Child's Play Part 5 - The Return of the King

****

Legolas hid his amusement as Aragorn and the dwarf tried to out-stubborn one another. "It was only a feeble blow. It will take more than a scratch to keep me back," Gimli stated firmly.

Aragorn sighed. "I will take care of it while you rest."

"Fine," Gimli harrumphed.

"You'll ride with me again?"

"Yes."

Legolas nodded absently. He was staring at the trees. "That forest is odd. It wasn't there when we rode up. I know it."

Legolas kept his horse near Gandalf, more for Gimli's comfort than his own. The forest seemed very close and smothering almost. Gimli was scared of it, though he didn't say a word. Legolas could feel the muscles of his back coiled up. "It is hot in here," the elf commented to Gandalf. "The air feels angry. Can't you feel it throbbing in your ears?"

"Yes," Gandalf replied.

"What has happened to the orcs?"

"That, I think, no one will ever know."

Gimli shivered. It was imperceptible to the naked eye, but Legolas knew. "If you stop, I'll chop your braids off," the dwarf said calmly. They rode on for awhile.

"These are the strangest trees I've ever seen and I've seen many oaks grow from acorns to ruin. I wish there was time to listen. I might be able to understand how they think."

"I can tell you what they're thinking already. Hatred of all on two legs. Crushing. Strangling."

"Not all on two legs. I think you're wrong there. It's orcs they hate because they don't belong here and they don't know much of our kind. I think they're from Fangorn, Gimli."

"Then that is the most dangerous wood in Middle-earth. I should be glad for what they've done, but I do not love them. You might think they're wonderful, but I've seen greater wonder, more beautiful than any grove or glade. My heart is still full of it. Men are odd, Legolas. Here they have one of the marvels of the Northern World, and what do they say of it? Caves! Cave! Holes to run to in case of war and store food in. Oh, Legolas, the caverns of Helm's Deep are beautiful. Dwarves would come from all over merely to look at them. They'd pay in pure gold just to see them."

"I would give gold to be excused and double to be let out if I wandered in."

"You have not seen them, so I'll forgive you. Do you think your king's halls are fair under the hills in Mirkwood? They are hovels compared with the caverns I've seen here. Halls filled with the music of water into pools as fair as Kheled-zaram in the starlight. And Legolas, when the torches are lit, then the gems and crystals and veins of ore glint in the polished walls. The like shines through the marble, as beautiful as Galadriel's hands. There are columns of white and saffron and dawn-colored roses. They are twisted into dreamlike form. And the lakes mirror them. It is magical. Happy chance drove me there and I mourn leaving it."

"Then I will wish you this fortune, Gimli, that you will come away safe from this war and return to see them, but do not tell your kindred. There seems little left for them to do according to your descriptions."

"You do not understand. No dwarf could be unmoved by it. None of them would mine those caves. Do you cut down groves of blossoming trees for firewood in the spring? We would work slowly. More delicate than anything you can imagine. We would open those caverns and make lights like once shone in Khazad-dum."

"I have never heard you talk like this. You *almost* make me regret not seeing them. How about this? If we both survive we will journey together. You shall visit Fangorn with me and I will come with you to Helm's Deep."

"That would not be the return I would choose, but I will endure the woods if you promise to come to the caves with me."

"You have my promise. But now we're coming to the end of the trees so we'll have to leave both the forest and the cave behind. How far to Isengard, Gandalf?"

"About fifteen leagues, as the crows of Saruman make it. Five from the mouth of Deeping-coom to the Fords, and ten more to the gates. But we'll not ride all the way tonight."

"And when we come there, what will we see? You may already know, but I can't guess."

"I don't know for certain," the wizard replied. "I was there last night, but many things may have happened. Yet, I don't think you'll say it's all been in vain. Not even that you had to leave your caves behind."

Legolas looked back. "Eyes! There are eyes in the forest!" He moved to start back to investigate.

"Legolas! Greenleaf!" That was all he really needed to hear. He looked at the woods in regret. Gimli sighed heavily in relief. Then, he stared with the rest of the company as creatures he'd never seen emerged from the trees. "You'll need no weapons, these are herdsmen."

"What do they herd?" Theoden, King of the Rohan asked.

"They are the shepherds of the trees. They are Ents."

"Ents!" the king exclaimed.

At length they turned away from the woods and took the road toward the Fords. Legolas followed reluctantly at first, then with more determination. He stayed near to Aragorn and Gandalf. He didnít want either of them out of his sight. The sky was red in the distance and there were dark birds flying there. He strained his ears, but he couldn't hear what they were saying. The riders set a slow pace by Elven standards, but it would keep the horses healthy. The melancholy howls of wolves pierced the air. They crossed a nearly dead river. The air seemed shriveled and bleak. It smelled of helplessness and decay to Legolas. The elf unconsciously drew closer to Aragorn.

They paused at the cairn that had been erected by the survivors of the battle for the Men of the Mark. They rode along the side of the road to Isengard. They halted at midnight at the feet of the Misty Mountains that stretched up above them. Legolas looked up the expanse and thought of Rivendell and from there of Mirkwood. He had not thought of them for what seemed like years, but he knew it was not much more than an Elven eye blink. They looked down on Isengard and the column of smoke that rose above it and into the stars.

"What do you make of that, Gandalf?" Aragorn asked. "It looks as if the Wizard's Vale is burning."

"There is always a fume above the valley," Eomer stated. "But I've not seen it like this before. These are steams, not smoke. Saruman's up to something nasty."

"Perhaps. We will know tomorrow. Now let us rest." At Gandalf's urging they set up camp by the Isen river. Late in the night the watchmen roused them. A black tide rolled towards them. "Stay where you are! No weapons! It will pass you by."

A mist gathered about them. Legolas shivered. He could hear voices just below his comprehension and a gathering heaviness of spirit that seemed to feed all his misgivings and fears to a rabid strength. Ages later, the darkness passed and he could once again breathe. He sang softly to himself and pulled his knees up to his chest. He was startled to hear another voice take up the counter-melody, but realized that it Aragorn. Human and Elven voices blended to sooth the lingering fear from the company's heart.

There was a sudden rush and the river began to flow normally once more. At dawn they started off. It had once been a beautiful green valley. But now it was near to dying. There were stripped fields tilled by the wizard's slaves. The rest was choked by brambles and weeds. Legolas couldn't look at the ravaged tree stumps. He bent his head and mourned the memories of the trees. A mist that was not all from the air blurred his vision comfortingly and kept him from seeing too far above. Gimli growled a curse low and harsh in the language of his homeland and though he could not understand it, Legolas seconded the thought.

Isengard rose above them. They entered the marble and metal city. The land was ravaged and covered. Deep pits dove into the ground and spiraled down to the protected underground life Saruman had created. The ground rumbled and shifted deep in its heart. Then, the citadel of Orthanc rose in front of them. It hung there like the great tearing tooth its name implied.

Gandalf rode forward ahead of the army. The doors of Isengard were in ruins. They were shattered and the planes were flooded. As an island stood the tower. A moment later, they saw two figures waving to them. Merry and Pippen smiled as they puffed on their pipes and snacked on salted pork and other "spoils" of the battle.

"You've led us on a merry chase. And now we find you stuffing your faces," Gimli complained. Legolas just smiled at the scene.

"We are sitting on the field of victory and eating the spoils as is our right," Merry protested. "The salted pork is especially good."

"Salted pork," Gimli harrumphed.

"Hobbits," Gandalf said shaking his head. Pippen rode behind Aragorn and Merry joined Eomer on his steed. They rode forward toward the tower.

"Hello, young master Gandalf," Treebeard greeted. "Isengard is under new management. The stain of the wizard is slowly being washed away. Trees will come to live here again. Stone and water I can manage, but there is a wizard to be managed here."

"And here he must remain, under your guard," Gandalf informed the Ent. Just then, Pippen noticed a strange glow in the water and jumped down to investigate. He drew up a large dark sphere that glowed faintly gold. He looked at it with wonder. "Peregrine Took, give that to me immediately!"

