Frodo thought that Pippin looked surprised, more than anything else, to have caught Rosie's flowers.
"This means," he said to Merry, "that we'll be the next ones to tie the knot. And that'll need to be pretty quick, considering Sam's sister is marrying Tom Cotton next month."
"As if this year hadn't been eventful enough," Merry said dryly. "No, no proposals tonight," he added, pulling Pippin up and into a kiss before he was able to get down on bended knee, "though I don't mind if you end up on your knees later."
"After the dancing?" said Pippin.
"Well, yes. I don't think it should really happen during the wedding reception, do you?"
"Perhaps I'm not so easily held on to as that." And he danced away, still holding the bouquet. He came to Frodo, who'd watched and laughed along with the crowd, and kissed his right temple and stage whispered in his ear, "Merry's taking me for granted again. Too many months of easy life in the Shire, it seems. Think you could arrange another adventure for us? Deadly peril and that… but perhaps without the Orcs this time."
"Maybe I could just stage something," Frodo suggested. "Make it seem you'd been kidnapped so Merry had to rescue you…."
"I think we ought to do something like that for you and Aragorn," said Merry. "If you ask me, he's entirely too casual about letting you make this journey alone."
"Just because you never trust me to make it anywhere on my own."
"Well, at least you warned us this time."
"I've learned my lesson, yes. No more trying to give you the slip. Besides that, I needed seven signatures, and I couldn't very well leave you two off the list."
They looked at each other and stood still long enough for most of the other guests to lose interest in them, especially with the band starting in on a livelier tune. Frodo had not felt like dancing, though he liked watching Pippin and Rosie and Sam and the others. He had smiled more today than in many months, and it wasn't all for the others' benefit. He was genuinely happy to see them together, and to see them in love. And he was happy for himself, for the step he was taking, moving away.
The music grew louder as the hobbits sang along, and now Frodo and Merry took a few steps away from the party field so they'd be able to speak softly and hear each other.
"Must it be tonight, Frodo?"
Frodo shrugged, though he knew it was pointless to feign indifference around Merry. "I've said goodbye to Sam already, and I'd rather not have to do it again. Besides that, they'll want the smial to themselves tonight, I should think."
Merry smiled but didn't bother to answer that. Frodo could easily stay with them at the inn in Bywater, as they'd offered before, or even make it to Tuckborough more easily than where he was going.
"He's expecting me, you know," Frodo added. That was it, put the responsibility on Aragorn. No need to tell Merry yet again how eager he was to be gone, in explaining that there was no point in staying another month or another day.
They walked together to the tent where the guests had left their things. Many of the hobbits had set down a cloak, some a small bag, but Frodo had a full pack for traveling, with the few belongings he'd decided to take with him to make a life in Gondor.
"Before you pick up that heavy thing, I want to show you something." Merry reached for a large scroll of paper that was lying on the ground by his and Pippin's things, then handed it to Frodo. "I've made... I've drawn this map."
"Merry, this is beautiful," Frodo said truthfully as he opened it up and stared at a picture of Elessar's reunited kingdom.
Merry gave him only a few moments to look before speaking again, a little nervous, eager to explain himself. "I remembered how you used to complain, before we left, that the mapmakers in the Shire didn't know how to draw anything beyond their own borders."
"Those white spaces at the edges used to drive me mad." The Shire was here with every village and every stream, but it only took up a corner of the map. Gondor and Arnor were here, but Rohan and the realms of the Elves as well, and the Misty Mountains like a dragon's spine up and down the middle. Frodo could see that Merry had put as much detail into every inch as he had into drawing his home.
"I remember," Merry said. "At first I thought it was just, you know, the old thirst for knowledge. When I realized you were planning to go out into those blank spaces and you had no notion as to what to expect... and then when Gandalf didn't come..."
"Well." Frodo understood exactly why Merry's voice was choking up, but he didn't want to let it go on like that. "It's a good thing I had me with you, eh?"
