Fear of Fire

Chapter One: Propositions

Faramir glanced up from his reading at the sound of a heavy boot tread, inwardly cursing whoever owned it. He had thought that on such a fine day everyone would be outside and he might be allowed a few moment's peace in the library. "Hello?" he called warily.

The owner of the boots came into view from behind a row of bookshelves. It was the last person Faramir would have expected. Hastily he grabbed up the books that had been resting on his lap and jumped to his feet.

Aragorn made a dismissive gesture with his hands, but Faramir remained standing. Aragorn moved forward and leaned against the small table covered with Faramir's selections. "Do you spend all your free time here, Faramir?" Aragorn asked conversationally.

"Not all, my Lord," Faramir replied, frowning.

"I meant no criticism," Aragorn said quickly, sensing his Steward's unease. "It was a joke." He sighed. "I hope I am not interrupting you in anything."

Faramir quickly shook his head. "Nothing important." He waited uneasily, wondering why Aragorn had apparently sought him out.

"I wondered if you would be willing to take a walk with me," Aragorn continued conversationally. "There is something I would like to talk to you about but--" he looked around quickly-- "in private."

"Just give me a minute to put these books back and I'll be happy to accompany you," Faramir assured him, quickly moving to return the volumes of poetry he had borrowed to their shelves. Aragorn moved to help him. Faramir awkwardly murmured his thanks and tried to hurry the process. It had been more than a month since the King had returned victorious from Mordor and Faramir had yet to get used to the casual, friendly manner his lord adopted with him--he doubted if he ever would. He would have been far more at ease if Aragorn had treated him with stiff formality, like his father always had. Or if the much older and wiser man had treated Faramir like a pupil, as Mithrandir has always done--anything but this sense of companionship. Faramir was unused to having friends.

Aragorn increased Faramir's discomfort by putting a companionable arm around his shoulders as they left the library. The king guided the conversation onto general topics--the weather, the rebuilding efforts, the well being of common acquaintances--even as he steered his steward through the hallways to some unknown destination. Faramir was content to follow Aragorn's lead in both areas, falling into step with him and trying to give polite answers. Despite it being the first of the really beautiful days of summer, there were several people about in the palace. Everyone who saw them bowed and politely moved out of the way.

"I do wish they wouldn't do that," Aragorn said softly at one point as two older women curtsied and moved to the side of the hallway.

"But everyone is overjoyed to have a king once again," Faramir replied, unable to fathom what Aragorn found objectionable in their behavior. "It is an honor and a pleasure for us to give you the proper respect."

Aragorn gave him half a smile. "And I am trying to accept that, Faramir. But it doesn't change the fact that I've spent most of my life as a ranger in the north country. As such I find being bowed and catered to a little disconcerting," he confided.

Faramir had no experience to compare this too; he had been the Steward's son all his life and rarely was uncomfortable with a polite acknowledgement of his presence, though he had never taken offense at its absence. "You must get used to it, then," he offered instead.

Aragorn nodded meditatively. "You are right, of course." And he was silent for the remainder of their walk, leaving Faramir to wonder if he had somehow given offense.

It did not take Faramir too long to figure out where their destination was. Aragorn was headed towards the King's private gardens, attached to the royal quarters and completely solitary--you could not enter without the King or Queen's express permission. The guard who ensured its privacy nodded politely to them as they went through.

Faramir looked around as they went in. The gardens, like everything else in Minas Tirith, had been neglected over past years as every effort was bent towards keeping the Shadow at bay. Weeds choked the beds, trees had gone unpruned, and what flowers still grew did so haphazardly, without order or structure to where they had survived. But Faramir suspected that with an Elf-Queen on the way, Aragorn's gardens would soon rival any on Middle-Earth.

Aragorn gestured for Faramir to seat himself on a stone bench. Faramir did so, careful of the ivy creeping in around it. Aragorn propped one foot on the bench and remained standing. He rubbed his forehead tiredly, as though now that he had Faramir here he didn't know how to begin. Faramir waited apprehensively.