Pippen handed it to the wizard reluctantly and watched as it was wrapped up hastily into a rough cloth. He climbed back up on the horse. Gandalf took their leave from the Ents and the company started towards Rohan. Legolas watched Aragorn carefully to make sure that he wasn't hiding any injury as the human was wont to do. His own arm ached and he couldn't be sure if it meant the presence of orcs, or if it was merely reacting to the evil that seemed to still fill the air despite the cleansing waters. The road to Edoras was uneventful.

During their absence the makings of a feast for the dead had been started under the direction of Eowyn. When they finally dismounted under the welcoming cheers of the people of Rohan, Gimli was more than ready to be done with the horse. All of this riding was truly unseemly for a dwarf. Legolas collected Aragorn's horse much to the amusement of the stable-hands. The elf escaped to the normality of bedding down the horses.

He stood at the back of the room as Theoden welcomed home his riders and remembered the dead. Merry and Pippen were in their element entertaining the room with hobbit songs and jokes while guzzling down a surprising amount of alcohol. Legolas watched the festivities for awhile, then slipped out to watch the night skies. The vantage point of the main house of Edoras was incredible. He pulled his hood up to brace against the wind. The fact that it would also ensure that none of the humans bothered him was secondary. At least that's what he told himself.

The night was shaded with dark clouds obscuring the stars and the moon. The countryside seemed strangely still. His eyes focused on everything and nothing at the same time. His mind raced with a thousand possibilities for the rising darkness. He was looking towards home, but his eyes could not see that far. He could see to the mountains, but beyond that the world was hidden from his sight. He wished for a moment that he had Elrond's ability to see the future. He could smell the warming fires from the feast hall and the rich scents of meats and sweet ales. Yet, he hungered for none of it.

He didn't turn when he heard the door open. If he remained still, perhaps he would not be seen. The trick had worked before. Strider came to his shoulder and Legolas realized that perhaps it had been merely that he had seemed so in thought that no one wished to disturb him. Of course, Aragorn would never take that hint, even if he'd told the man outright to leave him be. "There is darkness gathering. The Stars are obscured." Aragorn nodded and made some non-committal response. "There aren't enough men left to turn back the forces," Legolas stated in quiet Elvish.

"There is still hope. My dearest friend, what is really on your mind? I haven't seen your smile."

"The birds whisper that the woods are burning. And there is nothing for me to do about it. And to see what that creature did to Isengard. I remember seeing it when I was a child. The tower was white and proud and the fields filled with trees. How could one of the wise fall so far? And what does that mean for the rest of us?"

Aragorn rested a hand on Legolas' shoulder. "It merely reminds us to always be on our guard."

"And yet you dally here, drinking and singing."

"Celebration of victory is never wasted."

"Except for when you should be preparing for the next battle."

"What do you see, Legolas? Truly."

"I see the world plunging into darkness and my own soul rebels against the idea of it. I fear that we may not be enough to stop this turning. Will I still have a place in this new world? My lord would say that I should not listen to the torrent of Mithrandir's words. He would say that I have no place in doing this, any of this, that the humans should live or die on their own and I should have no hand in it."

"And what do you say?"

"That I want you to live."

"Legolas?"

"Don't ask me anything more. I'm poor company tonight."

"Do you want me to leave you?"

"No." The word was so softly spoken that Aragorn strained to hear it. It warmed his heart that he was wanted, no matter how dark the time. "You are my hope." Aragorn's hand settled on the elf's shoulder and squeezed gently. "The eye is moving," Legolas stated, startling the human. The elf's eyes widened. "He is here."

Pippen's cry alerted them. They took off at speed to break into the sleeping chambers. Aragorn grabbed the glowing ball. Instantly his mind was filled with nightmare images. He dropped the Pelantiri and collapsed back into Legolas' arms. The elf's heart stopped for a moment. He rubbed Aragorn's back feeling the tension there. "What is it, my ranger?" he asked softly. "What do you see?"

Gandalf spoke sharply to Pippen, attempting to break through the dazing effects of the Dark Lord's work.

"Do not ask me to tell you, my elf," Aragorn responded in soft Elvish -- his first language. His mind was still filled with the horrible images, the tortures and pain that awaited his brothers, and his lovers. He no longer hesitated to name Legolas that in his mind, though his mouth would not confirm it to the world. He would not see the world fall. He would see Sauron dead for Legolas' sake if nothing else. If the ring was not destroyed, he decided, he would make sure that Legolas died. He would not condemn his elf to the torment of orc-hood.

Legolas felt the relaxation of the tense muscles. Aragorn looked up at him. He brushed the soft golden strands of hair back into the hood they'd escaped from. His fingers brushed Legolas' cheek briefly. Their eyes met. Legolas sighed. "I will not ask you to tell what you fear, my ranger. I will ask if you are well enough to stand. Gandalf wishes to speak with us, I think."

The wizard glanced at the sound of his name. He raised a brow with a smug smirk. "If you will join me in the hall, I think this must be addressed."

*****

"Why should Rohan aide Gondor?" Theoden asked. "Where was Gondor when we were attacked?"

Legolas watched the proceedings with a jaded eye. He knew in his heart that Theoden was merely testing Aragorn's reactions. If Aragorn were to back down, or to become a bully, then Rohan would never aide Gondor. And while the elf understood the politics of the situation, the tone of voice angered him. He saw Theoden's eyes slip from Aragorn for just a moment and attempted to hide his feelings. In doing so he drew up his shoulders and tilted his head questioningly at the human king. Theoden turned back to Aragorn. When the discussion was ended, Gandalf and the hobbits headed towards the stables. Aragorn followed them at a distance. Gimli took his leave, leaving Theoden and Legolas standing in the room together. The Rohan guards were wary. They had long decided that the most deadly member of the fellowship was Aragorn's protector, the elf.

"What would you have me say to him?" Theoden asked, idly. He saw something in the elf that he didn't yet see in Aragorn. A bearing, a motion, something that made him treat him as more than what he appeared.

"Nothing that you have not said, King Theoden."

"You would have me support Gondor when they have done nothing to support us?"

"I would have you realize that petty concerns must fall in the face of overwhelming evil. This fight is not about Gondor, it is about mankind. If Gondor falls, Rohan will follow. My land has been fighting this battle for millennia, we have asked nothing of you, though we could by rights."

"Who are you, truly, Legolas?"

"I am Legolas of Mirkwood, son of the Queen. Heir to the throne of Mirkwood."

Theoden smiled. "I thought you might be more than a guard-dog."

"Oh, I am that as well. My heart-sister would kill me were something to happen to her Chosen." Legolas laughed and shook his head. "And I will be honest with you, King Theoden. Her wrath frightens me more than anything we might face."

"A woman should never be crossed lest she take up arms. Would that I could convince Eowyn to leave her swords behind."

"Never separate a woman from her blade," Legolas counseled. "It is less dangerous for them to fight with a weapon than without."

"How so?"

"If you make them desperate, they can destroy you with words which is infinitely worse than metal."

Theoden laughed. "Go then, find your Aragorn and calm him down. Do not let him know what you see."

"Your support? No, he needs to learn some things on his own."

****

"Mithrandir has taken Pippen then," Legolas said softly to Gimli. He looked at where Merry was watching the preparations for making bread. He shook his head. Gimli looked at the elf with a small frown.

"Why does Aragorn believe his lady has left him?"

"The elves of Imladris are leaving these shores. They will sail west, as will Galadriel's people."

"And you?"

Legolas shook his head. "We are not leaving."

"Why not?"

"The call of the land is stronger than the call of the sea. My people have never been isolated from men. We trade openly with them. War has long been in Mirkwood. This is merely the final expression of that which we have been facing since my birth. The dark shadows that hang over the land here have long been in Mirkwood. Oh, Gimli, the woods are dying. The birds bring reports of fires and fighting. The battle is joined elsewhere. It will be with us before long."

