This story was originally written for the July 2007 Teitho Contest under a different pen name.
It was a low murmur, more of a mumble really, breathed on a sleepy sigh as his arm fell into the warm, empty space on their bed. She'd hoped to be to the washroom and back before he noticed, but as silent as her departure had been, it was simply her very absence that disturbed his sleep. Disoriented in the darkness behind his eyelids Aragorn reached out to where his wife should have been, one hand flailing gracelessly against her pillow as he rose through shifting layers of consciousness, searching against a vague sense of loss and threatening at any moment to break the surface into full wakefulness.
Arwen wasn't about to let that happen.
"Shh, my love," she soothed as she slipped back into bed. In the nebulous void between sleep and awake her husband responded best to the Grey Tongue of their father's house, and her voice caressed the words as readily as her fingertips caressed the inside of his forearm—eliciting her favorite shiver—before snaking down to claim his hand in hers. Instantly he stilled, waiting patiently even in sleep for her to find her place beside him. Arwen turned on her side, her back to him, and pulled his hand so that his arm became her pillow. Aragorn shifted in turn, spooning against her and pulling her close with his free arm as it slipped easily in the hollow beneath her breasts. A wisp of hot breath ghosted across her bare shoulder as he sighed in contentment before his breathing evened out, fully asleep once more and all without having truly woken.
Arwen closed her eyes in a mostly silent sigh as she let their bodies coalesce, heaviness settling in her limbs as she relaxed back into the embrace. She loved these early mornings when she would wake long before her husband needed to be up, when she could enjoy his warmth and the comforting weight of his presence. Even as her gaze lingered on the westward windows, her thoughts straying briefly to her family, she felt nothing but contentment as she basked in the simple, tangible affirmation of the rightness of her choices. She was exactly where she needed to be. She knew this with a certainty not even her deepest, darkest fears could touch, because when he called her name—
—tickling across her ear as he awoke confused to find her in his arms like it was still the very first time, affection and reverence and wonder swimming in the benediction as though he had expected to wake alone and was simply astonished to find that this was not so.
It always amazed her that he could say so much, simply by saying her name.
After two years of marriage they had settled into something of a routine. They would rise together in the mornings—Aragorn's innate sense of timing always ensuring that he would wake on time no matter what time he needed to awaken. Breakfast would be a simple affair for the two of them taken privately in their sitting room, and they used the time to dissect the coming day and to strategize for whatever lay ahead. From the very beginning the people were assured that their King and Queen would rule Gondor equally, and Arwen's duties to their adopted kingdom were often just as important as her husband's and sometimes more so, depending on the day, depending on whose opinions were accounted for the question. Yet even now there were always those who sought to undermine her authority. Though her first instinct was to deal with such matters herself and so silence her critics with her success, there were some who simply refused to be swayed—who refused to bend to the superior authority (and often knowledge) of a woman (or an elf), and those nearsighted few had brought their King's wrath down upon their heads.
"Why are you bringing these concerns to my attention? Arwen knows more about—" it didn't matter what. Aragorn's trust in her was absolute and unshakable, and he did not suffer those who held that trust to be misplaced. Every time the issue was raised he would offer up the same rejoinder, and the word he didn't say rang out loud and clear in every dictum—Queen Arwen—because the sheer presence he gave her name reduced the title to redundancy.
Of course, if ever she feared letting that power go to her head, she simply had to find herself running late for her morning appointments. Aragorn was nothing if not efficient: a consequence of so many decades spent as a soldier. Conversely, she seemed plagued with a lady's prerogative to spend entirely too much time preparing for her day. It was one of the few things that could truly try her husband's seemingly infinite patience. First came the foot-tapping, followed by distracted pacing, and then absent-minded cleaning or fiddling or rearranging (which, admittedly, was mostly a game to see if the maids could find where he'd hidden the sugar spoon, or the letter-opener, or his left slipper, or—)
Finally the exasperated shout when it came down to a choice between being late or leaving without her. It was reassuring in a way, this little reminder that beneath the robes and crowns and mantle of responsibility there lived a husband and a wife, real people in a real marriage living through the mundane realities of everyday life in between bringing peace and prosperity to Middle-earth.
