Combe Year Six: The Morning After
by Laura Mason

Aragorn awoke with Frodo still in his arms, the glow of sunrise on his peaceful face. Though it was already late, he stole a moment to drink his fill of that face. He knew the hobbit would never again give him such trust, not once he knew the truth.

Aragorn had been unable to sleep until he'd resolved to tell Frodo, today, about Arwen. The decision had calmed his mind enough for a few hours of much-needed rest. Only now was he again troubled by the question he'd avoided in the long sleepless hours last night.

Should he also confess his feelings to Frodo?

No, he couldn't risk it. He felt dishonest, but if Frodo turned away from him and he lost the hobbit's friendship, how could he face Gandalf? Aragorn had promised to keep watch on Frodo, and it was no idle promise. The fate of Middle Earth might depend upon Frodo's safety. That it also might control Aragorn's fate was irrelevant.

And Bilbo, too, wanted news of his beloved cousin. Once he heard what had happened after he left Hobbiton, only Gandalf's intervention kept the elderly hobbit from rushing back to the Shire to restore Frodo's inheritance.

"Bilbo, you cannot go wandering in the Wild as you did when you were young. The wide world has become even more dangerous, particularly to you."

"But poor Frodo -- he should be Master of Bag End, not those despicable Sackville-Bagginses!"

"Frodo is happy, useful and quite well. He has found his own place in the world."

"As a servant." Bilbo's voice was full of disgust.

"True, it's not the place you intended him to fill..."

"He was the best hobbit in the Shire! He should be Mayor when his cousins take their places of leadership."

"Bilbo, that can still happen. Frodo will not stay in Combe forever. But for now, it seems a very good place for him to be."

Bilbo looked as if he'd more to say, but he nodded and remained silent.

"You will go on as you've planned, and visit Dale and the Lonely Mountain with your friends. And Aragorn will be keeping an eye on Frodo, as will I."

"You will take care of him, Dunadan?"

"I shall protect him with my life if need be, Bilbo."

So he'd vowed, and the sharp look Gandalf aimed at him showed that the wizard understood Aragorn was not vowing merely to reassure Bilbo.

Reluctantly he moved his arms, and Frodo stirred a little, his eyelashes fluttering.

"Frodo, it is time to rise. We've slept past sunrise, and I need to rejoin Halbarad."

Clear eyes opened, blinked, and focused on him with a momentary smile. Then Frodo seemed to realize how close he was, and blushed as he moved out of their cozy nest.

"I can bring some water," Frodo began, reaching for Aragorn's water skin, but his eyes fell on the remnants of their fire. "Or shall I find wood?"

"If you are willing to live like a Ranger this morning, neither." Aragorn rose and smiled at him. "Can you wait until you are home for hot food and warm water? I have dried fruit we can eat as we walk, and a quick wash in the stream should be sufficient for travelers."

Frodo was unlike other hobbits, and his smiling agreement to this plan proved it. Aragorn pulled the hobbit's now-dry clothing down, and Frodo moved away to re-dress himself. The Ranger carefully kept his eyes away from the hobbit, packing his bedroll with more concentration than the task normally required, then shaking out his cloak and pulling on his outer clothes.

Combe was only a few hours away, even at a hobbit's pace, but Aragorn delayed speaking, lost in his thoughts. Frodo spoke first, while chewing on a strip of dried apple.

"I suppose this is how Bilbo ate and lived on his journey to the mountain."

"I think you are correct," he replied, glad to be speaking at last. "Dwarves have their own unique travel foods; I know they make some kind of waybread. But dried fruit and meat are used by most races."

"You know so much. Why do you so rarely speak about what you've seen?"

"I have my reasons."

"Reasons for silence and secrecy. Yet we are friends, aren't we?"

"Yes, Frodo, and I promise you today that I will tell you my full history when I can. It is not a story to be told while walking in the open air of Bree-land."

"Can you at least speak of Rivendell? How is it different from Combe or Hobbiton? Or is that confidential, too?"

