Middle-Earth Continues Turning
by Laura Mason

NC-17; Frodo/Aragorn slash and mpreg warning; dark themes (torture) in some sections

A sequel to As Middle Earth Turns, set two years after that story concludes. This won't make any sense unless you've read the original, which can be found here.

Many thanks to Lilly Baggins for the initial inspiration to enter the crazy realm of mpreg, back when. And thanks to Claudia for one of her characters, borrowed for a cameo appearance.

 

Late August, 1322

"Are you sure?" Aragorn was poised above him, his arms straining to hold him clear of the smaller body spread out on the soft sheets.

Frodo's body was flushed with hot blood, glistening with sweat as he arched up toward Aragorn demandingly. "I want this. Please." He reached to pull his lover down, claiming his lips with another demanding kiss, rubbing against his nude body until they both moaned into each other's mouths.

Aragorn's arousal burned against Frodo's leg, reminding him. "Do it. Now," he gasped breathlessly.

The king obeyed, moving back and flipping Frodo onto his stomach effortlessly, one hand already at the opening to his body, readying him. Frodo managed to get his elbows and knees under him and push back demandingly, laughing when he heard Aragorn's breath hitch before the calloused fingers pushed back inside him, spreading warm oil.

"Please," Frodo begged again, and the bed rocked as Aragorn moved behind him, spreading him. Then Frodo felt it -- the long-awaited nudge of that hard cock pressing against him, opening him, entering him inch by inch and filling him with everything he desired.

Tears mingled with the sweat on his face as he was pierced, pinned beneath his man, unable to move and hardly able to breathe. Aragorn groaned, bending over his back, reaching beneath Frodo to grasp the hobbit's arousal. Frodo gasped at the touch, drawing air deep into his lungs and relaxing into the possession, feeling Aragorn's length sink all the way inside him. Home at last, joined in the pleasure he'd almost forgotten.

They remained motionless for what felt like an eternity, Aragorn enfolding him. Owning him. Then, as if he'd heard the horns calling him to battle, Aragorn began to move.

The sensations were incredible, wrapping Frodo in all-encompassing lust. The large oily hand on his cock; the thick hardness slamming inside him then slowly withdrawing, trailing delight; the rasping of Aragorn's breath in his ear; the hot wetness of the mouth sucking at his neck -- each was perfection. Together they were overwhelming. All Frodo could do in response was exclaim his pleasure between gasps for air and moans of delight.

It was enough for Aragorn, who seemed to lose all control of the emotions he so often kept tightly reined. His voice, too, echoed off the walls of their chamber as he reclaimed his hobbit. "You feel... so ... wonderful," he gasped. "Hot and tight..." Then all words were lost in the savage grunts as his thrusts sped and then became erratic, until finally with a great cry he froze, motionless, releasing his seed inside Frodo.

Aragorn wrapped his arms around Frodo and kept them joined as he sat back, leaning against the thick cushions with Frodo in his lap. Then he turned all his attention to seeing Frodo reach completion. His hands caressed as his lips traveled over Frodo's ears, neck, and finally covered his mouth, muffling the final wild cry as Frodo's seed finally erupted over that big hand.

Aragorn was always a considerate lover, though Frodo didn't know how he had the energy this night. Frodo himself felt limp, as exhausted as if he'd run through the city. Yet he was glad to be held close, soothed and loved, and to feel the connection still between their bodies.

Frodo dozed a few minutes, resting on Aragorn's broad chest. When he woke, it was to the feel of Aragorn's hands on his nipples, and to the knowledge that the big cock inside him was slowly hardening again. He rocked with a happy smile, then laughed at Aragorn's moan.

"What magic do you weave around me, hobbit," he grunted in Frodo's ear. "No one else could stir me so quickly."

The only response to that was to turn his head back and kiss his king, and enjoy the second ride as Aragorn once again fucked him, this time slowly, almost lazily, those powerful arms lifting him up and down to the rhythm of their moans.

After, as they both hovered on the edge of sleep, Aragorn spoke softly, perhaps not even intending that Frodo would hear him.

"I've missed this."

Frodo wanted to make a lighthearted comment, a joke about not noticing. But his heart was in his eyes as he turned to his man. "I, too. We should not have let fear stop us. Promise me, Aragorn, that we shall never again go so long without this joining."

"I cannot promise that, my love," he replied seriously. "But I promise I will always do what is best for you, and always love you in whatever manner I may."

Frodo's heart sank but he nodded, and determination bloomed in his heart. He would be the one to ensure that they continued their lovemaking, no matter what.

*** *** ***

"Frodo looks well, Lord Elessar," Eomer commented. "I can't remember the last time I saw him in such blooming health."

Aragorn followed Eomer's eyes to where Frodo was laughing and running with Hope. Their daughter missed Wenathen, who had journeyed to Lorien for a brief visit, but Hope enjoyed having even more time with Frodo. And while Frodo should be exhausted from these extended play sessions, he seemed to thrive on the exercise. He was eating heartily and actually gaining flesh. And his energy didn't end when the sun set, for he came to their bed each night-- Aragorn flushed and quickly shook off thoughts of his insatiable hobbit, which were quite inappropriate here and now.

"Yes, Frodo is very well, thank you," he replied. "Now about the treaty. We must formalize the language..." He led Eomer and the others inside, and the next few hours were taken up with maps, discussion, and finally the scribes recording the promise Theoden had given to the wild men more than three years ago. Rohan's pact had to be enforced with other, neighboring peoples, who still disputed their borders and the wild men's domain. Fortunately only a few scattered tribes had not accepted Gondor's dominion. Aragorn didn't think they would need to go to war in the northwest to enforce the peace.

When the long meeting was finally over and the others dismissed, Aragorn invited Eomer to join him and Frodo for afternoon tea. He explained to his friend that this was a hobbity tradition that had become the fashion among the court of Minas Tirith. In fact, Aragorn thought it was getting a little out of hand, with Gondor's artisans crafting ever-more-outrageously decorated teapots, and merchants opening tea shops on the fifth level to serve fancy cakes to the wealthier citizens with their cups of tea.

Still, it was quite pleasant to find Frodo and Hope in the sitting room, little tables spread with sandwiches, fruit bread, and warm drinks. Eomer seemed charmed by it all, especially by Hope, who babbled to him about her pony and actually let him sip her cider.

"She gets these flirtatious manners from you, Aragorn," Frodo murmured in his ear, handing him a steaming cup prepared exactly as he liked it. He looked back to see Hope offering Eomer bites of the food on her plate. For one even half hobbit, there was no greater expression of love.

"I'm afraid that's not true," he replied softly. "You're the seductive one, spreading delights before me and distracting me from the kingdom's business."

"It's just a little refreshment, Aragorn."

"Oh, did you think I was referring to the tea?" Frodo's blush delighted him, as did the heat in the hobbit's eyes after he re-seated himself and smiled back at Aragorn. Oh, yes, tonight would be another wild night. Thoughts of Frodo's unending inventiveness had Aragorn shifting in his chair, willing his arousal to subside before Eomer noticed it. But who could blame him for constantly lusting after Frodo's incredible beauty? They'd been so careful for such a long time after Hope's birth -- now that their lovemaking was unrestricted, Aragorn couldn't keep his hands off Frodo.

When he returned his attention to the others, Eomer was promising Hope a tea set from Edoras that had once belonged to Eowyn.

"The cups are painted with running horses, my lady, images of the mearas, greatest of all horses."

Hope's delighted excitement made Aragorn smile, but he laughed out loud at Eomer's face when the child scrambled into his lap, threw her arms around his neck, kissed him smack on the lips and told him she would marry him. Eomer gallantly bowed over her hand, and Aragorn's eyes met Frodo's, their pride nearly identical.

"How goes your book on the War, Frodo?" Eomer asked politely, and Frodo remembered the hours he'd spent explaining the idea of writing, books, and the need for written records of the War to Eomer and Eowyn when he first met them in Minas Tirith.

"It is finished, my lord, though it took more than two years, and many letters from the Shire, to complete the tale. It now rests with the scribes of Gondor, who will make the final, bound version for the city's library." He smiled mischievously. "Would you like a copy for Edoras?"

"Frodo," Aragorn scolded, but Eomer laughed heartily.

"Only if you intend it as a substitute for firewood, Lord Holbytla. Though I intend to send some of our bards to Minas Tirith for the new year celebration, to learn the Lay of Frodo and Samwise. My people will be much happier to hear of your deeds in that manner, I believe."

Aragorn looked away for a moment, biting his lip. Frodo had never seen the new year celebration in Minas Tirith, for he was always ill on the anniversary of the Ring's destruction. Often it took weeks for him to return to full health, though not as long as his recovery from the rigors of the Quest had been.

But while he was remembering all this, Frodo and Eomer had continued speaking. "Ah, but will they hear enough of your own bravery? That is what concerns me," Frodo said with a smile. "I've tried to include everything in my book, so that the hobbits of the Shire remember forever that they are not alone in Middle-earth, and owe much to the other races. I want them to always remember the brave men and hobbits to whom they are indebted."

Eomer bowed solemnly, hand on his heart. "I honor your wisdom, as always, Frodo."

It was time for Aragorn to return to the Hall. Frodo sent Hope to play in her room, and offered to take Eomer to the suite they'd had prepared for him. The servants entered to clear the tea, and with a quick embrace they separated for the rest of the afternoon. It wasn't until Aragorn returned to the Hall to hear the afternoon's petitions that he remembered how very different this was from the life he'd once imagined with Arwen as his Queen. He settled on his throne with a smile that raised the hopes of all those awaiting his judgement.

*** *** ***

"Frodo," he moaned, his arms straining against the scarves holding them to the bedposts. Frodo giggled, a muffled sound as he continued his attentions to Aragorn's straining erection, his head bobbing as his tongue busily worked on the hard flesh.

Was it only days ago that Frodo had been sick and feverish? He'd recovered swiftly this year from his morgul-wound anniversary illness, and was obviously feeling strong enough to keep Aragorn on the sharp edge of pleasure for what seemed like hours.

"Tormenter," Aragorn gasped, then moaned again as Frodo took him deep in his throat. But the wondrous sensation only lasted a moment, for them Frodo withdrew and laughed when Aragorn's hips bucked, seeking that wet haven again.

"I want more than that from you, my prisoner," Frodo whispered, and then he was spreading cool oil on Aragorn, soothing his arousal just enough, but the clever hands keeping him erect.

"Open your eyes, knave. Watch me." Frodo sank down between his legs, preparing himself with the oil, his face twisted with lust. Aragorn groaned again and pulled until the bed rattled against the wall, but he was helpless until Frodo released him. "Watch what I'll let you do, soon," he panted, his fingers busily stretching and oiling.

When he finally rose and moved over Aragorn, the king gasped "At last," then cried out as that tight, hot flesh slowly sank down on him, deep, ever deeper, until Frodo was sitting on him, his head thrown back and his face contorted with the sensations racing through him.

"Please," Aragorn begged, and Frodo met his eyes before beginning to rock, tiny motions that made Aragorn see stars. "More!" he cried, but Frodo kept the infinitely slow pace, until finally his own arousal was purple and inflamed, and he was too wild for such restraint.

Then, finally, he gave Aragorn the speed, the friction, the heat he needed to explode deep in his love's body with a harsh cry of completion. He hadn't recovered when Frodo was straddling his face, his erection bobbing where Aragorn could suck it deep in his mouth and torment him in turn.

When they finally finished, Frodo carefully released his arms and legs before collapsing next to him, checking that Aragorn hadn't injured himself tugging at the bonds. He let Frodo finish before he pulled him atop him again, imprisoning him in his arms.

"I love you, Frodo." He yawned then, and Frodo giggled. "You've worn me out," Aragorn accused, and the laughter continued, bright as sunshine in their darkened room. "It gives me great joy to see you so happy and well, my love."

Frodo seemed to sober at that, though his eyes still danced. "I think I have news that will give you even greater joy. Aragorn, I'm -- I think I'm pregnant again."

That news was startling enough for him to sit up, and quickly light more candles from the night-lamp hanging beside the bed. Then he began his examination, while Frodo laughed at each touch and babbled happily.

"I hoped this would happen, once we began... once you... well, you know, once you again sowed seed within me. Now Hope will have a brother or sister to play with her, and learn with her..."

"Frodo, I..." He stopped, speechless. Frodo seemed very healthy, and it was true that his stomach was rounder than it had been in years... "What does the healer say?"

"I haven't seen anyone. Wena will be home soon, and she can examine me. But I'm sure of it, Aragorn. I feel so happy, so alive--"

"You look beautiful, my love," Aragorn admitted, wondering if this was why Frodo seemed to glow so brightly recently. There had always been that elvish air about him, but now he seemed like a beacon, burning white-hot. "And your news does bring me great joy. Another child of yours to bless our lives -- nothing could give me more joy."

He'd only spoken the truth, but long after they'd extinguished the candles and Frodo slept safely in his arms, Aragorn lay awake, remembering.

*** *** ***

The first wall of Minas Tirith loomed before her, the bright sunshine making the stone glow so it was hard to pick out the newer sections, repaired in the years since the War had ended. The gate of the city was open -- indeed, it was rare now for it to be closed in daylight. Wenathen rode through, her steed carefully moving among the people and carts also passing in and out, and the vendors who set out their wares on crates near the gate, rather than renting a stall on the market level.

She had been anxious for a day now, feeling that the steady pace Lissasus so effortlessly maintained was too slow. Doubtless the King was busy with his duties; she didn't expect him to meet her. But she looked from side to side as the horse picked his way through the crowd, longing for a glimpse of Frodo and Hope.

There, before the royal stable. Frodo stood holding Hope on his shoulders. Their darling girl was waving excitedly, calling "Na!" And Frodo --

"No," she gasped, suddenly clumsy in her haste to dismount and reach the hobbits. "What have you done, Frodo?" She'd only been gone two moons.

His bright smile dimmed for a moment, his face flushing, but then he tossed his head defiantly and smiled again, stooping to release Hope. Their girl ran the three steps it took to reach Wena on sturdy little legs, her health as blooming as ever, and was scooped up into a not-very-elven hug.

"Na," Hope said happily. "You're home!"

"Yes, my darling princess, I'm home again." Wenathen didn't question that fact any longer. Her visit to Lothlorien had been pleasant, and being with Denier had been wonderful. But the journey had shown her how much of her heart remained in Gondor, tied up with Frodo, Aragorn, and their miraculous daughter, the only hobbit-Numenorean child in all Middle-Earth. Wena kissed the dark curls and hugged her close, her eyes drifting back to Frodo. The light of his being pulsed with energy.

"What madness possessed you?" she asked in elvish, knowing Hope could understand but at least ensuring privacy in front of the servants.

"Love is madness. Even the elves must know that."

"But-"

"I never concealed my wishes, Wena."

Hope was squirming to be put down, so Wenathen carefully set her on the ground, motioning to the groom so he'd monitor her visit with the "horsies." The servants from the Citadel had already removed her luggage and were no doubt carrying it to her rooms on the seventh level. The stable men had brought food for Lissasus and were wiping him down while he ate. Hope loved watching this, and was always allowed to help groom Wena's horse, untangling his mane with the long bone comb.

Wena turned to Frodo and bent to hug him, her hands gentle as she felt his life force. Frodo whispered in her ear, "Come outside where we can talk." She nodded and he led her by the hand to a bench beside the water trough.

"Faramir once told me this was placed here so weary soldiers didn't rush their mounts away from the water they needed. But I like to imagine it was really for weary parents -- perhaps Faramir's own mother -- whose children were mad to spend time at the stables, as Hope is now."

"She'll need to be a fine horsewoman. It's good she has no fear of the animals."

"True. You understand the ways of Gondor very well, Wena."

"I have learned much these three years, Frodo. But not enough about men and hobbits, it would seem. I didn't believe you were savage beasts incapable of self-control." Her mouth was tight with anger, but Frodo saw the fear, too. That was the only reason he answered so civilly.

"Three years is a very long time for a mortal, man or hobbit. Particularly when we both wanted it so badly." Frodo looked far away for a moment. "Aragorn would never have demanded it of me, but I wanted him just as much as he wanted me."

"The King could find such release elsewhere, Frodo, and you could be satisfied in other ways."

"No, Wena, he could not and I would not. The thought of him in someone else's bed sickens me. And I am only satisfied when Aragorn is inside me, making me whole."

"Risking your life, you mean. How can you be so foolhardy when Hope depends on you?"

Frodo looked away a moment, his lips pressed together, holding back his temper. "The situation is very different this time."

