This is a departure for me. It happened in response to Lily Baggins' LiveJournal challenge. I wrote what is now the Prologue of this story, never planning to continue. But then people responded, I started writing, and suddenly there were nine chapters of this soap opera, written without any idea where it was going. And it was fast, which really amazes me -- I'm a slow writer.

Warnings: NC-17 to G rated, depending on the chapter. Angst, mention of a past rape, and of course, male pregnancy (as you know if you followed the link to Lily's challenge). If all this doesn't scare you off, read on.

As Middle Earth Turns
by Laura Mason

Prologue - October 3019

"Aragorn, you must help me."

"I cannot. You're five months gone, and you're still very ill. What you ask would kill you."

"But it would also kill this -- abomination..." Frodo begins, then hits at his bulging stomach with what little strength he can muster. Aragorn takes hold of his hand and gently stops him from trying to injure himself. "I cannot bear it. Who knows what twisted evil of the Dark Lord caused this? And what will I be inflicting on Middle Earth except an orc-hobbit atrocity?"

"No, no, it wasn't the orcs that did this to you," he soothes, pulling the hobbit close to him and gently rubbing Frodo's back. "I told you, I've only ever heard of a male hobbit carrying a child by a man."

"But there's been no man," Frodo sobs. "I remember the orcs at Cirith Ungol... they pawed at me, and took my clothing. They took everything..."

"Shhh." He hugs the poor, feverish hobbit closer to him, stroking his hair and kissing his head gently. Frodo does not remember the months of captivity, does not remember being kidnaped while in Minas Tirith for the coronation. His illness has wiped away many of his memories, good and ill. Only the horror of his time in Mordor breaks through occasionally -- and the knowledge that he is with child.

Frodo slips into sleep at last, and Aragorn carefully lays him on the bed, then wipes him down with cool water. He is healing; he will heal. Aragorn is using all his skill and knowledge, and Gandalf has gone to bring a healer from Lorien.

Frodo wants Aragorn to cut the child out of him. He cannot remember its conception, just as he cannot remember being held captive in Gondor by the minions of Saruman. Their harsh treatment is what has brought him to this weakened state. But Frodo only knows that he is ill, and in pain, and afraid.

Once the fever breaks, Aragorn will try speaking to him again, try to reassure him again. Perhaps Frodo's memories will return at last, though Aragorn does not know if he should pray for that or not. Much of what he has suffered is best forgotten.

"Aragorn," comes a soft whisper, and he sees Frodo's eyes are still closed. "Aragorn," he moans, dreaming yet again about a time that is the King's most precious memory.

"I'm here, my love," he whispers, laying himself next to Frodo on the wide bed, and putting his hand carefully on the belly that holds his seed.

 

Strange as News from Bree -- May, 3019

Frodo is finally healed, Sam thinks, glancing at him as they walk through the camp outside the walls of Minas Tirith. All Sam's wishes have been answered, for Frodo is full of life and health, rosy-cheeked and finally putting on some flesh. Of course, Frodo won't be coming back to the Shire with them, but that is a small price to pay for his full recovery. In the first weeks after destroying the Ring, Sam would never have believed Frodo could come so far in just three months.

In the weeks they slept, under the King's care, the world changed. Pippin was brought back from death by those same healing hands, and Gandalf, too was alive and well -- though changed. While the armies of the West drove the evil creatures who once served Sauron out of Mordor, Merry finished his own recovery and watched the Steward of Gondor fall in love with Eowyn of Rohan. Most shocking of all the changes, Arwen Evenstar, when faced with the reality of leaving her people forever, forsook Aragorn and instead chose to leave Middle Earth with her father.

From his own sick bed Sam watched Frodo's frailty and depression meet with Aragorn's heartbreak. All their hopes and dreams had come true, only to crash down into the dust. Drawn together in their suffering, Frodo and Aragorn finally saw what the others in the Fellowship had always known.

Sam smiles at Frodo as they approach the Gate of the huge walled city of men. This strange place will be Frodo's home now, and so they are learning their way around. Today they are headed to the tailor's shop, to pick up the cloaks they will wear tomorrow for the coronation. Aragorn will reenter his city at last -- something he has delayed for months, first in grief and then in the bloom of courting Frodo. Sam blushes to remember just how loud some of their courtship has been, in these flimsy tents. He is glad the nearest tents are inhabited by their closest friends, the Fellowship, who won't spread tales.

The two hobbits line up with the other citizens about to enter, but an excited voice calls out and they step aside as Aragorn and Gandalf ride up.

"Frodo! I have it!" Aragorn is clutching a plant -- a young tree, though Sam doesn't recognize the variety. "Frodo, my love, look!"

"Aragorn -- is that a sapling of the White Tree?" Aragorn's face is alight with joy, but Frodo looks frightened, not happy. He sways on his feet and Sam puts an arm around him, afraid Frodo is faint.

"I've found it -- do you understand? Do you know what this means?"

"Aragorn, you are telling the story backwards," Gandalf scolds as he dismounts from Shadowfax. "Guards! Call replacements for your duty, and take this." The wizard gently takes the tree from Aragorn and hands it to the guard. "It must be planted in the Courtyard of the Citadel. And the dead tree should be removed and placed with honor among the kings." The guards seem just as stunned as Frodo, but they rush to do as Gandalf -- Mithrandir to them -- bids. Prince Imrahil has ordered them to obey the wizard.

"Frodo, I'm sorry I've surprised you like this. I am just terribly excited." Aragorn is off his horse and next to them, but his master is no longer rosy or cheerful. Frodo looks pale and ill, and tears are in his eyes.

"You will put me aside?" he asks with a sob, and turns into Sam's embrace without heeding Aragorn's shocked denial.

"No, Frodo, no -- you simply must hear what Gandalf told me today..."

"I don't want to know!" Frodo shouts with something of his old spirit, and Sam keeps himself between them. "Whatever Gandalf has foreseen may be good news for you and your kingdom, my Lord, but I do not wish to know who will bear your heirs once I am dead!"

"Frodo! Do my vows mean nothing to you? Do you think me a liar?" Aragorn seems almost as distraught as Frodo now, both of them shaking with anger and tears.

"You will hear me out now, Frodo Baggins," Gandalf says, breaking the breaking the hurt stare the two lovers are holding. "As we walked in the mountains today, I told Aragorn that there may be a way for him to have a family with you. I have only known of one other such love, between a man and a hobbit. Ariadoc was a Took, and his family disowned him when he moved to Bree to be with his love -- and to carry his child."

Frodo has stopped crying and shaking, though he is still pale as death. Sam is sure the same look of stunned disbelief is on his own face.

"It is the truth, Frodo, though this took place more than a century ago."

"And then -- even as Gandalf was telling me this -- I found the Tree. Don't you see, Frodo? You will give me sons. Our children will rule Gondor after me!"

Frodo moves, then, straight into Aragorn's arms. The two of them make quite a scene, unheeding of the villagers and soldiers watching as they squeeze apologies and words of love between kisses.

"Mr. Gandalf," Sam asks quietly while they are engrossed with each other. "What happened to this half-hobbit, half-man child? I've never heard of such a thing."

"The child was stillborn, Sam."

Sam nods, watching the joyous lovers. "And the hobbit -- Ariadoc?"

"He died, too."

"In childbirth."

"Yes, Sam." Gandalf looks down at him sternly. "He did not have elven healers, Sam, or even someone like Aragorn to watch after his health. Frodo need not suffer the same fate."

Sam nods, looking at his master's glowing face. "He's already with child, isn't he? I thought he was finally putting on some weight, hobbit-like, but that's not what it is."

Gandalf looks startled at this observation, but merely examines Frodo himself for a moment, then nods.

"Come, Gandalf," Aragorn says with a final kiss to Frodo's forehead. "We have a meeting with Eomer and the Prince. Faramir is coming out to join us as well, to prepare for tomorrow."

The wizard smiles and they stride off together, leaving Frodo staring after his King with a dreamy expression.

"Oh, Sam. Isn't it wonderful?"

"It's actually hard for the likes of me to understand, Mr. Frodo sir."

"None of us understand it, Sam, but it's made Aragorn so happy." They finally enter the city and start the long walk to the third level. "He was willing to sacrifice the future of Gondor for me, you know. But now -- oh, Sam, now it will be possible for him to have both. Everything he deserves will be his."

Sam cannot answer, but Frodo is too happy to notice his pursed mouth and drawn brows. Frodo keeps chattering like a magpie as they enter the second level and the marketplace there. They quickly move to walk closer to the buildings, avoiding the many carts and distracted shoppers who might walk right into them.

Sam's mind is so full of the image of Frodo bursting with a man-size child, that he doesn't notice the large man blocking their way until the ruffian speaks.

"Hey, ain't you that halfling they're singing about?" The man rudely grabs Frodo's hand and he cries out in surprise before yanking it back. "Yep, only four. You're the one."

"Leave him alone, you idiot!" Sam says, wishing he had Sting. He notices another man coming closer, carrying a satchel. Then there is pain and the world goes dark.

Sam does not see them abduct Frodo. No one does.

 

Captivity

Frodo wakes in a windowless room with a fierce headache and great thirst. Drinking from the water bucket only causes him to vomit. He is still lying on the floor, trying to recover, when a man enters with a candle, then begins shouting at him.

Frodo tries to respond, but he's slow with his hands tied before him. When he doesn't sit up quickly enough, the man kicks him, then pulls him to his feet.

A second man has come into the room, carrying chains.

"Don't damage him too much. The Boss won't like that." This one doesn't hit Frodo, but he doesn't try to stop the first, either. He is thin and pinched, smaller than the first man.

"I hate these rats." Frodo will call him Hater, this big ugly man with the pimples.

"What do you want?" Frodo husks through the pain of his dry throat, only to earn a slap that knocks him to the floor.

"He isn't very strong. Do we really need to chain him?"

"Orders." That will be his name, this one who doesn't question what he's told.

Frodo is picked up and held in position while the chains are secured around his wrists, then attached to rings high in the wall. Once this is done the man feeds him some mush, cold and lumpy, but it helps settle Frodo's stomach. He cannot remember how he came to be here, or why. He cringes back when Hater moves close again.

"There's a bucket -- use it unless you want to clean up after yourself, rat. If I have to wipe up your messes, you'll pay."

"Please... release me... my friends will..."

"Your friends? We're your only friends now," Hater says with an ugly laugh, looking him up and down. "Too bad for you."

"He probably means that Ranger -- they say he was fucking the halfling." Orders looks disgusted as he picks up the food bowl and heads to the door.

"Yeah, but he's got what he wants now -- crowned King this morning. He's not thinking about a piece of rat arse anymore." They leave at last, and Frodo waits until he cannot hear their voices before he tries moving. He can sit, but not lie down. The water bucket is out of reach. The chains are heavy and noisy.

Aragorn's coronation was today? He should be able to reckon how long has he been here, but his head aches. The real question is, why is he here? Frodo has nothing of value -- why has he been abducted?

*** *** ***

The trail leads north. Legolas concentrates on the faint marks, leading the troop. Gimli rides behind him, and the three hobbits are carried by the Rohirrim on their steeds. Sam is pale in Eomer's arms -- he should still be under Aragorn's care, but he would not be left behind.

The elf feels Sam's guilt, but they all share the blame. No one saw that the Ringbearer was yet in danger. The trail points to Isengard, where an angry wizard is trapped. How could they forget Saruman?

"He's turned aside," Legolas calls. They are less than a day behind the kidnaper.

***

The trail leads north, but a King does not hunt criminals -- he sends his friends and trusted allies to perform the task, however precious the life at risk.

Gandalf has finally gone. He first made certain the King did not burn the second level marketplace to the ground. "I thought him a child, my lord, being disciplined." A King does not execute subjects for stupidity, nor for leaving Sam -- honored in all the West for his brave deeds -- lying bleeding in the gutter like trash.

