Growing From the Ashes - Chapter One
Pairing: Modern!Aragorn x F!OC
Word Count: 3k
Warnings: Drug Use, Alcohol Mention
Summary: Ash goes on a hiking expedition/camping trip with Strider and the rest of the Fellowship. Things go great. Until they don't.
A/N: This is a horror WIP, tags and warnings will be updated accordingly in following chapters. This is my first time posting a fic so please be patient with me!
Read it on AO3
This will be good for us.
The words echoed through her head as she watched the trees roll by. She didn’t know what they were, and didn’t care to break the semi-comfortable silence enough to ask the man driving the truck they’d been more or less trapped in for the last day and a half. This trip was more for him, that went without saying. She didn’t know much about his past, but from what she could piece together he had been raised in the woods by hippies or some crazy thing. The more she thought about it, actually, she didn’t know much about anything. The man beside her or the thickening trees whipping past them.
She didn’t even know what to call him, as far as their relationship went. Sure, they had been spending all of their spare time together since they met in Intro to Environmental Studies last semester, but it’s not like they had made any verbal agreements about what that meant. They hadn’t even slept together. Shit, they hadn’t kissed yet, either.
The main strain in their relationship, whatever it was, was her constant thoughts of insecurity and self-doubt. She knew nothing about the outdoors, nor cared to; ENV101 was simply a degree requirement on her part. Most conversations the two of them shared were dominated by his animated descriptions of various flora and fauna of frighteningly specific regions of the United States. She didn’t mind this outright, but she wished she could keep up with him once in a while.
Lost once again in a spiral of thoughts and barely clinging to her desperate mantra that this will be good for us, it took three repeats of her name before her attention was caught away from the rushing trees, growing still bigger and thicker with every passing mile.
“Ash!” If it hadn’t been for the edge of annoyance in his voice, he likely would have continued to go unnoticed, but her head finally snapped around, her neck popping in two places with the sudden movement.
“Sorry, lost in thought. What’s up?”
“Are you ready? We’re almost there.”
For the first time in several hours, Ash really looked at his face. His real name was another item on the extensive list of Things Ash Doesn’t Know, but Strider did suit him. His sparkling grey eyes seemed to look beyond the windshield, beyond the road, and into adventures far before him. His excitement, while contained to his eyes, was palpable and honest, the same as it had been when he had first told her about the trip and proposed that she finally come along.
“Is everyone else already there or did we make good enough time that we beat everyone?” She kept her tone even, not wanting to rock the boat. They had had a decent fight in the motel the previous night about her reservations about meeting the rest of his hiking crew and rehashing that did not seem like an avenue worth pursuing.
“No, everyone should be there. Stopping last night set us behind.” One calloused hand reached up to brush a few strings of hair out of his storm-grey eyes but there was no malice in his voice. He was passionate, but the farthest thing from unkind as a person could be.
Ash shifted in the rough bench seat, stretching her arms and attempting to regain her bearings. As she looked through the bug-spattered windshield, she could see the sign of the campsite growing out of the trees.
“I’m ready.” She stuffed her until now forgotten romance novel into the glovebox and straightened in her seat.
Meeting the crew was overwhelming, but not as much so as Ash had been expecting. She was not particularly thrilled about being the only woman on a ten-person hiking trip, but everyone had seemed genuinely interested in her, not the fact that she was, in fact, a her. Maybe this would be tolerable after all; everyone was nice, and it was only three nights, after all. Worse came to worse, Ash knew she had her own small tent Strider lent her, and that would garner at least a small amount of privacy in a pinch.
Her mood continued to improve as the group made their way to the trailhead. Strider was ahead at the front of the group, but it didn’t bother her. He was a natural leader, and he was in his element. She knew it wouldn’t be fair to drag him down to her pace at the back of the group, and she was content to take up the rear anyway. Gave her plenty of time to think.
This will be good for us.
She had stumbled into a frenzied, schoolgirl’s crush and wanted, of course, for things to work out between her and Strider. To be by his side forever, following him on adventures and getting to stare into those stormy eyes whenever she so desired. To listen to his deepest thoughts and feelings as they lay together at night, her fingers tracing patterns over his chest that so far had gone unseen by her, but that she could tell was strong and muscular. All she needed to do was learn to love being surrounded by nature the way Strider loved it, to love it in a way a city girl used to a plethora of modern conveniences maybe never could.
Ash was still resting comfortably in daydream-Strider’s embrace when she heard her name spoken by an unfamiliar voice, startling her back to the present.
“Ash, right?” Her head swiveled around to see, at first, nothing but a bushy red beard. It seemed to take up the stocky man’s entire face, and the thought crossed her mind that Strider must have gotten in with the grad students—despite the fact they were both only sophomores. That beard was impossibly long and full for how young they still were.