"Forgive me for ambushing you and dragging you away from your tasks like that," Aragorn finally said. "I have been meaning to speak to you privately for some time now, but there never seems to be a good time. If I am not surrounded by people demanding my attention, then you are. I can never catch you alone. Sometimes I think you do it deliberately."

Aragorn smiled, and Faramir gathered that this was supposed to be a joke. He smiled weakly back--actually, Aragorn had not hit far from the mark. There was something about him that made Faramir want to talk as he had never talked to anyone before in his life--to pour out his soul to this wise and gentle king. He wanted to ask about Boromir's death, and to tell about his father's; wanted to confess to someone the awful dreams he had been having. And he wanted to tell about the terrible fear that seized him whenever he had to pass the hearth fire in the great hall, so like a bonfire--how he could no longer so much as light a candle without trembling.

Something about Aragorn's face and smile drew these impulses out of Faramir, and so Faramir built a wall of people between them. He tried to avoid personal conversations like they were engaged in now to remove himself from temptation. It would not be right to lay his burdens at the feet of a man who had already done so much for him, and who had so many other burdens already. Aragorn was a good man, and Faramir knew if he realized how distressed Faramir still was, he would worry. Faramir couldn't allow the king to worry on his account.

"At any rate, what I have to say simply has to be said in private, where no one can overhear us," Aragorn continued. He paused, again seeming to have difficulty finding the right words. "And I am relying on your discretion."

"Of course, my liege," Faramir assured him promptly. "I would never repeat anything you said to me."

"I know you would not," Aragorn replied absently. He pinched the bridge of his nose. "Faramir, my relationship with the Queen is not--normal."

If Faramir had been expecting something, this was certainly not it. "How so?" he ventured cautiously, when it became apparent he was supposed to speak.

Aragorn exhaled softly. He sat down on the bench, to Faramir's great relief--it had been awkward to be seated while the king remained standing. "I have not always known who I was," he stated. "I was raised in Imladris by Lord Elrond who treated me as a foster-son--it was not until I was a man that he took me aside and told me of my true heritage. He did so for many reasons, not the least of which was the gathering darkness. For many days I thought of nothing but that--of how I could use this heritage against the Shadow, of whether I should assert my claim or not, and how to do it. But after a while other things began to come to my mind, and one of them was this: that if I was indeed the heir of Isildur, and the last of my bloodline, then it was my duty to continue the line--in short, to have children.

"Most people wouldn't have considered this to be a big realization, but to me it was. It was because I had just recently come to another realization about myself--that the fairer sex held no allure for me. I was attracted to men." He had been looking away from Faramir as he spoke, but now he turned and held his Steward's eye, as if to impart the seriousness of what came next. "This has always been true of me, and it is to this day."

Faramir's head reeled. The Queen--she was giving up her immortality for a man who did not, who could not, love her? "And what of the Queen, my lord?" he stammered.

Aragorn smiled fondly. "Ah, the Queen. Well, I had just become friends with Arwen at that time, as she had been in Lorien for most of my childhood. There was something about her that I inherently trusted, and I poured out my heart to her those weeks. I must confess I looked on her then as something of a grandmother," Aragorn said, blushing slightly--as any man would have making such a confession about his wife. "She was so much older than I, and so much wiser. Like Mithrandir. Between the two of them they set me on my course, and I shall ever be grateful. And when I spoke to Arwen about my fears of marrying and having children, she set me straight there too. She asked me just exactly what it was about the idea that frightened me, and it forced me to think. I told her that I was afraid of harming a great lady by harnessing her into marriage with a man who didn't love her, and I told her I was afraid of being without love myself, kept from pursuing my passions by a jealous wife."

"And what did she do?" Faramir asked.