Aragorn resumes his throne, held by duty. His mind is far away, chasing his heart.

***

Aragorn planned to stand alone at his coronation today, freeing the hunters to pursue Frodo's abductor without delay.

Aragorn would have stood alone -- his face stricken with pain, his eyes dry but red-rimmed. But Gandalf could not leave him in so much pain. He remained, witness and friend, knowing Shadowfax would easily make up the distance.

Now they follow, his thoughts roving in search of Frodo. How can the hobbit's bright spirit remain hidden? For Gandalf can sense the hunters ahead, feel their unified intent.

If Frodo is injured, they will join to take apart his abductor, piece by piece.

*** *** ***

Pain. Thirst.

"Water?"

Hunger has faded over the days, but there is never enough water, and he burns. His wrists bleed sluggishly every time he moves.

Orders comes at last, carrying a candle on a tray. Hater is behind him, moving restlessly.

"It's been weeks. I'm tired of this. What use is he?"

"The Boss said to watch for this halfling, and hold him." He wipes at Frodo's face and tries to spoon food into his mouth, but Frodo cannot manage to swallow even thin gruel.

"That were months ago!"

"And we didn't get no new orders, did we? Mik's gone to Isengard. We'll hear soon."

"The rat's damaged goods. Sharkey don't want 'im nomore." Hater kicks at Frodo, who no longer cries out when he is hit. "Mik'll run off with our loot."

"Boss don't trust him. He'll send it safe." Orders finally gives Frodo a dipper of water, much of which spills from his shaking hands and his eagerness to drink. "Or he'll come hisself, like he said."

"Things is changed, what with this King. Sharkey won't come to Minas Tirith now."

"The Boss ain't afraid of some trumped up Ranger." He leaves the food and water in Frodo's reach for the first time. "The halfling seems warm, even with no fire."

"So?" Hater goes out the door, and Orders follows him.

*** *** ***

Frodo is not with the ruffian. Legolas feels anger at the time wasted in tracking him -- and hatred such as no elf should bear toward a mortal. The ruffian is stupid and doesn't believe Saruman is now powerless. His fear of the wizard's wrath keeps him silent.

Gimli waves his axe threateningly; Sam is only held back by Merry and Pippin.

Impasse, until Gandalf arrives and questions the man. After many hours the sniveling ruffian cowers and fears a new wizard even more than Saruman.

"I don't know where they are! The Boss knows the place."

"We must return."

***

Gandalf is certain Frodo is in Minas Tirith. Despite war on the southern borders, Aragorn details soldiers for daily searches of the city. Nothing.

Gandalf travels to Isengard to find Saruman gone, released by Treebeard. The fallen wizard's trail leads north, toward the Shire. Gandalf returns to Gondor at top speed to convince the hobbits to return home.

"We cannot leave without Frodo," Merry reasons until Sam interrupts, fighting tears.

"He weren't never coming back, Mr. Merry, and we all know it. Now there's trouble in the Shire we can't stay here."

Two days later they ride north with Gandalf.

*** *** ***

The orcs don't whip him today. They've stripped off his clothes and taken everything. Frodo screams and struggles, but they still push him down, touching him, raping him. They took everything, but they still want something. He has nothing. He is nothing.

Someone tries to give him water and food.

"Sam?"

"Eat, can't you?"

Not Sam, no -- it's an orc, but he sounds frightened. No, Frodo is frightened, that's why he's shaking so hard as the orc wraps a blanket around him. Burning, he's fallen into Mount Doom and he'll burn forever now.

He is wasted, like Gollum, except for his belly, which grows despite his constant hunger. The day he realizes what it means, Frodo tries to stab himself with the orc's blade. His scream when they snap his wrist is despair, not pain -- he can't destroy the abomination.

"Good thing I came in, Bob, or you'd be dead now. Stupid to carry a knife in here, inn't it?"

"He's never done anything like... he's still delirious. We need a healer."

"You had me kill the last one so's he wouldn't run his mouth. There's no money for another."

"There's no money at all if the halfling dies."

"Mik never came back and it's months since you sent word. Sharkey don't want the rat, we should just get rid of him."

*** *** ***

Aragorn posts a reward for information, hoping the kidnappers need money since Saruman has not paid them. But weeks pass without news; Gandalf returns and finally Aragorn despairs. Frodo must be dead.

Legolas and Gimli still search, spending time in taverns and shabby neighborhoods, ears open. They learn a healer was murdered last month and there is no one helping the people in one of the poorest areas in Minas Tirith. Legolas sets up shop, taking small coins to clean wounds and wrap sprains.

Then a man comes to him on a bright October day seeking medicine for a fever.

*** *** ***

Legolas exchanges a look with Gimli when the man stutters a negative reply to his offer to visit the sick child.

"Fever can be very serious in young children, sir. It would be wise to let me examine your son."

"Will you give me the damn medicine or not?" The man is halfway to the door, but Legolas uses his most soothing voice to calm him and bring him back. The man doesn't notice Gimli leaving the shop.

"Of course you shall have whatever you need. But I cannot be sure of the proper dosage without knowing the child's weight and the severity of the fever."

"He shakes all the time. He hasn't eaten in ... days. He's thin and weak."

"What's your son's name?" Legolas asks as he mixes the herbs carefully. There is a long pause before the man replies.

"Mik. His name is Mik."

"Make a tea with these herbs -- four spoonfuls to a pot, and strain it. Cool it for a few minutes and give it to Mik immediately, then again tonight. There is enough to repeat this tomorrow, if the fever does not break." Legolas smiles at the very nervous man, who throws him a copper and leaves without a word of thanks.

Mik was the name of the man they followed toward Isengard three months ago. Can it be coincidence? The elf steps out of the shop and Gimli is pointing him after the man.

"You're quieter. I'll find a guard."

Legolas follows him through the streets to a tavern. The man spends a lot of time there, drinking ale, and the story of the ill son seems less likely. Gimli returns with one of the Citadel guards long before the man leaves.

He is drunk now, stumbling and cursing, humming to himself as he walks. It is easy to follow him to the first level -- is he leaving the city? There are few houses on this level.

He turns in at a stable and they see there is a shack behind, not meant to be a house. But the man pounds on the door, swearing and threatening, until a much warier man cracks it open.

"Shut up, you fool. Did you drink all the money I gave you for the healer?"

"Nah. Some do-gooder foreign type will take 'whatever you can pay.' Ain't that great?"

The door closes and they approach, but only Legolas can hear their conversation continue as they go into the back room.

"Rat! Wake up, little rat!" The big brute laughs, and Legolas hears a slap, but no cry. "This will wake you..." in a threatening tone, and then there is a sharp cry of pain. "That wrist hurt?"

"Leave him alone. How do we feed him this?"

"How should I remember? Make tea or something... it won't matter, the rat's going to die. Sharkey hasn't paid and we didn't even get sport from him."

Legolas has heard enough. No matter who is inside the shack, these men are criminals and must be stopped. He speaks to the guard, who draws his sword and kicks open the door. They follow him inside one of the foulest-smelling holes imaginable -- it could be an orc-cave. There are two dirty pallets in this room, and a small fire.

But when they rush into the next room, it is worse. This windowless room smells of waste and is cold and damp. The men struggle, but are easily overpowered. The guard ties their hands and moves them outside. Legolas hears his horn sounding for reinforcements even as he finds the huddled pile of rags chained to the wall.

Frodo looks dead, but there is no peace in his face. The elf unwraps the blanket to reveal a skeletal body with an absurdly swollen belly. His face, arms and torso are marred with bruises, and his right wrist is twice the size of the left, the metal cuff cutting into swollen flesh. Legolas feels the tears on his face and wills himself to stay in control. There is no time for weeping now.

"Sam was right. But Aragorn doesn't know," Gimli breathes, tears rolling down his face. "He's alive?"

"Yes -- but we must send for the King immediately. I don't know..." He scoops up Frodo, then stops, hindered by the chains. "Gimli, a moment -- can you cut these?" Two swift blows with the dwarf's axe and Frodo is taken into the first room, where at least the air is warmer.

"Hold on, Frodo. You're safe at last. Aragorn will be here soon."

The dwarf leaves to find a runner to fetch Aragorn while Legolas lays Frodo on one of the pallets and wraps him in his cloak. He would wash Frodo, but there is little water and no kettle for heating it. He retrieves the package of tea from where the ruffian dropped it, and sets a mug of water near the fire to heat. The fever is high, but it may be the least of Frodo's ailments.

Frodo's eyes drift open, but the hobbit does not know Legolas, nor to recognize where he is. He whispers softly and Legolas cannot hear the words until he finishes measuring tea into the mug and moves closer. Then Frodo's hoarse plea is clear.

"Kill me please kill me I don't have it kill me please..."

"No, Frodo, you're safe now. We shall heal you, I swear it." Tears fall again as he cradles the hobbit to him, trying to stop the broken plea. When Gimli returns the dwarf holds the hobbit upright and Legolas carefully spoons tea into his parched mouth. Frodo does not seem capable of swallowing, though Legolas massages his throat and gives him only small amounts.

Soon there is a clatter outside, hooves and voices, then Aragorn and Gandalf burst through the door. Both stop short, shock plain in their faces. Frodo does not react to the sight of either of them, or so they believe until the hobbit's wasted hand grabs Legolas' knife and pulls it from his belt.

"Frodo!" Aragorn darts forward as the hobbit shoves away from the elf and turns the blade on himself, clumsily aiming for his bulging stomach. The move causes Aragorn to drop to his knees, hands held out to his side, trying not to threaten the frightened hobbit. "Frodo, my love, please don't do this."

"Must kill it, must die now," Frodo pants, but then his bloodshot, fever-bright eyes see Gandalf. "But -- you're dead. Am I dead, too? Is it finally over?"

"Frodo, come to me lad," Gandalf says, forcing a smile. "Everything is fine now." The knife drops from shaking hands as Frodo tries to move to the wizard, but he doesn't have the strength. He falls and is caught up in Aragorn's arms. The King is quickly on his feet, holding Frodo close.

"Guard! Bring my horse, then ride ahead to the House of Healing. I want a bed prepared and a warm bath. And a locksmith, to remove these cuffs." He quickly mounts, still clutching Frodo, then looks back to his friends. "I cannot thank you enough, both of you. You have saved my life today."

Gimli stands with him as Aragorn rides away, for Legolas needs a moment to gather himself enough to follow, though he should be eager to leave the horror of this wretched place.

"Gandalf, have you told Aragorn? Or.. could he not see?" Legolas is glad Gimli had the courage to ask, but Gandalf stares after Aragorn and does not answer.

 

Recovery

Sam is gently fussing over Frodo when Aragorn approaches.

"Good morning," he says with a smile as they both start up, then force themselves to remain seated. They agreed only yesterday to cease the bowing each feels the others are owed -- but it still bothers Frodo, who visibly twitches.

"Hullo, Strider," Sam barks in a most disrespectful manner, startling a laugh from Frodo, bless him. "Maybe you can tempt our Frodo to eat like a hobbit this fine morning?"

"I hope I can, Sam. Gandalf suggested Frodo's appetite might be improved by a picnic, away from the camp. Will you ride with me?"

The happy light in his eyes is answer enough, and soon Aragorn is galloping south with Frodo tucked safely before him. Faramir suggested their destination, a high meadow in South Ithilien that neither has seen before. Frodo never passed an afternoon in deadly danger here. Aragorn never stood on this ground dreaming of a future with Arwen.

It is a fine Spring day and the sun is high overhead when they reach the hillside. The river can be glimpsed below, but it looks nothing like the Anduin where they traveled it, swift and rocky. Here it winds between the trees and cuts across green meadows, meandering calmly south.

Wildflowers bloom, newly-budding trees shade them, and Aragorn finds it's easy to speak with Frodo, even if his fragile beauty takes Aragorn's breath away whenever the sunlight catches his eyes, or when he smiles in simple delight at a new discovery.

