Summary: A few years have passed and some hearts have settled. Others might, perhaps.
Pairing: Aragorn/Faramir, implied future Éowyn/Amrothos (third son of Imrahil of Dol Amroth)
Disclaimer: All characters belong to J.R.R. Tolkien.
A/N: Recently, some very kind people have told me how much they enjoy my Aragorn/Faramir [insert shameless tooting of own horn here] and since they are one of my favourite pairings to write, this always makes me so happy to hear.
This one is for all of you.
Éowyn wipes her brow with the back of her hand, quite likely smearing dirt across her forehead in the process. She is warm though the sun is veiled behind a layer of white cloud but she has been labouring in these parts of the wood since before noon. She likes it. It is different from riding – another form of exercise entirely – but it wearies her just the same and she has always enjoyed physical exertion.
The men are dragging felled trees into the clearing and it is her task to cut off any branches small enough to be used for kindling, clear them of leaves, and store them to the side. Thicker branches and proper stems will be chopped for firewood and the rest burned come autumn. She looks forward to that: the bonfires blazing and, oddly perhaps, the satisfaction of seeing the result of all their work this summer vanish into ash.
She was hesitant to come but is, in the end, pleased with her decision. She has never run from danger but here in Ithilien, she suspected, she might meet danger of a rather different kind than armed men on horseback: the danger of tearing open wounds that have taken long to heal.
Whenever the memory resurfaces, a burning trail of mortification flames through her chest. Even after all this time.
She had gone to him only weeks after the War was ended. For the first time ever, she had been coy – not deliberately, but the circumstances had brought it out in her – and she had smiled shyly at him. The maids who had been hastily found for her had helped wash her hair and braid it and she had dressed in a fine, pale yellow gown that almost fit her.
He stood under the starlight, gazing down upon the lamplit, half-ruined white city below. The evening was quite cool but she was used to the wild winds of the plains of Rohan and she did not shiver. He had smiled at her approach and she had taken that for a good sign.
'So,' she had said, at last, 'will you not ask?'
At first he only looked at her, as if he could not at all understand. Then, excruciatingly slowly, comprehension had dawned on his face and pity and regret rose to dance in his eyes. It was everything she despised.
'Dearest Éowyn," he had said softly, and then she knew that it would never be. 'I cannot ask you. For it would not be fair on either of us.'
The most painful heat blazed into her cheeks. Humiliation tightened her throat and made her eyes sting with unwanted tears. She had read him wrong – of course she had read him wrong! Just as she had read adoration in Aragorn's eyes when really it had only been sympathy.
She had stormed from the courtyard, meaning to put as much distance between herself and Faramir as she possibly could, but he came after her. When she blindly turned the first corner, he was only three paces behind, his footfall like the frantic beating of her heart, and he begged her to hear him.
There, between the stone walls of this city that she did not love, he came to face her and she saw that his cheeks were reddened too. As if he felt as embarrassed as she did.
'I cannot ask for your hand in marriage,' he had said without preamble. 'For I love another.'
Time, blessedly, eased the wrenching of pain through her chest. Then to Minas Tirith came the youngest son of the prince of Dol Amroth to join his father in the restoration of the city and the surrounding lands. And his eye was ever upon Éowyn and he wasted little time. Before the moon had turned to full even once since his arrival, he came to her and spoke with her.
She told him almost everything. Perhaps to dissuade him.
But the son of Imrahil had looked long upon her before he nodded. 'They are honourable men,' he had said at last, his grey eyes searching her face.
And no competition, she knew.
Just when she thought he would leave it at that, he spoke again:
'I will not now ask you to marry me, but I will court you, if you will let me, fair lady. And at any time you may tell me if you have seen quite enough of me. Then I shall leave you in peace.'
It was a peculiar way of going about something like that, she had thought. But Éowyn had always had a taste for the unusual.
The day is growing steadily warmer even though the clouds will not let the sun show itself and she thinks she detects a hint of rain on the wind. They still have plenty of work left. Straightening to allow her back a reprieve, Éowyn surveys the men who come and go, ducking under the low-hanging branches and stomping through the wild and tangled undergrowth.
How little she knows of men, she reflects, despite the fact that she has spent all of her life surrounded by them.
When Faramir told her the truth, that starlit night above the rooftops, she had been utterly shocked. Never had she even strayed near such a possibility in her thoughts. That something like that could be. When it, after a while, became public knowledge, she finally opened her mind to Éomer, relieved at last to be able to speak of it openly.
He had laughed at her. 'Sister!' he had cried. 'You must be both blind and deaf if this is the first you have heard of such practices. It is common enough among soldiers and even among the Riders of the Mark.'
She had wanted to ask about that but a more thoughtful look came into his face then and he sobered.
'It is unusual to hear of a king of such a disposition,' he said slowly.
And Éowyn saw in her brother's face the enchantment that seemed to have been laid about them all; how the allure of the Returned King, come out of the misty North and bringing strange, exotic customs with him, had affected Éomer also. Nobody seemed to realise that Faramir appeared to be just like his king in this regard and he was a Gondorian through and through.
