join Aragorn in his study. The Man was seated in a chair to one side of a freshly kindled fire, and the Wizard sat at the other side. Aragorn passed his tobacco jar to Gandalf, and there was silence as they filled and lit their pipes.

Finally Gandalf said, "I never told you this, but after Gandalf the Grey died, I returned briefly in my spirit form to Valinor. I thought that I had failed in my task, that that was the end. I would not see the Ring destroyed or you crowned as King or anything that I had for so long dreamed of achieving.

"Manwe and Varda, however, told me that it was not my fault, that the evils that plagued Middle-earth were greater than any envisioned by the Valar. I had not been meant to deal with them alone, and yet all those sent with me had largely deserted or even betrayed their mandates. I would be given another chance, enhanced in power, though still forbidden to rule over the peoples of the continent or to force decisions upon them.

"There was one other thing. They knew, of course, of my great love for you, for I could never hide such a thing from them, and indeed I did not want to. Manwe offered me a choice. I could retain all of my memories of you and along with them the potential for eternal grief or I could forget our love when I eventually reached Valinor and my true state. Oh, I would be able to remember much about you. How you were a brave Man who helped in our struggle and who ultimately had-we hoped!-become the King to whom I passed the guardianship of Middle-earth. Nothing more. A friend, an historical figure of importance when the full tale of the Third Age came to be told . . . but no trace of any private feelings beyond friendship would linger in my heart or mind.

"I hesitated briefly, for rationally I could see the wisdom of avoiding the perpetual ache of regret. Almost immediately, though, I could not bear the thought of wiping our love from my mind, however much the memory might weigh upon me forever. I finally told Manwe that I wanted to remember everything, every moment of your and my time together.

"There was silence for a time, and I felt that Manwe was at a loss. He wanted me to be happy, and yet he heard me doom myself to what promises to be eternal sorrow. Varda, I sensed, understood a little better, and yet perhaps she also considered me unwise in my choice. I left them then and returned to my lifeless body, going on to seek healing and to strive once more to achieve my tasks. As I just said to Arwen, it is strange how precious even the memories of love become. They too seem worth enormous grief."

Aragorn had sat listening sadly to this, and he nodded. "Once we part tomorrow, memories are what our lives together come down to. It makes me glad to think that those memories will last forever, even though after a time I shall not be here to share them with you. Perhaps that is selfish, for you are the one for whom those memories will endlessly create longing and sadness."

"I suppose that is why I risk such grief. I shall not wholly lose you, even after I leave, even after you die." Gandalf chuckled sadly. "I have repeatedly urged the Hobbits to write down what they saw and experienced during the War of the Ring. Remarkably enough, some of those insular little fellows seem to be blossoming into quite diligent historians. But the finest histories do not capture the reality in full. Many years from now people may read of your great deeds, but no one will ever know you, as you have been in life-except for a few. Galadriel and Celeborn, Elrond and your brothers-and me. And I of course will know much more than does any of them. I pity Arwen, for although she has you now, she will lose you in a way that I never shall. Ultimately I shall get the better of our little bargain, I suppose. You will be part of me forever.

"Once I reach Valinor, I shall seek to think of your loss as one mourns the passing of each year, when the leaves turn color and drop, and yet admires their beauty and feels hope for the future." He hesitated. "Perhaps I should not tell you this, but I cannot resist, for there is indeed some cause for hope. Know then that this world is not forever, my sweetest Aragorn. Mortals are not bound forever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory.

"You must remember this for your own sake and also tell it to Arwen before you die. Her bargain with me allowed me a great but temporary happiness. Her own happiness, however, has been bought in another way, perhaps an even harder way. When it comes to the end for the two of you, Arwen may find the Gift of Men bitter indeed to accept."

Aragorn winced as he remembered Elrond saying that same thing to him, nearly forty years before. Gandalf nodded and resumed. "That tiny bit of solace is what I offer you as my parting gift, and it is meant for her as well, when the time arrives."

The Man stared at him, awed and yet doubtful. "How do you know this?"