They explore on foot for a time, then spread a blanket beneath a tree and eat. Aragorn actually falls asleep briefly, his belly pleasantly full and the air hazy and warm. When he wakes, Frodo is watching him, his eyes old. The hobbit is even more breathtaking in his seriousness.

"She still loves you," he says, and Aragorn's throat fills.

"And I her, Frodo, though my love is now that of a brother for his sister. I wish her well -- happiness is all I ever wanted for her." He cannot stop the tear that escapes down his face, though he means every word. Frodo nods, but his face seems less calm now, closer to unhappiness.

"What do you wish for yourself, Aragorn? Now that you are King, what do you long for?"

"Peace for my people."

"No, for yourself, not Gondor."

They stare at each other for long moments. Aragorn knows what he wants -- it is beside him. Beauty, strength and fierce courage embodied. Can he admit this, and claim Frodo? Can he forsake the dream of his own dynasty, with the heirs of his body ruling Gondor for the next Age?

As he ponders these questions he has asked himself many times, Frodo breaks eye contact and rolls away, onto his back, with an attempt at a smile.

"It is too fine a day for such serious conversation, I think. I'm sorry, Aragorn."

Despite the light words, Aragorn feels Frodo's pain. He takes silence as rejection and accepts it without complaint, as if such a response could be right or fair. Aragorn owes his future to this hobbit who will not claim any reward. Frodo will love him but will not try to hold him.

"Conversation *is* tiring. Perhaps there is a better way to show you what I want." He moves to straddle Frodo, ignoring his startled look, and claims that sweet mouth with a loving kiss. Aragorn pours all his unspoken feelings into the caress, delighted when Frodo responds, his arms encircling Aragorn's neck, his body arching upwards into the embrace.

The next few hours are full of kisses, apologies, words of love and vows of devotion. When the sun is low in the West, Aragorn finally sees Frodo's nude body as a lover, not a healer, and they make love. Simple pleasure with hands and mouths becomes sacred pleasure as Frodo moans and calls his name. Every sound, every sensation is burned into Aragorn's memory, never to be forgotten.

This is their first time together.

Frodo has forgotten it all.

***

King Elessar strides into the Houses of Healing bearing Frodo, and the healers run to serve them both.

"When my lord Mithrandir arrives, send him to me immediately," he orders before entering the room that has been prepared to his command.

"Yes, your highness," says Amatine, who leaves only long enough to entrust the King's message to a boy who will wait outside for the wizard. When she returns with fresh linens, both the King and the halfling are in the still-steaming tub. The halfling lolls, unconscious, as the King gently cleanses bruised flesh.

"May I assist, highness?"

"No, thank you. But make sure the locksmith is sent in immediately."

His command is silently obeyed, and soon after Amatine brings in the elderly man who has served the House of the Steward for many years. He cannot control his gasp when he sees the halfling, but he swiftly removes the heavy cuff and chain from the left wrist. The right wrist proves more difficult, however, and the halfling moans and cries out as he works the tight metal.

"Be careful!"

"Yes, your majesty, I'm very sorry but this will hurt him."

"I can bring a sedative, my lord, to dull the pain," Amatine offers.

"No! He is too weak -- the child could be injured."

The locksmith and Amatine exchange shocked looks. Although both saw the swollen flesh, neither suspected that the halfling -- a male halfling -- is bearing a child.

At last the cuff opens and is gently pulled away from the torn flesh beneath by the King himself. The locksmith is dismissed, Amatine paying him from the King's own purse, then seeing him out. She returns to assist the King in drying the halfling and setting the bone.

By dawn, when Amatine leaves for home, the news of Frodo's condition is widely known throughout the House of Healing. By the time she returns to duty the next evening, it is gossip throughout the City. The hands of the King have great healing power, but no one believes the halfling will survive.

***

"Where am I?" Frodo whispers, and it is difficult to answer. Aragorn's mouth works, but he wants to say too much, so no words emerge.

"Safe," Gandalf replies. "Healing."

"The orcs..."

"Gone. Dead."

"The Ring..."

"Destroyed. You are in the keeping of the King, Frodo, and all is well." Although he relaxes back into sleep, it is clear Frodo does not remember who is King -- or what they have been to each other.

When Gandalf leaves, Aragorn weeps over his love's wasted body and their starved child.

***

"Gandalf, his memories are confused. I fear his mind has been disordered by his ordeal."

"He still burns with fever, Aragorn. His confusion is part of the delirium."

"I cannot heal him myself. The injuries are so great..." Aragorn strides around the room angrily, not used to feeling helpless.

"Elven healers, those with a true gift, may be able to help you," Legolas suggests softly from where he sits on the wide bed, combing what is left of Frodo's curls. They had to cut his hair short, for it was matted and tangled beyond repair. Combined with his emaciation, the change makes Frodo unrecognizable. Legolas, who saw Frodo the day he was pulled from Mount Doom, has to remind himself that this pain-wracked being is the hobbit he knows.

"Elrond cannot come quickly enough," Aragorn says.

"There are healers in Lothlorien," Gandalf replies. "If they could speed his healing..."

"Would they come?" Aragorn appears afraid to hope.

"All my people honor Frodo as Ringbearer and elf-friend."

"I will be back as soon as possible." Gandalf is out the door as he speaks, and Aragorn collapses into the chair at last

Legolas thinks that only when Frodo is briefly conscious does the recognizable spirit of his friend appear. He remembers nothing of his recent ordeal. But when he sleeps he screams of orcs, pleading that he no longer has the Ring. Awake and asleep he has begged them to kill the child inside him, not understanding how it was conceived.

Legolas hums a song, hoping to lull Frodo into a deeper sleep. He wishes he had true healing skills, for Frodo and for Aragorn, who badly needs rest. He has not left this room for three days. His official duties have been forgotten. All his energy is concentrated on the two beating hearts in Frodo's worn body.

***

Wenathen and Denier ride to the seventh level with Mithrandir, ignoring the stares from the people of Minas Tirith. The Ringbearer is dying, as all mortals die -- but Frodo is carrying a precious life, and Gandalf seems positive this is not his appointed time. The Lady Galadriel agrees, so they carry cordials and herbs Men do not know which may help with Frodo's unique condition.

At the House of Healing it is easy to brush aside the woman who tends Frodo, but only Mithrandir can remove the frantic King Elessar from the bedside and give them freedom to work.

"Thank the Valar you are here at last. He did not wake yestereve."

"Aragorn my friend, come with me and let Wenathen examine Frodo."

"No, I must stay. She may have questions..."

"You need a warm meal, sire, and your ministers are waiting to give their reports."

Mithrandir's words seem meaningless to Elessar for a moment. He stares stupidly, his bloodshot eyes flitting around the sick room in a panic.

"You have other duties, Aragorn. Frodo will be cared for. Now come, take some rest."

The cajoling and reasoning continue for a long time while Wena bathes Frodo and the child, and Denier sings a healing song. But Mithrandir persists, and by the time the song wakes the hobbit they are alone.

Frodo is able to drink water, then take a dose of Galadriel's cordial. He stares at the elves but does not speak.

"I am Wena, Frodo Baggins, and this is my partner Denier. We are here to help you heal, if you wish it." A weak nod is the only reply. "Very well. Rest now, Frodo, and let us care for you."

Hours later, after sunset, Elessar returns to lie on the bed and hold Frodo. Denier changes his song to include the king in the aura of healing and rest they weave.

***

The foreign healers -- elf folk, she supposes, and a queer lot they are -- stay with the halfling day and night, emerging only to ask for herbs, medicines, and more water. The sound of singing comes from the room at all hours, a mournful noise. It brings tears to the eyes of all who hear it, but the patients in the nearest rooms sleep soundly and improve more quickly than is normal.

The King is finally behaving as he should instead of acting like a madman. He still spends every night in this House where the halfling hovers between life and death, but he goes to the Hall in the morning to hear cases and rule his kingdom. Amatine wonders if the halfling and the wizard have somehow enchanted him, for why should a strong, fine man care so much for this frail, odd creature?

She asks Enid about it as they move the most seriously ill to the room next to the halfling, but they cannot agree on an answer.

***

"I want to speak to Gandalf. Alone." Frodo's stubbornness is the first thing to recover. He is still too weak to sit up, and sleeps most of the day, but the hobbit knows what he wants.

Legolas smiles at Gimli as they leave the room, leading Aragorn between them. The King of the West has been evicted from a room in his own city by one small, sick hobbit.

Of course, Gandalf knows that Aragorn would throw himself off the wall of the Citadel if Frodo wished it. The King performs his duties. The dark circles under his eyes are fading and the frantic, haunted expression has finally left his face. But Aragorn's life is still centered here with Frodo.

"Wena says I should not be told too much. She thinks it best if I remember on my own." Frodo shifts in the bed, wincing with pain. "But she said I could ask you about this thing I bear." He gestures at the child in his womb.

"What do you wish to know, Frodo?"

"Aragorn says you told him hobbits can bear man-children."

Gandalf remembers the day Frodo was kidnaped. How distant it seems, Aragorn's exultation when he found the tree and the wizard shared this story for the first time.

"I know of one hobbit who loved a man very much. He left the Shire to live with his love, and he carried the man's child."

Frodo nods, looking thoughtful. "So you believe, like Aragorn, that this is not some foul curse of the Enemy or Saruman?"

"There is no reason to believe it is so."

Frodo's eyes close and he asks no more questions, but now Gandalf feels a need for answers. He waits, exercising his patience, until Frodo gathers his strength and speaks again.

"I'd like to speak to Aragorn now. You may stay if you wish -- but not Legolas or Gimli, please." The hobbit has not spoken of his condition to the elf and dwarf, and Gandalf wonders if Frodo thinks they are unaware of the child.

Aragorn returns, looking incredibly happy when Frodo smiles at him.

"Aragorn, you saved this child when I wished to kill it. Thank you, for it is wrong of me to blame the babe for how it was conceived." Aragorn seems about to answer, but he catches Gandalf's eye and remains silent. Frodo continues softly, "I am glad that I do not remember being raped by those men. It may make these next months easier. But I will not keep this child with me, for I cannot love it."

"You may feel differently when the baby is born," Gandalf says, trying to distract him from Aragorn's stricken face.

"No." Frodo is losing strength quickly now, gasping out his request brokenly. "Will you find a home for the child? Someone who will love it despite being half-hobbit? There must be those who wish for children and cannot..."

Aragorn is pale but composed as he replies. "I promise you this child will be given a good home, Frodo, full of love and care."

"Thank you." He relaxes, whiter than the pillowcase, but looking relieved.

Aragorn sits next to Frodo as he falls back to sleep, stroking his hand and watching him until Wena re-enters the room.

"Out, both of you. Let Frodo rest now that his mind is at ease."

Before they can obey there is a clatter of noise in the hallway, and the door bursts open. Three frantic, joyous hobbits just arrived from the Shire rush in and run to Frodo's side.

 

Reawakening

When they first arrive Sam weeps, clutching Frodo's hand, and Pippin leaves the room to be sick, a white-faced Merry supporting him.

By the time Frodo wakes there is no sign of the horrible grief and guilt they all feel seeing him so ill. They are prepared, smiling and cheerful, full of jokes and affection.

In the days that follow Sam smiles and whistles, tending Frodo as if he still were the absent-minded master of Bag End. Merry and Pippin also visit at least half the day, eating cakes and talking both at once. Their chatter is full of news and gossip about the Shire, and tales of Sam's work at turning it all into a garden thanks to Galadriel's gift. None of them mention the destruction Saruman wrought, or how the disgraced wizard was murdered at the door of Bag End.

Frodo listens to them, mostly silent but smiling. Since they arrived he has been able to take some solid food, and Wena nods approvingly and never forbids the hobbits entry.

