NC-17 for rough interspecies sex, multiple partners for Frodo, mentions of non-con sex, mpreg, abortion, and a number of other disturbing things. If any of these things might bother you, please find something else to read.

This is a sequel to On the North Downs, one of my AU's in which Middle-Earth is a bit like the Old West and Frodo fled the Shire as a tween, looking for adventures.

 

Triangle
by Laura Mason

 

"Doc writes that he has heard of such a thing, odd as it seems to us in the Shire." Bilbo looked up from the paper and over his reading glasses at the too-pale face seated across the kitchen table. "But he says it cannot be the correct diagnosis in your case, Frodo, and I agree."

"But -- what else can it be, Bilbo? I've been sick every morning for a month, yet I've gained weight, all of it in my stomach."

Bilbo blushed, of all things. In the few months he'd been at Bag End, Frodo had never seen his cousin so flustered. "Here, if you must know you can read it for yourself," Bilbo grumbled, handing the sheet across the table and clearing the second-breakfast dishes from his side of the table.

Frodo scanned the early paragraphs quickly. Doc's tone was very friendly, but that wasn't surprising. He and Bilbo were kindred spirits, just as Frodo had thought when he'd first met the kindly man who'd become his employer in Bree-land. There was news about Tolbert's studies, and then he finally reached the section where Doc answered the embarrassing question Bilbo had asked in his letter.

"I have heard of male hobbits being impregnated by men, Bilbo, but I'm quite certain that isn't what ails your Frodo. There's no delicate way to put it... the only way for this to happen is if the seed of more than one man is spilled inside a hobbit in a very short time -- usually a matter of an hour or less. That's why the only cases I've ever seen have been among the unfortunate hobbits employed in the brothels of Bree."

Frodo's blood ran cold as he read, and he looked up guiltily. Bilbo was at the sink, rinsing dishes and ignoring him, no doubt still self-conscious. Frodo returned to reading.

"Of course, those poor lads never lived to see their mixed blood children. The size differences are too great. So I'm very glad to say Frodo's indisposition must be from another cause. Perhaps it is merely emotional distress. I know how unhappy he was to leave Combe, despite the advantages you've offered him. And Tol believes he and Strider quarreled, too--"

Doc was far too perceptive, and far too kind. Frodo's hand crept to his belly, his fears confirmed. He was pregnant with Strider's child. Well, a child that was partly his, at least. And he was doomed if even Doc, who knew so much about hobbits, didn't know how to safely bring his child into the world.

He sank back in his chair, relieved Bilbo was still busy with his task. Frodo needed time to think, and time was short. He had to be three, almost four months gone now. Only six left, then, if he would carry it like a hobbit lass. What he needed to do must be done quickly.

He had some money, gifts from Doc and Bilbo. It would have to be enough for travel, and for payment, too. He couldn't ask Bilbo for more assistance, nor return to Doc. They both wanted to believe the best of him. Strider knew the truth... but Frodo couldn't ask him, either. The ranger had made it clear he wanted nothing more to do with Frodo.

So no one wanted this misbegotten child -- and Frodo wanted to live. He had to find a way to get rid of the baby. And then, he had to find some place where he could start over, a new life with no guilt, no recriminations -- and no reminders of all he'd lost that morning when Strider had come to Frodo's bed as soon as Eomer left it.

***

Four months earlier

 

"Frodo?"

The hobbit pulled his eyes away from the dust cloud on the road behind them with difficulty, though there was nothing left to see. "I'm sorry, Tol. What did you ask?"

The tall young man, only a year older than the hobbit walking beside him, smiled and threw a last look behind them, too. "They are magnificent animals. I used to dream of traveling to the south to be a cowboy myself."

"A cow-boy?" Frodo repeated. "Is that what they are called?"

"I don't know what they call themselves, but that's how Breelanders have always named them. For many generations they've come here to trade, every year, before the Yule season. They used to trade horses for cattle and sheep, but now they sell their horses and buy supplies."

"But I've never seen such horses anywhere."

"No. I don't know who buys them. Most Bree-folk are content with a sturdy pony or mule, or oxen for heavier burdens. Those horses -- they're completely different, and don't seem intended for farm work."

"No, they look so graceful. I'm certain they're very swift at need," Frodo agreed. He was still remembering the tall men in their high saddles, backs straight under odd hats that kept the sun off their faces. They all were beautiful, men and beasts, except for the one in the cart, heavy and scowling down at everyone. He looked more like a troll than a man, not that Frodo had seen any trolls, himself. But Cousin Bilbo's stories came back to him, and with them an idea. "Perhaps the elves ride such horses."

"Ah, the mystery is solved by our clever hobbit," Tol joked, and Frodo blushed a little. Bilbo's stories about elves were lies; he knew that. After all, he was twenty-three now, no longer a gullible child. "Were you practicing your reading in Dad's Book of Tales again, Frodo?"

"No," Frodo mumbled. "But I'd like to find a book about the cowboys." There should be stories of the adventures of the southern men, riding their wonderful horses, gun belts in plain sight, just like the marshals.

That thought made Frodo gasp, painfully reminded of Strider -- his Estel, who'd been gone for so long now.

"Did you twist your ankle?" Dear Tol, reacting to his gasp, was looking very concerned.

"No, I just -- it's nothing," Frodo stammered. He was lucky to be working with Doc Thistle and Tol, who had to be two of the kindest big people in all Middle-earth. Oh, there was plenty of work to be done in their house, and Frodo was busy from sunrise until late in the evenings. But he never felt abused, for they both pitched in to help him, and Doc paid Frodo his wage regularly. There were none of the deductions Butterbur had always made, though Frodo still spilled things and had even broken a dish once. And Doc sent Tol to the Pony to pay Butterbur his share of the wage, and he always brought back a receipt showing how much Frodo still owed.

They'd been so kind, giving Frodo days off in the fine summer weather, so he could go swimming or walking. He'd even made some hobbit acquaintances in Combe, while doing the marketing, so he didn't feel so alone.

But, oh, he still missed Estel. There had been only one, too-brief visit, near mid-summer, since the marshal had found Frodo this place to live and work at repaying his thefts. Now winter would soon be upon them. The dirt of the road was cold to Frodo's feet, and there had been no sight of Estel, not even a note or letter.

Doc was wise and kindly, and he always invited Frodo to join him and Tol in the parlor after dinner, for reading and conversation. Tol had a knack for reading books aloud, and was great fun, too. He'd been the one to show Frodo the best swimming hole, hidden deep in the woods to the southwest of the village.

But neither Doc nor his son could fill the emptiness in Frodo's heart, the place that belonged to Strider. Their cozy fireside conversations just reminded Frodo of the nights he and Strider had spent in that cabin last winter, so cold and hungry -- yet sharing their life stories in a way that had brought comfort to the bare room, and made love blossom in Frodo's heart.

Tol was still staring at him thoughtfully as they walked, and Frodo cast about for a way to change the conversation. "We're lucky to have seen the cow men go past us on the road today. I don't suppose they do any trading in Combe."

"No, they don't." Tol was smiling broadly again. "But if you're truly as curious as you seem, and you wish to see more of them, you may. They'll be here for a week or more."

"Really?"

"Of course. They've spoken with me, and I'm not as fascinating as a hobbit would be to someone from the south."

"But... Where would I meet them? I can't pretend to be wealthy enough to buy a horse."

Tol laughed. "Frodo, you worked at the Pony for nearly a year. Don't you know that all visitors to Bree stop there? Those men have been on the road for many days. They'll stable their animals first, of course -- it's said they care more for their horses than many men care for their children. Then they'll check in at the hotel, and probably all take a long bath, too, after such a trip.

"But by nine o'clock this evening they'll all be at the Pony, looking for a card game or one of Butterbur's girls to entertain them."

"But..." Of course, that was true. He'd forgotten how the great roads met in Bree, and how many faces were only at the Pony for a night or two. But that wasn't what made Frodo stop dead, his mouth hanging open in shock. "You... you know about the Pony's girls?" Frodo managed, his image of Tol as kindly bookworm and untouched innocent changing so rapidly that the hobbit felt dizzy. "You..."

"Of course I do! Every boy in Bree has a free visit to the ladies on his seventeenth birthday, though I understand that would be far too young for a hobbit..."

So Frodo had been wrong to think Tol was thoughtfully sparing him embarrassment when he took Butterbur his share of Frodo's wages. Tol went to the Pony, enjoyed going there -- Perhaps Doc went there, too, for his supper on Frodo's days off. Or those nights when he went for a stroll after dinner, and didn't return until late... Perhaps Tol and Doc were both regulars, and not only for ale and food. They might have been in that crowd of men, laughing, when Aldar struck Frodo, threw him on the table, and pulled off his clothes...

Tol was talking, his voice cheery as ever, but Frodo couldn't understand his words. He dropped the basket of apples he was carrying and stumbled toward the side of the road, fell to his hands and knees, and vomited. Tol was beside him a moment later, immediately serious, talking about overexertion, supporting Frodo as he wiped at his face with his handkerchief.

No, if Tol or Doc had been there, they wouldn't have let that man touch Frodo. They wouldn't have laughed while he screamed. These were Estel's friends, and they were good people.

Frodo moaned as Tol helped him to his feet. "I'm afraid the cowboys of Rohan will have to wait another day to meet you, Frodo Baggins," Tol said. "You're going straight to bed with some peppermint tea."

Frodo thought about going to the Pony and his stomach lurched again. No, the cowboys would never meet him, not if it meant Frodo had to face the man he'd robbed. Still, he protested against Tol's overprotectiveness.

"I'm fine."

"You're still recovering your strength, even all these months later. Can you imagine what Estel will do if he comes for a visit and sees you are weaker instead of healthy and rosy? Combe will be short one upright citizen and one doctor if we let that happen. Just think how many girls will be heartbroken then!"