"Indeed!" Wena said angrily. "I didn't think you knew," she began, then stopped when he turned questioningly to her, appalled at her mistake. Of course Frodo didn't know, for no one in Minas Tirith could tell him what she had immediately seen.

"You know something! What is it, Wena?" Frodo looked uncannily like Hope when he was this excited, but her silence quickly changed his expression to fear. "Do you sense a problem?" She wanted to answer, but felt frozen with uncertainty. Frodo tugged at her arm insistently. "You must tell me!"

"You carry two lives within you, Frodo, two children."

Frodo looked stunned, but he glowed as if he'd swallowed starlight. "Oh, Wena. That's such wonderful news! Two -- oh, I hope they're boys. Aragorn will burst with pride. Though perhaps we should let him be surprised--"

Wena felt cruel as she shook her head. "No, Frodo, he must know everything. His healing skills... he must know," she repeated numbly.

"Perhaps. But this time everything will be different. I'm not ill, not like I was with Hope. Why, I haven't had a bit of sickness in months. I feel so marvelously healthy -- you know it's true I've been in good health. Aragorn never would have agreed otherwise."

"He knows, then? He deliberately set out to do this, even though you nearly died bearing one child--"

"Wena, that was because of the abduction, not because of Hope."

"We don't know that," she began, but Hope and the groom came bustling out of the stable, interrupting them. Frodo rose and opened his arms to his daughter, who ran to him babbling about her pony. Another stable boy led out the beast as she chattered to Frodo.

"Yes, you may ride with Garedor, and I'll watch. All right?"

With a smacking kiss to his cheek, Hope was back with the groom, who laughed and picked her up, setting her atop the small beast specially trained to walk steadily beside him while bearing the princess.

They led her out the gate at a nice, slow pace. Wena and Frodo followed, watching the people wave and bow, and enjoying her happy laughter.

"How can you look at her, see all the joy she brings the people of Gondor, and still believe it's wrong to give Aragorn more children? Hope needs a brother or sister. It's not as if we can't provide for them."

"The King can provide food and shelter, Frodo -- but he nearly lost his mind when you were so ill. What will happen to these children if you die? What kind of life will Hope have?"

"I'm not going to die," Frodo insisted. "This time I'm eating properly and being careful. And now you're here to take care of us all. If you think it's necessary, I'll stay in bed for the final months again, or even go back into the healing sleep."

"Frodo," Wena sighed. "We did all those things because the situation was so desperate -- it was a miracle you and Hope survived. I don't know if it's safe for you be put in such sleep again."

"Then I won't, not unless it's necessary. But I want these children safely born, Wena. Aragorn needs a son."

"Even more than he needs you?" she asked sharply, and Frodo's steady gaze faltered at last.

"I believe Aragorn wants me at his side, and I know he loves me. But ... he needs hope for the future, Wena. All of Gondor needs that. The children come first, no matter what."

He turned, watching Hope atop her pony, and Wena prayed to all the Valar for strength and wisdom.

*** *** ***

Frodo woke hot and sweaty, and felt oppressed by the heavy arm across his back. He tried to push away, and was seized by nausea. With great effort he freed himself in time to roll off their high bed, missing the footstool placed beside it and instead landing heavily on the cold floor. There, on his hands and knees, he vomited. When he tried to stand, he was sick again.

Then strong arms were holding him and Aragorn was calling for help. Frodo let them fuss for a few minutes, but only because he felt so weak. The chambermaid cleaned up his mess while Aragorn lifted him to the chaise, cleaned him with a warm, wet cloth, and tucked a warm robe around him.

The healer bustled in, still in his nightshirt, and the sight made Frodo giggle. At the sound, all the big folk in the room froze, looking askance at him. But the laugh turned to a moan, and Frodo grabbed the basin Aragorn had set beside him to vomit again. The healer, Aven, quickly moved to examine Frodo, his big hands gentle and sure.

"It would seem to be the mornings sickness, your majesty," the healer said. "I don't pretend to understand how male hobbits bear children, and since I wasn't allowed to be part of Lord Frodo's treatment when he bore Princess Gilraen..."

"Yes, I know," Aragorn said impatiently, and Frodo wished they would just be quiet. His head ached.

"But if Lord Frodo were a woman, such illness in the early day would be normal. Sometimes eating small amounts of flatbread or toast upon waking will help."

Frodo moaned at the idea of eating, but Aragorn nodded.

"I'll have some toast brought for him now."

"Be sure he drinks juice and water, well-mixed. He must replace the fluids he has expelled." Aragorn motioned to the maid, who nodded and quickly left the room.

Aragorn showed the healer out with effusive thanks. When he returned to where Frodo reclined on the chaise, he said, "You are an alarming shade of green. Can you manage some toast and water?"

"I'll try," Frodo replied, sitting forward. His stomach felt hollow, and he was thirsty. But it was nothing like the pain that had wracked his body while he was carrying Hope. He smiled at Aragorn, who brought him a glass of water and helped him drink.

With the tray of toast came Wena, a worried frown creasing her brow.

"I'm fine," he assured her, but she examined him anyway, smoothing back his hair much the way he'd seen her sooth Hope after a bad dream. She looked into his eyes, felt his face, and touched his hands and ankles while he slowly chewed a few bites of the unbuttered bread.

"You must eat small meals now, Frodo, as frequently as possible. Eating in the night and early in the morning should help settle your stomach. And there's a cordial Denier brews which is soothing to the stomach. I'll make some to keep here in your room."

"That would be very helpful, Wenathen," Aragorn said. "But Aven seems to have his nose out of joint because he was not involved in Frodo's care during the last pregnancy. Can you include him this time?"

"I shall endeavor to please you, Lord Elessar," she said. "At least, so long as Frodo's symptoms remain normal."

She left then, and Aragorn stood looking after her, his brow creased with puzzlement. "Frodo, does Wena seem... altered?"

"I'm afraid she is angry, love, with both of us. My state worries her, as I feared it would." He shifted on the chair, and took another small bite of toast. It tasted wonderful, despite his earlier fears. "When she first saw me, she called us beasts incapable of self-control."

Aragorn stared at him for a moment, then a short laugh escaped him. "That night -- you waited until she left for Lorien, didn't you? You didn't seduce me until she was no longer in the Citadel."

"Seduce you?" Frodo exclaimed. "I'd been sleeping in your bed and engaging in every other form of pleasure imaginable -- and some I think you must have dreamed up yourself, because they certainly weren't found in ancient Elvish texts! I hardly needed to seduce you." He folded his arms across his chest and tried to pout, but the laughter and lusty invitation in Aragorn's eyes undid him.

Frodo blushed and hastily swallowed some water. "Well, it's just that the elves have such sensitive hearing," he admitted, and had the breath almost squeezed out of him by his laughing king.

*** *** ***

"Master Baggins!" Gimli embraced Frodo quite carefully, Legolas noted, despite his hearty shout. "It seems you're finally looking like a true hobbit!"

Frodo was round. His belly was enormous -- well, they'd expected that just from the gossip overheard as they neared the city. And they'd seen Frodo swollen with child before. Legolas knelt and embraced Frodo in turn, looking deep in his eyes and finding only bubbling happiness.

Not only was his womb -- well, no one really knew where male hobbits carried children, but it seemed sensible to call it that -- not only was his womb enormous, far more swollen than it had been even in the last months of carrying Hope, but the rest of his body was covered in excess flesh. His face was rounded, ruddy cheeked -- and he seemed to be bursting with health and energy, moving swiftly and gracefully despite the added bulk.

He blushed under Legolas' steady gaze. "I know I'm horribly fat, but I'm so hungry all the time! Wena told me to eat often, and indulge myself."

"Indeed, elves believe the body knows what nourishment you require, and is demanding what you need to safely bear your child," Legolas agreed with a smile.

"And, perhaps, you are making up for the last time," Gimli added. "Fearing that a time will come when you cannot have all you wish."

Legolas frowned at this tactless reminder of past horrors, but Frodo eagerly nodded. "Oh, yes. If I have to stay in bed again, or even be put in the healing sleep, my body will be well-prepared."

That was startling. "Does Wena think you'll need such extreme measures again?"

"She doesn't know, truly. Everything is so different this time." Frodo smiled at them both. "I'm so pleased you've returned at last. Aragorn must see you immediately, of course. Let me show you the way. He's sparring with some of the Citadel guards."

"On duty or off?" Gimli asked with a hearty laugh as they followed Frodo through the hallways, up a half-stair, and then through several shorter corridors.

"He used to train with his men on the Pelannor, just outside the city walls, or near the Guard barracks on the fourth level. But crowds would form, watching the King, and it became distracting because they were actually choosing sides and cheering for them."

"And betting, I've no doubt. Most of the men of Gondor seem to like a good wager as much as their ale," Gimli rumbled approvingly.

"Most likely they were," Frodo laughed, and Legolas felt a stab of pain in his heart. "So Aragorn and I had these rooms cleared out, and parts of the walls removed by the masons. It's a large enough space for sword training and exercise, and for Hope to play with her friends in the rainy season, when she's been cooped up inside too long. It's perfectly safe, for all the weapons are stored in a locked cabinet," Frodo explained just as they reached a large double door with no guard posted.

The clashing sound of swords meeting in fierce blows could be heard from behind the door.

"We must wait until they disengage," Frodo announced. "They move so freely it's not safe to enter until the combat ends."

Legolas nodded, though Gimli grumbled under his breath that he could easily deflect any stray blows with his axe.

Frodo smiled up at him, and Legolas again felt himself a betrayer. "Ah, but the poor guards have no skill in defending themselves from such fierce warriors as dwarves, Gimli. You'd likely put them out of commission for a month or more."

"Indeed." Gimli looked so very pleased with himself Legolas knew he'd managed to completely forget the tidings they carried to Aragorn from Harad. There would be war within the month, and Aragorn would need to call out the strength of Gondor, as well as enlisting his allies for aid. Despite years of recruiting and training men, the armies of Gondor were not yet at full muster. Sauron's legions had slaughtered recklessly, and too many houses in Minas Tirith remained empty and barren.

The sounds from within the room ended and voices could be heard. Frodo knocked, then opened the door carefully. "Aragorn, your ambassadors have returned," he announced with a smile.

They followed the hobbit into a spacious room where the King of the West and his men stood bare-chested and sweating in oft-mended leggings, arms dragged down by heavy swords. But Aragorn's face lit up when he saw them, only to change when he embraced Legolas and read the news in his eyes.

"Excuse me, gentlemen," Aragorn said to the assembled guards. "I wish to hear this report immediately." One of the younger men carefully accepted the king's practice blade, and they all moved off to clean and store the weapons while Aragorn dried his face with a towel. "Frodo, love, you can expect us for tea," he added, stooping to gently kiss the hobbit, his hand tenderly cupping the swollen flesh of Frodo's belly.

When Frodo said farewell, Legolas and Gimli followed Aragorn as he quickly changed into more regal garb, then led them to his council room. From the window there, Legolas could see Frodo in the courtyard with Hope and Wena, bundled together in cloaks and sitting on the bench before the White Tree, playing a game and laughing merrily.

*** *** ***

Aragorn was going to war.

The very thought of it took Frodo's breath away and left him feeling sick with fear, as he hadn't been since ... before. They'd already fought so long, struggled so hard -- and for what? Frodo had thought the end of the Ring would mean the end of war and destruction. He'd been a fool.

His thoughts kept circling back to those best-forgotten days. He remembered the way it felt to face unnumbered foes who wished you dead. He vividly recalled the mumakil, Sam's oliphaunts, arrayed for battle with so many fierce warriors and weapons carried on their broad backs. Even worse were the stories he'd heard of the war in Gondor, and how fiercely those southron men fought for Sauron. How they'd cut the heads off the dead and thrown them over the walls...

How could this be happening again? And how could Aragorn, Eomer, Gimli and Legolas all be so matter-of-fact about once again risking everything, their lives and those of their people? Frodo realized he'd stopped packing Aragorn's saddlebag and was instead wringing the worn, red woolen shirt in his hands. He was so angry...

A glimpse of silver and blue drew his eyes to the doorway, where Wena stood holding a lamp, watching him with a face full of concern. Frodo tried to smile up at her, but he knew it was unconvincing. Still, Wena nodded and continued down the hallway to Hope's rooms.

Frodo was fine. It was Aragorn who was riding into danger, about to face men who routinely poisoned their darts and arrows. And Frodo had been stupidly naive not to expect it.

The people of Minas Tirith had seen Aragorn in battle, watched him heal their wounded, but that hadn't been enough for them to accept him as king. It had taken Imrahil's allegiance, Faramir's acceptance of the sword and other proofs. Even Gandalf's word had been necessary to reinforce Aragorn's claim to the throne.

So of course others would still wish to test Aragorn, and thus try the strength of Gondor. Men were so -- fragmented, that was the word. There were dozens of countries, hundreds of tribes, and so many customs and beliefs. It was staggering to a hobbit of the Shire, used to harmony and peace. But so few men seemed to trust each other. Instead they lived like wild animals, fighting for territory, when cooperation might have secured plentiful food and shelter for all.

Now the Haradrim were raiding in south Gondor, stealing crops and burning settlements along the border. Legolas and Gimli had traveled south as Aragorn's ambassadors and met with several of the most powerful tribal leaders. None of them would openly defy Gondor, but no matter what seemed to be agreed to in their meetings, the raids continued. Aragorn had agree with Legolas and Gimli that the only option was battle, a full-out war on the Haradrim's own lands, to remind them the might of Gondor would again prevail.

Frodo shook out the shirt he held and folded it, stuffing it inside the bag. Tomorrow at dawn Aragorn would ride, and this time there was no way for a simple hobbit to be involved. Frodo was not a warrior and he had no power to help his love achieve his goals and come home safely. All Frodo could do was pack for him now, while he met with Faramir and his councilors, and in the morning send him off bravely, with no tears.

Frodo finished the packing, then spent time with Hope before tucking her in to sleep. He returned to their rooms and waited, dozing until Aragorn finally arrived. His face was stern but so very weary Frodo knew it took a great effort of will to look so calm.

"Your bags are ready for the morning, Aragorn. Come sit and have a cordial with me." The decanter full of golden liquid was one of Wena's concoctions. It was perfectly safe for Frodo's babies, but still made mortal hearts and heads feel light and joyous. Frodo sipped a small glass almost every night, and sometimes Aragorn would join him, drinking watered wine instead of the precious elf-cordial. But this night he gladly accepted it, and Frodo knew it would do him good.

After the first long drink Aragorn pulled Frodo to sit next to him on their chaise. Another, and Frodo found himself in the man's lap, tightly held.

"I'm too heavy," Frodo began.

"Hush," Aragorn insisted, and drank deeply from his glass. Frodo did the same, so when Aragorn set down his glass, the goblet he took from Frodo's hand was already empty. Frodo's blood was singing, and Aragorn's kiss only made it more perfect. He felt elevated and powerful, and kissed back with all the passion he could show.

Aragorn quickly peeled Frodo out of his clothes right there, and in his happiness Frodo forgot to be self-conscious. Somehow when Aragorn lifted him to stand on their bed, and kissed his huge belly, Frodo felt beautiful. Beloved.

They were both too aroused by that time to do more than kiss, side by side atop the furs, while Aragorn's big hands rubbed their aroused cocks together. It felt so wonderful that Frodo couldn't last. With a cry and a deep groan he spilled his seed, his mouth still locked with Aragorn's and his hands pulling at the man's powerful arms.

But Aragorn firmly pulled away and stopped touching himself. He knelt up, staring down at Frodo. He whispered, "Look at you, flushed with pleasure and panting for air. Heavy with my children..." His words cut off and he cried aloud, spilling on Frodo's belly. He fell to his back beside the hobbit, his face contorted with the last spasms of his release.

When they'd both calmed, Aragorn pulled Frodo into his arms and covered them with the warm furs. "I'd like to do this several more times. All night, if I could. But I must be awake to ride tomorrow, or risk falling off my horse and damaging the dignity of my house."

Frodo couldn't laugh, though he knew Aragorn intended to be lighthearted, easing serious matters with light words in the way hobbits do. But the reminder of the farewell to come, and of the dangers ahead for Aragorn and the others, took away Frodo's powers of speech. He merely pulled up Aragorn's hand and kissed it, then held it to his face.

Aragorn seemed to understand, for he stopped looking for words and merely dropped kisses on Frodo's head, neck, and shoulder before settling into sleep.