Later, back in their own rooms, they hear the fears they will not voice being whispered aloud by the servants.

"He's too weak to bear a child. It will kill him."

"Unnatural thing, best if it dies."

"But the King says he'll save them..."

"He's crazy for an heir, but why he thinks the halfling can give him a healthy child..."

"...some wooly-footed creature, not a proper king of Gondor..."

Sam weeps each night, safely out of Frodo's sight, his grief almost uncontrollable. His guilt is soothed as he is held safe in Merry and Pippin's arms. But they are all unable to sleep while the voices of despair murmur in the hallways of Aragorn's citadel.

When Frodo slips into sleep during their visits, Denier sings the others to sleep as well. Wena fills the food she prepares for them all with healing. Both elves begin to understand why the Wise trusted a halfling with the destruction of Sauron's Ring. The courage and determination of all four hobbits is unique.

***

"Legolas, where is the Queen?"

"I do not understand, Frodo. Who are you asking for?"

"Arwen -- she is queen now, isn't she, since Aragorn is king?"

"Oh, Frodo." He debates telling Frodo more, but all visitors know Wena's instructions, so he simply says "Arwen is not here."

"I suppose she will come soon, then. I hope she does, for Aragorn seems so unhappy..." Frodo's eyes move to the window, where Aragorn has gone outside to talk with Gandalf. He promised to return with luncheon for the hobbits.

Legolas sees the same love that was always in Frodo's heart still burns brightly. If only the hobbit could remember...

Gimli is laughing with Pippin, remembering their picnic at Isengard, and Frodo's eye is drawn back into the room. He smiles and listens, for they can recount their own adventures -- the ones he took no part in -- to his heart's content. And they do. Each of them retells their part in the War of the Ring, and Frodo sets Merry to taking notes. Sometimes he remembers an event, and Sam is there to confirm the memory. They celebrate each time with tiny glasses of wine, Frodo's well-laced with elvish cordial.

It is slow work, but these weeks are blessed to them all. Frodo eats with them, only a few mouthfuls at a time before he tires, but his face again has color. His flesh, however, is slow to fill out -- except his stomach. That swells alarmingly, as if all the nourishment he takes goes straight to the child, making up for lost time.

Wena has declared that Frodo must stay in bed until he is delivered, and she will remain to nurse him. Denier also is unwilling to leave Frodo. Aragorn moves them all into a suite of rooms near the House of Healing. Frodo's apartment is furnished with hobbit-size chairs and tables, as well as man-sized furnishings. Frodo's bed, however, remains full size -- large enough for Aragorn, who sleeps with him each night. Can Frodo be unaware of this? He is still unconscious more than not.

"Have some tea, Legolas," Wena says, pressing a cup into his hand. "You're worried."

"My friends still suffer."

"They are all improving," she insists, and her partner moves to stand beside her, a hand on her shoulder.

"In body, perhaps." He sips the apple tea and smiles. "It is their hearts that concern me now."

"Have no fear. Those, too, will mend," Denier assures him.

Legolas holds their eyes. He can see that they, too, have come under the hobbit's spell. The light from Frodo shines ever-clearer for those who can see. With a smile and a nod he agrees to trust their wisdom, for a time.

***

Aragorn sees the improvement in Frodo and blesses the hobbits for their swift return to Gondor.

He quietly arranges for carts of food from the South to be sent to the Shire and distributed to those still struggling this winter with the shortages from Saruman's destruction of their crops and stores. It is a small way to thank them all. He would shower Sam, Merry and Pippin with gold, jewels -- whatever they wish. But he has nothing they want, while they are daily giving him hope that Frodo's health can truly be restored.

Sam and the cousins have reminded Frodo of things he somehow lost in his nightmare of pain-- the Shire, love, simple happiness. Legolas and Gimli, too, have helped Frodo remember the Fellowship, their quest, and the ultimate victory over darkness.

But no one can remind him of Aragorn's love, except Aragorn himself. And he does not know how to do it, though it should be a simple task.

He sleeps with Frodo every night, as he has since the rescue. He reads to him, bathes him, speaks as a friend and listens as a confidant. Yet it seems that Frodo only sees a healer at work, not a lover offering himself.

And Frodo never discusses the child he carries with any of his friends, hiding himself behind cushions and in large robes. Surely he knows they are aware of his condition. But Frodo prefers to ignore it himself. Only once in more than a month has Aragorn seen Frodo holding his stomach, feeling the babe move. His eyes were full of wonder for a moment, quickly replaced by horror.

The nursery adjoining Aragorn's bed chamber is now complete, furbished with fine linens, silks, and baby clothes hand made by the woman of his household. A wet nurse and several nannies have been secured for the proper time, all from families who have served the Stewards for many years.

He will have his child, but he wants a family. He wants all of Frodo, spouse and lover and friend. Aragorn has pledged himself to Frodo and considers himself wed to one who remembers only friendship.

***

Sam is reading to Frodo, but he can tell Frodo is daydreaming. He puts the book aside.

"What's on your mind, love?"

Frodo smiles fondly at Sam, but there is a long pause before he speaks, and he seems almost shy.

"Do you miss Rosie?"

"Yes, a little. It helps that we're settled. She waited for me and we'll be married when I return."

"I'm very happy for you, Sam. I know you'll be blessed together." Frodo looks away, then out the window, then back. "Perhaps I could be at your wedding, Sam, to toast your future?"

"That's a ways off. Too soon to be making plans."

"I know I can't leave until this child is born. It's horrible to impose on you like this, but -- oh Sam. Could you wait until I've recovered and take me back to the Shire with you? I want to go home so badly."

"If that's what you want, Frodo, you know I'll be happy to do it. But you may feel differently. Wait and see." Sam shifts uncomfortably, wishing he could just tell Frodo what's what. But Wena has trusted him to be here, and he doesn't want to harm Frodo. Sam doesn't see how it could do any harm -- but he's just a gardener, not a healer or mind-reader. Surely the elf knows what's best.

"I won't change my mind. It hurts too much to be here, Sam, and it will only be worse when he..." Frodo's voice trails off sadly, and Sam wonders what he fears.

"It hurts to be here? But why... Aragorn will do whatever you ask to make you comfortable..."

"I... Aragorn is the problem, Sam. Not that he's done anything wrong. He's been wonderful. It's me."

Sam climbs onto the bed and takes Frodo into his arms. "There's nothing wrong with you, not to me nor to Aragorn. So tell Sam what's wrong."

"I.. I dream of him, Sam. I dream of making love with Aragorn, even though I know it is wrong. I cannot help loving him, as I could not help it from the day I met him. He is so noble and strong." Frodo looks down at his distorted body and his face twists with disgust. "I'm soiled, again, even more weak and useless -- and he knows it all. He sees the worst of me, yet is still so kind..."

"Frodo, no one thinks you are soiled. What them orcs did to you... it wasn't your fault..." Sam is crying now, and finds he cannot stop. He is pulled into Frodo's arms and held, being comforted by the one who needs his comfort as they both remember Cirith Ungol.

When exhaustion takes Frodo, Sam remains in his arms, trying to work out what is the right thing to do.

***

Aragorn fills Frodo's room with flowers from Umbar, trying to give him Spring though it is Winter in the city. Frodo smiles and admires their beauty, but seems distracted. He is absent when Aragorn speaks -- very unusual behavior.

Erik the Carpenter arrives with Aragorn's newest gift. The device has been crafted to support the books Frodo loves but is still too weak to hold. The table will fit over the hobbit in his bed, and has clever springs on arms that hold the volume open. Frodo will only have to turn the page to read for himself.

The hobbit's delight is beautiful to see. He will be in this bed for another three months or more, and now he can entertain himself with Aragorn's library. Many volumes are already in the room, but Frodo has depended on others to read to him.

"Aragorn, thank you so much. And Master Erik, I cannot praise you enough for inventing this. How very clever you are! I am truly in your debt, sir."

Erik blushes at Frodo's effusive comments, but looks well-pleased at the purse Aragorn gives him before he leaves.

But once they are alone and Aragorn has claimed the weak thank-you hug Frodo so willingly bestows, the hobbit grows quiet again.

"Frodo -- are you tired? Is there pain?"

"No, I'm sorry. Looking at these flowers has made me think of the Spring to come. I suppose you are waiting for that time for your wedding?"

"My ... wedding?"

"Arwen is not here, Legolas said. Is she somehow reluctant to leave her people and the beauty of Rivendell for this city of stone? I thought you would be wed as soon as your coronation took place. How can she remain away so long?" Frodo is blushing as he speaks, and Aragorn's heart soars at the passion behind his last question.

"She will not be coming to Minas Tirith, Frodo. Arwen had a change of heart and chose not to forsake her people, nor to be parted from her father forever." Aragorn still cannot speak of it without emotion.

"No wonder you've been so sad." Frodo sits up, reaching for him, and Aragorn sits next to him, enfolding his love. "I'm so terribly sorry. I feel like such a clod, speaking of her... Why didn't Legolas tell me?"

"I suppose he thought you would remember, as you've been doing so well since Sam arrived." Aragorn smiles at him, then presses a kiss to Frodo's brow. "Now I must insist that you relax, or Wena will have my hide for tiring you." Frodo actually yawns in response.

"Aragorn... can you stay until I fall asleep?"

"Certainly." He lies beside Frodo, wrapping him securely in his arms, delighted when Frodo snuggles closer with a contented sigh.

"Thank you." Frodo is asleep before the words are finished. Aragorn doesn't leave, however, but settles in to watch him, the fairest flower in all of Gondor. His hand creeps to the baby, delighted by the slight movements that show his babe is fully awake.

"You have survived so much, my strong child, so I know you will be a formidable ruler someday. But I hope you will also have Frodo's love of learning, and his sweet nature. Now rest, little love, and do not disturb him."

***

Sam enters the room hours later and finds them spooned together like lovers, but he can tell from Strider's guilty start when his eyes drift open that nothing has been resolved. Things were a lot smoother the first time around with these two -- and even then, the survivors of the Fellowship were tearing their hair out, trying to help move them along.

"Strider, can I speak to you?" The man nods and carefully extracts himself from the wide bed. Frodo rolls and reaches after him without waking, a frown on his face. They move through the outer rooms, nodding politely to Wena, before reaching the courtyard that faces Frodo's window. Only there in the open air does Sam speak again.

"I think you should tell him."

"Sam, you know what Wena said about Frodo's memories."

"Aye, and I know what she hasn't said, too. Don't tell Frodo what he did or felt in the past. But why not tell him what you feel right now?"

Aragorn looks surprised. It's a simple, common-sense approach. So -- hobbity. Perhaps Sam sees more clearly than he can.

"I've tried to show him how I feel, every day."

"Actions speak loud as words. We say that in the Shire, too. But I've always added 'not with a Baggins.'" Sam smiles ruefully. "He's convinced you still love Arwen, isn't he? Can't remember she's tossed you--" Sam breaks off with a blush, but Aragorn waves his hand impatiently.

"Don't worry, Sam, it's fine. So you believe Frodo can't see that I love him?"

"We all see it -- but he don't interpret it proper. Bagginses might be right smart about books and such, but they can be pretty thick about feelings, even their own." Sam bites his tongue to stop himself from telling Aragorn that Frodo's own feelings have misled him. Since they first arrived in Bree, Frodo's daydreams have all centered around this tall Ranger-King. But Aragorn never knew that, not even when they finally became lovers. It's not for Sam to betray Frodo's secrets.

"Frodo had lasses and lads after him back home, and he barely noticed. All caught up in elf stories and his daydreams. Now he sees you mooning and caring for him so tender. But he calls it missing Arwen and being friendly."

Aragorn is considering his words. Sam can practically hear his mind working on the idea, gnawing at it like a dog with a bone.

