The hours stretch interminably as petitioners come forward with requests for better storage, proposals for new roads, demands for assistance in repairing homes and buildings. Yet King Elessar holds his smile firmly in place, refusing to yawn, despite the constant drone in his ear of the scrawny southern farmer who seems to have a plan to irrigate the entire region. His Steward keeps handing him scrolls that require his seal, though the King barely looks at the documents as he wades through the pile.
Then Aragorn glances down at the latest page put in his hands, only to discover that it is a distorted, roughly sketched drawing of the tedious would-be water bearer of Gondor about to be kicked in the backside by a giant boot. Choking back a laugh, he glares fondly at Faramir, who winks at him without allowing his parted lips to curve in a smile.
With the stern expression, and with the autumn sun through the high windows lighting blazing strands in his hair, Faramir looks so like his brother that Aragorn's throat aches.
The King meets Imrahil's eye by the door and holds up two fingers, then watches as the Prince of Dol Amroth whispers to the guards. It is early to dismiss the petitioners but Aragorn cannot bear to spend what may be the last warm day of the season indoors, particularly since Faramir has promised to show him a hillside where cascading red leaves create the impression of a raging wildfire. Tomorrow they will meet with Gimli and the dwarves about the rebuilding of Minas Tirith, but this afternoon they will ride.
The air smells like the apples coming ripe on the trees down in the orchards. As always seems to happen when he is with Faramir, Aragorn forgets the passing of the hours. First they ride the horses hard, racing one another across flat fields, then they slow and move together as they urge the tired animals uphill. Eowyn has been telling Faramir about the mid-winter festival in Rohan and Faramir describes it to Aragorn, clearly hoping that the King will approve a similar celebration for Gondor, though the darkest nights are not so long in Minas Tirith as in Edoras.
Were he with Boromir, thinks Aragorn, they would undoubtedly be speaking of Gondor's soldiers and the great battles of old. Boromir delighted in weapons and warfare, and would have been less tolerant than Aragorn of the tiresome farmer's irrigation schemes. Instead of riding together, they might now be practicing with swords in the courtyard, to an audience of cheering, gasping men and women, and afterward, when they went together to wash and change their clothing...Aragorn banishes the thought and concentrates on the pleasures of the present moment, the crisp fall air scented with ripe fruit.
But Faramir has observed his King's distraction. "Are you well?" he asks, foregoing the "my lord" as Aragorn has asked him to do when they are alone together. With his curly hair blowing about his face, Faramir looks less like his brother, and the concern furrowing his brow is more open than Aragorn ever witnessed on Boromir's features.
Somehow, despite the antipathy of his father and the pain of losing his mother and brother, neither bitterness nor caution has wormed its way into Faramir's heart. He gazes on Aragorn with the same warmth that was in his eyes when Aragorn first commanded him to return from the shadows, and Aragorn feels an echoing tenderness in his own chest. "I was growing sentimental, thinking of other celebrations," he tells Faramir. "And if you will stay in the city through mid-winter, we shall celebrate it together."
When, finally, they turn back, the sun has set below the horizon and Faramir groans that they will have missed the evening meal. "You are only concerned that the cook will not have saved you any biscuits," teases Aragorn, having often witnessed Faramir's craving for sweets. His Steward had once devoured an entire bowl of berries that a well-wisher had left for the King.
With a wicked smile, Faramir pulls apples from his pockets, tossing one to Aragorn, and they arrive at the stables with juice making their fingers stick to their horses' reins. Reluctantly Faramir gives up his remaining apples to their mounts before they walk together to the kitchens, where they sneak cheese from the larder until they are scolded like naughty children by the cook, who will serve them only cold soup and hard bread.
"She has known me since I was a child," sighs Faramir. "She would chase Boromir and myself from the pantry with the hammer she used to pound meat."
"Did you try to steal her apples even then?" Aragorn asks, satisfied with the small shared meal and the guilty flush turning Faramir's face as red as the fruit.
When Aragorn finally returns to his rooms, warm and content despite the chill of the season, he finds Arwen sitting on a couch covered in woven blankets, reading an adventure story. She looks up and smiles as he approaches. "You're very late."
"Am I?" he asks innocently. "I lost track of the time. How did you spend the afternoon?"
"The maids were discussing embroidering new gowns for autumn. I feigned interest for as long as I could bear, then went for a walk in the gardens." Arwen often stops to tend the flowers, and Aragorn thinks that though it is autumn, she is like an apple blossom -- ever sweet and lovely, soft and curved with the promise of ripeness. "I saw Imrahil when we dined," she continues. "I assume that the council has not been meeting all this time?"
"Oh, we did meet. For a long while. And then I dismissed them."
Arwen smiles and nods her approval, offering Aragorn a bowl of fruit the maids have left for her. "Did you go riding with Faramir again?"
Finding an apple in the bowl, Aragorn blushes faintly as he beams at her. "We did. It was such a beautiful day. I did not want to let it pass me by while I sat in the council chamber."