"She laughed," Aragorn replied with a grin. "She laughed for a long time, and when she got control of herself she told me the answer was simple: marry somebody in the same boat. Get married to a woman who was attracted to women, and then we could raise children together and seek our loves elsewhere."

Faramir's head swam again, but Aragorn smiled and quickly reassured him. "Nay, Faramir, the Queen is not such a woman. Let me explain. At first it seemed a good plan, but then I fretted to Arwen that there might be no such lady of suitable rank when the time came for me to marry. I had to be married to somebody with the proper lineage to be a Queen of Gondor. Arwen grew solemn, and agreed with me that this might pose a problem. And it was several years later that she came up with the solution.

"I had been abroad, and it was at a chance meeting in Lorien when she came to me, her eyes shining. 'Aragorn,' she said, 'I have found a solution to our problem. I will marry you. No one can object to my lineage as being too low for the Queen of Gondor. And though I love you dearly, it is a brotherly love and I have no desire to possess you alone, or keep you from finding a true mate. I will be able to give you the heirs you seek, and when your life is over I will sail over the sea and find a love of my own.'

"There was no swaying her. So that is how it came to be, Faramir. We fabricated the story of our love and of her great sacrifice to present to the masses. I knew that I could never acknowledge openly what I was. You know as well as I that for a man to love another man is not generally smiled on." Faramir nodded vigorously--oh yes, he knew this very well. "Very few people would understand. Such preferences may be tolerated in a guard or a soldier, but in the King it must remain hidden." Aragorn paused. "And in the Steward, as well."

Faramir went cold--was he that obvious? He took a few deep breaths to try to calm himself. Aragorn was of Numenorean blood and he had been raised by elves, it was natural that he was able to sense things Faramir prayed others could not. Then, before Faramir could sink too deeply into his panic, he realized Aragorn was smiling at him compassionately. "Boromir told me," he said gently. "In Lorien. When he found out about me. You are not obvious, Faramir. In fact, had Boromir not told me I never would have known."

Faramir took a large gulp of air. "You scared me," he sighed.

"I am sorry," Aragorn said contritely. "And I am sorry for burdening you with such a long story, but I thought it best that you know."

"No, no, I'm glad you told me," Faramir assured him hastily. "And I'm honored with your confidence," he added a bit more formally.

"There is more."

"Sire?" How much more complicated could this story get? Faramir wondered.

"I told you that story so that I could make a suggestion," Aragorn said. He was fidgeting with the hem of his tunic and looking extremely nervous again. "It's a very forward suggestion, and I hope that you'll forgive me for making it. After all, we have only known each other a few months--but I think it could be a great help to you, and I feel I can trust you. And I have to tell you that, whether you decide to take this suggestion or not, it is even more important that you keep private what I will tell you next than what I just told you about myself and Arwen."

Faramir nodded solemnly. Aragorn took a deep breath. "I know a lady," he began. "A lady who is like you and me, loving only her own sex. She is a lady of high breeding, whom I could have and probably would have married had it not been that Arwen and I had announced our engagement long ago, and to throw it aside would be suspect. Yet I wish it were not so. This lady has struggled against what she is for a long time, against that and the other invisible bars around her, and I fear for her. She must not return to Edoras." Aragorn stopped short, suddenly realizing he had said too much, then smiled a relaxed smile. "I speak of the Lady Eowyn of Rohan, if you had not already surmised. Has she ever spoken to you of aught of this?"

Faramir shook his head wonderingly. He had become rather close, he thought, with Lady Eowyn while they were confined in the Houses of Healing together, but nothing like this had ever come up. Nor, if it had, was he certain he would have had the confidence to reveal his own preferences to her. And she was certainly good at hiding it. "How did you come to know this, my lord?"

"Theoden," Aragorn replied. "While in Rohan on the quest, Eowyn gave every appearance of having fallen in love with me. Theoden pulled me aside to warn me that it was not so, and to tell me of her predicament. She is so desperate for freedom, to be away from her difficult roles and the over-protectiveness of her brother that she would do anything--even throw herself into a marriage with a man she did not love--to escape."

