For an explanation as to why Aragorn is known in this series as "Estel", please refer to "Quarantined" chapter 11. Thanks and big hugs to my Livejournal friends, who helped me think through several tricksy plotpoints in this story.

Approximate ages: Bilbo is 104, Frodo is 26, Sam is 14, and Scamp is 2.

DISCLAIMER: Professor Tolkien's wonderful characters don't belong to me, I just get to think about them day and night. I first introduced Gilly Brownlock, Hobbiton's healer, in "Treasures" (one of the short stories compiled in "Seeing is Not Always Believing"). Although never identified in canon as a healer, she belongs to Professor Tolkien as well.

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This chapter references "Force of Nature" chapters 7, 11, and 15; and "Quarantined" chapters 1, 8 and 11.

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WHEN THE KING COMES BACK

Chapter One – Welcome Guests

The Shire-folk ... chose a Thain to take the place of the King, and were content; though for a long time many still looked for the return of the King. But at last that hope was forgotten, and remained on in the saying 'When the King comes back,' used of some good that could not be achieved, or of some evil that could not be amended. Appendix A, The Return of the King

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"Well?" Frodo asked anxiously. He lay on his stomach, his chin cupped in his hands.

"A moment more," Aragorn murmured. He and Halbarad sat beside Frodo on the hearth-rug in the parlor of Bag End. With one hand Aragorn cupped Scamp's head, while he gently probed the swollen belly.

"She usually squirms away when I try to do that," Frodo said.

"Ah, but there's a bit of magic to Estel, my lad," Bilbo said from where he sat nearby on the big, overstuffed chair. He recalled how the Ranger's very touch had calmed Frodo while the lad was in the midst of that strange tree-sickness. And four years before, he had knelt by the fevered lad's bed and somehow guided him back to consciousness. There was magic to him, indeed... and was much more than he appeared.

Halbarad looked up at Bilbo thoughtfully. He knew that his chieftain had revealed quite a bit about himself to their host earlier that year, during their recent encounter at the Old Forest. Bilbo had promised not to reveal to anyone – even Frodo – Aragorn's background and hoped-for destiny.

"What will you do with the pups?" he asked.

"We haven't decided yet," Frodo replied, looking up at Bilbo hopefully.

"Frodo, we've discussed this," Bilbo reminded him.

"I know," Frodo sighed. "I wish we could keep them, Halbarad, but Bilbo and I have grown used to taking longer and longer rambles about the Shire -- often for several weeks at a time. The Gamgees are happy to watch one dog while we're gone, but it wouldn't be fair to ask them to look after more than that."

"I was surprised that Scamp remembered me," Halbarad said, watching the examination with interest. Scamp, hearing her name, thumped her tail on the floor.

"She's very smart," Frodo said proudly.

"I know," Halbarad said, stroking the tiny dog behind the ears. "I remember." He loved dogs, but since swearing his allegiance to the Dúnedain, hadn't been in one place long enough to think of owning one.

Aragorn petted the tiny dog lying contentedly in his hands. "I find nothing amiss, Frodo. I cannot be certain, but I believe I feel three pups. They do not seem of an unusual size for Scamp to bear; I suspect that the birthing will not be dangerous for her."

"Farmer Cotton told us the same, but I know Frodo is glad to hear it from you," Bilbo said with a grin. He knew that Frodo had been a little frightened when it became obvious that Scamp was pregnant; she was so very small. If the father had been a much bigger dog, the pups could have been too large for her to easily birth.

"Have you been seeing the pups move?" Halbarad asked.

"Yes," Frodo said. "It's so interesting to watch. I can't believe it doesn't hurt her when they do that."

"When do you think they will be born, Estel?" Bilbo asked.

"My experience with dogs is limited, but there were several rather prolific hounds in Rivendell while I was growing up." Aragorn smiled at the memory. "If all goes well... it might be a week, perhaps. Has Scamp been acting any differently?"

Bilbo nodded. "She's eating much more, and moving carefully when she walks."

"Sam and I built her a ramp so she can get on my bed without jumping," Frodo said. "We also lined a basket with rags and soft fleece and put it in my room; she's beginning to spend a lot of time in it."

"The pups will be warm and safe, should they come when we're not around," Bilbo said.

"We'll be here," Frodo said confidently. "I want to greet our new Bagginses the second they arrive." He reached out to stroke Scamp's head. "Silly dog. Did you find a friend when we spent time in Tuckborough in the spring?" He looked up at Bilbo. "I suspect the father is that little white dog we met at the farm in Whitwell. Remember, Bilbo? The playful one?"