"And when it rained last week, my love, you dismissed the council early so that you and Faramir could trudge out in the mud to observe the repairs to the city wall." Merriment tugs at the corners of Arwen's lips, curves of scarlet like ripened fruit.
"The repairs... needed to be observed," Aragorn replies, and bites into his apple.
Brushing her hair behind the pointed ears that she knows fascinate Aragorn so, Arwen leans forward. "Could not one or the other of you have gone alone?" she asks with a raised eyebrow.
Aragorn ponders this, watching Arwen's fingers upon her ears. "He is my Steward," he says simply, and offers the apple to her.
Arwen takes the fruit in her hands, turning it over and tracing the impression of Aragorn's teeth where the skin has torn off to reveal the damp yellow fruit. "He is Gondor's Steward," she corrects. "Meant to stand in your place in your absence."
"Well, yes," Aragorn admits, "but I am here. I see no reason why I shouldn't involve him."
Taking a bite of the apple, Arwen chews thoughtfully before speaking. "If he dotes on you too hopelessly, my love, he may have difficulty taking your place should you be absent or injured."
Aragorn chuckles softly, leaning forward and biting into the other side of the fruit, his fingers curling gently around Arwen's wrist. "Oh, he hardly dotes on me, love." This apple is very juicy, smaller and softer than the one Faramir gave to Aragorn earlier. Its sap flows down his chin, into his beard, tickling him like his wife's teasing fingertips.
Arwen's laugh is barely perceptible but there is no mistaking the delight in her eyes as juice drips over her hand. "Faramir adores you. He gazes at you as though you were one of the Valar. Surely you must see it."
Aragorn lifts his eyes to meet Arwen's, his eyebrows nearly meeting his hairline. "He does not," he says incredulously, then absently licks the juice from her palm.
Ducking her head to hide her smile, Arwen turns her palm to slide a sticky finger into Aragorn's mouth. "He has looked on you so from the day I met him. His voice shakes when he tells people how you saved him in the Houses of Healing. He loves you, Aragorn."
Because Arwen's finger is between his lips, Aragorn does not have to respond to this statement immediately. He is grateful, for his heart has begun to hammer and his eyes fall closed. After passionately sucking the juice from Arwen's skin, he releases her finger and replies, simply, "And I love him."
"I know that you do." Pulling back her hand, Arwen takes another bite of the fruit. Pensively she says, "You look at him the way you looked at his brother."
This makes Aragorn pause, frowning. "Surely not." Putting down the apple, Arwen takes his hand and he twines his fingers with hers, but he says, "No," more firmly, then kisses her.
Arwen kisses him back, smoothing his hair with her fingers. "Is it myself whom you fear to betray, or Boromir's memory?" she asks.
Aragorn blinks in surprise, wrapping an arm around his wife's waist. He is not certain that he wants to talk about this. "Betray?" he echoes. "Arwen...I am not certain what you mean. Faramir is only a dear friend." Moving closer, she rests her head against him, laughing under her breath, and Aragorn's hand comes up to let his fingers trace her ear. "Why do I suspect that you do not believe me?" he murmurs.
Glancing at him without guile, Arwen observes, "I might ask you the same question, for you do not sound at all convinced." There is no taunt in her voice, though a moment later she looks down to hide the teasing smile that curves her lips. "The next time I see you gazing at him as if you would swallow him whole, I will be certain to tell you."
Aragorn's face feels warm. "Please do," he says.
Arwen strokes her fingers across his cheekbone. "You are blushing, my love." He mumbles a denial, turning to kiss her fingertips. "And you are excited." This Aragorn cannot deny; he knows that she can feel the heat rising all over his body, radiating through his clothing.
"Yes, I am," he admits, and his fingers stroke her ear, her cheek, and her neck.
Tilting her head, Arwen kisses his jaw. "What are you thinking?"
"About you, of course," he replies, "and how good apple juice tastes on your lips."
Finally Arwen laughs aloud, flicking her tongue over Aragorn's mouth. "You did not become this aroused from sharing an apple."
Grinning impishly, Aragorn moves his hands down to her waist. "And why not? Perhaps it was an enchanted apple." He leans forward and licks her mouth in return. "Mm, apple."
As Arwen rises and settles in Aragorn's lap, she frames his face in her hands. "Does it taste different here than it did in Imladris?"
"Does what taste different?" He strokes her back, his other hand inching up under her gown. "Your mouth?"
"The fruit." Then she pauses. "And my mouth. Am I different to you, now that I am your wife, and no longer an immortal Elf?"
"The fruit grown here does taste different," he says, "but your mouth remains as sweet as it always was."
"You have tasted much bitterness since we were together in my father's house," she reminds him.
"I do not see why that should change my love for you."
"Even among the immortals, love is not constant and unchanging," she reminds him. "It is no longer springtime in the golden wood. I imagine that you will love me differently when I am the mother of your children than you did when you first knew me..."