Once suitably attired (or close enough) they rushed off to fulfill their duties for the day. Long hours of appointments and visitations and hearings and tours and reports and oftentimes her husband didn't realize that he'd missed lunch until she'd cornered him in his study late in the afternoon, picnic basket in hand and a stern word ready for whatever or whomever had convinced her husband that meals were optional. She would barge in without knocking and Aragorn would look up—surprised even though she was the only one who dared—and his exclamation—
—all starry-eyed and startled joy, as though he'd found the sapling of the White Tree all over again. Most days they would eat and then return to whatever had been so important, yet there were times when the meal was left unfinished and then maybe they were lucky enough that one of them remembered to bolt the door because in between testing the structural integrity of the overlarge desk and exploring the many varied textures of chocolate dribbled over skin they didn't always remember to keep their voices down, and then very little was deemed important afterwards. At least until dinnertime anyway, as the evening meal was an obligation that (unfortunately) neither of them could afford to miss.
Dinner, of course, was always a grand affair, with a feast befitting a King and Queen and conversations befitting anyone fool enough to believe the myopic herd of counselors and advisors could leave their affairs of state behind and actually unwind at the end of the day. So rather than calling a moratorium on work—which Aragorn tried on several occasions and to spectacular failure, mostly because he was just as guilty as the rest of them—Arwen would take her husband by the hand and pull him from the table, often with his parting remarks shouted back across the Hall, but the moment the great doors banged shut behind them any hesitancy Aragorn might have had was soon forgotten.
The first time they stumbled into the Royal Apartment after a feast had been their wedding night, and the giddiness born of excitement and too much wine had caromed to a stuttering halt when they realized that so many long, hard years of waiting had distilled into that very moment. Suddenly much too pale and stone-cold sober, her new husband had blinked at her like a rabbit cornered by the hounds—
—her name emerging in a hesitant plea, wrapped up in every last insecurity he'd dared not show, in reverence of the dream that had sustained him to Mordor and back again and more than once, and scared to death that it would finally arrive stillborn, ripped out of his grasp at the last possible moment like so much else that he'd had stolen from his life. Arwen hadn't known what to say, and in a moment of blinding clarity she'd realized that words weren't needed anyway. Instead she let her lips tip into an indulgent smile as one hand brushed a lock of long dark hair away from his face while the other began a patient descent down the long laces of her bodice. Then together with fumbling hands they slowly peeled back the layers of cloth and time and expectation until they stood, separate and exposed and momentarily panicked when they both realized what was about to happen.
Yet Aragorn had smiled, so warm and reassuring, like the fingers that suddenly entwined with hers as he led her to their bed—
—and with one word asked her for permission, hesitant and almost shy because they both knew that what was coming would not be pleasant for her. So she forced another smile—determined to be brave for his sake—and laid herself down on the sprawling mattress of their marriage bed. Her grandmother had warned her, told her what to expect and gave the advice that came from experience, and though Arwen felt herself prepared she still couldn't stop the trembling, but then Aragorn had shushed her, soothed her sudden fears with soft words and eyes that begged for her to trust him. That night, Arwen learned that a man made love with lips and words and fingertips, and that consummating her marriage was simply a right of passage—like her coronation—to be endured in the moment and then later remembered fondly only for the door it opened to the rest of her life because it took barely a moment for the crown to settle atop her head but she had a lifetime to learn how to wear it properly.
It didn't occur to her until much later to wonder just where he'd learned how to—but then, she'd quickly dismissed those wandering notions, because of course Aragorn was healer-trained in their father's house and so would be intimately familiar with an Elven body, and he had many married friends, besides; and if he'd been offended by the question she refused to ask he gave no sign, but rather held her gaze unflinchingly with eyes so full of promise and adoration that she'd buried the last of her doubts in a shroud of private shame and never looked back. And so the days stretched into weeks and the weeks turned into months and now they're two years gone and still one look from him can make her blush even though he hasn't quite outgrown the need to ask for her permission first.
Two years gone and now they're both comfortable in their nightly ritual: return from dinner and sometimes wash up, or share a nightcap and quiet conversation, or just strip down and fall straight into bed (the thrill of sleeping skin on skin had yet to fade into routine). Then they'd make love, or maybe just talk, or make love then talk, or even just collapse straight into sleep if the day was hard enough. It took some getting used to, with Arwen accustomed to having her own bed and Aragorn accustomed to sleeping anywhere but in a bed, but by and by they learned to cope—never mind the irony that learning to sleep together wasn't nearly as difficult as learning to sleep together; but Arwen would get comfortable first and then Aragorn would spoon in behind her, and nowadays she has trouble falling asleep if not wrapped up in his embrace (a lesson learned during his first lengthy trip abroad), and having her to cling to at night helps him to keep the nightmares at bay.
