Slash, R-rated (Frodo/Aragorn) with a high level of angst.

This is an AU of the "Searchers" AU. All you need to know is that Middle Earth is a lot like the Old West; Rangers are Marshals; and Frodo left the Shire at age 20 in search of adventure and fortune -- and wound up working in Bree's saloon, the Prancing Pony.

On the North Downs
by Laura Mason

Frodo urged the pony on, knowing it was useless. The marshal was on his trail, so close now that Frodo imagined he could feel the man's hot breath on the back of his neck. Still, the hobbit leaned forward and kept riding down the long, steep slope, determined that if he was to be captured he wouldn't make it easy.

He'd already mourned the loss of Strider's good will and easygoing company. The lawman was one of the few Big People who'd really talked to Frodo. Some nights, while Frodo cleaned up at the saloon, Strider would stay beside the dying fire, smoking his pipe and telling stories. He even seemed interested in hearing about Frodo's time in the Shire. In a different world, Frodo thought perhaps they could have been friends.

There was no longer any chance of that. Frodo was a thief who'd stolen money from Butterbur and compounded his crime by robbing the livery stable of this pony and a saddle. And Strider was a marshal, pledged to uphold the law -- that was why he'd chased after Frodo for five days now, driving him off the road and north into the wilderness.

The hobbit was now hopelessly lost. Neither the uneven terrain nor the snow that had been falling steadily for days stopped the marshal's pursuit, though the ice made it treacherous for either of them to move too quickly. Frodo knew the harsh weather was the only reason such an inexperienced rider had been able to stay ahead of Strider.

Just an hour ago Frodo had tried to briefly rest on a hilltop, and Strider had nearly caught him. If the man's horse hadn't nickered, Frodo would now be in custody. Instead, he'd scrambled onto his pony, leaving behind half of his gear, and gone in the opposite direction. The terrain was rougher than he'd realized, loose rocks under the snow that caused several sickening slides while Strider loudly demanded that he halt.

Now Strider had fallen silent, and despite the sloping, uneven ground Frodo risked a look behind him. That was his downfall. At the same moment he turned in the saddle, the pony must have slipped on the ice or stepped into a gully hidden in the deep snow. Frodo, unsteady in the saddle, yelped and yanked too hard on the reins. The pony went down with a cry of pain as Frodo shouted "No!"

There was an impact, sharp pain and then blanketing coldness before Frodo knew no more.

***

He was warm at last, though the light falling over him was refracted through a thick layer of frost patterning the panes of glass. Frodo didn't recognize the room he was in, but it certainly wasn't how he'd imagined Bree's jail. Surely that low, ugly building was much larger than this? This cozy room had windows on all four sides, and no bars anywhere.

Frodo shook his head to clear his thoughts, and immediately regretted it. His hand flew to the source of the pain and he found a thick bandage wrapped around his head. It matched the one on his wrist, he realized, and as soon as he saw the binding he realized that his left wrist was throbbing with pain, too.

"Ow," he said aloud, just to see what would happen. There was only silence in response. Frodo pushed back the blankets and stood, careful not to step on the hem of the overly-large shirt wrapped about him. He explored carefully, cautious about moving too quickly and causing the pounding in his head to resume.

It was a cottage, one room with a low ceiling, rough beams and unpainted walls, and a few pieces of rough-hewn furniture. Plain but clean, and the mattress was soft, stuffed with clean-smelling straw. Certainly it was much nicer than the filthy cot over the kitchen where he'd slept for the last three years.

The fire was burning low, but there was hardly any wood stacked beside the hearth, and no food at all in sight. He couldn't hear anyone chopping wood, nor could he see out the windows, which were too high.

Strider must have brought him here. Frodo wondered what had happened to his pony, but he knew if the animal hadn't been too badly injured, the marshal would be taking care of it. After all, the man had nursed Frodo, even though he was a fugitive criminal.

Thinking about Strider's kindness in the past, and even now, tears came to Frodo's eyes. He'd proven every hateful taunt from his older cousins was true -- he'd gone to Bree to make his way in the world and failed miserably, just as stupid and useless as they'd always said he was. Frodo worked hard, but he'd never managed to save any money to purchase stagecoach fare and see the world. How could he, when Butterbur constantly took coins out of his pay for chipped dishes and spilled drinks, telling Frodo the meals he fed him were pay enough for such shoddy work? Most months Frodo had no money left at all, and no choice but to keep working at the Pony if he wanted to eat.

Without money and influence a hobbit had no friends in Bree, it seemed. Even the ladies who danced in the saloon looked down on him, though he tried to be kind and helpful. The only people who pretended to be friendly were men who wanted to use his body, and who too often wouldn't take 'no' for their answer. Frodo shivered as he remembered the last assault, a man who'd smashed his fist into Frodo's temple, then pawed him on one of the tables in the common room. Judging by the shouts and jeers of the stragglers left in the saloon, it had been very amusing. Only when his screams disturbed the customers upstairs did Butterbur put a stop to it.

Strider had been away that week, and when he returned, Frodo was already making plans for his escape. He'd lied to the marshal about the still-visible bruise on his face.

Frodo was lost in misery, remembering his life in Bree and wishing he'd been left out in the snowstorm to die. He didn't want to face Strider, and of course just as that thought crossed his mind, the door burst open.

The marshal came tromping through the door, his clothing and boots full of snow which fell off as he slammed the door behind him, cutting off the freezing wind. He dropped several bird carcasses to the floor and turned, his face reddened with exposure.

"Frodo, you're awake at last." He smiled, but it quickly faded when he saw the hobbit's eyes. "What's wrong?"

For a moment, Frodo wanted to pretend that he didn't know Strider or remember any of his shameful actions. If the blow to his head couldn't be merciful enough to take his life, why couldn't it at least have taken his memory? Frodo wanted a fresh start with this man more than anything in the world.

But when Strider moved over and knelt beside him, concern in his honest eyes, Frodo couldn't lie to him. There was no such thing as a clean start. His life in Bree, meant to be a new beginning for a misfit from the Shire, had proven that.

"Nothing. I.. My head hurts, that's all."

"I know it must be very painful. Here, let's get you back in bed. It's too cold in here, and it will only get worse as I bring in more wood. Stay bundled up until I'm done opening the door." Strong hands assisted Frodo back into the high bed, gently eased him back, and pulled the blanket high around his neck. "Just rest a little longer."

He stared up at the man, wanting to ask him why he'd bother being so nice to a common thief. But Frodo was tired, and his mind was moving too slowly. By the time he'd formulated the words, Strider was already gone.

Frodo lay back, his eyes drifting shut, and shivered a little, remembering those big, callused hands and how gently they held him. Strider...

***

"Are you awake, Frodo? I have some broth for you." Strider's voice was very nice for one of the Big People, Frodo decided. He wasn't too loud all the time. "Still sleeping, then? I suppose it's my fault you're so exhausted. Once you knew I was following you, I don't think you got any rest."