"I'll leave you to it," Sam offers, going back to the doorway. "Talk to Gandalf, or Wena if you need to be certain. I don't think I'm wrong about this."

***

"Frodo, I must confess something to you." Aragorn strokes the beloved face, pushing damp curls back so he can press a kiss on the pale forehead. "I love you. I have loved you since Arwen released me. You filled the place in my heart she emptied with your beauty, courage and sweetness. I can only face the future and fulfill my duties if you are at my side."

He holds Frodo close and smiles down at the hobbit in his arms. Soon, he vows, he will speak while Frodo is awake.

 

Revelation

Gandalf is enjoying his daily -- well, nightly -- visit to Frodo when Legolas and Gimli arrive. Usually the others visit in the day, and Gandalf is alone with the hobbit in the evening, but they've just returned from Aragorn's banquet for the ambassadors from Khand. They are too excited after dining and drinking for long hours to seek their beds immediately.

Gimli in particular is very talkative, more so than he usually is when faced with Frodo's sick room. Normally Wena's placid face and Frodo's too-apparent weakness keep him silent and fidgety, but tonight that unease has been washed away by copious goblets of good wine.

Gimli regales them with the story of his dinner conversation.

"I was seated with the senior ambassador's wife, lovely woman and very friendly. Intelligent, too, though it's hard to notice with that get-up. These Khandian ladies may wish to wear more clothing here in Minas Tirith, and I told her so."

"Gimli, you did not dictate proper dress to one of Aragorn's honored guests," Legolas scolds.

"No, but I told her a nice thick shawl would keep her warm here in this wintry weather. Aye, and I told her she'd be more comfortable in a nice dwarf-hall, underground with proper fires."

Gandalf cannot stop his smile as his listens to the two friends bicker. Frodo, too, is enjoying the conversation. He looks less tired tonight, Gandalf thinks. He'll ask Wena her opinion, but perhaps Frodo's body is finally recovering some strength.

"But Aragorn's halls are more pleasant than most man-cities," Gimli declaims, and Legolas snorts.

"The only man-cities you've seen are Laketown and Edoras, and neither has stone buildings."

"Well you were fawning over that painter, Bern, all through dinner, weren't you? Telling him how much his work has warmed Aragorn's nursery? And it is fine work, though we dwarves don't usually cover beautiful stone with such rot. Still, very appropriate for a child -- alphabets and animals, and some of those riddle-rhymes Bilbo loves."

Legolas is trying to signal the dwarf, and Gandalf tries to think of a graceful way to change the subject, though it is probably too late. Frodo's confusion is evident in his knit brow. Why couldn't he have fallen asleep during Gimli's lengthy story?

"Of course the whole city is talking of Bern's murals. But what type of building do the Khardians favor?" Gimli is opening his mouth to answer Gandalf when Frodo's soft voice cuts in.

"Gimli -- what nursery are you speaking of, where these paintings are?"

"Aragorn's nursery, for his child."

Frodo's face turns so white that even Gimli sobers rapidly, full of alarm. The dwarf shouts for Wena while Gandalf tries to make Frodo lay back.

"Aragorn has a child?" Gimli hears the weak question and speaks before anyone can stop him.

"Your child, Frodo -- yours and Aragorn's. What did you think I meant? Blast it, whatever is the matter with him now? Wena!"

For Frodo, who has now turned green, is promptly sick all over himself, his bed, and Gandalf.

***

Aragorn slowly walks to Frodo's rooms, feeling a little worn after a day and night of diplomacy. The Khandians will be valuable allies in the work of cleansing Mordor. And some day they may be able to settle the land, now that nature has a chance to reclaim the earth Sauron tortured for so many years.

He arrives at the house and smiles, hoping Frodo is still awake for a good-night hug.

What he finds when he enters is an uproar. Frodo, white as a ghost, is on a big chair pulled close to the kitchen fire, wrapped in several blankets. Despite the coverings and the roaring fire, his lips look blue and he shakes. Denier supports him as Wena tries to push a spoon between his lips.

"Frodo, what has happened?" Aragorn rushes to his side, but Frodo shrinks back without answering.

"Come, you'll feel better if you drink this," Wena coaxes, but he stubbornly shakes his head and refuses to open his mouth. Denier rubs Frodo's back and hums, and Frodo tries to pull away from him, too.

Aragorn is ready to demand an explanation, but as he draws breath to speak the door to Frodo's bed chamber opens and Legolas emerges, his arms full of soiled linens.

"I'll take these to the laundress when.." The elf stops, staring at Aragorn, and a bustling dwarf runs smack into him.

"What in Durin's name? Oh, Aragorn." The dwarf looks guilty, but then continues "Don't go in there unless you want to soothe a very disgruntled wizard. I tried to help him and he threatened to turn me into a warg."

"And I still will if you don't learn to think before you speak, Gimli--" thunders out of the room, and Gandalf appears, wearing naught but his breeches, his eyebrows bristling.

"I told you, I took a bit of wine!"

"You told me dwarves can hold their drink!"

Aragorn watches his friends argue, dazed, then turns back to Frodo, who is red-faced now and has ceased shaking. Wena still looks cross, but Aragorn relaxes, thinking he looks much better. But maybe a little... angry?

"I want to speak to the King, now. Alone." Frodo says loudly and distinctly, and the room becomes instantly silent.

"You've had a shock," Wena replies. "Take some rest first, and drink this cordial."

Denier adds, "I'm sure my lord Elessar will return when you're feeling b..."

Frodo cuts him off quite rudely. "Now, if you please. Leave us, all of you." Aragorn realizes he's seeing the attitude the Master of Bag End used when displeased with the lower classes. Frodo told him how Bilbo had insisted he learn to be commanding, though he hated the thought of intimidating his fellow hobbits.

Evidently he doesn't mind intimidating elves, dwarves, and wizards in the least. Frodo glares around the room, and his guests and the healers drop their eyes, then look at Aragorn, then glance back at the hobbit.

Then, incredibly, they silently file out.

"I've never seen you so short with Wena and Denier, Frodo."

"Aragorn, I want the truth from you. This child I carry..." Frodo's bravado has failed him now, and he is red-faced as he continues. "Gimli said you have a nursery." The guilty look from Gimli is explained.

"I promised you the child would have a loving home, Frodo, but I did not tell you that home would be with me, in my Hall."

"You would take a child that is not yours? Why should you care for it?"

"I..." Aragorn cannot delay speaking the truth any longer. "I care for you, Frodo, and the child is part of you. That would be enough reason."

"But it is not the entire reason, is it?" Frodo knows. And it is anger Aragorn sees in his eyes now, well mingled with pain.

"Frodo, the child is ours, yours and mine."

"How is that possible?"

"It happened because I love you, Frodo, and made love to you many months ago." Frodo is silent a long time before he looks up, searching Aragorn's eyes. Whatever he sees, the anger fades and is replaced with wonder.

"Your child."

"Yes. I am the man responsible for your condition, and while I did not know such a thing was possible, I do not regret it -- save for the anguish it has caused you."

"The anguish was because you let me believe I was raped again!" Frodo starts crying, shaking and bent over in seeming agony. "You listened while I begged you to kill the baby, and all the time you knew..."

There has been distance between them for too long. Aragorn moves to Frodo, picks him up and sits back in the chair, cradling Frodo in his arms.

"At first I tried to tell you, but you were confused with fever and did not understand. Then Wena told us it would be best to let you remember. But you never did." He presses kisses to Frodo's head and holds the frail body closer than he has dared to do in a month. "I love you, Frodo, more than I can easily say."

Frodo is chilled and still shakes a little, but he turns and tries to hold Aragorn, who smiles down at him.

"I thought I was insane! I remembered things that seemed impossible -- and who could I ask? Should I have asked Sam to tell me if I ever lay naked with you on a hillside?"

"Oh, my love, I'm so sorry. I tried to show you how I feel, but it seems we misunderstood each other all this time."

Frodo burrows into Aragorn's chest, muffling his next words.

"I thought... Arwen. And then I thought you were just being... well, I didn't know why you were so nice, but I didn't want you to stop, so I didn't say anything." And now Frodo is limp, his strength gone. They sit in silence, a peaceful silence, broken only by soft endearments from Aragorn as he kisses Frodo again and again.

"You have been a miracle in my life, Frodo Baggins, and I love you and our child more each day. You do not remember that I once pledged to love you for all my lifetime, but it is so." Frodo has been silent for so long that Aragorn is sure he has fallen asleep.

"Aragorn, I'm so tired. Hold my hand to my belly, please."

He gently picks up the hobbit's hand and supports it where he can feel the babe restlessly moving inside.

"Our child, Frodo. A future ruler of Gondor and the West, both hobbit and man."

Frodo only murmurs sleepily in reply, but his radiant smile matches Aragorn's.

 

Repercussions

Apologies have been given and accepted, yet Wena bustles around Frodo's room in a decidedly disgruntled, ungraceful, un-elflike manner. The events last night have taken a toll on her patient. Frodo is weak, dangerously weak, though his spirits are the best she's seen.

He smiles up at her, radiant with happiness, but cannot lift his head to drink the cordial she has brought him, the last of what they carried here from Lothlorien. Yesterday she thought it little matter to be without the sustaining drink. Today she knows a messenger must be sent with a letter to the Lady, to ask for more of her assistance.

"Shall I sing today, my soulsister?" Denier is there, as always, sensing her distress and ready to give his own energies to alleviating it.

"Please. He's so fragile."

The song is one she has not heard since the time of her youth, an Age ago. He is singing for Frodo, but also for her, and she smiles ruefully at him as she settles Frodo back for more sleep. She is remembering forests that have long-since failed, elves who have passed into the West, and a time when hope was an easily-found friend.

Wena wants to cry with the emotions Denier pulls from her, but instead she join her voice with his, singing to bind up Frodo's oft-wounded body until it can support the mighty soul within, and the child that drains its resources.

***

When Frodo wakes in the afternoon, Sam is there beside him. Merry and Pippin are reclining on the man-sized chaise together, sound asleep.

"Too much of that cake Strider sent down from the banquet last night." Sam smiles at him and Frodo beams back, almost too happy to speak. "Don't you look like a new hobbit today."

"Sam, this baby... it's mine and Aragorn's. Did you know?" Sam blushes and nods.

"I thought you were finally putting on some weight, like a proper hobbit, but then Gandalf told us about that Took and I knew. Before you did, I think."

"The other hobbit that loved a man was a Took?" Frodo laughs a little in delight, and crows "Gandalf didn't tell me that part."

Merry starts awake, knocking Pippin off him, but the chaise is big enough that he doesn't fall to the floor. Merry hops down while Pip rubs his eyes and scowls, looking like he needs a longer nap.

"Cousin Frodo. How well you look today." Frodo smiles at him, still on the verge of laughter, but he also feels dizzy enough to lay back on the bed. Sam is right there to prop his pillow the way he prefers, and give him a sip of water before he can ask. Merry climbs on the bed to lie beside him, holding his hand.

"Oh, Merry, the baby is kicking. Would you like to feel it? Sam?"

They both place gentle hands on the round belly, smiling softly. Only yesterday Frodo denied his condition, pretended there was nothing amiss, forcing his dear friends to behave as though he was merely slow in recovering from the fever. Today he smiles as they do when they feel the miracle of life inside him. And when Pippin climbs up on the foot of the bed and works his way up, Frodo does laugh again.

"Me, too. I want to feel it. Do you think it's a boy or a girl, Frodo? Does Aragorn care? What will you name it?"

"Give him a second to answer your chatter, Pip, and take a breath yourself."

"A healthy child is all I want, Pippin, and I need to discuss your name question with Aragorn. Though I can assure you if it's a boy he won't be named Peregrin!" Pippin pretends to pout but cannot help smiling when the baby enthusiastically kicks at his hand.

"Oh, that's the baby -- doesn't that hurt you? Those are hobbit feet all right."