Frodo smiled. "Yes, and Strider."
"You know, a lot of things went wrong for us between Bree and Rivendell, but he always did know where we were going. We'd have been lost without him."
"I put up protests, Frodo, because I'd like to keep you here, but you understand, yes? I am so very happy for you. Pippin and I both, and I know Sam -- "
"I know, dear. It's all right. I'm glad you showed this to me." He began rolling it up again.
"I thought... I thought you could take it with you. So you don't get lost."
Frodo took a breath, not quite sure himself why he was resisting the idea. "The road is safe now. It should be easy to follow it."
Merry nodded, not offended or even surprised, it seemed. "And you know where you're going this time."
"That, yes, and I want this map to stay in the Shire. It seems the hobbits our age still aren't interested in anything beyond our borders, but perhaps Sam and Rosie can teach their children, and you and Pippin yours..."
"My dear Frodo, Pippin and I don't plan on marrying or having children for a few years yet. I do hope you're planning on coming to see us before then."
"You're right, yes."
"Just because you wrote up a will doesn't mean you're dead to us."
"You understand what I mean though."
"Of course I do. And I shan't let them forget what you did."
"Well, it needn't be all about me."
"If Pippin's telling the story then it won't be." They both laughed a little. "I'll keep the map for you then, and I'll make more of them. Take this though."
"Merry, what are you doing?!" Frodo cried, although it was quite clear; what he was doing was to tear a piece out of his beautifully drawn map.
"Here you are," said Merry. "No one here needs reminding what this little part looks like, but perhaps you will." He held out the scrap of paper he'd torn out, no bigger than the palm of his hand. Some of the letters were missing, but when Frodo held it he easily recognized the Ferry at one edge, the house at Crickhollow at the other, and Buck Hill in the middle.
"My dear Merry."
"Gandalf told me once -- after it was all over -- he said that from the moment you learned you'd have to go, you said you'd hold on to the thought of the Shire and its were safe it would be easier for you to go along your own way. Well, I want you to carry this with you. Buckland is the land we grew up in, but it's also part of the land that's safe and where hobbits can continue to live free and happy thanks to you and what you did. Pippin and I can have a life together at Crickhollow because of you. I want you to remember that always, dear." He paused, somehow hesitant and determined at once. "I know you... You've carried your sadness with you since the quest."
"No, I've been with you, Frodo. You don't need to pretend. Sam and Pippin and I haven't been able to take your burdens away, as much as we wished we could. Maybe Aragorn can, I don't know; that is what I hope. But in any case, I want you to carry this with you as well, all right? Take this little picture of home."
"Merry's a bit of a sap, isn't he?" said Pippin, who had left the party and come up to join them without their noticing. Frodo was fairly sure he'd just come up, but he seemed to know everything that had been said. "He rehearsed with me last night, do you know? I said it all sounded rather wordy and symbolical for me, but it would probably work like a charm with you. And look at you, here you are with tears in your eyes."
It was true, and when Frodo laughed now he sobbed a little at the same time, and Merry slipped an arm around his waist and stood shoulder to shoulder with him, as if to show that they were very strong and would stare Pippin down.
But Pippin only smiled and kissed him again, and his voice was a little softer when he said, "Take the paper then, and take one of the flowers as well. I'll not make any grand speeches about it. Only take it because it's lovely." He pulled out a primrose and slipped it behind Frodo's left ear, and Frodo laughed again but didn't touch it. Apparently Pippin had been distributing the flowers liberally among the guests, for the bouquet was half what it had been when he'd caught it.
"Do I look quite ridiculous, Merry?" Frodo asked.
"No, Frodo, you look perfectly lovely," Merry said. "Strider will be delighted."
"I won't be seeing him for a few weeks yet. I doubt I can keep the flower in place all that time."
"Fine then," said Pippin, "but see if you can pick a wildflower when you're getting close to Rivendell."