Oh, those had scared her the first few times she'd been privy to them—and honestly they still did, even after she learned to handle them. The minor ones, with just the twitching and the inarticulate sounds, those she could sooth with just a touch and a few whispered Grey Tongued words without actually waking him, but the big ones? The ones where the twitches became full thrashes and the inarticulate sounds morphed into stuttered speech? The first time she reacted purely on instinct and thoughtlessly shook him awake—only to find herself splayed flat, knocked straight back off the bed and onto the floor with a split lip and a wide-eyed, breathless shock before recognition filtered back into the wild eyes of the stranger looming over her. Awareness and realization followed in quick succession and then suddenly Aragorn gasped and fled the room in holy terror, but Arwen couldn't follow with blood dribbling down her chin and a twinge in her ankle from how she'd landed. She was stuck, forced to wait for his return, all the while confronting the ugly truth that inside her loving, gentle, healer of a husband there lived a dangerous man and what had scared her—truly scared her—wasn't the violence she'd known (but hadn't known) that Aragorn was capable of, but rather her own imaginings about what terrible chimeras were likely to haunt his sleep.
In the end she wound up hiding in their apartment for three days until the bruise faded from her chin, but it was another week before Aragorn was able to meet her eyes and though he couldn't seem to stop apologizing in every other awkward and hesitant sentence he never once revealed just what was in that dream. Instead of questions she gave him nothing but assurances and waited patiently for him to be able to relax beside her in sleep once more.
When another full-blown nightmare struck Arwen knew better. She grabbed him by the wrists and yanked, and the sudden jarring of his head and shoulders bouncing off the pillows ripped the dreamscape from his vision and he flew awake on a throttled cry, and though he nearly sent them both tumbling to the carpet, his wife—still very much an elf—was stronger than she looked and had anticipated his reflexes, and this time when Aragorn came to his senses—
—her name a tight hiss shot like an arrow through his teeth, his body still trembling like the latent bowstring as the tension slowly drained away. As his breathing gradually returned to his control behind a drunken grin, like he'd stumbled out of the dungeons of Barad-Dur only to find himself wading through shores of Aman, she knew that it was less the relief of waking from a nightmare and more the realization that, unlike his dreams, his wife was tangible and permanent and real and though she hated that her husband suffered so, helping him recover, hearing him call her name with such rapture in his eyes made her feel like Varda had set the stars to shine for her and her alone.
By their first anniversary she'd seen him through many such ordeals, and it took her that long to realize that sometimes there were patterns to the garbled speech that spilled from his subconscious. Though she did not recognize the language she'd heard the sounds repeated enough to decode the words, but she did not understand them. Unfortunately the only linguist on hand was Aragorn himself, and so Arwen was forced to wait for Faramir to return from Ithilien. After she finally cornered the elusive Steward it had taken several blunders through poor diction, but when Faramir's eyes had shone with the wonder of sudden understanding she knew she'd found the right pronunciation.
Faramir had excitedly related to her that the tongue was that of the desert dwellers of far Harad and was barely heard outside those lands, and he probably would have rambled on with a scholar's delight about how the language wasn't etymologically dissimilar to that of the Rohirrim, only with a pictorial alphabet and not a few divergent phonemes, but Arwen interrupted him before he could completely derail their conversation onto a linguistic tangent. Faramir had apologized around a sheepish grin and then she could almost hear the gears turning as he set to tasting the strange words for himself. He'd offered the translation almost absently ("No more please"), followed by half-audible attempts to place the words in some sort of context, surfacing long enough to ask her where she'd heard it, as how did someone 'not want' more 'please' and was she sure she'd heard it right because if you added a bilabial click at the end the word became—
The sudden realization drained the light of enthusiasm right out of Faramir's expression, like bitters from a tankard, and he looked slightly ill as the answers to his questions materialized in the remaining dregs.
With blazing insight, Arwen knew just what haunted her husband's dreams.
She'd felt awful, laying that on poor Faramir's already overburdened shoulders and no doubt adding an extra layer of complication to the Steward's unique friendship with his King. On top of that, she feared she had betrayed her husband's trust, even though she had the utmost faith in Faramir to keep their secret.
Later, she'd never been so thankful that such faith had been misplaced.