"How do you know?"

"Sometimes, master dwarf, I just know." Legolas shrugged with a smile. "Now I am going to hunt down Strider and ask him exactly what is going on."

"You'll need more than a bow to do that," Gimli snorted.

"Perhaps I'll try a smile and see if that lightens his mood. If that doesn't work, I'll resort to blackmail. You see, I know his brothers."

The dwarf laughed aloud at the cat-like smirk on Legolas' lips. He waved the elf away and went back to sharpening his axe. It had a knick in it that he wanted to get flat.

Aragorn looked over his shoulder. He was sure someone was following him, but for the life of him, he couldn't catch sight of him. Perhaps it was Eowyn making sure that he was taken care of. It was nice to have her support. He missed Arwen terribly. And if Arwen had already left for the West, there was no reason not to encourage her. She would make a fine queen. But, some part of him was sure that his follower was male. That left either the hobbit, or the elf. Gimli wasn't one to stalk him. "Legolas, stop it," he said quietly. "You're making me paranoid."

"That is a good thing, my human."

Strider couldn't help but smile indulgently. He'd been adopted by Legolas as his "pet human" years ago. It had made him welcome in Mirkwood, much to King Thranduil's dismay. "What purpose is there in driving me mad?"

"I shouldnít know, you'd have to ask Arwen."

"But I cannot, so I ask you."

"Well, it makes you all the more amenable to my whims."

"You've never sought to bend me to your whims. What is the problem today, Greenleaf?"

"Perhaps I wished to see you smile. You've not done that in days."

"What is there to smile about? The Palentir has stolen away Pippen and Mithrandir. We've lost many men in battle."

"But we have had some victory as you reminded me last night. And finding joy in these days has been hard. If you lose your smile, I fear we will have lost you."

"Legolas." Strider sighed. "Very well, my dear elf, what do you suggest we do?"

"Perhaps we should protect the baker from the advances of a hungry hobbit?"

"And by cheering Merry, cheer ourselves? I think Eowyn has him well in hand. He has fallen to her charms."

"And you have not? That isn't what I've heard."

"You dislike her?"

"No, I'm fond of her. Another human, what will my lord think?" Legolas was smirking, making Aragorn vaguely nervous. The elf was prone to tricks that embarrassed his "pet human."

"That you've spent too much time with Arwen and her brothers."

"Which is true in a sense."

Aragorn smiled at his friend. "Come, let's walk a bit together. You can tell me what lays so heavily on your mind."

"That is not what I was thinking of. I wished to cheer you not draw you into my sorrows."

"That's not fair, my friend. You have always listened to my troubles."

Legolas looked away. "That has never been a hardship. I just nod at the right time to make you feel better. Arwen taught me the technique."

"I don't believe you."

"Why not, my human?"

"Because you have always had a true answer to my problems, my friend. Why should you have cause to stop me when I wish to aide with your burdens?"

"My burdens are of the heart, my ranger, and there is nothing to be done but bear them for now. I cannot share burdens that I do not fully understand."

"Please, let me try."

Legolas sighed. They'd found themselves on the edge of the city looking out at the mountains. He gestured towards them. "For so many turns I looked towards the mountains in the distance and wished that I could fly to them like the queen's messengers. I yearned to be free of the palace and of the trees. But I have learned that I am never far from them. Even now they scream in agony as the fire tears through them and I don't know if the fires are real or some demented imaginings of the future. I hear the tales from the birds that have not yet been perverted of smoke in Mirkwood. They see it from the edges of Lorien, but don't dare to go closer. The elves have left Lorien and the birds mourn their loss.

"My heart grows heavy with fears and shadows that I seem to have known from birth. There is an ache in my side that I cannot attribute to any wound. The shadows whisper in my ears that there is danger growing near and that everything hangs in the balance. And I fear deeply for you and all the races left on these shores."

Aragorn stayed quiet as the eldest prince of Mirkwood found his words. When more was not forthcoming he prompted, "but that is not all."

"No," Legolas agreed. "I have learned something more, my ranger. A lesson precious to my heart that cannot be shared. I have given you many of my troubled dreams, but there is one last one that I cannot share."

"Why can you not share it, my friend?"

Legolas looked into Aragorn's eyes, for once the depth of his age showing true. "For I have found something that has no words, only melody and I fear that to sing it would destroy me."

Aragorn lost all his words in the shine of his friend's eyes. This was part of the awe that Arwen inspired in him, the agelessness of her eyes. He longed to be a part of their depths, but not as a painful reminder of humanity's failings. He would bring peace to the land. He would do it or see Legolas dead before he was harmed by anyone again. Carefully, considerate of all he knew of Legolas' past, he lifted a hand to brush away the tears neither of them had clearly recognized. He brushed his knuckles along the high cheekbone. "Then keep it in your mind, but not your heart. I would not see you so drowned in music that you cannot bear to live."

"But music is my heart-blood, Strider. And no music can exist in only one part of me. I will sing it in silence, in the greatest voice I know. Perhaps the Valar will see fit to free me of its burden, but I do not wish it so, for it is beautiful and haunting even in its pain." Legolas shook his head. "For now, let us continue. You will lead. I will follow. And in time we will see the shadows burned away by the brightest light."

Aragorn closed his eyes and dropped his head. "As you say. But honestly, my elf, I'm beginning to feel that you lead even when you follow." His hand rested briefly on Legolas' arm, over the wound he knew would never fully heal. "I will not rob Mirkwood of you."

"I cannot be stolen, Estel." Legolas smiled. "I go only where I choose and have done so for many turnings, despite my lord's displeasure. The queen instilled a love of flight and there are no cages that can hold me."

"I think there is one cage that holds you, your honor."

Legolas simply smiled a strange half smile that Strider had never seen before. "Not my honor, Strider, my love. It has always been my love that trained me to one place and it always will be. Come, let's go cheer Merry and forget our talk of shadows."

****

Sadorlien walked beside Arwen's horse, used to her silence and not worried in the least. They were fast approaching the point where they would need to slip into the forest. Arwen's eyes turned to the mists by the side of the road and dilated. Sadorlien blinked up at her in surprise as her horse stopped moving. "My lady. My lady, we must get going," he said softly. She turned the horse and left him standing and gaping. He turned quickly and scanned the ranks.

"Let me have that horse," he said in a tone much more of command than of request. The lady in waiting, blinked, then dismounted. He leapt onto the horses back and followed Arwen's trail easily. She wasn't even moving quietly through the pass. The lady shook her head then turned to walk with the others. Her lady would be well protected, that she knew.

"They will come when it is time for them to follow," she stated. The company started to move again, despite having lost two of its company.

It wasn't too long after Arwen confronted her father, that Sadorlien finished brushing down the horses and made his way to her chambers. Arwen gave the shards of Narsil to her father with the flattest demand he'd ever heard from her lips.

Later, he witnessed from the shadows the heartbreaking loss of Arwen's light. He bowed his head in brief sorrow. Then, he stood straight. If Arwen were now mortal, it was even more his duty to protect her than before. Her father left her laying on her couch. Sadorlien sat next to her and took up the book she'd been reading. He began to read to her, voice quickly taking on the unusual cadence of Court Elvish.

He didn't realize that in her fragile strength, she had stolen his heart.

****

Aragorn had taken his position to watch for the beacons of Minis Tirith partly to have something to do and partly to smoke his hobbit weed in peace. Legolas found the habit irritating, but ignorable. Eowyn had made it clear that she disliked it immensely. He sighed. Sometimes a man just wanted to smoke. He straightened with a start, then took off in a sprint. "The beacons of Minis Tirith. The beacons are lit. Gondor calls for aid."

There was a long moment of indrawn breath from all in the room. "And Rohan will answer," Theoden stated. "Muster the rohirrim."

The preparations were made swiftly. Aragorn watched Eowyn pass by. "You will ride with us?"

