Alone in his room, Aragorn struggled to pull off his boot, finally wrenching it from his foot with the help of the bootjack. The muddy boot fell to the floor with a dull, wet slap. He kicked the wooden bootjack a bit to the left so he could work the other off. He braced his heel against the notch in the wood, but before resuming the struggle he slumped, elbows on knees as he hung his head in weariness. It had been such a hard journey...
"Strider?" a timid voice called.
Aragorn shook his hair back away from his eyes and straightened. Peregrin Took stood uncertainly in the doorway. He looked to have already bathed and changed, something that Aragorn eagerly anticipated for himself, as soon as he wrestled his recalcitrant boot off. He did not want Arwen to see him in so bedraggled a condition, after all. "Come, Pippin," he called, forcing his cheeks into something he hoped resembled a smile.
The young hobbit all but tiptoed into the room. That the Shireling was a bit overawed by Rivendell’s splendor was obvious even to Aragorn’s exhausted eyes. "It is merely a room, Master Took. It will not swallow you whole."
"After all we’ve been through, I wouldn’t really be surprised if it did." But the strain left his face and he managed a small grin.
"Master Elrond would hardly tolerate his house attacking its guests, so put your fears aside."
Pippin watched as Aragorn contended with his remaining boot, and finally hurried over. "Let me help, Strider." Before Aragorn could protest, Pippin had the boot in his hand and, with a yank that had Aragorn grabbing wildly for the chair’s arms to keep from sliding to the floor, had the boot off and lying in a heap next to the other.
Pippin waved away the thanks. Instead, he helped Aragorn shrug out of his coat. "I suppose you’ve been too busy reporting to Master Elrond to get freshened up."
"Reporting to Erestor, actually. I will speak with Elrond later, after he has seen to Frodo."
"Oh, I see. I haven’t met Erestor yet, although I did meet a whole host of Elves whose names flew in one ear and out the other. I don’t think I heard the name Erestor, though."
"You would remember him, even if the name escapes you. It is hard to forget meeting one as dignified and kindhearted as he." And long winded, Aragorn thought with amusement, but he dared not say that bit aloud. "He is Elrond’s counsellor and helps in the day-to-day running of Rivendell."
"They all seem so dignified and kind, I may have met him and just don’t remember." He looked hard at Aragorn. "I hope he sent you to your room for rest and didn’t shillyshally around about it. You look..."
"Like something a warg dragged in?"
"I was going to say tired."
Aragorn sighed. "I am weary," he admitted. He felt beyond weary, actually. The weight of the grueling flight to the ford, the battle–if one could call it that–with the Riders, and then the race to the shelter of the Last Homely House pressed on him even now with a lingering sense of dread that he could not seem to shake. Terror that should have long faded still threatened to empty his gut. But he smiled reassuringly at Pippin. "Weary, but grateful to be home."
"This... this is your home?"
"I was raised here, for most of my childhood."
Pippin’s mouth formed a small ‘o’. "I thought..."
"That I was born under a rock and raised by wolves?"
Pippin rewarded his attempt at humor with a laugh. "No, nothing like that. I never really thought about where you might have grown up. I can’t really imagine you being anything but you, if that makes sense. As you are now, I mean. I can’t picture you as a small boy at all."
"I was, once. And Rivendell still bears the scars."
Another merry laugh as Pippin moved behind his chair to help him pull off his vest. "When you say things like that, I can imagine it a lot more easily. But most of the time you’re too grim and dour."
"Back to that ‘look fairer and feel fouler’ bit, are we?"
"No. I know better, now. And I... I want to thank you."
"For getting us here in one piece."
Aragorn grimaced. "If only I had."
"You did the best you could." Pippin folded the vest and draped it on the back of the room’s other chair.
Aragorn looked down at his feet, saying nothing as he took off his socks. What did it matter, really, that Pippin thought his failure forgivable? While kind of him, it did not change the facts: Frodo had been grievously injured, and Aragorn had been unable to stop it. Such losses were often unavoidable in any battle, he realized, but it did not make the sting of failure, especially this failure, bite any less.
Pippin said nothing more, merely watched quietly with his hands thrust into his pockets as Aragorn folded his socks and set them on the floor by his boots, but he suddenly let out a cry as he saw a bruise across Aragorn’s left instep, and a blister that had gone bloody on his right heel. "You’re hurt!"
Aragorn blinked, then wiggled his feet. He hadn’t really noticed the state of them until now. He knew his feet had been banged about, but getting to safety had driven all thought toward checking them out of his head until now. He was too tired to remember where the bruise came from, although he vaguely remembered feeling the blister burst as they made the last mad dash from the Bruinen to the house. Likely he had picked up a stone in his boot somewhere beside the river, but he couldn’t be sure. Maybe it had been while fending off the Nazgûl before the river took them. He suddenly shivered, the terror of those moments trying to make itself felt once more.
"Strider? Are you cold? Shall I stir the fire?"