Frodo once again wished he were anyone else. Even the lowliest soldier would be of more use to Aragorn in the days ahead. Frodo had nothing to do but wait here in the city with the women and children. Wait for news of the battle, and for the return of their king.

*** *** ***

Wenathen watched Frodo reading to Hope in the bright sunshine. Six months along now, he'd lost flesh but his burden remained healthy, though very large on his small frame. It cost him some gracefulness -- Frodo quite obviously waddled when he walked now. Yet he still managed to spend full, active days hard at work.

Aragorn had surprised many of his councilors by announcing on the day he left that he was appointing Frodo as his Steward, rather than Prince Faramir. Instead of resuming his hereditary duties, Faramir rode to war with Gondor, commanding Ithilien's troops.

Wena hadn't been present when Aragorn first told Frodo his decision, but she'd seen the stunned look on the hobbit's face and knew how overwhelmed he was at the very idea. It had been a most effective distraction from his grief at seeing Aragorn ride into danger.

But she knew Aragorn hadn't done it merely for that reason, and so did everyone else, now. Aragorn's trust in Frodo was repaid every day. The hobbit managed the myriad duties of Steward very smoothly. Wena could see that at some point in Frodo's youth, he'd been trained to manage lands and people, for he knew how to delegate tasks to others without losing sight of the whole. He understood how the city worked. Frodo knew more about the shortages of foodstuffs in the lower level than Wena herself, and had accurate ideas of the honest price for hay, oats, and most vegetables.

He seemed to have no desire for power, unlike so many of the wealthy men left in the city. Yet Frodo wielded his new authority very effectively, and with a gentle thoughtfulness that impressed almost all those around him.

Though Wena herself understood Aragorn's decision, she had feared that men would not take kindly to being ruled by a hobbit. She hadn't considered the awe and reverence now surrounding Frodo of the nine fingers, thanks to the bards and the annual new year's celebration honoring his deeds. She'd seen that the people loved Hope, but now she knew they loved Frodo, too, for giving their King an heir and bringing laughter back to the White City.

Frodo spent mornings with the wardens from each level of the city, letting them consult him on minor difficulties as well as those affairs that would require his intervention. Wena had duties as Hope's nurse -- but she did manage to check on Frodo several times each morning. It was amazing how long-winded some of the wardens could be, and how ineffectual some were at dealing with even the most simple problems despite the authority the king had granted them. She knew Frodo was making notes on this, to advise Aragorn of changes he might wish to make when he returned.

But only the second warden of the fifth level truly disturbed Wena. So of course he was the one warden Frodo removed from office without waiting for Aragorn's return.

Eritor was a very wealthy and supposedly charming man, but he seemed to Wena's elvish eyes to be a slug, trailing despair and filth behind him. She didn't like the way he looked at Frodo, his face smooth but envy burning in his eyes. But it was worse when Frodo smiled or laughed, and a kind of hate-filled lust would dawn instead. In his greed, Eritor had conspired with the candle merchants to set prices much higher than they should be.

The scheme was uncovered by Frodo after hearing complaints about how dark certain poorer areas had become. Eritor and the merchants might have escaped with a warning, but thieves had found the situation much to their advantage, and a woman had been killed one moonless night on the third level.

Frodo sat in judgement that day before a large crowd, looking very stern -- and small -- on the Steward's seat. "Your businesses are hereby forfeit to the Crown, for you have lost the right to freely trade in good faith with your fellow citizens." Wena knew Frodo planned to rent the confiscated candle-shops to promising merchants, allowing them to eventually buy the business outright.

"I shall not expel you from the City, though you may wish to leave of your own free will. Certainly no honest citizens here will give you work.

"As for you, Eritor, the Crown hereby fines you 10,000 silver coins -- more than your share of the dishonest profits. You claim to have been misled by the merchants, and I have no proof otherwise. But you are also hereby stripped of your warden's medallion, and are forbidden from ever holding an office of honor in Minas Tirith. One so easily led to do evil is not capable of the good judgement and honesty King Elessar requires in his trusted advisors."

Frodo stepped down to the cheers of a happy populace. But Wena was watching Eritor's face, and saw Frodo had made a deadly enemy this day. Like most elves, she saw Men as a childish race, young in Middle-earth and full of foolishness. The merchants, whether sobbing or red-faced with anger and shame, were like that. But Eritor was evil. She vowed that if he tried to harm Frodo, she would kill Eritor without a second thought, and from that afternoon began keeping her knife sheathed in her bosom, as she had not done since the Dark Lord's fall.

Wenathen shook herself out of those memories and smiled at Frodo as he closed his book. Fortunately, his time with the wardens always ended by the noon hour, so he could spend mealtime with Hope. They all relaxed, walking outside for some of their time when the weather remained pleasant, as it was this day. Wena would feed them both while they chattered and played, and if she was giving Frodo warm cordials to sharpen his wits and strengthen his body before he returned to his duties, it was no one's business.

In the afternoons Frodo met with the commanders of the guards. Aragorn had left a sizeable group of soldiers to secure their rear, fearing that the raids in Harad might be a ploy to weaken Minas Tirith's defense. Eomer and Faramir, too, had left their cities well-secured. But soldiers on such routine and boring duty needed to be closely watched lest they cause mischief. Citadel guards, some of the best of Aragorn's men, had been carefully selected and promoted into positions of authority. They were all doing an excellent job of keeping the city secure, and Frodo shared the infrequent dispatches from Aragorn's camp with them, as well as thoughtfully listening to their reports and praising their work.

Once these security issues were finished, Frodo either handled the king's correspondence, or, on alternate days, held court. At first he only heard those cases which could not await the king's return, and refused to sentence any serious offenders to punishment, saying such things must await Aragorn's justice. But after the affair with the candle-merchants, he'd put some thieving ruffians in jail rather than await Aragorn's return, and began hearing all smaller disputes, so that the King would not be burdened with dozens of old grievances when he returned.

Indeed, much of what was brought before Frodo should have been resolved without the Steward's notice. He settled these cases with a healthy dose of hobbit-sense, enforcing agreements which often surprised the parties, but never cost more money than both could easily pay. Often the only price was some of their pride. Frodo insisted in all his judgements that the people of Minas Tirith must learn to live together peaceably, pointing out that there were enough enemies outside their walls. Inside, he wanted only those who understood friendship, cooperation, and loyalty.

Frodo stood and kissed Hope, who smiled despite the shadows in her eyes. It was hard to see their darling girl grow up so quickly, with one father fighting in the south and the other so busy with his duties. Her birthday was only two weeks away, and it now seemed impossible for Aragorn to return in time for the celebration.

"Hope, would you like to make sculptures this afternoon?" Wenathen asked in elvish, delighted to see the solemn little face light up. "We can take the clay to the stables, and model your pony."

"Yes, please Na!"

She smiled at her newly-happy charge, and wished she could so easily lighten Frodo's mood. He looked worn. The hobbit needed rest this afternoon, not hours of bickering.

"Go wash your face and hands, and I'll meet you in the kitchen." Hope ran off and Wena moved to Frodo, stooping a little to speak quietly to him. "You should postpone the military reports for an hour, and take some rest. When you carry so much extra weight, you must rest your back."

Frodo smiled at her, his eyes sad. "I've already cancelled court, but I must hear the reports. Then I promise I'll rest until dinner."

"Thank you. I know you still feel healthy, but I sense fatigue in you."

"A little, perhaps. Nothing a nap won't fix," Frodo replied.

Nothing Aragorn's return wouldn't solve, Wenathen thought, but did not say.

She found Hope in the kitchen, where the third assistant cook was already boiling starch and flour to make the modeling clay. The princess was happily rolling out dough for a tart -- a rather large tart, but Hope explained that it was to be shared with Fwo and must be large enough for a hobbit. Wenathen smiled at her just as horns sounded outside the window, distant but drawing nearer. Messengers, and they were blowing the royal salute!

She left Hope in the care of the servants and went to the Hall to see what news came from the battlefield. Frodo and his officers were already at the door, waiting, as was a huddle of courtiers. Further off, past the White Tree, more citizens were arriving, the crowd parting only enough to let the horses through.

The two couriers who rode up wore guard insignia. They were filthy and one was wounded in the shoulder, the other in the leg, but they each carried letters for the Steward. Frodo accepted the parchments, then dismissed the men, ordering them to immediately report to the healers on the sixth level. Frodo sent one of his own guards to return their horses to the stables on the first level, then opened the first scroll.

His hands remained steady as he closed the first roll and read the second, longer document through. Though his face remained expressionless, Frodo turned an alarming shade of white and Wena thought he swayed a bit before swallowing, visibly taking a deep breath, and recovering himself.

"The message is from King Elessar," he announced clearly. "The chiefs of Harad have asked for peace. A treaty will be drawn up and signed shortly, and our soldiers will be returning to Minas Tirith." The crowd cheered, but Frodo raised his hand for silence and continued, "A garrison will be stationed at the border to enforce the treaty, and some men must be assigned duty there. Volunteers from South Gondor and Lebennin will be trained over the next year to permanently man the garrison."

The people cheered the news again, but Wenathen kept watching Frodo, wondering what was in the second letter. This could not be the news that had made him blanch with fear.

The crowd dispersed and Frodo dismissed his soldiers, then looked about and motioned to Wena. She approached him quickly, remaining silent until they were inside the Hall and completely alone.

"What is it, Frodo?"

"You must go to Aragorn immediately. Legolas writes that he was slightly wounded in one of the first skirmishes, and though he claims it was nothing, the wound has not healed properly. He fears Aragorn could lose his leg, because the wound seems to be mortifying."

Wena's face tightened as she tried not to show her fear, but understanding and knowledge were plain in Frodo's eyes. "I can ride to him tonight, if you wish. But I don't like to leave you alone in your condition."

"Nonsense. I've been perfectly well. If you would, please concentrate on packing your salves and medicinal herbs. I'll attend to the rest, and have Lissasus brought to the Citadel for you."

"As you wish, Frodo. But promise me..." He paused and looked up at her with all his attention, his calm resolve reassuring Wena more than any words could.

"I'll do whatever you advise. You know I want my children to be healthy and safe."

"Have a runner send Aven the healer to me, and I'll give him instructions for treating you. Meanwhile, courage." She quickly hugged Frodo and kissed his brow, then ran swiftly to her rooms. She'd barely begun sorting items for her bag when a number of servants arrived to assist her. She let them pack up her clothing, sent one to pack some clean, loose clothes for the king, and kept another woman with her to carefully wrap the jars she selected in cushioning cloths to protect them on the road.

It was only an hour later when she rode off, leading a second horse laden with healthy fresh foods for the wounded and her supplies. Frodo watched from the steps of the Citadel with Hope in his arms. Wena had told him it was dangerous to be lifting the child now, but she understood why he'd done so this night. Hope was very upset about Wena's departure, even though she seemed to understand that her father needed elvish nursing. Her face was tear-streaked as, held safe in Frodo's arms and clutching her favorite doll, Hope waved at Wena and tried to smile. Twisting in her saddle, Wena did the same, though she would not allow her own tears to fall.

Even when the road reached the turn for the sixth level and she could no longer see them, Wena sensed the two tiny figures behind her, glowing with love. Wena carried what she could of their love with her, knowing it was the best possible medicine for the king.

*** *** ***

Aragorn woke with Frodo's name on his lips.

"Be still, Aragorn."

The voice was familiar, but the cool hand was too large for a hobbit, and despite the gentleness of the touch, the palm had a warrior's calluses.

It was so hot. Why did they have such heavy blankets on his bed when it was so hot? But it wasn't his bed, for this surface was hard and uncomfortable, and the single flame burning stank of animal fat, like the lamps in the taverns of Bree. His home had fine wax candles, many of them so Frodo could read after sunset if he wished. Though Frodo preferred doing other things in the dark. He smiled, aroused just from thinking of his wanton hobbit, and shifted where he lay.

Sharp pain cut through his wandering thoughts and made him cry out, though he caught back the sound quickly.

"Sssh," Legolas soothed, and in the aftermath of his pain Aragorn clearly saw his friend, watching beside his bed. The fire that burned all his nerves died a little at Legolas' touch, and he could feel the source of his agony. His leg, the wound in his thigh from their second skirmish. It had seemed unimportant, a mere scrape, but he'd cleaned it carefully. After all, he'd promised Frodo that he would safeguard his own health.

It had ached, even that first night, but there were wounded to visit, and strategy meetings with his allies. Forlong had sent men from Lossarnach, and Imrahil's knights rode to meet them. All had to be thanked, welcomed, and included in the planning. Aragorn had been on his feet until the next morning, snatching only a few hours of rest before they rode. He'd thought riding would be best, but the motions required to guide his horse seemed to pull on the wound, and by nightfall it was inflamed again.

He'd bathed it with athelas as he ate, and felt good enough to make his rounds unassisted again that night. But it was the last time he did anything without a walking stick or a friend's arm. The leg swelled as he slept, making all movement painful the next morning.

Their campaign continued despite his discomfort, and though Legolas was constantly at his side, often supporting his movements, Aragorn convinced himself the leg was healing and would soon be well.

Now even he could smell the rot in his wound, and see the red lines on either side of the still-unhealed flesh. The envoys seeking peace had arrived just in time, for Aragorn could no longer mount his horse -- or, indeed, leave his tent. Faramir handled all visitors and brought him the treaty to sign, graciously reading it out loud to him. But Faramir's eyes kept seeking Legolas' tired face, wordlessly asking a question the elf couldn't answer.

Legolas was now holding water for him to sip. Aragorn drank deeply, though he couldn't quench the fire in his veins. He groaned and sank back, whispering "I'm burning."

But Legolas had turned away, and after a frozen moment of intense listening he moved to the door of the tent, his face alight. Aragorn heard it, then -- hoofbeats, and an elven-fair voice calling out to them both.

Wenathen was in the tent a moment later, her clothing splattered with what must be days of hard riding. But her hands were soothing, and the song she chanted while she examined him eased the discomfort. He felt as if Frodo and Hope were beside him, touching him, shining&ldots; Perhaps he could sleep.

When Aragorn next opened his eyes, Wena was still beside him, but the tent was bright with daylight and she was no longer in her riding clothes. She smiled at him, and he tried to smile back but felt too weak to manage it. Then she was beside him, supporting his shoulders and giving him a drink of ... not water, but some elvish cordial that eased thirst as well as water.

"My lord, it gives me great joy to see you improving."

"Legolas wrote you, though I forbade it. Yet I am thankful for his interference. But -- Frodo?"

"I bring you greetings from the Steward of the White City," she replied. "Legolas Greenleaf wrote to him, not to me. I am here at Frodo's request."

"But he needs you. Our children..."

"Aven has my instructions, and Frodo has been very well. He is an able Steward, your majesty. If he desired it, I believe he could effectively rule his Shire, or even your kingdom." She laughed as she spoke, and the sound sank into him like a healing balm. "Hope sends her love as well, and waits for your return to celebrate her third year. Even the thought of two celebrations, and two birthday cakes, does not budge her. She remains determined that you must be there to share both of them."

 Aragorn smiled at her. "Her stubborn streak is from the Bagginses, you know."

"Perhaps," Wena replied. "But I expect that your own stubbornness is formidable, my Lord. I hope that it is, for I need you to be determined that you shall heal from this evil infection."

"I will," he vowed, setting his teeth. "The pain is still terrible."

"That seems to be an effect of the poison. You had a very small dose, but it has taken hold of your system. If the wound had been any deeper, I fear you would be dead."

He nodded to show his understanding, but was too tired to speak. He wanted to sleep for a long time.

"If your condition continues to improve, I wish to take you and the rest of the wounded to Minas Tirith immediately. Eomer and Gimli will ride with us, and Faramir will remain here, with Legolas, to establish your garrison. However, if you don't wish the city to know you are incapacitated, we can try to hide you among the wounded, my lord."

He shook his head. "No lies."

"As you wish," Wena replied. He dozed for a few moments, then woke to feel her cleansing his wounded leg. As she worked, she hummed a song that reminded him of Rivendell, and his childhood among the elves. He thought he'd like to sing along, if only he weren't so very tired.

*** *** ***

Frodo read the letter from Legolas twice before he dismissed the messenger, another slightly-wounded man commended to Aven at the Houses of Healing.

Aragorn was on his way home. Nearly half their forces were escorting the wains carrying the wounded, and Wena was now supervising the healers sent with the troops. Their progress would be slow, but it would give those suffering a better chance of improving even before arriving in the city.