"He'd never--" Frodo began, and Tol laughed long and loud. Frodo turned bright red, knowing he'd again overreacted to Tol's teasing, just as he'd always done when his cousins joked back in the Shire. Yet his embarrassment didn't bother him as much as the realization that he'd never before thought about Estel finding him a job where he'd be with a doctor. Back in the cabin, the marshal had suggested that Frodo should find work in Staddle, where there were more hobbits. But he'd brought Frodo straight to Combe, instead, and left him with Doc -- who hadn't seemed pleased about having a new housekeeper, either.

Frodo put a hand to his head and swayed, dismayed at all the thoughts clamoring for his attention. He didn't want to think about any of this.

"Steady, there, Frodo. We're almost home."

Frodo nodded and resumed walking, one big hand on his shoulder. It was Tol's home, not his. A real home was something Frodo would never have. Just as he would never have the courage to walk to Bree to meet tall, golden-haired cowboys with piercing brown eyes, red leather gunbelts, and fast horses.

***

Lotho Sackville-Baggins, while an unpleasant relation, was a useful source of information. He gleefully bragged about the poor girls he'd gotten in a fix when you poured enough ale in him.

"I sent them off to Bree. There are doctors there who'll take care of a lass in a fix. I heard about old Morley from one of the hobbit whores at the Red Lantern in Bree proper. Bet you didn't know I'm a traveled hobbit, did you Brandybuck?"

"I'd no idea. Why, you're more adventurous than Cousin Bilbo," Frodo lied, clenching his teeth as he refilled Lotho's glass yet again. "Does this Morley live in Bree?"

"He lives by the abandoned silver mine outside Archet. Of course, only the servant-girls have gone to him. Peony Stillwater wouldn't travel so far alone, silly slut, so she got stuck having the brat. Disgraced her family, but they haven't thrown her out yet. I told her she could find a job at the Lantern if they do." Lotho guffawed as if his words had truly been funny, instead of horrible. Frodo didn't know Peony or any of the unfortunate girls, but he still thought Lotho should be gelded.

He could find Archet and this Morley. It had only cost him one gold coin to fill Lotho with drink. That left four. If he took food from Bilbo's pantry when he left, and ate what he could find in the woods and on the path... He'd need to take blankets, too, and all his warmest clothes since he would be camping out under the stars, and winter wasn't quite ended. It felt cruel to steal from Bilbo, who'd showered him with so much kindness. Still, Bilbo must be happier thinking Frodo was a foolish, adventure-seeking tween who carelessly "borrowed" things than to know the truth about him. Either way, Frodo would never see the old hobbit again.

Four nights later Frodo slipped out of Bag End in the darkest hours of the night, and took off through the woods toward Buckland.

***

"Frodo." Doc was shaking him gently, but when Frodo's eyes popped open, he saw it was still dark outside. The first morning sun always came in his high window, but now there was only the false dawn glow beyond the panes.

"What's wrong?" he asked, already reaching for his shirt. Frodo slept in the room where Doc examined his patients, but usually such a late-night call meant a very serious illness, requiring Doc's presence at the patient's house.

"Tol hasn't come home." Doc paced while Frodo finished changing clothes. "The Pony isn't open past two, and he's never done anything like this..."

Frodo had worked long enough at the Pony to know the girls there worked late into the night, but never kept a customer overnight. Until yesterday, the idea of Tol as one of their customers would have been unthinkable. No longer.

"I'm sorry to disturb your sleep; I know you've been ill," Doc continued.

"No, I'm fine now. I just walked too far, as Tol guessed." Frodo adjusted his suspenders and put on his heavy coat, for the autumn night had grown chill. "Are we heading to Bree?"

"Yes. There are two lanterns on the kitchen table, ready to be lit." Doc turned to his own room while Frodo headed the opposite direction, stirring up the embers in the hearth until he could light a long taper. By the time Doc entered, buttoning his own long coat, the lamps were glowing.

"Why don't I leave a lamp here, too, in case he returns while we're gone?" Frodo suggested, and Doc nodded, his face drawn and pale as he checked his medical bag. Frodo set a small night lamp in the window, and they left, closing the door without latching the lock.

They walked the path to Combe market in the frosty air, each holding up their lamp to illuminate one side, in case Tol had fallen, praying that he hadn't taken a shortcut so late at night. Slowly as they proceeded, they were soon on the main road, and an anxious hour later they reached the edge of Bree. There a drowsy guard grumpily answered Doc's questions before waving them through the open gate. He didn't remember anyone fitting Tol's description, and now Doc was walking faster, making straight for the Pony.

Frodo had never seen Bree so very quiet and empty. Despite a sickle moon lowering in the sky, none of the houses set among the trees beside the road could be seen clearly, for all their windows were dark at this hour. As he trotted along, trying to keep up with Doc, Frodo thought back to his first days in Bree. Less than two years ago, but it felt like as if that had been another hobbit, that naive tween who'd never expected to be treated so harshly by life.

Of course, he'd never expected to find such a wonderful man to love, either. Oh, he missed Estel! If only he could pay off his debt to Butterbur, and travel with Estel instead of being left behind. He wouldn't care about sleeping on the hard ground or short rations, if he could be with his love. Loneliness was worse than any physical hardship.

Frodo dragged his attention back to the present. What were his problems compared with Doc's fear right now? The old man was out of breath, yet refused to slow his pace. He'd make himself ill if they didn't find Tol soon. Tol was everything to his father.

They reached the Inn at last, to find the big doors locked and no response to their knocking for many long minutes. Doc began to shout, then, and finally a candle appeared in a window above them. It was one of the ladies, and she cursed and threatened to throw the contents of her chamber pot at them.

"My son was here tonight. He hasn't come home," Doc pleaded. "I'm trying to find him."

"He ain't here, old man. Take your rat-scum and go home quietly."

"Please!"

But the window slammed, and the night was again silent. But a younger, sweeter voice called softly in the darkness. "There was a fight tonight -- he may be in the jail." Then came the sound of that window closing, too.

"Come, now, Doc. He's fine. I've heard sometimes the Sheriff won't let men he arrests send messages to their families." But Frodo's cheerful lie was wasted, for Doc merely stumbled in the direction of the square, his face tight with strain.

The jail was also locked up, the useless Sheriff gone home to his comfortable bed. But they went to the cell windows and Doc held up his lantern, looking in and finally banging on the bars to rouse the men there sleeping off their drink. They were a rough-looking bunch, and Tol wasn't among them.

They'd turned away, unsure what to do next, when Frodo saw a light at the end of the street. The hotel still had lamps burning, and Frodo led Doc there as fast as he could, wanting the elderly man to sit and rest for a while before they walked home. Doc's frantic fear was making him breathe shallowly and shake.

They reached the building and pushed open the big door, relieved it was unlocked. There was a clerk at the desk, awake and alert. When he saw them, he actually smiled and looked relieved. "You're the doctor, aren't you?"

"Yes," Doc replied, a little bewildered. The clerk came around and took their lanterns, setting them on the counter before blowing them out.

"Thank you for coming so promptly. Is Harston stabling your horse?"

"No, we walked," Doc replied.

"Well." The clerk seemed surprised at that, but hustled them toward the stairs. "Room 208. The southerner is quite frantic, so get there quickly. We'll pay your bill and charge him, so see me when you're finished."

Doc turned, as if he were about to protest, but then he shrugged and tightened his grip on his bag. Frodo followed him up the wooden staircase, still worried about Tolbert but also a little nervous at the thought of seeing a southerner. Might the sick man be one of the cowboys?

The door to the room was open and Doc walked right in without knocking, Frodo trotting behind him. There was a figure laid on the bed, and two tall men leaning against the wall, while another perched beside the man on the bed.

"Eomer, he's here," one of the standing men said, and the seated man whirled toward them, standing up. They were indeed the same cowboys Frodo and Tol had seen on the road -- Frodo recognized the one man's face even before he noticed the distinctive red coloring on their gunbelts.

"Thank Eru you're here," Eomer said. "This man has been injured ..."

"Tol!" Doc rushed forward. Tol's eyes were closed, and even from where he stood just inside the doorway, Frodo could see a large bump on his temple. Doc immediately became calm and professional, pulling up Tol's eyes and examining him. "What happened to him?"

"There was a fight at the tavern tonight."

"He wasn't fighting," Doc snapped.

"No, he wasn't, he was playing cards with us when it started. But one of the men who was involved hit a woman -- one of the dancers. This young man jumped up to help her, just as a chair was thrown at another man. It broke on his head, as you can see."

"Has he been unconscious since the blow?"

"Yes. I took him away, I didn't want him arrested. But none of us knew where to find a doctor, and it took us too long to convince the hotel to send someone to fetch you..."

"Frodo, bring water and a cloth to bathe him. Not too warm or too cold."

"Yes, Doc," Frodo gasped, and the tall cowboy seemed to notice him for the first time. His eyes widened, then he smiled. Frodo blushed before ducking out the door to fetch water from the bathing room at the end of the long hallway.

He knew he should be worried about Tol, but Frodo felt certain he'd be fine now that Doc was caring for him. Somehow, the idea of going back to that room to face the cowboy, Eomer, had Frodo feeling happily excited. He was quite a kindly man -- to help a stranger, and nurse him in his own room... And he was beautiful, not as handsome as Estel, perhaps. But young and fair, and those shining dark eyes were so intense...

"Can I help you with the basin?" Frodo jumped, spilling half the basin all over himself. "Oh, I'm sorry. Here..."

It was Eomer, and he was crouched down beside Frodo, using one of the towels hung in the room to blot the worst of the water off his clothes. Frodo looked straight in his eyes, and the cowboy smiled again, and Frodo swayed, feeling his heart beat faster and the blood rush to his face.

