Talion started, jerking his head up; he hadn’t realized that he’d been drooped over the table, nearly asleep. His throat was burning.
Infected, he thought, blearily. Again.
Celebrimbor stepped forward, gently pushed Talion’s chin up with his fingers. He sighed. “Infected again.” The hand traveled to Talion’s forehead, and it was blessedly cool against his skin. Talion hadn’t even realized how hot he’d grown, assuming it was simply the heat from the fireplace making him sweat. “And a fever. Are you in pain?”
Talion made to speak, but the burning ache in his throat made him choke. He nodded; even that was painful.
Celebrimbor paused, but then slowly slid his hand through Talion’s hair. “Get to bed,” He said. “I’ll mix the usual.”
Talion nodded and wearily stood, Celebrimbor bracing him by the arm as he swayed unsteadily. How had it come over him so quickly?
They moved together, Talion leaning on Celebrimbor until his legs hit the bed. Once he’d sat down, he kept a grip on Celebrimbor’s hand until the Elf gently detached him.
“I won’t be long,” He assured. “Get undressed and into bed.”
Stay, Talion thought as Celebrimbor moved away. Please stay.
They didn’t speak much after the Witch King, after Isildur.
Celebrimbor retreated to the Wraith-world and did not surface for nearly two weeks. Talion had little need of him in that time; there were few Orcs or Uruks he encountered that he could not handle on his own. If anything, he resented the Wraith’s absence for the sheer pettiness of it, the childish unwillingness to accept that Eltariel was right and that the Ring was corrupting him.
“I’ve had enough,” Talion growled as he scaled the last length of the Haedir, scrambling onto the weathered stone and finding his bearings. “Celebrimbor! Come here!”
“Celebrimbor, enough with your sulking! Come out now!”
Were any Orcs lurking below, able to see and hear him, they’d think the Gravewalker had lost his mind- and in the interest of honesty, the days where Talion felt close to insanity were growing more abundant as time went on.
“Sulking?” Talion turned around, because as always, Celebrimbor chose to materialize behind him. The long-dead Elf-lord paced towards Talion in a decidedly threatening manner. “You call my frustration sulking? We had the Witch King of Angmar, Sauron’s most powerful resource and ally, at our mercy, and you refused to see him dominated for- what?”
“For the simple fact that you seem unable to recognize what you’re doing,” Talion snarled. “You speak of conquering the Witch King, then Sauron, then Mordor, then Middle Earth- do you even hear the words that come from your mouth, Celebrimbor? Do you not hear what you sound like?!”
“I have languished in this Hell, at Sauron’s mercy, for more millennia than your people have lived in this accursed land,” Celebrimbor hissed. “Your continued refusal to do what is necessary to bring an end to Sauron finds me wondering if I may be better without form at all, for what use is a physical body if it will not cooperate with me?”
“Then leave!” Talion bellowed, louder than maybe was wise because it was almost certain that some Orc down below knew where he was now. “Leave me! Go find someone else to do your bidding! But no more will I be party to your schemes for domination!”
Celebrimbor growled furiously, seemed to search for words that would convince Talion of this path- or, at the very least, express his intense anger at his refusal. But after a moment, he simply shook his head and disappeared.
For a moment Talion felt a pulse of alarm, wondering if Celebrimbor had, indeed, truly left him and if his throat was about to open up and bleed out again. But after a few minutes, he was satisfied that Celebrimbor and he were still attached (and that, in any case, he still had the Ring and that meant he would not die), and so he let the ever-dignified Elf-lord go back to his ridiculous sulking.
Celebrimbor was not gone for long. He began to come back with his usual regularity, but he was hostile, irritable, and relentless in his attempts to convert Talion to his plan of action.
But he did not leave.
Talion sat on the edge of the bed, clumsily removing his clothes as he watched Celebrimbor work.
There was a particular mixture (athelas being the primary ingredient) that had proven to be especially effective for the infections Talion regularly developed in his throat. It was part pain-reliever, part curative, and part sedative, because it was incredibly difficult to sleep through the sort of pain Talion had been known to feel.
He watched the light from the fireplace dance off the walls, the floor, off of Celebrimbor’s dark hair with the fascination of a man whose brain was slowly roasting itself to death.
I like your hair, Talion would have said, deliriously, if the words were capable of making it through his inflamed throat.
As he was now, if Talion had said such a thing, Celebrimbor would have smirked and thanked him, easily dismissed it as fever-words. As he had been in the sixty years they had walked Mordor together, he likely would have ignored Talion, or been surly and irate at his delusions.
It had been startling, really, to see the differences between Celebrimbor, the Wraith, and Celebrimbor, the Elf. So far, Talion had been quite satisfied with the differences: This Celebrimbor was kinder, softer, and rarely spoke in the cold, calculating way that the Wraith had. The Wraith had been an echo of Celebrimbor, with moments of his true self shining through; this, Talion now knew, was the true Celebrimbor.
Bright blue eyes met his, and Celebrimbor brought Talion a cup of the mixture. “It’s done.”
“It’s the Ring.”
“It is not.”
They’d had one form of this argument or another at least seven times in the past week, and now apparently they were to battle it out again.
“Eltariel was right, it’s corrupting you.”
“But not you,” Celebrimbor sneered.
“No, not me, because I’m not the one who claims to have put my bloody being into it,” Talion snarled. He’d been sharpening the tip of an arrow with his knife, and now kept his hands still for fear the shaking would cost him a finger.
“My Ring is pure!” Celebrimbor snapped, an insistence he continued to throw at Talion, not grasping that it was falling on deaf ears.
“And yet you delude yourself into thinking that you can defeat Sauron and replace him as ruler of Mordor!”
“You were the one who suggested we keep going,” Celebrimbor argued. “I was prepared to let you go, I was ready to end it- but you said that we ought to keep fighting, for how could we die knowing we could still battle Sauron?”
“I was wrong!” Talion spat, throwing up his hands. “You were right! Does that satisfy you? We ought not to have fought Sauron this way. Beating him is mortally impossible, just as you said, for we cannot allow ourselves to succumb to a similar evil in the name of defeating him.”
“Unless we use the Ring,” Celebrimbor asserted, heavy emphasis on his words, making them a sword he was still trying to drive into Talion’s skull.
“Damn it, Celebrimbor, we are not using the bloody Ring!” Talion barked, throwing the arrow and knife to the ground.
“You’re a fool. What would you have us do- languish in Mordor for another millennia until someone defeats the Dark Lord? You have been in this hell for but a few years, Talion, and I have been here centuries. Even if I left you I would endure in this land of shadow, and you would die and find your way to the afterlife; perhaps such things escape you, for how would you know what it is to be without form for thousands of years, what do you care if I spend another millennia or two in this wretched state-”
“In the event that you’ve forgotten, your lordliness, I gave the damn Ring away to Shelob for you!” Talion roared. “And furthermore, for your edification, my reasons for remaining in Mordor were not simply for the sake of combating Sauron. Forgive my accursed human compassion, O Bright Lord, but I was reluctant to leave you on this side of the veil for the foreseeable future. I dared to think that perhaps my family could wait for a time so that you might not spend another millennia in Mordor alone.”
Celebrimbor was staring at him, entirely without words, and Talion’s chest was tight and uncomfortable with breathlessness. He waited, waited for Celebrimbor to speak, for surely he would- the Gods knew he hadn’t been quiet for the last while. But Celebrimbor continued to stare in the most curious way at Talion, with something like confusion and disbelief.
Finally, Talion considered driving the final nail into the coffin.
“We will not dominate the Nazgul,” Talion said, voice deadly quiet and serious. “We will not use this Ring to dominate Sauron. And I will throw it into the lava-pits if you try. This is my final word on the matter, and you will not sway me otherwise.”
They didn’t speak much for a while after that, either.
Talion could not speak, so he tugged Celebrimbor’s shirt.
“What is it?”
Talion tugged again, more insistently this time, and patted the bed beside him.
A small smile started on the edge of Celebrimbor’s lips. “Very well; I’ll only be a minute.”
They had not always shared a bed. But then, they had not always kissed, not always touched each other intimately in the dark, not always shared words better expressed between married couples either. They would not part from one another, in un-death or life, and when the occasion had come that they needed to share a bed, it seemed no great thing to sleep alongside one another- and from there, things had progressed as naturally as they could between people such as themselves.
The beauty of this particular tincture was that it worked swiftly, and Talion’s eyes were growing heavy as he waited. When Celebrimbor finally slid in beside him, he was woozy and clumsy and had to grip the sheets to set himself to rights until he could find Celebrimbor’s shoulder and lay his head upon it.
This closeness was as natural to Talion as Celebrimbor’s possessions had been, their minds and senses mingling seamlessly so that they could, as one being, bellow their threats and their speeches to the Orcs of Mordor. The strange nature of their original connection can be the only explanation for why their closeness is such a comfortable thing, because Talion would never have thought to behave with another Man, Elf, Dwarf, or whatever the way he did with Celebrimbor.
“Has the pain gone?”
Talion grunted, the closest he could get to a ‘yes’. His body seemed to be shutting down in pieces, and nodding proved to be too difficult.
Celebrimbor understood, regardless of clear confirmation, because after sixty years he had become fluent in Talion’s body-language and movements and sounds, and if he had suspected pain, he would have retrieved more of the draught.
“Sleep,” He said, and Talion did.
“Often I wish I did not need you to do anything of consequence in this world.”
“And there are times when I wish I was trapped with a more pleasant Wraith than you,” Talion retorted coldly. “But we all have our lot in life to bear.” He glared into the fire, one that had been laid by a party of Orcs they’d killed, and did not look at Celebrimbor. They were out in the open, and an Orc could come upon them and kill them in a matter of seconds, but Talion’s mood was foul enough that he didn’t care in the slightest. Let them kill him, let them run him through, he’d return to the Haedir soon enough and start the dance all over again.
Small wonder Celebrimbor was going mad. Talion had barely been in Mordor for a few years and he was already going mad from it.
“And yet,” Celebrimbor intoned, with an edge of disbelief to his voice, “You chose to stay in Mordor for my sake. You chose to give Shelob the Ring for my sake.”
“I said that part of my reasoning for staying in Mordor was for your benefit,” Talion corrected sharply. “I wanted to do my part to bring an end to Sauron; and it felt wrong to abandon you to the state you were in before you attached yourself to me.” He hesitated, wondering how much more he should say. “But the Ring was for you, yes.” Snidely, he added, “Maybe I should have let you keep Shelob company for a time.”
“I am the only thing keeping you alive,” Celebrimbor remarked coldly. “That’s why you did it.”
“You weren’t at that moment,” Talion responded with similar coolness. “The Ring was. I could have left you and been fine. I traded the Ring for you.”
There was a long pause that followed that, like the one from before, where Celebrimbor clearly could not grasp the processes that had gone into making the decision Talion had made.
“Why?” He asked finally.
Talion’s eyes rolled shut, and he turned to look over his shoulder at the Wraith. “Are you so far gone that you can’t understand why?” Celebrimbor just stared at him, and Talion shook his head. “The Ring can’t talk to me, the Ring can’t fight with me, the Ring is a hunk of metal that offers no companionship.”
“That is to your end, Celebrimbor. Not mine.”
Something like recognition flickered across Celebrimbor’s face.
“You truly believe your intentions to be ‘pure’? That you haven’t been corrupted by the power of your own Ring? Have you been dead so long that you’ve lost your ability to value your companions and their loyalty beyond your own ends? My God, Celebrimbor, do you not hear what you sound like when you say you want to bring all of Mordor and Middle Earth under the banner of the Bright Lord? Do you not see that you are but Sauron standing in the light?” A new point came to mind. “If anything, how desperate you are to keep the Ring is concerning. The fact that you can’t bring yourself to let it go tells me that perhaps you can’t.”
Celebrimbor said nothing.
But this time, Talion knew he’d gotten through.
Talion awoke in the night.
Some terror had clawed its way through the sedative from the recesses of his mind, surfaced in a dream and sent his heart racing. He had suffered from his fair share of night terrors during and after Mordor, but the nightmares that came when he was drugged were especially horrifying because of his inability to move easily, body slowed and weighed down in a chemically-induced stupor.
Something touched him in the dark, and he nearly fell out of bed.
“Talion,” A voice rasped.
As usual, that was all it took; Talion had been fortunate that of all the Elf-Wraiths in Middle Earth that could have attached themselves to him, he ended up with the one who happened to have a very distinctive voice. Within a moment or two, the struggling stopped and he fell back onto the bed, breathing heavily, throat thick and hot and aching slightly.
“Again?” Celebrimbor inquired.
Nightmares were par for the course when one was trapped in a living nightmare for about sixty years. Celebrimbor had nightmares as well; he simply wasn’t as willing to cop to them being what they were, and he was better at not flailing his way into the waking world than Talion was. There had been a night, maybe a month back, when Talion had awoken (apropos of nothing) and found Celebrimbor sitting straight up in bed, eyes wide and panicked, chest heaving, staring into the dark like he could see some horror lurking in the shadows.
“What is it?” Talion had asked warily, wondering if maybe it was some Elf-thing that had alerted Celebrimbor to a hidden danger.
After a moment, Celebrimbor had snapped out of the stupor, shaking his head and then meeting Talion’s eyes. “Nothing,” He’d said, and gone back to bed as though it had never happened. He’d given Talion no answers the next day, and Talion had been forced to conclude that his bedmate had had some sort of nightmare he’d been unwilling to admit to; live or dead, Celebrimbor still kept a firm grip on his pride.
On nights like these, however, Talion usually screamed himself awake or was shaken into consciousness again by Celebrimbor. More often than not he recovered on his own, but on the rare occasion the terror or the sheer agony of whatever the dream had reawakened in him would cause him to cling pathetically to Celebrimbor until he was able to find some sense of peace again.
Celebrimbor did not begrudge him the clinging; but Talion begrudged it to himself, because it was yet another reminder that Mordor had, despite his best intentions, managed to break something inside him.
“Are you alright?”