He presses his face against her neck. "I imagine you are right."
"And I do not imagine that I am the last person you will ever love that way." She lifts her head, drawing his face away from her skin. "Why should that trouble you?"
"Faramir does not love me that way." A moment later Aragorn wishes to curse himself for revealing that his thoughts have returned so swiftly to his Steward, and for failing to deny his own feelings.
"Why do you say so? Because he loves Eowyn? The one does not replace the other. No more than your love for another could change your love for me."
"Yes! ...no. Arwen," he pleads, almost petulantly, and looks at her helplessly.
Sliding her arms around Aragorn's shoulders, Arwen leans her forehead against his. "I do not understand why this should trouble you so. It does not trouble me. He loves you, and you love him...you should be happy!"
"I loved his brother," Aragorn says softly.
"I do not think Faramir will fault you for that, for so did he. Nor can I imagine that Boromir would be anything but delighted for you. He adored Faramir so. We had few chances to speak, but when we did, his brother's fondness for Elven lore was always Boromir's favorite topic." She kisses the bridge of Aragorn's nose.
Aragorn grasps for something to say, for some excuse. "I cannot possibly have you both," he whispers.
"Why not?" Arwen whispers back. He blinks a few times, but cannot come up with a response to this. "Why should you not be happy?" she continues. "If you want him, and he wants you, and if his bride does not object...you have both been through such pain, my love, and you are good for one another."
"You're encouraging me," he says in disbelief.
Easily she nods. "I encouraged you with Boromir as well."
"That was before we were married. When Boromir and I were going away on a quest from which we might never have returned." Looking down, Aragorn takes a painful breath. "One of us didn't return."
"Are you telling me that your love for him was only in desperation? That if he had survived, your feelings would have altered?"
"No, of course not!"
"Then why should you be so surprised if I encourage you to follow your heart now?" He sighs and hides his face against her neck again. "Do you fear," Arwen asks quietly, "that if you love another, it will diminish what is between us?"
"I do not want it to," he murmurs against her neck.
"Then that is what you are afraid of," she murmurs. "Aragorn, I left my people to be with you. There is nothing that will diminish my love for you. What happened between you and Boromir did not change how you felt for me, nor I for you." Her fingers stroke his hair. "It would not trouble you so to learn that I enjoyed the attention given me by another, would it?"
Aragorn shakes his head. He has always known that she lived centuries of life before they met, and that no passing attraction will ever take her from him now. Nor would he want to deny her any pleasure that she might wish to experience, now that she shares his world.
Sighing, Arwen strokes his hair again. "But I worry that you are uncertain of your love for me, if you are afraid even to understand your own feelings."
"No! Arwen, that is not so." Aragorn closes his eyes and holds her a little tighter, letting his fears come clear in his mind. He sees Faramir as he looked in the council chamber, looking so very like his brother, and then as he appeared on the hillside, his gray eyes filled with light. He recalls sneaking into the pantry to steal honeycakes with him, hiding there pressed up against him and shaking with silent laughter as the cook came through, then growing lightheaded in a meeting with nobles and princes as he tried not to laugh while Faramir gestured with his fingers that they should run away and filch more desserts.
"I am...weak, when I am with him," he confesses slowly. "I am lost. It is too much. I can barely comprehend the depth of the way I feel about him."
"And yet you cannot bear to be without him for two hours to inspect the walls of the city," she teases, running her fingers through his hair and down his back. "Of course you are disturbed. He is your Steward, the son of a man who bore you no affection, and you loved his brother. But why could you not even speak of this to me?"
Aragorn is silent for a long moment before he admits, in a small voice, "Perhaps I thought that if I did not say anything, it would go away."
"I tried that once," she murmurs soothingly. "But it did not, and I am now married to the man I thought to ignore."
He glances up at her, then smiles at the sparkle in her eyes. "You are far more patient with me than I deserve."
"Ah, but I am so much older and wiser than you are," she laughs. "Though I no longer have eternity to wait for my desires. You will not make Faramir wait until he is an old man, will you?"
"No..." The flush in his cheeks spreads, heating his chest, settling in his groin, where he knows his wife can feel the telltale swelling. "No. Arwen, I know what you gave up to be with me. I would not wish to hold you back if you desired a different taste of mortal life, and I am so grateful that you do not begrudge me this. If he truly desires it, I will not make him wait long."
A mysterious expression crosses Arwen's face, turning her beauty into something eerie, and Aragorn wonders what curiosity she has developed about the lives of men and women since she chose to live among them. Her eyelids lower seductively. "And how long will you make me wait?"
Smiling, Aragorn says teasingly, "For what?"
"For this." Arwen pulls his head to her and kisses him. "I do not know if I still taste of apples..."
Aragorn hums, his tongue brushing her mouth. Even in the winter, Arwen will taste like springtime -- like fruit that is slow to ripen, dripping with promise, without the taint of mortality staining its fragrance. "I will find you delicious forever," he murmurs, and kisses her again.