Aragorn paused, looking at Faramir as if he expected the steward to speak. When Faramir remained silent, the king continued hesitantly. "It should not be too difficult to see what I am proposing," he said. "I know you are fond of Eowyn, and she of you. Both of you have a need to marry and have children, especially now that you are the last of your bloodline as I am of mine." Faramir hid his little flinch of pain at this reminder. "And you are of roughly equal rank with one another. Most importantly, you will each be free to find a real love someday. I know you will be able to give Eowyn the freedom she craves, and--" He broke off abruptly, something shadowing his eyes. "And perhaps she will be able to offer you some solace as well," he concluded.

Faramir understood by this last statement that he had not been hiding his anguish from the King as well as he had hoped. "It is a wonderful idea, my lord," he said. "If everything is as you say, then I believe Eowyn and I could--be of great use to each other."

Aragorn nodded enthusiastically, looking relieved. "Do not decide all at once," he cautioned. "Take a few days to think about it. If you can find no objections then I suggest you approach her--cautiously, for she is still grieving." Aragorn looked like he was going to say more, but stopped himself. He went on in a different vein. "I'm glad you're not angry with me for making such a bold suggestion."

Faramir shook his head, appalled that the King could believe Faramir would be angry with him for offering such good advice--for taking the time, indeed, to care for his and Eowyn's happiness at all. "It was very kind of you," he said aloud, "to take the time to devise such a solution for the Lady Eowyn and myself."

Aragorn shook his head. "Nay, the solution was already there. I merely brought it to your attention."

A thought struck Faramir. "Does Eomer know? About Eowyn?"

"I do not know, though I believe he does," Aragorn said. "You will have to ask Eowyn what you should say when you apply to him for her hand."

Faramir marveled at the way Aragorn seemed able to read his mind. "Yes, sire."

They settled into an uncomfortable silence--uncomfortable, at least, for Faramir. Aragorn was seemingly at ease, looking meditatively out into the gardens. Faramir tried not to fidget and waited politely to be dismissed.

"Faramir." Aragorn suddenly broke the silence that had been filled only by the occasional birdsong. He turned to look at Faramir. "You must let me know if there is anything I can do for you."

Faramir was completely nonplussed. "Sire?"

"I worry about you," Aragorn said fondly. "You are alone too much of the time. You must let me be your friend."

Faramir went hot all over. This wasn't happening, it just wasn't happening! He had fought too hard to put a wall up between him and Aragorn, to prevent just this sort of occurance. "It isn't my place, sire," Faramir stammered. "To be your friend."

Aragorn turned tired eyes on him. "Then whose place is it?" he asked sadly. "You are the closest in rank to me within the city. If you feel yourself so far removed from me as to be unable to see me as a man, but only as a king, then who am I to turn to for companionship?"

Guilt washed over Faramir. He had been thinking only of his own discomfort; it had not occurred to him that the King might be lonely, but it should have. "I had not seen it that way," he admitted.

"I know you haven't," Aragorn said with a smile. "I suggest you start to. And I also suggest you get rid of the I'm-not-worthy attitude and let me be your friend, Faramir. For I will not give up until you do. You will find out that I can be very persistent and annoying when I want something badly."

Faramir smiled weakly. How could the King want friendship with him this badly? "I surrender," he offered.

Aragorn smiled broadly. "Good! Now go think about what I've said, and if you find everything in order you can go seek out your lady," he said, adding a suggestive waggle of the eyebrows.

Faramir grinned back, one of the first real smiles to cross his face in days. He rose and bowed, preparing to depart--but Aragorn also sprang to his feet and caught Faramir halfway through the bow. "You do not have to do that in private, Faramir," he said seriously.

Faramir grimaced. "If you wish. I'll try to break the habit."