Talion nodded. “Fine,” He says, but his voice was creaky and weak and he felt a warning-pang of pain race through his throat.
Talion nodded again.
However long they’d been physically separated from one another, it seemed that Celebrimbor still had the eerie ability to intuit what Talion was feeling at any given time; because he nudged a bit closer to him- enough to be comforting without the actual, pride-damaging obviousness of a hug- before going back to sleep.
Talion laid in the dark for nearly an hour until the Elf’s breathing finally, mercifully lulled him to sleep.
“We don’t need it.”
Celebrimbor stared at their Ring and didn’t look especially certain of that.
“We don’t need it,” Talion assured him, uncomfortable with the intense heat rising from the lava pits below. Standing in Mount Doom felt like standing in the mouth of Hell. “We can dominate them without the Ring, and we can do it the way we did before: Enough to cause chaos in their ranks, and nothing more.”
“We will be here forever,” Celebrimbor muttered.
“We will be here as long as it takes,” Talion responded patiently. “And we will do our best to hinder Sauron. If we do not strike the final blow, we will aid the ones who do. Sauron is malignant and power-hungry, and he will strike eventually; things will come to a head, and we will help the peoples of Middle Earth stand against him.”
“Rousing,” Celebrimbor responded dryly.
“We don’t need it,” Talion repeated firmly. “Sauron will not last forever. He cannot last forever.”
“You will not see your family for a long time,” Celebrimbor said, but it sounded more like a warning than an excuse.
Talion hesitated, but then said, “They would understand. When I see them again, they will understand; when I die, I go to eternity, and I imagine the wait will be shorter and far less stressful for them than it will be for me.”
Celebrimbor sighed, long and deep, and Talion had to resist the urge to roll his eyes. As a Wraith Celebrimbor did not require air, and so any breath-related sounds coming from him were intentional and meant to underscore a point.
“We will regret this,” Celebrimbor whispered.
“You might regret this. I sincerely doubt I will.”
Celebrimbor shook his head. “Fine. Drop it. I don’t care.”
He did care, and Talion knew that he cared, but that was because he still didn’t fully understand how bad things had become, how bad things could be if they didn’t rid themselves of their Ring, and rid themselves of it soon.
Talion held his hand out over the lava, Ring sitting neatly in the middle of his upturned palm. He looked back to Celebrimbor one final time, concerned that the Wraith might have a sudden (and perhaps violent) second thought, but Celebrimbor stood with his arms crossed, looking as stubborn and moody as a child having a toy taken from him. Thank God Talion had been clever enough to bait Celebrimbor with the suggestion that maybe he couldn’t get rid of the Ring; it had worked with Dirhael as a child (“Goodness no, you can’t help me chop wood, you’re far too small for that”) and it had worked with a millennia-old Elf-Wraith.
And so Talion dropped the Ring into the lava below. It was too small to track all the way down, and wet, ruthless heat made his eyes sting too much to try; but he knew the moment the Ring had been destroyed, because it felt… It felt as though something snapped in his mind, like a taut rope being cleaved in two by a sword. There was no sense of loss afterwards, Talion didn’t feel wrong, or bad, or even good, necessarily- he simply knew the Ring was gone.
He turned around just in time to see Celebrimbor retreating to the shadows, to the Wraith-world, where Talion couldn’t follow.
Talion awoke to the sound of clanging metal.
But that wasn’t unusual.
As a Wraith, Celebrimbor had been primarily concerned (read: maniacally obsessed) with vengeance against Sauron, but in moments of conversation there had been references to the passionate Craftsman he’d once been. Now, as a living Elf, he had resumed that passion with a quiet but enthusiastic energy.
Talion pulled himself from bed, his whole being aching and exhausted. Talion had briefly considered seeking out a career with Gondor’s military following his and Celebrimbor’s return to the living world, but these frequent bouts of illness would make him more of a hindrance than a help. Celebrimbor had left a flask of the medicine on the table before setting into his work, and Talion downed it without a second thought. He would sleep eventually (this dosage had, from the taste of it, been watered down), but for now it would suffice to stave off the pain.
The air outside was cold, and Talion pulled a blanket from the end of the bed and pulled it around his shoulders before stepping outside. It was coming to the end of winter and the air was still cold enough to burn in his lungs most days. At the moment it wasn’t doing his throat any favors, and so he did his best to breathe slowly through his nose as he approached Celebrimbor from behind.
“No Rings today,” Talion rasped, testing his voice and pleased to find that it didn’t pain him quite as badly as the night before. “Right?”
It was a joke between them, started when Celebrimbor had begun forging again, a way of turning something that had been a point of contention between them for so long into something humorous. As it was, Celebrimbor did occasionally find himself making rings, but they were of the ordinary sort: Birthday presents, wedding bands, family heirlooms, that sort of thing. If the locals were aware of the legendary nature of Celebrimbor’s smith-work, they said nothing in front of them.
As a Wraith, Celebrimbor may have been defensive of the jab, irate at a perceived accusation and reminded of his short-comings; as an Elf, he took it in stride. “Not today, no,” Celebrimbor assured him. “How are you feeling?”
Talion shrugged, sinking down onto the bench near the door. “Well enough.”
Celebrimbor set the hammer down on the anvil, stepped over to the bench and pressed the back of his hand to Talion’s forehead- it was pleasantly cool after working outside for so long. After a moment, he made a small noise of approval. “The fever seems to be gone. I left some of the draught on the table for you, I-”
“-watered it down. I took it.”
Amazing: Even now, with Mordor a bad memory, Celebrimbor was still making it his job to keep Talion alive.
Over the weeks following their Ring’s destruction, Talion noticed a subtle change in Celebrimbor’s demeanor.
The Wraith was still chilly towards him over the Ring, regardless of his consent to destroy it, but he became less openly defensive about how they had used it: Talion had been anticipating snide remarks about how ‘this would be easier if we had the Ring’ and irritable remarks about how difficult things would be now without it. But to his surprise, Celebrimbor had barely mentioned it, and he assumed that maybe the Wraith was letting his attitude convey all he needed to about the subject.
But one day, on the rocky, dry paths of Cirith Ungol as they waited for a Caragor-hunting party, Celebrimbor very nearly gave him heart-failure when he said, “You may have been right.”
Talion’s mind was still on the Captain who was leading the party (Ishmoz the Collector, a highly disturbing Orc who had licked his arm during a fight last week and declared that ‘it would make a fine addition to the collage’), and he struggled to think of what conversation Celebrimbor was referring to. “About…?”
That brought Talion up short. “I- You do?”
Celebrimbor’s arms were crossed, as they’d been the day they’d destroyed their Ring, but now he looked less sulky and resentful and more… More troubled. “I was bothered considerably by the prospect of destroying it.”
“Yes, that much I gathered.”
Celebrimbor didn’t even appear to be bothered by the sarcasm in Talion’s voice, and that was concerning all on its own. “In retrospect, it seems illogical for me to have been as anxious as I was about destroying it: Creating the Ring was difficult, but not impossible, and I could have convinced you to create another Ring at some point.”
“But…” Celebrimbor wasn’t looking him in the eye. “I still felt irrationally attached to this particular Ring. To destroy it would be to seal our doom, and that of Middle Earth’s. I felt an intense sense of danger attached to the idea of destroying the Ring, and it’s only recently I’ve started to realize how strangely I behaved when we had it.”
Talion was tempted to gloat, but opted not to strain things between them further. “You did say you put a significant part of yourself into the Ring.”
“I did,” Celebrimbor muttered. “I thought I’d made this Ring the way I’d made the Rings for the Elves. I thought this one couldn’t corrupt the wearer.”
But it had, in a rather frightening way at that, and Talion felt wearily, deliriously relieved to see that Celebrimbor was finally starting to grasp that.
“In any case, Talion I… Apologize for how I behaved. Destroying the Ring was probably for the better.”
Talion nodded slowly. “Thank you.”
They rarely spoke on it again.
It was no wonder Celebrimbor had been such a renowned craftsman in his time.
There was an elegant sword wrapped in cloth nearby, with a hilt encrusted with gems- the sword was clearly new, but the gems seemed to be older.
“Who’s that for?”
“Some noble from Minas Tirith, probably aiming to impress his new King,” Celebrimbor responded without looking up from the metal he was currently shaping.
“Maybe I know- I mean, maybe I knew his grandfather. Or of him.”
Celebrimbor stopped the hammering and turned to face Talion. “That’s right- you haven’t properly been to Minas Tirith in almost eighty years.”
They had been in the Houses of Healing for a time following the destruction of the One Ring (Talion had received the bulk of the treatment, if he was being honest) but they had left as soon as they were able, moving further out into the countryside. They’d been of a mind on this particular idea: They couldn’t very well explain how they were alive, and things had been so chaotic and overwhelming, and they were finally free of Mordor for the first time in years. They didn’t want to face the sort of questions they would get if they stuck around the capitol.
“Did you want to go to Minas Tirith?” Celebrimbor asked. “Because the nobleman was due to pick up that sword nearly a week ago, and if he doesn’t come for it soon, I’ll be heading to Minas Tirith to bring it to him.” He arched an eyebrow at the sword, as though it had done him a personal offense. “And by ‘bring it to him’, I mean that if he doesn’t have an excellent explanation for why he’s failed to claim it, I’ll be beating him over the head with it.”
“That seems a bit extreme for an unclaimed sword.”
“It’s taking up my workspace. And for every moment he fails to claim the sword, some sort of calamity could befall it that would mar my work on it.” He paused. “And also the man was a rude pig who’s likely just wasting my time, and I’d like to beat him over the head with something if I have the opportunity to.”
Talion chuckled, and it didn’t hurt as badly as it might have. “You want me to come so I may hold him still for you?”
Maybe it was strange, but Talion had no real desire to return to Minas Tirith, or to the Black Gate where he had lived for sixteen years with his wife and son. The settlement at the Black Gate was long gone, and Minas Tirith wasn’t nearly as appealing for a visit now that everyone he’d known to live there was likely dead and buried, or so old that they probably wouldn’t remember him.
“Wait a time before you go banging down the man’s door,” Talion suggested. “If another week goes by and he doesn’t come, I’ll… Consider going with you to hold him down.” He smiled, but there wasn’t as much feeling behind it as there could have been, and Celebrimbor seemed to sense it.
“I suppose I can give that canker-sore of a man some more time,” He muttered, and turned back to the anvil.
“What the FUCK?”
The spider had launched itself over the ledge and landed on Talion with the force of a Caragor- probably because it was the same size as one, maybe even bigger; it was certainly far larger than the usual spiders that crept about Mordor, which could easily be picked up or crushed to death.
This one he’d have to crush with a bloody Graug.
Celebrimbor took over seamlessly and blew the spider off them with a blast of freezing magic. The spider didn’t freeze, but it did appear to be stunned, stumbling backwards on its many legs and shaking its head in pain. The sounds it was making made Talion cringe in disgust and alarm; God, but he never did like spiders. “Don’t try to fight it!” Celebrimbor barked as Talion reached for his blade. “Just run!”
He wasn’t about to be told twice.
Talion scrambled down the slope he’d been traversing, and Celebrimbor gave him a boost of speed once he’d hit flat ground. They took off for the nearest, highest building they could see, the pounding of Talion’s heart even louder in his ears now that he couldn’t hear the spider raging after him. He scrambled up the remains of a badly damaged stone building and fell to his hands and knees at the top, wheezing strenuously for a few seconds as he tried to catch his breath.
Celebrimbor appeared beside him.
“What, what, what was that?” Talion choked.
“That,” Celebrimbor remarked, with an unholy amount of smugness in his voice, “Was one of Shelob’s brood, from the looks of it. One of the ones that survived, at any rate; she eats them, you know.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“She does. Go ask her yourself, if you’re so confident in her veracity.”
“How would she even have children?”
“There are other Ungoliants,” Celebrimbor said, scanning the ground they’d just run through to ensure the spider hadn’t followed them. “Smaller, lesser things than what Shelob is. She mates with them, kills them, eats them, and then kills and eats any spawn from the union- not necessarily in that order.” The Wraith seemed to enjoy needling Talion about Shelob; they may have resolved the issue of the Ring, but Celebrimbor was still maddened by Talion’s willingness to trust Shelob and had outright refused to return to her home in Cirith Ungol for any reason.
“She could be of help,” Talion had argued.
“She wants the sort of power I had,” Celebrimbor had responded with deeper conviction. “And she’ll speak honeyed words to you until she gets what she wants. She can do worse than kill us, Talion, I promise you that. And I’ve no desire to spend the next millennia trapped in a spider’s web.”
Talion had meant to argue further, but Celebrimbor cut him to the quick. “You’ve ignored my counsel on this before, Talion,” He said, dangerously. “You’ve ignored it as you ignored my warnings about Carnán, and we both remember how that turned out.” Talion did; he was still smarting over that first, lost fight with the forest spirit. “So heed me now, Talion: Shelob may have been amenable to you thus far, but that will end when you become useless to her, or when it serves her better to trap you, as she trapped me. You will not see it coming, and we will both-” Celebrimbor gave him a pointed look, “-be in trouble. Not just you.”
Celebrimbor did have a point: There was some risk to associating with Shelob, and it was a risk to Celebrimbor as much as it was Talion. And ultimately, it wasn’t worth fighting over. Talion had been picking his battles carefully with Celebrimbor since this business with the Ring started, and this was one he was choosing to let lie. Whatever the case, they’d had no desperate need of Shelob’s counsel as of late, and therefore no reason to return to her den. For the sake of peace, Talion agreed that they would not return.
“I could have ridden that thing like a horse!” Talion gasped, shaking his head and hoping to God he wouldn’t be forced to contend with such a beast in the future.
“Theoretically, yes- but I wouldn’t recommend trying it. I don’t believe I can dominate a spider, and even if I could, I would refuse to.”
Talion gave him an odd look. “Why?”
“Because no self-respecting Elf would be caught riding a spider,” Celebrimbor remarked pointedly. “It’s beneath us.”
Talion rolled his eyes. “Whatever you say, your lordship.”