The man caught him in warm, strong arms, and Frodo was flooded with the memory of Estel holding him, kissing him. He closed his eyes and groaned, but then squeaked with surprise when instead of a passionate kiss, cold water splashed his face. His eyes flew open, but the man looked merely concerned, not at all mocking. Frodo shook his head, wondering what in all tarnation was wrong with him, and just what he'd been thinking. He wasn't free to be kissing other men -- he loved Estel..

"There, is that any better? It's a shame you were pulled from your bed for this," Eomer said. "When we get back to the room you can lie down, and I'll assist the doctor."

"No, I'm fine," Frodo insisted, taking back the basin abruptly and refilling it. But the man just as calmly took it from him and carried it back to the room himself, leaving Frodo to gather towels for Doc.

When they returned, Tol was already waking up, thanks to the sharp smell of Doc's herbal infusion, a concoction Tol had helped develop. He looked very pale, but he didn't seem confused as he apologized for worrying his father. The cowboys in the room looked surprised to hear they were related, but they didn't question Doc. Frodo could hear their lowered voices but not make out the words. Finally one of the men came forward to speak.

"We'll sleep across the hall. If you need anything, just knock on our door."

"Thank you," Doc managed, his eyes still fixed on Tol's too-pale face.

"Good night." The man named Eomer was the last one to leave, and he paused in the door to look back at the bed and smile. Then he sought out Frodo's eyes, and when he realized the hobbit had been watching him, his soft smile became more of a grin. He nodded and left, closing the door silently behind him.

"Get some rest, Frodo."

"I'm fine, Doc."

"Nonsense. Tol's fine, I'm going to stretch out beside him. You'll be all right in the chair, won't you?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good. In the morning we'll rent a wagon to bring Tol home." Doc doused the light, and soon the familiar soft snores from both men lulled Frodo to sleep.

His dreams were full of deep brown eyes and strong arms.

***

The shabby cottage was beside a creek, not far from the boarded-up mine entrance, just as he'd been told.

As he approached it, Frodo tried to imagine there being an actual village here, but his imagination wasn't up to the task. How long ago had that happened? The cottage looked ancient, and he'd never heard about anyone mining silver so close to the Shire. Of course, Shire hobbits kept to themselves. Daisy, the old hobbit he'd met in Bree, had sworn it was a true story. The rumor started with the first find, and soon men who'd wanted to make a fortune had come rushing there from lands far to the south. But before the paint was dry on the stores and houses built for them, the vein was gone -- mined out in a matter of months. The village hadn't lasted much longer, with people moving to where they could find jobs.

Except for Morley, who never had to look for work. His work found him, Daisy had said with a sad look at Frodo that made him blush. She'd patted his head and Frodo had almost burst into tears, but he managed to get away without completely humiliating himself.

Just as he raised his hand to knock on the door it was yanked open.

"Who are you? One of those hobbit-whores, eh? Well, c'mon inside. Let's see what you're made of, lad. Hold her down."

Frodo's protest at being called a whore cut off when he realized there was a woman on the kitchen table, her skirts pushed up and her legs spread, ankles tied to the wooden table-legs. Her face was painted and she reeked of liquor, but her eyes were big and frightened. Frodo moved to hold her hand, but Morley -- it had to be Morley, Frodo knew that -- he shrieked "Hold her, don't play paddie-cakes with her!"

Frodo pulled a chair over behind her head, climbed up on it, and leaned heavily on her shoulders. Her dress was very low-cut, and he blushed and tried to look away. She moaned a bit while Morley did whatever it was he was doing below, by her spread legs. She cried out, just once, then bit her lip as tears rolled down her face. Frodo wanted to comfort her but didn't have any idea what to say.

"There, all done." Morley was pulling loose the ropes. "Let her go, get off! Up you go, old girl. And remember there's no discount if you're back here in a few months." He laughed, loud and cruel, as the woman brushed uselessly at her dress. Morley thrust her hat into her hands, which wanted to clutch at her belly, then steered her toward the door as Frodo stared at the streak of blood left behind on the table, feeling a bit sick. "Don't work again until your flow stops," Morley called after her. Frodo could see her through the window, hunched over as she stumbled away. She never looked back.

"So. Got yourself in a fix, don't you? Very bad, dealing with hobbits at all. Tricky. Male hobbits are worse, though. Six gold coins."

"Six? But... I have four," Frodo stammered.

"Do you? Well, that's lovely. For four gold coins I'll let you sleep on the floor tonight and have a piece of bread before you leave in the morning." The man turned away.

Six gold coins. "I'll pay you four now, and then after you've finished ... getting rid of this, I'll work somewhere in Bree until I can pay you the rest."

"What makes you think you'll be in any condition to work after I cut it out of you?"

Frodo lifted his chin. "You sent that woman back to work, didn't you?"

"She's not a hobbit. Stupid, ain't ya. I told ya, it's trickier with hobbits, and male hobbits -- you'll probably die."

"I was told I'll probably die if I keep the child, as well." Frodo looked around. "I've worked for men before -- I can work for you. I cook a little, and I can clean up this mess you call a house. Surely between that and my gold, you'll be better off than if I leave right now."

"Four months. You clean and cook for me for four months, and then I'll give you what you want. And I'll take the gold right now, just to be sure."

"Four..." He'd be eight months along by then, but surely Morley wouldn't really wait, once he realized how far along Frodo already was. "Four months, but I'll keep my gold until you're about to begin."

The big man grimaced -- it was meant to be a smile, Frodo was sure of that -- and nodded. "Well's outside and soap's beside the sink. Get to work."

***

"That's such a wonderful tale, Eomer. How beautiful to have the freedom to just ride off on your trusty horse to find adventures."

Eomer was drinking a glass of cider and resting before he journeyed back to town, Frodo very close beside him on the bench. Doc had sent Frodo to Bree to handle the weekly marketing while he and Tol worked at home. Frodo told himself it was coincidence that he'd met Eomer and they'd walked all the way back to Combe together.

"Carrying my six-shooter, don't forget that."

"I'd rather. Guns frighten me," Frodo admitted. "People in the Shire don't have much use for anything except rifles, and those are only used for hunting game. I've never quite gotten used to the way men here will pull out a gun when they argue."

He was afraid Eomer would laugh, but he nodded thoughtfully. "It's not ideal, but in some ways it's very good that we can all protect ourselves. If we didn't carry guns, then thieves and rowdies would terrorize the town."

"Well, they might except for the marshals," Frodo said, but that made him think about Strider and he didn't want to do that. "Tell me more about the Mark, and your uncle's ranch. Not one of your bard-tales, but just what it's like for you and your sister, living there."

"You'll keep me talking all day, Frodo, but I'd rather hear you for a change. I've hardly learned anything about your people, and you know Eowyn will tan my hide if I can't tell her anything about you. Holbytlan are only a legend to the men of the Mark, and not even our bards who visit Edoras Ranch tell tales of the north."

"I never knew anyone beyond Bree knew of hobbits at all. Except, perhaps, the elves. They have been in Middle-earth so long they've seen everything."

"Elves -- you've met elves here?" Eomer looked so excited Frodo was sorry to disappoint him.

"No, I've never seen an elf, only heard tales of them from a cousin of mine. I used to believe his stories when I was a child. Now I know he's half cracked, as his neighbors have always said."

"No, you don't know that," Eomer said with a gentle smile. "You only know that he's a bard, too. Even if his tales come mostly from his own imagination, they have value."

Frodo shook his head. "I'm not certain of that. His tales of dragon gold and adventures sent me to Bree. But life isn't like his tales, and all that I found here was trouble and disgrace."

"And me," Eomer said solemnly. "And your marshal friend, Strider."

Frodo's mouth fell open with surprise. He hadn't mentioned Estel -- he hadn't even thought about him very often in the last few days. Frodo felt as if Eomer had splashed cold water on him, waking him from a long dream.

"Frodo? Are you unwell?"

"No," he said hastily. "Did Tol tell you about Strider?"

"Yes," Eomer replied. "He hinted -- well, never mind that." The man's face grew rosy as Frodo stared at him. "He thought I should know you're not free."

Frodo looked down, then, ashamed of himself for the joy that flooded his heart. He hadn't been imagining things -- Eomer was fond of him, for Tol had seen it, too. But Frodo shouldn't want this beautiful young man to be in love with him. He should have been the one to talk about Estel, and to make it clear he could only be a friend to Eomer.

Except that it wasn't true.

He was Eomer's friend, for Eomer was a good and noble man, full of virtues anyone would admire. His kindness was like Estel's, or Doc's -- and unlike so many of the men who lived in Bree or drifted through the Pony.

But Frodo didn't dream of Eomer's kindness at night -- his thoughts were far baser, occupied with the way Eomer's eyes flashed under those dark brows, and the strength in his arms, so like Estel's masculine beauty. But most often he remembered the way Eomer's face lit up and he smiled so happily when Frodo spoke to him.

Those dreams -- nightly now -- weren't about admiration or friendship, they were about pure lust. Lust Frodo shouldn't be feeling, and wouldn't be feeling if Estel were here with him.

"Frodo, have I upset you?" Eomer gently asked, and Frodo looked up, startled. He'd forgotten in his guilty thoughts that Eomer was present. And he forgot that Eomer, too, might worry that what he was feeling was unwanted or wrong.

"No, not at all," Frodo stammered, but he saw the doubt clearly reflecting in those endless brown eyes. "I... You are not to blame for my feelings, which are... confused. Strider ... he seems to care more for his duties than for me. But there is nothing wrong with us being friends, Eomer. I admire you and if things were different and I were free, I..."

"Enough. If you speak more, I won't be able to control myself," Eomer said. "I'll see you again, Frodo. Please thank Doc on my behalf for the cider." Those long legs rapidly carried him away, while Frodo watched, wishing for a moment that he'd said the right words to make Eomer lose control.