Aragorn nodded, his eyes not leaving Faramir's face. All traces of levity were gone. Faramir waited uncomfortably to be released. "Faramir," Aragorn breathed, "you must trust me. You must come to me if you need or want help. I can see you being eaten away, slowly consumed from the inside out, and it pains me greater than I can say. Lady Eowyn is not the only one still living with the shadow of their grief." Aragorn gripped Faramir's arm firmly. "Talk to me. Let me help you. If there is need, I am here for you."

Not trusting his voice to remain steady, Faramir nodded, once. Aragorn held him for a minute more, searching his face to see if Faramir had taken his words to heart. Whatever he found there apparently satisfied him, for he pulled the younger man into a loose embrace. Faramir returned it out of habit. This close, he could smell the musky scent of herbs that always followed the king around so much better than he usually could. Without realizing he was doing so he tightened his arms around Aragorn slightly, breathing in the comforting scent. He had not felt this loved, this cared for since Boromir--

Faramir pulled away hastily, away from the dangerous comfort that was causing him to feel too much. He nodded his head in deference to Aragorn, mindful that he had been forbidden to bow, and beat a hasty retreat before the tears could start to fall.

Chapter Two: Arrangements

A few hours after his talk with Aragorn, Faramir exited his quarters in search of the Lady Eowyn. The sun was beginning to set and the fading rays seemed determined to get in his eyes as he walked. This only served to further irritate them; they were already slightly red and swollen from crying. Faramir tried to shield his eyes with his hand as he wove through the crowds, cursing the weak nature that made him cry at the drop of a hat. Sometimes he was even unable to contain his tears until he could get into a private place to shed them. It was a weakness he had struggled with all his life. Something that not even Boromir could help him with, because he did not understand it. Boromir rarely cried. And now, Faramir rarely did so either.

Not in public, at least.

He had been in his early teens when he had discovered an almost fail-proof method for keeping the tears at bay until he could get into a private place to shed them. That was why he had spent much of his spare time in his youth in the library, committing pieces of arcane and difficult poetry to memory. Then when he felt the familiar stinging start behind his eyes he would swallow and try to remember as much as he could. He had gotten through many of Denethor's council meetings by reciting under his breath, barely moving his lips, letting the insults and belittlements slide past him without really paying attention. There was a catch: the tears would always return the moment he was in private. But that did not really matter; Faramir could afford to indulge his own weakness as long as he could keep it hidden from others.

Faramir made a conscious effort to think about something else--like his current mission. He had not forgotten that Aragorn had cautioned him to wait a few days before seeking out Eowyn, but Faramir felt otherwise. If Eowyn was truly as desperate as Aragorn had portrayed her to be, there was nothing to stop her from making a bid at another man the way she had with Aragorn in Rohan. And this time, there was no Theoden to step in and warn the gentleman of his niece's true intentions. Faramir shook his head slightly. So much loss. So many good men dead, so many families torn assunder. I must not allow myself to think only of Boromir, there are others who mourn. I must stop being selfish. Faramir recited poetry until he arrived at the quarters Eowyn and Eomer shared.

A servant let him in and politely directed him to the gardens in back of the house. Faramir entered them without reservations, but no sooner had he stepped in than he realized he had done so in peril of his life. Eowyn had her sword out and was practicing complicated passes in the air, so involved in her actions that she did not notice his entrance. Faramir cleared his throat.

Eowyn swung around, sword point hovering two inches away from Faramir's breast bone. Faramir held up his hands quickly in a gesture of non-hostility. In a moment recognition crossed Eowyn's face and she lowered the sword. "My Lord Faramir," she said, only slightly out of breath.

"My Lady," Faramir replied formally. "Forgive me for coming upon you unawares. From what I saw, the man who startles you while you have a weapon in your hands is an unlucky man indeed."

A shadow of irritation crossed Eowyn's face. "Do not patronize me, my Lord," she said icily.