"That much is known to the Valar, and they have taught us, the Maiar. I do not believe that they themselves know more-what the world will be like, whether its people will then have physical form or exist only as spirits-or in some other way that we cannot now comprehend. Only Eru Iluvatar knows these things. The means by which he will fashion the changed world are perhaps even now being created. But it will not come to pass for eons." He sighed and looked steadily into Aragorn's eyes. "I cannot imagine how it might happen, but very long from now, if it is at all possible, I shall find you. No matter how strange everything will be to us, it must be possible to communicate then, I presume. I shall be waiting for you . . . and Arwen, of course. Then in some fashion we might be able to love each other without fear of loss.

"And I am the one that you would seek out-of all those whom you have loved in these two thousand years?" Aragorn asked quietly.

"Well, I doubt that there will be jealousies then. I imagine that I would be able to seek out any or all of those whom I loved. But even were I forced to choose . . . yes, I would choose you."

Aragorn drew a deep, shuddering breath. "Dreams of a hugely distant reunion in a form that neither of us can imagine cannot much ease the sting of letting you go now, here, in the flesh. Not that our love can ever be carnal now, but there is great joy still in hearing the sound of your voice or seeing the twinkle in your eye as we share a jest. Nevertheless, I am deeply grateful for your words. They have consoled me a little, and I'm sure they will do so even more after you have departed and as I age and face the eventual parting from Arwen. I hope they will help her as well."

After a short silence Gandalf said, "It is time for us to retire to our respective beds. First, though, I have one last bit of more immediate comfort to offer us both. Just because we must be so very far apart does not mean that our love must stop entirely and be solely in our memories. We can go on sharing it, just a little."

Aragorn looked at him forlornly. "How? That does not seem possible."

"It is not only possible but is quite simple. Let us agree to meet each day, in time and thought if not in space. Each evening, I shall watch the sun set and think of you and remember our life together. I shall wait until the Evening Star appears, and when it does, I shall wish you good night. Every evening, forever. If you will do the same thing at the same time for as long as you live, then for those moments we shall be together and know that we are sharing something that is not just memory."

Aragorn looked at him with shining eyes. "Of course I shall do it! And if indeed as you say there is also more than memory beyond the existence of this world, we shall somehow be reunited, in a far distant time."

"I hope so. I trust so. Every evening, then."

"Every evening, I solemnly swear to you. For all my life. Even when clouds obscure the sky and I must simply see the star in my mind's eye." He chuckled sadly. "So now that Arwen has renounced the Twilight to stay with me, you shall forever be my Evenstar."

Gandalf looked a bit surprised and then smiled. "Do you know, that hadn't occurred to me when I made this little plan. I don't know why. Now that you mention it, the idea seems almost ridiculously appropriate."

Aragorn managed a tiny smile in response. "That is settled, then. When and how do you wish to part tomorrow?"

"In the morning. Not terribly early. You and Arwen and I can have breakfast together, and then . . . I would like to take leave of you both in the throne-room."

The Man stared at him in puzzlement. "In the throne-room? But surely not in the presence of guards and courtiers."

"No, alone with the two of you. I have already asked Arwen to join us, and she has agreed. From the moment I met you, my dear Aragorn . . . I'm sorry, but I still find it difficult to think of you as Elessar. From the moment I met you, I have worked to put you on that throne-and indeed, I had been doing so even before that. I flatter myself that my love for you has helped create the wise and great ruler that you have become. That is the most tangible thing that will remain of our time together, now that all the shared hopes and talk and teasing and duties and physical pleasure are over. I want my last memories of you to be as that King, with the Queen who will bring a touch of vanished Elvendom to your heirs. Together you will revive the glories of your great realm and lead the mortal races into the new age. Yes, I want us to part there."

The Man nodded. "I understand now. And yes, your love, more than anything else, has indeed brought me to that throne." He took a deep breath and said, "I am so proud that you have not only helped me to gain the Kingship-for that was part of your duty-but that you also have seen something in me that could inspire such love in you."

"'Something,' yes. I'm afraid I cannot explain it to you, for I have never quite understood myself why I should love you so very much. I only know that it has happened and that you have never once done anything to make me regret it in the slightest . . . . Well, with that I shall take my leave for now. I think that we have said everything to each other that we needed to say alone. Good night, your Majesty."

Breakfast the next morning was a quiet affair, and the three deliberately talked of things other than the coming parting and their sorrow. They chatted about the progress of Arwen's pregnancy and remarked on how the child would be born only a short time after Sam and Rosie's. That led to a discussion of the Hobbits: how the Shire would fit into Aragorn's plans for the revival of the Northern Kingdom of Arnor and how Sam's growing role as a leader could aid them.