Frodo heard him fussing by the fire, but he was too comfortable to open his eyes and see what Strider was doing. Instead he imagined it. That clink was the teapot -- Frodo really missed good tea. A nice hot cup of Tiffleberry would feel so good right now.

When his eyes popped open, the room was very dark and Frodo realized it was late. Strider was asleep in front of the fire, wrapped in his cloak -- which had to be rather damp after all his trips outside to hunt and chop firewood. And on the floor -- how terribly uncomfortable.

Frodo climbed out of the bed, surprised at how wobbly his knees felt. He should eat something, but first he wanted to get his spare blanket out for Strider -- the man shouldn't be cold. He circled the room twice, looking for his pack, before he remembered taking off down that hillside without it. Then Frodo sat down right where he was, angry enough to cry.

It was cold on this floor -- Strider would be cold, too. And Frodo was so useless, taking up the entire bed, losing his blanket and food supplies which would be so helpful now. Just a worthless, stupid hobbit, as everyone in the Shire and Bree now agreed. Frodo stared toward the heavy wooden door, wondering if he could get it open and walk out into the snow. Then Strider would have the bed to himself, and not be giving his precious food to a thief.

But he couldn't even stand; he was too weak and dizzy. Frodo tried again, and the effort drew a weak cry when he leaned on his sore wrist. His vision went dark for a moment, and he fell back.

When Frodo recovered his wits, Strider was awake and lifting him. Speaking, though it took Frodo a moment to understand his words.

"...awakened me. You're too ill to keep moving around on your own, Frodo." They moved, and the dizziness returned, but then Frodo was settled in the bed again. He held on to Strider's collar when the man tried to release him.

"What is it?"

"You shouldn't...," Frodo began, then corrected himself. He had no right to say what anyone should or shouldn't do. "It's cold on the floor."

"I'm very warmly dressed, Frodo. Don't distress yourself -- this floor, with the fire, is better than many places I've slept over the years." He gently disentangled Frodo's hands and tucked them under the blanket.

"There's room enough," Frodo insisted, struggling to keep his eyes fixed seriously on the man.

"If it means you will rest more easily, Frodo, I will share the bed with you." Strider stared down at him for a moment, then turned away abruptly. No doubt he was remembering that he must stop treating Frodo as a friend.

But Strider was too kindly to stop taking care of someone who was ill, even if his sense of justice told him the hobbit wasn't worthy of his attention. He moved to the fire and asked "Can you take some broth now? Are you awake enough to eat?" Strider touched the side of a cup, set in the ash and covered by a tin plate. "This is still warm, and it will help you recover your strength."

He brought the soup to Frodo, who gladly drank the whole cup despite the lack of seasoning. But the food made him even more sleepy, so that he dozed until the bed dipped to the side and a large, warm body joined him under the covers. Then he roused enough to ask one of his many questions.

"Strider, what happened?"

"The noise of your voice shook loose snow and ice on the hillside, and you and your horse slid a long way. You must have hit your head on a rock, and your left wrist was swollen, too, when I found you at last. We needed shelter from the storm, and I knew this cabin was nearby. I brought you here." There was a moment of silence before he continued, "I should examine your wrist tomorrow. It may be broken."

"My horse?"

"He was dead, Frodo. Broken neck."

Frodo had been expecting such news, but he still was upset. "I'm sorry that happened," he managed, not adding that he wished it had been him instead.

"I know," Strider said, and Frodo felt comfortable enough at that to move a little closer to the man's warmth. It felt very nice -- certainly nicer than anything Frodo deserved.

***

Storms raged outside for days, and Frodo knew he would be dead if Strider hadn't rescued him. He was still too ill to do anything helpful, and so the marshal was the one who left the cabin to find them food and search for firewood in the freezing, blowing snow. And he was the one who came back inside blue-lipped, only to fuss with cleaning game, rending soap, drying skins, and making delicate broths to carefully feed to Frodo.

"The injury to your head is healing nicely," Strider said, carefully daubing on more of the pleasant-smelling herbal ointment before beginning to rebandage Frodo's head. "Do you still feel pain? Or have headaches?"

"Headaches, but only sometimes."

"You're underweight, Frodo." In the silence as the man tended him, Frodo shivered to hear the wind howling outside. "Your headaches may continue until I can find us better food to build you up. That day may be a long time coming."

"We're trapped here, then?" Frodo asked.

"Yes, until this weather breaks. If the snow continues much longer, we'll be unable to reach Bree until the Spring thaw arrives."

Frodo opened his mouth, but realized he had nothing to say. He was painfully aware of how useless he was, and that every mouthful of food given to him meant less for Strider. It wasn't fair that the man was growing gaunt himself while working so hard to provide for a thief.

Why hadn't the marshal just left him buried in the snow and fled, saving himself? Instead, he was trapped in this awful place. If the winter storms continued much longer, they would both starve. Frodo's death wouldn't bother anyone, but if Strider died the world would be losing a good man who worked to help people.

Frodo knew what he should do -- he must stop burdening Strider, so that the man could find a way out and to a safer place. Strider's life was more important than whatever reward he'd get for bringing a hobbit thief back to rot in jail.

"There. Are you comfortable?" the marshal asked, rising from the bed and packing up his supplies.

"Fine," Frodo said, rolling to the side, determined not to eat or drink again. Strider would be strong enough to find a way back to Bree if he wasn't burdened with the care and feeding of a hobbit.

"Do you wish to sleep, Frodo?" Strider asked, and it seemed to Frodo that there was disappointment in his tone. He rolled back and looked in the man's eyes.

"No, not really. Did you need my help with something?" he offered, sitting up.

"Well..." And now the marshal looked a little embarrassed, the tips of his ears turning pink in the faint light from the window. "I'd enjoy your company, if you're not too fatigued."

Frodo looked at him for a moment, trying to decide if the marshal was joking. But he seemed quite serious. Did men get lonely, too? Frodo had never thought of the possibility, but then he remembered the sullen looks some people in Bree gave Strider when he walked past, and how everyone stopped talking or laughing when he approached.

Frodo imagined Strider here alone, trapped by the unfriendly weather for weeks, with no conversation and no reason to stir. Perhaps Frodo's life wasn't worth much to anyone else, but if his company helped cheer Strider, he couldn't throw it away.

"Can you tell me about the old kings again?" Frodo asked, and was glad to see how Strider's eyes glowed as he settled beside him on the bed to begin spinning the tale.

***

"I believe you've already learned to cheat at Jump, Strider," Frodo laughed, pushing a stone forward on the table. "You're winning far too often." Snow was falling outside, more slowly now, and the long string of storms seemed to be moving off to the east at last.

"I simply have superior strategic skills, Mr. Baggins," the marshal chided, moving his own piece and taking two of Frodo's captive. "I was trained to think as a warrior from my earliest childhood."

Frodo wanted to ask who trained him so, and why, but he knew from painful experience that such questioning would merely stop their game and all pleasantness in the cabin. "Hobbits don't have much use for war and battle strategy," he admitted.

"Yet you tell me this is a common game among your people in the Shire. So they must have known of such things in the past, at least."