Talion snapped his head up, trying to shake away the fatigue that had overtaken him. Celebrimbor looked at him with a small smirk. “Next time I ought to let you fall off the seat,” He remarked.
“I’m not well,” Talion said dryly, pulling the blanket around his shoulders a little more tightly.
“Then perhaps you shouldn’t be sitting out in the cold,” Celebrimbor responded primly. At some point, the rhythmic banging of the hammer had lulled Talion into a state dangerously close to sleep, because his Elven companion had already succeeded in finishing the sword he’d been working on.
“I suppose I’m to stay in bed all day, then, and get nothing done?”
“My apologies, I didn’t notice the important work you were doing as you were nodding off in the corner.”
“I was contemplating how to best assault that man with the sword. What did he do to aggravate you so badly, anyways?”
“‘Aggravated’ is a strong word.”
“Hence why it comes to mind when you start talking about beating a man over the head with the blunt end of his sword.”
Celebrimbor sighed. “He was… Deliberately, intentionally critical of my work. When I was- Before, when I was a craftsman, I had enough renown and respect amongst my people, my peers, and my clientele, that I was afforded a certain amount of respect. But I’ve heard stories from other smiths of customers who intentionally demean the smith’s other works to force them to prove that they can meet a standard. They make it the best piece they’ve ever crafted just to prove that they can.” He sniffed. “He may also have said something that translated to ‘your work is subpar for one of your kind’.”
“That’s disgusting,” Talion croaked, wondering where he’d been during this exchange and how well Celebrimbor had managed to hide his fuming.
“It’s dishonest and insulting, and if we weren’t-” Celebrimbor came to an abrupt stop, and Talion could practically see him backtracking off the path he’d been starting down. “…If I wanted to start trouble with a Gondorian nobleman, there are much more entertaining ways to do so without refusing him service.”
They broke eye-contact hurriedly, Celebrimbor turning back to what he was doing and Talion picking at a loose thread on the blanket.
They had started over in this village with very little supplies to their name; the very house they were currently living in had been partially collapsed and abandoned, and thankfully the months had been warm in the time they’d taken to repair it into something genuinely worth living in. They did not have much money, and while Talion occasionally took payment for various jobs (hunting wolves that were threatening someone’s livestock, tracking down missing items, gathering herbs and other ingredients for the apothecary), it was Celebrimbor who brought in the majority of the coin that they lived on. And a good way to lose that coin was to bring the wrath of a Gondorian nobleman down on their heads.
Talion knew well how dangerous it was to incite a nobleman’s ire. It was more or less the reason for everything that had happened in his life from the age of eighteen on. That being said, it made him sick to his stomach to consider that Celebrimbor was now required to choke down his pride, to take business from unpleasant people who would devalue him and his craft for the sake of their continued survival.
“If he doesn’t come in a week,” Talion rasped. “I will come to Minas Tirith with you, and I will definitely hold him down for you. Just ensure you beat him hard enough that he doesn’t remember our faces later.”
Celebrimbor laughed, and that was enough to alleviate Talion’s guilt.
“I have a question for you.”
“Then ask it.”
“You may resent me for asking it. But it’s been on my mind for a long time.”
Celebrimbor eyed him with a hint of curiosity. “Go ahead.”
“You said before,” Talion said, “That I would be kept from my family if I continued on as I am in Mordor. But…” He hesitated, but then pressed on. “But, what of your wife and child? In your memories I saw your wife and your daughter and how they died; are they not waiting for you in-”
“She wasn’t my wife,” Celebrimbor cut in shortly. “And the girl you saw in those memories wasn’t my daughter.”
Talion froze, uncertain of how to respond. Had this been another of Celebrimbor’s manipulations, or was there an explanation to it? “Then who were they?”
Celebrimbor was quiet for moment or two, not meeting Talion’s gaze. “The widow of a dear friend of mine, and their child. Some years after he died, she and I became… Close.” The careful emphasis he put on the word left little to speculate on. “And her daughter was sweet child. I had no children of my own, and I was fond of her.”
Talion let out a slow, careful breath, relieved. A misunderstanding- that was all it was, nothing more. Celebrimbor had never said he was married with a child, it was simply his memories that made him seem so. He turned back to the wood he’d been carving, shaving off more bark. “Oh, I see. You just didn’t marry.”
Celebrimbor shook his head. “No. We were quiet about the relationship due to…” He trailed off, conflicted. “…It’s not important. We felt it best to keep what we had quiet and subtle.”
“I can appreciate that. Ioreth’s father was opposed to our match, and we felt the need to keep our meetings secret as well.” Talion said carefully, still making an effort to downplay his reaction to this news. It really didn’t shock or scandalize him (that would be hypocritical) so much as it was that he was relieved that Celebrimbor hadn’t lied to him about something else, and interest at having learned such an intimate detail about the Elf’s life.
Celebrimbor was less forthcoming with information about his time alive (barring, of course, information pertaining to Mordor and his conquests there) than Talion was. He was not secretive, per se, but he guarded the information closely. Whether it was a lingering distrust of Talion or a sense of discomfort recalling such things that made him hesitate, Talion didn’t know.
“So they await you in the afterlife.”
There was something in Celebrimbor’s face, something that Talion hadn’t seen there before: It was raw, unmasked pain.
“If they wait for me, they are foolish to do so. Wherever they are is likely not where I am going to go when I finally depart this world. My sins are too great.”
He disappeared before Talion could say another word.
“Would you like to see your kin?”
Celebrimbor stiffened. “What?”
They had gone back inside; Celebrimbor was done for now, and he seemed insistent on forcing Talion back into bed before the cold air made his throat even more raw than it already was. Talion resisted, despite the sluggishness that was seeping into his bones; he felt worthless staying in bed all day, and he’d done that several times since they had left Mordor.
“You said you still had kin,” Talion said. “You said that the Lady Galadriel was like an aunt to you.”
“She’s my grandfather’s niece.” Celebrimbor thought on it for a moment. “So I suppose you might call her a cousin, of sorts. But in terms of age and maturity, yes, she was like an aunt to me.”
“You would not call her such if you did not have some affection for her. Would you not like to see her, and any other family you might have wandering about?”
There was a moment of tension- not because Celebrimbor was angry with Talion or upset at the suggestion, but because of the fact that the matter of family was a delicate subject between them. Celebrimbor still had family alive and well; Talion did not. Talion felt that Celebrimbor ought to reconnect with the ones he could while he could, given the news that the Elves were starting to leave Middle Earth en masse.
But Celebrimbor shrunk from the idea, and this was the delicacy of it: Regardless of the sixty years in Mordor he’d spent since his death, Talion had done his damndest to conduct himself honorably. Celebrimbor- by his own measure (as well as Talion’s, if he was being honest)- had not behaved quite so honorably on many occasions in his time as a Wraith, and he was ashamed of it.
And he thought his kin would be as well.
“You’ll see them again eventually, won’t you?” Talion asked. “You’re immortal, you’ll go West when- eventually?” He’d stumbled over those last words, coming dangerously close to ‘when I die’, which was something Celebrimbor had made clear that, in the short term, he did not want to discuss. It seemed strange for an immortal being to take a human lover and then refuse to cope with the idea that one day said lover would be dead, but it was one of those battles that Talion didn’t have the energy to pick.
“I may. Or I may not.” Celebrimbor busied himself cleaning out a cup that had already been cleaned last night, all so he would not have to look at Talion. “For now, I… Don’t intend to seek out my kin. I suspect Galadriel may already know of me, and she has not sought me out.” He let the implications behind that sit between them for a long moment. “So no, not now. Perhaps not ever.”
I won’t be here forever, Talion thought desperately. Will you be alone forever once I’ve died?
Out loud he said, “So I suppose you’re stuck with just me for now.”
Celebrimbor turned towards him, smiled sadly, and said, “I suppose I am.”
“I suppose you are not the worst person I could be stuck with.”
“You aren’t stuck here,” Celebrimbor reminded him. “I can release you whenever you like. You can move on and be with your family.”
Talion was lying on his back, staring up at the stars above Núrnen. It was one of the few places in Mordor that seemed even remotely comfortable to spend time in, unclogged as it was by smoke and metal and the poisons of Orc industry (“Give them time,” Celebrimbor had remarked darkly).
“I’d go to my rest knowing that Sauron will eventually move to conquer Middle Earth and slaughter and enslave its people. And you’d be left, trapped here, forced to watch it without interacting.”
Celebrimbor was quiet, and Talion was starting to notice a theme: The Wraith seemed to be uncomfortable when Talion implied he was staying behind for his sake. That he factored into Talion’s motivation for staying alive at all seemed to bother him, and Talion didn’t know if he was grateful or irate about it.
After a few minutes of silence, perhaps enough that the Wraith felt comfortable changing the topic, he said, “Tomorrow we should go to the Stronghold and tamper with the war machinery there. They’re becoming far too advanced far too fast, and we will regret not putting a stop to it sooner.”
“Whatever you like,” Talion said easily, grateful at least for the lack of conflict between them as of late.
“I’d like you to move on,” Celebrimbor grunted. “Because you can. There is no point to you staying here if we’ve no intention of any decisive, immediate action.”
“I’ve given you my reasons.”
“They are poor, and will only serve to keep you from your family.”
You weren’t concerned about keeping me from my family when you took my body for your own purposes, Talion thought with a pulse of irritation. Celebrimbor seemed terribly insistent on reminding him of Ioreth and Dirhael, and Talion wasn’t sure if this came from a place of kindness or manipulation, because Celebrimbor had never been so insistent on Talion letting go of life and joining them in death before.
Talion decided to be blunt. “You want me to leave you here, alone?”
“I want you to move on from this place and to something better,” Celebrimbor muttered. “You needn’t stay here on my account.”
“I stay also to hinder Sauron. Did you not hear that part?”
“That part does not concern me. The part where you feel it necessary to provide me with companionship does.”
“That is a natural consequence of wanting to oppose Sauron.”
“And suppose a day comes when you are weary of fighting Sauron?” Celebrimbor’s eyes glared into Talion’s. “Suppose a day comes when you’ve finally comprehended the enormity of our task, and all that holds you back is a sense of obligation to me? I won’t have you lingering here because you think I’ll be lonely without you.” The last words were spoken sardonically, but Talion was more concerned with the sentiment behind them.
“I appreciate your concern,” Talion said quietly, “But I will choose whether or not I move on, as well as when and where, not you, Celebrimbor. If I choose to stay, I choose to stay; my choices are my own.”
They were bold words because they were not necessarily true; barring any encounters with ones such as Shelob, Celebrimbor was the one who would decide when or where Talion finally passed, because he would have to make a decision to leave Talion and allow him to die.
But that he cared for Talion to move on and be reunited with his family, that he cared for Talion’s well-being enough to wish peace on him, was a fine thing indeed.
“It won’t be forever,” Talion assured him.
“But it will feel like it,” was Celebrimbor’s response.
He wasn’t wrong.
AHHHHHH, GUYS, ThanksForTheFic HAS MADE ART.
WHOOPS, looks like Tumblr's latest attempt to torpedo their own website has flagged the pictures, so you might not be able to see them anymore. SORRY Y'ALL.
Talion found himself living in two worlds.
One was the world of the home he shared with Celebrimbor, going about their daily business with the smith-work, the crafting, and any other work that needed to be done. They spoke freely, touched freely, offered affection freely.
The other world was the one outside of their home, one where they restricted their physical contact and any language that might hint at a romantic nature. In the world of Gondor, what they did in the privacy of their home was- lightly put- unacceptable in polite society.
Talion had no doubt that those in their immediate community were suspicious, to some extent, of the nature of their relationship- a Man and an Elf living together in a home with (presumably; their home wasn’t very big) only one bedroom would inevitably invite speculation. He saw the strange looks, the stares, heard the mutterings; by this measure Celebrimbor had probably heard and seen far more, but he said nothing about it.
Indeed, the only reason he seemed to make any effort to conceal their relationship from the outside world was for Talion’s sake. Evidently homosexuality was more common amongst Elves, who had the leisure of immortality to have children (or not) and saw no particular reason to restrict their sexual or romantic preferences to specific genders. Humans, on the other hand, had rather specific social norms governing that sort of thing, and so Talion was forced to tread lightly.
“We’ll tell them I’m your brother,” Celebrimbor had remarked dryly when the subject had first been raised.
“They may suspect some falsehood,” Talion had responded with equal sarcasm.
They lived quietly. They did not draw any more attention to themselves than they needed to, and they did their best to avoid any conflict with their neighbors and fellow citizens- that had unquestionably been part of the reason why Celebrimbor had avoided picking a fight with the nobleman from Minas Tirith (who did, eventually, come to get his bloody sword).
It was not the most comfortable situation they could have found themselves in.
But given where they’d come from, it was quite tolerable for the time being.
Talion had first learned of his admirer as he’d scuttled through the underbrush near an Orc encampment in Núrnen.
Orcs, for all their savagery, were surprisingly gossipy creatures; Talion had, on more than one occasion, amused himself with the image of some of them sitting down for tea with the ladies of Minas Tirith he’d known from his youth and exchanging salacious stories about neighbors and coworkers. Once he’d imagined them in full attire as well and confused Celebrimbor with a mad, apropos-of-nothing laughing fit.
On this particular evening, Talion was listening in on some guards near a camp, hearing nothing or particular relevance until,
“You hear about Ishmoz?’
“They used to call him ‘the Collector’. Now they call him ‘The Obsessed.’”
“What’s he obsessed with, then?”
Talion’s eyebrows had jumped up on his head.
“The Tark?” The Uruk laughed, a bit of confusion in his voice. “You mean obsessed with killin’ him?”
The other Uruk gave a laugh that was strangely, hilariously amused. “That ain’t the kind of ‘obsessed’ I mean,” He cackled. “Some poor shrakh called the Tark an ugly bastard and Ishmoz went and knifed him about fifty times.”
Talion’s mouth fell open.
“Like, left and came back and knifed him fifty times?”
“No, like fifty times at once.”
“Then you’d say he stabbed him fifty times, not knifed him.”