At last they fell silent and exchanged glances, and without a word they rose and walked the short distance through the halls until they reached the empty throne-room, where even the soft sounds of their footfalls echoed slightly. Aragorn did not move to sit on the high seat, but he and Arwen stood on the lowest level of the dais, while Gandalf faced them from the floor. Arwen remained a short way from Aragorn, determined to allow the final parting to center on the former lovers. She realized now that the Wizard had chosen this somewhat formal situation in part to minimize the possibilities for contact and for tears between the two Men, making it easier for her to be present at the last. Once again she thought how much she would miss this wise and kind friend.

And indeed Gandalf began somewhat formally, "Now that moment that we knew all along would come is here. How swift its arrival seems, and yet how much there is to remember from our time together!"

Aragorn nodded and said somewhat hesitatingly, as if uncertain what tone to take, "Half of my heart will always ache with longing, even though the other half will be filled with as much joy as a Man could hope for." He smiled briefly at Arwen before going on more naturally, "I once said that you were the peace, the warmth, the happiness, and the hope that I had always desired. That has remained true ever since. I cannot imagine where I would be today had it not been for your inspiration and aid. I know-and Arwen knows-that she and I would almost certainly not have been able to wed but for you. As I rule over Gondor and the lands beyond, I am convinced that not a day will go by when I do not think of what you taught me and what you would want me to do in this situation or that. There is no part of my being, however small, that you have not touched and left the better for it. I would like to think that you leave something of yourself in Middle-earth, in me, to the extent that I have been able to absorb your values and thoughts. I don't know if I can live up to what you-"

"You will!" Gandalf shook his head and beamed at the Man. "Do not worry on that account! You idealize me too much, my dearest Aragorn. So much of what we accomplished together was due to your innate wisdom and courage and determination. You will face difficulties, no doubt, but you will manage. I know that. I don't think that I would dare to leave Middle-earth if I were not utterly convinced of it. And if I have in any way become a part of you . . . then I am prouder than ever of what I have done here."

Gandalf stood still for awhile, his gaze fixed on the floor, and all three were silent, wanting to prolong the moment and yet realizing that there was really nothing more to say. Finally the Wizard chuckled softly and briefly. "I may now be the most powerful person in Middle-earth, but I don't seem to be able to force myself to walk out that door."

After a further pause Aragorn said very tentatively, "Perhaps I could ride with you to the Grey Havens, and we could part there." Even as he spoke, however, he knew that the Wizard would refuse.

Gandalf gave a soft little snort of laughter. "And play out this scene again on the quay, in front of all? What if I could not force myself to walk up the gangplank?" He turned to Arwen with a smile. "Can you imagine your father and Galadriel and Cirdan and the others wrestling me onto the ship?" He faced Aragorn again. "No, tempting though it is to put it off, this is the moment of our parting. If we cannot bear the grief, we should never have allowed our love to kindle in that little glade in Eriador." He took a deep breath and looked Aragorn straight in the eye. "Farewell, your Majesty."

Aragorn clenched his teeth and swallowed. "Farewell, favorite royal Wizard .. . until twilight."

Gandalf nodded. He looked again at Arwen, "Farewell, my dear. May you have nothing but joy in the choice that you have made." He took a step backward so that he could more easily see them both at once and spoke the sentence that he had planned as his last words to them: "I leave Middle-earth in good hands." As he turned and started for the door, however, that statement struck him as bland and impersonal, and besides, he realized that Aragorn would always wonder . . .. He stopped and briefly faced the throne again. He nodded with a little smile, murmuring just loud enough for the Man to hear across the great, silent space, "Worth anything." He glanced at Arwen, for he hoped that that phrase would be a reassurance to her as well.

Gandalf turned again before Aragorn could respond and walked quickly to the great doors, pulling one open, stepping through, at once closing it behind himself, and leaning back against it for a moment. The guards had been ordered to patrol this morning only at the far edges of the Courtyard, and he was alone in the sunlight before the great palace.

Gandalf slowly walked down the few steps to the broad pavement. He paused, looking around and feeling a bit lightheaded. Shadowfax, who had been trotting around the area restlessly, moved to join him by the small bag and bedroll that the Wizard had earlier laid on a bench to the side of the entryway.