"Oh, perhaps. Years and years ago. Bil... My father's cracked old cousin used to tell tales of the olden days, but no one pays any attention to him." But Frodo had, until he realized the old hobbits promises were just lies.

"Not even you?" Strider asked. "You always listen to my stories of the elves and the old kingdom, so you must have loved listening to him."

"Oh, when I was little I believed his tales," Frodo said shortly, casting in his mind for some way to change the subject. He made a reckless move, gaining three of Strider's pieces. "Now, of course, I know there aren't happy adventures waiting for hobbits who leave the Shire."

He saw it then, that he'd played right into Strider's trap. "I believe I'm Thain at last," the man said, scooping up his remaining pieces with a wry smile. "I know you had some bad experiences in Bree, Frodo, but I hope they haven't made you as bitter as that comment sounded."

Frodo laughed weakly. "Oh, don't blame Bree -- I was bitter in the Shire, too."

Strider looked very serious now, and Frodo squirmed with discomfort. They'd been so comfortable until now, waiting out the storm, telling long stories and teaching each other ways to pass the time.

"Frodo, I know men haven't been kind to you," the marshal began.

"Strider, I don't blame all men. Some big people took advantage of me, but life was no different in the Shire. I've never had money nor influence, and I think one needs both to have an easy time anywhere in Middle Earth."

"Is that why you took money that wasn't yours? To have an easy time?" Strider looked very serious as he posed the questions, and Frodo flushed with embarrassment and a little anger. He shrugged without answering, concentrating on re-setting the board for another game. "Did you think your crime would go unnoticed, Frodo, or that Butterbur wouldn't send the law after you? Perhaps you thought you were owed more than your wages for ... favors bestowed?"

Frodo kept silent, his eyes averted, feeling as if Strider had struck him. It hurt that much to hear the marshal's true opinion of him. In these weeks of confinement, Frodo had forgotten that Strider's kindness wasn't based in friendship, but was merely his way of doing his duty. Worse, Frodo had convinced himself that the man somehow understood how he'd been treated in Bree, and knew why he'd stolen the money.

"Butterbur wants you put in jail, you know." Strider stood and paced the room, and Frodo let his hands fall still, almost afraid of him in this stern, angry mood. "You wouldn't last two weeks in Bree's jail -- it's ... well, it's never mattered because most of your people don't break the law." He paused at a window, looking out at the swirling snow. "I told Butterbur I'd bring you back, but only if he agreed you could repay him instead of going to prison. You can work in Staddle, where a hobbit belongs, or even back in the Shire. But your employer would be told that your wages must be split with Butterbur, until you've repaid all you took."

Frodo wondered how much Butterbur was claiming he'd taken. No doubt it was far more than he'd actually found in the till that evening. He still had the money, all of it -- but who would believe him if he tried to return it? Even Strider would take the Innkeeper's word that more money was missing. Plus there was the sturdy little pony he'd killed. Butterbur would probably value it at 30 silver pennies or more, an amount it would take Frodo years to repay working at some menial job -- if anyone would even hire a thief to muck out their barn or pick their crop. Frodo might never find a steady job. Certainly he'd never be able to leave Bree-land, where everyone would know of his disgrace.

"You'd have to be far more devious and clever to be a successful thief, Frodo," Strider concluded, his voice colder than Frodo had ever heard it. "You don't really have it in you." The marshal turned away from the window and Frodo quickly looked down and away from him. "I'm going to check my snares. I suppose some food would be welcome?"

He risked a glance up at the man and his fears were confirmed. Strider looked contemptuous, as well as put out by Frodo's silence. "Yes," he replied shortly before looking down again and beginning to clear off the table. "Is there anything I can do?"

"Fill the buckets with clean snow and start heating some water," Strider instructed. "If there's game, we'll make a stew."

Frodo nodded and the man left. He stayed seated in the silent cabin for a moment, resting his head in his hands, remembering Strider's smiles and the careful way he'd tended Frodo's wounds. It meant nothing to the man. Yet every moment with Strider meant far too much to Frodo.

"You're a fool, Baggins." He wrapped himself in the blanket, gathered the buckets and stepped out into the cold.

***

The snows were gone at last, leaving a bitter, freezing cold that crept through every inch of their shelter. Strider brought his horse inside, afraid Applesauce would freeze like his bucket of water if left outside in the half-shelter where he'd been tied. The poor horse was so thin that Frodo insisted they cut open their mattress to feed him the straw.

The fire was never large enough to banish the chill, so even in the daytime they huddled under their blanket and Strider's cloak in what was left of their bed, keeping each other warm. The scarcity of wood was alarming, but the lack of food was worse. Strider's traps were empty again this morning, and the snow they'd melted to drink sloshed in their stomachs without satisfying either of them.

"I could gather wood while you hunt for food."

"No. It's too far, and your clothing isn't warm enough."

Frodo sighed and wished he was warm enough to leave the man's side. Strider was very concerned with the health of someone he was planning to hand over to slavery. Of course, that was probably why he pretended to care - it was merely that Frodo was Butterbur's property and must be secured as such. A dead hobbit couldn't repay any money.

Of course, if they both froze here, Butterbur wouldn't get a penny returned to him, either.

"Your clothing is no different than mine," Frodo answered rather sullenly.

"I have boots and a cloak, and I wrap the skins I've saved from our meals around my legs and arms for extra warmth. You'd be barefoot on the ice."

"Hobbit feet are tough enough for any weather," Frodo insisted. "But if you'll let me help, I'll wrap furs on my feet."

Strider was silent for a long time, and Frodo wondered if he'd fallen asleep, though it was too cold to get comfortable. Finally he said, "If it gets warmer, or even if the sun comes out, we can try it."

Frodo almost smiled. Progress at last, and Strider hadn't reminded him that he was still recovering from a broken wrist. He tucked his sore left hand under his shirt, but it wasn't much warmer there. "So that hook full of furs outside is your closet," he mumbled dreamily, closing his eyes to imagine Strider wrapped in the soft skins. The cabin was already full of the smell of horse, as well as unwashed man and hobbit, which somehow added to the image in Frodo's mind of a dangerous, barbarian Strider. He felt warmer thinking of the man's smooth limbs being only half-covered on a hot summer afternoon, his long muscles exposed as he moved and worked.

"I was planning to use them for trading, once we leave this place." Strider shifted uneasily and Frodo made a protesting noise at the cold air that came under the blanket. "We could use the extra warmth for ourselves. Frodo, you seem very chilled."

He hummed an answer but Strider didn't seem to understand him. Frodo dozed for a long time, imagining blazing fires inside him and warm touches.

When he woke, hours later, Frodo was warm. He was laying on something softer than their much denuded mattress, and it was warm, too. When he moved, he realized he was naked, laying atop Strider -- also naked. Furs were under them and over him, as well as all their clothing and the blanket. Strider seemed to be sleeping soundly, his arms wrapped around Frodo protectively.

He had a dozen questions, but he was too comfortable to begin asking them. Instead he snuggled closer to Strider, letting himself imagine those arms clasped him in love, rather than to prevent his escape.