"He'll think you the most beautiful thing in the world no matter what you do with your hair," Merry added reassuringly.
They teased and laughed some more and then hugged and kissed, and did not cry, and when Frodo walked away he was very sad to leave them, but he was still smiling.
For a long time the music of the celebration followed Frodo as he walked, and he stepped in time with the hobbits' song. But the music slowly faded, and after a time he could hear only his own footsteps and his own quiet humming. Then just after Bywater, as he neared the turning onto the main road, Frodo heard another song growing stronger as he walked forward. He was confused at first, for the song was one he'd heard sung many times since his childhood, but the voices were different, and after a little while he knew it could not be hobbits singing.
Frodo stepped to the side of the road and watched silently as they passed. He recognized no one, and yet as they passed they looked toward him and inclined their heads respectfully. Frodo bowed in turn, wondering where these Elves came from and whether any of Legolas's kin were among them.
One tall Elf, who walked in the middle of the company but was clearly their leader, stopped as he came to Frodo, and the rest of them stopped to listen to the conversation. The Ring-bearer was recognized and greeted, the flower in his hair and his general appearance in the dusk and the rising moonlight were highly praised. Frodo found out that these travelers had indeed come from Mirkwood, although they had not lived in Thranduil's caverns but deeper in the forest.
"And you travel to the harbor?" said Frodo.
"And why do I find you at the crossroads of two mortal roads and traveling toward Hobbiton, and not on some hidden path through the forest?"
The Elves laughed. "We heard the clamor of many halflings making merry in the field behind you and were curious to see what they might be celebrating."
Frodo had ceased to hear the party some time ago, but he nodded. "Yes," he said, "it is a great occasion. My companion, Samwise, has wed his beloved."
"Were not you his beloved, Frodo? Why then do you walk alone?"
Frodo smiled. "Sam is my dear friend," he said, "but my beloved waits for me in Rivendell. I go now to meet him."
The Elves exchanged raised eyebrows and questioning looks. They had probably passed through Imladris on their way west and knew that Elrond and nearly all of his household had already traveled this path or one like it and had sailed from the Grey Havens. Well, let them have their gossip when they reached the Blessed Realm. Frodo bowed again and said, "Go on along this path to Hobbiton then, if you do not think a halfling wedding will be too dull. Sam and his Rosie would be greatly honored to receive your blessing." And they parted with smiles and laughter.
It was quite late when he came to Frogmorton, but he had sent word ahead that he would be staying at The Floating Log, and the innkeeper's daughter had stayed up to receive him.
"Good to see you again, Mr. Baggins. Just for tonight that you'll be staying, is it?"
"Just the night, Laurel."
"The company did enjoy having masters Merry and Pippin with us in the common-room yesterday evening."
"They make any gathering more joyful," Frodo agreed, thinking that he himself tended to dampen the mood of a party. And, knowing she was eager for news but probably reluctant to pry, he added, "The wedding was quite perfect, and I imagine the guests are still celebrating."
"I'm so glad to hear it, sir. And it is good to have you here as well." And she led him upstairs to the room he'd reserved, small, simple, and homey.
Although he had been to Frogmorton twice in the last six months, he hadn't stayed the night since the four of them returned to the Shire. He wouldn't tell Laurel that whenever he came here now he thought mainly of the night they'd been arrested, when they'd slept in the dank misery of the sheriff-house. "Your family's inn is a fine one," he said instead. "My friends and I are always glad for your hospitality."
Laurel beamed, and blushed, and ducked her head, said if he needed anything he needn't hesitate to ask.
As Frodo settled in for the night he wondered (for a least the hundredth time) whether he'd made the right decision in leaving the Shire. The people here might not have any notion of what he'd been through; they might simply not be capable of that. But hobbits like Laurel were kind, they wished him well, and they were glad to see him when he came. And Sam had cried when Frodo had announced he was leaving. And Merry had held it in, but probably he'd cried on Pippin's shoulder when Frodo wasn't there to see.