That night, Frodo confronted Tol after Doc retired to his room.

"You told Eomer about Strider. He said you wanted him to know --"

"I did. Strider is my friend, too. I thought Eomer might care for you in a way he shouldn't."

"That's my business, Tol, not yours. I would have told Eomer about him, if I thought it was necessary."

"The question, Frodo, is why you didn't think it necessary. You've been spending every free moment this week with Eomer."

"He's my friend. I want to learn all I can while he's here -- Eomer will be leaving in just a few days. And I have to make other friends, and find new interests to fill my time. Otherwise I'll be alone all the time. Strider has been gone a very long time with no word."

"You knew what it meant, to love a Ranger. He has duties that must come first." Tol shifted in his seat. "He's much like my father -- perhaps I understand better than you can because of that. Even when my mother was ill, Dad couldn't always put her needs first. He had to leave her, and me, to tend to his patients."

"But you were just a boy! He left you here to nurse your mother?"

"Yes. Because he had to, Frodo. Even when his heart protested, he knew what was right."

Frodo turned away, disgruntled at being treated like a spoiled child. He was older than Tol, for heaven's sake. And he'd never been indulged, not since his earliest childhood. He knew about the importance of unpleasant tasks, and about forcing yourself to stick with a job.

But love should be the most important thing in life, shouldn't it? Didn't Doc believe that now, with his Jilly dead and the guilt of it keeping him awake nights? How could Tol believe Doc would ever put duty ahead of his family again? He wouldn't, Frodo had seen that the night Tol was missing.

Strider's duties were important, of course. But he could be with Frodo more often, if he wished it. No one ordered his travels -- he could come to Combe at least once a fortnight, if he loved Frodo. Certainly Frodo would never allow them to spend so many weeks apart, if he had any choice. But Estel didn't seem to miss Frodo at all. And because of that, it wasn't difficult to imagine Estel at Rivendell, seeing Her, all these months when he wasn't in Combe.

Frodo was the one who'd told Estel to keep his Elf-lady in his life, but that didn't stop jealousy from eating at Frodo's heart every dark, lonely night.

***

"Why aren't you scrubbing the kitchen floor?" Morley's paw closed on Frodo's arm and he yanked him to his feet, ignoring Frodo's cry of pain. "I'm not paying you to sit around, hobbit!"

"I know, sir. I'm sorry." He slapped Frodo's face, not hard enough to knock him down, but it smarted and tears came into his eyes. "I've brought in the buckets of water I need, sir, and I was just resting my back a moment."

"Resting? You're getting too useless, hobbit. I want the floor clean, right now." He slammed through the room, pulling down a glass and a bottle of amber liquid Frodo suspected was homemade whiskey. "You take such good care of yourself, anyone would think you were hoping to deliver your bastard instead of getting rid of it. Now get to work!" He left the room, snorting with amusement at his own words, and Frodo didn't even both answering.

He chopped vegetables first, putting them in a clean pot with water to cover and plenty of onions. Then he found the scrub-brush and painfully lowered himself to his knees with the soap and a full bucket, and bent forward enough to scrub at the rough wood.

His stomach was so swollen now it hurt to hold the position. Kneeling wasn't much better, but he managed to get half the room done before he took another break, clutching a chair to rise, and stirring the food. The vegetables were already cooking nicely -- it had taken longer than he realized to wash the floor. He added more water, and the rabbit meat hanging beside the door. But as he was covering the pot, Morley came back into the room, and he kicked over the bucket of half-dirty water as he walked through.

"What's this? Stinking rat! Why I ever agreed to have one of your kind underfoot, hobbit--" His rambling speech cut off when he smelled the food, though his fist remained upraised. "Dinner, eh. Not ready yet, is it. Stupid hobbit." The blow fell, knocking Frodo down, but he thought it was softer than if Morley had struck in his first anger. He'd seen the man drunk far too often in the months he'd lived in the tiny cottage.

"I'm gonna get you out of here. Where's your gold?"

"I... I said you can't have that until you take care of me."

"Give it to me right now, if you don't want to be skinned alive. I'm gonna take care of you and get you out of this house once and for all."

Frodo went to the corner where he kept his things, and found the blanket with his coins sewn in the hem. He ripped it open with shaking fingers, and went back to the glowering man sitting at the table, his feet in a puddle. "Here is your fee. Tomorrow morning, when you've slept off your bottle, you can take care of me and I'll be gone before dark."

"Tomorrow? Always think you're the boss, don't you, rat? I'll take care of you right now, and good riddance."

Frodo backed away, shaking his head. "Not now. You're drunk."

"You think I can't do this with some whiskey in me? Shut up and come here." But when Frodo still backed away, Morley rose with a roar and was on Frodo in a few steps. He slapped him repeatedly, then threw him up on top of his table and began to rip off Frodo's trousers.

Frodo fought him, but Morley's blows were making him dizzy and soon one foot was tied to the ropes. He kicked with the free leg until Morley grasped his throat and began to strangle him. He couldn't breathe, and then the hand tightened and lifted his head, and slammed it back against the wood.

When Frodo awoke it was to pain. He was tied, even his arms were stretched out and bound, and Morley was probing inside him with something cold and sharp. He cried out, and the man barked "Shut your trap. It's what you wanted, isn't it?" But it hurt so much that Frodo couldn't keep still. With a curse Morley moved out from what he was doing and grabbed another dusty bottle from a high shelf.

His fingers pried open Frodo's mouth and he poured the liquor down his throat. Frodo choked but swallowed most of it, and Morley kept dosing him until his already-fuzzy head was spinning.

"That should keep you, stupid hobbit whore." Morley took a long drink himself, and that was the last thing Frodo remembered.

***

"There's someone in the parlor waiting for you, Frodo," Doc called as Frodo entered the kitchen, his arms full of bundles from the market.

"Thank you!" Frodo dropped his packages on the table and ran to the cozy room at the front of the house. "Strid--"

But there was no tall man in the wing chair by the fire. Instead, a grey-haired hobbit stood warming his hands at the blaze. When he heard Frodo's voice, he turned.

"Cousin Bilbo?" Frodo managed.

"Hello, Frodo my boy. It's been too many years since I've seen you. You've grown tall." Bilbo stepped forward with his arms outstretched. It took Frodo a moment to realize the old hobbit expected to be embraced, something people in Bree just didn't do very often. He awkwardly hugged his cousin.

"You've changed, lad, living here in Bree. I suppose you think you're very grown up now." Bilbo fixed him with a steady look, his brows knit.

"Umm." Frodo didn't want to be rude, and tried to turn the subject. "You haven't changed at all, Bilbo. I'm just so surprised. I certainly never expected to see you here."

"Well, I could say I never expected to hear you'd run away from your family in Buckland. But it happened, didn't it?"

Bilbo fixed him with another look, but Frodo didn't know what to say. Should he remind his cousin of the promise he'd made, to bring Frodo to stay at Bag End? The promise he'd broken by leaving Frodo in Buckland with his overburdened aunt? "Are you traveling to the east, Bilbo, to see the dwarves again?"

"No, indeed. I'm here for you, Frodo."

"What do you mean?"

"I've come to bring you home."

"But you don't want me," Frodo began.

"I wasn't ready to have a child underfoot! I'm an old bachelor, Frodo, and set in my ways. But now you're old enough to be of some use at Bag End, and it's high time for you to study something besides mushroom-stealing and moonshine, lad." Bilbo pulled out his pipe and began to fuss with it, avoiding Frodo's eyes. "Your friend Strider told me you've run up debts here -- amazing amounts, too, in one so young. I can't believe Esme and Sara didn't teach you to live within your means."

"Strider? You've met him?"

"Yes, I have, and he agreed with me that you'll be better off in the Shire, with some supervision to keep you from mischief. The Hobbiton merchants will have a word dropped in their ears, so you'll have to pay as you go, Frodo. You'll have an allowance, of course, but you won't be able to gamble or treat the whole crowd to ales."

"Bilbo, I-" Frodo couldn't find one protest to articulate among all the facts Bilbo had so badly misunderstood.

"I hope you've truly learned some lessons, Frodo. It gives me hope to see you associating with fine people like Doc and Strider, good men as big folk go. I'm glad they're your friends."

"Strider isn't--" Frodo began, then stopped, unable to decide what to tell Bilbo. Strider certainly hadn't told him everything, and neither had Doc. "Strider is more than a friend. He saved my life. And he introduced me to Doc; I have this job thanks to Strider's influence as well as Doc's great kindness." Frodo fidgeted a moment before adding, "Before I worked for someone who cheated me of my wages. That's how I ... became so indebted."

He blushed, and vowed to tell Bilbo the whole truth soon. What he'd just said felt like a lie, and no matter how many misleading, fanciful stories Bilbo had told him, Frodo knew Eomer was correct -- Bilbo hadn't meant any harm.

But there was no need to tell Bilbo that his cousin was a thief just at the moment. First they'd have to clear up this whole misunderstanding about returning to Hobbiton.

"That's very interesting, Frodo-lad. You'll have to tell me more as we journey home."

"Bilbo, cousin, I can't leave Combe. I don't want to go back to the Shire."

"What nonsense is this?" Bilbo exclaimed, then coughed a good long time, finally setting down his pipe.

"There's nothing for me in Hobbiton. Here I have friends, a job--"

"Frodo, Doc told me he doesn't need your services any longer. He thinks you'd be happier at Bag End, and Strider said the same. Bree is no place for a tween--"

"Strider... he said I should go with you, to Hobbiton?" Frodo couldn't believe it. Estel wouldn't say such a thing--

"Strider is the one who came to tell me what you were up to, Frodo, and he asked me if there wasn't a place for you in the Shire. He told me you were smart, that you'd picked up some elvish from him and were working very hard in your spare time to improve your reading and writing. I was glad to hear that you aren't as foolish as you seemed, what with running away from your relatives the way you did. Honestly, Frodo, it was funny when you were sixteen, but for a twenty-year-old hobbit to take off like that..."