“Right,” she replied, finally meeting his dark, sparkling eyes. “I’m terrible with names, I’m sorry, what was yours again?” She winced hearing how whiny and apologetic her voice sounded, but it was too late now. Why can’t I just speak confidently for once? I can’t make a fool of myself in front of Strider’s friends.
The man smiled. “There’s eight of us for you to remember, and only one of you. Don’t worry about it too much. My name is Gimli.”
Ash smiled back, grateful that so far at least one of Strider’s companions was as kind-hearted as he was. “I appreciate it. I have to admit, I’m a little out of my element here. I don’t typically spend my time outside or with groups of people, let alone both at the same time.”
“I hear you,” Gimli chuckled. “If we’re being honest with each other, I don’t leave my workshop much except for these outings with El… Strider.”
The stumble got Ash’s attention in a hurry. He was going to call Strider by a different name. His real name? Does everyone here know it but me? Why is it such a secret? “Workshop? What’s your major? Or are you a grad student?” Her addendum likely didn’t make her look any better, but she was genuinely curious how old the people she was travelling with were.
“I’m a grad student, yeah. I spend a lot of time in the art building, I want to open a jewelry store someday.” He breezed quickly by this fact before Ash could ask another question. “Besides the two doctorate students up at the front, I’m the oldest sonofabitch here.” He chuckled again, and gestured to the two men walking closest to Strider. Their faces were still blurry with unfamiliarity in Ash’s mind, but one had beautifully long blonde hair tied up into a practical ponytail, and one, who had a dope walking stick as far as Ash was concerned, had… grey hair?
Ash’s anxiety was overridden by curiosity. “Gimli, could you help me? I’d really like to have a better idea of who everyone is.”
“Of course, kid! The two lads up front, the doctorate students, that’s Legolas and Gandalf. They’ve been working on their dissertations for, well, practically forever. You can tell it’s taken its toll; no man should go grey at 32. But at least the lads or ladies will know what they’re getting into.” Gimli broke off to laugh again, amused by his own jokes at his friend’s expense. That’s what friends were for, Ash supposed. It was odd that since leaving for this trip, not one person she had interacted with had shown anything other than genuine kindness towards her. Not unwelcome, by any means, but odd for sure.
“What are they writing their dissertations on?”
“Legolas has an incapability to make decisions, so no one really knows. He works with plants though, so he’ll probably settle on medical uses of some really specific plant.” Another laugh. Ash was becoming very fond of this laugh, rough and deep in his barrel chest. “Gandalf’s has something to do with metaphysics and the occult, but he’s such a perfectionist that I doubt he’ll ever finish it at this point. He really chose the wrong field, not enough hard facts.”
This time it was Ash’s turn to laugh. “You might be right about that. I took a couple religion courses last year because I thought it would be interesting, all it did was give me an existential crisis.”
“Gandalf might agree with you, honestly. Poor guy smokes almost as much as Willie Nelson.”
“He smokes weed?” She kept her voice down, although she wasn’t sure if it mattered. His smoking habits, if they were what Gimli said they were, had to be common knowledge for everyone in the hiking crew.
“So much weed, Ash.” Gimli broke out into a full belly laugh this time, and Ash joined him. “He’s always willing to share,” he added, and tipped her a wink. Ash filed that fact away for later, fully intending on buying a joint or two further into the trip. Maybe when they made camp that night. “Anyways, the other scruffy fella is Boromir,” Gimli went on. “He’s a junior, a fancy poli-sci major. Between you and me, I think he’s just going that way to be like his father. He’d make a great history professor; he knows just about everything about ancient civilizations.”
A sexy history professor, Ash thought, but kept it to herself. She remembered when the group had first coalesced at the campsite, and thinking that she might try and get his number in case things with Strider didn’t work out. A terrible thought maybe, but his strong jawline and broad shoulders were stunning.
“Finally, you’ve got the babies of the group.” Gimli’s deep voice startled Ash out of her thoughts again. Spacing out and daydreaming about boys was becoming a problem. “The four freshman, all undecided majors. We’ve got Frodo and Sam—” he gestured to one of the two pairs of guys directly in front of them, one dark-haired, the other a dirty strawberry blonde, “—and Merry and Pippin, who may as well be twins as far as any of us are concerned.” He was right about that. They had been nearly indistinguishable back at the parking lot, and the backs of their heads weren’t any more helpful.
Gimli and Ash continued discussing the other members of the crew as the miles to their campsite dragged on (it still bothered Ash a little that they couldn’t have driven directly there, but Strider had insisted hiking first, camping second; the parking is better here anyways), with Merry and Pippin occasionally breaking in with snide remarks once they realized they were a topic of conversation. By the time they had finished their six-mile trek, Ash finally felt like she belonged somewhere, aching legs and sore back be damned.