"Every race is different, and even among the same race, each village and city has a preferred way of living, unique to it." Frodo made an exasperated sound and Aragorn laughed, then continued. "The elves have many lives of men to perfect their works. Rivendell's beauty transcends the ages, full of art that is difficult to describe."

"Tell me about the elves."

"Surely you've heard stories from Bilbo."

"Of course. But tell me what you think of them. What is unique about them?"

There was a long pause as Aragorn thought. He spoke haltingly when he finally answered. "The elves of Rivendell keep history part of the present, if that makes any sense. Not just the history of their own race, but of all Middle Earth. At Rivendell, things that happened three thousand years ago are remembered in detail, more clearly than you and I can remember our own youth..." He broke off, hearing his own foolish, hurtful words.

Frodo remembered the pain of his youth all too well, as Aragorn knew from their many conversations. He remembered his parents' deaths, and being passed between relatives like an unwanted Yule cake. Aragorn could see the sorrow in his face whenever they watched families in Combe, or when one child stood apart from the others as they played.

But Frodo passed over his thoughtlessness, seeming engrossed by what he'd heard. "I would think such vivid memories an be a burden as much as a blessing," he mused. "For instance, Bilbo told me the elves and dwarves have old grievances that keep their races at odds."

"True, though there was also friendship and trade in their long-distant past."

"It seems to me that if they remember the past too vividly, and miss seeing what is occurring in the present, it would paralyze them for necessary action now."

Aragorn laughed again, but it was not a joyous sound. "I believe you've described a fault of mine, Frodo, and not a weakness of the elves."

"Well, the elves raised you, Estel," Frodo began with a smile, but he broke off without further teasing. "You must have foster parents living at Rivendell still. Do you ever have the chance to visit?" Then he seemed to note the change in Aragorn's face. "Or have they gone West?" he asked sadly.

"No, not that," Aragorn replied, and stopped walking for a moment. For all the time he'd spent talking to Frodo, he'd told the hobbit very little about himself. This was his chance to fulfill his vow and make up for his many silences.

"Frodo, let's rest for a while."

They settled together under a tree and shared his water skin. Finally, Aragorn forced himself to speak.

"I was brought to Rivendell as a babe, when my father died. But my mother was there with me until she died, 25 years ago. I wasn't a true orphan." Not like you remained unspoken. "Lord Elrond was a second father to me for many years. Now we are somewhat estranged."

Frodo didn't speak, though Aragorn paused a long time before continuing. The hobbit seemed to sense his struggle for words, and kept his eyes down, waiting.

"Bilbo may have told you that the elves are very beautiful."

That roused him, and Frodo looked up, then turned his eyes to focus on a distant tree. "Yes, he said they are fair beyond imagining." Frodo's voice was very soft.

"All the years of my childhood, Elrond's daughter was with her mother's people, far to the south. Elrond's sons were brothers to me, but Arwen was only a name." Again he paused.

"Not any longer," Frodo murmured.

"No. The tale of our meeting can wait for another time. I only wish to tell you that we fell in love, despite her father's objections, and we are betrothed. Now I rarely go to Rivendell, though it was my home for many years."

"So you cannot see her because of Lord Elrond's disapproval?"

"She is far above me, Frodo, and her father has declared that Arwen will never marry a Ranger. Only a King would be a suitable mate, and only for the High King of the West would she give up her immortality."

Frodo stared at him, wonder in his face. "Estel. You are the hope of your people."

Aragorn nodded, hoping his face reflected his own astonishment at Frodo's quick intelligence. Who else in all these sheltered lands could put together the truth from such halting, stilted hints? Only his hobbit.

"I think I understand," Frodo said.

"Good. We can continue this another time, then."

They resumed their travel in silence.

***

Estel and Halbarad were gone after sharing a large brunch with Frodo. Doc sent the hobbit to bed after he ate, insisting he still seemed pale.