"My only foolishness, cousin Bilbo, was in believing your tales and thinking that adventures and treasure could be found in every corner of Middle-earth!" Frodo was appalled as soon as he finished speaking. How could he be so rude to his elder? But he was angry, and hurt. Why did Bilbo treat him like such a child? And why had Strider gone off looking for his relative, when he'd told the man he wanted nothing to do with the Shire? Did Estel want his old life back, the life he'd had with Arwen before there was a foolish hobbit to look after?

"You need to calm yourself, Frodo." Bilbo looked affronted and quite regal as he left the room, and Frodo wanted to scream. Tol stuck his head in a few minutes later and found him brooding by the window.

"Frodo, you're in the soup now! I don't know what you said to the old gentleman, but Dad wants to see you, and Strider's come, too."

He followed Tol back to the kitchen, where Doc immediately rose and ushered his son out, leaving Frodo facing Estel. All joy in seeing his love again was gone, lost in a wash of anger and jealousy.

"Did you really ask Bilbo to take me back to the Shire?" Frodo burst out even before Tol was fully out the door.

"Yes, Frodo, I did. Your cousin offered to pay your debt to Butterbur, in exchange for you living with him at Bag End and helping him out, much as you do here. I thought it would be better for you to be with him, and among your own kind. Doc has told me you're lonely here in Combe."

"I'm lonely for you, Estel, not for a bunch of hobbits I don't know and don't give a fig about!"

"Frodo, you know my work as marshal is important. The law must be upheld, and these lands are vast." Estel looked at him more closely, and opened his arms. Frodo moved closer to him, accepting the embrace, but his heart still burned. He'd never imagined feeling so unhappy with Estel. "I've missed you, too, Frodo. But since we cannot be together, I'd like you to be safe in the Shire."

"Why can't we be together? Estel, I'll go anywhere with you -- I don't care if we never have a settled home, but I want to be near you."

"I know I promised you we would make a home together someday, Frodo, but that day has not yet come. The world grows darker, and I see no end to the dangers around us. But I think you'll find peace and that warmth you've longed for at Bag End, with Bilbo. He's good-hearted."

"I know. He... Doc always reminded me of Bilbo, and even though I said horrible things to him, I ... I've always liked him best of all my cousins and uncles. But he didn't want me, Strider, and still doesn't. You had to chase him down, didn't you? If he remembered his prom--" Frodo cut himself off abruptly. He'd never told Estel about that.

"He promised you-- what, Frodo? That you could live with him some day? I'm sure he meant it, even if he didn't come to Bree looking for you."

"He didn't even come to Buckland for me, Estel. He forgot all about me," Frodo replied in a sad voice. "It hurt when he forgot me, and then Bree was so different from his tales --"

"With men so ready to cheat you... I know, my love." Estel kissed him, and Frodo was ready to do anything to stay in the big, warm arms surrounding him. When they finally pulled apart, Frodo was aroused and wanted nothing more than to take Estel to some nearby barn and rip off their clothes. But Estel shook his head. "We've kept everyone out of the kitchen and from their dinner long enough, Frodo." He moved Frodo away and rose. There was some comfort in seeing the bulge in Estel's leggings and knowing the desire was mutual.

Frodo went to call in Doc and the others, and soon they were sharing the roast chicken Frodo had started before he went to the market. There was bread he'd baked that morning, and carrots and potatoes cut up and roasted in the chicken fat. But the longer the others laughed and chatted, the more depressed Frodo became. He didn't want to go to the Shire. Why didn't Estel understand that he'd rather share danger with him than be safe but alone?

They didn't get a moment to speak until the others had retired, Bilbo still giving Frodo advice about how to pack in the morning for their trip to Bag End. Frodo nodded and smiled, feeling like his face would break from the effort, and he saw Doc give him a sharp look before he, too, said goodnight.

He turned to face Estel before banking the kitchen fire for the night.

"I've thought about what you said, but I still don't want to go with Bilbo. Let me come with you, Estel. If you love me, you'll keep me at your side."

"Frodo, I cannot. I love you too much -- you'd distract me from my duties. It's not as if you can take care of yourself among ruffians."

"I managed to do it at the Pony for months," Frodo shot back.

"You told me men there touched you against your will. Was that a lie?"

"No, but we wouldn't be living in a saloon, Estel. I can hunt food for us, and cook -- I'd be good at camping out, that's what I did when I left the Shire..."

"Frodo, I won't discuss this with you any longer. You're going with Bilbo."

"And when will I see you again?"

"When my duties give me time to come as far as Hobbiton. It's no different than the way it is now."

"Except that Hobbiton is even further away, and you've never made time to come here, Estel! Are you too busy in Rivendell, with her?"

He saw pain in Estel's eyes but Frodo wouldn't take back his words. The jealousy that had tormented him demanded an answer. He didn't get one -- without another word, Estel turned on his heel and left.

Frodo thought about breaking something, slamming a door -- but instead he carefully banked the fire, finished his before-bed chores, and went to his room. There he sat, fuming, vainly hoping Estel would come back to him.

When hours had passed with no sign of him, Frodo put on his best clothes and warmest cloak before carefully leaving his room, silently stealing through the darkened cottage. Once outside, he headed east on the road to Bree.

The common room at the Pony was nearly empty when Frodo reached it, closing time only minutes away. But Eomer was still there, alone, and when he saw Frodo in the doorway he quickly put down his tankard and came to him.

"What's wrong? You look white-- Frodo?"

"Eomer, can we talk somewhere private?"

"Certainly. Outside, though I'm afraid it's cold tonight."

"No. What about your room at the hotel?" Eomer looked at him for a moment, then nodded and led Frodo through the dark, nearly deserted streets to the brightly lit entrance. They went up the wide staircase together, Eomer carefully pacing his steps for Frodo's ease, and in to the room which Eomer normally shared. It was mercifully empty, and Eomer hung his neckerchief on the door knob and carefully locked the door before turning back to Frodo. He moved to the chair where Frodo had slept the first night they met, and sat.

"Ceordwyn and Guthlaf will bunk with the others tonight, if they come back here at all. It's our last night in town, after all." He held out a hand to Frodo, his face serious. "I thought we'd said our farewells this afternoon, Frodo."

Frodo moved close to him with no hesitation. The dark eyes looking at him were so very kind, Frodo wanted to cry and tell him everything. But instead he said, "I.. I hope your uncle sends you back to Bree next season, Eomer. I don't want our friendship to end. I wish I could write to you..."

"I won't forget you, Frodo."

He moved still closer to the man, trembling from fear and excitement. "Eomer, I... my cousin has come to take me back to the Shire with him. I don't want to go..." Eomer's arms came up and Frodo went into them, throwing his own around Eomer's neck. It felt so good to lean into solid strength. He didn't need... The anger burned in his breast, but he tamped it down and looked up at Eomer. "What you told me, days ago -- that Tol thought you cared for me -- do you, Eomer? Do you want me?"

"Frodo, I..." He squirmed uneasily and Frodo looked down, seeing the outline of his arousal through the heavy leggings the southerners wore. "I do care for you, Frodo. You're beautiful, and I have wanted you almost from the first moment I saw you in this room."

"Eomer." He reached up and locked his mouth to Eomer's, and the kiss was wonderful. Eomer tasted of ale and his mouth was honey-sweet as Frodo bit at his lips and tangled his tongue with Eomer's. "You have only confessed to what I've been wishing for since I first saw you riding toward Bree."

Eomer's face lit up with such joy that it was easy to kiss him again, and that kiss soon became a passionate clutching, each of them ravaging the other's mouth, while their hands roamed freely, pulling at clothes to find the bare flesh beneath.

Eomer moaned and pulled away when Frodo's hand slipped inside his trousers to touch his arousal. "Frodo, are you certain?"

"Yes, yes, yes," he insisted, kisses falling on Eomer's neck and chest between each word.

Then things happened too quickly, and Frodo didn't know how he'd been undressed and laid upon the hotel bed to be worshiped. He only knew big, rough hands were claiming every inch of his skin, and a hot, wet mouth was marking him, making his flesh burn with lust. He cried aloud with each new touch. Even with his eyes closed, he knew it was Eomer. Nothing about him was anything like Estel, except the delight and arousal Frodo felt being touched and kissed by him.

His entire body was engorged, so that any place Eomer's lips pressed blossomed with heat like the warmest sunny day, then tingled with coolness when, like a cloud covering the sun, Eomer's lips moved on to worship elsewhere. The flood of sensation seemed to go on for days, Frodo writhing and glowing with sweat, his arousal begging for attention.

Everything ceased, and Frodo's eyes opened to the vision of Eomer suspended above him, those strong arms shaking with the strain of holding still. The man was naked, too, rock-hard and his eyes pleaded. Frodo responded by opening his legs and saying "Please."

Eomer whispered "Yes" before taking Frodo's member in his mouth and sucking him until he screamed, but keeping pressure on the base of his cock, preventing release. Still, the pleasure was amazing and so relaxing that when one of those big, calloused fingers breached Frodo's body, he only sighed happily, enjoying the sensation.

Frodo's own mouth obligingly wet two fingers on Eomer's other hand, and he moaned approval when they both found their way inside, filling him roughly, and pressing on that spot that made him see stars.

"More," Frodo panted. "I want you inside me."

"Patience, my beautiful little colt," Eomer rasped. "You shall have me so deep inside you'll never forget it."

"Yes," Frodo cried, thrilled when Eomer reared up and he saw the thick, long cock, even larger than Estel's and already wet with arousal. But Eomer kept tormenting him, holding Frodo at the edge of ecstasy and laughing when he pleaded. Frodo twisted and bucked, but was unable to force the stronger man to heed his commands.