It is Aragorn who comes up to her where she is standing among the felled trees and veritable walls of chopped-off branches and quickly decaying leaves. He is wearing a simple leather jerkin, thick breeches and high boots. He has pulled off his gloves and pulled his hair from his face.
"My lady," he says to her in greeting. "Are you tired?"
Even if she were she would never admit to it. As things stand, she is not.
"No," she says. She is also speaking with a king and therefore she adds, "Thank you for your concern."
"We are making decent progress," he says, lifting his shining eyes from her face to scan the clearing. "Though I fear we are far from done. These woods are wild."
"It is good work, though," she allows. "I am glad I came."
She does not know how that slipped out of her. Maybe because a sea of time separates his rejection of her at Dunharrow, before he rode into the Mountains, and where they stand now, in a well-nigh cloying late summer heat, in fair Ithilien.
Surprise briefly touches his face but then he smiles warmly. "Then I am pleased."
Once upon a time, she would have given her sword for that smile to mean something more.
Another dark-haired man walks into her line of vision and her thoughts of what will never be with Aragorn are scattered. She does not know that she is frowning before the king reclaims her attention. His smile has turned somewhat mischievous.
"I see that the young prince is eager to prove himself."
It is so. Imrahil's son is dragging a slender but tall rowan all by himself and only barely succeeds in avoiding snagging the heavy crown of leaves in the bilberry bushes. His trouble most likely due to the fact that his eyes are on Éowyn.
"He is a good man," says Aragorn.
Unfortunately, he may be right.
"I think it might rain," she says, keen to distract them both.
But Aragorn shakes his head. "It will not," he says. "Not today. Trust me."
He was a Ranger once. He should know, she supposes.
Faramir appears only half an hour after Aragorn left her to her work. He too is wearing high boots and leather and there is a generous scatter of crushed seeds and leaves on his shoulders and upper arms, and in his hair too.
"I thought I knew these woods," he says, with a shake of his head. "But there is more here to be done that I could ever have foreseen."
She offers him a drink from her waterskin and he accepts. She watches him and how the odd daylight seems to snag in his hair and highlight the reddish hue.
"Thank you," he says, handing her back the skin. He flashes her a regretful, self-conscious smile. "But you should have kept it for yourself. It needs to be refilled now."
"I will do it," she says.
"Let me," he offers.
"No," she says, firmly now. "I will do it."
What is it about these men that makes them treat her as though she has not been girt with a sword since she was strong enough to lift one?
The sun is a shimmering light behind the soft layer of white. She has rolled the arms of her kirtle up and rebraided her hair. She is just about to return to the clearing, knife in hand, when he walks up to her.
"My lady," he says, in a tone she cannot quite place. It lands somewhere between command and concern. It is odd. "Are you done for the day?"
She holds up her knife for him to see, like proof. "I am not."
He is tall and strong, but young. Only a year or two older than her.
"Well then," he says, and now she reads a challenge in his clear grey eyes, and there is a cockiness to his smile. "You had best resume your work, my lady. For kindling does not make itself."
She looks long at the son of Imrahil.
Of course, compared to Aragorn, everyone here is young.
Amrothos is not ugly.
Aragorn finds him examining an old birch. The lowest branches are gnarled and sooty black, here and there covered in a dusty-white moss. They look quite dead.
"If you are going to hold converse with every tree and shrub, this will take forever," he says.
Faramir turns around. He is dirty and sweaty and the most beautiful sight Aragorn has ever rested his eyes on.
"Perhaps I intend to populate Ithilien with Ents," says Faramir, raising an eyebrow.
"You will need an elf to achieve that," Aragorn tells him.
"I could send word to Legolas."
"You could also kiss me."
Faramir grins. He takes a couple of steps closer and his eyes sparkle. "If you are come to offer a distraction, I decline. We still have hours' worth of work left today and I think it might rain."
"What is all this about rain?" asks Aragorn, spreading his hands. "It will not rain."
"Perhaps we are afraid that we will not be done with everything by summer's end. And as for today, we had a late start," smiles Faramir.
It is true. The curtains had been pulled so tightly shut that it had been possible to pretend that dawn had not yet come while, in truth, it was long past. But Faramir was coming so beautifully, for the second time already that day, and duties be damned. Aragorn likes to think that he is making up for time lost.
The new king of the Reunited Lands had fallen in love with his new steward even before he knew him. That, of course, had been part of the problem. He knew not whether the notion of sleeping with another male was one utterly repulsive to Faramir or perfectly enticing, or even mildly interesting. It had taken almost a year before, on one evening no different than any other, Faramir had stepped up to him and smiled like that.
'I know," he had said quietly.
And Aragorn did not ask him what he thought he knew but had kissed him instead.
"I do not suppose I can persuade you to abandon this undertaking and come back to the city?"
The entire sky is now a gleaming white. The day, however, is still pleasant.