"I'm so glad you're happy about the babe, Frodo. And I don't suppose I'll be hearing any more that you want to come back to the Shire with me," Sam says.

"No, no. Minas Tirith is going to be my home. I wonder if I'll ever learn my way around this place? But we'll visit, or at least I will if the King cannot travel so far. I'll bring the baby to see you all, and to learn about hobbits firsthand."

"You'll have to," Pippin agrees with a yawn. "Otherwise, living here, he'll think you're the only hobbits in the world."

"Hey, don't fall asleep there," Merry says, pushing at him, but Pippin indeed is settling in to continue his nap at Frodo's knees. The bed is large enough for all of them. And Merry's own eyes are kind of droopy now, and Sam looks ready to drop.

"Sam, come lie down with us. I'm going back to sleep, but I don't want you to leave yet." Frodo snuggles into Sam's warmth, feeling Merry hugging him from behind, and Pippin is like a very big, warm cat on his knees. The baby seems to understand it's time to sleep, settling down too.

Frodo isn't tired, truly he isn't. It doesn't matter, once the room is quiet he is asleep in moments.

***

Aragorn finds he is delaying joining Frodo in their bed this evening, instead moving around the room, rearranging things and chatting about his day. When Frodo interrupts to ask if he is ever coming to bed, he drops a plaster statuette on the hearth.

How ridiculous. He's been sleeping with the hobbit since he was rescued, but tonight it is somehow different. Frodo seems almost seductive, blushing and smiling at him. And Aragorn feels like it is their first time together, and he is almost shy about approaching the bed.

Not that there will be any lovemaking. Wena has been quite explicit about that, telling him that Frodo is not well enough for strenuous activities and may not be until after their child is born.

Still, tonight Aragorn will sleep unclothed, under the covers next to Frodo, not clothed atop his blankets. Tonight when they cuddle together, there is no reason to hold back the kisses and endearments that used to wait until Frodo slept.

Aragorn shakes himself and impatiently begins pulling off his garments. Frodo watches, eyes wide, until Aragorn is nude and moves to lower the flame in the lamp. Then Frodo smiles, no, grins, as Aragorn lifts the covers and joins him. And his love, not shy at all, moves into his arms and kisses him.

The kiss is Aragorn's undoing. It has the passion he remembers, the sweetness that has always been Frodo. But it is so weak compared to the kisses he remembers. Aragorn feels tears fall as he devours Frodo's mouth, as he supports the weak frame and tries to pleasure him, just a little.

"I love you," Frodo gasps as soon as he is released for a breath. "So much, Aragorn, since I met you, though I could never tell you." His hands wander gently, unable to grasp and pull as they used to, but still stroking fire into Aragorn's veins.

"You are my life," he replies, diving back for another taste of the mouth he has missed so long.

"Don't cry," Frodo says, tasting the salt tears. "Not now that we're together again."

But Aragorn cannot stop the tears, nor his body's reaction to having Frodo in his arms again. And of course Frodo feels his arousal, and breaks away from their kiss with a gasp.

"Oh, please -- I want to give you pleasure."

"No, Frodo, Wena has forbidden it... for the baby's sake. And you are too tired for anything else, I fear." For it is obvious that Frodo is not aroused, despite the kissing and touching.

"We can still... between my thighs, Aragorn, if not inside my body. There is oil..." He nods toward the side table, and Aragorn rises to get the vial of vanilla oil. He is so aroused it is almost painful, and he does not want to rush this night. So he takes deep breaths, then looks back to the hobbit waiting in their bed, his face serious with arousal.

"Oil? Frodo Baggins, have you been enjoying someone else's attentions all these months while I've been waiting for you?"

It works, for Frodo laughs and Aragorn runs to jump back beside him. This is the way he remembers their lovemaking, laughter and tenderness and deep passion all combined. The best of all worlds, and they still share that despite what Fate has done to them.

He has to hold Frodo's thighs together as he pumps between them, for Frodo is too weak to provide resistance. But it is still so very sweet, with stolen kisses grabbed between mouthfuls of Frodo's chest and neck, and words of passion in his ear, whispered in a breathy voice.

Aragorn knows the elves hear his cry of completion -- half the city might hear it, and he would not care. Frodo is his again, reclaimed.

Frodo is only half aroused, and even when Aragorn takes his member in his mouth he does not reach a climax. But he is contented, very tired and contented as they snuggle together before drifting into sleep.

***

When the moon sets Wena enters Frodo's room to check on him, feeling his brow and then his heartbeat. Despite his activities with the King tonight, he feels cool and the beat is steady and strong. Perhaps stronger than it was this morning.

Wena sits beside the bed for a time, watching them sleep. She loses all track of time until Denier comes in to bring her back to their bed. Once they are behind their own door, she speaks.

"I am at a loss with these mortals. How can what exhausts him strengthen him?"

"How can such a fragile shell hold so much love and spirit? We have not understood Frodo from the first, but we have kept him alive when all others despaired."

She nods but her agitation is clear. Denier takes her into his arms, stroking her hair and humming softly.

"I do not see how he can continue to bear the child. Three more months of this strain on his body? It will be the death of him, of them both."

"Frodo will not sacrifice the child to save himself, not now. Nor would King Elessar allow it, unless Frodo were dying. And in such a situation, both would be lost no matter what we did."

"This is the Gift of the One to mortals? This fear, watching pain and illness lead to death despite all struggle. Being forced to let them leave us, no matter how precious the life. How do they bear it -- how can it be borne?"

"Because it must, by them and now by you. It is dangerous to give your heart to a mortal, Wenathen, and you knew this before we set foot in Minas Tirith."

She sobs in his arms, wondering if loving Frodo has somehow made her mortal. Surely no proper elf behaves in such a manner.

 

Desperation

Sam isn't supposed to be here; he's supposed to be in Frodo's room, as he always is at this hour. In fact, he should be in Frodo's bed, holding him. Wena discovered that Frodo breathes better and his body seems stronger when he has close contact with Sam or Aragorn.

But today Sam couldn't keep watching Merry and Pippin pretend to behave normally, joking and laughing. Not when Frodo can't lift his head or hand to drink with them. He is helpless as the babe he carries, and not improving so far as Sam can see.

He came outside for a breath of fresh air. Their courtyard is the best he'll find in Minas Tirith. There just aren't enough trees or flowers in the city, but Denier has worked this earth, coaxing more plants to life. Legolas and Gimli bring new specimens whenever they travel.

Sam crawls under the bush Denier calls a Blush. It's just a bunch of dark green leaves now, but he tells Sam that in the Spring those will fall and the bush will be covered with pink blossoms, many shades of pink with a lovely fragrance. The day the bush was planted, Sam thought he'd be here in the Spring to see it bloom, after the baby is delivered. Sam thought he'd stay a few months longer, just to see Frodo restored to full health.

He lays face down in the dirt and sobs.

Merry and Pippin no longer discuss a trip back to the Shire. They'd planned to leave now, with Sam here to care for Frodo, then come back to see the baby and bring him home. Now they all sit in silence, watching Frodo struggle. Sam remembers watching him crawl toward the mountain, and feels that he's been asked to do it all over again.

His tears are spent and he sits up, knowing he has to wash up and go back, and be brave for the others. And for Frodo, who won't admit what they all see -- well, all save Strider. The King may be the only one who doesn't recognize that Frodo is dying, fading as quickly as he did when that Black Rider stabbed him.

Sam sits up, then jumps up, heedless of the branches hitting his head and snapping around him.

"I'm a ninnyhammer. Wena!" He runs toward the house, but is called back by voices behind. He turns to see Wena and Gandalf, and almost falls over with relief. Where has the wizard been off to? It's been at least a week since Sam saw him, maybe longer.

"Samwise, whatever is the matter?" Wena looks alarmed, and Sam knows he's a sight, covered with dirt and red-faced from tears and excitement.

"It's just -- I had a thought about Frodo. Why he's so far off..." he begins breathlessly.

"We were just discussing that as well. Mithrandir has been to Lothlorien."

"Oh, how is the Lady? I wish I could see her again, just to thank her for what her gift did in the Shire. I'll bet she'd fix up Mr. Frodo straightaway."

"Even Galadriel is puzzled by Frodo's continued decline," Gandalf replies. "She has sent medicines of much virtue with me, but we do not know if they are what Frodo truly needs."

"What he needs -- well, I don't know that neither. But I think what may be most wrong is that old wound in his shoulder."

"The morgul wound?" Gandalf asks, and Wena gasps.

"He has been touched by such an evil weapon? I saw the scar, but did not realize..."

"Yes, a year ago in October. That's how he seemed then, just as he is now. Fading away, but he keeps going." As he speaks, Sam becomes more certain he's right. His memories of Frodo's face on their journey from Weathertop -- it's just how he seems now. A face showing both pain and stubborn determination to see the job through, even if it kills him.

"He was not rescued until October -- could the anniversary of his wounding have affected him, Wena?"

"I am no expert on the Enemy's arts, Mithrandir, but I do not see how such a wound could not affect his health."

"So what must we do to fix it?" Sam asks cheerfully, feeling better than he has for many days.

"I do not know, Sam."

He looks from her to Gandalf, but it's plain that neither of them can heal the damage Frodo's wound is still doing. Sam's heart sinks.

***

Denier sings new songs about the fall of Sauron, assuring Frodo that the evil the Dark One wrought can no longer touch him. Aragorn lies beside Frodo, listening, but does not believe what the elf says. How can it be true when his Frodo lies too weak to smile at him, chilled and in pain? Aragorn wonders if their child, too, feels cold despite warms fires and blankets of the softest wool. Athelas-water steams on the hearth, but the healing virtue of the herb has small impact on Frodo's condition.

"Ahh..."

"I'm here, my love." He grasps Frodo's hand tighter, and the hobbit relaxes again. He does not have the strength to speak, but he listens to the singing and to Aragorn reading to him for hours as they lay together.

"Good evening, my lord."

"Wena." He has given up pleasantries. It is not a good evening. There is nothing good without Frodo.

"I must speak with you both."

Aragorn looks at her and sees his own grief and guilt reflected in her expressive eyes.

"You must take the child," he manages to husk out between gritted teeth.

"I cannot. Frodo has forbidden it. He will not give up the babe, nor risk an early birth. He said hobbits are short and the men of Gondor are tall. Their future ruler ... must be tall like his father."

Aragorn bows his head, turning away though Wena has seen his tears before. He feels the slightest pressure on his hand and looks to Frodo, who is watching him, face set but eyes full of love and trust.

"What do you suggest, Wena?"

"Mithrandir has left for Rivendell, to consult with Lord Elrond about Frodo's wound. While he is away we want to put Frodo into a deep sleep. He will seem as one drugged."

"Will this help him?"

"Frodo's body will fully rest, as will his mind. He will not have to struggle with his weakness, or fight any darkness that may be trying to drag on his spirit. If we can... when we find a way to alleviate the effects of his wound, we can bring him fully awake again."

"It will not harm the child?"

"It should only help them both."

Aragorn looks at Frodo again, who tries to smile and nod, managing only to twitch as if in pain. The thought of not seeing his eyes, of not being able to speak to him -- it is agony. Frodo will not even know when he is near. But if it helps him heal, and keeps the baby safe...

"All right, Wena. Frodo approves and so do I."

"Thank you. You will still be able to spend time with him, your majesty. Your presence always makes him stronger, and that will not change."

Aragorn nods and holds Frodo to himself, tears falling freely.

***

Gandalf is gone to Rivendell. Legolas and Gimli are in the south, serving as ambassadors for Aragorn. Merry and Pippin have gone north to visit with King Eomer. Only Sam is still here, sitting with Frodo who sleeps deeply. Sam knows this is a healing trance, some kind of elvish medicine, but Frodo looks white and dead. He stares at his chest, waiting for the next shallow breath, wishing there was a way to tell Frodo that his Sam is here with him.