"I'm the master of this team, Frodo," Eomer panted. "I decide when we ride, and when it ends. You're just my mount tonight."

"Please!" Frodo cried, but he loved being so helpless, owned and overpowered.

When Eomer finally pushed inside him, splitting Frodo in two with every inch, the hobbit cried out and spilled his seed without even a touch. Eomer only laughed and slid deeper into his limp body, then whispered, "I'm going to fuck you until you come again, my colt."

"I can't," Frodo protested, but Eomer insisted, "You will." And his pistoning hips slowed to a leisurely pace, every movement making Frodo jerk and twitch, until his cock was actually filling again and he thought the pleasure would kill him.

It seemed to go on for hours, and the sky was light with false dawn when Eomer finally spilled within him with a bellow of joy. Frodo had already spent his seed a second time, and he was limp as Eomer held him. But he wasn't allowed to doze -- Eomer laid him to the side and covered him, but rose out of their bed.

"Don't go--"

"I must, Frodo. We ride for home this morning, though I'd much rather stay here and ride you again." Eomer's kiss was sweet and gentle, and Frodo slept while the man finished packing his satchel. Then the bed dipped, and Frodo woke enough to cling to Eomer while they kissed farewell.

"If there were a place at Edoras Ranch for you, Frodo, I wouldn't be leaving you here -- I'd put you on my saddle and carry you away."

"I wish you could, Eomer. Perhaps... some day."

"Perhaps. Remember me, Frodo, for I shall never forget your sweetness."

Frodo heard the door close but he was already half-asleep, and if not for the soreness of his body and the feel of the linen against his bare skin, he'd have believed it was all a dream and he was in his bed at Doc's.

With a crash, the door to the room was flung open. Frodo's eyes flew open and he sat up, and what he saw in the doorway was worse than he'd imagined possible.

"Strider." Frodo scrambled to cover himself, but the man yanked the blanket off the bed. "I--"

"Don't pretend to be modest," he hissed. "I know what you were doing with that boy."

"No--"

"I heard you -- all of Bree could have heard you calling his name as he fucked you." Strider was over him, trapping him on the soiled mattress. "I wanted to believe -- you were named a whore at the Pony, but I wanted to believe it was a lie."

"It was, you know that Butterbur lied about me!" Frodo thrashed, but he couldn't escape the strong arms holding him down.

"You reek of him--" One hand clamped Frodo's wrists together above his head, and the other grasped his chin, forcing him to meet Strider's eyes. "How many times have you done this with him, or others? How many times have you come to me already used by some other man?"

"Never! Strider, you must believe me, this was the first time ... I was angry, you don't want me here and--"

He stopped, watching as Strider tore open his leggings just enough to free his engorged cock. "The first time? I don't believe you," he said, and pushed inside him roughly, with no preparation or tenderness. Frodo cried out in shocked surprise.

"Don't play virgin with me -- you must be used to having a new customer while you're still loose from the last," Strider hissed. "This can't be the first time it's happened to such a tempting little whore."

"Strider," he protested, but his cock was filling and Strider laughed bitterly when he saw it. Frodo didn't know why, but he loved the roughness of being held, bruisingly pressed down, with Strider riding him. Even in anger, Strider wasn't cruel. Frodo heard his own gasps and cries, heard Strider's grunts and the rhythmic slap of flesh meeting flesh. But it was all muffled by an overwhelming rush of pleasure, stronger than any he'd ever felt. His body sang at the rough use, thrilled at seeing Strider so uncontrolled. It was even better than when Eomer had dominated him. The memory of that, of Eomer bent over him, made him close his eyes for a moment, overwhelmed with lust. He wanted both men, wanted both of them wanting him, and both of them using him like this.

"So this is what you've always wanted -- not a lover's care, but to be used like this." Strider slammed his hips forward brutally, and Frodo cried his name. "Yes, take it, you're mine!"

Strider froze, his body shaking as he spent himself deep inside Frodo, and Frodo bucked up and found his own release, wailing for more.

Strider released him, and when Frodo tried to cling to him the marshall jumped back as if scalded. He stood, looking at Frodo as he re-laced his clothes. Then his face twisted as he pulled open his purse. He threw a handful of coins on the bed beside Frodo and without a word turned, pulling his cloak around him, and left the room. Frodo was alone, naked and soiled.

***

Frodo woke up annoyed at whoever was crying so loudly. They couldn't be in as much pain as he felt. The sobs turned to moans and Frodo tried to open his eyes, but there was blinding light slanting between tall dark shapes. Trees, his mind supplied, but he wouldn't be sleeping in the trees, and if the sun were this high he'd be preparing breakfast with Doc. Or Bilbo? No, he'd left them, and now Morley would beat him for oversleeping...

His eyes closed but he couldn't sleep, not with such noisy, harsh breathing in his ears and horrid cold chilling him. Then he heard footsteps, loud ones. Not hobbits, then, -- men. He tried to get out of the way, but Frodo could hardly move and the dead leaves rustled under his hands and knees.

"Papa! Someone's hurt." The voice was loud, like all the Big Folk, but kindly. Frodo tried to speak and open his eyes, but everything went dark as soon as they lifted him.

When he woke again it was warm, too warm, and he tried to throw off the heavy blankets.

"Rest easy, little one." A woman's voice, and a cool cloth touched his head. "We're fetching help for you, but the hobbit healers live far away."

"No," he tried to explain to her that Doc couldn't help him. No one could. He was dying, the baby... no, Morley had killed that... The darkness overwhelmed him again.

Frodo remembered bits and pieces of the next few days, but no more. They gave him cool water and lukewarm broth. Voices were in his room whenever he woke -- the woman, a man, and Doc, talking soothingly to him, promising to take him home soon. They tried to soothe him but he was burning, and every bit of him hurt. His restless hands found the round smoothness of his belly and he sobbed, for it was still hard and full. He would die, the baby would die... they would all die because the world was burning up.

He tried to open his eyes. There was something... he was hungry and there was food; he could smell chicken. Why was it so difficult to open his eyes?

"There you are. Welcome back, my boy." Doc Thistle was gazing on Frodo with a friendly smile, and for a moment he was so confused he thought he was in Doc's home, back in those days before... He felt tears on his face but couldn't speak.

"Take a sip, slowly now." Doc was holding a cup of cool water to his lips, very gently lifting him to drink easily. He sipped slowly, so comforted by the supporting arms that he kept crying. But he didn't deserve Doc's care, or Bilbo's ... or Estel's love. He looked down at himself, pale skin marred by purple marks where the nightshirt didn't cover him. He was thin, even thinner than he'd been when Morley was controlling his food -- except for his obscenely round belly, larger even than fat old Uncle Dudo's.

Surely no one could love him, not like this. But ... Doc was here, being so kind. Frodo resolved to forget about Estel and the kind of love that caused such anger, jealousy and pain. He himself was just as guilty as Estel, wasn't he? Frodo had let love cloud his judgement and cause this whole mess. Frodo would never have a lover again. No, instead he would try to be the kind of hobbit who lived unselfishly and gave to those around him. Bilbo was like that, he'd seen it during his months at Bag End. And Doc and Tol were that way, too. Doc had lost his wife and yet he was good to everyone.

"There, now that water's staying down, how about a sip of broth?" Frodo eagerly accepted the soup, his stomach growling loudly. Doc smiled and patiently fed him until the cup was empty.

Then, as he settled back against the pillows, a sense of movement made Frodo put his hands on his stomach. He could feel the baby inside. It seemed like the child was happy about the food they'd just eaten together, and was kicking about asking for more.

Frodo hadn't let himself imagine the baby before, he'd concentrated on getting rid of the unwanted Thing inside him. But now ... this baby wanted to live and be born. It had survived despite his neglect, despite Morley's beatings and the attempt to remove it. Somehow Frodo could see the child, his small chin defiantly set like Estel's when he was being stubborn; his eyes a warm brown like Eomer's... and his feet proper hobbit feet, like Frodo's.

"I'm going to call him Tarias." Frodo spoke in a whisper, and saw Doc's confusion. He probably thinks I'm still delirious, Frodo thought, and smiled. "The baby, his name is Tarias, Doc. Just for now, when he's born -- I suppose he might be a she! We'll pick a better name then."

"Frodo..." Doc looked very concerned still. "Your poor little body has been through so much. I don't know that the child .. I'm not sure Tarias will survive, Frodo."

"He will. He's determined to be born, I can tell." Frodo rubbed his belly soothingly, sending love to his child. I'll fight with you, now, not against you. I promise. "We'll both live, Doc. And I'll raise my child .. I won't abandon him the way I was left."

"I hope ... I'll do whatever I can for you, Frodo, I hope you know that."

"I do, Doc. I'm sorry... I've changed my mind, you see. I was all wrong. It doesn't matter that E-- no one else wants the baby. I do, and that will be enough."

Doc's face grew more sorrowful by the moment. "I've never been successful, delivering a male hobbit. Frodo, if we told Strider, perhaps he could take you to the elves... They must have healers..."

Frodo shook his head. "I trust you, Doc. You and Tol will pull me through, I know it."

"We'll get you back to Combe, Frodo. And I'll send for Bilbo, he'll want to be with you. I know he's been frantically worried about you."

"I... I thought it was best that Bilbo not know what I've done, Doc."

"Frodo, Bilbo is more understanding than you realize. Surely you know that? Look how he forgave you about the debt to Butterbur, even without knowing the whole story." Frodo looked down, ashamed of himself in so many ways. "Let me write to him. Bilbo is your family, Frodo. It's important to have your family supporting you when you face such a struggle."

Frodo nodded and Doc gently patted his arm. "Good lad. Now rest. I have work to do, to get ready for traveling."