“What’s the bloody difference?!”
Talion turned and slowly crept away as the Uruks’ grammar argument ("KNIFING implies ONE incident with MULTIPLE stabs!") started to heat up.
“What the fuck were they on about?”
Celebrimbor appeared at his side. “I believe they were rather blunt with what they were talking about: This Ishmoz seems to be taken with you.”
Talion hesitated, but then laughed uneasily. “Surely you don’t mean he wants me in a… In a…”
“Sexual manner? That’s precisely what I’m implying.”
Talion went pale. “You’re not serious. Orcs… They… They do that sort of thing?”
Celebrimbor gave a decidedly un-Elf-like snort. “You have perhaps noticed by now, Talion, that Orcs and Uruks are an almost exclusively male race. Naturally there are some inclined to act out with members of their own sex.” He raised an eyebrow at Talion almost tauntingly. “You do know what homosexuality is, don’t you?”
“Of course I do,” Talion snapped. “I just didn’t know that Orcs- that Orcs did it.”
Celebrimbor cocked his head to the side. “Does it bother you, Talion?”
Talion found himself stuck in a difficult place. He recognized the challenge in Celebrimbor’s voice, and indeed, he had heard mutterings that the Elves had been known to indulge sexually and romantically with members of their own gender; clearly the Wraith was trying to goad Talion into suggesting that he took issue with a common practice among his people, maybe offer some snide remarks about how it wasn’t so uncommon amongst humans either.
And Talion knew that just fine, because there had been dalliances before he’d fallen in love with Ioreth. And not all of them had been women.
But like hell he was about to admit it. Too many years of guarding a secret meant he wasn’t about to let it free now, even if there was only one person (a dead one, at that) to judge him on it.
“No more so than anything else they do bothers me.”
Talion winced as Celebrimbor pressed gently against the skin of his throat. He’d asked Talion to open his mouth so he could see if the infection was still obvious in his throat. He wasn’t a doctor- neither of them was- but the only conclusion either of them could reach was that Talion’s throat had not healed properly (the Black Hand had slit it badly enough to kill him, after all) or completely; the scar on his neck seemed fine, but perhaps there was some unhealed damage on the inner part of his throat that they couldn’t see. It would certainly explain how he kept getting infections.
“Are you still feverish?” Celebrimbor asked.
“A bit,” Talion said. It didn’t quite hurt to speak anymore, though there was still some discomfort. “It is getting better.”
Celebrimbor was frowning. “But the infection’s still there; that means it’s lasting longer this time.”
Talion sighed deeply, eyes falling shut. “This is getting tiring.”
Celebrimbor’s lips ghosted over his cheek. “I should have been more diligent when I was healing you. I should have gotten us to Minas Tirith faster.”
Talion shook his head. “You did what you could. You can’t fix everything.” He shrugged. “I can talk, I can breathe, and I’m alive. The infections are troublesome, but I’ll get over them eventually.”
Celebrimbor didn’t seem quite as confident in that. “Assuming, of course, that they stay as they’ve always been, and don’t become worse with time. Infections can have complications, Talion.”
“Yet you don’t seem concerned.”
“I’ve already given you my perspective on this.”
Celebrimbor shook his head. “I suppose you are the more optimistic of us.”
Talion snorted. “I didn’t exactly have a high bar to climb over, did I?”
“This will work.”
“This will not work.”
“Oh, my deepest apologies, did you have a better idea? One that you haven’t mentioned yet?” Celebrimbor’s only response was a moody glare. “Yes, that’s what I thought, so I suppose we’re just going to have to go with my plan.”
Normally Talion wouldn’t attempt such a thing- the odds of it ending with an axe buried in his head were high- but there were ten captains at the feast below, and there was a cave with four graugs in it nearby; and he would be damned if he was going to pass up such a golden opportunity to eliminate some captains from Seregost’s army.
Talion aimed an arrow at the biggest fire-pit and let it fly.
Within minutes, he was running as quickly as he could towards the graug den; Celebrimbor, still insistent that this was a terrible idea, kept him informed on how quickly the Orcs were catching up with him. “They’re nearly on top of you, Talion, perhaps you ought to prepare yourself for-”
Talion came to a dead halt. “So they do know my name,” He remarked flatly, reaching for his sword. He turned around, and to his shock, found that the horde of Orcs that had been chasing him moments before had also come to a stop, and were now dead quiet; they were staring at the one captain who had stepped forward from their ranks: He was about Talion’s size, with a metal helmet and armor bedecked with red-tinted black feathers. He had a wide, delighted smile on his face.
“Finally, I’ve found you!” The Orc crooned. “I’ve waited so long for you to come to me, Talion!”
Talion stared at him blankly. “Uh…?” Some of the Orcs standing behind the captain were snickering, and some were outright laughing. “Are they laughing at me, or him?” Talion whispered.
“I think they’re laughing at you both,” Celebrimbor remarked, and if Talion didn’t know any better, it sounded like the Wraith might be on the verge of laughter as well.
“Talion, my love, come to me! MAKE ME YOURS!”
Talion’s mouth fell open.
The Orcs were howling now. “Sing ‘im the song, Ishmoz!” One of the other captains called. “Sing ‘im the song!”
And so Ishmoz sang (horrendously, off-key, what Celebrimbor would later call a mockery of the musical arts):
“Oh Talion, my LOVE!
I wish to taste your BLOOD!
Come CLOSE to me!
I wish to feel your BREATH on my skin!
OH WHAT LOVE I’M IN!”
Talion stood, slack-jawed, as the Orcs behind Ishmoz the Obsessed fell to their knees, crying with laughter as one of their own professed his love for the Gravewalker. “What… What do I do?” He asked Celebrimbor, voice oddly high-pitched. “Do I kill him? Do I run? What do I do?”
“You could always try serenading him in return,” Celebrimbor suggested, and then Talion did hear him chuckling helplessly. It was the first time in the few decades they’d been together that he’d ever heard the Wraith laugh.
As it happened, Talion didn’t need to do anything: Ishmoz’s caterwauling had been enough to attract the attention of the graugs, who came stomping out of their den to silence the screeching Orc that had disturbed their sleep. Talion slipped away in the confusion as the previously mirthful Orcs began to panic and reach for their weapons. He did not see what happened to Ishmoz.
If I’m lucky, he’s dead.
Talion’s eyes flew open.
“Was that the alarm?” The Elf asked sharply.
“Yes,” Talion croaked, stumbling out of bed and lunging for his sword.
Like most places, their village had some form of alarm that sounded when trouble was afoot: An unsolved murder, bandits, raiders, whatever posed a threat to the community at large. To hear it at night brought one particular picture to mind, and that picture was one Talion had been preoccupied with for sixty years: Orcs.
He grabbed his sword, and Celebrimbor his bow, and they rushed out of the house to the town-square, where they were meant to meet to organize themselves in a moment such as this one.
Talion’s heart was racing with anxiety: It had been a long time since he’d fought anyone or anything, and he still wasn’t completely over the infection. But Celebrimbor, he knew, would stay close to him, and really, how much worse could this be than anything that they’d faced in Mordor itself?
As it happened the answer, when they reached the square, was that it wouldn’t even touch anything they’d faced in Mordor.
Because there were no Orcs, no raiders, no bandits, and no murders.
Instead there was the mayor, trying his best not to throttle his nineteen year-old son and his friends, who all seemed to be drunk beyond words.
“Idiot!” The Mayor bellowed. “What have you done? You’ve terrified the entire bloody village for a stupid, drunken prank!”
Several other villagers were already grumpily marching off to their homes. “False alarm, boys,” The town’s baker, Griselda, grunted. “Just Beren and his idiot friends up to their usual foolishness.”
Talion nearly dropped his sword, fingers weak with relief.
There is no danger.
Celebrimbor put a hand on his back. “I think we can leave,” He said, looking weary and irate. “Unless you’d like to help the Mayor beat his son?”
Talion shook his head. “No, no, he can do that on his own.”
As they walked back home, the heavy relief turned into a weakness, a terrible shaking that overtook his whole body as though he’d been caught in a blizzard.
All is well, he told himself, and tried to focus on the hand Celebrimbor still had on his back. All is well.
But he couldn’t convince himself of it.
The whole episode with Ishmoz had left Talion with a certain question, a curiosity that burned to be sated.
And really, since Celebrimbor had been making little jokes about that fucking Orc for the last week, Talion felt the Wraith owed him.
“I had heard stories,” Talion said one evening, after Celebrimbor had (with faux seriousness) informed him that it was rude to ignore such a dedicated suitor as Ishmoz- especially after such a stirring song. “that Elves have been known to… participate in certain activities with members of their own sex.”
Some of the humor disappeared from Celebrimbor’s face- but the question didn’t seem to make him uncomfortable. “That is true,” He said simply.
Talion hadn’t been expecting such a straight-forward answer. “Well… Have you?”
Celebrimbor looked at him for a long moment, and Talion couldn’t divine whether or not the Wraith was hesitant to answer the question, or if maybe he thought Talion would use his answer as some sort of revenge for the Ishmoz jokes. “I have.” A pause. “Have you, Talion?”
He might have seen that coming.
“I- Of course I- Why are you asking me that?” Talion cringed inwardly at how defensive he sounded; regardless of what answer he gave now, Celebrimbor could figure out the truth easily enough.
Celebrimbor shrugged elegantly. “Merely inquiring, Talion. After all, you just asked about me.” He raised an eyebrow at him. “I shan’t judge you if you have; such things are common amongst my people. It’s mortals who seem to find such things unnatural, as it were.”
Talion felt a strange, strong desire to be truthful, in that moment: Celebrimbor certainly wouldn’t be telling anyone else (if they even saw anyone else before they died) and maybe it would…
“Once- it was a few times, actually,” Talion whispered. “When I was younger. Before Ioreth.”
“And you find it shameful.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Your actions make it clear enough. I know how Men view such things, Talion, you needn’t be false with me- races whose lives are short in this world concern themselves with quick marriages and children far more than the immortal.”
It seemed like such a pragmatic response for something that had been so anxiety-inducing for Talion as a teenager; he and Garret’s affair had not been a long one, but it had been fun enough to risk being discovered, to risk the public shaming and the disgusted looks, the potential time in the stocks. It wasn’t even so much that Talion was ashamed of it- he didn’t see anything he and Garret had done together as shameful or disgusting- as it was… It was a confusing mixture of stress, of the anxiety of doing something you knew you weren’t supposed to be doing, as well as fear of discovery and the judgment that had come with it.
“I’m not ashamed of what I did,” Talion said firmly. “Not at all. It’s just… Everyone else.”
Celebrimbor looked somewhat sad.
“That, I understand as well.”
They returned home, but did not immediately go back to sleep.
Celebrimbor collapsed into a chair at the table, moving to prop his head up with a hand; Talion leaned against the wall, arms folded over his stomach. He felt hot and cold all at once, his stomach churned threateningly, and every few moments or so he felt certain he would vomit. For a time, neither of them spoke.
Neither of them had been in combat since Mordor. Had there been an actual threat, Talion felt they could have handled it well; but the act of almost returning to the fight after being free of it for so long had wrought havoc on his body, the overwhelming stress of the memories that came to mind making him physically ill.
Did Celebrimbor feel the same? He certainly didn’t seem to calm in the wake of their late-night adventure, but Talion wasn’t sure if he felt sick from it; after all, Elves’ bodies tended to be stronger than humans’ in most ways. There was a faraway look in the Elf’s eyes, however, and Talion sensed that at the very least he wasn’t alone in remembering countless battles fought over a period of decades.
When he finally felt that he could move without being sick, Talion made his way over to the table, dragged a chair over so that it was right next to Celebrimbor, and sat down beside him. After a few seconds, he let his head drop onto Celebrimbor’s shoulder and said, “There are men who come back from war, but never leave it. It becomes what they are; they don’t know what to do without a battle, or a fight. They pick fights with their neighbors, with their wives, and drink themselves silly.” He shut his eyes. “I don’t think we are such men.”
“You’re right,” Celebrimbor said. “We don’t drink, and we don’t have wives.”
Talion laughed, finding Celebrimbor’s knee with his hand and squeezing it.
“In truth, I don’t know what we are,” Celebrimbor continued, voice hollow. “I forget, at times, that I may touch things, that I may speak to people and that they will see and hear me and respond. But other things I remember better than I should- I hit my head yesterday, and I was overcome with the memory of the day I was murdered. For a moment, the memory and the pain blinded me, and then it went away.”
“It will never go away,” Talion muttered. “Will it?”
Celebrimbor’s head bumped against his. “I doubt it.”
They stayed like that for a time, and then went to bed, though they didn’t fall asleep until nearly dawn.
Talion had all but forgotten Ishmoz when he encountered him again.
It had been two years since the Orc had sang his bizarre serenade, and Talion had assumed that he’d been killed by the graugs.
And then he came back.
As so few Orcs used his given name, and none of them spoke it with such joy, Talion immediately remembered Ishmoz, and winced before turning around. It seemed that Ishmoz had had a run-in with some sort of beast, graug or otherwise, because now there were claw-marks running across his left cheek and forehead.
“It has been far too long, my beloved!” Ishmoz howled, stroking his blade lovingly (Talion gagged slightly at the imagery). “Oh, how I’ve missed you! We’re meant to be together, Talion, and I’ll do anything to prove it!”
Apparently, to Ishmoz, ‘proving his love’ roughly equated to ‘trying to separate Talion’s head from his body’. And since Talion really did not want his body to be left with an Orc that had a blatant romantic (and presumably sexual) interest in him, he was rather desperate to stop that from happening.
They fought, and fortunately, Ishmoz was not an especially powerful captain, certainly nothing beyond Talion’s ken. In a matter of minutes he had Ishmoz on his knees, sword posed for the killing strike.
“Make it hurt, my love,” Ishmoz pleaded, looking for all the world like he was actually, honestly heartbroken. “I’ve earned that much.”
Talion stared at him for a moment, sword still raised, and then sighed.
He branded Ishmoz and sent him off to the army.