As Doc heated water to do the wash-up himself, he thought about what the man and hobbit had said -- and not said -- about their adventures. Truthfully, if Halbarad had not given him the information last night, he didn't think he'd know anything.

Frodo was the most dispirited Doc had ever seen him with Estel present. The Rangers weren't exactly talkative at any time, but today Estel had been monosyllabic. Halbarad's dry wit and dour expression seemed cheerful and chatty in comparison.

Anything could have happened between them, alone all night. Had Frodo confessed his love and been rejected? Could anyone who knew the hobbit and saw his goodness be so cruel to him? Or had Estel finally married his woman, and told Frodo the news?

Doc banged plates and silver until he felt better, then retired to his study to think. When he woke hours later, he was covered with a shawl and could smell baking. He smiled, wondering how scandalized Frodo had been when he saw the mostly-bare larder.

Doc walked to the kitchen with his pipe and stood in the doorway, watching Frodo move rather gracefully among the man-size furnishings. He should have done more to make him comfortable here, years ago.

"Tea's on, Doc."

"Thank you, Frodo." He walked to the table and sat heavily, feeling that it was too late now to change his kitchen, or do much of anything for Frodo. Loaves of bread were cooling beside a tea cake. When Frodo walked close to lay Doc's cup and saucer, he put out a hand and held the hobbit's shoulder. Frodo stopped his bustling and looked him in the eye for the first time since his return.

"Are you well?"

"Yes, Doc. I'm fine, or I will be soon."

"What happened?"

"Estel spoke with me today. He told me about... her. His fiancee."

At last, Doc thought but did not say.

"I'm just absorbed, I suppose. Knowing her name, and understanding their circumstances... I've known for years now, since you first warned me. But it all seems more real now."

Doc nodded and released his arm, and Frodo retrieved the teapot. Once Doc's cup was full, he cut some warm cake for him.

"It doesn't matter, though. Does it?" Doc finally asked.

Frodo smiled ruefully. "No, it doesn't really. I can't help loving him anyway, Doc. He was so kind yesterday, helping me when I was tired. He even praised me for trying to help the boy, if you can imagine. A Ranger who spends his life protecting others, calling me a hero..." Frodo trailed off, his eyes far away. "I'll never say anything to him, Doc. That would be wrong."

"What's wrong, Frodo, is what you do to yourself!" Frodo's eyes snapped over to him, startled, and Doc broke off, calming himself, trying to sound less angry. "This love hurts you, Frodo. Your feelings for Estel keep you from finding someone who is free to love you."

"Doc," Frodo said with a smile, his tone exasperated. "You love me."

"Yes, I do."

"As you loved your son."

"Yes."

"That's enough for me. I have someone who loves me, and someone to love in return. And I've just returned from my family, all dear to me, who love me as best they can even when they don't understand me. I'm very fortunate."

"You should find a mate, Frodo. A wife. Make a life for yourself, not keep waiting for what cannot be."

"Someday I may be able to find someone who doesn't object to my poverty or to owning books instead of land," Frodo said with a laugh. "Such a hobbit would be difficult to find, though I searched the Shire. Gentlehobbits don't associate with servants, and the lower classes would despite my lack of practical skills. I don't know how to farm, or even how to tend a garden. My cooking is not up to hobbit standards, though you are kind enough to say I've improved. Who would have me?"

Frodo smiled but his eyes were still sad, and Doc wanted to protest. But he had no words to tell Frodo that he was a jewel among hobbits, nothing to compete with the practical, sensible hobbit viewpoint Frodo was quoting. He shook his head, miserable, and Frodo stood.

"I love my life here, with you." A very hobbity hug accompanied the words, and Doc was moved almost to tears.

"But Frodo, I'm an old man."

"Hush," came the gentle order, the short arms tightening around him. "No thinking like that. You'll live past one hundred eleven, like my cousin Bilbo."

Doc held him close but knew it wasn't true. Nor would he wish it to be, except for Frodo's sake.

 

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