It was easy to sleep and let Doc make the decisions for him. Frodo wanted to keep all his strength for the next few months. For Tarias.

***

"Frodo, lad. Aren't you packing?"

Frodo ignored Bilbo and remained on his bed, the empty knapsack beside him. Estel hadn't come. He'd waited all night, at the hotel and then here, but the marshal wasn't coming to find him and apologize. To tell Frodo he was sorry and that he still loved him.

Bilbo bustled in and began emptying hooks and drawers, folding things neatly but hastily. "Doc and Tol have started breakfast, and they're even packing us a lunch for the road."

Frodo knew he should reply, should help Bilbo. But he couldn't seem to make himself move, not since he'd re-dressed himself and made the long walk back from Bree.

"It will be for the best, my boy, you'll see." Bilbo's voice had changed for a moment, soft and full of emotion. But he cleared his throat and continued brightly, "Doc has cleared things up for me, I think I understand why you felt reluctant to leave Combe, Frodo. And I... well, I won't interfere, if.. when... Strider comes for you."

That made Frodo choke and look down at his hands. No, Estel wouldn't come for him.

"I can't claim to understand such things. Hobbits should be with other hobbits, that's how I was raised. And two males... well, I can see how two lads might be curious about things, but not grown men.. though you're still in your tweens, Frodo, still a youngster. You might decide to have a family with a nice hobbit lass someday, you know..."

Tol's entrance was a relief to them both, Frodo thought, until Tol's words made all thoughts fly away.

"He's here, Bilbo."

"Strider is here?" Frodo stood, swaying, dizzy with relief. "Where?"

"No, Frodo, I'm sorry. I haven't seen Strider since dinner last night," Tol replied. "I came to let Bilbo know the boy from the inn is here."

"Ah, our ponies are here, then." Bilbo tied up Frodo's knapsack and slung it over his shoulder.

"Ponies?" Frodo thought he was going to faint, thought the whole world had gone crazy.

"I bought them to carry us home. It's a long walk to Hobbiton, and as long as I was paying your debt to Butterbur, I asked him to give me a price for two sturdy ponies." Bilbo left the room with Tol, and Frodo could hear their voices from the kitchen.

Frodo thought about the pony he'd "borrowed," that night he'd fled Butterbur's clutches with part of the wages he was owed. That had started all this, hadn't it? And now it was all over, and he'd be riding away on one of Butterbur's ponies again. But Strider wouldn't chase him this time...

Frodo laughed, a short, harsh noise. Then he rose and finished gathering his few possessions.

Back to the Shire, then. A hobbit among his own kind. Frodo thought he'd laugh again at that -- when had he ever been like the other hobbits? He felt he had more in common with Eomer than with the inhabitants of Hobbiton.

Still, when he joined them in the kitchen, he went up to Bilbo. "Cousin? I'm ready whenever you wish to leave."

"I'm very glad you've agreed to come home with me, Frodo." Bilbo hugged him again -- Frodo would have to get used to that, too.

Doc's breakfast feast was wasted on Frodo, for he had no appetite, but Bilbo did justice to all the extra food. Frodo wanted to be gone at once, to leave it all behind him. Yet when the meal was finally over and it was time to mount up, Frodo clung to Doc and for a moment he thought he would cry.

But there were no tears left in him; he'd used them all up last night, waiting for Estel to come back.

***

"Frodo, would you like to hear the next chapter of our book after breakfast?" Bilbo poked his head into the room with a smile that faded as soon as he saw Frodo's pinched face. "Lad, why didn't you tell anyone?"

Frodo gasped out, "No need to wake ... might be hours." He'd talked this over with Doc many times, and knew that babies took a long time to be born. Since he'd been instructed to stay abed all those months ago, Frodo had spent a lot of time planning for the baby's arrival and learning more about how to take care of a child.

"But you didn't have to suffer alone. And perhaps you needn't suffer at all. I'll ask Doc if we can give you some willow-bark tea, that should help." Bilbo gave him an affectionate hug before he bustled out of the room, calling for Doc.

Frodo didn't manage to eat any food, but the tea tasted good and it did help with the birthing pains, at least a little. He felt sleepy, and dozed off and on, but he knew that there was always someone with him, Bilbo or Doc and even Tol. They held his hand and talked about the gossip in the village, the newly fallen snow, and the books they'd read together. Frodo listened to them, his body twisting on the bed with each wave of pain, sweat soaking the sheets and his pillow. Only when Doc came in with a lamp did Frodo realize how many hours had passed.

"Bilbo, you must eat now. I'll stay with Frodo," Doc said, and he settled himself in the large chair beside the bed. A new series of pains began and Frodo cried out and grasped the rope they'd tied for him, trying to breathe as Doc had shown him, saying it would help. When the pain finally passed, Doc pushed down the covers and once again examined Frodo. His big, competent hands touched Frodo's stomach, probed between his legs, and finally grasped his wrist. Frodo tried not to squirm at all the attention, breathing in gasping pants as the exam continued.

Doc finished and then warmly bundled him under the covers again. His face was grave. "Frodo, we must try to help the baby along. You're taking too long and growing too weak," Doc calmly explained. "If Tarias isn't born soon, I'm afraid you'll both die."

There was a gasp from the doorway and they both turned to see Tol standing there with a tray, looking betrayed. "You said Frodo would be fine."

"I'd hoped he would, Tol. If he were a lass... I just don't know enough about hobbits, Tol, or how to ease him. Frodo, I want to try and take the baby -- cut into your stomach and remove the child, then stitch you up again."

Frodo tried to concentrate but the pain was back. "You've done that?" he managed to ask before he was lost to the wave.

When Frodo could breathe again, Doc was wiping him down with a cool cloth and Tol was gone. "Better? Good, that's good. You asked me a question, Frodo. And I want you to understand that no, I've never taken a child in the way I'm describing to you. I've heard that some healers know how to do this, and it's the only thing I can think to try. But I don't know that either of you will survive the attempt." Doc put the cloth back in the basin and met Frodo's eyes. "However, I know you won't survive another night of labor, Frodo. You're very weak already."

Frodo closed his eyes and wished for the energy to laugh. He was going to die, anyway, and all his efforts to avoid it had failed. Poor Tarias... Frodo could picture his lad, just as he'd been seeing him for months now. But now the boy had tears in his eyes, knowing he'd never have a chance at life. "We tried, son," Frodo whispered.

"I'm sorry, what did you say?" Doc turned back to the bed, and Frodo tried to reply. But the pain began again, knives in his belly and he could only wail out at the pain.

For the next few hours, there was no relief. Frodo's voice grew hoarse and weak, but the pain remained sharp and endless. Bilbo and Doc were both with him constantly. They'd built up the fire in the room and Doc was boiling water and fussing with his instruments, while Bilbo kept bringing in lamps from all over the house and lighting them until it seemed like daylight.

"Frodo, lad, drink this. It will ease you, I hope." Bilbo's voice was reassuring even though it trembled with weariness, and Frodo opened his mouth to the bitter-smelling concoction. It burned all the way down his throat and he coughed, but he did feel removed from the pain when he finally finished the dose.

"That's good, that's nice," he said, smiling at Bilbo.

"I'm right here, my boy." Bilbo was holding his hand, Frodo could see that, but he couldn't really feel it. He was numb. And Doc was there with a knife...

"Frodo!" Tol burst into the room, a tall cloaked figure behind him. Frodo knew him before he could see his features, and he smiled before he remembered that Estel didn't love him anymore. Then he frowned and tried to roll away, but someone was holding him still.

Doc and Estel were talking rapidly, and Tol was wringing his hands as Bilbo tried to calm him. And Frodo just floated through it all, wondering what brought the marshal to Doc's house this evening and very glad he was finished with all that yelling and pain. He didn't want Estel to think he was a baby... Oh, that was funny! Estel would think Frodo was a baby, but Frodo was having a baby! He giggled as a big hand gently stroked his face and pushed his hair back out of his eyes.

"Frodo, love. He doesn't understand me, does he?"

"I'm afraid we've given him very strong drink, mixed with my sleeping herbs."

"Just as well. He'll sleep until I can get him to Elrond."

"Strider, he's so weak now..."

"Just wrap the warmest things you have around him. I'll carry him before me in the saddle, and we'll be there before dawn. He will survive this, Bilbo, I swear it."

"And the child?" Doc asked. "He cares greatly for the baby. He calls it Tarias."

"Does he?" There was so much warmth and love in Estel's voice that Frodo wanted to open his eyes, but he honestly couldn't manage it.

 

When Frodo woke he could barely remember anything, just a dream of pain. He was in a room flooded with sunlight, and the sound of rushing water outside the large open windows confused him. Was he dreaming still? He looked at himself, wrapped in a fine white nightshirt that was far too large on a bed that was gigantic. And his stomach ... it was sore, and there was some kind of a bandage -- the baby was gone!

Frodo tried to push himself up, groaning at the effort, and was immediately assisted by a beautiful woman, the most beautiful person he'd ever seen. And then he realized this was no woman, this was an Elf maiden with ancient eyes in her lovely face. She smiled at him as she arranged pillows to support him.

"Welcome to Rivendell, Frodo Baggins. If you're seeking Tarias, he is here." Her arm gracefully gestured to a cradle beside the bed.

"He's alive?" Frodo asked, then burst into tears at her nod.

The elf-woman bent and picked up a bundle, and Frodo saw tiny fists waving as Tarias was carried to him and placed beside him on the pillows. The baby was beautiful. He was sleeping yet somehow still looked very serious and determined, just as Frodo had imagined him.

"Tarias," Frodo whispered, letting the baby grasp his finger. He carefully counted all the fingers on both hands, then opened the blanket to look on his tiny feet, the fine hair and all his toes accounted for, too. It wasn't until he was satisfied that Frodo remembered there was someone else in the room, and more questions arose.