“Thank you, master! I will serve you well, my love!”
Celebrimbor appeared as they watched Ishmoz skip off back to his underlings. “That was… Kind of you,” The Wraith said, sounding mildly surprised.
“Yes, well,” Talion grunted, “I… Oh, forget it, let’s just not speak of it again.”
They moved on, heading towards one of the Haedir for rest, and they were nearly there when Celebrimbor stopped him. “Talion,” he said, in a very deep, serious voice.
“You can be honest with me.”
Talion frowned. “About what?”
Talion hesitated; he didn’t think it was a matter of honesty, really. He’d had a moment of compassion towards a pitiful Orc, that was all.
“If you spared him out of some sort of latent feelings for him, I will understand.”
Talion’s mouth fell open.
Celebrimbor, as it happened, was barely managing to hold it together; and for the second time in decades, Talion heard the Wraith laugh. Evidently the idea of Orcs being in love with humans was the height of Elven comedy.
But Celebrimbor’s laughter was such a rare and surprisingly pleasant sound, and so Talion laughed too.
So... Ishmoz the Obsessed is an actual Orc that I actually dominated (LOL) and put into my army as a warchief.
I could not resist giving him a shoutout here.
If there was any mark Mordor had left on Talion, it was an inability to be out in the open without constantly double-checking his surroundings.
Sixty years of Orcs patrolling the land, sixty years of being tackled by Captains with a grudge, sixty years of hyper-vigilance if he didn’t want his head cleaved in two; it was a wonder Talion wasn’t a worthless mess who spent his days rocking back and forth in a dark corner.
As it was, there was still some Orcs out in the wild, those who had escaped Mordor and decided to wreak havoc on the rest of Middle Earth for as long as they could manage it, so the paranoia wasn’t entirely invalid. Talion flinched if so much as a branch broke in his general vicinity while he was outside.
Today was a warmer day, and the infection was still stubbornly clinging to him, though not as strongly as before; they were coming on two weeks now, and he was starting to mirror Celebrimbor’s concerns that perhaps the infections were progressively getting worse, lasting longer. Talion went for a walk in the fields near the village, sword on his hip in the event of any unwelcome visitors.
After a few minutes, he sat down in a clearing and reveled in the quiet. What a fine thing it was, to sit down out in the open and not fear an arrow to the head, to smell something other than soot and hear things that were not scuttling rats or roaring caragors. It was a pleasant sort of normal that Talion hadn’t known for decades, and was trying to re-accustom himself to now.
The hair on the back of Talion’s neck stood up, and he whipped his head towards the sound, hand jumping to the hilt of his blade.
A small rabbit wriggled out from under a bush, taking a few hops in Talion’s direction before coming to a stop. The rabbit’s ears wiggled, its nose twitched, and it looked at Talion with large black eyes. It would have been nothing to kill the creature and spare them a trip to the butcher’s for dinner that evening. But Talion let it be, suddenly and inexplicably moved by the innocence and harmlessness of the creature; everything in Mordor was so bloody dangerous, from the flies to the rats to the birds, that it was bewildering to see wildlife that he didn’t need to be wary of.
I was once the feared Gravewalker of Mordor, he mused as the rabbit turned around and hopped back under the bush, and now I’m taking long walks through flowery fields and being nice to bunny-rabbits.
It was preferable, if he was being honest.
Mordor corrupted his dreams.
Talion did not need to sleep often, but when he did, there was rarely a nightmare that did not leave him in a cold sweat, panting for air or screaming his heart out upon waking. And he had such an array of terrors to choose from: One night it was the classic ‘death of my family’ nightmare, the next it was ‘that time Ugluk the Ugly sawed me in half’; there were a thousand and one things to scream about in Mordor.
Tonight, Talion dreamt of Pash the Impaler.
Pash had caught him… It must have been thirty or so years after he’d come to Mordor. The years blurred together disturbingly well when one performed mostly the same task over and over again, with only the names and (sometimes) the faces of the Orcs he killed changing.
True to his name, Pash was fond of impaling people- and unfortunately, Talion was not always capable of escaping the Orcs that tracked him down. He had his Uruk guards pick Talion up and then shove him down on top of a blunt spear-head, impaling him through the stomach; too sharp, Pash said, and the pain would be lessened.
“And what’s the point if it doesn’t hurt?” Pash cackled as Talion gagged on his own blood and went into shock. It had taken him nearly twenty minutes to bleed out and die, and it had been horrendously painful.
When he woke up, he could still feel the pain, could barely breathe for it, and it was only when he felt something cold and wet and not completely there touching him that he began to get a hold on himself.
Celebrimbor could not touch Talion properly- when he did, it felt like touching something slightly more tangible than a cloud of mist. He had form, but it gave way under even the slightest of pressure. If they weren’t connected as they were, Talion wasn’t even certain he would be able to feel Celebrimbor at all.
Now the Wraith had a hand on Talion’s head. “Are you alright?”
“I…” Talion reflexively brought a hand up to touch Celebrimbor’s but only remembered the nature of the Wraith’s being when it passed right through him. “I’m fine, I’m fine, I just… Give me a minute…” Talion breathed deeply, trying to force his heart to stop pounding so intensely.
Celebrimbor stayed beside him, waiting until Talion was calm. “Better?”
“Better,” Talion whispered.
There was an awkward moment, where Celebrimbor stayed close, and Talion did not know what to say.
“I suppose I’ll… Go back to sleep,” Talion said.
“A good idea,” Celebrimbor agreed.
They parted, and Talion slept.
The sound of horses outside of the house made Talion look up from the herbs he’d been cutting.
“I think there’s someone outside,” he said, curiously.
Celebrimbor stiffened. He was up and out of his seat with such fluid speed that he was opening the door before Talion could set down his knife. He stepped outside, and Talion cursed quietly before setting down the knife and rushing out after him. “Celebrimbor!” He hissed as he got to the door, knowing Celebrimbor would hear him regardless of how far or close they were. “What’s wrong with-”
Talion stepped outside, and he recognized one of the men standing before him almost immediately.
King Elessar shook his head. “This isn’t official business, Talion, you needn’t be so formal.” He smiled, and it was a good, warm smile. “You may call me Aragorn, if you like.”
The only reason Talion even knew what Elessar- what Aragorn looked like was because they’d been in the Houses of Healing in Gondor following their escape from Mordor. Celebrimbor had brought him there in desperation, having healed Talion as best he could but uncertain that he’d done it well enough. They had not stayed for the coronation, but Talion had seen the returned King of Gondor around the Houses of Healing in the days after the final battle of the war.
There was another man with him, an old man with pure white hair, a white staff, and robes to match. Talion did not recognize him, but Celebrimbor did, and lowered his eyes. “Mithrandir.”
The old man nodded. “Celebrimbor. It has been far too long.”
Celebrimbor turned to Talion. “This is Mithrandir, the-” He hesitated. “-White Wizard, from the looks of it.”
“Indeed! Saruman found himself unfit for the position.” Mithrandir batted his eyes with such a delightful false innocence that Talion took an immediate liking to him. “And I have risen now to take his place.”
“It’s quite the story,” Aragorn said good-naturedly.
“Please, come inside,” Celebrimbor said, still keeping his eyes low; Talion suspected it was less from deference than it was nervousness. Mithrandir and Aragorn entered the house ahead of them, and Talion grabbed Celebrimbor’s arm as he stepped into the doorway.
“Did you ask them here?” He whispered.
“King Elessar is a healer,” Celebrimbor whispered back. “And you aren’t getting any better. They agreed, for…” He faltered. “…They agreed to help, and I agreed to tell them of our time in Mordor.”
Talion stared at him. “What does it matter to them?”
“It matters less to Elessar than it does Mithrandir.”
The suddenness of it all left Talion speechless. “You mean to tell them of everything? Of the Ring?”
“I do. And I would… I would explain it alone, Talion,” Celebrimbor whispered. There was shame in his eyes, dread and misery, and it occurred to Talion that since their return from Mordor no one had required the full, unabridged story of their years together from them. Only Talion knew the depths of the things Celebrimbor had done as a Wraith, and only he knew of the shame the Elf harbored about his behavior. Obviously he didn’t want to dredge up this old humiliation in front of Talion.
“I would stay, if you let me,” Talion said, and met Celebrimbor’s eyes. He itched to embrace Celebrimbor when he saw the anxiety in his gaze, in every inch of his being, to at least kiss his cheek before he stepped out; but he couldn’t do that with people present, and tried to convey with his own gaze how badly he wanted to stay for Celebrimbor’s sake.
“Please, Talion,” Celebrimbor said softly. “Go.”
Talion hesitated, waiting a moment to see if Celebrimbor would change his mind. He didn’t, and so with great reluctance Talion stepped back, shutting the door behind him and resisting the urge to run back in.
“I give up. What does it say?”
Celebrimbor shook his head. “Oh Talion, I’ve read this to you.”
“Yes, well, my memory isn’t nearly as long as yours, so I need some help,” Talion stated flatly. He stood before the door in the barrows of Minas Ithil (he refused to call it Minas Morgul unless absolutely necessary; it was a city of men, not of the Nazgul, no matter how much they corrupted it), squinting at the curling Elvish letters on the door that had hidden some of Celebrimbor’s old supplies and armaments.
“What do you care what it says? The door opened.”
“I care because the only language I’ve seen written in this bloody land apart from Black Speech is Elvish. I’d like to understand it.”
“If you wish,” Celebrimbor said, amused. “It reads as follows:
In the land of Mordor where the Shadows lie
We bear our banners aloft, boots like Drums
Our Cadence quick, our countenance dire.
For who in this dark, dream-haunted Land dares
Resist the righteous flame of Wrath
And Doom themselves to despair and death?”
“I remember it now, yes,” Talion said. “Did you write this?”
“I did. I needed it to hide my supplies until I could conjure magic strong enough to keep out the Orcs.” Talion was smiling, and Celebrimbor raised an eyebrow at him. “What?”
“It’s just funny, I suppose,” He said, “To think of you taking so much time to build and inscribe these doors when you were at war with Sauron.”
“I am- I was immortal, Talion. It didn’t occur to me that my time was limited.”
Talion frowned. “Even though you were going to war with Sauron? I would think you would consider that a rather immediate risk of death.”
Celebrimbor was quiet, but then said, “I’m afraid I may have exhibited some hubris in the course of my conquests.” Talion supposed some of that had been obvious enough from the memories he’d seen of Celebrimbor’s time in Mordor. But something occurred to him.
“You were alone, weren’t you?” Talion asked. “You didn’t have any Elves with you in your memories.”
Celebrimbor was very quiet after that, to an unnerving extent. Talion had been about to backtrack when he finally spoke up. “I did not have any Elves with me after my initial assault. Sauron laid waste to Eregion and wiped out most of my people there; the ones who survived went with me to Mordor. Eventually…” He stared at the door for a long moment. “…Eventually, I found myself alone once more.”
Not for the first time, Talion was reminded that there was more than dark magic and the will of a Wraith that bound the two of them together. They had both lost family, and they had both lost kin to Sauron and his army. It occurred to Talion then that even if they were separated and able to operate independently of one another, that perhaps they would stay together anyways.
“They stuck me on a pole after I died,” Celebrimbor continued, voice flat, like he was in a trance. “They defiled my body with arrows and other indignities, and then they paraded me about when they attacked the Elves. I was dead then, but I remember it clearly nevertheless. It was…”
It’s the reason why you were mad about getting vengeance on Sauron, Talion thought.
He could not touch Celebrimbor, but he tried anyway, putting his hand roughly where Celebrimbor’s shoulder was.
“He’ll get his, Celebrimbor,” he said softly. “And for what it’s worth, you are not alone anymore.”
Celebrimbor nodded, but his hair fell to cover his face and Talion could not see him clearly.
“And what say you, Talion?”
Talion had to force himself to maintain eye-contact with King Elessar- Aragorn, as his King had asked to be called. Evidently he was not yet comfortable with the trappings of royalty just yet; he was, had been, a Ranger, just as Talion was, and Talion couldn’t deny that that made him feel a bit better about his new monarch.
“Celebrimbor speaks true,” Talion confirmed. They stood behind the house, looking out at the field and trees that bordered the village. Talion had preoccupied himself with cutting wood for the time Celebrimbor had been recounting his story to Aragorn and Mithrandir.
Aragorn had come to him now seeking confirmation of the story’s veracity, repeating the salient points, and Talion had to hold back the reflexive indignation he felt that Celebrimbor’s story was being questioned. They need to be sure it’s Celebrimbor, and that he’s remembered everything correctly, he told himself. They are not questioning his honor.
“I suspected as much,” Aragorn said. “But what of your story?”
“Celebrimbor has told it to you.”
Talion could tell, far enough, what Aragorn was getting at. But if Celebrimbor had difficulty dredging up his time in Mordor, how could Talion manage it?
“Everything important,” Talion finally said.
Aragorn hesitated, but then nodded, apparently content to accept the answer as it was. “And you are happy here?” Aragorn met his eyes. “With Celebrimbor?” The slight cock of his eyebrow suggested that he was aware of the nature of their relationship- and thank God, he didn’t seem disturbed or disgusted by it.
“I am,” Talion said, quietly. “I am happy with him. One day I will reunite with Ioreth and Dirhael and be glad for it; but today, and for the foreseeable future, I have Celebrimbor, and I am happy.” How strange it felt, to admit out loud the affection he had for Celebrimbor to someone who was not Celebrimbor.
“That is good.” Aragorn clapped his shoulder. “Now, I’ve been told you suffer from a long illness?”
“My throat, sir. It was where… I had my throat cut.” Aragorn would likely understand the implication. “It was a deep wound, and Celebrimbor healed it, but it’s become infected five times in the last year or so.”
“Hm.” Aragorn thought for a moment, and then nodded. “There is, perhaps, a potion that may help. I’ll have to find ingredients, which may take time, but perhaps it will go a longer way to helping you overcome these infections faster.”
“That would be deeply appreciated, my Lord, if only for Celebrimbor’s peace of mind. He’s convinced I’m going to die of one someday.”