"It is traditional for the women to ride to the encampment."

He raised a brow and folded back her horse's blanket to reveal her sword. She folded it back, daring him to speak with her eyes.

"The men have found their captain. They will follow you unto death."

Aragorn's face darkened. He nodded slightly in response.

****

Legolas looked over the encampment from his perch. From where he stood he could watch over his human, his beloved, why could he still not admit to it even in his mind? He could also look out over the meager force gathered below. He murmured a silent prayer for their souls and their courage. Gimli settled with a hurrumph. "It's not enough," he said flatly.

Legolas sighed. "It will have to be unless we can conjure up another few thousand in moments. My people will not answer the call."

"And why not?"

"They will not leave the forest while it burns."

Gimli blinked. "How do you know?"

Legolas lifted his hand and a sparrow settled on it. It looked at him curiously. "I have news where-ever I fly, don't I, my friend?" The sparrow chirped happily at him. It plucked a stray hair from his braid and flew off.

Gimli snorted.

They turned and headed into the encampment. They would share a tent with Aragorn, as usual. But the human was busy talking with Theoden. Legolas frowned and headed to Eomer. "The horses are restless and the men quiet," he stated, half in question.

"They grow nervous in the shadow of the mountain."

"That road, there, where does it lead?" Gimli asked, frowning.

"It is the road to the Dimholt; the door under the mountain." Gimli turned to his companion in surprise. He hadn't realized the archer was studied in geography.

"And none who venture there ever return. That mountain is evil," Eomer ended, then walked away. Legolas studied the entrance, absently calming a horse with his touch. Aragorn approached them, looking into the mountain.

"Aragorn. Aragorn, let's get some food," Gimli said. Aragorn looked at the mountain once more, then followed. Legolas watched him, worried.

****

Theoden, frowned at the visitor. "Who are you?"

"I am Elrond, Lord of Imladris."

Theoden's eyes widened in surprise. He offered his visitor a chair. "And what brings you, Lord Elrond?"

"I must speak with Aragorn. And with you."

Theoden sent a guard to fetch Aragorn. "What is it?"

"You will not see out the battle. Prepare your people." Theoden paled at the bald statement. He wasn't used to plain speaking, even as a soldier. Aragorn entered. Elrond rose.

****

"Legolas," Elrond called quietly. The younger elf turned to face him. Elrond studied him. "Your guard still watches Arwen."

"Good."

"She is mortal."

Legolas bowed his head and closed his eyes. They stood silent for a long moment. "I will watch over Estel. Don't worry."

Elrond smiled sadly. "Take care, Legolas. This is no longer my world."

"Will you see the battle out?"

"How can I not? Celeborn is in Mirkwood, fighting with your father."

Legolas' cheek twitched involuntarily at the wording.

"Follow him closely. He will ride the dead roads."

"I know. I have nothing to fear from the dead."

"Only do not join them, Legolas."

Legolas nodded. "Sound advice. You know of Haldir's death?"

"I heard none of them returned."

"They did not. I returned them to the earth."

****

"Just where do you think you're off to?" Gimli demanded.

"No, this time you must stay, Gimli."

Legolas sauntered up, leading his horse. "Have you learned nothing of the stubbornness of dwarves?" He smiled. They mounted and headed for the mountain, leaving Theoden to tame his men.

****

As they traveled, Legolas recounted the story of the cursed army. Gimli shivered behind him. Legolas resisted the urge to smile. He'd always been fond of tales to scare youngsters. He'd done it to Strider often enough to make it a running joke between them. It was the best way to impart history though.

They stopped at the entrance to the mountain proper. "The way is shut. It was made by the dead and is kept by the dead. The way is shut," Legolas read. The horses turned and fled, leaving the three of them standing.

"I do not fear death." Aragorn strode in purposefully.

Legolas waited a heartbeat, then rolled his eyes at Gimli's reluctance. He followed Strider into the breach. Gimli came shortly after, his honor not letting him turn tail. As they confronted the King of the Dead, Legolas felt a little of his confidence dissipate. There was nothing but faith to hold onto, since his arrows were useless. His eyes remained trained on Aragorn. Estel, Elrond had named him, and Legolas couldn't argue with the appellation. The King of the Dead acquiesced.

They proceeded through the halls of the dead to the rivers. Legolas looked out over the water, hearing it for the first time. He understood, quite suddenly why Elrond's people were leaving these shores. He could hear the promise of freedom there. Then, Strider's hand was on the back of his neck for a brief moment as they headed for the Corsairs whose ships had been taken by the dead. A more efficient fighting force Legolas had never seen.

They boarded the head ship and set its black sails to take them to the shores near Minis Tirith. Legolas stood at the prow, eyes scanning ahead for dangers, and generally taking in the views he'd never had a chance to see before. Strider joined him, a gentle brush against his thigh to prove he was real, then nothing. Gimli was taking the time to rest. "You should sleep," Legolas stated. "We'll soon be fighting."

"True."

"So why don't you rest?"

"Because I would rather stay with you. One of us may die today," Strider said softly in Elvish. "And Arwen would have my head if I were to lie to you about anything, even through reticence."

Legolas looked at the human, eyes alight with curiosity. "You've never lied to me, Strider."

"But I haven't been truthful with you either. When I turned Eowyn away earlier, it wasn't just for Arwen's sake."

"Oh?" Legolas found his mouth was dry. It was an unusual sensation.

"I turned her away because I love you as well."

Legolas' eyes blinked, once, then again. "And I you, Aragorn, son of Arathorn." Legolas smiled. "My dearest friend, I could never doubt you love me. You put up with far too much to dislike me."

"Legolas, I don't mean I love you as a brother," Aragorn stated quietly. "It is not unheard of for elves to have more than one love."

"True."

"Humans can as well. I love you, Legolas. As more than a brother. You are my Chosen."

Legolas stared in wonder at his beloved ranger. "You were well named, Estel." The elf smiled sadly. "Don't die -- for my heart's sake, Aragorn."

Aragorn knew that he would get no firmer commitment out of his elf. It was enough that Legolas knew his feelings. There was nothing to change between them except physical intimacy, but that was not Legolas' forte. He'd known the elf for most of his life, and Legolas had never spoken of his lovers, though Aragorn assumed there must have been some, lest the rumors be wholly wrong. He clasped Legolas' hand for a moment and squeezed. "I will do my best, my elf."

"Then I have nothing to fear."

****

The dead made short work of the orcs that were in the city while still leaving plenty for everyone else to do. Legolas and Gimli quickly took up their favorite game of counting-kill. "Legolas!" The sharp cry alerted the elf to the Oliphant bearing down on him. Legolas considered, then ran towards the beast.

Aragorn thought his heart was going to stop as the elf ran directly at the large beast. He shouldn't have worried. Legolas quickly brought down the creature and its riders. Gimli snorted. "Still only counts as one." Legolas didn't comment, but turned to other prey. Soon, the field went silent. There was only ragged breathing and faint sounds from the city. The dead stood, demanding their due from Aragorn.

"Go and be at peace." The dead dissipated, leaving them to care for the wounded and tend the dead. Legolas heard Merry and Pippen on one side. Eowyn's tears caught his attention from the other side. But his heart was still heavy. His eyes turned to the shadowed lands across the river. They were on Mordor's doorstep and nothing would change that until the dark clouds were destroyed. He whispered a soft prayer for Sam and Frodo.

Aragorn closed his eyes and seconded the wishes. Then, he turned to practical matters. He greeted Gandalf.

****

Standing in the great hall, Gandalf said, "Frodo has passed beyond my sight. The darkness is deepening."

"If Sauron had the ring, we would know it."

"It is only a matter of time. He has suffered defeat, yes, but behind the walls of Mordor he is gathering his forces."

"Let them stay there. Let them rot," Gimli growled, puffing on his pipe. "Why should we care?"

"Because 10,000 orcs now stand between Frodo and Mt. Doom. I've sent him to his death."