***

"You're being ridiculous!"

"You almost died!" Strider slammed his fist on the table angrily. "If I hadn't noticed how cold you were, you could have slipped away in your sleep. You've lost too much weight and get chilled too easily. You're not leaving this cabin."

The weather had finally changed, a bright sun melting the snow on the roof into long icicles that they melted to drink. Strider had gone out that morning to gather wood and check his snares, and now was preparing for a second trip. While Frodo sat on the bed, bored and tired of confinement.

"I feel like a prisoner," he spat, then blushed, remembering that he was the marshal's prisoner. Frodo quickly changed the subject. "Hobbits need fresh air, you know."

"There's fresh air coming through every joint in this building. That's why it's still so cold."

"It's warm enough for Applesauce to be outside again."

Strider moved beside him. "Frodo, I ... It is not acceptable to me that you risk your life to gather wood."

Frodo was frustrated enough to finally speak his mind after months of biting his tongue. "My life! You mean Butterbur's money, don't you? That's what you don't want to risk, that greedy cheat's repayment as I slave for him for the next ten years!"

Strider stepped backwards, surprise on his face slowly giving way to answering anger. "Do you suppose because you whored yourself in his barroom you are allowed to steal from him?"

Frodo went white at the man's harsh words. "Whored... Do you think I let those men paw at me?" He stood, shaking with rage. "Do you really think they paid me? No, they stole pieces of me, just as your damn Butterbur stole my wages from me. He gave me food, and sometimes he gave me clothing. But he never paid me a wage that I could save to get out of that hellish job."

Frodo ran to the mantle where his saddlebag hung. "You've seen exactly what I took." He pulled out the money and threw it on the floor. "Pennies, not even a full year's wage. It's all there, no matter what lies that man tells! You should well know I had no time to spend or hide any of it."

He stood there, glaring up at Strider, his breath coming in gasps as his fury died. Strider's face was stormy as he looked at the money and then back at Frodo. The man took a step forward, then another, and Frodo braced himself for a blow, his head up defiantly. Let Strider hit him, let the man break his neck. He'd be happy to see the end of this misery.

Large, heavy hands landed on his shoulders and shook him as Strider angrily demanded, "Why didn't you tell me this before? Why didn't--" Then Strider was kneeling beside him and pulling him close, a warm mouth descending on his in a frantic, hot kiss that seemed to go on forever as strong arms enfolding him, pulling him tightly against that long, hard body.

Frodo's heart sang as Strider bit at his neck and pulled at his clothing. He'd never wanted this from any other man, but Strider's touch thrilled him. He opened his mouth to be willingly plundered, and kissed back enthusiastically, hoping Strider wouldn't notice how little he knew about kissing.

But just as Frodo tried to join in, pulling at the lacings on Strider's tunic, the man stopped kissing him and abruptly moved away.

"Strider?" he asked, leaning forward, but the marshal gently pushed him back and rose. Frodo's eyes moved from the reddened, swollen lips to the long thighs -- and the erection between them, clearly visible. He shivered.

"I'm sorry, very sorry. That shouldn't have happened. I have no right--"

Frodo interrupted him impatiently. "But you do! I want you--"

"Frodo, please. Hear me out before you say anything you'll regret. I... I have not been very forthcoming with you. You've asked questions which I've refused to answer."

"Yes. But that doesn't matter to me. You've always been so kind to me, almost what I imagine a friend would be like."

"Yes, but a friend is all I can be to you, Frodo. What almost happened just now -- it cannot happen between us. I am... I am pledged to another."

"Pledged?" he repeated stupidly, and then he understood. "You're engaged ... to be married." Frodo felt dizzy, his stomach plunging and the taste of Strider's kiss changing into a memory of the Bree-men who'd forced their tongues inside his mouth.

"Yes. My lady -- she is living far away now, and her father opposes our wish to marry. But I am still bound to her." Strider kept speaking, telling how lovely she was and how very far above him. But Frodo stopped listening, concentrating all his energies on fighting the bile rising in his throat. Strider didn't return his feelings -- how could he have thought he did? He fought off sickness, determined not to even cry. Frodo had been used before; he'd survive.

He looked up at Strider, who seemed far away in his thoughts, the sadness on his face made Frodo ache. This man, who'd done so much for him, was merely lonely and lusting. Frodo had no right to expect more from him. Nor could he deny the man what he needed.

"Strider--" Frodo searched for the words to express how he felt. "I ... think we both have needs, and there's no disrespect to your lady in ... finding release with another, when she is far away. It means nothing, save that there's no one else..." Frodo stopped speaking, noticing that Strider looked very unhappy, almost angry, at his words. "If you'd ... rather handle your needs alone, I'll respect you wishes."

"You sound--" Strider stopped himself, but Frodo knew what he'd been ready to say. Frodo's words sounded like those the saloon girls used with guilty young men. Frodo sounded just like the whore Strider thought him.

There was a long, uncomfortable silence. When the marshal spoke again, it startled Frodo.

"The elves have very liberal ideas about love and sex. Even ..." Strider paused for a moment. "They live forever, you understand, and so they see nothing wrong with loving more than one person, even if one loves many at the same time. Love is important, and they don't understand why men value exclusivity."

"How did you learn so much about elves, Strider? No one else in Bree speaks of them." Frodo tried to smile as he pulled his shirt together and buttoned it, grateful for Strider's change of subject.

"I -- I studied--" Strider looked away as his voice trailed off, and Frodo feared his question had been too prying. But then Strider looked back and continued, "Frodo, my people come from the north. There's still a settlement, Fornost, many miles from here. That is where we train marshals for service to the peoples of Middle Earth." Strider looked down at him, his face very serious. "I've never told that to anyone in Bree." His eyes seemed to burn with some emotion Frodo couldn't identify.

Frodo nodded and said, "I understand. I won't tell a soul, I promise."

"Thank you." Strider moved back to the table and sat, staring at the fire silently for long minutes before he continued. "When I was a boy, there were bad times for my people. After my father was killed, my mother took me away from these harsh lands. She thought I'd be safer hidden among the elves.

"I was raised in Rivendell, and educated there with Lord Elrond's family. That, Frodo, is how I know so much about the ways of the elves."

"Rivendell." Frodo thought the name was familiar, something he'd heard in Bilbo's tales. But surely that adventure, if it ever really happened, was long before Strider's time. "You must speak elvish, then."

"Yes, I know several languages, and various forms of elvish."

"Oh. Could..." He stopped, remembering Bilbo's long-ago promise to bring him to live in Hobbiton and study with him. "We're still trapped here, and the time goes so slowly..."

Strider seemed to hear the words Frodo hadn't actually said. "I'd love to teach you what I can, Frodo." The man seemed calm again at last, and Frodo smiled more genuinely at him. "You can read and write the Common Tongue?"

"Yes, fairly well. My father taught me, until he died. Then I had some lessons with my cousin Bilbo when he'd visit. I didn't get much practice, though, for books are hard to find in the Shire, and even more so in Bree."