Aragorn smiled again. “As a man wedded to an Elf, I will tell you that as long as you are together, they will worry of such things. I will consult my books and look for something to help you. And Talion: There’s a place in Minas Tirith for the both of you, should you ever desire it. You’ve earned far more than that.”
“I appreciate that, my Lord,” Talion said.
But frankly, after years of Mordor, Talion found he was liking the quiet places of the world better.
One day, when Talion was scouting the area near the Black Gate, Hirgon returned.
He was old now, easily in his eighties, and in spite of that fact Talion was tempted to punch him for putting himself in such danger; it was obvious from his slow, hobbling, absolutely elderly movements that Hirgon would not be a match for any Orc that stumbled upon him.
“Talion,” Hirgon smiled.
“Hirgon,” Talion replied, looking him up and down. “You’ve… Aged.”
“And you haven’t.” Hirgon looked quite sad to say it.
“What are you doing here?”
And then Hirgon let out a long sigh, scratching the back of his head. “Aye. Well, Talion, I… Wanted to say goodbye.”
Talion frowned. “What?”
“Seems that I’ve not too much longer to live. There’s a cancer in my stomach that’s killing me.”
Talion didn’t know what to say. He felt rather than saw Celebrimbor’s cautious presence, just this side of noticeable though he was clearly trying not to intrude. “And you came here?” He said, voice thick with unexpected emotion. “You lunatic, you could be killed! What of Eryn?!”
“Died last year,” Hirgon said simply. “She went peacefully, in her sleep, thank God for that. Our children and grandchildren have made their peace with it, as well as their peace with me, and now I’m eager to join her.”
It all hit like a punch to the gut: Hirgon was dying, but he had grown old with Eryn, had had children with her, had lived a very long and probably happy life with her. Talion was at once unbelievably happy and relieved for his old friend, and also very painfully jealous of him as well. Everything Hirgon had with Eryn Talion had had, and lost, with Ioreth and Dirhael. Talion would not pass quietly in his sleep surrounded by children and grandchildren.
But he swallowed every bad thing down, held it back, and instead sat down and spoke with Hirgon for a few hours. They spoke of nothing and everything, with Talion making a point to understate his actions in Mordor; Hirgon didn’t need to drop dead now from the shock of some of the things he and Celebrimbor had gotten up to as the Bright Lord, and he’d need longer than a few hours for it to be explained properly anyways.
“The sun’s getting low,” Hirgon said eventually, rising to his feet. “I must sneak myself out before the Orcs become too active.”
“Let me escort you,” Talion said, but Hirgon laughed.
“I’m not that feeble, Talion,” He said, which was… Maybe not a lie, because perhaps Hirgon believed it to be true. “Besides, there’s a little gap near the Black Gate that I got through. Right there,” He pointed to an area near the gate. Talion would take him at his word; after all, he couldn’t have come too far in his state. They rose to their feet, and Hirgon clasped his shoulder. “I hope to see you in the afterlife, Talion, whenever that may be.”
Talion smiled, and it hurt far more than a smile should. “As do I, old friend. Please…” Something in Talion broke, and his voice cracked as he said, “…If you see Ioreth, if you see Dirhael, tell them I’ll be along soon enough. I have work to do before I die, and… I hope they understand.”
Hirgon nodded. “I will see them, Talion, and I will tell them.”
He left, and Talion did not move until he saw his old friend disappear in the wall of rock near the gate.
Once he was gone, Talion sat down on the rock he’d been seated on during his time with Hirgon and rubbed his hand over his eyes.
“My condolences,” Celebrimbor said quietly, appearing without a sound somewhere to Talion’s right. “He truly does seem to be at peace with it, if it comforts you any.”
“I know,” Talion whispered, his voice still cracking slightly. “He is at peace with it, but I am not. Now I must continue living knowing that with Hirgon passes the last of the friends I had in my lifetime.”
Talion felt something then, an echo of something that felt like… Hurt. Not his hurt, which was an easily-identified thing; Celebrimbor’s hurt.
“I am still here,” The elf-lord said quietly.
“I know,” Talion amended quickly, without looking at him. “And I am glad for it. Without your companionship I might have gone completely mad by now.” He picked at the thread again. “But there was a life I had before you, and Mordor, and the last remnant of it is dying.”
“You can still go,” Celebrimbor whispered. “I can release you right now, if you wish it. I meant what I said after we destroyed our Ring, Talion: I will let you go whenever you wish it of me.”
In this moment, Talion was tempted to say yes.
But- also true to Celebrimbor’s prediction- that one, final thing holding him to this world was the Elf-Wraith currently standing at his side, the truly final friend that he had now. However hopeless their personal war against Sauron seemed, Celebrimbor remained a very compelling reason to remain in Middle Earth for the time-being.
“No,” Talion said, slowly straightening up and getting to his feet. “No, I will remain for now. There’s still more to do.”
They left it at that.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
Celebrimbor gave a slight shrug. He was still sitting at the table, his head in his hands. “I didn’t know if they meant to come or not. I sent that letter a week before you became sick.”
“Celebrimbor, I-” Talion had to think, had to voice his irritation properly. “With respect to the King, he can’t fix this. He can only relieve it somewhat. What difference will this make? What can he do that you haven’t done already?”
“Can you not humor me, Talion?” Celebrimbor snapped. “Perhaps you forget, as you spend much of the infections in a fever-sleep, but I am the one tasked for caring for you, and with every sickness I find myself increasingly concerned that you won’t be getting better. Is it such a trial for you to try what Elessar has in mind?”
“I did not survive Mordor to die of an infection!” Talion half-laughed.
“But you can,” Celebrimbor insisted, looking up and glaring at Talion pointedly. “You can die of an infection, Talion. You are not the Gravewalker anymore, and you can and will die of any sickness or injury that befalls you now. We both know that I will bury you when your time comes, and I have no intention of your time coming any sooner than it needs to!” He sighed, then rose from the chair and paced over to Talion. “I only want to help.”
“I know,” Talion said gently, “I know.” He put his hands on Celebrimbor’s shoulders and kissed him. Celebrimbor’s hands came to rest on his hips, and Talion moved closer, purposefully rubbing himself against Celebrimbor’s front.
“Talion,” Celebrimbor said, his voice gravelly. “Are you well enough for this?”
“Well enough for someone who’s gone without for nearly last two weeks,” Talion grumbled, digging his fingers tightly into Celebrimbor’s back and rocking their hips together. Celebrimbor chuckled and slid a hand into his trousers. Talion nearly whined at his touch, and he clutched Celebrimbor harder, pulled him close as he could, reaching down and grabbing at him through his clothes.
It was awkward, perhaps a little too close for their purposes, and Talion’s back scraped irritatingly along the wall, but it was nice to be close to Celebrimbor and it felt so bloody good that it didn’t take him long to come. Celebrimbor panted harshly in his ear, still rutting against Talion’s hand and thigh, until he shuddered, then leaned in to rest against Talion.
“Love you,” Talion mumbled, dazed. “We should probably change our pants."
Celebrimbor chuckled and kissed his cheek.
Mordor had corrupted his dreams.
This time, in a new way:
Talion slept, and the dream was not of Ioreth and Dirhael losing their lives, was not of his own death, and was not of any of the numerous, heart-stopping terrors that he had suffered since sentencing himself to this eternity, this fruitless endeavor, this endless war with Sauron.
No, tonight was different.
Talion was on his back, another body pressed close to his. He felt nimble fingers running up and down his flank, then moving to grasp his cock. He felt lips on his neck, his chest, his cheek, his mouth, and he reciprocated with a strange, desperate fervor. Talion had fallen into the world of the dream, where his logical mind was sluggish and inattentive, and though he didn’t know who it was that was with him, he did know that he wanted them so very, very badly.
His hands slid over a back that was too broad, too muscled to be a woman’s (never mind Ioreth’s) and the chest that was pressed against his was flat; the conclusion was that this was a man he was with, but Talion did not balk at the realization, nor did it change the intensity of his desire.
“Please, please,” He croaked.
“Of course,” His partner, whose voice had become as familiar as Talion’s own, responded.
Then there was pleasure, a pleasure Talion hadn’t felt since the days before his death, when he had shared a marriage and a bed with Ioreth. It was overwhelming, and he gasped, “Shit- Celebrimbor!”
And the Elf above him, a curtain of black hair framing his face, gave him exactly what he asked for.
Much like with the nightmares, it was in a cold sweat.
Much unlike the nightmares, he was hard in his pants.
He turned his head to one side, and saw Celebrimbor sitting some ways off; they were in the Minas Ithil Barrows tonight, and there was more space for them here than on the Silver Towers or the Haedir.
“Are you alright?” Celebrimbor asked, without looking at Talion. “You seemed to be having a nightmare.”
But you didn’t wake me? Talion thought. Celebrimbor always tried to wake him when he was having a nightmare.
A cold, horrifying thought came to mind: He’d had the very opposite of a nightmare, and perhaps the sounds (or worse, words) he’d been uttering in his sleep had tipped Celebrimbor off to the nature of his dream.
“I’m fine,” Talion croaked, subtly checking to make sure his cloak was still pulled over his lap. “I’m fine.”
Talion laid back down and said no more of it.
But he certainly thought about it.
“I have been thinking.”
“A dangerous activity,” Talion remarked, propping his elbow on his pillow and pushing himself up.
Celebrimbor arched an eyebrow at him. “Says the man who once plotted to throw explosives into a lava-pit in the hopes of drowning a nest of Drakes.”
“It was more of an idea than you had,” Talion responded unrepentantly.
“You can’t kill a dragon with fire,” Celebrimbor remarked, as baffled as he’d been the day Talion had suggested it.
“I repeat: It was more of an idea than you had. He who actually has a plan trumps he who has no idea what to do.”
Celebrimbor scoffed at that, rolling his eyes. “That isn’t how it works,” He muttered.
Talion grinned and scooted closer to him. “What did you have in mind?”
Celebrimbor paused. Then he said, “I would like to travel to Eregion.”
Surprised, Talion’s eyes widened. “…Go on.”
“I haven’t been back in some thousands of years. I would like to see it again.”
“You do…” Talion hesitated, and then gently continued, “You do realize that it’s not… Inhabited, right? From what I understand, it’s mostly ruins by now.”
“I do,” Celebrimbor acknowledged, and if this knowledge pained him (it probably did) he did a fine job of masking it. “But… It would be nice to see it again.”
Celebrimbor rarely indulged in sentimentality- at least out loud- and so Talion saw no reason why he should disagree.
Besides, after sixty years confined to one place, it might be nice to travel to a new land- especially one that was special to Celebrimbor.
“Alright. Let’s go.”
One night, Talion awoke.
Something had shocked him out of sleep- nothing physical, nothing he could touch, but something like a, like a… Presence. He rolled over, searching the cavernous Barrows for the Wraith. “Celebrimbor, where are you?” He hissed.
“Here.” Talion jumped; Celebrimbor had appeared behind him. But when he turned to look at the Wraith, the dark expression on his gaunt face was unsettling.
“Someone,” Celebrimbor hissed, “Has used the Ring. I can feel it.”
“The Ring- The Ring. The Ring.” Talion babbled, and felt himself go pale as the realization truly set in. “The One Ring. My God, it’s been found.”
“Maybe,” Celebrimbor remarked carefully. “I have felt it before, and little or nothing came of it. But this…” He turned away, pacing in contemplation. “…This is different. Sauron’s forces have grown more numerous, they’ve grown stronger.”
“They have,” Talion agreed breathlessly. “My God, he’s getting ready for war.”
“He is,” Celebrimbor agreed, turning back to face him. “War is coming. He thinks he can take the Ring back and resume physical form. He believes it enough to see now as a time to amass his armies and attack Middle Earth.”
Talion was nearly dizzy with the implications. “It could be over soon,” He whispered, running a hand through his hair. “Sauron could be vanquished. Mordor could be overthrown. You and I, we could both be free.”
Celebrimbor shook his head. “Don’t get ahead of yourself, Talion. There is much that hangs in the balance, and you and I know better than most how dangerous the armies of Mordor are. We cannot leave this accursed land, but we can disrupt things as best we can, thin the herd.”
“Isn’t that what we’ve been doing for the last fifty years?” Talion asked.
Celebrimbor looked determined. “We’ll simply have to do better.”
They started their preparations the next day.
There was a great deal to be done, even though they only intended to leave at the end of the month. Celebrimbor had to finish his current orders and ensure that everyone who had paid him received their order in full; Talion had to ensure that anything of value that was not coming with them was well-hidden in their home, as they had every intention of returning to it once they came back from Eregion. They would have to gather supplies, lock up the house, and use their money sparingly until they left.
Celebrimbor, for his part, seemed to have a nervous energy about him; returning to his home was clearly something he looked forward to, but Talion knew there would be grief when they reached it, for who could look upon the ruins of one’s kingdom and not feel grief for all that was lost there?
“Talion,” Celebrimbor called from the forge. Talion set down the clothing he’d been bundling together and stepped outside. Celebrimbor had a letter in his hand. “It’s for you,” He said.
Talion blinked, surprised, but then took the letter and tore it open; the scrawl was unfamiliar, but it was immediately apparent who it was from:
I have prepared a sample and a recipe for the potion I suggested to you when I visited you last month. I would have sent it with the letter, but I fear it would not last the journey; it is meant to be made in small amounts and consumed quickly. If perchance you find yourself in Minas Tirith anytime soon, I can hand it to you; or, if you have recovered from your infection and need no sample, I can simply send the recipe alone.
I await your response,
Talion swallowed thickly.
By the time he sent the letter and it reached Aragorn, they would already have departed for Eregion. It made more sense to take a day and travel to Minas Tirith than it did to do this all by mail. But the thought of returning to his city of birth was intimidating in a way he didn’t think was possible.
This, I think, is how Celebrimbor feels.
“What is it?” The Elf in question inquired. “Is something wrong?”