"No, there's still hope for Frodo," Aragorn argued. "He needs time. We can give him that."

"How?" Gimli asked.

"Draw out his armies. We mass our forces and march for the Black Gate."

Gimli nearly choked on his smoke.

"We cannot win through strength of forces."

"But we can give Frodo time, keep the Eye focused on us. He cannot look two ways at once."

"A diversion," Legolas stated. His eyes were calm.

"Sauron will suspect it. He will not take the bait."

"Certainty of death. Small chance of success. What are we waiting for?"

Legolas shook his head with a smile. "It's no more mad than following a Hobbit," Legolas pointed out. Aragorn clapped him on the arm, finding the exact place of the orc-wound without ever knowing it. Legolas swallowed the pain with a glimmer of dangerous humor. His human would pay someday for all the little nicks and bats he'd given the elf. And poor Aragorn would never see it coming, not from Legolas of all people.

****

The black gates were imposing. Legolas took his place at Aragorn's shoulder. Gimli was next to him, grumbling about being comrades with an elf. "How about with a friend?"

"Aye. I could do that I suppose." Gimli nodded. History was being made all around him these days. They moved closer to the gate.

"Let the Lord of the Black Land come forth! Let justice be done upon him!" Aragorn commanded.

Suddenly, the doors of started to rumble open. The whole of Sauron's army stared at them, a strong, wide surge of death. "Pull back!"

They drew back to the main force. The darkness of the eye seemed to fill the space behind the army like a dread cloud of doom. Aragorn raised his sword. The words he spoke would be forever imprinted on the souls of the men who heard him. "Sons of Gondor, or Rohan. My brothers. I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me. A day may come when the courage of man fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of Fellowship. But it is not this day! An hour of wolves and shattered shields when the age of men comes crashing down. But it is not this day! This day, we fight. By all that you hold dear on this good earth, I bid you, stand men of the West!"

They stood, waiting for the attack. Sauron called to Aragorn. Legolas could see the strength of that call, like a band, pulling Aragorn closer to the army. Then, Aragorn turned and met Legolas' eyes. He raised his sword and charged, calling "For Frodo!"

The battle was joined a breathless moment later. All around was clashing and gnashing and clank, klink pain of screeching death. The dull roar of battle was pierced by a clear voice. "The eagles are coming! They'll save us!"

Legolas looked and indeed saw the eagles bearing down on the Nazgul. But what held his attention was the beast attacking Aragorn. Aragorn fell and Legolas surged towards him, not even counting the number of swings. He never knew how many orcs he killed in that black moment. The only thing he cared for was reaching Aragorn's side. Nothing short of death was going to keep him. Then, Mt. Doom rumbled. The vibrations ran through the ground cracking it as the volcano spurted to life. All eyes were on the red and black plume. Aragorn never knew how the beast got off of his chest. All he could see was the red lava spewing into the air. A rolling cheer went up as the orcs were swallowed by the angry earth. It was over.

Gandalf and the eagles went to collect the hobbits, while Aragorn coordinated the assistance of the wounded. In Minis Tirith, Legolas looked Aragorn over critically. "You look a mess. Go clean up. Get some rest. I'll watch for a moment. Eomer knows his men well."

"Legolas."

"Go. Now."

Strider blinked. He'd never been ordered around by the elf. But he took the chiding and the advice and went to clean off the grime of the battle and of the road. Legolas turned to Eomer. "We must secure Osgilith. If there are any orcs left in Mordor, that will be their first target. After that is safe, we can begin the ranger sweeps again."

"The men are tired."

"I need your best, Eomer. Five of them. I'll get five of the Rangers of Gondor. That will be enough for a small outpost. There are a few rangers left. I know them. Will you assist me?"

Eomer nodded. "And where are your men?"

"In Mirkwood, where they should remain for now."

"We could use fresh men."

"They would not arrive in time for anything less than the coronation. And likely not even that. We'd have to hold the proceedings for that to happen."

Eomer's brows rose. "You don't approve?"

"Of lateness? Not particularly. Of the warriors. Yes, I approve of them, but they are bereft of their oldest captain. She is likely now one of the orcs laying on that field out there." Legolas shook his head. "Enough. I ride towards Osgilith, join me when you can."

Legolas strode out of the room. He pointed, "You, your name?"

"Henry, sir."

"Set watch on Aragorn's chambers. He is not to be disturbed for twelve hours. Enlist help if you need too."

The young boy nodded and scampered towards the king's chambers.

"He is too young."

"He is the perfect age. And he is not likely to be a killer in disguise. Aragorn's security is paramount to me. Thus, I'm going to hunt orcs. Now, where has that dwarf gotten to?" he mused aloud.

Eomer laughed.

****

Aragorn stretched. He looked out at the sun. It seemed very low in the sky. There was no way he'd only slept for an hour. He opened the door to find a page in livery there. "And who are you?"

"Henry, sir. Citadel Guard."

Aragorn smiled. "And what are your orders Guard Henry?"

"To let no one disturb you for a day, sir."

"And have you done your duty?"

"Yes, sir. These are the messages for you." He had a small pile of parchments next to him. "Master Legolas was quite clear that you were not to be disturbed at all."

"I might have known. Very well. You may stand down, Guard Henry."

"I'm sorry, sir, but not until Master Legolas returns. Pippen and I have been taking turns."

"Pippen is well?"

"Yes, sir."

"Will you fetch him for me?"

"He'll be here shortly, sir. It's almost his time."

Aragorn nodded and changed, trimming the beard that Legolas teased him about. He had been outmaneuvered by a child and a hobbit. Not the most auspicious of beginnings, but better than nothing. He heard voices outside his chamber. "Pippen," he opened the door to the grinning hobbit's face.

"Strider!" They embraced. Henry watched in awe.

"And where is Legolas?"

"He's in Osgilith. He was re-establishing the perimeter. Eomer is in his chambers. Eowyn is handling matters in the main hall. Her arm is bound up and she's weak, but I still wouldn't cross her."

"Never cross a woman. Let that be a lesson to you, Pippen."

"I know better. You'd better warn Merry though. He's taken with her. Frodo's here. He's asleep. Gandalf is taking care of him. We put Sam in a separate room so he would actually rest." Aragorn let himself be led by the merrily chatting hobbit. He steered himself towards the great hall.

"Eowyn," he said softly. She looked up from the papers.

"Aragorn," she smiled. Aragorn knew that smile. "There's someone you should meet."

He looked at the unfamiliar man. "Hello."

"I am Faramir, son of Denethor. Steward of Gondor. Welcome, King Aragorn."

"I'm not king yet. I am sorry for your losses."

Faramir inclined his head.

"Boromir died nobly."

"He did."

Eowyn smiled, sad but accepting. "I think you'll have to wrest control away from your elf. The army is under his direction at the moment."

"He's good at it. Though he hates it. At least that's what he's always told me. He just wants to hunt orcs. Gimli?"

"Has retired to a room near the hobbits. Legolas has tired him out."

"Legolas was winning the game."

Eowyn nodded. "Now that you're here, these are your responsibility."

He took the papers and started reading. When he looked up again Legolas was watching him, head canted to the side. Aragorn took stock of what he was wearing, where he was sitting, and what he was doing, before speaking. "Yes? And what can I do for you, my meddling elf?"

"Have you eaten?"

"Stop acting like my mother, Legolas. I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself."

Legolas rolled his eyes. "There's food sitting on the table which hasnít been touched. I wondered if it were yours or if you were waiting for Eowyn's company."

"You know that I am not awaiting her company. Why don't you go meddle in someone else's affairs?"

"No one else has affairs which are as fun to meddle in," Legolas informed his human. "Have you eaten?"

"No, but I will presently. What is the state of Osgilith?"

"There is a small force cleaning out the wreckage of what came before and hunters going after the orcs that venture too near. The bodies of the orcs have been gathered into piles and I've started the burning. Their weapons and armor have been collected. The smiths think they will be able to convert some of what was there into more useful pieces. The leather and cloth has been taken by the people of Rohan for use with their horses."