Faramir's brow furrowed. "That was not my intention, my Lady. I meant what I said. Can you not accept the compliment?" he asked, echoing Boromir and Aragorn's complaints directed towards himself.

Eowyn sat the sword down on the retaining wall. "I am sorry. What can I do for you, Lord Faramir?"

Faramir cleared his throat again, this time uneasily. "Faramir is fine," he murmured, stalling for time. Now that he was in a similar position, he could realize how much courage it had taken for Aragorn to come to him. "Lady Eowyn, I wanted to talk to you about a...a personal matter."

Eowyn's lips quirked in half a smile. "If I am to call you Faramir, then certainly you must call me Eowyn as well?"

"Eowyn, then. I..." How had Aragorn begun? He had made a revelation about himself, in order to make Faramir more secure. "I have a confession to make. Not one that I make lightly, nor one that I would make to very many people. But I hope that making this confession will allow a certain...understanding...between us."

Eowyn bit her lip. "You talk of serious things, my l--Faramir," she corrected herself. "Walk with me then, and we will talk."

Faramir moved forward and offered her his arm out of habit. Eowyn slipped her had through his elbow, and they began a sedate pace around the garden. Eowyn looking curiously at her companion and waiting for him to begin. Faramir wetted his lips nervously and wondered if this really had been the best way to start. He had never willingly given this information to anyone--not since the day he told his father.

Denethor had informed his younger son in no uncertain terms that it was not to be spoken of again, and that he was to behave in all respects as though it was not so. Then he had given Faramir a beating to drive home the lesson. It was one of only half a dozen times Denethor had hit Faramir, and the only time it was for something Faramir truly couldn't help. After that Faramir had obeyed his father and never spoken of his desires to anyone. Indeed, he had taken pains in the opposite direction, working very hard to hide his preferences from all.

But there was one person who had never had to be told, and it was the same person who applied the healing salve to Faramir's back when he had been beaten. Faramir willed his thoughts away from the direction they were headed. Even his dearest memories of Boromir were tainted by the fact his brother was dead, and it did not do to dwell on them.

Eowyn was still waiting for him to speak--he had to take this leap of faith in her. Nevertheless, he could not help but caution her one more time before he began. "Eowyn, what I have to say is for your ears only."

Eowyn nodded her understanding. "I would never repeat a confidence," she said firmly.

Faramir smiled at her unwitting echo of his previous conversation with Aragorn. "Very well, then." How on earth to begin? He hesitated a moment longer, then suddenly found some common ground to start with. "You know, better than most I imagine, how it can be necessary for a person of our rank to sacrifice part of their personal life to what is expected of them." Eowyn nodded, looking as though she found this trend in the conversation ironic. "Yes. Well, I have experienced this most of my life in a very personal area. I am not attracted to women," he said bluntly.

Eowyn stopped moving, and Faramir by necessity halted also. He met her keen gaze, trying not to flinch away as she studied his face. He had grown up used to such scrutiny, but it was no easy thing he had just done.

"Not at all?" Eowyn queried delicately.

Faramir smiled humorlessly. "As friends and nothing more. I'm sure you understand me."

"Oh, yes. Yes, I understand you very well."

Faramir repressed an amused snort at Eowyn's fervent answer, and they resumed walking. "So I am sure you also understand that for me to marry it would never be a matter of love, but rather one of mutual convenience," he said. "A political marriage." Eowyn tensed slightly, almost as though she guessed some part of what was coming, although she kept her face blank. "I had always assumed that I would be forced to hide what I was from my spouse, if for no other reason than to keep her from pain. I wish to shackle no lady to an unloving husband. But recently it has been brought to my attention that I might not be the only one searching for--" He paused to try to come up with the best possible wording. "An understanding spouse who would allow me to pursue my passions while providing me with the necessary alliance. Do you know anyone in such need, Eowyn?" he asked quietly.