True, he didn't feel he belonged here, but what made him so sure he would fit in better in Gondor or anywhere else? Perhaps all of Middle-earth was ruined for him now, and he might at least have stayed home, among his own people. There was room for him at Crickhollow, as Merry and Pippin never tired of reminding him, and he knew very well there was room at Bag End. But neither one of those places felt like home anymore.
The room at the inn was clean and the bed was firm and comfortable, just the right size for one solitary hobbit. And Frodo had gotten rather used to being just that -- which was not to say that he liked it. But he wondered whether he would make good company for anyone. He wanted to see Aragorn again, and wanted to touch him again, oh, more than anything. But there was no way of knowing if Aragorn truly wanted the same thing. Perhaps they'd all be better off without him...
"Oh, enough mooning about whether it's the right thing or not," he said aloud. "Nothing to do but to go there and give it a try."
He was tired from the day's emotions and the long walk, and the bed and the room were everything they should be, but he was alone, and he was uncertain, and long hours passed before he could give up his doubts and fall asleep.
He slept under the stars the following night, just before the Bridge, and the stiffness in his joints when he woke made him wonder just why he'd insisted on making this long a journey on his own. "And why on foot?" he muttered to himself, and winced as he picked up his pack.
But he had wanted, of course, to say his goodbye slowly. To see the Shire up close, and not letting it rush past him through the window of a cart. He had wanted just what he was doing now: to walk this road alone, with the knowledge that it was now safe, and his own sacrifice and his friends' had helped make it so.
Still, he thought, he might have been a little more practical, a little less sentimental. If he'd even taken a pony, he'd be arriving much sooner. He touched the scrap of paper in his pocket and thought that Pippin would think him a bit of a sap either way, and he smiled and started another day's march.
Frodo knew the distances well, though he'd only made the journey once before, and that by a different route. He timed it so that, as in Frogmorton the first night, he'd reach the inn in Bree quite late on the fourth, after the other guests had retired to their rooms. Butterbur himself had gone to bed, but Nob, who recognized Frodo and smiled, but said little, showed him to his room, left a lantern, and left him in peace.
Most of the room was still in shadow, and Frodo felt uneasy, but told himself he had nothing to fear. And what looked like movement in the corner must really be only the flicker of the flame in the lantern, and the noise would be the wind outside. Stubbornly willing himself to be calm, he turned his back on the window and its darkness, and was just beginning to unbutton his shirt when something else moved, and this noise he most certainly could not ignore.
Frodo cried out, and he jumped so much in his surprise that he nearly fell back, but Aragorn (for of course it was Aragorn, it would be, could only be him) was quicker, caught him with an arm around his back, another lower down, pulled him up and pulled him close in one motion. And before Frodo had time to decide whether he was embarrassed (and would stutter an apology for his clumsiness) or indignant (and would scold his lover roundly for startling him) he was being kissed, and then he was kissing back.
"I wasn't" he breathed, in between kisses that were soon closer to bites, "expecting -- " and then gave up, and gave in, and let Aragorn lift him up and onto the bed. Frodo let himself fall back easily then, confident he'd be caught, and so he was. Aragorn caught him by the cloth of his half-open shirt and caught his lower lip in his teeth, and within a few minutes the shirt was gone and Aragorn was tugging at his breeches, and it was all so very familiar and it had been so very long that Frodo didn't know whether to be nervous or excited, whether to help or to pull away, and so he settled on lying back and letting the man do the work. Aragorn was always better at dealing with those ungainly Ranger garments anyhow. Frodo closed his eyes and stopped thinking. He rocked his hips forward, up, into the pressure and that large, callused and oh, so familiar hand. Frodo moaned, wordless, reached for Aragorn to try to reciprocate, but the other hand caught both of his and brought them down against the bed, above Frodo's head, and that was familiar too.