Barely a fortnight after Faramir's departure for Ithilien, Legolas had arrived in Minas Tirith and had all but abducted the King, dragging poor Aragorn on a spur-of-the-moment, utterly pointless hunting trip. Arwen had reasoned that an escape from the Citadel would be good for her husband, and she'd barely maintained a straight face when the Royal Guard returned a day later in an utter panic at having 'misplaced' their King and the Elven Prince. Of course Aragorn had returned on his own a few days later, entirely unrepentant even after a long afternoon of lectures from nearly everyone on staff about the dangers of wandering off alone. Then that night they'd crawled into bed together, and as he wrapped his arms around her—
—the choked off gasp wrapped so much love inside so much pain all tucked inside the corners of her name that she fought off a shiver and forced her body to relax despite the galloping pace of her heart. She brought her hands up and clutched at the arms that clung to her and trapped one of his feet between her ankles, anchoring him to the here and now of her presence in their marriage bed, and he buried his face in her hair as it slid down into the soft hollow between her shoulder and the line of her jaw as she forced herself to lay perfectly still in counterpoint to the tension that radiated from her husband in waves.
After an eternity of frantic silence, her patience was rewarded. In a voice so flat and lifeless that she never would have associated it with her charismatic husband, Aragorn wove a haunting tale out of the cloying darkness that cocooned them. He spoke of a journey during his travels as Thorongil, an espionage mission for Steward Ecthelion that brought him farther south than any map could show, into a desert that had no name in any elf-friend tongue. He told her of the incredible heat, the scorching winds and shifting sands that burned the skin, of traversing the arid wasteland on the backs of strange beasts that didn't need water as horses did, and surprisingly frigid nights beneath a stunning canopy of unfamiliar stars. He spoke of entire cities made of tents and oxcarts, clustered around oases and full of strange people with skin as dark as iron. On and on the words flowed, painting stark pictures of an alien landscape beyond imagining until at last, in a voice that hadn't once wavered since the tale began, her husband finally confessed that it was in one such city that he'd been captured as a spy, and that he'd been held for nine cycles of the moon before he managed his escape. Of what he endured during his tenure there he did not say. He did not need to. It was understood in the echoes of the silence that followed, and the memory of the nightmares that lingered still.
Afterwards they did not speak but spent remainder of the night ensconced, taking comfort in the presence of the other and simply breathing through their silent vigil until the first pale wisps of morning climbed in through the open windows and chased away the urgency. And after that they shifted, the solution to this newfound need slipping into their lives with that same awkward grace, because nothing was ever perfect on the first try but they were willing to learn and willing to teach each other and sooner or later they got it right. While they had always known that together they could talk about anything that hardly meant that they did, but after that night Aragorn made a conscious effort to let her in, to shine a light into all the dark corners of his past and expose the scars upon his soul, one by one. It was always in bed, always with him clinging to her like a lifeline as though she imparted strength and courage through osmosis and he needed to soak up every drop.
Yet even that was not enough. For Aragorn, pulling his secrets up was like ripping arrows out from flesh; it always cost him something in the telling, no matter what healing may take place once it was done and for that, he needed dark. The absolute dark of their bedroom at night, before their eyes adjusted to the faint light outside their windows, and he had to have her close because if he couldn't see her he had to feel her to know that she was really there and Arwen reasoned that he'd had far too much practice at sharing his pain with ghosts that she didn't begrudge him this, even if it meant hearing that awful, lifeless voice sail past her ear, her heart clenching each time it scraped harsh and raw over wounds that hadn't healed, because he couldn't—literally couldn't—share his demons with her face to face, and she never knew whether that was because he couldn't stand to see the emotions that flashed through her eyes, or because he was afraid she would see too much of the memories that darkened his own. Over the course of time, she'd learned to simply let it be.
The hardest thing wasn't the learning of it but rather the accepting, when the focus wasn't so much on knowing the right words but rather the right silences because even a love such as theirs simply made the world worth living in; it hardly made the living any easier. And so they got through the long nights of listening, where she wouldn't ask the questions she longed to ask and he wouldn't give the reassurances he longed to give when the shoe was suddenly on the other foot and she was the one to offer halting confessions to the dark.
It was a slow and sometimes painful process but in fits and starts and through discoveries and compromises Arwen somehow learned to be a wife. She'd had no doubts that Aragorn would learn to be a husband—he accumulated titles like he did names: ranger, healer, lore-master, chieftain, and king. It was a litany every bit as true and tangible as Estel, Aragorn, Strider, Thorongil, and Elessar. Husband simply tacked itself onto the end so unobtrusively that it was almost hard to believe it was new to him—but that was her beloved and his enviable gift of malleability, to be able to become anything to anybody, to slip into any role as needed and fill whatever hole was gaping. Her own family—their own family—was evidence enough of that.