Eowyn was very tense. Her eyes were veiled, as though she didn't know how far it was safe to go in this conversation. "I may know a lady," she said cautiously.

"A lady of Rohan?" Faramir asked, quite willing to speak in the third person for a while. Eowyn nodded. "Excellent. It would be good to reinforce the political alliance between Gondor and Rohan this way. I daresay you may have been thinking as much when you courted Aragorn," he continued blandly, ignoring her flinch. "But is she someone I can get along with, do you think?"

Eowyn stopped walking again, and turned to face him. Her expression said clearly that she was not enjoying the farce, and so Faramir ended it.

"Eowyn," he said softly. "I offer you freedom. I offer you freedom to love as you will, while at the same time the chance to have heirs and political protection from those who do not understand. And I ask only the same in return."

Eowyn bit her lip. "How did you know?"

Faramir was going to answer truthfully, but as he drew breath in he suddenly realized that Aragorn hadn't actually given him permission to repeat any part of their conversation to Eowyn. Certainly not the part about Aragorn and Arwen. Would Eowyn become angry if she learned that Theoden had spoken privately about her to Aragorn--and Aragorn in turn to Faramir? Yes, anyone would become angry at being spoken of behind their back like that, and particularly someone as fiercely independent as Eowyn.

Fortunately, Faramir's lifetime in his father's court had left him able to dissemble quickly and with relative believability. "I have always been able to tell," he said gently. "Not just with you, but with many people. I think it is a gift of the Numenorian blood that is still in my veins."

"Aragorn must be quite good at it, then."

Faramir couldn't tell whether Eowyn was serious or not, but it gave him an opportunity to introduce the idea that Aragorn already knew, about both of them. "It wouldn't surprise me at all to know he was aware of it, of this and many other things," he said. "But you, Eowyn, have not yet answered my proposal."

"Oh, Faramir, you call that a proposal?" Eowyn asked with a raised eyebrow. "It was hardly romantic."

Faramir stared at her for a moment. A small smile was tugging at the corners of her lips, so he decided she was jesting. "Ah, my Lady, how can you ever forgive me?" he asked dramatically. "But what shall I do? Shall I fall down upon my knees?" He did so, grabbing both of Eowyn's hands in his. "Would you like me to weep with the depth of my passion for you? Tell you that I shall die if you reject me? Beg you to show mercy to one who is--" He paused, searching for appropriately ludicrous wording. "One who is drowning with desire for the slightest sign of thy favor?"

Eowyn was laughing by this point. Faramir pressed on, over-exaggerating every word and gesture and in general behaving like a third-rate actor in a terrible play. "Be my bride, Lady Eowyn, and I shall grant to you my love for all eternity. Or if thou wilt not, grant me this courtesy only: give me one last look from thy heavenly eyes before I throw myself from the tower in despair."

Eowyn laid a finger over his lips. "That is quite enough, Faramir," she said, eyes sparkling with mirth. "I understand you."

"But will you grant my desire?" Faramir asked, half-joking and half serious.

Eowyn's next actions surprised him. Slowly and deliberately, she gathered her skirts to one side and lowered herself to her knees until she was on an equal level with Faramir, exactly mirroring his position. "For most of my life," she said seriously, holding tightly to his hands, "I have lived in terror of hearing such words as you have just spoken to me. And yet you have given me joy with them. Never had I thought to find a husband who would allow me to be myself. I did not think such a man existed."

"My Lady, one kneels before you," Faramir said seriously.

Eowyn smiled--a genuine smile, not the fake or superior ones she so often gave in court. Faramir had rarely seen her smile so, and it lit up her entire face. "And I consider it my good fortune to have stumbled across him."

"Then you will marry me?"

Eowyn nodded. "You offer me freedom I had not dared to even dream of, Faramir, and I would wed any man who offered it to me, no matter who he was. But I consider it again my good fortune that it is you, one of the wisest and noblest men of my acquaintance, who has come to me with this proposition."