Aragorn's leg seemed to be healing, but he was still bedridden and unable to walk or ride except in a cart. Wena thought he would be weak for some time to come, but he'd asked that there be no lies to the people of his city, so Frodo gave the news of the King's wound to his wardens the next morning, and to his soldiers that same afternoon. Finally, he sent orders to the Houses of Healing to prepare extra beds, and bring healers and their helpers from surrounding villages to assist with the fallen. Such assistants would be needed, and there were many empty houses in Minas Tirith to hold them.

His final duty of the day was the most difficult. Frodo joined Hope for tea, bringing her the little iced lemon cookies she favored over other treats, and told her that Aragorn would not be back in time for her birthday on the morrow.

She cried a little, then asked if they could wait for birthday cakes and presents until Aragorn was home. Frodo thought she was very generous and brave, and told her how proud he was of her. "A ruler cannot always have exactly what she wishes to have, and always thinks of others before herself. You, my darling, will be a wonderful Queen some day." He pulled her onto his lap as best he could with the bulk of his belly in the way, and hugged her tightly.

Hope looked up at him with grey-blue eyes so like Aragorn's that he nearly cried as he dropped a kiss on her forehead. "Perhaps just a few cup-cakes tomorrow, just for the two of us at tea, would be a nice remembrance of your real birthday?"

She asked, "With icing?" and Frodo laughed and agreed. She might look more like a man-child, but her stomach seemed all hobbit.

But then she touched his face and said, "Eat more cakes, Fwo." He smiled and took another bite of one of her cookies, but wondered what she saw that made her worry about him.

After the nurse took her back to her room to play, Frodo slowly stood and stretched. He needed to rest his back, which now hurt nearly all the time, but was starting to stab at him as well. He walked, waddled really, back to their rooms, intending to take a brief nap. But when he reached the room, he turned to the full-length mirror he'd been avoiding for months now, since he first put on so much weight carrying the children.

He was grotesque. His stomach was enormous, rounder than a pumpkin, and his arms stuck out a little because of his girth. Will Whitfoot would look thin compared to him, he thought disgustedly, before remembering how Sam had described the poor mayor's health after he was imprisoned by Saruman's men. Then he flushed, feeling guilty for such uncharitable thoughts. Old Flour Dumpling had shown his courage when he fought Saruman's men, and Frodo didn't know if he'd have done so well in the same situation. Certainly he'd failed miserably at Mount Doom, no matter what kindly light Gandalf or Aragorn tried to cast on his actions that day.

He moved closer to the glass and looked at his face. It was thinner now, he thought, and he had dark circles under his eyes. In fact, he looked old. Well, he was 54 now and no longer had the illusion of eternal youth.

The thought of the Ring still hurt, stabbing at him more powerfully than his back muscles. If he could just hold it once more&ldots; But no, that was the whole point of it all. If he had the Ring he wouldn't have Aragorn, or Hope, or Wena. He might still be ruling Minas Tirith, but he'd be a master of unwilling slaves. The sight of him, instead of inspiring his beautiful daughter to offer cakes, would cause the good people of Gondor to throw themselves from the walls of the city in despair.

He knew that. Frodo could still see a very different vision, so clearly, the Ring still tempting him though it had been destroyed for years now. He saw all he'd lost, what they'd all sacrificed in the struggle. His right hand throbbed; he saw Hope and his unborn children being raised in the Shire, among those he loved, with Aragorn right there, free to read and go for long walks instead of forced to struggle with the burdens of ruling men and fighting wars. Aragorn looked younger and carefree, sitting outside Bag End in leggings and a loose shirt, laughing and smoking his pipe. Hope had flowers in her hair, and Frodo was so happy...

He jerked away from the mirror, striking the edge with his elbow, hard enough to put a small crack in the glass. He almost touched the sharp line of it before he stopped himself, shook off the reverie, and moved back to their bed, carefully climbing up and settling back with his knees bent. It felt wonderful, though it was a little hard to breathe with his stomach so heavy. Yet it couldn't weigh as much as Aragorn did, and Frodo loved being pressed into the mattress by his body, feeling the heat of him and able to touch the thick hair on his chest and arms.

The very thought of Aragorn seemed to bring him back for a moment, healthy and with the light in his eyes that only Frodo saw. Once he'd thought that light was permanently extinguished, when he learned Arwen was leaving Middle-earth and Frodo feared she would take all Aragorn's joy with her. But miraculously, Aragorn's heart had healed so that he could return Frodo's love, and now his eyes glowed with love and desire for Frodo whenever they were alone together. And often when they were not.

Frodo rolled to his side, easing the pressure when he breathed, and closed his eyes. If he tried, he could imagine Aragorn's warmth behind him, with the comforting feeling of being held and protected that Aragorn's presence always carried. Well, at least since that first night they'd met in Bree. Frodo had wanted to trust Aragorn from the moment he'd seen him, despite his fearful burden and Strider's gruff manner. He'd found himself fascinated by the man, amazed by his skills as he provided guidance, protection, and even food for all of them.

Then, one night Frodo had been unable to sleep, full of worry for Gandalf and fear of dangers ahead. And nearby in the firelight, Strider sang the Lay of Luthien, his rough voice caressing the elvish words. That was the night Frodo saw into Strider's heart, and fell in love with the mysterious Ranger in his worn travel clothes.

The facts he soon learned at Rivendell should have changed Frodo's feelings. Not only was Strider heir to the throne of Gondor, he was also pledged to the most beautiful, brave elf-princess, daughter of Elrond. When Frodo first heard the truth, his heart had sunk so that he'd been put back to his sick-bed, judged not yet recovered from his wound. He'd actually been glad of the excuse to avoid both Arwen and Aragorn.

But then, at Elrond's Council, the man had pledged to assist Frodo in his quest, and Frodo knew the truth of his own heart at last. Aragorn would never love Frodo the way he wished, but he was so noble and kindly and brave and good... Well, one couldn't just extinguish love the way you blew out a candle. Frodo realized he'd always love the beautiful Dunadan, and that was all there was to it. His feelings couldn't change when they had focused on one so worthy of love and affection.

And they hadn't, not even when Frodo was brought back from the Cracks of Doom half-dead. He'd heard his King calling to him and returned to the agony of living, just to see Aragorn's sweet smile once again. But when Frodo finally returned to true consciousness, there had been no smiles. After that first joyous night of feasting and celebration, Aragorn received word from Arwen and was in plunged into a grief Frodo watched helplessly, spending long days with Aragorn trying to comfort him.

Aragorn had been unable to speak of Arwen for many days, until a magical afternoon in Ithilien. They'd been talking, and Frodo had bungled as usual, asking Aragorn a rude, unanswerable question. Yet somehow it had ended with Aragorn kissing him, and suddenly life had blossomed with hope and happiness again.

Even after so many blissful days and nights together, even while he carried the very visible signs of Aragorn's love in his belly, Frodo could never have enough. He fiercely wished Aragorn were home, with him here in their bed. And, as if the wishing made it so, Frodo felt Aragorn was there. But it was not the stern, resolute Aragorn who'd ridden off to Harad. Snuggling behind him was the carefree, happy, lusty Aragorn of his earlier imaginings. Now the leggings and shirt were gone, dissolved, and there was only hot skin pressing against Frodo, and hard hands skillfully pulling pleasure from him.

Frodo moaned and tried to roll over, to see his love, but he was held down, his wrists pinned as his body was plundered almost brutally. There was a pressure, then pain, then pleasure sparked within while harsh breaths rasped in his ears.

"You want this, don't you? You've always wanted it," was whispered, and though the voice was familiar it wasn't Aragorn's voice at all. Frodo suddenly panicked and threw off the weight, nearly falling out of bed because of course there was no one holding him down. It was only a silly dream. He'd never have to hear the voice of the Ring again.

That silly dream had Frodo's heart racing and his breath short, so that even after he sat up his hands shook, spilling the water he tried to drink. Though he would never admit it, the memory of that dream was what prevented him from sleeping later that night.

*** *** ***

Another day attending to the business of Minas Tirith, and Frodo yawned quite rudely when his page brought in the tea tray.

"I do apologize, Pari," Frodo said as soon as he could stop gaping.

"No need, sir," the boy replied. "You'll feel better after a cup of this. Cook says it's a nice strong blend, just as you like."

Frodo nodded and watched Pari pour, but he didn't really believe even tea could help now. He needed sleep, but that was almost impossible these days. Perhaps it would be different if Wena were here to brew him a drink that would truly relax his nerves, or even just to stay in his room and sing away the nightmares. But she was with Aragorn, whose need was much greater than Frodo's, as were the needs of all Gondor's brave wounded.

"Pari, is anyone still waiting for an audience?"

"Yes, sir. Lord Aven, the healer, is here to examine you. And Lord Er... Citizen Eritor has come with a gift and a petition."

Frodo frowned and took a sip of tea before answering. No matter what Eritor was requesting, Frodo was fairly sure it wouldn't be something he could approve. And the Steward didn't accept gifts. How very like Eritor to think he could still buy favor. Removing that man as a warden was the best thing Frodo had managed to do in Aragorn's absence.

"I'll see Aven now."

"Very well." But Paritorn stood motionless a moment, waiting for something. Then he blushed and spoke again. "You wish to see him here, sir?"

"Yes. Go on." Frodo waved his hand and looked away from Pari's very disapproving face. But he couldn't hide from Aven's remonstrances, which began as soon as he entered the side door of the hall, his healer's bag clutched to his chest.

"Lord Frodo, how you expect me to properly examine you here I'll never understand. And I've told you many times now that you should remove to your rooms for meals and take your comfort for a time."

"I thank you for your concern, Aven, but I'm very busy today. Taking tea here is fine, particularly since I suspended business to enjoy lunch in the library with my daughter." Even as he grumbled and Frodo replied, Aven was conducting a very thorough examination, checking Frodo's eyes, his life-beat, and pulling up his tunic to listen at his belly.

"That is very well, my lord, though gossip in Minas Tirith seems lax. For instance, I was not aware you've added a bed to the rooms of the Citadel Library. Yet I know you are aware that the whole purpose of escaping from this Hall is to ease your back for a time."

Frodo nearly laughed aloud, catching himself and coughing instead. Fortunately Aven was now on his knees, feeling Frodo's ankles for swelling, so Frodo could smile openly at his remark. And by the time the healer rose again, Frodo had a hand over his mouth, as if he were in deep thought.

"Am I correct in assuming your sleep is still disturbed, Lord Frodo?" Despite his somewhat touchy pride, Aven saw clearly.

"Yes, I'm afraid so. It's--" Frodo hesitated. Of course Aven knew of his wounds from years ago, and had even helped treat his anniversary illnesses in past years. Yet Frodo couldn't bring himself to mention the Ring-related nightmares. "It must be the strain of holding the Stewardship," Frodo finished.

Aven looked at him again, quite sharply, but Frodo held the gaze steadily and finally the man nodded. "Very well. You cannot have a true sleep potion, no poppy and willow for one who is pregnant. But I'll have an herbal relaxant prepared, which brews into a tea. You must drink that instead of your usual swill." Aven still disapproved of the new tea ritual very much.

"At bed time, do you mean?"

"No, my lord, all day. Except for the cordials Wenathen left for you, or plain water, my tea shall be your only beverage. I'll instruct the kitchens."

"But--" Frodo really enjoyed his tea, particularly in the mornings.

"I insist. You need your rest, Frodo." It was so rare for Aven to forget titles when speaking with him that Frodo's protests died. He merely nodded agreement, and watched as the healer left the room with his usual fussy bustle.

"My Lord Steward?" Pari asked, and Frodo jumped, just a bit. His mind had wandered, for he was quite tired.

"Is Eritor the only citizen waiting for an audience?" he asked.

"Yes, sir."

"Good. Send him in, Pari, then run to the nursery and tell them to serve Hope her dinner without me. I'll retire early this evening." The page bowed and obeyed, and Frodo tried to put on a somewhat pleasant face as he watched Eritor enter from the far door and briskly approach his seat, a weary servant following with a large box.

The former warden was smiling and held his head high. A visitor would never realize Eritor was in disgrace, for he still behaved as if he were the ruler of the city. Frodo supposed the man thought he should be. He'd always been a bit of a bore about his family's illustrious heritage, which he claimed made him a distant cousin of the line that bore Denethor.

"Hail to the Steward of Gondor," Eritor said with an elaborate bow. "I bring a petition from my fellow citizens. But first, a gift from the residents of the fifth level for you." He motioned the servant forward, but before they could open the box Frodo interrupted.

"Much as I appreciate the thought, it is not seemly for the Steward to accept a gift when considering a request, Eritor. Please send that away."

"Oh, but my lord -- what harm can there be in acknowledging the love of your subjects?" Eritor once again cracked the lid of the box, ignoring Frodo's wishes as if he hadn't spoken.

It made him sharper in his speech this time. "Do not open that, I don't wish to see it. Have your man leave, now." Both of them looked startled at his tone, but the servant hastily obeyed, bowing and practically running out with the large box clutched under one arm.

"Now, Citizen. Your request?"

Eritor looked angry, but he tried to cover it with an air of hurt feelings, moving closer to the Steward's seat and lowering his voice. "Is there some wrong in wishing to please you, my lord? With wanting to see a true smile on your face once again?"

Frodo listened to this with confusion and discomfort uppermost in his mind. Eritor was standing too close, it made Frodo feel like pushing him away. "If you would just state your business, Eritor, I would be quite pleased. You have a request from your fellow-citizens?"

"There is no request, Lord Frodo. It was merely a ploy to gain admittance, for I have missed seeing you these past weeks."

Frodo didn't know what to say to that, but Eritor evidently took his silence as encouragement. His voice dropped even lower, and he stepped forward until he was grasping the arms of Frodo's chair.

"Surely you don't need to be told that my heart has always been yours, Frodo. Only your relationship with the king kept me silent for so long. That, and fear that you would not return my feelings. But when you agreed to admit me today, I took courage..."

"Eritor, what in all Middle-earth are you talking about?" Frodo interrupted, rising, but then Eritor was blocking his way, pushing him back into the seat, his hands on Frodo's arms and his mouth, wet and slimy, trying to force open Frodo's--

Frodo's outrage overcame any delicacy about assaulting a citizen of the City. He kicked, and the man dropped with a screech, both hands now cupping his groin.

Frodo wiped his mouth on his sleeve, then spat on the floor. He was shaking with anger, his heart racing, and he found his hands moving to protectively cover his belly. "You dare to assault me here, in my own Hall? You insult me and your king with such advances?" He stepped around the still-prone man and fought the urge to strike him again. "I should have you arrested."

"You encouraged me," Eritor squeaked. "Giving me a private audience, then sending my servant away -- if you arrest me, I'll testify that you've been trying to seduce me for years. Who wouldn't believe me, when all Minas Tirith knows you're just the king's whore?"

Disgust was making Frodo's legs shake, and a rage he'd never before known, not even under the Ring's sway. If he'd had a sword, he would have killed Eritor where he lay.

"Whatever you think of me, at this moment I am your Steward," Frodo said so coldly that Eritor stopped rocking in his pain and looked up in fear. "King Elessar shall hear of this outrage, and he shall be the one to pass judgement, Eritor, if you are man enough to remain in this city and await his wrath." Frodo swept out of the room then, never looking back.

His rage supported him long enough to make it to his own rooms, but then Frodo collapsed and was found half an hour later hysterically crying on the cold stone floor. The worried servants sent for Aven. The healer didn't ask about the bruises on Frodo's forearms, or why he couldn't stop holding his belly as he rocked in agitation. He merely settled Frodo into his bed with warm blankets, spoon-fed him hot soup, and ordered he remain there, and sleep, until at least noon the following day.

*** *** ***

It was late in March before troops escorting the wains full of wounded men finally entered the Gates. There was a hero's welcome for them all, with the people of the city throwing flowers and singing of their victory. But faces in the cheering crowd changed as the King's wagon passed them by, reflecting shocked surprise at how thin and ill the King still seemed.

For Aragorn was not on horseback yet, though he could manage sitting up in the wagon beside Wenathen and Gimli. Frodo watched the slowly-moving parade, standing on a high platform set up next to the second level's gate. Aragorn looked too pale and white. Frodo knew he must be in great pain despite Wena's care.

Frodo watched the king wave to his people and smile, and was very much aware of the moment Wena and Aragorn reached a place where they could finally see him and Hope, perched atop the bench so she could see down into the crowd. Aragorn's face confirmed what Frodo already knew, that his changed appearance was also shocking, possibly even more so than Aragorn's.