"Well. We may have to be creative here." Strider moved to the woodpile and picked up a log. "We can make up ink from the ash, but your slates will get burned rather than erased."

"Then I won't be afraid to make mistakes, for they will just mean a better fire!"

Strider's laugh seemed almost normal, and Frodo tried to be happy for that, though his own heart was still heavy.

***

The longer, sun-bright days were still very cold, and today Strider spent long hours tracking prints from the half-frozen creek, not returning until the sun was setting. He was empty-handed when he entered the cabin at last.

Frodo tried to hide his disappointment at the lack of food, but even more he tried to hide the giddy relief he felt to have the marshal safely return. Whenever Strider was out so long, Frodo feared for him. It seemed to the hobbit that the hunter could easily become prey to some larger animal. And when Frodo was alone, their friendly cabin felt more like a trap, holding him against his will. If ever Strider didn't come back -- well, there was no point dwelling on his fears now.

Strider removed the extra layers of fur and warmed himself by the fire, while Frodo heated water and the thin broth left from last night's meal. Adding hot water would stretch the soup into larger portions, and warm liquids would help warm them both. But Frodo knew it wasn't enough to satisfy the constant gnawing hunger they both felt.

"I'm sorry," Frodo began, but Strider cut him off impatiently.

"Don't apologize for things that aren't your fault, Frodo. You constantly..." he stopped himself, and Frodo sighed. Such argument happened too often now, the boredom of tight quarters being vented in little explosions of pique. None of the arguments were serious, and they never lasted very long. Sometimes, as tonight, they would stop themselves before any harsh words were spoken. But usually, they would yell at each other quite childishly, until one of them saw the absurdity of whatever touched off the bout. Then snorts and chuckles led into wild laughter that always cleared the air.

"Shall we have more elvish lessons tonight, then?" Strider asked more cheerfully.

"Oh, yes! But I'd rather practice my writing after dinner."

"Very well. Pronunciation, then. You're in the Chetwood and you see a glow. A tall, stately elf is before you. What do you say?"

"Elen síla lumenn' omentielvo!" Frodo replied, carefully stirring their soup. "At least, that's what I'd say if I didn't know this elf."

"Correct. What would be different if this elf was a dear old friend?"

"Hmm." Frodo set down the wooden spoon and moved away from the hearth. "Well, if he were a dear friend, I'd be a much more interesting hobbit, and I wouldn't need elvish lessons from some stinky Bree marshal."

Strider barked out a surprised laugh, Frodo smirked, and then a long arm snaked out to grasp Frodo's waist, and dancing fingers dug into his ribs and pulled him closer. Frodo shrieked with laughter, trying to twist away.

"Stinky marshal, am I?" Strider laughed. "You can't escape, little hobbit."

Then suddenly, there was no more tickling and no laughter. Frodo was in Strider's arms, close to him, staring up into serious grey eyes filled with -- with what had to be lust. Frodo felt love and desire swamp him, too, making him warm with arousal as he clutched at the hands still on his waist.

"I..." he began, not knowing what he wanted to say.

"Frodo," Strider whispered, then pulled away and stood, crossing to the door. "I'd better make sure Applesauce has enough water," he said gruffly as he walked out the door.

Hours later Frodo lay in their bed, his stomach grumbling for more food. But that physical pain was not what kept him sleepless beside Strider's half-clothed bulk. Frodo wanted Strider's love -- but he was willing to settle for desire without love, since that was all the man could offer. Yet the stubborn marshal wouldn't give even that bit of comfort to him.

Frodo didn't think the man was truly sleeping, either, but he still reached one cool finger to gently trace Strider's face before rolling over and closing his eyes.

***

"Aha! There, I'm Thain at last," Frodo crowed triumphantly. Strider had been teaching him about strategy, and now they were much more evenly matched at their games of Jump.

"I yield to the Thain of the Shire," Strider said very correctly, though he ruined it by putting his tongue out at Frodo. "What would the Thain command tonight?"

"Oh, I don't know. Can you keep Spring from coming, Strider?" Frodo stood and restlessly moved away, immediately sorry he'd brought that look to the man's face. "Oh, don't mind me. Of course you can't, and I don't really want it. Even going back to face Butterbur seems better than spending another day cooped up here," he said, looking to the cloud-filled sky outside their windows.

"I can promise you that you'll have one friend in Bree, Frodo," the marshal said, and Frodo knew the man believed he would keep that promise. But he also knew how often Strider traveled, and how little time his duties left for tracking down one foolish hobbit thief. He saw the days stretching ever-longer between infrequent visits, as other duties occupied Strider's time and their confinement in this cabin faded in his memories.

"I'm so restless, Strider. Can't we try to ride out now?"

"It's very dangerous when the rivers first thaw, Frodo, particularly when we've had such heavy rains. We'd be safer to wait." Strider moved from the table to tend their fire. "At least we have plenty of firewood now, and enough food for us and for Applesauce again."

"Rabbit stew. I think I'll eat grass with your horse instead," Frodo grumbled. "I want cheese and bread. In the Shire, we'd have early strawberries by now."

"Consider this a lesson in how very fortunate hobbits of the Shire are, to have such a temperate climate in their land," Strider calmly said, but Frodo took it badly.

"You needn't lecture me. I know I'm an ignorant, ungrateful lout as well as a slut and thief," Frodo snapped.

"You shouldn't call yourself such names," Strider replied a little less cooly.

"No, I can just let you think them about me and pretend I don't know!" Frodo paced as far away from the man as the room allowed, anger bubbling in his heart. "I'm not a fool, Strider."

"I never said you were, Frodo. I wouldn't waste my time teaching a fool."

"Oh, you think I'm so flattered by the crumbs of your attention that I don't realize why you really won't touch me!"

"As I told you, I am pledged, and I don't wish to discuss this again." Strider, too, was angrily pacing in the tiny room. "Does a promise mean nothing to you? I am honor-bound--"

"I see no honor! I see only disgust and contempt. Your vow is about love, Strider, and the lust you feel for me is nothing your lady need fear. But you see me as so corrupt that any touch would pollute you!"

The only response from the marshal was to reach out a long arm, roughly grasp Frodo's arm, and pull him close. Then the passion they both felt was poured into a long, plundering kiss, more of a battle than a caress. It left Frodo breathless, clinging to the man's muscular shoulders dizzily.

"What I feel is only lust?" Strider husked at him before putting Frodo away from him. He rose and almost ran out the door, and in a moment Frodo heard him ride away. The hobbit leaned against the table where he'd been thrust, his fingertips touching his mouth, as if to imprint Strider's kiss.

The day lengthened and the sky darkened, and Strider did not return. Frodo couldn't eat or sleep, and his mind was too disordered for study. Finally he went outside to gather water, and that was when he saw that the marshal had taken the furs with him, the only currency they had for trade -- besides Butterbur's money. That made Frodo pause for a few minutes, but he concluded that the man wouldn't abandon him here. He trusted Strider, even if the marshal couldn't return such trust.

Frodo carried in the buckets and laid one on the fire to heat. He dug out the rest of their soap supply, and removed his shirt to use as a rag for cleaning.