"Ah, that rascal. If these pups are half Took, they will be a handful."

"You're half Took."

"That's right," Bilbo chuckled.

"Took?" Halbarad asked.

"Pippin is a Took," Frodo reminded him. Halbarad grinned, remembering the lively lad.

Bilbo smiled at their guests. "Shall we start preparing supper?"

At the word 'supper', Scamp stretched lazily, got to her feet, and ambled toward the kitchen.

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Aragorn and Halbarad had arrived in Hobbiton that autumn afternoon for a few days' visit.

Halbarad had never been inside a hobbit hole before, and was amazed at the size and complexity of Bag End... and at the fact that it contained beds large enough for 'Big Folk', as the hobbits called them. He brought with him the books borrowed from the house at Crickhollow, and was astounded at the extent of Bilbo's library. There were few books in his village, and he looked forward to examining as many as time allowed.

After supper, Frodo took Halbarad down to the Row to meet Sam and his family. Aragorn remained behind to see to the horses, and have a quiet talk with Bilbo.

"Your visits mean a great deal to Frodo," Bilbo said to him, setting out tea and cakes in the dining room. "I know that Hobbiton is usually out of your way; we are delighted that you and Halbarad are able to stay a few days with us."

"Trust me, Bilbo," Aragorn said, "the pleasure is ours."

"Halbarad's ankle seems fully healed," Bilbo observed.

Aragorn took a sip of his tea. "It is; his family looked after him while he was recovering."

"So, my friend..." Bilbo sat down. "What brings you this way? Or is it something you prefer not to discuss?"

"I am happy to tell you about it, Bilbo," Aragorn said. "I know you have had many dealings with the Dwarves."

"I certainly have."

Aragorn grew serious. "The Dwarves of the Blue Mountains have requested a meeting."

"They asked to see you?"

"Not me, specifically; only that we send someone who has authority to speak for the Dúnedain."

"And you have chosen Halbarad to accompany you, and not one of your more experienced men? He is very young."

Aragorn nodded. "Halbarad shows unusual ability and promise -- not unlike what we all sense in Frodo. He needs only experience – in diplomacy, leadership... to learn to hear the nuances of what is spoken as well as what is not. This meeting, where he will stand at my side to quietly observe and listen, is part of his training."

Bilbo leaned forward with interest. "What is the purpose of this meeting?"

"The Dwarves wish to explore the hills north and west of Lake Evendim – to determine whether they are worth mining."

Bilbo left the room briefly to retrieve his hand-drawn map of the North Farthing, and spread it out on the table.

"Who owns those lands north of the Shire?"

"No one... exactly," Aragorn said. "The memory of Dwarves is long, and they know that Lake Evendim is the ancient site of Annúminas -- the heart of the Kingdom of Arnor established by Elendil, my ancestor. They wish to continue the friendly relations they currently have with my people; thus, they ask to be granted formal permission to make their explorations."

"Aragorn," Bilbo said quietly, "have you considered that this may be a trap for you? To see whether or not a descendant of the Sea Kings yet lives?" As usual, he used the Ranger's true name only when they were alone, and speaking very seriously about something.

"The risk is low," Aragorn said frankly. "My name and lineage are known by very few, and I do not claim to be anything other than what I appear – chieftain of a wandering folk... a remnant of what once was. It is very courteous of the Dwarves to ask permission at all."

"You will represent your people, and grant formal permission for the Dwarves to delve in your ancestral lands," Bilbo said thoughtfully. "What will the Dúnedain receive in return?"

"You have an ancient phrase in the Shire, Bilbo, do you not? 'When the King comes back'."

"Yes," Bilbo smiled. "I doubt that many truly believe such a day will – or should – ever come."

"Nor do the Dwarves, I suspect," Aragorn admitted. "Their loyalty lies with their own kings. And yet, they have made an intriguing offer – if granted permission to mine those hills, should the race of Men ever once again come into our own they vow to help rebuild the ancient city of Annúminas, which lies now in ruins. It is much to hope for, but perhaps such a promise might be of benefit... someday."

"When is this meeting?"

"At the fulling of the moon, in four days, along the south shore," Aragorn said. "Lake Evendim is, at most, two days' ride. Halbarad and I should leave Hobbiton the day after tomorrow, and when our meeting is concluded we will return to say goodbye... and hopefully greet the new pups!"

"At least this time, Frodo won't be begging to accompany you when you leave; Scamp will keep him distracted."

"I agree," Aragorn laughed. "After all, he's about to become an uncle!"

TBC