Faramir looks up at him. There is dirt streaked across his cheek and his hair, slightly longer now than when Aragorn first met him, has been twisted away from his face into a messy knot in the nape of his neck.
"No," he says, after a moment.
It is partly Aragorn's own fault. It was he who made Faramir prince of Ithilien for he had served this land better than well for many long years and so it seemed a good idea at the time. When Aragorn came to understand that this meant that Faramir intended to leave court to dwell there also, he had immediately regretted his decision. That had been before the kiss. After the kiss, Faramir had vowed to essay to divide his time evenly between the city and the wilderness and, to Aragorn's credit, it was not at the latter's behest. But Faramir is happy here.
Now, he is smiling. "You could stay, my lord."
"For a time," Aragorn allows. "Sooner or later I must return to Minas Tirith."
Leaning his rake against the smooth grey-green bark of a towering laburnum overrun with its rain of yellow flowers, Faramir comes even closer. His eyes, blue like a summer sky, are on Aragorn only.
"I fear it will be sooner," he says softly.
"It is always sooner," says Aragorn and reaches for him, and is not content until Faramir's mouth is on his and he tastes sweat and bark and dust and sweetness beyond.
It is probably nearing suppertime. Most likely, the rest of the men are assembling just about now, assessing their progress and considering whether that are likely to risk the king's displeasure if they break off for the day now.
Not that the king cares.
For he is busy elsewhere, running his fingertips, dirt under his neatly trimmed fingernails, over Faramir's flat belly and pushing the creased, damp linen of his undershirt up, as far as it will go. The king is breathing quite heavily.
Faramir's eyes are closed. It proved a good thing that he brought his cloak with him for fear of rain for now it makes a decent substitute for a proper bedroll. His head is tilted back. Aragorn has opened his breeches and while the stuffy air does not cool his skin, at least he is not set aflame by the fire that is rising to life where they lie.
Aragorn swallows. This man, he knows, as he lowers his head to join them in another kiss, will keep his heart forever.
Faramir holds his head in place as they kiss, with fingers curled around Aragorn's neck and lost in his dark hair. He smiles again, lingers with gentle teeth on Aragorn's lower lip before sucking on it. His other hand is on Aragorn's back, keeping him there. Keeping him pressed against Faramir himself in case the king might change his mind. Which he never will.
Aragorn has opened his own breeches too and his hard length pounds against Faramir's hip. He cannot take him here for he has brought no oil or salve (despite what the younger man might think, he did not plan this) and he will not risk hurting Faramir. But that does not mean it cannot be pleasurable.
Indeed, that does not mean he cannot make Faramir arch his back and break the kiss in favour of a groan. Aragorn toys with his length, spreads Faramir's precome over him and strokes him with every intention of making him gasp and groan again. He bucks his own hips, rubs himself against his lover and covers Faramir's mouth with his own anew. This kiss is messy. It is entirely without direction. Faramir's tongue is in his mouth before Aragorn knows he needs for it to be so. He loses his breath, his every thought, and can only sink deeper into the searing heart of the fire.
Faramir's hand fists in Aragorn's jerkin. He is shaking, encouraging even firmer strokes of his jerking length. Aragorn rolls on top of him. The thought that someone might find them like this never even threatens to cross his mind. He buries his face in the crook of Faramir's neck and ruts against him like some wild thing. Some forest entity that has never heard of refinement or decency.
They peak together. As if he had indeed planned, or timed, this. But it is simpler than that for they are in love, and have been for some time, and somehow that is enough.
"We should return to the house," says Faramir.
He is sated and supple now in Aragorn's arms. They have wrapped themselves in his cloak and are sitting against an old oak. Scents of grass and bark drift on the evening breeze; the wind seems to be picking up.
"Before we are missed," he adds.
But he makes no attempt to rise. Instead, he turns his head so that he can press a kiss to Aragorn's chest. The latter wishes they were naked so that he could feel it sink into his skin.
"Why Ithilien?" Aragorn hears himself asking. In this moment it strikes him as strange that he has never asked before. "You are a steward's son. How come you bear such love for Ithilien and so little for Minas Tirith?"
"Because it is beautiful here?" suggests Faramir. But then he shifts, twists around so that he can face Aragorn. There is honesty in his blue eyes, and they are piercingly clear. "Because here I know myself," he says in a quiet voice. "Here is the truth of me."
Aragorn cups his cheek. They need to bathe and to eat. He needs to invent a new excuse for why he should remain here for another few days. As if the steward needs the king to oversee the building of his house.
"We are but mortal men," says Aragorn softly. A line torn from history, before Gondolin the Fair was betrayed.
Faramir regards him but there is only peace in his eyes now. "If this is what it is to be a man…" he says.
Aragorn brings him in for a kiss.
Lamps have been lit around the house and the open space which will one day be a tiled courtyard, if everything goes as planned. Dusk is not yet settling but it is late.
Faramir's hand is in his. They walk slowly.
When they have almost reached the double doors, the first drop lands on Faramir's shoulder.
It finally rains.