Frodo writhed a little, mainly in order to feel just how securely he was held. At the same time he savored his own easy, willing surrender. It was good, everything that Aragorn wanted to do to him was good, and the months they'd spent apart made no difference, unless it was to make the need that much more urgent now, for both of them. Aragorn supported himself up over Frodo on his knees and the arm that held Frodo's hands. But Frodo still wanted to get closer, so he wrapped his legs around Aragorn's to pull his hips up higher and -- yes, there -- into contact with Aragorn's hips and -- yes! Just like that -- bring their hard cocks up against each other, and still with Aragorn's hand --
"Both," Frodo said, and then the strong hand was stroking both of them together in quick, forceful jerks as the two of them thrust, into each other and into the hand and into a rhythm which, if not quite perfect or matched, was fast and hard and satisfying, yes. Frodo's legs squeezed tighter around Aragorn's hips as he felt a tension stretching through his whole body and most especially -- "Oh!" -- and he choked a little, stuttering, as he lost rhythm, time, place and history completely and came, trembling and happy and oblivious to whatever happened next.
Some time later Frodo realized that Aragorn hadn't actually gotten most of their clothes off, but only open, and both still had their trousers shoved down on their thighs, and now their seed (mingled, for Aragorn must have spilled his just after) was sticky on Frodo's belly where he lay still on his back, and his lip just might be bleeding. Well, that's all right, he thought. He must look a dreadful sight, but then again, the only one who would see him like this was his lover, who would probably think him --
Frodo smiled, still not moving. He enjoyed being looked at. Aragorn was lying beside him, head propped up on his arm so he could look down just a bit. And then he took hold of Frodo again.
The kisses were slow, languid, and thoroughly pleasant, and it was Frodo's lazy contentment more than the Aragorn's interference that kept him from saying any more for a good while. A very good while.
"I wasn't expecting to find you here," Frodo said when they pulled apart. He was not embarrassed or scolding, this time, but informative. "That was why I jumped."
"I enjoyed catching you."
Frodo smiled. "I don't doubt it."
"Butterbur was very helpful."
"Of course, and Nob too, I'd wager. No wonder he was in such a good mood. But you see, Strider, I was going to pick a wildflower and put it in my hair..."
"What I mean to say is, I was going to walk to Rivendell by myself."
"That was the plan we had agreed upon."
"I was impatient to see you."
"Yes, well." Frodo smiled. He had been rather impatient himself, after all. Willing and eager surrendering and all of that. And he'd had enough time walking slowly along the road. It was just as well he'd have company for the rest of the way, and perhaps they'd ride on horse and get back to Gondor and governing the kingdom faster, or perhaps they'd walk together, but at night Aragorn could rub his sore feet, and that would be a good thing. And this was good, he thought, being here now, being in this bed, in this room, with this man. It was good having the rest of the night ahead of them. They could move more slowly now, and on the next round Aragorn would take the time to thumb Frodo's sensitive nipples, to tongue his delicate ears, perhaps even (and here Frodo shivered a little in anticipation) to massage those feet. Certainly he'd rub Frodo's back and massage his buttocks, circling in closer with his thumbs and then beginning to work them in with the oil, preparing him...
"Are you cold, my love?" said Aragorn, concerned, as Frodo shivered again.
"Just the opposite," Frodo replied, wriggling out of Aragorn's warm hold for a moment so he could finally see about getting rid of the rest of their clothes. This time Aragorn went passive and patient, let Frodo work around him. Frodo felt himself growing more and more aroused as he uncovered Aragorn's skin, took all of it in with his eyes and was just about to start relearning it with his mouth as well when he remembered that he was still slightly annoyed, and he did have a point that he'd meant to get across a few moments ago. So he shifted away and sat up straight, and after a moment of indecision brought a blanket (which could easily be thrown off when the conversation was done with) over the lower halves of both their bodies, so that he wouldn't be embarrassed or distracted.
"I was going to walk to Rivendell," he said again. And he continued, undaunted by Aragorn's sigh, "That was the place where you told me you loved me, in case you'd forgot, and I was looking forward to meeting you there." He hesitated. "I don't have very good memories of this place, you know."