Faramir felt a pang of guilt at allowing Eowyn to believe he had come up with this solution on his own, but he dared not break Aragorn's confidence. Hopefully they would be able to sort it all out later. "And I consider it my good fortune to have found a lady I so sincerely admire that will consent to marry me. One who offers me a mighty gift of love, albeit not in the usual fashion. And one to whom I can give this gift in return."

"Then it is settled, but on one condition." Faramir looked at her inquiringly. "That you treat me as an equal."

"I would not dare to do otherwise, Eowyn," Faramir answered truthfully. "You are no court lady who cares for nothing beyond what to wear tomorrow. I pity the man who tries to make you submit to him."

Eowyn shook her head. "You misunderstand me. While I do appreciate what you just said, it is not what I meant. I meant--" She paused, looking upwards briefly as though she might find the words she needed written across the sky in clouds. "You see, Faramir, you have come to me with this wonderful idea--you have offered me freedom and love combined. And in the Houses of Healing even though you must have been grieving as deeply as I, it was you who spoke comfort to me. You are so willing to give of yourself--to me, at least--and you do not take in return. If we are wed I do not wish it continue this way, to have you constantly provide for me. I wish to do the same for you as well, and to have you accept my love and support; to let me give of myself to you. Can you accept that?"

Faramir started to answer her blithely, to assure her with a courtier's tongue that he would do as she asked. Yet something about what she had said made him stop. It was his nature to try and give those he loved whatever they wanted, even if it meant answering Eowyn in the affirmative with no intention of really going through with it. But because Eowyn was going to be his wife, because they were going to live together for the rest of their lives, he realized the relationship should not begin with dishonesty, no matter how well-intended. "My only fear is that you do not yet have enough of yourself to give," he answered gently. "You came so near to death, and much nearer still to despair. I wish you to keep all your love and energy for yourself, and use it to heal."

Again Eowyn stopped his speech by gently touching his lips. "As near as I came to death and despair, you came nearer to both," she said, softly but in a tone that bore no contradiction. "If you can afford to give of your love to me, then I can repay you by giving my own love back. You simply cannot give and give without ever receiving, Faramir, you will use yourself up. Trust me, I know," she added firmly. "I want you to rely on me. I want you to allow me to give back to you everything you give to me. That's why I knelt when you did, to show that we are truly equal. I want no courtly gestures of you, Faramir, no grand chivalry. I want only a true friend. Will you do this for me?"

She held Faramir's eyes until he nodded, and until she could see the truthfulness of his promise in them. Then she smiled, another of the rare genuine ones. "Good. Now, let us go tell Eomer, shall we?"

"Does he know? About you?"

Eowyn shook her head slowly, biting her lip. "I do not think so. I've certainly never told him. My brother is many good things, but tolerant is not one of them. Yet he may have guessed over the years. He will be most relieved to see me taking an interest in a man." She smiled mischievously. "You will be his new best friend, Faramir. He will be so relieved he will practically worship you."

Faramir laughed, unaware that it was the first genuine laugh to cross his lips in weeks. "I'm not certain I can cope with that kind of devotion."

Eowyn smiled and got to her feet, extending one hand to aide Faramir to his also. He accepted her help with a smile. "I will go with you to make it clear to him that you already have my consent. And to try and shut him up quickly."

Faramir nodded with a smile. On impulse he leaned forward and kissed Eowyn. It was a chaste kiss, devoid of any feeling expect perhaps brotherly affection, and it struck Faramir as absurd that he should kiss his fiancee with the same amount of passion he might kiss his mother. Before he could express this thought, Eowyn started giggling against his lips. Once she started, Faramir could not help but join in also. They clung to each other , shaking with childish laughter and thoroughly adult relief, long after the sun had completed its leisurely descent over Minas Tirith.

Go to chapters 3 & 4