It was only later that she learned how much adaptability was a human trait, and that Aragorn was simply better at it than most. She saw it all around her, in the faces of the people as they rebuilt their city, when they cried until they laughed and laughed until they cried and picked up all the pieces and jumped right back into life, and she'd suddenly realized—this was the legacy of the Second Born, that their lives were not defined by the choice to simply be. Instead they had to choose to do because unlike the Eldar they did not have time to simply exist in the world. Rather they were forced to live in it—to cram as much living as they could into their fragile, finite lives. Where once Arwen had pitied the Second Born for all they would never have the chance to see, to learn, and to experience, now she saw that in their limited span of years they were so much more alive than any elf could ever hope to be.
Like Varda's stars an elf's fëa burned eternally, flickering occasionally but remaining constant and unchanging unto the ending of the world. Yet the fëar of the Second Born were more like those few bright jewels that fell from the firmament. Once the spark was lit it flashed bright and hot and so damned fast, and her people were always so caught up in the tragedy that such a light could fail that they completely missed the beauty of it, and so they never wondered what it must be like to shine so brilliantly if only for so brief a time, to see and hear and taste and touch and be with such a fire. For Arwen it was a sobering revelation, that this was Ilúvatar's true gift to the race of Men. The fact that they could leave the circles of the Arda when they died was simply due to the fact that by then they'd already burned away anything that might have tethered their spirits to it.
It had been another one of those nights where her husband had to hold her while she cried and listen without comment when she realized her family must have thought that she loved Aragorn enough to be willing to embrace death when instead it was that she loved life enough to be willing to lay down her immortality, because only Aragorn could teach her how to truly live. She was still learning, two years gone, because marriage wasn't so much a state of being but a state of evolution, perpetual and unending and so very much like life and now that she was here she intended to keep on living, and the tears were for her family because they would never know.
When at last the wrenching sobs had given way to soft, breathy sniffles Arwen had offered up a trembling thank you, the only words to strike back against the aching loneliness, a feeble challenge to the stifling dark and her husband, smart enough to know that he didn't know nearly enough to give any sort of answer, had simply tightened his hold on her and let the silence settle in.
Of course not all their nights were painful. There were many times where Aragorn wasn't forced to face the specters of his past, and Arwen didn't come into any new realizations about the future. There were the nights when they would hold each other, flushed and sweaty and drunk on the afterglow, when they would have serious discussions about what to name the children, or simply talk for hours about the idle inanities of foreign trade. Far enough away from it all that they could forget the pressures and problems that seemed to hound their every step and lose themselves for just a moment in the joy that was each other and the little slivers of happiness they'd won for themselves seemingly against all odds. And he wouldn't dwell on yesterday and she wouldn't fret over tomorrow, and maybe—just maybe—they could believe they'd be alright because—
—when her name fell as softly as a prayer of thanksgiving she knew that for all Middle-earth had placed their hopes in him, he had placed his own in her. Undomiel she was once called, in her father's house, a name of tragic symbolism; but then Aragorn had set her on a pedestal just out of reach and spent a lifetime chasing after it like a polar star, and finally she realized that she was his Undomiel. So it didn't matter to her that he only said 'I love you' consciously, because he somehow rationed that she needed to hear him say it and her husband wielded words the way he wielded swords, slinging each deliberately and for maximum effect, because he said it so much better every time he said her name.
And every time she gazes up at him, as his fingers cascade through her hair and his head rolls back and she can almost see the stars that flash and die before his eyes—it's because she needs to hear it again. That sweet explosion of noise, the one she keeps chasing after, the one that puts all the rest to shame. The one she gets only after she's pared off the names and titles he wears like armor until she's found the man beneath, made him fly so far out over the edge that all his beautiful words are left trailing far behind him, with strings of consonants pulsing rough and ragged past dry and gasping lips on every exhale. As she feels him trembling in the balance she knows that sound is lodged like a coiled spring somewhere deep inside him and that it's wound too tight to hold, and when finally it gives—
—his whole body is unfolding into it, shuddering, explosive, leaving the barest hint of voice behind. There, that flashfire when for a moment all he had and all he was flared in supernova she knew that love was the palest, flimsiest word to possibly describe the fire, because with that fleeting sound that twisted itself into her name, Arwen knew that she was his whole world and everything in it because his spirit burned for her, bright and hot and painfully terminal. So what if they only had a few paltry decades pockmarked with politics and war, loss and regret, far too many scars and a disturbing penchant for darkened silences? They would spend them all just like this—living just like this, because when the fire's finally burnt itself out and they tumble headlong into oblivion she knows that they'll be following all those falling stars, and wherever they landed in the end—together—they would have outrun all their yesterdays and ducked around the concept of tomorrow—and they would be free, to learn it all all over again, and just maybe get it right the first time round.
Anor: the sun
Arda: the world
Undomiel: Even Star