As he wiped down every surface in the cabin, Frodo's mind again wandered to Strider. He thought about his life in Bree, and knew that he would never have known so much about the marshal if they hadn't been isolated here for the last three months. His weary brain protested at how silly it was that the very actions which prevented a real friendship between them were the only reason Frodo was in this situation, glimpsing what a precious gift Strider's friendship would have been.

Finally, to distract himself, Frodo began singing some old songs he remembered from spring cleaning parties at the Hall. Aunt Esme usually enlisted the smaller lads to clean the legs under the banquet table, and to polish the many chair legs in that vast room. Frodo had been one of her assistants his first year in Brandy Hall, after his parents died. He'd tried to be very useful so Aunt Esme would love him and take him away to live with her and be her son. But she hadn't truly noticed him among the half-dozen children helping her that day, except to blush and scold him for staring at her as she sang. He'd been trying to remember if his mother had ever tied her curls up in a bandana while she worked. He knew she always sang...

The room was filthy, Frodo decided, and his shirt would be a lost cause once the floor was scrubbed. Dawn peeked in the windows and still he worked at cleaning away every trace of grease and dirt. They'd shared this room with a horse, for heaven's sake -- no wonder Strider wanted some fresh air. If the sun was bright again tomorrow, Frodo vowed he'd prop open the door to help the floor dry and blow out the mustiness.

He slept for a while, curled on the floor because he knew the empty bed would keep him awake, worrying. His fears were foolish; Strider carried a gun and was a skilled rider. But still, Frodo could only doze close to the fire, part of his mind listening for hoofbeats.

When he woke, Frodo was dizzy and he made himself eat some of the stew from yesterday. As he added wood to the coals, he took inventory. There wasn't much wood, and no other food. If he'd eaten last night, there would have been nothing for breakfast. But even if Frodo starved in this cabin, he had no one to blame but himself. He'd been ungrateful and tried to hurt Strider with his words. He'd driven him away.

After a few mouthfuls of food he stopped, saving the rest for later. He turned to the door, thinking once again that he'd heard Strider returning. But it was a trick of his mind, and so he went back to scrubbing the cabin. Spring cleaning, only this year the season didn't bring the joy of new life with the warmer weather.

This spring meant the end of things, not new beginnings. The start of Frodo's long punishment, endless service to Butterbur, was nothing to celebrate. This friendly weather meant the end of his time with Strider, the end of the joy of learning about the cultures of elves, dwarves, and men in Middle Earth. The end of their intimacy, though not the end of Frodo's love for the man.

He scrubbed, wondering whose cabin he was working to leave in such good shape. He'd never asked Strider how he'd known of this place when the storm trapped them. He'd ask if -- when -- Strider returned.

The sun was pouring in the windows now, so Frodo opened the door and let the breeze come in, enjoying the fresh air himself. He fetched fresh water and began again, a rinse wash this time to remove all the soap and leave everything truly clean.

A few hours later Frodo thought his arm might fall off, but the cabin finally smelled clean and fresh. He stood looking at his handiwork, wondering what he'd missed, when a shadow blocked the light from the door just as a warm voice said his name.

"Strider." Though he didn't turn, Frodo knew his voice was full of joy.

"I can see you've been working very hard, but can I ask you to bring in some fresh water?"

Frodo obeyed him, dumping his wash-water and walking to the creek to refill the buckets. As he slowly returned to the cabin, his undershirt stuck to him with sweat, Frodo thought he should have dunked himself in the creek, too.

When he re-entered the cabin, he almost dropped the full buckets he'd fetched. Strider had moved the table away from the fire, and now a large wooden tub sat before the hearth.

It was small for a man, and overly large for a hobbit. Yet after months of washing up in a bucket and feeling gritty, the oddly-shaped container was the most marvelous sight Frodo had ever seen.

"Where did you find this?" he asked, almost in a whisper.

"I rode to Fornost yesterday, after our ... disagreement." Strider's face was red from more than the heat of the fire. "I thought ... I intended to find another marshal to come for you, and take you back to the Shire. But... I saw this."

"A tub."

"A washbasin, I think, from one of the old buildings. But for us, here -- a tub." Strider seemed just as excited as Frodo was. "I'll gather more firewood so we can heat the water. Here, give me your buckets. We don't have enough containers to heat all the water, I'm afraid."

"Pour those in right now and let the warmth of the room work on it. We'll fill it halfway with cool water, then top off with two boiling bucketfuls. That should be perfect," Frodo said. No one knew more about baths than a hobbit, not even a marshal. Frodo had organized the Saturday night baths at the Pony for two years.

An hour later the tub was half full with room temperature water, and a new problem presented itself. Strider insisted that Frodo should have the first bath, while he wanted the man to enjoy the clean water.

"The only fair way to do this is to share the tub," Frodo said. "We can soak together, then scrub up separately, if you'd like."

Strider's face looked very red in the firelight as he checked their simmering buckets of water. "I think we can both fit comfortably," he agreed at last.

A few minutes later they poured the boiling water into the tub, and then they began removing their clothing. Frodo kept his back turned to Strider, more for the man's comfort than his own modesty. He was bony, to be sure, not a proper figure of a hobbit after months of short rations. And his skin looked almost grey with filth. Well, perhaps he really was more comfortable with Strider not seeing too much of him.

He turned back to the firelight and Strider was already in the tub, his skin glistening. There was too much light from the large fire, Frodo thought, moving quickly to climb in and cover himself, trying not to look. But his eyes were gleaning every detail of the marshal's beautiful, very masculine body -- and his heart was memorizing it all, too. Frodo noted the dusting of hair on his well-defined chest, trailing down toward his flat belly. He saw how very thin the man was, yet how powerful he still looked, the muscles in his arms standing out as he grasped the side of the tub. And when Frodo climbed into the almost-warm water, he tangled with the long legs, enticingly spread to give him room to sit.

"You might be more comfortable leaning back against me, Frodo," Strider suggested, and Frodo silently obeyed, turning his back to the man. He knew if he sat facing Strider his heart -- and his lust -- would be plain to see on his face. Even like this, there would be a constant struggle to keep his eyes from seeking out more of the man's half-concealed, half-revealed beauty.

"This feels wonderful," Frodo said, sinking back against that broad chest. Then two strong arms curled around him, and Strider pulled him close, his mouth finding the tip of Frodo's ear.

"Yes, it does."

"Strider?" Frodo hated to question this bliss, but he had to ask. "What... Have you changed your mind?"

"I have decided, Frodo Baggins, that your beauty would make the finest, most honorable man in Middle Earth forget his duty and his vows to any other. And I am far from being that fine, honorable man." A warm tongue teased at Frodo's ear. "I want you, Frodo, and not just for a quick tumble." He leaned forward and dropped a kiss on Frodo's temple.

"I don't understand," Frodo began.

"I love you, silly hobbit." His mouth descended to Frodo's neck, kissing and nuzzling.