"Of The Prancing Pony?"
"Of the inn, of Bree, all of it." Frodo was surprised he even needed to explain. "Don't you remember how horrible it was, that night we first..." and then, looking at Aragorn's face, he understood, and stopped. "Ah."
"I remember that night well, for it was the night I first laid eyes on you, and for that reason this place is dear to me."
"Oh, Aragorn, it's not as if you were terribly romantic on that first meeting of ours."
"I was dashing."
"You were -- "
"I thought the bit with the sword was especially impressive."
"Well, yes, in a violent, terrifying sort of way." Then Frodo grinned. "Admit it, sir, you really just wanted to come back here so you could take some time off from your kingly duties, dress up in your Ranger things, and make the Bree-folk nervous again."
"I did enjoy that, you're right, but it was only a minor benefit. I wanted to be with you."
"I'm not complaining," Frodo said. "Please don't think I'm not happy to see you. But it's... I did mean it. I spent so much time along the journey lost and afraid, and I wanted to show myself that it didn't need to be that way, that I could make it on my own. Merry tried to give me a map, did you know?"
"But I said I didn't need it. I think... I think he thinks he'd rather I'd have stayed at home in the Shire, and the same for Pippin and Sam," and, seeing Aragorn's darkening look, he quickly added, "except that they know I'll be better off with you. Since we love each other and that!"
"Frodo, I do think I understand you. Our plans are not so different, after all. You wanted to face these places alone and I would rather we faced them together."
"You're not the one who needs it though. You're not the one who was afraid."
"But I need to see you through this. And I'm not content to let you face the darkness and know you can survive. I want the village of Bree to cease to be an evil place in your mind. Even if our first meeting frightened you at the time, can you not now see it as the beginning of our friendship, and the beginning of our love?"
"Hmm." Frodo frowned.
"Or if you must have that night as horrible, don't let it be your only memory of the place. From now on, when you think of Bree, I want you to think of this night, and the passion we share, and the things we have yet to do..."
"Now that idea I like very much," said Frodo, finally relaxing and lying down again, tucking himself in close to Aragorn. He tingled with excitement to feel skin on skin, to know how well they fit together. "Make some new memories." He suggested, nuzzling at Aragorn's neck.
"I want you to remember joy, Frodo. Here and in every part of my kingdom."
"Mmm, all right. Though I hope you aren't planning to make love to me at Weathertop as well."
Aragorn chuckled and Frodo enjoyed the movement and sound in his chest, smiled against his skin. "No, Frodo, we can leave Weathertop alone."
"Good." Frodo sucked on that spot on Aragorn's neck and savored the gasp it provoked. Yes, he remembered that spot exactly, and the others. He knew where he was going, didn't need a map. "And no vacations to Mordor either."
And before Aragorn had a chance to laugh or to answer Frodo found that other spot, the one at his right hip, and rubbed it with his fingers while he drank Aragorn's moan with his open mouth, and drank Aragorn's desire with every part of him.
It was long that time, gentle and sensuous and almost painfully slow, so that in the end Frodo was begging, knowing one more touch from Aragorn would bring him his release, and at the same time he was grateful to have the pleasure and the longing and the want drawn out so, drawn out of him as only Aragorn could do. So that when it came it seemed to Frodo that he would never feel pain or sorrow again, that joy like this could crack the darkest sky right open and take all his burdens away. Oh, and he should never have doubted this was the right thing to do. Aragorn held him as the orgasm tore through him, and held him long after, and into the night. When Frodo's heart had slowed to a normal pace and his mind had come back to itself he knew, of course he knew, that it wouldn't be so easy as all that. Aragorn could not banish the pain forever, for no one could. But here, this was good, this was where he wanted to be. In Bree or in Rivendell or Minas Tirith, wherever they went, Aragorn's arms would be Frodo's home.