Talion took a breath. “King Elessar has the potion he mentioned,” he said, forcing some cheerfulness into his voice to override the nerves that had overtaken him. “But it seems the more pragmatic option would be to travel to Minas Tirith to get it, rather than waiting for it to be sent.”
Celebrimbor’s eyebrows went up, and he nodded as he considered the idea. “It’s not quite six hours to reach Minas Tirith from here. We can go in a day or two and be done with it- and we’ll have the recipe for the potion in time for our journey to Eregion.”
“You’ll come with me?”
“Of course.” Celebrimbor froze. “Unless you’d like to go alone.”
“No, no, no,” Talion said, a little too quickly. “I want you to come.” I desperately want you to come.
“Very well then,” Celebrimbor assented. “Let me know when you’d like to go.”
“Alright,” Talion said, even as he dreaded the decision-making.
Get it over with, he thought. Just go sooner than later and get it over with.
Talion and Celebrimbor renewed their work with vigor.
They poisoned grog, they poisoned water, they tamed several beasts and let them loose in strongholds; any plan that resulted in the deaths of multiple Orcs and Uruks and their war-beasts at once was sound. Talion’s muscles developed a constant, low-level ache from the constant fights, the assassinations, the dodging and the parrying and the slicing and the stabbing.
But months passed, and they just kept coming.
“Have we even made a dent in their armies?” Talion asked, bewildered, as he stood atop the stronghold’s headquarters in Cirith Ungol. For weeks they had watched Orcs and the Nazgul deploy from the Black Gate, and- to their bewilderment- Easterlings and Haradrim enter into Mordor as well.
Perhaps even more alarming was the Eye of Sauron. It had grown larger, more fiery over the last year or so; getting within a mile or two of Barad-dûr had become almost impossible for the sense of ill-will, fear, and sheer, raw, power that overcame them when they got too close. The only conclusion they could reach was that not only was Mordor getting stronger, but Sauron was too.
All of this became progressively more concerning when Celebrimbor mentioned that the One Ring had been used again. And then again.
“I cannot say.” Celebrimbor sat at Talion’s side, sounding weary. “It does not feel like it. But it is without question now: Middle Earth is at war.”
Talion sighed and sat down beside him. “Then what has this been for? We chipped away at Sauron’s armies for years specifically in the hopes that when war-time came he would be at a deficit in troops- but all along he had the power to pump out more Orcs to do his work!”
“I do recall saying this was a losing battle.”
“Aye,” Talion admitted. “You did say that.”
“I can still release you.”
“Will you stop saying that?” Talion snapped. “I appreciate the offer, Celebrimbor, but I’ll not be leaving until you do, and you’ll only be able to leave when Sauron’s defeated. So for now, I stay.”
Another day Celebrimbor might have argued with him, might have called him a fool for staying as he did. Today, he shook his head. “Stubborn.”
“Hark who’s talking,” Talion snorted. “We’ll press on, see what we can do. We have precious little idea what’s going on outside of Mordor; for all we know, some small setback to Sauron’s armies could give the people of Middle Earth a chance they’ve been waiting for.”
“The smallest things can change the course of the future,” Celebrimbor agreed before climbing to his feet. “Fine. How difficult do you suppose it would be to trigger an avalanche in Seregost?”
Talion smirked. “Only one way to find out.”
It all looked so familiar.
The faces were different, but the places…
The places were different, here and there.
Minas Tirith had been repaired somewhat following the war, but some things took longer than a year to fix, especially given the sort of damage the hordes of Mordor had inflicted upon it. Talion’s heart raced faster than it already was when they reached one of the upper-levels and saw houses being constructed on a spot that had clearly been destroyed by a projectile.
He stepped off to the side of the street, into the shade of a building, and Celebrimbor followed him there. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t think I can do this,” Talion whispered, feeling dizzy, and it wasn’t helpful that light glinted off the White City so brightly that it made his eyes hurt. “I want to go home. I want to forget this place.”
“You don’t want to forget Minas Tirith anymore than I would like to forget Eregion,” Celebrimbor said quietly. “It’s just… Shocking, coming back to it after being away for so long. You’re upset.”
‘Upset’ didn’t even begin to cover it: Talion felt like he was about to be sick. It wasn’t simply that he’d been away from Minas Tirith for so long: It was that he’d gone from Orc-infested Mordor, where he’d been forced to hide if he wanted to rest; to their quiet village, with its tiny population and their isolated home where Celebrimbor was his most consistent contact; to Minas Tirith, which had too many people and too much noise and too much of everything, and coupled with the memories Talion had of this place it was overwhelming.
Celebrimbor leaned against the building and subtly brought his hand up to squeeze Talion’s so that no one would notice. “We’re nearly at the citadel,” he whispered. “A little further and we’ll be out of the crowds. We’ve come too far to turn back now, haven’t we?”
Talion laughed weakly. Celebrimbor sounded more like he was rallying someone to battle than convincing them to climb another level of a city to get a bloody recipe. He nodded, trying to open his eyes and wincing against the light before adjusting. “Alright, alright,” He muttered. “But by God, stay close to me or I will fall to pieces and make an utter fool of myself in front of everyone.”
There had been times, in Mordor, when he had been forced by necessity to escape crowds of angry Orcs whilst poisoned or cursed by some tainted blade; all wore off eventually, but made running for one’s like a very difficult and unpleasant task. Talion felt only a shade better now than he had then, and he felt worse any time he and Celebrimbor had to press through a clog of people on the street, their chattering conversations like knives in Talion’s brain.
It was a relief to reach the citadel, where there was empty space and not many people, and Talion’s stress was reduced somewhat. “What’s your business here?” The guards asked when they approached the door.
“We’re here to see King Elessar.”
Celebrimbor gave them, and the soldier stared at them for a moment; Talion’s name was of no consequence, but had he recognized Celebrimbor? Even Talion wasn’t certain if Celebrimbor’s name was common amongst Elves, or if perhaps their names were more individualized, given their immortality. But the guard let them pass into the citadel, and Talion was at least grateful for the lack of trouble.
“Are you feeling better now?” Celebrimbor whispered as they entered the throne room.
“Somewhat,” Talion responded, stomach still roiling but not as violently as it had been before.
King Elessar was in the throne room- not on his throne, but standing at a table off to the side with another man, laughing amiably. When he saw Celebrimbor and Talion, he smiled broadly. “My friends! It’s good to see you!” And he approached them and clasped their hands like they’d known each other for decades.
“It is good to see you as well, your majesty,” Celebrimbor responded graciously.
“Very good to see you,” Talion echoed, still a bit weary and breathless.
“You’ve come for the potion recipe, haven’t you? I’ll bring it to you. Tell me, how have you been?”
They spoke with King Elessar comfortably, and after some time, Talion began to relax. It had been worth it, he considered, to endure such an unpleasant trip to meet with King Elessar, who had been so friendly and hospitable to them. He did so without pretense or a sense of hidden motivation, and Talion was reminded of the Rangers he’d known in the past, of the men, his friends, on the Black Gate and of his youth.
Elessar- Aragorn- would make a good King.
Perhaps when they returned from Eregion they could visit him again.
It was strange, Talion would muse later on, how a day so much like all the others could turn out so important.
They were in Gorgoroth, where Sauron’s Eye seemed unsettlingly close and attentive, seemed to track them across the plains of volcanic rock; aside from that, the heat of the region was oppressive and aggravating, and it was growing worse the closer they came to summer. Of course, the heat came from the volcano and the lava pits that surrounded it, and so it was ridiculously easy for Orcs to encounter certain accidents in Gorgoroth. Celebrimbor and Talion were on their way to cause such an accident when a raspy, terribly familiar voice rang out:
Talion’s eyes rolled shut. “Not him again.”
Celebrimbor sighed. “He has his uses.”
“What do you want, creature?” Talion asked, turning around and crossing his arms. Gollum approached them the way he usually did, hopping like the strange little frog he seemed to think he was, but this time there was pep to his hop.
“Oh, the Preeeecious! The Precious has comes back to us! The spider is dead, and the Precious comes to us soon!” Gollum spun around in circles, clapping his hands with excitement.
Talion looked to Celebrimbor. “The spider is dead?” He turned back to Gollum. “You mean Shelob? Shelob is dead?”
“Yes, nasty Ranger! Big spider dead, and the Precious comes to us now!”
“Celebrimbor,” Talion whispered, “What is ‘the Precious’? Do you know?”
Celebrimbor shook his head, and then knelt down to speak to Gollum. “Gollum, the- The Precious. You’ve spoken of it for years, but you haven’t told me what it is. Will you tell me what it is you’re waiting for?”
Gollum’s dance slowed to a stop, and he stared at Celebrimbor for a moment. Talion saw hesitation in his eyes- whatever ‘the precious’ was, it was something Gollum wasn’t keen to have others knowing about.
But Gollum’s dedication to Celebrimbor was strong, apparently, because he cast Talion a nasty look (evidently sixty years hadn’t taught the creature that Talion and Celebrimbor were friends) before leaning in close to Celebrimbor and whispering, “The Precious is a Ring, O Bright Master. A shiny, golden ring! It is prrrecious to us! So prrrecious!” He spat on the ground. “But the nasty Bagginses stole it from us! And now the Bagginses keeps it from us! Him and his f-f-f-fat gardener!” He nodded eagerly. “So we kills them, and we takes it back!”
Talion had grown more horrified as Gollum’s speech went on, and when Celebrimbor looked up at him, he saw that same horror on his face. “You’ve killed them, Gollum?” Celebrimbor asked, and he sounded like he was trying to keep his voice steady.
“Not yet, no!” Gollum denied. “We brings them to the spider, but the fat Hobbit kills her! So now the Hobbitses are on their way here! Not far now,” He added, with a menace that sent chills down Talion’s spine.
“Hobbits? You mean the Little Folk?” Talion exclaimed; he’d heard of Hobbits before, but he’d half-dismissed them as fairy-stories. He looked out at the long length of rocks between Gorgoroth and Cirith Ungol; he and Celebrimbor were standing right in the path of Mount Doom, near the path one might take to go into the volcano, but he did not see anyone approaching save for a few Orcs littering the land here and there.
“Why are they on their way here, Gollum?” Celebrimbor asked urgently, ignoring Talion. “Why are they bringing the Ri- the Precious here?”
Gollum spat again, looking like a child denied a treat. “They wants to destroy it, Bright Master. Plunk! All the ways into the volcanoses!” He nodded to Mount Doom, and Celebrimbor got to his feet.
“They come to destroy the Ring in Mount Doom,” He whispered, seemingly more to himself than Talion. “They mean to cast it into the fires from whence it came. They’ve made it this far- they may actually succeed.” Celebrimbor turned to Talion then, and in his eyes, on his face, was the rawest emotion Talion had ever seen from him: He looked like, for the first time, he had hope. “Talion, Talion, we have to find them. We have to escort them to Mount Doom, we have to help them before-”
And then things went bad.
As Celebrimbor spoke, Talion had become vaguely aware of Gollum whimpering nearby and muttering something, but it was only when that and every other sound was drowned out by a rushing sound, like air being sucked into someone’s mouth, that Talion was suddenly overcome with fear.
Everything became fire.
The Eye of Sauron stared at him, through him, and he screamed.
And he wasn’t the only one.
Celebrimbor possessed Talion, and it felt like he was trying to hold onto him through sheer force of will- Sauron was trying to pull Celebrimbor from his body, trying to sever their connection with his power, and-
And he succeeded.
Celebrimbor was wrenched from Talion’s body, and a terrible weakness overcame him as his throat began to burn.
Talion fell into darkness.
The night before they were due to leave the village for Eregion, Celebrimbor and Talion finished their preparations in earnest.
Talion had been doing his best to adhere to Aragorn’s advice: Make sure any uncooked food was thoroughly, spotlessly clean before he ate it, and to make sure any meat he ate was cooked well- this, he said, would reduce the chances of anything he ate causing an infection in his throat. The last thing they needed was for Talion to become ill on the way to Eregion, where they couldn’t guarantee a warm, safe place to recover in.
They bathed as well, knowing there wouldn’t be as much opportunity on the road. Talion went to be unclothed, and other things they wouldn’t have the opportunity for occurred to him when Celebrimbor, still naked, was toweling himself off near their bed.
“Come to bed with me,” Talion said suggestively, pushing back the blankets so that he was uncovered. “We won’t be able to for a while after tonight.”
“We’ll have plenty of opportunity,” Celebrimbor remarked as he climbed onto the bed and moved to straddle Talion.
“Yes, but not in a bed, in a house,” Talion stressed, putting his hands on Celebrimbor’s hips even as he griped. “Have you ever had sex outside before? There are bugs, Celebrimbor- big ones, small ones, poisonous ones, and they get into places you don’t want them to be when you’re in the middle of something fun.”
“I have, in fact, had sex outside before,” Celebrimbor purred, leaning down, “And it has never been a problem for me.”
“Oh, well, good for you,” Talion groused as Celebrimbor nipped at his neck. “But it only took one attempt at being adventurous and romantic for me to never try it again. Ioreth and I had scars for weeks.” He never thought he’d be able to look back on those memories of Ioreth and Dirhael with such fondness, when the memory of their deaths was still so powerful; but since leaving Mordor, he’d found that he could recall them with less pain and more fondness, more love.
“Well, in fairness, you were having sex in the wilderness near the Black Gate of Mordor,” Celebrimbor supplied as he pulled the blankets over them. “Eregion is not host to the sort of beasts one would find around Mordor. Malrin and I never had such problems.”
“Well, I for one am scarred for life, and will not be engaging in any activities that could invite stinging creatures near my nether-regions. So make this count.”
Celebrimbor laughed again, harder this time. They made love, and he did make it count; perhaps it was the excitement and nerves surrounding such a long trip, but they were passionate in their time together and did not stop until they (or at least Talion) were too tired to continue.
“You’ll like Eregion,” Celebrimbor said, rolling the fabric of the blanket between his fingers. “It’s pleasant there. Quiet. I don’t think you’ve known a forest quite like this one before- or did you see Ithilien before you traveled to the Black Gate?”