"My lady -- I'm afraid I don't know your name," Frodo began. "Nor do I understand how you know my baby's name."

"I am Arwen, and Estel -- who you must know as Marshal Strider -- told me your child's name." She smiled at him with no rancor. "It is unusual for a hobbit babe to have an elvish name, but Estel told me you are not like other hobbits. As I have seen for myself during your convalescence."

Frodo's heart burned and he bit his tongue to hold back the dozens of questions he wanted to ask. Estel was here, had been here with him when the baby was born? He'd thought that was all part of his dream... Yet of course it was true, for who else would have brought him to the elves? And this was Estels' Arwen? She was even lovelier than Frodo had imagined. How could Estel choose to be with him when someone so perfect loved him and waited for him in this beautiful place? Frodo wanted to believe Estel loved him, since he'd come to him and saved his life. But he'd loved Arwen first...

Frodo turned back to his child, the only thing he could think about with pure joy unadulterated by pain. "I named him Tarias because he survived difficulties, even before he was born. But I hope his life from now on will be all joy and no pain."

"That is my wish also, Frodo. For both of you." She moved to the window and looked out, then back at him. "Do you feel strong enough to be left alone with the child? I'd like to order a tray of food for you."

"Yes, my lady, we'll be fine together." She left the room, actually just walked through the window, which Frodo hadn't realized wasn't covered in glass. No wonder the noise of the water was all around him. But it wasn't as sweet as the sound of Tarias' snuffling breaths. Frodo curled around the baby's pillow and just gazed at his son.

He knew how Tarias had been conceived. Yet the baby seemed like a miracle to Frodo rather than the unfortunate consequence of jealousy and anger. He knew he'd been wrong to act on his feelings for Eomer and make love with him, but Frodo couldn't help feeling joyful that he now had a baby that was Estel's -- something that couldn't have happened without Eomer. It was yet another reason to gratefully remember him, even if they never met again.

From the ache in his stomach at every little movement, Frodo knew that someone had done as Doc had proposed and cut him open to remove the baby. Estel had really come to him, then just as he'd dreamed. Come to him in Combe, and brought him here, where his lady lived, just to save his life and that of their child.

As he traced Tarias' chubby cheek with his finger, Frodo heard a noise at the window. Arwen must have returned. "He is perfect, isn't he?"

"Yes, Frodo. Your child is beautiful."

"Estel!" Frodo tried to sit up, but that caused a cramp of pain. Before he could even cry out at his discomfort, Estel was beside him, easing him back onto the pillows, clutching his hands -- and then kissing him. Frodo fell into the delight of once again feeling those strong arms around him, once again tasting the man he loved. The kiss seemed to go on forever, beyond their ability to breathe -- and it only stopped when Tarias, evidently feeling neglected, gave a short cry and kicked his legs.

Then there was laughter and Estel picked him up while Frodo checked his diaper. Seeing Estel holding the boy in his arms was even more beautiful than any elf. Frodo laughed with joy and hugged himself in delight.

"He will look like you, I think. You saved us, Estel."

"Tolbert saved you both. He feared you would die, Frodo, and he found me at my camp and brought me to you." Estel gently placed the now-sleeping baby back beside Frodo, and took his hand. "You must promise me never to do such a thing again, Frodo. It is too dangerous for you to bear a man's child. If Tol hadn't found me, you would both be dead."

Frodo squirmed under Estel's serious gaze. "I... I know I did some foolish things, Estel. Running away from Bilbo and trying to abort our baby. But I cannot regret giving you a fine son."

Estel dropped his eyes to their joined hands, then rose and moved away. "I don't know what you mean, Frodo. That baby, your love child by that Rohirrim man, it has nothing to do with me."

Frodo felt as if he'd been slapped. "But... Tarias is your child, Estel. You must know that... Doc said the only way a male hobbit can conceive is with two men..."

"Frodo, I care for you. But this child is not mine. You mustn't ever say such things, for it is not true."

"Do you think I ... that I've been with many men, as you said that night? You accused me of being a whore-- Now I see that's truly what you believe." Frodo was angrier than he'd ever been. "Or is it just that you don't wish for your Lady to know that you've been with me? Did you ever tell her the truth, Estel? Or was that just another lie, like when you told me that you loved me?"

"I... Frodo, I must go. I wish you every good thing, you and Tarias."

With those words, Estel was gone. Frodo was too angry to cry, but holding Tarias helped him calm down. By the time two elves arrived to feed him and care for the baby, Frodo could speak normally. But once they were gone, taking Tarias with them, Frodo cried himself to sleep.

 

"Hello, Frodo Baggins. I am Elrond." The tall elf looked just as Bilbo had described him in so many tales. Frodo, rocking Tarias in the sunshine on the terrace, shook his head. Tales he'd thought lies were being proven true every day. Yet the love he'd thought was real... 'I hope your cousin Bilbo is well?" Frodo shook himself out of his thoughts to reply.

"He was very well, my lord, when I saw him in Combe. Though I fear he'll be worried about us, we've been here so long."

"There is nothing to fear, Frodo, we have sent messages. In fact, I hope Bilbo will accept my invitation to come join you here. I believe you will recover more quickly among your family."

"That's very kind, sir."

"Of course, I hoped the joy of spending time with your child would assist your healing. Yet you still seem dispirited. Is caring for the child too much? Should we keep him apart from you, in the nursery, so that you may rest?"

"Oh, no." Frodo clutched the baby closer to him. "I'm very pleased to be able to take care of him, and he lets me get enough sleep... I mean, I nap whenever he does. Tarias is no trouble."

"Then what burdens your heart, Frodo? Can it be troubled over my daughter, your rival for Estel's love?"

"Lady Arwen is generous and kind to me, sir. I do not believe she is my rival, for Estel never truly loved me." Frodo looked down at his beautiful boy, wondering if he would have Estel's features. "I hope she is not bothered by my presence in Rivendell."

"No, I do not believe that she is. But you are wrong about Estel... Perhaps when I tell you that he sent me here to speak with you, you'll understand." At Frodo's confused look, Elrond began a tale that took several hours to complete. Frodo fed Tarias and put him to bed, a meal was served to them, and still Elrond's soft voice continued, a history of Middle-Earth and the realm of Gondor fighting the Dark Lord of Mordor through countless generations.

"So the marshal you know as Estel is Aragorn, son of Arathorn, the hope of his people." Elrond smiled at Frodo, sitting across from him on a long sofa. "That heritage is the reason he was brought here as a boy, and also why he was allowed to pledge his love to my daughter. It is the reason they may not wed, not yet, for Arwen will only give up her immortality for a King, Frodo, not for a wandering marshal."

"I... this is ... I'm not sure I understand everything you've told me. But I really don't understand why you've told me all this. It seems like ancient history. Estel told me he had other names, but I didn't understand that, either. And I don't see what it matters, if his name is Estel or Aragorn or Strider."

"You have been asleep in a dream of love, Frodo. But now you must wake and think of your child."

"Aragorn's child, though he denies it."

"The child of Aragorn and of Eomer, both, is he not? For no male hobbit can bear a child from only one man." Frodo blushed and nodded defiantly. "But you must claim that this child belongs to only Eomer and yourself, Frodo."

"That's not true!" Frodo surprised himself, being petulant and impatient with Elrond. "Why should I lie?"

"Have you not listened at all?" Elrond rose and began to pace the room. "Let me ask, do you wish to return to the Shire without your child, Frodo?"

"No, I love him!"

"Then you are choosing to remain here with him?"

"Here, in Rivendell? Among the elves?" It was lovely in Rivendell, Frodo knew that. Even Bilbo had enjoyed visiting here. But to remain forever, always an alien among the elves? Would it be right for Tarias to be raised here, educated by the elves, but never to know the joy of swimming among the lads in Buckland, nor to see the beauty of the Shire?

"I can see in your eyes that this choice does not please you, Frodo. So, I tell you now that if you wish to leave with Tarias you must accept that your child was conceived by Eomer son of Eomund and has nothing to do with Aragorn." Elrond's face was stern. "Any child of Aragorn's would not be safe outside of the power of this valley, Frodo. If you took Aragorn's child home to the Shire, you would bring destruction to all you love."

"I..." Frodo couldn't believe what he was being told, yet he knew that Elrond was telling him the truth. It explained everything.

"Eomer's son may go anywhere, Frodo," he added, stooping down beside Frodo again. "There would be no need for Eomer's son to hide."

"I don't understand," Frodo moaned. "You know what is true. How can you let me leave with my baby -- won't we be in danger?"

"If you conceal the truth, the boy will be as safe as possible. The Shire is protected, Frodo, by marshals like Aragorn who ceaselessly patrol your borders, though most hobbits are unaware of them. Even if you choose to return to Combe we can protect you.

"But no matter where you go, Aragorn can never claim the boy -- even though he knows the truth, as you and I do." Frodo looked up at those words, and Elrond nodded. "He denied the child to protect him. And you must deny the truth if you wish to see your son grow and prosper." Elrond walked toward the door. "I'll let you consider everything I've told you now. There is no hurry for you to decide, Frodo. You are welcome here for as long as you wish to remain."

The door closed and Frodo was alone, watching over his son. His innocent, sleeping son. Son of a king and a ranch cow-boy, son of a foolish hobbit who didn't understand what evil Lords and ancient rings had to do with this beautiful half-hobbit child.

There was a knock and when Frodo responded, the door opened. Estel... Aragorn came in, resplendent in fine velvet and embroidery. He looked regal, Frodo could see that. And, as he looked in the man's beautiful eyes, Frodo could see all the love he'd thought was lost.

"Aragorn--" he began, and then he was in his love's arms, being kissed with all the passion and tenderness his heart could desire. His marshal carried him to their bed, and Frodo knew that whatever he decided, wherever he and Tarias went, all Aragorn's love would go with them.

 

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