"No, it is quite warm. I just...." He left the thought unfinished as he lifted his foot. "Well, it looks far worse than it feels. It’s merely a blister, nothing more."
"Still, it needs cared for!" Pippin hurried over to the pitcher and bowl in the corner. Stretching on tiptoe to reach, he used both hands to carefully pour some water into the bowl. He dipped the cloth he found lying beside it into the water and came back to Aragorn. "Hold out your right foot."
"Pippin, you don’t need–"
"Yes, I do," Pippin insisted. "You got this blister hurrying us to safety, so it’s the least I can do to help you deal with it."
Aragorn stared at the small halfling, unaccountably touched. "Thank you, then," he said softly.
Pippin glanced up and smiled, an uncomplicated gesture of friendliness. "No, Strider. Any thanks go to you. Now be still; this might sting."
And it did. Pippin was gentle but Aragorn couldn’t keep from hissing as the water touched the broken skin. But he set his jaw and remained silent thereafter until Pippin was finished. "Your foot is like ice. Better get yourself some warm socks, but first, have you any salve?"
Bemused, Aragorn nodded toward the washstand. "In the cabinet below."
Pippin opened the door and stared at the contents. He picked up one pot, then another, opening them and sniffing their contents as he worked his way deeper into the cabinet. "My, you’ve great lot of pots in here," he said. Then, to Aragorn astonishment, he crawled completely into the cabinet. Soon all Aragorn could see was the hobbit’s backside and feet sticking out beyond the door.
"Master Elrond claims I so often arrive battered and bashed about that he dare not empty the...." Aragorn leaned forward, wondering if Pippin would need help getting back out. He would never have dreamed the cabinet big enough for a hobbit to get lost in, but watching Pippin disappear into its depths was a bit unnerving. "Are you all right in there, Pippin?"
"Never better!" Pippin cried as he wiggled out from the very back of the cabinet. He raised high a small jar, as if it were spoils of war. "Here’s the one! At least, I think it is. It smells like the stuff my mother used to smear on me any time I came in with a cut or bruise."
Aragorn checked it... it smelled of lemon balm, bergamot and honey. "Yes, that will do."
Pippin scooped out a small amount and dabbed it against the broken blister. "Do you have anything to wrap it? Although I suppose if you’re about to take a bath, you won’t need it yet."
"I’ll keep my foot out of the water. There’s bandages in my pack." Aragorn pointed to the bundle beside his bed.
Instead of digging through it himself, Pippin dragged the pack to Aragorn. "Whew! That’s heavy!"
Aragorn smiled as he dug out a strip of clean linen and bound up his heel. "Not to me."
"Is your other foot sore?"
Aragorn flexed it back and forth and up and down. "No. I think I must have gotten that bruise on Weathertop. I remember it being sore for a day or so after."
"So it’s not broken?"
"No, nothing like that. Just a bruise that will fade in time." He sat back and stretched his long legs out in front of him. It felt good to simply sit and not move. His thoughts strayed again to Arwen, whom he had yet to see, and he knew he could not linger indolently for long. A bath, then a short nap, and he would see her. But first to make sure of something. He eyed the hobbit up and down. "What of you, Pippin? Any hurts that need tending?"
"Not a one." He rocked back and forth on his heels. "We Tooks don’t injure easily."
Aragorn smiled, remembering another Took he had met, once, out in the wilds. "No, I don’t suppose you do," he said, then pushed himself groaning to his feet. "My apologies, Pippin, but you will have to excuse me for asking you to leave me for a time. I believe I am overdue a much needed nap."
"Of course! I’m sorry... I don’t mean to keep you from your rest." Pippin glanced at the bed and then hurried over to it. "Let me help you pull the covers back."
Again, Aragorn merely watched in bemused silence as the hobbit dragged back the coverlet and the blankets beneath and then jumped into the bed and crawled about on his hands and knees, fluffing the pillows and smoothing the sheets, readying it for Aragorn.
"There you go! Fit for a king!"
Aragorn nearly choked as he stifled a laugh. He wondered just what Pippin would do if Aragorn told him he had indeed just prepared a bed for a king. His eyes danced merrily, but he merely smiled. "Thank you, Pippin. I don’t think it has ever looked more welcoming."
Pippin beamed at him, then slid down from the bed. He started for the door, then suddenly turned and wrapped his arms around Aragorn’s legs in a brief, hard hug. "Thank you again," he said.
Aragorn reached down and laid a gentle hand on Pippin’s back. "You’re welcome, Pippin."
Pippin craned his neck to look at Aragorn’s great height. He wrinkled his nose. "But be sure to take that bath before you get into bed," he whispered, then ran out of the room.
Aragorn chuckled as he shut the door behind Pippin. A bath and a nap would go long toward improving the lot of his tired body and clouded mind, but he found that his spirit was already much restored.
"No, it is I who thank you, Peregrin Took," he whispered, and finished undressing for his bath.