Frodo had only been getting worse as the days passed. It was his anniversary illness, he knew it was only that, and it would eventually pass. But he felt weak all the time now, and he'd lost an alarming amount of weight. His face was white and drawn from lack of sleep, but whenever he tried to rest, he heard the Ring's voice was in his head, testing him. Taunting him. It had gone on for so many days now that Frodo truly felt he'd never be really healthy again, and was close to despair.

But Aragorn's stricken face made Frodo toss his head up defiantly and smile, setting his will. He would not leave Aragorn alone with the children. He would not let anything happen to the twins, or to himself. He was going to be beside Aragorn for as long as he possibly could -- hopefully another 70 years or more. Bagginses were tough and long-lived; Bilbo had always said that and Frodo knew it was true.

The thought of Bilbo nearly wiped off his smile, though. The letters from Rivendell were so infrequent, and Bilbo's were so very brief and wandering. Frodo had been warned of Bilbo's decline by Elrond, who gently told him that the old hobbit had not been the same since the Ring's destruction. Still, when Frodo finally rode north with Hope to see the Shire again, his visit to Rivendell had torn his heart. Bilbo hadn't remembered Frodo, not at first, but it was worse when he finally did, for all he spoke about was his Ring, the one he'd loaned to Frodo, and he constantly asked to see it and hold it again.

Frodo still heard those pleas in his head, and knew they were echoed in his own heart. His hands, too, sometimes felt horribly empty, even when he held Hope's little hand in his. But Aragorn was home at last, and Frodo once again resolved to overcome this horrible weakness of his will.

That was the last thing he remembered, for when he stepped forward to greet the King the Steward of Gondor seemed to stumble, then clutched at his daughter, screaming "Hope!" as the platform collapsed, tumbling them and the dignitaries who stood with them through the splintering boards to the paving stones far below.

There was a frozen moment when no one moved or reacted, shock on every face. Then the healers were rushing forward even as the King threw himself out of his wagon and stumblingly ran beside the elf-woman to where two small bodies lay amid the wreckage, bloody and still.

*** *** ***

Aragorn sat by Hope's bed, watching the rise and fall of her chest in sleep. His darling had been awake just long enough for his kiss tonight, before the sight of her tears made him ask Wena for the sleep-draught to ease Hope's pain.

"She is healing, Lord Elessar. Her leg still pains her, but the wound is clean and there is no danger to her life."

"I know, Wena," he replied. "It's not that I fear for her. I'm upset because I make you keep her awake, despite her pain, until I am free." Wena came closer and laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. "It is selfish of me, but I cannot bear for both of them to ..." He couldn't continue, for not even before Wena would he weep. Not yet, not this night.

"Go to Frodo, my lord, and know that I will care for Hope."

He nodded and rose, picking up the walking-stick he needed to support him, and with a last caress to his daughter's sleeping face he turned to the door. He wanted to go to Frodo, more than anything. His only comfort was curling next to his love on their bed, and holding him, watching the smooth face so motionless beneath the heavy bandages wound around his head.

This was his time to be with Frodo, but tonight, Aragorn couldn't immediately seek the haven of his rooms and be with his love. That thought only fueled his anger as The King prepared for an onerous duty, following the corridor to the back of the Citadel, limping past the kitchens and servant quarters, and slowly making his way down the stairs that led to the wine cellars and storage rooms.

In the third such room, he lit a candle and found the doorway carved into the stones behind the last wine rack. He removed a key from around his neck, and unlocked a passage that led further down, long narrow stairs cut into the mountain itself. Aragorn had taken this path only twice before, and he clearly remembered how that first time, he'd vowed never to use this room and its facilities.

He could smell the filth before he entered. Naldur the carpenter was still strung up, naked, dried blood from old lash wounds marring his back and legs. His carpenter-assistants were cowering against the wall, also naked, chained hand and foot. They cried for mercy with parched throats, for Aragorn had ordered them neglected this day, hoping the lack of food and water would terrify them.

It seemed successful. He ordered water and bread brought, and two of his guards left via the official entrance to this section of the dungeon to seek what he required, while the other two moved the carpenter to the rack. The man's screams and pleas fell on deaf ears, for the guards here knew their duty, and all Aragorn required to steel his heart was the memory of Hope's bruised face, and how it felt to watch over Frodo's still form for two endless days now.

Aragorn had a chair brought so he could rest his leg while he once again questioned the assistants. By the time he finished his interrogation, their meager food had arrived, and he had time to consider what each had said. It was now obvious these men had no information. The head carpenter had been the one who built the reviewing platform and positioned it that day, and a witness had remembered seeing Naldur set the bench for Frodo and Hope himself.

Aragorn rose and stood to the side, watching as the two assistants wolfed down their bread and drank from the bucket. When he signaled for them to be released, neither man understood his intentions. One soiled himself and collapsed on the stone floor, believing he was about to join Naldur on the torture rack. But soon enough the guards had removed them, leaving Aragorn with his prisoner -- the truly guilty man.

"Mercy, majesty," the man begged in a hoarse whisper.

"Did you show mercy to my daughter? You deserve to be flayed, Naldur, and left for the crows to eat." As he spoke, he began to crank the huge wheel, just the noise of it making the guards jump and the prisoner cry out.

"I ... the wood was faulty!"

"You're a liar and a murderous traitor. We found the rope you used to pull out the support post, fool. Do you know the penalty for attacking the Steward?"

"Lord King, my family..."

"If you don't confess everything, I'll have them brought here and tortured before your eyes. I'll order my guards to make sport of your children, male or female." He turned the wheel again and saw the pull in Naldur's arms and legs as he gasped in pain. "I'll put them in a cell with the lowest, most dangerous prisoners in the dungeon."

"You won't," the man gasped. "You wouldn't. But if I tell you who hired me, he will kill my family." Aragorn loosened the wheel for just a moment, studying Naldur's face. Perhaps this was the truth, at last.

"If I arrest him he cannot harm your family."

"He told me ... he has powerful ... friends. My children are innocent!"

Aragorn turned to the guards at the door. "Is Naldur the carpenter's family in custody, Randir?"

"As you ordered, your majesty. They have been given rooms in the guest wing, and four guards watch them in rotation."

"Give him water." He paused while the man noisly drank from the guard's hand. "Do you understand, Naldur? Your family are safe, for now, in my custody. But if you don't tell me the truth, I'll release them and spread the rumor that you've confessed. Then they will surely die. Now speak."

"My lord..." He stopped, then groaned. "It was Eritor, lord King, who paid me."

"His payment does not excuse your crimes." He turned the wheel and felt satisfaction at Naldur's cry of pain. "You accepted that money to attempt murder."

"My lord... I thought it was the only way--"

"There can be no justification for what you did. If you feared Eritor, you should have gathered your family and come to the Steward immediately."

"But I couldn't, majesty. He told me... no, I cannot. If I repeat his foul lies you will strike me dead this instant. I know it..."

"What did Eritor say?" The man gasped, and Aragorn quickly gave him another dipper of water, waiting impatiently while he choked and reached for more. "Speak," Aragorn ordered, holding the water away from him. Nalur sobbed, took a breath, and continued his confession.

"He told me Lord Frodo had been unfaithful to you. Eritor claimed the Rohirrim king was Frodo's lover, sire, and the girl his bastard child. He said that you'd learned the truth, and ordered this very public accident to rid you of them both. He claimed the gold came from your treasury, and I believed him, for Eritor has been in disgrace -- where else would he get such a sum? And he told me if I ever said a word, my family..." He began to sob, then, and Aragorn moved away lest he forget himself, and injure the man in his rage.

"Randir, take a squadron to Eritor's house. Arrest him, and anyone in the house with him. I don't believe he has any family, but he may have allies there, conspiring with him. Bring them here and lock them in this chamber tonight, chained to the wall. And burn Eritor's house when you leave." The guard looked startled but obeyed, and Aragorn motioned to the remaining men to release Naldur. "Take him to his family, let them clean him up. They all remain under guard until further notice."

Then he was alone, his anger melting away and disgust returning. He'd had no choice, but even if he had, he might have tortured that man. Aragorn didn't think there were any limits on his behavior when Frodo and Hope needed protection.

He was still pondering this as he painfully walked back up the stairway, and found himself wishing for someone to discuss this situation with him. Unfortunately, his best advisor and the person he most wished to speak to was Frodo. He trusted his love's judgement and wisdom, and felt those gifts had been taken from him just as brutally as Frodo's health had been ripped away by the collapse of that platform.

Aven and Wena assured him Frodo was healing, though he hadn't yet moved or spoken. Wena claimed she could sense his spirit, and those of the children in his womb. His own powers were useless in Frodo's case, but soon, he hoped, Wena would be proven correct. Then he would have Frodo back again, to speak with him, love him, and advise him. But he knew that even Frodo couldn't be impartial on this topic for he, too, would only be able to see that Hope had been seriously injured, and their unborn children could have been lost.

Even Wenathen was in a rage over this treachery, and the same was true of Gimli. Either of them would cheerfully slit Eritor's throat if they learned what he'd done. Perhaps if Faramir or Legolas were in Minas Tirith -- but, no, they both loved Frodo and Hope, too. And surely Aragorn asked enough of all his friends and allies as it was. They were completing his unfinished business in south Gondor, and Aragorn could not escape a judgement that was King's responsibility. He'd been born and raised to deal with such problems, though he'd never thought to be so personally involved in such horrors.

He'd arrived on the main floor of the Citadel while lost in these thoughts, and he quickly followed the corridors to his suite of rooms. When he entered, all was as quiet and still as it had been the previous nights. Aven rose and bowed, and the other healers scattered, giving their king privacy.

Frodo was clean and so very pale in the candlelight, breathing deeply -- was there a difference? His eyes seemed to be moving beneath their lids. "Aven? What has changed?" He turned to the healer, who was smiling more cheerfully than Aragorn had ever seen before.

"He is waking, my lord. Sit with him, and call to him if you have the strength. Or just speak to him, and help him find his way back." The healer placed a bell on the table and made certain Aragorn saw it. "Ring this if you need us, or when he wakes."

When Aven left, Aragorn sat on the bed and took Frodo's hand in his, his head still reeling. A sudden knock on the door roused him, and he called "Enter," not moving from the bed. He wondered if that was because his leg ached, or because he was finally near Frodo.

A guard walked in. "King Elessar, Captain Randir thought you would wish to hear this report immediately."

"Go on," he ordered.

"Eritor's house was empty, Lord King, and he has fled the city. Randir ordered the squadron mounted to pursue him from Minas Tirith, and they have departed."

"Very good. Is there more?"

"Only that we burned his house and all its possessions, majesty, as you ordered."

"Thank you. Dismissed," Aragorn said. He knew he should feel rage, but when the door finally closed, he sank down on the bed next to Frodo, pulling the lax body into his arms. He tucked Frodo's head under his chin in a pathetic imitation of how they often would spoon together after lovemaking. "Frodo, love. Come back to me now, I need you."

There was no response -- he truly hadn't expected any. But his heart still beat faster with anticipation at last, and he found it easy to sing softly in Frodo's ear, a song about life and springtime and happy expectations. When his voice grew tired, he simply rocked Frodo and whispered words of love.

"Aragorn," Frodo sighed, and at first Aragorn thought he was still asleep, and dreaming of their loving. But then the arms that had been motionless tightened in an embrace, and Frodo's lover finally released the tears the King could not shed.

*** *** ***

The wardens and guards didn't have to tell Aragorn how well Frodo had performed his duties as Steward. It was apparent everywhere as the weeks passed, spring blossomed in the city, and Aragorn enjoyed the small dockets for his twice-weekly judgements; the way the city wardens now quickly reported and left him hours of the morning to catch up on correspondence; and how efficiently the soldiers of the guard briskly filed their daily reports.

But Frodo's success as Steward was even more apparent in how all these good people asked after Frodo's health each day, and how many gifts were brought to the Citadel each day by ordinary citizens. Gifts for him and for Hope.

Aragorn sat on his throne once again, still a bit weak later in the day, but eased from the pain of constant travel and broken rest. Seeing the daily improvements in Hope and Frodo acted like a tonic, even with both of them still confined to their beds, and Aragorn himself was finally able to walk without any assistance. His legs still felt weak as a newborn colt's at times, but he knew he would soon regain his full strength. Already he was exercising his arms, swinging his practice sword for longer periods each day. Once his legs caught up, he'd be fine.

As he left the banquet hall where he'd been entertaining the Rohirrim on their last night in the city, Aragorn remembered the dark days after his coronation, when Frodo had been missing, and the stir in the city when he was finally found and his condition was revealed. The people of Minas Tirith knew what Frodo had done at Mt. Doom, but their own losses were so near that the life of one more didn't seem important. Back then, many of them had thought Frodo was unnatural, because of the child he bore, and said the king would be better off if the strange halfling died, for only that could break the enchantment. Aragorn had heard all the gossip, despite his position.

He heard it still, but the gossip was very different now. The people of Gondor had embraced Frodo as their own. Everyone wanted Frodo's child born healthy and safe, for they loved Hope and wished for the king to be blessed with more beautiful, healthy heirs. Even the most thick-headed citizen now comprehended that Frodo was a hero who'd done a deed no one else could have successfully performed, a deed Isildur himself had failed to accomplish.

And, since the formal transfer of authority had been read out on the last day of the new year festival, detailing their preparedness and the bounty of the winter harvests, all Minas Tirith now knew that Frodo had ruled well, keeping the citizens safe and secure while dispensing justice with wisdom.

Aragorn believed that his people loved Frodo just as much as they revered their king, for it was proven by the lines of those leaving bouquets, the first spring flowers they'd found, to brighten Frodo's room. Others arrived carrying bowls or plates of dainty foodstuffs carefully prepared to tempt the invalids. When these pilgrimages first began, the day after the accident, Aragorn had ordered all such gifts delivered to Frodo and Hope's rooms, but then realized he could no longer walk in either room. And Wena none-too-gently reminded the king that not even hobbits could eat an infinite amount of food.

Now the gifts were shown to Frodo, and he spent an hour each day dictating thank you notes to a scribe while the flowers and foods were carried instead to the Houses of Healing to be shared with other invalids. If toys were brought for Hope, those gifts were sent to families that had lost fathers in the war, or to the orphan-houses that still coped with children left alone by the War of the Ring.

Thinking about the Houses of Healing reminded Aragorn he needed to deal with the overcrowding there. There were many wounded from all the armies, men like him, poisoned by Haradrim weapons. Such wounds healed at a snail's pace and caused terrible suffering no matter what the healers did. Wena was spending the time she could steal from Hope's care on creating recipes for salves that might fight the pain and infection, but she told Aragorn that such medicines would be best if used immediately. He and the others at the battlefront had waited too long for assistance, allowing the poison to take firm hold on their flesh. It took a long time for such damage to be reversed, even with the best of treatment, and the pain left men weak and unable to care for themselves. The healers might be dealing with some patients for months to come.

Because he thought his abilities might help the others, Aragorn had added a nightly round at the Houses of Healing to his duties. Athelas did seem to help the wounded rest more easily. This night he performed that duty concentrating on the men of the Mark being left behind, reassuring them of their welcome in Minas Tirith and the honor in which their deeds were held.

When his rounds were finally complete, Aragorn visited Hope as he did each night, to tuck her in and read a happy tale of the Shire from one of Frodo's books. It broke his heart each time he saw the greenish bruises still marring her face and arms, but the deep cut in her leg was healing cleanly. Wena thought she would recover without any limp. Already her spirits were excellent, and she chattered happily about her party that afternoon.

When the book was finally closed and the night nurse was lowering the lamps for sleep, Hope deliberately dimpled at him and said, "Argawn, I want to see my pony."

"We'll see about that tomorrow," he promised her, dropping one last kiss on her brow. "You aren't well enough to ride yet, my love, but a visit to the stables would be allowed."

"Tanks," she managed to say, her eyes already drooping with sleep as he left the room.

At last it was time to be with Frodo. Aragorn looked forward to this hour all day long, and he thought Frodo did, too. They would sit together, Aragorn holding him close, until Frodo could finally sleep. The alarming weight loss had stopped once Frodo started getting regular rest again, and with the passing of the 25th, the dreams that had ripped him from sleep finally stopped and the trauma to his body began to heal.

As he opened the door, Aragorn thanked every power in Middle-earth that he and Wena had arrived in Minas Tirith before the 25th. Without her healing powers and Aragorn's presence, merely enduring the anniversary illness might have killed Frodo -- or driven him mad.