"And our company?"

"Gimli lost interest in hunting and returned here to rest. Pippen and Merry are well. Sam is recovering. He needed only food, water and a few bandages. The damage to Frodo was worse, but Gandalf is watching over him. We were worried about Faramir, but his fever broke during the day. Eowyn had been watching over him, last I heard. Gandalf is well, though tired. Word has been sent out about your assumption of power. The date has been set for one month from today to allow the humans on the Dale and above to join us. The Shire is not expected to attend. Word has come that Wormtongue is dead by his own hand."

"And where did this news come from?"

Legolas smiled. "I have my sources. The rooks have been flying from the mountains. The Eagles will not be attending your crowning."

"And the elves?"

The elf considered. "I assume they'll be here as well. I haven't asked. I will have to return to Mirkwood after the coronation."

"And then return here? I'm sure Mirkwood can spare me an archer."

"The *best* archer," Legolas corrected. "But I've responsibilities there beyond hunting."

"Oh? Nothing to steal you from my side just yet, though?" Aragorn prodded.

"No, not just yet." Legolas' eyes were soft and smiling. He looked more at ease than he had at any time in the journey. "Come, my human, let's get you fed so that you can face the masses."

"I'm not the king yet."

"Aren't you?"

Aragorn was silent. Damned elves were always acting older and wiser. The bitch of it was, Legolas only did it when he was right. Aragorn snorted. He ate the food, surprised at how quickly it disappeared. He hadn't thought himself that hungry. Legolas watched him eat, amused. "Why do you watch me?"

"I enjoy watching you."

"But why?"

The archer shrugged. "It's become something of a hobby. I like to watch things. Now, I've one more thing to do before I retire for a deep sleep."

"And that is?"

"There's a tree that needs tending." With that statement, Legolas left.

Aragorn shook his head and looked to the heavens. "Elves," he said, feeling like Gimli.

****

Legolas stroked the branches of the white tree. It was not yet dead, but it had come very close. He tended it carefully, trying to ease the years of neglect it had suffered. It hadn't been properly cared for since the line of kings had been broken. He felt curious eyes on him and looked up. Sam was out of bed. Legolas smiled. He gestured the hobbit over. "Hello, Samwise."

"Mr. Legolas."

"And how are you faring today? They told me you would not be up for another few days?"

"Well, sir, I'm not so fragile as all that."

"You are well? The healer gave you leave to be up?"

"Yes, sir." Sam frowned at the elf. "What are you doing?"

"Trying to save the tree. It is the symbol of Gondor."

"Well, then, sir, I've got just the thing."

"Oh?" Legolas was pleased. "What do you suggest?"

"Lady Galadriel gave me some soil."

"Sam, that's wonderful."

Samwise Gamgee beamed. He got the little box he'd taken care to protect. He sprinkled just a pinch on the roots like she'd told him to do. "There, sir, that should do."

"Thank you, Master Gamgee." Legolas smiled. A little bit of dirt from Lorien might make all the difference.

****

"Prince Legolas," Brand said warmly. They were in the back hall leading to the king's receiving room. He smiled at the elf.

Legolas returned the smile with an inclination of his head. "How do you come to be all the way down here?" He liked the King of the Dale. He'd known him since he was a child.

"I came to see the king's coronation. Your brother sent this with us."

Legolas took the package curiously. He opened the wrapping to expose a silver coronet. His lips twitched as he realized that it was created to sit canted on his forehead, just enough to be noticeable to an elf. It would drive Arwen and Elrond mad. "Thank you for brining this."

"You're welcome. I hadn't thought to find you here. I'm surprised that King Thranduil let you leave the woods."

"It wasn't so much a matter of 'let' as some might believe."

The human laughed. He clapped the elf on the upper arm. "You sound like me when I was a young man."

"You are still young."

"To an elf perhaps, but to a human, not so young as I have been."

"We're none of us that. Though some retain a brighter spirit than others."

"Is the Lady Arwen here?"

"Perhaps. She has an affection for Aragorn."

"And to think your brother called you a gossip."

"Merely gossip fodder."

"Legolas!" Aragorn called. Brand was treated to a sight that would linger for years. For a heartbeat the elf-prince shone as radiantly as the stars. Then, Aragorn was there beside them and the light was gone. "Frodo has wakened."

"That is good news. If you will excuse us, Brand?"

"King Brand, welcome to Minis Tirith," Aragorn said politely.

"Hello, Strider. Go, see to your friend. They say he's a great hero."

"That he is," Strider agreed. "That he is. All of them are. For ones so small they have remarkable stead-fastness."

"Fine friends to have indeed. I shall have to meet them one day."

"I should like that." Strider nodded. He was glad to have known so many of the men that would be coming to support King Elessar. 0f course, most of them didn't know that Strider was also Aragorn, but that would come in due course.

Legolas realized in some amusement, that Aragorn was holding his hand. "Do you think I'll get lost on the way to Frodo's chambers?" he teased.

Strider looked down at the elf's hand in his own. He smirked. "Just staking my claim early as I'm sure there will be someone coming to take it from me."

"And who else do you think would grab me by the hand to lead me around the palace?"

"Why Arwen, of course. She'll be here within the day."

"And with Frodo well again the ceremony shall commence?"

"The hard part is mostly done. Brand was the last king to arrive. The ceremony doesn't bother me."

"And Arwen is coming with a full retinue?"

"She is coming with Elrond and my guess is that Sadorlien will be with them. Perhaps her brothers." Aragorn shrugged. Legolas laughed and shook his head.

"As if her brothers would let her go anywhere on her own? It will be fun to hunt with them again." There was a rather savage smile on the elf's face and Strider was surprised.

"I know you dislike. . .'

"No, Strider, I despise them. Mother Ravenclaw's body is out there. Or what used to be her body before they twisted her into an orc. I saw to the burning of it myself. I will make sure that Sauron's forces are routed. I would not wish that fate on my enemy."

"Orc-hood? No." Strider shook his head, slowing his steps. He shook off the lingering images of the Palintir's vision. He would not have to worry about his elf being turned into an orc. That much was assured. He didn't notice his fingers tightening until Legolas squeezed back.

"You worry too much, child," Legolas stated.

"And you don't? Come, let's see Frodo well."

****

Aragorn greeted Elrond and his sons. He tried not to be too disappointed that Arwen wasn't with them. "Lord Elrond."

Legolas nodded to the brothers. Elrohir winked over Strider's head. Elladan seconded the motion. Legolas raised a brow. Elrond gave Legolas' arm a squeeze. "It's good to see you, Legolas."

"My lord."

Elrond looked down his nose at the young elf. "Whatever it is you have planned, don't even consider it."

"What would I possibly be considering? Embarrassing you? Never."

"Legolas, I know that when you and Elladan get into squabbles the entire court has to watch."

"I wouldn't be embarrassing *you*, only them."

"I should have spirited you away from Mirkwood. Perhaps you would not have picked up Thranduil's humor. Or his hairsplitting tendencies."

"I'm not good at politics. But I will tell you that there's still plenty of orc hunting to be done by Osgilith."

"Really?" Elladan was pleased. "We'll have to take a trip out there to see who can get the most. And what's this we hear about being a dwarf-friend?"

"Gimli's not that bad," Legolas defended.

"Still, Legolas, an elf and a dwarf? It will never work out."

"Did Galadriel tell you about Gimli's affections then? He loves her very much."

The twins stopped in mid-thought. They looked at each other, then back at Legolas. "See you later, Estel," they chimed. Each twin took one arm and led the protesting Legolas away for an in depth gossip debriefing. Strider laughed.

"They'll never change."

"The twins? They've changed some. They don't hunt as much anymore. It's Legolas who worries me now."

"I'll look after him."

"Will you? You'll have to catch him first." Elrond nodded in the direction of the courtyard. "Will you walk with me, Aragorn?"