"You're very quiet today, Samwise."

He starts visibly at the quiet words, then turns to greet Wena.

"Good morning, Wena. He seems much the same."

"Yes, but that is good news. He is not failing. Frodo's life signs are all stable. And they may improve now that you are here with him."

"He doesn't know I'm here."

"Perhaps not. I cannot be certain. Few elves have ever been in such a trance, and I have not questioned one who has. He may hear us speaking -- which is why I think you are too quiet today. Talk to him, sing or read to him. It cannot hurt and may help. He has always responded well to your presence."

"I'll try." Sam is still staring at Frodo, watching for signs of life. It's unnatural to see a hobbit so still... Then Sam smiles, remembering when he thought it odd to see a pregnant stomach on Frodo. He'll get used to this silent, non-responsive Frodo, too. He loves him and will always love him, no matter if he turns green or grows another nose.

Sam thinks about babies and tales he's heard of childbearing in the Shire, and talks over the subject aloud. He's used to Frodo not replying, or slipping to sleep while he speaks. Sam has a thought about the best way to entertain him and runs out to ask Wena if she'll send a note to the King's librarian.

Sam chats with Frodo for an hour or so, then naps beside him on the bed, snuggled close. When he wakes in the afternoon, a tray of food is waiting for him alongside two stacks of books, tied with twine.

He eats slowly, looking over the volumes the librarian sent him. Wena comes in and gives Frodo his food as well, and they speak a little about his plan. When she is finished Sam is still filling in the corners with what remains of his food, but he has chosen a book.

"Frodo, I'm going to read to you now, but this story isn't just for you. It's for the baby to listen to as well. 'The Adventures of Sly Cat.' Once upon a time in Minas Tirith, there lived a wise old man. His house was on the fourth level, but his fortunes had been failing for many years, since his only son died defending the City." Sam reads all afternoon, the story a mixture of folk tale, comedy and history.

As he reads he remembers Frodo and Bilbo teaching him his letters, so long ago. Sunny times in the Shire seem impossibly happy now, in those days before he faced the loss of his mother and long before he knew the future would hold danger and trials. But he thinks the stories Bilbo told helped prepare him, and he hopes his reading this week will help Frodo and the babe be prepared for their life to come in the White City of men.

***

"Elrond must be here, then."

"Pippin, you're supposed to call him Lord Elrond," Merry scolds.

"Well, we're also supposed to call Strider his majesty King Elessar or some such thing, but I don't hear you doing that."

"No, you're right." Merry laughs and takes another drink of ale. "You think he came all this way?"

"Certainly. Frodo is a hero, you know. I'll bet he's with Frodo and the King right now."

"Sam will know. He's still in there, of course."

"They got rid of us easy enough, but they can't kick him out, can they?"

"No, I don't think anyone could except Frodo himself." Merry reaches over to Pippin and pulls his cousin close, then looks up at the sky above them, wisps of white cloud against a brilliant blue. He tries to remember if Frodo's eyes are close to that shade, but cannot be sure. It has been nearly a month since he's seen them open, and the time feels even longer.

They decided to picnic on the city wall this afternoon, after being turned away by Denier. He was kind enough to tell them Gandalf had returned, but closed the door on their other questions.

"Merry, I'm cold."

"Here, Pip, sit a little closer." The sunlight is warm, and the day is mild for January, but he is cold, too. He puts an arm around Pippin and pulls the blanket around them both. "He's got to be close to his time now, don't you think?"

"No one ever told us when the baby is due, but it can't be much longer." Pippin scoots a little closer still, then puts both arms around Merry's waist. "I'm worried for the baby, too. He's been through so much already."

Merry doesn't answer, just squeezes him tighter. They are still sitting there, pressed together, half an hour later when Gimli comes to join them.

"So, Legolas is in the sick room with Elrond," he states before climbing up next to them.

"He came then, all this way?" Pippin asks.

"Certainly he came. Doesn't he know Frodo, and didn't he heal that wound? Who else would know more about it?" Gimli grumbles, settling in. "Not that Wenathen isn't a fine healer, and Denier is very knowledgeable .. for an elf. But no one has the experience with wraith wounds that Elrond does. Not even the best dwarf healer could do as much as he, I think, though we are renown for having an excellent family of healers at the Lonely Mountain. They've been sought after by men and dwarves from miles around, particularly during fevers and wasting sicknesses."

Gimli's monolog continues, but Merry is no longer paying attention. He's remembering Rivendell, and how it felt back then to fear that Frodo might die. Somehow surviving that dark time -- and all that has followed -- has only made Frodo's life more precious to him. To them all, he corrects himself, looking at Pippin's worried face, also far away in his thoughts.

 "Gandalf says they'll be doing some kind of healing incantation on that wraith wound, but they've decided to leave Frodo in his sleep until next month."

"What?" Merry comes back to the conversation immediately.

"Why would they do that?" Pippin, too, has been recalled to the present.

"Because Wena says it's best for Frodo, and Aragorn agrees. The King has consulted with her regarding the time he thinks the babe was conceived, and they've agreed to wait until the 14th to wake him and deliver it."

"The baby is doing well, then?" Pippin asks in a small voice.

"They will both be fine. Hobbits are made of stern stuff, I was telling Denier that only last week. Why, Bilbo managed to set up an escape from prison while sick. And look at all you have survived, Master Peregrin." The dwarf swings a beefy arm over Pippin and Merry where they sit. "Frodo is stronger in spirit than in body, but that will carry him through, I'm certain."

Merry closes his eyes and hopes what Gimli says is true.

***

"I'm here, my love. I was delayed hearing reports from Umbar." Aragorn climbs into the bed beside Frodo, and notes that he doesn't feel cold. Elrond's healing is still working, then. He smiles.

"You feel like a cozy bedwarmer, Frodo. I think the baby is throwing heat as well. Next winter it will be like having my own little furnace, holding you in my arms at night." He pulls Frodo into his arms and notices that his breaths become deeper.

"Gandalf sends his love. He could not visit you tonight. He and Elrond have gone to Lorien. The Lady Galadriel wishes to speak with them both, and she will not leave her own home, she says, until it is time to go West. They are diminishing, Frodo. Gandalf tells me the time ahead shall be the age of man. Our child will rule in that age to come, Frodo, and our heirs will usher in better times for all of Middle Earth, I hope."

"But you must stay here to be part of it with me, my love. I cannot do this alone. I need you so much. You once told me that I was always rescuing you, defending you and leading you. But I tell you now, Frodo, I need you more than you ever needed my help. You must stay with me, for I will never be able to go on without you."

 

Resolution

In ten days they will wake Frodo and deliver the child. Aragorn paces the courtyard until Gandalf makes him take a seat. He is realizing that he still has much to learn about patience, though he thought himself well-practiced in waiting.

Gandalf laughs and he realizes he has shared his thought with the others.

"Fatherhood will teach you the true meaning of the words patience and forbearance."

Aragorn smiles back at the wizard, but does not agree with him. If the baby lives, he vows that he will never be short tempered with his child.

"Gandalf, has Aragorn told you what they're naming the baby? We can't get him to tell us." Pippin, looking like a pale ghost of himself, still tries to behave normally when they're all together.

"Frodo will name the child for his parents, won't he?" says Merry.

"Or for Mr. Bilbo," Sam adds.

"But he'll need a man-name, too. They won't have a King Bilbo in Gondor anytime soon, will they?"

"But the kings don't use their own name. Strider here is Elessar, not Aragorn."

"Why do men have so many names?" Pippin whines, and they all laugh. Aragorn looks over at them, smiling fondly. They are trying to take his mind off the days remaining.

"Have a smoke, Aragorn. Arranging for pipeweed to be sent here was brilliant on my part, if I do say so myself." Gandalf hands him a pipe, and Merry laughs as he lights up.

"Our Ranger is back, Sam. Who is this sinister stranger in Minas Tirith?"

"Aye, he's a shifty one," Sam teases.

"If the people of Gondor heard you disrespecting their king in this manner, they'd cast you all out of the city," Legolas scolds, but he is smiling as he turns back to his quiet conversation with Gimli.

"But Aragorn would grant clemency and bring us right back, wouldn't you?"

"I'm not sure, Pippin. I remember a very disrespectful bunch of wild hobbits tossing me around in the mountains outside Rivendell. Can such miscreants be forgiven?"

"I suppose not," the hobbit answers, then rushes to his arms for a hug that squeezes the breath out of them both. "We were horrible to you in Bree. Have you truly forgiven us for doubting you back then?"

Aragorn strokes his back and smiles at Merry and Sam, who look thoughtful and a little sad. "I love all of you." Gandalf is watching them, too, his eyes bright. "I can't bear to think how quiet it will be here when you all go back to the Shire."

"Ah, but we won't go until you have Frodo awake, and a new hobbit of your own to keep you company," Sam reassures him.

"Keep him in line is more like it," Merry snorts. "You've never been around a hobbit child, have you?"

Aragorn shakes his head and they all laugh.

"You'll wish for peace and quiet soon enough, I think," Merry says. "Even with Wena's help, you'll need an extra set of eyes and ears, and spare legs for when the babe starts to walk and runs yours off."

"Well I don't doubt that you were a handful, Meriadoc," Gandalf says, then blows a lovely smoke ring.

"Me! I was a wonderful child. My observations are all based on this Took here," he says with a pull at Pippin's curls.

"Hey!" The ensuing tickle-fight covers a lot of ground, and even Gimli has to move his legs before he is rolled into the fracas.

Aragorn sees Denier at the door before the others, and moves to him at once.

"Is something wrong?"

"No, sire, I only came to tell you luncheon is ready for you and your guests."

"Will you and Wena join us today?"

"I think it best. Wena, too, is impatient."

"I did not think elves measured time as mortals do," Aragorn smiles, and turns to call the others. "Sam, see if those two will stop their warfare for food. Gentlemen, lunch awaits us."

Denier walks with Aragorn to the dining room, where Wena is pacing up and down the long table, wringing her hands. Elrond stands watching her, amusement twisting his usually dour features. Though Aragorn has noted that the elf lord seems less pained in his presence, at least, since Arwen made her choice.

"Wena?" he asks, and she turns to him with a dazed look, concern for Frodo plain in her eyes. "Sit with me?"

They pretend to eat together.

***

"Frodo, wake now. It is time."

"Mr. Frodo, time to get up."

"Love, please come back to me now."

The familiar voices, filled with love, call Frodo out of the most pleasant dream. "Oh, have I slept late?" he asks, but he realizes his voice came out as a husky whisper. Is he sick?

"Not late, my darling, but just the right amount of time."

Aragorn. He smiles to hear the voice, drenched in love for him, like sunshine on his pillow. He opens his eyes and tries to sit up, and sharp pain ends all dreaminess. He forgot it all -- but it rushes back, feeling the swollen belly and the weakness in his body. "Oh."

"No, don't sit up. Here, Frodo, drink this." Wena hands him a cup of tea, lukewarm and awful tasting.

"Eww, what is that horrid stuff?"

"It is an herb Frodo, and you must drink it all. It will tell your body it is time to release the baby."

"Is it time? What day is this?"

"February 14, Mr. Frodo, and if you don't have this baby soon, we'll have to put Strider here to sleep beside you. He's driving everyone crazy, and they say he almost declared war on a country away south because of his nerves."

"Sam!" Aragorn scolds, and Frodo actually laughs, a weak little sound, but he is happy.

"Gandalf said so, and you won't call him a liar," Sam defends himself, as Wena holds the cup to Frodo's lips again.

"I'll drink this, but then ... water ... take away the taste."

"I have apple juice here waiting for you, Frodo." He finishes the bitter tea with a frown, then smiles as the sweet juice goes down. His throat feels much better already.