"Aragorn!" The happy voice calling from their big bed made him smile and all weariness left him as he limped closer.

"Good evening, my love. Hope sends you this kiss," he added, smacking a loud kiss on Frodo's cheek that made the hobbit giggle.

"You certainly know exactly how she kisses," he said.

"I should imagine I do, since I regularly receive such kisses." He settled on the bed next to Frodo. "I'm the luckiest man in all Middle-earth."

"I hate to contradict the king, but I believe I claim that honor."

"No, you're the luckiest hobbit. So, it seems Hope enjoyed her party today." Because she was improving enough to be quite restless, they'd invited a number of friends to visit her.

"Oh, yes. I feared she would be frustrated, still being confined to her bed, but it was good for her. Of course, she found a way around Aven's orders and Wena's rules."

"She didn't try to walk -- Wena wouldn't have allowed that."

"No, but she allowed Hope to run the legs off everyone else in the room. Even Wena herself -- she's already in bed, if you can imagine that! She carried Hope everywhere, even to play Add the Tail."

"Good heavens, did Wena bob for apples, too?" They laughed together and Aragorn's hand landed on Frodo's belly, rubbing it gently. "I think we're going to need a whole squadron of nurses for the three of them, you know. Poor Wena can't be expected to keep up."

"If she hears you say such things, Aragorn son of Arathorn, you will no longer be safe in your own Hall," Frodo scolded, still laughing.

"But it is true," Aragorn insisted, settling beside him with his leg straight. He sighed happily, feeling the tired muscles ease, and Frodo gently rubbed at his thigh.

"You're late tonight. Is the pain any better today?" he asked.

"Much improved, just from your touch." Frodo snorted. "I improve daily, just as you seem to be doing, my love."

The hobbit harumphed grumpily, crossing his arms. "What's the point of improving if Wena's going to make me stay in bed from now on?"

"It's just two more months, love, and you know it's for the best. I don't expect you'll go tumbling off any platforms again, but there are so many hazards in the city. You'll have whatever you wish -- bards to sing for you, visitors, whatever foods you crave."

"Oh, I know I'm horrible to complain. It's still so much better than last time. I have my books, and your reading table to hold them for me. If only I could stay awake for a whole chapter, instead of falling asleep mid-word!" Frodo's head injury caused him to be easily fatigued, particuarly when reading.

"I'll find someone to read aloud to you," Aragorn promised. "Everything will be better this time, for you won't ever forget how much you are loved. and can expect more beautiful, clever, loving children just like Hope," Aragorn added, dropping a kiss on Frodo's shoulder. "It is much better, for all of us. And I know you'll make a much swifter recovery, love."

"Yes. It's just that sometimes it feels like there's so much I want to do... Which is foolish of me, since while you were gone and I was doing so much, I wanted time to just relax." He laughed, and Aragorn joined him, hugging him close. The horrible wound to Frodo's head was slowly healing, as was the re-broken wrist, immobilized with heavy bandages. Most of his bruises still showed, thanks to Frodo's fair skin, but the hobbit insisted he wasn't in pain any longer.

"So. Tomorrow I'm thinking of reviewing the Warden appointments for the City. Wena told me you had some notes for me," Aragorn began, but a pounding on their door stopped him.

"What can it be?" Frodo asked, looking a little frightened. They were rarely disturbed this late for any business.

Aragorn hesitated, fearing it was his guardsmen with news from Eritor's pursuers, but he quickly pulled himself up and called, "Enter."

He'd probably been wrong to keep the tale of Eritor's treachery to himself, particularly since the city was buzzing with gossip about the destruction of Eritor's house. Frodo would learn the truth, that he and Hope had been deliberately attacked by a treacherous traitor, angry at the judgement he'd brought on himself through dishonesty.

All this passed through his mind in the time it took for the door to swing open and a guard to enter.

"My lord Elessar, I beg pardon for disturbing you, but your own orders clearly state to give this personage immediate admittance, day or night, no matter what time," the flustered guard babbled, but Aragorn interrupted him.

"Is it Gandalf? I mean Lord Mithrandir?"

"Yes, my dear Aragorn, I'm the one this ... gallant soldier is trying to announce," came a somewhat testy yet beloved voice from the hall. Then Gandalf was in their room, hugging them both, laughing down at them with a sound that healed their hearts and made their heads feel as if they'd drunk honey-ale.

"Gandalf! It's so wonderful to see you," Frodo cried as he was hugged a second time. "How long can you stay? You won't believe how Hope has grown since you last saw her!"

"I imagine that's very true, Frodo. For that matter, you've grown a bit, too," he laughed, patting Frodo's swollen stomach very lovingly. "I wish you great joy, both of you, with your growing family," he said, and Aragorn bowed his head, feeling Gandalf's words like a blessing.

And just like that, Aragorn realized that this was a farewell visit. He saw from the confused, hurt look in Frodo's eyes that he'd heard more than the words, too. And Gandalf knew it, for he continued, "The time has come, my friends. Lord Elrond and the Lady Galadriel are sailing, and I wish to go with them, as is proper."

"But we need you," Frodo said. "I know Aragorn has been wishing to confer with you, and I... I will miss you," he finished in a small voice.

"I was placed here for one purpose, Frodo, which is now complete, thanks to your courage and the efforts of many. While I, too, cherish the friendship we share, you do not need my help any longer." Gandalf glanced over to Aragorn with a look that made it clear he was aware of the King's burdens, including the man so recently released from his dungeons, and the one his knights still hunted. "You have all grown, and your own wisdom will suffice to direct your choices, my friends."

Frodo looked close to tears, but he tried to smile. "Then it was very good of you to come so far just to say goodbye."

"Well, perhaps a short visit would be a good idea. A little delay won't change anything, and I certainly wouldn't mind seeing these children of yours enter the world."

"Really? Oh, that would be so wonderful, Gandalf." Frodo hugged him again.

"Elrond and Galadriel will be here in a week or so. And I believe there may be some other visitors who'll need housing for a short time -- do you suppose this drafty old Citadel has spare rooms comfortable enough for some hobbits, Aragorn?"

"Oh!" Frodo's face glowed with joy, and Aragorn laughed out loud.

"I take it we're about to be visited by the rest of our Fellowship?" he asked, and Gandalf nodded while Frodo laughed and laughed, hugging them both.

***

It seemed to Aragorn that there were too few days left for conversations like the one he and Frodo had been enjoying with Gandalf all morning. The topics had ranged all over Middle-earth and then beyond, and Frodo's eyes were glowing the entire time, even when he was silent, merely listening intently as Gandalf and Aragorn discussed the earliest days of their friendship.

But Frodo had finally grown too weary to hide his need for rest, so now Aragorn was paying a visit to the fourth level marketplace with one much-trusted advisor, on the advice of another.

"So Frodo thinks you need to do this yourself, eh?" Gandalf chuckled. "A King wandering the marketplace, checking the prices of turnips and lye soap."

"He thinks the King shouldn't be too far removed from the citizenry, and I agree. No matter how trustworthy my wardens, everyone does their job better if they know it is of great importance to those above them."

"I suppose Frodo quoted one of Gaffer Gamgee's sayings about the roses blooming whether the master smells them or not, but it making a difference to the gardener," Gandalf replied. "His Shire ideas seem to have much influence on you, Aragorn."

"Why wouldn't they, when I've seen the peace and plenty the Shire enjoys?"

"Indeed. No one believed me, years ago, when I predicted that one hobbit would influence the city more than it would affect him. I'm anxiously awaiting Lord Elrond's return, so I can collect on the wager when he first sees afternoon tea being served on all seven levels."

Aragorn laughed at that, saying "I have no desire for Frodo to change -- I'd rather he changed us all." Then they were interrupted, and Aragorn collected himself to greet a gaggle of housewives who came up to curtsey and speak to him. Gandalf stood back, watching him intently, and when the ladies had gone on their way, smiling, he continued, "I do think it's good to be seen among your people, and let your subjects have access. But you must also be wary, Aragorn, for you do still have enemies. If it becomes known that you walk in this marketplace thus, unarmed, with no guards..."

"I have no set schedule for these visits, Gandalf, but if you advise me to bring guards I will do so from now on. I may have enemies, but I don't fear for myself -- only for Frodo and Hope, since they've already been a target of malice."

"I'd like to discuss that with you, dear boy, as well as the war in Harad. But not until we return to the privacy of the Citadel. If I'm not mistaken, some of your recent decisions are weighing heavily on you."

"That's very true, Gandalf, and I would appreciate your insight very much. I know you said we should now learn to stand alone, but sometimes ... well, it seems that the King is weighed down so much that it becomes difficult to know if I'm standing straight."

Gandalf nodded and patted his arm. "That I can tell you without any further discussion. I know your mettle, Aragorn son of Arathorn, and saw it tested in the most severe manner. As long as you are asking yourself such questions, have no fear you have strayed from the path of the right."

Aragorn put his hand over Gandalf's and smiled his thanks, feeling lighter in his heart. Then he heard a familiar dwarvish bellow from somewhere in the marketplace, calling his name without title or regard for ceremony. Gandalf's smile matched his own before he turned and called, "Here, Gimli!"

But it wasn't just the dwarf approaching, the crowd was parting for a veritable troupe of friends. Sam, Merry, Pippin, and Legolas all streamed after him, and from the smiles of the citizens, they were each remembered not just as the king's friends, but as heroes who helped defend the city.

"My friends!" Aragorn cried, and then he and Gandalf were embracing each of them in turn, while Gimli watched, very self-satisfied.

After that there was nothing to do but return to the Citadel to wake Frodo, and begin the reunion celebration. The hobbits were allowed in first, to exclaim over Frodo's waistline and hear the latest news. It didn't surprise Aragorn that Frodo share the new that he expected twins, nor that Wenathen was in the room with them all even after Hope was taken out for her nap.

He left them chattering together and spent some busy hours hearing Legolas' report from the south, and sending messengers back to Faramir with his instructions once he'd processed the news. Then Gimli claimed Legolas for a walk through the city, and Gandalf decided to take his rest. So they weren't all truly together until they all gathered around the tea table in Frodo's room late that afternoon.

"Did Minas Tirith always have tea, Aragorn?" Pippin asked in all seriousness. "I don't remember it from my time here during the war, though I suppose there wasn't enough food back then."

"No, I'm afraid that's a fashion my Frodo began, which now his fellow citizens cannot do without."

"Quite right, too," Sam said stoutly. "A body needs a break in the afternoon, and a little refreshment."

"Well, let's begin ours today remembering that our Fellowship is missing one member," Merry said, raising his tea cup. "To Boromir."

"Boromir!" they repeated, and Aragorn once again felt the bitter regret that he hadn't been in time that confusing afternoon when they all seemed to lose their heads while under attack.

Then Pippin snickered, breaking the solemn moment. "Boromir wouldn't have liked drinking a health in tea, I'm afraid." Merry elbowed him, Gimli snorted, Gandalf produced a flask for spiking their cups, while Legolas picked up Hope and distracted her from the mysterious conversation. Soon the room was once again noisy with multiple threads of talk, all their dearest friends together again. Aragorn sat back, put an arm around Frodo, and joined in the merriment.

Only as darkness fell outside did they realize how long they'd been so enjoyably entertained. Then Wena fussed, claiming Frodo needed his supper and Hope her bath. Aragorn remained as the others filed out in twos and threes, until it was just Sam before Frodo, and him beside him.

"You look good, Mr. Frodo, despite your injury and needing to stay in bed. This time you look right blooming, like my Rosie was with her babe."

"I feel wonderful, Sam. When they move, as they're doing right now, I feel more alive than I can explain." Frodo took Aragorn's hand and moved it to where he could feel the jostling and kicking. "These two are asking for more room all the time now. I think they may be born a bit earlier than Wena predicted."

"That will be fine, Frodo," Aragorn replied. "It should give them a chance to stretch their legs."

"I'd be worried about them being too small, but Hope is growing faster than a hobbit. I'm sure they'll be fine, too, coming from such a tall father."

"Indeed, Miss Hope isn't very hobbity any more. Just the ears and her appetite, from what I hear," Sam said. "Her feet look just like a man's."

"Except she wants to run barefoot like her Frodo-father," Aragorn laughed. "But you're right, I don't think she'll have problems finding boots to fit her feet. It's a blessing. I'm not sure Gondor is ready for a barefoot Queen. Steward, now, is a different affair."

Frodo batted at his arm playfully. "Hush. You're the one who made me Steward." But then his face changed, becoming serious. "Aragorn, I need to tell you something. But first, Sam, before you go. I know you've talked about naming a son for me, and I wanted to ask you... if one of these babes I carry is a boy, can we name him for you?"

Sam blushed bright red, but didn't look as pleased as Aragorn would have expected. "I wish you wouldn't, sir."

"Sam! Am I 'sir' again now?"

"No, Frodo, it's just... you know that Samwise ain't a proper name, more like a curse. It's not right to give that to any babe. I won't, and I wish you wouldn't, neither."

"Very well, Sam. I understand, though I hope you realize that to me, your name means courage, strength, and everything good in Middle-earth."

Sam's ears were fiery at that, but he looked happy as he said goodnight and left the room. Then Frodo turned to Aragorn, his eyes troubled.

"I've been meaning to discuss something with you, and kept putting it off, thinking it wasn't important with us so worried about Hope, and you so busy catching up. But you should hear... Wena said you've reviewed the judgements I made, so you know about the candlemaker's pricing scheme."

"Yes, and the judgement you made against them and the warden who kept silent," Aragorn said, not wanting to use Eritor's name for fear his voice or face would reveal something. "What's wrong, Frodo?"

"Eritor came back to the Citadel after his disgrace, claiming he bore a petition from his neighbors. I should have known it was false -- who would trust a disgraced man with carrying their request? But I didn't think, and he ... he tried to force himself on me, Aragorn, right in the Hall. He kissed me, and I ... well, I kicked him in the groin, and that stopped his nonsense."

Aragorn's heart was in his stomach. So this was the reason Eritor had attacked Frodo -- not merely the judgement against him, but rejection, too. "You did right, Frodo, to defend yourself. Though I wish you'd thrown him in jail that day." Oh, how Aragorn wished that.

"I almost did, you know. But ... he said some things, and I told him he'd have to await your judgement. He's probably been living in fear since you arrived back in the city. But now that I've cooled off, I don't want you to do anything."

"What!" Aragorn quickly moderated his voice, realizing his reaction wouldn't make sense to Frodo, who didn't know his daughter's injuries were caused by that man. He still believed the collapse was a simple accident, shoddy work or rotted wood. "Frodo, he deserves punishment."

"Perhaps. But I don't want there to be any talk ... Aragorn, Eritor said that the whole city thinks I'm your whore, and would believe his word if he said I'd encouraged him." Frodo looked panic-stricken, and his words tumbled faster and faster, making little sense. "I did send his servant from the hall, that much is true, but it wasn't to be alone with him, it was done in anger because he actually thought to bribe me..."

"Frodo, love, stop." Aragorn hugged him close, his arms shaking with anger. "Eritor is full of lies and slander. You've seen the outpouring of love from the people of our city, for you and for Hope."

"You're right, I shouldn't forget how good everyone has been to us. But... his lies seemed so true, somehow, when he said them."

"Eritor is evil, that's why. And more your enemy than you know. I blame myself for not speaking sooner." He told Frodo everything, then: the rope Gimli had found, tied to the support posts of the reviewing platform; Eritor's plot, enlisting Naldur's aid, and how Aragorn had learned the truth; and the burning of Eritor's house after his flight from the city. "We still pursue him, Frodo, and no matter how long it takes I will see him pay for what he did to you, Hope, and the others."

"He did all that out of hatred for me? Harmed an innocent child, and those other men who'd done nothing to him? Aragorn, he is evil."

"You see why I must punish him, Frodo, no matter what venom he tries to spill in our city. He cannot be allowed to continue to recklessly destroy lives."

"You're right, of course." Frodo was silent for a long time, then, and Aragorn wondered if he'd fallen asleep after such strong emotions. But then a quiet voice said, "I thought ... but of course I know it's not true. But even after all we did ... wars go on, and evil goes on, even within our city... oh, Aragorn."

And the only response was to hug his love closer, and grieve for the unfairness of life.

But much later that evening, alone in their bed, Frodo seemed unsurprised that Aragorn felt the need to cleanse the memory of unwanted lips forcing his with the burning, devouring kisses that were always welcome. Soon they were both breathless and aroused, hard members pushing into each other as they writhed together.