"Of course."

****

"So you'll able to get her into the palace right? He can't see her," Elladan pressed.

"Yes, don't worry." Legolas gestured. "Guard Henry." The young guard hurried over. The twins took him to be a page. "Will you watch over Aragorn for me once more? Don't leave his side until I say."

"Yes, sir." Henry scurried off. His boots clattered on the stones of the hall.

Elrohir laughed. "We'll hear them coming a mile away."

"Exactly. Now, where are they?"

"Down by the river. Sadorlien thought you'd be able to get them in quietly from there."

"I wonder how he knew. There's a staircase there, built into the mountain. It's not nice, but it will get us from here to there. There's a room set up for the attendants. She can stay there. Can they keep the secret do you think?"

"I think so. They're the closest to the family. Cara's there."

"Then there's no trouble at all."

****

Arwen hugged Legolas close. "Thank you, brother."

"For you, anything, sister," he whispered back. He released her. "Sadorlien?" Legolas smiled hesitantly.

The guard stood attentively by Arwen's side. He turned to his prince, a blinding smile on his face. "My lord." He opened his arms for his own hug. Legolas wrapped his arms around his oldest companion. Sadorlien held on tightly. "It eases my heart to see you well."

"And mine as well. Though, there's something different. You're in love again."

"Perhaps." Sadorlien smirked. He loved tweaking Legolas about love affairs. Then, he looked closely at the elf in front of him. "I'm not the only one in love."

"Bite your tongue. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a guard to relieve."

"I'll get the story out of you, sir," Sadorlien threatened.

"Perhaps," Legolas retorted over his shoulder.

****

Legolas went in search of the King of Men. He came upon the dwarf in the hall.

"And where is Aragorn?" Legolas asked Gimli.

"He went down to see the fields." The dwarf frowned. "Gandalf is with him."

Legolas nodded. The dwarf looked him up and down. "Finally admitted it then, lad?"

"I admit nothing, Master Dwarf."

Gimli chuckled. He patted the elf's hip. "He loves you too, you know."

"Is it that bloody obvious?"

Gimli considered. "Only if you know the both of you."

"There's that to be thankful of at least."

Gimli considered what he knew about the elf and the human. "How long have you known him?"

"Oh, years." Legolas shrugged. "He was my pet human about the same time he became Arwen's chosen. I didn't get to meet him when he was a child because I wasn't allowed to Rivendell." Legolas smiled. "I think he's grown up rather well."

"I don't believe it's paternal affection," the dwarf said flatly.

"No, I'd never be so foolish as to claim that. But I have responsibilities, Gimli. I can't follow my heart like Arwen has. Their union is for the good of both races. I will have to take my leave of him soon."

"Why?"

"My lord did not give me leave to go to Rivendell, much less come to Minis Tirith on a quest that likely should have killed me. I must return to Mirkwood to face that if nothing else." Legolas' voice was quiet, but full of rage and pain. "I cannot stay, no matter what my heart says."

"Once you taste love, leaving it is bitter."

Legolas touched Gimli's shoulder. "I'm sorry. You of all people here understand my position best."

"Aye, lad, I do. Well, then, I'm off to find some food. A dwarf could starve."

"If they can feed a hobbit, they can feed a dwarf." Legolas shook off his dark mood.

****

Aragorn looked up in surprise to find the twins watching him. "We've met Eowyn, Estel. Naughty."

"I didn't do anything."

"But you considered it."

"She would make a fine queen."

"True. So tell us, brother, what changed between you and the wood-elf?"

"I don't know what you mean."

Elrohir snorted. "Estel."

"We are as we have always been. Nothing has changed."

"Liar. What has changed?"

"Nothing between us has changed."

"If I can't get the truth from you I'll have to wrest it from Legolas."

Aragorn laughed at that. Elladan grinned. "We are desperate you know."

"Then you'll have to ask him. And I swear if you can get him to talk to you about anything, it will be a miracle."

"Sounds like a challenge. What do you think, brother?" The twins smirked at each other. "And where might our friendly wood-elf be?"

"He's right here. What have you been plotting behind my back?" Legolas glared at his well, brothers he supposed. He'd inherited them from Arwen.

"Would we do anything to harm you?"

Legolas crossed his arms, absently touching the orc wound on his arm. He looked down his nose at them. He raised his brows. "Harm? No. Embarrass? Yes. Now what are you plotting?"

Elrohir smiled. "We were just wondering what has changed over the past year. You and Estel seem different to us."

Legolas took a step in Aragorn's direction, eyes fixed on dark-haired elves. "Different how?"

"It's something subtle and indescribable. It's worrisome though. The two of you have always been so. . ."

"Stable?" Elladan finished.

"Exactly," his brother agreed. "And now you've gone and changed. It's troubling."

Aragorn shook his head. "I don't know what you mean beyond the obvious. We've both been facing Sauron for a year. That's not a good thing. We have traveled far and fought many battles together. Perhaps that's all you see."

"No, that's not it." Elrohir tapped his cheek. "I know, You're in love."

Legolas rolled his eyes. "Shut up unless you have something sensible to say. Aragorn, Eowyn wants to know when the ceremony will begin exactly. There's some female ritual that she wants to schedule properly." He shrugged.

"And why not send a page for the information?"

"She saw me first. You know what's she's like when she has her mind set on something."

"True. Have you seen Faramir?"

"The healer is checking him for any lingering affects of his wounds. Eowyn was all set to hover over him when they kicked her out."

"She was stabbed by a Nazgul!"

"And she has recovered perfectly. She wasn't half-dead when they got to her. Denethor was trying to burn Faramir when Mithrandir interfered."

Elladan cleared his throat. "Have you become his vassal then? I didn't think. . ."

"He's my pet human, I'll do what I like," Legolas stated. His voice was absent. The twins stared at him. "What?"

"How often have you had to discuss him with our kind?" Elrohir demanded.

"My lord does not approve of my friendship with any human, Strider least of all. But he knows he can't stop me. We simply have a screaming fight every few years." Legolas shrugged. "I'll leave you to your brothers. They *should* be able to protect you."

"And where are you headed?"

"I need to check Osgilith."

"Legolas, let someone else take charge of the operation there."

"There is no one else. The rangers are depleted. The officers' will is mostly destroyed. Who would you have me send? Pippen?"

"Merry." Aragorn sighed. "There are still good men. Eomer for one."

"Eomer is who is there. He needs to be relieved. The healers will have my hide if I send Faramir. Not to mention what Eowyn might do to me."

"Fine!" Aragorn lifted his hand to stop any further arguments. "We both know that no matter what I say, you're going to do exactly as you please."

"We'll go."

Legolas and Strider both stared at them. "Well, I suppose. . ."

"Do you have any real arguments against us?" Elladan asked.

"No. Just be careful. Elrond will kill me if you get killed there. Don't sulk, Legolas."

"I'm not sulking."

"Of course you aren't, Legolas," Aragorn said. He rolled his eyes towards the sky. "You're frowning for no reason."

"I am not."

"Go talk to Elrond about what the Elven contingent is going to do tomorrow or pretend you're my bodyguard, just don't prick at me."

"Do I prick at you that terribly?"

Everyone in the room knew that Legolas' contrite tones were false. "Oh yes," Aragorn replied. "Sometimes, you even treat me like King Thranduil."

"I'm not that bad to you."

"You do take after him in temperament though," Elrohir smirked.

"Oh, go get yourselves shot up by orcs." Legolas shooed them with one hand.

"Watch it, Legolas, I'll hold that tree out there hostage for good behavior."

They all laughed at that. The twins took off for Osgilith, leaving Aragorn and Legolas alone in the chamber.

"Do you think they'll let it go?" Legolas asked. He perched on the table and looked at the scattered parchments. Aragorn squeezed the elf's thigh, feeling the firm muscle there.

"No."

"Then everyone will be pestering us. But there's nothing changed between us."