Frodo thought he must have fallen asleep while cleaning, and was still dreaming. His voice came out choked with emotion, but he spoke lightly, as hobbits do. "Wouldn't you love me more if I were cleaner? Where's our soap, Strider?"

The man's happy laugh and loving squeeze were the prelude to a blissful hour of washing their hair and scrubbing each other's skin to a healthy, clean pink. The bathing was a wonderful treat, but combined with very pleasant mutual exploration of their bodies and mouths, it became ecstacy.

Despite his inexperience, Frodo was completely comfortable with Strider, feeling no fear or shame as the man touched every part of him. He touched back, exploring the fascinating similarities and differences in their bodies. Touches led to kisses, then more gentle touches. As the water chilled, their wandering hands began to tickle and pinch teasingly, until with much laughter they finally climbed out of their tub, now full of very dirty, soapy water. Strider, still naked and glistening, dragged the basin to the door and turned out the water. Then he looked back to Frodo.

"We need a rinse, I suppose."

"Let's jump in the creek, then run back here and warm up," Frodo said, surprised when Strider nodded and took his hand. They ran to the water, the sun low behind them, and quickly dunked themselves under the cold, clear water. When they climbed out, Strider gathered Frodo in his arms and swiftly carried him back to the cabin and inside, setting him down on the floor in front of the fire.

"Stay there."

The man quickly gathered their blanket and the too-thin mattress, and piled them on the floor. Then he stretched out, pulling Frodo into his arms, and wrapped them both in the blanket. The warmth felt wonderful, Frodo decided, the fire blazing high while Strider's touch sent waves of warmth deeper than his chilled skin, into the heart he'd thought was permanently frozen over.

"Strider..." he began in what he hoped was an inviting tone. But then he pulled away and turned, and said very matter-of-factly, "I feel silly that I don't know your name."

The marshal's laughter shook their bed. "Those in Bree think my first name is Marshal, and Strider is the family name."

"No, that's not true," Frodo giggled. "Everyone knows it's a nickname, from the way you move on these very long legs," Frodo corrected him, then continued very seriously. "And now I'm in your arms, and while I love that name as I love every bit of you, I feel foolish calling you Strider here."

"You may call me Estel. It's one of many names I bear," he whispered into Frodo's ear before gently tasting it. "Ah, this is much better. You were quite right -- I now love you so much more, Frodo, simply because you smell better." Frodo pinched his arm and the man's laughter again shook them. Then they dozed, their hair drying and their bodies warming.

Kisses woke Frodo, gentle kisses rained on his forehead, eyelids, nose and neck. "Estel," he sighed happily, and soft lips covered his mouth. The sweetness of this gentle kiss, so different from the other times their mouths had met, melted Frodo's heart. He felt -- so much, and for the first time he understood there could be tears of joy, rather than anger or grief.

Large hands roamed over his body, and Frodo explored in turn, touching erect nipples and drinking in Estel's gasps of pleasure, tasting his lips, neck, and shoulder and fighting the urge to bite down and mark the soft, tender skin. Frodo squeezed the firm muscles of Strider's back and pulled the man closer, letting his weight press him down, for he felt that joy would float him to the roof. He surrendered himself to the marshal's strength and the focused intensity that had kept them alive and safe all these months. But most of all, Frodo loved feeling the man's arousal pressing against him, knowing that he'd brought it to life. His kisses and touches were making Estel groan and filling that big body with such wild passion.

At last strong fingers wrapped around Frodo's own erection, and their slow, honeyed exploration changed to swift movements and frantic demands. Estel rolled and pulled Frodo atop him, positioning the hobbit so their engorged members could meet in sweet friction. They gasped and clutched at each other, moans and incoherent cries filling the cabin until they poured out their passion against each other's bellies.

They lay together, blanket thrown aside, too warm in the afterglow of their lovemaking to miss it. Then Frodo began to chuckle, and the movement roused Strider from his daze.

"Frodo?"

"We just went to all that trouble to get clean," the hobbit giggled, and when Strider joined him in laughter Frodo slid to the side, landing beside him. Strider turned toward him, tangling their limbs, his arms covering Frodo and keeping him close.

"I love you so much, my Frodo."

"Why couldn't you admit it? You must have known how I felt about you."

"I thought I was only seeing what I wished to see... And it seemed so unfair to want your love when I couldn't give you my whole heart."

"How did that change, Estel?"

"When I reached Fornost I sent a message to my lady Arwen. I told her everything, and asked to be released from our vows." The man's arms tightened for a moment, and Frodo knew there was pain in his heart at what he'd done. "Although I knew the chance we'd ever be able to marry was slim, I never dreamed I would wish to be released... until I met you, Frodo Baggins." He dropped a kiss on Frodo's curls, and the hobbit tightened his arms around the man's neck.

"I'm ... well, I'm very glad. But I'm sorry, too. I didn't mean to hurt you..."

"You give me great joy, Frodo. Never doubt that."

They snuggled together in silence until Strider's arms relaxed and his breathing evened out in sleep. Frodo knew he should be very tired... exhausted, even. But he stayed awake for a long time, staring into the slowly dying fire and thinking about the woman who loved his Estel, and what she would feel when Strider's message arrived.

He sent a wish to the heavens that Arwen would not be in pain, but Frodo knew it was impossible. The love and esteem of such a wonderful man was a precious gift, and now it had been taken from her and given to Frodo. How could that pain ever be eased?

Frodo cuddled closer to his Estel, breathing in his warmth and thinking about undeserved gifts long into the night.

***

They rode through Bree without even stopping for an ale at the Pony. Frodo was grateful not to face Butterbur, though he worried that the innkeeper would be angry with Strider, who would have to see him eventually. Still, he leaned back into the warm strength of the marshal and tried to ignore the stares of the townfolk until they left the main road and turned southwest on a wide path.

"Where does this trail lead, Strider?" Frodo twisted to look back at the man, who was staring at the sunlight dappling the budding trees. "Estel?" Instead of answering, Strider began singing softly in elvish.

Frodo turned back to the road and concentrated on the words of the song. He only caught a few phrases, but the meaning was somehow quite clear, particularly once Frodo shut his eyes and simply listened with all his might. All he could think was that the song wanted to be heard and understood.

So as they rode in the still-cool spring air, Frodo heard a tale unfolding of love between a man and an elf-woman. Their passion could not be denied, though she was thousands of years older and noble far beyond his station, beautiful as the stars and blessed with courage and wisdom.

As he listened, suddenly Frodo heard more than the simple meaning of the words. He became aware of the yearning in Estel's voice, and suddenly things the man hadn't told him were clear.

"Your lady, Arwen -- she's an elf maiden!" Frodo cried, and the way Strider jumped and was immediately silent was his answer. "Of course..."

"I don't know what has revealed this to you, Frodo, but you are correct. Lady Arwen is Lord Elrond's only daughter, the Evenstar of her people." Strider pulled Frodo closer. "I should have explained this to you. I first saw her when I was only twenty, and had just learned the truth of my lineage. I loved her from that very hour, Frodo."

"She is very beautiful, isn't she?"