"Frodo..." Aragorn pled, and with a whispered "Yes," the hobbit welcomed him. They made love, oh-so careful of Frodo's bruises, his unwieldy stomach, and Aragorn's weak leg. Yet despite these obstacles, both found their completion quickly, harsh cries of pleasure echoing through the Citadel.

After, Aragorn found he was rubbing the mix of their seed into Frodo's chest and belly, rather than cleaning them off as usual. He smiled, nuzzling Frodo's neck again where new red bruises left by his mouth now bloomed, and tightened his arms around the warmth of his love.

They fell asleep, sated and twined together, both feeling protected and owned.

*** *** ***

It didn't surprise anyone when Sam, Merry and Pippin arrived so soon after Mithrandir announced they were to be expected, but Wena was surprised by how much she'd missed them. Once again, their presence had Frodo blooming with happiness and improved health, though she maintained he must remain abed until he delivered the twins.

But Sam's persistence in pushing the boundaries of that confinement got beds placed in the courtyard where Frodo and Hope could be brought to feel the spring breezes and entertain their visitors. Rather, be entertained by them, for Merry and Pippin hired jugglers and bards from all over the city to perform, and when that was done they brought baskets of materials scrounged from everyone in the Citadel, and taught Hope to make puppets.

Then they put on their own outrageous shows, wherein hobbits had the most incredible adventures imaginable. Until Hope took charge, and then the King of Gondor was involved in all the doings of the four Farthings of the Shire, too. He helped save some crazy old woman called Lobelia when she attacked a dragon with her umbrella, and knighted brave Farmer Cotton for his assistance.

The puppet plays made Frodo laugh so long and hard that Wena feared he'd begin his labor early. But he remained stable, even starting to put back some of the weight he'd lost in his Ring-sickness, though he might never again achieve the pumpkin-roundness of the previous autumn.

Wena was with them all in the courtyard, the entire Fellowship and Hope, on the bright afternoon two weeks later when Lord Elrond and Lady Galadriel appeared, leading a pony evidently allowed through the city's many levels, though Wena knew the law gave only Mithrandir and Aragorn's soldiers that right.

With the happy greetings being exchanged between everyone, it took several minutes for Wena to realize that the bundle of cloth on the beast's back concealed a rider, wrapped in many layers. Actually, she only saw it when Frodo's gaze fixed there, and he jumped to his feet -- or tried to do so. Fortunately, Sam and Merry were quicker.

"Frodo!" she scolded, just as Frodo cried out, "Bilbo!" The rider was indeed hobbit-sized, but Bilbo? She'd heard stories about Frodo's cousin, the first hobbit to bear the Ring of Power. Was this ancient, wizened creature the intrepid Bilbo who figured so prominently in all the hobbits' tales and songs?

Frodo called to him again, but the old one didn't stir, and Wena realized that sight and hearing were both nearly gone.

"Calm yourself, Frodo. Mr. Bilbo's just asleep," Sam said, but Frodo looked to Wena in a panic, and saw the truth in her eyes. Bilbo's life force was nearly spent.

At that moment, while Frodo was watching with tears in his eyes as Elrond lifted Bilbo off the pony, that Wena realized what was missing. Galadriel's song -- but, no, it was there. It had been unrecognizable, for it had been blended with another's for so long Wena could no longer remember having ever heard it thus, alone.

"Greetings, Wenathen," Galadriel calmly said. "The mallorn blooms again without your witnessing it."

"Yes, milady," she demurely replied, put firmly enough in her place not to ask after Lord Celeborn. If he wished, like Denier, to remain in the Golden Wood he loved, who could deny him his choice? Not even his Lady leaving Middle-earth forever was enough to sway his heart. Wena certainly understood, though it made her sorrowful.

Elrond had gently placed Bilbo on Frodo's bed, and unwrapped some of the shawls protecting him from the sun and wind. The hobbits surrounded the old one, speaking softly and nodding encouragingly when he remembered a name.

But then Frodo asked, "Do you remember my daughter, Hope? She was only one year old when you first met her." Aragorn had moved behind Frodo, supporting him, and Hope was tucked between them, clutching his hand. Bilbo examined her, but looked confused. Then, suddenly tired and cranky in the way of the very old, he replied, "She's not your daughter. Why look at those feet!"

Pippin actually laughed at that, though he sobered even before Merry's elbow reached his ribs. Hope was wearing shoes, something no hobbit ever did. That was what had confused Bilbo, Wena knew.

But Frodo looked like he wished to cry. Hope did cry, her face squeezing up and turning very red. Wena scooped her off the bed quickly, signaling to the nurse, fearing a true princess tantrum if she didn't get Hope back to her own rooms quickly. "Settle her for a nap," she instructed and Hope was switfly carried back inside, the door closing behind them just as her wails began.

Wena turned back to see Aragorn hugging Frodo, Bilbo evidently sound asleep, and Sam rubbing his own suspiciously red eyes while Merry valiantly tried to make small talk with the other guests. After a few awkwardly silent moments, Frodo raised his head, and Wena saw he hadn't been crying. In fact, Frodo looked angry, actually enraged. She'd rarely seen him so uncontrolled.

"Was there some purpose for tormenting Bilbo thus, bringing him all these miles? Uprooting him from what has been his home for over twenty years now?

"Frodo." Mithrandir sounded weary. "Surely you know Lord Elrond enough to trust he would do nothing without a good reason."

"No, I don't know him at all, Gandalf, nor you nor the Lady. How could you be so cruel? And to one you claim to honor!"

"If we were doing as you think, Frodo, it would indeed be a cruelty. But Bilbo is here of his own will, because of a decision made years ago," Elrond said.

Galadriel added, "Our time is over, Frodo. Those who bear rings of power -- or once bore them -- are now crossing the Sundering Seas for the last time."

"You are taking Bilbo West, to Valinor?" he gasped. Galadriel nodded. "But -- he cannot wish to do this!"

"But he does, Frodo," Elrond insisted. "Even though he relinquished the Ring of his own free will, it preyed on his mind. It still does. When he first came to Rivendell, we discussed this possibility, and Bilbo thought he might find true healing at last if he sailed. We wish that for all who bo.. who were touched by the evil of the Ring."

"You ... you came here to see if I wanted to sail, too." Wena's mouth fell open at Frodo's words, and she saw Aragorn's arm tighten around him, as if to keep him secured. Sam took a step closer, as if to protect his friend from the elves.

Mithrandir nodded, smiling sadly. "But I can see that will never be your choice, Ring-bearer though you were. Your heart is here, precisely where it should be, and you must remain where your heart dwells."

"Yes," Frodo agreed, and Araborn released a half-sobbed "Thank the gods!" All the hobbits looked relieved, except Frodo, whose eyes were lost in memory -- unpleasant memories, it seemed. After a moment he shook his head, coming back to them, and his eyes went to Mithrandir's calm face.

"Will it ever heal, Gandalf?" Frodo asked, and in that soft-voiced question Wena heard all the agony of the month he'd been alone and sleepless, tormented by old wounds. Aragorn bent his head, hiding his guilt-stricken face in Frodo's curls.

"Even the wise cannot see all ends, Frodo, and much as we wish to give you full healing, we cannot. I can only say that I do not think your wounds will ever lead you to despair, not with all the love that surrounds you here. This ancient White City glows anew, not from the sun or moon, but from what you and Aragorn have made together. Your days will be blessed, and the pains you still endure will not overcome you, in the end."

Frodo put a hand to Aragorn's chin and raised it, gazing in his eyes with so much open love Wena had to look away.

All of them suddenly felt a need to speak and move, and the three hobbits came up with excuses to vanish in all directions, while Gimli needed Legolas to immediately repay a debt involving a tankard of ale and the number of enemies each had killed in some long-ago battle. Even Elrond and Galadriel looked relieved when Wena offered to help them settle Bilbo in a guest room.

From the door of the Citadel, she looked back and saw them, completely lost in each other's eyes, their love glowing just as Mithrandir had said, like a beacon in the dimness of Middle-earth.

*** *** ***

"More ale!" Gimli called. Pippin and Merry were trying to remember the words to some utterly filthy Rohirrim drinking song Eowyn had taught them, and their guesses that had them both laughing like loons. But men's songs weren't like those of the dwarves, and Gimli thought he'd rather hear a good old chant about mining gold than another of those too-clever songs, full of innuendo, that the tavern-goers of Minas Tirith always cheered.

"You're busy tonight, Mistress Gwenth," he said, smiling at the maid as she placed the brimming tankards on their table. Though it wasn't true; the room was more than half empty.

"Indeed we're not, you scamp! What a way to complain I'm neglecting you! It's been months since my friend Luloreth visited, so I'm afraid tonight I'm finding her tales of the king's kitchens more interesting than your war stories, Master Dwarf." She pinched his cheek and tugged his beard, and Gimli decided his friends could sing by themselves for tonight.

"Let me meet your friend, then. I'd like to hear what goes on in Aragorn's kitchens, so I can tell him I know more about his household than he does!" Gwenth laughed, and soon had him seated beside the hearth with his ale, and the two he'd purchased for her and Luloreth. To Gimli's delight, he soon had a lap full of Gwenth, too, as Luloreth went on about the crabbiness of the Head Cook, the butler's loose women, and her own trials and tribulations.

The tavern was still quiet enough that he'd been monopolizing Gwenth for a good half-hour before she had to make her rounds and refill drinks. Then Luloreth scooted closer to hang on him, finishing his tankard while he said, "Perhaps I can talk to the Cook, just friendly-like, and see if you can be excused from such onerous duties."

"Ooooh, would you?" Luloreth's hands came up to rub his face, and lingered in the braids of his beard.

"Dainty hands like yours shouldn't have to scrub floors," he insisted, kissing her dry, red palm.

"Oh, you and your foreign ways! But I do love a man with a nice beard. Not all scraggy like that odd fish who wanted to see the King's kitchen. Though he did have a fine-looking purse, much lighter once I'd finished with him." Her arms went around his neck, placing her bosom in a fine viewing position.

"Then give us a kiss," Gimli wheedled, but his mind wasn't on Luloreth's squeal of delight as he pinched her bottom. It suddenly struck him what he'd heard. "Now, Mistress Luloreth, you said you had no suitors! Yet here you are, talking of men with beards."

"Oh, he pretended to want me, but it was all for a glimpse of the kitchen where I work. You'd be surprised how many people want to hear about the Citadel, and whether the King eats off a golden plate and drinks from a silver goblet!"

"Really? Do they all offer you money to see the kitchen?" She giggled at the question, bouncing on his lap until he thought her breasts would pop right out of her bodice.

"Laws, no! Imagine that. No, just this bearded bloke brought out his purse, when his charm didn't stretch far enough to do the trick. Good silver coins, three of them, just for being shown in after the Cook went to bed last night."

"Last night? You showed him around the rooms?" He grasped her hands to stop them from their distracting path burrowing under his shirt.

"No, he wanted to see them alone. I waited in the hallway, just in case anyone came along. I don't want to be sacked, you know, and that old cow of a Cook would be just that mean if she found out, and say it was wrong..."

Her voice went on, but Gimli was too busy shaking off the effects of several ales and trying to piece it all together. Someone had paid to be alone in the Citadel kitchen. It might be completely innocent, just nosiness as Luloreth thought. But after recent events -- that platform had been rigged to collapse, he'd seen it himself -- it was more likely that someone was still trying to harm Frodo.

"Mistress, will you come with me? I'd like to meet this fellow, and find out what he thought of the Citadel kitchens."

"Oh, do we have to? He's not as much fun as you are, Master Gimli," said with a loud, smacking kiss to his nose.

"But I'll be right beside you, never fear." He pinched her again, and while she was squealing and laughing, he was signaling Merry and Pippin. The four of them left, to an indignant cry from Gwenth despite the sizeable tip he'd stuffed in her cleavage.

Luloreth led them through the third level and down to the second, then to a dingy boarding house. The nearest neighbor was a slaughter house, now dark. "If you can get your bearded friend out here to see me without telling him we're waiting, I'll give you a gold coin, my dear."

Luloreth was drunk, but the mention of gold brought a serious glint to her eyes. "I'll bring him, never fear." She sashayed to the door and in, evidently finding her man at home. Half an hour later she led him out, and though Gimli was waiting with his axe and the hobbits' swords ready to hand, it was only Luloreth's drunken clinging that kept the man from running away and escaping.

They dragged him and Luloreth to the seventh level, a pair of guards stopping them to investigate the noise, then joining them when Gimli quickly explained the situation. Luloreth was crying, the man was swearing and fighting, and Gimli only felt every delay was intolerable. It was urgent to move quickly, and to warn Aragorn as soon as possible.

When they finally arrived at the seventh level and sent a Citadel Guard inside with a message for the King, Gimli breathed a sigh of relief. But a few moments later Legolas appeared instead of Aragorn, with Gandalf trailing after him.

"Aragorn cannot see you -- he's very ill, Gimli, and Wenathen fears the poison in his leg has resumed its attack."

"No!" Merry cried, and Gimli continued, "It's not Aragorn's wound, but this man's treachery -- he must have poisoned the food supply. Confess, you scoundrel. What's your name?"

"My name, though it won't have meaning for a foreigner and dwarf, is Eritor. And I deny these preposterous charges." The man's demeanor had changed, indeed, on their way up through the city. Now he was standing tall and behaving as if he were the king. "If the King dies, I'm a relative of his. I'd be willing to step in and reign as steward."

Gimli was ready to take his axe to the presumptuous fool, but Gandalf took care of him first.

"You think highly of yourself for a murderous traitor, Eritor. Do you think your name is unknown to me? Naldur confessed who paid him to assault the Steward."

"And Luloreth has told us you were in the kitchen alone last night. If the King is ill, we know who is responsible," Merry said.

"You believe the word of a kitchen scullery whore?" Eritor asked. "I've never been in the Citadel kitchen. And I don't know anyone named Naldur. My associates are from a higher class of men."

"And that is why you are living on the second level?" Pippin cried. "Liar!"

"You use the word 'whore' quite freely, Eritor," Gandalf said. "I've heard from Frodo's own lips that you called him so. And, before you try to weave any more deceitful words together, let me assure you the only one you'll entrap is yourself. Guards, take him to the lowest dungeon and chain him to the wall."

Gimli said, "Miss Luloreth should also go in prison, until we can question her further. But I think she'll be safe in one of the guest houses, with two guards."

"Indeed," Gandalf answered. "Now, my friends, we need to inform Elrond and Wenathen of what you've learned. Perhaps they can discern what poison was used..."

"Sam?" Merry asked, and Gimli saw that the hobbit stood in the doorway, looking dazed.

"Strider .. " he began, then corrected himself. "The king, he... he took a turn for the worse, and one of the healers said ... he looked dead. That started a wailing among the servants, and Frodo... Frodo heard it, and he's gone into labor now. He's screaming and ... Gandalf, can you help me? I can't calm him."

They all rushed inside, seeking those who needed their help and their information. But Gimli, after a moment's thought, headed for the dungeon cell where Eritor was now chained. Information was needed, and he could get that for Aragorn and Frodo.

*** *** ***

Merry remembered all too well how it felt to sit, helpless, while Frodo screamed and healers and elves worked to try to preserve his life. Twins, twin man-children, in a frail hobbit's body. Yet Frodo had been so happy for so long this time, glowing with health and the new lives inside him. Surely this wouldn't be so horrible if he wasn't half-crazed with fear for Aragorn's life.

"Merry, has there been any word?" Pippin looked white. He'd been checking on Aragorn, who was still violently ill and being attended by Elrond and Aven, but it seemed listening to Frodo's cries was even worse than that.

"Wena sent Sam out again, but he's gone back inside now. She said the twins weren't in the right position, because it wasn't Frodo's time yet. But that's all I've heard. What about Aragorn?"

"His breathing has eased since they gave him that purging drink. They say his heart still beats too fast, but many poisons cause such a reaction." Pippin sat down beside him. "I feel so useless, Merry. Legolas is with the King, and the others are helping him or Frodo in some fashion. But I can't do anything."

"I know, Pip," he replied. "Galadriel is singing, do you hear it?" The music came from Frodo's room, and it did seem to help, for his cries were less urgent while her voice soothed him. As he listened, Merry thought the music was doing the same for him, slowing his breathing and making him feel stronger. "We seem doomed to be useless whenever Frodo most needs help."

"You are not useless, my dear hobbits. As you should well know by now," Gandalf said, and Merry felt much younger, like a tween, as they ran to be hugged by the wizard. "There, there. The situation isn't as dark as we feared. I've found Gimli. He was paying Eritor a visit, and has learned some information that should help Aven with his patient. He's speaking with them now. So now we only have to wait for Frodo to be delivered."