Their first camping site on the journey was gorgeous. It was September, and the mountain winds were picking up enough to scare away most casual hikers. No one was around to enjoy the turning colors and crisp autumn air except Ash and her nine companions. It was easily agreed upon that a bonfire would be built as soon as tents were pitched, and the four freshmen (who had, to Ash’s curiosity, tied their boots to their packs about a half mile into the hike and stuffed their socks into their pockets) set quickly to making a wonderful-smelling supper.
The stew, which turned out to be less glamorous than it smelled, was no more than reconstituted camping rations. Ash went into the meal not sure what to expect, being entranced by the aroma but at the same time repulsed by the idea that shorty before entering her mouth, it was nothing more than a dehydrated powder in a bag. She needn’t have worried; Sam, the freshman with beautiful golden curls, had brought some small plastic bags full of not drugs, but spices, and had made the stew come alive. Dessert was smore’s, in typical camping fashion. Not even die-hard hikers could escape that delicious tradition, as it turned out. Laughter constantly echoed off the trees as the group ate and shared stories of camping trips gone by.
At the end of the night, after a couple beers and more than a couple joints—to Ash’s delight, Gandalf was more than happy to share his stash, free of charge—were passed around the circle, the group dispersed into their tents, neatly arranged in a larger circle around the fire. Being the only woman, Ash was without company when she finally collapsed onto her sleeping bag.
At first, it seemed to Ash that she would never be able to sleep outside; it was cold, the ground was hard, and no matter which way she turned her sleeping back, it always felt like there was a root or rock sticking into her back. She hadn’t bothered bringing her phone with her; her portable charger had mysteriously gone missing right before her old roommate moved out last semester, and she knew that there wouldn’t be a chance to charge it anyways. It was sitting safely in the glovebox, right under the novel she had been trying to get through during the drive.
As she lay there miserably tossing and turning, her thoughts turned back to Strider. From the dim shadows thrown onto the walls of her tent by the very last embers of the bonfire, she could tell that he was still outside his tent. Everyone else had turned in around the same time Ash had; she figured he was just making sure the campsite was secure before everyone was left vulnerable for the night. She rolled onto her stomach, resting her chin on her arms, and considered going back out. She couldn’t sleep anyway. But maybe he doesn’t want to be bothered, a voice in her head spoke up. She considered this briefly, then dismissed the thought. If he didn’t want to be bothered, he could have gone back into his tent by now. She unzipped her tent and crawled out.
Strider was sitting on one of the logs they had pulled up around the fire. He turned as he heard Ash’s footsteps in the underbrush approaching. “Can’t sleep?”
Ash shook her head and drew her arms around herself, retreating her hands into the sleeves of her yellow sweatshirt. “No, not yet. I think I chose a bad spot to pitch my tent, there’s rocks all over the place.”
Strider chuckled and patted a spot next to him on the moss-covered log. “Come sit down. I go to sleep late, I’ll keep you company for a while.”
The pair sat together under the light of the stars, passing the time with Strider answering the questions Ash had about the rest of their trip. She learned that tomorrow would be the most difficult day, but if she could get through it, it would be smooth sailing for the next two days. Most of the elevation in their hike would be gained tomorrow; Strider hadn’t planned on her first trip being too strenuous for her, so the group wasn’t going all the way up the mountain. They were, however, taking a path typically used only by locals. There would be a couple of “fun” passages, in Strider’s words, and they would be travelling uphill most of the day, but the plateau they would be camping on was less than a mile from a natural hot spring. It all sounded just fine to Ash. As far as she was concerned, she would get to spend the whole day with attractive men, and knowing her inexperienced legs would keep her at the back of the group again, she would have plenty of time to stare at Strider’s toned ass.
Ash fell asleep, optimistic for once, with one thought in her mind.
This will be good for us.
Ash awoke—too early, in her opinion—to the enticing smell of… bacon? That couldn’t be right. She couldn’t remember any of their easy-to-pack dehydrated camping rations including a bacon breakfast, but the aroma filled the entire campsite. The crisp morning air shocked her as she slid out of her sleeping bag, so she pulled a crewneck and a sweatshirt on over the tank top she had passed out in. She awkwardly climbed into her jeans, trying not to hit the walls of the one-person tent, and grabbed her boots before crawling out to see what smelled so amazing.
It turned out to be bacon after all. Sam had had more than just plastic bags of spices hidden away in his backpack. He also had a small cooler at the bottom of it that he had used to keep the bacon fresh until they could eat it that morning. It would be the only “real” food they would have on the trip, but Ash was more than grateful to the unassuming freshman to have it at all.
Her pleasant mood didn’t waver through the entire morning; the sun came up as they were breaking camp, and it was one of the most breathtaking sights of Ash’s life. Sunbeams shone through the trees in yellow-orange streaks, and in contrast creating dark streaks of shadows across the forest floor. The group set off up the mountain, and Ash’s heart skipped a beat when Strider chose to walk at the rear with her, letting Gimli take up the front with Legolas.
The first few miles were uneventful, but Ash would look back on these as the proverbial calm before the storm.
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