"As fair as Luthien Tinuviel of whom I sang," Strider said. "And beloved of her people. It was many years before we met again, the summer I turned forty-nine and first visited the hidden land of Lorien."

"Forty-nine? Estel, you can't be that old. Men age much faster than hobbits -- you can't be more than a few years older than me."

"The Dunedain are not like other Men, Frodo. I am sixty years old, and if I am blessed like others of my lineage, I hope to yet enjoy twice that number of years."

Frodo fell silent, thinking, and Strider went back to humming, slowing Applesauce when they reached a marketplace. They dismounted, then, and led the horse through the village street, nodding to the people they passed.

"This is Combe, Frodo," Strider finally said. "And I am taking you to meet two friends of mine who live on the western edge of town."

They walked up to a tiny house where black smoke poured out the kitchen window. A young man was laughing in the doorway beside an older man who gently scolded him.

"Your head is always in the clouds, Tol," the man said. "I wish you'd inherited a bit of your mother's common sense along with those green eyes of yours."

"Oh, Dad. I'm so sorry I burned the bread. But you have to admit, it's very funny..." he laughed again, then stopped when he saw Strider approaching, though his smile grew larger. "Estel! Dad, look who's finally back for a visit!"

Both men came down the path to the gate, smiles on their faces, and Frodo saw the resemblance between the two men. But what thrilled him was to see how pleased they were to see Strider, unlike so many of the people in Bree proper. They embraced the marshal, who thumped their backs and laughed with them.

Then Strider turned to Frodo. "I've brought a friend to meet you. Doc Thistle, Tolbert, this is Frodo Baggins. Frodo comes from the Shire, but he's worked at the Pony since he first came to Bree-land." Frodo bowed to both men, too nervous to smile. What if Strider's friends didn't like him?

"Pleased to meet you, Frodo," Doc said formally, holding out his hand. It took a moment for Frodo to remember to take it properly -- no one in Bree shook hands with a servant, but he'd seen men greet each other so.

Tolbert was even kinder, stooping down to cheerfully say, "Hello, Frodo!" and shake hands.

"I'm very happy to meet you both," Frodo replied, managing to smile at last.

"Well, come in and let's see what our menagerie can offer you. Tie old Applesauce here, and Tol will bring him some oats. He looks nearly as starved as you two," Doc grumbled good-naturedly. "I don't believe I've ever seen a *thin* hobbit before, Frodo. Though you're still quite young if I'm not mistaken. Not of Age yet, are you?"

"No, sir," Frodo replied a little breathlessly. The house was smoky, but very comfortable and lived-in. The clutter of books everywhere reminded him of Bilbo's room at Brandy Hall. There were pipes and papers, and fascinating drawings pinned up on the walls.

"Sit down, please. I think we can manage tea without burning down the village," Doc continued. "Tol, when you've taken care of Strider's good beast, run to the market for some bread and cheese."

Frodo sighed happily at those words, and Doc's sharp glance showed he'd noticed. But so did Strider, who spoke up while Frodo flushed guiltily.

"We've had a rough winter, as you guessed. Frodo and I were trapped in one of the marshal shelters far to the north, nearer to Fornost than Bree. We haven't tasted bread or cheese in a long time."

The man nodded. "I see. Yet if I'm not mistaken, Strider, to come here you brought this hungry hobbit right past the Pony, which has plenty of food. Were you afraid they'd put him to work without feeding him?"

Strider laughed. "Let's wait until Tol returns for the full story," he said. "I think Frodo would prefer to only relive it all once, and I know I don't fancy repeating myself."

"Fine. But I'll tell you right now, Strider, there's no job here for a hobbit."

"Really?" Strider ran a hand over the mantle, and it came away black. "Frodo has lots of experience with cleaning. And hobbits know more about food than any man, including how to remove a loaf from the oven before it's turned to charcoal."

"Estel," Doc began.

"Frodo could be quite comfortable in a corner of your examining room, and he'd help restore this warren to a comfortable home."

Doc shook his head at Strider, then turned to Frodo, who made himself meet the man's eyes though he knew his face was red. What a difference it would make to work in a place like this, with such kindly and intelligent men, instead of at the Pony among drunks and ruffians. Frodo didn't care how little he'd be paid, if he could stay here.

The older man seemed to read enough in Frodo's eyes, for he nodded. "We'll talk during tea. I think Tol might like more time to explore in the woods. He's still determined to write a book of herb-lore, you know."

"From the day I met him he was fascinated by the healing powers of plants," Strider agreed, settling himself on the divan.

"Well, you certainly needed a lot of healing that day," Doc snorted. "Frodo, sit here. The footstool should make you more comfortable." Doc fussed until he was settled. "Relax. Even if you become our servant tomorrow, for this day you are an honored guest."

The man walked off to the kitchen, and Frodo looked over to Strider, who was smiling one of his rare, oh-so-warm smiles. At him.

"You must tell them everything, Estel," Frodo said. The man nodded.

"I will, Frodo, for they will understand." Strider looked around the cluttered room. "I think Doc might even let you read his books, though you won't find any elvish texts here."

Frodo smiled. "You'll have to visit often, then, so I don't forget."

"I will. But when I can't be here, you'll still have friends at hand. Doc and Tol are good people, both of them scholars and healers."

"They're so... warm. Their love just fills this house." Frodo looked around, and he felt his throat fill. "I ... can't remember living in a place like this..." His voice trailed off, and then Strider was beside him, on his knees.

"We will have a home, Frodo, overflowing with love. I promise you that."

"A little house, like this? With hobbit-sized furniture right beside the man-sized things?"

"Exactly. A place where those in need are always welcomed, and even winter storms will find us content with our work, our books and each other." Strider kissed the tip of Frodo's nose, then rose and went to the kitchen to help Doc.

***

The next morning Strider saddled Applesauce and stowed his gear, preparing to ride. Frodo stood beside the horse, patting his nose as he fed him the carrots Tolbert had provided.

"Estel. I wanted to ask a favor before you leave."

"What is it, love?"

"What you told me yesterday... I can't stop thinking about it." He knew Strider was about to reply so he plunged ahead. "It would please me very much if you'd write to Lady Arwen and ... tell her that you will return to her when I am no longer part of your life."

Strider's face was a picture of astonishment, his mouth half-open as he stared down at Frodo.

"I'm likely to die before you, Strider, even if our lives remain peaceful and happy. Your lady is immortal -- you could have many years of joy with her. It would please me very much, to know that you'll be happy again. And... it would soothe me to think her pain might be alleviated, at least in part."

"Frodo." Strider was beside him, then, kneeling on the dewy ground, kissing him fiercely. He pulled back and looked the hobbit straight in the eyes. "You're amazing."

"You'll write to her?"

"As you wish."

Another embrace, a sweet kiss to last until their next meeting, and Strider was riding away. Frodo stared after him until he was lost to sight, then turned to Doc's house, ready to start making restitution for his other thefts. Somehow those crimes, known to everyone, didn't weigh on Frodo's conscience.

But even the pain of what he'd just done didn't make amends for what he'd stolen from Arwen.

 

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