They sat back down with lighter hearts, though the sounds of Frodo's suffering still reached them.

"Gandalf, does Bilbo know? About what's going on, I mean," Merry asked, for the old gentleman had been on his mind for a few hours now.

"No, Bilbo is sound asleep and quite at peace, which is probably for the best. He would be distressed by Frodo's suffering, just as you are, but he wouldn't understand that it is natural and necessary for the babes to be born thus."

"Is it?" Pippin asked, and Merry remembered that Pip was the youngest in his family, and hadn't grown up in Brandy Hall, where someone was birthing a child every few months. He'd been more protected from such things at the Great Smials.

"Very natural. Just ask Sam if this seems much different from Rosie's labor last year, when she delivered his little girl."

Merry shook his head. Perhaps it was normal. He'd heard enough caterwauling from his aunts to believe the pain was natural. But for Frodo to be carrying Aragorn's children -- well, no one had convinced him any of that was normal. "Hope isn't hearing all this, is she?"

"Wena had her taken to a trustworthy friend's home on the fifth level. She won't know either of her fathers are sick this night."

"As for Bilbo, Peregrin Took, I believe he will remember more of these latter days when we reach the Uttermost West and he is healed. Then I think he will be glad to have knowledge of your adventures, and Frodo's life here. I think these things will bring him much comfort in his new home, for as long as he remains there."

"But Frodo won't ever know... he won't hear what Bilbo thinks of the children, or how proud he is of him," Pippin mourned.

"Frodo had Bilbo's love and affection in his life for so many years -- he will be able to imagine the old hobbit's delight when he recalls that he's lived long enough to pass the Old Took, and that he has an heir so clever as to rule Minas Tirith in the King's absence. And Frodo also knows that he is more blessed than Bilbo, in one way at least, for Frodo has so much love in his life that he would never consider leaving Middle-Earth, and leaving those he loves behind."

Pippin nodded, but still looked very sad. Merry's eye was caught by movement at the door, and then Gimli came to join them, his face serious and his eyes troubled. They pulled him into their group, sharing pipeweed, and sat in silence a long time, listening to the Lady's song and Frodo's faint cries as the moon tracked across the sky. There were stains on Gimli's tunic, dark splatters. Merry shivered to see them but didn't ask any questions.

Gandalf was smoking, Gimli was asleep and Pippin was huddled against Merry's shoulder in the pale dawn light when Legolas came to them, looking more tired than Merry could remember seeing any elf appear.

"Aragorn is recovering at last. They were able to find an antidote to the foxglove, and he is resting normally."

"Thank heavens," Gandalf breathed. "Now, someone must give the news to Frodo."

Someone, as Merry knew it would, meant all of them rushing to the door of the room where Frodo still labored, his voice nearly gone from the screaming that had gone on all night. Galadriel tried to block the door, but Merry had a clear view of Frodo's body, his hands straining against scarves tied to the bedpost, and his chest heaving with his breaths while he strained to deliver his precious burdens.

"Aragorn is recovering, resting normally. Frodo needs to hear this news," Gandalf insisted, and Frodo let out a low scream, then, gasping, called to him.

"You swear this is true? He's not... dead?" There were tears in his eyes just from saying the words, and then they all pushed past Wena and the Lady to reassure him. But Frodo wouldn't be calmed, not even Sam could convince him that Gandalf was telling the whole truth.

But Merry knew what would calm Frodo, and he knew what Aragorn would want, given the choice. He left Frodo's sick-room, unnoticed in the bustle, and made his way to the King's rooms. The guards at the door were rather taken aback by his request, but Aven was gone and Lord Elrond agreed with Merry's plan. So they obeyed him, moving the small bed from Hope's room beside Aragorn's, and carefully resettling him onto it. Then, with Elrond's guidance, they carried Aragorn down the hallway and into the room where Frodo was still weeping and straining to give birth to his children.

The noise of them entering had everyone in the room upset, until they saw the dawning, half-afraid smile on Frodo's face. It helped that when his makeshift bed was placed on the ground, Aragorn woke and his eyes fluttered open, lighting on Frodo. The sight made him smile weakly before he fell back into healing sleep.

Then Frodo was weeping with joy, and they were all patting Merry on the back and beaming. But in the midst of it all Frodo convulsed, and Sam went to hold him while Wena examined him.

She rose and announced, "The first child is about to be born. Everyone, out of the room now. Frodo has more work to do."

"Aragorn--" Frodo begged.

"He'll stay. I doubt even your noise will wake him after such a night," Wena said, and Frodo actually laughed before pain again crossed his face, making him pant for air.

Merry was the last one out, looking back, wondering if Frodo was strong enough, even with Aragorn there, to do what was needed. Somehow, seeing Sam still beside him, supporting him, Merry felt reassured that Frodo could once again accomplish the impossible.

*** *** ***

"Thank you all. You are dismissed," Aragorn said, propped in his bed reviewing the reports from his guards. They'd been joined by Legolas and Gimli, who'd offered to assist Aragorn while he recovered and were patrolling the city with the guards, keeping a sharp eye on the other city wardens. Aragorn suspected that with news of his poor health, there could be unrest among those he'd removed from their office recently.

It irked him to remain in his bed, as Elrond had ordered, but at least he could carry on with his duties. Frodo was curled beside him, face buried against Aragorn's leg as he slept, still exhausted from giving birth two days before. He refused to leave Aragorn's side for any reason, and Aragorn found it was much easier to concentrate on business when he could see for himself how the hobbit felt, and that he was getting sufficient rest.

As Legolas and Gimli prepared to follow the guards out the door, Aragorn decided it was time to finish with one irksome topic once and for all. "Gimli, can you remain for a moment?"

Gimli looked very guilty, standing there, and Aragorn hurried to set him at ease.

"I wanted to thank you for your clever capture of Eritor. He led my guards a merry chase for months now." Eritor had poisoned the Citadel's mushroom supply intending to kill Frodo, after hearing from their servants about Frodo's fondness for the food. He'd failed only because Frodo's pregnancy caused odd reactions, and that night the smell of the mushrooms cooked with garlic had sickened him.

"Aye, he did. I wanted to ask, Aragorn, if you'd pardon Mistress Luloreth for her part in the affair. She intended no harm, you know."

"I have questioned her myself and believe that is true, Gimli. I've ordered her released, but she cannot continue serving here. It was only good luck that kept her from being responsible for murdering a guest at the royal table."

"Aye, I know it. But she seemed a good-hearted lass, just foolish."

"I believe that, too. For that reason, I put in a good word for her with the owner of the Blasted Heath tavern."

"Ah, very good. Thank you, Aragorn."

"Now, to business." Aragorn remembered what he'd done to Naldur, and kept that firmly in the forefront of his mind as he remembered the horror he'd found in Eritor's cell. "I understand that you ... interrogated Eritor the night he was arrested."

"Yes, Aragorn. I ... I had my reasons."

"I know, Gimli. Elrond told me that your information saved my life -- not the only such debt I owe you, old friend. Though I believe the other times you've helped me, in battle, were easier for you."

Gimli looked embarrassed, actually, but there was also a relaxation of the tension he'd been carrying with him for the last few days. His eyes still were haunted, though.

"I wanted to let you know I've had Eritor executed today, Gimli. We had Luloreth's testimony against him, and Naldur's statements regarding the platform. It seemed ... kindest ... to speed judgement in his case."

"That's for the best, I'm sure, Aragorn." Eritor had begged Aragorn for death; no doubt he did the same when Gimli was with him. "I thought you might wish him to suffer more, for what he did." But the relief was plain in Gimli's eyes.

"A part of me did, truthfully. But I knew Frodo would not wish it," he added, looking down at the sleeping hobbit. Then he looked back to Gimli, his eyes serious. "We are brothers, my friend, and I thank you, Gimli son of Gloin, for all you did."

"You're welcome, Lord Elessar," Gimli replied, equally formal. "Good day to you both."

"Good day." Gimli left, and Aragorn hoped his heart was lighter, knowing Aragorn understood the necessity of what he'd done. Gimli hadn't acted out of rage, or joy in torment.

Aragorn understood that, and knew he could not say the same of his own actions. Eritor had begged for death, but Aragorn had made him wait for formal judgement and an official sentencing. That was justice, yes, the justice of Gondor. Yet it was revenge, too. A part of him thought Eritor deserved his pain, and more.

Aragorn shifted lower on the bed, putting an arm on Frodo's back and pulling him closer, and the hobbit snuffled and moved restlessly before quickly settling back to silent sleep. Aragorn closed his eyes, but sleep was far from him.

There were no secrets between them, but all Frodo would know was that Eritor had been caught and judged. That was all Frodo needed to know.

*** *** ***

"Two boys! It's a fine thing for you, Aragorn, to have two sturdy sons to raise." Gimli was drinking ale while the rest of the group had goblets of the fine wine made from the grapes grown in the Stewards' Gardens in Minas Tirith. The setting sun was pouring in the high windows of the banquet hall, and Frodo and Aragorn were both recovered enough to enjoy the beauty of the waning day and the company of their friends.

"Here's to Hope's brothers, the young princelings!" Merry said, raising his glass, and Pippin and Sam both enthusiastically joined in drinking with him, while Frodo laughed.

"I'll tell you their names now, you don't have to toast them as 'princelings,'" he said. "Aragorn, bring the boys here."

The King obediently brought his week-old sons, one on each arm, to Frodo's side. Hope and Wena came closer, too, as Gandalf and Legolas approached.

Frodo picked up his first-born son, his hair dark and curly as his own with delicately pointed ears and rosy red, chubby cheeks. "This is Arathorn Meriadoc Elros," he announced, handing the boy to Merry who looked shocked. "And his brother is Boromir Peregrin Elendil," he finished, handing the second child with his fine, straight locks and somewhat thinner face over to Pippin.

"But--" Merry began, then hugged the baby close to him. "Frodo, you can't..."

"He can, and we are agreed on this. The boys will be called Mer and Mir, I think," Aragorn said with a smile. "Just as Gilraen Estelle Primula has an everyday name, her brothers will need something that rolls off the tongue quickly. Half-hobbit toddlers move too quickly for a long, formal name!"

There was laughter at that, for all of them had seen just how quickly Hope was now running about, even with her leg not yet fully healed.

Elrond came closer and put his hands on the two babies as the hobbits held them. "My gifts are diminished, but I foresee long life and happiness for these two." He smiled at Aragorn. "We will think of you often, Elessar, all my family and I." Aragorn bowed, and Frodo could see the emotion he tried to hide.

But the love Aragorn still bore Arwen didn't hurt Frodo, and he hoped the gentle squeeze he gave Aragorn's hand conveyed that to the King. He thought, perhaps, it had. Aragorn smiled at him and, as always, the love in his eyes took Frodo's breath away.

"Just one more thing, and we'll begin the naming feast," Frodo said. "Aragorn, take Mer and Mir back, please, and get them settled in their bassinet. Pari, bring the books." His page moved to obey him, and as Aragorn took the children from Merry and Pippin, Frodo filled their hands instead with thick, heavy books, each bound in red leather.

Then he moved to Sam and gave him the third book, identical to the others. "Sam. Dearest Sam. Neither of my sons bears your name, as you requested. But they both owe their being to you. They and all of Gondor will remember that your strength, wisdom, and great love saved the Shire and all of Middle-earth, kept me alive, and made Aragorn King of the West."

Frodo laid his hand on the book Sam was clutching to his chest. "It's all in here, the whole tale from Bilbo finding the Ring in Gollum's cave to your scouring of the Shire. Copies of this book will be kept in Ithilien and here in Gondor's library. Men will not forget what you three have done while this Age lasts, and I hope the Shire will always remember, too. That's why I've given you each copies, to keep in Buckland and Tuckborough and Hobbiton."

Sam said, "Frodo, I... You're the one who carried the Ring into Mordor..."

"You're the one who kept me alive, Sam, and carried me when my own strength failed. I haven't forgotten -- I won't ever forget what you did for us all." Then they embraced, and Merry and Pippin moved to join them. Sam shed some tears, but none of the others noticed, too embarrassed by their own emotions.

Aragorn cleared his throat, then, and spoke. "Gimli and Legolas, we'd like you to act as sponsor-fathers for our sons, so they always remember our people's friendship with the mountain and the wood, and honor the alliances of our peoples."

Gimli's eyes went up to the elf's, and after a brief, silent exchange Legolas said, "We'd be honored, Aragorn."

"Thank you, my friends. Now, let the feast begin." Pari rang and the servers began carrying in loaded trays and platters. Aragorn and Frodo sat and their guests quickly followed, ready for a long night of stories and song and good food.

For it was not just the naming feast of the princes, but the farewell feast for Gandalf, Elrond, and Galadriel. And Bilbo, Frodo thought sadly, knowing Bilbo was already asleep in his rooms, content with the thin broth the Cook prepared for him each day. His interest in food and those around him was fading, though he seemed to enjoy the hours Frodo spent reading to him each day. Perhaps it was just the sound of another hobbit voice that soothed him; Frodo didn't think he truly understood the story. But Gandalf had suggested that he read Bilbo his book, and Frodo was glad to spend time with his beloved cousin again.

He turned his attention back to the room full of friends, particularly those he was seeing for almost the last time. Galadriel was laughing with Wenathen and Sam, and it made Frodo just a bit nervous -- he hoped Wena wasn't feeling any yearning to leave Middle-Earth. He couldn't imagine their life without Wena here to protect and love all their children. And him, too. Wena was family, and she belonged with them.

Gandalf was also family, and Frodo's heart burned with missing him and Bilbo both. Merry, Pippin, and Gandalf were drinking ale and laughing with Gimli. Frodo had thought Gimli seemed a little different, almost sad, recently. But tonight the dwarf seemed his old self, loud and happy. Legolas was watching them, too, a happy smile on his face at their merriment.

Elrond was talking with Aragorn, and Frodo saw the loving step-father in him, now that Aragorn no longer posed any threat to Arwen's happiness. They were talking, quietly and seriously, eating little and drinking even less, but both quite content.

Frodo turned to Hope, serving her more of the rice custard she loved, and checking the fast-asleep boys in their cradle behind him. He was the luckiest hobbit on earth.

Much later that night, alone in their room at last, he fell naked into Aragorn's arms and celebrated his incredible good fortune.

They were both still healing, so Aragorn couldn't enter Frodo's body. But he could touch every inch of Frodo's skin, filling him with adoration and love. Frodo could claim Aragorn's mouth, dive in and taste the beauty and nobility of his bondmate, and let his own love spill into love-bites down the long tendon of his neck, on to the broad, scarred, beautiful chest.

Soon they were both hard and frantic to reach completion. Aragorn oiled himself and held Frodo's legs together, spending himself between his thighs instead of inside him, keening softly as he toppled from the peak of bliss. Soon after, he moved down their bed and took Frodo's arousal in his mouth. It didn't take long for the wet, tight heat and clever tongue to give Frodo blessed release.

Blissfully content, they slept curled together in love until the morning dawned bright and clear.

Then it was time to gather in the courtyard for a final farewell. Bilbo was already asleep on his pony, bundled in warm shawls again for the long road south. Elrond, Galadriel, and Gandalf stood in light robes, ready to mount their horses when they reached the city gate.

They were headed to south Ithilien, where a grey ship awaited the last of the ring-bearers. But first, there were farewells that would last beyond time.

Elrond and Aragorn embraced, and Frodo overheard a whispered elvish blessing given to Aragorn even as he himself hugged Gandalf, tears falling freely, and they whispered good wishes to each other. It was even more difficult to kiss Bilbo, who sleepily patted his cheek and dozed off again.

Finally, Galadriel touched Frodo's cheek, her fingers giving both blessing and kiss. Then they were gone, passing down through the city like ghosts, while the remaining members of the Fellowship stood shivering, somehow cold despite the warm spring morning.

By the time the dew was burned off the grass, those still standing in the courtyard of the White Tree knew the travelers were gone. Frodo heard a baby's cry from far inside, and with that reminder was able to shake off his imaginings of Bilbo's last adventure on the long road of his extraordinary life.

Even as the crying quickly ceased, both babies no doubt soothed by their nurses, Frodo turned to his friends to smile and ask, "Breakfast?"

The three hobbits, two elves, and one dwarf responded with gratifying enthusiasm, quickly moving through the door. With Aragorn at his side, Frodo followed them inside his home.

 

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