"Oh? I think there's one thing." Aragorn didn't move his hand. Legolas looked down at the calloused fingers. He placed his own fingers over them.

"What?"

"I've admitted to you that I love you," Aragorn's voice was soft.

"I know, Beloved." Legolas smiled gently. "But there is nothing to change between us. I've loved you for so long without recognizing it."

Aragorn smiled. "Will you stay?"

"I cannot. I must return to the forest."

"What duty draws you there?"

"Duty to my king. Let us leave it there."

"Very well. Someday I'll get a true explanation from you."

The elf didn't answer. "Correspondence?"

"More than I thought possible." Aragorn sneered at the papers. "How am I supposed to do anything when no one will even so much as speak without a piece of paper to back them up?"

"It is the way of the world, Strider. Let me clear some of it up for you. You can read my responses and send them if you like them."

"Legolas?"

"I've done it for Thranduil. I've done it for Elrond. I've been translating messages between the two of them for what seems like my entire life."

"Very well then. Legolas, how did you come to your position in Thranduil's court?"

"An orc's arrow." The elf refused to be drawn any further and the evident pain in his voice kept Aragorn from trying.

****

Arwen reached to straighten Legolas' crown. It didn't move. He smiled. She frowned. "It's crooked."

"It's perfect."

She sighed heavily. "Father!"

Elrond came at the hail. "Legolas, what have you done to your crown?"

"My crown is exactly as it was made."

"It's crooked."

"Not by much."

"Don't pout. It's crooked." Elrond tried to straighten it. "This isn't the crown you had before."

"Gailduil sent it with King Brand of the Dale."

"He made it like this!"

Sadorlien started to laugh. Soon it infected Legolas as well. Elrond threw his hands up. "I don't know what I'm going to do with you children." Arwen's lips twitched. She touched her father's arm gently.

"It will be fine. He'd just put it on canted anyway."

"Sometimes you are less than helpful. You should take a sisterly interest in making sure he's properly courtly."

"Father," Arwen chided. Legolas shook his head with a smile.

"Shall we go?"

"Yes."

****

The actually crowning was blessedly short. Aragorn walked through the crowd, picking out the faces he recognized. It was strange to see people he'd spent so much time with bow to him. Strangely, even Eowyn bowed. He forced himself to continue to walk. He wished that Arwen could have made it. When he faced the Elves, he smiled. He put a hand on Legolas' shoulder and whispered a brief thanks. Then, their eyes met fully and he became aware of two things: first, Legolas was trying not to smirk and second, Sadorlien was standing just behind Elrond. Legolas tilted his head and Arwen was there. Aragorn took her into his arms and kissed her.

Legolas didn't know whether to cheer or cry when he saw two of his dearest friends kissing like that. His heart did a curious flip. It wasn't jealousy over their love. He'd never deny either of them anything. He examined the emotion and realized it was jealousy. He wanted to be able to kiss Aragorn like that. But even if Arwen weren't known to be his queen, he couldn't. Humans simply wouldn't accept him as Aragorn's partner. He couldn't stand by him like Arwen could. He found a sad smile on his lips. Elrond's hand squeezed his shoulders. "Peace," the elder elf whispered.

"Yes."

Elrond smiled. He considered Legolas his son more than his nephew. "You have always loved more freely than any of my children."

"I don't think I understand you, sir."

"Forget I said anything, then." Elrond's hand didn't move. "Will you stay with him, with them?"

"I cannot. I still must face my father. I will stay to see his court begin to function. Not long after the snows. I must return to the forest, to see what the fire has done to it."

"The woods will be green again."

"They always were green, but some could not see it."

Elrond smiled a bit sad, despite the joy of the occasion. His words were interrupted by the need to show his gratefulness to the hobbits. He knelt and when he rose again, Legolas managed to elude him. The rest of the celebration, Elrond never found himself alone with the younger elf again. Legolas was standing guard over Aragorn. Sadorlien, oddly enough, wasn't bothering to shadow Legolas, he remained focused on Arwen. It galled him that Sadorlien thought Aragorn's court safer than Rivendell. But then, who in this court truly knew Legolas as anything but another elf? Elrond met Legolas' eyes and mocking smile. He inclined his head to acknowledge that he'd been outmaneuvered.

Eventually, Aragorn and Arwen retreated. Legolas leaned against the wall outside Aragorn's chambers. Sadorlien mirrored his position on the other side of the door. "How long will you stand guard for him, my prince?" Sadorlien asked.

"Until my heart drives me back to Lord Thranduil to accept whatever punishments he may lay upon me."

Sadorlien couldn't help but look away. The only thing he could never do was protect his prince from the king. "I wish that we could stay here until Strider's time is up."

"You will."

"What?" Sadorlien found it a struggle to keep his voice low. Anger flashed in his eyes. He might not have Thranduil's temper, or even Legolas' temper, but sometimes he couldn't contain it.

"I said that you will remain here. How can I leave if I know that they are unprotected? If you remain, I can return to the woods with a clear heart."

It took a few long moments. Then, Sadorlien carefully and calmly crossed the distance between them. He put his hand unerringly over the orc-mark on Legolas' arm. "If I could not protect you in Mirkwood, how can I protect them here?"

"Because you will not let anything happen to my heart," Legolas whispered.

Sadorlien's breath caught. "You are in love with Arwen?"

"She is my sister. My heart lies next to her. And that, my dearest friend, is the deepest secret I have ever given you to hold."

"Then I will hold it closer than my own. Very well, when you leave, I will not follow, though my heart breaks from the idea already. I feel as if I've lost part of myself without you or Deluiel by my side."

"I understand your pain. And I know there is nothing that can ease that ache except time. In time, perhaps, we will both adjust. But this is where you are needed now. This is where you can spread your wings. And this is where you can indulge your heart."

"What do you mean?"

"That you love the Evenstar as surely as I love my Strider. And that, my friend, can only help them both. Watch over them?"

"I have already given you that pledge. When did you learn to read me so well?"

"When you first started to have flings with the maidens that threw themselves at me. We won't be separated forever. You know my lord will soften after a few years."

"You love him too well, I think. He has all but destroyed the joy that I once saw in your eyes. Stay here. For once, indulge yourself without thinking of the woods."

"I cannot. I simply cannot. It's not in my nature. I will stay for a few months, no longer. Aragorn cannot know. I have told him that I will leave, but not when. I know that I cannot withstand his pleading. Were it possible, I would grant him anything."

"Promise me one thing, my lord."

"What?"

"Do not let your heart grow cold and hard. Don't let the ice fill you up as it did before Strider came into our world. You started to thaw then. I thought the worst was past."

"If I do not have ice in my heart, I will die from the pain of the separation. If I do not hold fast, I will die if I lose him. I have survived one broken heart by ice, it is the only way I'll survive another. My heart nearly killed me once when I thought him lost to the river. How can I survive a true death?"

Sadorlien's grip never wavered. He looked his best friend, his charge, his duty, in the eye. "If you do not survive it, then you don't. I would rather have you dead outright, than dead piece by piece."

Legolas smiled. He closed his eyes. "If I don't return to Mirkwood, Lord Thranduil will send someone for me. He did not know of my leaving, but he will know where I am. Gailduil knew enough to send a coronet with Brand. If I don't face him soon, it will be worse in the end. Perhaps he will finally order me away. Perhaps he'll destroy the last of the Queen."

"No, he will not harm you."

"He will lock me away in the palace until I am quite mad. Then, I'll escape to my trees again. There is nothing that will change that." When Sadorlien opened his mouth, Legolas touched his lips. "Enough. The decision was made before I saw your face again. Regardless of whether you abide by my wishes and remain here or not, I will not change my mind."

"Yes, sir," Sadorlien said softly, tears in his eyes. He shook off the mood and took up his place once more. They didn't speak, but not so much as a speck of dust evaded their eyes.

****

Child's Play Part 6

LotR Bedroom

The Bedrooms

The Library