Aragorn and Sam stay with him, sitting right on the bed beside him, telling him the news. Wena stays, too, holding his hand and feeling his wrist and neck from time to time. It doesn't take long for the tea to have an effect. Frodo feels warm, and then his stomach begins to cramp.

Then the true nightmare of pain begins, and Frodo knows he will die.

***

The screams have become fainter as the night wears on, but Pippin still jumps at each moan from Frodo's room. He will not leave, though everyone has tried to drag him away. Elrond and Gandalf are in the birthing room, with Denier and Wena and Sam, who would not be sent away.

Aragorn, however, was quickly banished and sits here with them, or paces beside them, cringing whenever Frodo makes a sound. Gimli talks to him, non-stop, and Merry has never been so thankful for the dwarf's garrulousness. Legolas paces beside Aragorn, his concern obvious though more silent than the dwarf's.

Merry tries to imagine what Frodo is feeling and fails. He remembers illnesses, mostly from his childhood, but nothing like this. He remembers when Pip broke his wrist and fainted, and wonders if his cousin remembers that, too, and feels the pain again when he hears Frodo.

It is near midnight when Aragorn, still mindlessly pacing, freezes. Merry follows his eyes to the doorway.

"Gandalf..."

"You have a daughter, Aragorn. A fine, healthy girl." Even as he speaks, Aragorn has rushed past him without a word of thanks. Pippin bursts into tears and hugs him, then runs to where Legolas and Gimli clustered around Gandalf, laughing and smiling. Merry cannot make himself move until he asks the question most concerning him.

"How is Frodo?" They all sober abruptly, like a candle blown out.

"We must wait and see, Meriadoc. Elrond is with him, and Sam. And his joy that his daughter is safe is quite evident, despite his weakness."

Merry nods, trying to smile, as Pippin asks to see the baby. Soon they are trooping inside, to the makeshift nursery room where Denier holds the child. Merry thinks she is large compared to hobbit babies he remembers, but Gandalf assures them she is smaller than a man-child. And the light brown curls, both on her head and feet, look like proper hobbit hair.

"Have they chosen a name?" Pippin asks. "I feel foolish not knowing what to call her now she is born. It was bad enough when she was inside Frodo and I didn't know if she was a she or a he, but now it seems even more silly."

"Peace, Pippin. I know a name has been chosen, but you will have to wait for Aragorn and Frodo to share it."

Only Merry went to Frodo's room first, so only he has seen Aragorn kneeling at Frodo's bed with Sam crying on his shoulder.

Merry does not think they will be hearing the child's name soon.

***

Frodo is so weak Wena is certain he will die before the night is out. His joy at seeing the girl-child was incandescent, and Aragorn shared that moment. But then he lost consciousness, and they have not been able to revive him.

But Elrond tells them not to despair, and sends Sam to rest. Aragorn cannot be moved, so they put him in bed beside Frodo and he soon falls into an exhausted sleep. Wena stands watch over them with Elrond while Denier tends the child. She is strong enough, eating like a healthy hobbit already, draining Aragorn's wet nurse and making them send for another.

Frodo sleeps, and Wena sees a change come over his face. She sways, thinking it is the moment of death, but Elrond smiles.

"Use your eyes, Wenathen. His color is coming back. He is sleeping normally at last."

"No," she denies, though she wants it to be true. She feels his cheek, then checks his life beat again. "He is..."

"He is recovering his strength. There is no longer a drain on his body, now that the child has been born. Frodo will recover from his ordeal at last."

Wena begins to sob, tears of joy wrenched from her tired body, for she is weary as no elf should be weary. Without recovering her composure she kisses Frodo's hand, and smooths Aragorn's knotted brow, wetting them both with her weeping. This has been a day of miracles, and the best tidings are that Frodo will live to see his child grow.

"I will go tell the others," Elrond offers, seeing that she is incapable of leaving her charges. "The woods of Lorien may call to your soul, Wena, but I see you will stay in this city of stone."

"For a season, my lord, or an age of men. I cannot leave my heart here and be content in Lothlorien, no matter how beautiful the mallorn."

In a few minutes she hears shouts of joy from the others, and smiles as the noise of the newly-roused friends fills the house. She laughs out loud when the baby, rudely awakened by their celebration, begins to cry.

***

Frodo runs down the steps to kiss Wena and Hope before letting Aragorn lift him onto the saddle. Then the King mounts behind him and they ride off, calling farewells. The horse is well trained and carefully picks his way through the city until they reach the first level and go out the gates.

Frodo looks back with a sigh as they leave. He has not left Hope for a whole day before, and would not trust her to anyone but Wena. He is a little melancholy, missing them both, until the sight of green hills and fruit-laden trees in the distance reminds him of the world outside Minas Tirith.

"Oh, Aragorn, I'm so glad you thought of a picnic."

"We shall have another, closer to the city, for your birthday, I think. With the baby and Wena, and any other guests you wish to invite."

Frodo smiles. Legolas and Gimli will attend, if only for an excuse to spoil their godchild even more. Frodo tries to think of a gift for them, and realizes storybooks for Hope will do nicely for Legolas, since he will have joy in reading to her. As for Gimli, well, a gift of ale has never gone awry with their dwarf.

But those will be the only members of their Fellowship at his birthday this year. Sam is back in the Shire, still honeymooning with his Rosie. And Merry and Pippin are home, too, settling in for the harvest season. They write that the crops look wonderful and it may be one of the best years in anyone's memory. After the privations of the last winter, this is wonderful news. And with trade routes established between the Shire, Rohan and Minas Tirith, there will be increased prosperity for many hobbits.

He misses the Shire, but Ithilien is beautiful. Once the Garden of Gondor, it will be so again, sooner than anyone thought. Out of loyalty to Prince Faramir, many men are settling in his realm. They cross the Anduin at the new bridge and continue riding, and Frodo cannot help leaning back into Aragorn's arms. He remembers Faramir's bride, the beautiful Eowyn, and remembers that she, too, loved his Ranger. He feels very lucky to be the one Aragorn chose, and presses a kiss on his love's hand.

"Stop your seductive ways, hobbit, or I'll not be responsible for my actions on this horse," Aragorn says, nuzzling Frodo's neck in a ticklish spot, and the hobbit giggles as the miles fall away.

He wonders where Gandalf is this beautiful day. He wrote from Rivendell that he wanted to wander for a time. Frodo will not complain about his absence, since the wizard and Elrond remained in Gondor until March. They anticipated that Frodo might be affected by the anniversary of the Ring's destruction, and their foresight was invaluable. Frodo certainly did not expect to be ill and was unprepared for the severity of his relapse. But Elrond was there to nurse him, freeing Wena to care for the baby. He and Denier discovered that simple athelas, combined with Aragorn's healing skill, was the best remedy.

Of course, Frodo also credits his darling girl for his speedy recovery, for he could not bear to be away from her for even a day, missing the wonderful changes in his fast-growing daughter.

Denier, too, has left Minas Tirith and returned to Lorien. Frodo was dreading his departure, thinking Wena would also leave. But she has remained, nurse and housekeeper and sister to Frodo, albeit a very tall and beautiful sister. Wena seems less like an elf at times and more like a very merry, very wise hobbit lass. Frodo supposes she is more like Legolas, who he used to think was unique because of his understanding of other races. But Wena, too, genuinely likes the hobbits, and men, and even Gimli.

The only strange thing about Wena is that she does not seem to miss Denier, though Frodo knows how close they are. Legolas tells him that partnered elves can live great distances apart, and still feel their bond. And elves do not measure time the way mortals do, knowing that their beloved will not change in a few years.

And there are other bonds, because Hope loves Wena and Wena loves her. Hope will grow and change very quickly, and Wena, like Frodo, does not want to miss a moment of her life. So Denier is alone, and sometimes Wena sings at night and Frodo imagines that he, too, is singing in the Golden Woods far away.

Gilraen Estelle Primula of the House of Telcontar -- she has a proper Gondorian name, of course, but in true hobbit fashion it's shortened for everyday use. And so she is Hope, their darling, a joy every hour of the day and night. And she is Gilraen, heir to the throne of Gondor. Though Aragorn will not discuss it yet, Frodo knows there will be other heirs, sturdy brothers and sweet sisters to keep her company. He will not have Hope being the only half-hobbit in the city. Soon, a year perhaps, when he is as strong as ever, Aragorn will agree with his plan.

They reach high ground overlooking the river and Aragorn dismounts, gathering their basket and tying the horse where he can reach grass and water. They walk for a while, speaking softly in the bright sunshine, and Frodo thinks they will never run out of things to say to each other. He loves listening to Aragorn, and knows that even his silliest chatter is pleasing to his love.

They reach a shady glade and are silent for a time, the most comfortable silence imaginable. Frodo always feels close to Aragorn, even when the King is busy with treaties and proclamations and he is merely reading a story book to Hope.

Best of all, though, is when Aragorn calls Frodo his most trusted advisor, seeking his opinion on issues. He never tires of answering Frodo's many questions, explaining the complexities of treaties and old grudges so the hobbit can grasp the situation. Frodo thinks he could have been content with a narrow, sheltered life in the Shire. But he is not in the Shire, and as consort to the King he wants to be a part of the world of Gondor. Aragorn makes even that possible.

Finally Aragorn stops walking, bringing Frodo's thoughts to an end. His love seems happy with the place they've reached, and Frodo realizes that he recognizes the hill. While Aragorn spreads their blanket, he looks at well-remembered trees surrounding the meadow.

"You are very romantic, sire," Frodo says with a delighted smile.

"Well, I have my own seductive ways, hobbit," Aragorn responds, and Frodo throws himself into his arms, knocking him backwards onto the blanket for a long kiss. When they finally pull away from each other's mouths, Aragorn laughs. "I may have the only hobbit in Middle Earth who prefers kissing to eating."

"That is only because other hobbits don't get to kiss you, Aragorn," Frodo saucily replies, still sitting atop his love but reaching for the basket. "And I do not see why we cannot do both."

Aragorn laughs while Frodo unloads the well-filled basket.

"Good heavens, how could you carry all this so far? Wine bottles -- two bottles of wine? Mmm, mushrooms and roast fowl. Cheese, fresh bread, honey and preserved pears. My goodness, Aragorn, you must be exhausted."

But the King pulls him back down for a kiss that leads into activities where he demonstrates that he is not exhausted in the least.

Hours later they still lie half-naked on their blanket, picking at the food. Aragorn is being very good, not nagging at Frodo to eat more. Of course, the basket was full of all his favorites and none of Aragorn's, but Frodo will excuse a little concern. He has been slow to gain weight, but Frodo is content even if he does not have a normal hobbity look. He can remember the discomfort of the ungainly belly he bore while carrying Hope. He will endure it again for more children, but he does not ever want to carry excess weight for no reason. Indeed, he should not, for he needs to be able to keep up with his active girl.

"What are you thinking, Frodo? You look so serious."

"I was thinking about Hope," he answers with a slight blush. "This is the first time we've left her for a whole day."

"I know. But if you have your way, you'll leave me without either of you for many weeks."

"Just to visit the Shire, and only for a short time."

"Yes, but I know you. You'll pull off her shoes and try to make her a true hobbit lass, won't you?" Aragorn pulls Frodo atop him again, punctuating his words with kisses.

"Well, just for a few days. Her feet are adorable, really." Frodo looks down at the beautiful man holding him, and hopes his daughter will be a true woman of Gondor and look just like him. "But I'll have her back in those shoe contraptions before we reach Rohan, I promise."

Aragorn's only response is another deep kiss, and Frodo stretches out fully on him, running his hands over muscle and oft-kissed old wounds as their mouths explore. Soon they are both aroused again and heated, grasping hands replace gentle touches. Their mouths press bruising kisses upon each other and teeth nip at lips and flesh hungrily. Frodo rubs himself against Aragorn, who groans and pulls him closer, the fire between them kindling instantly.

Frodo is sure the flame will never be extinguished.

 

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