“Briefly,” Talion said, forcing his eyes to stay (somewhat) open. “I spent more time in the Forest of Carnán.”
“This won’t be like that.”
“I should bloody hope so,” Talion grunted.
“It won’t.” Celebrimbor curled an arm around his shoulders, and Talion could feel the tension in him- was he, perhaps, wondering if Eregion had stayed as he recalled it in his memories? It had been hundreds and hundreds of years since he’d seen his kingdom: Perhaps it had changed more than he’d realized.
Talion may have been gone a long time by human-reckoning, but Celebrimbor had been gone for a long time in Elven reckoning.
“I’m sure it’ll be lovely,” Talion mumbled, and then fell asleep.
Talion awoke to terrible, terrible pain.
He felt rocks, pebbles really, digging into his head and neck and back. The ground was rumbling, and everything around him seemed to be shaking furiously. His arm ached, his leg stung with the sort of pain that suggested a slash or a stab- but his throat, his throat was the worst, a raging, burning pain to rival the very fires of Mount Doom. It didn’t help that someone was touching it.
Talion forced open his eyes.
Above him knelt a man- a fair man, with long black hair and dark blue eyes, with silver-and-dark-blue armor that seemed fairly untarnished for one currently standing in Mordor, and he, he, he…
Talion knew him.
He knew him.
“Celebrimbor,” Talion croaked, and the words came out gurgled and wet as a blinding pain arced through his throat.
“Shh,” Celebrimbor whispered, and Talion was enraptured by the sight of his living self, his shiny dark hair and bright eyes, and wondered if they were both (properly) dead this time. “Don’t speak, you’re still hurt.” The ground rumbled again, and Celebrimbor looked over his shoulder. “Shit. We can’t stay here.” He lifted the hand he had pressed against Talion’s throat and grimaced. “Talion, listen: We have to leave, now. I have just enough power left in me to tame a beast- we’re dead if there isn’t one nearby- but you must, must not speak. You must not make a sound. You cannot use your throat. Do you understand? Blink once if you do.”
Talion had never had such trouble doing anything before. But he did blink.
“Good, good.” Celebrimbor squeezed his hand. “Don’t move. I’ll be right back.”
He couldn’t have even if he wanted to.
The ground shook harder, and Talion could vaguely hear the sound of frantic, panicked Orcs running about- they probably thought he was dead- and then, too exhausted to keep his eyes open, he fell back to sleep.
The last thing he heard was the screeching of eagles.
They set out just before dawn, when the first lights were starting to peek through the trees.
Celebrimbor roused Talion- first with a kiss, then with a shake, and then by forgoing his usual composure and simply slapping his lover with a pillow. Talion awoke with a snort and might have thrown the pillow back at him and gone back to sleep if Celebrimbor hadn’t given him another whack.
“Up,” The Elf commanded. “We need to leave.”
“Right, right,” Talion muttered, dragging himself out of bed. “Leave, right.”
They got their packs (light enough, only the essentials), they strapped them to the horses, locked up the house (Celebrimbor had crafted strong locks for just the occasion) and set off without much fanfare; leaving just before dawn ensured that no one else was awake to see them go.
Or so they thought.
They’d ridden maybe a few miles, cautiously at first but then more confidently as the light became brighter, and someone called out from the road ahead: “Hello, friends!” Talion, who was perhaps not as attentive as he might have been during a more serviceable hour of the day, thought at first that it was King Elessar calling to them- but the voice was too old to be his, and the white robes, white hair, white staff, white horse of the newcomer reminded Talion of the only person he’d ever known to wear so much white.
Mithrandir rode up to them, and even as groggy as he still was, Talion knew the wizard had to have been waiting for them- why else would he be on a road that led to a small village (that he knew to be theirs) unless he’d meant to catch them before they left. “Mithrandir,” Celebrimbor greeted, bringing his steed to a halt. “How strange to meet you here, at this time of the day.” They didn’t need to share a body any longer for it to be clear that Celebrimbor had the same suspicions Talion had.
“I had heard from King Elessar that you meant to depart for Eregion this day,” Mithrandir replied. “And I thought to impart upon you a consideration, if you would.”
“A what?” Talion replied dumbly. “I’m sorry, I left my mind in bed.”
“An extra leg to your journey, if you will,” Mithrandir supplied. “Should you travel south and reach the Nin-in-Eilph, the Swanfleet, and take the Greenway Northwest- when the road forks, take a left- you will find yourself in the Shire, land of the Hobbits. And in Hobbiton, you will find a home called Bag-End by its people- in it, you will find a Hobbit of particular interest to you. I expect he will be interested in meeting with you.”
Celebrimbor did not speak as Mithrandir explained, but something in his eyes became… It seemed as thought Mithrandir had said something especially discomfiting to Celebrimbor, as though meeting with this Hobbit would be uncomfortable or undesirable to him in some way.
“I’ll consider it,” Celebrimbor said, and to further Talion’s concerns, his voice was eerily hollow.
“See that you do,” Mithrandir said, and exchanged a look with Celebrimbor that Talion could not quite decipher. “I must be off- safe travels to you both! I am certain we will meet again.” Mithrandir rode off in the direction of their village, and Talion turned to Celebrimbor.
“What was that about?”
Celebrimbor was quiet, but he still looked uncomfortable, like he’d been backed into a corner. “Nothing I wish to speak of at this moment.”
It was only later, after they’d ridden more and Talion had fully woken up, that he realized that it had been a pair of Hobbits that had ferried the One Ring to Mount Doom to be destroyed. Gollum had said they were coming, and then Sauron had done- done something, and then when Talion had next awoken, Celebrimbor was restored to his whole form.
Talion had asked, before, what had gone on when he had been unconscious, but Celebrimbor shied away from the topic, averted his eyes and insisted that he didn’t want to talk about it. He never had told Talion how he had managed to restore his physical body, which had been dead (and likely rotted) for centuries, did not tell Talion exactly what had transpired between Talion falling unconscious and his waking up in the Houses of Healing.
Now he had an uneasy feeling that perhaps this Hobbit Mithrandir spoke of had something to do with it.
He thought about prodding, about bringing them to a halt and insisting that Celebrimbor tell him the truth- but there was no point to souring things between them right now, and in any case, Celebrimbor might be more willing to talk when they were closer to their destination.
At least, Talion hoped.
Talion awoke to bright, clean light and warmth.
He felt heavy, so heavy, and so close to the edge of unconsciousness that he might fall back into the void at any moment. He was lying on something soft, more comfortable than anything he’d had available to him in the sixty years he’d spent in Mordor, and it was warm, but a comfortable sort of warmth that came from a well-built building, not dangerous proximity to a volcano.
Talion turned his head and did his best to focus his gaze, because there was someone next to him, and he had a sense of who this person was before he saw them properly, but he didn’t dare speak for fear that he was wrong-
But he wasn’t.
Celebrimbor sat there, as real and as solid as he’d been before. Talion had not hallucinated before, that fleeting memory when he’d recognized the Elf in his living form, when the ground had shook and there had been panicking Orcs nearby. Celebrimbor was still in his armor, the deep silver and blue striking against one another, but a sling had been strapped around his right arm, which he held gingerly.
“Celebrimbor,” Talion croaked, and his throat hurt, but not as badly as it had before. “What…”
“You shouldn’t speak- your throat is… It’s still healing.”
“But how did you- You’re-” Talion waved his hand at the Elf, trying to put it all into words.
Celebrimbor frowned, apparently not understanding, but then it clicked; he grew solemn, and vaguely uncomfortable. “It’s best if you don’t know.” His good hand came out, then, and pushed a strand of hair away from Talion’s face- Talion hadn’t even noticed it, as he’d been so focused on the previously-dead Elf at his bedside. He saw now that they were in a hall, and there were other beds and pallets full of injured and sick men- all soldiers, perhaps?
“Is it over?”
“The war?” Talion nodded, and Celebrimbor returned that nod. “Yes, Talion, the war is over. Sauron is no more.” There was something in his voice when he spoke those words, something unsteady, something emotional that threatened to break through with great force; he had fought a war much longer than Talion’s, one he’d thought couldn’t be won without physically striking Sauron down with his own blade.
But it had.
“You should rest,” Celebrimbor whispered. “You’re still healing. Please, Talion, go back to sleep.” He moved to stand up, and Talion found himself in the midst of a sudden, irrational panic: He was certain that if he fell asleep, Celebrimbor would be gone when he awoke.
“Stay,” Talion croaked. “Please… Stay.”
Celebrimbor hesitated, but then lowered himself back to the floor. “One would think you’d be tired of me, after sixty years stuck together.”
“You’re all I have.” Talion said it because it was true, and because he was still somewhat convinced that he was dead, that this couldn’t possibly be real. He forced the words out despite the pain. “Stay, please. Stay with me.”
“I will stay,” Celebrimbor assured him. “I will stay for as long as you like.”
Forever, Talion thought deliriously as he fell unsteadily back into the realm of sleep. Stay forever, if you can.
“I’ve made you something.”
Talion perked up slightly from where he’d been dozing against the tree. He wasn’t a morning-person, and waking up right before the crack of dawn was disagreeable to him, however pragmatic. They’d stopped to rest and eat, and now he was catching up on his sleep. “Mm?”
Celebrimbor had something in his hand, hidden in his fist. He held it out to Talion, and the Ranger did a double-take when he realized that what Celebrimbor had made for him was a ring. He looked at the Elf with an expression he hoped conveyed something like ‘Are you kidding me?’ in a way he couldn’t with words.
“It is not enchanted,” Celebrimbor assured him, smile playing at the edge of his lips. “No magic, or spells, or anything else that might turn a man into an evil overlord. A perfectly harmless ring.” He sobered slightly. “For you.”
Any of the remaining unease Talion had felt earlier after Mithrandir’s visit evaporated as he accepted the ring from Celebrimbor. It was small, silver- a similarity to the Ring they’d forged together in Mount Doom, but he’d yet to encounter a Ring that was not gold, silver, or bronze- and the band had been shaped into something like a finely-woven rope.
There were so very many implications behind giving a ring to someone that one was romantically involved with, and Talion wasn’t sure if that was what Celebrimbor was trying to do, or if this was simply a gift; after all, marriage wasn’t a possibility between them (was it? Maybe that was different for Elves too).
“You haven’t put any of your actual soul into this, have you?” He asked dryly.
“Only metaphorically,” Celebrimbor replied with a smirk.
“Why…” Why give this to me? What does this mean? What do you intend it to mean? “Why?”
He saw, actually saw, Celebrimbor swallow- such a visible sign of nerves was uncommon for an Elf. But he said, “You… Make me happy, Talion.” He paused. “You are the only thing that has made me happy for a long time.”
That confused Talion for a moment, as he was rather certain that Celebrimbor was quite happy with his crafting, but then realized that Celebrimbor was going further back than just the last year- he was referring to their time in Mordor together. “Have I, now?” He asked, teasingly, but with an edge of honesty.
“You have,” Celebrimbor said quietly. “I know I was poor company as a Wraith, and you continued to be pleasant with me, kind when called for. You were the only thing in that wretched place that made me happy beyond whatever lusting I had for vengeance against Sauron. And I hope… I hope that I have made you happy as well.” Celebrimbor was not an Elf inclined to blatant displays of sentimentality, and Talion knew it was uncomfortable for him to be so candid with his feelings.
So he crawled over until he was sitting at Celebrimbor’s side, leaning back against him.
“Yes, Celebrimbor,” Talion said, taking Celebrimbor’s hand into his own and kissing it. “I am very happy with you.”
The literal moment that Talion was able to leave the Houses of Healing, he and Celebrimbor left Minas Tirith.
They didn’t have much; Celebrimbor had some small things with him, things that had been on his person when he’d died- and he refused to tell Talion how it was he came to have physical form again; he changed the subject, he avoided eye-contact, or simply stayed quiet.
Neither of them spoke of it, but it was a mutual desire that kept them together. Talion did not wish to be parted from Celebrimbor, and Celebrimbor did not wish to be parted from Talion. They had been companions for sixty years, and though they could easily have parted ways, they made a choice to stay together.
They settled in an unassuming village some miles from Minas Tirith, small enough that it hadn’t seen much during the War of the Ring; there were looks, stares, when an Elf and a Human man took up residence in a half-ruined house on the edge of town, but if stares and murmurs were all they had to contend with, then Celebrimbor and Talion would live. They had faced far worse, and Middle Earth was a fair size: There were other places they could go.
They set into repairing the house, and Celebrimbor began forging for the villagers whilst Talion went about odd jobs. They lived quietly and peacefully and no one spoke of Mordor or the war, more content to speak of the smaller goings-on in their homes than the big events of the world at large.
Celebrimbor and Talion were close. They slept on the floor for a time, and then managed to procure a bed, and Talion had been the one to quietly suggest that they ought to share it until they could find another. What harm was there in it? They’d shared his body for sixty years; what was a bed when they’d known such intimacy? So they slept together, keeping a careful distance apart, and if they woke up pressed against one another, well, that was a simple consequence of being in bed with someone else. They were comfortable with one another, and there was no harm in it.
Eventually, though, Talion fell ill; he recovered, but soon fell ill again, and again, and again, and then again. It was obvious that Talion would forever have a permanent reminder of Mordor, and of the most agonizing experience of his life, for whenever his throat pulsed with pain he was naturally reminded of the night it had first been cut. During the infections he became fevered, sometimes to the point of deliriousness, and Celebrimbor would stay up well into the night until the fever broke.
And one night, after the fever from his second infection finally broke, Talion had felt strangely emotional to find the Elf at his side; he had, on impulse, cupped Celebrimbor’s face, pulled him down, and kissed him deeply. When they parted Talion said, voice slurred with exhaustion, “I am glad I stayed with you. I would stay with you for the rest of my days if you would have me.”
Celebrimbor had squeezed his eyes shut, and his fingers entwined themselves into Talion’s hair. “Of course I would have you,” He said, and kissed him again. “I would stay with you for as long as you would have me.”
So they stayed together, committed for however long they would be able to stay together.
And they made each other very, very happy.