The Wizard stroked the great silver horse's velvety nose. "Well, what now? I think that getting drunk and finding some handsome soldier to help me forget would not be a particularly dignified or fitting way to cap this parting. No, let us simply set out on that long journey to Lórien and Rivendell and the Shire. . . and finally the Havens. We have time. Time to make little detours and stop along the way to say good-bye. Surely no parting from now on can be half as difficult as this one! And I am lucky in that some of my dearest friends here in Middle-earth will be taking ship with us-including you, of course! I suppose you would not object to a last visit to your old home along the way. You might find some sport among the mares of Edoras." He sighed ruefully. "One of us might as well have some pleasure of that sort. By the way, I hope you don't mind my going on at such length in a rather maudlin fashion. It does help to have someone to talk to." He glanced up at the closed doors as he picked up his baggage, but he resolutely leapt up onto the silver horse's back.

Slowly they made their way down along the twisting path to the City Gate-not because the streets were particularly crowded but because Gandalf was savoring the beauty of the place for the last time and recalling his many happy visits there, especially with Aragorn. Several moments came when he had to will himself not to turn back. He had left his lover, and it had been a good parting, he told himself, another good memory to treasure.

Five months later, Gandalf rode Shadowfax along the broad, smooth road leading toward the Grey Havens. He reckoned that he would reach Cirdan's great house within two hours. The sun hung low in the west, for autumn was progressing. He had been talking aloud to the horse, but now he fell silent, admiring the trees, with the dark evergreens mingled among branches where the leaves were changing. He recalled and recited aloud part of a little song that Bilbo had made up while living in Rivendell:

For still there are so many things that I have never seen: in every wood in every spring there is a different green.

"And in every wood in every autumn the colors are different, too," he said softly.

He knew he would come back. He loved the continent now, and there was nothing to stop him from traveling to Middle-earth and even embodying himself however he wished. Still, he suspected that he would never again take physical form here. He had been ordered to come here in this old man's body and had found through it joys that he could not have anticipated, for all his Maiarime wisdom. And near the end he had experienced such things so gloriously that he knew he could never match them. Certainly he would never visit Middle-earth in a way that Aragorn would be aware of. He had made his bargain with Arwen, and it was inviolable as far as he was concerned. And the pain would be too great: to see the Man again and not have the right to hold him and to love him as they both would want. Perhaps, he told himself, someday he would summon the courage and strength to visit Gondor in his usual spirit form, just to see Aragorn, to learn how he and Arwen were faring in the new Age. Whether the King was happy, had healthy children, and ruled without great difficulties or obstacles arising that neither of them could have foreseen. Would curiosity and longing outweigh the fear of pain from such a visit? Quite possibly. Love had conquered his caution long before in a little grove near the Ford on the Tharbad. Perhaps what had overthrown an Istar's best intentions could defeat even a Maia's strength of mind.

Gandalf and Shadowfax were out of the wood by now. The sun was setting beyond the low ridge on the horizon. Atop them, the White Towers were visible, though in the approaching dusk they appeared as dark silhouettes against the twilit sky. Once he reached them, he would see the Havens and the Firth of Lune stretching below him-and the broad gap between the Blue Mountains that led to the Sea. But first he would visit Aragorn in thought, and he stopped Shadowfax so that he could quietly remember the Man until the Evening Star appeared, knowing with certainty that far away Aragorn was doing the same thing.

He had spent the last few weeks in Hobbiton, talking with Frodo as before of the life to come and the triumphs and sorrows gone by. He had read Frodo's account of the Quest and the War and was moved by how detailed and impressive a book the Hobbit had produced. Gandalf had left a few days early, however, rather than travel with the Ringbearer to join the others who would be taking ship with them. The Wizard had wanted Frodo to have that last time alone with Sam as they rode their ponies through the woods of the Shire and into the unknown lands to the west. He had also alerted Pippin and Merry to the impending departure and was glad that Sam, who would take Frodo's loss hard, would have their company on the way home. "The bearers of the Three, three who have borne the One-counting Sam--and five members of the Fellowship, all present at once," he had said aloud to Shadowfax with a quiet laugh as they had set out from Bag End. "Quite a remarkable gathering there will be on that quay. Not to mention, of course, the horse of the White Rider."

Now he looked forward to spending a few days with Cirdan and other friends at the Havens, drifting, he hoped, away from his intense concentration on Middle-earth and into a contemplation of the return voyage and how life in Valinor would seem to him after so long an absence.

Soon they were between two of the White Towers and had reached the top of the high ridge on which those ancient buildings stood. There lay the Havens and the Sea. Shadowfax stopped of his own accord, and Gandalf slipped from his back and gazed out across the trail of moonlit water reaching toward his home. He fought tears. Home, yes, but he was soon to leave the continent where a large part of his heart remained. His longing for Aragorn, which he thought he had effectively suppressed, came rushing back in all its intensity. How could he leave? His firm resolve began to falter, and he almost turned back, not considering where he would go. He had never dreamed that he would need bravery and determination to take ship for home. For a few minutes he stood irresolutely in the middle of the road. Am I going to feel this way forever, he wondered. If this is the grief that losing one's greatest love can bring, then I had no real conception of what I faced. Worth it? Easy to say, but could even the joys that he had experienced with Aragorn compensate for such wrenching sorrow if it really lasted forever? And he who had retained his hope through two thousand years of struggle against the dark forces of Middle-earth felt nearer to despair than he ever had.

Then gradually the world around him faded from sight until all that was visible to him was the moon and the trail of its light. He felt as he sometimes had while in Middle-earth, when some presence seemed to invade him and inspire ideas, without his fully understanding how he had conceived them. This was much stronger, though, and exhilarating in an unfamiliar way. For a moment he was utterly unconscious of his body, of being "Gandalf." He was himself again, but in a soft darkness rather than the light of Valinor.

For fleeting seconds he felt rather than heard gentle words: "You shall tell me of him and have naught but joy at the telling. You shall remember with love, not bitter longing." It was Nienna, he knew, whose voice he had longed for during all his centuries in Middle-earth-but more than ever lately. He should have known that in his despair the Valar, and especially she, would take pity on him. With that Gandalf's grief eased from him, and he felt an enormous eagerness to speak with her, to tell her of Aragorn, for he knew now that, though he would never cease to long for the Man, their love would remain ever fresh for him, ever a source of delight.

He smiled to himself and murmured, "Yes, my heart tells me so."

The chill wind of a late September evening was blowing down from the White Mountains as Aragorn and Arwen walked out from the palace alone, making for a spot on the great walls of the City's highest level where the sunset could most clearly be viewed. Before Galadriel had departed from Lothlórien, she had sent a message of farewell, giving them the date when the Three Bearers, along with their two Hobbit guests and many others of the Elves who were leaving the continent for good, would take ship at the Grey Havens.

They stood on the battlements and held hands, taking silent comfort in each other as the sun reddened and sank in the West. Still they waited, until at last they saw a tiny pinprick of light emerging as the twilight faded. As soon as he could detect the star against the deepening indigo of the sky, Aragorn whispered, "A light from the shadows shall spring." Arwen gazed into his eyes for a moment, her own brimming with unshed tears. Both knew that the ship was departing even as they stood there. Arwen's father was leaving the land that she would call home for the rest of her life. Aragorn wondered if a little shadow of fear and regret had crossed her face, but as she looked at him, he saw the same love and resolve that had been there when they revealed their betrothal to Elrond. He kissed her forehead.

Arwen knew of Aragorn's little nightly ritual, for they did not hesitate to speak together of the love that the Man and Wizard shared. As the tears began to trace their way down her cheeks, she squeezed his hand and then withdrew. She walked slowly across the grass-lined gravel path until she was in the deep shadow of the wall near the gate into the palace grounds and paused, waiting for her husband.

The Man breathed slowly and deeply, gazing fixedly at the star as it brightened. He had come to that spot and seen it appear many times since Gandalf left Minas Tirith more than six months earlier, and yet it never failed to send a sharp shiver of longing through him. Tonight was worse, though. He could no longer tamp that longing by thinking to himself that at least the Wizard was somewhere in Middle-earth, perhaps traveling to places where they had been together or seeing people whom they shared as friends. He could no longer pretend to himself, almost without realizing it, that this was just one of the many separations that had resulted when their tasks took them in opposite directions. Aragorn blinked to disperse the tears that had come to his eyes so that he could see the star more clearly. Finally he gave a shaky little smile and murmured, "Good night, old Man."

And he turned to rejoin the woman who had become far more than a dream to him.

The End

For Henrika and Sarah Eleven, who both share my love for this pairing.